The Reunion

Janel (Blake) Shanahan Landry and "The Girls" were reuniting for their 30th High School Class Reunion.

Janel was amazed that the five girls had maintained their childhood friendship through high school and college, romances and breakups, marriages and divorce, and births and death during nearly fifty years of love, commitment and bonded loyalty.

Caelyn Roberts (now Bottalco) was the beautiful, intelligent, sassy and sexy leader of the group who willingly forfeited her college degree to marry her college sweetheart and become a stay-at-home mom of three. Rhonda DeMars was the unlucky-at-love girl who ran the service department at her father's automobile dealership while waiting for the right relationship to finally come along. Elisa (Jennings) Boggs was the athletic tomboy with countless boy pals in school who now ran her own successful business, and Isabelle Woods (nee Zwindel) was the moody and troubled fatherless girl tormented by a drunk mother who overcame her childhood demons to marry a stable and supportive man.

Janel was the enthusiastic gun ho member of the quintet. She married Don Shanahan who she met in college but that marriage soured after ten years. Now she was married to her former high school beau Owen Landry and they lived in Florida. Janel only returned to Blue County for the occasional wedding or funeral although "The Girls" were happy to visit their friend in the Sunshine State whenever their schedules allowed.

Janel was thrilled to be attending the reunion and reteaming with "The Girls" one more time but Owen's disinterest in making the trip put a damper on her getaway spirit.

"I've never been to any of our high school reunions," Owen reasoned. "Why would I want to go to this one?"

Owen was a senior manager in the promotions department of the Tampa Bay Rays baseball organization, a fun job with plenty of exposure and perks but it was also time consuming and Janel often felt like she took a back seat to Owen's career interests.

Janel earned her degree in management and she was a self-employed consultant, facilitating seminars and workshops on workplace diversity, sexual harassment, interviewing techniques and other management skills. She liked the people she met and the travel that came with the job.

She and Owen had been married fourteen years and, with no children, the financially secure couple enjoyed exotic vacations when time allowed.

"We work hard and we play hard," Owen liked to say but lately Janel got the impression that Owen was more satisfied in working than playing and she was disappointed when he showed little interest in their hometown past.

"Look, this is a time for 'The Girls'," Owen said. "Go home and enjoy your reunion. You don't need me being a sixth wheel."

"I need you to be a husband," she pouted, but Owen wouldn't change his mind so Janel flew home alone on a Thursday evening sulking knowing her husband didn't think the reunion was important enough to share together.

Janel hadn't been back to Greenville since her mother died so she was coming home with mixed emotions. Rhonda was waiting for her at the airport. They hugged in the baggage claim section, laughing and giggling like two school girls on a sleep over. Rhonda visited Janel in Florida every year and in the age of cell phones, text messaging and Internet, "The Girls" were never far apart.

Rhonda was within five pounds of her high school volleyball playing weight, still slender to match her noticeably tall height. Janel actually weighed less now than she had in high school thanks to her frequent jogs along the beaches of Florida. She looked healthy with her deep natural tan and the two friends turned a few heads as they walked in unison through the airport parking lot.

Rhonda excitedly filled Janel in on the Reunion weekend schedule.

"There's a Friday afternoon golf outing at the Country Club, a casual get-together at The Bullpen Friday night, a high school walk through on Saturday morning, a family picnic at Green Park in the afternoon, the formal reunion at the Country Club, and a Sunday morning brunch at The Riverview Restaurant," she reported. "This is going to be great!"

"I hope there's time to pencil in some 'Girls' time too," Janel said.

"Oh, there's always time for that!" Rhonda assured her.

Janel was energized about the weekend and her anticipation grew as the two friends approached good ole Greenville. Unlike a large number of people she bumped into in her professional life who shuttered at the thought of high school memories, Janel enjoyed her high school experience. She was popular socially, did well academically, and she was successful with sports and other extra curricular activities.

There were the usual cliques but the class was generally a close knit group and Janel experienced few problems in her four years of high school. She liked the teachers, the principal was hip, and the building itself was a welcoming place to be true to your school. She looked forward to seeing her classmates again, most of whom she hadn't seen since graduation.

Rhonda lived in a comfortable condominium not far from the golf course and after drinking wine well into the night reminiscing about the good ole days, Janel retired to Rho's guest room for her first night in Greenville in ten years.

In the morning, Rho dropped Janel off at Caelyn's house on her way to the car dealership. Cae and her insurance salesman husband Marc lived in a handsome ranch not far from the neighborhood where Janel grew up. Janel gave Marc a hug as he headed out the door and then she sat in the kitchen eating breakfast with Cae and her two daughters.

Caelyn's adult son Archie was living out of the house now but seventeen year old Amanda and her nine year old sister Jessie greeted "Aunt Janel" with happy smiles and stories of their summer activities. They loved visiting Janel in Tampa and they were equally happy to welcome her to their house for the first time.

Caelyn looked terrific for a 48 year old mother of three, impressively retaining her sharp figure even after giving birth three times. She wore her blond hair the same as in high school, long and over the shoulders and she was constantly smiling, happy with her life. Cae had been among the smartest students in her class and most assumed she would pursue a meaningful career but she said motherhood was the best job in the world.

Each of "The Girls" enjoyed uniquely specific relationships with one another. Caelyn was Janel's mentor and advisor while Janel played the same big sister role to Rhonda. Janel appreciated Isabelle's insight and hard knocks experience while Elisa competed with Caelyn for popularity. Rhoda resented Cae for being perfect while Isabelle avoided 'The Girls' because of her past sins. Elisa never forgave Isabelle for her horrid past behavior and all four girls used Janel as their sounding board.

Janel saw the best in each girl, valued those friendships, and she was grateful to have the four of them in her life. The neat thing about being with 'The Girls' whenever any of them got together was that it felt like they picked up right where they left off no matter how long it had been between visits.

The two friends chatted at the kitchen table for more than an hour, laughing about old times and updating one another on their present lives. Caelyn was an even keeled, down to earth, contented person and Janel admired her friend's ability to take life in stride, staying positive no matter what was going on. Married life and motherhood was her greatest joy and being with Cae made Janel think of her own mom.

Janel, Cae and Amanda took a walk around the neighborhood with Jessie riding ahead on her bike. The conversation focused on the families that once lived on the handsome tree lined streets. Janel stopped in front of a large brown Victorian house with a wrap around porch as they strolled along Ivy Lane.

"This is where I grew up," Janel told Amanda with a wistful smile.

"Who lives here now?" Amanda wondered, staring at the well kept house.

"I have no idea," Janel said with a sad sigh.

Janel's parents purchased the house a few years after they married. Her father was the well known politician Jimmy Blake. Most of his family was in politics and "Jimmy B" stayed in western Massachusetts after graduating from Green College with a degree in political science to work as the aide to a prominent state representative.

Jimmy ran for the seat himself a few years later and won. Janel's mom Julie was a young secretary in his local district office and that's how the two met. They married and bought the handsome home on Ivy Lane. Jimmy's career took off quickly, thanks in part to his family's political connections. He spent more time in Boston than Greenville and his weekends became clogged with meetings, conferences, campaigning and other commitments so he was rarely home. Julie gave birth to Janel while her husband was hosting a meeting of state mayors in Hyannis.

A year later, Jimmy B won a seat as a U.S. Congressman but Julie elected not to move to Washington DC. Greenville was her hometown and her parents lived nearby. She knew she would need to rely on them for help with the child given that Jimmy B was so busy with his political ambitions. The marriage suffered from the strain of his demanding career and his prolonged absences added to the stress. Jimmy was home two or three weekends a month at most and Janel spent more time with her maternal grandfather than she did with her own father growing up.

Julie filed for divorce when Janel was barely six years old and the child lived with her mom in Greenville with occasional visits from her dad, usually during campaign season. The girl also stayed with Jimmy B. in DC from time to time although less so after he remarried and inherited a step-family.

Janel's maternal grandparents were actively involved in her life during her formative years. She didn't have a conventional family with her father gone so much but she tried to convince herself it didn't matter even though she was envious of friends who had their daddy home every night. Janel became aware that she was different when everybody made a big production whenever Jimmy B came to town. She'd sit by the front door waiting for her Dad's arrival with great anticipation and he'd show up with presents, especially after he had stood her up or let her down, and eventually Janel's bedroom became crowded with what she called her 'Daddy guilt collection'.

Jimmy B. was a busy man and all too often he'd cancel or postpone a scheduled visit with Janel, leaving her mom and grandparents to pick up the pieces. No matter how many times he disappointed her, Janel always reacted as if it was the first time.

On some visits when he actually did show up, the promised trip to the zoo or toy store was replaced with a hurried visit to some politician's home or on an errand to solve a constituent's problem or to the Country Club where Janel played golf alongside the rich and famous. Janel was crushed by her father's lack of sensitivity and her heart broke every time he ignored her needs.

Janel's mother wasn't interested in finding romance after her marriage ended. She took a part time job in the town office to help augment her alimony and child support and she was focused on being the best mother she could be by spending as much time as possible with Janel. Mrs. Blake didn't have the time or the energy to pursue a relationship and she didn't want to introduce a stream of different men to her vulnerable young daughter just to improve her social life.

Janel wiped a tear from her eye as she stood in front of her childhood home thinking about her mom and her youth. Cae smiled and pulled her friend close to her.

"They can never take away your memories. Girlfriend," she said.

They returned to Caelyn's laughing about forgotten stories which Amanda loved hearing and Janel was happy to recount the ones that involved her mom.

Elisa the professional cater arrived from Rhode Island in time for lunch, bringing a meal with her and Cae and Janel gladly let their friend serve the food. Elisa was the talker of the group with the ability to incessantly ramble on about any subject. She was the kind of person who liked to hear herself talk and 'The Girls' usually let her hold court. Cae could say a lot with one sentence but Leesie could never say anything in less than a paragraph. Rhonda often served as Elisa's editor, helping her friend cut to the chase and get to the point by interjecting a thought to move Leesie along.

Attractive Leesie was sporty in high school although she was also "muscular" - a polite way of acknowledging her bulky build. Now, thirty years later with eating as both a hobby and a career, Elisa was borderline overweight with thick thighs, a puffy stomach, and chipmunk cheeks. She compensated for her physical girth with an attractive four hundred dollar hair style, theatre-like make-up, and a wardrobe purchased from the best stores.

Leesie married Lem Bellini, a fellow culinary student she met at Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island. They opened their own restaurant and enjoyed a great ten year run but then out of the blue Lem decided that he just didn't want to be married anymore and Leesie let him buy her out of the restaurant. She started her own successful catering business and acted as though Lem never happened in her life.

"As far as I'm concerned, I was never married," she said not long after the divorce.

Leesie served her friends a delicious lunch, compensating for her failed marriage with some wonderful recipes and cooking skills while explaining that the best caterers leave their customers wanting more!

When the meal was consumed, The Girls helped Cae clean up the kitchen and then Janel and Leesie left for the golf tournament while Cae took her daughters on an afternoon summer outing.

Janel and Leesie were the best athletes among "The Girls". Rhonda's height served her well for volleyball but she wasn't particularly coordinated and she lacked finesse when it came to the required skills of competition. Caelyn was a sexy and popular cheerleader in high school while Isabelle was too messed up to participate in or care about sports.

Leesie was a good soccer goalie and a strong softball catcher, well respected and relied upon by her coaches while Janel excelled at both field hockey and tennis and was named captain of the tennis team her senior year.

Golfing was a politician's game and Janel learned to play from her father who often took her out on the course instead of to the playground. Owen and Janel both golfed frequently, a natural hobby living in Florida. Leesie hadn't picked up a club in years but she was happy to be out on the links with Janel and their former classmates.

Tom Savage and his pal Denny Fraso were among those who showed up to play in the reunion tournament. Tom was one of those show-off guys in high school who could do no wrong and Janel hated playing second fiddle to him in the sports arena. Girl athletics took a back seat to the guy jocks with boy's varsity football, basketball and baseball considered the gravy sports no matter how well the girl volleyball, soccer, basketball, softball or tennis teams did. Tom was an All-American player in whatever game he played and even now, thirty years later, Janel wanted to put him in his place.

Janie (Hall) Pierce, a peppy class leader running the tournament, was thrilled to see so many classmates participating in the afternoon event. Teams were formed and Janel nodded with approval when Tom and Denny agreed to pair up with her and Elisa in a foursome. Most of the teams were joshing around and kiddingly talking trash but Janel took the match seriously and concentrated on keeping the ball in play, putting well, and relaxing mentally in hopes of besting Tom and perhaps even winning the tournament.

Janel drew a few whistles from the guys when she came out of the clubhouse wearing a short white golf skirt, tank top, a Rays ball cap, and pink cleats. She took a bow in response and smiled with pride and confidence.

Denny, a laid back guy forty pounds over his high school linebacker playing weight and now divorced, was looking for a good time and Leesie was interested in having fun too so the two hooked up in a natural partnership. Elisa opted for baggy shorts and a large tee shirt to help mask her expanding body while Denny played in jeans and a Budweiser tee shirt.

Smug Tom in his pressed khakis, yellow tennis shirt, and expensive golfing cleats was happy to compete and he reminded Janel that he was still the top dog thirty years later.

"I'll try to go easy on you," he quipped as they head for the first tee.

Janel said nothing and she approached the round with a safe game plan, rarely firing at a pin, taking shorter shots, and favoring the safe side of the green. On the third hole, with Tom already holding a two stroke lead, Janel decided not to chance short-siding the green and she aimed to the middle but missed to the right by about two inches, much to Tommy's amusement.

"Next time, we'll play miniature golf," he grinned. "I'm sure you'll be able to keep up with that."

Again Janel said nothing and on the next hole she had a chance to get to a par-5 in three. She elected to use the three-iron and ended up hitting the ball straight and safely on the back of the green. She two-putted for birdie to cut Tom's lead to one stroke and she could see the sweat beginning to form on his brow as he frowned at her unexpected skill.

"I assumed you were a duffer," he said.

Janel was swinging smoothly without any jerky or rushed tension which was often a culprit in her game. She concentrated on not killing her drives and maintaining a calm approach no matter what Tom said or did. She knew she needed to keep her ego in check so she didn't say much knowing a verbal discourse would knock her off her game.

Denny and Leesie were gabbing away without a care in the world with Leesie reliving her tomboy high school days of paling around with the guys but Janel, focused on upsetting Tom, wasn't in a joking mood. She was swinging well and hitting the sweet spot quite often with her drives going long and mostly straight. She was never a particularly hot putter but on this day she made the short ones and she never three-putted even once.

Determined to prove herself to Tommy, Janel kept herself in a good and positive mental space. She ignored the score and distracted herself by observing the picturesque grass and trees around the course as a form of meditation. She did a good job of grounding herself and staying out of her head, making good decisions, playing smart, and not trying to force a long drive or impossible shot.

She tied Tom on the tenth hole to noticeably shake his confidence and when she went up by two on the fourteenth, Tom lost what little charm he had and became snide and all the more condescending in his attitude.

"What are you, some sort of swindler?" he grumbled at the end of the sixteenth hole when Janel made a remarkable chip shot to par her fifth hole in a row.

"I'm just here to play golf," Janel replied innocently.

Janel ended up two under on a Par 72 course, besting the seething Tom by two shots. How she wished Owen was here to share in her victory. Tommy had stopped talking by the eighteenth hole and he walked off the course in defiant rebellion when the match mercifully ended, refusing to shake Janel's hand.

A grinning Denny took Janel's hand in a congratulatory grip. "I bet you've been waiting thirty years to do that," he said with perceptive raised eyebrows.

Janel shrugged but smiled seductively and Denny laughed as he gave Elisa an appreciative hug. Those two had been flirting the entire round and they walked off the final green holding hands. Janel felt like a third wheel as she walked with them, wishing Owen had been her golfing partner instead of Tommy Savage even though it was great beating him.

"Just don't rub it in," Denny advised 'The Girls' as they headed for the clubhouse. "Especially if Tommy has a couple of beers."

"The feat speaks for itself," Janel assured Denny. "I'm not going to kick him when he's down!"

Janel finished tied for the third highest score out of the twenty five participating golfers, but Janie (Hall) Pierce's team had the best combined team score and they won the reunion trophy during ceremonies held in the clubhouse bar.

Tommy was just as pissed off at Elisa for losing as he was with Janel for winning. Leesie turned in the worse score of the day and Tommy claimed they could have won the tournament if she had paid more attention to her golf game and flirted less with Denny.

"McHale's fourteen year old kid did better than she did for Chrissakes," Tommy grumbled. "And Denny, you're just to fat to play well anymore."

"I thought we were here to have fun," a care free Leesie rebutted with a shrug. "If I had known it was a competition, I would have caddied."

"I may be fat," Denny said with a laugh. "But I'm happy!" He gave Leesie a squeeze to further his point.

Besting Tommy was sweet and Janel was happy to share the post-match celebration with classmates she hadn't seen in years. Janie Hall had been a cheerleader with Caelyn and she had been among the class's most vocal leaders. Jimmy Gilbert had taken Janel to the freshman welcome. Keith and Jennie (Roseman) Johnson were voted class couple and were still together. Chuck Goldberg had been pals with Rhonda, although it was never clear if they actually dated.

Janel enjoyed her celebratory beer while shooting the breeze with the various golfers.

"I always thought you guys were a bunch of Lesbos," cable installer Freddie Forsch confessed to Janel when talking about 'The Girls' after a couple of beers. "But that's only because I could never get a date with any of you!"

There was plenty of reminiscing, catching up and sharing, plus some good laughs about the day's golf including Jimmy Branch's bizarre round in which he sank a hole in one on the fifth hole and then turned in a four over par disaster on the ninth hole!

When the post-match festivities were completed, Janel and Elisa returned to Rhonda's condo to shower and wait for Rho to come home. The three 'Girls' often spent time together as a trio in high school, especially when Cae was busy cheerleading or dating and Izzy was off getting in trouble.

Elisa's parents' invited the girls to dinner and Leesie accepted knowing she couldn't come home for the weekend without seeing her parents at least one. Elisa had the most normal family of the group with an easy going college professor dad, a school teacher mom, a chip off the old block brother, and a kid sister typecast as Cindy Brady. Janel marveled at the relationship Elisa enjoyed with her parents and she wished her own family had stayed intact during her formative years so she could have experienced similar healthy family relationships.

Mr. and Mrs. Jennings were thrilled to see Janel for the first time in years.

"Why, I don't think we've see you since…your mom, dear," Mrs. Jennings exclaimed as she gave Janel a motherly hug. "You look terrific."

"Thanks, Mrs. J," Janel said with a happy smile, glad to be remembered.

The Jennings' were smug intellectuals but they were nice to 'The Girls' and Janel appreciated their hospitality and support over the years. Mr. Jennings insisted on picking up the tab which was status quo for the couple that liked to show off and the girls didn't argue before adjourning to the Bullpen Sports Bar in Hillsboro where an informal class reunion gathering had been scheduled.

Rhonda and Leesie were both divorced women free to play the singles game but Janel wished Owen was with her as they entered the tavern. She didn't like going into bars alone as a married woman. Guys automatically assumed she was available and they hit on her and she learned to avoid bars on her business trips, taking in movies, bookstores and museums instead or just staying in the safety of her hotel room watching movies on pay-per view with room service food.

The Bullpen had no less than a dozen wide screen television sets with satellite television to broadcast every sporting event imaginable. The tavern overlooked the historic Beano Field, home of the Serguci Amateur Baseball League and it was a popular hang out on summer nights even when a game wasn't being played.

Many of those who were in the golf tournament that afternoon showed up at The Bullpen, some with spouses and girlfriends. Janel saw other familiar faces from her class and she had a great time playing pool with several of them.

Tommy Savage was a no-show, probably uninterested in getting razzed for losing that afternoon but Denny Fraso arrived with a wide smile on his face and he hooked up with Leesie for most of the night.

"How come Elisa can get a guy two hours after rolling in town?" Rho complained to Janel. "I've been waiting years to find the right guy."

Rho's love life had never been exactly successful. She hadn't dated much in high school with the exception of her weird friendship with Chuck Goldberg which she never talked about or explained.

"I think they were friends with benefits," was how Cae put it.

Rho dated Seven-Eleven Manager Aaron Kirk for a while but that didn't last. She lived with Car Salesman Roy Watson whom she met at work for a few years but she walked out on him once she realized he was an unethical slime.

"That's why I sell cars!" was his memorable comeback.

Most of her other dabbles in romance ended badly or just didn't pan out and she was thirty-four when she met, dated and got engaged to Bill Calhoun all within a matter of months. The other girls were married and Rho rushed into the marriage without really knowing Bill.

"I was interested in the idea of being married so I married for all the wrong reasons," Rho admitted to Janel when the marriage was over and she escaped to Florida for some solace and soul searching. "We turned out to be totally mismatched with different values and different goals only I didn't know that when we got married. We tried to get along but we just couldn't."

Janel resisted saying 'told you so' even though 'The Girls' felt Rhonda marrying Bill was a bad idea mostly because Bill was still married to someone else when Rho met him.

"He's not living with her anymore," was Rho's lame justification at the time. "We're getting married as soon as his divorce is final."

Bill's first wife became an issue in their marriage almost before the honeymoon was over.

"His first marriage was always a 'presence' in our relationship," Rhonda admitted. "It was as if his ex was literally haunting us."

This struck Janel as odd because she rarely gave her first marriage a second thought once the divorce went through. Of course, Janel was having an affair with Owen while still married to Don so she may have moved on much sooner than other people.

It didn't take long for Rhonda to realize she made a mistake marrying Bill. He lied to her, used increasingly angry, offensive and foul language when she questioned his whereabouts, and was cruel in his judgments of her. Rho never felt like she fit in or was accepted by her in-laws. Her mother in law constantly compared her – unfairly and unflattering – to her ex daughter in law.

"Getting involved with all the people from his former marriage sucked," Rhonda said. "Friends and relatives who knew the ex talked about the good old days. I thought I deserved a chance to prove myself but that never happened. I should have realized how damaging it is when divorced people re-marry," Rhonda said.

"We started fighting all the time, although it was usually Bill screaming at me and me taking it," Rhonda sighed. "I stopped responding and that only made him angrier. I should've left him long before I actually did but I was afraid of being alone again, of having to own up to another damn failed relationship."

"That's no reason to stay in an unhappy marriage, Rho," Janel said.

"I was naïve," she sighed. "I just wanted to be happy."

"What was the final straw?" Janel wondered.

"I found out he was having sex with her." Rhonda burst out in tears. "How stupid and pathetic was that? He was cheating on me with his first wife! Why'd they even get divorced for in the first place?"

"Good question," Janel agreed, although she was hardy a person of moral integrity to be speaking on such a subject. She also didn't want to think about the merits of second marriages since she was in one.

"What a sap I was, huh?" Rhonda laughed at the absurdity of her sham marriage. "But I don't want to be bitter, revengeful, or full of hate and anger. I just want to forget it ever happened."

Rhonda was damaged goods after her failed marriage, suspicious and uncertain of the potential for new love and romance. She returned to the bar scene hoping to find the love of her life over a bottle of beer but Izzy warned that she was more likely to find trouble and problems than true love if she used alcohol as her match maker.

"Stop looking for love," Izzy advised. "It will come to you."

"Love always finds its way when it is ready," Janel concurred, grateful for her second chance with Owen.

And now here Rho was at The Bullpen Tavern on the eve of her thirtieth high school reunion still single and looking. Rhonda's mom and step-dad stopped in for a drink to say hello to Janel and Elisa. They saw Rho nearly every day but they missed the good times from the past when the 'The Girls' were constants.

Rhonda's parents divorced early on but her dad lived literally around the corner from her mom and he was always around, unlike Janel's dad who could rarely be counted on to show up even when scheduled. Rhonda's step dad Scott was cool and he rarely involved himself in parenting issues, acting more like a pal to Rhonda and her kid brother than a father-figure.

"Janel, you look wonderful," Rhonda's mom beamed as she gave her daughter's friend a warm and happy hug inside The Bullpen. "I'm so happy to see you again."

After visiting with Rho's mom and Scott, Janel shared a beer with Alex Zelman who she remembered from a couple of classes although A-Z spent most of his time sleeping in the back row.

"I had no idea what this was going to be like," Alex admitted as he sat at the bar sipping on his brew. "High school was hell for me and I couldn't wait to leave. I never looked back once I was gone. The idea of a reunion freaked me out but now that I'm here it seems okay."

Janel never had a conversation with The Z Man in school but she spent an hour chatting with him at the Bullpen bar as if they had been best friends forever. Alex barely graduated from high school and he spent the past thirty years working in one of the local paper mills. His one regret was not trying harder in school or going on to college.

"I see all you guys with college diplomas and successful careers doing something with your lives and all I do is shift work," he sighed.

Janel remembered her first husband Don saying that it wasn't what you did that mattered but how you were as a person and she found herself passing that wisdom on to her old classmate.

"You have a wife and two kids who love you," she said. "That's the most important thing in life."

A-Z glanced at the wallet-sized family photograph he had taken out to show Janel and he smiled. "Yeah," he agreed. "I did do good in that department."

Rhonda saw the locals fairly frequently but she was as excited as Janel and Elisa to see those who had come home specifically for the reunion. Nikki Bell lived in California. Buddy Langer was a computer whiz in Texas. Jay Pellis was a doctor on Long Island. Kristie McKaron married a guy from Montana and lived on a ranch out there. She and Buddy got a kick out of comparing cowboy hats! It was fascinating to hear the stories about their lives and the exciting places they had visited and the things they had done.

Janel was one of those who moved away but she liked listening to classmates like Alex who stayed put. There was something comforting in knowing that they were the next generation of Greenville residents who stuck around to raise families and work jobs close to their roots. With her grandparents and mother dead, Janel realized that there was nobody left to guard the home front except for her first husband Don but he really didn't count anymore.

Janel wished Owen was with her to hear the funny stories of their high school experiences and to re-meet the kids they had grown up with, especially since they were speaking so well of her. She found herself bringing up Owen's name repeatedly almost as if she had to justify his absence and remind everybody that she really was married to their former classmate.

A group of those former classmates closed the place, stumbling into the late night air with giggles and laughter, feeling little pain from a night of fun times and good drink. A few were too sauced to drive and they took cabs home or hooked up rides with those who weren't too far under the influence.

Janel shuttered when she thought about the number of times 'The Girls' climbed into a car having drank too much and drove home anyway. There were times when she had no memory of actually getting home and it amazed her that they never got in an accident.

Rhonda and Janel waited to see if Elisa would venture home with Denny but after a goodnight smooch Leesie said so long to her old classmate and she joined the girls at Rhonda's car.

"I'm an independent woman who can do what she wants but somehow going home with Denny after one day together doesn't feel right," Elisa explained. "I don't want him to get the wrong idea about me."

"Right," Janel said. "You can go home with him tomorrow night!"

The three friends laughed as they climbed into the car and they headed to Rhonda's apartment for a girls sleepover, just like the old days.

Elisa didn't mind sharing the guest bed with Janel because the girls had slept together many times during various sleep overs. One of Janel's favorite photographs from the old days was one taken of Cae, Rhonda, Leesie and her in a motel room at Summer Beach. They had pushed the two twin beds together and snapped a picture through the wall mirror of all four of them in one huge bed. They were the kind of friends who did everything together.

Nursing hangovers in the morning, the trio met up with Caelyn for breakfast at Cae's parents' house. Mr. and Mrs. Roberts were the hippest of the parents and they always gave 'The Girls' freedom and independence when they were under the Roberts' roof. They let Cae drink wine at the dinner table at fifteen and they hosted a few parties when they knew there was underage drinking taking place.

Mr. Roberts, who ran the local sporting goods store, treated Caelyn like a princess and she could no wrong in his eyes no matter what kind of trouble 'The Girls' got into. Mrs. Roberts operated a day care center in the family's large house and she had the habit of talking to everybody in her kindergarten voice.

"I feel like I'm six whenever I go over there," Elisa complained when 'The Girls' were sixteen. "Mrs. Roberts talks to us like we're still in pre-school!"

The Roberts' were ecstatic to see 'The Girls' together again and they served them a delicious breakfast of French toast and sausage along with champagne to mark the occasion. Elisa rolled her eyes when Mrs. Roberts used her high pitched shrill kindergarten voice even though she had stopped running the day care center five years earlier.

When breakfast was over, the Girls headed for the next stage in the reunion weekend and the nostalgic Janel got goose bumps on her arms as Cae drove the car around the familiar circular driveway in front of the grand old building that was Greenville High School. How many times had they driven up that wonderful front drive together over the years?

'The Girls' attended school in a beautiful historic building with fancy architecture and a glorious façade that featured a mighty cupola on the roof. There was a large cement fountain in the front yard and a large statue of town founder General Horace J. Green sitting on his horse not far from the main entrance. More than one kid had joined General Green on that bronze horse!

Janel appreciated her alma mater even more now that she was older. She loved the front door that looked four stories high because of the art deco trimming and tall columns that surrounded the entryway. The long front stairs reminded Janel of a MGM musical set and the steps served as a great place to sit and talk.

Leesie mentioned the unexpected May storm (some say tornado) that rambled across the school's athletic fields like something out of a science fiction movie. The skies turned black, the air turned green, sheets of rain suddenly poured down in buckets, and a strong hollowing wind shook the school building, blowing out windows and knocking lamp posts onto cars in the parking lot. When the sudden storm cleared almost as fast as it had hit, kids emerged from the school to find debris scattered across the school yard in every direction and they circled Andy Evans' totally destroyed car that sat in the student parking lot squashed under a huge fallen tree limb.

A group of about forty alumni showed up for Coach Magni's walk through, many with spouses and children to show their loved ones where they went to high school. Coach Magni was now the Athletic Director but he was Janel's tennis coach and Elisa's soccer coach when they were in school and he immediately recalled a great save Leesie made against Miller City sophomore year.

The interior of the building hadn't changed much. New paint jobs here and there, a remodeled auditorium, a new computer lab, a television studio, and televisions in every classroom were the most notable differences but the feel of the place was still the same.

The alumni members excitedly walked through the well waxed halls peeking into doors and recalling subjects and teachers that once manned the rooms. Janel thought about her freshman homeroom when they passed Room 304 on the third floor where Mrs. Lewis practiced her gorgeous calligraphy on the blackboard. Elisa mentioned senior Spanish and how Mrs. Rodriquez inspired her students with her love of the language. Rhonda laughed out loud remembering Miss Harmon's English class and how the boys drooled over the prettiest teacher in the school.

Buddy Langer told a hilarious story about the formidable fire escape that was off limits to all students except in the case of emergency. One day, Buddy and a couple of his pals were fooling around on it when Buddy tripped and fell. Airborne, he literally flew down the escape and landed on his backside on the bottom grated iron rung.

"My friends checked for blood and broken bones," he said. "I had a two-inch-deep dent across my ass and as the days passed it turned from blue to purple to black to yellow. I didn't realize how bad it was until gym class when Lester O'Donnell saw how discolored and bruised it was! I couldn't sit down for a week, but I couldn't tell anybody about it either because then they'd know I had been fooling around on the off limits fire escape!"

"That's what you get for breaking the rules, Langer," Coach Mangi frowned, still the enforcer twenty two years after the original incident.

Coach beamed proudly when the group stepped into the large gym, home to great sporting events and not so great gym classes and 'The Girls' waxed poetic about the many dances held there.

"Who would have thought we would have found so much romance in a smelly old gym?" laughed Cae.

The tour included a pass through the cafeteria, site of many a food fight and millions of conversations over not so great tasting lunches, a visit to the auditorium with its monstrous stage where countless school assemblies and plays took place, and the cavernous library three stories high with its pristine wooden design, expansive windows, and large oak tables, as well as a walk through the home economics and vocational wing where boys practiced shop and girls practiced cooking, the guidance suite where students came for counsel and to plan their futures, and the large main administrative office where the principal and vice principal were situated.

"I had my own seat in Garia's office," Lou Fuller laughed, gesturing to the Vice Principal's door. "He always said he should charge me rent!"

There were plenty of sentimental stories about favorite (and despised) teachers, funny tales about classroom antics, reflective moments of bittersweet memories, appreciative realizations about meaningful friendships, and tearful reflections about dead teachers and absent classmates.

At the end of the emotional walk down memory lane, Coach had the group stand on the front steps to have their photograph taken just like the sports teams and most of the clubs had done for the yearbook photos.

The former students exchanged friendly hugs, grateful handshakes, and teary-eyed sighs on the stairs, and then left their past behind once again by exiting the campus of good ole Greenville High thirty years after graduating.

Janel frowned, again annoyed at Owen for not being there to share in the experience. It was important to her so why couldn't it have been important to him too? How come he hadn't been willing to make her happy with his presence?

"I didn't think I'd miss it this much," Janel confessed as she glanced back at the school building one last time. "I wish Owen was here to see it."

'The Girls' headed downtown for some shopping. There wasn't a department store like Donovan's anywhere in Florida and Janel was overcome with a wave of homesickness as she stepped inside the store for the first time in years. Donovan's is where her mother took her the most and she missed her more than ever remembering her many trips with her mom.

The long and thin four-story Donovan's was a dinosaur that had been around for ninety years, somehow surviving the oversized and impersonal shopping malls that sprung up around Blue County. Locals remained loyal to Donovan's with its Victorian-style clapboard walls, tin ceilings and creaky wooden floors. There were three elevators in the long and narrow store, along with three separate wrap-around stairwells. The squeaky planked floors groaned whenever people walked across them, the narrow passageways between display racks made for careful navigation, old fashion lights hung from the ceilings like giant lollipops, and the store captured a particular elegance of a forgotten time.

The store hadn't changed much, still featuring its cool toy and bicycle section, the televisions and appliances, and sections for books and cards, candy, footwear, clothing, formal wear, wedding planning, furniture, bedding, house wares, pet supplies, perfume, and jewelry, not to mention a beauty shop. Janel was happy to be back and she wished her mother was with her.

Of course, shopping with the girls was great and the foursome roamed through the store like a pack of teenagers looking for a sale. Janel bought a few items she knew she'd never find in Tampa and she chatted with Mrs. Nevin from the old neighborhood whom she bumped into in the candy section.

Green Park was a spacious public area with open green fields, picnic tables, tennis courts, basketball hoops, jogging trails and playgrounds, a perfect place for family gatherings and picnics, which is why the reunion committee picked it for a afternoon family get together where classmates could meet spouses and children in a fun family setting.

"Why are three women with no children going to a family picnic?" Rhonda asked as she walked through the park's main gate with Elisa and Janel a few hours after their shopping spree.

"Free hot dogs," Janel joked, spotting Cae and her family sitting on a blanket and lawn chairs not far from the main reunion crowd.

Devin Harmon, Bob Benson and Roy Lima were in charge of the grill that was already smoking and Wyomie Bailey was organizing events for the children.

Janel was never one to long for children and she knew early on that motherhood was not something she was interested in. Perhaps it had to do with her parents' divorce and not wanting to repeat that pattern with children of her own, or maybe it had to do with being an only child enjoying the special attention that came with being the only kid around and enjoying that experience of freedom.

Growing up, Janel was impatient, disinterested and bored with other children. Her friend's younger siblings were okay in short intervals and exposure but she skipped out of babysitting details when the other girls watched their brothers and sisters. One of the reasons she got along so well with Izzy was because they were both only children and could relate to one another.

Janel loathed going to restaurants or the movies as an adult when there were crabby or crying kids present. She could sweetly smile at children or say hello to them in passing and she was great with Cae's kids but she didn't have to worry about being around them all the time!

"The best kids are someone else's kids!" Janel often joked.

Caelyn knew early on that she was going to have children and she often debated with Janel about the prospects of motherhood. Should a woman have children if she didn't feel a biological or emotional urge? If she didn't feel such pangs, would she feel those urges later and regret it? Did having kids make old age less painful? Did choosing not to have children mean the woman was selfish (a charge Don often dumped on Janel)? Did people have children to fulfill themselves, to ease loneliness, or to have someone to take care of them in old age? Did some women have children as part of some perverse power trip? Were the sacrifices to body, finances and freedom worth it? What constituted a good parent anyway?

Janel's first husband Don desperately wanted children but Janel wasn't ready to commit to that responsibility and it became one of the early frictions in their marriage that eventually led to their divorce. When it became clear that Janel and Owen were going to hook up, they mutually agreed that children were not in their futures.

Janel was forty-eight now, married with a successful career and she never regretted not having children. Some of her acquaintances patronized her by telling her she'd change her mind or they seriously warned that she'd regret it someday.

There were occasions when Janel suffered from panic attacks, worrying that she was being selfish and pigheaded. She especially doubted herself after the death of her mother, fearing she'd be responsible for breaking the blood line at least on her branch of the family.

Janel wasn't completely insensitive to the appeal of having a child but then Owen would turn in a sixty-five hour work week and she'd think of her own absent father, or they'd take one of their wonderful vacation trips to places kids would never think of going, or she'd realize how much she loved her free social life and her ability to travel to do her job and the thought of having a child made her shudder. She got a cat instead!

Cae said that she had a physical yearning ache for motherhood from the time she was seventeen. Perhaps it was her kid sister having a baby at sixteen that put Cae's biological clock in motion but Janel knew that a child couldn't be treated like a fantasy of an imagined self.

Janel was never up for all that responsibility, obligation, and expectation. It might be nice to have children but there were a thousand things she'd rather spend her time doing than raising them. The daily grind of motherhood seemed like a prison sentence.

The afternoon at Green Park gave Janel a chance to watch her classmates as parents. It felt strange watching Merv Dolan, one of the most immature, obnoxious and clueless jerks in the class growing up, being an interested and dotting dad to his two children.

Denny Fraso showed up with his two kids and Elisa was happy to spend her afternoon with them but the highlight of the gathering took place when Isabelle finally made her one appearance of the reunion weekend, arriving with her husband Brad and teenage step son Derek.

Janel spotted Izzy as soon as she walked through the gate and she ran to give her absent friend a welcoming hug, yelling and screaming as though she was greeting some famous celebrity.

Of all "The Girls", Isabelle had changed the most. She had it the worse growing up and for a while Janel wondered if Izzy would survive. Most kids distanced themselves from Isabelle during her toughest times and Janel often thought about dropping her as a friend too especially when she started demonstrating increasing bizarre and dangerous behaviors. But loyalty, trust and support meant something in friendship and Janel stuck with Izzy through the bleakest years.

'The Girls' hadn't realized how bad it was for Izzy because Isabelle never talked about her life at home. She never invited her friends to her house and she always had an excuse when anybody suggested they go to Izzy's. She'd wait for them on the front curb when they picked her up and she looked panicked when one of the girls arrived at her house unannounced.

Izzy never talked about her father and it was only later that the girls learned that Izzy didn't know who her father was. She was the product of a drunken anonymous one night stand when her mother was seventeen and she was raised by her mom alone. There wasn't any talk of grandparents or other family members and Janel noticed a sadness about Isabelle, especially around the holidays which is why Janel's mom invited Izzy to Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner several times over the years.

Izzy's mysterious mom no-showed at the few school events Izzy was involved in, never left the house and, on the few occasions any of the girls actually saw her, she was dressed in a bathrobe with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth. The house was always dark with the shades drawn and little signs of life and Izzy's mother never acted the same way twice. She could be pleasant one moment and then be screaming and yelling for no apparent reason the next.

Janel's mom was extra nice to Isabelle. One night, thirteen year old Isabelle called Janel in tears reporting that her mother had locked her out of the house and that she was smashing things inside. Janel's mom drove Janel to the Woods house, calmed the near hysterical Izzy, and managed to get her mother to open the door.

Janel never forgot the insane look of rage on the face of Izzy's mom. She was holding a frying pan in one hand, and a curtain rod in the other. Janel's mom bravely went into the house while Janel consoled Izzy in the car and when Janel's mom finally emerged after twenty minutes, she told Izzy that her mom had "fallen asleep" and that Izzy could sleep over with them that night. Janel's mom was holding several empty vodka bottles under her arm.

"You never know what goes on inside other people's houses," Janel's mom told her later. "As long as Izzy isn't in immediate danger, there isn't much we can do until her mom asks for help."

When they were younger, Isabelle was reserved and polite. She was grateful for the attention 'The Girls' gave her and for the intercessions of their families. She did well in school and she was well behaved and disciplined, always thinking about her mother and often going home to be with her.

But as they got older, Izzy's behavior took a sharp and noticeable turn for the worse. Isabelle knew exactly when the change occurred. She was thirteen years old and she found herself at a party. Maureen Kenwood handed her a beer and six beers later, Izzy was behaving like a drunken fool.

"I had inherited my mother's drunk gene," Izzy later explained. "I was addicted from the moment I took that first sip of beer."

It didn't take long for Izzy's life to become subservient to the demons of her addictions. She acted out in questionable behaviors and attitudes. She began to smoke, developed a foul-mouthed and negative vocabulary, and she was the first of the girls to lose her virginity, doing it for the first time on the heater in the boy's room during a basketball game when she was fourteen.

Once a solid student who never missed a day of classes, Izzy's grades went into the toilet and she missed school at least twice a week. With her choice in deviant dress, her overuse of gaudy makeup, and her long greasy hair streaked with pink and green dye becoming her standard appearance, Isabelle earned a questionable reputation. She was drinking nearly every night and smoking pot, later graduating to more serious drugs.

The other girls were involved in school activities and sports but Izzy's only interest was rebellious partying. She'd disappear for days and told unbelievably disgusting stories about what she had been doing. She turned on 'The Girls' with harsh assessments of them being "way too normal" for her tastes.

Izzy became drawn and gray. She lost weight. She was using drugs and drinking to access. She stole money from Janel and got into a cat fight with Elisa who said the wrong thing at the wrong time and got sucker punched by the enraged Izzy, once a meek and mild girl who didn't say boo to anybody.

Leesie would have nothing to do with her troubled friend after the smack down, while Cae was turned off by the drama and Rhonda was afraid of her. Janel remained supportive and she offered advice whenever she could, refusing to abandon the girl and she did what she could to keep their friendship alive although she was dismayed and appalled by Izzy's insane behaviors.

Izzy barely had enough credits to graduate and her conduct had become so extreme that she wasn't allowed to participate in the graduation ceremony. She tried to crash the safe graduation party with a couple of stoners but they were turned away because they was obviously high, drunk and out of control. Izzy climbed a tree to an open window on the second floor and was chased away by the adult chaperones, escaping into the night before the cops arrived.

It was hard to stay in touch with Isabelle after high school, especially as Izzy's life continued to spiral out of control. She was stripping at a nude bar near Pearson's Lake and turning tricks to support her drug habit. She was arrested several times and she was basically homeless, moving from dive to dive and low life to low life. Izzy's life was a mess and it was hard for Janel to see her crashing and burning. Isabelle had lost her moral compass and she was on a self-destructive path to total ruin.

It pained Janel not to have Izzy in her (first) wedding party with the rest of 'The Girls' but the drug addicted drunk just couldn't pull herself together enough to show up for the dress fittings or fulfill any of the other expectations of the bridal party. Janel invited Izzy to the wedding even though the other girls tried to talk her out of it and then worried about what Izzy might do if she did show up but Isabelle failed to make an appearance, both to Janel's relief and disappointment.

Janel's wedding ceremony with Owen was much more low key with just her mom, Owen's parents, Cae as Maid of Honor and Owen's friend Jerry as best man present so Izzy's appearance wasn't an issue then.

Janel had little opportunity to deal with Izzy once she moved to Florida but she kept tabs on her through Cae, Rhonda and Janel's mom who provided updates on Izzy's latest arrests and disgraces.

Now the beautiful Isabelle was at Green Park wearing a long maxi dress over a plain white tee shirt. Her blonde hair was cut short and she wore little make up. She had been clean and sober for ten years, married for eight, and steadily employed for seven. She was a capable step mother and Janel had a hard time believing this was the same woman who was snorting coke, selling her body, and performing pole dances a decade earlier. The present day Isabelle was a serine, tranquil, humble, and contented individual at peace with herself and her life.

The first time Janel saw Izzy in recovery was at her mother's wake. Janel was standing trance like in the receiving line with Owen welcoming the endless mourners who stopped by to pay their respects when an unfamiliar woman with short cropped black hair and pale white skin wearing a conservative black pant suit gave Janel a hearty hug.

"Poor Janey," the stranger said. Janey had been Izzy's pet name for Janel and it was only then that Janel realized who was hugging her. Both women burst into tears and clung on to one another, each feeling the other's pain.

Isabelle made it to Florida a few times after that, including once to Disneyworld with her new family. Janel lost count of the number of times she drove from Tampa to hook up with visitors from home at the grand amusement parks but it was a fun place to reconnect with old friends.

Isabelle didn't talk much about her dark years but she openly admitted her mistakes, made amends when she could, and rebuilt her life one day at a time. She avoided returning to Blue County, ashamed of her legacy and hoping to avoid people who knew her from those lost years. She was embarrassed to know that hometown people and even some of her classmates had seen her stripping and she didn't want to think about the men she had slept with for money, many of whom she recognized from the area, including several happily married men.

Showing up for the reunion family picnic took guts but Izzy figured it was a safe place to be for a few hours – nobody was going to bring up her stripping or prostitution in front of their spouses and kids. Cae and Rhonda had long ago reconciled with their fallen friend but Leesie had never forgiven or forgotten Izzy's past transgressions and the two women remained distant and estranged.

"I don't know how you guys can pretend nothing happened," Elisa complained to Janel and Rhonda that morning. "Don't you remember how mean, vulgar and awful she was to us? Hell, she tried to seduce our boyfriends for god sakes. She was cruel. She was a liar and a thief. She said the most horrible things. She humiliated me. I'm sorry but I just can't forget about all the nasty, vile and disgusting things she said and did."

Janel respected Elisa's right to be offended and hurt and she didn't try to convince her friend to feel otherwise. All Janel knew was that she was willing to give Izzy the benefit of the doubt and a second chance.

Izzy's husband Brad was a few years older and a few inches shorter than her, a working guy who adored his wife, constantly referring to her as "his bride" and "honey" and "love" and "sweetheart" and "angel", so much so that even Cae looked on in amusement. Izzy's step son Derek was a polite and well mannered older teen who got along well with his step-mom.

Janel forced the five 'Girls' to pose for a photograph, knowing it was rare to get all of them together at one time in one place. Janel wished Leesie would loosen up and accept Izzy but their issues weren't something she could involve herself in. She was simply grateful to have all of her friends together again and made the best of the afternoon. Izzy and Elisa stood on opposite ends in the photograph, flanking Janel, Cae and Rhonda.

Janel was sitting on the side of a hilly embankment catching some rays and watching the children play. She enjoyed the family activities but she felt like a third wheel with her own husband a thousand miles away. Janel wondered if their relationship had become distant and worn down by the wear and tear of separate careers and interests. Had she repeated the sins of her father?

Isabelle wandered over and took a seat next to Janel. "Did I ever tell you about the last time I got busted?" Izzy asked.

"Not really," Janel replied.

"I was living with twelve other losers in a crack house when there was a drug raid one night," she revealed. "They found marijuana, crack cocaine, ecstasy, heroin and guns. I was hiding in the closet bare-assed when they found me. Don was standing in the living room when they brought me out of the bedroom naked and I knew I had hit rock bottom. I wanted to die right there and then. I started screaming hysterically and I tried to run away. I kicked a cop in the groin and they slapped me and handcuffed me, still naked. It was the most humiliating moment of my life"

"I never heard that story," a surprised Janel said.

"Don wrapped me in a blanket and escorted me out of the place. He put me in a squad car instead of a paddy wagon with the others. He took me to the hospital instead of the police station. The only thing he said to me during the entire ride was 'You're too smart to live and die like this, Izzy'."

Janel didn't know what to say.

"I was facing some serious jail time. I was at the end of the road. Don showed up at court unannounced and unsolicited at my hearing and petitioned to have me sent to rehab and a halfway house instead of prison. He said I needed help, not jail."

"That's good," Janel said, touched by the story of Izzy's final downfall and how Janel's ex-husband intervened.

"He saved my life, Janey," Isabelle let her know. "That's when my sobriety started and I don't think I'd be here today if Don hadn't shown up when he did."

Janel squinted into the sun. "I didn't know."

"I was able to forgive my mother before she died," Isabelle told Janel, patting her on the leg. "It was the greatest gift I ever gave myself. She was a horrid drunk and she ruined my life but she was my mother, she loved me in her own sick way, and I've stopped blaming her. I couldn't stay sober if I hadn't gotten the hate out of my system."

Janel took Izzy's hand in a warm hold. Isabelle squeezed Janel's hand and rested her head on Janel's shoulder.

The family picnic was an enjoyable success. Janel and the rest of the 'The Girls' met many spouses and children of former classmates. Leesie became pals with Denny's two children. Janel had fun playing frisbee with classmates and their kids. The grilled hot dogs, hamburgers and other food were tasty and enjoyable. It was a relaxing and fun afternoon.

Isabelle was among the first to leave, wanting to make the trip back to New Hampshire without having to drive in the dark. She had been reserved and cautious for most of the day, staying at her husband's side when she wasn't with 'The Girls' and she only exchanging small talk with the handful of classmates she interacted with.

"I'm not very proud of whom I was back then and I'd rather not be reminded of those times," Izzy explained. "Avoiding people from the past helps me stay in the present."

Izzy gave 'The Girls' hearty hugs goodbye, although Leesie didn't bother breaking away from Denny to see Isabelle off. Janel could see that Izzy was hurt by Elisa's shunning but as Izzy often pointed out people had a right to their feelings.

Janel became teary-eyed as she gave Izzy a farewell embrace. They were kindred spirits with dead mothers and missing fathers and Janel gained so much strength and conviction from Isabelle's example. Janel missed Izzy the most when she wasn't with 'The Girls'.

Cae and her family left soon after Isabelle and the rest of the reunion participants were soon packing up too. Leesie gave Denny a peck on the cheek and waved as he left with his two kids.

"I feel like I'm in high school again," Leesie laughed as she watched Denny disappear through the gate.

"Me too," Rhonda said. "I still can't get a date!"

Janel borrowed Rhonda's car for some alone time at her mother's grave during the break between the family picnic and the reunion gathering. She hadn't been to the cemetery since the day of the burial but she remember how her mother took her to the cemetery growing up to pay respects to family members buried there.

"You have to pray for the dearly departed," her mom explained. "It helps them get to heaven."

Janel purchased a wonderful headstone for her mother that dwarfed the other graves in the family plot including Janel's maternal grandparents, great grandparents and several great aunts and uncles.

Janel wasn't sure what to expect or how she was going to react as she drove through the cemetery's main gate. She wished Owen was here to share her grief and comfort her sorrow but she was glad to have the private time to feel whatever she needed to feel alone.

Her mother's unexpected death was sudden. Janel had called on a Sunday morning to say hello and her mom reported that she was feeling a bit under the weather, probably a touch of the flu. They had a wonderful conversation and Janel ended the call with her usual "I Love You, Mom." The following afternoon, her ex-husband Don called Janel's cell phone.

"I think you'd better come home as soon as you can," Don glumly said after her initial (and surprised) hello.

"Don?" She knew it was serious because Don never called her. "What's wrong?"

"Your mother isn't doing very well," Don reported, sounding concerned and compassionate. "It….doesn't look good," he said with a heavy sigh.

Janel was too stunned and shocked to comprehend the gravity of the situation. Don said something about a virus not responding to treatment, high fever and troubled breathing but his words made no sense to her.

Owen dropped everything and flew home with his wife. They arrived twelve hours after Don's phone call, showing up in the ICU where her mom was on a respirator, fighting for her life. She was heavily sedated, barely conscious and if the fever didn't break soon the doctors feared brain damage, stroke or serious organ damage. She was listed as critical and the prognosis was grim.

Janel and Owen spent the next twenty-four hours at the hospital, taking turns sitting by her mother's bedside, spelling one another for cafeteria and bathroom breaks, and maybe a nap in one of the corner chairs but Janel was unable to deal with the fact that her mother was dying. She was glad she had Owen to cling too.

Janel's mom slipped into a coma, her breathing became shallow, the fever never broke, and she died peacefully at 5:37 a.m. on Thursday morning with Janel and Owen both present. Death came so calmly that at first Janel wasn't sure if her mom had died.

"She's gone," Owen confirmed with a nod from the nurse and it was another forty-five minutes of quiet sobbing before Janel could bring herself to leave the room. .

The days leading up to her mom's death and the days that followed were the longest of Janel's life. She experienced indescribable shock and confusion and she cried uncontrollably for days. Making the arrangements with Owen was a blur. She could barely recall who came to the wake and she spent most of her time crying. She was just as traumatized at the funeral and she sobbed through the entire service. She couldn't believe that her mother was dead and she didn't know how to deal with it, feeling orphaned with an absent father who at least showed up for the services although his second wife was all drama.

Returning to the house on Ivy Lane for the first time without her mother there was a chilling and sad experience. Greeting everyone who showed up to offer sympathy, bring food, tell stories, and offer support was draining. Dealing with the loss of her mother left Janel feeling removed from reality and she could barely share her memories, thoughts and feelings about her mother because she was simply devastated by the loss. Picking out the clothes to bury her mother in was the hardest thing she had to do. Her mother had been the most important part of her life.

Don was kind enough to attend the wake and funeral although he skipped the reception. He offered Janel words of condolences and support and he had nothing but nice things to say about his former mother in law to anybody who would listen.

"She was always nice to me, even after the divorce, but she was your mother," Don said to Janel. "I really can't comfort you with words no matter how sincere I try to be. You need to experience your own emotions in your own way. Your mother loved you. That's all I can tell you."

Ten years later, the sudden and traumatic death continued to represent significant pain, grief, loss and sadness for Janel. As much as she pretended to have moved on, she sat at the grave of her mother blubbering like a baby because she missed her so much.

Janel stared at her mother's name engraved in the granite feeling a sense of awareness, knowing she was intimately close to her mother's spirit. She had experienced many things in the past ten years and she was carrying her mother's legacy as best she could. She hoped that her mom was proud of her. She wished she could tell her how she was feeling and what she was thinking about her life, her husband, and who she was. She cried realizing how much she missed her mother and how much she loved her.

Owen urged Janel to "move on" and "find closure" dealing with her deceased mother and her father's lack of involvement but Janel was in search of an "opening" in her emotional journey.

Isabelle often talked about her personal growth and sense of discovery in her recovery and Janel wanted to find the magic of that process. Izzy said Janel avoided pain in her life which is why she never really dealt with her parents' divorce or her own failed first marriage, the insecurities she felt in her marriage with Owen, the absence of her father, and the death of her mother.

"Grief is painful but avoiding the pain is avoiding the process which only keeps you stuck," Izzy advised Janel during a long walk on the Florida beach one glorious evening as the sun set in the west. "Moving through the process will bring not closure, but openings."

Izzy explained how Janel had a history, a legacy, and a heritage. What came before showed itself in what was now. Life didn't simply begin and end but was part of a continuum of life and death.

"I am learning to honor who I am and where I desire to go by honoring where I came from," Izzy explained. "I want to make a difference in the lives of those I love but that "opening" only came with conscious intent and personal commitment through my own healing. I had to change myself before could I change my outlook."

Janel was glad nobody had come across her during her cathartic and cleansing sob session at her mother's grave and she felt refreshed and renewed when she left the cemetery to join Leesie and Rho at the apartment. She was home to reconnect with friends not to wallow in the self-pity of her absent mom!

How many times did 'The Girls' dress together for a big dance or even the prom? It seemed like old times as Janel, Elisa and Rhonda shared the bathroom, offered suggestions and helped one another as they dolled themselves up all prim and proper for the big reunion dinner.

Leesie had splurged for an expensive formal black satin dinner dress with a low cut to tantalize and attract. Janel brought one of her favorite dresses from Florida, a tight blue silk number that ended half way up her thighs but with a high neck. Rhonda couldn't afford anything fancy but still looked hot in a simple red dress she picked up at Donovan's a few weeks earlier.

Denny knocked on the door to pick up Elisa for their big night together and the three girls giggled as if they were back in high school and one of them had a first date with a new boy. Denny had gone all out too, arriving in a white tuxedo.

"You may have overdressed," Janel let him know.

"Not when I'm standing next to this beauty queen," Denny replied, wrapping his waist around the gorgeous Elisa. "Wowie wow wow."

Rhonda frowned once Leesie and Denny were gone. "How come she can show up from two states away and find a guy and I'm going to the reunion stag when I live here all the time?" she pouted.

"Relax. The place will be crawling with single and available guys," Janel reminded her. "You're going to have a great time. Besides, how do you think I feel? My husband is a thousand miles away."

Rhonda burst into tears. "I'm so lonely," she sobbed.

Janel was surprised that Rho would pick now to have an emotional breakdown. She gave her friend a sincere hug and she assured her that she was going to be okay but Rhonda ran into the living room and threw herself on the couch in despair.

"I'm so tired of being alone," she wailed. "I hate my life!"

Janel spent twenty minutes doing what she did so well – being a understanding and supportive friend. She reminded Rhonda that she had family who loved her, a secure job, and a nice apartment. She was a strong, beautiful and self-sufficient woman with plenty of friends who cared about her.

"What if I become an old maid?" Rhonda sobbed.

"You've much too beautiful for that to happen," Janel told her.

For a while, Janel wasn't sure if she would be able to get the unexpectedly distraught Rhonda out of the apartment but she was eventually able to calm her down. Rhonda pulled herself together and promised not to ruin the evening for 'The Girls' with her over dramatics.

"Christ, now I feel like I'm back in high school!" Rhonda said with a laugh as she straightened up her make up. "An emotional basket case!"

The reunion at the Country Club felt like a banquet, wedding reception, or even the senior prom. The room was decked out with decorations and balloons and countless photographs from their high school days. Attendees were well dressed and the meal was delicious.

Janel and Rhonda shared a table with Cae and Mark, Leesie and Denny, and Keith and Jennie (Roseman) Johnson. The class officers from senior year sat at the head table and class comedian Tommy Redbrook served as MC, cracking his classmates up with humorous stories of the good ole days.

Janel loved talking with old friends, meeting spouses and significant others, and hearing about their lives since graduation. She was mad at Owen for not being there to share the evening and she felt awkward having to explain that her husband was back in Florida working. She was flattered when some of the single guys semi-hit on her but she wasn't about to lead anybody on and she directed them to Rhonda instead!

Owen was Janel's first serious love and her first intimate relationship. They were a couple for nearly four years and in some ways he remained the love of her life even when she met Don because of the innocence and wonderment they shared as teenagers.

Owen didn't work up the guts to ask Janel out until they were fourteen and he took her to the Valentine's Dance. He was nearly a half foot taller than Janel but she was more confident and sure of herself and she became the dominant player in the relationship. Owen was a great basketball player but he was cautious in his demeanor and behaviors, seemingly unaware of his popularity, looks, and attractiveness. With a weak father figure in her life, it was easy for Janel to be in charge of their romance.

Janel remembered that first date like it happened yesterday. They slipped out of the gymnasium during the dance and snuck up to the off limits third floor. They stood at the window at the end of the hall and watched the beautiful falling snow in a made-for- Kodak romantic moment. She kept glancing at Owen as they chatted, making eye contact to let him know it was okay if he wanted to kiss her. But he was nervous and he kept extending the conversation which was ruining the perfect moment so finally she leaned up and kissed him first. He blushed but she was happy that he decided to kiss her back.

Janel remembered the surge of electricity she felt rush through her body that night when he gently took her hand in his and walked her back to the Valentine's Dance after kissing in front of the snowy window. She felt genuine warmth as he held her hand and she squeezed his to let him know she wasn't about to let go of him.

"This is the beginning of our adventure of a lifetime," he whispered, and she knew it was true.

The other thing Janel remembered about that Valentine's Dance was her mother's warm smile when she picked her daughter 0up from the dance. She waited patiently as Janel kissed Owen goodnight in the falling snow and she was pleasant and cool when Janel introduced him to her. It was moments like that when Janel realized just how amazing her mother really was, an angel who only wanted happiness for her daughter.

Janel was exhilarated to have a steady and she loved being in love. Owen was a handsome guy and her heart missed a beat just thinking about him. He was the first boy she desired and the first boy who made her nervous and self-conscious about her sexuality and appearance because she wanted him to be attracted only to her.

Janel stopped acting like an airhead worrying about fashion and boys once she started dating Owen. He was a smart guy and if she couldn't measure him to him intellectually she wanted to come across as knowledgeable and interesting. Luckily, he was just as fascinated with her as she was with him and he listened to every word she had to say.

Dating Owen sparked a longing within Janel that she hadn't known before. She was a virgin and she knew she wanted to be intimate with him. She felt both raw lust and deep love for her Prince Charming and she fantasized about him while lying in bed touching herself down there the way Izzy had shown 'The Girls' the previous summer. As their relationship continued, Janel knew she wanted him inside her and all over her. It felt as if every molecule in her body was in a heightened state of excitement and only Owen could bring her peace and satisfaction.

'The Girls' were becoming aware of their sexual and emotional state during this period and they shared their innermost thoughts on the subject with one another. Izzy had already had sex by this time and she was the experienced leader when it came to actually doing it.

"You will feel explosions inside of you," Izzy assured her friends.

Janel could feel the lava burning within her body. She was hot and horny all the time, aching for Owen to be with her. She could barely sit still or eat. She was constantly distracted and disinterested. She was bored with her routine and found any excuse to be with Owen. She was an emotional powder keg who could easily blow up at the smallest annoyance. She was bursting out of her skin.

Janel's mother understood, of course, and brought her to the doctor for a complete physical examination and to start her on birth control but it wasn't until the Columbus Day holiday weekend of her sophomore year when Janel and Owen finally became intimate "in the biblical sense" as Cae put it. There was a big football game and dance and Janel pleaded with her mom to let her supposedly spend the weekend at Cae's house.

Janel's mom agreed not knowing that Cae's parents weren't about to keep Janel under lock and key with a chastity belt tied around her waist. Owen's parents were out of town that weekend so it was easy to return to his house after the dance for a night of romance and first time sex, eight months in the making. They had make out, fondled, touched, explored and "got to third base" as Janel put it to 'The Girls' but they still hadn't "got naked" as Izzy phrased it but now they had a chance to discover all their secrets together.

As soon as they stepped inside Owen's house that night, he wrapped his arms around Janel and she felt his body against hers. He began kissing her cheeks, her forehead, her eyes, her nose, her ear lobes, and finally her lips. Janel opened her eyes to see that he was calm and smiling and the passion that was pent up inside took over. She nearly chewed his lips off as they sucked each other's tongues and she could feel his tongue massaging her gums. She was surprised by how natural it all felt. Gone were the clumsy kisses with boys in junior high stolen during parties or at the movies. This was the real thing and she knew she was standing at the abyss of lovemaking. They literally tore each other's clothes off as they stood in the front hallway and then they ran naked to Owen's bedroom where they spent hours making love. It was the first time she saw a boy naked and the first time Janel let a boy see her naked. And Izzy was right – she did feel an explosion inside of her.

Now Janel was standing in the middle of the Greenville Country Club missing her first true love, the boy she thought she would love forever, but they left for different colleges and while they made every effort to keep the relationship going it was clear that high school was over and that life went on.

They wrote each other faithfully but then the letters and phone calls slowed. They saw each other at Christmas and there was talk of maybe Janel joining Owen for the summer in Missouri where he was staying for a job. In time, Owen admitted that he met someone new and the worse part about that was Janel realized she really didn't care. That's when she knew it was over and she dated various college guys until she met Don and thought maybe he was the one.

"You know what the strangest thing is about attending a class reunion?" Janel asked Cae when she got back to their table.

"Everybody's fat and bald?" Cae joked.

"It's reverting back to your high school emotions and feelings," Janel said. "We're forty-eight but I feel fifteen again remembering everybody when they were fifteen."

But Janel wasn't complaining. She likedbeing back and she liked being with these people again. Why not? She liked most of them back then, too.

"The nice thing about it being thirty years later is that people have come into their own and any lingering high school psychodrama has long since vanished," Cae said. "You get to see everybody unfiltered by your memory of who they were or what your expectations or fantasies or even nightmares of who they might have become."

"Hell, Leesie is living out her fantasy!" Janel said, motioning to Elisa who was dancing the night away with Denny on the dance floor.

"You see everybody for themselves," Cae continued. "And this is a good thing."

"Especially for you who is still as beautiful and desirable as ever," Marc laughed, kissing his wife on the cheek.

"I like telling people what I've been up to," Janel admitted. "It would have been more gratifying if Owen was here too but I'm not letting that wreck my weekend."

Attending the reunion was fun and bittersweet. Not everyone was there and that was sad and disappointing, especially remembering those who had died.

"The strange thing is, this could be the last time many of us are in one place at one time," Rhonda pointed out.

"This could be the phoenix of a certain time in our life when we look back on youth while at the same time moving forward," Cae agreed. "We've grown up and we are who we are."

"Well, I'm glad I was here to see old friends and celebrate the lives they've made," Janel said. "Sometimes I feel removed living in Florida but this weekend has made me realize that I am part of this group that shares a common bond in time, place and circumstance. I'm proud and honored to be a part of it."

"I realize we are irrevocably adults now," Keith Johnson said, patting his stomach as he nursed a beer at the table. "I may have aged but I still see myself as the "young guy" I was back at good ole Greenville High."

The eating, dancing, karaoke singing and musings didn't end until the County Club closed and a large contingent of classmates continued the revelry at the home of Joe Chapman who lived in a huge house just a few blocks from the high school but Cae reluctantly went home.

"Morning comes early with a nine year old in the house!" she laughed as she hugged the girls goodbye but Leesie, Denny, Rhonda and Janel joined about twenty-five other people at Joe's handsome home, talking into night.

'The Girls' joked with Bob Benson, the class ladies man who had come to the reunion with his wife but she skipped the gathering at Joe's and headed home from the country club.

"Gee Bob, no mention of bumping into any ex-girlfriends at the reunion!" Janel ribbed.

"That's because my wife had a baseball bat hidden under the table," Bob explained with a grin.

"The one girl I had a massive crush on in high school wasn't even here," Andy Evans complained. "I was really hoping I'd see her again."

"Tough break," Leesie said, squeezing Denny's arm.

"You can have a crush on me if you want," Rhonda giggled, obviously feeling no pain from the drinks she had during the course of the evening.

Andy smiled at Rhonda almost as if he had seen her for the first time.

It was nearly three in the morning by the time Joe's party finally dispersed. Janel smiled when Leesie declined a ride home with 'The Girls'.

"Denny and I are joining some of the others for the farewell breakfast at the Riverview in the morning," she sheepishly explained. "It would be easier if I just went home with him now."

"Oh sure," Janel said with a smile. "That makes perfect sense to me!"

"Lucky stiff," Rhonda sighed when she and Janel reached the car and watched Leesie disappear into the night with Denny, her high school pal.

"If you still want Andy Evans to have a crush on you give him a call tomorrow after you sober up," Janel suggested.

Rhonda looked at Janel and burst out laughing. "Welcome back to high school, Janel!"

Rhonda and Janel slept through the reunion's swan song - Sunday morning brunch at The Riverview Restaurant and they didn't wake up until Leesie rang the doorbell a little after eleven.

"Where were you two?" Leesie demanded when a hung over Rhonda let her in. "You missed Denny and everybody else."

"How many times can you say goodbye?" Janel wanted to know, dragging herself out of the guest room rubbing her throbbing head.

"Not enough the way Denny says goodbye!" Leesie giggled. "Talk about a fantasy come true. I finally slept with a varsity football player!"

"Thirty years late," Janel observed.

"Hey, Rho, Andy Evans was asking after you at breakfast," Leesie said as she began gathering her belongings for her trip home.

Rhonda's eyes opened wide. "Really?" she asked hopefully.

"He said give him a call!" Leesie laughed.

Cae agreed to meet 'The Girls' at Pop's Diner on Main Street, one of their teenage hangouts in the old days, but Leesie needed to return to Rhode Island.

"I hope I don't fall asleep," she quipped. "I've been up all night."

"Doing what?" Janel teased.

Janel had a plane to catch too so this would be the final goodbye for 'The Girls' marking the end of the memorable and meaningful reunion weekend.

They sat in their old booth in the place that hadn't changed much in thirty years. Leesie just had coffee having already eaten and Cae was happy with a donut with her coffee but Janel and Rhonda were both starved and they ordered a large lunch.

They were laughing and talking and having a good time and other than missing the absent Owen, Janel didn't have a care in the world as she relished in the glory and glow of her happy times with 'The Girls" together again.

"Hey, look" Caelyn said, motioning toward the cash register. "It's Don."

Janel glanced up to see a man slowly shuffling toward the counter to pick up a chowder to go. She rolled her eyes at Cae. "That's not Don," she said. "That's just some old man."

"Sure is Don," the waitress said with a sad shake of her head. "Looks terrible, doesn't he? He's been sick for a while now."

Janel looked at the man again and she was stunned to realize it was Don, resembling an emasculated prisoner of war refugee a good hundred pounds lighter than his usual weight. He wore a Red Sox ball cap to hide his bald head caused by the chemotherapy treatment. His eyes were hollow and circled with black rings. His skin was gray and wrinkled, hanging off him like wet clothes. He shuffled as though his ankles were chained and his voice was weak and raspy when he thanked the counter girl for the soup. He was wearing sandals, a pair of khaki shorts and a tee shirt and he looked like a dressed scarecrow.

"Hey Don!" The waitress called. "Looks like you have a fan club over here."

Don glanced toward the booth and he literally did a double take when he saw Janel sitting next to Cae in the bench facing him. Janel couldn't understand why her heart was racing as she waited for her ex to shuffle slowly to their booth.

"Ladies," Don said, when he finally reached 'The Girls'. He glanced at Janel. "I didn't know you were in town."

"I'm home for our class reunion," she explained nervously, feeling like a kid who had violated curfew.

"Staying long?" Don asked.

"No, I'm leaving when we finish here," Janel said, her throat suddenly dry and cracked.

"Well, have a safe flight back then," Don said with just a hint of disappointment before nodding to the group in general. "Nice to see all of you again." His whispery voice could barely be heard above the crowd noise in the diner.

Janel watched with disbelief as Don slowly dragged himself out of the diner. It made her think of her grandfather in the nursing home but he was in his eighties at the time. What was Don, maybe fifty-four or fifty-five now? Janel stared out the front window and watched as Don slowly made his way to a cool blue 1959 Thunderbird convertible, slowly opening the driver's door and half climbing, half collapsing into the driver's seat. Nobody said anything as they watched Don drive off in his classic car.

"Am I the only one who didn't know he was sick?" A humbled Janel finally asked after a few quiet moments.

"Does it matter?" Cae asked, giving Janel a curious look. "You moved on from him a long time ago."

That hurt and Janel looked at Caelyn defensively. But she realized it was true. She often told 'The Girls' how much she had erased Don from her memory so what difference did it make now, other than him dying anyway?

Don was older when Janel met him at Green College. He had already done a stint in the military and he was studying Criminal Justice at Green. He was much more serious and cerebral than Owen had ever been and Janel found Don's maturity and outlook refreshing and rejuvenating. She liked hanging out with him and being seen with him. He was interesting to talk to and he saw the world in a way Janel had never thought about before. He was an unbelievable lover, experienced and confident, and Janel liked the way he made her feel in the bedroom.

Don was going to use his military police experience to join the Greenville Police Department after college and that seemed like an honorable and dependable job in Janel's view. Owen was living with a woman in California and Janel didn't see any reason to expect that Owen would be back so she accepted Don's marriage proposal. They had a traditional wedding ceremony and purchased a quaint house together.

The first year of marriage was a dream come true for Janel. But then issues started to arise. The subject of having children. The death of Don's mother. Some mood issues with Don who had nightmares from time to time. Janel knew Don had a few issues from his military service but he refused to talk to her about it. Then Don was involved in a Police Shooting that was controversial and caused a huge public outcry. He was placed on administrative leave and then suspended but an appeal later overturned the finding and Don returned to regular police duty but he was always second guessed and he had a reputation he never quite recovered from. This created additional stress and difficulties at home and Janel was never fully able to be supportive and understanding, coming to resent Don for all the issues they struggled with. She lost herself in a job as a Public Affairs representative for the Mayor.

Then Owen returned from California (alone) to briefly run the amateur baseball league for the Serguci Family. He and Janel kept bumping into each other and as Janel became less involved and committed in her marriage she looked to Owen for understanding, compassion and company. They had an affair and Don refused to forgive her betrayal, demanding a divorce and Janel moved to Florida with Owen when he landed the job with the Devil Rays.

Sitting in the diner, Janel lost her appetite and she didn't have much to say while Rho finished her meal and the girls continued with their conversation. Janel couldn't get the image of the sickly Don out of her thoughts.

The meal over, the girls walked Leesie to her car and they hugged her goodbye as she prepared to hit the open road for Rhode Island. There was talk of Denny visiting her the following weekend and her coming home in a few weeks.

"Maybe I can move my catering business up here," a thoughtful Leesie said aloud as she considered the complications and hassles of a long distance weekends only middle aged romance.

"Maybe," the others agreed with nodding smiles.

Elisa said goodbye, biting her lip as she drove away and the others looked at each other with eye rolls.

"I don't think she'll be back," Cae decided.

"Reunion romance is like wedding reception romance," Janel agreed. "She'll forget about him in a week."

"Well, I'm still giving Andy a call," Rhonda said and the others laughed.

Cae gave Janel a goodbye hug. "All our love to Owen," she said. "And sorry about Don." She paused for dramatic flair. "Not that you care, of course." Cae smiled at her friend before climbing into her car heading home to her perfect life and her perfect marriage and her perfect family in her perfect home.

"We'd better get your stuff and head for the airport," Rhonda advised. "You don't want to miss your flight."

"Yeah," Janel agreed. "I guess I'm done here."

Janel didn't say much as they drove to the apartment and Rhonda gave Janel space as she packed her bag in the guest room. If she really didn't care about Don then why was she so freaked out about how he looked now?

"Oh, Mom," Janel sighed, falling onto the bed with a desperate sigh. "What am I supposed to do?"

Rhonda was sitting on the couch reading through some of the reunion pamphlets when Janel came out of the guest room. Janel grabbed the phone book off the desk and leafed through the pages until she found Shanahan, Donald, 14 Clark Street, Greenville. 782-2262. How pathetic was she for not knowing where he lived or that he was sick?

"Is Clark Street that small dead end off of Thomas Terrace?" Janel asked.

"Yeah. Were Terry Lewis lived. Remember?" Rho squinted at Janel. "Why?"

"Just wondering."

Janel carried her suitcase to Rho's car, lost in thought and barely listening to Rhonda ramble on about how great the reunion had been.

"Why don't we swing by Clark Street on the way out?" Janel suggested as they left the condo parking lot.

"It's not exactly on the route, Blakie," Rho complained.

"We've got time."

Rhonda shrugged and drove the car across town to Thomas Terrace, turning onto Clark Street. Janel spotted #14 and she gestured for Rho to pull to the curb in front of the small old brown bungalow hidden behind willow and birch trees. A stone wall ran along the front walk and a small garage was at the end of the narrow driveway. Don's T-Bird was parked in the driveway.

"What exactly are we doing here?" a confused Rhonda asked.

"I don't know," Janel admitted. "Closure, I guess." She climbed out of the car and stared at the house.

"What about your flight?" Rhonda asked.

"There'll be others," Janel said. She leaned down and looked through the passenger window at Rhonda. "Why don't you go give Andy Evans a call?" she suggested with a grin.

Rhonda beamed happily and nodded with approval. "Call when you need me," she said, putting the car in gear and pulling a 360 in the middle of the street.

Feeling nervous and uncertain, Janel slowly walked along the front walk and onto the creaky front porch. The front door was open and she could hear the sounds of a television ballgame through the screen door. She sucked in a deep breath and knocked on the door.

No reply. She peeked through the front window and she saw Don sitting in a lazy boy arm chair, his head back and eyes closed. He looked like he was dead. She gently opened the door and stepped into the house, making her way to the doorway of the living room.

A couch had been pushed against the wall and a hospital bed had been put in its place. A TV tray next to the lazy boy was full of prescription bottles and pill cases. An oxygen tank with mask was next to the chair. Janel noticed several family pictures around the room, including a surprising number of her - her high school and college graduation photos, their wedding portrait, and one of them standing with her mother. Janel didn't think Don would keep her likeness displayed so prominently after their divorce, especially since she had cheated on him.

"Don?" Janel leaned over and poked his shoulder. "Don?"

His eyes opened, giving her a start.

"Jesus!" She exclaimed, stepping back in fright. "I thought you were dead!"

"Not yet," he said, with a strange grin. He reached for the remote and turned down the sound. "I thought you were leaving." His voice was raspy and weak, an old man's voice.

"Not quite yet," she said. "I wanted to see how you're doing first."

"Good days, bad days," Don said, adjusting himself in the seat. "Lately, more bad than good."

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"What for?"

Sadly, she didn't have an answer for the question. She took a seat in the only other chair in the room.

"Who looks after you?" Janel asked.

"Home Care, mostly. My sister is here most Saturdays. The guys from the station drop in. Mrs. Fergerson across the street likes to play nurse."

He spoke slowly, softly, and methodically, taking deep breaths between each sentence as if trying to find the strength to get the words out.

"You doing okay?" Janel gestured to the hospital bed.

"Stairs got too hard," he explained, taking a brief sip of water from a nearby cup to help his crackling voice. "Bathroom is on the first floor so I had the bed brought in. Makes more sense."

"I guess," Janel agreed.

"Did you see my car?" He sounded like a kid who had gotten a great birthday present.

"Yeah."

"Owning a classic car was always a fantasy of mine," he explained. "When I found out I was sick, I figured what the heck? Might as well enjoy myself." He paused a beat and then smiled at her. "You know, go out in style!"

"Please don't talk like that."

He gave her the eye. "That car would look pretty good in Florida, don't you think?"

"I guess," she mumbled, not wanting to sound ghoulish.

"Where's Owen?"

"He didn't come," she sighed, feeling her eyes watering up. She needed to be reassured about the state of her marriage but she didn't want to admit to perfect Cae that she was having doubts or give Rho and Leesie the satisfaction of knowing she might end up just like them: divorced (again).

"I think we're going through the fourteen year blahs."

"Everybody does at one point or another," Don assured her. "Don't sweat the small stuff. Figure out what's most important and let everything else go."

"You think?" She wiped a tear from her cheek.

"That's what I figured out after you left," he said.

She chewed on her lip staring at him.

"The longer a relationship lasts, the more work it takes," Don said.

Janel was surprised by his sensitive advice. "What should I do?"

"When you get back, take off all your clothes and greet him at the door naked with a rose in your mouth," Don said. "Keep things fresh. Exciting. Spontaneous. Fun. Pretend you're twenty-two again and act like you did with me!"

Janel blushed but she didn't say anything.

"I wish we had the kind of relationship where you felt comfortable talking to me about such things," Don said.

She shrugged. "You were way too uptight and intense," she recalled. "You loathed talking about real stuff and now here you are telling me to get naked and seduce my husband!"

"We never really talked," Don agreed sadly. "You always went to your mother for advice and counsel."

"She was easier to talk to," Janel smiled.

"That she was," Don agreed.

"Did you miss me?" Janel teased, hoping to keep things light.

"Every day," he revealed.

She was taken aback by his honest admission and he looked at her knowingly as he took another sip of water and coughed a bit, although it seemed he was too weak to even cough.

"I'm sorry," she sighed with guilt.

"For what?"

"For everything,' she sighed.

"Don't be," he advised. "Life happens."

"Does all this medicine make you high or something?" Janel wanted to know, feeling exposed by his new openness. "You seem kind of weird to me."

"When your days are numbered you discover that everything you thought was a big deal doesn't matter much anymore," Don told her.

"What used to be a big deal?" It was her chance to finally get some red meat out of him.

"Everything I ever said or did," Don freely admitted. "I was way to controlling and in charge. Being a cop's wife had to be hell on you. I was responsible for every fight we ever had. I apologize for all of it."

Janel stared at him, wishing they had this conversation twenty years earlier. "You acted like you were never wrong," she complained.

"I did what I thought was right," he acknowledged, pausing to take a gasp of air from the oxygen mask. "We had more than our fair share of emotional conflicts."

"There were misunderstandings," she admitted.

"I wasn't prepared to deal with it and I made mistakes," Don confessed.

He seemed exhausted. He cleared his throat, drank some more water, and popped one of the pills into his mouth. He closed his eyes for a moment, appearing to fight off some pain.

"Well, I made mistakes too," Janel said, owning up to her own culpability for the first time, surprised that it came out so freely and openly as she stared at him in his lazy boy looking like a giant raggedy Andy doll wasting away before her eyes. "I played a part in our failed marriage too. We both built our own walls to keep from being hurt and I blamed you for every problem we experienced without taking responsibility for my own faults."

"I never wanted to hurt you," Don said.

"I rejected you to protect myself and I made you reject me so I could turn to him," Janel admitted.

"And the more you rejected me the more I tried to take charge," Don said, opening his eyes and focusing on her again. "I was a cop. I was used to people accepting my authority. I couldn't handle it when you didn't."

"It felt like you were a cop more than you were a husband," she let him know.

"It was easier being a cop than it was a husband," he explained. "I was jealous of the relationship you had with your mother. I felt like an outsider."

"I'm sorry.

"I may have been controlling but you had all the power," Don told her. "All I ever wanted from you was your approval."

"I didn't like sharing my mother with you," she revealed. "I didn't like it that she liked you better than she liked my father. I probably acted out in ways I wasn't even aware of."

"How's your dad doing?" Don wondered. "I see him on TV sometimes."

"Dad keeps on keeping on," Janel said with a laugh. "Nothing stops him. Nothing gets in his way and I'm still bitter that he doesn't treat me the way he treats his step children."

Don held up his hand and stuck out his index finger in a 'wait a minute' gesture. He closed his eyes again and gritted his teeth while enduring some sort of pain.

"You okay?" Janel asked with concern and worry.

He nodded that he was but it was a few minutes before he opened his eyes.

"When we got married I had this naïve idea that I was going to be this wonderful presence in your life," he told her, his voice strained from the pain he was feeling. "But I underestimated how intensely demanding, stressful and depleting marriage can be."

"I could have made it easier for you," Janel admitted.

"Things didn't turn out the way I wanted or hoped but all I knew was how to be a cop and I guess I undercompensated as a husband. That wasn't very fair to you but the harder I tried to make it work the worse things got."

"And I didn't help things," Janel remarked.

"Well, the good news is you survived all my mistakes," Don told her, squeezing the arm of the chair as pain rushed through his body. "I know your parent's breakup was a painful experience that affected you more than I realized and I wasn't exactly reassuring about our chances but look how things turned out for you. Your second marriage lasted much longer than your first and you have a great career going despite all the issues I caused."

He rubbed the side of his head and put his palm on his forehead for a moment.

"Should I go?" Janel asked.

Don shook his head no. "Just give me a minute," he requested, his voice barely audible. He took another breath from the oxygen tank.

Janel thought about the past. Who knows how her parents' divorce affected her self-worth or shaped her adult life? Don was right – she wasn't a failure, so perhaps the childhood disappointments she endured didn't matter all that much anymore.

"It wasn't all bad," Janel told Don when he motioned for her to say something. "Sure, we had more than our fair share of huge blowouts but I knew you loved me. You taught me to be tough and to stand up for myself. You taught me to respect the law and do the right thing. And you tried to offer important advice even when I refused to listen."

"I wish I could have made you laugh and smile more," Don sighed. He was pressing both his hands on his stomach as if he was trying to push the pain down.

"I could have tried harder," Janel admitted.

Don's vulnerability combined with his pain unnerved Janel. She had spent years pushing him out of her mind but now that she was sitting with him in the dingy living room of his tiny bungalow watching him in obvious agony she felt remorse for having pushed him out of her life.

"You know what the worse part about mom's dying was?" Janel asked.

"Missing her," Don guessed.

"Well, that goes without saying," Janel said. "But what I wanted to say was that when I went back to Florida after the funeral I thought about everything she did for me and all that she meant to me. And I started feeling guilty for stewing in a pot of resentment towards you. I shouldn't have been so spiteful and furious but I refused to relent because that meant that I might have some responsibility in what happened between us."

"It wasn't your fault," he told her. "We all just do the best we can and sometimes things just don't work out the way we hoped, planned, or wanted."

"I thought it was my right to be angry and temperamental without explanation," Janel continued. "I took on the fight because I was convinced that I had been wronged and it didn't matter if I did wrong just to prove myself right."

"Don't be so hard on yourself," Don said, biting on his lip to hold in the pain that was racking his body. "You were younger than me. I should have been more understanding."

"I was so busy playing the role of wronged victim that I never considered my own culpability in the whole mess," she admitted. "I never gave you any credit for anything."

"It's okay," he said. "It's all in the past anyway."

"Whatever your faults were should have been redeemed by the love you had for me," Janel said. "I never appreciated you until…" Her voice trailed off.

"Until you realized I was going to kick off." Don finished the sentence for her.

"I'm sorry."

Janel excused herself to use the bathroom and to collect herself. She hadn't expected to be overcome by the situation and she was surprised that she had come clean with him so easily and openly after holding her guard for so long.

There was a sitting chair in the shower and a lift bar by the toilet and Janel was beginning to understand how tough it was for Don in his daily activities and routine. She stepped into the kitchen and saw that the soup Don had picked up at Pop's was sitting on the counter, untouched.

Janel returned to the living room and retook her seat next to Don's.

"This was the Happy Hatter's house," Don revealed, speaking with his eyes closed.

"Who?"

"Don't you remember the guy who used to go around town wearing those crazy hats?" Don laughed. "His real name was Mel Baun but everybody called him the Happy Hatter because he was always in a great mood. This place sat empty for a couple of years after he died. I got it for a song after we sold the house."

"You haven't been very happy here though, have you?"

"It's been tough without you around," he said, finally opening his eyes and looking at her. It's been lonely."

"There hasn't been anybody else?"

"It was always only you," he admitted. "Besides, there comes a point when it's too late so I lost myself in my work instead."

"So much for the Happy Hatter's karma!" Janel joked.

He let out a small gasp, feeling more pain and he gestured toward a large pill bottle and Janel handed it to him. He nodded no and held his palm out, gesturing with three fingers on his other hand. She counted out three pills and put them on his open palm. His hand was shaking as he lifted them to his mouth.

"I'm really mad at you," Janel told him.

"I know," he said, chewing on the pills. "I just tried to apologize for all the mistakes I made."

"I'm not talking about that," she said. "I mean I'm mad that you weren't going to tell me that you were…."

"Dying," Don said.

"Sick," Janel corrected him. "Isn't it much better having me here?"

"Now that it's happened, sure," he said, trying to laugh but nothing came out. "But I couldn't have taken the hurt and rejection if we had another fight."

Janel fell back in the chair and she felt the tears roll down her cheeks. Don had closed his eyes again, trying to fight off whatever pain he was experiencing without much success.

"I might be back for Christmas," Janel announced.

"I won't be here at Christmas." His voice was weakening and tired.

She stared at him with anguish. "Well, Thanksgiving then."

"I won't be here for Thanksgiving either," Don whispered. "I doubt I'll be around on Labor Day."

Labor Day was eight days away.

Janel burst into tears, overwhelmed by the years of buried frozen emotions that were now thawing out like they had been blasted by a blow torch.

"Why don't you take the T-Bird for a ride?" Don suggested. "The wind blowing in your hair will make you feel better."

"Why don't I take you out for a ride?"

"I can't. I'm wiped out. Just put the car back in the garage when you get back. I don't think I'll be driving it anymore."

It was the most painful thing she heard him say. How sad to think he was getting to weak to drive the car he loved.

"Are you mad at God?" Janel asked, wiping the tears from her face.

"Of course not," Don said softly and with warmth, opening his eyes and smiling at her. "Why should I be? He brought you here. Now I can die in peace."

Janel didn't know how to respond as she looked at him with both admiration and angst. He weakly picked up the keys to the T-Bird from the TV stand and tossed them to her but they fell a good distance short of the target.

Janel picked the keys off the floor and clutched them to her breast.

"Have a nice drive." His eyes were already closed so she went out onto the porch to catch her breath.

Janel hadn't felt this devastated since her mother died but why was she so upset? She hadn't seen Don in ten years and she was hardly close to him for a long time before that. But now she felt like she was losing someone near and dear to her.

Janel walked to the convertible, stopping in surprise when she noticed the special plate on the back bumper: "Janel, '59". Her heart skipped a beat as she stared at the vanity plate not quite believing he had remembered her in such a special way.

"Excuse me, Miss?"

Janel looked up to see an older woman standing at the foot of the driveway peering at her suspiciously but then she appeared to recognize her.

"Oh, you're Janel, right?" The woman asked excitedly.

"Yes," Janel confirmed, trying to figure out if she knew the woman.

The woman extended her hand. "I'm Mrs. Fergerson from across the street."

"How's Don doing?" Janel asked, accepting the lady's hand in a shake.

"Not good, I'm afraid, Dear. To tell you the truth, I'm surprised he's lasted this long. I think he was waiting for something. It must have been you."

"Can't they do anything for him?"

"They've already done everything they can, Dear," Mrs. Fergerson let her know.

"How long has he been like this?"

"He's really gone down hill the last few months," Mrs. Fergerson reported. "He was talking about going to the nursing home the other day so I know it must be getting really bad now. I think we're near the end, Janel. Pay attention to his breathing. If it starts getting labored, that will be the first sign."

Janel nodded in understanding. "Thank you for everything you've done, Mrs. Fergerson."

"He's really a wonderful man," Mrs. Fergerson said with a sigh. "And I know how special you are to him."

"How so?" Janel asked with surprise.

"He's always telling me nice stories about you," the older woman answered.

"About me?" Janel asked with surprise.

"Of course, Dear." Mrs. Fergerson gave her a funny look, surprised that Janel was surprised. "He thinks the world of you."

"I was just going out for a little ride while Don rests," Janel explained, gesturing toward the car.

"That's nice," Mrs. Fergerson said with a smile. "He really loves that car."

Janel slipped behind the wheel of the T-Bird and turned the ignition key. The engine fired to life and purred like a kitten. She waved to Mrs. Fergerson and carefully backed the car out of the driveway, feeling like a movie star as she zipped through town wearing her sun glasses and letting the wind blow her hair as Don advised. If she were still in high school she'd be the coolest kid in town!

Rhonda was just coming out the front door when Janel pulled up in the T-Bird and Rhonda laughed at the sight.

"Nice Car, Blakie!"

"Where you going?" Janel asked.

"To meet Andy Evans," she replied with a happy smile.

Janel got out of the car and retrieved her suitcase from the back seat of Rhonda's vehicle.

"I think I'll stay at Don's tonight," she said.

"You're kidding," A stunned Rhonda replied. "Did hell finally freeze over or something?"

"I need to spend a little time with my ex-husband."

A moved Rhonda gave her friend a needed hug.

"He's dying, Rho," Janel said, holding back a sob. "I feel so guilty."

"Don't," Rhonda advised. "Just enjoy the gift you've been given."

Janel drove to Gino's Pizzeria and ordered a small pizza to go. Gino's was one of the more popular parlors in town with its motto of "We Want You Too Feel Right at Home" written on every menu and pizza box. Don liked the place and they went there often when they were married. Most of the Ginoballi family worked there, churning out pizza pies for nearly thirty years and the place offered a warm and comfortable family-style dining area.

"Name?" The counter girl asked and Janel almost said her married name "Landry" but she caught herself and said "Shanahan" instead.

Janel stepped outside, leaned against the T-Bird and dug her cell phone out of her pocketbook. She had been resisting calling Owen, stubbornly waiting to see if he'd call her first but after her conversation with Don she realized she was being immature and unreasonable in her attitude. Figure out what's important, Don had told her. Janel pressed the automated button for Owen's number and she waited for him to pick up.

"Hello?"

"Hi Owen," she said. "Do you miss me?"

"Of course, Baby. How'd it go?"

"The reunion was great," she said. "But I didn't make my flight."

"Did something happen?" Owen asked with concerned worry.

"Don's sick."

"You saw Don?" She could hear the surprise in his voice.

"He's not going to make it, Owen."

There was a pause.

"I'm not sure how much time he has," Janel said.

"You okay?"

"I love you."

"Well, I love you too, Janel," her husband assured her. "Are you sure you're okay?"

"Are we okay?"

"Yes," he said strongly. "We're okay."

"I'm glad. And I'm sorry I gave you a hard time about not coming."

"Well, I'm sorry I gave you a hard time about it too."

"I love you, Owen. See you soon."

"Do whatever it is you need to do, sweets."

She hung up and took in a deep breath, feeling relief and calmness knowing she was going to see Owen soon. She stepped inside Gino's and waited for her order.

When the pizza was ready, Janel drove the T-Bird back to Don's house and she parked it in the garage as he asked. She stepped into the house and saw that Don was asleep in the chair. She put the pizza on the edge of the couch and went into the kitchen for some plates. She opened the refrigerator and saw that there were only a few items in it – mostly condiments, some medication, and a quart of milk, along with some fruit bars and power drinks. The freezer had some ice cream and popsicles but the cupboards were mostly bare. It was obvious he wasn't eating much.

She brought the plates into the living room and sat in her chair, watching Don sleep. His eye sockets were hollow and gray and she noticed that his skin had a grayish blue hue to it, even more noticeable than when she first saw him at Pop's. His thin arms had blotchy patches on them and his breathing was light but uneven.

"Don?" She said loudly but he didn't stir. "Don!" She said even louder. She leaned over and patted his leg. "I brought pizza."

He opened his eyes and smiled when he realized she was back. She put a slice of pizza on his plate and handed it to him. He placed the plate in his lap.

"You always loved pizza!"

Don nodded but he didn't say anything.

"We used to go out for it every Friday night," she reminded him but he didn't say anything.

Janel stared at him for the longest time, remembering their times together. "You made me feel so mature and special in college," she smiled. "You were older but you treated me like an equal. You respected me. You made me feel important."

She was remembering long forgotten memories she hadn't thought about in years. "Remember the first time we went to the Blue County Fair together? That was great! And there was the time the car broke down and we walked along a large and busy roadway and you made me walk on the inside so you could be between me and all the speeding cars and loud trucks. I remember lying on our backs in the backyard watching clouds and coming up with ideas of what they looked like. I remember one night we chased fire flies together in the back yard."

"Naked," he clarified, his eyes still closed.

"As jaybirds!" She laughed and Don grinned too.

"I remember the time you woke me up at 4:00 in the morning and took me to some truck stop diner for an early breakfast," she smiled, but then she looked at him with embarrassment. "How come I forgot about all the good stuff but remembered every bad thing?" She asked.

"I'm glad you remember the good stuff now," he said weakly.

Janel noticed that he hadn't eaten the pizza slice that was still on his lap. "Aren't you hungry?" she wondered.

He shook his head no. "I'd just throw it up anyway," he said sadly.

"Can I get you anything else?"

"Maybe you should call my sister," he suggested, his voice sounding like sandpaper.

"What should I tell her?"

"Tell her she'd better call Donnelly and Nolan," he said.

"The funeral home!?"

"Her number is on the frig.

Janel stared at Don not wanting to comprehend what he was saying.

"Tell her Marbles is barking."

"Marbles?" Janel was really confused now.

Don nodded his head affirmatively and he motioned with his glassy eyes for her to go to the kitchen. He grabbed the oxygen mask and put in over his mouth.

Janel could feel heart beating in her chest as she stood in front of the refrigerator. She wasn't in any hurry to call Polly. Don's sister had been nice to her when she and Don were together but Polly and her family lived a couple of hours away and they only got together a couple of times a year.

Later, when Don and Janel began having problems, Polly treated Janel with skepticism and she was known to make a sarcastic or snide remark. Janel figured Don had complained to his sister about the situation and that Polly didn't think much of Janel's attitudes. Polly was classy enough to show up at Janel's mom's funeral and that was the last time Janel saw her. She sucked in her breath and dialed Polly's number.

"Hello?"

"Polly? It's Janel."

"You're shitting me! Where are you?"

"I'm at Don's."

"Wow. How the hell did that happen?"

"I was in town for my class reunion."

"Forgive me for saying this Janel, but isn't it a little too late?"

"Don says Marbles is barking."

She heard Polly start to cry.

"What does that mean?" Janel asked.

"Marbles was our dog when we were kids," Polly explained. "He never barked once in his life except on the day he died."

"Jesus."

"I'll be there first thing in the morning," Polly said. "Are you staying there tonight?"

"Yes."

"Thank you. And thanks for calling, Janel."

"I'll see you in the morning, Polly."

Janel hung up and slowly walked back to the living room. Don had managed to get himself out of the chair and he was now in the hospital bed with the oxygen mask still on his face. His uneaten slice of pizza was sitting on his chair and Janel knew how sad that was because Don always loved eating.

"Marbles is barking," he reminded her, lifting up the mask for a moment.

"I'm sorry I betrayed you, Don," Janel blurted out, tears streaming down her face now. She had never apologized for cheating on him until now.

He opened his eyes and looked at her and he gave her a funny smirk but he didn't say anything.

Janel sat down on the side of the bed and pulled the sheet up to his chin like a mom tucking in a little boy for bed. He was still wearing his baseball cap.

"Should I call the Priest?" She asked.

"Father Fitzgerald was here a few days ago," Don reported. "I'm covered."

"Are you afraid, Don?" Janel nervously asked.

He smiled and shook his head no. He took the oxygen mask off. "I have Faith in the promises of God," he said, his voice beginning to fade like a radio station losing its signal. "I look forward to seeing our mothers and everybody else who has gone before. I didn't plan this but it's out of my control. I don't want to die. I hate leaving. I feel helpless but not hopeless. I hope you will remember me. Live a good and happy life, Janel. That's all I ever wanted for you."

She nodded, telling herself to be strong for him. "I want you to know that I did listen to you," she said. "Your voice was always in my head. It was my false pride that wrecked us."

"You're here now."

"Thanks for all you tried to do for me and all that you did do, most of which I'm only now realizing. And I'm sorry for everything that went wrong between us. You will always be a presence in my life and I'm grateful."

"Okay," he said.

"I love you," she said quietly.

He nodded his head to acknowledge her words.

"Can't you say it too?" she asked hopefully.

She could see the tears in his eyes. "I love you, too," he whispered.

He closed his eyes and Janel climbed into the bed next to him, cuddling close just like in the early days of their relationship. She didn't realize that the reunion she came home for was actually this one. She listened to Don's shallow and labored breathing and she fell asleep to that but she awoke with a start when she realized the breathing had stopped. She couldn't believe he had gone that quickly. There was so much more she wanted to tell him and hear from him.

"Oh, Don," Janel sighed, looking at his blue gray face in the shadows of the night as his skin started to turn cold. "Thank you for loving me."