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Note: This is the last of a six-part series. There are several new characters introduced, and some of them will get their own stories in time.

BIRTHDAYS

Mom had arranged a combined birthday party and family reunion, about mid-way between Estelle’s birthday and mine. She had just turned twenty, I was nearly twenty-one. Estelle and I were told to arrive at the park just after noon. When we got there, I was astonished to see all of the people. There were a lot more of the family than I expected, but what was really surprising was the number of strangers milling around.

“Is there a music festival on today?” Estelle asked.

“Not that I’m aware of. There’s Mom, let’s ask her.”

My mother was talking to one of the park workers, who was setting up a portable water station. She saw us and finished her conversation, heading over to meet us. She was now over seven months pregnant, and I thought that she still looked great.

Mom pulled us into a hug when she reached us. “Hey, you two. Just get here?”

“Yeah. Mom, what’s going on? Is there a festival or something?”

She laughed. “Not quite. But one of my co-workers knows the lead singer in the band Black Water. She’s apparently grew up in Burlington. So, I asked her if she wanted to do a charity concert at the bandshell today. She actually said yes, then contacted a few other local bands to come out and play. We’ll have music from about one until nearly dark.”

“Seriously?” Estelle asked, shocked. “Black Water’s here?”

“Only Siobhan Harmer, I think, not the whole band. But there are a few other groups here. I don’t have the full list. I only suggested it to the Special Events manager after talking with her, and they put it all together. They threw up some flyers in the local clubs, but not much more.” She waved at all the people milling around the bandstand. “I didn’t really expect this, to tell the truth.”

“There’s Siobhan,” Estelle squealed, pointing to the rear of the bandshell. “And that’s Warbles! I have to go say hi.”

“Warbles who?”

“Black Water’s bass, Rosslyn Henderson. Be right back!”

She took off at a run, working her way through the crowd.

“I guess she knows Black Water,” Mom said wryly.

“Yeah, I think she’s got all of their albums.”

“Cole, I should warn you that I asked your father to come today.”

I sighed. “Why would you do that? You two always fight when you meet.”

“Because I wanted to invite Pat and her family. She’s his cousin, and if he heard about this and I hadn’t invited him, I’d never hear the end of it.”

“Yeah, but she’s your cousin too, so he doesn’t have much of an argument. And, it’s not like I’ve seen much of him in the past two decades. He knows where we live, and he could have come to see me any time.”

She put a hand on my arm. “Just be polite, will you? I’m not asking you to give him a hug and kiss or sit down and talk for hours.”

“Sure.” I saw a tall, blonde-haired figure heading our way. “Speak of the devil. You might want to disappear unless you want to get into another pointless argument.”

She chuckled and kissed my cheek, then slipped away.

“Cole! Look at you, look at you. Damn, you’re nearly as big as me now.”

“Yeah, Dad. I have been for about three years.”

“Well, you’re looking good. Real chip off the old block. What have you been doing?”

“Well, I know that Mom told you about the bike crash. I spent the last couple years recovering from that. It killed my hopes for the Olympics, but I’ve accepted that now. I started Auto at Mohawk this year, and I’ve been working as an apprentice since May.”

“Yeah, sorry to hear about the accident, Cole. I would have stopped by if I had the time, but things have been pretty hectic.”

“Oh, I know how it is. I was pretty much stuck at home for a year, and I guess you were just too busy to see me. With the government cracking down on drivers’ hours, I imagine it’s hard to get your work done without breaking the rules.”

“You’re not kidding. We’ve got to take at least a day off each week, and there’s a limit to the total hours worked over a two-week period. Plus, no more than thirteen hours behind the wheel per day. That makes it tough to manage the west-coast deliveries.”

“On the other hand, the rules mean you have at least three home days once you hit the maximum. You know, time to connect with your family.”

I could tell he was getting uncomfortable with the way the conversation was going, and it made me smile.

“You’d think so, right? But it’s usually just a day here and a day there. I barely get time to relax before I’m going out again. It’s tough being a trucker these days.”

“Well, I feel for you. I guess it would be hard to change careers now.”

He laughed. “Actually, I don’t know that I would if I had the chance. It’s not easy, but I enjoy being on the road too much to quit now. I don’t know what I’d do if I was told I couldn’t drive any more.”

“I know the feeling. I felt the same way about cycling before the crash. Good thing Mom was here for me after that, illegal bahis because I had a lot to deal with. Funny how life sometimes throws roadblocks in your way, eh?”

“Uh, yeah. Sure is.” He glanced around. “Hey, I want to catch up with Pat. I’ll came back when it’s quieter and we can have a good talk, all right?”

“Sure. Whatever works.”

He placed a hand on my shoulder briefly, then walked off. I could see Pat talking to her twins not too far away. My father had gone the other direction. An arm slid around my waist, and I leaned into Estelle’s embrace.

“Was that your dad?”

“Yep.”

“Where’s he going?”

“Running away from a difficult conversation. He’s good at that.”

She frowned. “Did you just have a fight?”

“Oh, no. He never walks away from a good fight. He just yells louder and louder until you either give up or take a swing. From what I hear, he prefers when things get physical. It’s the polite talks which expose his lies that he doesn’t like.”

“Um, what lies did you expose?”

I shrugged. “He said that things were too hectic for him to see me after the crash. In the last two years, he hasn’t had the time to even give me a phone call and see how I was doing. I pointed out that he’s legally forced to take time off on a regular basis, and I guess he didn’t like the implication.”

Estelle sighed. “I’m so sorry, Cole. I wish you’d had a better life growing up.”

I smiled. “Oh, I don’t have many complaints about growing up. Mom did fine by me, and she made sure that no one hurt me.”

She hugged a bit tighter for a second. “I’m glad she did. Not everyone gets that, you know?”

I thought she was going to say something else, but Pat had seen us and called out as she approached. She was about Estelle’s height of five-three, but with black hair. If anything, her skin was even fairer, and there was a sprinkling of freckles on her face.

“Cole! It’s so good to see you.”

“Hi, Pat. Do you know Estelle Mooney? Mom’s sister Mary was her step-grandmother, and Estelle was really close to her.”

“Oh, Estelle, I’m so sorry for your loss. I met Mary a few times, and she was a wonderful woman. Though, I had trouble following her accent after a couple glasses of wine — or scotch.”

Estelle withdrew her hand from my waist and offered it for Pat to shake. “Nice to meet you, Pat. It was tough when I lost Nana, but Cole’s been helping me to get by.”

“Well, he’s definitely not hard to look at,” she said with a smile. “He got that from his father. Luckily, he didn’t get Nate’s personality. I love my cousin, but he’s an arrogant, self-centred asshole at times. Cole turned out right, thanks to Maisie.”

Estelle grinned. “Yeah, he turned out pretty good. And Aunt Maisie is great, too. She arranged to have the leader of, like, my favourite band here this weekend. She gave me an autographed copy of their latest album. It’s a limited release, only being sold at live concerts.”

Pat laughed. “Well, it sounds like you are enjoying the party so far. You’ve decided to stay in Hamilton?”

“Yeah. Dad’s been moved to Gagetown, and I wanted to remain in Ontario for school. Cole and I are both at Mohawk this year.”

“That’s great. What are you studying?”

“Auto Technician for me,” I said. “Estelle’s going into Paralegal. I’m apprenticing during the summer break and hope to be able to work part-time during the school year.”

“I guess Maisie’s pleased to have you to work on that weird van of hers.”

“Pretty much,” I agreed. “But then, I was already doing the basic stuff when I was in high school.” I looked around. “Are the twins here? I thought I saw them earlier. They’re what — sixteen now?”

“They will be in September,” Pat said, glancing around. She whistled and waved a hand. “Here they come.”

Although it was obvious that they were siblings, they were definitely not identical twins. The first to arrive had her mother’s colouring, minus the freckles. She was a little taller than Pat, probably five and a half feet. Her twin had another three inches of height and sported sandy-blonde hair. Both shared blue eyes with their mother.

“Estelle, I’d like you to meet Colleen and Peter. My gorgeous daughter got my looks, but a bit of her father’s height. I envy her that. Pete takes after his father, and we’ve been driving off the girls with sticks for the past couple years. Kids, this is Estelle Mooney, Brian’s daughter.”

Colleen approached Estelle and gave her a hug without asking. “It’s so nice to meet you. You and Cole are together, eh? Nice catch.”

She blushed. “Um, thanks.”

Colleen leaned in and whispered, “If you ever want to talk boys, Maisie’s got our number.”

Colleen moved back, allowing her brother to shake Estelle’s hand. “Hi, Estelle. I’m surprised we haven’t met before. You weren’t at the get-together in Angus two years ago.”

Estelle didn’t respond immediately, so I stepped in. “She was too busy helping me that year. You recall that I nearly killed myself — and destroyed a two-thousand-dollar bike. Estelle was gracious enough to give Mom a hand with my care.”

“Well, illegal bahis siteleri cuz, you seem to have healed up. Are you biking again?”

“Yeah, but not competitively. The neurosurgeon strongly advised me to avoid any kind of competitive sports.”

Peter shook his head. “That sucks. You were headed to the Olympics.”

I laughed. “Well, that was the dream. I’ve had to change my dreams, though.”

He looked from me to Estelle. “You’re both twenty right now. Wow. I mean, you could legally drink last year, but now you’re not teenagers any more. What does it feel like?”

Estelle shrugged. “Well, we’ve got the freedom to do what we want, I guess. But that means we’re responsible for ourselves now. Aunt Maisie’s letting us stay with her until we’re done college, but we don’t know what will happen then. Cole and I will have to talk about that later. For now, I’m just enjoying my summer.”

“So, does she let you share a room too?”

“Peter,” Pat admonished, “that is really not something that’s appropriate to ask. I’m sorry, Estelle. Apparently, my son needs his father to stick a boot up his back end. I’ll make sure he does that when we get home.”

“It’s all right, Pat.” She turned to Peter. “For your information, we do not share a room. We each have our own bedroom, and we sleep separately. Despite the fact that we’re in a relationship, we have not even asked Cole’s mother if she would allow it. Don’t think that a girl would automatically welcome you to sleep with her just because you’re cute, Petey. Sex is one thing. Allowing you to stay the night and wakeup next to her is something else altogether. And no, we will not tell you whether we are having sex. That is another thing that it is extremely inappropriate to ask about.”

Colleen howled at the look on her brother’s face. “Oh, Pete. She slapped you down real good. I’ve told you not to be nosy before, haven’t I.”

He looked a bit sheepish. He mumbled, “Sorry. I was just curious.”

Colleen put an arm around his waist and kissed his cheek. “Bro, you know that curiosity killed the cat, right? I’ve already told you that girls are very particular about that. There’s a reason we don’t share a bed any more, besides your snoring.”

“I don’t snore!”

The tension was gone, and Pat laughed, “Yes, Peter, you do. Not as bad as your father, but I can hear it through your door. Estelle, if Cole starts snoring, get some earplugs.”

Just then, someone stepped to the stage and picked up the mic. “Helloooo Hamilton!”

“They’re starting!” Estelle cried. “Let’s go watch, Cole.”

“We can hear from here.”

“She promised me a spot at the front. Please?”

“All right, if that’s what you want.” I gave Peter a firm handshake, then hugged Pat and Colleen. “Thanks for coming. We’ll see you in a bit — after my darling gets her Black Water fix.”

“Black Water?” Colleen asked. “I didn’t know they were in town. Mind if I come along?”

“Sure,” Estelle called back, dragging me by the hand toward the stage. “I’ll even let Pete come with you.”

For the next hour, we were almost within reach of the stage. As Mom had said, it wasn’t the whole band. Siobhan had managed to get a couple locals to assist, but she and Warbles did the heavy lifting. It was the first time I had seen the lead singer of a band on the drums, but she managed both quite well. Estelle told me that she usually just sang, but they’d often do a switch at the end of their concerts, with Warbles taking lead vocals and Siobhan the drums. Either way, she was definitely showing her off skills.

Siobhan actually dedicated one of her songs to us, but I don’t recall which one it was. Estelle was ecstatic, and Colleen seemed to be just as happy. I was happy for Estelle, content to simply hold her — when she wasn’t jumping around. Although he was discreet about it, I noticed that Peter either held his sister’s hand or had an arm around her waist in those quiet periods. I told myself that didn’t mean anything, and it was definitely another topic that was inappropriate to inquire about. Besides, I had my own skeletons that didn’t need airing.

***

There was a short rain shower around two, just before Estelle’s musical heroes finished their set. A few people took off for shelter, but most stayed where they were. The temperature dropped a bit while it rained, but immediately climbed back to the mid-twenties.

As soon as the duo from Black Water were done their set, Estelle dragged us off to the side, meeting them as they came down to ground level. After thanking Siobhan and Warbles profusely, she made them promise to join us for some food before they left. We headed back to our reserved section but Peter and Colleen slipped away.

I smiled when I saw another cousin. As usual, his wife and children were with him. I began to steer toward them.

“Have you ever met Rickard and Robin Downs?” I asked Estelle.

“Um, don’t think so. Cousins?”

“Rickard is Mom’s second cousin, just like Pat. Robin’s his cousin, but she’s no relation to us. The two boys are Robin’s, but not his. The blonde girl is his canlı bahis siteleri but not hers. The younger girls are both of theirs.”

“Sounds complicated.”

I had to laugh. “It is, a little. Rickard’s first wife died when Angie was less than a year old. Robin was already living with them, and he has always treated her boys as if they were his own. So, they got married and adopted each other’s children. It seems to have worked out for them.”

Rickard smiled as they approached. “Well, well. The birthday boy is here. I’ve been looking for you, Cole.”

I accepted the offered hand, Rickard giving it a firm but not quite painful squeeze. “Estelle’s favourite band was playing, and she insisted we watch. Rickard Downs, please meet my very good friend Estelle Mooney.”

He gently pulled her into a brief hug. “Estelle, I know your father well. We’ve actually met before, but you probably don’t recognize me with hair.”

She frowned. “When would we have met?”

He laughed, “Well, you were pretty young. Rob and I met Brian at Borden when we were in Basic, back in ’81. I went back the following year for some trades quals, and he invited me over for dinner a few times.”

“What were you studying?”

“I was a Weapons Tech with the Elgins. Last year I was moved to 31 Service, in London. The year before that, I brought Dale, Rich and Angie to join Cole on his Imperial Century. He was a bit surprised that they could keep up.”

“Are you the guy that beat all the Reg Force recruits on the fitness test?”

“Well, me and Rob. We never did find out which of us scored better.”

“Rob — that’s Robin?”

The olive-skinned woman gave Estelle a hug a bit longer than Rickard’s. “That’s right. It’s nice to meet you, Estelle. Your father helped us with a few things during Basic, and he’ll always have a place in my heart. He’s really a good man. Now, the children. Angelica is our oldest, and she makes sure the boys never forget. They’re all fourteen”

“Hi,” Angelica said brightly, not releasing her brothers’ hands. “These two just turned fourteen. I’m actually fourteen and a half.”

“Yes, dear. Dale and Richard are nearly identical…”

“Dale’s the mouthy one,” Angelica volunteered.

“I’m not the mouthy one,” one of the boys said with a smile, “you are.”

“But I’m mouthy in a good way.”

Richard shook his head as he offered his free hand. “It is nice to meet you, Estelle.”

“Terri has the brown eyes, and Liz the blue. They just turned three last week. Girls, say hi to Estelle.”

“Hi,” they said in unison.

“Hi,” Estelle replied with a smile. “You guys must be pretty busy.”

“We have our moments,” Rickard chuckled. “Estelle, do you mind if I borrow Cole for a couple minutes?”

“Not at all. It’ll give me time to get to know Terri and Liz.”

Putting a hand on my shoulder, Rickard led me away. “How’s the recovery going?”

I shrugged. “I’m doing okay. My memory’s not quite what it used to be, but I can get along fine. I’ve had no issues with learning manual skills.”

“That’s good to hear,” he said, nodding. “No headaches, vision problems?”

“No, none.”

“Good, good. Are you still getting therapy?”

“Not any more. The neurologist said I don’t really need it now. As long as I don’t get another injury, I shouldn’t see any further degradation.”

“I was worried about you when Maisie called. She was pretty shook up, seeing you in a coma like that. It brought back some — bad memories for me.”

“I forgot, Janice had a head injury, right?”

He nodded. “Yes, though it was a bit more severe than yours. Still, from what I hear, you were pretty lucky. I’m happy to hear that you won’t have significant long-term complications.” He paused. “Are you happy with your life, Cole?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Well, you had some big dreams. Your coaches seemed to think that you had definite Olympic potential. That would be a hard loss, just when you had a shot at the national team.”

I sighed, remembering how it felt to have that snatched away. “Yeah, it was hard. It really didn’t register at first since I was focusing on recovery. Then, I realized that I had other things in my life that were important to me.”

“Like Estelle.”

I grinned, “Is it that obvious?”

“Written across your face in neon, Cole. Not that it’s a bad thing, though. Do you mind — could you tell me what happened? I didn’t want to ask your mother.”

I was silent for a few seconds. “Estelle. She happened.”

“I don’t understand.”

“We were supposed to go on our annual summer camping trip, and then something happened with her and she had to move in with us. Long story.”

“I know a bit of it. So, how did that cause your crash?”

“Because I was a stuck-up, snotty-nosed brat. I couldn’t accept that someone else’s misfortune was affecting me. So, I grabbed my bike and raced up the mountain, rather than face her. I guess I have a bit of my dad in me after all. Anyway, I wasn’t wearing my cleats, and when some asshole in a stolen ‘Stang ran the red light, I didn’t have enough control to avoid him. If I was wearing my helmet then, I’d still be riding competitively today, probably prepping for Sydney. All of the fractures have healed up fine, and I have no mobility issues. My brain’s the weak spot. And that’s all on me.”

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