I do not own Garden of Shadows or any of its characters, likenesses, or places. They belong to V.C. Andrews.

"I don't care what the causes were—she made a mockery of the service! Have you forgotten that tomorrow is Monday and we are due back at the offices? How do you expect us to walk through those doors and still manage to hold our heads high?"

Malcolm had barely paused for breath from the moment the door of the trophy room had slammed shut. Alicia was in the nursery with Christopher and Joel, and Olivia had taken Mal for a boat ride around the lake. I had never cared for shouting, believing in the concept of there being better, more efficient ways of solving problems. Malcolm had always had a temper…something he'd inherited from his mother. Being the object of his wrath always left me feeling more like one of his children than his father. But he didn't see me as his father—he hadn't for many years, and therefore felt warranted to treat me as his adversary.

"For years I had to strive to gain the respect of my employees," Malcolm flared. "For that to be taken from me owing to the actions of one foolish child is not an option! Respect is something to be earned, not handed out on a silver platter—do you honestly think I can demand that respect back once it's been lost?"

"Malcolm!" I roared, for I could make my voice as loud and pompous as his when the need arose. "Control yourself! Aside from my own respect, you haven't lost a thing…not one God-given right! Now cease this childish tantrum immediately before you give yourself a stroke."

Malcolm, his nostrils flaring like a bull's as it's preparing to charge, did cease his tantrum—but not until he slammed his fist into the side of the bookshelf. A short time ago, he had transferred the glass elephant from the library across the hall and into the trophy room with his other artifacts. The elephant was sitting on the bookshelf as he struck it with his fist, which caused the toy to roll off the shelf. It struck the wooden panel hard, causing the man on top to break off on impact. Malcolm took no notice, and instead slammed out of the room.

I was left standing all alone, shaking in the aftermath of my son's tempestuous storm. Why had I come back here? Had some part of me had the foolish hope of finding a way of reconciling with Malcolm or, even more foolishly, the hope that he'd forgiven me? Not one letter or even a telephone call had I received in the twelve years since he'd gone off to study at Yale. That should have been enough evidence to convince me, and yet…yet I'd continued to dream the impossible. Dream like I had of Corrine turning back up in my life after she'd left me to raise Malcolm on my own. From the time I was an infant, life had treated me unjustly. But just when I thought I'd been dealt all the wrong cards, fate had taken pity on me and given me the card I needed to win the game. That lucky card I'd been dealt was Alicia, the love of my life and the one who gave me a reason to open my eyes each morning.

I barely noticed the tears that had begun to streak my cheeks until I perceived what sounded like a small choke. As far as I knew, Iwas the only one present in the room—and so it was none other than I who'd made the sound. My eyes scanned over the taxidermies mounted on the walls; for a split second I wondered if their spirits were watching me, having fun at my expense as payback for what I'd done to them. Then I laughed, feeling foolish for even considering such an absurd possibility. Going over to the desk, I squatted down on my knees and picked up the pieces of the damaged toy. There was a place in Charlottesville I could take it to be repaired, though I knew it wouldn't matter one way or the other to Malcolm. His childhood had ended long ago, though that end had come much sooner than it ought to have. I thought of this as I examined the objects in my hands, and then stood up to set them down in the center of the desk.

As I exited the trophy room, I switched off the light and closed the door as I stepped out into the foyer. Malcolm was nowhere in sight, and for this I was grateful. I had no desire to see him after how he'd spoken to me or the way he'd spoken of Alicia. All I wanted now was to join my wife, son, and grandson in the nursery.

I arrived to find Christopher and Joel sleeping peacefully in their respective cribs, but Alicia was nowhere to be seen. Then I remembered how she'd mentioned in the limousine her desire to take a bath upon our return to Foxworth Hall. But when I dashed across the hallway to our bedroom to check the adjoining bath, I discovered it empty. Her bottles of oils and lotions sat on the edge of the tub, and a fresh towel sat draped over the gold bar on the wall. Other than that, there was no evidence to show that the room had been recently occupied. In a wave of panic I raced out and back down the stairway, repeatedly calling Alicia's name.

My cries provoked no response, and as a result my terror increased one hundred times over.

Like the wild beasts I'd once hunted, I burst through the front door of Foxworth Hall and out into the bright May sunshine. Olsen was prolifically trimming the rose bushes, and hurriedly I raced over to him. In what I was sure sounded like a garbled slur of words, I asked him if he'd seen Alicia any time after our return to the mansion. When he said no, I pivoted and fled in the direction of the lake.

Next to the parlor that accommodated the piano of which she was so fond, the lake was Alicia's favorite of Foxworth Hall's dwellings. If she wasn't in the parlor, and if I didn't find her down at the lake, then I had no idea where else she could be. It was all coming back to me now…my memories of waking up that inauspicious morning more than thirty years ago to discover Corrine had left me. I'd spent hours looking for her, checking all of her favorite rooms a dozen or so times each, until at last I uncovered the note she'd left. In it she described how she could no longer cope with the responsibilities of motherhood, let alone as my wife. She still loved Malcolm—that would never change. But she'd found someone else who could please her, a younger man who could fulfill her needs as I never had or could. I still had that note stashed away someplace, though I could no longer remember where that someplace was. I had no idea why I'd kept it, or what I'd do with it if I ever found it.

I reached the lake just as Olivia and Mal were returning from their boat ride. Upon our return to Foxworth Hall, she had exchanged her colorful gown for one of many conservative gray dresses that hung in her closet. The makeup was gone from her face, and the gray had been restored to what was the loneliest pair of eyes I'd ever seen. Looking into her eyes was often like looking into a mirror, for I saw myself a child again. Saw myself peering through the windows in the attic schoolroom, as I longed for the freedom to run and play with other children.

Olivia was in the process of lifting Mal up onto the docks and setting him down as I called to my daughter-in-law from the grassy shore.

"Olivia, have you seen Alicia?"

While Mal ran to greet me, Olivia climbed out of the boat and began to tie the rope attached to the dock's post to it. "The last time I spoke with her was shortly before Mal and I departed for the lake. She'd just fed Christopher and was putting Joel down for a nap. She said something about going to find a book to take with her into the bathtub."

Mal latched onto my leg and I reached down to ruffle his hair, before continuing my conversation with his mother. "Did she specify the room from which she planned to retrieve the book?"

"I had assumed she was referring to the downstairs library. I tried to tell her Malcolm wouldn't be pleased to find watermarks on the pages of his books, but she was so insistent that she have something to read. So I suggested she take something from the upstairs library instead, since it's rarely ever used."

"Grandpa, can I have a horsey ride?" Mal asked.

"Mal, stop pestering your grandfather," Olivia ordered. "Let's go back to the house and bake a nice batch of chocolate chip cookies. Would you like that?"

"Yay! Chocolate chip!"

I hadn't heard a word of the conversation since Olivia's supposition of Alicia's whereabouts. Malcolm and I had entered the trophy room no more than ten minutes after returning to Foxworth Hall. I'd gone upstairs with Alicia and Joel to change clothes and check on Christopher.

Afterward I'd headed back down—this time to the kitchen, where I put in a request with Mrs. Wilson for some chamomile tea. Alicia was still gravely beside herself over the events at the cathedral, and I felt it would take more than a bath to calm her nerves.

It was during my return to the nursery that Malcolm met me on the stairway and asked me to join him in the trophy room. Feeling like George Washington after having been found guilty of chopping down the cherry tree, I'd gone obediently to meet my fate.

Had Alicia, for some unknown reason, been inside the trophy room when I'd arrived? Had she been there when Malcolm come through the door and hidden herself away to keep from being discovered? If she had entered the room before us, and if she had concealed herself somewhere, then she'd obviously succeeded. As far as I'd known, the only witnesses to Malcolm's and my dispute were the beasts lining the walls. The door was closed and had been bolted shut, while the walls themselves were as thick as brick. No one could have heard the words exchanged between us unless they were somewhere in that room.

And then I remembered the nearly inaudible—yet evident—cry I had heard shortly before departing the trophy room. I had been so certain at the time that it had been me that I'd blatantly ignored it. But Olivia's previous explanation had given me the opportunity to reassess my previous convictions. How absurd I'd been to entertain the idea that Alicia would leave me for the same reasons as Corrine had! I should know by now how much Alicia loved me; that her devotion to me was more than adequate proof that she didn't possess one selfish bone in her body. For she was the sweetest, most beautiful, charming, benevolent person I had ever had the pleasure of knowing. I would have gotten down on my knees and thanked God for sending her to me, had I not suddenly recalled one very crucial detail.

The lights! I had switched them off upon leaving the trophy room! Not only that, but I'd closed the door as well! If Alicia was trapped inside the room, then she was sure to be terrified. For her to be inside during the daylight was one thing. But if it was dark or after the sun had set behind the clouds, she all but refused to set foot inside. If she did, then she would beg me to escort her. After all, there was nothing more terrifying than seeing wild animals seemingly prepared to fly from the walls in half-lit darkness. Even I had to admit to feeling a little shaken, each time I passed by the trophy room at night and the door had been left ajar.

Mal—too keen on the idea of spending an afternoon baking cookies with his mother—paid little attention to my departure. All the way back to Foxworth Hall I raced, feeling like a participant in a running competition. Except there were no other competitors, and the only prize I sought was the security of my precious bride. If any harm had come to her because of the hideous things Malcolm had said, then I swore it would be eternity before I forgave him.

I was surprised to encounter Mrs. Steiner upon my return. She was standing at the front door, her hands folded together over her breast. The expression on her face implied that trouble waited beyond that door, and I felt a lump rise in my throat. Suddenly she began to rattle off in her thick German accent the reason why I had been unable to trace Alicia's whereabouts. Mrs. Steiner talked so quickly, and many times her distress caused her to resort to speaking in her native tongue. But I was able to comprehend the rundown of what she expressed to me—which was that Alicia had somehow inadvertently gotten herself locked inside the trophy room.

"I had just come from the kitchen," Mrs. Steiner explained, "when I heard the pounding on the door. It must have jammed the last time it was closed, because I could not for the life of me pry it open. I sent Helena to fetch Olsen, and he used a crowbar to force it open. Your wife was on the other side, curled up on the floor behind the sofa. When we asked her to tell us what had happened, she refused to move or to speak—or couldn't. She was still in the room when I left to find you…Helena is with her, trying to get her to communicate I assume. Your wife is—"

"Frightened," I concluded. "She's frightened, that's all, of the dark, and of what's on the walls. She'll come out of it once she sees me, I'm sure. Thank you for your assistance, Mrs. Steiner."

Mrs. Steiner's apprehensive expression relaxed, and she nodded before stepping aside to bid me entry to the mansion. I said nothing as I crossed the foyer and strode past the kitchen where Mrs. Wilson came to peer out at me. I hurried toward the stairway and raced up the steps like a madman, my heart pounding all the while.

My mind drifted back to a time not long ago—to an afternoon much like this one. Malcolm and I had just returned from the office, and I was stunned by the absence of Alicia. She was always there to greet me with not only kisses and hugs, but an assortment of endless questions pertaining to my day. Questions I was always more than happy to answer with explanations that never failed to delight her.

Alicia was due to give birth any day now. When I learned from Olivia that my wife had gone up to the attic, I immediately feared the worst.

Of course, Alicia was perfectly fine. She stood in a cleared corner of the attic, busily amusing herself before a mirror with a trunk full of Corrine's old dresses. Alicia had done the garments justice, certainly, and I took pleasure in watching her struggle to make many of them go past her belly. It was an absolutely charming sight to behold, so charming that I exposed myself by tittering slightly.

She spun around then, holding the magenta ball gown up to herself. "'Why, Garland! You startled me!'"

"'I'm sorry, my darling,'" I replied, stepping out of the shadows and strolling over to her side. "'But Olivia said you came up here and I was worried.'" Placing my finger beneath Alicia's chin, I tilted back her head and placed a soft kiss on her lips. "'What made you want to come up into this dusty old attic, anyway?'"

"'I wanted to explore. From the way Olivia described it, she made it sound like a place where one can easily lose themselves. So I decided to come up and see for myself exactly what all the fuss was about.'"

"'I was afraid you would get lost up here.'" The very thought of such danger befalling either Alicia or our child was enough to summon forth tears to my eyes. "'Darling, it isn't safe up here. You might've tripped over a wire, or a heavy object could have fallen on you. I want you to promise me you will never come up here by yourself again.'"

She sensed the apprehension in my voice, while my eyes swam—as I'm sure they did—with the thought of what could have potentially occurred. She nodded genuinely, and then stepped forward to curl her arms around me reassuringly. With my wife now safe in my arms, I finally allowed the tears to reach the perimeter of my eyes and fall.

Alicia hardly minded my reaction, and stepped back to gaze up at me. She smiled sweetly, her eyes shining with incredible passion—the sort of passion expressed by those who are so desperately in love. Taking my face in her hands, she stood on tiptoe and ever so gently began to kiss away my tears.

It was there, in the attic schoolroom where I had spent so many lonely childhood days, that I embraced the woman who loved me and the child I had no reason to doubt would.

Olsen was standing before the now lit trophy room when I arrived, the door swung wide open. I nodded at him, indicating my gratitude for his earlier services.

Aside from all of its furnishings, I saw nothing beyond the door of the trophy room. And yet I was drawn through them like a moth to a flame, for I knew what awaited me on the inside.

Just as Mrs. Steiner had guaranteed she would be, Alicia was laying on the floor behind the couch. Alicia's knees were drawn up to her chin, and she had her arms wrapped tightly around her legs. The last time I'd seen her, she was still wearing my sport jacket. Since then, she had exchanged it for her own white dressing gown. Helena was knelt beside her, stroking her back in a motherly manner even though the two were, presumably, the same age. When Helena saw me advancing toward them, she stood up and went to join Olsen in the hallway.

"Alicia, my love," said I, speaking softly lest I startle her. "To look at you one would assume that the Civil War was ensuing right outside this room."

When she didn't answer, I sank to my knees and rolled her over to face me. Still not saying a word, she reacted by situating herself into a sitting position. I hoped that my wide shoulders would be enough to block from her view the beasts behind me.

"Are you all right?"

Her large blue eyes—made all the larger by her fear—became even wider as they met mine. She nodded, and I watched tears fill her eyes like blood in a fresh wound.

"I met Olivia down by the lake," I went on. "She mentioned something about you venturing into the idle library for a book. But what made you come in here, of all places? I thought you despised this room?"

"I wasn't intending to come in here," Alicia said at last. "But then I heard footsteps, and I suppose I panicked." Her voice sounded strange, as if she had a sore throat, though not enough so that I couldn't understand her. "Knowing that this room and both libraries belong to Malcolm, I assumed it was him. My first thought was to run in here, so that's what I did, and ducked behind the sofa. Then when I saw it was you, I saw no reason to continue with my deception. But before I could do anything I heard more footsteps, followed by Malcolm's voice and the sound of the door slamming. Being trapped, I knew there was nothing I could do, lest I expose myself and provoke his wrath. So I stayed where I was, crouched in a fetal position, listening to him take out on you something that he should have taken out on me. I'm well aware that he detests me…I've known it since just after we came here. He thinks I'm too young, that I'm far too childish and inexperienced to be your wife and the mother of your child."

Tenderly I placed the tips of my fingers over her lips to quiet her. It broke my heart to see her like this—to see her taking the word of someone who held so little respect for her, as well as for me. Though it was true that her youth and innocence were two of the things that had first attracted me to her, it was her compassion for all those around her that had won my heart. She could look at someone like Malcolm and see a misunderstood human being; a man who had gone through life feeling hatred towards a father who'd once disregarded him and a mother who'd forever deserted him. Although she was more than ten years his junior, Alicia could have been the mother Malcolm needed if only he'd let her in. But he'd rejected her, seeming to grow more and more opposed to every drop of kindness she showered him with.

"Don't," I said. "You mustn't think that way, my darling. Malcolm says things in the heat of the moment, but none of it is intended to be taken seriously. He is a complex man, and there are those who are complex who don't always consider their words as carefully as they should. Malcolm is one of them. He has a mind like an adding machine. For the information he distributes is beset with as many inaccuracies as it is accuracies."

"I suppose I know now what you meant, when you told me how sorry you felt for Olivia being married to a man like Malcolm."

"I was jesting." I chortled as I thumbed the tears away from my wife's eyes; it was so flattering the way she was able to recall every last thing I said and did. "But yes, in a way I was speaking the truth. Although I wished it, I never did envision him as the type who would one day settle down. You remember my surprise when we first came here and learned of his marriage to Olivia."

"I thought it spiteful the way your own son hadn't even thought to invite you to his wedding," Alicia stated. "Especially when you all but begged him to come to ours."

"Groveling always has been the worst out of all my qualities—my former wife could easily verify that for you."

Alicia never objected to my mentions of Corrine…on the contrary, Alicia even went as far as to encourage them. "It's all right with me that you still think of her," Alicia whispered softly, cupping my face in her hands as she gazed deeply into my eyes. "And if you miss her, then I understand that, too. I've seen the way Malcolm looks at you every time you mention her. The subject of his mother is obviously difficult for him, but not so much for you. I remember the day you found me up in the attic, trying on your wife's old dresses. How your expression was a fusion of mutual pleasure and sorrow…and immediately I understood why. To know you still think of the woman who wronged you makes the fires of my desire for you burn that much stronger. You are the sweetest man who ever walked God's green earth, Garland Foxworth, and I want to spend the rest of my life being the best wife I can by you."

Alicia kissed me then, drawing my face and body slowly forward. She fell back on the floor, murmuring contentedly as I followed, my fingers playing through her hair. It was in the back of my mind to acknowledge the presence that there were others nearby, and to keep things between my wife and myself casual. But I had spent twenty agonizing minutes wallowing beneath the impression that she had deserted me. Now that I'd been proven wrong, I was not about to take for granted even one moment we spent together.

"How very precious you are to me, my love," I confessed. "And how much it would break my heart if there ever comes a time where you vanish from my life."

"That will never happen, my darling," Alicia swore, fixing her eyes earnestly on my face. "How can it when the very thought of spending even one night away from you makes me weep?"

Alicia was the type of person whose mind was so easily conquered by emotion. She had an ardor for romantic novels and poetry, and more often than not her vocalizations were a reflection of these passions. She was what my brother would have called 'a free spirit'; it was regrettable that the two had never met, for I knew they would have gotten on like a house on fire. Like Alicia, Jonathan had the ability to see only the best in those around him—a skill that had merely improved with age. Even when Adelaide, our younger sister, would taunt me for being her 'older, weaker brother', Jonathan always told me in his unpretentiously, serene way to be patient with her.

"'She's younger than you are, Garland,'" he said one afternoon, as the two of us sat outside admiring the lake, "'and she's angry with Mother and Father for refusing to let her attend school with her friends. I realize it may not seem so, but Adelaide doesn't hold us responsible for our sheltered lifestyle. She knows you can help your breathing condition about as much as I can help not being able to walk.'"

I was fourteen then, the age where most children start becoming exceptionally temperamental. Being confined to an attic schoolroom five days a week for eight years was a constant reminder of all I was missing on the other side. I couldn't even feel the warm breezes of spring and summer on my face, because my parents insisted on keeping the windows locked at all times. So terrified were they that any spores in the air would send me into an asthmatic fit from which I would never recover. As a result I'd grown hardened, and with the onset of puberty I was quickly becoming more so. Besides my brother, Nathaniel Evans was my only other friend (on the outside), along with an exasperating sister I tolerated merely because it was expected of me.

"'Is that why she hit me in the head with that damned wooden horse the other day,'" I asked Jonathan, "'then ran off laughing before I could catch her and give her what she deserved?'"

Jonathan chuckled. I scowled, disapproving of his reaction. "'She's eight—you can't hit an eight-year-old when you're fourteen, let alone a girl. Being the son of a southern gentleman, I would have thought you'd have learned that years ago.'"

What I had learned was a great deal from that concise conversation with my older brother. Although it would be many years before I would come to appreciate its significance, I would look back on that afternoon at the lake many times with admiration. An admiration for not only my brother, who was wise beyond his years, but an admiration for his incredible patience. Not to mention the way a man should always treat a woman, as well as how to understand them. Jonathan was twenty-five then, and very much an adult. And yet, he never made this fact more evident than was necessary. Always did he speak to me as well as to Adelaide as though we were of his own generation. His behavior was so out of context with that of the other adults we knew. As I grew older, and especially after I began courting Alicia, I speculated on the idea that Jonathan's respect for younger individuals had influenced my own for Alicia and the way I saw her.


Like a tranquil melody, Alicia's sweet voice drew me pleasantly away from dreams of the past and into the reality of the present. I had carried her from the trophy room and up the stairway to our bedroom. Now we were lying side by side across our bed, cradled in each other's arms. Alicia's tears had ceased some time ago, and she looked as though she had just awoken from a lovely dream. Her velvet-soft lips pressed themselves to my own as her hand reached for mine, drawing it toward her abdomen. Although she was no longer pregnant, she still enjoyed the feeling of my hand there, even if all that remained was a small patch of post-baby softness. It was, honestly, rather becoming on what had always been her perfect hourglass figure. I was more than happy to please her in any way I could; especially at the expense of the charming blush that enveloped her cheeks and the way her girlish giggles echoed in my ears, as my hand made contact with her skin.

"Where were you just now?" Alicia asked me, as my hand slid up her dressing gown.

"Whatever do you mean by that, my love? I've done nothing else but lay by your side this entire time."

"No, you adorable, absentminded, southern gentleman." She laughed, stretching her short yet shapely legs as I caressed the warmth of her soft stomach. "I was referring to what you were thinking of."

"Oh." I blushed, an act which won me yet another kiss on the lips from my wife. What was it about my words and actions that enamored her so? "I was thinking of my childhood."

"Oh." She seemed surprised, as if she'd expected me to admit to something entirely different. "Which part?"

"Just in relation to being fourteen."

"I can imagine you at fourteen. I'll bet you were as sweet then as you are now, and that every girl in hindsight had their eye on you."

"On the contrary," I answered, and laughed more to myself than in response to her observations. "I was quite the opposite."

Alicia gasped, pulling back to stare at me in disbelief. "But you were so handsome! How could anyone in their right mind not adore you as I do?"

"Looks had nothing to do with it. Being cooped up like a bird in a cage five days a week in an attic schoolroom left me with little time for socializing—not to mention girls."

"How sad…were you very sad?" she asked, her voice suddenly full of pity.

"Sometimes. And there were others in which I would grow angry; both in my lack of friendships, and for not being able to go outside. There were times when I'd awaken in the middle of the night and sneak out to the lake, just to get some fresh air. My condition wasn't as serious as my parents suspected. There were many things I could have done that wouldn't endanger my health, but they were so terrified they refused to permit it. Jonathan was the only one who ever treated me in a way that made me feel that I was just like everyone else."

"What happened to him? Your brother?"

"He died," I said, "of heart failure, the same as our father. Jonathan was Best Man at my first wedding, and he would have been again at ours. He died the same year Malcolm entered high school. Four years after that, Adelaide was killed in a boating accident. She was just two months shy of marrying her childhood sweetheart."

"Oh. Oh, Garland…I'm so sorry. How terrible that must have been for you, to have lost nearly everyone you ever cared about."

"You were my angel of mercy, appearing in my life just in time to save it. Jonathan died just after your father began working for me. If it hadn't been for the support of you and your family, then I don't know how I would have ever survived."

"I remember that. You came to our house one afternoon, looking as though you'd seen a ghost. Mother said you were sick, because she didn't want me to know you'd been drinking. She took you into Father's study, and a long time passed before any of you came out again. At one point, I thought I heard you crying. Then when I saw you again, I knew you'd been crying because of the way your eyes shone."

"Even as a child, you were always so perceptive. Why was that?"

Alicia shrugged, seemingly embarrassed by my compliment. "I'm not sure. My parents, as well as those who were acquainted with us, often wondered the same thing."

"Then I suppose all we can do is dismiss it as one of the many unexplained miracles of God."

"Just as our destiny to meet was one of His miracles."

Taking my hand—which was still beneath her dressing gown—I tickled her belly, making her giggle and squirm in my arms.

Sitting on the nightstand behind me were two steaming cups of chamomile tea that Mrs. Wilson had prepared for us. Beside the cups was a plate comprised of two chocolate-chip cookies, courtesy of Mal. He had made them especially for us, though not before forcing me to promise that the one shaped like a bird would go to Alicia. For me, he had made a cookie in the shape of an elephant like the one displayed in the trophy room (for some reason, those beasts didn't faze him one bit). Neither of the cookies resembled their intended targets, but what more can one expect from a three-year-old? And Mal—he had worked tirelessly to make for his grandmother and me tokens of his love for us. He had expressed so much concern for Alicia back at the cathedral, and on the way home insisted that he sit beside her in the limousine. ("Because, Daddy, if she falls down again, then I'll be there to catch her," he explained to his father, when Malcolm questioned the importance of his son sitting beside Alicia at every family event.)

"Mal has gone to great lengths to make each of us a little gift," I announced, sliding the plate off the nightstand and presenting it to Alicia. "In the form of desserts."

"Oh!" She beamed, pressing her hands to the sides of her face. "How lovely! They look like…like little animals. Are they animals?"

"According to Mal"—I pointed to the cookie he had made for Alicia—"this one is a bird. And this one here"—I indicated to the cookie beside it—"is an elephant."

"They're perfect!" She laughed, her hand hovering above the plate. "Which one is mine?"

"This one." Carefully, I picked up the bird-shaped cookie and handed it to Alicia. "He made me promise it would go to no one else but you, my love."

Taking the cookie, she held it up to examine it closely. "I think this looks very much like a bird—see? Here's its beak, and this part here is its tail. And these two pieces on the bottom are its feet."

"I must admit," I said, peering closely at my own cookie, "that yours is much more attractive than mine."

It was true. The cookie meant to resemble an elephant was as unattractive as it was comical. It was nothing more than a small, round blob with a long stick at the end, making it look more like a lollipop than an elephant.

"I'm sure it's delicious, though," Alicia proclaimed, just before biting off the tail of her bird. "Mine certainly is."

I followed her example, starting with the trunk of my elephant. Her words proved true…it was delicious! For some unknown reason, witnessing me snap the trunk off with my teeth caused her to burst into a loud, high-pitched cackle. Her reaction was contagious! Within seconds of disposing of my own cookie I had joined her in laughter, embracing her as I did so.

Terrible days come and go—and ours had been as terrible as they come. But rarely are terrible days complemented by an ending as delightful and blissful as ours was that Sunday afternoon in May.

~The End~