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Los Angeles, California Whit Eden found it difficult to breathe as a palpable darkness threatened to suffocate him. He could see nothing. His surroundings were as dark as if he were in the deepest recesses of a cave with no accessible light. He held his hands in front of his face but couldn't see even their shadow. He gasped for air as the surrounding walls threatened to close in around him. The tiny space in which he was confined became tinier, and his ability to breathe became proportionately more strained. He sat up abruptly and gulped in air as if he'd erupted through the surface of wate rin which he'd been drowning. He gulped large mouthfuls of air again and again before he realized that he was sitting in his own bed. He'd been dreaming. He could see the subtle glow from a distant streetlight through the window across the room. Outlines of familiar furnishings reassured him that he was really herereally home, really all right. Whit forced air in and out of his lungs until he was breathing evenly, glad to know his nightmare hadn't awakened Mary. But just knowing that his wife was sleeping close by made it easier for him to put his head back down on the pillow and breathe deeply. More than an hour later Whit was still staring into the darkness, wishing he could sleep half as well as his wife, who was sleeping beside him. But Mary needed her rest far more than he did. Being forty-one and pregnant was taking its toll on her, and the drama he'd recently brought into her life certainly hadn't helped. Now the drama was over, and Mary was sleeping peacefully. It was one of many items he could put on a very long list of things for which to be grateful. He'd often heard the adage that counting blessings could help you fall asleep, but at the moment it was having the opposite effect. Especially after such a terrible dream had given him a heart-stopping reminder of how things might have been. Whit felt so deeply overcome with gratitude that he could hardly hold it all inside. The trial had ended today. The verdict had been a unanimous not guilty from the jury. But Whit knew very well how close he'd come to paying for someone else's crime. The evidence against him had been presented very adeptly by the prosecutor, and the fact that Whit had once been actively involved in violent gang activity, for which he'd done some hard time, had worked aggressively against him. Now the verdict was in, justice had proven itself on his behalf, and Whit was home in his own bed with his wife sleeping next to him. It would be impossible, however, not to be preoccupied with the fact that he could haveat this very momentbeen locked in a cell, embarking on his first night of a life sentence. He believed in people facing consequences for their actions, and he'd worked hard to face the consequences of all the regrettable things he'd done in his youth. But to face life in prison for something he hadn't done would have broken him. He couldn't even imagine how he might have copedat the age of thirtyknowing that if the verdict had gone against him, he would never again have a day of freedom with his family in this mortal life. He had the reassurance of knowing that he and Mary were sealed for eternity, but getting through the remainder of this earth lifeliving under such deplorable circumstanceswould have been unbearable. As if prison wouldn't have been hard enough, he wondered how he could have come to terms with leaving his wife to take care of herself and the rest of the family. She had a daughter that had become his own, they had a baby on the way, and his mother was failing with Alzheimer's disease and needed on continuous supervision. Knowing that he might well have been within prison walls and knowing that Mary could have been left alone with so much responsibility made him sick to his stomach. Whit sat on the edge of the bed and hung his head, again finding it difficult to breathe. He knew well enough that he was suffering some mild symptoms of PTSD. His time in prison more than ten years earlier had given him a vivid picture of that kind of life, and he'd had no false illusions about facing the possibility of what it would have been like to go back. The jail time he'd served prior to the trial had done well at refreshing his memory. Now it was over, but the residue of fear tightened his chest nevertheless, making him nauseous. He immediately turned his mind to prayer, as he always did when any kind of fear or distress threatened to overtake him. But his emotions were especially persistent, or perhaps they just needed the opportunity to be released. Assaulted with a fresh rush of emotion in volcanic proportions, Whit hurried out of the room and rushed down the stairs so he wouldn't disturb Mary. He slumped onto the couch in the common room and hung his head in his hands, sobbing helplessly, as if someone he loved had died. He found it ironic that he'd not grieved a single moment over the death for which he'd been blamed. But he'd certainly been punished for it. Mary's father had surely been one of the most mean-spirited, bigoted men on the planet. Walter Cranford had loathed anyone whose skin was not the same color as his own, and he'd never made any effort to suppress his feelings. Whit still cringed to think of things he had personally heard Mr. Cranford say, as well as things Mary had repeated to him. He had never been able to understand what could make a man so hateful; he couldn't judge because he simply didn't know. However, there was still no denying how Mary's father had made life utterly miserable for everyone around himespecially Mary. Then someone had broken into the house and shot him through the heartwith Whit's gun, a weapon that had been stolen months earlier, complete with Whit's fingerprints. Whit strongly suspected that one of his cousins might have been responsible; they were deeply affiliated with a well-known Hispanic gang, and there was little they detested more than a mean, white bigot. They'd known through the grapevine that Whit and his new wife were having trouble with the old man, and that was the only explanation that made any sense to Whit as to why someone would break into the house and kill Mary's father. If it hadn't been one of his cousins, it was someone with whom they associated. The act had likely been some kind of warped, backward way of protecting Whit and his family. He knew well enough that the mentality of these people made no sense in any normal realm. But these guys hadn't been raised in any normal realm. Their world was violence and hatred, and Whit had once lived in the middle of it. He wished that he could help them understand that murder was no solution to anything, but they would never get it, and whoever was responsible had probably gotten away with it. They all covered for each other way too much, and it was difficult to pin a crime on someone in that culture and make it stick. But he wondered if the perpetrator had intended for Whit to get blamed, or if that had just been an unexpected backfire. He knew there were people who would be glad to see him go to prison, and others who would never want such a thing to happenand several people in both of those categories were capable of committing murder. Consequently, Whit didn't know where the to feel that his family was safe or vulnerable, given the fact that the real killer was still out there somewhere. While he sat there and allowed himself to freely vent his grief, the entire drama from its beginning until that crucial moment in court today replayed through his mind in vivid detail. He thought of all the times he'd wanted to cry, but he'd not had that luxury; or perhaps he'd been afraid to allow his emotions anywhere near the surface. Now he just cried. He cried for all the fears he'd been facing. He cried for all that Mary and little Adrienne and his mother had endured through these months between his arrest and the conclusion of the trial. And he cried for the life he'd lived, surrounded by bigotry and senseless violence that accomplished nothing but the perpetuation of heartache and grief. He cried for the people he cared about who were victims of the senseless crime machine, and he cried for the personal losses in his life that were a direct result of that machination. Gradually Whit's tears evolved from grief to gratitude. As he allowed all of the pain to be vented, praying all the while, he allowed God to soothe his heart. He could clearly see God's hand in many good things in his life, too numerous to count. The very fact that he had Mary and her daughter Adrienne in his life was a miracle he never could have imagined before he'd met them. Adrienne and her twin sister, Isabelle, who had been killed in a car accident along with Mary's first husband, had been adopted because Mary had been unable to have children. And now she was pregnanta miracle in and of itself. And on top of all that, he had been spared a fate worse than death. He was home and safe and free. He had a beautiful family, and he would never take for granted the miracle he had been given this day. Whit remained there silently in the dark, pondering how far he'd come and looking toward the future with great hope and joy. Life was far from perfect but it was a whole lot better than it might have been. "Are you all right?" Whit turned to see Mary crossing the room from the bottom of the stairs. "I'm fine," he said, reaching out a hand toward her. She took it and sat beside him. "What are you doing up?" "I'm pregnant," she said. "I never get through the night without at least one trip to the bathroom." Whit wrapped his arms around her and pressed his lips into her hair. "What's wrong?" she asked and eased back ,touching his face with her fingers. "Have you been crying?" "I'm afraid I have," he admitted, knowing if there was more light than the glow of night lights on the stairs she would have seen that his eyes were probably red and swollen. "Are you disappointed by my lack of manliness?" He asked the question lightly, knowing she would never seeit that way. "On the contrary," she said, "given all that's happened, I might be concerned if you didn't cry." "Well then, you have nothing to be concerned about," he said, "because I've been bawling like a baby. "She made a comforting noise, like she might have if Adrienne had skinned her knee. "Do you want to talk about it?" "Nothing that you don't already know," he said. "Mostly I'm just . . .grateful. I'm so grateful, Mary. There is nothing God could ask me to do that I wouldn't do after the way He saved my life today. "Mary made that soothing noise again, then said, "I feel the same way, Whit. He saved my life too. I don't know how I could have ever lived without you. We all have much to be grateful for, except that . . . I've tried to keep Adrienne buffered from it, so I don't know whether she realizes how bad it could have been." "I prefer it that way," he said, "even though I'm glad she knows it washer testimony that saved me." "She'll be proud of that for the rest of her life, I think." Mary sighed. "And I don't think your mother has been aware of much of anything except what she's watching on television, even though I don't believe she remembers the beginning of a program by the time she gets to the end." "I hate to see her memory worsening," Whit said, "but I'm glad she loved the way Mary stroked his hair gently and kissed his brow as if doing so might completely erase the painful episodes of his past. There were moments when he almost believed that it could. Mary stood up and held out her hand. "Come back to bed," she said. "I don't want to be there alone . . . ever again." "Amen to that," he said and took her hand. Before leaving the main floor they looked in on Whit's mother. Ida was sleeping peacefully, and they went up the stairs to peek into Adrienne's room, where they found her equally content in slumber. "She's so beautiful," Whit whispered while they both admired her in the glow of her Cinderella nightlight. "She looks like you," Mary said, and Whit gave her a startled glance. Back in the hallway, where they wouldn't disturb Adrienne, he said, "That is biologically impossible." "Yes, but it's still true," she said. "I thought I'd told you before . . . that I think she looks like you. "No, you hadn't mentioned it," he said. Since Whit was half Hispanic, his mother having come from Mexico, he had similar coloring to Adrienne, who had been born in the same countryalthough Adrienne's hair and skin were darker than his, since his father was Caucasian. Mary was blonde and looked nothing like Adrienne, so he assumed her remark was in reference to his common ethnicity with the child. But she said firmly, "She looks like you. Anyone who saw her with you and didn't know the situation would think you're her father." She started down the hall to their bedroom. "It can be that way with adopted children, you know. They usually end up where they're supposed to end up; at least that's what I believe." "Except that I'm not the man who adopted Adrienne. Her father died along with her sister. "Mary turned to look at him as they entered their bedroom. Since she'd left the lamp on, he could clearly see her smile when she said, "You're the father she was meant to have. That's why she looks like you."Whit said nothing as they climbed into bed and Mary turned off the lamp, but he couldn't stop thinking about what she'd said. His tears had exhausted him, however, and he drifted quickly to sleep. He woke up today light, with the vague memory of a dream hovering in his mind. But this one had been far more pleasant than the nightmare that had nearly suffocated him earlier in the night. He'd been chasing Adrienne through the garden behind the house while she'd giggled and pretended to avoid his tickling. Then he'd realized that there was more than one child, and the other was almost identical to Adrienne. Isabelle, her twin sister. He barely had time to absorb the tenderness of the dream before Adrienne jumped on the bed in a flurry of giggles, not unlike those he'd heard in his dream. "I'm so glad you're back home, Daddy!" she declared and smooched him on the cheek. "I'm so glad too," he said. "I think Mommy doesn't tickle you nearly enough when I'm gone. "She squealed with laughter as he grabbed one of her bare feet and tickled it mercilessly while he and Mary laughed too. When the tickling finally subsided, Mary kissed Whit and said, "Good morning, Mr. Eden. It's good to have you home." "It's good to be home," he said, then Adrienne snuggled down into the bed between them while the three of them silently reveled in a blanket of gratitude. Even without words, Adrienne seemed to sense the deep spirit of thankfulness, but she was like that. She had a special gift for appreciating the good in everything and for making the world seem a little brighter. And today was certainly a bright day! "It's time for you to get ready for school," Mary said to the child, breaking the silence. Adrienne protested, which was extremely rare, since she loved kindergarten. She then declared very maturely, "I shouldn't have to go to school today. We should celebrate! We could go bowling, or shopping, or out to lunch, or to a movie." "Or all of it," Whit said, and Mary gave him a mild glare that made him smile. "Can we? Can we?" Adrienne begged. "I don't think missing one day of school will hurt when we really could use a celebration, " Whit said. "But I missed yesterday too so that I could be in court," Adrienne pointed out. "Okay, two days of school," Whit said, then he looked at Mary and stuck out his bottom lip like a pouty child. "What do you say? I'll help her catch up on her school work."\"I think it's a grand idea," Mary said. "We could all stand to get out. But I don't know if I'm up to doing all of it.\"We'll have to see how Mommy feels," Whit said to Adrienne. "You'd better go get dressed so we can start celebrating," Mary added, and Adrienne shot off the bed and out of the room. Whit laughed, then laid his head back on the pillow, knowing he wouldn't get to stay there long. "Mary," he said gently, taking her hand, "we need to have the girls sealed to us. "She turned more fully toward him, surprised. "The girls? Both of them?" "Of course, both of them. They're sisters; they're both your daughters, and that makes them mine in a spiritual sense. We were married in the temple; we need to have our daughters sealed to us." "What brought this on?" she asked. "What you said last night . . . about Adrienne being my daughter. And then . . . I dreamt of themboth of them. I think Isabelle wants to be apart of our family; we need to be a forever family. All of us. "Whit noticed tears in Mary's eyes before she put her head on his shoulder and wrapped her arms around him. "What a lovely idea," she said. "What do we have to do?" "I don't know," he said, "but we'll find out how I go about adopting the girls so that we can have them sealed to us. Right now I think we'd better get dressed and get some breakfast before Her Majesty has a chance to get too impatient." "I'm sure you're right," she said, but not with a lot of enthusiasm. "Are you okay?" Whit asked. "I'm fine," she said. "Just . . . much slower and more tired than I'd like to be. But it's all for a good cause." "I'm thinking we should nix the bowling," he said. "A movie might be better. I'm sure there's some matinee Adrienne would love that we can probably tolerate." "Excellent plan," Mary said, and Whit kissed her before he helped her to her feet and they embarked on a perfectly normal family day, something they'd not enjoyed for a very long time. Whit got dressed and left Mary to take her time and oversee any help Adrienne might need. He found his mother sitting on the edge of herbed, looking confused. Since they used a baby monitor to be aware of his mother's needs, he knew she'd not yet made a sound before he'd comedown the stairs. But it was becoming more and more common for her to wake up and just sit on the edge of the bed until she got some guidance. "Good morning, Mother," he aid, sitting beside her and gently taking her hand. It took a few minutes of careful conversation for her to become oriented to her surroundings, but even then Whit wasn't entirely sure that she knew who he was. Given the fact that he hadn't been living in the house during the trial probably made his presence there a little more strange. Prior to that, he'd been fortune enough to be under house arrest rather than having to spend months in jail. He'd not been able to leave the premises, but at least he'd been with his family. Today he was free and looking forward to their outing; he just hoped that his mother would enjoy it too. Whit guided his mother into the bathroom with some simple instructions, then he closed the door to give her privacy and set out the clothes she would need. He went to the kitchen and kept his end of the monitor with him so that he could hear her if she evidenced any distress or need for help. He'd only been there a minute when Janel arrived to begin her day's work. She'd been employed by Mary's father for many years to do the cooking and keep the house in order. Since Walter Cranford's corporation was still willing to pay her salary and allow Whit and Mary to live in the house for the time being, they were all quite happy to enjoy it for as long as it lasted. Janel was like family to all of them, and she squealed with excitement when she saw Whit. She'd heard the news of the verdict the previous evening but she'd gone home before they'd returned from court, and she'd not yet seen him since the trial had begun several days earlier. "Oh, look at you!" she said and engulfed him in a tight hug. She let go, then took his face into her hands. "I dare say you're glowing," she said. I would say that's highly likely," he said. "There are no words to express my relief." "Oh, we've prayed so hard," Janel said as tears filled her eyes. "I've felt those prayers," he said. Janel did not share their religion, but she was devoted to God and had a keen respect for their beliefs. Janel insisted that she was going to fix an extra-special breakfast, and she was glad to hear that the family would be going out to celebrate. He invited her to come along, but she insisted that she had some things that needed to be taken care of around the house and would take a rain check. Whit could tell from sounds on the monitor that his mother was talking to herself while she was getting dressed, which was preferable to silence, because this way he knew exactly what she was doing. He took the monitor with him while he went out through the patio doors off of the common room and stood at the edge of the garden, admiring its beauty and familiarity.
Whit had first come here when he'd been hired to restore and care for the immense garden that covered a wide expanse of the property surrounding the house. Mary's mother had loved and nurtured the garden but she had been dead for years, and it had been neglected long before that due to her illness. Mary had wanted the garden restored to its original beauty, and her fatherfor all his difficultieshad given permission for a gardener to be hired, mostly because he wanted people in the neighborhood to be impressed by his yard rather than offended by his weeds. Whit had found great joy in the work he'd done here. The work itself was fulfilling, but doing it for Mary had warmed his heart right from the start. In spite of their considerable difference in age, it had practically been love at first sight for him. She was an amazing woman and he adored herand her daughter. He still had an enormous amount of work to do in the garden, but the view from here was lovely. He'd done it that way on purpose, so that while he continued to hack away at years of neglect, Mary could have a nice view from the house, and the patio could be used for relaxing and for entertaining guests. Whit was surprised when the little three-tiered fountain nearby began to flow. He turned around to see that Adrienne had flipped the switch just outside the door and was running toward him. "Here," she said, holding out a nickel. "Make a wish." "Do you have a nickel for yourself?" "Of course!" she said somewhat indignantly, which made him laugh. Whit tossed in the coin, wishing that he might never be separated from his family again. He followed it with a silent prayer of gratitude for being here with them now. He watched Adrienne make her wish, then they went inside to help Janel fix breakfast. They were all seated around the table, sharing breakfast while they talked and laughed, and Whit had a moment of such overwhelming gratitude that he couldn't have spoken if he'd needed to. His mother was somewhat lucid and was enjoying Adrienne's antics, while Janel teased the child by pretending not to know the alphabet. Mary was laughing, then she turned and caught his eye. Seeming to sense his thoughts and what he was feeling, she reached across the table and squeezed his hand, smiling in a way that made everything perfect. A few minutes later, Adrienne said to Whit, "We can't forget to go to the party tonight." "What party?" Whit asked, glancing toward Mary. "I'm ashamed of you, Whit Eden," she said lightly. "Well, I have been a little out of touch," he said in the same tone, glad they could joke about it now. "What day is it? "Whit glanced at his watch, where the date was displayed along with the time. "It's May fifth," he said, then added as enlightenment finally dawned on him, "Oh! It's the fifth of May!""Cinco de Mayo," Adrienne declared proudly. "There's a party at the church for Cinco de Mayo." "Of course," Whit said. "There's always a party at the church for Cinco de Mayo." Since they attended church with a Spanish-speaking branch, the holiday was always celebrated, and it was done with a great deal of festivity. "I guess that's good timing since we're celebrating today." "I'd say that's perfect timing," Mary said and found it difficult not to cry as she observed Whit behaving so naturally in such a familiar setting. She thought of how she'd dreaded this day with the fear that either the trial wouldn't be over or the verdict would send Whit to prison. She never could have been brave enough to attend the branch party under such circumstances. And she'd avoided mentioning it to Whit, hoping that if he hadn't been able to go he might forget all about it and not be saddened by what he'd be missing. Now everything was perfect. Mary took in a deep breath and felt happier than she ever had in her life. When it came time to leave for the celebration adventure, Ida seemed confused and didn't want to go. Janel graciously offered to watch out for Ida, certain she would be no trouble at all if she remained at home in her familiar surroundings. She promised to call if there was even a hint of a problem, and Whit promised to keep his phone on vibrate in his pocket if they went to a movie so he would be readily available. Janel had looked out for Ida a great deal and was comfortable with it. They were all thankful for her help but Whit felt concerned as they left the house. Once they were on the road, with the radio playing and Adrienne distracted in the back seat of the truck with a book she was reading for school, Whit said quietly to Mary, "My mother is getting worse. I wonder if we'll ever be able to take her out any more at all." "I've wondered the same," Mary said, and Whit sighed. "I know we talked about this when she was diagnosed, but . . . a day will come when we won't be able to manage her. I'm not sure she even knows who I am." "I know," Mary admitted, and Whit felt sick as he imagined her having to deal with such things on her own if he were now in prison. He was flooded with gratitude all over again. "We'll watch her closely and be prayerful. We'll know what to do." She squeezed his hand. "It will be all right. "They went shopping in their favorite bookstore, then they wandered through a mall, since the doctor had encouraged Mary to walk, and Adrienne enjoyed looking in all the store windows. Whit bought her some new shoes that were sparkly red and would match hardly anything that Adrienne owned, but the sale price had been a steal, and the shoes brought an equivalent sparkle to Adrienne's eyes. After eating a leisurely lunch, they made it to a matinee and returned home to find that Janel had been productive and Ida had been cooperative and no trouble at all. Once Janel had left for the day, Whit realized that he might not be able to go to the church party after all. If his mother felt uncomfortable leaving the house, he would need to stay and look out for her. Mary would have been fine to stay home with him, but Adrienne had her heart set on the party, so they would possibly have to divide and conquer the needs of the evening. Whit kept talking to his mother about the party, hoping she might be up for it. He prayed about it, then had the idea to pray with his mother. Prayer had been a big part of her life for all of her life. Whit was amazed, though he figured he shouldn't have been, when the very act of praying aloud on her behalf seemed to calm her and clear her thinking. She quickly became excited about going to the party and seeing all of the people with whom she went to church, people she had grown to love over the years. As they drove to the church building, Adrienne's presence helped I dare main in a lucid and natural mental state. They arrived to find a sense of excitement in the air along with colorful decorations, festive music, and the aromas of fine Mexican fare. Food was being set out in the cultural hall, and people were talking and laughing as they mingled. Whit held Mary's hand in his, finding it difficult to keep his emotion in check. When he'd been arrested for the mysterious murder of his father-in-law, his bail had been set at an exorbitant amount they never could have afforded. Due to his gang history and the fact that he'd once served time, the judge had shown no leniency on that issue. Then, thanks to Donald Vegaa member of the branch and a great attorneybail had been lowered with the agreement that Whit would remain at home with a monitoring anklet. At that point, members of the branch had taken money out of their savings accounts, pooled it together, and posted bail so that Whit could be at home with his family. That money had all been returned now, but Whit would never forget the spontaneous goodness and charity of these people and how their love and prayers and support had gotten him and his family through a terrible time. Apparently, not one of these people had even remotely believed that he had been guiltyin spite of his violent historyand he marveled that people could be so good. Whit felt Mary squeeze his hand, and he turned to see her smile, as if she perfectly understood what he was feeling. He was able to control his emotions, and they immersed themselves in the small crowd of people that was like an amazing extended family. Ida did well, and Whit and Mary were both pleased to see her enjoying herself. Adrienne quickly found some girls from her Primary class, and they had great fun. After the meal was finished but before the entertainment began, the branch president took the microphone and said, "I'd like to say that the timing of Cinco de Mayo couldn't have been any better for us this year. We are all so grateful to have Brother Eden back with us. "Whit was startled to hear his name then was quite overcome when everyone applauded. He was just thinking he could keep his emotions under control when they all came to their feet, as if simple applause was not sufficient to express their "amens" to what President Martinez had go the microphone and give a little speech. He could hardly decline, and he couldn't deny there were some things he wanted to say, but he knew he wouldn't get through it without some tears. He figured that was okay since these people all shared testimony meeting once a month, and there were always tears then. President Martinez actually embraced Whit before handing him the microphone. Whit took hold of it and looked out over the faces of his branch members; the knot in his throat increased. "I cannot even find the words to . . ." His firm beginning faltered with the onslaught of such deep emotion that he couldn't get even a sound out of his mouth. It felt as if the tears in his eyes had burned their way up from his heart. He prayed for some help to get through this moment, although the problem was amplified when he heard many sniffles in the room. His prayer was answered after at least a full minute of silence, and he was able to add his heartfelt appreciation for both the literal hands-on help these people had given him and his family and for their prayers and fasting. He expressed his gratitude to a merciful Father in Heaven, and for the infinite Atonement oft he Savior, stating firmly that without God's hand in his life, the outcome would have surely been very different. Once he'd managed to say what he felt needed to be said, he handed the microphone back to President Martinez and returned to where his family was sitting, but he didn't get there without first receiving about fifty hugs and at least that many more handshakes. He felt as if he'd come back from war after being missing inaction. Perhaps it was an appropriate metaphor. Whit sat down next to his wife and put his arm around her. He noticed his mother beaming proudly and smiled at her. Adrienne climbed onto his lap and kissed his cheek. He had everything in life he could ever want or ask for. They were just getting into the truck after the party when Whit's cellphone vibrated in his pocket. He answered it right after he closed the door and before he put the key into the ignition. It was his Aunt Sofia. She spoken Spanish and was obviously in a very agitated state. Whit's mother had two sisters still living. Whit was closest to Claudia, who was in a care center. They all visited her every Sunday, and she shared a close relationship with his family. Whit wasn't as close to Sofia, and Mary and Adrienne had never even met her. She lived in the neighborhood where Whit had grown up. It was overrun with gang activity, and he would never dare take his white wife into that neighborhood at any time of the day or night. It would be a risk to her safety, and he would never take that kind of a chance. and Sofia both had children who were actively part of the gang to which Whit had once belonged. Whit and his cousins held a grudging respect for each other, but mostly they just tried to avoid contact. Now that Whit had reason to wonder whether one of his cousins might have had something to do with the death of Mary's fatherand Whit's subsequent arrest for the murderhe felt even more skeptical than usual. But he also knew that Sofia's children weren't known for seeing to her needs as well as they should, and if she needed help, he was eager to give it. He concluded from her phone call that she needed him but she wouldn't say why. He told her it would take about half an hour to get there, and she assured him she would be fine until then. She just needed to talk to him. The truth was that he could have been there in ten minutes, but he wouldn't go see her without first taking his family home. "What was that about?" Mary asked after Whit hung up the phone. "I have no idea," he said, "but I'm sure it's nothing serious. Sometimes she just needs to see the face of someone she can trust." He muttered more quietly, "Too bad she can't trust her children."
"Yeah, too bad," Mary said. They were speaking in English, which meant that Ida couldn't understand most of what they were saying, but she was engaged in conversation with Adrienne in the back seat anyway. Back at the house, Whit made certain all was well with his family before he left to drive back to his old neighborhood. He hated going there! The memories were uncomfortable at best and horrific in some cases. This place where Whit had grown up was smack in the middle of the territory of a Chicano gang. They hated whites. They hated the rich. What they engaged inracially motivated theft, rape, assault, vandalism, and sometimes murderwere officially called hate crimes. The more they could get away with, the more they had to brag about, giving them additional power over other gangs in the city. When Whit had lived here, he could never leave home without making absolutely certain that he wasn't being followed, because he knew there were people watching and waiting for any possible opportunity to engage in mischief of the worst kind. Over time and through much difficulty, he had earned a kind of grudging respect with the members of the gang he'd once belonged to, especially those who were his cousins. But he certainly didn't trust them, and he knew better than anyone what they were capable of. Now he hated the whole spirit of driving into an area of the city that was controlled by a code of fear and violence that he loathed. He'd worked hard to get beyond all of that, but he knew well enough that the consequences would always haunt him, and they were never far away when people who shared his blood still embraced that lifestyle. He parked his truck in Sofia's driveway, praying it wouldn't be subjected to any vandalism while he visited with his aunt. If so, it wouldn't be the first time. Whit suddenly felt very uneasy just before he knocked on the door, and he wondered if something might be more wrong with Sofia than he'd suspected. She answered the door, looking a little sheepish, and he felt nervous as he stepped inside. She closed the door behind him and said in whispered Spanish, "I'm sorry, Whit. They promised there would be no trouble."
Whit turned to see five of his male cousins lounging casually in Sofia's tiny front room. Jose and Carlos were Claudia's sons. Carlos was his only cousin that he could credit with some amount of decency. Jose was a loose cannon who was usually either stoned or drunk. The other three were Sofia's sons, all older than Whit and men whom he thankfully saw very rarely. At first glance, one might have thought it was a casual family gathering. But the feeling in the air suggested more subtly that Sofia was being held hostage, with Whit as the ransom. Whit's heart beat hard with a fear that he kept carefully masked. They could smell fear, and he would never allow them to pick up on the scent. The collective sum of piercings and tattoos in the room was impossible to count, and the extreme hairstyles and manner of dress among Whit's cousins were astonishing. But Whit hated it most because it all reminded him of the way he used to be. He reminded himself once again that he'd worked hard to leave this world behind. He'd served his time, and he'd certainly paid a high priceover and over. But he'd just been made well aware of the fact that there are some things from which you can never fully be free. These people were part of his family, and apparently they weren't very happy with him. "Well, isn't this fun?" Whit said with a light voice and a little chuckle.