For Ages
12 to 99

   Teenage twins Ysabel and Justin Nicholas are lucky. Ysabel's jewelry designs have already caught the eyes of the art world and Justin's intelligence and drive are sure to gain him entrance into the most prestigious of colleges. They even like their parents. But their father has a secret--one that threatens to destroy the twins' happy family and life as they know it.

   Over the course of spring break, Ysabel and Justin will be forced to come to terms with their dad's new life, but can they overcome their fears to piece together their happy family again?

An Excerpt fromHappy Families

The Phoenix Fire Festival at The Crucible, last May


The surge of chattering, pointing, gawking people pours into the massive auditorium, and I feel a shiver crawl up my arms. Rather than stand here, watching the watchers, I’m going to do some torchwork.

There’s a table set up at the back of my booth, covered with a square of galvanized metal and lit with a desk lamp. At the edge of the table there’s a small glass kiln, a miniature propane blowtorch, a handful of tweezers, metal rods, a graphite block, and a couple of terra-cotta flowerpots filled with sand and rods of glass in all shades. I sit down, my foot automatically moving to tap the switch for the small fan under the table. Checking to make sure my glasses are still on my head, I grab my box of matches and light my torch.

An older couple approaches my booth but instead of speaking I pick up the thin metal mandrel and turn it in the flames to warm it. The glass always sticks better if the mandrel is warm. My hands hover over the glass color choices, and I select a clear, bright blue. As I reach up to tug down my pink-tinted sunglasses, they catch on my hair, and the pins Grandmama put in the French roll she thought would look so elegant poke into my scalp. Muttering under my breath, I gently untangle the glasses and put them on, then start heating the glass. In no time at all, I’m putting down a small bead of molten glass, turning my mandrel until I’ve made a disk. I make another disk, a half inch away, and then, turning the mandrel all the time, keep laying disks of glass until the heat slumps them together to make a hollow bead. One down, a few hundred to go. I set the mandrel and the bead into the annealing kiln to slow bake and choose another rod of color. I want something with a streak of metal in it this time.

All of us have been awaiting this last weekend in May and hoping for good weather for the thousands of people expected to attend the Phoenix Festival. It’s a massive, three-day fund-raiser fair with food--spicy and cooked over an open flame, of course--face painting, flame throwing, fire juggling, fire archery, and pretty much all the firemen in three counties standing around looking worried. For me, the art show is the best part, and every one of the student artists at The Crucible has been working like crazy to get enough pieces for the exhibition. Around me are the end results--long tables covered with blue cloth displaying pottery, ceramics, jewelry, sculpture, metalwork, and of course, my glass torchwork. At the back of the hall, shelves rise to the ceiling, laden with hundreds of colorful glass vases and ornaments. Some of the largest projects (done by the blacksmiths) are on the floor at the back. Nearest my table is a sundial made out of granite with bands of brass and copper, a fused glass fountain, and something bizarre that looks like it was made out of a bicycle lit with a confused tangle of neon tubes. At the edge of each table is a binder with small pictures of each piece, listing price and artist.

I’m pretty sure no one is going to buy anything of mine today; after all, this is my first serious show. Somewhere in the crowd, though, are five judges from the Fallon School of Art & Design, and not only are the best exhibitors going to be invited to submit a few things to a juried show, but three lucky people are going to be considered for scholarships. They start the selections tonight.

At almost fifteen, I might be worrying too early about college scholarships, but this year I’ve decided I might as well get people used to seeing my stuff and hearing my name. The fact is, I’m not going to get into a college based on academics. I’ve got a B– average, but I’m not interested in setting the Ivy League world on fire, like my brother, Justin, will. This is what I do best.

My twin appears as if my thoughts have pulled him to me. “What’s up, Ys?” Justin comes around the edge of the booth and steps over my tools to give me a careful fist bump. “You sold out yet?”

I grin. “Yeah, right. Four minutes after the doors open.”

“You never know. Met the judges yet?”

I shudder. “I don’t even want to think about judges.”

Justin’s phone buzzes, and he flips it open briefly. “My woman’s here. Gotta go.”

I smirk. “Better not let Calli hear you call her that. Thanks for showing up, Justin.”

“Couldn’t miss your first show,” my brother says, giving me a light tap on the head. He waves and vanishes back into the crowd.

I choose a rod of clear glass and begin another bead. This time, I make a basic bead, then, after some thought, choose a rod of yellow and begin to melt little blobs of yellow against the clear. My shoulders relax, and the roar of voices and strangers turns into meaningless background music. I hum a little song to myself and rotate my blob of glass through the blue-white flame as the lumps of glass slump and the bead turns smooth again. I nod, satisfied with the effect, and then find a rod of cobalt with a spiral of silver in it.

“Ysabel!” I glance up and flinch as I see a camera. It’s only Starr, the program director here at The Crucible, so I stick out my tongue and keep working. Despite the fact that I told them not to come, I know my parents are out there, somewhere, with Poppy and Grandmama and my best friend, Sherilyn, in the orange and red poppy sundress she told me she’d wear just to be sure I could spot her. Ms. Wendth, my old art teacher, was invited, and Justin is probably still in the building if his girlfriend, Callista, hasn’t dragged him off into a dark corner somewhere.

It’s a good feeling to know that all of my people are here today.

“Miss?” An older couple waves to catch my attention. “Did you make that pink necklace, with the big millefiori beads? How much for it?”

“Why don’t you take a look at the binder there, and I’ll be right with you,” I call, quickly setting the mandrel in a holder. Being taken from the heat so fast, the surface glass on my bead will probably crack. If I can’t smooth the cracks with heat, I’ll have to scrap it and start over again, but right now I don’t care. My heart is thumping, and I wipe my sweaty hands on my jeans. It’s my first sale, and I do an internal happy dance.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, God!

By the time the day is over, I’ve sold all but five necklaces, made thirty good beads at my station and fixed the cracked one, done a little welding at a welding exhibit, and gone outside to grab lunch and watch the fire-breathers dance. Farida, the welding instructor, came by to point out the judges from Fallon, and they’ve walked by slowly three or four times. I pretend not to notice.

When Starr climbs on her makeshift stage and quiets the crowd for the announcements from the Fallon judges, I cheer for the people who are being selected for the juried show. Then Starr is pointing at me, a little manic grin on her face.

“Ladies and gentlemen, tonight we’d also like to introduce our prodigy at The Crucible, Ysabel Nicholas, a freshman at Medanos Valley Christian Academy!” she shouts into the mic, and over the applause, she yells, “Stand up, Ysabel!” and I feel like I’ve been struck by lightning. On suddenly shaky legs, I stand, wave, and immediately hunch back onto my stool.

Starr gestures at me frantically to stand again as the group of judges comes toward my table. All of them shake my hand and say something nice. A woman with a blond-frosted afro and a massive silver and turquoise medallion hanging around her neck beams at me, and I’m almost blinded by her grin. She shakes my hand and says, “Great job, young woman!”

“On behalf of The Crucible,” Starr says as she puts a small glass phoenix in my hands, with its wings outstretched and curlicues of glass flames beneath it. She gives me a hard hug, and I can only grin. Suddenly my family is visible at the front of the crowd, and Dad and Justin are directly in front of me. With a carefully choreographed move, the two of them lift up bouquets of roses and toss them. At my feet. In front of everyone.

I can’t decide if I should laugh or run. I put my hands to my face and groan.

It’s not possible to die of embarrassment. But as I hastily scoop up the bouquets and scuttle back to my seat, to the amusement of everyone around me, I’m almost positive you can at least have a coronary, or a stroke or something.

“It could have been worse,” Mom says, tucking me against her side as we walk out into the parking lot. With my boots on, I’m almost as tall as she is. “Your poppy wanted us all to throw the roses one by one. I reminded him that your father and I didn’t have the insurance to cover the potential breakages and eye injuries.”

“Think of it this way,” Sherilyn says, grinning. “The next time you get that many roses, you’ll be doing a solo show. This is just practice.”

“A solo show. I wish,” I say, watching as Dad stands the hard-sided pink case that holds my torches and glass behind the driver’s seat in Mom’s van and closes the door securely. For tonight, she’s removed the Wild Thyme Catering magnetic signs from the doors, and I’m glad. She gives me one last squeeze, then heads for the driver’s seat. Sherilyn hops in the passenger side, and I slide in back, next to my case, and lean forward between the front seats. We’ve done this so many times we all three go to our spots without any thought.

“See you at home,” Dad says, and we wave as he and Poppy join Justin and Grandmama at his car.

“So, did you see the cute blacksmith instructor?” I ask Sherilyn. “Levi?”

“Ysabel, he’s, like, thirty,” Sherilyn complains. “What’s with you and the geriatrics?”

My mother laughs, a particularly loud hoot, and shakes her head. “Geriatrics?”

“Well, just because he doesn’t have fangs or skin that sparkles,” I strike back, teasing Sherilyn about her latest vampire romance craze. “Levi might be thirty, but at least he’s alive.”

“Don’t knock the vampires,” Sherilyn says defensively. “You know they’d be way more mature than any guys we know.”

“Mature, Sherilyn? Really? Let’s just say ancient.”

Sherilyn and I keep laughing about nothing in particular as my jitters dissolve. By the time we get home, I’m starving and just about on the verge of collapse. We could have stayed at the Phoenix Festival and eaten there, but I know my parents have something better planned. Sure enough, as soon as I come into the house, I can smell it. In the dining room, a pan of stuffed mushrooms sits over a chafing dish, and I head straight for the table and pop one into my mouth, savoring the garlic-and-cheese stuffing.

Sometimes it’s really great to have a caterer for a mother.

“Madam?” Poppy, Mom’s dad, motions me back to the door. Now swathed in a long apron over his black suit pants and white shirt, he holds out his arm to Sherilyn like a waiter, his silver-lined hair giving him an elegant appearance. “Your wrap?”

I kick off my boots and scrunch my toes in the wool rug in the entryway as Mom hurries into the kitchen, checking on all of the things she has prepped. “It’s just a little bit of this and that,” she explains apologetically to Sherilyn as she reappears carrying a platter of fresh veggies and dip, “but these are Ysabel’s favorites.”

“It looks great,” Sherilyn says, examining the spread on the candlelit table.

“Mom, yum! You made a torta!” I exclaim, mouth watering as I see the thin layers of pesto, potato, goat cheese, and bell pepper. “Yes!”

“And deviled eggs, and corn cakes,” Grandmama adds, bringing out a pitcher of iced tea, “just so we could be sure to have no theme to this meal whatsoever.”

“But it’s what I wanted,” I sigh, reaching for another mushroom. “It’s exactly what I wanted.”

“Belly-Bel, can’t you wait for the blessing?” Dad asks, swatting at my hand.

“Well, let’s pray already!” I exclaim, dodging him and snagging another bite.

When Dad calls me Belly, I don’t say, “Don’t call me that,” as I usually do. Tonight, I don’t care if Dad drags up all of my baby nicknames. I have everything I want right now, everything I need.

“People, I have things to do,” my brother announces, coming down the stairs. He’s changed into his blue Humpty Dumpty Was Pushed T-shirt and jeans. “Let’s eat.”

“Justinian,” my mother sighs, and Justin rolls his eyes. Though he’s only six minutes younger than I am, sometimes my brother just seems like he’s six. He’s this huge brain and all, but occasionally he has zero social skills.

“What? I’m hungry!”

“Can’t you at least greet our guest of honor?” Poppy asks reprovingly.

Justin snorts. “Sherilyn doesn’t count as a guest.”

“You know that’s not what he meant,” my mother murmurs, swatting my brother with the flat of her hand. He glares at her, then turns to me with exaggerated attention.

“Greetings, Ysabel, beloved Twin of Awesome Artistic Ability. Hey, Sherilyn, Mom, hi, Grandmama, Poppy, and Dad. Can we eat now? Finals are in three weeks and I’ve got papers out the wazoo.”

Dad snorts, cupping his hands to disguise it. He coughs. “Justin . . .”

“What? I could have said something worse.”

“Oh, spare me that,” Grandmama mutters, rubbing her forehead. She eyes Justin’s smirk and raises the back of her hand to him mock threateningly.

“I’m ready,” Mom says, sliding a covered dish on to the table and wiping her hands.

Dad puts his long-fingered hands on my shoulders and looks down at me, his brown eyes crinkling on the edges as he smiles. “I’m proud of you, Belly,” he says softly. He raises his head and smiles around the table as we all join hands. “Everybody ready? Then let’s pray.”

Under the Cover