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The Last Variable

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Annabelle was gone, buried in the cold, hard ground. Anna cried all the time, and Booker drank. He didn’t know what to do with an infant--had watched numbly as the nurses had walked him through how to change her diaper, how to mix together the list of complex ingredients to feed her. He couldn’t afford a wet nurse, and even if he’d been able, he wasn’t sure he could bear to see her nursing at a breast other than her mother’s.

During the day his neighbour kept her, but he couldn’t bring himself to go into the office. All the ugly things he’d done, first in the war, and then for Pinkerton, hung heavy on his shoulders, weighing him down. Annabelle’s death was only what he deserved. And so he spent his days in the bars, drowning his sorrows and rapidly gambling away his meagre savings.

In the evenings, alone with his daughter, Booker cried with her. He’d sit next to that cradle, the one thing he had left of Annabelle, hang his head, and sob, his tears falling to mingle with Anna’s. He knew, if only he’d hold her, that she would settle and he would draw some measure of comfort from cradling that delicate body against his own. But he didn’t deserve that comfort, and he would only sully something as pure and beautiful as this precious child.

The knock that came at his door was not unexpected. After he’d gambled away his savings, the issuing of I.O.U.s had grown wildly out of hand. He’d stopped going out, no longer able to pay the neighbour lady to watch Annabelle. Now he sat at home and drank away the hours. It was only a matter of time before they started showing up to collect.

It was a woman waiting expectantly outside the door, hands clasped behind her back...she was not at all what Booker had anticipated. For a long moment, he saw the very vision of his dead Annabelle, and he thought he was hallucinating. But then he began to notice all the little differences--a longer, narrower face and thinner lips; sleek wavy hair several shades darker than Annabelle’s tight curls; she was taller and more slender than Annabelle.

Their similarities were nonetheless uncanny. They shared the same delicate arch to their brows over the same blue eyes, the same sweet cheekbones, the same long sloping nose, though this girl’s turned down where Annabelle’s had turned up. When the girl smiled, Booker’s cold, dead heart jumped in his chest.

“I’m Elizabeth,” she said, thrusting her hand at him in such a way he felt as though he had no choice but to take it. She gave a firm, perfunctory shake. “I heard you were looking for a nanny.”

She brushed past Booker before he could get a word in edgewise. He watched her, striding around his shabby office cum apartment as though she owned the place, and rubbed his face blearily. “I don’t have anything to pay.”

“Business slow?” she asked, coming to stand next to his desk. She eyed the pile of folders, the scattered notes across the top. The cases were still coming, he just couldn’t find the will to follow through on them.

Booker swung the door closed and stalked across the room, shuffling the papers together and shoving them in a drawer. “I’m sorry, I don’t know who referred you, but there isn’t a job.”

As if on cue, Anna began to wail, one of her high-pitched, heart-rending cries that Booker knew all too well. It wasn’t a cry for hunger or to be changed, but for comfort he felt ill-equipped to provide. Elizabeth looked at him expectantly, a haughty brow raised, and when Booker just stood there, she sighed. It was a sad, disappointed, almost lonely sound, that inexplicably brought to mind Anna’s crying.

Elizabeth went to the nursery, and Booker stood rooted to the spot, staring after her. A moment passed, and then, there was blessed silence. Anna’s cries stopped abruptly, and all Booker could hear were the soft cooing noises Elizabeth made, the sound of her shoes on the floorboards as she walked back and forth the length of the room.

Booker forced himself forward, coming to hover in the doorframe. Elizabeth held Anna in the crook of her arm, and looked down at her with an expression of tenderness and absolute, revelatory love. It wasn’t the look of a woman for her child, however. It didn’t spark that possessive, agonising rage he’d felt at the thought of another woman nursing Annabelle’s daughter. Of another woman taking the place of her mother.

No, Elizabeth looked down at Anna as if she saw something full of wonderful potential. As if in Anna’s eyes there was an endless world of possibilities, spiralling ever higher. Watching her hold Anna, a strange, comforting sadness spread over Booker like a lover’s touch. Like Annabelle, saying goodbye.

How long he stood there, he could not say. Elizabeth sang song after song, with a clear, tremulous voice. The words and melodies were unfamiliar, but achingly lovely, and they soothed Anna so sweetly. When, at last, Anna’s eyes began to droop low, Elizabeth came to stand at Booker’s side, holding out his daughter to him.

Booker took a hasty step back, holding up his hands at his chest, palm out. “I don’t--I can’t--”

Elizabeth met his gaze, blue eyes filled with an unknowable sorrow, but her smile was reassuring. “You can,” she said, and wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Somehow, Booker found Anna bundled close to his chest, tucked safe in his arms. Once he had her there, he couldn’t imagine ever letting her go. She burrowed her face against him, gazed up at him with sleepy, hooded eyes, and Booker felt some frozen catch in his chest release and begin to thaw. He nodded dumbly. “I can,” he whispered softly, a promise. “I can.”

They spent the afternoon together, Anna asleep in the crook of Booker’s arm as Elizabeth began to tidy up the mess of his desk, making two distinct piles--his debts, and recent calls that could lead to potential cases.

When Anna fussed in her sleep, Elizabeth showed Booker how to swaddle her, laying out one of her blankets like a diamond and walking him through the steps to tuck her arms and legs tightly. It was like a magic trick, how quickly it calmed Anna and sent her back to sleep.

When Anna woke dirty, Elizabeth showed him how to rinse her with vinegar and sprinkle with cornstarch to soothe her rash. After, she walked him through making dinner for Anna. She had a much better formula for Anna’s food. Goat's milk instead of cow’s, honey instead of sugar, taking out the water entirely, and adding a bit of orange juice and cod liver oil. To build up her immune system and help her gain weight, Elizabeth explained.

After they’d laid Anna down for the evening, Booker went to the chair behind his desk, staring at the stack of papers before him. It was an intimidating sight.

Elizabeth came to sit on the corner of the desk. “We can figure out some sort of installment plan,” she said. “I’ll stay here, and take care of Anna whenever your work demands. I can take a small cut from each case, until you square away your debts. That should be your number one priority.”

Why? was all Booker could think to say in response. She’d appeared like some sort of angel--if Booker believed in that sort of thing. Just what he and Anna needed, right when he needed it. Why would she be willing to do this for him, an absolute stranger?

“This one sounds promising. A missing girl?” Elizabeth held out a slip of paper with the details scribbled on it. “Surely you could sympathise with these parents, having their daughter stolen from them?”

Booker stared at the paper in her hand. He could just make out the name, Sally. But he wasn’t even sure who he was any more. If he was the sort of man who could still put himself out there on the streets. His grief had laid him low, as low as he’d been after Wounded Knee. Only alcohol had numbed that pain and drowned out the voices in his head.

Almost against his will, Booker’s eyes were drawn to the bottle of whiskey near Elizabeth’s hand. Elizabeth followed his gaze. She picked it up in her other hand, scrutinising the label, and looked back at Booker and held it out towards him as well.

“The choice is yours, Mr. DeWitt, but I have to warn you. The longer you go without paying them, the larger the price. Much longer, and you might find the cost one you cannot survive.”

Booker felt trapped by those big, luminous eyes. How long had it been since anyone had expected anything good from him? How long since anyone held him accountable? And he was going to have to learn accountability, for his daughter.

He reached out, and took the paper from her. Time to get to work.

*

They fell into a routine, far more easily than Booker ever would have hoped or imagined. Elizabeth was sassy and headstrong, but she was clever. Though she gave her (often unsolicited) opinion in all things, she also accepted Booker’s decisions. Sometimes it was what it was like to have a younger sister, he imagined. It was the only reason he could think of why he liked having her around even though she annoyed the ever-living daylights out of him most of the time.

Though she had her own apartment somewhere, she spent much of her time at Booker’s. His profession meant strange hours, often in the middle of the night. Slowly but surely her belongings began to fill up the empty spaces in his home. Dresses, skirts and blouses, corsets, all in strange fashion, with hems higher than was generally acceptable of a young lady. Booker wasn’t the sort to try to tell anyone else what to do with their life, and Elizabeth wasn’t the sort who’d have listened if he’d chastised her, anyway.

Piles of books were left on the table and desk, stacked on the floor along the wall. Elizabeth brought picture books and held the vivid paintings and photographs close to Anna’s face so she could see. Depictions of Paris, Amsterdam, London, Cairo and more, places she promised Anna would one day see.

Drawings of mechanical birds and grand, flying cities adorned the walls in Anna’s room. Elizabeth’s sketchbook was filled with pictures of Anna sleeping, playing, laughing, and crying, and more than a few drawings of Booker--scowling while going over his case notes, folding Anna’s laundry, standing by the kitchen window with a steaming mug of coffee in hand. He’d seen the one of him napping on the sofa, a dozing Anna on his chest, and he hadn’t even had to ask. Elizabeth had torn the page from the book and given it to him without a word.

Booker would never admit it, but he often wished Elizabeth would never leave. When she’d gone home for the evening, and Booker was left alone with Anna, he no longer had the paralysing fear that he was somehow going to ruin things. He still missed Annabelle, but he no longer drowned his sorrows in the bottle.

All the same, the place was too quiet when Elizabeth was gone. She had an enthusiasm for life that was all-encompassing and infectious. It made Booker want to believe in the best instead of the worst, for a change. He knew it was dangerous to let someone build his hopes so high, but Elizabeth seemed so sure he was possible of changing for the better, and at the point she’d found him, the only way left to go was up.

And though it took some time, things began to turn around. One successful case became three, became six, became eight. After four months, Booker felt like he could breath again, head rising above the sea of his debts. Autumn was settling in New York, and Elizabeth stopped taking Anna on their daily walks and took to standing at the window, scrutinising the pedestrian traffic outside the window as if she was waiting for someone.

As October approached, she became restless and tense. Dark shadows formed under her eyes as the days grew shorter. Booker didn’t know where the lines were drawn between them, but she never resisted his touch, when he’d lay a hand on her shoulder, and in fact she seemed to draw some measure of comfort from it.

“Are you looking for someone?” Booker asked.

Elizabeth just shrugged and said “Maybe. I don’t know.”

Booker snorted. “How can you not know if you’re looking for someone?”

“When you don’t know if they’re coming,” she said. She crossed her arms over her chest, shoulders rolling forward protectively, and retrained her focus on the sidewalk.

The days ticked by, pages ripped from the calendar, and suddenly it was October 9th and a great shadow lifted. Elizabeth was herself once again, light and carefree. She danced Anna around the room and sung her strange songs, and told Anna of all the places they’d go together. Her joy was so effusive, his own mood was buoyed by hers.

Before six months were out, the worst of his debts was cleared. There were more forgiving creditors to be paid over the months years to come--he’d messed up enough that it wasn’t going to be a quick fix.

Elizabeth was a charming and clever girl who stuck her nose in where it didn’t belong. One conversation between her and all the bookies and gambling buddies, and they were miraculously understanding. She’d never told him exactly what had taken place, only said, “I’ve been intimately involved in debt collection, myself,” in a way that sent unpleasant shivers up Booker’s spine.

“How did a kid like you get into a job like that?” Booker asked.

Every once in awhile, Elizabeth got this far away look about her--like she was in a different world entirely. Face blank, lips pressed in a grim line, eyes harder and angrier than her years should allow. That look fell over her face now. Then she quirked a smile at him, a nasty thing that made her look beautiful and deadly. “Blame my father,” she said.

Booker figured she couldn’t blame him for being suspicious when she said things like that. Or what she was doing watching his kid when she was reading books about something called quantum physics. Or, how she’d known about the job, for that matter. And more to the point, the fact that she’d shown up at just the right moment he’d needed her the most.

Or when she had an uncanny way of knowing just the right case for him to take, and was able to provide insight when he was stuck. She had a different way of looking at the world. Like she could see beyond what was right in front of her to all the various possible events that had led to a particular outcome, and all the different paths that spiralled on from there. It almost made Booker wish there was someone else to watch Anna so Elizabeth could come out with him.

Booker’s thoughts regarding this were largely contradictory: on the one hand, having a pretty face could no doubt grease some wheels or provide a necessary distraction, and the girl had a way with words; on the other hand, the idea of putting her in harm’s way made his heart ache in the same way Anna’s cry did.

And don’t think that didn’t cause even more suspicion. How as Anna grew into her features a little more with each passing week, she only looked more and more like Elizabeth. Almost without realising what he was doing, he began to watch Anna like a hawk when she was playing and exploring the house, constantly vigilant for something that might cut the tip from her pinkie and necessitate a thimble like Elizabeth’s. When he caught himself, he’d shake his head and tell himself he was tired and all the drinking had clearly done some permanent damage.

The thing was, he’d done his due diligence where Elizabeth was concerned, but she remained an absolute mystery. There was no paper trail for her, no family he could hunt down, and most pertinently, no ties to his Annabelle. She was just a girl from a family as dirt poor as his own, no doubt. Someone unimportant enough that no one had ever bothered keeping track of her.

There was no good reason for him to question everything he’d ever known about Annabelle, the universe, or his own sanity, to try to make sense of her looks, the feelings she stirred in him, and her very presence in his life.

Winter and the approaching holiday season always led to an upswing in cases. People became greedier and more violent during what was supposed to be the happiest time of year, and Booker attributed it to human nature. Leave it to human beings to feel the need to counter all the good will and cheer with theft and murder.

Booker would come home in the wee hours of the morning and wouldn’t even think of sending Elizabeth out in the frigid cold and thick snow. He scrounged enough cash for a fold up cot to keep in Anna’s room for those nights.

It was an early evening in mid-December when he came home to a Christmas tree propped up in the middle of the living room. Elizabeth was seated on the floor, cutting decorations from one of her magazines, and Anna sat propped up at her side, chewing on her teething ring.

“What the hell is this?” Booker demanded.

Elizabeth arched a brow at him. “What does it look like?” she teased.

Booker was in no mood for her sass. “I want that thing out of here.”

“Whatever for?” Elizabeth said. Already her smile had faded to a scowl. “It’s a Christmas tree, for God’s sake, Booker.”

“Yes, and I don’t want it here,” Booker snapped. “I don’t want any of that religious nonsense in my house.”

All at once, the darkening look on Elizabeth’s face cleared, as if she knew exactly why Booker felt the way he did. “I’m sorry,” she said gently. “I just thought Anna would like it.” She fingered the candles she’d already hung from the branches. “The lights, the sparkling tin...I just didn’t even think that you might not want it.”

“That’s right,” Booker said. “You didn’t even think.”

“I said I’m sorry,” Elizabeth said, drawing in on herself. “I just--I never had a Christmas tree when I was a child. My--the man who raised me...he thought...well let’s just say Christmas wasn’t in keeping with his version of God. It was too frivolous.”

“You didn’t even ask me. You can’t just do whatever you want, this isn’t your home!”

“Huh.” Elizabeth took a step back, holding her wrist. “Well, I suppose you’re right, at that,” she said, tone sliding from hurt to snide. She grabbed her coat from the back of the sofa and strode the door. “Get rid of it then, for all I care! Go on and keep letting all the mistakes you’ve made in your past colour your daughter’s future!”

The door slammed with a resounding bang before Booker could even process the words, let alone think of an appropriate response. Anna started crying at once, startled by the noise, and Booker got down on the floor beside her. He pulled her into his arms, bouncing and rocking, making little shushing sounds as he’d learned from Elizabeth.

There were dozens of ornaments already cut out--some of Elizabeth’s drawings, some from the magazines, some from shiny paper in blue, red, green, and gold that caught the light in the room and reflected it. There were Elizabeth’s ever present birds and elegant cages, leafs, snowflakes, fruits, and flowers. She’d made bows of ribbon and strings of raisins and nuts for garland. There were none of the shapes he’d expected--angels, stars, crosses, or crowns. No cutouts of the nativity. No Father Christmas, even.

Booker picked up one of the gold foil ornaments, folded up like a butterfly, and held it up to the light. Anna stopped crying, staring instead at the suspended ornament. “Do you like that?” Booker asked, and brought it closer, so her grasping fingers could close around it. She grabbed it and shook it, letting out a squeal of laughter. Booker smiled sadly, regret replacing his anger.

He thought about what Elizabeth said. The way she’d spoken, the implication of her words. The feeling he’d had that she’d somehow known his past. Knew about the man who’d stood in the river after Wounded Knee and come to terms with the fact that there were some sins that could never be rinsed away.

Go on and keep letting all the mistakes you’ve made in your past colour your daughter’s future.

With absolute certainty, Booker knew she wasn’t talking about Anna and some stupid tree. The tree was just a symbol of all the rage and hatred he still carried inside, that ate away at him a bit more with every passing day. That eased when Anna and Elizabeth were near.

“Aw, hell,” he muttered. “You’re getting soft, DeWitt.” Still, he clambered to his feet and put Anna on his hip, surveying the tree. She waved the butterfly gaily at the tree. “Let’s decorate the tree, baby girl.”

Elizabeth arrived at her normal time the next morning. Her eyes were red and she looked dead on her feet--a sight Booker was all too familiar with from looking in the mirror after a long night spent drinking. She stopped just inside the door when she saw the sparkling tree. Booker had got up early to light all the candles and Anna had been entranced ever since.

The look Elizabeth gave him was wary at best. He came to take her by the hand and led her into the room. “Anna and I finished the tree for you.”

“I thought you didn’t want that thing in your house,” Elizabeth said.

“I’m sorry,” Booker said, awkwardly. Elizabeth was not won over. “Look, I--I’m going to go out on a pretty big limb here and guess you already know why I reacted the way I did?”

Elizabeth hesitated, and after a long moment, finally nodded her head once. Booker’s breath left him in a rush. Guessing it and having it confirmed were two drastically different things. “So you know I’m...working through some things.”

“I know you’re wallowing,” Elizabeth corrected him. “In your grief. In your guilt. Over choices you’ve made and things you can’t change.”

“Fine, I was wallowing,” Booker said, temper growing short. He reeled it in, because this was important. “But if I’ve learned anything from becoming a parent, it’s that it doesn’t matter what I think I deserve. All that matters is what sort of man my daughter deserves to call a father.”

Elizabeth’s eyes looked suspiciously wet at that, and she nodded. “That’s a good thing to have learned.”

“Yeah,” Booker said softly. “I don’t want to be the sort of man who lets his own history ruin something good and pure for his daughter, out of bitterness and spite.”

The words hung heavy in the air between them, full of history and meaning beyond his comprehension, but they clearly meant something to Elizabeth, who sniffled. “I think she’d appreciate that.”

“I thought she might,” Booker said softly. “And it’s important that she knows that I’ll never stop trying to be a better man, for her.”

He stroked his thumb across the back of Elizabeth’s hand, and then let go, so he could show her the ornaments he and Anna had gone out to purchase last night--round glass balls in blue, purple, and green--which he’d taken to his neighbour to paint. He turned them now so she could read. Booker, Anna, and Elizabeth. “And that she’s always welcome here, because this is her home.”

In a sudden flurry of movement, Elizabeth threw her arms around Booker and Anna, hugging them tightly to her. And Booker--he shoved away all the thoughts of his own inadequacy, all the self-doubt and recrimination, all his lingering questions and fears-- sank into the comfort of her touch, and hugged her back.