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AWLL 1 - Book 7 - Kara II

Michael Loucks



For Birgit


Chicago, Illinois

Pete came into my room early in the morning, and Melanie was with him.

"I just got a call," Pete said. "You're free to go, Steve."

"Thanks, Pete. What did you think of the last installment?"

"I wondered how you got involved with them again. And nobody at all knew about that? It was a perfect secret?"

"Yes. At times it was difficult keeping it from my family, but I managed. Well, until I told my wife about it a few weeks ago."

"Where are you headed now?" Pete asked.

"Home. For a sauna!" I grinned.

"I bet sweating isn't the only thing you'll do in that sauna!" Melanie smirked.

"That depends on if the kids are there or not! I also need to spend some time with Ashley - she'll be leaving next week. We've missed out on nearly a month of Swedish lessons."

"Birgit's been filling in for you, I hear," Pete added.

"How am I getting home?"

"I'm taking you," Melanie said. "I called your wife and let her know we'd be on our way."

"Are you done writing? There seems like so much more to tell," Pete asked.

"No, I'm not done yet. I have to at least get through the trip back to Sweden during the summer of '84 and then the summer after that. That was a pretty defining experience."

"Things did seem to finally all come together after that."

"They did. It's amazing how a single conversation can change everything."

"Not really, Steve," Melanie said. "Remember that conversation in the hospital with me?"

"I certainly do," I said soberly, nodding and remembering how terrible Melanie had looked that day.

"Steve, I have to say again how much I owe you and Jennifer for helping Melanie. I've said it many times over the years, but thanks, man."

"You're welcome, Pete! Now, let me get home and get a sauna!"

"Just don't let my wife in there with you; I'm not sure she can behave!"

"Pete, she's going to kill me for telling you this, but for the past twenty plus years, it's been a sham. She told me back in '82 that it was just a way to tease you and that she didn't really mean it."

"Steve Adams, the Outfit is the least of your troubles now!" Melanie said, stamping her foot.

"Pete? Can I get more protective custody? I think I might need it!"

He chuckled, "I think you're on your own, Steve. And, Mel, I figured that out years ago!"

"Pete, I love you most, so I'm going to kill you second!" Melanie said with an evil grin.

"Come on, Counselor. Take me home," I said.

The three of us walked downstairs and Melanie and I got into her Mercedes for the trip to Hyde Park.

I. Picking up the Pieces, Part I

May 1982, Milford, Ohio

'If you end up with a boring, miserable life because you listened to your mom, your dad, your teacher, your priest, or some guy on television telling you how to do your shit, then you deserve it.' -Frank Zappa

Alan Blanchard lay on a treatment table, covered by a sheet up to his neck. There were wrappers, supplies, and other things strewn on the floor showing just how chaotic the room had been only fifteen minutes ago.

"Oh, Alan!" Mrs. Blanchard moaned.

"Daddy!" Kara cried, tears streaming down her face.

They both kissed him, Kara on his cheek and Mrs. Blanchard on his lips, and, after a few minutes, we left the room. My dad and the pastor were standing just outside the door when we came out.

Pastor Kent looked me in the eyes and said, "For the wages of sin IS death..."

"Pastor!" Kara said sharply.

Reflexively, my fist looped through the air heading directly for Kent van der Meer's nose.

My dad reacted in an instant, grabbing my arm and preventing me from actually making contact with the pastor's nose.

"No Steve," he said gently but firmly, "This isn't the way." He turned to the pastor and with a hard look said, "I'd leave now, if I were you."

"I need to take the Blanchards home and pray with them," the pastor protested, though he took a step backwards.

"I think you need to leave," Dad said firmly. "I'll make sure they get home."

The deputy walked over and asked, "Is there a problem here?"

"No," my dad said, "This gentleman was just leaving. He said something foolish, but I have it completely under control."

The deputy looked at all of us, nodded, and stepped back. Kent van der Meer was wise enough to heed my dad's advice and moved a few steps away.

"Do you have your car here?" I asked Kara.

"No, we came in Pastor Kent's car. We followed the paramedics."

"We came in my car, it'll be tight, but we'll fit."

My dad walked over to talk to the nurse at the desk, then walked back to us.

"Mrs. Blanchard," he said softly, "do you have a place you want Alan taken?"

"No. We're so young and we didn't even think about anything like this! He just turned 41!" she started crying again.

"Dad, what about Missy Noakes' dad's funeral home?" I asked. "It's on Main in Milford."

"That's what I was thinking, too. I know Bill Noakes. I can call him if you like, Mrs. Blanchard."

She nodded, dabbing her eyes with a tissue. Dad went over to the pay phones and made two phone calls. He was back five minutes later.

"They'll pick him up later today," he said gently, then turned, "Pastor, what funeral arrangements do we need to make?"

"Wednesday or Thursday at the church. Probably Thursday. We'll need a place to lay him to rest as well."

"We can worry about that tomorrow," my dad said, having firmly established control. "For now, we'll get them home."

"I'll call the head of our ladies' organization. They'll bring meals to the Blanchards for the next few days."

My dad nodded, "OK. Steve, let's get Kara and her mom home. You take them out to the car. I want to talk to the pastor."

I put my arms around both women and slowly walked them to the car. Kara's mom had stopped crying again, but tears still streamed down Kara's face. I helped Kara into the back seat, but decided I should sit with her and climbed in. Mrs. Blanchard got into the passenger seat. Dad came out about five minutes later, walked towards the passenger door, then realized the driver's seat was empty and went around to the other side. I handed the keys to him after he got in, then he started the car and pulled away.

Kara was leaning against me, and didn't seem to be able to stop crying. We drove in silence back to the Blanchards' house.

"Someone will need to get Alan's car," Mrs. Blanchard said when we pulled into the driveway.

"It'll be safe in the lot at church, won't it?" I asked. "We can get it later, or even tomorrow."

She nodded and led us into the house. The phone was ringing as we walked in and Mrs. Blanchard went to answer it. She hung up after a brief conversation and we all sat down in the living room.

"That was the pastor's wife. She and some of the ladies are on their way over."

"I'll go make some coffee," I said, getting up to go to the kitchen.

Kara followed me and sat at the kitchen table, pointing to where I'd find the coffee container. I started the Mr. Coffee, and with Kara's help found the sugar bowl and cream pitcher, both of which I filled. I also got out coffee cups and a tray, and brought all of that into the living room where my dad was talking to Kara's mom.

"I really don't know," she said to my dad. "He had life insurance, but I don't know the details, really. He handled everything."

"OK. If you can find the papers for me, I can help you with that. I have a very good attorney and accountant who can help with anything you need. Did Alan have a will?"

"Yes, he did get one made up last year. It leaves everything to me or Kara."

"Good," Dad said, "That makes it easier."

"Do we HAVE to talk about all this now?" Kara wailed.

I pulled her closer to me and hugged her.

"Son, why don't you and Kara take a walk? I think she could use the fresh air."

I kind of agreed with Kara, but I also knew my dad was right. Everything had changed an hour ago, and ignoring it wouldn't make any of the issues go away. And come to think of it, I had no idea what all the issues were. My dad had known right away about calling a funeral home. I hadn't even thought about that. The same was true for a cemetery, something that until an hour ago had been a nice quiet place to take walks when visiting my grandparents' house.

I stood and took Kara's hand and led her out of the house, put my arm around her and we walked slowly down the street.

"What are we going to do?" Kara whispered.

I had no real answer for that. I had no clue how to deal with the situation. It dawned on me that I had not known anyone other than Birgit who had died, and I didn't have the first clue of what to do.

"Love each other, Kara. That's all we can do, I guess. You and your mom. Me and you. Just love each other."

"Your dad was so calm," she said.

"Well, he's always been like that, really. I suspect he went through a lot in World War II that he hasn't told any of us about. And, remember, he's 65, so he's probably thought about all this stuff more than your parents who are around 40, and you and me who are barely adults."

We walked for another five minutes in silence, then turned back towards the house. We went inside and my dad and Kara's mom were still sitting in the living room talking.

"Steve, call your sister and let her know where I am. She can tell your mom for me. Let them know I'll be home in an hour or so, after Mrs. Blanchard's friends get here."

"OK, Dad," I said.

Kara and I went to the kitchen to use the phone. I dialed my old number and Stephanie answered on the second ring.

"Stephanie, I need to tell you something to relay to Mom. Dad and I are at the Blanchard's house. Dad will be home in about an hour."

"What's Dad doing there?"

"Stephanie, Kara's dad died of a heart attack this morning."

"Oh my God! Steve! How is she? How are you?"

"I'm OK. She's torn up, just like you would expect. I got a call this morning at home and Dad and I rushed to the hospital. Just let Mom know that Dad will be home in an hour."

"OK. Can I come see Kara?"

"Maybe later. Let's see how things go."

We said 'goodbye' and hung up.

"Kara, I need to call Pete and Melanie and Bethany. We should call Joyce, too, but she's probably on her way to Don Joseph's. I have the number there so we can leave her a message to call us. Is there anyone you want to call?"

"Besides Joyce and Bethany? Susie. I'm sure she knows since she was in church this morning."

I handed her the phone and she called Susie, who had already heard that Kara's dad had died, and asked her to come over. She handed me the receiver and I called Bethany.

"Oh my God, Steve! Is it OK if I come right over?"

I covered the mouthpiece and asked Kara who just nodded.

"Yes," I told Bethany. "I need to make a couple more calls."

I called Melanie who said that she and Pete were leaving right away and wouldn't take 'no' for an answer. I told Kara, then I called Don Joseph's house. He answered and I quickly explained the situation and asked him to please have Joyce call me as soon as she arrived.

"Steve, «figlio mio», if I can do anything, anything at all, please ask. And tell your lovely girlfriend that I am sorry for this terrible event."

"Thank you, Don Joseph. I will," I said, replacing the receiver.

As I hung up I heard the doorbell rang and got up to answer it, telling Kara to stay sitting. Several women, who I assumed were from Kara's church, were at the door. I let them in and they went straight to the living room. Dad got up when they came in and followed me back to the kitchen.

"I'm going to come by tomorrow morning at 10:00am. I'll probably bring Larry Walsh with me to help sort everything out. She's going to need a lot of help with all the details. I suggested Greenlawn Cemetery on Route 50, because it's close to here and the church. She asked me to call and make the arrangements for her."

"Thanks a lot, Mr. Adams," Kara said.

"You're welcome, dear. Your mom is really going to need you for a while. Steve, can you run me home? I know you want to stay with Kara, but I want to talk to you. You can come right back."

"I guess. If we can wait for Bethany or Susie to get here, I'd appreciate it. They're on their way."

He nodded and sat down at the kitchen table with us to wait. About ten minutes later, the doorbell rang again and I went to answer it. It was Susie, but I saw Bethany parking in the street as well. I told Susie that Kara was in the kitchen and I waited for Bethany to come up the driveway. She hugged me tightly.

"How is she?"

"How do you think, Bethany?"

"Sorry, yeah."

"I need to take my dad home, but I was waiting for you to get here. Susie is with Kara in the kitchen," I said, leading her inside.

"Steve, we're going to go in the den," Kara said, thorough tears.

"OK honey. I need to take my dad home but I'll come right back."

"Promise?" she sobbed.

"Yes, Kara. I promise."

Susie and Bethany took her arms and led her away. Dad and I went out to my car and headed to my parents' house.

"Son, your reaction to that man was out of line. I heard what he said, and he was out of line as well, but punching him in the nose wouldn't have accomplished anything except for having Deputy Rodgers arrest you for battery."

I sighed, "I know, Dad. But you said that you heard what he said! He was basically blaming me for Alan Blanchard's death; that Kara's dad died because I had made love with her!" I said, completely frustrated.

"That's a load of bull and you and I both know it, and it was wrong of him to say, but you can't just punch him in the nose because he's a fool, Steve."

"You're right. I'm sorry."

"And, you'll show that you're the better man by apologizing to him."

I groaned, "Yes, Dad," knowing that he would brook no argument on this.

We got to the house and I pulled into the driveway. Stephanie was waiting on the front porch.

She grabbed me and hugged me, "Are you OK big brother?"

"Yes, I'm fine. A little in shock, but I'm fine," I said.

"Dad, can I go back to Kara's with Steve? Please?"

"Yes, go on. Be home by 10:00pm," Dad said.

"Thanks, Dad!" she gushed.

"Steve, can we get Ed? I called him and he said Bethany took off out of the house like a shot without saying anything to anyone. I told him what happened."

"That should be fine. Susie and Bethany are with Kara now, and Pete and Melanie will be there by the time we get back. I'm sure that Joyce and Terry will come as soon as they hear what happened. I left a message for her at Don Joseph's."

We got into the car, swung by the Krajicks', and then headed back to Kara's house. Pete and Melanie had arrived, and we walked with them into the den where Susie and Bethany were sitting with Kara. There were a number of women in the living room with Nancy Blanchard, plus several more in the kitchen. I saw a number of plates and dishes with food on them on various tables, and I smelled coffee brewing. I went to the kitchen to get a cup and saw Sandy van der Meer.

"Hi Steve," she said quietly.

"Sandy," I acknowledged flatly, then softened my voice, "Thanks for calling me. I appreciate it."

"I know you blame me for all your trouble and I'm sorry."

"Just leave it for now. I only came in for some coffee."

"I am sorry, Steve," she said softly.

She got me a cup from a large silver urn that the ladies must have brought from church. I went back to be with Kara. Susie moved away from Kara's side on the couch so I could sit next to her.

"Steve, Joyce called about five minutes before you got here," Bethany said. "She and Terry are on their way."

"Good," I said. "How are you feeling, Kara?"

"Tired. Sad. Confused."

"I was supposed to go back to Chicago on Wednesday, but I can wait until late Friday morning. I could also cancel my trip, if you want."

"No way, Steve!" Kara said firmly. "You can't cancel your trip!"

"Are you sure, Honey? If you need me, I'll stay."

"I want you to go on your trip. You've been looking forward to this for two years. I'll be fine."

"Steve, we'll take care of her for you, I promise," Bethany said.

Susie and Melanie nodded agreement.

"Me too," Stephanie said. "And I know Joyce will help as well."

"OK. But I am postponing my drive to Chicago until early Friday, because it sounded like your pastor is planning the service on Thursday."

"But your flight leaves on Friday!"

"I'll leave at 5:00am, and be in Chicago by 11:30am. That will give me enough time to do the few things I need to do and get to the airport. I can always sleep on the plane. I want to be here for you and your mom."

She smiled through her tears, "Thanks, Snuggle Bear."

The doorbell rang and one of the ladies answered it. It was Pastor Kent. I stood up and Kara grabbed my arm.

"Steve, no," she whispered.

"Kara, it's fine. I'm going to apologize for almost punching his lights out," I smiled.

"What?" Bethany said.

"Later," I whispered and walked over to the door.

"Pastor? May I speak with you for a moment?" I asked in as calm a voice as I could, my arms straight at my sides and my palms resting on my thighs.

"What is it, son?" he said warily.

I really wanted to say to him that I was sorry that he was such a fool and such a lousy excuse for a man of the cloth, but willed myself to take the bitter pill.

"Sir, I owe you an apology. I should never have taken a swing at you. I'm sorry."

"Good. I'm glad you realize that violence is not a proper response," he said smugly. "You need to learn to control your impulses, young man. They'll lead you into sin every time."

Now I wanted to hit him. Hard. What a bastard! I remembered how I had dealt with Alan Blanchard and was determined to keep my cool and keep the peace.

"Yes sir," I said through gritted teeth. "I'm going to go back to Kara now."

"You behave properly towards her, young man. Her father may not be here, but that doesn't change anything."

No, I wasn't going to hit him. I was going to go out to my car, get the Beretta from the trunk, and give him a double-tap - one to the chest, one to the head. I took a couple of deep breaths and turned and went back to Kara.

"You look REALLY upset, Steve," Pete said.

"He's just trying to piss me off, I guess. And I let him. Which is my fault, not his."

Pete smiled, "Damn, I'm impressed. You're learning. Now, just relax and love your girlfriend."

I nodded and put my arm around Kara.

Joyce and Terry arrived about twenty minutes later and she and Kara hugged and then Kara led Joyce upstairs so they could talk privately. I was a bit surprised by that, but I didn't know what Kara was thinking or what she needed. The rest of us took the opportunity to get some food. Kara and Joyce came downstairs about ten minutes later and we all sat in the den and ate and talked quietly.

When I finished eating, I went into the living room to see how Kara's mom was doing. She saw me and patted the couch next to her. I got a cold stare from the pastor but just ignored it. I sat down next to Mrs. Blanchard and she put her hand on my arm.

"Thank you," she said softly. "For everything. And thank your dad again. I really don't know anything about any of this stuff. He seems so trustworthy, just like you are."

"Thanks, Mrs. Blanchard."

She sighed, "I've never had to do things for myself. It was my dad, and then Alan, right out of High School. I never even paid a single bill in my life."

"My dad really knows his stuff. I'm glad you're letting him help you."

"Go be with Kara, Steve. She needs you. My friends will help me."

"You know I have to leave Friday for my trip, right?"

"Yes. Kara's friends will take care of her."

"I know. I just hate leaving, but she insisted that I go."

Mrs. Blanchard smiled, "Of course she did. She loves you, Steve, and knows how much this means to you."

I got up and went back to the den, but I could feel the cold stare from the pastor drilling into my back. Susie moved from the spot next to Kara when she saw me walk in. I sat down next to Kara with Joyce sitting on the other side of Kara. We sat together, occasionally eating, drinking coffee or soft drinks until around 8:00pm when Bethany and Ed got up to leave. I asked Bethany to take Stephanie home and she nodded. Pete and Melanie left shortly after, and just after they left, Susie headed home. Joyce, Terry, and I were sitting with Kara when Mrs. Blanchard came into the room.

"I've asked the ladies to leave, because I don't need anyone to stay the night. You kids can stay as long as you like. Steve, may I talk to you in the kitchen for a moment."

I got up and went with her and we went to a corner of the kitchen, away from everyone.

"If Kara needs you to stay the night, you may. Alan, God bless him, would hate it, but I won't keep you from her if she needs you."

I nodded, surprised, "Thanks. I'm not going to offer. If she asks, fine, but it's got to be up to her."

"You're a wonderful young man, Steve. Thanks."

I went back to the den to sit with Kara, Joyce and Terry.

"Terry's going to head home. Kara asked me to stay earlier, so I'm staying here with her," Joyce said.

"Good. She needs someone," I said.

Terry got up to leave. I walked him out to his car and shook his hand, thanking him for bringing Joyce so quickly.

"Her best friend's dad died, man. What else could I do?" he said.

"Thanks Terry. Sorry your day was ruined."

"It's not your fault, Steve. But I appreciate the sentiment."

He got in his car and drove off. I went back to sit with Kara and Joyce. Kara moved to sit in my lap and rested her head on my shoulder. I held her tightly and Joyce rubbed Kara's back gently. The last of the women were leaving, but only after Mrs. Blanchard insisted that she didn't need them to stay the night. The pastor had left several hours before, promising to return in the morning. When they were gone, she said goodnight to us and went up the stairs.

"I'll come by first thing in the morning, Kara," I said.

"I wish you could stay," Kara said, hugging me tight.

"I can, if you want. Your mom told me it was OK."

"What? Really?" she gasped.

"Yes, Honey, really. If you're OK with it, I'll run over to the Spencers' and grab my overnight bag and some clothes."

She looked at both of us, "Can all of us sleep in the same bed? Not for sex, but just one of you on each side of me?"

"Of course, Kara," I said. "Joyce?"

"Yes, of course. I have a bag with me. I had one in Terry's car because I was going to go to his place with him tonight."

"Now there's a standup guy!" I said.

"Oh shut up, Steve!" she laughed. "You know you would do the same thing. Go get your stuff."

Kara got off my lap; I hugged her, kissed her and headed out to my car. I drove quickly to the Spencers' house and went straight to my room to pack my things. Melanie and Trudy came to the door of my room.

"Are you OK, Steve?" Trudy asked. "Is there anything we can do?"

"I'm fine. Just still a bit in shock, I guess. There's nothing I can think of. I'm going back to Kara's. Joyce and I are staying with her tonight."

I saw Melanie's eyebrow rise, and the corners of her mouth turn up.

"Get your mind out of the gutter, Melanie!" I chuckled.

"Melanie Marie Spencer, you know better than that!" Trudy said sternly.

"Sorry mom, but with Steve, it's just an automatic thought."

"One day, you're going to get yourself in real trouble, honey. You have to control this impetuousness!"

"I know, mom," Melanie said, exasperated.

"Don't take that tone with me, young lady. How many times has Pete warned you about taking things too far? We gave you a lot of freedom growing up, but you're an adult now, and that means knowing when to be silly and when to be serious."

"Yes, Mom," Melanie said, clearly chagrined.

I finished packing my bag and was about to leave when it hit me that I should call Jennifer and let her know.

"Melanie, I'm going to call Jennifer before I head back," I said.

"Good idea. If it's OK, I'll talk to her after you do."

"Of course," I said.

I dialed Jennifer's number in Seattle and her mom answered. I asked for Jennifer and she came to the phone. I told her what had happened and she was shocked.

"Oh my God, Steve. How are you and Kara?"

"I'm OK, Jen, Kara's, well, like you expect. So is her mom."

"I can't even imagine. I know I'm far away, but if I can do anything, anything at all, call me. Please."

"I will Jen. Thanks. Melanie wants to talk to you."

"OK Steve. Remember I'm here for you," Jennifer said as I handed the phone to Melanie.

I said 'good night' to the Spencers and Pete. then headed back to Kara's house. I went inside to find Joyce and Kara sitting in the den talking. I went to sit by them on the couch.

"How are you doing, Honey?" I asked.

"I don't know," she sighed. "But we did go check on mom and she's sleeping. I was kind of surprised, but I guess she was just exhausted. She seems to be doing OK."

"It's shock, Kara," Joyce said. "For both of you. It's going to be crazy up and down for some time. This week will be hard, but there will be times in the future that are harder. I had a close friend die, and so did Steve, so we have a bit of an idea what it's like."

"How long did it take you to get over losing Birgit, Steve?" Kara asked.

I was afraid to tell her the truth. And the truth was that I still wasn't over it. But the real hurt had gone away after I got closure. I didn't have a chance to go to her funeral, which might have made a difference.

"It depends what you mean, Honey. First, remember, I missed her funeral, so I didn't have that chance to say goodbye. Not even like you and your mom did today. I struggled with it for about a year and a half, maybe longer, until I finally made peace with what happened. But I didn't have closure until I'd gone to see her a couple of times. But even now, there's a hole in my heart that can never be filled. I'm pretty sure that will be true for you and your dad, too."

"Steve's right," Joyce said. "That special place is there, and will always be there. It gets easier, but it never truly goes away. I never told Steve about it, but my best friend in the world died when I was in eighth grade. She seemed healthy and normal one day and then suddenly she was dying of an inoperable brain tumor. I remember her sitting in class and complaining of a mild headache. A month later she was dead."

"Wow, Joyce, that's terrible."

"Yes, but unlike you, I had a bit of time to prepare for her death. I was thirteen, so didn't really get any information until about a week before she died when she finally told me the truth. I cried for days. And after her funeral, I cried quite a bit, just kind of out of the blue. That's going to happen to you, too, Kara."

"Why did this have to happen?" Kara moaned. "Why?"

"Neither of us can answer that, Kara," Joyce said gently. "And neither of us is going to try to explain it, either. We can't. Nobody can."

"And Kara," I said gently, "despite what your pastor said, this is not some kind of punishment from God for what we've been doing."

"He said that?" Joyce asked angrily. "What a bastard!"

"When I was walking Kara and her mom out of the treatment room after they said goodbye to Kara's dad, the pastor quoted Romans 6:23 - For the wages of sin IS death... - to me. I almost punched him in the nose, but fortunately my dad stopped me."

"I'd have let you hit him. And then I'd have hit him!" Joyce exclaimed. "What an asshole!"

"Yes," I agreed. "And Kara, this is not God's Will or anything like that. It's, sadly, part of life. We all die at some point. I don't want you blaming yourself."

She sighed, "I did think that way, because that is what the church teaches. I see more and more why you could never go to my church."

"I promise I will be on my best behavior at the funeral, Kara. No matter what he says."

"Thanks, Steve. Now, can we go up to bed? I'm exhausted."

I picked up my bag and Joyce went over to the door and got hers and we walked Kara up the stairs. I went into the guest room and changed into shorts and a t-shirt, and brought my robe with me to Kara's room. I knocked softly on the door and didn't go in until Kara said that I should come in.

"Steve Adams, you've seen both of us naked, even naked together!" Joyce said. "Why did you knock and wait?"

"Because he loves us, Joyce," Kara said before I could answer. "He's not going to presume anything. He never has and never will."

Both girls had on long t-shirts. Kara's bed was going to be a tight fit, and not very comfortable for three, but if this is what she needed, I'd sacrifice a night's sleep without any question. Kara got into bed and patted the bed next to her, looking at me. I got in and she turned to cuddle with me in our usual position. Joyce got into bed, pulled the comforter over us and then spooned behind Kara, her arm draped over Kara's waist and her hand resting on my stomach.

"Thank you both," Kara whispered, raising her head to me for a kiss.

I kissed her softly on the lips, and then she half-rolled towards Joyce and they exchanged a soft kiss. Kara turned back to me, sighed, and snuggled close. A few minutes later, her breathing told me that she was asleep. All the crying had really taken something out of her. I knew exactly how she felt physically, from all the crying I had done after Birgit had died.

I really was concerned about leaving for a month when Kara was in this situation, but she'd insisted. I'd talk to her again about it, and maybe I'd shorten the trip. Given that I was going to end things with Karin, at least from a romantic perspective, spending two weeks in Stockholm wasn't really necessary. I could also shorten my stay in Gothenburg to about ten days and make the entire trip about three weeks instead of four. I'd offer to do that in the morning. It wasn't a perfect solution in my mind, but as she said, I'd planned this for two years.

I wondered how this was going to change our relationship. Some things were obvious, like being here, in her bed. If she'd wanted to make love, we could have, and that was something different. In addition, we no longer had to tell her dad, which was a plus. I immediately rebuked myself for that thought, which was purely self-serving. My girlfriend's dad had died and I saw something positive in it. That was just wrong on every level.

"Steve," Joyce whispered.

"Yes?" I whispered back.

"I'm going to stay until after the funeral. I need to get some stuff from home, but I'm going to stay. You should, too."

"I think that's a good plan. The next few days are going to be hell on earth," I said.

We were both silent after that and I eventually fell asleep.

II. Picking up the Pieces, Part II

May-June 1982, Milford, Ohio

I awoke with a start on Monday morning, and quickly remembered the events of the previous day and why I was in Kara's bed, with her cuddled to me and Joyce spooned behind her. I lay quietly for about fifteen minutes, then decided I should make breakfast for everyone. I carefully slipped out of bed and was happy when Kara simply stirred a bit but didn't wake up. I went to the bathroom and relieved myself, then headed downstairs.

I hunted around the kitchen for everything I needed and added a few things to the grocery list that was hanging on the fridge. I'd go out shopping later, once my dad arrived. I started the coffee, and mixed the batter for waffles. I then started on the eggs and bacon, and turned the waffle iron on to preheat. I saw that the pitcher of orange juice was almost empty and took the remaining can from the freezer to make another pitcher. I added that to the grocery list as well.

As I put the first batch of waffle batter on the iron, Nancy Blanchard walked into the kitchen wearing a long red robe. Her eyes were red and puffy and she looked quite haggard. I poured her a cup of coffee and a glass of juice and she sat down at the table.

"Thanks," she said. "I heard from Kara that you were a good cook. I don't think Alan cooked a thing in his life, except on the grill."

"Mrs. Blanchard, Joyce stayed the night as well. We all cuddled in Kara's bed. How are you doing this morning?"

"I feel lost, Steve. I don't even know the first thing to do. Alan handled everything."

One more reason to have a partnership in marriage instead of running things the way her husband had. But this wasn't the time to say anything like that.

"My dad is coming over this morning with his attorney, so they should be able to at least help you start sorting things out."

"Pastor Kent warned me against listening to him," she sighed.

"Of course he did," I said, fuming. "But when it comes to financial things, my dad really knows his stuff."

"It's OK, Steve. I trust you and your dad. I wasn't happy with what Pastor Kent said at the hospital. What happened between you two at the door when he showed up yesterday?"

"I tried to apologize for throwing the punch and he basically told me to stay away from Kara."

"You can see my opinion on that, Steve. Just stay calm. You'll probably hear a lot of stuff you don't agree with at the funeral."

"I know. I promised Kara that I'd stay calm no matter what is said."

"Thanks. I'll take some waffles now if you don't mind."

I served her the first waffle that came from the iron, a couple of strips of bacon and some eggs. I turned on the oven and put the rest of the bacon and eggs in a covered dish and put them in the oven to stay warm, and started a second batch of waffles. I heard footfalls upstairs, and knew that at least one of the girls, if not both would be down soon, so I set out plates and poured glasses of juice. I sat down with a cup of coffee.

"Aren't you going to eat?" Mrs. Blanchard asked.

"Not until the girls are served. Then I'll eat," I said.

She smiled, "You are so different from the men at church. Every day I see more and more why Kara loves you so much."

"I just wish her dad could have seen that."

Mrs. Blanchard smiled softly, "He did, Steve. He couldn't handle the fact that you two were sexually active, but he did see it. He was going to tell you that yesterday afternoon when you came by to get Kara."

A tear ran down her face and she wiped it away.

"Did Kara know?" I asked.

"No. On Saturday, while she was with you, Alan was fixing a broken drawer in Kara's desk. When he opened the drawer, the top piece of paper was Kara's class registration form from IIT with your Chicago address on it listed as her home address. He became extremely upset, as you can imagine, and brought it to me. He asked if I knew what was going on and I told him. He was in a rage and ranted for several minutes about how horrible you were and how you had corrupted his daughter and so on.

"He eventually calmed down, we talked. I asked him if he'd ever seen Kara happier and he said that he hadn't. I asked him if, putting aside the intimacy, he thought you were a good person and he agreed that he had thought you were until you took Kara's virginity. I reminded him that she'd given it to you, willingly and thoughtfully, and that according to her, you had put her off for months. He still had trouble seeing his daughter in that light, as I'm sure you can imagine.

"I asked him what he was going to do and he sat down, put his head in his hands and said he didn't know. He finally realized that the harder he tried to keep you apart, the more determined you two were to be together. I asked him if he really wanted to keep widening the rift between him and you, when it was clear you were going to be his son-in-law and the father of his grandchildren. I asked him if his principles were so important to him that it was worth the risk of alienating Kara and never seeing our grandchildren."

I interrupted, "Mrs. Blanchard, I would never, ever have done that. And I can't imagine Kara doing it, either."

"Don't be so sure, Steve. I know you tried hard to be nice to Alan and not let it interfere with your relationship with Kara, but over the years the animosity would have made things tougher and tougher. At some point, you two would have had enough. But, the more Alan and I talked, the more he realized that you and Kara were going to be together and, that in the end, he loved her too much to hurt her. He was going to tell you that while he didn't approve, he would no longer interfere and, most importantly, that he would accept you as his son-in-law."

"I don't know what to say. I wish I could have heard that from Alan, and I know how much it would have meant for Kara to hear it."

"I'll tell her," she said.

"Mrs. Blanchard, I added some things to the grocery list on the fridge. I planned to go out later this morning. If you would put anything on the list you need I'll take care of getting it. Also, I'll take the spare car keys and we'll get Alan's car for you."

"Thank you, Steve. If you don't mind, I'd prefer you took Joyce so Kara and I can talk."

"Sure. As long as Kara is OK with that," I said.

She nodded. A few minutes later the girls came downstairs. They'd clearly showered and Kara looked like she'd had a decent night's sleep. I got up and hugged Kara and then told them to sit down and served them breakfast. I started another batch of waffles on the iron and then put some food on my plate.

"How did you sleep, Kara?" her mom asked.

"OK. I was cuddled to Steve and Joyce spooned with me. I felt really safe and secure. How about you?"

"Alone, but I guess I have to get used to that now," she sighed. "But I have you, Kara."

Kara's brow furrowed, "Only for another month or so, mom."

"It's OK, honey. We'll just take each day as it comes."

"Kara, after I get a shower, I'm going to go grocery shopping. If it's OK with you, I'd like to take Joyce to help me out and bring your dad's car back from church. We'll be right back."

Joyce arched her brow, questioningly, but caught the slight shake of my head.

Kara nodded, "OK, I guess. But you'll both come back, right?"

"Yes, of course!" I said, and Joyce nodded in agreement.

We finished eating and I went up to take a shower and dress. When I was ready, I went downstairs to find that Joyce had done the dishes and was ready to head out. I hugged and kissed Kara and hugged her mom. Joyce hugged them both and then Joyce and I headed to Fazio's.

"Her mom wanted to have a talk with her, alone, so that's really why I brought you with me," I explained to Joyce. "How was she this morning?"

"OK. She's clearly in shock. She'll break down crying a lot, Steve. Just remember that."

"I'm not sure I should leave," I said. "I was supposed to go back to Chicago on Wednesday. The latest I can go is Friday morning, but I wonder if I should just cancel my trip."

"She told you not to. I talked to her this morning while we were showering. She wants you to go. I promise we'll take care of her."

"Maybe I should cut the trip short," I said. "I could still see my friends, see my class graduate, and see Karin to resolve things with her and be back in about three weeks instead of five weeks."

"You could do that, I suppose," Joyce said, nodding. "Talk to Kara about it."

We arrived at Fazio's, did the shopping, drove to the church so that Joyce could bring Alan's car to the Blanchards' house, and then headed there with Joyce following me. Joyce and I unpacked and put away the groceries, figuring out where the Blanchards kept everything in the process. I also put a blank sheet of paper in the clip for the grocery list on the fridge, and then we went to sit with Kara and her mom.

"The ladies from church will be in and out today, bringing food," Mrs. Blanchard said. "I asked them not to worry about breakfast,"

"I can do the cooking, Mrs. Blanchard," I said.

"It's OK, Steve. This lets the ladies from church feel like they're doing something. And it is a nice gesture."

I started coffee using the large urn in the kitchen, and then went to sit in the living room again. We talked, but there was quite a bit of silence. Neither Kara nor her mom were crying at the moment, but based on what Joyce had said, and my own experience with Birgit, I figured that was short-lived. Just before 10:00am my dad arrived with his attorney, Larry Walsh. Stephanie was with them.

"Steve, why don't you take the girls in the other room so we can talk with Nancy," my dad suggested in a voice that made it clear that it was an order.

"OK," I said, taking Kara's hand and going to the den.

We all sat down together, with Kara again leaning against me.

"Kara, I was thinking of shortening my trip to about 18 days. I can still do everything I need to do, and really, I don't need two weeks in Stockholm at this point."

"Don't change anything right now, Steve. Let's talk about this after the funeral, OK? Please?"

"Of course."

Just before noon, I saw my dad and Larry Walsh get up and move towards the door. I excused myself and got up and went to talk to him.

"How are things?" I asked.

"Reasonably good, I think," my dad replied. "Alan Blanchard had a will and some life insurance. Not a lot, but enough to pay off the mortgage and give Kara and her mom enough to live on for a while. Her college funds are separate, and those are in her name, so they don't have to go through any probate. They also have enough savings to easily cover their living expenses until the insurance proceeds are available. I'm covering the funeral home expenses and the gravesite until she can pay me back."

"Thanks Dad, I really appreciate it."

"They're going to be family according to you and Kara, so it's the least I could do."

"Will it be Greenlawn?"

"Yes, Greenlawn is the best option. Larry Walsh is going to make those arrangements today for me. I talked to Bill Noakes and made all those arrangements as well. The only question is which day the funeral is, and her pastor is going to confirm that this afternoon. If he comes here, you be on your best behavior."

"I will. He tried to provoke me yesterday when I tried to apologize. I didn't take the bait."

"Good. You're the better man, Steve. If you apologized and he didn't accept it, the problem is his, not yours. Just don't let any clergyman ever get under your skin. If there is a god, and I don't believe there is, I can't imagine someone like Kent van der Meer would be his spokesman!"

"On that last part, we agree. Thanks for everything."

"I assume you stayed here?"

"Yes, Joyce and I both did. We all slept, clothed, in the same bed at Kara's request and at Mrs. Blanchard's invitation."

"Let me know if you need anything. Stephanie said Bethany is coming by later and she'll get a ride home with her."

"Thanks again, Dad."

Just as he and Larry Walsh left, a couple of women from the church came to the door. There was a steady flow of women coming to the house that day, bringing food, sitting with Mrs. Blanchard, and doing things like cleaning and laundry. Kara made a point of closing and locking her door so that nobody would see my things there, which would only cause further trouble.

Pete and Melanie arrived just after noon, and Bethany at 1:00pm. About 1:30pm Pastor Kent arrived and, as he had the day before, looked at me with a haughty, accusing sneer. I simply smiled at him and Kara and I went to sit with her mom while they talked about the arrangements. The funeral service would be held at 10:00am on Thursday with burial directly following. Afterwards, there would be a reception at the church. The funeral home would call to confirm, but the visitation was planned for Wednesday evening.

I realized that I'd need a suit and I hadn't brought one with me. When Kara and I went back to the den to be with our friends, I commented that I needed to get a black suit by Wednesday night, and it was already Monday afternoon.

"Grandfather has a fantastic tailor," Joyce said. "I bet they can fit and alter a suit for you in a few hours. Let me make the call."

She was back three minutes later.

"We need to head to Kenwood as soon as we can. They'll fit you and alter the suit overnight and you can have it in the morning. And grandfather is paying. He said he would not accept any argument from you on this matter. He said to bring Kara as well, and they will custom fit a black dress for her, and her mother if need be."

"Your grandfather is a wonderful man," Kara said to Joyce. "Let me ask mom about it."

She was back two minutes later.

"Mom doesn't have a black dress, either. She wants to get out of the house as well, but the pastor is advising her to stay home."

"Oh of course he is. If it's something I want, he wants the opposite. This man is, to quote Saint Paul, 'a thorn in my side which I wish God would remove'."

Kara smiled, "Cute, Steve. At some point, I think I'll lock you two in a room armed only with Bibles. I'm sure you'll come out on top."

"If I don't strangle the man in the first two minutes," I said in a low voice. "Let me go talk to your mom."

I walked into the other room and was greeted with an evil look from the pastor.

"Mrs. Blanchard, a good friend of mine, who also happens to be my boss, is going to cover the cost of your dress and one for your daughter, and help me get a black suit fitted in time for the funeral. We'll need to head to Kenwood pretty much right away."

"We can take care of Nancy and Kara, Steve," Pastor Kent said.

"Sir, with all due respect, my friend is a very, very generous man and he would consider it a grave insult for us to refuse this gift. I can't speak for Mrs. Blanchard, but Kara knows this man and she's going to accept the gift. I believe that Mrs. Blanchard should as well. Please don't ask her to do foolish things simply because you do not like me!"

"Kent, the young man and his friend are trying to do the right thing; let them," a nicely dressed woman who was about fifty years old, said. "Forget your problems with this young man for a few days."

Kent van der Meer sighed, "Yes, dear."

Aha! The wife heard from. And the pastor let a woman tell him what to do! In front of me! It was all I could do to keep from laughing out loud.

"Thank you, Mrs. van der Meer," I said, assuming my guess was correct. "We appreciate it."

"You're welcome, Steve," she said, smiling. "This is no time for a fight."

I nodded and Mrs. Blanchard went to change. Bethany and Stephanie said that they'd stay behind and wait for us. Pete and Melanie headed out, but would stop by later. I pulled my sister aside.

"Sorry I missed swimming and breakfast this morning," I said.

"Forget it Steve," Stephanie replied, squeezing my arm. "This is way more important."

"How were things at home last night?"

"Mom had one of her classic hissy fits. She was completely out of control over the fact that Dad was helping Mrs. Blanchard and, I'm quoting now, 'helping Steve with his little slut'. I think Mom was actually glad that Kara's dad died because anything that hurts you has to be good in her book."

"And people wonder why I never, ever want to go home. I do, because of you and Dad, but holy shit, Steph! What did Dad say?"

"Oh, just that he was doing the good, Christian thing," she smirked.

I laughed hard, "Classic! What did Mom do?"

"Stormed off to her room. Of course, I slept in your old bed last night to avoid listening to the make-up sex."

"For the life of me, I don't get them. But they've clearly come to some kind of mutual accommodation."

"Dad loves her, big brother. As crazy as that sounds, it's true."

"I guess it's not much crazier than Kara loving me," I said.

"Steve, with the exception of Mom and that nut-job pastor that thinks like she does, who doesn't love you? I know what Kara sees in you, big brother. It's what Birgit and Jennifer both saw. And Bethany. And Kathy. And so on. I told you, if you tried, you could take the pastor's daughter's cherry on the altar of his church and she'd beg you to do it again, and she'd fall in love with you in the process!"

"Let's not get carried away, Stephanie! She's the LAST girl on earth I'd sleep with."

"No she's not. That would be Becky. Because she WOULD be the last girl you slept with. Because you'd be dead."

"Aye! Aye, Ma'am!" I chuckled, giving her a quick salute. "Point taken. Message received and acknowledged. Loud and clear!"

"Good. Carry on!" she said with a smirk. "Now, go take your fiancée and her mom to get their dresses."

"Don't jump the gun, Stephanie!"

"Oh please give me a break! You know it, Kara knows it, and so does everyone. It's just a formality to get the ring on her finger!"

I pulled Stephanie into a hug and released her as Kara, her mom and Joyce came towards us, ready to go.

"Stephanie and Bethany will be here until we get back," I said.

"So will the pastor's wife, and possibly some of the other ladies," Kara added.

We headed out to the address Joyce gave me in Kenwood. The tailor, unsurprisingly, was a middle-aged Italian immigrant. He quickly fitted Kara and her mom for very nice black dresses that were stylish, but not overstated. When it was my turn, the tailor first fitted me for a white dress shirt, then for what seemed to me to be a very expensive suit. After making all the markings on the suit with a bar of soap, he asked my shoe size and had me try on a pair of black wing-tips. When he was satisfied, he asked us to wait and he and his assistant did the minor alterations for the dresses and then had Kara and her mom try them on. I was not surprised when they fit perfectly. The assistant put them on hangers and wrapped them in plastic so we could take them with us. I would need to return for the suit the next morning.

We headed back to Milford, arriving at the Blanchards' just under three hours after we left. There were a number of ladies waiting in the living room and dinner was in the oven to stay warm. They got the dishes out and set them on the counter and everyone helped themselves. Kathy arrived to pay her respects just after 6:00pm, having heard from Bethany what had happened. Several other friends, including Mary, Larry, Ralph, Beth, and Krista stopped by that evening, plus a number of teens from the church, including Susie. Sandy was there as well, though she kept quiet and kept her distance. Everyone left by 10:00pm, when Stephanie and Bethany finally went home.

Monday night was exactly the same as Sunday, with Kara cuddling me and Joyce spooning behind her. In the morning, I made breakfast when I woke up as I had the day before, and then showered after everyone had eaten. Right after lunch, Joyce and I left Kara with Stephanie and Bethany and went to Kenwood to pick up my suit. I tried on everything and it all fit perfectly, as I expected. The tailor smiled and had his assistant put everything on hangers or in a bag.

"One suit, with two pairs of pants. Two ties. Two white dress shirts. Two undershirts. Two pairs of black socks. One pair of black shoes. One set of cuff links."

"Joyce, your grandfather has gone overboard," I said, protesting slightly.

"No way, Steve. You have an important funeral to go to, plus the visitation the night before. This is what he thinks you need, and he's right."

"I guess so. I've been to one funeral and I was an altar boy for that service. I was ten."

"You have a fresh shirt, undershirt, pants, and socks for each day. No laundry needed. The suit will need to be dry cleaned when necessary because it's very high quality wool," Joyce said.

"Yeah, it's not off-the-rack from Sears or JCPenney, that's for damn sure!"

"You'll look very handsome in that," she said. "Can we swing by my house? I need to get my stuff for Wednesday night and Thursday."

"Yes, of course."

I drove from Kenwood to Loveland so that Joyce could get her things, and then back to Milford to Kara's house. We put our things in the guest room closet and went to sit with Kara and some of her friends. Kara got up and took me aside.

"Steve, do you think we could use the sauna today?" Kara asked. "Maybe after dinner?"

"I'm sure it's OK, but I'll call Trudy Spencer and let her know. You, me and Joyce?" I asked.

"Bethany can join us if she wants, and I guess it's OK for your sister to join us."

"OK. I'll make the call. Want to invite Sandy?" I said with an evil grin.

Kara laughed for the first time since Sunday. "She'd die! And if her dad found out, he'd lose his mind."

"All the more reason to invite her!" I grinned.

"No, let's not antagonize them today. That serves no purpose. Now, when you come back from Sweden..."

"I'm glad to see you laugh, Honey. It warms my heart."

"I think I'll cry enough tomorrow night and Thursday. You can't leave my side for one second."

I smiled, "I'll even hold your hand when you use the bathroom if you need me to."

Kara laughed softly, On second thought, you can wait outside the ladies room!"

Late in the afternoon my dad stopped in to talk to Mrs. Blanchard and they, with the pastor's wife, went to the cemetery to select the plot. They were back in about an hour, and I noticed that Kara's mom had been crying. Kara went to be with her mom, while Joyce and I sat with some of her church friends who were there. I was amazed at the outpouring of support, and realized that despite my problems with the pastor and his teaching, there were quite a few good people who seemed to truly care.

After dinner, Kara, Bethany, Joyce, Stephanie, and I headed over to the Spencers' house to use the sauna. We all went into the master bathroom to undress and get into the sauna, which Melanie had already pre-heated for us.

"Where's Pete?" I asked Melanie.

"I sent him home for a few hours. I figured it was OK if I joined you, but him with all that female flesh? No way!" she grinned. "Besides, he'd be concerned about Stephanie being in there with you."

"Good point," I said.

We crowded into the sauna, with three of us on each bench. I had Kara on my right and Joyce on my left, and Stephanie, Melanie, and Bethany were on the top bench. I ladled my usual amount of water onto the rocks and breathed the generated steam deeply.

"Ahhhhh..." I sighed, sitting back down.

"Five naked girls, big brother, you must be in heaven!" Stephanie giggled.

"Stephanie, knock it off," I said sternly. "There are times when nudity isn't sexual and this is one of them. Want me to send you out?"

"No," she replied in a small voice.

"Then lay off the teasing for now, please."

"OK," she half-whispered.

I saw Kara smile slightly. Putting Stephanie in her place like that reaffirmed with Kara that I had indeed kept my relationship with Stephanie on the straight and narrow, though I knew it was a touch-and-go issue for me and I was occasionally struggling to stay on the path. On the other hand, Stephanie did have a point. I was in the sauna with five beautiful naked girls. But I was right as well; there was nothing sexual about this situation at all.

"This is really relaxing," Kara said. "I'm starting to see what you get from this. It especially helps to clear my nose from all the crying."

"It's always helped me. Any house we live in has to have a sauna."

After about twenty-five minutes we left the sauna and each showered in turn, dried off, then dressed. Bethany sighed when she finished dressing. It dawned on me that this had been a major step for her. I pulled her aside while the others went downstairs to get soft drinks.

"Bethany, I'm sorry. I didn't even think about the fact that this might be uncomfortable for you."

"I was super nervous, but you were so focused on Kara that you didn't notice. But I did it!"

"Yes, you did, Sweetheart! And I'm proud of you!"

I pulled her into a tight hug. She looked up and me and I bent my head down and was about to kiss her lips when I realized what I was doing and kissed her gently on the cheek. She sighed deeply and buried her head in my chest.

"Sorry, Sweetheart," I whispered.

She clung tightly to me for a moment, then we broke the hug and joined all of our friends downstairs. I got a Dr Pepper and sat at the kitchen table, where Trudy had joined us and asked about the arrangements. I told her about the plans for the visitation and funeral and she said that she and Frank would be there. I asked to use the phone and called Elyse to let her know what had happened. She was completely shocked and asked for the details of the funeral and said she'd be there. After I hung up, I sat back down and we finished our drinks, then Bethany left with Stephanie to take her home and Joyce, Kara, and I went back to Kara's house.

When we walked into the house, the last of the church ladies was just leaving. I went to the kitchen to make some tea and the four of us sat at the kitchen table to drink it.

"Is there anything we need to do, Mrs. Blanchard?"

"No, Steve. Your dad, his attorney, and the Noakes Funeral Home have made all the arrangements, and we have our dresses. The ladies from the church will take care of the meal for after the funeral. Just you being here is enough. And you too, Joyce."

"Kara, I know you wanted to discuss this on Thursday, but I really need to decide today if I'm only going for 18 or 19 days instead of 34. I can still change my return date and if I do it tomorrow, I'll be outside the three week limit for free changes. Of course, I can always stay a day or two more to avoid that if I have to because I'm not paying for a room."

Kara sighed, "It's up to you. I don't want you to cancel the trip, but I would really appreciate it if you came back sooner."

"Then I'll change my tickets," I said.

She smiled, "Thanks, Snuggle Bear."

Kara's mom smiled, "Snuggle Bear?"

I chuckled, "She's called me that for quite some time, and seems to enjoy saying it in front of other people!"

"It's cute. And I'm sure she likes to snuggle with you, Steve."

"She does, and I like snuggling with her as well."

"Mrs. Blanchard, I've never seen two people more in love that these two," Joyce said.

"I agree. And, so did Alan. I told Steve and Kara, separately, but on Sunday, he was going to tell them that while he didn't approve, he understood their desire to be together and wouldn't interfere. In the end, his love for his daughter outweighed his moral outrage over their intimacy."

"I wish I could have heard that from dad," Kara sighed, a tear running down her cheek.

"I know, sweetie," Mrs. Blanchard said. "I know. It's time for bed. We've got a long two days ahead of us, and then Steve has a very long trip."

We all headed upstairs, and Joyce and I joined Kara in her room. Tonight I changed in the room with the girls and we got into bed. Kara kissed me softly and then turned to kiss Joyce as well. She snuggled close to me and Joyce spooned behind her.

"Thanks for changing your trip, Steve," Kara said.

"I love you, Honey. I'll do whatever you need me to," I said.

"Would you make love to me? Please?" she said softly.

"I'll go in the guest room," Joyce said.

"You can stay, Joyce, if you don't mind us making love next to you."

"Go ahead," she said softly.

Kara sat up and removed her long sleep shirt, exposing her naked body. I slipped off my shorts and t-shirt and we moved so I was on top of Kara. We kissed softly for a few minutes and Kara slipped her hand between us, gently stroking me until I was hard. She positioned my glans against her labia and I pushed slowly into her. Kara wrapped her legs around mine and we began slowly moving together. Joyce was lying on her side, propped on her elbow, watching us. Kara and I were looking deep into each other's eyes as we moved in slow motion.

"Joyce, are you and Terry exclusive?" Kara whispered.

"No, we aren't," Joyce said.

"Then please kiss me," Kara asked.

Kara turned her head slightly and Joyce lowered her head to Kara's and their lips touched. Kara's lips parted and her tongue darted out to seek out Joyce's. Kara moaned softly and humped harder against me. I lowered my face to theirs, and gently pressed my tongue between their lips. A few seconds later Kara's pussy contracted around my dick and she thrust her hips hard up to meet me. I began making harder, more frequent strokes and Kara groaned as her body shook as she reached her release. She broke the kiss.

"Fuck me really hard, Steve," she gasped.

I began pounding in and out of her and she thrust her hips upwards to meet each forceful stroke. She wrapped her legs around my butt and squeezed tightly.

"Cum in me, Steve!" she gasped; humping me with abandon.

I continued my forceful strokes for another minute then pushed deeply into her and fired jet after jet of cum into her pussy. She groaned and her pussy spasmed around my dick and she squeezed me tight and held me as her body shook with another orgasm. After a minute she relaxed and I moved into our cuddle position and Joyce spooned behind Kara, her arm wrapped around Kara and her hand softly caressing Kara's breast.

"Thank you both," Kara sighed. "Joyce, if you need him, it's OK."

"No, Kara, that wouldn't be right. Not tonight," Joyce said, much to my relief.

Kara fell asleep almost immediately. A few minutes later, Joyce whispered to me.

"It just didn't seem right, Steve," she said.

"I agree."

"Someday, though," she sighed.

I lay awake for a long time, contemplating the circumstances and everything that had happened. Eventually I drifted off to sleep.

III. Saying Goodbye, Part I

June 1982, Milford, Ohio

On Wednesday morning I once again made breakfast for everyone. Joyce did the dishes after breakfast and then we all sat in the living room with cups of coffee. The ladies from the church would bring lunch, and around 3:30pm we'd head to the Noakes Funeral Home for the visitation. I dreaded that, because I wasn't a big fan of being in the same room as a dead body on display. There was just something that creeped me out about the whole idea. But, I would be there to support Kara and her mom, no matter how I felt.

Just after 10:00am I called the travel agent to change my return flight from July 8th to June 25th. I arranged to pick up the revised tickets at O'Hare from SAS. Next I had to call Karin and Torbjörn and let them know about the change of plans. Torbjörn was easy - I just let him know I'd only be staying a week with him, then I'd be heading to Stockholm. It was only cutting five days so I didn't really need to explain.

The second call was much more difficult. I didn't want to really get into things with Karin until I saw her face to face, but I was cutting an entire week of time from my visit with her. I really wanted to avoid a long-drawn out conversation with her about it, so I told her that I was calling from a friend's house, which was true, and that I had some serious issues at home that meant that I needed to cut my trip short. I was still going to see her for a full week, and she'd have my undivided attention. She wasn't happy but said she understood. I told her that I'd see her in about two weeks.

Finally, I called Josh and let him know what had happened. He was in complete shock and asked to speak to Kara. I put her on the phone and Josh switched from Swedish to English to talk to her. They spoke for about five minutes and then Kara said goodbye and they hung up.

"So that was Swedish, huh?" she said.

"Yeah. Josh can speak fluently now, too."

I gave Mrs. Blanchard enough cash to cover the phone calls and sat back down in the living room with Kara sitting between Joyce and me. The ladies brought a large lunch around 11:30am and after we ate, Kara said she wanted to take a nap and asked Joyce to come with her. They went upstairs and I sat with Mrs. Blanchard in the living room.

"Steve," she said, moving to sit on the couch next to me, "I just want to tell you how happy I am that Kara found you. I know it's been difficult at times, but it's been a very good thing for her. I sometimes wonder how my life would have been different if I'd met someone like you when I was a teenager. There are days when I think it would have been so much better."

She leaned over and kissed my cheek.

"Thanks for being there for Kara, for loving her and, I hope, living the rest of your lives together."

I started to speak, but she put her finger on my lips and shook her head, then moved back to the chair she'd been sitting in. I briefly imagined what Nancy Blanchard had looked like as a teenager, and realized that she looked very good for someone who was almost forty years old. I hoped Kara looked that good in twenty-two years! I also wondered if Mrs. Blanchard would eventually remarry, but this was certainly neither the time nor the place to ask that question.

About 2:30pm I went upstairs to wake Kara and Joyce so we could all get ready. The girls were on top of the comforter, fully clothed, but cuddled together. I gently shook Joyce's shoulder and then she woke Kara. We took turns taking showers then dressed in our black clothes. The last thing I did was tie my tie, and then we went downstairs to wait for Mrs. Blanchard. When she came down, we went out to Alan's Oldsmobile because it was more comfortable for four, and I drove to the Noakes Funeral Home.

When we pulled up, Bill Noakes was waiting by the front door and directed us to a parking spot, then came and opened the doors for Kara and her mom to get out. He escorted the four of us inside and directed us to seats in a large room which had around 100 chairs arranged in rows. In the front of the room was a casket covered with flowers, though it wasn't open. One of the staff offered everyone water or a soft drink and then left us alone to wait for the start of the visitation. The pastor would be there promptly at 4:00pm to pray, and then the casket would be opened.

Guests were slowly filing in and at about 3:55pm Pastor Kent arrived and came to greet Mrs. Blanchard and Kara. He did not extend his hand to me, but I put out my own and he took it with a look of disdain. I smiled inwardly that I'd made him uncomfortable, and then rebuked myself for thinking that way at this time. It wasn't a contest, it was an important event for Kara and her mom, and I was going to behave and keep my mind focused on the reason we were there. My dad and Stephanie arrived just after the pastor, as did Pete, Melanie, Bethany and Ed. Many of the adults would come after 5:00pm when they got off work.

At 4:00pm, Bill Noakes opened the coffin lid and Kara immediately burst into tears. Both Joyce and I put our arms around her and held her. Mrs. Blanchard was stoic, but I could tell she was fighting to maintain her composure. The pastor stepped to the front of the room and everyone stood. He prayed for a couple of minutes and then delivered a short homily. I was surprised that at no time was a prayer said for Alan Blanchard, something that was a staple of Roman Catholic funerals. When the pastor finished, Bill Noakes and one of his assistants came to Mrs. Blanchard and Kara and escorted them to the coffin. Joyce and I followed closely behind.

To me, Alan Blanchard didn't look like he did when he was alive, but more like a wax statue. I'd never seen someone in this state before, so I had no idea what an embalmed body looked like until I saw Kara's dad. We stood by the side of the coffin for a few minutes, then went back to sit down. As the guests filed by the coffin, they stopped to offer condolences to Kara and her mom, and then paid their respects to Kara's dad.

Over the course of the next three hours, it seemed that most of Kara's church, all of her relatives and a lot of her parents' friends and her dad's co-workers came to pay their respects. All of our friends came as well, congregating afterwards in a smaller side room. Pastor Kent sat with Mrs. Blanchard most of the time, though occasionally he got up to speak to some of his congregation.

Finally, at 8:00pm, Pastor Kent said a brief prayer and the coffin was closed. Bill Noakes brought the pastor, plus the four of us into his office to go over the plans for Thursday. We'd meet at the funeral home at 9:00am and leave our car there. We'd ride to the church in black Lincoln Continentals and Alan would be taken to the church in a hearse. Once the church service was completed, we'd get back into the cars and ride to the cemetery. From there, we'd be taken back to the church were we'd spend an hour at a reception-type event, then finally, we'd be brought back to get our car.

When Bill finished, he and one of his staff walked Kara and her mom out to the car and I drove them and Joyce back to the house. We went inside and everyone changed into casual clothes and sat down to eat a light dinner that Mrs. van der Meer had prepared. She served us, but didn't eat. When we'd finished eating, Mrs. van der Meer left. Kara was exhausted and went right up to bed while Joyce and I cleaned up the kitchen. I made tea and we sat with Mrs. Blanchard in the living room to unwind.

"Are you doing OK?" I asked.

"As well as can be expected, I guess. At some point I'm sure this is all going to hit me. Right now I guess I'm just numb."

"Can I do anything for you?" I asked.

She smiled, "Just what you're doing - taking care of Kara and being here for both of us."

"I talked to Bethany and Stephanie today," Joyce said, "and one of us is going to see Kara every day until you get back. Susie will be around a lot as well."

"I really appreciate that Joyce," I said.

"I do as well," Mrs. Blanchard said. "All of Steve's friends are so caring!"

"They all love Kara, Mrs. Blanchard," Joyce said.

We finished our tea and Mrs. Blanchard went up to bed. Joyce and I went up to Kara's room. She was asleep so Joyce and I changed and I spooned behind Kara and then Joyce spooned against me, and I quickly fell asleep.

I awoke early on Thursday, but waited for Kara to wake up. When she did, the three of us got up. I went downstairs to make breakfast and the girls went to shower. The girls and Mrs. Blanchard all came into the kitchen wearing robes. I put everything on the table and then sat down to eat. When we finished, Joyce and I quickly cleaned up and then we went upstairs to dress.

At 8:45am we headed to the Noakes Funeral Home. I parked and Bill Noakes greeted us as he had the previous day. He and an assistant walked Kara and her mom to a black Lincoln. Joyce sat in the front and I sat in the back, next to Kara, with her mom on her other side. We waited about ten minutes then followed the hearse out of the parking lot onto Main Street. About ten minutes later we pulled up in front of Grace Evangelical Church. Six men in suits were waiting by the entrance to act as pall bearers.

Men from the church came to escort Kara and her mom, and Joyce and I followed them to the front pew of the church. We were seated and waited while the coffin was carried in and placed on a bier in the front of the church. Over the next fifteen minutes the church filled with Alan's friends, co-workers, and members of the congregation, as well as Kara's and my friends and my dad and Stephanie. My mom didn't come with him, but I wasn't really surprised by that, nor did it bother me.

At 10:00am the pastor walked up on the platform and stood behind a podium. I was surprised that the church didn't have an altar, but then again I'd never been in church other than a Roman Catholic one. The pastor greeted everyone and said a brief prayer and then the choir sang Amazing Grace and How Great Thou Art. The pastor opened his bible and read Romans 8:18–39 and then 1 Corinthians 50–58.

He launched into his sermon which started off fine, but then it seemed as if the pastor was staring directly at me when he spoke about the corrupting influence of sin and how death was a direct result of sin. While I knew there was some theological backing for the idea, every sentence made it clearer and clearer that he was blaming me for Alan's death.

"We are told in the Scriptures that the wages of sin is DEATH, but it is not always our death that is caused by our sins. Sin kills the body and the soul! Sin leads us straight to hell. Unrepentant sinners are dangerous and cannot be tolerated in our midst!"

I clenched the front edge of the pew, resolving not to lose control. I was livid. This was not, in my opinion, how one handled a funeral. If the man had problems with me, he should bring them up in private.

"There are indeed unrepentant sinners in this room! There are those who deny the existence of God! Such individuals are an abomination! There are those who claim to know Scripture but pervert it for sinful purposes!"

I could feel my face turning red. I wasn't going to be able to take much more of this. Then I felt a hand on my arm. It was Nancy Blanchard, reaching across Kara's lap to squeeze my arm.

"No, Steve. Let it go," she whispered. "Let it go."

I took several deep breaths while the pastor continued with his harangue. Although I wasn't peaceful inside, I did my best to look as peaceful as possible. Kara took my hand and squeezed it and Joyce put her arm through mine. It was clear that all three women were aware of just how upset I was and were trying to give me the strength to simply sit and take it.

Finally the pastor finished. Three of Alan's friends went to the podium and spoke about him in turn. When they finished, Alan's younger brother gave a brief recap of Alan's life and then the pastor came back to the podium and said another short prayer. When he finished, the choir sang O God Our Help in Ages Past and closed with Amazing Grace as the coffin was carried out of the church by the pall bearers.

The escorts came to take Kara and her mom to the car and as before, Joyce and I followed along afterwards. We got into the Lincoln and the pastor and his wife got into a second Lincoln behind ours. When everything was ready, we began the slow procession from the parking lot of the church, following a Milford Police car with its lights flashing. Ten minutes later we turned into Greenlawn Cemetery and pulled up near a freshly dug grave.

We got out of the car and waited while the pall bearers came up and took the coffin from the hearse and carried it to the gravesite, and positioned it on a kind of harness system over the open grave. Everyone gathered around the coffin and Mrs. Blanchard and Kara sat on chairs with Joyce and me standing behind them. The pastor called for silence and began speaking.

"I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord; he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die..."

He then recited the 23rd Psalm and said a final prayer. Kara and her mom were both crying softly.

"Lord Jesus, into thy hands we commend thy servant Alan, who stands now before you in glory!"

After an 'Amen' from the people gathered there, one by one people placed a flower on the coffin and paid their respects to Kara and her mother. When the last person had done so, we made our way back to the cars and were driven back to the church. We went to the church hall where food and drink had been set out, and after the pastor prayed, people began eating. I sat close to Kara, with my arm around her.

"Steve, I'm really sorry," Nancy Blanchard said.

"It's not your fault, Mrs. Blanchard. You didn't say those things."

"I know, but it was inappropriate."

"Don't worry about it today."


My dad and sister came up to me and drew me aside.

"Son, you did a good job of not getting up and decking that fool!" Dad said with a smile.

"You can thank Mrs. Blanchard, Kara, and Joyce. They had a good firm grip on me."

"He was way out of line, Son. But just let it go. Let the man bask in his own self-righteousness. You won't ever change him."

"Maybe not, but Alan Blanchard changed, Dad. According to Kara's mom, on Saturday he found Kara's class schedule that listed my address as her home address. After he freaked out, he calmed down and he and Mrs. Blanchard talked it out. He was going to tell me Sunday afternoon that while he didn't approve of what Kara and I were doing, he loved her and that he would accept me as his son-in-law."

"Wow!" Stephanie interjected.

"I agree," Dad said, "wow! I'd say you've done well, Steve. Now, go take care of your girlfriend."

I walked back over to Kara who clung tightly to me. She'd stopped crying but her eyes were red and puffy. Her mom seemed to be doing better, but I wondered how long that would last. About 2:00pm we left the reception and went back to the funeral home to get the Olds, then headed back to the Blanchards'. Mrs. Blanchard's mom was coming to stay with her for a few days to help out, and she arrived a few minutes after we did.

Joyce, Kara and I changed and went down to the den. A few minutes later, Kara went upstairs to see what was taking her mother so long. They came down together about twenty minutes later, and both were crying. Mrs. Blanchard went to sit on the couch in the living room, then curled up hugging a throw pillow and cried. Her mother sat with her, trying to soothe her, but she seemed inconsolable. Kara went to be with them and Joyce and I stretched out on the couch, with Joyce resting her head on my chest.

About thirty minutes later Kara came into the den and smirked when she saw us.

"Trying to steal my guy, you hussy?"

Joyce laughed and sat up.

"I did find him first, you know!"

"Forget it!" Kara said with a smile.

"You seem better, Kara," I said.

"For now," she sighed. "I'm sure it'll come back like Joyce said. But we need to talk."

That phrase never boded well and I was instantly nervous.

"That phrase makes me really nervous. Come sit by me, Kara."

Joyce got up and went to sit in an easy chair. Kara came and sat down.

"Steve, I'm just going to say this straight out. My mom needs me. I want to stay with her."

"Of course, Honey. Why would you think I would object to that?"

"No, Steve, I mean for a while. I'm going to take a year off before I start college so I can stay with my mom."

My head spun and Joyce was off her chair like a shot to sit on the other side of me and hold me up. Then the world went black. I came to lying on the couch with a damp cloth on my forehead and three women kneeling or standing by my side. Kara's grandmother was sitting in an easy chair.

"Steve?" I head Kara say.

"Yeah," I said, my voice cracking, trying to gather my wits.

"Are you OK?" Kara asked.

"Yeah, I felt a bit light-headed. Probably the stress and I haven't really eaten much of anything since breakfast."

"Kara, please go get Steve a glass of orange juice," Mrs. Blanchard said.

Kara left and came back a minute later with a glass of juice. I slowly sat up and took the offered glass and drank it down. I held out the empty glass and Joyce took it back to the kitchen as Kara sat beside me.

"Mom, Joyce, do you mind if I talk to Steve alone?" Kara said when Joyce came back.

"Not at all, Kara, we'll go in the other room," her mom said.

"Actually, we'll go up to my room, mom, if that's OK."

Her mom nodded.

"Is that appropriate?" Kara's grandmother asked.

"Mom, please just let them be," Mrs. Blanchard said.

Kara took my hand and led me upstairs to her room. She shut and locked the door and wordlessly undressed and got into bed. She patted the bed next to her. I just stood, staring.

"We need to talk, Steve, and we always seem to have our best talks after we make love. Come make love with me, please."

I slowly removed my clothes and got into bed with Kara. I pulled her to me and we kissed softly. She gently pushed me on my back.

"Let me," she whispered.

She moved down and took me in her mouth, softly sucking and licking until I was hard. She mounted me and gently rode me until I came, then stretched out on top of me.

"I love how warm your cum feels in me," Kara sighed.

"I'm glad, but we need to talk about what you said before."

She frowned and then sighed deeply, "After you fainted, I realized that I'd just done to you what Jennifer did a year ago!"

She was right and she was wrong. I was upset, but I remembered just how I'd treated Jennifer and the mistakes I made. I wasn't going to do that again.

"No, Honey, you didn't. At least not if you just decided when you were talking to your mom today. Jennifer hid things from me all the time. You didn't do that, did you?"

Kara's frown disappeared, "No, I didn't hide it. I'd talked about it with Joyce, but I didn't make the decision until I talked with mom today. I guess, really, that was your issue with Jennifer, wasn't it?"

"It was. She had a history of hiding things from me including her move to Seattle, her decision to go to Stanford and a bunch of other things. Tell me about your decision."

"You aren't going to argue with me?" she said, surprised.

"No, Honey, I'm not. I'm going to listen. Just tell me."

"You know that my mom married my dad as soon as she graduated from High School. She moved straight from my grandparents' house to an apartment with my dad. She's never, ever lived alone, never had a job, never paid a bill, nothing. Dad took care of everything. Mom went shopping, cooked, cleaned, and spent time with the ladies from church. It's a life I never wanted, but it's the one she chose when she married dad.

That was a preview of AWLL 1 - Book 7 - Kara II. To read the rest purchase the book.

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