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Drew crouched at the carved wooden sign with white-painted letters and clapped a hand on his son's slight shoulder, warm from the sun. "What's that say, pal?"
Ian studied the words, his bottom lip jutting out in concentration. The expression always reminded Drew of Gina. "Um Deer Track Trailhead." He squinched his nose at his dad. "That's hard to say."
"Yeah, it's a tongue twister" Drew stood, then ruffled Ian's golden hair "but easy to remember, right? Deer Track?"
"Yep," Ian said. "Deers make tracks."
"That's a good way to think of it." Drew angled his chin down. "You won't forget if you repeat the name in your head three times, just like I taught you."
Ian squinted up at him and smiled. "I already did."
"Good boy." Drew lifted one arm and glanced at his wristwatch. "Ready for synchronization?"
Ian mimicked his father's action, focused on his plastic digital superhero watch. "Mine says 11:11 a.m."
Drew nodded once. "Mine, too."
"Okay, so we started hiking from the Deer Track Trailhead," Ian enunciated carefully, "at 11:11 a.m. You remember, too, Daddy. Just in case."
Drew smiled down at his son, his heart swelling. "That's right. The Kimball men can never be too prepared. You have your water bottle and energy bar?"
"It's all in here." Ian hooked his thumbs beneath the shoulder straps of his Batman backpack. He was in the midst of an extended superhero worship phase. Nothing could harm a superhero, after all. "And the special card I made for Mommy's in here, too."
It took all of Drew's will to keep the soul-cutting pain out of his expression. "That's my little man."
"I don't forget stuff."
"No, you sure don't. Let's get started. We havea long day ahead of us." Drew blinked up at the crackling sun. "Looks like it's going to be a hot one."
Ian slipped his hand into his father's. "Did you used to hike here when you were little, Daddy?"
"I did." Boy, that had been a lifetime ago. "With your grandpa."
"Cool," Ian said.
Their hiking boots crunched softly on the packed dirt as they ascended the path through the Rockies. All around them, summer wild-flowers bloomed with riotous, multicolored abandon, and the soft breeze through the evergreens sang on the air like angels' whispers. Birds chattered in the trees, and the occasional chipmunk darted through the underbrush. In a word? Peaceful. And heartbreaking, but that was two words. This ritual, on this particular day the anniversary of Gina's deathmight be excruciating for Drew, but it was important.
Drew set aside his private pain and sucked it up.
Ian peered up at the steep climb ahead of them. "I really think we'll be closer to her at the top of the mountain, Daddy." His voice had gone pensive, albeit determined.
After a moment to school his emotions, Drew smiled tightly at Ian. "Of course we will," he said, in a gentle tone. He felt the sudden need to fill up the silence with words that might make the whole thing easier. "See those clouds?" He pointed to a blindingly white thun-derhead hanging in the deep turquoise Colorado sky.
"That's the part of heaven we can see from here on earth."
"Where Mommy is?"
"Yes." Drew cleared the catch from his throat. "And Mommy's always watching you from heaven, okay? Taking care of you."
"What about you?"
"Both of us, son. Every time you look at those clouds, think of her and believe."
Ian's wide-eyed stare remained fixed on the fluffy cloud. "We will be closer to her at the top," Ian said, firmly. "I know it. I can tell."
Drew smiled wistfully into the golden sunshine. "So close, you'll be able to feel her arms around you in a big hug. And she'll be so glad we're remembering her with happiness on this day and not sadness."
A beat of silence passed. "But I am a little sad," Ian admitted.
"I know, pal. That's okay. I am, too."
Ian kicked his toe into the ground as they walked, sending a pinecone skittering. "Do you think she'll like my card? I messed up that one part."
"She'll love it, and it's perfect."
"But, how will it go to heaven?" Ian fretted, shooting another worried glance up at the clouds that were, admittedly, so far away. "I don't get it."
Drew clenched his free hand into a fist. A six-year-old boy's brow shouldn't knit with such worries. At this point, Drew would do or say anything to alleviate his son's distress. If Ian thought the top of the mountain brought them closer to his mommy, then by God, hike they would. He had no plans to dash a little boy's hopeful illusions. "Well, we'll leave it at the top, and when the stars come out, the angels will fly down and carry it up to her."
"Cross my heart."
Ian wore a dubious expression. "But how do you know?"
Think, Drew. Think. He cleared his throat. "Remember that shooting star I showed you last week?"
"Uh-huh. I made a wish."
"Right. Well, that was an angel, coming down to get a message to deliver it to someone else's mommy in heaven."
Ian searched his face for a moment, checking for the truth of his words. Finally he nodded once. "Good." He paused. "But Daddy?"
"How come there are so many mommies in heaven?"
The question hit Drew like a body slam. "There are a lot of people in heaven, big guy. Not just mommies."
They hiked in relatively calm silence through patches of dappled sunshine for a few moments. When they reached a tunnel of shade created by thick, overarching tree branches, Ian dropped his hand. "I miss her. A lot. Is it okay to say that?"
Drew draped his hand across Ian's shoulders and pulled him closer, fighting the urge to stop, to wrap his arms around Ian, to succumb to the pall of mourning. Neither of them needed that. "Of course. I miss her, too. But let's have a fun day, yeah? The kind your mom would've liked."
"Okay," Ian said. "I don't like being sad."
"Neither do I, Ian. Neither do I."
They managed to get through several minutes talking about the terrain and trees, about the colorful striations in the rocks and what they meant. They managed, just for a little while, to set their grief aside and enjoy a normal father-and-son moment. Progress, Drew thought, however small and halting.
A few paces after a switchback carried them once again into the buttery sunlight, they came upon a vast field of stunning, bright-orange flowersGina's favorite color. Bright-eyed and happy for the first time in days, Ian stopped short and bounced on the nubby soles of his hiking boots. "Look!" he exclaimed, as if it were a clear sign that his hike-up-high-to-mommy plan had been on-target.
"I see. They're beautiful. Just like Mommy, right?"
"I know. Can I pick some for her? Please? To leave for the star angels so they don't miss my card?"
"Sure, pal. Whatever you'd like." Ian bounded into the field, all cowlicks and energy and thick rubber soles. Drew followed just to the edge. He'd give anything for Ian to be able to give those flowers to his mother in person, but that wasn't possible. As much as losing her had left a gaping hole in their family, Drew was grateful her battle with "the beast," as she'd called it, had ended. That was something, at least. A balm for the soul. Now all he wanted was to see his son happy again, whatever it took.
No more nightmares.
No more depression.
No more bed-wetting.
A boy of his age shouldn't have to deal with those issues. Seeing Ian carefree, running through a field of flowers, Gina's quirky favorite color, brought Drew a modicum of joy he sorely needed, especially on this saddest of days.
Ian whipped back, eyes bright and lively. "Come on!"
"You pick," Drew said, waving him on. "I'll arrange them in a bouquet as you gather them," he said, as if he had the first clue about flower arranging.
Content just to watch his son thoughtfully gather the most beautiful blossoms as a memorial for his mother, Drew sat on a rock jutting out from the edge of the soft blanket of vibrant petals. Honestly? Days like this exhausted him emotionally and physically, straight down to his bones. Gina's birthday, Ian's birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine's Day, his and Gina's wedding anniversary.
He'd never planned on being a single father.
And yet, he was determined to do his best, even though a small part of him yearned to curl up and shut out the world until the day was over. Until his pain had eased. Until he could wrap his brain around the logic of a twenty-seven-year-old mother, in this day and age, dying from diabetes. She'd been diagnosed as a teenager, but had never accepted it, a fact that had always pissed him off. The familiar rush of guilt crested inside him, bringing back the times he'd accused Gina of being reckless with her health.
Reckless. He hated that they'd argued about it.
Screaming fights. Tears.
The undeniable truth was, Gina pushed herself too hard, stubbornly determined not to let the diabetes control her life. Instead of managing it, though, she'd laughed in its face. He understood her motivation, but it hadn't worked. It would never work, which is what he'd told her. Why they'd fought. Not that it mattered in the end. Just as he'd feared, the diabetes had won, and he was just the jerk of a husband who'd argued with his headstrong, diabetic wife.
But all that? The past. What mattered now was that he was the grown man while Ian remained a child. Only four years old when Gina died. Drew had shoes older than that. Despite Gina's infuriatingly stubborn nature, she was the mother of his son. Drew simply had to keep her alive in Ian's mind, no matter what it took. So? Shutting out the world wasn't an option; his son needed him.
Emotionally flattened, Drew blew out a breath and leaned his hands back on the hot, jagged rock.
The stings ripped through him like little searing shockwaves.
One, then another, and another. And more.
He hadn't even seen the bees.
"Dammit." He flailed, then shot to his feet, spinning this way and that to knock the bees off. How could he have been so careless? Where there are flowers, there are bees. Simple fact of nature.
An immediate rush of heat up his arm set the alarms clanging in his heart. The effects seemed much faster than his usual allergic reactions, which had always been bad enough. But this
probably due to the multiple stings.