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In a park one universe removed

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Jeannie smiled as she returned Madison’s wave and watched as Robbie carefully made his way up toward his sister on the climbing frame. She was grateful that that awful woman who always sent her judgmental looks whenever she let her eldest take responsibility hadn’t arrived yet. Clearly, coming to the park half an hour earlier had been a good idea.

Mer often stated that caring for Jeannie had made him discover the joy of being personable, when everyone knew how hard it could be for highly gifted children. Jeannie loved being a stay-at-home Mom, but even before she’d started planning to scale down her homemaking to 80% she had refused to hover obsessively and stifle her daughter’s development. Observing Madison with her brother now, Bradley playing with his truck at Jeannie’s feet, made it easy to believe Kaleb and Mer that the children would be fine once she took up teaching.

“Excuse me.”

She jumped at the voice coming from beside her on the bench. She’d been so wrapped up in her thoughts that she hadn’t noticed anyone sitting down. The man who had spoken was an older man with graying hair, who with his suit jacket and scarf was dressed far too warmly for a sunny day.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.”

She smiled at his apology and noted the British accent. “It’s all right. I was miles away.” She glanced down at Bradley, who hadn’t yet overcome the stage of being shy with strangers, but her youngest was far too busy peeling grass from between the wheels of his truck to pay the adults any heed.

“I thought I’d go for a walk and now I’ve got myself completely lost. I’m looking for the harbour.”

She raised her eyebrows. “You are lost.”

He sighed. “It’s going to be a long walk back, isn’t it?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“I could ring someone to come and get me, I suppose, but I never quite got the hang of this.” He pulled a cell phone from his jacket pocket and frowned at it.

Jeannie couldn’t help but smile. They were simple to use, but she remembered how her mother-in-law had struggled with the model she and Kaleb had gotten her for Christmas. Madison, bless her, had patiently walked her through it. “I can call someone for you, if you like. Do you know the number?”

“It’s in here, under UNIT.”

He passed the cell over and Jeannie scrolled through the menu. The man seemed to have more contacts with different nationalities or origins than Mer did, most of them with what to her seemed like very unusual names. As she scrolled past the rare, ordinary ‘Smith, SJ’, her inner clock made her glance up and check on the children, who were all three playing happily. She found the entry marked ‘UNIT’, dialed the number and handed the cell back.

He smiled as he took it, then stood up and stepped away to make the call. She tried not to eavesdrop, but couldn’t help but catching the words “stroll,” “lost” and “harbour”. While he spoke, Robbie dragged Madison over to the slide and Jeannie made sure to applaud them as they reached the bottom. It was something her own parents had often forgotten in the face of ever climbing I.Q. scores – giving praise for ordinary things.

Robbie let himself fall out of Madison’s lap, laughing. Madison grinned at her proudly and coaxed her brother back for another go.

The man stepped a little closer to Jeannie and confirmed that whoever he was talking to could work out his position from his cell phone, which made her frown for a moment. Mer had made a similar request that time Bradley had had an allergic reaction to a bee sting. It was not, she knew, something that could be accomplished by just anyone. Her curiosity was piqued.

When he finished the man squinted at his cell and sat back down. Bradley looked up at them then and scrunched up his face at the sight of a stranger. Thankfully, Robbie’s gleeful yell as he and Madison slid down the slide once more distracted him.

“Do you know how I put the phone down?” the man asked and Jeannie smiled. She happily pressed the button for him, and then he put the cell back in his pocket.

“Thank you. I swear I should be used to it by now. Harry Sullivan,” he added, and held out his hand. “It won’t be long before I get an escort back.”

She shook his hand. “Jeannie Miller.” Bradley didn’t appear about to cry, so she supposed it would be alright to keep the man company while he waited. It was a good way to ignore that woman who was now pushing her dark blue stroller toward the seesaw.

“Work.” He paused and frowned. “I’m in the Navy,” he added, which Jeannie understood as meant to explain everything.

It struck her a little odd that the British Navy would have pursuits this side of Canada, but then she had to admit to having been a little occupied with planning her return to university. While she read the paper every day, frequently discussed the news with Kaleb and took turns to answer Madison’s (and, as of late, Robbie’s) questions, it was perfectly possible that some summit or other had slipped her by. “So how do you like Vancouver?”

“Wet. Not so very different from home.” He smiled, although it sounded a little homesick. It reminded her of Mer and how his last email had professed a surprisingly emphatic need for ‘actual tea and a good slice of Grandma’s raspberry pie’.

“There’s no place like home,” she said. She waved at Madison and Robbie who had once again climbed up the slide. She was glad that Mer had unexpectedly gotten the opportunity to visit soon. Kaleb was already looking forward to their friendly competition in the kitchen. Having her brother put his feet up as much as she could convince him to and, undoubtedly, offer to look over her curriculum, would make it easier to reenter the world of mathematics after five years of absence.

“Saving the world is important because you save it for the people you love,” she added. Harry raised his eyebrows at that and she didn’t blame him. It was a little heavy a remark for the conversation they’d been having. “My daughter wants to save the world when she grows up,” she explained, pride and faith in the McKay (and Miller) genes creeping into her voice.

Harry did not scoff at the statement like some people would have. Instead, he looked over to where Madison and Robbie were making their way toward the swings, something like sadness on his face. “Maybe she’ll do a better job than us.”

“Commodore Sullivan.”

This time they were both startled by the man who had approached the bench. Jeannie opened her arms to a wide-eyed Bradley, who did not appreciate the sight of a tall figure with a red beret.

“Give her my best wishes for her future work,” Harry said as he stood up.

“I will,” Jeannie replied, nodding, and took Bradley to join Robbie and Madison at the swings.