"Nuts! 'Kay, just one more shove! Gotcha! Whoa, Danny, come 'ere!"
"Ow! Trying to! Someone's butt is in the way. Oh, Cammie! This is amazing!"
Dusty, sunlight-dappled, and full of mysterious artifacts, it could have been an exotic temple ruin for all the wonders it held for the two adventurers. Fortunately, for the intrepid explorers, Jack's attic was the next best thing, and right at home. Looking at each other with open mouths, Daniel and Cameron figured they'd hit pay dirt, and it was all theirs to excavate. Sneezing from the flying dust in the air, they ran into the middle of the room, unsure what to investigate first.
"Look it, Danny, look!" Cammie gasped, straining and tugging to lift one heavy cardboard box off another. His task was made all the more difficult by the too long sleeves of the class A jacket he wore. The service cap perched on his crown and threatening to slip down over his eyes didn't help either. Realizing he should probably help his brother before the box was accidentally dropped and Jack came running to find out the cause of the racket, Danny shoved up the sleeves of his own suit jacket—brown, not blue—and grabbed the other end of the box. The two small boys eased the heavy package to the attic floor, careful not to pin Danny's long, striped tie in the process, then immediately grabbed for the folded flaps.
"Whaddya 'spose is in here?" Cammie asked in a loud whisper, pausing with his tiny fingers wrapped around the corrugated edge.
"More of Daddy's clothes, maybe," Danny answered, tugging on his lapel for emphasis. "Let's find out!"
Eager hands pulled back the cardboard, laying the flaps down as far as they'd go and peering at the revealed contents. Instead of neatly folded garments, however, the boys beheld a treasure of a different sort: toys. Most of them were stuffed animals of various colors and species, but the curious eyes quickly spotted planes, trains, and automobiles.
Cammie gasped and plunged his hand into the box. "A 1965 Mustang!"
"A what?" His brother frowned, pausing in the middle of donning the red baseball cap he'd found at the top of the box.
"I dunno, but it's really cool!" the darker-haired boy answered, pulling out the model car and studying it carefully. Lifting it up and peering underneath it, Cam sighed with delight. "Isn't this just the beez kneez?"
Snorting and rolling his eyes at the look of rapture on his brother's face, Daniel shrugged. "I like the train better." He took out the locomotive and gave it a thorough, hands-on inspection. "It looks kinda like the one in Harry Potter."
Together, the boys delved through the box of toys, admiring some and discarding others. They couldn't begin to imagine why Jack would have all these wonderful things stored in the attic instead of downstairs where his sons could play with them. It wasn't until Cammie discovered a bright colored shoebox that they learned who the real owner of all these toys had been.
"What's this box say?" Cammie asked. He knew his letters well enough, but he preferred having his smart brother read things to him since he was less likely to get the words wrong.
"Charles Tyler O'Neill," Danny sounded out. "Maybe we should put all these toys away, Cammie."
"'Cause they belong to Charlie," he answered, rolling his eyes impatiently.
Cammie stuck out his lower lip. "Who's that? An' why's he got the same last name as Daddy?"
"'Cause he's Daddy's real son, flydork!"
"But we're Daddy's sons," the other boy sulked, looking decidedly cross. "Wordgeek," he added belatedly.
Danny sighed and scrubbed at one eye, wishing he could remember everything he was pretty sure he knew about Charlie. "Yeah, but we're 'dopted, Cammie. Charlie was Jack's... and Sara's."
"Sara? Our Sara?"
"Uh-huh." Danny sucked on his lower lip. "Maybe Charlie grew up and moved away, and that's why all his stuff is still here."
"I guess so," Cammie agreed, then sat down on the floor and opened the lid on the box. "Hey, there are pictures and letters in here!"
Excited by the find, Danny slid around the big cardboard box and knelt next to his brother, peering over his shoulder. "Look it, Cammie, that's Sara! She looks the same really." A small smile tugged at his lips as he whispered, "She's really pretty... in a 'mom' kind of way," he hastily added, not wanting his brother to tease him for the rest of the day.
"S'pose and here's Daddy," Cammie added, flopping a sleeve-covered pointer-finger at the picture. "Look at his hair; it had color! And that's gotta be Charlie there." Holding the photo barely an inch from his nose, Cam studied his previously unknown brother's face silently willing him to say hello and introduce himself. "Hey Charlie, s'nice to meet ya."
"Uh-huh," Danny agreed, reaching for one of the folded slips of paper. Sprawling on his belly and kicking his feet up behind him, he opened the paper and spread out its creases against the dusty floorboards. "It's a letter."
"Danny? Who's it from?" Throwing himself down next to his brother, the brims of the caps bumping each other, Cammie twitched with curiosity. Leaning across, he plucked the yellowed envelope from the floor, and turning it around, added, "This says it's from a school? Charlie's?"
Constantly pushing the cap out of his eyes and tracing the faded words with his finger, Danny scowled. "Um, it's kind of hard to read, Cammie. Move out of my light and let me see."
When his brother obligingly inched sideways, Danny cleared his throat and read, "'Mr. and Mrs. O'Neill'." Giggling and looking at Cammie sideways, he said a little pompously, "That's Sara and Daddy in case you don't know! " Ignoring the rolled eyes and the drawled "duh", he flushed a little, and continued. 'Charlie has been troublesome at school recently, and despite my previous notes, you have not responded. I feel as though we need to discuss your son's behavior as a matter of urgency.'" Eyes impossibly wide, Danny stopped reading for a moment and took a great breath. "Wow, is he ever going to get it! Charlie must have been a..."
Pushing himself up and climbing onto a box, Cammie wore a look of horror mixed with awe. Flapping his sleeves in the air, he hooted with laughter, "Mistah and Missus? Don' they know Daddy's a General? Whoa, Charlie was sooo brave! " Sitting cross-legged, Indian style, Cam was enjoying himself and demanded Dan read the rest of the letter. Whenever he read out another outrageous prank, Cam crowed with delight. "Cool! Charlie must've bin the coolest kid at school!"
"Ssshhh! Cammie! He was being naughty! Even the teacher says so!"
"Pfflattt, what does some dumb ole teacher know? I'm just sayin'! Imagine even thinkin' 'bou't swappin' all the glue lids! How cool is that? "
"Isn't! Suppose the glue blobbed all over one of your drawings?" Rolling his eyes, Danny let the thought trail off, thinking it might make Cam's messy artwork look better. Watching his boisterous brother bounce hyperactively on his box, he decided it wasn't worth getting a noogie for, and changing the topic, said glibly, "Want me to read some more?"
Nodding his head furiously, Cammie listened to the rest of the letter. Miss. Ebert had listed all the sins Charlie had committed one by one, and the little colonel was very impressed. "Boy, wonder how many green stars our other brother lost? I think a gazillion!" Giggling, leaning down to tap Danny on the head, he begged, "Read the bit about the paint pots again. That was brilliant!"
Shoving up the over-long sleeves and letting the baseball cap slide over his eyes, Danny giggled back. "Hey, we must look like angels on loan from heaven to Daddy, mustn't we!" Sitting up and rocking back and forth, a sudden memory flashed into his mind. Looking at the toys, reading the letter, laughing about being an angel from heaven reminded him of something—something that made him feel somewhat sad—and he knew they should pack away the little box with the puppy on the lid and leave it in peace. "No, you heard me the first time."
"Wha?" Cammie lost patience with his suddenly silent and reflective brother, and jumping from his box, gave Danny a hard shove. "Hey, what's the matter with you? Stop being such a goody-goody!" Wrestling the shoebox from Danny's clutched fingers; a look of triumph flashing across his freckled face, Cammie grabbed the other letters. Tripping on his long trousers, Cammie looked over his shoulder and snapped, "Leave me 'lone! I just wanna see what else my other brother did at school." His brow furrowed and his little pink tongue peeking out between his lips, Cammie read the next letter slowly.
"Mrs. O'Neill, Charlie has been given a week's detention starting immediately. For his age, it is only appropriate for Charlie to sit with me at recess time and not to be allowed to play with the other children. I am very sorry to have to do this, but we cannot have other children's lunch boxes opened and contents swapped with another. I have warned Charlie twice before and have sent home a note. I realize that with your husband away a lot of the time, Charlie misses him, but I must consider the other children's health."
Waving the yellowed letter in the air and laughing happily, Cam conveniently ignored the result of Charlie's naughtiness and recited his sins word for word. "Swapped lunches? Blended paints to make crazy colors? Fill backpacks with leaves?" Cammie grinned and looming over Daniel, he smiled silently. 'Daddy never said anything so he musta thought it was funny! I bet that's why Sara never replied, she thought Miss. Egg-brain was just being a typical dorky teacher.' Jumping up and down on the spot, still clutching the letter in his fist, Cam nudged Dan and assured him, "Bet Jack and Sara thought it was the funniest ole thing ev-ah."
Danny sucked his bottom lip in and chewed on it thoroughly. He wasn't sure how he knew, but he did. He was certain Jack wouldn't have laughed. He just knew Jack and Sara would have dealt with the little boy firmly. Gulping, he was suddenly very glad he wasn't Charlie Tyler O'Neill.
A sudden noise caught his ears. "Uh, Cammie?"
"What?" his brother demanded grumpily, looking up from his perusal of Charlie's school letters.
"I think Daddy just started the weed-whacker."
"Uh-oh," Cammie agreed. Frantically, the two boys began stripping off the borrowed grown-up clothes and stuffing them back into the dusty garment bags. Boxes were hastily repacked and shoved back toward where they boys thought they'd originally been placed. Feeling slightly panicked Daniel flapped his hands in the air. "Cam? Is this where Daddy's clothes box was? Cam! Look! Stop reading that dumb letter!"
"Huh? Okay, fine, it looks fine!" Rolling his eyes, Cam couldn't have cared less. Boxes were boxes and it was all the same to him. Scanning the room and then pointing his finger, he said, "Nope, that box goes there!" Kicking at it to push it along, Cam achieved in five minutes what would have taken Daniel an hour. "There, it's perfect now! Daddy'll ne-vah know!" Patting Daniel on the back, he added, "Come 'on, if he catches us, we'll be in for it!"
Nodding his head, Danny planted his small fists on his hips and gave the attic a last cursory inspection. Slapping his hand against his forehead and squeaking with horror, he said, "Oh, we forgot to put back Charlie's box!" He reached for it, but Cammie swept it up and wrapped his arms around it.
"Nuh-uh," the little general declared. "I'm not fin'shed readin' yet."
Danny thrust out his lower lip. "We have to put it back, Cammie."
"We'll put it back the next time. C'mon, Danny, we haf to get down before Daddy comes in the house!"
Reluctantly, the little archaeologist nodded and followed his more adventurous brother down the steep staircase into the upstairs hall closet. They heaved the ladder back up into its locked position, then used broomstick handles to push the door the rest of the way back into the ceiling. Just as Cammie climbed off the closet shelf, Danny heard the mudroom door shut. Peering out the closet door, the two boys decided the coast was clear enough and dashed for their rooms.
"You can sure say that again!"
Wiping the sweat off his face, Jack headed for the refrigerator and the promise of a cold beer. Upstairs, he heard thunderous footsteps, and he shook his head in wonder. Today was a designated chores day, with Jack spending it mowing the yard while the boys were supposed to be cleaning their rooms. From the sounds of the scampering feet, though, Daniel and Cameron hadn't spent their time wisely. Messy rooms meant no movies tonight, and he knew the boys had been looking forward to going to see the latest Disney cartoon.
Popping the cap off the bottle, he took a swig - then walked to the base of the stairs. "How are those rooms coming?" he hollered, pressing the cool glass to his forehead briefly. When no answer came, he shook his head. "I'm going to take a shower. When I get finished, your quarters had better be ready for inspection, airmen!"
"Yes, Daddy!" Cammie and Danny shouted back. Little feet thudded across the floor again, and Jack chuckled to himself and headed for the master bath.
His boys were pretty well behaved youngsters, though Cammie had a tendency to make trouble for himself by engaging in all manner of wild stunts. Danny rarely actively sought trouble, but just as it had when he was an adult under Jack's command, trouble always managed to find him. When it came to their chores, both boys grumbled but eventually did what they were told. Cammie was always faster and more efficient at cleaning his room than Danny was—he probably had his barely-remembered military training to thank for that—because the pint-sized archaeologist was so easily distracted, and not always by his mischievous brother.
"Oh, this is going to be good, I just know it." Stripping off his sweaty clothes and leaving them in a pile, Jack turned the taps and turned his mind to what to prepare for dinner.
He took his time with his shower, enjoying the feel of warm water sluicing over his grimy skin, and hoping the boys would take the opportunity to properly finish their rooms. He didn't want to see objects stuffed into drawers and closets like the last time, and had made this very clear to his wide-eyed boys in the stern lecture, which followed. Jack only hoped it had stuck with them.
Finally, he was clean, dry, and dressed. "Ready or not," he announced as he started up the steps, "here I come."
As expected, there was a last frantic scramble of little feet, then the little airmen appeared at the door of Danny's room. As always, the blond-haired boy's guilt was evident in his posture—wrapped in a self-contained hug and refusing to meet his dad's gaze—but to Jack's surprise, his darker-haired boy was just as shifty. Scanning the boys' rooms and forcing down the knowing smile which threatened to take over his face, Jack knew that if he scratched the surface, an avalanche of clothes and toys would topple on top of the wide-eyed little boys.
Tapping his foot and using his very best general voice, he asked, "So, airmen, everything where it should be? Nothing stashed under the beds? Drawers not full of Legos and toy cars?" Arms folded casually across his stomach, Jack crossed his ankles, pinning the nervous children with a stern look.
Shuffling his bare feet and scrunching his toes into the rug, Cammie took a deep breath and let loose with the best strategy he'd been able to come up with on such short notice. "Daddy, I always help Danny 'cause he's not as 'squared away' as me, but Danny and me couldn't tidy our rooms proper! Look!" Grabbing Danny's left hand in his right, and holding both of their hands in the air only briefly, Cammie tackled his daddy's knees howling a pitiful sob. "My hand is hurt, and Danny's fingers were bent backwards!" Clenching his fist and yelping for added sympathy, Cammie rubbed his nose back and forth on Jack's jeans. "It was horrible, Daddy, I thought Danny's fingers would snap off!"
Looking from one tear stained little face to the other; Jack tried to process the new and terrible information, puzzling only briefly over why the boys hadn't said anything when they first came home. Lightly brushing Danny's hand and wincing as the little archaeologist cringed, Jack hunkered to his knees and said kindly, "Was it a fight at school? Did you tell Miss Bumstead? Have I got a note about this?"
"N-n-note?" Daniel couldn't control his horrified stammer, and looking stunned, repeated feebly, "N-n-note?"
"Mm. Should have had a note about something like this. Cam, check your bag; I'll check Danny's."
"No note, Daddy! They all got us behind the swings, Mizz Bumstead wouldn't've seen!" Cam rolled his shoulders and let one little white lie after the other roll of his tongue.
Daniel felt the room spin, and it was all he could do not to fall over in terror. He had just opened his mouth to explain that there was no fight and his fingers were fine, but Cam jumped in quickly. "Billy McNamara started it! He's a bully, an' he picks on us all the time!" Swiping at his eyes, Cam grabbed his brother's hand and murmured, "Ack-tcha-lee, Daddy, it's Danny he's mostly mean to! I just stepped in to 'tect him! We soldiers never leave anyone behind, right?" Blinking up at his daddy with soulful eyes, Cam managed just the right amount of tears to shine and only threaten to spill. "Daddy, are you mad at me for not 'tectin' Danny betta?"
"What? No, of course not!" Jack was a canny man, a keen diplomat, and a smart soldier, but he was also a complete sucker when it came to his blue-eyed children. He looked at the morose, freckled little faces, and felt a lump constrict in his throat. 'Crap,' he thought, 'it's those swimming lessons all over again! How do I miss these things? Danny bullied? Cammie beat up? Oh, Miss Bumstead will be hearing from me!'
Sweeping the children into a warm hug, he whispered into Cam's ear, "It's okay, Daddy will make sure this McNamara kid leaves you guys alone!" Rocking back onto the heels of his shoes and throwing his hand down to balance himself, he added softly, "Let's just enjoy the movie tonight so you two can forget about those sore little hands." Kissing Cam's fingers and making him giggle; General Jonathan O'Neill inwardly promised dire retribution to anyone who dare hurt his blue-eyed boys.
For his part, Cammie couldn't believe he'd gotten himself and Danny off so easily. After their daddy went back downstairs to start dinner, he pulled his open-mouthed brother into his room and pulled the door shut. "You owe me big time, Danny!" he crowed triumphantly. Jumping onto Daniel's bed and kicking legs in the air, Cam grinned happily. "Well? Wotch-'a gonna say? Thanks, Cam! You're a genius!"
"Geroff my bed, fly dope!" Daniel wasn't so sure about any of this. Shrugging his shoulders, he knew Jack was nowhere near as gullible as he sometimes pretended. "You shouldn't have lied to Daddy," he protested, wrapping his arms around himself and sitting on the edge of his bed. "What if he calls Miss Bumstead and she says we weren't in a fight?"
The little colonel rolled his eyes. "Pfff... It's Friday, an' Daddy'll probably forget by Monday. What's the big deal? We're not in trouble, an' we woulda been if Daddy'd looked at our rooms!"
Danny wrung his fingers fretfully. "I suppose so," he agreed reluctantly. "But what if he finds out we lied, Cammie? We'll be in big, big trouble, then!" Thinking of the spare room and the dire connotations of visiting it with their daddy, Dan swallowed noisily. "You shouldn't have lied!"
"Don't go tattlin' an' he won't find out!" Cam declared with the confidence of a natural-born leader. "C'mon, Danny! An' don't you go 'n' forget your hand hurts, 'member?"
The weekend passed reasonably uneventfully, but then Jack invited Sara for Sunday lunch. At the table, he told her about the boys' fight at school, and Cammie was all-too happy to nod and clutch his "wounded" hand in all the appropriate places. He was proud of how heroic and brave he sounded in the story, sticking up for his brother. Danny was too busy being a stick-in-the-mud to enjoy any sympathetic attention that might come his way, but at least he hadn't tattled yet.
Sara listened and instantly smelled a chocolate chip cookie-eating little rat. She arched her eyebrow at Cammie when the story was finished. "Mm, that must have been scary, boys. Cameron, where was your teacher?" Watching the casual little shoulder roll, Sara couldn't help but remember another shifty little boy. Tapping her lips with her index finger, she recalled Charlie was about Cam's age when he had started to tell little white lies. Looking at Jack and seeing he believed every word, Sara decided to dig a little deeper.
"That right, Cam? How is it that we have only just heard about this terrible schoolyard bully?" Snapping her fingers and watching Danny's color drain from his face, she ordered, "Daniel, run and get me the playmates list; I'll see if I recognize the family."
Danny blinked and lowered his eyes, feeling the room spin again. He didn't hear her repeat the request—the blood was pounding too loudly in his ears. He knew if they were caught out in the lie, it would straight to the spare bedroom for the dreaded smacked bottom, followed by early bedtimes or no ice cream... or worse, both! Stuttering and feeling his eyes begin to water, Danny slipped his hands behind his jean-clad butt and opened his mouth to confess to the heinous crime.
Sensing his brother wavering and well aware of the consequences, Cam quickly interrupted. "Oh no, Sara, there's no point! McNamara's are a milit'ry family, and his daddy is away in Afa-gah-in-stand now. Mrs. McNamara had ta moved back East to be with her momma, and so we won't have to worry anymore! He had a going away party this weekend, but Danny and me weren't invited! Ever 'one else was 'cept us!" Sniffing dramatically and batting his eyelashes, he murmured, "'Sides, Danny is my best friend, and I don' need anyone else."
Turning in his chair and giving Danny a subtle kick to his tender shin, Cam narrowed his eyes and repeated, "If I haf my brother, I don' need anyone else!"
Looking at Cammie with horror and seeing the adults smiling with pride, Danny felt sick. This was deceitful and wrong, and the lies were piling up thick and fast. Ordinarily, he did everything within his powers to stay out of trouble, but Cam gleefully trod a fine line. At the moment, Danny was fearful he'd topple off that fine line himself. "It doesn't matter how big you are," Jack once told his boys, not long after their short foray into the legal field, "a man's integrity is too precious to sell." Suddenly, Danny didn't think getting to see that movie Friday was worth the price, but if he tattled now, Cammie would never forgive him. "That's what brothers do," he agreed morosely.
"Jack O'Neill, you've been hoodwinked," Sara declared, helping her ex-husband clear the dishes while the boys dashed outside to play.
"Have I, now?" Jack asked, adopting a look of feigned shock.
"Mmhmm... you know darn good and well that Cameron was fibbing," she accused.
Jack shrugged. "You saw how uncomfortable Danny was with the whole thing. I'd bet Cammie was giving things a little spin so that Danny wouldn't feel so bad about being teased at school. Daniel always—" He caught himself before he let slip that the adult Daniel had always been a target for bullies. "Daniel's usually so shy and quiet," he amended.
Sara rolled her eyes. "Remember Charlie at that age? How he'd tell whoppers to his teacher, mess with the other students' belongings, and pretend all the while his imaginary friend 'Jake' was responsible for any wrong-doings?" She shook her head in dismay, remembering the letters sent home that were eventually found stashed in Charlie's keepsake box, but not until after the exasperated teacher had had the school principal phone the O'Neills to find out why nothing was being done about Charlie's behavior. Charlie had been grounded for two whole months for that fiasco.
"I'll keep an eye out for imaginary friends, then," Jack grinned impishly. "I don't think we'll have to worry about it, though, since Charlie had an imaginary friend 'cause he was an only child, and he missed me. I'm home now, and Daniel and Cameron have each other, and like they said earlier, that's all they need." Warming up to the idea, he continued, "They'll help each other, protect each other, and keep each other out of trouble. It's what brothers do."
Still looking skeptical, Sara plopped the last plate into the dishwasher and crossed her arms. "Unlike you, Jack, I had brothers growing up. Believe me when I say those boys are going to be far better at keeping themselves in trouble than they are keeping one another out of it."
As Cammie had predicted, Jack forgot all about calling Miss Bumstead on Monday—though the little colonel couldn't have known his daddy forgot only because of a late-to-report team. Faced with proof that his boisterous brother was right about their teacher not being called, Danny relaxed a little and dared to hope that the whole lying incident might be forgotten. He even vowed to keep his room clean all week so that he wouldn't have to panic again on Friday, but that promise lasted only until late Monday evening, when he forgot all about it and left books and clothes strewn everywhere following a frantic search for his favorite yo-yo.
Everything came crashing back to him Tuesday, when he dipped his brush in the yellow paint and found himself smearing purple and muddy brown streaks on his rendering of the Great Pyramids. Horrified that he'd accidentally ruined his painting by dipping his brush in the wrong pot, Danny checked and discovered that someone had poured purple paint into the jar of yellow. Feeling his heart pound with dread, he turned to see Cammie looking terribly pleased with himself as he painted a fighter jet with a brush full of intermixed blue and orange paints.
"Cammie!" he hissed, looking around frantically to see if anyone else had noticed the messed-up paints. "Why'd you do that?"
"I di'n't do it," Cammie whispered back, "Jake did it!"
"Who's Jake?" Danny asked, brow crinkling as he worked his way through the playmate list.
"Charlie's best friend Jake," his brother replied, rolling his eyes as though the answer should have been obvious.
Danny's mouth made a surprised "oh". "Cammie! Oh, Cammie, you shouldn't have done that! What if Miss Bumstead sends a note home to Daddy?"
"She won't," the little colonel answered confidently, "unless you tattle. You aren't gonna tattle, are ya Danny?" Shifting close to his brother, Cam brushed his fingers past Danny's and gave them a quick squeeze. "M'ember, we're each ov'ers bestest friends!"
Glancing between his ruined painting and the sabotaged pots of paint, Danny frowned seriously and thought hard about what he wanted to do. Letting his fingers stay in Cams, Daniel sighed softly, knowing he could never get his brother into trouble.
"Please don't tattle on me, Danny! Somebody had to've tattled on Charlie; else, he wouldn't've had a letter sent home to Daddy and Sara. I bet they were lots mad when they got that, and I don't want Sara or Daddy to be lots mad at me."
Seeing the earnest expression on his brother's face, Danny gave in and nodded. "I won't tattle on you, Cammie."
"Cross your heart an' hope to die?"
Danny gulped. Dying didn't sound at all fun. "Cross my heart," he promised, "but I don' wanna die."
The trip to the market had been odd. Usually the little family shopped happily, Jack calling out what he wanted and a blonde projectile scampering away to fetch it. The children would cheerfully debate which cereal was better, and ignoring the hopeful sugar-laden selection, Jack dumped in the standard box of Cheerios. After shopping— providing their behavior didn't embarrass the crap out of him—there were milkshakes and chocolate muffins for a morning snack.
Today, the kids walked around silently, pointedly ignoring each other. When Jack had suggested the great treat, Dan and Cam sat silently, glowering at each other and slurping their flavored milk loudly. Drinking his coffee and finally giving up on trying to get them to chat, the General sighed and said, "Okay, obviously you boys need a nap, come on, you can finish the muffins at home."
"Not tired, Daddy!" grumbled Daniel, edging as far away from Cam's swinging feet as he could. "Ow! Daddeee, he kicked me!"
"Di'n't Daddy! My foot slipp'd!" Glowering and poking his tongue out when he was sure Jack wasn't looking, Cam muttered, "Only tattlin' babies need to nap, right, Daniel?"
"Enough! That's a one and a two for the pair of you knuckleheads, and a three will mean sitting on smacked bottoms. Now, I mean it, no more running tales, Daniel! Cameron, if your foot feels the urge to slip again, I'll be very irritated. Clear?"
"Yes, Daddy, but he started it!"
"Yup, an' I nev-ah!"
Narrowing his eyes at the warring parties, Jack growled his final warning and hurried them to the truck. He didn't mind leaving the mall early, the game was on and he had a million and one chores to do. Buckling the boys in and handing them their toys, he turned up the radio and tuned into a game.
Glowering quietly in the backseat, mindful of their last warning, the two best friends folded their arms, both lost in troubled and not-so-troubled thoughts. Cam couldn't understand why his brother was so worried: as far as he was concerned they were home free. Daniel hated the idea of keeping secrets, and the wiser of the two, knew they trod a fine line.
Opening the back door of the truck and watching the boys exit their car seats like bullets; Jack grabbed the grocery bags, and shrugging, leaned against the door to listen to the final play of the morning. "Oh crap! Who's playing this game? Tinkerbelle and the faeries from the bottom of the garden?" Snorting with disgust at the score, he forgot all about his oddly-behaved children... for as long as it took him to get up the front walk and across the porch.
Jack heard his children bickering from the moment he walked into the house. Raising his eyes and dumping the groceries onto the kitchen table, he listened curiously. The boys rarely bickered, but something had obviously irritated the crap out of them. By the sounds of the spiteful comments flying back and forth, it was each other.
Down the hallway, the high-pitched sounds of recriminations flew thick and fast. "You are such a stoopid rock dweeb! Wish I put black in your paint pot! "
Shaking his head, Jack heard the indignant little dweeb hotly refute the outrageous claim. "Am not! Least I'm not a fly dope and a paint vandal! I'm so telling Daddy on you!"
Jack sighed, and shining an apple on his jacket, strolled down the hallway to play his stern, parental role. Taking a huge bite from the apple, he grinned wolfishly and murmured, "Have an apple, boys, what could go wrong." Walking into the bedroom and clearing his throat loudly, Jack growled, "Children? Tell Daddy what exactly?"
Danny jumped with fright, and open-mouthed, he whirled around to face the unexpected and unwanted intruder. Swallowing and feeling his cheeks burn, he squeaked, "Daddy! Nothing, Cam and I were just playing Marines." Lowering his head, Danny hated that lies now fell so easily from his own mouth.
Cam stood frozen with horror and shock, his brain trying to process the undeniable fact that Jack must have heard their conversation. Opening his mouth, the little colonel felt torn between the desire to howl or throw a spectacular tantrum. He thought this all Danny's fault, if he hadn't threatened to tell Sara, he wouldn't have yelled about the paint pots. Swallowing nervously and searching his mind for the perfect get out of jail free lie, Cam looked into Jack's face and smiled hopefully.
Bunching his hands on his hips, Cam took a deep breath and started his new line of truth, Cameron O'Neill style. "Yup! "S'right, Daddy, I was 'tendin' to be Major Griff and Danny here's bein' Col'nel Dixon." Shrugging with his Southern boyish charm, he added," Wanna stay 'n play? You can fly the Mothaship if ya wanna!"
Sara's words filtering slowly through his brain, Jack searched one little boy's face and then the other. Cam slouched with practiced nonchalance, hands shoved into his overstuffed jeans pockets and ball cap on backward. His red t-shirt was crumpled and slightly stained, and naturally, his socks were mismatched. Yep, Jack thought, nothing wrong there. Swiveling around, he studied his other child's face and arched an interested eyebrow.
Mm, this is the look of the condemned and the damned. Daniel stood ramrod straight, his eyes blinking quickly and his fingers clenching and unclenching nervously. Shifting the weight from one foot to the other, the little archaeologist looked as though he would burst into tears at any moment.
Determined to stop the morning's nonsense before it ended in those tears, Jack narrowed his eyes and tilted his head to the side. "Anything you feel like sharing with me, Daniel?" Moving closer to his intended victim, he added, "Maybe you'd like to explain to me why you were saying those mean things to your brother?" Kneeling down and grabbing his hands, Jack added firmly, "We've talked before about how we talk to each other in this family, and I think an afternoon tidying the playroom by yourself might jog your memory."
Turning the open-mouthed boy around and pointing to the door, he patted the jean-clad little bottom sharply and ordered, "Move, mister! I'll call you for lunch." Wagging his fingers for Cam to take, Jack said in a tone that didn't match the lightness his words, "Come on, peanut, you can help put away the groceries and tell me what you were really fighting about."
Cameron spent the weekend perpetuating his campaign of lies and misinformation.
Danny spent his weekend tidying rooms and sulking about life's many injustices.
Gently interrogating one child and then the other, General O'Neill decided to delegate, and call in the diplomatic corp. "Sara? Now's good, actually. Come for a cup of coffee and a slice of insanity?" Laughing softly, Jack explained the worsening state of affairs surrounding Team O'Neill.
Placing the phone into its cradle and throwing her keys in the air, Sara muttered, "Well, who knew those boys weren't up to any good." Switching the alarm on and watching the red button flash obediently, she added, "Oh, hang on! I did." Shaking her head, she wondered how she could make Jack see a little blue-eyed terrorist was manipulating him.
"Cameron," Danny hissed in horror," that's Nicky's snack, and you shouldn't have eaten it! Oh, no! Why are you opening Jordan's lunch box? Hey, you can't swap that! Suppose he doesn't like banana and jam sandwiches?" Danny shuddered at the thought of the food combination and thought privately that swapping was the best thing in the end. He didn't like Nicky, and rubbing his arm, looked at the purple bruise still evident.
Poking his tongue out, Cam's face crinkled into a mischievous grin. "What's the good of being a hall monitor if you can't get back at the bullies?" His sweet voice taking an odd tone of menace and cunning, he scowled. "Nicky's always pickin' on ya, Dan. Now, let's see how he likes bein' tattled on!"
Miss Bumstead rubbed her eyes tiredly, worried about Cam's imaginary and extremely naughty friend, Jake. She had written two letters to General O'Neill outlining her concerns, but received no response. Sighing and tapping her pencil on her desk, she decided to allow Cam to be a joint hall monitor with Danny, hoping the responsible little boy would rub off on his high-spirited and occasionally irresponsible brother
Imaginary friends, she read, were a child's coping mechanism or the result of loneliness or bullying. She watched Cameron carefully and knew he was a popular—if slightly forceful—little boy. No, she had decided, that is neither a bullied nor a lonely child. Sighing with regret, she figured Cam's behavior was plain attention seeking, and he merely enjoyed showing off.
The tears and tantrums following lunch had astounded the normally unflappable Miss Bumstead. Children ran crying to her, shoving empty lunch boxes or soggy banana sandwiches under her nose. Empty candy wrappers were duly investigated, bitten apples were discarded, and lunch money handed to the starving and inexplicably lunch-less. Narrowing her eyes at the sight of the whistling child, and the uncomfortable-looking boy next to him, Miss Bumstead knew she had made an error in judgment. "Cameron O'Neill, come here this instant! Daniel O'Neill, you can just follow right behind!"
"Yes, Mizz Bumstead?" Blinking with wide-eyed innocence, Cam searched his thoughts for the quickest and easiest lie to spin to his teacher. "I don't know who made this mess, but I think it coulda bin Jake!"
Daniel groaned. "Shut up, Cameron, you'll only make this worse." Shuffling forward, picturing all his carefully earned green stars disappearing, the little archaeologist heard the tapping of the gallows being built all around him. "We are so going to get it now!"
"Nope! 'Member, it's all Jake's fault!"
"So going to get it."
Sitting in the lunchroom and stirring another sugar into her tea, Miss Bumstead sought her peer's advice. "Cameron O'Neill is a sweetie, but gosh! Is he acting up! When I call him on his behavior, he swears it's not him but his friend Jake. I've sent a couple of messages home to his father, General O'Neill, but so far I've heard nothing from him." Dimpling and throwing her head back, she added quietly, "More's the pity!"
Looking up from her crossword puzzle, the family name tweaking a long forgotten memory, Mrs. Spears, née Ebert, cleared her throat discreetly. "Uma? Tell me, is General O'Neill an Air Force man? Tall, wiry, and a good sense of humor? Married to a blonde woman called Susan? Samantha? No!" she exclaimed with satisfaction, "it was Sally!"
Shaking her red curls and making them bounce prettily, Uma said, "Oh, no! Jack, er, General O'Neill isn't married! I'm certain he's a single parent." A predatory look of determination crossing her face, she nodded her head with finality. "No, I haven't met anyone called Sally O'Neill."
Shrugging her shoulders and picking up her pencil, taking a thoughtful chew, Mrs. Spears muttered, "Mm, why does that name and these pranks sound so familiar then?" The sounds of laughing children broke her thoughts, and Mrs. Spears pushed the worrisome conversation to the back of her mind.
Called to stay back after class, Cameron and Daniel slid back into their chairs and gulping, threw guilty glances at each other. Miss Bumstead had thought long and hard about Cameron's prank, and feeling slightly irked by the mention of a Mrs. O'Neill, took matters into her manicured hands. Prepared to accept an apology on behalf of the class, she listened with exasperation as Cam shifted the blame to his imaginary friend. "I declare, Cameron O'Neill, you have just gone too far." Tapping Daniel on the nose, she added, "And I am very disappointed with my little hall monitor." Dropping his eyes to the floor, Daniel nodded his head and whispered an apology.
"Sorry, Miss Bumstead, I understand if you have to appoint a new hall monitor." The look of such profound misery on Danny's face caught at Uma's heart, and she promised she would think about any punishments very carefully. Spearing her gaze towards Cam, she frowned as she came face to face with his cheeky grin. "'Spose Jake can be the new monitor!" Dropping his eyes to the floor, Cam stifled the giggle that threatened to escape. This had been a great game, and the little colonel was enjoying himself far too much to consider the result of this day's work.
Uma Bumstead considered the result all too well and put into motion events that would eventually bring Cam's tricks and scams under full parental scrutiny. Still oblivious, Cam thought about the backpacks he'd hidden in the girls' locker rooms and threw his hand over his mouth to stop laughing. The two bag-less boys were frantic, and howling their outrage, walked hand-in-hand with the wincing gym teacher. Glancing at the miserable boys and then back to Cam's smug face, Uma rolled her eyes.
"No, I don't think that will be necessary, Cameron." She decided this game had gone on far too long and guiding them towards the principal's office, she made her decision. Calling Jack at home, she took a deep breath and outlined exactly what had transpired at school that day.
"General O'Neill? It's Uma Bumstead. Miss Bumstead. Cameron's teacher? Yes, that's right, the redhead." Dimpling with pleasure at the warm voice on the end of the phone, she almost regretted having to explain her call. Almost.
A dedicated teacher, she had growing concerns over Cammie's imaginary friend, Jake, and wanted the small boy to understand the meaning of cause and effect. The more Cam thought he could get away with blaming Jake, the bolder his naughtiness became, and finally, the swapping of food had been his downfall. Picturing buck-toothed Molly Millhouse, peanut butter cookie halfway to her mouth, made Uma shiver. Allergic to nuts, the little girl would have been in serious trouble, and all because of a thoughtless prank. No, she decided, Jake the fake is leaving school today!
Listening to the blunt conversation regarding his child's list of crimes, Jack closed his eyes and felt the room spin out of control. Mrs. Spears may have forgotten who the prankster had been all those years ago, but he hadn't. "This can't be happening? Jake? An imaginary friend called Jake?"
Grabbing a kitchen chair and half falling into it, Jack recalled a similar discussion about another naughty boy, with another kindhearted teacher. Charlie, he thought, these are the half-assed stunts Charlie pulled! When Uma's insistent voice roused him from his thoughts, Jack tersely agreed that he would be there. "Give me fifteen minutes; I would like to bring a family friend if that's okay." Giving Uma no chance to agree or disagree, the general terminated the conversation before he became emotional and made a fool of himself. "Sara, I'll call Sara, she'll know what to do."
Twisting the cord in her fingers and replaying the conversation in her mind, Uma smiled. "Friend! I knew there was no Sally O'Neill!" Jumping to her feet and crooking her finger at the O'Neill boys, she said sternly, "Okay, we will have an afternoon snack and then your daddy should be here. We have a lot to discuss, don't we, Cameron?" Watching the smug little boy's face blanch, she almost wavered, but remembering the lunchtime chaos, she hardened her resolve. "No, that sad little boy act isn't going to work, mister, and if you even think to blame anyone but yourself, I will be very annoyed. You are going to have to face the consequences of your actions."
"But..." Seeing the flat look of disapproval on his pretty teacher's face, Cam figured his Southern charm wasn't going to wash. It finally dawned on him that he'd gone too far, and with the luxury of hindsight, wondered what possessed him to think Charlie's pranks had sounded so funny. Daniel had tried to tell him that Jack and Sara would have been furious, but he'd refused to listen. Irritated teachers glaring at him, class bullies glaring at him, and the knowledge that Jack was on his way made him feel sick. Slumping into his chair, he swallowed noisily and thought of a certain spare bedroom that probably would have his name printed on its door.
From the corner of his eye, Dan saw Nicky Rossi and Billy McNamara bunch their chubby little fists at him, and closing his eyes, felt the promised ache of a dead arm.
All in all, the day had been a disaster and would only get worse. With their freckled faces burning with shame, Cam and Dan shifted uncomfortably on blue plastic chairs outside the principal's office, waiting for the sword of Damocles to fall.
"Sara? It's Jack. Let's get one thing squared away: you were right about the boys and I was wrong. Okay? They are up to their necks in mischief, but you are not going to believe how." Rubbing his hand through his hair, mindful of how painful the memory would be, Jack explained about Cameron, vandalized paint cartons, squashed banana sandwiches, and the revival of the fake Jake. "So, how do you think my monkeys found out about Charlie's pranks?" Waiting for Sara to catch her breath, Jack played with the coins in his pockets, anything to keep his hands busy. "Sara?"
"Yup, I'm here. Well, that's sure a blast from the past. What's the plan?"
"United we stand, divided I fall into a mess?"
"So, flyboy, nothing's changed then."
The warm surety of her voice calming him, Jack finally let out the breath he'd been holding. Searching the tabletops and eventually patting his pockets down for his keys, he puzzled, "Sara, I just don't get this! How on Earth could Cammie have known about those stunts Charlie pulled over a decade ago? Did you tell him?"
Pinching the bridge of his nose with his fingers, Jack felt the years fall away. Blinking, he pictured Charlie, head bent, confessing to all his heinous crimes against innocent paints, squished sandwiches, and lost library books. There had been hell to pay, and Charlie never hid notes in his little shoebox again. Of course, Jack thought sadly, he hadn't had the time. In a few short years, he had been gone. "Oh, Charlie."
Hearing the dull ache in Jack's voice, Sara closed her eyes. On a lovely spring day, years ago, she had sat in her kitchen and worried. Charlie had been playing the fool, and fed up, she warned him, "Daddy will be home soon." He adored his daddy, and when Jack had to go away, missed him terribly. One day, unexpectedly, he dreamt up an imaginary friend called Jake. Jake was everything Charlie wasn't. He was messy, he was rude, and he played cruel tricks. Sara despaired, and tried everything she could think to make Charlie take responsibility for his own actions. Eventually, the principal had rung, and when Jack came home that week, he put Jake to bed once and for all. Now, unbelievably, she was having the same conversation, with the same man, about the same problem, ten years later. Different kid, though, she thought sadly.
Shaking her head, she decided to put the past where it belonged and deal with the present. She had a very good idea where Cam got the Jake idea. "No, Jack, why would I? That child doesn't need any hints from me to get into God-awful mischief. My guess, flyboy, would be Charlie's box of tricks. Remember, the shoebox Pops gave him for his baseball cards?" Sara sighed softly at the memory of the little box with the Labrador puppy on it, and brushed away an errant tear. Taking a deep breath and pushing her sadness away for the time being, she murmured, "Didn't you store Charlie's things in the attic last spring?" Phone hunched under her chin as she raced through the house looking for keys and bag, she panted, "I'll meet you at the school. After we get our collective asses smacked, we'll come home and discuss it as a family, okay?"
"Meet you there... and Sara? Yeah, we will, as a family." Placing the phone in its cradle, Jack sighed. "Okay, children, this had so better be good."
Walking into the schoolyard, Sara coughed, and stared at the empty swings creaking in the warm breeze. This was going to be harder than she thought. Feeling Jack squeeze her hand, she nodded, and lifted her chin in the air. "Okay, I can do this. We need to find room 511a." Counting the door numbers, she exclaimed, "Ah, here we are." Walking in, she looked around the bright, cheery classroom and felt her heart suddenly soar. A feeling of optimism swept through her, and even though she was annoyed with the little pranksters, she knew they never meant to hurt her. Hiding her smile behind her hand, she searched out the boys' guilt ridden faces and shook her finger at them sternly. "Well, well, this is a fine state of affairs! "
"Hello, Sara." Daniel looked at her beseechingly. "Sorry to make you miss the Bold and the Beautiful."
"Howdy, Sara. Are you gonna take us home?" Cameron slid his eyes across to Jack's disapproving face, and sighing softly, added, "Please?"
"No 'hello Daddy'?" Jack growled, "And no, mister, she is not. You and I have a lot to discuss."
When Sara and Jack walked in, arms casually linked, Uma's smile froze on her face, but shaking it off, got right down to business. If Jack noticed the exchange between Sara and Uma, he didn't comment. He had been too busy glaring at his fallen angels. The angels themselves looked anywhere but back at him, and for once, Cameron wore a look of guilt that exceeded the one on Daniel's face.
Ignoring the wordless warnings Jack sent the boys, thinking they deserved everything they had coming, Sara nodded at the young teacher. "Miss Bumstead? I'm Sara O'Neill." Holding her hand out and smiling warmly, she allowed a tiny smile to tug at her lips as she took a seat. Patting the tiny chair next to her, she breathed, "Honey? Sit here?" Looking at the chair meant for a six-year-old's butt, the General groaned under his breath.
"Wonder where Charlie got his lame sense of humor from," hissed Jack.
"Oh, probably the dubious Irish genes he had flowing through his veins. Poor kid."
"Yeah, right." Shifting his weight from one foot to the other, he felt his spirits surprisingly lift. If Sara could laugh about this, then so could he. Not that Cameron would be excused. Charlie had learned his lesson, and he'd make darn sure his littlest colonel would as well. But boys will be boys, and he figured he'd file this drama away to be brought up and laughed over later. Much later. Much, much later. Like when Cameron had children of his own, later. Sitting on the chair made for people under four feet tall, Jack looked at Sara carefully.
Elbowing him gently, she whispered, "You're on, I believe. Go get 'em, tiger."
"Children," he growled. A crooked finger was all it took to have the boys, dented halos and all, shuffle across the room and stand at Jack's knees. Cameron bravely plastered a watery smile on his face, and looking into the pair of stern parental eyes, breathed, "Hello, Daddy. Hello Sara, fancy meetin' ya'll here."
"Cameron," Jack and Sara said in unison, "be quiet."
Looking up, chewing his lip with trepidation, Daniel waggled his fingers at Sara and sighed at Jack. "Are we going to get it? We are, aren't we? We are sooo going to get it. I told Cam, don't do it, 'cause we are going to get it!" Feeling himself fly through the air and bounce onto his dad's lap, Daniel squeaked with fright, "Oh, we are so going to get it!"
Cameron was given a week's detention, meaning no recess or lunchtime playing with the other children. He had to sit with Miss Bumstead and eat his food alone. For a social little boy like Cam, there could be no worse punishment. He'd miss all the baseball games, heads-up-seven-up tournaments, and the banned Yu-Gi-Oh! card swapping. Tears rolling down his face, he hugged his teacher's leg and promised that the imaginary Jake was kaput.
Daniel had his hall monitor button confiscated and given to an ecstatic Molly Millhouse for an entire week. The shame and embarrassment of being busted down to a regular kid made him burst into noisy tears, but Uma coolly stood her ground. "Every action has a cause and effect, Daniel. You knew what Cameron was doing was wrong and yet you said nothing. This is the price of misguided loyalty. "
Tears of regret were shed. Heartfelt promises earnestly made were earnestly accepted. Sent packing, Jake the fake exited the O'Neill family home for the second time. Growling, Jack made sure Cameron understood who the real culprit had been. "If I hear Jake is back in town, I guarantee you will be one very sorry little boy, got it? "Sensing his daddy meant business, Cammie quickly decided imaginary friends weren't worth the trouble they caused. " 'Kay, does that mean I'm not in trouble now?"
"What do you think? Pretending you were being bullied? Causing all sorts of trouble at school? Dragging your brother into another harebrained scheme?" Glaring at the little archaeologist as he tried to back out of the room, he wagged his finger in the air. "Ahhttt! Back you come! Gotta be somewhere, Daniel?" Snaking out an arm and corralling the little boy, Jack continued with his lecture. "Cameron, where was I? Riiight, how about making up stories to wriggle out of chores? Shall I continue?" Patting his lap, Jack hauled Cam onto his knee and prodded his belly, coolly demanding, "Well, airman? "
"So, I am in trouble?"
Throwing his hands in the air, Jack dumped Cam onto his feet and looking at Sara, sighed, "Tag, you're it."
"Oh, please!" Sara held her hand out and gently took Cam's. Fixing the squirming child with a stern look, she said, "Cameron, that little box had Charlie's name on it, didn't it?" Seeing the little boy nod a fraction, still looking at his toes, Sara continued. "So, what made you think you could take it? Did it have Cameron written anywhere on it?"
"Nuh-huh." With another tiny shake of his head. Cam looked up at Sara's kind face, and started to cry again. "Least I don' think so."
Determined to get through to the headstrong child, Sara squeezed his hand and continued, ignoring the tears that steadily fell. "Neither do I! So, when you and Daniel read letters that were clearly addressed to your dad and me, you invaded our privacy." Lifting Cam's tear stained face to hers, she insisted, "Cameron, didn't you?"
"Yes, Ma'am." Misery and regret showed clearly on Cam's face.
Still, Sara contined."You boys are old enough to know right from wrong, so explain to me, what made you take Charlie's stuff and hide it? You could see that he was caught, so why pull the same stunts? You know, he was a very sorry little boy once your daddy finished with him. If you are so keen on being just like Charlie, I guess the punishment should be the same. Jack?"
"Come on, Cam, best you follow me."
Another shrug, another sniff. "No! I don' wanna be just like Charlie anymore!" Nose red from crying, he whispered, "I only took Charlie's stuff 'cos Dan knew all 'bout Charlie, but I didn't."
Sighing, Jack asked, "All those pranks? Swapping the lunches? Hiding the other kids' bags?"
"Dunno, jus 'cos they sounded like fun, I guess." Looking up and shrugging nonchalantly, Cam's honesty astounded Sara and amused Jack. "I only hid Billy McNamara and stinky Nicky Rossi's, s'all. They're mean, an' always pickin' on Dan, so, it served 'em right." Unrepentant and loyal, Cam folded his arms. Jutting his chin out, he looked Jack squarely in the eye, daring him to say he'd been wrong. Cam would always protect his brother, no matter what the consequences may be.
A feeling of love and pride for his little colonel overwhelmed Jack. Looking over at the freckled face child, eyes puffy from crying, hand planted protectively across his backside, Jack steeled himself to play the stern parent. He told Sara later that it had been all he could do not to burst out laughing. "Excuse me?" he growled," serves them right to have no lunch? To have their bags put in the girls' locker room?" Rolling his eyes at Sara, Jack muttered, "This is what I have to put up with!" Moving across the room and sitting on Cam's bed, Jack said softly, "Okay, the stupid stunts I'll deal with later, but for now, go and get me Charlie's shoe box."
Handing over Charlie's shoebox of memories, Cameron knuckled his eyes and blinked away his tears. Truly remorseful for the trouble and pain he'd caused, he hugged Jack's neck tightly. Looking into his daddy's sad, brown eyes, Cam murmured, "I just wanted to be like Charlie, is all." Sniffing miserably, he added," He sounded like such a cool kid!" Running his sleeve under his nose, he asked shyly, "Tell me more 'bout my other brother?"
Edging closer, Daniel flung his arm around Cam's shoulder, and patting his back, asked, "Daddy, did Charlie like Captain Planet? Did you watch it in bed Sunday mornings like we do?"
Sara sighed softly and looking into Jack's eyes, shrugged. Taking a curious little boy onto each of their laps, Sara and Jack reminisced, and found themselves talking freely for the first time in years about their son. And for the first time in years, they laughed and cried together, as a family.