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Rated: 18+ · Short Story · Relationship · #895792
Thayne's been acting oddly since the baby's birth. What's up?

Thanks To Eustace

         Whispers from the back door in the kitchen alerted me to an illegal venture. I heard the door furtively open. “Shh! Quiet, now! Can't let Mama hear us . . .!”
         Ah, those little sneaks!
         Well . . . did I want to scream at them to stop right where they were; dash through the kitchen, dodging table, chairs, and toys to collar them; or dash the other way down the hallway to my right, around the stairway, and into the kitchen that way—where I'd be right at the back door.
         Screaming would be quicker, but I was tired of that. Something more drastic might work better anyway. So, I snuck around to the back door using the hallway route, fast as an irritated mother could run on tiptoes. They were already out the door. Which Jack, my ten-year-old, was about to pull softly shut. I jerked it from his hand. He gasped, stepped backwards into the twins, pushing them further out onto the porch. My outraged glare swept from Jack to his equally guilty younger brother and sisters.
          “You were told you cannot play out here! It's too dangerous!”
         Sylvana, eight, commanded Baby Trista to stop yanking at her hand and stand still. Then, her blue eyes big and wide, she wheedled, “We'll stay away from the edge, Ma. Honest!”
         Ha . . . right!
          This business of settling Eustace's estate had gone on forever it seemed, and the kids were handling it horribly. I said with impatience, “Look, how many times have I told you? Eustace fell over that cliff over there, trying to put a fence up. Nobody's finished the job! It's a fifty foot fall onto those railroad tracks! No way are you playing out there! I swear your father must've been crazy wanting to stay in this place! Me, too, for agreeing to come! Get in here! Right now!”
         They complied—grumbling. Redheaded, five-year-old Allyna scowled. “You're not fun, Mom!”
         ”Yeah!” declared her lisping twin, Anthony, “Sanks to Eustath, I'm bored!”
         Amid a chorus of me, too's, I herded them inside. The fact they'd packed my life with considerable stress these past few days eroded my sympathy. Really, in my opinion, the death of my husband's cousin didn't merit the children and me remaining here now that the funeral was over. However, as summer vacation had begun, Thayne'd deemed it an excellent opportunity for our kids to meet our home state, West Virginia. So, here we still were.
         “How can you say this gorgeous mountain scenery is boring?” I demanded. “And I thought you liked these thrilling roller coaster roads that have nothing much to keep you from disappearing over their edges—like this back yard! Lost your appreciation?”
         “Made us seasick, anyway; huh, Anthony!”
         “I want Connecticut!”
         Even Baby Trista eyed me accusingly.
         Unequal to the challenge, I waved them away. “Go on, and find something else to do besides fight and trash the place. You're making me nuts!”
         Five seconds later, they were at it again. Well, what else was new? Heh. What else was there for them to do?
         Heard the thud of stumbling footsteps from the upstairs hallway, which was followed by a few oaths and the crash of toys being kicked aside. Thayne was finally up. He wandered into the kitchen, unkempt and bleary-eyed, clad only in jeans. Posed at the sink, I looked him over.
         “What? No Attorney Lloyd today? You've finished Eustace's business?”
         “Thanks to his foresight and planning—just about. There's just some minor things to take care of . . . .” He delivered a peck to my cheek. “Carley, what if I were to make an offer for this house?”
         Surely his brains had gone fishing! “This house? This nightmare of tiny rooms, no closets, and drafty halls? No yard? Oho, take me home, country roads!”
         “I was thinking about coming back home, actually. Thought that maybe . . . but if you feel that way about it . . . ” Pressing a hand to his head, he sighed deeply. “Ahh, these lousy headaches. I'm . . . not going anywhere today . . . and no one's coming here. It's just us.” Another peck. (I hate pecks.) “What's for breakfast?”
         Swiftly, Thayne assessed my mood. “Lunch then,” he amended.
         I folded my arms. “Sandwiches!”
         “Fine. Whatever you feel like fixing.”
         I felt like fixing nothing. Who wanted to think about lunch while the breakfast dishes still lurked in the sink?
         Yet, having Thayne all to ourselves would be worth some sacrifice. Probably be for the first time in months, if I put myself to the trouble of thinking about it. A short while after Trista's birth, he'd begun to change toward me; toward us all, really. Indifference . . . .impatience. . . irritation . . .
          Nothing I did seemed to please him. And I'd killed myself to take off all the excess weight I'd gained with four pregnancies. Everything the kids did gave him a headache. Rarely did he play with them. Seemed he was the happiest when he could fill our house with semi-permanent guests—friends or relatives. Whose wishes I was expected to grant whatever else I was dealing with.
         Wasn't a surprise to me that he'd quickly settled into old habits here as well. From the first day we arrived at Eustace's old house, somebody (usually Attorney Lloyd) had to be entertained for meals. Yes, even here, Thayne had to have other people surrounding him. While I was tired of the extra work and the kids' endless bickering, I was profoundly thankful that he had not invited anyone to “move in” with us, as was his habit back home.
          Moreover those headaches seemed more frequent of late. I'd passed them off, at first, as an excuse to wheedle out of doing things with the kids. I was the one who taught the boys—and the girls—how to play ball, ride a bike, bowl, swim . . . whatever. Thayne kept pretty much to himself, except when his buddies, or his relatives, were there. When, finally convinced there might really be something wrong, I suggested he go see a doctor about his migraines, he'd snapped, “Back off, Carley! I'm fine!”
         Rarely one to force an issue, I backed off. Of course, that shouldn't mean I oughtn't show a little compassion. . . . I could muster some—probably.
         The kids thundered in then, derailing my budding good intentions, and exuberantly tackled their father. “Dad! Dad! Will you play with us today?”
         “Yeah, Mom's no fun!”
         “There's nuffin to do!”
         “All right, all right! Quiet—all of you!” Thayne put a hand to his head, annoyance and some anger in his expression. I thought he'd order them all to disappear someplace. He surprised us all by visibly curbing his irritation and saying, “Look, how about we all go to the park after lunch. Okay?”
         My arms loaded up with mustard, mayonnaise, and ham and cheese, I fannied the refrigerator door shut. “You go. I need some peace and quiet, thanks!”
         Some disappointment registered in six pairs of eyes, but not one soul cajoled to change my mind.
         Oh, was wonderful to have a meal as a family! No Attorney Lloyd—or anyone else— added. Granted, the kids monopolized the conversation, but we'd have our time later when they were asleep. Was I ever looking forward to that!
         Then came a knock at the door.
         Jack fell over his chair in a rush to answer it before Sylvana did. All that fuss for a buddy of Thayne's I couldn't stand. Roger Farrington's meticulous appearance, his insincere charm, that affected laugh, had always nauseated me. It still did.
         “Am I intruding, Thayne? I'll stay just a second! Heard you were in town, so I thought I'd stop quick, and say hi!” He sidestepped to warmly clasp my hand. “Carley, you still look seventeen!”
         I smiled politely, (actually I finally looked twenty-one, although I was ten years older than that), and I conveyed a silent imploration to Thayne to get rid of him. Useless. Story of my life . . .
         “Sit! Help yourself! Nothing fancy! Carley, get him a cup! So, Rog, what's new? How's Jan?”
         “She's left me,” lamented Roger, accepting the seat at Thayne's right, where he commanded Thayne's attention, and the rest of the sandwiches and the fruit.
         While I applauded Jan's good sense, Roger mourned his loss, and licked our platters clean. After that, he and Thayne removed to the living room. Wherein they embarked upon a thousand other topics. Roger's “second” stretched to suppertime and beyond. I saw Our Time dissolving like an Alka-Seltzer tablet.
         Deep frustration, anger at being treated as Slave of the World, plus having to deal with the kids' worst behavior yet (provoked by the abortion of the park excursion) gave me a thumping headache. Which peaked acutely, when, as I came downstairs—battle weary from putting the kids to bed—the guys succumbed to the urge to go look up some other old pals.
         His headache apparently healed, out sauntered Thayne, a hand on Rog's shoulder. “Stay the night afterwards, Rog. Be no problem.”
         I groaned my despair and resentment aloud. Oh, never have I agreed with Thayne's free and easy views of hospitality. I stand by my feeling that 99.9% of his friends should go home BEFORE the month is out. Bunch of mooches!
         Standing yet on the staircase, I drummed the railing. How was I to prevent the intrusion of an unwanted guest when I could never do it before. Too much of a wimp, really.
         My restless drumming stopped; I drew in a horrified breath. My God, he could come home with Everybody! There were at least two dozen of his 'best' friends and favorite relatives he'd promised to spend time with while we were here. Would be just like him to invite them over for an all nighter . . . which I'd have to cater.
         My thoughts whirled wildly for a few seconds, then calmed down. For while my first inclination was to run out and demand that Thayne stay, and Roger leave, (tossing in the age old ultimatum of it's either him or me), I'd suddenly another thought.
         I could make a bunch of phone calls, and when Thayne returned, he could drown in a sea of my friends and relatives.
         I drummed the railing again.
         Okay. Now . . . where's the phone book?
         I found it on the coffee table under some Field and Stream magazines. Within a short time I'd reached a few old friends, one of my sisters, and two of my cousins who could drop everything and come right over. It wasn't precisely a sea, but hey—a good sized pond could serve my purposes too.
         I had a few friends back in Connecticut, but it was great to see those of my childhood. Especially Jody and Nicki Thompson. We'd been a club, those sisters and my sister Cate and I —and along the way, we'd added Gracie Adams and our favorite cousins, Melissa and Vanessa. With that many inventive, imaginative, impetuous minds all in one spot, well, let's just say our parents were just short of needing straitjackets by the time we graduated high school.
         Every one of our mothers claimed their white hair came from trying to keep one step ahead of us, but only my mother refused to, in anyway, color it or disguise it. Said she earned every one of them, and they were silver medals of honor and achievement! She'd wear them with pride, a symbol to all mothers everywhere, that yes, one could survive the schemes their offspring devise to drive them completely out of their minds!
         Still, she'd recognized that our adventurous spirits weren't inclined to anything really illegal, so neither she nor anyone else's parent ever ordered us to disband. But as life goes on, people move on, and ties are weakened, if not broken altogether.
         The instant they bustled through the door, though, it was as if we'd never been apart for God knows how many years. We laughed, giggled, caught up on the latest news of each others' lives, and all related gossip, then, naturally, began to reminisce. For a short while I forgot the real reason I'd asked them all over.
          “Here, Cate, pass me those chips and some of those brownies,” Vanessa, seated on the floor beside Cate's end of the sofa, reached up to take them from her. “I wish the Martins still grew a garden. I could go for those tomatoes and those deliciously sweet carrots they used to grow! Crazy, wasn't it? A bunch of kids like us more interested in raiding gardens than wheedling junk food out of our mothers.”
         “I'm for those crisp crunchy apples in the Smith's orchard, myself,” I said as I came back into the living room from the kitchen where I'd made us a fresh pitcher of iced blueberry green tea. “And the blueberries . . .they grew the biggest, sweetest ones I've ever had!” Taking up a small bowl of salsa, I made Cate scootch over and sat at the end of the sofa near Vanessa. “I dream about raiding gardens and berry patches . . . when I'm not dreaming about screaming children and indifferent husbands . . . .”
         “Well, don't get us started on that stuff! We came here to get away from that sort of thing!” Jody reminded me.
         “Yes, we did. We came to pick you up out of your pond of despair, Carley,” said Cate. “I told you it'd end this way! He's way too social with everyone but you. The last time I made it to Connecticut, you were swamped with wall to wall mooches. And he encouraged it! Although, he'd disappear from time to time. He still having migraines?”
         “If that's what they are. Yes, he said he had one earlier. Sure passed fast enough when Roger came through the door!”
          Jody nodded. “Naturally. That's how it always is. When it's you, you're stuck with babying him along with your actual babies. Speaking of those, how you got those little angels to go to bed so quick is a mystery I'd like to solve. My own are . . . . such monsters at bedtime! And you have three more than I have!”
         Ha! If you'd only seen them earlier. Angels they were not! But I didn't have the opportunity to toss that out.
         Gracie cut me off before I'd uttered two words. “Three more than I have, too.”
         “Two more than I have.” Melissa chimed in, as she spread peanut butter on a cracker she topped with sweet bell peppers and onions.
         “Four more than me,” informed Vanessa, eyeing her with a fascination. “You still eat those?”
         “I've never eaten a kid in my life!”
         “Stupid! I meant those peanut butter cracker things. I haven't had one since I was fifteen!”
         “Five more than I have,” stated Cate smugly, keeping the original discussion alive. She'd never gotten married. “Don't have time for it!” she'd say. Which is about what she said now. “Don't have time for any! Kids that is, I still eat those peanut butter cracker things, too.”
         “Well, I had time—for both kids and those cracker things. But for now, just keep those apples and blueberries fixed in your mind!” Nicki advised. “We're reliving our glorious past! And I swear, I never saw anyone eat so many blueberries at one time in my life! Melissa there puked her guts out, but not you!”
         “Thank you for reminding me,” said Melissa ungratefully. “Nothing glorious about that! Why I thought I had to do everything you did, Carly, I'll never know. Rocks in my head . . . or something.”
         “Remember the time we got trapped in the trees by their dogs and thought for sure we'd be caught and arrested?” Vanessa reached up to dip her chips in my bowl of salsa. “You think quick, girl!”
         I shrugged a shoulder, saying modestly, “Yeah, well, I just reacted. Didn't really think my insane beastly growl would actually scare them off.”
         “Holy cow, lady! You gotta be kidding! Scared me!” Nicki confessed. “Thought I'd pee my pants right there!”
         “Glad you didn't,” Gracie said dryly. “I was right below you!” Which got a burst of laughter from the rest of us.
         “We-ell . . .” said Melissa slowly, “I did! Never quite forgave you for that, Carly!”
         I looked over at her, grinning. “That why you wouldn't talk to me for three weeks after? Thought it was because I put jalapeno peppers in the peanut butter sandwiches instead of the sweet green bells!”
         “Oh, for that, too!” she responded promptly, fanning her face in remembrance of the tongue tingling incident. “For that, too!”
         “Heh,” stated Cate, giving me a mock annoyed look. “I doubt any of us forgave her for that! Probably's why Vanessa doesn't eat them anymore! And as for that horrendous noise you emitted that night, it's a wonder no one came after us with rifles! Felt my hair lift straight up, and my heart stopped for a full three seconds!”
         “Those were the days, huh?”
         For a moment everyone was silent, each recalling their most vivid memories, reliving them one precious time more. Of course, there was always someone who had to summon up one of the worst of our sins . . .
         “I remember the time Mom had to go pick you three up in Ohio, because you'd hijacked the driver's ed car.” Cate waggled a finger at Nicki, Gracie and me. “How'd you pull that off again? I haven't heard that story in a long time.” She dug into the popcorn and settled back deeply in the sofa in expectation of the retelling of our tale.
         “Oh, my . . . I haven't thought about that for years.”
         “Funny, with Mom and Dad going on and on with their marathon lectures, Nicki, I was sure you'd never be able to do anything but think about it!” Jody said. Then, in altogether a different tone, “If they ever knew how jealous I was that I missed that class . . .”
         She was actually a year older than we were, but hadn't bothered to take driver's ed until we were old enough to. She should have been with us, but a bad cold had kept her home that day.
         A peep of fun gleamed in Nicki's dark green eyes. She shook her head as if ashamed of our youthful audacity, but then glanced up and pronounced with happy satisfaction, “That was one of our best pranks, wasn't it?”
         “Detention for a month and suspension from driver's ed,” Gracie recalled in a dreamy tone. “It was worth every second! Poor Mr. Saunderson . . . he couldn't know we'd take such shameless advantage of his terrible hangover!”
         “No, was something he'd've expected from some of the boys, like Roger or Thayne! But, hey—he ought to have stayed home that day, and let classes be canceled. There, he could've slept peacefully, and woken safe in his own bedroom . . . not the parking lot of whatever restaurant that was. Chillicothe, Ohio!”
         “Whyever did you want to go there?” Melissa demanded. “Why didn't you go someplace exciting? Cleveland, if you had to go to Ohio.”
         “Cleveland's too far, and I'd always wanted to check out the outdoor theater there in Chillicothe. Although, at the start of it, I hadn't planned to go far at all. Huntington, maybe, and I briefly thought about going the other way to Charleston. But then, I don't know . . . Ohio seemed such an adventure at the time . . .” I started to chuckle. “Ah, the look on Saundy's face when he finally woke and dashed in after us!”
         Nicki began to chuckle too. “Caused a big commotion in the dining room,” she recollected. “All disheveled and red eyed from his binging the weekend away, yelling and sputtering. He kind of reminded me of that scientist guy in Back to the Future! All wacky nervous acting like that. Except that guy wasn't a lush. Saundy couldn't get past noon without a little nip from his secret source in the glove compartment.”
         “Plus, Saundy was fat.” Gracie snickered.
         “And bald,” Nicki added, munching a pepper slice. “Not terribly tall, either. Definitely more crazy acting—that day, anyway. But then . . . we were many many miles away from home. Not to mention, out of state!” She bit her lip trying to contain her mirth, but couldn't and burst into a loud guffaw. “God, his face was as red as his eyes!”
         “He kept looking at my luscious broasted chicken, and start to say how good it looked, how wonderful it smelled, but then he'd catch himself up and start in on us all over!”
         “Yeah, he didn't know whether to sit down with us or kick our butts all the way home!” I returned on a string of giggles. “He knew his was probably going to be once we got back home!”
         Gracie burst into a fresh peal of laughter. “And then he ended up having to pay for our lunch because we didn't have enough money. Which was the least of his troubles that day! My mother phoned the school to make sure I remembered my dentist appointment after, and had a heart attack when she found out we'd been gone for hours!”
         “What? she think Saundy kidnapped and molested you guys?”
         “Vanessa,” answered Gracie dryly, “you know her. She thinks the worst if you're five seconds late to breakfast.”
         Cate snickered, but pointed out, “Gracie, that was definitely not a late to breakfast situation!”
         “Was to me,” she replied serenely. “And so here we are, finally on our way home, and suddenly there's a half dozen state troopers on our tail and three more making a Uie to head us off the other way. Poor Saundy's face went as white as it'd been red earlier at the restaurant. He could hardly talk, he was so flustered, Couldn't find the words to explain how it all happened. God, it was funny!”
         “Refresh my memory: You ever help him out? You know . . . confess?” Melissa wondered as she helped herself to yet another batch of peanut butter, bell pepper, and onion crackers. “Or were you so freaked out yourselves, you let him take the rap? I know he walked a free man . . . but—?”
         With half my mind, I considered hunting up some jalapenos to sneak in the peanut butter; the other half recalled the chaos next, and I answered, “Well, we were pretty freaked out having that many cops surrounding the car. They hauled us out to safety and took us off in separate cars. But . . . we did . . . finally . . . when we realized they were hauling him away on felony charges. Seriously.”
         Cate stared at me fascinated. “And Mom didn't kill you once she got there? What part of all this did you not tell her? The part that it was your idea to wander off in the first place? Grounding you for six months wasn't enough! You told a very abbreviated tale to us back then, lady! I'm hurt!”
         “Oh, to her, I confessed it all. Took her ten minutes to stop laughing so she could drive home. And of course, I wheedled out of the grounding thing; five months of it, anyhow. Don't know if Saundy ever forgave us for that memorable day or not. He resigned before they could fire him, and set off for parts unknown.”
         “As far from us as he could get . . .” Nicki concluded. She back handed my arm. “Come on, do that beastly growl thing for us. Just once for old time's sake.”
         There's a cliché best left unspoken, occasionally, anyway. This was one of those occasions. But of course, I didn't think of that until I'd stood up to get enough wind power and was fully into the roar . . .
         From the doorway, an incredulous and annoyed voice cut me off at high pitch.
         “Carley! What are you making that horrible sound for? And what are they all doing here? Thought you wanted our time?”
         Now here was a brilliant observation from the man who had deserted me for his own pursuits!
         This thought and my astonishment at seeing him back so soon, and without Roger—without anyone—not to mention, being caught in the middle of making a truly unladylike and horrible sound—made me respond with righteous indignation, “Didn't think it'd been such an important thing with you! You went off to do whatever, and I heard you tell Roger he could spend the night! I didn't want to be the only female here if that happened. Why's it always just your party?”
         He stared at me a second, then declared abruptly, “All right! I had a prick of conscience! Girl talk's over!”
         Oho, not a chance. Standing between my friends and the door he pointed at, I retorted, “I need friends and my family, too, Thayne! And we need some more chips and dip. And the blueberry tea that's in the fridge. Oh, and some ice . . .!” I blew him a kiss to soften the order as he always does to me.
         “What? It's the least you can do for us. I've been doing it for your friends since I married you! And more so these past few months! You too good to do it for me?”
         Apparently so, for he replied coolly, “I am not waiting on your friends, Carley. And Cate can certainly wait on herself! Just not tonight. Good night, ladies! Some other time, huh?”
         How I wished I'd said something like that to his friends all those many times in the past! In that tone too. Defiantly I faced him. “These are my plans tonight, Thayne!”
         Unmistakable threats gleamed in his grey eyes. “Now!”
         Which persuaded my cousins and Gracie to beat it for the door with a hastily uttered, “See you later, Carley!” But Cate, Jody and Nicki merely altered their position in their respective seats. We'd always been a team, the Thompson girls and us. We never abandoned each other to dire fates.
          Fiercely, Thayne eyed them. “Said everyone, Carley!”
         “Your friends never left when I had things to say! But then, your friends never seem to leave, period! We come here—thanks very much to your cousin's death—and what do you know! Nothing changes! You do what you want, and we're supposed to be happy just because you are! Well I'm not! Let me tell you something . . . I'm sick of—”
         I faltered momentarily, becoming aware, suddenly, of the presence of another audience, huddled together out in the hall behind their father. Caught a glimpse of five considerably apprehensive little faces.
         Oh, great . . . . . had they ever gone to sleep? Oh shoot . . . I'd probably woke them up with my beastly roar. Probably'd scared them as badly as I had my friends and the Martin's dogs way back when! Now instead of being reassured, they were being bombarded with more unpleasant sounds.
         For the first time in my life, however, I was too angry to care who heard me, and so I ranted on. “You know, except that I make a {I wonderful slave—or—or rug—you must feel that your friends have more to offer you than I do! Fine—fine! But what about the kids!”
         Disregarding that, he grimly ordered, “I want them out, Carley! Now!”
         I folded my arms mutinously. Goaded, Thayne took purposeful strides toward me. Cate, Jody and Nicki rose up, ready to assist me if called on. The kids, believing he'd meant for them to clear out, did—like a bunch of frightened puppies. Three stumbled back upstairs, and two bolted for cover in the kitchen.
         Startled, his temper now flaring, Thayne swung around in time to see them all scatter. “What are all of you doing up? GET TO BED!” Turning his head, he glared at me. “This is your fault!”
         “Mine? You do this all the time, Thayne! You ever stop to consider—”
         ”Ma! Ma!” Anthony burst into the room, his eyes huge with fear. “Allyna ran ou'thide! I don't thee her!”
         “What! Why?” thundered Thayne.
         Anthony cowered. I elbowed past Thayne to go after Allyna, shot back, “That's why!”
         Briefly I paused on the tiny back porch. Was so dark I couldn't see the outline of anything. Thank goodness Eustace had gotten that stretch of fence up. If she would only stay to the left side of the yard, she'd be all right. It was a flicker of hope that wanted to balloon instead into mindless panic. For my frantic calls brought no answering ones. Heedlessly, I ran forward.
         Behind me, manning flashlights, hurried Thayne and Cate. Jody and Nicki collared the other kids, kept them from following. Except Jack—who jumped over the railing. When I ordered him back, he burst out, “It's my fault! I showed her how to unlock the door today, Mom. Let me help find her!”
         I couldn't tell him no. He took my hand, and we searched together.
         In the beam of the flashlights, we quickly discovered an empty backyard. Ordering Jack to stay behind us, and Jody and me to be careful, Thayne cautiously approached the edge of the drop off. My heart felt like an ice block melting in cold drips to the pit of my stomach. I crept closer to Thayne.
         Cate slipped beside me. “See anything?” It was echoed from the porch by probably everyone.
         The beams pierced the blackness, casting weird shadows onto the rocks below, and upon those beside the railroad tracks. In frustration Thayne uttered, “I can't tell . . . What is that over to the right?”
         Oh, please . . . . . no . . . .
         “Mama!” The plaintive cry came from further right.
         As one the beams of light swung toward it. There in a crumpled heap upon a sliver of a ledge, perhaps ten or fifteen feet below us, lay our frightened little girl. By some wonderful miracle, she'd landed upon a dirt mound which had cushioned her fall. Of course, upon such a tiny ledge, the dirt mound could give way . . .
         Drawing a swift breath, I clutched Thayne's arm, speechless with dread. Thayne called to her, keeping his voice calm. “Are you okay, 'Lyna! Don't move, honey! I'm coming to get you!” He turned his head slightly. “Jack—find some rope! I think I saw some in the back hallway!”
         Armed with Cate's flashlight, Jack immediately hurried away. Meanwhile, the three of us encouraged Allyna to stay still. Any shift in her position could send her plunging downward onto those merciless boulders. A heartfelt prayer that Eustace hadn't died in winter flitted through my mind. Rescue was going to be risky enough without the added complication of cold, snow, and ice.
         I was grateful too, for Thayne's calm assurance—in stark contrast with his livid temper only minutes ago. In spite of his gentleness, however, Allyna sobbed for me. Became quite hysterical frankly. Sobbed over and over, “I want on'y Momma! I want on'y Momma!”
         Much afraid she would make a fatal move in her agitation, I implored him, “Let me try, Thayne. If it'll calm her—”
         ”No!” he declared flatly. “If something were to happen to you, the kids'll end up having nobody!”
         “What?” I stared uncomprehendingly at him. It was difficult to read his face in the dark. “What are you talking about? She's scared, Thayne! Just let me go!”
         ”I know she's scared. I'm talking about these headaches. It's what I came back to talk to you about. What I'd planned to tell you when we went to the park. Except you—”
         Jack returned then, breathless. “Here! Here's the rope, Dad!” And thrust it into his father's hands. Headaches were forgotten for the moment.
         Swiftly Thayne made a loop and slipped it around his waist. “Will you be able to handle my weight? And hers!”
         I didn't have much size to me, neither did Cate; but Jody and Nicki did. Cate offered to keep an eye on the other kids so she could help me. I assured Thayne as a team, we could all do it. Nicki handed Baby Trista to Cate and she and Jody joined us at the edge of the drop off.
         Anthony slipped out of Cate's hold and bolted toward us. He had the idea he could haul his sister up all by himself. “Gimme the rope, Dad! I can do it!”
         “Just stand back, Anthony. We don't need you going over, too!” Thayne got ready to descend.
         Sylvana pulled her little brother back against her and then crowded against my sister's legs. Baby Trista clung to Cate's neck, burying her face against her. I wanted to hug all three of them tightly, but it'd have to wait. They were safe with Cate for now.
         Jack directed both beams downward, and we lowered Thayne to the ledge. He wasn't a terribly big man, but his weight dropping over the edge took us a little off guard, and we fought to brace ourselves as we played out slack to him. If I thought the strain was rough on my arms then, I tried not to think what it would be hauling him back up with Allyna.
         At length he reached the ledge Allyna lay upon. He reached to gather her into his arms, speaking to her soothingly, his voice husky with his fear for her. To our dismay, she fought him. There was barely room for him to stand with her upon that meager mound of dirt, thus he had difficulty keeping his balance, and coping with her resistance too. Although he continued to speak to her calmly, I could sense his exasperation.
         “Allyna, please let Daddy bring you up to Mommy! I'm waiting for you!” It was hard to keep the panic out of my voice, but I managed.
         In a moment, to our relief, Thayne called, “I've got her! Get us up!”
         Just as I'd feared, with Allyna's added weight, our benumbed fingers and straining muscles objected and threatened to give out. Cate made the little ones stand behind us, and took up a position between me and Nicki, and hauled with us. I was on the end, so when two small arms wrapped themselves around my waist and yanked, it nearly knocked me over.
         “We're helping, too, Mom!” Sylvana told me. “Anthony's got me, and Trista's got him! That's a team, huh?”
         Well, yeah. Kind of an awkward one, but a team nevertheless. Since they seemed to be able to move when we needed to move, I let them remain. How could I do otherwise, hearing their excited eager voices declaring, “We're doing it, huh, Mom? We're getting 'em up, aren't we?” And Trista's earnest, “Do it, huh, Ma! We do, huh, Ma?” right along with them. It was the most she'd ever spoken until now.
         My arms and fingers screamed for mercy, but I answered positively, “Yes, we are. Just a minute more . . .”
         Inch by gradual inch, we hauled them up to safety.
         When at last, Thayne crawled over the side of the drop off, I seized Allyna. Tears streaming heedlessly down my face, I made sure she'd suffered no hurt beyond an awful scare. Except for some cuts and bruises, she seemed okay. While I wanted to enfold her forever within my embrace, I surrendered her to Thayne when he reached for her. He had a breach of trust to heal with her. We were all standing together now, so I took Baby Trista into my arms, and hugged her and Sylvana instead. Realized I was trembling uncontrollably.
         A prick in my brain began to investigate the meaning of Thayne's remark, “If something were to happen to you, the kids'll end up having nobody!” So what about those headaches? Disregarding the fact that the timing might not be right, that's precisely what I asked him.
         Dropping a kiss upon Allyna's red head, he confided, “Carley, I have a brain tumor. It—may not be operable . . .”
         My stomach dropped to my sneakers. “What?” How long had he known? Why hadn't he told me about it before? Vaguely I was aware of glances exchanged between my friends, heard my sister's gasp of shock.
         “God, Thayne, I'm so sorry,” she said sincerely. “We'll leave you guys alone now. But we're getting together again. Tomorrow! No arguments! You're not going through this alone!” With that, she and Jody and Nicki slipped away, leaving us alone to sort this out together.
         Enlightenment, like one of those flashlight beams, flicked on in my head. He'd known ever since Trista's birth. “You knew this all the time! You made me believe it was just migraine headaches! No big deal, you said! Just make the kids be quiet, you said! But you may have waited too long before you went for real help, huh? You littered our lives with your friends because you couldn't make yourself tell me! Did you think I wouldn't stick by you? Did you think I'd leave you? Ahh, Thayne!”
         My anger and frustration overwhelmed me, and I couldn't finish. Just thrust Trista into Sylvana's arms, and dropped down on one knee beside him, wrapped an arm about him —despite my feelings of betrayal, and hugged him and Allyna.
         He bowed his head with a sheepish guilt, and shrugged. “I didn't know . . . how to— I just . . . I just . . . didn't want to . . . burden you with . . . with this . . .”
         One hand clenched in frustration, my other bunched up the fabric of his sleeve. “Thayne! Wake up! Your friends have been the burden on me! On our time, our relationship—our wallets! On the kids even! We're supposed to be a team, and you've made me sit on the bench! It isn't fair. I would rather have known!”
         “I'm—sorry, Carley.”
          “I am too!” I responded, not terribly moved by his tone of regret. “Look what it's done!”
         “I know. I had a taste of my own medicine tonight . . . I didn't like it!” He suddenly chuckled. “Finally discovered you do have spunk! I was beginning to think I had married a rug!”
         “Well, thank you! I love you too!”
         The mockery in my tone made him smile with sad regret. With one movement he stood, lifting Allyna in one arm, and drawing me up with the other. “I haven't done the best job in showing it, but I love you—all of you! I Don't want to lose any of you!”
         Nor did we want to lose him.
         When I couldn't seem to answer and say it, he forced a laugh. “What a time for gut wrenching revelation! Out here in the dark next to a fifty foot drop off! God—first Eustace, then Allyna . . . We were lucky tonight, Carley. But I Don't know if I'll be so lucky. Maybe— maybe I'll lose my grip and— join Eustace . . .”
         Swallowing the fear and the tears that formed a lump in my throat, I snugged up my hold on his waist. “Thayne, I don't know what's going to happen. But, honey, I know we can get through it if you just don't shut us out! I don't know—maybe some good's come from our having to be down here because of Eustace. Why can't we use it as a foothold, and climb this cliff of yours together! And look, my family will want to know and help as well. Why should we push that away?”
         For a moment, Thayne was quiet, looking down at me. When he answered, it seemed his mood was lighter. “I never expected to be grateful to Eustace for anything! Teased me unmercifully when we were kids! Imagine, though, I oughtta be for this!” With that, he flung back his head and hollered to the stars, “Thank you, Eustace—wherever you are!” Which echoed in the night air, and made the kids giggle.
         “There!” he pronounced with satisfaction. “That takes care of that! Let's get Allyna checked out just to be sure. And when we get back, we'll make time for us. From now on— whatever happens. How's that?”
         How's that?
         The night breeze carried an echo of thanks softly after Thayne's . . .

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