Coming Home 11

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On Boxing Day morning, Stellar burst into the bathroom as Thalassa was finishing brushing her teeth.

“Oh, Sis!” he said. “Excuse me. I didn’t mean to interrupt your privacy.”

She laughed. “I’m a mother. I’ve been a doctor at camps where the bathroom is an outdoor spigot. I don’t even know what privacy means anymore!”

“My sister the adventurer,” he said.

She pulled out her phone and showed him pictures she’d taken from her various posts. They weren’t the standard touring photos one might expect. Each of these was of a tiny detail: a garland of marigolds on a street in Calcutta; a gargoyle’s grimace on a stone eave in Brussels; street art lining an alley in Rio. It was like looking at the world through his sister’s eyes.

“You’re really doing it,” he said, “what you said you’d do when we were kids. Helping people all over the world.”

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“I know it’s selfish of me,” Thalassa said, “to put everything aside so I can follow my dream. But it feels right, so it can’t be all bad, right?”

Stellar chuckled. “The doctor who faces danger and hardship to help out others in places where most people wouldn’t dare to venture complaining of her own selfishness,” he said. “Now that’s a fine contradiction!”

“It’s just that I’m doing what I want to do,” she said, “in spite of everything else. In spite of other obligations.”

Tomas had joined them and stood patiently waiting for an opportunity to ask his uncle something.

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“I wouldn’t give it a second thought,” Stellar said. “Dreams come to us for a reason.”

He turned to his nephew.

“Uncle Stellar, do you remember that you said you might maybe show me where the owl sits up in the big pine tree overlooking everything?”

Stellar did remember. “Let’s go after lunch!”

“Just you and me?” asked Tomas.

“Yes! Just us! Next to me, you’ll be the only one to know where the owl sits!”

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Thalassa looked at her son, nestled in her brother’s arms. Why should she feel guilty thinking about leaving him here, when he’d have Stellar with him every day to take him on walks and wrap him in hugs, when her mom would fill him with cookies and stories?

That afternoon, while Tomas and Stellar hiked in search of the owl’s pine, Thalassa sat with Kumar.

“Are you having a good time here, Kumie?” she asked him.

“Yes,” he replied.

“Would you like to stay here longer? Would you like to stay while I left on assignment for a while?”

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“Where would you go?”

“To Turkey.”

“Could I come?”

“No,” she replied. “It’s not safe for children.”

“Is it safe for moms?”

“It will be safe enough,” she replied. “I will be careful. And there are people there who need me.”

“If I stayed, would Marshie and Tomas stay, too?”

They would.

“And would Grandma and Uncle Stellar be here?”

They would.

“And would you be back in time for my birthday?”

She would. If she could. She would do her best to be back after three months, which really wasn’t so very long, before his birthday, certainly.

“I suppose so,” he said. “It would be OK.”

Thalassa cleared the table and carried the dishes into the kitchen as Cinnamon came in.

“Grandma!” said Kumar, as he leapt up to give her a hug.

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Thalassa found Marshmallow downstairs playing with Princess Spirulina in the doll house.

“I’m thinking of going away for a little while,” Thalassa said. “Not for long. For a job. It’s to help people who are far away and who need a doctor.”

“OK,” said Marshmallow. “Can Princess Spirulina stay here?”

“Yes,” said Thalassa. “Does she want to?”

“Yes, but only if I stay with her.”

“You can stay,” said Thalassa. “Is that OK with you?”

“I guess so,” said Marshmallow. “Are my brothers staying?”

They were.

“Will Grandma and Uncle Stellar be here?”

They would be.

“And do you need to go?”

“I don’t know that I need to,” said Thalassa, “but I feel that it is the right thing.”

“Then I suppose you should,” said Marshmallow. “You always do the right thing, and it always works out right.”

Marshmallow turned to the doll. “Now don’t be sad, Princess Spirulina. You know that I will be here to look out for you. And who knows? Maybe Mom will come back with a little sister for you!”

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Thalassa went upstairs and turned on the computer. Why did doing the right thing have to be so hard? How could it be so confusing to even know what the right thing to do was?

If she looked inside, if she listened, what did her heart tell her to do? Go, it said. What was easy and what was hard, and what was right and what was wrong? And did any of it even matter? And if lives were saved and lives were lost, who was responsible and who was to blame?

She was just one tiny person on a globe of billions in a universe so vast that a heartbeat seemed hardly to matter.

And yet, sometimes a single keystroke could put in motion a chain of events that would change the lives of hundreds, and if her fingers were the ones to press the keys, so be it.

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Thalassa composed an email accepting the position in Turkey. She had faith. She had faith that she was offered the position for a reason, that her brother decided to move back home for a reason, that her children were so happy here for a reason, that her mother raised her to trust her heart for a reason.

She reread the email. She listened to the happy voices of her children playing in the hallway downstairs. And she clicked send.

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Coming Home 10

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On Christmas evening, after all the friends and neighbors left, when it was just the family in the big house again, Cinnamon found her daughter looking thoughtful at the dining room table.

Before she had a chance to join her, Stellar came in.

“Big day, huh, Sis?” he said, pulling up a chair, and as Cinnamon went into the kitchen to fetch a cookie, she felt her heart warm to see her two children together again, on Christmas night.

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When she returned, Marshmallow had joined them, and Stellar was telling her about a sculpture he was planning to start the next day.

“The idea comes from a rose,” he said, “but it will be massive, so it will be more like what a rose would look like to a bee.”

“Or to a butterfly?” she asked.

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Cinnamon smiled to think that Stellar would be here every night, talking about the next day’s sculpting or about finding the perfect stump on Jacques’ beach.

This had been a nearly perfect Christmas day. There had been only one melt-down, when poor Marshmallow, who’d barely slept a wink all night, collapsed in tears when Jacques’ son Max threatened to toss her new doll into the fire.

But Kumar and Tomas descended so quickly on Max, one rescuing the doll, the other pinning Max’s arms behind him, that, surprisingly, peace was restored before any of the adults had a chance to intervene.

Jacques called Max to him, and Stellar then engaged the boy in a chess game, and by the time Cinnamon dished up the Christmas supper, Marshmallow was sound asleep in the big chair by the fire, hugging her doll to her, while everyone else was joking and laughing again.

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Cinnamon remembered the year when Steve made Stellar the doll house. Thalassa was still a toddler back then, and while Cinnamon was fixing dinner, Thalassa had crawled into the doll house. She got stuck, and Steve had to remove the roof and half of the wall to get her out.

“It’s OK,” Stellar had said, as he handed his little sister scraps of dinner rolls dipped in soup. “You can live in here, and I will come every day to feed you.”

She hadn’t cried once, but had made these funny little cooing sounds, as if she were a tiny dove.

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“Are you all right, Ma?” Stellar asked, when it was just the two of them in the dining room.

“I am, indeed,” she replied.

“I bet you’re not used to this much commotion anymore,” he said.

“Not hardly,” she answered.

“Better get used to it, huh?” he said.

“Did your sister talk to you?”

“Yeah,” Stellar said. “I don’t think she’s made up her mind yet about the job. But I bet we both know what she’ll decide.”

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“Yes, we know our Thalsy, don’t we, Stel?”

Tomas walked into the room, wearing a huge grin.

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“I decided I will teach you my song,” he said to Cinnamon.

“Really?”

“For real,” he said.

And slowly, syllable by syllable, word by word, he taught her the song about the tiny butterfly who came out of the rose garden to see so much beauty on Christmas eve.

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“It’s a lovely song,” she said. “And do you know, this very afternoon, when the sun came out for a spell, I saw a monarch butterfly visit the milkweed. It must have been inspired by your song!”

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“I never thought I’d see a butterfly over here,” Tomas said. “Do you have lots?”

“We do,” said Cinnamon. “In the summertime, especially.”

“I hope I’m here to see them,” said Tomas.

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And Cinnamon realized that she hoped he would be there to see them, too.

To think: Just a few years ago, she’d assumed family Christmases were a thing of the past, unless she was adopted by neighbors and friends. But now her home was full to bursting with her own grandchildren, and with Thalassa and Stellar, too.

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She would have days of solitude again, this she knew, for if there was a constant in life, it was one’s own solitary presence. And yet! And yet it seemed that she might have to seek out her solitude, for now it seemed that the presence of others–young and precious others–might be her greatest present of this year!

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Coming Home 4

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Cinnamon brought her coffee and a dog-eared copy of Persuasion down to the basement where her grandchildren played.

Tomas had laid claim to Thalassa’s old red Ferrari.

“Drive like this,” he said, “up hills, down the ways, over the valley, round the curve. Don’t worry. You can’t crash because Master-Supremo-Driver-of-the-Year is behind the wheel! Together, we win!”

Marshmallow found Stellar’s pony, dragon, and princess doll.

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“This is a friendly dragon,” she said. “You can tell because he’s got tiny wings and a little grin. You’re friendly, aren’t you, fella? He lives in the back with the swamp buckets, don’t you, Bug Puff?”

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Cinnamon pretended to read while the children played.

“Do you like this house, Princess Spirulina?” Marshmallow asked the doll. “It’s huge, isn’t it? And everything is clean and it smells nice and it’s very warm, isn’t it? But don’t get too attached. You never know when there might be a new assignment and you and the pony and Dragon Bug Puff will have to move. But it will be OK. Because even if you move to some place crowded and smelly, and even if there’s no water and not much food and you have to pee in a bush, and everybody is standing around looking sad, it will be OK because you will all be together. And besides. You’re strong.”

“But I don’t want to leave,” said Princess Spirulina in a very high and sweet voice. “I want to stay here forever and always.”

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Jacques stopped by to see if Cinnamon needed anything from the store on the mainland, for he was heading in to do some shopping the next day, and he ended up staying the afternoon to play with the children.

“Your house never used to be so messy,” Jacques said. “You’ve got toys laying everywhere!”

“That’s because before you were the only one playing with the action figures,” laughed Cinnamon. “Now you’ve got to share! That’s what you’re really complaining about, isn’t it?”

“We’re good at sharing, aren’t we?” said Thalassa.

“I am not so good at sharing,” said Marshmallow. “I only pretend to be when people are looking. But when I’m by myself, everything is mine, mine, mine!” She laughed and Cinnamon had to join in with her.

“Well, as long as you’re honest with yourself!” she said.

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The children talked all through the evening meal. Tomas told the entire plot of a movie he watched before supper, where a mouse went to space and founded a colony until they discovered that the planet they lived on was made of cheese, and then he ate it, and they all fell into the sea. “But it was OK for there was a friendly sea monster who only pretended to eat them, for in reality, he spit them out onto the beach, and everyone was happy for ever and never went back to space.”

“But they did look up at the stars,” said Kumar.

Marshmallow was full of ideas for a puppet show that she wanted to put on the next day with her brothers, but the show was intended to be a surprise, so she spoke in riddles that nobody understood.

“It’s for the spoon!” she said, winking at Tomas. “Which rhymes with… ”

“Tune?”

“Agh! No! The Moooo… ”

“Like a cow?” said Kumar.

Marshmallow buried her head in her hands.

After supper, the family moved into the living room. Tomas found Stellar’s modeling clay.

“What’s this for?” he asked his uncle.

“Sculptors use it,” Stellar said, “to make studies.”

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Cinnamon gazed at her two children. It was quiet. Tomas worked the clay. Kumar and Marshmallow lay on their bellies on the rug, coloring in a Santa coloring book. Thalassa had put on Bob Dylan’s Christmas CD, and she sang along under her breath.

Cinnamon had so much she wanted to talk to her children about, and so much she didn’t want to talk to them about, and most of what she wanted to say and what she didn’t want to say revolved around the same subject: Steve. Or rather, the space that Steve used to occupy, which was now glaringly empty.

“I notice that Jacques’s been around a lot,” Thalassa said.

Stellar shot a quick look at his mom, then turned his attention back to the clay that Tomas was forming into what looked like the bust of an archaic military dictator.

“Who is that?” Stellar asked his nephew. “Castelo Branco?”

“Napoleon,” said Tomas.

“Mom?” asked Thalassa. “I said Jacques seems to be by a lot.”

“Oh, yes,” said Cinnamon. “He’s been a good friend. You know, he always was a good friend, even when you and Stellar were littlies. Do you remember his wife, Edie? She was lovely. Anyway, he’s been helping around, doing things that need doing, and sometimes, I return the favor and help around his place, doing what I can do, too. He seems to find comfort, knowing that Luna has a woman she can talk with, even if it’s an old woman like me.”

“You’re not old,” said Stellar. “And I’m glad you’re not alone.”

“What’s that you made?” Thalassa asked Tomas.

He handed her Napoleon.

“The ruler of the free world,” said Tomas. “Napoleon Bustanut.”

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Soon it was time to tuck in the children. When Cinnamon finished brushing her teeth, she heard Kumar and Stellar on the landing.

“Where do you live?” Kumar asked his uncle.

“I used to live high in the mountains,” he said, “where the wolves sing and the pines moan.”

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“That sounds interesting,” said Kumar. “And where do you live now?”

“Now I live here,” replied Stellar.

“I think you are very lucky,” said Kumar.

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Coming Home 3

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The grandchildren walked in as if they lived there. First came Kumar, the boy from Calcutta, followed by Tomas, the boy from Rio, and last came Marshmallow, the girl Thalassa conceived during her final year of med school.

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With the uncanny sense that children possess for finding the play things, the three young ones descended the basement stairs into the spare rooms which Cinnamon had filled with the doll houses, toy chests, and picture books from her children’s childhood. She and Jacques lugged them all the way down from the attic and set them up in the basement during the days of preparation for the family’s visit.

Jacques had directed the placement of the toys. “Don’t put the doll house in the corner!” he said. “It is too dark. The dolls will grow sad. Put the toy box there, beside the desk. Under the desk is the soldiers’ fortress, you know.”

On the morning of Thalassa and her children’s arrival, Jacques and the rest of the light-stringing team stopped by to welcome them. It had been years since they’d seen Thalassa and Marshmallow, and they had never even met the two boys.

“The world traveler returns!” said Bjorn.

“The doctor who cures the world!” said Joaquin.

“My high school crush,” said Sergio, under his breath.

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When the neighbors left, Cinnamon gave her daughter the welcome that had been growing in her heart for years.

“Such a miracle,” she whispered. Thalassa felt so tiny in her arms, but she was strong with the resilience that comes from seeing the worst life can bring and still showing up the next day, for whatever might follow. Cinnamon didn’t know how she did it.

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When Stellar came in from his rambles along the beach, he pulled his sister into the tightest embrace.

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Cinnamon replayed scenes of her two children–making forts on the beach, building driftwood rafts to launch into the bay, rescuing storm-fallen nestlings, sharing secrets, and hatching plans. It had been years since they’d been together, not since Steve’s funeral. But now it seemed like they’d never been apart.

While her children caught up with each other, Cinnamon headed to the basement to become acquainted with her grandchildren.

Jacques was there already, playing with Tomas.

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“Are you my grannie?” Tomas asked. “I’ve been waiting to meet your for five years!”

“For five years?” Cinnamon replied. “That long?”

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“That long!” he said. “That’s how long I’ve known about you, since I was just a little guy and Ma came to fetch me. She said, her ma was a funny lady with big stories who lived on an island, and I knew you were really a fairy godmother grandmother, and so of course I wanted to meet you! But of course we had to wait because we were in Rio, and then we were in Calcutta, and then we went to Cairo, and then we went to Belgium, and we thought you might come to see us in Belgium, but you never did, so now we had to come here!”

It hadn’t been that long, of course. It had only been three. But for a young child who’d seen so much and traveled so far, Cinnamon suspected that time took on a different sense. Her heart ached that she was only now meeting this small boy, and her heart ached more that he had suffered so much when he was a tiny thing, and her heart ached more–with happiness and gratitude–that her daughter had found him in the orphanage in Rio and had adopted him. She couldn’t speak for a moment, with the fullness that clutched her chest. So she closed her eyes and breathed.

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She had three young persons to get to know, each with their own histories, dreams, wishes, sorrows. It might take more than a holiday to get to know each one. But she loved them all, fiercely, already.

Kumar had ventured upstairs in search of cookies and discovered his uncle instead. He’d heard that his grandmother was called Cinnamon because she made the best oatmeal cinnamon cookies, and Kumar loved cinnamon. But before he found the cookies, he found a man that smelled like salt spray and pine who called his name, knelt down on his knees, and wrapped him into the biggest hug.

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“You must be Uncle Stellar!” said Kumar. “I know all about you! You’re the one who saves the birds that fall out of the nests! And you sail on logs across the bay!”

Before Stellar could answer that yes, he was that one, Marshmallow bounded up the stairs, calling out “Uncle Stellar!” at the top of her lungs.

She remembered her uncle from when she was a teeny girl, and her mother had kept the memories alive through stories.

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“Why, I’d recognize you anywhere!” Stellar said.

“Really?” Marshmallow asked.

“Of course!” replied her uncle. “Once a Marshmallow, always a Marshmallow!”

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Coming Home 2

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Sometimes an hour feels like five.

Cinnamon finished her nightscape painting.

One night, when Stellar was about five, he’d wandered out after Steve and Cinnamon had gone to bed. He had a habit of doing that. Steve said not to worry. They knew all their island neighbors, and there was nothing to fear.

Usually, Stellar came back after fifteen or twenty minutes, and crawled into bed with them, smelling like the night sky. But one time, she waited after hearing the front door close behind him, and he didn’t return. Fifteen minutes turned to twenty. Twenty minutes turned to half an hour. At thirty-five minutes, Cinnamon couldn’t stand any more. She woke Steve.

“We’ve got to find Stellar!”

The pulled their jackets on over their pajamas, slid on their boots, and headed out. The moon lighted the paths. She ran to the beaches, where silver waves lapped the shore. There was her son, sitting on a rock, looking out over the bay.

Steve came up behind her, placing his hands on her shoulders. They watched in silence. Their son stood on the rock, rose his arms to the moon, and sang.

Steve pulled her back to the path, where they sat on a log and waited until Stellar completed his strange ritual.

“I swear that child is Pan,” said Steve.

When their son saw them sitting beside the path, he waved. Without a word, they walked home.

Cinnamon resisted looking at the clock. It will only make time pass more slowly. After a life living on the island, she’d learned you can’t rush the ferry. She baked a batch of oatmeal cookies.

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She pruned the holiday bonsai.

Stellar had always loved trees. More than once she’d found him talking to the pines and cypress that grew on the island. He seemed to keep track of each one, as if he knew them by name.

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He’d probably take his time walking up from the ferry dock, following his favorite paths to greet the trees that had been waiting for his return.

She lit the candles, set the platters of sweets on the table, took in the festivity, and headed downstairs to make up the beds for her grandchildren who would arrive tomorrow.

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She used to love tucking her children in at night. When they were little, they seldom slept the night through in their own beds, usually joining her and Steve in the big bed upstairs by daybreak, but they started out in the silent dark of their own rooms. She would fill the rooms with fairy tales, talking and singing softly while her children’s eyes slowly shut.

She wondered if her daughter sang her children to sleep each night.

While she spread the quilt on the last bed, she heard the bell ring as the front door opened.

“Ma?” Stellar called.

“Down here, son!” And there he was, smelling like pines and salt spray and the cold winter night.

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“You made it!”

They talked without stopping, about nothing and everything, while they walked up the stairs.

He grabbed a cookie.

“I made taco casserole,” Cinnamon said. “Do you want a real meal?”

“Sure!” he said, gobbling down the cookie.

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Since it was just the two of them, they ate in the living room.

“Missed your cooking, Mom,” Stellar said.

Cinnamon wanted to say that she’d missed him, but she didn’t want to start to cry, and she didn’t want to accidentally make him feel guilty for not coming home more frequently, so she settled for talking about the meal.

“I used paprika. Can you tell? Usually, I use cayenne, but Jacques, he says cayenne puts him on edge, so he bought some paprika that I can use when I make meals that he’ll share, and I guess I forgot to restock the cayenne, for I couldn’t find it tonight, and what do you think? Is the paprika OK?”

“It’s good, Ma,” Stellar said. “I kinda like not burning my tongue.”

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“You look good,” she said. “That life at the national park agrees with you.”

“I quit my job.”

“You what?”

Stellar had worked as a ranger for the National Park Service since getting his master’s degree in botany. Knowing his love for trees, this seemed like the ideal career for him.

“I got tired of being a cop,” he said. “That’s what the job’s become. Peace officer for the public lands. But it doesn’t feel like keeping peace. It feels like stirring up trouble. I don’t want to carry anymore.”

“You had to carry a weapon?”

Stellar nodded. “Went to cop school, too. I’m done.”

“What will you do?” she regretted asking as soon as she said it. Of course there were a million things her son could do, and he would, of course, know what those were, and if he decided he needed a change, no one was better than him to know what that change might be.

“You remember those gnarled stumps that wash up on the beach?” he asked.

She did.

“Are they still there?”

They were. Hundreds of them.

“I want to sculpt,” he said. “I got something to say, but I can only say it through wood. I want to stay here, and I want to be a sculptor.”

So that was why Stellar had been vague about how long he would be staying.

“Do you mean you want to move back home?” Cinnamon asked.

He did.

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