The Circle is Unbroken (by The All Bad Hats)

Summary:  Emotions run rampant after a case went bad.
Category:  Numb3rs
Genre:  Crime
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  10,718


 

Alan Eppes greeted his guests one by one as they entered his back yard. He was having his traditional start-of-summer barbecue, and had invited every friend and family member he could think to invite. Charlie was busy in the house plating fresh fruits and salads, while Don’s crew of David, Megan, and Colby had volunteered to grill.

Alan started in surprise as one guest came to shake his hand.

“Amanda!” Alan exclaimed, giving the tall, striking woman before him a brief hug.

“I haven’t seen you since…” Alan paused. The last time he had seen her was four months before, at the funeral of her husband, Randy. His voice died in his throat, but he quickly recovered, smiling while he continued to talk.

“What have you been up to lately, and how is that young daughter of yours?” Alan asked.

“Well,” Amanda replied, peering out of the corner of her eye to keep track of the 10-year old she had placed at a nearby table – and who was now slowly sliding under it, trying to make a clean getaway – “Shelby doesn’t always stay where she is told to, but overall, she is a really good girl,” Amanda said in a raised voice. Her daughter stopped sliding, and then looked over at her mom with a sour look on her face. Amanda smiled, letting Shelby know she wasn’t fooled by her attempt to avoid doing as she was told.

“Shelby,” Amanda told her daughter directly, “why don’t you see if they need any help in the house.”

Shelby frowned, threw her long black hair over her left shoulder, and then she stormed through the back door, rudely brushing by Alan.

“My, my,” commented Alan, “She appears to be a bit, uh, temperamental.”

“It isn’t easy for her, you know, not having a dad and all. Since his death, I find it hard to be harsh with the discipline when I feel like I need to cherish every second I have with her.”

Alan’s expression became wistful, as he confirmed that he had the same problem being harsh when he dealt with his two sons.

“Since Margaret’s death, Don has become more, uh, temperamental, too. He’s never dealt with his mother’s death – that is, the emotional affect that it had on him. He would rather shut down or argue, blocking out anyone and anything that might lead him to face the complete loss he had to have felt when she passed away.”

“Well, Shelby is the same way. She refuses to talk about her dad – or anything else, for that matter. We went to several therapy sessions immediately after his death, but the counselor said that Shelby would talk when she was ready, so I might as well save my money and try again later. Now, it’s been four months and she hasn’t said a single word.”

Just then, Charlie came out the back door, grumbling under his breath as he carried two trays full of fruit and placed them on a picnic table set up near the koi pond. As he started to enter the back door, Alan grabbed him by the arm and pulled him toward him and Amanda.

“What’s wrong, Charlie?” inquired Alan, noticing the slumped shoulders of his youngest son.

“Don, Don, Don, of course,” Charlie stated, emphasizing the word “Don” with a wave of his right hand each time he said it.

Alan looked at his son with a questioning look, waiting for him to continue.

Charlie brushed a lock of hair from his face, as he explained to his father-“He came in, threw down his coat, took off his shoes, and lay down on the couch. And all I did was ask him if he wanted a beer.” Exasperation climbed down Charlie’s face and settled there. “And all he did was yell at me to leave him the quote HELL ALONE unquote.”

Alan saw that Charlie was more than a little hurt by his brother’s strong dismissal. He knew he would have to talk to Don later – much later, from the way Charlie described his mood. But for now, he wanted to make Charlie feel better.

“Charlie,” Alan put his arm around his son’s shoulder, “according to David, Don has been up for almost three days. He thinks Don has insomnia over the last case they had – something David said he did not care to think about or discuss, either. So, considering his lack of sleep – and lack of willingness to confide in his family- telling you to leave him alone was probably the closest he is going to get to confessing to anyone that he is having problems. And you’re the only one he would feel even a little bit comfortable with confessing that to.”

Charlie thought about what Alan had said. His dad’s words made him feel better as he thought that maybe he was right – that it was Don’s way of telling him he needed alone time and only Charlie would understand. At least, it felt better to believe his dad, though an aura of doubt followed him back into the house.

Alan leaned against the wall of the house, looking at Amanda with his own exasperation on his face.

“My wife was much better at handling the boys,” Alan apologized to Amanda.

“You did real well,” Amanda assured Alan, “but I have to admit, Margaret had a way about her.” She reflected for a moment, then continued to reminisce. “I know she was only six, maybe seven years older than me, but she was more like a mother to me than a friend. My parents died when I was really young, so when Shelby came along, I wasn’t sure what to do. But Margaret knew; she taught me all the basics – diaper changing, potty training, teething…”

Amanda stopped, looked down at the ground, sorrow filling her voice as she began to remember what an emptiness had been left in her life when Margaret Eppes had died.

“Margaret taught me much more than that, though; she taught me to hug my daughter every day, to spend time with her, to tell her stories about myself growing up, so she’d have many memories of me. And she taught Randy, too. I remember telling Margaret that Randy was having a hard time talking to Shelby – my daughter had to have been about five. When Randy would come home from work, he’d ask her what she did in school, she’d say ‘had fun’, and that was the extent of their conversation. I felt their relationship was stagnant.”

Amanda closed her eyes as she began forming a mental image of her little daughter and her husband.

“After I talked to Margaret, she just walked right up to Randy, took him by the hand into Shelby’s bedroom, sat him on her bed and had Shelby sit in front of him. Then she put a hairbrush in Randy’s hand. At first, it seemed an odd thing to do, but after Randy spent a couple nights brushing Shelby’s hair, I looked in on them and was surprised – and ecstatic- to see them talking the entire time that Randy pulled that brush through her hair. It was like each stroke was tightening a newfound bond between them.”

Amanda opened her eyes and looked into Alan’s.

“That was the ignition point for Randy and Shelby’s relationship; after talking to her every night, he felt like he knew her better, so he was more confident in doing things with her, because he understood what she liked. And Margaret was always there, unobtrusively showing Randy different ways to keep the ties of his relationship with Shelby firmly knotted.”

Tears now began to moisten Amanda’s eyes, as they also moistened Alan’s.

Amanda’s voice began to crack slightly, “She even taught him the only lullaby he ever learned – “Bye-o-Bye-o-Baby”. He had asked Margaret which lullaby was her favorite, and after she told him, she was pleased when he insisted that he wanted to learn it. Randy was so proud when he finally memorized all the words, he insisted on singing it to Shelby every night. It got so she wouldn’t go to sleep without him singing that song…” Amanda hesitated, taking a couple quick breaths, “Since Randy’s death, I have found her still awake in bed after midnight, like she’s waiting for him.”

With that statement, tears began to fill the small laugh lines around Alan’s eyes.

“That’s the lullaby Margaret always sang to Donnie,” Alan explained, wiping the tears from his eyes with the back of a handkerchief. “I haven’t heard it since he was, oh, nine or ten. Charlie was always able to just slump down and sleep; Don needed his mother’s singing to go to sleep until a time way past when most children do.”

Amanda nodded in understanding.

“Margaret was so wonderful,” Amanda told Alan, wiping tears of her own from her cheeks with a Kleenex from her purse. “I have often questioned ‘Why?’ Of all the people on earth, why her?”

Alan knew exactly what Amanda meant: his loving, kind, gentle wife who had always given every last bit of herself – unhesitatingly – to everybody else.

“You know what I thought the whole time she was ill?” Alan confessed to Amanda. He had never told anyone this before. “I kept thinking about that old hymn, ‘Will the Circle be Unbroken?’ Everyone says if you do something good for someone else, it will come full circle back to you. As Margaret lay dying and I saw all the pain she was going through, I kept wondering why her circle was broken – why her good deeds of comfort and love did not come back and grace her.”

Amanda looked at Alan, empathy gracing her eyes. “When my husband died, my thoughts were pretty much the same as yours.”

For the next two hours, Alan and Amanda talked quietly near the koi pond, as small lines of comfort twined between them.

*****

Shelby wandered through the large house, sidestepping the man with the long, curly black hair as he appeared to be busy working in the kitchen. She did not want to help – she wanted to be by her self and avoid the crowd of people outside. Since her Daddy had died, she didn’t want to talk to anyone else. They all told her they understood, but she knew they didn’t.

They didn’t know her Daddy like she did.

They didn’t talk to him while watching TV every night.

They didn’t go to church with him on Sunday.

They didn’t race him to the mailbox.

They didn’t laugh at his jokes, even the corny ones.

They didn’t sit next to him at the ballpark, eating hot dogs and singing the team’s song.

They didn’t get pushed on the swings on Saturday – every Saturday- even if it rained, and Mom would get so mad.

They didn’t get to hear him singing.

Or get to feel the comfort and love from the touch of him brushing their hair.

Shelby unconsciously ran her fingers through her hair, as if to recreate that touch.

And they didn’t know how it felt to have him next to them, how safe it felt just knowing he was there.

Shelby didn’t want to hear what they had to say – nor did she want them to hear what she was thinking. Because what she was thinking was that they should be gone, that they should have gone away – not her Daddy, not her Daddy.

As she passed through the kitchen, Shelby began looking around the house. She noted a large dining room table with only one chair. She rightly guessed that the others were being used outside at the barbecue. She grabbed the remaining chair and placed it in front of a shelf along the wall. As carefully as she could, Shelby stood on the chair, and balancing on her tip-toes, she began going through the items on the shelf.

Looking on the first shelf, Shelby found a small silver bell, but it made no noise as she shook it; the silver jingle inside appeared to have been torn out. She wondered who would do that to such a pretty bell – and what had caused him to do it. A small box, two statues, a whistle hidden behind a picture of a man – the child paused in her search as she looked at the man. He was smiling, wearing a baseball cap and swinging a bat. He had dark hair like her Daddy’s, and she felt a pain in her stomach as she remembered the times she and Daddy went to the batting cages – she watched and cheered while he swung the bat; he missed more balls than hit them, but they giggled and laughed and pretended he was in the big league.

Eyes still on the picture, Shelby reached onto the top shelf and felt something bristle against her fingers. She trailed her fingers along it, until she felt a handle. Grasping it, she jumped down from the chair and looked at her treasure. It was a large hairbrush, the bristles gleaming white with a solid silver handle and backing. She blew on it, dispersing shivers of dust on the floor. Shelby heard voices coming from the kitchen, so she slipped behind a wall in the living room, watching as a man grabbed the chair she had been standing on, then took it with him through the kitchen door.

As she started to leave the living room, Shelby heard a sigh behind her. Turning around, she saw the man from the picture lying on the couch, his head on a small throw pillow and with eyes tightly shut. It was clear, however, that he was neither asleep nor aware of her presence. Shelby stood still for a moment, looked at the hairbrush in her hand, turned to make sure no one else was around, and then she started to approach the man.

*****

Don was prone on his family’s couch, lying on his back, his muscles aching from being in the same position for over an hour. His head was firmly planted on a small throw pillow, a permanent depression in its center, the result of his lack of movement. He had not been able to sleep, his jeans and black t-shirt clinging to him from both long hours of wear and dried perspiration – sweat from an overactive heating element at work, he told himself, not from stress, like David told him. The cold clamminess he felt – well, he just didn’t know why he felt that, as the day outside was warm and sunny. It seemed like he hadn’t been able to get warm for days, like the chill was another piece of clothing he put on daily, like his jacket or pants. Only, he hadn’t been able to shed the chill like he did his other clothes every night, stuck with the unwanted apparel, like a second skin. Don shuddered slightly from thinking about the cold, then he tried to clear his mind so he could get some much-needed sleep.

As Don lay wondering about his current situation, he suddenly felt the throw pillow yanked out from under his head, the top half of his body immediately reacting to the sudden movement by springing into a sitting position as he whirled his face around to see who or what had caused the pillow to fly out from under him. To his amazement, he was looking directly into the eyes of a young girl with long black hair and a solid frown gorged into her face. Don’s immediate reaction to yell at the girl was stifled when he saw what she held in her hand: his mother’s old hairbrush.

Don glanced at the girl, then the brush, back and forth – his eyes marking laps in the air between the two. Finally, he realized that the girl probably wanted to brush his hair, and had removed the pillow in order to place herself into a position in which she could easily reach the top of his head. What is it with girls and hair-brushing, Don questioned himself. It seemed that girls lived to brush their hair – or anyone else’s, if they got the chance. First, they brushed their baby dolls’ heads, then Barbie. Then how many hours did they play with their own hair as teenagers and adults? Don figured it must be a gene inherently found only in females, because no guy he ever knew had ever cared to fool with their own – or anyone else’s hair- to the extent a female did.

Watching as the girl climbed onto the couch behind his back, Don quietly but firmly told the girl “Okay, but no more than a few minutes. I’m tired.” Once the girl appeared to be settled in her seat, he lay back down on his right side, his back to the rear of the couch, and with his head in her lap. He tucked the throw pillow under his left arm as he gathered his hands under his chin, bending his knees slightly so that he was somewhat in a fetal position, tensing slowly as he waited for the girl to begin the first stroke.

Shelby was furious. She had approached the man because he reminded her of her daddy. She had wanted him to brush her hair, knowing he wasn’t her daddy, but hoping that she could pretend like her daddy was there again, if even for a few moments.

She hadn’t wanted to talk to the man, because she knew that if she talked to him and he talked to her, it would be harder to pretend she was with her daddy. So, she just pulled the pillow from under his head, knowing he would get up. Then, she sat on the couch and was just about to offer him the hairbrush when he laid his head on her lap, indicating he wanted her to brush his hair.

Now, here she was stuck with this big, heavy head on her lap, and the man was obviously waiting for her to brush his hair. She didn’t want to talk to him, so she couldn’t tell him to move. She thought about shoving him, but he was too large for her to move, and, besides, he didn’t look like he was in a good mood; she wasn’t sure how he’d react to being pushed, as he didn’t look too happy when she’d grabbed the pillow.

Looking down at the left side of the man’s face, she noticed him scrunch his face up, waiting for her to begin. She remembered she always did that, because the first time the brush touched her face it sent chills down her back, leaving a tingling sensation hovering over her scalp. Giving in to her situation, she took the brush and lightly pressed it to the side of his hair, pulling back halfway before lifting the bristles from his head. As his face relaxed a little, Shelby became angry that she had made him feel good. She purposely took the brush and pressed it so that it lay halfway on the man’s face and his hair, then gave the brush a short, sharp tug that she was pleased to notice left a slight red mark on the upper part of his cheek.

The man winced. He scrunched his face up again, not trusting the next stroke to be any better.

Shelby smiled. It was his fault anyway. He should have been brushing her hair, not the other way around. But what Shelby really meant was that her daddy should have been brushing her hair. Without knowing it, Shelby decided to take out the frustrations of the past four months on the stranger whose head lay in her lap. Grabbing the hairbrush with both hands, she began to brush his hair in long, hard strokes, leaning on the brush so that half her weight was pressing hard bristles against his scalp. Shelby continued even as she noticed the edges of his hairline beginning to flush red, all her anger at the world vibrating in every stroke of the brush.

Don had scrunched in his face when the girl had started to brush his hair. As he felt her first half-hearted attempt, he had relaxed, assuming she was already disinterested in her task and would try a couple more strokes before giving up.

He was definitely wrong, he thought, as the next stroke caused a burning sensation on his face that made the chills down his back sing a solemn song. He involuntarily winced, then gritted his teeth as he felt the girl ready to brush again.

Who taught this kid to brush hair? Don groaned, as he tried to harden his nerves against the pressure the girl was scratching into his scalp.

I hope for the sake of her other victims that this isn’t a nightly routine for her, Don thought, again wincing in pain.

Who could possibly put up with this every night, he wondered…then, as a tingling sensation enveloped his head, he remembered someone who could- and did.

*****

Margaret Eppes sat on the edge of her bed, her husband, Alan, already asleep behind her, the sound of his breathing breaking through as a rhythmic snoring that tended to soothe Margaret’s nerves rather than irritate them. One small lamp dispelled a wedge of darkness around her face and the upper part of her body. She held a large, silver brush in her right hand with which she was gently brushing the right side of her head, all the while humming a quiet lull-a-bye under her breath as she counted each stroke in her head- “forty-eight, forty-nine, fifty.” She switched the brush to her left hand as she continued to hum, starting a fresh count, the sleeve of her long white nightgown gliding on the air as she moved her arm up and down from the elbow.

From around the corner of her door, she heard the sound of small footsteps coming down the hall. She continued to brush her hair as her expected visitor arrived. One tiny four-year-old Donald Eppes peered around the frame of her bedroom door, a pair of moist eyes staring in at her. Her son held a small bear in his left hand, while his right thumb rested firmly in his mouth.

Margaret was aware that her son had been having nightmares, and his visits were becoming a nightly occurrence. Alan had placed the child back in his bed the first night, assuring his son that there were no bogeymen that his father and mother could not battle and win. Donny had stayed in his bed long enough to hear his father’s snoring; he had then snuck down the hall to the comfort and love of his mother’s arms, believing she would not have the heart to turn him away. And she didn’t.

As her husband had discussed with pride that his “tough love” had worked with his young son, and that he had not returned to their bedroom, Margaret felt guilty in hiding the fact that Donny had been coming to their room for over a week since that first night. She knew she’d have to do something to help Donny feel safe enough to sleep in his own room, but she could not think what she could do. In the meantime, she nightly accepted him into her arms as they quietly cuddled next to her sleeping husband. And every morning, before Alan woke up, she carried her son to his bedroom and stayed with him while she watched the sun rise through his window, the warmth of sunbeams and his mother’s love kissing his cheeks.

Tonight, Donny came to her room earlier than usual, probably because his father had fallen soundly asleep the moment he had crawled under the covers of their bed, the result of an engineer job that had exhausted him that day. Thus, Margaret was still in the process of her other nightly routine-brushing her hair- when Donny came crying to her bedside.

Margaret placed her hairbrush on the nightstand next to the bed, opening her arms to invite in her frightened son, relishing the warmth of his body against hers as she knew all too well that he would not allows be so open with his expression of need for her. She cradled the boy in her lap, rocking him gently, both for comfort and to prevent the movement from disturbing her husband’s sleep. She laid her chin upon Donny’s head, moving it back and forth in a gentle massage, all the while rubbing his arms as a chill seemed to have settled upon his small form.

Donny looked up at his mother’s face, the tears freely flowing down his cheeks as his eyes searched desperately for more reassurance. Margaret smiled down at Donny. She scooted further into the bed, her back to her husband’s, lying down on her right side as she positioned her son next to her in the bed. She pulled the covers up to her son’s chin as he lay on his left side, his bear lost under the heavy blankets, his face inches from hers. Margaret kissed her son on his forehead, and then blessed his eyes and cheeks with several more. Donny responded with one solid kiss to his mother’s lips, as he stopped crying and gave his mother a sugar-cane smile. Not for the last time, Margaret thought ‘You, Donald Eppes, are irresistible when you smile.’

Margaret folded her arm across her son and fell asleep.

A hard scratch on the side of Margaret’s face woke her up several hours later. She was still tucked in between her son and husband, the covers of the bed bundled up around her waist. She opened her eyes as she felt another scratch on her face, and looked into the beaming face of her young son, who was wielding her hairbrush. Donny swung the brush in Margaret’s direction, attempting to brush her hair, but landing a blow to the side of her neck instead. Margaret grabbed the brush from Donny’s hand, the features of her face molded into disapproval as she began to admonish him for causing her pain.

But as she looked into the confused eyes of her son, Margaret could not bring herself to chide him. Instead, she placed the brush into his right hand, her own left hand covering his small fingers. She guided his hand to the side of her head, slowly raising the brush and his hand to her hair- up and down, twice, as Donny leaned forward to reach. She then let his hand drop and whispered, “Gently, Donny, gently”.

Excited by the trust his mother had gifted upon him, Donny sat up in the bed and eagerly leaned over his mother. Margaret, being loving but wise, cupped her left hand around the side of her face, shielding her cheek along the hairline. When Donny tried anew to brush her hair, he again missed, but the hairbrush deflected off the back of her hand and caused his mother no pain.

Young Donny Eppes spent nearly twenty minutes trying to brush his mother’s hair, gleefully thinking he was doing a superior job, when the brush became too entangled in Margaret’s hair for the child to pull it out. Margaret lay her son back down in the bed as she unwrapped the brush from her hair. She thanked her son for such a wonderful job, showing her appreciation with kisses and a quiet lull-a-bye.

As Donny closed his eyes, plugged in his thumb, and began to fall asleep, Margaret wondered if her son and she had just formed a nightly ritual that could be transferred to his own room and bed; a ritual whose magic would be strong enough to keep Donny’s nightmares at bay. As silly as it seemed, Margaret decided to have faith that a hairbrush and a lull-a-bye would be enough to keep her son warm when the chills of nightmares threatened to claim him as their own. She looked down at the face of her son, pulled him to her breast, and softly began to sing.

*****

Shelby’s arms were beginning to get tired, but she continued to expel her grief into the head that steadfastly lay in her lap. As the aches of her muscles demanded she ease the intensity of her strokes, she began to think it was actually surprising that the man had not only kept his position for her to continue her punishing blows, but had neither cried out in pain nor had he asked her to slow down or stop completely. Instead, he lay still, as if he deserved her lashes for some past crime he had committed, one of which she was not aware.

Shelby stopped at last.

The man opened his eyes and raised his head to look up at her, tears licking the corners of his eyes. Somehow, Shelby was certain the tears were not from physical pain, as the child recognized that the sorrow painting his brown eyes was a reflection of the grief she had seen in her own every time she had looked in a mirror over the past four months.

She wasn’t sure how to respond, so she pressed the brush down again, the bristles barely touching his hair as she tried to dissolve the small stain of guilt that was beginning to taint her stomach.

The man laid his head back down, his eyes shutting tightly as he anticipated rough strokes that never came.

*****

Don looked up at the little girl when she stopped brushing his hair. When he peered into her eyes, he felt as if he was standing on a precipice of grief, looking down into a sharp crevice filled with blackness and chills. Since his mother’s death, whenever Don thought about his mom, he felt as if he was standing on the edge of a similar cliff, afraid to climb down, afraid of what waited for him there.

When the little girl gently pressed the hairbrush to his head, Don placed his head in her lap again and closed his eyes, allowing himself to peek over his own personal cliff, as he remembered the last time he had ever brushed his mother’s hair.

*****

Margaret Eppes entered the bedroom of her youngest son, Charlie, tucking him into bed and kissing him goodnight. She was not surprised when he fell fast asleep, whispered mathematical equations punctuating the sound of his breathing within a few minutes of him entering his bed.

Margaret sighed. With a genius for mathematical thought, on a daily basis Charlie needed her more than her eldest son, who had continued to need her at night. She walked down the hall to her bedroom, grabbing a worn silver hairbrush from her nightstand. As quietly as she could, she slipped into the bedroom of her eleven-year old eldest son, closing the door behind her and locking it.

She then came up behind Donny and smiled.

He was looking in a small mirror set on top of his dresser. She saw him make different faces, pushing his hair around at different angles, trying to look more mature than the baby fat on his face allowed him to look. Margaret made a small coughing sound, and Donny jumped around to face his mother, a sheepish look crossing his face, immediately replaced by a scowl which was becoming too familiar.

Donny puffed up his chest, ready to defend his privacy, when he noticed the brush in his mother’s hand. He looked over at the clock set next to his bed and realized it was time to go to sleep. Again, a sheepish look overcame his features as Donny walked over to his bed and sat on its edge. Margaret sat on the floor before her son, sitting with her legs crossed over one another, her sons’ legs firmly cradling the sides of her arms, as he began to brush the right side of her hair, counting out loud, “one, two, three…”

It amazed Margaret that her nightly routine with Donny had continued for so long. She had expected him to have outgrown it a long time before, but when Charlie was born and so much attention began to be given to him… To compensate for what he perceived was the loss of his mother’s attention during the day, Margaret believed Donny had stubbornly refused to give up their nightly routine, a ritual that allowed him to have his mother to himself, like he once did when he was younger and no Charlie had been part of their lives.

Like a secret club, Margaret and Donny had continued the ritual, one that neither Charlie nor Alan was aware was being practiced. When Donny had turned nine, he had started insisting that Margaret lock the door, afraid his dad or younger brother would walk in on them and consider him a “sissy”. After all, he had argued, only girls play with hairbrushes. When Margaret had suggested it might be time for him to forego the brush, he had surprised her by collapsing into a bundle onto his bedroom floor, crying and complaining that she didn’t love him anymore, only Charlie- she’d do anything for his younger brother, not one thing for him. She had fallen to the floor beside Donny, and sealed her eldest within a passionate embrace, running her fingers through his hair and whispering sweetness into his ears. Then, she had locked the door to his room and sat in front of his bed, as Donny sniffled tears into his nose and began to brush her hair. After he had brushed her hair fifty times on each side, Donny began to pull the brush down over the top of Margaret’s head. As she felt the bristles walking a path through the middle of her hair, Margaret had sung Donny her favorite lull-a-bye.

Now, Donny was eleven and would be entering the sixth grade the next day, the thought of a girl probably the reason for his self-appraisal. Margaret realized her son was growing up- and away from her. She cherished the feel of the brush on her scalp, and the warmth of her sons’ legs pressed firmly against her arms. She felt his breath beat little indentations of heat into her hair, as she began to sing to him.

Neither mother nor son knew it would be the last time that Donny Eppes would take a brush to Margaret’s hair.

*****

Shelby sat still. She couldn’t move her arms any more; they hurt from her series of afternoon emotional expressions. Her legs were stiff from sitting in the same position for almost two hours. The little girl didn’t know what to do. She wanted to go find her mother, but every time she thought the man had fallen asleep and she tried to leave, he opened his eyes and looked at her. For some reason, she felt she couldn’t leave him. He had looked at her like a lost puppy dog, and, well, who could resist that.

Sighing loudly- that didn’t seem to disturb him, she thought, slightly perturbed- she looked around the room. Maybe I should just get up and leave, she thought, he’s a grown man, not one of my baby dolls. Finally resolved to leave, Shelby tried to maneuver herself from under his head, but she was stopped short by the feeling of warm air rubbing the back of her neck. She turned her head as far as she could, attempting to see if anyone was standing behind her. Silly, she thought, as she realized the couch was flush with the wall behind her, and the window above it was closed. She gazed out the window for a moment. The sun still hovered above the clouds in the sky, so Shelby was surprised when she turned to inspect the living room and saw several large shadows flit across the floor and walls, darkening the room.

Shelby tensed while warm air nuzzled her neck and hair. The shadows swirled about, the shapes inundating the room like the torn essence of loved ones long gone. Shelby felt a familiar sensation when a shadow embraced her shoulder.

“Daddy?”

*****

Don did not sleep. He closed his eyes and rested, but sleep failed to come to him. So, his body took advantage of his lack of exertion and rested.

He knew it was crazy to be lying with his head in the lap of a little girl he did not know. He knew she must be from his Dad’s party, and he began to wonder why no one had come looking for her yet. He also wondered what they would think when they found them there, and she told them they had been like that for over two hours, not saying a single word to each other. But his body protested whenever he thought about moving, so he just lay there, looking at the girl whenever she moved; each time, he thought she was getting up, but she seemed to change her mind and resettle into her seat. So, each time, he resettled into her lap.

Finally, the girl moved like she really wanted to leave. She was trying to maneuver herself from under his head, so Don was mustering the energy to lift it up when she suddenly sat still, surprising the agent once again. The movement of her body had felt like she was twisting around. Don wondered if someone was looking in on them, but then he felt foolish. Who would be looking in on them? The more he thought about it, though, the more he realized that he did feel like he was being watched. He opened his eyes and observed that the room was darker than it should have been for a sunny afternoon. Maybe the clouds are covering the sun, he thought, but then he felt the warmth of a sunbeam kissing the back of his neck – and then, as a shadow draped over the couch, he felt something else.

“Mommy?”

*****

Donald Eppes left the Los Angeles office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation promptly at five-o’clock. He knew his father was going out tonight; his mother insisted that at least once a month her husband try to find some way to relieve the stress that accompanied the awareness that she was probably going to die from cancer. Don did not like his mother to be alone. Well, Charlie would be at the house, but he would not really be there.

After being stuck in a two-hour traffic jam, Don pulled up in front of his family’s house with a thin sheen of sweat covering his body. He was frustrated as always with the realization that he had no means in which to help his family with their current situation. His mother was most likely dying, and there was nothing he could do to save her. Guns, knives, weapons of all sorts- put them anywhere near Don Eppes and he was sure to protect you from harm. But one little cancer cell – the strong FBI agent was no match for it.

Don felt a strong chill climbing up the vertebrae of his spine, its claws digging into his back. Since coming back home, whenever he thought about his mom dying, Don felt the chill of childhood nightmares engulfing him; only, this time it was worse, because the bogeyman was cancer and neither his mom nor his dad could beat him.

Don sat in his SUV for ten minutes before he found the emotional strength to leave the protection of the vehicle. He went up the front porch, opening the door and heading directly up the stairs to the bathroom set at the right side of the hallway. Entering the bathroom, he began running the water to get it hot, then crossed over to his old bedroom, grabbing some fresh underclothes, a t-shirt and jeans from the drawers of his old dresser. Since his mom had been diagnosed as potentially terminal, Don had been to the house on a daily basis. It had only been logical that he should leave fresh sets of clothes in the dresser, as he didn’t want to look disheveled and tired when taking care of his mother. He knew she worried enough about him with the career he had chosen, so he tried to look relaxed- in body language and apparel- whenever he spent time with her.

Don took his fresh clothes into the bathroom with him, closing the door behind him. He stripped his suit and underclothes off, tossing them into a laundry hamper next to the tub. He didn’t feel guilty about placing his dirty clothes inside, as he was currently the only one in the house doing laundry. He knew the clothing would still be there- along with the rest of his family’s clothes- when he came back during the weekend. He set the tub’s faucet to the temperature he liked, pulling the knob that allowed the water to rush from the showerhead. Don climbed under the stream of hot water as he grabbed the shower curtain from behind him, yanking it across the side of the tub.

Don climbed into fresh clothing after his shower, giving himself a quick but effective shave before running his fingers through his wet hair. He debated about applying mousse, but decided against it, enjoying the feel of his hair hanging about his face. After drying his hair with a brisk rubbing with a towel, he smoothed any loose strands with his fingers and then shut off the bathroom light, crossing over to his bedroom to begin the last step in his daily transformation.

Shutting his bedroom door behind him, Don held a small shaving mirror close in front of him. He perused his face, looking for any signs of tiredness or worry. Don then began to make faces in the mirror, trying to relax the stress lines that had magically begun appearing around his eyes and mouth, a trick that began the day he had come home to Los Angeles with the news that his mother had cancer. He tried to smile, but it came off as phony- he knew it would never fool his mom. His next attempt was thwarted when he heard the sound of someone coughing an “ahem” behind him, as he turned sheepishly around to face the only person who could sneak into his room without him hearing- his mother.

“Got a girl on your mind that you want to impress?” Margaret asked. She stood in the opening of his bedroom door, leaning the left side of her body against the frame, her hands clasped behind her.

Don grinned sheepishly and admitted, “Yeah, I got a girl on my mind”.

Margaret smiled back. “You’re not keeping more secrets from me, are you?” she asked, subtly referring to Don’s past relationships with women, some more serious than others- but all kept from his family until the last possible moment.

“No,” he replied, stepping across the room in three easy steps to his mother. Kissing her on the cheek, he stated “I’ve never kept it a secret that I love this girl.” Don enjoyed watching the light color of rose that flushed his mother’s cheek as she took in the meaning of his words; he then gave her a brief hug, which allowed him a view of the hands she held hidden behind her back.

She was gripping something in them, but he couldn’t see what it was.

“Well,” Don continued to play with his mom, pulling back from their quick embrace, “it looks like I’m not the only one who carries around secrets.” Don nodded his head towards his mother’s back, indicating that she should tell him what she was hiding there.

To his surprise, Margaret’s smiled left her face and her body tensed up. The light color on her face was washed away, leaving her a sickly pale. Within the few seconds after he had uttered his words, Don saw the sickness of cancer gather a firm grip on his mother, leaving no doubt of the severity of her illness. Margaret turned from her son and fled down the stairs, her body aching from the effort, but she was no less determined that she shield her son from the pain that the object in her hand had caused her.

Don stood in his room, shocked at the emotional turnaround that had just occurred. One second, the mood so happy and playful – the next, so… so… Don was not exactly how he would describe it. His mother’s face had been stricken with a sorrow that bellowed of pain and loss. Physically shaking, Don ground his teeth together, steeling his emotions so that he would have the strength to find his mother and broach the subject. She had been right about one thing. He had a history of keeping secrets-but so did she, and it was about time they stop playing that particular game with each other, even if they continued playing it with everyone else.

Walking down the stairs, Don started looking about for his mother. He found her in the living room, sitting on the couch, her hands cupped in front of her in her lap. Don went to the couch and, after giving it a good once-over, he began searching around the living room for the object she had hidden from him. Next, he went to the dining room, assuming that they were the only two rooms in which she would have been able to hide anything, considering both the limits of time and her physical capabilities.

Margaret watched her son. She did not want to try to talk him out of looking for her ‘secret’, as the effort of climbing so quickly down the stairs had exhausted her. She concentrated on taking in as much air as she could, her small supply of oxygen spent on her recent emotional and physical exertions. Besides, Margaret could tell by the look of concentration on her son’s face that he would have ignored her anyway. Instead, she was grateful that he was not even coming close to examining the place where she had hidden the object.

Don moved items about the living and dining rooms, frustration slowly leaking into his movements as he did not quite return every object he touched to its original place. This is ridiculous, he thought, unless it’s a bomb or some crazy thing like that, there is nothing that important she should be hiding from me. Don was on the verge of giving up, when he noticed the small stepstool in the corner of the dining room. It was in its normal place, but not quite even with the wall. With his father’s penchant- or obsession- with neatness, Don knew it must have been recently used. He looked around the dining room and his eyes fell on the shelf that was firmly affixed to the wall.

When Don approached the shelf, he glanced at his mother and realized he had hit pay dirt; she was sitting stiffer on the couch and her eyes were glued to him as he began looking over each shelf. Nothing, he thought, as every item was exactly as it always had been. He was about to walk away, when instinct made him run his hand over the top shelf. Don could not see what might be up there, as it was above his head, but he started at one end and moved his hand – aha, there it is, he thought, and pulled down his treasure.

Don stared in curiosity at the silver brush he held in his hand. He tried to remember the last time he had used it on his mother’s hair. It didn’t make sense, he thought, and then he looked over at his mother. He knew she had continued to brush her hair every night, even after their own little routine had stopped. Why would she think she needed to hide this from him now? Don rubbed the bristles of the brush against his hand, noting the hair that was caught in it was the color he had always remembered, but now tinged with spots of gray. Curiously, there was lots of hair caught in the brush, more than he ever remembered, as his mother was careful to keep it clean. Realization slowly but effectively pierced Don’s thoughts, a sickening feeling coating the inside of his stomach, drawing his body into a tightly wound knot that tensed to break.

Don turned to look at his mother. She looked so frail, the smallness of her body emphasized by the vast ocean of brown that surrounded her as she sat on the couch. Swallowing several times to keep the acid in his stomach reposing where it ought to be, Don walked over to where his mother sat and dropped the hairbrush beside her on the couch. He then cupped her chin in his hand and carefully turned her head to keenly peruse her hair. To his dismay, several small bald spots were unsuccessfully hidden by strands of thinning hair. He turned his mother’s head to the other side, and sadly noted its condition was no better. Don let go of his mother’s chin, his body sagging; he felt the tendrils of a chill wrap around him. He stepped back from the couch and tried to read the thoughts that lay behind his mother’s tearful eyes.

Margaret looked away.

“It’s just vanity, Donny, nothing more,” Margaret whispered, trying to sound reassuring.

The lie behind her words struck Don hard, almost sending him reeling. He quickly recovered from the blow, his second response to her words a solid resurgence of determination. He stood straight, his entire body stiff, angry that his mother would attribute her behavior – the shame, the sorrow, the secret – to mere vanity. His actions deliberate, Don went to the door to the garage and pressed his ear against it. The sound of chalk scratching continually on a board satisfied Don that Charlie was well-occupied. Next, Don moved to the kitchen and locked the back door, moving steadily on to the entryway and locking the front one. At last, Don arrived back in the living room and shoved aside the coffee table that sat in front of the couch. With it moved out of the way, he grabbed the silver hairbrush from the place he had dropped it on the couch. Grasping the brush in his right hand, Don hesitated in his unbridled activity, standing before his mother and looking directly into her bewildered eyes. Then, in the flurry of a single movement, the FBI agent turned his back to his mother and sat on the floor before her, his legs crossed over in front of him.

Don offered the silver hairbrush to his mother.

Margaret was inert. She was shocked by the actions of her son, first moving so briskly from one room to the next, harshly shoving aside the coffee table, and then flopping down in front of her as if all his energy had been expended for an unknown cause. She was rendered immobile from her confusion.

After holding out the brush to his mother for several minutes, Don turned slightly, looking up at her. She seemed lost. The confusion that his actions had caused her was evident in her face; she did not know how to respond. So, Don responded for her. He placed the hairbrush in his mother’s right hand, her eyes following his every move. He then fully enclosed her small hand within his larger one, as he softly but firmly pressed her fragile palm and fingers around the brush.

Delicately escorting them to the right side of his head, Don guided his mother’s hand and the brush she held, his hand directing them to make sweeping strokes up and down- once, twice- the bristles grazing his hair, as Don tenderly pleaded “Gently, Mom, gently.”

Don let go of his mother’s hand, pleased that she continued to hold the brush. Actually, Margaret was clinging to it, finally aware of the intentions of her son. She brought the brush to her chest, closed her eyes to say a soft prayer of gratitude, then scooted up to the edge of the couch in anticipation, cradling her son’s strong arms between her legs, leaning slightly forward to reach.

Her son responded to her touch. He pressed his back against the couch and tilted back his head, resting it on the small roundness of his mother’s belly, his eyes closed. With his mother’s body swaddling him in pulsating warmth, Don felt the faint sensation of once again being in his mother’s womb. Margaret, too, felt as if her son had been pulled back into her womb; the heat of his body penetrated the depths of her soul, and she felt the pressure from the weight of his head compressing her midsection, the combination of the two leaving her with the sensation that they were one again- and would never be apart.

Margaret began to slowly pull the hair brush through the thick hair of her thirty-five year old son, beginning on the right side of his head. She began to count to fifty, but moved the brush slowly, caressing her son’s head with every stroke. It took her more than twenty minutes to brush both sides. As she began to draw the brush through the middle of his hair, she gathered all the breath she had remaining, from deep in her breast, to softly sing.

For the first time since coming back to Los Angeles, FBI Special Agent Don Eppes was no longer cold; in the secure circle formed round mother and son, the warmth that radiated was absolute and impregnable – and easily thwarted the chill of nightmares.

*****

Shelby and Don leaned into the twin touches of caressing warmth that flowed over their necks and shoulders, the filtered heat leaping across them and into the room, the air transformed into a solid but opaque mystical realm. The vague shadows in the room slowed their movements, the black veils of flowing blackness flitting into the corners as the room became unclear and misty. The little girl and older man watched as the faded souls of memories past emerged from within the dreamlike atmosphere of the room, unrelenting wraiths that flew towards them and swept over their reality in wave after wave of sorrow.

When the spiritually-charged room calmed, both man and child lay emotionally lacerated on the couch, their hearts and souls laid bare to each other. Shelby closed her eyes a moment, sinking deeply into the couch; when she slowly opened them again, she felt a difference in the body weighing upon her. She scrutinized the head of the man resting uneasily in her lap, hesitantly raising a hand to run her fingers through his short, coarse hair; he responded to her light touch, turning to face her on the couch, wrapping his arm around her and raising his familiar blue eyes to hers, his loving voice extending through a well-known and reassuring smile, whispering gently to her “I’m always with you, Shelby.”

“Daddy!” she cried, reaching for him again, her fingers entwining tightly in his hair as she pulled his head to her breast and embrace.

Don lay still on the lap of the unknown child, clinging to the pillow in his hand and the silence of the room. As he tried to quiet his uncertainty about what he had just experienced, he heard the body behind him taking deeper, recognizable breaths, while strong and loving arms reached for him. Shivering slightly with fear and anticipation, he carefully turned, his own breathing increasing as the hands of his mother reached into his hair, pulling his head to press him close to her breast, the sound of her heartbeat and her gentle voice breaching the gulf that death had thrust between them. “I’m always with you, Donny.”

“Mom!” Don cried, dragging an arm around her, sobbing quietly into the warmth of her body, remembering how this embrace had been stolen from him the last time he had seen her.

*****

His mother was going to die today, and there was nothing Don could do. He had gone to the garage and dragged Charlie to her bedroom, leaving his mother and her youngest son alone to say their last farewells. Charlie had bolted from the room crying, running past Don and his father without saying a word, pulling a piece of chalk from his pocket as he headed to the sanctity of his garage. Their father had looked after him, misery frowning his face as he turned to his eldest.

“Do you want to go next, Donny?” he asked.

“No, you go first, Dad. When I’m done, you can sit with her until…” The words were choked off in his throat. Shaking his head as answer again, Don went to his room, sitting on the bed and crossing his arms as he allowed himself to cry briefly. After a few minutes, he wiped his eyes and grabbed the small shaving mirror he continued to keep on his dresser. Looking at his face, he rubbed his fingers along the bottom of his eyes, smiling several times until he was satisfied with his appearance. Then he opened his top dresser drawer and grabbed the silver brush he kept in the corner.

Since the first time that Don had allowed his mother to brush his hair, they had secretly met in his room every night. Margaret enthusiastically and reverently brushed her eldest son’s hair, both mother and son enjoying the feeling of solitude and closeness that the act had rekindled between them. They had talked for almost an hour each night, Margaret taking an especially long time to pull the brush through her son’s hair, always ending their meeting with her favorite lullaby. After the first few nights, her husband had ceased to ask them what they were doing; he just assumed they were talking and had been glad they were able to spend the time together.

Now, Don was determined to perform the routine with his mom one last time – a ritual that had bonded them together for years when he was younger, and for what seemed like eternity in the last few months when he was an adult. It was the reason he told his father to visit with his wife- Don had wanted the time to grab the hairbrush before seeing his mother. With the silver juggernaut firmly ensconced in his hand, he walked downstairs to the bedroom that had been his mother’s own since she had been completely overcome with the cancer. Peeking around the door, he looked for his father. The elder man was restlessly asleep on the recliner that had been placed next to his wife’s bed, his left hand wrapped around her upper arm as hers was weakly stroking his hair with the tips of her fingers, trying to cure him of his emotional exhaustion, but she no longer had the strength to do so.

Don stepped into the room, careful not to disturb his father. Walking to his mother’s side, their eyes met. He noted that she was barely breathing and her eyes were half-opened, her limp body scarcely perceived beneath the blankets that entombed her, her hand now lying still on his father’s head. Don held the silver brush up in front of him, a small smile on his lips. His mother returned the smile the best she could, a tiny upturning of the corners of her lips the only response she was capable of giving. Don pulled the sidebar down on the hospital bed in which his mother lay, pushing his shoes off his feet. Climbing slowly and gently into the bed next to his mother, he settled down next to her on his side, their faces inches from each other. Tears formed in Margaret’s eyes as she knew what her son wanted – one last request from her. Don took his mother’s right hand in his own, and then he softly raised it to his lips, giving it a light kiss, staring at the fingers that had showed him so much love over so many years. Margaret watched her firstborn son, seeing the small child she once cradled in her arms; desiring with everything she had left in her soul for the ability to take up the silver brush and stroke his hair one last time, she cried loudly in agony deep within her heart- but only a small stream of air escaped her unmoving lips, the words “Bye-o, my baby” impregnated in the whispery breath that was her last.

Don picked up the brush, placing it in his mother’s hand, knowing she could not possibly hold or move it on her own. As he raised the brush and their hands to his head, he stared into her open eyes- and knew she was gone, but was unable to accept it. Don gave his mother a single kiss on the lips, then lay his head on her silent breast, putting the brush to his head; as he moved her hand up and down, Don repeatedly begged “Gently, Mom, gently.”

“Please…”

But though no one could ever deny that the will of Margaret Eppes had ever been weak, it was not strong enough to overcome the will of death…or so it seemed.

*****

Amanda and Alan were walking away from the koi pond, still talking but now making plans to meet the following weekend for a short trip to one of his favorite spots in wine country. His eyes sparkled as he continued to talk to the younger woman, the crinkled lines encircling them reminiscent of his eldest son and his smiling face. As they entered the house, they greeted Charlie, Amanda enquiring as to the whereabouts of her daughter.

“Shelby?” Charlie asked, shaking his head. “She ran past me a couple hours ago. I haven’t seen her since.”

“Oh.” Amanda looked at Alan, suddenly worried about her daughter.

“She’s here somewhere,” he said reassuringly, bravely taking her hand in his. Relaxing, she allowed him to keep it there, returning the gesture with a firm squeeze of her own. Charlie raised his eyebrows at the pair, smiled and discreetly left the kitchen, humming satisfactorily to himself as the door swung shut behind him.

Amanda and Alan walked together through the dining room, their eyes darting about the room- but no Shelby. Leaning slightly into each other, Amanda slid her hand from Alan’s, moving it to his upper arm, spontaneously laying her head against his shoulder. They were looking at each other, he down to her silky face and she up to his tough but gentle features…when they heard the sobbing.

Both stopped in the entrance to the living room, their eyes suddenly discerning Shelby and Don on the couch opposite them, the sunbeams streaming in from behind them dancing across their entwined bodies and laying kisses of heavenly love over their emotionally electrified solace of unrepentant crying and moans of sorrow. Alan and Amanda moved as one to their children, squeezing on opposite sides next to them on the couch, trying to offer arms of comfort, but neither child acknowledged their presence.

Don was lying on his side with his back to them, his head firmly planted on Shelby’s breast while his arms were wrapped around her body. He was staring at her face as if she were his last hope on earth, tears streaming down his face as he cried softly, “Mom, mom.” Shelby was laying into Don in a slow, soft rocking motion as she cradled his body against her own, her left hand rubbing his arm back and forth in a gentle caress, her right hand holding a silver brush that she lovingly stroked through his hair – all the while singing the only lullaby her father had ever sung to her.

Alan and Amanda looked tearfully at each other; she sat beside Shelby and he next to Don, their hands and arms reaching to each other and around their entangled children, meeting in an unbreakable circle of love and completion.

***End***

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