*all ages

 

Disclaimer: These character are obvious not mine, nor am I using them for profit. This story has been plaguing me to be written for many, many years, so I hope you enjoy it.

Thank you, Mary for editing once more!

 

What If…?

By Claudia

 

Part One

Three weeks had gone by since the beginning of the school year, but she still wasn't used to the school, or people around her. It had been a long time since she had last been in Sleepyside and those whom she had once called friends were now little more than complete strangers. At 15, people are a whole lot different than they were at 12, she thought. And they seem to look at me funny… I wonder if they knew about what Dad did… She shook her head, dismissing the thought. No, it was impossible. Nobody involved in what had happened would have said anything, she was sure.

Jo kept walking through the Sleepyside High school mechanically, still bothered by the thought that her troubles might be universally known. Three years had gone by since all had happened, but thinking about it was still painful. And now, with her mother gone and her family moving back to where it all had started… Jo felt her eyes well up at the thought of her mother's death. She had been gone almost a year, but Joeanne missed her so. Everything would be so much easier if she was still around!

Deep in her thoughts, the girl headed for the exit, her classes over for the day. Now it was off to the small, cozy farmhouse down in the valley where homework, chores, and babysitting her two little brothers and younger sister awaited her. There wasn't much time to think and brood at home, so she always looked forward to getting there.

 outside the building. Though it would be far less strenuous to take the bus, she preferred to ride her bicycle to and from school everyday. The bus would mean close contact with everybody else, and she wasn't ready for that yet.

Suddenly, she bumped into someone, the violence of the shock making her fall on her rear, sprawled on the cold cement floor. Still stunned, Jo looked up, and felt her cheeks grow red.

The young man she had bumped into was now crouching beside her, a sympathetic smile on his handsome (or rather, gorgeous!) face. He reached out to her, to help her stand and asked, "Are you alright?"

She nodded as she got up, still too embarrassed to speak, as she got up. But when she saw him move to pick up her books, she managed to say, "Please, don't. I'll manage."

"No problem!" he smiled again, as he finished picking up the books and handed them over to her. "Here you go!"

Jo took the opportunity to observe him. She was pretty sure she had never met him before. She would remember the dark-haired young man, who was probably a Senior, and those bright, deep, almost black eyes. Feeling herself blush all over again, she looked away.

"I'm sorry for bumping into you," she said, shyly. "And thanks… for the books, I mean."

"That's ok!", he said as he reached out to shake her hand. "My name's Dan Mangan."

She shook his hand, finally able to look straight at him but cursing herself for the heat she felt spreading across her cheeks.

 

"What? Who did you say bumped into you?" Jim Frayne and Honey Wheeler, seated on the station wagon's front seat, turned to their friend as if on cue, when he explained to them why it had taken him so long to leave the school.

Dan frowned.

"I just told you! Joeanne Darnell… But what's the matter? I never saw her before. I think she's new here."

Jim and his adopted sister exchanged concerned looks.

"You're wrong there, mate. She lived in Sleepyside long before we ever came here."

"Ok," Dan said, cautiously, still trying to figure out why they had reacted so strongly to the name. "But I don't get why you two are so worked up about her…"

Honey sighed.

"Well, we'll explain later. It's a long story." And then she added, in a tone that was meant for Jim's ears alone. "I'm worried, Jim. We haven't heard from her in a long time. And now she's come back and not a word to us… What do you think happened?"

The red haired young man shook his head, a deeply concerned expression on his freckled face.

"I don't know, sis. But I don't like it…"

 

Dan was happy to find that he was not the only Bob-White surprised with all the fuss around Joeanne Darnell. As soon as they had got home, Jim and Honey had called an emergency meeting of the BWGs, or Bob-Whites of the Glenn, the semi-secret club they had formed years back with some of their friends, the Beldens and Diana Lynch. Dan had been the last member aboard, "recruited" after he had come to live with his uncle, Bill Reagan, the Wheeler's groom and put in the care of Mr Maypenny, the Wheeler's gamekeeper. Now that the eldest members of the group, Jim and Brian Belden, were in college, the meetings weren't so frequent, and were restricted to the weekends, at least with a complete quorum. The Bob-Whites were a very active group, planning benefits and several other activities. But mostly they were known for crime solving, since their founding member, Trixie Belden, seemed to, as someone had once put it, "attract trouble as a magnet does nails."

Now, a few hours later, the seven teenagers were seated around the meeting table in their clubhouse on the Wheeler estate. Matthew Wheeler, Honey and Jim's father, had given it to them after some troubled events and they kept it like a treasure ever since.

As far as Dan could see, the only one that had been as disturbed as Jim and Honey by the news was Trixie Belden, a 16-year-old blonde, sister to Brian and Mart, who seemed to be just as lost as he was.

"Come on, guys", Mart exclaimed, running his fingers through his hair, which he had finally let grow beyond his everlasting crew-cut. "What's all this about? Who on earth is Joeanne Darnell?"

"The name sounds familiar, but I don't really remember…" Brian was interrupted by an impatient grunt from his sister.

"I can't believe you guys," Trixie moaned. "You have the memory span of a fish! Joeanne was the girl we met when we went after Jim, before the Wheelers adopted him! Remember? The one whose dad took Mr. Lynch's trailer, because he had lost his house and had nowhere else to put his family?"

Dan felt recognition finally dawning on him. He remembered the story now, from hearing it told time and time again. It had happened before he came to Sleepyside, and he had never actually met the Darnell's.

Jim had met Trixie and Honey three years before, after he came to Sleepyside in search of his mother's uncle, trying to escape the clutches of his abusive stepfather. But the old man died before he could talk to Jim and, in despair, the 15-year-old boy had run off again. Trixie and Honey had managed to follow his trail and at the same time had met the Darnell family, traveling on a trailer just like them. The two girls had been intrigued by the family and their constant quarreling and, one day, the older Darnell child, Joanne, had run-off. They had later found her teamed up with Jim, whom had helped her after she had run into him in the woods. Apparently the girl had run away because she couldn't stand the thought of her father having stolen the trailer they were traveling in from a wealthy neighbor, just after the bank had repossessed their farm. Everything had worked out just fine, in the end, since the family had found a place to stay at the Smith's farm, a very nice couple Trixie and Honey had met during their journey and the trailer's owner had decided not press charges [M1] when he discovered who had taken it. The generous neighbor had been none other that Diana Lynch's father.

Remembering that, Dan turned to the beautiful dark-haired girl, seated next to him, and who had so far kept unusually quiet. He frowned when he saw the deep blush that was now covering her cheeks.

"Ok, but then if she's such an old friend of yours, why hasn't she called or something?" Mart asked.

Trixie, Jim, and Honey exchanged guilty looks, and Jim finally answered, with a sigh, "I'm afraid we were a bit careless. Joeanne used to write to us pretty often… a lot more often than we did… Last time we heard from her was last Christmas. We returned her card, but that was it. I, at least, meant to write to her, but never got around to actually doing it."

"Same here," Honey added. "I guess she's mad at us for not minding her and she decided not to tell us she was back."

"But how come we've never seen or heard her from her? If they're back on their farm, she lives practically next door!" Trixie exclaimed.

"Actually…" six pairs of eyes turned to the beet red Diana. "Actually, I knew she was coming back. Well, not knew exactly…" she sighed. It was just like Diana to get tangled up in her own words. She took a deep breath and started over, "A few months ago, I heard my dad mention something about having talked to Mr. Darnell. He was looking for someone trustworthy to be his foreman in some project his company was about to start and he had heard Joe Darnell was trying to recover his farm. So I guess they talked and sorted things out. A few weeks ago, I overheard my dad mention to my mother how happy he was with Mr. Darnell's work. I should have put two and two together, but you know me… Math was never my area of expertise!'"

Jim reached across the table to pat the girl's hand, sympathetically. "It's ok, sweetie. It's not your fault. We were the ones who should have kept in touch with Jo, specially knowing how sensitive she is."

"There's no use in figuring out where the blame lies," Brian said, in his usual calming way. "We're only human. Now we should try to make it up to her and seek her out. She's probably feeling quite lonely right now."

"Yeah, you're right." Trixie nodded, her blonde curls bouncing with the movement and her blue eyes lighting with anticipation. "I'll ask Moms to bake an apple pie or something, and we'll take it to the Darnell farm first thing in the morning."

 

Joeanne finished helping her little brothers, Dave and Kenny, aged 4 and 5, respectively, and then followed them downstairs, to the kitchen, where she could hear her father whistling a tune as the smell of fresh coffee and pancakes filled the farmhouse.

She knew how much her father had suffered with his wife's departure. Still, he had had more time to get used to the idea than his children, since she had been sick for quite some time, but the true nature of the disease had been kept a secret until it was absolutely impossible to keep it so. But she was sure the pain was still excruciating, and that Joe Darnell had decided to leave the Smith's homestead and return to Sleepyside, because that was where all his memories of happiness lay. But to Joeanne, returning to Sleepyside was torture.

Jo and her father had once been thick as thieves, almost inseparable. She looked up to him as if he was the best man in the world. So, when his despair had made him take the trailer and run away from Sleepyside, Joeanne's world had been shattered. The strong moral values her parents had instilled in her were so contrary to what he had done that she rebelled against him, her young heart shattered.

Everything had been patched up, after they had been reunited by Jim, Trixie and Honey. Still, Jo could not forget what her father had done. She understood how he had been driven into desperate measures, but she still felt the shame very profoundly. And when her father accepted Mr. Lynch's job offer everything had resurfaced. After all, he was the man his father had stolen from. Mr. Lynch was a kind enough man never to mention it to them or anyone else ever again, but Joeanne was painfully aware he knew everything there was to know about her family.

And now, here she was, back in the place where her shameful secret could easily be known, and in which every nook and cranny reminded her of her mother. To her father, memories might be reassuring, but to Joeanne it was nothing short of torture.

She entered the kitchen, after the two little boys. Her 9-year-old sister, Sally, was already having her breakfast, very prim and proper as usual, a pink bow tying back her dark curls. She kissed her on top of the head, being rewarded by a whining, "Watch my hair, silly!".

She rolled her eyes at her father and he smiled. That little scene had long become a routine. At nine years old, Sally was a very girlie girl, contrasting dramatically with her tomboyish older sister.

"I thought you'd sleep in today, sweetheart. It IS Saturday," Joe Darnell said, returning his attention to the frying pan, as his daughter helped Kenny and Dave settle down at the table.

"What? And leave you with these three little devils running wild?"

"I'm not a devil, and I'm certainly not little!" Sally said, indignantly.

Joe chuckled.

"No, honey. You're an angel, and a very pretty young lady!"

Jo smiled and was about to sit down, when she heard a car enter the driveway. Frowning, she went to the window, wondering who it could be. They had been in Sleepyside for a little over a month and they hardly got any visitors. Mr. Lynch had come once or twice and a few of their old neighbors had come to welcome them back, but no one else. But as the car came into full view, Jo felt the blood drain from her face. It couldn't be! Could it?

 

"Ready, girls?" Jim asked, as he stopped the car in front of the farmhouse.

Trixie sighed in the backseat. "As ready as I'll ever be, I guess. Jo's probably hating our guts! And you know how touchy she can be."

The red-headed young man turned around at his friend, his playful smile extending to his emerald green eyes. "Scared, are we, Miss Shamus?"

The blonde girl stuck her tongue out at him. She really didn't mind Jim's teasing her, she actually liked it. She liked everything about Jim, even if he was a little overprotective at times, but she would die before admitting it. At least to herself, because it was common knowledge amongst their friends that Trixie and Jim shared special feelings for each other ever since they had met, even though nothing other than the odd look or word had ever happened between them.

Jim got out of the car, and opened the back door. He reached in and pulled her out firmly by the hand.

"Come on," he said, playfully. "Why don't you live up to your fame as the fearless Trixie Belden?"

Trixie was going to answer him, but as she stepped out of the car she tripped and had to hold on to Jim to avoid a fall. Blushing deeply as she felt his strong arms around her, Trixie looked up and met his shining green eyes. He stared deeply into her blue ones and something in them made her look away. Suddenly, a sharp whistle called them back to reality and made them step away from each other. Honey had exited the car and was watching the scene with an evil grin on her face.

"Hey, remember me, guys?" she said, mischievously, as she watched her adoptive brother and her best friend blushing to the root of their hair. "You two seriously have timing issues…" she added, as she walked by them, still grinning.

"Oh…" Trixie couldn't think of anything to say, so she just dove back into the car to grab the apple pie her mother had baked. But when she resurfaced she was surprised to find that Jim hadn't budged, despite his sister's teasing. He was still holding the car door for her, a smile playing on his lips. He took the pie from her and then, to her utter amazement, he held her hand, entwining his fingers in hers.

"Ready?" Jim asked, nonchalantly, as if walking hand in hand was a daily thing for them. Trixie had the strange feeling his question was referring to something entirely different than walking to the farmhouse. But remembering what Honey had said about bad timing, she merely nodded and followed him, her heart thumping in her chest and her hand burning in his.

 

Joeanne's heart was also thumping wildly. She knew this moment would come soon, but she wasn't ready for it yet. It hurt too much knowing that they were visiting her just because they thought they should. She didn't need them! She had gone through the roughest period in her life without their aid, why would she need them now? A small voice, in the back of her head, was reminding her that she had never asked them for help, or even told them her mother was dying. They probably didn't know of her passing, either. But she was too angry to think straight. All she knew was that they had stopped writing altogether. But so did you, the annoying little voice said.

The knock on the door woke her from her reveries. Before she knew it, or could even decide on how to act, her father had answered the door. The voices in the hallway told her his had been a warm welcome, as he was not aware of his daughter's state of mind.

It wasn't long before the four of them entered the kitchen, and she could tell the three BWG's also felt uncomfortable.

"Hi, Jo," Jim was the first to speak. "I'm glad to see you again."

"Hi," she said curtly, ignoring her father's frown.

"We just heard you were back," Honey added, the tension in the room getting to her and making her fidget. "We didn't know…"

"Well, I guess Joeanne hadn't had the time to call on you yet," Joe Darnell said, trying to lighten the mood. But his expression spoke volumes to Joeanne. She would be giving explanations later on.

"Is that a cake?" Davy asked, his eyes lighting with anticipation.

Trixie giggled and ruffled the boy's curls.

"Yes, it is, sweetie. My mother baked this for you."

"Remember to thank your mother for me, Trixie," John said, smiling.

"My mother is in heaven," Davy said as he took a large piece of apple cake. "Daddy says she's an angel now."

Trixie, Jim and Honey exchanged looks, all three wishing for a hole to disappear into.

"Mr. Darnell, I…" Jim was white as paper, his freckles more visible than ever. "We had no idea. I'm very sorry. Please accept my condolences."

John nodded, a tired expression hiding his smile. He then shot a glance at Jo, who had her eyes glued to the floor.

"I understand. I thought Jo had told you, but I guess she was too upset… Anyway, it's been almost a year now."

Trixie and Honey shared another glance, both of them knowing exactly why Joeanne hadn't told them. She had thought they didn't give a damn. And Joeanne really knew how to hold a grudge.

"We understand, Mr. Darnell. We are truly sorry for not being there for you…" Jim's sentence was cut short, when suddenly Joeanne got up from her seat and bolted towards the door, with a mumbled 'May I be excused' that never got an answer.

"Joeanne!" Joe Darnell was about to follow her, when Honey stopped him.

"Mr. Darnell, please…" she pleaded. "Leave her be. It was our fault, really. She's hurt."

He sighed.

"Well, I guess there's no one better to understand Jo's explosions than you. Her temperament hasn't improved much over these past three years."

"Jo's got a short fuse," Sally said, sticking out her chin, trying to appear all grown up. "Mommy always said so."

Joe and the others exchanged amused glances and then Jim said, "We'd better go now. We don't want to upset Jo any further by making her think we've been talking about her behind her back. It's best if we give her time to heal and to cool off. We'd just like to assure you we do care about Jo…and all of you, really. We are very sorry to hear about your wife."

"I know, Jim. You are nice kids. Joeanne knows it too, but is just too stubborn to admit it.  She's feeling very confused and lonely right now," Joe Darnell said as he escorted them to the door.

"Well, just tell her she's welcome to show up whenever she wants. All of you are welcome. Moms always said that Crabapple Farm has elastic walls," Trixie said, smiling, as she shook Mr. Darnell's hand.

As they got in the car, silence settled amongst them. The news had been quite overwhelming. They had no idea Mrs. Darnell had even been sick.

"I always thought no one could be sick under Mrs. Smith's care. I always assumed she wouldn't allow it," Trixie said, not knowing she had said it out loud until Honey turned to her and said, "So did I. I used to think Joeanne was so happy she really didn't need us."

"Yeah... Serves us right for assuming everything we set straight stays straight." The anguish in Trixie's voice was evident, so Jim turned around on his seat to face her.

"Don't talk like that, Trix. Joeanne was happy at the Smith's. You and Honey helped them a lot. You can't be responsible for everything that goes wrong in this world."

"Sure. Like you're not feeling guilty as hell!"

Jim sighed, and ran a hand through his thick red hair.

"Of course I am, but I'm trying to be practical. There's no use in thinking over and over about what we should've done. I guess all we can do now is show her that we are here for her. I know what she's feeling right now..." Jim's green eyes darkened and Honey reached out to his hand, knowing her adoptive brother was recalling his own mother's death. He squeezed her hand, tenderly. "She probably can't figure out why her mother passed away, so she's desperately trying to find someone to blame. We're the closest to it she can find."

"I'm writing everyone we know as soon as I get home... And I mean, EVERYONE! Linnie, the Hubbels, Ned, Peter, Ben, Hallie, Cap, Knut..." Trixie groaned. "God, I'm feeling even worse now...I haven't talked to any of them in ages!"

"And you're forgetting Rosita, Juliana, Gaye, Terry..." Honey pitched in.

"Calamity Jane, Dot..." Jim added.

Trixie's eyes flashed as she took the sting.

"I'm not writing Dot!" Suddenly she realized how heated her protest had been and she blushed deeply as Jim chuckled and Honey looked back at her, a huge grin printed on her face.

"Really, Trixie, I never actually understood why you picked on Dot so much," Honey said, teasingly. "She was actually a nice girl once you got to know her."

"Sure she was..." Trixie shifted uncomfortably in the backseat and as she did, her eyes met Jim's on the rear view mirror and she couldn't help blushing all over again. His expression was one of amusement, but there was something else in the emerald green of his eyes. Something that Trixie couldn't identify but that was making her feel all giddy inside.

"Anyway," he said, finally breaking eye contact, and starting the car. "I think we should try to have a talk with Jo. All that anger isn't doing her any good, and I'd rather have her venting at me than keeping it all in."

 

Up in her room, Joeanne watched as the station wagon drove away, and there was a pang of regret in her heart.  Maybe she was being rude. She should have told them, but had been too proud to admit she needed their help. Still, she wasn't going to apologize. After all, they should have written her back and not take her for granted.

Joeanne left the window seat, her fists still clenched as she fought back the tears. She wouldn't cry over them. She had work to do, and there was simply no time for tears.

As she checked her face in the mirror to see if there were any traces of the stray tears she hadn't been able to hold back, there was a knock on the door, and her father walked in.

She could tell he wasn't happy as he sat on her bed and looked straight at her.

"Jo, honey, I know you've been through a lot," he said, calmly, but gravely. "But bad manners and rudeness is simply something I won't tolerate, especially to people I still feel indebted to. Those kids are your friends, and even if you feel hurt by what they did or didn't do, you should remember what you owe them. What we all owe them."

Her eyes stung but she held back the tears. She knew she owed them. Owed them big time. And that's what bothered her.  Feeling neglected was easier and more reassuring than feeling indebted. But she couldn't tell her father that. He was angry enough as it was.

"I do know that, dad. It's a little hard to forget it." The sarcasm in Joeanne's voice made Joe flinch, but he knew his daughter and could hear the pain beneath it. He closed his eyes and wished desperately that his wife was still there. She would have known what to say, what to do with this tremendously bright and sensitive young woman sitting across the bed from him, looking so lost and forlorn. He would do anything to be able to scrape off the emotional armor Jo had built around her. But he was not so sure he was entitled to do so. He knew his daughter had yet to forgive him for what he had done. He had yet to forgive himself. And deep inside, he kept wondering if she didn't somehow blame him for her mother's death, but couldn't bring himself to talk it through with her.

"Jo," he said. "We can't change the past. None of us can..." At this Joeanne looked up at him, expectantly but he averted his eyes. "All we can do is be grateful for what we have now and hope that the future is a little easier on us. Those kids are fond of you, Jo. Let them in." He reached out and caressed his daughter's hair as he got up, at a loss for something else to say.

Joeanne didn't answer and just sat in silence as her father left the bedroom. And couldn't help thinking what it would be like if she did let them in. If only she could...

 To Be Continued

 

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