Chapter 1

Sydney couldn't remember a time she'd felt more happy with her life. Her father had gotten an actual vacation from his job, which was rare enough. But then, on top of that, he'd announced that they were going to visit his sister and mother for the Christmas holiday.That was where they were headed now, driving from Los Angeles to Grand Rapids, Michigan where his sister Judith and mother Catherine lived. Sydney had met them both before, but she had been very young at the time of their last visit. Now, at the age of eleven she could barely remember them, except that they had been very loving toward her.

It was now quite dark, and as the car moved steadily down the highway, Sydney found herself growing drowsy, so she got as comfortable as she could there in the back seat and tried to get some sleep. The next thing she was aware of, the sun was rising, and the car had come to a gentle halt. Sydney sat up and looked around, feeling a bit disoriented for a moment or two. She glanced in her father's direction and was surprised to see him smiling.

"Come on," he said happily. "We're here."

Sydney got out of the car, but as they approached the door, she hesitated. Jack noticed this and frowned. It wasn't like Sydney to be shy, and he thought that was what her hesitation meant.

"Sydney," he asked softly, "is something wrong?"

It took Sydney a moment to respond to her father's question. "No... not really. I'm glad we're here. I just wish... Never mind, Daddy. It's okay, let's go."

They took their pair of suitcases and the presents for the family out of the car, carrying them in with them. They were halted after barely getting through the door, with everyone wanting to greet them at once. Jack had expected this, condersidering the fact that they hadn't been for a visit in seven years. Sydney, however, seemed a little overwhelmed. After allowing only her aunt and grandmother to hug and kiss her hello, Sydney sought refuge in the first empty room she could find. Concerned, Jack followed her after a few minutes.

"Sydney," he began softly. "Aren't you glad to be here? We came because you said you wanted to just as much as I did. Did you change your mind?"

"No, Daddy. It was just a lot of people, when we came in. Maybe they are my relatives, but I don't know them. Will they all be coming at me at once all the time?"

Jack wanted to chuckle, but he knew his daughter's question was not a joke. "No, honey. It's been a long time since they've seen you, and they've missed you, that's all. Aunt Judith is anxious for you to come back up there with us. She says she has a surprise for you."

"Me? But we won't give presents for a few days yet. It can't be anything like that." Sydney sat there a moment with a puzzled look on her face, until her father took her hand and encouraged her to come back upstairs with him. Judith saw them both as soon as they came up the staircase, and asked them to come out on the enclosed porch. On the table in the middle of the room sat a box, the flaps loosely closed at the top. Sydney noticed there were holes cut in the sides, and this most of all made her curious to see what was inside. She approached the table and opened the box to peek inside. Then she gasped.

"Daddy, It's a puppy! Is it really for me??"

Jack laughed softly. "Yes, sweetheart. When Aunt Judith called and asked me what I thought you'd like as a present, this is what I told her. I'm glad you like her. Do you need help getting her out of the box?"

"No, Daddy, she's small, I can do it." After a moment, the tiny white dog is snuggled in Sydney's arms. For a few minutes, Sydney notices nothing else. When she looks up again, she has tears glistening in her eyes. "Thank you both, so much. This is the perfect present. She's so pretty!"

Jack and Judith are both all smiles. "What are you going to call her, Sydney?" Judith asks softly.

For a few more minutes, Sydney studies the face of her new puppy. Then she looks up, nods her head slightly and says, "Her name is Sweetie." Sydney hesitaes, looking up uncertainly at her father. "I know you like to call me that sometimes, Daddy. I always liked it, and I think it's perfect for her. Is it ok if she borrows it?"

"Of course it is, Sydney. Why don't we take her for a walk? There isn't much snow, and the sidewalks are clear. Aunt Judith already got a collar and leash for her, so we'll be all set."

"We can try. She's just a baby, Daddy. She doesn't know what it means to go for a walk, does she?"

"No, but that's why we should start taking her. So she'll learn. Come on, I think Aunt Judith will go with us too."

Once the dog is fitted with her new collar and leash, the tiny puppy and three people head outside. At first Sweetie just sits on the driveway, not wanting to go anywhere. After a few minutes of coaxing from Sydney, however, the puppy begins to slowly follow them down the block. As they walk, noone says very much; Jack is occupied watching his daughter with her new pet, and Judith is just enjoying the walk. After about twenty minutes, a scattering of snowflakes begins to fall. Sydney suggests taking the puppy inside before she gets too cold, so they all head back toward the house. Once Sydney and Sweetie are safely settled inside, Judith asks her brother to join her in the kitchen for some conversation.

"Jack, I'm really glad that you and Sydney were able to come for a visit. It's been so long. Sydney wasn't much more than a baby the last time you were here."

Jack tries to stifle a sigh and cannot. "Judith, you really don't have to tell me how inaccessible the whole family thinks I am. Mother has told me often enough for all of you. My job is important. I do the best I can with everything else. If I'd been able to visit sooner, then I would have."

"I'm not accusing you of anything, Jack," Judith says gently. I know you're doing the best you can. Sydney seems to be doing fine. Is she, really?"

Jack's face hardens, and any pleasure he'd felt earlier evaporated in an instant. "She's fine, thank you. She's doing well in school. I spend what time I can with her. That isn't as much as either one of us would like, but that isn't my fault. Sydney is getting older now, she's starting to understand. Better than most adults, I'm starting to think. So many people look at me like I'm purposely neglecting her. The job I leave her to do has everything to do woth her! And I shouldn't have to justify that to anyone."

Jack rises from the table and begins to walk out of the room. Judith hesitates in stopping him for the briefest of moments, because she knows how her brother can be once his anger is raised. "Jack, I'm not asking you to justify anything, or explain anything." She gently rests a hand on his arm, and he looks up, his eyes still steely cold. "I'm not questioning if you love Sydney, either. You've only been here for two hours, and if I couldn't tell you love her, then all that would mean is I haven't paid attention. I only wanted to know how both of you are really doing.... I'd have to be a fool not to know how difficult things have been for you. I'm sorry I haven't been there for you more often myself. I should have been."

"I didn't make it easy for anyone to approach me about anything. That's my fault, not yours. I didn't come here to argue. It was time that Sydney start getting to know all of you. In case anything should happen to me, I want her to know the people she'll be living with. There are so many risks involved in what I do. I have to be prepared. Unless you've changed your mind. If you've decided you don't want the responsibility of a child, I will understand. I can make other arrangements." Jack's eyes soften suddenly, and his sister cannot resist the urge to hug him.

"When Sydney's mother died, I made you a promise, and I intend to keep it, if the need arises. Have you discussed it with Sydney, does she know that's part of the reason you brought her here?"

When Jack speaks again, he is hesitant, which is uncharacteristic of him. "I tried. I was reluctant, and she took that the wrong way. She thought I was trying to tell her that I was sick and was going to die. She started to cry. It took me so long to calm her down I didn't dare try again. Perhaps it would be better coming from you, or from Mom."

Judith shakes her head gently. "I don't think so. You're her parent, and even if the two of you don't spend as much time together as you'd like, I think you still know best how to talk to her. Just let her enjoy the holiday, then see what happens."

Jack is about to reply when Sydney calls out to him from the living room. Judith doesn't mind at all, and actually smiles. "Go on, she probably just wants you to play with her and the puppy. We can talk later. Go have some fun for a change. You could use it."

Jack sighs, muttering to himself as he walks out. "You have no idea..."

Jack quietly joins his daughter in the living room. They spend the next hour or so playing with Sweetie, only stopping when she walks to a corner of the room and curls up for a nap. Jack takes a seat on the couch, and Sydney takes the spot next to him. After quiet moment or two, she rests her head against his arm, sighing. It sounds almost as if she wants to cry when she starts to speak.

"Daddy, today has been so much fun. It's been so long since I spent this much time with you all at once. Things are never like this when we're at home. I wish we never had to go back there."

Jack hugs Sydney tightly as a single tear slips down her cheek. "So do I, Sydney." The words themselves are simple, and just what Sydney needs to hear. But the little girl has no idea how sincere they are on her father's part. In this moment, he wants nothing more than to stay in this house forever. Where they can be together, happy, and above all, a normal family.