Ivy

Our Lady of Hope        The May Queen Cometh       
The Enigmatic Mr. Rochester        Meeting Ivy        Kemara        Miss Heathcliff Arrives

The Hunters' Catch        The Family That Sticks Together        "September"        Francesca's Masterpiece        Ivy's Village

Biding Time        "He Faced This, Too"       
Joshua Remembers        Mr. Spelman's Stand        Revelations        Healing        Reunion

Author's Notes



~ Our Lady of Hope ~


Friday
, June 14th, 2013

Andrew poked his head into the chapel and looked around.  It was empty.  The only movement came from the flickering flame of a red candle that was kept perpetually lit.  The stillness and the quiet made for a welcome retreat after the chaotic, noisy day.  It was no wonder the Father had urged the angel of death to go there. 

Andrew softly closed the door behind him and sank into a pew.  He began to muse over how messy human life could be.  It wasn't that this fact was new to him.  But these days, when the angel was so tied to humanity, he simply felt
the messiness more deeply.  From his very first assignment among humans, Andrew had seen how little slights could escalate and small oversights could lead to massive failures.  This knowledge was partly why he took such care with the words he spoke.  It was why he was always on guard, always trying to gauge the emotions of those around him.  He struggled with the hurt humans caused each other but the idea that he might actually harm them himself... that possibility haunted Andrew.  It made the casual, pointless cruelty he had just witnessed unfathomable.  He couldn't understand how a young girl could spew hateful, ugly words about another and not immediately feel sickened and chastened.

This terrible mystery consumed Andrew as he sat in the chapel, staring at the Pieta.  Unlike most he saw in churches, it wasn't a reproduction of Michelangelo's.  This was an original creation and though it lacked the master's skill, in many ways Andrew preferred it... if it was possible to prefer something that depicted one of the worst moments of his existence.  In this bronze piece, Mary was seated not on a convenient boulder but on the ground.  Gone, too, was the outstretched left hand.  This Mary clutched her son to her breast, her right hand holding him securely as in the Michelangelo.  But her left ... it was the left  that made the piece almost unbearable for Andrew. 

The woman's left hand was buried in her child's hair as she lifted his head for one final, heart-piercing kiss.

A tear trickled down Andrew's cheek. 

The perfect, holy silence was interrupted by a ragged sigh. 

Alarmed, the angel turned to the pew behind him and came face to face with one half of the artist's subject.

Joshua tore his gaze away from the statue and smiled at the angel.  "Hi."

"Hi," a dazed Andrew echoed.

"Please know that Dad didn't want you to come here to get hung up about..."  Joshua's eyes flicked to the statue then back to Andrew.  "The past," he finished.  "At least not that past.  Not exactly."

"All right..."  Andrew looked swiftly to the living man then to the dead one and back again.

"There's something about that statue you need to know.  It'll help you with your assignment.  Something hidden.  Let's call it the Davidson Code."  Joshua grinned, hoping to draw Andrew out of his funk.

The angel's eye brow arched.  "The Davidson Code?"

"Yeah, Davidson.  It's going to be my last name when..."

"When you do the Superstar thing!  Right!"  Andrew chuckled.  "I think I'm gonna like the Davidson Code better than The DaVinci Code."

"Spoiler alert: I didn't father any children."

Andrew cocked his head.  "So I'm adopted?  Wow...  I have to say this comes as a shock, Joshua."

Joshua burst into laughter.  "You know what I mean!"  He clapped a hand on the angel's shoulder when he saw the gleam in those green eyes he so loved.  Then he stood and approached the sculpture with Andrew quickly following him. 

As the two studied the Pieta, each lifted his right hand and dragged it through his own hair.  Noticing, Joshua smiled again.  "Yeah, I'd say you're definitely mine."

Andrew beamed.

Joshua again reached for his messenger's shoulder.  "Come a little closer.  I want you to see the first piece of the puzzle." 

Andrew was grateful that Joshua's hand remained on his shoulder as he stepped nearer to the Pieta.  It was easier to look at that way.

"Look at my Ama's sash.  What do you see?"

"A pattern.  Some sort of chain.  It's pretty faint."

Andrew's glasses materialized in Joshua's hand and he quickly passed them along. 

"Thanks."

"You're welcome.  I guess I could have just perfected your eye sight but the girls really enjoy those glasses so..."  Joshua looked beatifically up at the ceiling as Andrew blushed.

"Cute.  Real cute," the angel of death jested.

"More than you know." 

Though his grin remained, there was a tenderness in the man's eyes that immediately brought to Andrew's mind an image of Joshua at Home.  He would be watching over them; smiling over Rose's and Max's courtship, breathing in the scent of Lady Beth's latest culinary masterpiece, laughing at JenniAnn's wide-eyed stare when one of her students asked an unanswerable question, and so on.  Yes, Joshua found them all cute... and exceedingly loveable.  The angel noted that the same loving gaze had shifted back to the stone woman's sash.  He focused on it.  "Ivy..." Andrew murmured as the pattern became clear.

"Yes.  Do you know why this piece is so different from Michelangelo's?" Joshua asked.  When Andrew shook his head, he continued.  "This statue was created by a woman, by a mother."  With his free hand, Joshua caressed the woman's face.  "Her name is Francesca.  Michelangelo's work is beautiful and reverent and instilled with his love.  I treasure it.  And I treasure this one, too.  As much.  Francesca was pregnant when she drew the first sketches.  As soon as her baby was old enough and she had the materials she needed, Francesca went to work on the actual sculpture.  She knew... she felt... maternal love with all its joy and agony.  She knew the desire to clutch her child to her, to keep her away from a sometimes cruel world."

"Her baby... did she..."  Andrew frowned at the sculpture.

"Francesca's baby is now fifteen years old.  As she etched her girl's namesake into that sash, she asked Ama to pray for her little one.  She asked me to always hold her close."  Joshua brushed his fingers over the sash.  "I have always and will always hold her daughter close.  Her Ivy.  My Ivy."

Andrew peered into Joshua's face.  "Wait... my Ivy?  So Ivy's my assignment?  And Ivy's mother sculpted this?"

A gentle smile formed as Joshua nodded.  "If only Ivy knew how many of us call her our own."  He again ran his fingers over the floral chain.  "Francesca died of cancer when Ivy was ten and life has been hard for her since."  He settled back into the front pew.  "Ivy was left only with a grandmother, Doreen, who was bothered by her very existence."

The angel's eyes narrowed.  "Her own grandchild's?  How could..."

"Ivy was conceived out of wedlock.  Her father didn't stick around, denied the baby was his.  Doreen didn't handle that very well.  She kicked Francesca out of the house."

Andrew shook his head.  "I still can't understand how a mother could turn away her own child... especially when she most needed her.  So she made a mistake?  Everyone does except... well, you."

Joshua traced the pew's grain of wood.  "Let he or she who is without sin..."  He sighed.  "Well, hearing can be selective.  Doreen told Francesca that she was a disgrace and had betrayed me and that I'd turned my back on her and her sin.  News to me."

Andrew wished, as he often did, that people could see Joshua as he was in that moment.  It was obvious he was angry about Doreen's behavior but there was no rage, no hatred... only sadness and something akin to lonesomeness.   

Joshua smiled again at the Pieta.  "Thankfully, Francesca didn't believe that... as you can see."  He paused and tilted his head.  "You know what one of my favorite things to do was when I was a carpenter?"

"What was that?"

"Taking the flawed pieces of wood... the parts Abi cast off... and making something beautiful out of them." 

Andrew smiled gently.  "Something tells me that's still one of your favorite things to do... figuratively."

Joshua nodded.  "Francesca wasn't happy about what she'd done.  She was disappointed in herself but she knew it wouldn't be healthy for her daughter to see her constantly berating herself.  Wise girl.  So she focused on the positive.  And she truly was happy about her baby... this adorable, precious little girl with all these wisps of red curls and tiny, perfect freckles and when you'd look into those smiling... and Ivy really was smiling even as a tiny baby... hazel eyes... everything seemed better."

Andrew felt both touched and grieved by the account of Ivy's babyhood.  The way Joshua shone with pride and absolute joy as he talked about his children never ceased to move the angel.  Yet, his words made Andrew consider how seldom he had seen the teenage Ivy smile since starting his assignment.

"Her mother felt the same way," Joshua continued.  "And, despite Doreen's rantings to the contrary, Francesca and I became closer.  Her and Ama, too.  Francesca figured that my mother would understand what she was going through.  She did."  Joshua looked proudly at the sculpture before a shadow fell across his face.  "Doreen refused to see that we were still working in her daughter's life.  There was a moment... when Francesca was dying... that a reconciliation seemed possible.  But Doreen just couldn't..."  He brushed away a tear.  "She took Ivy in because she felt obligated.  But when she looks at that poor girl, all she sees is sin and what she views as her daughter's fatal mistake.  Most of the time Doreen barely acknowledges her granddaughter.  And on the occasions she does, she gives Ivy a hard time about how she came to be.  Apparently nothing good can come of kids conceived out of wedlock..."  A bitter smile flickered across Joshua's face. 

Andrew cast a sidelong glance at Joshua, wondering if he was remembering the sneers about his own parentage.

Joshua smiled gently to reassure Andrew.  "You and I know that no one should blame a child for the circumstances behind his or her own birth.  But Doreen does blame Ivy.  So no one tells the girl how loved she is.  Well, no one outside her parish priest's general reminders to the whole congregation every Sunday.  Francesca did a wonderful, amazing job raising a strong, happy, faithful, compassionate girl.  But Doreen's indifference and sniping and then the bullying at school... only a small taste of which you've witnessed.. they're chipping away at Ivy's strength and happiness every day.  For years Doreen has turned a blind eye to her granddaughter's tears and dismissed her whenever Ivy did build up the courage to tell her about the hurtful notes or cruel taunting.  And the bullying has followed my girl from her junior high to her high school and now here.  It can't go on like this."  Joshua turned to Andrew and clasped the
angel's right hand in both of his.  "Please tell Ivy I love her.  She needs to hear it.  Now more than ever."

Andrew set his left hand over Joshua's.  "I will tell her.  I promise I will.  I'll do everything I can for Ivy."

"Thank you.  I know you will."  Joshua hugged him.  "I have to go now.  Someone will be coming here and it won't help us much if she sees you talking to the air."

Andrew chuckled.  "I guess not."

"When she comes, she's going to make you an offer, Andrew.  Accept it.  Also, I put two bike tires in the backseat of the Jolly Green.  You'll know what to do."

Curious but content to let the mystery unfold, Andrew nodded.  "I'll accept the offer and I'll do whatever it is I'm supposed to do with the tires.  Thank you for coming, Joshua.  I love you."

"And I'll always love you." 

As Joshua faded, the chapel door squeaked open.

*~*~*

Ten more blocks.  She just needed to make ten more blocks and then she would be safe... well, safe from Alyssa.

As she pushed her bike, Ivy glanced at her wristwatch.  Thanks to her popped tires, which she was sure were courtesy of either Alyssa or her friends Caitlin and Mariah, Ivy was already ten minutes past her usual return home.  She hoped her grandmother wasn't watching the clock.  She didn't want a lecture.  She just wanted to disappear into her room with her book and her journal and enjoy two days' reprieve from her tormentor.

The reprieve would be delayed.

Ivy heard a car speed around a nearby corner then screech to a halt.

"Hey, Ivy!  Something wrong with your bike?" a girl's voice called.

Ivy quickened her pace and kept walking.  She wouldn't give Alyssa the satisfaction of seeing her face.

"All that fat must have popped the tires," Alyssa shrieked to the delight of her two passengers.  She began to slowly steer the car alongside Ivy.

Tears welled in the girl's eyes.  She prayed that somehow it would stop and that Alyssa would go away.

"Hey, Ivy, why didn't you ask that guy who mows the nuns' lawn to fix your bike?  Too poor to pay him?  Well, you could probably find other ways to pay.  Just like your mom did.  On her back," Alyssa sneered as Caitlin and Mariah laughed hysterically.

Ivy's head jerked up and she stared at the bully.  "Don't talk about my mom like that," she hissed.

"Eeek.  You look even uglier like that."  Alyssa turned to her passengers.  "Look how much her zits stand out when she's all pale like that!"

Suddenly, blessedly, a horn honked.  Through blurry eyes, Ivy looked to see a green mini-van pulling up behind Alyssa's car.  The driver's door opened and the man stepped out.  Not wanting to be seen, Ivy lowered her head.

"You girls having some car trouble?  You were going awfully slow before you stopped."

Alyssa shot daggers at Ivy with her eyes.  "You better not say anything to him, loser.  Remember, I can get you kicked out of EG.  Him, too.  They'll do whatever my dad says."  With that, she sped off.

Ivy could feel the stranger's eyes on her.

"Ivy?  Hey, are you okay?"

The teenager let out a sob that came from a mixture of embarrassment and relief.  This was no stranger.

Mindful of the girl's pride, Andrew focused on her bike.  "It looks like your tires have seen better days.  You know, I just happen to have a couple replacement tires in my van."

Ivy looked up at her teacher, trying to decide if he was joking.

Andrew smiled and shrugged his shoulders.  "I know.  That sounds weird.  Someone gave them to me thinking I could use them.  They won't fit my bike but looking at those..."  He eyed the busted tires again.  "I think we may have found a match and I'd really like to get those tires off my hands.  Could I take a look?"

"P-please."

"It may take a few minutes so why don't you take a seat under that tree?"  Andrew reached into his backseat.  "Here's a blanket so you don't get eaten alive by the chiggers."

Ivy accepted the blanket, laid it out, and took a seat.

"So what exactly was that I came upon?  That was Alyssa, wasn't it?" Andrew asked as he began to remove the front tire.

Ivy only nodded in response.

Sensing it would be best if he didn't look at the girl, the angel remained focused on the bike and his tools.  "Was she giving you a hard time, Ivy?"

"Just... just messing around."

"Messing around having fun with you or messing around being mean to you?"

"She just..."  Ivy began to braid the fringes of the blanket.  "Doesn't like me."

"Well, then she doesn't know what she's missing out on.  You've been a joy to have in our session."

"But I... I've hardly said anything."

"But you listen intently.  Trust me, teachers notice that.  They can tell when a student's really interested and you are.  That makes me happy to see someone derive such pleasure out of what they're learning.  I'd love to hear more from you but being quiet... that's okay, too.  As long as you're quiet because you want to be and not because you feel you have to be."

Ivy let his words sink in.  She didn't even think he'd noticed her.  Usually people didn't.  The pain left by Alyssa's words began to subside.

"So what did you think about 'Rappaccini's Daughter'?"

Ivy shivered, remembering the haunting tale.  "I thought it was terribly sad... I wish she hadn't died... but I loved it.  It made me think."

"About?"

"Gardens.  What they mean.  I mean, in the Bible, everything started to go bad in a garden.  But then, in a different garden, everything started to go right again.  It made me hope that... that maybe Beatrice woke up in a different garden where she could have her happy life and no one would be afraid of her.  Where things would go right again."

Profound as this speech was, it unnerved Andrew.  "I believe she did find that other garden.  But I still wish she could have had a happy life in this world."

"But her world was poisonous a-and it made her poisonous."

"Yeah.  It did," Andrew admitted.  He moved onto the second tire.  "You know what always amazes me?"

"What?"

"How so many people do grow up in poisonous places... figuratively speaking... but don't become poisonous themselves.  They remain good, caring, loving people who do what they can for others.  Those people amaze me."  Andrew was quiet for a few moments, hoping Ivy would take in his meaning... that he was talking about her.  "So have you read any other Hawthorne?" he ventured.

"The Scarlet Letter for school.  I read some of his short stories on my own.  We're not reading 'The Birth-Mark' are we?"

"I wasn't planning on it.  Did you want to?"

Ivy shook her head, sending her hair flying with her adamancy.

"Then we won't." 

"I didn't like that... that the man risked his wife... killing her... just because he didn't like her birthmark." 

"I didn't like that, either," Andrew agreed.  "It's too bad that some people see flaws where there really aren't any."  He tightened the bike's bolts then flipped it over.  "I think you're good to go.  And I get my backseat back!"

Finally smiling, Ivy stood up and accepted her bike.  "Thank you, Mr. Rochester.  This... I... this means a lot."

Andrew smiled back at her.  "It was no problem at all.  Happy to do it.  So how far are you from home?"

"Just another ten blocks."

"Well, how about I follow you... just to make sure you get there."

"Okay."  Ivy hopped on the bike and waited for her teacher to get back in his van before setting off.  She sighed as she again felt the wind in her hair and the exhilaration of her legs and heart pumping.  It was even better now that she knew she was safe.  Alyssa couldn't say anything to her with Mr. Rochester there.  He'd been like a guardian angel, swooping in right when she most needed him.  Ivy sent a pray of gratefulness to the Heavens. 

When her house came in view, Ivy slowed.  "That's it right ahead," she shouted.  "The gray one.  Thank you again."

Andrew smiled out the window.  "You're welcome.  You have a great weekend, Ivy.  See you Monday!"

Ivy nodded.  "Definitely.  I hope you have a nice weekend, too, Mr. Rochester." 

The angel of death smiled again.  Then he noticed a woman who looked to be in her early sixties glaring at them from her front lawn.  Doreen.  He knew it wasn't time to face her... not yet.  With a wave to Ivy, he drove off.

Ivy's heart sank a little when she saw her grandmother.  Still, nothing could dispel the warmth she'd felt only moments before... knowing she was being watched over.

"Who was that?" Doreen demanded as the girl rode up the driveway.

"One of my teachers.  I had trouble with my bike and he saw me.  The bike's fine now but he wanted to make sure I got home okay so he followed."  Ivy knew better than to tell her that Mr. Rochester had given her new tires.

"They hired male teachers?"

"Yes."

"But it's an all girls program."

"All girls schools hire male teachers.  And all boys ones hire female teachers," Ivy responded casually.

"Don't be smart with me!"

"I... I wasn't."

"Just get inside.  Now dinner's probably cold and I'm going to be late for my meeting at the church because you were being pokey."

Ivy looked down at the sidewalk as she carried her bike onto the porch.  "It... it wasn't because I wanted to be late.  I'm sorry, Grandma."

Doreen waved her hand dismissively.  "Just get inside."

Ivy considered explaining to her grandmother about Alyssa but she knew that would accomplish nothing... nothing except possibly drawing out agreement from the woman.  "Yes, Grandma," she replied quietly.  At least she would have the evening to herself.

*~*~*

~ The May Queen Cometh ~

Later that evening


JenniAnn paused in her cleaning to watch Lulu tug at one of Andrew's robes until the basset hound was content with her self-made nest.  Looking as forlorn as JenniAnn felt, the dog plopped onto the mound of terrycloth and nuzzled the collar. 


Andrew had been gone for two weeks and two days.  He'd written twice and called regularly but both friend and pet still missed him terribly.  That
Dyeland was on its second evening of thunderstorms only added to their melancholy.  The tempest wasn't severe yet JenniAnn and Lulu longed to be tucked away in Andrew's basement... with Andrew.  However, they were forced to make due with JenniAnn's bedroom and the company of each other and Fawn.

JenniAnn didn't doubt that she would see Andrew soon.  After all, there was the "three week promise" to consider and God's commitment to that had been tested and proven time and again.  He had shown them that not even hatred nor violence could sunder the vow.  In five days, if not before, JenniAnn would see her beloved friend and Lulu, most likely, would have her boy back.  Explaining the concept to the basset hound had been therapeutic and reassuring for the woman.  And yet... another five days without Andrew still seemed like an unbearably long wait. 

JenniAnn picked up a glass framed photograph and smiled at it.   Adam had snapped the image of she and Andrew dancing in the ballroom on her thirtieth birthday.  His head was thrown back as he laughed over some forgotten remark.  It was hard to believe that only a week later they'd been dancing for a far less celebratory reason.  That dance had meant good bye.  It had presaged tears and dust and darkness and bloodshed but also ten months of renewed hope and deepening love.

Moved to abandon her cleaning, JenniAnn grabbed a heart covered photo album and settled onto her bed beside Fawn.  The book started with another copy of the birthday photo and after it came a candid Owen had taken of her while they were staying at Catherine's apartment.  JenniAnn despised the photo.  It depicted a listless wreck of a woman standing on a balcony, staring with deadened eyes at the Manhattan skyline.  Nonetheless, she had kept it as a reminder.  Only two nights later had been the first dream of kudzu and lightning bugs and Andrew... Andrew whose
hacked up hair and battered but smiling face filled the next page.  There had been some debate among the Dyelanders over whether it was okay to take photographs so soon after his return from Afghanistan.  However, the angel himself had posed no objections.  He had seemed to know that it was necessary.  When his friends woke up in a panic at 3 AM, wondering if his rescue was all a dream, they'd had photographic proof of its realness. 

It had started then.  JenniAnn was sure of that.  Whatever "it" was remained confusing.  But somewhere between the madness and miracle of Afghanistan, watching Andrew take Max under his wing, and confronting Chava's past with him; the mysterious and wondrous "it" had happened. 

Suddenly, JenniAnn found herself recalling in vivid detail a scene that had played out many years before in her high school friend's bedroom. 

She, the never-been-kissed May Queen, had listened politely as her newly experienced friend, Carrie, went on about her boyfriend, Kevin.  Seventeen year old JenniAnn had put on a good front, wishing a happily ever after for the new couple.  She'd smiled and nodded even as she'd struggled to imagine Kevin... who she was still convinced had eaten her blue crayon in Kindergarten... as a romantic hero.  But inside she had been appalled when Carrie had gone onto say that after she'd slept with Mr. Perfect the Crayola Eater, she'd discovered it was almost physically painful to be apart from him for long.  It wasn't that JenniAnn was bothered by the pre-marital sex.  Daughter of the Church that she was, Catherine and Vincent had unwittingly challenged any attachment their cousin felt to that particular law.  What if people simply couldn't get married?  Thus, JenniAnn had grown up believing in waiting until true love.  But still...  she had wondered what sane person would sign up for something that left them pained and clingy.  She'd felt sorry for the girl.  But only for a moment.  Any pity JenniAnn had felt for Carrie evaporated and was replaced by a gentle envy as she'd continued to listen to her friend.

"I know lots of times it doesn't work out at our age.  I do.  I'm not stupid or naive.  But in spite of all that... I trust Kevin.  It may not make sense but I do," Carrie had vowed.  "I know he won't leave me."

JenniAnn smiled at the memory.  As awkward as she'd felt in Carrie's room that day, she'd been blessed.  She'd seen trust born... trust that had, despite the odds against high school sweethearts, led to a romance that had continued through college, to a wedding, and to a Christmas card every year depicting a still enamored Carrie and Kevin and their brood of four.

Remembering them, JenniAnn recognized what the mysterious "it" was: the birth of trust.  For the first time in her life, she trusted someone completely.  And Carrie had been right.  It hurt to be apart from him.  JenniAnn had a sudden desire to call her old friend, knowing Carrie would understand how she felt.  But that wasn't possible.  Carrie and Kevin had been among those she had chosen to distance herself from, not because she didn't trust them specifically, but because her trust in "the old gang" had already been broken once.  Bennie had been a friend of hers and Carrie's, too.  And JenniAnn had told her about Dyeland, about Andrew.  That had not ended well... and she could only hope it had truly ended.  Andrew had been so beautiful, so strong during the woman's last angst-inducing visit.  But JenniAnn wasn't sure she could bear such verbal attacks on the angel these days when she loved him even more.  She couldn't risk it... or him... or them.

Pulled from her musings by Lulu's baying, JenniAnn lifted the basset hound, robe and all, onto the bed.  She lay between the two dogs and stared into Lulu's drooping eyes.  "Turns out there are multiple ways to sign up for that pained and clingy thing Carrie told me about...  But your daddy's worth it.  And... bonus!  This way I still get to have my own bed.  Well, sorta..."  She laughed.  The way the two dogs were arranged, she had precious little room.  "Okay, so at least I get my own closet space.  All of..."

Lightning illuminated the whole room with a harsh white light and thunder boomed.  JenniAnn jumped.  The amusement she'd begun to feel evaporated and, unbidden and unwanted, tears pricked at the corners of her eyes.  "Oh good gosh, pull yourself together," she muttered, swiping at them.  She tried to reason with herself.  Yes, fine.  She was more attached to Andrew than she'd ever imagined being.  But other people were separated from their loved ones for much longer periods of time.  They didn't even have a guarantee that nothing truly terrible could happen to them.  Though there were a few down sides to having fallen in love with an angel of death, JenniAnn knew she couldn't very well complain about the whole immortal thing.  No, Andrew wasn't invincible.  Yes, he could be harmed.  They'd had plenty of proof of that.  However, he would live always and she should be grateful for that.  She thought of Chava who had spent sixty years missing her David.  She thought of Cora who had watched her own husband die and proceeded to live fifty five years without him.  She had no right to fall apart over two weeks and two days... "it" not withstanding.

Still... as the storm raged, JenniAnn felt unmoored.  She longed for a hug or a smile or the feeling of Andrew's hand in hers.

The woman was dangerously close to breaking into sobs when her phone rang.  It wasn't "The Scientist" ringtone that denoted a call from Andrew's cell.  But maybe he was calling from a landline somewhere...

"Hello?" she greeted anxiously.

"JenniAnn?"

Her heart sunk upon hearing the feminine voice.  "Uh huh," she choked out.

"Oh good!  This is Carrie Hunter from Our Lady of Hope.  How are you?"

JenniAnn blinked.  It was too eery to be possible.  She was hearing the voice of the very same girl she'd just been thinking about.  After the initial shock, she was even further flummoxed.  She couldn't remember ever giving her cell phone number out to Carrie or anyone from her high school... anyone other than Bennie. 

"I'm good, Carrie.  How about you?" JenniAnn finally managed.


"Fine, thanks!  Well... stressed.  It's not too late to call is it?"

"No, not at all."

"Oh good!  Listen, I got your number from your mom.  Did you know the only information we have for you is your parents' address and number?"


JenniAnn remained silent, unsure how to respond.  They couldn't have her current address which was essentially "Willowveil Castle... you know, two doors down from Andrew's Serendipity."

"Well, anyway..." Carrie continued.  "I'm just glad I reached you.  So what's going on with you these days?"

"Oh, you know, the usual...  Work, family, crafting, cleaning!" JenniAnn chirped.  She felt badly that she had so little to say.  But there was so much that couldn't be said.  Maybe if she just kept the focus on Carrie...  "How are you and your family?"

"The kids all had a great year at school.  So did all of us at Our Lady.  Volleyball team took State again.  We have a new science lab.  I loved my classes!"

There was a hitch in her old friend's cheery tone that disturbed JenniAnn.  She abandoned her fake phone voice and fell into her own speech patterns.  "I'm real glad to hear that but you sound... off.  Carrie, is somethin' goin' on?"

"Y-yeah."

The distance of years vanished and JenniAnn felt like, once again, they were in Carrie's bedroom with the old ease and care.  "What's wrong?"

"Everything was going real... really well but then... then Kevin..."

JenniAnn's heart stopped when she heard the woman exhale raggedly.  Surely they weren't having problems. 

"He, uh... he'd just been feeling so tired lately..."

Tears again welled in JenniAnn's eyes.  This was worse than "problems."  "Oh Carrie..."

"We found out that it... it's leukemia."

"Oh Care.."

"The doctor thinks we caught it early and there's a good, good chance that Kev can beat it.  But I just... just not used to thinking of him as... as vulnerable."

"I... I'm sure not.  But that love you two have... it's not vulnerable.  It's so strong and it'll see ya through.  That and God's love.  Ya know, you're probably not gonna believe me but I'd just been thinking about ya both and how amazing you are.  Not many people our age can say they've been with the same person for over thirteen years.  That's a whole lot of love."

"Aww...  Thank you.  I'll... I'll tell Kevin that."

"Please tell him I'll be praying for him, for you, and for the kids.  And that the doctors get him well real soon.  Is there anything else I can do?"

"Well..."

JenniAnn could imagine the way Carrie's head bowed as her fingers played nervously at her earrings.  She'd always struggled with asking for help.  "Care, just tell me.  Please."

"Okay...  I just really want to spend as much time with Kevin as possible."

"Of course."

"Normally, with it being summer and classes out, I could.  But we have the centennial for Our Lady coming up and... well, Vivian... she's Head of School now, ya know."

"Yep.  I read the newsletters."

"Oh good.  Well, she was wanting the archives gone through and organized so we could have a presentation when the girls come back in August.  So I was going to do that but now...  I don't want to disappoint her but..."

"I'll come," JenniAnn volunteered, eager to do something to assuage the guilt she felt for being so absent.  "I can go through them.  Don't worry about it.  Just take care of Kevin and your lil ones."

"But your mom said you aren't even in town any more," Carrie protested.

"No.  But I'm nearby.  Besides, it's only right I do it.  I'm the one who started going through the archives." 
JenniAnn cringed as she recalled the summer of 2005 when she'd walked out on Andrew and Dyeland for a few months in an attempt to "find herself."  Apparently "finding herself" had meant digging through the dust of her alma mater's storage room.

"Are you really sure?"

"Definitely," JenniAnn promised. 

Carrie sighed.  "Thank you, thank you, thank you.  Something told me to call you and... and I'm so glad I did."

JenniAnn smiled, glad to hear the relief in her old friend's voice.  "I'm glad you did, too.  And you're welcome but, really, I'm happy to do it.  I think it'll be nice to get back to the ol' place.  And I can be near my favorite classroom.  I love the little theatre."  Nostalgia kindled in her heart as she remembered the lower level room that was half a small stage and half a regular classroom.  Its backstage costume room shared a door with the storage area.

"Did you know that's my room now?"

"Really!  I'll have to peek in.  I'm sure you have it decorated wonderfully."

"Well, actually... 
I don't know if you heard but Vivian volunteered the building and what staff she could wrangle for a summer program.  It's called Eve's Girls."

JenniAnn perked up.  "I read about that when I was back home around Christmas.  It sounded wonderful!  I remember the article said some lady named Eve something or other left a crazy amount of money for a non-profit to establish summer programs for girls.  They already got something started?  Wow.  That's a quick turn around."

"Well... it shows."  Carried laughed.  "A lot.  They wanted to get going ASAP but, of course, don't have a building yet hence using ours.  And apparently Ms. Eve was something of a dreamer.  She wanted to offer something to appeal to every interest.  And, of course, every interest requires an instructor and EG has managed to hire all of ten people since Christmas... for twenty five positions.  So..."

"So Our Lady is helping fill in the gaps?"

"Bingo.  You know our motto: 'Women in service to others.'  Vivian thinks this is a great service... and she thinks the PR will be good for future enrollment."

"Naturally."

"I offered to
handle the drama and literature sessions but with everything..."

"I'm sure they understood, Carrie," JenniAnn soothed.  "They had to."

"They did.  They planned to cancel the sessions.  But then, out of no where, this guy walks into their temporary office here with great references.  So now he's teaching in my stead.  He's really great.  But I am a little worried about him.  They expect an end of the summer performance which is kind of a big demand if you ask me and then just being a guy trying to work with dramatic, artistic girls... half of them teenagers...  Do you think... I mean only if you want to... do you think maybe you could just peek in on him every so often?  Just make sure he's doing okay?  I want to myself and still plan to but since things are so unpredictable for me right now..."

A sense of dread filled JenniAnn.

"He's single...  New to the area..." Carrie tantalized.  "Very good looking...  Great personality."

"Carrie... no.  I mean I could try to help but I don't... I don't care that he's single.  I'm not... not looking," JenniAnn stressed, nervously twisting her Claddagh ring as she glanced at a photo of Andrew, Chava, and Shelby.

"Oh.  Okay.  Sorry.  But just guess his name.  For fun."

Not wanting to deny her troubled friend some bit of amusement since she was robbing her of matchmaking fun, JenniAnn opted to play.  "Hmm...  Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John?"

"Nope."  Carrie laughed.  "You always were very... biblical.  Think your beloved Jane Eyre," she prodded.

"Edward?"

"Close...  I actually can't remember his first name.  We have to use last names with the girls.  Vivian told me but I was so stuck on his last name... and just fuzzy minded..."

"Understandable."

"Anyway, his name's Rochester.  Mr. Rochester!  Isn't that cool?"

"That is cool," JenniAnn admitted.

"I thought so.  And he's so nice but he did seem overwhelmed when I stopped in to pick up some of my things.  I found him in the chapel if that tells you anything."

"Poor guy.  I'll definitely try to help him out.  But, umm, you didn't tell him that I'd maybe be coming and that I was single, did you?"  JenniAnn listened to a few moments' silence.

"I... I'm sorry.  I know I shouldn't have.  Now I don't even know what I was thinking.  I mean I hadn't even asked you...  I guess I was just...  Well, it seemed fun to maybe be able to play matchmaker.  And he seemed... interested... excited even to hear you were maybe coming.  It was... a nice, fun distraction...  I'm sorry!"

JenniAnn rubbed at her temples.  "It's okay.  I understand.  I'll still come.  Do you think it would be okay if I brought helpers?"  She hoped that Andrew might be back in time and able to go with her to show this Rochester fellow that while she was willing to lend a hand, there would be nothing more.  If Andrew was still absent, maybe she could ask Adam, Eli, Owen, or Max.

"Definitely!  I can't imagine that being a problem.  I'll give the Eve's Girls folks a heads up.  They may want to do background checks if your helpers stick around but I can't imagine that being a problem with any friend of yours."

JenniAnn suppressed a giggle.  Some of her friends didn't legally exist... but they had a way of springing into legal existence when necessary.  "No, shouldn't be.  Thanks, Carrie."

"You're welcome.  I really am sorry I flubbed up with Mr. Rochester.  Please know I wouldn't normally do that.  I just...
I don't know... I saw him and thought of you."

JenniAnn smiled, knowing Carrie was being sincere.  "Well, thank you for thinking of me but... I just can't." 

"It's okay.  I'm just so grateful to you for helping out.  And I won't say another word about you and Mr. Rochester but, really, I'm sure he'll love any help.  Even if it's just a few encouraging words here and there.  You were always good at that.  Still are.  So when do you think you'll want to come?  I'd love to at least be there to greet you."
 
"Carrie, you don't have to..."

"I'd just really like to see you.  It'd be nice to, for a moment, remember the old, easy days."

"I'd love that.  I volunteer elsewhere Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings but would it work if I came Monday at noon?"

"Perfectly!" Carrie gushed.

"Great.  So... I'll see you, Vivian, and this Rochester fellow on Monday."

"Oh, JenniAnn!  That's awesome!  Thank you so much!"

JenniAnn grinned.  "Ya know how it is.  Once a Hope High girl, always a Hope High girl."

Carrie laughed.  "Ah, the unofficial motto!  Don't I know it!  I couldn't stay away for more than four years.  I'm so excited to see you again.  It's been too long!  Well, g'bye until Monday!"

"G'bye, Carrie.  Take care.  And I will be praying."

"Thank you.  So much.  Good night, JenniAnn."

"G'night."

JenniAnn turned her phone off and stared at it for a few moments, thinking of Carrie and Kevin.  She looked over at the Celtic cross Andrew had given her and prayed for them.  Just as she was finishing a final Hail Mary, Lulu settled onto her lap.  JenniAnn sighed as her attention shifted to the other issue weighing on her since Carrie's call: the enigmatic Mr. Rochester.

The woman set her forehead against the dog's.  "I love you, too.  And I promise you I won't take up with this Rochester guy.  I love your daddy just a bit too much for that."  JenniAnn rubbed Lulu's ears.  "Maybe I'll even ask if you can count as one of my helpers.  You can be our chaperone."

Lulu only yawned in response.

JenniAnn kissed the basset hound's head and resumed wondering where Andrew was.  She prayed that he was happy wherever God had sent him.

*~*~*

~ The Enigmatic Mr. Rochester ~

Monday, June 17th

The following Monday afternoon, leading Lulu on her leash, JenniAnn approached the front doors of Our Lady of Hope High School for Young Women for the first time in years.  She stepped into the atrium and raised her hand to ring the bell.  Before she could, the glass door swung open and a brunette woman dressed in pink yoga pants and a yellow T-shirt pulled her into a hug.

"Hi Carrie," JenniAnn greeted, warmly returning the embrace.  "How are you?  And Kevin?"

Carrie pulled away to reveal tears in her eyes.  "I'm good.  Better now that I've seen you, hugged you.  I missed you!  Kevin... it's a bad chemo day.  His mom's with him   at the house now."

"Carrie, you really didn't need to come..."

"But I wanted to.  Just to see you for a bit.  Get you settled in.  I'm so thankful that..."

JenniAnn shook her head.  "It's really, really nothing.  It's my school, too.  And I've been playing the prodigal for years.  You deserve a break now.  I can manage."

"I'll just stay long enough to introduce you around a bit.  I'd like to at least do that."  Carrie crouched down and pet Lulu.  "Your dog's adorable!"

"Oh, thanks.  She's not really mine, though.  I'm pet-sitting for a friend.  But I didn't wanna leave her behind.  My own dog's back at my parents', soaking up Grandma's and Grandpa's attention."  JenniAnn knelt and stroked Lulu's back.  "But I wanted to keep an eye on Lulu here.  I'm glad Vivian's okay with my bringing her."

"Actually, she thought it might be calming to have a dog around."

"Does the school need calming?"

Carrie shrugged.  "You know what it's like getting a bunch of girls together.  Hormones, he's-my-boyfriend-not-yours, that sort of thing."  She moved to her feet.  "Come on!  Vivian's meeting with the archbishop right now and, actually... come to think of it none of our old teachers are here.  But they might stop in here and there so hopefully you'll catch a few of em.  For now, I'll introduce you to Regina LaCroix.  She's head of Eve's Girls, the eponymous Eve's niece.  But first...  Let's go to the little theatre.  I just want to be there when you meet Mr. Rochester in case I need to do some damage control.  He'll have just finished the morning session with the younger girls.  Hopefully we can catch him before he heads to lunch."

JenniAnn struggled to keep from wincing.  Carrie had too much weighing on her without knowing how much she was worried about an overly eager guy latching onto her. 

The two women and the dog proceeded down a central staircase.  As they walked, JenniAnn felt like she was going back in time.  The scent of the floor cleaner, the muffled voices of teachers, the squeaking of chairs being moved...  She knew it all and yet she was no longer of it.  It was a strange but not unpleasant feeling, only odd and disorienting. 

When they reached the bottom of the stairs, JenniAnn automatically turned into a dimly lit hall.  There was the door to the little theatre.  Despite her nervousness, she smiled.

"Well, there it is!  My home away from home," Carrie announced.

Before the two women reached the theatre, a door slammed behind them.  They turned to see an instructor and a sullen girl exit the computer lab and march into the hall.

The teacher, a young woman JenniAnn did not recognize, was fuming as she faced down the student.  "You do not have to be here, Ivy!  Scholarships for this program can be revoked and if you disrupt class one more time then..."

"But she..."

"I don't want any more excuses!"

Carrie sighed.  "I better go look into this.  Might have to get Regina.  You can wait outside the door there for me or make your own introductions, whichever you're most comfortable with."

JenniAnn nodded and walked towards the classroom.  She shuffled outside it, uncertain what to do.  She felt awkward and intrusive continuing to listen to the disagreement.  Closing her eyes for a moment and offering a quick prayer for guidance, she reached for the doorknob.  She and Lulu were no sooner in than she realized she probably should have knocked.  She'd always simply walked right in as a student and hadn't thought of doing anything different. 

The room was empty.

All that anxiety and no one was there.

But the room still contained its old magic.  JenniAnn remembered sitting in a circle in the back of the room, sipping tea and reading Romeo and Juliet aloud with the other girls as they sat on bean bags in front of the stage area.  She turned to the front and recalled blubbering over "The Cold Equations" by Tom Godwin and shivering over Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery."  She looked to the outer wall with its many windows and remembered sneaking there during storms, nervously watching the clouds.  Her gaze shifted back to the stage area.  There she had dressed up in the pink princess dress her mom had made her to do a scene as Bianca from The Taming of the Shrew.  She giggled as she remembered that Carrie had been given the role of her suitor.  A less romantic production couldn't be conceived.  And there was an area behind the stage... a little nook... where she would hide when she needed a few moments of peace.  JenniAnn blushed when she recalled how many daydreams of Andrew she'd experienced there... many of them involving him walking the very halls she just had, coming to rescue her from the monotony and agony of high school.  She started up the stage's steps to see if her sanctuary was still there.  She froze when she heard movement behind the drawn curtain.  Lulu began to pull away from her, whining.  Then the curtain was yanked back.

JenniAnn gasped when a figure emerged and, in her shock, let Lulu's leash thud to the ground.

*~*~*

Carrie glanced with longing at her classroom door.  She wished she'd stuck with JenniAnn.  She'd intended to help a neophyte teacher with a disrespectful student.  However, in the three minutes she'd spent listening to "Miss CeCe Jansen from the Regency area"... who talked like that?!... lecture the poor girl standing before them, Carrie had begun to wonder if the teenager truly was the rude one.
 
"Tell Mrs. Hunter that you're sorry for taking her time," CeCe snapped.

Carrie shook her head.  "Oh no.  It's not..."  All at once she felt both chastened and irritated when the young teacher shot her a sharp look.  Irritation won out.  This was her school, darn it!  "Miss Jansen, it's really not necessar..."

"Apologize, Ivy," Miss Jansen demanded.

Ivy, her head hanging, turned to the older woman.  "I'm sorry, Mrs. Hunter, for taking your time."

"Thank you, Ivy," Carrie murmured.  She bestowed a gentle smile on the girl whose eyes remained fixed on the tile floor.

"You need to develop a thicker skin, Ivy," the computer instructor continued.  "Alyssa was only offering you constructive criticism and I'm inclined to agree with her.  The layout to your web page really was far too bold.  No one wants their retinas burned trying to read some teenager's poetry."

Carrie noted the girl's welling eyes.  "Miss Jansen, maybe we should let Ivy get to lunch.  I'm sure your... counsel has been noted."

Realizing her own lunch period was being infringed upon, the younger woman nodded.  "Hopefully tomorrow there won't be any more drama.  Save that for Mr. Rochester's class.  Now go on, Ivy."

The girl still did not look at either teacher.  She gripped her bag tightly and fled.  Carrie watched as Ivy hurried into the nearest bathroom.  The teacher felt a pang of regret.  Ivy was in Mr. Rochester's class.  If things had been different, the teen would be Carrie's own student.  She might have worked her way into Ivy's confidence.  Maybe she could have helped her. 

Carrie sighed.  Things weren't different.  Kevin was sick and she needed to get home to him.  Ivy was not her student and there was nothing she could do for her.  But that didn't mean she had to leave the poor girl friendless.  Carrie made a mental note to call JenniAnn and tell her to keep an eye on that one.

*~*~*

Ivy hid in a bathroom stall for a few minutes then peeked into the hall.  Miss Jansen and Mrs. Hunter were gone.  She made her way back down the corridor, quickening her pace as she passed the computer lab.  It was almost a blessing that she'd been kept after class by Miss Jansen even if unjustly so.  With the halls empty and the other girls already dismissed to the lunchroom, hiding was much less difficult.  Still, to avoid being caught, Ivy kept her pace brisk.  She ducked into a dingy storage room behind Mr. Rochester's backstage and closed the door behind her.

She strained to hear into the room next door.  Voices.  Movement.  Mr. Rochester was definitely still in his room.  Though Ivy couldn't make out any words, it seemed her teacher was speaking to someone, probably that blonde woman with the dog who had been with Mrs. Hunter.  More than anything Ivy wished that she could join them.  She liked Mr. Rochester.  He made poems and stories come alive.  He wrote thoughtful, interested comments on her assignments.  And he'd been so kind to her last Friday.  Ivy was convinced he was the most Christlike person she had ever met.  She wished she could be his age, the blonde woman's age.  Maybe then things would be better.  Maybe they would talk with her, befriend her.

But she was not in her thirties.  Mr. Rochester was not her friend.  The woman was a stranger.

Since she couldn't share lunch with the two, Ivy waited for them to leave the room so she could go there as she had the previous week.  She didn't want to eat in the storage room.  It was dimly lit and creepy and it hurt to be surrounded by decades of photographs of smiling, self-assured girls with their arms around each others' shoulders.  Ivy hadn't known that sort of camaraderie in a very long time.

Brushing at a few tears, Ivy pulled a book from her bag.  She stared at the paper she'd shoved into it the previous week.  Alyssa had drawn a crude caricature of her complete with an acne-covered face.  Finding it had hurt but it was nothing to what Ivy had felt during Miss Jansen's class that morning.  When her turn to present came, she'd demonstrated the web page she had created.  Ivy had been quite proud of it but then her tormentor had raised her hand and said that she thought the background was too red and hurt her eyes.  Ivy's face had flushed even before she'd heard what Alyssa muttered to the girl beside her.

"It's almost as red as her ugly face."

Realizing that Alyssa was working on turning the others against her, just as she had in their own school, Ivy had snapped.  She'd yelled at Alyssa, telling her that the PowerPoint she'd created covering her 16th birthday had been "insipid and self-serving."  The outburst had prompted Miss Jansen's "detention."  Miss Jansen, like so many others, had been taken in by the beautiful, vivacious Alyssa.  Ivy knew she had no hope gaining the woman's favor.

If only someone at Hope High actually knew what was going on and had been going on for years.  But Ivy didn't see the use in telling.  It would be just like it was at her school.  The teacher would offer a few token words of sympathy.  Maybe they'd speak to Alyssa.  Alyssa would charm them and say it was all a misunderstanding.  Nothing would change... except Alyssa and her hangers-on might ramp up their efforts. 

Resigned, Ivy crouched down near the door and waited for the noises in the adjoining room to cease.

*~*~*

Behold, the next puzzle piece.

Andrew smiled.  "Is this the way you usually greet strange men, Laja?" he asked with an arched eye brow and devilish grin.  JenniAnn's arms were twined around him and her forehead was resting against his shoulder.  She was a very affectionate puzzle piece.


"Only when they're you.  I... I missed... you." 

"I missed you, too.  Both of you."  Andrew stooped to lift Lulu from the floor, nuzzled her neck, then wrapped his free arm around JenniAnn.  He led her back behind the curtain.  "Laja..."  He pulled her against him and stroked her hair.  "Why are you crying?"

"Relief... hormones... gladness... I dunno.  Carrie said she told 'Mr. Rochester' that I was single and he seemed excited and..."

"Well, I was.  Excited about you coming here, I mean."

"Aww...  I was so afraid she would have maybe led him on on my behalf and then it'd be awkward and then I'd just start crying cause... cause I didn't know where you were a-and he'd think I was crazy and..."


"Poor Laja...  I'm sorry you were worried.  I promise you, Mr. Rochester does not think you're crazy.  Nor does he... which means me... think you owe him a date.  Although if you would want to hang around for an eternity... I wouldn't be opposed."

JenniAnn beamed up at the angel.  "Count me in."

"Good.  So how about some lunch for starters?  No strings attached.  I promise."  Andrew smiled down at her.  "I saw the Arby's is still down the street.  I'll get you a Jamocha shake..."


JenniAnn laughed.  "I'd like that... even more the company than the mocha.  But wait... if you knew I was coming, why didn't you say something?"

The angel frowned and hung his head, focusing on Lulu.  "I wanted to, Laja.  More than you know.  Even before Carrie told me last Friday that she was going to ask you to come... and that, if I wanted, she'd ask you if you'd mind lending me a hand.  But I knew... well, I know this place has some conflicting memories for you.  So I didn't want to sway you on coming if you didn't want to because I... I really did want you to come.  And you've gotten a little too good at reading me.  If I mentioned it, even over the phone..."

"I would have been here in a heartbeat."

Andrew nodded.  "But I wanted the choice to be yours completely."

"It was.  I genuinely want to help Carrie.  I would have come here and stayed here even if you weren't here.  But... I'm so glad you are, Andrew."

Andrew settled his chin on her hair when she again rested her cheek on his shirt.  "I'm glad you're here, too, Laja."  He had so much he wanted to tell her and ask her but for just a moment he wanted to simply focus on having her near.  Once again the Father had sent him a friend to help him through an assignment just when he was most missing the companionship and support Monica, Tess, and Gloria had given him.  Andrew sighed with contentment.

After soaking in the moment's serenity, JenniAnn spoke.  "So what's up with Rochester?"

Andrew laughed.  "You'd only been watching that mini-series on a near daily schedule... again... before I left...  So when I needed a last name, Andrew Rochester sounded better than Andrew Eyre."

"That it does.  Although you are even less suited to the name than the stunners Hollywood usually casts as the ugly Mr. Rochester."  JenniAnn again hugged him, petting Lulu's snout as she did.  "I always loved Mr. Rochester."

"I know." 

"Nearly as much as Mr. Darcy... although in this case I think I'm gonna hafta say Rochester trumps Darcy."

Andrew smiled tenderly at his friend.  JenniAnn mirrored his own happiness.  She looked so at ease.  She probably didn't yet know about...


"Andrew, what's wrong?"

The angel jolted slightly when JenniAnn's voice cut through his thoughts. 

"Poor love... Did the girls hassle you?  I know when I was here some were very... unruly with the cute, young male teachers."

Andrew shook his head.  "I'm fine.  Really.  Laja, how many people have you seen since you got here?"

"I've only talked with Carrie.  We passed the secretary but I dunno her.  And we saw another instructor but even if she's Our Lady staff she's too young for me to have known.  That's it."

Andrew released her just long enough to drag his hand through his hair.  "Laja, you aren't the only alum who showed up to help."

"Well, who else is..."

Andrew was saved the necessity of responding when they heard the classroom door open and close again. 

"JenniAnn?  Where are you?" Carrie called.  "I ran into someone who wants to say hi."

JenniAnn stared up at Andrew quizzically.

"Mr. Rochester?  Are *you* here?" another voice called.

"Oh no..." JenniAnn moaned quietly.  "How long has she..."

"Two weeks," Andrew whispered.  "We better..."  He tilted his head towards the classroom.  "I'll go first."  He squeezed her hand and stepped past the curtain.

JenniAnn listened.

"Hi there, Carrie, Bennie.  How are you both?"

"Where's JenniAnn?" Bennie demanded.

"Reacquainting herself with backstage.  You know how she always loved..."

"Wait.  You know JenniAnn?" Carrie asked.  "And why do you have that dog?"

"Lulu's my dog."

"JenniAnn and Mr. Rochester know each other verrrry well."

JenniAnn rolled her eyes at Bennie's snarky tone.

"But why didn't JenniAnn say that when..."

Taking that as her cue, JenniAnn stepped onto the stage.  "Hi again, Carrie.  Hello, Bennie."  She looked at the former.  "Andrew's a friend.  A longtime friend.  But I had no idea he was here in town and it just seemed like too much of a stretch that Andrew and your Mr. Rochester were one and the same," she covered.

Carrie smiled.  "Well now that's very cool!  How wonderful!"

Bennie rolled her eyes.  "Isn't it just peachy?"

JenniAnn glared at her while Carrie looked on in confusion.

Andrew bristled.  "Peachy.  Yep, I think so."

Carrie relaxed.  "Well!  Then if you two are okay, I think I'll head home.  Andrew, I wanted to introduce JenniAnn to Regina but if you would be so kind..."

"Absolutely, Carrie," the angel assured.

"Thank you!"  Carrie stepped towards JenniAnn and hugged her.  "It was so good to see you again.  Thank you so much for coming."

"Sure.  Call me if you need anything."  JenniAnn squeezed her friend's hand.  "Promise?" 

Carrie nodded.  "Promise."  When she pulled away, she noticed that Bennie was simpering.  "Bennie, doesn't your dance session start soon?  The classroom's on my way out.  Walk with me?"

Bennie opened her mouth to protest but could think of no excuse.  "Sure."

"Take care, Carrie," Andrew called as the two women headed to the door.  "See ya around, Bennie."

Carrie smiled.  "Thanks, Andrew!"

"Most definitely you will, Mr. Rochester," Bennie replied in a coquettish tone.

Carrie shook her head and pulled the other woman into the hall.

As soon as the door closed, Andrew let out a sigh and dragged his hand through his hair.  "Maybe I should have warned you..."

"No," JenniAnn assured.  "Then I would have worried about coming even more all weekend.  There's no preparing for Bennie.  She just... happens.  Has she been causing you problems?  And is she partly why you didn't want to ask me here?"

"Yes...  But, actually, she's been laying pretty low.  Just the occasional comment."  Andrew reached for his friend's hand.  He could remember how hurt JenniAnn had been the last time Bennie had resurfaced.  However, she'd also become much stronger and more confident since then.  Maybe all would be well.  He smiled.  "How about that Jamocha shake?"

"I would like that very much, my dear Mr. Rochester," JenniAnn assented in a regrettable English accent.

Andrew chuckled, handed Lulu to her, and bowed theatrically.  "Your carriage awaits, milady.  It's the large green monstrosity in the lot, next to the dumpster."

Giggling, JenniAnn headed into the hall.

*~*~*

"So how about we go over to the park and eat there?" Andrew suggested after pulling out of the restaurant's drive-thru lane.  "Get a little fresh air before we get stuck in the school all afternoon?  I have a blanket in the back seat."

JenniAnn enthusiastically nodded as she sipped her Jamocha shake.

The angel laughed.  "Good?"

"Great and mocha-y...  Thanks!"

"Glad to hear it."  Andrew steered through twisty roads until he came to a lot near a pond.  "This okay?"


JenniAnn looked around wistfully and nodded.  The last time she and Andrew had been there was after her grandma's less than supportive reaction to learning the truth about the angel.  Andrew had been so lovely.  She rested her hand on his arm.  "I love this spot."

"I know."

Soon they were out of the car and settled beneath a tree.  JenniAnn watched as Andrew fed Lulu a curly fry before popping a few into his own mouth.  She wanted to bask in the adorableness of the scene but couldn't help noticing that her friend seemed distracted.  "Andrew?"

"Hmmm?"

"Since I'm here and sposed to be helping you... albeit not exactly of your choosing... I'm confused.  I mean is this 'three week promise' being here or 'helping with your assignment' being here?" she asked. 

The angel peered up at the light filtering through the leaves.  He remembered Joshua's directive: take the offer Carrie made.  But whether that meant JenniAnn was there as helper or friend, Andrew wasn't sure.  A moment later all was clear and he smiled.  "Both."

JenniAnn glanced up at the sky then back at Andrew.  "Really?"

"Really.  It's not like it hasn't happened before, and with increasing frequency, that you and/or the others end up involved in my assignments."

"I know.  And I'm glad of it.  Still just... amazing and unbelievable sometimes.  So... what is the assignment?"

"Well, the truth is I didn't really know exactly what I was doing here myself until last Friday.  And I still don't know if this is a caseworking gig or AOD or both.  What I know right now is that I'm a volunteer with Eve's Girls and heading up their drama and literature sessions in place of Carrie."  Andrew reached for JenniAnn's hand when she tensed.  "I know I'm not Kevin's angel of death... I don't know if he even has one.  Please don't think I'm here because he's going to die.  I just don't know at all either way, Laja."

JenniAnn squeezed his hand.  "Thanks.  So... how are classes going?"

"Pretty good.  I really love teaching my sessions.  The way the program is arranged, the girls pick two sessions.  They have one in the morning and one in the afternoon.  My morning session is the girls going into 5th through 8th grade and then in the afternoon I have the high schoolers.  It's great to hear the girls' views on the poems and short stories we're reading.  I haven't seen much of their writing yet.  Only one essay this past week and a few short things but I'm looking forward to reading more of it.  It's mostly been really great."


"And yet?"

"I have... concerns." Andrew began to twiddle with Lulu's tags.  "Things were going pretty smoothly.  Really the only problems stemmed from the program being in its first year so..."

"Disorganized?  Thrown together?  Maybe expecting too much, too soon?"

A bemused smile formed on Andrew's face.  "You said it."

"But then?"

"But then last Friday some girls showed up early for the afternoon session."

"So the high schoolers?" JenniAnn checked.

"Yeah.  I was behind the stage, seeing what sort of costumes and props were back there.  I didn't set out to eavesdrop but I was kinda stuck, you know?"


"Sure."

"So this girl starts saying stuff about another girl... my assignment it turns out... who wasn't there."

"What sort of stuff?"

Andrew blushed as he recalled the terrible things Alyssa had said about Ivy.  Stalling, he took another sip of his shake before answering.  "I'm not going to repeat it.  It was very... crass and suggestive."  He wasn't entirely sure JenniAnn would even understand it and he was unwilling to be the one to explain.  "The worst part is, now I've learned that this same girl has been bullying the other for years.  They go to school together and she's spread rumors about her there, too." 

JenniAnn groaned.  "Oh lovely..."

"Basically accusing my assignment of... indiscretions.  I waited a little bit.  I hoped one of the other girls would stand up to her.  Regina is very much about teaching the girls leadership and having them resolve differences themselves.  So I wanted to honor that.  But they just hung on the accuser's every word, Laja!  Then they started knocking this girl for her clothes, her weight, her hair..."

"What did you do then?"

"I stepped out onto the stage and told them that if I ever heard them talking like that again, they'd be meeting with Regina.  I said Ms. LaCroix, of course.  Then I said a few things about dignity and respect, about not listening to rumors... or creating them... about not hurting people.  They just stared at me and then the instigator smiled this phony smile and assured me it wouldn't happen again.  She turned around and whatever she did set her friends off giggling."  Andrew looked out over the pond.  "The girl they were talking about... I'm glad you'll meet her.  She's a really sweet, very shy, very smart girl.  I doubt any of what the other girl said was true but even if it was... no one deserves to be talked about like that."

JenniAnn surmised that the girl was likely innocent.  "It's probably not true," she murmured.

Andrew again reached for her hand when he saw her bite her lip and blink.  "Laja, you okay?"

"Now, yes.  Glad I'm not a teenager any more!"

Andrew nodded.  "You know, I met you towards the end of your senior year.  And I knew... I could tell every Sunday night after the show ended... this dread would come over you, Laja.  I could get you to talk about classes and graduation related stress sometimes.  But you never said much about your classmates and how you got along with them.  Was it like... what I heard?"


"No one ever made up stories about me.  I mean at least... they didn't accuse me of having done stuff.  But they sometimes spun stories about..."  JenniAnn absently handed Lulu a gob of roast beef.  She looked up to find Andrew peering at her. 

"You don't have to tell me if you don't want to, Laja.  I'd never want to push..."

"I know.  But you've been very open with me of late so..."  After drawing in a deep breath and slowly exhaling, JenniAnn continued.  "Sometimes they'd... and it was never Bennie oddly enough and never, ever Carrie... they'd invent stories about how one day I'd just up and realize that my nice, little, goody-goody life wasn't enough and I'd eventually decide to make up for lost time and... and sleep around... a lot." 

Andrew rested his hand over hers.  "Laja..."

She shrugged.  "I'm old enough... mature enough... well-read enough now to realize that they were just confused about the whole sex thing.  Either they'd lost their virginity to guys they swore they'd be with forever then learned the fellas had other ideas and misery loves company or they were virgins still and anxious to contemplate anyone's sexuality but their own."

"But at the time..."

"It's creepy to hear yourself talked about like that.  I pretty much just wanted to run away with you and never turn back.  But then another part of me... I mean what if they were right?  Some of them seemed to change suddenly and what if I did, too?  I didn't know!"

The angel bowed his head.  Had he said or done something when she was seventeen to make her think she couldn't talk to him about that?  "Why didn't you..."

"Say anything to you?"

Andrew nodded.  The past was done, unalterable.  Still, he wished he could have been more of a support to his friend at the time.

JenniAnn reached up to caress a lock of his hair.  "I was seventeen.  I'd known you for a month and loved you for thirteen years.  I'm sure if I'd been absolutely positive that thirteen years later we'd be as close as we are, I likely woulda been more open.  But... how was I supposed to talk to you about the possibility that one day..."  She shook her head.  "Besides, it's generally not common practice for seventeen year old girls to confide in thirtysomething men... or angels who appear as such... about that kinda..."  She cut off when the angel looked down at the blanket.  "Andrew, I'm sorry.  I didn't mean that I don't think the girls back there will confide in you.  I... I don't know.  It was different for me because of how I felt for you."

"Why would they confide in me?  I was never a teenage girl..."

"Well, thank God for that!  I love you no matter what, Andrew, but... I'm just not into women.  Besides, that would really put a damper on my tradition of spending autumn daydreaming about your winter facial hair plans," JenniAnn teased.

The angel of death let out a boisterous series of chuckles.  "This is true."  He sighed.  "I needed that laugh.  Thank you."

JenniAnn hugged him.  "You're welcome.  You may not have ever been a teenage girl but someone who loves you incredibly much was one.  And I'll be here with ya, Mr. Rochester.  Further... I was promised I could bring helpers.  I imagine I could rustle up another former teenage girl to come help us..."

Andrew grinned.  "Really?  Who did you ask?"

"No one yet.  I was gonna.  But then I decided I'd feel guilty if we got here and Mr. Rochester was slimy or something."  JenniAnn's eyes twinkled.  "Now that I know he's a good sort, I thought I'd ask Kemara."

The third piece...

Andrew looked happily up at the clouds then back to JenniAnn.  "That's a great idea!  And it'll be the first time we have her along for an assignment!"  The mere idea of having another friend around took some strain from Andrew. 

JenniAnn smiled, happy to see him so encouraged.  "Speaking of teenagers... where's Violeta in all this?"

"The Father wanted her in Records for a little while.  But I expect her to show up any day now."  Andrew peered up at the sky again.  "Maybe He was waiting for you to get here." 

"Why would that be?  I'm not around for most of your assignments together.  You definitely manage.  Wonderfully so!  You're a great supervisor, Andrew.  Anyone left with Violeta for more than three minutes gets told this in no uncertain terms."

Andrew blushed.  "Thanks.  But this one... this assignment... Laja, you know how Violeta can be.  She so badly wants to fit in.  She..."

JenniAnn watched as Andrew began to twirl a twig.  She sighed.  Even his nervous tics were adorable. 

"Needs an appropriate female role model," Andrew finished.  He glanced over at his friend, hoping she hadn't taken offense.  It occurred to him that "appropriate female role model" sounded a bit staid.  JenniAnn was definitely not staid.  He began to ramble.  "Remember when she first came to us from Records?  She was so... business-like with her suits and her hair was almost always in a bun.  Now whenever we have an assignment, she stays dressed like she's on that assignment until our next one!"

JenniAnn giggled.  This was very much true.  Fashion-wise, Violeta reminded her of a pre-schooler constantly rotating through phases.  There had been the cowgirl phase, the princess phase, the Steampunk phase, the Harry Potter super fan phase, and the list went on.  After spending a week in the Tunnels, Violeta had become so enamored with their garb that only a brush with heatstroke had convinced her to give it up when in Dyeland.  Of late the newbie angel seemed to mimic whichever Dyelander woman she'd spent the most time with.

"I only mean... in some ways she hasn't really developed her own sense of herself here," Andrew continued.  "She sort of... she's got some sort of chameleon thing going on.  If it was just me and her and the students..."

 

The alleged role model playfully glared at the supervisor.  "Ah, I get it now!  You're concerned that Violeta's going to go native and you want me to be the one to play fashion police."

"No!  I mean... not exactly," Andrew fumbled.  "But maybe if you're here... and you know she looks up to you already... she'll..."

"Dress like me?  Ya sure ya want a boho-hippie type for a protege?"

"I just want... Laja, some of those..."  Andrew braced himself for an enthusiastic debate... one he would normally relish but just then he wasn't in the mood.  "Some of their pants are so... so tight and... short shorts and skirts... really short... and the shirts..."  Andrew's hand rested briefly at the middle of his chest. 

JenniAnn smirked.  She opted not to remind him that he wasn't universally prim when it came to his own shirts.  "Low-cut?" she offered.

His blush deepening, Andrew nodded.  "Laja, you know that I wouldn't judge a girl or anyone by their clothes.  But... some do.  And I don't want my Vi..."  He halted.  Violeta was not his.  She was her own person.  She belonged only to God, he reminded himself.

Noting the absolute tenderness writ across Andrew's face and the way his hand drifted through his hair then to his neck, JenniAnn realized how deeply felt his concerns were.  He wasn't being a prude.  He was being protective... as always.  It would be wrong to fault him for one of his most lovable traits.  She wished they were back in Dyeland, beneath their willow tree, so she could fuss appropriately over him.  As that was not the case, JenniAnn moved to sit beside Andrew and settled for a fleeting shoulder nuzzle.  "You can say it, Andrew.  She's your Violeta.  I'm Vincent's 'my child.'  And he's still Father's 'my boy' and you're Raquel's 'sweet boy.'  It's nice.  I like it.  And
I swear I won't go off on a diatribe about paternalism," she gently kidded.  "I agree with you here.  These are children and it's scary and sad to think that they may end up in over their heads with... stuff.  All because of how they dress.  I... I've seen it happen.  And Violeta... she may look twenty five but she's only sixteen... and been down here for not even two years and so... I understand your concern.  I do.  Truly."
 
A wan smile appeared on the angel's face.  "Thank you.  It's just that... it's awkward to talk with Violeta about... stuff.  She just looks at me with those big, questioning, innocent eyes and... I... I don't want her to get hurt."  Andrew shrugged then took a bite of his sandwich.  He stared out at the pond.  He loved Violeta in a way not unlike how he felt about Shelby and Max.  Even though Violeta was an angel, she was in many ways similar to a human teenager: unsure of herself, desperate for approval, sometimes moody, very sensitive.  He remembered how flustered she had been when, shortly after she'd become his trainee, a drunken man had hit on her during Mick's birthday party.  If someone said something about her... 


JenniAnn laced her fingers through the beleaguered supervisor's.  "I will always help Violeta.  You know that.  I love her, too."

Still eating, Andrew mumbled his reply.

JenniAnn smiled.  "You're welcome.  Love you, too."

*~*~*

~ Meeting Ivy ~


When Andrew, JenniAnn, and Lulu returned to the school; they had only a few minutes to spare before the afternoon session started. 

"Why don't we peek in the storage room?" the angel suggested as they walked through the lower level hall.  "See what you're facing.  I haven't even set foot in there but its reputation proceeds it..."

JenniAnn laughed then walked towards the door and opened it.  "Well, it hasn't changed much," she declared after turning on the lights.  "Gah.  I hope they at least emptied the trash can.  I no doubt threw a banana peel or something in there at some point...  Oh good.  They did!"

Andrew crinkled his nose as he surveyed the room.  "You spent a whole summer in here?" 

JenniAnn walked around the shelves and piled boxes.  "Yup." 

"There are no windows!  It's...  Laja, this is downright tombish."

JenniAnn touched his arm.  "It's okay, Andrew.  Really." 

The angel grimaced.  "If you want, I could bring a box into the classroom.  I could switch them out as you go through them."

"You really want me watching you teach the whole time?"

"You mean you don't want to listen to me read poetry and Great Lit aloud?" he teased.

JenniAnn smiled.  "I do... too much.  And so... I should stay here.  I just don't want you to end up pulled into gossip like the guy teachers back in my day were.  'Mr. Smith and Miss White were kissing in the parking lot.'  'I saw Mr. Stinson sneaking into Ms. Brooks' classroom after practice...'  Awful."  She blushed.  She wished she'd always been so careful of Andrew' reputation.  Being back at Our Lady of Hope reminded JenniAnn of the only times she had broken their rules: she had begged rides home from a male who was not a family member... from Andrew.  He hadn't known then that it was "illegal" because she hadn't told him.  At seventeen, she'd cared more about being with him than actually about him.  But that had changed now. 

"Laja, this isn't the same.  That was four years of school when you girls were really invested in your teachers' lives.  I'm in these kids' lives for two and a half months and then out."

"I know.  But I'll just stay back here and whenever you need or want help you can come get me.  Or holler.  I'll leave the door that adjoins backstage open.  If a dust monster attacks me, I'm sure you'll hear the battle and have time to intervene on my behalf."

"I'm sure I would but... Laja, do you really think any of your teachers were bothered by that gossip?  I've been a teacher before.  I've been the subject of rumors.  I really don't care," Andrew protested.  "I just think that..."  He drove his hands into his pockets and hunched his shoulders. 

"What?"

"What if Bennie comes back here and..."

JenniAnn turned away from the box she was digging through.  "Andrew, I promise I won't get into a knock-down, drag-out with Bennie.  Besides, most likely starting tomorrow Kemara will be here to babysit me."

Andrew squeezed her shoulder.  "I didn't mean it like that.  I know you'd handle whatever happened maturely.  I trust you but..."  He hugged her.  For a moment he remembered her bleating voice on the telephone eleven years before.  Bennie had asked JenniAnn over to her apartment to study, only to reveal that it was actually a party.  A male guest had said something to JenniAnn that had rattled her and she'd called him for an escape ride... something he'd happily supplied.  That was when Andrew had first realized how much it meant to him to be the one to keep her and all the Dyelanders safe.  It balanced out the grief he sometimes felt over those he couldn't protect.  He stepped back and smoothed some hair behind her ear.  "I guess I don't trust Bennie and I don't want her to upset you... especially when I'd be entirely oblivious in the other room... she's quieter than a dust monster."

JenniAnn stared at his hand, noting the knotted ring.  "Where you go, I will go..." she murmured.

Andrew smiled.  "You did promise..."

JenniAnn responded with her own smile then sighed.  "So you really want me... and Kemara... and Lulu... in there with you?"

"Really do." 

JenniAnn's eyes traveled around the room again.  It truly was gloomy and Andrew was so... Andrew.  "That would be nice..." she relented.

Andrew's face lit up.  "Great!  So which box first?"

JenniAnn randomly pointed to one then followed Andrew through backstage and to his room.  She nearly collided with him when he abruptly halted.

"Oh hi."

JenniAnn stepped around Andrew to see who he had greeted.  The same girl she'd seen getting berated in the hall was sitting alone in the middle of the classroom, guiltily picking up the remains of her lunch.

"It's okay, Ivy," Andrew assured, setting the box on the stage.  "You can finish eating.  Don't rush.  You still have about ten minutes."

Ivy continued to look at the floor.  "We're not supposed to eat lunch in the classrooms without permission."

"Permission granted," Andrew declared.

The girl finally looked up, smiling briefly at him before turning a wary gaze upon JenniAnn.

"Ivy, this is my friend, uh..."  Andrew realized he had no idea what JenniAnn preferred to go by formally.  He turned to her, feeling his cheeks flush.  "They want them to use last names.  Like at school.  Are you a Miss or a Ms.?"

JenniAnn resisted the impulse to giggle.  "Ms."

"Ivy, this is my friend, Ms. JenniAnn Chandler," the angel introduced.  "She used to go to Hope High and is here helping them sort some records.  But she's gonna lend a hand in our class, too."

Ivy nodded.

"Ms. Chandler, this is Miss Ivy Lee."

"Hi!"  JenniAnn noticed a familiar book at the girl's side.  "Oh...  Anne of the Island!"

Andrew watched as JenniAnn knelt on the floor near Ivy.

"What part are you on?  And have you read it before?"

Ivy shook her head.  "Anne just learned that Gilbert has typhoid fever.  Does he..."

"What an awful place to be interrupted!  Sorry about that."

The teenager shook her head, bewildered by the woman's genuine regret.  "I'm the one who snuck into the room.  You... You're supposed to be here.  Mr. Rochester, too."  She looked up at Andrew then back to the book.  "So does he die?"

JenniAnn held her hand out towards the novel.  "Could I?"

Ivy gave it to her and looked on anxiously as JenniAnn perused the page.

"Just keep reading until the others come in.  You have time to find out for yourself." 

Eagerly, Ivy reclaimed the book and resumed reading.

After smiling at the girl, JenniAnn rejoined Andrew who had moved to his desk some yards from Ivy.  "Why is she eating in here alone?  Does she often?"

"I'm not sure but I think so.  Ever since last week when I started eating in the lounge with the other staff, I'd notice when I came back that there were sandwich wrappers and chip bags in the trash can.  I suspected Ivy... just because she's so shy... and with the bullying.  But I didn't want to embarrass her by asking.  And I was afraid that if she knew I knew she was here, it would scare her off.  Especially since it's in the program's rules that male teachers shouldn't be spending time outside their sessions with any of the girls unsupervised.  So...  I've kept myself scarce over lunch so Ivy could be here if she wanted to be.  She's really quiet.  I'm kind of surprised she even talked to you as much as she did."

"Is she... the girl the others were making fun of?  Your assignment?"

"Yeah."

"But she's so sweet..."

"And you were a sweet kid, too," Andrew reminded as he squeezed her hand.  "Things were still said."

Before JenniAnn could respond, a third voice piped up.

"He lives!"

The two adults looked to the center of the room where Ivy was beaming and holding the book to her chest.

Andrew smiled.  "I'm glad to hear it.  And I'm very glad to see someone reading on their free time.  It shows in your work, Ivy."  He reached into a file on his desk, pulled out a paper, and brought it to his student.  "If I could give grades, you'd have an A."

"Really?"

"Definitely.  I loved the connection you made between Pip and Gatsby."

Ivy looked proudly at the paper. 

A moment later the bell rang signalling the end of the lunch period.  Andrew looked on with concern as Ivy's face clouded over.  She hurriedly gathered her things and silently moved to her desk.

Across the room, Andrew's and JenniAnn's eyes locked.  Silently, they promised to do whatever they could for the girl.

*~*~*

After introducing JenniAnn to other members of the Eve's Girls' staff when the afternoon session ended, Andrew helped her dig through some of the archive boxes.  He stopped when he came to a particular stack of photos.  "Laja, look what I found."

JenniAnn glanced over at what he was holding and shuddered.  "Gah.  I look about twelve."

"No, you don't!  You look seventeen and you were.  May Queen 2000."

"I always felt kinda badly about that.  You know I've never been a very good Catholic."

Andrew picked up a program.  "This says here that the May Queen exemplifies 'the gentle, faithful, caring, compassionate, and loving spirit of Mary, mother of Jesus'.  I don't think Mary was Catholic, Laja.  Pretty sure she was Jewish."  He smiled when his friend greeted this response with laughter.  "I think it shows that no matter what was said to you, your classmates really did admire you.  They maybe just didn't have the best way of showing it."

"I know.  I did a lot of thinking as I was going through these odds and ends... when I wasn't listening to you.  I wish you'd been my teacher.  Well... maybe not really."

Andrew chuckled.  "That would have been... interesting."

"To say the least.  Anyhow, I was thinking about what you said you heard those girls say.  I've read up a lot on bullying.  Just, ya know, in case we ever had a problem with it Below.  And some of the stuff I've read...  I really believe most everything I was told when I was here was coming from a place of genuine confusion and awkwardness.  I mean it wasn't like they were saying I had done those things.  But what you said that girl said...  That's got an element of plotting and sophistication to it.  Like she sat there and made up her little story versus my friends winging theirs.  There's a cruelty about it that I just... I can't fathom."  JenniAnn shook her head. 

"Neither can I.  But I'm glad we'll be able to work to unravel it together.  And with Kemara and Violeta, too."

"Yep!  Actually... I told Kemara that I'd meet up with her at the Cafe at 6:00 and it's almost 5:30...  Ya wanna... can you... tag along?"

Andrew beamed.  "I'd love that.  Are you staying at... and traveling to and from... your parents' house?"

JenniAnn nodded.  "It seemed easiest.  And they said Kemara could stay in the guest bedroom.  And I'm sure there will be a place for you at dinner whenever you want it... free food... good company..."

Andrew smiled.  "Thank you but I don't want to impose, Laja.  And I know..."  He sighed.  Allison and Robert Chandler had become much more tolerant of his relationship with JenniAnn but he knew they still struggled with it at times.  He managed a smile when JenniAnn reached up to cradle his face between her hands.

"They do love you, ya know.  You just... surprise them still.  We both do.  But you'll always be welcome.  Now... let's go get Kemara!"

After Andrew loaded up his briefcase with the papers he'd need to look over that night, the two headed out to the Jolly Green and to Dyeland with Lulu.

*~*~*

~ Kemara ~

JenniAnn looked at her pocket watch.  "5:25.  Kemara'll probly be here any minute."

"Max and Rose are here," Andrew pointed out, gesturing across the Cafe.

"Hey, how about you go sit with them and then... for an added bit of fun... I'll give Kemara a general rundown of my new volunteer stint and then, at my signal, you can come over.  We'll surprise her with the whole it being an assignment thing."

The angel of death glanced back towards the young couple then to JenniAnn again.  "I think they're on a date.  They look very..."

JenniAnn peeked over.  "Dreamy.  Yeah.  I think you're right."

Andrew grinned.  "No one wants dear, old pseudo-dad crashing their date.  But I'll hide out in another booth.  Want to text me when I should make my entrance?"

Giddy, JenniAnn nodded.  Then she noticed her new friend approaching the Cafe.  "There she is!  Hide!"

Andrew dashed into a dimly lit booth.  He smiled when he saw JenniAnn greet Kemara with a hug then direct her to another booth nearby.  As he listened to JenniAnn explain about Our Lady of Hope and Eve's Girls, Andrew remembered just how Kemara Marie Meeks had entered their lives.

*~*~*

April 28th, 2013

"Well this is fun!  We have a renegade Catholic, a gay Catholic, and an angel of death going to Mass.  Are we absolutely sure this isn't a sign of the Apocalypse?" Owen jested as Andrew parked in the lot of St. Mary Magdalene's Church in Manhattan.

"Naw.  I don't see any oddly colored horses so I think we're fine."  JenniAnn giggled then sobered.  "Just remember: we're not going to honor a hierarchy, we're going to honor our God in a way befitting our upbringing and traditions.  Well and Andrew's here because he's... amazing."

Andrew blushed when Owen grinned at him in the dashboard mirror.  JenniAnn had grown quite effusive since they had begun spending time with Chava.  Though it did a number on his tinged cheeks, he couldn't regret it.  He'd never felt closer to nor more comfortable with her.

"I just feel like it's right," JenniAnn continued.  "God worked something wonderful among us in these past few days.  He... He brought peace to Chava and... and to Andrew."  She reached over to the driver's seat and squeezed his hand.  "Then to reunite Chava and Beth...  It's a miracle!  We honored Him in a temple, now I feel like I need to honor Him in a church."

"I know, I know," Owen agreed.  "And it will be nice to see Fr. Mike again."

"And we have cookies from his mama," Andrew reminded, waving to a sizable box next to Owen in the backseat.  He smiled as he thought of the gentle priest.  Though JenniAnn and Owen had their reservations with the Catholic Church, there was no denying their love and admiration for Fr. Mike.  That he was a transplant from Dyeland helped forge the affection but Andrew knew the man's warm and accepting personality would have won over Owen and JenniAnn, not to mention himself, under any circumstances.  He felt blessed to have the opportunity to bring Fr. Mike a little bit of home. 

"So should we go in?" JenniAnn asked.  "Let's leave the cookies for now.  We can run back out for em.  Or, better yet, make Fr. Mike come out cause maybe he'll let us snag him for brunch if we do that."

Thus agreed, the three headed into the church.  The service was beautiful.  The choir and congregation sang joyfully.  As always, the Dyeland contingent had to suppress their urge to cheer after Fr. Mike gave a stunning homily.  When the Mass ended; Andrew, JenniAnn, and Owen waited patiently for the others to take their leave before they greeted Fr. Mike.  Eventually the church had emptied to only them, one other woman, and the priest.  The latter jogged over to the three and pulled them into a group hug.

"Hello there!  It's so great to see the three of you.  I was so excited when I saw you two come up for Communion."  Fr. Mike smiled at Owen and JenniAnn.  "And Andrew..."  He set a hand on his arm.  "How are you?  I got a call from Rabbi Yakov.  He told me a little about what's been going on.  You doing okay?"

Andrew smiled easily and nodded.  "Doing really, really well now.  Thank you.  The Father always knows what He's doing.  Sometimes it just takes me a little time to catch up."

JenniAnn hugged his arm and cast a tender look up at him before giving the priest her attention.  "Your mom sent some cookies with us.  And we were hoping to treat you to brunch at Adrian's or wherever you'd want to go."

"Oh...  Wow.  I'd really love to.  I never seem to get to Adrian's... the pancakes are almost as good as Mama's but..."  Fr. Mike looked back over to the woman he'd been speaking to.  "See, I have this fairly new parishioner and she's struggling a little.  New place, new job."

"Bring her, too!" Owen suggested.

Andrew nodded.  "Definitely.  If you think she'd enjoy it."

"Actually, I think she'd like that a lot," the priest responded.

"Great!"  Always good to meet new people."  The angel of death looked knowingly at JenniAnn.

"We've certainly had proof of that lately," she assented.  "Maybe it'd be best if I go invite her.  So she realizes we want her to come.  What's her name?"

Fr. Mike beamed at his old friends.  "You all are awesome!  Thank you.  This'll be great for her.  JenniAnn, her name's Kemara Marie Meeks.  She's a convert to Catholicism."

"We're multiplying..." Owen interjected in a dastardly voice.

The priest laughed.  "You joke but I really am hopeful.  There's talk that the goodwill towards Pope Francis will bring some disaffected Catholics back into the fold."

Though he still smiled, the younger man's eyes had a sadness about them.  "Well, some of us still aren't so sure the fold wants us around... even if we're cool with the shepherd."

Sensing that Owen and Mike needed some time, Andrew reached for JenniAnn's hand.  "Let's go introduce ourselves to Kemara and invite her to lunch together.  You think?"

She gave an eager nod and approached the woman.  "Kemara?"

Startled, she turned to face Andrew and JenniAnn.  "Yes.  Hi.  I'm sorry, have we met?  I've met so many new people and..."  Kemara blushed. 

"Oh.  No, no.  We've not met," JenniAnn interjected.  "My name is JenniAnn and this here's my friend, Andrew."

"Hi Kemara," Andrew greeted with a hearty handshake.

"We're old friends of Fr. Mike and we... along with our friend Owen over there... were hoping to take him out for brunch.  We were wondering if you'd want to tag along?  Fr. Mike mentioned that you were new and so..."  Growing shy herself, JenniAnn trailed off.

"So we thought we'd ask.  No pressure," Andrew stressed.

Kemara blinked, surprised by the offer.  She wasn't used to the kindness of strangers.  But if Fr. Mike knew them...  And meeting so many people hadn't yet translated into actually befriending anyone.  Maybe this would be a start.  But maybe they were only offering because they would otherwise miss out on time with their friend.  "Thank you, Andrew and JenniAnn.  But I don't want to intrude on your time with your friend.  Fr. Mike and I could visit some other..."

"It's absolutely no intrusion," the angel assured.  "Really.  It's completely up to you but, whatever you decide, please know the invitation was offered wholeheartedly."

Kemara looked from Andrew to JenniAnn and back again.  They seemed sincere, even hopeful.  Her face lit up.  "That sounds great.  I'd love to come.  Thanks!"

"Yay!" JenniAnn enthused.  "So... ever been to Adrian's Coffeehouse?  Fantastic coffee but also an unbelievable brunch.  Stuffed french toast, pancakes, crepes galore, biscuits and gravy..."

Kemara grinned as she followed Andrew and JenniAnn towards Owen and Fr. Mike.

*~*~*

Andrew smiled as he remembered how their brunch had morphed into several coffees with Kemara over the coming days.  When assignments kept him away, JenniAnn went alone and the two girls became very close.  It was during one of the coffee meetings, about two weeks after the initial introduction, that Andrew and JenniAnn had arrived at Adrian's together to find a very distraught Kemara.  They'd soon learned that she'd been laid off the day before and was fretting about making rent.  After much prayer, consultation with Fr. Mike, and a sleepless night; Andrew and JenniAnn showed Kemara the alley portal.  By day's end, the newcomer knew Andrew was an angel of death and had taken up residence in one of the guest rooms at Willowveil.  Nearly a month later, it seemed as if Kemara had always been there.

Andrew's cell phone began to vibrate, rousing him from his memories.  He quietly stood.

"So... the curtain pulls back and there's Mr. Rochester," JenniAnn relayed.  "And he was..."

The angel rapped on the table causing the intent listener to jump.  He grinned.  "Me."

Kemara playfully swatted at Andrew's arm then scooted over so he could sit down.  "Does that mean we need to go over to Serendipity and check to see if you have a crazed wife holed up somewhere, Andrew?"

Laughing, Andrew shook his head.

"No crazed wife for him.  Just plenty of eccentric friends."  JenniAnn smiled.  "Obviously I was thrilled to 'meet' Mr. Rochester."

"And I'm just thrilled to have the help and the company."

Kemara nodded.  "I bet.  So JenniAnn told me the basics.  She's going to be dividing her time in Omaha between archiving for the school and helping you with your sessions.  I said I'd be happy to help with both parts.  But please tell me a little more about what you're teaching."

"Well...  Eve's Girls' works with girls ages five to eighteen although I only have fifth grade and up in my sessions.  Their primary mission is to boost the girls' confidence, teach them leadership skills, and foster creativity.  The founder thought the best way to do both was to encourage girls to pursue their interests, not force them into what's necessarily considered 'valuable' or 'employable.'"

"So this isn't a solely math and science thing?" Kemara asked.

"Definitely not.  There are sessions for girls who are interested in those but also dance, history, art...  Basically it's a lot like summer school but with the focus on learning and gaining experience, not grades.  I have the literature and theatre sessions.  One in the morning, another in the afternoon," Andrew explained.  "So I assign short stories to read and provide questions.  Group discussions about poetry and that sort of thing.  Then the girls are expected to read at least four books on their own and write about them.  Then... by the end of the program, they want some sort of performance."

Kemara couldn't help but giggle at the angel's breathless synopsis.  "All this from a volunteer?"

"Well... those leading sessions do get a stipend," Andrew clarified.  "But
it's a good thing I'm not trying to raise a family.  There's the experience to list on a resume, of course."

Kemara nodded.  "But it's a lot to ask...  They're lucky you're an angel!  Well, blessed."

"As are we," JenniAnn added. 

Andrew smiled.  "Thank you.  I feel very blessed to have help.  And I'll take whatever I can get.  I hope JenniAnn told you not to feel obligated to stick to any particular schedule.  If a whole week goes by and you're really busy then..."

Kemara shook her head.  "I know.  But I'd like to be there as much as I can.  Especially since JenniAnn told me about the perks."

"Perks?" the angel questioned.

"Oh, ya know... listening to ya read aloud... mocha shakes... free rides to and from the school courtesy of the Jolly Green and her studly awesome driver..." JenniAnn clarified, her eyes twinkling.

Kemara giggled when Andrew began to blush.  "I am definitely in.  But what exactly would I do?"

After teasingly glaring at JenniAnn, Andrew grew more serious.  "Well... I'd love to be able to do small group discussions.  It might make it easier for the shyer girls to speak up.  And with three of us we could do that.  But more than anything I'd just like... guidance."

"Guidance?"  The answer surprised Kemara.

"Well, it's just... I don't know what it's like to be a teenage girl.  I was never even a teenager at all in any way that parallels what the girls in my class are experiencing," Andrew explained.

"True.  But JenniAnn said she was only seventeen when you met.  And Rose was a teenager when she came.  Some of the other girls, too.  You seem to have handled that okay," Kemara assured.

Andrew nodded then tilted his head.  He wasn't sure that was universally true.  He knew he'd made a few wrong calls regarding the fine line that was being protective versus being over-protective.

JenniAnn laced her fingers through his.  "He did.  But some of this...  It's not Dyeland-like stuff.  See, some of the girls are apparently not being so nice to one girl in particular.  I didn't see anything myself today.  But Andrew's heard things.  And I met the girl who is getting bullied... has been bullied for years by another girl in the session.  She does seem... withdrawn, maybe even a little shell-shocked.  I did, for a bit, reconsider asking you because I know..." 

"I told you about the bullying I endured in school."

Andrew was surprised but JenniAnn only nodded.

"Kemara, I didn't realize...  If this is going to be too difficult..."

The woman cut Andrew off.  "No.  I mean yes it may be difficult.  But I think it could be very healing, too.  The bullying happened.  I hated it.  But what better way to deal with it than by using those experiences to help someone else?  And I can help you and JenniA
nn monitor the situation.  And if it comes to it, I can help this girl and any others who need the voice of experience.  I assume she's your assignment, Andrew?"

He nodded.

"Good.  Thank God she has an angel, especially one like you, looking out for her.  And I'd be honored to help.  I really want to do this."

The angel clasped Kemara's hand in his.  "Thank you.  That's very brave and very appreciated."

"Not every day I get to help an angel with his assignment."  She smiled proudly.  "So it's just the three of us?"

"Nope.  We'll be bringing Lulu sometimes.  And..."  JenniAnn glanced at Andrew.

"Violeta will be joining us.  I'm not exactly sure when.  But soon."  Andrew found the prospect much less fraught now that he knew JenniAnn and Kemara would both be there.

"So when do we start?" Kemara questioned, her enthusiasm evident.

"Well, I'm going back to Omaha with Andrew tonight.  I'll be staying at my parents'.  Thankfully, it's on the route from the loft where Andrew's staying to the school.  So he's gonna pick me up every Tuesday and Thursday morning as he heads in then swing over quickly to get me over his lunch break on the other days when I teach Below.  You're welcome to stay with us and keep the same schedule or you can just use the portal."

"I've never been to Nebraska..."

"It's beautiful," Andrew praised.  "'There is no place like Nebraska...'" he sang

JenniAnn laughed.  "I swear I didn't teach him that.  But, yeah, it is a nice place.  So?"

"I guess I'm fixin' to go to the Cornhusker State," Kemara declared with an easy smile.  She noticed a wistful look on JenniAnn's face.  "What is it?"

The Nebraskan's cheeks flushed slightly.  "I was just thinking about how when Touched did an episode set in or near Nebraska, I used to wish that Andrew would stop by.  I vowed I woulda helped him."  JenniAnn reached across the table and took the real angel's hand.  "I'm really glad that now I finally get to work a case with you there.  And with another friend, too!"  She reached for Kemara's hand.

Andrew closed the small circle and bowed his head in thankfulness.  For the first time since his assignment had started, he felt like everything was as it should be.

*~*~*

~ Miss Heathcliff Arrives ~


Tuesday, June 18th

Ivy left her grandmother's house at 6:40, arriving at Our Lady of Hope just as the doors opened.  She loved the thirty or so minutes of near absolute quiet before the other girls arrived.  Ironically, she'd always loved school buildings and she especially loved this one.  It wasn't as modern as her own high school but cleaner and cozier.  She walked the halls, peering into classrooms.  After looking around for any other early-comers, she stepped into what seemed to be a Religion classroom.  She still missed her Religion classes.  Despite their meager circumstances, her mother had scrimped and saved to keep her in Catholic school.  She knew it wasn't that her mom had looked down on public schools.  She'd taken pains to stress that to Ivy.  But she'd wanted her to have a strong community of faith.  Ivy always wondered if her mother had known, even before the cancer, that she would not see her daughter into adulthood.  Perhaps, knowing she couldn't rely on her own mother, Francesca had wanted to ensure that her daughter maintained a connection to people who believed in a God who loved and fought for His children.  Unfortunately, as stringently Catholic as she was, Grandma Doreen hadn't seen fit to finance any further religious education.

As Ivy mulled this over, she admired the teacher's bulletin boards.  One covered a class' visit to a local Greek Orthodox Church.  Ivy was amazed at the array of icons and the elaborate design of the church.  She moved onto the next board and gasped.  Her right hand reached up to touch a photograph pinned there, needing to prove to herself that it was really there.  Beside it was an outdated calendar titled "Our Lady Chapel- Mass and Prayer Service Schedule."

"M-mom..." she murmured.  Ivy fled the room.  Based on the calendar, the photograph was taken somewhere in the building.  She had to find out where.  She remembered seeing stained glass windows when she'd walked around the school's lawns one morning the previous week.  Orienting herself, Ivy raced down a stairwell and turned into the hall that she believed corresponded to the windows she'd seen outside.  There, tucked behind the receptionist's bubble-like office, were panes of frosted glass and a simple wooden door with a cross nailed onto it.  This had to be it.  Ivy didn't even bother to look around for others before darting inside.  She immediately saw the familiar stained glass with the morning light streaking through the myriad colors.  She turned to her left.

There it was.  Her mother's sculpture.  It seemed smaller... still large but smaller.  But then she had grown since she'd last seen it. 

Slightly off-kilter, Ivy approached the statue.  Other than its size, it was exactly as she'd remembered it.  She remembered, too, the one and only time her grandmother had ever seen it.

"So this is it...  Why did you make Christ so ugly?"

Young Ivy had grimaced.  She thought He was beautiful.  Sad but beautiful.

Francesca had stiffened.  "He's not ugly, Mother.  He's just not... Hollywood.  You realize, of course, that Jesus was neither American nor European.  Plus... He's had a rough day."

"The Virgin's well done.  She looks very pure and holy.  Amazing that you pulled that off."

At six, Ivy had wondered why this comment made her mommy look so upset.  She'd gone to her and held her hand.

But that was one of the few painful memories the piece evoked for Ivy.  Mostly it made her think of weekend mornings spent watching her mother work while Rich Mullins or Amy Grant or Michael W. Smith or Jesus Christ Superstar or Godspell played in the background.  Or sometimes, Ivy recalled with a grin, Stevie Nicks, Carole King, or Kate Bush.  It had taken years for Ivy to admit to herself that the former's "Moonlight" was not actually meant to be about Mary Magdalene and Jesus.  Darn vampires.

Ivy knelt in front of the statue and ran her hand over the Lady's ivy-bordered mantle.  She remembered her mother telling her that it would always be a reminder that God was watching over her and loving her and that Mary would pray for her...  "Just like I do," Francesca had murmured before kissing her daughter's hair.  Ivy offered a prayer herself, asking God to help her get through another day and to let her mom know she loved and missed her. 

With a sigh, Ivy noted that it was 7:32.  Other girls would be arriving... possibly including Alyssa and her entourage.  Stepping away from the statue, Ivy took a photograph so she could have something of her mother's sculpture with her throughout the day.  Then she moved back into the hall.  A handful of girls and teachers were already going to and fro.  Anxiously, Ivy made her way back to the first floor.  She planned to duck into Mr. Rochester's room and see if he or Ms. Chandler were there yet.  Maybe she could wait with them until her computer session.  But first she would grab her computer book from her locker so she wouldn't need to risk running into Alyssa there.

When she reached the hall where her locker was, Ivy realized she was too late.  Girls were staring at her then swiftly looking away when she made eye contact.  Hurrying to her locker, Ivy abruptly stopped when she came to it.  Taped to the metal door was a caricature labeled "Poison Ivy."  A perverse version of herself was surrounded by squiggly lines and faces with X's for eyes.  Ivy tore the drawing down and ran into the nearest bathroom, shutting herself in a stall and crying.
 
*~*~*

"Have a good lunch!  Remember to read 'Rikki-Tikki-Tavi' for tomorrow."  Andrew called as his middle-schoolers excitedly bolted from their desks at the sound of the lunch bell.  "Heartwarming to see how glad you are to be rid of me," he joked.

A little girl named Hermione turned and laughed.  "Not glad to be rid of you, Mr. R!  Just happy for pizza."

"And breadsticks!" another girl added. 

The angel laughed.  "Well okay then.  See you girls tomorrow.  Enjoy your lunch."

The girls linked arms and ran.

Kemara smiled.  "Now that's nice to see."

JenniAnn nodded.  "It is.  I miss being that little sometimes...  Of course, at ten they're very much convinced they are not little."

Kemara laughed.  "I remember that feeling, too."


JenniAnn hopped off her on-stage perch to help the other two put the desks back in place since they'd gone askew during a spirited book-themed trivia game.  She turned to Andrew.  "So... should we make ourselves scarce or wait?"  She looked over to where Lulu was dozing on a makeshift doggie bed formed of an office supplies box and Andrew's robe.  "I think Lulu's voted for waiting."

Kemara slid the final desk of a row into place then straightened up.  "What are we waiting for?  Or who?"

"My assignment," Andrew explained.  "Yesterday JenniAnn and I caught her sneaking lunch alone in here... to get away from the other girls.  We don't want to scare her off.  On the other hand... I don't like that it seems like she's eating lunch alone all the time."

"Can't we eat lunch in here with her?" Kemara asked.  "I could be wrong but it seems to me that if this girl is coming here for lunch, it's because she feels safe in this room.  And I think I have a good idea of why that would be: you.  Even when you're not here, she thinks of it as your room, Andrew.  That's why she comes here."

"I can definitely see that," JenniAnn agreed.  "So I think we should stay here, too.  I'll run upstairs to grab our lunches outta the fridge."

"I thought we might go somewhere for Kemara's first day... or grab pizza... so I didn't pack anything, Laja."

The woman grinned at the angel.  "No.  But my mom did for all three of us.  She wanted to.  Be right back."

Touched, Andrew shook his head in wonder as JenniAnn left the room.

Kemara smiled.  JenniAnn had clued her into Andrew's formerly strained relationship with the Chandlers so she knew she had to tell him what she'd learned the previous night.  "Andrew, I was in the kitchen when Allison was making our lunches.  We got to talking and she told me that she was very happy to have her daughter but always wanted a son.  When she realized that wasn't possible, she prayed for a caring son-in-law who she could dote on."

Andrew dragged his hand through his hair and stared down at his ring.

"She said that she realized now she wasn't going to get him, either.  But then she mentioned that some of her friends are dealing with having hellions for in-laws.  And her?" Kemara moved to stand near Andrew and rested her hand on his arm.  "Her daughter shows up one day with one of 'God's kids'.
  So now Allison realizes she has no reason to complain or feel sorry for herself anymore.  Just wait until you see what she sent, Andrew.  I think you'll know that Allison's glad to have you around."

The angel smiled appreciatively at Kemara.  "Thank you.  I needed to hear that, to know that.  You know, even up until a little while before you came, I sometimes wished that JenniAnn wouldn't have felt for me as she does.  I got over that.  I really did.  But when I think about her parents and all the hopes they had for their daughter...  I just never wanted to be the cause of anyone's disappointment."

"Now you know you aren't," Kemara assured.  "Last night I had a little trouble falling asleep.  Even though I'm perfectly comfortable at the Chandlers', it's still a new place.  So I started thinking about this assignment of yours.  I know you're concerned that these girls may not listen to you because you're so different from them.  And you are, Andrew.  But think about this: you're an angel and yet you have this entire community of humans who rely on you, who consider you family.  You're from Heaven.  There's no denying that.  And why would you want to?  But you're also very much tied to Earth, to Dyeland.  You live with one foot in each world.  When you think about it, that's a pretty good metaphor for being a teenager, don't you think?  They straddle the worlds of childhood and adulthood.  So maybe you need to think about it that way.  All of these girls are straddling two different worlds and just hoping they don't disappoint those who matter to them.  The only difference is you know who should really matter.  They don't always... and sometimes they hurt because of that."

"I hadn't thought of it that way but... yeah!" 
A wide smile spread across Andrew's face as he hugged the woman.  "Thank you for helping me see that, Kemara." 

"You're welcome.  I think sometimes it's easier for a newcomer to see things than someone who has been around for so long."

"Then I'm even more glad we have a newcomer!"  Andrew squeezed Kemara's hand.  "So you did okay last night with the..."  He stopped speaking when the door swung open.

JenniAnn entered the room carrying three sacks.  It took only a moment for her friends to see that she was upset.

Andrew took the bags from her, set them on his desk, and clasped her hands in his.  "Laja, what's wrong?"

"I had to go into the break room to get our lunches and... and Bennie was there."

"Laja..." Andrew cooed.

"She didn't say anything to me.  I just overheard her talking to another teacher and that teacher said she caught two girls passing a note in the computer room.  A really nasty note... about Ivy.  And she asked Bennie what she should do about it.  Bennie said that since it didn't result in class being disrupted, this teacher should just leave it alone!"

Kemara shook her head.  "Oh that'll make everything better!"

"
I tried to tell her that she should speak to the girls or at least Regina because who knows that next time Ivy won't see such a note... or maybe she even saw this one... but... Bennie whispered something to the teacher and she just said that it was her class and she'd run it as she saw fit."  JenniAnn rubbed at her temples.  "So... then I asked to see the note but Bennie said that since I wasn't 'officially here' that I couldn't."

"You were asked to come here by a representative of the school and Regina welcomed you into the program!  How much more official does Bennie think it gets?" Andrew questioned, visibly upset.  He headed towards the door.  "I'm going to go see if I'm 'officially here' and allowed to see this note."

Before the angel had gotten very far, the door opened a few inches then abruptly closed.  Andrew zigzagged through the desks and into the hall with the two women following him.  Ivy was hastening down the corridor with her back to them. 

"Ivy, please come back," Andrew called.

The girl stopped and stared at the three adults.

JenniAnn waved her forward.

Ivy began to slowly return to them.  As she drew nearer, they could tell that she'd been crying.

No one said a word until they were all back in the classroom.

"Ivy, what's going on?" her teacher questioned.

The girl shrugged.  "Nothing."

"You don't strike me as the sort of person who would cry over nothing," Andrew countered gently.  "And this... Ivy, this is the second time I've seen you looking like you've been crying.  Please know that you can tell me what's going on.  I won't be angry at you.  I promise."

Ivy responded with silence except for the sound of her playing with the zipper on her lunch bag.  She wanted to tell Mr. Rochester but she couldn't.  Alyssa's words on Friday about how her father could get both of them kicked out of Eve's Girls weighed heavily on her heart.

JenniAnn walked over to the stage.  "Ivy, Mr. Rochester and our friend, Miss Kemara Meeks, and I were going to sit down to some lunch.  You want to join us?"

Ivy's "please" was so quiet that, even standing near her, Andrew and Kemara both strained to hear it.

"Great.  Well, I think it'd be fun to relive a bit of my old school days.  Sometimes we'd eat up here." 
JenniAnn stepped behind the curtain and began to drag a wooden table out.  Andrew hurried over to help her while Kemara grabbed their lunches then helped gather chairs.  "Sound good?"

Ivy smiled when Andrew plopped a vase of faded, frayed silk flowers onto the center of the table. 

"Sheesh.  I think we had those when I was here.  Due for an update, I think," JenniAnn commented.  "But they'll do for now.  Come on up, Ivy."

Ivy's face registered surprise when Andrew pulled a chair out for her and proceeded to do the same for the two women before taking a seat himself.

Andrew opened his lunch bag to find a generous helping of pasta salad.  Allison had made it once before when he'd visited and knew he'd thoroughly enjoyed it.  "Keep smiling!" was handwritten on a butterfly-shaped sticky note.  He smiled, recognizing anew the truth in Kemara's words.  When Andrew had the container open, he glanced over at Ivy who was unwrapping her own lunch.  He could sense that she wasn't going to talk about Alyssa's note or whatever else had upset her... at least not yet.  Nonetheless, he hoped to get her talking about something.  He looked to Kemara then back to his student.  "Ivy, Miss Meeks is going to be another helper in class."

"Hi, Ivy!" Kemara greeted.  "I love your earrings!  Did you make them?"

Ivy's eyes fleetingly met the woman's.  "Yeah."

"Do you make a lot of jewelry?" JenniAnn asked.

Ivy nodded.  "It's one of my hobbies.  I make bracelets and pins and earrings.  Sometimes necklaces when I can aff..."  She abruptly cut off.

"You know, I've always thought that jewelry made by a loved one was a lot better than anything you can get in a store," Andrew mused.  He held up his right hand.  "A friend made this ring for me.  It used to just be wire she'd twisted into shape but then a bunch of my friends chipped in to get it finished.  It means more to me than the most expensive piece in the finest store ever could."

JenniAnn smiled, glad that Andrew had wisely kept the details of the ring's provenance vague.

Ivy admired the piece.  "Is that really true?"

"Of course.  Love is worth more than money.  It's worth more than anything.  Sometimes people don't always realize that and they put more value on appearances or pride or just being right.  I feel sorry for those people," Andrew opined.

Ivy nodded.  She thought of her grandmother, wishing she felt as Mr. Rochester seemed to.

"So... did you get any more of your Anne book read, Ivy?" the angel asked.

At last coming to life, the girl nodded.  "I finished it.  But the library doesn't have the next one so I have to wait for them to get it from the Lincoln branch."

"I have Anne of Windy Poplars.  I can bring it tomorrow if you want," JenniAnn offered.

Ivy stared at her, stunned by the generous offer from a woman she barely knew.  Then, blushing at her rudeness, the teen nodded.  "Yes, please, Ms. Chandler."

Masking her distaste for the formality, 'Ms. Chandler' smiled.  "Then I will.  I have the whole series so if you run into that issue with another volume, just lemme know."

"Okay."

Kemara smiled as she noted Ivy's shy grin.  A quiet type herself, she hoped to draw the teenager out.  "Have you lived here in Omaha all your life, Ivy?"

"Yes, Miss Meeks."

"This is the first time I've been here.  What are some places you think I should be sure to visit?"

Ivy shrugged.  She didn't see how her recommendations would be worth much.

Kemara frowned.  "Do you have any favorite spots around town?" she tried again.

After taking a bite of her sandwich, Ivy at last made eye contact with Kemara.  "The zoo.  I like the petting zoo.  And the rainforest.  The aquarium, too.  Especially the penguins."

"It's a great zoo, isn't it?" Andrew added.  "One of the best in the country."  Remembering his encounter with Joshua and the revelations stemming from that, he shifted focus.  "I've always liked your art museum, too.  The Joslyn."

Ivy's eyes lit up.  "They started offering free admission.  I walk or bike there every Saturday.  Even when the exhibits don't change, I feel like I see something new every week.  Right now they have a special collection on loan that's work related to Paris.  There's Chagall and Lautrec and Monet and...  It's wonderful.  I can't wait to go again."  She let out a soft, dreamy sigh.

JenniAnn looked at Andrew in surprise.  That was the most words strung together she'd heard from the girl.  Maybe if they could find Ivy there, she would really open up and let them help her.  Hopefully Andrew would agree.

Reading the question in JenniAnn's eyes, Andrew considered tapping a "definitely" onto her foot in Tunnel code... but that would be highly embarrassing if he tapped the wrong foot.  He settled on brushing his hand against hers under the table and nodding.  "Paris, huh?  I've always loved Monet's work.  I might have to stop in Saturday and check it out."

"Any chance of hitching a ride?" JenniAnn asked, already knowing the answer.

"For two?" Kemara added.

Andrew chuckled.  "Of course.  I was counting on it."


Ivy's face lit up.  She hoped she'd see them there.

"Maybe we'll see you there, Ivy," Kemara suggested, voicing the four's shared hope.  "
So do you have a favorite genre of art?"

"Not really.  I couldn't choose.  But... I do really like sculpture.  My mom..."  The girl bit her lip and stared down at the table.  Her eyes welled.

JenniAnn reached over and set a hand on Ivy's arm.  "Hon, you okay?"

Ivy swiped at the tears and nodded.  "My mom died five years ago.  She was a sculptor.  She... she made the Pieta in the chapel."

"I'm so sorry to hear that, Ivy.  I'm sure her sculpture is beautiful.  We didn't have that when I was here.  When you feel up to it, would you show it to me?  I'm sure Miss Meeks would love to see it, too.  And Mr. Rochester if he hasn't already."

Andrew looked tenderly at Ivy.  "I have seen it.  It's remarkable.  Your mother was a truly talented artist, Ivy."

The girl blushed but smiled proudly.  "Thank you.  I, umm, wouldn't mind visiting it today.  Again.  I did this morning... for the first time in a long time.  But I would like to go again.  Maybe if we have a little time after we finish eating?"

Glancing at his pocket watch, Andrew nodded.  "We can definitely do that."

Sensing that Ivy needed as much time as possible, the three adults ate quickly. 

"You ready to go to the chapel?" Andrew asked when Ivy had finished her sandwich and he'd ensured that Lulu was still asleep.

"Yes, please."

Thankfully, the halls were still quiet when the four stepped out of the room.  Out of habit, JenniAnn found herself leading the group.  Her breath caught in her throat when she stepped into the familiar room.

"Oh Ivy..."  she murmured as she approached the statue.  "It's... stunning and so... so powerful."  JenniAnn stumbled into a pew.

Kemara silently studied the work of art.

Andrew waved the teenager forward when she timidly hung back.

Ivy closed the distance between herself and the sculpture.

The angel blinked back a tear when he saw the girl rest her hand on Jesus'.

"I was only a baby when Mom started this.  I was five when she finished.  She had to stop a lot because we..."

Andrew frowned.  He knew Francesca and Ivy had been forced to move often when rent got too high or an apartment became too dangerous.

"I can remember sitting in my play seat and watching her," Ivy continued.  "She'd tell me stories about Jesus.  My favorite one was when He told the apostles to let the kids come to Him." 

Kemara smiled at her.  "I like that one a lot, too.  Those must have been very special times for you and your mom."

"Yeah.  I was sad when she sold it.  I was eight then.  I didn't realize yet...  I just thought work was making her tired.  But I know now that she had to sell it to pay for the cancer treatments."  Ivy looked back to Jesus and Mary.  "I never knew it was here.  It's funny, though.  I always thought... maybe just hoped... I'd come here for high school but... I guess not."

"Ivy, how about we give you a few minutes alone?" Andrew suggested.  "We'll knock when it's time to head back to the classroom."

Ivy nodded as she contemplated her mother's work.

Quietly, JenniAnn and Kemara followed the angel of death into the hall.

"I think I know why I'm here," JenniAnn whispered.  "I mean specifically.  I think Ivy's meant to be here.  To go to school here, I mean.  Maybe I could talk to Vivian... she's the Head of School," she explained to Kemara.

"It sounds like a good idea.  But..."  She turned to Andrew.  "Would God really have us here just to get Ivy into another school?  It might solve the problem of her getting bullied... at least somewhat.  But she'd still be left with the emotional scars.  And I've read cases of bullying following a kid cause the original bully has a friend at the new school and then there's the internet, too, and..."  Kemara shrugged.  "There's more to it than just finding a new school."

"I think let's not rule anything out," Andrew reasoned.  "I could have been sent to any number of schools where children were being bullied.  But where do I end up?  Your school, JenniAnn.  I do think that means something.  But Kemara's right.  We need to help Ivy where she is right now.  Because regardless of where she goes to school come August, right now she's in pain."

JenniAnn nodded.  "I know.  I really do.  But... she already lost her mother.  I just think it would be good if she could regularly be around something that so obviously meant so much to her mother and to Ivy herself spiritually."

"I definitely agree there.  Did you see her face when she touched Jesus' hand?"  Kemara set her own hand on the chapel door, marveling.  "And then how she talked once she had?  She looked us all right in the eye.  It was as if just being near something that her mother had poured so much love into... Ivy felt that love again."

Andrew hugged both girls.  "Yeah, I saw it.  It was something."

"I truly believe that it's more than coincidence that brought you here, Andrew.  As always.  But surely it's also not coincidence that Ivy ends up in a program basing itself out of the place that houses her mom's sculpture.  There are thirty some Catholic schools here in town, several others of various other Christian denominations, countless churches... any of them coulda wound up with that Pieta.  But it... and Ivy... both came here.  I can't explain it but I feel like somehow that sculpture is crucial," JenniAnn stressed.

Andrew nodded.  He so badly wanted to tell her that Joshua had said as much.  "I agree.  So maybe, for starters, we all do what we can to give her as much time in the chapel as possible.  No one's using it for classes so it shouldn't be too much of a problem.  But for right now..."  He removed his pocket watch.  "We better head back to the classroom."

Kemara lightly knocked on the chapel door and a moment later, Ivy appeared.  Though she was teary-eyed, she also appeared peaceful.

JenniAnn smiled.  "Feeling better?"

"Yes, thank you.  So what are we doing in class today?"

"Well... first, I'll read some poems for discussion as a class.  Get into the history a little bit.  Then since there are three of us now, I was thinking we'd do small group work.  Maybe read and discuss some poems," Andrew answered as he led the women back to the classroom.  "Then I wanted to giving everyone some writing time because I'd like you girls to try your hands at penning a poem."  Secretly, he hoped the poem would be a chance for Ivy to let some of her hurt feelings out... and maybe even for Alyssa to vent whatever anger or frustration was causing her to behave so coldly.

Ivy bit her lip.  "Will we have to read them to the class?"

JenniAnn stared at the back of Andrew's head, willing him to say no.  Teen girls being forced to read their own poetry aloud was a potential landmine.

"I'd like all of you to turn them into me but I'm definitely not going to force anyone to read them aloud."

Ivy and JenniAnn let out a sigh of relief in unison causing the former to giggle.

Andrew was so taken aback and pleased to hear the sound that he twisted around to face his student.

Ivy blushed.  "Sorry, I..."

Shaking his head, Andrew set a hand on her shoulder.  "Don't apologize!  That... it was just really great to hear you laugh, Ivy.  Really great."  He smiled and ushered the three ladies back into the room. 

"Thank you."  Though Ivy's response was quiet, she smiled.

"You're very welcome.  Now..."  Andrew went to his desk to check on Lulu who was groggily emerging from her bed.  He rubbed her ears and grabbed some books, handing one each to JenniAnn and Kemara.  "I picked some poems out for discussion and marked them so you take those.  We'll keep one group here, put one in the audience area, and then another on the stage."  He made his way there and began to slide the table back behind the curtain when a short rap sounded on the door. 

"I'll get it," JenniAnn offered.

"Well, there you are!" a woman's booming voice sounded.  "Look at you!"

From their vantage point near Andrew's desk, Ivy and Kemara could only see two arms reach into the room and pull JenniAnn out.

"You look just the same as the last time you were here, JenniAnn!  Just the same!"

"Umm thanks, Vivian."

"Thank YOU so much for coming to help us out.  Eve's Girls, too!  I always tell people our alums are so thoughtful and giving and... well, I wish I could talk more but I actually came here to ask a favor of our Mr. Rochester."

JenniAnn frowned, wondering when Andrew had become "our Mr. Rochester."  It wasn't that she disliked the principal, only that she thought her a little too fond of politicking... and she did not want her Andrew dragged into that!

Finally, the older woman poked her head into the room.  She looked curiously at Kemara and Ivy then spotted Andrew on the stage.  "Well, there you are!  Look at you!"

Kemara suppressed a giggle, feeling like she was in a time warp.

"The stage becomes you, Mr. Rochester," Vivian remarked. 

Andrew blushed.  "Thank you but..."

"I wish I could stay and chat but I'm afraid I have to be off to a meeting," the woman interrupted.  "But before that... I have a rather sizable favor to ask of you.  Could we please visit in the hall?"

"Uh, sure."  Andrew arched his eye brows as he passed JenniAnn who could only shrug in response as he followed Vivian.  Once they were in the hall, he could already see some of his students headed towards the classroom.  He hoped whatever this was wouldn't take too long.  He didn't relish leaving JenniAnn and Kemara alone with the girls... especially if Alyssa arrived before Vivian released him.

"You see, Mr. Rochester, we here at Our Lady of Hope are so pleased to be welcoming Eve's Girls as our guests.  But, as you can imagine, it's not exactly cheap to keep all the classrooms air conditioned and then there's daily maintenance and..."

"I know, Miss O'Kane, and not a one of us with Eve's Girls isn't immensely grateful," Andrew responded, feeling awkward.  He didn't understand why Vivian wasn't having this conversation with Regina.

"Of course, of course!  We help each other.  Ms. LaCroix and I visited and we both think that getting both EG's and Our Lady's names and our partnership out there could do a lot for both entities.  So...  we've agreed that a fine way to do that would be a series of articles in our local Catholic press.  What we'd love to do is have a reporter shadow in one of the classrooms.  And what better classroom than yours!  You have one of our alums and then, of course, yourself... an Eve's Girls staffer.  It really gets to the spirit of the thing, doesn't it?"

"Well, yes, but does JenniAnn know..."

"Oh we'd only need a quote or two from her now and again.  She's a well-spoken girl.  She'll be fine.  I also thought this arrangement would be ideal because I know sometimes reporters can be a pain.  So many of the others are already overtaxed but since you have a helper... two helpers it seems...  Maybe you could take on this responsibility?"

Andrew forced a smile.  "Of course."

"Oh wonderful!" Vivian gushed.  "I stashed the reporter in the new science lab while we visited.  Just let me go get her."

The angel of death dragged his hand through his hair and waited.  As he did, his students began to arrive.  He smiled at them, waving them into the room and returning their greetings.  Then came Alyssa, Caitlin, and Mariah.  They completely ignored him as they walked by.  However, Andrew's mind was more pleasantly occupied.  Vivian had reappeared with the reporter in tow.  He smiled when he saw her dancing emerald eyes.

Violeta.  His beloved protege, the puzzle piece he'd been waiting for.

"Mr. Rochester, this is Miss Heathcliff."

Andrew fought hard to keep from laughing at Violeta's choice of surname.  Apparently he wasn't the only one pulling them from JenniAnn's book and DVD shelves.  "We've met but I'm very, very glad to be working with Miss Heathcliff again."

Violeta only grinned in response.

"Very good!" Vivian cheered.  "I shall leave you to your stage, Mr. Rochester.  Give my best to JenniAnn."

Then, in a flurry, the woman was down the hall and up the stairs.

Violeta continued to beam at her supervisor.  When all the students had ducked into their classrooms, she moved in for a hug.  "I'm so glad to be working this case with you, Andrew.  And JenniAnn!  And Kemara!  Ooh.  And Lulu!"

Andrew smiled.  He rested his finger on one of the myriad hair sticks shooting out of the Violeta's mass of black hair.  "This look is different.  It suits you."

The young angel's face flushed happily.  "Thanks!"

"You're welcome.  Now... we better head inside.  Kemara and JenniAnn are probably wondering what Vivian's done to me."

"She said that you were a dish and that if she were thirty years younger...  Actually she didn't finish.  Just sort of blinked her eyes rapidly.  How could you be a dish?  Is that some sort of Nebraskan slang?  Maybe I should ask JenniAnn."

His cheeks burning, Andrew nodded.  "Uh, yeah.  Ask... yeah, ask JenniAnn after class."

"Okay!" Violeta chirped before following her supervisor into the classroom.

*~*~*

For the first hour, JenniAnn sat in thrall as Andrew read poems, breaking only to give the girls a chance to explicate them.  Kemara listened appreciatively with occasional bemused glances at JenniAnn.  Violeta and Ivy listened in admiration.  Much to the surprise and delight of Andrew and his helpers, Ivy spoke up aloud in front of all the other girls when they began to discuss the poetry.  Then, as planned, the class broke into three groups with each assigned a handful of Christina Rossetti's poems. 

Andrew had made a point to not identify Alyssa to JenniAnn or Kemara.  Though he was still bothered by her behavior the previous week and word of the morning's note, he wanted to give her every chance and not prejudice either of the women against her.  If it came to it, he knew he would have to tell Violeta.  This was her case, too.  But until then, he would keep the girl's identity to himself.  Nonetheless, he didn't feel right putting Alyssa in either JenniAnn's or Kemara's groups so kept her in his own.  As Andrew opened the volume of poetry in his hands... a book that had once belonged to his assignment, Dawn, and been given to him by her mother, Raquel... he prayed that the next hour would go smoothly.

"So who would like to read for us?" he asked.  When a girl's hand shot up, Andrew smiled at her.  "Thanks, Morgan."

The teenager cleared her throat and began to read.  "'O why is heaven built so far, oh why is earth set so remote?  I cannot reach the nearest star that hangs afloat.'"

As she continued, Andrew stole a glance over at Kemara's group.  He smiled when he saw that Ivy was reading for them with Lulu curled up in her lap.  She would be reading "Mirage."  He hoped the melancholy poem would not make her too sad. 

"'For I am bound with fleshly bands, joy, beauty, lie beyond my scope; I strain my heart, I stretch my hands, and catch at hope,'" Morgan finished.

"Beautiful, thank you.  So what does that poem mean to all of you?  Can you relate to it?" the teacher asked.

"I'm sure the poet was at least partly being symbolic but maybe she really did want to touch the stars.  It makes me wonder what she'd think of NASA and astronauts.  I bet she'd think they were pretty cool."

Andrew smiled.  "I think she would, Sierra.  What do you think might be symbolic about her celestial imagery?"

"Well, she was from, like, the 1800s, right?"

"Yes.  Christina Rossetti lived from 1830-1894."

"So maybe she's frustrated because so much was out of reach," Sierra posited.  "Women were still really restricted then.  Most couldn't even vote.  She probably desired a lot she couldn't have... not just stars."

"We read a poem of hers in class last year."

"Do you remember the name, Bailee?"

The girl shook her head.  "No.  But it was about goblins."

Alyssa snickered.  "Right..."

Andrew turned to her.  "She is right.  Rossetti wrote a famous poem called 'Goblin Market.'  It's quite a read.  You should look it up sometime."  He wondered what the girl would make of its tale of unselfish, sacrificial love.

For a moment, the teen's face flushed.  Then she rolled her eyes.  "It sounds like kids' stuff."

"It's not," Andrew stressed.  He turned back to Bailee.  "Was there something you wanted to say about 'Goblin Market'?"

"Not really.  I did like it.  But I remember my teacher saying that the lady was really religious.  So maybe she really did just want to reach Heaven.  I know a lot..."

"Maybe she should have stopped staring at the sky and scribbling nonsense and actually done something," Alyssa interrupted.

Andrew looked directly into her eyes.  "I think it's important to remember that not everyone has access to the same opportunities in life.  And please don't interrupt, Alyssa.  Everyone will have time to talk.  Now, Bailee, what were you saying?"

Instead of replying, she stared down at the poem and shrugged.  "I forgot."

Andrew suspected she'd simply decided to keep her thoughts to herself rather than risk getting snapped at by Alyssa.  "That's okay.  If you remember, just speak up.  So anyone else?"

No one responded.

"Okay.  Well, who wants to read the next poem: 'May'?"

When no one volunteered, Andrew began to recite. 

"'I cannot tell you how it was; but this I know: it came to pass upon a bright and breezy day when May was young; ah, pleasant May!'"

As he read, the angel studied the faces of the girls in his group.  Formerly alert and interested, now they seemed zoned out and on edge.  Clearly Alyssa wasn't only having an impact on Ivy.

*~*~*

During the class' last hour, Andrew allowed the girls to go wherever in the room they wanted to work on their poems.  While Violeta interviewed him at his desk, Kemara handed out the papers Andrew had "graded" the previous night.  When she was finished, she joined JenniAnn in a corner of the room where she was sorting through a box.

"I think I saw something not good," Kemara whispered.

Alarmed, JenniAnn dropped the pom-pom she'd been quizzically examining back into the box.  She thought she saw tears welling in her friend's eyes.  "Where?  When?"

"Can you just walk through the room and take a quick peek at the paper Alyssa's writing on?"

Nodding, JenniAnn did as she was asked.  She stopped near where the girl was plopped on a cushion and pretended to discover that her necklace had gone askew.  As she mimed sliding the clasp back behind her neck, JenniAnn glanced down at Alyssa's tablet.  Her eyes blazed.  It took everything in her to keep walking towards Andrew's desk instead of snatching the notebook up. 

"Kemara and I need to see you when you're done here," she whispered as she crouched between the two angels.

Andrew frowned.  "Should I come back there now?"

JenniAnn thought.  "Yes, probably."

"Can I come, too?" Violeta asked, bright-eyed and eager.

The angel of death looked at JenniAnn and noticed the subtle shake of her head. 

"Really it's just something Kemara wants to tell Andrew," JenniAnn explained.  She smiled at Violeta.  "You showed up so unexpectedly that I didn't get a chance earlier to tell you how cute your hair looks."

Violeta's eyes lit up.  "Really?"

Andrew patted her hand.  "Told you.  I'll be right back."  He rose to join Kemara.

"Do the hair sticks each mean something?" JenniAnn asked in an attempt to keep Violeta distracted.

Keeping her voice low, the young angel began to rattle off the story behind her new hairstyle.  "This other angel, her name is Takara, she had some and I thought they were so beautiful.  So Jo... someone gave me some wooden sticks and paint and then Takara helped me decorate them.  I made one to symbolize every person in our group.... obviously I'm not using them all right now.  Do you want me to make you some?"

JenniAnn nodded.  "Yes, please.  They would mean a lot to me."  She squeezed the angel's hand and thought of her promise to Andrew and what Kemara had shown her.  She vowed again, silently, to do all she could to keep Violeta from getting hurt. 

*~*~*

"What's going on?" Andrew questioned when he made his way to where Kemara was aimlessly sifting through JenniAnn's box.  "Are you okay?"

Kemara nodded.  "Only concerned.  Did you happen to see anything when you passed by Alyssa?"

The angel of death shook his head.  He'd been so focused on reaching his friend that he'd only noticed that the girls all seemed focused on their work.

"Go back.  Please."

Andrew toured the room, smiling when some of the girls looked up at him.  Here and there one would ask a question which their teacher took time to answer.  It was a full five minutes before Andrew was finally near Alyssa.  However, he was not too late.

Andrew fought the urge to grab the girl's notebook from her when he saw the cruel caricatures she had drawn.  One was clearly meant to be Violeta.  Alyssa had drawn countless lines coming from the drawing's hair.  Below it, she had scrawled "The Porcupine Reporter."  Underneath it there was a second drawing.  This face had frizzy hair and was covered in pimples.  Below it were the words "Ivy the Slut."

Andrew crouched down.  "Alyssa, we're going to go talk to Ms. LaCroix.  Bring that notebook with you."  To his surprise, Alyssa did not blush or mumble apologies.  She merely stood, smiling serenely at him.  "Wait by the door for me."

Alyssa obeyed.

Andrew returned to Kemara.  "We're going upstairs to talk to Regina.  Please tell JenniAnn when you can."  He looked back over to where Violeta was still happily chattering. 

"Will do.  I hope it goes well."  Kemara squeezed Andrew's hand.  "I really do."

"Me too."  Andrew took in a deep breath then went to where Alyssa was waiting.

*~*~*

Regina LaCroix was a stylish, no-nonsense woman in her early forties.  When Andrew had first met her, he'd gotten the sense that Regina seldom heard the word "no" used in reference to anything she wanted.  This was not necessarily to her discredit.  The angel suspected that Regina's determination had been a prime factor in getting Eve's Girls off the ground so quickly following her aunt's death.  Andrew hoped she would be as fastidious in rooting out the bullying issue.

Seated in the chair next to Alyssa's, Andrew looked over at his student while Regina examined the drawings.  The girl still seemed unbothered.  Or, rather, she seemed more bothered by an imperfection in her manicured nails than the fact that she was sitting in the program director's office.  With a soft sigh, Andrew shook his head.  He didn't know what to make of this girl.  Certainly he'd dealt with cruel teenagers before.  They never became fathomable to him. 

Andrew knew bullies sometimes targeted other children in hopes of masking their own perceived deficiencies.  However, he could find no reason for Alyssa to fear anyone's ill will.  She was beautiful, popular, intelligent, and, if the car he'd seen her driving the week before was any indication, her family was well off financially.  Because he knew bullying had become a scourge, Andrew had been on the lookout for it from day one of his assignment.  He'd seen no indication that anyone was taunting Alyssa or otherwise harassing her.  In fact, he'd seen no indication of bullying at all until he'd first heard Alyssa maligning Ivy to the other girls.
  He thought of Kemara's wise words about being caught between two worlds.  But even that didn't explain such blatant cruelty.  Alyssa didn't seem confused or frustrated.  On the contrary, confidence exuded from the girl.  Andrew simply did not get it.

Regina set the paper down and tapped her fingernails on the desk.  "Well...  I have to say I am disappointed, Miss Thurrian.  These drawings are very unkind.  Why would you draw these?"

Alyssa shrugged.  "I was bored.  I didn't mean for anyone to see them."

Andrew wasn't sure he believed that but he also couldn't prove otherwise.

"While I appreciate that Mr. Rochester gave us time to work on our poems, I prefer to write at home in our new sunroom," Alyssa continued.  "It's very inspiring.  Dad told me that his company intends to build one for the Eve's Girls Center when it's completed."

Andrew watched as Regina's stern demeanor began to change.  Then it occurred to him why Alyssa's last name had seemed vaguely familiar.  He'd seen it on construction trucks around town. 

Regina smiled coolly.  "I'm sure it will be beautiful.  Well, obviously I will be confiscating these drawings.  You're in Miss Jansen's morning session aren't you, Alyssa?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"So then you're good with computers?"

"Yes."

"Good.  You need to learn from this experience.  You'll prepare a presentation... PowerPoint, a web page, whatever you choose... on bullying and turn it into Mr. Rochester next Monday.  Understand?"

Andrew balked at the woman.  He sincerely hoped she didn't intend for him to actually have Alyssa present it.  Ivy did not need to sit through her tormentor lecturing the class on bullying.

"Yes, ma'am," Alyssa agreed.

"Good.  Now go back to your classroom.  Mr. Rochester, please wait with me a moment."

When Alyssa was gone, Andrew leapt out of his chair and began pacing and dragging his hands through his hair.  "So that's it?  She's doing a PowerPoint!?  I will look it over if you want but I am not letting her get in front of my class to play innocent and concerned.  This is not a one-time thing and you know it, Regina.  You know it!  I told you what I heard last week!  And about how Ivy was crying last Friday and Alyssa sped off in her car.  And then earlier CeCe found a note in her class."

"Note?  What note?"

"Talk to CeCe," Andrew muttered.  "Apparently she found a cruel note about Ivy in her classroom this morning."

"Do we have proof that anyone saw the note?"

"I know Ivy had obviously been crying when she came to my room today."

"But do you know that she saw the note?  Do you know that she heard what you did?  Do you know that Alyssa said anything to Ivy last Friday after class?" Regina pressed.

"Well, no but... but I know Ivy feels bullied."

"And that is a shame.  But that's why you're there.  To watch over your students and..."

"And how am I supposed to do that when they're not in my classroom?" Andrew demanded.

Regina settled back into her chair and sighed.  "Look, I'll just level with you, Andrew.  We don't have a lot of choice.  Do I like Alyssa?  No.  I think the girl's an entitled, arrogant brat.  But I also know her father owns the construction company that offered to build our program its own building with a generous discount.  That offer is the only reason we have any chance at all of getting our own place before next summer."  She grimaced.  "And we need to.  I don't relish having to kowtow to Vivian O'Kane's PR stunts.  I understand that you care about Ivy.  I do.  But surely she can deal with a few hassles for one summer.  Is it really worth losing the chance at something better for so many girls in the future just to comfort one this summer?"

Andrew folded his arms over his chest.  "So because Alyssa's father is financially backing Eve's Girls, she's entitled to do whatever she wants and treat another girl however she wants?"

"That is NOT what I'm saying.  I only mean that we have to be careful.  Alyssa knows she's been caught.  She knows you'll be watching.  She's received her punishment.  And, no, you don't need to have her present it."  Regina stood and set her hand on his arm.  "Look, you're a nice guy.  I could tell that immediately when you came in to interview.  I know you want to make everything right for everyone.  But sometimes... sometimes to bring about something good, we have to let a little unpleasantness happen."

Andrew smiled sympathetically at the woman.  He could tell Regina was honestly strained and disheartened.  But he couldn't let it go as easily as she could.  "I know.  But I just can't consider threats to a young girl's mental and emotional well-being simply 'a little unpleasantness' to be put up with."

Regina looked down at her fingernails.  "I envy you your moral certainty and devotion to your principles, Andrew.  Now, you better get back to your class."

Andrew nodded.  "I will.  But first I'd either like that drawing back or a copy."

Regina sighed.  "And why is that?"

"Because I'm keeping a record.  Maybe no one else wants to stay on top of this.  But I do."

"Very well."  Regina returned the drawing to him.  "Now go."

"Happily." 

After stowing the drawing in his pocket, Andrew left the awkward chill of Regina's office.

*~*~*

The rest of the day passed without incident.  Andrew could tell that Ivy suspected something had happened... something that involved her.  However, she didn't ask.  She only smiled at him and waved good bye as she gathered her things and left.  He returned her smile but it tore at him to consider that maybe Ivy thought he'd taken care of things for her.  He didn't feel like he'd come even close.  But maybe there was something else he could do.  He walked over to where JenniAnn was repacking a box.

"Laja, I'm going to step out for a little bit but I'll be right back," Andrew informed his friend.

"Oh... okay."  JenniAnn frowned.  Then she realized what Andrew was leaving to do.  "Just... be careful, love."  She knew it was foolish.  Bennie couldn't harm Andrew, not really.  Still, she had to say it.

"I will."  Andrew smiled at her then waved to Kemara and Violeta who were playing around with some of the costumes.  "I'll be right back," he called.

"'Kay,'" Violeta replied, sashaying around in a ball gown.

Laughing, the angel of death made his way to the other end of the school where the dance room was.  It was possible Bennie wouldn't even be there. 

As Andrew approached the small gym where Bennie taught, he heard music drifting from it.  The door was open.  Bennie was likely inside.  He stepped into the entry, noting that Bennie was talking with CeCe.  He rapped on the door.

"Well, Mr. Rochester!" Bennie greeted.  "I was just telling CeCe about you and how we'll be working together on the end of the year show."

Andrew knew Bennie was saying this in hopes of rattling him.  "I'm looking forward to it," he responded evenly.  "CeCe, it's good to see you."

"Likewise.  Good to see any man around this place."

Bennie laughed.  "Tell me about it.  CeCe, I'll call you later."

Miffed by this abrupt dismissal, the woman opened her mouth to protest but seemed to think better of it when Bennie shot a look at her.  "Okay.  I'll..."

"You don't have to leave, CeCe," Andrew countered.  "Actually, I was hoping to talk about something that happened in your class.  JenniAnn said she overheard you talking about a note written about Ivy Lee.  There was an incident in my own class earlier and I was hoping..."

CeCe scoffed.  "God.  Did she start crying again?"

"Excuse me?"  Andrew stared at her as she rolled her eyes.

"That girl needs to get over herself.  Alyssa only gives her a hard time cause she's so damn overly sensitive.  If she'd just buck up a little..."

Bennie snickered.  "Oh CeCe, you're not winning any points with Andrew.  He's the patron saint of the overly sensitive types."

"Ivy is not over-sensitive!" Andrew corrected.  "Alyssa is being downright cruel and it has to stop.  I'm not tolerating it in my classroom but if we're not united on this..."

"Andrew... dear, sweet Andrew..."  Bennie approached and took his hand.  "Some of us have more important things to do than coddle immature little princesses."

The woman's meaning was not lost on the angel.  He peered into her eyes.  "Actually, I think accepting others' differences and not expecting everyone to conform to one's own way of life... and wanting that respect for yourself... is a sign of maturity."

"Okay..."  CeCe, feeling lost, shook her head.  "Bottom line: I won't let anyone interrupt my class and that means Ivy and it means Alyssa.  But they need to handle their own business.  This isn't Kindergarten."  She picked up her purse.  "I have a date so I'm leaving now.  Have a good night."  She sauntered out of the room.

"Nice girl.  I like her.  She really knows what it means to live."  Bennie smiled up at Andrew.  "So now that you've got that little PSA out of your system, what's been going on with you?"

"Bennie, JenniAnn is helping me with my class.  Why wouldn't you tell her about that note?  We need to work together."

"Dodging the question, I see.  If you must know, I saw no reason to worry her pretty, little head about it.  I planned to come to you."

Andrew doubted this.

"I figured that was better than telling JenniAnn and having her go crying to you... although apparently she did that anyway.  That girl just can't cope with life... good thing she has it easy."

"You know nothing about JenniAnn and what she's had to cope with."  Andrew wished he could tell her about JenniAnn's "easy life" which in the last year had involved pulling him out of PTSD-induced fogs, helping combat a life's worth of dysfunction that Max had inherited, and being with him through every wrenching word of Chava's story.  But he couldn't let Bennie into those confidences.  He stepped towards her.  "You don't like us anymore.  I get that.  We get that.  We have apologized already for any way we may have inadvertently hurt you, Bennie.  But the only 'crime' we've come up with... the only one you've accused us of... is that we weren't who you wanted us to be.  But we're who God made us to be.  We won't sacrifice His plan for yours.  Never.  If you hate us for that, so be it.  But don't let your feelings towards us keep an innocent girl from getting the support she needs.  You're a teacher, Bennie.  Act like it.  I think you'd be really good at it if you did."

Bennie shut off the CD player and headed towards the door leading to the parking lot.  "I'm done with this crap for the day.  Adios, Mr. Rochester.  Give my best to Miss Perfect."

Dejected, Andrew watched her leave then headed back to his classroom.

*~*~*

JenniAnn knew as soon as Andrew re-entered the room that his visit with Bennie had not gone as he had hoped.  He bestowed a wan smile on her then went to his desk.

"I'll be ready to leave in about five minutes if that's okay with you ladies," he called.

"Sure," Kemara responded as Violeta nodded beside her.  They hurried to put away the costumes they'd gotten out.

As the angel gathered up his things, JenniAnn snuck up behind him and hugged him.  "You're coming home with me."

Andrew laughed as he twisted around.  "Well, yeah.  I'm not sure how you'd get home, otherwise.  Or Kemara.  Long walk."

"No, I mean you're staying for dinner.  And dessert.  You need it, Andrew.  Please."

"I'd like to, Laja.  I really would.  But I don't even know yet where Violeta's supposed to be.  Maybe she's just going Home when we're not here but I know she's not staying in my loft so maybe she's staying somewhere around here and I'll need to get her settled in and..."

"Well, actually..."  JenniAnn laughed.  "Here's the thing..."  Smiling, she looked over to where Violeta and Kemara were chatting.  "While you were with Regina earlier, Violeta asked where I was staying.  Then she asked where Kemara was staying...  I kinda got the feeling she was hinting around."

Andrew rubbed his temples.  "I'm sorry, Laja.  It's one thing when we're in Dyeland but she shouldn't have presumed..."

"Actually... I was flattered.  And, really, what better way to guide her with... with the mysteries of all things womanly!" 

Andrew couldn't resist chuckling.  "I suppose you have a point.  But your parents..."

Are part of the puzzle, Andrew.

"I texted mom and she's cool with it," JenniAnn continued, oblivious to the fact that her argument had already been won for her.  "We won't even need to prepare another room.  That couch in my room folds out.  Violeta can stay there."  She took Andrew's hand in hers.  "I saw the drawing, too.  I just think... I mean let's face it: we can't guarantee that we'll be able to protect Violeta from hurt feelings during this assignment.  If that girl hurts her... this girl wants to be there to counter it.  And I know Kemara feels the same way.  I want Violeta to see that it does get better.  Cause then... if it comes to it... she'll do better with assuring Ivy of the same.... because I really, really hope that's why you're here."

Andrew reached over to brush a lock of errant hair behind her ear.  This was who Bennie thought was immature...  "So do I."

JenniAnn smiled.  "So?"

"So what?"

"So can Violeta stay with us?"

Andrew returned her smile and looked over to his protege.  "Violeta, do you want to stay with Kemara and JenniAnn at the Chandlers'?"

The young angel rushed over.  "Can I?" she asked excitedly.  "I mean it's not that I don't want to stay with you but..."

"I understand."  Andrew squeezed her hand.  He knew Violeta was becoming increasingly aware of how what the world saw and what actually is didn't necessarily match up.  She'd been horrified when, a few assignments before, someone had mistaken her for his girlfriend.  "Yes, you can stay with them."

Violeta shrieked happily and hugged her supervisor.  "Thank you!  Oh!"  She turned to JenniAnn.  "What does it mean when someone says someone else is a dish?"

Hearing the amusing question from across the room, Kemara drew near to hear the answer.

Confused, JenniAnn looked to Andrew whose reddening face clued her in.  She laughed.  "Why?  By any chance did someone say Andrew was one?"

Violeta nodded.  "Is it bad?"

"Well... not usually."  JenniAnn giggled.  "It means the person thinks the 'dish' is very attractive."

"Oh."  Violeta glanced at her supervisor and cocked her head.  "But I still don't get it.  Why 'dish'?"

"Who knows!" Kemara responded.  "All I know is that it's been a long day and Allison said we were having homemade pizza tonight so... that's the dish I'm most interested in right now."

Andrew laughed.  "Same here.  Let's go."

With that, the four trooped out to the Jolly Green with Lulu.

*~*~*

~ The Hunters' Catch ~

Andrew had insisted they stop at a store so Violeta could pick out host gifts for Allison and Robert.  As JenniAnn believed chocolate and a houseplant would more than suffice, the four found themselves milling around a nearby grocery store... the same grocery store Carrie and Kevin Hunter had arrived at only minutes before.

Carrie was searching the shelves, trying to find something that might appeal to Kevin and his touchy appetite.  "How about chocolate pudding?"

Kevin shook his head.  "Maybe some Jello, though."

"All right... well... hey, how about some margarita flavored Jello?"

Her husband laughed.  "Yeah, sure.  If I'm going to be eating Jello, it may as well be fancy Jello."

Carrie smiled but inside she was weeping.  Kevin looked awful.  She hadn't wanted him to push the cart.  She hadn't wanted him to come at all but he'd insisted.  Now it seemed he needed the cart to lean on he was so weak.  Her hand shook as she reached for the Jello.

"Babe..." Kevin murmured.  He ambled around the cart and caressed his wife's shoulder.  "Everything's going to be okay.  I'll be okay."

"You don't... don't know that for sure."  Carrie turned away from the shelf and embraced her husband.  "Promise me you won't leave me and the kids?"

"I promise."  Kevin pulled back and rested his forehead against hers.  "Let's hurry up here and get home before one of your students see us and winds up traumatized for life."

Carrie laughed.  "Right.  I'm a teacher.  I'm supposed to be asexual."

Kevin smiled.  "Well, on behalf of myself and our adorable offspring, I'm glad you're not.  Now, let's go get us some popsicles and skedaddle."  He maneuvered the cart into a neighboring aisle and began to scan the freezers before stopping and turning to his wife.  "Hey, look at that guy.  The one right below the 'Frozen Dinners' sign.  Do you recognize him?"

Carrie looked to where he indicated and smiled.  "Yes! That's Mr. Rochester!  Andrew.  He's the one covering the summer session I was going to.  You should meet..."

Kevin shook his head.  "But don't you recognize him from before?"

"Before?  Before what?"

"You seriously don't remember?  We were totally scandalized!  Think years back."

Carrie frowned.  She had no idea what Kevin was talking about.

"I mean I guess it can't be him but... remember that guy we saw picking JenniAnn up a few times back in high school?  That guy would have to be almost fifty by now but doesn't that look like him?  And did you ever find out who he was?"

Carrie gaped at Andrew.  She remembered her own words to JenniAnn the prior week: "I saw him and thought of you."  Then there was the fact that JenniAnn actually had known Mr. Rochester... according to Bennie knew him well. 

"Carrie, you okay?"

Carrie didn't respond to her husband's question because, at that very moment, JenniAnn came around the corner.

"Absolutely not!  Frozen dinners?  Really, Andrew?"

"It's just, you know, when it's just me..."

"It doesn't have to be just you," JenniAnn simpered. 

"Oh... sweet.. Lord..."  Kevin turned to his wife and grinned.  "And we totally thought she was going to become a nun!"

Carrie was fuming.  "This is not funny!  It's creepy!  She was seventeen and he was hanging around and now he's teaching and..."  She'd actually liked him!  And now she saw the truth!  She was convinced this Svengali was responsible for her friend's almost complete disappearing act after college. 

"Carrie?  Kevin?"

The woman looked up to find JenniAnn smiling at them.  She came closer with Andrew trailing her.  Carrie felt a pain shoot through her heart when she saw her friend's smile falter as she got a better view of Kevin.

JenniAnn's breath caught in her throat.  "Kevin..."  She hugged the man who had once been her Kindergarten deskmate.  "How are you feeling?"

"A little weak and tired but no pain or anything.  It's so good to see you, JenniAnn.  And this must be Mr. Andrew Rochester?"  He smiled at Andrew and held out his hand.  "Good to meet you."

Andrew returned the man's smile and shake.  "Good to meet you, too.  Your wife's spoken very highly of you.  I'll be praying for a complete recovery."

Carrie only continued to stare causing JenniAnn no small amount of concern.

"Thank you.  So much.  I know the Big Guy's watching out for me." 

Touched by the man's no-nonsense faith, Andrew beamed.  "That He is."

Having decided on some treats and a potted orchid, Violeta and Kemara spotted Andrew and JenniAnn.  The latter waved them over so she could make introductions.

"Carrie, you haven't met..."

Unable to hold it in any longer, Carrie stared into her schoolmate's eyes.  "Kevin and I saw him pick you up after school!"

JenniAnn blinked.  "Andrew?  Well, yeah.  Since I can't drive, he gives Kemara and me a ride to my parents' after..."

"When we were seniors!" the woman clarified.

"Oh..."  Andrew dragged his hand through his hair.  "Okay, see, I can explain..."

"Oh boy..." Kemara muttered.

"So it was you!" Carrie cried.

"Carrie, it's not what you think," JenniAnn stressed.  "Yes, that was Andrew but..."

Not liking the way Carrie was glaring at Andrew, Violeta hugged his arm.

"What's going on?" she questioned. 

"Who are you?" Carrie demanded, sizing her up.

"Violeta.  Who are you?"

"Carrie.  I'm JenniAnn's friend.  I've known her since high school.  Who is this man to you?"  She tilted her head to Andrew.

"Andrew's my supervisor."  Violeta lowered her voice, smiling widely.  "He's the best.  He's teaching me how to be an angel of death."

Kemara winced.

Andrew rubbed at his neck.

JenniAnn grabbed his free hand.

Kevin tilted his head in bewilderment.

Carrie jolted.

There was only the hum of the freezers and the whirring of shopping cart wheels as other grocery shoppers whizzed past, oblivious to the scene unfolding.

"Come again?" Kevin finally managed.

Violeta looked around in confusion.  "But she said she was JenniAnn's friend for so long.  I thought it was okay..."

Andrew hugged her.  "It's fine, Violeta."  He prayed it was.

They're another piece, Andrew.  Carrie and Kevin.  Just be patient.  All will be well.

Andrew smiled at the quick response.

JenniAnn drew in a deep breath and slowly let it out before speaking.  "Carrie, Kevin... do you have plans for dinner?"

Kevin shook his head.  "My mom and dad have the kids.  Carrie and I were just going to veg out at home but... I think it'd be good if we all had a little time together."

Thunderstruck, Carrie could only nod in agreement.

"Great!" Andrew cheerily replied.  "Well, let's all get our things and get checked out and then..."

JenniAnn pulled her cell phone from her pocket.  "Pizza party at my parents'?"

Five heads nodded in agreement. 

"Awkwardness... check.  Party supervised by parents... also check.  And it's a big welcome back to high school!" JenniAnn enthused uneasily as she dialed her mom.

*~*~*

Carrie took note when, upon arriving at the Chandlers', she saw Robert warmly clap Andrew on the back while Allison went so far as to kiss him on the cheek and pull him into a hug.  She couldn't imagine either of them acting that way if anything untoward had ever happened between Andrew and their only child.  Carrie had always known them to be overprotective.  Strange...  She didn't have much time to mull this over before she had to brace herself for the next greeting.  Owing to Kevin's having gone to JenniAnn's grade school, the Chandlers had known him even longer than she had.  They remembered a strapping, spry boy and were taken aback by the limping, wan, bald man at their door.  However, they masked their surprise well and soon everyone was gathered around the dinner table.

They all bowed their heads as Robert led prayer.

"In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit...  Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts which we are about to receive from Thy bounty, through Christ, our Lord.  Amen."

"Amen," the others echoed as most of the table crossed themselves again.

Allison began to pass the salad bowl around.  "Kevin, sweetheart, is there anything special I can get for you?"

The man smiled and shook his head.  "Actually, the pizza smells so good that I'm feeling kind of hungry for once."  He squeezed Carrie's hand. 

His wife managed a smile for him. 

"So... you've learned our girl's big secret?" Robert asked, not willing to let his dinner be ruined by tense young people... and one person who only appeared to be young. 

Carrie's eyes shot up to meet her host's.  "You mean... it's true.  Andrew's a... a..."

"Angel."  Kevin looked over at Violeta.  "She said angel of death."  When Violeta's cheeks began to burn, he smiled kindly at her. 

"So he is," Robert affirmed nonchalantly.  "But don't be thinking all of that nonsense about black robes and scythes.  Andrew's more of a flannel, T-shirts, jeans, sweaters, and suits kind of guy.  More... softballs than scythes.  Isn't that right?"

Andrew grinned.  "Yeah."

"I know it's a surprise," Robert continued as he buried his pizza in parmesan.  "It took Allison and I a little while..."

JenniAnn cleared her throat.

Allison laughed.  "I took us a few years to accept that.  But we have."

Carrie felt her heart thumping in her chest.  She believed in angels.  She always had.  But to know...  She'd wanted so badly to know from that first blood test result on.  But this... this was too unbelievable. 

JenniAnn moved to stand behind Andrew's chair.  She bent down and whispered in his ear, wanting his permission to tell their story.  When he nodded and took her hand, she stood back up and faced Carrie and Kevin.  "When I was four, I visited my cousin Catherine in New York and I saw the body of a man who had been murdered.  But I saw someone else, too.  A beautiful, glowing man with the kindest face I'd ever seen.  He helped that poor man to his feet and led him away from that sad, dark, damp alley.  I never forgot him... my angel.  I... I loved him.  I would always love him."

Tears began to well in Kevin's eyes.  He remembered the little girl, often tucked away in a quiet corner with her crayons.

"Whatcha drawin'?" he would ask.

JenniAnn would blush and remain silent.

Intrigued, he would watch as the figure emerged... always the same one... green eyes, blonde hair, light radiating from him.  An angel.

The now-grown man looked over at Andrew and saw the light, far more beautiful and warm than childish fingers could draw, radiating from him.

Andrew, feeling blessed to receive the message that had just come to him, reached across the table and set his free hand over Kevin's.  "God wants you to know that He loves you, Kevin.  He also wants you to know that you will survive this cancer.  There are going to be some very rough, very painful, exhausting days ahead.  But you will be restored to health."

Carrie clung to her husband and began to sob.

"Carrie," the angel of death cooed.  "Carrie, look at me, please."

"Babe, listen to the angel... to Andrew," Kevin murmured, gently prying her away.

The woman leaned back in her chair so far that the wood dug into her back.  She needed the reminder that this was real.  She peered into Andrew's eyes.  Carrie remembered the warmth and love she'd felt when she'd first been introduced to him.  Tentatively, she took his proffered hand.

"God loves you, too, Carrie.  So much," Andrew stressed.  "Your care, your concern for your students... your dedication to them... it brings Him such joy.  But there's something he doesn't want you to be concerned about.  Someone."  He looked up at JenniAnn who was still standing behind him and smiled.  "Over thirteen years ago, when I was upset about a case I was working, I found myself in a field.  God had sent me there before when I needed time to think, to pray.  Always it had been empty.  I'd been alone except for Him.  But that day... I heard a song... a love song.  For an angel.  For me.  I followed it and I met the girl who had written it: your friend, your JenniAnn, my Laja who had waited thirteen years for me to come back to her."

"Carrie, Kevin... when you saw Andrew pick me up after school... nothing was going on," JenniAnn explained.  "Well, nothing beyond me being impatient and a little... over-eager to spend time with my crush.  On the days when we had Senior Privilege and I could leave early, I'd ask Andrew to come pick me up if I knew he was free."

"Something she neglected to tell us..." Robert chided with a wink.

JenniAnn smirked.  "Guilty as charged.  And I didn't tell Andrew that the rules were only family members could do that.  I regret that.  But there was never anything inappropriate going on.  There still isn't!  Angels don't fall in love.  They don't experience lust.  They don't date or get married.  They simply love with the love God gave them.  I love Andrew, Carrie.  In my own way.  In a way that I know doesn't make much sense to a lot of people... and I'm sorry... very sorry... that I never gave you and Kevin the chance to try to make sense of it but..."

"Bennie," Carrie whispered.  "She knew and..."  She looked at her friend and the angel of death.  "She hurt you.  Both of you."

Andrew nodded, squeezing JenniAnn's hand.  "She did."

"So it became hard to... to trust people here.  And I was so worried about something more happening and losing... everything and not being able to cope because I love this life... unconventional though it is... that we've made.  And I..."  JenniAnn peered intently into her old friend's eyes.  "I trust Andrew."

Carrie nodded, all her worry and doubt fading away.  "I... I'm very glad I know this."  After drawing in a deep breath, she looked at Kemara.  "Are you an angel?"

The woman laughed.  "Oh no.  I'm definitely human.  But I did meet Andrew and JenniAnn in a church."

"O-okay."  Carrie turned to Violeta.  "But you... you are?"

Violeta nodded with a proud smile.  "I used to work in Records and I still do sometimes.  But Andrew is teaching me how to be an angel of death and sometimes we do Caseworking, too."

Kevin perked up.  "Caseworking?" he inquired.

"It's what I did full-time before becoming an angel of death," Andrew responded.  "Basically it's a lot like being a human caseworker.  We're assigned to someone.  We help them through a rough patch in their lives... always reminding them that God loves them."

The man grinned.  "Any chance us humans get in on that after we shuffle off the mortal coil?"  He slung his arm around Carrie's shoulders.  "Not that I'm in any hurry on that."

Andrew smiled.  "Glad to hear it.  And... as it happens... sometimes God lets humans 'get in on that' in the here and now.  JenniAnn and Kemara are helping Violeta and me on this case.  Allison and Robert are being incredibly understanding hosts.  And... God's asking you to help us."

"The girl..." Carrie murmured.  "The girl in the hall.  Ivy, is it?"

"Yes!"  JenniAnn nodded to her friend.  "I wanted to ask you what had happened there."

Carrie quickly relayed what she'd gathered from her encounter with Ivy and Miss Jansen.

Kemara shook her head when she heard.  "That teacher was really that dismissive of Ivy's poetry?"

"I'm afraid so."

Andrew rubbed at his neck.  "Worse... Ivy's used to that sort of reaction.  She lost her mother and has lived with her grandma since she was ten.  And that lady... what little attention she pays to Ivy is negative, constantly putting her down.  So she had no one looking out for her except God... and now us."

"Even at that... to have someone so close to you act like that?  No wonder it's a struggle for her to express herself," Kemara continued.  "Who would if that's the reaction they get?"

"Is this the girl you suspect might be getting bullied?" Kevin asked his wife.

Carrie nodded.  "JenniAnn, I was going to call you to ask you to keep an eye on her.  But I guess you already are... all of you."

"All of us," Kevin reminded.  "What is it we're supposed to do, Andrew?  I have some expertise in the area.  I was... well..."  He shuffled uncomfortably in his chair.  "I was a school counselor.  There were some budget cuts and... so... my contract wasn't renewed."

His wife bowed her head, remembering what a hit to Kevin's self-esteem that had been... especially as it came only days before the diagnosis.

"Before I was... let go... I'd started working on some anti-bullying efforts.  It was important to me because our oldest is going to be nine soon and I know it's only a matter of time...  So... I got to be really good at monitoring social media sites.  That kind of thing."

"That.  That's exactly what the Father is asking you to do.  Together.  Will you?" Andrew asked.

Kevin beamed at his wife.

Carrie nodded, feeling happier than she'd felt in a long time.  Not only did she have a guarantee of Kevin's recovery, she saw a spark in his eyes that had died the day he'd been laid off.  He had a mission.

"We're on it!" Kevin enthused.

"Wonderful!" Robert boomed.  "Now that we have that settled and everyone's hip to the fact that Andrew's on the up and up... how about that pizza on your plates?"

"Robert!" Allison chastised.  "This was a little more important."

"Hearts and minds are important.  But so are stomachs," her husband countered with a wink.

Andrew chuckled.  "That they are."

With that, the meal properly began with everyone, relaxed and hopeful, chatting together.

*~*~*

Three hours later, Andrew and JenniAnn walked Carrie and Kevin out to their car. 

Carrie hugged JenniAnn tightly.  "I'm so glad we did this.  And I hope we do it again soon.  And..."  She glanced over at Andrew who was laughing with Kevin.  "I'm glad I know that you're happy.  And he..."  Tears again filled her eyes.  "He's really amazing."

JenniAnn returned the hug.  "He is.  I'm so glad you and Kevin know now."  She sighed.  "We'll talk more soon.  You go home and get some rest.  We got an assignment to work on."

The teacher laughed.  "Yeah.  We do.  Give me a call soon.  Let me know how class goes."

"Will do."

After Carrie stepped into the driver's seat, JenniAnn moved to the curb to stand by Andrew.  They waved as the couple drove off.  When the Hunters turned the corner, JenniAnn looked up at Andrew.

"I know you'll wanna say good bye to the others before heading to your place but... just for a lil bit... you wanna do the stereotypical thing and sit and talk for a bit on my mama and daddy's porch?"

Chuckling, Andrew nodded.  "I'd like that."

They settled onto the porch swing.

"I am sorry about the whole picking me up from school thing.  I really shoulda considered that if anyone had seen..."  JenniAnn bit her lip. 

"I'm not sorry," Andrew countered, resting his arm around her shoulders.  "I mean... okay, so breaking the rules was wrong but, the way I see it, you didn't really break the spirit of them.  Pretty sure that rule was set up to keep boyfriends from picking up their girlfriends."

JenniAnn laughed.  "Something Kevin and Carrie conveniently glossed over.  If they were both there to see us..."

Andrew smirked.  "I see your point.  Well, God can use anything for good and for His plan.  And it sure seems to me like it was His plan for them to see us so tonight they'd recognize us, learn the truth, and learn God's plan for them."

"So... did you know Carrie and Kevin were sposed to help?"

Andrew shook his head.  "Not until tonight.  At the grocery story.  Right when everything seemed really awkward, God told me."

"I've never really asked... what's that like for you?  I mean do you hear Him like you hear me now?  Like is He right there or just kinda like a voice in your head or something else entirely?"

Andrew considered his answer.  "Sometimes just a voice in my head... but one I know is real, one I know is Him.  And sometimes..."  He wasn't sure how to explain Joshua without saying too much.  "Sometimes I can feel Him there.  Tangibly.  All around me."

JenniAnn hugged his arm and looked to the stars.  "What's that feel like?"

Andrew wasn't sure how to tell her of the peace, ease, and joy he felt in those moments.

He wouldn't have to.  Joshua appeared, sitting on the steps.  He smiled at Andrew then peered gently at JenniAnn.

"Tell her that it's something like when she was walking on that fall day eight years ago in Kansas."

"Do you remember a day about eight years ago when you went walking in Kansas?"

"You mean during the Ren Faire there?"

Joshua nodded.

"Yes."

"What about it?"

"There was a moment when she stepped into a grove of trees and the sunlight was filtering through the leaves."

"You stepped into a grove of trees, the sun coming through the leaves."

"A gust of warm wind stirred and all other noise seemed to die down.  All she could hear was the wind.  It brought several of the golden leaves drifting down around her... and she felt like I was in the leaves as they kissed her hair.  In the wind.  In the sun."

Andrew blinked back tears when Joshua stood and softly set his hand on JenniAnn's head.

"There... was a wind.  It drowned all the other noises out.  And it brought the leaves floating down around you and you felt like He was in the leaves... in the wind... in the sun."

JenniAnn gazed up at Andrew.  "Y-yes... I... I did."

The angel of death hugged her tightly when Joshua stepped away.  "It feels something like that."

"That... it was a very good feeling."

"Yeah... it is," Andrew murmured.  He looked at Joshua, still looking at JenniAnn.  He knew Joshua was always around but seeing him interacting with his friends... that was new to Andrew.  He considered asking him why he'd been given this new gift but the angel had no desire to question it.  This had always been their way: Joshua never announced his gifts to Andrew.  He didn't declare his promotions with pomp or pageantry.  They simply happened and Andrew would carry on... with Joshua casually dropping in to help him during any transition-related angst.  Because Joshua knew that quiet, unassuming time together meant more to Andrew than any celebration or honorific.  It felt wonderful to have someone who knew him so well, loved him so well that he didn't even need to speak to make his wishes known.  He thought again of Ivy and the love and recognition she craved from her grandmother and went without.  He thought again of Kemara's words about being stuck between two worlds.  Joshua always helped Andrew transition... Doreen was not helping Ivy.  In fact, she was making a confusing time even worse.

As Joshua smiled before fading away, Andrew vowed that he would ensure Ivy found that all-encompassing, ever abiding, parental love... love that would stand by her and encourage her.  He had all the puzzle pieces... now Andrew just had to fit them together.

*~*~*

Ivy stood in front of her dresser, lighting a candle.  When the flame illuminated an image of Mary cradling her infant, the girl bowed her head and recited a prayer her mother had taught her.  She always ended her days with it.

"'Baby Jesus, meek and mild, pray for me, an orphan child.  Be my strength, be my friend, be with me until the end.  Amen,'" she prayed.

Ivy picked up the candle and moved it to her bedside.  She stared at it once she'd snuggled between her sheets.  Usually the image made her think of and long for her mother.  When she closed her eyes, Ivy could still remember what it felt like to be balanced on her mom's hip.  She would rest her head on her shoulder and watch her bring life from the plaster in front of her, usually humming along to a song as she did.

That night, for reasons she couldn't explain, the painted candle made Ivy think of Mr. Rochester.  It was the eyes she decided.  His eyes reminded her of the baby's.  The artist had given the baby Jesus adult eyes: innocent, gentle, vibrant, and yet wearied. 

Hugging her mother's old doll, Ivy thought about the day.  She knew Alyssa had drawn or wrote something hurtful... likely about her.  Whatever it had been, Mr. Rochester had been angry enough to act.  Ivy didn't know if his actions would make anything better but she was touched to know he was willing to try, that he cared to try.  Maybe things would get better.  She hoped and prayed he wouldn't get in trouble for it.

Ivy reached out to touch the warmed glass of the candle.  "Please, make it better," she pleaded.  "Thank You."

After extinguishing the flame, the girl tried to fall asleep... hoping to avoid the nightmares that often came.     

*~*~*

~ The Family That Sticks Together ~

Wednesday, June 19th


The next morning, Andrew picked Violeta up at the Chandlers' while JenniAnn and Kemara headed to the Tunnels.  The former taught her religion class and Kemara met with Catherine to work an article about the Phoenix Inn until, shortly before noon, they met by the Tunnel portal. 

"Oh good!  You remembered to bring the book for Ivy!" Kemara applauded when she saw JenniAnn approaching. 

"Yep.  Owen watched the kids for a few minutes so I could run home and get it.  I wasn't sure we'd have time now." 

They stepped through the portal and then made a beeline from the willow tree to a storage room in Willowveil.  A moment later, they were in JenniAnn's bedroom in Nebraska.  The house was empty, Robert and Allison having left for work.

Kemara laughed.  "I don't know how long it's going to take for me to get used to that."

"Could be a while.  It was years before I got over worrying that I might end up in Zimbabwe or Nova Scotia or Kathmandu just for getting a towel out of my linen closet.  No offense to any of those places... it would just be alarming... and lonely."  JenniAnn shivered then led Kemara to the porch where they waited for Andrew.  "Anyhow...  I wanted to show you something.  See if you think it's okay.  Look inside the front cover, please."  She handed the Anne book over. 

Kemara opened the jacket and smiled.  "Wow...  You actually use book plates."

"Well... not usually.  But I thought in this case..."

It dawned on Kemara what JenniAnn had done.  "Ah...  Clever.  'If lost please return to JenniAnn Chandler'... followed by your cell phone number and parents' address.  So Ivy will have it."

JenniAnn nodded.  "Well, I figured they might frown upon volunteers just doling out their numbers.  But who can blame a girl for wanting her book back if it's misplaced?  And I just thought... ya know... if it was after class hours and Ivy needed to talk to someone... she could reach us through that.  We could even connect her to Andrew if it came to it."

Kemara looked to her friend with a wistful smile.  "I think it's a great idea.  I wish my younger self had had you both."

JenniAnn hugged her.  "Me too.  But ya have us now.  And you're stuck with us and... here comes Andrew!"

The two women walked down to the curb, ready to hop into the van as soon as it stopped.  To their surprise, the passenger door flew open before Andrew had parked.

"Violeta!  You could get hurt doing that!" her supervisor called as the young angel hopped out of the van and headed towards JenniAnn and Kemara. 

They knew immediately that something was very wrong.  Violeta looked like she'd been crying and her hair was a mess... and Andrew was holding her hair sticks.

"Oh no..." Kemara whispered.

Violeta's lip was trembling when she reached them. 

JenniAnn pulled her into a hug.  "Let's go inside for a lil bit."  She looked to Andrew and held out her hand.

Andrew squeezed it then turned the hair sticks over to her.

As JenniAnn steered Violeta up the driveway, she called back to Andrew and Kemara.  "Lunch is in the fridge."

"Salads and sandwiches," Kemara specified for Andrew.  "Let's go make lunch for everyone and maybe you can tell me what happened... although I suspect I know."

The angel of death nodded gravely.

*~*~*

Violeta looked down at her lap as JenniAnn brushed out her hair. 

It didn't make sense to her.

In the nearly two years since she'd joined Andrew, Violeta had seen war, famine, and bodies wasted by disease.  She didn't understand any of it and she grieved for all of it but, with Andrew at her side, she helped their assignments and others.  It was the smaller, more intimate cases that daunted her... cases when the problem, the hurt could be traced to one person or one small group of people.  Violeta realized during those cases how great the impact of the Dyelanders and those connected with them was for her.

She didn't understand adultery because JenniAnn did not cheat on Andrew.  Violeta knew it wasn't the same.  They were neither dating nor married.  But she watched them with their little, unspoken ways that had been built and honed over thirteen years.  How did anyone turn away from that sort of comfortable, steady love?  Violeta had been touched by the burgeoning romance between Max and Rose.  Never once had they wavered, never had they so much as hit on another person.  Why did people hurt those who were so madly in love with them?  That anyone with children could cheat was insanity.  Didn't they know how much it hurt their children to see them draw apart?  Yet she and Andrew had faced that scenario time and again.

Domestic abuse was another terrible mystery.  Vincent and Catherine, Sir Sven and Yva, Mick and Beth, Raquel and Nico, Allison and Robert...  Violeta felt herself strengthened and warmed when she saw the tenderness between them.  They were always comforting each other, making the other laugh or smile, encouraging each other.  The idea that either husband or wife would seek to control the other, to hurt the other...  Violeta shivered.  She and Andrew had seen too many broken bones and bruised faces and even more trampled hearts.

"You need a sweater, hon?" JenniAnn asked.

"No, thank you."  Violeta smiled at the woman's mirror image then lowered her head again.

Bullying.  She didn't understand that, either.  Violeta had spent some time Below, sitting in their classroom.  Andrew had thought it would be good for her and Vincent had happily obliged.  She had loved being there.  The kids weren't perfect.  Kids weren't meant to be perfect and Violeta knew that.  They unleashed the occasional hurtful comment on each other but almost always regret and compassion won out... and quickly.  They'd apologize amid hugs and laughs.  The very few times this didn't happen; JenniAnn, Owen, and Vincent intervened swiftly and resolutely.  But Violeta was beginning to suspect that not all adults were so fastidious in the face of bullying.

Violeta had already racked her brain for anything she might have done to hurt Alyssa.  But she could think of nothing.  Andrew had told her that Alyssa was bullying Ivy.  But even then Violeta had been certain that there must have been some slight on Ivy's part... even an unintentional one.  There just had to be something that would make Alyssa fight back.  Now she wasn't so sure. 

"You sure you don't want to talk about whatever's happened?" JenniAnn checked.

Violeta thought of what had occurred only an hour ago.  She found herself nodding then telling JenniAnn.

*~*~*

While Andrew was busy helping his younger students through a short story, Violeta decided to tour the school.  She was looking for prime photo locales.  She'd been wandering an area called "the Quad" when she heard voices coming from somewhere in the massive room.  A moment later, she spotted three girls clustered beneath the stairwell... the one speaking was Alyssa.

"Did you see the Porcupine's back today?  God, who is she trying to impress, anyway?"

Two other girls that Andrew had introduced as Mariah and Caitlin snickered.

"Actually, I think she has the hots for Mr. Rochester," Alyssa continued.  "Did you see how she was looking at him yesterday?"

Violeta bristled.  Who was the Porcupine and what did she want with Andrew?

"I swear, if she put one more of those sticks in her hair, I think her head would deflate."

The young angel began to feel queasy.  Her right hand drifted up to one of her hair sticks.

"What's she doing here, anyway?" Caitlin questioned.

"I heard she's from the Catholic paper and writing some article about Eve's Girls.  Probably about the charity cases here... like Ivy.  Hey, maybe the Porcupine could lend her a couple hair sticks so she could put that awful, frizzy mess she calls hair away so none of us have to worry about it brushing up against us."

"Ewww!" Mariah shrieked.

One of the gym doors opened and Regina LaCroix poked her head out.  "Girls, what are you doing in here?"

Alyssa stood up.  "Miss Jansen said we could leave class early since we finished our work."

Regina frowned.  "I see.  Well, I don't want you wandering around.  Go wait in the lunchroom."

"Yes, Ms. LaCroix," Alyssa replied sweetly.

Knowing they would pass by and not wanting them to see her, Violeta hastened into a nearby closet and waited. 

*~*~*

"She won't tell me anything."

Kemara looked up from the tomato she was slicing.  Andrew had been silent up until that moment.  "Violeta, you mean?"

"Yeah.  When the lunch bell rang, she came running up to me and I could tell she was upset.  She begged me to let her come along when I came to get you and JenniAnn.  I'd planned to ask her, anyway, but the way she was acting...  I knew something was wrong.  I tried to get her to tell me but she'd only say that she wanted to go.  So..."  Andrew sighed.  "We got to the van and I started it up and immediately she started tearing those sticks out of her hair.  That's when I knew..."

"Alyssa," Kemara seethed.

The angel of death nodded.  "So I asked her what happened.  Told her it was okay to tell me.  And for a moment... I thought she was going to tell me.  And she slid over into the middle seat and rested her head against my shoulder but then... then she just got really stiff and pulled away, moved back to the passenger seat, and stared out the window."

Kemara frowned.  She thought back to her first introduction to Violeta.  She had been, to say the least, surprised.  She had often imagined angels as radiantly beautiful, poised.  Andrew fit the bill... usually.  And Violeta was most assuredly beautiful.  But she seemed about as poised as Kemara had felt when she was an adolescent.  Only later had Kemara learned that Violeta really was a teenager... apparently "gifted" with a teenager's propensity towards moroseness and awkwardness.  The memories weren't as faded as Kemara would have liked.  "She feels caught in the middle," she explained.

"The middle?  The middle of what?" Andrew questioned.

"Well, I think part of Violeta wants to be your little girl so to speak.  She wants you to comfort her and protect her.  But the other part of her wants to be just like you.  She wants to take charge of this assignment.  She wants to be brave and know just what to say and help out... be an angel, basically."

"But she is an angel..."

"I know that and you know that and I'm betting JenniAnn knows that.  Obviously God does.  But it's like..."  Kemara thought.  "Teenagers... a lot of them... they just want to be adults.  They don't realize until later how much those teenage years meant and how going through that is what made them into the adults they are.  And teenagers definitely don't fully appreciate how entirely normal their feelings are."  Kemara shuffled uncomfortably, trying to decide how to express what she needed to.

Andrew set a comforting hand on her shoulder.  "It's okay.  I'm listening and I'll keep listening to whatever you have to say."

"I want you to know that JenniAnn would never betray any of your confidences... and I assume she's built up a lot of them in thirteen years."

"Yeah, she has.  And I know."

"But there's girl talk..."

Andrew blushed as he chuckled.  "Uh oh..."

Kemara grinned.  "It's nothing bad!  I just mean... she's told me that there were times when you two struggled.  She wanted to be of more help to you but then you'd close off and... well, she never really elaborated.  But she said things have gotten so much better.  She's so happy about that, Andrew.  But it made me wonder...  How much of that more vulnerable side of you does Violeta see?"

Andrew frowned.  He hadn't even realized he'd been doing it but he had shielded Violeta from his more emotional moments.  She hadn't seen him at his worst after Afghanistan... that had been reserved for Adam and JenniAnn.  And in the days when he had revisited, with Chava, one of the most painful chapters of their lives... only she and JenniAnn had witnessed his tears.  He'd told Violeta about it... but only after he'd regained control of his emotions.  "Not much," he replied quietly.

"Do you think she understands that having feelings... and sometimes getting those feelings hurt... is also part of being an angel?  Maybe part of why she didn't tell you what happened is because she's afraid that her reaction is... unangel-like?  I know this isn't exactly the same as parent-child relationships but so often parents try to hide their tears and their hurt feelings from their kids.  Speaking as a former kid, I think I might have handled my own sadness and pain better if I saw my parents deal with theirs."

Andrew hugged her.  "Thank you, Kemara.  I think... I know that you're exactly right.  I'm gonna go speak with Violeta."

Kemara beamed.  "I think that sounds great.  Then bring her down.  She needs to eat lunch.  Although maybe we can just pack it up and take it to the school if we have time.  Either way, Allison left us brownies.  The poor girl deserves a brownie.  Or several.  Allison left a whole pan and told us to bring some to Ivy.  She definitely deserves a brownie, too."

Andrew smiled before heading towards JenniAnn's room.  "Yes, she does.  They both do."

*~*~*

JenniAnn set down the hairbrush and crouched beside Violeta.  She grabbed a tissue and wiped away her tears and smeared makeup then took both of her hands in hers.

"You listen to me, Violeta.  I don't know why that girl is so mean but she is.  And it has nothing to do with you.  You are a beautiful, sweet girl.  And if you weren't an angel, you'd be in serious danger of me trying to adopt you."

"Oh..."  Happier tears welled in the angel's eyes.  "Really?"

"Really."

"B-but what she said about me and Andrew..."

"There is nothing... nothing wrong with the way you look at or feel about Andrew.  You think the world of him and he is an amazing supervisor... I know I'm biased but it's true."  She thought of Andrew's own counsel when she'd been concerned about students gossiping about them.  Here was evidence he was right.  "You should not be hiding how you feel, Violeta.  And, trust me, your average person doesn't think anything of it.  Alyssa just..."  JenniAnn sighed.  "She sees ugliness everywhere, I'm thinking.  But that doesn't mean the rest of us should."

"You're right.  B-but... I'm an angel.  I shouldn't... I should be stronger.  It shouldn't have... have hurt so much."

JenniAnn briefly closed her eyes.  She wasn't sure if it was appropriate but the phrase "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree" came to mind.  "It doesn't matter if one's angel or human or some other creation of God.  We were all created in love by Love and to come up against the opposite of love... that hurts."

Violeta needed to mull that over.  As she did, her gaze fell on the clump of hair sticks.  "Do... do you think I looked like a porcupine with my hair sticks?"

"Definitely not.  I think you looked like a lady with a lot of style and creativity.  In fact... I think you should put them right back in... but maybe leave some out."

Violeta began to style her hair then frowned.  Maybe she had overdone it.  "Why?"

JenniAnn stood and began to pull her own hair into a ponytail.  "Because I'd like to borrow some and I'm thinking Kemara might, too... at least until we have our own.  If Alyssa is going to call you the Porcupine then she's going to have to deal with a whole porcupine family.  I'm sure Andrew would join us but his hair just isn't long enough."

As she divided the twelve sticks into groups of four, Violeta giggled at the thought.  Then she reached for the woman's hand.  "Thank you."

"You're welcome.  You're one of us now.  You have been from that first Halloween you came to us."

Touched, Violeta smiled.  "Even when I was a snob?"

JenniAnn laughed.  "Even then.  Now, do you think you could help me out?  I've never done this."

Happily, the angel pushed JenniAnn into the chair.

Andrew came to the door just as his protege was inserting a second stick into his friend's hair.  He quickly gathered what was happening and looked proudly at them both.  "You girls look beautiful."

"Thank you muchly," JenniAnn replied.  "You look studly awesome.  Loving the cotton plaid."

The angel of death chuckled.  "Knew you would.  Hey, when you're done, I'd like to talk with you for a bit, Violeta."

JenniAnn rose.  "You can talk now."  She patted her hair.  "Since the bun's stabilized, I think I can slide a couple more of the sticks in myself.  And hopefully even help Kemara if she wants."  She took the adornments from Violeta.  "Thanks.  We'll see ya both downstairs."

Andrew brushed his hand against JenniAnn's as she passed then he moved to the couch.

Violeta hesitated for a moment before joining him.  She looked over at the filing cabinet that was serving as her bedside table and grabbed a small statue of a wooden duck with its duckling. 

Her supervisor watched as his protege ran her thumb over the duck's features.  He looked heavenward, whispering a thank you for the comfort the totem gave Violeta.  Then, patting her cheek, Andrew smiled gently.  "Violeta, I've wanted to be a really good, really helpful supervisor for you."

"You are!" she insisted, hugging him.

"Thank you.  But I think there might be one area where I've really failed you."

"N-no..." Violeta shook her head.

"It's okay to fail sometimes, sweetheart.  Only God is perfect," Andrew assured.  "We all make mistakes.  And I think I made a mistake in not letting you know something about me.  Violeta, sometimes my feelings get hurt while I'm on an assignment.  And sometimes... sometimes I need to be alone, put on a sad song, and cry... let it all out.  And, you know, when JenniAnn and I were listening to Chava's story... there was a point when I just clung to JenniAnn and sobbed.  Do you think that means I'm a bad angel?"

Once again, Violeta shook her head, this time with more vehemence.

"Good.  Violeta, did Alyssa hurt your feelings?"

She stared down at the ducks clutched in her hand.  "Yeah..."

"Did you not tell me because you were afraid it would make me think you weren't strong enough for the work we have to do?"

Andrew's trainee nodded, fresh tears welling in her eyes.

"Well... I'm gonna tell you right now that it's not true.  Getting your feelings hurt... crying... that doesn't mean you're not strong enough to be working with humans. That means you're just the sort of angel who should be.  Humans' hearts break, they cry, they grieve, they long for something better.  And when we know something of what that's like... we become better angels.  I bet right now you know a little bit better how Ivy must feel, don't you?"

"I... I do.  I'm ashamed to say it but yesterday... I thought Ivy must have done something at some point to make Alyssa so mad at her.  But now... I didn't do anything to Alyssa!  So... so probably Ivy didn't either.  And Ivy must feel so... so... stuck a-and lonely."  Violeta took one of Andrew's hands, still clasping the ducks in her other hand.  "And you said she doesn't even have a mom or dad to help her?  Just... just a grandmother who won't?"

"That's right."

"Do you think maybe I could talk with her during class?  I mean I'll interview her because that's my job for this assignment but... I'd like to just talk to her, too.  Let her know... someone understands."

Andrew beamed and kissed her forehead.  "I will definitely make sure you two have some time together.  Now..."  He looked at his pocket watch.  "I told Ivy that we might be hit-and-miss for lunch on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.  But if we leave now, we might have about fifteen minutes to share lunch with her.  So are you okay with leaving now?"

"Definitely."

"Good."  Andrew smiled and helped her up. 

"Allison made brownies for us."

The angel of death chuckled.  "So I've heard.  There's also lunch."

"Sure.  More brownies."

Laughing, the two went to join JenniAnn and Kemara.

*~*~*

Andrew, JenniAnn, Kemara, and Violeta hurriedly made their way to the classroom with the latter carrying Lulu.  As hoped, they had fifteen minutes before lunch would end.

"Sorry we're late," Kemara, the first in, called when she glimpsed Ivy on the stage.  "We had some... things to attend to."

Ivy's face lit up when she saw all five of them enter.  "It's okay.  I know Mr. Rochester had to pick you and Ms. Chandler up.  Did you have a nice lunch?"

"Haven't had a chance yet," JenniAnn replied.  "Did you eat?"

Ivy nodded.

"Up for a brownie?" Andrew offered.  "Mrs. Chandler made em and we have extras."

"Brownie and book?" JenniAnn suggested, holding the Anne volume out.  "We'll feel less awkward if you're eating, too."

Ivy laughed.  "Okay, sure.  Thanks!"

Since time was limited, they did away with chairs and settled in a circle of cushions on the floor much to the delight of Lulu who snagged bites of sandwiches and brownies.

"So how's your day been, Ivy?" Andrew asked.

The girl swallowed a bite of brownie.  "Pretty good."  It was a truthful answer.  She'd retreated to the chapel until only a couple minutes before the morning bell, leaving Alyssa no time to torment her.  Miss Jansen's assignment had kept all of them busy for much of the morning thus Alyssa had no time to stir up trouble in class.  Then, when she had finished, she'd been allowed to leave.  Ivy found she liked the computer room much better when Alyssa and her friends weren't there.  Now, when she thought she might not see them at all outside class, Ivy was getting to spend time with her favorite teacher and his kindhearted friends and the new lady.  Ivy hadn't developed much of an opinion of Miss Heathcliff but she thought she would like her.  Miss Meeks and Ms. Chandler seemed to.  She wondered why all three of them were now wearing the hair sticks that only Miss Heathcliff had worn the day before. 

"I really like your hair sticks.  All of them," she complimented.

Violeta's smile stretched across her face.  "I promised Jen... Ms. Chandler and Miss Meeks that I'd teach them how to decorate some for themselves.  I just need to get more sticks which I should be able to do tonight.  I can ask... a friend who makes them.  Maybe we could decorate them after class tomorrow.  Would you want to?"

At first, Ivy didn't realize that she was being asked.  She assumed only that Miss Heathcliff was trying to set up a time with her friends.

"Ivy?" Kemara prompted.

Ivy looked away from the cover of JenniAnn's book to find the four adults looking to her expectantly.  "You're asking me?"

Violeta nodded.  "Yeah.  But, I mean, it's totally okay if you don't like them and don't want..."

"No, I do!  I'd love that.  Thank you!  Should I bring anything?"

"If you have any beads or charms or ribbons or anything you'd want to use then sure.  But it's okay if not.  We do lots of crafting and have tons of stuff," JenniAnn assured. 

"Cool.  This brownie's really great, by the way.  Please thank your mom for me."  Ivy took another bite.  "My mom used to bake me treats whenever she could then pack them away in my lunch with little notes."

"She obviously loved you so very much, Ivy," JenniAnn replied, her voice wavering.  "And I will... tell my mom.  She'll be so glad you enjoyed it.  You want another?"

Ivy shook her head. 

JenniAnn could tell she did.  "Maybe for later?  I can wrap it up."

"Yes, please."

Andrew watched the exchange.  He sighed quietly.  He knew the Father's ways were always the best but Andrew couldn't always see how... not until later.  In this case, however, the reason for his friends' involvement was obvious.  Though unseen, Allison was caring for Ivy in a way much like Francesca had.  JenniAnn was carrying it out.  And she, Kemara, and Violeta together would show Ivy a different reality where women cared for and built each other up and enjoyed each other's company.  For a moment, Andrew felt like the odd man out.  But it was only a moment.  He knew his role.

"Tell Ivy I love her.  She needs to hear it.  Now more than ever."

Andrew would do exactly that.

*~*~*

True to his word, Andrew did not make the girls read their poems from the previous session aloud.  He started the class by collecting them and then broached a subject that had been causing him some consternation.

"So... as you ladies know, this is Eve's Girls first year and at the end of the summer, Ms. LaCroix and our host, Miss O'Kane, want to do a banquet.  Just to, you know, show people what the organization is about.  Since we've been looking at several different forms of expression and will be looking at more in the weeks ahead, they've asked our class to put on a performance.  They didn't say much more than that.  So I'd like to hear some ideas you all might have."

Several hands shot up.  Andrew pointed to a girl in the second row.

"Okay, Haley, what ya got?"

"Could we do a musical number like something out of Glee?"

"Well... sure.  That's a great idea.  But maybe something a little... literary."

"We could do Wicked!  That's based off a book based off a book.  That's pretty literary," Morgan enthused.

Andrew smiled.  "True."

"But what if we can't sing?  I mean I can act okay but... no singing," a girl named Jessica explained.

"Well, maybe we could do more of a variety show type of thing.  We probably can't do a whole musical... for one, you need to get a license for that.  But some people could sing a song from Wicked and maybe someone else could, I don't know, do a mime routine," Andrew suggested.

Alyssa scoffed.  "Mimes... 'Look at me!  I'm stuck in a box!'"

Some of the other girls giggled uncomfortably.

Andrew crossed his arms over his chest.  "There's nothing wrong with being a mime.  I should know.  I was one... briefly.  And it's a lot harder to get out of those boxes than you think."  He pantomimed trying to get out and growing increasingly panicked.  Andrew grinned when the class broke into honest, hearty laughter.

"I love him..." JenniAnn cooed from her vantage point on the stage with her boxes.

"I was unaware," Kemara deadpanned with a smile.

Ivy gaped at her teacher.  She'd never seen anyone stand up to Alyssa... and with humor.  Alyssa had made fun of Mr. Rochester and he'd managed to get everyone else laughing with him.  It was easily one of the best things she'd ever seen.

"So do people like the idea of doing a variety show?" Andrew asked.

While Alyssa remained stuck in stony silence, the other girls began to talk excitedly. 

"I'm going to take that as a yes.  Okay, so here's what I'd like you to do.  Take out a piece of paper, write your name on it, and then write out some ideas of what you might want to do for our show.  Maybe put a star by the ones that most interest you.  You can be as broad or as specific as you want.  And if you really don't want to be on stage, that's fine, too.  Maybe you could write a poem or a short story we could put in the program or have someone else read.  Or maybe you could write a song that someone else could perform.  Write those sorts of ideas down, too, if they interest you.  Then I'll read them over tonight, see what we're looking at, and make some plans.  Starting tomorrow we'll reserve the last half hour of each session to preparing for our show and we'll expand that time as we get closer to August.  Sound good?"

Twenty some heads nodded to Andrew.

"Great!  I'll give you twenty minutes for this.  Then we'll start our lesson on journalistic writing."

While the students worked on their lists, Andrew made his way to the stage.

"Journalistic writing?  Cool!" Kemara cheered.

"Yeah.  So feel free to weigh in.  I know your input would be valuable."  Andrew smiled at her then turned to his protege.  "And yours, too, Violeta.  Maybe you could explain a little to the girls about what you're doing."

"Oh... I don't know..."

Andrew set a reassuring hand on her arm.  "You were really excited about it yesterday.  Don't let that be taken away from you."

Violeta glanced over at Alyssa then smiled.  She wouldn't give that girl the satisfaction.  "I won't."

"Then after that I have a few examples of articles I'd like them to read on their own.  You can visit with Ivy then, okay?"

"'Kay."

"Good."  Andrew beamed at her then turned to JenniAnn.  "So what have you discovered today?"

She pulled an old photograph from a box.  "So... just outta curiosity... would you have still picked me up after school if I'd had to wear this or would that have just been, like, way too embarrassing?" she asked quietly, her eyes alight with amusement.

His right eye brow raising, Andrew accepted the photo.  He grimaced.  "I would have picked you up no matter what you were wearing, Laja... but I would have been very concerned about your having to wear what sure looks to me like a belted potato sack."

Kemara laughed.  "Now, that's friendship!  And that, apparently, is a 1950s Our Lady gym uniform."

Violeta shook her head.  "Those poor girls..."

The four laughed and searched for more horrible treasure until the twenty minutes was up.

*~*~*

Ivy shyly approached Violeta where she was stationed backstage.

"Mr. Rochester said you wanted to interview me for your article?"

Violeta smiled and nodded, waving to the chair across from her.  "Yeah.  Definitely!  I just have a few questions and if you don't like them then you don't have to answer.  And I won't put anything in that you don't want me to.  So, like, if you find yourself telling me something then realize you said more than you meant... something I do kinda a lot... just say so.  I mean it."

Feeling more at ease, Ivy settled into the chair.  "Okay.  Thanks."

"So what made you want to come into the Eve's Girls program, Ivy?"

"Oh well...  My literature teacher at my school really liked some of my poems.  So she signed me up.  I got accepted.  I was really excited but..."

Violeta could tell Ivy was uncomfortable.  "Off the record?"

Ivy nodded.  "There's a $100 fee to get in.  I know it's not much at all but... I didn't have it.  So my teacher submitted a scholarship application.  I got that, too.  So I'm here.  But I don't want...  My Grandma would flip if..."

"I mention the scholarships in my article but I promise I won't say anything about you having one," Violeta assured.  "There's no shame in needing some help, though.  Mr. Rochester was just reminding me of that earlier when I was, ummm..."

Ivy studied the reporter.  She wasn't sure what to make of her.  She looked twenty five or so.  She had to be to have the job she did.  But she seemed so much younger.  Based on demeanor alone, Ivy might have thought the woman to be no older than her.  But none of that mattered.  She looked sad.  "Are you okay, Miss Heathcliff?"

Violeta looked up from the paper she was doodling on.  "Oh yeah.  Now.  Okay, so earlier I heard someone say some things about me.  She, uh... well, she called me a porcupine because of my hair.  And... and she implied that I feel things for And... Mr. Rochester that I don't.  He's... more like a dad to me... although not exactly that cause I do have a Father... but I don't feel... not at all... that.  And I know it shouldn't have bothered me but... it did."

"I'm sorry," Ivy responded.  "Was it..."  She wasn't sure it was right to ask.  But she had to know.  "Was it Alyssa?"

Violeta nodded.

"Try not to pay attention.  She... she says stuff about me, too.  We go to the same school and..."

Violeta pulled a tissue from her bag and held if out to the girl.  Then she noticed it was one she'd used.  "Ugh.  Hold on."  She fished a fresh one out and pressed it into Ivy's hand.

Ivy brushed away a tear.  "Thanks.  I thought I was the only one she made fun of."

"No."

"So... so what did you do?"

Violeta's cheeks flushed.  "I was so embarrassed and I didn't want her to see me so... I hid in a closet until I knew she was gone."

"I usually hide in bathrooms.  Or here now.  So you told Mr. Rochester?"

"Yes.  And Miss Meeks and Ms. Chandler.  They're my friends and I... I didn't want to tell them because I didn't want them to think I was weak or too sensitive but they didn't at all."

Ivy peered through an opening in the curtain.  She could see JenniAnn and Kemara with their adorned hair.  "Is that why they're wearing hair sticks?"

Violeta giggled.  "Yeah.  Jen..."  She rolled her eyes and sighed.  "None of us like going by our last names so when it's just us could we just use our real names?"

Ivy thought it odd that Violeta didn't consider their last names "real" but figured it was best not to comment.  "That's fine."

"Good.  JenniAnn said that if Alyssa was gonna call me that then she was gonna have to deal with a whole porcupine family."

Ivy laughed.  "That's about the craziest, sweetest thing I've ever heard."

Violeta joined in.  "I know, right?  Then Andrew talked to me about how feeling hurt and crying didn't mean there was anything wrong with me.  So then I felt better.  I hope you know that we're all here for you, Ivy.  If you need to talk... it's really okay."
 
Ivy's face flushed.  "You've all known that Alyssa was teasing me?"

"We put things together." Violeta explained gently.  "No one was ever going to force you to talk about it.  But in the past couple weeks for Andrew and days for us girls... we hoped you'd realize you could."

Ivy nodded sadly.  "I did...  I'm just not used to having someone... someone watching over me."

Violeta gripped her hand.  "There's always someone watching over you."

Ivy smiled.  She believed it... sometimes it was just hard to remember.  "Yeah, that's true.  Sometimes, when the teasing makes me really upset or just life in general does, I write poems.  That helps.  A lot.  But... it would be really nice to have people to talk to.  Friends or..."

"We could be really good friends to you!" Violeta blurted out.  She blushed.  "Sorry.  That sounded kind of desperate and crazy."

Ivy laughed sweetly.  "Not to me.  I... I'd really like that."

Violeta beamed.  "Cool."  She remembered her article then.  "So, umm, what do you like best about the Eve's Girls program, Ivy?"

Smiling, she answered readily.  "Having the chance to make new friends."

The reporter continued smiling as she jotted the response down.

*~*~*

~ "September" ~

That night, after dropping the girls off at the Chandlers', Andrew retired to his loft with Lulu... and the pot pie Allison had insisted he take for dinner when she discovered he couldn't stay.  It wasn't that he hadn't wanted to.  However, he needed to read his students' poems and go through their show ideas.  He also felt like Violeta would do well with a little "Ladies Only" time. 

As he ate, Andrew sifted through the lists.  He circled and highlighted, beginning to form an idea of how many acts there would be.  About eight of the girls were completely in love with the Wicked song idea.  Four others had all zeroed in on singing something from RENT, one even citing that it was, after all, inspired by La Boheme.  The angel made a mental note to relay that to JenniAnn.  She would be pleased to know that her love for all things Jonathan Larsen was shared by the younger set. 
He would also have to tell Kemara, who he knew loved Irish culture, that one of the girls desperately wanted to recite a Yeats poem.  Four other girls... Ivy among them... didn't wish to appear on stage but expressed interest in writing.  Beyond that, Andrew counted around six other solo acts.  That seemed doable... he hoped.  After forming a tentative outline, the angel of death set his plate in the sink, gathered Lulu to him, and carried her to the living room where the stack of poems awaited him.  They curled into a recliner as he began to read.

Some of the poems made Andrew laugh.  There was a rhymed account of a vacation gone awry and a free verse tale of the ignoble burial of a sibling's pet goldfish.  Andrew read some of the poems in confused bemusement.  He wasn't exactly sure what their authors were trying to say but he was encouraged and pleased by their efforts.  Other poems made the angel's heart go out to his students.  He read an ode to a beloved grandfather who had passed away.  A few told of first loves turned sour.  Then he came to the one he'd saved for last: Ivy's poem.  "September" was written in frail, capital letters at the top.  Andrew knew that Francesca had died the September that Ivy was ten.  Pulling Lulu closer, Andrew started to read.

"The moments go by as we sit and wait.
My feelings a blend of confusion, hopefulness, and hate.
Each minute brings us closer to the fated hour.
I cling to you as I begin to cower."

Andrew swiped at a tear.  Had Ivy written about waiting for her mother to die?

"I know that one word... 'gone'... will drive me away.
Mute and angry at you I will stay.
Even this moment I will resent.
This is weak! I don't need you! I'll never relent!"

"Oh Ivy," Andrew murmured.  The poor girl...  To have had to cope with the awful mix of sadness and anger at the very person who she loved most and who had left her...  Alone. 

"Until then stay by me. I need you and no less.
Forgive me later when my senses are clouded by painfulness.
I realize you were always there as through my memories I go.
Will you leave me now as I face this? Quietly, I hear 'No.'
Time's up. The life-changing word is almost here.
Suddenly, there's a peace and everything is clear.
I can't face this alone. "Please come with me?"
But as I turn back I'm saddened, two empty chairs is all I see."

Still moved but now baffled, the angel set the paper down.  The poem wasn't about Francesca.  Well, it was.  But she wasn't the "you" Ivy kept referring to.  At least Andrew didn't think so.  He got the impression now that Ivy had been sitting in a waiting room and Francesca wouldn't have been sitting with her in a waiting room moments before her own death.  Who had been?  Was the poem about Doreen?  Had... for one brief, shining moment... the woman actually been the grandmother Ivy needed her to be?  Andrew reclaimed the poem.

"In a second I realize how wrong I had been.
I do need you, please come back again?
The tears begin to fall and I see my strength was fake.
Only without you am I weak and now my heart breaks.
Suddenly, the tears are being brushed away.
I look to my side and you say:
'Don't you see now? Hate me or curse me,
Pretend you don't need me.
That can never change what I feel for you.
I created you and died for you, making you new.
Come now, when you hear your news I'll be near.
With me, My Child, you have nothing to fear.'"

Tears rolling down his cheeks, Andrew briefly closed his eyes.  Ivy had written the poem about Jesus... about the man Andrew sensed was standing in his window, looking out at the skyline.  He opened his eyes and confirmed the feeling.

"She never did curse me... hate me...  And many would say Ivy had reason to.  Her mother died, her grandmother tried to fill her with nonsense that would have made the harshest of Pharisees proud.  But Ivy never lost sight of me.  She... she was only afraid she might."

If Joshua were any other man, Andrew would have been worried about him when he turned around to reveal tear-soaked eyes and a half-smile.  As it was, the angel felt immense love for him.  He was apparently not alone in that.  Lulu thumped to the ground and began to paw at Joshua's jeans.

Joshua laughed and picked the dog up, nuzzling his face into her neck.  "Thank you," he whispered.

Andrew stood and hugged his visitor.  "Why don't you sit down?  Can I get you anything?  Pot pie?"

Joshua smiled.  "No.  Thank you, though."

"Cherry crisp and a glass of milk?  I was going to get myself some after I finished the poems.  There's plenty.  I don't think Allison believes that I can cook now."

"Well, I wouldn't want you to have to eat alone..." 

Andrew laughed.  "Coming right up."

"Thank you."  Joshua settled on the couch with Lulu.  "I was just over at Allison's and Robert's dropping off some hair sticks for the girls.  Allison's taking them to the Old Market to hit up the vintage stores.  Our Violeta's finding her style."

"Should I be concerned?" the angel called.

"No.  JenniAnn and Kemara won't steer her wrong.  Violeta will figure it out.  She's going to go for an artsy look.  Kind of like JenniAnn but more tailored.  Sleeker.  It suits her." 

Andrew returned, balancing two tumblers of milk on top of Allison's pan of cherry crisp.  "Good.  That chameleon thing was starting to cause me some concern."  He sat back down.  "That poem... that got to me.  I mean obviously there's the... you... aspect of it.  But the self-awareness...  Ivy's an amazing kid.  I just wish... she holds so much in and I know I don't have much room to talk but... she is just a kid."

Joshua nodded.  "Ivy truly is an amazing kid.  And you're doing an amazing job with her.  All of you are."

The angel of death smiled.  "I wish they could hear you say that."

"They do.  Just not in the same way you and Violeta do."  Joshua reached for the poem resting on the table.  He traced the letters of the title.  "She really trusts you.  This is the sort of poem she usually hides away in her journal.  But Ivy knew she could trust you with it.  She is opening up, Andrew.  And now that she knows about what happened to Violeta, she will even more.  Tomorrow will be a big day.  Who knows?  I might just stop in myself." 

Andrew knew that meant Joshua would be paying him a visit.  The Mystery of Mysteries was actually quite bad at maintaining suspense sometimes. 


Joshua smiled, rubbing Lulu behind the ears.  "Don't give me away, okay?"

Lulu stretched upwards for a kiss.

Andrew chuckled.  That settled that.  "You know, it's helped me a lot to have you around like this.  And it's meant a lot to me.  But..."

"But?"

"
Last night with Laja...  Hearing what you said, seeing how you looked at her while you said it... it was... a gift, Joshua.  And one that means a lot to me.  But it made me realize something.  It's going to be very different for you next year, isn't it?  Joshua Davidson can't say those things to JenniAnn Chandler... or any of them."

Joshua shook his head.  "No.  And I won't even always know what they're thinking.  Part of my reason for coming then is to remind some of them that I know what it is to be human... and being human means not always knowing what's going to come next, not automatically knowing what people plan or feel.  That's why I want you to see what you have and what you will.  So you can tell them what I normally would, Andrew."

Taken aback and incredibly humbled, it took the angel of death a full minute to reply.  "It... it was an honor last night.  And it will always be an honor."

In response, Joshua reached for Andrew's hand and squeezed it affectionately.  "I'm glad to hear it.  I know you're up to it.  Now... cherry crisp awaits."

Andrew laughed and, once he'd removed the lid, the two dug into the pan.

Joshua let a few moments of companionable silence pass before speaking.  "You can just ask, you know."

Andrew smiled sheepishly.  "Sometimes when you're like this... so... human... it's almost like I forget... no, not exactly forget but I just don't... have it in mind that you, well, know everything, including what I'm thinking."

Joshua laughed.  "I'll take that as a compliment."

Andrew grinned.  "Thank you for that."  He took another bite of cherry crisp as he searched out his words.  "Why?" he finally queried.  "Why do bullies... bully?"

"There are as many reasons as there are bullies."  Joshua set down his fork and rested his chin on his folded hands.  "But to keep it general, some do it because they see it as a 'bully or be bullied' situation.  If they're the bully, no one will tease them or point out the deficiencies they perceive in themselves.  Some do it because they're being bullied elsewhere and it feels good to be on the other side.  Some feel powerless in their own lives so enjoy finding someone they can have power over.  And some even view schools and life in general as an unending hierarchy.  If they can move enough people down the ladder, they move up.  They win 'points' by getting others to laugh at the jokes they make at the expense of others.  And they send the message, subtle or otherwise, that you're with them or against them and that they can ruin your life if you don't get in line and stay in line.  Still others have dehumanized their victims to such an extent... and the faceless Internet has only made this worse... that what they're doing doesn't even seem wrong to them."

Andrew sighed.  "I don't know which type Alyssa is so how do I stop her?"

"I didn't send you to stop her.  I sent you to Ivy.  Naturally, you need to do what you can to prevent Alyssa from harming her.  I'm very glad you had her meet with Regina and that you made sure Regina saw the drawing.  But it's more important to be there for Ivy than to be working against Alyssa."  Joshua bestowed an encouraging smile on the angel.  "And you're doing very well with that, Andrew."

"Thank you.  I just wish... I mean, yeah, she talked to us a little during lunch today and yesterday.  And she trusted me with her poem.  I know she talked a little with Violeta.  But she hasn't said a word to me about the bullying, Joshua.  You said tomorrow will be a big day but is there something I need to say or do to help her open up?"

"Only what you've been doing."  Joshua reached over to squeeze Andrew's shoulder.  "It's difficult for Ivy to confide in other people... especially about this.  The only person she ever really confided in about the bullying told her 'Offer it up!  Christ didn't whine and cry about what was done to Him and your sufferings are miniscule compared to His.  Turn the other cheek, Ivy!'"

"Doreen?"

"Yes.  And I did cry and I did question.  But there's really no comparison.  I was a grown man acting out the will of my Father... my own will.  But the torment Ivy is going through...  that's not our will.  It never has been.  And it hurts because at times it's made Ivy hesitant to come to me with her broken heart and wounded spirit."  Tears again welled in Joshua's eyes.  "I never intended for my followers to meekly tolerate abuse.  When people tried to hurt me in Nazareth, I kicked the dust off my sandals and left.  That doesn't mean I stopped hoping they'd come around.  That doesn't mean I didn't forgive them.  That most assuredly does not mean I didn't love them.  I did.  But there was no reason to let them lash out like that.  I protected myself.  And now... now we all need to help protect Ivy.  Because
her sufferings are not miniscule."

"I... I know," Andrew murmured.  He wished Doreen... humanity in general... could see how much it pained Joshua when they used his name and his words to hurt or belittle others. 

Joshua drew in a deep breath.  "But tonight... tonight my Ivy is happy and at peace."  He beamed at Andrew.  "She knows she has friends.  And you're a good friend to have, Andrew.  It's a recurring theme in some of the prayers I hear."

Andrew blushed and smiled, feeling immensely pleased.  "I'm glad Ivy knows we're here for her.  All of us."

Joshua nodded.  "We should have a team name... but let's not worry about that right now.  Besides, we have dessert to finish."

Seeing Joshua's knowing grin, the angel of death gathered that something was afoot.  He looked forward to finding out what it was.  In the meantime, he and his Creator were going to finish their cherry crisp.

*~*~*

Ivy found she wasn't particularly bothered by her grandmother's nightly recitation of "All That is Awful and Unholy in This World."  It receded into the back of her mind as she reviewed the day.  It wasn't often that Ivy mentally relived a day because she had enjoyed it.

Talking to Violeta had been healing and helpful.  If Alyssa could find fault with someone so beautiful and talented... Ivy began to consider that maybe there wasn't anything wrong with herself.  For a split second, as Mr. Rochester had mimed, Ivy had realized that there was something very wrong with Alyssa.  Yes, she was beautiful.  Yes, she was wealthy.  Yes, she was popular.  But Ivy thought back on that first lunch with Mr. Rochester... Andrew... and his friends.  "Love is worth more than money.  It's worth more than anything." 

Ivy thought Alyssa's parents loved their daughter.  She'd seen them dote on her, occasionally picking her up in the middle of the day to go out to lunch.  They were at every theatrical performance, every game Alyssa cheered at.  They certainly didn't seem negligent.  But maybe somewhere along the line they had forgotten to teach their daughter to love.  That was a grave loss.

"And then she dared to tell me that we have to love them, too.  The gays!  Imagine!  Christ would be rolling in His grave!" Doreen cried.  Then she seemed to realize what she had said.  "If He was still there, of course."

Ivy blinked.  It was wrong on so many levels.  Feeling emboldened, the girl spoke up.  "God loves gay people, too.  And immigrants and Jewish people and Protestants and black people."  She thought she'd covered all the groups her grandmother spent dinners maligning.  "All people," she added to be safe.

Doreen gaped.  "Excuse me?"

"God loves everyone.  So should we."

"Not sinners!"  Doreen slapped her newspaper down on the table.  "You're getting more and more like your mother every day."

Ivy smiled to herself.  She certainly hoped so.

"Go to your room.  I'm done with you for the night."

Silently, Ivy slipped from the table and went, far from unhappily, to her room.  She reached into her book bag.  She had no homework so could focus on Anne of Windy Poplars.  Determined to enjoy her evening, Ivy changed into her pajamas and snuggled into bed with her book and her brownie.  Her heart seized when she opened the novel.

Miss Chandler's...  JenniAnn's... cell phone number and address were at the front of the book. 

Ivy told herself that this was probably just the woman's way.  Likely all her books had such a label.  She probably hadn't meant to give Ivy her number.  But then Ivy noticed a small symbol on the corner of the bookplate.  The design had been copyrighted in 2013.  JenniAnn still might have placed it months ago... but maybe she had only recently.  Maybe she had intentionally given her number out.  And if Ivy could reach JenniAnn, she was sure she could reach the others if necessary. 

Ivy stared at the number.  She vowed to herself that she would only use it if she absolutely had to.  But she felt better simply knowing it was there.

*~*~*

~ Francesca's Masterpiece ~

Thursday, June 20th

Thursday morning flew by for Ivy.  She spent the first hour in the chapel and then Ms. LaCroix had observed Miss Jansen's class meaning the teacher kept the girls constantly busy in an effort to show off her teaching skills.  It was lunch time before Ivy knew it.  As usual, she lingered in the bathroom for a few minutes until she was reasonably sure the hallway would be empty.  She no longer feared discipline from any of the teachers.  Andrew had given her permission.  However, Ivy didn't want to explain her destination to any of the other girls and have it possibly get back to Alyssa. 

When she finally entered the room, Ivy found Andrew and the three women already gathered around the table on the stage with Lulu curled up beneath an empty chair.

Ivy smiled as she approached.  "You got new flowers!"

Kemara nodded.  "We did a little shopping last night and I couldn't resist.  Who doesn't love rainbow daisies?"

"Good choice.  They're really pretty and much cheerier than that other batch."

Andrew chuckled.  "Well, it wouldn't have taken much to be cheerier than those but Kemara definitely chose well.  Hey, before you came in, we were talking.  Violeta hasn't seen your mom's statue yet.  After we finish eating, would you want to visit the chapel again?"

Ivy responded with an eager nod.  "I'd really like that."

"Cool.  So how was your class this morning?" JenniAnn asked as she began to unpack the lunches her mother had, once again, prepared.  "Chicken salad sandwich?  My mom made you one if you want it.  It's the best."

"Aww.  Thanks, sure.  And thanks to your mom... again."  Ivy smiled gratefully.  "Class was good.  No time for messing around.  Ms. LaCroix was there so Miss Jansen kept everyone hopping.  I never heard Alyssa say a word the whole time and definitely not to me."

Violeta beamed.  "I'm so glad to hear it.  So are we still on for making those hair sticks after class?"

"Yeah.  Definitely.  My grandma's got a hair appointment and won't be back until probably 6:00 tonight."

"You didn't tell her?" Kemara asked.

Ivy blushed.  "My Grandma Doreen... she's really strict and I wasn't sure she'd agree.  But I really... really wanted to stay here.  See, my mom got pregnant out of wedlock... that's me... and my grandma is convinced I'm going to do the same thing. 
And I won't!  But she doesn't trust me.  She... she's just really judgmental."  Suddenly, the worst of the hurt her grandmother had caused Ivy came pouring out.  "She's Catholic.  We both are.  My mom was, too.  But my mom and me... we believe that God is merciful a-and that Jesus loves everyone and forgives those who ask for forgiveness.  But my grandma... she told me once that my mom would have to burn in purgatory for... for a long time before she could get into Heaven.  A-and I know she should have waited til she married and she knew that b-but..."

JenniAnn pulled the girl into a hug.  "Sweetheart, I never knew your mom but from what you've said and from the evidence of a good life, of a strong faith that she left in you... that simply can't be true.  I don't doubt that your grandma believes that.  But it sounds nothing like the Jesus I believe in.  And it sure doesn't sound like the Jesus in the Bible."

Andrew reached over to pat Ivy's back.  "Listen to JenniAnn.  She's right.  God loves you and He loves your mom.  So much.  And He loves your grandma, too...  It's just... it's very sad that she thinks that love is so easily lost.  Because it's not."

Ivy pulled away and nodded.  She accepted a tissue from Violeta and wiped at her eyes.

Kemara smiled gently.  "What they said.  And it's okay.  I understand why you didn't tell her."  She looked up at the others.  "We all do."

"Th-thanks.  This sandwich is really good, by the way."  Ivy took a bite and smiled.

JenniAnn laughed.  "Good.  I'm glad you like it.  So did you get to read any of the book last night?"

Andrew listened, encouraged by Ivy's cheery tone, as she relayed to JenniAnn what she had read.  Soon, twenty minutes had passed and they were all finished eating.  Leaving a sleeping Lulu behind, they made their way to the chapel.

When they entered, a kneeling man turned to look at them.  His face broke into a wide grin and he stood.  "Rapunzel!  Still with all that hair!"

JenniAnn laughed and rushed towards the man.  "Mr. Spelman!"  She hugged him.  "I didn't know you were working this summer."

"I'm not.  I was in the area and felt the urge to come in here and say a few prayers.  I miss this chapel over the summer.  What are you doing here and who are your friends?"

JenniAnn smiled proudly at the others.  "Everyone, this is my former... and favorite... Psychology teacher, Mr. Mark Spelman.  Mr. Spelman, this is Andrew.  He's leading a couple sessions for Eve's Girls and is a longtime friend."

Andrew held his hand out.  "Pleased to meet you, sir."

Mr. Spelman looked curiously at him for a moment then smiled.  "Likewise, Andrew."

"This is Kemara, another friend who is helping out.  Then there's Violeta, another friend, who is currently working for The Spirit Press.  And... this is a new friend: Ivy, one of Andrew's students."

Ivy beamed hearing her introduction. 

"So happy to meet you, ladies."

"Ivy, you wanna tell Mr. Spelman why we're here?  I think he'd find it very interesting," JenniAnn gently prodded.

Ivy nodded and walked to the Pieta.  "My mother sculpted this."

Mr. Spelman startled.  "Your mother was Francesca Lee?"

"Yes, sir."

The teacher looked at the statue and then back again.  "She was a phenomenal artist.  I was blessed with the opportunity to meet her once... when the school bought this piece actually.  I had seen some of her smaller work in a gallery and fell in love.  When Sister DeLuca, our principal at the time, mentioned wanting to commission a sculpture for our chapel, I suggested your mother to her.  We visited the apartment and saw this..."  He sighed and shook his head.  "I was so very sorry when I saw her obituary in the paper.  I remain truly sorry for your loss, Ivy." 

Andrew rested a comforting, steadying hand on Ivy's back.

Though teary-eyed, Ivy smiled.  "Thank you, sir.  I miss her very much but... but it helps to know her work's been so appreciated."

"Very much so.  Such extraordinary talent in service to our Lord."  Mr. Spelman again turned to the statue.  "The emotion, the love..."

Violeta let out a sob.  "It's so... real," she murmured.

Andrew clasped his free arm around her shoulders and kissed her hair.  He never could tell what concerning Joshua would set her off. 

The young angel smiled.  "I'm fine.  It's just so moving.  Good for you, Ivy's mom."

Ivy smiled again.

"I just love how it captures not only how much Mary loved her Son but how great His sacrifice was.  This was a man who loved and was loved... and put that life on the line."  Kemara let out a ragged sigh.  "I believe that your mom knows exactly how much this statue has meant to so many people, Ivy."

Ivy sat her hand on Mary's.  "I like to think so."

JenniAnn noticed Mr. Spelman watching the girl.  He seemed to be troubling something out.

"Ivy, where do you go to school?" he finally asked after a few moments of contemplative silence.

"North East."

"Do you like it there?"

"It's okay.  I wish we still had religion class.  I miss it from grade school but, of course, they don't have that in public schools."

"No.  They don't."  The teacher turned to JenniAnn.  "Well, Rapunzel, I'm afraid I need to be on my way but I'm told my room will be free Monday and I'd like to do some work in there.  Perhaps you would be so kind as to pay your old teacher a visit?"

Andrew found something about the man's request very strange... not creepy nor threatening... but strange.  He tried to gauge whether or not JenniAnn felt the same.  Yes, even though she smiled, something flickered in her eyes.

"Of course, Mr. Spelman.  I'd love that!  Same room as when I was here?"

"Very same.  I'll look forward to the visit."  He smiled at her then faced the others.  "It was a pleasure to meet you all.  And Ivy... I remember something from that visit with your mother.  I asked her what her favorite piece she'd ever done was.  She said that if I meant a statue, it was this one.  But if I was asking what of her creations she loved best... the answer was you.  Don't you ever forget that."

Spontaneously, Ivy hugged him.  "Thank you.  That... that means so much to me.  And I won't forget."

"Good.  I hope we meet again, dear.  You enjoy the rest of your day."

When Mr. Spelman left, Ivy turned to her friends.  "I... I'm really glad we ran into him."

A few tears slid down Andrew's face as he smiled.  "I'm really glad, too."  Then he moved into a pew, needing to pray in thanksgiving for what had just unfolded.  The other four followed his lead.

*~*~*

Andrew had quickly surmised that there was little use in trying to have a formal class that afternoon.  It had been a mistake to start by discussing the summer's end banquet.  As they began to develop a clearer idea of their program, the girls became excited and could think of little else.  Not wanting to quash their enthusiasm, Andrew allowed them this.  The only other bit of business he was able to complete was to pass back their poems, each one featuring encouraging comments.

"'Absolutely beautiful.  I'd love to talk about this with you,'" he'd written on the top of Ivy's poem.  Reading that made the girl look forward to the afternoon ahead even more.  Thankfully, 4:00 was soon upon them.  While the other students tore out of the room, Ivy was happy to linger.

"Violeta and I are going to take Lulu out for a little walk," Kemara announced.  "We won't be long.  Then we can start."

Ivy smiled as they headed towards the door.  "See you soon!"

JenniAnn knew to remain.  Andrew needed to speak to Ivy and rules being what they were, she needed to stay.  Still, to afford Andrew and his assignment some privacy, she focused on setting out tins and totes filled with charms, beads, and more.

Andrew finished filing away some papers then looked up at his student.  He waved for her to take a nearby seat.  "I meant what I wrote on your poem.  That... well, I'll tell you I cried.  It took a lot of bravery to write that honestly.  It was about your mom dying, wasn't it?"

"Thank you.  Yes.  I got to thinking about how I felt sitting in the waiting room... alone..."  Ivy looked down at her hands folded in her lap then back at Andrew.  "But not really alone."

Andrew glanced up briefly when Joshua settled into the chair beside Ivy.

"You don't think Jesus would be mad about it, do you?  I mean the part where I wrote 'I don't need you!'"

A lump forming in his throat, Andrew shook his head.

"No," Joshua said.  "I wouldn't.  I felt abandoned once, too.  I understand how much anger and hurt that can cause."

Andrew took in a ragged breath.  "Even Jesus felt abandoned.  Remember when He cried out to the Father, asking Him why He'd forsaken him?"

Ivy nodded.

"So God understands how that hurt can lead to feeling angry.  I know He does," Andrew assured.

Ivy's hand clasped around the cross pendant her mother had given her for her First Communion. 

Joshua smiled tenderly at the gesture.  "Tell her I treasure that poem and all the others she's written for me.  And I really am at her side... always... because I love her so much."

"I believe with everything in me that He treasures your poem... that one and every other one you've written for Him.  And He's always going to be at your side, Ivy.  He loves you so much."

For the second time that day, Ivy found herself hugging someone.

Andrew returned the hug, feeling blessed to receive it but also wishing that, somehow, Joshua could get a hug, too.  Someday. 

"Thank you for telling me all that."  Ivy pulled back and smiled at Andrew.  "It means a lot.  And... it feels really good to be able to talk to someone like this."

"You can talk to any of us like this.  JenniAnn and Kemara are both Catholic and Violeta and I love talking about God, too."  Andrew smiled when the two women returned with Lulu.  "Now I guess it's hair sticks time.  I never finished looking at the costume selection backstage so I'm going to do that while you ladies do your crafting.  Just yell if you need me."

Ivy looked with excitement at all the embellishments and beads JenniAnn had laid out.  "Sounds good!"  She dashed over to join the others.

Andrew directed his attention to Joshua who had remained.  He tilted his head to the stage.  Joshua nodded and followed him there with Lulu waddling after him.

"So... I told Ivy you love her.  Is this assignment... I mean it can't be over... can it?"

"It's not.  Andrew the teacher told Ivy that I love her.  But, in time, she'll need to hear it again from Andrew the angel," Joshua explained.  He sat down on a large crate.  A knife and strip of wood appeared beside him.  Picking them up, he began to carve.

When Lulu whined, Andrew set her on the crate.  "Things... they're going to get hard again for Ivy?"

Joshua frowned, pausing his work to ruffle Lulu's fur.  "I don't like it but yes.  Alyssa is biding her time."

Andrew sighed.  "I wish I knew what to say to get her to stop."

"Alyssa's been told numerous times to stop.  It's up to her to listen.  You can't make her.  I can't make her.  Our Father can't make her.  But we can be there for Ivy, holding her up and loving her."

The two men fell silent for a few moments.  They smiled as they listened to the girls laughing as they plotted out their designs.

"Ooh...  Who brought these rainbow beads?" Kemara asked.

"Me," Ivy answered.  "Use as many as you want.  Aren't they cool?"

"Definitely cool."

"Unicorns!" Violeta exclaimed as she dug through some charms.

JenniAnn laughed.  "I knew you'd like those.  And I got you some ducks, too.  I noticed that carving you keep by your bed."

"Look at the lions..." Ivy cooed.  "They remind me of Aslan.  My mom used to read to me from the Narnia books."

"I had a feeling those would be popular.  I got enough for each of us to make a lion pair."

Andrew smiled at Joshua. 
"You know, of course, that Ivy, JenniAnn, and Kemara would be totally stunned if they knew you made those hair sticks they're out there decorating."

Joshua continued to whittle.  "'I adorned you with jewelry: I put bracelets on your arms and a necklace around your neck'... and I also made you some pretty groovy hair sticks.  Ezekiel 16:11... with commentary from the author."

Andrew burst into laughter causing the girls to fall silent in bewilderment.  He blushed. 

"Andrew, you okay there?" JenniAnn questioned.

"'Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!'" Joshua called with a grin.

Andrew playfully glared at him as he continued to chuckle.  "Like that helps!" he whispered.  As Joshua laughed, he stepped onto the stage.  "Just, uh...  Thought of a quote from a Book in a way I never have before.  Totally fine.  Everything going okay out there?"

Ivy looked up from the beads she was stringing and smiled.  "It's great!"

"Good."  Andrew smiled back then returned to Joshua's side.  "It really is great..."

Joshua beamed at the four chatting, happy girls.  "Yes, it is."  He made a few more strokes with his knife then gave Andrew his handiwork.  "Here.  Go decorate yourself a bookmark with them.
  As for the costumes...  There are 8 nun robes that your Elphabas can doctor up.  The RENT girls are going to want to stick with their own clothes.  There are three Shakespearean era gowns plus the one JenniAnn will volunteer to lend.  And other than that you're going to have several performances that don't require costumes.  So you're set."

Andrew grinned.  "Thanks."  He looked down at the bookmark on which the carpenter had carved his name.  "This means a lot."  When he raised his head, Joshua was gone but his voice remained.

You're welcome.  Giving you hair sticks wouldn't have made much sense.  It would have been fun to see Tess' reaction, though.

The angel laughed quietly then stepped down from the stage.

Violeta saw her supervisor first and smiled up at him.  "You wanna come help, Andrew?"

"Actually..."  He held the bookmark out.  "I have this.  I thought maybe it could do with a tassel at the end."

JenniAnn smirked.  "Sure.  So long as you don't put the tassel on your shoes."

Andrew shot her a faux-angry look and crossed his arms over his chest.  "And what if I wanna?"

Ivy laughed.  "Huh?"

Andrew settled down beside them.  "I have this pair of loafers with tassels on them that JenniAnn seems to think are the ugliest shoes in the world.  However... she had the chance to get rid of them and didn't."  He lowered his voice, his eyes twinkling.  "Secretly, I think she likes them."  Straightening up, he winked at JenniAnn.

Kemara smiled.  "JenniAnn, is this true?"

"No.  I still think they're ugly.  But... they're his.  And loving a person means accepting and even appreciating the parts that aren't totally awesome."  JenniAnn blushed, hoping Ivy didn't get the wrong idea. 

Unconcerned, Andrew reached for her hand. 

To Ivy, the exchange implied nothing more than a deep friendship.  She pondered if maybe Andrew and JenniAnn had been friends when they were her age.  Her eyes welled as she slid some beads into place, wishing to know when things would become easier with her peers.

"If only more people realized that," Kemara remarked wistfully.  "And were more tolerant of differences.  It would have made my growing up years a whole lot easier."

Andrew looked proudly at his friend, recognizing that she was holding out painful chapters from her own life in hopes of encouraging Ivy.  He looked over at his assignment.  She was biting her lip, seeming to debate whether to inquire.  When the angel glanced back up at Kemara, she nodded to him.  "What do you mean, Kemara?" he asked.

"I struggled with bullies a lot when I was younger," she answered, her voice even and calm. 

"What... what happened?" Ivy questioned, her own voice quiet and uncertain.  "I mean... if you're okay with telling."

"I am.  Let's see...  I can remember one time when I was in fourth grade, I had to give a presentation in class and right after I started, one of the boys made some careless, hurtful comment and the other kids all started to laugh.  I started to cry and when I couldn't continue to give my report, the teacher threatened to bring some of the other classes in and have them listen, too.  Of course, that was the last thing I wanted!  I couldn't even read it in front of my own class I was so upset."

Andrew shook his head.  "As much I don't like thinking a little boy would act that way, it's even harder for me to imagine a teacher... someone hired to care for children... would be so... so... callous."

"It happens..." JenniAnn and Ivy murmured in unison. 

"You know, too?" Ivy softly asked.

JenniAnn nodded.  "I didn't struggle with bullying that much.  Just... I dunno.  It's hard to explain."

"You don't have to," Kemara assured.

"Oh no.  I'm fine.  I just mean... it's hard to categorize.  I wasn't bullied like by kids or teachers calling me names.  I just felt like... like I was never... real to them.  Sorry.  I'm sure that doesn't make any sense.  But I mean like... like I was a character.  Fictional.  They'd sometimes... make up stories about what I would do once I 'grew up and stopped being so innocent.'  Like... ya know... sex stuff.  That was creepy enough but... what actually hurt was feeling like they kind of wanted all that to happen... cause then I'd be 'real' and the teacher just saying to ignore em."

Andrew peered at JenniAnn.  For all her justifications and psychologizing Monday in the park, he could see that the memories still pained her... and that her feelings were mirrored on Ivy's and Kemara's faces.  He could tell, too, that she was thinking of Bennie though she wouldn't say so.  She didn't want Ivy to have to fear run-ins with the dance teacher, too.

Kemara squeezed JenniAnn's hand and sighed.  "What is it with some kids and latching onto that?  There was one day in 9th grade when my class went on a field trip.  On the way back, this girl sat next to me and, in graphic detail, told me what it was like to have sex... with all the other kids listening and snickering.  All I could do was stare out the window and try to ignore her... not easy with her right there glaring at me."

Violeta sat shaking her head, unsure what to say.  She had known her friends had once been children and she knew, from all the case files she'd read and what she'd seen with Andrew, that childhood was not always the carefree time it should be.  That fact became all the more real to her as she heard the girls speak.  She was grateful when JenniAnn noticed her distress and pressed a tissue into her hand before softly patting it.

Andrew frowned, his eyes soft and full of compassion.  "I hope that if any of my students found themselves coping with anything like what you two did then they would tell me."

Ivy was silent for several moments, allowing Andrew's wish to hang in the air and weigh on her burdened heart.  He hoped to be held in her confidence, she had long hoped for someone who would truly listen.  She believed she had found four such someones.  She decided she was ready to tell her story.  "I've been having a really... really hard time for years.  Monday, when you and JenniAnn found me in here... it was because I'd been hiding in here over lunch for a week.  See, Alyssa and me... we go to the same school and went to junior high together, too.  Caitlin and Mariah, too.  And for years Alyssa's given me a hard time and the other two just go along with it.  Just... comments about my clothes, my hair, the way I look.  Sometimes... sometimes about my mom.  It made her friends laugh.  So she kept doing it.  But then last year... last year things started to get really bad.  There was this boy who was new in town.  He was very cute and very nice.  His dad got a job with Alyssa's dad's company.  I think she really liked him.  But one day... one day she said something to me and he heard it.  And he actually... he defended me.  Alyssa...  I guess it made her really mad.  She started spreading rumors about... about stuff she said we'd done... and then how he broke up with me because he found out I... I had done other things.  But we hadn't!  We'd hardly ever talked!  And I haven't ever..."  Ivy's face flushed.  "Not with anyone.  I swear."

Kemara hugged her.

"We believe you, Ivy," Andrew assured as JenniAnn and Violeta nodded.

Swiping at tears, the girl smiled.  "Thank you.  I was so afraid the rumors would get to my grandma and knowing how she is..."  She shook her head.  "Well, I guess there's a plus side to her not paying much attention!"  She laughed uncomfortably.  "Anyway, the boy moved again at the end of the school year.  So I was really hoping next year would maybe be different.  And when I started with Eve's Girls and Alyssa left me alone for that first week... I thought maybe that was going to be true.  But then last week...  I... I heard her telling other girls the same old rumors and then she started saying stuff to me and writing notes.  I worried that no... no one would be friends with me.  No one is at school but I hoped here...  So I told Alyssa I was going to tell a teacher... I didn't say you but I meant you."  Ivy looked up at Andrew.  "But then she told me that she could get me kicked out cause... cause her dad was helping the program out... a lot.  And that if the teacher took my side... he... he could get them kicked out, too.  So... I didn't tell.  Plus, I... I'm worried that if she gets caught here then... then she's just going to move online and while I don't use Facebook too much, I have made some long-distance friends there and what if they saw and believed and... and then I'd lose my friends there, too," she lamented.  "Sometimes I have nightmares about... that.  Or... or just getting left all alone and hearing people laughing."

Andrew closed his eyes and dragged his hand through his hair.  He thought of the meeting with Regina and Alyssa and how little it had accomplished.  Opening his eyes, he saw that Ivy was still looking at him.  He smiled and took one of her hands in both of his.  "Ivy, you have so many people looking out for you and wanting to help you.  If Alyssa gives you any more trouble... any trouble at all... you tell one of us.  We'll deal with whatever we have to but you do not have to put up with her treating you like that.  No one should.  No one!  I don't care what she says her dad can do.  And as for any cyber-bullying...  You have someone watching out for you online, too."

"What do you mean?" Ivy questioned.

Violeta reached for Ivy's other hand.  "Do you remember yesterday when I told you that we already pretty much knew about Alyssa?"

"Uh huh."

"Well, JenniAnn has a friend who used to work on an anti-bullying program."

JenniAnn nodded.  "Ivy, do you remember Mrs. Hunter?"

"Yes.  She tried to help when Miss Jansen got mad at me Monday."

 "It's her husband.  I went to grade school with him and he's a very, very nice man.  His name is Kevin Hunter.  A father of four.  He used to be a guidance counselor and cares immensely about keeping kids safe and preventing bullying.  So... we asked him and Mrs. Hunter to watch over you online.  I hope that's okay."

Ivy blinked back more tears, this time ones of gratitude.  "It... it's really okay.  I'm just surprised.  He doesn't even know me and Mrs. Hunter barely met me.  Why would they care?"

"Because they're good, caring people, Ivy.  There are many of them in this world," Kemara answered with an encouraging smile.

"I... I'm really seeing that now.  Thank you.  And please thank them."

"We definitely will," Andrew vowed.

"Will you promise us you'll tell us if anything else happens?" Violeta requested.

Ivy turned to her and nodded.  "I promise.  It... it feels good just to... to talk to someone about this."

JenniAnn smiled.  "I think it was good for us all.  And, ya know, I do hope you keep holding onto the hope that things will get better, Ivy.  I don't mean that Alyssa will have some sort of epiphany and Mean Girls type of turn-around.  But you will find people who will accept you and love you exactly as you are... which you have already but I mean friends your age, too... and they won't wanna change a thing about you even if they could... even if they thought your shoes were hideous.  Which yours aren't, by the way.  Gotta love the Chuck Taylors."

Ivy laughed and looked from JenniAnn to Andrew and back.

"Definitely things will get better," Kemara agreed.  "I can remember some dark days when I didn't believe that.  But it was true.  I did make friends, good friends.  And now I have Andrew and JenniAnn and Violeta and other friends who love me and who I love."

"Always," Andrew added softly, his gentle gaze settling on Ivy.  "And you will always have one Friend who will never leave you and who will always listen."

Ivy smiled and nodded.  "God."

"That would be the One." 

"It's just that sometimes..."  The girl clasped her cross again.  "Sometimes I feel bad bringing it up to Him because my grandma's always saying about how Jesus suffered so much worse a-and that I should think about that and turn the other cheek.  And... He did say that."

JenniAnn shook her head.  "Ivy, I can't imagine that Jesus meant you should keep giving Alyssa opportunities to hurt you.  I don't think that's what that passage means at all.  I mean Jesus says in Matthew that if someone slaps you on your right cheek, to offer them your left, right?"

"Yeah..."

JenniAnn knelt in front of Andrew, smiling widely.  "Can I, umm, borrow your face for a few seconds?"

The angel laughed.  For a brief moment, he remembered a collegiate JenniAnn enthusiastically relating a demonstration from her class on the Gospel of Matthew to him.  He had never seen anyone so excited about getting "slapped" on the cheek by a professor.  "Absolutely."

"Thank you kindly."  She craned around to see Ivy.  "So I'm right handed as most people are... a fact that Jesus no doubt had realized.  Now I'm going to 'slap' Andrew on his right cheek."  JenniAnn proceeded to lightly tap the back of her hand against his face.  "Now with the left hand."  She patted Andrew's cheek.  "What was the difference?"

"The first time you backhanded him.  The second time you didn't," Ivy replied.

"Right."

"Well... why?" Violeta asked.

Kemara smiled.  "Just see for yourself.  You're right handed, aren't you?"

"Yeah."

"So try to 'slap' my right cheek with your right hand but without backhanding me."

Violeta did so and grimaced.  "It feels weird to move my arm that way."

"Exactly.  You have to angle your arm in a really awkward, unnatural way.  So..."  JenniAnn turned back to Ivy.  "Generally speaking, if a person slaps you on your right cheek then that means they've backhanded you.  And we all know that's more insulting than a normal slap.  It's demeaning.  Not that getting slapped would ever be a good thing, of course.  But backhanded slap... doubly bad.  It hurts physically and psychologically.  So what I believe Jesus was saying was not that we should take others' abuse but that we should never sink to their level when they demean us.  Give them pause.  Show them that you're their equal and worthy of their respect and that, so help you God, they will NOT make you into someone like them... someone demeaning and abusive."

Ivy's face lit up.  "That's really cool!  Did you think that up all by yourself?"

"Oh no.  I was a Theology major in college.  One of my professors demonstrated this in class.  It really... wow... gave me a lot to think about cause I had sometimes felt like maybe Christians were supposed to be, well, doormat-like.  But I really don't think so, Ivy.  And definitely not in this case.  And as for comparing what you feel to what Jesus went through..."  JenniAnn shook her head.

"I agree," Kemara interjected.  "I believe Jesus went through His agony and crucifixion because He so much wanted us to know His love.  And part of loving someone is listening to them and their hurts.  I don't think He'd want you too keep from confiding in Him, Ivy.  If you went through so much for somebody... wouldn't you want to hear from that person as much as you could?"

"Y-yeah...  I really would."

Andrew smiled softly and set his hand over Ivy's.  "God is always there, Ivy, willing and wanting to listen and He will always think of you as His beautiful, wonderful, lovable little girl.  His Ivy." 

Ivy nodded, too moved to speak.

Mystified, Andrew watched as the girl gripped one of the hair sticks and hugged it to her chest, as if she knew her Friend had made it just for her.

Violeta blinked back tears. 

"Are you okay, Violeta?" Ivy asked.

The angel nodded.  "Just, umm... thinking about God.  He's, uh... He's really cool."

Andrew hugged her.  "That He definitely is.  Now... what should I do with this?"  He held up his bookmark. 

Ivy studied it then look at the array.  "I think green beads.  Maybe some blue and... and a gold star charm like that.  Cause teachers give out gold stars and, I don't know, something about you is just... celestial.  And you deserve a gold star."

JenniAnn buried her face in her shoulder to keep from remarking on the utter truth of Ivy's statement.

Andrew beamed.  "Well, thank you.  That is exactly what I'm going to do."

With that, the group refocused on their handiwork and fell into easy patter about lighter, more entertaining topics.

*~*~*

~ Ivy's Village ~

That night, Andrew and JenniAnn swung by the Hunter residence with dinner.  It doubled as a chance for Andrew to tell them to be on the lookout.  Joshua's words haunted him: Alyssa is biding her time.

A smiling Carrie greeted them at the door, hugging them.  "You both... this is so nice.  Oh my gosh...  Is that..."  She breathed in the heavenly scent coming from the large pan Andrew held.

JenniAnn grinned.  "This seemed like a night for brinner.  Cinnamon rolls, scrambled egg casserole, and fruit salad."

"That sounds amazing and the kids will love you forever.  Are you gonna stay and eat with us?" Carrie asked as she ushered them into the kitchen.

"Oh we don't want to take up your family time," Andrew protested.

The woman set a hand on his arm.  "It wouldn't be an intrusion.  Trust me.  And I think it would mean a lot to Kevin.  His guy friends have kinda... drifted."

"I'm so sorry," JenniAnn murmured.  "Andrew?"

"We can definitely stay."

"Wonderful!  Well, let me get everyone washed up and in here.  Then after I get the kids down, maybe the four of us can talk about... everything?" 

"Sure," Andrew agreed with a smile.  When Carrie left them, he hugged JenniAnn.  "I'm glad we did this.  I see it too often.  People just don't know how to handle illness so... so they decide they won't."

JenniAnn sighed.  "Yep...  Even knowing that Kevin will survive, it is hard to see him so weak.  But I wouldn't give up knowing and helping for blissful ignorance."  She pulled back and looked up at Andrew.  "I'll help Carrie with dishes and whatever afterwards.  You go sit with Kevin.  He needs some guy time.  And I would imagine you do, too.  Surrounded by women and only women all day..." 

Andrew chuckled.  It hadn't exactly been all women...  "All right."

Excited high-pitched hollers echoed through the house and soon Andrew and JenniAnn were mobbed by four hungry children.

"That smells good!"

"Who are you?"

"You have really long hair!"

"Did you really bring cin'mon rolls for dinner?!  Can I have a whole one?"

"Lorelai!  You don't even know mommy's and daddy's friends' names and you're asking them to feed you!" Carrie chastised.

The two guests laughed and crouched down so Andrew could begin introductions.

"My name is Andrew and this is JenniAnn.  She went to school with your mom and your dad."

"Hi kids!" JenniAnn greeted.  "Emilee, I remember you!  We met when you were just a tiny baby." 

The eight year old smiled.  "Hi."

JenniAnn shook her hand then looked to the little boy half hidden behind his sisters.  Her eyes flew to Kevin, who was leaning in the doorway, then rested on the little boy again.  "You must be Caleb.  You look so much like your daddy when he was your age."

The boy grinned, delighted by the comparison, then ran back to hug his father's leg.

Carrie's eyes misted at the sight but she smiled.  "Okay, everybody in their chairs so we can pray and then enjoy this yummy food Andrew and JenniAnn brought us."

After the Hunters and JenniAnn had crossed themselves, Kevin began.  "Dear Lord, please bless this food and those who prepared it and brought it to us.  Nourish and strengthen our bodies but, even more importantly, we ask you to strengthen our spirits so that we remain always close to You.  Amen."  After crossing himself again, Kevin smiled.  "Now let's get eatin'!"

A cacophonous, joyous meal began.

*~*~*

True to his word, Andrew joined Kevin in the study while Carrie and JenniAnn got the kids to bed and the leftover food and dishes tended to.  He was happy to find the man was an easy conversationalist. 

"So... how exactly did you find yourself back at Our Lady of Hope High?" Kevin asked. 

"Same way I find myself at all my assignments.  The Father sends me.  I just... show up."

"Do you have any sort of choice?  Like could you choose to have an assignment in, say, Hawaii instead?"

Andrew laughed and shook his head.  "No.  Although I have had assignments there.  I trust that if God's sending me to particular place, to a certain person then there's a very good reason for it."

"So JenniAnn seeing you when she was a kid... that wasn't accidental?"

"Definitely not accidental.  God had a reason for that, too."

Kevin marveled.  "All those times I saw her drawing you... she was drawing someone real.  I guess you're why she's kept away."  Seeing Andrew frown, the man hurriedly shook his head.  "I don't mean that like an accusation.  Please don't take it that way but... I'm seeing now how hard it must be for her to be evasive and yet... obviously she's learned some people really don't understand.  Although I think she knew that even before Bennie.  See, some of the other kids used to tease her about those drawings."

Andrew startled.  "They teased her?"

"They just kinda gave her a hard time about having an imaginary friend.  I never did.  I wanted to believe..."  Drawing in a deep breath, Kevin soldiered on.  "I had a baby sister.  Lorelai.  We named our youngest girl after her.  She died of leukemia when she was five.  I was seven.  I missed her so much and my mom... she told me an angel had come and taken Lorelai to live with Jesus.  So... JenniAnn never said that she was drawing an angel.  But she did tell me once that she'd really seen him... you.  So that's what I always imagined her drawings were: an angel.  An angel like the one who took Lorelai to Heaven.  I'm embarrassed to admit it now but one time I stole one of her crayons... because I was too shy to ask for one of the drawings so that seemed like the next best reminder." 

Tears welled in Andrew's eyes.  Lorelai...  Lai-Lai...  He remembered her.  He reached for her brother's hand.  "I think God had many, many reasons for letting JenniAnn see me that day and... I think you were one of those reasons, Kevin.  I... I was with Lorelai and your parents when she died.  And I took her Home where she remains and where she will always remain... full of energy... really full."

Even as he wept, Kevin laughed.  "That... that really sounds like Lai-Lai."

The angel smiled.  "She can run and jump and play and dance... dancing with the One who loved her first and best."

Sighing deeply, Kevin settled back into his chair.  "Thank you.  That means so... so much to me.  I wish... I wish there was some way to assure my parents that this... this isn't gonna take me, too.  They were so terrified when I got the diagnosis."

Andrew prayed that he would be given some way to help them, too.

Check your pocket.

Dutifully, Andrew reached into his pocket.  His fingers closed around a small, wooden object.  He smiled when he saw what it was.  "Kevin, tell your parents about what's happened to you.  Tell them what I told you at the Chandlers'... that you will survive this.  And tell them what I told you about Lorelai.  Then give them this."  He dropped the object into the man's hand.  "It may not make much sense right now but it will to them."

Kevin smiled, clasping the gift in his palm.  "Thank you, Andrew.  I... I'm so glad we saw you sizing up frozen dinners and that my wife freaked out on you."

Andrew burst into laughter.  "You know... I am, too." 

"It must be... extraordinary.  To have your job, I mean.  To be there when people first see..."  Kevin whistled.

"It really is."

"But hard, too, sometimes, I bet.  War... crime... epidemics..."

Andrew nodded.  "But even then I get to be there when people first see Paradise.  I love what I do."

Kevin marveled at it all.  He couldn't believe an angel... a messenger of God... was sitting with him.  He'd seen an angel eating a cinnamon roll... rather exuberantly.  He smiled.  Andrew may be an angel but, near as Kevin could tell, he was also just a guy.  "So... ya got a pick in the College World Series?"

Laughing, Andrew shook his head.  "I'm just in it for sheer love of the game.  You?"

"Oklahoma.  I have family there."

"They've got a strong team.  I could definitely see them getting far into the series.  Have you been to the new stadium?"

"Oh yeah.  It's really nice but I still miss good, ol' Rosenblatt."

Carrie's laughter sounded from the hallway where she and JenniAnn stood.  "I never imagined I'd have an angel in my house talking baseball with Kev."

"And what exactly did you imagine the angel and I would discuss?" Kevin teased.

Carrie snuggled beside him.  "Stocks and bonds," she deadpanned.

Andrew smiled.  "Trust me, even when I have to play stockbroker, I try to spend as little time as possible talking about stocks."

Laughing, JenniAnn took a seat beside him on the couch. 

"So how did things go today with Ivy?" Kevin asked.

"Really good."  Andrew looked proudly at JenniAnn.  "The girls told Ivy about their own experiences and she really opened up.  Gave us more of a history."  He frowned.  "Unfortunately, Alyssa's father is helping Eve's Girls fund their new place... and apparently Alyssa told Ivy that which I hadn't realized.  So that's partly why she was so reluctant to tell anyone about the bullying.  She's worried she might get kicked out.  Or I would.  I don't think that would happen but... but I was given the distinct impression that the powers that be don't want to ruffle the Thurrians' feathers."

Carrie grimaced.  "But, JenniAnn, you said during our phone call yesterday that it went well, too.  Maybe Alyssa's cooled down."

"I'd like to think so.  But now especially after hearing she's been at this for years and in earnest all during the past school year... I doubt it.  Alyssa knows Andrew's onto her.  I'm worried she's gonna pull something over the weekend.  I think Ivy is, too.  She brought up Facebook today.  Nothing's happened there yet, thankfully.  But it worries her.  So we told her about the both of you."

Andrew nodded.  "Ivy wanted us to thank you.  That means so much to her."

Kevin smiled.  "She's very welcome.  And I'm glad to know Ivy's aware that trouble on Facebook is a possibility.  We had some kids taunting others on Facebook at my old school.  They started it up on a Friday and then by Monday they'd deleted all the posts so there wasn't anything we could do.  If any of the bullied kids had thought to take screenshots... they weren't speaking up.  I hope that doesn't happen but if it does... Care and I will do everything we can to ensure Ivy has proof."  He turned on his laptop.  "I did find both Ivy's and Alyssa's accounts.  Tumblrs, too.  So far everything looks innocuous.  Ivy doesn't have much of anything on her accounts so that's good.  Of course, there's no way to know what Alyssa might put up under various 'friends only' settings.  But I'll be monitoring them with my lovely wife."  He squeezed Carrie's hand.  "We can also monitor some of the other assorted communities online that I know these kids spend time at."

"And we'll keep as close an eye as possible on Ivy this weekend.  We're planning on running into her at the art museum on Saturday.  Then Sunday..."  Andrew turned to JenniAnn.  "Maybe you or Kemara could find out which church she goes to for Mass, if she does go which I'm guessing she does.  We can head there Sunday."

JenniAnn hugged his arm, pleased to see how much more relaxed Andrew was compared to that first day.  "Will do."

"Good.  Beyond that... I was thinking..." Carrie started.  "Well, we were thinking..."  She took one of Kevin's hands in both of hers.  "You mentioned that Ivy's grandma isn't supportive?"

Andrew shook his head.  "Far from it.  Her grandma is very... umm..."

JenniAnn could tell the angel was struggling for a diplomatic way to describe Doreen.  "Think old school judgmental type of Catholic.  Fires of purgatory and everything," she finished for him.

"Oh..."  Kevin and Carrie both rolled their eyes.

"Well, maybe you could tell Ivy... I mean if she ever just needs to get away... she could come here," Carrie offered.  "She'd have to bunk in Emilee's room.  But we would love to have her and we could support her.  And if you think she might be embarrassed by that offer... I mean things can be a little... hard around here.  Four kids and when Kevin's dealing with the nausea... it's a lot.  It would help just to have another person over thirteen around.  We couldn't pay Ivy much but it'd get her away for hours at a time."

Andrew shook his head.  "I don't think Ivy would want... or accept... any payment.  But I could see her really taking to that idea.  She's a good, helpful girl."  He beamed at them both.  "I think it's a great idea!"

JenniAnn nodded with excitement.  "I can tell she'll be great with kids.  Maybe... if you feel up to it... once we find out about Mass, maybe you could meet us there and we could introduce Ivy to ya?"

Kevin smiled.  "I like it!  I think we make a good team.  The four of us, Kemara, Violeta, JenniAnn's mom and dad, and, of course, God.  We should have a name..."

Andrew chuckled, remembering Joshua's remark.  "Any suggestions?"

"Ivy's Village," Carrie suggested.  "You know the saying 'It takes a village to raise a child.'  Well, I feel like we're that village.  And it's a good village to be in."

"It's wonderful," JenniAnn agreed.

"Ivy's Village..." Andrew repeated.  "I love it."

Kevin planted a kiss on his wife's temple.  "It's perfect."  Then, turning his attention back to his laptop, he explained just what he had planned if Alyssa did make a move online.

*~*~*

Ivy admired her hair sticks as they lay tucked away in her drawer.  She felt she had to hide them.  Her grandma might otherwise take them, reminding her that vanity was a sin.  But the reason Ivy valued them had nothing to do with vanity.  The time she'd spent decorating them had been the first time in years that she'd felt part of a group.  And if Doreen had cared to ask her, Ivy could have told her that each one had a particular meaning... a perfectly good, valuable meaning.  As JenniAnn had suggested, each of them had made an Aslan pair.  Ivy had strung hers with four red beads to signify the nails and the crown of thorns.  She had mixed them in with white beads to symbolize the Resurrection.  Another pair featured purple and green beads, her mother's favorite combination.  From each stick hung a silver heart, one for Ivy and one for her mother.  Ivy blushed slightly as she picked up the third pair.  It looked wild and mismatched but she loved it.  Unbeknownst to the others, she had decorated the final pair with them in mind.  On each there was a green bead for Andrew since it matched his eyes, a purple one for Violeta whose name demanded it, one of the rainbow ones Kemara had admired, a red one for JenniAnn because Ivy had heard her say ruby was her birthstone, a pink one splattered with purple for Ivy herself, a tiger's eye for Lulu since it sort of matched her coat, and, finally, a bead of unfinished wood.  That bead was His.

Ivy shut the drawer, lit her candle, and murmured the prayer she always did.  Then she read a few chapters of her book and curled up into her blankets.  It didn't even occur to her to worry over nightmares.

*~*~*

Friday, June 21st

Between the breakthrough with Ivy and the planning session with the Hunters, Andrew left his loft feeling genuinely excited for the day ahead.  While JenniAnn went Below to teach; he picked Kemara and Violeta up at the Chandlers'.  Lulu had seemed entirely too interested in playing with Fawn to be taken away.  They arrived at Our Lady of Hope bright and early Friday morning; pulling into the lot just as Ivy was chaining up her bike. 

"G'morning!" Ivy greeted.

"Good morning!" Kemara replied.  "Your hair is so cute!"

The girl reached up to touch the end of her hair sticks.  "Thank you.  Are they in straight?  I didn't have a mirror."  Ivy saw little reason to tell the three that she'd put them in after leaving the house because of her concerns about her grandma confiscating them.

Violeta smiled.  "They look great to me."

"I'm glad we did that yesterday.  I have to say, it's the most fun I've ever had beading," Andrew remarked with a grin.  "So how's your morning been so far, Ivy?  And yesterday evening?"

Once her bike was secured, Ivy approached.  "Really good."  She beamed.  "I didn't have any nightmares.  Just a kinda weird but cool one."

"You wanna talk about it?" Andrew offered.

The teenager nodded.  "That would be nice.  But do you think we could go in the chapel to talk?"

"Definitely," the angel of death agreed.  "Kemara and Violeta, you coming?"

Kemara nodded.  "Always a good way to start the day."

The four made their way to the chapel.  The way the sun shone directly at the stained glass windows made the room extraordinarily beautiful.  For a few minutes, they all settled into separate pews and prayed silently.  Then Ivy moved to kneel in front of the Pieta.  Sensing now was when she wanted to talk, Andrew sat down beside her.

"So what's the story with this dream?"

Ivy smiled, still feeling warmed by the memory of it.  "I dreamed I was with my dad.  At least... I felt like he was my dad."

Andrew frowned.  Ivy hadn't mentioned caring to know who her father was, let alone having any desire to have him around.

"I don't... I mean I don't think it was my biological dad in the dream.  I couldn't see him.  He was kinda fuzzy but I think he was..."  Ivy blushed.  "You're going to think this sounds really weird."

"Try me."

"When I was really little... before I knew where babies came from... I used to think He was my dad."  Ivy pointed to Jesus.  "Not the statue itself but actually Jesus.  That probably sounds sad but I was also little enough to just think He was just sleeping there... in His mom's arms like I sometimes did."

Andrew patted the girl's hand.  "Ivy, I don't think that sounds weird at all.  And I really doubt Jesus would think that."  He knew Joshua wouldn't and he wished he could adamantly tell Ivy that but he could at least say something.  "Remember that part in the Bible you mentioned Tuesday?  "Let the children come unto me.'  He wouldn't have said that if He hadn't meant it.  And then there's the Psalms where God's described as a 'father to the fatherless.'  I think He would be glad that you loved Him like that and that instead of feeling a void..."

"That was it exactly.  I never felt like I didn't have a dad.  Not really.  I mean sometimes I wished that he'd be there waiting for me when I came home and knew exactly how I liked my sandwiches and would hug me so tight that I'd feel like nothing bad could ever happen.  But I never felt a total absence.  But in the dream... He was really there.  Around.  Just like a normal dad.  It was... cool."  Ivy smiled to herself.

The angel of death smiled.  "I'm really glad you had that dream, Ivy.  I hope you never forget that feeling."

Ivy sighed contently.  "I hope I don't, either."

Andrew wanted to commit to memory the peaceful look that was on his assignment's face that very moment.  He prayed that, no matter what happened in Ivy's life, she would always come back to that feeling of complete tranquility and love that came only from being in the presence of the One who had given her life.

*~*~*

After seeing Ivy safely to the computer classroom
and escorting Kemara and Violeta to the little theatre, Andrew swung by the teachers' lounge to fill up their coffee mugs.  He halted when he saw Bennie filling her own cup.

"Hi," she greeted, turning away from him.

"Hi Bennie.  How are you?"

"Good.  You?"

"Same, thank you."


"Coming for coffee?" 

"Yeah."

Bennie stepped away to allow him past.  Andrew felt uneasy as she watched him fill the three mugs.

"Can I just say something?" she asked as he gathered up a few creamers and sugar packets.  "These stilted pleasantries can't go on forever."

Andrew turned to face her and nodded.  "Sure.  I agree."

"I've been thinking about what you said Tuesday.  You were right.  I've been pretty awful.  That was wrong.  I'm sorry.  And I just wanted you to know... as far as I'm concerned... we're good."

Andrew smiled.  "Well, good.  Thank you."

"I'd like to apologize to JenniAnn, too.  Is she here?"

"Not yet.  She has another obligation but she'll be here a little after noon.  I'm sure..."  Andrew looked out the window then back to Bennie.  He hoped and prayed she was being sincere and wasn't going to hurt JenniAnn again.  "I'm sure she'll be happy to hear from you," he finished.  "Maybe you could swing by and speak to her."  He definitely didn't want her confronting JenniAnn alone.

"I hope so.  Well, I better head to the gym.  Have a good day."

"You too, Bennie."

The woman smiled once more at the angel then left.  Andrew ran the conversation back over in his head, looking for any warning signs.  Finding none, he headed to his classroom in hopes it would be a good day all around.

*~*~*

JenniAnn could tell immediately that Andrew had something on his mind when he came to pick her up.

"What's wrong?  Is Ivy okay?" she asked as soon as she had the front door open.

Andrew hugged her.  "We saw Ivy this morning before class and she showed up for lunch right before I left.  Both times she was just fine.  It's something else.  I'll explain in the van if you're ready?"

JenniAnn nodded before stepping back into the house to gather up Lulu who was by then ready for some time away from the rambunctious Fawn.  "Leaving now.  See ya for dinner," she called to her parents who were both off work for the rest of the week.

"Invite Andrew!" Allison called.

Andrew poked his head in, smiling.  "I'll be there.  Thank you."

"Seat belts.  No speeding.  No texting," Robert called without looking up from his newspaper.

"Yes sir," the angel responded, slightly taken aback.  Did Robert actually think he would text while driving or speed... let alone when Laja was with him?

JenniAnn rolled her eyes.  "Sure thing, Dad."  She grinned at Andrew as they walked down the porch steps.  "I think sometimes he just can't help himself with the dad warnings.  At least he hasn't tried to give you The Talk... yet."

"You... uh... you think he might?"

"Knowing him: yes.  Just to get a kick outta your reaction.  But Mom would cut him off before he got further than 'When you love someone it's perfectly natural to...'"

Andrew chuckled.  "Well, I guess I could handle that much."  He opened the door so JenniAnn could hop in.  When he settled into the driver's seat, Andrew found she was staring expectantly at him.

"So what's the deal?  You looked kinda... dazed when you were walking up to the house."

Andrew started to drive.  "Well... I went to grab coffee in the lounge this morning and Bennie was there and... she says she's sorry.  And that things are good.  She wants to apologize to you, too."

JenniAnn blinked, stroking Lulu's snout as the dog made herself comfortable in her lap.  "Really?  Did she seem sincere?"

"I hope so.  I wanted to believe she was.  And maybe that's why I'm cautious.  Because I did want to believe...  It really came out of no where, though.  She hasn't said a word to me since Tuesday.  You?"

"Nope.  Wouldn't that be something, though?  It would be encouraging to Ivy, wouldn't it?  I mean if Bennie was sincere and then we could tell Ivy that sometimes... sometimes bullies do realize the error of their ways."

"It would be.  But I just don't want... I don't want you to get your hopes up too much or... or trust her too much just because you want to have that happy ending to tell Ivy."

"It... it wouldn't just be to tell Ivy."

"I know, Laja.  I know it would mean a lot to you, too.  To both of us.  So... talk to Bennie.  But be careful."

JenniAnn said nothing until they were stopped at a red light.  Then she leaned over and kissed the angel's cheek.  "I love you.  And I will be careful.  Promise."

Andrew smiled.  "Love you, too.  And thank you." 

Then, when the light changed, they continued onto Our Lady of Hope to see what the afternoon would bring.

*~*~*

The usual group of five plus dog passed lunch pleasantly.  They made plans for the next day, agreeing to meet at 10 AM in the lobby of the art museum.  All too soon their time was up and class began.

"All right," Andrew started.  "So we've been in session for three weeks now which means your first book report is due Monday.  If you're not sure what to do, I have some samples of formats you can use that I'm passing around now.  On Monday, I'll ask each of you to say a few words about the book you read.  Just something to give everyone an idea of whether or not it's something they might want to read, too.  Any questions?  Yes, Jasmine?"

"Does it have to be a certain number of words?  The written report, I mean."

"No.  But it has to be enough to let me know you really read the book.  Anyone else?  Brie?"

"If on Monday someone reads a report and that book sounds really good so then we read it, can we do a report next time on that book or not?"

Andrew smiled.  "If someone gets you that excited about a book then I think it would be great for them to know that.  Sure.  You can do another report on it.  Any other questions?  No?  Okay.  So today we're going to look at some examples of first person narrative.  Does anyone have any favorite books, stories, or poems written in first person?"

"Twilight!" Sierra shouted.

Andrew had to keep from smirking when he saw JenniAnn dramatically shaking on the stage with her boxes.  "That's right."

"The Hunger Games," Morgan added.

"Never Let Me Go," Brie offered.

Andrew was taken aback that a fourteen year old would have read that.  JenniAnn had gotten a hold of it at twenty seven and been so traumatized that it had taken him two weeks to assure her that he was absolutely positive no one was farming clones for organs.  "Uh yeah.  Definitely.  Great example."

On stage helping JenniAnn, Kemara was muttering.  "Please don't let anyone say..."

Alyssa piped up, sitting straight up in her chair with a smarmy grin.  "Fifty Shades of Gray." 

Several of the girls in the class giggled nervously.

"What is that about, anyway?  I've seen it all over stores but when I asked Andrew he..." Violeta gestured to the front of the classroom.  "He looked like that."

Grimacing, JenniAnn saw that Andrew was turning several shades of red.  "It's a very adult book with horrid messages about romance and sex and gender, Violeta."

"Oh."  The young angel blinked.  "But why would anyone read that?"

Kemara patted her hand.  "God love you."

"I, uh, haven't read..." Andrew mumbled.  "Really, I don't think anyone in this class is old enough to have..."

"I have," Alyssa interrupted.  "Maybe I could write a report about..."

Andrew shook his head.  "No.  Do your report on the book I approved that first week."

"Well, maybe for the next one..."

"Jane Eyre.  It's written in first person."  Ivy smiled gently at her teacher, hoping to save him. 

Grateful, Andrew returned the smile and nodded.  "Exactly.  Jane narrates that.  And, actually, we're going to read an excerpt of that novel and some others.  And we're going to do that... right now.
"  Andrew grabbed the notes he'd taken then motioned for his helpers. 

JenniAnn, Kemara, and Violeta quickly joined Andrew, eager to get the class refocused.

Andrew smiled at them as he passed out the scripts.  "Great.  So the four of us are going to read some examples of first person narrative along with the same part rewritten in third person.  Then we'll discuss the difference.  Ms. Chandler, could you start us off with the Jane Eyre passage as written?"

"Sure," JenniAnn agreed.  "'Gentle reader, may you never feel what I then felt!  May your eyes never shed such stormy, scalding, heart-wrung tears as poured from mine.  May you never appeal to Heaven in prayers so hopeless and so agonised as in that hour left my lips; for never may you, like me, dread to be the instrument of evil to what you wholly love.'"

As she heard the words, a pang of dread filled Ivy.  She began to worry that, in trying to help Andrew, she might have targeted Alyssa against him.  She swiveled around to face the girl and was terrified when she saw her vindictive smile... but at least it was fixed on her and not the teacher.

*~*~*

After the class was over and the girls had all left, JenniAnn approached Andrew and hugged him.  "I wanted to earlier but, well... that probably wouldn't have helped matters."

"Do you think Alyssa's really read that?" Andrew questioned, still appalled by the idea.

"No idea.  It's possible.  But then I also think she's the type just to say she had in order to get a rise.  If it helps, I've never read one word of it and I still knew it was first person just from all the parody readings on the Internet.  Same for Kemara.  So... she very well could have known it from that."

"I just hope it doesn't make things worse for Ivy since... well, she helped me out of that."  The angel smiled fondly.

"Andrew, even if Alyssa does act up... she's seemingly never needed much reason for it.  You won't be the reason.  And now there's Ivy's Village to contend with," JenniAnn reminded.

Andrew's smile grew as his eyes lit up, remembering Carrie's and Kevin's resolve.  "This is true."

"So... I was thinking I'd swing by Bennie's room really quick?  Just cause... I don't want that hanging over me all weekend."  Looking to where Kemara was giving Violeta tips on writing her article, JenniAnn smiled.  "I want to just enjoy tomorrow with all of you and Ivy at the Joslyn.  So if it's okay, I'll go do that now."

Andrew sighed, gliding his hand over her hair.  He really wished Bennie would have that conversation with JenniAnn in full view of him but they were both adults and it wasn't really his business.  He nodded.  "Sure.  I hope it goes well... I'll be praying it goes well."

"Me too."  JenniAnn clasped his hand in hers for a moment then exited the room.  She was halfway to the gym when she saw Bennie walking towards her. 

"Hi JenniAnn," Bennie greeted.

"Hi Bennie."  JenniAnn nervously twisted her Claddagh ring.  "Andrew said you wanted to talk to me."

The woman nodded and stared down at the linoleum.  "Listen...  Seeing you and Andrew around..."  Bennie's eyes welled.  "Well, it's made me miss what we once had.  The friendship, the fun, the banter, and the late night philosophical talks..."

JenniAnn sighed over the remembrance.  "We did have some nice times."

Bennie reached for her hand.  "I'm sorry for the way I've behaved over these last years.  I know I was sometimes a pain even before that but after... after I got divorced I just felt so downcast and unlovable and..."

"You were never that, Bennie.  Never."

"I know... but I felt it.  And instead of coming to you and Andrew for solace, I came at you with claws bared and vicious words.  But now... now I'd like to begin to make amends.  I'm not..."  Bennie blushed.  "I'm not sure I can really level with Andrew just yet.  I sent him some uh... inappropriate letters after I last visited Dyeland."

It was JenniAnn's turn to blush. 

"I did... I talked to him a little this morning but nothing too deep or detailed.  But maybe to begin healing, you and I could spend some time together?"

JenniAnn wasn't keen about the idea.  However, having assured Ivy that things would get better, she knew she'd feel like a hypocrite if she didn't allow for the possibility that maybe things had gotten better with Bennie.  She found herself nodding.

"That's great!  How about tomorrow night?  We could walk around the Old Market like we used to.  It would be so much fun!  Oh and since you can't drive, I'd be happy to pick you up."

"All right," JenniAnn agreed.  She figured that would be safe.  Andrew's loft was in the Old Market.  If she needed to make a quick escape, she could. "What time tomorrow?"

"Well, I figure you'll probably want to eat dinner with your parents and your guests.  8:00?"

"Sure.  Thanks, Bennie."  Smiling, JenniAnn patted her hand.  "I'll be looking forward to it but I better get back to the classroom now so the others aren't waiting on me."

"Gotcha.  See you tomorrow!"  Bennie smiled radiantly then turned away.

JenniAnn watched her for a few moments, searching for any sign that her sometime friend was being insincere.  Finding none, she started back to the little theatre.  She had just passed the computer room when her cell phone sounded.  "Hello?" she greeted.

"I, um, I'm sorry to call but... but I think I forgot my keys and I don't know where my grandma is and she's not answering her cell phone so...  This is Ivy, by the way."

JenniAnn smiled.  "I knew it was you, Ivy.  So are you locked out of your place?"

"Yeah..."

"Do any of your neighbors have keys?"

"No.  Grandma doesn't trust them."

"Okay.  Well, we haven't left the school yet but we can do that now then how about we swing by your place and you can just hang out at my parents' with us until we can reach your grandma."

"Oh... for real?"  There was a brief pause.  "Oh no, I don't want to impose.  Could you maybe just take me to St. Stephen's and I could wait for my Grandma there?"

JenniAnn frowned.  "We'll talk when we get there.  I'm sure Andrew's got your address in a file somewhere but why don't you give it to me just so we don't have to hunt around?"

"1012 S. Mulberry St.  Thank you.  I'm sorry I..."

"It's no trouble at all.  It's actually on the way to my parents.  We should be there in no more than ten minutes.  Just hang on and go sit somewhere shady.  Okay?"

"Okay.  Thanks.  See you soon."

"Definitely.  Talk to ya in a bit.  G'bye."

"Bye."

After hanging up, JenniAnn raced to Andrew's classroom and ran in.  "Hey, we gotta go.  Ivy just called."

Andrew scrambled to collect his briefcase and Lulu. 

"No..." Kemara moaned.

"No, no.  She's fine.  But locked out.  Her Grandma's not answering her cell.  So I said we'd come get her.  She said we could just drop her off at a church but..."

Andrew reached the door and hugged her, relieved both that Ivy was okay and that JenniAnn seemed to be, too.  "Thinking your parents'?"

"Yep."

Violeta beamed.  "That would be so much fun!"  She grabbed her things and threw them into her bag.  "Let's go!"

"Andrew, it's a good thing you have a van," Kemara remarked with a smile as they hurried out of the classroom.

Andrew remembered his initial disappointment at discovering the far from sleek Jolly Green was his new car.  As always, God knew best.  "A very good thing," he agreed.

*~*~*

The four rode up to the house on 1012 Mulberry to find Ivy sitting on the stoop of her house, reading the Anne book.  Relief was writ clearly on her face when she saw them.

"I'm sorry.  I'm so sorry.  So stupid to have..."

Violeta hugged her.  "We all forget things sometimes.  Besides, it's a good thing in a way.  Now you can come have dinner with us.  JenniAnn's mom and dad are cooking out and there's going to be grilled chicken and potato salad and corn on the cob and..."

Ivy shook her head.  "They don't have to..."

JenniAnn approached.  "They want to.  And it's Friday night!  You should have a little fun after a full week of, well, basically school."

"I think I heard something about cookies and ice cream being involved..." Kemara tantalized.

Ivy smiled, beginning to be won over.

"I hear your Literature teacher is really intense.  You deserve to unwind after putting up with him.  Oh wait..."  Andrew cocked his head playfully.

The teenager laughed.  "All right.  Thank you.  I'd love to join you."

"Great!  Cause I already told my parents you were.  I know the strength of our powers of persuasion," JenniAnn teased.  "And now you can meet my dog!  My Fawn."

Ivy grinned. 

Andrew opened the van door to allow Kemara, JenniAnn, and Ivy in.  Violeta hopped into the passenger seat with Lulu.  Once the angel of death was settled, he swiveled to face Ivy.  "Do you have an answering machine or does your grandma have voicemail?"

"Yes.  Both."

"Good.  Leave a message on both so she'll know you're safe and ask her to call you.  We'll drive you back when she's here to let you in."

"Okay.  Thank you again so much."

Andrew beamed.  "Consider it payback for earlier with the, uh, book discussion."

Her cheeks turning pink to match his, Ivy smiled.  "Okay."

*~*~*

Despite unanimous offers to help prepare dinner, Allison and Robert had relegated their daughter and guests to the front porch with an hors d'oeuvre tray and a pitcher of orange juice and ginger ale slush. 

"I think your parents are really outdoing themselves tonight," Kemara remarked to JenniAnn before taking a sip of her drink.

"I think they feel kinda guilty about heading out of town for a few days," their daughter replied.  "But I think we'll do fine managing ourselves.  And if not... Andrew can bail us out."  She grinned at him over the rim of her glass.

The angel of death laughed.  "I think you'll manage.  Besides, you won't have much time to get yourselves into trouble.  We have the museum tomorrow."  He smiled at Ivy.  "And then Mass on Sunday.  Have you decided where you want to go?"

JenniAnn shook her head.  "I don't really want to go to my old church.  Bad memories.  Ivy, do you go to St. Stephen's?"

"Yep.  Their 10:30 Mass is pretty good.  Contemporary.  A couple weeks ago we sang 'Lean On Me.'  I thought my grandma was going to explode but I loved it.  So that's the one I like to go to.  The priest is really nice.  His name is Fr. Xavier.  It always makes me think of the X-Men."

"Well, as long as he doesn't have a friend named Fr. Magneto, I think it's okay," Andrew jested.

JenniAnn giggled.  "Max would be so proud of you, Andrew."  She turned to Ivy to explain.  "He's a friend who works in a comic book store.  So are you planning to go to Mass there on Sunday?"

"Yep.  Always do."

"Then maybe that's the one we should go to," Kemara suggested, mentally checking 'find out what church Ivy goes to' off her check list.

Violeta grinned at Ivy.  "You might get sick of us."

The teenager adamantly shook her head.  "No way."

"Well, good.  So... you left pretty quickly after class today.  Everything going okay?" Andrew checked.

"Oh yeah.  And class itself was really great.  I loved that first person activity.  But, umm... I caught Alyssa glaring at me.  So I'm a little nervous."  Ivy fumbled with the carrot sticks and hummus on her plate.  "I know you said not to worry but with her dad being who he is... I'm worried that she's going to get me kicked out or... or you, Andrew, and then... I guess all of you would leave."

"Not necessarily," Kemara assured.  "First of all, JenniAnn was actually brought in by the school.  And then I was brought in by JenniAnn.  So we'd still be around.  And Violeta's paper would still want their story.  But I wouldn't worry too much.  Andrew... well..."

"I have my connections, too," Andrew consoled.  "Sometimes people find out that they're not quite as powerful as they think they are."

Encouraged, Ivy brightened.  "I've been thinking this past week.. about Alyssa.  I'm so angry at her but at the same time... some part of me does feel bad for her."

Kemara blinked, taken aback by the statement.  "Now that's a whole lot of compassion right there."

Ivy blushed.  "I only mean that it's got to be a pretty sad life to get pleasure out of putting other people down... and just to spend so much of your time focusing on negative things.  Like my grandma.  I wonder sometimes what it will be like for her to look back on her life, when it's over, and realize that she spent so much time zeroing in on flaws and not seeing all the beautiful things.  And I thought about all the great stuff I've learned in the very same classes that Alyssa's spent writing awful notes in.  You could probably drop her in the middle of the Joslyn and instead of being pulled in by Degas' ballerina, she'd be drawing her little joke things.  And my grandma can sit in Mass and hear the Sermon on the Mount and the beauty of that and come out rambling about how some girl was dressed.  She... she sees a wrathful judge instead of a... a loving dad.  It's sad."

Andrew reached over to squeeze her hand.  "I think that's a very profound realization to make... and you're way ahead of the game, Ivy, to realize that when you're so young."

JenniAnn nodded.  "I wish I'd been that clear-sighted back in the day."

"Me too," Kemara agreed.

"Me three," Violeta added.  "I mean... a couple days ago.  I wasn't born yet back in your..."  She abruptly trailed off.  "Yore times!  I mean times of yore.  I wasn't born then."

Ivy glanced curiously at her but said nothing, not wanting to embarrass Violeta.

"This veggie dip is really good," Andrew declared brightly after he was through laughing quietly into his napkin. 

"Uh huh," Kemara agreed.  "So, Violeta, how's your story coming?"

"Really well!  I showed my editor my first one and he really liked it.  But he said he wants me to make future installments a little more... 'heart-string pulling' is the way he put it."

Ivy picked up Lulu.  "Just put a photo of Lulu in it.  Whose heart-strings wouldn't be pulled by this face?"

Andrew smiled as Ivy nuzzled the dog.  As if to show she was just as lovable, Fawn climbed onto his lap and planted her backside firmly on his chest.  "Well, hello!"

JenniAnn laughed.  "I have yet to figure out why she thinks that's the appropriate way to sit."

"I love dogs," Ivy murmured.

"Do you have any pets?" Kemara asked.

The teenager shook her head.  "No, Grandma says they're messy.  But you're not messy, are you?"  She kissed Lulu between the eyes.

Though they didn't realize it, as they watched Ivy cuddle Lulu, each of the adults added "Get Ivy a pet somehow" to their mental check lists.

*~*~*

Leaning back in a lawn chair in the Chandlers' backyard following a massive dinner, Andrew stared up at the stars and drank in the happy sounds around him.  Allison was enthralling them with stories about her work as a children's librarian.  Ivy laughed loudly and freely over the more amusing anecdotes.  To the angel's other side, Robert patiently tried to explain the finer points of cribbage to Violeta.  And in the upper yard, the dogs' play was punctuated by the sound of squeaky toys and playful barking.  All of it accompanied by a chorus of crickets.  It was, in a word, idyllic.

Then came an electronic chiming noise.

"Oh.  That... it's my grandma.  I'm sure," Ivy explained, walking a few paces away to answer.

Andrew immediately sat up.

"I just... I guess I forgot to grab them... I'm sorry, Grandma.  But... but they said it wasn't any... trouble."

JenniAnn took a seat beside Andrew and held his hand.  "Can I go with you when you drive her back?"

The angel kept his eyes trained on Ivy.  "I wish you would.  Maybe we can talk to Doreen and you could..."

"Try to reason with her?  Woman to woman, Catholic to Catholic," JenniAnn smiled bitterly.

Andrew nodded, bringing her hand to his lips.  Something had to give.

"I'll... I'll leave now.  I'll be there soon.  Grandma, I promise I'm not doing any... anything bad.  Grandma, please don't..."

Allison approached the girl.  "Ivy, you want to give me the phone?"

Crying, Ivy handed it over.  She slunk beside Kemara on the patio swing.

"Hello.  Mrs. Lee?  Hi!  My name is Allison Chandler...  Well, my daughter volunteers with Eve's Girls and when your girl couldn't get in the house, my daughter and her friends invited her over here for dinner.  No...  No, I think I would know if they were having wild parties..."

Ivy groaned.

"Ma'am, my daughter is thirty years old and her friends are... well, they're about the same...  Right.  I don't think you have to worry about...  No.  No boys here.  Only my husband and Ivy's teacher who is a family friend... both middle-aged guys."  Allison mouthed a 'sorry' to Andrew who only smiled back.  "Yes, they teach in one of the sessions Ivy is in...  A couple of us can definitely drive Ivy back...  Well, okay.  Sure.  If you'd rather do that, that's fine.  We're at 9133 Emerson St.  It's a slate blue house with burgundy trim.  All right.  We'll see you soon.  Good bye, Mrs. Lee."  Allison ended the call then handed the phone back to Ivy.  "You're grandma's going to come here to pick you up, sweetie.  She said it'll be about fifteen minutes."

"I'm sorry!" Ivy sobbed.  "I didn't mean to make all... all this trouble a-and have her be... be rude."

Kemara hugged her.

"Don't sweat it, kid," Robert called.  "We've all got one of them in the family tree.  That reminds me.  Has anyone heard from Mother today?"

JenniAnn used Andrew's shoulder to stifle a laugh.  "Dad... that's awful."

"Awfully true," he countered.

Andrew smiled when he saw Ivy's lips begin to curl upwards.  He stood and crouched in front of her.  "Hey, I think this is a good thing.  I've been wanting to meet with your grandma and tell her what a great student you are.  Now I can."

JenniAnn looked around to see the others nodding.  She smiled.  This was better than her and Andrew dropping Ivy off.  Now Doreen would have to face her granddaughter's supporters in the form of three Catholic women, two angels... and her dad.

*~*~*

"That... that's her car."  Ivy turned away from the window and looked at Allison and Robert.  "Thank you so much for your kindness and for the wonderful dinner and..."  She smiled when Allison handed her a plastic container.  "For the cookies."  She turned to the others.  "Thanks for coming to get me and for inviting me here.  I had a really awesome time.  I hope... I hope my grandma doesn't say anything offensive but I'm really, really sorry if she does."

Andrew rested his hand on her shoulder.  "You don't have to apologize for her.  What she says is her own doing.  Now, I'm going to go out there and help her in." 

After smiling reassuringly at Ivy, Andrew stepped outside and walked swiftly down the front lawn.  "Mrs. Lee, please let me give you a hand.  That driveway's a little steep."  Once he was near her, he smiled.  "I'm Andrew Rochester.  I teach the Literature and Drama session Ivy's in with Eve's Girls."

"Thank you, young man."  Doreen took Andrew's offered arm.  "She's not causing you trouble, is she?"

"Definitely not!  We've all had a great time tonight.  She's a really great kid."

"I mean in class.  Has she been fussing and causing problems?"

The angel frowned.  "No.  Not at all.  She's a delight to have in the class.  A bright girl with a lot of talent.  But... I do have some concern that she's being bullied by another girl... one from her own school."  Andrew studied the woman in the moonlight.  This was why he'd wanted this time.  He wanted to talk to Doreen about Alyssa without Ivy hearing and feeling self-conscious.  "I thought you should know about it."

"Old news."  Doreen sighed.  "Ivy just needs to learn to not take everything so seriously.  And she could stand to lose a few pounds."

Andrew felt like he'd been slapped.  "Excuse me?"

"Well, all she does is sit around and read.  She's getting chubby.  The other girl's right about that."

"I absolutely do not think she is and agreeing with Ivy's bully isn't the answer to this at all, Mrs. Lee.  Someone is being cruel to your grandchild and that's all you can say?"  Having reached the top of driveway, Andrew waved to the chairs on the porch.  "Could we talk about this for a few minutes?"

Doreen stepped away from the angel.  "I just want to get Ivy and go.  She's taken up enough of your time.  And I won't be taking advice from some man who has only known my granddaughter for three weeks.  I'm her grandmother!  I know how she really is!" 

At that moment, the front door flew open and JenniAnn and Kemara appeared.  They had been watching the scene and saw Andrew drag his hand through his hair as his shoulders tensed.  Nonetheless, they feigned ignorance.

"Good evening!  You must be Mrs. Lee!" JenniAnn greeted warmly.  "It's so wonderful to meet you.  Ivy's an absolute gem!"

Kemara nodded.  "I wish I'd been that insightful when I was her age."

Doreen stared at them.  "And who are you?"

Andrew looked at the two women with pride.  "Mrs. Lee, this is JenniAnn and Kemara.  They help me in my classroom.  This is JenniAnn's parents' house."

Doreen sized them up.  "I see.  Well, thank you for your hospitality but I'll take Ivy home now.  I apologize for her carelessness and imposition."

"It was no imposition," JenniAnn insisted.  "I'm just glad we could give her some fun times after a fairly rough week."

Doreen rolled her eyes.  "So I've heard.  The girl just needs thicker skin and to stop worrying about what everyone else thinks about her.  Pride is a sin."

"I don't think it's pride to want to be liked," JenniAnn protested.  "And treated well.  And being fifteen is such a difficult time anyway what with..."

"Do you have children?" Doreen demanded.

Kemara gripped JenniAnn's elbow when she saw her quake slightly.

Andrew closed his eyes, willing his love to her, hoping it would mend the gaping wound Doreen had carelessly torn open.

"I do not," JenniAnn replied through gritted teeth.

Doreen smiled smugly.  "You can lecture me when you've raised a child and learned what all they can get into."

At that moment, Ivy stepped out of the house.  She was flanked by Allison and Violeta with Robert following a few paces behind. 

"There you are.  Go get in the car." 

Ivy turned to Allison and hugged her.  "Thank you."  She smiled at Robert.  "I really appreciate it."

"Come again any time!" the man boomed, ensuring Doreen could hear.  "Any time at all.  We loved having you." 

Violeta hugged the girl and whispered in her ear.  "I hope we can still meet tomorrow.  If anything comes up, call or text JenniAnn, okay?"

Ivy nodded.  She whispered thanks to Andrew, Kemara, and JenniAnn as she hastened to the car.

Doreen looked up at Allison and Robert.  "Thank you for your kindness.  Have a good night."  She turned to Andrew.  "I won't be needing help to my car."

"Mrs. Lee, please, if you'd just give me a couple more..."

The woman cut off Andrew's plea.  "Please restrict your interactions with my granddaughter to the classroom only, sir."

Robert made a move towards the woman but Allison retrained him, knowing any further confrontation would only embarrass Ivy.

JenniAnn sucked in a breath to keep from screaming and clasped Andrew's hand.

The angel only stared back at Ivy's grandmother with a steely gaze.  "God loves Ivy, ma'am.  He wants you to love her, too."

Doreen blinked then turned on her heel, hurried down the driveway, and drove off.

"She... she's awful!" JenniAnn cried.

Andrew pulled her into a hug.  "God loves Doreen, too."

"I don't," she muttered.

The angel kissed her hair.  "Keep trying to."

Allison approached and patted her daughter's shoulder.  "Come inside.  Let's have some tea."

Nodding, JenniAnn went with her mother.  Kemara and Robert followed.

Andrew leaned against the porch railing and looked out at where Doreen's car had been.  Violeta moved next to him.

"Why do they think they need to earn His love?"

"Not all of them do."

"She seems to..."

"Yeah."  Andrew sighed.  "Probably at some point someone told Doreen that she had to earn God's love.  She told it to Francesca.  Francesca knew that God loved her as she was.  She knew He's loving and forgiving.  She taught that to Ivy.  But Doreen... she just can't accept that.  And you can see how that's hurting Ivy."

Frowning, Violeta nodded.  "She's probably not going to let her come to the museum tomorrow, is she?"

"I'm afraid not."

"It wasn't right what Doreen said to you... and the way she said it.  Like... like you were doing something wrong."

Andrew shrugged.  "I'm not taking it personally.  Doreen seems to see sin everywhere so why should I be any different?  But I don't like what that mindset is doing to Ivy.  Not at all."

Violeta hugged his arm.  "Do you know yet if this is AOD work or caseworking?"

Andrew shook his head. 

"I just... I don't want it to be AOD work." 

With a sad smile, Andrew wrapped his trainee in his embrace.  "Me neither."

"
I really like Ivy and I... I know we would still see her either way but... I want her to stay here.  I like having friends here," Violeta confessed.

Andrew's smile turned wistful.  "I do, too."

They remained on the porch for a few minutes, looking out at the beautiful night God had made then they joined the others for tea and consolation.

*~*~*

~ Biding Time ~

Saturday, June 22nd

Andrew returned to the Chandlers' house the next morning.  He was glad to receive a report from JenniAnn that she had spoken to Carrie late the previous night and Kevin earlier in the morning.  At both times the coast was clear online.  Relieved, Andrew sat down to breakfast with the others.  He was downing his third German pancake when, sitting beside him, JenniAnn jolted.

"Phone vibrated.  Text," she explained.

Everyone gathered around the table watched as JenniAnn checked her cell phone.  They all knew what it meant when her face fell.

"'Grounded.  See you Monday.  Sad face,'" she read, shaking her head.  "Well, what should I text back?"

Andrew gently stroked JenniAnn's back when he saw her begin to quake with anger.  "Tell Ivy we're thinking of her.  And if there's anything we can do: we're here."

"And tell her to make herself a nice cup of tea, get out Allison's cookies, and enjoy her book," Kemara added.

"I hope she can...  I hope Doreen isn't being awful," Violeta fretted.

"We should ship the whole lot of those types off to Rome and let the pope deal with them," Robert muttered.

"Robert..." Allison murmured unconvincingly. 

Andrew said nothing.  It was far from a charitable idea but he knew the anger towards intolerant people who called themselves Catholics ran deep in the Chandler family.  He couldn't fault Robert for his feelings.

JenniAnn typed their replies and sent them.  She set the phone on the table and they all stared at it.  It took only a moment for it to vibrate.  "'
You all are great.  I'll do that.  At least Grandma's gone on a retreat for the weekend so I can relax.  But she has a neighbor watching the house...'"  JenniAnn groaned.  "Oh that's wonderful!  Doreen won't trust the neighbors with a copy of her keys but she goes and tells them that her granddaughter's alone in there for the weekend!"

"It's ridiculous!  I think we should call CPS," Robert spat out.

"Honey, they're not going to rush right over there to look into a fifteen year old left alone for the weekend.  Besides, even if they did, getting Ivy into the system will just make things worse," Allison pointed out.

"I agree.  For an introverted girl like Ivy, that would be way too much to deal with.  But... that doesn't mean we do nothing.  Laja, can you tell her that if at any point she feels scared or lonely, she needs to text you right away and a couple of us will be over there."  The angel of death grimaced.  "Not me.  I don't want a neighbor to tell Doreen I was there.  But I could drop a couple of you girls off."

"Typing now." 

"I just... I don't understand why Doreen is acting like this.  When I was preparing to join the Catholic Church, I read so many beautiful things about God's forgiveness and how we should be merciful and compassionate.  Why doesn't Doreen seem to know those parts?" Kemara questioned.

Allison smiled sympathetically.  "Take it from a fellow convert: these types have very little to do with Catholicism or any form of Christianity.  They like to be right and they like to be in control.  If they were Jewish, they'd use the Torah to justify their behavior.  If they were Muslim, they'd use the Koran.  From what I've gathered, Ivy's mother went against Doreen's wishes and that probably drove her crazy.  Now poor Ivy is stuck dealing with a frustrated woman who is determined not to have her will circumvented again.  I'm sure poor Andrew's seen it plenty."  She reached over to squeeze his hand.

He set his other hand over hers.  "I'm afraid so.  But...  I've also seen a whole lot of love and compassion and mercy in my day.  And that's what I hold onto at times like this.  That and knowing that God is always all of those things... it's just... it's up to humans to accept that.  And angels, too."

JenniAnn's phone jostled again and she swooped it up.  "'I will definitely do that.  Going to go read Anne now... with cookies and tea.'"  She smiled.  "Well, maybe we can head to the art museum next weekend.  Oh.  She musta texted more."  She referred to her phone.  "She... she wrote 'Love to you all.'"

"Back to her," Kemara murmured as Violeta nodded profusely.

JenniAnn batted at tears and handed Andrew the phone.  "Could you?"

"Sure, Laja."  Andrew typed the message and then handed the phone back to her.  "Hey there... are you all right?" he murmured as he gently stroked her back.

JenniAnn nodded.  "Yeah.  But, umm, I'm just going to go to my room for a lil bit.  I'll be back down soon."  Without awaiting a response, she left.

"Maybe I should go check on her," Allison suggested.

"I can go," Andrew offered.

Kemara stood.  She wasn't sure why but she felt like she should be the one to go.  "You just barely sat down to eat, Allison.  And, Andrew, I can go."

JenniAnn's mother smiled.  "Thank you, Kemara."

"Thanks," Andrew echoed with a wan smile.  He rested his head in his hands.  "I just wish there was more I could do for Ivy.  But I know going over there like this won't help.  The neighbors might tell Doreen and then she'd take it out on Ivy.  And I'm not being called to go over there in, well, my other form."

Violeta slid into JenniAnn's chair and hugged him.  "You told me once that sometimes all we can do is pray.  So let's pray."

"Listen to the girl.  She's a bright one," Robert complimented.

Andrew's trainee grinned.  "Thank you.  How about one we all know?"  She held her hands out and the four formed a small circle.  "Our Father who art in Heaven..."

*~*~*

Kemara knocked softly on the door.  "JenniAnn, it's me.  If you want me to leave just..."

The door flung open.  "No, it's okay.  I just... I can't talk to Andrew or my mom right now."  JenniAnn waved Kemara in then closed the door.

"What's going on?" Kemara asked as she took a seat on Violeta's futon.

"Same old stuff.  Well... sorta.  I feel so bad for Ivy.  I know how much she was looking forward to today and when I think about how happy she was last night and then how embarrassed and upset...  I know Andrew said to try to love Doreen but I'm just so angry!  I mean she had, by all accounts except hers, a wonderful daughter.  And she scared her off.  I mean, geez, not that I'm defending Francesca's choice but if I had a mother like that, I'd go looking for love and affection wherever I could find it and however I could find it, too."

Kemara looked down at the quilt.  She suspected that probably wasn't strictly true... her reason for thinking so being in the kitchen eating German pancakes with his trainee... but she said nothing.  JenniAnn clearly needed to get the rant out of her system.

"And Doreen botched everything up with her kid even when she was dying!  Then, as I see it, God gives her a second chance with this beautiful little girl who has grown into a lovely teenager.  And Doreen is making a mess of Ivy's life now!  And, even worse, she's trying to use God to do it.  Jesus!  She's trying to use Jesus!  And I know He would NOT act like she's acting.  He... He..."  JenniAnn swiped at a tear.  "Do you think He wanted kids?"

Kemara's eyes fluttered.  She hadn't seen that coming.  "Well... sure.  Probably.  I mean I think He understood why He couldn't have kids but growing up and seeing all His friends start becoming parents...  The longing might have been there."

"I wonder... how did He deal with that?"

Kemara thought back to the previous night, to Doreen's question to JenniAnn: "Do you have children?" 

"I mean I especially wish I knew... He probably saw some bad parenting," JenniAnn rambled.  "And how did He deal with thinking He could never have that... I mean not in that way, obviously we're His children... and that others did a-and just abused or neglected that blessing?"

Kemara looked over at a painting of the Good Shepherd that JenniAnn had hung many years before.  "I think He did all He could to tell the children in His life, regardless of who their parents were, that He loved them and that they should always come to Him... even when they're struggling with anger and disappointment and unfulfilled longing."

JenniAnn spun around to face her friend.  "I... I'm that obvious?"

"It's pretty clear to everyone that you're angry with Doreen.  We all are.  And you're disappointed for Ivy.  We all are.  But when you said you couldn't talk to Andrew or your mom... I figured the other part out.  Your not... not having kids is hard on them, too, and you know that.  JenniAnn, I understand how it becomes so much harder to to live with that emptiness when you come face to face with someone who is taking that gift for granted.  I know it's not the same but... I can remember longing for a friend, a true friend, during those years I was being bullied.  And it was hard enough to deal with when I was home and comfortable.  But when I'd go to school and see everyone laughing and having fun together and not really understanding what a gift that was... arguing and making up over the most petty things... it hurt.  Badly."  Kemara batted her eyes as tears formed.

"It... it is the same."  JenniAnn slumped onto the futon.  "And here I am wallowing... but I have you.  And Andrew and Violeta and my parents and so many others.  But Ivy's struggling with her own longing all... all alone in that house."

"Not really alone.  She has God.  And your book.  And your cell phone number.  I really do think she'll contact us if she needs to.  She did yesterday.  And... tomorrow's Sunday.  I'm sure her grandma would have given her clearance to leave for Mass.  So... tomorrow we go to Mass at St. Stephen's.  You can even text Ivy to be sure she'll still be there."

JenniAnn brightened.  "Yeah, definitely!"  She wiped away the remaining tears and smiled.  "Thank you for listening to me rant and ramble."

Kemara laughed.  "You're welcome.  At least it was a devout sort of rant."

"I do wonder that about Jesus... the dad thing, I mean."  JenniAnn bit her lip. 

Kemara watched curiously as JenniAnn went over to her bed and removed a small blanket from beneath her pillow.  She ran her fingers over it a few times then put it back.  Kemara sensed any questions about this behavior were best kept to herself.

Then, as if rousing from a spell, JenniAnn grinned.  "I'm sure He's over it now.  He's got tons of kids!"

Kemara beamed.  "Sure does!"

"Well, I'm ready to go back downstairs if you are."

"Actually... since I have you alone...  There's something else I want to say."

"Shoot."

Kemara shuffled nervously for a moment then looked JenniAnn in the eye.  "I think you need to tell Andrew that you're going out with Bennie tonight.  I know last night you told me that you didn't want to add any more strain but... your parents' are headed to Des Moines in a couple hours.  I can't drive.  Violeta doesn't have her own car.  If something does go wrong... Andrew's your ticket out of there.  Plus, I just think you should tell him as a matter of principle."

JenniAnn sighed.  "Yeah, you're right.  I'll tell him soon."

"Good."

"Now... we better go downstairs to make sure my dad hasn't chased down Doreen and is trying to FedEx her to the Vatican."

Kemara laughed heartily.  "I would feel sorry for the FedEx driver."

JenniAnn grinned.  "And the Pope."

*~*~*

That night Andrew sat in his loft and tried to concentrate on lesson plans.  It was a struggle.  He didn't really want to be there.  He hadn't wanted to leave the Chandlers' at all.  He'd been both surprised and concerned when JenniAnn had told him of her evening plans.  However, he also wanted to believe Bennie was trying to make amends.  And the Old Market was so close to his loft.  Plus, it would give Kemara and Violeta a chance to talk shop without feeling rude since they alone would remain at the Chandlers'.  Well, alone plus the dogs.  Andrew had insisted that the girls keep both Fawn and Lulu since Allison and Robert were gone to visit cousins. 

The angel found himself thinking of Ivy.  He prayed she wasn't lonely or scared.  He wanted to believe she would call if she was.  JenniAnn had promised to listen for her phone even as she visited with Bennie.  And they'd relayed Kemara's number to Ivy as back-up. 

Tomorrow would be better.  The four of them had already discussed Mass.  Andrew would pick the girls up at 9:30 and then they'd head to 10:30 Mass at St. Stephen's.  They'd run the idea by Ivy and were encouraged to learn she still planned to be there... escorted by the neighbors.

After that, Andrew had called Kevin to share the plan and the man had happily reported that he had yet to see any nefarious online activity.  Maybe Alyssa had grown bored of taunting Ivy or maybe, finally, she was beginning to see the error of her ways. 

Suddenly feeling wearied, the angel laid down on his couch.  He turned the TV on for a moment, perusing through a few sports and news stations.  Nothing captured his interest.  Andrew turned the TV back off.  He looked up at the ceiling and prayed.

"Please keep Laja safe.  Please let Ivy know how loved she is and how so many people want her to be happy.  Thank You for my friends, for their understanding and compassion and love.  Thank You for being a parent who has never made me doubt that I was loved and known and always will be.  Amen."

Andrew checked to make sure his cell phone was set to ring loudly, pulled a blanket over himself, and drifted to sleep.

*~*~*

"Here, I got you another one.  I didn't want to drink alone."  Bennie smiled and sat a frosted mug in front of JenniAnn.

"Oh, I shouldn't...  Just cause it doesn't have alcohol in it doesn't mean it's particularly healthy."  JenniAnn eyed the drink.  She had enjoyed the previous daiquiri... a virgin strawberry one... but her stomach was beginning to churn.  She just wasn't used to ingesting so much sugar at once.

"You only live once.  Or has Andrew said differently?"

JenniAnn giggled.  "He has not."  She took a sip.  "I'm glad we did this a-and I am sorry that things were so rough for you for a while, Bennie.  I... I do wish you would have confided in us.  I mean we wouldn't have held all that stupid college stuff against you.  We all have stupid moments in college."  She frowned, remembering a time she'd gone off on Andrew after he'd worked a case as a lawyer defending a hit and run driver.  She's been merciless.   "Sometimes... it's easy to hurt people when we're hurting."

"How do you mean?" Bennie prodded.

"I just... I mean..."  JenniAnn began to rub at her temple.  "Gah.  Am I a lightweight or what?  I can't even handle two virgin daiquiris!"  She laughed.

"You seriously need to get out more."

There was an edge to the woman's voice that increased JenniAnn's uneasiness.  "We do quite a lot back, um, home.  You should come visit sometime."

"Is that girl I met last time still there?  Flower name."

"Rose.  Yes, she is.  Actually..."  JenniAnn beamed.  "She's quite taken with one of Andrew's past assignments who has joined up with us.  He's the sweetest boy.  Sorta like the son I..."

"The son you and Andrew could never have?"

JenniAnn's cheeks reddened and she bowed her head, partially obscuring her face.  "Well, no.  I mean I do feel motherly towards him... we are sort of his... well, his parents are absentee so..."

Bennie laughed.  "Andrew and JenniAnn to the rescue."  She smiled.  "That's very sweet.  Anyway, I'm not sure Rose would be happy to see me back."

"I'm sure if we explained to her..."  JenniAnn took a sip of her drink.  She suddenly realized how tired she felt and hoped the sugar would give her a boost.  "Then she would understand."

"So what's Andrew been up to?  I mean before this teaching gig?" Bennie prompted.

"He's just been... so lovely."

"Always was," Bennie chirped.  She stared into JenniAnn's eyes, noticing the glassiness of them.  Now was the time.  "There was one thing I never understood about you two..."

"Hmm?"

"Doesn't it kind of worry you?  I mean not that it's just you.  But you've been around the longest."

JenniAnn frowned, feeling very confused.  "What do you mean?"

"Well, I just mean you've given Andrew this cozy little life away from his duties.  It seems he's grown used to it... heck, now he's even got you on his assignments!"

"Just a few.  A tiny portion, real... really.  And it's always God who..."

"Granted.  But... Dyeland!  I mean doesn't it bother you to think that he's grown accustomed to that... even going so far to turn in his eternal youth apparently... and then one day you'll die, all your friends will die, and then what?  I mean he can't knock you up..."

"Bennie!" 

"Oh don't be an infant.  You won't be leaving him with generations of kids to keep the home fires burning.  It's just so sad, really."

JenniAnn stared at the bright red slush in front of her.  It was growing blurry as her eyes welled.  She envisioned an older, grayed Andrew sitting on a porch... staring at their willow tree.  Alone.  She brushed the tears away.  "He... he will always have a Home."  The glass was still blurry.  "I really... suddenly don't feel... kinda dizzy."

Bennie looked at her watch.  "It's not even 10:00."

"I'll call And..."

"No, no.  Don't bother, Andrew.  I'll drive you home.  I just need to run to the restroom.  Finish your drink.  I'll be right back."


"Kay."  JenniAnn watched her friend walk away.  She really was confused.  She thought the bathrooms were in the opposite direction.  She took another sip of her drink.  She'd been so nervous that she hadn't eaten dinner.  Maybe her blood sugar had just dipped.  She took another drink, trying to finish it before Bennie returned.

*~*~*

Andrew jolted awake when he heard his cell phone ring.  "The Scientist."  It was JenniAnn

"Laja!  Are you okay?  Do you need me to come get you?  Or have you heard from Ivy?" he added.  His eye brows shot up as he clutched the phone to his ear.  It sounded like she was at a party.  "Laja, what's going on?  Where are you?  I can barely hear you."

"Ummm...  there's a neon marga... marrita sign.  It's pretty...  Pink margaree...  I can't member."

"Laja, have you been drinking?" Andrew asked, incredulous.

"Just two dack...  dackure...  dackrees...  But they were virgins.  Like meeeee!"

Andrew groaned.  He didn't know where JenniAnn was but the idea of her wasted and advertising her virginity made him feel ill.  He grabbed his keys and left the loft, racing down the stairs.  "Laja, listen to me.  Hand your phone to the bartender."

"It's my phone!"

"Laja, do it right now.  And then you stay by him or her," he demanded.  He couldn't remember ever ordering his friend to do anything but if ever there was a time...

"Geessshhh...  Fine."

As he ducked into the Jolly Green, Andrew prayed that JenniAnn wouldn't hang up. 

"Hello?" a male voice greeted.

"Hello!" Andrew replied in relief.  "Listen, my friend there has clearly had too much to..."

"Uh yeah...  At least she's a nice drunk."

"Where are you?  I'm coming to get her."

"Red Flamingo.  We're at 16th and Jackson.  Listen, we wouldn't ever over-serve someone like this.  I don't even recognize your friend here.  Maybe she wandered in from another bar?"

"Maybe," Andrew muttered.  An idea was beginning to form in his mind.  "I'll be there in five minutes.  Please... please don't let her leave."

"I'll do what I can, man, but I can't very well restrain the girl."

"Got it."  Andrew ended the call then drove as quickly as he safely could.  He grimaced when he came upon road construction that had everyone vying for a spot in one lane.  "Father, please... please let me get to Laja in time.  Joshua, please... keep her safe."  He let out the breath he'd been holding when a police officer waved him through.  "Thank You." 

Once the Red Flamingo came into view, Andrew parked hastily and ran into the pub.  It was brimming with people and the lighting was odd.  It was disorienting... and he was entirely sober.  How was Laja managing?  He couldn't even see the bar.  Blindly, the angel began to wade through the crowd.

"Laja..." Andrew murmured with relief when he located the bar where JenniAnn sat spinning a number of paper umbrellas.  "Thank You," he sighed while quickly making his way to her.  As soon as he could, he threw his arms around her.  "Laja, come on.  Let's get you home."

"Home...  Which home?"

"Your parents' home.  Laja, where's Bennie?"

"Went to the bafroom... taking a while... a lot while.  Musbe sick."

The bartender snorted and leaned forward.  "Your girl's been alone for close to an hour."

Andrew shook his head, stunned.  He couldn't believe Bennie had pulled this at her age.  It was bad enough when she and Laja were in college but Bennie was thirty one years old!

"My love..."  JenniAnn nestled into Andrew's shirt then suddenly stiffened.  "I don't feel good..."

"I know, Laja.  I'll get you home real quick but I just need a few seconds..."  Andrew kissed the top of her head then looked to the bartender.  "Was it you I talked to on the phone?"

"Yeah.  Glad you got here when you did.  Things start to get even rowdier after 11."  The man looked on with amusement as JenniAnn began to toy with Andrew's necklace.

Andrew let out a sigh of relief.  A few minutes later and...  No, he wouldn't think that way.  "Thank you."  He reached around JenniAnn to shake the bartender's hand.  "Thank you so much for keeping an eye on her.  So you're sure she didn't order anything?  Nothing at all?  She said she had two virgin daiquiris."

The man grimaced.  "I did make two daiquiris, yeah.  It's not a real common request here.  But another girl ordered them and didn't say anything about keeping the alcohol out.  Actually... she told me to make them strong.  I didn't think anything of it.  They were strong but not..."  He eyed JenniAnn.  "Not that strong!"

"Not strong..." JenniAnn echoed, her voice wavering.  "Gonna die..."

Andrew briefly closed his eyes and stroked her back.  "She hardly ever drinks.  She doesn't have any tolerance for it.  Does she owe you anything?  I can settle up for her."

"Nothing.  Just get your girl home.  Might wanna keep a bucket nearby."

"Yeah.  Thanks."  Andrew managed a weak, appreciative smile then gazed down at his friend.  "Let's go, Laja."

She nodded.

To the angel's relief, his friend was somewhat steady on her feet.  He kept an arm around her waist to be sure she didn't fall.  When they reached the Jolly Green, Andrew leaned JenniAnn against the van while he unlocked and opened the passenger door.  "C'mon, Laja.  We'll go back to your parents' so we don't worry Kemara and Violeta."  As he lifted her into the seat and buckled her in, Andrew considered that it was probably a good thing that Allison and Robert were away.  JenniAnn was going to be mortified enough as it was.

"Will you say?  Stay?" she implored.

Andrew brought her hand to his lips.  "I have no intention of leaving."

"I don wan leave you... ne-er..." 

"Laja..."  Tears came to Andrew's own eyes when he saw her face crumple as she began to sob.  He didn't know what Bennie had said or done to her but he was very glad the woman wasn't there.  Now was the time to comfort his friend, not rail against the one who had hurt her.  He caressed her cheek.  "We'll be home soon, Laja.  Then we'll get you feeling better."

JenniAnn watched silently as Andrew walked around the car and got into the driver's seat.  Once he'd started the van, she shifted to the middle seat and fell asleep with her head on his shoulder.

*~*~*

Kemara was closing the blinds in the Chandlers' living room when she saw the mini-van's headlights.  "Uh oh," she muttered.  Clearly there had been trouble with Bennie if Andrew was bringing JenniAnn home.  Or maybe... a chill went through her body.  She hoped this didn't involve Ivy so late in the night.  No, Andrew would have called if that were the case. 

Violeta approached.  "Andrew?  Why do you think he's here?"

"Let's go find out.  Maybe he just wanted some company," Kemara offered hopefully.

With Violeta at her heels, Kemara went out to greet Andrew.  The smiles on their faces froze then faded when they saw him hop out of the van and lift someone from the passenger seat.  Kemara gasped and ran towards him.  "Is that..."

"JenniAnn," he answered.  "She's fine... but out cold."

"What happened?" Violeta cried when she caught up to Kemara.

"Bennie.  JenniAnn will be just fine but she's gonna need some sleep."  Andrew carried her up the driveway and into the house.  He laid her down on the couch before stepping into the kitchen to get a damp cloth.

Kemara watched as the angel tenderly cared for their friend.  Though she hadn't known JenniAnn for long, she'd never seen her drink more than a few sips of margarita or the like.  She'd certainly never known her to get drunk.  "Did something happen that upset her?" she whispered, not wanting to alarm Violeta who was watching the scene in apparent shock.

Andrew shook his head.  "I don't think so.  She told me all she had to drink were two virgin daiquiris... which Bennie ordered."  He tried to keep his tone level but failed.  "Does this look like the result of what should have basically been two fruit slushes?"

Kemara grimaced.  "It's coming in clearer.  I know Bennie's not exactly the epitome of kindness but why would she do something like that?"

"To get back at me."

Violeta gasped.

Andrew turned to her and held out his hand.  "Come here, sweetheart."  Once Violeta was kneeling beside him, he kissed her forehead then handed her the cloth.  "Could you finish wiping JenniAnn's make-up off?  You know how she feels about going to sleep with it on." 

Eager for something helpful to do, Violeta nodded and took the washcloth. 

Andrew stood and motioned for Kemara to step into the kitchen.  "Violeta's pretty shaken as you can see.  She's so strong, so brave when we're out on assignments but... I think she's come to count on Dyeland and all of you to be constant, steady.  She doesn't like to acknowledge that..."  He dragged his hand through his hair.

"We're mortal?  Fragile?  Changing?" Kemara suggested.  She suspected the Violeta wasn't the only one who sometimes struggled to acknowledge this.

"Yeah.  She'll be fine once JenniAnn wakes up.  And she will.  Soon.  She won't feel too great but..."  Andrew sighed with relief.  "I'm told she'll be just fine."

"From..."  Kemara's eyes flitted to the ceiling.

Andrew nodded.  "I thought about taking her to the ER but I knew she'd be upset with me if I did with no good reason.  So... I asked and was told to bring her back here. 
There's nothing to do but wait it out which we can do here.  The reason I was concerned is..."

"Her epilepsy?" Kemara guessed.

Relief washed over Andrew's face.  He hadn't known if JenniAnn had told Kemara.  "Exactly.  Laja's no where near a big drinker so she has low tolerance.  Combine that with increased low tolerance due to her anti-seizure medication and..."  Agitated, he rested his hands on the kitchen sink and stared out the window.  "Bennie should be glad that I'm not leaving Laja's side because if I could... I'd be over at her apartment.  I mean... what if Laja had wandered away a-and gotten hit by a car or... or what if some guy had come onto her or... worse?  Or what if... it's not like Bennie would have known better... she was pregnant?  Bennie got her in that state then just left her!"

Kemara bit her lip.  She'd never seen Andrew so out of sorts... so angry. 

"I should have seen this coming.  From the moment she told me she was sorry... I should have known it was too sudden."

Startled, Kemara approached the angel.  "Andrew, how could you have possibly predicted this?  You're not... diabolical enough to even think that way.  You're not diabolical period."

"Bennie's been giving JenniAnn a hard time for years.  All because..."

"Because of what?" the woman gently prompted.  "Out in the living room you said Bennie was trying to get back at you.  But I don't understand why."

Andrew turned back around to face his friend.  He pulled out a chair for Kemara and once she'd sat down, he took the seat next to hers.  "Did JenniAnn tell you that she and Bennie went to school together?"

"Yes.  High school and college.  Same as Carrie."

"Right.  But Carrie was always good to JenniAnn.  And that was mutual.  They had their differences but they respected each other.  Bennie... well, she has a 'my way or the highway' sort of outlook.  She couldn't understand why JenniAnn wasn't into the party scene like she was.  She wanted her to meet boys, get drunk, live it up.  At least... that's what JenniAnn and I always thought based on Bennie's behavior.  And I still think that was part of it.  Bennie seems to have it in her head that friends should be really similar.  But then a few years ago, Bennie returned to Dyeland and that's when we learned the truth.  Bennie had never believed me when I told her angels don't form romantic attachments.  She thought JenniAnn and I were ummm..."

"A couple?"

"I guess.  Or otherwise... uh..."

"Ah..."

"So...  Rose and JenniAnn cleared that up but Bennie remained convinced that I was..." Andrew blushed.  "Deprived.  She told JenniAnn that she'd only ever been trying to get her out more in hopes of 'getting her out of the way.'"

Kemara rolled her eyes.  "So you and Bennie could be together?"

Andrew rubbed his temples.  "I guess.  I told her in no uncertain terms that I wasn't interested in anybody that way but she was convinced I only said that to be gentlemanly... or something.  I was telling the truth!  So she got angry at me and left and..."

"And?"

The angel picked up a cloth napkin and absently began to fold and unfold it.  "I never told JenniAnn the rest."

"The rest?"

"She was so hurt by the way Bennie acted and I didn't want to add any more pain."

Kemara set her hand over Andrew's.  "I understand that.  But I don't have any attachment to Bennie.  You can tell me."

Andrew smiled appreciatively.  "Thanks.  So... Bennie sent me a few notes after that.  They were uh... sultry.  I wrote her back politely... but firmly.  Very firmly.  Then her notes devolved into rants.  I honestly started to wonder if she was mentally ill but... no.  I checked.  She was just that angry."

"And this woman is teaching children..."

"Yeah... she is."

"Well, no wonder she won't take anything with Ivy seriously.  She probably doesn't think there's any problem except Ivy not conforming."

Andrew sighed and dragged his hand through his hair.  "No, she probably doesn't."  He stood up again and stared out the window into the backyard.  "I don't know why I trusted her.  We gave her so many chances.  Why... why did I think she'd make good on this one?"

Kemara approached and patted his arm.  "Because it's your job to see the best in people... and I think it's just who you are.  And JenniAnn wanted to believe her just as much as you did.  She wanted to be able to tell Ivy that things do change..."

Andrew laughed bitterly.  "I still believe they do.  But some people... maybe not."

"Don't say that.  There's always hope."

The angel's face relaxed and he smiled.  "Yes, there's always hope... for everyone."

"But maybe... in this case... you and JenniAnn aren't meant to be around when Bennie finds it.  Obviously you need to be cordial with her throughout the remainder of the program but then it might be time to wish her well, pray for her, and... well, kick the dust off your sandals and walk away." 

Her words immediately brought his and Joshua's conversation in the apartment to mind.  Maybe Joshua hadn't only meant for his counsel to be for Ivy...  "I think so,"  Andrew agreed as he turned to face Kemara.  "Thank you."  He glanced towards the living room.  "Laja, umm, asked me to stay tonight."

"Of course."

"I don't need to sleep so I'm just going to camp out in the recliner so I can keep an eye on her."

"We can take turns if you do decide you need some rest," Kemara offered.

"Thank you.  I'm sure I'll be fine but, yeah, I'll let you and Violeta know if I need some help."

"Okay.  I'm going to head to bed then but I mean it."

Andrew smiled again and hugged her.  "I know.  Thank you.  I'm very glad you're here."

Kemara returned the smile.  "Me too.  You told me when I lost my job that the Lord moves in mysterious ways and you were sure I'd find myself in an even better place.  I didn't really believe that at the time.  I was too upset... and I didn't know you were an angel.  But you were right.  I couldn't have been around like this with my old job.  And I love the one Catherine found for me.  I'd much rather write articles about people needing help and the organizations getting it to them than proofing reports on the dalliances of politicos."

Andrew laughed.  "I can completely understand that.  Now... let's go check on Laja then you and Violeta can head off to hopefully sweet dreams."

With that, they returned to the living room to find Violeta praying near JenniAnn.  Andrew squeezed her shoulder and hugged her when she stood.  "Thank you.  I'll take over now.  Go get some rest.  We'll see you in the morning for Mass..."  He looked down at the sleeping woman.  "And a whole lot of coffee."

Nodding, Kemara and Violeta went to their rooms.

Andrew took a seat in the recliner and gazed at his sleeping friend.  He wished he'd discouraged her from meeting with Bennie.  But JenniAnn was a grown woman and for thirteen years he'd struggled to keep his memories and experiences from holding her back.  Maybe he'd been too worried about misusing his influence.  No.  JenniAnn had wanted to go... she'd wanted to give Bennie a chance.  She would have always wondered and regretted it if she hadn't tried.

Restless, the angel moved to the window seat.  His face felt flushed and he needed to cool down.  But he was so angry and discouraged.  This was at least twice now that Bennie had put JenniAnn in harm's way because she was too stubborn and too self-involved to realize that everyone had as much right to be themselves as she did.  And Bennie was thirty one.  If she hadn't straightened up by then, when would Alyssa?  Would she ever?  And Doreen was twice Bennie's age and just as stuck in her ways and as inconsiderate.  What hope did he have of getting any of them to grow up and see the light, see the truth?

But that wasn't his job.  Joshua had made that clear.  Andrew knew he would try.  However, he wasn't sent to Bennie or Doreen or Alyssa.  He was sent to Ivy.  During Bennie's last vitriolic appearance, he'd been helpless to stop her.  But he had consoled JenniAnn.  And he could help Ivy.  They would help Ivy. 

Moving to the foot of the couch, Andrew began to pray.  He prayed that JenniAnn would be neither too upset nor too much in pain.  He prayed that Ivy would pass the night without fear or sadness.  Finally, he prayed that God would help him overcome the anger he felt towards Alyssa, Doreen, and Bennie.  As much as it hurt him to think of Ivy's and JenniAnn's trampled feelings; it was the other three who had lost the most.  They had lost moments of beauty and love that they were too prideful and blinded to even realize were missing from their lives.  That was a truly grievous loss.

*~*~*

Sunday, June 23rd

Ivy at last gave up on trying to sleep.  She was too restless and anxious.  It wasn't that the day had been entirely awful.  Though the loss of the trip to the art museum had been upsetting, her spirits had been lifted by the stream of text messages.  When those had died down, Violeta had started with an onslaught of emails containing alternately witty and goofy jokes along with assorted photos of adorable animals.  Still, the girl couldn't help worrying that her planned Mass-time meeting with her new friends would somehow be derailed just as the visit to the Joslyn had been. 

Climbing out of bed, Ivy went to her computer.  Even though she'd told Violeta she was turning in for the night, maybe she would have sent more email.  Hoping so, Ivy opened her email account.  She smiled when the Send/Receive button stalled... a sure sign that a number of emails awaited her.  However, when the messages actually appeared, they weren't what she'd expected.  All of them were alerts from Facebook.  She'd been tagged in photos, people she didn't recognize had commented on her Timeline, some of the same had sent her private messages.  Nervous, Ivy clicked open one of the email notifications.  Tears stun her eyes as she read it.  She hurried through them all, each message worse than the last.

Sobbing, Ivy jumped out of her chair and grabbed her cell phone.  She had to call JenniAnn or Kemara and get Andrew to come get her.  But then she noticed the time: 2:37 AM.  She'd probably have to wait for one if not two of them to get dressed.  And she didn't want to wait any longer than she had to.  She had to see them and the sooner the better.  Besides, the headlights might wake up her neighbors.  And then they'd tell her grandma.  And then she might get Andrew in trouble. 

Her bike.  She could ride her bike to them!  She was good with directions and remembered the way to the Chandlers'.  She would ride over there, arriving in probably twenty minutes... maybe even sooner with traffic not being an issue.  Then she'd be with them and they would hug her and tell her everything would be all right and that they didn't believe a word of the ugly, hateful things she had just read.

Determined, Ivy stuffed a few items in her book bag.  She didn't even bother to change out of her pajamas.  She snuck out the back door of her house, grabbed her bike, and pedaled away as fast as she could... bound for her friends.

*~*~*

The first thing JenniAnn was aware of when she woke up was that her head was pounding.  Her second realization was that she was not in her bed and she was not alone.  She sat up with a start, an action which made it feel like nails were pounding into her skull.

"Laja..."  Andrew swiftly moved to sit beside her and hold her up.  "Do you feel like you're going to be sick?"

"My head... migraine or..."  She realized she was wearing jeans and one of her tunics.  She remembered that she had been in the Old Market with Bennie.  "Oh...  I think there was something... wrong with my drink."

"Laja..."  Andrew cooed her name again and rested his chin against her hair.

"Rancid strawberries or..."  Bits and pieces of the evening returned to JenniAnn.  Bennie talking about dying and leaving Andrew.  Starting to feel queasy.  Calling Andrew.  Umbrellas spinning.  She shook her head then groaned.  "She... she did this.  She offered to order my drink... part of the apology... so... so I said a virgin strawberry daiquiri a-and then later she bought another b-but... I swear I thought they were..."

"I know, Laja.  I know," Andrew assured.

"So stupid...  B-but the first hour went so well a-and then..."  JenniAnn began to cry and buried her face in Andrew's shoulder.  "Why would she..."

"Bennie has allowed herself to become filled with bitterness and anger.  You are not stupid.  I thought she was being sincere, too."

"Do Kemara and Violeta know?"

"Yes.  They're both upset for you but not with you... not at all.  We pieced together what happened."  Andrew smiled gently at her.  "If anything, it proves just how much you don't drink."

JenniAnn laughed then rubbed at her temples.  "I suppose."  Her face fell again.  "I... I wanted to have a nice story to tell Ivy."

"She needs you more than she needs a nice story."

"I... I know.  But I also... it's felt so nice reuniting with Carrie and Kevin and I th-thought... it would have been even better if... she really was nice once."

Andrew gently hugged her.  Hearing the grief in JenniAnn's voice made him seethe but he reminded himself that now was not the time to focus on Bennie.  "I know.  I'm sorry you didn't get that, Laja.  I really am.  And I want you to talk about it and not hold it in.  But for now... why don't you try to get some more rest?  Remember, we're seeing Ivy at Mass tomorrow."  He smiled, hoping to cheer her.

"Yeah."  JenniAnn laid back down.  "That'll be so..."  She was cut off when her cell phone began to ring.  "Where's my purse?"

The angel retrieved it from near the front door and handed it to her.  As she rifled through it, he noticed that it was 3:29 AM.  Nothing good could come from a call that late.

Finally fishing the phone out, JenniAnn answered.  "Hello?"

Andrew saw what little color was left fade from her face.

"Wh-what?"

The angel of death pulled her to him.  He began to worry that something had happened to Robert and Allison. 

"N-no.  I'm fine.  Yes, I'm JenniAnn Chandler.  But what do you mean my book was found at the site of an acci...  Oh God."  JenniAnn hit the speaker button then dropped the phone onto Andrew's lap and stared at it.

"Do you know who might have had your book?" a female voice asked.  "It's very important.  A young girl was seriously injured in a biking accident and was brought here to St. Joe's half an hour ago.  She's unresponsive and we need to find her parents.  We found no ID, only this..."

Andrew grabbed the phone.  "Does she have curly red hair?"

"Who is this?"

"My name is Andrew.  I'm a friend of JenniAnn's.  I'm also the teacher of... of the girl I think you might be asking about.  JenniAnn lent her the book.  Her name is Ivy Lee and she lives at... at..."

"1012 S. Mulberry St.," JenniAnn choked out.

"Yes.  The girl does have curly red hair."  The voice on the other line could be heard shouting before returning her attention to them.  "Do you have any idea how we might contact a parent or guardian?"

"Oh God..." JenniAnn cried.

Andrew took her hand with his free one.  "Her grandmother's name is Doreen Lee and I know she's away this weekend.  Ivy said it was a retreat... I think a religious one.  Catholic.  But I don't know her number.
  But... wait just a moment, please."  He softly caressed JenniAnn's face.  "Laja, please go get Kemara and Violeta up.  We need to head to the hospital.  Even if they won't let us see Ivy, someone should be there for her."

Shocked out of her stupor, JenniAnn ran up the stairs to rouse the other two while Andrew redirected his attention to the woman at the hospital. 

"Ma'am?"

"I'm here."

"I have Doreen's cell phone number in a file back at my place.  My friends and I will pass it on our way to St. Joe's.  Can I get your number and we'll call you with Doreen's as soon as we can?" 
Andrew grabbed Robert's crossword book and jotted the number down.  "Thank you.  We'll be in touch very soon."

After ending the call, Andrew buried his face in his hands.  He prayed that Ivy would be okay.  He hoped it was a good sign that he hadn't yet been called to her side.

*~*~*

A mere fifteen minutes later, the four rushed into the nearly empty Emergency Room at St. Joseph's Medical Center.  Andrew spotted the nurse's station and dashed to it.

"Hello.  My name is Andrew Rochester and I think I may have talked to one of..."

A woman turned away from a book bag she'd been examining to face him.  "Ivy.  I talked to you about Ivy."

"Yes.  Did you reach her grandmother?"

The nurse frowned and shook her head.  "I'm afraid we only reached her voicemail.  We left a message telling her it was urgent and she needed to call us."

Andrew closed his eyes for a moment, trying to calm himself before asking what he knew he needed to.  "Please, I know you probably can't tell us much but... how is Ivy?"  His eyes welled as the girls huddled around him.

The trauma nurse looked sympathetically at them.  "Why don't you come sit in the waiting area with me?" 

Andrew nodded.  He noticed her name tag and smiled.  "Thank you, Tess.  That... that's a good name."

"I've always liked it."  Tess took a seat and gestured for them to sit nearby.  "Could I get your names, ladies?"

Their voices wavering, Violeta, Kemara, and JenniAnn complied.

Tess smiled.  "That's what I figured.  You were right that I can't tell you much... legally.  But let's pretend that right now we're in a sort of borderland."

"O-okay," Kemara agreed, not sure what that meant.

"I want you to know that Ivy is alive and stable.  We just... she hasn't regained consciousness.  So we don't know yet..."  The nurse let out a weary sigh.  "It seems she was on a bike in a dimly lit area.  A car made a wrong turn and didn't have time to stop.  The driver struck Ivy after which she was thrown from her bike and, unfortunately, she was not wearing a helmet.  Her head hit the pavement and there's some swelling around her brain.  Until the swelling goes down or she wakes up... we won't know what sort of damage there might be to her brain.  Thank God the driver had the decency to stick around and call 911.  It was a quiet road and your friend may not have been found until morning otherwise."

Andrew trembled and was grateful when JenniAnn and Violeta each hugged one of his arms and Kemara reached over to pat his back.  He knew they all had guessed that he was imagining what he had endured... or worse... being visited upon their Ivy.

"The reason I'm telling you this... in our borderland, remember... is because it fell to me to try to figure out who Miss Lee is.  She was carrying a book bag with several items but not an ID to be found.  Her cell phone was locked.  But she did have a journal with her and even though I would never read anyone's journal under normal circumstances..."

"We understand and I'm sure Ivy would, too," Andrew assured.

"Thank you.  She mentioned you.  That's why I asked for your names.  It seems like right now you four may be this girl's best champions.  Well, you and..."

Before Tess could finish, JenniAnn's cell phone sounded.  "I... I'm sorry."  Her face burned red.  She grabbed it to silence it then noticed the caller ID.  "It... it's Kevin.  I better... I'm sorry."  She stood and walked a few paces away to pick up the call.  "Hey Kevin, umm now's not...  Oh Kev...  No.  Kevin...  Kevin, we're at the ER right now.  Ivy was... was... she was out biking and... hit by.... by a..." 

Kemara leapt up when she saw that JenniAnn was about to faint and led her back to the couch.

Andrew wrapped an arm around her shoulders.  "Laja, let me have the phone, please."

Feeling numb, she handed it over.

"Kevin, this is Andrew.  I'm putting you on speaker but we need to keep it kind of quiet, okay?  Did you hear what JenniAnn said?"

"Ivy was... she was in an accident?"

"Yes.  We just got here.  We're not sure yet what injuries she may have sustained.  She's... she's stable but unconscious.  It... it seems she was out riding her bike a-and we don't know why... but a car hit her and..."

A ragged exhalation could be heard from the other end of the line.  "I... I think I know why she was out there.  I was calling to tell you that a little while ago I woke up suddenly and couldn't get back to sleep.  So I got online a-and did my checks and... there was this Facebook account posting all sorts of... awful... really awful things on Ivy's wall.  Like... like 'I wish you would just die' a-and accusing her of..."  Kevin's voice cracked.  "I-I want to come down there.  I want to be there a-and pray with all of you."

JenniAnn shook her head.  "Kevin, God love you but..."

"Carrie said she'll stay with the kids and my mom and dad are going to drive me over.  I just... I have to..."

"Kev..."

Andrew shook his head.  "Laja, let him come."

Violeta nodded.  "It's important to him to be here."

"We'll keep an eye out for you, Kevin," Kemara promised.

"Th-thank you.  See you soon."

Tess clucked her tongue after they'd hung up.  "I saw about the bullying when I was skimming.  The poor girl."

"Do... do you think she was trying to get to us?" Kemara asked, voicing the question all four of them had been wondering about.

"But why wouldn't she have called to get a ride?" Violeta questioned.  "She did yesterday or... or Friday, I mean."

"She was acting like a distressed teenager.  She wasn't thinking straight," Tess hypothesized.  "Believe me, I've raised three.  She probably thought the fresh air and the speed and the night would do her good and then... then she'd be with folks who cared about her."  She stood.  "I can't let visitors in right now but I'm going to go back there and tell her you're here.  It matters, you know." 

"Nurse Tess?" Andrew called when she began to walk away.

"Yes, Andrew?"

"Thank you.  For everything you've done a-and... for meeting us in the borderland."

Squeezing his hand, Tess smiled.  "You bet.  Anything else before I go?"

"Could... do you think you could tell her we love her?  A-and that God loves her?"

The nurse beamed.  "I will certainly do that.  And about God...  I have something I think you need to see.  I'll show you when I get back."

When she disappeared down the hall, the four all slumped back against the couch.

"Why aren't we in there?" Violeta asked quietly. 

"It's not Ivy's time yet... and hopefully it won't be for a long time," Andrew replied.  He wished he could be with Ivy... even if only to say a few words.  But no word came and he remained in human form.  He looked over to JenniAnn who was again rubbing at her temples.  "Laja, I'm going to go get you some coffee.  And some snacks.  You need to eat something.  Anyone else?"

Kemara nodded.  "I could use some coffee.  I'll walk with you.  Violeta, do you want anything?  They probably have tea and cocoa, too."

"Tea, please."

"You got it."  Forcing a smile, Kemara walked off with Andrew.

Violeta bit her lip, occasionally stealing glances at JenniAnn.  Finally, she was caught.

"Violeta, whatcha thinking?"

"I... I'm sorry your friend did that."

"Turns out she's not a friend.  But thanks."  JenniAnn smiled wanly.  "I have other friends, very good ones.  How you holding up?"

The angel shrugged.  "I wish I could do more."

"Me too..."

"I wish... I wish that when... when I'd heard Alyssa saying what she did... I wish I would have stood up to her.  It... it sounds like she attacked Ivy online and maybe if I'd said something to her then..."  Violeta sniffled.  "Maybe it might have given her a second thought about taunting people a-and then none of this..."  She began to cry.

JenniAnn hugged her.  "No, sweetheart.  That's just not true.  Andrew called her out on it.  You know that.  And still she persisted.  She... she believes she's untouchable.  And I wouldn't be surprised to learn that she'd been raised that way.  You wouldn't have embarrassed her or made her feel ashamed of her behavior.  She likely woulda just scoffed at you the way she did with Andrew."

"I... I guess."  Violeta wiped her face on her sleeve.  "But I... I don't want... don't want Ivy to... to die.  I really... really like her a-and she's just a k-kid.  Only a year younger than... than me."

JenniAnn smiled sadly.  "Is this the first time you've really bonded with an assignment your own age?"

The teenaged angel nodded. 

"I know it's really, really hard to face losing someone your own age.  But you know that, no matter what... what happens... Ivy will live."

"B-but I want her to at... at least have a chance a-at falling in love and marriage a-and kids."

"Me too.  So much.  So we pray.  When Andrew and Kemara get back, we'll have our drinks and snack a little... praying then, too.  Then once Kevin gets here, maybe we'll go in the chapel?  I think we'd all feel better there."

"I'd like that."

"Okay.  I, umm, still feel a lil wobbly so could you go get me that phone book?  I'm going to leave a message at St. Stephen's rectory.  Hopefully they'll get it first thing in the morning and be able to tell us how to get Doreen here."

Violeta nodded and retrieved the book.  Then she watched as JenniAnn, somehow calm now, located the number and made the call.  This human ability to pull one's self together in the face of tragedy was one Violeta knew she would always marvel at.

*~*~*

"Pretzels... easy to stomach if she's queasy."

"Probably fruit snacks.  Good vitamin C source."

"Chocolate chips... comfort."

"Let's get some mixed nuts."

"And cheesy crackers.  We good?"

"We're good."

As the last of their purchases fell from the vending machine, Andrew and Kemara both sighed.

"I... I can't really believe we're here.  I... I mean in four hours we all intended to... to be up and getting ready to meet Ivy for Mass."  Kemara's shoulders began to shake.

Andrew grabbed the coffee cup carrier from her and pulled her into a hug.  "I... I really feel like things are going to be okay.  I keep telling myself that if Ivy were going to die... even... even if not for a few days then surely the Father would have Violeta or me sit with her.  But He's not, Kemara.  I have to believe that means something."

"I hope so.  But even if she lives... what sort of life?  JenniAnn told me about... not all... but a little about... your TBI."

Andrew sighed.  "It wasn't fun.  But I got through it.  So would Ivy."

"But you had so many friends!  Even if we could stay, how can Ivy focus on her recovery with Doreen's histrionics and Alyssa's cruelty and... and what if her damage is much worse?  I mean you... you didn't really have any severe physical limitations but some do!"

"I know.  I do.  But we're going to pray that's not the case for Ivy."

Kemara nodded.  She pulled away and stared at the floor.  "You... you don't think there's any chance... I mean what if... if she went out biking when it was so late and so dark because... cause..."

"Because she was hoping to get hit?  To... to die?" Andrew guessed.

"Y-yes.  I know how it is to feel so rejected and hopeless that... that Heaven seems like the only place you could be happy."  Turning away from the angel, Kemara began to sob.

Andrew gently stroked her back.  "I am so sorry you ever felt that way, Kemara, and so is the Father.  But Ivy... I really don't think she did feel that way.  At least not tonight.  I think she was very, very hurt by whatever was said about her.  But I really do think she was trying to reach us.  I think she knew that we cared about her and that we... we would comfort her... and help her fight back.  And that... that's what we're going to do.  Okay?"  He handed her a tissue.

Still teary-eyed, Kemara smiled.  "Okay."

"Now let's head back and see how JenniAnn and Violeta are holding up." 

The two reclaimed the coffee and snacks then went to rejoin their friends.

*~*~*

~ "He Faced This, Too" ~

A half hour had passed.  The four had prayed before settling down to their snacks and coffee but, still waiting for Kevin, they hadn't yet moved to the chapel.  While they had been encouraged during and immediately after their prayer, the mood in their little corner of the emergency room was beginning to deteriorate.

Feeling anxious, Andrew began to pace the room.  He moved to stand by a window and gazed up at the stars and moon.

"Maybe we... we should have seen this coming a-and..." JenniAnn started before beginning to cry.  "I mean we... we felt like Alyssa was plotting something.  Maybe we should have just... just had Ivy stay with... with us.  Let Doreen pitch a fit!  And I... I should have stayed home with her a-and all of you and then none of this..."

When Andrew turned away from the window, he saw that JenniAnn, Kemara, and Violeta were no longer alone on the couch.  Joshua was sitting with them, in a seemingly empty space between JenniAnn and Kemara.

Joshua set his hand on JenniAnn's hair and whispered.  "No.  You had no idea how or when or even if Alyssa was going to try something.  But you all made every effort, with Kevin and Carrie, to keep an eye out.  And it wouldn't have been right to encourage Ivy to disobey her grandmother.  That could have made things even worse.  Don't blame yourself."

JenniAnn sighed raggedly.

"No," Andrew echoed.  "We didn't know what to expect or when.  We were monitoring what we could, with Kevin and Carrie.  But we couldn't know everything and with Doreen's orders... it could have been worse if we'd encouraged Ivy to disobey her.  Laja's there was nothing... nothing any of us could have done differently tonight to prevent this."

"But what now?" Kemara implored.

Joshua rested his hand over hers as it clutched a cushion.  "Wait.  Keep praying.  Ivy's still here.  I'm here.  I won't leave you alone in this.  I promise I won't.  Ivy's not alone, either.  She has us.  And she knows that."

"Well, we wait.  And we pray.  Together.  God's with us and with Ivy and He's not leaving and neither are we.  And Ivy knows that."  Andrew smiled with love and depths of appreciation at Joshua.  Simply seeing him and hearing him had brought him peace.  Encouraged, Andrew knelt in front of the girls and continued.  "And when Ivy wakes up, we let her know just how glad we are that she did.  And I do believe she will wake up.  Violeta and I are still out here, not in there.  And that's a good... good thing," he stressed.

"It is," Joshua agreed.  "Right now, Andrew, these girls need you more.  Because there's something... something you all need to read together when Kevin gets here."  He again focused on JenniAnn.  "Tess will bring her something.  She'll be hesitant to read it.  But she has to.  And she needs to share it with all of you.  I want her to.  Ivy wants her to."

With those words, Andrew knew why neither he nor Violeta were being sent to keep Ivy company.  She already had someone keeping her company.  The angel of death watched as Joshua briefly rested his hand over JenniAnn's, Kemara's, and Violeta's.  Then the man squeezed Andrew's shoulder and walked down the hall in the same direction Nurse Tess had. 

Andrew held his hands out.  "Let's pray some more as we wait for Kevin, okay?"

"Yes, please," Violeta responded as JenniAnn and Kemara nodded.

"Dear God, we ask you to continue to hold Ivy close.  Please mend her body so that we can continue to help You build up her spirit and bring peace to her soul.  We... we are so grateful for the time we've had with her, for her kindness, for her laughter.  We'd really like... we'd love to be able to enjoy that all again.  Give us Your wisdom to know what needs to be done and said to help bring her all the peace and love she deserves."  Andrew gently squeezed Violeta's hand.

"Thank you for letting me interview Ivy.  I... I really enjoyed that.  A-and she was a really good listener when I was telling her about what happened with... you know, the porcupine thing.  The hair sticks were really fun.  I think she thought so, too.  So thank You for those."

JenniAnn's eyes peeked open.  She glanced over to see Kemara was also a little startled by Violeta's remark.  However, neither commented because Violeta had squeezed JenniAnn's hand.

"Our God, You know that our hearts are... are heavy right now.  But we know You will bring joy to them again.  We pray that Ivy is with us when that happens, able to share in that joy... knowing how many people love her.  B-but whether she's here with us or... or with You, please help us to continue to do what we can to help those who feel misunderstood and mistreated."  JenniAnn squeezed Kemara's hand.

"Father and Redeemer, I know... I think we all know at least in part... the lonesomeness and rejection that Ivy has felt.  Help us all to always remember that You are the God of slaves, the God of the downtrodden, the God of the outcasts, the God of the stable and of the Skull... and You have never and will never leave them alone.  Amen."

"Amen," the others echoed.

"Amen."

The four all looked up to find Ivy's nurse gazing down at them. 

Nurse Tess held JenniAnn's Anne book out to her.  "I... I didn't know that you would feel right reading Ivy's journal although I have it if you want it.  But as that's yours... I think you need to take it.  And I think you need to read what I found inside.  Hearing your beautiful prayers, I'm sure of it."

"Thank you."  JenniAnn accepted the book and hugged it to her chest.

Before she had time to crack it open, the emergency room doors slid open and three people entered: Kevin flanked by his parents. 

"Over there, in the corner," he directed.  His father kept a tight grip on his arm and walked him towards the group then helped him settle onto a couch.

"Kevin... you look so tired," JenniAnn lamented.

"You don't look too hot yourself."  Kevin smiled grimly and stuck his tongue out.

JenniAnn cracked a smile.  "Long story, not important right now."

"Any news?"

Andrew looked up to Tess.

"No change.  But I think that's good.  Still stable, still breathing on her own.  Very peaceful."

Kevin let out the breath he'd been holding.  "Good."  He waved to his parents.  "This is my dad, Lawrence, and my mom, Natalia.  You probably remember, JenniAnn.  She's taller now.  Then this is Kemara, Violeta, and..."

"Andrew," Natalia finished in her Italian accent.  Her eyes brimmed.  She knelt beside Andrew, clasped his right hand in both of hers, and brought it to her lips.

"Oh, umm, hi.  Thank you," the angel of death responded, slightly flustered.

"Natalia, my dear, perhaps, uh..." Lawrence gently shook his wife's shoulder but she continued to clasp Andrew's hand.  "She was... we both were... very grateful for the message and the gift you relayed to us through our son and, well, Natalia's always been very effusive."

Andrew smiled.  "There's nothing wrong with effusive.  I was very honored to be given the task."

"We will pray now for your friend," Natalia declared.  "But later, when she is well... and she will be well, I hope we can talk?"

The angel's expression grew happier.  He was touched by the woman's complete belief that Ivy would heal.  "Yes, we will.  Now that you're here, let's move into the chapel." 

"You'll tell us if there's any change?" JenniAnn asked Tess.  "Of course, you're welcome to join us."

The nurse was mulling over the meaning behind the exchange between Andrew and Natalia but let it go.  "Thank you.  I will stop in when I can but I should stay here for now.  I'll come get you if there's any change at all."

"Thank you.  And I have a call out to Ivy's church.  I'm hoping they might know where Mrs. Lee is.  We'll let you know as soon as we hear back.  Thank you for... for getting this back to me."  JenniAnn held up the book.

"Of course.  I hope what you find inside brings you peace.  That's an extraordinary young lady in there."

"We know," Violeta assured.

Then the group of four which had grown to seven made their way to the chapel.

*~*~*

For a few minutes, everyone prayed silently, bringing to God their worries and their hopes.  Then, as people became restless, JenniAnn opened her book.  About three fourths through it, she found a folded piece of blue paper.

"Andrew," she whispered.

"Yes?"

"I think this is it."  JenniAnn held out the paper.  "What Nurse Tess thought I should read but I feel kind of badly...  I mean... Ivy may have intended it to be private."

Remembering Joshua's words, Andrew shook his head.  "No, Laja.  You're meant to read it... and share it with us.  God wants you to and so does Ivy."

Touched, JenniAnn unfolded the note.  "Could I... is it okay to read it alone first?  I mean you can read with me.  But I don't think I... I can read it aloud right away."

"Of course."

JenniAnn smoothed the paper out on her lap and the two began to read.  "Oh Ivy..." she murmured.  "Sweet Ivy." 

Andrew hugged her, tears rolling down his cheeks as he finished the poem.  He thought of the dream Ivy had related to him.  He wanted to believe it had been on her mind when she'd penned the lines.

"No matter what happens... Ivy really did know she wasn't alone," JenniAnn whispered.

"She did.  She does.  Now the others need to know that, too."

JenniAnn nodded and stood up.  She turned to face her friends.  "Ivy wrote a poem and was keeping it in the book I lent her.  It... it's difficult to read at first b-but I think we'll feel better once we hear it.  So if everyone's okay with it and since we have this place to ourselves right now, I'd like to read it aloud."

"Go for it, JenniAnn," Kemara encouraged.

"Okay, it's called 'He Faced This, Too.'" 

Supported by Andrew, JenniAnn managed to recite the poem in its entirety.

"She hears the taunts.
She feels the pain of their words,
piercing her soul.

Yet that same soul whispers,
'He faced this, too!'

Gossip's accusations fill the air:
Tramp, slut, ugly, bastard.
A spirit is trampled by the false words.

But now her spirit counters,
'He faced this, too!'

'Go away!' 'Ewww!' 'Such a loser!'
'That's it, let her be. Let's go have fun!'
And her heart breaks in loneliness.
But her heart reminds her,
'He faced this, too!'

A friend kissed Him good bye.
A cock crowed for the third time.
A man washed his hands.
Everything in Him screams.
Now He will face it all.

A cross slowly grows closer to the hill.
Nails pierce... the crushing weight of the wood
and the world on one body.
Slowly, He whispers to her,
'I'm facing this for you.'"

As the others silently reflected, JenniAnn reverently refolded the paper and returned it to the book.  Andrew took her hand and led her back to a pew.

Kevin was the first to respond, staring at the cross at the altar as he spoke.  "It was... beautiful.  She's a very talented... very faith-filled girl."

"That she is," Kemara agreed.  "She's stuck to her faith under circumstances that would have shaken the faith of so many others.  More than that, I think she allowed that pain to deepen her relationship with God."

Turning his gaze to a stained glass window depicting the Good Shepherd, Kevin smiled softly.  "Like father, like daughter."

Andrew smiled softly.

Violeta brushed at a tear.  She knew Ivy would like that.  Joshua, too.

"Do you think maybe she wrote that after... after what I saw tonight?" Kevin asked.

"Maybe," Violeta responded.  She moved to sit at Andrew's side and took hold of his left hand.  "Ivy told me that she wrote poems when she was upset.  She said... said it helped her.  Did she... I mean do you know if she made any response to whatever was said?"

"No, she didn't.  Do you... I mean..."  Kevin craned his neck to see Andrew.  "Should I show everyone?  Dad has my laptop."

The angel of death nodded.  "Yes.  I think we need to know."

"Okay.  But should we..."  The man again glanced at the cross.  "Maybe this isn't the best place to...  I mean it's very... crude."

"God already knows," Andrew assured. 

"All right."

Lawrence brought his son the computer.

"I took screen shots while I waited for Mom and Dad.  So there would be proof."

Andrew, JenniAnn, Kemara, and Violeta all clustered in the pew behind Kevin while his parents sat beside him.

"This is what came up first.  It's not Alyssa's main account but I have a feeling it's a bogus one she set up.  She posted it on some group called 'North East Elite Eight' then tagged Ivy."  Kevin pulled up a screen shot.

They all stared at a caricature labeled "Fat Ivy."

Kemara fought tears.  "It's her.  It's definitely Alyssa.  That looks too much like the other drawing to not be."

"It does," Andrew agreed.

"Did you keep a copy of the other drawing?" Kevin asked.

"I did.  I don't have it on me right now but I filed it away at my loft with the other incidents I documented."

Kevin smiled wearily at him.  "Good."

"What... what else?" Violeta asked, her voice barely audible.

"Some others started responding."  Kevin opened another file.  "Can everyone see?  I... I really don't want to read them aloud."

In horror they all read an exchange between three different users.

Such a skank!  my mom went 2 school w her mom n she said Ivy's mom slept w like every guy n the class.  tonz.

no wunder she thru herself at brendan last yr.

she pretends 2 b all inocent but we no btr.  haha

i dont get it.  shes not evn pretty.  all pimply and grozz.  eww i wish shed just diiiie


"I think we should call the cops.  Have em trace the whole lot of em and drag em in for harassment," JenniAnn spat out.

"Something needs to be done.  That's for sure.  But with the limited cyber-bullying laws here... and the ruckus there'd be in the media...  And then top that off with the possibility of Ivy having to testify, anyway, if there's a trial concerning the accident..."  Kevin shook his head.  "Telling the cops about this right now could be even worse for Ivy.  Have you seen some of those message boards on news sites?  I don't think we can make that call without asking Ivy first."

"Yes... I'm afraid so," Kemara replied.  "So was that... I hope... it?"

Coming back to her senses but still glaring at the screen, JenniAnn nodded.

Kevin shook his head.  "I'm afraid not."

"Don't, Kevin," Natalia insisted, shaking her head.  "This... it is enough."

Her son hugged her.  "Mom, they need to know."  Kevin swiveled to face the four standing behind them.  "It gets worse and, Andrew, you come up."

The angel nodded gravely.  "Show me."

Kevin opened another file.  Another picture appeared, this one a lewd full body drawing.  The all too familiar "Ivy the Slut" label was on it. 

i think she has the hotz for mr R

she'd prob do whatev he wanted.  so desprate

she wuz all trying to impress him fri.  like oh 'jane air'


Far from being embarrassed, Andrew smiled.  "Do you realize what that is?"

"Utterly disrespectful harassment?" JenniAnn tried.

"Yes.  But read that last one again.  And it's by the same person who posted the drawings... the person who started this.  A person who must have been in my session on Friday..."

Despite her horror, Violeta grinned.  "Alyssa just signed her name to this."

Kemara nodded.  "At the very least she made it quite clear this is either her or one of her two hangers on.  And I have a feeling that if those two girls were headed to trouble, they'd rat her out in a second."

"It does get better... in more ways than one."  Kevin again pulled another graphic up.  This showed a comment from a different individual.  "Unfortunately... it appeared after I called you.  So... Ivy didn't see it."

Why don't you all lay off?  You're awful.  You don't know anything bout what youre saying.  I think Ivy's nice.  she tutored my lil bro and got him thru math & I'm just sorry I didnt stand up to you last year.  I'm telling my mom about this... she's a lawyer.  deal with that cowards!

dam...


"So the police may end up involved," Andrew concluded.  "But I agree that we don't call them ourselves.  Not yet, anyway.  Not until we've talked with Ivy."

"You still think we will... talk to her, I mean?" Kemara asked.

Andrew pulled all three girls into a hug.  "I do.  I really do."  Then he moved to crouch in front of Kevin.  "Great work.  I think Ivy's Village is really coming through for her."

Kevin nodded.  "I just wish... I wish we had before..."  He looked around the room.  "She wound up here."

"I... I do, too," the angel agreed.  He smiled when Natalia reached over to pat his hair. 

Sensing Andrew needed time with the Hunters, JenniAnn moved away.  "I'd like to pray the rosary in a bit but first... I have to admit that I'm beginning to fade.  Kemara and Violeta, would you come get some more coffee or tea with me?"

"That sounds great," Kemara agreed.

"Maybe we could check with the nurse's station, too?" Violeta requested.

"Definitely."  JenniAnn smiled at her then led them out.

Andrew smiled at Natalia and Lawrence.  "Since it's just the four of us, maybe we could have that talk now?"

Timidly, Natalia nodded.

Andrew took her hand.  "So Kevin told you the message God had for him?  All of it?  About his cancer... and about your Lorelai?" he checked.

The couple nodded.

"And... he gave us the gift.  The... the little wooden donkey."  Lawrence's eyes filled. 

Natalia reached into her pocket and pulled the treasure out.  "Do you know what this means to us?"

"Only in part," the angel of death replied.  "Could you tell me about it?"

"Yes..."  The woman nodded.  "There was something... at the end... something not even our Kevin knows.  Lawrence and I..."

Kevin reached for his parents' hands.  "It was too hard for you to speak about.  I understand, mama."

"Our little Lorelai had this book called The Small One.  It was about a little donkey who was put up to be sold and very sad," Lawrence explained.  "We read it to her constantly.  Both children had a book that we'd read only to them, individually.  It... it was important to us... especially after our girl was diagnosed... that both she and Kevin have alone time with us.  So this book was Lai-Lai's story.  In it, the donkey goes onto... to..."

"Our Lady and St. Joseph purchased Small One for their journey to Bethlehem for the birth of the Lord," Natalie continued.

Andrew closed his eyes, remembering the little girl.

"Lai-Lai became obsessed with that donkey.  She would ask us 'Is the donkey in Heaven?' and 'Is the donkey with the baby Jesus?' and 'Does Mary still have Small One?'  We never knew what to say.  I... I was taught that animals return to the Earth but it seemed so important to her... I tended to dance around the issue," Lawrence admitted.

Natalia blushed.  "I told her 'yes' always.  I couldn't bear any more sadness for her.  I thought the Lord would forgive a grieving mother if I was wrong."

Andrew smiled gently.  "He would forgive a grieving mother, yes.  But you weren't wrong to tell your daughter 'yes.'"

"I... I know that now because when... when Lorelai was dying... she had been so tired and so sick... barely moving and then... then she laughed.  And her eyes grew very big.  And the last words she said were 'Mommy, Daddy... I see Small One.'  Then... then she was gone."

Andrew let the tears trail down his face.  "It was the only time I ever brought a donkey with me to take someone Home.  But when God makes a request like that... we angels of death know there's a reason.  Your own little one is at peace and she is happy."

Natalia hugged him to her and wept as her son and husband embraced.

A few minutes later, JenniAnn peeked her head in and Lawrence waved them in.

"Any news?"

Kemara shook her head.  "Ivy's still sleeping.  No change."

The man's frown transformed into a tender smile.  "Natalia and I have learned that our little girl is at peace," he murmured.  "Now let's pray again for another little girl who sorely needs and deserves peace."

After praying the "Our Father" and Psalm 23 together, the group remained close but each began to pray silently in their own way for Ivy.

*~*~*

~ Joshua Remembers ~

The machines beeped mechanically and rhythmically, sending a constant stream of information to the nurse's station.  There were lights and displays that blinked and changed at intervals.  Otherwise, the room was still and silent and its only occupant an unconscious, badly bruised girl with her left leg in a cast and her arms bandaged.  At least that's what anyone wandering into the room to check on the patient would have seen.  But just beyond the veil that separated Earth and eternity, a man sat in the chair beside Ivy, gently stroking her hand.  It was not the first time they had been in this hospital together.

Joshua peered lovingly at Ivy, remembering the wail she'd let out as Francesca had ushered her into the world.  He recalled how later that night, while Francesca was enjoying a well-deserved nap and the nurses and doctors were otherwise engaged, he'd returned to their room and held the baby.  It was his way, something he always did.  But it was always special.  It would be one of the last times most of them would see him until they came Home.

And her heart breaks in loneliness.
But her heart reminds her,
"He faced this, too!"

Joshua smiled.  JenniAnn was reading Ivy's poem.  He listened intently until she was finished then took Ivy's hand, the one unencumbered by an IV line, into both of his.

"Your poem... the one you wrote tonight... it is so beautiful, so... you... us.  I've always loved your writing, Ivy.  I can still remember the first time you ever wrote, you know.  You took one of your mom's pencils and wrote your name right across one of her sketches.  Then you worried that she was going to get angry.  But she framed it.  She said it was your first collaborative effort.  She loved you so much then and she loves you even more now.  And she's so proud of you, Ivy.  So am I."

A tear slid down his cheek and Joshua bowed his head.  "It was never my will that you be hurt like you have been, Ivy.  Never.  Not by your grandma and not by anyone at school.  But it makes me and our Father so tremendously proud to see that their callous, unkind words haven't kept you down or turned you against the world and they haven't alienated you from us.  And because of that, there's something I want you to know.  When you wake up, and you will wake up, you'll wonder if you dreamed this.  But it's real.  You were so brave in sharing your story with your new friends.  Now, I want to share a piece of my story with you.  And I want you to hold onto it because everything my Abi said to me... I'm always whispering it to you."

Joshua stood and bent down, kissing his child's forehead.

Ivy stirred slightly but remained asleep as the scene unfolded before her.

*~*~*

Nazareth, circa 2009 years ago

Yosef ran his hand along the edges of the table, feeling for any flaws.  He was proud of his work but he knew Efraim was a demanding sort.  And Yosef needed all the commissions he could get as he tried to re-establish himself in Nazareth.  People hadn't entirely forgotten the circumstances behind his and Maryam's departure.  It was rather hard to do with a living, breathing reminder often at his parents' heels.  Not that Yosef minded.  In truth, he preferred it when Yeshua stayed nearby.  Even at four, he had a determined mind of his own.  Let him out of one's sight for a moment and Yeshu would be off talking to the neighborhood beggars or drawing things in the sand that Yosef felt no boy his age had right to know about.  At least he was asleep for now and Yosef could concentrate on his work.

Except he couldn't.  Yosef stepped into the main room and his stomach twisted.  Yeshu's cot was empty.  Maryam had left them alone for one morning so she could tend to a sick neighbor and he had lost the boy!

"Yeshu, if you are hiding then you must come out.  Now," Yosef demanded.

No movement, no little boy laugh.

Yosef tore around the room.  "Yeshua, out!  This moment!"  He overturned his and Maryam's cot.  Nothing.  Then he heard the sniffling.  Yosef spun around to face the front door.  He found himself staring at the strange little being an angel had told him was the Deliverer.  "Yeshu!  You frightened me.  Son, why are you weeping?"

Yeshua shook his head and kicked at the dirt floor.

Yosef looked around nervously.  He wanted his wife.  She knew better how to handle the child.  All he knew was how to teach him to pound a nail and follow the Law.  Maryam always knelt down, getting level with the boy.  So Yosef knelt.  "Yeshua, speak to me.  Tell Abi why you..."

Yeshua mumbled a reply.

"Yeshu, you must speak loud..."

"Daniel woke me up and asked me to come play and then he said..."

Yosef bit his lip.  Daniel... the little runt born to Tavi who had been among the men wishing to stone Maryam those four years hence.  "What did Daniel say?" he pressed.

"You are not my Abi."

Yosef's heart sunk. 

"He said I am un... unclean a-and born of... of sin... of... of Sat..."

"Well, that is not true.  Although..."  Yosef licked his finger and wiped a smudge of dirt from his boy's face.  "Maybe a little dusty.  But not unclean."

A smile played at Yeshua's lips.  It grew when Yosef settled on the floor and pulled him into his lap. 

"You know that God created Adam and Eve, yes?"

"Yes.  And the sun and the moon and the stars and the animals..."

Yosef nodded.  "So God is the Father of us all since we are all from Adam and Eve.  But we also have... we have earthly fathers.  Everyone but..."  He wrenched his eyes shut.  Maryam really should be present for this...

"Everyone but you, Yeshu."

Not budging from Yosef's lap, Yeshua reached up for his mother who was standing in the doorway.  She clasped his hands and sat across from Yosef, smiling serenely though with a touch of sadness.  She had known this day would come and that it would be difficult for her husband and son.

"Abi is... is not my Abi?" the boy implored.

"Abi is your Abi and always will be.  Even when you are old.  But you were not... not born to us in the manner in which most children are.  God placed you in my womb.  Right here."  Maryam sat her hand over her belly.

Yeshua understood this.  He had seen the neighbor's swollen-bellied donkey give birth.  It had been scary and amazing all at once.  He hoped he had not hurt his Ama like the baby donkey had its mother.

"Usually, it is the man... the woman's husband... who puts the baby there," Maryam explained.

"But not me?"

"Not you," Yosef murmured.  "God is your Father, Yeshu... in a way more than... than He is for the rest of us."

"God is my Abi?"  Yeshua rubbed at the birthmark on his right temple, something he always did when troubled.  He burrowed his face against Yosef's shoulder.  He wasn't sure he liked that.  He loved God.  But He couldn't touch God.  He could touch Abi.

"Yeshua, you have two Abis: God and Yosef."  Maryam sat her hand over her husband's when he began to stroke the boy's hair.

"When people like Daniel say those things to you, remember this, Yeshu," Yosef counseled.  "God loves you.  You are His son, His anointed.  Not unclean, not sinful, and as unlike Satan as possible.  Do not listen to them.  And if they persist, you kick the dust from where they stood off your sandals and you go on... go on to people who will love you and listen to you.  And no matter where you go, even... even when you cannot see us... you remember that your Ama and your Abi love you.  Always."

"Always..." Yeshua repeated.

"That's right," Maryam assured, leaning in to kiss his hair.  This was only the first of several difficult, confusing talks ahead but, for now, Yeshua was content.

"Now, I have thoroughly looked over Efraim's table and think it ready.  Let us bring it to him!  As a family," Yosef suggested, grinning at his wife over the boy's head.

Maryam laughed softly into her mantle.  Going to Efraim's would involve walking right past Daniel and Tavi.  Yosef was many things but he had never been a coward and never would be.

Always delighted by the chance to be involved in his Abi's work, Yeshua nodded.  He took his mother's hand while Yosef retrieved the table and then they set off.

"Greetings, Tavi!  And young Daniel!" Yosef shouted as they walked by.

"Yosef," the man responded.  His eyes briefly alighted on Maryam and her child while his son glared at the latter.

"Such a fine day the Lord has given us!  I thought my wife and son would enjoy the walk to Efraim's."

It was an innocuous phrase, spoken with a wide smile, but something in the way it was said reminded Tavi of the Yosef who had bested him in a fight when they were ten.  The fact that Yosef was carrying a table with ease did little to dispel Tavi's discomfort.  "A fine day.  Enjoy your walk," the man mumbled.

"Thank you!" Yosef replied.  He smiled when he heard Tavi speak to his son as they continued walking.

"Daniel, you will not say anything else to that boy.  Be kind to him.  Hear me?"

A pause.

"Boy?"

"Yes, father."

The significance of this exchange was lost on Yeshua.  He was too focused on committing to memory what his Abi had said.  No matter what people said, he was loved.  Always.

*~*~*

~ Mr. Spelman's Stand ~

Out in the waiting room, the cluster of people waiting for word on Ivy had grown.  Her parish priest, Fr. Xavier, had listened to JenniAnn's message shortly after he'd risen at 6:00 that morning.  He'd dispatched a parishioner to go retrieve Doreen from a retreat center several hours away then called to ask a retired friend to substitute for him at the morning Masses.  He'd arrived at St. Joseph's at 6:32 AM and remained.

Shortly after 7:00, the Chandlers had seen their daughter's text message about the accident.  They'd scrambled into their car and made their way back to Omaha, arriving at the hospital just before 10:00.  They'd walked in with Carrie who had come as soon as her sister was able to take over watching the kids.

As the hours drew on, the group became more and more hopeful.  Ivy had shown no distress.  Her breathing was good.  Her temperature was stable, no signs of any sort of infection.  And, perhaps the best sign, Andrew and Violeta were still with them.

Shortly after noon, JenniAnn felt a sudden urge.  "I think I need to call Mr. Spelman," she told Andrew.  "I don't know why... but I just do.  If nothing else, I need to tell him I won't be able to meet with him tomorrow.  I wanna be here."

The angel of death nodded.  "I think you should call."

Another check of the phone book had quickly revealed his number and at 1:14, the psychology teacher entered the ER and was quickly embraced by his two former students.  Andrew hurried over to shake his hand, still trying to figure out what about this man seemed strange to him.

"Mr. Spelman!" Carrie greeted.  She'd never been able to adjust to calling her now fellow teacher simply Mark.  "JenniAnn said you were coming.  I'm glad.  I... I think we all need a little counseling."

The man smiled gently.  "I was so sorry to hear of what's befallen Miss Lee.  I prayed the whole way here.  And I also..."  He lowered his head.  "I began to regret that I hadn't told you, Rapunzel, what I'd wanted to when last we met.  I shouldn't have put it off until tomorrow."

"None of us saw this coming, Mr. Spelman.  But, please, can you tell me now?" JenniAnn requested.

The teacher nodded.  "As I said, I was there when we purchased the Pieta from Ms. Lee."  He turned to Carrie to explain when he saw her confusion.  "Ivy's mother sculpted the Pieta in the chapel.  The particulars of the sale were... unusual.  Sister DeLuca was prepared to pay a few thousand more than Ms. Lee accepted."

JenniAnn frowned.  This was odd behavior from a cancer-stricken woman.

"Ms. Lee requested instead that her daughter, assuming her grades were acceptable, would be guaranteed entry into Our Lady of Hope and financial assistance as needed.  Sister DeLuca readily agreed.  She was touched by the request and noted it right on the bill of sale.  But then she retired.  When the time came that I assumed Ivy would begin looking into which high school to attend, I brought this up to Vivian.  She assured me that she would look into it.  But then... then I'm afraid I forgot to pursue the matter any further when the school year started and everything became hectic again.  Given Ivy's comment to me about missing religion classes... I can't imagine that she would have turned the offer down.  And based on the very little time I spent with her, I doubt grades were the issue."

Andrew shook his head.  "Ivy is a wonderful student."

"So I thought.  Which leads me to believe... much to my shame... that it was never made."  Mr. Spelman reached for JenniAnn's hand.  "We have to find that bill.  And we have to bring it to Vivian and make her accept it.  Maybe if we can tell Ivy of this... it will give her hope.  And she'll wake up."

"I... I did see several boxes of bills in the storage room," JenniAnn recalled.  She motioned for Kemara.  "Do you remember where those boxes with the bills were?  Or do you, Andrew?  The ones I said we wouldn't touch?"

Andrew nodded.  "We moved them to the far back right corner to get them out of the way. 

"Why are we talking about bills right now?" Kemara asked, a touch bothered by the seemingly petty conversation.

"I know it must sound ridiculous but I promise it's worthwhile.  I believe a bill of sale from the Pieta is in there... with a note guaranteeing Ivy an education at Our Lady of Hope," Mr. Spelman explained.

"Wow..." Kemara exclaimed.  "That would be so wonderful for Ivy if that could work out.  I know it wouldn't fix everything but... especially now after that poem... she needs to be there."

"It will work out," Mr. Spelman vowed.  "I'll make it work out."

Carrie and JenniAnn both smiled.  If there was one thing they knew about their teacher it was that when he felt strongly that someone had been wronged, he'd do whatever he could to make it right. 

"Let's go," Carrie decided.  "You and me, Mr. Spelman.  JenniAnn, I think you should stay here in case Ivy wakes up.  But we'll look for the bill.  And then we'll drive it right on over to Vivian."

The psychology teacher smiled.  "A+ Miss McKay."

"Hey," Kevin called playfully as Carrie giggled.

"A+ Mrs. Hunter," the man corrected.  "But I wouldn't crow too much, Mr. Hunter.  I showed great mercy to you and your wife when I didn't give her demerits for all those times I saw you picking her up at the Arby's."  He chuckled when they both blushed profusely.  Then he leveled his gaze on Andrew and JenniAnn.  "And while I'm at it... the both of you... certainly not strangers to our neighborhood roast beef sandwich sellers."

"Uh oh..." JenniAnn began to squirm.

"You, sir, should be glad I recognized you."

Andrew looked at the teacher in surprise.

"I figured it would be best for me not to interfere with one of the Lord's messengers... even if I did find it odd that he and the May Queen were skulking around the Arby's...  I wonder if their PR department is aware of how often their parking lot was used for furtive trysts?"  Mr. Spelman chuckled.  Then he let out a shaky sigh and gave his full attention to Andrew.  "You were my chaplain when I first served in the Army during Vietnam."  His voice fell.  "During battles... as men lay dying... I heard them speak to you sometimes... times you were supposed to have been back at base.  I knew then who you were."

Andrew gawked.  Decades fell away from the man's face.  He saw a young soldier, clasping his rosary and praying in the barracks.  There was nothing strange about Mark Spelman... he was simply familiar.  The angel pulled the man into a hug.  "Good to see you again, Pvt. Spelman."

Mr. Spelman warmly returned the embrace.  "One day I hope you will tell me how the two of you met and became friends.  But for now... Mrs. Hunter and I have business to attend to." 

JenniAnn smiled after them as they departed.  She was grateful for the much needed levity Mr. Spelman had brought but even more for the hopeful future he'd held out. She hugged Andrew and smiled up at him.  "Ya know, I'm glad Bennie was wrong about us for a buncha reasons.  But here's a new one: I'm glad we were never lovers because clearly we are incredibly bad at sneaking around without being noticed."

Andrew chuckled, hugging both her and Kemara.  "Truly terrible," he agreed.  "But this..."  He waved to the now barely visible forms of Carrie and Mr. Spelman as they jogged to the former's car.  "Is wonderful."

Kemara smiled.  "Yet another reason to look forward to Ivy waking up.  And she will."

Andrew and JenniAnn nodded in hopeful agreement.

*~*~*

Hours slipped by.  Still Ivy slept, motionless.  As the vision of another time filled her mind, the swelling in her brain began to subside. 

At 3:00 PM, as the bells of a nearby church announced the hour, Joshua raised out of his chair.  Once again, he leaned down to kiss the girl's forehead.  Then he took her hand and closed his eyes.

"Talitha koum."

Ivy gasped and sat up.  She groaned.  She moved to rub her head and stared at the tube sticking out of her hand.  The memories began to return: reading the Facebook messages, needing to be with her friends, getting on her bike, stopping in a park after a sudden burst of insight and inspiration brought on by the warm and comforting memory of the dream of her Everlasting Father, frantically writing her poem, getting back on her bike, deciding to take a shortcut down a back road, and then the bright lights and screeching.  Then the voice... familiar and unfamiliar all at once... talking about her and her mother.  And the little crying boy... Yeshu... Jesus.  What a dream... 

"My God!"

Ivy turned in the direction of the voice and found herself staring at a nurse.  "Hi."

"Well, hello.  I'm sorry.  I just didn't expect to see you up and alert.  How are you feeling?"

"My head really hurts.  Kinda everything does but..."  Ivy laughed.  Loudly.  Yosef...  The mischievous, warm young man from her dream bore little resemblance to the solemn, wizened old man her grandma prayed to.  And while Mary... Maryam hadn't devised the comeuppance scheme, she certainly hadn't bothered to voice any objection or demurely suggested Yosef offer his annoyance up to the Lord.  They were... normal.  Fantastically normal.  And the boy...  Ivy sobered.  He'd been beautiful... not Hollywood but beautiful.  She wished for him to come back the most.

Nurse Tess bit her lip as she studied the girl.  Clearly she was experiencing some mental confusion and rapidly swinging moods.  But even at that... it was a miracle she was so alert.  "Sweetheart, I'm going to call a doctor in to come look at you.  Then maybe we can get some of your friends in here."

"Friends?" Ivy asked distractedly.  She was trying to commit the appearances of the family to memory. 

"There were twelve of them out there.  I think two left but I'm sure they'll be back.  You've got yourself a full dozen!"

"T-twelve?"

The nurse nodded.  "Your teacher and his three friends have been out there since shortly after you were brought in.  Then others have trickled in."  She smiled.  "I'll go get that doctor now.  And I'll let your friends know you're awake.  They've been praying for you.  They'll want to know those prayers have been answered."

"Y-yes.  Please do that."  Ivy's eyes welled.  She hadn't realized there were twelve people who truly cared for her.

*~*~*

Fifteen miles away, Vivian O'Kane was quietly reading when she heard someone pounding on her door.  Annoyed, she put the book down and peeked out her window.  "Oh for crying out loud!  It's Sunday and it's summer!" she grumbled.  But she put on a happy face and answered.  "Well, hello, Mark and Carrie!  It's so pleasant to see you.  What brings you both here to my humble home?  You both look... well..."  Why ever would they look so dusty and disheveled?

Mr. Spelman held out the bill of sale that had been uncovered after two hours of searching.  "Remember three years ago when I told you we owed a young girl... the daughter of the woman who sculpted our Pieta, an education and you said you'd look into it?  You didn't... did you?"

Affronted, Vivian crossed her arms over her chest.  "I most certainly did!  I tracked down the young lady and spoke to her grandmother.  I was rather rudely told they were not interested."

Carrie groaned.  "Didn't you talk to Ivy herself?"

"That woman didn't offer and I was glad to be rid of her company as soon as possible.  She informed me that Our Lady of Hope was nothing more than a breeding ground for liberalism and apostasy.  Besides... it's not as if that arrangement was actually legal."  She waved to the document.

"It was moral.  That counts even more, Vivian."

"Mark, be reasonable..."

Mr. Spelman took a step nearer.  "Our Lady of Hope High School: Women in service to others.  Would you like to stand on the side of reason or on the side of the motto we've spent decades trying to get our girls to live up to?"

Carrie smiled proudly at her teacher.  "What he said."

Vivian sighed and waved them in.  "What's made this so urgent now?  The girl's likely been in high school for what?  One or two years?"

"Two.  And miserable during that time," Carrie responded.  "And now... now she's in the hospital after being hit by car following what we can only assume was an attempt to reach the comfort of friends following vicious cyber-bullying from classmates at her current high school."

"And this girl... this Ivy... is so filled with faith that she's been visiting our Pieta... her mother's Pieta... during breaks with the Eve's Girls program.  She's at our school, Vivian.  But she's not in our school.  And that's on both of us," Mr. Spelman stressed.  "Me for forgetting to follow up and you for failing to persist in honoring your predecessor's word."

Vivian had gone pale.  "She was in an accident?  How severely was she injured?"

"She's currently unconscious.  But we hope that when she awakes... and we pray she will... that we can tell her that Our Lady will take her... if she'll take us," Mr. Spelman pressed.  "So?"

The principal stared at the prim, perfect handwriting of Sister DeLuca.  She remembered the nun who had taught her Home Ec... back when it was still in existence.  She'd always been a kind woman... maybe to a fault.  The school had suffered some financially from her generosity.  But maybe that hadn't been an entirely bad thing.  Vivian sighed.  "Her grades?"

"We've not seen her transcript but we have every reason to believe she is more than qualified," Carrie responded.  "She's a poet."

Vivian glanced over at the Emily Dickinson volume she'd been rudely torn from.  "I see."

"And?"

"Mr. Spelman, have I ever told you that sometimes you can be an exceedingly annoying man?" the principal demanded.

"You did, yes.  Forty some odd years ago.  Right after you returned my engagement ring."  The teacher crossed his arms over his chest and grinned as Carrie gaped.

With that, Vivian's proprietary demeanor dropped.  She laughed.  "Which I still believe I was right to do."

"You were."  Mr. Spelman grew serious.  "So do the right thing again, Viv.  Please."

With a sigh, she nodded.  "Tell the girl she has a guaranteed place at Our Lady of Hope... and a full ride scholarship if necessary.  Courtesy of her mother." 

Much to Vivian's surprise, Mark and Carrie pulled her into a group hug before dashing off.

*~*~*

"Haven't you heard anything?" Violeta asked her supervisor as they made yet another trip to the vending machine.

Andrew shook his head.  "Nothing yet.  But hopefully..."

"Andrew!  Violeta!"

JenniAnn's shout echoed down the hall.  Without a word, both angels went running towards the waiting room.  They halted when they saw Nurse Tess... and her wide smile.

"She's awake!"

Andrew pulled Violeta into a hug, the first of several shared among the group.  "Thank God!" he cried.

"Hallelujah!" Fr. Xavier cheered.

After everyone had settled down, the woman continued.  "The doctor's just finishing up with her right now.  If he's satisfied and Ivy consents... which I'm thinking she will... we'll let you visit with her.  But remember: she's experienced a trauma.  She may still be quite rattled, tired, uncomfortable.  So let's try to limit it to two people in the room at a time, okay?"

Everyone nodded eagerly. 

"Well then, from the looks of it, you're all going to need to work out a schedule.  So I'll leave you to that."  Nurse Tess hugged Kemara who was nearest to her.  "I'm so glad your friend came through, God love her."

"He certainly does," Kemara responded, beaming.

As everyone chattered excitedly and Kevin placed an ecstatic call to his wife and her teacher; Andrew, JenniAnn, Kemara, and Violeta stepped into the chapel.

"So... is it time?" JenniAnn asked Andrew and Violeta.  "For Ivy to know who you are, I mean?"

The angel of death nodded and took Violeta's hand in his.  "Actually..."  He looked to the ceiling.  "We'll go in now.  Then when the doctor gives his okay, you two will come in to visit with Ivy."

Violeta grinned.  "Human rules say two people at a time but God says four."

Then, after hugging JenniAnn and Kemara, the two angels disappeared.

*~*~*

~ Revelations ~


As soon as the doctor left, Ivy settled back against her pillows.  She was still trying to make sense of what she'd experienced.  Her dream had seemed so real and there was something else.  There had been times, in the night, when she thought she'd felt someone holding her hand.  However, the doctor had dismissed this idea.  He'd insisted that she hadn't been allowed any visitors.  But Ivy couldn't let go of the idea that someone had been there. 

Despite the ache it caused, Ivy rolled to her side and looked to the chair beside her bed.  It was not empty.  Straining, she reached over and picked up the small object sitting there. 

A carved lion.

She thought of Yosef.  And she thought of the boy eager to take part in his work.  Clutching the figure to her chest, she wondered.

"Ivy?"

Alarmed, the teenager turned towards the window.  Her face broke into a wide smile.  "Andrew!  Violeta!  But how..."  She looked over at the door which was opposite to them.  There was no way they could have gotten to the window without passing her.

Andrew pulled another chair towards the bed and motioned for Violeta to sit before he sunk into the other one and took Ivy's hand.  "How are you feeling?"

"Pretty good, considering.  But I'm confused.  The doctor said I might experience black outs.  Maybe I blacked out cause I don't remember seeing you two come in.  But I'm glad you did."  She squeezed Andrew's hand and smiled at Violeta.

"You didn't black out," Violeta assured.  "Andrew and I didn't come in through the door.  We came in because God sent us.  Ivy, we're angels."

"A-angels?  Like real angels?"

Andrew smiled.  "Really real angels."

Ivy watched as a splendid, golden light emanated from them.  She began to cry.  "Wow..."

Violeta giggled.  "Yeah.  We're actually...  Well, Andrew's actually an angel of death.  And I'm training to be with him to be one."

"Angels of... of death?"

Andrew nodded.  "Ivy, usually that means we escort people Home to Heaven at the end of their lives.  We... we help them through that transition.  But, thankfully, you still have much living to do yet on this Earth, Ivy.  So we're here to help you with a different transition.  Your life has been filled with sorrow and grief and loneliness for the past five years.  But that life ends today, sweetheart."  He took one of Ivy's hands in his.

Violeta took Ivy's other hand.  "Ivy, God sent us here because He knows how hard it's been for you and He wanted you to know that no matter what anyone like Alyssa or your grandma says, you are so loved.  He loves you so much.
  And He is giving you a new life.  One of joy and of peace and much love and friendship."

"And belonging and understanding, too, Ivy.  You're God's beautiful child.  And He knows who you are.  He knows the truth.  He knows that all those things that have been written and said... they're not the truth.  They are lies and they are evil," Andrew stressed. 

Tears, both of joy and the last remnants of confusion, poured down Ivy's cheeks as she listened.  "So... so why do they still hurt so much?"

Violeta moved onto the edge of the bed and gently hugged her friend and assignment.  "Because you were created in love and in truth and you were created to love.  And you do, Ivy!  Even trying to understand Alyssa and your grandma... that's love!  Pretty amazing love!  Because you were contemplating how things must be for Alyssa when I couldn't even do that.  But because of that love... your heart is open and tender and so easily bruised.  But, thankfully, you trusted it to Someone who would never hurt you or lie about you.  Someone you... you wrote a really beautiful poem about."  Tears welled in Violeta's eyes and she turned to her supervisor.  "Could you..."

"Of course."  Andrew moved to sit at Ivy's other side, holding her close when she leaned against his shoulder.  "The nurse who called us after you were brought here, she had to look through your bag to try to find out who you were.  The way she tracked us down was through the Anne book.  When she was going through that, she found 'He Faced This, Too.'"

"I... I wrote that right before..."  Ivy reached up to her temple.  "Did you read it?"

The angel of death nodded.  "Nurse Tess told us we should.  JenniAnn was concerned that it might be invading your privacy but God told me that you wanted us to hear it."

Ivy nodded.

"So we did, Ivy.  And we were all so touched and also so comforted because we realized that, no matter what happened, you still had so much faith and so much love for... for the One who Violeta and I knew was with you and who everyone else trusted was with you."

Ivy looked down at the lion still clasped tightly in her hand.  "I... I had a dream.  I was in Nazareth a-and the Holy Family was there but their names... I guess it was their real names they were using.  A-and a little boy had made Jesus... Yeshu... cry."

Andrew drew in a shuttering breath, realizing what Joshua had done.  He met Violeta's gaze and knew she'd also come to the same conclusion.

"He had teased him about not... not being Yosef's.  But Yosef and Maryam told him that he was and that he was God's, too.  And that God loved him and they loved him.  Always.  B-but it was just a dream or..."  Ivy looked up at Andrew.  "Did you hold my hand while I was asleep?"

The angel of death shook his head.

"Violeta?"

She did the same.

"Ivy..." Andrew closed his hand around hers when she saw it begin to shake.  "He... he wanted you to really know that, yes, He had faced the... the teasing and the cruelty, too... from... from the cradle to... to the grave.  For you.  For all His children.  Because He loves you so much.  And He always will.  And it..."

Ivy let out a sob.  "It was Him holding my hand."

Andrew nodded.  "He's been with you every day, walking beside you in the halls at school, sitting beside you in the classrooms.  And He understands the pain you feel but He is... He and His Father... the Father of us all... are so proud of you for never losing that faith and love you feel." 

As tears of both gratefulness and longing rolled down her cheeks, Ivy smiled.  "I... I knew grandma had to be wrong about Him.  He... he couldn't have turned His back on my mom and me."

Andrew chuckled softly.  "No, He couldn't.  He's kinda crazy about you both."

Ivy giggled.

"And about your grandma...  I wouldn't worry too much about her," Andrew reassured.  "For one, we have some friends out there who would like to meet you: Carrie and Kevin Hunter, JenniAnn's friends.  Kevin saw what was written on your Facebook and he's documented it and he will help you get justice... however you decide you want to do that.  But he and Carrie also want you to know that you'll always have a place at their house, with their kids, if things get difficult with your grandma."

"Really?"

"Really," Violeta reassured.  "They're really, really nice."   

"Where... where is my grandma?  Does she know?"

"Fr. Xavier, who is here in the waiting room, sent someone to pick her up.  She should be here in, oh..." Andrew checked his pocket watch.  "About forty five minutes."

Ivy stared down at her lap.  "I... I'm not sure I want to see her."

Before either angel could respond, there was a rap on the door and Nurse Tess appeared.  "Ivy, are you ready for the first of your visitors?"

Ivy looked in surprise at Andrew.  He and Violeta moved off the bed and back near the windows.

"She can't see us right now," Andrew explained.  "The 'first' visitors are JenniAnn and Kemara."

She giggled and smiled at the nurse.  "Yes, please.  I'd love to see them.  Thank you."

A moment later, JenniAnn and Kemara hurried into the room.

"Ivy..." JenniAnn cooed as she leaned down to hug her. 

"We're so glad you're awake and okay.  We were so..."  Tears welled in Kemara's eyes as she took Ivy's hand.  "So sad when..."  She drew in a deep breath.  "But happy now."

"Where are Andrew and..."

"Boo!" Violeta cried as she became visible.  She collapsed into a fit of giggles when JenniAnn and Kemara both jumped.

Andrew tried his best to maintain a stern look.  "Violeta, that's not really... not really appro..."

Ivy was trying just as hard to hide her laughter.

Kemara smirked.  "Nice."

JenniAnn shook her head and smiled.  "Kids will be kids."

"Kids?" Ivy questioned through her laughter.

"Oh, yeah, so... I'm sixteen.  I was created on April 18, 1997 as time is counted on Earth," Violeta explained.

Ivy smiled as the little bits about Violeta that didn't quite make sense fell into place.  "So you're a real life teen angel?"

"Yup."

"I like that!  An angel my age." 

Violeta beamed.  "I like it, too.  But Andrew's really, really old and he won't let me tell anyone how old."

"It's one of the great unanswered questions among us," JenniAnn explained, hugging Andrew.  "But we love him even if it does turn out he's older than dirt."

Andrew blushed and kissed her hair.

Ivy simply marveled at all. 

"One day we'll tell you our story... all of it," JenniAnn vowed.  "But for right now... how are you feeling?"

"Amazing... amazed.  Last night... it... it was really hard and all I could think about was... was I just wanted to get to all of you and have you tell me that everything would... would get better but I... this was beyond any version of 'better' that I could imagine.  God... God's been really, really good to me."  Tears glistened in Ivy's eyes but they were happy ones.  Then she remembered what they'd been talking about before JenniAnn and Kemara had entered the room.  She looked over to Andrew who stepped nearer and reclaimed her outstretched hand.  "You said my grandma was coming and I... I really do feel so good but I'm afraid she'll... she'll start to make me feel bad again.  I... I'll try so hard to hold onto all I believe and all I've learned but..."

Andrew caressed her cheek.  "Ivy, you won't be the first to see your Grandma when she arrives.  She's going to have a little chat with Violeta and me first and, though they don't know it yet, JenniAnn and Kemara are going to get to say a few words to her, too."

JenniAnn's bowed head jerked up.  "What?  Are... are we restricted to only a few?"

Ivy laughed.  "Suddenly I feel a little sorry for my grandma... but I think this could be very good for her."

Andrew smiled.  "I think you're very right."

*~*~*

While Fr. Xavier and Allison visited with Ivy; Andrew, JenniAnn, Kemara, and Violeta sat in the waiting room... staring at the entrance.

"So we're all agreed?"

Andrew smiled coyly.  "Free will's free will.  We have to respect it, Laja... whether that means yours or Doreen's."

"I know.  But I don't wanna do it if it's wrong..." JenniAnn pressed.  "I just think... I mean I know you all don't represent a particular religion and I love that.  I wouldn't have it any other way.  I assume you'll be voicing God's side of this and that's most important but... it bothers me that she's used my religion as she has and I feel like someone needs to speak to that, too."

Kemara laughed.  "I'd just like it noted that Violeta winked."

"You don't know that it wasn't involuntary..." the young angel defended.

"Was it involuntary?"

"Not going to answer."

Andrew chuckled and buried his face in his hands for a moment before looking at his protege.  "You're really getting a little bit of an attitude, you know that?"

Violeta only smiled beatifically.

JenniAnn laughed and hugged her.  "I think we're just rubbing off on her a lil bit."

Andrew squeezed her hand.  "I won't say that's a bad thing.  Laja, you should definitely speak up.  And you, too, Kemara."

Kemara looked on with a bemused smile as JenniAnn looked to the angel with a dewy gaze that any Nicholas Sparks heroine would have envied.

And then it happened...

Doreen came tearing into the ER with a beleaguered man following her.  She spotted Andrew and made a beeline for him.

"What are you doing here?" she demanded.

"You were away.  Someone needed to be here for Ivy."

"I thought I told you to stay away from her outside of school?" Doreen snapped.

Moving to his feet, Andrew glared down at her.  "I take my orders from Someone else."

Apparently deciding this meant JenniAnn, Doreen zeroed in on her.  "You have no right to subvert my orders concerning my own granddaughter."

JenniAnn shot up from her chair.  "Are you going to even bother to ask about Ivy or are you just going to yell at us?"

The driver snorted in amusement when Doreen stumbled back a few steps then stormed over to the nurse's station.  "How is the young lady?" he asked the four friends.

"Awake and in a really good mood.  That's why we're trying to, umm..."  Kemara glanced over to where Doreen was impatiently waiting on a nurse.  "Stall."

The man nodded.  "I'm glad to hear that.  And I understand.  Please tell Fr. Xavier to call me later.  I need penance for the thoughts I had while driving back with that loon."

Barely able to keep from smirking, Kemara nodded.  "We... we will certainly do that."

"Thank you, miss."

"Oh... here we go..." Violeta noticed Doreen coming back to them, red-faced.

"They say I can't see my granddaughter!" she fumed.  "She already has the two visitors she's allowed.  I'm her grandmother!"

"Then start acting like it!" JenniAnn snapped and turned.  "C'mon!  We're going to the chapel.  All of us."

"Excuse me?  Who do you think you are giving me orders, you little..."

Andrew thought for a moment that he might need to intervene but JenniAnn whirled back around, clearly determined to hold her own.

"Ma'am, I am running on about 3 hours of sleep and spent hours wondering if someone I care about was going to live or die.  That's the reality we've been dealing with."  JenniAnn waved to the other three.  "While you were off saying your novenas and dead to the world, we were here with your granddaughter.  So I don't think it's asking too much for you to come have a nice, much needed 'come to Jesus' talk with us in the chapel.  I am prepared to drag you in there kicking and screaming if I have to and don't think I can't.  I am so amped up on coffee right now that I know I could."

Aghast, Doreen looked up at Andrew as if she expected him to wrangle JenniAnn in.  She was disappointed when he only smiled serenely. 

"It's a lovely chapel," Violeta opined.

Kemara just kept quietly watching the scene unfold, secretly thinking she'd happened into one of the zaniest, most wonderful groups of people.

"I'll go see it then," Doreen agreed, recognizing she had few options. 

The five trooped into the chapel which was, miraculously, empty... at least to everyone but Andrew.  He saw Joshua sitting at the foot of a statue of Joseph the Carpenter, solemnly taking in the scene. 

Doreen wasn't sure why but she suddenly felt very ill-at-ease.  She was accustomed to her word being law but recognized that there were wills stronger than hers in the room.

Andrew walked to the podium on which a Bible lay open.  He began to read aloud.  "'The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, 'Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery.  In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?'  They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.  But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.  When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, 'Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.'  Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.  At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.  Jesus straightened up and asked her, 'Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?'  'No one, sir,' she said.  'Then neither do I condemn you,' Jesus declared. 'Go now and leave your life of sin.'"  The angel looked up at the woman seated in the front pew.  "I've always loved that moment."

Joshua smiled.  He knew Andrew literally meant the very moment that he had spoken to the adulterous woman.

"What does that passage mean to you, Mrs. Lee?" the angel of death asked.

"The Lord forgave a repentant woman for her sins."

"You're sure about that?"

"Yes."

"Where does it say the woman repented?"

"Well... she must have."

"I'd sure like to think so.  But it's not there in the Bible.  All it says is that Jesus didn't condemn her and the he hoped she'd leave her sin behind her."  Andrew let the words sink in before continuing.  "You know who else loved that passage?"

Doreen shook her head.

"Francesca.  It was one of your daughter's favorites.  Because she knew what it felt like to have done something she felt in her heart was wrong and that the world judged her for and yet to know... to truly feel... that her God did not condemn her but allowed her to live free of guilt... because she believed He had paid the price for her.  It was something you taught her, actually.  You took her to Mass every Sunday, sometimes every day where you prayed the same words each time.  JenniAnn, Kemara, could you remind us what the Nicene Creed says about that?"

"'For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered, died, and was buried.  On the third day he rose again in fulfillment of the Scriptures,'" they recited.

"Francesca took that to heart, Doreen," Andrew murmured, moving to sit beside her.

"How... how do you know this?"  The woman gasped and slid back.  "Are... are you Ivy's father?"

The angel shook his head.  "I don't know who Ivy's birth father is.  But God, her true Father, does.  And God is not pleased that a man turned his back on his child.  But that's for that man and God to confront together in God's time.  Right now you need to confront your own part in Ivy's life.  Five years ago, a beautiful, trusting, loving child came to you.  And your behavior... your words made her fearful and nervous a-and feeling like she was ugly."

Doreen stiffened.  "Ivy is obstinate and strong-headed.  I think our presence in this hospital right now is proof of that."

Kemara looked over when she heard JenniAnn gasp. 

"Her mother's sin is written all over her!"

JenniAnn could listen no more and bolted from between Kemara and Violeta to stand in front of Doreen.  "That is ridiculous!  Newsflash!  Only one person in the world orchestrated their own conception and it wasn't Ivy!" she shouted.  "So stop holding her accountable for that.  How can you bow in front of that crucifix..."  She waved her hand to the one above the altar.  "A...a reminder of the redemptive sacrifice of a man... a man who was conceived out of wedlock I might add... and curse your daughter?  She loved Him!  And Ivy loves Him, too!  And I don't doubt that you love Him, Mrs. Lee, but do you trust Him?  Do you trust that that..."  She again waved her hand to the cross.  "Was enough?"

Kemara moved to stand beside JenniAnn.  "Mrs. Lee, I'm Catholic, too.  So is JenniAnn.  And we believe Jesus was punished enough for all of us.  The Redemption happened.  For you, for me, for Francesca, for all of us.  It doesn't make any sense to keep punishing Ivy!"

Doreen stared down at her folded hands.

Joshua had listened to this speech intently then looked to Andrew.  "Ask JenniAnn and Kemara to read the poem, please.  Doreen needs to hear it."

"JenniAnn and Kemara, would you please read Ivy's poem aloud for her grandma?" Andrew requested.

Taking turns, the two women recited "He Faced This, Too," crying as they did.

Andrew noticed a teardrop splash onto Doreen's hands.

"Ivy... wrote that?"

Violeta took the seat at Doreen's other side.  "Yes.  Last night.  Right before the crash.  Three other girls... they'd posted terrible things about Ivy online.  It hurt her so, so much.  But even at that, she knew who to reach out to.  The same Person she always has."

"B-but the sin... Francesca would never say she was sorry!" her mother protested.

Joshua stood up.  "Remind her that she was asking Francesca to say she was sorry for something that brought her beloved daughter to her.  Francesca would not apologize for conceiving Ivy.  She loved Ivy.  She did repent for going against the commitment she made to wait until she was married.  But she could not be sorry for having Ivy."

Andrew nodded.  "Doreen, you kept asking Francesca to say she was sorry for what she'd done.  But to her, it sounded like you were asking her to apologize for conceiving Ivy.  And she couldn't say that!  She loved her little girl!  She did repent for going against the commitment she had made to wait.  But she was never sorry for Ivy."

"Ivy is mine," Joshua declared.

"Ivy belongs to God."

"Francesca knew she was a gift."

"She was a gift from God to your daughter."

Joshua stepped closer to them.  "And to Doreen."

"And to you."

"I know Doreen was raised to believe frightening, guilt-inducing things."  Joshua's eyes welled.

"Doreen, God knows that the way you were raised... it made you believe frightening things.  Things that made you feel guilty."  Andrew handed Doreen a tissue when she began to cry in earnest.

"But I kept trying to send her the truth: that I loved her.  That she was safe with me.  I sent her nuns and priests and pastors and people on buses and teachers and manicurists."

Andrew smiled.  Joshua's messengers were many and they were diverse.  "He kept trying to send you the truth that He loves you and that you were safe with Him.  Nuns, priests, pastors, bus passengers, teachers, manicurists... He sent many, many messengers to you, Doreen."

The woman shuddered as the memories of several encounters returned to her... all with people she had dismissed as wrong.

"Then I sent her Francesca.  But she would not listen to her daughter when she spoke of mercy and forgiveness and redemption... would not see when she sculpted her message into stone."

Andrew rested his arm around the weeping woman's shoulders.  "He sent you Francesca who spoke to you of mercy, forgiveness, and redemption but you didn't listen.  She carved those messages into stone but you would not see them."

"Finally, I sent her Ivy.  She echoes her mother in many beautiful ways.  Doreen still has time to listen to her, to listen to me.  To come back to us." 

The angel of death blinked back tears.  "He sent you Ivy, an echo of her mother in many beautiful ways.  You still have time to listen to her, Doreen.  And to Him.  You have time to come back to them."

Joshua crouched in front of Doreen.  "Please come back to us, Doreen."

Doreen raised her head and stared up at the cross.  "My Lord..." she murmured.  "I... I am so sorry."

Andrew hugged her then stood, motioning for the others to follow him out of the chapel.  He turned back once before closing the door.  He saw Doreen fall to the floor weeping and praying and, finally, grieving for her child in the arms of her unseen Lord.

*~*~*

"And we've spoken to Miss O'Kane and she's ready and willing to welcome you into Our Lady of Hope," Carrie explained as Ivy stared at the document Mr. Spelman had given her.

The girl traced her mother's signature.  Tears welled in her eyes.

"Ivy, I'm very sorry that I didn't investigate this more years ago," the psychology teacher apologized.  "I know you only have two years of high school left but I think we could make it a very full, very enriching two years.  And..."  He patted Ivy's shoulder.  "You could see your mom's statue whenever you wanted."

Ivy tucked the bill into the Anne book JenniAnn had returned to her.  "It's okay about the other two years.  If I hadn't have had them, I... I wouldn't have met two angels and... and so many friends.  And..."  She thought of her dream.  She would never have wanted to miss out on that.  "I would really like to transfer.  Just as long as..."  Ivy looked down at her hands folded on the blanket.  "As long as my grandma will let me."

Carrie rested her hand over the teen's.  "I wouldn't worry about that.  With those four talking to her..."

Ivy smiled as she remembered the resolve on the faces of Andrew, Violeta, JenniAnn, and Kemara.  "That's true."

"And we'll both talk to her, too, if we have to," Mr. Spelman vowed.  "We'll make sure you get the education your mother wanted for you no matter what your grandma..."

"Mr. Spelman," Carrie interrupted in a hushed voice. 

The man turned around to see Doreen Lee standing in the doorway to Ivy's room.  Her appearance shocked him.  She looked like a broken woman.  "Mrs. Lee," he greeted.  "Please excuse my rudeness but..."

Doreen shook her head.  "Understandable," she murmured.  "Could I please... could I have a few moments with my granddaughter?"

"Of course," Carrie responded.  "Ivy we'll be out in the waiting room.  I'd really like for you to meet my husband so I'll bring him by later if that's okay?"

Ivy beamed.  "I'd really like that.  Thank you both.  So much."

The two teachers smiled back at her.  "You're very welcome," Mr. Spelman replied before leading Carrie out.

Ivy stared at her grandmother.  She looked so unlike her usual self.  "Grandma?  Are you okay?"

Doreen continued to hover near the door.  "Yes.  How do you feel?"

"My head and leg hurt some but I'm pretty good.  Grandma, I'm sorry I got myself into this and that I left the house even... even though you said I couldn't and..." 

Doreen came alive and swooped down to hug Ivy.  "No.  I... I don't want you to apologize because this... this is my fault.  I shouldn't have left you alone.  I should have paid more attention to what you were going through.  You were be-being bullied and then you had to come home to still another... bully.  I shouldn't have tried to keep your new friends from you.  I... I should have... have loved you.  A-and loved my... my baby."

"Gr-grandma?"  Ivy didn't know what to do.  She'd never seen her grandmother cry, let alone sob uncontrollably.

"I could... could have lost you, too!"

"You didn't, Grandma.  I'm still here," Ivy reassured.  Not knowing what else to do, she began to sing part of a song her mother had favored.

"So hold me, Jesus, 'cause I'm shaking like a leaf.
You have been King of my glory.
Won't You be my Prince of Peace?

Surrender don't come natural to me.
I'd rather fight You for something I don't really want
than to take what You give that I need.
And I've beat my head against so many walls
Now I'm falling down, I'm falling on my knees... So hold me, Jesus."

Doreen clung to her grandchild and let her sweet, strong voice and the reassuring lyrics soothe her.  Once calmed, she brushed some of Ivy's hair behind her ear.  "You really are so much like Francesca."

Ivy smiled.  For the first time, she knew that her grandma meant it as a compliment.

"Ivy, I am so sorry for all the things I said and did to you and to your mother.  I know right... right now those are just words.  And they can't even begin to make up for all the other hateful, cruel words.  But I... I will keep trying to make up for them.  I am especially sorry for... for all the times I used our... our religion and, even worse, our... our God to hurt you.  I know now that... that you were the one who followed Him.  I was the one following my own embittered, angry heart.  But I'm going to try to make things better with Him, too," Doreen vowed. 

Ivy took her grandma's hands in hers.  "I'm really, really glad about that."

Doreen smiled.  "Good.  So... did I hear right that you're transferring to Our Lady of Hope?"

"I would really like to.  And they said I can."

"I think it sounds like a wonderful idea."

"Really?"

Doreen wondered how she had ever missed the charm in the girl's smile.  "Really."

"Do you think... when I start... do you think you could come see Mom's Pieta with me?"

"I would love to do that."  Doreen knew it would break her heart even further but she would go.  "I have no right to ask but... do you think you could do something for me?"

"Sure.  What is it?"

"Do you think, once we're home, you could tell me about your mother?  I want to know more about the woman my girl became."

Fresh tears welling in her eyes, Ivy nodded.  "I'd really love to do that."

"Thank you."  Doreen kissed her granddaughter's forehead.  "Maybe you should rest for a little bit.  I know your friends are coming back later."

Ivy nodded.  "Yeah.  I could use a nap."  She lowered her bed and snuggled into the sheets, smiling when her grandma tucked her in. 

"I love you, Ivy," Doreen whispered.

Ivy gazed at her, both startled and touched.  "L-love you, too, Grandma."  Then she drifted to sleep with Doreen holding her hand.

*~*~*

Andrew had managed to convince the girls to go back to the Chandlers' to rest up and take some time for themselves while Ivy napped.  JenniAnn had welcomed the chance to clean up and change but, despite her exhaustion, couldn't get her mind to settle enough to allow for sleep.  She was relieved when she made her way to the kitchen for some iced tea and saw that Andrew had remained.  He was seated on the patio swing, softly rocking.  Grabbing a second glass, she went to join him.

Andrew smiled when he heard the door squeak open and saw his friend.  "Somehow I'm not surprised to find you with tea instead of with a pillow."

JenniAnn shrugged.  "I think I've reached the point of being too tired to sleep.  Besides, a little fresh air would be nice after all that time in... in the ER."  She set the tea on a nearby table and collapsed beside Andrew.  "What a strange and wonderful and scary eighteen or so hours this has been..."

The angel of death nodded.  It was hard to believe that less than a day before, he'd been racing to the Red Flamingo... concerned for her.  He still was.  Now that he knew Ivy was well and healing in so many ways, Andrew let the previous night come back into focus.  "Do you wanna talk about last night with Bennie?"

"It hardly rates after everything that..."

Andrew shook his head as he took her hand.  "I think it's even more important now.  Ivy is ready to let go of the pain the bullies in her life caused.  Are... are you?"

"Andrew, it's not the same.  A couple go-arounds with Bennie can't compare to days on end of... of what Alyssa and Doreen put Ivy through."

The angel of death rubbed at his eyes.  "No, it's not.  But can we just acknowledge the fact that this is twice now that Bennie has put you in harm's way just to... to... I don't even know what she was hoping to accomplish last night!  Laja, we're going back to Our Lady of Hope.  You know that Ivy's going to want to get back to the program as soon as she can."  Andrew smiled briefly.  He knew his assignment wouldn't long tolerate convalescing.  He brought JenniAnn's hand to his lips.  "What do you intend to do when you run into Bennie... and you will.  The school's not that big."

For the first time, JenniAnn considered what the previous night might have looked like to Andrew.  She still couldn't remember much of her phone call to him.  No doubt she'd sounded completely off her rocker.  Hearing that, he would have jumped into his van and then had to make his way through the maze that was the constant downtown roadwork.  All the while wondering what exactly he'd find once he reached the bar... and if he'd even find her.  She drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly.  "If... if she's genuinely sorry this time then I forgive her.  But... but I don't trust her.  A-and it might be a while..."  Tears burned in her eyes as JenniAnn recalled the things Bennie had said about leaving Andrew alone, about not having kids.  Her old friend had known exactly where to strike and she had.  "I just... I wanted so badly to give Ivy hope in the form of a neat, little true life story of reconciliation.  A-and I wanted that for us, too."  She swiped at her tears. 

Andrew hugged her.  "I know.  I know, Laja.  But you can still give Ivy a story about having the strength to take care of yourself and realize that God loves you so much that He doesn't want you to be unhappy or feel..."  He closed his eyes as he remembered how dejected she'd looked, mumbling about not being strong and dying.  "Like you did last night."

JenniAnn nodded.  "You're right.  Are... are you going back to teach tomorrow?"

"Yes.  I think I should be there when the other girls find out about the accident.  I'll take Violeta with me.  I thought maybe you and Kemara could hang around the hospital.  Ivy's going to start getting stir crazy so the company would help and Doreen... well, I think it might be good for her to have you both to talk to as she tries to figure things out."

"Sounds like a plan.  If... if you see Bennie and she is apologetic at all... could you tell her that I forgive her but... I just need some space now."

"I will do that," Andrew vowed.

"I don't like you fighting my battles, though..."

The angel of death smiled.  "It's okay.  You and Kemara will be doing your part with Ivy."

"Yeah..."

Seeing how troubled his friend still was, Andrew just wanted to make her laugh.  "I promise I'll leave my flaming sword at Home."

JenniAnn laughed.  "You seriously have one of those?"

Coy, Andrew shrugged.  "Maybe I do, maybe I don't.  I gotta have some mystery about me, Laja.  I don't wanna bore ya."

"Andrew, I could live to be 120 and I don't think you could bore me."

"I know.  But we have Eternity."

Hearing this, JenniAnn thought of the vision she'd had of an ancient-looking, abandoned Andrew sitting alone on a porch.  The image dissipated into a wisp and then was gone, replaced by Andrew as she knew and loved him... smiling at her.  She smiled back. 

"Yeah, we do."

*~*~*

As Ivy was finishing her dinner that evening, Andrew poked his head into the room.

"You up for visitors?"

The teenager nodded, smiling eagerly.  "As long as you're not bringing Jello.  I don't think I can stomach any more."

The angel of death laughed.  "Definitely no Jello.  Just us."  He indicated JenniAnn, Kemara, and Violeta whose smiling faces peeked around the other side of the door.

"C'mon in!"

"We got you a little something.  Okay, two little somethings," Kemara announced, setting two wrapped presents on Ivy's bed.

"Aww.  You shouldn't have!  You've already done so much... so, so much."  Ivy reached up to hug each of them.

"Now open!" Violeta cheered.

"Whatever happened to that quiet, prim, little angel..." Andrew mused, smiling warmly.

His protege hugged him.  "She found herself... with a little help."

Ivy smiled as she began to unwrap her gifts, comforted that even angels needed a little help coming out of their shells sometimes.  When the last of the wrapping came off the first box, she laughed.  "Okay, I get your point.  And it's beautiful..."  She reached into the box and pulled out a pink and purple bike helmet.  "I'll wear it always.  I promise.  Well... assuming they can fix my bike."

"Your grandma intends to start calling around to repair shops tomorrow.  Shouldn't be a problem," Kemara assured. 

Ivy's face softened.  "We had a really good talk earlier.  I think... I really think things will get much better with her.  Did you, umm, do the glowing thing with her?  It was like she had some sort of epiphany so I figured you must have.  But she didn't say so.  She seemed kind of... shy in some ways."

Andrew shook his head.  "We talked to her.  But she doesn't know we're angels.  She heard what she needed to hear to... to find her way back."

Ivy swiped at a tear.  "I'm really happy but really sad all at once.  She... she asked me if, when I'm home and feeling better, maybe we could talk about my mother.  A-about what I remember of her.  Cause... cause Grandma wants to know more about the woman she became.  It's just sad that she finally wants to reconnect with her daughter a-and she's gone."

Violeta rested her arm around the girl's shoulders.  "Not gone.  She lives on in Heaven.  And in you.  And one day, your grandma will be with her again.  In the meantime, you get to be the one to reintroduce her to your mom."

"Yeah..."  Ivy sighed and hugged her friend.

"Now the next box!  This one's even better!" 

JenniAnn laughed.  "Not that Violeta's really excited or anything..."

Ivy took less time in tearing open the second present.  She looked curiously at it.  It looked like...  "A leash?" she questioned.

Andrew grinned from ear to ear.  "Your grandma told us to tell you that among the many things she's now rethinking is the small matter of a dog.  She thinks it'd be good for you to have one, especially as you recuperate.  So... she's letting us take you to the pound as soon as you're out of here."

Ivy shrieked.  "Really?"

"Really and truly," Kemara assured.  "JenniAnn had her sign an agreement."

"My cousin's a lawyer.  It's hereditary," JenniAnn explained, unrolling the signed document.

Ivy laughed.  "That's so great.  This... weirdly... may just have been the best day of my life.  I... I saw angels a-and talked with so many friends... some I didn't even know I had... and then Mrs. Hunter and Mr. Spelman told me I could transfer to Our Lady's and now a dog and... and I had a beautiful dream."  She yawned.

"I'm so glad, Ivy."  Andrew smiled and moved the presents to a shelf while the girls straightened her blankets.  "I think now we should leave you to your dreams.  Kemara and JenniAnn will stay with tomorrow, if you want, and then Violeta and I will come over after classes.  Okay?"

Ivy smiled at the two women.  "Thanks.  And, yeah, that sounds great.  Oh... my book report was in my book bag."

"You just focus on getting better," Andrew softly chided.  "But I will get your report.  I'm sure it's great."

"Will you bring me my assignments until I can come back?  I mean... you don't think Alyssa's dad..."  The girl frowned.

Andrew shook his head and squeezed her hand.  "Don't you worry about any of that.  Alyssa... I'm not sure yet what's going to happen with her but I think some changes are headed her way.  And as for your assignments, I'll bring them but only if you promise that rest comes first."

Feeling the last of her nervousness go, Ivy nodded.  "Promise."

"Is your grandma going to come back and spend the night with you?" Kemara checked.

"Yes.  She just went home to get me some things."

"Do you want us to stay with you until she gets here?" JenniAnn offered.

"No, thank you.  I'm okay.  I really think I'm just gonna go to bed."  Ivy slid down into her bed.

"Okay."  Andrew smiled at his assignment as he tucked the blankets around her.  "We'll see you tomorrow, Ivy."

After a chorus of "g'nights" and "I love you's," Andrew and Co. left the room.

Ivy removed the wooden lion from her bedside table and set it next to her.  That night it would stand in for her candle. 

With a small change, she said her nightly prayer.

"'Baby Yeshua, meek and mild, pray for me, an orphan child.  Be my strength, be my friend, be with me until the end.  Amen."

*~*~*

~ Healing ~


Monday, June 24th

Andrew and Violeta arrived at Our Lady of Hope at 7:30 after dropping JenniAnn and Kemara off at the hospital.  First, they stopped by Regina's office to drop off a copy of the file Andrew had kept about the bullying.  Andrew had been pleased when, the previous night, the program director had called him to request it.  He hoped that meant steps would be taken to keep Ivy safe for the duration of Eve's Girls and into the future.  Once the file had been handed off, the two angels made their way to the little theatre.  When they walked into the classroom, someone was waiting.

"Benita," Andrew greeted while Violeta glared at her.

Bennie stared down at her hands.  "Hi Andrew."

The angel of death smiled at his trainee.  "Violeta, could you give me just a few minutes to..."

"But..."  Violeta lowered her voice.  "I don't want to leave you alone with... her.  What if she tries something with... with you?"

Andrew's smile remained but his eyes were all seriousness.  "She won't.  Besides she..."  He sighed.  "She obviously knows how to hit me where it hurts the most."

It took a moment for Violeta to understand this comment.  Then it hit her full force.  Andrew loved her and, thus, she was a liability.  Bennie had known that putting JenniAnn in harm's way would hurt Andrew far worse than any direct attack.

"Please.  Just a few minutes," the angel of death requested.

Violeta looked back over at Bennie who looked quite shaken... almost pitiful.  Finally, she nodded, hugged Andrew, and left the room.

When they were alone, Andrew gave his attention back to Bennie.  "How can I help you?"

"CeCe called me yesterday.  She said Regina called her, demanding a full account of Ivy's and Alyssa's interactions in her class.  And she told CeCe what had happened and then..."

"CeCe told you?" Andrew guessed.

Bennie nodded.  "I was so sorry to hear it, Andrew.  I know I should...  It was wrong of me to discourage CeCe from doing anything about that note."

"Yes, it was."

"How is Ivy?"

"Improving.  I hope to have her back in class by the end of the week.  And JenniAnn and Kemara with her."

"How is Jen-JenniAnn?"

"It's been a rough day and a half but she's fine.  She called me from the bar... sometime after you abandoned her.  She didn't feel very well but, thank God, she... she wasn't..."  In that moment, all the terrible possibilities that Andrew hadn't let himself think and all the unvoiced sadness rushed to the surface.  He turned to Bennie and fixed his eyes on hers.  "You left someone who trusted you... someone who was giving you yet another chance... in a bar, intoxicated and alone.  What if she'd wandered off and... and gotten mugged or... or what if she... what if JenniAnn had been raped or murdered?  Did you even... even think about that?" the angel demanded, tears filling his eyes. 

The woman flinched.  "N-no...  I... I just thought...  I figured she'd call you a-and then you'd see her like that and... and then you would realize she was no better than me."

Andrew blinked.  "No better than you?  Do you really think I was... was ranking you?"

Bennie responded with a slight nod.  "I... I did, yeah.  But I did a lot of thinking yesterday and I concluded... I was doing the ranking and attributing it to you.  I regretted some decisions I had made and I thought... I guess I was still thinking... that if I could get JenniAnn to make some of the same mistakes... I would feel better about myself."

Andrew sighed.  He remembered Joshua's counsel.

"Some feel powerless in their own lives so enjoy finding someone they can have power over.  And some even view schools and life in general as an unending hierarchy.  If they can move enough people down the ladder, they move up." 

The angel waved to two chairs across from each other. 

Bennie fell into one, not looking at the angel when he took the place across from her.  "When CeCe called and told me what had happened... about the cyber-bullying and the accident... that... that's when I started to think that, my God, I could have really and... and completely hurt JenniAnn.  Alyssa probably never thought that what she was doing would lead to Ivy's accident.  But it did.  If Alyssa hadn't done what she did, Ivy wouldn't be in a hospital right now.  My actions... you were right.  It could have killed my... my friend.  I was so thoughtless and... cruel.  And not... not just that once.  I recognize that.  Now.  And I am sorry for that."

Andrew smiled and patted her hand where it rested on the arm of his chair.  "I'm glad you've realized some things now, Bennie.  I really am.  But just last Friday... you said some very similar things to both JenniAnn and I but..."

Bennie looked briefly at him and then away.  "I know.  Why should you trust me?  And I understand that you won't.  Not for a long time.  Maybe never.  But... if I really wanted to win back your trust and hers... how would I do that?"

"Build yourself a life that makes you happy, Bennie.  Then you won't... the pull to hurt others... to make them live like you think they should... it won't be there.  And I think... for right now... you just need to give JenniAnn some space.  She forgives you.  But she just... she needs that space.  And maybe..."  Andrew hung his head. 

"You, too.  I... I hurt you, too," the woman lamented.  "I know.  I see that now."

The angel nodded.  "She... she's stayed with me even when... when it didn't make sense.  And you... and I believe you when you say you didn't think about the worst case scenarios, I do... but you also... you knew you'd be hurting her, Bennie, and... you could have taken her away from me... here... in this life."

Bennie brushed at a tear.  "I spent so many years wanting you to be human so... so that I could be close to you.  But if... if I'd just accepted you as you were... like she did... I... I'd be in your life, too."  She sighed and stood.  "Maybe one day I can be, again.  I'll... I'll work to be a person deserving of your friendship and trust and JenniAnn's.  And maybe one day... all three of us can sit down together and talk about the 'good old days' and plan for the best days... the ones to come."

Andrew stood and hugged her.  "I really hope so and... I believe we will."

"Before I go... can I ask you one thing?"

"Sure."

"You told me that you thought I'd be really good at teaching if I tried.  Did you mean that?"

Andrew smiled.  "Angels don't lie."

Bennie returned the smile.  "Right."  She held out her hand.  "Good bye, Andrew."

The angel took her hand but shook his head.  "Until next time."

"Yes."  Bennie turned away to leave.

"Bennie?"

"Yeah?"

"God really loves you."  Andrew looked intently and lovingly at his old friend.  "And He wants you to love yourself.  You don't have to beat anyone or surpass anyone or win anyone else over or do anything to keep His love... you just have to be yourself and accept His love, Bennie"

The woman stared at the angel.  After a moment, she nodded then left the room.  Bennie smiled wanly at the reporter in the hall, assuming she was an angel.  Then she continued onto the gym.

A few minutes later, when all her students had arrived, Bennie gathered them around her.

"Girls, we're going to take a little break from dancing this morning.  You may have heard whisperings about one of the other girls..."

"I heard one of the older girls tried to kill herself cause she was being bullied.  Is that true?" a tutu-clad ten year old asked.

Bennie shook her head.  "That's not true.  She didn't try to kill herself.  But she was being bullied and that did contribute to her being in an accident.  So that's what I want to talk about.  Has anyone here been bullied?"  She watched as two then four then eight hands were raised.  Soon three fourths of the girls had identified themselves as victims of bullying.  "Has anyone here ever bullied anyone else?"

The girls looked around nervously, some peering at the tile floor.

"I have."

The young dancers all stared in shock at their teacher.

"I bullied someone... two someones really... who had been my friends."  Bennie looked at her students with a sad smile and swiped at a tear.  "I don't really know, fully, how it impacted them.  I hope someday the three of us can sit down and talk and they will tell me.  But I do know, at least I'm beginning to know, how it impacted me.  And it's not... not good.  So!  We'll get to our routine later but right now I'd like to have an honest talk about bullying.  Okay?"

Eighteen girls nodded back, some looking as if... finally... someone was giving them the chance to unburden their wounded psyches.

As she listened, for the first time, Bennie felt like she was truly a teacher and not just someone playing at it in a bid to hide from her own life.

From his vantage point halfway up the bleachers, Joshua beamed.

*~*~*

Andrew walked through his classroom that afternoon, smiling at the arts and crafts the girls were working on.  It was a smaller group than he was used to with Ivy gone and then three other notable absences.  He wasn't sure where Alyssa and her friends were but he'd heard they'd been in their morning class.  Andrew knew he would get answers later so focused on his present students.  He happily gave up the plan to go over book reports for the creation of get well cards and gifts and consoling the girls. 

"That's beautiful, Morgan!  Ivy will love that," Andrew complimented as the girl decorated a binder for her classmate.

"Mr. Rochester, do you know what Ivy's favorite colors are?"

"Pink and purple, Bailee.  What ya making?"

"I noticed that Ivy writes a lot so I thought I'd add some bling to this pen and pencil case."

Andrew smiled.  "She'll love that.  It's perfect." 

"Mr. Rochester?" a tinny voice called.

The angel turned around to see Jessica, teary-eyed as she looked up at him from where she was sitting on the floor with an over-sized get well card.  He crouched in front of her.  "Hey, what's up?"

"I... I was just thinking.  I was there when... when Alyssa put a mean drawing on Ivy's locker and I saw how it upset her a-and I didn't say anything or... or tell a teacher."

Another girl, hearing this, slid nearer.  "I actually... I laughed one time when Alyssa told a... a joke about Ivy at lunch last week.  I was scared that if I didn't... Alyssa would focus on me."

Andrew looked sympathetically at both girls.  "Jessica, next time something like that happens, what do you think you'll do?"

"T-tell a teacher.  And be nice to the person made fun of."

"Good."  Her teacher smiled at her.  "How about you, Jada?"

"I hope I stick up for the person."

"I know you will," Andrew encouraged.  "The past can't be changed.  But both of you... all of you in this room... have a chance to make the future better.  Ivy's gonna need the love and support of friends when she comes back.  And I bet there are kids in your own schools and in all sorts of places that you'll go throughout your life that will have suffered because of bullies.  Be friends to them, too.  Okay?"

"Kay," the girls responded in unison.

Andrew beamed.  "Good.  And the card is looking great!  Ivy'll love reading all those notes."

As he stood, Andrew noticed Violeta sitting on the edge of the stage, looking intently at him.  "What ya thinking?" he asked when he'd settled beside her.

"You know how my editor said he wanted my story to have more heart?"

"Yep."

"I think I've decided what I want to do.  I want to ask him if I can write a series on bullying.  Do you think Ivy would like that idea?"

Andrew put his arm around her shoulders.  "I think Ivy really would but you should ask her this evening."

"Yeah.  I'm so glad we get to go visit her and... and that... she's here."

"Me too.  Very much.  How about we pick up a round of Jamocha shakes before we head to St. Joe's?"

Violeta grinned.  "I think we'll be celebrated as heroes if we do that."

Andrew chuckled.  "Then it's a plan."  He stood, intending to do another walk through the room when there was a knock on the door.  Opening it, Andrew found CeCe Jansen.

"Hi," she greeted.  Like Bennie, CeCe appeared to have been humbled.  "Regina told me to come down and ask you to come up to her office.  We're having a meeting... about what happened with Ivy."

"I'm glad to hear that.  Let me just go tell Violeta that I'm going to step out."

"Sure."

Andrew returned to Violeta and squeezed her hand.  "I need to go upstairs.  Regina's called a meeting about Ivy.  Could you watch the girls while I'm away?"

His trainee nodded vigorously, hoping this would be the final step in ensuring that Ivy's return to Eve's Girls would be smooth and as painless as possible.  "I'll pray it goes well."

The angel of death smiled.  "Me too." 

Andrew joined CeCe in the hall and followed her to Regina's office.

When they arrived, Andrew noted that the room was packed.  Inside were Regina and Vivian, Ivy's three tormentors, and a man who bore a strong resemblance to Alyssa.

"Mr. Rochester, thank you for joining us.  Please take a seat," Regina requested.

Andrew squeezed into a chair at the table that dominated the room.  He noted with some interest that a laptop was in front of him.

"Mr. Rochester, this is Mr. Thurrian, Alyssa's father.  We asked Caitlin's and Mariah's parents to join us but apparently they have decided Mr. Thurrian's presence is sufficient," Regina introduced, an edge in her voice.  "Mr. Thurrian, this is Mr. Rochester.  He's heading up the Literature session and the one who found your daughter working on this."  The program director placed Alyssa's drawing in front of the man.

Alyssa giggled.

"Miss Thurrian, would you like to explain to us what you find so amusing?" Regina pressed.

The girl shook her head.

"I'm sure my daughter is nervous and behaving accordingly," Mr. Thurrian excused.

Vivian glared at him.  "As well she should be.  She'll be lucky if she doesn't find herself charged with any number of harassment charges."

The man laughed.  "Well now... that seems a little excessive.  Girls tease each other.  Alyssa and her friends were wrong but I hardly think there's any cause to throw around the threat of police involvement.  Of course, I could call the chief and ask if we have any cause for concern there.  He is, after all, my brother-in-law."

Regina slid her cell phone across the table.  "Please do.  You can use my phone."

Alyssa's father gaped for a moment.  He was not used to being challenged. 

The three girls began to fidget uncomfortably.

Regina continued to glare at the man.  "Miss Lee will decide whether or not to pursue legal action.  That is not my decision nor Miss O'Kane's.  However, as you, Mr. Thurrian, were so kind as to offer your services in the procurement of our own building, I feel it only right to forewarn you of just what you might face if Miss Lee does choose to press charges."  She turned to Andrew.  "Mr. Rochester, your friend Mr. Hunter was kind enough to bring me a flash drive with his findings this morning."  She handed it to him.  "Would you and Miss Jansen be so kind as to relate to Mr. Thurrian and these girls exactly what's been happening these past few weeks?"

"Sure," Andrew agreed.  He directed his attention to the Thurrians and the two other girls. "At the end of my second week here, I heard Alyssa saying some terrible things about Ivy to Caitlin and Mariah."

"I'll save Mr. Rochester the trouble of repeating that and give you a copy of the report he wrote about that incident."  Regina shoved a piece of paper at Alyssa's father.

The man's face flushed as he read it.  He turned to look at his daughter who was staring straight ahead, not making eye contact with anyone.

"Around the same time, Miss Jansen found these two examples of Alyssa's continued efforts.  You'll notice the note has some additions made by Caitlin and Mariah."  Regina presented two more pieces of paper: the note found in the computer room and another drawing.

Andrew glanced over at CeCe.  She would not look at the Thurrians and from this he knew that, finally, she had done the right thing and turned what she'd found over to Regina.  It was obvious to him that she feared the fallout but still she had done it.  He smiled at her and she managed one in return.

Mr. Thurrian finally recovered.  "I'm sure Alyssa is very sorry for these terrible, immature pieces of rubbish.  Please understand that she's been under a lot of strain.  Already thinking about college and..."

"And Ivy hasn't been under strain?" Andrew interrupted.  "She has to think about her future, too.  And she's had to do it while under threat of constant taunting and public humiliation from your daughter and her friends."  He stuck the flash drive into the computer then began to open files.  "Like this.  And this.  Also this."

The man gaped at the computer.

"And then this.  This was the last thing Ivy saw before she left her house, upset and in tears, because of what you three girls wrote."  Andrew looked to Alyssa, Caitlin, and Mariah.  "Do you realize that if... if she hadn't survived that accident... these would have been the last words she ever read?"

Caitlin began to cry.

Mr. Thurrian leapt up from the table.  "You don't even know that those girls are behind those accounts.  I know about my daughter's activities on Facebook and that is not her account!"

"It is," CeCe insisted.  "Just not the one you're familiar with, Mr. Thurrian.  But Alyssa did set it up.  And Caitlin and Mariah set theirs up, too."

"And how do you know that?" the man demanded.

CeCe flinched but proceeded.  "Because after I spoke to Ms. LaCroix yesterday, I began to wonder if... if maybe more hadn't gone on in my class.  I... I was fond of Alyssa and I worried that... that I'd turned a blind eye on some things.  And I had.  I learned that when I came in early today and checked the histories on the computers that the three girls use in my class.  And I found new account creation Facebook pages on all three of their computers.  They're timestamped.  Last Friday at 11:45.  They created them in... in my class."

Mariah pointed at Alyssa.  "She made us do it!  She... she threatened to tell people about something... something I had confided in her about."

Finally, Alyssa broke.  "Like you didn't want to!  You were both giggling the entire time.  Don't act all innocent you little slut."

"Alyssa!" Mr. Thurrian shouted.  "Don't be vulgar."

Andrew glared at him.  "How about don't be mean?"

"Don't you talk to me like that," the man spat out.  "Do you have any idea who I am?"

Not breaking the gaze, Andrew kept his voice level.  "Yes.  And I would like to speak to you in the hall, Edward."

Alyssa looked at Andrew with a mixture of shock and annoyance over a mere teacher speaking so boldly to her father.

Similarly dismayed, Edward Thurrian rose and unthinkingly followed Andrew.  They stepped into a hall and then into Vivian's empty office.

"When we return, you will apologize for the egregious way you spoke to me," the man ordered.  "I don't know where the hell you came from but in this town, I'm practically royalty.  My father built..."

Andrew wheeled around.  "Your Father... our Father... built this entire world.  I think it's about time you started listening to that Father, Edward."

The man scoffed.  "Wonderful!  And you're a religious nut on top of being rude."

"I am neither.  I'm a messenger of truth, His truth."

"Cut the cra..."  Edward went mute as Andrew began to glow.

"Edward Thurrian, I know you," the angel of death began.  "I may not know you personally but I know you.  Because I have met your kind again and again.  You had a child and instead of being a parent to that child, you decided to be a friend.  And you ensured that nothing bad would ever happen to your friend.  If Alyssa wanted something, she got it.  If Alyssa did something wrong, well then obviously someone else had done something to upset her.  You instilled in your daughter a disregard for anyone you... and your father before you... deemed inferior.  And in doing that, you alienated your child from her true Father and from so many of His children.  You even alienated Alyssa from herself.  You have raised a daughter who doesn't know who she is and will forever define herself based on where she falls in whatever social hierarchy she finds herself in.  You and your wife have done this."

"But we..." 

"You what?" Andrew prompted.

"We only wanted what was best for Alyssa."  Edward slumped into a chair and held his head in his hands.  He'd never felt so powerless.  He hated the feeling.

Andrew sat beside the shattered man.  "Because that's what good fathers do: they want the best for their children.  But you let people and things that aren't of God dictate what 'the best' was.  But now the Father wants you to have the best so that you can, in turn, give the best to your little girl.  Because He loves you both and He loves your wife.  You're all His children and He wants you to be happy: truly happy.  And that happiness starts with recognizing the truth.  Everyone... you, me, everyone... is a child of God.  In His eyes, there is no rich and poor.  There is no ugly and beautiful.  There is no smart and stupid.  There should only be love.  Do you understand that?"

Edward nodded.  Still not making eye contact, he reached for Andrew's hand.  He needed to know this was all real. 

"Give him this."

Andrew looked up to find Joshua standing in front of him, holding a hammer... one of his own.  Surprised, the angel took it.

"Tell him I haven't forgotten.  I can remember when he was in high school and wanted to go on that service trip with Habitat for Humanity but his father wouldn't let him.  Tell him that I thought it was a wonderful idea... and that it's not too late to build homes for those who need them."

The angel nodded.  "Edward?"

Blinking, the man looked up.

"Here.  This is for you."  Andrew presented the hammer.

Aghast, Edward took it and passed it back and forth between his hands.

"God wants you to know that He still remembers when you were in high school and wanted to join Habitat for Humanity but your dad wouldn't let you.  God thought it was a wonderful idea... and He still does.  You can still build homes for those who need them."

Edward managed a wan smile.  "You think?"

Andrew smiled back.  "I do.  But more importantly, He knows.  Now, I think we better head back to the other room."

"What am I going to do about this?" the man questioned.  "How do I make this right?"

The angel paused.  "Pray.  What does He tell you to do?"

For the first time since becoming a father, Edward Thurrian asked the Father for guidance.  When it came, he nodded and returned with Andrew to Regina's office. 

Edward reclaimed his chair and looked across the table at Vivian and Regina.  "Miss O'Kane, Ms. LaCroix, I am very sorry for my daughter's callous and cruel behavior.  It won't be allowed to continue.  However, I realize that this promise might be of little comfort to you, Mr. Rochester, Miss Jansen, and most importantly to Miss Lee.  Therefore, I am removing Alyssa from the Eve's Girls program in hopes Miss Lee can return without fear of further torment."

Alyssa scoffed.  "Like I care.  It's a stupid, boring program, anyway.  Finally, I'll have an actual summer to enjoy."

Her father peered down at her.  "Trust me, you'll have plenty to do this summer.  And you'll do it all without a car, without a computer, and without a cell phone."  He set the hammer on the table.  "We have work to do."

Alyssa turned up her nose at the dusty, dented hammer. 

Edward redirected his attention to Regina.  "Please don't think that my withdrawing Alyssa has any bearing on the agreement we had.  If you will still have us, Thurrian Construction would still like to work with you on getting you your own building."

Taken aback, it took Regina a moment to find her voice.  "I... I'm pleased to hear it.  Thank you."

"You're welcome."  Edward turned to Caitlin and Mariah.  "Girls, I'll drop you off at your parents'.  I will suggest to them that they schedule their own meetings with Ms. LaCroix to discuss your places here.  Now let's not take up any more of these folks' time today."

The three girls all stood.

"Ms. LaCroix, Miss Jansen, Miss O'Kane, Mr. Rochester; thank you for your time and your candor."  Edward looked directly at Andrew.  "I promise I will do what I can to make things better.  But... but I understand if Miss Lee would feel better pursuing her legal options."

"Thank you, Mr. Thurrian," Vivian responded.

As soon as the door shut behind him, Regina gaped at Andrew.  "What did you do to him?"

Andrew only smiled.  "I spoke the truth... and I stuck to my principles."  He winked at her.

Regina blushed then returned the smile.  "There's a lot to be said for that."

"So there is.  Now... if you'll all excuse me, I need to get back to my office.  I have to make a call to North East.  Seems I need Miss Lee's transcript."  Vivian smiled at Andrew.  "Well done, Mr. Rochester.  Ms. Chandler is a very lucky young lady."

The angel blinked.  "I'm sorry?"

"Oh!  Are you two not dating?"

"Oh no...  No, no.  Just friends.  Very good friends."

"Oh my mistake!  I saw you both at the Arby's and just assumed."

Andrew blushed.  "We... we just wanted Jamocha shakes and some lunch."

"Of course.  Well, I'll be off.  I hope the remainder of your afternoon sessions go well, Mr. Rochester and Miss Jansen.  Mr. Rochester, please give Ivy my best."  With that, Vivian sashayed out of the room.

Andrew turned to face Regina, waiting to be excused.  He was surprised when she took his hands in hers.

"Thank you for staying on top of this.  I should have listened to you last week.  I see that now.  And I wish... I wish it hadn't taken Ivy's accident to make me see that.  Please tell her that I am so looking forward to her return.  CeCe let me read the poetry web page Ivy made for her class.  She's a very talented girl.  I look forward to reading more of her work."

Andrew smiled.  "I'll tell her this afternoon.  Thank you, Regina."  He turned to CeCe.  "Can I walk you back?"

"Yes, please."

Quietly, the two teachers made their way back to the lower level.  Finally, CeCe spoke.

"Bennie told me who you are."

This did not entirely surprise Andrew.  Bennie needed a confidante and knowing now how small her social circle had become, CeCe was an obvious choice.  "Oh?"

"So God's real then?"

"Sure is."

"Would you tell Him I'm sorry for not sticking up for Ivy?  And... and for being such a... snob?"

Andrew shook his head.  "No.  But I think you should, CeCe.  He listens to you, too, you know."

"Really?"

"Definitely.  He made you.  Of course He wants to listen to you!"

CeCe smiled when Andrew squeezed her hand.  Then she halted.  "I have someone watching my class.  I... I think I'm going to prevail upon them for a little longer and step into the chapel for a moment."

Andrew beamed.  "I think that's a very good idea.  I'll see you around, CeCe."

"So you're sticking around?"

"Sure.  I signed up to lead a summer-long session so that's what I'm going to do.  God doesn't break His promises and He doesn't want His angels breaking theirs."

"Good.  I'm glad to hear that." 

Still smiling, Andrew watched as the young woman walked towards the chapel.  He knew who would be waiting inside.

*~*~*

That night, as they all sipped Jamocha shakes in Ivy's hospital room, Andrew gave a general rundown of what had happened in Regina's office.

Ivy listened intently, marveling at the turn of events.  "Alyssa won't be coming back to Eve's Girls at all?"

"No," Andrew assured.  "Her father has withdrawn her.  He didn't want you to feel intimidated or worried.  By the end of the day, Caitlin and Mariah had withdrawn, too."

"I feel kinda bad..."

Kemara gripped Ivy's hand.  "Don't.  No one made them leave.  And
I think... Ivy, their behavior was impacting a lot of other people, too.  I noticed myself that sometimes in our groups when one of them would speak up, all the other girls would suddenly develop mutism.  Let's hope and pray that those three girls spend the rest of the summer figuring out better ways to interact with others."

"I truly believe they will."  Andrew smiled.  "In fact, I have it on pretty good authority."

"God's?" Ivy asked.

The angel of death shook his head.  "No.  But a fellow angel's so..."

The girl smiled.  "I'm glad."  She sighed.  "Earlier, Mr. Hunter explained that I could press charges if I wanted to."

"Yes, you could," JenniAnn agreed.  "But do you want to?"

"I... I dunno.  I want to send a message.  I want people to talk about bullying and I wish the laws were better so maybe getting it in the news would help with that and maybe... maybe then other kids would be helped but..."  Ivy's eyes welled with tears.  "I really don't want to go to court and I don't want a trial reported on the news and I just... I don't want that but I also don't want to do nothing."

Violeta perked up.  "Ivy, would you want it in the news if you could control how it was reported?"

"Well, yeah, that would be the ideal."

Andrew smiled at his trainee.  "Violeta, do you have any ideas on that?"

Excited, Violeta pitched her story and the remainder of the evening was spent with the two teenagers outlining an article.  Their story would focus not specifically on Ivy  but on what schools, students, parents, and friends could do to fight the scourge that had so nearly taken everything from her.  Healing had truly begun.

*~*~*

Wednesday, June 26th

Andrew, Kemara, JenniAnn, and Violeta kept their eyes trained on Ivy as she walked down the aisle at the local Humane Society.  They stayed nearby, each prepared to steady her if she became wobbly on her crutches.  Big dogs and little dogs all barked enthusiastically as the girl passed.  Then Ivy came to one kennel where a smallish black dog lay still but stared up at her with doleful eyes.  A closer look revealed that, like her, the dog had a leg in a cast.

"Andrew, could you please help me down?" 

The angel of death stepped forward and got Ivy settled on the floor.  He knew already that this dog was the one. 

Ivy stuck her fingers through the bars and caressed the dog's nose.  "Does it say what his or her name is?"

JenniAnn looked at the top right corner of the cage and smiled.  "Leo.  It says he has a lion's heart and he's a tough little guy."  She reached for the papers slid into the plastic file.  "Oh...  It says he was found on the streets.  His leg was busted up and they think he was abused."

Ivy looked up at the four adults.  "Could someone ask one of the volunteers if I could see him?"

"I'm on it," Violeta declared before going in search of a helper.

Leo stretched as best he could to get nearer to Ivy then let out a contented sigh.

Kemara smiled as she whispered to JenniAnn.  "Should I just go start filling out the paperwork now?"

Not taking her eyes off Ivy and Leo, the woman nodded.  "Yeah.  I think we all know how this is gonna end."

With that, Kemara, too, left the room so she could get the necessary paperwork at the front desk.

"Hello, Leo," Ivy cooed.  "You're so soft.  We're going to get you out of there really soon.  I'm sure it must be pretty overwhelming."

Violeta returned with a beaming staffer.  "Hi!  My name's Stan.  How can I..."  He paused when he noticed what cage Andrew, JenniAnn, and Ivy were clustered in front of.  "I'm so glad to see someone's finally showing some interest in our Leo!"  The man's smile grew more tender when he saw Ivy's cast and crutches.  "He's quite a catch."

"Could I see him up close?" Ivy asked.

"You bet.  I'll get him out and meet you at visiting room 4, okay?"

Still staring at the dog, Ivy nodded.  Once Leo was out of view, Andrew helped her to her feet.  He smiled when he saw how quickly she could move with her crutches.  Once they were to the visiting room, Kemara caught up to them.  The five only waited a few brief moments before Stan and Leo entered the room.

"Now, of course you'll want to be careful with his leg but that cast is awfully sturdy so there's no reason to be nervous about it.  Would you like to hold him?" Stan asked.

"Uh huh."

Smiling, the man set the dog on Ivy's lap. 

Andrew blinked back a tear as he watched his assignment kiss and fuss over the puppy. 

"What sort of special care will he need?" Ivy asked.

JenniAnn could tell she was half-afraid to ask it, worried it would be more than she could manage.  She reached for the girl's hand.

"We'll need him to come in for check-ups while the leg heals.  But one of our donors is paying for Leo's care so you wouldn't have to worry about the expense, just getting him here."

"Ivy, I'll bring him if your grandma can't," Andrew promised. 

The girl smiled gratefully at him.  "Thank you.  So... so what about home care?"

"Well... you may be just the girl for the job.  He shouldn't be moving around a whole lot.  Taking him outside when nature calls will likely be about the only exercise he should get for right now."

Leo nuzzled his face into the crook of Ivy's neck.

"I... I can do that."

"Miss, would you like me to start the paperwork for you to adopt Leo?" Stan offered.

Ivy nodded, still entranced by her new friend.

"Already started," Kemara announced.  She handed Stan the papers so he could fill out his part.  Surreptitiously, Andrew handed him an envelope with the money Ivy's Village had pooled to cover the adoption and immunization fees.  He held a finger over his lips when Stan opened his mouth to thank him.

"I'll be right back with your copy, Miss Lee," the volunteer announced.

"But... how much..."

"The fees have been covered by a donor, as well," Stan assured before leaving the five and the dog.

"What do you think, Ivy?" JenniAnn asked.

"I love him."

Violeta pet the dog.  "Pretty sure it's mutual."  She smiled as Leo planted a kiss on Ivy's nose.

Andrew let a tear fall.  He loved his work as an angel of death.  There was no joy like seeing the ecstasy of a soul returning fully to their God.  However, seeing love born came awfully close.

*~*~*

Elsewhere in Nebraska...

Alyssa Thurrian sat impatiently beside her father in the waiting room.

"Do I have to?  This is so lame," she complained.

Edward looked up from the catalog of hardware supplies he was perusing.  Already he was planning out the first house he and his company would build for Habitat for Humanity.  "Alyssa, things need to get better.  We all need to get better."

"Humor your father, honey," Mrs. Thurrian replied without looking up from her cell phone.  "It's just a phase."

"It's not," Edward vowed.  "I really feel like we need to get to the bottom of..."

"Thurrian family?" a woman behind a desk called.

"Come on."  Edward helped his wife up then reached for his daughter's hand but she sidled past him.  With a sigh, he approached the desk.  "I'm Edward Thurrian."

"They're ready for you.  Right this way, please."

The Thurrians followed the receptionist into an inviting room with two overstuffed couches, a variety of houseplants, and walls lined with book-filled shelves.  The room was permeated by the aroma of freshly brewing coffee.

"Ah but it's such a soothing blend.  Light, airy, chocolate overtones..."

While his wife and daughter were wholly uninterested, Edward looked around for the source of the charming voice.

"Well then you enjoy your chocolate overtones.  I'm sticking with my chamomile."

A moment later, two women emerged from a side room.

"Ah good!  You're here.  Sorry for the slight delay.  We were having a friendly debate about the benefits of coffee and tea over each other.  You're welcome to check out our selection before we begin."

Eager to avoid the two psychologists for as long as they would, Alyssa and her mother fled to the side room.

Edward approached the women and held out his hand.  "Please excuse them.  They're umm... nervous.  I'm pleased to meet you Dr..."  He blushed when he realized he'd forgotten their names.

"None of that doctor business," the older of the two women dismissed.  "My name is Tess and this is Monica.  And we'll have your wife and child feeling less nervous very soon."

Edward beamed.  "Great.  It's wonderful to meet you, Monica and Tess.  You..."  He tilted his head.  "You know this is probably going to sound weird but... there's just some sort of quality about you that reminds me of someone else I met recently."

Monica returned the smile.  "I hope it's a good quality."

"A very good one," the man enthused.  "His name's Andrew Rochester.  He's teaching in the program that my daughter uh..."

"We know Andrew," Tess replied.  "He's family."

Edward gaped at them.  "Wait... so..."

"Your family's in good hands, Edward," Monica assured.

"Uh... uh huh.  Yeah."  Edward's smile morphed into an all out grin.  He believed it.

*~*~*

Friday, June 28th

Andrew held open the chapel door so Ivy and Doreen could enter.  The later was holding two bouquets, one for herself and one for her granddaughter.

Doreen began to cry when she saw the Pieta.  Slowly, she made her way to it.

Ivy hung back, leaning against Andrew and watching.  Briefly, she buried her face in his shirt when Doreen fell to her knees.

"It's okay, Grandma.  You can touch it," Ivy assured when the woman reached out to the two figures then pulled her hand back.

As Doreen set her hand on Mary's, she remembered the last time she had seen her daughter.  It was the day Francesca had died.  She'd been drifting in and out of lucidity and her breathing had become labored.  She hadn't spoken for days and then...

"Into... Your... hands."

Ivy had begun to wail.

Doreen's eyes clamped shut at the memory of that awful, heart-wrenching sound.  But still the memories came.  She remembered how, for a moment, she had wanted to hold her daughter and apologize for everything.  But she hadn't and then... then it was too late.

Doreen was roused from her regrettable memories by the sound of Ivy gasping.  Alarmed, the woman turned to her granddaughter.  She saw that she was beaming.  Following Ivy's gaze, Doreen saw a white dove through one of the few clear panes in the stained glass windows. 

As she stared at the beautiful, immaculate bird; that still, small voice spoke to Doreen: It's never too late.

The bird flew off and Doreen returned her attention to the Pieta.  She held Ivy's hands in hers when the girl moved to the floor with Andrew's help.

"Father, for-forgive me.  I didn't know what I... I was doing," Doreen prayed. 

"He has, Grandma," Ivy murmured.  "You're free."  She hugged her then situated the bouquets of ivy and roses at the base of the Pieta.  Her hand drifted to the hem of Mary's robe where her mother had etched her signature. 
"Did you know that's what Mom's name meant?  Free.  Andrew told me.  And that's what she is now.  We all are." 

"Free..." Doreen echoed, smiling proudly at her granddaughter.

Andrew smiled with tear-soaked eyes as the final piece of the "Davidson Code" fell into place.

*~*~*

Saturday, August 10th

The night of the Eve's Girls banquet had arrived.  Potential supporters had been dazzled by a program designed by CeCe's computer class and filled with poems and stories written by some of Andrew's students.  Bennie had put together two incredible dance routines.  Now the second act was set to begin... with Ivy.

Towards the front of the auditorium, Doreen sat with JenniAnn and Kemara on either side of her.  Gathered around them were Allison and Robert Chandler, the entire Hunter clan, Mr. Spelman, and Fr. Xavier.

Doreen gripped the young women's hands.  "I hope Ivy does okay.  This means so much to her but she was so nervous when we left the house."

JenniAnn squeezed her hand.  "She'll do just fine, Doreen."

Kemara nodded.  "It'll be as beautiful as it was in rehearsal."

"Yes.  Yes, you're right," Ivy's grandmother agreed.  She closed her eyes and prayed.

Behind the curtain, Ivy sat in a folding chair almost completely obscured by her voluminous skirt.  From its folds, she withdrew her wooden lion.  As she held it, she tilted her face to the ceiling.  "Please help me through this, Yeshua.  I... I want to do this for you."

Violeta rushed onto the stage.  "Two minutes."  She stopped to hug the girl and kiss her cheek.  "You're going to be wonderful, Ivy!  And you look awesome."

Ivy giggled.  "Glad you think so.  Thanks for letting me borrow the skirt."

"No problem.  I'd say break a leg but..."  Violeta shrugged and grinned.

Ivy burst out laughing.  "Well, it's the thought that counts."

"Yep.  And there's a whole lot of good thoughts and prayers out there for you."  Violeta hugged her again.  "I gotta get out there so I can cover the second act for the paper and besides..."  She looked stage right to see her supervisor.  "Andrew needs to say a few words." 

When Violeta had gone, Andrew approached his assignment and crouched in front of her.  He took her hands in his.  "I'm so proud of you, Ivy.  When I... I think back on those first days and how hard it was for you to even speak up in class and now... now this."

"I had a lot of help in getting here," Ivy reminded.  She leaned over to hug the angel.  "After... after this will I see you again?"

"Well... usually I move on but I'm kinda tied to Omaha so..."  Andrew beamed.  "Yeah, you'll see me again.  But right now... I better get out there to introduce you.  First, though... He wanted me to remind you that He really loves you.  You truly are His beautiful child."

"Th-thank you, Andrew." 

"You're very, very welcome."  Andrew squeezed her hand once more and stepped in front of the curtain.  "Ladies and gentleman, thank you, again, for being here with us as we celebrate the Eve's Girls successful first year.  As we open our second act, we present to you a song inspired by Victor Hugo's classic novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Singing 'God Help the Outcasts' from the Disney film of the same name, please welcome Ivy Lee!"

As the crowd cheered, the curtain came up to reveal Ivy in her gypsy-esque garb.  The audience hung on her every word as she sang a song that had come to mean so much to her as she'd striven to hold onto her faith in the midst of her struggles.

"'I don't know if You can hear me,
or if You're even there,
I don't know if You will listen
to a humble prayer.
They tell me I am just an outcast.
I shouldn't speak to you.
Still, I see Your face and wonder,
were You once an outcast too?

God help the outcasts,
hungry from birth.
Show them the mercy
they don't find on earth.
Lost and forgotten,
they look to You still.
God help the outcasts
Or nobody will.'"

When Ivy finished the song, the crowd applauded enthusiastically.  She looked out and beamed at her grandma who had jumped to her feet as she clapped.  Ivy smiled at everyone of her friends gathered there.  She laughed when she looked over to where Violeta was hollering as she scrawled in her notebook.  Then Ivy peered over to stage right where Andrew's face shown with pride.  She bowed her head to the crowd and, just before the curtains closed, Ivy thought she saw someone clapping in the balcony that had been blocked off for the banquet. 

As the curtains fluttered closed, the God of the outcasts looked down upon His children gathered in the third row and smiled.  Joshua watched as they all repositioned themselves so Ivy could rejoin them now that her number was over.  He gazed tenderly at the grief-striken family who had found hope in both life and in death.  He willed his assurances to a couple who, though still longing for the future they thought denied to them, had warmly welcomed Andrew and their daughter and their friends into their home.  Joshua looked to Fr. Xavier and Mr. Spelman, two men after his own heart, who consistently shared their faith and his love with those who found themselves in the former's church and the latter's classroom.  He whispered to his child of falling leaves and autumn winds, reminding her that he was both meek and mighty and he was pleased she was learning when to be which.  Joshua focused his warmth and his love onto Kemara, thanking her for bravely confronting her own past in order to help Ivy to confront her present.  Joshua chuckled at the still furiously writing Violeta, his girl who was still finding her way but had, like her namesake, blossomed into a vibrant beauty who brought joy to those around her.  He sighed as he looked at Doreen.  She had made such strides in the nearly two months since what she'd come to term "the intervention at St. Joe's."  Doreen had at last opened her heart to Ivy as well as to little Leo who brightened the lives of both the Lee women. 

Then Joshua was behind the curtains, watching as Andrew pulled Ivy into a hug.  He looked with pride at them both.  Andrew had been unceasingly loyal and determined in giving his message of love to Ivy and Ivy had exhibited the same qualities in readily accepting that message and refusing to be dissuaded from it. 

"Ya did good, Ivy.  Better than good," Andrew gushed. 

"Thank you.  Andrew, I... I thought I saw someone in the balcony.  I know maybe it's silly but do you think..."

Andrew knew nothing about this... but he knew Joshua.  "I don't think it's silly at all.  What Father wouldn't want to come see his little girl sing a song for Him?"

Ivy beamed then let Andrew help her down to the audience.  Doreen had shifted to a seat one over from the aisle so she could sit beside her granddaughter.

Joshua's joy was limitless as Doreen embraced her Ivy. 

It was then, as Joshua watched over grandmother and grandchild that Andrew spotted him.  It was a touching, wistful scene and one that left Andrew wishing once more that Joshua could be the one Ivy was hugging.

Someday.

*~*~*

"Reunion"

Holy Week 2014

"Do you think He wanted kids?"

"Well... sure.  Probably.  I mean I think He understood why He couldn't have kids but growing up and seeing all His friends start becoming parents...  The longing might have been there."

"I wonder... how did He deal with that?"

"I'm sure He's over it now.  He's got tons of kids!"

JenniAnn remembered this conversation as she sat in a rocking chair in Cora's living room with Belle asleep in her arms.  Yes, Jesus had tons of kids... JenniAnn knew that now in a way she had never expected to while still enjoying her earthly life.  But Joshua... he looked anything but 'over it' as he peered out the window... waiting... with Fawn and Lulu loyally sitting at his feet.  If Joshua had ever wanted to father children, he didn't any more.  He had them... so many only he could count them.  But that didn't mean he was over longing for them... to recognize him, to love him, and to, above all, see how much he loved them.  And at that moment, Joshua was longing for Ivy. 

JenniAnn mused over the irony of it all.  Shortly after Andrew had announced that he was going to be on assignment as the director of a local production of Jesus Christ Superstar and, oh by the way, he could really use massive amounts of help... JenniAnn and Kemara had become determined to fly Ivy in to see the show.  They remembered her speaking of listening to the CD with her mother.  Further, they'd been so impressed by the actor playing Jesus that they couldn't resist the impulse to invite as many people as they could.  And so it was decided.  Arrangements had been made, given approval by a grateful Doreen, conveyed to an ecstatic Ivy, and then... first JenniAnn and then Kemara had come to discover that there was no actor playing Jesus.  There was simply Jesus... Joshua.  They'd felt then that Ivy absolutely had to come visit them, had to see the show, had to meet Joshua.  It would mean so much to the girl if she could just talk with him even if she didn't know who he was.  What JenniAnn hadn't counted on was how important, and potentially painful, the meeting would be to Joshua.  She had come to recognize how hard it was for him to walk among them as the considerate acquaintance when he felt so much more.  She prayed Ivy would see who he truly was. 

Deep in his own thoughts, Joshua glanced at the clock on the mantel.  3:34.  Forty five minutes earlier, Andrew had called to say that Ivy's plane had landed safely.  She'd found her welcoming party and all they needed to do was collect her luggage and make their way back.  They'd be there "soon."  Joshua half-smiled when he thought of "Aslan's" quote which he had co-opted more than once: "I call all times soon."  That certainly didn't seem to be the case today! 

Joshua recalled the day, shortly after Andrew and JenniAnn had moved him into Cora's house, when he'd gone to the kitchen in search of tea.  He'd found JenniAnn and Kemara chattering about Ivy and how much she was going to love his performance.  They'd turned to him, smiling shyly over being caught gushing, and explained about inviting their younger friend who was a big fan of Superstar.  He'd taken a while to reply then felt badly when he realized they feared they'd embarrassed him.  He hadn't been embarrassed, only surprised.  Ivy... his Ivy... was coming to see him. 

In the days that followed, Joshua would sometimes happen upon one of the girls or Andrew talking to Ivy on their cell phone, making plans.  Each time he had wished he could say something but it would have made Ivy uncomfortable so he didn't.  But now she was on her way and he'd be able to talk to her, even if it was only pleasantries.  Soon.  At least he didn't have to wait alone.  Joshua noticed JenniAnn contemplating him.

"What are you thinking about?" he asked as he approached and caressed the baby's downy hair then clasped her mother's hand in his.  He was so very glad some of them knew now.

JenniAnn smiled at the familiar question.  She knew he missed simply knowing.  "About you.  Well, really a conversation Kemara and I had last ye