Previous month:
August 2021
Next month:
October 2021

September 2021

Chapter Six Hundred and Sixty-four - A friend indeed (part four)

CHAPTER SIX HUNDRED and SIXTY-FOUR

(part four)

Sunday morning — 8:05 a.m.

Alex Hargreaves jumped out of the truck and turned around to help her twins, Joey and Máire, out of the back. Her husband, John Drayson, got out of the driver’s seat and went around to the back.

They were in charge of getting the school gardens ready for all of the children and their parents to come harvest the vegetables. The gardens were large and the growing year had been successful. They had a lot of food to get picked, stacked, and moved to the Castle where two teams of students and parents were cooking in the driveway.

It was also a big event for the Marlowe School. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the children spent more time outdoors while their rooms were cleaned and the UV lights were on. This garden was a source of pride and joy for not only the children but teachers and parents, too.

Every class had their own garden. Every student had planted or weeded or watered. And now, finally, everything was ready to harvest.

Of course, Delphie already had crops planned for the fall and winter garden here. That meant that after everything was harvested, another group of students and parents would help to plant winter foods while still another group set up tubes and plastic covering to create mini-greenhouses for when winter came.

Alex, John, and their twins were there to get everything started. They had practical experience in harvesting since, prior to the pandemic, they returned to Afghanistan every year to help with harvesting in the entire valley inherited by the twins from their biological parents.

Another pickup truck pulled up beside theirs. Alex’s identical twin, Max, his partner, Wyatt, and their two boys — Chase and Beau — were there to help get everything started. John and Max went to open the large metal storage container with everything “garden” in it. Alex and Wyatt were taking down the temporary fences to allow open access to the garden today.

“Hello?” a woman’s accented voice came from the edge of the garden.

Alex turned to look at the woman. She was small in stature and thin. She wore a runner’s outfit — tights with a skirt over them, long sleeved shirt, and a sport hijab with an exercise face mask.

"As-Salam-u-Alaikum" Alex said.

“I am looking for. . .” the woman continued in Arabic.

Denver Cereal continues tomorrow...


Chapter Six Hundred and Sixty-four - A friend indeed (part three)

CHAPTER SIX HUNDRED and SIXTY-FOUR

(part three)

“I have to crawl around in the dirt,” Ava said with a sigh.

“Sorry,” Sandy said. “Did you ever figure out why that horrible woman is so obsessed?”

“Her mother was killed here,” Delphie said entering the kitchen.

“Is that it?” Ava asked.

“There’s no excuse for her to be so horrible though,” Delphie said.

“She called me this morning and. . .” Ava shook her head. “We’ve found seven remains and the labs are working.”

“You haven’t found where her mother was killed,” Delphie said.

“Probably,” Ava said. “It makes sense why she would be so insistent if it was her own mother.”

“Still,” Valerie said. “No one should be so mean to our Ava.”

Valerie looked at Delphie and Sandy.

“Ava was deflated when I came down stairs,” Valerie said.

“I’m so sorry,” Sandy said. She hugged Ava. “You sure you’re up to this?”

“Absolutely,” Ava said nodding.

“Great,” Sandy said.

Sandy put her fingers to her mouth and blew a loud whistle. Teddy came in with a large pot of soup followed by Nash and Charlie, each carrying a full pot of soup.

“You can set them here,” Valerie said. “Ava, can you move some of the jars?”

Ava and Delphie moved enough glass canning jars off the kitchen table so that the boys could put down their three pots of spicy delicious tortilla soup.

“That’s a lot of soup,” Ava said.

“We go through it,” Valerie said. “Especially this one.”

“It’s really good,” Nash said. “We make it vegetarian so that everyone can eat it.”

“The meat eaters add whatever they want,” Charlie said. “You should try it.”

“What will happen with the jars when they’re filled?” Ava asked.

“I’ll start canning them outside,” Jacob said. He was carrying a large pot full of tomato sauce. “Where should I. . .”

Valerie pointed to the kitchen counter.

“Great,” Jacob said. He set the large pot down. Turning to Ava, he said, “Let me get this set up and I’ll show you the last site. It’s a mess. I wasn’t sure what to do with it so I boarded it up.”

“Mess?” Ava asked.

“Two,” Valerie set a two cup measuring cup in front of Ava.

Ava nodded to Valerie.

“You’ll see,” Jacob said. “I probably need an hour.”

“That’s okay,” Ava said. “Detective Stone ordered me to meet her here at 4:30 am.”

“She’s not coming,” Delphie said.

“Clearly,” Ava said. “Anyway, I have this. The team will be here in a bit. We can help out until you’re ready, Jake.”

Jacob nodded and ran back upstairs for another pot of sauce.

Ava got to work. With her laboratory science skills and her two cup measuring cup, she filled the jars. She write “Italian” on a sheet of paper and set the jars on top of it. Valerie started cleaning the tops and putting the canning lids on top. A half hour or so later, Ava’s team arrived. They helped put the soup and the tomato sauce into jars. Fran took over the cleaning so that Valerie just put the lids on top.

When Jacob returned, he talked Nelson into helping him carry the full jars out to the deck. Jacob set up three propane burners with three large pressure canners.

Ava was on her third cup of coffee when Detective Stone’s partner arrived. And Ava and her team grabbed Jacob and got to work.

Denver Cereal continues tomorrow...


Chapter Six Hundred and Sixty-four - A friend indeed (part two)

CHAPTER SIX HUNDRED and SIXTY-FOUR

(part two)

“Everyone is worn out by all of the Harvest Day activities,” Valerie said. “I need to get my big pots going so that we can make more soup today. Jake’s going to be canning outside today.”

“Sounds fun,” Ava said.

“You can help me,” Valerie said. “Unless you just want to sit there and be mad.”

“Nope,” Ava said. “I’m over it. What do you need?”

“What I really need help with is the jars,” Valerie said. “We have them, and certainly we clean them, but they aren’t always clean enough to can with. It takes a real eye to see the imperfections in the glass or lids or. . .”

“Sounds like something I can do,” Ava said. “Where are they?”

“I’ll show you,” Valerie said, with a grin. “Jake brought them up from the basement but there was no space here so we put them. . .”

Valerie went to the wall behind the kitchen table. She pressed on the wood panel and it opened to show deep shelves.

“Jake said that he used a few apartments to make this space,” Ava said.

“I think that this was an original part of the apartment, but. . .” Valerie shrugged. “It’s all a little hard to track. You’d have to see the plans and even then. . .”

“He’s really good at this stuff,” Ava said.

“Weird, isn’t it?” Valerie nodded. “You know who’s as good or better?”

Ava shook her head.

“Jill,” Valerie said. “She can see things in her head that. . . It’s really amazing. Have you seen the place across the street?”

“They invited me but I’ve been crawling around in the dust,” Ava said.

“Right,” Valerie said. “Who’d want to give up grime?”

“Exactly,” Ava grinned.

Valerie moved away. Ava started hauling box after box of glass canning jars and set them on the kitchen table. Valerie set another cup of coffee on the table for Ava. Feeling better, Ava started to check the jars. Some were dusty. Some had breaks. But most of them were ready to be used.

“Oh great!” Jill said, seeing Ava and the jars lined up on the table. “If I bring you some Italian tomato sauce, could you put it in the jars? You don’t have to do the lids. I just need to get the. . .”

The sound of a weeping baby reached them.

“I’ll send Jake down with it,” Jill said, running up the stairs. “Thanks!”

“We made it from tomatoes on Friday,” Valerie said. “They’ve been cooking it down in their kitchen.”

“What is it?” Ava asked.

“Sauce for pizza, spaghetti, bruschetta,” Valerie said. “Sandy has. . .”

“Oh great,” Sandy said coming into the kitchen. “Would you mind if I brought you some tortilla soup? Val and Maresol made it on Friday. We’ve been cooking it down.”

Ava nodded. Sandy grinned.

“We have to clear the stove top for today’s baking,” Sandy said.

“What’s today?” Ava asked.

“Chicken noodle,” Valerie said. “Stewed tomatoes, vegetable soup, pickles, and. . .”

“Pies,” Sandy said. “We’re making pies in my apartment. If you’d like to come and hang out, you’re welcome.”

“I have to crawl around in the dirt,” Ava said with a sigh.

Denver Cereal continues tomorrow...


Chapter Six Hundred and Sixty-four - A friend indeed (part one)

CHAPTER SIX HUNDRED and SIXTY-FOUR

(part one)

Sunday early morning — 5:15 a.m.

“Ava!” Valerie said as she came around the corner from the stairs and into the kitchen.

Ava O’Malley was sitting with her forehead on the kitchen table. She raised a hand and waved at Valerie.

“Are you okay?” Valerie asked.

Without lifting her head, Ava nodded against the table. Valerie empathetically touched Ava’s back as she passed to the kitchen. Valerie turned on the coffee pot. She checked the electric kettle for water. Finding it full, she turned it one. She went into the deep closet they used as a pantry and returned with a tin. She went around and set the tin in front of Ava.

“What is it?” Ava said, still not lifting her head.

“Breakfast cookies,” Valerie said. “They are my favorite. Sandy makes them for me and Jill — well, any adult who’s not eating Cap’n Crunch.”

When Ava didn’t move, Valerie opened the lit of the tin. She took out a cookie and set it in Ava’s hand. Ava shifted to look at Valerie.

“You’ll feel better,” Valerie said.

Ava grunted, but didn’t put her head down again. She took a bite of the cookie.

“These are really good,” Ava said.

“They are,” Valerie said. “I take them with me when I leave. They make for fast and easy mornings.”

Valerie poured a cup of coffee from the still filling pot.

“I think Maresol is coming here to make heuvos rancheros,” Ava said. “At least that’s what she said last night. I left before she was awake.”

Valerie set the coffee in front of Ava and brought her the cream. Ava ate her cookie and drank her coffee while Valerie made two pots of tea.

“What’s going on?” Valerie asked.

“I love Harvest Day,” Ava said. “It’s so fun to see everyone working and laughing. You make great food. I mean, like this morning, Maresol is making everyone breakfast from beans you grew, eggs the chickens made. . .”

“Corn tortillas she made yesterday from that huge corn crop at Mr. Matchel’s,” Valerie said.

“It’s like magic,” Ava said. She sighed. “I haven’t been able to participate because of this stupid detective.”

“Stone?” Valerie asked.

“She called me at four this morning,” Ava said. “Woke me up. Yelled at me for twenty minutes.”

Ava shook her head.

“You wouldn’t believe what she said,” Ava said. “I’m a spoiled, stupid, corrupt employee of an incompetent lab and. . .”

Ava sighed.

“She said worse things about Seth,” Ava said, nodding.

“How can anyone hate Seth O’Malley?” Valerie asked. She shook her head. “The woman is clearly deranged.”

Ava nodded.

“I rushed over here so that I could start,” Ava said. “Walk her through what we’ve done.”

“Stone said she’d be here?” Valerie asked.

Ava nodded.

“What a cow,” Valerie said.

“I’ve been sitting here for more than an hour,” Ava said. “Who’s stupider? Stone? Or me, for doing what she told me to do?”

“Well, I’m glad for your company,” Valerie said. “Mike’s in the shower. The kids are mostly sleeping. Even Grace.”

“The newest baby?” Ava asked.

Valerie nodded.

“Everyone is worn out by all of the Harvest Day activities,” Valerie said. “I need to get my big pots going so that we can make more soup today. Jake’s going to be canning outside today.”

Denver Cereal continues tomorrow...


Chapter Six Hundred and Sixty-three - Safe, together (part six)

CHAPTER SIX HUNDRED and SIXTY-THREE

(part six)

Mike looked off into the distance and then back at Burt.

“I remember your stories about him,” Mike said. “I don’t know what’s happened, but he’s decided to try to be a nicer person. He has friends now and doesn’t spend so much time alone.”

“Does he watch those stupid programs?” Burt asked.

“I don’t think he has time,” Mike said. “He’s pretty busy, now. He’s either making food for people or dropping it off. That’s three times a day. Delphie and my sister, Jill, organize it. It’s a little crazy but people were starving before we stepped in to help.”

Burt looked up at Mike.

“What do you need?” Mike asked.

“I. . . I don’t know,” Burt said. “To know that it’s over, I guess.”

“It’s over,” Mike said. “Listen, we’re going to be working in the gardens for another day.”

“Dad wants me to help out at some school?” Burt asked.

“We’ll tell you all about it,” Mike said. “I’m due someplace. Do you mind if I leave you with Mike and Royce? Royce was a SEAL and M.J.’s a Marine. They know all about what we went through.”

Burt shook his head.

“Your dad stays here sometimes,” Mike said. “Why don’t you plan to stay? We can talk more when I’m done.”

Burt nodded. Mike put his hands on Burt’s shoulders.

“I know that you’re suffering,” Mike said. “But I also know that all that we went through is really and truly over.”

Burt looked up at him.

“Yes,” Mike answered Burt’s unasked question. “I still have nightmares and wake up thinking I’m there. But, I have three kids now. They’ve taught me that I have a bigger life than a few months in a cave in Afghanistan.”

Burt started to cry.

“Come on,” Mike said. “Let’s get you a beer and some food. You can hang out with a few nice people.”

Wiping his face, Burt got to his feet. M.J. and Royce were right with Burt as soon as Mike moved away.

“Oh, I should tell you,” Mike said. “Your dad’s working on his memoir.”

“Really?” Burt mouthed.

Mike nodded.

“It’s pretty good,” M.J. said. “He’s read some of it to us.”

“Who knew?” Burt said.

Mike started toward the back. He was just about to turn when he saw M.J. and Royce walking Burt toward the back.

Mike saw that Blane was getting Ivan to his feet. They were shuffling toward the stairway to the medical offices. Mike jogged across the backyard and carried Ivan up the stairs. At the top, he looked out over the party.

Mike remembered getting home from Afghanistan as clear as day. He remembered the mess he’d made of his life and the wreckage his trauma caused for him and Valerie. He looked out across the Castle backyard.

These were the people who helped him put his pieces back together again. They would help Burt, too.

Nodding to himself, he went inside to join his family to help heal Ivan.

Denver Cereal continues on Monday...


Chapter Six Hundred and Sixty-three - Safe, together

CHAPTER SIX HUNDRED and SIXTY-THREE

Saturday evening — 5:15 p.m.

“So you’re in?” Teddy asked Sissy. “If you say ‘yes,’ I’m going to announce it.”

“Masks required,” Sissy said.

“Of course. We’re not idiots,” Teddy said. “But, you’re in, right?”

Sissy gave him a slight nod. She and Ivan were sitting at a table in the backyard. After a successful Harvest Day, people were milling around. Jacob and Mike were working the bar-be-cues on the back deck. Food was laid out on the tables on the deck. If people weren’t eating, they were wearing masks. The tables were set apart with only a few seats. Everyone was doing their best to keep each other safe.

Yes!” Teddy said, with a fish pump.

Teddy grabbed his phone and jogged to where Nash was standing. The boys cheered and rushed inside the Castle.

“Would you mind if I joined you?” a woman with long dark hair asked. “Seems like the tables are either full or filled with kids. I could use a quiet meal with adults. Do you mind?”

“Please,” Sissy said, gesturing to a chair at their table. “I’m Sissy Delgado. This is my fiancé, Ivan.”

“Jennifer Kearney,” the woman said with a smile. “I’m one of the Fey Wives.”

“Like Honey?” Sissy asked.

The woman nodded. She took a bite of potato salad.

“I love this stuff,” Jennifer said, gesturing to the potato salad. “Honey’s husband is on the current team. My husband, Dean, was on the original team.”

“He was a wonderful man,” Ivan said, softly. “So kind.”

Jennifer gave him a long look.

“Did you know my husband?” Jennifer asked.

Ivan nodded.

“They rescued me from the gulag,” Ivan said. “Charlie carried me out on his shoulder. Your husband kept me alive until we were out of Russia. He said to me, ‘The worst is over now. Nothing is going to be as bad as where you’ve been.’ I think of that often. He was accurate.”

Jennifer’s eyes welled with tears. She gave Ivan a quick nod and looked away to gather her emotions.

“He would have loved this,” Jennifer said with her face away from them. She turned back to assess Ivan. “Are you ill now?”

“Cancer. Blood,” Ivan said. “From gulag.”

Jennifer nodded. She sighed and pointed to where a teenaged boy and girl were standing.

“My teens,” Jennifer said. “I have a baby too, but he’s off with the younger kids. They are wild. He’s absolutely in love with every one of them.”

“Everyone calls them the ‘Wild Bunch,’” Sissy said with a smile. “That’s accurate.”

Jennifer gave her a brief smile. To regain her composure, she focused on her meal.

“It’s lovely to see so many careful people,” Jennifer said. “I love that they are keeping everyone so safe.”

“From the very beginning,” Sissy said with a nod. “Jake, Aden, and Sam run a big underground construction company. They've been able to keep their entire crew from getting sick by using distance, masks, and hand washing. I think that it’s been a lot of work, but no one here minds doing the work.”

“You don’t live here?” Jennifer asked.

“I’ve been in Paris for school,” Sissy said.

“Oh,” Jennifer said. “You’re the ballerina? My daughter’s been talking about a ballerina who is going to dance tonight in City Park.”

“Nash and Teddy run an Instagram account for me,” Sissy said. “We’ve danced all over Denver, Paris, and a few places in Europe. Before Ivan got sick.”

Jennifer nodded.

“She’s very excited,” Jennifer said. “Do you mind dancing with younger students?”

“I think we’re all students,” Sissy said. “Plus, she’s not that much younger than I am. I’m just eighteen.”

“Oh, you’re a year older than my son,” Jennifer said. “I guess it’s your poise that makes you seem older.”

“Since I have been ill,” Ivan said.

“I think it’s just living in France,” Sissy said with a shrug. Sissy pointed to Charlie and Tink. “That’s my older brother and his girlfriend.”

“My eldest loves Charlie,” Jennifer said. “He read so many books when he was here earlier in the year. I was surprised because he’s not much of a reader, but Charlie got him interested in all kinds of books and stories. He still does the book club.”

“I do, too,” Sissy said with a grin. “Charlie’s a great teacher.”

Wanda came running out of the Castle. She went to speak to Tink. The girls looked up at Sissy and waved her over.

“Excuse me,” Sissy said. “I better go over before they get wild.”

Jennifer smiled. Sissy got up from her seat. She kissed Ivan’s cheek and went to see what Tink and Wanda were up to.

Ivan sighed.

“You are probably wondering about the difference in our ages,” Ivan said.

“Not really,” Jennifer said. “I learned how precious love is when Dean died. I always thought that I knew about love, but losing Dean and the rest of the guys. . . I don’t think any of us wives have really moved on. It’s been a long time, but. . .”

Jennifer shrugged.

“Now, I guess I think if you have love, you should cherish it for as long as it’s with you,” Jennifer said.

Ivan gave her a slight nod.

“Are you a dancer too?” Jennifer asked. “You look like one.”

Ivan gave a nod.

“Why did the boys go to get you?” Jennifer asked.

“Do you know Seth O’Malley?” Ivan asked.

“By name,” Jennifer said. “I mean, like everyone in Denver, I could recognize him in a crowd, but I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to him.”

“He traded a big favor for the team to go get me,” Ivan said. “Paid for the trip, too. They used his help to find someone who would likely had died without his help. Did you know that he finds remains and brings them home?”

Jennifer nodded and looked away.

“What do you do?” Ivan asked.  

“I work with traumatized people. I’m a psychologist,” Jennifer said. She gave him a long look. “Delphie told me. . .”

“She told me that I would meet someone who could help me today,” Ivan said.

“I don’t usually find clients at parties,” Jennifer said. “I’m not sure that it’s ethical.”

“I understand.” Ivan nodded.

“That said,” Jennifer said, “it would be a great honor for me to help someone who was helped by Dean.”

Jennifer smiled at Ivan.

“Do you need help?” Jennifer asked.

“Delphie told me that my internal rage and trauma are making my illness worse,” Ivan said. His eyes flicked to Sissy. “I want to survive this thing. I want. . .”

Ivan sighed.

“I understand,” Jennifer said. She dug around in her purse and came up with a business card. “Let me give you my card. If you decided to get help, just call me. If I don’t work for you, then I can refer you. I can always come here or meet you over the Internet.”

“I am very tired,” Ivan said.

“I understand,” Jennifer said. “I’ve known other people with cancer. No matter how fit or strong you are, fighting cancer takes everything out of you.”

Ivan gave her a quick nod. His eyes drifted to where Sissy was talking to Wanda and Tink.

“She is very beautiful,” Jennifer said. “I’m excited to see her dance tonight.”

Ivan nodded.

Jennifer opened her mouth to say something else, but Blane came up behind them.

“Excuse us,” Blane said.

Ivan looked up at him.

“Time for another treatment,” Blane said.

“Excuse me,” Ivan said. “Very nice to meet you.”

“You, too,” Jennifer said.

Blane helped Ivan to his feet.

“And thanks for telling me about Dean,” Jennifer said. Her hand went to her heart. “You cannot imagine how much that means to me.”

They got to the end of the medical office stairs. Mike jogged over. Without saying a word, Mike lifted Ivan off his feet and carried him upstairs.

“Mike and his family are here, too,” Blane said when they reached the top.

“Thank you,” Ivan said.

Mike carried Ivan through the medical offices, past his apartment, and into Delphie’s apartment. He lay Ivan down on the bed. Ivan was asleep before Blane returned.

~~~~~~~~

Saturday evening — 5:15 p.m.

Jeraine started jogging toward the gate when he saw Mr. Matchel, their elderly next door neighbor, at the fence. J’Ron Tubman beat him too it. J’Ron had helped Jeraine pick the vegetables in Mr. Matchel’s yard that  afternoon. J’Ron greeted Mr. Matchel warmly.

Mr. Matchel blushed at the boy’s attention.

“Hey!” Jeraine said. He held his hand out for the man to shake.

Seeing a target, Mr. Matchel grabbed onto Jeraine’s hand.

“But. . .” J’Ron said.

“He needs this,” Jeraine said.

“I sure do,” Mr. Matchel said, good naturedly. “I want to introduce. . .”

Mr. Matchel turned but there was no one there. J’Ron gave Jeraine an “old people are idiots” kind of look. A man yelled from the gate.

“My son,” Mr. Matchel said, gesturing to the gate.

Jeraine went to open the gate for Mr. Matchel’s son.

“You’re Jeraine!” the man said. “I thought my dad was joking when he said that you picked his garden today.”

“Picked it clean,” Mr. Matchel said with a grin. “With this fine young man, as well.”

Mr. Matchel’s son nodded to J’Ron. Embarrassed, the boy looked down.

“Let’s get you a mask,” Jeraine said to Mr. Matchel’s son.

“Oh shit,” Mr. Matchel’s son said. “Dad said that you were sticklers for that. I have one. . .”

J’Ron held out a clean mask for Mr. Matchel’s son.

“We have them over there,” J’Ron said. “We keep one in our pockets and one on our face. It helps if someone needs a mask, but mostly if our mask gets gross, we can change it.”

“Thanks,” Mr. Matchel’s son said.

“Your dad was really sick this year,” Jeraine said.

“Crazy stuff,” Mr. Matchel’s son said. “We — my brother, sister, and I — didn’t realize he wasn’t getting food and. . . We really owe you. None of us live in town, we. . .”

The man stopped talking. Under the face mask, his face flushed red. His eyes welled with tears. He started gasping for air.

“Get Nelson,” Jeraine said. “Or M.J.”

J’Ron took off running.

Jeraine put his hands on the man’s shoulders. For a moment, he just held him up.

“What’s going on?” Mike’s voice came from behind Jeraine. As Mike neared, he gasped. “Burt? Burt Matchel?”

Nelson came running up behind Jeraine.

“Let go,” Nelson said. He glanced at Mike. “Whatever is happening, this man is going into shock. Grab him!”

Nelson and Jeraine took either side of Mr. Matchel’s son, Burt, and dragged him toward Honey and M.J.’s quiet garden off the driveway. They set Burt down on the bench. Nelson put Burt’s head between his knees.

“What happened?” Nelson asked Jeraine.

“I’m not sure,” Jeraine said. “He saw something and then. . .”

“It was me,” Mike said.

Jeraine and Nelson turned to Mike.

“He was in my unit,” Mike said. “You know. . .”

“Afghanistan,” Burt said. “I’m sorry, I just. . . I should have known. Dad’s been talking about Val, the movie star, and Jeraine, the R&B legend, and. . . It just sounded like. . .”

“The ramblings of a crazy old man,” Mr. Matchel said with a laugh. “My children think I’ve lost the plot.”

J’Ron ran up with his father, Royce.

“Can you take Mr. Matchel to the back?” Nelson asked. “His son is not feeling well. I know Mr. Matchel would like to see everyone and get some punch.”

“Did Val make that punch?” Mr. Matchel asked with a grin.

“No, Tanesha did,” Nelson said.

“Even better!” Mr. Matchel said, rubbing his hands. “Burt, you’re in good hands. I’m going to get some punch and say ‘hello’ to everyone. Is our group here yet?”

“They’re at a table near the back,” Nelson said of the elderly neighbors in Mr. Matchel’s “group.”

“Good,” Mr. Matchel said with a grin. “Let me know if I can help.”

Mr. Matchel looked at Mike for a long moment.

“Thanks for bringing my son back to me,” Mr. Matchel said.

Mike winced and looked down at the ground. Mr. Matchel patted his shoulder and left with J’Ron to the back.

“I’m Royce Tubman,” he said. “That was my son. Can I help?”

“Could you bring some. . .?” Nelson started.

M.J. appeared with a bottle of cold water.

“Thanks,” Nelson said. “He seems to be having a PTSD episode.”

“We haven’t seen each other since we got off the plane,” Mike said. “He was in the caves with me.”

M.J. and Royce shared a look.

“Does he really have a girlfriend?” Burt asked without looking up.

“Me?” M.J. asked, gesturing to himself. He shook his head.

“He means his dad,” Nelson said. “Yes, he and one of the neighbor’s have started a relationship over the pandemic. I don’t know how serious it is, but they enjoy each other’s company.”

“We thought he was just crazy,” Burt said. “He’s always been such an asshole, racist. . . My little sister won’t speak to him because he hates everyone. I don’t know how you did it. . .”

“Right love at the right time. He was also near death. I think that kind of need creates miracles,” Nelson said. He looked up at Jeraine. “Jer? Why don’t we give Mike and Burt a bit of privacy?”

Nelson stood up. He looked at M.J. and Royce. The men nodded in agreement.

“I’ll be just over there if you need any help,” Nelson said.

Nelson, Jeraine, M.J., and Royce moved away from Mike and Burt.

“You okay, man?” Mike asked.

“No,” Burt said. “I. . . No. . . I haven’t been since we got back. I mean, I went to counseling but it was so stupid and then. . .”

Burt looked up at Mike.

“How’d you do it?” Burt asked. “You were fucked up when you got back. Worse than me.”

“I got used to being fucked up,” Mike said with a snort. “Listen, are you here for a while?”

“I’m supposed to evaluate whether to put dad in a home,” Burt said.

“He’s never going to agree to that,” Mike said.

“You know him, too?” Burt asked. “It’s like my asshole dad has this awesome secret life!”

“He comes to dinner sometimes,” Mike said. “It’s really Blane and Jake that pulled him into our family. Then, they found him outside their house — I don’t remember who. Nelson, probably. Your dad wasn’t getting food. He tried to make it next door but collapsed on the sidewalk. He was brought to their house. They nursed him back to health. He’s been doing great since then. Joined the neighbor group. Helping out everyone. He drops food off.”

Mike looked off into the distance and then back at Burt.

“I remember your stories about him,” Mike said. “I don’t know what’s happened, but he’s decided to try to be a nicer person. He has friends now and doesn’t spend so much time alone.”

“Does he watch those stupid programs?” Burt asked.

“I don’t think he has time,” Mike said. “He’s pretty busy, now. He’s either making food for people or dropping it off. That’s three times a day. Delphie and my sister, Jill, organize it. It’s a little crazy but people were starving before we stepped in to help.”

Burt looked up at Mike.

“What do you need?” Mike asked.

“I. . . I don’t know,” Burt said. “To know that it’s over, I guess.”

“It’s over,” Mike said. “Listen, we’re going to be working in the gardens for another day.”

“Dad wants me to help out at some school?” Burt asked.

“We’ll tell you all about it,” Mike said. “I’m due someplace. Do you mind if I leave you with Mike and Royce? Royce was a SEAL and M.J.’s a Marine. They know all about what we went through.”

Burt shook his head.

“Your dad stays here sometimes,” Mike said. “Why don’t you plan to stay? We can talk more when I’m done.”

Burt nodded. Mike put his hands on Burt’s shoulders.

“I know that you’re suffering,” Mike said. “But I also know that all that we went through is really and truly over.”

Burt looked up at him.

“Yes,” Mike answered Burt’s unasked question. “I still have nightmares and wake up thinking I’m there. But, I have three kids now. They’ve taught me that I have a bigger life than a few months in a cave in Afghanistan.”

Burt started to cry.

“Come on,” Mike said. “Let’s get you a beer and some food. You can hang out with a few nice people.”

Wiping his face, Burt got to his feet. M.J. and Royce were right with Burt as soon as Mike moved away.

“Oh, I should tell you,” Mike said. “Your dad’s working on his memoir.”

“Really?” Burt mouthed.

Mike nodded.

“It’s pretty good,” M.J. said. “He’s read some of it to us.”

“Who knew?” Burt said.

Mike started toward the back. He was just about to turn when he saw M.J. and Royce walking Burt toward the back.

Mike saw that Blane was getting Ivan to his feet. They were shuffling toward the stairway to the medical offices. Mike jogged across the backyard and carried Ivan up the stairs. At the top, he looked out over the party.

Mike remembered getting home from Afghanistan as clear as day. He remembered the mess he’d made of his life and the wreckage his trauma caused for him and Valerie. He looked out across the Castle backyard.

These were the people who helped him put his pieces back together again. They would help Burt, too.

Nodding to himself, he went inside to join his family to help heal Ivan.

Denver Cereal continues next week...

 


Chapter Six Hundred and Sixty-three - Safe, together (part five)

CHAPTER SIX HUNDRED and SIXTY-THREE

(part five)

“The ramblings of a crazy old man,” Mr. Matchel said with a laugh. “My children think I’ve lost the plot.”

J’Ron ran up with his father, Royce.

“Can you take Mr. Matchel to the back?” Nelson asked. “His son is not feeling well. I know Mr. Matchel would like to see everyone and get some punch.”

“Did Val make that punch?” Mr. Matchel asked with a grin.

“No, Tanesha did,” Nelson said.

“Even better!” Mr. Matchel said, rubbing his hands. “Burt, you’re in good hands. I’m going to get some punch and say ‘hello’ to everyone. Is our group here yet?”

“They’re at a table near the back,” Nelson said of the elderly neighbors in Mr. Matchel’s “group.”

“Good,” Mr. Matchel said with a grin. “Let me know if I can help.”

Mr. Matchel looked at Mike for a long moment.

“Thanks for bringing my son back to me,” Mr. Matchel said.

Mike winced and looked down at the ground. Mr. Matchel patted his shoulder and left with J’Ron to the back.

“I’m Royce Tubman,” he said. “That was my son. Can I help?”

“Could you bring some. . .?” Nelson started.

M.J. appeared with a bottle of cold water.

“Thanks,” Nelson said. “He seems to be having a PTSD episode.”

“We haven’t seen each other since we got off the plane,” Mike said. “He was in the caves with me.”

M.J. and Royce shared a look.

“Does he really have a girlfriend?” Burt asked without looking up.

“Me?” M.J. asked, gesturing to himself. He shook his head.

“He means his dad,” Nelson said. “Yes, he and one of the neighbor’s have started a relationship over the pandemic. I don’t know how serious it is, but they enjoy each other’s company.”

“We thought he was just crazy,” Burt said. “He’s always been such an asshole, racist. . . My little sister won’t speak to him because he hates everyone. I don’t know how you did it. . .”

“Right love at the right time. He was also near death. I think that kind of need creates miracles,” Nelson said. He looked up at Jeraine. “Jer? Why don’t we give Mike and Burt a bit of privacy?”

Nelson stood up. He looked at M.J. and Royce. The men nodded in agreement.

“I’ll be just over there if you need any help,” Nelson said.

Nelson, Jeraine, M.J., and Royce moved away from Mike and Burt.

“You okay, man?” Mike asked.

“No,” Burt said. “I. . . No. . . I haven’t been since we got back. I mean, I went to counseling but it was so stupid and then. . .”

Burt looked up at Mike.

“How’d you do it?” Burt asked. “You were fucked up when you got back. Worse than me.”

“I got used to being fucked up,” Mike said with a snort. “Listen, are you here for a while?”

“I’m supposed to evaluate whether to put dad in a home,” Burt said.

“He’s never going to agree to that,” Mike said.

“You know him, too?” Burt asked. “It’s like my asshole dad has this awesome secret life!”

“He comes to dinner sometimes,” Mike said. “It’s really Blane and Jake that pulled him into our family. Then, they found him outside their house — I don’t remember who. Nelson, probably. Your dad wasn’t getting food. He tried to make it next door but collapsed on the sidewalk. He was brought to their house. They nursed him back to health. He’s been doing great since then. Joined the neighbor group. Helping out everyone. He drops food off.”

Denver Cereal continues tomorrow...


Chapter Six Hundred and Sixty-three - Safe, together (part four)

CHAPTER SIX HUNDRED and SIXTY-THREE

(part four)

Saturday evening — 5:15 p.m.

Jeraine started jogging toward the gate when he saw Mr. Matchel, their elderly next door neighbor, at the fence. J’Ron Tubman beat him too it. J’Ron had helped Jeraine pick the vegetables in Mr. Matchel’s yard that  afternoon. J’Ron greeted Mr. Matchel warmly.

Mr. Matchel blushed at the boy’s attention.

“Hey!” Jeraine said. He held his hand out for the man to shake.

Seeing a target, Mr. Matchel grabbed onto Jeraine’s hand.

“But. . .” J’Ron said.

“He needs this,” Jeraine said.

“I sure do,” Mr. Matchel said, good naturedly. “I want to introduce. . .”

Mr. Matchel turned but there was no one there. J’Ron gave Jeraine an “old people are idiots” kind of look. A man yelled from the gate.

“My son,” Mr. Matchel said, gesturing to the gate.

Jeraine went to open the gate for Mr. Matchel’s son.

“You’re Jeraine!” the man said. “I thought my dad was joking when he said that you picked his garden today.”

“Picked it clean,” Mr. Matchel said with a grin. “With this fine young man, as well.”

Mr. Matchel’s son nodded to J’Ron. Embarrassed, the boy looked down.

“Let’s get you a mask,” Jeraine said to Mr. Matchel’s son.

“Oh shit,” Mr. Matchel’s son said. “Dad said that you were sticklers for that. I have one. . .”

J’Ron held out a clean mask for Mr. Matchel’s son.

“We have them over there,” J’Ron said. “We keep one in our pockets and one on our face. It helps if someone needs a mask, but mostly if our mask gets gross, we can change it.”

“Thanks,” Mr. Matchel’s son said.

“Your dad was really sick this year,” Jeraine said.

“Crazy stuff,” Mr. Matchel’s son said. “We — my brother, sister, and I — didn’t realize he wasn’t getting food and. . . We really owe you. None of us live in town, we. . .”

The man stopped talking. Under the face mask, his face flushed red. His eyes welled with tears. He started gasping for air.

“Get Nelson,” Jeraine said. “Or M.J.”

J’Ron took off running.

Jeraine put his hands on the man’s shoulders. For a moment, he just held him up.

“What’s going on?” Mike’s voice came from behind Jeraine. As Mike neared, he gasped. “Burt? Burt Matchel?”

Nelson came running up behind Jeraine.

“Let go,” Nelson said. He glanced at Mike. “Whatever is happening, this man is going into shock. Grab him!”

Nelson and Jeraine took either side of Mr. Matchel’s son, Burt, and dragged him toward Honey and M.J.’s quiet garden off the driveway. They set Burt down on the bench. Nelson put Burt’s head between his knees.

“What happened?” Nelson asked Jeraine.

“I’m not sure,” Jeraine said. “He saw something and then. . .”

“It was me,” Mike said.

Jeraine and Nelson turned to Mike.

“He was in my unit,” Mike said. “You know. . .”

“Afghanistan,” Burt said. “I’m sorry, I just. . . I should have known. Dad’s been talking about Val, the movie star, and Jeraine, the R&B legend, and. . . It just sounded like. . .”

“The ramblings of a crazy old man,” Mr. Matchel said with a laugh. “My children think I’ve lost the plot.”

Denver Cereal continues tomorrow...


Chapter Six Hundred and Sixty-three - Safe, together (part three)

CHAPTER SIX HUNDRED and SIXTY-THREE

(part three)

“He traded a big favor for the team to go get me,” Ivan said. “Paid for the trip, too. They used his help to find someone who would likely had died without his help. Did you know that he finds remains and brings them home?”

Jennifer nodded and looked away.

“What do you do?” Ivan asked.  

“I work with traumatized people. I’m a psychologist,” Jennifer said. She gave him a long look. “Delphie told me. . .”

“She told me that I would meet someone who could help me today,” Ivan said.

“I don’t usually find clients at parties,” Jennifer said. “I’m not sure that it’s ethical.”

“I understand.” Ivan nodded.

“That said,” Jennifer said, “it would be a great honor for me to help someone who was helped by Dean.”

Jennifer smiled at Ivan.

“Do you need help?” Jennifer asked.

“Delphie told me that my internal rage and trauma are making my illness worse,” Ivan said. His eyes flicked to Sissy. “I want to survive this thing. I want. . .”

Ivan sighed.

“I understand,” Jennifer said. She dug around in her purse and came up with a business card. “Let me give you my card. If you decided to get help, just call me. If I don’t work for you, then I can refer you. I can always come here or meet you over the Internet.”

“I am very tired,” Ivan said.

“I understand,” Jennifer said. “I’ve known other people with cancer. No matter how fit or strong you are, fighting cancer takes everything out of you.”

Ivan gave her a quick nod. His eyes drifted to where Sissy was talking to Wanda and Tink.

“She is very beautiful,” Jennifer said. “I’m excited to see her dance tonight.”

Ivan nodded.

Jennifer opened her mouth to say something else, but Blane came up behind them.

“Excuse us,” Blane said.

Ivan looked up at him.

“Time for another treatment,” Blane said.

“Excuse me,” Ivan said. “Very nice to meet you.”

“You, too,” Jennifer said.

Blane helped Ivan to his feet.

“And thanks for telling me about Dean,” Jennifer said. Her hand went to her heart. “You cannot imagine how much that means to me.”

They got to the end of the medical office stairs. Mike jogged over. Without saying a word, Mike lifted Ivan off his feet and carried him upstairs.

“Mike and his family are here, too,” Blane said when they reached the top.

“Thank you,” Ivan said.

Mike carried Ivan through the medical offices, past his apartment, and into Delphie’s apartment. He lay Ivan down on the bed. Ivan was asleep before Blane returned.

Denver Cereal continues tomorrow...


Chapter Six Hundred and Sixty-three - Safe, together (part two)

CHAPTER SIX HUNDRED and SIXTY-THREE

(part two)

“From the very beginning,” Sissy said with a nod. “Jake, Aden, and Sam run a big underground construction company. They've been able to keep their entire crew from getting sick by using distance, masks, and hand washing. I think that it’s been a lot of work, but no one here minds doing the work.”

“You don’t live here?” Jennifer asked.

“I’ve been in Paris for school,” Sissy said.

“Oh,” Jennifer said. “You’re the ballerina? My daughter’s been talking about a ballerina who is going to dance tonight in City Park.”

“Nash and Teddy run an Instagram account for me,” Sissy said. “We’ve danced all over Denver, Paris, and a few places in Europe. Before Ivan got sick.”

Jennifer nodded.

“She’s very excited,” Jennifer said. “Do you mind dancing with younger students?”

“I think we’re all students,” Sissy said. “Plus, she’s not that much younger than I am. I’m just eighteen.”

“Oh, you’re a year older than my son,” Jennifer said. “I guess it’s your poise that makes you seem older.”

“Since I have been ill,” Ivan said.

“I think it’s just living in France,” Sissy said with a shrug. Sissy pointed to Charlie and Tink. “That’s my older brother and his girlfriend.”

“My eldest loves Charlie,” Jennifer said. “He read so many books when he was here earlier in the year. I was surprised because he’s not much of a reader, but Charlie got him interested in all kinds of books and stories. He still does the book club.”

“I do, too,” Sissy said with a grin. “Charlie’s a great teacher.”

Wanda came running out of the Castle. She went to speak to Tink. The girls looked up at Sissy and waved her over.

“Excuse me,” Sissy said. “I better go over before they get wild.”

Jennifer smiled. Sissy got up from her seat. She kissed Ivan’s cheek and went to see what Tink and Wanda were up to.

Ivan sighed.

“You are probably wondering about the difference in our ages,” Ivan said.

“Not really,” Jennifer said. “I learned how precious love is when Dean died. I always thought that I knew about love, but losing Dean and the rest of the guys. . . I don’t think any of us wives have really moved on. It’s been a long time, but. . .”

Jennifer shrugged.

“Now, I guess I think if you have love, you should cherish it for as long as it’s with you,” Jennifer said.

Ivan gave her a slight nod.

“Are you a dancer too?” Jennifer asked. “You look like one.”

Ivan gave a nod.

“Why did the boys go to get you?” Jennifer asked.

“Do you know Seth O’Malley?” Ivan asked.

“By name,” Jennifer said. “I mean, like everyone in Denver, I could recognize him in a crowd, but I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to him.”

Denver Cereal continues tomorrow...