I do not own The Dollanganger Saga or any of its characters, likenesses, or places. They belong to V.C. Andrews.

A/N: For those of you who are waiting on the next chapter of Where the Flowers Bloom in Winter, yes, I am working on it, along with Chapter 17. However, I realized after I'd written both chapters that a change that will slightly alter the flow of the story is required, which is somewhat overwhelming since I've already finished writing the chapters. Therefore, it's going to take me a bit longer to post them. Especially since I'll be taking a two-week-long break from writing, in order to restore my muse, which seems to have been on an on/off switch these past two months. I know I don't usually take this long to get chapters up, and you have my sincerest apologies for that. In the meantime, here is a little one-shot centering around Bart Jr. that I hope will keep you all entertained until I get back. It's told entirely in "Bart SpeaK", and I'm sorry for his out-of-character-ness. The only excuse I have for that is that this story takes place in an alternate "Thorns" universe. John Amos seemingly "disappeared" early on, so Bart's horrible behavior and negative feelings toward women are non-existent. If you find this to be completely unbelievable, feel free to blame it on my stubborn determination to reform characters who are less than pleasant. Either that, or the fact that I was going on two and a half/three hours of sleep when the idea for this story came to me. ^^'


I sat watchin my momma and Jory with Cindy from the windowsill in the livin room. Daddy had bought a swing for Cindy, and Jory was helpin Momma set it up. Cindy was sittin on the floor beside her biggest brother, curious about all the hustle and bustle goin on. She'd been here a whole two weeks, and still nobody'd let me hold her! They all thought I was too clumsy and that I'd drop her like I'd dropped the pie Emma had made that mornin. Would not. Wasn't fair of 'em not to trust me with Cindy. Just like it wasn't fair the way I couldn't dance like Jory or feel pain like everybody else.

"Can I hold the baby?" I asked for the millionth time.

Momma looked up from the list of directions in her hands to smile at me. "For the last time, Bart, you're too young." (Too young? Was almost ten! She was just sayin I was too young to avoid hurtin my feelins.) "If you want to do something with Cindy, then come sit down and play with her."

"Yea! Barr-tie!" Cindy cried joyfully.

"See, Bart?" said Jory, pullin a piece of plastic off a long metal rod. "Cindy doesn't care what the two of you do, as long as you're spending time with her. She adores you."

If it wasn't for the delight on Cindy's face, I would've thought Jory was lyin as Momma had lied. Everybody was always tiptoein around me and my feelins. Hated when people did that. Hated it 'cause it reminded me of how different I was from everybody else. Hated knowin I was different. Made me feel weirder and dumber than usual—an outsider. And I didn't want that. Much as I loved her, I didn't wanna be like my granny who never went outside or talked to nobody but me. Wanted more than anythin to be just like the other kids at school. Kids who weren't clumsy and could walk ten steps without fallin flat on their face or bumpin into somethin.

"Barr-tie play with Cindy?"

"Sure," I said, feelin all the bad thoughts leave me as I slid down off the windowsill.

"Yay!" She cheered, clappin her chubby hands together.

Plopped down in front of her and began a game of peek-a-boo. She was only two, so there weren't many other games we could play that she'd be able to follow. At least peek-a-boo seemed like a safe bet. Was right! She got a real kick out of watchin me put my hands over my eyes and then take them away again. In no time I had her gigglin and mimickin my moves. Like my granny's hugs and kisses did, Cindy's laughter made me feel all warm and good inside. Havin this much fun even gave me an idea to make the game better. Picked up the large box the swing had come in and stood up. Turnin the box upside down I slipped it over my head. From my dark place I could hear Cindy squeal and clap her hands some more. Feeling encouraged, I began struttin about the room with the box over my head.

"Barr-tie fuh-nee! Fuh-nee Barr-tie!"

"Behold!" I declared, makin sure my voice sounded 'flamboyant' (one of the seven new words Daddy had told me and Jory we had to learn that week). "Or rather, do not behold! It is I, The One Whose Face Shall Never Be Seen! Do not question my reasons why, for I am very secretive and like my privacy! Bwahaha!"

Shoulda known my performance wouldn't have the endin I was hopin for. Shoulda known that entertainin Cindy would have its consequences. Shoulda thought to go a huntin for some scissors so's I could cut holes in the box. Maybe then I wouldn't have walked headlong into the table and knocked over the lamp and sent it crashin to the floor.

"Oh, Bart," Momma cried, "what have you done this time?"

"Nothin!" I hoisted the cardboard cause of all the trouble off my head and tossed it across the room.

Cindy stopped cheerin and clappin. Jory looked from the smashed ruins of the lamp to me. Momma just looked like she was gonna cry. The lamp I'd smashed had belonged to Daddy Paul, my real daddy.

"Bart, you knew that was my favorite lamp!" Even as tears came to her eyes, I could tell Momma was mad. "How many times have I told you not to play around it because of the risk of it getting broken?"

"It was an accident!" Just knowin I'd upset my momma enough to cry made me wanna cry too. But I forced back my tears. No way I was gonna let any of 'em see me cry, no sir! "I didn't do it on purpose!"

Jory got up and walked over to the scene of my latest unintentional crime. He knelt down and picked up the largest ceramic piece, examinin it. "You know, Mom, this lamp wasn't so broken that it can't be fixed. I'll go get a bottle of glue from the kitchen drawer and see what I can do."

"Thank you, Jory. That's very considerate of you." Momma looked at him like he really was a prince and not just some nice-lookin boy who could dance well. Why didn't she ever look at me like that? I glanced down at my own skinny legs. Couldn't remember a time where they weren't covered in cuts and bruises. Maybe that was it. Maybe my momma didn't like little boys who didn't have pretty legs like her Jory.

"Can I help you fix Momma's lamp, Jory?" I asked, wantin to do somethin—anythin—to make up for the mess I'd made.

"No, Bart," Momma said, and my heart sank. "Fixing the lamp is a task better left to someone Jory's age." Yeah, right. Was just her way of tellin me I'd only break it worse. "Your father will be home soon and then it will be time for dinner. You can go outside and play until then."

"Can I take Cindy with me?" There was no way Momma and Jory were gonna finish that swing any time soon if he was gonna be gluin her lamp back together. Thought I could take Cindy outside to my swing instead. She'd have more fun swingin on that one than she could some silly ole baby swing.

"No, she'll only get dirty. After dinner, if there's still some light left, we'll put her in her stroller and take a walk around the block together."

Couldn't do that. Had already promised Granny I'd go next-door and see her one last time before bed. If I didn't show up, she'd think I'd run away and left her like her own kids had. Didn't wanna do that. Loved my granny. Couldn't stand the thought of makin her cry like I'd made my momma cry.

Didn't say nothin to nobody as I left the livin room. Cindy hollered after me, but I didn't answer or turn back. What was the use when I wasn't even allowed to take her outside with me? I left through the front door, nearly trippin over Clover as he padded underfoot. Toe of my sneaker came down hard on his tail by mistake. He let out a loud howl of pain as if I'd shot him. Immediately I lifted my foot from his tail, watchin all guilty-like as he raced into the house. I shut the door after him and sunk down on the steps, feelin like I'd failed everyone I cared about in the whole wide world.

Momma had told me to go play, but I didn't feel like playin. Thought of goin to visit my granny, but I'd come from there not half an hour before. Had to play it safe and not wear out my welcome, as my daddy would've said. Granny might get bored seein too much of me, and I didn't want that. 'Specially when she seemed to be the only one who loved me besides Cindy and Apple.

I sat pickin at the two-day-old scabs on my knees 'til I decided I'd stayed outside long enough. I stood up and slipped back inside the house like a spy, bein careful not to make no noise.

Went back to the livin room to check if Cindy was still there. She wasn't, and neither was Momma or Jory. Decided next to check the kitchen for Cindy. Poked my head through the entryway, not seein 'er. Just Emma standin at the counter, bakin some kind of bread. Rolls, probably. Smelled meatloaf driftin from the oven and into my nostrils, makin me gag. Yuck! Hated meatloaf! Looked like the stuff I was always cleanin up in Apple's stall. Tasted like it too, I reckoned. Turned and hurried away down the foyer to the nursery.

Found Cindy in her crib. Thinkin she was nappin, I was about to leave her to dreams of marshmallow clouds and talkin puppy dogs when she called to me. Looked back to see her standin up, her little arms stretched toward me.

"Yay, Barr-tie! Come to play with Cindy?"

"Sorta." Havin no idea where Momma or Jory were, I shut the door quietly to avoid gettin caught. Already been scolded once today. Last thing I needed was to be punished for interruptin my baby sister's naptime. "You wanna go on an adventure with me, Cindy?"

"Yea! Ad-ven-chore!"

"Okay." I went over to the bureau to dig out somethin to replace the pink footie pajamas someone had put her in. Knowin how much she loved the color pink, it was probably Momma who'd done that. "But you gotta be quiet 'til we're outta the house. You think you can do that?"

Cindy giggled. I took that as a sign I could trust her.

Dressed her in a little sundress with yellow and white horizontal stripes. Momma or someone had taken out her pigtails. Retied 'em with the blue satin ribbons I found layin on the bureau's surface. Last of all I helped Cindy into a pair of white socks with lace trim, along with the new white sneakers Momma had bought her.

Once I had her all dressed and ready to go, I hoisted Cindy onto my back. Like criminals escapin from a prison, we stole our way silently down the foyer. Stroller was waitin for us by the front door, folded up and propped against the wall. I leaned to the side, usin one hand to hold Cindy as I threw open the door with the other. Took the stroller and pushed it out onto the porch, before steppin after it into the hot summer sunshine.

It hit me as I was helpin Cindy into her stroller that I shoulda thought to take along her bonnet. Couldn't have my sister gettin sunburned on my account. Was scared to go back inside. Scared that Momma or somebody might catch me and ask what Cindy and me were doin. Not wantin to risk it, I took the cowboy hat I was wearin and pulled it down over Cindy's head. Doin so hid the pigtails I'd worked so hard to make pretty. But what choice did we have? She had skin as fair as Momma's, so she'd tan easily. Maybe even get burned. I was darker and didn't have to worry about the sun so much. Besides, my hat didn't look half bad on Cindy. Kinda cute, actually. If she was good and didn't give me no trouble, maybe I'd even give it to her as a present.

Turned Cindy's stroller to face the sidewalk. "You ready to go, Cindy? You ready to have an adventure with brother Bart?"

"Ad-ven-chore! With bwuh-the Barr-tie?"

"'Course with me. Who else you know who's an expert adventurer?"

Wheeled the stroller down the driveway and onto the sidewalk. Made a right, the direction that would take us straight to the neighborhood park. Had a pool there too, but no one under thirteen was allowed in without an adult. Too bad…I could've taught Cindy how to swim. Swimmin was the only thing on Earth I did better than Jory—if only 'cause it was impossible to be clumsy in the water.

Were lots of people walkin around the neighborhood for such a hot day. Many stopped to smile as we passed 'em, while others stared at us as if we'd 'sinned'. Didn't know what the word meant. John Amos Jackson had talked a lot about sinnin before he disappeared. Still had no idea what happened to him. Didn't care to know, really. Had asked my granny once, but she wouldn't tell me. I'd heard her mention a few times before that he was her husband. Wasn't so certain that was 'plausible' (the word Daddy had given Jory and me yesterday). John Amos hadn't been the sorta man who seemed to like women all that much. Was always skulkin about, lookin at my granny the way my parents looked at me every time I did somethin bad. 'Cept he had these mean, mean eyes. Had my granny done somethin bad? Nah, couldn't have. Granny was nice—nicer to me all the time than my own momma was to me most of the time.

"Look, Barr-tie! Burr-dees! Up there, see?"

We'd just come to a stoplight. Cindy pointed to a nest of bluebirds in the branches of one of many trees linin the sidewalk. Craned my neck to watch the momma bird offerin her three little babies a big, juicy worm. "Yeah, I see 'em. They're bluebirds," I said, pleased that Jory wasn't with us to make me feel like a dumby. Felt good knowin stuff I could explain to my baby sister. "They can't fly yet, so their momma goes out to find food for 'em."

Those baby birds were peepin up a storm, their skinny necks stretchin like mine as they all tried to grab the worm at once. Seein those birds made me think of the time I'd eaten a worm. Been about Cindy's age when I was diggin in the dirt with a plastic shovel behind our house. That ole worm had tunneled its way right outta the hole I'd dug. Bein curious, I'd snatched up the worm and held it in front of my face. Found the way it squirmed and twisted between my fingers interestin. Not sure what it was about the worm that made me wanna eat it. But in the end, that's just what I'd done. Popped it right into my mouth like a piece of spaghetti, lettin the worm wriggle its way right down my throat. Maybe I'd been pretendin I was a bird that day—had been pretendin for as long as I could remember. Had told Momma about eatin that worm too. Worried her so much she'd snatched me up and run with me into the house. Set me down on the kitchen counter and called Daddy at the hospital. Made him laugh by tellin him what I'd done. "Children eat things they find on the ground all the time, Cathy. Why, when you were Bart's age, you ate a spider!" Kinda funny to think of Momma eatin a spider. Next to worms, she hated spiders more than any other creepy crawly thing. "If you're really that concerned, then I'll examine Bart first thing when I get home. But think of it this way: You're always complaining about what a fussy eater he is. This is just another way for him to get his protein."

Thought that was funny what Daddy had said about worms bein high in protein, even though it made Momma mad. Wondered what she'd do if Cindy ever ate a worm? Wouldn't do her any more harm than it did me. Still, with everyone always so busy, I'd be doin good keepin an eye on Cindy. With Momma so focused on her ballet school and Jory always dancin, with Daddy spendin all his days and long nights at the hospital, and with Emma always in the kitchen, who else was gonna look out for Cindy? Was true that Momma and Jory gave her loads of attention. But what was Cindy gonna do the rest of the time? I could teach her all kinds of things—things that were better and more fun than dancin. Things like explorin and makin up games. Could even introduce her to Apple! Been considerin that idea for a couple days already. Figured I could sneak Cindy over to the barn on our way home from the park. Maybe I'd even let her meet my granny one day—just as long as Granny swore she wouldn't love Cindy more than me. Everyone who met Cindy loved her, includin me. Was true it had taken me a few days to get used to the idea of havin a sister, let alone a baby sister. The day Momma had brought her home, I'd been jealous. Jealous enough to take Cindy's baby powder and flush it straight down the toilet. Now that I'd adjusted, I was findin more and more reason to like bein a big brother. Liked it almost as much as bein the grandson of the ole lady in black next-door.

After a few seconds, the light switched to green. Cindy and me crossed over to the next sidewalk. As we strolled down it, she announced the names of everything she saw; from cars to street signs, to people to animals. Everythin fascinated her. Just like it had fascinated me when I'd been little and unknowin.

Across the street from the park was a gas station. We stopped there to buy a loaf of bread and two slushies. At the park was a path circlin all the way around a huge pond where ducks, geese, and a couple swans were always swimmin and relaxin. Thought Cindy might enjoy feedin 'em. Jory and me sure did whenever Momma and Daddy took us to the park.

The manager at the gas station gave Cindy and me the same suspicious look some of the people on the street had given us. Worried he might ask us where our parents were as I laid our items out on the counter. But he said nothin. Just took the money I gave him and put it inside the register. Guessed he figured he wouldn't do good business if he questioned everyone who came into his store.

Had Cindy hold the loaf of bride while I tucked our slushies into the back pocket of her stroller before crossin the street. Didn't know how I'd explain to Momma and Daddy why Cindy was blue and red if she spilled slushie all over herself.

We were fortunate enough to find a shady spot underneath a tree at the park. Tree was close enough to the pond so we could just sit and toss our pieces of bread into the water. Gave Cindy her slushie (the blue one) to keep her busy while I set to work tearin up the bread into duck, goose, and swan-sized pieces.

Some baby swans were trailin along after their momma (or was it their daddy?) through the water toward us. Huh…they sure were ugly little things. Hard to believe they grew up to look like the adults they were followin. Made me realize how much I was like those baby swans. Me, who was the ugly ducklin to Jory's handsome swan. Didn't seem fair. Wasn't fair that his legs were long and graceful and perfect, while mine were short and scrawny and covered in scabs.

Once I'd ripped up enough bread, I began showin Cindy how to go about feedin the animals. "See, Cindy? You go like this." I tossed a bit of bread into the water. Never took our eyes off the baby swan as he swam toward the bread. Quick as a flash he inhaled that bread, remindin me of how Jory always ate after one of his performances. Cindy let out a shriek of delight, clappin her hands and demandin to join the game. Handed her a piece of bread and watched her toss it without fault into the water. Seein the bread, a large yellow ducklin pushed past the group of baby swans and snatched up the bread. Made me think of all the bigger, nicer-lookin kids at school who were always shovin me aside in the lunch line. Felt bad knowin those baby swans were bein treated the same way as me by those ducklins. Thought a moment about pickin up a rock and chuckin it at the little duck. But I didn't. Loved animals and didn't wanna hurt 'em. Just like I didn't wanna be no bully on account of how I was bullied. Wanted to grow up and help people like Daddy and Daddy Paul.

"Look, Cindy." Put one hand on Cindy's shoulder and pointed with the other to the ducklin that had gobbled down the piece of bread. "Do you know what those are?"

"Yeh-low?"

I laughed. Least she seemed to know her colors. "Yeah, they're yellow. But do you know what they are?"

"Burr-dees?"

"Uh-huh. They're a kind of bird called ducks. And the bigger ones, the ones beside 'em with the green and blue heads, those are their parents. They're what the babies are gonna look like when they grow up."

"Those burr-dees fly too, Barr-tie?"

"The big ones do. But the smaller ones are still too little yet. It'll be a while before their momma teaches 'em how to fly."

"Cindy fly?"

"Naw, little girls can't fly. Neither can little boys. Not unless it's in an airplane."

"Air-plane?"

"Golly, kid!" Raised my hand and smacked the back of it against my forehead. "I do got a lot to teach ya, don't I? Airplanes are those paper things we were watchin Jory make last night. Well, his weren't the real airplanes. Real airplanes are bigger and louder and fly through the sky like this." Gettin to my feet, I spread my arms wide and ran a loop around Cindy, makin a sound like a motor. She applauded loudly, laughin and cheerin as if mine was the most amazin performance she'd ever seen. Better than one of Jory's, I'd bet. Cindy's reaction definitely made up for the failed performance I'd given in the livin room. That made me happy. Came to a halt and took a bow as Cindy continued to clap away.

Once we'd emptied the rest of the bread into the pond, I placed Cindy back inside her stroller. Further up the hill was the playground, and beside it the pool. Too bad I wasn't old enough, else I'd show Cindy the wonders of a real swimmin pool. Had a sissy kiddy pool at home, its water barely deep enough to cover my ankles. Cindy loved that pool, but that was only 'cause she was two and didn't know no better.

Had a hard time pushin the stroller up that ole hill. The more I pushed, the heavier Cindy seemed to get. Every time I let go of one handle to wipe the sweat from my brow, I was reminded to keep one hand on the other handle. Couldn't have her go rollin down the hill and into the pond.

Seemed like forever before we reached the playground. Was sweatin so much my hair was as wet as the feathers of the swans and ducks and geese. Still I myself onwards, pretendin Cindy and me were soldiers deliverin a message to our allies. Would mean our imprisonment and possible deaths if we were caught by our enemies. Had to keep to the darkest corners to avoid bein seen—wouldn't be safe 'til we reached headquarters.

Could see our fellow soldiers up ahead, waitin for us. Almost there, almost there. Couldn't believe how tired I was when we finally reached those swings. How sweaty I was and how much my limbs ached. Made Cindy sit a few minutes extra in her stroller while I slumped against the swing set and caught my breath. Wished I'd thought to save some of my slushie for the long walk up that darned hill.

Most of the kids swingin were Cindy's age and younger, and some a little older, but all were less than nine. All of 'em had parents with 'em. Felt more eyes sweep over me and Cindy as I helped her outta her stroller and into a swing. Ignored everyone and concentrated on pushin and entertainin my sister instead.

"Are you here all by yourself, honey?" asked a pretty woman standin next to us. She looked to be around the same age as my momma. She was pushin a little boy around four years old in one of the bigger swings. The swing set was a combination of baby swings—the swing I'd placed Cindy in—and big kid swings.

"No, ma'am," I lied. "We're here with our momma and daddy."

"Oh. I thought perhaps you'd come alone."

"Naw. Our parents don't let us go nowheres alone." Was the honest-to-God truth. Every time Jory and me left the house, we were expected to tell one of our parents or Emma where we were goin. Wasn't 'til I spoke the truth aloud that I started feelin guilty about sneakin off with Cindy. Knew Momma and Jory and Emma and maybe Daddy had figured out by now that we were missin. Wasn't lookin forward at all to goin home and gettin the 'third degree' (a phrase Jory often used that meant 'punishment').

"What's your name, sweetheart?" the lady asked me.

"Bart."

She smiled. "And is that your sister, Bart?"

I glanced down at Cindy, before turnin back to the lady and smilin. "Yup. This is Cindy. I'm watchin her for my momma and daddy while they take a walk around the pond together."

"Why, how very thoughtful of you! What a pride and joy you must be to your parents."

Huh. Been called lots of things before, but never a pride and joy—'specially by Momma and Daddy. If I had, then I didn't know about it. 'Pride and joy' was a phrase that better fit Jory, not me. But it filled me with pride bein told I was one anyway. So much pride that I smiled big and wide for the lady. Guessed that was what made her say somethin to me that no woman but my momma and granny had ever said before.

"You're a very handsome little boy, Bart."

Golly-gee! Wasn't expectin such a compliment! Was she foolin, or bein honest? Did she really think I was handsome? Studied the lady's face, tryin my darndest to figure out the answer to the question. Waited for her to say more, but she just went right on smilin. Made me blush. Blush harder than I ever had my whole livelong life!

"It's true," she insisted, as if thinkin I didn't believe her. "You're going to break a lot of hearts when you grow up. Just you wait."

Knew what she meant. Had heard my daddy say the same thing to my momma plenty of times. Always tellin her how he'd break a million hearts before he ever hurt her. Hoped to be like that when I got older. Wanted all the girls lookin and chasin after me like they did Jory. Jory was only fourteen, and already he'd had the same girlfriend for two years! Melodie Richarme had blond hair like Momma's—was pretty and nice like Momma too. Figured Melodie only treated me good 'cause she felt sorry for me. Least she tried. Least she was nicer to me than the girls my age were. Girls who would sooner laugh at me for bein weird than say or do anythin nice.

Last time she'd come to see Jory, Melodie had brought me a present: A toy water pistol that I'd used to squirt John Amos after I heard him sayin mean things about my Granny. Had crouched behind some bushes in her yard and nailed him in the most embarrassin spot as he walked by. He'd shouted and threatened to spank me if I didn't go home. Laughed and did as he said, knowin he'd never tell my parents. Came back a few minutes later to make sure Granny was okay and tell her what I'd done. She'd said I shouldn't have squirted John Amos with that water pistol, but I could tell she was pleased. Told her she was my princess and that I was her knight. Said it was a man's job to protect his lady fair. Granny told me she loved me and pulled me into her lap then, huggin me and kissin me and lettin me curl up all nice and cozy 'til I fell asleep.

Watched the nice lady who reminded me so much of my momma turn her eyes on the little boy in the swing. Watched as she reached down and tousled his hair. Figured he was her son—sure looked like he could be. Both had the same dark hair and olive complexions.

"I'm Faith," the lady said. "And this little fellow is Jake, my nephew. He just turned four last month." Then she was lookin at me again. Only this time she wasn't smilin. The way she was lookin at me now reminded me of how Momma had looked at me when I'd broken Daddy Paul's lamp. "I had a child of my own once—a sweet little boy who looked a lot like you. But he died."

Wasn't sure what to say to that. Never heard of a kid dyin before. Had no idea it could even happen. Not unless they got sick. My Aunt Carrie, my momma's younger sister, had gotten sick and died when she was twenty. Didn't know how old Faith's son had been. Had to be a kid still. She was so young lookin.

"How did he die?" I asked.

"He got sick."

"How old was he?"

"Nine."

Nine. Same age as me. "Sorry." Wanted to say more, only I couldn't find the right words. Had never been good at expressin myself through anythin but pretendin. Never known nobody who'd died before either. So I said the first thing that came to mind. "I'm nine—gonna be ten next month. My parents are takin me to Disneyland to celebrate."

Faith smiled—a pretty smile that lit up her face and took away some of the sadness from her eyes. "My son's name was Collin. His birthday is today—he would have been fifteen. Would you like to see a picture of what he looked like when he was about your age?"

I nodded.

Faith quit pushin Jake and picked up her purse from the ground. She slipped her hand inside and took out her wallet. She flipped it open and held it out for me. Displayed in the middle behind a plastic coverin was the photograph of a little boy around eight years old. Was one of those school photographs. Faith hadn't been jokin—her son had looked a lot like me! Could've been my twin brother even. 'Cept I thought he was better lookin. Or maybe I only thought I couldn't compete 'cause he wasn't scowlin the way I did every time somebody took my picture.

"This was taken less than a year before he died," Faith went on. "Looking at this photograph, you'd never even think he was sick, would you?"

Shook my head. Collin looked perfectly healthy to me. The kinda kid who was smart and talented and could do anythin he put his mind to.

"When you're a parent, there isn't a worse pain you can experience than that which comes with losing a child. When you lose a child, you aren't only left with the feeling that you've failed as a parent, but that you've failed as a person. My husband and I did all we could for Collin. We hired the best doctors and saw that Collin underwent every treatment that had even the slightest guarantee of curing him. But nothing worked, and within a year we'd lost our son. Our only child…"

Not sure why she was tellin me this. Didn't know her at all. Maybe she just needed someone to listen. Like the way Apple listened to me in the barn sometimes, when my family was mad at me or I didn't wanna bother Granny. Always felt better afterward, always. 'Specially when Apple hugged me in his own, special, puppy-pony way by puttin his huge paws on my shoulders.

Looked up at Faith and saw there were tears in her eyes once more. Knew she was sadder now than before on account of the tears rollin down her cheeks. Felt sorry for her. Thought she was a nice lady and that it was unfair for her to feel so guilty over her son dyin. Ran to her then and put my arms around her. Didn't matter that we didn't know each other well. Seemed like the right thing to do. Let her put her face in my hair and soak it with her tears. Didn't mind. Felt good bein the one comfortin somebody else for a change.

Wasn't sure how long we'd been standin there for. Next thing I knew I heard somebody callin my name and Cindy's. Wasn't 'til I heard Cindy's thrilled yell of "Jor-ee!" that I peered out from behind Faith to see my older brother. He was standin on the other side of the park, leanin against the wire-mesh fence separatin the pool from the play area. Figured he'd been sent by Momma and Daddy to fetch us. Hoped he wouldn't lecture me on the way home. Didn't need that when I'd sure as heck be gettin it from our parents the second I walked in the door.

Jory could wait. Wasn't goin nowheres 'til I'd said good-bye to Faith. "Sorry, but my brother's waitin for us. Me and Cindy, we've gotta be gettin on back to our momma and daddy now."

Faith glanced across the playground, noddin when she saw Jory and then turnin back to me. "Then I suppose you should hurry back to them, shouldn't you? Take care of yourself, Bart, and look out for Cindy. You'll never know how much you love her, until you lose her."

Nodded seriously to prove I had every intention of doin just that. Hugged Faith again, blushin once more as she stooped and planted a kiss on my forehead. Reminded me of my granny's kisses, 'cept without the roughness of that ole veil. Had to think of some way to talk her into taken it off and showin me her face. Known her since before the summer started, and still I had hardly any idea what she looked like. Figured her lips had to be as soft as Faith's and my momma's when there was no silly veil to get in the way.

Set to work liftin Cindy outta the swing and puttin her back in her stroller. Burstin with a confidence I never knew I'd had 'til that day, I flashed Faith and Jake a smile as we started off.

Jory was grinnin from ear to ear when Cindy and me reached the fence. He put his arm around me and said cheerfully, "Well, what do you know? Not even ten yet, and already you've got the ladies chasing after you!"

Face turned crimson as I shouted back, "Faith ain't that kind of a lady, Jory! Nothin romantic about huggin someone or bein kissed on the forehead."

He laughed and tugged me closer, 'usherin' (another of those pesky words I was bein forced to learn that day) Cindy and me toward the hill. "Jory?"

"Yeah, Bart?"

"How'd you know Cindy and me was here?"

"How do you think? I followed you."

"Do Momma and Daddy and Emma know?"

"Probably. I left them a note before I left, telling them where we'd be so they wouldn't worry."

"You think they'll be mad?"

"Maybe. I'm sure it won't last though. Cindy doesn't appear to have any injuries, nor do you that I can see. Which is strange, since you always get a bump or scrape every time you go outside."

"Maybe I just got lucky this time."

"Or you've finally managed to stop thinking so much about falling that your days of getting banged up are behind you now. Looks like you've won the bet, little brother."

Eyes lit up like a pair of black marbles. "Bet? What bet?"

"Don't you remember at the beginning of the summer? When I promised I'd give you my superspeed ball if you promised to become more coordinated?"

Wow! Figured he'd only been pretendin about given me that ole ball as a way to help me get better at not fallin. Had no idea he'd actually meant it. "Thought you said you'd only give me that ball if I caught you first."

"Well, you've already proven yourself capable. So I think it's only fair you be rewarded, don't you?"

'Course I thought that was fair—just chose not to say it out loud. Nodded instead, before aimin my eyes skyward. Sun was settin in the east, makin the sky look like it was goin up in flames. Found ourselves standin at the top of the hill, me clutchin Cindy's stroller while Jory rested his hand on my shoulder. Stood there for a few minutes longer, takin in the beauty of the sunset and thinkin good thoughts. Thoughts about my family and how much I loved 'em. Thoughts about how I couldn't wait for Cindy to get older so's I could teach her everythin a kid should know. And thoughts about how I hoped to see Faith and her little nephew again soon. Couldn't remember a time where I'd ever felt so 'optimistic' (a word I often heard Momma use to describe Daddy). Was lovin people really as good as bein loved? Had to be, else how could I explain how I felt at that moment?

"It's going to be okay now, Bart," said Jory, even as he paid close attention to the sunset. Probably thinkin again about how the colors were like his ballet music. Always did whenever he saw a pretty sunset. His hand slipped down from my shoulder then and took my hand, squeezin hard. "All you have to do is have faith in yourself, and you can do anything."

Faith. Was a word I'd known for years. Was also a word I was just comin to understand the true meanin of. Now that I'd found faith inside myself, was determined to hold onto it no matter what, and never, ever let it go.

Holdin tight to Jory's hand, I pushed Cindy's stroller forward, and the three of us headed for home.

~The End~