AN: There will be more. I still don't own the characters, nor do I own Rufus Wainwright's lovely song, "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk."


cigarettes and chocolate milk
these are just a couple of my cravings
everything it seems I like
is a little bit stronger, a little bit thicker
a little bit harmful for me

Four years, in the scheme of things, really isn't very long. For example, I remember being five years old. Then I remember being nine. Did I change? I was still the responsible older brother, the supportive, loving son. Maybe I got smarter, started using bigger words, reading thicker books, adding bigger numbers together, taking them apart with more finesse. But I was still the same person. So why am I so anxious now? Why do I think anything might be different?

Why should anything change, anyway? Why shouldn't I just be happy with the life I have now?

It happened four years ago next Wednesday. Afterward we gradually scattered, for all our different reasons. Fiona had already left; she never came home from Aunt Melinda's, which I still resent, personally, but I decided to put those feelings aside for the purpose of this holiday visit. Annie was happily reunited with her parents at the end of that year she spent with us. She abandoned her attempts to jump-start a recording career and returned to the jungle. I haven't seen her again, and she won't be here this week, but we've kept in touch over e-mail and through letters.

After that last night, the last time I spoke to him, Clu left again, this time for good. And although it probably had nothing to do with me or with his brother, Carey was also just suddenly gone.

I was the only one still standing when the dust cleared, so I left, too. What else could I do?

I wish I didn't care. I wish I could tell you that when I pull into the driveway of my mother's billionth new house tonight, provided I don't get lost, I won't be craning my neck to see if he's there, hanging around teasing Fi or playing some stupid word association game with a half-asleep Carey in the backyard. I wish I could say that when I told him none of it mattered to me, I wasn't lying. But wishes are as random and pointless as conspiracy theories, so I'm driving down the highway planning what I'll say when I see him again.

Not when. If. How do I even know he's coming home?

I'm not nervous. These aren't those stupid proverbial butterflies making my stomach churn. It's just a bout of good old carsickness. Because I don't care. I don't. I had several very nice girlfriends in college. Every one of them was a wonderful, special person in her own right. I didn't pursue anything that you might assume I would pursue after that night before Clu left. Why should I? There was only one person I wanted, even if I couldn't admit that to him, which I believe I never will, regardless of whether or not I see him again this week or any other. Why try to replace him?

So you might ask, if those girls were so special, why aren't you bringing one home? What got in the way? Why couldn't you ever close that particular deal? And if you did, I might tell you to shut up.

All right. I admit it. When I saw Ned's familiar old truck in the driveway of Mom's newest new house, I might have gotten a little dizzy with the anticipation. Maybe I might have even rehearsed my little speech. And just maybe I felt a little bit let down when I discovered only three members of the Bell family were in attendance. But why does any of that matter? I'm here. I made it. I'm surrounded by my family, who adore me, who are thrilled to see me, who I'm thrilled to see. Nothing's missing. Nothing important, anyway.

It will be crucial, however, that I never let on that anything might possibly be wrong. I must pretend that I don't feel anything at all.

Lord knows I'm good at that. I've certainly had enough practice.