Title: After the Sunset
Betas: Thank you Seattlecsifan and Chauncey10 for your wonderful input. You've saved my bacon again.
Disclaimer: I don't own CSI, but if the franchise would like to be my next Christmas present, I'd be thrilled. Until such a miracle occurs, I'm just borrowing the characters and making stuff up.
Summary: What happens after riding into the sunset? Life.
X X X
Mark Sanders stood amongst the rubble and stared in astonishment. This was ridiculous.
Sure, his honorary 'Uncle' Grissom and 'Aunt' Sara weren't exactly neat freaks, but what the hell had happened? Grissom's study looked like an explosion had occurred – followed by a massive implosion, sucking all the shrapnel back into the center of the room.
Just two weeks ago, Mark had cleared the storage in the attic for Sara, and all had been fine. Several days ago, he'd boxed up all the experiments running in the basement, carefully disposing of anything he thought might be toxic. Of course, that had been nearly everything. With cardboard shipping containers littered throughout the house, he'd figured there wouldn't be much left to do.
It wasn't that he really minded being used for his brawn. He worked construction. Hard work was not a foreign concept to him. Plus, he really liked stopping in to see them – occasionally staying to watch a baseball game with Grissom.
One thing about living close by, he usually stopped in on his way home from work. Sometimes it meant adding an extra thirty minute, but as they'd aged, they needed more help around the house. It seemed ridiculous to Mark that anyone else take care of repairs and manual labor, since he'd been in construction for years. Plus, with Grissom slowing down over the last few years and Sara's occasional flare-ups of arthritis, Mark sure as hell didn't want their southern Georgia home falling down around their ears. The only place he studiously avoided was the lowest floor, where Grissom housed gruesome 'stuff' in jars (some glowing for reasons Mark never wanted to know).
Packing the basement had been hellish. Apparently, Grissom had always held the view that if a spot remained bare too long, it cried out for a new specimen.
Mark shuddered at the memory before refocusing on the room in which he stood. The study looked like someone had dropped a bomb on it.
The square room still held its original contents, and the furniture still lay in its original place. Two sides held large windows, letting sun filter into the room. In front of one large pane of glass, the desk had been setup so sunshine would drip down over his shoulder and onto the paper. He'd once told Mark he loved to read in daylight, after having spent so many years reading by the light of fluorescent bulbs and neon. Of course, he'd then muttered something about Sara sneaking up on him one too many times.
The small table near the other large window typically held the most recent experiment – something Sara and Mark both tried to pretend didn't exist. Unfortunately, those very experiments now lay in the thigh-high deep pile of stuff in the middle of the room.
Crap, there was a lot to do.
"It's a terrible mess," Sara quietly said from the doorway. "I tried to organize things so they could be boxed up in a more orderly fashion, but…" She didn't need to add that she'd made the situation worse.
As she trailed off, Mark stared at her, before earnestly replying, "That's an understatement."
"I'll understand if you don't want to do this," she quietly said, staring at the floor and fidgeting with the thin silk scarf around her neck. "It's a big job."
Mark watched her hands, wrinkled with age, and thought of all the times those same hands put a band-aid on a boo-boo or held his own when crossing a street. He particularly remembered those hands when they picked him up, brushed him off, and nudged him to try again – at whatever endeavor he tried. Feeling guilty at the dread he'd experienced upon entering the study, Mark shrugged like a kid and offered, "It's no problem, Sara. It'll just take longer than I thought." An extra week, maybe.
Raising her head, she smiled softly and Mark felt his heart flip in his chest. All it had ever taken for her to get him to comply was her smile. Mark had long ago figured out why Grissom always answered with, "Yes, dear."
When Mark had finally moved away from Las Vegas, it had been to the south. He'd simply fallen in love with the region. It had helped that Grissom and Sara were there to help him along the way (when Mark let them), but more than anything, the simplicity of the area called to him unlike any other.
Most of his life he'd worked so hard to find his place in life, and struggled to succeed. Two of his brothers had gone into law enforcement – one as an LVPD cop and the other as an LVPD Criminalist. His other brother had gone on to be a teacher, like their mother. Mark, on the other hand, had spent most of his life just trying to find a way to fit.
When he'd arrived out of the blue one day, Grissom had given him that look like he didn't know whether to hug Mark or smack him up the back of the head. Instead, he'd just said, "Call your father."
"How about I make us some sweet tea," Sara said, drawing Mark's attention.
As she walked away, he noted her stiff gait and felt his gut twist even more. At nearly eighty years old, she shouldn't be packing anything, let alone Grissom's study. With a physical shake of his limbs to loosen up a little, he sternly resolved himself to the task at hand.
X X X
Two hours later, half a dozen boxes were stacked neatly in the hall. One had been dedicated to textbooks Grissom had written (then signed for the heck of it) in his twilight years.
It had been such an honor when that book had come out about fifteen years earlier. Mark had been struggling through college, not really finding a major that fit. When the tome had arrived in the mail, he'd eagerly opened the volume to find it had been dedicated to 'The kid with the most heart. To Mark for never having a poker face.'
He may have never been interested in entomology, but Mark had read the book cover-to-cover; and he hadn't understood ninety five percent of it. However, he'd given it his best effort, proud he hadn't fallen asleep in the first five pages.
"The tea is ready," Sara said from the doorway, pulling Mark from his thoughts. "Why don't we enjoy it on the veranda?"
As she walked away, he dutifully followed, smiling at the memory of that inscription. Walking through the maze of hallways in the old Georgian home, he recalled the summer he'd learned to play cards. He'd been seven and had challenged Sara to a ripping game of Go Fish. His favorite.
Stepping out the front door onto the massive wrap-around porch, he squinted into the light of the mid-morning sun. The smell of magnolias wafted around him, and the lazy humidity of the day greeted him like an old friend. He really loved this place.
"What's got that grin on your face?" Sara asked, watching Mark as he took his seat across from her.
"Grissom taught me to play poker out here when I was seven," he replied. "I was terrible. I couldn't bluff to save my life."
Laughing lightly, Sara stated, "That's putting it mildly. Every time you got so much as a pair, you'd start squirming and jumping in your chair."
"You weren't much better," he countered, pointing out as he joined the laughter. For a moment, they simply grinned and relived a pleasant night of fun – just the three of them. Most of the time, Sara and Grissom lived a quiet existence. That always struck Mark first when he visited; the lack of voices was very different from the Sanders household, where kids flew through rooms yelling at the top of their lungs. Of course, a young boy would create a cacophony of noise on his own, but they never seemed to mind.
"That was your first year visiting us," Sara said before taking a sip of her tea.
"I remember," he replied. Thinking back to the tension surrounding the Sanders house in the months prior to that fateful summer he added, "I thought mom and dad were getting divorced. I didn't find out the truth until a few years later."
A trace of bitterness in Mark's voice must have been obvious, because Sara softly rebuked, "They did the best they could. How much is a seven-year-old going to understand about cancer? Your father needed to focus on your mother. He needed to get her better. Can you imagine what he would do without her?"
And Mark really couldn't. In his mind, his mother always stood strong, happy, carefree, and loving. His father always stood right next to her.
"You didn't know what to do with me when I got here," he stated, purposely steering his mind away from darker days of their family. Instead, he thought of his very first arrival.
The little boy had held his father's hand in the taxi all the way from the airport. When the car had pulled to a stop, a very young and timid Mark – the quietest of the four Sanders boys – had gotten out with his father and stared up at the monstrous three-story house in front of him. His house back in Vegas had been only one story, and the boys shared two rooms and a bathroom. Heck, his home could have fit onto just one floor of the massive Georgian structure.
"It's a mansion," he'd uttered in awe and terror.
For the first few days, Mark hadn't known what to do, because his father had barely said more than a few words of re-introduction before taking off.
"I was scared out of my mind," Mark murmured, his head turned to stare at the blossoming magnolias that lined the long gravel drive. He remembered the hesitance Sara had shown around him the first few days. When he'd pulled out his special deck of cards to play Go Fish, she'd smiled, held out her hand, and they'd managed to pull Grissom from his study. The man just loved his cards.
"You were a nice boy to have around," Sara said, thoughtfully. Tilting her head a little, she made a show of studying him and Mark smiled.
"I was a pain in the ass," he countered. "I gave you guys a run for your money."
"You were scared," Sara said, shrugging her shoulder, as if that explained away everything he'd done that summer.
"I let Grissom's entire collection of bugs free," Mark said. For some strange reason, he felt like he was telling on himself. It wasn't like they hadn't figured it out quite rapidly.
"Yes, and you had to go collect them up," she patiently replied.
"I painted streaks of white primer across the outside of the house," he pointed out, only to receive a rapid reply.
"And then you spent an hour a day painting the entire outside of the first floor of the house, if you recall young man."
Feeling sternly set down by the woman across from him, Mark gave her a sly look and asked, "Am I a nice man?"
"Yes," she replied.
Watching the laugh lines deepen with her smile, Mark realized just how lucky he'd been; not to mention just how much he owed Sara and Grissom. Their kind of quiet affection had always been a tangible balm to the constant energy that had coursed through him.
From the first day he'd arrived, they'd done everything they could to make him feel as if their home was his.
And he had a job to do.
Standing slowly, he smiled a little sadly at the thought of the task ahead and said, "I better get back to packing the study."
X X X
Sara found him several hours later sitting in the desk chair and staring at a photograph.
"I remember when this was taken," he said, when she moved around the stacks of things to stand behind him. "I was twelve that summer and we spent three weeks in Montana fly fishing." Tilting his head, he grinned up at Sara and said, "You out-fished us big time."
"Yes, I did," she proudly stated. He couldn't help but notice the gleam of laughter in her eyes when she added, "I have never known two people who can be so skilled and precise at so many things, yet fall in the river as often as you two."
When he opened his mouth to protest, she leaned over, kissed his cheek and whispered, "I knew your secret all along. You two just wanted to play in the water."
Rolling his eyes, Mark muttered, "Some secret."
Sobering, he thought about that summer – the time in Montana and the time at their home. About the time he'd turned ten, Mark and his father had stopped getting along. It wasn't that he'd tried to be obstinate or defiant. But it seemed like every time he'd tried to do anything, his father would be on his case. Constantly. That summer, when he'd left home to go stay with Sara and Grissom, a pre-teen Mark had told his father he hated him.
"It wasn't always a happy time," Sara said. When he glanced up, she added, "The trip to Montana wasn't always such a happy time, but you changed."
Dropping his eyes back to the picture, Mark noted how tall and lanky he'd been even back then, and reconciled Sara's youth in the photo with her current age. Her hair had still been dark, with small sweeps of gray coming in randomly in her hair. Grissom's hair – already white – still held some speckle of gray to it, and he smiled fondly at the camera.
"He never told me what you talked about," Sara stated. "He never once broke your confidence."
Surprised, Mark looked back up at her and studied her eyes. The honesty found there made him swell with pride.
"He made me think," Mark said.
"There's a shocker," Sara wryly quipped.
He chuckled, trying to make the uncomfortable feeling of embarrassment fade, and then said, "That day we went off for a hike, I started ranting about how unfair my dad was. Every 'injustice' my father had ever done seems silly and stupid now, but I vented. Big time. Then I mentioned how I'd told my dad that I hated him at the airport."
Placing the framed picture on the desk in front of him, Mark added, "Grissom asked me if I meant what I said to my father. I didn't answer, so he asked, 'What if those were the last words you ever said to your dad?' "
Mark could easily remember the clenching of his stomach, and the bile that had slowly risen up his throat back then. He'd spent the rest of the summer worrying he'd never see his father again – never right the wrong of those words. And when he'd gotten home to Vegas, he'd sought out his father and talked. Really talked. It was the first time in a long time father and son had tried to reach for each other and found something other than air to grasp.
Blowing out a slow breath, Mark looked around the study.
The antique mahogany shelves, desk, and little table all screamed 'scholar', with its curves and lines; and it fit Grissom perfectly. It was Mark's job to clean it out. He couldn't let Sara do it. She had too much history in this house – in this room. Yet he found that as he removed the contents bit by bit, he hated seeing them empty, as if a piece of history was being lost.
When she placed her hand gently on his head, he turned and gave her a forced smile.
"I came to tell you that I have some sandwiches ready," Sara said.
After she left, he looked around the office at the job remaining. Most of the floor-to-ceiling shelves sat bare of all but dust. The massive amount of journals Sara had stacked in the middle of the room still remained, as did the stacks of empty cages she'd placed next to them. It was those very cages – some made of Plexiglas and others of wire – that had Mark swallowing the lump in his throat.
Taking in a deep breath, he pushed down the welling of emotion as he rose. Sara had made lunch, and she never appreciated being made to wait.
X X X
"You know, I understand your aversion to pork. I just don't get why you don't like beef," Mark said.
Smiling, Sara placed her napkin on the table and leaned back in her chair. With a furrowed brow, she contemplated the comment and finally said, "I think it's more that I came to appreciate animals in general. After watching a pig rot with Grissom, I really had no desire to eat anything that could smell so much like a body dump."
"Point taken," he replied before taking a bite of his veggie sandwich. Grimacing, he grabbed his milk and half-washed down the mouthful. He didn't wait to swallow before muttering, "Sprouts. I hate sprouts."
"And you'll eat them, young man," she rebuked with a raised brow. As a father of three, not many referred to him as 'young man' anymore. When he grinned at her, making his cheeks puff out, she laughed and reached over to ruffle his hair.
Taking another bite, he muttered, "Yes ma'am."
X X X
Mark worked like a fiend boxing up items for most of the day. Yet later that afternoon, Sara found the thirty-four year old on his hands and knees making 'vrooming' sounds.
"I see you found the toy box," Sara said, laughing lightly as she walked into the room. A path had been cleared, allowing easy entry across the hardwood floor. A perfect track to race cars.
Looking up, Mark grinned and held up an old Hot Wheels car. Grissom had bought a pack of ten when Mark had been nine years old. Everyone thought it funny when Grissom had turned out to be the one to play with them the most – building massive tracks out of journals, books, and anything else he could find. Together, Grissom and Mark had sent many cars flying down their race course, crashing into anything that got into their way.
"I remember grounding both of you," Sara stated, grinning. "You were running them from the ceiling, across the room and out the window into the garden."
"Don't blame me!" Mark retorted.
"I'm aware it was all Gil's idea," Sara said, taking a seat in the stool by the window. As she turned her head to look out into the yard, Mark admired her profile. He could so clearly picture that same profile from when he was a child. The laugh lines had just begun to form, and continued to grow over time. The skin had now loosened a little, begun to sag. Yet she still looked like the same old Sara.
"How did you know what I would become?" Mark curiously asked, continuing to study her features. When she turned her head and smiled, he tilted his head again and asked, "How did you know what I really wanted to be when no one else did?"
For a moment, she appeared lost in thought. Then she said, "Rolling cars out the window was fun to watch, but you wanted to know more about the platform. Your uncle was rolling things around and laughing like a schoolboy. You were trying to figure out what kinds of supports you needed to bind journals together."
"You bought me my first tools," Mark proudly stated. "I didn't know what to do with them, but I had them."
"And look at you now. You own your own construction company," Sara replied, standing slowly. With her hands on her lower back, she arched and stretched. On a heavy sigh she glanced about the room, turning to take it all in – the boxes stacked here and there, and the piles remaining.
"What a mess," she said.
X X X
Later that evening, after a simple supper, Mark grabbed his bag from where he'd left it next to the front door and began the trek up to his 'palace'. At the very top of the house, the attics opened up to a majestic sight. The entire top floor looked like what one would expect from an ancestral home. Beams ran across for support, and the old wood floor lay bare and scuffed.
The entire thing was one room, though. His place. A gift from Aunt Sara and Uncle Grissom.
Even in his mid-thirties, he longingly looked at the childhood bed with awe. Surrounded by 'treasures' he smiled with childish delight. The sloped ceiling sported a range of model airplanes, and Mark could remember dreaming of being a fighter pilot. Cases of butterflies framed a small window nearby, and beyond it all lay a magical place.
He could brood here, should he wish. In fact, he had many times. Always, Grissom or Sara would leave him to his thoughts. As he'd aged, they had trusted him to speak when he needed and be silent when it was best. From them, he'd learned to use his words carefully, and always with integrity. In this, they'd taught him that noise wasn't necessary, although sometimes welcome.
As the sun began to fade, he flicked on a light, chuckled at the joy of being here and stripped down. Tossing his dusty clothes off to the side, Mark climbed in, still irritated that Sara had climbed the stairs to change the bedding, but also glad of the feel. After a long day's work, nothing felt better than clean, crisp sheets.
Pulling out his cell phone, he hit speed dial.
"Hey, Mark," the sultry feminine voice said on the other end of the line. "How is she?"
"She's handling it remarkably well," Mark replied. "In fact, she's handling it better than I thought she would." Pausing for a moment, he thought back to the state of the study when he'd arrived. There was still hours left to do on it, but at least it was organized and ready to be packed. One thing still bothered him, and he finally said, "She tried to pack it herself, Danny."
"Oh no," Danny replied. "Tell me you stopped her."
"Of course," Mark stated. "I'll be finishing up tomorrow, although I won't be home until late. She's lonely." Thinking of all the boxes riddling the house, Mark choked up a little. The basement had been cleaned out – boxed up and moved out. Much of the rest of the house waited for movers to take it all away.
A piece at a time, the character and joy of the house dwindled as it was loaded into cardboard and stacked in the foyer. Soon, even his palace would be gone – his place of childish dreams. The storage closet up here already had been moved out.
"The kids and I will come tomorrow afternoon, once school is out," Danny stated.
"Thanks," Mark whispered, feeling the first signs of emptiness really reach deep.
"Sleep well, love," Danny whispered in return, before he shut his phone and reached for the light switch. As the lights in the room fell dark, the end of the day settled upon him. Closing his eyes, he thought of his father, and then he thought of Grissom. At that very moment, he missed them both.
X X X
"Sara? What do you want me to do with this?" Mark asked, holding up a tennis racket he'd just pulled from behind a filing cabinet.
From her position on the stool, she turned in a stiff fashion, and he asked, "Are you all right?"
"Just a touch of arthritis. I'm fine," she said, slowly rising from her seat. The wince on her face wasn't very convincing to Mark.
"Please, don't get up," Mark said, and Sara just waved at him in dismissal.
"I need a walk," she stated, dropping the contents of her hands into the nearest box. "Walk with me around the trail out back."
Wandering down the hallway and through the large, comfortable kitchen, Mark stopped long enough to grab a water bottle from the fridge. Stepping through the back door, he inhaled deep and smelled a storm coming in. He let the rising humidity caress his skin. The shade from the trees in the back of the house held the heat of the day at bay, although the high temperatures still caused a slick drop a perspiration to suddenly gather and slide down his spine.
"This place has been my home for many years," Sara said, linking her hand stiffly, as Mark crooked his arm. "Do you know that we got married right over there by that copse of peach trees?"
Waving her hand, Mark thought what their wedding must have been like. He knew he'd been six years old before they'd actually 'done the deed'. Sitting around the table on the closed-in veranda out back, Grissom had suddenly blurted, "Happy anniversary." Mark had to laugh, because Grissom had surprised himself by remembering.
Most women would probably be a little pissed if their husband forgot their anniversary. Sara just threw her head back and laughed.
"I'll bet you were a beautiful bride," Mark stated, thinking of a statuesque Sara, dressed in a beautiful gown, nearly floating toward the trees.
"I slipped and fell in the mud," she replied, grinning up at him. "And I wasn't wearing white – it just didn't seem right, considering it symbolizes virginity and..."
"And boy, do I not need to hear this," Mark stated, wincing slightly at Sara's comment. When she laughed, he couldn't help but shrug and feel his face flush with embarrassment. Some things a man just didn't need to know. And he really didn't want to know about their sex life. It ranked up there with walking in on his parents when he was fifteen.
As they wended their way through that very copse of peach trees, Mark's mouth watered. Before long, he'd be able to reach up and pluck a sweet Georgia peach from a limb before sinking his teeth…
No he wouldn't. Soon, the place would stand empty. The grounds over which he walked would be owned by someone else. It wouldn't be the place that held his fondest memories; nor would it be the place to which he'd gravitated after dropping out of UNLV years before. Magic that had kept him coming back would fade. In its place, only memories would exist, and he'd have to live with that.
"This was my first real permanent home. It wasn't just a house to me," Sara said, leading them through willows. The path thinned, until it suddenly burst out onto a field of lilacs. Weeping birch trees framed the meadow, with their branches dripping down and nearly touching the ground. The thin gurgling of a natural spring filled the air. "I fell in love with the house, and when I saw this meadow, I never wanted to leave. So Gil bought me the house and married me."
Stopping a few steps in, Mark turned to face her, and placed his large palms on Sara's shoulders.
"Aunt Sara, I can only hope that Danny and I have as many years of happiness as you and Uncle Grissom," he earnestly stated.
"Thank you, Mark," she replied, pulling him in for a hug.
With his arms around her, Mark glanced around and smiled wistfully. He would, indeed, miss this place. "You're welcome," he murmured.
X X X
Early afternoon found Mark standing alone in the center of the study. The shelves held nothing but dust, and all the boxes had been marked and moved to the foyer. The lone remaining box, filled with pictures, sat on the desk with its lid open. Smirking at the photograph in his hand, he thought back to when it had been taken.
More than a decade before, Mark had walked into his third literature class and promptly walked back out. He'd had more than enough of college.
Sara chose that moment to enter, only to stop short just inside the door. Silence reigned, broken only by the hum of the air conditioning. For a moment, she just stared. Suddenly, to Mark's dismay, tears began to roll down her cheeks. He never handled tears well – especially when a strong woman shed them.
If his own heart broke a little a little at the emptiness of the place, he could only imagine what Sara must feel. Desperately, he approached and did the first thing that came to mind – he tried a trick he might try on his kids.
He diverted her.
"Remember this, Sara?"
To Mark's relief, she immediately closed her eyes, took a couple of calming breaths, and held out a shaky hand for the photograph. Gently placing it in her palm, he waited while she stared. Time stood still, and so did his breath. Nothing made a man feel more like a helpless sap than knowing he couldn't mend a broken heart.
He finally took a reasonable breath when she looked up at him and offered a wobbly smile.
"You were going through your biker phase," she said. The warble in her voice faded as she steadied, and she added, "You ran away from home."
"I was nineteen," he gently retorted. "Nineteen-year-olds don't run away from home."
"You worried your parents sick," she gently chided. "You simply disappeared. Not even a phone call until you showed up here."
Engulfing her hands with his, they stared at the picture between them.
"I wasn't running away, though," he said. "I found what I needed right here." When her eyes shifted up to meet his, he continued, "Moving here gave me a chance to open my construction company. I met Danielle… had my kids. I was running to my destiny."
"Wearing chaps," Sara stated, with a wobbly grin.
"Hey, those chaps saw me all the way from Vegas," Mark countered, feigning a look of hurt. "Don't talk about my chaps that way."
When Sara handed the picture back, she gave the man a smile and said, "I think we should go sit on the front porch and sip some iced tea."
"Sounds good to me," he agreed, amiably standing at her side and slinging an arm lazily over her shoulder.
X X X
Rocking back and forth on a hanging porch swing, Sara and Mark silently sipped tea and stared off into the hazy mist of the storm that slowly settled in around them. The smell of fresh rain always made him smile.
The crunching sound of a car creeping up the gravel drive had them both looking onto the driveway. Expecting to see Danny and their kids arrive, Mark was surprised instead to see a rental car pull to a stop – its tinted windows hiding the occupants.
"You expecting someone?" he asked, rising languidly. Not waiting for a response, he headed toward the vehicle. The sound of the wind chimes out front tinkled lightly as he passed between the columns at the top of the porch steps. Curiosity crept up, but he had to smile when the driver's door opened and his father stepped out.
A silver-haired Greg Sanders grinned at his youngest child, waving animatedly. Mark couldn't remember a time when his father didn't do everything with energy.
After he left the LVPD, Greg had found himself at loose ends with too much time on his hands, and had put all his gusto into his career as an author. His parents had finally settled into a small condo in southern California, where Greg could be closer to his agent and publisher. Not that they could sit still for five minutes.
For the last few years, Mark had received postcards from all over the country as his parents had flitted from one book-signing to another, or from one set of grandkids to another. They were having the time of their life.
"Watcha doin' here, old man?" Mark asked, grinning.
"I didn't want to miss this," Greg responded, as the passenger door opened and his mother emerged. Then to his surprise, the back door of the sedan opened as well.
Mark heard the grumbling before he saw the grumbler.
"Greg, age hasn't helped your driving skills one bit," Grissom sternly stated.
"Yet you don't complain about Sara's driving," Greg retorted, rolling his eyes.
"I don't sleep with you," Grissom grunted.
Mark stifled a laugh when Greg muttered, "Thank God for that," under his breath. Stepping forward, Mark held out on arm and let the old man latch on.
"Welcome home, Grissom," he said. "I thought you were meeting us in California? Is your workshop at UCLA over? I thought the plan was for Sara to fly out in a couple of days."
"It's been over for two days, and I got tired of waiting for her," Grissom replied. Then the old man gave Mark a smile that reminded him of the pictures he'd seen of Grissom fifty years ago. That sparkle that could just barely be seen in pictures shone through vividly in his eyes, and Mark laughed.
"Your father was bored," Melanie Sanders said. "When Gil told us he was coming out to escort Sara back to California, we decided to join him."
During the explanation, Mark made out the sound of another vehicle driving toward the house. The trees and brush still hid it from view, but as it closed in, Mark said, "That's probably Danny and the kids," and watched his mother clasp her thin hands together and give him a dazzling smile.
"Oooh, grandkids to spoil and send home," she cooed.
Patting Mark's arm, Grissom toddled toward the porch steps, grasping the railing mightily and making his way up the steps slowly. At the top, he took a seat next to Sara and simply clasped her hand with his own as she set them to sway in the porch swing.
In barely a minute, cries of "Daddy!" were interrupted with gleeful screams of "Grandma! Grandpa!" as Mark's little heathens completely bypassed him toward richer grounds. Grandma carried sweets in her purse.
As everyone spoke over each other and Mark hugged Danny close, he whispered into her ear, "I'm going to miss this place."
Her squeeze of reassurance was welcome, given the circumstances. Emotion of the last weeks packing up the house fell into place and he held her tighter. He really hated saying goodbye – always had, much like his father. Not only was he losing a place that drew him in time and again, but two people he loved dearly were moving clear across the country to a place where they might be closer to their origins. He didn't begrudge them the move, since they had every right to spend their last days wherever they wished.
"What's with the maudlin face?" Grissom yelled in a raspy voice from the porch, and Mark looked up and attempted to school his features.
"I'm fine," Mark replied, leading the group as they made their way up the steps.
"This old place has served us well," the old man stated. Standing up, he walked over to Mark and patted his arm. "I've enjoyed living here."
Glancing over at Sara, he said, "It's time to go, honey."
Surprised, Mark blurted, "You're not leaving for a couple of days." It was too soon.
"Yes," Sara solemnly stated before taking the few steps over to her husband. "In fact, our flight is tonight."
"But the movers…"
"Will be here in the morning to collect everything," Sara finished for Mark. At which point he realized that she didn't look at all surprised by the sudden change of events.
"You knew?" Mark asked in a hushed voice, staring at her incredulously.
"Yes, I knew I would be leaving today," she replied with a smile.
Feeling bereft at the abrupt change of events, Mark stared at the white-washed boards of the porch, until he felt Sara's hand on his crossed arms. When he looked up, he didn't try to hide the emotion behind his eyes when he said, "It's hard to say goodbye after all these years."
"You'll visit us," she affirmed. "We'll only be a few blocks down from your parents."
"I know," Mark lamented, shaking his head – unable to explain.
"And you won't have time to miss this place," Grissom stated.
Confused, Mark stared at the man in front of him, not knowing how to even ask what he meant. Instead, he continued to hold the old man's gaze… until he felt the old man press something hard into his palm. Breaking the stare, Mark pulled out his hand that he'd fisted around the object and opened his hand.
In it lay a key – shiny and new.
"What?" Mark asked, looking from Grissom to Sara, not comprehending.
"It's yours," Sara said, smiling. "In some ways, it always has been."
Through the whoops and cheers of his wife and parents, Mark simply stared between the couple in front of him. Slowly, it all began to sink in, and he turned to look at the massive windows looking out over the front with awe.
"You are as close to us as our own child," Sara stated. "In a way, you were our gift, as was this home. It has always belonged as much to you as to us."
"I don't know what to say," Mark murmured.
"Then don't," Grissom gruffly stated. "Just be happy here."
Mark's mind hummed with white noise as he tried to take in what had just happened. The key in his hand was significant, but his mind just couldn't comprehend it fully yet. Then he squeezed so hard, the edges of the object bit into his palm, making him wince. He'd effectively just pinched himself, and he smiled.
Turning to his wife, Mark thought of the possibilities – of raising their kids there – and smiled.
Leaning down, he kissed his wife's cheek and said, "As an expert in the field, I'd say those old rafters can handle a lot of weight, don't you?" With a wicked grin, he asked, "Think we can fit a king-size waterbed in the attic?"