I haven’t been to a reunion since 2016, but I still remember all the things I have to do to get ready. You might want to take notes if you have a reunion of any kind coming up. Well, not any kind…only where you’ll be seeing people who haven’t seen you in a while.
Rule #1: Be sure and give yourself enough time.
Don’t set goals that are impossible to reach. For example…I’m meeting Billy, Gus, and Cousin Valerie at the gathering of people who are from Jones County, which is held in Mesa, Arizona every year. We went in 2018 and had a great time. This year it’s on February 6th, so I started getting ready several hours ago.
Rule #2: Gain ten pounds.
I usually need to lose some weight or at least keep from adding el-bees. It’s amazing how quickly those pounds I lost when I was having all those surgeries showed up again. My goal this time was to lose five of them. Instead, like always, I’m on my way to gaining five more. Yesterday, I made Joyce Hurst’s chocolate fudge cream pie from the Jones County Bicentennial Cookbook. I might have time to make it again before the reunion, or I might make Fern Penticoff’s yummy chocolate cake. Both are good for one to two pounds.
Rule #3: Get a really bad haircut
Even though I know from past experience that I’ll be unhappy with the outcome, I have to do it anyway. It always, always, turns out too short and it in no way resembles the ten pictures I have shown the beautician…or stylist, or whatever you call them now.
I just got the too short haircut a week ago, so no matter how much I pull on it, I won’t be able to get it the right length in time.
That’s pretty much it. Sometimes I throw in no sleep the night before, which will happen this time because I have to get up at 4:00 a.m. to make it to the airport on time.
I shared my “before reunion” routine with Judy Dykstra-Brown, who plans to attend the Jones County gathering. She informed me that she’s gone through the steps and she’s ready to go. She’s such an overachiever.
Cousin Valerie never follows the rules. I try not to be in too many pictures with her.
Thinking Vanessa was sleeping comfortably, Kat decided to take Annette to the hospital cafeteria and get them both something to eat. She had a lot of questions for Annette, but now was not the time.
“I know it must have hurt when your mother asked to see Jennifer instead of you. You have to remember, she has been very confused and it’s likely to get worse. Especially with the trauma of the fire.”
“I know, Kat. Her mind has gone back to before Jennifer died. You know, I have spent all these years trying to be everything my mother needed in a daughter, but it was always Jennifer she wanted.”
“How did it happen, Annette?” How did Jennifer get so badly burned? I would have thought the fire would have been contained in a small fire pit?”
I wasn’t there when it happened. I had returned to the house to get marshmallows. I was almost back to the picnic spot when I heard a scream. As I got closer, I could see Mother was just standing there. The little girls were hystetical. Jennifer was lying on the ground, motionless. I grabbed the girls and ran to the house to get my stepfather. He put a light blanket around Jennifer and carried her to the car. Then shoved Mother in and took off for the hospital. I stayed behind with Vanessa and Alice. They asked if they could color. They acted as if nothing had happened. They were in shock.
My stepfather came back for the girls, and when it was all over, Jack took them home. We never saw them again until now.
Mother stayed in her room for weeks afterward. I took meals to her and tried to get her to come out of her depression.
“But how did the fire get out of hand? Do you know?”
“I only know what Mother told me. To get the fire started, we poured some gasoline on a couple of logs. Apparently, Alice, who was only four, saw us and decided to do what we had done. She started to pour gas on the fire. Jennifer reached out to grab her, but Alice started to run. Jennifer tripped and fell, knocking the gas can over. Gas spilled out into the fire. Her dress caught fire and she wasn’t able to get up and out of the fire. Jennifer didn’t have a chance.”
“Mother found a way to blame me. She said I had left the gas can too close to the fire, though I know I didn’t.”
Annette hadn’t even taken a bite of her food. “Mother doesn’t want to see me and the cabin is gone. I have my car here so I think I’ll go home. The doctors can call me if they need me.”
Kat didn’t argue with Annette. Maybe it was best for her to get away.
Kat was on her way to check on Vanessa when a nurse caught up with her. “We had to sedate her,” she said. “She was crying uncontrollaby, and we weren’t able to calm her down any other way.”
Kat sat in Vanessa’s room for hours until she finally woke up. When she saw Kat, she immediately dissolved into tears. “Where’s my daddy?” She asked. “I have to tell him.”
“Your daddy is with Alice. They flew her to a hospital in Boston where they’ll be able to make her well, faster.”
Vanessa looked stunned. As the news that Alice didn’t die sunk in, her thoughts turned back to Mrs. Morris. It was her fault, Vanessa thought. Mrs. Morris was responsible for her mother’s death and she was the reason Alice almost died.
It looked like it might be a few days before Vanessa would be released so Kat made arrangements at a nearby motel and she was able to pick up a few things at a shopping center close to the hospital.
Edith Morris’ body, if not her mind, was healing as well and a couple of days later, Annette came back. Her mother would need a nurse to care for her at (Annette’s) home and she had to make the arrangements.
A week passed and things were looking better. Jack called and said Alice had turned the corner and she was getting stronger each day. Vanessa was to be discharged the next day and Mrs Morris would be going to Annette’s home.
Vanessa was in her hospital bed. This would be the last night she would be under the same roof as Mrs. Morris. She couldn’t bear to think of that evil woman as her grandmother. “I’m going to pay her a visit,” Vanessa whispered. “And then, I’ll never see her again.”
Annette was sitting at a table at the Roadside Cafe. The mother who hated her was going home with her tomorrow. “I can’t do it,” she thought. “There must be some way that I can get her out of my life.”
“There are some things I don’t understand, Kat.” Jack and Kat were sitting in the hospital waiting room while Vanessa slept. Dr. Clark was keeping her well sedated while she recovered from all of those hours in the freezing temperatures.
They were continuing to try to stabilize poor little Alice whose condition was much more critical than Vanessa’s. Her blood pressure had dropped so low from the effects of hours in the snowstorm, the fear was, it had done permanent damage. She needed to be in a larger, more well equipped hospital, but as of yet, it was too dangerous to move her.
“You’re wondering how Annette and her mother could do this aren’t you?” Kat got up and got herself a glass of water.
“Yes and why…why Kat, would Edith Morris take my daughters to the place their mother had been fatally burned while they watched it all happen?”
“We need to find Annette,” Kat said. “I need to know if my mother was Edith Morris’ sister, and if she was, what does that tell me about my past.”
“It tells you she practically abandoned you while she lived in Seattle and raised my sister.” Unbeknownst to Jack and Kat, Annette had arrived and overheard the last part of the conversation. “As far as why? My mother, your aunt, never accepted the fact that after our father died, Jennifer wanted nothing to do with us and was finally allowed to go to Seattle and live with your mother. I was left to deal with the insanity that overcame our mother. I was eight years old when Jennifer left. All this happened because my mother is insane… and violent.”
“I occasionally saw my mother during those years,” Kat said. “But it was my understanding her work took her overseas. If your mother was too sick to care for you, why didn’t my mother take you to raise as well? She was your aunt, too.”
“I had the same question which is why I tracked down Aunt Claire. Jack was already working with her, but I had no idea he had been Jennifer’s husband until your Thanksgiving party.”
“Is that why you left the party so suddenly?” Kat asked.
The doctor came into the room before Annette could answer.
“Mrs. Morris is awake and asking to see her daughter. You can go in, but don’t stay long. She is in a lot of pain and we’re having to constantly treat her burns to avoid infection.” With that, Dr. Clark started to lead Annette to her mother’s room, but she didn’t move.
“Would you like me to go with you?” Kat asked. It didn’t seem real that the woman lying in there so badly injured was her aunt. Annette nodded in response to Kat’s question.
Both were shocked by what they saw when they entered the room. Kat heard Annette gasp and it was her natural instinct to put her arm around her cousin’s shoulders.
“Whose there? I can’t see you.”
“It’s Annette, Mother.”
“I wanted to see Jennifer! I asked them to bring my daughter to me!”
Edith Morris was so upset, she could be heard in the hallway, which prompted a nurse to come and see what was going on.
“I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” the nurse said as she rushed to calm her patient.
Back in the waiting room, Jack was talking with two doctors and another man.
“We’re ready to go as soon as you are, Doctor,” the man said.
Doctor Cark turned to Jack and told him they needed to move Alice while the weather was cooperating. The danger of keeping her at Danfield’s small hospital too much longer, out weighed the risk of moving her.
Jack saw Kat and Annette walk into the room. “Kat, can you stay and look after Vanessa? They’re flying Alice to a Boston hospital and I’m going with them.”
“Of course, Jack. “Please keep me informed.”
Later that night, Vanessa woke up to a quiet hospital. Her thoughts immediately went to her sister, Alice.
She needed to see her. She decided to slip out of her bed and find her sister’s room. Quietly, she walked down the hall looking at the names on the little inserts until she came to the one that said Alice Stein.
All Vanessa saw when she entered the room was an empty hospital bed. Thinking the worst, she immediately began to scream.
Hearing Vanessa’s screams, the nurse who was two rooms down came running.
“Your sister is gone, honey. Let me help you back to your room.”
All Vanessa heard was, “Your sister is gone.”
Vanessa layed in her bed that night and she remembered. She remembered her mother pushing her away from the fire Mrs. Morris had built and her mother’s beautiful dress catching on fire. She remembered another fire Mrs. Morris built when they all went to have a picnic, and she remembered the evil woman who had been badly burned, sitting next to her in the back of the police car.
“Why did you leave me?” She had asked.
“She has to be stopped!” Vanessa whispered. “Mrs. Morris has to be stopped!”
“I’m so sorry, Jack. I never thought about the cafe closing. We should have called ahead and explained the circumstances.” Kat knew how panicked Jack must be.
“I wonder where Annette has gone.” Jack said. He was clearly devastated.
“I’ll contact the police,” Jack heard Agent Stedman say as he watched him pull out his phone. Thankfully, he had service. “They’re aware of the whole situation, but the storm probably stopped any kind of investigation in it’s tracks.”
Jack was trying to reach Annette but either the call wasn’t going through, or she was choosing not to pick up.
“Pretty ironic isn’t it?” Dr. Clark said. “We have two young girls who were on the verge of freezing to death and a woman who has been badly burned in a fire. I wonder if there is somehow a connection. Is there any word from the police concerning their identity?”
“No Dr., but the cell service is still spotty in some areas and the police are trying to put out fires of their own. I’m sure there are a lot of people stranded.”
The nurse and doctor heard a voice come over the intercome. “Dr. Clark, please come to the nurse’s station.”
“I’ll be back. Keep a close eye on these girls. Especially the younger one.”
Dr. Clark hurried to the nurse’s station where he noticed two men were waiting for him. They pulled out their FBI identification and introduced themselves before asking if an older woman and two young girls had by chance been admitted.
“Two policemen brought them all here a couple of hours ago. The woman and the youngest girl are unconscious and in pretty bad shape. The older girl is in a lot of pain. We’re treating that now, but she’s pretty confused and hasn’t been able to tell us much.”
Blake Stedman was anxious to call his friend, Jack to tell him the news. “Dr. Clark…have you heard from someone by the name of Annette Morris?”
“No one by that name has been here, as far as I know. The two policemen who brought the woman and two girls here said they were headed over to the Roadside Cafe to talk to a young lady who was waiting for news on her mother and two girls. Could that be her? They were going to tell her all three were here.
I guess she left the cafe thinking the police hadn’t found them. The girl had given Sandy, who works at the cafe, her name and number. I placed a call, and I thought someone answered, but then it went dead.”
“Thank you, Dr.. We’ll let you get back to your patients. The girl’s father is waiting at the cafe now. We’ll be bringing him here…and Dr. Clark, if you should hear from Miss Morris, please call me. Here’s my card.”
Annette hadn’t recognized the voice on the other end of the call before she lost the connection. She was still a little over halfway between Danfield and the cabin site…and she was stuck. Thankfully, she had some warm clothes in the trunk. She also had a shovel and began to start digging herself out. Periodically, she stopped to check on her phone service.
Edith Morris was beginning to come around and the pain from her burned body was excrutiating. Where is my Jennifer? Where has she gone? She was remembering the day Jennifer had been badly burned by a campfire that had gotten out of hand.
In the process of grabbing each of her little girls to get them out of harm’s way, Jennifer’s pretty summer dress had become engulfed in flames. Edith had stood and watched, unable to move as she saw her daughter lose her balance and fall back into the fire. The screams brought Annette, who had gone back to the house, running to the spot where they had all been having a picnic.
Annette was exhausted from shoveling and decided to take a break and warm up in the car. The battery on her cell had died so she started up the car and plugged her phone in.
Her thoughts also went back to the day Jennifer died.
Her older sister and her two little girls had come for a visit. It was the first time Annette had seen her little nieces and it had been ten years since she had seen her sister, Jennifer.
They were up in the mountains when the terrible accident happened, and the fastest way to get Jennifer to the hospital was to put her in the car and drive her there. The little girls stayed behind with Annette while her mother and stepfather rushed a badly burned and mercifully unconscious Jennifer to the hospital. Edith’s husband later drove back to the cabin to get the little girls and bring them to the hospital so they would be there when their father arrived.
Neither of the girls talked about the fire or their mother. They sang songs all the way to the hospital. Annette stayed back at the cabin. She had no desire to witness what was happening to her sister.
When Jack and Kat arrived at the hospital, Dr. Clark informed them that Vanessa would need to be in the hospital for a few days, but she would fully recover.
Jack allowed himself to take a deep breath. “What about Alice?” He asked. “How is she?”
Dr. Clark motioned for Jack and Kat to sit down. “We’re doing everything we can, but it’s not looking good.”
Jack reached into his shirt pocket and brought out a picture that he had obviously looked at many times. “Oh, Jen he said. “I am so sorry.”
The two FBI Agents, followed by Kat, and Jack headed for Danfield. It was a two hour trip under the best of conditions, but the bad weather was sure to delay them.
“You didn’t stay in touch with Jennifer’s family after she died, Jack? And the girls never mentioned their Aunt Annette?” Kat was curious as to how this could have happened.
“No, Kat. The girls were only four and six. I guess seeing their mother so badly burned and then learning she didn’t survive, traumatized them so much they blocked it all out. They didn’t remember anything about the trip or the fire. I didn’t realize that until I tried to question them after the funeral. I was grateful none of Jennifer’s family came or tried to reach us later. I didn’t even know about Annette. That’s why the whole time I worked with her, I didn’t know anything about her being Jennifer’s sister.”
“I hope Annette is still at the cafe when we get there. What did the police say when you called them, Jack?” They didn’t even know for sure if Mrs. Morris and the girls were at the cabin that was burning, Kat thought. The other scary thought was Vanessa and Alice were with a woman who was living in the past. Was she reliving the events that led up to her daughter’s death?“They said they had two policemen in the area and would let me know if they were able to find them… or anyone else in distress. The firetruck came back down a while ago. They found the cabin, but no one was there.”
It was going to be a very long drive.
Annette wanted to run! She didn’t want to be at the cafe when Jack arrived. Would Kat be with him? Where were the policemen who promised to come back and tell her when they found her mother and the girls?
The waitress, Sandy, looked over at the poor distraught young woman. What was her story, she wondered. She made a sandwich and took it to Annette’s table.
“Here, eat this. You have been waiting here for hours. You must be hungry and even if you aren’t, eat it anyway.”
“Thank you.” Annette took a bite, but it stuck in her throat. She took a sip of water, and gave up trying to eat.
“I heard Pete and Carl, those two policemen who were in here tell you they would come back if they found your mother and the girls. I’ve known those two for years. They will find them, and they will be back. You can be sure of that. Now, eat that sandwich. It looks like the storm has let up.”
Sandy walked over to look out the window. “I told you they would be back.”
Annette rushed to the window. She saw the policemen, but there was no one with them. “They didn’t find my mother and the girls.” Annette rushed out to her car, started it up, and headed toward the road before the policeman could stop her.
“She must have gotten the word that her mother and the two girls are in the hospital. I guess we can go home, Carl,” Pete said, “I’m ready for a hot meal.”
Annette had made it within a few miles of the cabin when she got bogged down in the snow. She had hoped she would see her mother and the two girls in her mother’s car or walking. She couldn’t think about the possibility of them being injured in a fire.
She was about to get out of the car and continue to walk up the the mountain, when her phone rang. Surprised she had cell service now, it took her a minute to answer.
“I’m looking for an Annette Morris,” the voice on the other end said. “Do I have the right number?”
Jack, and Kat pulled into the Roadside Cafe behind the two FBI agents.
Jack continued to stare at the three photographs on the coffee table. He had just learned that Annette had been his wife, Jennifer’s younger sister.
Jack would never forget the day he got the call telling him that Jennifer had been badly burned in a fire and was in grave condition in a little hospital in Danfield. Jennifer’s mother and stepfather were at the hospital with the girls. By the time Jack got there, Jennifer was gone. The police said it had been a terrible accident involving a fire that got out of hand at a picnic.
Jack had quickly made the arrangements to have his wife’s body brought back to Brewster and then he took his distraught daughters home.
As soon as the funeral arrangements had been made, Jack called Jennifer’s mother, but she was so consumed with grief, she couldn’t come to the phone. He asked the stepfather about the aunt Jennifer had lived with in Seattle and was told she was out of the country and couldn’t be reached.
Jack had always wondered why Jennifer, after all those years, had decided to take the girls to see her mother and stepfather. She hadn’t even mentioned Annette who hadn’t been at the hospital or the funeral.
Maybe he should have helped the girls remember. The truth is, he did want them to.
Jack was brought back to the present by something Kat was saying.
“Where does this leave us?” Kat asked. “I can’t think about what all these family connections might mean right now. The fact is we’re no closer to finding the girls.”
Jack’s phone was sitting on the coffee table near the photographs. Suddenly it rang, startling everyone in the room.
“Hello Jack. This is Annette. I know where the girls are. Oh Jack…I didn’t mean for any of this to happen. The girls are with my mother at our cabin nine miles from Danfield. At least they were. Jack, the police were following a fire truck up there. They said there is a cabin on fire in that location and there is a terrible storm that is getting worse. I have to go. Please get here as soon as you can. Come to the Roadside Cafe.”
With that, the phone went dead.
Vanessa was doing her best to keep moving. Poor Alice was moments from collapsing. She desperately wanted to lie down in the snow and sleep. The girls were both getting disoriented, but the lights were getting closer. It had to be Danfield. They surely had gone five miles since they saw the sign.
“Keep walking, Alice,” she said. “The lights are getting closer. We’re almost there.”
But it wasn’t Danfield they saw. It was a car. The driver rolled down the window and Vanessa could feel the warm air coming from the inside.
“Get in the car,” a voice said. “It’s nice and warm in here. I’ll help you both get in.”
The last thing Vanessa noticed before she drifted off to sleep is the smell of smoke. The last thing she heard was a voice whisper. “Why did you leave me?”
The policemen turned on their siren and headed for the Danfield Hospital.
Stella stared at the photographs in front of her. The only people she thought she recognized were the two little girls in the white dresses. They looked like Jack’s daughters when they were younger. Then she looked more closely at the photograph that, because of the way the two ladies were dressed, must have been taken in the 50’s.
She was sure the one on the right was Miss Claire. She had no idea who the other lady was nor did she recognize the girls in the fancy dresses… though the one on the right looked familiar. Stella decided to put the photos in the “keep” box.
Maybe she should call Kat. Something didn’t seem right.
Annette was finishing up her third cup of coffee when two policemen walked into the cafe. The waitress met them at a table with two cups and a pot of coffee.
“What are you two doing up this way? You’re not going to try to make it any further up the mountain are you? The road must be getting pretty bad by now.”
“Well, Sandy, as a matter of fact, we’re just stopping by to fill our thermoses. A fire truck is on it’s way. A couple who live close to the top of the mountain were able to get through on their short-wave radio. They saw a lot of smoke coming from a cabin down below them. They seemed to think the cabin isn’t occupied by anyone, but we need to make sure.
The two men took their full thermoses, thanked the waitress, and headed to their car, just as the firetruck went by.
Annette threw some money on the table and ran out to try to catch the policemen.
“Stop! You have to take me with you! My mother and two young girls are in a cabin up there. What if it’s the one on fire?”
“I’m sorry lady,” the policeman said before he hopped in the car. “You’ll have to wait here. If it’s them, we’ll come back here to let you know the status. We might not be able to get that far, anyway…good thing we have chains on the tires.”
For a minute, Annette thought about getting in her car and trying to make it, but then thought better if it and went back inside. She had another thought.
“Do you have phone service?” She asked the waitress.
Vanessa and Alice could see lights ahead of them. They had walked so far and they were beyond cold. “Please, God help us make it to the lights,” Vanessa whispered. “Keep walking toward the lights, Alice.”
“I need to go to sleep, Vanessa. I can’t go any further. Please let me lie down and sleep.”
Back at Jack’s house, he and Kat were trying to pull the Truth or Consequences team together. They wanted each of them to fill everyone else in on what they knew about Annette Morris and her family. They had just gotten started when Kat got a phone call. It was Stella.
“I don’t know what it could possibly mean, but I’ve been up in the attic looking through some boxes. Your mother had a photograph of Jack’s daughters. I would say it was taken four or five years ago. There are some other pictures you might want to see as well.
“Okay, Stella. I’ll send someone to pick them up…thank you.”
When Kat got off the phone, she heard Carolyn say that Annette’s mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimers.
“That was a few years back,” Carolyn said. “I would be surprised if she’s still able to function alone.”
“Did you work with her, Carolyn, in your capacity as an Alzheimer’s advocate and volunteer?” Kat asked.
“No, but I met her once. She was with Annette and your mother. They were having lunch together.”
The doorbell rang and Jack went to answer it. Agent Black had gone to Kat’s and picked up the photographs from Stella. Jack took them and walked over to the coffee table so he could put them where everyone could see them.
“That looks like Annette’s mother,” Carolyn said. “And that’s your mother standing next to her isn’t it, Kat? It sure looks like a younger Claire.”
All the blood had drained from Jack’s face. “Those two little girls are my daughters. Why would Claire have this picture? She barely knew them.
I know who the other young girls are, too, though the photo must have been taken before Jennifer went to live with her aunt. That was long before I knew her, but it’s her. It’s the girl who became my wife. If you look closely, you’ll recognize the other girl.
“The other girl is Annette isn’t it, Jack? “Three sets of sisters.”
Kat said the words more to herself than to anyone else.
“I’m cold and I’m scared,” Alice said as she and Vanessa trudged through the growing snow drifts. “How do we even know if we’re on the road? I can’t see anything.”
“We’re on the road,” Vanessa tried to assure her little sister. “I saw a sign about a half mile back that said Danfield is five miles ahead of us. It has to be a town. All we can do is keep going…and Alice…if you see car lights behind us, get off the road and hide. It could be Mrs. Morris.”
What the girls didn’t know was that Mrs. Morris wasn’t going anywhere right now. The loud noise that woke her in the night was from the explosion of a gas cylinder that was sitting just inside the kitchen door. It must have been leaking and a spark from the little heater she had turned on before going to bed, had started a fire.
Regardless, the fire was spreading fast and Edith Morris was so stunned, that at that moment, she didn’t have the presence of mind to get out.
Annette was on her way to the cabin and had made it as far as Danfield. She saw a little cafe on the side of the road and decided to pull in and wait out the storm with a hot cup of coffee. It probably wouldn’t be long before they closed the road to the cabin, anyway. She only hoped her mother and the girls were safe inside. It seemed that more and more her mother’s mind drifted back to the past and that was not a good place for her mind to be.
The last thing Annette wanted was to do harm to anyone. She only hoped to bring Jack Stein down a notch. She really didn’t care about Kat one way or the other. And then there was dear Aunt Claire. She died and left a mess for everyone else to clean up.
Jack and Kat left Kat’s house and went back to join the two FBI investigators at Jack’s home. They brought all of the files on the members of Project Truth or Consequences with them just in case. Stella was at her wits end. She was left there to take care of the two dogs and the house. To pass the time, she decided to go up in the attic and start to clean out some of Miss Claire’s boxes. It was a project she had planned to start weeks ago. The first thing she opened was a box of photographs.