Chapter 16: Epilogue
Four Months Later…
Alan paused at the kitchen door of the Craftsman, a bowl of potato salad in one hand, and a bag of potato chips in the other. He gazed over the lawn and smiled. There was a time, after the boys had grown up, but before they got married, when the lawn had been a work of art. There had never been a gardener — he and Margaret both enjoyed working outside too much for that — but still, the grass had always been freshly mowed, its edges were trimmed and neat, and Margaret's roses and Alan's koi pond had been the talk of the neighborhood. Even now, there was no cause for embarrassment. Between Alan and Charlie, the grass never grew too long…although the edging didn't always get done. The koi pond was still well-stocked and the fish were healthy…but there was a fence around it now, to keep the girls out of trouble. Some of Margaret's roses still thrived; mostly the ones in the front yard. Abby had dug up about half of the ones back here just a few months ago — when another child at the Cal Sci daycare had convinced her that China, and the other side of the world, lie just a few inches under the dirt.
Yet as Alan hovered in the doorway and looked out over the lawn, he didn't think he had ever seen it look better. Charlie stood behind the barbecue, no doubt coming to scientific conclusions regarding the proper formula for cooking eight hamburgers and three hot dogs on the same grill, so that they all were done at the same precise moment. Nearby, and slightly behind his location, Abby stood behind a picnic table that sat in the shade of Alan's former "man-cave". Since Amita's death, Alan had more or less moved back into the house; although occasionally he still retreated to the small guest house for a little peace and quiet. Either girls were a lot louder than boys — something he never would have believed, before — or it had been a long time since his sons were children. Abby was watching her father's back warily, and Alan's smile broadened as he watched the Birthday Girl open the cardboard lid of the bakery box Robin had placed on the table. The fall day was warm, but not uncomfortably hot; still, Alan decided he'd better bring the beautifully decorated Princess cake into the house on his next trip. He watched Abby lick a gob of frosting off her finger, and hoped there would be some left for the rest of them — he had seen her lurking by the picnic table earlier, come to think of it.
Don and Robin had set up a small camp on the other side of the yard. They sat side-by-side in lawn chairs, clasped hands resting on the arm of Don's chair. Robin sipped at a lemonade while Don nursed a beer. An overflowing diaper bag sat on the ground beside Robin's chair, and a large blanket was spread at their feet. The blanket was littered with toys, a few stuffed animals, a smaller blanket — and 10-month-old Lesley, who just last week had taken her first steps, not to be outdone by her cousin, who had also walked at 10 months. Lesley was concentrating hard, trying to force a square peg through a round hole in her shape sorter, but she dropped the peg and giggled wildly when PiRSquare, a young cocker spaniel Charlie had given Abby as an early birthday present a few months earlier, raced across the edge of Lesley's blanket. A frosting-free Abby raced along behind him, pausing long enough to bend over and smile happily at her cousin. "Come on, Lesley! Help me catch Pi!" Abby took off again, and Lesley began to crawl after her. Don managed to hand his beer to Robin and scoop up the child before she got out of reach. She squirmed in protest, but was soon shrieking in almost convulsive laughter and gibberish as she sat on her father's lap, at the mercy of his tickles.
Alan lingered in the doorway, his smile fading as he thought of the two women who were missing from the celebration. His missed them both — he always would — but he knew their lights shone on, reflected in their children and grandchildren. There had not been a day of Abby's short life that Alan did not thank God for her — and even though Lesley was not a biological grandchild, he was pleased to discover that he felt the same all-consuming love for her. His eyes misted as he watched his family.
Later tonight, after the family celebration, good friends would arrive to make the day complete. Amita's death and Abby's close call had impacted everyone. Larry had decided to return to Cal Sci, and David had transferred permanently back to the LA office, where he headed his own team. Both men would come over later, along with Colby, and Liz. Megan was even coming to LA for a few days of much-deserved vacation, although she wouldn't arrive until the next week. Alan was looking forward to seeing her again; he knew that she had arranged the timing of this visit so that she could spend some time with Charlie and Abby, and Alan was grateful for that.
He glanced again at Charlie. His son was no longer looking at the meat on the grill, but was standing, arms crossed over his chest, looking off into the distance, seemingly at nothing. Alan could imagine what — or whom — Charlie was seeing. Amita had only been gone four months, after all, and this was the first major family celebration without her. Considering everything, both Charlie and Abby were coping well. Abby still talked about her Mommy, and she had spent some time in a children's bereavement group. She also spent a great deal of time with Robin, and even Liz had stepped up to make sure the little girl had some female role models. For his part, Charlie had returned to teaching, and took his consulting gigs a lot more seriously, always thinking of the families of victims, and potential victims. Alan wished Charlie would also spend time with a bereavement group, but as yet, his son had not gone that route — which wasn't really too much of a surprise. Charlie had never been much of a group person; he had stood out from the crowd for so long, he no longer felt comfortable in one.
Yes, Alan hoped that having Megan here for awhile would help his son continue to heal.
Yipping madly, PiRSquare suddenly turned toward the house; in seconds, he was squeezing between Alan's legs and disappearing inside. A breathless Abby was not far behind. Alan had time to firm up his stance before she collided with his leg. "Poppa, can you help me catch Pi? I think he would fit into my new Princess dress."
Alan rolled his eyes, and not for the first time, felt a little sorry for the dog. "Abagail Marie," he chided. "Remember what Daddy and I have told you about being nice to the dog."
Abby looked up at him, a slightly confused expression on her small face. "But it's a pretty dress!"
Alan stopped himself from smiling. "Yes, it is, sweetheart. But it's a dress for little girls. Little dogs have their own clothes."
Her eyes lit up. "Can we get some?"
Alan distracted her by shoving the bag of potato chips at her. "Leave poor Pi alone for a minute and help me take some things out to the table. It's almost time for your birthday picnic!"
Abby grinned. "Yay! Let's have cake first."
"But Daddy is cooking you a hot dog, like you asked," answered Alan, gesturing toward Charlie. His son was looking at them now, a small smile on his face, and Alan waved.
Abby crushed at least half of the potato chips on the way to the table, but Alan didn't care. He was in his own back yard, surrounded by the people he loved most in the world, anticipating the arrival of good friends. He was old enough to understand that life hurt you, sometimes — and sometimes, it gave you sons, and they gave you daughters, and they gave you granddaughters.
He treasured the memories of Margaret, and Amita, and he was daily blessed by the pieces of themselves they had left behind. He was thankful for every day he had with each one of them. He placed the potato salad on the table and winked at Charlie as he moved to pick up the birthday cake. "Let me take this into the kitchen and grab a platter for the meat," he called.
Charlie began to drape slices of cheddar cheese over a few of the hamburgers. "Better check on Pi," he answered. "Abby just snuck inside."