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For The Strength of Youth

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    Ch. 44 The Wisdom of the Wise
 
Submitted by spazmom on 27 February 2007 - 8:00pm. |

The next day seemed to fly by so fast it was time for the BBQ before I was ready. I had been so busy helping Mari with the cleaning and the cooking and talking with Shirley (the friendly neighborhood Astoria policeman that everybody knew) who came over to look at Sean’s car.

He didn’t say much about it, just took some pictures and said he’d ask the neighbors. Mari invited him to the BBQ since all the neighbors were going to be there. To my relief, he declined and left. I didn’t feel very comfortable around him, I had no idea why.

Bill drove Sean to work and I felt a brief thread of loneliness before Mari got me working. I was glad to have something to do. Two full days in that man’s company was like viewing paradise and then having the door shut when reality barged in. Oh well.

I knew I would see him that night, so it was easier to work with Mari and hear all about their neighbors and their kids and where they went to school. When that subject dried up, she started talking about their daughter, Leslie.

“Oh that one,” Mari said with a sigh. “I thought Sean was head strong. She hasn’t let us tell her a thing since she turned 18.”

I grinned. “Really? She sounds like she’s going to turn out okay.”

Mari smiled fondly as she put a pie in the oven. “Yes, she is. I have to admit that she’s the apple of my eye.” She sighed and looked over at me. “I can’t wait till she gets back from San Diego.”

I was jealous and didn't mind letting her see it. “I wouldn’t mind going on a trip like that. How much longer is she going to be?”

Mari shrugged. “She wants to be here before you go home, so I guess she’s going to try and get back this week end. She’s been gone - it seems like forever.”

I sat back in my chair at the table, relaxing after vacuuming all the floors. Mari fell silent for a few minutes, and I looked over at her a little surprised, because silence was not something she encouraged very often. Her expression had grown serious, and I wondered what she was thinking.

“Has Sean told you anything about himself?” She asked finally, and I realized she was trying not to pry.

“Yes,” I said, hoping to relieve her. “He has told me of his marriage back east and how he pretty much kept away from here for about 10 years.”

Mari nodded, her face showing her concern. “He bottles so much up inside of him. It’s hard to know what he’s feeling sometimes.” She grinned at me suddenly. “Well, that is except where you are concerned,” she teased.

I felt the blush going up my face and rolled my eyes. It was so embarrassing!

Mari laughed. “Oh Angie! It’s so good to see him with you!”

I smiled, relieved to hear her feelings. “I’m glad you feel that way,” I admitted. “I was worried for some reason you wouldn’t want the two of us together.”

Mari flapped her hand at me. “Don’t kid yourself, hon. That is one of the reasons I invited you out here. You two seemed made for each other.” She leaned over and patted my hand, her face growing thoughtful again.

“You see, Leslie managed to keep Bill and I sane through it all. She seemed to be the rope that bound us all together when it could have all fallen apart." She picked at the dough that had stuck to her hands, as if it were part of the memories she wanted to forget. "That’s probably why I’m so much closer to her than Sean. I guess she really feels like a daughter. Sean is just - a real close friend.”

She sighed and I bit my lip, amazed at this revelation. How strange to have your son feel like a friend rather than a son! Did that mean that they felt they couldn’t rely on him?

Just then Mari glanced at the clock and gasped. “Oh my! You had better hustle to get ready. I didn’t realize it was so late! People are going to start arriving soon.”

I glanced over and stood up with a gasp of my own. “Oh no!” I cried and ran up the stairs, panic filling my limbs with extra energy.

I think I took the fastest shower ever known, but after that, things slowed down. I couldn’t decide on what to wear, so I was methodically dumping the contents of my suitcases all over the room. I couldn’t decide what to do with my hair; I was suddenly very nervous.

“Oh Mom,” I whispered, sitting down on the edge of the bed. “What do I do? I won’t remember any of these people and I’ll feel like a complete fool.”

Sighing, I glanced at the chaos around me. It was a good thing none of them would be seeing this room. After deliberating for five more minutes, I finally decided on some soft brown suede pants that I tucked into cowboy boots, a soft green flannel shirt folded up to the elbows and a simple western silver and turquoise tie.

My hair was determined to ignore any control, so I decided the body styled look would work okay. I’d had it trimmed before leaving Utah, so it was just on my shoulders, naturally wavy, and streaked with blonde highlights, it seemed to float about like a reddish brown cloud. I had forgotten what the humidity did to my hair.

I finally applied a little make up, some squirts of perfume, some small silver earrings and felt more presentable. One more glance in my small mirror, and I shrugged. Oh well, time to face the music.

I could hear the people as I descended the stairs, but thankfully, most of the guests seemed to be outside, since it was still very warm. I made it to the kitchen and stood there for a moment, my panic mounting as I surveyed the crowd outside. Not all of these people could be neighbors!

“They aren’t actually all neighbors,” came a deep voice behind me, which set my heart pounding as I turned to smile at him.

“What?”

Sean smiled warmly at me. “Not all of them are neighbors. Most are people Mari ran into in town and she invited because she’s known them for years. Sometimes she gets carried away. She hasn’t had a real party in a long time.”

“I hadn’t realized it was going to be such a big deal.” I admitted with a nervous sigh, my heart sinking at the site of that chatting crowd.

Sean stepped closer and pulled me into his arms, holding me gently. “It’s not. To my mom, it’s just a get-together with family and friends. No one will expect anything of you.”

I put my arms around his waist, enjoying the feeling of being in his arms again.

“Have you been busy all day?” he asked, his voice vibrating through his chest to my ear.

“Oh yeah. It was okay, it kept my mind occupied. I think we cleaned from floor to ceiling.” I told him, making a face as I felt the ache in the muscles in my arms. I had forgotten what full-fledged housework was like.

Sean laughed. “That’s mom. She’ll be sure to have every cobweb gone. As if there dared to be one in this house anyway.”

I smiled and leaned away from him to look at his face. “That’s her to a T. How did your day go?” I wanted to know the answer to the tires and Dave, but I wasn’t sure where to begin.

He shook his head, a shadow in his eyes. “Not now. Let’s talk about that later.”

I made a face and pulled away reluctantly. “Well, I guess we’d better go out then. I hope you know some of these people.” I must have given away my frustration, because Sean chuckled.

“Come here and let’s see if I can loosen you up a bit.” He pulled me back to him, and I didn't mind at all. By the time he was done, I wasn't thinking about the party at all. A nice secluded spot, yes - the party, no.

Mari was standing just a little away from the back door, hands typically waving about as she talked to a slim, fashionably dressed woman who seemed to be taking everything in while listening.

“Oh Angela!” she exclaimed when she saw us, reaching out and pulling me over. “This is Bette Dunbar. Bette, this is Angela Barker, the reason I’m throwing this party.”

Bette took my hand firmly in hers and regarded me with brilliant blue eyes. “Pleased to meet you." Her voice was low and soft, matching her image entirely. “Mari has just been telling me about your painting. Have you done a show out here?”

The question took me totally off guard, and I groaned inwardly, my nerves already shaky from facing this crowd of people, now feeling ready to snap. I looked at Mari pointedly, wishing I’d known this was going to come up. “What have you been telling her, Mari?” I must have sounded as shocked as I was feeling because both women looked a little surprised.

Sean, who had been right behind me quietly took hold of my elbow in a strong grip, helped me regain control. “Hello Bette,” he said pleasantly. “It’s nice to see you again.”

Bette nodded her head in greeting. “How are you, Sean?” I couldn't tell from her voice that she was upset, but my insides were still quaking with dismay and embarrassment.

Horrified at my reaction to her innocent question, I was so thankful that Sean had given me a chance to calm down. Feeling that familiar heat on my cheeks, I heard Sean reply, not quite gathering what he said.

“Mrs. Dunbar,” I ventured as Sean finished, “I’m terribly sorry, but I was surprised at your question. You see, I haven’t painted for several years, and have only just thought I might start again. The last showing I had was three years ago in Utah. I don’t remember how it did.”

Mari stepped around Bette to put her arm around my shoulders and give me a quick hug. “I’m sorry!” I whispered, my remorse very sincere. She hadn’t deserved any censure.

“It’s okay, honey,” she whispered back.

“I’m sorry I brought up a tender topic,” Bette stated, looking like she was ready to step away.

“It’s alright,” I assured her with a weak smile. “May I ask why you are interested?”

She seemed to let out a breath she was holding. “Well, I am an art gallery owner. I’m always interested in new artists. I’d love to see some of your work.”

Sean grinned. “Why don’t you come in the house for a moment and I’ll show you some.”

Bette looked excited and stepped toward Sean. “That would be wonderful!”

I backed up, trying to not be embarrassed - sure my face was bright red again. “I think I’ll stay out here so you can be honest.”

They both nodded and Sean gave me a wink before they disappeared into the house.

“Oh Mari,” I moaned, grabbing her arm. “She must think I’m totally unbalanced or something!” I looked at her, anxious about the way I’d responded to her friend.

Mari laughed and started pulling me toward a group of people. “No more than any other artist she’s known.”

I was soon introduced to everyone else, which was an interesting eclectic group. Mari knew a great variety of people. Not one to limit herself, she was interested in all things, all people. I met a doctor, a veterinarian, a florist, a couple of retired neighbors, an entrepreneur, a librarian, and the list went on.

I had to shake my head, knowing I'd never remember anyone's names. I ended up at the buffet table, ready for sustenance and wanting to grab some of the delicious food Mari had prepared.

This whole night was a real eye-opener. Many of the people I had met had been sincerely glad to meet me, remembered my parents, and wanted to know how I was doing. It was odd, but I almost felt like was part of a very large family.

Suddenly Sean was by my side, filling up a plate of his own with Mari’s BBQ ribs and potato salad, rolls, coleslaw, baked beans and of course, smoked salmon.

“Mom really outdid herself this time,” he said, leading the way to a table and chairs.

“I agree with that.” I sat down with a sigh. Amazing how a day spent cleaning can tire you out!

Sean took off to get us some lemonade and came back with two frosty glasses.

“What did Ms. Dunbar think of my painting?” I finally asked as he sat down, unable to contain myself any longer.

He grinned at me, munching on some salad. “Now that is one cool lady!” He quickly swallowed before continuing. “She was really impressed. I told her you had done that one in the family room a long time ago and she took that to mean that you were even better now. She’d like to see something more recent.”

“Oh.” I looked down at my plate, realizing not only had my eyes had been bigger than my stomach, but now I had even bigger expectations to fill. How was I going to come up with some recent work? I had stored away everything left from the gallery showing in Utah. Besides, how recent is three years? I sighed, wondering what I had gotten myself into. I needed to paint something new. Was I up to it?

Sean touched my arm, bringing me back to the party. “Hey, don’t worry about it tonight, okay? Just enjoy the party.”

I tried to smile, but I knew it was a weak attempt. “I’ll try.”

He leaned over and quickly kissed me - putting all other thoughts out of my mind.

“How’s that?” he whispered in my ear.

“Very effective.” I admitted with a sigh.

“Looks like Mom is setting up for bingo,” he said, his voice full of dismay as he spotted his mother standing up to call a start to the game. “Do you like to play?”

I shrugged, grinning as I heard the obvious hope that I didn't. “I haven’t played in forever. We could team up.”

“We could,” he agreed reluctantly, and then a glint entered his eyes, and I began to feel nervous. “Or we could play against each other for a prize.”

“Oh yeah?” I looked at him skeptically, not entirely sure I wanted to agree to that. “What kind of prize are we talking about?”

He grinned, a definite wolf grin and leaned towards me. “Oh, one where the winner gets treated to a night on the town in Portland on Saturday, plus a goodnight kiss.”

That was easy! I smiled, his husky voice sending shivers down my spine. “What a wonderful idea.” Just the thought of a night like that with him made my pulse race. “And a way to get another evening together! I need to win this one for sure.”

Sean’s grin widened even more, if possible, and he jumped up. “Oh yeah? You haven’t seen me play bingo!”

I groaned as I let him help me up and we grabbed our plates. “But you have to let me win! I don’t know my way around Portland!”

He put an arm around my waist, pulling me close. It was wonderful to be against his hard warm body. “I’ll tell you all my favorite places,” he assured me with a wink.

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” I replied wryly. "Just remember I'm on a vacation budget!"

He just shook his head and led me to the card tables where the bingo cards had been laid out. “This will be great!” he exclaimed as he held out a chair for me. “We can sit here next to my mom so I can bribe her into calling the right numbers.”

“No way!” I cried. “That’s not fair. You should be disqualified because of family ties!”

Mari glanced up at my remark as Sean chuckled and shook her head with a raised eyebrow. “Family ties? That means you get a three number handicap.” She informed him of this with a wink at me.

Sean groaned. “Mom! I should have known!”

I grinned. “Gee, since I don’t have any family ties, that means I get a head start on you!”

Sean gave me a lascivious grin. “We could always change that, you know, the family ties bit.”

I raised an eyebrow at him. “Oh really? And just what did you have in mind?” I demanded, my heart racing with the thought. “Adoption? I don’t think they’ll go for it at my age.”

Mari sniffed from where she sat at the table. “We don’t need any adoption papers to claim Angie. Now just be quiet you two, so we can get started.”

Sean leaned close after he sat down in his chair. “I wasn’t thinking of adoption, and you know it.”

The caress in his voice sent my stomach fluttering and I tried to shrug and act casual as I positioned my card. "Well, it doesn't matter now, does it. You know you'll probably win anyway."

He sat back in his chair as his mother announced the game was ready to start. “I’ll win whatever way it goes.” He leaned forward suddenly and kissed me, so hard and fast I hadn’t only blinked and he was sitting back in his chair, acting like nothing had happened.

I put a hand to my throat, thinking that Mari would know for sure by my red face, but to my amazement, I didn’t feel the familiar heat. My body was too preoccupied with other sensations.

Mari started calling out the numbers and I tried to concentrate, but it took half the card to really put my mind to it. This man was going to drive me crazy. I had never been around anyone like him, never felt like this for any one before, and I just didn’t know how to handle it. The last thing I wanted to do was mess it up, whatever happened!

The evening was fun. I was finally able to relax and have a good time. Sean kept flirting with me, making me blush and I kept beating him, which made his eyes sparkle and everyone seemed to be having a wonderful time. One gentleman won more games than anyone else and went up to claim one of Mari’s blackberry pies, much to the jealousy of everyone there.

I leaned back in my chair and followed Sean's gaze as he had suddenly tensed. Mr. Shirley, the town cop, was standing at the edge of the lawn, motioning for him to come talk with him.

“I’ll be back,” he whispered, getting up to saunter lazily over to the other side of the lawn.

“Angela, dear,” Mari’s voice came from my side and I glanced at her startled.

“Yes?”

“I have just a moment before we start the songs and I’d like to show you something we wanted you to have. Kind of a welcome back present.”

“Okay.” I was surprised as I stood up, she'd had all day to show me the house and stuff. I found I was a little stiff from sitting for so long. “That’s really sweet of you.”

Mari smiled and draped an arm around my waist as we headed toward the house. “Don't be silly! We’ve been looking forward to this for a long time. We should have showed it to you sooner, but this weekend has been kind of busy.”

I smiled my agreement and followed her as she took me back to the house and up the stairs. I thought we were headed toward my room, but then she turned the other direction. We were headed toward the attic. It was an area that I hadn’t explored in years, and I wondered why she had put the gift there.

She opened the door and turned on the light just as I entered the room. I gasped in surprise. The room was small, perhaps eight feet square, but the outside wall was almost entirely windows and it had been painted white, so it gave an impression of space and light that was so exciting I couldn’t believe it.

In the middle of the room was a large easel and next to it was a wooden chest dresser, about four feet tall with lots of drawers. Built into the wall to the left of the windows was a storage place for canvases, and stacked against the window were several pre-stretched canvases as well as board ones. In front of the easel was a swivel stool with a large pallet lying on top. There was a box of clean rags on the floor by the chest and a couple of cupboards on the right side of the windows with the letters AB burned into the wood.

I was totally floored. I hadn't even dreamed of a room like this. I walked around touching things, unable to grasp they had done this for me. Mari turned on a ceiling fan as I neared the windows, and as I gazed out at the brilliant sunset over the trees I suddenly knew I could paint here. I could heal here and deal with the past.

I took a deep breath and turned back to observe the room. It was a small studio, by many standards, but a complete one. I went to the little chest and opened the drawers to find them full of brushes, pallet knives, pencils, charcoal, erasers, and so on. One drawer contained watercolors, another oils and another acrylic. I felt like I had stepped into heaven. I didn’t know what to say!

Mari just stood back by the door where she had stopped when I came in and smiled at me. I looked at her helplessly, then unable to resist - went to the cupboards and opened them to find bottles of paint thinner and other supplies. I closed the doors, leaning against them weakly. No one had ever done anything like this for me before. I was so full I didn’t know how to express it. I finally turned around to look at Mari who had moved a couple of steps closer.

“How?” I finally got out, and she came over to put an arm around my shoulders.

“Are you excited?” she seemed unsure of my reaction.

“Excited?” I repeated weakly, shaking my head, feeling my eyes fill with tears. “I’m stunned, overwhelmed - I mean, it actually makes me want to start on something. But why? How?”

She sighed and squeezed my shoulders. “I had a feeling you had stopped painting when we never got any notices of art shows.” There was such an expression of sadness on her face that the lump in my throat got larger and I tried to swallow past it.

“Oh Mari,” I touched her arm in sympathy. “I’m sorry. I was so upset about Mom and Dad’s death that I felt my art had some connection to it. I...” I had to swallow hard before I could continue. “I swore at their funeral I would never paint again.”

She gasped and looked at me in shock. “Oh no! Angela, why?”

I shrugged, stepping away from her arms to gaze out the windows, suddenly feeling that familiar numbness around the edges. “I know it’s drastic, but that’s how I felt at the time. All I could think was it had been my gallery showing. If I hadn’t been painting, they wouldn’t have been going there. So, stop painting.”

Mari was silent as she took my words in. “Oh Angela,” she said on a sigh. “You were so alone! Do you still feel this way? You’ve probably wanted to shoot all of us for trying to change your mind.”

I shook my head and went back to her to give her a gentle hug, fighting past the numbness and bitterness that Sean had helped me see. This woman and her family meant more to me than anything or anyone else ever would. And somehow, I was going to show them that.

“I could never shoot you!” I teased, wishing to lighten the mood. “I don’t feel that way any more. This room has shown me that.” I glimpsed something on the back of the door and went over to pull it down. It was a painting smock and my name had been embroidered on it.

“Did you do this?” I asked, I holding it out to see it better.

“Why no, I didn’t.” Mari stepped closer to look at it.
“Leslie must have made it. She was working on something before she left. This must have been it.”

I sighed, astonished at the love that had gone into the making of this room. “This is pretty convincing evidence that I need to continue painting,” I assured her. I picked up the pallet and sat on the stool, my legs feeling shaky in the light of this stunning gift. “I don’t know how to thank you.”

She came and gave me a quick hug. “Do what you do best, Angie. This room is a gift to you, and you will best thank us by doing something in it. Preferably paint,” she concluded with a smile.

I gazed around the room, still astounded by it all. It must have taken a small fortune to put this together. “How could you afford to do this?” I murmured, wondering if there would come a time I could pay them back.

“Well, we didn’t do it all in one day, that’s for sure.” Mari admitted as she surveyed the room. “Actually, Sean was the one who got the ball rolling. He had been home about a month or two and was starting to feel more like a part of life and started asking about you and what had happened after your parents died. When he found out we hadn’t heard from you other than Christmas time, he suggested creating this for you so we could entice you out here to paint. We had no idea at the time that you had stopped painting.” She paused and I looked up at her kind face to see the concern and love she felt for me.

“Oh Mari!” I groaned, seeing the love and worry etched in her face and hugged her tightly around the waist. She returned it, sniffing softly. “If only I had realized how much was waiting here for me! I felt so alone for so long!”

I felt her sigh as her hand softly stroked my hair. “I think Sean was the first to suggest that too,” she admitted. “After all the time spent with us, he worried you might feel alone with no family. And, he knew how we felt about you.”

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Sean. It seemed like it all came back to Sean. It scared me a little to know how much he had been thinking of me. It was as if I stood at the edge of a fantastic view and someone had created it just for me. Did he expect anything from me? Would I live up to his and the family’s expectations?

Mari sighed again, interrupting my thoughts and moved away to touch one of the cupboards lovingly. “Anyway, he suggested the studio idea to Bill and they found new ground to agree upon.” She had a soft smile on her face as she remembered and I folded my arms tightly, hoping to hear as much as she knew about her son and his involvement with his father.

“They had only just finished it when I sent you that letter,” She said, turning to face me. “That’s how long it took. But,” she shrugged and rolled her eyes making me chuckle. "It had to be just right for both of them. I do think it helped bring them a little closer.”

Suddenly there were heavy steps in the hall and we both turned to see Bill in the doorway. "There you are! Everyone’s wondering where you are. People are ready to go home, dear.”

“Oh my!” Mari gasped, putting her hands to her face. “I totally forgot about the BBQ!” She dashed past her husband who paused before stepping into the room.

“I see she has been showing you around,” he commented, and it seemed that his voice didn't bounce off the walls here.

I nodded, the knowledge of his caring and concern for me warming my heart. “Oh yes.” I couldn’t help glancing around again. “I understand I have you to thank for part of it.”

Bill nodded, obviously pleased as punch to have built the room. “Yep. That boy of mine just had to have a room for you to paint, and I figured it was a darn sight better than having paint on the carpet and tables again!”

I grinned and got up to give him a big hug. “Funny how you never complained about it before,” I teased.

“Well, back then I was afraid a little complaining would stop you painting. So, I never said anything.” He hugged me back so tight I thought my ribs would crack. “Besides,” he added, a twinkle in his eyes as he let me go. “What’s a little paint between friends?”

I shook my head, my emotions suddenly preventing a teasing reply and slugged him in the arm, my attempt about as painful as a fly on a mammoth.

He nodded, and touched my cheek before going out of the room and stomping down the stairs.

I turned back to look at the room, feeling suddenly the need to paint. I hadn’t felt that urge for so long it was scary. I folded my arms and paced around the floor for a few moments, feeling the need become irresistible.

Grabbing the smock only because I didn’t want paint on my pants, I quickly grabbed the supplies I wanted and sat down at the easel to work for the first time in over three years.

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