Sheila never thought she'd be so nervous pulling into the driveway of her Uncle's Neil's home. It had once been such a familiar comforting place, the place childhoods are made of, playing with her cousins in the orchard and fishing off the little bridge. She often came through her teens too, to babysit her youngest cousin Paul. She adored Paul, he was ten years her junior and still just a child really when she married and moved away. She hadn't seen any of them since.
Her life went in quite a different durection to small town families and summer evenings on the porch. Her husband had quickly risen up in a small computer firm from resident troubleshooter to CEO, and they'd had a whirlwind through successive purchases of ever larger homes in ever better neighborhoods around the "Silicon Valley". She'd tried to keep in touch with her family in Maine but it wasn't easy, she never felt like she had much to tell them. They awaited news of babies, but none ever came. Sheila wanted a family, it just never happened. Her husband didn't even seem to care. One day she realized he loved his work more than he did her and she broke loose, that was hard news to send home. But no-one judged, they just said "Come and see us". But she didn't. She just never got around it, and eventually, of course, she left it too long. Her Aunt, her second mother growing up, died suddenly. The guilt of not visiting sooner almost broke Sheila, yet even then inertia kept her away from the funeral. Still no-one judged, still they just said "Come and see us". Finally, she went.
Her Uncle greeted her at the door with a bear hug. All she could find to say was "I'm so sorry" over and over again. He nodded. They went inside and everything was as she remembered it, except, of course, her Uncle's photo collection had grown. His brood of grandchildren now covered the top of the piano where just her and her cousins had once proudly been displayed. Next to all the children was a picture of a very handsome young man in glasses. Sheila had no idea who it was.
"Have you seen your mother?" asked her Uncle.
"No, we lost touch. It was too difficult."
Sheila's homelife had been difficult. Neil's sister had adopted her just before her marriage ended, and the stress of having a baby to care for during that time had pushed her into alcoholism. Sheila spent a lot of time at her Uncle's home, and he'd treated her as if she were blood. When she married he'd given her away. He was always there for her, and she'd neglected him so badly..........
"I'm so sorry......" she began again, but he stopped her.
"What's done is done, we can't go back. It's OK. Look, you're here now! And we're going to have a party!"
He stood up and clapped his hands together. His smile was genuine. She felt he was coping well.
"How is everyone?" she asked, acutely aware that she honestly had no idea.
"Ah! Fine, fine! Colin has his own business, he has three children now, yes, a boy and two girls. His wife, that's Marie, you remember....no, probably not, well she works at a newspaper. Frances, she married Ray Bachley, you remember him! They have twins! I tell them apart better than their parents do! And Catherine, well Catherine is doing so well. She's a school principle. Her husband is a teacher too. They have a boy and a girl."
"And Paul, how is Paul"
"Paul is well. Yes."
Well? That was odd. Three words to describe the much-loved baby of the family. She wondered what he'd done to get such small press. After all, wasn't she the bad girl of the family? The prodigal one?
"They'll all be here tomorrow, everyone. They're all coming to see you!"
That would be nice........possibly. Until then Sheila had other people to catch up on. Not that she knew where to begin to find them. So she asked her Uncle if he knew where her old friend Marcia was these days. Just on the offchance.
"Oh yes! Marcia's still around! She works part-time now her children are in school, great kids. Actually, chances are if you go over to the Blue Diner this evening you'll find her there.
Nothing around town had changed much. The Blue Diner even still had it's broken sign. It looked a little shabby really, and there were only three cars outside. Sheila went it cautiously but Marcia spotted her immediately.
"Oh my GOD! What are you doing here? Oh it's GREAT to see you, you haven't changed a bit, sit down, I'll fetch you a coffee, oh! Sheila, what a fantastic surprise!"
Sheila suddenly found herself being started at by everyone inside, all familiar faces, and she smiled. As the place wasn't busy Marcia sat down with her and they both did a quick update on their lives, punctuated by "Oh my God!" from Marcia and "yeah, it's cool" from Sheila.
"I was so sorry to hear about your Aunt, I think Neil is doing OK though, he's surrounded by family>"
"Yeah, he's always loved kids, he seems to be enjoying being a grandfather, wish I could have brought him some great-nieces or nephews."
"Well you brought YOU, I bet that means the world to him. He always talks about you."
The guilt just kept on coming.
"Marcia, something he said, well, more like something he didn't say puzzled me. So..how's Paul doing"
"Oh he's fine, why?"
"Fine? As in...?"
"He's got a good job, he's got his own place. What?"
"Nothing, no, it's probably just me, but I picked something up, like he's a disappointment or something"
"Well, he's still single. He's never had a girlfriend."
"Maybe he's gay? Oh do you think that could be it? Neil's worried that he's gay?"
"No." said Marcia firmly "I don't think that's it."
Sheila wanted to ask more, but it just didn't seem right. Anyway, she could ask him herself tomorrow. And he'd tell her. He never kept anything from her. He was her little guy.
The following day the guests started arriving. Sheila found herself being bombarded with questions from adults and children alike, but it was wonderful, and there were hugs and kisses, and not one single awkward silence. Until Paul arrived.
Sheila didn't recognize him immediately, but suddenly realized he was the young man in glasses on the piano.
"Paul! You're all grown up!"
He smiled but looked sad. Sheila though he looked older than his years. What was he now, he was ten years younger than her, so he must be 26. But he was a man, anyway. And what a man. She felt awkward in his presence and that felt wrong. Part of her still wanted to pick him up and mess his hair.
"It's good to see you Sheila."
They just looked at each other for a long time. Where had her little guy gone. Last time she'd seen him he was excited about going to High School in the Fall. Was it really that long ago?
"What are you doing now?"
"I work at a radio station"
"Really?" he'd always been the "pulling-things-apart" sort of kid, so she assumed he must be a wizard technician, and told him so.
"No," he laughed ironically "I am the late night D.J., only it's not W.O.L.D. I'm the one the lovers, the insomniacs, the shiftworkers and the long-distance drivers listen to. I play oldies mostly. Crying-in-your-beer music."
"Oh," said Sheila, thinking maybe this was why he wasn't his father's proudest moment. The music industry.
Then Paul was called away by his brother go help with something and Sheila found herself lost in her thoughts. Frances broke into them.
"Well, now he's seen that you got older too maybe you'll come down off your pedestal."
Sheila didn't understand her tone.
"You weren't to know, and I don't blame you. You had a life of your own. but when you went away it broke Paul's heart."
"It did? Oh poor little guy!"
"He wasn't so little. He was growing up. You were his first major crush. Only it didn't go away."
This made a bit more sense now.
"He had your wedding photo in his room for a long time, and any other photos he could get of you. He never dated. Spent all his time in his room just listening to music. Same songs over and over. I listened to some of them carefully and it was always lyrics about unrequited love. We thought he'd grow out of it eventually."
The look on Frances' face made it plain it he hadn't.
"He dropped out of school. Hung around the house, never had any friends. By the time Paul was 19 he'd turned to drugs and drink. Dad threw him out eventually, he called it "tough love". Paul stole a car, crashed it, nearly killed himself, ended up in jail. When he came out he cleaned up his act, and he's done OK, you know? He makes good money, he's almost a celebrity locally. But he's never done anything with his life. He's very alone.
"Frances, I.....I can't be held responsible.....I....."
"Oh NO! No-one blames YOU! Oh, I wouldn't even have told you....no, NO SHEILA! I just thought you should know. He's been through a lot, it's not your fault, no, but as far as any of us can make out...you ARE the reason. Sorry to have to break that to you."
"Thanks Frances, really. Thanks."
Everyone say down to dinner at two long tables, and Sheila found herself opposite Paul. He seemed quiet, not a bit like the child she remembered. That Paul was always shouting, always telling people what he'd found, always enthusiastic. His smile hadn't really changed, she thought, but there was a deep hurt in his eyes instead of the sparkle she remembered. My God, she thought, did I really do that?
He left shortly after dinner, as he had to go to work. She spent some time with the family, then excused herself, saying she had so many people to see over the weekend. She wasn't lying.
Sheila drove to the radio station. It was at the end of a mall that never used to be there, with the studio next to a restaurant that was open, and visible through a large connecting window. Sheila sat at the bar and could watch Paul working. It felt very strange. Somewhere in her mind she was disconnecting the child she'd once cared for.