No one had noticed her arrive. Which was good, she figured. This gave her a chanceto observe everyone, to see how the past month had taken it’s toll on them all.
Everyone had gathered in the backyard, and there, dispersed into small groups,they all coexisted. Laughing, talking, being together.
Denise smiled. This is just what she had wanted to see.
Looking just a tad closer, however, she found that it was just scratching the surface.
The circles under Kevin’s eyes were noticeable now that she looked closer at theyoung man, who was engrossed in his writing.
Kristin, usually so bright and cheerful and talkative, was strangely quiet as she satwith Leighanne, who was also not her usual self. While she smiled and talked to theother woman, her eyes drifted, the worry evident as she glanced at her husband.
Brian was laughing. Not uncommon for him, Denise noted, but the sparkle she’dknown is his eyes wasn’t present. He and Howie were attempting a game ofvolleyball, but laughing at their failure to do so.
Howard was neutral. He’d always been that way. Even so, she noticed the changesin him as well. His eyes were a little sadder, his voice didn’t carry that cheerful toneit usually did.
‘Yes,’ Denise sighed. ‘This certainly has taken a toll on all of them.’
Then her eyes drifted toward the far, far corner of the yard, underneath the largeoak tree. Underneath the heavy, drooping branches sat Nick, his legs pulled up tohis chest, eyes closed as he rested his chin on his knees.
He’d been the one she hadn’t seen at all this past month. Since the day their publicduties had come to an end, he’d taken off, without so much as a farewell, a “See yalater,” or anything of the sort. She’d spoken once to him, and he’d seemed sodistanced, so scared to admit his fear, his sadness, yet she could do nothing aboutit. The infamous Carter stubbornness shined through in the young man when timesweren’t as good as one might have hoped.
With stubbornness still on her mind, Denise drew in a slow breath when she noticedhe wasn’t alone underneath the cooling branches of the oak tree.
If anyone moped around and sulked more than Nick, it was Sandra.
Granted, she was a ticking time bomb, with problems of her own, but the pastmonth had left her shaken up worse than she’d ever been.
Denise’s heart went out to the girl. Her family came apart at their seams in a matterof hours and, finding herself caught in the midst of it all, ended up on her doorstepone humid night two weeks ago, shaking worse than if she’d been up to her neck insnow.
The following day, after having stayed up the rest of the night confiding in Deniseover coffee, she paid Nick a visit, and the two found a comfort in dwelling in theirpain together.
After all, they had found a common ground last month.
They sat in silence mostly, afraid to completely open up about things to eachother,but they were comforted with the other’s presence. Nick wasn’t accustomed tospilling his deepest secrets to people, and Sandra was used to confiding in another,and finding herself without that person, she found solace in Nick. Together, they’dfound a certain peace.
It wasn’t until then that Denise thought to wonder why, exactly, all of them weregathered like this. Precisely today, in this house. Last she knew, Brian and his wifewere home in Atlanta, Kevin and Kristin in California, and Nick had been roamingthe country. Howie was the only one she knew was still here in Orlando.
Something inside each of them, she mused, drew them here. Nevermind that theyhad keys to let themselves in. Nevermind that they did this on occasion.
They were all here for a reason, Denise smiled, and they knew it. All of them.
She thought back to the previous day, and heard the pleading voice in her head...
“Mom, don’t say anything. Okay? I wanna surprise them.”
“Honey, I don’t know..”
“Mom. Mommy. My favorite Momma..”
“Your ONLY Mom,” she laughed.
“Please? I wanna surprise them!”
“Like only you know how,” she laughed again. “All right. I suppose I can keepquiet.”
“Thanks Ma. You’re the best.”
She was brought out of her thoughts when a warm hand closed over her shoulder.
“They don’t suspect a thing, do they?”
“I don’t even think they know anyone else is here,” Denise smiled, looking into theeyes she longed to see sparkle once again.
“Well, time to let them know they’re not alone.”
He kissed her cheek, embracing her lovingly, before sliding the patio door openslowly.
‘This is it,’ she told herself, as her son stepped out into his yard and the first of thegroup noticed his presence.
‘And here I thought Howie’s eyes couldn’t get any wider,’ she chuckled, taking inHowie’s reaction. He’d set eyes on Alex and his eyes grew wide with surprise, andhappiness. Nudging Brian was the only thing he did before taking off after his friend,enfolding him in a warm hug.
Brian. There was a reaction for the scrapbook. He smiled. Completely. The first realsmile anyone had seen in a while. The sparkle in his eyes made him glow. He washeaded toward Alex and Howie in leaps and bounds, nearly knocking them bothover, causing an eruption of laughter that brought Leighanne, Kevin and Kristin totheir feet.
As the group around her son grew, Denise’s eyes traveled to the large oak tree. Tooenthralled in their own world to notice right away, Nick and Sandra were still sittingmotionless.
It was then that it happened.
Brian let out a shrill laugh, causing Sandra to look their way. Her gaze slowly lifted,then froze. Her eyes widened, her mouth opened, then closed, not able to say aword. Her right arm shot out, nudging Nick, trying to get him to see what she wasseeing.
His blonde head lifted just as Sandra got to her feet. He blinked a few times, notregistering what was before him, and soon was on his own two feet, walking afterSandra, toward their friends.
“Hello? Anyone home?”
“Over here, sweetie,” Denise called. The final piece to the puzzle.
“I called San’s cell and she said she was over here with...” Amanda’s voice trailedoff as she joined Denise in the patio’s doorframe.
“Oh my God,” she whispered. “Is that really...?”
“It is,” Denise smiled. “He’s home.”
She let Amanda pass, and the young woman was in her son’s arms in mere seconds.Her tears were happy ones, and immediately Denise was reminded of the genuinelove Amanda and Sandra had for her son. They were true friends. They were family.
Her attention focused on Nick and Sandra, who were finally within a few feet ofthem. Blinking back tears, Amanda stepped aside, letting Howie put his arm aroundher, as Nick stood in front of AJ, his own eyes brimming with tears.
In one swift movement, Nick embraced his friend.
“Welcome home, J,” came the whispered greeting.
“Thanks Nicky,” AJ smiled. “Thank you.”
Nick moved aside, and AJ was face to face with Sandra. How long had it been,Denise thought to herself as she watched the two, since they’d set eyes oneachother? Certainly more than a month. Possibly more than three.
The silence between the two was tense. Her eyes skimmed over his entire being,wanting to believe he was really there.
“Hi San,” he spoke, smiling at her, one of the very few people he held dear in hisheart.
His voice, that smile of his, must’ve done her in. Her head snapped back up and,looking into his eyes, she smiled, rushing into his outstretched arms, laughing.
“Welcome back, Alex,” she told him, hugging him tightly.
“It’s been a while, huh?”
“Yeah, it has,” she smiled, pulling back from him.
Denise made her presence known then, stepping out into the yard, joining her sonand his friends, his family, in their moment of joy.
Sandra smiled at the woman. “He’s back, Denise,” she laughed. “He’s really back.”
“He is,” Denise agreed, putting her arm around her son. “At last.”
Copyright ©2001 SO