Cold, damp, Minnesota air seeped into Elizabeth Farefield’s bones as she stood graveside. The long, black wool coat covered the simple black dress that fell above her knees. Although the coat was unfastened, one moment she was warm and sweating, the next minute shivering from the cold. She crisscrossed her arms, wrapping them around her waist as if needing support to stand against the chill. The onset of a late fall rainstorm began. If the temperature dropped five more degrees, they’d be dealing with sleet.

The weather... the weather had ultimately led to the premature death of her husband, Gregory.

The children went with her parents to the car leaving Liz to say final goodbyes to her beloved husband. She stood beside the casket.

She dropped her chin to her chest and spoke in the silence. “Give the children and me the strength to move forward, Greg.” Her love for him would last a lifetime.

Sarah, nine, knew everything about her father’s death. Sarah’s anger was fueled by her grandmother, Ellen, who blamed Liz for Gregory’s death. This created a wall between grandmother and granddaughter. Sarah found comfort with Liz’s parents, but that didn’t stop her tears from flowing.

At seven, Bradley understood death but not the conflict surrounding his father’s passing. Brad didn’t avoid Ellen and he would often be at her side. Wanting and missing his father, he spent most of his time crying. Comfort came in the arms of whoever would hold him, much like an infant. Liz believed he’d heal faster than Sarah and be more forgiving.

Liz somberly walked to her parents’ car. Her father held the front passenger door open for her. Once she was seated, he closed the door, went around the front of the car, and slid behind the steering wheel. As they pulled away, the sky spattered rain on the windshield. The wipers swished the wetness away.

Brad’s sweet, innocent, soft voice broke the silence. “Look, Mommy, God’s crying, too.”

She lost her composure. The words turned the dripping teardrop faucet on to full force. Her body shook. She leaned against the doorframe. Her head rested against the cool window. The car moved forward. Life moved forward.

They were headed to gather at the home of Gregory’s parents for a light buffet and remembrance. Liz agreed to the arrangement because she didn’t want to fight with Ellen about what food to serve or where to host the gathering. It was one less thing to think about or have to deal with. However, at the same time, being in the same room, let alone house, could make things difficult.

Ellen Farefield hadn’t made Liz’s marriage to her son an easy one. She made her dislike for Liz known from the beginning of their engagement and had been against the idea of marriage to her son. Not to mention them having children. The rest of Gregory’s family accepted her, which was good and bad. Good because everyone supported their marriage with the exception of one person, which made her despise Liz that much more.

The family had run interference to keep the two women separated throughout the day. Liz had prayed to avoid any confrontation with Ellen. The extreme size of Duane and Ellen’s Edina home made her home look like a dollhouse. It was easy for her to move from room to room without running into her. Ellen had remained seated in the formal living room, too grief stricken to walk around and socialize.

Liz knew her mother-in-law’s actions were a ploy to place more guilt on her shoulders. Although it didn’t work. Ellen entered the formal room to speak with the guests. There she sat on her throne, as Liz called the rich, mahogany colored, leather, wing-backed chair. The hatred in her squinted eyes and pursed lips would’ve had Liz cowering years ago. Today, she remained strong for Gregory.

Veronica, Gregory’s only sibling, approached Ellen. “Mom, let’s move to the family room and visit with the guests in there.”

“They can come see me in here,” she stated in a determined voice. “She can leave at any time.” Ellen raised her voice and shook one thin, sharpened pencil of a wrinkled finger at Liz.

“Mother,” Veronica scolded, taking hold of her mother’s upper arm. She pulled her up and out of the chair. “We’re going to go into the family room, now.” As they left the room, Veronica turned and nodded at Liz. She’d be Ellen free for a while.

The only remaining guests were neighbors and family. The rain hadn’t let up and by nightfall would turn to sleet. The drive would take longer if the rain turned to ice. She located her mother, Janice, in the kitchen cleaning. “Mom, I think we should start for home. With the sun down, the temps are going to drop and the rain will become ice.”

“Okay, dear. I’ll go find your father.”

She gathered her children to leave. They said good night to the family and the kids dashed for the car. Hugging Duane in the large foyer, Liz wasn’t lucky enough to escape without Ellen speaking some final words.

“You,” her mother-in-law screeched. Ellen’s husband, Duane, stopped her from grasping Liz’s arm. “You killed him. My only son.” The words echoed through the tiled entry.

Duane pulled Ellen from the room, screaming, “I knew you’d be the death of him.”

The hurtful words did not go unheard. Fresh tears stung Liz’s eyes.

Veronica embraced her. “Don’t listen to her. We know that’s not true. Call me... soon.”

Liz nodded and dashed from the house to her parent’s warm, waiting car.

She never thought it would be a possibility, but Ellen despised her more than ever. Yet, with the accidental death of her husband, it was a reality. She stared out the window for the remainder of the drive home. The home she bought and once shared with Gregory.

The headlights illuminated the front of the white colonial with its black shuttered windows as her father turned onto her driveway. She stared at the large home. The enormity of responsibility that came from one person’s death weighed heavily on her shoulders. Gregory had been the caretaker of the home, inside and out. With winter knocking on the doorstep, she had snow removal to think about. Then there were the Christmas lights he had put up every year. She wasn’t about to go up on a ladder to hang them. He’d also handled all things financial. The cars weren’t as big a deal. She’d taken the cars to the dealership many times.

She closed her eyes, inhaled, and slowly exhaled. “Let me get the garage door open and then I’ll come back for the kids.”

Unbuckled from the car seat, she carried her sleeping son up the stairs to his room and tears slid down her cheeks. This was Gregory’s job. She could handle the seven-year-old’s body weight, but he carried Brad to bed. It was their nightly ritual, whether their son was awake or asleep. Once tucked under the covers, she regarded her son as the miniature replica of Gregory. The square jaw, blue eyes and a head full of thick, curly, dark brown hair.

“Mom?” Sarah’s panicked voice sliced the silence.

Liz rushed to the hall. “Sarah, honey, I’m right here.” She embraced her daughter tightly. “I was taking care of your brother. Ssh, I’m right here.”

Liz’s mother appeared at the bottom of the stairs. “I’m sorry, honey. She woke up in the car and ran into the house.”

“It’s okay.” She cupped her daughter’s face in her hands. “I’ll be right back. I’m going to say goodbye to grandma. I’ll meet you in your room.”

“Can I sleep with you?” Pleading eyes stared at her.

“Please go to your room,” she said gently. “I’ll be right there.”

Sarah wandered to her room.

Liz met her mom at the bottom of the stairs. “Thank Dad for me. I wouldn’t have been able to drive. He was right. Thank you, for all of your support today. You were such a big help with the kids.”

“That’s what parents are for.” Her mother embraced her. “You call if you need anything. I mean anything. We’re not that far.”

“Thank you. I’ll call if something comes up.”

Janice stepped from the hug. “I’ll talk to you later. I love you.”

“Love you too, Mom.”

Her mother closed the front door, and Liz joined her daughter upstairs. Sarah’s bedroom light was on, but it was lights out for Sarah. Shoes off, she fell asleep dressed. Liz pulled the bedding from underneath Sarah replaced them over her, still in her clothing.

Sleet pelted the windows. Liz was glad to be safe at home. With Sarah situated for the night, Liz slogged into her room and collapsed on the bed. The tears flowed down her cheeks, and when they slowed, she staggered to the bathroom.

She popped two sleeping aids with a glass of water. Not wanting to see her reflection, she focused on the counter, unable to avoid spotting Gregory’s toiletries on the ledge. A new wave of salty wetness streamed down her face. With her husband buried, the realization she was a widow at forty-one hit her. She couldn’t imagine ever loving anyone the way she loved Greg. The tissue box became her sleeping partner.

* * * *

Robert Burnhamwood waited by the chain-link fence, searching the late arriving fans for his ex-wife Kathleen. Where the hell is she? Twenty minutes passed, causing him to miss the start of the sectional playoff football game. It wasn’t every day his one and only son, a high school freshman, started as wide receiver for the school varsity football team.

“What’s your excuse this time?” he scowled when Kathleen approached.

“Don’t start with me, Robert.” She turned from him and bent to look directly at their nine-year-old daughter. “Christine.” She always used Chris’s full birth name, finding Chris to be insulting for her daughter. “Be good for your father. I’ll see you Sunday night when your father brings you home.”

“I don’t want to sit in the cold watching football,” Chris whined. “Why couldn’t I stay home?”

“Your mother is leaving for the weekend.” He touched her shoulder. “I’ve brought blankets to keep us warm, Chris. I’ll buy you some hot chocolate to help keep your insides toasty.”

As her mother walked away, Chris darted after her and gave Kathleen a hug. She peeled her daughter from her waist and shooed her off to shuffle toward him, with her head hung.

The kids exchange made, he paid for their tickets, and they passed through the gate into the stadium. The scent of freshly popped popcorn and slow cooking hotdogs caught a breeze. His stomach growled in protest to a missed meal.

“That smells good. I’m going to get something. Would you like anything? Maybe that hot cocoa I mentioned?”

“Sure.” Her response was anything but excited.

“Chris, this is a big game for your brother and the team. I know you don’t want to sit out in the cold but you have to. I tell you what, let’s go find a place to sit, and then I’ll come back and get our food and drinks. Okay?”

“Fine.” Her response was snotty.

Would he survive this? He didn’t remember his other daughter, Abigail, having an attitude like this at the same age, but then he and his wife hadn’t been divorced. The two of them rounded the corner of the bleachers packed with fans. He scanned the stadium seating when he heard his name and caught the waving arm. Abigail sat several rows up on the fifty-yard line.

“Chris, Abby’s here and has a place for us to sit.”

“Yay.” Her unenthusiastic tone didn’t go unnoticed.

“Come on. I know she’s eleven years older than you, but she’s your sister.”

“Whatever.” She rolled her eyes while shaking her head.

Robert shook his head in defeat as he maneuvered to the center of the bleachers where Abby sat. “How’d you know we’d be here?”

“You should know I wouldn’t miss either my alma mater or my brother play. Plus, I thought Chris would like some girl company.” She made eye contact with her sister. “Here, sit next to me.”

“Sure.” Chris plopped on the bench hunched over with her chin in her hands.

“Before I get comfortable, I’m going for food. Can I get you anything, Abby?”

“I’m good. Thanks.”

“Chris, I’ll get you a hot chocolate. You have the blankets so wrap up but save me one.” He visited the concession stand and returned with a tray of food and beverages. “Here’s your hot cocoa and some popcorn.” The cold metal seat seeped past the jean material to his skin. Chris used the three blankets for herself. Rather than disrupting her contentment, he’d manage the cool temperatures. He looked at the scoreboard, “I’ve missed the first quarter and the score is fourteen to six. Did I miss Alex get any touchdowns?”

“No, but he’s had some great catches,” Abby answered excitedly.

Five minutes later, Alex ran the field, glancing back to the quarterback, who released the ball. It spun through the air. Seated on the edge of the bench Robert waited in anxious limbo. Alex caught and held the ball tight against his body while dodging for the end zone.

“Touchdown for the Wescott Wombats,” the announcer hailed.

“Yes!” Robert pumped his fist into the air.

Alex ran two more balls for touchdowns and the final score of the game was forty-two to nineteen. At that moment, Robert was a proud father. The players disappeared into the high school and fans dispersed for their vehicles. Robert and Abby remained seated, but Chris stood and the complaining commenced.

“Why are we just sitting here? I’m freezing! Let’s go.” She tugged on his arm.

“Relax, Chris. Look at the crowd of people.” His cell phone played the designated tone for Laura, his brunette lady friend. “We have to wait for your brother anyway.”

She threw herself onto the bench and wrapped up in the blankets.

He answered making sure to keep the conversation short. “Hello.” He turned away from his daughters to minimize what they could hear.

“Where are you? I was hoping we could get together this weekend,” Laura finished on a seductive note.

“I’m at my son’s football game. I told you this weekend I was busy.”

“You never said anything to me,” she sing-songed.

Maybe it was Kimberly, his redheaded lover, he’d told. Shit. “Well, this weekend is out but next weekend is another story. I’ll call you Monday to make plans.”

“Okay,” came her giddy reply.

As he tucked the phone into his pocket, Chris stood and yelled, “I can’t believe you’re doing this to Mom.” She stomped down the bleachers.

A few remaining patrons watched, but what they thought about the situation didn’t matter. He cared about Chris and how to make things better between them.

Up Close and Personal

Chapter One