I Can't Make You Love Me - the Novella

Previously published as the short stories Food Court, Nobody's Home, and Ain't No Easy Way Out
and the novelette I Can't Make You Love Me


Prelude: Nobody's Home

Rockaway Mall, Sunday afternoon...

“May I help you, Miss?”

“Oh….no…that’s okay,” the girl said; smiling nervously at the young woman refolding sweaters on the display rack. She smiled back and returned to her tasks. The girl walked over to another rack and picked up a bright teal top; sleeveless and airy. It just looked like it would go so well with her boy-cut jeans. She stared at it for a moment and put it back; her hands seemed to be reluctant to release the garment and she sighed. Turning to leave, her left hand brushed against the pile of similar tops with a nice variety of colors. Her hand lingered until she willed herself to walk away.

A moment later she was out of the store walking toward the food court. After passing several stores, she stopped and turned back to face the boutique. The shop seemed to beckon, but her gaze was interrupted as a woman walked up and stood between her and the store.

“Oh, honey. I’m glad I caught you before you wandered around. I finished up early at Macy’s and I know you’re probably starved. I’ve got to run to the ladies room, so you can order for us....Sarku’s?” She turned to walk hastily toward the rest room, but stopped only a few steps away and turned.

“Oh….” Reaching into her purse she pulled out a twenty and a ten.

“Chicken Teriyaki, okay?” She passed the money along even as they walked into the food court.


The woman went to walk away, but again stopped and turned.

“Maybe Cinnabon instead?” She backed away slowly, but stopped once again.

“Oh, just pick something. I gotta go.”

She turned and ran up the low ramp toward the rest rooms, leaving her son with money in his hands, and disappointment once again in his heart.

Open your eyes and look outside, find the reasons why.
You've been rejected, and now you can't find what you left behind.
Be strong, be strong now.
Too many, too many problems

Roxbury, New Jersey, weeks later...

Seth stared at the closet; the palette of choices before him confused and scared him, as if by choosing anything it would be condemning enough. He swallowed with a quiet cough before placing his hand on one of the garments further to the side of the small closet. The touch caused a spark, which in turn caused him to recoil. He fell back and would have plummeted to the floor but for the gentle and entirely unexpected hands that held him up. Nervously he turned to face his mother.

“It’s okay, Seth. I know.” She smiled warmly and he gasped, shaking his head.

“NO….” He didn’t bother to plead; the denial wasn’t for what he had intended to do, but rather for the betrayal of his secret by his own foolish haste. She had only been gone a few minutes, hadn’t she? He pushed past her and went to run but her hand caught his wrist; keeping him there.

“Seth? Honey? Don’t. You don’t have to.” She walked over and closed the bedroom door. They were alone, but she wanted to give her son one more layer of security. She walked back and grabbed his hand, leading him to the divan by the window. Sitting down, she motioned for him to join her. He shook his head again.

“Seth? No, honey. Really. It’s okay.” She moved to one side of the small couch and pointed to the other end, leaving a small space as a buffer to accommodate his fear.

“I saw you last night. Before I …you know, when I had to run to the rest room?” He tilted his head and then shook it again, fearful over what she could have seen.

“The store? You were in the boutique looking at clothes.”

“No….I just…. I wanted to get something nice for Jenna for her birthday.” He half-smiled, but even that expression was weak and unconvincing.

“I know Jenna’s birthday on Sunday, but she doesn’t like teal or pink, and I know you know that.”


“But I know someone who does like pink and teal and pewter and ecru,” Margaret smiled at her son. His smile had disappeared completely and his face was down even as tears dripped off his chin onto the floor.

“I’m sorry, Mom.” Seth choked back a sob. He had never shared any of his likes, certainly not in that manner, but his choice of his mother’s clothes apparently wasn’t as secretive as he thought.

“You gave yourself away when you put my blouses back. I always forget to button the top button and they usually end up on the floor of the closet. I can see why you like teal, though. It suits you.” She laughed softly, evoking a sob.

“Oh, no, honey. I’m not even teasing. You’re just so much like me that I forget sometimes just how much more you are. Things you try to hide about yourself but can’t. I’ve never told a soul about my favorite movie, but you knew because you observe so well. Just watching me and you knew. And when you got me the nice copper blouse for Christmas? My son may be observant, but that goes beyond just a boy being attentive; you have a sense for color and style. Your Dad even noticed it all the times you’d complement me.” The boy’s face had grown red and he took a step toward a deliverance only heeded a bit by the closed door. She patted the couch again.

“Your father noticed this all before I did. He’s the one who suggested I ‘watch’ you while we shopped. I see the excitement in your eyes when we walk past stores with pretty displays.” She paused and her face grew warm even as her nostrils flared ever-so-slightly. She bit the inside of her lip and blinked, looking for the right words.

“Daddy loved you, honey. He would be the first to hold you and tell you you’re okay.” She sighed even as the tears fell freely. The boy stepped closer, feeling helpless as he weighed his mother’s need for comfort against his own. In a moment he decided that they were exactly the same. Sitting down, he put his hand gently on her arm.

“You’re not….not just saying that? Mom….”

“When…. It was so hard on all of us, but mostly you, I think, because Jenna and I only had the one question, you know? Why? But you needed other answers. Answers that only he could give you. Well?” She paused and looked away, as if she could see Aaron’s face.

“When he died, I just had this sense that our business wasn’t finished. That he had more to say.” She laughed softly and smiled through her own tears.

“Mom….please?” The boy’s voice pled nervously; wanting her words to be real even if they hurt.

“He came to me a while back and reminded me of something we had talked about when you were born. When we first saw you, your father wondered something out loud. He said, “Peg? I don’t know why, but it feels like the baby should be wrapped in pink?’” She laughed again at the irony; not only because of the words from so long ago but also because Seth sat next to her wearing one of Margaret’s robes; soft pink jersey with dark pink kitten appliqués.

“I thought….It’s like he’s still here…’ Seth patted his chest and sighed.

“But he really doesn’t….” He looked at her in disappointment. She shook her head slightly.

“It’s more like I know what he’d say ….that he would understand. When he was young, he was so determined to be kind and caring after how his dad treated him and his brother, you know. He tried to see every side of every argument before making up his mind. That he didn’t want to dismiss anything, you know.

“I’m….it’s not like a debate, Mom.” The boy turned away and shook his head.

“Of course not, honey. It’s just that he had such a big heart, I know he would understand.”

“What about Jenna, Mom? I don’t know what to say….”

“She’s your sister and she’ll understand. I know it’s not going to be easy, Seth….” Her voice trailed off as she looked slightly down.

“Mom….you know….it’s not…it’s not…” the boy’s words came haltingly, interspersed with gasps and small sobs.

“The clothing? Of course not. Even if it was, it wouldn’t make a difference. I know it’s all about who you are, baby.” She touched his face with her hand. He pulled back and went to stand up, but she grabbed his arm.

“No, Seth. You don’t have to be ashamed. You’re my son….my sweet boy, and maybe something more than that? Certainly you’re someone more that the baby I bore and we’ll figure this out together.”

“Mom? I’m sorry….I feel like I need Daddy more than ever. Don’t be mad at me, please?” He began to sob and fell into her embrace. She patted him on the back.

“Listen, honey?” She said softly after his sobbing had stopped.

“Your Dad and I prayed over you and Jenna when you were both born. We prayed a blessing, but that prayer was just the beginning. We wanted to see you know what your destiny was…what plans God had for you. It’s important….Jenna …. That knowledge that your father loved you and wanted to see the best for you. She never had to worry about it in a way, because he knew he had a daughter. But just maybe he understood and knew he had two daughters…he just never got the chance to tell you.”

“I’m not a daughter, Mom….I’m not anything….”

“No, honey, you’re right about that. You’re not any thing but someone….my child, your father’s child, and I guess your father’s daughter. And we’ll figure out just what that means, okay?”

“I don’t know….I’m so….sorry, Mommy….I’m so sorry….” He kept repeating it, over and over. She continued to pat him on the back. He had nothing to be sorry for, but she spoke softly to that part of his heart that felt shameful and frightened and alone, answering each apology as it came with ‘I know.”

Don't know where she belongs, where she belongs.
She wants to go home, but nobody's home.
It's where she lies, broken inside.
With no place to go, no place to go to dry her eyes.
Broken inside

Sunday morning…

“Jenna? Could you come and help me?” Margaret called from her bedroom. The girl looked askance at her reflection and frowned. Nothing seemed to work lately, hair wise. She walked across the hall.

“I know it’s important, Mom, but I’m sure whatever you wear will be just right?” She said as she leaned on the door frame. Margaret turned and smiled. She was wearing a mid-calf black knit dress with a hip length mauve cardigan. She was ready, but she wasn’t the one who needed help.

“Can you help me with this?” She laughed softly and stepped aside, revealing a very nervous looking girl. Her face was familiar, right down to the anxious and confused expression. Jenna’s eyes widened; almost a surprise, but not quite, since she had been preparing for this day for some time. She put her hand to her mouth to stifle an understandable giggle before walking past her mother to the girl in the middle of the room.

“I….” The girl barely got the word out of her mouth when her sister pulled her in for an exuberant hug. She winced at the attention and went to pull away. Jenna shook her head.

“No, bro…..you’re not getting away that easy.” She led Seth to the closet door mirror, holding his hand. The boy was dressed in a long charcoal maxi skirt over medium grey boots. He wore a sweater similar to Margaret’s but in a Maroon over a pewter satin blouse. Clothing much more suited for a young woman but much more mature than his sixteen years, but almost an anticipated match for his serious personality. Margaret walked up and stood behind the two.

“I know it’s not a big deal after all this time, but I figured it was a nice time to dress up, you know?” She struggled with the words since it was all too difficult when Jenna’s birthday coincided with another date so important to the family. Jenna noticed her mother’s tears, and she turned and grabbed Margaret’s hand.

“I know, Mom. Wait here, okay?” Jenna kissed her mother on the cheek and turned to do the same to Seth, but he pulled away.

“I owe you one. Be right back.” She blew a kiss to him as she walked out of the bedroom. Seth turned to his mother and frowned.

I'm standing on a bridge
I'm waiting in the dark
I thought that you'd be here by now
There's nothing but the rain
No footsteps on the ground
I'm listening but there's no sound

Isn't anyone trying to find me?
Won't somebody come take me home

“I can’t, Mom. I just can’t.” He shook his head as tears spilled from his chin. Margaret sighed; relieved that she had decided against makeup but disappointed that her son still felt so ashamed. She stepped closer to him and grabbed his hand, taking Jenna’s place next to him in front of the mirror.

“You look just like your Aunt Teresa, honey. I’m so proud of you.”

“For what, Mom? I’m standing in your bedroom wearing your clothes. When I should be wearing ….” His voice trailed off.

“It’s okay, honey. You needed to see yourself. We don’t have to go out like this. You can change if you like and I’ll put on something more casual.”

“Not before you see this?” Jenna called from the doorway. She wore a long charcoal grey skirt almost identical to the one Seth wore, but with black boots. Instead of a sweater, she wore a hip-length forest green jacket over a Nile green silk blouse.

“We can go out like this or not, but move over a bit and let’s look at the mirror together.” Jenna rushed to them and stood on Seth’s other side.

“Perfect, right?” She eyed all of them in the mirror. She smiled and laughed but expression turned quickly to an urgent half-smile.

‘Ooooh…..I just thought. One second?” She quickly rushed out of the room, leaving Seth holding Margaret’s hand. A moment later she came running back into the room holding two large zip-lock bags.

“Pick….” She thrust both bags into Seth’s hands. He shuddered but turned to his mother. She shrugged her shoulders and smiled.

“You gotta pick, Seth. It’s my birthday, and you have to do what I want, right?” A demand more suited to a six year old, she nodded slightly as if to say, ‘go ahead.’ He stared at the bags and then moved his gaze to Jenna.

“Might as well take advantage, you know? They were both a gift. I’ll even give you first choice.” She took one of the bags from his hands and un-zipped it, pulling out a shoulder length wig, which she draped over his crew-cut pate.

“I think brunette suits you, and besides, I’m a natural blonde anyway.” She opened the other bag and pulled out a similar wig; a medium blonde with wavy curls. Spreading it a bit with her hands, she draped it over her bald head and beamed.

“I think this works just fine.” She bumped playfully with her hip and put her arm around his shoulder.

“And I won’t even insist we eat out. Seriously, kiddo? I know this is hard, but the best birthday present you could ever give me is to be yourself. It’s just for the afternoon, and you’ll be just fine, okay?” She kissed him on the cheek. His face grew hot, but he was more ashamed of being reluctant than anything else; as if by merely fearing to face the truth he would let his sister down. And he already felt he had let his father down, no matter what assurances his mother had made to the contrary.

“You just have to, and not for my birthday. Being here and feeling like I can breathe easy? It’s not for me that you have to do this, Seth, but for yourself. Please?” Jenna began to cry. It was hard to imagine how hard it was for them all; and so even harder to imagine why she was almost weeping.

“I never wanted anything more than to beat this thing!” She stammered as she pointed to her body; the vestiges of the disease that nearly claimed her life claimed much of who she believed she had been, but her survival pushed her into a need to see the best for others. And that started with her baby brother.

“You have to do this, Seth. Pretend you’re doing it for me if you want, but you need to be who you are, and I know Mom agrees. Please?” She put her hand to her face and leaned slightly against Margaret, who pulled her into a welcomed embrace. Seth shook his head. He felt small and alone even in their presence.

“I’m so…. I hate myself.” Margaret felt helpless, but she knew that she had to say something.

“Seth Aubrey Davidson, you stop that this instant! You’re loved. God loved you. I love you. Jenna loves you. And your Dad loved you. You’re worth so much more than you can imagine. And your needs right now are too important to let go. No shame. No apologies. So we’re going to do something about it.” She stepped close and squeezed his arm.

“Mom….I’m scared.” The boy practically cringed at his mother’s touch, but not for the sensation, but for the meaning behind her grasp as she gently nudged him toward the bedroom door.

“Little steps. Just outside my room, okay. Walk down the hall? We can sit in the kitchen and have a cup of coffee, but we’ll only go as far as you feel you can, but we have to start by walking down the hall, at the very least, because I’m sure all of us could stand for some breakfast, and I’m sure you don’t want to go out to the diner just yet.

“You mean it? You really want me to stay?” He looked down at the clothes for a moment and back at the reflection in the mirror. She put her head next to his and stared at their reflection again as Jenna joined them.

“The Davidson women come from a very sturdy stock and we’ve always overcome challenges that life throws our way.” Margaret squeezed his shoulder. She had faced down breast cancer and won. Jenna was only just now emerging from her own battle with the dreaded disease. And they survived the devastating loss of a loving husband and father. But Seth still felt like the odd one out. He shook his head.

“What have I ever done, Mom? What did I ever do to deserve any consideration? I’m just a stupid boy in his mother’s clothes. I’m sorry.” He turned away and began to weep. Jenna held him close.

“You gave me the strength to fight. When I was at my lowest, you stood by me and told me how important it was for me to go on. I wouldn’t be here without the hope you gave me.”

“And where would I have been without you?” Margaret pointed to herself.

“When your father died, I was right in the middle of this….” She gasped as she patted her chest.

“There were times when I could have just given up, but you helped me see that I was … that I mattered enough to you and Jenna for me to keep on. All at the same time you were fighting your own battle.” He winced at the word.

“You fought for me and for your sister when we had no hope and no strength, and that in the middle of feeling left alone and hurt and confused. It’s time we helped you, no matter what happens. You mean too much to us to let you give up. Little steps, baby. First out of the closet, even if it’s just to walk down the hall and enjoy a girl’s-only breakfast. Where we go from there? Little steps.” Seth bit his lip and put his head down in thought, eyes closed. A moment later he felt another hand grasp his arm.

“Little steps….sis? Can I call you that?” Jenna squeezed his arm gently and kissed him on the cheek.

“And a name, honey? How about Sara or maybe Connie after my mom?” Margaret said softly.

“I think she’s already got a name, right?” The reflection showed all three in thought. Seth nodded, knowing where Jenna was going.

“Then it’s settled. First excursion outside the closet? A nice breakfast down the hall at Chez Davidson where we’ll all have some coffee and Danish. Jenna, Margaret, and the youngest of the trio, Aubrey Davidson, okay?” Seth looked at Jenna’s reflection before turning around and facing them both. He ….she nodded and smiled; the first of many for a brand new if very tentative venture outside of the closet.

Take me by the hand
Take me somewhere new
I don't know who you are
But I... I'm with you
I'm with you

I Can't Make You Love Me

Brandon Middle School Guidance Department, Virginia Beach, Virginia….the following year

Donna slipped behind her desk and sat down; tired and frustrated. Another night of fitful sleep that included reaching over to hold and be held; only to be thwarted by the empty space next to her. She stared at the picture on the desk and sighed. Had it already been two weeks? Was she really as crippled as Kate had said? Was she as paralyzed as Kate had cried? Surely it couldn't be all her fault, but the more she thought about, the more her own thoughts pushed past any excuse to add to Kate's objection. If Kate had only pled in sadness; her thoughts instead screamed accusation after accusation.

"You can't…. you don't even care enough to fight…"

"Just like every other time. You don't even know how to love!"

"After what you did, you don't deserve to be loved…."

At the last words she turned her attention to the picture on the bookcase behind her. The girl in the picture seemed to smile, belying the feelings that surged through Donna like a lightning bolt of condemnation. She would have lapsed into tears but for the urgent need to stay together and for the sound of shouts outside her window…..

Kim lay almost prostrate on the sidewalk; her arms akimbo and her books lying in the gutter in a muddy, leaf-filled puddle. Water streamed down her face, but as much as her tears flowed, it was more from the steady rain falling on her. She lifted herself up on her left elbow, wincing. In a moment she was sitting on the sidewalk, leaning forward with the same elbow on her knees.

Two boys stood just off the sidewalk in the driveway by the entrance of the school. They laughed, looking for support from the other kids. No one laughed along with them, leaving the boys only a bit disappointed, since the girl's tears were enough to satisfy their middle-school 'blood lust.'

The taller of the two motioned toward Kim with a shake of his head and the other boy stepped walked up to and leaned over the girl, extending his hand to offer a help up. She reached out and he slapped her arm hard enough to evoke a second wince. Ignoring her pain, he turned to his partner-in-crime and chortled; failing to see a delicate looking hand grab his.

"Owwwwww!" the boy screamed as Kim's nails dug into his wrist. She pulled him down and punched him once in the face, leaving his nose bloody and pushed a bit sideways. The other boy took one step toward the girl but felt a firm hand grip his shoulder. Spinning around, he came face to face with a very stern looking woman.

"I think it might be prudent for you to stay put, don't you, Mr. Brunetti."

"Aw …we …we were only having fun," he protested. The other boy jumped up and ran…or rather…walked slowly to her.

"Did you see what she did to me?"

"Yes I did, Joey….Yes I did." She grinned and looked up, enjoying the rain .

"Whatya gonna do about it?"

"I suppose I can accompany you and your colleague here to the nurse's office and then perhaps a stroll down the hallway to mine?"


"Well then, let's just go straight to my office and write up your in-school suspension right now, shall we?" The boy looked at her with pleading eyes before resigning himself to his fate. As the two were being led away, Ms. Collins turned back to watch a couple of girls and one boy help Kim to her feet. She brushed herself off and looked over and saw Ms. Collins shaking her head with a half-frown while giving her the thumbs up before she walked the girl's brothers through the front door and away.

Well I won't back down, no I won't back down
You could stand me up at the gates of hell
But I won't back down
Gonna stand my ground, won't be turned around
And I'll keep this world from draggin' me down

Gonna stand my ground and I won't back down
Hey baby, there ain't no easy way out
Hey I will stand my ground
And I won't back down

I Can't Make You Love Me
Cause I can't make you love me
if you don't
You can't make your heart feel
something it won't
Here in the dark
in these final hours
I will lay down my heart
And I'll feel the power
but you won't
No, you won't
Cause I can't make you love me
if you don't

"You okay?" The boy rubbed Kim's back as he helped her over to the cement wall by the front entrance. A tall, stern looking man ushered kids past the group of friends who had surrounded the girl in support. A few boys stopped, but the man tapped one of them on the shoulder and pointed to the front door.

"Keep moving, Gentlemen," he said in a vague accent.

"The show's over, move along," he added, sounding like a Dublin Gardo. The boys looked at each other; forming a spontaneous committee of fools.

"I'm sorry, please forgive me? I thought I made myself clear." He laughed before his expression turned stern once again.

"Unless you'd like to join me for some in-school suspension for bullying behavior, fellows, I strongly suggest you depart post haste!" One of the boys looked askance. The man smiled warmly before raising his voice just a bit.

"Get moving before you end up with me all day for the next month, yes?" The boys looked at each other nervously before quickly joining the queue entering the school.

"Thank you, Mr. Farrell," a girl said. Kim barely lifted her head in acknowledgement. The man waved the remaining kids in line into the school and stepped closer to the small group of friends. He leaned closer and spoke.

"Hang in there, Kim. We've got your back." He used his hand to point to the circle of friends that surrounded the girl. His gesture did nothing to staunch the girl's tears, but his warmth and encouragement made it safe for her to continue as she buried her face in the shoulder of the boy sitting on the wall next to her. He winced slightly; more out of an awkward 'I'm not ready for girls' feeling than any embarrassment. The girl to his right stared at Kim and blushed; being quite ready but feeling just as awkward as the boy.

"Let's go inside, okay?" Mr. Farrell offered his hand to Kim. After a moment she grabbed his hand and stood up.

"I think we need to talk with your Mom, Kim, okay?" The voice came from over Mr. Farrell's shoulder. Donna Andrucci smiled and put her arm around the girl's shoulder as the group walked to the entrance. Kim looked up at the woman and shook her head.

In a few minutes they were at Donna's desk. Kim's mother was on the way from work and would arrive shortly. Donna looked at the girl sitting in the chair catty corner to the desk and smiled a knowing smile but Kim wasn't convinced.

"You don't understand, Ms. A. They're…."

"I know, honey. Maybe more than you know, but I understand." She smiled weakly and recalled a time from her own past.

Virginia Beach Virginia, years before...

"Mario? You home?" Donna called from the front door as her mother stood behind her. She peered down the darkened hall and saw the glimmer of light coming suddenly from her brother's bedroom door. She turned and took the bag of groceries from her mother and shook her head.

"I can get dinner started, Mom. Why don't you grab the couch for yourself, okay?" She walked into the kitchen as her mother sat down and put her feet up on the couch. Nodding in relief, she walked to the front door and closed it as she began singing, ostensibly to herself, but she looked back down the hall to see her brother standing in his doorway; a mask of relief mixed with anxiety over yet another 'close call.' She walked back into the kitchen and found her mother standing by the fridge; her arms folded in demand, but with a grin on her face.

"I think you two can come up with something a bit more subtle," she said as Mario walked slowly into the kitchen; his face sporting the expression of a condemned man.

"Mio figlio? No." Bettina nodded at Mario and held out her hands. Mario put his head down, but she stepped closer and lifted his chin softly.

"Mia figlia, si? Le mie due figlie dolci!" She motioned to Donna and the girl sighed.

"But…Mom?" She shook her head in wonder as her mother laughed.

"Si, mie figlia," she said with a nod of her head.

"Tua madre sa sempre…, si?" Donna shook her head again.

"A mother always knows, my sweet girls."

Tallwood High School...

Donna was sitting in seventh bell Geometry when the phone on Mr. Pawlkowski's desk rang. He picked up the receiver and listened intently before standing up. He walked over to Donna and spoke softly.

"Donna…. The front office just called. Your mother is here to pick you up. Don't worry about homework; we're going to review for the test tomorrow, okay?" She looked at him quizzically and he half smiled as he gently ushered her toward the door. Moments later she walked into the office. Bettina stood at the tall chest high desk; talking to one of the secretaries.

"Mom?" Donna put her hand on Bettina's arm and her mother turned around. Donna could see that she had been crying.

"Your br….Mario is in over at Norfolk Children's Hospital. We need to get over there, okay?" She was moving to the door; Donna almost in tow. In a few moments they were in the car headed up Kempsville Road.

"What happened? Mom?"

"Mario was in a fight. He's …okay." Her words sounded convincing and doubting at the same time. Donna leaned closer.

"A fight? He doesn't fight? What's going on?" Bettina pulled the car into the 7-11 lot and stopped and turned to her daughter. Her eyes had filled with tears and she was shaking; certainly in no condition to drive.

"I got my permit, Mom….let me…." Donna was already out of the car, walking to the driver's side. She opened the door and helped Bettina up and out, and her mother nearly collapsed against the open door.


"It's okay…I'll be alright," she managed to say between halting sobs. She walked around and got in the car.

"What happened?" Donna hadn't meant it as a demand, but her voice raised in anger. Bettina turned to face her and spoke; again through halting sobs.

"He was in the hallway headed for his first class and a couple of boys jumped…..they beat him. B…b…"

"It's okay….I sorta knew already by the look on your face." She bit her lip and leaned closer. Raising up just a bit over the console, she kissed her mother on the forehead.

"We're going to be okay, Mom….we have to be okay." She shook her head twice before starting the car, and they were back on the road to the hospital.

Norfolk Children's Hospital...

"Hey…." Donna said softly. Mario peered through swollen eyes and past the tube coming from his nose to a respirator on a wheeled pole next
to the bed. His face under both eyes was discolored and a bandage covered what was probably a cut next to his left ear.

"H…" He gasped. Bettina had regrouped on the elevator up to his floor. She sat down and held his hand.

"Mi figlia. Mi figlia." She practically whispered. In spite of the pain he shook his head no.


Donna tugged at her mother's coat sleeve and shook her head in mirror to her brother's gesture. Bettina stared at Donna and realized the protest that her son displayed went beyond mere physical injuries. Whatever the boys had done to him must have been accompanied by words even more painful. He turned his head to the side and began to cry into his mother's arm. She stroked his arm and she was tempted to bless him with another endearment from her native tongue, but that would be too specific and painful as well. She smiled weakly at him and said 'my baby' before her own sadness overtook her and she joined him in weeping over the hatred the boy had just endured.
Donna looked upward and mouthed a few words in prayer before she stepped next to her mother; reaching out to place her hand on top of her brother's head as she joined in crying over the hurt that had been inflicted on Mario for the second time in six months.

Donna's Office…the present….

"Ms. Andrucci?" The sound of her name being spoken brought her swiftly back to the present. She smiled at the girl.

"You said… you knew wh…what I was going through?" The girl spoke with a slight stammer; still feeling very insecure and afraid. Donna nodded. It had gotten easier over the years, but it was still hard not to cry; she had given up trying and just let things flow and ebb for the benefit of the girl sitting in the chair next to her desk.

She reached back and pulled the medium sized picture off the bookshelf. Pointing to the photo; she half-smiled.

"She looks a lot like you, Ms. Andrucci. She your sister?"

"Yes, Kim. This is my sister Maria. She…." Donna began to tear up at the memory.

"What's wrong?" Kim's eyes grew wide in a dread. Donna pursed her lips and looked away for a second before answering.

"My… Maria was a lot…maybe almost exactly like you, Kim….she…." At the words, the girl looked down at herself; a habit borne of shame and fear. Without another word, Kim had completely understood Donna's meaning…at least most of it. She tilted her head slightly as the dread grew.

She…she was…. Oh…Ms. Andrucci…I'm so sorry." The girl's eyes filled with tears as she took the picture from Donna's hands; almost reverently as she stared at the girl's picture. It was true that Maria did closely resemble Donna, but the photo brought home the reality that in so many ways Kim resembled Maria Andrucci as well. Donna half-smiled; an odd sense of relief that came from understanding that Kim knew she wasn't alone in her struggle to be herself.

"I didn't mean to make you cry, honey. I'm so sorry…"

Kim handed the picture back to Donna and smiled through the tears at the words before replying.

"Guess what my middle name is? Mom and I picked it out....and maybe now I know why." She didn't really need to repeat the name as her bright smile told Donna everything.

"You…. You don't mind, do you? I mean I don't have to keep it. I can pick another…okay?" Kim put her head down slightly. Donna stood up and then knelt down in front of Kim; softly lifting her chin. She bit her lip and held back the tears long enough to speak,

"Oh Kim, honey? It's your name. I wouldn't have you change it for the world. And somehow I think she'd be honored, okay?" Donna held it together long enough to see the girl grin broadly even as she leaned forward with open arms. She pulled the girl into awkward embrace and patted her on the back, eliciting a relieved sigh followed by more crying as Kimberly Maria Brunetti took one more step on the road to being herself.

I'll close my eyes then I won't see
the love you don't feel when you're holding me
Morning will come and I'll do what's right
just give me till then to give up this fight
and I will give up this fight

A short while later…

Kim sat in a chair across the desk from Donna; her arms in a self-hug with head down. Cara leaned closer and put her hand on Kim's arm.

"It's not your fault, baby." Kim turned toward her mother and sighed.

"I know, Mom. It …I don't understand why they don't like me."

"I think it's because they don't understand you, honey. I wish I knew why they were so angry." Cara paused and Donna waited until they both looked to her; likely for the answers she could not provide.

"The boys live with their father?"

"Yes. We share custody and they visit our place," she paused and pointed to herself and Kim.

"Not as much as they used to. I don't push the issue since it's been hard enough for all of the kids since the separation.

"Kim…Kim doesn't visit their place much at all. They were okay at first, but lately they've been so…." Cara bit her lip and sighed.

"We've seen firsthand some of that, but the past few weeks it seems to have escalated. That has been very hard for Kim, but I'm at least glad to report that Kim has several close friends who support her." Donna paused and looked out the window, recalling the scene only a short while before.

"Most of the kids, in fact, have been pretty good about it. Oh, we have some boys and even a couple of girls who feed into your sons' bullying, but between some of our folks here and Kim's friends, it doesn't get out of control." Cara frowned.

"I know, but it's still getting to be impossible. I'm afraid I'm going to have to take Kim out of school. Maybe transfer to Kempsville. I've even thought about home-schooling her. It just doesn't seem fair…." Cara turned to Kim and pled.

"I'm sorry, honey. But I don't know what to do." Kim shook her head.

"It's not your fault, Mom." Her nostrils flared and tears welled up as she continued.

"It's mine. I…. You …." The girl leaned into her mother and began to sob. Donna sighed, wondering just what could be done to salvage the family. Kim needed to be herself, and her father and brothers sought to change that; involving as many people as they could who would be glad to join in their ignorance.

"Ms. Brunetti? I don't know that the answer is, but it doesn't lie in Kim being anyone but who she is. We just have to figure out how to help your sons understand that." She would have added the need to convince their father as well, but any change of his point of view would come from someone else; a completely unexpected and, oddly enough, welcome source.

Avondale Apartments, Pete Brunetti's home, that evening…

The boy sat on the couch; arms folded and head down. His brother mirrored his pose but for the baseball cap pulled down over his eyes. The two were elbowing each other when Peter slammed the book in his hand down on the pass through counter.

"What the hell were you two thinking?" He walked into the living room and stood in front of his sons, his arms folded in near mimic of the boys, but with a frustrated glare at the two.

"He started it,' Joey said, pointing to Jason, who had yet to peek out from beneath his cap. He just shrugged his shoulders, which evoked a loud sigh from Peter.

"You have to pick and choose your battles, guys, and picking on your brother at school is the wrong place.

"I don't get it," Jason said, still hiding his eyes from view.

"Mom says Petey's not a boy anymore."

"Dammit Jason, how many times do we have to go over this. Your mom is trying to mess with your brother. Dressing him in girls' clothes and sending him to school like that….It's just not right. Not natural." Jason raised his head slightly but his face was still hidden. Joey turned his face to the side and bit his lip. Lectures were never a good time to say anything, but Jason persisted.

"But Petey says it's his idea. That Mommy didn't really want him to do that but he …."

"I don't care what Petey said…he's confused. WE just have to figure out a way to help him out.

"He said to call him Kim or Kimmy…. I don't know why you're so angry, Dad."

"That's enough," Pete snapped. Jason stood up slowly and walked past Pete and down the hall. Only after he had entered his room did he remove the baseball cap, revealing a face still dirty from the confrontation with his sibling and the tears that left streaks in the dust on his cheeks. He walked into the bathroom and washed his face off, staring into the mirror over the sink.

"Fuck you!" He said in anger before shaking his head. As angry as he was at his father, he was even angrier at himself for the fracture that continued to grow and deepen between him and his brother. He didn't understand what was what, but he knew he missed Petey, even if he wanted to be called a girl's name. But what he really didn't understand is why his father was so angry at Petey and at their Mom. Joey and he might have acted like they didn't care, but it hurt being away from the two. Somehow things had to be better that what they were. Was every father angry at every mother? He stared at the mirror again.

"Fuck you!" He punctuated the words by grabbing the ceramic toothbrush holder and throwing it against the shower wall, shattering it.

A few days later

"Hey, Kimmy!" The boy stood in Kim's way as she went to get off the bus. She put her head down and tried to push past the boy, but he stood his ground.

"You're sick. Just fucking sick." Benny Perez was at least consistent. He had been one of the boys in Kim's class that fell in lockstep behind her brothers in the teasing. Some would insist he wasn't a bully, because he hadn't pushed or shoved her like Jason or Joey, but the words were just as intimidating and perhaps even crueler since Benny had been Petey's best friend before Petey 'became' Kim over the summer.

"I'm sorry." She kept her head down and went to push past Benny once again. He relented and she lifted her head to face him as she stepped around him. He shook his head and frowned. He might as well have said the worst insults she could have imagined. Anything would have been better than that frown, since it dismissed her. She walked down the aisle and down the steps off the school bus. And Benny was still standing, shaking his head. As much as the girl felt betrayed, Benny felt betrayed as well, since from where he stood, it was Petey Brunetti who destroyed their friendship.

Pete's townhome, later that week….

"Dad? Uncle Paul called. He said something about news? He wouldn't say what it was, but he sounded okay. He wanted to know if we can come over to his place for dinner on Sunday?" Joey said as he grabbed a Riptide Rush Gatorade out of the fridge.

"He wouldn't say what it was? That's your Uncle Paul. I guess we'll just have to find out, huh?"

"But it's Mom's weekend," Jason chimed in."

"I know it is, Jason. You don't have to remind me," Pete snapped. He thought better of his response and shook his head.

"I'm sorry, Jay… it's not your fault your mother is so stubborn. Maybe she'll let you come over just for Saturday." His tone was apologetic, but his look indicated otherwise. Jason turned away and bit his lip. The constant putdowns were eating at him. He fed into his father's resentment by continuing to tease Kim every chance he got, and he still hated himself for it. Shaking his head once, he turned and faced Pete and spoke.

"Why do you have to put Mommy down all the time?" It was as polite a plea as he could manage, but it did nothing to quell Pete's mood.

"Come on, Jason. Dammit! She's pulling us apart, and you know it." Jason didn't know what to think or whom to believe or whom to favor; the worst part of it was having to choose. He put his head down without reply. Joey walked into the living room and stood next to Pete; almost aligning himself with his father. But he shrugged his shoulders a bit as if to say 'what else can I do?'

Cara's house….that same night…

"How was school," Cara said almost absent-mindedly as she spooned out some Mac and cheese onto Kim's plate. She almost didn't want to know; not because she didn't care, but because she cared a great deal, and it was painful to hear about how poorly her daughter was being treated.

"It…it was better." Kim took a sip of milk and picked up her fork. After a few moments of pushing her food around she placed it on the table and sighed.

"What's wrong, honey?" The question was specific since for Kim school was always wrong in one way or another.

"Benny got his sister to ….." She shook her head and her eyes welled with tears.

"Now she won't talk to you? I'm going to call Mrs. Perez. This has to stop." Cara reached over to the pass-through counter and grabbed her cell phone.

"NO!..... No…." Kim put her left hand up and covered eyes.

"But honey, they can't do that. It's wrong!" Cara snapped at Kim, but she shuddered when she realized how loud she had been. She reached over and grabbed Kim by the arm, squeezing gently.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to yell. I just want you to be happy."

"I'm never going to be happy, Mom….never." She stood up quickly and ran down the hall. A loud door slam evoked another shudder from Cara followed by her own hand placed over her mouth. She looked down the hall and back again to the cell phone. It was true. There wasn't anything that a phone call could fix. She put her hands together and laid her head down on her arms on the table.

"Dear God, please help my baby…." Was all she could manage to say before she began to weep.

That Sunday, at Paul Brunetti's apartment…

"Hey guys," a voice called from the landing of the apartment building.

"Hey, Uncle Paul!' Joey waved and ran the short distance from the parking lot to his Uncle's front door. The man pulled him into a hug. Jason walked slowly; almost deliberately so.

"Hey Jay," He reached out for a hug and pulled the boy close. Jason offered no response and Paul shook his head slightly at what was becoming the boy's answer for any affection. He patted Jason on the back as the boy slipped past him and into the apartment.

"Hi," he heard as Pete reached the front stoop. Paul stepped down and grabbed Pete and pulled him into a hug. Pete's response was barely much more than Jason's other than offering a nod and a request.

"Hey, bro, got any beer?

"Separation hitting you hard, huh?"

"I'm…." Pete paused and looked at Joey, who was still standing behind Paul on the landing.

"Maybe we can talk after dinner?"

"Sure…let's go inside." Paul ushered Pete and Joey into the apartment. Jason had already sat down in front of the TV and was playing 'Call of Duty.' Joey walked over and sat down; grabbing the other control that lay in front of the console.

"Let me get you that beer, okay?" He turned and went to go into the kitchen just as a tall woman walked into the living room, two Heineken's in hand. She was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt that read Hampton University. Her hair was a very dark red; cut to just below her shoulders and pulled back in a ponytail. Her face was what some might call handsome, but the freckles on her cheeks and the sparkle in her eyes caught Pete's attention. Her expression was one of near-glee, like a child surprising an uncle or aunt with home-made birthday card.

"Here, babe." She handed one of the beers to Paul and offered the other to Pete. He accepted it awkwardly and quickly shifted the beer as the woman wiped her right hand on her jeans before offering it to Pete, who shook it just as awkwardly.
"Oh, jeeez, Sorry." Paul leaned close and kissed the woman on the cheek and smiled sheepishly before turning to Pete.

"I'm sorry, bro. You remember I told you I'd been dating a nice woman from Hampton? Pete, I'd like you to meet Annie…. Annie Nomhara." She teased him with a half-stare.

"Oh, my bad. Dr. Annie Nomhara." Paul put his head down in mock-shame. She pulled his chin up and kissed him back on the cheek.

"Uh…nice to meet you….uh…" Pete searched for words. The woman tall enough to look him in the eye, and he noted she was barefoot.

"I…this is very …I meant to tell you in a much more….well. Annie has agreed to…." Pete's eyes widened at Paul's words and he smiled.

"I'm…jeez, Paulie….I'm really happy for you. Well….I guess…." He stammered until Annie stepped close and hugged him, kissing him on the cheek. He stepped back out of reflex and she half-smiled.

"Pete's been going through a rough stretch. Hey…why don't we go sit down. Dinner is almost ready, and you guys can relax while Annie and I get the food on the table. Pete nodded and walked over by the boys and sat down on the couch. He watched the two walk into the kitchen before breathing out a very frustrated sigh.

A short while later…

"Paul tells me you boys are in Middle School. Let me see…" Annie looked back and forth between the two.

"Now….you're the youngest brother, so you've got to be Joey. You like the Carolina Panthers and you want to work for ESPN when you grown up? Joseph…Joey, right?" The boy's eyes lit up and he nodded with a big grin.

"And you…." She turned to Jason. The boy half-frowned, evoking a squeeze of the arm from Pete. He sat up and looked at Annie and forced a smile.

"You're the serious one. The oldest. The most responsible. You don't really like the Panthers, but you…. You're the Giants fan, right?" He warmed up a bit even as Pete sighed.

"Well, he didn't get that from me," he said almost dismissively. Cara hailed from Clifton, New Jersey, and grew up a Giants fan.

As if to provoke his father, Jason nodded almost enthusiastically.

"And you want to help people. You want to grow up to be a doctor? Jason, right?" He half-smiled and sighed.

"You're almost fourteen and you're going to be in Tallwood next year." He nodded.

"I'm a doctor, but I'm not an MD. I'm a psychologist. I work with kids….:

"Yeah…I know. You work with kids who need to talk about how they feel," Jason said just cordially enough not to be rude.

"We go see a Doctor over by Lynnhaven." Annie nodded. She already knew of the boy's circumstance; at least for most of the Brunetti children.

"How is that working out for you? Does talking help?" Joey nodded before reaching over for another slice of lasagna. Jason sighed with a slight shrug. Talking with Dr. Sherry was okay one-on-one, but family therapy almost always felt more painful when they were not talking, since what his mom and dad didn't say felt hurtful.

"I know it's not easy to talk when you're upset." He nodded with a frown.

"But there's another brother. Is your brother Petey busy today?" Annie asked innocently enough. Paul coughed and Pete spoke up.

"Hey, guys. Why don't you both walk down to Food Lion and get some ice cream." Jason stood up immediately while Joe finished his last bite of lasagna. Pete handed Jason a twenty. The boy shoved the money in his pocket and in a moment he and Joey were out the door. Pete sighed and put his hand to his face. He massaged his cheek and temple by his left eye; seeking relief from what had become recurrent headaches.

"She won't listen to reason," Pete shook his head as he sipped a mug of coffee. Dessert was finished and the boys were outside throwing around a football from Paul's pile of sports stuff by the front door.

"I don't understand. What's the problem with Petey? He always seemed to do well in school." Paul mirrored his older brother; holding his coffee in his left hand.

"School's only a problem because Cara has made it so. She's…." Pete's face reddened and his cheeks grew warm with shame; needless and sad, but still his response for something so far from shameful as to be tragic. He sighed but continued.

"You remember last year when the boys went out for Halloween?" Paul nodded and squinted in expectation. Pete had been angry at the time, and he made no effort to hide it then or now.

"Oh, come on, Pete. It was just a silly thing. They had fun."

"Cara dressed them up ….all three of the boys as super heroes….well two of them."

"Which two?" Annie leaned closer in attention. She could see Pete's anger practically back in the moment.

"Arrow and Hawkeye,' Pete said with a laugh, but his face quickly returned to disappointment. Annie nodded with a half-smile.

"Ah… DC vs. Marvel. Nice touch."

"Well, that wasn't the problem," Pete practically snapped at Annie, evoking a raised eyebrow and a frown from Paul. Annie smiled at Pete.

"Sounds like something really bothered you. About?

"She got it in her head to listen to our middle boy….Petey….Junior" He said curtly, but it was obvious he wasn't upset with either Paul or Annie.

"That show about the boy who…." He paused and practically seethed before continuing.

"The boy who is a super….dammit….the super…." He shook his head. Paul looked at Annie for some help. She didn't want to know, in a way, since it would lead to more than anyone might be able to handle at that moment, but she asked anyway.

"The boy who is a super….heroine?" Annie cowered on the inside, but she continued to keep eye contact with Pete. He nodded without a word.

"And that bothers you a great deal. You seem upset even now."

"Dammit. The kid doesn't know what he wants or needs and now…son of a bitch." He practically slammed his mug down; what little coffee was left went splashing all over the table. Annie continued to face Pete.

"I thought you and Cara had an understanding about that." Paul shook his head.

"She's letting him go ….he's going to school dressed as a girl. And she enrolled him …..they're calling him Kim. What the….dammit, Paul."
"Petey is seeing someone as well?" Paul wiped the coffee up from the table with a dishtowel. Annie turned to Paul and shook her head.

"What the hell. That's my son she's screwing around with. What the hell. I don't understand."

"It's hard when something so different enters our lives, Pete. I can certainly understand why you're so upset." Annie leaned closer in sympathy, but Pete remained distraught.

"Different? She's messing with the kid's head. We're separated. We haven't even discussed divorce, and the boys need us together, but this….this?" Paul rarely saw his brother open up, and he felt a bit lost. And it could only get worse.

Brandon Middle School, at the bus line the next day….

"Hey Kimmy….Nice outfit," the boy laughed and shoved her rudely against the half-wall next to the sidewalk. She dropped her books on the ground as she fell against the hard stone that capped the wall.

"Leave him alone, Benny!" Jason stood, fists balled in anger. Benny laughed.

"Fuck you. You give him a hard time more than anybody. Who the hell are you to tell me?" He punctuated his claim by pushing Kim back against the wall again. He went to shove her once more, but ended up flat on his back as Jason slammed against him. The boy went to hit him, but a strong hand grabbed his fist.

"I think that's enough for one day, Mr. Brunetti." Eamon Farrell smiled warmly at the boy and helped him to his feet.

"And you too, Mr. Perez." He offered the boy a hand, but Benny glared at Jason.

"You saw what he did, Mr. Farrell. It's not fair."

"No, Mr. Perez, it's not fair….or unfair. It is, as my sainted mother might say, what it is. But if you want to go there, it certainly isn't quite fair to shove a girl, now is it?" Benny offered no response.

"I thought not as well, Mr. Perez. Now I can't predict the future, but seeing how they don't like to boot you lads out of school anymore after a fight, I suppose I'll be seein' ye in my class for the next month or so, aye?" His accent always grew a wee bit deeper when he teased; a habit he picked up from being around several uncles who were 'cards,' as they used to say.

"I want to call my mom!" Benny said in protest as they were led into the school.

"I suppose the condemned man is due his phone call. What about you, Mr. Brunetti? Shall you be calling your father or shall I?"

"Go ahead. I don't care." Jason had come out on top, both physically and perhaps in stature, but he felt horrible. He turned back and glared at Kim; his expression saying without any doubt, 'I hope you're satisfied.'

Kim watched Jason disappear through the front doors of school. Only then did the moment catch up with her and she leaned back against the wall and began to cry.

No, you won't
Cause I can't make you love me
if you don't

Look at you how well you've done so far
look at where you're standing who you are
and all our moments good and bad forever in my head
wish we could go back just once and laugh at things we said

Paul's home….

"Your brother is facing a real crisis," Annie sighed as she sipped her coffee. Paul shook his head.

"Tell me about it. And it's only going to get worse." He stared at his fiancé and smiled. She shrugged her shoulders.

"Your nephew Jason? He's quite a kid. A handful and a half, but there's so much more to him than just sullen and sulky." She looked out the front window of the townhouse, a bit distracted by the rain that cascaded off the eave. It suited the moment, since Annie felt that the boy had seemed to be only a moment away from crying, despite his near-bored expression.

"It's been hard on everyone, but Pete just makes it worse for the boys by pitting them against Petey and their Mom."

"Well, he's not without company, no matter how you look at it. Between the divorce and your niece's issues?"

"Well, when you put it that way…." He laughed softly and patted her wrist.

"It feels like this is almost orchestrated, you know?"

"Like from above? Well, it's not a surprise to me, but then nothing surprises me anymore." She laughed back at him in a tease. Even as a professional, her faith meant a lot to her, even if it banged hard against her education. She made it work because her faith didn't ever dictate how she approached working with her charges, but it guided her approach to her view of humanity. That it conflicted a great deal with whom she was, at least in the way others practiced their own faith, just made her life that much more interesting.

"I think having them over again this Saturday should be very interesting."

"Well, it's important for so many reasons for all of us, but I think it's so …"

"Vital?" It wasn't the word that came to Annie's mind, but it fit completely, since what they needed to discuss was so needful for the boy's lives and Pete's lives and the life of the Brunetti family.

Pete's home...

"In school suspension again? For fighting?" Pete shook his head and then glared at Jason.

"Benny was picking on Petey." Joey said as he stared at Jason.

"So? I would have thought you'd at least have stayed out of it." Pete shook his head. Jason got up and started down the hall to his room.

"Where are you going? We're not through here!"

"You don't get it, do you? Fuck it." Jason pivoted and walked past his father to the front door."

"Where are you going? Get back here!"

"NO." Without another word, the boy opened the front door and was gone.

"What the …why is he so pissed off at me? What did I do wrong?"

"Benny wasn't just teasing Petey, Dad. He was pushing him around. Jason's right. You don't get it."

"You stay right here!"

"I'm not going anywhere." Joey got up and walked over to the couch. Picking up the remote, he turned on the TV and a moment later was playing FIFA 16. Pete stared at the door, expecting somehow that Jason would walk through the front door, but honestly it was more than anyone could hope for at that point. Pete felt lost in his own home; no longer feeling that anything was in his control. He would discover how vitally important that loss of control would be for his family…all of them.

Later that week, Brandon Middle School…

"Stymied?" A voice spoke from Donna's office doorway. She looked up from the folder she had on her desk.

"It's just a damn shame. The kid is so…." The woman looked nervous; she practically hid behind the door frame and her expression seemed almost apologetic. Kate was too involved for Donna's sake. Being one of the girl's teachers was one thing, but this spilled over into personal territory. Kate and Donna might still share an apartment, but that was all; at least for the present. And seeing each other frequently at the school did nothing to remove Kate's anxiety or assuage Donna's guilt. Kate pressed through the awkward moment anyway.

"Adjectives fail a bit. Courageous? Determined? And that's not even going into sweet and kind." Kate was struggling with her own words. She wanted so much to see Kim Brunetti delivered from the hurt and rejection, but looking at Donna, she couldn't help feeling the same for her. But as clever and witty as she could be with her students, lately she had become tongue-tied around Donna Andrucci. She smiled politely and shrugged her shoulders.

"I'm sorry, but it's just so frustrating. The family is broken and it's just so hard to watch." Donna was practically aloof even in the midst of sharing something so important. Their issues safely 'parked' off campus while they continued to work together.

"I know. Joey seems to take all of his cues from Jason; both are good kids I think deep down but the tug of war the parents are playing make it hard for any of them to get some solid footing. I think Joey wants to do the right thing; especially when Jason wanders over the line into sympathetic with Kim, but the father seems so adamant. And that's the real shame. Other than being so damned stubborn, he actually seems like a nice guy….just wants to protect his child.

"But Kim doesn't need protecting from who she is, Ms. Chen." Donna sighed. Kate felt hurt that Donna was so 'formal,' not just because of their problems, but because even being professional could still allow for human feelings like warmth and being polite. She sighed back.

"I know. You know. The trick is to get him to realize that Kim being Kim is exactly what she needs. I'm not sure I even know where you stand regarding faith, but short of a miracle or just an answer to prayer, I can't see things changing….." She sighed. Donna looked away for a moment. Turning to Kate again, she half-frowned. Kate hadn't meant her words to be a rebuke, but Donna still felt hurt,

"I…I'm not putting much hope in divine intervention, I'm sorry."

"You don't owe me an apology, Babe. Your beliefs are your own." Donna cringed inside at the endearment but even more at the word 'own.' At one time she would have been the first to pray. The first to hope. The first to believe. But after Maria died, her heart lost all interest in hoping against hope, so to speak. The softest, most pliable souls often become hard and inflexible if they feel betrayed. Donna Andrucci trusted God to deliver her sister from heartache and pain, and perhaps he did, in a manner of speaking, but Maria's deliverance from hurt meant something much different and disappointing than Donna could have imagined, leaving her indeed feeling betrayed.

"I know you'll find the answer, Donna." Kate sighed a bit and nodded with a half-smile. She noticed the picture on the book shelf. Hopefully whatever pain Donna could not express, even to her best friend and lover, might be finally relieved. Maybe things would get better. Donna might have given up on hope, but Kate had never given it a second thought. She smiled again.

"See you at home…." She wanted to add the word 'dear' but thought better of it and just waved goodbye as she left. Donna bit her lip and shook her head before turning her attention to Maria's picture once again. She didn't have the strength to get up to close the door and she hoped she could keep from crying as her eyes fell upon the smile her sister would forever display, no matter what heartache had dwelt inside.

It's been wonderful and crazy knowing you
and I hope that I can always see the teenage girl in you
and I know that you'll be fine
but I'll be there every time
you need someone to say hi to late at night

The Brunetti girls' home...

Kim stood in front of her closet; biting her index finger in thought. The clothes were beckoning and soft, but she was looking for something accommodating and ….peaceful. A few minutes later she heard her mother calling from the kitchen.

"I stopped and picked up some KFC. I tried calling earlier but I guess you were out?" Cara squinted in thought at her own words. Where would Kim go after school with all of the problems she was having?

"I'm sorry, Mom. I would have started dinner…." The voice trailed off even as the girl walked into the kitchen. Cara looked up and shuddered at the view. Kim stood in front of her mother looking brand new and decidedly and sadly old at the same time. She wore an old pair of jeans and some worn-out Reeboks along with a Norfolk Tides teen shirt and ball cap. The clothes would have been troubling enough but for what didn't peek out from under her hat.

"I….walked over to Kempsville Barbers……" She took off the cap and half-smiled at the display of the crew cut she had gotten at the barber shop. That she walked all the way the six miles from home and back was daunting enough, but the price was more than a haircut and a long walk. Cara dropped the bucket of chicken on the table, barely enough to keep it from falling to the floor. She gasped.

"It's the only way, Mom. I'm sorry." The girl apologized for so many needless things, but this was probably the worst thing she could have done to compensate for everyone else.

"Oh no…honey….no." Cara rushed to Kim and pulled her into an awkward if needed hug for both of them. The girl looked up into her mother's face as tears fell onto her cheek.

"We can't be a family as long as I'm this way, so I'm not gonna be this way anymore. It's the only way," she repeated. She pulled back slightly and kissed Cara's cheek before sitting down at the table. The curious thing was that Kim's sacrifice did little to change things. Of course her hair was shorter. But the blockers she had gotten from her doctor had not only kept some things from starting but oddly allowed a few other things to begin. Her face had never been very boyish, but now she looked like the daughter Cara had always known she had. And while she wasn't very girlish up top, things had begun to show, which belied what the doctors had told her not to expect.

"Kimmy? You don't have to do this!" Cara insisted as she sat down. She picked a chicken thigh out of the bucket and placed on the plate in front of her. They still had to eat, yes? She stared at the chicken before putting her head down on the table. As she wept, Kim got up and put her hand on her mother's back.

"I'm sorry to disappoint you, Mommy," she said with a shrug before walking down the hall to her bedroom. She opened her door and stared at the pile of clothes on her bed. The few dresses she owned were bundled into a Kroger shopping bag along with some skirts. The girl jeans and jumpers sat awaiting a perusal. Some girl would benefit from the clothes even if she couldn't. She went to fold some tops when she heard a knock at the door.

"I got this for you today, honey," Cara said as she held up a bag from Marshalls. Cara spoke haltingly and with some success at holding back sobs as she pulled the outfit from the bag. Walking over, she held the medium blue top and navy skirt in front of Kim.

"I figured maybe some nice leggings to be modest and maybe your blue Sketchers?"

"No…." Kim pushed away from Cara and the clothes spilled out of her hands. Cara sat down on the floor and pulled the clothes to her in a hug.

"Mommy? Daddy won't come back if I stay this way. And Jason? And Joey? I can't stay this way….I just can't." She walked over and sat down next to Cara and nestled in her arms against the clothes, feeling like it would be the first and only time she would be close to how she wanted to dress. Cara pulled her closer and began to speak, but the words wouldn't come, and she began to cry for her daughter, rocking Kim gently as the girl gave in to the overwhelming sadness. Cara hugged her tightly, feeling alone and scared for Kim's future. But they were not going to be alone for long….

Sunday at Paul's...

"Joey is at his friend's house for dinner and Jason said something about homework, so it's just me." Pete handed Paul a bottle of Sebastiani Merlot and a six of Murphy's Law Amber Ale.

"My buddy Tommy said these would both go well with the seared Ahi you told me about." He retrieved a can of ale from the pack and popped it open just as Annie walked out of the kitchen.

"Oooh…Murphy's!" She grabbed the pack of ale and the wine from Paul and placed them on the dining room table before grabbing two cans. She handed a ale to Paul and then opened her own can; taking long sip, Pete looked at her askance. She smiled.

"You should try their Rule G."

"Annie's cousin Angie is an event planner and chemist for the brewery," Paul said as he walked into the living room. Annie smiled at her fiancé.

"Sautéed green beans are done and the tuna is resting. Potatoes should be ready in a few, kay?" she said as she walked back into the kitchen. Paul's gaze followed her walk before turning to face Pete again.

"It's actually good that the boys didn't make it. Annie and I have a few things we wanted to discuss with you." Pete cringed, expecting a lecture. Paul waved 'no' and continued.

"It's just that they'd probably be bored." He was about to go on when Annie called from the dining room.

"Dinner is served, Gentlemen."

Somewhere on Luck Lane in the Brandon area of Virginia Beach...

"Hi…." The girl said softly as she walked up to Jason as he walked across her front lawn.

"Oh…sorry….I wasn't looking." He took a step back as the girl stood with her arms folded; looking a bit cross. In a moment her glare changed to a smile.

"Oh….no big deal. It's just a lawn. You live near here?" He almost said yes, since the family home still was in the neighborhood even if he and Joey had moved in with their dad. He shook his head no.

"We just moved here from New Jersey. My mom is an author and my sister starts at Norfolk State in the fall. I just transferred to Tallwood, so I guess I'll see you there?"

"Uh…not exactly. I'm still in eighth grade. I had some problems and they felt it would be better if I started late when I was little." He almost added that his sister/brother shared the same grade and bus ride. He looked away; feeling at a very big loss. The girl was about his age and while she wasn't a 'looker,' she had a nice look 'about her' as they used to say.

"You got a name?" She teased. He tried to remain his recently gloomy self but he failed miserably and laughed.

"Jason…Jason Brunetti."

"I'm Aubrey… Aubrey Davidson. I hope to see you around. You play any sports?"

"I did before we moved. Everything …. Things have been all…. No…I don't" He frowned and his frown grew even more dour at the embarrassment.

"I run track. Well, I did back home. Nothing this year while we get settled, but I'll be back to cross-country in the fall. I bet you're fast." She smiled again and both of them turned away as they blushed in unison. Jason couldn't believe a girl would even talk to him and Aubrey couldn't believe she had gotten up the courage to talk to him. She smiled again weakly.

"I've got to go start dinner. Sis is out running errands and my mom is at a mystery writer's seminar in DC. My step-dad is in Germany with the Air Force… He gets out next month.” Age sighed.

“ Maybe you can come over for dinner some time?" She spoke even as she backed away and toward the front door to the house. He half-smiled.

"Maybe… I gotta go too. Nice meetin' you." He said as he backed away as well. He bumped into a Jeep that was parked on the curb and nearly lost his balance before grabbing the spare tire on the back. He grinned sheepishly and waved before walking away. Aubrey sighed. She reached the low front step and sat down on the bench in front of the door. Her eyes followed Jason's path until he vanished around a corner.

"He'll never like you." She heard a voice say. It was her own voice, of course, and it was persistent in reminding her just how different she was. And the voice was wrong.


"You okay?" Paul asked Pete. His brother sighed.

"It's just so hard. I don't want to be the bastard here. But what do I do?"

"Maybe you don't have to do anything." Paul said. Pete stared at him.

"Seriously, bro? You say Cara took Petey to the doctors? Three? And what do they say?"

"You know what they're going to say, Paul? This PC bullshit? That's my son….he's my son, for Christ's sake!" Annie kept quiet, but the words rolled around in her mind as she answered in thought.

"For Christ's sake, indeed." She instead got up and began to take the dishes into the kitchen.

"I'll put on some coffee," she said as she stood at the archway into the kitchen. Both brothers nodded and turned again to face each other.

"I know some things are 'pushed' a little; maybe a lot. But from what I can remember of Petey growing up, he wasn't really …."

"Wait a second… that's …." Pete wanted to argue, but Paul was right. At least in that regard. No matter, since Pete was confident that he had three sons.

"I know it can't be easy to accept, but what would be so wrong if you do have a daughter. Does that change anything? Would you love Kim any less than you love Petey?"

"Easy for you to say. You have no idea what this feels like."

"You sound discouraged, Pete." Annie said as she returned with a tray with mugs of coffee and a pint of half-and-half."

"Ye…yes." The word came slowly and almost reluctantly. It was hard to admit.

"And that no matter what you've done, you…." Annie paused. She wanted to be clear Pete understood what she was about to say.

"You've been a great father but this makes you feel like you failed?" Pete's eyes widened. Annie had hit a raw nerve, but her expression was warm and understanding; leading him to continue.

"Like somehow I let my boy down." Paul had seen Pete cry, of course, but he had never seen his brother look so vulnerable. He patted Pete's arm.

"You are a great father, and you didn't let your child down." It was Paul's turn to pause in caution, but he knew what he could 'get away with' much more than Annie and he went on.

"You haven't let your daughter down. She's just different than what you and Cara expected. I'd be willing to bet that if you sat down with her, you'd realize that the only way you've let any of your children down is how you and Cara aren't together." Pete's face grew red and hot.

"Now wait a minute."

"I'm not trying to make you feel bad…you've done enough of that yourself. But you're the one who chose to move out. The boys followed because that's what boys do but they're torn. And poor Kimmy's probably feeling like it's her fault." It was the first time Paul had used his niece's name with his brother. And while it was uncomfortable, it was necessary and effective.

"Kim…." Pete said quietly.

"Mommy would have been proud," Paul said, recalling that the girl had chosen their mother's name for her own.

"You can't possibly know how hard this is," Pete said, reverting to form in an anxious moment. Paul went to speak, but Annie waved her hand no.

"I do know how hard this is, Pete," she said as she took a sip of coffee.


Sometimes when I think of us I'm sad
I miss not knowing anything of what could lie ahead
when mostly now I'm grateful that you're where you want to be
not quite here and not quite there but somewhere in between

It's been wonderful and crazy knowing you
and I hope that I can always see the teenage girl in you
and I know that you'll be fine
but I'll be there every time
you need someone to complain to late at night

When at night I go to sleep
Fourteen angels watch do keep
Two my head are guarding
Two my feet are guiding

Two are on my right hand
Two are on my left hand
Two who warmly cover
Two who o'er me hover
Two to whom 'tis given
To guide my steps to heaven

Later that week, Kate and Donna's apartment…

Kate sat on the couch with her laptop open. She had taken a personal day; mostly to work the follow-up paperwork to her thesis but also to decompress a bit after a very long night filled with cordiality and completely bereft of any intimacy.

"I made some Fusilli to go with the sausage and peppers from the other night," Kate sighed, looking up from her laptop as Donna walked in. Lately the rides to and from school had gotten better, but they were still had a business-like feel about them; shop talk about Kate's lesson plans or Donna's upcoming three day conference in Richmond. Home, however, was almost as cool inside as out, leaving Kate frustrated on most days and all too sad that day. She stood up and went to hug her lover. Donna winced a bit but seemed almost to acquiesce to the affection rather than welcome the embrace. Kate hugged her tentatively and kissed her on the cheek in welcome.

"I have to go out tonight," Donna said, pulling away from Kate. She tossed the car keys in a straw basket on the kitchen counter and grabbed a mug from the glass-paned cabinet in the corner. She sat down and poured coffee out of the carafe on the table and sighed; almost a belated echo to Kate from only moments before.

"I know." Kate stood by the fridge and glanced at the wall beside it to the calendar. The day had been circled, as if Donna needed reminders of the importance of the date. Kate stepped closer and put her hand on Donna's shoulder, evoking yet another wince, which urged Kate to redouble her efforts. She stepped behind Donna and leaned closer and wrapped her arms around the chair; hugging her from behind.

"Honey….it's…." Kate began to speak, but Donna cut her off since the words had been exchanged all too frequently over the last year.

"It is." Donna sighed in frustration. Kate's embrace was firm and she felt as hemmed in as the hug demanded.

"She …it wasn't your fault."

"She'd still …. It's my fault," Donna gasped. While the encouragement and subsequent protested over the past several months, the futility still hovered above their heads nearly every day like a rain cloud that dims the sunlight but never rains and never refreshed the soil below. Sunlight seemed to peer thorough the blinds of the living room window; almost a sign of the peace to come. Kate spoke softly even as her voice broke.

"She didn't mean to….you know? What did the doctor say? That it wasn't…."

"It's my fault. My meds….my fault." Donna began to sob.

"The doctor said that she never…that she was so tired of being hurt."

"I should have been there."

"You were there for her more than anyone. Your mother loved her and she had a few friends and even some folks at school, but no one was there more than you…for her. She never…. It was an accident."

"If …I should have…. She….." Donna sobbed and gasped and stammered. Kate leaned around the back of the chair and kissed her cheek once again.

"She only wanted….to get away. Didn't the doctor say she made a mistake…?"


"But she was so tired and so hurt. Like you are now. You've been fighting for so long, honey."

"I'm…..I'm sorry," Donna said between sobs. Kate gently grabbed Donna's chin and turned it slowly; facing her lover. Wife would better suit them both, but not yet and not where they were. She kissed Donna's cheek just below her right eye and leaned close; almost rubbing noses like they did when they were girls seeing a silly penguin cartoon.

"I know honey. I can't do this anymore." Donna's eyes widened; almost in fear. Kate half-smiled even as tears spilled off her own face onto Donna's arm.

"I'm not going anywhere, but I can't make you love me." She half-frowned.

"You've done everything you can to punish yourself. And because you feel it was your fault, that makes you unlovable. And because you feel unlovable… you feel….." Kate turned away at the thought; the pain so bad that Donna could not reach out. And guilt that left her feeling that she deserved nothing good. The only saving grace in that was that Donna actually felt that what she and Kate could have had to be good and therefore underserved. Kate shook her head as Donna began to protest.

"No…just….. Hear me out. Okay?" Donna didn't say no. Kate continued.

"You deserve every good thing I can bring you. I love you!"

"Why…why do you love me?" A fair if impossible question to answer, maybe? Kate blinked back some tears and spoke

"I've always loved you…sort of. Like best friends when we were little and on-again/off-again best friends and frenemies when we were in high school." She paused and smiled.

"But I fell in love with you when I saw what a heart you have for the kids here. It goes beyond just helping them get better grades or even succeed when their homes tell them they can't. But when you look at a boy and tell him he's just fine the way he is. When you look at a girl and she can feel how much you care just by the way you smile? That's what I love about you. Your heart. You have all the love to give to everyone else, so long as you don't have to receive in return. The kids come and go, and what they have with you is fleeting and temporary. No investment in receiving because they're gone."

"I…." Donna shook her head; more out of tired resignation than disagreement, but tired resignation was exactly what she needed to feel.

"I'm here. Now. And I'm not going anywhere. I'm not leaving like the kids…." She paused.

"Don't…don't you say it…." Donna's eyes grew wide in recognition."

"It feels like Maria left because she was broken and she felt hopeless; she didn't leave, honey, so much as you stayed behind to be exactly who you needed to be. And that means that her death didn't signal what you should have done but what she said…. What did she say to you…the last words the day before…."

"I should have guessed…."

"She never left that option because she didn't know what she was doing was forever…like the doctor said. She took too many pills…not because she wanted to die….she just didn't see any hope. But what did she say, Donna?" Kate was almost at the point of breaking down herself, but she had to keep strong…if only for a little while longer.

"She said she knew I …." Donna's eyes fluttered a bit and she turned away, but quickly faced Kate again.

"She knew I did…what I could…. She said I was her best friend…." Donna began to sob once more. Kate stood up and walked around. Kneeling in front of Donna, she pulled her into a soft embrace as she began kissing the tears from Donna's face.

"She didn't think she was going away, honey. She said she had what….what did she say?"

"She….she said I gave….I gave….." Donna looked away once again, as if she had no business speaking the words that would free her from the past. Kate remained still. Donna had to find her way herself. Her need to remember and not Kate's need remind. Donna sighed and turned once again and half-smiled; partly in spent grief, and partly in relief, but every bit in revelation as she spoke at last.

"I gave her hope." Whatever was left of guilt and shame would be lost slowly and surely in the days and weeks to come, but the heartache and the self-doubt left the room almost like the setting sun beamed the last of the day's warmth through the gaps in the blinds. She collapsed in hopeful tears as she spoke the most important words she would ever say for her own benefit as she kissed Kate on the face.

"I love you….I love you…."

Sleeping sofly, then it seems
Heaven enters in my dreams;
Angels hover round me,
Whisp'ring they have found me;

The next afternoon, Luck Lane in the Brandon area …

"Hey…" Jason heard a familiar voice over the scrabbling sound of his skateboard wheels on the asphalt.

"Nice board…. " The girl waved as she stepped off her own skateboard and walked down the sidewalk to the boy.

"Yea…yeah." He looked slight up; even off her skateboard, the girl was probably a good two or three inches taller than him. He smiled nervously.

"I've been…..My brothers and I…." He looked over his shoulder in the direction of his dad's townhome.

"Me too….my sister and I….until she got sick." She put her head down and Jason muttered but still audibly, "oh fuck."

"Oh….It's' okay. She's all better, but between Norfolk State and her job….we don't get out to skate much lately." She paused and then quickly changed the subject.

"Is that an Element? That is so cool." She smiled, leaving him both proud and embarrassed once again.

"Yeah… My dad got it for me for my last birthday."

"You go to the park over at Williams Farm?" The girl smiled and closed her left eye in thought before adding,

"Jason, right?"

"Uh…yeah." His face grew red as he scrambled around in his memory, searching…."

"It's Aubrey…most people don't remember the first seven times," she laughed, making him more nervous. He stared at her chin, noting a small scar just beneath her lower lip.

"Fell off my bike when I was four," she said as her eyes lowered a bit.


"It's okay, Jason. You barely know me. Your name…. an adventurer." Her laugh was soft and welcoming, but she caught herself and practically stood straight up, as if in salute.

"I'm sorry….I didn't mean to tease," she said haltingly as it became her turn to blush. But her face grew a bit hotter and she backed up a bit; the old habits from other days and other places seemed to jump in between her and the boy, as if some bully was playing keep away between her and Jason.

"I…I gotta get home," Jason said, stepping up onto his own board."


"Aubrey? Is that your friend? He's welcome for dinner if he doesn't have any plans." Aubrey's mother called from their front door. She turned back to ask but he was already skating down the block toward home.


She shook her head as the ghosts kept up their whispers. She walked slowly back toward her house; only then realizing she had left her own skateboard in the grass where they had just stood. A Diva autographed by Paula Costales. At that point, she didn't feel like a diva, certainly. She hardly felt good enough to be a skateboarder, much less one of the best women in the world.

And at that moment, standing on the sidewalk in front of her house, she looked once more down the block. The boy was barely visible, but she still could see him enough to want to know him more….the first boy she ever crushed on. And she didn't feel like a girl at all. She picked up the board and headed back to the house, shameful tears falling to the ground as she walked.

Two are sweetly singing,
Two are garlands bringing,
Strewing me with roses
As my soul reposes.

That Thursday afternoon, the office of Dr. Rita Adler…

Rita sat in the wing chair across from the couch. The figure in front of her was familiar if very awkward to begin with.

"So what do you think?" Kim pointed to the short hair barely visible under the edge of her ball cap.

"Well, short hair is nice, I suppose, but the question is, what do you think of it?"

"It's okay." Kim folded her arms and leaned back.

"Okay….. I get that. Okay. You like the way you look?" She smiled and tilted her head in question. Kim took it exactly as she hoped and half-smiled; almost trying to convince herself of her next words.

"It's fine."

"Oh…fine. Okay. I asked because for something that is so fine, you don't seem very happy." Kim shook her head slightly but remained silent.

"Girls….most I would say….we often get our hair done and really aren't happy with it." She said, stressing the word we. Kim shook her head a bit more emphatically but still kept silent.

"So I gather our little talk about body language only works on other people? You're thrilled with your look?" The tease was pointed, but Kim looked up to see that Rita almost seemed sad.

"You've done everything you can, Kim. You watch TV shows you think your father will want to talk about even though he doesn't call you. You've stopped wearing pretty things even though he hasn't seen you in how long?"

Kim bit her lip and her nostrils flared. It had been nearly three weeks since she talked briefly with Pete when he called up about the car insurance, and then only for him to hang up quickly when he learned Cara hadn't gotten home from work. And she couldn't even recall how long it had been since she saw her father other than when he sat in the car when he dropped off Joey and Jason for their weekend with Cara.

"Now you did something much different." Rita said; almost a lilting sadness surrounded her words.

"It says somewhere that a woman's hair is her glory….I don't know if that's true, but how we see ourselves and how we wish to be seen. You're fourteen and you cut your hair off just to please him and he won't even notice. That must hurt so much." Rita lowered her face just enough to catch Kim's gaze.

"You've tried to be someone he wants to love." It wasn't fair and it wasn't right but it was true; true enough to brush up painfully against the dagger of neglect that pierced her heart.

"I ….I want to be a good boy," the girl said. She almost looked odd, since even in boy's clothes with short hair, she would never be and should never have been mistaken for a boy.

"Are you good, Kim? Don't you love everybody no matter what? Don't you keep trying to do whatever you can to bless others? What isn't good about you, Kim?"

"I'm bad." She folded her arms once again, but not in anger but in self-comfort, as if her embrace would be the last hug she ever got.

"What makes you bad, Kim?" Rita hated this part of therapy, since in order to face the good, Kim and every child like her had to stare down and spit in the eye of the bad.

"I'm not…." The last two words stuck in her throat. Not in shame, but somehow because they should have to be uttered in the first place.

"It's okay, Kim…..you are doing great," Rita said in encouragement. The words needed to be spoken; even to be set aside once and for all, but Kim still needed to say them in order to deny them.

"I'm not a boy…okay? Are you happy now?" She practically snapped even as she began to cry.

"No Kim. I'm not happy at all, and you aren't, either. This hurts so bad, honey, but you're doing great."

"Why, Rita? Why wasn't I …."

"I don't know why, honey, but that's not the question we need to ask, is it?"

"I don't …. What?"

"You're not a boy, are you? Have you ever even felt you were a boy? You know….since you started really thinking about yourself…when you started to wonder who you were…like we all do?"


"Yes, Kim?" Rita leaned closer, as if Kim's words were just whispers; not shameful and wrong.


"You're a girl, aren't you?" The words would have almost seemed to be leading except Kim had already begun to mouth them silently before Rita began to speak.


"Then the question is…. What do we do with what we know to be true, right?" Kim nodded almost reluctantly.

"Your mom believes in you, right? Not just believes you, but believes in you…. She trusts your personhood and your being. To her, even if she called you Peter for all those years?"

"She would call me Kim when Daddy wasn't home or maybe when we were in the laundry folding clothes…." The tears continued to fall, but Kim's visage had brightened in moments.

"And what does Joey say?" it was a hard question to answer, but not hopeless or as painful as the ones to come.

"He….he still calls me Petey, but….it's funny. It feels like things have changed with him. Like even if he doesn't call me a girl, he sorta sees me. Mom tries to make sure she calls me Kim when the boys are over, even when she doesn't really have to call out a name, you know? The last time the boys were over…for the first time?" Kim began to smile at the memory; a memory which would serve to sustain her progress over the last few minutes.

"She said, 'Joe, would you help Kim set the table?' And he didn't…for the first time he didn't turn around and glare or make a face or correct her, you know? 'Mom, Dad says we have to call him Petey.'"

"So he's getting used to the idea of having a sister? Or maybe not so much used to it as not fighting it as much?" A small but important victory.

"Yes," Kim said with a sigh.

"What about your Dad? That must still hurt a lot," Rita asked.

"He doesn't seem so….mean. He still calls me Petey… I mean it's not like we talk a lot, but it doesn't feel so angry?"

"So it doesn't hurt as much?" It hurt so much less, but still remained almost too painful to bear. Her only hope was that change of tone….things just had to get better, didn't they?

"So Joey is getting used to you and your father isn't so angry, is that right?" Kim nodded nervously, but even as she agreed, the tears began to fall once again.

"But they're not the only ones, are they?" Of course Rita knew the answer, but the prompt was important because the remaining member of the family probably held the key to the change in the family. Almost the heart and soul of the Brunettis, so to speak.

"No…." She gasped.

"Your….best friend, you said once. There's only about eleven months between you two, right?

"Yes….." Kim stifled a sob.

"It's okay to cry, Kim. It hurts …probably more than anything you have ever gone through….maybe more than anything you will go through….because….?"

"He….protects me…that should be enough, right?" She put her head down, missing Rita's slight head shake. No it wasn't, but Kim needed to see that for herself.

"What do you think? Do you feel that he loves you?" The question might as well have been another poke at that dagger of neglect that still stabbed her. It's said that the opposite of love is not hate, but rather indifference. Kim bit her lip and began to rock in place on the couch.

"It hurts to say it, Kim. If you say it…." Confession actually means to say the same as; to agree. For Kim to agree, it also meant every bit of hurt that went along with the confession. But the healing couldn't begin until the wound was cleansed by the truth. Her father might even hate her in a way, and Joey might not understand her, but it was what she had to say that would lead to her healing, as well as the family's as she spoke.

"Jason…doesn't love me…." Not the teasing confusion of a thirteen year old. Not the ignorant hatred of her father; there is always hope for change when someone is ignorant since they just don't know. But the neglectful withdrawal by Jason Brunetti hurt more than anything else. Even worse than Benny's betrayal, because he was just a friend. But her brother's retreat hurt more than any single thing she could recall.

"Kim? Do you believe you're loveable? What's the last thing you see each night and what's the first thing you see when you get up and what do you hear? What did you tell me last time?" It seemed almost futile to insert a pause in the middle of the measure, but it was not only called for but effective. She looked up at Rita and smiled weakly.

"When I go to bed….and when I get up….Mom is sitting on my bed. She holds my hand until I fall asleep and when I wake up she says, 'There's my girl….'" She bit her tongue trying not to cry, but these tears and the hope they brought were needful. She gasped before saying at last,

"There's my girl." She turned to the side and sobbed against the back of the couch.

Rita stared at the girl. As much as she wanted to surround the girl and protect her, there was a real angel so to speak in the guise of Cara Brunetti, who filled that role superbly. It didn't stop Rita from feeling motherly at all though, since all the children she saw were her children in a way. She mouthed the words silently to herself

"There's my girl."

God will not forsake me
When dawn at last will wake me

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise.

Kate and Donna's place…

"We should go," Kate said as Donna turned over and hugged her.

"You…" Donna began to speak, but looked into Kate's eyes. She shook her head even as tears began to spill.

"I know I've been so far away for so long. I never meant to keep you out." She turned away and Kate climbed over her; teetering on the edge of the bed facing Donna.

"I know. I know, honey…. But I never went away. I've been right here waiting. In understand. Let that go, okay?" Donna nodded weakly and Kate pulled closer and kissed her cheek.

"But we have to go…not just you. When I fell in love with you, it was for everything you are and ever were and maybe what you hope to be. Maria is just as much a part of me as my own sister because she's right there," Kate said, patting her chest.

"You reside in my heart, and so does she. There's plenty of room, you know?" She smiled and kissed Donna again; much more intimately and for a bit more time….

Blackbird fly Blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night.

"Do you think she knows I'm here?" Donna said as she looked at the grave. Kate rubbed her arm and squeezed.

"I'm sure she does. And I know she understands. She loved you, honey. You know that, right?"

"Yes….I just wanted her to be….."

"Proud? Of course she is. You are everything she believed you would be. And you're helping other kids. Lots of kids….some just like her. And it's what she would have …. "

"I finally realize she…..it hurt too much. Looking at the Brunetti girl? She reminds me so much of Maria….I just…"

"WE won't fail her, Babe…." Kate pulled closer into a side-hug as they looked down at Maria's plaque.

Maria Louise Andrucci
1984 - 1999
Take these broken wings and learn to fly…

Saturday morning….

The boy was pushing lazily down the street; as ambling as one can get on as skateboard. He turned the corner moved slowly. In a few moments he was in front of a familiar house again. The day was cool enough to wear a sweatshirt, but the girl sitting on the chair on the front step wore only a dark green top. She looked up to see him standing at the edge of their driveway and she smiled.

"Hi!" She waved as she hopped off the chair and stepped quickly to greet him. He smiled weakly and lowered his gaze.

"Are you okay?" She went to put her hand on his shoulder but pulled back. He nodded his head but his smile had retreated behind a pained look.

"I'm fine," he said. She grinned and stooped down just a bit to make eye contact.
"My therapist tells me every time I use that word that I'm probably not fine at all. He says I'm just saying that so I don't have to talk."

"I'm fine!" He snapped. She stood up, looking hurt, but smiled and nodded.

"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that." She shook her head at herself and stepped back.

"Oh…fuck…." Jason sighed. He lifted his head and nodded.

"Something at home….." He looked over her shoulder.

"I'm sorry. I should just…."

"No…it's okay. It's just….I…. Me and my brother live with my Dad. My Mom and my…my…." His voice trailed off.

"It hurts…. My dad…steo-dad has been deployed for so long. Even when my mom was sick. Even when my sis was really sick." She began to tear up.

"Oh…." Jason turned away.

"He's almost home now. We were so alone for so long. I'm still hurt. Mom and Dad are working on everything but it hasn't been easy, and we're together….so….for you?"

"It's like …. I don't know…. It hurts." He frowned and Aubrey stepped close once again. She wanted to hold him. More than that, she wanted him to hold her.

"Do you see your Mom much?"

"Every couple of weeks Jimmy and I go over to see her and Petey."

"You have another brother? Oh…."

"Yeah…another brother," he said, but couldn't hide his emotion when he mentioned the word brother.

"He didn't …. I …"

"It's complicated," he said; this time making no effort to hid his sarcasm.

"You sound angry."

"And you sound just like my shrink… just forget it."

"I'm sorry, Jason, but I can't. You're upset. I just wanted to help." She started to cry. He reached out and grabbed her hand. Something in her eyes spoke to him, and things changed in a moment. Whatever else was going on, he felt like he could at least trust her.

"No…it's okay. It's just more than I can talk about right now. But thanks." He squeezed her hand and smiled.

"Maybe next time…. " his voice trailed off as he backed away.

"Okay…next time. See you around," she said as he hopped back on his board and skated away back up the block. She followed his progress until he disappeared around the corner. She sighed and walked back and into her house.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to be free.

A short while later…

"Anybody home?" Kim heard Jason calling from the doorway.

"Mom's went to Richmond for a conference. She'll be back about seven." She called from the kitchen. Jason walked in and stopped as a look of near shock crossed his face. Kim frowned and pointed to her hair.

"Why so upset? It's what you guys wanted." She bit her lip and her face grew red. Jason held his hand out in protest, but immediately put them down as he saw Kim had begun to cry.

"N…no….that's not what I wanted." He protested. She shook her head and her expression became angry.

"Really? You don't want me, so …. I figured I'd give you your brother back, okay. Don't tell me you're not happy with this!" Jason had never seen his brother this angry. But he had never seen this person before, either. And it was odd, since Kim was dressed just like he would expect Petey to dress, but it was the first time Petey didn't look like a brother…at all.

"No..I'm not happy. I thought we'd all be happy, but we're not. Dad's not happy. Joey's sad half the time. We all miss Mom…."

"Thanks a lot, Jay….Just go, okay?"

"No….I wasn't finished. Just give me a fucking second, okay? I wasn't finished."

"Don't let me stop you."

"I mean I …I miss you…."

"Well, you got me, Jay….I hope you're satisfied."

"That's not what I meant, and you know it!"

"Really, Jason? And how's that? You never talk to me. When you come over you say something to Mom and then you and Joey go out and hang out with your friends. I don't know what you mean."

"You're right…. I'm sorry. I just meant….I miss you…really." He stepped into the kitchen and walked over to her.

"No take backs, right, Jay? Well you got your brother back…at least when you come around. Rita wants me to try to understand you. Maybe I can…I …." She had misunderstood a bit of what Rita had encouraged. Understanding her brother was one thing, but old habits die hard, and she reverted to wanting to please him as well. He wasn't pleased at all, but his displeasure wasn't with her.

"I miss my best friend. I miss you. And I'm sorry. I don't fucking understand all this shit….but I want to. I'm sorry. Looking at you just now? I can't figure it out. I….I miss my brother, but I miss you more….is that fucking crazy or what?" He looked down at his feet.

"You miss me?"


"Not Petey….me?" It was crazy. Names and such getting mixed up and jumbled around and fixed and set anew, since the factory defaults were no longer helpful. He felt her hand touch his face. A first. She'd seen him cry plenty of times, but always for little stuff. And she'd never felt anyone's tears besides her own and her mother's. To see and feel him cry for her. For the first time, she knew he cared…for her.

"No….not Petey. I….it feels like something is gone inside me that I'll never get back, but I got you instead….it feels right…." He stammered between his own crying and hers. He pulled him close and kissed her brother's cheek.

"I love you Jason…."

"Me too, Petey…." He paused and looked into his sister's eyes for the first time and said at last,

"I….I love you….Kim"

Blackbird fly Blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night.

That afternoon….

Two figures walked down the street close enough to holding hands but far enough to indicate a tentativeness that refused to go away just yet. One taller only by a bit, but as protective and safe. The one only shorter by a bit. He wore his typical Norfolk Tides hat; backwards and slightly askance. Blue jeans; distressed from use and not from a factory. His sweatshirt was dark green with a caption that read, 'Live, Love, Laugh & Skateboard.'

His sib wore a turquoise hoodie open over a maroon tee shirt and blue jeans and a maroon DC beanie. Both looked nervous and determined at the same time. They turned the block and walked down the street. In a few moments they were standing in front of Aubrey's house. A few seconds after that, the girl had walked out to greet Jason and his companion.

"Hi," she said tentatively. She looked at the person standing next to Jason and back at him; an awkward frown crossed her face as she asked,

"Is this… your girlfriend?"

"No….this is my sister….Kim."

Meanwhile, at Paul's home…

"Hey, Annie. Paul around?"

"Nope….he had to fly to Denver for the weekend. Just you and me. I hope you don't mind?"" Annie handed Pete a beer and sat down on the arm of the couch.

"I just finished dinner. Paul's thing was last minute, and we figured you wouldn't mind a free meal,' she laughed, pointing to the table.

"I've got Chicken Parm baking in the oven and pasta in the pot on the stove. I didn't know if the boys would be coming, but I made enough for a take-out. Looks like you'll be enjoying my cooking for the next couple of days." She took a swig her Pumpkin ale and got up.

"Oh…okay." Pete said nervously. Annie smiled and patted him on the arm.

"Relax. I promise I won't act like a doctor; my shrink outfit is in the cleaners anyway. And being a Brunetti, I bet you love Chicken Parm as much as your brother." She walked over to the table and sat down; pointing to the chair across from her. He walked slow over and took a seat.

"Besides, Paul wanted you and me to get to know each other. Being his best man, we wanted you to know exactly what you're standing up for."

She half smiled and took another swig of her ale as the oven beeped; signaling that their food was ready and their conversation was just about ready to get interesting.

Back at Aubrey's place…

"You cut off all your hair….I'm so sorry,' Aubrey said. Kim lowered her gaze.

"It's my fault," Jason said, turning away. He could hardly face a girl who was barely out of the I just met you phase, much less his sister.

"No…. I don't think it's anybody's fault….and everybody." Aubrey got up and walked over to the couch. Sitting down, she pulled Kim into a friendly embrace and spoke softly; words that would either betray them both or bring healing to all of them.

"I know what it's like, Kim. And it will only last as long as you let it." She got up and walked down the hall. In a few minutes she returned, holding a dull looking ziplock bag. Reaching inside, she pulled out a dark object and handed it to Kim. She turned to Jason and shook her head. It was important that he knew. For all of them. Kim reached into the bag and her eyes widened in surprise; nervous at first and changing to near-delight.

"Is this for me?" She gasped. Jason stared anxiously before shaking his head.

"My sister has one just a little different than this, but she's not home and I don't know where she keeps it."

"Your sister wears a wig?" Jason asked; a quick demand rather than a soft request.

"She lost all her hair from the chemo….like I told you, she's okay now." Aubrey looked at the door; almost expecting Jenna to walk in from class, but she nodded.

"Jenna works right after class. She's going to Norfolk State." She smiled at Kim and turned to smile at Jason, but he had looked away. Without looking over, he asked.

"What did you need a wig for? Were you sick, too?" His words were almost accusatory. Aubrey swallowed hard and turned her attention to Kim. No matter what Jason expected or even needed from her at that point was lost in the midst of Kim's needs.

"I…when I was younger…. Jenna gave it to me because I didn't have any hair like all the other girls in my class." She bit her lip nervously as Kim tilted her head in question.

"Were you sick?" Kim asked. Her question was gentle and sympathetic as she noticed the sad look on Aubrey's face.

"Some people thought I was sick. They didn't understand me." She paused and looked at Jason, who had returned his attention to her and Kim. She shook her head and continued even as Jason's face turned from anxious to angry.

"A few years ago I was just like you…. I felt like something was wrong in me…like I didn't fit in. But my mom figured it out with me…" She glanced at Jason and would have winced but for the hand that reached out to grasp hers. Kim smiled even as tears began to spill. The first person she ever met who knew exactly what she was because she was the same…the same hurts and fears and confusion and hopes and dreams faced her like a mirror image; even down to the tears cascading off both their faces.

"My name is Aubrey Lynn Davidson, but I was born Seth…. Seth Aubrey Davidson. I'm sorry," Aubrey sighed. Kim spoke, misunderstanding her meaning.

"Oh…you don't have to be sorry. This is the most wonderful day of my life. You can't know how much this means to me…. Oh…gosh….maybe you do….. but you don't have to be sorry." She pulled Aubrey into an awkward hug. Jason stood up and stared at the two before walking toward the front door.'

"We have to get home. Our Mom is on her way back from Richmond." Jason practically snapped. Kim turned to him and shook her head no.

"Do we have to? I just met her." Kim protested. At the word 'her' Jason winced and put his hand on the door knob.

"Come on….I have to walk you back home." He stood stock still and glared at Kim.

"It's okay, Kim…. We can talk another time. And now you know where I live," Aubrey said as she helped Kim to her feet. She put her hand on the girl's shoulder.

"It will be alright. If your Mom has any questions, she can call my Mom and me, okay?" She grabbed a pen off the table by the door and pulled out a card from her pocket. She quickly wrote down a number and handed it to Kim.

"This is my number and Rita's number….my therapist….her number is on the front if your doctor wants to talk to her. I don't want to get in the way of anything, okay?" She looked at Jason as she spoke.

"I hope your family gets to know you, okay? You're such a sweet girl, and it's important for everyone to realize that." She kissed Kim on the cheek and urged her toward Jason's outstretched hand.

"I guess I won't be seeing you around much…." She sighed as they walked out. Kim's eyes spoke of welcome, but Jason's blank stare told her all too much. The door hadn't even clicked shut and she had already sat down on the big chair next to the door. She shook her head before bursting into tears. And all the while the voices…the ghosts of the past screamed at her.


At Cara and Kim's, later that afternoon… .

"Tell mom I came over, okay?" Jason seemed very cold and distant, but Kim would have nothing of it.

"You could stay for dinner, but you're too full of yourself to hang around. I'm sorry you feel so badly about us."

"What about us? I thought we were cool?"

"No! Not you and me. Me and Aubrey….and anybody else like us, Jay. I thought you'd changed, but the look on your face when she told me about herself. That's the same look Daddy has whenever he sees me. Even Joey sometimes. And Benny. And pretty much everyone else. You hurt her, Jay. And that hurt me too." Jason shook his head no. Wasn't he better? Didn't he treat Kim okay?

"I'm sorry, Jay. Remember what Nonny Gina said about when she was little? How some of the boys would tease Uncle Vinnie about being a dago? How even though they never said a word to her that it hurt her anyway? Your look hurt me just as much, Jay, because when you showed you don't really like her it felt like you really don't like me, either And the way you snapped at her just hurt her so bad. Maybe you should just go. Just go."

"I'm sorry…. Kim? Come on…." His pleas went unheard as the girl ran down the hall and into her bedroom. He followed a few moments later. Knocking on the door, he spoke.

"Come on, Kim…." He said, but his words were met with the sound of crying. He tried the doorknob, but it was locked. He stared at the door, as if he could look past to the room the two had shared only months before, but this room was different. No longer a boy's room, but a girl's room. His sister's room. He sighed and walked down the hall and out; locking the front door behind him.

In a few minutes he found himself at another front door in a neighborhood not too far away. Ringing the doorbell, he backed off the low front step and waited. And waited. He pressed the doorbell and stepped back once again. A few moments later Aubrey opened the door. Her face was red and it was all too obvious she had been crying.

"What, Jason?" He was taken aback at her demeanor. While she looked very distraught, there wasn't a hint of anger in her expression or her voice. Her frown flattened and she pulled the door further open.

"You can come in if you want," she said as she turned back and walked into the kitchen. In a few moments she was sitting down on a large wooden rocker across from the sofa. She pointed to the rocker's twin by the fireplace and smiled, which set him feeling confused and even a bit scared. She pointed to the coffee table; two bottles of Poland Spring sat on coasters. He grabbed both bottles and handed her one; almost afraid as he avoided eye contact. He sat down without a word. A few seconds later she spoke.

"I knew you'd come back." She smiled weakly; her tears beginning to fall once again in anxious hope.

"Why….because you're right?"

"No…because I knew….the first time I met you, there was something…your eyes give you away. My mom told me they're the windows to the soul. I knew you were more upset with you than with your sister…yes… "

"I don't understand,' he said flatly. He wanted to understand. Why he couldn't say, but what she had to share was important even though he barely knew her.

"It doesn't matter how you think of me…what you think of me…." She stared at the door through which he had departed less than an hour before.

"But you called her Kim…not Petey, like before. You called her by her name. I knew you'd be okay when I heard that, no matter what I saw."

"But…I….." He shook his head; almost apologetically for himself as much as his words.

"You don't have to like me, Jason. But you being here? I know you don't hate me, and that's a start. I prayed about it. I said God, as long as he doesn't hate me it'll be okay, and it is."

"No it's not. I'm so sorry. I…I hurt you. I don't even know you and I hurt you. I hurt everyone. I hurt my Dad because I can't be like him. I hurt Joey because he looks up to me and I'm such a fuck up. I hurt my Mom. And I hurt Kim….okay?" He blinked back tears; once again becoming too vulnerable in front of a girl he barely knew. And way too vulnerable to keep from showing that he really liked her.

"No, Jason. It's not okay. You coming over here after everything that you've done? You're here and that means you're not a fuck up. You're a good guy." The words were barely out of her mouth when she realized she had maybe said more than she wanted. He was really a good guy, but never wanted to be the person to tell him that. She blushed and turned away.

"I'm not a good guy…I'm ….I don't know what I am anymore, but I know I'm not a good guy," he sighed. She wanted to argue with him, but any more than a nod would expose her to more scrutiny. Bad enough from a boy who had maybe disliked her, but too much from a boy who seemed to be showing that he did more than just not hate her.

"I've got to go…." He said sheepishly as he stood up. She stared at his feet, not wanting to look him in the eye. And he stared at hers for the exact same reason.

"I'll see you," he said; something that less than an hour before might have meant less to her, but now, after his return, it meant the world to her. But she kept it simple and looked up only a bit.

"Okay. See you," she said as he walked out. And a moment later she burst into tears for all the right reasons.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
You were only waiting for this moment to arise.

I fell in love today
I can't find the words to say
How much I've wanted to
Find someone just like you

A while later…

"So what's the big deal?" Pete said as he finished the ale he had been nursing all through dinner.

"You're getting married to my brother and he wants me as his best man. Gotta be better than his first marriage, right?" He laughed nervously and cringed when the words sank in.

"Paul and I already talked about his first marriage. Lana is completely fine with everything and Paul and she talk all the time. They did share a few years together and too much sorrow, right?"

Pete sighed at the word 'sorrow.' A still-born birth and the following complications did nothing to help an already shaky marriage, but over the years life had been kind enough to nurture forgiveness and reconciliation. Lana was happily remarried and both she and Paul could now recall all the good memories they shared.

"I heard she and her husband adopted." Pete remarked; again wincing at his own words. His expression betrayed him, he thought, but Annie smiled warmly.

"I know that look of question. It's okay. I can't have children, Pete. Paul and I have talked about adopting, too."

Annie looked away. While the sorrow of being barren was something she shared with Paul's ex, the circumstances were entirely too painful to ignore, which meant even more considering what she and Paul had decided they needed to tell Pete. And she felt it was important for her to talk with Pete one-to-one. The trust and hope she wished to foster in the family coming from who she was, and not what. She half-frowned; knowing that her next few words, no matter how carefully chosen, would either make or break the entire Brunetti home. She offered up a silent prayer while Pete finished his ale. He looked at her sideways, almost expecting something huge. It was huge…. Bigger than huge.

"I've known Paul for about five years. The beginning of our relationship was strictly professional. I met him as part of my practicum when I was finishing my master's and he was seeking support through the school for some of his personal issues. I felt I couldn't help him, and he ended up getting support at a group at VCU instead. And the following year we ran into each other at an art showing in Richmond. He was wandering around and literally knocked me off my feet by walking into me while I was talking with a friend at the gallery." She laughed softly; her voice seemed almost husky but it was soothing at the same time.

"So it was love at first sight unseen?" Pete interjected.

"Yes," she laughed.

"The reason I had disqualified myself from working with him in the first place was that I was immediately attracted to him, and I wanted to be fair to him and to myself. So I was...so glad we reconnected. He's quite a guy." She sighed; almost that 'Isn't he cute' kind of sigh you might hear from a pre-teen.

"So after you met him again….like it was almost planned," Pete said, and Annie blushed.

"Oh…shit…no. Not that you planned it…more like someone else?" Pete pointed up and she nodded.

"I believe with all my heart that it was completely providential that we met up again….." She looked away; measuring her next few words.

"Especially with what I had to tell him about myself…." She looked back at Pete. Her eyes had filled with tears. She knew that everything between Paul would be just fine no matter what the next few moments held, but she desperately hoped and prayed….even to the point of praying the entire morning before Pete's visit…that what she would say would not be lost or in vain. She took a deep breath and spoke.

"I love your brother, and I would never do anything to hurt him or anyone he holds dear." Pete's eyes began to widen in expectation.

"But my love has to be centered in who I am, no matter what others may think of me or your brother. Do you know what I mean?" Pete shook his head slightly.'

"Sort of. You want us…me and the boys….and Cara and….Petey….uh…" He stammered but continued.

"You want us to know you for who you are…. "Annie nodded.

"My name wasn't always Nomhara…it's sort of a play on words…. Nomhara is like saying my name is from Eaghra….my mother's side is from Sligo in Ireland."

"Like a nom de plume?"

"Sort of. I had to change my name for my family's sake, so to speak, because they couldn't deal with who I had become after I left home. We've made up….mostly, but the name stuck. And I like my first name anyway. Annie. Anne…from the Hebrew for grace. Something I treasure so much because of people like Paul…and I hope like you?'

"I don't understand… why would ….of course I'd like you. Paul loves you, Annie."

"Paul knows everything about me, Pete. That my family name is Inngeson. My mother was born in Strandhill back in Ireland. She's a Sheridan. My dad is from Duluth. They had two kids… both …" Annie bit her lip and tears welled in her eyes as she said at last,


At Aubrey's house…

"You still okay?" Jason put his head down. Aubrey smiled and opened the door wider.

"Yes. Are you?"

"Uh…." He pouted but continued; perhaps a little too emphatic.

"I wouldn't be standing here…" He stared at the girl. She stopped the motion of the door and shook her head.

"I'm sorry if being my friend is so difficult for you, Jason. Maybe you'd better go. She started to close the door and he put his hand up, but pulled it back and spoke instead.

"No….please…Aubrey?" It was the first time he'd uttered her name, and it felt odd and good at the same time for them both. It wasn't a comfortable good, but good none the less.

"What….Jason?" She said it softly; her voice almost cracking with sad anticipation. He frowned, and she knew immediately it wasn't for her sake but for his that he frowned. She opened the door wider once again and he stepped in.

"I'm so sorry. I don't know how to …what to say…. I want to be…."

"You want to be my friend? I want you to be my friend, but there's so much between us. Stuff that you …you can't deal with in your own family. I don't want to be hurt." Aubrey shook her head and turned away. He reached out and touched her hand. The first time he had extended anything remotely intimate other than in a familial sense. She shuddered.

"I …. I know that Kim is a girl." Aubrey recoiled at the words. What did that mean to her? What did anything mean anymore? Life was already confusing and disappointing on a day to day basis.

"I….I know…." Jason shook his head; embarrassed that he was embarrassed. Why was life so complicated? He looked down and noticed the girl was wearing dark pink leggings. What the hell did that mean? Why couldn't she just be a boy? Boys were easy. Girls were impossible as friends. His gaze drifted upward. He noticed that she seemed shorter than before. Had he grown? Maybe in some ways, but he was still perplexed.

"You know what, Jason?" She didn't mean to snap at him, but her words were entirely curt and almost dismissive. He sighed, feeling defeated.

"I'm sorry….I didn't mean to be….mean. You're my friend, and that means however you can be my friend. I'm so sorry." She went to continue but her words were cut short as he leaned closer and kissed her on the cheek.

"I know you're a girl. And I gotta figure out what that means, okay? I'll see you tomorrow." He turned to hop on his skateboard, forgetting that he had been replacing the bearings and had left it home. His face grew a bright red and he smiled weakly.

"Okay…." She sighed even as the tears spilled off her cheek onto his shoes. He backed away and turned, and in a moment was running down the block as fast as his feet could carry him. Aubrey watched him run around the corner and closed the door before he had even disappeared. She was almost okay enough to regroup, but she put her hand on her cheek; feeling what felt like the mix of her own tears and the moistness of his lips and she walked over to the couch. A moment later she was sitting down with a pillow covering her face as she cried; hard and confused and happy and sad and finally at a peace she had never enjoyed in her life.


"So you're adopted. Then you'll have… that experience when you and Paul adopt?" He looked at her and sighed; the tension lifted….at least from his perspective. Annie shook her head even as tears spilled freely. She had fought guilt and shame for so long when she was younger that it was sometimes easy to forget they hang around like Job's comforters; looking for ways to accuse even someone as innocent as her. She took a deep breath.

"No, Pete. My parents had two boys. My brother Nels….he's two years younger than me and we only just began speaking recently after a very long dry spell…"

"I don't get it."

"I said…told you that I knew…how hard this whole thing with Kim was for you and your family. I know firsthand exactly how Kim feels because I went through it."

"You're joking, right?" Pete wasn't convinced at all, and his words were more to try to convince himself he was wrong. She shook her head.

"I was born thirty-one years ago in Minneapolis. The first born of Anders and Maureen Inngeson… Anders Lars Inngeson, Junior." She turned away, failing to stem the flow of tears. It was her story to own and even with the ghosts plaguing her at that very moment, she felt no shame; only fear that she had ruined whatever chance the family had for happiness. Pete would come to hate her and Paul the way he seemed to hate his own daughter, and the Brunetti's would never know any joy or peace. But her efforts, such as they were, became like water on already aerated soil, so to speak. The germ of peace had already been planted by a gardener with much more skill at seeing good grow out of bad.

"Annie?" Pete practically whispered as he gently touched her arm. She turned to find his expression matching her own as tears fell from his chin onto the table. He squeezed her arm and then patted it softly.

"I'm….. ashamed of myself. I am so sorry it has come to this." She winced, misunderstanding his meaning.

"I don't know how to explain this other than to tell you and maybe you'll understand? You telling me about yourself. I …." Pete began to cry and it was Annie's turn to comfort. She grabbed his hand and squeezed as if to say 'I do… I want to know…."

"I….. Until you told me about ….it was like I couldn't see a future for ….for her…for Kim….. I'm so sorry." He apologized again, leaving Annie puzzled.

"When I was a kid, I had heard about my Uncle Vinnie and how he was treated....the whole dago, wop....thing. And then hearing the words...at school, you know. Nobody would ever say it to me, but they said it to other kids. 'Fucking dago.... spic... all the words ..... fag? All those words. Even though I never had anybody say it to my face it made me angry, and it made me feel like my Uncle…only he got beat up for it…." Annie nodded, trying to make sense of it all until he smiled.

"I couldn't see how it was hurting Kim….just how much it hurt her until you told me how you…. That your parents did to you what I've done to my ….my daughter. I am so sorry," he said at last and then began to sob. Annie got up and walked around the table. She stood behind Pete's chair and hugged him.

"I know you're sorry. I know…." She spoke softly and repeated herself.

"I know." Pete nodded and as his tears abated he looked into her eyes. Bright, focused, and forgiving. And at her nod, she squeezed his shoulder; leaving him with an unsaid but very clear message. He smiled at her and spoke.

"And now I have someone else who needs to hear that."

"Yes, Pete….. yes," Annie said and helped him to his feet.

Rita's office, Monday afternoon…

Cara and Kim sat on the couch across from Rita. The pair was a contrast in body language as Kim sat against the arm in a self-hug as she stared at her shoes. Cara appeared relaxed and even well-rested. Rita smiled at them both but turned her attention Kim.

"Did Kim tell you what we talked about last time?" Rita asked; her gaze going back and forth between Cara and Kim.

"Oh…about….'There's my girl?' I feel like I could…I should do more." Cara sighed.

"Mom…you….every day you build me up…" the girl sighed.

"And every day…." Cara echoed the sigh.

"Every day someone or something tears you down? Is that about right, Kim?" The girl nodded without a word. Rita nodded in return.

"So when Jason and you talked? It's hard to believe?"

"Uh…. I guess."

"It's hard to trust even after such good news, isn't it?"

"I…. I don't know what to think." Kim continued to look away.

"How do you feel, Kim? What's going on inside?" Rita glanced over at Cara and nodded.

"You were so excited when I got home from Richmond, baby. What's wrong?"

"Me, Mom! Me!" She reached up and pulled her green Tam off and pulled at the wig underneath; throwing it onto the coffee table in the middle of the room.

"Oh, honey." She put her hand on Kim's shoulder. The girl went to pull away, but stopped in mid-move.

"What if…." She turned to Rita; her eyes pleading.

"If he does a 'take back?' What do you think?" Rita didn't have to remind Kim regarding feelings. The girl was already on the verge of tears.

"I…. I want to … trust …. But what if he doesn't"

"It's scary to think that he might just go back to how he treated you the day before…. You know what I mean? That before the other day he did what? What did he call you? Who were you to Jason?"

"Petey…. My brother …. I…." She bit her lip at the thought. She shook her head.

"And who are you to him now? What name did he use?"

"Kim….he called me Kim." She started to cry. Even the thought of her name seemed to ease the fear. She looked again at Rita, as if to verify her belief.

"It feels like he accepts you?" Rita tilted her head in quiet question. Kim nodded and wiped her face with her sleeve.

"And when you feel how things are, do you feel safe? Do you feel more secure when you recall how Jason looked at you?" Kim's face grew warm and the tears came freely, but she looked much more relaxed.

"And when you remember how Jason smiled and called you Kim, do you believe he believes in you?"


"Kim, sweetie? You don't have to feel or think anything unless it's from inside you. How you feel and believe.

"I…. When I think about his smile….I…." She struggled to talk, but she buried her face in Cara's arm and began to weep, speaking slowly between sobs…."

"Jason loves me, Mom….he loves me. Cara looked over at Rita who just nodded and half-smiled. Cara smiled back and put her head close to Kim's and spoke softly.

"Yes he does, baby…. Yes he does."

The world seems different now
More like a home somehow
More like a haven for the hope I couldn't find til now

Brandon Middle School, the next afternoon…

"Hey Petey?" The voice was familiar but the tone was altogether foreign and confusing. Kim turned to find Benny standing a few feet away. For the first time in ages, he didn't look angry with her.

"Benny…." She said, her voice trailing off as she lowered her head, waiting for the teasing to resume. No words were exchanged for what seemed like forever until he spoke again.

"I….I'm so sorry." She raised her head and saw that Benny was crying; an altogether off-putting expression that felt like a scorpion feigning retreat before the inevitable stab of its stinger. He shrugged his shoulders and stepped closer. She stepped back in response

"My Mom and I moved to my Nana's over in College Park…." His voice trailed off and his face grew a dark red. She stepped closer, feeling oddly safe with her best friend cum bully. He shook his head.

"My Pops left….Me and Mom…. She couldn't…" He put his head down and resumed crying. She noticed that he had a dark mark on his right wrist and his other arm was in a soft cast. Her eyes widened in shock and then to sadness as she realized what he was saying. He stepped back and put his hand in front of his face, as if to ward off her sympathy. Months of anger and foolish pride fell away as she pulled him into a soft hug.

"I'm so sorry, Petey," he said again. The words were soft and sincere, even if he still got the name wrong. She hugged him closely and kissed his cheek. Real tears from real sadness and real remorse taste the best and she felt connected to him as much as she ever had. She patted him on the back as the bully went away, replaced once again by Petey's best friend. But when she looked into his eyes….his bless-god-so-big-like a puppy dog-eyes….and realized that while she was seeing Benny as he always should have been, Benny was looking at Kim for the very first time.

And off to the side; almost completely ignored, stood Kate and Donna. They looked at each other and smiled. The kind of smile that accompanies a relieved sigh or two.

"You think Maria can see this?" Donna asked as she began to tear up.

"I don't think she'd have missed this for the world…. Or heaven for that matter. She's probably smiling almost as much as you are, babe."

"Have I told you how much I love you?" Donna blinked back more tears as Kate nodded and replied,

"Yes, but I never get tired of hearing it. And I love you so much." She forgot herself and went to kiss Donna on the cheek. A voice came from behind. Joey Brunetti was sitting on the low wall by the school sign.

"Oh hell, Ms. Kate….everybody knows. Go ahead and kiss her."

And she did….

One look and it's done
One look and I'm lost
Before we've even begun

Friday after school…

The car pulled into the driveway. Cara got out and her eyes blinked in disbelief; hoping against hope that they were not playing tricks on her. Kim looked up from the magazine she was reading and noticed her mother standing at the side of the car; a cautious smile seemed to grow even as she began to shake. She followed her mother's gaze toward the house to find two people sitting on the glide rocker on the short front step while another stood close by.

The woman looked familiar; she'd seen a picture of her on her Uncle Paul's social page. And the man sitting next to her had his head down, but the characteristic slouch and self-hug she practically adopted as her own told her something wonderful was about to happen. The man standing in front of the house was her Uncle Paul. He smiled and glanced sideways to indicate the man sitting beside Annie on the glider; adding a nod of confirmation.

"DAD?" She said as she opened the car door. Annie nudged the man next to her and he raised his head Peter Vincent Brunetti (no longer ) Sr. looked up; as nervous as anyone would be in his situation, he pushed past his fears and practically jumped off the glider. Kim ran to him and he pulled her up and into a hug. She looked in his eyes and finally saw what she had been searching for her whole if altogether yet unlived life and she began to weep.

"I'm so sorry, Kim….I was so wrong. I was so wrong about everything, he repeated. She began kissing his face…all over, as if there was not enough time to show how much she loved him… how much she forgave him.

Cara walked over tentatively; her faith slowly but finally catching up to and passing her fears. She put her hand on Pete's arm to get his attention; cautious and tentative. Kim turned to her and shook her head no… Not the I don't believe this no, but the no that says you don't have to worry, Mom. Cara nodded and Pete looked at her…perhaps with the same warm smile and same loving eyes she saw on the day they were married. But these eyes were also filled with some wisdom and a lot of hope; things missing for too long in the Brunetti family, but finally making a welcome return.

The moon will shine its light
Upon this very night
And in your eyes I see
This love was meant to be
One look and it's done
One look and I'm lost
Before we've even begun

Aubrey's neighborhood, a few weeks later…

"So you're going to move back to your Mom's," Aubrey asked as she walked down the street next to a taller looking boy; his height only helped a wee bit by his skateboard. He turned to her and spoke; a rebuke almost until his voice softened at the end.

"Not my Mom's…. Our home. Dad is gonna sublet the other place to Uncle Paul and Annie for when they get married." At the word married, Aubrey sighed. Even at fifteen and fairly new to so many expectations regarding any child's future, she still remained a girl, however new to the territory.

"We'll still be going to Brandon, but I start Tallwood in the fall." He looked away, trying to remain steadfastly and blissfully detached. She turned to him and smiled nervously.

"I'm glad things are working out for you and your family, Jason. I hoped things would work out. I've been praying for you ….you AND your family since we met. She began to blush.

"Uh….thanks," Jason grunted. He wanted to say more, but his head was shoving his heart rudely aside; at least for the moment. The two walked up to her front door. She sat on the chair off to one side of the door and he sat down on the deep wooden planter on the edge of the step.

"I've been so…. Mom and Dad are getting counseling and it's so good to see them smiling at each other. And Jenna is healthy…. So when you told me about your Mom and Dad? I …. I knew how you felt…." Her voice trailed off and she began to cry. He stood up and pulled her to her feet and into a brotherly embrace.

"Aubrey? It's gonna be okay…You prayed for me and my family…and look how it turned out. I bet your prayer had a lot to do with you and your family. I think someone is looking after you." He blushed at his own words and pulled back slightly.

"You mean that?"

"I …I do." He smiled weakly and went to pull away but he found that he couldn't let go. She looked at him and put her head down even as the tears continued to fall.

"Oh fuck…." He muttered; not nearly under his breath as he had intended, but Aubrey missed it entirely. He stepped close again and began to pat her back; not at all comfortable for him even as his every touch seemed to pull out and discard whatever hurt remained in the girl. He thought of her story… her mother and sister sick for so long and a father gone for so long and especially her feeling misunderstood for so long. Something new was changing inside him; a boy growing up even if he still was shorter than he preferred.

"It's okay, Aubrey….it's okay." The thought came to him to tell her not to cry but then he remembered how much he needed to cry for so long. He hadn't meant to be that close; certainly not so soon and never in any other way than to be like a brother to her. But life has its ways of occasionally grabbing us by the arms and making us face things sooner than we had intended. And he was only just fifteen himself. He kissed her on the cheek; almost with the same intent as only a week or so before, but the kiss had other ideas.

"I'm here." He found the words drifting out of his mouth on their own. He certainly wanted to be there for her, but in that moment…that brand new girls are nice moment he realized he was also there for him as well. He was helped along when she turned her face to look into his eyes and their lips met.

She hadn't meant to kiss him, but she went ahead against every better judgment inside her and against every lie her ghosts told her about the kind of girl she was. She found she no longer felt ashamed and she found Jason Brunetti's lips and she kissed a boy for the very first time….the only boy Aubrey Davidson would ever kiss, for that matter.

"Hey….slow down…." Jason had meant to say stop, but something inside him didn't want her to stop and he kissed her back. The only girl Jason Brunetti would ever kiss, for that delightful matter as well. And while there's much more to tell about Jason and Aubrey, suffice to say that they did live mostly happy and indeed ever after.

Tell me we're ok
Tell me "you can stay"
Say "you're not a fool to let my heart go your way"
Tell me this is real
Head over heels
So glad I found
Someone just like you

Nobody's Home
Words and Music by
Avril Lavigne and Ben Moody
as performed by Avril Lavigne

I'm With You
Words and Music by
Avril Lavigne, Lauren Christy, Scott Spock, Graham Edwards
as performed by Avril Lavigne

I Won't Back Down

Words and music by
Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty
As performed by
Dawn Landes

I Can't Make You Love Me
Words and music by
Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin
As performed by Sarah Bettens

Someone to Say Hi To
Words and music by
K's Choice and the performer
Sarah Bettens

Evening Prayer
(When at Night I Go to Sleep)
From "Hänsel & Gretel"
Engelbert Humperdinck
As performed by David Wigram

Words and music by
Paul McCartney
As performed by Sarah McLachlan

Someone Just Like you
Words and music by
K's Choice
As performed by Sarah Bettens

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