The ride to Appaloosa Plains was surprisingly easy. I guess it was a good thing Celeste finally agreed that we buy a family car— neither of us actually really needed it around town, but it was better to take a long trip in our car that we were familiar with and comfortable in. On the way, the kids had a lot of fun, especially when we passed all the farms, with cows and goats grazing in the open. Neither Irene nor Gerald had seen farm animals outside of the TV.
Finally we approached the house, which looked big enough to house a dynasty, but was now only home to Celeste’s father and his wife. It was exactly the house one would expect to see in a movie about wholesome country living and made me think of home cooked meals and hay.
“Well, we’re here” announced Celeste, nervously rubbing her neck. I knew she wasn’t too eager to interact with her stepmother.
“Just stay calm, love. Whatever’s done is done and you haven’t seen your father in too long to let her ruin it all” I encouraged.
“Calm!? That woman is the reason my father didn’t even know of my marriage. I’m going to tell her exactly what I think about her and her behavior!” Celeste contended. She picked up Gerald who began to fuss and strode towards the front door, ringing the bell with the authority of an attacking paladin. To both our surprises, the door was opened by none other than Roger.
“Celi! You’re finally here. And is that my nephew? Wow, he’s all grown up now. Hi Irene” he waved at our daughter “I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m your uncle Roger.”
“I remember you, Uncle Roger!” waved Irene, happily.
“Roger?” Celeste was dumbstruck “I thought you guys didn’t live here anymore.”
He snorted “Oh, sis. We’ve got a whole lot to tell you, but come in y’all, it’s hot out here.”
Inside Roger’s wife Tammy was waiting, surrounded by two boys slightly older that Irene and an old man who I assumed to be Celeste’s father.
“Dad!” Celeste rushed towards the man, pulling him into a tight embrace “It’s been too long. I’m so sorry, I would have visited sooner, but the kids were too young for the road.”
“It’s alright, sweetheart” replied Brandon Lewis “At least now they all get to see their ancestral home and their family. And I finally get to meet their father in person. But first things first, I’m sure you’re hungry from the road.”
While Celeste was catching up with her father, I was rather overwhelmed by my in-laws. One of Roger’s twins was instantly next to me, entertaining a virtual stranger with all sorts of excited jokes and tales and trying to catch Irene’s attention. Roger looked both proud of his kids and a bit tired out.
“They love company, especially Mikey,” he explained half-apologetically. “We haven’t been getting out much since Emily was born.”
“How are they reacting to the baby sister?” I asked.
“Surprisingly well. They’re disappointed that she can’t join in their misadventures yet, but I’m sure as soon as she can walk she’ll be causing as much trouble as these two,” he admitted, picking up Gerald. “But come on, Tammy would never let me hear the end of it if I leave you guys hungry.”
“You guys live here now?” I was surprised. “I thought, you know, your stepmother caused you guys to move out.”
“She did,” certified my brother in law but before he could elaborate, Mikey yelled out “Hooray, the witch is gone!”
“What the kid said,” explained Roger. “Aileen isn’t here anymore. I told you, we’ve got lots to tell you.”
This was quite a bit of news. The family looked to be pretty happy with that woman’s absence; although I was sure Celeste would be very disappointed at missing her chance to yell at her stepmother.
Over dinner, the family explained to us that after Roger’s family moved out Brandon Lewis fell sick, his wife Aileen was responsible for the mail in the household, along with plenty of other things, like ranch workers’ salaries, documentation, bills. No one thought anything bad would come off it.
Well, until the whole wedding invitation fiasco, that is. By that time, Brandon Lewis’s illness has lessened and he was able to take a look at his affairs. And this time, Roger was looking at the papers as well. What they discovered was, Aileen didn’t just hide the wedding invitations from the family—she has also been stealing from them. There were numerous times when she paid workers less, failed to cover important bills and, overall, skimmed as much from the Lewis family as she possibly could undetected.
“It was a good thing we realized what was happening when we did,” admitted Brandon Lewis, as we all got comfortable in their living room. “Another month of non-payments on our bills and we would have lost the ranch too. As it is, we had so many fines to pay regarding violations of workers’ compensations and energy bills that we had to sell off some of the best horses.”
“Wow, dad,” Celeste was outraged “Why didn’t you tell me over the phone? And where is Aileen anyway?”
“Well, dear, here’s the best part—as soon as she realized that we were on to what she was doing, Aileen made a very smart decision and got the hell out of here! Good riddance too,” my father-in-law laughed “I don’t know what I saw in that woman to begin with or how I could be blind enough to her character, but I’ll tell you one thing that is sure—ever since she’s been gone, my health problems have lessened considerably. I don’t know if she was doing something to sicken me or if it was just the side effect of living with that person near me, but I’ve felt more health and energy than I’ve had in years.”
“But where is she now?” I wondered “I’m pretty sure there could be some legal action you could take against her. Who knows what else she could’ve done to you and your family had you not discovered her machinations?”
“Son, what’s done is done. The only reason Aileen was able to do any damage to this family was because I married her in the first place. I thought she was a good woman. I was proved wrong,” Brandon looked sad saying this “But I want this chapter of our lives to be over and for us to move on. Our family is reunited, I have wonderful grandkids and my in-laws are treating my kids well. Let’s not dwell on the negative.”
“Will you be ok though?” Celeste worried over her father “By yourself that is.”
“Now that Roger, Tammy and the kiddos are living here, I never feel alone. I should’ve never let her drive my family away. But now that my house is a home again, I don’t feel so lonely. And you know, you can always visit, right? This is as much your home as ever.”
“I know Dad,” smiled Celeste. “That’s why we’re here.”
After Celeste went upstairs to get the kids settled in and meet her baby niece, Brandon pulled me to the side.
“I’m glad we’re finally meeting face-to-face, young man. Even if the meeting is long overdue,” he joked.
“Huge apologies, once again. We both wanted to visit for the longest time, but didn’t know when to find the right time.”
“That’s alright, Simon. At least you are here now. And I can see from the way you two interact that you and Celeste are just like Emily and I used to be. She’s happy with you, and that’s what matters to me. When her mother passed away, we all took it badly, but Celeste and Emily were extremely close and I know she felt lost without her mother’s presence. But whatever light went missing back then is now present in her again, and I think that’s because of you.”
“You have no idea how much these words mean to me, Mr. Lewis.”
“Don’t thank me; I’m only stating the facts here. And feel free to call me Brandon or Dad,” he offered, pulling me into a tight hug. “You’re part of our family now.”
After our warm reunion, Celeste and I stayed with the Lewis family for two weeks. Celeste enjoyed all the time she got to spend with her family and Irene was ecstatic to interact with her cousins. Mikey was the boisterous jokester one and Jonny was the quieter but more intellectual one. They both enjoyed her horror stories and the three of them spent the weeks running around the barns and taking their turns cooing over Gerald and Emily.
As our stay in Appaloosa came to an end, there was one last place we haven’t gone to—Celeste’s mother’s grave.
It was already near dusk and there was a serene beauty at the cemetery, despite the fact that it was a place of sorrow. Celeste finally stopped near a gravestone that already had flowers placed near it.
“Roger must have been here recently,” she noted quietly. Her voice was already tearing up a bit and when I glanced away from the grave at her, she was crying.
“Yeah,” she managed through the tears “I just haven’t been here in a long time. Crazy isn’t it how the only thing that can remain of a person is a gravestone and some memories?”
“That’s not true,” I maintained “That woman left more than just a gravestone. She left a legacy here. She left two children, five grandchildren, and the fondest feelings with everyone who knew her. I mean, I never even met her and I think she was a wonderful human being, because without her, you wouldn’t have existed.”
“Thank you, Simon. I needed to hear that.” She let me pull her into a hug. “And you wouldn’t believe how much Emily Jr. looks like her! You can practically see Mom in her.”
Once she has calmed down enough, she managed to clean the grave and leave her own flowers. I helped, even it was clear Celeste wanted to do most of the work.
“There,” she announced after all the work was done “I think now it is time to go home.”
“You don’t want to stay in Appaloosa Plains a while longer?” I offered.
She shrugged “I don’t know. I like it here. But I’ve been missing Hidden Springs and our home. Appaloosa Plains used to be my home, but I think now its Hidden Springs. I actually want to get home.”
So it came that we packed up our things and the kids and headed home to Hidden Springs.