Hope and Healing
27th Sunday, June 28th
Monday, June 29th
Wednesday, July 1st
Saturday, July 4th
7th Wednesday July 8th
Monday, July 13th
Friday, July 24th
Thursday, August 13th
19th Thursday, August 20th
June 27th, 2015
After at last leaving the Romano Family Farm following
Clay's and Kylie's wedding, Andrew and JenniAnn trekked up
the main staircase at Willowveil with Shelby, Violeta, Rose,
and Max trailing them. Belle snoozed on her father's
"So what's the game plan for tomorrow morning?" Max
JenniAnn stretched up to plant a kiss on Belle's forehead
before Andrew took her into her nursery.
"Andrew picked up some doughnuts and muffins at Adrian's in
between the weddings and there's still a bunch of fruit
salad we should probably eat up. So let's say everyone
eat by 10:00 and we'll head to 10:30 Mass at St. Mary
Mag's? Monica, Arthur, and Liam will be meeting us
there. Maybe Kemara and Sean, too."
Rose smiled dreamily and rested her head on Max's shoulder.
"Sounds good..." she murmured.
From behind the couple, Violeta grinned and shot JenniAnn a
look of amusement which was quickly returned.
Max clasped Rose's hand and nodded.
"Sounds good, Maja." He smiled at JenniAnn then looked
to Rose. "Can I walk you to your room?"
Her face briefly flushing, Rose nodded.
Violeta giggled and was rewarded by a Look from Max who
playfully bumped his shoulder against hers.
A round of hugs began and was renewed when Andrew stepped
back into the hall. Once Max and Rose were off, Andrew
squeezed Shelby's hand.
"Are you staying in the nursery with Belle or with Violeta,
Shelby bit her lip as she considered.
"I'm not really tired yet..."
"We could color!" Violeta suggested.
Shelby beamed. "Okay!"
After a few more embraces, Andrew and JenniAnn were left
alone in the hall.
"It's been such a lovely day... Eleora and Cody...
Kylie and Clay... They looked so blissful and content
and Joshua was there and... and I don't want tonight to
end," JenniAnn opined.
The angel of death took her hands in his.
"I don't either. Would you care to join me on the
balcony for some more dancing?" he offered.
JenniAnn smiled up at him. "Certainly."
While Andrew lit some lanterns, JenniAnn prepped her laptop
and selected a playlist entitled "Andrew's and JenniAnn's
Dance Mix Part VI."
Andrew smiled as Christina Perri's "A Thousand Years" began
"I remember how crushed you were when you found out this was
the song from Twilight."
JenniAnn wrinkled her nose. "Annoying... but I do love
Andrew set down the lighter and embraced her.
"We really gotta make some time to mix another of these,
though. We haven't done one since..."
JenniAnn smiled. "Right. We've been too busy
mixing lists of Disney songs and nursery rhymes."
"We're gonna find ourselves dancing to something from Sesame
Street one of these days."
Laughing, JenniAnn shook her head as Andrew began to hum the
theme song. After he quieted, they began their dance.
JenniAnn sighed as she rested her head against Andrew's
"What ya thinking?" he inquired.
"Just about the weddings... So beautiful."
"Do you ever wish..."
JenniAnn looked up.
"That we could have had a wedding? No. I mean,
don't get me wrong, I spent some pleasant teenaged evenings
"Sure. I mean not that I ever expected any such plans
to be needed. But it was still fun to play around
with. Our colors woulda been emerald and cerulean."
Andrew chuckled. "Nice color scheme. I would
have supported that... assuming I had a vote."
With a grin, JenniAnn shrugged. "You pretty much let
me do whatever I wanted in my day dreams."
"I see. And did I even get to pick out my tux?"
"Well... you didn't have a tux."
"It was very casual. You wore jeans and a white
peasant shirt... open til right about here." JenniAnn
rested her hand over his heart.
Andrew burst out laughing. "Laja..."
"Well, I wore jeans, too! They had white lace inlays
that flared them out into bell bottoms. And then I
wore my emergency wedding dress over it but with all the
buttons undone except those at my waist and bodice. Ya
know, so the jeans would... what?"
Andrew's head was cocked. "Emergency wedding dress?"
"Oh... I thought I told you about that at some point."
"Really don't think so."
"Well... it's just this cream colored sun dress that I
bought just in case I ever fell madly in love with a
deploying soldier or something and needed a dress ASAP."
Andrew tried to hide the fact that her words stung.
JenniAnn reached up to cradle his face.
"Of course, I did fall madly in love with a deploying
soldier in time. But no wedding, no marriage.
All for the best, though. I could never say 'til death
do us part' to you, my love."
Andrew nuzzled her hair.
"Never," he whispered.
His soft twang made JenniAnn feel weak in the knees and she
"I really don't mind that we never had a wedding," she
stressed. "To me, what we had with Joshua in the
chapel was just as beautiful and special and wonderful as
what Clay and Kylie and Eleora and Cody had today. And
it's not like we can't have some big emerald and cerulean
colored anniversary party at some point... with that gourmet
popcorn from back home as party favors. That was
another part of my dream wedding and that bit I want to
Laughing, Andrew nodded. "Definitely keep the
"All that truly matters to me is that we're together,
surrounded by our family, and with God watching over us
all... every day. That's more important than any
ceremony or reception."
"It is," the angel agreed as his right hand drifted through
JenniAnn frowned. Andrew still seemed upset.
"You're not hurt are you? About the emergency wedding
"No. Laja, no. No at all." Andrew
sighed. "It's only... I'm a little nervous about
JenniAnn ceased dancing and hugged him tightly.
"I'm sure it'll be fine, Andrew. Joshua wouldn't let
Eben come if it was too soon or if he was still too outta
sorts or anything."
"True. I just hope I'm in the right frame of
mind." The angel yawned.
"Hold that thought. Let's get ready for bed and talk
there," JenniAnn suggested.
With a grateful nod, Andrew extinguished the lanterns.
After a few minutes' separation, the two reconvened in the
As she brushed out her hair, JenniAnn watched Andrew snuggle
Lulu and Fawn who had already joined him on the bed.
"Not sure there's gonna be room for me," she teased.
After giving both dogs hearty snout scratches, Andrew smiled
up at JenniAnn.
"We'll make room. Besides, I've caught them both
yawning. They'll move to the foot of the bed soon or
else go join Belle."
JenniAnn peeked into the nursery where Belle was still
sleeping soundly then set down her brush and settled beside
Andrew. Fawn and Lulu both demanded a round of cuddles
and belly rubs then, as predicted, curled onto the foot of
Andrew smiled as JenniAnn placed a kiss on both of his
"I hope Clay and Kylie are having a nice night," she
"You have doubts?"
JenniAnn laughed quietly. "No, actually."
"Me neither. And I'm incredibly glad for them."
"Me too. Being with someone they know loves them
truly, madly, deeply... I am a bit concerned about
Adam, though. I mean... I know his connection to Kylie
isn't the same exactly as... as yours to me. And I
know he's connected to Clay, too. But that's gotta be
kinda odd. Two of the three have a closeness that the
other, Adam, doesn't share."
Andrew considered this. He'd kept a close eye on Adam
at the wedding but hadn't noticed him seeming
downcast. A little wistful. Adam had admitted as
much. But not upset or lonesome.
"Maybe it's a little like us with Violeta," Andrew
suggested. "We both love her very, very much.
And sometimes I envy you a little bit for being her
confidante in ways I never can be."
"And I wish I could be with her, showing her the world, like
you do when you're on assignments together," JenniAnn
"Right. And probably, over time, differences will
develop in what we each share with Shelby and Belle.
Maybe even with Max. Maybe we'll feel a sort of...
"Ooh. I like that term."
Andrew smiled. "Thanks. It makes sense to
me. Because even while a hint of jealousy is there, it
makes me really happy that you and Violeta have the bond you
do. There's a wistfulness but no desire to interrupt
that and steal it away."
"Exactly!" JenniAnn hugged his arm. "Cause I do
feel a lotta joy when you both come back from assignments
and Violeta excitedly shares what she learned from you and
smiles so lovingly and proudly at you. You make each
other happy... and that makes me happy."
Andrew kissed her hair. "It's not a perfect analogy
but I think that's the heart of it. Adam loves Kylie
and Clay and their marriage brings them great happiness and,
seeing that, it'll bring him happiness, too."
"Yeah... And he is pretty excited about going on that
Andrew let out a hearty laugh. "He really is. I
saw the collection of tourism pamphlets he's amassed."
"But what do you think he'll do at night when Clay and Kylie
are, umm... busy?"
"Probably make his way to the hotel pub and make all kinds
of new friends. Maybe just amble around town."
"Probably get hit on a lot, too."
"I have a feeling that he'll enjoy that."
Giggling, JenniAnn nodded against Andrew's chest.
Silently, the two prayed for their three friends and hoped
that their shared honeymoon would bring them even closer.
"Now..." JenniAnn began.
"Now," Andrew echoed, knowing she meant for him to share
what was weighing on him. "I think, more than
anything, I'm worried about keeping my own anger at Eben in
check, Laja. Ever since..."
"Since I was shot," JenniAnn interrupted when she saw him
begin to struggle.
The angel nodded. "And everything that happened after
that... I feel like I'm walking around with... with raw
nerves exposed. It hasn't been so bad since I've spent
most of my days here or in the Tunnels or at the theatre,
among people I love and trust. But now... here comes
Eben. Eben who repeatedly tried to... to scare you
away from me."
JenniAnn brushed some hair behind Andrew's ears and peered
into his brimming eyes.
"I'm concerned about that, too. But maybe it's okay if
we do get upset with him. That might be cathartic for
all three of us. And as for Eben trying to scare me
away, you know that didn't work. If you start to feel
overly angry about that, just focus on the fact that this
meeting is happening in our home that we share with
our kids and know that, once Eben leaves, we can
crash and take a relaxing and restoring nap in our
Andrew chuckled. "True. But since Max, Rose, and
Violeta are bringing Shel and Belle back around 3:00, it
can't be a very long nap."
"Even little elves need naps sometimes. Belle could
join us if need be."
"She's loved having you around so much. So have I, of
course. Very grateful to Joshua for that."
Andrew gently placed a hand over where he knew JenniAnn's
scar was. "Me too."
"I'm also... I'm grateful he and the Father didn't put the
kibosh on the whole angel/human anam cara thing after...
after what Nen and Tzila and their like did. Earlier,
at the farm, I found myself thinking about how there were a
couple times in grade school when I got demerits... not
because of anything I did but cause the majority of the
class was acting up and so the whole class got them at
once. I can remember the first time, it was during our
library time, I'd just been obliviously perusing the books,
trying to block out my classmates' rowdiness so I could
focus and choose my book for the week. Then the
librarian announced that we all had gotten demerits.
It was stupid, really. My parents didn't care at
all. Still... I did. So I just bawled."
"Laja..." Andrew's eyes welled as he thought of a
distraught, miniature version of JenniAnn. He brought
her right hand to his lips and kissed it.
JenniAnn snuggled nearer. "So at the wedding I thought
about how awful it would be if Joshua and his Dad were like
that librarian.... if He doled out punishments on everyone
for what some did. Then you and me...
"God would never do that, Laja."
"I know. He told me... while splitting a cup of cream
cheese wedding mints with me." JenniAnn's eyes
twinkled as she remembered. "Still... he could
have. He said it was painful to watch what Nen and
Tzila did but he could never have missed out on the joy he
felt watching you and me and Eli and Sophia and Reuel and
Rafiq and Adam and Kylie and Clay and so on. And from
that... I came to pity Eben more than anything. That's
not to say the anger is totally gone. But while we
were busy growing ever closer to each other and our friends
and family and God, he was wandering Sheol for years."
Andrew let out a deep sigh. "You're right. I
can't imagine what that was like for him. Especially
after he started to come around."
JenniAnn nodded before resting her head on his
"Seeing us in Edmund's office... knowing he'd missed out on
so much friendship. He could have been here the whole
time... attending our parties, hanging out," she lamented.
"But at least now he has the chance... eventually.
Maybe." Andrew dragged his hand through his hair as he
contemplated whether or not Eben would ever truly be part of
his inner circle again.
JenniAnn sat up and stroked the angel's cheek then bent to
"I think he has that chance," she averred.
Andrew circled his arms around the woman and buried his face
in her hair.
"Thank you, Laja. I love you."
"I love you, too. Now for some sleep?"
Andrew nodded and was soon lulled by the sound of JenniAnn's
steady breathing. He inhaled and exhaled slowly,
further calming himself. Whether nightmares came that
night or not, the reality was that his Laja was safe and
happy and healing more and more every day. He stared
up at the ceiling and thanked God for that. Andrew
also prayed that Eben's visit would be yet another step in
his own healing from the month's shocks and heartbreaks.
After again resting his chin against his soul mate's hair,
the angel of death surrendered to sleep.
Following Mass, Andrew and JenniAnn brought Belle back to
her room to change into clothes more suitable for a picnic
and trip to the Children's Museum in Brooklyn with her
sister, Uncle Max and Aunts Rose and Violeta.
Belle sang a nonsensical ditty as JenniAnn fastened on the
bright pink shorts that the toddler had chosen to pair with
a Frozen T-shirt.
"Very stylish! Now go see Daddy to get your shoes."
Andrew crouched beside the girl.
"Belle, you can't go to the museum without shoes," he urged
as he patted the floor so she'd sit down.
Belle scampered away.
Peeking in from the hall, Shelby entered.
"C'mon, Belle. Put your shoes on," she
encouraged. "Don't you want to play on the swings at
the park and with the animals at the museum?"
With a nod, Belle took the shoes from Andrew then brought
them to Shelby.
Shelby glanced at Andrew. When he shrugged, she moved
to put the shoes on Belle who made no further protest.
Once the sandals were on, Belle wrapped her arms around
Shelby's neck and cooed loudly as the older girl returned
Watching the scene, JenniAnn wished there was some way to
express to the little one that now was not the time to play
favorites and snub her daddy.
Andrew forced a smile and got to his feet.
"We should probably head downstairs. Uncle Max and
Aunt Rose and Aunt Violeta are waiting."
Belle released Shelby, hurried over to Andrew, and raised
JenniAnn sighed happily as the angel lifted their girl into
"Baby girl!" Andrew exclaimed, casting off his brief
Belle grinned then planted several kisses on Andrew's face.
Laughing at the toddler's puffed out cheeks and puckered
lips, JenniAnn and Shelby embraced.
"Andrew's going to be okay, right?" the girl
whispered. "He looked really sad sometimes this
JenniAnn patted her back. "He's just a little nervous
about his old friend coming today but he'll be fine.
And that helps." She beamed at Andrew and Belle who
were still cuddling. "Having you with us this weekend
has helped, too. He loved dancing with you at the
wedding, ya know."
Shelby beamed. "It was fun. Especially the swing
dance. You'll call Max or Violeta if it would help if
we came back here sooner?"
"Of course. But don't you worry about that,
Shel. You just have fun. Andrew and I will be
"Okay. Can I stay over again tonight since you're
going to the Tunnels for classes tomorrow, anyway?"
"I think that can be arranged," JenniAnn replied.
"You girls ready?" Max called from down the hall.
Shelby hurried forward and nodded at him. "Coming!"
"Eady!" Belle repeated, at last releasing her grip on Andrew
and taking Shelby's hand.
Joining hands themselves, Andrew and JenniAnn followed the
sisters to where they met up with Max, Rose, and
Belle cried out with glee as her uncle swooped her up onto
"We'll be back by 3:00 if all goes as planned," Max
promised. "I'll call if anything changes... like if
we're unable to get Bellaluna to leave the Totally Tots
Andrew chuckled. "It could happen. Thanks.
We'll see you then."
"Have fun!" JenniAnn exclaimed.
Once they'd hugged the kids good bye and seen them off,
Andrew and JenniAnn stepped into the chapel. They
settled, side by side, into the pew closest to Joshua's
"Joshua, Father, please let this visit be everything Andrew
hopes it to be," JenniAnn silently prayed. "I mean I
hope it helps Eben, too, but... you know with whom my heart
lies. And, like me, you know the sleepless nights and
the nightmares Andrew has suffered with. Please let
this time with Eben further his recovery."
Andrew laced his fingers through JenniAnn's as he also spoke
"I'm not sure why I feel nervous about this, Joshua, but I
do. Maybe I'm worried that talking with Eben... it's
going to bring Laja back to those times when he tried to
hurt us. Or maybe even back to... to earlier this
month. She hardly talks about it... more often about
my going to Sheol. And maybe it doesn't help that I
can't speak easily of it, either. The shooting.
Laja was shot. Laja could have died. I can say
it to you but sometimes... usually... it's so hard to talk
about it out loud. To remember the seizures, to know
more could strike. Father... Father, I think I
know a little piece of what you felt watching Joshua
Andrew only realized that tears had begun to trail down his
cheeks when JenniAnn tightly embraced him.
"My love..." she cooed.
Andrew rested his cheek against her hair and took in a few
deep breaths. When he released JenniAnn, he felt more
"Better?" she checked.
The angel nodded.
JenniAnn stroked his cheek.
"Good. Do you want to stay here a bit longer while I
go get the sandwiches and sides out?"
Andrew shook his head.
"No, I want to help. I'm fine. Let's go."
Arms around each other, they headed out. Both cast one
last look at the portrait before entering the hall.
Once they'd reached the kitchen, it took only a few minutes
to set up lunch in the ballroom. They'd decided a good
view of the yard and sky beyond would help them, and
hopefully Eben, relax.
JenniAnn was just doing a final check when the doorbell
"Should I go..." Andrew began.
"Let's go together," JenniAnn decided.
With a nod, Andrew took her hand and brought her to the
They found Eben nervously shifting from one foot to the
other as he held a large potted plant and a basket.
"Hi Eben," Andrew greeted.
"Hi Andrew, JenniAnn," Eben replied.
JenniAnn, who had been intently studying Andrew, gasped when
she turned to respond to the reformed angel and saw the
vibrant flowers he carried.
Eben smiled shyly.
"They're for you, JenniAnn. From the island.
Joshua said they'll take if you plant them here."
JenniAnn reached out to touch the beautiful petals then bent
to breath in their enchanting scent.
"Thank you," she murmured as she remembered her time with
Joshua, Chava, Sophia, and the others.
It was Andrew's turn to peer at her, taking in her brimming
eyes but obvious pleasure.
"I, umm, I'd hand them to you but they're a little heavy and
I didn't know if..."
JenniAnn startled. "Oh! Of course, let's just
sit them right inside the door. Andrew and I will find
the perfect place later. I..."
Eben stepped inside and gently set the flowers down.
He was surprised when he stood and felt a gentle touch on
"Thank you," JenniAnn repeated before drawing her hand back.
"Thank you for welcoming me into your home after
everything..." Eben stared down at the floor.
Andrew's hand briefly alighted on his old friend's arm.
"We'll talk about all of that in a little bit. Let's
have some lunch first, you think?"
Managing a smile, Eben nodded.
"I brought dessert. I didn't make it, I'm afraid, but
that's for the best."
The angel opened his basket to reveal a perfect looking and
heavenly smelling apple pie.
"Hope?" she guessed.
Eben answered with a smile and nod.
"I'm still on the island but she comes to visit me
often. Last time, she insisted I take one of her pies
to you both."
Andrew's eyes filled as he thought of his former
assignment. They were happy tears, however. Hope
was thrilled about Eben's return.
"Thanks, Eben. And thanks to Hope, too. I'm
going to want to scarf down my sandwich just to get to
that," the angel of death teased.
Eben laughed. "Still with that sweet tooth, I take
JenniAnn grinned. "Very much so. And he's doing
an admirable job of passing that trait down to a new
Still laughing, Eben followed the two into the
ballroom. Once they'd all taken seats, Andrew held his
hands out to Eben and JenniAnn.
After a momentary shock, Eben took Andrew's and JenniAnn's
hands and bowed his head.
"Dear God, thank You for this meal and for the hands that
prepared it. Thank You for this time together, for all
the effort You put into bringing the three of us here.
Help us to have a good, healing visit. We love
"Amen," Eben and JenniAnn echoed.
The three loaded up their plates then dug in.
Eben sighed after taking a bite of his chicken salad
"This is delicious," he opined. "Better than any I've
had on Earth."
Andrew chuckled. "The 'chicken' comes from Adam."
Eben looked curiously at him. "Why did you put air
quotes around 'chicken'?"
"We don't know how... and neither Adam nor Joshua will tell
us... but somehow Adam creates various meat-like
substances. So, basically, a vegetarian could eat this
guilt-free," JenniAnn explained. "Cause it's not
really an animal product. Just tastes like it."
Eben eyed the salad before taking another bite.
Andrew and JenniAnn smiled at each other.
"So, umm, how are you feeling?" Eben inquired of JenniAnn.
"Really good, thank you. I had a check-up last week
and everything looks really good. Very, very little
pain or discomfort."
"I really was... I was sorry when I heard about... what
JenniAnn gave Eben a tremulous smile. "Thank you."
"I'm sorry about a lot," Eben continued as he pushed some
macaroni salad around his plate.
Andrew looked up from his own plate. "Why her,
Eben? I... I can understand why you targeted me.
I didn't do what you wanted back in Shiloh. But La...
JenniAnn wasn't even born then and you still..."
Eben set down his fork and sighed. "I won't make any
excuses but it was like... once the darkness got a hold of
me... my thought patterns, my reasoning... so
different. Jealously overrode everything. I
spent centuries stewing, occasionally acting out against
you, Andrew. And then when JenniAnn entered your
life... I was jealous that she got to be close to
you. I was jealous that you had her. I know... I
understand that Hope didn't love me as... as you love
Andrew, JenniAnn. But I thought... we could have been
really good friends. And then when you wouldn't fight
for her in the way I wanted you to..." The former
demon looked to Andrew with tears splashing down his
face. "And I know... now... that what I wanted was
wrong. Very wrong. I wanted to take away
God-given free will. But in the darkness... I still
believed I was right. And I couldn't understand why
you wouldn't help me save Hope but, continuously, you did
everything you could for JenniAnn. The difference is
you never tried to steal away freedom for her. As
glaringly obvious as that is to me now... I couldn't see it
"So that... that's why you tried to drive me away from
Andrew?" JenniAnn pressed.
Eben nodded. "Seeing you two together... it
hurt. And I wanted to make Andrew hurt as badly as I
did when they took Hope away from me."
"So I... I was only a means to an end for you?" the woman
"Yes. I'm sorry."
Andrew quietly seethed for a few moments before JenniAnn
began to lightly stroke his back.
Eben watched, swiping at a few tears.
"What if... if she'd gotten hurt going back and forth from
the jail, at night, when I was arrested? Or... or what
if your lies had upset her so badly that she'd fled Dyeland
and... and gotten hurt then?" Andrew questioned.
Eben buried his face in his hands.
"I... I just didn't care. I'm sorry. My anger...
it sent any remaining compassion left to me into hiding."
Andrew glared at his former friend.
"You knew how badly it hurt to lose a friend you cared about
but you still... if your plans had worked... you would have
made me feel that, too. And what you made JenniAnn
feel..." He clasped the woman's right hand in both of
JenniAnn began to weep as she remembered her confusion when,
in disguise, Eben had befriended her and then begun to tell
her lies about Andrew. She recalled the lonely nights
hiding in the basement of the jail and playing music,
knowing it was her only way to connect to Andrew who was
behind bars above her. If he'd had his way, Eben would
have stolen away so much that brought happiness and meaning
and love to her life.
Not entirely cognizant of what she was doing, JenniAnn
settled onto Andrew's lap and twined her arms around his
Fresh tears welled in Eben's eyes. He wept for the
sorrow and pain he had caused... not only to them but to
himself, too. He had completely missed out on one of
the most beautiful epochs in his friend's life. He
wasn't there to see Andrew settle into life in
Dyeland. He wasn't among the many friends Andrew had
introduced to the Dyelanders. He hadn't seen him win
JenniAnn's heart. He was absent when the angel had
become a father. What he knew of Joshua's time among
Andrew and his burgeoning group of friends had come to Eben
only secondhand. He knew now about the Dyeland
Christmas tree and Andrew's family tree. There was no
ornament, no bird for him. In trying to steal
happiness from Andrew, he'd caused only further isolation
and loneliness for himself.
After lifting his face from where he had buried it in
JenniAnn's tresses, Andrew's eyes locked with Eben's.
He saw the regret and sadness and grief writ on his face and
in his eyes.
"If I could do any-anything at all to take it all back... I
would. I swear I would," Eben pleaded. "I'm so
sorry. In the days before you came to Sheol, Andrew, I
told your story... the story of you and JenniAnn... what I
knew of it, at least... so many, many times. And each
time... I... I felt a little bit more love for you
both. I know that may not mean much right now and
maybe... maybe you don't feel loved... by me... but it's
true. Andrew, we couldn't... weren't meant to... save
Hope's life. I know that now. And, as she's told
me, she wouldn't have wanted to... to live at the cost of...
of freedom and faith. But you and JenniAnn... you
brought hope... hope that God's will eventually prevails,
hope that no one is ever too... too broken to be loved and
welcomed home... back to me. I don't blame you if you
want me to leave right now and never come back but I just
had to... to thank you... and tell you that I... I pray for
you. I do."
JenniAnn loosened her hold of Andrew enough to look at his
sobbing one-time partner. After placing a kiss on
Andrew's temple, she rose so he could go to his friend.
Andrew knelt beside Eben's chair and rested a hand on his
"We, umm, we've got a lot of work to do to... to repair the
friendship we once had," the angel of death started.
"But I... Eben, I'm willing to do that work." He
looked to JenniAnn.
The woman stepped to Eben's other side and rested a hand on
"And I'd like to help in any way I can," she added.
Eben looked back and forth from one to the other. He
noted their sincerity.
"Thank you," his wavering voice croaked.
"You're welcome," Andrew softly replied. "Now how
about some of that pie?"
With a laugh, Eben accepted the handkerchief JenniAnn held
out to him.
"Yeah, I'd like that."
After loading their plates with pie, the three moved to the
front porch and Eben listened raptly as Andrew and JenniAnn
began to fill him in on the surprising but wonderful paths
God had led them to take.
Following dinner, Andrew and Max rinsed off dishes and
loaded them into the washer while JenniAnn and Rose helped
Violeta make a list of supplies she'd need before classes
started. Occasional shrieks of delight assured both
parents that Belle was having a wonderful time playing Hide
and Seek with her big sister.
Max laughed as Belle streaked past the doorway, shouting for
"Maybe we shouldn't have gotten her that second cookie
earlier," he mused.
Andrew smiled and shook his head.
"She'd be wired regardless. The good thing is when
she's this energetic in the evening, it usually means she'll
crash early and sleep through the night."
"And, umm, do you think you'll sleep any better than you
have been?" Max questioned. "I mean... it sounds like
the visit with Eben went really well so I was hoping..."
Andrew squeezed his shoulder.
"I'm hoping, too," he answered. "The worst part is
your Maja is such a light sleeper that if I wake up, there's
a good chance she will, too. I've thought about moving
back to my room."
Max frowned and eyed the angel as he loaded glasses.
"You really think either of you would sleep better that way,
Dad? I guess I got the impression that Joshua was
giving you the summer off so you and Maja could be together
as much as possible. And... I mean... you couldn't
even nap in your room that time you tried when Maja was in
"True. You're right, Max. Bad idea."
A few moments of companionable silence passed before Max
"Can I, umm, ask you something kind of awkward?"
Sensing Max needed his undivided attention, Andrew turned
away from the dishwasher and motioned for the young man to
take a seat at the table. Then he noticed Max glancing
into the hallway.
"Would you rather go talk in my office?" the angel
Before going upstairs, Andrew poked his head into the parlor
where the girls were.
"Max and I are going upstairs to my office for a bit."
Though surprised, JenniAnn only smiled.
"Okay! You coming back down for ice cream sandwiches
Andrew flashed her a grin. "Naturally."
Max was quiet as they made their way up the stairs.
During those few moments, Andrew pondered what could be
going on. Surely he and Rose weren't having
problems. The two seemed closer than ever. At
the thought, Andrew wondered if, perhaps, that was the
reason for this consultation. Maybe their closeness
had reached a new level. Maybe Rose was
pregnant. He couldn't fault them with everything that
had happened that month. Still, that didn't seem quite
right. If that was the case, surely Rose would be
involved in this conversation. JenniAnn, too.
Once inside the office, the two men settled onto the couch.
Andrew looked expectantly at Max.
"So... I'm getting married in a year," Max opened.
"And... and I want to be a good husband."
Andrew beamed. "I know you will be, Max."
Blushing, the groom-to-be smiled.
"Thanks. But I mean, like... in every way."
"See, well... Rex never..."
Andrew patted the boy's shoulder. Max had ceased
referring to his father by anything other than his first
"He talked to me about sex but not... not in a good
way. Just... bravado. Not good stuff."
Andrew hugged Max.
"I'm sorry, Max. You shouldn't have had to hear
that. Just know that if you have any questions that
you think I can help with, I'm here. And for those I
can't answer, I'd be happy to arrange a talk with Zeke or
Rabbi Yakov or whomever you would feel comfortable
with. I could go with you or not. Whatever's
easiest for you. I'm sorry I can't handle it all
myself. I know that's part of a dad's job but..."
Max adamantly shook his head.
"Don't say that, Dad. I'm not sorry. If you
could answer all my questions then that would mean you
wouldn't be as compatible with Maja as you are. And
I'd hate losing that."
With a smile, Andrew nodded. "Me too. So what
was it you wanted to ask me?"
The color returned to Max's face.
"Well, Rose and I are discussing taking some sort of
pre-marriage class. Like Kemara and Sean did.
But it made me a little nervous so I Googled to see what
sort of questions we might get asked and then I got freaked
out because I have no idea how to answer them. Like
one... it asked how often we think we'd want to have
sex. I don't know! I initially thought four
times a week because I guess that sounds reasonable but what
if Rose was thinking daily and gets hurt that I only said
four times a week? Or what if four times seems way too
often to her? Is it? I have no idea! I
thought maybe... just from being around humans for so
long... you'd know what's... normal?"
Andrew considered how best to respond.
"Well, first of all, I think those questions are mostly just
to get you two talking. No one is going to hold you to
your answers on questions like that. So maybe just
tell Rose what you told me... tell her you're really not
sure what to say. You might find that she's not at all
sure, either. And that's okay. As for what's
normal, I know for a lot of couples, there's an ebb and flow
to it. Maybe they have sex really frequently at first
but then not quite so often over time. You and Rose
will just have to consistently revisit that question.
And you don't know what else might come into your
lives. Kids... they'll change everything."
Max smiled. "True. Like with you and Maja after
Belle. You didn't get much dancing or alone time right
after she came. And even now, you know you could get
interrupted at any moment by crying from her nursery."
Andrew chuckled. "That we do. But we wouldn't
have it any other way."
Max drew in and let out a deep breath.
"Feel any better?" Andrew queried.
"I am. Yeah. Thanks. I just... I don't
want to make any of the same mistakes that Rex did.
Rose... she deserves better. Much better." Max
let out a shaky sigh.
"And she's getting much better, Max. I know
that. She knows that. Your Maja knows
that. And God knows that."
"I love you."
"I love you, too, Max."
The two embraced before placing their call to Zeke.
Downstairs, Violeta had tired of looking through her
syllabus and online catalogs and had joined Shelby's and
"Rose, I can handle this myself. You can go play if
you want," JenniAnn offered as she folded a newly washed
Rose shook her head. "Thank you but I'd rather just
sit with you. Actually... I have something kinda
important to ask you."
"It's about Max."
"He's... he's doing a lot better. Thankfully.
But the whole Rex thing..."
JenniAnn patted her friend's hand.
"I can't imagine what it's like for him. I've noticed
he only refers to him as Rex now. No 'my father' any
Rose nodded. "Max says he's going to keep working at
forgiving him but he needs to cut all ties. It's not
just about what happened to you... although that's a huge
part of it... but also Brooke."
Both women were silent for a few moments as they thought
about the wife who Rex had brutally abused. While
remaining very vague, Catherine had said Brooke's case was
one of the worst she'd seen while at the Phoenix.
"Anyway..." Rose resumed, "I was doing some research and I
just wondered if... if maybe you and Andrew would consider
legally adopting Max. He'd get a new birth certificate
and everything. And in New York all you need is Max's
consent which I know he'd give!"
JenniAnn smiled tenderly at Rose.
"I know. Andrew and I researched it, too. We
thought about offering that to Max a couple years ago but we
didn't want him to think we were trying to replace
Rex. We thought maybe there'd be a chance of
reconciliation eventually. But I guess now..."
Rose shook her head. "I truly believe Max will get to
a point where he can forgive Rex. But the father-son
relationship... it's broken beyond repair. And I... I
just really don't think God wants it repaired at this
point. Yesterday I talked with Joshua a lil bit and
before I could even run this by him, he started talking
about how much he's loved watching you and Andrew parent
Max. He... he said you were what he wanted family to
"Oh..." JenniAnn sighed as a few tears fell from her
eyes. She knew as much but it touched her to hear it
"And I... I have a selfish reason, too. Max and I
would really love to have kids and... and if something
should happen to us... if you adopted Max then... then..."
"Then Andrew and I would be their legal grandparents."
Rose nodded. "We just... we don't want Rex to have any
claim to them and you know he would if he was out and
thought there was any money in it."
The color drained from JenniAnn's face. She was sure
Rose was absolutely correct.
"I hope and pray nothing happens to either you or Max,
Rose. But... but you're right. And it would...
it would be wonderful to have Max recognized as... as
Andrew's and my son. Let me talk to Andrew tonight and
then we'll talk to Max and then I'm sure Catherine can help
Rose hugged JenniAnn tightly. "Thank you. And
then... come next June... you really will be my
JenniAnn laughed as she returned the younger woman's
"Feel free to start sending the mother-in-law jokes my way."
Rose giggled. "I'll try to be nice."
"Thank you." When she pulled back, JenniAnn took
Rose's hands in hers. "I know it's a stereotype that
mothers never think their daughters-in-law are good enough
for their sons but I... I think you're perfect for mine,
As happy tears formed, Rose once again hugged her longtime
friend and future mother-in-law.
After enjoying ice cream sandwiches together, the family
split up for the night. Rose, Max, and Violeta camped
out in the TV room to watch The Avengers.
Belle and Shelby drifted to sleep not long after being
tucked in by Andrew and JenniAnn who retired to their room
After slipping under the sheet, JenniAnn nuzzled Andrew's
shoulder then leaned up on her elbow and smiled at him.
"How do you feel?"
Andrew stroked her cheek.
"Really, really good. You?"
"The same. Is everything okay with Max, though?
I was little worried when you two went to your office."
Andrew smiled. "He's fine. Just a little worked
up about getting married and all that entails. We set
up a visit with Zeke for some counseling."
"With Rose? And Diana?"
Andrew shook his head. "Not yet. This is kind
of... pre-counseling. Just us guys."
JenniAnn guessed at what Andrew wasn't saying.
"Ah... Good idea. About Max... I have something
very important to ask you."
"And what would that be?"
"Would you adopt him with me?"
"We've discussed it before and just never got around to
asking Max but Rose brought it up today. She thinks
it'd help Max with the whole... Rex mess. And she
brought up a really, really good point. If, God
forbid, something happened to Max and Rose after they had
kids then Rex..."
Andrew sat up with a start.
"We should have thought about that..."
"I know. I was pretty horrified when Rose mentioned
it. We wanted to adopt Max regardless but now... I
think we should bring it up soon. Tomorrow even.
Rose said he gets off from the comic book store at
5:00. Maybe we could take the two of them to the
Fields for a picnic. I'm sure I could get my parents
or Vincent and Catherine to watch Belle. Oh,
definitely the latter. Cause we need to keep it quiet
til we ask Max and my parents would ask what's up. But
we kinda have to talk to Catherine first cause I don't want
to get Max excited if it turns out there'd be hurdles.
So can we?"
The angel pulled JenniAnn to him and held her close.
"I... I'd love to, Laja. I think that... it's a
wonderful idea and it'll mean so much to Max and..."
Andrew's voice cracked.
"And to us, too," JenniAnn finished for him. She
closed her eyes as she felt him nod against her hair.
Andrew drifted to sleep imagining the day ahead and
revisiting his conversations with Eben and Max. For a
month whose early days had been so tumultuous, June was
certainly ending on a pleasant note.
With Catherine's encouragement, Andrew and JenniAnn followed
through on their plan and brought Max and Rose to the Fields
of Gold for a picnic dinner of grilled burgers and tomato
salad. When they'd moved onto cookies, Andrew broached
the subject that he, JenniAnn, and Rose had been awaiting.
"Max, your Maja and I have something we want to talk with
The young man looked a bit anxious.
"You're both okay, right?" he asked.
JenniAnn hugged him. "We're fine. More than
fine. This... it's a good discussion, we think."
Rose took her fiance's hand and beamed at him.
"Good..." Max replied, nervously taking another bite of his
"Max, not too long after you came to us, JenniAnn and I
discussed asking you if you'd be interested in us legally
adopting you," Andrew explained.
Max's eyebrows raised.
"But, of course, I wasn't really a permanent legal entity at
the time and we also... we didn't want you to think we
wouldn't support your reconciling with Rex if... if the
opportunity arose. But a lot... it's changed."
Andrew bestowed a gentle smile on his son.
Max's eyes pooled and he nodded.
"So Rose and I had a talk last night... same time as you
were talking with your Dad," JenniAnn continued. "Rose
suggested that you would maybe be interested in taking this
step and Andrew and I... we just want you to know that...
that if you are, so are we. Very much. But we
want the decision to be yours, Max."
The tears began to splash down Max's face and he held his
"I... I... y-yes... Dad... Maja," he sobbed as he embraced
them both, loosening his hold just long enough to pull Rose
"I'm so... so glad we're doing this," Andrew confided.
"Thank you... so... much," Max quavered.
JenniAnn kissed his forehead and wiped away his tears.
"Thank you for wanting to be our son," she replied before
The two women watched as a silent, thoughtful look passed
between Andrew and Max.
As they embraced, father and son thanked the God who had,
under harrowing circumstances, first brought them together
and proceeded to keep them together.
Andrew ran, as fast as he could, through the trees.
"Laja!" he bellowed.
The angel struggled to breathe as he searched his
surroundings, trying to determine which way the man had
A shrill cry met his ears and Andrew followed it.
"Laja," he repeated over and over as he raced and
prayed. He had to save her, had to keep her safe,
couldn't let that man hurt her.
Finally, Andrew came to the edge of a clearing. Dozens
of tents littered the field. He frantically searched
for any sign of JenniAnn or her abductor.
Another scream filled the air and Andrew spied JenniAnn just
before she was shoved into a tent. The man laughed
then followed her inside.
"No..." Andrew cried before running towards them.
"No! No!" JenniAnn sobbed.
Andrew tore onto the field and towards the tent. He'd
only made it a few feet when other men began to exit their
tents and block his way.
"You're too late," one taunted. "He'll have wasted no
time with her."
"Just settle down there, have a drink with us. You'll
forget about the woman in time," another suggested as he
thrust a wineskin at Andrew.
Andrew continued to try to push through.
"Laja! I'm here! I'm coming! Laja..."
"No..." JenniAnn moaned.
"Too late," the first man viciously repeated as the throng
pressed in, further cutting Andrew off.
The angel of death continued to struggle but made no
progress. Tears blinded him as further, strangled
cries met his ears.
"Laja..." he whimpered.
JenniAnn wept as she lay beside Andrew, waiting for the
latest nightmare to pass. He'd asked her not to wake
him and she'd obeyed, recognizing that he feared unwittingly
hurting her. Still, it was horrid to watch him.
Surely talking to him would be okay.
"Andrew... It's okay, love. We're safe.
All of us. Andrew, love, open your eyes. Oh...
my dearest and loveliest of all Andrews, look at me!" she
The angel shuddered and his eyes snapped open.
"My poor, sweet love," JenniAnn cooed as she caressed his
"My Laja," Andrew hoarsely greeted.
When he seemed unsure of what to do with his hands, JenniAnn
set his right one over her heart.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
"I... I guess I thought maybe they'd be over with. We
visited with Eben and... and we're adopting Max and it's
been a great few days but..."
The angel of death began to cry as he recalled the horrid
JenniAnn dotted kisses along his brow.
"They showed you your own nightmares... made them seem
real. A-and everyone else's nightmares, too. And
told you about the nightmarish things they'd done.
It's going to take some time to process all of that, my
love. Joshua said as much."
Andrew nodded then moved to his side so he could better look
into JenniAnn's eyes.
"I wish I wasn't keeping you up and waking you up all the
time, though. You need your rest. You... Laja,
you have physical wounds that... that need that."
"I need you more," she countered.
Andrew sighed then kissed her.
"What a pair we make..." he observed.
JenniAnn grinned when the angel wriggled his eyebrows at
"An awesome pair," she added before pulling him into a
sitting position then sliding behind him.
"I guess you missed the part about you needing rest," Andrew
teased as she began to knead his shoulders.
"Sorry, what was that?"
"Are you coming to classes with me again?"
The angel of death looked down at his hands.
"I have an order for a chess set that I need to finish
before we leave on vacation. But I thought maybe I'd
just set myself up in the back of the chamber to carve... if
"You really don't mind all the... togetherness?"
"Not at all. It's been nice. And when the kids
ask questions I can't answer, it's good to have someone
Andrew angled around to glare at her.
Laughing, JenniAnn kissed his cheek then sobered and hugged
"I'm serious. I do enjoy having you there. And
it's not like I feel crowded or like I have no private
time. Heck, I still have my lengthy bubble baths all
to myself. If I was a single parent, I likely wouldn't
even have those. And you know Vincent doesn't mind
about the classes, either. Actually, he'd probably
love to have you there for his history classes, too."
"Vincent has been great. Everyone has... more than
great... but Vincent..." Andrew's eyes welled as he
thought of the man. Second only to JenniAnn, Vincent
seemed to best understand what he was going through.
He found he could sometimes even talk to him about things
that were difficult to tell JenniAnn.
"I wouldn't mind sitting in on Owen's class. It's
gonna be a stained glass-like project. Maybe when I do
that, you and Vincent could visit?" JenniAnn suggested.
Andrew nodded. "Good idea."
JenniAnn rested her cheek against her beloved's back and
prayed that her godfather would be able to comfort him.
Owen stood in front of his classroom with a pair of scissors
in one hand and a slip of orange tissue paper in the
other. JenniAnn moseyed around the room, sitting
bundles of brightly colored paper on the kids' tables.
Belle sat on the floor merrily stringing oversized beads and
making herself "pitties." At the back of the chamber,
Andrew and Vincent observed and quietly chatted.
"Okay, now what we're going to do is very carefully cut
tissue paper into little squares and triangles."
"How many colors, Owen?" Liam asked.
"As many as you want. If anyone needs help, raise your
hand and Psyche or I will be over."
Once she'd divvied up the tissue paper, JenniAnn made her
way to the back of the room where she embraced Andrew and
"I hope you two have a nice visit. Where are you off
Andrew looked to Vincent. He wasn't sure.
"The roaring chamber," Vincent reported in a hushed voice.
JenniAnn smiled sadly at him. "Good idea."
Andrew hugged her once more and kissed her temple.
"See you soon, Laja."
"I'll be praying for you," she replied before kissing
Vincent's cheek. "Thank you," she whispered.
Vincent returned the kiss. "It's my honor, my Psyche."
JenniAnn watched the two retreat and clasped her cross.
"Please, Joshua, let this time with Vincent be another step
in bringing our beloved Andrew peace," she petitioned.
Owen paused in his instruction long enough to embrace his
friend and offer his own prayer.
Andrew closed his eyes and listened to the dull roar of the
waterfall. When he opened his eyes, Vincent was
staring at him.
"You have not slept?" the man guessed.
"I have... just not very well. I went a few nights
without nightmares but last night more than made up for it."
"Would you like to talk about it?" Vincent offered as he
waved towards a boulder.
Andrew took a seat and smiled wanly when Vincent settled
"I don't think you want to hear it, Vincent."
"It was about Psyche?"
"Did you tell her of it?"
"Have you told anyone about them?"
"Joshua. The Father."
The angel of death shook his head.
"Sometimes speaking aloud about our fears helps. At
times in my life nightmares have plagued me, too,
Andrew. Confiding in Catherine or Father about them
Andrew inhaled deeply then slowly let the breath out.
"I was in a forest. JenniAnn was with me. And
then this man... I couldn't see his face... he snatched her
away from me and ran off... but faster than any human should
be able to. I followed them and came to a clearing
with a bunch of tents and I... I saw him toss her into one
and then he went in and..." Andrew let out a ragged
breath. "I knew what he was going to do to her.
I just... knew. I tried to go rescue her but other men
were there a-and stopped me and then... then all I could do
was cry and listen as she screamed while he... he raped her
Vincent fiercely hugged the angel.
"Was this a vision the demons showed you?"
"Partly. Mixed in with others' nightmares and a few
"Had you had nightmares like that before you met with Nen
Andrew shrugged. "Occasionally I'd dream about not
being able to protect JenniAnn but the dreams weren't so
detailed and... and terrible."
"And the other nightmares you've had recently... are their
"Yeah. It's always about something happening to one of
the girls or... or Max and me not... not being able to...
Vincent handed Andrew a handkerchief.
"Andrew, do you think, perhaps, that the nightmares have
less to do with the machinations of Nen and Tzila and more
to do with your own concerns that you cannot always protect
those you love? Concerns that may have increased since
The angel of death twisted the handkerchief around in his
"I... I don't know... And I... I just didn't know..."
Vincent softly patted his back.
"Didn't know what, Andrew?"
"How much... more... I would feel and yet... yet it wouldn't
be e-enough. It's almost like... like we've become so
close that I assumed, even when JenniAnn was apart from me,
that I... I would know when she was in danger, that I'd be
able to help her. Or... or at least pray for
her. B-but I wasn't there... wasn't even aware... when
it mattered most. While that... that... man... had a
gun digging into... into her chest I... I was looking at...
at some plywood! She was bleed-bleeding out and I... I
was trying to decide which nails to buy! I... I wasn't
there but he... he was!"
Vincent watched as Andrew bolted up from the boulder, raced
to the edge of the chamber and screamed.
Andrew pounded on the wall.
"You could have killed her!" he shouted. "She... she'd
done nothing to... to you a-and you could have...
kill... Why... why did you hur-hurt her?"
Vincent stood when the angel again punched the wall.
"Andrew, please, you need to let that anger out but I don't
want you to hurt yourself. Psyche loves those hands."
The angel of death spun around and slid down the wall,
crumpling at the bottom. He glanced over at Vincent
and, seeing the concern on his face, clasped his hand.
"I... I'm grateful you were there. I am but..."
"I understand. I do, Andrew. I remember how
helpless I felt when Catherine was shot all those years
ago. Decades have passed and I still have the
occasional nightmare about it. It showed me not only
her vulnerability but my own. You and I... we pride
ourselves on being the protectors of those we love.
But we are not omniscient, not omnipresent. We can
only trust in the One who is."
Andrew nodded as he cupped his birthstone cross in his hands
and studied the six glittering stones.
"I think you put a burden on yourself that no one else means
for you to bear... and certainly not Joshua nor
Psyche. Your anger at Rex is justified and
understandable. But your anger at yourself... it's
not. Tell me, Andrew, has Psyche even once made you
feel like she blames you... even a little bit... for her
shooting?" Vincent pressed. "Has she been less
affectionate, less loving?"
Andrew felt his cheeks warm. "Less affectionate, less
loving" was no way to describe JenniAnn's actions the
previous night nor at any point in the previous month.
On the contrary, they were closer than ever before.
"I rest my case."
For the first time since entering the chamber, Andrew
"Your wife would be pleased with your lawyerly ways,
Vincent. And I... I can't argue your points.
You're right." The angel heaved a sigh and rubbed at
his eyes. "I hope the nightmares stop. They're
waking JenniAnn up, too."
Vincent patted his back.
"Perhaps they will now that you've let some of your anger
and misplaced regret out. Or they may continue.
But when they do, open your eyes and take a good look around
you, Andrew. Focus on the life you truly have, not the
terrifying versions of your life that they imparted to
you. And know this: you don't have the power to keep
your Laja safe from all harm. However, you do have the
power to share joy and love with her every day that God
gives to you both. You use that power to the utmost,
"Thank you," Andrew murmured, rewarding the man with a
"You're welcome. Know you can come here, to this
chamber, as often as you need, Andrew. But right now,
I think we should head back to Owen's. I'm sure my
goddaughter and granddaughter both are missing you."
Smiling, Andrew nodded and followed Vincent back to the main
hub of the Tunnels.
Andrew tore his gaze away from the bejeweled sky and beamed
at JenniAnn and Belle as they admired the fireworks that
Edward and Caleb were setting off near the pond behind
Willowveil. Most of the Friends were scattered in the
backyard; taking in the festive sight, chasing fireflies,
and enjoying s'mores and sundaes.
"Pitty! Pitty!" Belle shouted.
Sean laughed. "I think she might start to expect this
every night, Andrew," he jested.
Laughing, Andrew stroked the girl's curls.
"I hope not!"
"I hope not, either. We'd be hearing them over at Sol
Mate," Kemara pointed out, gently rubbing her belly.
JenniAnn hugged her shoulders. "And you need every bit
of sleep you can get!"
"Well, if she does, just send her our way. The twins
still have quite a few back at the farm," Randall yelled
over the din.
Dot shook her head. "We're resigned to a few more
Andrew looked over to see if either Clay or Kylie had any
comment but they seemed to be too busy gazing into each
Belle squirmed until JenniAnn set her down.
The adults laughed as the toddler jumped, trying to reach
the faraway sparkles.
Belle frowned and looked around at the grown-ups then set
off at a run.
"Appa! Up! Up!"
Emma grinned as Belle launched herself at Vincent.
"That's so cute! She ran to the tallest person
here. Or close to tallest? Maybe Adam..."
"Vincent has half an inch on me," Adam clarified as he
approached with a plate of s'mores. "Hurry before Eli
eats them all."
"Hey!" his fellow angel of death protested before snagging a
snack and popping it into his mouth. "Okay, good
"Too tempting," Shane agreed as he helped himself to a
"Oh! That's too cute! We need a photo!" JenniAnn
exclaimed when she saw that Vincent had Belle on his
shoulders and her arms were stretched to the sky. She
giggled as her grandfather swayed.
Once she'd captured the sweet image, JenniAnn returned to
Andrew's side and wrapped her arms around his waist.
"Such a magical night..."
Andrew circled his arms around her and nodded. As he
saw the fireworks reflected in JenniAnn's eyes, a thought
seized the angel.
This could have been their first holiday without her.
He traced the contours of her face with his thumbs then
gently tilted her chin upwards.
Their kiss was immediately followed by a sniffle.
Andrew and JenniAnn looked to find Max with his cell phone
pointed towards them.
"We, umm, needed a photo," he explained before looking down
to his screen.
Rose sighed as she peeked over his shoulder. "Wow..."
Max handed the phone to them and revealed a perfectly timed
image with a golden firework exploding behind them as they
"Perfect," Andrew opined as he sighed contently and thanked
God that there would never truly be a time "without her."
Andrew bolted up in bed.
"Andrew?" JenniAnn sleepily whispered.
"Belle..." he moaned.
JenniAnn rubbed at her eyes and watched as the angel burst
out of their bed and hastened to Belle's nursery. She
saw his shoulders relax as he stood in the doorway,
observing their little one. After another moment,
Andrew shuffled back across the room and sat down on the
JenniAnn knelt behind him and wrapped her arms around his
"She got out of her bed again and was curled up with
Shelby. They... they look so sweet," Andrew choked
"Aww. Love, do you want to tell me about it?"
"We... we were in a store a-and one moment Belle was right
there with us and then... no where. A-and we searched
a-and searched but she was... was gone. All we found
was... was Jimi tossed on... on the floor near a-an exit
The angel of death sighed deeply.
"But she's fine. And so is Jimi for that matter.
He appears to have burrowed into Shelby's hair."
JenniAnn smiled. No doubt Belle had made a little bed
for her tie-dyed puppy. She hoped it wouldn't cause
too many tangles.
Andrew twisted around and kissed JenniAnn's forehead.
"You should go back to sleep. I'm just... not
ready. I think I'll head to the library with the
Kindle and see if I can find a book for Max."
"Can't you stay? I don't mind. Actually, I'd
like to help. I mean... I know Max would come to you
with any questions but... well, it's going to be my turn,
eventually, with Shelby surely and, besides, I'd at least
like to weigh in on what you're giving to Max."
"No classes for me tomorrow. We just have to get
Shelby to the Tunnels by 9:00 and then we can go right back
to bed to catch up on sleep if need be," JenniAnn pointed
The angel nodded.
"True. And I would like your input but... it could be
a little awkward, Laja."
"Bring on the awkwardness!" JenniAnn invited.
Chuckling, Andrew grabbed the Kindle that Mick and Beth had
bought them for use during their recuperation. He
amused himself with the thought that the couple probably
hadn't envisioned them using it to peruse books about sex.
The two sat together, JenniAnn's chin resting on Andrew
shoulder as he logged into the store.
"What should I search?" he asked.
"Hmm... try 'Christian intimacy.'"
Andrew did as she suggested.
"Okay... a lot of this is more devotional. Like
intimacy with God but... ooh. Try that one!"
Andrew clicked into a preview of the book JenniAnn had
suggested. They read silently for a few moments.
"Really?" she questioned.
JenniAnn pointed to a part of the screen.
"Yeah, I guess. I mean... I've heard that at least a
few times when I've done marital counseling."
"The author doesn't think couples should talk about sex to
any extent... and never just the two of them... before the
wedding because it might inspire temptation!? Well
what's to keep someone from doing something they shouldn't
if neither has had the chance to say that they just don't
think they'd be into a given act?"
"I agree. I don't like that. Veto this book?"
Andrew returned to the list and scanned it.
"This one?" he suggested.
Once again, they read silently.
"Awful lot about birth control," JenniAnn pointed out.
"Yeah. Let's look at this next chapter."
"'What to Expect on the Wedding Night,'" the woman
Andrew winced after skimming a few paragraphs. "No,
not this one."
"Why not? It seems pretty practical and fair
and..." JenniAnn followed Andrew's finger. "Ah,
yeah. You're totally right. Veto."
"The last thing Max needs to read is that it's normal for
the bride to feel anxious while the groom is really
excited. He's anxious. It's hard enough feeling
anxious without feeling like you're odd for it."
"It's actually rather sexist, isn't it? I mean surely
Max isn't the lone guy feeling that. She makes it
sound like men are, across the board, raring to go."
"She's not alone. I've been in plenty of high schools
and seen plenty of boys get embarrassed because it's just
assumed they want to sleep with every girl who passes them."
"Speaking of that... I've always kinda wondered..."
Andrew couldn't help but chuckle when he noticed JenniAnn
had changed hues.
"I mean you've always looked thirtysomething and most people
seem to assume you've had sex post-thirty if not long
before. Surely you've found yourself in conversations
where someone just assumed..."
"So... how do you handle that?"
"In the past, I usually just kept quiet. Most of the
time people just want to talk about their experiences,
anyway. When I'm out right asked..." The angel
laughed. "Well, I'm not gonna lie! I tell them
that I haven't had sex. I've received more than my
fair share of shocked looks and inquiries about if
everything's all right 'down there.' So that's
enjoyable," he deadpanned.
"Poor love!" JenniAnn hugged his arm and nuzzled his
shoulder before sitting up straight. "Wait... you said
'in the past.' So what have you been doing lately?"
"Well... I might say something like 'I've only ever
had a relationship with one person and what happens between
me and her stays between me and her.' That's actually
better because it tells the person I'm not going to spill
any juicy details but they seem to be more comfortable
talking to me. That's, umm, okay, isn't it?"
"Of course it's okay! Actually... it's really nice to
know that this..." JenniAnn clasped his hand.
"Helps you with assignments."
Andrew brought her hand to his lips. "More than you'll
"Andrew..." JenniAnn snuggled closer. "I love
"I love you, too, Laja." Andrew buried his face in her
hair briefly and sighed.
"Back to work?"
The scrolling continued.
"Gosh. Some of the covers alone make me want to rule
them out!" JenniAnn opined. "I mean look at
that. The bride's dress gets 9/10 of the cover and the
groom is represented by a portion of one leg! But I
guess it's better than that one. All it shows is a
wedding dress period!"
"Not great. I'm also not crazy about the ones that
oversell honoring God." Andrew pointed to a
particularly pious looking cover. "Of course Max and
Rose are going to honor God! But I don't want them
thinking that Joshua's going to be disappointed if
everything isn't great... because it probably won't be at
"I did like that the one book tried to tame expectations...
but I didn't like that element enough to override the
sexism. And, personally, I also don't want to hand off
anything that lets on like procreative sex is the best way
for a couple to honor God. One way, yes. But the
best? I mean... what does that say about us if that's
"You know it's not, Laja."
"I do. But still..."
Andrew hugged her. "I know." He dragged his hand
through his hair. "I think I know what part of our
"That we don't know what we're doing?" JenniAnn fretted.
"Not at all. I think we know all too well," Andrew
countered. "Laja, from the moment we took Max in, and
with all of the kids, we've been very hands on. And
this... trying to pick out a book... it feels like handing
Max off to a stranger and leaving him with them. And
even the Friends who Max and Rose will be talking to... I
trust them immensely but they're not us. Max came to
me... not a book, not Google... and in some of the talking
that we've done, several times he's asked 'What do you think
Maja thinks about that?' Maybe he doesn't want the
voice of experience just yet. Maybe he genuinely wants
to know what we believe. Just because we don't have
sex and can't get married doesn't mean we don't have beliefs
and opinions. Didn't you ever just want to know what
your parents thought about certain issues?"
"Sure. And yeah... you're right. That could very
"So... I think we find a book that most closely aligns with
what we believe... but knowing we won't agree with it
entirely... and then we jot notes and give it to Max
then. He can read or skip our notes as he pleases,
share them with Rose or not."
"I really like that idea. So... we're going to go
through a book together?" JenniAnn asked with a slight
"It's up to you. We could read separately if you'd
"Let's try it together?"
Andrew smiled. "Sounds good. Now... with being a
little less particular, let's see what we can find."
Relaxing, JenniAnn returned her attention to the Kindle.
After a day filled with playing
Below and then heading to her godmother's to
frolic on the beach, Belle sprawled out on her
bed shortly after 8:00.
"Eepy... Nigh-nigh," she murmured to her
JenniAnn laughed quietly.
"Sweetheart, we need to get your jammies on
With a dramatic sigh, Belle sat up and raised
While JenniAnn pulled a T-shirt over her head,
Andrew got her into terrycloth pajama shorts.
"Now you ready for bed, cuddlebug?" he asked.
Belle nodded but kept tight hold of his hand.
"You want a story?" JenniAnn offered.
Belle shook her head.
The yawning toddler nodded.
Andrew and JenniAnn tucked the girl into her
little bed then began to sing.
"'Fly so high, my little bird,'" Andrew sang.
"'My little bird,'" JenniAnn echoed, pleased
that they'd figured out how to turn Badriya's
lullaby into a duet. "'Fly until you're
"'Til you're free.'"
"'Take my love beneath your wings and soar
into the azure sky,'" they sang together.
By the time they finished, Belle was softly
snoring. Her parents kissed her forehead
then drifted apart to get ready for bed.
They reconvened shortly thereafter... Andrew
with the Kindle in tow and JenniAnn with a
notebook and two pens: blue for her, green for
Before Andrew turned on the Kindle, the two
clasped hands and bowed their heads.
"Dear God, as we continue to read this book,
please give us the courage to be honest with
each other," Andrew began.
"The wisdom to know what notes we should leave
for Max," JenniAnn continued.
"And the ability to have fun and a sense of
"And to grow closer."
"And love more deeply."
"Each other and You."
After exchanging smiles, Andrew's and
JenniAnn's work began.
They each read silently, JenniAnn tapping
Andrew's hand so he'd known when she was done
with a page. Occasionally they jotted
notes or made comments to each other.
After a chapter and a half, Andrew noticed
that JenniAnn was taking an
uncharacteristically long time to finish a
"Laja, you okay?"
JenniAnn lifted her head from Andrew's
shoulder and nodded.
Andrew tilted his head when their eyes met.
"Only a little okay?" he suggested.
"It's just... Even with knowing Joshua
is 100% behind us, it still does feel weird...
and I guess hurtful... to continuously read
that procreative love is the best love.
I mean, don't get me wrong, I really hope Rose
and Max have as many kids as they want because
I know they really want kids. And, gosh
darn it, I want grandkids!"
Andrew chuckled. "Me too."
"So I'm not downplaying the awesomeness of
procreative love. But *the* best?
I know we're NOT second-best. Just kinda
upsetting to think my religion thinks we
are. And let's not even start on how
hard it can be for infertile couples to read
JenniAnn uncapped her pen and began to scrawl.
Andrew thought of the trying moments with
Allison and Robert in the hospital. The
truth was, even though the three had made
peace, Andrew thought about those heated
conversations a lot... because he knew
JenniAnn heard them all the time. If not
out loud then in the memories of what assorted
fellow Catholics had said or written.
But he'd formed his own opinion on the matter.
"I think our love is procreative."
JenniAnn looked up from the notebook.
"Love, what we share is amazing and wonderful
and, frankly, just as mind-blowing and
socks-knocking-off to me as anything we're
reading about in that book but..."
"We can't conceive a child. I
know. But, Laja, think about it.
We created a family, a home to raise children
in. We created a connection so deep
and... and God-seeking... that He sent you a
vision and then physically led you to where I
was waiting... with our daughter. Maybe
procreative love doesn't have to be
life-giving. Maybe it's just as
important if it's life-sustaining,
life-affirming. And that could be true
for so many couples, Laja. And, sure,
maybe that's not what most people think of
when they use the word 'procreative' but that
doesn't mean my usage is necessarily wrong,
does it? We're not second-best.
Not even by their standards."
JenniAnn gaped for a moment before making a
The next thing Andrew knew, the Kindle was out
of his hands and JenniAnn was making a grab
for his glasses.
"Laja! Hey! I'm using those!
What are you..." The angel couldn't help
but laugh at the ridiculousness of her
stealing his glasses of all things.
"They're in the way," she murmured.
Andrew went silent as she dotted his face with
"I love you," she whispered while kissing his
brow, temples, cheeks, chin, and lips.
Andrew was just about to reciprocate when the
door adjoining Belle's nursery pushed open.
"Mama!!!!!!" the toddler screeched.
JenniAnn stumbled off the bed and hurried
across the room.
"Baby..." She gathered the hysterical
child to her and carried her to the bed.
"Aww, Belle... What's wrong, my little
elf?" Andrew asked as he pushed matted curls
from her face.
Both her parents' hearts melted when Belle's
lower lip trembled.
"I'm so sorry, baby," JenniAnn cooed.
"Do you want to stay with Mama and Daddy
Belle nodded and began to burrow into the
blankets between the two.
"Is that better, Belle?" Andrew checked.
"D-daddy..." she whimpered, stretching out her
hand and just missing her father's face.
The angel moved closer and smiled when Belle
patted his cheek.
Belle swiveled and patted JenniAnn's cheek.
"Night-night, baby," JenniAnn replied before
kissing Belle's left cheek.
"Daddy's here and Mama's here with you and
Joshua's watching over us," Andrew consoled
then kissed the girl's right cheek.
Belle smiled and closed her eyes.
Andrew and JenniAnn clasped hands above the
girl's head and peered at each other as they
waited for the tell-tale steady
breathing. When they were sure Belle was
asleep, JenniAnn spoke.
"I didn't get a chance to tell you that I
think you're totally right about the
"I got the idea. But I didn't get the
chance to tell you that I love you,
"I got the idea."
With final, tender smiles, they squeezed hands
then followed their daughter into a peaceful
Andrew lay on his side, his heart swelling
with pride and love. After one quiet
night, Belle had suffered another nightmare
very early in the morning. While he and
JenniAnn wanted her to learn to soothe herself
following typical toddler nightmares, they
couldn't entirely dismiss the possibility that
their little one was experiencing the echoes
of Nen's and Tzila's attack. Therefore,
once again, they'd let her snuggle between
them. At some point during the night,
Belle had shifted closer to JenniAnn.
Now she was gently encased in her mother's
The angel thought back to the tiny infant
Belle had once been... so small that JenniAnn
would only nap with her if he promised to stay
awake and watch over them. Andrew missed
the newborn but was also enamored with the
little girl she'd become. He loved
listening to her talk and it seemed like, week
by week, more words were becoming
clearer. Andrew looked forward to the
time when Belle would be able to tell them her
hopes and thoughts and opinions. But for
now he was grateful that she was still very
much a baby, just one big enough for him to
leave unattended so he could make her and
JenniAnn breakfast in bed.
After pulling on his robe, Andrew quietly
exited the room and made his way to the
kitchen. He was surprised to find Max
already there with Fawn and Lulu gazing up at
him as he rummaged through drawers.
"Good morning," the angel greeted. "You
have an audience."
Max chuckled. "Yeah... they crashed with
me last night and then followed me down
here. I was, umm, thinking of making
Rose breakfast in bed."
"Great minds think alike. I came down to
do the same for Belle and JenniAnn... and
Violeta if she's up."
"Well, considering I went to bed at 1:15 and
she was still up texting with Ivy... hard to
Andrew shook his head but smiled.
"I hope they manage to get some sleep when
they're both over at Serendipity."
"I'm sure they will. At least for me,
the first week of college was
exhausting. So... any ideas on
breakfast? I'm not sure when Rose will
wake up so it can't be something that needs to
be hot... or cold."
"Hmmm..." Andrew seized two jars out of
a cupboard. "Honey and peanut butter
sandwiches and bananas?"
Max laughed. "Sounds like a Joshua
"It is," Andrew admitted with a grin.
He instructed Max on how to mix honey, peanut
butter, and butter and slather it between
think slices of bread. They loaded up
trays; adding bananas, carafes of coffee, and
mugs. Andrew grabbed a sippy cup of
juice for Belle.
"You and Rose hanging around today or headed out?" Andrew
"I'm not quite sure. At some point, we have to head to
Selini to pack for our trip. We'll be sure you and
Maja know before we leave."
The two hugged and then went their separate ways. Lulu
and Fawn followed Andrew. When the three entered the
bedroom, Andrew discovered that Belle and JenniAnn were both
Belle screeched when she saw Fawn and Lulu, scrambled off
the bed with JenniAnn's help, and threw her arms around
Andrew and JenniAnn watched as Belle laughed while the dogs
repeatedly licked her.
"She's going to have a fantastic immune system," JenniAnn
observed before glancing at the tray. "Awww."
"Breakfast in bed seemed like a good idea. Max and
Rose are enjoying the same and I'm going to see if Violeta
is up and wants to join us."
A few moments later, Andrew returned with a sleepy Violeta
JenniAnn stifled a giggle when she saw the angel's mess of
hair. Once Violeta had collapsed onto the foot of the
bed, JenniAnn handed her a mug of coffee and a sandwich.
"G'morning. Honey, what happened to your hair?"
"Fell asleep on my brush..."
Andrew grimaced as he sat down beside JenniAnn.
"Can you brush it out later, JenniAnn?"
Andrew glanced to his side where Belle was standing with her
mouth open. He laughed.
"You look like a baby bird, Belle," he opined.
Belle smiled and again opened her mouth.
Andrew tore off a piece of his sandwich and placed it on her
"Ummy!" Belle repeated before toddling back to the dogs.
JenniAnn sighed contently as she sipped her coffee.
This surely wasn't a Norman Rockwell-style family meal what
with the angel of death in training now curled up in fetal
position at the foot of her bed and her toddler licking the
dogs. However, when she took in Andrew's relaxed,
amused expression; JenniAnn knew this was exactly her idea
of idyllic family life.
JenniAnn fell to her knees and wept.
"It... it can't be! Andrew would never..."
Eli knelt beside her and wrapped an arm around her
"Their evil... it was too strong. I'm sure he wanted
to come back to you... to all of us but... it was too much,
"No..." JenniAnn moaned. "My love..."
Before the angel of death could respond, a strong wind blew
the door of the bedroom open. Eli and JenniAnn both
tensed when they heard an icy cackling. Turning, they
saw Nen and Tzila smirking at them.
"Poor things... I almost pity them, Tzila," Nen
taunted. "Grieving their lost hero."
Eli stood and moved in front of JenniAnn.
"Don't come any closer!" he ordered.
JenniAnn watched in horror as Tzila grabbed Eli's arm and
stared into his eyes.
Tears began to stream down Eli's face and he crumpled to the
While Tzila laughed, Nen reached for JenniAnn.
"Don't touch me!" she shrieked, trying to pull away.
Nen backhanded her, bloodying her nose.
"Shut up, clay-bitch. There's no one here to protect
you any more. You'll come with us and do as we say,"
"With who we say to do it," Tzila added.
JenniAnn screamed as Nen and Tzila yanked her out of her
room, down the stairs, onto the lawn, and disappeared.
Andrew's heart was pounding when he woke up. The sound
of JenniAnn screaming echoed in his mind but, to his relief,
the real JenniAnn was sleeping soundly. For a few
minutes, he remained still and focused on the weight of her
head on his shoulder and her hair tickling his neck.
She was alive. She was safe. And in a matter of
hours, they and most of their family and friends would begin
the vacation Joshua had told them to take.
Still, Andrew couldn't get the images out of his head.
He needed to focus on something else. Careful not to
wake JenniAnn, the angel slid out of bed. He crept
towards Belle's door and peeked inside. Shelby and
Belle slept soundly. Only Harvey stirred.
Andrew smiled at the rabbit, an idea forming. He kept
most of his supplies in his own room but there were a few in
JenniAnn's for nights such as this one, nights when he
Grabbing his knife and selecting a block from off the
bureau, Andrew settled into the chair closest to the bed and
began to work.
JenniAnn awoke to an increasingly familiar feeling: someone
was watching her. Intently.
After drawing in a deep breath, she sat up and looked to a
nearby chair. Predictably, Andrew was there with a
carved object in one hand and a knife in the other.
“Hmm… A bunny. Harvey?”
Andrew smiled and nodded. “I thought it might be good
for Belle to have while we’re traveling. I wish I’d
thought of it earlier so I would have had time to paint it.”
JenniAnn rose and took the mostly finished rabbit from him.
“His eyes are perfect… and the detail of his fur. This
is several hours’ worth of work.” She raised an
eyebrow and peered at the angel. “And you were staring
again. I… I don’t mind but… I am a lil
worried. Did you sleep at all?”
“Until 3:00… ish.”
JenniAnn perched on the arm of the chair and circled her
arms around Andrew’s neck, kissing his hair.
“Which nightmare was it?”
Andrew rested the knife on a nearby table and embraced the
“I… I didn’t do very well in… in Sheol and then Nen and
Tzila came here and got to… to you and…”
JenniAnn bit her lip. Eben she could forgive… had
forgiven… but she was quite sure that if she ever saw Nen
and Tzila, it would be a different story entirely.
“Andrew, you did do well in Sheol. Very well.
And Nen and Tzila are probably… I dunno… hanging wallpaper
somewhere in Purgatory or whatever.”
Andrew quietly chuckled.
“Point being, they can’t get to me or anyone else.
We’re safe… I’m safe. Jesus sent me on vacation
with friends and family and…” JenniAnn lowered her
voice. “I go to bed every night with an angel of the
Most High God so… that’s pretty darn good security.
Ooh and he’s muscly.”
Andrew laughed again and blushed slightly. “Is that,
umm, a word?”
“Is now. But I’d love you even if you weren’t muscly.”
The angel brought her hand to his lips.
“Thanks. I love you, too. And I am okay.
Really. And if I get tired on the road, Violeta can
drive. Might not be a bad idea to trade off,
“That’s true. And I trust you to hand over the wheel
when you need to. I just wish you were sleeping
better. Maybe a change of scenery will help. Get
away from our normal routine. Lotsa nature.
Constant presence of friends nearby. Good food.
JenniAnn snapped out of her reverie. “Hmm?”
“If we split up at some point… the group I mean…”
Andrew rested his hand against her cheek. “I want you
to do what you want to do. I don’t want you to feel
like you have to stick with me just because…”
“I know. And I will. And same for you. You
deserve to have some fun with the guys. And especially
with Max. It’s not lost on me that I’ve stolen his
Andrew shook his head. “I’m sure he doesn’t mind. But, yeah,
it will be good to spend some one-on-one time with him.”
JenniAnn covered a yawn and looked over at the clock. “I
wish you had time to get some more sleep now, but I guess we
need to get our little elf up and going.”
“Her first road trip,” Andrew said as he added a few more
details to the carving. “She’s so active, I’m a little
worried about how she’ll handle sitting in her car seat for
so long...even with the other kids entertaining her.”
“I guess we’ll just have to stop often. Well, gonna
have to do that anyway when she needs to be changed.”
“Although… I know it’s early but I was thinking, when we get
back, maybe we could start potty-training her. She’s
so smart and you’ll still be off,” JenniAnn reasoned.
Andrew plastered on a grin. “I am so excited to get
JenniAnn burst out laughing. “Yep. It’ll be
glorious. But, seriously, I think we might have a
better chance than most. Belle idolizes Shelby and she
knows she doesn’t wear diapers. I’ve had to stop her
from trailing Shelby into the bathroom actually so… she’s
obviously curious about how ‘big girls’ go potty. I
say we use that.”
“Maybe you’d better let Shelby in on your plans first!”
“Oh, it’s not that I expect Shelby to do anything…
especially not be an example! She’s… well…
Shelby’s almost eleven, Andrew. She needs her
privacy. That’s around when things start… well,
getting a little haywire. But that’s another parenting
discussion for another day. Right now…”
JenniAnn stood and held her hand out to Andrew. “Time
to rouse the elf.”
Smiling, Andrew took her hand and followed her to Belle’s
After a five hour drive from the halfway point of
Harrisonburg, Virginia where the gang had spent a night,
Andrew at last steered the Jolly Green up a small hill and
parked in front of a large, wooden cabin.
"And here we are!" he exclaimed. "Home, sweet home for
almost two weeks."
"It's lovely... Even more so than in the photos on the
site," JenniAnn observed.
"It's so cool!" Violeta exclaimed as she took in the cabin
while those behind the Jolly Green in the caravan parked and
unloaded. "Where's us girls' room?"
Sy laughed as he held the van door open for Ivy.
"You're the very picture of patience, Violeta."
Violeta pouted. "I just wanna see it. I promise
I'll help unpack everything."
Ivy hugged her. "Let's wait until Hailey, Kendra,
Joccy, and Zoe are here. Then we can see it
together. What do you think, Shel?"
Shelby gaped. "Yeah. It's so pretty! Way
bigger than the cabins in the Fields of Gold."
Andrew chuckled. "I'd hate to see all of us try to
cram into one of those cabins!"
"Is Belle going to stay with us or you?" Shelby asked
"I'm not sure. Andrew and I will have a room near you
girls so it won't be such a hassle if she's undecided,"
JenniAnn replied as she got Belle out of her car seat.
"Okay." Shelby smiled and took Belle's hand once she
Soon all the vehicles were parked and everyone had exited
them. Adam retrieved the key from where the cabin's
owner had placed it in a locked box.
"Everyone ready?" he checked.
"Yes!" the others assented.
While their friends hastened into the cabin; Kemara, Sean,
Edward, and Caleb snuck around the side and headed down a
small hill, the twins each carrying loaded bags as Sean
Inside the cabin, the kids were running around and the
adults were only slightly more composed. After
allowing everyone a few minutes to admire all the rooms,
"Okay, time for room assignments then we gotta get the cars
unloaded so a few of us can head to the grocery
store." The angel handed JenniAnn a piece of paper
listing who was staying in what room. "You take the
main floor, I'll take the upstairs?"
JenniAnn nodded. "Sounds good!"
As JenniAnn began leading people off, Andrew turned to
Shelby and the teen girls.
"Ladies, there are two bedrooms and a rec room
downstairs. JenniAnn and I will stay down there,
too. Go see which one is bigger and you can lay claim
to that one."
Giddy, Violeta lifted Belle onto her hip and led her
roommates to the staircase. On the way down, they ran
into Kemara, Sean, and the Romano twins.
"Everything set?" she checked.
"Everything is beautiful! Edward and Caleb got the
stakes with the lights up really quickly! Do they
suspect anything yet?" Kemara asked.
Ivy shook her head. "Not yet. Andrew and
JenniAnn just started showing everyone to their rooms."
"Good!" Smiling, Sean took his wife's arm. When
they and the twins reached the landing, Clay and Kylie were
the only ones left in the main room. They looked
"Don't have your room assignment yet?" Caleb cheerfully
Clay shook his head. "Maybe we're just staying here in
the living room?"
Kylie tried to mask her disappointment and smiled.
"It is beautiful! All the windows looking out onto the
Edward noticed Andrew, JenniAnn, and Adam approaching.
He held back a laugh when he realized several of the others
were nonchalantly standing along the upstairs railing.
Adam cleared his throat and addressed the newlyweds.
"Clay, Kylie, on behalf of the others, I have something I'd
like to confess."
"Okay..." Clay prompted.
"It seems we reserved a cabin that's a room short of what we
needed. But I think we figured out a good way to
improvise." Adam produced a key from his pocket and
held it out to them. "I think you two should check the
"What did you all do?" Kylie asked, a smiling stretching
across her face.
"Just go look!" Zeke directed from above.
"Don't make me drag you both out there," Caleb jested.
Taking his bride's hand, Clay made his way to the sliding
door that led off from the kitchen. Once the couple
was outside, the others hurried to the windows.
"Oh, I love the twinkle light pathway to their cabin!" Emma
gushed, smiling at the McCallums and Romanos. "Good
job! That's going to look even prettier at
night. Oh! Look at Kylie! She's crying!"
"Clay doesn't exactly look sedate himself," Peter pointed
out with a grin.
As Clay unlocked the door and led Kylie inside their cabin,
JenniAnn looked to Adam who was standing beside her.
She took his hand and squeezed it.
"They're so happy," he murmured as he squeezed her hand
back. "I'm happy."
Andrew clapped his longtime friend on the back then pulled
Adam and JenniAnn into a hug.
"I think we'll have a really happy couple of weeks ahead...
all of us." Andrew beamed at the two and to the throng
of loved ones surrounding them.
The day was a blur of good food, enchanting
sights, awe, and laughter as the Friends took to the
Afterwards, many of them had stayed in Asheville to enjoy
some nightlife while others returned to the cabin, Andrew
and JenniAnn among them.
Belle sat on the floor of her parents' room, happily playing
with a child's carpentry set that they'd bought for her at
the Biltmore Toymaker's shop.
Andrew stretched out on the bed and laid with his head at
the foot, watching the little one.
"She's going to love having that and 'working' in your shop
Andrew rested his hand over JenniAnn's when she relaxed
beside him after carefully packing away some souvenirs she'd
picked up for her parents, Catherine, Vincent, Raquel, and
"I hope so. I think she was a little overwhelmed
JenniAnn nodded. "I always think of Willowveil as so
large but then to see the Biltmore... Not that I'd
ever trade. Everything was so beautiful there but I
like the charm of our mismatched chairs and dishes.
Although I wouldn't mind a Halloween room," she teased.
Andrew chuckled. "I knew that would be your favorite."
"You've been there?"
"I had an assignment there once."
"Why didn't you tell me while we were there?!" JenniAnn
JenniAnn giggled. "Lemme guess... you were a handsome
servant who one of the maids took to?"
"Stable boy and... yes."
"Oooh... a stable boy."
Andrew laughed as JenniAnn batted her eye lashes.
"You do realize that means I basically mucked the
stalls? Not exactly glamorous work."
"Still... So what happened to the maid?"
"Her mother, who also worked there, passed away... that's
why I was really there. I helped her cope but there
was another fellow, a valet, who doted on her. She
just didn't see it... until she did. They got married
a couple years later."
"I would never have imagined that years later I would walk
those stalls again with my children and... and you."
Andrew stroked some hair behind JenniAnn's ear then moved in
for a kiss.
The two pulled apart and looked to Belle who was staring at
them and giggling.
"I thought she was engrossed in her toy," JenniAnn
Andrew smiled. "Guess not." He reached for
Belle. "Come here, baby."
Belle held her arms out and let her father scoop her up into
his lap. JenniAnn squeezed her little hands.
"Did you have fun today, Belle?"
Belle nodded. "Moo!"
Andrew laughed. "I take it the animals were your
Belle swiveled around and kissed Andrew's cheek then hugged
JenniAnn. She stood on the bed and rested her forehead
"Uh oh..." Andrew murmured.
JenniAnn frowned. Belle was used to seeing her Appa
Vincent on a near daily basis. She and Andrew had
worried that the separation might bother her.
"Appa!" Belle called.
"Sweetheart, Appa's not here," JenniAnn explained.
"He's back home."
Belle's eyes filled. "A-appa!"
JenniAnn embraced her and kissed her hair before placing her
in Andrew's lap.
"I'll go try to call him. Maybe FaceTime will work?"
Andrew nodded as he tried to console Belle and listened to
her increasingly forlorn cries for "Appa."
JenniAnn called Catherine's cell phone, praying she would
answer and be with Vincent.
"Hi Catherine! Yes, everything's going so
well... Jacob's having a blast. He and Liam had
a great time at the Biltmore... maybe a little too much ice
cream but they quickly recovered. Slight problem with
our Belle, though... Bit of a meltdown because she
wants to see Appa Vincent... Oh good. Thank
JenniAnn heaved a sigh of relief as she handed her phone to
The angel took the phone and held it in front of
Belle. A brief moment later, Vincent appeared on the
"Annabelle! How has your vacation been?" Vincent
Andrew and JenniAnn smiled as Belle excitedly chattered
away. Vincent occasionally punctuated her monologue
with "I see" and "Very good!"
Finally, Belle bent to kiss the phone.
"Good night, sweet Belle."
With that, Belle began to peel off her clothes.
JenniAnn laughed and took the phone while Andrew got the
girl's pajamas out.
"What can I say? When she's ready to go to sleep...
Vincent chuckled. "Better that than refusing to sleep
at all. How did you enjoy the Biltmore?"
"It was amazing. I took pictures when we could and
bought a book for you with loads more photos. How's
"Missing you but well. Seeing you and Belle... and
Andrew, too... has helped." Vincent tilted his head.
Understanding, JenniAnn stepped out of the room and settled
onto the steps.
"How has Andrew been?"
"The last two nights have gone really well. The night
before we left was... not good. Violeta ended up
driving part of the way cause Andrew was just so
exhausted. But he... he was very happy today.
I'm a little worried about tomorrow. We all planned to
kinda split up. Some of us shopping, some exploring,
some headed to a rec center. Andrew and I will
probably part ways for more than an hour or two for the
first time since everything..."
"Maybe that's why Joshua told you to take this trip,
Psyche. He knew it would give you ample opportunities
to be together... but also some to be apart. It will
be good for Andrew to see that you will safely return to him
after an absence."
"Psyche, what's troubling you?"
JenniAnn gave a sheepish smile. Even hundreds of miles
away, she couldn't fool her godfather.
"Andrew... he may not be the only one with a... a little
"My child... just think of how happy your reunion will be,"
JenniAnn sighed. "I will. And Owen has strict
instructions to elbow me... in my good side... if I get
mopey or check my phone too much."
Vincent smiled. "I know he won't fail you in
that. I'll let you go now but please give my love and
Catherine's to everyone."
"Hug Jacob for us!" Catherine shouted.
Returning Vincent's smile, JenniAnn nodded. "Will
do. G'night, Vincent and Catherine. Love you."
"And we love you. Rest well, sweet Psyche."
JenniAnn inhaled and exhaled deeply after hanging up.
Talking with Vincent always made her feel better.
Returning to the bedroom, she found Andrew dancing with
Belle on his right hip. He smiled and held an arm out
Without hesitation, JenniAnn stepped into his embrace and
joined the two in their dance.
Shortly after 10:00 in the morning, the Jolly Green
pulled up in front of the Grove Arcade with the Wilsons'
mini-van behind it. Adam, Belle, JenniAnn, Kylie,
Diana, Kemara, Rose, Monica, Emma, and Owen exited the
vehicles. JenniAnn walked around to the driver's
seat of the Jolly Green. Andrew stepped out and
"Have a good time," he wished.
"You too. I think you and Max and whomever else
decided to tag along will have a great time at the
Pinball Museum... and the Fun Depot if you decide to go
there, too. If you do, please try not to give each
other whiplash on the go-karts."
Andrew laughed. "Noted."
"Ooh, someone's not patient today," JenniAnn noted when
she looked over to where Belle was squirming in Adam's
arms, her hands outstretched towards the building.
"I should probably let you go... literally and
JenniAnn stretched up to kiss his cheek.
"It'll fly by and it'll be good for you and Max.
And... Adam offered to watch Belle tonight so..."
Andrew looked over to his friend who winked at
him. He mouthed a 'thank you.'
"Sounds good. I'll see you at 5:00," Andrew
replied, placing a kiss on her temple.
As Andrew said good bye to Belle, Owen approached
JenniAnn and hugged her.
"This'll be good," he encouraged.
JenniAnn nodded and rested her head on his shoulder.
"C'mon, I'll buy you a frap. Extra whipped cream,"
the artist tantalized. "That'll cheer you up."
JenniAnn laughed and walked with him and the rest of
their group into the Grove Arcade. She looked back
once to Andrew who waved before pulling away.
After two hours of shopping and browsing galleries, the
group convened at one of the Arcade's eateries for
"I can't get over how luxurious the Biltmore was!" Emma
exclaimed. "Imagine living like that..."
"Clothes weren't very comfortable... and I'm sure I'd
feel that even more strongly if I were a lady," Adam
Monica rolled her eyes as she sipped her iced coffee.
"One thing I never did figure out, though..."
"What's that?" Kylie prompted in between bites of
The angel of death lowered his voice. "The couple
had separate bedrooms. How did they decide when
and where to... you know."
Diana burst out laughing.
"I'm genuinely curious! It just seems like it'd be
awkward. '9:00. Your place or mine?'"
JenniAnn made a show of covering Belle's ears but the
toddler was too engrossed in her grilled cheese to care.
"Maybe they left notes?" Rose guessed.
"Tie or scarf wrapped around the doorknob?" Owen teased.
Emma wrinkled her nose. "While I think it'd be
nice to have someone else dust and do your laundry, I
just can't imagine having that many servants who would
just... know everything!"
"No kidding," Kemara agreed. "You'd never feel you
truly had privacy."
Adam shuddered. "You don't even want to know."
"Privacy is good," Monica asserted.
"Actually... here's a question. I dunno why it
never occurred to me to ask Andrew... or maybe I did and
just forgot but... In the show, sometimes the
angels were around for..." JenniAnn cleared her
throat. "Intimate moments. Surely..."
Monica laughed. "Ah, the time Tess and I were the
backseat of a car while two teenagers were getting
"In real life, we were outside the car, sitting on a
hill nearby. And thank God for that! I can't
say that's never happened... sometimes we do need to be
close by... but that particular incident would have been
Kylie sighed. "That's what I love about all of
you... well, one of the many things. We feel like
we can talk to you about this kind of stuff and yet not
feel awkward... like it really matters to you but not in
an overdone, kinda creepy way."
Adam squeezed her shoulder. "Your happiness
matters to us. Very much."
Kylie patted his hand. "It's mutual."
"Aww!" several of the others exclaimed.
Kylie laughed then smiled at each person gathered around
"Clay and I still can't get over what you all did with
the cabin. Thank you."
"You're newlyweds. You deserve it!" Kemara
encouraged. "Sometimes that phase goes really,
really fast." With a contemplative smile, she
patted her belly.
"I can still remember those first weeks..." Diana
gave a dreamy smile.
"Looking from the outside in, it often seems like you
and Zeke are still in those first weeks," Emma
"Pretty inspiring," Owen agreed as the others nodded.
Diana hugged Rose and Kemara who were on either side of
"It's work... but the best kind of work."
"What's the longest you and Zeke have every been
separated, Diana?" JenniAnn queried.
Diana thought. "Just two nights. It was back
when Zeke was still a stock broker. A business
trip. We were miserable. He quit shortly
after that. Even when money was tight, we never
regretted it. Well... maybe for a split second
when Sy was having his issues. But that was,
"Jesus playing basketball..." Rose murmured. "I
wish he was here. I mean... you know."
"If he was, he probably wouldn't be with us right
now. Big fan of pinball," Adam informed with a
Emma laughed. "I should have known. When I
had my first appointment with Dr. Sayer, Joshua and
Peter spent part of the time playing Pac-Man while they
waited for me."
"I can totally see that!" JenniAnn sighed and
shook her head. "Something else... that
Joshua. I... I wonder how things are going at the
Owen rested a hand on her back.
"I'm sure he's fine, Psyche," he encouraged.
JenniAnn fought back a tear and nodded.
Max, Zeke, Eli, and Peter surrounded the pinball machine
that Andrew was playing. The angel of death stared
down intently, a tight grip on the controllers... then
there were the bells and whistles and flashing lights.
"Go, Dad!" Max cheered. "High score!"
Andrew laughed and hugged him.
"Thanks." He lowered his voice. "I guess
those stints in bowling alleys and arcades over the
years gave me more practice than I realized. So...
what time is..." He balked when he looked at his
pocket watch. Three hours had passed and he'd
Eli clapped him on the back. "It's been fun.
I don't know about the rest of you all but I'm getting
hungry. So do we want to head to the Fun Depot...
Arthur texted to say they have tasty flatbreads... or
grab lunch somewhere else?"
Before answering, Andrew glanced at his cell
phone. JenniAnn had texted him a picture of Belle
riding Adam's shoulders. He smiled, feeling
"I'm fine, either way. Max, Zeke, Peter?"
"I wouldn't mind heading over to the Fun Depot and
seeing what my kids are up to," Zeke replied. "But
I can always get a cab."
Peter shook his head. "I'm good to go. I
think the dings and rings from here are already going to
be running through my head all night."
Max laughed. "No kidding. So to Fun
Depot? You gotta do go-karts with me, Dad."
"Definitely. Although your mother has banned us
from giving each other whiplash."
Max felt his eyes water. His mother...
Andrew realized what he'd said and hugged the young
man. Even though the adoption hadn't yet been
finalized, it was true.
Zeke sniffled. "Gotta listen to your mother."
"Yeah... I do," Max agreed, swiping at his eyes.
All smiling, the five exited the museum.
After a few hours of playing, Andrew and Zeke settled
into a booth at the Fun Depot's cafe with sodas.
Zeke laughed. "Figures it'd be the guys with
children under two who had to retire early."
"Oh yeah... Belle had JenniAnn and I up and down
last night. I think it's still the novelty of her
surroundings. Thankfully, Uncle Adam volunteered
to take her tonight."
"That's great! It'll give you and JenniAnn some
time to relax together and Adam some... distraction."
Andrew nodded. "I can't really wrap my mind around
how he must feel. I don't know whether I should
try to talk to him or... I mean he'd come to me if
he wanted to talk about it, don't you think?"
"I do. And I know Joshua hung out with him the
night of the wedding. So Adam probably talked a
lot out then. I think the occasional 'How are
things going?' is enough of an opening if he does want
Andrew peered across the massive room to where Clay and
Peter were playing ping pong.
"I'm glad Clay seems to realize how important Kylie is
to Adam and vise versa. Laja said she overheard
Clay telling Kylie that the Arcade had a couple yarn
stores and suggesting she go with their group and keep
Adam from going too crazy. So he takes care to
ensure they have their time."
"He does. And he likes Adam a lot, too."
Zeke chuckled. "To look at some of the honeymoon
photos, you'd think it was Adam's and Clay's trip."
Andrew swallowed down his Coke before
"True. I love that photograph of them in the
Disneyland tea cup."
"It's a good one. So..." Zeke took a sip of
his Sprite. "How are things going for you?
Still reading that book?"
Andrew smirked. "We are... And, again, I
just want it clear that JenniAnn and I trust you
"But you want your boy to know how you feel! I
completely get it, Andrew. Although I have to
admit... the idea brought Diana and I considerable
"Oh, it's been amusing all right! Laja's an
interesting blend of... I don't know. I
mean..." Andrew dragged his hand through his hair.
Zeke reached over and set a hand on his arm.
"It's just between you and me. I promise. I
won't even tell Di..."
"No, it's fine to tell Diana. But, uh, no one
else." Andrew looked around. The only other
people in the cafe were an older couple, probably
grandparents, on the other side of the area. They
wouldn't overhear so he continued. "I guess I
never realized... fully... how... not exactly naive
but... She can argue from moral and theological
standpoints about way more issues than I would have ever
thought of her thinking about but then just basic
things... It's like she's learning for the first
"JenniAnn probably learned to filter a lot out,
Andrew. I mean by the time those Catholic schools
really start up with the sex ed classes, she probably
had inklings that she was asexual. And then you
were there. So a lot of the... mechanics probably
seemed useless at best and upsetting at worst because it
was a reminder that she was different. Not just
different from her peers but different from you... or so
"Huh... That actually makes sense." Andrew
bowed his head as he remembered a younger, desperate to
be accepted JenniAnn.
"Thank you. I've raised three teenagers. I know
things." Zeke grinned. "As for her making
the moral arguments, you know she has that innate sense
of justice and mercy. JenniAnn probably plots out
her arguments in case she ever needs them in real
life. And, at times, she has. Remember that
time an audience member got a little snooty when she
overheard Emma and Peter talking about their
apartment? That was an epic verbal smackdown in
defense of certain instances of cohabitation from
JenniAnn. Don't you think she had already plotted
some of that out?"
"Yeah... I'm sure she had." Andrew smiled
down at his ring. "I do love listening to her
Zeke chuckled. "And have you gotten to witness
some rehearsals since you started your book?"
"Oh yeah... It's been something to see... and
hear." Andrew sighed contently. "I'm glad
we're reading it... not just for Max's sake but
ours. It's really opened my eyes to how much I
still have to learn about Laja... and her about me."
Zeke squeezed his hand. "And isn't it wonderful
that we have eternity with our ladies?"
Andrew swallowed the lump in his throat.
After a group dinner back at the cabin, Andrew and
JenniAnn got Belle settled in the living room with Adam
who commenced reading Stellaluna while his
niece's parents snuck away to get ready for bed.
As soon as Andrew stepped into the bathroom to change
into his pajamas, JenniAnn hurriedly set out some of the
day's purchases. She arranged a trio of candles on
the bedside table and sent a mist of linen spray over
the bed. After placing a box on Andrew's pillow,
she sat on the bed and waited.
The angel did a double take when he returned to the
JenniAnn lunged at him.
"I missed you so much!" she gushed. "And then
everyone was together and so..."
As she stretched upwards, Andrew bent down so their lips
met. Afterwards, he ran his hand through her hair.
"I missed you, too, Laja. I had a great time with
Max and all the guys and kids but sometimes I'd turn to
say something to you and..."
"I did the same thing!" JenniAnn interrupted.
Andrew pulled her nearer.
"Dance with me?"
Andrew grabbed his cell phone and soon the soft strains
of "Feels Like Home" could be heard.
"Do you think Joshua and the Father will kinda... ease
you in when you go back to working assignments?"
JenniAnn quietly asked as they danced.
"I think so. And you know He won't keep me away
for too long when Belle's so little."
"True. So what was your favorite part of today?"
"Hard call. Pinball was fun... but not as fun as
go-karts with Max. And neither was quite as
hilarious as watching Violeta start hurling what I can
only imagine are completely made up obscenities at the
JenniAnn laughed. "Was she trying for a prize?"
"I don't really think so. Ivy and Sy were doing
really well and you know how she can be. She had a
lot more success with the claw machine."
"Aww, yeah. Belle loves her new teddy bear."
"And she gave a couple to lil kids who were there so
that was cute to see. I also had a nice talk with
Zeke. I told him about how that book has been good
for us... gotten us to discuss things we wouldn't have
"It definitely has! Maybe we can get through
another section tonight?"
"Sure. So how about you? What was your
JenniAnn pondered the question.
"While you're thinking... how did Adam seem?" Andrew
"Very happy! Actually, that was a highlight.
He and Kylie were so cute in the one yarn store. I
don't think Kylie will ever want for hats, mittens, or
scarves. And he was already trying to butter up
Belle. She had the best time riding around on his
Andrew smiled. "That's great. I'm really
glad. What else?"
"I also really enjoyed taking in the galleries with
Owen. I need to get better about doing stuff like
that with him again. We haven't as much since
"I agree." Andrew kissed her hair. "I love
what we have now but our friendships deserve care and
"Yeah... definitely." JenniAnn giggled. "You
keep stealing glances at that box."
Andrew gave a sheepish smile.
JenniAnn turned off the phone then slipped into bed and
held the box up to Andrew.
After settling beside her, the angel of death accepted
the gift and pulled away the cover.
"Red velvet fudge, freshly made."
Using the little plastic knife that was in the box,
Andrew carved off two pieces and handed one to
JenniAnn. He bumped his against hers.
"Ooh... Ummy... Ank you."
JenniAnn giggled at Andrew's attempt to speak.
The angel sunk back against his pillow and let out a
sigh of contentment. Then he sniffed.
"The bed... smells like home."
JenniAnn nodded. "I missed the lavender spray I
use on our sheets so I picked some up today. It's
Andrew circled his arms around her.
"Very much so. Want another piece of fudge?"
"No, thanks. You go ahead. If you want, we
could go get more before we leave."
"Good idea. So... it's still early on but do you
think our souvenir spending agreement will work?"
JenniAnn smiled. "I think so. I keep seeing
carvings and frames and furniture that I like but I
figure I'll just get you to make similar for me."
Laughing, Andrew sliced another piece of fudge.
"Are you making a list?"
"Yup. I have a folder on my phone labeled 'things
Andrew should make.' Which reminds me..."
JenniAnn got out of bed and pulled something out of a
Andrew closed the fudge and looked curiously at
"At the place I got the linen spray, you could mix all
sorts of bath and health products. So I got this
for you. Sandalwood... with just a hint of
lavender. I thought it might make the lil knicks
you get on your hands heal faster."
Andrew peered at her as she gently massaged some of the
cream into his hands, focusing on a couple cracked
"Did you buy anything that was completely for you?" he
"Didn't really see anything I had to have. Maybe
at the dish store in Hendersonville."
"I wish I'd gotten you something today... but I didn't
think you'd want a Fun Depot baseball cap."
With a laugh, JenniAnn shook her head.
"Not particularly, no. How do your hands feel?"
"Wonderful, Laja." Andrew took her hands and
brought them to his lips.
JenniAnn snuggled against him for a few moments.
"I almost don't want to look at that book... I
don't want to get grouchy."
"It's not grouchy, Laja. I prefer...
impassioned. But we don't have to."
"We'll never get through it otherwise. And I'd
like Max to have it soonish."
JenniAnn stretched over Andrew and grabbed the
"I'll turn pages this time," she declared.
Andrew glanced down at his hands, sure he'd mark up the
They read several pages, mostly silently and with only a
Then JenniAnn gasped.
"What?" Andrew checked.
JenniAnn pointed to a line.
"Well... that's been the Catholic Church's belief for a
long time," he commented.1
"But... What if it just doesn't work that
way? I mean what if... if... I mean let's be
honest. Some people have a lot of really bad
baggage attached to sex. What if they have a bad
flashback? Or just get a little upset and need to
stop and talk? And maybe after they talk, they're
just done for the time. Why put it into their
heads that they'll have committed a sin if they don't
keep going a-and... reach that particular moment?
Wouldn't it be coerced sex at that point?"
Andrew squeezed JenniAnn's hand, knowing she was
thinking about Emma.
"I really don't think any reasonable, compassionate
person would insist on following that guideline if their
partner was in obvious distress, Laja."
"Well, no, surely not. But would it weigh on
them? And why not just put that in there
then. Like 'This needs to happen unless mitigating
circumstances exist.' Still not sure I completely
would buy it but... at least then it couldn't be used as
a means of control. And... and there are people
who just get so hung up on obedience to the Church or
equivalent that, even if they are normally decent
people, they end up doing bad things."
Andrew noticed that she was fighting tears. He
took away the Kindle and pulled JenniAnn into his arms.
"I know, Laja. I do."
"I just... I don't want Belle ever pressured into
any-anything or... feeling like she can't speak up
if... Or Shelby! Just because she's not
Catholic doesn't mean she won't meet some guy who... who
believes that. I'm not even sure if it's just the
"Laja..." Andrew nuzzled her hair then
sighed. "That's where we step in. We didn't
just hand Belle over to a religion to raise. We'll
be with her for years and years. Same for
Shelby. And we stress to them that they deserve to
be treated with dignity and kindness... that God wants
both them and their partner to be treated with dignity
and kindness... and they should never accept doctrine
being used to hurt them. And I truly, truly
believe that any guy who won their favor and their love,
would have enough compassion and sense to realize there
are always exceptions to rules... and God knows that and
accepts that. And don't you think it's likely that
those hypothetical guys would meet Joshua at some
point? They couldn't meet Joshua and persist in
believing God wants them to strictly adhere to the
Church's rule if it means hurting the woman they
love. And Fr. Mike... you know, Laja, you have to
know... that he would tell anyone who asked, and even
those who didn't, that sex being consensual and an
expression of love trumps every other rule. I'd be
surprised if he hasn't incorporated that into his
pre-Cana talks. And... I have enough trust in our
girls to think that if they thought their guy was the
type to unthinkingly follow rules, they'd confront him
over that one before it was a real issue."
"Yeah... true. I'm sure they would. I
just... I hope that if they meet someone..."
JenniAnn peered up at Andrew. "I hope they feel as
safe and loved and loving as... as I do with you."
Andrew smiled as she cuddled nearer.
"I hope so, too. Because it... it's a wonderful
After exchanging several kisses, JenniAnn smirked at
"I still can't believe the author dude is fine with
countless, ahem, positions and acts but role playing is
apparently bad because it's 'inauthentic.' That
was the only part I ever thought sounded remotely
fun! Costumes! And maybe sometimes someone
has an authentic need to dress like, I dunno, a fairy or
Andrew burst out laughing.
"Laja, if you ever want to come to bed dressed as a
princess or a fairy, I promise I won't think you're
"Thank you. We should probably put a note..."
Andrew watched as JenniAnn reached for her notebook.
He smiled as he read her words.
"Take this bit with a grain of salt. Your father
and I have had countless meaningful moments when one or
the other of us were in uniforms or costumes that made us
look other than we truly are... the moments were still
"It's true," Andrew assented. "That time we danced
in West Hollow... I was in a cop uniform... and had just
put away my gun. You can't get much more contrary
to who I really am than that gun.
"Or our trip to the Renaissance Faire in 2009 or when
Violeta came on Halloween. You were in costumes
both times but as I watched you with Shelby and
Violeta... So proud, so doting... I didn't
think I could ever love you more... and you're not
really a Renaissance era peasant or a baseball player."
"And the Halloween we took Shel trick-or-treating... and
this past year with Belle... Watching over our
little Anna and Elsa..." Andrew chuckled as his
and JenniAnn's eyes both filled.
They silently reflected on their years together... on
the enlightening and enlivening journey God had set them
on. Their minds both turned to the same thing:
some of the most real, the most precious moments of
their lives had happened on or near a stage, with
costumes, with make-up, and with God right there in the
midst of them.
Sunday, July 19th
With plans to visit
Chimney Rock the following day, the elder Friends
wanted to watch The Last of the Mohicans
since part of the movie had been filmed there.
In hopes of wearing out the kids and making for a
less interruption-prone viewing experience, JenniAnn
and Monica had volunteered to take Liam, Jacob,
Shelby, and Belle to a park.
As the two boys climbed on the playground equipment
and Shelby pushed Belle on a swing, the two women
sipped iced coffees.
"This has been so great for Jacob," JenniAnn
opined. "He's doing so well with being
separated from his Mama and Papa. The first
Monica nodded. "Liam's loved having him
around. It's so sweet how Jacob films
everything so his Papa can see."
JenniAnn's eyes misted.
"I wish technology had been so readily available
when I was younger. I could have taken Vincent
on all our family trips."
Monica patted her arm.
JenniAnn smiled at her then turned back to the kids.
"How's Liam been? This is the longest he's
been away from home since he came, isn't it?"
"Oh, yes. Our trips to Colorado have been much
shorter... and then it was Grandma's and Grandpa's
house which isn't the same. I think he's
enjoyed taking over the smaller TV room with
Jacob. I'm not sure they're sleeping as much
as they should be, however."
"Ah, it's vacation! Let them enjoy it.
And well... I hope their moving out of your room has
been good for you and Arthur."
With a blush, the angel nodded.
"Yes. We tend to sleep separately back home so
it's been..." Monica beamed. "Very
JenniAnn bit her lip, wondering if she should say
what was on her mind.
"Liam still has his nightmares sometimes," Monica
continued. "They're becoming much less
frequent, thank God... and every so often he does
get into bed with me and Arthur and I just aren't
sure what he'd think if both of us were there."
"Can you teach him to knock first? I actually
kinda thought that was why you made your and
Arthur's room adjoin when you expanded the
cottage... so he could get out quickly if he needed
"Well, yes. We just haven't..."
"Have you talked to Dr. Sayer about it?"
"A little... I think she agrees with
you." Monica smirked.
"That obvious, huh? I just think... Liam saw
some awful things. But it's not good if he
grows up thinking that two grown-ups sleeping
together is bad."
Monica smiled at her son who had taken Shelby's
place behind Belle. The two girls swung and
giggled as the boys pushed them.
"You're right. And Arthur and I have noticed
that you and Andrew... you seem more... in synch
since you started sharing a room."
JenniAnn clasped her cross.
"It just happens when you know when the other had a
nightmare or just plain didn't sleep well. And
you know right away, in the mornings, what sorta
mood they're in. And when it's you having the
bad night, there's nothing like having someone who
understands right there."
Monica hugged her friend's shoulders.
"We've come a long way from the people we were
during that first Coffee Summit, haven't we?"
"Oh yeah! Thankfully!"
"Yes, thankfully." Monica let out a contented
sigh. "I'll talk to Arthur. In the
meantime, let's go take some photos. That's
too precious to not remember forever."
JenniAnn smiled at the four kids who were still
swinging and pushing.
After taking several photos, JenniAnn and Monica
took over pushing duties so all four children could
swing at once. Both mothers smiled and glanced
up at the sky as childish laughter filled the air.
Andrew watched in amusement as Ivy, Violeta, and
Hailey oohed and ahhed over assorted dish sets at
Bloomfield's of Flat Rock. JenniAnn and Diana
were advising them.
"I love that you can buy by piece!" Hailey
gushed. "Cause I only need a few pieces for my
dorm room. I do *not* want to always be eating
off of paper plates."
Diana patted her on the back.
"That's my girl!"
"Make sure you get an extra set for when I visit!"
"I won't forget!"
Not seeing what was so enthralling about flatware,
Sy and Zeke shot each other looks.
"There's a patio section. Might be a bit more
interesting," the angel of death suggested.
Zeke looked at him with relief.
"Where is that?"
"You coming along?" Sy asked.
Andrew shook his head.
"Not right now. If Belle starts to fuss, I'm
going to take her so JenniAnn can browse."
"You're a good daddy, Andrew. We'll see you in
a little while, either way."
Once the two men were gone, Andrew turned back to
the women and girls.
"Do you think we need a crock pot?" Violeta asked
"Hmm... Maybe. How much are they?"
"Andrew and I have one. I doubt both
households would need it on the same night so you
could always borrow it," JenniAnn offered.
"And, actually, I have a smaller one, too. You
can just have that one. I don't use it at all
since, well, I always need food for several people
these days! But it'd work for two people."
"Thanks!" Violeta hugged her.
"It wouldn't be a bad idea for you to get a small
one, though, Hailey," Diana suggested.
"Yeah... I don't want to eat in the cafeteria
all the time."
When Diana and Hailey headed off in search of a
crock pot, Andrew noticed that Shelby was standing a
few yards off, fiddling with some spatulas.
"Shel, everything okay?" he checked when he
To Andrew's surprise, the girl burst into tears and
hugged him tightly.
"Oh... Shel, sweetheart... What's wrong?"
Overhearing from where they were looking for a
souvenir for their mother, Joccy and Zoe moved
"Shelby... are you okay?" Zoe quietly asked as Joccy
pressed a tissue into her hand.
Noticing what was going on, JenniAnn hurried over
with Belle on her hip.
Belle's sympathy and the attention only made Shelby
"Sweetie, do you want to go outside for a lil bit?"
"The sunshine might help," Andrew added, hoping a
little more privacy might convince Shelby to talk
about what was bothering her.
"Y-yes..." Shelby replied.
"We'll be right back," JenniAnn assured Joccy and
Zoe as Andrew escorted Shelby outside. "Thank
Joccy bit her lip.
"I hope she's okay..."
"I'm sure she is," JenniAnn consoled.
"Sometimes people just need a good cry."
With a reassuring smile, she and Belle made their
way outside where they joined Andrew and Shelby on a
JenniAnn looked to Andrew who shrugged as he
continued to stroke Shelby's hair while she cried
against his shoulder. They both smiled when
Belle reached out to pat her sister's head.
Shelby sniffled then sat up and reached for Belle.
The toddler scooted off JenniAnn's lap and straddled
In spite of her tears, the tween laughed as Belle
kissed her cheeks.
"Eby..." Belle repeated before circling her arms
around the older girl's neck and resting her head on
Shelby kissed Belle's curls then sighed.
"I... I wish we didn't have to... to grow up.
I know it must be a... a good thing cause Joshua and
his Dad made us that... that way b-but... Asher went
a-away a-and now Hailey is... is, too. And
Violeta is going to college, too, and even though
she'll be living at Serendipity, she'll be really
busy a-and won't... won't be able to play with...
with me a-and she'll have Ivy, any-anyway a-and...
Max is... is marrying R-rose a-and what if they
go... go away and..."
"Oh, sweetie..." JenniAnn clasped Shelby's
hand. "Just because you kids are growing up
doesn't mean you have to grow apart!"
Andrew nodded. "That's exactly right.
And with Asher and Hailey, you know you can call
them and talk to them on the computer. I'm
sure they'll do that with you. And, as for Max
and Rose, yes, they may have to go away for a little
while for Max's coursework but you know they'd
always come back home."
"Max has told me that repeatedly, Shel. And
I'm sure Violeta will still make time for you.
It might have to be different... more studying
together and less coloring, for example... but you'd
still be spending time together. I think Ivy
would like that, too. They're not going to
forget about you no matter how busy they get,"
JenniAnn comforted. "And there's definitely
someone who would probably be your little shadow if
we let her." She tilted her head to Belle who
still had a vise grip on her big sister.
Andrew chuckled before wrapping his right arm around
"You might just discover that you'll grow even
closer to your brothers and sisters and friends as
you get older, Shel, honey," he counseled. "Do
you know that, when JenniAnn was younger, I
sometimes thought that she'd drift away from me when
she got older?"
Shelby shook her head.
"Well, I did. But look what happened."
Andrew smiled at JenniAnn.
"Yeah..." Shelby admitted, cracking a smile.
"And I guess if no one grew up, there'd be no
babies." She stroked Belle's back. "Do
you think Max and Rose will have babies? And
Clay and Kylie?"
JenniAnn nodded. "I do. And soon we'll
get to meet little Joy and Ian. And, actually,
look what happened there. Kemara got married
but, instead of her leaving Dyeland, Sean moved
here. And now his family sometimes visits us
and Kemara's parents. So our circle grew even
"True. And when Liam came, Arthur moved to
Dyeland and now sometimes Grant and Molly visit us,"
"And now we're friends with Reuel," Andrew
reminded. "He might introduce us to all sorts
of people! Shel, I don't think you're ever
gonna be alone except when you want to be... and
maybe not always then." He smiled at Belle who
was still clinging and appeared about ready to go to
"Can I just stay out here and hold Belle?" Shelby
"Is it okay if I stay with you?"
Shelby nestled closer to Andrew and nodded.
JenniAnn kissed her girls' cheeks.
"I'm just going to run back inside and tell the
others that we're okay out here and..."
Shelby shook her head.
"I'm okay. Really. You should look at
what you want to," Shelby encouraged.
"Did you see anything you wanted?"
"Well... there was a Frozen tea set that I
thought would be fun to play with Belle with."
JenniAnn laughed. "Okay. I'll be back
After a smile for Andrew, JenniAnn re-entered the
Shelby let out another calming sigh.
As Andrew patted the girl's shoulder and gazed at
her and Belle, he prayed that neither would grow up
too quickly. Then he thanked God that JenniAnn
would be there with him when the girls did grow up.
Friday, July 24th
Andrew's whole body shook when he heard the loud popping
sound. He spun around... and then he saw her.
The angel ran to catch JenniAnn before she hit the
ground. He succeeded, cushioning her body as they
"Laja, I have you. You're safe."
JenniAnn opened her mouth but no words came. She
It was then Andrew saw the blood stain spreading across
"No... No, Laja. It... it's fine.
Andrew gently laid her down then tore off his shirt and
pressed the fabric against the wound.
"See... see. It... it's slowing."
JenniAnn reached up and set a hand against his
cheek. She shook her head.
Andrew tore his gaze away long enough to glance at his
hands. His fingers and the shirt were covered in
blood. Her blood, her life draining away.
Her hand slid from his face and dropped to the ground.
"No... Not now. Not like..."
JenniAnn's unseeing eyes stared up at the angel as he
cried out in agony.
JenniAnn awoke to the sound of Andrew gasping for
air. Concerned, she sat up, turned on the lamp,
and peered at him, meeting his panicked gaze.
JenniAnn curled beside the angel of death, nestled her
head beneath his chin, and reached up to softly stroke
his face until the panic attack subsided.
Finally, Andrew spoke.
"What time is it?"
JenniAnn rolled away just long enough to look at their
travel alarm clock.
"Happy birthday, Laja. I'm so sorry that..."
"Thank you... but, please, don't be sorry.
I..." JenniAnn lowered her head and kissed the
angel. "I'm just glad I get to spend my birthday
with you a-and the kids and so many of our friends."
Andrew returned the kiss and wrapped his arms around
"Tell me about it?"
Andrew sighed. There was no use in hiding it from
her. Her mind would go a million different places
if he didn't just tell her.
"I dreamed I was there... when you were shot.
A-and I tried to staunch the... the wound but it... it
just kept getting bigger and bigger or... or I mean the
blood did and then... I was helpless and... and you...
"Sweet Andrew... Do you dream about that
particular instance a lot?"
The angel nodded.
"Okay. Well, will you let me put a lil of my
incomplete psychology degree to use?"
Chuckling, Andrew nodded.
"Okay... We're going to try a little exposure
Andrew watched, curious, as JenniAnn sat up and undid
the lightweight robe she was wearing. Next, she
flung her hair over her left shoulder and then lifted
the right side of her camisole.
For the first time, Andrew saw the scar that stretched
from just below her right breast, across her side, and
onto a bit of her back. He blinked back tears but
had to admit that it wasn't as bad as he thought it
might be. And it was certainly healing.
There was no trace of blood. Intellectually, he
knew there wouldn't be but to see it...
JenniAnn let him stare for a few more moments.
"Give me your hand."
When Andrew held out his hand, she gently placed it
against her side.
Andrew closed his eyes as she took a few deep
JenniAnn didn't take her eyes off him. She wished
she'd thought of this tactic earlier. In some
ways, it must have been easier for her. Over the
weeks, she had felt the pain turn into a dull ache which
then morphed into itchiness along her scar before
disappearing entirely. Now the scar was simply
another part of her. But, for Andrew, the wound
had loomed large, apparently.
JenniAnn shifted his hand slightly.
"Look, right here it's not even really elevated at all
any more. Soon the rest of it will be like
that. And then it'll just be a thin, little line."
"It... it looks really good."
"I wish I'd thought to show you earlier. I just...
I worried it might upset you more but... I should have
Andrew shook his head.
"I could have asked."
"Well, from now on... we both know." JenniAnn
lowered her shirt. "Since we're both up... will
you do something with me?"
"It's your birthday! Of course!"
JenniAnn grinned. "You would even if it wasn't my
"I would," Andrew agreed with a chuckle.
"Put your robe on. Slippers, too. We're
Smiling the whole time, Andrew did as he was told and
kept hold of JenniAnn's hand as they crept
outside. Once on the porch, they gazed up at the
Andrew watched as JenniAnn blew a kiss to the heavens.
"Thank You for bringing me to this moment," she
murmured. "I know I can't possibly do what You did
at thirty three. But I want to do Your
will." JenniAnn clasped Andrew's hand. "With
him at my side... because I am so grateful to You for...
for Andrew a-and our family."
When she began to cry, the angel pulled the woman to him
and resumed the prayer.
"Thank You, Joshua, Father, for this amazing life You've
given us. Thank You for... for the gift of living
it together. We love You."
"So... so much," JenniAnn interjected.
"And always will."
JenniAnn giggled as Andrew steered her, blindfolded,
through what she took to be a restaurant based on the
clanking of dishes and sounds of chatter.
"I spose it's only fair since I've blindfolded you a
time or two but... the suspense is killing me!"
"Just a few more steps..."
JenniAnn heard a door open and close then silence.
"Okay, I'm going to take the blindfold off now," Andrew
Just as the angel drew away the blindfold, the room
JenniAnn laughed and cried as she saw their entire group
gathered in the restaurant's party room.
JenniAnn hurried to her parents and hugged and kissed
"I... I had no idea!"
Allison held her close.
"We had to be with you on your birthday,
sweetheart. So... Andrew devised this."
JenniAnn beamed when her parents shot the angel of death
an admiring look.
"It... it's so wonderful! Thank you! All of
you!" JenniAnn began to hug all of the gathered
Friends. "But I still don't know... where are we?"
"It's called La Strada. An Italian restaurant
overlooking..." He waved his hand behind him.
"Lake Lure..." JenniAnn admired. "It's
Emma clasped her hand.
"We just... we wanted to do something special since...
"You're here," Peter finished, embracing JenniAnn.
After releasing the man, JenniAnn scooped up Belle who
was tugging on her dress.
"I am..." she murmured as she kissed the little one.
Liam approached and hugged her.
"Happy birthday, Aunt JenniAnn."
Jacob moved in for a simultaneous hug.
"Happy birthday, Psyche. Can you kneel down?"
Jacob kissed her cheeks.
"From Mama and Papa."
"Aww, thanks." JenniAnn tousled her godson's
hair. "So did you boys get to look at the
menu? What looks good?"
"Pizza!" they both cried.
"And they have fresh baked desserts!" Violeta chirped as
she moved in for her hug.
Shelby nodded enthusiastically.
"They look really yummy!"
"Well, why don't we all get seated so the servers can
take our orders and we can get to dessert more quickly?"
The group readily complied and, once drinks had been
distributed, Andrew stood.
"Before the food arrives, I'd like to make a toast," he
Everyone raised their glasses.
"This trip has been such a great time and now I know why
Joshua told us to take it. We've experienced so
much in the last year and a half that's brought us all
closer but I think... I know... we needed time to just
relax and have fun together. And we did... a
lot. I'm so grateful for that and also really...
really grateful that my Laja... our JenniAnn... has been
here with us." Andrew took in a deep breath and
peered at JenniAnn. "When I celebrated your
eighteenth birthday with you... the first of your
birthdays that we celebrated together... I couldn't have
imagined that I'd be with you for your thirty
third. And I really couldn't have imagined that
we'd have four children."
JenniAnn and the group laughed when Andrew cocked his
"But we do. And I love you and everyone in this
room and all our friends and family back home love you,
too. So much, Laja. And I pray to God that
we get to celebrate your forty third, fifty third, and
on and on and every birthday in between...
together. Happy birthday, Laja."
As the others cheered, JenniAnn stood and hugged Andrew.
"Thank you, my love," she whispered before kissing his
"You're welcome. I... I just... So glad..."
Andrew's eyes filled as he brushed some hair from her
face. "You're here."
"I know. Me too."
Andrew and JenniAnn stared at each other, wondering if
the other had heard Joshua's voice. Then they
laughed and embraced again.
After an evening spent helping Ivy and Violeta rearrange
furniture at Serendipity, Andrew collapsed onto the bed
causing JenniAnn to giggle.
"I hope all the good vibes and calm nerves leftover from
vacation haven't been destroyed," she mused.
Andrew smiled and shook his head after turning to his
side so he could face her.
"No. But that was a lot of lifting and moving
furniture... Sy was a trooper."
"Are Ivy and Violeta content with how everything's
"They are. And very, very excited. In some
ways, it hardly looks like my old house."
"How do you feel about that?"
"Fine. I like where I am now."
JenniAnn nuzzled Andrew's shoulder.
"Me, too. What did they decide about the
couch?" JenniAnn tried to mask her concern about
the fate of the couch where she'd first told Andrew she
was in love with him.
Andrew smiled. "Once she heard its history, Ivy
agreed with Violeta that it has to stay. I think
they might try to get a cover for it, though."
"Aww, good. I woulda been sad to see it go."
"I have a feeling it woulda ended up in the ballroom or
elsewhere if they'd really wanted to get rid of it,"
Andrew hypothesized as he rubbed his shoulder.
"True... Here, let me."
Andrew sighed and rolled his neck as JenniAnn kneaded
"Thanks. How long did it take to get Belle settled
"Not long at all. We rocked for a little while
then watched Mr. Bobo's light display and she drifted
off. I think she just didn't understand what was
going on over at Serendipity. I told her she'll
still see Aunt Violeta all the time."
"Good. Oh, after you left, Violeta made a point of
showing Shel where she would stay if she ever wanted to
sleepover. I think that did her a lot of good."
"Aww, yeah, I bet."
"I never got a chance to ask you... how did your laundry
tutorial with Violeta go earlier today?" Andrew queried.
Laughing, JenniAnn shook her head.
"Well, I had that shirt of yours that I accidentally got
bleach on so I showed it to Violeta as a warning of what
can happen when bleach spills. She thought it was
cool. So I'm a little worried all of her clothes
are gonna end up bleach spotted."
"But she understood about sorting colors and
everything. I did tell her that if she ever had a
load that was too small to bring it over and we'd
combine it with ours."
"Laja... We really should have made Violeta
responsible for her own laundry a while ago. I
don't want her thinking we'll still do it for her."
"I know, I know... But I also don't want her doing
a load of only three black garments if, otherwise, they
only have lights. That's wasteful."
"True. Good point. I withdraw my objection."
Smiling, JenniAnn kissed the angel's jawline.
"Thank you. So... you up for a lil reading tonight
"Sure. And thanks. My shoulders feel much
"Good. So... on we go."
JenniAnn handed Andrew their Kindle and situated her
notebook on her lap.
It only took a few minutes for their reading to be
"I just cannot get that!"
JenniAnn pointed to a paragraph.
"I'm not quite there. Just a second."
JenniAnn fumed as Andrew read.
"Okay, I may not 100% support that every time a couple
has sex they should be open to conceiving. But...
babies are awesome. So I get it. But
that... I mean what if... I mean...
Well..." JenniAnn's face flushed. "Based on
things Kylie has said, I have reason to believe she and
Clay can... ya know... and hopefully have kids.
But what if that explosion had impacted Clay in that
way? But, otherwise, his feelings and Kylie's
remained the same? I just don't understand why the
Catholic Church wouldn't marry them... assuming they
were Catholic... if that's what they wanted! And
if married couples have to be able to have sex to get
married... then why are they teaching the perpetual
virginity of Mary? Cause, by their own reasoning,
Mary and Joseph wouldn't have had a real marriage.
And I dunno what went on between Maryam and Yosef and I
don't wanna know... but it was clearly a real marriage
and is still a very real union! Or what if a
couple just plain didn't want to have sex? Like
what if you were human but we were both still
asexual. Couldn't we get married? I mean not
that you would marry me if you were human but..."
"I just think it's weird that they extol all these
virtues of marriage and stress how important they all
are and yet wouldn't recognize that, if they couldn't or
wouldn't have sex, a couple might still very much want
those other virtues and to have a beautiful, God-focused
"No, no, I get that, Laja," Andrew protested. "But
what do you mean that I wouldn't marry you if I was
human? How can you say that?"
JenniAnn's righteous indignation began to fade when she
looked at Andrew. He looked truly hurt. Once
again, she blushed.
"I... I guess I just mean that, well, you're... you're
so handsome and I'm just... me. If you were human
then any number of women... and men, for that matter...
would want you. A lots of them would be prettier
Andrew closed the Kindle and put it on the nightstand
then stared down at his hands.
"So do you really think I'm here due to a lack of other
opportunities?" he asked quietly.
Andrew could hear the doubt in her voice.
"Studies say that one out of every 100 humans are
asexual, Laja. So... I've met a lot of asexual
humans over thousands of years. You wanna know how
many of them I've thought 'I think I'd like to live with
them and know them inside and out and have them know me
so well, too' about?"
"Just... just me?"
"Yeah. I can't tell you exactly what I'd be like
if I were human, Laja. But what I feel about
you... I feel it's more intrinsic to who I am than even
my species... that, even if I were human, those feelings
would still be there." Andrew cupped JenniAnn's
chin and brushed away some tears. "I never, ever
settled for you."
JenniAnn threw her arms around Andrew's neck and wept
into his T-shirt.
"I... I feel the same a-and I'm sorry..."
Andrew kissed her hair.
"I... I'm just sorry if you haven't felt secure enough
in my love that..."
"No... I have. I really, really have. I
For a brief moment, Andrew saw the uncertain young woman
with an eating disorder and battered
self-esteem. He sunk down against the
pillows and shifted slightly so he could look into
"I think we have to, now and forever, both put away any
idea that one or the other of us got a better deal out
of this relationship. Neither of us lucked into
this. Neither of us is settling. God meant
for us to have this... He gave us this love for each
other. And He gave it to Andrew and JenniAnn, not
angel and woman. To us. Us exactly.
And, as part of accepting that gift, I think we have to
get better at talking to each other about what we want,
Laja, or else, over time, I'm concerned that bitterness
will creep in and I... I don't want that. I so
don't want that. God doesn't want that."
"Me... me neither."
"That book... sure, it says some dubious things.
But the author... and the Church... make some really
good, solid points about communication. And it's
not just Max and Rose who can learn from that. The
two of us... we need to learn from that. Because I
shouldn't have used Diana and Zeke needing a room this
past Christmas as an excuse to basically invite myself
into your bedroom, Laja. I should have told you
that I wanted to stay with you... if you wanted me
"I... I did. Very much. And I should have...
the moment I saw Maryam and Yosef kiss and I... I
realized I wanted that, too... I should have said
so. Not... not waited for you to surmise it a-and
kiss me." JenniAnn softly kissed Andrew's lips.
The angel smiled as he twined his hand through her hair.
"And, personally, I don't think it's fair that you
repeatedly rub by temples and massage my back. If
you ever want that... tell me. I'm told I have
JenniAnn laughed, recognizing her own compliment.
"And, conversely, if you ever want some space... I want
you to tell me that, too. My bed is perfectly
"And you'll do the same?"
"I'll do the same," Andrew promised.
"But not tonight?"
Andrew smiled as she snuggled against him.
"Not tonight," he agreed.
"Good. In keeping with our new pledge... I have a
Andrew felt the last of his angst fall away when
JenniAnn batted her eyes lashes.
"And what is that?" he got out in between laughs.
"Sing to me?"
As Andrew sang, JenniAnn rested her cheek against his
chest and listened to his heartbeat.
"'Just a song at
twilight, when the lights are low,
And the flick'ring
shadows softly come and go,
Tho' the heart be
weary, sad the day and long,
Still to us at twilight
comes Love's old song,
comes Love's old sweet
After finishing the ballad, Andrew flicked off the
bedside lamp and closed his eyes.
"I love you, Laja," he murmured as he nuzzled her hair.
"I love you, too, Andrew."
They smiled at each other in the twilight before
drifting to sleep.
JenniAnn sighed as she watched Andrew sleep. In five
minutes, she would have to wake him up so they could begin
the busy morning ahead of them: taking Ivy and Violeta to
Fordham to get their school books and map out how they'd get
from class to class and then getting Ivy back to Nebraska so
she could help Mark ready his own classroom.
Afterwards, Violeta had asked them to go with her to some
thrift stores so she could get clothes for school.
Many of their days since they'd returned from vacation had
been similarly hectic yet JenniAnn felt as if the previous
two weeks had been among the most serene in her life.
While she still felt badly about her unintended slight
against Andrew, everything had been so much better since
their confrontation... and that was saying a lot since the
bulk of July had felt very nearly heavenly.
Best of all, Andrew hadn't had a single nightmare. And
that's why JenniAnn hated to awaken him but she also knew he
wouldn't want to be running late.
JenniAnn kissed the angel's forehead.
"Wake up, sleeping beauty," she whispered in his ear.
"Otherwise, I will sic our little elf on you."
His eyes still closed, Andrew smiled.
"Do that. She'll match the fairy princess I already
The previous evening, they had turned over a Kindle and
their notebook to Max. In a final fit of rebellion,
JenniAnn had chosen to come to bed in a beige chemise from
an old Halloween costume and a leaf print bodice.
As if on cue, Belle pushed open the door separating the
"Mama, Daddy, up up," she declared.
Andrew burst out laughing.
"An elven alarm clock!" he exclaimed.
JenniAnn laughed, too, as she lifted Belle up off the floor.
"I hope you stay an early bird when you start going to
school, baby girl."
"That's right! Appa's at school," Andrew
replied. "And we'll see him later. But first we
gotta take Aunt Violeta and Aunt Ivy shopping. Okay?"
"Ay." Belle nodded at her father before redirecting
her attention to her mother. "Pitty..."
JenniAnn giggled as Belle played with her laces.
After sliding out of bed, Andrew grabbed his cell phone and
took a photo of the two.
"Augh. My hair's probably all crazy!" JenniAnn
Andrew shook his head.
"You both look beautiful. Ethereal even... my fairy
and my elf."
JenniAnn opened her mouth to counter his assertion but then
stopped and only smiled.
Andrew stooped to kiss mother and child both before all
three began to prepare for the day ahead.
In a tiny two room apartment in New York City, a woman
sighed as she awoke. She turned away from her sleeping
husband and peered at their two little ones dozing on a cot
to the side of their bed. Then she gazed at the dawn's
light peeking into their window.
Isra smiled. Today was a special day.
Rolling back around, Isra studied her beloved's face.
It was only when he slept so peacefully that he truly looked
his age. Only the slivers of graying hair at his
temples betrayed him.
Twenty two and already graying...
Tears filled Isra's eyes as she recalled their first moments
together. How she had hated him! The
resentment... the worry... the fear...
A lot had changed in six years! Of course, it had
taken much less than six years for Isra to fall in love with
him. Remembering that blessed night in their little
home in Afghanistan, Isra decided to wake her husband with a
His eyes fluttered open. He smiled.
Isra smiled back.
"Happy anniversary," they murmured in unison.
Andrew held Belle as JenniAnn and Violeta sorted through
racks and stacks of clothing. He'd felt much more
useful at Fordham University. Now he wasn't really
sure what to do with himself.
Violeta pulled an item off a rack and brought it to a
mirror. She frowned as she held the skirt up to her
"I really, really, really love the colors but I
dunno... It's really short."
JenniAnn moved to stand beside Violeta and studied her
"I think it'd look cute with a pair of your leggings under
it. Then the length wouldn't matter so much.
JenniAnn grabbed a different, longer skirt.
"What if you layered these two?"
Violeta held the two skirts together.
"I like that! Thanks!"
Belle began to wriggle in Andrew's arms... then whine.
"Laja, I'm gonna walk around the store with Belle.
She's getting restless," Andrew informed.
JenniAnn turned away from Violeta and smiled at the angel of
"If she gets too fussy, we can leave," Violeta offered.
"No, I think we'll be fine. I'll check back in a few
minutes. C'mon, cuddlebug."
Belle quieted as Andrew carried her up and down the aisles
and into various nooks and crannies. After a couple
laps, the angel noticed his shoe had become untied.
"Daddy needs to tie his shoe, Belle. I need you to
stay right here, okay?"
After setting Belle down, Andrew knelt to tie his
When he finished, the angel realized that Belle was no where
in sight. His chest tightened and his stomach
twisted. It was his nightmare come horribly true.
Isra hugged her husband's arm as their son and daughter
perused the selection of toys.
"I wish I could get you something, my star," he whispered
into her ear.
Isra smiled and shook her head.
"This is what I want... their happiness."
To the left of her husband, Isra spotted a small child with
a huge grin approaching them. With no hint of shyness,
the little girl approached and held her arms up.
Startled, the man looked down and took a sharp intake of
"Behnam!" Isra cried when she felt him begin to shake.
"B-Badriya..." Behnam choked out, falling to his knees.
"Oh... oh..." the girl cooed as she patted Behnam's hair.
Isra tore her gaze away from Behnam and the child to see her
own girl, her Aiyla looking up at her with concern.
"Mommy, what's wrong with Daddy?"
Isra shook her head, unsure of how to respond. She
could only watch, frozen, as Behnam embraced the child and
wept. She grew fearful that someone, not
understanding, would misjudge her husband. They
wouldn't know that, in this little girl, Behnam saw his
beloved older sister. Isra, having seen the one and
only photograph of Badriya as a child, knew that the
resemblance was uncanny. Finally getting control of
herself, Isra bent down.
"Benham, beloved, this is someone's little girl. We
"Belle!" a man's voice shouted.
JenniAnn had come running, with Violeta trailing her, when
she'd first heard Andrew cry out for their daughter.
The three had scattered in different directions but had
somehow convened at the very spot where Belle was hugging a
JenniAnn heaved a sigh of relief. At least Belle had
wandered off to another couple... and a nice seeming couple
at that. JenniAnn studied the woman who was wearing a
bright pink head scarf and daffodil-yellow shirt with jeans
embroidered with multi-colored stars. If this were any
other day, she would have complimented her on them. As
it was, she wondered why the man wasn't releasing her
daughter and why his wife wasn't making him.
"That... that's my daughter," Andrew choked out.
"Please, let her go so..."
"Behnam... let the little girl go," Isra gently
coaxed. "She... she isn't Badriya."
JenniAnn and Violeta gasped.
"B-Behnam..." Andrew murmured. "Behnam Al-Mitra?"
Hearing his full name, Behnam at last snapped to attention
and let go of Belle. He smiled as she kissed his
Belle toddled off to JenniAnn and giggled.
"Andrew..." Behnam whispered. He stood, shaky at first
but buoyed by Isra.
Tears poured down Andrew's face as he pulled the man into
Isra tore her tearful gaze away from her husband and knelt,
pulling her children into her embrace.
"Aiyla, Omar, this is... is Andrew. He is one of
Daddy's friends from... from Afghanistan."
Aiyla and Omar smiled at JenniAnn and Violeta.
"Hi," Aiyla greeted as her younger brother smiled shyly.
"H-hi," JenniAnn replied before beginning to sob.
Violeta hugged her and began to cry, too.
A store clerk who had been alerted to the possibility of a
missing child simply shrugged, shook her head, and walked
"I... we... have so much we need to tell you," Andrew told
Behnam as he clasped his face in his hands.
Behnam could only nod in response.
"Let's check out, if you're ready, and then JenniAnn and I
can take you to our home a-and tell you."
"Yes... Please," Behnam replied. He stepped away
from Andrew and circled an arm around Isra's waist.
"This is my wife, Isra, and our oldest, Aiyla, and our
Andrew smiled through his tears at the woman and children.
"I'm very, very glad to meet you. My name is Andrew
and this is Belle who came to meet you. She's
JenniAnn's and my daughter and this is Violeta, my...
"I'm Belle's aunt," Violeta saved.
"So pleased to meet you all," Isra responded with a warm
smile. "Aiyla, Omar, have you selected your toys?"
"Good. We'll go to the register and then visit Daddy's
friends at their home."
JenniAnn gaped as she watched Isra lead her little ones
way. She rested her cheek against Belle's hair.
Her little girl had blood cousins...
"I'll go pay, too." Violeta hugged Andrew and JenniAnn and
kissed Belle's forehead before joining Isra at the register.
"Your daughter..." Behnam marveled as he looked at Belle.
"Adopted. JenniAnn's not an angel but... but we care
very deeply about each other," Andrew explained.
"Good. I... I am glad you have each other. So
often I thought of you... prayed for you. Sometimes it
was only my Isra who pulled me through the memories and I
thought if you did not have..." Behnam squeezed Andrew's
"I... I did. I do." The angel of death beamed at
JenniAnn who stepped forward.
"I'm so... so glad to meet you, Behnam. Andrew has
told me so much about your sister and I..." The lump
in JenniAnn's throat cut her off. Awkwardly, she moved
to hug Behnam with her free arm.
"Thank you," the man replied as they embraced.
When the others rejoined them, Andrew hugged JenniAnn's
shoulders and led the group out to the Jolly Green.
Explaining the portal when they'd entered the blue room at
St. Genesius' had been easy compared to what Andrew and
JenniAnn had to tell Behnam and Isra. Situated on two
couches in Willowveil's playroom, the two couples sat in
silence and watched as their children, Fawn, Lulu, and
Isra interrupted the silence.
"You have a truly beautiful home," she complimented.
"Thank you," JenniAnn replied. "It... it's filled with
a lot of love."
Andrew could tell she was nervous... afraid that Behnam and
Isra would want to take Belle when they learned the
truth. He couldn't believe, however, that Joshua and
the Father planned that. Still, they had to tell the
truth. But how much truth?
"All of it, Andrew. Behnam and Isra need to know,"
an unseen Joshua whispered to the angel.
"Behnam, Isra, there's something JenniAnn and I have to tell
you both. It's something about Belle, something
that... that concerns you. And I think it's why God
drew her to you today. I'm sure of it."
Bracing themselves, the Al-Mitras listened to the tale of
Dyeland, of how Andrew and JenniAnn had come to be so
close. Their eyes filled as Andrew spoke of finding an
abandoned baby in the snow, of how, miraculously, JenniAnn
had helped him rescue her.
Andrew clasped JenniAnn's hand.
"A few months later, God revealed something to JenniAnn and
me," he began. "He... he knew how much I still wished
that I could have... have saved Badriya."
Behnam reached over to clasp the angel of death's
"Behnam, he told me about your younger sister, Adila."
The man's face clouded.
"She is... unwell. When we first came to America, our
host brought us to Florida. It's taken us a few years
to earn enough money to come to New York to be near my
cousins... but they kept me informed about Adila," Behnam
Andrew nodded sympathetically.
"I'm glad you know but, Behnam, there's something about
Adila that not even your cousins know... because she hid it
from them. A couple years ago, Adila met a man at a
party. She... they... Adila became pregnant but
she hid the pregnancy from your cousins... her
parents. She was afraid they'd be angry."
Behnam gaze snapped to Belle.
"So... so after her baby was born..."
"She left her in an alley," Isra whispered, looking to
JenniAnn for confirmation.
Behnam felt a flash of anger towards his sister for her
recklessness and cruelty but soon it was overrun by far
sweeter feelings. The little girl who had hugged and
kissed him was his niece. He was an uncle. His
children had a little cousin.
Isra rested her head on Behnam's shoulder as she wept softly
and hugged his arm.
"Will... will I be allowed to see Belle a-again?" Behnam
JenniAnn sighed. Clearly the man had no intention of
taking their daughter away. She again nodded.
"Well, of course!" the angel of death exclaimed.
"You're her uncle, Behnam. And her aunt, Isra.
And I think Belle's already hitting it off with her
Behnam and Isra both let out the breaths they'd been
The four adults smiled at the three children... and Violeta.
"And Violeta... is she... human or angel?" Isra questioned.
Andrew laughed. "Sorry. I kind of garbled that
at the store, didn't I? I wasn't sure if Behnam had
told you I was an angel."
"Oh yes." Isra squeezed Behnam's hand.
"Violeta is my protege," Andrew explained. "She's in
training to be an angel of death but..."
"She's really just a big kid," JenniAnn picked up. "In
fact, Andrew and I consider her one of ours."
"You have other children?" Isra asked.
"Yes, all adopted, of course... officially or
otherwise. Belle, Violeta, and then we have a ten year
old girl named Shelby. And next Wednesday we're
officially adopting our son... Max." JenniAnn peered
into Behnam's eyes. "You... you have to meet our
Max. You helped save him, Behnam."
Behnam was confused for a moment.
"The other soldier..." he realized.
"Yeah. He and I... we... we got really close over
there and he had a pretty bad home life so..." Andrew
"So he's our boy now," JenniAnn proudly declared.
"Oh! Can you stay for dinner? We could ask him
and his fiancee over and you could meet him! And
Shelby, too! And Adam!"
Behnam looked to Isra who did not hesitate before nodding.
"I'll call Max but first... You two should properly
meet your niece."
Behnam stared adoringly at the three little ones.
"I... I'd love that. And would you... if it would
please you... consider our Aiyla and Omar as your niece and
nephew?" he requested. He and Isra keenly felt a loss
of family that their harried cousins could not fill.
JenniAnn hugged Andrew and indicated for him to speak.
"We... we would be honored," Andrew accepted. He
smiled. "We'll have to exchange birthdates."
"And anniversaries!" JenniAnn chimed in.
Behnam and Isra smiled at each other.
"Actually... today's our anniversary," Behnam informed.
"Then all the more reason to celebrate!" JenniAnn cheered as
the four approached the children.
The parents gathered their own children to them.
"Aiyla, Omar," Behnam began, "Mommy and I have very good
news. Little Belle is your cousin."
"Cousin!" Aiyla chirped. "I didn't know we had a girl
cousin. Just old cousins."
Isra stifled a laugh.
"Yes, Belle is your cousin and that means her mommy and
daddy, JenniAnn and Andrew, are your Aunt JenniAnn and Uncle
Andrew and Mommy and Daddy are Belle's Aunt Isra and Uncle
"Yay!" Omar yelled.
"Belle, do you want to go say hi again to your Aunt Isra and
Uncle Behnam?" JenniAnn asked.
Without hesitation, Belle slid off Andrew's lap and went to
Behnam and Isra.
"Hi, Belle," Isra greeted.
"Belle..." Behnam echoed, misty eyed.
Belle smiled and planted a kiss on his forehead.
As Andrew was admiring the adorable scene, he felt a tug on
"Well, hello there, Aiyla. What can I do for you?"
"Violeta... Aunt Violeta?"
Aiyla looked to Behnam and Isra who nodded after glancing at
a gleeful Violeta.
"Aunt Violeta said you have a donkey and sheep. Can we
"Pease?" Omar added.
Andrew beamed at the two.
"I think we can make that happen! C'mon!"
With that, the entire group trooped outside to enjoy the
sunshine and pets and get to know each other better.
After hanging up the phone upon leaving a giddy message for
Max, JenniAnn rejoined Isra in the gazebo behind Willowveil.
"So today's your anniversary?" she asked as she poured her
guest some tea.
The younger woman tore her gaze away from where Behnam,
Andrew, and Violeta were leading the children around on the
donkey. Her face flushed.
"It's the anniversary we celebrate. Our wedding
anniversary was six months ago. We do not celebrate
"Oh. Well, I'm glad you have a date to celebrate each
other in, umm, in any case," JenniAnn fumbled.
When her hostess pushed a tray of cookies towards her, Isra
set a hand on her arm.
"Your daughter... she is my niece. So... so we're
JenniAnn blinked back tears upon hearing Isra
unintentionally echo the sister-in-law she had never gotten
to meet. She nodded.
"I... I think that would be really nice, yes."
"Then you can hear the truth?" Isra asked.
"If you tell me something, I can promise I won't repeat
it... so long as withholding it won't hurt anyone," JenniAnn
With a smile, Isra squeezed her new sister's hand.
"Tell Andrew, please... if Behnam does not. But no
others. It won't hurt. He's embarrassed is
all." She looked to her husband. He was
laughing! She loved the sound of his laughter...
After enjoying it for a moment, she returned her attention
to JenniAnn. "Behnam is embarrassed because our
marriage... it was arranged, forced by his uncle. He
threatened my father if... if I did not comply. I was
JenniAnn gaped. Isra and Behnam seemed like an ideal
couple... The way they interacted with each other
reminded her of herself and Andrew.
Isra again seized the older woman's hand.
"Please... just listen. Hear our story?"
JenniAnn nodded and Isra began her account.
Isra shook as she awaited her new husband's arrival at their
home. His home. It was no home to
Isra. She wanted to run... to go back to her home, to
the bed she shared with her sister. She didn't want
that man... that Behnam Al-Mitra... to touch her. She
didn't love him! And while the wedding ceremony had
left her with very little sense of him, Isra knew his uncle
was a cruel, evil man. No doubt Behnam was very much
like him. Isra began to weep as she thought of the
years of grief ahead of her.
"I am sorry."
Isra jumped and her head shot up. He was
there... She braced herself.
Behnam backed into a corner of the room, knelt, and held his
"I promise I will not hurt you, Isra."
Blurry-eyed, Isra stared at him. She gathered her
knees to her chest.
"I... I am wearied. I am sure you are, too. We
must sleep... I will sleep over here," Behnam hastily added
when he saw his bride flinch. "But first... I must
speak to you. I must apologize. I... this
marriage... it was not my idea. My uncle... he... he
thinks taking a wife will change me. Make me a better
man... his type of man."
Isra noted the edge in his voice.
"I will never be his type of man," Behnam spat out.
"He is no man."
There was silence for several moments.
"He gave my sister... Badriya... to a man even more evil
than himself. He... he hurts her. Badly.
Isra had a momentary thought to comfort Behnam when he began
to cry but she stayed where she was. Perhaps it was
all a ploy.
"I will not be that sort of man. I will not...
cannot... lie with a woman who does not want me. I...
I heard when he... he forced himself on my sister and
I..." Behnam adamantly shook his head. "There...
there should be love in marriage, yes?"
Isra found herself nodding.
"I do not know where he has taken her. I spend my time
trying to find them... to save my sister from him. She
has not given him a child and the last time I saw
her..." Behnam's hand drifted above his face.
Isra remained mute but a tear, this time not for herself,
drifted down her cheek.
"I will continue to search when I can... but I promise I
will keep you safe. Good night, Isra."
Isra watched intently as Behnam prayed and then settled onto
a cot and closed his eyes.
For hours Isra waited, sure that at any moment, Behnam would
reveal his true self and attack her.
Eventually, sleep conquered her but she dozed
fitfully. Each time she awoke, she noted that Behnam
had not budged. In fact, she could hear him
snoring. He was truly asleep.
For the first time after weeks of silent anger at Allah,
Isra managed a quick prayer.
"Thank You... I think."
Three days and nights passed in the same fashion. Only
during their marriage feast did Isra see another side of
Behnam. He laughed at crass jokes from some of the
other men and even made a few comments himself. Her
Then, as soon as they were in their home, the facade
Behnam set a gentle hand on her shoulder. It was the
first time he had touched her in private.
"I am sorry I said the things I did. It is
only... It is better for us both if they do not know
about... how we are," he explained.
Isra recognized the truth in his words and shuddered.
If the others knew she remained a virgin, Behnam would be
humiliated and her? She didn't like the way Uncle
looked at her. If he found that out...
"Yes. You are right," she concurred.
Behnam smiled. They were the first words she had
spoken to him in private.
"Good night, Isra."
"Good night, Behnam."
Isra fell asleep much more easily that night.
More than anything, Isra missed the companionship of her
sister as the days wore on. There were few
opportunities to talk with other girls and women in the
village. When they arose, the married women spent much
of their time sharing horror stories and the unmarried girls
listened with trepidation. Isra added nothing, only
wept. She felt some guilt when she realized this made
the others assume Behnam treated her terribly.
Truthfully, she was only moved by their stories.
Sometimes she thought of defending Behnam but remembered his
words: it would be better if no one knew.
After a week, Isra thought she would go mad with
boredom. She lay on her bed and stewed. Then she
looked across the room to where Behnam was poring over a
"If you could be anywhere but here... where would you go?"
Behnam jumped upon hearing the unexpected voice. He
smiled at the woman.
Behnam bowed his head.
Isra was surprised to find she regretted her words.
"I... I... What do you know of America?" she covered.
Behnam studied her for a moment then he pulled up his cot
and removed something from a hidden area beneath it.
Isra didn't take her eyes off him as he approached
Behnam stood back and held his treasure out to her.
Isra looked at the strange characters on the page.
They meant nothing to her. But the photographs...
"She is a senator there," Behnam offered, pointing to one
image. "That means her people chose her... a woman...
to lead them. And look." He took one step nearer
so he could turn a page. "All of them had recently
gotten married. Beautiful, yes?"
Isra let out the breath she was holding as she looked at
dozens of couples, most gazing adoringly at each
other. The dresses were so beautiful...
"They chose each other. That's America. And
look..." Behnam turned to another section of the
newspaper. "Those men... they get paid to play
Isra looked doubtfully at him.
Behnam chuckled and took out another section. "And she
gets paid to sing! And she travels all around the
"I would think she would need help but..."
"No husband to escort her?"
Behnam shook his head.
"One more thing..."
Isra watched, fascinated, as Behnam once again moved to
another section of the paper.
"This man... he gets paid to arrange books and help people
find the books they need. Look at all the books..."
Isra took in the image of a kindly older gentleman standing
in front of shelves and shelves of books. She got the
impression that Behnam would give anything to be in that
"Do you plan to try to go to America?" she questioned.
"Not without my sister... not without..." His voice
Isra wondered if he meant to take her. She couldn't
bring herself to ask.
"Do you know anyone there?" she pressed.
"Yes. Two cousins and my younger sister. After
my parents died, my cousins offered to take Badriya and
Adila, the little one, to America. They knew life
would be better for them there. But... Uncle
refused. He said they could take only one.
Badriya insisted they take Adila. So... so they did
a-and Badriya was left here and then..."
Isra suddenly realized her hand was on Behnam's arm.
She quickly drew it back.
"I am sorry," she murmured. "You... you are a very
Behnam managed a smile. "Thank you."
"You can read this?"
"Yes. My cousins taught me English. I think they had
truly hoped to take all three of us to America but it was
not to be. I was very little but I remembered them...
the words, the letters. Sometimes, when I cannot
sleep, I run the words through my head so I do not
forget. When I was around ten, some Americans came
into the village. They taught me a little more... gave
me this newspaper and a few books. I have hidden them
all these years. Uncle would not like that I have
Isra looked over to his cot.
"Beneath it," Behnam averred.
Isra was surprised and mortified when she realized the words
had escaped. Education was not for women.
"I would like that very much."
Behnam once again returned to his hidden cubbie and
retrieved a board.
"Letters," he introduced. "We start there."
Isra watched as his finger glided over the board.
"A... B... C..."
Isra smiled. Perhaps her days and nights of boredom
August 12th, 2009
Weeks passed and then months. The two settled into a
routine. Every evening, Behnam returned from tending
his uncle's crops and Isra prepared dinner for them.
Then they would sit on her bed and go over her lessons until
they were too tired to continue. Without fail, Behnam
dutifully returned to his cot.
Well after midnight one night, Isra and Behnam were still
"'He should not be here,' said the fish in the pot.
'He should not be here when your..."
"Sound it out," the boy gently directed.
"'Mo... moth... mother is not,'" Isra read.
Behnam beamed. "Very good."
Isra smiled at him. "This is a very strange cat."
Laughing, Behnam nodded.
"I think soon you will be ready to move to another book."
"I will miss the strange cat... and his hat."
"We can always revisit him."
"If... if you find Badriya and can get to America... would
you take me with you?"
Behnam rested a hand on her hair.
"Yes, Isra. And you and Badriya could live
together. I know you would love her and her you.
And you... you would be free. Our marriage... it would
not be recognized and so... so you would be free," he
"Free..." Isra echoed. The word was beautiful and yet
she felt her throat tighten as she said it. "And...
and where would you live?"
"Close by, I hope, so I could visit and help as needed."
Behnam held Isra's gaze for a long, silent moment before
startling. He rose from the bed.
"We should sleep now. Good night, Isra."
"Good night, Behnam."
Isra watched him settle onto his cot. She listened to
his breathing as he drifted into sleep. She wished she
had asked one more question.
Behnam, do you love me? Because I think I love you.
Isra awoke to wretched sounds. She sat up, fearing
that someone was going to charge into their home at any
moment. Maybe Uncle or someone else had found out that
they had not yet consummated their marriage, that Behnam was
teaching her to read and speak English, that...
In the moonlight, Isra could see that he was thrashing
around on the floor and his face was wet with either tears
or sweat... maybe both. She watched in horror,
wondering what she should do. Then, suddenly, he
Isra began to panic. What if he was... dead? She
stumbled off the bed and knelt beside him.
Isra soon realized that he was moving. His chest
heaved and tears continued to trail down his cheeks.
She lightly stroked his back.
The man rolled to his side.
Heartbroken, Isra shook her head.
Clarity came into Behnam's eyes.
"Isra," he corrected.
"I am here."
Behnam sat up and hugged his knees to his chest.
"I am sorry that I awakened you. I am... embarrassed."
Tears filled Isra's eyes.
"I am not sorry... not embarrassed. You had a
nightmare about your sister?"
Behnam nodded. "About the night... the night he took
her... hurt her." Fresh tears loomed in his
eyes. "She... she is... is the only one left who...
who loved me and... and I... I could not protect..."
"You... you were just a boy and... and... you are wrong."
Behnam watched in surprise as Isra stretched out beside
him. The breath momentarily left his body when she
rested a hand against his cheek.
"I... I love you, Behnam. Truly."
Isra knew she meant the words. As wicked as his
intentions were, maybe by Allah's grace, Uncle had managed
to do something right. Behnam was her husband and the
only one she could imagine wanting. In nearly six
months, he had never once been cruel to her. He had
never yelled at her. His devotion to his sister was
unfailing. He had opened entire worlds for Isra.
And, yes, she knew that if anyone ever found out he was
teaching her to read, he would likely be killed. But
he had risked that for her. And he had kept his
promise from the night of their wedding. He had kept
her safe, he had never forced himself on her. He'd
given her no reason to doubt his sincerity when he'd said,
if they got to America, she would have her freedom.
But she wanted to share that freedom with him.
Behnam stared up at the ceiling as his wife snuggled against
him. He felt the strain begin to go out of his
body. He let out a deep breath then wrapped his arms
"I love you, too. So much, Isra. I... I hoped
you... but I did not want... love out of... of obligation."
"I love you... freely," Isra assured. She sat up and
smiled down at Behnam. "Come to the bed. We need
rest tonight but, perhaps, tomorrow night..."
Behnam returned her smile. "If you would like..."
"I would if you would."
Isra giggled then took Behnam's hand and, for the first time
in their six months of marriage, the couple got into bed
together. Once they were settled, Isra clasped
"Allah, thank you for my husband. Please, help us to
find our sister, Badriya," she prayed.
As simple as the prayer was, it endeared Isra to Behnam even
"Thank you for my wife," he added.
The two smiled at each other, kissed, and went to sleep in
each other's arms.
Isra's sickness had started a few weeks after she and Behnam
had first laid together. Behnam had been beside
himself but Isra suspected she knew what was
happening. She remembered how it had been for her own
mother before her younger sister had come. The village
midwife had confirmed her suspicions.
After the worst of the sickness had ended, Isra had
discovered that she loved being pregnant. Uncle no
longer paid any attention to her. She and Behnam would
spend hours taking turns reading to the little one.
Then there was the bliss of Behnam rubbing her back and
feet. He'd cried the first time she'd pressed his hand
to her belly and let him feel the baby moving.
The couple's joy was only tempered by the knowledge that so
many others in the village were unhappy.
One day, Behnam came home to find Isra crumpled on their bed
"Isra... My star..." Behnam greeted as he sat down
beside her and stroked her back. "What is it?"
"Noora... she... she is... dead. The... the baby,
Behnam's heart sunk as rage rose up in him. Noora had
been the wife of another man in the village. She had
been eleven when they married, pregnant at twelve... now
dead. He had tried to dissuade her husband, begged him
to at least wait a few years if not release the girl
entirely but it had been to no avail. Too young... too
small... Behnam cursed the man and prayed that Noora's
and her baby's souls would find peace. Then he looked
to his wife.
"We have to get out of here," he insisted. "I... I do
not want our daughter facing such a life. And I do not
want our son becoming such a man."
Isra nodded and clasped his hand. She trusted Behnam
would do everything he could to keep her and their child
June 5th, 2010
With one final push, Isra's baby came into the world.
In spite of the pain, she laughed when the little one made
his or herself known with a shrill cry.
The midwife frowned.
Aunt stalked out of the house.
Isra reached for the child.
"My baby, please," she begged.
"You must wait, silly girl," the midwife chastised after
wiping the baby some more and setting her in a basket.
Isra sighed, remembering what the midwife had told her about
the afterbirth. Soon she had delivered that, too, and
again beckoned for her child.
Silently, the older woman handed her the baby and left.
"Oh... Oh you are beautiful," Isra greeted her
daughter. "So... so beautiful. I love
you!" She looked around the room before remembering no
one was there to share in her joy. Tears flooded her
eyes. Why could they not rejoice in this sweet little
creature who she and Behnam had made?
The door flew open and her husband dashed in.
"You... you are well?" he asked as he knelt beside Isra.
"A-and the baby?"
Isra nodded. "A... a daughter." She prayed
Behnam wouldn't be disappointed.
The man's eyes drifted from his wife's to the baby's.
"Oh...." He moved his arms to hold her then again
looked to Isra.
Beaming, she handed the infant over.
"She is... perfect."
"You... you are not disappointed?"
Not taking his eyes off the baby who stared up at him in
wonder, Behnam shook his head.
"I would have been very happy with either a boy or
girl. But secretly... I wanted our oldest to be a
Isra hugged him, knowing he was thinking of his absent
sister. She rested her chin on his shoulder and
admired their miracle.
"What shall we call her?" Behnam asked.
"Aiyla... moonlight? In honor of Badriya."
Behnam brought Isra's hand to his lips.
"Thank you." He sighed and lifted the baby so he could
kiss her. "Welcome to our family, Aiyla. You are
August 13th, 2015
JenniAnn swiped at a tear as Isra paused to nibble on a
cookie and sip her tea.
"I'm so glad you two came to love each other," she choked
Isra smiled. "Very much, yes." She looked over
at her husband and children. "Still... people can
JenniAnn rested a hand on the younger woman's arm.
"It's no where near unheard of for fifteen and sixteen year
old girls to get pregnant here. The big difference is
they often don't stay with the fathers. You and Behnam
did stay together and that's something to be proud of, not
"Have you had problems?"
Isra looked up to JenniAnn with tears in her eyes.
"There's a lady at the apartment building who invited me
over for tea. I was excited to have a new
friend. Behnam said he would watch Omar and Aiyla so I
went and when I arrived there was another man and woman
there a-and they asked me many questions. Was I forced
to marry Behnam? And I... I said 'yes' but then I
began to explain but they started talking and saying they
would find a safe place for me and my children. I
tried to tell them that he hadn't touched me for six months
and that I... I invited him into my... my bed a-and so if
they were angry about that then they should be angry with...
with me. I loved him, I wanted him."
JenniAnn cringed. She couldn't entirely blame the
interlopers but, in Isra's case, their actions had been the
very opposite of helpful.
"They... they tried to tell me that I had been too young and
that I only felt as I did because I didn't know any better
and had no other choices but I... I know my own heart.
I know what I feel in his arms! I know that I did have
a choice. I know Behnam would have let me start a new
life, without a husband, here. But they should think
about what it would be like to be almost always with only
one person who is kind to you, who you can talk to
freely. Behnam... He... he is all I had until my
babies... And now with so much more... I still love
him and want him to be my husband and me to be his wife."
Isra accepted a handkerchief from her hostess.
As Isra calmed herself, JenniAnn thought of Andrew and
Max. They had been largely alone for months and had
bonded on an incredibly deep level that had easily grown
into a father-son relationship. It was hardly
surprising that two virtually marooned, like-minded
teenagers had fallen irrevocably in love during a similar
"Are you still having problems with those people?" JenniAnn
Isra shook her head.
"I became so angry that I ran from the apartment and back to
my own. They followed me. When Behnam answered,
I hugged him so tightly. And kept repeating 'Don't let
them take me away!' and then 'I love you.' And he said
'I love you, too, my star' until I had stopped crying.
When I finally looked to the neighbor and the other two,
they looked very uncomfortable... and even more when Aiyla
and Omar started screaming 'Don't take Mommy.' Then
they apologized and left. The neighbor will no longer
look at us when we see her. I wish I could tell her
that I understand why she did what she did... but they
should have believed me!"
"I'm so sorry that happened to you, Isra," JenniAnn
apologized. "And you're right. It's a good thing
to be concerned for a woman's wellness and safety... but
that comes along with also trusting her to herself.
They shouldn't have questioned your decisions... or told you
that you didn't have any choices when you know you
did. And if it helps... I was only seventeen
when I met Andrew. Granted, it took us a while to get
where we are but some part of me, the smartest part of me,
has known since I was seventeen that he was the only
one. And we have two young friends who met last year
when both were sixteen. Andrew and I both have a very
strong feeling that they're together for life. And we
have two other friends who got married when she was fourteen
and he was eighteen or nineteen... I can't quite
remember. In any case, they're very, very happy and
still very much in love. Many teenagers are much too
young to decide who to spend their life with... but not all
are. So I trust you. You know the story of
Joseph and the Twelve Tribes?"
"In the Book of Genesis, Joseph says to the brothers who
sold him into slavery 'You intended to harm me, but God
intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done,
the saving of many lives.' I think that holds true for
you and Behnam, Isra. His uncle planned something very
wrong but God used it for something very good: bringing
together two people who would grow to love each other very,
very much. And that love led to two precious, little
Isra beamed at JenniAnn then at Behnam and their
children. Yonah was off grazing and Aiyla was hugging
Belle. Little Omar was snuggling Mary while Violeta
looked on with pride and pet Silly.
Suddenly, Belle clasped Aiyla's hand and hurried towards her
mother and aunt. Noticing the girls, Omar ran after
When she reached the table, Belle eyed the plate of cookies.
"Ummy..." She peered up at her mother with pleading
"Would you kids like some cookies?" she asked.
Aiyla and Omar smiled shyly and nodded.
"Yes, please," the eldest replied.
"Pease," Omar echoed.
While JenniAnn helped Aiyla into a chair beside her
mother's, Isra pulled Omar onto her lap. After pouring
glasses of lemonade for the kids, JenniAnn settled Belle
onto her own lap and doled out cookies.
"Thank you," Aiyla murmured as she eyed her treats.
Omar grinned at JenniAnn and nodded enthusiastically.
Belle kissed JenniAnn's cheek then dug in.
"You're all very welcome," JenniAnn replied with misty
eyes. It was strange and heartening to see her little
girl's features mirrored in her cousins'.
"Did you enjoy the donkey ride?" Isra asked.
"Yes, Mommy. He's a very nice donkey."
"Yonah!" Omar chirped.
"You can come back and visit him whenever your Mommy and
Daddy say it's okay," she assured.
Aiyla set down a cookie and stared at JenniAnn.
"Well, sure. Belle would love to see her cousins and
aunt and uncle often. And I'd love to see you all,
Isra's eyes filled as she saw her children's faces light
up. She prayed that now Aiyla and Omar could have the
life of safety and peace that she and Behnam so wanted for
After checking in with Isra, JenniAnn, Violeta, and the
kids, Andrew and Behnam had gone to the former's carpentry
"You are an artist!" Behnam praised as he admired some of
Andrew's works in progress.
"I don't know about that but thanks. I've only been
doing it for about a year and am still learning. So
how long have you been in town?"
"Only two months. We like New York very much. I
miss all the green of Florida, though. It'll be nice
to come here... so much green. I still..."
Behnam's eyes filled again. "The miracles of today..."
Andrew clapped him on the back and prayed for the right
words to broach a subject that had been on his mind ever
since he'd noticed the cracked soles of Behnam's shoes.
"Miracles is the word... Behnam, I just want you to
know that if there's ever anything JenniAnn or I can do for
you or Isra or the kids, you have to let us know.
We... we're family now. And family helps each other
out. And Behnam... I will never, ever forget that it
was your information that led Adam and the Army to Max and
me... and Badriya. It... it was a struggle to come
back from that and if I'd been away from Heaven, from my
loved ones any longer..." Andrew shook his head.
"I owe you. A lot."
Behnam smiled and clasped the angel's hand.
"What I wanted most today was to be able to take my wife out
to a nice place for dinner... you and JenniAnn are giving me
that, Andrew. And... and you have given me back a
piece of Badriya. Belle looks so much like her.
Far more like her than Adila at that age."
"I thought maybe that was the case. I met Badriya...
and your Grandma Fila... when Badriya was around six."
"You took my grandmother to Heaven?" Behnam questioned.
Andrew nodded. "And I stayed with Badriya until family
returned. I've thought sometimes that Belle looks like
"Very much but she'll be her own person," Behnam
asserted. "Don't worry that I'd expect anything
else. Badriya would be very angry with me,
otherwise." Behnam grinned. "She was feisty when
she was younger. Bossy, too. But I... I loved
Andrew hugged him.
"I know. And she knows. Back at the store, it
seemed like Isra knew, too."
"Isra knows my very soul in spite of... everything."
"I can tell she loves you very much... and you her."
"Yes. But not surprising to me. You're a good
Behnam tried to smile.
"Maybe so. But she deserved to choose her own
Andrew frowned. "Your marriage was arranged?"
"By my uncle. But I... Andrew, I promise that I never
forced Isra to... to..."
Behnam hung his head.
"So then... Isra wanted to have relations with you?" Andrew
"Yes. It was six months after we were married.
That is, uh, what we celebrate as our anniversary."
"Well, then she did choose you, Behnam!"
Andrew could tell the young man was contemplating his
words. Maybe Behnam would believe him if he knew the
"If you want, why don't you start from the beginning of your
time with Isra?" the angel invited.
"I don't want to keep you from JenniAnn."
"JenniAnn is probably having a great time visiting with
Isra. I'd just be intruding," Andrew countered.
"All right then."
Though nervous about the prospect of revealing everything to
an angel, Behnam also felt strangely calm. It was good
to talk to someone. Isra was his only confidante but
how could he talk to her about this?
"I remember very little of our wedding ceremony. I was
so nervous," Behnam began. "But I do remember waiting
outside our house that night..."
Behnam wanted to flee. He couldn't believe what his
uncle had turned him into.
The girl was terrified. Of him.
He wouldn't do anything, wouldn't hurt her. But she
didn't know that. And even though he'd tell her, she
wouldn't believe him. Why should she? She'd stay
awake all night, certain that he was going to attack her.
Behnam's stomach lurched.
Maybe he'd just sleep outside.
No, Uncle would notice. He'd force him inside.
Maybe even follow him inside.
Behnam didn't like the way Uncle looked at the girl.
Decided, Behnam entered the house.
She looked so small as she huddled on the bed. And she
Behnam's heart sank and he wished he could comfort her.
Instead, he found himself rambling apologies and telling her
Isra stared at him, mute and cowering. A nod and a
tear were the only indication she heard anything.
After he'd settled onto his cot, Behnam could feel Isra's
eyes boring into him. She probably wanted to kill
him. He couldn't blame her.
To calm himself, Behnam mentally recited some of his
favorite lines from a book a soldier had given him.
“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human
being with an independent will.”
"If all the world hated you and believed you wicked, while
your own conscience approved of you and absolved you from
guilt, you would not be without friends.”
In his last moments before sleep claimed him, Behnam prayed
that Isra would find some peace and comfort.
Behnam found himself humming as he made his way home from
the fields. In spite of their awful beginnings, he and
Isra had become genuinely happy. She was the only true
friend he had. Though he hadn't told her, he'd begun
to call her "my star" in his mind. She was the flash
of brightness at the end of his dreary days tending Uncle's
Upon entering the house, Behnam sniffed the air. He
smiled at Isra.
"It smells delicious."
"I hope it tastes delicious, too. My mother's recipe."
"Then I cannot wait to try it. Thank you."
"You are welcome. I..." Isra tilted her
head. "Your hand..."
Behnam looked down at his hand.
"Oh. Yes. A fire started near the crops and
Isra grabbed Behnam's unharmed hand and pulled him to a
Behnam obeyed and watched as Isra went to the stove.
Curious, he studied her as she blew on the tea leaves.
After several moments, Isra returned to his side and spread
the tea leaves over the burn then carefully wrapped his hand
in some clean cloth.
Behnam felt lightheaded and slightly sick to his stomach...
yet, strangely, the sensations weren't entirely unpleasant.
Isra smiled up at him.
"Does it help at all?"
"I am glad! If it does begin to bother you, we can
skip our lesson tonight."
"No," Behnam interrupted. "No, we can continue."
"Good! I will get dinner."
Behnam watched Isra as she finished preparing their meal.
The truth struck him then.
He was in love with his wife.
The more enamored with Isra he became, the angrier at his
uncle Behnam grew.
Why couldn't he have simply introduced him to Isra?
Why had he forced them to marry?
If Behnam had only met Isra before, he could have wooed her
and maybe she would have come to love him. Maybe he
would have earned her father's trust and even friendship.
Now Behnam could only peer across the darkened room and
ponder everything he wished he could say.
“I have for the first time found what I can truly love–I
have found you. You are my sympathy–my better self–my good
angel–I am bound to you with a strong attachment. I think
you good, gifted, lovely: a fervent, a solemn passion is
conceived in my heart; it leans to you, draws you to my
centre and spring of life, wrap my existence about you–and,
kindling in pure, powerful flame, fuses you and me in one.”
Behnam found himself envying Edward Fairfax Rochester.
The unwell wife was certainly pitiable but at least he had
been able to speak of his feelings to Jane. How could
he do that with Isra? Would she reply honestly or only
how she felt she must since she was already his wife?
"I thought you were not asleep. I cannot sleep,
either. Could you read to me?"
Behnam smiled, glad for the excuse to be near Isra.
"Yes, I would like that."
He grabbed Jane Eyre, pulled a stool near Isra's
bed, and began to quietly read.
"'Merry days were these at Thornfield Hall; and busy days
too: how different from the first three months of stillness,
monotony, and solitude I had passed beneath its roof!
All sad feelings seemed now driven from the house, all
gloomy associations forgotten: there was life everywhere,
movement all day long. You could not now traverse the
gallery, once so hushed, nor enter the front chambers, once
so tenantless, without encountering a smart lady’s-maid or a
By the time Behnam finished the chapter, Isra had fallen
back asleep. To be sure, he called her name.
She neither flinched nor blinked.
"Isra, I love you," Behnam whispered before closing his book
and returning to his cot.
August 14, 2009
Behnam stared up at the ceiling.
He prayed the previous night, blissful as it had been,
hadn't been a mistake.
Isra had said she loved him and Behnam believed her.
But what if she'd changed her mind about being with
him? Would she have told him?
Behnam braced himself when Isra began to stir.
To his surprise, she smiled sleepily at him and snuggled
"Good morning, husband."
"Good morning, wife. How... do you feel?"
Isra considered the question.
"I feel... many things. Mostly happy but... but
"What, my star?"
To Behnam's horror, Isra began to sob.
"Isra... Isra... I... I am sorry if... if you did
not... not want to..."
Behnam tried to get out of the bed but Isra encircled her
arms around his waist.
"No! I... did want to be with you a-and I want to be
with you again... soon. But I... I think of the
stories I have heard from the other women... I felt...
loved. I... I felt Jane and Rochester's 'pure,
powerful flame' but... they... they did not."
Behnam held his wife as she wept in his arms.
Behnam sighed and Andrew wiped away a tear.
"I don't mean to say that I think myself the only man in my
entire village who isn't a rapist. I believe there
were others who came together because they both knew what
was expected of them and maybe even some who were truly in
love. But there were others... I could pity
those 'men' if I didn't hate them so much," Behnam spat
out. "They will never... never have what I have.
I... I will never forget her smile that morning.
And..." He blushed. "I hope I always remember
that night. But it... it's not always like that."
"No, it's not," Andrew agreed, his voice husky.
"I blame my uncle entirely. Our village was not always
like that. I remember it from when I was a boy and it
was... it could be pleasant. But then my uncle took to
the same nonsense you see on the news every day now.
And I don't for a moment buy the theory that he was
brainwashed. Maybe it's true for others... not for
him. He saw in it a framework that fit his own lust
for power and control."
"Is that why you never left?" Andrew asked.
Behnam nodded. "I was afraid he'd come after us.
Murder me and..." He shook his head. "But that
day I met Adam... afterwards, I felt emboldened. Now I
see that maybe it was because I'd been in the presence of an
angel. I told Uncle that I was taking my wife back to
her family so she could be with them when our second child
was born... and that I would be staying with them."
"He agreed just like that?"
"I came to him when he was relieving himself and I had a
gun. He had made me learn to shoot when I was
younger. I think he lived to regret it. I'm a
very good shot... I no longer own a gun," he hastened
Andrew smiled sympathetically and quietly listened as Behnam
continued his story.
"There it is... home," Isra whispered as she gazed at her
father's house as they approached.
Behnam smiled up at his wife and daughter who rode atop a
donkey. Turning back to the house, he saw a young girl
step outside and begin to feed some chickens.
"Salma!" Isra shouted. "Oh Aiyla, look! That is
your aunt Salma, my sister! Salma!"
The girl looked up but, instead of rushing towards them, ran
back into the house.
A moment later, a man burst through the door, gun raised.
"Plaar!" Isra bellowed. "No!"
Unflinching, the man hastened towards them.
"Get away from my daughter!" he demanded, leveling his gun
The young man was unsurprised by the lack of a warm
reception. He raised his hands above his head.
"No, Plaar! No!" Isra begged, clinging to Aiyla who
"I... I am not who you think I am, Faisal, but I know you
have little reason to trust me," Behnam began. "I have
only one gun. It is at my waist. I invite you to
take it. Then, perhaps, you could tie me to that post
there, take your daughter inside, listen to her story.
If you decide I am worthy to live, you can release me.
If you decide otherwise... I would understand."
Faisal gaped at this speech. Finally, he nodded.
"I will take the gun."
Behnam stood stock still as his father-in-law took away his
"Plaar, please..." Isra whimpered.
Faisal looked to his daughter.
Behnam noticed how careworn he looked. The poor man
was genuinely trying to save his child.
"I am taking this man up on his offer," Faisal declared.
Without protest, Behnam allowed himself to be tied to a
fence post. He watched as Faisal took Aiyla from the
donkey then helped Isra dismount. Father and daughter
"We will be back, Behnam," Isra promised before accompanying
her father and daughter into the house. "I... I am
Behnam shook his head and smiled.
"Do not fear, my star."
Isra gave him a tremulous smile and proceeded into the
Faisal looked curiously at Behnam before shutting the door.
While he waited, Behnam surveyed his surroundings as best as
he could. Perhaps Faisal would let him help work his
land... assuming he didn't kill him.
After several minutes, Faisal and Isra exited the
house. The former sliced the ropes around Behnam's
feet and wrists.
For a long moment, the two fathers looked into each other's
eyes. Faisal cracked first, tears rolling down his
cheeks. He pulled his son-in-law to him.
"Come inside. You must be hungry, my son."
Isra beamed at the two and swiped at her own tears.
"We... we have much to celebrate," Faisal declared, briefly
resting his hand on Isra's protruding belly.
Smiling proudly, Behnam nodded and escorted his wife into
her family's home.
Behnam paused to stretch as he worked with Faisal in the
field. As he took in his surroundings, Behnam spotted
an approaching figure. They were wearing the whitest,
cleanest garment he had ever seen.
"Who is that?" Faisal demanded.
"I have no idea," Behnam replied. "Not a neighbor of
"Dressed like that? No... Not one of your
"I do not believe so."
Behnam felt drawn to the visitor.
"I will go speak to him," he declared.
"I will go with you."
With a nod, Behnam accepted his father-in-law's company.
When they were a few yards off, the mysterious man ceased
walking and waited for them.
"Greetings," Behnam called. "Why have you come to us?"
The visitor smiled kindly.
"My name is Azrael. I come with a message from your
Faisal began to quake but Behnam remained still.
"Behnam, I think it would be best if your wife was present
when I share my message," Azrael continued, waving to the
Behnam nodded and led the other two back to the house.
Inside, Salma was playing with Aiyla while Isra kneaded some
bread dough. The sisters looked up in surprise when
the men entered.
"Salma, please... take Aiyla outside... perhaps to play with
the chickens?" Behnam requested, forcing a
smile. He knew who and what Azrael was: an angel of
death. That he came with news could mean only one
Salma scooped up her niece and nodded, hurrying towards the
door. Faisal followed.
Isra hurriedly washed her hands and cowered.
Behnam had voiced his distaste for the burqa and so Isra had
ceased wearing one. He knew now that she was fearful
of retribution so he hurried to her side.
"I-Isra... he... he's an angel," he murmured into her ear.
Isra looked at the visitor and, instead of rage, saw only
kindness in his eyes.
"Please, sit," Azrael invited, indicating their makeshift
Behnam and Isra obeyed, her hugging his arm tightly.
Azrael knelt in front of the couple.
"Behnam, I am sorry that the news I bring will be difficult
Tears welled in Behnam's eyes as he braced himself.
"Four days ago, your sister Badriya attempted to aid the two
prisoners taken by her own captor and his men. They,
in turn, tried to protect her. Unfortunately, Badriya
was slain by the man who claimed to be her husband."
Behnam began to sob and buried his face is Isra's tresses.
Azrael set a hand on the young man's arm and continued.
"Badriya died a hero and a servant of her Lord and
Father. Great will be her eternal reward,
Behnam. She is, at last, free and knows only
Behnam could only nod in response.
Through her tears, Isra smiled at the angel.
"Thank you for telling us."
Azrael bestowed a gentle smile on her.
"I hope my words bring you peace even in your grief."
"Yes... they do," Behnam murmured. "Could you please
tell me... Badriya... was she properly buried?"
Azrael let out an aggrieved sigh.
"I am sorry to say that her body was left by her killer but
she now rests in a cave, guarded by God Himself.
Behnam, there is something you must know about the men
Badriya was protecting."
"Yes. But one... he is a soldier not with the American
Army but with God's. He is my brother, another angel
of death. When the other soldier, Max, was taken
captive, this angel, Andrew, volunteered to stay with
him. He's lived and suffered as a human would these
past months. During that time, during their
all-too-brief visits, Andrew came to care very much for
Badriya. It is God's will that, once Andrew has healed
from his injuries, he will bring Badriya's body to you for
Behnam clung to Isra, unable to find words.
Isra spoke for him.
"Could they bring her here? I... I do not want her
buried on Uncle's land... even if he allowed it."
Azrael squeezed Isra's hand.
"They will do that."
"Thank you," Behnam hoarsely whispered.
"You're welcome. I think I should leave you now but
first it's my honor to speak to you of life. Isra, you
will bear a son. The labor will be long but both you
and the baby will be safe. He will be a joy to you
both and to his big sister, his grandfather, and his
aunt. Have no fear."
Isra rested her hand on her abdomen, softly patting the
"Thank you, Azrael. Thank You, Father," she prayed.
Mute again, Behnam nodded and peered, with gratitude, into
the angel's eyes. He embraced his wife tightly and,
when they drew apart, Azrael was gone.
"I am so sorry, my dearest," Isra cooed. "So
sorry. I... I wish I knew how to... to comfort you."
"H-hold me?" Behnam pleaded.
Isra readily nodded and encircled her husband in her arms as
"And then you and Adam came..." Behnam
relayed after accepting a handkerchief from Andrew.
"We... we did."
"That meant so much to me. It still does. Even
though we are no longer there, I am glad Badriya was not
buried on either my uncle's or that monster's land.
Isra was very wise when she suggested Faisal's land."
"Was Isra there when we came?"
"Yes. She desperately wanted to see you so she did...
through the window. Azrael was right. Her labor
pains were long. Six hours after you left, she brought
our Omar into the world. I was there. Faisal was
scandalized, I think, but said nothing. Isra is so
brave, so strong... And to see Omar draw his first
Beaming, Andrew patted the man's hand.
"I'm happy for you."
"Me too. We named him Omar because it means 'long
lived.' We were determined that our... our children
should live long, happy lives." Behnam sniffled.
"It seems even more possible now. There were so many
nights when... when we weren't sure any of us would see the
Andrew gazed sympathetically at Behnam.
"Not long after Omar was born, we had to flee Faisal's
home... Faisal and Salma with us."
Behnam's face darkened.
"Evil came to our door."
Isra tucked some pastries into a basket and kissed her
"Numa will be so pleased to see you!" she gushed. "You
will bring so much joy to her."
Aiyla smiled then went to her father and kissed his cheek.
Behnam hugged her tightly, thinking of their neighbor woman,
Numa, who had recently lost her son. He couldn't
imagine being without his Aiyla or Omar.
"We will not be gone long," Faisal promised. "I want
to be home before nightfall."
"And you promised to tell Aiyla and me one of your stories,"
Salma reminded, looking to her sister and brother-in-law.
"And we will," Behnam vowed. "Over pastries of our
own, I hope?"
Isra laughed at his hopeful, pleading glance.
"Yes, yes. I made some for us, too. Now... I
need to feed Omar before he begins to fuss and..." Isra
returned to Behnam. "Perhaps you could see if we could
barter some pastries with Farid for some milk?"
Behnam took a plate of pastries from his wife and smiled.
"I think I will have no problem completing my trade.
No one can turn these down."
After kissing Isra, Behnam followed Faisal, Salma, and Aiyla
Once they were alone, Isra picked up Omar and began to
She hummed and traced her baby's features until he'd had his
Shortly after he'd been burped and changed, Omar drifted to
sleep. Isra finished a few chores then settled onto
her and Behnam's bed with a book. He had recently
picked it up at a bazaar and, pleased to have something new
to enjoy, Isra became engrossed. She didn't notice
anyone approaching the house until the door flew open.
Isra screamed when she looked up to find Uncle staring down
The man tore the book from her hands and flung it across the
"Whore! Evil girl!" he shouted. "Who taught you
"I... I cannot. Only... only looking," Isra lied.
"Immodest and a liar! Look at you! Practically
Terrified for Omar, Isra rose and attempted to get around
Uncle to reach the child. She'd only managed two steps
before he pushed her back onto the bed.
"Where is Behnam?" Uncle demanded.
"At... at a neighbor's. He... he will be home s-soon,
"And he knows his wife behaves so shamefully?"
Isra began to sob. Though she usually wore her hijab,
she'd taken to removing it when she nursed. She'd come
to love the feel of her hair surrounding her and first Aiyla
and then Omar, cocooning them in their own little world.
"You want to act like a whore? I will treat you like a
whore," the intruder sneered.
Isra screamed again when the man got onto the bed and tore
at her clothing. As they struggled, Isra spotted
movement outside the window.
Behnam stood with his gun raised but he knew he couldn't
shoot. He could get his uncle but he might harm
Isra... even kill her... in the process. And he could
see that his uncle, too, had a gun. If Behnam shouted,
Uncle would shoot him and do what he wanted with Isra.
Isra shuddered and stopped fighting. She looked away
as Uncle undid his belt. Then, with all her might,
Isra pushed him away from her, hoping it gave Behnam a clear
Two shots sounded.
Uncle fell to the floor in a heap.
Behnam rushed into the room.
Isra couldn't move. She could only lay on the bed, her
chest heaving and silent tears streaming down her cheeks.
Behnam picked her up and carried her to the other side of
the room, setting her down near where Omar, amazingly, still
Stroking his wife's face, Behnam peered into her eyes.
"My star... Oh... my Isra... I... I am so...
so... sor-sorry. Isra..." Behnam kissed her
forehead and smoothed some hair behind her ears. "I...
I need to go make sure he... he's dead then I... I'll be
Isra managed a nod.
Not trusting his legs, Behnam crawled to where his uncle
laid. He rested his hand over his heart.
Nothing. No pulse at his neck, either.
Behnam peered down at the frozen face of the man who had
torn his family apart, terrorized his childhood, sold his
sister into certain death, and attempted to rape his wife.
"I am not sorry," Behnam whispered. "You wanted me
to... to be a man like... like you. But you were no
man. You were a monster. Now you are a dead
monster. I do not grieve you."
Feeling strengthened by the release of his long-held anger,
Behnam grabbed the collar of his uncle's shirt and dragged
him behind the house. After swiftly washing his hands,
Behnam returned to his wife.
"We... we don't need to fear him any more, my star."
Isra bowed her head and hugged her knees to her chest.
Behnam's heart broke upon seeing the visual echo of his
wedding night. He knelt beside Isra and embraced her.
"You did nothing wrong. The evil... the sin... the
shame... all of it on him. All of it."
Isra looked up and saw the love and tenderness in her
husband's eyes. She threw her arms around him and wept
into his shoulder as he spoke softly to her.
"I love you, my star. I love you... I love
August 13th, 2015
Behnam twisted the handkerchief Andrew
had given him.
"We still don't know why he came. Perhaps to drag us
back. He felt I owed him. That night, Faisal and
I buried him in the desert. I would not have him
buried on the same land as Badriya. We all feared that
some of his men would come in search of him and suspect us
so we fled. Things... they got very bad."
Andrew nodded. He had personally seen how bad things
"We eventually made our way to a band of fellow refugees
but... but we were attacked. Everyone ran in different
directions. Isra and I each grabbed one of the
children and, thankfully, kept close to each other but...
but Faisal was killed and Salma..." Behnam let out a
shuddering breath. "We... we don't know. Later,
we ran into another family who had been there and... and
they said they thought they saw her a-among the bodies as
they ran but..."
Andrew clasped Behnam's shaking right hand in both of his.
"My Isra began to fade after that. It was only when we
came to the States that she started to improve. I
think, while we were in Afghanistan, she never stopped
looking for Salma and it exhausted her. I know the
"I... I know you do." Andrew gave Behnam a sympathetic
smile. "How was it that you did get to the States?"
"A miracle. We got to a point where we didn't know
where to go or what to do. Then I saw him...
"Lucas..." Andrew tried to place the name, knowing it
"He was with Adam when I first met him, when I told him
about where the man who took Badriya and his brother
lived. He remembered me. I begged him for help
in getting my family to safety. I told him more that I
knew... things that I'd overheard my uncle say... He
came to trust me and he helped us get to America. He
and his wife sponsored us. We lived near them in
Florida. Captain Lucas helped me find a job and to
save money so we could eventually come to New York. We
were not unhappy in Florida, however. It was... eye
opening. But Isra thrived. Captain Lucas' wife,
Marianne, truly took her under her wing... showing her how
to shop for groceries, how to use the washing machine,
introducing her at her ladies' Bible study..."
Andrew's eye brow quirked upwards.
"Marianne believed very much in 'spreading the Word.'
I was suspicious but Isra fell in love with Christianity...
"Wow... I guess I just figured with her hijab..."
Behnam chuckled. "1 Corinthians 11. I pointed
out to Isra that other Christian women in the States seemed
to not take it to heart but..." He shrugged. "It
makes her happy. I think it's her way of maintaining
some tie to where we came from. Her mother wore one so
Isra wears one. She was baptized before we left
"And you?" Andrew asked.
Behnam sighed and shook his head. "I believe there is
a God. Obviously..." He smiled at Andrew.
"I... I'm not sure beyond that. Some nights, when we
were running, I started to wonder if I'd imagined
everything... Adam, Azrael, you... Isra assured
me that I hadn't. But sometimes it is hard to
believe... My uncle claimed many ugly things about
God. And, though she was very kind to us, Marianne
insisted that only Christians go to Heaven. What kind
of God is that who would send so many others to Hell?
Who... who would send my sister? But I know He didn't
Andrew hugged his guest.
"I can promise you that Badriya is in Heaven, Behnam.
I've seen her there, spoken to her. God... there's
much more to Him than any religion has yet grasped," the
Behnam sighed and smiled at Andrew.
"You would know."
"I would, yes. Although He's still somewhat unknowable
to me. And that's the great thing. Even when we
live eternally, we'll still be learning things about Him."
"And He... He will be patient with me?" Behnam questioned.
"Exceedingly patient," the angel of death assured. "I
love talking about God and I'd love to talk more with you
about Him, Behnam, if you'd want to."
Behnam enthusiastically nodded.
"But right now... I think I better go check in with JenniAnn
and see what we're planning for dinner. Oh, do you
observe any dietary..."
"Not any more."
"If it's food, we'll eat it."
"Way to be!"
"I am so exceedingly grateful for all your hospitality
and... and understanding," Behnam replied, tears in his
Andrew slung an arm around his shoulders.
"We're family. It's nothing."
"It's everything," Behnam countered.
With a contented sigh, Andrew led Behnam back to the castle.
Vincent felt nervous as he and Shelby exited the gazebo and
approached Willowveil. The girl squeezed his hand.
"It's okay, Vincent. Andrew and Psyche wouldn't have
let you bring me if they thought the new family was going to
Recognizing the simple wisdom in her words, Vincent nodded
and smiled down at Shelby.
"Yes, you are right. Thank you."
As Shelby skipped ahead of him, Vincent reviewed the tale
his godchild had told him: Belle slipping away from Andrew
and toddling over to her long-lost uncle, Andrew reuniting
with the man who had help save him and Max, and then the
impromptu visit to Willowveil. In their haste and
excitement, neither Andrew nor JenniAnn had thought to
remove the photos of Vincent scattered throughout the
castle. Then the woman's innocent question.
"Is he wearing a mask?"
And his Psyche's answer.
"No, that's the way God made him."
"Striking... incomparable..." the man had observed.
And then they'd gone back to the business of preparing for
dinner and entertaining the three little cousins.
Vincent's mind wandered further back to those harried months
in 2012. He'd never seen his Psyche like that and he
never wanted to again. It would be good to thank the
man who had helped return Andrew to her.
Vincent hastened his pace when he saw that Shelby was
waiting for him at the front door.
Smiling, Shelby again took Vincent's hand and walked with
him into the castle.
"We're here!" the girl shouted as she kicked off her
Belle came tearing out of the ballroom.
Shelby giggled as Belle hugged her but quickly moved out of
the way, knowing her sister wouldn't stand still for long.
"Appa!" the toddler bellowed before launching herself at her
"Annabelle!" Vincent greeted with equal glee.
Stepping out of the ballroom with Andrew, JenniAnn, and
Violeta; Isra and Behnam watched curiously as the man swung
the girl up then held her as they rubbed noses.
"Has it been a long time since Belle saw her grandfather?"
Andrew consulted his pocket watch.
"Twenty eight hours."
"Appa!" Belle screeched again before planting a kiss on
Vincent's right cheek.
JenniAnn laughed and rubbed at her ears.
"They're pretty close. Belle spends most of her
Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays with her Appa Vincent," she
Eager to see what so amused their cousin, Aiyla and Omar had
been peeking around their parents' legs. The latter
decided he wanted a closer look.
After giving Belle another snuggle, Vincent noticed the
little boy who was approaching.
"Well, hello," the man greeted.
Omar stretched his right hand up, opening and closing it.
Vincent knelt down and let the boy touch his face.
Once he was satisfied, Omar smiled at Vincent.
"Appa!" the little boy echoed Belle as he moved to share
Behnam hoped Vincent felt the same warmth towards his son as
he had when Belle had claimed him at the store.
Isra held back tears, praying that her children might, once
again, have a grandfather.
Vincent patted Omar's back and smiled.
"I am so pleased to meet you, Omar. Could you
introduce me to your sister and your Mommy and Daddy?" he
asked as he stood up and situated Belle on his left hip.
Grinning, Omar nodded, took Vincent's hand, and lead him to
"Appa," he introduced.
Andrew cleared his throat so he could speak.
"Vincent, this is Behnam, Isra, and Aiyla."
Smiling, Vincent held out his hand to Behnam.
"I'm so pleased to meet you all."
Behnam readily shook Vincent's hand.
"The honor is ours and... and thank you..." Behnam
glanced down at his still enamored son.
Vincent shook his head.
"Truly, the honor is mine. A hug is always
nice." He turned to shake Isra's hand. "Your
name is very beautiful, Isra. I like it very much."
Blushing, Isra smiled.
"Thank you. It mean's 'night journey.' My mother
delivered me late at night and said her journey as a mother
had begun and so..."
Vincent patted her hand, recognizing his own orphans' grief
"Belle, sweetie, come to Mama for a lil bit," JenniAnn
interjected, reaching for her daughter.
Belle went without complaint.
Vincent again knelt down, this time in front of Aiyla.
"Hello, Aiyla," he greeted. "I think your name is very
The five year old gave him a shy smile but hung slightly
To put the girl at ease, Vincent continued to talk.
"I'm sorry that my wife, Catherine, and son, Jacob, couldn't
be here. They're at an event to raise money for the
shelter Catherine runs and others." He looked to
Behnam. "She asked me to extend her thanks, along with
mine, to you for helping to bring Andrew home to our
Behnam beamed at Andrew.
"I am now... more than ever... pleased that I could
help. Thank you, Vincent."
Aiyla crept nearer.
"Have Adam, Max, and Rose arrived yet?" Vincent queried.
"Not yet," Andrew replied. "Adam is just finishing up
an assignment and we left a message on Max's phone.
Rose did, too. Busy day at the comic book store, I
think. But Rose said she'd get him here as soon as
"Good. So what do you think of Dye... Hi."
Vincent smiled at the little girl whose hand was resting on
"You have a lot of hair," Aiyla whispered in an awed tone.
Vincent chuckled. "I do, yes." He remained still
as Aiyla placed her hand on his cheek and studied him.
Finally, she moved in for a hug.
"Are you havin' dinner with us?" Aiyla asked without letting
"I am, yes. Is that okay?"
Aiyla stepped back, beamed, and then eyed Shelby.
When JenniAnn and Violeta stepped away to make
introductions, Behnam approached Vincent.
"I am not sure that they understand that, for you, 'Appa'
means grandfather. Please don't feel that you have to
consider them your grandchildren."
"I don't want to be presumptuous," Vincent explained.
"But I wouldn't mind it even if they did think of me in that
way. Nor would Catherine."
"It... it would be good for them to have a grandfather
again," Isra opined. "And they never knew either
grandmother. Behnam's mother and my own both died when
we were quite young."
Vincent took one of her hands in both of his.
"I am so sorry. My own mother passed away, too."
He looked over at the four children and JenniAnn.
"Almost eight years ago, God led my wife and me to an
abandoned infant... our son, Jacob. I was adopted
myself after losing my parents and now, of course, we have
Belle... I have never believed the adage that blood is
thicker than water."
Behnam weighed these words along with the photos he had
seen. In particular, he'd been enchanted by dual
images in Belle's nursery. One portrayed JenniAnn as a
toddler, smiling as she rested her forehead against her
godfather's. Next to it was a nearly identical pose
with Belle in her mother's place. In both, pure and
radiant love had shone in Vincent's eyes. He wanted
such a grandfather for his children. Turning, he saw
Isra peering intently at him.
Behnam directed his attention to Vincent.
"I agree with Isra. It would be good for Aiyla and
Omar to have a grandfather again and if they could have the
same one as their cousin... we would be very humbled and
"I gladly accept the honor," Vincent declared, his eyes
Andrew smiled as Behnam, Isra, and Vincent embraced.
He had the feeling that Vincent would be a positive,
encouraging force in their lives. As much as Aiyla and
Omar needed a grandfather figure, the angel of death was
convinced that Behnam and Isra needed a father figure.
Vincent would fill both roles perfectly.
Adam halted just before entering the ballroom and surveyed
Vincent was seated on a settee near a window, reading to
Belle, Shelby, and two other children. JenniAnn and
Violeta were on another settee with a woman seated between
them who Adam took to be Isra. They appeared to be
flipping through a memory book, laughing as they did.
In front of the largest window... the one bearing Joshua's
hand print... stood Andrew and Behnam. The latter was
listening intently as Andrew gestured and spoke, likely
telling the newcomer more about Dyeland.
Adam drew in a steadying breath and approached the two.
Hearing the footsteps, both Andrew and Behnam turned away
from the window.
"Adam..." Behnam's eyes welled as they met the elder
angel of death's.
After closing the distance, Adam embraced the young man.
"I am so, so glad to see you again... and like this!" he
Behnam patted the angel's shoulder.
"I... I thought the next time I saw you, I would be dead."
Adam vehemently shook his head.
"No... you have so much living ahead of you, my
friend. Introduce me to this beautiful family of
Beaming with pride, Behnam brought Adam to Isra.
"My wife, Isra. Isra, this is Adam."
"Very happy to properly meet you! I saw you before
but..." Isra smiled at Omar.
Adam grinned. "Is that the little fellow you were busy
bringing into the world?"
Isra nodded. "Yes, Omar. And our daughter,
"I'll visit with them later," the angel of death
promised. "I've learned to not interrupt Appa
Andrew chuckled. "Belle's taught us all that."
"I just... wow..." Adam again hugged Behnam. "I
see miracles every single day but... wow."
The sound of the front door opening and closing alerted
everyone to another arrival. A few moments later, Max
and Rose entered the room, their arms linked. Max was
already on the verge of tears.
"Oh, Max..." JenniAnn brushed at a tear of her own as
Andrew stepped forward.
"Max..." He greeted him with a hug. "Rose..."
Rose smiled as she withdrew from Andrew's embrace.
"He had his phone in the backroom and the customers kept him
hopping so... so he didn't know anything was going on until
I went to go get him," she relayed.
"That... that's him?" Max asked, peeking over Andrew's
shoulder to where Behnam stood.
Andrew nodded. "Would you like to go meet Behnam and
his family or do you need a moment?"
"I... I want to... to meet him."
Setting a hand on Max's shoulder, Andrew escorted him and
Rose to the Al-Mitras.
"Behnam, Isra, this is our son, Max, and his fiancee, Rose."
Behnam squeezed Isra's hand tightly then flung his arms
"Th-thank you," Max choked out. "I... I... needed
to... to get home a-and Dad, too, and... and you...
A-and your sister... Badriya... She... she got
me meds a-and I would have... have died... if... if
not... Thank you."
"You're welcome. I am so... so glad you got home, Max,
and now... now we will be uncles together." Behnam
pointed to where Belle, who had slid off Vincent's lap when
she saw her uncles in apparent distress, stood with a
troubled look on her face.
"Oh... Come here, Bellaluna," Max requested, crouching down.
Belle scampered to her uncles and was enthusiastically
hugged by both Behnam and Max.
Moving to JenniAnn's side, Andrew looped his arm around her
waist and inclined his head towards hers.
"For a few moments while we were at the store, I thought our
day had turned into a nightmare but now... it's better than
a dream," he observed.
JenniAnn sniffled and rested her head on his shoulder.
"It truly is..." she agreed. Angling around, she
looked at the hand print on the window and offered a silent
prayer of thanksgiving.
"Now... lets get our family fed," JenniAnn declared.
"Okay, who's ready for spaghetti and meatballs?" he asked.
The kids cheered and the adults all nodded in eager
agreement, ready to begin the first of many meals together.
As she brushed out her hair that night, JenniAnn looked over
at Andrew who, once again, had their Kindle.
"Whacha doing? We already handed that book off to
Andrew smiled and turned the Kindle around to reveal he was
looking through photos from the evening.
After setting down her brush, JenniAnn joined the angel on
the bed. She kissed his shoulder then rested her head
"I love that one with you Behnam, Adam, and Max. Oh...
and Isra and the little ones. And look at Vincent
getting loved on by his grandkids!"
"This is one of my favorites." Andrew stopped at one
he had surreptitiously taken of Isra rocking Omar on her hip
as JenniAnn stood nearby doing the same with Belle.
"I hope they all sleep well tonight. I'm glad they
agreed to stay over."
"I'm sure they will. Behnam said he and Isra are going
to pretend they're at Thornfield."
JenniAnn laughed. "Good idea. And, thankfully,
we don't have a mentally disturbed person in the
attic. Although... it would be nice if they could know
Whose room is above us."
"I think they will in time. Isra certainly liked
Owen's painting of Joshua in the chapel."
"Yeah, she really did. I'll have to ask Owen if we can
get a smaller one for her. You don't think Behnam
would mind, do you?"
"Not at all."
JenniAnn sat up.
"Good. I have something I need to talk to you about."
Andrew set the Kindle down.
"I'm all yours."
"Vincent wants to offer to let them stay at Cora's.
He's put together that they're struggling. And you
know they must be... Warehouse jobs like Behnam has
aren't exactly well paying... at least not for supporting a
family in NYC. And even the humblest apartment is
astronomically expensive. And then what happens when
they leave? They get nothing back but a small
deposit... not much help in eventually getting their own
place. And Isra said this was the first day off
Behnam's had in months. He's always taking overtime
just to make ends meet. She said she tried to get
something herself, to take away some of the burden, but
childcare expenses would have added up to more than she
could bring in and... she's worried, Andrew. That much
work takes an awful toll. Plus, Vincent says it's
silly... immoral even... for one member of a family to have
an entire house empty except for the occasional guests and
have someone else in that family dumping a huge percentage
of their paycheck into rent."
"Great points. But, Laja, I don't know how Behnam
would feel about that. I'm not sure if you picked up
on it but, with Isra, Behnam doesn't feel worthy of
her. If we take away the knowledge that he's providing
for her and the kids... that feeling might deepen."
JenniAnn bit her lip. "I know. I did pick up on
that. It... wasn't exactly unfamiliar to me."
Remembering their conversation two weeks before, Andrew
"And I remember how important it was to you to support Belle
and not put everything on me. But Behnam would still
be working for grocery money, clothing, doctor visits, and
so on. Education, too. Did you see how Isra's
and Behnam's faces both lit up when Violeta was talking
about her upcoming classes? I think they'd love taking
some courses themselves. And maybe Vincent could
suggest a low rental fee... maybe just enough to cover
utilities. I mean it would be a help to him... just
knowing someone was there, watching over the house.
And it'd be much more convenient for all of us. If the
kids wanted to get together, we could just take the portal
and the Tunnels. Or if they wanted to get some more
Andrew smiled when he recalled the family's glee when they'd
seen the library. He kissed JenniAnn's temple.
"I think it's a great idea and I trust Vincent to come up
with a way to broach the subject that won't make anyone feel
bad. He can always play the concerned grandpa card."
JenniAnn laughed. "Exactly. Just think,
Catherine came home to learn she has two more
Chuckling, Andrew embraced JenniAnn.
The two grew quiet.
"It... it does make one reflect, doesn't it?" JenniAnn asked
after a few moments. "I remember that night you came
back... You... you looked so... bruised and thin
and... and I wanted so badly to stay with you. Thank
God Adam spoke up for... for me. Let me stay... in
Andrew's eyes misted as he remembered watching her move away
from him and disappear into his office after he'd told her
she couldn't stay in his room with him.
"It's not that I didn't want..." he began.
"I know." JenniAnn sighed when his arms tightened
around her and he nuzzled and kissed her hair.
Andrew smiled. "I think Badriya is cheering and
dancing in Heaven."
"With her teacher... Joshua."
As the two snuggled together, they sent their love to the
Head of their ever expanding family.
The next morning, they would discover four nested birds in
the box beneath Andrew's family tree. Behnam, Isra,
Aiyla, and Omar would find the perfect branch.
"Now you sign there and you two sign there and..." The
judge held up the piece of paper and smiled at Andrew and
JenniAnn. "Congratulations, you have a healthy,
bouncing, perhaps over-sized baby boy."
Laughing and crying, Andrew and JenniAnn embraced Max as
they stood in the courthouse. Nearby, Rose wept
happily and Violeta, Shelby, and Belle cheered.
"All... all at once I feel like... like nothing has changed
and everything has!" the young man exclaimed. He
kissed JenniAnn's cheek and gave Andrew another bear
hug. "You've both made me feel like I... I was yours
so I guess this piece of paper shouldn't matter
but..." Max picked up the certificate. "It
"I'm so happy!" JenniAnn gushed, hugging Max's arm. "I
"I love you, too, Maja! And you, Dad."
"Love you, too, Max."
"And I love my Rose and Violeta and Shelby and lil Bellaluna
and... my whole family!" Max celebrated.
The family moved into a group hug.
Smiling through his tears, Andrew took a moment to admire
the paperwork that had made JenniAnn and him officially
"I know we're having a party tonight but... I think this
calls for celebratory ice cream," he decided.
With further cheers, the seven set out to begin celebrating
Max's adoption. The young man couldn't keep from
grinning the entire afternoon.
That evening, after Bible study, the land surrounding
Willowveil swarmed with friends and family. It was the
biggest gathering they'd had in Dyeland since the trials of
The Los Angeles contingent had arrived early to help set up
a Quidditch match in the back yard in honor of Max.
Reuel had brought a party from El-Chanan who quickly
intermingled with the Friends. Allison and Robert
arrived with a massive sheet cake to celebrate their new
grandson. Eilish and Samuel had come and Henry took
care to introduce them to folks they hadn't yet met.
Adam, Vincent, and Catherine were happily doing the same for
the Al-Mitras who were amazed at the extent of Andrew's and
JenniAnn's circle of friends.
Before dinner was served, an electric screech caused
everyone to grab at their ears.
The crowd turned to find Rose standing on the steps of the
castle with a microphone in her hands.
"Microphone is a lil too amped up, I think. Anyway...
as many of you know, Max and I are getting married
soon. June 25th, to be exact."
"That's right. In less than a year, my longtime friend
is going to be my mother-in-law. Don't worry, I've
already been sending JenniAnn loads of mother-in-law horror
stories so she knows what not to do." Rose grinned at
JenniAnn as the others laughed. "But, in all
seriousness, I'm so excited about that because I know
JenniAnn's going to be an awesome mother-in-law, equaled
only by how awesome Andrew's going to be as a
father-in-law. I know because I, umm..." Rose
reached into her pocket, withdrew her handkerchief from
Maryam, and dabbed at her eyes. "I know because I've
seen how awesome they are as parents. They'd only had
Max in their lives for three years but they've crammed so
much love and guidance into my fiance's life in that time
that... that sometimes I can't believe they haven't always
been together. And I know Max feels the same way
because... Well, we're already planning our wedding
and reception a little and one thing Max's been really
nervous about is the mother-son dance. Cause he's
convinced he's just going to bawl through the whole thing."
JenniAnn hugged Max, whose eyes were welling.
"So I thought, with some help from some friends, we could do
a practice run tonight. Max... Maja... this one's for
The door to the castle opened and out stepped Zeke, Sy,
Peter, Shane, and Eli.
"Oh..." JenniAnn began to cry as she recognized Boyz
II Men's "A Song for Mama."
Blurry eyed himself, Max led JenniAnn onto an open patch of
lawn so they could dance.
Andrew moved to stand by Rose and hugged her as they looked
on, both beaming.
were so many times,
looking back when I
was so afraid,
and then you'd come to
and say to me I can
And no one else can do
what you have done for me.
You'll always be...
You will always be the
girl in my life.'"
"This is really wonderful," the angel
Rose swiped at her eyes and smiled.
"And I'm not done."
Andrew wondered at her playful grin but returned his
gaze to his soul mate and son.
As the song died down, JenniAnn cradled Max's face in
"I love you so much, Max."
"I... I love you, too, Maja, a-and I hope that,
wherever life takes me, I'm never away from you and
Dad for too long."
The two embraced as everyone around them applauded.
Once they'd quieted, Rose again claimed her
"Okay... not quite done but I promise we'll get to
dinner really, really soon. I wanted Max and
JenniAnn to have their moment but also... Max and
Andrew. When they were in Afghanistan, sometimes
they'd pass the time by singing Bruce Springsteen
songs. And they've been known to show off their
E Street-style abilities for some of us since.
So... I thought maybe tonight they could do that
again. And while I couldn't get the E Street
Band here tonight, I think I got a pretty good
substitute. If we could all just step around to
the other side of the maze there..."
Following Rose's direction, the party-goers found
Jacob, Gabe, and the rest of their angelic band
waiting for them. Smiling, Tess and Ronald
handed Andrew and Max microphones before returning to
their instruments. Father and son laughed as the
opening notes to "Born to Run" blasted.
With arms around each other's shoulders, Andrew and
Max sang. Soon, they motioned for JenniAnn and
Rose and embraced them as they rocked out to the words
of the Boss and marveled at where God had taken them,
together, in three years.
Andrew ran as fast as he could, trying to catch up to
the fleeing, silver-clad figure.
"Laja!" he shouted as he stumbled through the woods,
trying not to be felled by exposed roots or fallen
Always she was just out of reach, his outstretched
fingers just missing her cascading hair.
"Laja! Please, stop running!" the angel pleaded.
"Andrew, you have to let her go," a voice ordered.
"But... but I don't want to."
"Andrew, look at me."
Andrew at last tore his gaze away from the fleeing
woman and turned towards the voice.
"Laja!" He smiled when he saw her leaning
against a tree, smirking in her emerald and cerulean
gown as Belle balanced on her hip, dressed to match.
"But I thought..." Andrew looked back to the
other JenniAnn. To his surprise, she'd stopped
running and was kneeling beside a mirror image of
himself. Or not really... As he peered at
them, he realized there was something he couldn't
quite place that was off about each of them.
JenniAnn looped her free arm around Andrew's waist and
studied the other two.
"I think we're meant to leave them here," she
whispered. "Maybe that's what these past weeks
have been about, Andrew... leaving behind all the
illusions we had about ourselves and each
other... Leaving behind everything that should
have been said and wasn't... and what was said and
shouldn't have been."
Observing the phantom couple, Andrew realized that
"Andrew" was clasping "JenniAnn" a little too tightly.
"Leaving behind the fear, the worries of... of losing
you," he added. "Both of you."
Belle giggled as her father caressed her cheek.
JenniAnn smiled then gazed back into Andrew's eyes
"The concerns about not measuring up."
"About holding you back."
"Keeping you too much out of Heaven..."
"Bringing you too much of Earth..."
Belle squirmed, bringing her parents out of their
JenniAnn set her down and watched as the little girl
made a beeline for the trees.
Belle picked up speed and her parents ran after her.
"Pitty!" she squealed as she broke through the tree
When Andrew and JenniAnn stepped out of the woods and
rejoined Belle, they were immediately awed.
The Fields of Gold spread out before them, more
vibrant with wildflowers and sunlight than they'd ever
The meadow was filled with their loved ones: the
Friends, Tunnel dwellers, El-Chananites, family, pets,
angels, Mick, Beth, Logan, Josef, Maryam, Yosef, and
JenniAnn pointed to another hillside where Chava,
David, Lor, Cora, Jamey, Sophia, Sarah, Badriya, and
Yehuda looked on, all smiling.
"Pitty, pitty, pitty! Ah-ah!"
Andrew and JenniAnn looked away from the Fields and to
their side where Joshua sat with Belle in his
lap. He finished weaving a little floral crown
and placed it on the child's head, much to her
"Joshua!" Andrew and JenniAnn cried in unison,
Joshua chuckled and kissed their cheeks.
"Welcome to your twentieth anniversary... a little
early. And maybe not 100% accurate... but
close. There will be a few more smiling faces
down there when the time really comes... but I don't
want to ruin any surprises," Joshua teased.
After kissing Belle's curls, he grew more
serious. "The time of shadows is over... and I
don't just mean the aftereffects of Nen's and Tzila's
efforts. A shadow has fallen away from the love
you have for each other... a shadow of regrets, of
fear, of doubt, of reticence. Gone! You've
felt its absence these past three weeks, haven't you?"
After smiling at each other and nodding, Andrew and
JenniAnn clasped hands.
"Good. Hold onto that feeling of freedom.
Look where it will bring you." Joshua waved to
the peopled valley. "And do me a favor?"
"Yes," Andrew agreed.
"Anything," JenniAnn added.
"Share it with Behnam and Isra. You were very
brave... and pretty hilarious... in sharing your
wisdom with Max." Joshua smirked as Andrew and
JenniAnn blushed. "I appreciated that and I know
I can count on you to help Behnam accept how deeply
and truly Isra loves him. I need them to be as
strong as can be."
"We'll do that," Andrew vowed as JenniAnn nodded.
"Thank you. Now... someone's going to get up
very, very soon and want her waffles so..."
Joshua kissed Belle's cheek and handed her back to
Andrew. "Until next time..." He pulled the
three into his embrace. "I love you."
"I love you."
"I love you."
As their surroundings began to fade, Andrew and
JenniAnn could still hear Joshua laughing.
Andrew's and JenniAnn's eyes drifted open at the same
moment. They smiled and reached out to caress
each other's cheeks.
"Now that was a good dream..." JenniAnn murmured.
"Do you think it was real? A vision?"
"Mama! Daddy! Ummy..." Belle called
from her nursery.
"I think so. But I guess we'll know for sure if
Belle picks waffles for breakfast."
Andrew stretched then kissed JenniAnn's hair.
"Cerulean and emerald suit you, by the way."
JenniAnn was still laughing when Belle ran into the
room... a circle of wildflowers on her head.
"I... I guess we won't need to wait on the waffles,"
Andrew observed as he smiled tenderly at his daughter.
"Belle," JenniAnn repeated, "where did you get your
The toddler softly patted the petals.
"Ah-ah." Belle kissed each of her parents.
JenniAnn's eyes welled as her heart filled with
longing for the Carpenter.
Andrew held his arms aloft. "Laja... come here."
JenniAnn sunk against Andrew and pulled Belle onto her
lap then peered up at the ceiling and began to shakily
"'What... wondrous love is this... O my soul... O my
Andrew's own eyes filled when he recognized the hymn
that JenniAnn had been listening to when she'd first
recognized Joshua. He joined in.
"'What wondrous love is this, O my soul...'"
They were still singing, together, when a dove
alighted on one of the window ledges.
"'And when from death I’m free,
I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on,
from death I’m free, I’ll sing on;
from death I’m free, I’ll sing and joyful be,
through eternity, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on,
through eternity I’ll sing on.'"
When the song ended, Andrew rested his cheek against
JenniAnn's hair and closed his eyes for a moment,
basking in their freedom from nightmares, from regret,
and, yes, from death. While the way would not
always be easy, Andrew knew that nothing and no one
could ever truly take his Laja or their children away
from him. Joshua had made sure of that.
Smiling, Andrew gave his girls an affectionate
"So, who's up for waffles?"
"Oooh! Oooh!" Belle chirped.
Laughing, Andrew and JenniAnn got up and took their
little elven princess to her divinely appointed
breakfast of waffles.
Christina Perri's "A Thousand Years"
Stellaluna by Janelle Cannon
"Feels Like Home" by Randy Newman
The Last of the Mohicans
"Happy Birthday to You" by Patty and Mildred Hill
and Preston Ware Orem and Mrs. R.R. Forman
Love's Old Sweet Song by J.L. Molloy and G. Clifton
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss
Genesis 50:20-You intended to harm me, but God
intended it for good to accomplish what is now being
done, the saving of many lives.
1 Corinthians 11- head covering during worship
"Song for Mama" by Boyz II Men
"Born to Run" by Bruce Springsteen
"What Wondrous Love is This?" by Alexander Means
1. Okay... So the reason
JenniAnn freaks out here is it's Catholic teaching that sex
must always include the emission of sperm into the woman's
vagina for the act to be licit. (Or at least the
attempt.) Make of that what you will. JenniAnn's
point is that if something happens prior to that particular
act and one or both parties needs to stop (think Emma having a
flashback to Derek and getting upset) then insisting upon
completing that act with a distressed partner would be a gross
violation and sin. But none of the talking heads ever
seems to think of this... they just tow the party line on this
rule. For what it's worth, I agree with Andrew that any
priest or counselor with any sense and compassion would tell
someone to disregard this rule if a couple was concerned about
such a situation as in the Emma example. Still... it is
scary to think of it being out there with diehards who
scrupulously follow the rules. Similarly, one hates to
think of someone carrying a violation of this rule on their
conscience if a very good reason for abandoning it existed.
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