Roy stared blindly at the light. His mind couldn’t seem to grasp the idea of why he was there, or what he should be doing. Suddenly, the pieces seemed to fit together again, and he reached into the refrigerator to grab a beer. Slamming the door in frustration, he turned, and shuffled back towards the couch. The strange gait was a result of his frame of mind, rather than the alcohol. Almost two hours had passed since Johnny left, and Roy had barely moved from his seat in that time.
His partner had come by to visit, in the hope of bringing Roy out of this depression. But all of Johnny’s encouragement, and well meaning suggestions seemed to fall on deaf ears. Even reminding Roy that the kids would probably be there, sometime during the Christmas holiday, hadn’t been enough to rouse the man from his despondency. Finally, the young man had given up. As Johnny walked out the door, Roy couldn’t find it in his heart to call him back.
Deep down, he knew Johnny was right, and he tried to do as his friend asked. But the box of decorations still sat on the kitchen table, only a few items pulled from their wrappings. The tree that his partner brought by, stood bare in the living room, in Roy’s eyes, a living testament to his sense of failure. Staring sadly at the yuletide symbol, Roy felt the unshed tears begin to slip quietly down his cheeks.
I can’t handle this. . . . Christmas is for family, and I don’t have mine . . .
Roy leaned back and closed his eyes as the memories washed over him. Visions of Joanne, pregnant with Christopher their first Christmas together, Chris and Jennifer playing with their Christmas gifts next to the tree, Joanne holding his hand as they watched their children opening presents left by Santa. The familiar scenes played over and over in his mind as Roy struggled to understand. What had brought them to this . . . how did he end up alone at Christmas, his wife and children miles away, maybe never coming home?
Joanne’s mother. . . she’s the one who started all this. If only I could make Joanne see.
Struggling to his feet once more, Roy lurched down the hall as the alcohol finally began to take affect. Reaching the bedroom, he leaned against the doorway as he studied the shadowy interior. The room no longer reflected his wife’s special touches. Chaos reigned where once everything was neat and orderly. Clothes lay about in haphazard abandon, the bedding distributed evenly between the mattress and the floor. Looking at the mess, Roy remembered stumbling from the bed early that morning after a particularly vivid dream. He seemed to be dreaming more and more these days, most of them centered about his family, and an unsuccessful attempt to reach them.
Moving to the bed, he lay down slowly, noticing again how old he felt. Nothing seemed to look or feel the same anymore. Nothing really mattered. Everything that had been special had been taken from him. Everything, except being a paramedic, and even that was in jeopardy. Roy knew that his Captain was watching him. Everyone had noticed the change in Roy. Even though he was competent in the performance of his duties, Roy knew that his mind wasn’t on his work as it should be. Sooner or later, if he wasn’t careful, he might make a mistake that would cost someone’s life. It was a chance that he and department could not afford to take.
Roy tossed and turned as he thought of his wife and children. The whole situation had gotten way out of hand, and Roy didn’t know what to do about it. There seemed to be no one that he could talk to. Oh, his friends cared about him, and Johnny wanted to help, but none of them knew how he felt. As sleep overtook the exhausted paramedic, his thoughts finally settled on his best friend’s efforts to help.
Don’t know how you think you’ll help me with this, Junior. The closest thing you have to a long-term relationship is the affinity you share with your dog, Luke . . .
“All we are is dust in the wind . . .”
Johnny found himself singing along with ‘Kansas’ until he realized what song he was singing, and how sad the words made him feel. Leaning forward, he quickly reached for the knob, and changed the station. A crooked grin played across his face as he settled on ‘Styx’ and he began to hum along with their latest hit.
Well, Johnny, old boy, what do ya think Roy will say about all this . . .
The grin stayed in place until Johnny pulled the Rover into the DeSoto’s driveway. Switching off the engine, Johnny sagged back into the seat as he surveyed the house. He was anxious to tell Roy about his latest achievement, yet a part of him was dreading the contact with his friend. Roy had been so moody lately, none of his friends were sure of what to expect when greeting him. Johnny understood. Losing his wife and children like he had, well, it’d really torn his partner up. Sometimes the young man wondered if his friend would ever be the same again.
It had all started the week Joanne’s mother had come to visit. She never considered Roy to be a worthy husband for her daughter, and she seldom missed a chance to remind him of that fact. It didn’t matter who might be within earshot, either. Roy’s friends had all been subject to the lady’s tirades at one time or another. Anything was fair game for her, from Roy’s chosen profession to pointed barbs regarding his yearly income. The insinuations, and outright insults were enough to rock a saint.
Johnny never really understood why Joanne didn’t stand up to her mother. Maybe she wasn’t strong enough to challenge the woman, or maybe, she just wanted to keep some semblance of peace between those she loved most. Whatever the reason, Joanne stood aside each time her mother belittled her husband, and over the years, Roy had learned to dread the woman’s presence.
This last time had been no exception. Johnny knew that Roy had withstood each verbal barrage with his quiet strength. If only the lady had returned home before that fateful shift, maybe things would’ve turned out differently.
Station 51 had been toned out to the scene of a warehouse fire. There were no victims to rescue, and the crew proceeded with a fairly normal routine of extinguishing the blaze. That is, until the explosion. The owner hadn’t thought to notify the fire department of the various chemicals kept in the storeroom. As the unsuspecting crew battled the fire, the containers ignited, then exploded. The blast was enough to injure four of 51’s crew.
Johnny replayed the scene in his mind, once more. He’d been moving up a stairway behind Roy as they attacked the flames with an inch and a half. He could see Marco and Chet near a doorway, performing the same operation. Suddenly a flash of light seared itself into Johnny’s brain as the chemicals ignited. The two paramedics found themselves catapulted from the stairway onto the floor below. They pulled themselves from the pile of cardboard containers stacked below to find their shift mates unconscious. Marco and Chet were the worst hit. Both suffered concussions along with cuts and minor burns. They spent an extra day in the hospital after Roy and Johnny were released, but were back on the job with a week. The whole episode was nothing unusual, and the men took the incident in stride.
But another scene played out in the DeSoto household. Joanne’s mother found the opening she’d been waiting for. This seemed to be the perfect chance to prove to her daughter just how unstable this lifestyle was for Joanne and the kids. With Joanne already worried and upset over Roy’s injuries, it didn’t take long before her mother had convinced her that a change must be made. In the elder woman’s view, her daughter and grandchildren had no business living with a man who cared so little about them. Her favorite argument was simple. “If he really loved you, he wouldn’t make you live with all this worry every time he goes off to work.”
Johnny was still amazed that Joanne was agreeing with ‘that woman,’ as he called her. He knew how much Joanne and Roy loved each other. Never, in a million years, would he have expected either of them to lose sight of that love.
Two weeks after the warehouse fire, Joanne’s mother made her preparations to return home. But she was taking more with her than she’d brought. She was taking Joanne and the kids. Johnny’s heart still ached as he recalled the look on Roy’s face as they drove up that last morning. Joanne hadn’t even discussed the situation with him. She’d just packed the kids, along with their clothes and toys into the station wagon, then waited for Roy to come home. His partner was a surprise guest for breakfast, thereby being an unwilling spectator to the sad little drama.
Parking their respective vehicles, the two man hurried up the walk to be greeted by a frantic Chris and Jennifer. Johnny did his best to comfort the two as Roy and Joanne argued inside. But the exchange was brief. Joanne appeared at the doorway behind her mother, and after brief, teary goodbyes, the children were driven away as their father watched silently.
And that was it, wasn’t it, Roy? You never had a chance.
Taking a deep breath, Johnny pulled his key from the ignition, and opened the door of the Rover. Walking quickly up the steps, he reached for the hidden house key, and let himself inside. The room was darker than when he’d left earlier that morning.
“Roy . . .”
There was no answer, and Johnny moved purposefully through the living room and into the kitchen. Dirty dishes overflowed from the sink, and empty beer cans littered the countertop. Looking through the doorway into the laundry room, he was surprised to see piles of wet and dirty clothes lying about. Closing the door behind him, Johnny moved back through the lower level.
Moving upstairs, Johnny tapped lightly on the bedroom door before pushing it open. The sight which met him almost broke his heart.
This wasn’t the friend he knew so well. This shadow of a man was merely existing, there was no life left in him, and that in itself angered Johnny. Striding purposefully to the window, the young man jerked back the curtains to reveal the bright afternoon sun.
“Ok, Roy. Enough! It’s time you pulled yourself together, man, and start working to get your wife and kids back.”
Roy struggled upwards at the noisy entrance of his partner, and blinked at the glare from the window. Stuttering in his frustration, he scowled at his partner. “What? What the hell are you doing here, Johnny? I thought you were going to leave me alone . . .”
“Nope. I’m done leaving you alone. It’s time you got your act together. If you want Joanne and the kids back, you’re not going to get them by lying in bed getting drunk.”
No answer emanated from the direction of the bed, but Johnny took that to mean his partner was at least listening to him. Continuing on in a forceful voice, Johnny moved about the room, straightening items and collecting dirty clothes. “It’s time you got things cleaned up, Roy, both here in the house, and in your head. You really surprised me, I didn’t think giving up was your style.”
Roy shook his head slightly as his partner’s words struck home. That was just what he’d been doing. He’d given up without a fight, let Joanne’s mother influence his wife and take away his family. Shaking his head once more, he finally spoke to his friend. “Too late, Junior. She’s already made up her mind. I’ve lost them.”
Johnny stepped closer to the bed and laid a hand on Roy’s shoulder. “It might not be as late as you think, Pally.”
Joanne quietly turned the doorknob, and slowly pushed the front door open. Everything was quiet and peaceful inside, and if it hadn’t been for Johnny’s Rover sitting in the driveway, she might have thought no one was home. Moving carefully about the living room, Joanne was saddened at the sight before her. A box of ornaments stood open on the table, while others were scattered about the room. But none of the holiday decorations were spread about. A beautiful tree stood in the traditional “tree” spot, but again, no festive lights or ornaments adorned its limbs. Leaning down, Joanne picked up an empty beer can from the end table, and sighed sadly.
What have I done . . .
Moving into the kitchen, she deposited the can under the sink, then leaned against the counter as she stared out the window. Her thoughts raced back over the past weeks and an involuntary shudder shook her slender frame.
This whole thing is my fault. I let my mother influence me, and look what it’s cost me. My husband, my home. . . and for what?
Joanne tried in vain to remember exactly where the chain of events had begun. Was it when her mother encouraged her to leave Roy, and move home? Or was it even before that? It didn’t really matter. What did matter was how she felt about it now.
When Johnny had appeared at her mother’s house, Joanne had instantly panicked. Her first thoughts were that Johnny was there to tell her Roy was injured, again. And that, in a nut shell, was the whole problem. She didn’t want to leave her husband. She loved him. Loved him with all her heart, and had since they were in the fourth grade. So why had she made this horrible mistake? Johnny had been the one to finally bring it out of her. His unfailing love for Roy’s family had pushed him to seek her out, and Joanne knew she’d be forever in his debt. There was only one obstacle standing in her way to happiness, and that was Roy. Joanne contemplated the situation as she moved about the kitchen tidying up. Then she stepped back into the living room and stared at the tree. Suddenly she knew what she had to do. Quickly opening the door, she hurried outside.
Roy mumbled under his breath as he toweled his hair dry. Outside the bathroom door, he could hear his partner singing words to some new song, the tune of which seemed vaguely familiar. Suddenly it came to him. He’d heard that same song blaring from Chris’s radio awhile back. If only he could walk down the hall right now, and see his son sprawled across his bed, music playing in the background. Roy thought he’d be so grateful, he’d never complain about his son’s music again.
Opening the bathroom door, he realized that Johnny had cleaned up the room, and Roy almost smiled at the sight of his partner dusting. “You really don’t have to do that, you know? I can clean my own house.”
“Couldn’t tell by looking, partner. Looks like you’ve had a traveling circus setting up residence in here. There’s stuff everywhere. . .”
The two men looked at each other a moment, then Roy flashed a weak grin. “Guess you’re right, Junior. I really have let things go around here. Thanks for helping out. But, I’ll be ok, now. You can head on home.”
“Not so fast, Roy. I’ve got something I need to talk to you about.”
“What’s that? Does this have something to do with work?”
“No, no, Roy. I just . . well, I need to . . . oh, hell. I need to talk to you about what I’ve done.”
“What you’ve done? What did you do, Johnny?”
“Well, I guess you could say I meddled. A little.”
Roy glanced up at his partner, expectantly, but no further explanation seemed to be forthcoming. Finally, he couldn’t stand the suspense any longer. “Johnny, what are you talking about?”
“Well . . Roy . . you see. . . well, I guess I just couldn’t stand to see what’s happening between you and Joanne any more. And, I just thought, that if you and she had a little time to talk, well, it might help you two figure this thing out. . .”
“Oh, Roy, it’s not that bad. You two just spend some time together, and I’ll talk to you later.”
Johnny stood and moved hastily to the door. He was halfway down the hallway before Roy was up and following him. As Johnny descended the stairs to the living room, he was surprised at the sight before him, but not nearly as surprised as the man behind him.
Roy stopped part way down the steps, and leaned against the banister. His mouth dropped as he surveyed the room. He’d been upstairs only a few hours, but the room before him seemed to have been transformed. The mantle over the fireplace was covered with holiday greenery, and the children’s stockings had been carefully hung there. The crèche was in its honored position near the window, and festive decorations were scattered about the room. In the corner, the Christmas tree was no longer bare, but stood now, adorned in all its splendor. Twinkling lights reflected a myriad of tiny prisms off the glittering ornaments. Tinsel hung from the limbs, and an occasional candy cane shone from the green tips. Only the star was missing from the top.
As he made his way down the remaining steps, Roy turned to see Joanne watching him. He stopped in stunned silence as he gazed into her eyes. The tears he saw there surprised him, and Roy was unsure of what he should do next. The overwhelming desire to grab her to him was hard to resist, but he stood quietly as she moved across the room. They were aware that Johnny had moved towards the door, but as he opened it quietly, Joanne stopped him. “Johnny, please don’t leave. I want you to hear what I have to tell Roy. It’s important that you understand, too.”
The young paramedic slowly pushed the door closed as he stared at his friends. Clearing his throat, he struggled past the lump in his throat to speak. “Joanne, you and Roy need this time alone. You don’t need me here.”
“No, Johnny, I don’t need you here, but I
want you to be here. You’re a part of this family, and you have a right to know
what this is all about.”
Roy suddenly realized that the three adults were not alone. Chris and Jennifer stood quietly in the kitchen doorway, watching this unusual event unfold. The tears that had been pooling in his blue eyes, now streamed silently down his cheeks. Roy turned away and quickly swiped a hand across his face in an unsuccessful attempt to hide his distress.
His mind was a blur of jumbled thoughts as Roy turned back to face his family. He wondered absently if the lingering affects of the alcohol were distorting his vision. It couldn’t be Chris and Jen standing there. But suddenly the silence of the room was broken by Jennifer’s cry. Unable to restrain herself any longer, the young girl raced across the room, and into her father’s arms.
Roy couldn’t find his voice, and even if he could, he doubted if any words would be adequate. Instead, he simply held his daughter tightly in his arms as they cried together. Chris moved quickly to join the pair, and Roy reached out to hug his son to him.
As the three held each other close, Joanne found herself overwhelmed with guilt. Her tears of joy at the sight of her children reunited with their father were mingled with tears of sorrow for what she had caused. Looking past her family, Joanne realized Johnny was watching her. Lowering her gaze, Joanne took a deep breath, then lifted her head. Speaking softly, she addressed her husband, “Roy. Why don’t you and the kids sit down. I have some things I need to say to you.”
Roy and his children moved together to sit on the couch. A child on each side, Roy settled into the cushions as he watched his wife. He realized suddenly that he hadn’t spoken to her. Once again, the words would not come. Not knowing what to expect, or what she might be here to say, Roy was too afraid to make the first move. He couldn’t bear the thought that she might be here to say goodbye for good.
Maybe she’s going to ask for a divorce. . . no, she wouldn’t do that with the kids and Johnny here. And why did she clean up the place? Maybe Johnny did that. . . .
Roy’s musings were interrupted as Joanne motioned for their friend to join them. “Please, Johnny, sit down.”
Johnny hesitated near the door. This wasn’t turning out like he’d expected, and he felt very uneasy about the strange turn of events. His goal had been to bring Roy and Joanne together in the hope that they would be able to talk things out, alone. But, not only had she brought the children along, Joanne was now insisting he should stay too. The last thing Johnny wanted to do was get caught up in their personal problems, but it didn’t look like there was any way out of it. Suddenly, Johnny had to resist the urge to laugh out loud at himself.
Why am I worried about getting in the middle of this? I’m already there.
Moving quietly across the room, Johnny settled into a chair as his partner watched him closely. Roy was beginning to put things together.
What did you do, Johnny? Did you go to Joanne and push her into something? What did you think you were doing, Junior?
The more he thought about it, the angrier he became. When Joanne spoke to him the second time, he turned towards her with all the frustration and anger he’d kept buried inside the past few weeks.
Joanne realized instantly, that a change had come over Roy within the past few minutes. No longer did he look hurt and confused. The sad eyes had been replaced by two angry spheres, which seemed to bore into her very soul. Taking a deep breath, she returned his gaze as she began to speak. “Roy, I need to say something to you, and I really hope that you’ll give me a chance to get it all out. I don’t know if you’ll understand, but please, at least listen to what I have to say without interrupting.
Uh, huh. Just like last time. You’ve got everything all figured out, and I’m just suppose to sit here and take it. I’m not allowed to speak for myself, just do what you want and everything will be fine. Well, it hasn’t turned out fine, yet.
Roy stiffened as his wife spoke. He moved forward on the couch in an effort to stand, then suddenly realized his children still clung to him. Jennifer looked up as he settled back beside her. Roy realized he’d have to hear Joanne out, if for no other reason, than for the sake of their children. He looked at her, instantly aware that she was watching him, waiting for his answer. He simply nodded, then looked away.
Joanne breathed a soft sigh. At least he’d agreed to listen. That was the first step. Now if he’d only forgive her. . . “Roy, I made a mistake. A huge mistake! I don’t know how it happened. I don’t know why. But I do know that I’m sorry. I should never have listened to my mother, and I should have trusted you! I know that now. She’s never understood how I felt about you, how I still feel about you. I love you! I always have, and I always will. You and the kids are everything to me.”
Joanne stopped for a moment to wipe the tears from her eyes. Johnny watched her carefully as he realized how overcome with emotion she was. He was suddenly aware of how tired Joanne really looked. There were dark circles under her eyes, and she looked thinner. As she paced back and forth in front them, Johnny wondered if she had the energy to see this through.
Stopping in front of Roy, Joanne watched him intently as he stared at his hands. She continued softly, “I don’t know why Mother has never approved of you, but I know, now, that I should’ve put a stop to her harassment long ago. I kept thinking that she’d come around. That someday she’d see you as I do, a loving, caring, husband and father.”
Joanne knelt down in front of husband, and slowly reached for his hands. Looking up into his face, her eyes searched his for the forgiveness she craved. The only thing she saw there was uncertainty. Once more, she pleaded softly, “Roy, please forgive me. I didn’t do this to hurt you, but I know that’s what I’ve done. I don’t think I even realized what was truly happening. After you and Johnny were hurt in that warehouse, all I could think about was how I’d feel if I lost you. I was so scared. Sometimes it seemed like I could hardly breathe, my heart ached so bad. I gave into the fear, Roy. And, then Mother would talk about how hard this was on the kids, how I was being unfair to them. All I could think to do was run. Run away from the fear. But I was running away from you, and I never really wanted that. Deep down, I knew all along that what I should be doing was running to you, that I should trust you. I love you, Roy. Please forgive me, please . . . I promise you, I’ll never run again. I’ll never turn away from you. . . ”
Joanne stared up into her husband’s face as she waited for his answer. Did he still love her? Would he ever be able to forgive her for what she’d put him through?
Johnny watched them, silently wondering what was taking Roy so long. He knew how his partner felt about Joanne, how much he loved her.
Speak up, man. Don’t lose her again . . .
Roy wasn’t sure what to think. Could all this really be happening? A few short hours ago, he thought his life was over. There seemed to be no light at the end of the long, dark tunnel he existed in. But now, his wife and children were here before him, waiting for him to welcome them home. Could he really forgive Joanne? Would he trust her again?
For the third time in the space of one afternoon, Roy could find no words. Looking gently at his wife, he did the only thing he could. Reaching towards her, Roy pulled Joanne into his arms, and hugged her to him. They stayed that way for a long time. Neither noticed that Johnny and the children had disappeared from the room.
Finally, Roy pulled his wife onto the couch next to him, encircling her with his arm. Joanne curled herself naturally into his embrace as they watched the lights twinkling on the tree. “Joanne, I love you. I’ve always loved you. Ever since the first time I saw you, pigtails and all, I’ve thought you were the most beautiful woman, and I’ve always felt like the luckiest man on earth, having you love me. It almost killed me when you left. I couldn’t imagine how I’d go on without you and the kids. But, honey, I am a firefighter. That’s my life, too. You knew that when you married me, and I always thought you understood. I wish I could say that I’d give it all up for you, but I don’t think I can. It’s not that I don’t love you that much, it’s just that I can’t imagine any other kind of life. I just wouldn’t be whole. . .”
Looking down, he realized that Jo was staring at him intently.
“Oh, Roy, I don’t want you to stop being a paramedic or a firefighter. I’m proud of you and what you do. Please, just understand how hard it is for me sometimes, and help me when it gets to be too much. As long as we work together, we’ll be ok.”
Once more, the two shared a loving embrace, and Roy was overwhelmed with happiness. Joanne reveled in the sense of security and love her husband provided, and was ashamed of herself for her recent actions.
I almost lost him. . . but I won’t ever let that happen again!
Sensing a need to lighten the mood for both of them, Joanne suddenly blurted out an observation. “You know, Roy, that was the most I’ve heard you say, at one time, in years.”
Staring at his wife, Roy was shocked to hear the familiar teasing tone in her voice. But the feeling of elation he felt could no longer be contained.
Johnny, Chris and Jennifer were startled to hear laughter coming from the living room. None of them knew what to make of this new development. Should they check on the pair, or allow them the privacy they needed? Jennifer made the decision for them, in her usual little girl way. Running from the kitchen, she bounced onto the couch in delight. “Are we staying here with you, Daddy?”
“Of course you are, sweetie. You’re home to stay. And you’re never going away again!”
The family gathered together, everyone talking at once in an effort to catch up on lost time. Roy didn’t notice as his partner silently closed the door behind him, but Joanne did. Moving quietly, she followed Johnny to his Rover. “Thank-you, Johnny.”
Turning quickly, the young paramedic reached out to hug his friend. “You’re welcome, Joanne. I’m just glad you two are going to work it out.”
“Yes, I am too. But we have you to thank. If it hadn’t been for you, I don’t know if I’d have been able to face Roy again. But you stuck by us both, and coming to see me today, well you helped give me the confidence I needed to face my fears. Now, with Roy’s help, and with a little less attention paid to the nonsense my mother often spouts, maybe I’ll be able to deal with it better.”
Gage’s crooked grin spread across his face as he let go of Joanne. “You’ll be just fine. The two of you love each other very much, and I think you really know that now.”
Johnny moved to the Rover and opened the door. He stopped as he felt a hand grasp his shoulder. “Thanks, Junior.”
Johnny turned to look into the moist eyes of his best friend. Roy squeezed his partner’s shoulder again, then pulled him into a quick hug. The two men stood back and looked at each other warmly. No other words were necessary. The feelings of gratitude and friendship were obvious between them. “You’re welcome, Pally.”
Stepping into his rig, Johnny started the engine as he looked back at his friends. The stood together on the driveway, arms around each other’s waists. Suddenly, Joanne broke away from her husband, and ran towards the Rover as it backed away. “Johnny, wait!”
Stepping on the brake, Johnny waited expectantly as Joanne ran up to his window. “You are coming here for Christmas dinner, right?”
“No, Joanne, I’d better not. You all need some time together. I’ll catch up with you in a couple days.”
“No you won’t! You’ll be over here first thing Christmas morning, and spend the day with us. Chris and Jennifer will be expecting their Uncle Johnny to be here, neither Roy nor I will take no for an answer. Besides, Christmas is for family, right?”
Johnny nodded silently, his eyes relaying the appreciation he felt. When he finally found his voice, three words were all that was needed. “I’ll be here!”
Roy and Joanne watched as Johnny drove away, both overwhelmed with gratitude for their friend’s devotion. “Thanks, Joanne. I’m glad you convinced him. You were right when you told him that Christmas is for family, and since he is a part of this one, he belongs here with us.
Roy held his wife close as they walked back towards the house together. Both were acutely aware that two sets of eyes were watching them from the window. With a soft smile, Roy stopped at the porch. Pulling Joanne gently into his arms, he kissed her warmly. “Merry Christmas, honey, and welcome home.”
Special thanks, as always, goes to Kenda for the beta read. I really appreciate all the wonderful ideas and suggestions! Thanks, also, to Audrey for all her encouragement, and Janet for giving my story a home. Merry Christmas everyone!
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