By Barbara Pengelly

My Dear Family,

These are very peculiar circumstances, but more about that later, as I’ve been given but a short time to write.

Alan, you’re first. Most of the people who read this will be surprised you’re even mentioned. Previously, only two people alive knew you’re actually my first child; everyone else thinks you’re my friend Sheila’s son. Things were very different back in 1964. Abortion was still illegal and dangerous, and there was so much shame attached to being an unwed mother—no matter the circumstances. Giving you life and then giving you up was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. Although it’s been from a distance, over the years I’ve watched you with increasing pleasure and satisfaction. You’ve become everything a good man should be, and, oddly, nothing like your biological father, except for the color of your eyes.

Oh, but I’ll never forget him! He was everything a naïve 17-year-old girl could hope for—wavy, ink-black hair worn too long, bright blue eyes full of secrets, and the brooding temperament of an artist or poet. We were madly in love. Mom and Dad would never have approved my dating an older man, so we kept it secret. He was killed skydiving. It was the Fourth of July, and his chute failed to open. You were born seven months later.

Carter, you’re next. It took a long time for me to get over a girlish infatuation fueled by tragedy. That’s why you’re ten years younger than Alan. Finally, though, I was able to fall in love again—this time with a very different sort of man. He rode horses, not parachutes; had bright red hair and laughed all the time. We were both so anxious for you to arrive, but that took almost 18 hours of labor. You were one big baby—22 inches long and 8½ lbs.

And you’re an adventurer! I knew it that summer day when, as a not quite three-year-old lad, you walked out the door, barefoot and almost naked. We found you striding happily down our country road. Out of curiosity, we watched for a few minutes, but you never looked back…not even once. Your Dad was both scared and furious; I wanted to shout with joy. You’ve traveled over half the world now, and though you don’t think I know it, your next adventure is an expedition to the very top of the world—Mt. Everest. Please, Carter, whatever happens to me, don’t put off that exciting trip. And take along that Good Luck charm I gave you!

Dorothy, how are things with you? That’s a rhetorical question, of course, as I know you’ve always avoided telling me anything about yourself. You, my only daughter, have been a constant source of frustration. For some reason we’ve never been able to connect. Even as a two-year-old charmer, you wanted only your father. As a teenager, you drove me crazy, especially at age fifteen, when you skipped school and wound up wrecking your Dad’s new truck. And as an adult, nothing has changed. You’ve been hard to love, Dottie. To both my sorrow (and secret relief), you moved out the day you turned eighteen. We do hear from you occasionally, but only brief emails. Would it hurt so much to visit once in a while?

By the way, have you ever read about pheromones? Those are the invisible, airborne, behavior-altering molecules given off by humans that affect other humans in different ways. Might that be the problem? Do I, unknowingly, smell bad? I’m so sorry we could never seem to get along. Good luck, and remember, I will always love you.

Glenn, my darling husband, we’ve had more than forty years of togetherness. As I write this, I’m remembering those rare occasions when I was thoroughly annoyed with you. (Maybe pissed would be a more appropriate word.) I’d frown and then yell, “Remember, you’re only my first husband.” Oh, you’d laugh and laugh, long and loud. Then you’d grab me, hug and kiss me, and I’d forget all about being angry with you.

Thank you, my darling, for being my guardian angel. Yes, I do know about those times you quietly got me out of trouble. Like Carter, I’m also a bit of an adventurer. And some of my choices really worried you. But you’ve almost always allowed me to follow my dreams and even to take part in some very chancy activities. We’re opposites in so many ways, but I like to think that’s what’s kept our marriage so alive and interesting, even into old age.

And then there’s Josie, my granddaughter, with her father’s red hair and her grandmother’s green eyes. Oh, how I wish I could see you more often. I miss your smiles and your stories, but you’re away at college now, studying to be a lawyer and tormenting the men. I’m sure your life will be full of wonderful accomplishments, and I hope I’ll still be around for some of them. By the way, honey, please stop seeing that guy. You know who I mean, and why.

Greg, you’re last but not least. Unfortunately, you’re off to a rough start, and I don’t know why. You’re our only grandson. And you’re bright and handsome and have a winning smile. You should be figuring out your future, not in sitting in jail for selling heroin. We worry about you all the time. Where did things go wrong…

I see I’ll have enough time for explanations. Right now, I’m sitting on the cold, marble floor of our bank with a small group of other customers. Two idiots wearing black balaclavas and carrying AK-47s are holding us for a complicated ransom. Not only do they want all the money in the bank, they also want a large variety of explosives plus a plane to take them somewhere I can’t spell. They’ve knocked one of the guards over the head and barricaded the doors. One of them is on the phone right now with a police negotiator.

Meanwhile, the bank has packed up the money in duffle bags, and that ransom’s on the floor close by me. The government, however, is stalling on the rest of their demands. It’s the explosives that are the sticking point, I think. To force the authorities to give in, the terrorists have announced they will start shooting one of us every hour.

Time is short now. It’s almost one o’clock. You see, I’m first on their list.