The Young Man and The Sea



August 12-24, 1980



Dying, Peter thought, had a lot to recommend it.

Not that he was actually dying--far from it. In fact, that was part of the problem. If he'd been dying, he'd probably feel less wretched. But no, he was alive. Alive and suffering through every moment of his cold-turned-strep throat. Swallowing was still an adventure in agony. His fever still made his head swim with dizziness. He alternated between being too hot and too cold. He had a headache. And all he wanted to do was sleep.

At the moment he was lying on the couch in the family room, his head propped in his foster mother's lap. She was gently stroking his hair, her delicate fingers caressing his temple and brow. Still, Peter had to admit, dying would mean he'd lose her glorious touch. So maybe it wasn't worth it after all.

He'd had a lot of problems with illness since the temple. The nurse at the infirmary at the orphanage told him it was because the temple had been a fairly closed society--he hadn't been exposed to a lot of the germs the rest of the world got, so he never got to build up an immunity to them. He'd averaged a cold a season ever since the temple, and had known it was only a matter of time before he got his summer cold. He'd hoped it would be better now that he was away from the constant coughing, sneezing and runny noses of the other kids, but obviously, that had made no difference at all; he was sicker this time than he'd ever been, and Annie and Paul had alternated sitting with him the past couple of nights. But, he supposed, he was improving slowly; his fever broke last night and hadn't come back yet today. And he'd actually managed to get out of bed, if only to make it as far as the couch and the tv.

He sighed and Annie gentled him with a soft shhh and a tender caress to his shoulder. He kinda liked being sick with her around. It felt better than being sick alone.

"You still haven't said what you want for your birthday," she said. His birthday was in a little over a week, and she'd first asked him about it a couple of weeks ago. His father had always done something special for his birthday, but since then, Peter's birthdays had passed unnoticed.

"How about a new throat?" he asked.

She laughed. "Nah, I think we'll just patch the old one back together for you--it'll be good as new, you'll see."

"If you say so," he croaked, then grimaced on a swallow.

She reached for the glass of juice next to her and held it for him. It hurt to swallow, but the juice felt good going down.

"Well, think about it. We want to do something special for you."

He shrugged. "It's not that big a deal," he insisted.

"Sure it is--it's not every day you turn fifteen."

"What's so special about fifteen?"

"It's a year older than fourteen."

"Yeah, but a year younger than sixteen."

"What's so special about sixteen?"

"Driver's license!"

"Ahh," she nodded. "Well, think of fifteen as the warm-up for sixteen. And I think you can get your learner's permit when you're fifteen."

"Really, when can I?" he asked, looking up at her.

"Probably when you start Driver's Ed."

"Yeah, but when will that be?"

"Next summer, I suspect."

He groaned. "That's almost a whole year away!"

She chuckled. "But you'll still be fifteen. Anyway, think of something you want to do for your birthday. That way the year won't be a total waste."

He sighed. "Like what?"

"Well, is there somewhere special you want to go? Something special you want to do?" She stroked his hair. "Anything you'd like for a birthday present?"

He frowned, thinking. "I--I can't think of anything. I mean, every time I want something, you get it for me. That makes it hard to think of something for a present."

She smiled. "Well, when you start out with nothing, it's very easy to get you things. But we don't just want to get you clothes or books, or things you'd need anyway--we want to get you something special, something you really want."

He sighed and sat up, grimacing as he swallowed again, then tucked himself into her arms, resting his head on her shoulder. "I don't know. I can't think of anything. I--I guess--I don't know what I don't have--so I don't know I'm missing it. Does that make sense?"

She laughed lightly and kissed his temple. "Yes, baby, it does. Well, think about it."

"I will," he agreed, then swallowed again. "I still say I want a new throat."

"Wait 'til next week--you'll feel better by then. I promise." She cuddled him close and he reached up and kissed her cheek. Then he sighed and put his head back on her shoulder. Being sick was definitely no fun. But she made it bearable.



Later that evening, after Peter had struggled through dinner, eating only the soft things, he was once again settled on the couch with Annie. Paul was in his easy chair, and the girls were on the floor, watching tv. Peter was only half-watching, preferring to doze contentedly in his mother's arms. Usually, the child who sat next to Annie when the family watched tv, acted as interpreter for the program, so Annie could tell what was going on. But Peter was remiss in his duties, mostly because he wasn't watching the screen, either.

"Daddy, can we go to the beach?" That was Carolyn.

Peter opened his eyes and looked at the television screen, which was showing a beach scene. He'd always been fascinated by pictures of the ocean.

"Why do you want to go to the beach?" Paul asked her.

"Because we haven't been in--ages!"

"Have you ever been to the beach, Peter?" Annie asked him.

"No," he shook his head. "I've never seen the ocean, either."

"Would you like to?"

Peter's eyes lit up. "Yeah!"

"How about if we do that for your birthday? What do you think, Paul?"

"Hmmm," Paul mused, frowning.

"Please, Daddy, Please, Please!" the girls begged.

Paul laughed. "Well, I guess we can manage a trip to the beach."

"Yay!" Kelly clapped, and Carolyn said, "All Right!"

"When's your birthday, Peter--on a Friday, isn't it?"

"Um..." Peter chewed a lip, "I don't know. It's the 22nd. What day is that?"

"Yes, it's on a Friday," Annie confirmed. "Can you take the day--make a weekend of it?"

"Should be able to," he nodded. "With school starting the next week, we'll make it a last summer hurrah. Do we want to go to Santa Luisa?"

"The one with the pier," Kelly said.

"That's Carrolton," Carolyn answered. "Yeah, that one. The beach is good and the pier is fun."

"You just want to ride on rides and eat cotton candy, I know you," Paul teased.

"That's not me, that's Kelly," she protested.

"Rides?" Peter asked. "At the beach?"

"There's a boardwalk and a pier with an amusement park," Paul explained. "It's pretty commercialized. Santa Luisa is more natural."

"I don't care, as long as there's sand and water," Peter answered.

"I vote for Carrolton," Carolyn said.

"Me too," Kelly added.

"Babe?" Paul asked his wife.

"I'm like Peter--anywhere there's sand and water. But there's more for the kids to do at Carrolton."

"Okay," Paul conceded. "Carrolton it is. I'll call tomorrow and make the reservations."

"Good," Carolyn sighed, "I was beginning to think we weren't gonna get a vacation this year."

Peter frowned. "Do you take a vacation every year?"

"Usually," Annie told him. "But we decided when you came to live with us that we wanted you to settle in, so we'd forego the vacation for this year."

"You didn't have to do that--I mean, I--"

"It's no big deal, Peter. Anyway, now we're getting to go to the beach, so that's cool." Carolyn grinned at him. "So thanks for having a birthday in the summer!"

Peter smiled, but was still uncomfortable knowing they'd given up their vacation for him. They shouldn't have to do that. He was glad they were planning this trip now--even if it was only for a weekend. "How far is it to the ocean from here?" he asked.

"We're only a couple of hours from the coast, but Carrolton's a little ways down, so it's about three and a half hours there," Paul told him.

"I didn't realize we were that close!"

"Wasn't the temple close to the ocean?" Paul asked.

"I--I don't know. We never went there, anyway, if it was." All he knew about the temple's location was the mountains, the river, and the lake. He'd never seen the ocean. Until now. He grinned at the thought. "The ocean--wow!" he whispered.

Paul chuckled. "If you think it's great now, kid, just wait 'til you see it!"

Peter smiled, his sore throat forgotten in the excitement. "I can't wait!"



~~~~~





The morning of his birthday, Peter's sisters pounced on his bed early, waking him with a chorus of Happy Birthday, and tickling him until he got out of bed simply to avoid them. Downstairs, Annie was fixing breakfast, and there were several packages at his place at the kitchen table. From Carolyn he got a book on sportscars. From Kelly, a Mariners t-shirt. And from Paul and Annie he received an automatic 35mm camera, a case, and three rolls of film. Paul showed him how to load the camera, and he took several pictures of the family at breakfast before Paul made him put it away and eat.

After breakfast, he and Paul loaded the car with their luggage and beach supplies. After what Paul complained was several hours and far too many trips, the car was finally loaded and the family piled into the sedan. The drive passed quickly, as Carolyn chattered on happily about previous family vacations, telling Peter everything he needed to know, and more, about the beach. A two hour drive brought the sea within sight, and as soon as they got close, Paul found a place to pull off and allow Peter, now just about over his cold, a chance to try out his new camera. He was well on the way to finishing his first roll of film, and the camera had only been in his possession for a little over three hours.

Paul stopped the car on the verge of the road, a layby with a scenic overlook of the cliffs and the water. "Go on, kids, but we're only stopping a few minutes," he told them. Peter was out of the car and to the railing, camera to his face, almost before his foster father stopped talking. He took several shots, from all angles, and then he lowered the camera and just stared.

He was completely captivated by the glorious, incomprehensible majesty of the sea. He was stunned by the smell of it--by the change in the feeling of the air. It was as if the sea were alive--a living, breathing entity, tens of thousands of miles in size. It was unfathomable; it was--the most incredible thing he'd ever seen.

He blinked and realized Annie was at his side, and he smiled and took her arm. Together they walked to the farthest edge of the layby, just gazing at the magnificence in front of them.

"So--" she began, patting his arm, "what do you think?"

"It's--incredible," he sighed. "It's so big! I mean, nothing I imagined was like this--it's like it goes on--forever."

She smiled, but it was a wistful look. "You know, the ocean is one of the only things I can't even imagine. It's something that has to be seen to be experienced, and all the words everyone's ever used to describe it just can't come close to capturing the reality I know must be out there--if only I could see it." She sighed. "There are very few things in this world that I wish more than anything I could see. One is the faces of my children, my husband. One is the sky--either blue with clouds, or littered with stars. And one is the sea."

He put his arm around her shoulder and leaned in, kissing the top of her head. "My father--used to try and teach me about eternity. I couldn't understand. How could there be something that existed before time, something that will be there long after time has stopped. It didn't make sense. But when I look out there--look at the ocean--I think I can understand, a little. This is what eternity looks like."

She put her hands on his shoulders, and when she spoke, her voice shook a little. "Oh, Peter, that's the closest anyone's ever come to describing it so I can understand. Thank you." She put her arms around him and hugged him tight. He held on, wishing he could give her that gift--wishing she could see what he saw. Wishing she could see at all.

"Annie--Peter--" Paul's voice carried down the railing from the car, "come on, let's go."

Their hug broke and Annie ruffled his hair. "Come on, sweetie, let's go find some beach to play on!" Together they walked back to the car.



They arrived at their hotel shortly after noon, and everybody lent a hand unloading the car, even Annie, who put a bag over her shoulder, another in her hand, and used the empty hand to hold onto Paul's arm.

"We have your room, Mr. Blaisdell," the clerk was telling him, "but I have something else you might prefer. A double room with a rollaway can get crowded. But I can offer you two connecting rooms, one with a king-size bed, and the other with two doubles, for only $10 per night more than the double room with the rollaway. If you're interested."

"Babe?" Paul deferred to his wife.

She tilted her head. "Sounds good to me."

"Fine," Paul turned back to the clerk. "We'll take the two rooms. These are connecting, right? They're not across the hall or anything."

"No, sir, they have a door between them. Rooms 308 and 310. If you'll just sign here--and I'll need a credit card imprint."

Paul took care of the paperwork while Peter and his sisters went to explore the lobby.

"Don't go too far," Annie admonished them.

"How does she do that?" Peter muttered as he and Carolyn stopped to look in the window of the gift shop.

"Eyes in the back of her head," Carolyn explained.

"Eyes that can see?"

"Well--antennas. That can sense. She's always done that."

Peter just shook his head. Then he pulled out his camera and took a picture of the lobby of the hotel. He was determined that this, his first real vacation, would be documented for posterity.

"Kids--come on," Paul's voice called them back, and they gathered up their bags again and followed their parents into the elevator.

"We get our own room?" Carolyn asked.

"Um hmm. There are 2 double beds. You and Kel get one, Peter gets the other."

"How come he gets his own bed?" she complained.

"'Cause I'm the boy, I'm older, and it's my birthday," he said immediately. Paul just laughed.

"Did you bring your chain, baby?" Paul asked his daughter.

"Yeah, but it's packed. I'll get it when we get up to the room," Carolyn answered.

"Then you get custody of the key. Promise you'll take care of it."

"Promise," she nodded gravely. Peter got the impression that this was a usual Blaisdell vacation thing. "What about the other key?"

"I'll keep that--just in case."

"Okay."

"Okay with you, Peter?"

He just shrugged. "Whatever."

They got to their rooms, which were two doors right in the middle of the hall, and Paul handed Carolyn the one key. "You're in 310," he told her, and she took the key and opened the room.

The room was a decent size; there were two double beds along one wall, with a nightstand between them, a long dresser along the opposite wall, and by the sliding door was a small round table and two chairs. It looked nice, comfortable without being too gaudy. Peter looked around.

"Are all hotels like this one?" he asked.

"Mostly," Carolyn answered. "You've never been in a hotel before?"

He shook his head. "I guessed what they looked like from tv."

There was a knock on the connecting door, and Carolyn pulled it open. "Hi there!" she said to her father.

"Keep this door unlocked," Paul told them. "If I find it locked, somebody's bottom will be red, and not from sunburn, either."

"Yes, sir," they all agreed.

"How's the room?" Annie appeared at her husband's side.

"Peter's never been in a hotel before," Kelly informed her parents.

"Well then," Annie smiled, "today's a day of firsts, isn't it, Peter? Come see our room." She extended a hand, and Peter took it. He stopped just inside the connecting door and gaped.

"That's not a bed, that's a continent!" he exclaimed, having never seen a king-sized bed before.

"Yes, Paul and I will have to leave breadcrumbs or we'll lose each other," she laughed.

"Huh?" Peter didn't understand the reference.

"Hansel and Gretel," Carolyn told him.

"Who?"

There was a moment of silence as they realized Peter's lack of a shared culture. Then Kelly said, "It's a fairy tale about two children who got lost in the woods, and left a trail of breadcrumbs so they could find their way back. But the birds ate them all."

"Oh," Peter nodded. Then he frowned. "And that's it? I mean, aren't fairy tales supposed to have a lesson?"

"No, that's not the whole story, just part of it," she said.

"Oh. I was wondering."

"See, what happened was, they got lost, so they were walking, and they came upon this house--"

"Why don't you tell Peter the story later, sweetie," Annie gave her youngest daughter a hug. "Right now, let's get settled in, then go find some lunch."

"Yeah!" the kids all answered.

"I'll tell you about Hansel and Gretel later, Peter," Kelly said.

He grinned. "Thanks." It often bothered him that he had so little common culture with these people. But fortunately, they took it in stride, explained things when he didn't understand, asked him about what was different, then listened to the answers, sometimes even adapting themselves to his way of thinking--like they'd accepted his different religion. It made everything so much easier. Even if sometimes he felt like he'd never belong, at other times he felt like he could belong. With a smile, he went back to his room to unpack.



~~~~~



Paul sat down with a huff, grateful to finally be in one place and not carrying something.

"This is worse than setting up base camp," he complained and his wife laughed, handing him a can of beer.

He opened it gratefully and took a swig. The Blaisdell "base camp" on the beach was a fairly impressive site, consisting of an assortment of blankets and towels, bags full of suntan lotion and extra clothes, several books, frisbees and beach toys, a cooler, and a lean-to canopy which Annie required to keep her out of direct sun; her fair skin burned too easily, and her eyes were bothered by bright sunlight.

The lady in question reached over and gently rubbed her husband's shoulder. "Where are the kids?" she asked.

"In the water. Kelly's standing there looking cold, and Peter and Carolyn are chasing the waves."

"He seems pretty amazed by it," she commented.

"Enthralled is a better word," he agreed. "And I practically had to pry the camera out of his hands to keep him from taking it into the water with him. I told him there was no surer way to ruin his new gift than to take it swimming. That finally worked."

"I hope he has a good time," she smiled.

"I don't think there's any worry about that, darling--he's burbling again."

She sighed and scooted closer to her husband, and he put his arm around her and kissed her hair. It was good, spending time with the family like this. He and Annie had been so careful all summer to give equal time to all their children, so that Carolyn and Kelly shouldn't feel neglected or left out by the attention they were naturally showing to Peter. It had been a struggle sometimes, so it was nice now to just be together as a family and let life happen to them; no pressures, no expectations.

Peter was proving to be as rewarding as he was challenging. They'd had a seemingly never-ending string of difficulties in the few months he'd been with them, and yet each trial brought them closer together, taught them more about the complex, often troubled boy they'd brought into their home. Bit by bit, scrap by scrap, they were learning about him, and day by day, he was growing more comfortable with his new life.

He'd been difficult to buy a birthday present for. He seemed to try to underplay his birthday; perhaps it gave him bad memories. The kid didn't even know what he wanted. He was too old for toys, not quite old enough for electronic gadgetry. Paul had asked him if he wanted a bike, and Peter had shaken his head, explaining that he'd never ridden one, and thought 15 was a little old to learn. He was athletic, but wasn't involved in any sports yet, and he said he'd struggled in gym class, especially his first year in the orphanage, because he didn't know the rules for most of the sports. Football, he confided, still confused him.

But when they decided to take this trip to the beach for Peter's birthday, the perfect present revealed itself--a camera. Peter had been thrilled with it, and Paul had the sinking feeling that every moment of their trip was going to be captured for all time. He only hoped Peter wouldn't spend the trip seeing the world through a viewfinder.

A shriek made him look up in time to see a thoroughly wet Carolyn go to splash Peter. Next thing he knew, Kelly had gotten into the act and both girls were tackling their brother to the surf, to the accompaniment of laughter and cries.

"What's happening?" Annie asked.

"Nothing--the girls are beating up on Peter."

"Oh, is that all." They shared a smile. Early on the girls had discovered their new brother was ticklish, and had used this knowledge to their advantage at every opportunity. Peter was big enough to be able to outrun them or hold them off, but never tried to hurt them in an attempt to get away. Paul wouldn't suggest it to Peter, but suspected the kid probably sort of enjoyed it--it might be tickling, but at least it was physical contact.

He watched the churning, frothy mess which was his foster son, before he sighed and got to his feet. "I'd better go rescue him before they drown him by mistake."

"Have fun, dear." Annie smiled at him. She knew him too well--knew that part of his motivation was to get in some good old-fashioned rough-housing with his kids. He grinned; he was looking forward to it.



~~~~~



Peter stood in the water, eyes closed, the waves lapping at his thighs and his extended palms. He simply stood there, feeling the aliveness of the ocean--experiencing its feel, its scent, everything about it. He opened his eyes and squinted at the horizon, disappearing into infinity.

He was completely overwhelmed by the ocean and its glories, and was having a great time at the beach. His biggest surprise was discovering just how salty the seawater was--totally different than he'd been expecting. Different, but even more amazing than his wildest imagination. He and Carolyn had spent some time standing in the surf, waiting for a swell of wave, then throwing themselves into it and letting it wash them back to shore. It was incredible, the feel of the water pushing him along by itself--all he had to do was enjoy the ride.

The clean expanse of the beach was fun, too, and Peter gloried in the feeling of sand between his toes. He helped Kelly build a sandcastle until the tide washed it away. Then, during a break in his playing in the water, his sisters decided to bury him in the sand. It started with his digging his feet into the coolness beneath the hot top sand. Then Carolyn started piling sand up on top of his legs. Then Kelly joined in and the next thing Peter knew, his entire lower body was sand-encased. But when they tried to make him lie down so they could finish the job, he decided enough was enough and erupted from his sand cocoon to chase his sisters down the beach.

Peter loved the food at the beach as well--cold Cokes, hot pretzels, hot dogs and sno-cones. Annie warned them against eating too much junk food and then not being able to eat dinner. But Peter, with the appetite of a growing teenager, ate one of everything and two of some.

He closed his eyes again and took a deep breath. Maybe this was what his father was always trying to get at--becoming one with the world around you--one with yourself. Here in the water, Peter felt One with the universe. He slowly starting walking into the waves, feeling the water level rise and recede with the tide, feeling the waves push at him. He wondered whether he could push back. He stared again at the horizon and it called to him.

Peter was a strong swimmer and had always been good in the water. But the ocean was different. He dove into the next oncoming wave and battled it, swimming against the tide. It took a lot more work than swimming in the lake, or in the pool in town. It was a challenge--an adversary to be conquered.

A line of buoys loomed in front of him, but Peter ignored them and swam past. He kept his sight on the horizon ahead, using it as a marker--the impossible goal to be reached. Quite a ways out, he wondered how deep the ocean was, and stopped his stroke, shooting himself down to touch the bottom. He couldn't feel it, and came back up, trying again, this time forcing himself down and down and down. The pressure in his ears was almost unbearable when his feet finally touched rocky sand, and the water was icy cold, so he shot back up to the surface.

He turned back to the shore and saw a form on the beach waving to him. He thought it was Paul. He was pretty far out, he should probably head back. So he turned and headed back to shore. The return trip was easier, because he had the waves with him, pushing him along. Sometimes, he'd break his stroke and just let the water do the work.

He was almost at the line of buoys again when a big wave crashed over him, sending him down, making him swallow water and completely disorienting him. He felt like the water was a giant hand, holding him beneath the surface, and he struggled for a long time to fight his way free of it. When finally he broke the surface, gasping, he was only about 25 yards from the shore, and he could put his feet down.

It felt good to stand on solid ground, and he stood in the shallows, gasping for breath, coughing up salt water. He looked up, expecting to see Paul on the beach in front of him, and was surprised that the family beach-site was nowhere in sight. He shook his head and frowned. Then he looked up the beach and found that he had somehow washed ashore some 200 yards further down the beach from where he'd started. How had that happened?

He heard his name, and saw Paul hurrying down the beach toward him. Still panting heavily, he trudged up the beach to meet him.

There was fury in Paul's face as he neared, and his foster father grabbed him by the shoulder and shook him. "What the hell do you think you were doing?" he demanded.

"I wanted--to see how far--I could go," Peter panted.

"Not in the ocean, Peter--you can't swim the ocean, it's 4,000 miles across! Didn't you see the buoys?"

"Yes."

"Those tell you how far it's safe to swim. They're there for a reason, not to be ignored!"

"I was safe past them," he protested feebly, but the effects of the physical exertion were making themselves known. It was hard to catch his breath and he felt weak-kneed.

"This isn't the lake at the temple, this is the ocean! There are tides and currents. Undertows. It's dangerous to swim too far in the ocean--exactly because of what just happened to you!"

"What was that?" he asked. "How did I wind up down here?"

"It's called an undertow, and it's a strong current which runs along the shore. They're unpredictable and very strong. If the current had taken you the other way, it could have smashed you into the pier and there would have been nothing you could have done to stop it! Don't you ever do something like that again, do you hear me?"

Peter took a deep breath, choked on it, and started coughing again. But he managed to nod and croak out, "Yes, sir."

He imagined he could see Paul's anger drain out and the older man sighed, shaking his head. "You had me so scared, kid-" He pulled Peter into a fierce hug, and Peter hugged back, grateful that his screw up hadn't been any worse, grateful to be back on solid ground and in loving arms.

"I'm sorry I yelled, Peter," Paul went on, "but you frightened me. I should have realized you wouldn't know what the ocean could do, you wouldn't know the danger." He sighed. "Come on," he put an arm around Peter's shoulders, "let's get back. Your mom's worried."

"You told her what I did?"

"She had to know when I went chasing off down the beach after you," Paul told him.

Peter sighed. "Oops."

"Yeah, oops is right. Come on, time to face the music."

But Annie wasn't angry; relieved was more like it. Peter flopped on the towel next to her, and she took another towel and wiped off most of the water and sand before putting more sunscreen on his shoulders and back.

"Peter's in trouble," Kelly taunted.

"No, Peter's not in trouble," Annie commented. "He's been yelled at, he knows not to do it again. That's the end of it. Right, honey."

"Right," Peter mumbled into his towel.

They were silent while Annie smoothed the lotion on Peter's back.

"Where did you learn to swim, Peter?" she asked.

"At the temple," he said. "There was a lake there. That's where we used to swim."

"How old were you when you learned?"

"Umm--I don't know--it's like--I can't even remember not knowing. I must've been pretty young. I think my father figured it was easier to teach me how to swim than to try and keep me out of the lake." Annie chuckled and Peter smiled. For the first time, it didn't hurt quite so much, mentioning his father. Maybe because this particular memory was a good one--not a lesson, or discipline, or that awful night, but--pleasant, fun times with his father and the other boys at the temple. A good memory to hold onto. "There was this waterfall--not very high, but kinda tricky. Anyway, we used to like to swim it. Used to make my father so mad. He knew we'd do it anyway, so he never told us not to, but he used to try and get us to take an adult along. But most of the time we didn't." He sighed. "It was different than the ocean, but fun. I'm still trying to get used to swimming in a bathing suit."

"Why, what did you swim in?" Carolyn asked. After her earlier excursions into the water, Carolyn had decided to spend the rest of the afternoon in quest of the Perfect Tan.

Peter raised his head and looked sideways at her. "Nothin'." He grinned when she blushed.

Paul raised an eyebrow. "Cold water in the lake?"

"Not too bad in the hottest days of summer, but the rest of the time, yeah, it was pretty cold."

Paul shivered exaggeratedly, and Peter laughed.

"Yeah, some of the older priests hated it. But it didn't bother us kids any. Or if it did, we pretended it didn't."

"Was there a beach?" Kelly wanted to know.

"There was a little sand, but mostly it was rocks and pebbles.

Not like this." Peter laid his head back down on his arms, surprised at how easy it had been this time, to talk about it. Before, all he could remember was the end--and beyond. The pain, both in his leg and in his heart. He remembered his last sight of the structure which had been home his whole life--nothing left but a smoldering ruin--

He sat up suddenly with a gasp. "Paul--"

"What is it?" Paul looked at him, frowning. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah, but--talking about the temple just reminded me of something. I meant to ask you about it when I first moved in, but I forgot. I had this knife--I found it in the ruins of the temple. It was my father's... Anyway, when I went into the orphanage, they took it away from me. Said they'd keep it for me. But I never saw it again. It's--it's the only thing I had--that was his. Could--could you check--see if they still have it? If you could get it back for me? I'd like to have it."

Paul just nodded and patted his shoulder. "I'll do what I can, kid. It's yours--you should get to keep it. What kind of knife is it?"

"It was a ceremonial dagger; big--about this long," Peter indicated with his hands, "and it had a carved jade handle."

Paul's eyebrows rose. "That sounds like quite a dagger. Would you mind if I held onto it for you? We could keep it in a case in my den if you'd like."

Peter smiled, perfectly willing to let Paul look after it for him. "Thanks."

"Kelly, where are you going?" Annie interrupted, and Peter saw that the smallest Blaisdell was heading away from the family and back to the sea.

"Back in the water?"

"Come here first, please," her mother said.

Kelly obeyed and Annie put a hand on her daughter's shoulder.

"Oh, honey, you're getting warm. Paul, does she look red to you?"

Paul surveyed his daughter critically. "Maybe a little pink, but it's too hard to tell out here."

"I'm okay, Mommy. Please, can't I go swimming again?"

Annie sighed. "Just for a little while. It's getting late."

"Come with me?" Kelly asked.

"Yeah, Mom," Carolyn sat up. "You haven't been in the water yet."

"Do you swim?" Peter asked.

"Not in years," she confided, "and never in the ocean--it's too unpredictable. But I'm a champion wader!"

"Come on, Mom," Kelly prodded.

"Yeah, come on," Peter added.

She sighed. "Oh, all right. Paul, do you want to watch our things?"

Paul smiled. "Of course. Go on. But Kelly, don't lose her."

"I won't," Kelly answered seriously.

"For heaven's sake, Paul!" Annie said shaking her head. "Come on, kids, let's show Daddy we can take care of ourselves."

She plopped her wide-brimmed hat on her head, adjusted her sunglasses, and took a daughter by each hand. And the three Blaisdell women marched off into the sea.

Peter watched them go, watched Annie wade into the water up to her knees and then reach down and let the waves wash over her hands--seeing the ocean in the only way she could. He sighed.

Paul looked over at him. "You going to join them?"

"In a minute," Peter answered. "Paul--"

"Yeah?"

"Doesn't it ever bother you--that she'll never see your face? She'll never know what you look like?"

Paul smiled. "She knows what I look like better than I do," he said. "But I knew the situation when I married her. And it didn't make a damn bit of difference to me whether she could see or not. I was in love with her. I still am."

"She said--" Peter went on, "she said that the ocean is the one thing she can't imagine. That she'll never really understand it because she'll never see it."

"She's right--is the ocean anything like you imagined it?" Paul asked.

"No. But that's because I didn't know anything except what I'd read, or what was in pictures."

"So she has everything else except the pictures. But would it make the same impact it does if you couldn't see it? It would be like a large, active bathtub."

"I guess," Peter admitted.

Paul sighed. "I've always thought that if by some miracle she woke up tomorrow and could see, the first thing she'd do would be to look at the faces of her family. The second would be to go to the sea."

Peter frowned. "Isn't there anything they can do? I mean, to help her see?"

Paul just shook his head. "No, her type of blindness is a damage of the nerve--it's permanent."

"You mean, her eyes are fine--it's just the--connection--that's missing."

"Yeah, more or less."

"That's so sad...."

"Hey, don't go feeling sorry for her, you know how she feels about that," Paul warned him.

"Yeah," Peter grinned, "about the same way I feel about it."

As if on cue, Carolyn and Kelly called back to him. "Peter, are you coming?"

"Just a sec," he answered. He turned to Paul.

"Go on--they're waiting for you," Paul said.

Peter smiled. Then he leaned over and kissed his foster father on the forehead before he stood up.

Paul blinked in surprise. "What was that for?"

Peter raised both arms in an exaggerated shrug. "'Cuz!" he grinned, then he turned around and ran to meet the rest of his family.



~~~~~



The family returned from the beach to find that Kelly's "slight pinkness" blossomed quickly into an angry red sunburn. And as was typical with the youngest Blaisdell, she threw off a fever almost instantly. Paul made an emergency run to the gift shop for lotion and sunburn spray, and Annie tucked Kelly into bed. Peter's birthday dinner would have to be postponed for another night. So Paul took Peter and Carolyn for dinner at the hotel coffee shop, both children agreeing that anyplace they could get cheeseburgers and chocolate shakes was fine with them.

Peter was still giddy with the excitement of the day, and between his and Carolyn's chatter, Paul knew it was futile to try and get a word in edgeways. That had been a surprise, Peter's constant talking when he was nervous or excited. Early on, he'd seemed very subdued, even sullen, as if it were a struggle to say anything at all. But Paul knew it was a tribute to how comfortable Peter felt with them that he was willing to let go and just--burble.

Dinner passed quickly, and Paul enjoyed spending the time alone with his two oldest kids. He was also surprised at how quickly Peter had become one of "his kids", as opposed to "his daughter and his foster son". Annie, of course, had accepted him instantly and unequivocally, and Carolyn and Peter had become quite close--in a brother/sister way. Kelly, however, still treated Peter a little cautiously, as if she wasn't quite sure what to make of this new, male creature in the house. It wasn't that she disliked Peter, not at all. But she was a little shy around him, maybe because of the age difference between them.

Kelly, while bright and clever, sometimes seemed a little young for her age. Perhaps it was just the contrast with Carolyn, who'd played the "oldest sister" role to the hilt. Kelly was the "baby" of the family, and was emotionally a little more "clingy" than her sister had ever been. But Paul knew that in time, Kelly would come into her own, as Carolyn had done, and he'd wind up beating the young men off with a stick. If his son didn't do it for him.

After dinner, they headed back to the room. On the way, they passed the indoor/outdoor pool.

"Hey, Paul," Peter began, "can we go swimming?"

"What do you think you were doing all afternoon?"

"That was the ocean--this is the pool," Peter explained, as if it made perfect sense.

"Please, Dad?" Carolyn chimed in.

"Not tonight, honey," Paul answered.

"Why not?"

"Because you've had a very busy day, and I don't want you to get too tired that you don't want to do anything tomorrow."

"I'm not tired," Peter insisted.

"Neither am I," Carolyn added.

"I said no," Paul told them firmly. "Maybe tomorrow." Both of his children frowned, and Peter looked like he was ready to keep arguing. "Besides," he added, "you've just had dinner and you can't go swimming for an hour after you eat. By that time it would be--" he checked his watch, "--8:00, and that's too late."

Peter sighed like life was an effort. "I guess." Paul couldn't help smiling. At twelve and fifteen years old, all life was high-drama.

Then Peter saw something else. "Then can we go to the game room?"

Paul looked over and saw the small game room off the lobby, with about a half-dozen video games and pinball machines. He wasn't crazy about game arcades, but it was only a little after 7:00, and since Kelly was sick, they couldn't go anywhere. The kids, having been operating in high "vacation" gear all day, would quickly grow bored with having to sit upstairs in the room and watch tv. He sighed. "Here." He handed Peter $5.00. "That should do you."

Peter frowned. "That's only--ten games apiece," he calculated.

Paul shook his head, but obediently put another dollar on the pile. "There. Now that's twelve games. That's enough. When that's gone, you come back upstairs. Got your key, Baby?"

"Yes," Carolyn waved the key on the lanyard around her neck.

"Have a good time," he said and they turned to head into the arcade.

"Oh, Paul--" Peter stopped him.

"What?"

"Can we have money for pops?"

"It's in your hand, Peter--you can either play with it, or drink it--your choice." Then, before Peter could come up with another really good argument as to why Paul should give them more money, he turned away and went upstairs.

The room was dim when he entered, and Annie was curled up on the big bed with Kelly. Paul just stood in the doorway and looked at them.

He'd fallen in love with Annie almost upon sight, and that love had only grown stronger in the intervening years. She was beautiful, clever, sexy, funny, and he loved her in every way imaginable. But part of him especially loved seeing her be a "mom" to their children--he couldn't ever think of them as "his" children, they belonged to both of them, as much as if Annie had borne the girls herself. Annie was a natural mother, and Paul was always amazed when he watched her with the children, when her nurturing soul was given free rein and all of Annie's caring and compassion came to the fore. It was one of the wonderful things when they'd first started spending time with Peter, how quickly the boy had latched onto that caring--clung to it like a drowning man. It was Peter's love for Annie which was probably the primary motivator to his moving in with them. Once Peter had discovered that love, he would never willingly let it go.

He closed the door and Annie heard the sound and turned her head. "Paul?" she said softly.

"Yeah, Babe, it's just me." He came over to the bed, sitting on it giving her a kiss.

"Where are the kids?"

"Game room," he explained. "Keeps them occupied for a little bit. How's Kelly?"

"I hurt," their youngest daughter told him. He just smiled.

"Yeah, I'll bet you do." He reached over and felt her forehead. "You've still got a little bit of a fever, but it's not getting any worse."

"No, it probably won't," Annie agreed, sitting up.

"How come Carolyn spent the day sunbathing and she's fine, and you got fried, huh, cookie?" Paul gently stroked his daughter's cheek.

"Because Carolyn kept putting more suntan lotion on, and someone else--" Annie patted her daughter's shoulder, "kept running into the water and rinsing it all off, that's why." But the words were softened by Annie's gentle smile.

"Did you do that?" Paul asked, mock-surprised.

"I guess--" Kelly answered sheepishly.

"Well then, that'll teach you," he said, smiling at her. "And that'll teach you not to wear those skimpy little bikinis, too," he gently tickled her tummy.

"Daddy, don't--" she squirmed.

"Okay, honey, I won't," he patted her belly. "Did you have dinner?"

"Yes, we ordered a fruit salad from room service--it wasn't too bad, was it?" Annie said.

"I wasn't very hungry," Kelly admitted.

"No, but she ate a little, she'll be fine 'til morning."

Kelly sat up.

"What is it, Kel?" Paul asked.

"Nothing--I just have to go to the bathroom," she said and scooted off the bed, moving like an old lady.

Paul watched her go with a worried smile on his face. "I hope she's feeling better tomorrow--I'd hate for this to put a damper on the weekend. They've all been having a good time up 'til now, too."

"I imagine the fever will break during the night, and she'll be sore tomorrow, but none the worse for wear. I'm surprised Peter's doing so well; he spent at least as much time in and out of the water as she did."

"I wonder if his Chinese blood keeps him from burning," Paul commented.

"His Chinese blood is pretty well diluted," Annie reminded him. "And didn't you say his mother was fair?"

Paul nodded. "She looked Irish in the photo I saw--well, red haired and light-complected, in any case."

Kelly came back from the bathroom and Paul noticed her attire--one of his undershirts. "I like the dress, baby," he said, and Kelly looked down and probably would have blushed if she hadn't been so red already.

Annie chuckled. "It was the loosest thing I could think of to put on her."

"That's all right, plenty more where that came from." He winked at his daughter.

She smiled shyly and crawled back into bed, curling up next to her mother, with her head resting in Annie's lap. So Paul sat next to her on the bed, content to sit in silence. After the constant chatter of the past hour, the silence felt good.

A little after 8:00, Peter and Carolyn burst into the room next door, to the sound of chatter and laughter. Paul got off the bed and went to intercept them before they woke Kelly.

"Shhh," he said from the door, "Kelly's sleeping."

"No I'm not," Kelly's little voice piped up from the bed.

"Well," Annie sighed next to her, "so much for that."

Paul gave up and turned on the light, and the two oldest children poured into the room, jumping to seats on the bed. Paul just shook his head--he didn't remember having that much energy when he was their age.

"How was the game room?" Annie asked.

"Great!" Peter answered, grinning.

"Peter's awesome on Space Invaders," Carolyn gushed. "He kept one game going for almost fifteen minutes!"

"Very good," Paul nodded.

"But he sucks at pinball," she continued.

"Carolyn, watch your mouth," Annie warned her.

"Oops, sorry," Carolyn ducked her head, chagrinned.

"Pinball's a dumb game," Peter complained. "There's all this other stuff going on, it's hard to concentrate on where the balls are. It took me three tries just to figure out how the paddles worked. And then sometimes you hit the button and nothing happens. Or it hits the ball, but knocks it right in the hole."

"No, it's just a game of skill, like any other game of skill. It teaches you hand/eye coordination. But it does take practice," Paul told him.

"I still think it's dumb," Peter mumbled.

"Can we go swimming now?" Carolyn asked, looking at her father adoringly.

"I said no before, Carolyn, I meant it," Paul told her.

"Well, what are we going to do, then?" she pouted.

"You could try reading, or watching tv," he suggested.

"That's boring," she sighed petulantly.

Paul gave an exaggerated sigh. "Oh, all right. Here--" He pulled a deck of cards out from his pocket, but did it in such a way that they seemed to come from nowhere.

Carolyn's eyes grew large and she grinned. "Oh, good! Peter, you've got to see this!"

"I've seen cards before, Carolyn," Peter said in a tone of long-suffering, "we weren't that backwards, you know."

"I'll bet you've never seen cards the way my dad plays them, though," she grinned. "Watch."

So Paul settled himself at the table, with his two oldest children around it, and proceeded to fill up the time with an assortment of card tricks and sleight-of-hand. He'd learned the skill from a partner, back in the "old days", and enjoyed "showing off" for his children. Peter watched mesmerized, and after the third trick, demanded to know how it was done. Paul led him slowly through one of the tricks, pretending to show him, but tossing a couple more tricks in to confuse him.

It didn't work, and Peter insisted to be shown how one of the tricks really worked. So Paul gave in and showed him a very basic one, but explained that a lot of it was practice--learning how to do some very specific skills. Sort of like pinball.

For part of the time, Kelly came over to watch as well, and Annie sat with her on the edge of the bed, cuddling her. But before too long, Kelly grew tired of the tricks and simply put her arms around her mother, tucking her head on Annie's shoulder.

It was after 10:00 when Paul finally put the cards away.

"That's enough. You've had a busy day, time to call it a night or you'll never be able to go back to the beach and the pier tomorrow."

"I'm still awake," Peter insisted.

"So am I," Carolyn added, but it was ruined by a yawn.

"Oh yes, I can see that," Paul chuckled. "Come on, get ready for bed."

"Come on, baby," Annie said to her youngest daughter, "let's get you to bed."

Kelly, half asleep and still running a little temperature, squirmed and whined, "No, Mommy, I don't wanna--" and started to cry.

"Okay, baby, okay. Shh, it's okay," Annie soothed her. Paul sighed. It was clear his littlest one wasn't going anywhere tonight. But he stood up and shooed Peter and Carolyn into the other room. He gave them a few minutes to get ready for bed, then went to tuck them both in.

"See, babe," he said to his oldest daughter, "you get your own bed tonight anyway."

Carolyn frowned. "Is Kelly gonna be okay?"

"Yeah, I think so. She's just feeling bad tonight; I'd be surprised if she wasn't feeling a whole lot better tomorrow."

"I hope so. I remember what it's like having a sunburn like that."

"I've never had one at all," Peter said.

"Really? They're no fun," Carolyn answered.

"How are your shoulders, son?"

Peter put his hand on his shoulder and back, feeling it. "It feels kinda tight. And hot."

Paul moved to his bed and felt. "You did get some color there. Hang on, let me put some lotion on it." He got the after sun lotion, making Peter pull off his shirt. "There--that should feel better."

"Thanks," Peter grinned and tugged his shirt back on.

"You have a good time today, kiddo?" Paul asked, sitting on the edge of the bed.

"Yeah, it was great!"

"I'm glad. Happy birthday, Peter." He leaned in and gave Peter a kiss on the forehead. Peter wrapped his arms around him and hugged him tight.

"Thanks. It's the best birthday I can remember."

Peter let go and Paul stood up, tucking the covers up around him. "Good night, son. See you in the morning. Sleep well."

"'Night," Peter sighed.

"Good night, baby," Paul tucked Carolyn in, kissing her cheek.

"Night, Daddy," she whispered.

Paul smiled at his children, turned off the light, and left the room.



~~~~~



Peter had never been to an amusement park, though he knew all about them from tv and books. But reading about them and experiencing them were two totally different things, and Peter was excited about finally getting to go to one.

By the morning, though her sunburn still looked red and angry, Kelly was feeling considerably more chipper. Her fever was down and her energy level was up. But Annie, not wanting to take any chances, slathered her with the strongest sunscreen they had, and put her in a t-shirt. long pants, and a wide-brimmed hat they bought after breakfast. It was white straw, like Annie's, and the two of them looked very fetching in their matching bonnets.

The amusement park at the pier was small but adequate. There were more than a dozen rides, and lots of arcade games. The rides came first, and Peter fell instantly in love with the tilt-a-whirl; he and the girls went on it three times, and got very good at getting their car to spin. He also liked the Orbit, which spun you around fast enough that when the floor dropped out from under you, you stayed stuck to the wall. He coaxed Annie to ride the big, curved slide with him, sitting front to back with his legs around her, holding on as they slid effortlessly over the bumps and around the curves to end up at the bottom. Carolyn and Kelly followed them down and they all ended up at the bottom in a laughing heap. But the one ride Peter took one look at and flatly refused to go on was the ferris wheel. It was too high; it was too exposed. He and Annie stayed on the ground while Paul took the girls up.

"I don't like it either," Annie confided. "I can't see the scenery, and I don't like the swaying feeling."

"Are there any rides you like?" he asked.

"Well, the slide was fine," she answered. "And I love the carousel. But that's about it. Spinning makes you dizzy if you can't focus on anything."

Paul and the girls came down and Carolyn told them excitedly about how wonderful it was to sit at the top and look out over the ocean. And while Peter wouldn't have minded seeing the ocean from up high, the thought of being suspended in that little chair, swaying in the breeze, nothing between you and the ground but--nothing--made him go queasy, and was just as glad he hadn't gone on the ride.

They ate hot dogs with everything, which Paul said was the only proper way to eat a hot dog. And each of the kids got a stick of cotton candy, though they were all a sticky mess afterwards. Then they hit the arcades.

He and Kelly had fun with one game called "whack-a-mole", which was a sick little sport in which you tried to club these plastic rodents with a rubber mallet. Carolyn tried to hook a ring over a pop bottle and stand it up. Kelly pitched pennies into dishes. Peter and Carolyn had a squirt-gun race (neither of them won--the guy at the other end of the counter did).

The next booth was a shooting gallery, in which you used a rifle to knock down ducks swimming across the back of the booth. Paul showed Peter how to hold and aim the rifle, and Peter gave it a try. He was surprised when he knocked down three quarters of the ducks.

"That was easy," he commented, collecting his teddy bear and passing it on to Kelly; it was purple and ugly, he certainly didn't want it.

Paul was staring at him, amazed. "Not for most people. Are you sure you've never fired a gun before?"

Peter just shook his head. "Nope. I learned how to shoot an arrow, does that count?"

"That probably helped. You've got excellent hand-eye coordination, Peter."

Peter just shrugged. "Thanks."

"Except for pinball," Carolyn teased, and he glared at her.

"You do it now, Daddy," Kelly said.

So Paul paid his money and picked up one of the rifles. His final score was only slightly better than Peter's, and his teddy bear got handed to Carolyn.

Peter felt good, knowing he'd shot almost as well as Paul, and Paul carried a gun for a living. His foster father put an arm around his shoulder. "Peter, I'd like to take you out to the firing range sometime, if you think you'd be interested."

"You mean--real guns?"

"Yes. You should know what guns are all about, especially if you want to consider the police a career. Not to mention the fact that there are firearms in the house--and I want you to know and understand how a gun works. A little knowledge now can avoid a stupid mistake later."

"He taught me how to shoot a gun last year," Carolyn told him. Then she ducked her head. "I was pretty terrible."

Paul just chuckled. "That's because the gun you fired was really too big for you to handle. I should have brought the .22 along for you to try."

"You've got guns at home?" Peter asked. He'd never seen any gun except for the one Paul wore in a holster when going to work. But that one appeared right before he left for work, and disappeared first thing when he came home.

"Yes, but they're locked away."

"They're in a box on top of the closet in their room," Carolyn reported.

Paul pulled up short and stared at her. "How do you know that?"

"I saw you put it away once," she said. "But you didn't see me, I guess."

"Yeah, well, they're in a locked chest, and that's where they'll stay, understood?"

She shrugged. "What would I want to get a gun for?"

"That goes for you too," he told Peter.

Peter raised his arms in acquiescence. "Hey, I'm out of the orphanage--nobody I'd want to kill anymore." At Paul's frown, he said "Joke."

"Firearms aren't a joke, Peter," Paul admonished.

"I know that. That's what my father always said about the knives and weapons at the temple." It was one of the things his father had been strictest about. Weapons were only to be touched in training, and then only with supervision. There were no exceptions, and infractions were dealt with severely.

"Well, he was right."

"Hey there--I thought this was supposed to be a fun day, not for talking about guns and knives," Annie broke in. "I've had enough of that; now who wants to take me on the carousel?"

Four voices said "I will," in unison, and they laughed. They headed off to the merry-go-round, so Annie could have her ride.



After the amusement park, they went back to the beach. Peter's minor sunburn was rapidly turning tan, much to the jealousy of Carolyn. Annie insisted that if Kelly wanted to play in the water, she had to wear her t-shirt over her suit, to keep from getting any more burned. And she could only play for a few minutes at a time, then she had to sit in the shade. It was a tribute to how much her sunburn still hurt that she didn't complain too much about it. Peter swam again, but obediently stayed on the shore-side of the buoys.

They stayed for a couple of hours, then went back to the hotel to clean up for dinner. Tonight, Kelly was feeling much better, so they went to a nice restaurant to celebrate Peter's birthday.

"This is your birthday dinner, Peter," Paul told him. "You can order anything you want."

Peter just stared at the menu in awe. Everything sounded good. And he was hungry.

Meanwhile, Paul was asking Annie what she wanted. She couldn't read the menu, of course, so he helped her order.

"Hmm," she thought about it. "Don't suppose they have veal Piccata?"

"Right here," he confirmed.

"Good. I'll have that," she smiled.

"Rice pilaf or potato?"

"Rice."

"Rice?" Peter asked, hearing them. "But rice is boring."

"Not a rice pilaf," Annie explained. "It's seasoned rice, usually with other things with it--herbs, maybe mushrooms. It's very good. You should try it."

Peter just shook his head. "No thanks. I think I'll stick with the potatoes. I had enough rice as a kid to last me forever."

Carolyn giggled. "Oh, like you're so old now," she taunted.

"Older than you," he shot back.

"If you want, you can try some of my rice when it comes--see what you think."

"What are you having, Peter?" Paul asked.

Peter looked at the menu again. One of the items didn't have a price.

"What does it mean when it says 'market' instead of a price?"

"It means the price changes, depending on what the market is like--how much it costs the restaurant to get that in. You're looking at the lobster?"

"Yeah. Is Market good or bad?"

"That doesn't matter, Peter, I told you you could order whatever you wanted. Have you ever had lobster?"

"No."

"Well, it's very good, but rich. It has a similar texture to shrimp, but it's sweeter."

"Can I have that?" Peter asked. Lobster sounded interesting.

"Yes, I told you you could," Paul repeated.

"Can I, Daddy?" Kelly added.

"You don't like lobster, sweetie, remember, you had some last year," Annie told her daughter.

"Oh yeah," Kelly flushed, and chose something else instead.

The waitress came by and Paul gave her everybody's order, including their drink orders. He ordered milk for all the kids.

"Hey, Paul, can I have a beer?" Peter asked.

Paul looked at him, shocked. "No, you can't have a beer! What made you think that?"

"You let me have one at home," Peter complained.

"That's different," Paul insisted. "What we do at home is our business. But a restaurant could get in a lot of trouble for serving liquor to a minor, so they're not about to allow it."

"Oh well," Peter shrugged. "Can't blame a guy for trying."

Paul just shook his head and chuckled.

Dinner was very good--Peter really liked the lobster, but Paul explained that lobster was for special occasions. Like birthdays. And for dessert, the waitstaff brought out a birthday cake and sang happy birthday to Peter, who flushed bright red. But ate the chocolate cake anyway.

After dinner, they took a walk along the beach--not to go swimming, but to just walk together as a family and enjoy the setting sun and the coming of the stars. After the bustle during the day, the beach at night was a different place, and Peter thought it had an almost alien feeling about it--like it was on some foreign world. He loved the fun in the daytime, but the ocean now was a realm of magic. They walked until it got dark, then went back to the hotel.



~~~~~



Peter couldn't sleep.

There wasn't anything wrong, but his mind was racing. Kelly was sleeping in the room with him and Carolyn tonight, so he didn't want to disturb his sisters. He got up and went to the bathroom, drinking a glass of water. Maybe that was the problem; maybe he was just thirsty.

A few minutes later, after tossing some more, he went to the bathroom again. Not that he needed to, but it got him out of bed; he wasn't very good at just lying there.

After his third trip to the bathroom, he was startled by Paul, coming through the connecting door.

"Peter?" Paul whispered, "You okay, kiddo?"

"Yeah, I'm fine."

"You sure?"

Peter shrugged. "I just can't sleep."

"Your cold bothering you? Or your sunburn?"

"No, nothing like that, just-- My head is too full, my brain won't shut off."

Paul smiled and put a hand behind Peter's neck affectionately. "Come on," he whispered. He led the way to the sliding door and they stepped out onto the small balcony. He slid the door closed behind them. "There," he said, "now we don't have to whisper. Just can't sleep, huh? Too much of everything the last couple of days--sensory overload?"

"I guess," Peter agreed. Then he laughed softly. "I must be more used to having my own room than I thought. I couldn't figure out how to just lay there and stay quiet so I wouldn't wake the girls. At home, I'd just pull out a book and read 'til I got tired. But I can't do that here."

"So we'll talk for a little while, until you get tired," Paul said simply, and Peter smiled.

They leaned on the railing, looking out into the night. They couldn't see the ocean from their balcony, but they could hear it, and smell it. They stood side by side, content to be quiet together.

"Sometimes," Peter began softly, "if I couldn't sleep, I'd go out to the gardens. At the temple. They were in back, and they overlooked the woods, and the lake and the river. It was always so peaceful there. I didn't always find my answers, but I usually felt better when I left. My father used to say that's what meditation was all about. Finding that peace. But I don't know. I haven't known peace, much."

"I'll bet you haven't," Paul answered. "But I hope you're finding some now."

Peter didn't respond for a long moment, then he just shrugged. "I used to have this dream. And in it I would wake up and discover that the temple hadn't been destroyed. Nobody had been killed. Everything was the way it was. I wasn't in the orphanage, I was with my father and happy. But then I'd wake up for real, and discover that that was only a dream, too. That I was still in the orphanage and all the rest of it--was gone. It always hurt so much, waking up."

He sighed. "I guess-- I guess I'm afraid-- That I'll wake up again, and this will all be a dream. And I'll still be back in that place. I don't think I could stand it."

Paul didn't say anything, simply put his arms around Peter and hugged him tightly. "Never," he whispered. "You never have to go back there, no matter what happens."

"I'm so scared...." Peter breathed, feeling his eyes fill with tears, wanting so desperately for this all to be real, but afraid to trust it. He knew how much it would hurt if this life fell apart just like all his other lives had done. He wasn't sure he could take one more body blow.

"You don't have to be, Peter," Paul answered, his voice a pleasant hum at Peter's temple. "We won't let anything happen to you."

Peter nodded against his shoulder, knowing he wouldn't be able to answer.

After a while the hug lessened and Peter sniffed and pulled away, smiling shyly. Paul stroked a gentle hand over his hair, then let his hand rest on Peter's shoulder.

"Peter," he began, "would it help to talk to somebody about it? About how you feel."

Peter looked at him. "You mean like a shrink?"

"Counselor," Paul corrected. "Someone trained at helping you. You can't go on always being afraid we'll abandon you; you have to learn to deal with it."

"I am--I'm dealing with it. I mean, it's taking time, but I think I'm less afraid now than I was. I-- I really don't want to talk about it."

"It would help if you could," Paul prodded gently.

"Especially not to a stranger," Peter added emphatically. "I--I just need some time to work it out. It'll be okay, promise."

Paul smiled at him, but the hand didn't move from his shoulder. "All right," he agreed, "but the offer stands--if you ever want to talk to anyone about anything--"

"I know--I always can. But if I need to talk, I'd rather talk to you and Mom. Not to someone I don't know."

He turned back toward the railing, leaning on it and gazing into the night sky.

"I guess--" he continued, "I'm still trying to understand it."

"Understand what?"

"You. Why you did it. Why you took me in." He sighed. "Why you bothered."

Paul's hand returned to its spot on Peter's neck, and he gently massaged the muscles there. "Well, I'd tell you it was love, but that's not the whole answer, and I'm not sure I can explain it any better than that."

"Well, maybe I don't understand love," Peter said.

"That's a tricky one," Paul answered, his fingers stroking through the long hair at Peter's collar. "There are lots of different types of love. There's the love between a man and a woman--what Annie and I have for each other. Then there's the love of a friend. Did you have any really good friends at the temple? A best friend?"

Peter nodded. "Yeah. His name was Philip. He was a year younger than me, but we were close. He--" Peter swallowed, "he died--in the fire." His eyes closed, remembering too clearly how he'd tried and failed to get the injured Philip out of the temple; how he'd picked his friend up, hoping to save him, but collapsed under the additional weight, his injured leg refusing to carry him. Before he could move again, they were both struck by debris and Peter remembered nothing more until he woke up on the grass outside the temple. The building was a fireball. And Philip was dead.

He sniffed and Paul's hand moved to his shoulder; comforting and strong.

"Then you know what the love of a friend is," Paul went on. "Then there's the love of a parent and a child. They way Annie and I love all our children. The love you had for your father, and he for you. And that's just as important, just as special as any other kind of love."

Peter turned his head and looked at his foster father. "So where do I fit in?" he asked.

Paul smiled. "Well, you're special. The love we have for you is part the love of parents for a child, and part the love of a friend. You see, parents love their children just because they're their children. We love you because we consider you our son, but also our friend. You're both. And that's a very special place to be."

Peter smiled at him and closed his eyes, leaning into Paul's hug.

The hug tightened as each of them held onto the other--proof of the love Paul had just talked about. Peter rested his head on Paul's shoulder and Paul gently massaged his neck and shoulder muscles.

"Do you always hold your tension in your shoulders?" Paul asked softly.

"Dunno," Peter replied.

"Does your neck sometimes feel tight?"

"Yeah. I guess."

"Come on," he said and broke the hug, sliding the glass door open and ushering Peter through. He led his foster son back to his bed and whispered, "Roll over, I'll rub your back."

Peter grinned; he was a sucker for backrubs and both his foster parents seemed to catch on to that one quickly. He rolled onto his stomach and Paul sat next to him, rubbing his back, kneading the muscles in his neck and shoulders.

Some time later, Peter's back was warm and relaxed, and his mind had turned itself from high-voltage to a fuzzy, indistinct blur. He felt the bed shift, felt the covers pulled up over him, felt Paul's gentle kiss to his head. And then he felt himself floating into sleep.



~~~~~



Peter drifted up to wakefulness and heard voices in the distance. He cracked one eye open and saw that the bed next to his was empty. So he lay there and thought about it for a moment, then managed to heave himself upright and out of bed, shuffling to the connecting door--the source of the sound.

He leaned against the door frame sleepily and took in the sight--all four Blaisdells were in the king-sized bed, Annie cuddling Kelly, Carolyn in her father's arms. At his presence, Paul looked up.

"There he is," Paul smiled.

Annie tilted her head in his direction. "Good morning, Peter."

"Morning," Peter responded, his voice hoarse with sleep.

She heard the roughness and frowned. "Are you feeling all right?" she asked. "Is your throat hurting?"

"No," he shook his head, "I'm still asleep."

Paul smiled. "Well come on, join the party." He extended an arm to him.

But despite their conversation in the night, Peter held back. This was a family moment and he was still an outsider.

"Come on, honey, don't be shy," Annie coaxed.

"Yeah, come on, Peter," Carolyn added.

So with a sigh he walked over to the big bed, crawled onto it and flopped in the middle. Kelly climbed over to her mother's other side to make more room, and Peter curled himself against Annie's side, sighing contentedly. Annie chuckled and stroked his hair.

Carolyn was talking softly to her father and Peter let the voices drift over him. Annie kept up the gentle stroking of his hair and he felt himself floating back to sleep, content in the cocoon of his surrogate family....

"...Peter," Annie's soft voice penetrated his doze.

"Wha--" he mumbled.

"What do you want for breakfast, we're ordering room service."

"Mmm, I don' care."

"Yes, you do, now wake up for a minute and tell us what you want."

He rolled onto his back and blinked up at her. "What are my choices?"

"It's a pretty typical breakfast menu," Paul said. "Cereal, eggs, pancakes...."

"French toast?" Peter asked.

Paul smiled. "Yes."

"And bacon?"

"What did I say?" Paul laughed. "I knew that's what he'd want."

"You sayin' I'm predictable?" Peter frowned.

"Only about some things," Paul told him. "Like breakfast. The rest of the time we're constantly confounded by you."

"Huh?" Peter wasn't sure whether he'd been complimented or insulted.

"Never mind. You want orange juice or apple?"

"Orange." Peter stretched on the bed. He closed his eyes again and heard Paul's voice on the phone, placing their order. "You should get one of these for home," he said.

"One of what?" Annie asked.

"A big bed like this. 's nice."

Annie laughed and Paul simply said, "I don't think so--then Annie and I would never get any privacy--we'd constantly be chucking one kid or the other out of the bed."

"So?" Peter grinned at him, purposely pulling Paul's leg.

Paul laughed in spite of himself. "No thanks. Our current bed is plenty big enough--for two."

Peter simply smiled.

He dozed again but was dragged out of bed when the food arrived, and actually woke up about halfway through his french toast.



~~~~~



Peter leaned over the railing and watched the waves created by the wake of the boat as it cut through the water. He imagined what was beneath the waves--some mystical underworld glimpsed by few.

They were on a boat ride up and down the coast. When Paul proposed the activity, they all jumped at the chance. Peter had never been on a boat, and was excited to have anything to do with the water.

Then Carolyn said it would be just like Gilligan's Island, and she and Kelly debated about which one could be Ginger and which one MaryAnn. Peter thought he didn't want to be any of them. Except maybe the Professor, because at least he had brains.

He'd spent the first part of the journey with his camera glued to his face, and was now well into his third and final roll of film. Upon reflection, he couldn't even remember what he'd taken pictures of, except to think they were of "everything".

One of the things that surprised him about the boat trip was how much colder it was out here on the water than it had been on shore. He'd scoffed when Annie told him to take along a long-sleeved shirt, but now, not only was he glad for the shirt, he almost wished for his windbreaker. The wind was sharp and the spray stung his face as he turned toward the wind and let the sea happen around him.

He felt a hand on his arm and turned to see his foster mother. He was about to wonder how she found him so unerringly when he saw Paul move down the deck. He'd delivered her, then moved off.

"So--what do you think?" she asked.

"It's really cool," he answered, putting an arm around her. "When you face this way, away from the shore, all you see is water and sky. And you can pretend the land doesn't exist. It's just you and the water."

"Standing in the middle of eternity," she replied.

Peter smiled. "Yeah, like that."

They stood in silence for a little longer, feeling the sway of the deck and the rush of the wind.

"So have you enjoyed your birthday trip?" Annie asked.

"You bet," he said emphatically. "It's been--great!" He flushed, embarrassed by his lack of words. But there were no words to describe what he'd seen--she was right about that. "I wish I could find the words to describe it," he sighed, "so I could tell you all about it."

She hugged him. "Believe it or not, I can tell a lot of it just by feeling your excitement. You can't find the words, but your body conveys the emotions."

Peter couldn't answer, just hugged her tighter. "This has been the best birthday ever," he breathed.

She chuckled softly and kissed his cheek. "I'm glad, Peter. We wanted it to be special for you. It seemed like--like maybe you hadn't celebrated your birthday in awhile."

"No, I hadn't," he admitted. "Wasn't anything to celebrate. I--" He paused, swallowing, then took a deep breath. He might as well tell her everything. "I was--gonna kill myself. On my 13th birthday."

She gasped. "What?"

"Didn't seem like there was anything to live for anymore," he shrugged. "My father was dead--the temple was gone. Ping Hi was dead. No one wanted me and I didn't want anyone. I--" He swallowed again. "I didn't understand why they'd all been killed but not me. It didn't seem right. It felt--out of balance. So I thought, if I was dead, too, that would restore the balance. I don't know--it made sense at the time."

"What made you change your mind?" she asked softly.

"There was a fire in the dorm--the morning of my birthday. I helped this one little kid get out. They said he would have died otherwise. I don't know. But he wouldn't leave me alone after that, and everyone kept going on about how I'd saved his life. I didn't get a chance to do it on my birthday. And after my birthday, the balance seemed wrong. So I decided to wait until the balance came back. But I kept the knife--just in case."

She put a hand on his shoulder. "Then what happened?"

"Nothing--I just never got around to it. There was always some reason not to do it. Maybe I was trying to find excuses, I don't know. But then--" he sighed, "Then I met Paul. And you. And the girls. And you made me feel like--like I mattered." He leaned against her and rested his head against her shoulder. When I moved in, I left the knife behind."

He felt her relax; she had seemed uneasy as he told the tale. He'd been uneasy telling it as well, but she was--Mom. She had the right to know.

And anyway, it was in the past. Here on the deck of this boat, basking in the sea, with his new family around him, ending his life was the last thing on his mind. Instead, for the first time in a very long time, Peter was actually looking forward to the future--high school in a couple of weeks, learning to drive, his first date, graduation, a career--things he'd barely ever dreamed of, now seemed possible. He hugged his mother tighter and kissed her cheek, smiling when she took her finger and gently tickled him under his chin.

"Peter! C'mere!" Carolyn called, interrupting their quiet moment.

"Come and see this, Peter," Paul repeated.

"It's dolphins!" Kelly exclaimed.

He looked at Annie, but she was propelling him in the other direction. "Go on," she prompted, "you'll want to see that."

He hesitated only a moment before he took her hand and led her down the deck to the rest of the family. Paul met them and took Annie's arm, and Peter hurried to the rail.

"Where?" he asked.

"Over there," Carolyn pointed out into the waves. "They've been playing. Wait a minute."

Peter watched, pulling his camera out of his pocket. He saw the first fin, followed by a graceful arch of spine and gasped. It was even better than pictures, more incredible than films. Because it was real. His camera went to his face and he used up the remaining film, catching the spectacle of dolphins at play, their gleaming silver-gray at once contrasting with then blending into the fathomless blue-green of the sea.

His sisters were chattering excitedly beside him, and Paul and Annie were speaking in soft murmurs behind him. But he tuned the sound out, concentrating on those wild creatures, playing in their ocean home. One rose up out of the water and hovered for a moment on his tail before arching back into the foam, as if to say, "I am free, and master of all I survey."

Peter laughed, knowing without a doubt exactly how the animal felt. For the first time in his life, Peter felt free, too.



Chapter 9: The First Nowell

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