John calls home at 5pm, and Jordan answers.
"Yeah?" he says.
"Oh, this is how you're answering the phone now?" John asks.
"Only when I know it's you. What do you want?"
John tries not to encourage his son's sarcasm by laughing. He rests his head in his hands, leaning against his desk. "I left the grocery list behind," he said. "I need you to read it to me."
"Cookies," Jordan says immediately. "And frozen pizza."
"Neither of those things is on the list," John answers, but he writes them down anyway.
Dee calls home at 5pm, and Mallory answers.
"It's me," Dee says. "I have to go to the store before I come home, but I forget to check the expiration date on the milk. Can you see if we need more?"
"We need more," Mallory says, without checking. "We're almost out."
"Anything else?" Dee asks, writing milk down alongside the other items on her grocery list.
"How'd your interview go?" Mallory asks. "Have you got the job?"
"I won't find out until next week, honey," Dee says. "But I think it went well."
"Cool," Mallory says. "I'll put the lasagne in the oven in half an hour so it'll be ready when you get home."
John is irritated when he discovers his perfect record of picking the worst shopping cart possible is yet to be broken.
He clutches the grocery list in one hand and tries to weave in and out of the Friday evening rush as best as he can.
Dee's feet are killing her. If it were socially acceptable to walk around a supermarket in stockinged feet, she'd be throwing her heels into the cheese display right now.
She stops and rests against her cart, scanning her list and wincing when she realises how much she still needs to get.
The supermarket is busy, and the stress of her job interview hasn't quite worn off yet, despite Dee thinking it went as well as she could have hoped.
She clutches her list in one hand and makes her way around the supermarket, throwing things into the cart. She passes by the aisles full of sugary temptations and wishes she could afford little luxuries like chocolate bars for the girls, or extra bottles of soda.
She bites her lip, not knowing what she'll do if she doesn't get the job.
John's managed to navigate the entire supermarket without crashing into anyone, right up until he approaches the checkout.
The cart wheels away, almost of its own accord, and bumps into a rather shapely rear.
"Oh shit," John blurts, grabbing hold of his cart and hauling it backwards again. "Sorry."
The woman straightens up and blows her hair out of her face, a frozen pizza in one hand and a bag of frozen peas in the other. A mountain of groceries is already on the check-out counter. "No problem," she says, giving John a wide smile. "These things are hell to drive."
"Tell me about it," John mutters. He glances around and figures he's not going to get into a line that'll get him out of there any faster than this one will.
The woman bends over her cart again and John grips the handle on his grocery cart.
If he has to wait, he may as well wait in the line with the best view.
Dee is still loading groceries into the trunk of her car when she sees the man who crashed into her with his grocery cart.
She grins at him when he pops the trunk of the car beside her. "Hi," she says.
He grins back at her. "Hello."
When she gets into her car to drive away, she takes a long look at him in her rear-view mirror.
John stares up at the ceiling, looking at the pattern of shadows created by the streetlight and the oak tree in the front yard.
He's not sure why he can't sleep. The house is quiet. The boys are asleep.
He thinks perhaps it has something to do with the pretty smile he can't seem to get out of his mind.
He rolls over and sighs, closing his eyes and burying his face in his pillow.
No point in lingering on that daydream, he thinks, grinning to himself. Any woman in her right mind would run a mile from us.
"Are you looking forward to kindergarten tomorrow?" Dee whispers, tucking the blankets in around Claire.
Claire rubs her eyes tiredly. "Uh-huh," she says eventually.
"Oh, good," Dee says, relieved. She sits on the edge of the bed. "What will you do first? Will you paint a picture for me?"
"Sure," Claire says drowsily. "I'll paint pictures for everyone."
"Sounds fun," Dee whispers. She strokes Claire's hair quietly, watching her fall asleep. She can't help but feel guilty.
"Mom?" Mallory leans against the door-jamb. "Is it okay if Jessi comes by after school tomorrow? She said she'd help me watch Claire and Margo."
"That's fine," Dee answers softly. She bends over to kiss Claire's brow.
Mallory gives her a knowing look when Dee closes the door to Claire's bedroom. "We'll be okay," she says. "We're not going to destroy the house or anything. We've been alone in the house before."
"I know," Dee says.
"It's not like we're mad at you or anything," Mallory adds after a minute. "It's just a job, Mom."
Dee wraps her arms around her eldest daughter. "I know."
John manages to stop the elevator doors closing just in time for a woman to rush through in a whirl of papers and soft perfume.
"Oh, thanks," she gasps, trying to tidy the papers into a neat stack in her hands.
John's heart thuds painfully as he realises it's the woman from the grocery store. He manages to stop his first question becoming vocal ("You work here?") and instead settles on the next one. "Which floor?"
"Three." She catches John's eye and straightens in surprise. "Ah," she says, a smile of recognition on her face. "The shopping cart wrangler."
He laughs and hits the button for the third floor. "Shopping cart wrangler," he says. "Elevator serviceman..."
She grins at him and clutches the rail as the elevator surges upwards. "Is that your professional title?"
"No," he says, smiling back at her. "I'm a lawyer." He glances up at the floor numbers above the doors. "What about you?"
"By day, I'm a secretary," she says. The elevator doors open.
"And by night?" John asks.
She grins at him over her shoulder as she steps out onto the third floor, and the doors slide closed.
Dee's first day isn't bad, but by mid morning she's sick of answering the phone and trying to figure out the filing system, which doesn't seem to be in any sort of recognisable order at all.
She wishes she was home. She worries about Claire having to spend all day at kindergarten. She worries about how often Mallory is now going to have to watch her sisters after school. She worries that her new job isn't going to be worth all this extra trouble.
She clucks her tongue and settles herself in her desk chair again, knowing she doesn't have a choice.
Money doesn't grow on trees, after all.
"Money doesn't grow on trees, Adam," John says tiredly.
"Dad," Adam says, in a very frank voice. "Have you seen this game? It's like, amazing."
John can't keep track of which Nintendo cartridges the boys have and which they don't. "Maybe for Christmas," he finally answers.
Adam's eyes bulge. "Christmas?"
"Or," John says, "you can save up and buy it yourself. You've got three brothers to split the cost with you."
"This is true," Adam muses. He taps his finger against his chin. "Can I have an advance on my allowance?"
"Absolutely not," John says. He hands Adam a plate of pizza. "I'm not falling for that one again."
"I did my chores eventually," Adam says, taking his plate through to the living room.
John grins and shakes his head. "Eventually."
"I don't like you working in Stamford," Margo says, pouting as Dee helps her into her pyjamas.
"I know, honey," Dee says tiredly. "I don't really like working in Stamford, either."
"You said we could watch Care Bears together," Margo adds.
"Maybe this weekend," Dee says. "I promise this weekend." She kisses the top of Margo's head and gives her a little nudge towards the bed.
Claire is already in bed, rubbing her eyes. "Do I have to go to kindergarten again?" she asks.
"Uh-huh," Dee says, feeling a pang in her heart. "Didn't you have fun today, Claire?"
"I had fun," Claire says drowsily. "I want to make cookies tomorrow."
"We'll make cookies together soon," Dee promises. She leans over and kisses Claire, and then Margo, who is still pouting.
"I know it doesn't seem like much fun now, girls," Dee says. "But my new job means we can fix up some of the things around the house, and we can go to the movies sometimes, or maybe take a trip to the beach over the summer."
"The beach?" Margo asks, her voice high with excitement. "Really?"
"Sure," Dee says. She smiles. "It'll be worth it."
Claire is almost asleep. "All day tomorrow?" she asks.
"Kindergarten all day tomorrow," Dee confirms. She rubs her brow, feeling a headache coming on. "I'll try and get home earlier tomorrow, okay?"
"Can you sign my homework sheet?" Nicky asks, thrusting a crumpled piece of paper at John.
John sips his coffee and takes the paper from his son. "Where'd you keep this?" he asks. "In your back pocket?"
"It's not ripped or anything," Nicky says. "I need you to sign it so my teacher knows I didn't copy other kids at school."
John hands it back to him. "You've got a question wrong."
"Which one?" Nicky asks, rummaging for a pencil in his backpack.
John grins at him. "You've got twenty minutes before I leave for work. You figure it out."
"Aw, man!" Nicky says, trudging back to the living room. "BYRON!" he shouts. "I NEED HELP!"
"Mallory will pick you up today, Claire," Dee says, pulling her jacket on. "Vanessa, don't forget your violin lesson after school."
"I won't," Vanessa says, still looking half-asleep.
"Mal," Dee says, turning to her eldest daughter, "I promised Margo she could have a friend over, but if that sounds like too much, you might want to call Mary Anne Spier or someone to come over and help you out. There's money on the dresser in my bedroom, okay? Don't be afraid to call someone to help if the girls are going to be too much, especially because Vanessa won't be around to help you this afternoon."
"Mom," Mallory says, her eyes wide. "Calm down. We'll be fine. Now go, you're going to be late."
Dee kisses each of her daughters hurriedly. "Love you!" she shouts, pulling the door closed behind her.
John finds himself adjusting his morning routine ever-so-slightly.
He takes a little longer in the lobby, stopping to chat with Stan-the-Man in security, or falling back and waving the elevator on if it looks too crowded.
Waving it on if he can't see the pretty brunette with the smile that makes his gut tighten.
He hasn't seen her again, and he finds himself feeling disappointed.
Dee falls into a routine she loathes.
She wakes up each morning, hurries to get the girls their breakfast, tries to reassure Claire that tomorrow will be the day they bake cookies. She tries to remind Mallory what she needs to do to get dinner started. She checks Vanessa's homework as she gulps down a cup of sweetened, hot coffee. She packs Margo's backpack at the same time she's pulling her shoes and her jacket on at the door.
And then she gets into the car and she drives to Stamford, guilty and flustered and sure that it's not worth it; that her old job paid so much less but somehow gave so much more.
She's always wiping away tears when she pulls into the office parking garage.
"Oh," John groans, looking in his briefcase. "You've gotta be kidding me."
He leans back in his chair and sighs, rubbing his face, before he gets up and grabs his jacket from the back of his chair.
"Out for lunch?" Frank asks.
"I've forgotten my lunch," John grumbles. "Looks like I have to go out."
"Hurry back," Frank says around a mouthful of sandwich. "This paperwork won't write itself."
Dee jabs the button for the elevator irritably.
"The place across the road is nice," Sandra says from her desk, opening a tub of salad. "They do sandwiches and hot food."
"Thanks," Dee says, stepping into the elevator.
She comes face-to-face with the Cart Wrangler. "Hi," she says in surprise.
"Hi." He blinks, and then smiles at her. "I haven't seen you in a while."
"I wasn't aware you were looking for me," Dee says, leaning against the side of the elevator as it starts to travel downward.
"Oh, I wasn't," he blurts. "I mean, I just saw you at the store, and then here, and then I haven't seen you since, so..."
Dee smiles at him. He's turning red, and she thinks he has nice eyes and a nice smile and she finds it cute that he's so flustered.
"I'm Dee," she says, holding her hand out.
"John." He shakes his head. "And I'm usually better at this."
Dee's forgotten her lunch as well, and John doesn't want to go back upstairs to a stack of boring paperwork.
"Join me?" he asks, motioning to the café across the street and hoping he doesn't sound too desperate.
She hesitates, but she says, "Okay."
She seems as surprised as he does.
They sit across from one another and it feels awkward and date-like.
"So," John says, drumming his fingers on the table. "Secretary by day..."
She smiles. "My other identity is a secret one."
He grins. "I bet I could guess."
"Go on, then."
"Crime-fighter. Cab-driver. Chef at the best restaurant in town."
"All those things and more," Dee says, smiling at him again. "I'm a mom."
Oh, he thinks, and his heart skips a beat. I think I'm in trouble here.
John doesn't even flinch, which makes Dee's heart beat a little faster.
If anything, he looks pleased.
(She's so used to the panicked looks of men trying to escape a woman with four daughters at this point, it's a surprise to find someone different.)
"I have four girls," she tells him.
He stares back at her for a minute, and his next smile is cautious. "Really?"
He sounds a little disbelieving, and it makes her angry.
"Really," she says, lifting her chin. "Four beautiful girls."
"No," John says quickly, holding his hand up. "I'm not – don't... I mean, I'm not..." He breaks off and shakes his head. "I have four boys."
Dee blinks at him.
He sighs. "I really do know how to talk better than this, you know."
Their plates are empty and John's as determined as ever to stretch his lunch hour out as far as he possibly can.
Photos are on the table. Bent, wallet-sized, slightly-ragged-at-the-edges photos.
"They look exactly like you!" Dee exclaims, leaning over the photo of John's boys. "All four of them."
"Nicky's getting more like me as he gets older," John says. "When he was born, he was the image of his mother."
Dee glances up at him.
"Divorced," John says, holding up his left hand and showing her his bare finger. "Almost seven years ago."
She bites her lip and glances at the photo again. "They must have been young."
"Nick was..." John trails off and thinks for a minute. "She left just before his first birthday. It took another year or so for us to get things sorted out."
He swallows. He doesn't like talking about his divorce. But there are some things you have to tell a woman if you want her to keep smiling at you over meals and coffee.
"I'm divorced too," Dee says. "He left when I was pregnant with Claire."
John's fists tighten slightly and he glances down at the photo of Dee's youngest. "That must have been difficult."
Dee sips her coffee and holds his gaze. "It was."
Dee has to get back to work.
"Lunch tomorrow?" John asks.
He's so hopeful she doesn't have the heart to say no.
That, and she thinks she likes him.
"Sure," she says.
"Come on, Dad," Adam says, his thumb smacking the Nintendo controller obsessively. "This is bad even by your standards."
Nicky leans against John's legs. "Can I take your place?"
John hands him the controller and Nicky leans back against his father's shins and starts trying to repair the damage John has already caused to his character in the game.
John's mind isn't on video games.
(Truth be told, it rarely is.)
It's on Dee.
John comes by her desk, which pleases her and flusters her all at once.
They take the same table at the café across the road.
"Still saving the universe?" John asks.
"Last night I put the head back on a Barbie, and I watched a violin recital and a skit about the Queen of Never Never."
"Impressive," John says. "I blew up a space station."
Dee laughs and rolls her eyes. "Boys."
John grins back at her.
They both turn serious after a few minutes. Dee suddenly realises she likes him – a lot – and if she likes him, she needs to know everything.
Because of the girls, and because of... Well, because of everything.
It's like a job interview.
John asks her questions and she asks him questions, and he's unbelievably relieved that she seems to be as earnest and honest as he's trying to be.
He knows it won't work, otherwise. And damn, he wants this one to work.
They get the serious questions out of the way first.
"I've got full custody," Johns says. "I don't know where my ex-wife is these days. We haven't spoken in years. I doubt she'll ever come back. It wouldn't be a good thing if she did."
"I've got full custody as well," Dee says. "Mallory's the only one with clear memories of her father. Vanessa can remember a few things. I don't think Margo can remember him at all. She never asks about him. And of course, Claire has never known anything different to the situation we have now."
She looks down at the table. "I've stopped hoping he'll come back."
John watches her quietly for a moment. "My boys don't remember anything different, either," he says. "It's just been us. For a long time." He traces his thumb around the outside of his plate, feeling familiar stirrings of guilt in his stomach. "I've done the best I can."
"Me too," Dee says softly.
He can't ever remember a time he found such balanced understanding in someone.
"Hey!" Dee scoops Claire up and hugs her tightly. "Did you have a good day?"
"We made brownies!" Claire says, and Dee can smell the thick, chocolatey smell in the air and on Claire's breath.
"Mm," Dee says approvingly. "Did you save some for me?"
"Some," Claire says cautiously.
Dee laughs and puts her down.
Vanessa eyes her cautiously. "You're in a good mood."
"I'm always in a good mood," Dee says, pretending to be insulted.
"Not like this," Mallory says, folding her arms. "Did you get promoted?"
"Not yet," Dee says, shrugging out of her jacket. "I'm working on it."
"Will that mean two beach trips?" Margo asks hopefully.
Dee smiles at her. "If I can manage it."
Margo smiles back.
Dee shrugs and leads her daughters into the living room. "I had a good day," she says. "I had an interview, I guess. For something different."
"How'd you do?" Mallory asks curiously.
"I aced it," Dee says. She sinks onto the couch and smiles at her girls. "Today was good," she says. "Now come here, all of you, and tell me how your day went."
"Can we order a pizza?"
John lets the door swing closed and puts his briefcase down. "Hello to you too," he says to Jordan.
"Hi," Jordan says impatiently. "We're hungry. Also, how was your day?"
John laughs. "It was good. No pizza. We need to have some vegetables."
"Ugh." Jordan clutches his stomach. "Come on, Dad."
"We can't live on pizza," John says, hanging up his jacket.
"We totally can," Adam says, emerging from the living room.
John sighs. "Okay. Pizza it is."
Jordan obviously hadn't believed his father would give in. His eyes bulge. "Really?"
"Really," John says.
"Before he changes his mind!" Adam hisses.
Jordan disappears into the kitchen to find the menus.
"Why are you in such a good mood?" Byron asks. He and Nicky have baseball gloves on their hands.
John shrugs. "I had an interview today."
"For a different job?" Byron asks.
John thinks for a moment. "I guess so."
"Will you hit us some fly balls?" Nicky asks.
"How was it?" Adam asks. "The interview?"
"Go get a bat," John says to Nicky, pulling his tie off. Then he grins. "The interview? Aced it."