Actions

Work Header

Code Decay

Work Text:

 

 

Code Decay:

“The more software changes, the harder it becomes to change.”

“Even a good architecture for the now, could become bad for the later; violations of the original design principles can force unanticipated changes to violate the original system assumptions.”

 

 

Part 1

 

Olivia gets pregnant during the fall of Nathan’s junior year. More specifically, she gets pregnant after his War in the Twentieth Century II exam, on the desk in the second row by the window. Or, possibly, four hours later during the free-for-all that is MIT’s midterm after party. Or, possibly, on Harold’s bed after the after party, because Nathan hadn’t washed his sheets yet and Harold always gets that fussy look on his face when he and Olivia have sex on his things. Nathan loves that look, but Olivia loves it more.

Harold is disturbingly calm when Nathan tells him the news. He has a textbook open, something about hardware connectivity, but he isn’t reading it. It’s part of the show, the ‘I’m completely normal and haven’t memorized every word of this chapter’ show.

“Are you sure? What’s the percentage of error on pregnancy tests?” The calm is part of the show too. Nathan has been able to see through it ever since he caught Harold, stoned after moving into his new dorm, counting the black cars parked on the street below and announcing that one day a man in a suit would kill him.

“I’m sure. She’s sure.” Olivia is a third year med student but she’s actually only two years older than him. He’d taken a year off before college whereas she was admitted to MIT two years early and has been on the fast track ever since.

Harold takes that for what it is, a gold stamp of ‘really fucking pregnant’ and nods. “What will you do?”

Nathan lays back on the bed, Harold’s bed, the bed that possibly (probably) started all of this. He’d washed the sheets since, but he imagines he can still smell sex. “I always wanted to be a dad.”

“Nathan, you’re twenty one and in college.”

He shrugs. “Yeah.” Because there’s nothing much he can say to that.

Harold is watching him under those thin-rimmed glasses he’s been wearing lately. He traded up from the thick ones with yellowing lenses he’d had when Nathan first met him in, back when he was a T.A. for the Intro to Computer Science class and Nathan had been a suck up. He’s still a suck up, but he knows what he wants now, and it’s not good grades.

“You’re thinking of dropping out.”

He doesn’t say it like a question, and it’s scary how well Harold knows him. They’ve only been friends for a few years, and the first two months of their friendship was mostly Nathan following him around until Harold gave up and and let him sit in his study room over lunch. Nathan bought one of everything at the cafeteria and Harold’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich stayed in its brown bag.Now he’s a fixture in Nathan’s life, an irreplaceable component, even if his exact function is still unknown. He’s always been able to squint his big blue eyes at Nathan and see every bad idea before it happens. One blink and he pulls everything out, every secret and every fear.

“I’ll finish out the year. It won’t be born until summer, and Olivia won’t quit med school. Someone needs to--”

“To what, Nathan? To be the adult? Do you really think you’re the best person for the job?” He’s not making eye contact, a bad sign, and he hasn’t turned the page in the texbook yet, a worse one.

Olivia is at a seminar, listening to some old fart talk about knee replacements instead of here with him. He needs her at times like these, when Harold is afraid and doesn’t know how to act.

“It’ll be okay, Harold.”

“You were going to be my roommate.” It’s code, because Harold is incapable of expressing himself the way he means to. It’s code for, ‘You’re going to abandon me now, aren’t you.’

Nathan is a quick thinker, though, and Olivia’s absence makes coming to maybe unwise decisions that much easier. “Who says we won’t be? Olivia will still be in school here, and so will you for a little longer at least, so why not stick to the plan? A three bedroom, so there’s a room for the baby too.”

A slow page turn and an even slower turn of the head. “You’re getting ahead of yourself. There may not even be a baby. Olivia must be very early in her first trimester, and the level of error is not insignificant in--”

“Harold, just shut up.” Nathan throws a pillow at his head.

 

*

 

Olivia is completely, definitely, very, extremely pregnant. She gets a second test done at the hospital, too, which is easy enough since she practically lives there. When she finally tracks Harold down and corners him in a study room she waves the results in his face.

“See?”

He squints his face up into a raisin and flinches away. “You peed on that.”

“Yes, I did.”

“You really are, then.”

“Up the duff. Bun in the oven. Eating for two.”

It took her a day to find him after Nathan drops the news. When Harold avoids people he does it completely. Finding him means that he let her, that it was on his terms, not hers.

He’s prepping for a class, stuffed in a dark study room with no windows and only a tiny slit in the door to suggest the stacks and the library outside. Some professor, as part of his fellowship with the graduate program she’s sure, has put him in charge of teaching most of the 101 undergrad computer science courses. She’d snuck into one, back when he first got handed the job, and was surprised to find out he was a halfway decent teacher.

He doesn’t make eye contact with her. “You don’t seem unhappy about it.”

“Did you think I would be?”

“Yes.”

“Well. I’m not.” It’s not a complete lie. It’s not in the plan (Olivia has had a drawn out plan of her life since she was twelve) but she’s good at adapting. Minute course corrections are her speciality, although a small part of her brain is laughing at the idea that cells multiplying in her womb is a small obstacle to divert around. The timing isn’t ideal, but it could be worse. The baby will be born in late June or early July most likely. It will be difficult to balance, but she’ll aim for a research position over the summer and schedule around it. If she can schedule it, plan it out like this and write it down and confine it to its space, she’ll be fine.

There’s only one little desk in the study room, so Olivia winds up leaning against the chalkboard in the back and is probably getting smudges all over her coral pink blouse. But it’s worth it to stay facing Harold. She snags a pen off his carefully arranged tabletop just so she’ll have something in her hands.

She takes a deep breath and says exactly what she means to say. Harold does that to her, she’s not sure how. “This isn’t what I planned either, you know. So don’t go acting like this is some affront to you. You’re freaking Nathan out with your cut-and-run stuff. He’s supposed to be the flake, not you.” Harold had been Nathan’s friend before she’d come into the picture, but in the three years since they’ve become a strange little unit: Nathan is their head and heart, Harold the brains, and Olivia has always been everything else. And now, as she spins the red pen in her hands, she’s the uterus too. “He says to tell you that you’re a jerk for avoiding us.”

He sniffs. It’s always amused her that he can be so haughty sometimes. He’s not tall and good-looking like Nathan, not rich, not anything other than what he is the most: terrifyingly smart.

“You’re the one that’s... that’s compromised,” he says, and he gets stuck on the last word, like it’s not the one he was looking for but it was better than anything else he could come up with.

“Yeah, but you’re the one breaking all the pencil lead.”

He looks down, like he hasn’t noticed the tip of his #2 breaking off and rolling down the page.

“Is it the change part? Because yeah, it’s going to change. But Nathan is hell bent on keeping us together.”

She hits a mark, but she’s not sure where. “I’m familiar with change, Olivia.” He closes up his book and puts it carefully, gently, into his backpack. He pauses when his hand hits the doorknob. “It’s never what you think it will be.”

And Olivia is left alone in the study room. “Fuck.”

 

Olivia spends the next three days running around campus. She hardly has time to eat, let alone play the find-Harold-and-make-it-better game. She’s got labs and exams and overnights and no time for handloading and certainly no time for the dawning realization that there’s a fetus growing inside of her. But when she’s finally free, Harold finds her before she can find him this time. He’s uncanny when he just shows up like that. The first time she did it, when she was in her first year of med school and had just started dating Nathan, she’d almost thrown a plate at his head. It became something of a joke after that: Harold found you, not the other way around.

“Nathan told me I was an ass.”

“You kinda were.”

He’s in her kitchen sitting in the wooden chair under the window that faces the empty lot next door. She’s got three housemates, but with all of them in med school or nursing school, their schedules are crazy on a good day, downright murderous on a bad. She’s got the house to herself for a few hours.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

She shrugs. She’s over it. Harold’s temper tantrums aren’t new. “Yeah, well that’s probably for the best since you have a little under nine months to get used to it.”

He stays another hour and she feeds him, mostly because she wants to feed herself, and her mother taught her to never let a body at your table go hungry. He picks at his food, though, while she slides into hers with ease. It’s just leftovers, nothing fancy. She’s not a cook.

She sets her spoon down. “Nathan’s going to drop out,” she says. “Not right away, but he will. You need to be with him on this. He needs you with him.”

Harold passes his fork through the mound of mashed potatoes. He’s creating a geometric pattern of grooves, each evenly spaced to make a sort of triangle, but he keeps his frustrating mouth squeezed shut.

“Nathan isn’t like us. He doesn’t enjoy school and this is just a convenient way to get out. Can’t you see that?”

Harold harrumphs and pokes at his peas.

“Look, you’ll be done with your postdoc work soon anyway, right?”

He snaps his head up. She can see the wheels spinning behind his eyes. “Are you suggesting--”

“We all know you intend to go startup, and we all know you’ll make it. Just bring him with you on it. He’s a good programer, and if you hire him it won’t matter that he didn’t graduate.” She takes a careful ship of her cherry Kool Aid. “Besides, you’ll need a face for your business, and let’s be honest, Nathan’s got a damned beautiful face.”

 

“I’m pregnant,” Olivia says in front of the mirror, and watches as her lips move to the alien words. “I’m pregnant,” she says under her breath as she climbs the stairs to her first lecture of the day. “I’m pregnant,” she writes in miniature letters in the margins of her composition notebook. And then it’s four hours into a twelve hour day and she’s gritting her teeth trying not to cry. Professor Proudfit is talking about psychosomatic pain and she write down every single word because if she stops, even for a second, she’ll have to think about it.

She keeps gritting her teeth for the next three hours and she holds it in, because it’s just hormones, and if she can understand the process that’s slowly overtaking her body than she can control it. There are people casually standing up and walking out of the lecture hall like nothing has changed, like she hasn’t been compromised. The word sneaks into her brain in Harold’s voice.

“Fuck.” She runs down the hall and she’s pretty sure she left her notebook at her desk, but she doesn’t care. She winds up standing outside of Harold’s beige painted dorm room door. Nathan is god knows where, and that pisses her off, but Harold is a constant.

He opens the door after the first knock. “Olivia?”

He’s blurry because the tears she’s been holding in are starting to grow and balloon, just like the thing inside her is.

“Oh, good,” he’s saying. But that doesn’t make sense. Her brain isn’t prepared to do anything other than skip ahead until he continues. “I have something for you, actually. I didn’t think they were necessary because infants don’t walk, and they seem disproportionately small, but the woman in the store assured me they were important.” He bends to the side and when he pops back up there’s a pair of tiny shoes in his hand, bright red with miniature white laces. He holds them out to her and they fit in the palm of his hand.

“Oh god,” she says, and the tears start. “I don’t know if I can do this, Harold.” He doesn’t move as she snakes her arms around him and inhales his cotton shirt. She’s sobbing on his shoulder and he’s clearly at a loss of what to do with her, but she doesn’t care. He’s soft and warm and holding goddamn baby shoes, and she hangs onto him until his shoulder is sopping wet from her tears and she’s out of breath from crying. He’s only one year older than her, technically, but it’s such a relief to have him on her side that she’s at a loss for words. She can’t always be the mature one.

“Was it the shoes? Are they the wrong size?”

The shoes are so tiny, so utterly small. “No,” and her breathing is still annoyingly hitched from sobbing,k and her nose is full of mucus. “They’re great.” She doesn’t want to let go. For someone who doesn’t hug back very well, Harold is a great hug recipient. “Thanks.”

 

*

 

“You should get married.”

Nathan is bringing a spoonful of Fruit Loops to his mouth when Harold says it. He’s in Harold’s dorm room again, camped out on the floor and eating his food. Olivia is napping after a 16-hour day and he can just see one of her feet hanging off the edge of the lofted bed. She always falls asleep easily in Harold’s bed. He does too, for that matter. They probably sleep in it more often than Harold does.

“Excuse me?”

“Married. You should get married. I’m sure you’ve thought about it. A child born out of wedlock will bring stigma, ostracism--”

“It’s 1982, Harold, not the dark ages.”

But once Harold says it he can’t put it out of his head. He thinks about it after Olivia wakes up and demands proper food, not cereal. And he thinks about it the day after, too, when he’s zoning out in his Ethics and Security in Computing course. He imagines Olivia standing in front of a church in a white wedding dress, complete with veil. They’ll have a proper wedding because that’s what she deserves. Then, maybe someday, they’ll live in a nice house somewhere with a yard and trees and a fence, because that’s where kids should grow up. He’ll do it right.

“Something on your mind, Ingram?”

Professor O’Brian watches him from the bottom of the theater style lecture hall. He’s always had it out for him, but even Nathan can admit that standing up in one of his classes as a freshman (cocky as hell and sporting his favorite pair of corduroys) and declaring his intention to ‘bring the fun back into this old tomb’ hadn’t been wise.

OBrian has his back to the chalkboard and has something dull scribbled out in white, but he’s staring at Nathan like he’s just declared war. The classroom is silent.

Nathan’s never been one to roll over. “Yes,“ he announces loudly. “I”m going to marry Olivia.”

It has the benefit of stopping O’Brian in his tracks and getting a tentative applause from his classmates, but now that he’s said it there’s a slow burn in his veins, a tingle down his toes, and goosebumps that run across his shoulders. The lecture starts back up again, but Nathan tunes it out. It’s another six hours before he can see Olivia again, and that will only be for a twenty minute dinner they were able to force into her insane schedule. Then it will be another 48 hours after that until they can actually spend time together.

“You seriously gonna get married, man?” Jameson Williams, his year and equally uninterested in paper writing,  is practically stepping on his feet as they filter out of the classroom. Nathan will flunk the exam on Thursday but he doesn’t care.

“Yeah. Yeah I think I will.”

“Right on, man. That’s groovy.”

It’s groovy if Olivia says yes. It’s a lot less groovy if Olivia says no.

He corners Harold in his room later. “I need a ring.” He uses every inch of height he has over him to stress the importance. “How can I ask her to marry me without a ring? Where do I even get one?”

Harold grins. It’s these grins Nathan lives for, the ones that say, ‘I’ve contemplated your internal strife and have come up with a solution far better than you could have,’ and, ‘I’m a shithead but you love me.’

“I’ve collected a list of stores in town with a wide range of prices and styles,” Harold says, and drags a handwritten list, complete with phone numbers, from the back of his notebook out into the light. It’s been folded primly to shield it from prying eyes, and he opens it and smooths it out for Nathan to inspect. “The payphone in the lobby usually isn’t busy this time of day.”

It turns out engagement rings, not to mention wedding rings, are expensive. Really fucking expensive. He knew they would be, academically, but hearing the actual numbers leaves him reeling.

He wanders back into Harold’s room in a daze, sits on the floor next to the desk chair, and lets his forehead thump against the laminated wood by Harold’s thigh. “I’m so screwed.”

“Olivia will marry you if you propose to her with a rubber band.” Harold looks down at him from his perch in the chair. “I only gave you the list because I thought you wanted it, not because you needed it. You were obsessed with the idea of doing it ‘right.’”

That sounds like Harold, but Nathan doesn’t want to think. “Let’s get drunk,” he says.

Harold sighs, but it’s sigh number three, the sigh that means, ‘you’re insufferable but let’s do whatever hare-brained thing you just said anyhow because I’ll secretly have fun.’ “I have class early, though, so we can’t stay out late.”

They stay out late.

 

*

Nathan does actually have his own dorm on campus, but he intentionally does everything he can to never be there. He’s lucky, he has a single occupation room, the sort of room most undergrads die to get, but he says he can’t stand the emptiness of it. He sleeps there (when he can’t get away with sleeping in Harold’s or Olivia’s bed) and he keeps his things there, but it’s not much more than a glorified locker. He wasn’t built to be alone, not like Harold. Though, Harold thinks as he drags Nathan past the undergraduate dorms and back to his own room, he hasn’t been finding himself alone very often these days.

“Lishen, thanks for coming out. You’re always so funny when you’re drunk, Harold.”

“I’m not drunk. You’re drunk.”

Nathan sags against him and says, “Have you seen Olivia?” They round the corner and Nathan leans over, bent like a drinking straw as Harold tries to navigate them over the curb. He wishes he were taller, if only for moments like these. He’s not muscular like Nathan, whose meal plan at MIT went straight to his biceps. The task of getting them home is made even more difficult by Nathan twisting around, peering into the shadows to look for his girlfriend. “I”m going to ask her to marry me.”

“Yes, I know. It was my idea.”

They make it to the back door of the dorm complex with difficulty, and Harold has to prop Nathan against the brick wall while he fishes for his keys. “It was, wasn’t it. You’re a good friend, Harold.” Even though the slurs and dips in his speech, addled by three beers too many, there’s that odd sincerity in his voice that Nathan always has. Harold tried to imitate it a few times, when requesting absences and explaining tardiness, but he’s never been able to get it quite right. The whole hearted honesty of it, the total abandon of self consciousness.

“Are we going to Olivia’s?”

“No, she’s working. Now watch out for the step.”

It takes them twenty minutes to get up three flights of stairs, and he’s pretty sure his neighbors like him even less than when he set off the fire alarm with his soldering gun.

There’s no way he’s getting Nathan into the lofted bed, and no way he’d stay up there even if he did, so he drags the covers off it and makes a nest on the floor. It’s not the first time either of them has crashed there before.

“Do you need to throw up?”

“Why would I want to throw up?” Nathan seems genuinely confused.

Harold pulls the waste bin over anyhow, just in case. “Here, drink this too,” and he pushes a glass of water under Nathan’s nose.

It’s almost uncomfortable how familiar it’s become. Not just Nathan drunk and half passed out on his floor (although that has certainly happened more times than Harold likes), but Nathan in his space, Nathan hanging off him like a leech and breathing on him with stale beer breath, Nathan curling up in a blanket (his blanket) and dragging him down to the floor with him. Nathan.

Nathan passes out almost immediately. Harold gets comfortable next to him, winds up with one arm pillowed on Nathan’s shoulder and the other pinned against the thin carpet. There’s no point trying to disentangle himself and sleep on the bed; he only has the one set of blankets.

The first time they ended up on the floor together they were both drunk. Nathan was 19 and a freshman and Harold was in his third semester as a graduate student in the computer science program. Nathan laughed it off the next morning, said, ‘in boarding school we always ended up piled in someone’s room after a night out.’ Harold memorized the feel of the two of them pressed together, the feel of the body heat of another person through two layers of cotton. It was a feeling he could qualify but not quantify, and he decided it required further study. He went out with Nathan constantly after that, and they ended up curled up on the floor more often than not.

Olivia raised an eyebrow the first time. The second time she sighed. The third time she grabbed the tail of a blanket and told them to make room.

This time there is no Olivia, just the two of them on old carpet with Harold’s textbooks stacked up four inches from Nathan’s head. He looks so young, asleep like that. Far too young to be a father.

“Goodnight, Nathan,” he says. Nathan doesn’t respond, of course. He’s halfway through some dream already. “Don’t wait too long. Don’t let her get the wrong idea.” It’s not worth repeating once Nathan’s awake. He’s sure Olivia knows exactly what Nathan intends anyway.

 

*

 

Nathan proposes to Olivia next Saturday in front of the cafeteria. He doesn’t use a rubber band, but he does use a silver ring made from Harold’s soldering gun, a blow torch, and his own two hands. It isn’t very pretty, but it’s solid and made from Harold’s tools, and he spent a full hour buffing it to make it shine. When he hands it to her she bites her lip and smiles at him, and at Harold because of course she can see him in it too, and cries.

“Olivia, will you marry me?”

“Of course, you idiot. It’s not like this was a surprise.”

He’s on his knee, and when she holds out her hand the ring slips on perfectly. Harold came up with the size, he never asked how. “I’ll buy you a real ring, I promise. Just consider this a temporary one.”

She covers his mouth with hers and he’s flooded with how much he loves the taste of her. “Shut up, it’s perfect.”

There are some whoops and cheers, and apparently the whole football team is catcalling them as they wander in for Saturday brunch, but he doesn’t care and neither does Olivia. Harold is four feet to their left and smiling, and Nathan decides this is what it means to be utterly, completely happy.

None of them can stop grinning like fools, and Nathan can’t stop watching Olivia’s mouth. “I love you,” he tells her, and he pulls her in for a kiss.

It’s fall and the leaves are turning and they walk back to Olivia’s apartment under rust colored trees.

“Have you thought about a name?” Harold asks. Now that he’s stopped being an ass about the whole thing, he’s been incredibly invested in the process. It takes Nathan a second to stop thinking about wedding rings and vows and white dresses and start thinking of babies instead.

Olivia is leading them down the sidewalk, one hand slipped into Nathan’s, and he trails behind her, shoulder to shoulder with Harold. She looks first at him and then at Harold before she answers. “You can’t even see the bump yet. No name talk until there’s a bump. That’s the rule.”

There’s something twisting in Harold though, he can see it. It’s a beautiful day, he’s marrying Olivia, Olivia loves him, and Harold is frowning at his feet. Nathan bumps his elbow. “Why, did you have something in mind?”

“It’s silly.” He flicks his eyes to Olivia and he hesitates. Nathan hasn’t seen Harold hesitate since the first time he woke up covered in Olivia’s drool. “There isn’t even a bump, so it’s silly.”

“Come on, you started it.”

“My brother’s name was William.”

That night, when they slide into bed, Olivia pulls Harold in with them. She’s naked on the bed, and Harold barely bats an eye. Harold, for all his outwardly prudish ways, isn’t one for shyness. Nathan grins so wide his mouth hurts. He has one hand on Olivia’s belly, the other twined through her fingers next to the ring, and Harold is pressed against his side, warm and constant.

 

*

 

Harold has always been a bit of a mystery. Olivia hates it as much as she loves it, but Nathan has more patience for it than she does. She first asked Harold about his family, about his life away from MIT, in his old dorm back when she and Nathan first started going out. It was been clear, even then, that Harold was as much a part of the deal as Nathan was.

“I don’t have a family,” he said in the icy tone of voice she’s now used to, and that had been the end of it. Olivia has more family than she knows what to do with; she can’t even begin to imagine having none at all.

“You think he’s a foster kid?” she asked Nathan six months in, over pizza he bought on his dad’s credit card.

“Maybe. I don’t know. He’s Harold,” because for Nathan, that was always enough.

Then, at year two, she asked again, and Nathan said, “We’re his family,” and she decided that was how it should be.

Olivia files the name William away, holds it close like it’s something special.

The semester files by until there’s frost on the ground and her breath puffs in the air and she realizes she still hasn’t told her mother.  Not because she’s hiding it, but more because it never seemed like the right time. Which is, in itself, a lie. Her mother has called twice this month and still Olivia hasn’t said a word. Nathan wants her to come home with him, spend the holidays with his family down in Texas (and get them out of the mindset that she’s dragging their son into the dumpster of the socio economic scale), but even for him she can’t fathom a snowless Christmas.

“Let’s go visit my family instead. We can see yours next time.”

That Harold comes with isn’t even a question.

The drive up to Maine is long, and made even longer by the rickety mess that Olivia’s 1974 Pontiac Station Wagon has become. Harold is sick with something and spends most of the ride crashed out in the back seat, laid flat like a worm in a teal winter coat. Nathan reads out road signs in funny accents and takes every turn as an excuse to kiss her while she drives. But it’s worth it because her mother is waiting for them at the door with mulled cider full of cloves.

“Hi mom,” she says, and she blames the spices and the warm air that smells like her dog for the rush of tears that comes out. She’s ushered in, Nathan and Harold are sat down in the living room and bombarded by her cousins and paper airplanes, and her mom takes her into the kitchen.

“You’re pregnant,” her mother says, and switches out her mug for a different one. Oliva’s not sure how she knows. The bump is just a little thing still, and Olivia’s wrapped up in a lumpy sweater. But she knows.

“Engaged, too,” she adds, because that’s the sort of thing that’s important to her mother. She doesn’t show the ring off, but the silver loop is there on her finger for everyone to see anyhow. “We haven’t picked a date yet. I was waiting to tell you until we did.”

Her mother sighs. “How far along are you?”

She wishes the mug in her hands is actually full of the hot toddy instead of the camomile tea it’s been replaced with. “Not very. First trimester.”

“And the ring, that was before or after this.” Her mom isn’t angry, isn’t closing cabinets with enough force that they bang shut. It’s probably in part because her entire extended family is within a forty-foot radius, but Olivia takes the windfall where she can get it. She is quiet though, and that’s about as frightening as her mother gets.

“Why, mom?”

Her mother turns her back and works on stuffing a platter full of cheese. “Just want to know, that’s all.”

Olivia lies. “He proposed before I got pregnant. Close call, but it was before.”

“And school? You worked so hard to get in, Olivia. Not many girls get into MIT, let alone early like you did.”

Olivia absent-mindedly twists the silver ring around her finger. It doesn’t weigh much since it doesn’t have a stone. She leans back against the counter. She’s in the same spot she’d spent so much of her childhood in, leaned back against the pull out cutting block under the good china in the cabinet above. Only now she’s pregnant instead of hiding from her brothers. “Who says anything about school?”

“You’re having a baby, Olivia. That’s bound to set things back.”

“No. It won’t. I won’t let it.”

She cuts it off, walks out into the large family room that’s packed with people, and stands as close to Nathan as she can get away with.

Christmas goes on like it always does, even with her mother eyeing her every few minutes and trying to feed her extra bits to make sure she gets enough, “for the two of you.” Loud guffaws and off-key singing, and casual jokes that are as old as she is fill the house. Nathan and Harold fit in without much squeezing; there are always more bodies at Christmas than anyone knows what to do with, and two more don’t stretch the seams anymore than all eight of Olivia’s nephews.

Nathan’s always loved her family. He adores the casualness, the attention, and he doles it back out in spades, playing with the little kids and talking markets and computers with the adults. Harold, when she finds him, is stuffed ramrod straight into a rocking chair in the back. It creaks when she goes to him, but that’s the only hint of movement.

“You okay?”

His eyes are watery and his nose is red and dripping. Whatever cold he’s wound up with is settling in for the long haul. “Not particularly, but I don’t want to ruin your Christmas.”

“Come on, I’ll show you the guest bed.”

Nathan’s been home with her a few times now, but this is the first time Harold’s come with. She can’t remember why he hadn’t come before, if she hadn’t offered or if he’d come up with an excuse, but she knows he hasn’t been out to Texas to visit Nathan’s family either. They’d left him behind, before.

She takes extra care to make sure he’s settled in the guest bed complete with a glass of water on the nightstand because she knows he always wakes up thirsty.

“Need anything else?”

“No. Sorry about this.”

She sits down next to him and leaves a divot on the handmade quilt laid over him. “And I’m sorry you weren’t here last year, so don’t worry about it.”

He gives her a small smile, but it’s real underneath the steady drip of snot, not one of the fake ones he dishes out to everyone else. “Go back down and have fun. I’ll be fine, I promise.”

She kisses him on the top of the head, pulls his glasses off for him and leaves them next to the water glass, and heads back down to the party. Nathan smiles at her and later, when the little kids are sprawled out asleep in front of the fireplace on their bellies, he kisses her temple. Local relatives leave to make the drive home as the party dwindles, and everyone else meanders towards their sleeping spots.

There aren’t enough rooms, let alone beds, and her mother left a cot and a roll out sleeping bag propped up by the closet in Olivia’s old bedroom, clearly intending Nathan and Harold each to take one. They don’t even look twice at them when they sneak in, migrating to the bed she’d tucked Harold into like homing pigeons.

 

Part II

 

They get married in January because Olivia declares she doesn’t want to walk down the aisle in a maternity dress.

It’s a small wedding, partly because it’s so late notice and neither of them want a big to-do, but mostly because without Nathan’s dad and credit behind them, it’s all they can afford. Harold isn’t there for the fight, but he’s there for the aftermath of it and watches Nathan unravel. Nathan hasn’t had to do this alone before, it’s easy for Harold to forget that.

“Christ, my dad is such an asshole.” Nathan is pacing in his dorm room, and the thin carpet is wearing thinner with every pass. “He’s not going to help with the wedding. He says it’s because I’m dropping out, but come one, we both know better.”

Harold does a mental tally of Nathan’s resources without his father’s backing. It’s a low number.

“He doesn’t like Olivia. He never has, and now he has a nice tidy little reason to try and get rid of her. I either get his money or my future wife.” He kicks the trashcan in the corner of the room and leaves a foot sized dent in it. He has the courtesy of looking wide eyed and abashed, at least. It’s mid day, so at least no one will probably come to complain about it. “Sorry. I’ll buy you a new one.”

“No, you won’t. You’ll help me pound it out later, but you’re going to have to learn how to save money from now on, Nathan.”

Nathan makes a sour face. “You know, he still wants to come to the wedding? The asshole. He thinks he can swan in and remind me what I’ll be missing.”

“You don’t have to let him come. ”

“He’s my dad, Harold, I doubt you’d understand.”

Harold watches the light glint off the dented trash bin. The angles of refraction are fascinating, and they break when Nathan steps closer and blocks the light. “Jesus, Harold. I’m sorry.”

Harold breathes through his nose. “I know.”

 

Two weeks later Nathan’s parents fly in from Texas on a chartered plane and a small convoy of Olivia’s family bustles down in a rickety van as ambassadors for the dozens left up in Maine.

“They’ll kill each other,” Olivia says. She’s biting her nails and is standing in the little choir room connected to the chapel. Harold’s crammed in next to her between Olivia’s beautiful white dress and a row of folding chairs. He should be corralling Nathan and making sure he stays away from the champagne until after the fact, but Nathan’s family is loud and Olivia’s family is big, so he stands next to her and holds her hair up as she pins it into place.

“Please, Olivia, I’m sure they’ll be fine... Now don’t stress yourself. It’s not good for the baby,” Olivia’s mother says. She’s on Olivia’s other side, doing something complicated with bobby pins. The choir room is tiny, built in the forties and hasn’t been updated since. It’s quaint, in that sort of under-varnished way, and just shy of being claustrophobic.

“Dad’s going to talk about unions, Nathan’s dad is going to say something stupid about private jets, and someone’s going to get a black eye.”

Harold agrees, but Olivia’s mother is already wary of him as it stands, so instead he says, “You look beautiful.”

She smiles, white teeth and glowing cheeks that are dotted with freckles despite the dark winter, and is every bit the stereotypical beaming bride. Olivia does a half twirl and raises her eyebrow at him. “Careful, Harold, or you’ll actually make me blush one of these days.” His own face heats up. At her mother’s glare he excuses himself and heads out into the chapel.

Nathan is easy to find. He’s managed to get himself between his father and Olivia’s, and Harold is relieved to see no one has come to blows yet. Nathan looks breathtaking in a rented tux. He’d actually had one in the back of his closet, but it was too small, bought in his teenage years for galas. The four inches of height he’d gained in college meant trying to let out the hems wasn’t even a possibility. Harold had gone with him to the rental store to ensure a halfway decent fit. He’ll look beautiful next to Olivia.

Nathan’s father, in a suit that vastly overshadows his son’s, is leaning forward and pins Harold with squinty eyes as Nathan pulls him into a crushing hug. He can smell the dry cleaning on the tux.

“Harold, this is my father. Dad, this is Harold, my best man.”

“Ah.” The elder Ingram looks him over carefully. “You’re Harold, then. I’ve heard a lot about you, and I do mean a lot.” The Texas drawl makes the words sound kinder than they are.

Harold nods once in what he hopes comes across as a microscopic bow. “Good to meet you, sir.”

He gets a grunt in response. “At least you have manners.” Nathan is wedged in again, trying to discharge the situation. He’s good, but he’s not quite a match for his father, who takes a large gulp of champagne. Harold knows exactly how many fluid ounces fit into each glass, exactly how many glasses they have supplies to fill, and exactly how much each bottle cost.  

Nathan’s father sets the glass, still half full, down on the back of one of the pews and screws up his face. It’s precariously balanced but the older man doesn’t give it a second glance as he pulls a hip flask out of his pocket. “Not that this is exactly what I’d hoped for him, but it’s better than...” he waves the hip flask up and down at Harold.

The weight of Nathan’s hand, still wrapped around his shoulder, is heavy and warm and he shrugs out from under it. He goes cold.

“Dad, for god’s sake. Not now.”

Harold should help, should be a best man and make sure no one gets a bloody nose, but he just stands in his heavy rented shoes and watches as Nathan steers his father away from the crowd of people, says something hushed in his ear. His father shrugs away, drinks more, but doesn’t make a scene.

Nathan migrates to his side. “God, Harold. This whole thing is going to shit.” He looks uncomfortable in the tux. Nathan never looks uncomfortable in his clothes.

Harold blinks back to himself. This he can handle. “Of course it hasn’t. It’s only just begun. Come on.”

He’s swept up in another hug, and he’s sure the tux is going to get wrinkled. Into his shoulder Nathan says, “Please don’t tell Olivia about all this. It isn’t a big deal, he’s just an asshole, and I don’t want her to worry. It’s her wedding day.”

Olivia, still cloistered in the choir room, will be coming out any second now to be led up the aisle by her father. Nathan’s own father is in the corner still with his wife in a mink shawl at his elbow. “Of course, Nathan.”

Olivia walks up glowing, Nathan takes her hand, and they stand there at the altar, two beings out of a fairy tale. During the ceremony Nathan steps back and lets his foot rest casually against Harold’s. He watches as he dips Olivia down for their first kiss as husband and wife. He watches, as they press together, and feels the gentle pressure of Nathan’s foot against his own.

 

Their honeymoon is spent in a B&B Harold found for them. He hands them the reservation, piles them into Olivia’s station wagon after the wedding reception, and attempts to drop them off.

“Harold. What are you doing?”

He hands Nathan the keys. “I’ll leave you the car and take a taxi back to campus.”

It’s Olivia, still in her wedding dress, who grabs him by the hand outside as he closes the driver’s seat door. “Oh no you don’t.”

“Olivia!” She pulls him away from the car and towards the B&B’s front door. “Olivia... what...” Nathan trails behind him, grinning like a loon. But he hasn’t stopped grinning since he said, “I do,” so Harold is fairly sure it has nothing to do with him.

“We have the honeymoon room,” she announces to a matronly woman who answers the door and leads them into the entryway. “As you can clearly see from my wedding dress.”

The woman, a Mrs. Campbell if Harold remembers correctly from the brochure, looks between the three of them with clear disapproval. But she evidently holds to her business model. “Of course. That’s the third floor. You’re the only room up there, it’s the turret room. Here’s your key.” Olivia snatches it up. “Breakfast is at nine o’clock.”

The turret room is a magnificent honeymoon suite. It’s circular, has a bed the size of a moon, and is lined with lace. Everything about it is decadent, even with Nathan shedding his shoes and clothes and leaving them strewn on the floor. By habit, Harold trails after him and picks them all up.

“It’s just rented, anyhow, Harold.”

“Hmm,” he admits, and doesn’t fold them as neatly as he otherwise might. Olivia kisses Nathan on the nose and then disappears towards the tile shower in the back of the room. There isn’t even a curtain, let alone a wall, and Harold is left watching as she takes off her wedding gown and lets it drop. He sighs and goes to pick up the dress from the floor too.

He watches out of the corner of his eye as Nathan turns to look at her as the spray hits her back and matts her still curled hair, and then as he shifts his gaze to Harold, as he slips the gown onto a hanger and puts it in the standing cherrywood wardrobe.

Nathan is down to his undershirt, now, and peeling off his trousers. It’s somewhere near midnight, and Harold is halfway between exhausted and exhilarated.

“Harold, you’re wearing too much.”

Harold looks down at himself. He’s still in his suit, tie and all. He begins to untangle himself and sits down on the bed so Nathan can help. He’s more tired than he’d thought. Planning, managing, and keeping everyone alive through the wedding had been a full job.

“I hope you weren’t expecting a romantic honeymoon evening between you and Olivia. I can still call a cab.”

Nathan laughs. He’s had a few glasses of champagne and the laughter is higher pitched than normal. “I think Olivia would skin me.”

Harold nods. She probably would. He counts the spindles on the white painted bed. 18 on the headboard, 16 on the footboard. The difference is bothersome.

Nathan has both hands on his elbow and is trying to get his shoulder through the white dress shirt Harold is still trapped in with limited success. “You alright?”

“You’re married.”

Nathan’s hair flops into his mouth and tastes like pomade as he’s pulled into an enthusiastic hug. “I’m married!” He pulls his head up off of Harold’s shoulder just far enough to almost smash into his ear and looks towards Olivia’s naked form in the shower. “You hear that, Olivia? I’m married!”

She evidently can’t hear them over the sound of the shower, or she’s kind enough to ignore her now-husband’s drunk declarations.  

“You’re married, and you’re half under the table. Get into bed before you fall over, or Olivia will have the divorce papers delivered by Monday.”

Miraculously, Nathan complies, and shoves one bare foot and then the other underneath the wonderfully supple sheets. Harold follows him in and spends a full minute relishing the feel of them. When he has money, sheets are the first thing he’ll buy. He’ll buy them for Nathan and Olivia’s bed, and get a matching comforter too, and maybe even a bed skirt.

The shower shuts off and Olivia pads over to the light. “All aboard, skipper?”

He snorts. “Nathan’s on the left.”

She flips the light off and there’s a jostle and a bump as they negotiate the bed’s geometric configuration.

Nathan turns and flips so he’s on his stomach and one of his elbows finds its way into Harold’s stomach. In retaliation he puts a leg over Nathan, which he knows he hates.

“Olivia?” Nathan sounds so childish, so content, Harold can’t help but smile into his pillow.

“Yeah, Nathan?”

“I love you.”

“Love you too, Nathan.”

There’s a beat and Harold is slipping away, imagining how to simulate love using only true false statements.

“Harold?” He blinks even though it’s dark in the room. He can just see the outline of Nathan’s face next to his. “You know... right?” There’s a grunt from Olivia that sounds mostly like a, ‘me too,’ but it’s half muffled by a pillow.

Harold thinks about it for a second longer than he should, still half lost in numbers. “Of course.”

“Good.”

 

*

 

“It’s not very big yet. Is that normal?”

Olivia swats Nathan on the head, which isn’t difficult since his head is level with her not-very-big-yet belly. They’re mostly naked still, trying to be less naked because it’s almost eight in the morning and Olivia is already running late. They’ve been married two weeks and it’s still a surprise to him that he gets to call her his wife.

“It’s fine. I’m 16 weeks.” She pulls away to snag a shirt from the dresser and slips it over her head with difficult, because Nathan still has his lips pressed to her stomach. “Nathan. I love you. I’m late.”

“Be late, then.”

But Olivia is pragmatic, and so she squats down, kisses him on the lips, and says, “I’ll see you tonight. I promise, everything is fine.”

A few days later she waves a print out in front of them. “It’s a sonogram.” It’s dark and gray and blotchy and looks more to Nathan like an underwater mountain scene than anything else. “That’s your baby, Nathan.”

Suddenly the paper is transcendent and he can’t look away.

Harold is next to him and squinting at it. “Was it done with an 80L static scanner?”

The curiosity tugs at Nathan when she answers, “No, it was a real time linear-array. I had one of the techs do it during my day off,” but he can’t see anything beyond the lump in the middle of the picture.

“Honestly, Harold, only you could be interested in the technology at a time like this,” he says.

And, of course, that gets his hackles up. “It’s relatively new and unproven. There are concerns about fetal safety.”

Nathan’s head whips around so fast he almost knocks into Harold. “What?”

“It’s old farts who are still reeling from X-Rays.” She levels him with a look that could stop glaciers. “Do you think I would risk it if I thought it was dangerous?”

“I...”

Harold comes to his rescue, like he always does. “Of course not.”

 

The sonogram hangs on Harold’s wall after that, because it’s where they spend most of their time.

“We need to get an apartment,” Olivia announces. “And soon. I’m not having this baby in a dorm room.” Nathan doesn’t mention that she actually has a room of her own in a proper house, which would be better, but she’s been spending less time there and more time with him in Harold’s room, so he can’t exactly complain.

“Yes,” Harold says from his customary perch in front of his desk. “Nathan, you have the most free time. I’ve started a list for you.”

Finding an apartment close to MIT with three bedrooms that is within their price range turns out to be a herculean task. “You want how much?” A dime goes into the payphone. “It’s next to the railroad?” Another three dimes later, “It’s in what neighborhood?” And then, finally, two dollars in change later, “Perfect. When can I see it?”

The apartment is perfect, or at least perfect enough. It’s over a laundromat, which makes the hot water scarce and the walls shake, but keeps the heating bills low. There are three bedrooms, a master and two smaller ones. Harold won’t mind, he’s sure, and he’ll probably spend most of his time with them anyhow.

“When can we move in?”

They start the move, but it takes a solid month to get set up. Harold keeps his on-campus dorm as a go between, and it’s not until March that they finally nail the sonogram up on the wall in their new kitchen.

“Welcome home,” Olivia says to him as he kicks the slush off his boots. She’s showing now, actually showing, and has had to buy new pants. “How many surfaces do you think we can have sex on before I turn into a watermelon?”

“Not my desk,” Harold announces from his room.

“Not Harold’s desk,” Nathan agrees. Everything else, though, is fair game, and they just about manage it all.

 

*

 

Harold finally gives up his dorm room in April. Nathan doesn’t understand why he waits so long, and Harold has given up trying to explain it. Olivia gets it, or at least pretends to, and doesn’t pester him about it.

When he sets the last tub of computer parts in the corner of the bedroom that is his part of the house, he lets out a sigh of relief and almost forgets to breathe again after it.

Olivia has a packet of Ramen set out for him and is boiling water on the stove. “Your first official meal as a proper member of the household,” she says. “Now you’re stuck with us.” And he has to calmly excuse himself and leave the house.

He spends exactly one hour in the campus library re-reading the 1981 copy of Multiprocessing Architectures for Local Computer Networks, before he forces himself to rise stiffly and return to the apartment.

He leaves his shoes next to Nathan’s, tucks his backpack in the nook by the door, and walks to the kitchen table. Nathan and Olivia are sitting like he never left, and a bowl of soup is waiting for him.

“Better?” Nathan asks.

“Yes, thank you.” He pulls up a chair and Olivia slides the bowl of Ramen towards him. It’s cold now, gelatinous, but he eats every noodle.

 

Nathan drops out of school, officially, in May. He writes a letter and hand delivers it to the dean of students the same week that Harold completes his graduate program.

“A toast,” Nathan says, “to us that are free, and to my lovely wife, who is not free and still has her residency left.”

They clink glasses at one of the college bars, though Olivia is drinking a delicate looking glass of lemonade instead of the terrible whisky that Nathan and Harold are pouring down their throats. Nathan looks happy. Being a dropout suits him well, and he leans in and grins at Harold. Even Olivia, who has been stressed out lately, looks relaxed next to him.

“It’s a brave new world,” Nathan says, half sloshed already, but Harold, sat between them on a hard barstool with one forearm pressed against Nathan’s and another to Olivia’s, thinks it feels exactly the same.

“So tell me, Harold, now that you’re out, will you become a dictator?

It’s an old joke. Nathan has claimed that four weeks into knowing Harold he knew the man would one day rule the world or destroy it. Nathan thinks it’s funnier than it is.

“I think I’ll start by trying to keep food in our refrigerator,” he offers instead. The world is too big to think about when Nathan and Olivia are beside him.

 

“Stand still.”

“What, and let you stick me again?”

Nathan is squirming under Harold’s hands and doing his best to act nothing like the soon-to-be father he is and everything like a child. The pin prick hadn’t even bled. He’s half tempted to let a pin slip again. “Once I get this one made I’ll be able to use it as a template. Arms out.” Harold pulls the tape measurer along Nathan’s back to measure his arm span. “We’re trying to wow investors; you can’t show up in corduroys.”

Nathan sighs, and Harold does too, because it messes up his measurements. He starts over while Nathan says, “I don’t see why we can’t just buy a suit.”

Harold touches his teeth together. Chest, 38”. He doesn’t grind them. He broke himself of that habit years ago and he refuses to go back. Sleeve inseam, 19”. Olivia, cramming for an exam at the kitchen table and half watching them, steps in.

“With what money? Your parents cut you off.” There’s a level of annoyance when she says it, or maybe Harold just imagines it. She’s never been interested in money as a rule, but the loss of it has become apparent.

“Are you still mad about that? I told you, we’ll be fine. Harold will--”

“Don’t make this about Harold. Am I mad that your parents cut you off or that they did it because I’m your knocked up middle class wife who’s making you drop out? Yeah, Nathan, I’m mad, but not about the money. You didn’t think it was worth mentioning all of this before we signed the lease on this place? You put the whole wedding on credit, Nathan, and lied to me about it.. That’s not okay. Or maybe that I’d want to know your parents had such a big problem with me?”

Olivia is gaining speed, an exponential equation to Nathan’s steady linear increase.

“You never seemed to care what they thought before!”

“That’s not fair! That was--”

Uninterrupted, an exponential equation will reach infinity. “Please stop.”

They freeze and look at him for the first time. He doesn’t look back, though, because he still needs to take Nathan’s neck measurements, and he’s finally still enough to do so.

“Harold?” Nathan’s adam’s apple bobs when he speaks and it stretches the white tape measurer. If only he could freeze time, make them both just stop.

He can see Olivia watching him from the corner of his eye. “Don’t move or I’ll have to start over again.”

“Look, whatever, I’m going to the library.” He still can’t rip his eyes from the numbers printed on the tape as Olivia packs up her book and heads to the door. “Don’t eat all the twinkies.”

“She’s pissed at me,” Nathan says after a minute. Then, a heartbeat later, “You are too, aren’t you.” Harold can feel Nathan’s pulse flutter as he double checks the number around his neck.

“Is it the money?”

He drops the measuring tape and lets it coil around Nathan’s bare feet. “No one expected your family to bankroll us.”

“But?”

He doesn’t write the numbers down. He’s never needed to write something down for it to burn into his memory, and he mentally maps how much fabric he’ll need for the dress shirt and then the suit itself. “You need to adapt or change the variables.”

“What, like you did?”

He freezes, one arm half reaching for the folded bolt of cream fabric with the subtle blue pinstripes.

“It’s not like we thought Wren was your real last name. We did at first, sure, but you’re not as clever as you think you are, Harold.”

He drops the fabric. “If I’d wanted that to be a secret, you would never have never known.” Nathan is still watching him as he walks into his room and lets the hum of the computer fans as they whisk heat up and away from the delicate components fill his ears.

 

*

 

May slides into June, and Olivia slides into a pair of elastic pants. It’s eight months in and she’s had about enough of the constant peeing, the back pain, the foot aches, the stretch marks, and the comments from friends and coworkers. She’s working, studying, going to class, doing research with the teaching hospital, and sleeping (never in that order). Nathan is working with Harold to create a business model, scrounging for patents and funding, schmoozing old professors for contacts while Harold spends 14 hours a day locked in his room with stacks of computer chips and coffee. All three of them are bone tired by the time they fall into the apartment’s kitchen every night. They haven’t had time to buy a crib, let alone deck out the third bedroom for the baby. They’re running out of time, out of money, and out of patience.

“Oh my god, we’re going to be horrible parents” Olivia is pacing, because logically she should be sitting down, and she hates logic right now. She hates just about everything right now, including her feet, her bladder, her fetus, the clock that keeps ticking, and her tea, which is simultaneously too strong and too weak. “We’re going to drown it, or starve it, or forget about it in a store checkout line.”

“Relax,” Nathan is saying, and she hates him too. “It’ll be fine. You’re just stressed out.”

Harold is quiet. At first she thinks he’s falling asleep sitting up (not the first time), but then he says, very softly, “You will be wonderful parents,” with a level of utter finality that Olivia can’t find it in herself to argue. “Is it the baby room? I’ll fix it.” And that is Harold, always ready to fix the problem, even if he doesn’t know what the problem is.

He will, too. Olivia knows it even before she comes home to a yellow painted bedroom with a wooden crib in the middle of the floor three days later. It’s the sort of quintessential baby crib that’s seen decades, centuries maybe, in its design, with spindle railings and a carved headboard.

“You didn’t have to do all this.”

He tips his head. “Of course I did.” Then there’s a slow smile.

Somehow it’s not a surprise that she goes into labor that Sunday. She’s a few weeks ahead of schedule, but it’s not enough to raise any flags in her mind as she feels her water break.

She’s throwing a can of spaghettios into the pan on the stove when it happens. “Nathan?”

“He went out for more beer,” says Harold without looking up from his book.

“I see.”

The book goes down on the table, spine up like he’s always chastising them for, so he must have figured it out. “Oh Jesus,” and she’s fairly sure she’s never heard him say Jesus before. “Already? But you should have two and a half weeks left according to date of conception.”

“Well apparently the baby isn’t as meticulous as you.”

They wait for Nathan to get back and Harold is as close to hyperventilating as she’s ever seen him. He’s read all the books, probably more than Nathan has, and is parroting passages back to her from them.

“ As long as the contractions are--”

“Harold. I know. I’m nearly finished with med school and am currently birthing a baby as we speak.”

“Oh god,” he says, and goes a bit green. She’s worried she’ll have to clean up sick as well as her own fluid when this is all over and done with.

Nathan comes home toting beer and junk food they don’t really have the budget for, and drops the bags when he sees the two of them sitting watching the door.

“Already?”

“Already.”

“I’ll get the car. Hold on. Just. I’ll be right back!”

It’s a scramble to get to the hospital, even though Olivia keeps telling them there’s no real rush. They march her down the stairs and into the passenger seat of her car and Nathan drives while Harold sits in the middle back seat, squeezed as far up front as he can get his shoulders.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” Nathan says over and over again, as they drive on a pre-arranged route to the hospital.

“Oh, it’s happening. Trust me on this one,” she says, and a contraction ripples through her body as they pull up to the drop off area.

 

“Family only,” the nurse says as Olivia is wheeled through the hospital towards the maternity ward. She’s all but giving birth already as they get her transferred to a bed; it’s happening faster than she thought it would. “Which one of you is the husband?”

“I am,” Nathan says, and he’s got that stupid grin on his face that Olivia wants to rip off and feed to him.

“Alright, you’ll have to wait outside, sir.” The nurse is talking to Harold, leading him out, and that’s not okay. Harold can’t leave her like this, it’s not acceptable.

“No, he stays.”

It’s clearly not what anyone wants to hear, judging from the look on the nurse’s face as well as the tech next to her. “I’m sorry, Olivia,” and now that she’s paying attention to her between contractions, she recognises the nurse as Paula. They had a class together last year. “Family only is the rules.”

She growls. “He’ll be the uncle, then.”

“Olivia--” Harold is looking at her with bug eyes, pale already and she hasn’t even gotten her legs in the damned stirrups yet.

“Stuff it, Harold, you’re the uncle.”

 

Harold faints halfway through and Nathan leaves to take him into the hall. “Oh hell no! Get back here!” Nathan does, and Harold does too after awhile. “No more leaving!” They stay.

 

“Push!”

“If you tell me to push,” she pushes, “again,” sweat is beading on her forehead but her hands are gripped too tightly on Nathan’s to even think of wiping it off, “I’ll kill you.”

He doesn’t. Instead he says, “my god, you are so beautiful,” and their son is born.

 

“He’s so pink.”

“He is, isn’t he. Would you like to hold Will?” she asks.

There’s a puff of yellow hair on his head, just like Nathan’s. And when he whines and cries, he sounds like Nathan too. He is, Olivia decides, is the most beautiful baby ever born. She doesn’t care at all that it’s a cliche. Sure, his head is kinda cone shaped, and he’s still pink and a bit like a skinned mink she dissected once, but by god, he’s beautiful. He’s got little blue marble eyes, eyes that will probably turn brown like her own,  that blink up at her. And his fingers are so utterly tiny she can’t comprehend how they wrap around her own.

Harold stops, pale still, and Olivia re-thinks her offer. “Will?”

“Yeah. I think William is a good name, don’t you Nathan?”

Nathan is watching them with a blissed-out look on his face, a post-sex look that he doesn’t even begin to deserve right now. “It’s a great name, he’s a great baby, you’re a great wife.” He leans over and smacks a wet kiss on Harold’s face.

 

They spend the first week of Will’s birth awake, or so it seems to Nathan. There’s always something to be done, someone to feed, and sometimes Nathan finds himself just staring at him, watching him breathe. He’s so small. He’d looked small laid out on Olivia’s chest when he’d first been born, but now, on his belly and in the crib in the middle of the yellow room, he looks too small to be alive. So Nathan watches him, watches him breathe, and watches him move his tiny feet in whatever sort of dream infants have.

“I still can’t believe it,” Olivia says from behind him. She’s got racoon eyes and is wearing the same sweatpants from four days ago, but she’s smiling. “We have a baby, Nathan.”

He grins back, and Will starts to fuss. “We have a baby.”

He can hear Harold clacking on a keyboard in the room next door. They have a baby monitor set up out there, and he knows that he can hear everything they’re saying even with the computer fans on high. “Harold?”

Harold is through the open door in a second. Nathan realizes too late that he was waiting to be called in, even though that’s absurd. “Is he alright?” Harold asks with wide eyes. Exhausted, Harold is even more paranoid than usual.  

“Yeah. Yeah he is,” and he watches as Will takes another baby sized breath.

“Good,” Harold says. He’s scared, maybe as scared as Nathan. “I... I was reading about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.”

Will puffs out another breath. “He’s fine. We’re fine,” Olivia says. It’s maybe not true anymore, he’s not sure. Something’s changed and it’s not just the utterly perfect baby sleeping in front of them. It doesn’t make sense because this is how everything should be, this is what he’s been imagining all this time. But there’s still something missing a, something not right and it’s gnawing at him.

Harold stays at his shoulder and Olivia leans against his other arm and it’s almost like how it was at MIT.

“Good,” Harold repeats and Nathan hopes it is.

 

Part III

 

She’d thought the baby being born, Will being born, would be some high point in their lives, a point after which everything would begin to make sense. But now, up at four in the morning and holding him, it’s not so clear. Nathan and Harold are crashed out on the living room floor with some contraption they swear will bring in money, and William is suckling and her breasts hurt. She wants to cry, but she’s a mom now, and moms don’t cry.

The yellow painted room isn’t very cheerful at four in the morning. It’s hot and humid, and the damned computers make it that much worse, even behind the shut door over in Harold’s room. He hasn’t turned them off in days, says they’re running a new sequence that will take another week to complete. He’s running all the fans so they don’t overheat, and she’s about ready to take a baseball bat to them.

Every day she’s here with William she’s falling behind in med school and Harold and Nathan are gaining ground, scrambling towards their goals.

Less than ten hours later Nathan is bouncing off the walls and grinning like he won the lottery. Olivia is sweating just looking at him. “We have an investor!” he announces with champagne at one in the afternoon. Olivia hasn’t left the house in two days and the wallpaper is starting to crawl in the yellow room. “He’s backing us for two thousand dollars of prototype equipment!”

Harold is less enthused, as sweaty as she is and flitting between baby proofing the house and repairing the torn out seam on one of Nathan’s suits. The computers are humming and the washing machines in the laundromat below are spinning and sending tiny vibrations through the walls. It’s a neverending white noise.

“Yes, and it’ll be three months of work and all the money will go to the computer system,” Harold says with a sewing needle clenched between his teeth. In other words, their tip jar remains pretty much empty.

“But an investor, Harold! This is what we’ve been working so hard for. You can’t tell me you’re not happy about it.”

Will starts to get fussy in her arms. He cries a lot. He cries constantly. He cries every time she leaves the room and every time she comes back in it. He cries when she picks him and when she sets him down. He cries when he’s fed and when he’s not fed, and any time at all for no apparent reason. It grates on her ears worse than forks on a plate, but she grits her teeth and smiles.

 “He’s like you, Nathan,” she says when he’s crying again. Harold is bothered by it more than she is. She grew up with younger siblings, and although Nathan is the youngest of his brood, she knows he has baby cousins he’s held and taken care of before. But Harold, for all his apparent naivete on the subject, can’t stand to hear Will cry. It drives Olivia up the wall almost as much as the crying itself.

“Has he been fed?”

“Yes. And he’s had a nap too. And he’s been sung to and rocked and held.”

Harold squints his face down at the baby. “Are you sure he’s not sick? What if he’s coming down with something?”

Olivia glares at him. “Go play with your computers, Harold.” And then, “I’m going back to work at the hospital in three weeks,” she tells them while they argue. “And I”m going back to school in four.”

She takes Will into the yellow room and closes the door.

 

*

 

“IFT. It’s a good name. Everyone always goes for acronyms. They hold a lot of weight.” Harold can feel Nathan watching over his shoulder as he draws the little line under the I, then the F, and then the T with typewriter-like handwriting.

Olivia is hovering over both of them. “What does it stand for?”

“Ingram Frontier Technologies,” Nathan says proudly.

“What? Not Ingram and Wren?”

Nathan grins and kisses Olivia on the cheek. He’s been extraordinarily affectionate towards her lately. Harold is sure it’s in part because she’ll be returning to work soon. “That part was Harold’s idea,” he says from the crook of Olivia’s neck.

“That’s kinda weird, Harold.” Nathan is half wrapped around her, but she’s looking down at him while he fills out the registration forms.

“Not really. Nathan will be the front of the company anyhow. This will allow him to take full credit. Investors prefer individuals over partnerships. They see partnerships as a potential fission point, a weakness.”

Nathan is sucking on her ear, Will is starting to fuss from the other room, and Olivia is staring at him unblinkingly. She doesn’t say a word as she untangles herself from Nathan and goes into the yellow room.

 

*

 

They get invited to a dinner, a big one, and Nathan is through the roof about it. “We’ll be able to triple our investors in one night.”

Olivia thinks that’s maybe a little unlikely.

“IFT will get more publicity, we’ll be able to talk it up. It’ll be great.” It’s August now and the heat is reaching its peak. Harold finally cracked and broke open the piggy bank for an A/C unit they keep in Will’s room now. It’s not a surprise that the four of them usually end up in there now instead of the kitchen.

Harold is hovering on the outskirts of the room near the bookshelf and Nathan is practically doing laps. “Olivia you have to come,” he says, and his blond hair flops over in his eyes. He looks like a kid still, especially stripped down to his undershirt like he is.

“What?”

“It’s a dinner! Everyone will be bringing their wives. You have to come, I’m sure we can splurge for a new dress.”

Harold is watching them. He’s their de facto bookkeeper, and he gives a tiny nod. She knows that IFT will eventually pull in a profit, but for the moment it doesn’t even buy their milk. Sometimes you have to spend money to make money.

The dinner is two nights away and Olivia has to scramble to make time for dress shopping. She eventually goes for a black cocktail dress that does a pretty good job of hiding the leftover pregnancy fat, and pops on a string of pearls that are fake, but a high quality fake that she hopes will pass the test.

Harold is watching her as she dresses in front of the mirror.

“Does it work?”

He nods and then makes a, “hmmm,” sound that is never a good thing to hear from him.

“What? Too short do you think?”

“No. The ring.”

Olivia looks down at her finger. The wedding ring is the same, unchanged from when Nathan slipped it on as an engagement ring. It’s still chunky, still cheap silver and amateurishly made, and still without a stone. She bites her lip.

“We don’t have that kind of money, Harold.”

Harold is still. She watches him in the mirror and for a full five seconds he doesn’t even breathe.

“I have something that might work.”

He disappears out of the bathroom and she kicks off her heels to truck after him. “What are you talking about?”

He’s in his room, the room that’s mostly just computer parts and books (even the hardly ever slept on mattress is tipped against the wall to make room for more computer towers) and is rooting through an old fashioned trunk. “You need to look the part. Investors give money to sure deals, to people who already have money.”

“I know how it works, you don’t need to rub it in.”

He pulls a ring box out of the wooden trunk out from under carefully folded woolens. “This should do.” He holds it out to her from the floor, and she bends to take it from his outstretched hand.

The box opens with a snap. It’s beautiful. It’s the sort of unbelievable ring old money buys. A pink diamond surrounded by a half dozen small white ones, all set on a gold band. “Jesus, Harold.”

“It’s been in the family.”

Olivia drops down onto her knees and hugs him so hard she can feel his belt buckle biting against the thin material of the black cocktail dress. “I’ll take good care of it for you.”

Nathan is waiting for her outside the apartment with a taxi idling behind him. “Didn’t want to take the station wagon?”

He laughs and opens the door for her. “I figured this was a safer bet.” He’s in the back seat next to her before he notices the ring.

“Hells bells, Olivia. Where did that come from?”

She sends him a sly smile. “Looks good, doesn’t it. Don’t worry, I still have yours. This one’s on loan from Harold.”

He’s quiet next to her. “He should be here. This thing is as much his as it is mine.”

“You know how weird that would look.”

He goes quiet as the city blurs past. “Yeah.”

 

*

 

Nathan watches as Harold changes the diaper. It looks simple enough: loop, fold, hold, pin. But he thinks Harold might have a home field advantage over him since he sewed the diapers to begin with.

“I still can’t believe you haven’t done this yet. He’s been alive for weeks now.”

There are three of them. It’s been honestly too easy to play with the baby, hold the baby, feed the baby, and then pass the baby off to either Harold or Olivia when the smell gets to be too much.

“Come on, can you blame me?

Harold’s glare is only dampened by Will’s coo.

Nathan is tired. Exhausted is more like it. Olivia is passed out on the sofa, face down and with a hideous blanket her mother made draped over her head like a shroud. She’d said, “He’s fed. For the love of god, I’m sleeping now,” and proceeded to sleep through even the most intense of Will’s wailings. All Nathan wants to do is slide in next to her and pretend the world doesn’t exist for a while, but Harold is shoving a pristine cloth diaper into his hands.

“Your turn.”

He tries, by god he tries. There’s a moment when he thinks he has it right too, but one deft kick from Will sends the whole thing sliding off again. “God damn it!”

There’s a sharp prick on his arm; Harold’s stabbed him with one of the safety pins. “No swearing in front of the baby.”

“He can’t understand me, anyway!”

“And no fighting in front of the baby either.”

“My god, man. We’re raising him in Cambridge, not a nunnery.”

That, apparently, is the wrong thing to say. Harold finishes changing Will, lays him down in the crib for a nap, and walks out of the room.

“Oh for god’s sake, Harold. No need to storm off.”

Harold’s out in the kitchen, banging around loud enough to wake the dead but not, apparently, Olivia.

“Will you at least tell me what I said?”

A pot clangs down and lands heavily on the stovetop. A can of creamed corn follows. Someone will have to learn how to cook eventually, but the three of them are playing a long game of ‘not it’ until they finally get to the breaking point. Nathan is fairly sure he’ll lose eventually, if only because together Harold and Olivia are too smart for him.

“Are you sure you want to talk about this now, Nathan?” Harold dumps the can into the pot and flips the burner to high with a level of force he usually reserves for uncooperative computer parts. “Because you’ve done a great job of avoiding it.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Us, Nathan. This whole thing.”

And shit, Nathan has been avoiding that. But hell, he’s been avoiding it for the last three years. “That’s it, I’m waking Olivia. We’re not doing this without her.”

“Good.” Harold is carefully not looking at him, stirring the corn every two seconds exactly, like the obsessive compulsive little shit he is.

Olivia takes one look at him when he pulls the blanket off her head, glares, and stuffs her face back into the pillow. “No.”

“Olivia, please.” Please help me, Harold is going to run away. Please help me, if he doesn’t I might. But Harold is four feet away from him and he bites his tongue.

She sits down at the kitchen table and says, “Fine. If we’re doing this, we’re doing it like adults. Sit down and pour me a gin and tonic.” Harold checks on Will one last time before they do, but for the first time in weeks he’s apparently sleeping for more than five minutes at a time.

Olivia takes a deep drag off her drink. It is, Nathan realizes, the first alcoholic drink she’s had in over nine months. He wonders if she’s dreamed about it. He would have. He takes a long drink of his own.

“You said I was his uncle,” Harold says, and suddenly the whole thing is pulled into a tight focus in front of Nathan’s eyes. “In the delivery room. You said I was the uncle.”

“Do you want to be the uncle?” Olivia has the situation in hand, which is good, because Nathan is too busy having a mental aneurysm. Because this isn’t about who is cooking and who is doing the diapers.

“I...” the question catches Harold off guard. He gets that look on his face that means he’s either going to bolt for the door or say something profound and unsettling. Nathan would put money on either option. “Olivia.” And something breaks in Harold’s voice. He isn’t going for the door, though, and Nathan is so happy he pours himself another drink. “I want to be as much a part of his life as I can be.”

“Then you’re the uncle.”

Olivia leaves, goes into the yellow room with Will, and Harold continues to sit at the table. Nathan finishes off his drink in one swallow.  

 

Olivia goes back to work the next morning. She leaves them with bottles for Will, careful instructions that aren’t necessary but are good to hear nonetheless, and then she’s gone.  For the first time in almost two months, she’s gone and Nathan is left alone with Harold and his son.

“Bit weird, isn’t it.”

Harold shrugs. Will is actually sleeping, and they’re attempting to rush a complex series of network configurations in the unknown time they have before he wakes up wailing again.

“Are you mad at me still?”

Another shrug. Nathan wants to shake him. Now that Olivia’s gone the house feels empty. It shouldn’t - it’s not a big apartment and it’s always been stuffy and overly humid. She would say something smart here, something that would make Harold shift so he’s not so close to the door.

“I don’t want to be the uncle.”

Something in Nathan creaks. “But you said--”

“I know what I said.” He isn’t looking at Nathan. Then, after a very long pause. “I just wish... There aren’t words for what I wish.” When he does look up his eyes are blue, even under the shine of his glasses. “I’m happy you married Olivia.”

“It was your idea.” Nathan feels his face heat up.

Harold is getting agitated too. It’s subtle, just a stiffening of his shoulders. Reading Harold is like reading in another language. Nathan isn’t fluent, but he’s probably as fluent as anyone can be. “I didn’t realize I’d turn into a third wheel.”

“Come on, Harold. Isn’t this what you wanted? Us living together? Can’t you just be happy for once?”

“We need more RAM. I’m going downtown. If Will wakes up--”

“I know how to take care of my own son.”

Harold throws a backpack over his shoulder and makes it to the door without looking back.

“Harold...” Nathan doesn’t know what he’s trying to say, doesn’t know what the right words are, only that he has to say something. “I’m sorry.”

The door opens and Harold disappears through it. Nathan sits there for a bit, watches the closed door, and then goes into the yellow room and watches his son sleep.

 

*

 

With Olivia working they’re finally out of the red, but it’s a close thing. Just in the nick of time too, as Nathan’s nest egg, leftover from before his parents pulled the financial plug, is just about dried up. Harold is the one who manages the money. Nathan doesn’t seem to care, and Olivia gets ill thinking about it. So Harold is the one who writes it all down on blue-lined chart paper leftover from the computer science program, every penny in and every penny out. He doesn’t mind. He’s always liked numbers anyhow.

The day IFT pulls a profit, an actual profit that does more than cover the cost of electricity and computer parts, is the day Will turns six months old.

Minding Will while making IFT work from home has turned into a larger issue than either he nor Nathan anticipated. Olivia is gone for a minimum of twelve hours every day now that her residency has started, and they can’t yet afford a babysitter.

“Your turn,” Nathan says, and plops a squirmy Will into his arms. “He wants to be fed. And I think he needs to be changed too.”

They’ve ended up doing it in shifts, one person holed up in Harold’s room with the fans on high (although luckily the turning weather has stopped the constant overheating) and the other with Will.

“Gahh!” Will bounces in his arms. “Gahh!”

“Yes, I agree,” he says to the baby. They migrate to the yellow room where Harold changes his diaper with quick efficiency before heading back into the kitchen. They have a highchair now, since Will is on solid foods, and he deposits him in it and makes sure he’s snug.

“I suppose you want to be fed?”

“Ahh!”

“Well, your father left that task to me, as he always seems to. I’m pretty sure he’s afraid of killing you.”

“Ahh!”

Harold pulls down a jar of baby food and a spoon. Will is big now. He’s not quite crawling, but even just being able to sit up on his own astounds Harold. In the time it’s taken their company to be even remotely self sufficient, Will has transformed from a wrinkly blob into something with the beginnings of a personality.

“Ahhhh!” A very insistent personality. He’s much more awe inducing than IFT ever will be.

“Open up?” Harold scoops a baby sized helping onto a baby sized spoon and zooms it towards Will’s face. One bite is swallowed, but the second ends up down the front of his bib.

The door to the computer room, Harold’s room, is shut tight. The hum of the fans is almost ignorable. “Can you say ‘Harold?’”

“Ahh!”

“Close enough.” Another spoonful goes in.

He cleans Will up, puts him down in the crib, and sets about reading aloud to him. Stimulating language centers are important in early childhood development, multiple books on the subject assured him. The more a child is read to, the more likely they are to excel in school. He plugs through four Dr. Seuss books before Nathan wanders in.

“Your turn already?”

Nathan grunts. “I got the CPU connectivity as far as I can take it. Honestly, Harold, this part is all you. I never was as good at the nitty gritty as you.” Harold looks up at him. He looks worn, tired. He’s still dressed in pajama bottoms and a yellow t-shirt from last summer’s state fair.

“You’re being hard on yourself, Nathan.”

Nathan shrugs and goes to pick up Will, who immediately starts crying. Nathan tries rocking him to comfort him. It’s too soon after his meal for that to work, though, and it just makes him cry harder.

“He probably needs to be burped,” Harold points out.

“Just go make the machine work, will you?”  

Harold goes. The computer room, his room, is hot despite the cold air outside, and the sound of the fans block out nearly all of Will’s wailis from the next room. He solves the CPU issue in under an hour, but doesn’t come out until Olivia gets home four hours after that.

 

*

 

The dinners, the galas, the fancy dress events where people show up in limos instead of cabs, become more and more frequent. The ring from Harold becomes a permanent loan, even though Olivia keeps Nathan’s in her purse, her pocket, or even on a chain if she can get away with it.

“This is good. We’re finally getting ahead.” Nathan is leading her around a table with place settings that cost more than their rent. She had to take off work for this, had to spend days schmoozing her supervisors, all so she can be pulled around a room like arm candy. “God, Olivia. If today goes well, I can buy you a real ring, a ring like Harold’s. I can buy you a house too, a proper one with a yard.”

She kisses him on the cheek. “Nathan, you know that doesn’t matter to me.”

“I know, but--”

“Nathan Ingram! So glad you could make it!” The host of the evening, a high browed old man with puffy hair and a shiny scalp grabs Nathan’s hand for a shoulder-wrenching shake. “I hear this IFT of yours is really moving up. That most recent do-dad you came up with, the flash memory whatsit? That’s a real show buster.” Olivia pays only half attention. It was Harold’s, this most recent innovation. Something to do with better hard drives for personal computers. She isn’t sure.

“And this must be your lovely wife?”

“Yes! Olivia, this is Mr. Havasher. Mr. Havasher, this is Olivia.”

He kisses her hand and makes a rueful smile at Harold’s ring. “You do right by your lady, Ingram.”

Olivia excuses herself as soon as it’s polite and makes her way to a gaggle of women not far from her age hanging out near the potted plants across from the pool.

“Hello.” Small talk has never been her thing, but it’s better than being paraded around dining tables. “I’m Olivia. I don’t think we’ve met.”

A woman in a green dress, expensive, extends a manicured hand. “Good to meet you, dear. I’m Eloise. Escaped the men?” She winks. “Wise.”

She laughs, and it’s only half forced. “Yeah. Figured I might have a bit more fun over here.” There are some hems and haws from the group of women, and she’s quickly shuffled into a conversation about the validity of flat shoes. Somehow, she’s not quite sure how, her residency comes up. “I’m six months from being a doctor.”

The lull that hushes over the group is instantaneous and almost tangible. “Don’t you have a son, dear?”

She doesn’t make the connection at first. “Oh, yes. Will is with Harold, tonight.” The lull is replaced with a nervous energy, and that’s when she catches on. “For heaven’s sake, it’s 1984,” she says. She doesn’t storm off, not how she’d like to, but she does fade out of the group as soon as she catches a pause in the conversation about winter boots. She can’t risk ruining Nathan’s chances just because she isn’t the housewife the rest of the women are.

“Everything alright, Olivia?” Nathan asks a half hour later as he hands her a gold rimmed champagne flute.

“Everything’s fine. I love you.”

He blinks. “I love you too. You’re sure you’re okay?”

She kisses his cheek. “I promise.” She doesn’t talk to anyone else for the rest of the night.

 

*

 

It’s startling, how soon life falls back into a familiar pattern. It’s all different now, but it’s slowly sliding towards a new normal. Spinning around marble floors, passing out business cards, shaking hands, it’s a thrill.

There’s another dinner party for investors, this time at a aluminum manufacturer’s home. It’s a beautiful home with a mahogany wet bar and a chandelier the size of a small car. Olivia can’t come this time so he goes alone, and he spends most of the dinner talking with a man named Humphrey James.

“You still haven’t planted roots? Jesus, son. Take it from one Texan to another, you can’t just keep floating around, not with a wife, or you’ll wake up one day and find yourself without her.”

“We’re planning on buying soon,” he says, even as the idea blooms in his head.

Humphrey levels him with a look that on any other man would probably seem judgemental. Maybe it’s the three glasses of wine, but it reads gently. Fatherly, even. “You love this woman?”

“She’s the smartest woman I know. She’s the mother to my child.”

“Then stop dicking around, son.”

 

*

 

Harold buys Nathan a suit, a nice one. It’s not bespoke, but he hand alters it himself to get a good fit. The quality of fabric is miles above what he’d been able to use for his home made suits. He leaves it on the bed for him and takes Will for walk in the stroller.

When he gets back Olivia is smiling at him, really smiling, and holds out her arms for Will.

Nathan is waiting for him in the bedroom. He’s half way in the suit already and he looks amazing. He’s mangling the tie, though, and Harold is at his neck in a second. “Here, let me.”

Nathan is very still under his hands. “Thank you, Harold.”

“It’s just a suit, Nathan.”

Nathan grins at him and rests an arm on his shoulder as Harold loops the tie into a half windsor.

“I keep meaning to ask you. Are you okay with all of this? IFT is really getting off the ground. I’m sure we’re stable enough now to have two faces at the top. We wouldn’t lose many investors, and those we did lose we can recoup.”

The tie is smooth under his hands, silky and lightly textured. It’s the most expensive one he’s ever bought, and it looks elegant around Nathan’s neck, blue and tastefully bright. “I know.”

“You don’t want to be seen.”

“No.”

Nathan sighs and they’re standing so close it makes his chest swell against Harold’s. “I thought...”

“It’s just how it is, Nathan.”

“I told you I wouldn’t ask.”

Harold licks his lips.  

“I think I should buy a house.”

Harold cinches the tie tight at Nathan’s throat and smoothes it out so it lays flat.

“It’s the right thing to do.. Will should grow up in a house he can call his own. Property is important. It’s inheritable, for one.”

Harold waits for the rest, and, dutifully, Nathan continues. “And besides. We’ll have to host parties too, at some point. We can’t exactly do that here. The washing machines always running downstairs, the computer parts everywhere...”

Harold fills in the rest without looking up from the tie. They have to throw dinner parties, and they have to appear reputable, traditional, a happy nuclear family. They have to do it without him.

He goes and picks up the suit jacket that’s still laying on the bed. Nathan sticks his arms out automatically, and Harold goes about slipping it on him and smoothing it flat.

“There’s room for you, too. We’re not... We’re not moving out to get rid of you.”

Nathan is, of course, even if he doesn’t want to admit it to himself. Harold is knew it would happen even, but he’s angry at himself for not realizing it would happen so soon, that Nathan is the one to have to make the call. He buttons the top two buttons and brushes a hand over the pockets so they lay seamlessly against Nathan’s chest.

“I know. It’s for Will.” It has to happen for IFT too. There are appearances to keep up if they want to advance.  This was always their equation, always the set of their variables. He can only make it easier. “I’ll get my own apartment. We’ll need to get office space too. I think we can safely take out a loan at this point. ”

The relief rolls off Nathan. A part of Harold shuts down as he fastens on a pair of nice, but not as nice as the tie, cufflinks to Nathan’s wrists. “It’s for the best.”

 

*

 

Nathan doesn’t talk about it with Harold again, and he doesn’t mention it to Olivia. Four weeks after he brought it up, he buys a house. Or, he puts in a down payment on a mortgage and gets most of the paperwork lined up. It turns out buying a house takes some time and some organization,  since Harold is the one who usually handles the money. But he’d said, “we can’t have IFT’s income on your books, after all,” and managed to split their finances a month ago. After that it was easy to split their personal ones too.

Nathan stares at the number scrawled on the paperwork from the bank loan. It’s not a big number by his family’s standards, but it’s the biggest one he’s had his name next to. It’s more money than Harold or Olivia would have been comfortable with him spending, but he’s confident in IFT, in the profits that will be rolling in soon. And it’s worth it, he tells himself, to make sure Olivia and Will have a real house like a family should. With this house he’ll be able to invite his father over, too, and maybe start to patch up that bridge. The house will help with that, even more than IFT getting off the ground. His father has always been a firm believer in property.

“I’ve got some news,” he says, and he can feel his face splitting into a grin, but he can’t wipe it off no matter how hard he tries. “I bought a house.”

Harold is watching him from the kitchen table. He’s got Will in his lap and Olivia, somehow here and not at the hospital (which is a minor miracle in and of itself) is making airplane noises with a spoonful of food.

And then he says, “It’s in New York.”

Olivia drops the spoon onto the table, but it’s one of the green plastic ones so it doesn’t clank, it just falls with a splat as the baby food drops off it onto the linoleum floor.

“What?”

“We have to keep IFT moving forward. We need to be where the money is. The stock market and the big investors are all in New York, not Cambridge. We need to be where the big fish are.” It’s true. He’s talked with everyone about it, all the bankers and the backing they already have agreed; if they want to really make it, not just survive, they need commit. And moving to New York is committing. It’s the smart thing to do. Surely they can see that. “I found office space for IFT, too, right in downtown Manhattan. And there’s a place for rent for Harold less than a mile away. It’s perfect, it’s all perfect.” As close to perfect as Nathan can make it, anyhow. Harold is alright with it, he said so. And there’s no other way to do it. It’s just the way it has to be, so they have to make the most of it.

Olivia is sucking on the inside of her cheek and squinting at him. Harold is just quiet, and Will is happily smashing his fists into the plate of cheerios, sending them skittering across the table and onto the floor. “You didn’t think this was a group decision, Nathan?” Olivia asks.  

“Do you really want to stay here for the rest of your life? You’ll be a doctor at the end of the month. Can you think of a better time to do this?” Nathan’s been rehearsing the speech for days, waiting for the loan to go through on the house, for the office space in Manhattan to open up, for a small studio apartment for Harold nearby to become available. But it’s all worked out now. They have to see that. It’s all working out, and it’s worth the risk.

Harold is still watching him, and Olivia is watching Harold. He’s always been their barometer. Will is big on his lap and fussing now that he’s made a mess of his own dinner. Harold visibly tightens his arms around Nathan’s son. “New York?”

“New York,” Nathan repeats. He looks at Olivia. “Olivia?” He can’t do this without her. He can’t do it without Harold, either, but god above, without Olivia they all crumble.

She frowns into the scattered cheerios. “I don’t know, Nathan.”

The paperwork is heavy in his pocket. “Just think about it, then.”

 

Olivia says yes and he buys her a new wedding ring with money they don’t have yet. He has credit now, though, and he’s finally out from under Harold’s financial thumb. It’s not quite as nice as the loaner from Harold, but it’s got a full size diamond centered on a delicate gold band, and has sapphires along the sides. Besides, it’s probably for the best that Harold’s ring, wherever it even came from to begin with, is back where it should be in that foot locker of his.

“Olivia, will you come with me to New York?” he says as he slips the new ring onto her finger. It sits happily against the clumsey silver one. She refused to take it off, and he has to admit he likes the symmetry of both rings there. The old and the new.

“Yes,” she says, and kisses him. “I have a contact up there anyhow. A professor’s sister practices internal medicine at Beth Israel. I’m sure I can get in for an interview.”

“Harold?”

Harold is half asleep against the leg of the sofa. He’s been working like a dog on something new, a operating system that he thinks could be the new hot ticket. Nathan had had to practically sit on him to get him to stop long enough to eat something. Nathan’s not sure if he’s working himself half to death over the future move, or if it’s something else.

“Where you go, I go,” he says with a half woozy roll of his head.

Olivia snorts at him. “Poetic. Now get some sleep before you make yourself sick.”

 

Part IV

 

Olivia moves first. She gets placed at Beth Israel almost in a heartbeat and packs a suitcase in under a day. They’d be stupid to pass her up, and she flies ahead and handles most of the set-up for the house. Then Nathan flies out to meet her, to sign the paperwork, and to meet and greet as many green lined pockets as he can.

Harold stays back with Will, makes sure he eats properly and sleeps through the night. It’s wise they went with formula for Will rather than breastmilk. It makes this easier, at least.

He pulls the blankets off their bed into the yellow room and sleeps on the floor with the crib in sight. The bed feels empty without Nathan and Olivia, although he knows he’ll have to get used to that now.

Olivia calls like clockwork. “Harold, how’s Will doing?” Nathan calls too, but not as often. The fast pace of the big city suits him far better than the lecture halls of MIT ever did.

“He’s fine, want to talk with him?”

It’s half a joke, but half not, and he puts the phone next to Will’s head, careful that the cord doesn’t strangle him, and lets him coo into the speaker. “Say hi to your mother.”

“Everything is fine?”

He lets the pause run for too long, he realizes after a second. He should have said something by now. Only he’s not sure what. “Yes.”

She’s quiet too. “Nathan’s off schmoozing some bankers. It’s looking good. We stopped by the office space today, too. It’ll be a nice place, Harold. It’s small, but you guys can grow out of it when the time comes. It’s in a great location, downtown Manhattan.”

Will squirms in his arms but he doesn’t want to put him down. He’s started crawling now, and he’s a devil at it. He always goes straight for the stairs down to the laundromat. The little child’s fence doesn’t give Harold much security.

“You’re not okay with this, are you.”

“Of course I am, Olivia. It’s the right decision. You and Nathan need to be public and visible for IFT to succeed. You can’t have a recluse hiding in your closet.”

“I meant New York.”

Will starts to cry.

“I’m sorry, Olivia, I need to go. Say hello to Nathan.”

“Harold--”

He hangs up.

 

“It’ll be faster if you just fly, Harold. We can spring for tickets now, you know. We’re not on the Spaghettios and cream of wheat diet anymore,” Nathan says over the phone. Harold puts Will’s things on the top of the last box so they’ll be easily accessible when they finally get to Olivia’s and Nathan’s new house. He makes sure to keep his own things separate. Will, playing with the corkscrew cord, is already fastened into the car seat carrier ready to leave.

“The train is fine, Nathan. I don’t have a passport.”

“You don’t need a passport to fly to New York.”

“I know.”

Nathan sighs. “What time are you getting in? Olivia and I will pick you up. You can spend the night if you want, or we can just drop you off at your new place.”

Harold checks the tickets. The arrival time is printed under the name he’d used to buy them: Henry Duckage. “6:05,” he says,” and shifts the phone so he can pull the cord free from Will’s hands and replace it with a pacifier. “And... It’s probably for the best if I get settled at my new apartment.” Will needs to get used to him not living with them anymore and faster is better.

Nathan pauses before he says, “Alright.” And then, “Will you be wearing a false mustache?”

He smiles despite himself. Some things never change. “We’ll see you in New York, Nathan.”

Will, squirming in his buckled down seat, makes sounds at him as he picks the baby carrier up with one hand and the final box in the other.

“Say goodbye to your old house, Will.”

“Ahh!”

Harold stands in the kitchen for longer than is necessary. Will is heavy, the box is heavier, but he walks through each room another time. The place looks different empty. It’d looked different without Olivia and Nathan in it, but without their furniture, without Will’s sonogram on the wall, it is just a skeleton. He walks down the stairs to the laundromat and locks the door behind him.

“Wave goodbye,” he tells Will.

 

*

 

Nathan is three fingers of whiskey into a deal with an investment banker, and New York has never seemed brighter.  They’re at the top of a skyscraper, a suite with an amazing view of lit-up Manhattan forty stories below. It’s somewhere near midnight and the city is just waking up. It’s mesmerizing, watching cars zoom through in a wash of red taillights, watching people weave like ants down there on the sidewalk under the neon lights. All with their own lives, all with things important enough to rush towards. He takes a mouthful of whiskey and lets it sit on his tongue before swallowing. It’s the good stuff, the really good stuff. He’d bought a case of it for moments like this. This is the first time he’s given a bottle away and it’s a rush to finally be drinking it.  

“So, Ingram, how’s the big life treating you?”

He grins. “If this is you asking about the business, let me tell you, IFT has never been happier. The move was perfect. We’ve brought a few more engineers and programmers on board and we’re really moving the company into the global marketplace.”

“We?”

The whiskey is straight and without ice because the sky view suite is perfectly air conditioned and there’s no reason to have a drink at anything other than room temperature. But it’s heavy in the crystal tumbler. “Turn of phrase. You know how it is.” And he grins, big and wide and far more confident than he feels, as the banker cuts a check. He’ll take a polaroid of it later and give it to Harold. He’ll get a kick out of that.

“Ingram, this little business of yours is promising. Don’t let me down, kid.”

The check, for $100,000 with a verbal promise of, “and there’s more where that came from,” goes into the breast pocket of his $1,500 suit. “Don’t worry, Mr. Schumacher, this little business of mine is in it for the long haul. We’re... I’m not going anywhere.”

 They clink glasses, have another splash, and walk out together. “Don’t let me keep you,” Schumacher says. “God knows how you manage all this wining and dining and still come up with your products and designs. Next we’ll learn you figured out time travel.”

Nathan laughs and wishes maybe he’d had a third helping to the whiskey. “Trust me, Jim, if there was a secret, you’d be the first to know,” and he sticks out his hand for the final shake of the evening.

He takes a taxi home after making sure Schumacher makes it into one first, and crawls into bed with Olivia. She’s pretends to be asleep and he spends an hour watching the wall clock tick in the dark.

 

Nathan spends the minutes between meetings, between drinks in fancy bars, between conferences where he smiles and shows off the flash memory hardware and Harold’s latest OS configuration, wandering the streets of NYC. He stays mostly in Manhattan where IFT’s current office is located, but he revels that there’s so much to cover, that even if he walked like this every day for a year, he couldn’t possibly see all there was of the city because by the time he’d walked every street something will have changed. It’s fascinating to be in a place so full of motion. He finds himself outside of Harold’s apartment building a lot. Harold’s place, a small one bedroom picked for location rather than comfort, is foreign territory. They never meet there.

“It’s not that much different from your dorm at MIT,” he’d laughed as he’d helped him set up the rickety old desk he’d insisted on shipping from Cambridge. “You’ve got your mini fridge, your scratchy carpet, and a toilet that’s from the cold war.”

Harold had fixed him with a squint and then smiled a half smile. “No, I suppose it isn’t that much different on the outside, is it.”

Nathan stands outside the building without ringing the buzzer. They spend time together, of course, but it’s at work now. It’s when Harold is flitting between four machines splayed out on the floor of a locked room in the empty office space they’d bought above IFT. It’s on the office map as a closet. He comes in a back entrance with a key and in a pair of ridiculous sunglasses and a different hat every day.

“For god’s sake, Harold,” Nathan sighs, “this is absurd. The secretary is going to think I’m talking to myself, or that this place is haunted. I’m not sure which is worse.” He’d told her he was busy and not to call or interrupt for any reason, and he’d locked the door so he could open the door to Harold’s workshop. “I can’t stand hiding you back here like some dirty secret.”

Harold drops the screwdriver he’d been using to take the faceplate off a computer.

“We can put you on the payroll as my assistant,” he says in a moment of brilliance while Harold threads a line of wire from one silent machine to another. “And we can blow out the office next door for you.”

Harold squints, but Nathan has to really look for it. His eyes are hard to find past the glare of the fluorescent lights on his glasses. “Hmm,” he says.

“It’s not like it’s for real. I’m not going to make you get me coffee.” Nathan realizes too late that he’s standing against the doorjamb and Harold is on the floor looking up at him. He squats down so he’s not towering over him. “It’d be a reason to have you in here. You can work for me part time and then disappear and do your magic upstairs.”

Harold, “hmms,” a few more times before finally, a week and four hats at the back entrance later he appears in the office in a pair of slacks and a ill fitting white shirt. His secretary is at his heels looking harried.

“Mr. Ingram, you should have told me you’d hired someone on as your assistant. I didn’t know why he had a key!” She’s cute; today she’s wearing a pair of red heels and a pencil skirt that is particularly nice.

Nathan smiles and Harold plunks his briefcase (tan and clashing with his pants) against the wall.

“Sorry Suz, it was short notice. Mind grabbing a coffee for myself and Mr…”

“Wren,” Harold says.

Nathan smiles wider.

 

*

 

The house is beautiful. The paperwork is done and settled and all the boxes are unpacked, but it still doesn’t quite feel real. For the first two weeks she felt like some sort of doppelganger, stealing someone else's magazine life every time she put the key in the front door. Nathan had described it as quaint when they’d first moved, but it’s not. It’s bigger than they can afford, even banking on a solid growth with IFT and her own income, and she worries about it for weeks until she finally just stops caring. They have a three car garage, a large front lawn with two crabapple trees, and a dining room big enough to fit twenty guests.

“What are we going to do with all this space?” Leather couches fill up the living room in front of the brick fireplace, and a large, dark table with extra leaves for when they have parties sits in the dining room. Nathan had a decorator come in to do it all, and it feels alien. She misses the mismatched chairs at their old kitchen table they’d gotten at a garage sale..

“What are you talking about?” Nathan asks. He’s got one of IFT’s awards set up on the mantle above the fireplace and is leaving room to the right for more. It’s for something impressive sounding, but Olivia hadn’t paid too much attention when he’d brought it home at four in the morning. Something about promising start ups. It’s glass and has gold writing on it and it looks gaudy. “It’ll feel more like home once we get used to it, that’s all.” He steps back to make sure the thing is centered before taking her by her shoulders and kissing the space between her eyebrows. “Olivia.” He worms his hands into hers and kisses the diamond ring. “Please let me do this right.” Then he kisses her on the mouth and pulls her in close. For a second it almost feels like it used to, but she can hear Will fussing in his playpen and Harold is an empty space where he used to be.  Half the reason they have sex so much now is just because the bed feels too big.

She leans forward and lets her head land firmly against his collarbone. “I didn’t ask for you to do it right. I don’t need all this, you know.”

Nathan says, “Will’s room should be yellow again, don’t you think? Like it was in that old place? The painters are already coming to do the kitchen, we can—“

“I don’t like yellow anymore,” she says. There’s no point trying to recreate it. “It can be green.”

 

Olivia’s been at Beth Israel for months now, and Nathan’s got IFT set up in the new office building. Their life, their new life, is settling into place. The house still feels a little empty, but she’s sure it’s just because it’s a four bedroom, not a three, and the washer and dryer only run twice a week instead of at all hours of the night.

Harold visits once a week, more if he can make time, but their new home is in Queens and Harold’s is in Manhattan. They do their best, but he doesn’t come over as much as she’d like. Other people do, though. Dinner parties at the Ingram’s, social functions where big wigs come over and make happy comments about their kitchen, their backyard, and say they’re moving up in the world. Olivia spends the parties in the kitchen to avoid it all (she has them catered. She still can’t cook) and Nathan glides around smiling the whole time.

After the most recent party, to celebrate IFT’s new business partnership with a local plastics company, Nathan crawls into bed smelling like cigar smoke.

“Will needs a playmate. It’s not right for kids to grow up alone,” he says against her ear. His breath is rank with gin.  

“He’s not alone. He’s already in daycare - there’s plenty of kids.”

“Come on, Olivia. I’m not talking about turning us into the Brady Bunch. Just two. Maybe three.”

She rolls over. “No, Nathan.”

 

*

 

Nathan tips the champagne flute to his lips and lets the carbonation hit his nose.

He’s in the ballroom of a Hilton, but no one is dancing. The whole point is to socialize, to meet and greet and to rub hands with potential suppliers. He’s only one computer representative out of dozens, but there’s no real reason to be here. Harold picked out their suppliers well in advance. But they can’t just come to decisions out of thin air, they have to keep up appearances, after all, and he has to look like he’s weighing their options seriously.

"You here all alone?" Emily, her name is Emily Morse and she represents a data chip company that’s looking to expand. She’s slender and blonde and wearing something fitted and purple that he can't quite find the right word for, and she's smiling bright red lips at him.  

“Not anymore.”

She laughs. “That’s a horrible line,  you know.”

She’s right. It is a horrible line. “I’m not used to being at these things alone,” he admits. “Although it seems to be happening a lot now.” Olivia is at a conference and Harold is holed up four blocks away working himself to death, so Will is with a babysitter tonight. Harold picked her out. Nathan can’t quite remember her name, but he’s pretty sure it’s Sara or Serena.

She tisks. “How young are you?”

“Twenty Five,” he lies. He’s always looked older than he is.

She squeezes herself close to him and takes his arm, the one not holding champagne. “That’s just unacceptable. No man as young as you, as successful as you, should be alone at one of these god awful things.”

“That’s a pretty bad line too.”

She grins back. “I know. But I’m not wrong. And for the record, I’m 30 and my husband is in Maryland.  Your wife?”

He swallows. “She’s at a conference.”

She smiles. “I have a room upstairs.”

 

A week later his secretary says, “Mr. Ingram? A Mrs. Morse left a message for you. She says that you missed a meeting with Morse Data Chips this morning, but I don’t have anything on the calendar.”

Harold, sitting at his desk for once and wearing a crappy tie, raises an eyebrow.

“We decided not to go with Morse.”

“I know. But it’s good to have backup suppliers, right? It’s just… a contingency plan.”

He calls Suz back. “Sorry about that, my mistake. Call Mrs. Morse and tell her I’ll be by… let’s say, five o’clock.”

“Your husband in Maryland again?” he asks after he fucks her.

“No. He wasn’t last time either.” They’re in a Hilton again, a different one this time. Neither of them want to risk anything other than the anonymity of a hotel. “Your wife at another conference?”

“No.” Olivia doesn’t have sex with him more than once a week ever since he asked about more children, and it was never the same without Harold in the bed anyway. With Emily, it’s different.  

It’s already six and he still needs to get home for dinner. It’s Harold’s night to come over and it’s a 40 minute drive from here.

“Why are you doing this?” he asks.  

“Aren’t you having fun?”

“Yes.” It’s a relief, really, have sex with Emily, if only because the bed doesn’t feel too big with her, it doesn’t feel like there’s something missing. “But you must have a reason.”

“Why?” She snorts. “You think a proper woman like me wouldn’t cheat? Not like you are?”

“I think maybe your husband isn’t very nice.”

She laughs. “My husband is just like you, Nathan. So maybe you’re right.” She rolls onto her side to look at him and her blonde hair spills over her breasts. “You guys have been married, what, two years? Three?”

“One.”

“And you have a son with her.”

He nods.

“You’re going to fuck it all up. Maybe not now, maybe not even in five years. But you know that, right?”

He nods again, kisses her neck, and then they have sex a second time.

 

*

 

Harold builds the Wren persona carefully off of the man who recently graduated from MIT with a Masters in Computer Science. He doesn’t pick a new name because the connection to Nathan is a reason to be seen as Will’s uncle without additional work, but it requires alterations before it’s ready to be used like an everyday suit. He hacks into MIT and adjusts his grades to be poorer, changes his experience to be lesser, and does everything to make himself seem like the sort of computer engineer who would be content to be an assistant at a growing tech company, rather than a programer. He won’t stay long in the position, either. Eventually he’ll phase Wren out from under Nathan’s shadow and into something boring and stable, once IFT is in the clear. Nathan still thinks he’s being paranoid, but he doesn’t want to be associated with IFT in any shape other than as an assistant. Even being this close makes him queasy.

He starts to frequent a coffee shop, too, as part of the game, because there’s no point fooling the records if he can’t fool people. Wren is the man who is a proud uncle, who takes his infant nephew to baseball games and makes sure he’s got sunscreen on. It’s important he makes that clear in the persona early on. He’s also the sort of man who buys over priced coffees and wears bad ties because it’s what a man in his position should do, and Wren follows the rules.

“Regular for you, Harry?”

“Yes, please, Bill.” He hands over seventy five cents and puts a quarter in the tip jar. Building identities is just like building code. If you start a sequence correctly it’s easy to replicate and build the pattern as long as you adhere to the rules of the structure.

Bill smiles at the tip and, after a minute, produces a piping hot coffee. Plain but with cream. He takes the coffee with him, smiles at a regular, Jim, who reads the paper in the corner every morning, and walks the two blocks to the building that houses IFT’s offices now. He dumps the coffee in the trash.

Today Nathan is in a day long meeting which is less of a meeting and more of an opportunity to rub elbows. Nathan likes those sorts of events anyhow, and it’s for the best since Harold needs to spend at least ten hours today improving the RAM accessing processes of their latest operating system demo.

“Morning, Harold,” Suzy the receptionist says as he walks past her station. She thinks he got the gig through pure nepotism, that he must be a screw up because he is in all waking hours of the day and only produces mediocre results. It’s a convenient assumption, for the moment, though he’ll have to alter things when Wren moves into a more lucrative career.

“Good morning, Susy,” he says back. And then he locks the door and starts to build.

 

“You should go home.”

Nathan has his arms on the back of Harold’s chair but isn’t draped over him like he used to. Harold has been careful about that, careful to make sure the boundaries are clear and that they don’t accidentally cross them. He’s not even sure Olivia and Nathan notice. It makes him overly aware, though, of what’s missing. It’s been a week and a half since anyone has touched him. But that was holding Will, and that is worth it.

“It’s only six,” Nathan says, and leans in farther. Harold can feel his breath on the back of his neck.

“And you  have a wife and child waiting for you at home.”

“You’ll finish this?”

It’s a pointless question. Nathan hasn’t touched the hardware components in weeks. “Of course.”

“Alright then. You’ll be by on Wednesday? Olivia misses you.”

He nods and smiles. It’s Wren’s turn to pick Will up from daycare on Wednesday. “Goodnight, Nathan,” he says and smirks until Nathan finally does pick up his jacket and walk out the door. Harold stays late. He finishes the component they’d been struggling to re-design, but he stays later yet because going home is an unappetizing prospect. The irony hasn’t escaped him, that his dorm at MIT had been their de facto meeting place and now he can count the times they’ve visited on one hand.

 

*

 

She finds the lipstick in Nathan’s pants pocket, a silver tube, small and innocuous. She imagines how it got there: a girl with thick hips and red lips saying, ‘hold this,’ while they get dressed somewhere in a hurry. Probably in a marble tiled bathroom with locks and fancy hand cream, and Nathan just stuffing it in his pocket because he’s always been a little absent-minded with these things. It’s a nice brand, a bright shade of red that’s more vibrant and young than anything she wears. She takes the lipstick out of his pocket before sending the suit to the dry cleaners, keeps it in her purse, and doesn’t say anything. She looks at it every time she goes for her keys or her wallet, every time she reaches in for Will’s pacifier, too, until finally she breaks. She has Harold’s phone number punched in the phone on the wall and leans her head against the cherrywood cabinet that holds their wedding china.

“Harold?”

“Olivia? What’s wrong?”

“I’m... Harold, can you come over?” It’s half past noon. Nathan is at work, Olivia should be. Harold, though, is somehow always at the end of the phone line when she needs him.

Harold, bless him, is worried over the wrong thing like usual. “Is Will alright?”

“Yeah.”She wants to cry. “He’s fine. He’s at daycare. It’s just. I need a friend.”

Harold makes it over in under 45 minutes. He knocks even though he has a key and the front door is unlocked. She leads him into the living room and over the too-expensive Persian rug. He doesn’t say anything for a while and neither does she. She’s still in hospital scrubs because having a breakdown hadn’t been on her calendar. She should call in, explain that she’ll be late, but all she really wants to do is sit there on her leather couch and look at Harold. He’s twenty eight now. It should be funny that his hairline is already starting to recede just a little, but it’s not.

“Sometimes I think we never should have left that damned apartment,” she says. She watches as his poker face slips.

“Maybe things would be different if we were all eating Ramen on the floor of that yellow room instead of… here.”

“It was the right decision, Olivia. For Will, for IFT.”

She laughs and it sounds bitter to her own ears. “And what about you and me, Harold?”

“Olivia...”

“It’s fine. Just. Sit with me.”

They sit for a while, neither of them saying anything. She’s more than two hours late for her shift now, beyond explanation. Harold probably left some computer system in meltdown mode to get here, too. But it’s nice to sit with him. She hasn’t done it since they left the apartment. There are always places to be, things to do, and dinners when he came over were never quiet affairs, what with Will now in his full food-slinging phase.

In her purse by the door there’s a silver lipstick tube that belongs to some other woman. She doesn’t pull it out, doesn’t show Harold, doesn’t demand to know when it started or if he knew. Next to it there’s a carefully folded up brochure for Doctors Without Borders she picked up from the hospital break room. She doesn’t say anything about that either.

“Nathan’s probably wondering where you are. IFT is unveiling your new prototype today, aren’t you?” She pulls herself out the the chair and grabs her purse. She feels the lipstick tube clink against her ring as she pulls out her keys and walks to the door.

“You should come over for dinner more often. Will misses you,” she says.

 

*

 

He knows it’s stupid. He knows it’s blisteringly, mind-numbingly stupid, and he knows Harold will tell him that. His hand hovers over the phone but he decides it can wait until tomorrow. It’s the sort of thing they should talk about in person after all, not through the impersonal wires and plastic of phones.

Then, he waits until after coffee, until after lunch, before he shuts the office door and tells Suz that he won’t be taking calls for the rest of the day. “Harold…”

Harold is tucked in the corner of Nathan’s office working on a laptop. He works on hardware in a second room, more easily shielded from prying eyes that might make the logical leap that it’s Harold, not Nathan, doing the heavy lifting. As far as the rest of the office is concerned, when he’s in Nathan’s office he’s typing up meeting minutes, not rewriting the way computers access RAM and providing their salaries.

Harold flicks his eyes up away from the monitors and shit, Nathan hadn’t expected the accusation to sit there. He’d expected to have to come clean, not for Harold to already know. It shouldn’t have surprised, him, in hindsight.

“I won’t ask you to lie to Olivia.” Nathan finally says. He doesn’t say that Emily understands how hard it is to be the face of a business, how cutthroat the wining and dining and hand greasing of the tech industry can be. Sneaking off with her is better than a drink; he can forget everything with her.

Harold is completely still. He looks out of place in the office, in his bad clothes that he insists on wearing because, “assistants should  never look as good as their employers. It’s a rule, Nathan,” and at a desk with no plants or pictures or anything other than a tear-away calendar that Tom from the mailroom gave him out of pity.

“I won’t tell her,” he says finally.

And Nathan breathes and thanks god because he doesn’t know what he’ll do if he loses her. “You mean it?”

Harold smiles his half smile, the smile he’s been wearing a lot lately. “Of course, Nathan. I want you and Olivia to work out. I want that more than anything.”

 

*

 

Olivia drops Will off at daycare as soon as they open every day. She gets up and leaves before Nathan and dresses in the dark so she doesn’t wake him. If she’s honest with herself, it’s not because she wants to let him to sleep.

“And will you be by to pick William up this afternoon?” Mrs. Winters, as she insists on being called even by the adults, doesn’t like her. She was late one too many days in a row for pick-up and now the damned woman asks every single morning.

“Tonight is his uncle’s night. Tomorrow too.”

“MmHmm. I see.”

She rolls her eyes and hands the still sleepy Will over. He fusses a little, but doesn’t really wake up. He’s got his thumb in his mouth again and Mrs. Winters pulls it away from him as she leaves to drive the 30 minute commute into work.

She works from 7 until 8 most of the days she doesn’t have to pick up Will from day care. She prefers the busy schedule, actually, even though it makes other people nervous.  

“You don’t have to work split shifts like this,” her supervisor says, and Olivia grins tightly and signs up for a double. Saturdays that Harold is around she works longer. There’s a cafeteria there, and beds too, so there’s really no reason to go home except for when she has to because Nathan is throwing a dinner party or she needs to cart Will home from daycare and make sure he’s in bed.

She’s thinking about hiring a nanny. One of her coworkers, Pietra, has one for her son and says it’s been a miracle. It isn’t right to saddle Harold with Will like she has been, even though he says he doesn’t mind. He’s got IFT to work on, and she knows he works at it harder than Nathan does.

She brings it up and Nathan nods. “I had a nanny growing up. We can afford it, of course, and--” She interrupts him. He’s going to talk about how it’s what people in their position do, and then she’ll argue that no one in her entire family has ever had a nanny and she doesn’t know how to even start looking for one. It’s an argument they don’t need to have.

“I’ll make some calls,” she says instead, and pours her coffee into a thermos and leaves.

 

*

 

Harold picks Will up from daycare every other Wednesday now that Harold and Olivia have a nanny looking after him, but Nathan called and asked him to do it today too, even though it’s a Friday evening. Sara, the nanny, has the night off. He has to call in ahead every time to make sure he’s on the list since he’s not a biological parent, but so far he’s only been stopped once.

“Harold, Will’s uncle,” he says to the woman in front of the play area. Will is almost one and a half. He’s growing big, even has a few words now, although none of them are computer related.

“Hare!” The two syllable name is too much for Will’s still developing language base even though he had his second birthday a few months ago, but Harold doesn’t mind.

“There you are, Will. How was your day?” He scoops Will up, he’s heavy now, and plops him into the car seat. He double checks the belts are all correctly fastened, makes sure he has a sippy cup for the ride over, and pulls the car into drive. It’s Nathan’s car, the one he usually leaves downtown in the parking garage under IFT. They go back to Nathan and Olivia’s. Harold will watch him for the two hours before Olivia gets home and it’s too much of a hassle to take him to his own apartment and then re-load him in the car and drive him to the Ingram house. Nathan called and said, “Sorry, Harold. You don’t mind, do you? Just... Something’s come up.”

“Of course, Nathan.” He doesn’t ask.

He settles Will in a highchair at Nathan and Olivia’s kitchen table, feeding him name brand food cut into toddler portions, and he talks to Will using full conversational sentences. Babies, he’d read, should not be treated as stupid just because they can’t articulate. They are as smart as grown people, they just know less.

“How was your day, Will? Did you make friends at daycare?”

“Mama?” Will has half a banana slice stuffed in his mouth but gets the word out anyhow.

“Your mother will be back. I’m making sure.”

The phone rings just as he’s cleaning Will up from a sauce mishap and he picks it up, a false identity as a babysitter ready for just this instance. “Ingram residence.”

A pause. “Harold?” It’s Olivia. “Where’s Nathan?”

Will is sucking on his fingers. They’re trying to wean him off the pacifier, but he’s resorting to creative solutions. “He asked me to pick Will up. Something came up.”

Olivia grunts on the other end. “Again?” She knows.

The Ingram’s phone cord is new, the corkscrew line hasn’t been jumbled into a thousand untamable kinks yet, not like the old one in the apartment back in Cambridge. “I’m sure he’ll be home soon.” Will is making sounds in the background, noises that rise in incremental steps and form a toddler’s version of a melody. Maybe he’ll be a musician.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m sure. Look, Harold...” He leans back against the counter in Nathan’s house. “Nevermind. I’ll be home in an hour. Are you staying the night?”

He hasn’t slept in their bed before. He was very careful about that when they first moved. If he stays over he’ll have to leave in the morning, and he can’t risk the neighbors thinking Olivia is having an affair. He needs to protect her and Nathan’s reputation, especially now. He can’t let everything have been for nothing. “No. It’s...”

“I get it, okay. It’s fine.”

“Olivia...”

She sighs. “I’ll see you soon. Thanks for looking after Will.”

“Of course, Olivia. That’s what uncles are for.”


end.