Mum sat on the edge of the bed. He had been watching her from the doorway. She sat rubbing her temples with shaking fingers but stopped when she noticed him and forced a smile. "Come
give Mum a hug, my birthday boy."
His face flushed. "I'm not a baby anymore, Mum. I'm thirteen now."
"You're still my baby." Her smile was weak. "You'll always be my baby."
He approached the bed, leaned down to hug her, and planted a kiss on her forehead. "Another headache, Mum?"
She'd been having headaches ever since Dad pushed her into the nail where Jesus used to hang. Jesus no longer hung there, and neither did the nail. The only thing
left on the wall was the small hole and a spot or two of dried blood.
"I'm fine, son, just a headache. Don't worry. The Good Lord doesn't want me, and the Devil doesn't either, so I guess you're stuck with me."
"Please don't talk like that, Mum. I hate it when you talk like that."
She smiled wearily. "Can you get the aspirin for me, please? I think I need to take some before I even attempt to dress. You should start getting ready, too. It's a big day for you."
"Do you think you should stay home?"
Mum looked up with tired eyes. "You wouldn't be able to keep me away."
The church was too warm. Rob stuck a finger into his collar to loosen his tie, but it didn't help. He wanted nothing more than to escape from the pulpit and run as fast as he
could down the aisle and out the front doors. But it was not an option, so he thought he just might throw up instead.
He glanced nervously at his brothers. They seemed calm enough. Of course, they were. They had done this before the trio had become a quartet. Before his dad discovered his voice was high
enough to sing soprano. A few weeks after he'd peed himself in front of them. Now that they knew, they forced him to practice at the piano every night after dinner
until his voice came out a horse whisper. He wasn't sure he wanted to sing.
Caleb smiled up at him, making him feel a bit better.
Even though he fought and argued with his brothers daily, and all had the marks from Dad's belt to prove it, they were all in this together. It brought a camaraderie to their
relationship that they'd never known before.
Rob's eyes swept the congregation, and he saw Mum smiling widely at him. Ruthie sat between Mum and Dad while Lizzy snuggled in her lap, her eyes heavy with
sleep. He returned her smile, and then moved his gaze to his dad and was shocked by what he saw. Dad was smiling. He was on his feet, clapping and grinning
from ear to ear. He gave Rob a nod. Dad smiled. Dad encouraged him. Maybe his father might approve of him and would finally love him like he did
The smile was enough to help Rob stand straighter. When Caleb started the intro, Rob stepped up to the microphone. Never in his life had he been so scared. He
took a deep breath. When Caleb nodded to him, Robby closed his eyes, opened his mouth, and let the song flow out of him. His chest swelled with pride when he
realized he could do this. If he kept his eyes closed, he imagined he was in the living room practicing.
He made it through the song without incident. When he finished, he opened his eyes. His mother had a handkerchief to her eyes. She mouthed the words--I love you.
The house was dark when Rob got home from school. He was still on a high from the service the day before and couldn't wait to talk it over with Mum again.
He called out to her as he pulled the screen door shut behind him. He cocked his head and listened. No voices were coming from inside the house, no slam banging of pots and pans from the
kitchen, no guitar or piano music.
Rob's heart dropped in his chest. Something was wrong. He felt it deep in his bones. It was as palpable as the giant knot in his windpipe, threatening to cut off his air.
He called out to his mother once again--still, no answer.
Robby made his way to the kitchen. It was empty and cleaned from this morning's breakfast.
He left the kitchen and entered the small hallway. He took the stairs two at a time to the top and searched every room. Mum and Dad's room was empty, as were
the little girls. Jacob and Caleb were not home from school yet. Dad must still be at work.
He raced back down the stairs. The house was dusted and vacuumed. The beds upstairs were all made, which meant Mum had been home all morning. So where was she now?
The door hit the side of the house harder than he intended as he threw it open and stepped out onto the porch. The breeze was cool on his face. It ruffled his hair and
almost made him shiver. An awful feeling started to grow in the pit of his stomach.
He left the front porch and walked partway down the dust and gravel driveway. Glancing first one way, then the other, then back again, he hoped to catch a glimpse
of Mum's old Volkswagen Beetle sputtering down the road.
He cocked his head to listen against the breeze. But he heard nothing--only the wind. Even the birds in the trees were quiet.
A car's engine coming down the road grabbed his attention. It wasn't his mother's car, he would have recognized the sound. He turned his head in the direction of the sound. The car
was unrecognizable since the bright sun was reflecting off the windshield.
Rob's heart pounded as he squinted his eyes against the bright light. The car pulled into the driveway. It rambled toward the house and stopped just shy of the garage. A
man Rob had never seen before got out and started toward him.
"Hello." The man was short, bald, and thick in the middle. He wore an old tweed suit with a brown and beige tie. He rubbed his red bulbous nose, then fiddled with his tie as
he approached Rob and gave him his hand. "Are you Caleb?"
Rob shook his head and swallowed hard past the lump in his throat. "No, sir," he answered. "I'm Rob."
The man nodded. "Ah, yes, you're the youngest boy. My name's Frank Ward. I work with your father. He asked me to come by and pick you kids up and take you to the hospital. Are you all
"Hospital?" Rob almost choked on the word. "Is my father dead?"
Mr. Ward shook his head and looked down at his polished shoes. "No, sorry, I didn't mean to be so blunt. Are your brothers home yet?"
Rob narrowed his eyes as he shook his head.
"Do you mind if we wait inside? It's a little chilly out here."
His fingers were growing numb, and he walked as if in a daze to the door, holding it open for Mr. Ward. He couldn't speak, so he only nodded his head at the strange man and followed him into
He ushered the man into the living room and pointed to a chair. Mr. Ward eased his heavy bulk into the soft cushions.
Rob's legs could no longer hold him, and he dropped onto the couch.
"Your dad called me right away," Mr. Ward was saying now. "Asked me if I'd come and get you kids. He didn't want to leave the hospital, you know."
Rob didn't know. He was pretty sure he didn't want to know either. He rose swiftly to his feet.
"Coffee?" he asked, interrupting. "Or something else?"
"You got something else?" Mr. Ward asked. "A little bit stronger?"
Rob turned and fled the room. Once in the kitchen, he opened the fridge and grabbed one of his dad's beers. He figured his dad wouldn't mind, seeing as how
Mr. Ward was a friend of his.
Rob stood in front of the refrigerator for a moment, letting the coolness flow over him. He felt sick to his stomach. He wished his brothers would get home.
As if in answer to a desperate prayer, he heard Caleb and Jacob's footsteps on the wooden porch. He hurried back to Mr. Ward. Handing the bottle to him, he
nodded toward the front door.
"There are my brothers," he said. "That means Luke will be along shortly. The girls are probably with Mum."
At that comment, the man's face flamed, and he looked down at his shoes again, clearing his throat. "Um, yes," he stammered. "Yes, they're with your father."
Rob's question went unanswered as his brothers entered the room. They laughed and shoved each other but stopped when they saw the stranger. Their eyebrows rose in
unison, looking to Rob with a questioning glance. Rob only shrugged his shoulders and returned to the couch.
Mr. Ward took a long swallow, set it down on his Mum's polished side table. Rob grabbed the bottle and placed a coaster under it. The furniture
they had was not expensive or new, but it was all they had, and Rob knew Mum would have a fit if it left a ring.
"Hello, boys." Mr. Ward stood and held out his hand. "I was telling your brother, I've come to take you to the hospital where your dad is waiting."
"Why's he at the hospital?" Jacob asked.
"Well, I can't say. Your dad called and told me where he was. He asked me to take you to him."
Rob's gut was telling him that wasn't all Mr. Ward knew, but he said nothing.
"Will your other brother be home soon?"
Caleb nodded. "He was right behind us."
"Good." Mr. Ward nodded. He picked up the beer and gulped it down greedily, handed the empty to Rob. "Thank you, Rob," he said and belched. "Excuse me. I guess we'll go as soon
as he gets here."
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