Title: Shall We Play A Game?
Disclaimer: remains in effect
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Chapter Thirty-Three: The Epilogue
The oven-timer sounded, and Millie smiled at the other women sitting at Alan's kitchen table and rose from her chair. "I haven't seen this many people at the house since the annual 4th of July barbecue," she noted. She pulled a sizzling apple pie out of the oven and placed it on the stovetop to cool, then turned to face Liz, Amita and Robin. "This is the story," she admonished sternly. "I made Alan's favorite homemade pie. He doesn't need to know anything about Marie Callendar® helping out."
Liz laughed and Robin pointed at the cardboard box on the counter. "Then the first thing you have to do is get rid of the evidence," she suggested.
Millie grabbed the container and flattened it between her hands. She looked almost desperately at Amita. "Where can I hide this?"
The young professor shook her head primly and crossed her arms over her chest. "Oh, no. That's my future father-in-law you're trying to fool."
Robin moved to the cupboard over the sink to retrieve several pie plates. "Mine, too," she pointed out, then glanced at Liz. "Maybe yours as well, the way Colby keeps calling him 'Dad' all the time!"
This time Millie laughed and Liz blushed. "We're not engaged! I'm just here to help him recover because I knew the two of you would be mooning all over the Brothers Eppes! Millie's got her hands full with both Alan and Ian…pie for everyone?"
"None for Charlie," interjected Amita and they all looked at her. "I made his favorite, too," she announced, crossing to the refrigerator and opening the door to reveal a slightly lopsided lemon meringue. "Alan tried to help, but he kept falling asleep."
Millie moved in behind her and peered over Amita's shoulder as she extricated the pie. "You've got too much time on your hands. Someone needs to get back to work," she teased. "You made that from scratch?"
Amita giggled as she placed the woebegone pie on the table. "Doesn't look like Marie had time to help me, does it?"
Robin opened a drawer and withdrew two pie servers, passing one to Amita. "It'll be fine one piece at a time," she contended. "Too bad David's not here; I remember on his last birthday, instead of a cake, Megan brought in a lemon meringue pie. Apparently it's not just Charlie's favorite!"
Amita began to slice her creation. "I still can't believe you two literally passed each other in the airport," she said. "I hope he's having a nice visit with his grandmother."
"So do I," Liz agreed, bringing a pie plate to the table for Amita. "She's just what he needs after…everything. Colby says David's really missed her since she moved to the Midwest to live with his cousin. She's a very grounding influence for him."
Millie stuck her apple pie in the freezer to cool it down a little faster. "Colby says that, does he?" she teased. She winked at Robin. "Well, then, it must be true!"
"I'm sure it is!" retorted Liz, slightly affronted. "David's grandmother raised him, she…"
Millie crossed the few feet to where Liz stood and gave her a quick hug. "I'm just giving you a hard time, Lizzie," she smiled. Liz smiled in return and felt her hackles go down. Millie gazed at Amita's pie; the meringue was sliding off, giving her an idea. "We should take some of that in to Larry; if you scrape the brown part off, it's virtually a white food."
Robin laughed and Amita glared at Millie. "No! This is Charlie's pie. If Larry won't eat apple, that's just too bad!"
Millie held up her hands in acquiescence and started back toward the refrigerator. "Maybe we should serve it a la mode," she suggested. "Vanilla ice cream is white."
Robin, Liz and Amita all answered at the same time, with varying degrees of horror. "NO ICE CREAM!"
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Alan sat in his recliner, where he could take in Charlie sitting on one end of the couch, Larry on the other. A chess set sat on the coffee table between them; the two had been engaged in the same game for almost two days. He also had a good view of Don, Ian and Colby, who were sitting at the dining room table working on part of their Planet Green paperwork.
He was almost beside himself with anticipation. For one thing, he had been smelling apple pie for nearly half an hour. For another, he had tried to stay awake long enough to help Amita make Charlie his favorite lemon meringue that afternoon, and suspected he knew why. He looked at Charlie again and felt himself tearing up; Good Lord, his baby was going to be a father!
Charlie felt Alan's eyes on him and glanced in his direction, but at that moment the swinging door from the kitchen opened, admitting beautiful women bearing hot apple pie, and Alan was saved from the third-degree. Liz and Robin stopped to set pieces down for the men in the dining room, while Millie charged triumphantly toward the living room, bringing still-bubbling slices of pie to both Alan and Larry. Amita brought up the rear, carrying a handful of mail in one hand, and a plate of lemon meringue in the other.
She settled in the middle of the couch, slightly closer to Charlie, and offered him the pie. "I made this for you," she said shyly. "It doesn't look quite right, but I think the taste is good."
Charlie's eyes shone as he leaned over the pie plate to kiss Amita directly on the lips. "It smells delicious," he assured her, lifting a forkful to his mouth immediately. "It's incredible," he pronounced. "Perfect – like you."
Don groaned from the vicinity of the dining room. "Aw, geez, Chuck," he garbled, his own mouth full. "You two should come with a diabetic warning."
Amita pointedly ignored Don and the spattering of laughter inspired by his remark. She did pull away from Charlie a little, although she was still smiling into his eyes. "I've been saving these for you," she murmured, offering him the cards. "Greetings from students, mostly. They're anxious for their favorite professor to get back to work."
Charlie grinned at Larry's "I beg your pardon?" from the other end of the couch. He started to lean forward so that he could set his pie on the coffee table, but Amita quickly took it from him, filling his empty hands with Get Well wishes. "Thank-you," Charlie said, leaning in to give Amita another quick kiss before he settled back into the corner of the couch.
Robin had planted herself on a chair next to Don, and now she elbowed him hard in the ribs. "Hey!" he protested.
"You should be that polite to me," she admonished. "Say 'please' and 'thank-you' – at least until we get married."
Colby patted Liz on the knee – under the table – and turned to mouth a silent 'Thank-you' in her direction while Millie laughed and Alan just rolled his eyes.
Charlie shook his head and began to read the cards. Most were intended to be humorous, although very few actually made him laugh out loud. After the tenth one, he let his hands fall into his lap and looked at Amita. "I'm sensing a pattern," he informed her.
Amita dragged her eyes away from the cards; he had stopped looking at them at precisely the wrong time – the Father's Day card was now on the top of the pile. "What?" she asked, a trifle nervously.
"Each member of both of my freshmen classes signed a card," Charlie began. "The sophomore group sent a card, but only about 80 percent of the students signed. By the time we get to upper division, it's down to 45 to 50 percent. My graduate-level students sent individual cards – but just a few of them – and I haven't found anything at all from students working on a thesis. I fear that my popularity decreases as the difficulty of work in my classes increases."
"A respectable hypothesis, Charles," observed Larry.
Amita set Charlie's pie next to the chess game on the coffee table and hid her face from him when she spoke. "You should read one more," she suggested. "Test the theory."
Charlie smiled and raised the top card into his line of sight. Forks around the entire lower floor of the Craftsman were quietly laid aside as everyone tried to watch him without being obvious about it. 'Happy Father's Day', Charlie read aloud, and then grinned across the room at Alan. "It's October, Dad. Isn't it a little late – or way too early – to start dropping hints about Father's Day?"
Alan wiped a tear from his cheek, pretending he was removing apple pie debris with his napkin. He waved a hand at his youngest. "Just read the card," he answered, even managing to make the command sound a bit sarcastic.
Charlie grinned a little wider. "Okay, okay," he responded, opening the small card. His eye went automatically to the right-hand side: "'May all the special discoveries of fatherhood be yours…" he read, then stopped as he recognized his mother's signature on the bottom. The grin was replaced by a look of confusion as he looked back at his father. "Dad, this is that card Mom gave you – the one you usually keep in the photo album. How did it get in here?"
"It's yours, now," Alan smiled.
Charlie's confusion deepened, and he looked back at the card. "I don't understand," he admitted. He brought the card a little closer to his face. "Wait – someone wrote something under Mom…" The room itself seemed to hold its breath along with everyone it contained. Charlie read Amita's signature silently, then turned to face her. He appeared slightly hurt and offended, and her heart dropped. "Why would you sign Mom's card?"
Don couldn't stand anymore. "I told you. The most clueless genius in the universe."
Amita just looked at him, a deer caught in the headlights, and slow comprehension began to dawn on Charlie's face. For a moment, Alan couldn't decide which one of them looked more terrified.
His vote finally went to Charlie when his son bolted off the couch. Cards went flying everywhere, and he knocked over the coffee table, effectively ruining two days' worth of chess and one piece of lemon meringue pie. "OhmyGod," Charlie cried. "Larry, get off the couch – Amita has to lay down." He looked frantically at the woman in question. "You should lie down," he repeated. "My God." He whirled, then, and faced the crowd in the dining room. "Don, boil some water. Hurry!"
Amita smiled, and stood. She stepped around the downed coffee table to chase her intended halfway through the living room. "Charlie, we still have over 7 months! Calm down, sweetheart – you're wheezing again!" Charlie whirled around once more, so fast this time that he lost his balance and tripped over his own feet, falling to the carpet. Amita made a noise of distress and quickly lowered herself to her knees so that she could reach out and touch his stubbled face. "Are you all-right?"
Charlie nodded dumbly. "Are you?" he echoed.
Suddenly, it was if there was no-one in the room except the two of them. Amita felt her smile wobble and lowered both her hand and her eyes. "Is…is this okay?" she whispered, afraid to hear his answer.
He put one hand on either side of her face, and raised it from its bowed position until he could lean forward and kiss her full on the lips. The kiss was long, full of sweetness that tasted like love, and Charlie, and all that was good in the world. At length, their lips parted, but Charlie pulled his head back only a few inches. Tears were rolling unfettered down his face. "I wanted to ask if we could start a family right away," he confessed. "I told myself I was being selfish, and I should wait until you were ready."
He slid his hands from her face; one stopped at the back of her neck, and the other buried itself in the black hair at the crown of her head. Charlie pulled Amita to him, folding her into his arms and turning his head to whisper into her ear. "I love you," he nuzzled. "Thank-you. Thank-you." The stress and fear and emotional see-saw of the last few days caught up with the young woman, and she tucked her head into his chest, twisted a hand in his t-shirt, and sobbed as if her heart would break.
Charlie soothed her while the others in the room glanced self-consciously at each other and their feet, suddenly feeling extraneous. At length, Amita's tears slowed, and Charlie felt a hand on his shoulder. He looked up into Don's proud grin. "Hey, Buddy. You two need a hand up, or are you planning on living at Ground Zero from now on?"
Charlie moved a hand to support Amita's elbow. "Help 'Mita first," he insisted.
"I've got her," came Robin's voice from his other side. Only when the women were both standing and exchanging an embrace did Charlie allow Don to heave him into a standing position.
Charlie swayed a little as he took his feet; whether from his recent illness or the shock of the moment was hard to determine. Don kept a steadying grip on his brother's bicep until Charlie finally focused his eyes on his and burst into the most brilliant smile Don had ever seen – it was almost like watching the sun rise, or staring into an eclipse. "Donny!" chortled Charlie, his eyes starting to water again, "I'm gonna be a father! Did you hear?! I'm gonna be a Dad!!"
Don smiled and broke the Eppes' family rule; he gathered Charlie in a full-on hug, squeezing perhaps a little too tightly considering his brother's recent medical challenges, and pounding him solidly on the back to make it worse. "Congratulations, Bro! Congratulations!"
Charlie coughed into Don's shoulder and the older man came to his senses and let go, pulling back so abruptly Charlie stumbled and almost took another header. He didn't seem to notice as Don grabbed his arm again, and he still had that smile on his face. "You can't spoil her," he admonished, settling onto his feet again.
Don grinned and let go of Charlie's arm. He waggled his eyebrows, and included Amita in his glance. "I have absolutely every intension of spoiling him," he retorted. "It's my prerogative as an Uncle. Plus, I've already started making a list; I'm going to teach him all the important stuff: How to spit, when to throw a curve ball, driving lessons… You know, Chuck, all the things you never quite got a handle on."
Most of the audience laughed, but Amita leapt to her man's defense, moving closer to him and putting an arm around his waist. "That is absolutely not true," she began, and then blushed faintly and dropped her eyes to the floor. "At least, not entirely…"
This time even Charlie laughed. "Thanks," he said, turning his head to kiss Amita on the cheek. "I think." He returned his attention to Don. "You'll be a great Uncle," he enthused, "just like you've always been a great brother."
Don felt the heat of embarrassment flushing his face and tried to deflect attention. He pivoted, speaking as he went. "You hear that, Dad? You're my wit…" His mouth clamped shut at the sight of Alan's empty recliner.
Charlie raised on his tiptoes to look peer over Don's shoulder. "Where's Dad?" he asked, a note of fear entering his voice. He pawed roughly at the back of Don's shirt. "Is he… not ok with this?"
Don started shaking his head as he turned back around to face Charlie. "Are you kidding? After all the begging for grandchildren?"
Amita started to look a little troubled as well. "He seemed happy," she confided to Charlie. She even offered him a tiny grin. "He danced around the koi pond and everything."
Alan's voice echoed from halfway down the stairs. "I'll thank you to keep that between us, Missy!"
Robin moved around to stand with Don as Charlie and Amita turned to face the stairs. Larry had joined Colby, Liz, Ian and Millie in the dining room, and they also turned their rapt attention Alan's way, eagerly anticipating the next act as if in the balcony of a theater, witnessing a live performance. Larry took out his cell phone and prepared to snap a photo. "Megan threatened me with decapitation if I didn't preserve the moment," he murmured, standing to get a clear shot over Colby's head.
Alan smiled broadly as he hurried down the stairs, one hand on the rail and the other carrying something wrapped in brown butcher paper, tied with string. He stopped a few inches in front of Charlie, and leaned to kiss his son on the cheek and offer a one-armed embrace. "Don't be silly, Little One," he reprimanded lightly as he pulled away. "Of course I'm happy!" He winked at Don, standing behind his brother. "I could only be happier if Don and Robin were to provide some cousins for my first grandchild. Soon."
Don groaned and poked Charlie in the back. "Thanks a lot, Chuck!" Then he looked at Robin and smiled. "Seriously…thanks a lot, Chuck."
Charlie grinned and Alan waited for the chuckles to die down before he offered his parcel to Charlie and Amita. "I went upstairs to get this," he explained. "I've been keeping it in my dresser, but it's for you."
Charlie reached out his hands to accept the package and held it so that Amita could until the string. "What is it?" he asked rhetorically.
Amita fumbled with the string so long that Don finally took out his pocket knife and reached between Charlie and his fiancé to cut through it. He was putting the closed knife back in his pocket when the brown paper fell away to reveal a folded baby blanket. Amita oohed as she shook the blanket open.
It was soft; crocheted of pastel yellow yarn and dotted with tiny white daises that had been painstakingly layered onto a second level, creating a gentle three-dimensional effect. "Oh, Alan," she cried, tears threatening to fall again, "it's beautiful! Wherever did you find this?"
Alan blinked back his own tears and almost unconsciously reached out a hand to touch the blanket reverently. "Margaret made it," he answered quietly, and Charlie gasped.
"This is what she was working on," he guessed, "those first few months…" He swallowed painfully. "Before Don came home. Before I went out to the garage. She used to try and hide it every time I found her in the solarium."
Alan nodded, smiling at the memory. "After the doctors…after she stopped treatments, she wanted to make two – one for each of you – but she was so weak. She couldn't work very long." He sighed and blinked, then moved his gaze to Don and smiled again. "When she finished this one, she told me to give it to the first grandchild." He reached almost reluctantly into the back pocket of his jeans and withdrew a small, folded sheet of stationery. "She wrote this to go with it."
Charlie looked at the paper as if it had the power to kill him, and didn't move a muscle. Amita was already sobbing quietly, and Don didn't look much better than either of them. So finally, Robin took the letter from Alan. She unfolded it carefully, and began to read the shaky handwriting aloud:
I wish I could be with you at this exciting time; in fact, I'm sure I will find a way. You will feel my joy and pride all around you as you bring a new generation of Eppes into this world. I trust that your dear father lives long enough to see this happen, and I encourage you to turn to him for the wisdom that can so enrich this experience for you. When you wrap your babe in this blanket, he or she will feel the love of his – or her – grandmother. Use it well, but treat it gently; I would like you to pass it on to your brother to use with his first child.
Congratulations, my son – whichever one of you gets to the blanket first. I wish I had the strength to make you each one; but it may be better this way. I hope that my two boys have found their way to each other before now; but if not, perhaps the passing of the blanket will be the first step to help you become close. Your brother is a fine man – and I can say that to each of you – and you would do well to have him in your life.
Always remember that I felt this same happiness when I found that I was pregnant with you – and every day since.
All my love,
By the time she finished reading, there was nary a dry eye in the house. Even Colby was sniffing loudly, using his napkin as a tissue.
"What an incredible woman," murmured Millie, dabbing at her own eyes.
Don could see Charlie's shoulders shaking silently, and for the first time he could ever remember, he embraced his little brother twice in one evening. Charlie twisted around in this arms to return the hug. "Mom was right," said Don gruffly. "You're a good man."
"She said 'fine'," Charlie contradicted. "And Mom was always right."
Don smiled and looked over Charlie's shoulder at Alan, who winked at him and took a deep, cleansing breath. "Well, I'm the one she called 'wise'," he announced, "and in my infinite wisdom, I say it's time for more pie."
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A/N: Oh, no! It's over! Or, has it just begun? I don't know about you, but the letter from Margaret just about reduced me to a puddle! The Cat cannot promise a sequel in the near future, but I feel there is a good possibility we will meet The Babe at some future point. And now, for a word from our sponsor: Stay tuned to this channel for the debut of "High Society", a Rabid Raccoons production that promises to take whumping off the charts.