Canadian Chad Strong has lived in different parts of this magnificent country: from Victoria, BC on the west coast, to the Manitoba prairie, to southern Ontario. He grew up reading fiction and non-fiction of all sorts, from westerns to fantasies, from adventures to history. His writing has followed suit across multiple genres. High Stakes, his first novel, was short-listed for two distinct awards: The Western Fictioneers’ Peacemaker Award for Best First Western Novel, and in the RONE Awards for Best American Historical Novel. He has recently released Mixed Grazing, a collection of short stories from multiple genres.
LEAVES OF AUTUMN
Blue-grey clouds pressed in from the west, squeezing the sun’s fire between their great bulks and the distant mountain ridges, bringing twilight early. Matthew leaned against the frame of the open barn doors, his fleece vest unzipped over his sweatshirt, his mind’s eye following the sun’s track over and beyond the evergreen Malahat mountain range all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
A chilly autumn breeze swirled dry leaves around his feet and piled them in the damp grass along the walls of the barn. The rainy west coast winter was nearly upon them, but it wasn’t supposed to rain tomorrow. Matthew crossed his fingers that the forecast held true.
He brought his attention back to the five-acre boarding stable where he lived with his father just outside Victoria, BC. Matthew cocked an ear toward the rhythmic, soothing sound of twelve horses munching feed in their stalls, content, safe, with no thoughts of tomorrow’s potential weather issues. Tomorrow morning Matthew’d be up to feed them early so he and his dad could take their two horses to the local horse show. It was their riding club’s last show of the season and, if Matthew did well in all his classes, he could win the junior rider’s high point trophy of the year.
He reached for the light switch and scanned the barn one final time. Everything was as it should be. Flicking off the switch, he fastened the big doors and headed for the house.
His father stood on the front porch, looking down the driveway at an approaching car, its one working headlight feeble in the misty dusk, its engine coughing and sputtering. Matthew threw his fourteen-year-old body into a sprint and leaped up onto the porch beside his dad.
“Who is it?”
Richard Kirkland paused, his thick, dark eyebrows low over his eyes. “Someone we haven't seen in a long time.”
Matthew furrowed his own brow and remained on the porch as his dad stepped down to meet their visitors. A willowy, auburn-haired woman wearing heavy sandals and a green dress of coarse fabric emerged from the car, followed by a young girl. The girl wore a pink sweater with a big yellow duck on it, green pants of the same fabric as the woman’s dress, and similar sandals despite the weather. Small, pale, and fine-boned, she seemed a miniature version of the woman. Matthew stuck his hands into the front pockets of his jeans and frowned as his dad hugged the stranger.
“Summer,” Richard said. “Welcome. And this must be Lilly.” He squatted down to shake the little girl’s hand.
“Oh, Richard -- it's so good to see you. Yes, this is Lilly. Lilly, this is Richard – I told you about him.”
“You’re my daddy,” she stated matter-of-factly.
Stepping off the porch, Matthew nearly tripped as if his feet couldn’t decide whether to stop or back up or take off to the barn. His father motioned for him to come forward. Matthew walked toward the newcomers. He had barely come to a stop next to his dad when the woman bent down and smothered him in a perfume-soaked embrace.
“Oh, Matty -- look how you've grown! You're twelve now, aren't you?”
“Fourteen. And my name’s Matt.” He tried to step back from her and her frizzy hair that tickled his nose.
“Oh, don't wiggle so much! Give your momma a real hug!”
Stiffening, Matthew stared at his father, resisting her efforts to pull him in again.
“Summer,” Richard said, “We discussed how we were going to tell him …”
“Oh, don't be so uptight -- it just slipped out.”
“She's -- Mother?” Matthew asked as a few scattered raindrops fell. “I heard you tell Uncle David she wanted her hippie friends on Saltspring Island more than she wanted us and the farm and she was never coming back.”
His father looked pale. “I know this is a shock, Matthew --.”
Lilly skipped up to Matthew, smiling. “I always wanted a big brother!” She flung her little arms around him.
Matthew grasped her arms and tried to push her away. “She’s my sister?”
“Of course she is, Matty,” the woman said. She flipped a hand at him. “Oh, don’t be such a boy and give her a hug!”
Matthew’s eyes darted to hers then back to his father’s. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I just found out the other day, Matthew -- Matt. I’ve been trying to figure out how. I didn’t know they were coming so soon …”
“Your father always loved that about me – my spontaneity – don’t you, Richard?” She giggled girlishly.
Little Lilly had finally managed to wrap her arms around Matthew’s waist as he stared dumbfounded at his father. He tried not to squirm as she mashed her cheek against his stomach.
“Why don’t we go inside and I’ll make us some hot chocolate?” Richard suggested.
“Matthew, will you help me carry in their bags?”
“If she lets go,” Matthew replied with a sullen look down at Lilly.
Richard held out his hand. “Come on, Lilly. Show me what you want to bring into the house.”
Lilly released Matthew and skipped over to Richard. She took his hand and pulled him toward the car. “Want to see my teddy bear?”
“I sure do,” Richard said.
Matthew stared at his father and the girl, unable to move. Then the woman stepped toward him again. He dodged her and started grabbing battered suitcases and big green plastic bags out of the back seat of the car.
He’d gotten everything piled into the guest room by the time his father had boiled the kettle for hot chocolate. Then they all sat around the kitchen table. Matthew twisted his fingers in his lap while he waited for his mug to cool. With both hands Lilly dragged her mug to the edge of the table, braced her elbows and tipped it toward her lips.
Richard’s hand shot out protectively to slow her movement. “Careful, sweetie – it’s hot – you’ll burn yourself.”
She giggled and let go of the steaming mug. Matthew watched silently. The girl’s mother hadn’t said a word, hadn’t moved a muscle, as if she hadn’t noticed the danger.
Richard cleared his throat. With his fingertips he turned the handle of his mug back and forth. “Well, Matt … This isn’t exactly how I planned to tell you, and I’m sorry. But when Summer called me, I needed to … grasp it myself. I needed to check some facts. Summer is your mother and Lilly is indeed your sister. And my daughter.”
“I was pregnant when I left your dad,” Summer said. “But I didn’t know it. When I found out, I couldn’t tell him. He’d insist I come back. I couldn’t do that.”
Matthew couldn’t keep his eyes on her face for more than a few seconds at a time. He looked up at the clock -- seven minutes to eight. Mantracker was coming on the TV; he loved Mantracker. His dad always watched it with him. Matthew wished he was old enough so they could go on it and try to outrun Terry Grant and his sidekick.
“You left us. You didn’t want us. Why do you want us now?”
“Matthew …” his father cautioned.
“It’s okay,” she said. She reached for Matthew’s shoulder and ran her hand down to try to grasp his.
He clenched his hand into a fist so she couldn’t get her skinny fingers between his. But she kept trying until he had to yank his hand away and shove back his chair. Standing, he shouted, “I don’t wanna talk to you!”
“Matthew,” his father said in the same tone he’d use to calm a high strung colt. “Please sit down.”
“Why do I have to listen to her? Why does she have to touch me? Tell her not to touch me!”
“Matthew, settle down or you’ll go to your room. We have to talk about this.”
At that instant Lilly tried to drink her hot chocolate again and spilled it down the front of her pink and yellow ducky sweater. Her eyes rounded in surprise, then squeezed shut as she began to cry. Both Richard and Summer went to her as her screams reverberated through the kitchen. Matthew spun on his heel and stalked up the stairs to his room, slamming the door behind him.
In the morning he was up and out to the barn while it was still dark. The horses nickered and neighed to him the moment they heard his footsteps approaching.
He flicked on the light, unlocked the feed room and gave each their portion of grain. The two horses going to the show got their hay in their stalls. For the rest, Matthew counted the correct number of flakes of hay into the wheelbarrow and was about to take it out to the paddocks when his father rounded the corner, followed by little Lilly.
“Good morning, Matt.”
Matthew wasn’t sure he wanted to answer. “Morning.” He hesitated before setting the wheelbarrow down.
“You can put Blaze and Trooper out in their paddocks as well.”
“But we’re going to the show --.”
His father shook his head. “I’m afraid not, buddy. We have guests. It would be rude to leave them here alone.”
“But –! Well – then they can come and watch.”
“Your mother gets bored at horse shows.”
“So what? She’s the one who barged in on us! Why do we have to suffer? It’s only one day!”
“Just do as I ask, please.”
“It’s not fair! I could win high points today!”
“Maybe next year, buddy.”
Richard crossed his arms over his chest and shook his head.
“Please! Can you take me and Blaze there and come back? We’ll be okay!”
“No. We have to deal with this, son.”
“Why can’t we deal with it tomorrow?”
“Because I said so. Now just finish up here and come in for breakfast.”
Matthew’s lips moved, but nothing came out. Inside, he felt like a spinning tornado. He noticed Lilly dragging armfuls of hay out of the feed room, clumps of it dropping to the floor as she went.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m helping,” she chirped as she dropped her load next to the wheelbarrow and went back into the hay room. She came out with another armful, scattering hay everywhere she went.
“We don’t need any more!” Matthew shouted at her.
She halted, puzzled, looking between him and Richard.
Richard said, “Matt, Lilly doesn’t know anything about being around horses. Why don’t you teach her?”
“Look at the mess she’s making!”
“Then teach her how to do it right. I’m going back in to speak with your mother.”
“She’s not my mother. If she was, she wouldn’t have left.”
Richard gave him one of those looks that told him not to push it and then turned and walked back to the house.
Matthew watched him go a minute, before turning his eyes to Lilly. She was just standing there, staring at him. What was he supposed to say to her?
“You can’t make a mess like that. It wastes hay.”
“Oh.” She clasped her hands behind her back and twisted her torso to and fro.
“And makes me more work.”
He bent, grasped the handles of the wheelbarrow, and lifted. “I guess you’d better come with me so I know what you’re up to. You get hurt and it’ll be my fault.”
She jumped up and down, clapping her hands, squealing, “Goodie! Goodie!”
All the horses’ heads came up, wondering what the fuss was about.
“No screaming around the horses,” Matthew said, scrunching his neck down and wincing. “And no running. It upsets them.”
Her eyes and mouth got big and round. “Oh, okay.”
She followed along beside him as he wheeled the hay outside, stopping at each paddock to toss in a couple of flakes. After the first two paddocks, Lilly tried to grab an armful from the wheelbarrow and carry it inside the gate. Great clumps of hay fell from her grasp with every step, and she tromped right over it, oblivious.
“I told you not to drop hay like that – now I have even more to clean up!”
She blinked back at him, then stuck out her lower lip and started to cry.
“Aw, c’mon,” Matthew said. “You don’t need to cry – just – just don’t help me anymore!”
Sniffling, she put her hands behind her back and followed him silently as he made the trek out to each paddock and back to the barn.
Normally, he would lead two horses out at once, but with her tagging along, he didn’t want to risk losing sight of her and having her end up underfoot at the wrong moment. Keeping the horse on his right, he pointed to his left side and told Lilly, “You walk right here beside me. All the time. No running, no yelling. Got it?”
She nodded. “Yes.”
Lilly did as he told her, much to his relief, and he turned all the horses out without incident. He left Blaze and Trooper to the end, just in case his dad changed his mind.
They went back to the house together for breakfast. Matthew silently ate his fried eggs and toast and sipped his orange juice. Lilly chattered away to herself while Richard and Summer conversed about nothing in particular. Matthew vowed not to get upset like he had last night – he was a little embarrassed he’d lost it like that -- but he refused to engage in conversation.
As soon as he’d finished eating, he excused himself to go out and start cleaning stalls. Lilly jumped up to accompany him. Matthew rolled his eyes and looked at his father.
Richard said: “Mind Matthew out there, okay Lilly?
“I will,” she promised.
Matthew sighed heavily and let her traipse after him. She insisted on trying to help him. He bit his tongue and cleaned up after her, reminding himself she was just a little kid. When they were done cleaning stalls she grabbed the spare bamboo fan rake and dragged it along behind her, copying him as he raked the pathways to clean up the hay she’d dropped earlier. What hay was clean he swept under the fence for the nearest horse, while anything that had gotten mucky he dropped into the wheelbarrow.
At the call of her mother’s voice, Lilly dropped the rake and ran.
“No running --!” Matthew insisted, but she didn’t hear him. Shaking his head, he bent to pick up her rake. “And you can’t just leave stuff lying around,” he muttered. “A horse could get hurt on it.”
He finished the chores himself, relieved at her absence. Instead of heading back to the house right away, he hung over the fence to watch his horse, Blaze, munch the remainder of his hay.
Blaze was a bright red chestnut with a white blaze and four white socks. Right now, the way the sun angled on him, he shone like a brand new penny. All that bathing, brushing, and clipping yesterday, to get ready for a show that was going on without them.
“We coulda won High Point today, Blaze – I know we coulda.”
Matthew’s head turned to the sound of footsteps approaching. His father rounded the corner of the barn, called, and waved him in.
“See ya later, buddy,” Matthew said to his horse. “I don’t figure Dad’s gonna even let us go for a ride today.”
He laid the rakes in the wheelbarrow and pushed it back toward the barn with him.
“All done?” Richard asked.
“Then I think you should come and spend some time getting to know your mother and sister.”
Exactly what Matthew thought he’d say. But he couldn’t find it in him to argue right now. He put everything away and followed his dad back to the house.
Lilly and Summer were in the living room, Lilly watching some silly cartoons and Summer alternating between watching them with her and staring off into space. Matthew plopped himself down into the stuffed armchair where there was no room for anybody else to fit. They both smiled at him so he forced a smile back. As long as they didn’t try to maul him, he’d be nice.
Richard made them lunch and they all sat around the table again. Summer asked Matthew:
“So what grade are you in at school, Matty?”
“What are your favorite subjects?”
“English and History.”
“Good for you. Lilly likes Art class, don’t you, sweetie?”
“Um-Hum,” the child replied, her mouth full of cheese sandwich.
“You should draw Matty a picture, Lilly.”
She nodded. “I could draw you and your horse,” she said, after swallowing.
“Summer and Lilly have offered to help you rake up all the leaves around the house this afternoon,” Richard began. “Isn’t that nice?”
A frown creased Matthew’s brow and curled his mouth. That had been a chore planned for tomorrow – today was supposed to be the horse show.
“It’s a great day to be outside,” Richard added, reaching over to squeeze Matthew’s shoulder. “I really need to make some phone calls this afternoon, Matt. I’m sure you can entertain our guests for a couple of hours without me.”
Matthew felt his lip starting to curl. His father must have seen it, because he squeezed Matthew’s shoulder just a little bit harder. He looked at his father. Richard’s eyes were saying, ‘C’mon, buddy – help me out here.’
“Yippee!” both Lilly and Summer exclaimed.
“Thanks, buddy,” said Richard.
They went outside after cleaning up lunch. Matthew got them each a rake and they started out front beneath the massive spread of the ancient big leaf maple. Once they got a large pile, Matthew filled the wheelbarrow with the huge dry leaves and pushed it to the manure pile to dump them, where they’d get mixed in with the manure, making good fertilizer. He made several trips. Sometimes when he came back they were just standing there, talking or staring off at something. One time they were dancing around like fairies, flinging the big maple seeds into the air and watching them twirl to the earth like helicopters. They wouldn’t start raking again until after he did. He couldn’t really catch all they were saying, but Summer sounded as flighty and flakey as some of the girls at school.
Didn’t they know there was only so much daylight left? They needed to get this done in time to get the barn ready and the horses in before dark. Then help with dinner. Matthew filled the wheelbarrow with more leaves and stalked back to the manure pile.
The sight of Summer down on her knees in front of Lilly halted his marched return to the front yard. It appeared Lilly had fallen, her mother comforting her. Matthew watched as Lilly unwrapped her little arms from around Summer’s neck and dried her tears with the backs of her hands. Summer picked dried leaves and twigs out of Lilly’s hair and sweater. Lilly nodded, she was okay now.
As if he’d been punched in the chest, Matthew suddenly couldn’t breathe. The wheelbarrow hit the lawn with a thud as he dropped the handles. A forgotten memory rushed over him and he was seven years old and had just fallen off his first pony. He had lain face down in the hog fuel footing of the riding ring, the wind knocked out of him. His mother had gotten to him before his father. She’d picked him up and held him close, her long frizzy hair tickling his nose. He hadn’t cried as she’d brushed the stringy hog fuel from his clothes and his hair, but even now the panic of being unable to breathe was palpable to him, as was the absolute safety he’d felt in her arms. She was warm and she was his mother.
And then she was gone.
That had been the last time she’d hugged him and told him she loved him and that everything would be all right. That evening she’d gone out with some friends and never come back.
Gradually Matthew became aware of his rapid, shallow breathing. He stretched his spine and drew a long, deep breath. Lilly’s giggling drew him back to them. Hopping up and down like a bunny, she threw great armfuls of leaves into the air with every hop. Summer laughed, grabbed her daughter and rolled around in the leaf pile until they were both squealing hysterically and covered in leaves.
A part of Matthew wanted to run and cast himself into the leaves with them, to throw leaves into the air like Lilly, to tumble and laugh and delight in the simplicity, in the fun of it. But his father was relying on him to do his part. Matthew couldn’t let him down.
They saw him then. Summer waved at him. “Come on, Matty! Come and play!”
“I’ve got work to do,” he replied, picking up the wheelbarrow and coming forward for more leaves.
Summer flipped a hand at him. “Oh, don’t be so serious! You’re just like your father.”
Matthew dropped the wheelbarrow. “If you don’t like us, why don’t you go back to Saltspring and all your toga-wearing, dope-smoking, helicopter-twirling Druid friends!”
“Matthew!” Richard’s voice split the stunned silence between them.
Matthew turned to see his father standing on the front porch.
“That’s no way to speak to your mother.”
“She doesn’t wanna be my mother, so who cares?”
“I didn’t raise you to disrespect people like that, no matter who they are.”
Summer’s voice sing-songed between them. “It’s okay, Richard.” She shrugged. “It’s actually pretty close to the truth – about my friends, I mean. It’s even pretty funny, the way he put it.”
Matthew watched his father try not to smile. “I hope your Uncle David’s warped sense of humor isn’t rubbing off on you.”
Matthew’s hands balled into fists at his sides. “I wasn’t trying to be funny.”
“All the more reason to apologize.”
Matthew fidgeted, casting brief glances at Summer. She waited silently, Lilly pressed to her side like a shy and delicate foal. Lilly’s face was flushed and bright from their play and her crying, yet Summer’s seemed pale, almost greyish, to Matthew. Perhaps it was the fading colours of twilight, perhaps the signs of approaching middle age. Still, Summer appeared as childlike and obliviously innocent as her daughter. His memories of her were scant, accented more by sensory impressions than recalled conversations. He grasped she existed blissfully disconnected from certain realities of life. She didn’t mean to hurt anyone, but she couldn’t help herself.
“I’m sorry for what I said.”
“It’s okay, sweetie.” She held out her arms to embrace him.
“It’s gonna be dark soon. We gotta get finished here.”
Richard stepped down off the porch and came and put his arm around Matthew’s shoulders. “The rest of the leaves can wait until tomorrow. Let’s get the horses in and get supper started. I don’t know about you, but I’m starved.”
Matthew and Richard got the evening barn chores done together while Summer kept Lilly at her side. Then they all pitched in to make dinner. Richard cooked the chicken and potatoes while Matthew and Lilly made the salad. Summer set the table.
After the meal, Summer washed the dishes while Matthew dried them and put them away. He listened to her chatter on about the things she and her friends did together. She obviously cared very much for them.
They joined Richard and Lilly in the living room when they were done, and they found things to watch on television. Lilly fell asleep leaning against Richard and didn’t waken even when he and Summer carried her upstairs to bed.
The next afternoon the four of them finished raking up the leaves around the whole yard. When Summer and Lilly began to lose interest, Richard tackled Matthew and started a wrestling match in the nearest leaf pile. In moments Summer and Lilly jumped in and the leaf pile came alive with tickling and laughter and arms and legs everywhere. Even Matthew couldn’t hold back some chuckling.
“Summer,” Richard said soberly, his hand reaching to support her.
Matthew and Lilly stopped their thrashing.
“I’m … fine. Just … out of breath,” Summer replied.
On Monday, Richard called Matthew’s school to excuse him for the day so he could stay home with Lilly while Richard had Summer follow him into town with her car so they could get it checked out at the local garage.
Matthew let Lilly help him around the barn in the morning. He saw that she was trying to do everything the way he showed her and would just need some practise. After they made some sandwiches for lunch, he played her favourite card games with her for a while.
“Matthew,” she said at the end of the hand they were playing. “When do I get to ride your horse like you said maybe I could?”
He had said something like that this morning, hadn’t he? “I guess we could do that now. If you’re sure you want to …”
“I’m sure!” she cried with a clap of her hands.
“Okay.” Out at the barn he saddled up Blaze and led him into the riding ring. Lilly skipped along beside him, remembering to stay on his left all the time and not bounce too much. Her excitement was palpable as she waited for him to help her get up in the saddle. He had to lift her. She grabbed onto the saddle horn with both hands, beaming with joy.
Her feet couldn’t reach the stirrups, no matter how much he shortened them. “You hang on, okay?” he said, and led the horse forward at a walk.
Lilly giggled and chattered as they circled the ring. “I love Blaze!” she cried. “He’s so beautiful and gentle! Can I have a horse, too?”
“Maybe,” was all Matthew could think to say. “Wanna go faster?”
She nodded emphatically.
“Hang on tight!” He cued the horse to trot beside him and broke into a jog.
Lilly squealed with delight even as she bounced up and down on the seat. Matthew kept an eye on her by turning his head, and stopped to catch her the instant it looked like she was going to fall. She laughed like she had no fear.
“I wanna go faster!”
Matthew mulled it over. “I can’t run as fast as a horse, so I’d have to get up there with you and you’d have to sit behind me and hang on.”
Matthew lifted her to the top rail of the fence and got into the saddle. Cueing Blaze up close and parallel to the fence, he helped Lilly slip on behind him. She wrapped both her little arms around his waist.
“Ready? Okay, here we go.” Matthew eased Blaze into a gentle trot at first, then when everything seemed okay, cued him into a slow canter. He kept one hand on Lilly’s arm at all times.
He was glad Blaze was such a sensible, reliable horse, for Lilly screamed with delight. They cantered around the arena slow and easy a couple of times, and then saw Richard’s car coming up the driveway.
“Mommy’s home!” Lilly cried. “Wait till she sees me riding!”
Matthew slowed his horse to a walk and met his father at the arena gate. “Lilly likes to ride,” he announced.
“Yeah!” she chimed in.
“That’s good,” Richard said.
Matthew cocked his head to one side. He thought his father would’ve been more excited than that.
“Come on down for a minute, you guys.”
Concerned, Matthew swung a leg over the front of the saddle, slipped down and then turned to lift Lilly to the ground. He held Blaze’s reins close to the bit as she ran toward the fence.
“Where’s Mommy?” she asked. “I want her to see me ride!”
Richard opened the gate and entered the ring. Matthew spotted an envelope the colour of old-fashioned linen protruding from his shirt pocket. He was able to make out ‘To Li’ in a large thready scrawl. The remainder was hidden beneath the pocket. Squatting down in front of Lilly, Richard took her hands in his.
“Your mommy, Lilly...”
She tilted her head and screwed up her face quizzically.
“Can’t come watch you ride.”
Matthew’s chest tightened. Summer was ditching Lilly now, too? Looks like at least she got a note.
“I had to take her to the hospital this afternoon.”
“Did she have an episode?”
Matthew saw his father’s face wince with surprise. Blaze rubbed his head up and down the boy’s shoulder, nearly knocking him off balance. Matthew firmed up his grip on the reins and gently pushed the gelding’s head away. “Not now, buddy.”
Richard nodded. “Yes. Yes, she did, sweetie.”
“She needs to go see the healer in the log cabin. He always gives her something to make her feel better.”
Richard swallowed, and Matthew sensed he was choosing words carefully. “She can’t, sweetie.”
Lilly’s tone turned suddenly cross. “Are they making her stay in the hospital? Mommy doesn’t like hospitals!”
Richard’s hands rubbed softly up and down the girl’s arms. “She let me take her. She was feeling so bad.” Moisture shimmered in his eyes. “She wanted me to tell you she’s gone to live with the fairies now, and she wants you to stay here with Matt and me.”
“But … Why didn’t she tell me she was going…?” Lilly sniffled.
“I don’t think she knew it would happen today, sweetie. So fast. Maybe she thought it would be easier for you …”
Matthew heard the emotion catch in his father’s throat. As Lilly began to cry and collapsed into Richard’s arms, Matthew felt tears pressing at the backs of his own eyes. Tentatively, he reached with his free hand to touch her shoulder. “Don’t worry, Lilly. I bet she can watch you ride from Fairyland.”
His father’s eyes rose to Matthew’s and the boy saw gratitude in them.
“I’m sure she can,” Richard agreed. “She loves you and she wants you to be safe and happy.”
“She knows Dad’ll always be here for you,” Matthew said, his throat tightening. “And I will, too. ’Cause I’m your big brother.”