Chances Are

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Jackie’s Chance

Grand Island, Nebraska...

“Taryn…can you come here, please?” Alison called up to her daughter. Moments later the girl came bounding down the stairs.

“What’s up, Mom?” The girl smiled as she walked into the living room. Standing next to her mother was a boy of about her age.

“We've got company.” Her mother half-frowned. Taryn looked at the boy; he seemed timid and almost hid behind her mother.

“Oh, gosh, Jack…what are you doing here?” She tilted her head as if to seek some explanation for the boy’s presence.

“You told me to come around if I had any problems.” The boy shook his head slightly before looking down at the floor. She only then noticed the bruise under his left eye.

“Oh…shit.” She walked over and gently lifted his head with her hand; her efforts to spare him pain went for naught as the boy winced.

“Did he do this to you? Son of a…. Mom?” Alison stared at the boy before turning her gaze back to her daughter.

“Oh…damn, of course he can stay.” She sighed and walked into the kitchen; returning moments later with an ice pack.

“He….he said…no brother of mine....” The boy accepted the proffered ice pack and sat down on the couch.”

“We knew that was gonna happen, Jack…why didn't you....” She spoke as if he had done something wrong; certainly not her intent, but it felt that way just the same to the boy sitting before her. He began to sob.

“I’m sorry…Tar…I should have….” He struggled through the first few words before losing it altogether as he wept into the back cushion of the couch.

“No shoulds in this house honey.” Alison sat down next to the boy and held him in her arms.

“It’s okay….let it out. It’s going to be okay.”

“Yeah….Jack…I’m sorry…it’s not your fault…I didn’t mean to accuse you…I’m just so worried that the next time….”

“There won’t be a next time. Taryn…get me the phone.” The girl walked into the kitchen and returned with her mother’s cell phone.

“Hello? Yes…I want to report…yes…no, physical…he’s here with me now… yes…no….” Alison looked up and Taryn mouthed ‘older brother.’

“Older brother…as far as I know. We’re going to take him to the hospital…no…not a problem…My daughter and I will be happy to talk with someone there. Yes. I don’t mind…no…not anonymous… Alison Duplantis… yes… about fifteen minutes…okay.”

“We’ll take you to the hospital, okay?” The boy looked at her and shook her head. He cast his vision downward at his attire. He was wearing a hip-length green sweater over black tights and black flats. His longish hair was pulled back in a pony tail and his face was streaked with black marks from where the eyeliner had run.

"The tears actually will do some good." Alison thought sadly. The social workers might take her gender issues and might take the home problems more seriously.

“This isn’t the first time, from what Taryn has told me, honey, but it will be the last, I swear it.” Alison stood up and walked back to the kitchen. She reached over the chair and retrieved her belt and holster, buckling it quickly before retrieving her cap from the mantel over the fireplace.

“We’ll go to the hospital first. You can call your father from there and tell him you’ll be spending the night with Taryn and me if they discharge you. We’ll get things sorted out in the morning.

“Will they let you do that?” The boy asked softly, his head down once again. She walked over and lifted his head gently with her hand; the smile on her face as welcoming as the gesture as she said,

“Sweetie; I’m the Chief of Police here….I can pretty much do what I want as long as it’s legal and safe, and believe me; you staying with us for one night is both. Maybe we can do something about getting your brother some help.”

“Honey,” she said, turning to her daughter. Why don’t you bring something of yours for Jackie to change into after the hospital folks do their thing, okay? And get three Aquafina from the fridge. I’ll meet you at the car.

“Let’s go, okay…just so everyone knows it’s okay, you can sit up front with me, alright?” Alison walked the child out to her car; unmarked Crown Vic. She opened the front passenger door and ushered the boy inside. A moment later a silver Audi A6 pulled up and a man got out.

“Excuse me…Excuse me? That’s my son you’ve got with you… He’s coming home with me.” The man exclaimed.

“I’m sorry, sir, but you’re wrong on several points.” The man glared at Alison as she stepped around from the passenger side and stood in the man’s way.

“First; this is Jackie O’Donnell, right? Your child? Your child is the victim of domestic violence, and as such I am charged with her transport to the hospital and to report this both to social services and make a report of a crime.

“It’s between him and his brother…they were just rough-housing.” The man protested.

“No, sir…it’s not between him and his brother. It’s between the State of Nebraska and your son for physical battery. This wasn't rough-housing at all. Judging by the location of this bruise, sir, your son may have broken the socket, and she may need surgery. Either way, none of this is my call; I am bound by law to both report this and to see that this child gets medical attention. You’re welcome to follow me to the hospital, but if there are any previous complaints against your son, you may be looking at your daughter’s removal from the home.”

“Would you stop saying that? That’s my son, John Junior….Jack…his brother didn’t mean to hurt him.” The man was more frustrated than angry.

“Your son had every intention, according to your daughter, of causing physical harm, from what she told my daughter. Look at her face, sir. At this point it’s really going to be up to the protective services folks about what happens next. Either way, I suggest you contact your attorney on your son’s behalf.” As she finished speaking, Taryn came out of the house with a gym bag and a Safeway bag filled with bottled water. She got into the back seat.

“Please don’t do this to my son…please...for God's sake, he's only sixteen.” The man pleaded with her. She half-frowned and spoke once more before getting into the car.

“I’m sorry sir; I’m not doing ‘this’ to your son; your son brought it on himself when he did this to your daughter. I suggest you keep that in mind for the sake of both your children. I am truly sorry, sir.”

“But….” The man put his head down and began to cry into his right hand, his left hand waving at his side as if he could shoo away the trouble.

“Sir…follow me to the hospital and attend to your daughter’s needs. I’m sure we can work something out with the court for your son tomorrow or later this evening, after Jackie is squared away. Okay?”

Alison shook her head in frustration and got into the car and began to drive off. As the car pulled past the man he looked at the sad figure sitting in the passenger seat. The girl looked at him with the saddest expression he had ever seen. He blinked back some tears and shouted,

“I’m sorry, Jackie….I’m so sorry.”

He stood there and watched the car drive off before getting into his own car. A moment later he was off down the road on the way to the hospital.

Saint Francis Medical Center... Grand Island, Nebraska...

“What happened?” John O’Donnell looked at Jackie with a sideways glance and continued.

“What did you do?” He stared at the boy in front of him, for that’s what he chose to see. The child now appeared to be a normal fourteen year old boy; normal if you considered it normal to have a bruising and swelling so bad as to completely shut the left eye. Sadly, it wasn’t swollen enough to prevent the tears from literally cascading down her face…her.

“Daddy…he punched me…Jimmy punched me.” The girl sobbed.

“I know…what did you say? I mean he just doesn’t go around hitting you.” John shook his head as if his own view was obscured instead of his daughter’s. She picked up the extra pillow and held it in front of her face; ashamed and scared. The nurse stepped closer to her father.

“I’m sorry, but she’s getting really worked up. We can’t even X-ray at this point because of the swelling. She needs to rest while the swelling goes down. Why don’t you come back tomorrow morning?” She put her hand on his arm but he pulled it away; not angrily, but more out of frustration and helplessness.

“Mr. O’Donnell? John?” The voice was soft but firm, and the hand on his arm squeezed tightly as Alison led him from the room. He turned to protest, but the sight of her badge and the expression on her face made him think twice.

“It’s already been such a long day…why don’t you let me buy you a cup of coffee?” She asked. She turned and looked around. Taryn was in the waiting area with a couple of girls; by the look of her animated display, Alison expected that she was explaining to her friends what had happened. A second later she saw the girls hold hands; it appeared that they were praying.

“Listen…I’m sorry, but I don’t even know you.” John protested.

“I know…just a friendly gesture from one parent to another; and maybe some free advice?” Again John quickly discarded any idea of protest as Alison guided him to the elevator.

Downstairs in the cafeteria…

A few minutes later they were sitting at a table. Coffee had morphed into two helpings of Beef Stew with crackers and a couple of Cokes.

“I know this is hard, but please try to relax. We don’t have to solve everything in one day. Where’s your son?” She said it softly as a request.

“He’s over at his aunt’s….my sister Becky. Listen…I don’t know what came over him…Jimmy is a good boy.” He shook his head; the good part of his son certainly wasn’t in evidence this day. He wanted to believe his son acted just the once.

“Taryn says that Jackie has bruises on her arms. I don’t think this is a one-time occasion. Has Jackie complained?” She nudged.

“No more than any other brother complaining about being picked on. It’s been hard since their mother died, you know?” He half-smiled and took a sip of Coke. Alison nodded; it took all she could manage to suppress the ‘aha’ in the back of her throat.

“It’s not uncommon for children…boys especially…to act out after the death of a parent. I’m sure your children were close to their Mom?” She wasn’t sure of anything at that point other than that John O’Donnell was in major denial regarding both of his children.

“Oh yes…both boys….” He paused.

“Jackie has been acting odd since his mother passed. He goes into our bedroom and just stares at our wedding picture. I came home last week and he was just sitting on the bed, holding her bathrobe.” He sighed; the thought hadn’t occurred to him until that moment just how profound a symbol the robe had become to his youngest child.

“So both children sorely miss their mother. And you attribute that to Jackie’s gender issues?” Alison took a deep breath and continued.

“Do you suppose Jimmy is acting out of anger in response to his grief over the death of your wife?” She tilted her head slightly and leaned forward to listen.

“I suppose…but why did he hit…why did he….” He began to stammer when he closed his eyes; his inner eye beholding the figure of a frightened fourteen year old girl who might lose the sight of her left eye. He put his hand to his face.

“I am so sorry…this is all my fault. I should have taken him to a doctor…maybe this wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t been wearing those clothes.” He was beginning to open his eyes, but his ignorance, well intended as it was, made his vision just as suspect as his daughter’s.

“Jackie will need to see a doctor, I expect, but not for the reasons you may think.” Alison said with as much understanding as she could muster.

“Someone who can help him with the problem?’

“Not quite. Jackie is dealing with several issues at once, not least of which is that you have minimized your son’s anger against her. She seems to be the focus of all his anger. And she does have serious issues regarding her gender, but that isn’t a problem to be fixed…it’s a concern and a cry to be heard and listened to.” She put her hand on his wrist gently but firmly.

“John…Jackie says that Jimmy has been drinking heavily…do you keep any liquor in the house?”

“Not really…we had a couple of bottles of rum for mixing and well...I do keep beer in the fridge downstairs. I haven’t really been paying attention. You don’t suppose?” He shook his head and tears came to his eyes.

“It’s not uncommon for children to self-medicate. Between your own struggles and his needs, he’s probably done a really good job of hiding it.

“What can I do? He’s only sixteen…and it’s just his brother…oh shit…that’s wrong…I…”

“Like I said…we don’t have to solve everything tonight. You heard her doctor say that she was going to be admitted and kept overnight at least. The social worker hasn’t begun her investigation yet; she’ll be talking with me and my daughter, and I know she’ll be talking with you. At the very least, I know they’re going to recommend separation. Can Jimmy stay at his aunt’s for the time being?”

“I guess…sure. Why?”

“Because when your daughter returns home, Jimmy will likely only be able to be near her with supervision, and with you working there won’t be any guarantee. And in cases like this that I’ve been a part of, they try to reunite the child with the family as quickly as possible.”

“What about Jimmy?”

“There is a great deal of support available. Your son needs help. He’s acting out of grief and anger, and while it’s understandable, it’s also putting your daughter in jeopardy. I’m going to recommend to the judge that he allow Jimmy to enter the pre-trial intervention; he’s a minor and it’s his first charge…no… we’re not going to say first offense…you understand?” He nodded and she followed.

“The judge will probably recommend some community service, but the key is to get some help; there are some good programs for teens regarding anger management. I’m not sure he’ll be satisfied with that alone, but anything at this point beats going to detention. The goal is to help both children and reconcile your family, right?”

“Right….Chief Duplantis? What do I do about Jackie…I mean…when his mother died…I knew he was dressing up…I thought it was a phase. But…lately…just his demeanor…it hasn’t changed so much as me noticing it was….different all along. What do I do?”

“The social worker may put you in touch with someone; I think it would be helpful if you could arrange something on your own to show initiative? There are gender specialists in the county that can help her sort out her next steps. She’s going to need a lot of support.”

“You keep saying she. When I first saw Jackie in the car with you I was so angry…you were being so presumptuous with my kid, you know. But tonight…looking at …her for the first time. Even with all the makeup cleaned off…I didn’t see my son any longer.” He bit his lip and turned away.

“I think you’re dealing with more than just the loss of your wife here, Mr. O’Donnell. Take it one step at a time. Go up and see her. Don’t criticize her or correct her. Just listen. And if they think she’s well enough to handle it, give her a hug before you go, okay. As far as Jimmy goes, bring him by the station tomorrow morning. I’ll make sure the judge releases him to your sister’s custody. If Jackie is discharged, it might be a good idea for her to stay at home and for Jimmy to remain at your sister’s house until everyone is satisfied. You spend as much time as you can at home and visit Jimmy as often as you can. The court may even let you and Jackie visit together. This way neither child will view the separation as punishment, okay.”

“What about social services?”

“Well…some people think of them like we think of Velcro…they stick once they’ve been stuck on? They’re just doing their jobs. It may seem like it isn’t fair, but it’s not about what’s fair.

It’s about what’s best for both of your children. Okay?”

Upstairs a short while later...

“Mom…will Jackie be coming home with us tonight?” Taryn asked as she and her friends stood anxiously in the waiting area.

“No, babe…she’s going to stay here overnight. When she does get discharged, she’s going to go home with her dad. I can’t really say much more until she does get out of here, but we’ll make sure that she’s safe. And of course she can come and visit any time she likes. Alright, sweetie?”


* * *

“Jackie?” John stood at the foot of the bed.

“Dad? They say I have to stay here. I’m so sorry Daddy.”

The girl put hand over her eyes and began to weep. John did what had come naturally when Jackie was little. The child never outgrew the need to be held and loved by her father; she only outgrew the part of her that never felt right; not a foe to be fought or an enemy to be hated. Her other self was just as real a part of her as she was; just not the person in charge or even sharing; her male self was just more of her in a different way. In time she’d come to realize just how important all of her was, but for now she needed to hear her father talk to her like she had been there all along. He tried.

“Jackie…..uh….hon…honey….” He stumbled over the words. Who calls their son ‘honey?’ But it grabbed him; as strong as anything he had ever felt when it dawned on him that he wasn’t calling his ‘son’ honey, but his daughter. In time he’d come to realize that his daughter had been there all along. But for now there would be stumbles and half-starts. He didn’t know exactly what to do when his kids were born, but he learned… and he’d learn about things that girls like or don’t. He’d learn about how some girls like football; that Jackie would never stop rooting for the “Huskers.” That it was okay to want to dress up one day and wear jeans the next. So he tried.

“Jackie…I’m so…sorry. I didn’t really know until now….I’m sorry for not listening.”

“Don’t blame Jimmy; Dad….it wasn’t his fault….” She was going to add it was nobody’s fault, but her father beat her to it.

“We’re all going to go get some help. I don’t think any of us talked about how hurt we were. How much it hurt when….” He choked up; it was the first time he had allowed himself to feel the grief in front of his children…his daughter.

“I’m sorry for not….you both needed to know it was okay to hurt and to miss Mommy….God I miss her….. Jackie I’m so sorry.” John stepped closer and sat down next to Jackie. The girl lowered the railing of the bed and pulled her father close. He laid his head on her chest and sobbed; she stroked his hair for a moment before succumbing to her own loss and the twin joys of forgiveness and acceptance as she sobbed as well.

“This is a second chance for us, Jackie and I’m not going to let it pass. Okay? We’re going to get through this. I promise.”

“I know, Dad…I know.” The girl sobbed softly and gripped his hand tighter than ever before.

“I know.”

Lara’s Chance

Gresham, Oregon

Lara stood outside the office, staring at the door. She did a quick inventory; her Charcoal Gray suit was almost a ‘power’ outfit, which seemed out of place for the job she was about to assume. Assumptions….

“No time like the future!”

She laughed, but still pivoted on her heel and went to walk away. As she turned, she stepped right into a young man; a young man with a cardboard tray filled with coffee containers. She fell back and hit her head against the door with a loud bang and a very soft but decided slip into dreamland.

* * * * *

“Miss …Miss? The haze seemed to hover in front of her eyes until she realized her face was covered with a cold wet towel.

“What…what happened?” She went to sit up but fell back quickly against the leather couch.

“I am so sorry, Miss…And your first day? Oh gosh…what was I thinking?” The voice exclaimed.
Lara pulled the towel from her face and saw that she was nearly face-to-face with the young man with whom she had made acquaintance only minutes before.

“Is that a new blouse? Oh gosh…that must have cost you plenty…Is that silk…Oh damn….Oh...I’m so sorry.“ His faced reddened.

She looked down at the blouse, which was indeed, silk and expensive and noticed the dark stain that covered one breast, along with a growing discomfort which she realized was the sensation of pain from the more than tepid coffee that had splashed on her.

“No problem.” She smiled at the young man, who continued to shake nervously.

“I’m so sorry. I can’t manage it this week, but next Friday is payday. I promise I’ll replace it. How much did it cost?” The boy was practically in tears; something with which Lara was all too familiar.

“Oh, this old thing? If I paid fifteen for it last year it would be a surprise. Don’t worry about it…your name?” She lied. She had paid almost a hundred dollars for it, but the cost was the least of her concerns. It was a brief and perhaps ill-advised self-indulgence that did little to justify its purchase. In fact, it only made her feel guilty, but she had bought it and so felt compelled to wear it.

“Oh…I’m sorry…Jimmy…Jimmy Olsen. Yeah, I know…I get it all the time. And especially with helping on the Church newsletter? You wouldn’t happen to be named Miss Lane, would you? Oh…of course not…your name is DiNapoli, right? Miss Lara DiNapoli?”

He had the name right, sort of. Lara was named DiNapoli…a middle name of sorts, and currently she would be regarded as a Miss, but only twenty-some months before she had been a Mister….Cerciera… Dante Cerciera …. Actually Major Dante Cerciera.

“Take it easy, Jim…no, I’m not going to call you Jimmy; you’re far too old and too dark for a cub reporter. How about we start out as friends and take it from there. Would you see if you can find something for this headache?”

Lara shrugged as the boy ran off; a bundle of nervous energy; he seemed as eager to please as a two-year-old beagle. She smiled; he reminded her of her own son… Dante Jr. Taken so soon from her and Nancy by an IED in Mosul… his wife wasted away after their child’s death; finally succumbing to some entirely treatable affliction had she the strength to care. Dante Sr. was the only one left to accept the ‘generous’ offer by the contractor… And why not? Two losses in a year? Two heartaches that still hurt enough to serenade her to sleep with her own weeping. It was her turn… it… should be…shouldn’t it be?

“Miss DiNapoli? She looked up and found Jim had returned with a package of ibuprofen…Midol actually. She laughed at the irony as the young man handed her a bottle of water to wash down
the pills.

“Thanks Jim…now where can I find Pastor Decker’s office?” Jim pointed her in the right direction before running off again.

* * * * *

“Hello, Lara. Come in. I’m awfully sorry about your ‘welcome’ just now. Well, you've met Jimmy...he means well...our intern from the seminary.” He smiled oddly at her and she tilted her head as if to ask a question.

“I’m sorry, but you didn’t…you don’t appear at all like I imagined you to be…. When Al Apsche’ had called me with your recommendation, I pictured you being quite a bit older. I know that seems almost sexist in this day and age, but with your experience?”

“If he only knew,” she thought. Al was Dante’s best friend, and he sort of fudged a few details.

“Oh…I’m sorry…It’s so disconcerting…You just seem much…younger than I expected. Given your age.” He repeated; at the mention of the word ‘age,’ both Pastor Decker and Lara blushed.

“Oh, Reverend Decker, I bet you say that to all your associate pastors.” Lara made a marginally close approximation of a Southern accent.

“Only to those who have as much know-how and background as you. Al really sang your praises. I’m glad you’ve come aboard. We’ve been working under-staffed since Jack Ter Hune passed, and I had misgivings all along about hiring someone less…seasoned. The board certainly was impressed with your interview. So you fit the bill.”

Seasoned wasn’t the word; Lara had been an Army chaplain in her other life, and like so many in ministry, Dante had been driven by his ‘call,’ and had sacrificed too much to see the flock fed and clothed. By the time Dante had left the service, his marriage was nearly lost, and by the time he got re-acquainted with his estranged son, the family was on life-support. Nancy never forgave him for the death of their son, and even more importantly, Dante…Lara had never forgiven herself.

“You should fit right in with us, Lara. I’m really glad to see someone of your character and experience on hand to help shepherd the flock.”

“Turn around and walk right out…You don’t have to do this!” The voice…her own self-talk, of course, spoke loudly in one ear while the other voice… the voice of reason and sanity and sacrifice and co-dependency and guilt said ‘You owe it to God!’

“Excuse me, Pastor Decker?” A woman…late-fortyish…called from the open door to his office; a kind and gentle face with fine line etched across her left cheek. She smiled at Jeff Decker.

“Rachael…it’s nearly end of day, you can stop calling me Pastor.” He laughed. She teased him and he teased back.

Lara DiNapoli…Meet Rachael Decker… my erstwhile secretary and sister.

“Pleased to meet you, Rev. DiNapoli.” She said it with such respect that it seemed a shame to correct her, but correct her Lara did.

“I’m not a Reverend; I haven’t been ordained, and my credentials are quite old.” She felt like adding,

“Major Dante Cerciera reporting for duty, Ma’am. I’m a single transsexual and likely would have been divorced if my wife hadn’t died due to my neglect.”Not too self-critical, she surmised, but entirely honest.

“Well, we’ve heard nothing but good things about you…I hope you’ll find us as pleasant as we have already found you.” She smiled and touched Lara’s hand softly before walking over and kissing Jeff on the cheek.

“Tell Callie I’ll be late for dinner.” She sighed and hurried out.

“You’ll find Rachael to be of great assistance.” He said it with little enthusiasm, which garnered a quizzical look from Lara.

“Oh, gosh…I’m sorry…Rachael was engaged…he died a couple of years ago and today would have been their second anniversary...she's stopping off at his grave.”

“I’m sorry.” A typical response for something so personal with someone you don’t know, but Lara knew too much about loss not to be moved.

“Oh gosh, I almost forgot. I meant to invite you to dinner on Sunday…I don’t expect you’ll have quite settled in by then, and Callie does Chicken Paprikash like she got off the plane from Budapest.” He laughed heartily, which surprised Lara.

“I seem to be full of apologies today. Callie and I met in Hungary after my first wife died. She was a correspondent for Radio Free Europe when the Soviet Bloc went south. Please feel welcome, okay?”

Lara nodded.

He stepped closer and smiled.

“Welcome again.” Jeff stood and waited for a moment before looking at Lara’s right hand.

“My mother always told me never to offer your hand to a lady unless she holds out her own first.”

Lara looked down at her hand; something to remember…two things, actually, as she shook Jeff’s hand. First, her expertise in conventional behavior for women was somewhat lacking even after a year RLT and being post surgery for several months. And to be called a lady? She felt like anything but a lady as noticed her reflection in the glass pane of the office door.

"One last thing? Please feel free to come to me if you've got any concerns or questions, okay. Callie and I want you to know that before anything else, we want to be your friends, alright?" Jeff's hand lingered before he patted her wrist and smiled. Lara nodded and forced a smile...


She heard it, but it didn’t come from without, but within. She bit her tongue softly as she nodded once to Jeff before exiting, trying hard not to cry. She failed miserably and broke down behind the wheel of her Jeep; another ‘luxury’ courtesy of the insurance settlements she had gotten nearly back to back. She looked down at her stained blouse; a blouse that covered a very attractive body for a forty-seven year old woman…if that’s what she could be called.

* * * * *


The voice grew louder in her head; condemnation, both from her own heart and the lingering words of her late wife, seemed to come easy.

“You can run, but you can never hide!”

Almost like Jonah, but instead of being swallowed by a whale she was being swallowed by guilt and shame. And all she needed was forgiveness, healing, friends, family, self-confidence; a fairly simple combination likely to be found nowhere on earth, but for the parking lot of the Church of the Redeemer…

A knock came at the window of the Jeep, startling Lara. She looked up and saw a friendly face…two in fact, as Jeff Decker stood next to his best friend…and Lara’s…Al Apsche’.

“Lara? We need to talk, okay?” Jeff said and Al smiled and nodded in agreement. Lara just kept crying.

The Parsonage Kitchen…a short while later…

Lara had stopped crying, but her face was red with embarrassment. Jeff had put on a pot of coffee and was just sitting down at the table. Al sat across from Lara, a sheepish grin on his face. Lara faced him and her embarrassment abated only somewhat.

“Why didn’t you just tell me you were going to tell them everything? I thought we agreed that would be something we’d get into slowly.” Lara shook her head, feeling betrayed.

“You put me in an awful bind, Lara. I’m sorry, but for your sake, Jeff and the church needed to know.”

“You mean the board already knows? Al, how could you?”

“He did it out of the goodness of his heart, and you should really be thanking him.” Jeff said; his words almost a rebuke. Lara almost felt like Jeff and Al were ganging up on her. Jeff frowned.

“I’m sorry, Lara, but the whole process was hurried since we felt we needed to replace Jack since his passing was so sudden, and the need to have extra help just grew exponentially this month.”

“What? I don’t understand.” Lara turned and looked at Al, who had nodded at Jeff’s words.

“I’m going to have to cut back; the cancer took its toll, and while I’ve been free for nearly six months now, I don’t have the energy to work here full time. We need a senior pastor, and Al felt you were the best candidate, but that meant accelerating the process, including getting all the information about you.”

“I don’t understand.” Lara had begun to mist up once again. None of this made any sense.
You still are and always will be the best candidate. You have experience; God knows how much love and compassion you have. But it has to be straightforward and open. There was never any need to keep your past secret, Lara. Jeff and I go back further than us, and you can believe me when I tell you that he was the best person to know about you.' Al looked over at Jeff and back to Lara.

"I know it seems unfair, and maybe it is, and for that I apologize for that. But I’ve been killing myself trying to figure out a way to help you understand that your past doesn’t matter…not to me….and certainly not to this church, obviously, or they wouldn’t have hired you to take Jeff’s place in the pulpit.”

“Take his place? What?” Lara shook her head. It was all coming way too fast, and she was overwhelmed.

“We weren’t interviewing you for Associate Pastor; that will be my new role with my semi-retirement. We want you to shepherd this flock, Lara.” Jeff smiled warmly and put his hand on her wrist.

“Al explained all about you…I know you may feel betrayed, but keep in mind that you haven’t been quite honest yourself…”

“Or with yourself.” The voice came from behind. Rachael stood there, her warm smile almost a beacon in the room.

“You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of; we all have a past. I’ve chosen to let go of mine; the hopes and dreams and plans I had with Eric are gone, and I could dwell on them; feeling sorry for myself. But I have to move on for my sake and for everyone else.”

“You don’t understand…I’m not who you think I am,” Lara said as if they hadn’t already known.

“Lara…they know about Danny…” Al said, trailing off. He had tried to walk the couple through their loss, but between Dante’s inability to get past his own feelings of guilt and Nancy’s devastation and final surrender to her grief, the family literally had been destroyed. He felt he had failed them, both as a friend and as a pastor, and now that Lara sat there, Al finally felt hope for his friend growing inside himself.

“We all make choices, Lara.” Al stood up and walked over. He squatted down to see her face to face, almost like a father would a child.

“Nancy, God rest her soul, wasn’t strong enough, and we can’t fault her for that. What did she say to you before she died?” It was very hard to put it in the framework of the past, to reach back to the person Lara had been only a few short years before, but she really was still the same person.

“Don’t…please Al…I can’t,” Lara protested as tears streamed down her face. Even after the memory of her last days with Nancy, Lara still felt ashamed and unworthy of forgiveness.

“Lara…come on…you can’t beat yourself up forever. She told you…” Lara cut him off.

“No…I don’t deserve this ….it’s not fair…it’s all my fault.” She went to stand up and felt a hand on her shoulder, not pushing her down so much as urging her to stay. Rachael took Lara’s left hand in both of hers and held it, like a friend would for a friend. A new friend, perhaps, but someone to rely on and trust.

“It’s okay.” No words of correction or argument; just reassurance as one who knew.

“Lara…it’s going to be okay. Nancy left you with something that you’ve neglected. A gift that you seem to have lost. I found it myself after Jessica passed, and I think you can find yours once again. What did she say, Lara? What did Nancy leave you with?” Al shifted into a genuflect position and put his hand on Lara’s arm. Jeff stood up and walked over and was joined by Callie; standing behind Lara as she bowed her head, sobbing.

“We all have needed it, and we all have received it, Lara. Let me speak the words you told me…the words that gave you comfort then…you set them aside, like you didn’t deserve them, but that’s what a gift is, isn’t it? Freely given?” Al knew she couldn’t speak but she grabbed his wrist and squeezed softly, giving him permission.”

“I know it almost by heart; I’m sorry if I get some of the words wrong, but I know you’ll forgive me, since she was my sister, after all, okay.” By now, Al was struggling to speak as well, and the words came haltingly and with much effort, but he managed to repeat what Lara needed to hear.

“She didn’t call you Dante’ or even Dan or Danny, did she?” Lara shook her head no, struggling to keep from losing it altogether.

“’Lara?’ Isn’t that what she called you? She knew…She told me that she had known for some time.” Lara’s shoulders began to tremble.

“’Lara…’” Al swallowed hard and continued.

“I am so sorry…. blamed you for Danny...Danny's death. My baby…grown up and it was your fault…he wanted…to be like you…and he was. He loved you and he missed you.” Al bit his lip as he closed his eyes and recalled his nephew’s face.

“’He loved you and I think if he was here he still would even though you’re changing….I wanted…’” It was almost too painful to speak; Al recalled his sister’s bitterness that had consumed her even as obsession and a fear of failure had consumed her husband.

“’I wanted my husband and he never came back…and my son…’ Lara.” Al touched her cheek softly.
“Lara, what did she say…what did she do…what was the gift?” Al struggled to keep from sobbing himself. Lara lifted her head and smiled even as the tears fell.

“She forgave me….and….” She bit her lip as her shoulders began to tremble again, but she finished,

“She called me by my….she called me Lara…the first one to….the first one to…see me…” She put her head down on the table and wept, leaving behind years of guilt and shame and finally picking up and holding the last gift that Nancy Apsche’ Cercierra would ever bestow; acceptance.

* * *

The church was full for the first time ever on a July Sunday. The usual folks had postponed weekend excursions or in some cases returned early from vacations. Alongside the members and frequent visitors sat the curious and the skeptical; new ways supplanting old as even progressive folks discovered just how much they still had to learn.

Callie Decker played the last notes of “You’re All I Want” as Jim Olsen bade the congregation to be seated. His broad grin beamed with pride as he gave way to the pastor, newly installed and preaching the first of many sermons to come. Making the way to the lectern for the inaugural message, the pastor nodded slightly; an unfamiliar face to many, which evoked a few murmurs and some applause. Instead of the usual casual slacks and button-down shirt and tie of the previous shepherd, the pastor wore black slacks and a teal silk blouse under a white jacket. She smiled.

“Good Morning,” Lara spoke softly, demonstrating a humility that would be a familiar and welcomed part of her ‘pulpit voice,’ as some put it.

“I am honored to be a part of God’s plan for us all. I’ll be reading my text from The Message today, since I believe it speaks to me, and hopefully through me to you, okay?” She bowed her head slightly and said a silent prayer, her shoulders shaking only a little; another DiNapoli ‘trademark’ that would be a familiar part of her ministry.

"The Book of the Prophet Isaiah…Chapter Forty-Three…Verses One through Four...
But now, God's Message, the God who made you in the first place, Jacob,
the One who got you started, Israel:
"Don't be afraid, I've redeemed you.
I've called your name. You're mine….”

Alicia’s Chance

Newton, New Jersey...

Alicia walked the thirteen blocks from school to home; one more running the gauntlet. Kenny Narcise and Jackie Pietrowski walked alongside the girl, coming up with new and hurtful epithets not worth repeating here. The girl hadn’t had a tear-free day since school started.

“Hey, loser!” The kindest insult of the past sixty-eight days, it still hurt because up until that moment, things looked anything but dim and getting darker for the girl.

“If you’re a fag, say, ‘what,” Kenny whispered and the girl sadly fell into the trap,

“What?” She leaned closer and Jackie knocked her books from her arms, sending them splashing into a deep puddle that had formed around a very clogged storm drain. She went to pick them up and Kenny tripped her and she ended up falling onto the sidewalk next to the storm drain. A loud thud was followed by a scream that was quickly followed by hysterical laughter as the two boys pointed to her and laughed before running down the block.

She rolled over and sat up, rubbing her wrist and sobbing. She felt so bad; sixteen and awkward still after months of counseling, as if she had let someone down by not being brave. She went to stand up slowly, struggling to gain some balance and she fell back into the big puddle. It was almost too sadly silly; as if someone would come along and ask, ‘what’s wrong, little girl?’ Except for the fact that her name wasn’t Alicia; at least as far as Newton High School was concerned. And she wasn’t little relatively speaking and she wasn’t even a she, at least as far as her driver’s permit was concerned.

Alan shook his head furiously; the tears flying off his face like water off a wet dog’s back. He bit his lip, not out of frustration or anger, but because he actually accidentally bit it as he slipped back once again into the puddle; this time with a splash as leaves and mud spattered him even more. It was more than humiliating, since the very thing that hurt him was that someone finally was realizing that he was different.

“Alan, why do you do that? If you wear that kind of clothing you’ll only draw attention to yourself." He recalled his mother saying on more than one occasion.

He looked at his reflection in the puddle as the water calmed itself. Hair that was black, long and uneven. The streaks of makeup on his face were purely unintentional, a by-product of the tears he had just shed, causing his mascara to run. The long blue hooded sweater acted almost like a sponge, and when he finally gained enough purchase to stand, it nearly weighed twice as much. His jeans were black as well, but they appeared more grayish-brown from the leafy debris of the puddle. The fingerless gloves did nothing to protect his hands, which now were caked with a mixture of mud and blood from the scrapes against the sidewalk. The hood had fallen back and his hair was soaked with muddy water. In short, he was a mess.

“Excuse me, can I help?” He heard a soft voice from behind. He turned around and saw a nice looking face smiling down on him. He righted himself finally as a hand reached out to steady him.

“I think you hit your head.” The girl said softly. “Here, let me help you,” she continued as she walked him up a sidewalk and onto a porch.

“I don’t think anyone will mind.” She patted him softly on the arm before walking back to the puddle to retrieve his books. A moment later she returned with a sad but understanding look on her face.

“They’re ruined. I’m sorry.” She said it as if it had been her fault for not helping or being there or something. Alan looked up at her and realized that he must be dreaming. The girl wore clothes similar to his except that instead of jeans, she wore a black denim mini over black tights. It felt like they had planned together what to wear even though he had never met her. She smiled once again and held her hand out.

“I don’t think I can stand,” Alan said and the girl laughed; her voice soothing and warm.

“Oh…no…I was…My name is Dana…Dana Martino.” She noticed her palm was dirty from the mud of the puddle, and she quickly wiped it off before offering it again.

“That’s my house over there,” she pointed to the Cape Cod cottage across the street.

“We just moved here from Italy.” She smiled at the thought before continuing. “I’m not Italian…well, yes, I am sort of, but…my Dad just retired from the Air Force…my Mom…was from Italy…he’s from here originally.”

“Oh,” was all Alan could think to say. He shook her hand and she tilted her head and smiled while squinting a bit. He took the hint.

“I’m Alan…Alan Capulano. I live…right here. This actually is my house.” Alan smiled at the thought

“Well, I’m glad to meet you, Alan. I guess we’ll get to know each other.” She held out her hand once again and he shook it until she looked at him crosswise.

“Oh, yeah,” he said as he accepted her help in standing.

“I’ve got to run. I’m late for my piano lesson. Nice to meet you, Alan.” What might have seemed forward in almost any other situation felt completely normal and even expected as the girl leaned closed and kissed him quickly on the cheek before walking off. He put his hand to his face and felt the growing warmth and a big chunk of mud on his cheek where she had kissed him, and he sighed.


The next morning Alan got up and picked out his ‘outfit,’ which was usually a bit more subdued on the weekend. It was almost as if his clothing was chosen to provoke. His therapist had told him to consider why he felt the need; not because she was critical, but because they had discussed his reasons for seeking attention.

“Mom, have you seen my black miniskirt?” He called out to his mother, who was making breakfast.

“Oh, Alan, I wish you wouldn’t wear that. You know it just invites trouble.” She complained. He walked into the kitchen and sat down.

“Not for now…I just wanted to know.” He frowned; he always felt as if he had to explain himself. Therapy was helping him sort out things, and the clothing was one part of his puzzle.

“It’s just that you’re a boy, and boys just don’t wear miniskirts…they don’t wear skirts.” Julia Capulano loved her child but she didn’t understand him.

“Mom…I’ve got to get ready… I just wish you could see that.” He put his head down; another morning of passive-aggressiveness promised to disappoint as his mother answered.

“Look at you…I don’t know why you insist on making trouble for yourself. I told you that you could dress up all you like at home. Why do you have to do this?” She pointed to him. His makeup was much more subdued, but still said anything but boy. His top was almost a neon green, covered by a long gray cardigan. His jeans were pink and his shoes were sensible in function, but nearly matched the green of his top.

“You look like that boy singer we saw on that program the other night.”

“I wasn’t going for boy singer, Mom.” He shook his head.

“And I suppose you’re going to go to that meeting again?” She almost huffed as she sat down with her coffee.

“You mean that meeting for “THEM?” He joked, but she didn’t laugh.

“You’re a boy, and that’s the truth of the matter, Alan.”

“I’m a girl, Mom. And you were there; we both talked with Melissa about all of the things she and I discussed. She wants me to see another doctor. That guy in Sparta is a hack; he doesn’t have any experience in this and all he wants to do is to give me an anti-d!” It was almost remarkable how things would turn in an instant. The boy-girl was almost placid and timid, even, until confronted about her gender. The courage to be came up in odd ways at odd times.

Sure, she cried a lot; who wouldn’t cry when confronted daily about being a fag or a sissy. To use an old saw, her best friend Akemi was a 'fag', and she didn't even know what a sissy was. She wasn’t gay, as far as she knew, and the only reason they used those names was to hurt and to be cruel in their own ignorance. She was trying to find her way in a world that included only one parent and no support.

“Melissa said that you should try to call me Alicia as much as possible when we’re at home…to get used to it.

“But your name is Alan. After your father.”

“You mean the father who left you and me when I was seven months old? That father?” She stopped trying to hide the bitterness in her voice a long time ago. But even at that, the hurt still hit her whenever she heard her ‘own’ name.

“I’m not Alan. Even if I wasn’t a girl, mom, I would have changed that a long time ago if I could. But I’m Alicia…Alicia Capulano, Mom!” The frustration had already inserted itself into the conversation, and she began to cry. There’s only so much strength and courage you can muster when there’s no one guarding your back.

“I just don’t know.” Julia began to cry as well. She had raised her child the best she could under the worst of circumstances and she felt hurt and disappointed that Alan didn’t appreciate what she had done. With some creativity and very little support from her own family, she had managed to go back to school part time and had earned a graduate degree in accounting, and had provided a comfortable life for her and her son.

“Well, that’s an improvement,” Alicia said sarcastically, but felt guilty at the hurt look on her mother’s face.

“Mom…I’m who I am…If you don’t know, then can you at least try to trust that I do?” Julia looked at her child and while she wasn’t convinced that she no longer had a son, she was getting to the place of trusting that her child knew who he was…who she was. She even mouthed
‘Alicia’ as her face showed less confusion.

“Yeah, Mom…Alicia,” the girl said aloud and squeezed her mother’s hand, happy at least for the glacier-like movement toward acceptance. Julia smiled through her own tears and lifted the girl’s hands to her lips and kissed it.

“I just love you…that’s all,” she said almost as an explanation. Alicia forced a smile and bit her lip, wincing at the sore that had started to form. It would have to do.

“I love you, too, Mom.”

The next morning...

“Hello, can I help you?” The man at the door seemed put out, but he smiled and the girl stepped back slightly.

“Yes. Thanks. My name is Al...Alicia Capulano...we live across the street?” She pointed and the man glanced over at the house; a near identical match to his own.


“I was wondering if your daughter is home?” The man looked at Alicia in puzzlement.

“I’m sorry, I don’t have a daughter.” He said it softly, with an odd tone that Alicia couldn’t identify.

“Oh, gosh…I must have the wrong house. She just pointed. I didn’t notice you move in either. You folks must be new too, huh? My mother and I live across the street. She’s Julia, by the way," she repeated.

“Well, hello; Nice to meet you. I’m Cap…I’m David…David Martino. I live with my son, Danny.”

* * *

“Oh…Danny? I haven’t met him yet,” Alicia said, unconsciously stressing the pronoun.

“He’s in his room. Let me get him. Danny?” The man smiled and continued.

“There’s a young lady at the door; she’s our neighbor from across the street.” He nodded at Alicia and smiled again.

“We’ve only just moved from Italy last month; I was stationed there…Air Force. Ah, here he is.” Mr. Martino looked relieved as a boy approached the door. He looked surprised and his face reddened.

“HI…” Alicia put out her hand and the boy shook it gently. “I’m Alicia, your neighbor. Your Dad tells me your name is Danny?”

“Ah….Dante, actually, after the poet? My mom loved poetry.” The boy looked almost wistful, and he put his head down slightly, avoiding eye contact.

“Poetry…that’s nice. Is your mom home?” Alicia already knew, but she was so upset that kindness took a back seat to her disappointment. The boy looked shocked, but answered.

“No…My Mom died two years ago…cancer.” He bit his lip and tears came to eyes. Alicia stared into the face of sadness and felt ashamed. She closed her mouth and her own tears seemed to match the boys as she shook her head slightly.

“I…I’m so sorry,” she said, almost feeling as bad for her meanness as for the boy’s loss.
“Well, these things happen,” Mr. Martino said from behind the boy, causing an almost indiscernible wince from the boy’s shoulders.

“Still, it must be hard. My dad walked out on us when I was a baby. I’ve never had a father. You must be proud of your son.” Alicia said and immediately realized what she just did. Another wince; the boy before her wasn’t at all like what she expected. Had she not heard the name Danny or met Dana the day before, she would have sworn that the boy before her was just another girl wearing her brother’s sweats.

“Danny is my pride and joy. He’s a great young man.” At the word ‘man’ Danny pursed his lips slightly and his eyes began to fill with tears. Alicia looked around as she thought before speaking up.

“I’ve got to get going; just a walk down to the 7-11, maybe you can walk with me, Danny?” She said, and she purposefully allowed her voice to trail off slightly at the mention of the boy…the boy’s name.

“Sounds like a good plan. I’m glad there’s someone in the neighborhood Danny’s age. Sure nice to meet you, Miss.?”

“Capulano…Alicia…and my mom’s name is Julia.” Before the boy had a chance to speak, Alicia grabbed his arm and pulled him along down the steps and onto the sidewalk.

“I’m sorry. I should have said something the other day. Dad was out, and it was my only time all week.”

“So who are you,” Alicia snapped, sloughing off the boy’s excuse with a glare.

“It’s Dana…Dad….doesn’t understand.” The boy persona disappeared instantly and the girl she had met grabbed her arm, squeezing her.

“You mean…he won’t understand.” Dana stopped walking and squeezed Alicia’s arm harder. She turned and looked back down the block before looking back at Alicia. She began to shake slightly and the tears began to flow.

“He thinks…that Mom….indulged me. He won’t listen and he just…” She began to choke up.

“A phase? A feeling? How about ‘you’re just confused,’” Alicia said with a quiver to her laugh.

“Why, honey. You’re such a handsome boy.” She said it, imitating her mother’s pleading, as if she was standing there, wringing her hands.

“I didn’t raise my boy to be a sissy.” Dana choked back a sob. They walked around the corner and Alicia led her over to a bench under a bus stop. Sitting her down, she tried to smile. But her own disappointment and pain got in the way, which was actually a good thing, since she understood her new friend completely.

“He…took an early retirement…I think because of me.” She shook her head.

“Because you’re a girl?”

“Because he thinks there’s something wrong with me. At least that’s what he said; that he talked with the base shrink, and that he recommended I get…help. All the help I need is right down there,” she said, pointing in the direction of her house.

“My mother cries when she thinks about it, but it’s gotten better. I think she’s coming around, if I could only get her to listen to someone who knows….” At the word knows, she looked at Dana and an impish grin crossed her face.

“I’ve got an idea, okay?” Dana looked up and half-smiled before wiping her face with her sleeve.

“Anything is better than this.” She pointed to her body in a broad gesture.

“Does your father go out…do you have any….you know…Dana time? Like the other day?”

“Yeah…he’s working part-time as a consultant at Picatinny Arsenal, he goes in at ten or so and comes home at five…a couple of days. Tomorrow, in fact…he’s got a trip to upstate New York.” Her face brightened just a bit.

“Okay…we’ve got off the next two days ‘cause of the teacher’s conference. And my mom works from home on Fridays. How would you like to meet Alan and his mom?” She smiled impishly once again.

“I don’t understand. Why would meeting me make a difference?” She shook her head until Alicia finished.

“Not you, silly. YOU!”

That Friday...

“Hi, can I help you?” Julia stood at the door way and greeted the young lady. She was dressed in a hip length jersey dress in olive and black stripes with a black leather jacket over black leggings with ballet slippers. The girl’s hair was black and she wore multiple gemstones as studs in her ears. Almost Goth-lite.

“Hi. I’m Dana? Dana Martino. My Dad and I just moved in across the street last month. I was wondering if Alan is home? I wanted to ask him about the term paper due next month and I didn’t have his number.” She really didn’t have to play anything up. The assignment was real, and so was the girl in front of Ms. Capulano.

“Oh, yes. I think he’s in his room.” She stepped away from the door and yelled, “Alan? You have a friend here… Dana?”

A moment later, a familiar figure walked down the hallway. Perhaps too familiar, as evidenced by the look on Julia’s face.

“Hi….I’m so glad you came. You met Mom, huh? She’s terrific.” The girl hurried over to her mother and gave her a hug; Julia patted her on the back awkwardly taking note of her clothing. But for a slight difference in height, the two girls were near twins with identical outfits.

“Why don’t you stay for lunch; that way Mom can get to know you a bit.” Alicia resisted the urge to wink at her co-conspirator.

“I…must say, you’re….” Julia searched for the word to accurately describe Dana, but there was no use; as much as she tried, she settled on ‘sweet.’ She turned back and looked at Alan…Alicia…it was so confusing, but she knew in her heart that he child wasn’t confused at all.

“Ms. Capulano, may I ask a question?” She gently touched Julia’s arm and the woman thought to pull back, but the girl’s face was so sweet.

“I’ve got a problem, and I can’t talk to my Dad about it. Alicia says that you understand more than anybody about this, and I figured why not get some advice from another woman.” Alicia listened to her friend speak and bit her tongue slightly to stifle a giggle.

“Since my Mom died, he’s been awfully lonely; maybe even a lot lonely, and I don’t know what to do. He’s a really nice guy, and I hate to see him all alone. But I don’t want to do something stupid…like matchmaker or set something up. He just needs to…you know…”

Julia nodded her head and smiled, but she really didn’t know.

“Maybe we can have them both over; you know, like ‘welcome to the neighborhood?’”

“I don’t know, Alan…oh…” She shook her head once.

“Listen…how about you invite them for pizza…less formal…no threats at all?” Alicia nodded her head and Dana smiled at Julia.

“Please?” Her eyes seemed to deepen, almost like a puppy in one of those paintings.

“Would…Next Saturday be okay?”

“Saturday would be perfect.”

“Honey…I think her Dad needs to meet my son…at least for the first time?” Alicia nodded reluctantly; she felt bad about manipulating her mother, but something had to reach both parents, and the girls were almost desperate at that point.

The following Saturday...

“Hi, I’m Dave… Martino. It’s awfully nice of you to invite us.” Julia held out her hand and Dave shook it softly.

“Julia…Capulano….nice to meet you. The kids are down the hall. Pizza should be here any minute.”

“You’ve very kind; may I offer to pay?” Dave tilted his head, a bit fearful for a rejection.

“Oh….that’s okay, ‘maybe next time?” She shuddered ever so slightly?

“Next time?” He thought.

“Next time?” She thought.

They were interrupted a moment later by the doorbell. Julia handed the delivery boy some cash and Dave took the Pizza and a bag and placed them on the dining room table with a nod from Julia.

“Kids, dinner’s here.” Julia called down the hallway before getting a bottle of wine and a bottle of pomegranate blueberry juice out of the fridge. As she was sitting down, two figures walked into the dining room. They wore matching dark blue denim mini-skirts over black tights and ankle length boots. Each wore a red jersey top under a black leather jacket. Both tops had writing on them; Dana’s read ‘Hi, Dad’, and Alicia’s read ‘Hi, Mom.’

“I’m sorry,” both parents turned to each other as their words almost harmonized. They turned and looked at the two girls sitting at the table; both girls were smiling.

“I have to apologize for my son,” they said, this time Julia’s words sounding like an odd echo.

“I’m sorry.” Alicia said; the nervous tension of anticipation broke and she began to cry. Dana put her hand on the girl’s shoulder and rubbed it softly. As she spoke, both parents gazed at the two, their attention shifting back and forth.

“I….Is Dana a boy?” Julia asked softly, but her attention was on her own child.

“She…he…” Her voice trailed off when she realized just what Alicia had meant to say in the surprise they saw before them. She reached over and tapped Dave’s arm. He was staring at Dana; maybe seeing her for the first time.

He looked at Alicia and tilted his head, almost as a question.

“Mr. Martino…Captain, Sir? I’m …I’m sorry we tricked you…but …oh I am so sorry.” Alicia put her head down on her arms on the table and wept.

“Dad? You see what I’ve been trying to say? Ms. Capulano? What Alicia has been trying to say? This was our last chance to reach you. We need you two to know who we are. And we…I know you love me, Dad…but I need you to love ME…the me I am, you know? And she needs you to love her for who she is…trust us…we know?”

“I am so sorry, Danny…I should have listened.

“And I should have listened to you….” Julia struggled to say the name; as if letting go of ‘Alan’ was like finally letting go of another.


A bit later...on the front steps…

“We did it. We did it.” Alicia could hardly contain her glee, even if she was crying at the same time. She pulled Dana closer and hugged her. Their lips touched and they kissed. A moment later, the two pulled back and stared, tears in their eyes as they shook their heads no. Dana touched Alicia’s cheek softly and smiled.


Alicia nodded as she pulled her best friend ever into a warm sisterly embrace.


Sometime later....Perona Farms, Andover, New Jersey…

"Dave...can you get me my camera? It's on the table over there." Julia waved as the group of women gathered.

A tall girl stood in the middle of the reception hall, standing even a bit taller due to the three inch heels of her white ankle boots. A moment later, several girls dove for the bouquet as it bounced off the low light fixture, landing in the arms of a seven year old girl who grinned sheepishly. The bride received a hug and kiss from the groom before turning and walking toward her maid of honor.

"I tried to angle it so you'd get it, Dana." Alicia said; the newly-wed Mrs. Kenneth Angelo Narcise then hugged her sister. She pulled back and half smiled, her eyes filled with tears.

"No worries, Sis!" She smiled back as she lifted her left hand and the left hand of the young woman standing next to her, pointing to identical rings.

"Got it covered!"

Melina’s Chance

Olympus Diner…Hawthorne, New Jersey…

“Yanni….Damn it, Helen??? Didn’t you speak to the boy yesterday?” Nick looked over at his son, who was bussing the booths in the back. He had been at the diner since four that morning, and at eight in the evening, it had been a very long day. He gazed intently at his watch, almost as if he was timing Marcos.

“Nicko? (pronounced Nee-ko) Leave the boy alone. He works hard and he’s the only one now that Pete is off to school.” Helen sighed. Four children, three of whom were out of the house. That left the youngest to bear the weight, not only of the demands of going to school and working at the restaurant, but the sole focus of Nick’s frustration when things weren’t going so well. And because Nick was an alarmist stranded in a sea of optimism and success, everything looked bad even when it was going good.

“It doesn’t look right to the customers. He’s a boy, and he looks more like my sister than my sister does.” Nick was always full of silly jokes and even some cruel taunts when Kelly was around, having been the big disappointment to the Macros family by coming out with her girlfriend the previous fall.

“Nicko…stop that! You know you can be so mean. Kelly loves you and would die for you…and you treat her like a stranger. Pretty soon, I may not be around, eh? And then what? Your big boys all grown up and off to school or to the football. They don’t call and they don’t even come home. Pete didn’t even call when he got to school. And what about Yanni? He works harder than anyone here, even you. What more do you want in a child. Someday you’ll look around and everyone will be gone. Think about that!”

Helen shook her head. It was so hard to love someone so obstinate, but you hardly ever get to choose whom you fall in love with. Helen fell out of like with her husband years ago, however, and felt helpless in protecting her youngest.

“You coming tomorrow?” The girl stood at the counter and handed Yanni some cash. He rang up her bill and handed her the change.

“No…you keep it…maybe get a nice set of burettes?” She teased, and the boy winced, wondering if his father had overheard. Thankfully, his father had turned his attention to the bakery delivery man as his voice boomed from across the luncheonette.

“I can’t. I’ve got a final Thursday and tomorrow night is the only night I’ll have a chance to study.

“You have to tell them. You just have to.” The girl’s hand reached out and grabbed his, squeezing it gently.

“Alex is watching, Mel…” She looked upward, reminding the boy about his best friend…her brother.

“I know….shhhh…. Please, Ari….don’t use that name around my Dad… He’ll kill me if he found out.”

“I’m sorry… and I’m sorry for bringing up Alex. It’s just that he loved you so much… Now that he’s gone, we only have each other.” The girl’s eyes filled with tears at the memory of her loss; Alex Polidouris gone from leukemia at nineteen, and denied even in death the life she wanted to lead. And her best friend, Yanni Macros…. Melina; since eight years old, stuck in a life that denied her any hope of being what and whom she was. Ariadne Polidouris loved Melina… like the sister she was, and she was determined that she was not going to lose this sister to foolishness and ignorance like Alex. She had begged and pleaded with her father to honor Alex’ wishes. Instead of a dear sister, the family buried a son and brother, hair shorn to a ‘proper’ length and garbed in a blue suit.

“Stephie’s going to be at the meeting…can’t you come…even for a little while. I can help you study tomorrow night. Please, Mel….Yanni…okay?”

“I’ll see.” Stephie was going to be there. The other part of the puzzle that was Yanni Macros. And he was probably right about his father. When Nicko found out about his sister, he had some friends get ‘insistent’ with Kelly’s girlfriend at her job. When all was said and done, Nicko had made his point about his sister’s choice of company, and ended up estranged to his only sibling. He was right, and that was all there was to it. If Nicko found out about Melina and the girl she had fallen in love with? Stephanie Elias…Stephen Elias was the only person besides Ari who understood Melina, and that more than anything would lead to disaster if Nicko found out.

“I need you to come right after school tomorrow,” Nicko said as he walked up to the counter. He hit a few buttons on the register and placed the bakery receipt in the drawer before pulling out a twenty. He thrust the cash into the boys hand.

“And get yourself a haircut…no arguments.” Nicko pointed to his belt and laughed as the boy winced. It had been a while since he and his father had one of those ‘discussions,’ but he knew his father meant business.

“Pop…I have a final the next day…I have to study.”

“You can study in the back when things get slow.” Nicko pointed to the swinging door into the kitchen.

“No arguments, boy.” Nicko laughed at the word. It was funny to him since he was demeaning his child’s age. Helen was right, of course. Nicko didn’t realize just how much he was blessed with a devoted son…a devoted child who loved him and would do anything for him. Yanni was conflicted in so many ways. He sighed as his father pat him on the back before walking away.

“Haircut…and come in right after that!”

“Oh….okay.” He turned to see that Ari was still standing at the counter.

“I’ll tell everybody that you send your love.” She spoke in a normal tone, but finished in a whisper.

“Melina.” She blew Yanni a kiss before walking out of the restaurant.

“Yanni? Take care of this mess,” the boy heard his father yell from the kitchen. He walked through the door to see a pile of dirty dishes stacked in the large sink.

“Georgie went home sick, so you gotta finish this before we go tonight."

What seemed like the longest day in the world…a day that was supposed to be a day off of school and work…became even longer. The boy looked at his father, who just pointed to the extra work; the responsible child who needed no prompting got an angry glare.

“I haven’t finished bussing, Pop. Which do you want me to do first?” A reasonable request which was answered by an even meaner glare.

“Don’t give me a hard time, Yanni…I’ve been here since noon and I’m tired. Get the bussing done quickly and then get these done.” He pointed once again to the pile, which hadn’t gotten smaller or less obvious in the past few moments.

“If you didn’t stop to talk to the girls all the time….” He walked past him and hit him hard in the arm, just below the shoulder, making sure that he used his knuckle to jab.

“Now that’s for what I didn’t catch you doing.” Nicko laughed and walked out of the kitchen leaving the boy to survey the mess. He quickly sorted silverware and plates and cups, making the job easier. He was literally walking through the door into the dining room when his father yelled one last time,

“Yanni…come on….get moving. These tables aren’t going to buss themselves. The boy put his head down and bit his lip before walking out of the kitchen.


She looked in the mirror. It was two-thirty in the morning, and school and a haircut and work already were pulling at her. She touched her face softly; her fingers brushing lightly at a lock that was destined to disappear later that day. Her eyes were on the verge, but no tears had formed as yet. Her nostrils flared and she gritted her teeth. Her face was wan; even her mother had started to notice the lack of weight; the tired look that seemed to greet everyone.
“S ´agapao! (I love you!)”

She blew a kiss to her image before walking slowly to her bed. She laid down and looked up at the ceiling, seeking some sort of celestial skywriting that would help answer all of life’s questions. She shook her head once before covering her eyes with her arm. Too much loss and too much pain and too much sadness and way too much weight on the girl’s shoulders pushed her that one final inch or so toward despair and she began to sob. She turned over and looked at the empty pill container…not enough to depart, but enough to bring a night’s…an early morning’s rest as she cried herself to sleep.

Hawthorne Family Barbershop, Hawthorne, New Jersey…

”Hello, Mr. Polidouris. “

Yanni walked in and hung up his hoodie on the coat rack. He hadn’t been inside the shop since Alex had died, and he really didn’t want to be there at all, for so many reasons. The man stopped sweeping the hair clippings and pointed to an empty barber chair.

“Haven’t seen you….in a while, Yanni,” he said as he forced a smile. He gestured to Yanni’s hair with his comb as the boy looked at their reflection in the mirror that spanned the length of the shop.

“No…sir….not since…” He gasped when he realized what he had just said. The man looked at him and shook his head, instead of the anticipate anger, the boy only saw sadness in his best friend’s father.

“You…you want a trim? I don’t do well with trims….maybe you wait until Stephanos comes back from lunch.” He shook his head once more and turned his back on the boy, but Yanni could see his reflection in the mirror in front of the other work station. The man had frowned, and once again his face seemed sad.

“No, sir….My Dad….well….I’ve got to….just take the clippers and take it all off.” Yanni choked back a heavy sigh, which escaped anyway.

“Whaddya mean, boy? You want a haircut or not.” He snapped at Yanni, but the tone wasn’t so much angry as it was frustrated, and it didn’t seem to be about any haircut.

“Listen….I’ll try to trim it for you,” he insisted. Yanni shook his head no, but the man had already draped a smock over the boy’s shoulders and had pulled out a pair of small snips. He began cutting the ends, carefully and precisely, just like Yanni had remembered from when he and Alex would get their haircuts together.

“You gotta listen to your Baba, Yanni….he knows what’s best for you.” The man said quietly in his right ear as he paid careful attention to the fall of hair on the back of the boy’s neck.

“That…that’s why I’m here, Mr. Polidouris. I gotta make sure I get it all taken off.” The boy looked up into the man’s eyes via the reflection and he saw that his sadness seemed to have deepened.

“Babas….they know what’s best for their children, Yanni…you know. We have to make sure that you boys grow up right….not ….not….” The man choked up and looked back at the boy’s reflection.

“Mr. Polidouris…I can come back tomorrow if you want me to? Really…I’ll just tell my dad you were too busy. It’ll be okay.” Yanni lifted his head slightly and turned it to face the man.

“What’s wrong with you kids? Why can’t you just be what we think you should be. Why do you have to ….why did my Alex have to be different?” By now the man was crying. He sat down in the chair next to Yanni and looked at the boy through the reflection once again.

“Why did he have to be like that? Why couldn’t he just be what everybody….I miss my boy, Yanni….”

Yanni leaned closer and listened intently, nodding while fighting back his own tears.

“He went away….”

“I know, Mr. Polidouris….I’m sorry he died.”

“No…we ….there was nothing we could do….but he went away….and he left someone in his place that I didn’t understand…didn’t know. His sister Ari? She knew the person….the….” The man bit his lip and cursed something under his breath.

“I’m sorry…” Yanni struggled to understand…to feel for the old man, but his own heart wasn’t in placating or comforting the one person his best friend looked up to; the one person that Alexander …Alexandra felt she could never please, no matter how hard she tried.

“NO….You don’t understand.” He seemed almost drunk, but he hadn’t been drinking; his intoxication almost seemed to arise from regret.

“You see…I don’t know how these things are supposed to go? Ask me to cut hair? A shave? A trim? That I can do. When he was born I was so proud….a boy to follow me? And then when he got older? Art? Sculpting? Painting? Even then I said to myself he’s just a bit different. But when he came to me and his mama and said he was….she was? How do I make that work? What kind of world is it where my boy isn’t a boy? I don’t understand.”

Yanni looked at the man’s face directly and he half-smiled.

“I made it work by not talking to him….not ….caring. When he got sick….I figured it was God ….punishing him for being the way he was. And after he died….after we….” Yanni‘s mind flashed to the last time he saw Alex; a boy resting in a coffin. Ari had placed a favorite teddy bear in the coffin and her father had yanked it out angrily before the viewing. She snuck it back in just before the service started.

“You didn’t understand,” Yanni said, trying to be comforting, but his anger got in the way, and it sounded like a rebuke. But the man across from him smiled and nodded.

“No, Yanni. I didn’t want to understand. I stopped talking and caring about my child, and he died thinking I hated him. God didn’t make him sick to punish him. He made him sick to punish me, because I was a bad father. He took away my boy and left someone I didn’t want to know ... someone I should have loved, Yanni. He wasn’t trying to punish me then, but that’s what I thought. Now I know better ... but it's too late. For a stupid old man, too late.” Yanni went to say something but thought better of it.

“When my boy was born…he was different ….we’re all different,” the man said as if it was a mystery; the secret he was destined to discover.

“Alexandra…. You know…that’s the first time I ever said her name. I should have listened to her, Yanni, you know? You’re a lot like her.” His eyes widened at his own words.

“Are you like her, Yanni?” The man snapped, and Yanni shrunk back in the chair in fear.

“Oh….no….I’m sorry…no…no….are you like her?” His tone softened to almost a whisper and his eyes plead forgiveness. Yanni looked at him and nodded, cringing ever so slightly at the expected anger. Alexander Polidouris Sr. stood up and stepped closer to the chair and pointed.

“No clippers…no trim…no cut today. You look just fine to me.” The man wiped the tears from his face with his sleeve.

“And now…I think I need something to eat. And maybe I have a talk with your Baba, eh?” Yanni nodded and blew out a breath.

Olympus Diner, a while later...

Alex Polidouris walked into the diner and sat down at the counter. A few moments later three girls walked in and sat down at a booth by the front door. Helen stepped over and handed them menus before walking back behind the counter.

“Alex….so good to see you. How is Marie?” Helen placed a cup of coffee in front of Alex and smiled.

“She’s…she’s doing better. “ Alex paused until Nicko had walked over before continuing.

“I can’t say enough about how you and Yanni helped out. I’m so sorry for not getting back to you. Yanni has been such a help to Ari with her studies…you know? Helped her stay focused through it all. I think Marie is beginning to hear music, smell the flowers. You know? Opa?” Helen nodded.

“Nicko…my good friend…I have so much I wish to tell you!” Nicko looked worried as Alex stood up. Grabbing him by the wrist, Alex pulled him over to a booth at one end of the diner.

“Step into my office, okay?” He laughed and Nicko laughed with him without really knowing why.

“You and me, we’re a lot alike, yes? Beautiful wives and lovely children. Life is good.” His tone seemed lighthearted until he added,

“Except when it hurts here.” He touched his chest with his palm.

“Me, I think you are hurting inside, and you need to let it out. I remember what it was like for you when we were little. My Baba took me every day to the barber shop in the summer. He gave me a book to read and something to play with. And he taught me how to cut hair. Your Baba brought you here, first light of day, sometimes even before Mr. Kanakaredes’ rooster got up. I heard you crying.”

“Not me! That was my brother Basil, God rest his soul. He could cry like a baby. If I cried, and I did once or twice? Slap in the face. I learned quick! What times!” He laughed but he looked away.

“But you learned, right?” Nicko nodded at the suggestion, feeling proud, but Alex’ words made him anything but comfortable.

“And when you didn’t learn quick? Slap. You don’t have to remind me. I was there. And I was there when he beat your sister. She was already, what? Seventeen? Like that song? And how was that? Was that a good thing that he drove her away?”

“It’s not right, Alex! It is not right!” Nicko argued, his hands out palms up as if to plead a case.

“And where is she now, Nicko, tell me. Where is your sister? Does she visit? Do you even talk? I was there, Nicko. I saw what your father did to her…and to you!”

“I don’t want to talk about this! You have no right?”

“I have every right. I have a child in the grave who cries out to me that I have every right! Your father beat you when you stood up for Kelly. ‘Buba…Kalliste is a good girl…don’t hurt her!’ Isn’t that what you said before he broke your wrist? Twisted it? And then he took your belt off of your pants and beat her! Your sister!”

“Stop…I don’t want to talk about it!”

“Nicko? When do you talk to Kalliste….Kelly she calls herself? And she lives with another woman. That must make you angry. And it’s not right. So you treat her like your father treated her? You turn your back on her?”

“You have no right. We are no longer friends!”

“You turn your back on your child like I did, Nicko. Alexandra!”

“You have no right. My boy isn’t like that!” Nicko shook his head and his eyes filled with angry tears.

“Yanni isn’t a boy, Nicko, and you know it. You don’t have four sons. You have three sons and one daughter.”

“Ah, you don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re crazy.”

“I was crazy, but no more. My daughter cries out to me from her grave. I am ashamed of the way I treated my child!” Alex bit his upper lip and looked away.

“What does that have to do with me, old friend?” Nicko said sarcastically. Alex smiled and leaned closer.

“It means, my dear old friend, that I don’t want you to make the same mistake I did. It’s too late for me and for Marie with my child….why Marie sits at home all day and cries after all this time.”

“Ah!’ Nicko gestured a wave of dismissal, but Alex shook his head and smiled again; warm and welcoming despite the anger sitting across the booth from him.

“It’s too late for us, but it doesn’t have to be too late for you and Helen and Yanni. No…sorry, excuse me, Melina!”

“You stop that. That was my mother’s name!” Nicko glared at Alex.

“Yes, I know. That is why your daughter chose the name. Melina? Meli…sweet like honey. I remember your mother. The sweetest person I ever met.”

“You leave my mother out of this!” Nicko raised his voice.

“I didn’t bring her into this, Nicko. Your daughter did…to pay respect. More respect than your father ever did.”

“I loved my father!”

“I loved my father too, but I never respected him. And did I grow up just like him? No. I took my lead from my best friend's father. It took my daughter to die to change me. Don’t wait until someone dies or moves away for ever before you change, Nicko.” Alex looked over at the counter and Helen stood there, weeping. Nicko’s eyes followed Alex’ gaze over to the counter where he saw his wife. She stood still, but the look on her face begged her husband’s change.

“You have a daughter, Nicko. I think you should take the time to get to know her. She works harder than your sons ever did combined. And she loves you. After all that you’ve shown her? After the teasing and the hitting and the insults? She loves you, Nicko. Your sister still loves you, but you won’t have her. Make room in your heart before it’s too late. I can never hold my Alexandra…ever again. Hold her while you have a chance, my friend.” Alex stood up and patted his friend on the shoulder before walking toward the door.

“Come, girls. You come to my house with Ari here, okay?” He smiled and helped his daughter Ariadne to her feet. Ari in turn stood and waited while Stephanie Elias made her way out of the booth. And finally, needing a lot of assistance was a very sweet Emo Girl with a face streaked with makeup from crying; Melina Macros stepped gingerly out of the booth and to the door. She waved to Helen who just sighed as her daughter walked out of the restaurant with her friends. And Nicko sat at his booth still shaking his head.

Bergen County Record: March 18, 2016
Stephen and Nerine Elias would like to announce the engagement of their daughter Stephanie Elias to Melina Constanopoulous, daughter of Helen Constanopoulous. The wedding will take place Saturday, August 20, 2016 We are all so happy for them.

Susan’s Chance

Bonasera Hair Salon, Fairfield, New Jersey...

Chances Are by Sheryl Crow played on the radio while a woman stood behind the girl in the salon chair and stared at their reflection in the mirror over her work station.

“This might be better suited to your coloring, hon," she said as she combed out the girl’s hair.

“I guess I’ll have to take your word for it.” Susan laughed and reached out with her right hand.

“What do you think, Arnie?” She patted the dog sitting next to the chair. He shook his head up and down as if to approve.

“Well, Sophie, I guess it’s the auburn.”

“Wise choice; that green blouse of yours goes well with the color.”

“Is that what it is? And here I thought it was my milky complexion.” Susan laughed once again as the woman behind the chair put the comb down.

“I’m going to have Jackie do your shampoo and then we’ll tackle the all important choice of style. We’re sending out for Thai…you want some?”

“No thanks, Soph….maybe something cold to drink?”

“Sure thing…oh, here’s Jackie right now.” Sophie nodded as her son came out of the back room and up to the chair.

“Well, Miss McDermott? What say we take a stroll over to the sink.” The young man gently took the girl’s hand and they walked to the rear of the styling area and a few minutes later had returned to the chair.

“I see Arnie has a new harness. I like the plaid; almost like a tartan. Suits the whole Scot’s thing you’ve got going on.

“Aye, that it does,” Susan said with a fair impression of a burr.

“Actually, it was my sister’s idea; we sort of swap clothes these days and she just bought this at Piper’s Cove over in Kearny last week,” she said using her left hand to indicate the kilt she was wearing.

“Well, Miss MacDougal, it suits you, believe me.”

“Why thank you, Jackie. Please…We’ve known each other long enough that you should call me by my first name.”

“Okay, Miss…Susan.” Jackie blushed.

“You back to school soon?” She asked, tilting her head.

“Actually, the semester for CT and Pet Scans started last week. One more rotation and I’m certified. I’ve got a job lined up already at St. Barnabas for December. It helps that my Aunt Jo works in the department.

“I’m awfully glad that you managed that. I bet that will make you a bit more independent.

“Well, yes, of course, but I really don’t mind living at home. Mom is super and I’ve been able to put some money away since my last tour.

“Well, I’m glad for that, and I’m so relieved. I was so worried when you left that last time. Your mother was a nervous wreck the whole time you were gone.” She wanted to add ‘and so was
I,’ but it would have been awkward to the max. She had never let on that she had feelings for
the young man.

“Happy to oblige by returning in one piece.” He laughed softly but added,

“Well, mostly one piece.” He rapped his knuckles on his prosthetic left arm.

“May I?” She reached out and touched his left arm.


“Actually I don’t know what it’s made of on the surface. Titanium and stuff underneath. I’m just glad I was able to adapt so fast.” The feelings inside were coming along slowly, but Jackie was making progress in therapy. He had found a great therapist at Lyons who was able to help him individually, and his temperment seemed well suited to group therapy.

“I know your mother is so proud of you, Jackie, and so am I.” She immediately regretted the last few words.

“Oh…thanks Miss…thank you, Susan.”

“Are you two done talking? I’ve got an appointment at four, but I can bump that back a half-hour.” Sophie laughed as she returned to her work station. She put a bottle of diet Peach Snapple in Susan’s hand.

“Oh…yes,” the two said almost in unison. Susan felt her cheeks grow warm and a chill rose up her back. Jackie looked in the mirror and noticed that they were both blushing. He turned and breathed out a heavy sigh before adding.

“I’ve got to get back home for a bit to study for a test tomorrow, okay?” He kissed his mother on the cheek and nearly did the same to Susan, but caught himself in time enough to pretend he had intended to pet Arnie instead.

“Nice seeing you Miss MacDougal.” He said as he headed toward the door.

“Nice seeing you, too, Jackie.” She said in return before laughing softly. Jackie paused at the door and sighed again. He had known Susan MacDougal since before his senior year in high school. She was a freshman in college at the time, and he marveled at the determination the girl had shown. That marvel had turned into admiration and respect and then a love of sorts as she and he exchanged correspondence during his first tour.

“Bye, Mom. I’ll put dinner on about six, okay?” Sophie waved and nodded as her son walked out the door.

“He’s a great kid.” Sophie said, and Susan nodded her head, all the while thinking that he was more than just a kid. If only she had the strength to tell him the truth about her. Some things are difficult to take when they’re out of the ordinary.

“So auburn it is unless you want me to experiment.” Sophie laughed and Susan echoed her while adding,

“No fair, at least describe it to me before you do anything drastic.”

A little while later…

“You look gorgeous, Susan. And I’m not just saying that.”

“Of course you are, but you're excused. Under most circumstances I might be skeptical, but I’ve know you long enough to trust your eye on these things.” She paused and her smile dimmed a bit.

“You okay?”

“I have to share my secret with someone, and I’m scared, Soph.”

“Which one, honey? I see the way your expression changes when you hear Jackie’s name. I suppose the only one who doesn’t know is Jackie.”

“That obvious, huh? And here I’ve been going along all this time thinking nobody knew.”

“Everybody knows except the one who needs to know the most. But I guess that’s not the big one, huh? Listen, sweetie…I’ve known you since you were little. When your mother used to bring you into my shop when it was on Main Street…before Jackie ever helped out here.” Sophie looked out the window as if she was expecting her son to walk back in on their conversation.

“I know. And I know you care enough not to see me or him hurt. But I can’t help think that he will be hurt if I tell him.” She sighed and put her hand down and out off the armrest. Arnie licked it and playfully pushed her hand with his muzzle.

“You owe it to both of you to at least try. I know him better than you do, honey. He’s not just a good kid; he’s a great man, and I’m so proud that he’s overcome so much to be where he is. I think he’s got room in his heart for another.”

“Even if that other person isn’t really the kind of woman he’s looking for….isn’t even a woman at all?”

“Now you stop that! You’re every bit a woman as I am, even if you did take a different exit on the Parkway to get there.” Sophie began to brush the girl’s hair.

“And Jackie will figure that out, if he doesn’t know already.”

“You mean he sees this?” Susan pointed to herself and gasped.

“No, hon. That he knows that no matter where you start out in life, it’s where you finish that counts. You may have been Danny MacDougal when you were born, but you’re Susan now, and I think he’ll only understand, but that it will be more than just okay.”

“What makes you say that?” Susan breathed out heavily.

“Because of the way he looks at you. You should see the smile on his face the times he’s been here when you have.” Sophie frowned, absentmindedly hoping that the girl wouldn’t notice her expression.

“He smiles?”

“Oh, yes. All the time….” Sophie paused and looked in the mirror in front of her. The girl wasn’t gorgeous, but there was a quiet beauty about her that came out when she spoke; the face beaming at the mention of cherished things and people. A truly remarkable young lady, even if she had taken a circuitous route to get there. A route fraught with challenges that most young women might never face, and she faced them with strength and courage.

“Now…let’s just see. The picture on the left…that looks about right…a nice medium style cut that takes advantage of your face; especially your cheek bones.

“Well…you’re the expert and I do trust you.”
A short while later she stood at the counter to pay.

“Never mind this time, honey. My treat. After all, I wanted you looking your best when you tell my son you’re in love with him.” Sophie touched her arm gently.

“Tell him the truth first; I bet you’ll be surprised how much he cares.

“I guess you’re right.” She paused and shook her head slightly.

“I guess I don’t have as much confidence as you.”

“I have enough hope for the both of us.”

“I suppose I’ll have to trust you on it. But I’m so scared.”

“Don’t be, Susan. He loves you. He just needs to be reminded how much.”

“He smiles when he sees me?”

“All the time.”

“Hmm! Okay.” She leaned closer and the two hugged before she headed toward the door. Arnie paused while she opened the door. He stepped out onto the sidewalk and then proceeded to lead her down the street toward her apartment.

Bonasera Hair Salon, Fairfield, New Jersey....

Celine Dion's Taking Chances was playing softly on the radio. Susan found herself singing along when the door opened. Jackie walked into the salon and up to the counter.

“Hey, Mom, I have some time. Want to catch some lunch?” Sophie smiled and glanced over his shoulder before answering,

“Oh, sorry, Jackie, Mrs. Rudolph is coming in for a cut in a few minutes.” She looked down at the appointment book and smiled before saying,

“Just a second, hon. Susan? Tran doesn’t have an opening until four; can I put you down for that?”

“No, thanks. I’ve got an appointment with a client back at my office at three, and I think it’s going to run long.” Susan sat behind Jackie in the waiting area. He noticed that Arnie was lying quietly at her feet.

“Say…I’ve got an idea.” Sophie grinned. Susan of course didn’t see the expression on her face, and she stopped smiling just as Jackie turned his head back to face her.

“Since you’ve got some time and Susan doesn’t have an appointment, why don’t you two go to lunch instead?”

“Oh, no…I wouldn’t want to impose,” Susan said softly. She hoped her cheeks weren’t as red as they felt.

“Nonsense. Jackie, you don’t mind, do you?” A question that would put anyone on the spot, but he felt even more pressured and embarrassed, but something also dwelt inside of him at that moment and he replied,

“Oh….not at all. It would be a pleasure.” Now it was time for Jackie to hope his cheeks hadn’t reddened at his own words.

“Great. I’m sure you’ll both have a nice time.” Sophie was hoping for more than nice for both their sakes.

“Excuse me, Miss MacDougal….Susan, do you mind if I take your arm? I don’t want to…I know it’s important to….I…” He stumbled on the words. She reached up and patted him on his outstretched hand.

“I’m sure Arnie won’t mind some help. You can be on my left and I’ll hold onto him with my right hand, okay.” The dog rose and moved close to her right side where she grabbed the handle of his harness. She reached out again and grabbed Jackie’s right hand.

“You kids have a nice time,” Sophie winced; she sounded like a grandmother.

“Oh, well,” she said and she leaned sideways and turned up the volume on the radio.

Hunan Cottage, Fairfield....a short while later...

“I thought you might like something quiet, if that’s okay?” Jackie said they made their way to their table. A few minutes later they sat across from each other. The waitress had already brought water and they had ordered. The table was small and round and a bit more intimate than either of them wanted, but the restaurant was more crowded for a Monday than they had expected.

“This is very kind of you. Thanks.” Susan put her head down; her expression was mostly hidden by her glasses, but she still felt embarrassed.

“Actually it’s my pleasure. Really,” he said trying to convince them both.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you out for a while, and this….well…” He sighed in frustration as he searched for the words to convey how he felt. And still not knowing exactly how he felt made that task all the more difficult.

“You…you wanted to ask me out?” Susan was surprised. She raised her head slightly, trying to approximate ‘eye contact.’

“Ye…yes.” Jackie was growing more tongue tied until the waitress relieved his anxiety by arriving at that moment with their food. He sighed in relief. He looked at the woman in front of him and shook his head; somewhat out of marvel, but with deeper emotions coming to the surface as he watched her bow her head. She mouthed a silent prayer before saying a soft, ‘amen.’

“May I ask you something? I don’t mean to be patronizing, but I also want to know if you don’t mind?”

“How long have I been blind? It’s not a bad question, Jackie. I wasn’t born blind. I have a degenerative condition that started when I was about nine. It’s gotten progressively worse to the point where I only see small points of light.” She reached down and patted the dog.

“Arnie does my looking for me now.” She laughed softly.

“Do…do you remember colors and things…what your sister looked like? Oh, I’m so sorry. This must be difficult for you.” He sighed in frustration. She reached over and patted his left hand, and then became embarrassed herself when she realized it was his prosthetic.

“I guess we both have gotten used to a lot of things we never thought we would go through. I am so sorry.” Jackie knew that she couldn’t see his face, but he still felt like covering it anyway.

“Okay…since you asked me, I’ll ask a favor in return, okay?” He nodded, forgetting for a moment, but she continued anyway.

“May I touch your face? Would that be alright?”

“Oh….your way of ‘seeing me?’ Oh gosh, Susan, I’m sorry. I don’t want to be patronizing and it seems that’s all I’ve done since we sat down.” He bit his lip in frustration; mostly to keep from getting further into a trouble that didn’t exist.

“It’s alright, Jackie," she said.

"I know you want to respect me. And yes, it’s my way of seeing you, if you don’t mind.” Jackie didn’t mind at all and wanted her to stop all in the same moment as her hand reached up tentatively and touched his cheek.

“Very strong jaw line; I bet the girls just love you,” she teased. She raised her left hand and touched his other cheek.

“Really, though; your face has a lot of character. Where did the scar under your lower lip come from?” She said, expecting it to be something hugely serious.

“I fell off my skateboard when I was seven. Took a header into my neighbor’s front porch.” He laughed, and it sent a shudder through her hands. She pulled away for a moment but resumed by caressing his ears softly.

“Not so bad, was it?” She said as she pulled her hands down in front of her. He nodded, forgetting again.

“I’ll take that as a yes?” She laughed softly again, but underneath she was growing nervous; regretting ever having come.

“Yes….” He said, turning away for strength, once again forgetting that she wasn’t ‘watching.’ He spoke.

“Susan? May I ask another favor?”

“Only if you let me have a bit of my soup first?” Now it was his turn to shudder. He realized that they had been talking for minutes and had yet to eat.

“Oh…jeez, I’m sorry. Go right ahead.” She picked up the spoon beside the bowl and began to eat. He sat and rested his elbow on the table to cradle his head.

“You’re staring!” She laughed, which made him feel uncomfortable until he realized he was making no sound.

“Oh…yes, sorry.”

“May I take these?” the waitress asked and Jackie realized he had yet to eat a thing. He nodded anyway and she took the bowl from the table along with Susan’s.

“I’ll be back in a bit with your entree’.” Susan nodded and Jackie watched the waitress walk away before speaking once again.

“I’d like to try something, if you don’t mind.”

“Sure, what is it?” She tilted her head slightly.

“This is embarrassing. Would you mind….I’d like to touch your face.” He knew he was blushing even without the benefit of a mirror.

“Oh….okay.” She agreed quickly but paused and asked,

“Why?” Not an accusation or demand, but merely out of curiosity.

“I’m not trying to be difficult and I’m sorry, but I’d really like to see how it is to ‘see’ the way you do, if that’s alright.”

“Oh….okay….that’s actually very kind of you,” she said and then she paused. As she went to continue, she felt his hand touch her face softly.

“I’m at a disadvantage…sorry.” He didn’t have to point to his prosthetic for her to understand.

“I’ll have to compensate, but I promise I’ll be respectful.” He didn’t realize how much he didn’t need to say that. A moment later his hand was etching her laugh lines, and his thumb paused carefully against the dimple on her left cheek. She pulled away slightly.

“Jackie….” She said softly, almost as a protest. She felt his finger press lightly against her lips, giving her pause. He hadn’t meant to silence her; his only desire at that point was indeed to experience how she saw people.

“You’re very pretty,” he said with a laugh that belied the nervousness in his heart. Of course he could see her anyway, but touching her gently and sensing her face through his fingertips was almost more than either of them could stand.

“I may be blind, Jackie, but I’m not a fool. I’m not pretty at all,” she protested. He put his finger on her lips once again, but this time his intent was clear; he wanted her to stop speaking for a moment.

“I suppose that depends upon who’s doing the looking. From where I sit you’re very pretty. A matter of taste I suppose.” He stopped speaking and pulled his hands away. She thought he was through, but he reached again and carefully removed her glasses.

“Oh, god…no…please, Jackie,” her protest was a plea that he didn’t ignore, but he continued.

“It’s okay….trust me.” She had never given herself over to trust anyone but she sighed deeply and nodded; her reluctance fading as his hand once again touched her cheek, but with a feeling of a caress.

“Jackie…please….” She put her hand up and covered her eyes.

“Don’t…I’m so ugly.” She gasped as his hand gently pulled her hand away from her face.

“No….You’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever met. Your eyes are beautiful.”

“Jackie…my eyes are cloudy and sightless and ugly!” she snapped at him. He pulled his hand away as the waitress returned with their meal. Susan quickly retrieved her glasses and put them back in place. The waitress nodded and spoke,

“Just wave if you need anything and I’ll be right over.” A moment later they were alone again in the crowded restaurant.

“You don’t know me well enough to say that, Jackie.” She said it in a loud whisper, but her expression was more of regret than of anger.

“I’ve loved you since I saw you and your sister for the first time in my mother’s salon.”

“You can’t love me, Jackie!” Susan was glad that her glasses were back in place because she knew she was on the verge of tears.

“I don’t have a choice, Susan. It’s just how I feel.”

“I think we need to stop this right now.” She said it in another whisper but looked around so to speak wondering if anyone else in the restaurant was listening or watching.

“Stop what? Stop talking to you, now that I finally have the courage to speak? Now that I’ve gotten brave enough to talk? I’ve been a coward, and I can’t stand it.” Of all the words to use. She reached out with her left hand and grabbed his right arm.

“How can you say that? You’re the bravest man I know. I’m the coward here, Jackie. I haven’t been honest with you, and you deserve more than that!”

“You a coward? You live with adversity everyday and you can say that? No, Susan…no. You’re brave. You’ve faced life head on and you shouldn’t put yourself down. I’m sorry, but I can’t let that go without saying it again. I love you. I don’t know how much plainer I can make it?”

“I’m a fake…Jackie…are you blind? Don’t you see? I’m a sham.” She put her head down and began to sob. A moment later she felt his hand cup her chin softly. He raised her head gently and spoke.

“I know you see me as a fool, and maybe I am, but I’m not so foolish as to not notice you and my Mom…the little asides…the hush at times when I walk into her shop? Susan. I know.”

“We…we talk a lot.” It was all she could say in response, fearing the worst but desperately hoping she was wrong.

“I’ve known for a while. Don’t ask me to explain, ‘cause I can’t. I just know.” He reached over again and caressed her cheek. She went to push his hand away and he grabbed hers and held it softly.

“You don’t know what I’ve been…who I’ve been. You just see a blind girl, and that’s all, Jackie. Who’s blind here?” She shook her head.

“I don’t care where you’ve been other than that it’s part of who you are. You need to know me…that it’s where you end up that counts. Not where you started from.” He said, echoing what his mother had said only days before.

“It doesn’t matter to you that I can’t have kids? That I can’t be the wife you deserve? The companion you need?” By now she struggled to speak, her voice choking at times.

“Of course it matters. Because it’s how things are! But it’s not the end all or even the beginning of what I want….like you said…what I need.”

“How can you say that? I’m nothing close to what you need!”

“Susan…let’s get one thing straight. You can’t tell me what I need. Only I get to say that. Not you, not my mother, God bless her. Me. And who I need is you! This is my chance, and I hope it is for you as well.” She shrugged her shoulders as if to say I’m not sure; she was entirely sure of him but was totally unsure about herself.

Jackie may have been brave before but right then and there he did the bravest thing he ever did and leaned over the table and kissed her; nothing as spectacular as he had ever expected, but a monumental moment for both of them. Two brave souls taking a risk like never before. She found herself unable to resist, and kissed him back. After a few moments they felt awkward and oddly not alone.

“Will you be ordering desert?” The waitress tried not to but laughed softly anyway as the rest of the diners applauded.

“Coffee?” Jackie asked with a smile. Susan put her hand on his face and felt his grin.

“Coffee sounds just fine," she sighed. "Just fine."

Allie’s Chance

The Russell home, Flemington, New Jersey...

“Damn it, Alan…I just don’t understand. It’s not like you went through combat. You’ve got to man up and put all this nonsense behind you.” Blake Russell looked at his son and shook his head. The boy had hardly been home three months and was already proving to be a major disappointment to his father.

“It’s not like that, Dad. You just don’t know what it was like.”

“Two tours in Nam when I was younger than you are now, and another in Desert Storm? Oh, I sure as hell know what it was like! Come on, Alan, you lost four kids in your graduating class and Richie Fanning is still in rehab. At least you’re still alive.”

“Listen to your father, Alan. You can always talk to us if you need to.” Bernice Russell patted her son on the arm.

“I want you to go over to Taliaferro’s today and talk with Jim; he’s holding a job for you, but he’s not going to wait forever.” That Blake completely ignored his son’s training and calling mattered little. He didn’t respect his son, even if he did love him, and a job was a job.

“And you should think twice about complaining, Alan. Jimmy junior is one of those kids I just mentioned, not that it means much to you. Just shake it off and get going, okay?” His father laughed at the end and patted him on the back, trying to sound lighthearted. Unfortunately nothing about what he said would ever seem lighthearted to the boy.

The last conversation came to mind; the last words. Nothing special on a nothing special day in a very special place. Jimmy was just helping out a friend.

“We’ll get together after the shift; I can’t wait to get home, Babe.”
There was something behind his words that gave Alan the confidence to trust his judgment. So he nodded his head and smiled. It was the last time he would seem Jimmy Taliaferro in this plane of existence. Another time and another place perhaps in the near future, Al would have been left as a surviving spouse, but not now. In his heart of hearts he would always love Jimmy, but life robbed him of his true self and his true love.

Later that week, Veterans's Health Care, Lyons, New Jersey campus...the office of Vincent Paglarulo, PsyD, PhD, Maj, US Army Ret.

“Tell me some more, Alan,” Vince sat across from him and opened up his posture by spreading his arms slightly, palms up in welcome. He had been dealing with young men and women like Alan for quite a while, having been Desert Storm vet himself, and working with those hurt by the pain of war.

“He knew me before we both enlisted. I didn’t realize how much until we ended up at the hospital in Balad.”

Vince nodded but kept silent.

“Yeah…they tell me it’s the busiest military hospital. We sure kept busy.”

Alan shrugged his shoulders. To say they were busy was an understatement. He re-united with Jimmy Taliaferro while stationed there as a nurse; the call up as a reservist spared him the embarrassment of explaining his career choice to his family. And it spared nothing for him otherwise, as meeting Jimmy brought back good times and acceptance and one less person to worry about as he worked side by side with folks who would have been shocked by who he really was. And loss.

“Don’t ask? I don’t have to, Al…you forget I dated your sister Miriam…she didn’t exactly keep secrets.” Jimmy had revealed to him after one long shift. There was an odd grinning persona that Jimmy seemed to have adopted whenever the two worked together.

“Please don’t tell anyone.” Alan had begged him unnecessarily. Jimmy just smiled and shook his head every time.

“Never.” The friendship had just been an acquaintance of sorts since they were joined in a manner of speaking by Alan’s sister. And they became even more joined as the two of them shared a common grief when Miriam died after her long bout with uterine cancer. The two fell together as friends, but when they reunited in Balad, it became a curious relationship as Jimmy revealed his secret even as he shared Alan’s.

“You don’t know, do you? I guess I’ve been too good at hiding it.” Jimmy said one evening after they worked with a particularly good surgeon in saving a soldier’s leg. They had signed off after about fourteen hours on duty and both of them were vulnerable and exhausted.

“I think I’m….well, I’m not sure what I am, because I really love women.” Jimmy laughed softly and smiled the knowing grin once again. Unlike most times, the familiar expression put Alan ill at ease. He closed his eyes and looked away, but all he could see in his mind’s eye was himself…or rather the self no one besides he and Miriam and Jimmy knew. A hand touched his arm, startling him.

“You look just like her….you’re so much alike,” he said, using the present tense as if Miriam was still alive. In a way she was, since Alan shared more than just familial love.

“Stop, Jimmy…someone will hear.” Alan turned away, looking for escape.

“Nobody in the hall except for you and me. I won’t say anything, but I promise you we will talk about this. It’s too important to ignore, and we won’t be over here forever, okay?” His words would have seemed cryptic to any casual observer, but Alan knew exactly what Jimmy meant.

“You can do this,” Jimmy had said. The internet does more than just keep soldiers and marines and airmen and women connected with families. The more encouragement Alan received, the more he understood that it not only was possible, but it was imperative that he seek help once he left the Army. And the encouragement had grown into more than just help and support. Jimmy had told the truth, of course, since he was only attracted to women. And Alan remembered; a life set apart and forgotten was reanimated by the care of a friend thousands of miles away from home.

“You started to tell me about your last conversation when we met last week, but you stopped short. Are you okay with it now?” Vince tilted his head and held his hands out again. Alan bit his lip and began to speak, almost in a mumble. After a moment he got a bit louder and clearer.

“What do you mean; you’ve got to do this?”

"Cappy heard from her husband; their ten year old got hit by a car...she's out of here first thing tomorrow."

"Oh, come on, Jimmy. Why you? Can't someone else do it?"
Alan complained. After months of anticipation, both were due to be rotated stateside. Jimmy had agreed to the extra shift. Alan had gotten attached to being attached, and the two had spent more than their fair share of ‘hiding,’ though a couple of the nurses had noticed but had kept quiet.

It was meant to be just a simple act of kindness for a friend. But roads always can be dangerous; even in secure areas with guards and protection. A sergeant who had too much inner pain chose to drive after too much wine, despite the protest of his buddies, and Jimmy was killed instantly while crossing the street on the way back to the barracks.

“It hurts to know that you never got your chance, doesn’t it?” Vince interrupted.
Alan had mentioned the word chance so many times in so many ways in other sessions and even a few times in group therapy. Vince rephrased it and re-worded it many times as well, but when ‘push came to shove,’ Alan would back down.

“I’m no worse than anyone else.”

Another mantra. Vince felt it was time to do a little shoving.

“And that makes it okay? Alan…you’ve said I don’t know how many times that it hurts that he’s gone, but at the same time you minimize…like it isn’t that big a deal. Your body language tells me otherwise. You’re really being unfair to yourself; especially now that you’re coming to grips with who Jimmy really was to you.”

“I don’t understand.” Alan frowned; an expression that belied his statement. He knew exactly what Vince had meant.

“You’re a widow.” Vince said it candidly; the first time that word was used to acknowledge Alan's loss.

Alan looked away. He was wearing slacks and a polo shirt, and his hair was near military length, but to Jimmy? Had Jimmy still been alive, it would have been highly likely that Allie would be sitting in front of Vince instead of Alan, even in a military hospital setting, and for completely different reasons. But Alan survived instead; perhaps more than one soul perished on that street in Iraq that night. Alan looked at Vince and tried to speak but the denial on his lips died as he wept.

At the Russell home once again...

“You get over to Taliaferro’s yet?” Blake Russell wasn’t an idiot; he had already talked to Jimmy Sr. and Alan knew his father too well.

“No…I haven’t and I’m not. Besides, I told you last week that I had an application in at the hospital.” Alan looked away, fearing the glare he’d receive.

“Oh, come on, Alan. You still stuck on that? I thought you had gotten over that phase.” His father was his typical dismissive self. He glared at his son and shook his head.

“I don’t understand. You tell me you could hardly deal with it over there, and still you insist on going back to it. What do you think you have to prove?”

Bernice frowned. She had been a nurse herself for nearly twenty-six years, and had stepped away from the stress of the ER to work as a nurse practitioner at a local medical practice. Alan looked into his mother’s eyes and saw an understanding that she never expressed openly; an almost camaraderie that never existed between him and his father. But then Alan had so much more in common with his mother than nursing; something that was going to express itself.

“I’ve got to do this…It’s not just for me, Mom, but for the ones who never came back.” With that he received a rare nod of approval from his father, followed by a lecture of disapproval.

“What would you know? You didn’t even see combat. Try sitting in mud up to your waist with shells whizzing by your head…. Try having your arm refuse to work because of the shrapnel you just took in your shoulder.” Blake scowled. It was the most his father had talked about his service in years, but he wasn’t finished.

“Try watching your best friend’s life just bleed away while you hold him….” A commonality that neither understood or realized; at least until that moment.

“I didn’t watch, Dad, but I held him in my arms when they brought his body in.” Alan said haltingly.

“I suppose that’s why you have to go to that shrink over in Lyons? That Post Traumatic crap!” Bernice gasped and reached over to touch Blake’s arm. He shied away.

“No!” She practically shouted as she stood up. Bernice stood across from her husband but she turned to face Alan.

“This stops right now! I’m sick of it. You think you’re the only one who saw someone die? What in God’s name do you think I’ve been doing for the past twenty-three years? A little kid gets torn in half by an SUV….a mother loses her baby to a kick in her stomach by her boyfriend? Do you even remember the accident on 78 that had me going all day long a few years ago? You were over in Nam for three years, and I’m sorry you had to see that, but goddamn it, Blake, you’re not the only one.”

“No, Mommy, please!” Alan looked at his mother, pleading. He hadn’t called her that since he was in fourth grade.

“No, Alan…he needs to know everything. And you need to know everything.” She was shaking, but continued, determined once and for all to help.

“You have no right!” Blake snapped at her. It was too much to bear. She grabbed her half-empty coffee mug and threw it against the sink, shattering it.

“I have no right? No, Blake. I have every right. If I didn’t love you, I’d have no right, but I do love you, damn it…And I’m sick of this!” She waved her arm at the two of them.

“Do you remember when you were little…I think you were in second grade…..” She looked out the back door, replaying the scene in her head.

“Bobby Fanning…Richie’s brother….set off a fire-cracker in the back yard.”

“No, Bernice…don’t,” Blake looked at her, his scowl turned to a sad frown. He looked out the back door as well. She looked at him, and while she didn’t ignore him, she went ahead and spoke anyway.

“You thought your father was angry at you and you cried all day because he pushed you down hard onto the ground.” Alan had already recalled the moment, and try as he might, he couldn’t avoid the tears that went along with the feeling of rejection.

“No, honey,” Bernice said, waving a broad gesture again toward the back yard.

“He wasn’t angry. I saw it all. The firecracker went off, and he pushed you down and at the same time, he turned his back on the sound, with Miriam in his arms. He wasn’t angry with you, honey. He was protecting you.” Bernice held back the tears, but Blake began to cry softly, almost a whimper.

“And all those times you heard him yelling at night? You though he was angry with me and you and your sister?”

“Bernice…please…no.” Blake looked at her and saw her resolve. He put his head down on his arms on the table, his face turned away from them both and began to sob.

“He was having nightmares. He still does.” She put her head on his back and began to stroke his hair. It was both painful and tender. She kissed him softly on his cheek and stood up once again, staring at Alan as he gasped.

“And your son?” She patted her husband on the back to get his attention. He turned his head to face them, his eyes red with tears; shame and fear still visited the Russell home.

“No, Mommy, please.” Another plea by a child’s voice, even if it was a sadly-hated tenor.

“No, honey…he needs to know. He’s your father, and he loves you.” She shook her head before grabbing his hand. She squeezed and smiled through her own tears.

“We knew that Jimmy had died the following day, because your father had heard from Jimmy Sr. Marie called me over while Daddy talked. She wanted to know what there was she could do for you. I didn’t understand right away. Looking back on your e-mails afterward I realized what I had been missing."

“’Bernice, are you okay?’ She was asking me if I was okay. I didn’t understand. She had just lost her son…her baby boy…and she was asking me, like I knew what was going on.”

“Mommy…please!” Alan pointed to his father. She shook her head no and continued, almost like when she would give Alan and his sister the horrible tasting cough medicine when they were little; for their own good.

“’Jimmy’s last message last night, Bernice! He was so excited about coming home, and how things would be for him and Allie.’” She choked up a bit at the end.

“Mommy….please?” By now Alan was crying. His father lifted his head a bit at looked at Bernice once again in question.

“’Allie?’ I said, like an idiot. I remember Miriam used to call you that all the time. You used to get so upset when she did and I thought it was because you were embarrassed. You just were afraid.” Bernice bit her lip, mostly from sadness, but guilt was playing a major if thankfully diminishing role in their talk that night.

“’My boy had it all planned out. He loved her, Bernice,’ she said to me! I thought he meant Miriam. We all knew how much he loved your sister!” She took a deep breath and stifled a sob. There was a need that she would express when she finished, but at that moment there was still too much ground to cover for her to give way to crying.

“I stared at her! ‘Of course he loved her,’ I said, but Marie smiled and put her hand on my arm.”

“Mommy!” Alan was nearly hysterical with fear and shame and grief. He mirrored his father’s pose and put his head down on the table on his arms and began to sob.

“No, baby…it’s time we all met!” She put her hand on his back and kneaded his shoulder.

“’You don’t know, do you, Bernice,’ Marie said to me. ‘Not Miriam…Allie…Jimmy…Oh, god, I thought you knew.’” Bernice shook her head, almost in chastisement for missing such an integral part of her child’s life.

“And I told her that I didn’t know, but even as I was telling her that I realized what she was saying. I should have seen it….’Mom…I’m so happy. I know what I’m supposed to do with my life,’ you said in your e-mails. ‘Mom…I feel so great.’ This is in the midst of a war and you’re telling me you’re happy?”

“I…I’m so sorry!’ Alan sobbed into his sleeve.

“No…I’m sorry. Miriam asked me once when you were about ten or so if Daddy and I didn't like girls. Of course I said no...of course we liked having a girl. I thought she meant her. We were so sure of what you were that we didn’t pay attention to who you were! So when Marie told me about Allie, it was like a light clicked in my head. But I couldn’t tell your father.” She said it almost like he wasn’t even in the room, even though he still sat there, sobbing.

“So I have the two of you. I love you both dearly, but I can’t keep this up. I feel like I’m in a circus and I’m spinning pie plates….something starts to slow down and it all looks like everything is going to come crashing down. You need to talk…you love each other, so there’s nothing either of you can say that should make a difference. This is your chance!” She sighed, hoping she was reaching then both.

“No…he won’t…it won’t work. I’m sorry.” Alan sobbed. He went to get up but felt a hand grab his arm; an unexpected gentle tug instead of a cruel demanding yank pulled him back down. He turned and saw his father look at him for the first time with a measure of acceptance. Blake shook his head, not in denial but in sorrow and regret. He pulled the young man closer to him and touched his face, still unable to speak.

“Dad?” A one word question that was vague at first hearing, but the nod by the older man gave everyone hope that things would change.

A few years later...

Hunterdon County Democrat — Wednesday, June 13, 2018:
Blake and Bernice Russell of Flemington, New Jersey are proud to announce that their daughter, Alison Miriam Russell-Cannizaro of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has been accepted into the Doctorate of Nursing Education Program at Drexel University. Ms. Russell-Cannizaro holds a Master’s Degree in Nursing Education and a Master’s Degree as a Nurse Practitioner. She is an adjunct professor at Drexel University. She and her Life-partner, Dr. Regina Russell-Cannizaro, PsyD, PhD, are employed by the Health and Wellness Center of Ardmore, Pennsylvania.

Helen’s Chance

The Battaglia home...Davenport, Iowa…

“You okay?” Rita called from the kitchen. The boy looked up and smiled from his book

“Yeah…just a bit…sad.”

“I know honey, I miss him so much. Today of all days. We’ll do something special when I get back, okay?” Another all-too-necessary trip that took Rita away from home once again, and left her fourteen year old son alone.

“I know this is hard, honey, but you’ve got to be strong. It won’t last forever. Jerry promised me that starting in October the trips won’t be as frequent when the office in New York is running on its own.” Rita sighed; she no more believed that to be true than her too-often disappointed child, as evidenced by the frowns on both their faces.

“You don’t have to tell me what you think I want to hear, Mom. I’m a big….” His voice trailed off.

“I know, honey. And I promise we’ll talk when I get back.” She made that promise all too frequently; fully meaning to fulfill it, but just as frequently pulled in the wrong and conflicting direction. As trapped as Tony felt, his anxiety was no match for Rita’s, since she felt the weight of his disappointment and hers guilt as well.

“Tell Daddy I love him, okay?” Tony half-smiled.

“Always, honey. I’ll bring you back something special, alright?” She surprised him as he lifted his head from his book once again to see her standing next to him.

“I got this for you. I didn’t quite find what I was looking for, but I think you’ll really like it. Just remember me and Daddy when you open it tomorrow, okay?”

Rita frowned as if she had planned to disappoint her son once again; it must be all those poor career choices she made when she set aside her career to raise him after Aldo died on that fateful day. It was her fault that she took the path of least resistance to gain a degree in a field which held little interest for her. It was her fault that the office in Springfield had somehow entered the wrong information and that they were left to the mercies of the system when no insurance could be found.

“Mom? Can we have a talk….when you get back?” The boy put his head down, looking at the package in his lap.

“I’ve got to talk with you, too, honey. We’ll talk….yes…maybe go to that restaurant everyone’s talking about, okay?” An odd smile crossed her face.

“I wish you had time now, Mom….” Tony said slowly even as Rita moved toward the door. She turned back and saw him staring down.

“I wish I had time, too. As soon as I get back, okay?” She quickly ran out the door after blowing him a kiss.

Later that week…

“Daddy says hello.” Rita said as she put her purse on the counter. Tony had just gotten home from school and had started to make dinner; Pollo Vino Blanco.

“Do you think he remembers me?” Tony called from the kitchen as he stood over the stove, pouring a cup of white wine into a pan. Another ritual that was growing sadder as the boy felt more and more distant from the father he never knew.

“Honey…I think he does….he’s been in our lives since that day, even if we don’t see him or even sense him, but I sometimes wonder….then I can remember his voice, and I feel better.” She paused and realized that her son probably didn’t remember Aldo’s voice, but Tony began to sing softly.

La luce che tu dai
Nel cuore restera
A ricordarci che
L'eterna stella sei.

Rita sat down and put her hand to her face and began to cry; Tony did remember, and so did she….

I pray we'll find your light,
And hold it in our hearts
When stars go out each night,
Remind us where you are...

She was reminded of where Aldo was every night when she turned to embrace a specter in an empty space next to her. The light that didn’t shine in this plane of existence, but illuminated her heart. She raised her head and spoke.

“Honey…I didn’t think you’d remember.” She half-smiled; the memory almost as painful as it was sweet.

“I didn’t remember all the words, but I remembered most of the tune; I got the lyrics off the internet. I figured it was something that might be good when you got back.”

“Was that what you wanted to talk about?” She asked with anticipation; she had so much to talk about herself, but Tony had seemed so disappointed when she left earlier in the week.

“No, mom….well, I did want to give that to you, but no….something else. But you go first, okay?”

“I had a talk with Jerry. I’m not traveling anymore; ever!” Tony’s eyes widened in surprise.

“I can’t do this any longer. It’s not fair to you and it’s really not fair to me either. I want to be here; this is such an important time of your life, and I’ve missed too much already.” She began to tear up and Tony recognized her all-too-familiar feelings. He walked over and held her.

“No, Mom…stop it. You did what you had to.” She sat down at the kitchen table.

“I…need to be here for me, honey… life is passing me by, and I’ve given up too much already. I’m so sorry.”

“Mom…please…” Tony stirred the pan once and pulled it off the burner, turning off the stove. He poured some coffee for her and sat down, grabbing her hand.

“Tony….You know I loved your father.” Her words almost seemed to plead for forgiveness for an unknown offense. Rita had been widowed ten years; a single mom since Tony was four years old.

“And Daddy loved you….but I know, Mom….it’s been so long. Is this what you wanted to talk about?”

“Ye….yes. She hesitated; Rita’s guilt rose swiftly to the surface over something important, normal, and necessary.

“Mom…I think….I think Daddy would understand….like he’s been guiding you all along anyway. If you found someone as nice as Daddy….it’ll be a good thing. Okay?”

“I don’t think anyone could ever replace your Dad, but I think I found someone…who reminds me of him so much….”

“That’s great, Mom….that’s wonderful. What’s his name?” He smiled and squeezed her hand but she pulled away slightly, almost ashamed.

“His…..I….Tony, please forgive me?” She turned away and began to sob.

“Whatever for, Mom? For falling in love? It’s okay. Please, what’s his name?”

“Sandy.” She almost whispered it, choking back tears.

“Sandy? Not that guy in IT….Mom….he’s a jerk. You can’t stand him.”

“N…no….honey….not that Sandy….Sandy…. Jerry’s PA.”

“I don’t know him….should I?”

“No, honey….you don’t know ….her.” She looked away once again.

“Mom?” Tony’s voice grew softer, but the welcome was unmistakeable.

“The really nice lady that works for Jerry? The one I met at the picnic in July? You…and her?” His tone might have been welcoming, but Rita felt nothing but shame and embarrassment.

“Y...yes.” She looked into her son’s eyes and saw nothing but love. He smiled, his own tears beginning to well in his eyes as he nodded. No other word for the moment as he pulled his mother into a hug and a kiss on the ear.

“It…it’s okay?” She whimpered, not meaning to be childish, but feeling lost like a little girl. Tony kissed her again and spoke.

“Whatever makes you happy, Mom…of course it’s okay!” He breathed out heavily, hoping that his words gave his mother comfort. She began to shake only a bit, still crying a little while before saying,

“I love her, Tony….I do…but I don’t want anything to come between us. I’ve neglected you for too long, and I can’t.”

“Mom….whatever makes you happy is going to help us…’ve been working and pulling a heavy weight for too long. I think Daddy would be fine. I know I am. Trick is, Mom….are you?”
He stared into her eyes, his own expression once again showing her nothing but acceptance. And she finally smiled through her tears.

“Okay? It’s okay?” Tony nodded and Rita pulled him close and kissed him. After a few minute of silence, save for the gentle sobbing of relief, Tony spoke.

“Mom….I’ve got something I need to tell you.” Now it was his turn to look away; the shame he felt was almost as overwhelming as Rita’s misplaced guilt. She grabbed his chin and gently turned it back to her.

“It’s okay. Nothing you could say could ever change things, honey. What is it?

“I…I’ve met someone as well.” His face began to redden and his eyes welled with tears once
again. At fourteen, what or who could it be that made her son so ashamed. She held his chin fast as he tried to turn away.

“That’s wonderful, honey. Who did you meet?”

“Her….her name is Helen…...” He nearly sobbed and Rita shook her head.

“Helen? Do I know her, honey? One of your friends from school?”” He shook his head and once again tried to turn away. Rita took her hand away from his chin only long enough to touch his
cheek, her fingers feeling the tears that now flowed freely.

“Honey? What’s wrong? Her name is Helen and you met her. You think I’d be upset about that? I don’t even know her. Why would I be upset?”

“You….you do know her; you’ve met her…” Rita’s expression changed to puzzlement, since she didn’t know anyone of her son’s friends named Helen.

“Who is she….did I meet her and not get her name? Helen doesn’t sound familiar.”

“That…that’s because you know her by another name, Mom. “ Rita shook her head slightly and Tony buried his face in her chest, weeping hard and barely able to speak, but finally he said haltingly,

“I’m Helen, Mom...It’s me….I’m Helen.”

“Mom….I….are you mad at me?” The boy looked down and away. Rita shook her head no, but of course, he didn’t notice her expression.

“I’m so sorry, Mom. I wanted to be just like Daddy…I really tried, but I let you down. I hate myself.” His voice trembled and he began to sob. Such a loss to sustain without dealing with undue guilt as well, but the Battaglias were very good at guilt.

“No,’s my fault,” she complained, as if being the person he was meant to be….her…Helen? It was as if it was something for both of them to hold their heads down in shame. It’s okay to feel disappointment, but they couldn’t live up to the expectations of a life that was ill-defined and poorly remembered. Aldo Battaglia was a good man, but a human being nonetheless, with shortcomings and flaws just like his wife and just like his erstwhile son. But they were too close and yet too far away from his life to recall just who the man actually was.

“I guess I’ll never be anything like him. Nothing…. A failure.” Tony began to resemble the girl he actually was long before he noticed the changes in himself. And of course, his mother took no note at all. Someone who cares cannot be called a disinterested third party, but someone who is disinterested cannot read the important signs nor hear the subtlety of inflection. Perhaps noticing body language, but without the perspective of someone who actually cares. Tony and Rita didn’t have anyone who could help them remember the real Aldo Battaglia and what he truly meant to them; in the past and even more so, for his child’s future. That was about to change.

“Sandy’s coming over for dinner. Now I think it’s best if we didn’t bring up Helen so soon, okay?” Of course it wasn’t okay. Tony needed to talk to both his mother and her intended; not as the son she thought she had raised to fourteen, but as the daughter both of them were about to share, along with someone else that neither knew existed.

“Hi…hello….anybody home?” A very sweet voice called from the front doorway. Sandy Nichols walked into the living room and repeated,

“Hi? Anybody home?”

“Sandy? I’m sorry, Miss Nichols? Hi…let me take your coat, okay?” The boy smiled and gathered Sandy’s coat and went to turn to put it in the hall closet.

“Here, would you take mine? Thanks.” He turned around and saw a young man…maybe three years older than him standing there. He wore blue jeans and a blue sweat shirt with USAF across the front. His hair was short and he had piercing blue eyes.

“Hi…I’m Tony….Miss Nichols? Mom went out to Kroger’s to pick up some coffee and half-and-half and some ice cream. She should be back in a few.” Tony practically stammered. It was going to be difficult enough talking to someone who might become his future step mother, but now with this other boy….they wouldn’t be able to talk at all.

“I’m sorry, I meant to say something. This is my son Jimmy. He’s back here for the holidays.” Tony looked over at the boy, who reached out and offered his hand, which Tony shook.

“I live with my Dad in Colorado.” He smiled again, which Tony found very awkward. If that was the case, he was looking at his future step-brother. He stepped back and pointed to the couch and chairs in the living room.

“Why…why don’t you make yourself comfortable. I’m just finishing dinner.” He stammered and walked back into the kitchen. Several minutes passed before they heard a familiar voice.

“Oh, hi….I see you’ve all met.” Rita said from front doorway. “I’m so glad you could come.”

A short while later...

“Sandy tells me you’ve applied for the Air Force Academy? That’s such a coincidence. Tony here hoping to attend when he graduates; his father was in the Air Force.” Rita said, but her voice trailed off at the end.

“Aldo….Col. Battaglia….he was working at the Pentagon… know?” Sandy said to Jimmy, who nodded in understanding.

“You must be very proud of him,” Jimmy said, noting the picture on the mantel over the fireplace.

“Yes,” Rita said. “Tony wants to be a pilot, just like his dad.” She looked over at Tony, who frowned before putting his head down. To be a pilot in the United States Air Force seemed far away; almost like it was on a different planet and time. Rita cocked her head slightly, however, failing to pick up Tony’s obvious embarrassment.

“Wow….that’s a tall order,” Sandy said.

“Jim Sr. Jimmy’s Dad? He was a helo pilot in Desert Storm. Looks like our boys want to follow in their father’s footsteps,” Sandy said and Tony lifted his head and spoke.

“I…I’m sorry….I’m not feeling well….I’m…please excuse me.” He got up from the table and walked quickly down the hallway to his room.

“I’m sorry, Rita…Is everything okay?” Sandy shook her head and looked over at Jimmy.

“I hate to say I told you so, but I think you should have said something about Jimmy here. I think he was embarrassed and probably felt on the spot.” Rita nodded. She went to get up but Sandy put her hand on her arm.

“I think maybe I need to get to know him a bit better. Let me?” Rita shook her head no, but Sandy continued.

“If I’m going to be…if we’re going to be a family, you’ve got to let me try, okay…for my sake as well as his.” She got up and stepped closer, kissing Rita before walking down the hallway.
Sandy knocked on the bedroom door gently and spoke.

“Is it alright for me to come in?”

“Why not…you’re going to anyway.” The voice seemed almost bitter, but there was a sadness underneath that Sandy picked up immediately.

“I’m sorry, hon. We should have said something sooner. I didn’t know Jimmy was coming until the last minute, and I swear to God we were planning on telling you about him today. We weren’t even sure about us until last week, honey. I’m so sorry.”

“S….okay.” It really wasn’t, but it was going to get better.

“Tony? Can I talk with you? I’ve got a confession to make, and you’re the only one who can hear it, alright?” Very heavy responsibility for a fourteen year old, but Sandy’s tone was more than just polite. There seemed to be almost a sad but urgent tinge to her voice.

“I must apologize for your Mom….and for me. But we talk all the time. So when I first asked her…when I proposed…” She paused and sat on the bed next to the boy.

“Yes, sweetie, proposed. I love your mom and this is Iowa, after all.” Tony smiled and raised his eyebrows only a bit.

“When I proposed, we promised we would have no secrets. None. So she knows that Jimmy isn’t Jim Sr.’s biological son and that I had a boyfriend before his dad came along….the bio father, you know. And I know that your dad was killed on that day at the Pentagon.” Tony tilted his head. 9/11 wasn’t a secret at all. In fact, as much as Tony loved his father for as much as he knew him, there were times when he hated that connection; especially since he’d probably never live up to the expectations both his mom and dad had for him when he was born.

“Having two dads isn’t a bad thing, Miss Nichols,” Tony insisted.

“No it’s not…Tony? Please call me Sandy, okay?” It would be awkward enough after meeting her for only the second time to call her Momma or Mommy, and Sandy preferred to keep things lighthearted, especially with what she was about to share. He nodded and she paused, taking a deep breath.

“Jimmy will probably call your mom Rita. I’m sure we’ll sort all that stuff out, if that’s okay with you?” Tony’s eyes widened.

“Oh..I….I’m sorry…..I…..of course. I’m glad she found someone…..she really cares about you. You were looking at our pictures when she came in. She just….glowed.” Tony’s cheeks reddened. He knew his mom loved his dad, but he had never seen that expression on her face until this day.

“I know…I feel the same way about her. You never know how you’re going to feel about someone or something until you’re in the middle of it, you know?” Sandy said with a slight frown; she didn’t seem sad, but her tone sounded almost worried.

“Well….like I said…..your mom and I don’t….we can’t keep secrets, honey.” She stared at the boy and grew quiet. He looked in her eyes and she nodded ever so slightly.

“No! She didn’t tell you. She had no right. It’s not fair.” Shock turned to anger turned to sadness and then settled on unnecessary shame as Tony realized that his mother had broken a confidence on the only secret the boy had. He began to shake a bit and went to stand up. Sandy reached in and grabbed both of his hands.

“Honey…I had to know…for my sake and for yours. I know your mom didn’t want to tell me, but we all needed to know. Another part of how things get pushed together and speeded up in ways we hate but can’t control….Please don’t be angry with her.” Sandy looked up into his….her eyes, as her soon to be step-daughter emerged from hiding. The girl sat back down on the bed and fell into Sandy’s arms.

“It’s….I hate myself. I’ll never be what Daddy wanted me to be. I’m not a hero….I don’t even know what I am.” She sobbed into Sandy’s sweater. The woman pushed her back just a bit so they could see eye to eye.

“You can never be what anyone wants you to be, honey. You can only be who you are. I know that your father was a very brave and a very good man, and I’ll never replace him. But neither will you. He was just a man; a good man, yes, but just a man, sweetheart. Jimmy is not like his bio father at all, and is a pretty good young man, but not much like his dad. But I still love him. And your mom loves you. And from what I know of Aldo? Your dad would love Helen if he got the chance to meet her. If you two had the chance to know each other? Well? You and me and your mom and Jimmy? We all have a chance to be a family, and I think that’s a good thing, don’t you?” Helen looked at Sandy and saw the same accepting expression his mother showed her every day. She nodded.

“Now, since we are all going to be a family, and since dinner is a very nice but very reheatable Chicken Meniure, why don’t we sit here for a few minutes and maybe relax before we get you ready.” She pulled her close and kissed her on the cheek. The girl pulled away slightly.

“Ready?” She bit her lip slightly and wiped her face with her sleeve.

“I’m sure Helen has some clothes to wear, right? We need to get you ready so Jimmy can meet his new sister, right?” She beamed with an acceptance that only a mother, step or otherwise, can have for her child. Helen nodded before looking over at her closet. She turned back and the two put their heads together and giggled like school girls and exactly like they'd known each other all along.

Several years later...

Quad City Times Online —
Lt. James Nichols, Jr. and Helen Battaglia were united in Holy Matrimony at the United Church of Christ of Davenport, Iowa. James is the son of James Nichols, Sr. of Denver, Colorado. His mother is Cassandra Battaglia-Nichols, partner of the mother of the bride and step-mother of the groom, Margarita Battaglia-Nichols. Helen Battaglia is the daughter of the late Col. Aldo Battaglia, United States Air Force.
James graduated with honors from the United States Air Force Academy with a Bachelor of Science Degree and Master of Science Degree in Engineering. He is employed as a Pilot for the Air Force. Helen graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Science Degree and a Master of Science Degree in Psychology from Iowa State University. She graduated with honors from the Culinary Institute of America in Singapore and is Chef de Cuisine at Exotic Thai Restaurant in Davenport, Iowa. After a wedding trip in the Canadian Rockies, the couple will reside in Davenport.

Lauren’s Chance

Camden, New an alleyway after midnight...

“You seem like a sweet kid,” the guy said as he pulled up his trousers.

“Here’s another buck.” The guy laughed and dropped the dollar bill on the pavement next to the girl. She looked up to see him walk away, still laughing to himself. She quickly gathered up the dollar and placed in her bra along with the twenty in her hand. She stood up and brushed the dust and gravel off her knees, only to find a huge tear in her pantyhose. She cursed herself under her breath for not wearing the fishnets as she started to walk out of the alley. In a moment, another man blocked her way.

“Hey, baby,” the man said with a voice that sounded like molasses dripping on his shoes.

“Where you goin’ with my money?” He grabbed her wrist and pulled the gold lame’ clutch out of her hands. Pushing her back and away from the alley entrance, he pinned her against a wall with his body as he went through the bag.

“What the fuck, you little cocksucker, where the fuck is my money?” He asked in almost a sing-song voice; the tone was condescending instead of angry, as if humor would do just as well as rage.

She trembled and bit her lip, trying not to cry and seem even weaker than she was. Her eyes glanced quickly downward and she could only hope that quick look didn’t betray her, but between her glance and his street-savvy, he was already reaching under her bra. Pulling out a thick wad of bills, he looked at her with an almost fatherly face, but his voice grew cold and angry.

“Now you weren’t going to stiff me, were you, darlin’? Man, now I know why you look like you gained a fuckin' cup size, kid!” He laughed at the pun as he grabbed her crotch and squeezed tight.

“There’s that little fella you need to show off more, babe!” His grip grew tighter, causing her to moan; she didn’t want to respond, but there it was.

“I got an idea? I’ll take this,” he said with a harsh laugh, “and put it toward your fund, okay, kid?” The girl turned her head, ashamed of her reaction as he continued,

“Oh wait….Junior here doesn’t seem to want to go bye-bye just yet,” he said as he squeezed her again.

“I’ll let you keep this,” he said producing two twenties.

“No, please….” the girl cried as he put her money in his jacket pocket.

“Well, getting’ some spunk to go along with Junior here….sorry, but you gotta understand, kid. If I let you off, I gotta let them all off, and there goes my business.” He held the twenties at arm’s-length, almost daring her to reach for it, which she did. He rudely shoved her to the ground and began to open his fly.

“Let’s see just how good you are,” he said. The girl began to sob, but knelt just the same; just one more act in a series of acts that slowly killed her inside. After it was done, the man laughed and threw the money at her feet. He pulled another twenty out of his pocket and lifted her chin rudely with his hand.

“You can’t say I’m not a generous man, kid.” He thrust the twenty under her bra and walked away, leaving the girl to sit awkwardly on the pavement, sobbing from every bad emotion known; guilt, shame, anger, sadness, hopelessness, fear….and despair.

Camden, New Jersey....a few nights later...

The police cruiser was parked at the end of the alley, and two figures walked up and down, pointing their flashlights around. Someone had called in a complaint about screaming in the alley behind the restaurant.

“Hey, Brooksie? C’mere. Aw fuck....Looks like another dead trannie….kid by the looks of her.” The cop pointed to the body partially covered in snow. His partner came over and knelt down.

“Too bad. Fucking shame about these kids, you know? Family most likely kicked the kid out because of this, and look what they’ve gotten for it. Fuck, I hate this job.” Melanie Brooks was about to stand up when she noticed movement out of the corner of her eye. A moment later the girl’s groan caused her to spring to action. She leaned closer and found the girl breathing and with a pulse.

“Jimmy, get me the blanket out of the trunk and call the bus, okay?” The other cop was already running back to the cruiser. A moment later the girl was swathed in the blanket.
“It’s okay, honey….we’re gonna get you to the hospital. Bus is on the way…it won’t be long.”


“I know, kid….They’re almost here.” Jimmy said, squeezing the girl’s shoulder.

“He….here…..hurts…..” The girl made an effort to point to her stomach and her hand fell back onto the ground. Melanie pulled back the waterlogged sweater and lifted her dark red satin blouse; not necessarily a great fashion choice, but one that really hid blood well.

“Oh fuck, she’s been stabbed….god dammit!” Melanie shouted as she pulled gauze out of the first aid kit.

“Gotta keep pressure on this; phone them again and say she’s got a ….” The sound of a siren/horn blast and the colored lights dancing on the alley wall in front of her let Melanie know that help had arrived. A moment later the EMT’s were kneeling down, working their magic.

“Let me know how this one turns out, Cassie, okay?” The smaller of the two women at the back of the gurney nodded.

“You got it….tell Mommy I’m eating over at Kevin’s tonight, okay? I’ll keep an eye on this one.” Melanie nodded back at her sister as they got the girl into the ambulance. As the doors closed, she shouted,

“Oh shit…she’s coding.” Melanie stared at the ambulance as it pulled away, shaking her head.

“Fuck, Fuck….dammit….not another…please dear god, not another!” Jimmy came over and put his arm on her shoulder. She went to pull away, but he would have nothing of that.

“You can’t save ‘em all, Mel….you just can’t.” She flinched again as he patted her back.

“You don’t understand….fuck….I’d settle for just one, but this one? I don’t know why, but somehow I feel this is personal!” Melanie shrugged her shoulders and patted Jimmy’s arm in thanks before she walked back to the cruiser.

“Any more water left back there?” Melanie said as they pulled away. Jimmy looked in the back seat and then shook his head no.”

“Damn…..I’m so fucking thirsty….why am I so thirsty.” She said as her shoulders started to shake. She pulled the cruiser over a block away and rested her head on the steering wheel.

“Slide over,” he said as he got out of the car.

“It’s past our shift, and I’m takin’ you to the diner to get something in you and then you’re goin’ home!” He hopped in the driver’s seat and called dispatch before pulling out once again onto the busy street.

“I just wish the kid had a chance….just a chance is all, you know?” Melanie said as she fought back tears.

“Me, too, Mel, me too!" Jimmy said before turning his attention to the road ahead, fairly confident he had hid his tears from his partner.

Twelve thousand miles away from your smile

I’m twelve thousand miles away from me
Standing on the corner of Brunswick
Got the rain coming down and mascara on my cheek

Oh write me a beacon so I know the way
Guide my love through night and through day

In the ambulance on the way to Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center...

"She's back," Cassie said with a very heavy but relieved sigh. The girl lay on the gurney, almost motionless but her eye lids fluttered and her vitals were okay.

"Thank God for another miracle," her partner said as he wiped his forehead just before hitting it against a bulkhead as the ambulance swerved to avoid a dog that had strayed into the street. A moment later the girl moved her hand in a weak wave as Cassie leaned over her.

"It's okay, darlin'; we got're gonna be just fine!" The girl motioned for Cassie to come closer. As she tried to speak, Cassie put her ear next to the facemask. The words were nearly garbled, but she made out a few of them....

* * * * *

Many months before.....

Crow fly be my alibi
And return this fable to your wing
Take it far away to where gypsies play
Beneath metal stars by the bridge

Jason sat on edge of the steel guard rail of the bridge; the fall was enough to ensure that he wouldn’t survive, and he was convinced once again that it was the thing to do. Life wasn’t about living; it never had seemed to be to begin with, and nothing was further from real living than his own.

He had sat there times before, and this time was no different than any other. He looked down at the rocks below, barely covered by the nearly dried up stream. Easy enough to jump, but moving off the safety of the railing was the hard part; stuck every time feeling more cowardly and condemned at the same time each time he faced the decision. He hit his head in frustration as he climbed down off the railing and started walking back to his house, the words from his own heart condemning him.

“You’re a coward!” Almost ringing in his ears though soundless, they intensified as he approached the front porch

“Fucking coward. You’re useless!” The inner shouting drowned out all of the good things his mother had told him.

“You’re my precious gift, Jay….never forget that!” The last words his mother shared with him before she passed. Gems buried beneath refuse so putrid and disgusting that he couldn’t overcome the overwhelming stench of accusations and insults his own heart heaped upon him.

“Fucking faggot….” Something his Uncle said even as he raped the child; as if somehow he was exempt from all the hatred the boy would inevitably endure, but that’s denial for you. And Jason’s heart was so hurt and betrayed and bent inward that he actually cried over the loss of his favorite ‘uncle’ when the man finally did everyone a favor and died.

“You’re sick, Jay. We just need to find the right doctor for you,” his father had said. No harsh words or beatings; no condemnation, just a benign combination of ignorance and neglect. No attempt to understand, but a whirlwind of caring driven by misconceptions as his father dragged him from doctor to doctor to doctor, looking for a cure for his son’s ‘ailment.’

“Sir, you don’t seem to grasp what I’ve said. There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with your son. He has a condition he was born with that we can help with….there are specialists and counselors and support groups to see that he can be….”

“Don’t tell me that. I have a son. I don’t have a daughter….” Again the beneficence overcoming reality as the man refused to hear the truth.

“You’re worthless….he’ll never love you.” Words his heart reverberated daily as the truth seemed to be buried under that refuse….he could hardly even remember what his mother had told him. The child was tired; too many false hopes built upon a shaky foundation. His father cared, but too much and in the wrong way, even though he meant well. When his father displayed love, it was mostly unconditional, but he still demanded that his son be healthy, and to him, healthy meant putting away the only part of him that truly mattered.

“I don’t care what your friends say, Dr. Sullivan says you just need some help to focus and get back to where you’re supposed to be.” His father smiled but shook his head the only time he was brave enough to bring his best friend to visit. Lauren.

“Your name is Jason, son. Please stop this nonsense. Just take your meds, please?” Jason remembered how much his father’s words had hurt Lauren. Between being unable to end the pain and being forced to endure Lauren’s exile, the boy finally just couldn’t take it any longer. By the time they reached Philadelphia, Jason basically had retreated into whatever solace and solitude he could manage, and Lauren took over…

Our Lady Of Lourdes Medical Center Critical Care Unit, Camden, New Jersey....the present...

“You’re okay now, honey,” the nurse said with a very thick Nigerian accent.

“It was touch and go, like they say until yesterday morning. But you’ll be okay. And someone is here to see you, okay?” She smiled and stepped out a moment later two police officers entered.

“What…what the fuck do you want,” the girl said with a tone mixed equally with defiance and fear.

“Easy, honey! We just wanted to see how you’re doing. You gave us a really big scare,” Jimmy said as he took off his hat and laid it on the chair off to the side. Brooksie’s been up all night praying.” He pointed to Melanie, who shrugged her shoulders, as if it was nothing.

“I’m not going back!” The girl shook her head and turned away from them. Melanie walked around to the other side of the bed.

“No one said anything about going anywhere, kid. We’re just glad you’re alive.” She smiled but girl’s eyes filled with tears.

“Well, I’m not. You should have just left me there. I don’t deserve to live.” She stammered and began coughing. Her monitor started beeping and the nurse came in a moment later.

“What’s going on here?” She said it to no one, but quickly examined the girl.

“Looks like your IV just popped out. One moment, baby.” She turned to Jimmy and Melanie.

“I think she’s still a bit disoriented, and maybe needs a bit more time. Why don’t you try tomorrow?

Melanie nodded and they left.

“She still getting to you?” Jimmy said as they pulled out of the parking lot. Melanie put her head up against the side window but turned back and nodded.
“She’s just like Chelsea…..exactly like her….right down to the pout.” Melanie imitated the expression and sighed.

“Oh, shit, Mel….don’t go there. You can’t….” Jimmy turned his attention back to the road.

“I fucking swear to god I will not let this kid down.” Her body shook a bit and she bit her tongue.

“My God, Mel….you didn’t let her down….you did everything you could….she just didn’t want to live. There was nothing you could have done.”

“If you want to help her, fine, but you can’t control her. You have to let her go. And you have to let Chelsea go….it’s been time already for too long, hon.” Melanie shook her head.

“Last time I looked, you were flesh and blood, just the same as me!” He meant it as a joke, but she didn’t laugh.

“You don’t understand, Jimmy….you can’t understand. I held her….in my arms…her last breath against my ear as she tried to speak. You can’t know.”

“Listen….just because I can’t know doesn’t mean I don’t want to or that I don’t care.” He snapped at her, more out of frustration than anger, but she heard him, surprisingly, and put her head down.

“I know. She meant a lot to you….I’m sorry. I’m just so scared, Jim….like it’ll happen all over again.”

“Not if WE can help it, okay?”

The next day…

“Hey, sis,” Melanie said as they walked into the Critical Care Unit. Cassie Brooks stood at the nurse's station. She smiled and walked up and hugged Melanie.

“She’s doing much better physically but the newbie social worker got her a bit worked up when she asked about the girl’s parents.

“A runaway isn’t gonna volunteer anything, and if she’s not on some registry, they may end up putting her in foster care, which would really suck. I can’t see her staying put, especially if the foster family won’t help her stay in girl mode. Shit!”

“What the fuck do you want?” The girl snapped at them as they entered the room.

“Okay, sweetheart, listen and listen good. I’m not going to spend a whole lot of time holding your hand and nursing you through this while you're swearing at me. I can get you back just as good, but that would waste both our times. My partner and I want to see you do okay, and we’re going to push back just as hard as you do until you realize just how much we care. You hang in here and I’ll see what I can do, okay?” The girl pouted angrily and began to say something until Jimmy said calmly,

“What’s your name?” Not like an interrogation, but an honest-to-god-I care question that caught the girl unprepared. She stammered, “Lauren,” before putting her head down.

“Well, Lauren? We’re here because we care, and also because I think we can do something for you if you’ll promise to do something for us, okay.” The girl was fighting back tears as her bravado had completely disappeared.

“Wh…wha?” She sniffled. Jimmy grabbed the tissue off the table and handed her the packet. She blew her nose and shrugged, her head displaying a tremor.

“I think I’ve got a family that works with Protective Services that might have room in their home for you, but I need you to promise me you won’t try to hurt yourself. “ The girl almost began to argue, but the short sleeves on the hospital gown exposed old thick scars across her left wrist and long thin new scars that ran along the length of her forearm. She gazed at her arm before looking up to see Jimmy’s welcoming face.

“I know about cutting, honey,” he said softly. “We’re talking about the scar across your wrist. None of that…you’re much too important. “ She shook her head in disagreement before Melanie grabbed her hand and patted it.

“Trust me on this, kid. Jimmy Muldoon doesn’t care about anything more than the Eagles and one other thing, and that’s kids. You listen to him, okay. We care about you, and we’re gonna see this through with you. When I was your age, I had someone just as special as Jimmy say the same thing, and I’m here today because of her. Listen to us….okay?”

Thankfully, for once in the girl’s brief life, being exhausted and stretched beyond her means was actually a good thing, and she relented, pulling Melanie close as she laid her head on Melanie’s arm and wept

“It’s okay, kid…we got your back. Go ahead and let it out,” Jimmy said almost unnecessarily as the girl sobbed.

“You know, I’m glad we can help. This is sort of a second chance for me,” Melanie began to say, but she looked over at Jimmy, who was kind enough not to chide her. She continued,

“This a second chance for Jimmy and me in a way, and I hope it is a second chance for you, okay?”

“I can’t think of anyone who could take better care of you than the family you’ll be living with. The oldest sister is getting married in two weeks and is moving out tomorrow. You get to share a bedroom with her sister, okay?” Melanie smiled and the girl pouted, but out of worry instead of anger.

“But what about….me….what if they find out about me?” The girl looked down at her body.

“They know all about you, kid.” Jimmy smiled as if he was keeping a big secret about a surprise party or a fancy gift. Melanie stepped closer to the girl and smiled with a broad grin.

“The mother has experience taking care of foster kids; maybe the best rep in the whole system. She’s got two daughters, like I said. A son who is serving in the Coast Guard, and a foster son who graduated college last spring and now is going to Villanova for his masters. They all are aware of your circumstance, and know why you need special understanding. But see…that’s the thing….to them, it isn’t special.”

“Yeah, kid….to them it comes natural, you know?” Lauren’s eyes widened in surprise as Melanie patted her chest.”

“I don’t share this often; most people who ask don’t deserve an answer and those that don’t ask don’t need one. My name is Melanie Elaine Brookes. My sister Cassie you’ve met, right? My brother Dave is a helicopter pilot for the Coast Guard out of Cape Cod and my brother is a first year intern at UMDNJ in Newark.” The girl tilted her head a bit and half-grinned.

“I’m coming to live with you? But…”

“It’s okay, Lauren My mom knows you’re trans….nobody cares….it’s okay.” The girl started to smile and then got a puzzled look on her face once more.

“But you said if people don’t know your name, they don’t deserve an answer? I don’t understand!”

“If they don’t know the name she used to go by,” Jimmy said quietly. Lauren looked at him and back at Melanie once again.

“My name was Peter Joseph Brookes. Before I transitioned.” She said it as if she were describing the color of their kitchen or what car her mother drove. Lauren shook her head, wanting so hard not to fall for a false hope once again.
“Now…when you’re ready, and only if and when you’re ready, my Mom would like to know your old name….and where you came from.” The girl started to shake her head.

“Shhh..shhh.” Jimmy put his hand on her arm softly.

“Cassie told me that when they brought you back after you coded in the ambulance, you kept calling for your mom and your dad.” Even as Melanie spoke, the girl’s eyes filled with tears and she began to tremble, ever so slightly.

“My….Mom died three years ago…Dad….Dad? I was calling for my Dad?” Jimmy nodded.

“You’ve probably got some unfinished business with him, and by the look on your face, I don’t think all of it is bad, do you?” She was unable to speak, and just nodded.

“Okay, like I said, when you’re ready,” Melanie intentionally left off ‘if’ and continued, Mom…everyone who knows her calls her Mom….and you can get in touch with your Dad….maybe invite him here for visit, but you don’t have to go anywhere you don’t want to, okay?”

“Oh….oh…” She bit her lip and Melanie stepped closer, pulling her into a long embrace. She put her head on Melanie’s shoulders and wept as the woman stroked her hair.

“I know, honey. It’s okay….I know.” She looked over at Jimmy who smiled and mouthed without sound,

“That’s for Chelsea! And you!”

“And you,” Melanie said aloud.

“Okay, kid, let’s get you packed.

The Brookes home a few years later...

“You look just great, honey. I am so proud of you!” Alice Brookes stood back and raised her camera; the whole family was home for the graduation party. After the group shot, the young lady took off her cap and gown, revealing a nice mint green sleeveless shift with a white jacket. The tall man to her left was wearing a blue uniform; Camden City Police, as was the woman to the right of the girl.

“Thanks, Mom.” She turned to the left and right, quickly kissing Jimmy and Melanie.

“Now, let’s see that beautiful smile we love so much,” Alice said, and Lauren Margaret Pavlachek beamed from ear to ear, as did Jimmy and Melanie….Muldoon.

Only the sunset knows my blind desire for the fleeting
Only the moon understands the beauty of love
When held by a hand like the aura of nostalgia

Marta’s Chance

I look up and I look down
I take my shoes off to be closer to the ground
I can think of many ways
To screw up all these perfect days
But I am feeling bold and brave
I think I'll just feel good today
Somehow in this twisted world I'm really doing fine

AllSports Medicine, West Caldwell, New Jersey....

Jeremy walked up to the counter. At six-one, he was hardly anyone that would be overlooked, but he had grown accustomed to being ignored. He heard a slight rustle to his left and he turned to find a young lady of about twenty-three or so holding a clipboard tight to her chest. Her smile was only just a bit less sweet than her voice.

“Mr. Isaaksen? Hello, I’m Dagmara; I’ll be doing your massage today.” Kind enough, it meant little to Jeremy which of the therapists would be doing the massage since he had never had a massage in his life. She put out her hand and shook it vigorously, which might have looked odd since she was nearly a foot shorter than him. He didn’t weigh much more than her; at least that’s the way it seemed. He was as lanky as they come, and really didn’t look terribly imposing despite his height.

“Why don’t you tell me what you’d like to work on today?” She rattled off several options, styles, approaches and whatnot until he said,

“Whatever you think is best.” She instructed him to disrobe except for his underwear and lay on the table while she was out of the room, and that they would talk about an approach. As she left the room, she smiled and nodded an eerily knowing smile, as if the two were already acquainted. A moment later he was lying face down with his chin in the cushion.

“So, Mr. Isaaksen? I think maybe you have never had a massage….maybe you are embarrassed?” He nodded as much as he could, and his face turned a bright red.

“No need to be ashamed, Mr. Isaaksen, yes? Please feel free to tell me if this in anyway upsets you, okay? But I see something that maybe you forgot?”

Jeremy immediately panicked and put his hand to his torso to check his underwear; it wouldn’t be the first time he had forgotten, but at this point in his life, he almost welcomed exposure, so to speak. He felt course cotton with a wide band and breathed out a sigh….relieved wasn’t the word. He was almost disappointed.

“You forgot to tell the desk if your insurance will reimburse; this is for your injury, yes?” He nodded; forgetting about the car accident had been an easy thing since he wanted to forget it altogether.

“Is there something upsetting you?”

“I….” He struggled to speak. In Jeremy’s twenty-six years on Planet Earth, he had never been touched in any manner, shape, or form since his infancy with either affection or care. His mother had been a strict believer in withholding physical affection from him as her mother did before her; believing almost ironically that boys grow into men when treated thusly. That she realized too late and that she was deeply sorry made little difference; that Jeremy grew there had been never any doubt. Whom and what he grew to be was entirely in doubt.

“I will touch your shoulders firmly to help establish….contact, since you are not familiar, alright?” He nodded again, this time almost reluctantly. He welcomed the massage; it was the ‘whom’ that might receive the massage that remained not only the issue, but the issue of a lifetime.

“Do you have any questions? Your X-ray reveals a slight scoliosis and Gina notes that you will be working on building your lower back. Why don’t we concentrate on that for today? But whatever you say goes.” The girl seemed to be older than she sounded or appeared. As she laid hands on his back, Jeremy actually felt an odd sensation; likely something he could remember forever. He felt as if someone was taking care of him. After twelve years of taking care of his infirm grandmother before her passing that April, it had been all about her and everyone else.

“No one ever touched you like this, did they?” An innocent enough question, and certainly pertinent to his treatment. But it evoked a very odd response….predictable from his family’s perspective, since any show of emotion wasn’t considered manly. Jeremy buried his head in the cushion and began to weep. His shoulders began to shake and he gripped the armrests below with an almost vise-like grasp. Dagmara touched his shoulder softly and spoke in a near whisper.
“Let it out, Mr. Isaaksen, please. It’s okay.“ Instead of leaving him alone, the girl walked to the CD player on the table behind the bed and increased the volume. Dvorak grew louder and Jeremy’s sobs seemed to dissipate into the New World Symphony.

“I am sorry for you,” she said with an almost lilt; her accent did nothing to hid her intent to soothe and comfort. She wasn’t sorry for him. She was sorry with him.

“So much time for everyone else, I would wager, Mr. Isaaksen. And never any time for you.”

“I ….it’s okay….that’s what life’s about, isn’t it?” He said haltingly, trying desperately to convince himself that it was perfectly acceptable to set aside one’s own life for the sake of others; even if that meant it being give away by someone else.

“You have a girlfriend?” An odd and completely unprofessional question, it seemed perfectly acceptable coming from the petite girl who had once again started to massage his back.

“No….never any….and ….” It wasn’t as if he was going to confess anything to her. She was a professional whom he had only met. It was more the scenario of questions and answers he had envisioned time and time again. Who would want someone like him? He was a freak of the very first order.

“You don’t feel like anyone would want you?” She read his mind. Not really, of course, but the girl was very perceptive regarding life and facts and trends about human nature, but she was also very much tuned into how people actually felt and how they expressed those emotions. It didn’t take a psychiatrist to gather that the man who had been sobbing only moments before felt both unloved and unliked and unlovely.

“My question is, Mr. Isaaksen, who wouldn’t want you?” Having never had a single soul attend to his needs, he was like a pauper being clothed for the first time; no shame at all but an entirely wonderful expression of humanity. He was vulnerable, but in the presence of someone who would almost die before betraying a trust.

“I…I’m not….I haven’t….I don’t….” he stammered, trying hard to speak his mind and heart. She continued to work on his shoulders, kneading and pushing and prodding even as her words gently coaxed and invited and drew him out.

“You don’t have to worry about what you cannot or have not or do not, Mr. Isaaksen, please?” She was almost apologetic in her tone, but it proved to be what was needed for him to speak.

“I am not…..Who I am is….You promise you won’t laugh?” His voice broke. A confession best left from most folk’s perspective to a professional such as a therapist or a counselor or a clergyman, Jeremy began to open up for the first time since his twelfth birthday when he told his mother his secret.

“I only laugh at things that are funny, Mr. Isaaksen. What you are going to tell me seems already to me to be sad and lost and hopeless, and I would never laugh at that.” She began to rub his back softly in broad strokes, almost in a way echoing her words as the massage began to soothe more than just his muscles.

“I….” he hesitated. Tears began to stream down his cheeks. She leaned closer to his face and spoke softly once again.

“Mr. Isaaksen? I don’t want you to speak unless you wish; but I understand about not being heard. I really do. I know what it is like to be ignored and lost. What you tell me I will do more than keep as a secret, okay? I will treasure it as the gift it is, for it is a gift for you to trust me. I want you to have a chance to say what you need to say, okay?” She smiled at him and the look in her eyes disarmed the dread that dwelt inside him. He sighed once and looked up at her, biting his lip in the last vestiges of fear before saying finally.

“My name is Marta….” Dagmara looked at him with the most welcoming expression anyone could ever know before returning her attention to the tense shoulders and back of her newest client. After a few moments of silence; awkward for only one of them, the girl spoke.

“I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Marta Isaaksen.”

I don't want to close my eyes
Someone tell me how long I
Can keep this day inside
Somehow in this twisted world I'm really doing fine
You can say this piece of mind was never really mine
I don't always wake up this alive, but I have you
so I feel fine...

What if we had one second to be?
Just like the other what would we see?
What if you knew exactly what you are to me?
Would you be terribly surprised?
To see who I am in my actual size
A second is short, but more then enough
You would feel loved, you would feel loved

AllSports Medicine, West Caldwell, New Jersey...

Several months had gone by, and the relationship between Jeremy and Dagmara had changed slowly. At first, the girl only referred to him as Marta while she gave him a massage. But over time, she encouraged him to take small steps toward becoming more of the woman inside that he had hidden so long. Getting professional help was easy. The first challenge was probably the hardest, because it entailed more than just a confession, but had also required a lot of soul searching as Jeremy wondered just how he would explain who the woman was that his mother had never met.
“She is important to you more than any other…Trudno bÄ™dzie, tak?”

Jeremy knew a little bit of Polish. His father was of Swedish descent, a Minnesota transplant when he came to New Jersey to practice medicine. His mother was a nurse who had lived in Warsaw until she was fifteen, and she used the phrase many time; a single mother making a living for her family always found things difficult. His father had died in Gulf War I when he was seven, and his mother worked two jobs to support him and his sister Inge.

“I think she will be more understanding that you can know. I have a feeling about this, Marta.” Dagmara had not called him by his male name for quite some time, and she had been instrumental in Marta's development by encouraging him to seek support. He had been going to a therapist in Livingston, and had found a support group not too far from his home. His mother already knew he was getting help, but up till then, he had not mentioned why he was in therapy.

“I will come with you if you like?” She smiled and Jeremy smiled back; a half-grin that indicated that he was considering her offer.

“No…I am serious. I would like to accompany you when you go, unless you would rather I not.” She had been growing closer to him; their relationship had blurred and had spilled over into his private life. Although some might consider it unprofessional, he told himself it was alright, since she wasn’t exactly a medical practitioner. And while it was only a supportive friendship, it still left her employment in jeopardy, since any time spent with a client outside of the practice was grounds for dismissal.

“No, Dziewczynka,” he said, more like an older brother or a parent than a friend. She was a little girl in comparison to him. She was a girl in comparison to him, even though she had done her best to affirm Marta.

“You can’t take the chance.”

“There is nothing to worry about. I will be alright. Let me help. I would love to meet your family.” She smiled as she began to work his back.

“Relax and let your worries go, dear friend. Think about it. If you don’t wish for me to meet your family, I will understand. I just want you to know you’re not alone.” She used her knuckle to work out a knot just under his shoulder blade and he sighed deeply. It was already a daunting thought to tell his mother. To bring a friend home… a girl, in fact, to meet both his mother and his sister would be met with delightful suspicion and expectation.

He felt compelled to tell both of them now about his gender issues; his therapist had encouraged him only days before that it might be helpful to speak to his family when she felt ready, but so soon? And what would they say if she shared with them what she really wanted to say…especially to her sister. It was frightening to deal with so much. He knew all the medical and psychological implications of going further in his journey to womanhood; as a nurse himself, he was informed enough. But he had no wherewithal regarding emotions.

“You’re getting tense, Marta. Just let go, okay?”

She nodded reflexively, her chin rubbing against the table, but she remained anxious throughout the session as the thought of talking about himself…..herself scared her. And talking about what was going on inside made little sense to her, but felt right even if it was painful as hell. And it certainly didn’t help that her heart was confused enough about herself without having love mixed into the equation. And even more so that the object of her affection was kneading her right shoulder at that moment.

“I’ll think about it, Dziewczynkal,” she said once again, wishing that she had the courage to say something less familial.

When something dies
Or comes to life
When water shines in yellow light
When something moves
Inside a tree
I wish you saw things just like me

The Isaaksen Home, Essex Fells, New Jersey...a few days later...

“You are ready, Marta?” The girl sat in the passenger seat of the car; her hand resting on Marta’s arm. It might have been Jeremy who was preparing to open up to his mother and sister about the most important secret he had ever kept, but it would be Marta that spoke, regardless of their response. Dagmara leaned over and kissed him softly on the cheek, sending a chill up his back.

“Na szczęściel,” she said with a soft laugh. He turned away briefly before turning back and smiling awkwardly; he’d need more than just luck to get through the evening without breaking down or worse.

“You’ll do fine, Przyjaciá³Å‚kÄ…,” she said with another laugh; speaking more to him as a girl pal.

“With you along, I know I’ll be able at least to begin to speak. Where we go from there is anybody’s guess.”

A moment later he walked through the front door and hugged his mother, who was just wiping her hands on a kitchen towel. His sister Inge stood behind her and beamed when she noticed Dagmara standing in the doorway. She walked quickly to the girl and hugged her.

“Hi, you must be Dagmara. I’m Inge, Jeremy’s sister. This is my mother Denuta,” the woman ushered the girl to her mother who greeted her with a hug as well.

“I’m glad to meet you.” The words, so simple, seemed to take on much greater meaning as she nodded and Inge nodded in return.

“None of that, Mom. Dagmara is a friend.” He was careful not to use ‘just’ as a modifier. She was much more than a friend in so many ways, and to say otherwise would be not only an insult but a lie, and tonight was all about the truth.

They sat in the kitchen as Denuta poured coffee and set a plate of pastries on the table.

“I don’t want to make you uncomfortable, so before you speak, you need to know that nothing you can say to me will ever change the way I feel about you, and I know Inge feels the same way.” Inge nodded at her mother’s words.

“Mom….I’ve….” Jeremy began to choke up; knowing since he was only ten that things were different, he had held his peace for so long. What would his mother think of him? Even after she had reassured him, he still feared rejection. Growing up in the shadow of grief over his father’s death had left him unsure and insecure, and his other self was shameful; a dreadful thing for a boy and now a man to tell his mother. Dagmara put her hand on his arm. The look on her face gave him only a little strength and he turned away.

“You can do this.” She said it in such a loving way, but her presence made it more difficult because too many things were going on at the same time. He had barely enough strength to confess his affliction, much less tell her how he felt…how she felt. It had all become so confusing.

“Honey?” Inge reached over and put her hand on his arm…on top of Dagmara’s hand.

“We all care about you very much.” She looked in Dagmara’s eyes and caught something she hadn’t noticed at first. Nodding at the girl, she continued.

“We’re glad for you, honey.” She smiled at him and turned to Denuta who nodded and smiled.

“I’m glad to know that my boy has found someone special.” She said haltingly, her voice fading as she stifled a sob.

“No…no…you don’t understand…that’s not it at all.” Even as he said the words, he regretted them. But Dagmara looked at him and shook her head no, not to disagree, but to reassure him that it did not bother her. She smiled at Inge and Denuta and spoke.

“We have something to tell you, and it isn’t easy. But I know this is a family filled with love. If I may?” She looked at Jeremy for permission, but didn’t wait for an answer and continued.

“Your son is my friend, and I hope I am his, so forgive me if I presume, okay?” By now, Jeremy was almost bent over, his head turned to one side as he shook slightly. She squeezed his hand and went on.

“You know he is getting therapy, yes?” The two nodded.

“He is what they call gender dysphoric. What that means is.”

“OH…I know what that means, young lady.” It almost sounded like a rebuke, but Denuta shook her head in apology, surprising the others as she spoke.

“I’m sorry…I’ve had such a problem with names lately. Dagmar?”

“Dagmara,” the girl said cautiously.

“Yes, Dagmara. I know what gender dysphoric means…I am a nurse, you know.” Again, what could have sounded like a rebuke was softened by her smile.

“I’ve wondered about my child for a while now. I can’t even say why I felt this way; we never talked about it, and I’m such a bad mother for not asking.” She shook her head at her own words; her tears demonstrating just how strongly she felt.

“But we’re here, now! And we’re here for you, honey.” She reached over and place her hand on Jeremy’s other wrist.

“And of course, I’m confident that even if it is a surprise, Dr. Isaaksen here understands completely,” she said, patting Inge on the arm, grinning proudly as only a mother with two physicians for children might. Inge smiled and nodded.

“While I am clueless when it comes to you, honey, and I am sorry for that, I know that it can’t have been easy for you to open up to us.” She looked at Dagmara and smiled again.

“And to have such a good friend to stand with you? You know we love you, but you couldn’t have known how we’d react. You must have been so scared.”

“I’m….it’s been so hard. I’ve tried to hide for so long, and now that I know…how much time have I lost…. Mommy…I’m so sorry that I never told you.” It was so odd to see the change as Jeremy seemed to fade into Marta like a special effect in a movie, but his countenance softened into hers as Marta came out literally to her sister and mother.

“Kocham ciÄ™ moje dziecko.” Denuta said, her voice breaking. Marta put her head down.

“We’ll always support you. How…what’s your therapist say, honey? Is that helping at all?” Denuta wasn’t doubting the process; she just wanted to know if her child was getting the help he…she needed.

“Yes…and I’m going to a support group in Morristown. But….I wouldn’t be sitting here.” Marta stammered, partly out of the still unfamiliar position of telling her family about herself, but also out of embarrassment and even a feeling of inadequacy.

“If it weren’t for Dagmara….she’s been so …” Marta began to shake again. There was nothing to cause her to fear other than old ideas and habits that still were slowly but surely fading away.

“I have known your daughter for months now, and I am glad to be counted among her friends.” A simple statement, truthful to be sure, but entirely disappointing to Marta because of what is didn’t say.

“What she has needed for a long time is a chance to be herself, and now she had found that chance, and I have been happy to help.” With that, she began to get up from the table.

“I think I should leave you three to get acquainted, yes?” Marta went to speak, but the girl smiled and shook her head, putting her finger to her lips.

“No….it’s okay….I will see you on Friday, okay?” She leaned closer and gave Marta a very sisterly kiss; friendly and kind and altogether hopeless and disappointing.

A few days later...

“It went well…now I have….it’s good to know I have support going forward,” Marta said as she settled onto the table.

“And of course, there’s you.” Dagmara said nothing, and the quiet was deafening until she spoke.

“I am sorry, Marta, but I am going to be leaving this practice soon.” Dagmara frowned only a little, but her disappointment was nothing like the woman who lay on the table awaiting the ministering hands. She rose slightly as if to turn to get off the table, but the girl placed her hand on Marta’s shoulder, pushing her gently back down.

“It will remain the same for us, yes?” She leaned closer and whispered in the woman’s ear.

“You will be okay….I am going to take some time to visit my parents in Krakow and then I will be returning here, but not to work. I am going to get married.”

“What….” Marta turned around on the table and faced the girl, almost in a panic until the girl smiled, her grin almost silly and playful.

“That is, if you’ll have me?”

“If I’ll……” Marta turned away as if to question what she had just heard. She turned back to see that Dagmara’s grin had turned into a broad smile, her eyes welling with tears. She nodded and spoke softly, almost in a sing-song weeping combination,

“Marta, bÄ™dzie wam pojÄ…Å‚by mnie?” She tilted her head slightly to one side. Marta’s Polish still left a bit to be desired, but her eyes widened in both recognition and tentative joy.

“Marry?” She stammered and Dagmara said simply but beautifully,

“Tak, Ty możesz być moja żona.” She nodded enthusiastically and drew close and kissed Marta.

“Wife? Yes…oh yes….”

What if we had one second to be?
Just like the other what would we see?
What if you knew exactly what you are to me?
Would you be terribly surprised?
To see who I am in my actual size
A second is short, but more then enough
You would feel loved, you would feel loved
You would feel loved, you would feel loved
You would feel loved, you would feel loved

I mieszkali jednak radośnie kiedykolwiek po

Michael’s Chance

The newsroom of WROC-TV, Rochester, New York...

“Hey Mike…just wanted you to know that your Teens Steroid piece was really good; the graphics and production of course were superb; Dave always does a bang up job, but the questions in the interviews…pretty focused but still appealing for a half-hour Saturday news program. Management really appreciates your work.” Jack Welker smiled as he poured himself a mug of coffee.

“Dave was just great to work with; really made my job so much easier.” Mike smiled back nervously and nodded. He was cut out of the Mike Greenberg/John Clayton sportscaster mold. To say he was wiry would be granting him much more stature, and he would never look like the stereotypical sportscaster.

“Yeah…I believe I just said that, Mike. You’ve got to learn to toot your own horn, kid; most everybody does and no one but no one will go out of their way to boost you. But hell, you’re this week’s hero, so bask in your glory!”

“Thanks. I really felt good about it, and I’m glad that it worked out okay.”

“You’ll hear about most of this in a couple of days…Stu Davies is leaving to take the evening sports gig in Buffalo…and Alex is finally retiring. That health scare last year. Yeah…I know.” Jack held his hands out palms down and continued.

“He’s been sayin’ it for the last couple of years, but it’s really time, and management is sorta givin’ him a nice financial shove out the door.” Mike tilted his head and bit his lower lip.

“What I’m sayin’ is that they’re gonna offer you the weekend gig here. You’ll have to clean up a bit, but I bet that won’t be too much to ask, right? And don’t tell anyone I told you, okay?”

“I don’t know what to say.” Mike looked away and sighed. He really didn’t know what to say since what he already had planned on telling the station was likely going to be met with more than just a little bit of surprise.

The office of Megan Delhomme, PsyD, PhD, Therapist….Webster, New York…

“So how does that make you feel, Mike?” Megan smiled.

“It’s something I’ve dreamed about….sort of…since I was a kid.”

“You sound hesitant, Mike, what’s that about? I mean if you want the position, what’s holding you back?”

“Oh, jeez, Meg….you know very well what’s holding me back.” Mike seemed almost angry, but his tone quickly changed as he smiled.

“I know…you need me to voice my reasons; something I need to do to show that I really believe what I say. We’ve been over this before, but yeah, I’ll bite.” He looked away and sighed.

“When I came out to my family it was a mixed bag. Dad still won’t talk to me. He hasn’t said a word one way or the other in nearly six months. Mom cried for a whole week, but at least she still hugs me when I come over. Chelsea was great….” Mike paused and sighed again, this time with a smile.

“She made a joke about sharing, but it was kind of nice. I got upset…It was a very difficult thing for me to do, and she apologized for being so flippant about it. `

“What about your brother?”

“Anthony? I haven’t told him yet…I don’t know if I can.” Mike paused for a moment and frowned.

“But hell, he’s going to find out about it sooner or later anyway. I don’t know what’s keeping me from opening up?” He sought a quick answer from Megan but she turned it around.

“What do you think? How important is it for him to understand?”

“I think….” He began to mist up.

“Feelings, Mike…I know you can do this.” Megan leaned closer and nodded.

“It would kill me if he….It’s important.”

“Because?” It almost seemed cruel for Megan to insist, but it was important for Mike to understand how things worked for him; what drove his decisions.

“Are you who you say you are? Are you ‘what’ you say you are? Will you still be you even if he doesn’t agree?” He knew the answer and usually would have only nodded, but he also knew it was important to speak the truth about himself.

“Yes…I’ll be who I am no matter how my brother sees me.”

“So what will you tell the station? It’s going to be difficult no matter what; we both know that.”

“When I was about eleven or so I was watching the news on ROC…a Friday night, and they had the news anchor…and the weather gal….and Ann Montgomery…all women…I don’t think anyone had ever done that before. Montgomery ended up teaching high school video journalism, but she was a sports anchor for ESPN.“

“Sounds disappointing.” Megan half-frowned.

“No…she loves what she’s doing, but for that one short time…she was the only one on National TV, and I said to myself, I want to be just like her.”

“Nationally known, huh…that’s a tall order.” Megan laughed softly. She knew where Mike was going with it, but pressed him anyway.

“No…I wanted …I want to be just like her…. a ground-breaker.”

“You gonna change your name?” Megan teased; it wasn’t uncommon for TV celebrities…even sports and news casters…to change their names.

“No… I’m named after my Uncle Mike…my mother’s little brother….little? He was…Went to Iraq as a correspondent. Ended up stepping in front of two Iraqi kids when a suicide bomber killed a bunch of people at a bus stop in Basra…I mean…it was pretty much the safest part of the whole country.”

“So he was a hero. Why you want to keep the name? To pay tribute?” Megan smiled warmly.

“Yes…” Mike sighed

“I think if he was alive today, he might consider you a hero as well…that he might consider you brave.”

“I’m no hero…I’m not giving up my life for this…I’m just trying to live the life I have.”

“So what should I call you? Michelle? Shelly?” Megan teased once again.

“Michaela…Michaela Parente.”

WROC….a few days later…

“You plannin’ on goin’ to the station Halloween party on Sunday?” Cindy Wrobowski smiled and touched Mike’s arm. He shied away just a bit before pausing to consider his answer.

“Yes…and I’m going to need some help.” He turned away and Cindy held tight to his wrist and said in a hushed voice,

“No…you’re going to do it? No.” She began to giggle; her tone grew only a bit louder but almost conspiratorial.

“I’m in…you know I’d do anything for you.” She would, though Mike was the last to know it.

“Come over to my place on Saturday…I know just the thing.” She laughed but then looked at Mike’s face, which appeared more than just nervous.

“You’re….I …” She put her hand to her face and stroked her cheek before finishing….okay, honey…I guess it’s time, huh?”

That Sunday, the Strathallan Hotel Banquet Room, Rochester, New York…

“Wow, Cindy…where did you get the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders outfit?” Danny Artale teased. He already knew she had been a cheerleader for the Cowboys as a single mom before going back to school for her journalism degree. And of course, it made little difference to Danny since he was gay anyway, but it was a joke they enjoyed sharing. Standing next to her was a fairly athletic if somewhat boyish woman in a Team Norway Soccer outfit. She likely resembled many of the girls most people consider tomboys, but her face was bright and attractive.

“I don’t know you, do I?” Jack asked the girl as he stood next to the pair. Jack wore his usual expensive suit and over-moussed hair politician outfit. The girl smiled politely before nodding and and replied,

"Jeg vet ikke; kjenner du meg?" before walking away, leaving Jack more than puzzled. Cindy quickly followed her and they stood close to each other, huddled by the punchbowl.

“I’m telling you…it’s that new forward that the Flash just got from Washington…”

“I think it’s that girl on the dancing show, but she’s sorta plain looking….maybe her sister?”

By the end of the night folks were too tired or too disinterested apart from Jack, and they just stopped guessing about the new girl at the station. Jack walked back to the two girls, who by now were standing near the exit ready to leave.

“Are you sure I don’t know you?” He said, and the soccer player smiled politely before saying in a nice alto voice,

“I don’t know, Jack, do you?” Mike smiled and began to laugh, which got Jack laughing nervously.

“Jeez, Mike…what the fuck. You look just like…well I wouldn’t say pretty….’handsome?’ ‘Striking?’”

“Cindy’s really good with makeup, and I do resemble my cousin Inge's her uniform... but when you look, you really do see me, right?”

“Yeah…sure…you…” Jack was confused. While Mike might not look like the most attractive woman he’d ever met, he still looked fair; not gorgeous but more like your best friend’s ‘cute’ sister; yes...very striking as they used to say.

“Good night, Jack, I’ll see you tomorrow…” Mike trailed off as Jack walked away. He stopped about ten feet away from the two and turned around.

“OH…hell, I forgot to tell you…big day tomorrow…that surprise from management? Be on your toes, kid!”

The following afternoon at WROC…

Jack walked out of his office, shaking his head. He was confused and frustrated, and just a bit angry as he turned and looked down the hall toward the executive board room.

“Fuck.” There really wasn’t much to be said. To say that Mike’s interview didn’t go well would be the understatement of the millennium. Of course, Jack had been convinced that Mike had the job sewn up; no one else on staff was remotely qualified for the weekend gig, but today’s events had changed the entire landscape of the sports department. He walked into the boardroom and found Mike sitting alone at the table; the executives had long abandoned the room to gather for a hastily called lunch-time meeting to determine how to proceed.

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Mike! What the fuck were you thinking? I know it’s Halloween and all, but I fucking told you that your interview was today, didn’t I? What the fuck. I suppose you think this is funny?” Jack was nearly shouting at that point, and even with the door closed, the entire newsroom could hear his rant.

“No, Jack…this isn’t funny at all. It’s my life, and it’s the only way I knew to be the person I am for the job.” He used his hand in a gesture to point to himself.

While he wasn’t wearing a woman’s soccer uniform like the previous night, he still appeared much different than the sportscaster the station manager had expected would show up for the interview. His hair was neatly trimmed in a very attractive cut just as the evening before, but his ears were adorned with gold cross studs, which matched the cross around his neck. Instead of his usual gray tweed sports coat, he wore a nice maroon blazer over a pale cream shirt. The blazer was a match to the slacks he wore, which complemented his shoes. Black pumps with a two inch heel.

“You look pretty decent, but that’s beside the point, Mike. Even if it’s Halloween, you had to know they wanted to see you looking professional? What the fuck were you thinking?”

“That’s just it, Jack. This is professional…for me. This is who I am, and what I am becoming. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but the guy you know doesn’t really exist; this is the person you hired, not him.”

“Oh, dear god in heaven, what the fuck are you talking about?” Jack plopped down in the large chair at the head of the table and shook his head.

“Just this. Mike Parente no longer exists. In order to be who I need to be, I have to live like this for a year so that I can get cleared for surgery. I’ve been trying to get the courage to tell you, but I was too scared. So Cindy and I came up with this plan. When no one seemed too uncomfortable last night I realized it was now or never.”

“Whatya mean, Mike? You wouldn’t go through with it? That you’d have come to work today dressed like your old self?”

“No, Jack…I mean that I wouldn’t have come to work at all. I’d have had to turn in my resignation, since I can’t live that lie anymore. I have to live as who I am…And that’s the other thing…My name isn’t Mike, it’s Michaela. I’m sorry.” The old had been indeed replaced; a man’s image no longer sat before him as the woman began to tear up only slightly; an inner strength Jack had never noticed before came out as the woman said once again,

“My name is Michaela.”

“I bet….Listen…I’m sorry I have to say this, but the big wigs had a meeting at lunchtime.” Jack frowned as if he was telling a child that their dog had died.

“What do you mean?” The woman bowed her head slightly, already fairly sure of what Jack would say.

“Damn it Mike...I mean…Michaela Parente? You’re fired.”

“You can’t fire me for cause, and the last time I looked, my job performance was rated excellent.”

“You know and I know and everybody else knows that they can’t fire you! Yes…I’m quite aware of that. Shitty thing though, they don’t have to offer you an on-air position.” Jack frowned, and for the first time Michaela realized Jack was in her corner. That the two of them were backed up as if they had painted themselves into that corner hadn’t occurred to her. She was just glad that he was at least sympathetic to her.

“You’re not supposed to be having this conversation, are you?” She laughed softly but her frown displayed her disappointment.

“No…the Station Manager apparently has no say any longer in the hiring of on-air personalities. I can only assure you that you won’t be putting your writing and production responsibilities in jeopardy.” Jack frowned once again and his shoulders slumped as he continued,

“I’d fucking quit except I can’t afford the pay loss and I’ve got too much wrapped up in the folks who still have jobs here. If I bag it, Al Payson gets the job, and he’s on board with the powers that skulk regarding your employment..”

“Let me make this easy for you, Jack.” She opened her purse and handed him an envelope.

“Oh no you don’t! Oh hell no.” He pushed the envelope back across the boardroom table.

“It’s the only way. I need a second chance, and it can’t be here. It’s not your fault that the old guard hasn’t a clue. I know you care. You’ve always been like a big brother to me.”

“Fuck, Mikey…shit…Michaela…I never knew I had a little sister, but since I do know now, I can’t just let you throw away your career because of a bunch of dumb old fucks.”

“I’m not throwing anything away. I figured I’d give them a chance, but your job and our friendship aren’t worth fighting a battle neither of us can win. I know how it works; no bias can be proved in cases where positions are open…they just didn’t feel my audition was...adequate.”

“What audition? You didn’t even get a chance to submit a tape.” As he finished speaking, Jack’s eyes widened and he began to laugh.

“Oh…no…I’ve seen that look before…and I can smell the wood burning in that stove you call a brain.”

“Listen…meet me on set in about…twenty minutes, okay?” He jumped up and ran to the door but paused for a moment,

“And Michaela?” He said it almost sternly.

“Yes?” She lowered her head and shoulders before he finished.

“Fix your lipstick, okay?”

* * * * *

“Are you sure about this?” Michaela turned to Dan Capelli, the weekend morning news anchor. He smiled and said,

“You bet, Mikey!” Somehow coming from Dan, the nickname sounded entirely feminine and almost brother to sister. He leaned closer and whispered to her with a sly grin,

“Let ‘em pound salt.” Michaela nodded, forgetting just what the expression meant, but she did know it wasn’t very nice. A moment later Tamra Steele, the weekend director stepped to the desk.

“I’ll cue Dan and he’ll read this morning’s copy and then he'll turn it over to you, okay? Good luck, Mikey” There was that name again; playfully sister to sister, not just as in the sisterhood, but as if Tamra was her real sister. A moment later they heard the countdown and Dan began,

“Tomorrow on Rochester Am, Alison Nordstrom, Director of Exhibitions for The George Eastman House and recipient of the Lifetime Achievement from the Griffin Institute, takes the viewer on a virtual tour of Eastman House. And now, with tonight’s sports, Mikey Parente. Gee, Mikey, what’s going on with those Amerks.?” Dan tried not to grin, but he was a fairly affable on-air personality, so he was sure no one would notice.

“Well, Dano, we’ve all been wondering when they were going to wake up, and wake up they did! Good Morning Rochester! And they picked a great time and a very challenging opponent to come to life. Led by Nick Crawford’s hat trick and stellar goaltending by David Leggio, the Amerks beat the front running Toronto Marlies. 6 to 1...and in other hockey news, the Buffalo Sabres acquired Center Dave Bolland from the Chicago Blackhawks today for the Sabres number two draft choice for 2012. And in other news...”

A few minutes later and it was over. The conspirators quickly dispersed and met back at the board room. On an early Friday afternoon they were assured of privacy.

“It went well…better than I thought it would as a matter of fact.” Jack half smiled and shrugged his shoulders.

“Hell, kid…I know you, but I don’t know you….you were an untried commodity until we actually got you on tape.” He looked at Tamra and Dan and the crew and held the tape up.

“Let me get this in the right hands, and we’ll see how things play out, but don’t do anything at all until you hear from me.” Michaela looked at him nervously.

“Seriously, I’ll take care of this.” He smiled and looked at the rest of the group before stepping closer to Michaela as if to reassure her. And a moment later he leaned close and kissed her on the cheek, causing both of them and Tamra to blush. Dan looked at him sideways and Jack grinned.

“Well, I can’t just shake her hand. I’ll call you tomorrow…it’s the weekend, so give me to the end of the day…Sunday latest. I’ve got a few favors to call in, so hang in there, okay.”

“I don’t know what to say.” Michaela put her head down and for the first time in her life; new or previous, she began to cry.

“Just say thank you, Jack. You’re the best Station Manager the world has ever known.” He patted her quickly on the back and walked out of the board room. Oddly and happily enough, it was Dan who came up and patted her shoulder and said,

“It’s okay, Mikey…we got your back!”

Sunday morning...

“Rooney’s? On Henrietta…sure…see you at eleven.” Michaela clicked off her cell and turned around.

“Do you have to go?” Cindy Wrobowski sat on her bed, patting the mattress and pouting like a little girl. Michaela walked back to the bed and sat down next to her and smiled.

“Well, there’s two things about the appointment…three actually. One? Yes, I have to go. Two, I want you to come with me.” Cindy looked at her and cocked her head.

“No matter what, from this day forward, everything I do is no longer for me.” She pursed her lips and sighed.

“I don’t understand.” Cindy looked puzzled, but her look changed to cheerfully anxious as Michaela smiled at her.

“What I do I do for us…from now on, my life is yours.” Cindy stared and her eyes and grin both widened as Michaela pulled her close for a kiss. After a few moments they hugged as Cindy asked.

“Okay…what’s Three?”

“Since your townhouse is on Henrietta near the restaurant and it’s only nine o’clock….what do you think?”

“Oh…Ms. Parente….your lipstick is smudged. Let me take care of that.”

And they kissed.

Rooney's Restaurant...a while later...

“Well, you’re looking awfully chipper for a Sunday morning.” Jack looked up to see Michaela and Cindy walk up to the booth and sit down. He wasn’t surprised at all at Cindy’s presence, which surprised them in turn.

“Like I didn’t know?” he laughed and motioned for the waitress. A few minutes later the waitress had taken their order and they were left to continue the conspiracy started on Friday.

“You don’t mind if someone joins us?” He looked over at the entrance and saw a familiar figure. The man stood at the doorway and nodded; their communication was lost on Michaela and Cindy, whose back was to the entrance. A few seconds later the man sat down next to Jack and began to speak.

“I don’t have much time; I’ve got to get to the studio, but I wanted you to know I looked at the tape with a few others from the station. You’ve got the weekend gig if you wanted it. I’ll get the contract to Jack tomorrow, and you can look it over before we negotiate, okay? Okay.” Unlike Jack, the man chose not to kiss Michaela on the cheek, but still waited for her to offer her hand before saying his goodbyes.

“I…I don’t know what to say,” she practically whispered; words destined to become almost a catchphrase in her relationship with Jack. He laughed and said,

“OH, thank you, Jack…you’re the best friend ever. I thank God for the day I met you.” With that, he stood up and motioned for the waitress once more. She walked quickly to the table and he pulled out a hundred dollar bill.

“Here, kid. Whatever the check ends up and you can keep the change.” She blushed and put her hand to her face and nodded awkwardly before walking back to the front.

“You two love birds have a nice day. I’m off to Buffalo this afternoon; the Bills should have their hands full with the Eagles.” He blew them both a kiss and walked out of the restaurant.

A few weeks later...

The girl stood off to the side, her heart pounding and her eyes welling with tears. The four figures sat down at the news desk for the broadcast. Meanwhile, a man sat on a stool at Tully’s Good Times Bar and Grill and looked up at the TV on the wall behind the bar, counting down the seconds as the opening credits for the newscast rolled,

“Eyewitness News TV Thirteen with Rachael Barnhart and Jane Flasch, Meteorologist Patrice Walsh and Michaela Parente with the weekend sports……And now…Eyewitness News….”

"Way to go, Mikey!" Jack Welker laughed to himself.
"Way to go!"

Things always work out; just how often remains a mystery and just when usually means immediately before they work out, but they always do. Second chances are by definition good things. Hopefully the second chances I’ve portrayed in this stories are encouraging and hopeful. Thank you so much for reading this complete version. A sequel, Twice in a Lifetime, is forthcoming. Much Love! Andrea

The Prayer
Words and Music by
David Foster, Carole Bayer Sager
Italian by Alberto Testa, Tony Renis
as performed by
Angie Stone
and Josh Groban

words and music by
Martin Phipps and
Vince Pope
adapted and performed by
Emily Barker and Red Clay Halo

words and music by
Greg Wells and Sarah Bettens
as performed by
Sarah Bettens

One Second
Words and Music and
Performed by
Sarah Bettens

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