Episode 58 – All

As Labor Day rolled around, Wes decided to throw a barbecue for his family and friends…wasn’t sure how much longer they’d all be together. The chemo made him sick and miserable, but he figured he’d sit in a cool spot and enjoy the goings on. As usual, Casey and Natalie handled everything with Bobby adding extra muscle as needed.

Wes was getting to know Bobby and liked him…couldn’t get used to him wandering around shirtless, especially with his bizarre tattoos, but he had so many good qualities, it didn’t matter. He was great to Natalie…did caring, romantic things like bringing flowers from the fields, surprising her with sweets, or just tagging along on female errands, like grocery shopping or getting her nails done…the sort of chores Wes hated. At the same time, Bobby was working his ass off, helping convert the barn to a sales and management office for RWF (Richards, Winters, Fletcher) Development Company.

Wes hated to see the old stalls and tack room go, but it was a relief to leave financial worries behind. Casey and Doc essentially owned the place, with smaller percentages going to Natalie, Emily and the contractor-builder, Tommy Mills. Emily recommended Tommy, just from talking to him at the Gaston Diner. He was African-American, unusual for the hinterlands, with a reputation for exceptional craftsmanship, and that’s what Wes and Casey wanted, quality. If they were going to develop the property, they wanted it done right, so they checked a bunch of Tommy’s projects, and liked the way he handled finishing touches, no shortcuts anywhere. It took him a little longer, but they liked that.

Natalie’d decided to take a leave from college until her dad’s health crisis was resolved one way or the other. Wes complained about her leaving school, but deep down was relieved to have her nearby. The thought of being out of touch was more than he could handle…especially with the odds against him.

Labor Day dawned hot…not a cloud in the sky…one of those drowsy days when the
heat keeps the crickets going all day and the whir of cicadas kicks in early. Wes, Casey, Natalie and Bobby met at breakfast and allocated duties. Casey was the chef, the kids were in charge of seating and decorations, and Wes was overall supervisor, but by 9:30 he’d run out of gas.

“God damned, illness!” He growled. “First time I ever quit a job.”

“Daddy, you’re entitled,” Natalie said. “Relax and enjoy the festivities.” Wes reluctantly flopped on a picnic bench, feeling drained…trying to catch his breath. Bobby and Casey went inside and brought out a soft chair from the front room…placed it in the shade of a gnarled apple tree, in the center of everything…shifted Wes over. “Dammit, I can manage on my own,” he protested, but fell asleep the minute his head touched the cushion…didn’t wake until 11:00 when Sam came shuffling up the driveway.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Wes yelled.

“I came for the party.”

“How’d you get invited? I was supposed to approve the guests. What the hell will the neighbors think?”

Sam smirked. “Guess they’ll figure the neighborhood’s going down the shitter.”

“Damned right. That’s what worries me. Your girl dump you?”

“No, she’ll be over.”

“Two of you! Holy Christ!” Suddenly, Wes paled…felt a twinge of nausea. Lay back and closed his eyes.

“You okay?” Sam asked. “Can I get you something?”

Wes waved him off. “No. I’ll be okay. It’s just the goddamn chemo.”

“You want me to get Casey?” Sam asked, carefully studying his friend.

Wes eyes moistened. “No, it’s fine, son,” he said. “Listen, I want you to know how much we appreciate everything you’ve done over the years. You’re a fine boy. Whatever happens, I’m sure you’ll be a big success.”

“Thanks a lot,” Sam said. “That means a lot coming from you.”

Three weeks before, Sam’s fight with Cole had been the talk of the town. Cole wasn’t popular, so everybody felt justice had been done, especially since Todd wasn’t around to protect him. Cole’s face was still black and blue…but Sam didn’t have a mark on him. Nobody would have known the truth if Sam hadn’t worried and called 911.

As Casey put it, “A terrific athlete’s a force to be reckoned with.”

After the fight, fate took an unexpected turn. Todd flipped his car chasing a speeder and ruptured some discs. Everybody was shocked, and it appeared his law enforcement career was on hold, maybe finished. Doc counseled him to see a specialist in Lincoln, but Todd held off, and as the weeks passed, seemed content with reduced duties in town. Nobody could figure it out.

Suddenly, there was the screech of tires, and Todd’s new squad car came barrelling toward the house in a cloud of dust. He parked next to the other cars, swung his legs out, and pulled himself up by the door frame. Waved to Wes. “Hey, you look relaxed.”

“I am,” Wes grumbled…wasn’t pleased Todd ignored Sam.

Todd hobbled over. “Hot day.”

Wes nodded toward Sam. “You know this guy, right?”

Todd blushed. “Yup, looks familiar…Hey, Sam.”

Sam barely moved. “Howdy, Todd.”

Casey joined them. “Wes, you’ve got the coolest spot on the place.”

Wes chuckled. “This old tree and I have a lot in common.”

Todd forced a laugh. Slapped Casey on the back. “Just like old times, right, Case?”

Casey wasn’t sure what “old times” meant, but smiled affably. “How’s the back?”

“Not great, but I manage. Gives me an excuse to take it easy.”

“What does Doc think?”

“He wants me to have surgery, but back surgery’s tricky, and it’s not bothering me
much.”

Casey shook his head. “I dunno…if Doc recommends surgery, I’d do it…could get worse if you can’t exercise.”

“Maybe, but I’m enjoying a breather. Ever since I was out of diapers, my folks pushed me into something or other. It’s nice having an excuse to do nothing, or almost nothing. Between us, Lockwood police work is a snap as long as no Willie Creel’s show up.”

Casey studied him. “You’re not bored?”

“No, Case, not really. I’m getting reacquainted with my old teammates again. I quit early, go to the Golden Harvest, and shoot the breeze. It’s awesome.”

“I hear Aaron’s off to U Nebraska.”

“Yeah. He’s got a full scholarship. I can’t wait to go to the games.”

Casey nodded. The recent developments had been a godsend for Adam. With Aaron off to college, and Todd laid up, everything was different. Fewer and fewer people remembered the family’s past exploits, and Adam’d made a bunch of new friends. Out of the blue, he decided to out for freshman football, and being the biggest kid in his class, was welcomed with open arms. Even though he had to limp at first, everyone was optimistic, and his mom and dad were ecstatic that another generation was coming along….Adam was the center of attention, something he’d never experienced. The injury also proved a social blessing…contributed to a relationship with Amanda Lee, a freshman cheerleader, who struck up a conversation while Adam warmed the bench. They hit it off immediately…were frequently seen stealing kisses around town. Adam, of course, invited her to the Richards’ barbecue, so at 2:00 sharp, the two walked into the backyard as Casey placed the last of the beer on ice.

“Well, I don’t believe it,” Casey said. “Look what the cat dragged in.”

“Hey, Case,” Adam said. “This is my friend, Amanda.”

They looked like a matched pair. She was a tall blond with curly hair and freckled nose.

“Welcome to the Richards’ estate,” Casey said with a smile, then turned to Amanda. “You’re kind of scraping the bottom of the barrel, aren’t you, young lady?” She studied him quizzically.

“Adam’s a pretty disreputable character.”

“Oh, I know!” Amanda said, catching on, “but I felt sorry for him and made an exception.”

“Thanks a lot!” Adam said with a grin.

“Grab a drink,” Casey said. “We’re just firing up the barbeque…chicken, steak, burgers, hot dogs, whatever you want, except martinis.”

“Cool,” Adam said. “Thanks a lot.”

“No problem. You’re family here. We’re gonna need you when the season’s over. We’ve got a lot planned…Bobby’ll need help.”

Adam hesitated, “Maybe, but I may go out for basketball in the Winter.”

Casey stared at him in disbelief. “I thought you were the lone ranger…only fishing and running.”

“I was,” Adam admitted, “but without Todd, Aaron, and Cole pestering me, I like major sports.”

And he’s s-o-o-o talented,” Amanda cooed.

“I know,” Casey agreed, “but I was partial to the old Adam.”

“But Case, I could be just as good as Todd or Aaron.”

“Look, son,” Casey said. “Don’t take this wrong, but there’s more to life than that.”

“But being a professional athlete would be cool. You could come to the games.”

Casey sighed. He liked Adam, but could see him slipping away. He’d assumed the boy would be part of Lockwood forever, but it suddenly seemed a long shot. Maybe the kid was destined to become another Todd or Aaron? He knew it could happen, especially if the boy wanted to block out the unhappiness of the past year or two. There was Willie Creel to forget, Cole, family harassment…but the flip side was the warm relationships with Doc, Emily, Bobby, Natalie and Sam.

“Christ!” Casey whispered, and spat disgustedly.

“You okay, Case?” Adam asked. “What’s the matter?”

“I don’t want to lose you, boy!” Casey exclaimed. “You’re a hard worker and have lots of talents…I’d hate to see you become a full-time jock.”

Adam frowned, unsure what to say. Amanda looked back and forth between them.

“Never mind,” Casey said finally. “Just come see me sometimes…and I’ll try to get to your games. Listen, I know how important sports are to you, and your family, but you’re a special kid…sincere, hard working, good company…with an interesting perspective on things. People respect you, and I’d hate to see you become so consumed that it all falls by the wayside.”

“I wouldn’t let that happen, Case,” Adam said. “Summers and vacations I’ll work
for you.”

Casey shook his head. “You’ll want to go to sports camps like all the other jocks.”

Suddenly, Amanda chimed in. “I’ll make sure it won’t happen, Mr. Fletcher. I’m a cheerleader, but I don’t like jocks. They’re too conceded…Adam’s not that way.”

Adam’s eyes widened. “Seriously? Then how come you’re a cheerleader?”

“I like the girls, and gymnastics, but most of the guys are predictable and stuck up…and cruel. They show off and do stuff because their friends expect them to. I like you, because I want to be close to one special boy.”

“Sounds perfect for you, Adam,” Casey said. “Hang on to her.” He patted Adam reassuringly on the back and nodded to Amanda. “Gotta tend to my duties.”

“Let me know if you need help,” Adam called.

Casey was pleased to see the yard filling up…the Chief and Sue, with her new boyfriend in tow. Theresa with Sam…and Natalie talking to Emily and Doc. Casey joined them.

“Mind if I cut in?” he asked.

“Hey, not at all,” Doc said. “I was just telling Emily and Natalie about the layout Tommy worked up for us. Impressive stuff!”

“Gotta be,” Casey commented. “Other landowners are doing the same thing, so we’ll need to offer a better product.”

“It’ll fit the town,” Doc said. “None of that McMansion look.”

“Thank god,” Casey said. “I hate to see European-style stuff out here.”

“Agreed,” Doc said. “I like the community look.”

At that moment, Cole walked into the yard looking for Todd.

“Uh-oh, a party crasher,” Casey said.

“Let it go,” Doc advised. “Maybe something good’ll rub off on him.”

Natalie looped her arm in Casey’s. “I’m starving,” she said. “Let’s go inside and nibble.”

“Sure…but the whole spread’ll be put out soon…Wes borrowed that Livinksy couple from the Stegers. Ms. Livinsky’s a helluva cook.”

“Their son’s with Sue Wilkie.”

Casey glanced over. “No kidding…Jesus, he’s no Adam. She doesn’t waste time on relationships, does she?”

“No. She’s a serial dater.”

As they crossed the lawn, Bobby joined them looking flushed and happy.

“Where you guys headed?” he asked, slipping his arm around Natalie.

“Kitchen,” Casey said, thinking how lucky he was to have them around.

“Jeez, I’m amazed so many people showed,” Bobby said, stumbling into the house.

“Whoa, take it easy,” Casey said. “How many beers you had?”

“Too many!” Bobby said with a laugh.

“I thought you were supposed to help out,” Casey said.

“I was,” Bobby admitted, “but the beer caught up to me. Is it hot in here or just me?” He pulled off his tee shirt.

“You’re getting a fucking beer belly,” Casey said.

“What?” Bobby cried. “Seriously?”

“He’s only kidding,” Natalie said. “There’s no gut at all.”

“Yes, there is. Feel.” Bobby placed her hand against his abs. “There’s definitely a tire growing.”

“Oh my gosh,” Natalie exclaimed, “movement. I think you’re pregnant.” They laughed as someone knocked at the front door.

“Who’s that?” Natalie asked. “Everybody’s here, as far as I know.”

“Probably a Bible salesman,” Casey said. “Get it, will you, Nat?”

Casey and Bobby continued into the kitchen, as Natalie answered the door. To her surprise, it was a striking blond giant.

“Hi,” he said. “I’m Brad McKissick…you must be Natalie, right?”

“Yes…” she replied, a bit confused, but then made the connection. “Bobby’s friend from Pennsylvania?”

“Yup…and I know who you are. Bobby’s got great taste.”

“Thanks,” Natalie said, blushing.

“Bobby around?” Brad asked.

“Sure,” Natalie said, “Follow me. What brings you to Lockwood?”

“I decided to head home…swing by to pick up my bud. San Fran was great, but I’m a Pennsylvania boy. The whole wine country scene was too much. Californians are weird…real friendly, but hard to get to know.”

Natalie’s smile drained away. What if Bobby decided to leave? He seemed happy, but what if the siren song of freedom and new conquests won out?

“Bobby,” she called. “You have a guest.”

Bobby stuck his head out of the kitchen. “Holy shit! I can’t fuckin’ believe it!” and they embraced…pounded each other on the back.

“Fuck, it’s great to see you, man” Bobby said. “I thought you had a great set-up in Napa.”

“Yeah, it was good for a while,” Brad replied, “but pretty snobby. I decided to bag it and go back to school. Figured I’d bring you home, too.” Bobby stared at Brad…a troubled look crossed his face.

“Let’s discuss it later, man,” he said. “You need a fuckin’ beer.”

Natalie studied Bobby. He seemed awfully happy to see Brad. Was the visit totally unexpected, or planned so he could escape?

“Casey!” Bobby yelled at the top of his lungs. “Come meet my best buddy.” Casey walked into the front room, wiping his hands on an apron.

“Brad,” Bobby said. “This is the guy who found me after I got stabbed. If it wasn’t for Casey and Nat, I’d be gonzo.” As they shook hands, Natalie pulled Bobby aside.

“You wouldn’t go with him, would you?”

Bobby looked confused. “What?” he said vaguely…”Shit, I’m so fuckin’ drunk.”

Brad came up behind them. “How’s my organ donor?”

“Still workin’ last time I checked,” Bobby slurred.

“That’s good. I was afraid you’d worn it out.”

“No, no…shit no,” Bobby said slumping into a chair.

“You okay, sweetie?” Natalie asked.

“I feel weird. Brad, you gonna hang here a few days? I’m pretty fucked up right now.”

“No, I’m leavin’ tomorrow. I gotta register and everything.”

“Oh, shit. So soon.”

“Yeah, you better get your gear together if you’re comin’.”

Bobby stared at Natalie…couldn’t seem to focus.

Natalie and Brad were both watching him…concern on their faces.

“Hey, I’m okay, guys,” he said. “Just a little tipsy.”

They kept staring.

“So, what do you think, man?” Brad asked.

“About what?”

“What’d you decide?”

“Jeez, Brad,” Bobby said. “I love you man, but I could never leave here. I owe my life to these two. They’re my family now…and Nat’s a lot more than that…right, sweetheart?”

Natalie threw her arms around him. “You’re everything to me!” she cried.

“The way you were talkin’ on the phone, I figured you might be staying,” Brad said, “but shit, it’s gonna be the lonely back home.”

“I know,” Bobby said. “I feel bad, but I can’t turn my back on all this…it’s totally weird because I got stabbed here, but it’s led to so many good things. I never knew people like this existed, and except for you, my life in Pennsylvania didn’t amount to much. Now I have an awesome girlfriend, lots of friends and a future. Why don’t you stay too?”

“No. I’m dying for Pennsylvania. I’m not a flatlander…can’t snowboard here. Anyway, I’m gonna find an apartment and get away from my old man.”

“That’s super,” Bobby said. “Jeez, my head is spinning.”

___________________________________________

Wes opened his eyes and looked around. The scene was lively and there were familiar faces everywhere. He was exhausted and felt disturbingly light-headed. “God, there are so many great people in my life,” he muttered to himself. “Wish I had twenty more years to enjoy them.” He’d made a lot of mistakes, for sure, misjudging Todd and Bobby, and making life miserable for Emily, and even Casey…but then Natalie came walking toward him…he couldn’t see her clearly…yet felt content…she was a part of him out in the world, doing wonderful things. He smiled.

“How you doing, Dad? You feel neglected?”

“No, Nat, not at all. It makes me feel good to see you all relaxing and having fun.”

“Can I get you your pills or anything?”

“No. Thanks. Pull up a chair and sit next to me. God, I’m so lucky to have a daughter like you! You’ve always been so caring and dependable. It’s a blessing, really.”

“Daddy, you’re getting so sentimental…”

“No, I’m not,” he said, taking her hand. “It’s true and a lot more…you know, I thought you’d made a big mistake with Bobby…that he was just some hippie that caught your fancy, but I should have trusted your judgment. You saw something I didn’t.”

“I was just lucky.”

Wes shook his head. “It wasn’t that, Nat…rest your head on my shoulder like you
used to.”

Natalie settled back against her father as he stroked her hair.

She dozed for a few minutes, but when she awakened, her father’s hand was still.

The End