The clock on the wall ticked loudly, each second beating an echo in time with the pounding headache in John Pike's temples. He sat at his desk with his head in his hands, the evening sun pouring in through the small window behind him. After a few moments he stirred, pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes and breathed a soft sigh, before he slowly pushed his chair back and rose to his feet.
The envelope had come at five o'clock, with an empty box. Into the box went the envelope and the pink slip, the photo of Dee, the photos of the triplets and his daughters and Nicky with a gap-toothed smile. In went any files he dared take with him. In went his rolodex and a handful of pens from the bottom of his desk drawer. After a moment he tossed in his stapler and a mug from the staff kitchen, still rimmed with coffee stains.
He pulled the door closed behind him without a backward glance, a heavy weight of guilt and fear and shame in his stomach.
He drove home in silence, without the radio, without muttering to himself about meetings, or grocery items he'd been instructed to pick up on his way home. Numbers, often preceded by dollar signs, clashed angrily around in his mind. By the time he pulled into the garage, he had a splitting headache. The tension in his shoulders knotted all the way down his back as he reached for the door into his own home.
He had never dreaded opening that door before.
One glance at Dee was all it took. He saw the hope in her eyes flicker and fade. Her smile fell and his heart dropped in response. He looked away from her and concentrated on shrugging out of his jacket and loosening his tie.
She hurried to help him, folding his suit jacket over her arm, smoothing his tie in her hands. "It'll be okay," she whispered.
He nodded, daring to look at her again. Shame and frustration burned within him.
"Do the kids know?" He kept his voice soft.
"No. We'll have to tell them. Tonight."
He nodded silently; distractedly.
She looked up at him and squeezed his hand knowingly. "I'll get you some aspirin."
John stared up at the ceiling, listening to Dee brush her teeth. Light from the bathroom spilled across the foot of the bed.
The complicated hurricane of fear, anger and guilt still roiled within him. He'd managed very little dinner, spending most of the time staring down at his plate instead. He remembered snapping at the triplets a few times. He remembered Dee gently explaining what had happened, and that they would need to cut back on luxuries. He remembered she had said, in a quiet, clear voice, that she would be searching for work.
She flicked the bathroom light off and slipped into bed beside him. "Are you awake?" she asked softly, knowing very well he was.
"Mm," he answered.
She rested a gentle hand over his forehead before she shrugged herself down under the sheet. The ceiling fan rotated slowly above them.
"Stop worrying so much," she whispered, turning her head to look at him.
He kept his eyes on the ceiling fan. "We don't have any decent savings, Dee," he murmured, only half-listening to her.
"You'll get a severance package, won't you?"
"That won't last long, either," he muttered. "The triplets will eat through it in five minutes."
She smiled and propped herself up on her elbow. "I told you – I don't mind going to work. I'm not just a mom, you know. I'll be able to pick up temp work."
He turned to her, flashing a smile that must have appeared braver than he felt. He saw her relax slightly.
"It'll be okay," he said, repeating the words she had offered him so many times over the course of the evening. "I'll get up tomorrow and start searching. It won't take long."
"I know," she answered, smiling at him. She leaned over and kissed his forehead.
She fell asleep with her cheek against his shoulder, her breath deep and even against the thin cotton of his t-shirt. John lay awake for a long time.
The ear-splitting shriek caused John's eyes to fly open, but it was the impact of his youngest daughter throwing herself upon him that truly woke him. One of her knees landed on his stomach, the other landed distinctively south of there.
He gave a shout and a choke, rolling over and half-burying a giggling Claire. "Jesus," he croaked, opening one eye to look at her.
She beamed at him. "Are you staying home with me today?"
It all came crashing back. Ice gripped his chest. He nodded and closed his eyes again.
Claire scrambled off the bed excitedly. He heard her thundering down the stairs.
Dee emerged from the bathroom, her hair still wet, her face pink and clean. She smiled at him. "Good morning."
He groaned into his pillow.
"You have to get up, honey. Today's a busy day. We're both sending out résumés and making phone calls this morning."
"Give me a moment to recover from Claire's excitement," he muttered.
Dee's fingers stroked lightly over his back as she passed him. "Chin up," she said softly. "This could be exciting. This is a whole new opportunity."
He reached his hand out and she took it so he could squeeze her fingers gently. He kept his face buried in his pillow so she couldn't see the despair he was feeling.
"You've never picked me up from kindergarten," Claire babbled, swinging her father's hand back and forth as she gripped it tightly.
He looked down at her in amusement. "Is it really that exciting?"
"Dad, what's a baggage?" Claire asked, looking up at him with wide blue eyes.
"A what?" he asked, feeling a little disorientated from the rapid change in subject.
"Mallory says our house is a baggage and the bank will take it if we get too poor," Claire rattled on. She stopped sharply and bent to inspect her shoelaces, which she had just spent ten minutes on, painstakingly knotting them into large bows.
John's arm stretched and jolted him to a halt as Claire's tiny weight remained still and tense on the sidewalk.
"I think you mean a mortgage," he said after a moment, aiming a twinge of annoyance towards Mallory. "The bank won't take our house, honey. We have enough money to pay the mortgage."
"Oh, good," Claire answered brightly, skipping alongside him again. "Do we have enough money to buy me a Skipper doll?"
"I think the Skipper doll will have to wait a while," John answered apologetically.
He helped Claire into the car, making sure she was safely buckled in before he slid behind the wheel. He glanced at her in the rear-view mirror.
"We've got to get a couple of things from the store," he said. "Okay?"
"Okay," Claire answered, waving to one of her friends through the window. "Did you get a new job yet?"
He smiled and glanced at her in the mirror again as he steered the car into the street. "Not yet. It might take a while."
"So you can pick me up again tomorrow?"
"I suppose so."
Claire's voice lowered to a sombre hush. "And, Daddy?" she asked quietly.
He glanced at her in the mirror once more. "What is it, Claire?"
"Are you feeling better?" she whispered, looking quite afraid of daring to ask.
He pulled to a halt at a red light. "Much better," he answered. Mostly, it was the truth. The sheer volume of jobs listed in the local papers was quite heartening, and he had felt a twinge of excitement as he'd labelled envelopes to send his résumé out in several directions to several different companies earlier that day.
Dee had given him a knowing smile, and his heart had felt a little lighter. Sometimes he thought his wife was too clever for her own good.
His good mood was fleeting. The store was crowded with wives and mothers steering shopping carts around; ordering their children to leave the aisles that tempted them with packets of chocolates and cookies.
John told himself it was ridiculous to feel so self-conscious. Claire kept a tight grip on his hand and a running commentary on the items she wished they could still buy. He wanted to tell her to keep her voice down, but he had a feeling that would prompt tears, and possibly a tantrum.
Loaded with loaves of bread and bags of apples, he and Claire stood in line, each of them growing more and more impatient.
"Did we forget anything?" Claire asked hopefully, eyeing a display of Snickers bars by the checkout.
"No," John answered firmly. "Bread for sandwiches, and apples for school lunches. The rest can wait."
Claire pouted, but didn't argue. Her wide eyes stayed glued to the Snickers bars, as though she could make one hover into the air and over to her pocket if she concentrated hard enough.
He turned at the voice, which was already dripping with sympathy. Caroline Gardella stood behind him with a cart laden with groceries. "I heard," she said, offering him a look of pity.
He felt annoyance and shame grip hold of him again. He cleared his throat and offered a jerky nod, not sure how she expected him to respond.
"I mean," she continued, the infuriating look of pity still on her face, "We all expected it, didn't we? The reports coming out of that company indicated the worst."
"I suppose," he answered, inching forward a little as the line moved ahead. "We're not too worried," he added after a moment. "Something else will come up."
Claire gave him a wide smile and he combed his palm clumsily over the top of her head.
He could feel Caroline's eyes boring into his back, though she never said anything else. He didn't turn back to offer other topics of conversation. He kept his head down and his shoulders bent, his good mood in shreds.
Dee was warm and drowsy as John slid between the sheets.
"How do you do it?" he sighed, burrowing into his pillow. "I'm exhausted. Claire wore me out."
Dee chuckled quietly and shifted her hand across the mattress towards him. "She'll settle down."
Exhausted though he was, John couldn't feel sleep coming to him anytime soon. He watched his wife breathing quietly beside him.
"I ran into Caroline Gardella at the store," he muttered after a moment.
Dee's brow wrinkled as she tried to place the name.
"Tennis club," he added after a moment. "Thinks a lot of herself."
"Oh," Dee answered, her brow smoothing again. "Mm?"
He realised, then, how petty and ridiculous the story would sound. He couldn't put it into words, anyway – the cold, heavy weight he was carrying everywhere. The way people's eyes fell on him, pity wavering in their depths. He hated it.
"Never mind," he muttered after a moment.
Dee's eyes opened long enough for her to find his cheek with her hand, her thumb stroking along the edge of his jaw. "Stop worrying," she whispered. "We'll be all right. Nobody thinks any less of you, John."
His heart sank. Certainly his own opinion of himself was lower than it had been three days ago, and he was sure it wouldn't take long before everyone else started to catch up.
It took a lot of self-control not to slam the phone down. With a shaky hand, John ran his pen through the last number on the list. He'd spent all afternoon making phone calls, and none of them had gone very well. His confidence was at an all-time low.
Somehow, it was worse not having Dee there. He knew he should be relieved, and proud, that she had found a job. And he was. He was. But he was also insanely jealous and resentful. In all their years of marriage, he had been the provider. He had worked hard to provide for her, and he had loved doing it. Now he was feeling rather useless, and he loathed the fact he was the cause of the sudden changes they were going through.
He had always identified himself first and foremost as a father and husband, and he was guilty and rather shocked to realise that his identity had been so tied to his job. He felt lost.
Movement in the doorway caught his eye, but when he glanced up, he was alone.
"Claire," he sighed, "I can see you."
She peered around the doorframe at him. "Are you done?" she asked timidly. "Do you have a job yet?"
John glanced at the clock and scrubbed his palms tiredly over his face. "Not yet."
She slumped into the chair beside him. "It's taking a long time," she said.
John nodded, but noticed the somewhat-guilty look on Claire's face. "What's wrong?" he asked.
Her bottom lip trembled. "I don't want you to go back to work," she wailed.
He gave her a tired grin and reached for her, and she scrambled into his lap and tucked her head under his chin, sniffling quietly.
"I have to go back to work," he said after a moment. "You want a new Skipper doll, don't you?"
"Uh-huh," Claire answered pathetically, scrubbing her fist across her eyes.
"Well, I can't buy you one until I have a new job," John sighed, glancing mournfully down at the crossed-out numbers on the pad.
"Mallory said we need to stop wasting television," Claire mumbled after a moment.
John frowned, trying to track Claire's comment to comprehension. "It wouldn't hurt for you all to remember to turn things off, once you're done with them," he said eventually. "But don't listen too much to Mallory, honey. She's worried, but none of you need to be that worried."
"Because you can pay the baggage," Claire said in a small voice.
He kissed the top of her head. "Uh-huh. And we can pay for the television, too."
Claire reached her hand out to the notepad on the table and ran her finger down the list. "What are all these numbers?"
"Phone numbers of companies I'd like to work for," John answered. "Keep your fingers crossed one of them wants me, hm?"
Claire knotted her fingers together and looked up at him. "Will Moozie come back when you get a job?"
"Hopefully she won't have to work anymore," John answered, rather evasively. "Come on – the other kids will be home soon, and I think they'll expect a snack. You can help me."
She beamed up at him and he lifted her, swinging her slightly and gently dropping her onto the counter. He glanced down at her hands.
"You can uncross your fingers for this, silly-billy-goo-goo."
Dee yanked the blankets down on the bed, scattering pillows and throw-cushions to the floor.
"How long is this going to last?" John asked grumpily, sitting down on the edge of the bed and stripping his shirt over his head.
"As long as it has to," Dee snapped.
"I meant the argument," he shot back at her over his shoulder.
"So did I."
He felt her weight shift the mattress behind him. He loosened his belt and kicked his pants to the floor, sliding under the blankets and leaving his clothing crumpled on the carpet. Dee's body was tense and curled on the edge of the bed, well away from him.
He stretched out on his back, his jaw tight. "Is there anything in particular that I did wrong?" he asked finally.
She muttered something under her breath and then sat up, looking over at him angrily.
"There's a mountain of laundry there," she said waspishly. "And papers are scattered all over the house. Do you honestly expect me to come home and –"
"No," he answered abruptly. "But do you really think I sat here on my ass all day doing nothing? I forgot about the laundry, Dee; I'm sorry. And the papers are probably covered in telephone numbers and addresses of companies I'm trying to get interviews with, or they're fucking rejection letters from –"
"Keep your voice down!" she snapped.
He rolled over and kept his back to her, his body tense and aching with anger. Dee curled beneath the sheets again, and emptiness stretched between them.
John felt as though he'd spent more time watching the clock than sleeping. Saturday morning showed pink around the curtains, and tiredness weighed heavily upon him.
Saturday. The kids would be all over the house, tramping in and out, arguing, laughing. John usually loved Saturdays. Sometimes Claire and Margo would run in, giggling, throwing themselves onto the bed between their parents, demanding long lists of impossible breakfast foods.
Saturday morning meant sitting on the couch with coffee in his hand and Dee's feet in his lap as she flipped through the paper.
He breathed an inaudible sigh and rolled over to face her. She still had her back to him, and her breathing was deep and even.
He slid his way across the mattress and wrapped his arm across her, pulling her against him. She grumbled and gently kicked him.
"I'm not forgiving you that easily," she said, her voice half lost in her pillow.
He traced his nose across the back of her neck and rested his forehead against the warm curve of her shoulder. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'll do the laundry today."
She gave a soft chuckle and rolled over to face him. She looked tired. "Did you sleep?"
"Good." She closed her eyes again, but there was a smile on her face. "Serves you right for disagreeing with me."
He smiled, but it was fleeting. "I've already lost my job," he said miserably. "I don't want to lose you too."
"Idiot," she said, opening her eyes and smiling at him. "It was only an argument. Don't be so melodramatic."
He grinned and kissed her gently. "I hate this," he whispered. "I feel useless."
She snuggled into him. He felt her lashes blink closed against his throat. "You're not useless," she murmured. "We need you. Not your job."
John rubbed his hand up and down her arm. "I never realised how much I defined myself by my job," he said. "I feel like I've lost a really important part of me." He paused. "Then I feel guilty for feeling that way."
"Ah," Dee murmured, shaking her head, "you're still a pretty good catch."
He chuckled and pulled her closer, right up against him. "Thanks, Dee-Dee."
She hooked her leg over his hip. "You're welcome, John-John."
John winced as Claire gripped her fists into his hair, looking out over the crowd in the mall.
"That way!" she cried, pointing.
John sighed and followed Claire's finger. She was sitting on his shoulders, and he was acutely aware of the various, glittering shop fronts all around him, trying to lure his youngest daughter with the promises of expensive treasures. Signs that displayed brightly-lettered Christmas in July! sales were everywhere.
"You know what, Dad?" Claire asked for a moment, accidentally pulling on his hair again.
"You should be Santa," Claire said. "He gets stuff for free."
John grinned and tugged on her foot. "He doesn't get stuff for free, you goose. He gives it away. And believe me, when you're older, you'll realise it works out to be sort of expensive."
"We could be your elves!" Claire said, ignoring him. "Except Mallory, because she's already a baby-sitter and she's kind of busy."
"She is sort of busy, isn't she?" John answered, frowning in concern as he surveyed the crowd, trying to find the triplets.
"She's trying to earn money so we don't go homeless," Claire answered.
John sighed again and pinched the bridge of his nose. "I told you, that won't happen," he said.
"I said that," Claire answered happily. "She said I was too little to understand."
John turned, hanging onto Claire's legs so she didn't topple from his shoulders. "Can you see the triplets?"
Claire twisted around, tugging John's head back. "I thought I did," she said. "I guess not. Can we get ice cream?"
John shook his head. "Not today."
"The mall sucks when you don't have any money," Jordan complained, stabbing his fork into his mashed potato.
Mallory shot him a look that indicated he should shut up.
"What were you going to buy?" Claire asked, kicking her heels against the legs of her chair.
"Claire!" Margo whined. "You kicked me!"
"Did not!" Claire fired back. "You got in my way!"
"Enough," Dee said patiently.
Claire turned to Jordan expectantly. "What were you going to buy?" she asked again.
Jordan shrugged and shovelled a forkful of peas into his mouth. "Dunno," he said. "Nothing. It just sucks knowing you can't buy anything."
"Pass the potatoes, please!" Mallory cried, shooting Jordan another look.
John breathed a quiet sigh and caught Dee's eye across the table. She smiled at him.
John felt tired. It wasn't just 'lack of sleep' tired, it was tired tired. Summoning the energy to get out of bed in the morning sometimes felt impossible. The temptation of wasting the day in front of the television seemed to grow stronger every moment, and the pile of rejection letters on his desk in the den made it difficult to face sending further applications out.
He spun slowly in his desk chair to find Claire standing in the doorway, Frodo clutched in her hands.
"What is it, Claire?" he asked.
She approached him cautiously. "Did you find a job yet?"
"You asked me that this morning," he said wearily. "The answer is still no."
"Oh," Claire answered. She looked as disappointed as John felt, and he realised he wasn't doing a very good job of hiding his frustration or worry from her.
He held his arms out and she bounced closer to him. Frodo's eyes bulged a little.
"Careful," John said, pulling his youngest daughter onto his lap. "Don't squeeze him too tight."
Claire settled Frodo on the folds of her dress and stroked him gently. "What will happen to Frodo if you don't get a job?" she asked. "Will we have to sell him?"
John laughed and breathed a sigh. "No, Claire."
Claire leaned her cheek against her father's chest. "And Sarge? He sleeps a lot but I still think we should keep him."
"We can keep Sarge too, okay? Though I might have to sell the triplets, if they keep eating so much."
Claire looked up at him worriedly. "Really?"
He grinned and shook his head, and she giggled and cuddled into him again. "I like having you home," she said.
John kissed the top of her head. He felt guilty again. Poor Claire had made sure she could keep the pets, and once satisfied, was fervently hoping John wouldn't find a new job. He wished he felt the same way. He wished he could feel satisfied with things the way they were, but the truth was he'd never felt so utterly useless in his life.
Even Dee's positive energy was starting to wear down.
She kicked her shoes off and sat on the edge of the bed beside him. "No luck?"
John shook his head and she leaned her cheek against his shoulder.
"I'm starting to wonder if I should just throw in the towel and start my own baby-sitting business," John muttered.
Dee laughed and put her arm around his shoulders. "You could always join the existing one."
John pulled a face and stretched out across the bed, pulling her with him. "Let's keep it at Plan B for a while longer," he sighed.
Dee kissed his cheek. "Maybe we should start looking further afield," she said softly. "Maybe we have to move."
"No," John said firmly, shaking his head. "It'll upset the kids, and it'll upset you..." He kissed her forehead. "We're staying here."
Dee sighed and smiled. "Oh, good," she said. "When you say things like that, I remember why I love you so much."
He laughed and wrapped his arms around her. "Don't give up," he pleaded quietly. "I need you to keep telling me it'll be okay."
She kissed the end of his nose. "It'll be okay."
It had been a company he'd applied for on a desperate, last-ditch attempt. He'd felt under-qualified, he'd felt as though his experience lay too heavily in another field, and he'd forgotten about his application almost as soon as it had left his hand.
John stared down at the note he'd scribbled on the pad attached to the fridge; the time and date of his interview. The offer still rang in his ears, and it took him a moment to realise the usual clatter of the Pikes' evening meal had dulled to complete silence.
He looked around to the table in surprise, until he realised they were silent because of his phone conversation.
Dee's eyes were wide and hopeful. He grinned at her and she leapt up, her chair skating back across the floorboards.
"Did you get a job?" Nicky asked.
"An interview," John answered, and he could feel the grin on his face, so wide it felt impossible. Suddenly his soul felt lighter and his shoulders seemed straighter.
Mallory led a chorus of cheers, though John noticed out of the corner of his eye that Claire seemed a little disheartened.
Dee wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him.
"Eww," the triplets chorused.
"Told you," she breathed, smiling at him.
He grinned. "It's just an interview, Dee. Nothing certain."
"Nonsense," she murmured, kissing him again. "I'd hire you. Everything will be fine."
He laughed and squeezed her, and for the first time since losing his job, he truly, truly believed her.
John tiptoed into Claire and Margo's room. The sounds of soft, deep-sleep breathing filled the air.
He rested his hand against Claire's back and shook her gently. "Claire?"
She squirmed under the blankets and mumbled, opening sleepy eyes to look up at him.
"Shh," he whispered, holding his finger to his lips. "Don't wake Margo."
Claire sat up, tousle-haired and bleary-eyed. She held her arms up and John lifted her and carried her from the room. He helped her dress in the bathroom, pulling a t-shirt gently over her head and clumsily combing her hair, still not sure if he was doing it the way Dee did it for her.
"Where are we going?" she asked, grumpy from being woken.
"Shh," John reminded her. "It's a secret. Come on, before the others wake up."
He carried Claire downstairs and hurriedly sliced her an apple for breakfast, carrying three pieces as she ate the fourth. He could hear the triplets bickering over video game controllers down in the basement.
Claire chewed her apple as John buckled her into the back seat of the car. "Are we going to your new work?" she asked.
"No," John answered, handing her the rest of her apple. He sank into the driver's seat and reversed out of the drive way, shooting a slightly guilty look back to the house. He knew his other children would be upset about being left behind.
Stoneybrook was waking up. He raised his hand in greeting to Rioko Kishi as they drove past, and she held up her gardening secateurs in response before turning back to dead-head her roses.
Claire waved to a couple of kids John didn't recognise, and they waved back, wobbling dangerously on their bikes.
Claire munched her apple happily. "Daggles?" she asked.
"Can I come to work with you when you start your new job?"
He grinned and glanced at her in the rear-view mirror. "No, honey. You have to go to kindergarten. Besides, I think you'd get bored, sitting and watching me work all day."
"No I wouldn't!" she answered eagerly. "I want to see how you make money for television and baggages." She hesitated for a moment before trying the correct word. "Morbridges," she ventured.
"It's very, very boring," John promised, steering the car into the mostly-empty parking lot.
Claire's eyes widened and she pressed her nose to the window, her breath fogging the glass. She let out an excited shriek and John smiled as he parked the car.
He turned in his seat and met Claire's excited grin with one of his own. "I promised you a Skipper doll, remember?"