Angie let her arm be swung back and forth as Lizzie gripped her hand and happily recapped every moment of the movie they’d just seen. Maybe she shouldn’t have stopped at the bakery after, given the four-year-old that last bit of sugar.
What the hell? You only lived once, and her baby teeth would go anyway. And for once Lizzie wasn’t complaining about Jake. She was, in fact, begging for a stop at the park.
“It’s dark out,” Angie said, squeezing Lizzie’s hand a bit tighter as she jumped and squirmed.
“I know that!” Lizzie rolled her eyes at the sky. “They’ll be less people then, no lines for the swings.”
Angie smiled at the admittedly sound logic. “Another day, munchkin. This one’s been plenty long already.”
Lizzie huffed loudly. “We have to go home ‘cause of Jacob, don’t we?”
Well, nothing good lasted forever. “We have to go home because it’s time to go home. And yes, we have to take care of your brother.”
“Do not. Ana and Mr. Jarvis can take care of him. They like taking care of him.”
Lizzie might’ve said that the couple liked getting their teeth pulled.
“You know what they like even better?”
“Going home and not having to take care of him anymore.”
Lizzie huffed again. “I wish we could do that.”
“Don’t pout,” Angie warned. “We had a nice day together, didn’t we?”
“Yes,” Lizzie said, almost grudgingly. “Can we go to the park tomorrow?”
“Soon. Mommy or daddy can take you when they get back.”
“But not Jake. Jake’s too small to slide or swing or do monkey bars, or anything fun.”
“Yes, yes he is.” She’d let Lizzie be smug about that if it kept the peace. They were about to cross the street. Angie was halfway through her usual warning about holding hands tight and staying close (Lizzie was liable to attempt an escape if something caught her interest), when a voice caught her attention.
“Ange! Hey Ange, that you?”
Not a fan then. Every so often, someone would approach her, recognize her, especially after Peter Pan, but those people would call her Miss Martin, not ‘Ange.’
Still holding Lizzie’s hand, Angie turned to see a tall man with dark hair jogging under the streetlights to catch up with them. Something pulled at the back of her mind and Angie wondered if she shouldn’t have taken Fancy up on his offer/plea to drive them back. Peg and Steve wouldn’t like that she hadn’t. Angie stepped slightly in front of Lizzie, for no reason she could pinpoint.
The man stopped in front of them, grinning. “I knew it! Knew that was my girl Angie. Like anyone could forget you, huh?”
The accent was the same one she’d heard her entire life, the one she’d worked so hard to lose when necessary. “Arturo?” she asked, squinting a bit. He was thinner than she remembered. She’d last seen him in a blurred photo with the rest of his unit. His mother had shown it to her mother who’d shown it to her.
The smile widened. “Hey, Angie! It’s so good to see you!”
His teeth weren’t what she remembered. He might’ve chipped or lost a few. And his nose was crooked now, like someone had finally done a proper job of busting it. There was more stubble too, but the face was essentially the same one she’d seen since tenth grade, when puberty finished with him. “Arturo.” She returned his smile, relaxed. “God, it’s been forever.”
“Not quite, but long enough. Feels like it, right? Look at you, huh? You’re beautiful.”
“She’s not your girl,” Lizzie said suddenly. “She’s my mama.”
They both looked down at Lizzie, who spoke with more curiosity than anything else. Angie had barely noticed his words, honestly. He and half the boys she grew up with had said similar things since she hit puberty. Arturo kept smiling, bent at the waist. “Of course she is, bambina. I was just teasing. Your mama, and you’re beautiful just like her. Ange, how come I’ve only seen this kid in the paper?”
“Lizzie, this is Arturo. He used to live near Nonna and Nonno. Your older uncles and I grew up with him.”
“You were little together?” Lizzie asked.
“We were,” Arturo said. “Just as little as you once, Elizabetta.”
“I’m Lizzie,” she corrected. “Lizzie Rogers.”
Angie thought she saw a flash of something in the dim light, a look on Arturo’s face she didn’t remember from childhood. She blinked and it was gone, maybe never there at all as he straightened up, the old smile back in place. “What are you doing out here, Arturo?”
“Arturo,” he repeated. “What happened to Artie, hmm? You sound like my mother about to get me with that wooden spoon again. I was just doing some shopping. How ‘bout you gorgeous girls?”
No bags. He wasn’t carrying anything. Lizzie spoke before Angie could.
“Mama took me for a movie and cannolis, ‘cause I’m a big girl and Jake’s not and Jake doesn’t get to go.”
“Jake’s my stupid brother.”
“Lizzie,” Angie said out of habit. If he’d seen Lizzie in the papers, he would’ve seen Jacob a few months earlier.
‘Stepbrother, you mean.”
Angie tensed. That was the story, of course. But the way Artie said it…
Lizzie shrugged. “He’s just stupid Jakey, and he can’t go to the movies ‘cause he’s little and boring.”
“What about driving a big old truck?” Artie asked. “Is he too little for that?” Artie pointed a little way down the street to a red pickup parked nearby.
“Yes,” Lizzie said with a giggle. “And me too.”
“The guy who invented physics,” said Angie. “And me. “
“Oh come on, Ange. This thing’s practically new, I gotta show it off to someone. And how else am I gonna get two gorgeous gals in my car with me?”
“Like I told you in’42, Artie, that’s your problem.”
“Ouch. You wound me, Miss Martin. This how you treat all your adoring fans?”
She sensed it again, something ugly beneath the teasing. She was more aware than ever that she hadn’t seen him since before he shipped out with her father, brother, and everyone else. “Sorry, Artie. It’s just late and this one’s already getting fussy.”
“I’m not fussy!” Lizzie said, stamping her foot.
“Well, let me give you a ride then,” said Artie. “You’ll be home that much faster, and we can catch up on the way.”
“That’s sweet, but we’re good, really.”
“Ange, come on. What kinda guy would I be if I let you and the princess here hoof it home, in the dark?”
“I’ve done it plenty of times before, Artie.”
“Because you had to. Well, you don’t have to anymore. Besides, big star like you deserves a chariot and a chauffeur.”
“That’s what cabs are for.”
The sky opened up then, seemingly out of nowhere. Thunder first, and then rain. Big, heavy droplets that pelted them and made Lizzie shriek.
“In this?” Artie asked, talking louder over the noise. “Come on, Ange, the kid’ll freeze.”
She wanted to say that Lizzie rarely got sick. She wanted to say a lot of things. Mostly she wanted to go back and tell Fancy yes, she’d love that ride home.
“At least let her wait it out inside, huh?” He gestured at the truck. “You guys can stay warm while I get you a cab. What do you say, little one?”
“Mama, I want to drive the truck!”
Angie studied him. He was different, but everyone came back different, including Papa and her brother. If his eyes weren’t the same, they were close enough, carried the same affection they always had. And even if Lizzie rarely got sick, it wasn’t good form to risk it, risk illness herself. The last thing she needed was to lose her voice, not with her next show just around the corner.
Anyway, this was Artie. He’d never so much as shoved her when they were kids, which was more than she could say for any of the other boys, including her brothers. And paranoia tended to rise when you lived with Steve and Peggy.
Except that Angie had learned to trust her gut, and her gut was churning. And Peggy’s voice in her head, the voice that taught her all that self-defense stuff, was telling her no, telling her something was rotten.
She’d known Artie longer, but she trusted Peggy much, much more, and she was about to act her way out of this, make the final excuse and get Lizzie away, away from those alarm bells blaring loud over the storm.
Except she fucked it up.
She waited too long and Artie said something about his new truck having toys in it and Lizzie, sometimes stronger than she had any right to be, broke away from Angie’s hold and went running to the truck, splashing water behind. She ignored Angie’s call and Artie followed, opening the driver’s side door and lifting her in with feigned effort that made her giggle. Angie’s heel slipped on the pavement and by the time she got there Artie had already shut the door on Lizzie, pocketing the keys without starting the truck.
“Arturo,” she said, wishing her feet worked as fast as her heart was now.
“What’s wrong, Ange?” He leaned on the door casually, the same bad posture Angie had seen for years. His body blocked the door handle.
“What are you doing?”
“Keeping the kid warm.”
Screaming. There was always screaming, but they were the only ones on the street. Who would hear over the rain and be fast enough to do anything? And Lizzie was in his car. Peg had taught her things though, useful things. If only she’d practiced them as much as she’d practiced William fucking Shakespeare.
“Let me give you a ride. We’ll talk, catch up, like old times.”
“I don’t want a ride, Artie. Will you let her out of there, please?”
Artie sighed loudly enough to be heard above the rain. “Why do you always gotta make everything so complicated, Angie? I didn’t want complicated.”
He straightened just enough to shift his coat, let her see the revolver tucked against his waist. Angie froze.
“Get in the truck, Angie, please.” His voice was soft, He’d been one of the quieter ones when they were young.
“Get in, Angie. Please don’t make me ask you again.”
“And if I don’t?” Angie asked, trying to keep her voice steady. “You going to shoot me?”
“No, Angie. Of course not.”
Lizzie made a noise like a horn as she pretended to steer the truck.
“You wouldn’t, Artie, she’s a baby. Younger than we were when you moved to the neighborhood. You’re not going to hurt a baby.”
“I’m not gonna want to,” he corrected. “I did lots of things over there that I didn’t wanna do, Ange, but I didn’t have a choice. Now get in the fucking truck. Don’t make me do something else I don’t feel like doing.”
Angie took a breath and went to the passenger side. When she tried to open the door, he stopped her and she flinched.
“Whoa, easy,” Artie said. “Calm down, m’lady. Let me be a gentleman here.”
He opened the door for her and smiled like he expected her reciprocate. He held out a hand to boost her up into the truck, which she couldn’t risk declining, not with Lizzie and that pistol. He squeezed her fingers as she got in and it was all Angie could do not to pull away. She might’ve been able to do that wrist thing Peggy taught her, might’ve risked it even with the gun.
“Mama look, I’m driving!” Lizzie turned the wheel dramatically, made engine sounds.
Angie couldn’t risk it.
“Look at you!” Artie praised. He stood in front of the open passenger door, blocking Angie in. “Where you driving us to, bambina?”
Lizzie frowned, tapped her hand on the wheel like Angie had done a hundred times. “Loss Angeles!” she said finally.
Artie laughed. “L.A., huh? You gonna be a big star like your mama?”
Lizzie shrugged. “Maybe later. I want to go to Uncle Howard’s first. He’s got koalas and birdies with pretty colors and flamingos. Mr. Jarvis doesn’t like the flamingos.”
“Does he have lions and tigers and bears too?”
“He’s got a baby tiger and a baby lion. I don’t know about bears.”
“Well, how ‘bout instead of going all the way to California, we go to my house?”
“Why?” Lizzie asked, looking around the cab. “You said there were toys in here. I don’t see any toys.”
“Ah, but I didn’t say they were toys for you, did I? Excuse me, beautiful.”
He touched Angie’s thigh, leaned in close. Confused as she was, Angie still would’ve hit him if not for the gun in his coat, and, more importantly, Lizzie. He reached down into the footwell and picked up a small bag she hadn’t noticed before. Peggy would be so mad. Steve too. She was supposed to notice everything in situations like this.
“What?” said Artie, smiling. “Told you I went shopping. Didn’t believe me?”
“Why would I ever think you were anything but honest, Artie?”
He rummaged in the bag, still far too close to her, pulled out items to show Lizzie. A little rubber bone. A ball that squeaked. A small bag with a dog on the front.
“Can you guess what these are for, little miss?” Artie asked, putting each item back after showing it.
“You have a puppy?” Lizzie asked, letting go of the wheel and practically bouncing in her seat.
“I do! Such a smart girl, just like your mama.
“She won’t let me have a puppy. We only got stupid Jakey instead, and he can’t even do any tricks.”
“Oh, poor tesoro,” he said in that mockingly good-natured way Angie used to kind of like. “Well, I’m sure your mama wouldn’t mind if you came and visited my puppy for awhile.”
“Oh, Mama, Mama, can we go? We have to go, Mama!”
“You heard the gal in the driver’s seat, Ange.”
He was too close to her. This cab was too close, too small. She could grab for his coat but not without risking Lizzie. “Sure. We can have a quick visit.
Artie clapped his hands together, hard. “Hear that, Elizabetta? Tuo mammina says you can go for a ride."
“It’s almost bedtime??” Lizzie said, making it a question. Clearly she hadn’t expected to get her way this easily.
Artie waved his hand. “You’re a big girl, aren’t you? You know what the best thing is about being a big girl?”
Lizzie shook her head.
“Sometimes if you’re very, very lucky and very good, bedtime gets changed. Right, Angie?”
Angie swallowed hard, hoped Artie didn’t notice. “It’s okay, baby. Just this once, bedtime’s postponed. And we’ll be home soon. Won’t we, Artie?”
“Si, si. Ah, a special adventure with Zio Artie. Won’t that be fun, bambina?”
Artie seemed genuinely pleased as he slammed the passenger door on Angie. Circling around to the other side, he opened Lizzie’s door.
“No car seat,” Angie said, knew it wouldn’t matter.
“You want to be my co-pilot, bambina, help me steer?”
“Yes!” Lizzie said, nearly yelled.
“She can sit with me,” said Angie.
“Nonsense,” Artie said, voice easy. “I need a co-pilot, and she volunteered.”
Angie watched helplessly as Artie situated Lizzie in his lap. Lizzie who squirmed and bounced against him. Angie told her to hold still, very aware of the pistol tucked in Artie’s coat.
“Relax, Ange, I got it covered.”
“I don’t know about that,” she said, keeping her voice light. “Ma still hasn’t forgiven you for our mailbox.”
“I got better since then. We got it covered, don’t we, bambina?”
“Yeah, Mama, we got it covered.”
She was supposed to laugh at that. She made herself laugh at that as Artie turned the keys in the ignition and positioned Lizzie’s hands on the wheel. And then they were driving away. Away from any sort of safety, headed God knew where.