Charlie stifles a yawn as he waits to make a left-hand turn into McLelland Road. Someone has attached a miniature American flag to the post for Independence Day, and it hangs loose and still in the morning heat.
“You ready for this, kid?” he asks, glancing in the rear view mirror. “Got your game face on?”
His daughter ignores him, rubbing her eyes and fussing, irritable from being in the car so long.
“I hope you've got your game face on,” Charlie continues, letting the steering wheel spin against his palms as he straightens the car again. “Aunt Karen is going to force you to play, you know.”
Emily Michelle is the first person out the door when Charlie pulls into the driveway. She races across the lawn and jumps through the flower bed, knocking the petals from two yellow roses.
“Let me hold her, Charlie!” she begs.
“Hey to you too,” Charlie says, stretching. He can feel damp sweat against his back – the sun is already white and hot in the sky, despite it only being mid-morning. “Happy Fourth, et cetera.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Emily says, already reaching into the backseat for her niece. “She's grown so much!”
“You saw her two weeks ago,” Charlie says, but he grins and leans against the car.
Karen arrives, breathless. “You're such a jerk, Charlie,” she says. “I've been waiting for you guys all morning, and the minute I let my guard down you finally show up and Emily Michelle gets first cuddles.”
“You can have a consolation prize and help me carry Molly's stuff in,” Charlie says, popping the trunk.
“You've got five minutes before I pry her out of your arms,” Karen warns Emily Michelle, before she hoists two bags out of the back of Charlie's car.
“Try it,” Emily says, poking her tongue out. She bounces Molly gently and carries her towards the house. Molly looks like she's about to start wailing any minute.
“Hey, where's Jess?” Karen asks, glancing around.
“She's staying with her folks this weekend,” Charlie says, and he slams the trunk and starts towards the house. “If you want to spoil Molly at all today, you'd better get in before Watson invokes his Grandpa Privileges again.”
“There's no such thing as Grandpa Privileges,” Karen mutters, slinging a bag over her shoulder and hurrying past him. “And if he thinks I won't knock an old man down to get to her...”
“I'll be sure to warn him,” Charlie says, following her into the house.
Sam and Kristy are still missing, but the house is full and loud. Molly tires of it quickly and won't stop crying until Charlie eventually takes her back into his arms, just to cut off one source of the noise.
“How come Jess isn't here?” David Michael asks around a mouthful of pretzels.
“Say it, don't spray it,” Andrew says, snatching the bag out of his hands.
“She's at her parents' place,” Charlie says again.
“Her loss,” Karen says. “Who wouldn't want to spend this weekend with us?”
“She's probably still got some sanity left,” David Michael tells her. “Probably wants to try and hang onto it.”
“Ha!” Emily barks. She cups her hands around her mouth and stage-whispers to Charlie, “Sam says he's bringing fireworks.”
“He's not bringing fireworks,” Elizabeth says firmly, trying to fit a giant bowl of potato salad in the refrigerator. “If you want to see fireworks you'll have to go to Brenner Field like everyone else.”
“Or ask Kristy about Bart Taylor,” David Michael says.
Karen laughs. “Zing.”
Elizabeth pushes the refrigerator door closed and blows her hair out of her face. “I said fireworks, David Michael, not warfare. Leave Kristy alone.”
David Michael and Karen exchange a conspiratorial look, which clearly says they're making no promises.
Charlie half-turns, but keeps his eyes on Molly, asleep in a crib in his old bedroom. “Hey,” he murmurs back.
Elizabeth slips her arm through his and looks down at her granddaughter. She doesn't say anything for a while, and Charlie knows she's giving him a chance to figure out how to say what's on his mind.
He tightens his fingers around the rail of the crib, but his mouth is too dry to talk.
“Is everything all right?” Elizabeth asks finally. “You're quiet today.”
He shakes his head and gives her a wobbly grin. “Not quiet. Just not as loud as everyone else.”
She laughs softly. “Fair point.”
He shifts his gaze back to Molly. He throws together a quick excuse in his head – Just tired; Molly is going through a stage...
“Jess left me,” he whispers, and the sound of it in his own voice, aloud, turns his blood cold.
Elizabeth looks up at him quickly, and Charlie can practically see the colour draining from her face. “What?”
He takes a step back to sink onto the end of his bed. “I thought maybe you'd figured it out already.”
“Charlie...” She sits beside him, one hand against his back.
He turns his wedding ring around on his finger. He can't look at her – he can feel an ache in his throat and behind his eyes and he'll be damned if he lets his mother see him cry over this. He grits his teeth and waits a few minutes until it subsides enough he can speak again.
“She moved out,” he says. “Week or so ago.”
“Why?” Elizabeth asks. She wipes at her eyes and looks over at the crib. “What about Molly...?”
Charlie shakes his head, grits his teeth again. He can feel his mom's hand moving between his shoulder blades in little circles. He lets out a little gasp he can't quite smother, passes his hand over his eyes and stares down at the floor.
“She...” He clears his throat and stops. “Everyone will have to know,” he says, panic overwhelming him suddenly. “I tried to rehearse this all in my head...”
“I know,” Elizabeth says softly. “It's okay, sweetheart.”
He shakes his head.
“Don't worry about it,” she says. “Nobody else has to know just now.”
“I just want it over with,” he says. “I just want to get to the point where it feels okay again.”
“It will be okay,” Elizabeth agrees. “I promise. We're all going to help, okay? You're not going to be alone.”
He nods, and they sit silently for a few minutes, her hand circling slowly over his back.
“Did you ever forgive Patrick?” he asks after a moment, daring to look over at his mother. He wishes immediately he hadn't – her face is shiny and wet with tears.
She runs a hand over his hair. “I never really think of him now,” she says softly. “But I don't think I ever forgave him, either.”
“He never told us why,” Charlie says, looking down at the floor again. “I always hated not knowing why.”
“Me too,” Elizabeth whispers. She strokes his hair again, and Charlie watches out of the corner of his eye as she turns her gaze to Molly again.
“Sometimes it's worse,” he says in a hollow voice, “hearing the real reason.”
“What did she say?” Elizabeth asks, and there's a hard edge to her voice now; the same tone she gets whenever Patrick is brought up.
Charlie's long since grown accustomed to the sour feeling he gets when he thinks of his father. Patrick's name alone is enough to send ripples of self-doubt and anger through his body, but even Patrick was never cruel enough to stand in front of him and tell him in actual words:
You're not what I want anymore.
“I will fucking kill her,” Kristy says. “What a bitch.”
“Kristy,” Watson says, but his tone isn't particularly disapproving. “Tone your language down, please.”
Charlie had fallen asleep, waking when Molly stirred to the sound of Kristy's car doors slamming outside. He lingers at the bottom of the stairs with Molly quiet in his arms, listening to Kristy and Karen swap vocal anger back and forth over what's happened, his mom gently chiming in now and then to try and keep things calm.
He skirts around the living room and heads for the kitchen instead. He catches sight of Sam through the glass doors, sitting on the porch step and staring out at the lawn.
“Hey,” Charlie says, sliding the door open. “Mind watching Molly for a minute while I get her formula ready?”
“You kidding?” Sam gives him a grin, but Charlie can tell he knows. “I thought I'd have to lock the girls in the basement before I got a chance with this kid.”
Charlie gives him a grin and looks back over his shoulder. “They're otherwise engaged right now.”
Sam bounces Molly on his knee. She starts to cry when Charlie leaves, but he's not gone long. He sits beside Sam on the porch step, sheltered by the shade of the wisteria clambering over the arch above them, and hands Sam a bottle of formula.
“She'll hold it if she's in the mood,” he says. “Or if she doesn't trust you to do it properly.”
“How old is she now?” Sam asks.
“Five months, one week and two days,” Charlie says, watching Molly blinking at him as she swallows her formula down, lashes wet and spiky.
“You're an obsessive-as-shit parent,” Sam says.
Charlie laughs and leans back on his hands. “How's Laura?” he asks.
“Great,” Sam says, and Charlie doesn't miss the dreamy grin that appears before Sam manages to control it away again. “She's working this weekend, but she said to say hi to everyone.”
They sit in silence for a while, until Sam says, “Mom told me what happened with Jess.” He taps his fingers gently against Molly's bare toes. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I'll be okay,” he says lightly. He looks out across the lawn, still gleaming wet in the shade from the sprinklers that morning.
“Pretty sure Kristy and Karen are ready to start a Thomas-Brewer chapter of the Stoneybrook Mafia, if you're interested,” Sam says, looking at Charlie out of the corner of his eye.
Charlie laughs again and rubs at his eyes, feeling tired. “Not really,” he says. “Revenge isn't my style.”
Sam tickles the bottom of his niece's foot gently. She twists her head to look at him with wide blue eyes. “What's gonna happen with Molly?” he asks.
Charlie runs his fingers through his hair. “She's with me,” he says. “Jess has already agreed to that.”
They're interrupted as the back door opens and Watson appears. He gives Charlie a kind, sorry smile, but he doesn't linger over any sadness. “Time for the barbecue, Sam,” he says. “You'd better let me hold Molly Elizabeth while you're busy getting everything ready.”
“No way, old man,” Sam says, circling his arms around Molly. “I got her first. And I'll fight you for her, fisticuffs style, if I have to.”
“I'll cut you out of the will,” Watson jokes.
Sam laughs. “Touché.”
Charlie doesn't really want to talk about it, but the reality is plans need to be made, and one of Kristy's favorite past times is planning for absolutely everything.
“We could do shifts,” she says. “A week here, a week there.”
“That's not going to work,” Charlie says, trying to be patient, but sounding irritable anyway. “Kristy, you just started a new job, and Sam, Karen and David Michael would all have to fly home whenever I need them for baby-sitting duties. Not to mention Mom would kill me if I suggested Andrew and Emily Michelle just put school aside for a while.”
“But it's stupid to hire someone to look after her when we've got an entire family at our disposal!” Kristy says, rubbing her dish towel against a dinner plate aggressively.
“Well, what else can I do?” Charlie asks, feeling suddenly desperate. “I have to go back to work soon, and I need someone to watch Molly during the day.”
“How could she leave, anyway?” Kristy asks through gritted teeth. “What's wrong with her?”
“Kristy, give it a rest,” Sam says tiredly, pulling the dish towel out of her hands. He starts to shepherd her out of the kitchen.
“We'll figure something out,” Kristy says, locking eyes with Charlie. “Don't do anything yet. I'll think of something, I swear.”
“I know you will,” Charlie says, leaning against the counter. “Thanks, Kristy.”
She shoves Sam lightly. “If you want to dry dishes you can,” she says. “Don't take my disappearance as a sign of defeat.”
“Wouldn't dream of it,” Sam says. “Just go and flap your mouth somewhere else for a while.” He wanders back to Charlie with a grin. “Molly cries whenever Karen gets too close,” he says. “It's hilarious.”
“She's been a bit weird with other people lately,” Charlie says. “I don't know if it's a normal stage or something she's picked up since Jess left.”
“You know, if you do need someone to watch her for a while, just ask,” Sam says seriously. “We're gonna help you out.”
“I know.” Charlie smiles.
Charlie gets home to two messages on his machine. He settles Molly on a blanket on the floor before he plays them, heart in his throat, hoping against hope he's going to hear his wife's voice.
The first message is from Elizabeth. “It's just me, honey,” she says, “and I know you're not home. I just wanted to tell you again that I know everything is hard right now, and you're worried about what you're going to do and what's going to happen, but you and Molly are going to be just fine. The hardest part is asking for help. Don't be scared to call if you need to. I love you both.”
He sinks onto the couch with a small smile and waits for the second message to come through. It's less than twenty minutes old.
“It's Kristy,” his sister says, her voice loud even on tape. “And I have found your salvation, Charlie. She'll be coming by at nine o'clock on Monday morning. I told you I would help you figure it out.”
Even when he calls Kristy back, she won't tell him what's going on.
“It's a surprise,” she says smugly. “But you can trust me. It's for Molly, okay? It's going to be fine.”
Sometimes Kristy can get a little carried away with her own ideas, but Charlie knows her heart is always in the right place, and she takes nothing more seriously than the happiness of her family. If she says it will be okay, it's not too difficult to believe her.
He spends early Monday morning in a quiet state of panic, though, until his apartment buzzer sounds and he recognizes the voice that speaks back to him, even before she says her name.
“Hi, Charlie. It's Mary Anne Spier.”
Mary Anne smiles at Charlie when he lets her into the apartment, giving him a small shrug. “Sorry about the big mystery. Kristy was kind of insistent.”
He shakes his head, grinning back at her as he steps back to let her into the apartment. “No, don't – don't worry. Hi.”
“Hi,” she says, and she laughs and glances around the apartment, eyes settling on Molly in her bouncer. She smiles. “I hope it's okay that I’m here.”
“Of course it is, it's – I mean... You're here for a job, right? Did Kristy explain...” He trails off.
“If it's okay with you,” Mary Anne says. She looks a little uncomfortable. “I don't want to put you in a position where you think this has to work out. If it's not going to be all right for you and Molly, then that's fine, of course –”
“Mary Anne, if you want it, the job is yours,” he interrupts. Relief floods him.
“Oh,” she says, smiling at him. “Great!”
“Great,” he agrees.
He doesn't bother trying to analyze things too closely. He doesn't particularly care about what set of circumstances has led Mary Anne to his door, though he knows Kristy was probably the main reason for it. But he also knows he can trust Mary Anne – that she is sensible and reliable, and trustworthy. He knows she is good with kids; he knows she'll care for Molly not just because Mary Anne is a caring person, but because Molly is a Thomas, and Mary Anne has loved the Thomas family her whole life.
They sit down together to sort out how their arrangement will work, and it shouldn't surprise Charlie how easy it is to talk to Mary Anne, but time passes quickly and he finds himself relaxing and forgetting about just how unhappy he's been the past two weeks.
She hasn't changed much since the last time he spent any significant amount of time with her – her hair is cut shorter and he notices her fidgeting nervously sometimes, but he can't remember if that's always been a habit or if he's noticing it because he's a bit nervous, too.
He learns she finished college but ended up hating her degree, and she's just worked odd jobs since graduating – waitressing, baby-sitting, retail. She tried to follow Dawn's example and see corners of the country she's never seen before, but ended up hating it, homesick and miserable.
“Dawn's going to spend three months backpacking through Asia,” she says, staring down at her hands. “She wanted me to go as well, but I missed Dad and Sharon. And Stoneybrook. I just felt like I needed to come home.”
“I've never really wanted to be far from home, either,” Charlie admits, and Mary Anne smiles at him.
“Have you got an apartment here?” he asks.
“Not yet,” she says. “I've started looking – but if you want me to start right away, it's not far on the train from Stoneybrook.”
“Do you want the spare bedroom?” he asks, only slightly hesitant. “Even if it's just until you find somewhere else?”
She looks unsure.
“Only if you're comfortable with it,” Charlie says hastily. “I mean, I don't want you to think I'd expect you to sit for Molly all the time. Just when I’m not here. But it's not like there's no room for you...” He gestures around with a small smile. “This place was a wedding present from Watson,” he says. “He kind of overestimated how much space we'd need.”
“Well,” Mary Anne says, her smile wider now, “that would mean I could start right away, I guess.”
Mary Anne moves into the spare room. She doesn't bring much, but the space is immediately hers, and Charlie never even considers intruding into it, or asking her to keep it a certain way.
Molly is suspicious of Mary Anne at first, clinging to Charlie and crying when he leaves the room, but it's a stage that doesn't last long, and Mary Anne is patient. On his first day back at work, he shuts the apartment door quietly behind him, Molly's giggling lingering like a happy little glow in his chest.
“We need to get a kettle,” Mary Anne says one morning, sitting on one of the kitchen stools at the counter as Charlie wipes Molly's face clean.
“Why?” he asks, distracted.
“I need tea.”
“Just microwave a mug of water like a normal person.”
He feels the weight of the look she gives him before he even glances up to her. “What?” he asks, laughing at the horrified expression on her face.
“There is an art to making tea,” Mary Anne says, pointing her cereal spoon at him, “and at no point should a microwave ever be involved.”
Charlie lifts Molly up so he can look her in the eyes. “She's crazy,” he whispers. “Craaaazy.”
Molly grins at him and he kisses her goodbye.
“Have a good day at work,” Mary Anne says, taking Molly into her arms with a smile.
“You too,” he tells them both, and he waves at Molly again just before he closes the apartment door behind him.
Charlie has to work late one night, and when he comes home Molly is already bathed and blinking sleepily as Mary Anne reads from a Dr. Seuss book. The apartment smells like rich baking tomatoes and cheese; Mary Anne has cooked lasagna for dinner.
“Hi,” he says, pulling his tie off.
“Hi.” Mary Anne smiles back at him. “Want to take over?”
Molly is two thirds of the way through her bottle of formula and almost asleep. Charlie sinks onto the couch beside Mary Anne and pulls his daughter gently into his lap.
“Keep going,” he says. Molly blinks up at him and rests her head against his chest.
“Dr. Seuss,” Mary Anne explains, curling up so she can angle the book at Molly again. “It's mostly for me, but she seems to enjoy it, too.”
They eat dinner at the kitchen counter, and Mary Anne stacks their plates in the dishwasher and shifts the kettle to the top of the stove.
“Tea?” she asks, reaching for the box of teabags in the top cupboard.
“Sure,” Charlie says, though he's still not really sure he likes drinking tea. He agrees mostly because it's become part of the routine and he likes watching Mary Anne play through the little ritual of boiling and steeping and stirring.
“I feel guilty,” he says after a moment, voicing the horrible gray feeling that's been fogging his mind all day. “About working late.”
“You couldn't help it,” Mary Anne says, looking back at him across the counter.
“It was just paperwork,” Charlie says. “I could have brought it home and done it later, after Molly had gone to sleep.”
“It's all done now,” Mary Anne says, uncurling a string from one of the teabags. “Trust me, Charlie, the occasional late night at work isn't going to break anything.” She gives him a smile that is incredibly knowing and understanding, and something familiar and happy blooms inside him.
Mary Anne goes home most weekends. Charlie knows it's mostly so she can spend time with her dad and Sharon, but he suspects she does it to give him some alone time with Molly, as well.
Molly is getting more and more talkative, stringing sounds together that could be words if Charlie wanted to recognize them as such. They're not attached to any sort of recognition yet, but he still gets a funny feeling in his gut when she says anything remotely like Mama.
Mary Anne's birthday is on a Tuesday. Charlie calls Kristy from work.
“This might sound weird,” he says, “but it's Mary Anne's birthday, and I need to get her something.”
“Did she get my package?” Kristy interrupts.
“I don't know,” Charlie says. “Maybe something arrived today.”
“I might've included a present for Molly in there, too,” Kristy says. “And instructions for you to send me more photos, because the ones I have are like a month old and I know I’m already behind on things.”
“I haven't sent you photos for ages,” he says.
“You've dropped the ball,” Kristy agrees. “Mary Anne sends them.”
“Oh.” He blinks, and grins. “So – um, what should I get her for her birthday?”
“You've left it kind of late.”
“I thought I could handle it alone,” Charlie admits.
“Just get her a bunch of flowers,” Kristy says. “She likes flowers.”
“Flowers?” Charlie asks, wondering if that's going to be too easily misinterpreted as romantic.
“Trust me,” Kristy says. “She'll already have at least two big bunches of flowers – one from her dad and Sharon, and another from Stacey McGill. She loves flowers. Get her flowers.”
“You're welcome,” Kristy says.
Kristy was right about the flowers.
Mary Anne goes a little pink in the face, but Charlie's easily convinced it's just because of the attention and the gesture, rather than any unnecessary interpretation of romance.
“Thank you,” she says, blushing up at him when he wishes her a happy birthday.
The box Kristy sent is still sitting on the coffee table, wrapping paper neatly plucked open at the tape. She's sent Mary Anne a book, and Molly a onesie with the hand-painted words KRISTY IS MY FAVORITE AUNT on the front.
“I'm sorry you don't have a single aunt who understands the art of subtlety,” Charlie tells Molly.
She holds her arms up and he lifts her for a cuddle, noticing the mound of whipped cream, chocolate cake and cherries on the kitchen counter. “You made yourself a birthday cake?” he asks Mary Anne, feeling a little sorry he didn't think to at least bring one home from the bakery.
“The standard Spier birthday cake,” she tells him, looking proud. “Want a slice? Before dinner, even. Birthday rules.”
“Sure.” He sits Molly in her high chair and watches Mary Anne cuts two slices of cake.
One bite in and he's flooded by memories of a sun-soaked kitchen in Bradford Court, floral aprons and china cups. “Oh,” he says suddenly, “your mom used to make this.”
Mary Anne stares at him and he suddenly feels like he's fumbled something really important.
“I don't remember much about her,” he says nervously. “Just – I don't really remember her at all, really. I was five when she died. She and Mom were friends. She was really nice, and – and she used to give me cake. It tasted just like this.”
He comes just short of gritting his teeth to shut himself up. “I'm really sorry,” he blurts.
Mary Anne shakes her head, and her eyes are misty, but she's smiling. She steps around the counter and wraps her arms around his neck, her face pressed against his shoulder. “That was the nicest present I’ve gotten all day,” she says.
The weather starts to change. The leaves turn and the mornings and evenings are cooler, the days drawing in.
“Are you going to Stoneybrook this weekend?” Charlie asks Mary Anne one Saturday morning. She's curled up on the end of the couch in a t-shirt and pink striped pajama pants, pulling funny faces at Molly, who is giggling at her from the floor.
“Not this weekend,” Mary Anne says. “I'll just hang out here, if that's okay.”
“Sure, of course it is,” Charlie says. He watches Molly turn a plastic block around in her hands. “Maybe we'll all go to the park later,” he says, hoping it doesn't sound like he expects Mary Anne to look after Molly even on her day off, but more like an invitation to spend the day together as... He's not sure. Family, maybe.
“That sounds like fun,” Mary Anne says, smiling at him.
“Oh, great,” Charlie says, pulling his tie loose with a sigh. “Thanks, kid.”
Molly grins at him, her face and hands smeared with banana.
Across the room, the speaker by the door grinds as someone pushes the buzzer.
“I'll get it,” Mary Anne says, passing him a damp wash cloth. “Go and change your tie.”
He wipes his hands free of banana and tells himself he should know better by now than to get near Molly and her breakfast when he's already dressed for work. He pulls another tie from his closet and glances at his watch. “Who's at the door?” he asks, calling back through to the kitchen as he stands in front of the mirror.
“It's just a delivery,” Mary Anne says. “You need to sign for it, he's coming up.”
He walks back into the kitchen just as there's a knock, and he grabs his keys and drops a kiss against the top of Molly's head, careful to keep his tie out of the way. “Be a good girl,” he says.
He pulls the door open, intending on signing for the package and then walking out to work, but he stops short at the sight of the guy in the dark suit, holding a wide yellow envelope in his hands.
“I'm here to serve you with divorce papers today.” The envelope is passed into his hands with an apology. “Sorry.”
His stomach drops sharply. He looks back over his shoulder towards Molly, still mushing banana between her fingers. Mary Anne stands beside her and stares back at him, face pale, tears gleaming in her eyes.
“Hi,” Charlie says, holding the phone between his ear and his shoulder. “Just me.”
“Hi,” Mary Anne says. “Are you okay?”
He can hear Molly rambling loud syllables in the background. “Just letting you know I'll be a bit late,” he says, twisting a pen in his fingers, staring down at the papers scattered across his desk. “I need to stop somewhere on my way home.”
“Okay,” Mary Anne says. “Take your time. We'll be fine here.”
He drops the phone gently back into its cradle and swallows back the sour taste flooding his mouth.
“Jess!” He hammers on the door, his anger only building when he realizes he's wasting time chasing her when he could be at home with Molly.
The house is dark; even her parents aren't in.
“Fuck it,” he says in disgust, and he spins on the doorstep only to see Jess climbing out of her car on the opposite side of the street, wet yellow leaves clinging to her shoes. He waits for her to see him, and feels a small spark of satisfaction when he sees her steps falter.
“Hi, Charlie,” she says softly, stopping on the sidewalk.
His mouth has gone dry, but he tries to hang onto the feeling that's been sitting in the pit of his stomach all day. “You couldn't call me, first?” he asks. “You couldn't call me and tell me I was about to be served with divorce papers?”
Jess tucks a blonde lock of her behind her ear and looks apologetic. “I'm sorry.”
He suddenly has no idea what he's doing there. His anger has boiled up into a hard little ball and now he's choking on it, not able to expel any of it; it poisons him on the inside and he doesn't know what to do about it.
It finally starts to break, and a fragment of it comes through clean and sharp in his voice, even when he can feel tears burning in his eyes, even when everything else feels desperate and small. “How can you not want her?”
Jess brushes a fingertip against the corner of her eye and folds her arms over her chest, looking down at her shoes. “Charlie...”
“You knew,” he croaks. “You knew what my dad did and then you turned around and did it as well. If you didn't want kids you should have been honest with me from the start.”
“I thought I did,” Jess says, looking up at him with tears brimming on her lashes. “Please don't think I’m happy about all of this, Charlie. I thought I knew what I wanted – but when I got pregnant, it was like a switch went off in my head...”
He swallows hard and takes a step back, shaking his head. “Don't.”
“I wanted it all so much,” Jess says. “But I couldn't feel what I was supposed to feel.”
“So you thought it'd be okay to just abandon us, instead?” he asks. He curls his fingers into fists by his side.
She doesn't answer him. She can't look at him, and he wonders at which point they became strangers, pulling in such opposite directions, when they're both still so young and their history is so short.
“Molly's going to ask me, one day,” Charlie says. “She'll ask me why you left. What am I supposed to tell her?”
“I don't know,” Jess says sharply. She brushes another tear away on the back of her hand. “I'm sorry. I really am, okay? Mothers aren't supposed to feel this way. There's something wrong with me and I get that. But I can't play happy families. Life is too short to waste.”
He can't stand the hate he can feel – it scares him and it's unfamiliar and horrible and he doesn't know how to handle it. He leaves her on the sidewalk with the most hurtful, honest thing he can think of:
“She deserves better than you.”
Mary Anne looks like she's been crying, but she gives him a brave smile when he finally lets himself into the apartment, darkness pressing in against the windows.
“Hi,” she says. “Are you okay?”
“Hi.” He shrugs out of his coat. “Peachy.”
“I just put Molly to bed,” Mary Anne says hesitantly. “Do you want something to eat?”
“No thanks.” He tries to give her a smile back, but it doesn't feel right on his face. He sinks onto the couch and, after a moment, Mary Anne sits next to him.
She doesn't say anything – just sits there quietly. After a few minutes he takes her hand, and she shuffles closer to him so he can rest his head down on her shoulder. He stares at the blank screen of the television, at their blurred reflections in the glass.
“Nothing's going to change,” he says quietly. “I'll sign the papers and Jess and I will get divorced and then everything will be just like it was yesterday.”
She squeezes his hand, her fingers playing through his, thumb rubbing at his skin. “Yesterday was a good day,” she says.
He nods and closes his eyes when she kisses the top of his head.
Charlie takes his wedding ring off the day he files his affidavit with the County Clerk, not quite sure why it took him so long.
He knows Mary Anne has noticed, because when he comes home from work the next day, there's a cherry chocolate cake sitting on the kitchen counter.
She shrugs and smiles at him when he looks at her.
“It's also a rainy day cake,” she says.
The Thomas-Brewer house looks like a tinsel bomb has hit it.
“I can't even make a joke about you missing a spot,” Sam complains to Emily Michelle, “because there is literally no spot you have missed.”
“It took a whole weekend,” Emily Michelle says, “and that was with Gabbie's help.”
“Hey, when are we supposed to get some snow?” Karen asks, pushing her glasses up.
“Ask Mr. Meteorologist,” Kristy says.
“You're hilarious,” Sam says. “It snowed this morning, and you would have seen it if you'd dragged your sorry ass out of bed any earlier than ten, Karen.”
“It's not worth getting up for if it doesn't stick,” Karen mutters.
Charlie sits and listens to his siblings bicker back and forth with happy voices and laughter. He's in a good mood, for the most part, but he can't escape the thought that it's Molly's first Christmas and her mom isn't there.
When he takes Molly upstairs for her nap after lunch, feeling drowsy himself, he stops on the landing and looks at the photographs on the wall, noticing his wedding day is no longer a feature.
Molly points tiredly to a picture of Mary Anne and Kristy at their high school graduation, both of them smiling widely, and Charlie grins and kisses the top of his daughter's head.
“Yeah,” he whispers, “I wish she was here, too.”
“Wow, she's so much bigger than the last time I saw her,” Laura says, gushing at Molly and blowing little kisses. “How old is she now?”
“Eleven months,” Charlie says.
He likes Laura, and he thinks she and Sam make a good couple. He's also aware, though, that seeing her for the first time since his divorce has brought to light a new edge of protectiveness – because how the hell can he be sure she won't do the same thing to Sam that Jess did to him?
He can't, and it's none of his business, anyway, but the fact remains Jess has tainted his relationships with people who have had nothing to do with any of the heartache.
It's snowing, and most people have disappeared outside to dance around in the flurrying flakes, which are starting to settle thick and soft on the lawn.
Laura disappears to help Elizabeth make a round of hot chocolates for everyone when they come back inside, and Sam stands beside Charlie at the back door, watching the snow fall.
“Hey,” Sam says, looking cautiously over his shoulder, “you like Laura, right?”
“Of course I do,” Charlie says, suddenly feeling terrible, like Sam is aware of that new edge of caution and suspicion inside of him.
Sam rubs his hands together nervously. “I think I’m going to ask her to marry me on New Year's Eve,” he says in a low voice.
The caution and suspicion immediately gives way. Charlie is relieved when his reaction is one of happiness instead. “That's great,” he says, honestly meaning it. “I'm really happy for you both.”
“I was gonna ask her six months ago,” Sam says nervously.
Charlie's about to ask why he didn't. “Oh, Sam,” he says. “Don't tell me it was because of me and Jess.”
Sam shrugs. “No,” he says, but he doesn't sound very truthful. He shakes his head and shoves his hands in his pockets. “I don't know,” he says eventually. “Marriage scares the shit out of me, Charlie.”
Charlie watches the snow slowly pile up on the lawn. “Don't let a couple of bad stories talk you out of it,” he says eventually. “We ended up better off without Patrick, right? You could have something as strong as Mom and Watson.”
“Yeah,” Sam says, and Charlie thinks he can see him visibly relax a little.
“Doesn't matter what happened with Jess,” Charlie adds after a moment. “I got Molly out of my marriage. I can't regret anything that gave me that much.”
Charlie lies awake on Christmas night, listening to Molly breathe peacefully in the crib at the end of his bed, his head still full of the chaos of Christmas Day.
It's been a good day – a great day – but even in his happiest moments, it felt like something was missing.
He thinks again about Molly pointing to Mary Anne's photograph, and his stomach gives an odd little twist. He turns his head and looks over at the empty bed beside him, and lets himself wonder what it would be like to have a person both he and Molly love so much right there beside him.
Charlie closes the door softly behind him. The apartment is quiet, and warm. Mary Anne is nowhere to be seen. “Hello?” he calls, dropping his keys on the coffee table.
“In here,” Mary Anne calls from her bedroom, and Charlie can see the glow of a lamp spilling from the open door.
When she doesn't appear to greet them, Charlie approaches cautiously, working with one hand to unbutton Molly's coat, her fingers catching his and pulling as she tries to help.
Mary Anne is sitting on her bed, her right foot propped up on two pillows, ankle bandaged. There are crutches leaning against the wall.
Charlie's stomach gives an unpleasant lurch. “What happened?”
Mary Anne grins at Molly and reaches for her, and Molly hastily tilts herself in Charlie's arms, stretching for Mary Anne's hands. Charlie sinks onto the side of the bed and lets her crawl into Mary Anne's lap.
“I slipped,” Mary Anne says, answering Charlie's question. She's already a little red in the face, and it only deepens as she explains. “There was a patch of ice on the steps in front of the train station, and I guess I just wasn't paying attention.”
“Are you okay?” Charlie glances down at her ankle.
“Oh, it's just a bad sprain,” she says. “I just need to keep off it for a couple of days. And my arm kind of hurts, but the doctor said it's just bruising.” She pulls her sleeve back to display a purple bruise on her elbow. “She gave me some painkillers.” She motions towards her nightstand.
Charlie glances at the little orange bottle sitting by her alarm clock, and then his heart skips a beat as he recognizes the little circular pill packet beside it. He turns his attention away from it immediately, trying to forget he's just seen Mary Anne's birth control, and the images and ideas it's suddenly burning into his mind.
“Did you guys have a fun Christmas?” she asks, easing Molly's arms out of the sleeves of her coat.
“No,” Molly says automatically, and then she giggles and throws herself forward to bury her face in Mary Anne's pillow.
“No?” Mary Anne tickles her and laughs.
“We did so,” Charlie says, tugging at Molly's foot. He pulls her shoes off and she digs her feet into the mattress and pushes herself further under Mary Anne's pillow. Mary Anne grins and puts an arm around her to stop her rolling off the bed, but she looks pale and tired.
“We'll let you get some rest,” Charlie says, reaching for Molly.
“Oh, let her stay,” Mary Anne says softly. She looks up at him and gives him a small shrug. “I missed you guys.”
Charlie smiles at her. “We missed you, too.”
Charlie grabs a book from the top of the pile Mary Anne has stacked on the coffee table, and sinks back onto the couch with Molly in his lap.
She's bathed and warm, and already blinking sleepily as she sucks at her bottle.
“Here we go, kiddo,” Charlie says, feeling tired himself. “Can't go wrong with Dr. Seuss, right?”
Mary Anne appears in the doorway of her bedroom, looking like she's just woken up. She leans on her crutches. “Did I miss story time?”
“Nope,” Charlie says, and he pats the cushion beside him.
“Oh, good,” Mary Anne says. She smiles at Molly and hobbles over to the couch. “Ow, ow.” She hisses through her teeth as she eases herself down, and Charlie finds himself helping her with a hand against her back. He curls his fingers around her shoulder and she settles back comfortably with a sigh.
“Okay?” he asks.
“Yeah,” she says, and she leans her head against his arm and waits for him to open the book.
He's not willing to shift her, so he's only got one hand to angle the book towards Molly. After a moment Mary Anne takes it from him so she can turn the pages, but she leaves him to read aloud.
“You've got to do the funny voices,” she says in a whisper, turning the page and looking up at him with big dark eyes.
“For you or for Molly?” he asks, grinning at her, and he uses their quiet laughter as an excuse to drop his forehead to hers for a moment, shivers passing all the way across his skin.
It's Sunday, the day before Molly's first birthday, and most of the Thomas-Brewer clan is gathered in the apartment, passing plates of Mary Anne's cake around after a loud and cheerful lunch.
“This kettle sure comes in handy when people want tea, huh?” Mary Anne asks, nudging Charlie as she stirs sugar into a cup for Elizabeth.
“You're a pain in my ass, Spier,” he says, and she gives a giggle and nudges him again before she leaves to hand Elizabeth and Emily Michelle their tea.
Watson appears with a grin on his face, laughter drifting back from the living room. “Need a hand, Charlie?”
“I think I’m okay,” Charlie says, closing the dishwasher. He glances after Mary Anne and leans on the counter. “Can I ask you something?” he says suddenly, not sure where the urge has come from, but the need to find out all the same.
“How did you know you were in love with Mom?” Charlie asks. “I mean – you and Lisa hadn't been divorced very long.”
Watson can't quite control a glance back towards Mary Anne, and Charlie feels the slow crawl of embarrassment and frustration rising through his blood. He wonders how obvious it's becoming to everyone else, and what they might think.
“Charlie,” Watson says kindly, “nobody else can tell you how to fall in love, or what's right or wrong about it. I wouldn't be able to explain to anyone what it was about your mother that had me so completely...” He draws a breath and smiles. “Floored,” he says. “The important thing to know is that sometimes it takes more than one attempt before you get it so right.”
Valentine's Day is coming.
At the back of Charlie's mind is a knot of anxiety about whether or not he should get Mary Anne something. He knows he wants to – but it doesn't feel appropriate, either, and he's not sure he'll be capable as passing it off as a sweet gesture with little meaning behind it.
When Mary Anne casually tells him she has a date the weekend before Valentine's Day, he's a little relieved, because now it feels like she's settled into that role with someone else – but his heart still sinks.
“I don't really want to go,” she says, and Charlie's not sure whether to believe her or if she's saying it because he's giving off a vibe he doesn't approve.
“Go, you'll have fun,” he promises, trying to sound like he means it.
She winds her scarf around her neck. “It's just a guy from the coffee shop I stop at on the way to the park with Molly,” she says. “We have a five minute conversation every day as he makes my coffee. There's no real profound connection or anything.”
He manages to make his laugh sound light-hearted. “Don't over-think it. Just go.”
She gives him a look he can't quite decipher – something that lasts a second too long, and she draws a breath before she shakes her head and blows Molly a kiss. “Night, baby girl,” she says.
Molly smooshes her palm against her mouth, but that's as far as she gets in mimicking Mary Anne's action.
“Night, Charlie,” Mary Anne says softly.
“Goodnight,” he says, and he watches her close the door behind her.
Charlie's used to going through the evening routine without Mary Anne there – she often spends her weekends in Stoneybrook, leaving he and Molly with the apartment to themselves – but it's different tonight. He can feel an ugly weight in his chest. He recognizes it as jealousy, resentment, and he doesn't like it.
He puts Molly to bed and tidies up the toys she's spread across the apartment over the course of the day. He runs the dishwasher and watches the rain falling against the kitchen windows. He finds himself wondering what Mary Anne is doing on her date – where they are, what they're talking about – and then he remembers the plastic packet he saw on her nightstand and wonders if she'll even come home.
“Stop being an asshole,” he tells himself.
He takes a shower and lets the water pour down against his skin, but he can't get his mind off Mary Anne, out on a date with someone else.
He figures he has two choices - he can tell her how he feels, which could end in two possibilities: she reciprocates, which would only strengthen the arrangement they already have, and provide more stability for Molly – or she rejects him, which would not only risk 25 years of friendship, but might cause her to move out and not want to be anywhere near him. Which would then mean he'd have to find someone to replace her.
On the other hand, he can ignore it all, pretend his feelings towards her haven't changed at all since Mary Anne moved in, and keep everything as it already is.
He's just pulling back the comforter on his bed when he hears the apartment door open and close. He glances at the clock – not even ten yet – and heads for the kitchen.
Mary Anne jumps and claps her hand to her chest when he appears in the doorway. “You scared me,” she whispers, smiling at him.
He smiles back. “Sorry.”
She pads with stockinged feet to the stove and weighs the kettle in her hand. “Tea?”
“Sure.” He sits on one of the stools by the counter and watches her gather mugs.
“You're home early,” he says eventually, trying to keep his tone light.
She shrugs. They haven't turned the light on, and Charlie can see the rain shadows moving over her face as water slides down the window panes.
“Are you okay?” Charlie asks.
“Yes,” she says, and she smiles at him, but she can't hold his gaze. “It was okay. I mean – it wasn't horrible. There just wasn't any...” She motions between them, a little wave back and forth that sets his heart thumping hard. “Connection,” she says. “You know?”
Charlie wants to ask if she thinks she has a connection with him, but it sounds pathetic no matter what way he tries to phrase it. He watches her pour out two mugs of tea, and she slides one over and leans on the counter opposite him, blowing against the steam gently.
“Tell me he at least walked you home,” Charlie says. There's an odd feeling in his throat as he realizes she looks unhappy, but he can't be upset that her date didn't go well. He feels almost cruel.
“It's raining,” Mary Anne says, smiling at him. "I caught a cab." She sets her mug down, running her finger around the rim. “I would have had a better night in with you and Molly, I think.”
“Well, of course,” Charlie says, smiling back at her.
They drink in silence for a while, listening to the rain fall outside, but Mary Anne seems distracted, and Charlie can't help but feel she's avoiding eye contact with him.
He's about to ask her what's wrong, again, when she sets her mug aside, tea still sloshing in the bottom.
“I'm going to bed,” she says.
He spins on the stool and catches her hand as she passes him, dropping to his feet. “Hey,” he says.
She looks up at him in surprise.
“What's up?” he asks, and his stomach drops when she looks down again, not able to hold his gaze. He wonders if he's done something wrong – if she picked up on his jealousy somehow and he's managed to screw everything up without even uttering a word.
She draws in a quivery breath and shakes her head, still looking down. “No, nothing,” she says. “I'm just feeling a bit weird. He kind of put me on edge, I guess.”
Charlie feels that unpleasant lurch in his gut again. “What did he do?”
“Nothing,” Mary Anne says, and she gives him a patient, steady smile. “He was a nice guy. Just not the right guy.”
Charlie loosens his grip on her fingers just slightly, just so his skin slides against hers. “Well,” he says, “the right guy will come along.”
She nods, and maybe it's the shadowed light, but her eyes look a little too bright, like she's near tears, and when her gaze locks with his again he can feel everything suddenly fall into place between them.
He shifts his fingers again, against hers, around hers, so he's not just keep her still, but holding her hand, his thumb brushing back and forth over her skin. He can hear her take another quivery breath, and then her other hand is against his cheek and she's pulling him down to kiss her.
They don't get it quite right, the first time – his mouth doesn't land upon hers as it should, and he shifts, hears her whisper half a mortified apology and she tries to step back, before he cups her face in his hands and kisses her properly, moving with her, not parted, desperate.
She makes a small noise of relief and her hands slide up over his shoulders and she clings to him hard, pulling herself closer to him, rising up on her toes.
He feels light-headed. He drops his hands to her waist and pulls her closer, and she twists and pulls him with her, staggering backwards until he can pin her against the wall. He slides one hand up her waist, curling his fingers against the thin fabric of her blouse, and she breathes out, gasps, and kisses him again, mouth warm and open against his.
Out of the corner of his eye he can see the glow of light spilling from his open bedroom door, and he steers her to it, fingers fumbling with the zip at the waist of her skirt, pulling her blouse loose. She pulls at the back of his t-shirt and he breaks away from her and ducks his head just long enough for her to slide it up and over his shoulders and drop it to the floor.
When they fall onto the bed her skirt is already loose around her knees. Charlie parts from her mouth, flicks his tongue over the hollow of her throat as he makes his way down to hook his fingers into her dark patterned tights and her panties and pull them off, kneeling and tugging until she's free of them and her legs are bare. He slides his hands up her thighs to grasp her hips and drag her back down the bed towards him, her blouse riding up to bare her stomach.
He pulls it gently over her head and cups her face with one hand so he can angle her mouth under his, and then he curls his fingers between her thighs. Her next breath has a soft voice to it, a small cry at the back of her throat, and her fingernails mark crescents on his back.
At the back of his head, momentary panic comes, and he wonders if he's going to fuck everything up and ruin it all – and then he remembers she kissed him first, so he's not alone in wanting this, after all.
Jess had never been shy about letting him know what she wanted when it came to sex. Mary Anne is leaving him to guess, but his mind is too fogged to really pay attention to how she's reacting to every little touch or kiss against her skin.
She's wet and hot around his fingers and he needs her to come because he's not going to last long enough to make it happen with anything but his hands or his mouth. She arches under him and her thighs trap his hand; her breath explodes damp against his throat in the rough shape of his name.
He kicks his pants to the end of the bed and settles his body between her thighs, stroking her again so she jolts and twitches, her breath hard and fast, everything still over-sensitive and raw. He buries his face against her neck as he thrusts inside her, teeth and lips leaving little red marks and prints on her skin.
She hums a soft noise and parts her legs so the angle of her changes, and it's enough to drive Charlie over the edge.
“God,” he gasps, and when he comes his hand is twined with hers above her head, fingers wrapped tightly, sweat thin and warm on their skin.
They're still for a minute or so, trying to catch their breath, hearts racing. Charlie can see the flutter of Mary Anne's pulse in her throat. He presses his lips against it gently and closes his eyes, drowsy and happy.
She pulls her fingers slowly through his hair and presses a kiss to his brow. “I love you,” she says quietly.
Charlie falls asleep with her fingers stroking patterns across his shoulders, her heartbeat under his ear.
It's not quite light yet, the bedroom gray and shadowed, rain still falling outside.
“Daaaad,” Molly calls again. Her voice echoes through the baby monitor on Charlie's nightstand.
“Oh my god,” he mutters against Mary Anne's neck. “The neighbors hate me.”
She laughs quietly.
He shifts just enough to make eye contact with her.
She smiles at him. “Hi,” she says.
“Hi.” His hand traces the bare curve of her waist and she stretches contentedly and closes her eyes again.
“Dad!” Molly shouts. “Dad-dad-dad-dad.”
“Molly, go back to sleep!” Charlie calls.
“Futile,” Mary Anne whispers at him.
She grins and kisses him, her thumb stroking over his cheek, fingers curling gently against the hollow behind his ear. “I kind of have to get up anyway,” she says, glancing towards his bathroom.
He kisses her again, his fingertips sliding over the warm skin just under her breast. “Meet you back here in five minutes,” he says.
He pulls his pajamas back on before he leaves the bedroom. Molly is standing in her crib, looking impatient, her curls a frizzed mess at the back of her head.
“Hey, Miss Molly,” Charlie says, lifting her and kissing her cheek.
He changes her diaper and carries her back to his bedroom, where Mary Anne is leaning against his pillows, wearing his bathrobe. Molly twists to get down and Charlie watches her crawl clumsily over the bed to bury her face against Mary Anne's stomach.
“Hello,” Mary Anne laughs, stroking her fingers through Molly's hair.
“Hey,” Charlie says, hoping his voice sounds light, “maybe we could all go out for breakfast this morning.” He sits against the pillows beside Mary Anne, watching Molly pull the sheet up over her face. “As a – as a family.”
Mary Anne takes his hand and grins back at Molly when she peers over the top of the sheet. “I'd really like that,” she says.