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if inconvenient, come all the same

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Lane hears glasses clink together, and water running from a faucet in a gush.

The noises jerk him out of what must have been a very long reverie; he’s as stunned as if he’s been dropped into his chair from a great height. On first glance, he doesn’t quite know how he got here. He’s in some kind of pub—the bar area dimly lit by several brass high-hanging lamps—with a few tall wooden tables and chairs lining the red wall directly behind him. Place is practically empty except for him, an old chap down the other end nursing a beer, and an Italian-looking bartender, olive skinned and dark haired, who’s washing cups in a small metal sink a few paces down, behind the bar. That was the noise.

How long has he been here? Where the hell’s Lewis?

Lane looks back to his glass, as if it can somehow give him the answers he needs. It’s barely got any ice in it at all, and seems to have also been sitting here a very long time. The base of the glass is sticking to a red cocktail napkin currently serving as a coaster, and there’s an inch-thick dark ring of water surrounding the circumference of the glass. He thinks if he suddenly tried to lift this glass, the napkin underneath would peel away from the bottom in little shredded pieces, like layers of onion skin.

“You doing okay?”

It takes Lane a moment to realize the bartender is speaking to him.

“I—” he begins, then realises he might have come here alone, rather than with Lewis, and frowns. The movement makes him wince. “Yes. Sorry, erm—was I—with anyone—earlier?”

“Your brother,” says the bartender with a careless shrug, as if he isn’t bothered by details.

This does not exactly answer Lane’s question. He blinks back at the other man.

“Said he’s grabbing something from his hotel.”

Well, that’s got to be a lie. Lane does not know why this person would bother making up such a story, but suddenly feels very thirsty, and reaches for his water glass. A dull ache is pounding to life in his sides and his hands and his head—god, his head is splitting. His lip feels very painful and swollen, and he puts his hand to the right corner of his mouth to discover there’s dried blood crusted up around what feels like—joined-up stitches—and bandages on his left hand.

Did they go to hospital?

He rushes back into the living room, where Father stands near the half-doorway, eyeing Lewis on the opposite side of the sofa like two wild animals circling a small cage.

“You think you can hurt her—you think you can take my son from me?”

His father says nothing, expression stone, and it makes Lane’s blood boil.

Get the hell out of my house!”

The sting of his father’s cane across his face is so quick and sharp it brings tears to his eyes; it makes him taste blood as he crumples to the floor—

Lane pushes his water glass away. It topples over in the process, water sloshing over the counter. He’s already on his feet, and the chair squeals loudly as it scrapes against the hardwood floor. Noticing that he’s caught the bartender’s attention, he tries to compose himself, to seem all right although his head feels like it’s spinning again. Christ.

“I—erm,” he feels like his tongue is stuck to the roof of his mouth, “sorry, I’ve—spilt it.”

The bartender seems unfazed, producing a dry rag from underneath the counter, tossing it toward the mess, and moving to get a new glass from the mounted shelves behind him. “No problem.”

As he’s putting ice into a clean glass, the door to the street opens, and Lewis strides into the building, waving a hand to the barkeep as if they’ve been friends all their lives. Lane can’t help but notice his brother’s left eye is purple and nearly swollen shut. Good god.

Lewis jerks his chin up in acknowledgement. “All right, Tony?”

The bartender—Tony—waves a hand toward the empty chairs. “Ah. It’s been slow.”

“You drive everyone away, then?”

The other man snorts out a laugh; Lewis only motions for a drink, gesturing to the nearest few bottles of whiskey with one hand. “One here. And one for yourself.”

Lane watches in confusion as his brother takes a seat next to him. If not for the injury, he’d seem almost normal. High spirits, bothering everyone, same idiot smirk on his face. How the hell does he manage to do that?

“Little brother,” Lewis turns an innocent look on Lane. “You’re staring.”

“Sorry. Just—your face.” Lane’s eyes widen as he gets a look at the wound up close. Gruesome business.

His brother’s smiling again. “Yes, I’m aware, thanks.” He raises his voice toward the bartender, as if this man is now part of their private conversation. “What do you think, Tony? Make me look dashing for the ladies?”

Tony doesn’t even bother glancing up from the shaker he’s rinsing out. “You look like shit.”

Lewis just laughs. Once he’s got his drink in hand and the barkeep is safely out of earshot—carrying a large rack of dirty glasses down the stairs—Lane turns back to his older brother, desperate for answers.

“What happened? Where did you go?”

Lewis takes a quick gulp of his drink. “They’re keeping Father overnight. Cracked rib, few stitches.” After a pause. “He’s fine. It’s all very tragic.”

Lane’s so stunned he can’t even speak, and for a moment, they stare at their respective glasses before he’s able to look back, to sputter out his next response.

“What?”

His brother frowns. “Hospital, Lane. Have you forgotten?” 

In an automatic gesture, Lane nods his head yes, but it’s a lie, the memory is there, tugging at the back of his mind like an open door he can’t help but peer through—

On the floor on his back with his hand pressed to his bloody mouth—ears ringing—brother shouting—father walking over, his clean black shoes squeaking on the hardwood floor. Lane knows what’ll happen next, it’s always the same, he’ll go for the fingers because that won’t leave marks or if it does if something breaks the blame can be shifted—you’ve jammed them goddamn it—that one’s shut his hand in the door—can’t do anything right can he—

—so angry he’s shaking, his glasses aren’t close but he can’t stay on the floor—he can’t—he won’t—get up goddamn it, get up, get up—

Someone’s pulling him up by the back of his shirt. Lane struggles to get free—

—god, you’ll bloody well kill him if you—”

Get off me!”

A sharp shove sends Lane reeling into the nearest wall, shoulder-first. He wheels around, his right hand a fist, to face his—brother?

Father’s on the ground—actually on the ground—not moving—

So this is what it looks like when little brother finally loses his temper. Well done.”

He feels like he can’t breathe, has to squeeze his eyes closed to keep himself calm—

Look here. Hit me in the face.”

He’s pushing Lane back toward the wall, egging him on—and there’s a sound in the distance like tapping—tapping—what is that?

“Come on, Lane. He tried to take Nigel. He laid a hand on your Joan.”

“Don’t—” Lane says in a hoarse voice, and shoves at his brother’s outstretched arms.

“Why not? Little brother’s frightened of the truth?”

Tapping turns louder—why is it—there’s voices, too—

“Fuck off!”

“You are, though,” Lewis taunts, practically laughing, still pushing at Lane’s chest with two hands. “Coward. You’re still scared of him. You’re a goddamn coward and it—”

His fist connects with Lewis’s face just as the front door bursts open.

“There—were police. In the flat.”

Lane must look ashen as he croaks this out, because Lewis directs one quick look at him and pushes his whiskey in Lane’s direction. When he speaks, his voice is so calm.

“Only for a little while.”

God, there’s no end to his humiliation. The neighbors will talk of nothing else for weeks. People always hear things through the walls, even if they pretend not to, even if they turn their faces away the next morning as they pass you on the street. People always know—everyone knows—and it’s even on file in some dingy station.

“What did you tell them?”

Lewis’s voice is as airy as if he’s discussing the weather. “I got plastered and insulted my brother’s girlfriend. You came after me. Poor old Father tried to get between us.”

Christ, it’s such a stupid story; it sounds childish, almost ridiculous. Lane doesn’t understand why they aren’t spending the night in some dirty precinct, or why they aren’t stuck in an awful hospital room pretending to care if Father’s all right.

“They actually—believed that?”

Lewis pulls a face, like he’d done so well it wasn’t even a question of the story being accepted. “Course.”

Lane runs an anxious hand over his hair. “But—”

He’s not a good liar; someone would have seen it in his face. Someone would have got the truth out of him. Lewis may be as glib as he likes, but any policeman worth his salt ought to have taken one look at Lane and seen the lie. The bruises on their hands and faces. The state of the living room. The—blood on the end of Father’s walking stick, they’d have seen that, too.

(Mother shielding her face from a group of gawking PCs. Mrs. Pryce, you must have done something to provoke him.)

Lewis leans in and lowers his voice, as if he’s about to share a joke. “Well, they tried asking your side of things, but you were a bit loopy. Sat in a chair and kept saying you were sorry.” He lets out a short bark of a laugh, although the mental picture is far from funny. “For the record, I forgave you very beautifully.”

It’s even worse than he expected. And Lane doesn’t remember a word. He gestures to his bandaged hand with a sigh.

“And then—”

“Oh, well, they made us go along, didn’t they,” Lewis makes it seem as if the most interesting part of the story has concluded, and he’d like to move on to other topics. “I’d just as soon have tipped the man off the fire escape.”

Lane does not miss the way his brother’s expression hardens at these words. And Lewis doesn’t say anything else, so a short silence stretches between the two of them. Lane’s painfully aware of how inadequate he is at talking, even under normal circumstances, but the responsibility of saying something now, when he has no words, is nearly too much to bear.

His brother, for what it’s worth, seems to understand. “You having a real drink, then?”

Lane shrugs in lieu of the real answer, which is more along the lines of my head hurts. He doesn’t want to go home yet, but he can’t bring himself to sit down. He just wants to forget everything about this horrible night.

“Erm,” he says, and finally takes his seat, feeling very awkward. “I don’t know.”

Lewis rolls his eyes as if this is exactly the kind of response he was expecting. “Here, Tony,” he calls, directing his voice down to the other end of the bar, “make yourself useful, will you?”

The bartender gives Lewis a single-finger salute as he moves to get a second rocks glass.

**

“Dad’s not coming, is he?”

Shifting in the vinyl booth, Joan looks up from her slowly congealing plate of pasta. Nigel’s plate is full, too, and he’s pulling at the clean tines of his fork as if expecting them to bend like pieces of wood. Neither of them are really hungry. If Joan’s being honest, she’s felt sick since this morning, but she couldn’t think of anywhere else to take Nigel except maybe the movies. They’ve been sitting in this greasy spoon for almost two hours.

How much longer should she keep him away from the apartment? How much more could possibly happen? She can’t stop thinking about it: if they’re fighting, if Robert tried to lay hands on someone else. She doesn’t know if Lane could overpower him in a fight. She can’t let Nigel see how much that idea terrifies her.

“He doesn’t know where we are,” she replies with a sigh, pushing around a meatball on her plate with the bowl of her spoon.

Nigel just nods in a worried sort of way, his face pale with stress. Joan still feels like she needs to give him a better explanation, although she has no idea what to say. He obviously needs reassurance, so she just tries to smile. “He just—wanted to make sure you were okay.”

“But—” the boy says, but shuts his mouth very quickly, as if he’s suddenly changed his mind. Joan barely has time to feel relieved until he blurts out the rest of his question. “Does Mum—does she—know?”

Jesus. She can see the blind fear in Nigel’s round eyes, and feels hatred simmering in her stomach for the kind of man who would prompt these questions from a kid. Robert came here itching for a fight, and was going to get it no matter what Lane did. That sick, selfish bastard.

“I don’t think so,” is all she can say.

I hope not, she wants to add, but she can’t force the words past her lips.

**

Lewis slings back another measure of whiskey, grinning as he scoots the empty glass toward the bartender’s edge of the counter.

Lane drinks half of his, wincing as it burns going down his throat, but he still gulps down the rest just to prove a point.

His brother, as always, is insufferable. “You’re terrible at this.”

“Yes, well, some of us have cul—cultivated skills other than the alcoholic.”

“Oh, trying to pick another fight, are we? Good job of it. Very well done.”

“Stop being an ass,” Lane huffs in response. He toys the small shot glass back and forth between his fingers for a moment before speaking again.

“You can stop—pretending, anyway. I—I—know it was you.”

Lewis, as always, is inscrutable, one eyebrow lifting in a silent question. Lane lets out a sigh—even that much is painful—barely glancing at the other man before clarifying his earlier remark. “Nigel. You brought him over.”

Lewis doesn’t say a word.

“Don’t bother denying it, I know my son, and I know you and he’s…” Lane has to clear his throat to finish the sentence. “Well, he’s a good boy. He wouldn’t—he’s not stupid.”

Lane’s turned this over in his head too many times to count. Nigel is many things: rash, sometimes mouthy, hoping to fit in with other boys his age—but he isn’t reckless. Despite his age, he’s more mature than most. He wouldn’t just…dash off and run away expecting nothing to happen. He would have considered the consequences.

“You’re assuming this venture was something he had to be talked into.” Lewis snorts out a noise like a laugh. “Your Nigel was bloody insistent.”

“So you—” Lane hesitates, but forces himself to soldier on. “How did you arrange it, then?”

His brother lets out a sigh, staring at the rows of elaborate beer steins which are facing them, mounted behind the far counter of the bar. “Do you know what he told me? When I asked him why he wanted to do it?”

Lane peels a strip away from his napkin, bracing himself for the worst. He hates me. He’s angry. He thinks it’s my fault Becca left.

When he raises his eyes from his anxious hands, Lewis is staring at him, gaze clear and calm. “He thought you were going to forget him.”

It’s so unexpected it makes Lane’s throat tighten with emotion. He has to set his jaw to keep himself composed; he can’t make a sound here, not now, not while people are looking at him. There is water in his eyes and he quickly blinks it back, staring soundlessly at the half-full water glass in front of him. Don’t.

“Well,” Lewis continues, with a bitter sort of chuckle, “then he mentioned he’d rather get taken by some blackguard with a hook than stay at school another minute. Which would have been jolly inconvenient.”

Lane doesn’t know if the sudden choked noise he makes is more of a laugh or a sob, but whatever it is, it’s very brief, and he runs the fingertips of one hand along his trembling mouth before it can happen again. When he glances back to his brother, Lewis is watching him with sharp eyes, but the older man doesn’t comment, just gives him a sort of nod.

“Takes after you, I’m afraid.”

“I—don’t know about that,” Lane mutters, once he feels certain he can speak again.

Lewis fixes him with a knowing look, but doesn’t pursue this line of thought, just sighs, and lets out a long huff of breath, like people these days do nothing but amuse him. “Well, you mustn’t have buggered it up too badly. Imagine wanting to see yourfather.”

Lane shakes his head from side to side in disbelief, and reaches for his water again.

**

Taking a deep breath, Joan inserts the single brass key into the deadbolt latch of their front door and turns it to the left to unlock it, surprised when it doesn’t click out of place in response. With a hesitant hand, she reaches out and tries the knob.

The door opens easily.

Lane forgot to lock it. She presses her lips together to keep from commenting on how abnormal that is. Instead, she reaches for the light switch to the left of the frame and steps inside to see the state of the apartment.

When the lights flick on, she’s surprised. The front hallway is almost immaculate. Joan can feel her heart hammer in her chest as she steps inside. Everything looks more or less like it did when they left, except it’s so quiet.

They’re not here. She doesn’t know why she thought they would be.

Nigel follows her, closing the door behind him, and peering down the hallway as if expecting his father and uncle to pop out and yell surprise. “I’ll—just see if—Dad’s around.”

He marches down the hall with a determined air. She shakes her head to clear it, and peers quickly into the kitchen. There’s no message slip on the counter or stuck to the refrigerator—not even a scrap piece of paper by the door.

She doesn’t know why she thought Lane would still be here.

Maybe he got hurt, her traitorous mind supplies. Maybe they’re at the hospital.

Joan exhales another deep breath, trying to rid her mind of those types of thoughts. Her gaze is now fixed on the doorway of the living room. After a moment of hesitation she forces herself to walk inside. Once here, she lingers in the doorway, and then forces herself to keep walking. She stands in various parts of the room for a few seconds apiece—by that damn side table near the door, beside the sofa, in front of the television. She can feel anxiety prickling at her skin with every passing minute, but she pushes it aside.

It’s a room, for god’s sake. She can walk into an empty room without being afraid.

As she’s mentally reciting this mantra to herself, Nigel slouches back inside, his jacket and tie now gone, scratching at the back of his head as he speaks.

“There’s—no—note or anything.”

“I know,” Joan replies, just as quietly, and they stare at each other for a couple of seconds before Nigel pulls a face, strides over to the television with quick steps, and turns the knob to channel three. Joan watches as a color picture slowly buzzes into focus, and glances at the clock. Almost midnight. She wishes she knew when Lane was coming back.

She can’t stop wondering if he’s okay.

**

“Little brother,” Lewis says, narrowing his eyes at Lane, and pointing at his chest with two fingers. Lane blinks back in alarm. The older man may be well drunk by this point. “Now, tell me the truth, hm?”

“About what.”

“You’re not still in love with Becky, are you?”

It’s so unexpected that Lane actually chokes on his water, spluttering and coughing as he puts the glass aside. He might even have laughed if he was in a better mood, but as it is he manages to croak out a few words.

“You’re—joking.”

His brother is clearly taken aback at being wrong for once, but doesn’t apologize, just clears his throat, and waves a dismissive hand, as if he hadn’t even spoken. “Ah. Well, never mind, then.”

“No,” Lane interrupts, wanting to get to the bottom of this question straightaway. “Where on earth would you get that idea?”

Lewis lifts one shoulder in a shrug. “Joan mentioned the two of you still talk. I suppose I’m only curious.”

“Joan,” Lane repeats slowly. “Well—of course we still—Rebecca’s my son’s mother—”

“You are aware that doesn’t mean you’re forced to—”

Lane doesn’t even let him finish the sentence, still too distracted by the fact that Lewis heard any of this from Joan, of all people. She’s usually very careful about what she says, and to whom. “Oh, for god’s sake, what exactly did Joan tell you, then?”

“You haven’t asked her to marry you.”

Lane is beginning to feel anxious. “Did she—say that?”

“Christ,” Lewis huffs, shaking his head in an exasperated way. “Thick as a post.” After a few seconds of silence, he continues. “She’s worried, you ninny. I could see it in her face.”

“She hasn’t—” Lane winces as he speaks. “She’d tell me if that was…bothering her.”

Lewis’ raised eyebrow says he disagrees.

“It’s—” Lane gestures toward his midsection with a vague wave of one arm as if to mime Joan’s condition, speaking more quickly now. “Well, if you must know, when we were first… talking, we didn’t know what might happen. There was—we weren’t sure of anything.”

“Because she was pregnant.” A pause. “I imagine.”

Lane cannot meet his brother’s eyes. His voice is a whisper. “And…married.”

There is a long pause.

“And now?”

Lane’s too embarrassed to rationalize his continued inaction, and flushes from his ears down to his neck.

Lewis sighs. “You’ll forgive me, little brother, if I fail to see the issue at hand.”

“Because she deserves—” Lane begins finally, voice halting. “We have time.”

“You’re being a bloody fool.”

At the snide remark, Lane scoffs, but the elder man doesn’t seem to care.

“You got divorced—which, if we’re being honest, ought to have happened ages ago—”

“Oh, let’s have it, then—”

“—and not only did you find Joan, who is nothing short of magnificent, but you’ve even managed to get her in the family way. Why wouldn’t you marry her?”

“You always hated Rebecca,” Lane says automatically, but there’s no real venom in his voice.

“Because she’s a harpy,” pronounces Lewis with no small amount of glee. “And you never answered my question. Are you serious about this woman?”

Lane’s gone back to poking at his ripped cocktail napkin. “You know the answer to that.”

“And you intend to be father to that child—your child?”

“Lewis, for Christ’s sake!”

The older man holds up a hand as if to say he means no offense. “Then you’d better stop putting it off.”

“I know,” Lane admits, after a pause of several seconds. “I—I’m making a plan.”

I don’t want to get it wrong, he wants to blurt out. I don’t—know if she’ll say yes.

When he glances back to his brother, Lewis is grinning. The expression is very off-putting, but the elder man just reaches into his trouser pocket, and produces a small, square cardboard box about two inches wide, its edges worn brown by age. It’s striped all over in a dull white and pink, like an old piece of candy.

Looking very self-satisfied, Lewis places this small item onto the counter of the bar, and scoots it toward his brother.

Lane stares down at it in confusion. “What’s this?”

Lewis nudges the box toward him again, this time with two fingers, indicating that the younger man’s to open it. After a moment, Lane reaches out a hesitant hand to pry up the flimsy cardboard lid, exposing two tarnished pieces of jewelry to the dim light. It’s a set of wedding rings: plain band and a diamond, the gold gleaming dull against a pad of thin white cotton lining the bottom of the box. He doesn’t understand why Lewis would be carrying what are clearly secondhand trinkets, or why they’re so special, and stares to his brother for further clarification.

The gold of the wedding band has worn badly over the years, and the center stone of the engagement ring is coming loose. The two tiny stones bracketing the diamond are long gone, exposing the dark underside of the prongs to sharp eyes. Looks a bit cheap.

“Why do you have these?”

Lewis lets out a breath. “They’re Mother’s.”

Lane’s mouth drops open in silent shock.

His brother inclines his head in confirmation, and takes another gulp of his drink before speaking again. “Father thought they got pocketed by that midwife. Vicar had to intervene to stop him shouting at her.”

As Lewis speaks, Lane reaches out and brushes a careful fingertip against the cool metal, his own voice almost a whisper. “Oh.”

He doesn’t remember that.

“Well,” Lewis’s voice is unusually soft, “he was only half-wrong.” He glances over at Lane, as if to see how he’s taking this. “She asked me to take them. I gave her my word.”

“But how did you—where did you—?”

He couldn’t have got them out of the house without Father knowing.

Lewis lets out a noise like a laugh. “Jenny Prewett and I sewed them inside one of your cuddly toys. Playing at being spies, I suppose.”

“God,” says Lane, taken aback, and for a second he nearly wants to laugh. What a stupid thing to do. He doesn’t even remember knowing anyone called Jenny Prewett, and the confusion must show plainly on his face.

“Lived two houses down, near the grocer.” Lewis is clearly surprised at having to explain himself.  “Anyway.” He waves a dismissive hand at the jewelry. “Yours, if you want them.”

“No.”  Lane says quietly, shaking his head. I couldn’t.

“Little brother. I’ve quite made up my mind about this.”

“But—” Lane sputters. “She gave them to you. I can’t—take these.”

His brother shrugs, acting as if this sort of gift is nothing, as if his flat in London is riddled with various trinkets from Mother’s jewelry box. Lane doesn’t know why the other man has to pretend carelessness. Neither of them have any personal possessions of hers—just a couple of pictures. He doubts Lewis even has that, circumstances considered.

“But you’re the eldest,” he says, in one final attempt at protest.

“Well. I’m not the one getting married, am I?” Lewis retorts, suddenly reaching out and clapping Lane on the shoulder.

Staring at the tarnished jewelry, trying his hardest to recall the way those rings must once have gleamed on his mother’s hand, Lane’s choked up again, and has to stare at a spot on the wall for nearly a minute before the feeling passes. His brother grips the shoulder of Lane’s jacket for nearly as long, then just as suddenly, releases his grip.

“Tony,” Lewis calls out, clearing his throat, and waving to get the bartender’s attention, while gesturing toward his now-empty glass, “you’ll pour us one for the road, won’t you?”

**

Just as Joan’s about to put her head down onto her vanity table and close her eyes, she hears the spare key in the door. Her pulse quickens as the hinges creak open and closed. He’s home. Thank god. Quickly, she wipes some of the sleep from her eyes with a shaking hand and awkwardly starts to get up from her chair, balancing her other palm against the edge of the vanity table as she rises to her feet.

It takes Lane several minutes to come into the bedroom. When he arrives, he stops just inside the doorway, staring at Joan as if he’s stunned to see her awake and waiting for him. And god, even in this dim light, he looks like hell: his lower lip is swollen and stitched closed near the corner, he’s got a huge rippling bruise across one cheek, and a thick bandage wrapped around his left hand. His glasses are in his jacket pocket, and Joan wonders for a second if they might be broken. But what worries her most is the look on his face—like he’s barely keeping it together. Like he wants to fall into bed and never get up.

“Come here,” she says, extending a hand.

Lane won’t meet her eyes, staring at the bed, still made neatly from this morning. When he speaks, it’s so quiet. “I’m all right.”

She needs him to look at her. It’s not good for him to push this aside. “Please.”

He waves a hand toward the master bath, slanting a glance toward the door, and speaking in a rush. “It’s fine. I’m just—going to—”

“No, it’s not,” Joan interrupts, voice firm but gentle.

Even in the dim light, she can see Lane’s mouth tremble at the words, expression pained, as if he’s trying to hold onto his control with all his might. “Joan—it’s really—”

“Lane,” she continues, purposefully calm. “It’s not all right. He hurt you.”

His agonized expression falters, and within seconds he’s pressing a clenched fist against his mouth, trying to stop the flow of tears.

**

Facedown on the floor in the living room, Nigel snaps awake with his face feeling stiff from where it’s been pressed against the thick carpet. One of his arms is numb because he slept on it all funny. Disoriented, it takes him a minute to realize where he is and why, and at first he thinks he woke up because of his arm hurting, or because it was too quiet. He doesn’t remember turning off the set before falling asleep. But then there’s a noise—a strange noise, making the hair on the back of his neck stand on end—and he pushes the tangled blanket off his legs, slowly getting to his feet to investigate. It sounds like…crying.

He tiptoes out into the hall and toward Mum and—toward Dad and Joan’s room. There’s a tiny stream of light filtering into the hallway, from a light or lamp left on or something, and the crying noise gets louder the closer he walks to the slightly-open doorway.

When he feels brave enough to peer through the half-closed door, he sees Joan, dressed in a long blue nightgown, practically sitting on top of her vanity table with her arms around Dad—who’s the one bawling—hunched forward in the clothes he was wearing earlier, one arm balanced on her big belly and the other up by his face, pressed into her shoulder. He looks wrecked. Christ, Nigel shouldn’t be seeing this; he’s not ever supposed to—

“I’m here. I’m right here,” Joan’s whispering to Dad, over and over, stroking his hair and his hand and his shoulders and putting her palm to the back of his neck as he weeps. Nigel wants to stop watching: seeing his father cry makes his stomach hurt, it makes his heart beat so quickly he feels like he’s sprinting down the street—but he can’t move. He can’t tear his eyes away.

“I’m s-sorry,” Dad sobs, and jerks his head up to look at her, swiping at his nose with one hand. His face is red; his shoulders are heaving, and his mouth is all water as he tries to talk. “I—I—”

“Shh,” Joan keeps murmuring, and she puts her palms against the side of Dad’s face. For a second, their eyes are locked; she’s staring at him as if he’s the most important thing in the world. Her voice barely wavers. “It’s not your fault.”

Dad’s face screws up like he’s about to cry even harder—he’s clutching at Joan’s upper arms now, head bowed—and Nigel can’t bear to see any more. He backs away and goes into his room and tears his blue comforter down from the bed, pulling it into the floor in a massive heap as he crawls a few feet under the twin frame. Even here, in the dark, he feels terrified, and he doesn’t know why, and he thinks he can still hear crying, even with the door closed and the blanket pulled up over his head. It makes his skin crawl.

There is a battered-up teddy lying on its side near him—Reggie, the one that’s missing an eye. It’s coated in dust—probably disgusting—but Nigel still reaches an arm out for it all the same, pulling it over inch by inch with the tips of his fingers until he can properly reach one leg. After a tiny hesitation—he’s too old to do this—he dusts off its head and ears and back, and clutches it close to his chest with both arms, breathing in the scent of laundry soap and New York and home until he feels like he can finally ease the weight in his chest.

He thinks about the look on Joan’s face as Dad clung to her: how her fingers slid through his hair, and how her eyes had been soft and glossy. I’m here. I’m right here.

Mum never looked at him that way, not ever, not even once.

Nigel squeezes his eyes closed, and curls in closer to the little cuddly bear, expelling a deep breath and trying to pretend like he doesn’t hear anything except for his own breathing.

**

sunday

“Where’s Lane?” Gail takes another sip of her coffee. “Isn’t he joining us?”

Dad was asleep for most of yesterday, and said he didn’t feel like going out this morning. Nigel doesn’t know how to say that without being rude, so he just shrugs, and turns from where he’s been staring out the window to look at Joan, who’s weirdly quiet, and shifting in her seat with an expression that says she’s barely listening to what her mum’s saying.

“What?” she asks, when she realizes they’re both staring at her.

“Joanie, you look green,” Gail narrows her eyes, fixing her daughter with a suspicious look. “Do you need to throw up?”

“Mom, would you stop—” But as a waitress speeds by with a plate of Polish sausages held in one hand, Joan’s eyes widen, and she pushes to her feet without even finishing the sentence, moving toward the ladies’ toilet in the back corner of the diner with short, quick steps.

Nigel watches her rush through the door. “Is she all right?”

She’d seemed well enough until this morning. Yesterday, they made flapjacks for breakfast and then butterscotch pudding and then a couple of casseroles with the leftovers in the fridge—and she even let Nigel take over one, toss in whatever he wanted. He decided on ham and pasta and peas and three kinds of cheese and a lot of odd spices. They put on the radio for a long time. It was nearly fun.

Gail doesn’t seem very concerned, lifting one shoulder in a shrug. “At her stage, women get sick at the drop of a pin. She’ll be fine.”

“Oh.”

He wants to ask Gail something else about that condition—something he’d overheard Uncle Lewis say once, about Mother’s delicate health—but thinking of Mother makes him think about Dad, and the way he’d cried as Joan comforted him, and what happened with Grandfather—and there’s a hard lump lodged in his stomach, because Nigel’s been turning something over in his head for nearly two years, ever since they left New York.

Why did Mum and Dad get married at all, if they were only going to get divorced?

His eyes are stinging, so he just keeps staring out the window onto the sidewalk, where an old man’s selling newspapers from a ratty old stand. Green paint is flaking off from the sides. It’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to him, making a scene in public in front of someone he doesn’t even know. He scrubs at his eyes and nose with his shirtsleeve.

Gail sounds stunned. “What on earth’s the matter?”

“Nothing,” Nigel hiccups, wishing the floor would swallow him whole. He snorts and swallows the bogeys that are building up in his throat. “Sorry—”

The older woman reaches into her purse with a sigh, and pushes a blue handkerchief into his hand. “Here.” She lets out a sigh. “Start talking. You’ll feel better.”

Nigel takes it, swipes at his nose, and grips the cotton tightly in one fist as he tries to put his thoughts into words. “It’s stupid.”

“Maybe,” Gail says with a shrug. “But you might as well spill.”

She doesn’t say anything after that, and so after nearly a minute of silence, he decides he has to speak up and explain himself. “My parents—” he starts, then swipes at his nose again. “Hate each other.”

“They’re divorced.” Her no-nonsense tone suggesting that of course they hate each other.

“Yeah, I know that.” Nigel flexes his fingers around the balled-up handkerchief in his fist, staring down at the blue-threaded edges. He isn’t sure how to tell her that he thinks they started not liking each other a long time ago. The last Christmas they all spent together in London, Mother just sort of…fluttered around, smiling in a weird way and talking a lot about how nice it was to be home, and Dad didn’t say very much at all. And then the Christmas after that was at Granny’s—when Mum made him say goodbye to Dad over the phone.

He clears his throat. “I think it started…maybe when we moved here.”

First time he’s ever said that out loud.

Their waitress suddenly arrives with two steaming plates: eggs benedict for Gail, plus a small dish of cut-up fruit, and fried eggs and toast and several strips of bacon for Nigel. Gail tells her to keep Joan’s meal under the warmer, but begins to cut her own food into bite-sized pieces.

Nigel watches the yolk run yellow over a crisp piece of muffin as she slices into the middle of her egg. He’s unrolling his silverware from his paper napkin. “Mum hated it.”

Gail looks like she agrees with his theory, pursing her mouth in a considering way. “If they were already having problems, I’m sure moving didn’t help.”

“Why would they bother staying together, then?”

She snorts out an amused noise, pointing the tines of her fork in his direction. “Before I got married, I told Joanie’s father I wasn’t gonna be his slave. If Jack wanted a little woman to cook for him and polish his shoes, he could go ahead and find somebody else.”

“What did he say?” asks Nigel in a hesitant voice. He’s never heard of an arrangement like that. How would it work?

She glares at him like he’s an idiot. “You see him hanging around here anywhere?”

He feels guilty for asking such a personal question, and winces, embarrassed.

“Trust me. We’re all better off,” she continues, with a dismissive wave of one hand. “People don’t always want the same things forever. You’re old enough to understand that much.”

Nigel nods his head yes. He supposes he does. Sort of. Not really. But he’s got one other question: something that occurred to him late last night.

“Do you think…Joan and Dad will get married?”

She just rolls her eyes. “If they don’t, they’re both dumber than I thought.”

Frustrated by her answer, he bites the end off a long strip of bacon, and just as he’s determined to say something else, he notices the door to the ladies’ toilet swinging open and Joan walking out. From this angle, she’s all stomach, especially in the jumper dress she’s wearing. She’s also moving very slowly. When she gets to the table, and finally sits down, he notices she’s very pale, and her eyes are all bloodshot.

Gail speaks first. “Joanie, you want some dry toast?”

Before her daughter can even reply, the older woman’s already glancing around to summon the waitress.

Joan just leans back against the booth cushions with a sort of sigh, glancing down at her water glass as if she’s thinking about reaching for it. But she doesn’t move.

“This baby is trying to kill me.”

“Hmph,” says Gail, looking amused. “Just wait until your water breaks.”

“Stop,” Joan holds up a hand in a way that means she’s getting annoyed.

“Oh, there’s Linda,” Gail announces as she finally catches the waitress’ eye from across the floor. The brunette girl’s standing at another booth talking to two older men, with a metal coffee pot in one hand, laughing at something they said. She looks really pretty when she’s smiling like that, and in her blue uniform she—

Gail’s voice interrupts his daydreaming. “Nigel, when she gets here, why don’t you tell her what we want?” And she winks at him.

He flushes, takes another bite of his bacon to hide it, and pretends not to know what she’s talking about.