Prologue

When John pulled the old Model-T into a parking space front of the hospital, a bag with some books and two or three days worth of clean clothes in the passenger's seat, he had to take a moment to breathe before he remembered to shut off the engine.

His hands were shaking – maybe, he thought, it was the coffee, and maybe, he thought, he should cut back. He was already over the recommended weight for his age group, but at least he went for a jog every morning, and at least he balanced out all that coffee with his vitamins and the bran in the morning when Fanny complained that having a husband who couldn't fit into a size twelve was humiliating.

No, John thought, it wasn't fair to blame Fanny – he did love her, after all.

Or maybe it was the stress – he'd already had a stressful week, trying to get this week's projects finished when he was already down an hour from work everyday, and the accounting department had been behind schedule twice, already, and the design department had to redo the product designs for the other project, and the managers and salespeople under him were all made of slackers because the higher managers couldn't give him decent projects, and the lower managers were uncooperative and lazy, and when he finally did get home, Fanny was no comfort, always insisting that he stop driving the Ford and save up for a much more appropriate car, like a Lexus or a Mercedes, or at least a Bentley.

So, thought John, thank you very much, Dad, for choosing now of all times to be diagnosed with cancer and only have a matter of weeks to live.

John raised his hands and massaged under his glasses – the same reading glasses that he must have forgotten to take off before getting in the car. Again.

Really, he could only conclude that he was angry. So angry, he might just get up to a grumble or a few mildly sarcastic remarks when he finally did see his father, today. So angry, he might just decide to get up and leave on Sunday morning for church services, and then not go and not come back until Monday evening. So angry, he might cut the heartfelt 'I love you's he'd been sharing with his father lately down to a more awkward 'Love you' once or twice. He might even push the limits of his anger and cut the tearful 'Goodbye' down to a more somber 'Bye' when he left on Sunday.

After carefully prying his glasses from behind his ears and scooping up the bag, John hefted himself from the car with a grunt. Something in his loose gut burned – maybe the cheap restaurant food he'd had for lunch, or maybe it was just that his belt was a notch or two too tight. He should probably make an appointment with his own physician for sometime after visiting hours.

Inside the lobby, John passed a quartet of Hispanic women in the waiting chairs. The three adults were huddled together while the child played with one of the handheld Nintendo games the hospital provided for waiting visitors. He kept glancing back at them, while none of them seemed to have noticed John's arrival.

"Name of patient you're visiting?" Asked the hefty black woman behind the desk. John focused on her, instead of the women who seemed to be ignoring him in the corner – her floral pink cardigan matched the clip in her graying hair.

"Henry Dashwood." He answered. The back of his collar was chafing at his neck, but he couldn't scratch with the receptionist watching him – she gave him a look that made her seem like the kind of woman who would disapprove of a gentleman scratching himself in a lady's presence.

There was the clack of her rounded fingernails hitting the keys as she typed it in.

"And your relationship to the patient?" She asked, turning back to him. There was that look again – one which seemed to command that he speak politely to her, and she better not hear him act or speak rudely to anyone else in the hospital, be they a nurse, patient, or even a housekeeper.

"I'm his son, John." John answered. The receptionist turned back to the computer and typed that in, as well.

"...There's a doctor seeing Mister Dashwood, right now, so you'll have to wait." She finally said, not looking up from the screen and not seeing John's nod, "If you'd like to have a seat, a nurse'll show you to his room once the doctor says he can have visitors."

John looked back over towards the waiting chairs. The women were in the corner, and there was a circle of seven extra chairs.

"Okay." He said, sure to look at the receptionist and offering an uncomfortable smile, "Thanks a lot."

She smiled back, at last. John was sure to make his smile more sincere before he backed away. Never turn your back on a lady, his mother would always tell him.

He settled in the chair that was the furthest away from the women in the corner, but also away from the newspapers, magazines, and toys at the visitor's table. The chair felt awkward and tight around his hips and waist – a far cry from the loose fit he'd had ten years ago when he and his father had been visiting his mother in this same hospital. Now, he kind of wished he could go and get one of the Highlights for Kids magazines from the other tables, if only for some comfort.

As if on cue, the girl on the handheld looked up from her game and then put it down and edged around the tables until she'd come up next to John.

Perfect. Just perfect.

"Hi, John." She said, tucking some loose strands of hair behind her ear. John shifted in his seat. His stomach felt heavy and churning, again, and he blamed his belt and the suit that he'd been in all day.

"Hi, Maggie." He answered. Maggie was thirteen and wore clothes that should have been for a fourteen-year-old. Her jeans were rolled up so she could walk and had three odd folds in the waistband from where they'd been taken in – they'd probably belonged to one of her sisters until recently. Her blouse was untucked and hid the slight bulge of her stomach and developing body, making her look like an inordinately tall and chubby eleven-year-old – an illusion only furthered by her messy ponytail and complete lack of makeup. She looked just like her sisters had at the same age, so John could only assume that their mother had looked mostly the same.

But Maggie – and both her sisters, for that matter – had the same honey-brown eyes as John.

"You here to see Papa?" She asked, twisting a toe on the carpet. John could feel the gaze of the receptionist on the two of them, but mostly on Maggie for scuffing the floor.

"Yep." John replied. Maggie looked back at her sisters and mother and John's gaze followed hers – Maggie's two older sisters, both around the same age as John, were mumbling with their mother in rapid Spanish. One of them had her arm around the old woman, the other was sitting more straight and holding the hands of the other two in a grip that was supposed to be more calming than empathetic. Their mother – tiny and hefty with very distinctly Hispanic features and more gray in her hair than black – was fingering a sterling rosary and seemed to be choking on her own breath. John couldn't see her eyes, she was squinting so much and kept dabbing at them with a piece of Kleenex. In a way, John sort of wished that she was going in to visit his father – at the very least, she would have given his father a hug and a kiss, while John wasn't even sure he'd be able to bring himself to hold his father's gaze, let alone hand.

John was more than grateful when Maggie looked away and he could meet her gaze. He didn't even find himself minding when Maggie opened her arms and wrapped them around his shoulders in an awkward hug. He hugged back, feeling the gaze of the receptionist on him, again.

He was also infinitely grateful that Fanny had decided that she didn't want to come along to visit, today.

When Maggie let go of him, John leaned backwards and let his elbows rest on his knees. Maggie's eyes seemed much bigger, even though they were now half-closed and blinking away extra moisture.

"He's not going to be okay, is he?" She asked, quietly. John glanced back towards her sisters and mother – the sister who'd been more detached had stood up and was making her way towards them. John wondered how long it had taken them and how hard it had been to convey the news to their mother.

"...Not for long, no..." He finally admitted. Maggie looked down at the floor, one tear leaking down the side of her nose. John reached out and gave her a pat in the small of her back, "C'mon, don't slouch. Remember what Dad would say."

Maggie straightened up just as her sister came over – with the sharp look in her eyes and the minimal amount of makeup and tightly wound hairstyle that made her look older than she really was, sitting down, John felt intimidated. It also didn't hurt that this sister was dressed in a suit-material dress and low-heeled shoes and was still tall enough to be almost on eye-level with John when he was standing, and that she was wide enough... that is broad-shouldered enough that she could have probably beat him in arm-wrestling. If it weren't for the loose thread John could see dangling from the edge of the skirt, he would never have guessed that it had been bought from a local re-sell shop.

"'Lo, Nell." John inclined his head, calmly. Nell nodded back, whispering something in Spanish to Maggie and ushering her back over towards the other two.

"Afternoon, John." Nell finally said, in English and in a tone that was so perfectly neutral that it surprised even John how friendly he found it, "How's Fanny and her family?"

He'd always given Nell props for being so unfailingly civil. He didn't think he'd ever heard a cross word from her, or even a scowl – a feat made even more impressive whenever John found himself staring at her thick bushy eyebrows that naturally slanted so they looked like a frown. She was so polite that John almost wanted to resent her for being better at keeping an even temper than he.

"Fanny's doing well... can't say I've seen or heard from her family, recently." He shifted, again, and blamed the tightness in his throat on his necktie.

"Glad to hear she's alright." Nell nodded, agreeably. She didn't ask if she could have a seat nor make a move to sit in one of the chairs – she probably would have felt as uncomfortable as John, given that her hips and waist were roughly the same size as his, "...How have you been, lately?"

"...Okay, I guess." John shrugged, looking over his shoulder for a nurse or a doctor, even an orderly to come over and say he could visit his father, "...How about you?"

Nell had a look in her eyes that John usually associated with someone trying to answer the question politely when all they wanted to do was complain about how bad they were doing.

"...I am fine. I'm more worried about my mother." She didn't have any edge to her voice, but the sentence was so open-ended that John knew he was supposed to ask, or at least offer some kind of consolation. Nell spared him the suspense and continued, "John, I know this is a big favor to ask and you have no obligation to any of us, but... in case of the worst, could you just let us stay in the house a little longer?"

John didn't answer in favor of staring at his wrists and fiddling with his cuffs and watch, as though they were cutting off his circulation.

"John, it's not just myself and Maria – Margret still has school and she's doing well, so it would hurt her chances for a good college if we had to move to a different district..." Nell paused and swallowed – and she might have been composing her argument better and keeping herself calm, because the last two words had definitely shown signs of her accent coming out, "...And it's close to where Mama works, and at her age, she's having troubles enough as it is with her arthritis. It would just be easier on her, is all. Please, John? It might not even be an issue, just..."

John was spared from answering, this time by a tall, skinny boy in a nurse's scrubs approaching them.

"John Dashwood?" He asked, not casting Nell a glance, "Your father's allowed to have visitors, now – right this way."

John offered an awkward grin that he hoped Nell interpreted as apologetic and trundled after the nurse. His father was in a private room, only in a sitting position because of the bed's incline. Most of his hair had fallen out, save for the thin line over his ears. His neck and arms were the same boney width, and his chest labored for breath, only because of the oxygen tube strung under his nose.

Two weeks ago, he'd been bragging to John that he'd soon be made Vice President.

"Hi Dad." John sat down, heavily, in the chair. His father's eyes blinked open – the same color, shape, and size that John and all of the girls had.

"John..." His father reached out a hand and it looked as though he was using every muscle in his body to keep his arm in the air. When John clasped his father's hand, there was a noticeable relaxation that went through the old man's body, "Fanny's not with you, today?"

"She said she wasn't feeling up to it." John shrugged. His father's shriveled lips curled in a smile.

"...There's something I need to talk to you about... I didn't want to do it with Fanny here..." His father paused to cough and clear his throat, "...About your sisters... about the Rodriguezes."

John didn't quite mean to clench his hand, but he did, all the same.

"...About Nell and the others?" He clarified. His father nodded, breathing so deeply, it felt deliberate. It probably was – his father had had trouble breathing on his other visits.

"...Look out for them, will you?" John would have thought God was laughing at him, the way that the request came so immediately after Nell asked the same thing. "You're the sole benefactor from all of my insurance and my property and assets. I couldn't leave them anything..." His father broke off and started coughing again, but it was muffled with a smile, "...Not that Sofia would have taken it – that girl, I had trouble getting her to accept the occasional pair of earrings or necklace..."

And the last thing John had wanted to talk to his father about during his last few days was his affair with the enticing immigrant worker who'd cleaned his office. As a kid, he hadn't questioned Elleanor and Maria Anne showing up and his father explaining that they were his little sisters. Then, when he was a teenager and waiting outside his mother's hospital room while Nell and Maria clung to a dumpy woman with a very swollen belly, it had occurred to him that his father hadn't told him the entire truth. At least he hadn't had to live under the same roof as Ms. Rodriguez and the baby Margret for very long until he could go off to college and he hadn't really returned home, since.

"Dad... what does this have to do with me?" John asked. His father shook his head, a little, then coughed and cleared his throat, again.

"Right... sorry..." Another throat clearing, "Nell... she's trying to go for her Master's, you know... and Maria wanted to go to a beauty school, and Maggie still needs to get through middle school and high school, and then there's college..." His father's hands were starting to shake, "And Sofia... did Nell tell you about her arthritis? She's getting older, and she's working hard enough, she shouldn't have to worry about the girls, at least, and then there's the medical bills she'll probably have, too..." His father paused from his rambling to cough.

"If you're so worried, why didn't you marry her?" John asked, trying to keep some of the bitterness out of his voice. After all, by the time Margret had come along, John's mother had been dead for months, and it's not like his mother being alive had ever stopped his father, before.

His father wheezed through his smile.

"John, my boy... it's complicated..." Shaking though his hands were, the grip was iron tight, "It always has been, probably always will be. I know I hurt you and your mother with what I did, but I still love you."

John met his father's eyes for a moment and wanted so badly to shout that he just couldn't believe him. He didn't because he also wanted so badly to be able to believe his father.

"...But I also really did love Sofia, and I still want her and her girls to be okay. Please, John..." His father had started crying, "...They're still your family. Promise me you'll help them... promise me they'll be alright."

It took everything John had not to start crying, too.

"I promise, Dad." He choked.

The last image John had of his father's eyes, they were crinkled in a smile.