Cherimoya

The corners of Hannah's mouth curved down, puckering her chin in a sobbing wince as she stared out the second story window of her West Hollywood home. Her gaze fixed on the ripe artichoke-shaped fruit trying to hide behind the mothering skirt of dense foliage worn by the neighbor's twenty-foot Cherimoya tree. It was just yesterday she had carefully sliced open a near perfect specimen, ripened with an entire flavor symphony―sweet pear percussion, with a soft strawberry strings section, notes of woodwind apple, and little bits of bold banana brass in careful measure. It would have been perfect, but was a little less firm than it should be, having been in the crisper drawer for a few days. Underneath her tongue glands poured saliva drops into a pool on the floor of her mouth as she remembered sliding the nail of her index finger beneath each seed to extract it gently and then pushing that first piece of tender delicate fruit between her lips.

She startled suddenly as the bedroom door clicked open.

"Hi baby," said a tired voice, "did you miss me?"

Hannah wasn't ready to move yet, she blinked a few times to gather her shattered daydream from the window sill. His hand touched her elbow and she turned slightly to display the pout of her face and now at the sight of her husband, the tears rushed from their ducts and spilled over, streaking her cheeks.

"Awww, don't cry, I'm here now," he coaxed and put his arms around her.

She wallowed in his shirtsleeve for a few moments before choking out, "It's not that, I mean, I' I' I am all out of cheras."

He pulled back questioningly and peered into the watery, red-veined globes surrounding her pupils. "Cherimoyas? That weird ten-dollar fruit you've been buying?"

"Yes. I love them. I' I need more of them," she sobbed. "See?" She pointed toward the neighboring tree outside, "Look how many there are?"

He tried to stifle a chuckle and gently rubbed his smooth businessman palm circularly around the tight flesh of her bulging abdomen. "Let me wash off this airport and I'll run and get you some' as many as you want," he said casually as he turned and headed for the master bathroom.

"Ephraim! You don't understand!" she shrilled like a housecat in heat. The intensity of her own voice caused them both to pause and she drew in a long calming breath. "They are all gone. Some fruit picker strike or something. I heard it on the news. I went to eleven stores yesterday and none of them had any. I'm hungry, but I just can't put anything else in my mouth."

Ephraim shook his own head as if to wake himself and raising a sleepy eyebrow paused before speaking. He realized his response must be calculated carefully to maintain a rational wife opposed to a pregnant demon wife. "Here, sit down next to me," he spoke reassuringly as he bent to sit on the edge of the bed, "I'm sure I can find some."

Demon Hannah threw frustration violently to the ceiling with her hands and spoke like smoke through a wall of closed teeth, "Unless you want to fly to South America right this minute, the only cheras are on that tree!" She gestured a pointed finger with force at the pane of evening light.

His chin dropped chestward with a long, lung-filled sigh. She waited. It was quiet and a full minute passed before he looked up cautiously and faced his wife. He did not want to do it and she knew he didn't.

The person that lived next door was not someone either of them wanted to interact with. There were a lot of interesting eccentric types living in West Hollywood, but Ephraim wasn't even sure if this particular neighbor was male or female. Dr. Pomona only went by "Dr. Pomona." In the three years they had occupied home, the doctor was rarely seen and the only words ever exchanged were on one night when he/she had knocked on their door and asked to borrow denatured alcohol. The doctor always wore what appeared to be a uniform of sorts, dingy tan scrubs, scuffed lime-green Crocs, and an oversized lab coat weighed down by the contents of its own pockets. Ephraim imagined that the lone occupant of the contemporary house next door had a closet in each bedroom, one filled with scrubs, one with lab coats, and another that enshrined multiple pairs of the hideous Crocs. Atop the doctor's puffy face sat a graying blonde bowl cut and above the upper lip and along the chin line was a shadow of either peach fuzz or afternoon regrowth. He never got close enough to determine which it was.

The other neighbors kept their distance, seemed to avoid crossing the doctor's path, and changed their expressions into confused and almost frightened glances when he had asked what the story was with his unusual neighbor. Some seemed to think the doctor was in on an illegal taxidermy ring, while others spread rumors of Frankenstein dogs, made up of different breeds and used for strange experiments. Ephraim had never seen proof of either. The only sounds that ever came from beyond the shared courtyard wall were what appeared to be from Horse, a slobbery and aging Great Dane.

Hannah was still waiting. Her foot wasn't actually tapping, but it didn't need to. Ephraim forced himself up off the bed into a standing position. "Okay," he said, "I really don't want to go knock on that freaky doctor's door and ask if I can borrow or buy fruit off the tree in its back yard." Hannah didn't flinch. She was still waiting. "But," he added, "I'm sure I can reach a few from this side of the wall without being noticed once it's dark." She shifted her weight to the other hip just slightly. "I'll take a quick shower and then see what I can do."

Her shoulders relaxed and the tension released from her stance as she nodded and said, "Please hurry. I'm starving."

The sun had drifted below the Hollywood hills and dusk blurred all edges and borders in the back yard as Ephraim quietly unfolded the Little Giant Ladder he got for Christmas. He tried to place it strategically in the flower bed to make a steady climbing surface. The tree was taller than he thought and the green-colored fruit was hard to make out in the dim light. He tightened up the belt on his bathrobe and started slowly ascending the ladder. He felt primitive and manly in his bare skin under the terrycloth robe and testosterone rushed to his head. He let out a few quick Tim-the-Tool-Man Taylor grunts and then stifled himself, remembering he was supposed to be quiet.

He was standing on the last rung where one of the major branches of the tree reached across the wall and into his own yard, but the fruit was further in beyond his reach. He pushed down on the limb to check its strength and at the same time spotted a cherimoya dangling ripely just a few feet inside the wall. His eyes swept the area looking for another option and contemplating risk, but this seemed the simplest approach. He heaved himself onto the branch and the ladder teetered, threatening to tip over. His breath held in until it steadied and then he proceeded to work his way across the branch, wrapping his arms and legs around it like a horizontal firemen's pole. He stopped to tuck his robe between his legs to protect himself from any rough spots and inched up a foot or so more. He maneuvered his weight cautiously to balance himself. Just as he did, a loud crack and shift in gravity sent him belly up and open bathrobe to the ground below on the wrong side of the courtyard wall. His back and shoulder blades hit the lawn hard. He gasped to breathe in and before he could shake the stun of the situation, a motion sensing porch light beamed out across the yard and glared in his eyes. A low, tired bark came from within the doctor's house. A window slid open and what appeared to be the barrel of a shotgun poked its head into the light and then clicked.

"I'll shoot!" hollered the doctor.

"No, no, no need," stuttered Ephraim. "Just your neighbor here, fell over the wall, that's it. No harm done. I'm ok."

"Bullshit! That's an eight foot wall. Stand up so I can see you."

Ephraim clumsily rose to his feet trying to cover himself with the untied bathrobe.

"Are you trying to kill my Horse?" Doctor Pomona shouted loudly.

"No, no, just trying out my new ladder," he explained poorly. "Can you put the gun down?"

"No way. Not until I call the cops."

"Cops? But, but this was just a mistake, I mean, an accident. Look, my wife is pregnant'"

"Pregnant?" Dr. Pomona's tone changed suddenly.

"Yes, she's expecting in the next few weeks," Ephraim said in the friendliest demeanor he could manage under the circumstances. Something about the doctor's voice gave him hope that this may work out for him after all.

The doctor lowered the gun and the shaggy head and round face came out of the window just enough to be recognized. Ephraim took a step forward and said, "Can I explain?"

Dr. Pomona said coldly, "I'm all ears."

Fifteen minutes later Ephraim quietly opened the side gate and slipped around the shrubs onto his own property. He stopped to survey the house and noted only one lit window in the kitchen on the first floor. He slinked around to the back, a plastic Whole Foods bag stretched awkwardly from the weight of cherimoyas gripped in his left hand. The ladder stood innocently where he left it and watched him act naturally as he opened and went in the patio door. He handed his wife the bag and said randomly, "What do you think about cord blood storage?" Hannah hardly noticed he had said anything at all and dumped the bag of fruit into the sink and started washing.

Two weeks and four full Whole Food bags later, Hannah gave birth to a cuddly and healthy dark-haired daughter. Considering the difficulty she had conceiving and being nearly forty years old, the delivery went remarkably well. Originally they were planning to name the baby Trinity, but as Hannah held her and stroked her feather soft cheek, something inside told her this baby's name was not Trinity. Her daughter was Chera. Just then Ephraim returned to the room with a few requested items from home and a proud-father smile on his face.

"The cord and placenta were picked up by the bank people and I brought you your stuff, and a little something else," he said as he held out a cherimoya.

"Are you kidding?" she said grinning, "Bring me an In-N-Out burger!"

He hugged her and the baby to him as they laughed together for the first time in months.

A similar energy and excitement came from within the Pomona house. Horse lifted his loose chin from the floor, leaving behind saliva entrails, as his owner and best friend came in through the garage door. He pawed slowly behind the taut tan scrubs and tent-like lab coat, as the fuzzy-headed doctor quickly labeled a container and slid it into its home in an industrial walk-in freezer in the kitchen's corner. A chubby hand rubbed generously behind Horse's favorite left ear, "We'll fix you yet, Horse. Just you wait and see," crooned the doctor in a voice that graveled like a cross between a blues singer and a kindergarten teacher. Dr. Pomona had spent years of research and family trust funds trying to help delay the deaths of Horse's grandfather and father. His large-sized breed was his destiny--a short lifespan commonly caused by bone cancer and heart disease. Horse will be considered a senior citizen if he reaches seven, let alone lives past eight.

Fourteen years of parenthood passed by easily for a privileged husband and wife who had learned how to read each other years ago. "This surely must be a mistake," thought Ephraim, as he and Hannah sat apprehensively in a small room with 1980s hotel-like décor and stared across the oak desk at a nametag and shiny stethoscope. "This can't be happening; this can't be happening," said Hannah's mouth as her body trembled noticeably from the black Naugahyde chair in the oncologist's office. Ephraim was quiet in the seat beside her and his complexion looked bloodless and clammy.

"I won't lie to you, this can be a very ugly disease, but many children survive leukemia. Early detection and proper treatment make a huge difference. It's not going to be easy, but she's otherwise healthy and you have the best doctors and facilities at your disposal," said Dr. Valentine.

Hannah flipped frustration from her fingertips as if her hands tingled with sleep. She sunk back into the chair calmly and seemed deep in thought. The room was silent. "Wait," she said as she straightened her posture, "would her stem cells help? We had them stored, right honey?"

Ephraim's face sunk to his hands and his shoulders jerked with anguish as he sputtered a response, but his words were inaudible. Hannah and Dr. Valentine looked at each other, unsure of how to react. Dr. Valentine tried to talk in Hannah's direction so she could hear what he was saying over the wreck of emotion occurring in the next chair, "Sometimes stem cells stored from the cord blood can be helpful with a bone marrow transplant. It's possible it could help with Chera's treatment. We'll have the board discuss options once the rest of the tests come back."

The tense muscles in Hannah's face subsided as she tried to sweep up her scattered mirage of motherhood. She touched Ephraim on the shoulder and then leaned in to take the hand of her quivering and speechless husband. She led him out of the office, into a cab, through the front door, and onto the sofa. She spoke softly to Chera's caregiver, who wept and then left quietly. Ephraim wouldn't lift his head when she told him she was going to bed. She pushed open the door to Chera's room and stood listening to her sleep, sounding the same as she always had before she had gotten sick.

In the morning, Ephraim was not much better. He forced himself into the sunbeams that breached the branches of the cherimoya tree on the east side of their house. His mouth was dry, his head pounded with the congestion, and his face felt distorted and swollen. He rubbed the smoothness of his thumb and finger on his ungroomed chin and jaw. He opened a bottle of Evian from the fridge and took a long slow pull. He shook his head to let the reality seep back in.

"Hannah?" he called out, "I've got something to tell you."

"You did what?" she yelled in disbelief, possessed by grief and anger.

Ephraim struggled trying to stay composed, "How was I supposed to know Chera would get sick? There was no way for me to know. Why would I ever think it could happen to us?"

"Okay. I'm trying to understand," she said holding back the rage in her voice so it colored her skin purple-red, "So when I was crazy pregnant and wanted to stuff my face with cherimoya, you promised the psycho next door Chera's stem cells? You gave a complete stranger her umbilical cord and my placenta?"

He quivered in a weakened whisper, "I didn't know. How could I know?"

Hannah's arms were weaved tightly to her chest and her hands clinched into impatient fists. Her foot wasn't actually tapping, but it didn't need to. Ephraim didn't dare sit down, though he still needed time to think through what to do next; he knew he had to make a move immediately, not only for his daughter's life, but for his marriage. He reached for the front doorknob and paused only long enough to suck in a desperate gasp of oxygen, hoping to fuel himself with fearlessness.

He stepped slowly up the walkway to the doctor's steep porch steps and grasped the rail to pull himself forward. No dogs barked and no motion came from within the house; it was eerily still. He rang the bell and waited nervously, surveying the detail of the reddish-brown bricks and the brass address numbers. A shuffling noise came from within and the door opened a crack, just enough to see the shaggy gray hair and one Croc foot. Ephraim asked a question and nodded before stepping into Dr. Pomona's entry hall. When he left the doctor's house he walked fast and firmly, leaving contrails of fury in the air behind him.

"What's the worst she can do?" he asked Hannah rhetorically as he yanked his cell phone from the charger, "Slap me with a trespassing charge?" Hannah's eyebrows bent up in confusion, "She?" she muttered. Ephraim didn't respond, he was already on the phone with his attorney's office and scheduling an appointment for later that afternoon.

Ephraim and Hannah locked each other's intertwined fingers into damp palms as they waited for the shrouded judge to take his place at the front of the courtroom. They observed with vigilance as the man seated beside them moved beneath his fitted Armani suit and stood to speak, his features were cleanly groomed and his hands were smart and soft, "We will prove to the court that the verbal agreement between Mr. David and Dr. Pomona was an invalid contract, as Mr. David did not own the umbilical cord and placenta for which he promised in exchange for fruit from Dr. Pomona's tree. Not only will we prove the contract was invalid, but we also have evidence that Dr. Pomona still has in her possession the stem cells which have fortunately been stored appropriately and can still save the life of a fifteen-year-old child." It had been nearly a year since the initial law suit was drawn up and finally, the trial was underway.

Chera looked up from her sketch book and glanced around the room for inspiration. The dresser mirror looked back at her slick pale scalp, hairless from chemotherapy. She grinned a bit when she recognized the irony of the wigs on plain-faced, unemotional decapitated manikins. They were lifeless, but they have hair. Hannah had wanted her to feel normal. And they had fun picking out wigs and styling them any way Chera wanted. She had quite a collection, this being her third round of chemotherapy. She glanced at the digital clock on her nightstand, put down the sketchbook, picked up the thumb-worn remote, changed it to TeenNick, and landed mid Drake and Josh theme song, "It’s gonna take some time, to reeeaaaliiiiize, but if you looook insiiiiide, I’m sure you’ll fiiiiind. . . Over your shoulder you know that I told you, I’d always be pickin’ you up when you’re doooown. . ." A light knuckle knock came from the other side of her bedroom door and she pressed mute before hearing Hannah say, "Chera honey? You have a guest."

The counselor from Make-a-Wish was quite impressed with her wig collection and with her upbeat spirit. She left the interview with a notepad full of Chera's dreams, scrawled between college ruled lines with Bic pen ink. A few phone calls later, the counselor reached Drake Bell's agent and explained Chera's situation, glancing at her check list from time to time to make sure she gave him all the information. The agent seemed pleased with the inquiry and offered to speak with Drake and call her back within the next few days. Drake happened to be in town, filming the first season finale of Drake and Josh. He took the agent's call the next morning on his way to makeup and was flattered by the proposal, "Sure, sounds way cool. I'll sing her the theme song' yeah, no problem' tell them I'll be there."

Two weeks later Chera was feeling better. The chemo was finally wearing off and she was getting some strength back. She sat at the foot of her bed, braiding her favorite brunette wig into pigtails as her west-facing window watched the sunset spread across the horizon, vivid from the intrusion of dusky smog. Ephraim and Hannah appeared abruptly in her doorway grinning anxiously from dimple to dimple, "Go to your window," Ephraim urged. Before she could move the T.V. table out of the way, she heard familiar music coming from the lawn below her room. She looked curiously at her parents, slid off the edge of the bed to bare feet, and stepped toward the evening sun. As she saw the source of the music, her fingertips jumped to cover her lips and she squeaked with a sudden inhale. She glanced back at her mom and dad just as Hannah whispered excitedly, "Make-a-Wish." Drake Bell finished strumming his way through the intro and into the first verse. He looked up as he sang the beginning words, "I never thought. . ." he almost stuttered when he saw Chera, her features feminine and glowing with the pink and amber sunset, her face so vulnerable and distinct with no hairstyle to distract from it. Her widened eyes smiled down on him with delight as he finished the serenade, singing the song he'd sang so many times before, but this time it felt like it meant something more.

Standing back on the street, the local news and the Make-a-Wish counselor hurried toward him for a brief interview. Chera and her parents walked downstairs and through the house to the entry hall, hoping the ending of the song wasn't the end of the evening. When Ephraim opened the front door, Drake turned from the reporter and gave an acknowledging wave before finishing the interview. The David family stood just inside the threshold, squeezing each other's hands with excitement. Finally, the reporter started packing up and the counselor was able to formally introduce Drake Bell to the Davids, and to Chera. They all moved into the sitting room and Drake and Chera asked each other questions for nearly an hour, both fascinated by the challenges and uniqueness of their individual lifestyles.

"Oh wow, it's ten o'clock," Drake says as he glances down at his watch. "I've got an early start tomorrow. Sorry, I guess I better go."

"Thanks for singing to me," Chera's words slipped past a flirty smile.

Drake gave her a quick hug and then hugged Ephraim and Hannah as well, as they thanked him and showed him to the door.

"Is it ok if I call and check in on her?" he asked Ephraim.

Hannah glimpsed at Ephraim and he winked and then answered, "Sure, anytime."

Drake stared at the dark textured ceiling from his bed, entirely too awake and unable to coax his mind away from the girl he had just met. He thought about the unfairness of it all, the cancer, her youth stolen, and an intuition-like sensation swelled within him as he realized that meeting her was more than charitable good will, it was going to change his life.

Drake made it about half way through filming the next day before calling the David's. Hannah answered, but Chera was sleeping, so she gave Drake Chera's cell phone number and suggested he call or text later. Hannah was sure Ephraim was crazy if he really thought Drake had any kind of romantic interest in Chera. She was sure he was just being nice; besides, Chera was not even sixteen yet and Drake had to be at least eighteen, maybe older.

Chera was watching the first episode of Drake and Josh for the third time when his first text appeared on her Motorola Razr. She flipped the phone open and stared at the letters, reading them slowly, one at a time, to make sure she wasn't imagining them, "t-h-i-s   i-s   d-r-a-k-e'" she spelled to herself.

"just wanted to say hi and thank you for a nice evening"

"hi 🙂 last night was like a dream" Chera sent.

"i have to get back on the set in a sec is it ok if i call u l8r?"

"of course"

She tried to sound casual in her text message, but she could hardly control the surge of electricity tingling through her. "Don't freak out' don't freak out' he's just like any other friend. He's not famous. He's, oh my God, he's Drake Bell!" She let out a teenage scream and forced her face into the pillow to avoid alarming her parents.

The next three days were the longest days of Chera's life. Every minute passed with excruciating slowness. She tried to preoccupy herself, but when she tried to draw, she could only write his name; when she tried to style her wigs, she could only envision her arm looped through his, walking down a red carpet with her own natural hair grown long and perfectly styled; and when she tried to watch T.V., TeenNick was having a Drake and Josh marathon. They talked on the phone for hours the last two evenings and sent each other text messages throughout the day. She knew he was busy working, but she could hardly wait for him to call her tonight. When he finally did, he asked the big question that had been disrupting his sleep and causing his stomach to ache since he first met her, "So, what are the doctors saying about the leukemia?"

She hesitated; she was afraid to answer. Pulling at the air for courage, she breathed in deeply and gave him the most recent prognosis, that the chemotherapy seemed to have worked, but the most promising treatment for getting well long term was a stem cell transplant. She spent the next hour or so telling him the cherimoya story, in full detail with Dr. Pomona description, law suit and all. She actually thought the story was quite romantic and loved that her dad went to such great lengths to please her mom.

Drake listened carefully and when she finished he said excitedly, "You mean, the stem cells that could save you are in a freezer next door?!?"

She nodded, a bit startled by his swift response, and then realizing he couldn't see her nod through the phone, she replied, "Yes, exactly."

"Hmmm," he said, "I think I have a plan'"

About an hour later, Chera sat at her T.V. table humming the Drake and Josh theme song, encircled by wigs that appeared to be braided and knotted together. Her fingers worked on a strawberry blond, weaving the lengths together and then using her favorite Girl Scout knot, she clove hitched the rope of wigs to the leg of her desk. She unraveled the pile of shimmery black, brunette, and even one platinum as she stepped backwards across her room, testing the length. She grinned proudly at her handiwork and then jerked at the end, before launching into a full tug-of-war with the desk. She braced her feet on the carpet and used all her weight. The desk moved forward an inch or so against the floor's friction and the wigs held strong.

Just then, she heard an alarm going off nearby. She dropped the wig rope and cautiously peeked around the linen curtain hiding her window. She slid the pane open just a bit so she could hear more clearly. Sure enough, Dr. Pomona's house alarm was blaring from the inside. She nervously flipped open her phone, no messages. She watched out the window worriedly and opened and closed her hands repeatedly in impatience.

Dr. Pomona woke abruptly to the sound of her alarm going off. She struggled to get out of bed, her heft had grown over the years and she rolled to her stomach and slid off the bed to her knees. Her heart was racing as she searched for her rifle under the bed. Suddenly, a pain like a gunshot surged through her chest and into her left arm, her jaw tensed and air refused to fill her lungs. A moment later, her heart had stopped and her weight slumped to the floor. Her position was prayer-like, as if she should be facing Mecca.

Drake wasn't expecting the alarm to go off, and actually, he was realizing he hadn't spent enough time thinking through possible outcomes. He didn't need to try to be quiet, the alarm was deafening. He had let himself in through an unlocked window on the side of the house. The alarm lights had a strobe-like effect and made it hard to make out the objects in the room. As he maneuvered his away around furniture in the flashing dark, he bumped into something that tipped over and landed partially in the light of the hallway with a thud--a stuffed Great Dane. "Creepy," he muttered.

No lights were coming on anywhere in the house, and the alarm seemed to be getting louder. At this point, he figured the doctor wasn't even home, but he knew had to hurry. He had thought about the risk of getting caught; his parents and agent would flip out and TeenNick wouldn't be pleased with the tabloid attention. He found the kitchen, fully equipped with walk-in size freezer. He swung open the steel door and the cold air rushed over him. A single bare bulb lit the wire racks and what appeared to be two medium sized dogs wrapped in clear plastic and stone frozen. "Ugh! What a weirdo!" he said loud enough to compete with the alarm. Then he spotted it, right in the center of the middle shelf was a small shoebox sized container labeled "David." He lunged forward and grabbed the box and ran back through the house, jumped over the Great Dane, and scrambled out the window. He saw a neighbor's light come on, but he kept to the shadows and was able to get into Chera's yard unseen.

He awkwardly tried to get his phone out of his pocket while holding the container and walking toward the house, but didn't even need to call her. She saw him coming and tossed the string of wigs out her window. He looked up at her smiling excitedly, tucked the stem cell container under his shirt, and gave the wigs a good yank. They seemed strong enough to hold his weight, so he grabbed the brunette end and scaled up the wall, his rubber soles gripping the rough stucco. He climbed inside and quickly pulled the wigs in behind him. Chera stood staring, stunned as he pulled the container out from under his navy blue Vans t-shirt and handed it to her. Not a moment later, a security car drove up with yellow lights spinning. The rent-a-cop shined a groping spotlight around the Pomona property, but stayed in his car. Chera turned off her bedroom lamp and she and Drake watched quietly from the curtains soft edge. Soon sirens overtook the sound of security alarm and the real authorities had arrived.

The sirens were enough to wake Ephraim and he went to check on Chera. The two didn't hear him coming; he opened the door and the teens startled. Ephraim wore a sleepy confused expression and Chera spoke before he could register that a boy was in his daughter's room at midnight. "Look Dad, my stem cells," she said as she handed him the cold container, "Drake got them from Dr. Pomona."

"Drake' what? You're kidding, oh my God!" he took the container gently and quickly realized, "Oh! They've got to stay frozen!" He scurried down the hall nearly bumping into a half asleep Hannah.

"What's going on?" she said, "Ephraim?"

He was already gone, down the stairs where he cranked the freezer temperature dial to ten and carefully closed the door. He stopped, his hand still on the handle to steady himself, trying to absorb the impact of what just happened. He went back upstairs and found Hannah leaning on the doorway to Chera's room, listening intently to Drake and Chera, who were sitting on the edge of her bed. He was holding her hand.

A few years later, a local justice of the peace patted his sun-dampened forehead with a handkerchief, stepped nearer to the courtyard wall and into the shade of the neighbor's cherimoya tree. The fruit was ripening perfectly--this season's subtle hues of plump green produce mixed merrily among the hardy leaves and peeked out into the David's yard with interest. An anxious Drake stood to the side of the justice, gripping his hands tightly together at the knuckles, intently watching the patio door over a lawn of white rental chairs and the heads of friends and family. His hands came apart and fell to his sides loosely when he saw her. Chera's bare toes slipped easily through the familiar blades of grass, her gown fell lightly at her ankles, and her shoulder-length locks shone warmly as she slid her finger carefully along the top of her ear, tucking back a curl.