DEAD, WHITE, AND BLUE

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CHAPTER 1

Lilly used the graduation program to fan herself with a hand that trembled ever so slightly.

“I don’t know why people say dry heat isn’t bad,” she grumbled. “Hot is hot. I don’t care how dry the air is.”

Her best friend, Noley, nudged her in the ribs. “You’re looking at it all wrong. Think about how much better it is to have a late June heat wave than an early January deep-freeze.”

You should talk, Lilly thought with a hint of envy. You probably aren’t even sweating.

Bev, Lilly’s mother, leaned across Noley’s lap. “Lilly, stop your complaining. This is Tighe’s day. No one cares if you’re uncomfortable.”

“Thanks, Mom,” Lilly shot back. Bev’s unfiltered words were probably right, though.

Lilly glanced at Noley out of the corner of her eye. Noley was grinning.

When Bev looked away and began talking to the strangers on the other side of her, Noley turned to Lilly again and said in a low voice, “It’s not the weather that has you upset--it’s that Tighe’s graduating. He’s not leaving forever, you know. You’ll always be his mother.”

Tears sprang to Lilly’s eyes, as they had so often in the past two weeks. It seemed any mention of Tighe made her weepy. She pulled a tissue from her handbag and dabbed at her eyes, sniffing.

“I know. It’s just that now the countdown begins in earnest to the day he leaves home and heads off to college.”

Lilly’s daughter, Laurel, was sitting on Lilly’s left side. “Mom, don’t cry. Again. You still have me.”

“I know, Laurel, and I’m so thankful for that. But you’ll be leaving a year from now.” She choked on a sob and the tears fell faster.

“Mom, you’re supposed to be happy. Don’t let Tighe see you crying. He’ll be upset.”

Laurel had a point. Lilly didn’t want her eyes to be red and puffy when Tighe met up with the rest of the family after the ceremony.

“You’re right, Laur. I’ll stop. I’m sorry.” Laurel reached for Lilly’s hand and held it in a tight grip. When did she become the comforter and I the comforted? Lilly asked herself, shaking her head.

“Why are you shaking your head?” Laurel asked.

Lilly smiled. “You’re growing up.”

Laurel rolled her eyes. “Mom, no more blubbering. Please.”

Lilly laughed before the tears could start afresh. “I won’t.”

The first heavy notes of the high school band’s rendition of Pomp and Circumstance began to blare across the field. The murmuring of the crowd in the bleachers dulled and parents, family, and friends all focused their attention on the graduates making their way from the back of the school onto the artificial turf.

The boys were in bright royal blue graduation gowns that could probably be seen from outer space; the girls’ gowns were white. Lilly searched the graduates for Tighe. She knew he would be near the beginning of the class because they were marching in alphabetical order and his last name started with a “C.” He had also decorated his cap with a basketball and a hoop.

“There he is!” she cried, waving at him. She could tell he was looking for his family, but he didn’t see them.

“Mom, be quiet,” Laurel said in a low voice. “You’re embarrassing me.”

Lilly rolled her eyes and sat up a little straighter so she could get a good picture of Tighe. She had threatened to wear a big, floppy hat so he could see her in the stands, but Noley had talked her out of it. She aimed her phone at her son and started snapping pictures at a furious rate.

"Mom, don’t you have enough pictures? You took a thousand at home,” Laurel said.

           

“You can never have enough pictures,” Lilly said.

           

Once the graduates were seated and the band had stopped playing, the principal got up and made some long-winded remarks. By the time he was done talking, the graduates were restless in their seats, as were all the family members and friends in the stands. When would they get to the good part, the part where the students were called up one by one to receive their diplomas?

Finally, after several other people, including members of the Board of Education, the valedictorian and salutatorian, and a member of the Parent-Teacher Organization had spoken at mind-numbing length, it was time for the presentation of the graduates.

Row by row they stood, waiting for names to be called. Lilly was ready with the video on her cell phone when Tighe’s name was called in the principal’s deep baritone.

"Tighe Matthew Carlsen.”

Lilly stood up to get a better video. Chills ran up and down her spine and goosebumps dotted her arms when she heard Tighe’s name. She glanced at Beau, who was watching his son with rapt attention. She thought she even saw a tiny smear of moisture on the corner of his eye. Could it be that he had developed a hint of sentimentality since returning to Juniper Junction?

Lilly continued to film Tighe as he walked back toward his seat. His eyes scanned the stands and he found her. He waved, his smile wide, and held up his diploma. She waved back and gave him a thumbs-up, feeling like the two of them were alone in the stadium for a fleeting moment.

She sat down as the next name was called. Beau leaned across Laurel. “Our boy did it.” He grinned.

“Yes, our boy sure did,” she said, suppressing a grimace. She knew she shouldn’t be petty, but was Tighe really as much Beau’s “boy” as he was hers? After all, she had raised him from toddlerhood to his senior year in high school without Beau’s help. Why should Beau be taking any credit on graduation day?

Noley elbowed her. “Ignore him,” she said through clenched teeth.

Bev leaned forward so she could look at Lilly. “Okay, that’s it. Can we go now?” she said in a shockingly loud voice. Or maybe it just seemed shockingly loud to Lilly. She looked at her mother with something akin to horror.

“Mom, shh! We can’t go until all the other graduates have been called up,” she hissed.

 

“God, this is boring,” Bev said, rummaging in her purse. Several people sitting around them snickered. Lilly turned to them.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered.

 

“She’s only saying out loud what the rest of us are thinking,” one man said. The people sitting on either side of him nodded their agreement. Bev finally located a mint and unwrapped it noisily.

 

Lilly turned her attention back to the class. She knew what was going through their collective minds--let’s get out of these hot gowns, whose party is everyone going to first, and when can we eat?

 

She and Noley had planned a party for a few hours after the ceremony. Gatherings that involved Noley always promised to be delicious, since she was a sought-after cook, recipe developer, and small-event caterer.

Lilly knew Tighe would want to go to the homes of a few of his friends before his own party started, plus Hassan was flying in from Minneapolis and she knew he didn’t want to miss Tighe’s party. He had apologized to Tighe for not being able to make it to the graduation ceremony and he had promised to be there afterward. Lilly smiled at the thought of Hassan, her boyfriend since just before Christmas.

Then she frowned. Boyfriend was such a teenage word. Partner? No, they weren’t in business together. Significant other? Maybe, but she didn’t want to refer to him as an “other.” Companion? Maybe. Special friend? No, that just sounded weird. Escort? No, he wasn’t a gigolo.

Her thoughts turned back to the ceremony, where the principal was intoning the names of the “M” kids. Halfway there, she thought.

By the time the ceremony was over and the families of the graduates had flooded the football field for photos and hugs and bouquets of flowers, the sun was dropping lower into the western sky.

Tighe peeled off his graduation gown as soon as the obligatory photos had been taken with every family member in attendance. “Mom, can I go to Mike’s house? He and I are going to hit a couple parties, then we’ll be home. His parents are coming to our party, too.”

“Sure,” Lilly said. “See you at home.” Mike lived less than a block from the school--Tighe would be there before the rest of them even got to the parking lot.

Tighe slung the graduation gown over his shoulder and Lilly watched him saunter over to Mike and his family.

She allowed herself one sad thought--about the metaphorical nature of her son moving away from her to take care of other business--before a stern voice in her head told her to get a grip.

Noley sidled up to her. “Hey, let’s get going. We’ve got a lot to do before people start getting to your house.”

Lilly was grateful for any activity that would take her mind off the momentous nature of the day’s events. At least temporarily.

They walked toward their cars with Beau and Laurel in tow. Bill, Lilly’s brother, had promised to drive Bev to her home to rest for a bit before bringing her over to Lilly’s house for the party. Since he was on duty until early evening, he had missed the graduation ceremony, but he met them in the parking lot and took Bev home in his police cruiser.

“Are you picking up Hassan at the airport?” Beau asked. “I can go get him if you want.”

It was a nice gesture, Lilly supposed, but the last two people she needed having a conversation without her strict supervision were her current boyfriend-partner-significant-other-companion-special friend-escort and her ex-husband.

“He’s renting a car, but thank you,” Lilly said.

Lilly, Laurel, and Noley had all arrived in Lilly’s car; Beau had his truck. As Noley slid into Lilly’s front seat, she noted, “It’s nice that Beau is so good about wanting to be friends with Hassan.”

“Hmm,” Lilly replied.

“Don’t you think so?” Noley asked.

“I guess so. It’s just kind of weird, you know? Being friends with him is okay, but I suppose I want to keep him separate from the Hassan part of my life.”

“Is Dad coming over now?” Laurel asked from the back seat.

“In a little while.”

“Good,” Laurel said. Lilly smiled. As difficult as it had been at first having Beau back in Juniper Junction, Laurel and Tighe had both come to know him a little better. Laurel, especially, seemed interested in including Beau in family events and talked about him often. There were times it hurt Lilly’s feelings, since she had brought up the kids almost single-handedly after Beau had left them over fifteen years ago, but she always tried to remember that having a father was new to Laurel and she was trying to cram a lot of growing-up experiences into a short amount of time.

Lilly pulled into the driveway and heard, rather than saw, Barney leaping up to the top of the fence in the backyard. “We’re home, boy!” she called. “Ready for a party?”

Barney barked his glee at having people who would play with him, and Lilly opened the fence to the yard. Barney ran up to her, his tail wagging at the speed of a metronome on steroids.

“Go get your ball,” she said, leaning over to tousle the fur on his head. Barney turned tail and raced across the backyard and returned in a disappointingly short amount of time. He dropped a slobber-covered tennis ball at her feet. She threw it into the bushes on the other side of the yard, then asked Laurel to take over. Laurel was only too happy to stay outside with the dog instead of having to slave away in the kitchen for a party that wasn’t even in her honor.

Lilly was taking the caramelized French onion dip out of the refrigerator when the phone rang.

“Hassan!” Lilly cried when she answered it. “Great! See you soon.” She hung up and turned to Noley.

“Is he on his way?” Noley asked.

Lilly grinned. “He’ll be here in a little while.”

“Okay, let’s get things done in here so you can spend time with him when he gets here. You know, smooching and all that.”

Lilly laughed and turned bright red. “Stop it. I don’t want Laurel to hear.”

“Oh, I’m pretty sure Laurel knows you and Hassan kiss,” Noley teased.

“I know, but…” Lilly stopped as her phone rang. She hit the Talk button without looking at the caller ID. “Hassan?”

She didn’t say anything for a moment. She just listened, and felt the color draining from her face as her jaw went slack.

 

“What?” Noley whispered.

Lilly shook her head slightly and gripped the phone tighter. “Are you all right? Where are you?” she asked, her voice high and taut.

“Thank God. Stay where you are. I’ll be over to pick you up in just a few minutes.” She hung up the phone and turned to Noley.

“That was Tighe. He’s at Mike Foster’s house, over by the school, and the house next door is on fire.”

Noley’s eyes widened. “Is he all right?”

Lilly nodded. “The firefighters had everyone go and stand down the block. I’ve got to go get him and bring him home. He sounded a little panicked.”

“Okay. I’ll take care of things here. You go.” Noley was practically pushing Lilly out the door.

 

Lilly grabbed her purse and car keys on her way outside. She quickly told Laurel what was happening and then hurried to her car.