They stepped into the living room, Don holding Liz's hand, and Don cleared his throat. "Dad, Charlie, do you have a minute?"
Charlie was bent over a notebook at the dining room table, Alan was in his chair leafing through a newspaper, and their heads came up simultaneously. Alan looked at Don and Liz and caught the joined hands, the look in their eyes, and knew immediately. His eyes went to her left hand, and his heart swelled with sudden, joyful anticipation, as he caught the sparkle of a ring. He tried to act as if he didn't know what was happening, but he could barely suppress a smile, as he folded the newspaper. He shot a glance over his shoulder at Charlie, who looked clueless, and a little worried. "Charlie," he said, "why don't you come in here?"
Charlie said nothing, but rose from the table, and sat on the edge of a seat, as Don and Liz moved toward them, and stood in front of the sofa. Don looked at Liz, and smiled; he felt suddenly giddy, and proud, and bursting with anticipation, like a kid who was about to tell his parents he'd gotten an A on a difficult assignment, or cleared the bases with a grand slam home run. He turned his eyes on his father and brother. "Liz and I are getting married." He paused, to let that sink in. Better drop one bombshell at a time.
Alan was out of his chair like a shot, beaming; his arms open wide. He reached for Liz first, giving her a hearty embrace. "Congratulations," he said, "welcome to the family, dear." He pulled Don into a bear hug, and pulled his head toward his; then separated, looking at him with such love and joy that Don felt his heart twist. "It's about time," Alan managed, and they laughed.
Charlie had come up behind him, quietly, gave Liz a hug of his own, and then embraced Don. "I'm really happy for guys," he said. His words were quiet, and he was smiling, but Don could see a bit of something else in his eyes, which he couldn't quite make out. Surprise, maybe.
Don looked back at Alan. "We've got more," and paused. Alan looked back at him, and Don grinned. "You know those grandkids you've been wanting – well, Liz is – we're expecting."
This time Alan was surprised, and his jaw dropped. "No sir – you're serious- that's wonderful!" then he laughed, an incredulous smile on his face, as he grabbed Liz again, and pumped Don's hand so hard that Don winced. He stole a glance at Liz, she was quiet, but her face was shining, and Don realized suddenly that she might have been worried about how the news would be taken. His father's reaction had apparently put those fears to rest.
Charlie was staring at them, his mouth open, but as his eyes caught Don, he smiled, and moved to give Liz another embrace. "Congratulations," he said, smiling at Liz at he stepped back, and gave Don a handshake, that turned into an awkward one-armed hug. "Congratulations, bro-," He was smiling, but the odd look was still there in his eyes, and Don looked at him closely. Charlie caught his searching look, and broadened his smile, but turned away.
Alan was standing there, shaking his head with a delirious grin, looking at the two of them. "I just can't get over this - ," he broke off suddenly, and strode for the dining room. "This calls for a toast."
An awkward silence descended, and Charlie scuffed at the floor with one foot; then looked at Liz, shaking his head. "I'm going to be an uncle," he said, as if just figuring that out, and Liz smiled at him.
"You'll be a great one, I'm sure," she said softly, and Charlie grinned, a little awkwardly.
"Well, you'll never need to hire a math tutor," he said, and Liz laughed. He smiled at her; his eyes caught Don's again, and he turned away. "Maybe I'll go help Dad."
Liz sighed, contentedly, and looked at Don. "Well, that went well," she said.
Don grinned back. "Are you kidding? If my dad were any happier, he'd be unconscious." She laughed, and they sank into the sofa, but Don's smile faded a little, as he watched Charlie push through the door into the kitchen.
Don delivered the news about the job offer over glasses of champagne for all them but Liz, who drank a juice concoction instead. He could tell his father's night was getting better and better – he knew that Alan would like the idea that he was finally going off field duty. Charlie, on the other hand, seemed to get more quiet, and more…Don still couldn't place it. His brother seemed happy, and Don chided himself for expecting too much out of him. So he wasn't turning cartwheels, it wasn't like he was upset, either. And what would he have to be upset about?
"So, which one are you going to take?" asked Alan, as if taking one of the positions was a foregone conclusion.
Don smiled at Liz. "Well, if I took one, it'd be the West Coast job – I guess we'd want to be based here in L.A…." he trailed off, looking at Liz for confirmation, and she nodded.
She looked back at Alan and Charlie, and caught the look of relief on both of their faces. "Of course, we'd want to stay here – besides, my job is here."
Alan looked alarmed. "You're going to keep your job?"
She laughed at him teasingly. "Now you're starting to sound like Don." Alan grinned back, a little sheepishly, and she assured him, "I'm putting in my notice tomorrow – they'll take me off field duty, don't worry."
Alan got up and poured another round of champagne, which Charlie declined; then asked Liz where they might want to live, and they launched into a conversation about school systems, chatting away like old friends. Don had cut back on his pain medication, but even the small amount in his system seemed to be magnifying the effects of the champagne, and he grinned at them happily, enveloped in warm glow. He half-noticed that Charlie got up to bring his glass to the kitchen, but didn't realize, until much later, that his brother had quietly disappeared.
Don waited until Friday to call Merrick and accept the West Coast position – he'd waited to talk to Liz about it one more time Thursday evening. Merrick had thanked him profusely, and then told him that he was thinking of Megan Reeves as Don's replacement to head up the L.A. office, with which Don heartily agreed. Friday evening, his team had stopped over, bringing pizza and well wishes, and it turned into an impromptu party.
Saturday, he woke, feeling rested, happy, at peace. In spite of the relatively drastic changes in his life, he felt good – things felt right, and he was looking forward to the future. He sat in the kitchen over coffee with his father, and he could see that same peace and happiness in Alan's face. Don had climbed the wall – the memory of it was still with him, but he was back on the other side. He had a future, a bright one; he could make plans again. The contrast from what he faced two weeks ago was startling; the reversal in his fortunes complete.
He was just taking another sip of coffee when Charlie walked through, with a smile that didn't reach his eyes, and a murmured good morning. He declined an offer of coffee, saying he had work to do, and headed out the back door. Don watched him go, and felt a twinge of concern stir inside, the only thing to mar his mood. Charlie had made himself scarce the past few days; avoiding him and Liz Thursday night, claiming with a smile that he was trying to give the lovebirds some privacy. He made just a brief appearance Friday night, before taking off, saying that he had a date with Amita. Good reasons to be gone, but still…Don brought his mind back to the conversation, realizing that his father was still talking,
He went looking for Charlie about forty minutes later. Don could walk without pain now, although he felt a little twinge in his side as he opened the garage door. It was silent, empty, and he frowned, glancing over to the koi pond – he was sure he hadn't seen him there, and he was right, Charlie wasn't near the pond. Had he gone back inside somehow, maybe through the front? Don turned and headed for the kitchen again, and had almost made it to the back of the house, when he caught Charlie out of the corner of his eye, sitting on the ground in the middle of the garden, where Don had proposed to Liz.
He walked over; Charlie saw him coming, but put his head down again, listlessly plucking at the grass. Don eased gingerly down beside him. "Hey, Buddy, what's up?"
Charlie shook his head. "Nothing. Just thinking."
Don kept his tone light. "'Bout what?"
Charlie shot a glance at him, and then looked away, scanning the garden. He was silent for a moment. "I feel her here," he said softly. "You know, Dad keeps this just like it was when she was here, the same flowers, in the same spots, at the same time of year…" He looked over to the corner, where mums were blooming in a riot of colors. "She always put the mums in over there, every fall. Dad had just picked them up Friday, the day you told us about the tumor. He put them in anyway, that weekend. I think he needed to be near her too." He looked down, pulling at the grass again, and Don could see the glint of tears in his eyes. "I wish I could talk to her," Charlie continued softly. He looked sideways at Don. "I guess you kind of know what she went through, now."
Don shook his head. "I don't know everything, Charlie – I didn't go through everything she did – getting that diagnosis, the chemo, knowing for sure that she was going…" His voice trailed off, and he stared at the shrubs in front of him, not really seeing them. "I do understand some of it, though. The fear, the guilt, the loneliness – you feel like you're on the other side of some invisible wall, and everyone else in on the other side. They're moving on with life, making plans, and you can't, you don't know what the next day is going to bring…" He broke off, as he heard the intake of breath beside him, and his heart contracted as he saw Charlie's head bowed, his hand to his face, trying desperately to fend off the tears. "Hey," he said softly, putting a hand on Charlie's shoulder, "hey-,"
Charlie spoke, his voice broken, his head down, his hand still shielding his eyes. "I let her down. I didn't realize until I started working on Cognitive Emergence how powerful the mind is, how it can affect your body. I've been reading about cases where cancer went into remission for no good reason, and studies they've done on how people's outlooks affected their prognosis. If I'd been there with her, given her support, instead of making her worry, maybe it would have been enough…" A sob broke from him; he couldn't go any further.
Don looked at him, remembering Charlie's incessant hovering, finding him sleeping in the hallway. 'That's why he was doing that,' he thought. 'He was trying not to what he did with Mom - he was trying to stick with me…' The thought brought a lump to his throat. "That's not true." Don's voice was quiet, but emphatic.
Charlie tried in vain to muffle a sob. "You don't know that."
"Yes, I do. That's one thing I do know, after going through that." Don took his shoulders gently, so that Charlie was facing him. "Charlie, when you went into the garage like that, I didn't understand it at the time. I admit, I was pretty pissed off at you, and then as it went on, a little scared – I thought you were losing it. But Mom wasn't upset about it, and now, after going through this, I know why. When you're facing a cancer diagnosis, the only thing worse than the loneliness, is the guilt. You feel incredibly guilty about putting the people you love through what you know will be pure hell, for all of you. If you have children, it's got to be so much worse."
Charlie shook his head, wiping at a tear. "But it wasn't your fault."
"No, it's not your fault, but you know you're still the cause. It doesn't make it any better, knowing that you can't help it – you still feel guilty. And you would give anything, anything, to make it easier on them. Mom knew that your work in the garage made it easier on you; it helped you cope. That had to ease some of the guilt, Charlie – that's why she didn't mind. So in an odd way, you really did make her feel better – I'm sure it took away some of the stress. I understand that now, completely, and I can tell you – it's God's truth - that I'd feel the same way."
Charlie stared back at Don, absorbing the conviction in his eyes, and felt something; just a hint of the hard iceberg of grief inside him, give way. He took a deep breath, and looked back at the grass, nodding a little.
Don released his shoulders, but continued to watch him. "That's not all, is it?"
"What?" said Charlie, his eyes darting toward him, then away.
"Something else is bothering you."
Charlie shook his head.
"Charlie, you're a terrible liar. It has to do with me and Liz, right?"
Charlie sighed, and looked at him, his shoulders slumping a little. "It's not a big deal. It's just, well, you know what you said about feeling like everyone's making plans, and you're not part of them – you feel lonely…" he broke off and shook his head. "It's stupid – I really am happy for you – forget I said that." He started to rise, but Don put a hand on his arm.
"It's not stupid, Charlie," he said softly. "And you shouldn't feel like you aren't part of it."
Charlie smiled grimly, and shook his head again. "Don, think about it. Number one – you will have a new house somewhere, and a wife, who will want and deserve your time. Number two –you'll be having a baby, and you can't tell me that won't completely consume your non-work hours. And then there's the new job…" his expression saddened, and his eyes drifted away. "It's just that, after all these years, I felt that we were getting closer, and now your free time will be, well let's face it, not free, and we won't even be working together anymore."
"Who says we won't be working together anymore?" Don demanded. Charlie looked at him uncertainly, and Don continued. "Charlie, Merrick wants me to be directly involved with the bigger cases – and with all those offices, there will be plenty of them. If anything, I'm going to need you more, not less. I was thinking the other day that I wasn't sure if you'd be able to handle everything I'm going to want you to do. And it'll probably mean some road trips, just you and me – we'll have to travel together to the other offices." He saw Charlie's face begin to relax, relief in his eyes.
"And as for our house, and the baby – you're welcome there anytime, and it's not just me saying that – Liz says she wants to get to know you better – she wants you and Dad over, a lot. She wants the baby to be close to his uncle and grandfather."
Charlie grinned. "You said 'his.' Do you know what it is?"
Don colored, and grinned back a little sheepishly. "Actually, no. I guess I just think of it as a 'him.'"
They paused and looked at each other for a moment, smiling, and suddenly Charlie reached for him, and hugged him, holding him close. "I love you," he whispered, "and I'm glad you're okay."
Don hugged him back, his eyes tearing, just a bit. "I love you too, Buddy." They separated, and Don looked at him, earnestly. "And I'm not going anywhere. I'm still here, whenever you need me."
Charlie nodded and smiled gratefully. "Yeah," he said, "me too." He rose, dusting himself off, and held out a hand, helping Don to his feet. "Thanks – thanks for the talk."
Don smiled. "Don't mention it." Charlie turned and began to head toward the house, and Don started to follow, then stopped for a moment, and looked around the garden. Charlie was right; Don now knew, at least a little, what his mother had gone through. He was now firmly back in the land of the living, but he would never forget being on the other side. He suspected, as long as he lived, a little piece of the wall would be with him, always, reminding him that each day was precious. He closed his eyes, feeling her, just for a moment, and then followed his brother into the house.