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.
“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.”
“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.
“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. . .”
“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. . .”
“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.”
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.
“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...