It was the first thing John ever said to her. It was burned into her memory like the flash of a photograph.
Memories are not perfect. They change every time they’re examined, constructed more from fiction than recollection. Maureen knew that. This memory in particular had been taken out and replayed so many times the edges had become hyper-real. She had recalled the brilliant red of the flowers on the verge so often that the petals had become impossibly vibrant. She had lit John in the golden glow of the sun behind her, while giving him the glorious orange sunset behind him too. The warmth of the breeze on her cheek was so much like a hand’s caress that it no longer resembled the wind on Earth.
It was a single perfect moment.
There was also that moment where he had brought Judy to the hospital to visit her and Penny, and the tiny knot of doubt deep within her gut eased when she saw no flicker of favouritism in his eyes, and he never once seemed to favour his blood over his first daughter.
And there was the moment she saw the letter, and sitting in the car, her fingers cramping she held to the paper so tight . . .
But that first moment had been perfect.
“Anything?” the muscle-bound fitness freak in front of her seemed deeply uncomfortable with his proposition and halted his sentence almost before it began. He gestured wanly to Maureen, who was trying to balance baby, bag, and fold the pushchair up out of the way of the rest of the queue for the burrito truck, while Judy cried her little heart out.
“Anything I can do to help?” he finished at last, and Judy drew in enough breath to wail so loudly the rest of the people queuing took a step back.
“Uh,” Maureen, somewhat near tears herself, tried to reach into her bag to grab her phone, only to have it slip deeper beneath layers of clean cloth diapers and baby wipes. She closed her eyes and bit her tongue, about to count back from ten to calm herself, only to be interrupted by Judy howling. “Can you?” she gestured to the baby, and her new companion visibly swallowed his regret and reached for Judy, bringing her to his chest automatically.
Freed of the weight, Maureen began searching her bag in earnest, clamping her hand round her phone. “Thanks. She’s colicky, and hates sitting in the pushchair, I just need to grab myself something to eat and then I’ll be able to feed her and if this path was just a bit wider I could-”
“Why don’t you take her and sit over on that bench, and I get you what you want at the truck?” he suggested, gently bouncing from side to side on the balls of his feet. Judy’s howls had been turned down to a hiccupping complaint, and Maureen felt like she could just about hear herself think.
“That . . . is a much better idea,” she said. She reached for her daughter and dragged the half-folded pushchair towards the bench. The others in the queue looked as though they were about ready to kiss her rescuer, no doubt feeling rescued themselves.
She settled herself on the bench, unfastened her top, and let Judy settle herself on her breast. The pushchair and bag lay abandoned on the grass. Her rescuer was standing by the burrito truck, ordering, and she realised she hadn’t given her phone. The poor guy was buying her lunch.
It made her smile. She’d seen him around. He liked to jog the same circuit around the lake that she walked Judy around. He would often lap her, with a gruff nod when she happened to catch his eye. With his wares from the burrito stand, he crossed the grass towards her, squinting a little in the sun. “I didn’t ask what you wanted,” he said, proffering both, “So I got one veggie and one chicken.” He bumped his hip to the side, revealing a can of soda in the side pocket of his shorts.
“Either is fine,” she smiled up at him. “I can pay you, if you just uh,” she nodded to Judy, latched on to her chest, and her rescuer’s gaze suddenly fastened a good five centimeters above her head.
“Sure, sure,” he said, and circled behind her, ostensibly to set out their lunch on the picnic table.
“I’ve seen you around,” she said. “You’ve been improving your time round the lake.”
“Uh . . . yeah,” he said. After a moment’s silence, punctuated by Judy’s sucking and the birds merrily chirping their songs at one another, he managed, “Well I’d better get back to it. Enjoy your lunch,” and he took off at a near sprint back down towards the lake, not slowing even as he hit the path. He sprinted along the gravel, kicking up spurts of dust behind him, disappearing between the trees.
Maureen ate both burritos.
The Burrito Stand Incident was not a failure from lack of effort, but a failure of protocol. From then on, she always kept her phone, and therefore payments and RFID access chips, in her pocket. Now she would be able to juggle Judy in one hand, pay with her phone, and leave the pushchair on the bigger path so it wouldn’t get in the way of other customers.
She saw the kindly runner a few times, but he only acknowledged her with a nod as he continued his pace around the lake. One time she had been sitting breastfeeding again and she couldn’t help a giggle at the thought of developing a crush on a man only five months after giving birth.
And then she didn’t see him for a whole week. She pushed Judy’s stroller around the lake, squinting behind her sunglasses, and studying the faces of the joggers who passed her by.
It was a surprise to find him on one particularly sunny day doubled over against a tree, wheezing and sputtering. She came to a stop, and frowned, waiting him for him to look up and notice her. “I owe you lunch!” she called when he finally clocked her.
He managed a smile, his face grimacing in pain, and the knuckles of his left hand whitening against the tree bark.
“Jesus, you okay?”
“Yep,” he grated out, very slowly easing himself into a standing position.
“Can I buy you lunch?” she asked.
He nodded, his lips a thin line, and he limped towards her. When he planted his running shoes on the gravel path, he straightened up a little more, and hissed in pain. In this part of the lake circuit they were shaded beneath the trees, and Maureen wondered if he’d made it to the shade before collapsing. “Looks like you pushed yourself a little too hard.” They took a step, and then another. Judy peered up at them from the stroller with her rapidly darkening eyes.
“I, uh, got injured. Last week. Thought I might be ready to run, but,” he hissed and put his hand to his side. “Sorry.”
“No, don’t apologise.” If she was honest, she appreciated the very slow trudge beneath the canopy of leaves. They walked a few slow paces and she piped up, “Was the injury a surprise?”
He furrowed his brows at her.
“I mean, could you have foreseen it in a risk assessment? I ask because I’m an engineer,” she began to gesticulate with her left hand, “I’m getting really interested in how ergonomics can affect utility and-”
“I’m a marine,” he interrupted with an expression so wry it could have parched the earth.
“Ah.” She closed her mouth. “Well . . . was it foreseeable? Preventable?”
He chuckled a little. “Only in the most . . . ironic of ways.”
“That sounds like a story.” She paused to reach down to brush a fly away from Judy’s cheek.
“Who’s this?” he asked.
“Well this is Judy Robinson, and she would like to thank you for helping us out the other week. I’m Maureen.”
“John Taylor,” he said. “It was a pleasure to help out.”
Maureen smiled at him, and resumed pushing the stroller along. “It’s an interesting thing, you know? When you have an unhappy baby, suddenly you’re simultaneously invisible and incredibly irritating to everyone around you.”
That made John chuckle, wheezing slightly as he clutched at his ribs.
She leaned a little closer, “Thank you for offering to help,” she said, with faux gravitas in her voice.
John smirked. “Well Judy seemed pretty upset. You’re a lot happier today, little lady.”
Judy took that moment to gaze up into John’s eyes and hiccup up a dribble of white milk. While Maureen wrinkled her nose and wondered quite what to say to this, John nodded sombrely at Judy. “I often have that effect on women, don’t worry,” he said to the baby, who gurgled with beatific contentment.
Maureen resumed pushing and tried to study him from the corner of her eye. There were a hundred and one ways for a marine to injure themselves, but he seemed physically intact, and he hadn’t been gone long. He’d diverted attention from the question deftly, but resolutely. And sometimes her lab took deliveries from the nearby base, and the security protocols were nothing to sneeze at. “I’m serious,” she said, slowing as they approached the end of the tree copse and the sun once more. “I can pay you back for lunch.”
“It was really my pleasure,” he said, and pushed his hand against his side. “Tell you what, maybe on a day I’m less likely to throw up, you can buy me a coffee.”
“That would be lovely, John,” she said, and extended her hand for him to shake. He took her palm in his and applied a light pressure against her knuckles. The freckles across his brows danced when he smiled at her, his fair skin furrowed and marked by the Californian sun. “Really,” she added, because she suspected ‘I fancy you’ was frowned upon in park-friend etiquette.
“This is really a problem of logistics,” she said to Judy as she lay her down on the changing mat. She unfastened the hand-sewn Velcro straps on the cloth diaper and peeled it away, grimacing a little at what Judy had produced. “You see, in the normal course of things, if there’s a person who’s attractive, you should tell them and if they also find you attractive, and everyone is amenable, and you’ve usually had something to drink, then you can have -” she cut herself off, her hand hovering over a clean diaper. “Fun.” She tucked the fresh diaper beneath Judy’s hips. “However you do make things slightly more complicated. We wouldn’t want your grandmother to live any closer to us of course, but we are lacking some evening care for you.” With Judy’s nose freshly powdered, Maureen found herself lost for a little while in those big dark eyes that looked up at her with nothing but trust and devotion.
Even today, with everything humanity had achieved, sometimes there were looks askance when she was out and about with her daughter. When someone asked ‘and where’s dad?’ and Maureen had to fix a smile on her face and say ‘he’s not with us I’m afraid’. Sometimes they would assume that meant Judy’s father was dead, and they’d be shocked. Most of the time, Maureen let them believe that. But the rest of the time, people closed their mouths and gave her a sympathetic wince.
One of her mother’s friends had said ‘when he sees what a beautiful girl she is, he’ll come back’, and Maureen had answered ‘Well I hope not, because that’s not our agreement. He has no interest in being a father and that’s fine by me’, before her mother hushed her.
“None of this, you understand, is a reflection on you,” Maureen said, lifting Judy into her arms. “Merely on the situation.” Judy’s tiny, hot little body settled against her chest, a fit that was not perfect by any stretch of design. Evolution was a terrible engineer. But it did feel so right, to keep one hand splayed on Judy’s spine, to cant her hips so she was leaning back just a little, and to carry her like this.
And Maureen’s insides complained, her breasts ached, and she craved a red, rare steak . . .
“Although,” she admitted to Judy, traipsing around the house trying to pick up after herself. She returned to the Moses basket on the floor surrounded by notes and laptop. “We have to recognise some of the variables have changed.” She knelt, slowly, conscious of the parts of her that still were not fully healed. She laid Judy in the basket and crossed her legs, surveying her notes with a sigh. “We may not be able to assume his attraction, like we once would have,” she admitted, her voice sounding high and strained. She smiled, reflexively, and turned her attention to Judy. The smile softened and grew real. Placing her right hand on Judy’s belly, she leaned forward, resuming typing with her left. “And that’s okay too,” she said. “Now. Discussion of rapid depressurisation and its impact on third generation polymers. While this study is theoretical, the high indices of agreement between models suggests …”
She spotted or met John in passing around the park a few times that month. They waved to each other, always one leaving – or breastfeeding – as the other arrived. Maureen had no real fixed schedule, following Judy’s needs more than anything else, so she didn’t think twice about it. Only when John was standing beneath the trees late one morning did she wonder, was he waiting for her?
“You’re looking better,” she told him, drawing to a stop so he could come and pay his respects to Judy. “Can I buy you that coffee?”
“If you insist.”
They sat down on one of the picnic benches on the lake’s north side. John had an Americano, she had a decaff cappuccino, swearing blind that left to her own devices she’d have a coffee so tar-like the spoon would stand up in it. “I drink the dregs in the lab,” she admitted. “I’m known for it.”
“What do you research?”
“Well my PhD was in aerospace engineering, but this postdoc is more theoretical about material strengths. It’s not what I love, but, it’s easier to work on theory with this little lady.” She nodded to Judy. The cappuccino was cooler than she would have liked and she found herself drinking quickly, while John nursed his piping hot Americano in a much more civilised fashion.
“Is it the caffeine?” John asked after a moment.
“Is that why you chose the cappuccino?”
“Ah. Yeah. The sugar and milk disguises the taste of the decaff.”
“It’s for the baby, yeah?”
“She doesn’t need the caffeine to stay awake. I could stand a little more though.” Occasionally, the conversation would lapse into these strange pauses, where John seemed comfortable with the silence, and Maureen longed to say something like ‘are you seeing anyone’, so she found herself filling the silence with meaningless chatter, “It’s nice to have a friend whose biggest concern isn’t breastmilk, if I’m honest. We’ve just moved to the area and the only friends I have are from the baby group.”
“Where did you live before?”
“Uh I did my PhD at MIT. Lived in a really nice little place. It was a lot cooler.” She chuckled, squinting up at the cloudy sky. “But this place is nice too.”
“Did your partner come with you?”
Somehow, it caught in her chest. She straightened, and inhaled through her nose. “Actually, I don’t have a partner,” she said. “Judy’s father is . . . not a part of this.”
John said nothing to this straight away. He frowned a little, and glanced inside his mug as if checking for a suitable answer.
“Makes me seem a little desperate, doesn’t it,” Maureen heard herself saying, “Like I’m walking round the park looking for friends. I promise I’m not prowling for a future daddy or . . . oh, Gods, what am I saying?” She planted her mug on the picnic table and buried her face in her palms, huffing with laughter at herself. “I don’t know where that came from,” she mumbled through her fingers.
“I was thinking you must be incredibly brave, to move across the country, yourself, with a kid.”
She peered at him, suspicious. John twitched his hand towards her in a little toast. “And if there’s anything I can do to help, I’m happy to be your first non-breastfeeding friend in California.”
Maureen burst in laughter, and collapsed to the table, resting her head on her folded arms.
She remembered the way he’d said it so clearly. Even sitting in the car, clutching that blue-cornered envelope so tightly. ‘Anything’. He’d said ‘anything’.
Anything but stay.