And now, the story...
Lee Stetson sat in the dark in his family room. Hours earlier he had started a fire, but it had burned down to just a few dying embers. He hadn't moved since he'd fixed himself a good stiff drink; he hadn't even taken a swallow of the amber liquid. His gaze never left the fireplace, but the flames he saw were those of a different fire: the one that took his Amanda from him.
The day had started just like any other. Amanda had been the first to get up. Lee had tried to convince her to stay in bed just a little while longer, he wanted to hold her in the peace and quiet of the morning before the usual Stetson-King chaos broke out. He knew she wanted to stay, but today was an important day for all of their kids.
Phillip, having just been doing odd jobs since his graduation from college, finally had an interview for his 'dream job.' Jamie's photography was finally getting the recognition it deserved: a well-known art gallery was having a showing of his works and it was opening night. As for Amalee--today was her first swim meet.
Lee couldn't believe how fast she had grown. It seemed like just yesterday that he and Amanda were discussing what to name her. They finally settled on Amalee Dorothea-- her first name a mixture of Lee and Amanda, and her middle name a tribute to Dotty, for all she had done to help Amanda and Lee, and as atonement for their 'secret marriage.' But she was twelve years old now, and ready to take on the world, at least in the pool. She was already out-swimming girls two or three years older than she was. The day before, her coach told her she would be lead swimmer in their meet, a real accomplishment for a rookie on the team.
A small smile flickered across Lee's face. He was so proud of Amalee. Amanda had been, too. The thought of his wife was enough to bring back to his face the scowl that seemed to be a permanent fixture lately.
When Amanda had finished in the bathroom, Lee went to take his shower. He loved to go in the bathroom after Amanda finished her shower. All of the fragrances that made Amanda were present: her shampoo, her soap, her perfume. If he closed his eyes and took a deep breath in through his nose he could almost pretend she was in the room with him.
By the time Lee got downstairs to the kitchen, everyone else was already there, including Dotty, who was just finishing the pancakes. Lee stood in the doorway and watched. Dotty was busy with the pancakes, but talking to Jamie, offering suggestions for tonight; Phillip was trying to straighten his tie in the reflection from the toaster, complaining about it the whole time; Amanda was brushing Amalee's hair, while Amalee rambled on about the meet later today, her friend Justine, the library, and any thing else that happened to come to mind. She was a lot like her mother. Twenty years ago he never would have thought that what he was hearing and seeing could be so beautiful, but Lee would not trade the sight in front of him for all of the 'spies' in the world.
Suddenly, one of the embers in the fireplace popped, bringing Lee out of his reverie. He felt a single tear sliding down his cheek. He did not move to wipe it away. He hadn't cried since the day she left. He wouldn't now, either, but he couldn't force himself to wipe the tear from his face. Amanda was supposed to help him with the tears, the feelings, the emotions that threatened to engulf him day after day, but she wasn't here. She was gone.
Everyone had finally gone on his or her way. They were all going to be at Amalee's swim meet at 2 o'clock. He and Amanda had taken separate vehicles to work. Amanda had some errands to run at lunch, getting ready for a party later that night to celebrate everyone's accomplishments, and Lee had a lunch meeting. They would meet back up at the pool.
The meeting had run longer than Lee had anticipated. He was in a hurry to get to the pool; he didn't want to miss his daughter's first race. He took a shortcut, knowing that he could knock at least 5 minutes off his time. As he rounded a bend in the road, he could see police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances, all with their lights flashing. The whole road was blocked and a policeman was directing the traffic to make U-turns and find different routes to get where they were going. Lee knew he shouldn't have taken the shortcut, they rarely work like they should.
As he swung his car around, he glanced over at the building that was burning. Parked in front of what was left of the building was a car that looked a lot like Amanda's. He just stared, trying to catch a glimpse of Amanda somewhere, trying to verify if it was her car or not. He had a sinking feeling he knew that it was and that she had been in that building.
The policeman who had been directing traffic walked up to Lee's car. "Move along, buddy."
Lee could barely choke the words out. "I think that's my wife's car." The policeman wasn't sure what to say and just directed Lee to pull his car out of the way of traffic.
Lee took a deep breath as he continued with his memories of that day. Remembering had become a nightly ritual for him. He had learned to push the memories aside while he was at work, but when he got home he couldn't seem to stop them. Every night he had been reliving the worst day of his life. Every night, he experienced the same gut-wrenching emotions.
The fire chief's words barely registered on Lee, only bits and pieces filtering through the fog that had formed in Lee's mind.
"Kids...matches...fire...out of control...trapped...wife...helped...child get out... falling beam...trapped ...smoke inhalation...C.P.R.... Nothing we could do...sorry, Mr. Stetson."
Lee struggled to find his voice. "Where's my wife?"
"She's in the ambulance."
Lee walked away from the fire chief, not believing that Amanda was gone. It wouldn't be real until he could see for himself. As he approached the ambulance, he felt his legs weakening, his knees threatening to buckle and toss him to ground.
He stopped at the back of the ambulance, looking in the open doors at the figure that lay covered under a white sheet. He stepped into the ambulance and took a seat next to the gurney she was on. Slowly, he pulled the sheet back, exposing her pale face. He reached out a tentative hand to stroke her cheek.
"Oh, Amanda. What were you doing? Always helping, always getting in trouble." Slow tears began to fall as the reality hit. "My Amanda."
Amanda hung back in the shadows, watching her husband as he relived their last day together. She watched as the emotions washed across his face: the pride and joy, the love, the sorrow and anguish. When she had seen the solitary tear he had allowed to escape, she had wanted to cross the room and brush that tear away, take him in her arms and tell him everything would be all right.
But it wouldn't. She couldn't. Because she wasn't *really* in the room. She was just a figment, a ghost, but her heart still ached, still felt like it was being yanked out of her.
Somehow, she had been able to watch her family live the last two months without her. So many times, she had wanted to give someone a hug or a caress, or even a word of encouragement, but she couldn't. She 'knew,' although she wasn't quite sure how, that she could appear to anyone only one time, and that she could only speak to one person, just one time. That time had come.
Every person in her family had crashed emotionally tonight. There had been a big fight, with everyone going their own way, leaving Lee to sit here in the dark. She had hoped that they would all have been able to go on with their lives without her, but each one seemed to have a problem they couldn't get past.
So tonight, she devised a plan. She appeared to each of them: her mother, Phillip, Jamie, and Amalee, trying to mouth the words, 'come home.' She hoped they had all understood. The last part of her plan was to visit her husband, and try to talk him into coming back to the land of the living, to try and make him see that their family needed him.
Standing in the family room, she looked around at all of the pictures, books, knick-knacks, and furniture. Everything meant something; everything had a purpose for being there. She looked at the wallpaper and remembered the way she and Lee had argued over it. For once, it wasn't cheery enough for Lee, but Amanda knew they would need something that would have a calming affect on everyone in the room. A mischievous grin crossed her face as she remembered the way she had changed his mind.
Her heart lurched as she realized that she wouldn't be able to 'change his mind' anymore; she wouldn't be able to feel his strong arms hold her; she wouldn't feel his warm hand as it grasped her own; she wouldn't feel the shivers he could send up and down her spine with just a look.
Amanda tried to calm herself and focus on what she needed to do. She marveled at the thought that even though she was a ghost, she could still feel emotions as if she were alive.
She slowly walked over to Lee and kneeled down in front of his chair. Lightly, she stroked his forehead. She knew he wouldn't be able to feel it, but just the act made her feel better. She saw Lee wince, and heard him whisper her name.
"Lee. I'm right here. Open your eyes, sweetheart."
Lee squeezed his eyes shut tight, hoping he was asleep, dreaming the dream where his wife was home.
"Lee, I'm here. Please, look at me," Amanda pleaded.
Lee opened his eyes and looked upon the most beautiful sight in the world. His wife was in front of him. Maybe it had been a nightmare. Maybe none of it had been real. Maybe he had been drugged.
"Amanda?" He couldn't believe it. She was here, she wasn't dead. As he leaned forward to embrace her, he dropped the glass he had been holding, but he didn't even notice.
As his arms closed in on the space where she should have been, he encountered nothing but empty space.
"What's going on? Amanda?" Lee was not finding any of this funny. He could see his wife but he couldn't touch her.
"Lee, I need to talk to you."
"No, you're not real," Lee said, shaking his head. "I've had too much to drink."
"You haven't had anything to drink," Amanda said as she instinctively reached for him, and he drew back away from her. "Now stop it," she said forcefully. "Lee Stetson you are being selfish."
"Selfish? Me?" Lee yelled. "I'm not the who died, remember? I didn't leave my family. I --"
Amanda interrupted, raising her voice. "Do you think I wanted to leave? Leave my children? My mother? My husband?" Amanda got that look on her face that indicated she was about to cry. "I didn't choose to go."
Lee never could bear to see Amanda cry. It always broke his heart. "Hey. I'm sorry. I know you never would have willingly left." He so desperately wanted to touch her, to hold her, to comfort her, but she wasn't there. "You're right. I have been selfish. What I just said --"
"Lee," Amanda interrupted again. "Oh, look, I know you didn't mean it. You're hurting and that's the problem. You've been so wrapped up in your own grief that you haven't seen what's been happening to our children."
"What?" Lee asked, shock showing on his face. "What's wrong with them? They're fine." He stood and began pacing, but never took his eyes off of his wife.
"No, they aren't." Amanda was shaking her head. "Did you know Jamie hasn't picked up his camera in two months? That Phillip is about to be fired from his job? Poor Amalee hasn't spoken a word to anyone. Even Mother isn't doing well. She cries herself to sleep every night. Lee, they need you. I need you to be there for them."
"They'll get through it just fine. I did and I was only five. I did all right."
"Lee, *you* didn't have a choice."
"I know," he said, as he ran his hand through his hair. "I guess I just never learned to deal with something like this. How am I supposed to help our kids?" He sat back down in the chair, shoulders slumped, head hanging. It was the first time his eyes had left the vision that was his Amanda. "Your mother. I can't even begin to imagine what she's going through."
"She just needs someone to talk to." Amanda bent down in front of him. "Someone to share her grief with. That's all. As for the others, they're your children. Just speak from the heart."
"Yeah, well, my heart and I haven't been talking a lot lately." Lee looked at Amanda. "You came back to tell me this. To make me talk to our family?"
Amanda smiled. "Yes. It's what any mother would do when she sees her family falling apart in front of her."
"But, how?" Lee questioned.
"I honestly don't know," Amanda replied, with a small chuckle. "I wasn't going to question it until I was done and my family was happy again."
Lee couldn't speak for a moment, and then finally managed, "I'm not sure I can be happy without you."
"Oh, Lee, yes, you can."
"No. I wasn't really happy until I met you. Until I loved you."
"Lee, you made me whole, just like I did for you. Together, we were one. Right?" Lee nodded. "Well, together we had a family. We 'have' a family."
"I understand," Lee said, looking down once more.
"Then you know you can't go on like you have been. I am still with you, not physically, but in your heart. And our family's hearts, too. You just..."
"... need to be with the rest of the family to feel whole again."
"Lee, I'm not saying you'll never feel that emptiness again, but you'll have other people to help fill it."
Lee looked at Amanda again, drinking in every nuance of her image: her hair, her eyes, her cute nose, those lips. Amanda. He could almost smell her perfume.
"Lee. I have to go. Mother's coming up the walk."
"Please, just stay another minute," Lee said, eyes pleading.
"Sweetheart, I have to go. Talk to Mother."
"I don't know what to say."
"Then just listen and answer with your heart."
Amanda stood and backed away from Lee, who immediately got up from the chair. He took a step towards her.
Closing his eyes, he held out his hand to her, hoping for one last chance to touch the woman who was his life, his soulmate.
Amanda stretched out her arm, wishing she could feel his strong fingers, needing his touch.
Slowly their hands met, and whatever fates or gods there were allowed them to touch. Lee's eyes shot open, locking on Amanda's, as their fingers closed on each other's. Then, she was gone.
Lee heard Dotty enter through the patio doors. He didn't say anything, trying to figure out where to start.
Dotty hesitated after she came through the door. Lee had a look on his face like it had all happened again. She had come to know that look well. She had stood in this very spot several times over the last couple of months, wanting to talk to Lee, it's just that he was always so withdrawn. After seeing an image of Amanda tonight, she felt compelled to at least come up and try to talk to Lee, but she didn't know how to break through his wall of grief. At least not yet.
She was worried about the children. Nothing she said seemed to help. She knew Lee would have to be the one to talk to them. She could only offer her hugs.
As Dotty turned to head to the kitchen, Lee faced her.
"Dotty." Her name came out a harsh whisper. Dotty stopped and Lee cleared his throat, ready to try again. "Hello, Dotty," he said and gave a weak smile.
"Hello, Lee," Dotty replied. "I just came down to make sure everyone got something to eat."
"Little late at night for that, isn't it?" Lee asked, trying to keep things light and break the ice, but mostly to try and calm his nerves.
"Well, lately this family has been keeping some strange hours," she said as she took a few more steps towards the kitchen, thinking the conversation was over, but encouraged to have had even that much from Lee.
"I'm..." Again, Dotty stopped. "Dotty, I'm sorry."
Dotty wasn't sure where Lee was going to go with this. "Now what on earth would you have to be sorry about?" she asked him.
Lee moved around the couch, to stand in front of Dotty. "I'm sorry that I haven't been here for you. Or for the kids."
Dotty walked away from him, saying, "Nonsense, Lee, darling. You have nothing to be sorry for. We've all been--"
A few quick strides put Lee back in front of Dotty, who promptly looked down. He placed one of his hands on her shoulder, and the other he used to lift her chin, forcing her to look him in the eye.
"Dotty, I can't even begin to imagine what you are going through. I lost my wife, but you...you lost your only child." Tears had begun running down Dotty's cheeks. Removing his hand from her chin and placing it on her other shoulder, Lee continued, "I haven't taken care of this family like Amanda expected me to. I let her down. I let you and the kids down. I even let myself down."
Dotty began weeping openly, and tried to pull away from Lee. Instead of letting her go, he pulled her into his arms, and they wept together.
After a few minutes, Dotty pulled back, trying to catch Lee's eye. Finally, wearing a sheepish, little boy grin, he looked at her.
"You know, Lee, it's perfectly alright to cry when you're hurting," she said, smiling at him.
Lee took Dotty by the arm and led her to the couch. "I know," he replied, gesturing for Dotty to sit, and then sitting himself. "I know, but I still haven't convinced myself that it applies to me. Amanda...helped me a lot where my emotions are concerned and..."
"...and now that she's gone..." Dotty continued for him.
"...I sort of resorted to the 'pre-Amanda' Lee Stetson." His sheepish grin was back. "Amanda helped me realize that."
Dotty gasped. "Amanda?"
"Yes. Amanda. She was here tonight."
"Oh my..." Tears began to well up in her eyes again.
"I know that you saw her, too."
"I thought I was just imagining things. I've missed her so much."
"Me, too," he agreed. "I tried to tell myself I'd had too much to drink and she promptly informed me I hadn't had anything to drink."
Dotty paused for a moment, then asked, "She spoke to you?"
"Yes, she did. Told me to straighten up, and fast."
"And you listened."
"I never could tell Amanda 'no' and mean it. From the day I met her, there was just something about her. No matter how hard I tried to push her away, fate just kept throwing us back together. I wasted so much time trying to convince myself I didn't need anybody...trying to get her out of my life. It took me a long time to realize that she *was* my life. It took me almost as long to tell her that."
"You made Amanda so happy. I'd never seen her like that. Not even with Joe."
"She made me feel the same way. She was really something."
"Yes, she was." Both were silent for moment, lost in their own thoughts of Amanda.
It was Dotty who finally broke the moment. "Lee, the children..."
"I know. I need to talk to them tonight, too."
"The boys should be home soon, but I don't know where Amalee went."
"I have a feeling she'll turn up," Lee said with a small smile.
"She was with me all afternoon, then she just disappeared. I don't know how she does it. One minute I'm talking to her, the next she's just gone. She's so much like Amanda sometimes it's eerie."
Dotty's comments sent her and Lee deep into thought again.
"Well," Dotty said, breaking the silence. "I'm going to run back to my place and pick up this herbal tea the lady at the-- " she said, standing up.
Lee interrupted her, as he, too, stood. "Dotty, I want you to know..." He paused as she turned around. "I am here for you from now on. If you ever want to talk, or just need some company, or, you know, ah, you need a shoulder to cry on, mine is always here."
Dotty stepped closer to him, stood on her tiptoes, and gave him a kiss on the cheek. "Lee, darling, I can see why Amanda was so in love with you. Thank you."
Lee blushed at her comment, and smiled his most charming smile.
Dotty smiled back at him. "Now that," she said, pointing at his smile, "I have missed seeing."
Lee watched Dotty disappear down the path towards her place, then he turned and went back to his chair to watch the fire and wait for the boys to get home. Soon, he heard Jamie come in and head upstairs. A few minutes later, he heard Phillip walk in the front door.
Phillip entered the quiet house. He put his car keys on the table by the door and headed for the stairs. As his foot hit the bottom step, he hesitated. He knew his stepfather would be sitting in the family room, just like he did every night. Phillip wasn't sure if Lee had slept at all since the accident. He knew he needed to talk to Lee about the argument they'd had earlier today. It was best if they could talk through it. His mom had taught him that.
His mom. He had seen her tonight. She told him to come home. Philip had no idea if he had really seen her or if it was just the guilt over what he'd said to Lee today. He also knew it didn't matter what had caused her to appear in front of him. He needed to straighten things with Lee. Phillip looked up the stairs and saw his brother standing at the top of the landing.
Jamie came down the steps, never breaking eye contact with Phillip. He could tell by the look on his brother's face that he had made a decision to talk to Lee about this afternoon. He knew that he needed to be in on that conversation. He had said some pretty bad things to Lee, too.
Both having come to the same unspoken decision, they turned and walked into the family room. They found Lee sitting in his favorite chair, staring at the slowly dying embers in the fireplace. Phillip cleared his throat and tried to speak, but Lee beat him to it.
"Hi, Phillip, Jamie," Lee said with a smile, as he turned to face his stepsons.
Phillip and Jamie were stunned; their mouths hung open. They hadn't seen Lee smile since the morning of the accident.
"Do you fellas have a minute to talk?" Lee asked.
"Sure," Phillip replied, looking at Jamie, who nodded. "That's why I came home. I think we," Phillip gestured to himself and his brother, "need to apologize for this afternoon--"
Lee held up his hand to stop Phillip. "You don't need to apologize. I do."
Again, Phillip and Jamie were stunned. They had been the ones to say all those mean things today. Lee had just sat there, which made them even angrier. Now Lee wanted to apologize?
Lee gestured to the couch. "Why don't you both come in and sit down. I have a lot to say."
They moved slowly to the couch, never taking their eyes off Lee. Phillip couldn't be sure, but he thought that maybe Lee had been replaced with a clone. Lee hadn't said a lot in two months. 'This should be interesting,' he thought.
Nervous, Lee stood and started pacing. "This afternoon..." Lee paused. 'Nope, try again,' he thought. "Ever since...I couldn't..." Lee sat back down in his chair and faced his stepsons. "What I'm trying to say, and not doing a very good job of it, is that I have been selfish. I haven't been able to see past my own grief. I couldn't see that I wasn't the only who lost somebody when your mom died. All that I could think about was how everyone I ever seemed to really care for left me in some way. I thought I'd always have Amanda. Then, she was gone. Tonight, I realized that she's not completely gone. She's here," and he pointed to his chest. Then he pointed to Phillip and Jamie. "She's in you and your sister and grandmother. All of our friends. They all have a part of her in them."
"Lee--" Phillip started, but Lee cut him off.
"No, I need to say this. This afternoon you both said some pretty harsh things. I deserved every bit of it," Lee said. Phillip shook his head, trying to disagree. "Yes. I did," Lee stated emphatically. "Your mom expected more from me. I let her down." Phillip and Jamie looked at each other. "I know you saw her tonight. I know she told you to come home."
"How could you possibly know that?" Jamie asked, the shock apparent on his face.
"Because, I saw her, too. I...talked to her. I know it's strange, but she was here, in this very room," he said, gesturing around the room. "She...woke me up, straightened me out. I forget sometimes that other people hurt, too. Even though I've been a part of this family for years, when your mom died I just...I don't know. I couldn't handle it. At least I thought I couldn't, but tonight she reminded me of a few things. I wanted to let you know that you are not alone. I'll be here for you...if you ever want to talk or anything."
Neither of the boys answered for a while, both thinking about their mom, about Lee, about the past two months. Lee also sat quietly, lost in his thoughts.
"Hmmm," Lee grunted.
"What?" asked Phillip.
"I was just thinking," Lee answered. "Guess I have something else in common with you two, now."
Jamie and Phillip looked at each other, confused. "What's that?" Jamie questioned.
"Well, technically, we are all kind of 'orphans.' We don't have parents."
Again, Phillip and Jamie looked at each other. With an almost imperceptible nod from his brother, Jamie spoke.
"Not exactly, Lee," Jamie said, causing Lee to look at him. "We've got you. You've been more of a dad sometimes than our actual dad."
"Yeah, Dad took us on weekends and stuff, but you were there all the time," Phillip chimed in. Lee could only sit there, speechless. "When Dad decided to go back to Africa with the EAO, you were there for us, but you never tried to take his place, you were just our friend."
Jamie spoke up again. "You came to all of our ball games, science fairs, photography contests. You gave us advice on girls." Lee, Jamie, and Phillip all smiled at that one. "You came to our graduations."
"When Dad had his heart attack and died, you were there for us then, too," Phillip said quietly.
Jamie looked decidedly uncomfortable for a moment, then said, "I tell everyone about my parents. That's... you and mom. They always ask how long you've been married and when I tell them, they make some comment about you being the 'step-dad,' but it's not like that at all." Jamie shook his head and looked Lee in the eye. "You're not really what I expected a step-father to be."
"Jamie, you have no idea how good that makes me feel. I know all those years ago we got off to rocky start, but your mom told me to just hang in there, that you would be okay. I can see she was right again. I am so proud of how the two of you have grown up. You've turned into fine young men. It's time we got everything back on track." He turned to face his oldest 'boy.' "Phillip, your job?"
"I'm on probation, but only for two weeks." He smiled. "I think things are gonna turn around...now."
"They'd better." Lee faced the younger of the two. "Jamie?"
"School's ok." Jamie looked at the floor and shrugged his shoulders.
"I'm not asking about school and you know it." Lee said sternly.
"Yeah," Jamie said, his shoulders slumping in despair. "Well, I don't think I want to take pictures anymore."
"Why not?" Lee asked.
"Yeah, wormbrain," Phillip put in. "You're really good."
"Phillip, don't call your brother wormbrain. Jamie? Why not?"
"It just doesn't feel right anymore, that's all."
A sudden realization dawned on Lee. "Do you feel 'too' happy when you take pictures? Maybe that you shouldn't be happy, because your mom's dead?"
"Jamie, I've felt the same way. How can I be happy, when the...the love of my life...my other half...is gone?" Lee paused, the familiar feelings of despair threatening to overtake him. He shook his head, trying to chase them away. "But you know what? Your mom wants you to be happy," he smiled. "She wants me to be happy. All of us. Your photography is one of the things I was supposed to talk with you about."
"Do you really think mom would want me keep taking pictures?" he asked, a hopeful look on his face.
"She does," Lee said, nodding. "She knows how happy it makes you. She also knows it's something you and I share. I know that if you don't, she will come back and haunt me." Jamie and Phillip chuckled, knowing Lee was right. "So go dust off those lenses and get snapping."
"I will Lee. Thanks," Jamie said with a big grin on his face.
Out of the corner of his eye, Lee caught a glimpse through the window of someone in the swing out back. He knew it was Amalee. He also knew that it was time for the hardest talk of all. He stood up.
"Fellas, I hope we'll be OK. I know we're a long way from it, but I think this is a start."
Phillip and Jamie looked at each other, and then Jamie stood and walked to Lee. Lee held out his hand to shake Jamie's, but Jamie brushed it away and gave Lee a hug. When Jamie finished, Phillip did the same.
Lee couldn't help but smile. "Your grandma should be back in a few minutes. She was gonna make everybody a late night snack. Why don't you guys get cleaned up and help."
"Good idea," Jamie agreed, heading for the door. "Oh, what about Amalee? We haven't seen her since this afternoon. She's not in her room."
"It's all right. I know where she is," Lee said, with a slight grimace. "I have to talk to her, too."
Lee stepped out the back door into the cool night. He saw his daughter in the swing. There was just the right amount of moonlight shining in the just the right way, so that she looked exactly like Amanda. 'She's so beautiful,' he thought. He walked over to the swing.
"Hiya, Hamster," he said. Amalee didn't respond. "Can I join you?" he asked. Again, no response, so he sat down anyway.
"You've been awfully quiet lately. Actually I think maybe you've been quiet for the last couple of months." Amalee's only response was to roll her eyes. Lee smiled.
"I didn't really notice, I've been pretty wrapped up in my own pain. Your mom told me tonight." At his last statement, Amalee spun around to face him, eyes wide. "That's right," he nodded. "I saw her tonight. I know you did, too. That's why you're here. She talked to me. Told me how stupid I've been lately." Amalee looked out at the yard again. "I can see that you agree."
Lee took a deep breath. 'This is where it gets tough,' he thought.
"Hamster, I love you. I'm sorry I haven't been here for you." Big tears started a slow trek down Amalee's face. "I can't go back and undo anything that's been done, or not done, in my case. I'd like to...I don't know...get things straight with you. Talk with you. Find out how you are." He hesitated. "So, how are you?"
Lee was completely unprepared for the response he got. Amalee flung herself into his arms, sobbing, saying, "I miss her, Daddy. So much. I've missed you, too. Why did she have to go? Why did she leave me?" Amalee sobbed.
Lee said nothing, he just held his daughter as they both cried; she for the mother she lost, he for the daughter whose innocence had gone up in flames.
After a few minutes, Amalee was quiet and Lee thought she had fallen asleep, but she said, "I thought I'd lost you too, Daddy."
"Oh, no, sweetheart. Never. I just didn't know how to deal with all of this. I love you," he said as he held her tighter. "You know, your mom didn't leave you by choice."
"I know, Daddy. It's just easier to blame her for leaving than to try to figure out why she was taken."
Lee smiled at his daughter. She was so smart, just like her mother. "You know, Hamster, you're a lot like your mother."
They were both silent for a few minutes, lost in their thoughts, enjoying having the other to hold onto again.
"Would you please stop calling me 'Hamster?' I'm 12 years old and it's getting embarrassing."
Lee smiled again. Amanda was right; she is growing up
fast. "All right, Amalee. Now, what do you say we head inside? Your Grandma
was going to fix something eat. Shall we join her?"
Amalee jumped down from the stool she had been sitting on and announced that she was going to the bathroom. Just before she left the kitchen, she turned and said, "Oh my gosh, do you know what I would love to have tonight? Marshmallows and peanut butter." She left the kitchen.
Everyone else stopped what they were doing and looked at each other. Suddenly there was a frenzy of activity as everyone began opening cabinets, removing boxes and cans, plates and glasses.
When Amalee walked back into the kitchen, she thought all of the adults in her family had finally gone loony. "What is everybody looking for?" she asked.
"Amalee, you know your mother always hid the marshmallows," Dotty began, while she was standing on her tiptoes trying to look in a cabinet.
"Yeah, and we could never find them," Jamie finished, his head in the cabinet under the sink.
"Gosh, did any of you ever 'live' with mom? Geez, they're right here," Amalee said as she walked over to the cookie jar. Everyone else stopped what they doing and watched as Amalee opened the lid and pulled out one bag of marshmallows.
They were all speechless. Amalee couldn't understand why. "Mom always kept the marshmallows in here. It's the only logical place for them. This way they don't get squished, and they stay fresher."
Lee laughed out loud. All eyes turned to him as he continued to laugh. Soon, Dotty joined in, then Phillip and Jamie. Amalee couldn't help but laugh, too. It had been a long time since she had heard her family this happy.
Amanda hadn't left quite yet. She knew she would never return again, and had wanted to make sure everything would be all right. She couldn't help but smile at her family as they laughed. Before she left, she wanted one more look at each of them. She knew it would be a long time before she saw any of them again.
Her gaze fell upon her mother, who was now hugging Amalee. Her eyes drifted to Phillip, her oldest, then to Jamie, her baby boy. 'Not a baby anymore,' she thought. She let her gaze wander back to Amalee. 'My baby girl. You take care of your daddy for me.'
Finally, her gaze came to rest on her husband. She would miss him, but she knew that he was in good hands and that he would take care of their family. As a family they still had a lot to discuss, but they were finally on the right track.
Lee took a deep breath, and slowly moved his gaze to the
doorway. Even though he couldn't see her, he knew she was watching. He
'felt' his eyes lock on hers, 'felt' her smile, and then...he 'felt' her
leave. She was gone.