Grow Where You're Planted | Verso.ink

Grow Where You're Planted

By Cassiopeia Fletcher

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Chapters One and Two
Alexandria, VA 2022

Chapter One
Life Uninterrupted


“You guys are back early,” Sophia Hunter said, looking up from cutting celery into strips as Andi and her siblings trudged in. Their father, Duke, was in the car finishing a work-call that came in on the drive home. Gabe, Andi’s six-year-old brother, rushed to tackle-hug their mother around the waist.

“Oof!” Mom said, one hand dropping atop Gabe’s red-knit cap. “Hello, baby. Did you have fun?”

Gabe nodded and muttered something unintelligible from across the room.

“I’m glad,” Mom responded before leaning down to press a kiss to his crown. “Go get changed, and you can watch a movie with Allen in the nursery."

Gabe darted from the kitchen and up the front staircase without another word.

“Did the cold do you all in?” Mom asked as she went back to cutting celery. “I told you to dress more warmly.”

“It wasn’t the cold,” Tim said, his voice still a bit raspy. “Andi—”

“Andi clotheslined Tim in the last play!” Nine-year-old Ruby bounced from foot to foot, her grin going somehow wider as she spoke. “It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen!”

“Stop that,” Andi scolded. “I could have killed him.”

Ruby didn’t look the least bit chastened. “You’d think it was hilarious too if someone did it besides you.”

“I’m sorry,” Mom said. “What? You clotheslined your brother?”

“It was an accident—”

“It was amazing!” Ruby held up a finger to represent Andi’s arm and slammed the v-ed fingers of her other hand into it in simulation. “His legs went straight up into the air! Whoom! Then Bam! He was on his back, and everyone just stared because who would have expected that, am I right?”

Michael nodded. “It was pretty amazing.”

Tim glowered. At seventeen, he was almost four years older than Michael and felt the age gap entitled him to a greater level of respect from his younger siblings.

Michael, a peacemaker at heart, raised his hands in deference. “I don’t mean it was funny or anything, just that it was unexpected.”

“You clotheslined your brother,” Mom repeated, looking both impressed and skeptical. She laid her knife aside—Thank goodness, Andi thought, remembering the time her inattentive mother had almost cut off her thumb; that was not a hospital trip anyone wanted to repeat—and looked between her four children. “Why?”

Andi sighed and rubbed her cheeks. They were still numb from the cold, but there was a faint heat beneath the wind-burned surface. “It was our turn to defend, and Dad kept yelling ‘stop him, stop him!’ I didn’t think about it; he was coming at me with the ball, and I just…reacted.”

“With a clothesline.” Mom’s lips were twitching as she spoke, her eyes flicking repeatedly to Tim, and Andi just knew she was going to laugh long and hard about this later. “Isn’t the Turkey Bowl touch only?”

“Supposedly,” Andi said, scowling. “But try telling them that.”

Andi waved a vague hand at the boys, but they both knew Andi wasn’t talking about her siblings specifically; tackle-Turkey Bowl seemed to be a guy thing in general.

“Andi scared the heck out of everybody,” Ruby added, still grinning as she pulled her knit-cap off her mass of mahogany hair. Strands of reddish-brown stuck up at odd angles from the static. She snickered. “You should have seen the missionaries. Elder Blake’s eyes about fell out of his head!”

Mom coughed a laugh into the elbow of her pulled up sweater sleeve before shooing everyone toward the stairs. “Well, since you’re back early, you might as well help me with dinner. Go get changed. And Tim? Take a shower. You have mud all down your back, and it’s in your hair.”

Tim scowled at Andi and scrubbed a hand through his dried hair. “So I’ve been told.”

“Not around the food!” Mom waved Tim away as flakes of mud fluttered around the kitchen to dust the island and floor. Hundreds of gray-brown freckles landed atop the tray of cut vegetables beside the cutting board.

Tim scratched his cheek with a wry grin. “Oops?”

“Shoo!” Mom said with a laugh, and everyone scattered.

Ruby ran up the stairs first, pounding each step hard enough to shake the old townhouse to the foundation. It used to scare Andi to death every time the house groaned or creaked or swayed, but in the four years her family had lived in it, nothing bad ever happened, and with all the renovations in progress, incidents became less and less likely every day. Tim and Michael went next as Andi held back just long enough to shoot Mom a frown.

“It really was an accident.”

Mom pursed her lips but couldn’t hide her rising smile. “So you said.”

"I feel really bad about it.”

“I have no doubt you do.”

An answering smile tugged at Andi’s lips. “It was pretty amazing though. Who’d have thought the great Air Force Academy running back would be taken out by his big sister in a single hit?”

Mom snickered. “Considering clotheslining is an illegal move in football, I think it’s safe to say he never saw it coming.”

“To be fair,” Andi said, starting up the stairs. “I didn’t know that until after I hit him.”

Mom snorted and chortled behind her as Andi took the stairs two at a time, still grinning. She did honestly feel bad about hitting Tim, but a small part of her couldn’t help but feel she had done him a favor. It wasn’t like she really hurt him. And besides, it was better to check his ego now when their mother could smooth the bumps and soothe the bruises than later at the Academy when some senior decides to flatten the uppity freshman.

Andi walked into Ruby’s room; she was staying with her because Mom had decided to paint the guest room on Tuesday; she had actually forgotten Andi was flying in for the holiday. It was probably dry by now, but with Jo’s family coming to spend the weekend in DC, it didn’t make sense for Andi to move over for the night only to come back to Ruby’s room for the next one.

Ruby snapped at Andi for invading her privacy without knocking, which she did every time Andi came in.

“Sorry,” Andi said, half-hearted at best as she peeled out of her grungy football clothes and replaced them with a pair of skinny jeans and an over-sized sweater. The jeans because they were comfortable, the sweater because living in Hawaii had agreed with her a little too well. She had gotten a bit fluffy around the middle; something her jeans did nothing to hide.

“Hey, Andi?”

“Yeah, baby?” Andi asked, sucking in her stomach so she could do up the zipper.

“Do you think Tim’s mad at me?”

Ruby’s question caught Andi off guard, and she glanced over her shoulder to see Ruby chewing on the ends of her frazzled hair. Her dark eyes were unfocused as she stared at the dyed black tie-shoes hanging from a hook on her trophy wall.

“I wasn’t trying to be mean or anything. I just thought it was funny.”

“If Tim is mad at anyone, it’s gonna be me,” Andi said, dragging a brush through her wind-matted hair with a wince. “He’ll get over it soon enough. He always does.”

Andi was used to Tim being upset with her. She loved him to death, but he certainly knew how to get under her skin sometimes. Not that she was any better with him.

“You gonna help with dinner or watch football with the boys?” Andi asked, tying her long, golden-brown hair up in a high ponytail. Ruby gifted her with a heartily incredulous eyebrow raise, and Andi slapped a palm to her forehead in exaggerated penitence. “Of course, how silly of me to think you would toil away in the hot kitchen when there are guys in spandex you can watch mud wrestle.”

“It’s not wrestling.” Ruby scowled, too young to appreciate Andi’s joke—Thank goodness. “It’s football.”

“Of course.” Andi bowed at the waist like a Regency gentleman. “My sincerest apologies.”

A stuffed bunny smacked her in the face as Andi looked up, making her stumble back in surprise as she fumbled the catch before tossing it back. Prepared, Ruby squealed and dived onto her daybed—which was doing a fabulous impression of a stuffed animal zoo—and buried herself in a mountain of plush.

“Just you wait, young padawan. Someday, when you least expect it, revenge most foul will come your way.”

Ruby peeked out between the floppy ears of an enormous rabbit and the stubby tail of a pudgy teddy bear. “I’m not afraid of you, Sith!”

“You will be,” Andi cackled as she left the room, drawing the door closed behind her. “You will be.”

Andi skipped down the stairs humming Darth Vader’s theme song as she pulled her sweater sleeves up over her elbows. It was already noon, but by tradition, her family didn’t have Thanksgiving dinner until one or two because Mom—who was a die-hard Steelers fan—liked to disrupt the Cowboys game at the worst possible moment. Dad—who bled Cowboy colors—always took it in stride, as after 24 years of marriage, they had learned to channel their inborn rivalry into something healthier than grudges (Super Bowl 30 was a dark, dark time in the Hunter household, and her parents hadn’t even met yet). Things like Dad’s unending campaign to gift his wife with the gaudiest Cowboys merchandise available at every gift-giving opportunity.

Her parents were weird.

“What do you need help with?” Andi asked, sliding into the kitchen on her socks. The wood flooring was brand new and offered an excellent sock-sliding experience.

“I’m mixing up the dressing. Can you peel some potatoes?”

“Sure.” Andi slid to the potato box and lifted the lid. “Red or brown.”

“What do you think?”

Kevin hates red potatoes.

“Red,” Andi said, taking a moment to relish her petty revenge. No one would ever know about it, and it wasn’t like Kevin would be dumb enough to show up to dinner even if he had been invited—her father was an Air Force Colonel and ranked Expert in every standard and most non-standard issue weapons—but Andi did feel better for it. Not that she could say anything to her mother. Every time she brought up Kevin or his wife, even in passing, Mom always reminded her to be gracious.

It’s not like he Dear Jane-ed me a month before I got home from my mission to marry a girl he’d only known for two weeks, or anything. What could I possibly have to be ungracious about?

Mom hummed in thought as she churned Dad’s favorite dressing in a large plastic bowl. “Bake the brown ones, then, and cube the red. We’ll do twice-baked potatoes and mash the redskins.”

“You still want them peeled?”

“No, just dice them and set them to boil. And make sure they’re big cubes!” Mom shot Andi a warning grin. “I’ve never been a huge fan of potato soup.”

Andi rolled her eyes. “That only happened once, and I was fifteen at the time.”

At least she isn’t bringing up—

“Isn’t that the same year you caught water on fire?”

And there it is.

Grumbling, Andi counted out potatoes, dropping them onto her lap. “You people will never let me live that down, will you? Even Gabe remembers that, and he wasn’t even born yet!”

“It was pretty spectacular.”

They worked together seamlessly as Mom finished the dressing and slid it into the top oven while Andi settled washed and poked russet potatoes into the bottom one. Mom started on the baked turkey noodles after that while Andi cubed red potatoes before they switched once Mom had finished the broth so Andi could make the noodles the way Nana Grace, Mom’s mom, had taught her almost five years back.

“So, your dad and I are going Black Friday shopping tonight and tomorrow,” Mom said as Andi kneaded dried rosemary and thyme into the noodle dough. “You willing to watch the kids or would you rather come along?”

“There is not enough chocolate in the world to bribe me into waking up that early to battle a disgruntled housewife for a mini-crockpot in the middle of an overcrowded Wal-mart.”

Mom chuckled. “Still haven’t gotten over that?”

“Are you kidding?” Andi smacked the dough down onto the floured counter then picked it up to smack it again, again, again. “That crazy woman bit me!”

“They’re not usually that bad,” Mom said, using her knife to slide cubed potatoes off the cutting board and into a large, stainless steel saucepan. “You got the exception that year.”

“I’m pretty sure if I had a super-power it would be ‘exception to the rules.’ And not in a good way.” With the dough properly loosened, Andi started going through drawers. “Did you move the rolling pin while I was gone?”

“It’s in the drawer by the range,” Mom said over the water running as she filled the pot.

“Of course, it is! Why on earth would I never think to look there instead of with the baking utensils?”

Mom set the pot on the range, then dipped her fingers in the starchy water to flick droplets in Andi’s direction. “Smart-aleck.”

“I am what I was raised to be.”

Hands slipped around Andi’s waist and squeezed her sides, making her jump and squeal. She spun around to see her father, Duke, grinning down at her with mischief alight in his gray-blue eyes.

“Daddy!” Andi complained, backing away with her arms around her waist to protect her sides.

“Hello, darlin’,” he said, feigning innocence. “I’m here to help.”

“By tickling me?”

“Just keeping you on your toes.” Dad winked. “After all, wouldn’t want Mom to get all the credit for raising you right.”

Andi pouted at her father, shifting her expression into one of practiced perfection: lower-lip only slightly turned up with a subtle widening of her eyes as she looked up through her lashes because the almost-pain made her eyes water.

“What do you need?” Dad’s pleading was exaggerated, but his near panic was genuine as ever. “Whatever it is, you can have it. Up to half of my kingdom!”

Andi dropped her pout and quirked an eyebrow. “Only half?”

“Your mom already has the other half.”

“Ah.” Andi put a finger to her chin in thought and glanced back at her mother. “So, if I go for the whole half, does that mean Ruby’s dowry comes out of my spoils?”

“Nah, we’re doing the Polynesian option for her,” Dad said. “I need a new car.”

Mom snorted. “So, you’re betting on the younger one getting married before the older one?”

Ouch. Andi did her best to hide a wince, knowing her mom was just playing and probably didn’t realize what she’d just said. Still, the almost callous remark stung.

“Neither!” Dad swooped Andi into his arms with a surprised squeak. He nuzzled her cheek with his, making her writhe and giggle to escape because he hadn’t bothered to shave that morning. “I’ll never give up my darling girls! No man would ever be good enough!”

“Dad!” Andi laughed and leaned as far back in her father’s arms as she dared. “That hurts!”

Mom laughed at their antics but helped Andi escape and barred his way when Andi slipped around her mother’s back to use her as a shield.

“Save me, mommy!” Andi said, giving her voice a childish lilt.

“If not one, then the other!” Dad wrapped his arms around Mom’s waist and lifted her off the ground.

“Duke! Put me down!” Despite her words, Mom looped her arms around his neck and looked down at him with a grin. “I’m in the middle of cooking.”

“Andi can do it,” he said with a dismissive grin. “She’s gotten a lot better.”

“E tu, Dad?”

“Oh?” Mom asked, leaning down until they were nose-to-nose. “And just what would I do instead?”

“I’ll think of something…”

Andi turned away as they kissed, not because she found it gross the way she had as a child, but because she didn’t want to intrude on their privacy. Pulling out a clean dishtowel, she draped it over the noodle dough and tiptoed out of the kitchen whispering, “Alexa, play Truly, Madly, Deeply by Savage Garden.”

Her parents’ wedding song began to play, and Andi left them alone to dance.

Two hours later, dinner was finally ready, which meant Dad had plenty of time to catch the whole Cowboys game, as they were playing late that year, if he ate fast enough. Well, not the whole thing. Mom would undoubtedly drag him out shopping just before the final fifteen minutes.

“Should we say what we’re thankful for?” Dad asked as he took his place at the head of the table. Mom beamed at him.

“I think that’s a wonderful idea!” she said, as if that wasn’t something they did every year anyway.

Mom held out her hands to either side, taking Allen’s little hand in her right and Gabe’s in her left. Gabe then took Tim’s hand, who took Andi’s. Andi grabbed her father’s right hand while Michael reached over Caleb’s empty chair to take Dad’s left. Sitting between Michael and Allen, Ruby grumbled about having to hold hands with the baby, but she took Allen’s hand anyway before thrusting her right hand at Michael.

“I’ll go first,” Dad said. He grinned at Andi and squeezed her hand. “I’m grateful Andi was able to come home for Thanksgiving,” his grin turned teasing, “especially since she won’t be home for Christmas.”

Andi rolled her eyes. Her family had been ribbing her about not coming home for Christmas since before she arrived at the airport.

“I’m grateful that BYU-Hawaii accepted me as a student, and that my teachers were okay with me taking an extended Thanksgiving break,” Andi said, and Mom tossed her a wink.

“See? Not all of your rule exceptions are bad.”

Andi nudged Tim. “Your turn.”

“I know.” He frowned. “I’m thinking.”

Andi bit her lips, sealing them shut against the habitual ‘is that why your ears are smoking?’ that threatened to escape. Tim shot her a suspicious glare, but Andi batted her eyes at him and smiled.

“I’m thankful for starting at the Air Force academy next year,” Tim said. “And for Senator Dawes’ recommendation.”

They went around the table that way, some of the expressions of gratitude more heartfelt (Mom) than others (Ruby and Gabe), but it was fun. Things ended off a bit awkwardly when they reached Caleb’s empty chair, but he had sent an email earlier in the day. Sort of. Caleb’s definition of a weekly mission update was always sorely lacking in updates.

Dinner was amazing, but Andi made sure to hold back on seconds so there would be room for pie. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving was Pie-Day in the Hunter household, and as usual, they had outdone themselves. Most of the pies would make their way to first responders and homeless shelters, but they always made sure to keep doubles of the best flavors for themselves. Even with just the doubles, they would be eating pie for breakfast for weeks.

Dad started clean-up while the rest ate pie a la mode. He went around the table collecting dirty plates and dropped a kiss on Andi and Mom’s heads. “Thanks for dinner, ladies. It was delicious as always.”

Andi snickered at Mom, grasping the avenue for vengeance with both hands. “He can only say that because he was in Iraq for the lime-chicken incident.”

Mom rolled her eyes. “If this is for the water-on-fire comment, then fine. Truce.”

“I forgot about that!” Ruby said, her dark eyes alight with mischief. Andi groaned.

“Thanks a lot, Mom.” 

Chapter Two

A Very Black Friday


Andi woke to the sound of Allen babbling in the nursery. For a moment, she had no idea where she was or why she could hear her two-year-old brother slamming blocks together. Ruby groaned from beneath the pile of plush she had herded around herself before falling asleep the night before. Andi fumbled her glasses on just in time to see Ruby’s small hand thrusting out of her suffocating cave to slap blandly for the alarm clock on her bedside table. Andi blinked at Ruby’s groping hand, her brain trying to catch up.

No more staying up until 2am binging viral videos on YouTube.

Allen squealed, the already high-pitched noise pitching higher and even crackling a bit over the baby-monitor beside Andi’s head. The screeching made Andi jump, jolting her awake, and she rolled over to turn down the volume before Ruby woke up any further. If Allen woke Ruby up at—Andi checked her phone—6:37 on a non-school day, Andi doubted she could protect him from their sister’s wrath.

Stretching and yawning, Andi crawled out of the warm cot Dad had set up for her at the foot of Ruby’s bed and stumbled her way to the door. The old floorboards creaked as she walked, but as long as she didn’t make any loud or sudden sounds, Ruby would sleep straight through it. It helped that she had a fan in her room to drown out the subtler noises.

Grabbing her plush bathrobe on her way out, Andi eased the door closed behind her before swinging the pink fluff over her arms and belting it closed. Gabe and Allen shared the nursery down the hall in the room closest to her parents’ room, but with the late-night they’d pulled, it would take an earthquake combined with a tornado hurtling killer sharks to make them even consider the possibility of waking up. And that was assuming they were even home yet.

“Good morning, baby,” Andi whispered, glancing at Gabe’s twin-sized bed in the opposite corner from Allen’s Cars toddler bed. Still asleep. She quirked an eyebrow at Allen and crossed her arms. “I see you decided to make a mess.”

Every type of block the boys owned was strewn around the floor like a scattering of rainbow colored caltrops. Allen widened his eyes, playing up his role as ‘the baby.’ He dropped the wooden block and plastic Duplo he had been trying to fit together and raced as best he could across the block strewn floor to throw himself into Andi’s arms.

“I’m sorry, An’ni!”

“Shh!” she said, pressing a finger to his lips. “You’ll wake Gabe.”

Allen dropped his voice to an exaggerated whisper. “Sorry!”

“Oof,” Andi said as she hefted Allen onto her hip. He had gotten so big in the three months she had been at school, and that was on top of the eighteen months she had missed while on her mission in Omaha. And he would only grow bigger the longer she was away. His birthday was coming up soon, too—February 7th—and Andi stopped dead in the hallway with the nursery door halfway closed when she realized he would be turning three. How was that even possible? It seemed like only yesterday he was opening his eyes for the first time—though, admittedly, she left on her mission almost immediately after, and now he was well on his way to growing up.

“An’ni?” Allen said, taking her face in both of his hands so he could turn her toward him. His expression was earnest but serious as he said, “I’m hungry.”

“Right,” she said. “Food. We’re going.”

He chattered at Andi, his words slurring a mile a minute, and she only caught every other sentence or so. She was pretty sure he was telling her about the dream he had the night before, but whatever the case, she ‘hmmed’ and ‘awed’ and nodded every few minutes to remind him she was paying attention.

“What kind of pie do you want?” Andi asked, settling him into his booster seat at the bar.

“Pumpkin!”

“Pumpkin it is.” She served a slice of cold pie from the fridge onto a plastic Avengers plate and set the Keurig for apple cider as she rounded the island to set the plate in front of him with a kiddie fork. She would normally cut it for him, but he was in that I’ll-do-it-myself stage.

“Bless it first,” Andi said, going to collect a plate for her own pie. She pulled a mug from the dish cabinet to slide into the coffee maker just as the apple cider began to flow.

“Heavenly Father. Thank-you, mumble mumble, food, mumble mumble, pie, mumble mumble. Amen!”

“Amen,” Andi agreed, setting her pie plate on the bar so she could grab a sippy cup for Allen’s portion of cider. She filled the bottom half with apple juice from the fridge so he wouldn’t burn his tongue then crossed back to the bar for the now filled mug of cider.

A glance at the bar made Andi groan as she realized she forgot to take the pork chops Mom wanted for dinner out of the freezer last night. Usually, they would just have left-over Thanksgiving stuff on Black Friday, but Dad’s friend—their ‘uncle’ Arthur Wolf—was coming with his family for a weekend visit, and Mom’s pork chops were a running joke between their families.

Andi tapped her nails on the counter as she watched Allen, who was enraptured by his pie. He would be fine for the minute or so it would take her to find the packages in the garage freezer.

Unfortunately, the meat wouldn’t thaw before Mom came home and saw that Andi had forgotten to take them out as promised. She wouldn’t get in trouble, but there would be teasing, which meant the water-on-fire incident would come up again—

Someone knocked.

Andi jumped and looked around, unsure she had actually heard that. After all, who would be at the door at 7 o’clock the day after Thanksgiving?

Another knock.

“It’s the door, An’ni,” Allen said, his mouth full of pie. He had given up trying to stab the custard with his fork and instead shoveled it into his mouth with both hands.

“I got it.” Andi filled the rest of his sippy cup with apple cider and screwed the lid on. She slid it across the bar and into his waiting hands. “Don’t move while I’m gone, okay? If you want to get down, call me.”

“Kay!”

Running a hand through her bedraggled hair, Andi left the kitchen just as another knock sounded.

“I’m coming, I’m coming,” she called before lowering her voice to an annoyed mutter. “Do you even know what time it is?”

She interrupted another knock as she yanked the door open, trying her best not to look murderous but utterly incapable of feigning civil.

“Can I help you?” Andi snapped before the door was all the way open only to freeze at the sight of two uniformed officers looking like they wanted to be anywhere but on Andi’s doorstep at stupid o’clock in the morning. Their covers were off.

Andi froze, unable to speak or think or even breathe.

The older of the two, a woman with her dark hair pulled up into a sharp bun, spoke first.

“Are you Miss…” she glanced at the mini-notebook she held, “Andromeda Hunter?”

“Yes.” Andi’s stomach was tying itself into intricate knots as she clutched the half-open door with her left hand before saying, “If you have something to say then you had better come in. I left my brother at the kitchen bar, and I don’t want him to get hurt if he tries to climb down again.”

Andi strode away before either officer could respond, her mind whirling even as she tried to shut it down. She knew she was stalling, and she also knew she was probably in shock. After all, Andi was a military brat; there was only one reason uniformed officers would appear so early on her doorstep with their hats in their hands.

Maybe something happened to Caleb? Andi worried that thought into tatters as she picked apart each thread with what little logic she could muster. It couldn’t be Caleb; he was in Ohio. If something bad had happened to him then she would have gotten a phone call from his mission president, not a visit from the Alexandria Police Department.

Maybe Kevin, then? Except no, stupid, you’re not Kevin’s emergency contact anymore. He’s married.

“Oh!” Andi said, stopping in the kitchen doorway. “I should call my parents. They’ll want to know you’re here.” Andi turned to the bar where Allen was watching them as he sucked contentedly on his sippy-cup. “Allen, you still okay—?”

“Miss Hunter,” the lady cop said. “We’re actually here to talk to you about your parents.”

Andi sighed, surprised by the numbness that took her over at the officer’s words, and nodded. “I thought as much, but I still tried to hope…”

Ginger Cop looked away, his lips screwed up into a suppressed frown as he blinked rapidly at the fireplace mantle at the back of the family room where a large, canvas print picture of the Hunter family hung. It was taken a few months before Allen’s first birthday, just before

Andi left on her mission. Everyone was dressed head to foot in white, and each was placed in a clustered semi-circle with Mom in the middle as she sat on a chair with Allen wrapped in a white blanket on her lap. It was freezing that day, but between the brilliant rays of sun filtering through the trees and the equally bright smiles, no one would ever guess.

“I don’t suppose they’re in jail?” Andi asked with surprising levity. So much of this situation didn’t seem real—didn’t feel real—and yet, what else could it be except real?

“I’m afraid not, Miss Hunter,” Lady Cop said, and again, Andi nodded; accepting it without a word. Her placid silence seemed to make the woman uncomfortable. Clearing her throat, she asked, “Is there someone else in the home with you, Miss Hunter? Another adult or an older teen you feel comfortable with?”

Considering what was about to be said, Tim was the last person in the world Andi wanted downstairs with her. “Not if my parents aren’t home.”

Resigned, Lady Cop looked through the kitchen doorway at Allen, who had traded his sippy cup for another handful of pie.

“Would you like to take a seat?” Lady Cop asked, motioning her toward the family room couch.

“No,” Andi said. “Thank you.”

If she sat down right then, she might never find the strength to stand up again.

“Of course. Well.” Straightening up, cover in both hands, Lady Cop said, “I am Officer Rutherford, and this is my partner, Officer Quinn. We’re with the Alexandria Police Department.”

Andi nodded a hello to both.

“I’m afraid there was a car accident last night, Miss Hunter, just outside Alexandria City limits.” Rutherford’s dark hands tightened almost in-perceptively around her cover. “Your parents were involved.”

“And?” Even Andi was freaked out by how unaffected she sounded. That wasn’t normal, right? She should be crying or in denial or fainting or something. Anything but just standing there nodding and accepting and acting like she didn’t care.

“Miss Hunter.” Rutherford paused again. “I’m sorry to tell you that your mother was pronounced dead on arrival. Your father, however, was extracted from the vehicle. He was taken to St. Joan’s Memorial Hospital for trauma treatment, but at present, his condition is unknown.” Rutherford was sympathetic but steady when she met Andi’s eye. “I am sorry for your loss, Miss Hunter.”

“Thank you,” Andi said, mentally compiling a list of everything that would need doing both today and in the next few weeks. “And thank you for letting me know. Is there anything else?”

“No, ma’am. That’s all the information we have at present.”

“Right, well, thank you,” Andi said again before motioning back down the hall toward the door. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I need to wake up my siblings and contact the hospital.”

“Of course.” Rutherford hesitated a moment before offering a sharp salute. Turning on her heel, she shifted her grip on her cover and waved for her much younger partner. “Quinn.”

Quinn snapped to attention, his eyes shooting to his partner before cutting to Andi. He saluted, and his voice wavered when he spoke. “I’m very sorry for your loss, ma’am.”

“Thank you,” Andi said, wondering if she was the kid’s first notification.

“Is there anyone we can call for you, Miss Hunter?” Rutherford almost looked about to hug her; no doubt Andi’s stiff exterior put her off trying, assuming she even would.

“No need,” Andi said. “My best friend’s family was already on their way for a visit.”

Once the two officers were gone, Andi took a deep breath and raked a hand through her sleep-matted hair.

What a mess.

Andi balked at that thought. Mom was dead and Dad was—what? Fine? Dying?—and all she could muster was some half-hearted complaint about the mess?

What is wrong with me?

“An’ni?” Allen said, and Andi turned to see him watching her with curiosity. “Why was the police here?”

“They needed to tell me something about Mommy and Daddy,” Andi said, smiling through the numbness. “You all done with breakfast?”

He shook his head. “Want more pie.”

“Okay. Pumpkin?”

“Yeah!”

Andi got Allen more pumpkin pie, and her body felt off as she moved. As if her soul wasn’t quite contained beneath her skin. It didn’t feel like shock, though. Not real, dangerous, medical shock anyway. She just felt numb, and a bit…detached.

Setting Allen’s plate back on the counter, Andi went back to her mental list.

First things first, she needed to wake the kids. It would take a while to get everyone fed, showered, and dressed to see Dad at the hospital, not even counting the chaos that would ensue when she told them about Mom.

Should she even take them to see Dad? Since she didn’t know what condition he was in, that could make things worse.

“Oh, crap.” Andi passed a hand over her face. “I need to call Nana and Papa.”

And Aunt Nessa and Uncle Blake. Aunt Dani. Uncle Vince. Dad’s family too, even though he’s not dead.

‘Yet,’ chimed a dull voice from the back of her mind. Andi shoved it aside.

“Uncle Arthur!”

Allen jumped at her sudden shout, and Andi apologized, though it was half-hearted at best as she patted down her robe for her phone before remembering she left it upstairs.

“Allen, I need to grab my phone. Don’t try to get down until I get back, okay?”

“Kay!” Allen stuffed another handful of pumpkin pie in his face. Andi hesitated only a second longer before heading for the stairs to grab her phone.

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About Cassiopeia Fletcher

I wrote my first book when I was six-years-old about a fat cat named Stephanie who wandered around the city looking for her family, and I never looked back. As a writer, my goal is to continually move forward, learning from my past self, as well as others, in an effort to become the best I can at my chosen craft. I’m blessed with a wonderful, loving family —Mom, Dad, six brothers, one sister, and five sisters-in-law—that has supported me every step of the way, even if they don’t always understand what I’m trying to do. And while I believe life is education, not everyone always agrees, so I’ve made pursuing a formal education a huge priority. Currently, I have an MFA in Creative Writing and am attending grad school for the second time pursuing an MA in Mass Communications. Eventually, I’ll get my Ph. D., but who knows if that will be before or after I settle into a job teaching Creative Writing to undergrads? Life is a mystery, and I’m happy to discover it all, one day at a time.

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