A few days before his wedding, Harge was happy and nervous, and anticipating the breakdown Rindy would have when he inevitably forgot to pack whichever of her things was her most favorite this week.
“What do you think?” he asked with a smile. “Blue or black?”
He stood before Lilah with a tie held in each hand. She sat at the edge of his bed, ankles crossed, surrounded by a tiny explosion of clothes and suitcases.
Lilah chuckled. “How ever did you dress yourself before I came along?”
“This is a special occasion. I won’t have you angry at me for the next thirty years because I picked the wrong tie and ruined our wedding photos.”
Lilah reached up, hooking her fingers around the end of the black tie, tugging until Harge leaned down for a kiss. “Do you really think I’d be that spiteful?”
“I’ve had bad experiences.”
“Not with me.”
“No. But I say again, blue or black?”
“Darling, I cannot wait. And I will treasure the memory of marrying you no matter what tie you’re wearing at the time.”
“But for God’s sake, get the red silk. The black’s for funerals, the blue for business deals. I won’t have you ruining my wedding day with these abominable fashion choices.”
“Of course not.” He kissed her again while she was still laughing at him. Then he straightened up, setting aside the two offending choices and going in search of the third.
He packed a few more items into his and Lilah’s suitcases before going to Rindy’s much smaller one. He glanced at it’s contents—Ava had already packed most of them before going home this afternoon—then moved to the chair by the window. There was a woman’s sweater draped over the back of it, soft, cream, colored. He took it, folded it carefully, and made room for it in Rindy’s suitcase.
“She’s a beautiful girl,” Lilah said, watching him tuck the garment in near Rindy’s bathing suit, “but I’m not sure she’s ready to pull that off.”
“It’s Carol’s,” Harge said. “It was. Makes Rindy feel better sometimes, when Carol’s not there.”
Lilah hummed, watching him. “She seems to cope well enough, when Carol’s not there.”
Harge hummed his own response. He was trying to zip Rindy’s bag closed, but the tail of her favorite stuffed animal was getting in the way.
“She’s already away from Rindy most of the time.”
Harge hummed again, crushing Mr. Tarley’s head into the suitcase in a way Rindy wouldn’t appreciate if she could see.
“She already gave up custody. She can’t come back and fight you on it?”
“No.” Harge shook his head, fighting with the zipper. “She’s got no case.” Not compared to the one he had.
“Well then. What would you say about not having her around anymore?”
Harge stopped what he was doing, looked at her. “Oh?”
“She’s barely a part of Rindy’s life as is. And she complicates things.”
“She very much does that, yes.”
“So. What if I said I didn’t want complicated?”
Harge sat on the edge of the bed with her. “Some would say Rindy complicates things.”
“Not me. You know this. I adore Rindy.”
“And Carol is Rindy’s mother,” he said.
“She’s her mother,” Harge repeated. “Rindy’s attached.” He studied his fiancé, the look she pinned him with. “There’d have to be a reason. A good one.”
Lilah winced a little, touched her abdomen. “Such as?”
Harge leaned forward, resting his forehead against hers. He brought his hand down, covered the fingers on her belly with his larger ones. “Not tonight,” he said, voice a low rumble as he spread his fingers against taut skin, feeling the movement of the child inside. “She’s not the mother I want to talk about tonight.”
He kissed her forehead and she smiled. “He’s doing somersaults in there,” she said.
“Nah. I’m sure it’s a wedding dance.” He kissed her one more time, stood up. “Now, what else do you need? And not that damn girdle. You won’t need it anymore, and I won’t have my kid growing up short.”
Harge was more than familiar with hotel gift shops. They were a staple. He couldn’t very well come home with his head held high without a gift for Rindy. And Carol, a long time ago, when he still wore a ring, and she still showed any excitement at all over his coming home.
It was different now. Rindy was with him, trying to see everything at once, and that was rare. He had a ring on again, where Carol’s used to be, and that change was still working itself out in his brain.
“Daddy, look!” Rindy said, holding up a postcard with the Atlantic City skyline, the name of the hotel.
Harge looked it over dutifully. “Very nice,” he said. “But Lilah’s here, sunshine, she’s seen everything we have.” He softened the words with a one-armed squeeze. “Sure you want to get her a postcard?”
Rindy frowned. “But it’s pretty.”
“It is. Not as pretty as you though.”
“What about Lizzie?” Rindy asked after a moment’s thought. “She’s not here. I haven’t seen her in forever, and she hasn’t seen anything we did.”
They were meant to be getting a gift for Lilah, who was resting upstairs in the room. “Sure,” Harge said.
Rindy grinned. “What about Mommy? Can I get one for her too?”
“How about we find something for Lilah first? You know she can’t wait to see what you get her.”
Rindy agreed easily enough, dragging Harge by the hand for a few more minutes until she found a stuffed bear with a little Atlantic City shirt.
“Daddy?” She held it up, a question. “Then Lilah can have something to cuddle with.”
“That’s what she’s got me for, silly.”
Rindy laughed, crinkling her nose at that. A woman cashier smiled and walked over to them while Rindy held the bear close.
“Can I help you two find anything?” the woman asked.
“We’re getting a present for my wife,” Harge said.
The woman kept smiling, looked at Rindy with the bear. “Oh, how lovely. Your mother’s lucky to have such a thoughtful little girl.”
Rindy’s mouth turned down at the corners. “Lilah’s not—”
“Thank you,” Harge said. “We’re just browsing now, we’ll let you know if we need anything.” He put on his most charming smile, the one reserved for business meetings, matched it against the friendly to a fault customer service grin the cashier must have to wear all day.
It was enough. She kept the smile going but left them to themselves. Rindy was still frowning, so he bopped her nose with his finger. She laughed and swatted him away, holding the bear to her chest with one arm.
“Come on,” he said. “Gift hunt, let’s go!”
Carol’s ears were ringing. It might’ve been from Rindy clanging silverware together, it might not. The food had arrived. Carol poked at hers without seeing where her fork was landing.
Married. Harge was married. To some woman Carol hadn’t even met.
Harge sighed, poured more wine into her glass. His ring caught the light again. Rindy was in danger of choking as she spoke around her chewing, recounting all the fun she’d had. The hotel, the pool, the big, huge, bed that was perfect for jumping. The new dress she got to wear when Daddy and Mouse gave rings.
“Rindy,” Harge said. “Don’t talk with your mouth full, honey, it’s rude.”
“Yes,” Carol said, not looking at Rindy. “It is, isn’t it, Harge? Rude.”
Harge’s jaw clenched. He sipped his wine.
“I wanted to get you shells from the beach, Mommy,” Rindy said, barely deterred by the interruption, “but it’s winter and we couldn’t.”
“Oh, that’s okay, sweet pea.” Carol tried focusing on her daughter, not that damn ringing that wouldn’t quit. “You’re the only—”
“I got you another gift. It’s a surprise.”
“Thank you, darling. You didn’t have to get me anything though.”
Rindy look scandalized at that. “Of course I did, we had a trip. Trips mean presents. I got you taffies,” Rindy continued, excitement rendering her oblivious to having just ruined her surprise. “They’re yummy, Mommy, the lady at the store let us try one.”
“I’m sure they are.”
“They’re saltwater taffies, so it’s kind of like seashells, because the beach has salt water. Right, Daddy?”
Carol saw a familiar wrinkle in Harge’s forehead that meant he was staving off a migraine. “Yes, sweetheart, that’s right. Make sure you leave some candy for Mommy. Don’t eat it all when she shares with you.”
Again, Rindy looked scandalized. “I know, Daddy.” She turned her focus back on Carol. “You have to share with Mama too, okay? Even though I got her postcards.”
Harge’s hand twitched on his fork as he picked it up. He didn’t like Therese being called that name, especially in public, Carol knew. They had this little area of the restaurant to themselves though, which was fortunate. If Carol ended up vomiting into her plate, she didn’t need extra witnesses. “I always share with Mama,” she told Rindy. “And I’m sure she’ll love your…” Carol trailed off. She’d already forgotten what gift Rindy was so thrilled by. She thought she might be having a stroke.
“Postcards, Mommy.” Rindy giggled in exasperation. “Daddy said we shouldn’t get them, since we weren’t going to post them anyway. But that’s not why you get postcards, is it? You get them to show pretty pictures of where you’ve been, and Mama likes pretty pictures, and it’s her job to decide how pretty the pictures are. Right?”
“That’s, yes,” Carol replied, taking too long. “That’s just right.”
Rindy pinned Harge with a rather smug, I told you so look, then moved on. “I got Lizzie a stuffed animal. I was going to get her a postcard, but she doesn’t like pictures as much as Mama, and she’s kind of rough with her things.” Rindy shook her head, with all the knowledge of a seven-year-old looking down on the barbaric ways of a four-year-old. “She’d bend it and mess it up, but if the stuffie breaks, one of her moms can sew him back together. Plus, Jake’s always taking her stuff and crying on it and trying to eat it, so she deserves something new. Right?”
“Yes, that’s very, very right, Rindy.” Carol definitely hadn’t had enough wine to feel as lightheaded as she did.
“Carol—” Harge began, but Rindy was on a roll, the momentum unstoppable.
“And then we had to go back to the shop after we left, because I forgot to get another stuffie for the baby!” Rindy sounded positively mortified by the oversight.
“That’s okay, Rindy, you remembered. I’m sure Jacob will love what you got him.”
Rindy looked confused for a moment, then laughed. “No, Mommy, the other baby. I was going to get something for Jake too, but he has a million toys, and Lizzie’s, and Mouse’s baby doesn’t have anything yet.”
Mouse. Mouse was Lilah, though how one related to the other, Carol had no goddamn clue. “Mouse’s baby?”
“Rindy.” Harge rubbed at his temple, at those deep lines on his forehead.
Rindy’s eyes widened. “Yeah! Mouse’s baby with Daddy. I get to be a big sister! Didn’t I say, Mommy?”
Carol wondered if you could hear it, when a blood vessel popped in your head right before it killed you. Uncharacteristically, Harge rested an elbow on the table as he pressed fingers against his temple, the bridge of his nose. He told Rindy to concentrate on eating her food for a bit, before it went cold, as if the horse hadn’t already escaped the barn. Or their daughter’s mouth.
Carol was staring at him, speechless, when the waiter came by, asking if they needed anything else. Carol downed half her glass of wine in one go. Harge finished his. They requested another bottle at the same time, and Carol tried not to glare too hard in front of Rindy.
The night dragged on. Admittedly Carol was doing most of the dragging, trying to understand just what the hell was going on, trying to get more time with Rindy. Not that she could focus on Rindy the way she wanted to, not that she could ask the questions she wanted to, with Rindy there. She and Harge both drank a bit too much and had to linger while sobering up, and by then Rindy was hyper, bored, and tired in equal measure.
“Daddy, can we go?” There was a whine in her voice, having long since finished her dessert.
Harge made a point of looking at his watch. “Yes, Rindy, it’s getting late. Close to bedtime.”
The whine became more pronounced. “I don’t want to go to bed, I just want to go!”
“I know,” he said with a sigh, looked at Carol. “She’s tired.”
“I’m not tired!”
Harge ignored her. “We should head out.”
Carol nodded stiffly, couldn’t help the next thing that left her mouth. “Will I see her at Easter? You got it last year.” It was March. Easter wasn’t until next month. Harge had kept Rindy from her since February, since the storm.
Harge took out his wallet, dug through it as a spoke. “Rindy, you want to go home with Mommy?”
Rindy lit up. “Can I?”
“Can she?” Harge asked, still sorting through what tip to leave at the table.
Briefly, Carol was too stunned to answer. How simple he made it sound, how routine, after weeks of living off five-minute phone calls once a day, if she were lucky. “Of course, Carol said, shaking herself out of it. “You know she can.”
He wanted sex with the secretary, there was no other explanation. Rindy was there during his honeymoon, and now he wanted something proper.
“I’d need to get her tomorrow night,” he said. “She has school. And homework to make up, that she still hasn’t done.”
He gave Rindy a look, and Rindy gave him a pout. “Daddy.”
“I told you it had to get done, sweet pea.” He put his wallet away, looked at Carol.
“Tomorrow is fine,” Carol said. It wasn’t, really, much less than a full day, counting the time Rindy would be sleeping, but it was more than she’d had in ages.
She excused herself to call Therese first, gave Rindy a giant hug over the back of the chair as she went. Stopping at a line of payphones near the restaurant’s entrance, her hands shook a little as she deposited change. Therese picked up after too many rings, and Carol wondered if she’d interrupted time in the darkroom, if Therese was distracting herself from the emptiness of the apartment.
Therese’s voice was blessedly normal. Too normal for a night like this. Carol exhaled, feeling she was on a rollercoaster that had slowed temporarily. “Hi,” Carol said, all she could muster.
“Hi. How’s it going? Is everything okay?”
Surprise was obvious, affection, concern. Dinner had dragged on, and Therese wouldn’t be expecting a call. “He’s married and she’s pregnant,” Carol said, unable to keep it in long enough for a decent preface.
Long seconds of silence followed. “What?”
“He married the secretary, the one Abby met before Christmas. Did more than marry her. She’s named after a rodent.”
“Yes, exactly. That would be why I’m late. I’m sorry.”
“I…no, no, it’s fine. Are you okay?”
There was something comforting in knowing Therese was experiencing the same shock she had. Therese’s worry for her made Carol smile tremulously into the receiver. “I’m coming home, so I’ll be okay. Rindy’s coming with me. Harge said we could take her for the rest of the weekend. I already said it was alright.” A part of her, a small part, since she knew better, worried about her presumptuousness, about upsetting Therese.
“Of course it is,” Therese said instantly. “I’ll, I’ll get her room ready?”
Carol smiled. At how quickly Therese agreed, at her need to do something. “Thank you, darling.” If her voice broke a little with unshed tears, she wasn’t going to acknowledge them, not with Harge still close by. “I’ll be home soon. We will,” she amended.
“Okay. Good. And later, you’ll tell me what’s going on?”
“You’ll probably wish I hadn’t, but yes. I should go, before Harge changes his mind.”
“Okay,” Therese said again. “I love you.”
Carol lingered by the phone a few seconds after she hung it up, kept her hand on it as though holding onto some remnant of Therese’s steadiness. Then she saw Harge and Rindy approaching, Rindy’s hand clutching Harge’s. Carol took a breath, smiled, and met them at the door. Harge held it open for her as they left, every inch the gentleman, putting on a good show for the host, who waved them off and wished them a good night.
Carol only wished for a night without further surprises. She’d reached her limit on those long before she cut herself off from having anymore wine.
They put Rindy in the warmth of Carol’s backseat, left the engine running. Carol followed Harge to his car, watched him root around until he retrieved her backpack. He held it out to Carol.
“Candy and postcards in the front pocket, homework in the green folder. She’s got a map due, and half the U.S. to fill in.”
Carol was surprised to see her packed, that he’d prepared to drop Rindy off. He never did like to discipline Rindy, look like the mean parent. Of course he’d leave her to be the one to supervise the less pleasant things, let Rindy’s mind associate those with Carol. Never him, or his new wife.
Wife. The word still rang funny in her head. That wasn’t accounting for the child, which Carol absolutely could not deal with yet. She took the bag, glanced back at her car to check on Rindy, but didn’t move. “Well. Congratulations?”
Harge sighed. “You weren’t supposed to find out like this.”
“I wasn’t? You didn’t bring me out here, in front of our daughter, to—”
“I’ve told you, she’s seven. She doesn’t do well keeping things to herself.”
After tonight, with Rindy’s knowledge of her and Therese, Carol thought it a miracle that neither of them had been outed and thrown into an asylum. She’d never admit as much to Therese. “How long has she known?”
Harge let out a breath again. “About the baby, a couple weeks. The marriage, we told her about before leaving.”
Carol scoffed. “Jesus. Is that why you kept her from me?”
“Why don’t you ask your friend the Captain?”
“I’m not having the same conversation twice. Ask him.”
She hadn’t yet, hadn’t gotten to talk to Steve about whatever he said to Harge in Atlantic City. “Did you even give Rindy a choice in it, ask her how she felt?”
It was Harge’s turn to scoff. “Did you ask her how she felt when you invited Therese over for Christmas? When the two of you moved in together? Or did you just do it, and hope Rindy wouldn’t be uncomfortable enough to voice it?”
“Rindy loves Therese.”
“Rindy didn't know her. She's known Lilah for months longer than she knew Therese when you forced her into Rindy's life, and she loves Lilah. Adores her, really, and I'm hardly surprised. "
Carol shook her head. “I had no idea you and Rindy were so smitten.”
“Don’t be petty.”
“How would you like me to be? You take Rindy away without telling me, to God knows where, then you come back like nothing’s happened and spring this on me. What do you want, Harge, a wedding gift?”
“You knew I was seeing her.”
“Seeing is vastly different from marrying, Harge.” She took a breath. “How far along is she, then?”
Harge watched Carol, his eyes slightly narrowed. “Far enough. Baby should be here late April they think."
Late April, she had to be very, very pregnant. Maybe Harge wasn’t angling for sex tonight after all. The two of them certainly hadn’t gone anywhere near each other by that point in Carol’s pregnancy.
Carol did the mental math, around the anger, counting forward from early May. They'd have been together as of July of last year then. That long, and she'd never heard a word about how serious it was. “You’ve known her for about eight months then.”.
“As opposed to the eight minutes you knew Therese?” Harge shook his head, "Don't cast stones."
“Aren’t you a little old for this? A shotgun wedding, knocking up your secretary? A race for legitimacy. Please tell me she isn't half your age too? You have to be at least somewhat original compared to every other divorced, middle-aged man in New York."
“Her name is Lilah.” Harge’s voice was even and controlled. “She’s twenty-seven, so no she's not half my age. Not that you have any room to speak about it. Was Therese even legal when you whisked her away?”
Carol flushed with anger. He knew that, knew more about Therese than Carol cared to think of. “You—”
“Of the two of us, you’re the one who prefers bedding girls half your age. As for originality, I don’t think anyone can top you. Weren’t you the one who said not too long ago that you wanted me to get married, be happy? Or does it make you feel better to think I’m all alone, drinking and still pining after you? Was wishing I'd be happy just your way of trying to invoke the opposite?”
“When your happiness involves this, a stranger in our daughter’s life, I’d have preferred to know before the baby shower.”
“I’d have preferred to know before walking in on a stranger in my house, with my child, but I guess neither of us got everything we wanted.”
“You didn’t ‘walk in’ on anything.” Carol hated the part of her that still felt the need to defend that night, all these years later. “Therese and I hadn’t done anything then. But you know that.”
He didn’t say anything about the tapes, about recording her first time with Therese, hiring a stranger to hear it. “Not for a lack of want on your part. You have no room to judge. None,” he said instead, voice clipped, but lacking the usual heat that came with their arguments. “You are hypocritical on a level I can’t even fathom.”
“And you aren’t? You do it like this…why? To get back at me for all that? For something done years ago? You don’t think you’ve gotten enough revenge?”
His mouth pulled into a thin line. “If I wanted to get back at you, Carol, you’d know it. My being happy is not vengeance against you, nor is my moving on, no matter what you’d like to think. The things I do don’t revolve around you anymore. You’d best get used to that.” He turned away from her, opened the driver’s side door of his car. “I’ll be back for Rindy at six tomorrow night.”
He got in, shut the door on her. They stared at each other through the window as he started up the vehicle. Carol took a step back out of his way and towards her own car, her back to him.
She heard him rolling the window down but didn't look back, not willing to indulge him in the fight he might wind up between them again.
"The baby shower is April 6th.”
“What?” she asked, against her better judgment.
“You said you preferred knowing before the shower. There. Once again, you get what you want.”
Fucking jackass. Carol bit her tongue as he honked a goodbye to Rindy who gave a tiny wave back out the window.
Carol gave herself a few seconds to breathe. Hopefully Rindy would think the red in her cheeks came from the cold, if she noticed it at all. Rindy, Rindy was what mattered. Carol wouldn’t squander what time she had with her by focusing on Harge. She crossed to her car, smiled instinctively when she saw Rindy grinning back at her, mitten-covered hands pressed to the window. Carol got in behind the wheel, twisted around to see Rindy while she stowed the schoolbag next to her, in the back.
“Do we go home and see Mama now?” Rindy asked, grinning through a yawn. A long dinner and full belly had taken their toll.
Carol reached back to squeeze one of Rindy’s small hands in her own. “Yes, we do, precious girl. Let’s go home, Mama’s waiting for us.”
If anything was better than seeing Rindy’s smile that night, feeling Rindy’s arms around her, it was watching Rindy give that same treatment to Therese.
“Hey, sweetheart. Hey, hey Rindy.”
Therese was on her knees in the kitchen, showing no signs of being affected by the hard tile. She’d been making tea, it looked like, when they came through the door, but halted that quickly enough to bend for Rindy’s hug, more a tackle than anything.
Carol, promptly abandoned and left literally holding the bag, set Rindy’s things down but remained in her jacket and heels. She wasn’t ready to tear her eyes from this sight yet.
“Hi, Mama.” Rindy placed a sloppy kiss on Therese’s cheek, clung around her neck. “Did you take any good pictures lately?”
Therese laughed, a slightly strangled noise. Her nose was pressed to Rindy’s hair. “You know, I don’t remember, Rindy. I don’t remember at all.”
Rindy pulled back a little. “You don’t remember what pictures you took? That’s silly, Mama.”
Therese laughed again, pulling Rindy tight against her and shifting her weight a little. “It is. Very silly.”
The strain in her voice was easier to hear now. The hug hid her face from Rindy, but Carol could see the war happening there. Therese hadn’t hugged Rindy, hadn’t touched her, since Harge rushed back into town after the storm and took her away. It hurt, knowing Therese had suffered the same way she had.
It also warmed every part of Carol, because Therese loved Rindy the same as she did.
Part of her wanted to kneel with them. Pull them both into her arms, because they were the most precious things she’d ever have, and it’d been so long since she had the simple pleasure of holding them both against her. She held back though, held still. She’d had this moment with Rindy outside the restaurant, had Rindy practically in her lap all night, even if Rindy was talking about another woman during most of it.
Therese had her own relationship with Rindy, outside of her relationship with Carol. It’d taken Carol too long to realize that, taken Therese practically yelling at her over bourbon that she missed Rindy too.
Carol would give them their time. But she would also watch, because she loved seeing her wife hold her daughter. Because she needed that tonight.
The embrace held a few more seconds, Therese rocking in place, rubbing Rindy’s back. A sudden noise broke the spell, and Carol remembered the tea. The kettle boiled, demanding their attention, and Therese moved to stand.
“No, no,” Carol said, taking the few steps that separated them in long strides. “Stay. You stay right there.” She touched Therese’s hair, brought her hand down to ghost against her cheek, stealing a tear before Rindy could see it. “Or, don’t stay there, that’s a terrible idea, you’ll wreck your knees. Go sit down, I’ll get this.”
“You’re not even out of your coat,” Therese protested. Her voice was steadier now.
“Easily fixed.” Carol gripped Therese’s forearm, helping her stand. Rindy, in a bid to be helpful, tugged on Carol’s coat to remove it, which only resulted in them both getting hopelessly tangled. There was laughter, Therese helping Carol shrug out of the jacket as the kettle continued to scream. Rindy grinned, kept herself tucked against Therese’s side.
“My girls,” Carol said past a lump in her throat. “There you are again.”
It was late, for Rindy. Most of their time that night was spent getting her to bed. She proudly handed over the gifts she’d brought them. Therese slipped her one of Carol’s saltwater taffies, though she’d already had dessert. Rindy was eager to show off every postcard in the collection she’d brought. Therese had to negotiate, promise they’d look at every one properly tomorrow.
“After you finish your map,” Carol felt compelled to add.
It was hard to say whether Rindy or Therese was more put out by that.
Carol got to hear, again, all about Mouse. How nice she was, how pretty, how Rindy got to hold flowers at her and Daddy’s wedding. Therese hadn’t been privy to all this the first time, so of course needed to be told as soon as possible. Carol tried to focus on what information she could glean from Rindy’s words, not the feelings they evoked. When that didn’t work, she tried tuning out the words themselves, focusing on Rindy’s voice, how happy it was.
Rindy fell asleep in her bed—untouched for weeks—between them. It was only after that that Carol took the time to change clothes, ridding herself of her makeup, her favorite necklace from Abby, the small bits of armor she’d used to get through the night.
When she came back to the living room, Therese was sat on the couch, one leg tugged under her, a smile still tugging the edges of her lips. She hadn’t expected being able to see Rindy tonight. Carol knew what a gift that was.
Therese watched Carol with soft features, the smile morphing into something else. She patted the spot next to her on the sofa. “Come and talk to me?”
Carol exhaled, feeling her own lips turn up. “That is one of the best offers I’ve had all night, Miss Belivet.” It would’ve topped the list, if Harge hadn’t let Rindy stay here.
Crossing the room in bare feet, Carol sat next to Therese, who picked up one of two tea cups resting on the table, sipped from it. Carol eyed the one left for her. “Nothing stronger?” she asked, only half-joking.
Therese set down her cup. She reached a hand to the back of Carol’s neck, pulling her down for a soft, sweet kiss. “Not now. I think you’ve had enough for tonight.”
“Are you saying I’m a drunk?”
“I’m saying that spending hours with Harge would make anyone drink.”
Carol laughed, brushed her forehead against Therese’s. “Brilliant, as usual.”
Therese kissed her again, a brush of the lips. She kept her arms around Carol’s neck. “Tell me?” she asked, voice as soft as her kisses.
Carol breathed in the comfort of Therese. Rindy’s glowing praise of Lilah hardly told the whole story. So Carol did. She told what she knew, always making sure that some part of her body touched Therese’s.
She didn’t even try to kid herself that this was for Therese’s benefit.
While things in this series are planned out to a certain extent, I'm always anxious to check out prompts, or just to hear from you guys. Hit me up on Tumblr if you're so inclined.
The time went too fast, of course. Carol made them breakfast in the morning. Rindy and Therese pored over the postcards. They finished the half of the country Rindy had neglected, Carol helping her find the states she struggled with while Therese assisted in coloring them. Harge showed up at ten minutes before six, which was better than Carol expected, frankly. He’d been known to arrive an hour early.
Rindy and Therese were in Rindy’s room, putting a few misplaced items in her bag. This forced Carol to invite Harge in while he waited. He hung back near the door and they listened to the quiet drone of the TV, Rindy and Therese’s voices down the hall.
“Congratulations,” Carol said stiffly. “Really.”
Harge made a small noise of acknowledgement. “Thank you.”
They’d shared a life for ten years. He knew her ‘really’ wasn’t all that sincere, and she knew that he knew it. But Therese had pointed out the night before that perhaps this was a good thing. If Harge was happy, he may be less inclined to make them miserable. Carol wasn’t sure on that yet, but she knew some things. What he’d said last night, about her knowing if he meant to punish her. Rindy’s obvious affection for this Lilah person.
He was building a new family. He might well want to cut away the old, or this new girl might, Carol didn’t have the first clue about her.
Carol wouldn’t let him keep Rindy from her anymore than he already did, wouldn’t give him reason to. If that meant forced civility, well. Forced civility was the backbone of the last few years of their marriage.
“What are you doing for Easter?” Harge asked.
Carol blinked. “I’m not sure yet,” she said, careful. Therese hadn’t accompanied Angie and Steve to church since the snowstorm, but they’d still been invited to the Martinelli’s holiday feast. Carol thought it more likely that they’d wind up at Abby’s place, visit her and Rose. She wouldn’t tell Harge that. Much as he claimed to have moved on, Abby made sure to remain a sore spot. “I suppose it depends on what you’re doing.”
Harge eyed her. “Brunch at the house.”
He said nothing else, but Carol heard it in his tone. “With Rindy.”
Harge nodded, barely. They held gazes. Down the hall, Rindy laughed at something Therese said.
Carol closed her eyes, let the disappointment, the bitterness wash over her.
“It’s Lilah’s first holiday as part of the family.”
Carol kept her eyes closed, hummed a response. If she did anything more, things would turn bad. Worse.
“Come to brunch. If you don’t have anything else to do.”
Carol opened her eyes, confusion overtaking some of the hurt. “Say again?” Easter was unusually early this year, falling on the first of the month. She wondered if this was some sort of bizarre, premature joke.
“Brunch. Easter.” The words were tinged with irritation. Harge stuffed his hands in his pockets, not looking at her. He feigned interest in one of Therese’s photographs that Carol insisted they get framed, hung on the wall. “That’s new.”
“You haven’t been here in a month,” Carol said, a reflex answer as she struggled to grasp the situation. “Brunch. With you and the secretary.”
He refocused on her, rolled his eyes. “With Lilah, yes. And Rindy.”
Carol stared at him, unable to voice the most obvious of questions.
“You don’t want Rindy with a stranger, so come meet her,” he said, like the words were slightly painful in his throat. “We haven’t had a holiday together in years.”
Carol did not point out any of the many, many reasons for this. “Does the sec—does Lilah know about this?”
“No, Carol. She doesn’t believe in the Easter Bunny, that only works on Rindy, so I thought I’d surprise her by inviting my ex over.”
His sarcasm almost made her laugh. “Don’t let Rindy hear you about the Easter Bunny,” she said, checking Therese and Rindy were nowhere in sight. “Was this her idea, or yours?”
“If you don’t want to come, then don’t.”
He’d love that. Telling himself, and whoever would listen, that he’d given her chances to see Rindy and she’d brushed them away. “Will your parents be there?” Rindy was the strongest of lures, but to be sat at a table with the elder Airds and Harge’s young, pregnant wife, that was the sort of cruel and unusual Carol didn’t think she could bear.
He laughed, a short, controlled sound. “God no. We’re having dinner with them later.” He paused. “You could take Rindy after brunch, if you wanted, if you can get her to school on time the next day. I’d just as soon have her miss those fireworks.”
Carol hadn’t thought about John and Jennifer’s reactions, which was odd, since they dictated so much of Harge’s life, had dictated so much of hers. “Oh dear God, Harge. You’re not going to tell them the same way you told me?”
“They know,” he said, one hand leaving his pocket to run through his hair.
He suddenly looked very tired, and Carol almost pitied him, having to deal with that kind of shitstorm. Almost. “I’m not leaving Therese here on a holiday.”
“Bring her then,” he said, dismissive. “Rindy won’t want to eat her ham anyway, what’s one more person?”
“What does Lilah know about Therese and I?”
“She knows that inviting you means setting two extra places at the table.”
“You’re not going to tell her I’m a lesbian over green bean casserole, are you?”
“No. I was going to wait for coffee and donuts to do that.”
It was flat, lacking any real bite. She stared at him long enough to see his mouth quirk. It was something like the boyish half-smile she hadn’t seen in years, the one she’d loved once. She laughed, at the absurdity of the situation, at the fact that he used to be able to make her laugh so much more, and here they were now.
He laughed too, without malice. It was a brief, surreal moment. “I’ll talk to Therese
He nodded. “Okay.”
Carol didn’t know how to process any it, didn’t have the time. Rindy appeared, finally, jacket and backpack in place. Therese emerged from the hall, but hung back, much the way Harge never strayed far from the door as they spoke. Rindy hugged, said her goodbyes, did the same to Carol.
“I love you, darling,” Carol said, holding her tight. She could smell Rindy’s shampoo, tried to hold the scent, the feeling.
“Love you, Mommy.” Rindy pulled back, smiling big. “Mommy, I’ll be a big sister soon!”
Rindy’s excitement was as fresh as the other twenty times she’d reminded Carol of this. “I know,” Carol said. “What a lucky little baby that is, to have a sister like you. Be good for Daddy, sweetheart.”
Rindy said she would. Carol half-expected her to add Lilah’s name to the promise, but she didn’t. She ducked past Harge and asked if she could go hit the elevator button.
“As long as you wait to get on,” he said, and Rindy dashed off ahead, to the end of the hall. Harge lingered on the threshold. “Let me know by next week. We need to figure out how much food to get.”
“I’ll call you,” Carol said, still barely believing what they were discussing.
He shrugged, starting to move away from her. “Just tell me next week.”
He stopped, half-turned. “Friday. When I drop her off. Unless you have something else?”
She did not, would’ve cancelled it if she had. “No, Friday’s fine.”
That was it. He walked away with quick strides to meet Rindy. Carol shut the door, leaned her back against it. “Jesus.”
She’d spoken to herself, almost forgotten Therese was there. “I, don’t even know,” she said as Therese came forward.
“What?” Therese repeated, stopping in front of her. “You look sick.” Therese grazed Carol’s cheek with he back of her hand, as if checking for fever. “Carol?”
“Something Harge said.”
Therese looked worried and protective suddenly. “He’s married and having a child. What else could he possibly have to say? He’s not changing the custody agreement?”
“He’s asked us to spend the holiday there.”
“At his place. With him and Rindy and the knocked up rodent.”
Therese stared. “Oh,” she said after a long stretch of moments. “Well, that explains why you look sick.”
While things in this series are planned out to a certain extent, I'm always anxious to check out prompts, or just to hear from you guys. Hit me up on Tumblr if you're so inclined.
A few hours before his wedding, Harge was nervous and happy, and very much wanting a drink. He walked across the hotel lobby, tugging at the sleeves of his suit until they fit perfectly. It was a pointless gesture; he’d be changing before the wedding anyway.
His stress came mostly because there was actually very little stress involved. His wedding to Carol had been the stuff ulcers were made of, at least when it came to the preparations. His mother was on him about every detail, save the one about his own happiness. She’d turned the whole thing into a circus, almost immediately after resigning herself to the reality of him going through with it. His father treated it as a business gathering. The seats that weren’t taken up by relatives he barely knew went to people his father needed to wine and dine. John wanted his clients and colleagues to take priority over Carol’s family.
By the time he’d reached this stage the first time, Harge simply wanted the tedium to be over, wanted escape. Carol had felt much the same. It drew them closer, oddly.
There was no tedium here, no months’ worth of decisions to be made, only to have them overruled by his mother. He didn’t need to referee between anyone, or waste such a precious day on people he didn’t give a damn about. He had Lilah and Rindy, and that was all he wanted. The other preparations, minimal as they were, were already done. He could relax.
Except he couldn’t. It’d been such a hassle last time; it couldn’t possibly be so simple now.
He was walking across the polished floor of the lobby, past a lit fireplace and a group of finely made chairs, a sofa. The doors to the hotel bar were in sight when he heard his name.
Harge stopped, turned. There was a man on the sofa, his face hidden behind a newspaper, until it wasn’t. Rogers lowered his copy of The Times, folded it neatly, gave Harge a little wave.
Harge scowled, shot a longing glance at the doors of the bar. Of course it couldn’t be so simple.
“What the hell did you do? Did you knock him in the head with your shield?”
The words were Carol’s, grumpy and aimed at Steve as Therese listened. They were in his home, eight days before Easter. Carol had spoken to her and they’d agreed the day before, when Harge returned with Rindy, that they would take his invitation. Rindy was giddy at the prospect. Carol, less so.
“I did not knock him,” Steve said. They were gathered in the kitchen for a late brunch. “And if I had knocked him, I wouldn’t need the shield to do it.”
“But what did you say to him?” Carol persisted. She was leaning against the counter, watching him prepare food.
“I just told him to stop being a dick. If he took that too far, I can’t be held responsible.”
Therese, close to Carol with her arms resting on the counter, colored at his unexpectedly crass word. She assumed he allowed it because the only small ears present were too small to comprehend. Jacob was getting fed by Peggy at the kitchen table. Rindy and Lizzie had scarfed their food down at worrying speeds so that they could run off together.
“What’s the matter, Shutter?” Angie asked. She was sat near Peggy at the table, her back to Therese, her eyes glued to a stack of typed pages, where they’d been for the last twenty minutes. An empty seat separated her from Peggy. “Don’t like a little dick talk at the table?”
Therese rolled her eyes. There was no way Angie should’ve been able to see her blush, so she blushed further.
“Oh, stop tormenting her,” Carol said. “I don’t know why we spend any time with you savages.”
“Because the savages we brought into this world are fond of each other,” Peggy said, adjusting her breast without a hint of shame so Jake could latch on better.
That was true, at least. Lizzie’s parents had chosen to surprise her with Rindy’s return. There was a thud when the two girls collided in a hug, loud enough that Carol and Angie exchanged worried looks, but Rindy seemed none the worse for wear. She was beyond eager to share news of her sibling. Lizzie had merely shaken her head and offered somber apology.
Rindy wanted to reacquaint with Jacob too, insisting that she needed to know just the right way to hold a baby now, so Mouse would let her help. Peggy assisted in this, reviewing everything Rindy had forgotten in the month since she last had contact with Jake. Lizzie rolled her eyes over all of it and complained at Rindy’s split attention. Her expressions were dramatic and comical.
Carol’s face was harder to read as Therese watched her watch Rindy with the baby. There was conflict, Therese knew that much, but the nuances eluded her, even after years of making herself an expert in Carol’s features.
Carol had been moody all week, not that Therese blamed her. It was difficult, gauging her temperament, deciphering what she needed. The situation was bizarre and entirely beyond Therese’s frame of reference. She felt too young, the gap in hers and Carol’s life experiences wider than ever, a chasm.
Therese found herself watching Jacob nurse, as she’d watched Rindy hold him. Carol had told her before, during midnight conversations about nothing and everything, that she would’ve liked another child, another someone for Rindy to love, if things had been different. What must it be like, knowing so suddenly that Rindy would have just that, but courtesy of someone else? Therese didn’t know. Carol wouldn’t tell her yet. Couldn’t tell her, Therese suspected.
Therese ducked her eyes away from Peggy and Jacob. Her mind had suddenly played tricks. For a second, she’d pictured Carol and Rindy in those places, which was silly, because Rindy had only ever known a bottle. But for a moment, Therese had thought of Rindy’s earliest years, all those other hundreds of moments that this unknown woman (who Abby swore bore a striking resemblance to Carol) would have with the new baby, Rindy’s sibling.
“For God’s sake, Therese,” came Peggy’s voice, crashing headlong into those thoughts. “It’s been months. I’ve told you I won’t throw you out for looking in the general direction of my breast, and neither will the other two.”
Peggy’s tone was casual, her eyes never leaving Jake. “I grew up in a Catholic school. If you looked in the general direction of a breast, getting thrown out would’ve been a welcome reprieve from what actually happened.”
Angie hummed in commiseration without looking up from her reading.
"Unless those breasts belonged to Saint Agatha of Sicily. In which case, they were served on a silver platter. Literally,” said Steve.
Carol’s eyebrows climbed toward her hairline. She shot Therese a baffled look. “Do I want to ask?”
“I don’t know this one,” Therese replied.
“You grew up Catholic.”
“Episcopalian, which is usually close enough to Catholic that it’s easier not to explain the differences to you.”
Carol rested a hand on the hip that wasn’t leaned against the counter. “Because you think I’m an idiot?”
“Because I know you don’t care, and I’m too lapsed to remember details. Anyway, who’s Agatha?”
“We make cakes shaped like tits in her honor,” said Angie, absently turning a page.
“God bless the Italians,” Steve deadpanned.
“They put little cherries on top for nipples,” Peggy said mildly, making another adjustment to the one Jacob was currently sucking on. “It can be quite good, actually.”
Carol shook her head slowly. “This is why I don’t go to church.”
“Because of the nipples?” Steve asked, then began handing her dishes. “If you’re done grilling me about your ex, you could set those on the table.”
Carol huffed, but didn’t argue. “You should hire someone.”
“Too many non-disclosure agreements,” Peggy said. “And no one beats a super soldier who rarely needs sleep, remembers where everything is, and instinctively knows the most efficient way to carry out any task. Any help we had would develop a crippling inferiority complex.”
“Also, you’re a snob,” Angie told Carol, in that cheerful way of hers, still reading.
Carol scowled. “What are you so engrossed in, anyway? You’ve been a terrible hostess from the moment we arrived.”
“Ah, but my husband’s a fabulous hostess. New script. Howard got the rights to this comics thing. Girl superheroes.”
“I thought you weren’t interested in that,” said Therese. “You told Lorraine it was stupid,” she added, remembering their night at Bombshell.
“Well yeah, because I wanted her to go away.”
“Because you were busy having sex in the booth?”
Angie actually looked up at that. “Look at you. The S word aloud, and you haven’t even broken into a rash. Nowhere I can see, anyway.”
“Nowhere you ever will,” said Carol. She set a plate down near Angie with just a bit too much force.
“Greedy,” Angie said, eyes back on her script. “Anyway, for a thing about grown adults running around in tights, this is surprisingly not terrible, and no way is Lorraine getting in on a good thing without me.”
“You’re a grown adult who runs around in tights for Peter Pan,” Therese pointed out.
“Yeah, but I’m playing a prepubescent boy in Pan. It’s different. Besides, that’s classic literature, that’s Broadway. This is based off dime store comics, but still surprisingly not terrible.”
“Yes,” Steve said, rounding the counter. “because a story about a superhero in tights not being terrible, that’s so shocking.” He came to the table, plucked the script from under Angie’s nose.
“Hey!” Angie twisted in her chair as he took it, set it aside on empty counterspace. “You can’t look at that, it’s top secret.”
“Believe me honey, there’s nothing in that script I need to look at. Eat.”
“Worried the ladies might have better origin stories than you?”
Steve came back to the table, kissed Angie’s curls. “Or that the fantastic meal I’ve been slaving over will go cold while you’re reading about half-naked women in masks.”
They all did, those who didn’t have them already taking seats. They chatted about nothing in particular, between bites, until Rindy and Lizzie came barreling through, Lizzie clutching the stuffed toy Rindy had brought back for her.
“Hey,” Steve said, catching Lizzie’s arm before momentum could send her sailing somewhere she wasn’t meant to be. “You staying out of trouble?” he asked. He could hear everything the kids were doing from anywhere in the house.
“Yes, Daddy.” She squirmed in his hold; voice serious. “Top secret mission. Need to refuel.”
“Ah, of course.” He handed her a piece of toast, held her with one arm while she ate it, reminding her to take smaller bites at lesser speed.
Therese sat next to Carol, exchanged a smile with her over the display. “What about you, Rindy?” Therese asked. “You need fuel too?”
Rindy surveyed the table, very obviously looking for desserts that weren’t there. “No, I’m still full, Mama.” Leaving Lizzie’s side, Rindy rounded the table to stand by Peggy, who was still feeding Jacob. “Do you like doing that?” she asked, eying Jake at Peggy’s breast with no shame whatsoever.
Peggy hummed. “I have to, to keep him full and healthy.”
“And quiet,” Lizzie grumbled around a bite of toast.
“It’s necessary,” Peggy continued, “but it gives me lots of chances to cuddle with him, so I suppose I do like it.”
Rindy nodded, brushing her tiny thumb across Jake’s cheek. She looked at Carol. “Mommy, did you feed me like that?”
Therese was slightly startled by the question, given the direction her thoughts so recently took. Carol too, judging by her expression in the second or two it took for her to school her features.
“I didn’t, sweetheart.”
“Oh. How come?”
“Some mommies don’t, and you liked your bottle. You and I still cuddled plenty.”
Was that a hint of desperation near the end? Apology? Therese tried not to hear it.
‘Oh,” Rindy said again. “I hope Mouse does this.” She kept stroking Jake’s cheek. “I bet she’d like it.”
Therese didn’t hear anything mean in the comment. Carol still looked like she’d swallowed a lemon as Lizzie finished eating and the two of them rushed away, back into their own world.
“So.” Angie was the first to speak afterward. “Want to talk about it?”
“Talk about what?” Carol’s motions were stiff as she brought a coffee cup to her lips. “Rindy’s happy. She’s thrilled.”
“Uh-huh.,” said Angie. “Let the record show that you gave the good parent answer. Now, want to talk about it?”
Carol took a breath, then another sip of her coffee. “There must be something wrong with her.”
“That’s better,” said Angie. “Go on.”
“Who else would want to marry Harge, have a child with him? Obviously something’s off.”
As she had the last five times Carol expressed similar sentiments, Therese bit her tongue.
“Mouse,” Carol continued. “What the hell sort of name is that anyway?”
“Maus,” Peggy said.
Carol eyed her with sudden interest. “What?”
“Why are you saying that the way my ex-husband does?”
Therese frowned. She’d only heard what Carol spoke of once, yesterday, when Harge was saying goodbye to Rindy. Harge’s emphasis on the syllables was different. Carol, who spoke to him more, had noted it several times.
“Because Peggy’s almost as German as Betty,” Steve said.
Peggy shot him a look. “Angie, love? My hands are full.”
“Got you covered,” Angie said, before tossing her napkin at Steve’s head.
“Almost as good at pretending to be German,” Steve amended.
His flash of a smile marked the comment as some sort of apology. It didn’t land well if Peggy’s response—a series of harsh exclamations that Therese could only identify as German—was any indication. Steve fired something back at her in the same language, and they spoke over each other in an incomprehensible jumble until Angie cleared her throat.
“Can we stick to English at the table, please? At the very least, an Allied language?”
“The Italians weren’t exactly allies during the war, honey,” Steve pointed out.
Angie’s scowl combined with Peggy’s, Steve being sat between the two of them, caused Therese to seriously fear for his safety, serum or not. Angie muttered something in Italian, glaring daggers at him.
“Yes, dear,” Steve replied, all sweet tones and boyish smile.
Carol stared. “How many languages do you two speak?” She nodded between Steve and Peggy, then shook her head. “No, never mind. What does being German have to do with you saying ‘Mouse’ differently? You don’t mispronounce most other things.”
“Most?” Peggy repeated.
“Well, you are British.”
“And you ungrateful, traitorous Americans are the ones who mispronounce. Without us teaching you how to speak, you’ve turned into complete idiots.”
“Yes, anyway,” Carol said, dismissive. “Mouse?”
“Maus,” Peggy corrected. “M-A-U-S.”
“What’s the difference?”
"One's a horrible American way of describing an irritating, tiny rodent, the other’s a German term of affection that compares one to a cute, tiny rodent."
Carol scoffed. "Rodents aren't cute. There are no cute rodents. Why would anyone use a rodent as a term of affection?”
“Tell that to Rindy,” Peggy replied. “I know she was quite pleased when Harge read her Stuart Little.”
Carol made a face, somewhere between annoyance and realization. “Jesus. Is that where this is coming from?”
“Possibly.” Peggy shrugged one shoulder. “Mice are cute. Pet shop mice in particular. Were they not, they would not star in movies dancing and singing, nor work as the symbol for an entire production studio.” There was a pause of consideration. “Or a theme park. Did I tell you, darling, that Howard’s thinking of acquiring everything Disney?”
“Oh, that is a terrible idea,” Angie said, stealing Steve’s unused napkin to replace the one she’d thrown at him and dabbing her lips with it.
“He’s not doing it anymore,” said Steve. “It was Disney or the comics thing, and he chose the comics.”
Peggy frowned. “That might be an even worse idea. Still, it’s Howard. The venture that involves real, live half-naked women is obviously a better fit.”
“Can we get back to the rodent woman, please?” Carol asked.
“I thought I just spent an exorbitant amount of time explaining that she’s not a rodent woman,” said Peggy. “At least not in the derogatory sense.”
“Leave her alone, Pegs,” said Angie. “Jersey, you keep using the derogatory sense, as long as you want.”
“What is this word again?” Therese asked. “Maus?”
“How do you pronounce it?” Carol asked, clearly annoyed at having said it wrong around Harge more than once.
“Like a cat noise.” Peggy said, “Mao-sss.”
“Say ‘moss,’ but add some twang,” Steve offered.
“Carol doesn’t do twang,” Therese replied, and got a dirty look for it. “What? You don’t.”
“Cat noise,” Peggy repeated.
Carol looked like she would soon be moving on to something stronger than coffee. “Alright, so she’s a rodent-cat lady. Who’s going to be spending more time with my child than I will. What the hell else do I know about her? Nothing.”
“Isn’t that meant to change next week?” Steve asked.
Carol waved him off. “That’s a dinner party. Nobody’s truthful about themselves at dinner parties.”
“Oh hell no,” Angie agreed.
“So again,” said Carol, “what do we really know about this woman he’s moved in with Rindy? Lilah? Is that even her real name?”
“Yes,” Steve said around a mouthful of toast.
Carol, who’d been glaring into her coffee, shot a quick, confused look to Therese, then focused on Steve. “What?”
“Sorry, was that rhetorical?”
“Jesus, here we go,” Angie murmured, shaking her head.
“What do you two know?” Carol asked, demanded, really.
Steve and Peggy exchanged a look.
“Tell me everything,” Carol insisted.
"Delilah Gisela Braun--no relation--born in Comfort—”
"You'd think that was a joke about wealth, but it's actually a tiny town-"
"Texas, June 21st, 1929," continued Peggy, as if Steve hadn’t spoken. "One of six. She's... hmm, not the eldest, darling?"
"Third born. Two brothers older." Steve paused to scoop eggs into his mouth, "Handful of relatives incarcerated during the war but being German, Italian, or Japanese would do that to you. Family didn't lose everything so lucky there. Finished high school, went to secretarial school. Worked local business in San Antonio for a bit, then moved to New York and started working for Harge in,” he frowned, "whatever the hell Harge does for a living."
“Real estate,” Carol and Peggy said at the same time. One response was bemused, shocked, the other absent and uncaring.
"Woman's never had a traffic ticket, though she is licensed to drive,” Peggy continued. “And to use weapons, but I've been informed most Texans do indeed like firing guns."
There was a lull after this. Steve ate. Peggy helped Jake eat. Therese looked at Carol, waiting for her to fill the quiet, but it seemed she wasn’t capable in that moment. "Family incarcerated? As in conspiring with the enemy?" Therese finally asked
"No more than Morita's family, or Angie's cousin Berto was,” said Steve.
"Watch it, bud.” Angie’s reply was immediate.
"Sorry, cousin-in-law Berto."
Steve lost his piece of toast—meticulously covered with the perfect ratio of butter and jelly—for that one. She crunched her teeth into it louder than any lady should, and Therese again feared for Steve’s safety, which was partly why she asked her next question. “So, Harge is dating a German from Texas?”
"Married. He married a German from Texas.” Peggy shifted Jacob, cooed at him. “They registered their license on time, hired a proper minister to do the job. He did pick a lovely hotel, I'll give him that much."
Steve hummed. “Not lovely enough that it was worth driving out there, having to talk to the guy.”
“Ah, the humble Brooklyn boy with newspapers in his shoes,” said Peggy. “Are you becoming a snob, darling? Is he becoming a snob, Angie?”
“He’s sure something,” Angie said. “So here’s a brain buster. Which Mrs. Aird is worse? The lesbian divorcee, or the German with the kid out of wedlock? I would say the idiot masses hate you more, Carol, but the new one’s German, with that name. So, does lesbianism trump Hitler or does Hitler trump lesbianism?”
No one answered. In the cases of Steve and Peggy, this was only because one was eating and the other was grumbling at the tiny creature mouthing at her breast. Therese looked at Carol as her silence stretched on, increasingly concerned that the conversation may have actually broken her.
Carol spoke, finally, alleviating that worry. “When did you find out all this?”
“I told you when we were at Sofia’s last that I’d checked into her,” Peggy replied.
When they were last at Sofia’s. The polite, less gut-twisting way of referencing the snow storm. Therese noticed that Peggy’s response did not answer Carol’s question. “You used this against Harge,” Therese said, wracking her brain for everything it held about that day.
Carol looked at her, confused. “What?”
“She used it on Harge, to make him stop yelling at you, stop threatening you, when you talked to him on the phone that night.” Therese wondered how much Carol remembered clearly. She’d been wrung out them, physically and emotionally, in a way Therese hadn’t seen before, never wanted to again. “You,” she frowned at Peggy, trying to remember. “You said something about threats and glass houses.”
“No, he used the word ‘threat,’ I never did,” Peggy said, mildly.
Angie snorted. “Yes, Therese, it’s just as much fun arguing with this one,” she gestured toward Peggy,” and Mr. Perfect Recall as you’d think.”
“You,” Carol spoke to Peggy again, rushing to fumble pieces together, “What did you say to him? Something about a tiny stranger.”
Peggy’s expression changed, suddenly and briefly. She sighed. “Little stranger,” she corrected. “I shouldn’t have said that. I was flustered, showed my hand too soon.”
It took effort for Therese not to sit forward in her chair. She was fairly sure this was marked the first time she’d ever heard Peggy admit to being flustered, or anything like it.
“Showed your hand,” Carol repeated. “You didn’t tell me.”
“I showed my hand to him,” Peggy clarified. “I didn’t keep it a secret from you.”
“You didn’t tell me.”
“You didn’t ask me if she was pregnant.”
Carol looked at Angie. “Did you know?”
“Know what? I knew that they knew stuff about her. They know stuff about most people, especially ones who have even a small chance of interacting with our kids. I knew they knew stuff, didn’t know what it was.”
Carol stared, then spoke to Peggy again. “You could have told me.”
“It was his to tell.”
“I could have used that information to have a talk or two with him.”
“I’m sure you could have. I was flustered, I shouldn’t have mentioned it. The kind of talks you want, they’re not always the best option. Trust me.”
Something passed between Peggy and Carol, a look Therese couldn’t read. A charge in the air that made Therese’s mostly-full stomach tumble unpleasantly.
Then it ended. Carol’s shoulders sagged, barely. She sipped from her coffee, ducked her eyes just a moment too long, but she sounded normal when she spoke. “So, she’s perfect.”
“She’s a very knocked up German who’s been married for five minutes,” Peggy said, conversational again. “Where in that did you get perfect?”
“She’s never had a traffic ticket, you said.”
Angie made a noise at that. “Neither has Steve, and he’s not perfect, at all,” Angie said without much heat.
“So I’ve been told,” said Steve.
“No more Italian jokes, Soldier, it’s not nice.” Angie flicked his arm with one hand, reached for another piece of toast with the other.
Steve grabbed it for her, set it on her plate. “Okay.”
“Okay.” Angie picked up her butter knife. “Just because you’re the bulked up, blond haired, blue eyed poster boy for Aryan perfection—”
“She’s not wrong,” said Peggy.
“Now,” Steve said, emphasizing. “They’ve put my medical files in museums. I would’ve been killed on the spot if Hitler got to me before Howard.”
Angie literally waved that off as she buttered her toast, using her free hand. “Yeah. Speaking of Hitler and his gal, you guys bringing anything when you go over there?”
Therese shared an uneasy look with Carol. She had no idea what to expect from their upcoming holiday, besides infinite possibilities for misery.
“God,” Carol said. “What the hell do you bring to something like that? Wine?”
Three hosts answered simultaneously.
“Vodka,” said Steve.
“Therese’s camera,” said Angie.
Peggy’s response was quieter, as she was occupied with moving Jake away from her breast, his meal finished, but Therese thought she heard something about tranq darts.
While things in this series are planned out to a certain extent, I'm always anxious to check out prompts, or just to hear from you guys. Hit me up on Tumblr if you're so inclined.
It was hard to tell whether Carol or Therese was dreading it more. Therese feared the unknown, having rarely spent more than ten minutes at a time with Harge. Carol’s anxiety stemmed from the opposite. She’d had enough terrible meals with Harge (including the most recent one, when he revealed his new wife) that she had endless ideas of how this could go wrong.
She gave Therese an out, told her she didn’t need to go. It was just a brunch. Therese could spend part of the day with Abby and Rose, or the Martinellis. They could reconnect later, after Carol brought Rindy from Harge’s.
Therese turned her down, and Carol was shamefully relieved. She didn’t want Therese stuck in this potential firing squad, but she wanted to face it alone even less.
The Saturday night before Easter saw them both awake too long, nerves chasing away sleep. Carol had only been sleeping a few hours when the phone jolted her awake, and goddamn it, why did they have a phone in here anyway?
It was loud and insistent. Next to Carol, Therese mumbled something and reached for the alarm clock.
“It can’t be time already,” she said on a drowsy groan, sounding very much as she had the morning Carol practically dragged her into the dentist’s office to get her wisdom teeth pulled.
“It’s the phone,” Carol said, voice heavy with sleep as she grabbed the offending object. “Hello?”
She’d had at least three nightmares involving Harge in the last week, so hearing his voice now wasn’t welcome. “Harge? Do you know what time it is?” Carol didn’t. It was too much effort to lean over and check Therese’s nightstand.
“Two-thirty,” he said. “Ten minutes.”
“What?” Carol rubbed her eyes.
“Sorry, that wasn’t…two-thirty.”
He shouldn’t be awake, and he sounded odd. Carol sat up. “What’s going on? Is Rindy alright?” Her heart stuttered, though she thought that if something were wrong, something like that, he’d tell her immediately.
“She’s fine. Ten minutes,” he repeated, a little muffled this time.
“Ten minutes what?” She could hear him speaking to someone else. “Harge.”
She said it sharply enough to regain his attention. “Contractions are ten minutes apart.”
Carol blinked. “What?”
“Lilah’s in labor.”
Fully awake now, Carol ran through the scraps of knowledge she had on this pregnancy. “You said late April,” she told him, what he’d told her at dinner two weeks ago.
“It’s April 1st,” Carol stated, caught between concern, and thoughts that he might be drunk and pulling a joke on her.
“Yes, Carol, I know the time, and the date, thank you.”
His irritation was clear, familiar. As was the fear underneath it. “Okay. Alright. Are you sure it’s labor?” She’d had cramps and false starts with Rindy for days beforehand.
“Our bedsheets would indicate that it is.”
Carol was glad he couldn’t see the face she had to be making. That’s what she got for asking. “Okay,” she said again. “Well, if the baby wants out now, then it’s probably fine to come out.”
“Probably,” he repeated. “Thank you.”
She detected something genuine in his sarcasm. He was not a bumbling, panicked father, at least he hadn’t been with Rindy. He was nervous, then and now, but not useless. There were worse men for the rodent woman to go through this with. “Are you going to the hospital?”
“We’ll be out the door in five minutes,” he said, and Carol sensed that he wasn’t really saying it to her. “Look, it’s late. The housekeeper’s here, and she could wait with Rindy until the nanny shows up, but—”
“I will take her.”
“Thank you,” he said, and Carol could hear real relief.
The call ended quickly after that. Carol replaced the receiver, then squinted as Therese turned on the bedside lamp.
“What’s going on?” Therese asked.
Carol took a breath. “Well, the good news is, brunch is cancelled.”
It started raining as they waited for Harge, thunder and lightning threatening to wake up everyone else lucky enough to be asleep at this hour. They waited in the lobby in pajamas and robes, Carol squinting into the rain and darkness in search of Harge’s car.
The moment she recognized it, she went outside, jacket over her robe. There was an awning over the building’s entrance, saving her from the worst of what was quickly becoming a downpour. Harge came to her carrying an umbrella in one hand and Rindy held aloft by his other arm. Rindy’s face was tucked into Harge’s shirt, and Carol knew instantly she’d been crying.
“Hey,” Carol said. “Oh, sweetheart, how are you?”
“Hi, Mommy.” Rindy’s greeting was quiet and muffled. She kept clinging to Harge.
“Sweetheart,” he said. “I have to get your bag, okay? Can you go with Mommy?”
Rindy did not like this idea, it was clear, but she nodded, let Harge put her down. Her sneakers, surely put on in haste, made tiny splashes on the pavement. Carol immediately pulled Rindy against her side.
Without Rindy’s weight, Harge was much faster getting to the car. He wasn’t running, but there was a jog in his step that reminded Carol unexpectedly of another Easter morning, brighter and sunnier and long before Rindy.
They were seeing her family, not his, for once, and Carol’s sister was fighting with the front door as they rolled up the drive. She was very pregnant then, with a toddler demanding her attention, and her arms laden down with bags. Carol’s brother-in-law was, typically, nowhere in sight. Harge had bounded up the drive to help Elaine—his first meeting with Carol’s sister—all charm and smiles. Carol barely had time to open the passenger door before he’d rushed back --satisfied Elaine had her balance and that one of the servants would help—and held Carol’s door for her.
She’d loved him in that moment, quite a bit, even as she laughed and told him not to try so hard. She hadn’t known then, not at all, what would come after. She would bet quite a lot that he hadn’t either.
She watched him now as he stood by the passenger door for someone else, watched him talk to Lilah. Carol couldn’t see her well, the view mostly blocked by Harge, but she did not look happy. Carol got a slightly better look when Harge moved to grab Rindy’s things from the back, saw the effort put into breathing. It brought a pang of sympathy, of remembered pain, low in Carol’s belly. She gave Rindy a little squeeze where the girl leaned against her.
Harge returned with Rindy’s bag. He’d barely handed it to Carol before Rindy was hugging him again.
“Shhh, hey,” he said, voice as low and soothing as he could make it while having to talk over the rain. “Everything’s fine, remember? Lilah’s fine.”
“Baby too?” Rindy asked.
“Absolutely. And you get to have fun with Mommy until baby gets here.”
They exchanged a few more words, which Carol felt oddly guilty about hearing. She focused on the rain hitting the awning until she sensed Harge had comforted Rindy as well as he could.
“Sweetheart,” she said, gaining the attention of both of them. “Rindy, why don’t you go in where it’s warm? Therese is there, waiting for you, see?” She pointed to the glass doors, where Therese was visible in her robe and slippers.
Rindy went, after assuring Harge that she loved him, and Mouse, and the baby. He promised the feeling was mutual, and Carol stood with Harge, watching Rindy make the short trip into the building, Therese opening the door for her.
Without Rindy, Carol heard Harge exhale, even over the rain. He held his umbrella, unnecessary for the moment, with white knuckles. He handed her the bag.
“She’s anxious,” he said, a warning, or an apology.
He glared without heat, followed Carol’s gaze to where it had returned to the car. “Lilah’s fine.”
She hadn’t been talking about Lilah, but let it go. “Labor got her that angry already?” she asked. She could see enough of Lilah’s expression to be concerned, and slightly amused.
“No, that was my father.”
“Harge…” Carol wasn’t sure if it was pity or a reprimand.
“Long story. We weren’t supposed to see them until tomorrow,” he stopped, rubbed at his temple. “tonight, now. But they showed up earlier, and it’s them she’s pissed at, not the labor.”
“Yeah, that would do it. She’s not going to have it in your car, is she? Or in front of my building?”
“No, she’s not, but thank you for your concern.”
Harge began telling her, just slightly too fast, about Rindy. When she’d gone to bed, when she’d woken up, the Easter egg hunt they were meant to have that she would mis now, her probable disappointment.
“We had her basket hidden,” he continued, “but now—”
“Harge. Harge, it’s fine. We made her a basket ourselves. She’ll be fine. We’ll take care of her.”
Carol was taken aback, wondered just what else was going through his mind that he’d say that so easily. She didn’t press. “Everything will be fine,” she said, what he’d told Rindy. “Everyone will be fine. Airds come from tough stock.” John and Jennifer and their stubborn refusal to die had to mean something for this baby, early or not.
Harge gave her a look she couldn’t read, then smiled. “Thanks. I’ll call.”
“Good. Don’t speed,” she said as an afterthought.
“I never speed.”
“Unless there’s a woman in labor in your car. Don’t speed.” He’d pushed it a little with Rindy, she remembered, and that was in broad daylight, on dry roads.
Harge rolled his eyes, but gave an awkward wave of acknowledgement. Then he turned and made the return jog to his car. Carol watched him close and stash the umbrella, headed back inside when the driver’s-side door shut. She could imagine what he’d be doing, saying, his hand on Lilah’s belly as he checked on her, assured himself that nothing drastic had changed in the few minutes he’d left.
It was what he’d done with Carol, anyway, with Rindy, and Carol hadn’t the right or desire to see him do it again, like this. She carried Rindy’s bag in with her, heard Harge pulling away.
Therese and Rindy had already taken the elevator by the time Carol got to the lobby. Carol walked fast to reach them when the elevator reached their floor, though her movements weren’t as quick as Harge’s had been. It was heartbreaking, stepping back into the haven of their apartment.
Rindy’s tears were flowing stronger and faster without Harge. Therese had gotten her to remove her shoes and jacket, or done it for her, but now Rindy was still, standing in the middle of the living room and sobbing. Therese was crouched down with her, but clearly out of her depth.
Shedding her jacket quickly, and Rindy’s backpack, Carol went to them, a lump jamming her throat as she listened to Rindy’s harsh, panicky cries. Therese looked slightly terrified, and Carol couldn’t blame her.
“Oh, sweetheart.” Carol drew Rindy into a hug, feeling that tiny back shudder under her hands. “It’s okay, Rindy, you’re okay.”
“What about Mouse?”
“Lilah’s okay too, my love.” Carol didn’t think she could use Rindy’s pet name for the woman in Harge’s car. Not without rolling her eyes anyway.
“But she hurts!”
It was a frustrated exclamation, almost a wail. Carol pulled back enough to look at Rindy, run her hands up and down pajama-covered arms. “What did Daddy tell you about how Lilah would have the baby?”
Jesus, she hoped it was something. He seemed to be leaving things to the last minute lately, and she wasn’t prepared to have this conversation with their seven-year-old at three in the morning. Or ever, ideally, but Harge had taken that option off the table.
“Mommies go to the hospital to help babies get born,” Rindy recited, like something she’d heard many times.
Carol smiled, as much in relief for herself as in comfort for Rindy. “That’s right. And sometimes it hurts a little bit to start with,” she said, wildly downplaying, “but that’s okay. The mommy gets her baby in the end, and everything’s okay.”
“Sometimes.” Rindy wiped her nose with her arm.
Carol frowned. “Sometimes?”
“Lizzie says babies are weird, and sometimes weird stuff happens.”
Carol shared a look with Therese, a steadying moment to keep her face clear. Steve’s mother had been a nurse, and Lizzie sometimes knew far too much because of that. Or just enough to be irritating as hell. “Lizzie doesn’t know everything, Rindy, I promise.”
“She says they get stuck up there sometimes, and you have to pull on their head with giant pliers to get them out.”
Carol sincerely did not want to know what Rindy’s understanding of the phrase “up there” was. “Lizzie doesn’t know everything,” Carol repeated.
“She says sometimes their heads get yanked off with the pliers.”
“She’s wrong, honey,” Carol said, taking a firmer stance.
“She says sometimes they come out ass-backwards and it messes everything up.”
That one sounded distinctly like Angie, not Steve’s dead mother. They’d need to talk the next time they were together. “It’s going to be fine, Rindy. Lilah and the baby will be fine.”
Rindy let out a loud sniffle. “Daddy will take care of them?”
“Yes,” Carol said instantly. Rindy didn’t need to know that Harge would be pacing and smoking the whole time, that this was completely out of his control. “Daddy will take care of them.”
Rindy calmed a bit, for a moment. Then there was a crash of thunder, and she practically jumped out of her skin. “Mommy!”
Carol hugged her again, nonsense sounds instinctively spilling forth. Rindy wasn’t especially afraid of storms, not typically. But this wasn’t a typical night. “It’s okay, darling, it’s just noise, it can’t hurt you.”
“But it’s loud!” Rindy protested, a tired whine. “And scary.”
“I know. I know, honey. Lots of things are scary tonight, aren’t they?”
Rindy nodded miserably. “Lizzie says babies don’t want to come out sometimes. What if Mouse’s baby is scared of the noise and doesn’t want to come out?”
“Oh, Rindy. The baby has Lilah, and Daddy, and their big sister waiting for them. I’m sure it wants to come.”
“But what if it doesn’t?” Rindy pressed, exhaustion and fear obvious.
Carol had spent the last two weeks preparing for brunch. Stilted small talk and pointed looks. Her biggest worry was trying to keep her disgust and discomfort from Rindy. She wasn’t prepared for this, felt herself repeating the same empty platitudes.
Then Therese, silent since Carol entered the apartment, spoke up. “When I was little,” she said, quiet, careful, “and we had someone new come stay with us at our school, they were usually scared. Sometimes, we would push our beds together and grab all the blankets and pillows and make a big fort, pretend we were camping.”
Rindy stayed quiet, the tears still falling, but Therese had her attention.
“Everyone would help with the fort, and we would all huddle underneath it, and talk, and tell stories, so the new person wouldn’t feel so alone, or scared.”
“Did it work?” Rindy asked.
Therese smiled softly. “I think it did. What do you say? You want to build a fort, hide from the rain?”
“The baby isn’t here though,” Rindy said, deep in thought. “How can we make the baby feel less scared with the fort if they’re at the hospital with Lilah?”
“The baby might not be here,” Therese said without missing a beat, “but they know their big sister. I bet that if you’re happy and calm and less scared, the baby will feel that and know it’s okay to come out, even with all the silly noise.”
“Really? You think so?”
“I do. What do you think, want to try?”
Rindy wiped her arm across her nose again. “Can we, Mommy?”
“We can,” Carol said, taking some of Rindy’s tears with her fingers. “I think you’ll be able to find lots of fort supplies in the linen closet,” she said, a conspiratorial whisper that had Rindy bolting. “Get some tissues for your nose first, alright?”
It was unclear if Rindy heard her as she ran down the hall, even less so whether or not she would listen if she had.
Carol found herself staring at Therese once Rindy was out of sight, enough that Therese gave her a kind of nervous half-smile.
“I’ll help her clean it up after,” Therese said, like an apology. “I just thought, it didn’t seem like she’d be able to sleep any time soon, so—”
Carol kissed her. They were low to the ground, on Rindy’s level, and Carol’s knees protested. But she cupped Therese’s face and kissed her, soft but insistent, until she was sure Therese would stop explaining, apologizing.
There was no explanation for this woman, there couldn’t be.
Therese smiled, surprised and pleased when the kiss broke. “You’re not mad then?” she asked, teasing.
“I adore you,” Carol said, not teasing at all.
Therese’s smile widened, faltered, then faded. “Carol?”
“What?” Carol asked, concerned by the tone.
“Do they really use giant pliers on babies?”
Carol chuckled. “Forceps,” she said. “They’re forceps, and they don’t use them all the time. Only when the baby’s being stubborn.”
“So, they do get stuck up there?”
Carol stood, held out a hand for Therese. “Go supervise construction, please. I’ll have one person in this house with nightmares already, let’s not make it two.”
Furniture was moved. Sheets and pillows were collected. Therese found a flashlight in the junk drawer, more for ambiance than necessity. Rindy was much happier with a task, a feeling that she could do something to help her new sibling along. Soon, the three of them were piled underneath the fort, along with a nest of pillows.
Rindy laid down between them, calmer and more excited at the same time. She talked about her brother or sister, all the things she would teach them. Therese was the one who did most of the interaction with her on this topic, and Carol was grateful, content to hold the two of them and adjust pillows as needed.
“What would you like?” Therese asked Rindy. “A brother, or a sister?”
Rindy answered quickly, if not definitively. “Jake’s a boy, and I like Jake. Even if Lizzie doesn’t. But boys can also be yucky.”
“Yes,” Therese said, making quite the effort to keep a straight face. “They can be that.”
“Daddy says he wants a girl, because he had such good luck with me.”
“Yes,” Carol said, kissing Rindy’s hair. “Yes, he did.” He’d wanted a boy, before, but Carol always maintained that he was happier with a daughter.
“But I don’t know if I want a sister,” Rindy continued. It was obvious that she’d put much thought into this, long before Therese asked the question.
“No?” Therese prodded.
“I don’t know,” Rindy said. “I’m Daddy’s little girl,” she said with authority, and a finger pointed at her chest. “Daddy says.”
“Daddy’s right,” Carol replied, ignoring the faintly sour taste that came with those words.
“But I can’t be his little girl if he has a littler one.”
“You’ll always be his little girl,” said Therese. “Even if he has a littler one, she won’t replace you. Steve loves Angie and Peggy both, doesn’t he? And if Lizzie ends up with a baby sister someday, he’ll still love Lizzie just as much.”
“Lizzie says if Aunt Peggy or Aunt Angie have another baby, she’s moving in here,” said Rindy. “And Grandpa said that Uncle Steve and Aunt Peggy and Aunt Angie are all going to hell. And Mouse.”
“And what did Daddy say about that?”
“That Grandpa and Grandma don’t know everything, and had to be in time-out for awhile because they said mean things.”
Since John was so keen on declaring the status of everyone’s immortal souls, Carol could imagine what he’d said about her and Therese, within Rindy’s hearing. She could ask, too, but didn’t need to. “It sounds like Daddy’s right,” Carol said, that foul taste in her mouth not quite as strong. “Do you know what else?”
“What?” Rindy asked.
“Daddy will never, ever replace you. I know that for sure, okay?” She’d said as much last week when Abby posited that Harge’s new family might hold sway over the old, that Carol might benefit from it.
Rindy nodded, content for now. They talked about the baby, Easter, what they would do when Rindy woke up. Carol thought they’d moved on from Rindy’s fears about childbirth, until she heard a sleepy question voiced against her side.
“Mommy, did I hurt you?”
“Like the baby hurt Mouse. Did I hurt you?”
Carol smiled at the worry there. “Only a little bit. I barely even remember the hurt.”
“Promise,” Carol said, lying through her teeth.
“That’s good.” Rindy yawned. “I guess I don’t care if I get a brother or a sister. As long as they’re okay, and Mouse is okay, and they don’t get their head squeezed with the pliers.”
The answer was as remarkably grown up as it was childish. Carol and Therese smiled over it, both holding still until they were sure Rindy was asleep.
“Did it?” Therese asked after awhile, a quiet whisper as she balanced on an elbow, watching Carol, stroking gentle fingers along Rindy’s arm. “Did it hurt, with her? You never really said.”
“You never really asked.”
“I don’t like to think of you in pain, knowing I wasn’t there.”
It was such a Therese thing to do, to say, worrying so much about a hurt she didn’t cause, couldn’t possibly have helped. “It hurt terribly,” she admitted, making sure Rindy was fully asleep. “For awhile. The ride to the hospital lasted forever, even though Harge was speeding. He kept telling me to count to four.”
“Something from the Navy. Steve and Peggy probably know about it too. Deep breath, count to four, let it out.”
“What’s that supposed to do?”
“In his case? Control the fear, keep him calm enough not to get killed by the Japs. It wasn’t entirely unhelpful with Rindy, honestly.”
Therese laughed a bit too hard, covered her mouth to stifle it.
“The hospital was better. We left Harge, he told me to count to four one more time, patted me like you would a puppy. Then they wheeled me into a room, got me an I.V., and a mask to breathe into. I was sort of floating for awhile after that, they told me when to push, and eventually they showed me this slimy, wrinkly thing that Harge later decided looked like a Rindy.”
“You were drugged?”
“Not horribly. My sister doesn't remember having any of her children. She entered the hospital, changed into a gown, and the next thing she knew she was being handed a perfectly cleaned, pretty baby, all wrapped up."
Therese looked slightly horrified. “How did she know any of them were, were hers?”
Carol’s eyebrows lifted.
“What? We mislabeled things at Frankenberg’s all the time, put things in the wrong places.”
“’We?’ If I’d known you were such a slip-shod employee, I would never have gone to your desk for help,” Carol teased, and got a glare for it. She reached over Rindy, traced Therese’s bottom lip until she smiled. “They’re all hers,” Carol promised. “They all have my dear brother-in-law’s hideous nose. Poor things.”
Therese had to hold back a laugh again, to keep from waking Rindy.
Carol listened to Therese’s stifled giggles, to the rain outside. Sudden wakeup call aside, she felt happier than she had in weeks. “I never told you about Rindy’s birth, you never told me about your fort building expertise.”
“At the school. You never told that story about building forts for the new kids. Did someone do that for you?”
Therese frowned in thought. “Yes, but I’m afraid I wasn’t very appreciative. I was convinced it was just temporary, that my mother would come back, so I thought the whole thing was stupid. I just wanted to go back to my bed and be left alone.”
Therese smiled self-deprecatingly. Carol did not. “You never told me,” she repeated, heartbroken for the younger Therese, angry at the woman who helped create her, who should’ve been there to comfort her the way they were comforting Rindy.
“I didn’t not-tell you, not on purpose,” Therese said, still thoughtful. “I hadn’t gone back to that memory in a long time. I can’t remember when, before tonight.”
“No. It mostly makes me remember being lonely. I haven’t felt that in a long time, so I guess my brain sort of forgot about it.” Therese shrugged.
It was a simple answer, or Therese thought it was. But it eased some of the pain in Carol’s chest. “Good,” she said, careful as she leaned over to kiss Therese. “I don’t want you to feel lonely, ever again.”
“I don’t,” Therese promised.
They lay in the quiet, with the rain outside, and Carol was struck by the fact that everything that truly mattered to her was in her arms, under this makeshift shelter.
“Now,” Therese said with a cheeky little smile. “How are we going to get Rindy and get out of here without waking her? I’m too old to sleep on the floor.”
Carol scoffed. “You’re too old?” she grumbled, sitting up amidst Therese’s quiet laughter. “Well then. The goddamned Easter Bunny is bringing you nothing this year, I’ll tell you that much.”
I'd like to thank the 1956 calendar year, for the happy, perfect accident it provided me. And all of you who've read/commented/kudo'd so far. You be fabulous.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
They slept later than usual, but not as long as Carol would’ve liked. Rindy was anxious about Lilah and the baby, and asked every ten minutes or so about when Harge would call. They distracted her for a time with the hunt for her Easter basket, which they’d barely remembered to hide before returning to bed.
Rindy grew excited when she saw Carol on the phone, less so when she realized it was Aunt Peggy on the other end, not her father. She was uncharacteristically reluctant when Carol brought up the idea of going to Lizzie’s house for lunch.
“But what if Daddy calls?”
“Babies can take a long time, sweet pea, and Daddy wouldn’t want you sitting around waiting on your holiday, he’d want to know you’re having fun. He has Aunt Peggy’s number. If he calls and we’re not here, he’ll find us there, alright?”
After Rindy was reassured and went to put on her shoes, Therese spoke to Carol. “Does Harge really have Peggy’s number?”
“God no, but he has Abby’s, and this is important to Rindy, so he’ll get a message through if he needs to. And I’m sure Peggy could reach him at the hospital, if it came to that.”
“Do we even know what hospital they’re at?”
“No,” Carol said. “Anyway, I thought we were eating at Harge’s. There’s not enough food here for a big holiday meal, and they always have food there.”
Lizzie was happy to see Rindy again, but only tolerant of her obsession with the impending arrival.
“It’s not going to be fun,” she told Rindy for the tenth time. “They tell you it’s going to be fun, but they lie.”
“My Daddy doesn’t lie.”
“They all lie about babies,” Lizzie said, dead serious. “Babies aren’t fun. They’re loud and smelly and pukey, and they can’t do anything fun, no matter what the grownups say.”
“Mouse’s baby won’t be like that.”
Lizzie sighed heavily. “Of course it won’t.”
“You like Jacob better now.”
“He’s less of a baby now, but that took forever. And I got these now.” Lizzie held up a pair of slightly weird looking earmuffs.
“It’s not winter anymore.”
“So? Jakey’s loud in all the seasons. Uncle Howard made me these so my ears don’t bleed when he screeches the paint off the walls.”
The girls eventually scampered off when Steve implied that there were a few more Easter eggs hidden around the house, waiting for discovery. “We’re still figuring out how much of my hearing she got,” he said as the adults sat in the living room, passing a bowl of Easter candy between them. “Enough that his crying is more than just annoying to her, we think. Those help.”
“Work for me too,” said Angie, popping a chocolate kiss into her mouth. “Great for getting some quiet when I need to work.” She was, again, bent over a script, turning pages with the tips of her fingers to keep them from getting dirty.
“How’s that going, anyway?” Carol asked as Angie flipped another page.
"Enthralling so far."
"Is that the script for the movie about the rich girl getting married, or the Italian girl in tights?" Therese asked
"She's called Lieutenant Italia thank you very much. Respect the green, white, and red. I've just got past her daring nighttime jaunt with Ace as they flee from the third set of enemies."
“Recognize the tone, just don’t care.”
After recounting the happenings of the Martinelli Easter brunch, and the egg hunt that resulted in one of Angie’s brothers sitting on the head of another, they got around to the topic of childbirth.
"Nothing hurt more than Il mio demone angelico entering this world. Nothing,” Angie stated. “And I busted my arm in two when I was a kid. God, I was in tears. Thought my bottom half was going to split from my top.”
Carol got the sense that, as she was wont to do, Angie was embellishing. Therese looked ill, but still asked for Peggy’s experience.
Peggy, pressed up against Steve on the couch, considered. “Being shot hurt slightly less.”
“Which time?” Angie asked.
“All of them.”
“How many times have you been shot?” Carol asked as Steve squirmed uncomfortably.
Peggy was dismissive. “The usual amount. Less than five.”
“That’s the usual amount?” Therese’s eyes went wide.
“What about being hanged?” said Angie. “Better or worse than Jake?”
“Better,” Peggy said without hesitation.
“You were hanged?” Therese asked.
“Just the once, and they didn’t do a very good job of it, did they?”
Sometime around one that afternoon, the phone rang. Angie answered, listened. “Miss Nerinda Aird,” she called, like a professional. “Your father’s on line two. Are you in?”
“Yes!” Rindy came barreling into the room, all giggles. She was quick enough that Lizzie had trouble keeping up. Angie grinned and passed her the phone.
“Daddy?” Rindy said, breathless and bouncing.
There was a few second’s pause. Then Rindy screamed. Carol winced. Her eyes went to Steve, who’s long legs were stretched across the living room floor, Jacob cradled against his chest. Jake let out a startled squeak of a noise, probably would’ve done more if Steve weren’t rubbing his back, whispering nonsense things Carol couldn’t hear over Rindy. When Jake calmed without a meltdown, Carol shot Angie an apologetic look, for which she got a shake of the head, a smile.
Lizzie’s reaction was less forgiving. She sighed loudly, her suffering far beyond anyone’s understanding, grabbed the weird earmuffs from where she’d let them sitting on an end table. She tapped Rindy, halting a stream of excited babbling to Harge. “Girl baby or boy baby?” she asked.
She said it loudly enough that Carol cleared her throat to get Rindy’s attention, pointed at the other boy in the room, and put a finger to her lips.
Rindy ducked her eyes a moment, suitably chagrined. “Boy,” she told Lizzie again, at something approaching a civilized volume.
Lizzie sighed, her shoulders drooping. “Why’s it always boys?” she asked everyone and no one. Then she put her earmuffs on and told Rindy, too loudly, that she was going back to play blocks.
It was exhausting just listening to Rindy’s side of the conversation, but Carol did so for a minute, smiling over Rindy’s happiness. Eventually, she walked over to Rindy and the phone. “Sweetheart? Can I talk to Daddy?”
Rindy pressed the receiver closer to her ear. “Mommy, Daddy and me are talking.”
There was a pause. Carol heard Harge’s voice, tinny and muffled from where she stood.
Rindy exhaled, the first time Carol saw her take a proper breath since Harge called. “Daddy wants to talk to you.”
Carol tried not to laugh at how obviously put out Rindy was, grateful when Peggy called Rindy over to ask about “young master.”
Thrilled at having a better audience than Lizzie, Rindy took a seat next to Peggy and resumed her excited babbling.
Carol brought the phone to her ear. “You’ll need to teach her more about babies and inside voices.”
“Yeah, I noticed. It’s on the list.”
He sounded cheerful. He’d been cheerful last time. “Everything come out alright, then?”
“He made it just fine. Grumpy about having to come and see everyone, from what I was told, but he’s good. They’re both resting.”
“Good,” Carol said, without sarcasm. “Does the new Aird heir have a name?”
“Sascha. Sascha Henry Aird.”
“That is…that’s definitely a name.”
“You named Rindy after Gerhard.”
“A middle name. I let you pick the important one.”
“And made sure that I’ll never get away from Abigail, ever.”
His irritation wasn’t real this time, she could tell. “Should we have gone with family consensus and named her after your mother?”
“Jesus, don’t even joke.”
“That’s what I thought.”
“I need to get back. Will you be home later, or are you staying late with. Spangles?”
Carol noticed a momentary stiffening in Steve’s posture, a roll of the eyes as he continued holding Jacob. “Spangles and I are having a ball, as always, but it shouldn’t be late. He doesn’t need a long time to provide a good one.”
Steve gave her a look. Angie laughed and gave her two thumbs up.
“So glad you’re enjoying yourself,” Harge drawled. “Talk later?”
“Yes. Hang on, Rindy will want to say goodbye.”
She did want that, and once it was done, she talked almost non-stop about the baby. Lizzie was as tolerant as could really be expected. She mostly kept the earmuffs resting between her neck and shoulders, only sometimes putting them on. Angie gave Rindy a very serious talk about the responsibilities of being a big sister, insisting that she could only start tormenting little Sascha once he hit a certain age.
“Must be an American rule,” said Peggy. “Or an Italian one. Michael surely didn’t live by it.”
“Who’s Michael?” Rindy asked.
“My older brother.”
“You have a brother? Where is he?”
“He’s in London,” Peggy said. Then she asked Rindy if Sascha’s room was ready yet.
By the time they got home, early that evening, Rindy was as sugar high as she was tired. Between the constant flow of chocolate all day, and Rindy’s giddiness about the baby, Carol dreaded getting her to sleep that night. She assumed this would fall on her, Sunday or not, until she turned onto their street and found Harge’s car parked in front of the building. He stood near the entrance, smoking a cigarette, which he put out when he saw Carol’s car.
Carol, not sure what to think and anxious because of it, hardly had time to kill the engine before Rindy was running to meet her father.
“Daddy!” she shrieked as Carol locked her door, putting a hand in her pocket to keep it from landing on Therese’s back. She thought he was in too good a mood to pick a fight, but it’d been an exceptionally odd few weeks. She wasn’t taking anything for granted.
Harge was grinning though. He caught Rindy up in his arms and spun her a few times, kissed her cheek. “Hey! There’s my big girl! Did the Easter Bunny find you okay at Mommy’s?”
Rindy giggled. “Yup, I got lots of candy. Some of Lizzie’s too.” She frowned suddenly. “Daddy, is Sascha okay?”
“He’s perfect,” Harge said quickly. “Lilah too. You know what else?” He waited for Rindy to shake her head, then reached into his coat pocket. “He got this for you, a big sister gift. He says he’s sorry our Easter plans got changed.”
Harge handed Rindy a stuffed toy, too nice to be from the hospital gift shop, Carol thought. He’d either meant to give it as a gift beforehand, or he’d stopped off somewhere before coming here.
Rindy laughed, clutching the soft material to her. “Daddy, Sascha didn’t say all that. He’s too little.”
“Yes. He’s a baby. He can’t say things or pick things yet.”
“You think, huh? Well, your brother is special, young lady. He’s way ahead of all the other babies already, you’ll see.”
Rindy lit up. “Now? Can I see him now?”
Harge shook his head, gave her an apologetic smile. “Not yet, sunshine. He has to come home from the hospital first.”
“When will that be?” Rindy asked, pouting.
“A few days, probably.” He turned his attention from Rindy for the first time, addressed Carol. “Are you busy?”
“Never too busy for that.”
Carol would’ve said more, but Harge barely nodded before crouching to be on Rindy’s level, careful not to get his pants dirty.
“Rindy,” he said. “Remember how we were going to have that party for Lilah and Sascha in a few days?”
Rindy nodded, intent on his words. “Baby shower.”
He smiled. “That’s right. But he came early and surprised us, and I have to get some things ready for when he and Mouse get home. I’ll be really busy for the next few days.”
Rindy nodded again, but said nothing.
“I can have Ava come, and you can absolutely come back with me, if you want, but it might be boring. Do you think you want to come with me, or stay here with Mommy an extra few days?”
Rindy kept her eyes on him. “I get to pick?”
“You definitely get to pick.”
Rindy looked between Harge in front of her, and Carol and Therese just behind. “You’ll still call?”
“Always. Every day.” He put a hand to his chest in a cross my heart gesture.
“You won’t let me miss Sascha’s first day home?”
“No,” he said solemnly. “You’ll get to see him just as soon as he’s home.”
Rindy scuffed her shoe on the sidewalk, tugged gently on the arm of her new toy. “Okay, Daddy.”
“Okay what?” he prodded gently.
“I’ll stay here with Mommy, if you’re going to be boring.”
He chuckled. “Okay, Rindy.” He straightened up, hugged her.
Carol talked logistics with Harge while Rindy moved to show her present to Therese.
“She said her homework’s done,” Carol told him. “I’m pretty sure she’s not fibbing, but she might be getting better at it. Which is irritating.”
“Not fibbing,” he said. “We got it all done Friday. Easter Bunny doesn’t show if homework isn’t done.”
“Ah, of course not.”
“Sorry. Forgot to tell you last night.”
“This morning,” Carol corrected. “You were a little busy.”
“A little,” he said dryly. “Thanks for taking her.”
Carol only nodded. Rindy came back to tug on Harge’s coat, suddenly concerned over whether or not they would still have the party for Lilah and Sascha.
“We will,” he promised. “Just a little late, after everyone’s home and settled in.”
Happy with that answer, Rindy hugged and kissed Harge one more time, practically skipped to the door, waiting for Carol and Therese. Carol saw him shift on his feet, cringed inwardly at the list of tasks he’d have to complete in the next few days. She thought this was goodnight, that he’d jog back to his car, as he had this morning. But he lingered, cleared his throat before rummaging in his jacket again.
“Here,” he said, and to Carol’s shock, he wasn’t speaking to her. He held a camera out to Therese.
Therese took it, probably on reflex. She looked as baffled as Carol felt.
“Pictures from our trip,” he said, as if he initiated conversation with her every day. “Rindy took most of them. She, she wants to take them like you, she says.”
“Oh,” Therese said. He might’ve told her that the pictures were from Mars, and Rindy took them during a trip to space.
“Didn’t have time to develop them, but I figured she might like a lesson from you. Might keep her mind off Sascha for a bit, at least.”
“I…sure. I’d love to.”
Therese was clearly flailing, and Carol was in no position to help her.
Harge nodded, ran a hand through his hair in what Carol recognized as nervous habit. “There’s, the last two are my,” he stopped, his eyes flickering briefly to Carol’s. “My wife, and Sascha. You don’t have to show her if you don’t want to.” His eyes found Carol’s again, as fleeting as before. “She’ll see him when she gets home. But I thought it might be a nice surprise you could give her. If you wanted.”
Carol stared. Her voice didn’t want to work. Therese, thank God, recovered faster.
“Thank you,” she said. “Thank you, Harge.”
Carol had never noticed it before, the disparity in their heights, how great it was. She didn’t think Therese and Harge had ever stood so close together before.
Harge nodded, stuffed his hands in pockets that must feel lighter now without the stuffie, the camera. He made to turn away.
“Harge,” Therese said, and all three of them froze. “Congratulations.”
Harge smiled, an awkward, strained expression that still counted as a smile. Carol suddenly felt stupid for having forgotten something so obvious, so basic, that Therese had remembered. She echoed the sentiment, and the smile he gave her was more familiar, less rigid at the edges. He went toward his car.
“Harge,” Carol said, stopping him without planning to. “Happy Easter.”
The smile held, widened a bit. “You too,” he said, including them both. He called one more goodbye to Rindy before getting in his car.
Therese and Carol stood on the sidewalk, eyed each other. “What just happened?” Therese asked, her fingers careful around the camera.
Carol shrugged helplessly. “I have no idea. Fatherhood puts him in a good mood.”
“Apparently.” Therese turned toward their building, and Rindy. Carol followed. “It’s bizarre.”
“You’re the one who said congratulations.”
“There’s a new baby. That’s what you say when there’s a new baby. You’re the one who said happy Easter.”
“It’s Easter. That’s what you say on Easter.” Carol laughed suddenly, remembering. “God. It’s also April Fool’s Day. “
Therese laughed too. “God,” she said, mirroring Carol. “Abby’s going to have a fit.”
“Completely. I’m calling her the second we get Rindy to bed.”
Harge suggested giving Rindy a lesson with the film, and Therese did consider it. She knew Rindy was interested, that she liked watching the photos appear in what she used to think was magic liquid. And Therese liked that interest. She liked explaining things to Rindy and being listened to so closely, having Rindy look at her as though she were doing something amazing.
But Rindy was still a child. She could be impatient and overeager. There’d been spills and near-misses before, and Therese thought Rindy might’ve grown a little wilder under Lizzie’s influence, a little more excitable. Or it was a natural part of growing up. Therese didn’t have much to compare to. She only hoped that Rindy never got as bad as some of Angie’s more energetic relatives.
She could’ve developed the photos with Rindy there, but her hesitance wasn’t all about the child. Bringing her pictures into reality had always been a solitary activity. Just her, in the darkness, with a simple, reflexive task to focus on. It was quiet and it gave her time to think. Rindy’s presence wasn’t unwelcome, but it was still relatively new to her. It required split focus, giving more attention to the person in front of her than anyone who might be in her photos.
Carol only kissed her and said she should do it however she wanted, when asked, so Therese developed the photos on her own the next night, while Carol picked Rindy up from school and helped her with her homework. Carol definitely had the harder task. It wasn’t that Rindy was being defiant, not really. She simply found her new brother to be a far more interesting topic of conversation and speculation than her math homework. Carol tried for patience, succeeded mostly. When Therese entered the living room and held up an envelope while Rindy’s head was lowered to her subtraction worksheet, Carol resorted to bribery.
“Look at this,” she said, eyeing the page. “Only five problems left, and all these that you’ve done are right so far. Good job, sweetheart.”
Rindy put down her pencil. “Can I take a break now? Daddy said I should draw Mouse and Sascha a card for when they get home.”
“I know. But Daddy would want you to finish your schoolwork first.”
“He would not. He knows Sascha’s more important than carryovers.”
“Sascha’s very important, but so is math. Nice try. Finish your problems, alright?”
“Rindy. Schoolwork first, then you can draw your picture after. Or you can start it after you see what Mama has for you.”
Rindy looked up sharply, then spun in her seat at the kitchen table to stare at Therese, who’d settled on the sofa. “You got me something?”
Therese picked up a furniture magazine she had absolutely no interest in, hid her grin. She could feel Rindy’s eyes on her, searching for some prize. Which she wouldn’t find, as Therese had stashed the envelope under one of the pillows next to her while Rindy was scratching away. “I did,” she said, the smile obscured by the magazine cover, but coming through in her voice. “But you’ll have to finish your homework if you want to see it.”
This tactic proved something of a double-edged sword. Rindy’s sudden eagerness to complete her task came with a sloppiness that wasn’t there before. She rushed through a few problems, made mistakes that weren’t due to lack of understanding. Carol had to correct her, tell her to try again.
It was a frustrating exercise that surely felt more time consuming to Rindy than it really was. The moment Carol checked her work and pronounced it perfect, Rindy leapt from her seat and joined Therese on the couch. Therese had to quickly and subtly tuck the envelope between the couch cushions to keep it from being crushed when Rindy climbed up next to her.
“Mama?” she asked, eyes bright with excitement.
Carol followed at a more reasonable pace. “Rindy. Let her breathe, please.”
It was a chuckle more than an admonishment. Carol sat on Rindy’s other side, a bit further away than was necessary, Therese noticed.
“Please.” Carol repeated the word with emphasis, giving a gentle poke to Rindy’s back.
Rindy squirmed closer to Therese. “Please, Mama, can I see the surprise?”
Therese fought back a laugh at the overly polite begging. “Of course you can.” Pulling the envelope from where she’d hidden it, she slid the stack of photos out and tossed the envelope aside, careful to keep the contents of the pictures out of Rindy’s sight.
“You took new ones?” Rindy asked. She liked seeing the things that Therese chose to capture, asking her why she’d picked them, why she’d used one setting on the camera over another. She asked questions Therese often hadn’t considered consciously until Rindy voiced them, forcing Therese to analyze what had often become reflex at this point.
Therese loved it, honestly, despite how it could become overwhelming. She loved Rindy’s interest in her pictures, though she didn’t always feel it was warranted. But this, what she was about to do, she loved even more. “No,” she said, turning the stack so Rindy could see the first photo. It showed the exterior of an Atlantic City hotel. “These pictures are all yours.”
Rindy’s eyes went huge as Therese showed her the first few shots. “Our trip!”
Therese laughed at the enthusiasm, stronger even than she’d expected. “Yup. You want to show Mommy and me?”
Rindy did want that. She happily launched into great detail about how, when and why she’d taken every shot. Often, she said things about lighting and angles that Therese was sure she didn’t understand in full, not that that mattered. It was beyond sweet, hearing Rindy trying out phrases Therese had taught her. Carol looked and laughed along with them, but kept herself a little bit further away than Therese would’ve liked.
Not every shot came from Rindy. She was in several with Harge, on his shoulders in one, posing by the pool in another. That one had Carol leaning in to whisper into Therese’s ear about how there had been less of Harge on his first honeymoon. She’d broken one of the cardinal rules of the house by tapping the middle of the picture, and Harge’s slightly protruding gut. Therese coughed back a snort and let that one go.
Lilah was in several, the last days of her pregnancy obvious. Rindy hugged her belly in one, and Therese understood why Carol kept some distance during most of the explanation. She’d warned Carol that the pictures were there, and Carol only said of course, that it would be especially Harge-esque to commemorate his honeymoon without including any photos of his bride.
He looked happy. Different from how Therese had ever seen him. Lilah was blonde and pretty and, as Abby told them at Christmas, shared some obvious similarities with Carol.
The last two on the roll, the ones Harge mentioned specifically, were also the last two in the stack. Therese grew a little impatient and a little nervous for Rindy to reach those. Part of her worried that Rindy would be disappointed by the reality of the brother she would soon be sharing a home with. A larger, more rational part recognized the unlikelihood of this as she waited out Rindy’s rambling explanation of one shot after another.
Finally, they moved from an innocuous shot of Harge outside a gas station (this was during their drive home) to the one below. The woman in this picture looked very different from the one in all the others. She was pale, almost matching the white sheets tucked up around her waist. Her lips were red though, as dark as the roses on her bedside table. She was bundled up in a pink bathrobe, her hair loose but done perfectly around her face. Her smile was bright, but Therese could see how tired she was, even as she looked adoringly at a blanket wrapped bundle. The baby was a dark red color, and rather chubby faced. The red contrasted with the light blue of his hospital cap.
Rindy, for the first time in long minutes, was struck speechless. She gazed at the photo in open wonder. “That’s Sascha?” she asked.
“It is,” Therese said, then showed her the final picture. “You can see better here.”
In this one, the subject was the baby himself, not mother and baby. His skin was that dark red, and his cheeks chubby. His eyes looked puffy, like a boxer who’d lost a match or two already. His little fists made of impossibly tiny fingers curled next to his face as he looked owlishly at the camera. The blanket that wrapped around him had been undone to his waist, just enough to see the shirt he was wrapped in, see how chunky a baby he actually was.
Adorable. Not as cute as Jacob, or the baby pictures Therese had seen of Lizzie’s but who could compete with Captain America’s children?
Rindy’s dumbstruck expression morphed into a grin almost too big for her face. “That’s my brother,” she said, louder, with authority this time.
“It is,” Therese said. “What do you think?”
Rather than answer, Rindy twisted around to see Carol. “Mommy, Mommy look. There’s Sascha!”
“I see, baby.” Carol squeezed Rindy, kissed her hair. “He’s something, isn’t he?”
“He’s my brother!”
“He is. Do you want to say something to Mama for showing him to you, getting his pictures ready?”
Therese let out a huff of air as Rindy suddenly jumped at her, holding her neck in a cheerful death grip. Rindy’s thanks were numerous and loud, and Therese thought she might lose hearing in one ear just before she lost consciousness. She hugged Rindy back nonetheless. “You’re welcome,” she said, as much as her constricted airway would allow.
Rindy jumped and hollered for several minutes after that, traced tiny fingers over the much tinier ones of Sasha’s hand in the photo, then resumed running, jumping, and yelling. Carol laughed and let it go longer than Therese would’ve thought before reminding Rindy of the neighbors, and of the card she’d asked about making.
“Best let her get some of the yelling out here,” Carol said after Rindy rushed to her room for art supplies. “She won’t be doing it at Harge’s for awhile.”
Therese laughed as Carol scooted closer on the couch, taking Rindy’s spot. She could finally snuggle herself under Carol’s arm, and did just that. As she adjusted, Therese saw the photos again, spread haphazardly across the table as Rindy went through them. Therese would set them neat again later, she decided, ignoring the professional part of her brain that wanted to do it right now. The baby pictures were still clearly visible, on top of the mess. “You okay?” she asked Carol, arm wrapping around her.
“Of course.” Carol hugged her close, used the fingers of one hand to sift through the pictures. She took one that featured Harge by the pool, another that had him shaving, flecks of cream still dotting his chin. In the second, he was still in an undershirt, not the pressed, fitted suits that were his usual. “There was less of him on our honeymoon,” Carol said again. “Poor woman. No wonder she had a fat baby.”
Therese choked on nothing, laughing and hurting at the same time. “Carol!”
“What?” Carol kissed Therese’s temple; tone cheerful as she picked up the solo shot of Sascha. “Look at him.”
“It’s not an insult. There’s nothing wrong with fat babies, they can be cute as hell. I’m only saying Rindy was smaller, so I would’ve put this one as small too. Especially since he came early. Earlier usually means smaller.”
“So, he’s healthy.”
“Oh, hale and healthy. And a little fat.”
“You’re terrible.” Therese was grateful though. Carol hadn’t made any rat comments, or compared the baby to an overstuffed rodent. There had been many, many rat comments since Carol heard the Mouse nickname. Enough that any break from them was welcome.
“No, no, terrible will be Harge’s parents, when they find out. Jennifer likes things perfectly proportioned, you know.”
“You’re dying to tell Abby, aren’t you?”
“God yes. She’ll be happier than she was the weekend we met that backup dancer from one of Steve’s USO shows.”
It's my birthday, it's disgustingly hot out, so here's a new chapter. Comments are presents, and I need presents. Good talk, lovelies, you're all fabulous.
Also, Abby Gerhard is a goddess, and I wish I could find reasons to put her in everything all the time.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“I was wrong, and so were the priests,” Abby declared. “There is a God, and He does love me.”
Therese sipped her wine and rolled her eyes. She’d done a lot of both tonight. “You’re a believer now, are you?”
“Rindy’s father,” Carol cut in, without a reprimand.
“Hush, she can’t be blamed for that,” Abby said, “that asshole fathered a fat baby. Born on April Fool’s Day. That asshole’s fat baby was born on April Fool’s Day.”
“And Easter,” Therese said, half-hearted.
“Exactly. That collection of circumstances? Obviously someone is on my side.”
“Obviously,” Therese said on a sigh.
“Ignore her, Therese,” said Rose, reaching over to top off Therese’s wineglass. “She’ll burn herself out soon.”
Therese was starting to doubt this. It was late for a weeknight. Rindy would be back with Harge tomorrow morning, but until then, she was sound asleep in her room. Therese had verified this several times as Carol and Abby’s laughter rose in pitch.
Abby and Rose had come by with Easter leftovers. Pie and alcohol, mostly. Carol put out a tin of cookies and Abby had immediately complained upon tasting them.
“They’re from a client,” Carol said. “A Christmas gift.”
“You’re serving us four-month-old snacks?”
“I was going to bring them to Harge’s, but the secretary went into labor.”
Therese was sharing a sofa with Rose while Carol and Abby giggled like schoolgirls on the other one. Therese sipped her wine again. The drink usually had her feeling light, laughing along with Carol and Abby, and the silliness they inevitably brought out in each other.
The wine was good, but lacking the normal effect.
“He looks like an overgrown radish,” Abby said. “Rindy was much cuter.”
Rindy had shown off the photos of her brother first thing. Abby’s commentary on him didn’t bother Therese so much. She’d said he was cute, just not as cute as Rindy. Even when comparing him to vegetables, there was amusement in her voice. She said he was luckier than Rindy in one regard, that he looked nothing like Harge.
The remarks on Sascha didn’t faze Therese. Sascha’s mother was a different story. As soon as Rindy was asleep, she’d heard about “the secretary.” “‘The inferior model.” “The rodent that birthed a radish.”
Carol, shockingly, claimed not to see the resemblance between her and Lilah, so it was Abby making most of the remarks about appearance. But Carol was quick to fill any silence with talk of pests and secretaries.
Abby was greatly entertained. Therese, having heard the same things many, many times when Abby wasn’t there to chime in, was growing tired of the record. For the first time in a long while, Therese was truly annoyed with Abby, Abby and what her presence did to Carol.
She half-paid attention to the conversation for another minute or so. That was all it took for Lilah to be “the secretary” again. Therese spoke without thinking, interrupting Carol midsentence. “What’s the difference,” she asked, “between a secretary and a shopgirl?”
Abby and Carol looked at each other as though they were trying to puzzle out the punchline to a joke.
“What’s the difference,” Therese repeated, “between Harge calling me a shopgirl and you calling her a secretary?”
They looked at each other again. “We don’t say it to her face,” Abby said with a laugh. Carol joined her.
Therese did not smile. Was this what it was to be a sad drunk, an angry one? She wasn’t drunk though, just tired, irritated. She wished Abby would go away.
It was not Abby who left though, but Rose. Rose who gave what Therese thought was a sympathetic look, and then became very interested in the lounge chairs on the balcony. So much so that she needed Carol to head out there with her, provide details.
Abby looked slightly baffled at being suddenly left alone with Therese, but huffed out a laugh. “Well, all right then. Seems it’s just you and me, kiddo.”
Abby called her that sometimes, Angie too. It usually didn’t bother her. Everything felt like a bother in this moment. The TV droned low in the background, and Therese couldn’t decide whether she wanted to switch it off, or blare the volume loud enough to drown out anything Carol or Abby might say.
“Alright.” Abby sat forward. “What’s that face?”
“That one. You look sour about something.”
“I’m not,” Therese lied.
“Uh-huh. Is that why Rose gave me the evil eye on her way out?” Abby sipped her drink, something much stronger than Therese’s wine.
“I have no idea, and that sounds like your problem, not mine.”
Abby sat up straighter, eyebrows lifting. She put her glass back down, careful to use a coaster, not the top of Carol’s antique table. Abby was the only one Therese knew who cared about such things as much as Carol did. “Therese, what the hell?”
She seemed more surprised than angry. Therese flushed. She hadn’t expected the words either, the tone. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s harder to be a secretary than it is a shopgirl,” Therese blurted, not expecting those words either.
Abby blinked. “What was that?”
“It’s, you have to go to school to be a secretary, or at least you can. Lilah went to school for it. I never went to school for anything. You don’t need training to be a shopgirl.”
“You’re not a shopgirl, you’re a photographer for the biggest paper in the world.”
“But I never got training for that, either.”
“What the hell, Therese?” Abby repeated.
With Rose gone, there was more room on the sofa. Therese used it to tuck her legs up underneath her, make herself small. “You and Carol. You call Harge’s wife a secretary like it’s an insult, something horrible. But it’s hard, being a secretary.” Therese thought of Evangelista at work, a busybody, but kind, how she expertly wrangled Mr. Whitmore’s moods, took dictation at a ridiculous speed. “Harder than working in a store, I’ll bet. I used to read under the counters at work and hardly anyone noticed.”
Abby looked like she was trying to blink away the last two hours of drinking. “Nobody meant anything by that, Therese, we were just talking.”
“Were you? Did Carol call me shopgirl a few years ago? Did you?”
“Of course not! Therese, it’s just talk. I’ve never had a real job in my life, you know that.”
“The store’s a real job.”
“I have the store because I want it, not because I need it. I’m a pampered, trust fund baby.”
“So what, you secretly admire the little people like Lilah and I, eking out a living?”
Abby just looked at her for a long moment, long enough for Therese to feel stupid and ashamed, and wish she hadn’t drunk so much. “What is going on?” Abby said finally.
Therese closed her eyes against the hurt, the concern. They stung, and it took effort to open them again, to brave looking at Abby, but she had to. “You don’t call Lilah those things to her face. Did you call me things? Did Carol?”
Abby frowned deeply, but held Therese’s gaze. “I called you young,” she replied, sounding oddly sober all of a sudden. “I called you young, and I told Carol that she’d fuck things up for both of you if she wasn’t careful. Which she did, because she wasn’t. Carol, she called you Therese. In a way that told me right from the start that we were all screwed.”
There was no malice in the words. Therese knew what she was talking about, that way Carol had of uttering the syllables of her name as though they were perfect, as though they were music. She rubbed furiously at the corner of her eye.
“Therese,” Abby stood, took Rose’s empty spot on the sofa. “What is going on?”
Was that the second time she’d asked? The third? “Does she still want Harge?”
Abby had to lean forward to hear, though they were sat close together now. “What?”
“Carol. Does she still want Harge?”
“Want him to what?”
“Want him, Abby.”
Abby made a worrying kind of choking sound. “Therese, what…no. No. Where would you even…what?”
“Harge calls me shopgirl. Like that’s, that’s all I am.”
“Harge is a dick.”
“He’s a dick who wanted Carol back, for years. Now Carol calls this woman secretary. Or rodent.”
“Carol adores you. Are you worried she wants the kind of thing Peggy has with Angie and Steve?”
“I wasn’t worried about that specifically, until you brought it up.”
“Therese, it’s just names.”
“The same kind of names Harge had for me, when I was with the person he wanted.”
Abby made that noise again, like she might be choking or laughing, but her expression was serious. “That is…no, Therese. No. That is completely different.”
For a split second, Therese was back on the road, in a lousy diner, with a rolling stomach, Abby telling her not to compare Carol breaking her heart with Carol breaking Abby’s. “Is it?”
“Yes.” Abby took Therese’s hand, squeezed hard. “She doesn’t want him back, Therese. How long have you been thinking about this?”
“Since sometime after the first week, maybe,” Therese mumbled. “When the names didn’t stop.”
It wasn’t something she’d admit when sober. Probably, she would’ve let it eat at her until she couldn’t stand it anymore. Until she blew up at Carol again, like she had shortly after the storm, when Carol wasn’t talking to her much, or even seeing her. She’d had bourbon to bolster herself then. Now it was just wine.
“Those are just…like you said. She’s getting back at him for all those times he didn’t use your name.”
“She’s not. Most of the time, he’s not there to hear her, so what’s the point?”
Abby took a breath. “Do you honestly, honestly think Carol has any interest in going back there?”
“She says he’s been acting more human lately.”
“Compared to what? If a dog shits on my best rug every day, and then he cuts back to only five days a week, that’s an improvement, but I’m still not going to let the dog in bed with me.”
“So is Harge. He’ll always be disgusting.”
“You don’t like dogs. Any dogs.”
“Therese. Do you actually think she wants him back?”
“I don’t know.” Therese stared at her hand, at Abby’s thumb drawing patterns against it. “She always said, she always talked about what a relief it would be if he found someone. How it would take the focus off her. Now he has, and she’s unhappy.”
Abby sighed. “Feelings are tricky. Expectations versus reality,” she waved her free hand in a vague gesture. “When she pictured someone else with him, I don’t think she pictured that someone with Rindy.”
Therese looked up, met Abby’s eyes again. “How could she not? She had to know it would happen.” Therese realized as she said it that in all their conversations about Harge finding new interests, she couldn’t remember Rindy being mentioned.
“Logically, she had to, but logic’s rarely had anything to do with it when it comes to him. If she let herself go there at all, another woman raising her child, I’m sure she pictured something else.”
“Like what?” Therese asked. “The wicked stepmother?”
“Not wicked, she wouldn’t want anyone being cruel to Rindy. Just someone Rindy disliked enough to want to spend more time with you two.” Abby smiled sadly. “Not someone Rindy adores. She’s had to let go of Rindy so much already. Can you imagine how it must terrify her, the thought of being replaced?”
“That wouldn’t happen,” Therese said instantly. “Rindy adores Carol, too. She’d never—”
“I know.” Abby squeezed Therese’s hand again. “I know, and you know, and I think Carol knows too, deep down, but fear’s a funny thing. It turns people into assholes.”
“That’s why she’s been acting like this, fear?”
Abby let go of Therese’s hand, reached for her drink. “I can’t say it’s only that, only Rindy. They were together a long time, there’s a lot of history there, much to my annoyance. You can’t just wipe that out.”
History. Like Carol’s history with Abby. There was more of it than with Harge, at least in years. But Carol’s marriage, it’s end, would always be a defining feature, to so many people. She couldn’t talk about her time with Abby. She couldn’t be honest about her life with Therese, not fully, not with most people. She could talk about her divorce. Not easily, but she could speak of that more freely than she ever could Abby or Therese. And if she didn’t, others would.
She still had his name. It was for Rindy, Therese knew this. Hell, Therese even loved the name, because it had been Carol’s, been Rindy’s, before she ever associated it with Harge.
Carol had his name, and his child. They would always be linked; they would always have history. Their marriage license, Rindy’s birth certificate. The stationary Carol used to have, Mrs. Hargess Aird.
Carol asked her to tea, wrote a note asking her to come back, and she’d done it on paper bearing Harge’s name. And Therese kept that note. Carol didn’t know, but she had. Therese kept something of Harge’s in their home every single day, because it was the only way she could keep that part of Carol.
The only official records linking her to Carol, at least that Therese knew of, were court documents from Carol’s divorce, her doctors. The kind Therese wouldn’t want to see even if she could.
She’d drifted, got lost in her head. “I know. History.”
Abby nodded, sipped. “Exactly. It’s history, and it’s Rindy, and it maybe a few other things that you should really talk to her about instead of me, but it’s not longing, Therese. It’s not wanting.”
“It just, it feels so petty, the way you two talk about her.” It reminded Therese of when the girls at the school would all fixate over the same boy, and tear apart whichever unlucky girl he showed the slightest bit of returning interest in. There’d been a man that delivered groceries who Therese feared would incite a riot.
Abby sighed. “Because it is petty. You’re an old soul, Therese. Carol and I were kids together. We still are, sometimes, just trapped in old lady bodies.”
“You’re not old,” Therese said automatically, habit from whenever Carol fretted about their age difference.
Abby waved that off, set her drink back down. “You’re young, but you’re more grown up than both of us.” Abby smiled fondly. “It doesn’t mean anything; not like you’ve worried about.”
“Are you sure?” Therese hated this, how uncertain she sounded. She didn’t feel grown up at all tonight.
Carol had once told her, Therese couldn’t remember what prompted it, that Harge had given her Rindy, and that she had to love him for that. Had to even if she didn’t want to. Harge gave her Rindy, Carol said, but Therese had given her everything else. She had one reason to love Harge, and a thousand, a million, to love Therese.
It was stupid, with words like those, to worry, to feel this way. But did all those reasons Carol loved There, thousands, millions, did even they measure up against Rindy? Against history and family, all the other history Carol would never be able to share, the family she’d given up to be with Therese? Not just Rindy, the chance for more children too?
Abby’s gaze was steady and serious. “I’ve seen Carol when she wants something that way, remember? I’ve seen her long for someone. I’ve seen her look at Harge when she was still in love with him, don’t ask me how the hell she got that way. For a little bit, I was on the receiving end of that look, the one that means Carol wants you more than anything.”
“Find some old photographs, Therese, ones you didn’t take. Look at the pictures of you and her together. They won’t have your professional touch, but you’ll see it, if you calm down and look.”
Abby’s smile was warm and soft, and maybe the slightest bit sad. “She’s never looked at anyone the way she looks at you. Not anyone. You have nothing to worry about there, kid, I promise.”
“But she’s got so much with him, so much past.”
“There’s more ahead than behind, Therese. Carol’s future is with you.”
It was quiet a moment, Rose and Carol’s voices coming muffled through the closed door of the balcony. Therese swallowed hard a few times, wished she had something other than wine to drink. “Okay,” she said, flashing a weak smile. “But I still wish you two wouldn’t talk about Lilah that way all the time. It’s not easy being the other woman.”
“You were never the other woman, but fine.”
“Thank you. And no more badmouthing her around Rindy.”
“She’s sleeping, she doesn’t hear.”
“She never hears, Abby, until we know she does.”
Rindy had called her shopgirl once. At least that was the only time Therese knew about. It was early on. Carol was making dinner and Therese asked Rindy to put away her toys and wash up. Rindy didn’t want to, and Therese didn’t know how to discipline her. She’d repeated the request more firmly, then made it an uncertain command.
Rindy said that Therese was just Mommy’s shopgirl, and that she didn’t have to listen to her.
Something in the kitchen had shattered, literally, as Carol dropped it. Therese couldn’t remember what.
It was a bad night, for all of them. Harge insisted later that neither he nor his parents said those things in front of Rindy.
Therese had already known that just because someone wasn’t talking, it didn’t mean they weren’t listening. Carol learned it that weekend.
Abby’s face softened. She knew where Therese’s mind was. She’d heard almost as much as Therese had about how unacceptable it was, how it would never be allowed in their home again. Carol was angry, at Harge, but Rindy too, no matter what Therese said. Therese was not angry, just shocked, hurt.
“Okay,” Abby said. “Small ears. Got it.”
“Okay. Okay, good. Thank you.”
She didn’t know what to think of Harge’s new bride, had yet to meet her. But even Abby said that Lilah seemed to care for Rindy, and Therese knew how hard it could be, hearing something so awful from someone so innocent, someone you were learning to love.
“It’s not that I find her completely useless, you know.”
Abby’s tone changed, probably to lighten the mood. Therese didn’t mind. “No?”
“She went into labor to avoid a night with Harge’s parents. That’s a hell of a talent. Would’ve saved Carol a lot of trouble back in the day,” Abby added, lighting herself a cigarette.
Therese snorted on a laugh. “Give me one of those,” she demanded, leaning toward Abby
Sorry guys, I know it’s been awhile. I’ve been writing ahead on this one more than I usually do, as a challenge to myself, and because of the nature of this narrative. Which is why some updates were quicker than usual and this one…wasn’t. So again, apologies. It’s here now, and any kudos/comments would be much appreciated. You’re all fabulous, and I thank you so much for all the great comments last time.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Harge filled a thermos with coffee before picking up his daughter. He was in desperate need of it, after the mad dash to get the house ready for Sascha. He was happy though, energized.
Rindy, Rindy was at another level.
“Drive faster, Daddy,” she urged, bouncing in her seat. She’d conned him into letting her take the front, played expertly into his good mood.
“How do you expect me to drive faster in this?” he asked playfully, one hand leaving the wheel to gesture at the traffic jam they were stuck in. “He’s not going anywhere, Rindy, I promise. He’s probably still sleeping.” The road was so clogged that he could hold the coffee between his knees without worry.
“Aunt Abby would drive faster.”
“Aunt Abby’s mad that she’s not allowed to be a race car driver, but that doesn’t have anything to do with this.”
“She’s not allowed? She should be, she’d be good at it.”
“Yes she would be. Very fast, very loose.”
“Aunt Peggy drove a tank once. She could smash right through the traffic.”
“Well, maybe she’ll let me borrow it sometime. You know, I do think I might have a way we can avoid all this mess though, drive a lot faster.”
“I could turn around and take you to school instead. I bet there’s much less traffic in that direction.”
Harge laughed. She’d missed some school already because of the wedding trip, but he wouldn’t do that to her. “Relax, sunshine. Enjoy the view.”
Rindy frowned at the lines of cars in front of them. “The view is lousy.”
Harge laughed again. He was just as eager to get home, see Rindy seeing the baby. At the same time, he felt calmer than he had in months. He reached for his coffee, took a careful sip. All was right with the world, so he was content to let it move a little slower today.
Rindy eyed him. “Can I have some?”
They hadn’t moved in five minutes. He turned his head to look at her. “You want coffee?”
“You like it. Mommy and Mouse and Mama like it.”
He struggled to keep a straight face. “That doesn’t mean you’ll like it. It’s a grownup drink.”
“I know,” Rindy said, impatient. “But I’m grown now.”
“You did. You call me your big girl now. And I’m grown compared to Sascha.”
“Yes, you are grown compared to Sascha. Who is less than a week old. Everyone’s grown compared to him.”
The cars ahead inched forward. Harge let up on the break long enough to follow, then held the container out to her, just out of reach. “Don’t burn yourself.”
“I won’t.” Rindy held out eager hands.
“Don’t spit it out, either. And don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Rindy gave him a look that was much too close to her mother’s. He handed the thermos over. Rindy grinned.
Harge couldn’t watch her reaction directly, the traffic crawled forward again. He was greatly disappointed by this. He saw her face crumple in disgust from the corner of his eye. She sputtered loudly, but obeyed him by not spitting it out.
“Eww!” She thrust the thermos back at him. “How do you drink this?”
“Black. Sometimes with sugar,” he said, taking the drink from her.
Rindy shook her head, possibly in pity, possibly revulsion, and sank down in her seat. “I need hot chocolate now.”
“Mr. Aird. The usual today, or are we going bold?”
Harge’s eyebrows lifted, along with the corners of his mouth. “You don’t think I’m bold every day?” he asked, eyeing Ms. Braun from behind his desk.
“Not what I mean at all, sir, I just wondered about the sugar.”
He didn’t know who’d started at, honestly, this game between them. He enjoyed it though, and from everything he could see, the feeling was mutual.
“Let’s go bold today, Ms. Braun.”
Her perfect smile faltered, just for a moment. “Lilah would be fine, Mr. Aird, or Ms. Lilah, if you like.”
“Oh?” He found he didn’t like it when she looked unhappy.
“My last name, well. Not very grand, is it? I don’t imagine you want Ms. Braun representing you, or the company.”
He studied her. “You’d imagine wrong. I’m honored to have you represent the company; we all are. As for me personally, you are leaps and bounds above my last secretary.” Ms. Blankenship had been older and edging toward senility before she’d left to work at an ad agency. And she was much rougher on the eyes. “Lilah it is, if that’s what you prefer.”
She smiled again. “It is, thank you. I’ll be right back with that coffee.”
She was. He’d barely read through his first memo of the day before she returned. She ran through his calls and meetings as she arranged the cup on his desk.
“Black, with a dash of bold,” she teased.
He hid most of his smile behind the rim of the cup. “Let me guess. You take yours light and sweet. Get yourself a boost of energy before you have to deal with me all day.”
Her smile was mischievous. “I take my coffee like coffee. All that cream and sugar? No, I’m plenty capable of dealing with you on my own. Will that be all, Mr. Aird?”
“It will be, Ms.—Lilah. For now. Thank you.”
“Say thank you,” Harge reminded her as their waitress set down their plates.
“Oh. Thank you!” Rindy said hurriedly, earning a smile from the server before she left.
Rindy had a muffin to go with her hot chocolate. Harge played along and ordered a cup as well, without the overflow of whipped cream that topped Rindy’s. As excited as she was to go home, Rindy hadn’t argued when offered a stop at one of her favorite restaurants.
“Slow down,” he said as Rindy bit roughly into the muffin. He’d mostly stopped telling her to behave like a lady, since her response was always the same. It involved Lizzie, and how fabulous and un-ladylike she was. “Does Mommy not feed you when you’re there?”
Rindy talked around a mouthful of blueberry. “Mommy made me pancakes and toast and bacon.”
“I see, so you’re not starving. Slow down,” he said again. He sipped his hot chocolate, smiled when Rindy swallowed hard and imitated him. “Rindy, honey?”
“We might not get to do this as much for awhile.”
“Do what? We won’t eat breakfast?”
Something in his chest twisted with guilt. “No, we’ll get breakfast. Just, maybe not like this, going out, just you and me. At least not as much.”
“Because of Sascha.”
“That’s right. He’s going to need a lot of help and attention, Lilah too.”
“I know, I’ve seen how Jake is.”
He seriously doubted that the occasional weekend with the Rogers baby gave her any real idea what was coming. “Have you? What do you think?”
One of his hands was resting idly on the table. Rindy reached over and rested her fingers on his, her expression serious. “Don’t worry, Daddy. I won’t be a brat about it, like Lizzie.”
Harge laughed at that, a bit too hard. He turned his hand over, squeezing Rindy’s. Tears threatened at the edge of his vision. “I don’t worry about that, sunshine, not ever.”
“Then what are you worried about?”
He thought of how to word it. “That you’ll be sad, or mad at me.”
“You might miss how things are now, just us, how they were.”
Rindy shook her head definitively. “Nah.”
“Nah?” Harge asked, wondering if Sascha would have the same power as Rindy, would always be able to make him smile.
“Nah. I like Mouse. She makes you less grumpy.”
“Oh, I was grumpy before?”
“Sometimes,” Rindy said without an ounce of shame. She let go of his hand, picked up her muffin.
“Well, excuse me, then,” he said, amused, proud. And the tiniest bit hurt. He wondered if Rindy would miss him in the coming months half as much as he’d miss her. “You know what else makes grumpy dads less grumpy?”
Rindy shook her head.
Harge reached for her mug, swirled his finger over the very top of her oversized mountain of whipped cream. He brought the finger to his mouth.
“Hey!” Rindy giggled, took her drink with both hands, pulling it closer. “You said you didn’t want any.”
“I changed my mind, didn’t I? And look at you, Miss Whipped Cream Queen, you’ve got plenty to share.”
“No,” Rindy argued, protective fingers still circling her mug.
“No? I thought we talked about this. You’re going to have to learn to share more.”
“With Sascha, not with you.” Rindy licked the whipped cream pile, then stuck her tongue out at him. It was still coated in white.”
Instead of telling her to behave like a lady, Harge made a playful grab for the muffin on her plate.
“Daddy, I want extra whipped cream.”
“Is that right?”
He saw part of Rindy’s nod. She was spinning around and around in his office chair, using her foot to pick up speed. He circled the desk, caught the arms of the chair on the next turn.
“Come on then, silly,” he said as Rindy flopped side to side in the chair, pulling out all the stops to show how dizzy she was. “You’ll make yourself sick before we even eat.”
He took Rindy’s hand just in case, led her out of his office. Spending time here wasn’t her favorite thing, or his for that matter, but it couldn’t be helped today.
As they approached Lilah’s desk, Rindy dropped Harge’s hand, walked over to stand in front of it as she typed. “Hi, Ms. Lilah.”
The clack of the typewriter stopped. Lilah smiled at Rindy. “Well hello again, Miss Rindy. Come to inspect the premises?”
Rindy clearly had no idea what Lilah meant, but wouldn’t admit it. “Yup. Me and Daddy.”
“I see. Are you going to be my boss one day?”
“I could do that?”
“It’s your name on the doors, isn’t it? And your father always talks about what a progressive company he runs.”
Harge stopped next to Rindy. “I think we should get her through elementary school first.”
“I suppose so,” Lilah admitted, her sigh heavy with disappointment. “She would be so much more fun to work for.”
“I don’t doubt it at all.”
“Just visiting then, Miss Rindy?”
Rindy nodded. “Daddy and I are taking a break for lunch. You should come with.”
Lilah seemed momentarily floored, but recovered before Harge could step in.
“Oh, I’d love to, but I’m afraid I have quite a lot of work here.” She indicated the papers and folders arranged neatly on her desk.
“So? Everyone gets a lunch break, right?”
“Daddy, tell her it’s okay.”
Lilah met his eyes. Harge shrugged. “You’re the one giving her all the big ideas about overthrowing me. Seems she wants you to come along.”
Lilah’s smile was still warm, but it wasn’t the one he was used to. “That’s very kind, but I really should stay here. There’s much to do, and I must do my part to keep Miss Rindy’s inheritance intact.”
Harge frowned. Rindy started in with her most charming and pathetic begging act. “Rindy,” he said before she could get too far. “Remember Mr. Reeding?”
“Yeah, he’s nice. He played tic tac toe with me last time.”
“Go say hi to him, alright, make sure he’s doing his job. Keep the troops in line for me.”
Harge watched Rindy go, watched her return a few greetings along the way. He turned back to Lilah. “I’m sorry if she made you uncomfortable.”
“She didn’t, not at all. But I’d never…family time is important.”
“It is, yes.” He ran a hand through his hair. “If you’re declining because you think she’s the only one who wants you there—”
“I’m,” she cut him off. “That isn’t why, I assure you. There’s just much to be done today.”
“Ah.” His name was on the door. He couldn’t be seen shifting in place like a nervous schoolboy. “Well, thank you for your dedication, then.”
“Of course.” Lilah looked away quickly, scanning one of the sheets in front of her. “Oh, forgive me, I meant to say. Your wife called while you were on the line with Kellar. There’s a conference at Rindy’s school, and she’d like you to call back when you can.”
“Ex-wife,” he corrected. “She’s—we’re not together anymore.” He wondered why it was so important to tell her this, especially when she already knew. The whole damn office knew.
“My mistake,” Lilah said. “Apologies, Mr. Aird.”
“Those won’t be necessary.”
She smiled. It still wasn’t the one he was used to. “You have an important lunch date. You shouldn’t keep her waiting.”
“The most important of all,” he agreed, “I’ll, I’ll be back shortly.”
“Take your time. I’ll defend the walls until you return.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
“You remember what we talked about?” Harge asked, searching through his keys.
Rindy nodded, holding her backpack as she waited for him to open the front door. “Gentle around Lilah, extra gentle around Sascha.”
Harge smiled, saw how tightly she was gripping the straps of her bag. “Good girl. Hey.” He waited for eye contact. “It’s okay. You’re going to be a great sister.”
Rindy beamed at him, the tension in her small frame turning to excitement.
“Okay, home sweet home,” he said, turning the key in the lock and easing the door open.
Rindy left her shoes and bag near the door. Harge took her hand to keep her from running off, just in case. They found Lilah quickly, tucked into a large, comfy chair in the living room, holding a blanket-wrapped bundle.
“Well hello,” she greeted, her smile tired and radiant. “I was wondering where you got off to.”
“Traffic was a nightmare, and we stopped for some breakfast,” said Harge. “How’s it going here?”
“Very well. Sascha also just finished eating. Hi, Rindy.”
“Hi.” Rindy’s voice was very, very soft. Harge let go of her hand, leaning down to kiss the top of Lilah’s head and study the baby.
“I missed you,” Lilah told Rindy. “Did you have a nice time with your mother?”
“Yeah. I missed you too. Do you feel better now?”
“I do. I’m sorry if I scared you, darling.”
“I wasn’t scared,” Rindy said instantly.
“Of course not.” Harge went with the lie. “Want to come see Sascha?”
Rindy nodded, but didn’t move until Harge held his hand out to her again. Lilah cleared her throat, getting his attention, nodded to the camera resting on a nearby end table.
“I thought it best to be prepared,” she said, eyes twinkling.
Harge grinned. “How am I ever going to replace you?”
Lilah made a face. “I’d hope you wouldn’t, at least not this soon.”
He rolled his eyes. “I meant at the desk. This new girl is a nightmare.”
“I know. You’ve certainly complained often enough. A thousand apologies that my condition has been such an inconvenience for you.”
He let her mock him, took hold of the camera as Rindy had her first meeting with Sascha. He did his best to capture the awe in her face, half-wished the shopgirl were here. He managed a close to perfect shot of Rindy bending to kiss Sasha’s head.
It took Rindy all of two minutes to ask the question. When she did, Harge set the camera down so he could help Lilah up. He grabbed a pillow from the sofa before she could ask for it, and Rindy sat down in the chair. He moved the pillow where it needed to be, and he and Lilah both talked her through how to hold the baby.
“I know,” Rindy said. “I practiced a bunch with Jacob.”
“Yes, well, still be careful, alright?” said Harge. “Sascha’s smaller, and I’m sure the Rogers boy has a much harder head.”
The transfer went smoothly. Harge got several photos of Rindy holding Sascha, some with Lilah’s help. Then he got tired of hiding behind the camera.
He checked to make sure Rindy was still okay, that her arms weren’t tired. Then he led Lilah to the sofa, conscious of how gingerly she still carried herself. When she was settled, he perched himself next to her, on the arm of the sofa. They watched Rindy and Sascha together.
He rubbed a gentle hand over her arm, kissed the side of her head. “Thank you,” he murmured, smelling her shampoo.
“Giving me this. Giving us this.”
Lilah smiled. She found his left hand and squeezed, her fingers touching the gold there.
“Thank you,” Harge said, looking up from his papers as Lilah entered with fresh coffee.
“Black, as requested.”
Black, like his mood. It was late, he hurt from being slumped over this desk all day, and his vision was starting to go funny. He saw Lilah though, even when he tried not to see her. He thanked her again, automatically.
“Did you need anything else?”
He squinted at his watch. “No, that should do it. Feel free to go home anytime.”
If she left, he could replace the coffee with the bourbon hidden in his desk, not stare so hard at these documents. Better he lose his concentration to a full tumbler than her. At least the former would feel good, for a time.
“I don’t mind staying.”
He’d gone back to scowling at his work, trying to force information past the fog in his brain. Something in her tone had him looking up again. His head hurt. “I’m confused, Ms. Braun.”
Her expression crumpled for a split second, then hardened. “I’m sorry, Mr. Aird. Is there something I can do to help?”
The professionalism was there, but her usually soft voice was sharp at the edges. Harge instantly regretted what he’d called her. But he was tired and frustrated, and sick of feeling that way. “If I have misinterpreted something here, I’d appreciate you telling me now.”
He sat up straighter in his chair. Lilah didn’t move, stared him down. “Now I’m the one confused. What is it you’d like me to tell you, sir?”
Harge shook his head, doing nothing to help the pain building there. “Call me Harge, for the moment. If we’re having this conversation…call me Harge. Please.”
“What conversation are we having?”
Harge wanted that alcohol in his desk more than ever. “I was under the impression that we were, that the two of us might’ve been—”
He would not blush, he wouldn’t. “Something like that.”
It was alarming how quickly she’d taken control of the conversation. “Is that all it is? A harmless workplace thing? An attempt to get a raise?”
“If I was looking for a raise, Mr. Aird, you wouldn’t have any doubt that I was looking for a raise. And while I wouldn’t say no to one, no, my interactions with you weren’t aimed in that direction.”
“Then where were they aimed? I asked you to lunch and you—”
Lilah laughed in a way he’d never heard before, short, impatient. “Is that what this is about? I turn you down for a lunch and suddenly it’s ‘Ms. Braun?”
Harge took a breath. “I shouldn’t have said that.”
“No, you shouldn’t. It took you all of five minutes to ask if I wasn’t whoring myself out for a few more dollars.”
“What would the rest of the office say?” Lilah asked, talking over him. “I’m German, with a very German name, Mr. Aird. I assure you; they say enough.”
“You’re from Texas.”
“Please don’t. I don’t believe you’re that naïve.”
He breathed again, unsteady even though he was sitting down. “Maybe I am. About certain things, about women. I have a habit of being wrong.”
“I say no to one lunch, and it sends you spiraling?”
“I have a habit of being very, very wrong.”
“So it would seem.” Lilah took her own deep breath. “So, you’re a wounded soul.”
He thought she might be mocking him, but the harshest part of the anger seemed to have faded. “I don’t know if I’d say that.”
“Aren’t we all?”
She didn’t answer him immediately. “You’re not the only one who’s been wrong about things, Harge.”
“What’ve you been wrong about?”
“That’s not a conversation I will ever have with my boss.”
They stared at one another. “If we had a drink,” he said, “would that be alright? No one here to see.”
“The bottle’s in your desk, you don’t need me for a drink. Unless you’re incapable of pouring on your own.”
He laughed, couldn’t help it. He hadn’t known she knew. “No, I don’t need you for it. But I’d like to have a drink with you.”
“You don’t handle it well, do you, not getting what you want?”
Carol and Gerhard had called him selfish, spoiled, demanding, entitled. “No. But I’ve realized maybe the only thing I handle worse is wanting someone who doesn’t share that. At all. If that’s the case, then tell me now, please. No repercussions, not for you. I’ll put you on another desk, if that’s what you want.”
She watched him. Long moments felt longer in the silent space. “I want a drink,” she declared. “Shall we start there and see what happens, Harge?”
He didn’t realize how much weight her answer carried for him until she gave it, until the pressure disappeared. “Yes. I’d like that.”
Carol met Harge’s boy when he was nearly two weeks old. Rindy stayed with her and Therese until the first Thursday morning after Sascha was born, when Harge came to get her. Carol didn’t see her again until next week Friday, when she drove out to Harge’s place to pick her up. Not ideal, but Harge with a newborn and a recovering wife, Carol could hardly complain.
She was expecting a greeting from the housekeeper. Or the secretary, in the worst of scenarios. (Carol was still trying to curb that habit, secretary. Therese had told how it made her feel, and why, and Carol strongly suspected this was thanks to Abby being pushy. They’d talked, and Carol was horrified by Therese’s fears, and promised to do better. It was a struggle.)
Carol was worrying about ringing the bell and possibly waking the baby when the door flew open. It wasn’t Ava the housekeeper or, thank God, Lilah the secretary. Rindy, without shoes, gave Carol the quickest of hugs before pulling her inside, babbling about how she just had to see Sascha.
Carol barely had time to close the door behind her.
Carol was dragged unceremoniously through the house, until they reached a living area. Probably one of several, she’d only been in Harge’s home a few times. None of those visits had Harge looking like he did now.
Rindy without shoes was nothing to blink at. Harge without them, in the middle of the day, was startling. His tie and jacket were missing too, his shirt had one button undone. His sleeves were rolled up. He stood near a pile of Lincoln Logs on the floor, construction that Rindy had clearly abandoned so she could watch for Carol. Near the toys was an empty baby basket. Its usual occupant was currently wrapped in blankets, resting in the crook of Harge’s arm. Sascha wore a tiny cap, like the one in his hospital pictures.
Harge’s hair was a little mussed, strands of it falling against his forehead. He was smiling, his head down as he spoke softly to the baby. Carol tried to remember the last time she’d seen him so relaxed. Sometime like now, it had to be, during those heady days after Rindy’s birth. Other than that? Had to be sometime before Pearl Harbor.
The image of fatherly bliss was shattered slightly when he raised his head to look at her. There was a fading bruise just below his left eye, turning an array of unsightly colors. It shocked Carol almost as much as the rest of his appearance.
“Harge?” It was a question, accompanied by raised eyebrows as she touched the spot on her own face.
“It’s nothing,” he said, smile barely faltering. “I’m sure the family historian will tell you.” He looked at Rindy. “If you were that quick to the door all the time, we’d save on a housekeeper,” he teased.
Rindy, still gripping Carol’s hand, tried to pull her further into the room. “Mommy hasn’t seen Sascha yet.”
Carol held herself steady as best she could. There were several reasons not to rush closer while Harge held the baby. “I’ve seen pictures, sweetheart, remember? We saw them together.”
Rindy was impatient. “Pictures aren’t the same, Mommy.”
“No,” Harge said, smile still tugging at his lips, “they’re not, are they, sunshine?”
He took a careful step toward her, then stopped. Carol took this as permission, let Rindy lead her forward.
She smiled instinctively. Sascha was cute, precious, almost. He’d lost much of the redness from his pictures, seemed more comfortable in the outside world.
“This is Mommy,” Rindy told him. “Mine,” she said as an afterthought, “not yours.”
Harge kept him steady as Rindy talked about how tiny he was, how she got to hold him just like she got to hold Jake, how he threw a fit anytime the housekeeper got near him.
Carol wondered if Harge had to practice again, holding precious cargo, or if it’d come back naturally.
“Where’s Lilah?” Carol asked when Rindy paused for breath. Mostly because she didn’t want to be caught unaware cooing over the woman’s baby, her ex’s baby.
“Taking a rest,” Harge said, an edge of defensiveness entering his voice. “It’s tiring, all this, she just had him.”
“Yes, Harge, I understand,” Carol replied, tone dry. “I do vaguely recall how ‘all this’ could be tiring sometimes.”
He had the decency to look sheepish. He told Rindy to go get her things, put her shoes on. Rindy whined that she didn’t know where her shoes were. He told her to look. She insisted she had.
“You’re very prone to losing things lately, you know that?” Harge asked. He looked at Carol as Sascha let out a few tiny noises. “I’ll be right back, otherwise you’ll be here all night.”
Without warning or choice, Sascha was being transferred into her arms. Harge led Rindy away before Carol could say anything, and she was suddenly alone, with her ex’s child.
Quickly adjusting her hold, Carol swore, with no one to hear her, or at least no one who could tell. She thought about placing him in his basket, but he was fussing lightly, and it wasn’t right to abandon him just because this was unbearably awkward. “Hey, hey now, shhh,” Carol murmured, voice soft. It wasn’t a wet cry or a hungry cry, not if Rindy and Jake were anything to go by. “Hush, hush, everything’s alright. What could you possibly have to be upset about, hmmm? We just met, I don’t know much about you, but I know you’ve got a father and sister who’re going to spoil you rotten.”
Harge always wanted another child. It was Carol who refused, even when he pointed out, rightly, that Rindy made them the happiest they’d ever been.
She still thought, apart from anything it caused between them, that the best part of Harge was the one that loved his child. Children, now.
During the handoff, Sascha’s little cap had gone askew, was in danger of fluttering to the ground. Glad she’d gotten to relearn some of her old skills with Jake, Carol kept up a stream of mostly nonsense words, pulling the hat back in place. As she did, she got a glimpse of the blondest hair she’d ever seen. Nothing like Harge’s and shades lighter than what Rindy eventually had, months after birth. Before adjusting the hat properly, Carol let her fingers drift over the hair, which was impossibly fine.
“He likes you,” said a soft voice that definitely wasn’t Harge’s.
Carol had never in her life come so close to dropping a baby. At some point, without her noticing, Harge’s wife had materialized out of thin air. Her blonde hair was pulled back in a loose braid, she wore a robe tied at the waist. She was pale, and looked tired. She was also smiling, and looked happy.
“I,” Carol felt a bit like she had at age ten, when she and Abby tried a couple of her mother’s cigarettes. Her stomach hurt and she couldn’t breathe. “I’m sorry,” she said, remembering how it was with Rindy. She hated, at first, every time someone other than Harge or Abby held her baby. It was fairly common, she’d heard. But most women weren’t in a position to have their husband’s first wife hold their child. God only knew what horror stories Harge told about her as a mother. Probably the only reason she was still standing was Lilah’s inability to move quickly this soon after the birth. “Harge stepped out for a moment, he asked…”
Bizarrely, that soft smile not only held, it widened a bit. Her blue eyes seemed to sparkle, despite the dark circles of exhaustion underneath. “It’s alright,” she said, stepping forward with the caution of a body still healing. “He said you were good with babies.”
“Did he? Harge said that?” Carol wasn’t sure she could handle another shock like that, so of course she almost immediately got one. She’d been a fixture at society parties most of her life. A pariah, too. She knew when the pleasant conversation was hollow, when the bright smiles were false.
Lilah’s wasn’t. Either that, or she’d missed out on a solid career in Angie’s profession.
“I’m sorry,” Carol said again, just in case option two was the true one. “Harge went to help Rindy.” Sascha wasn’t fussing anymore. She couldn’t get him out of her arms fast enough.
Lilah hummed. “She’s been ‘losing things’ recently. I think it took her about two days to realize the pitfalls of being a big sister.”
Lilah wasn’t taking the baby, wasn’t in position for Carol to hand him off. She acted as though she was perfectly comfortable having Carol hold him. Carol wondered how transparent her own unease was, if this wasn’t some strange tactic to make her sweat. “I hope she’s been alright,” Carol said automatically, like she would at a meeting with Rindy’s teacher.
“Oh, she’s wonderful,” Lilah said with a fondness that Carol didn’t know how to take. “The perfect big sister, if ever there was one.”
Carol almost said something about Lilah’s two older brothers. But that would be, what did Peggy say? Showing her hand. “She adores him. He’s a beautiful little boy.” Carol checked on the baby again, reflexively. He blinked up at her calmly, certainly calmer than she was. He was beautiful. She’d be required to say as much no matter who she was talking to, but she wasn’t lying.
Lilah’s smile became one of pride as she finally moved to take him from Carol. “We’re rather pleased,” she said, settling him in her arms with the ease of a natural, or a very quick learner. “Rindy is too, I know. I think she just needs the attention of having someone completely devoted to her. Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” Lilah added, the words slightly rushed as she looked at Carol. “And I’m sure a long weekend at her mother’s house will do wonders.”
Carol couldn’t detect any sarcasm or biting edge there. For the second time in recent memory, she wondered if she wasn’t having a stroke.
“I’m sorry, by the way,” said Lilah. “For cancelling so last minute.”
It took too long for Carol to have any idea what she was talking about. “There’s no need for apologies,” Carol said once she remembered Easter. “I’d say you had a very good excuse. You could even get a doctor’s note, if you wanted.”
Lilah chuckled, and Carol didn’t say how giddy with relief she’d been at having Rindy for the holiday without having to suffer through a meal with Harge and Lilah.
“How’ve you been feeling?” Carol asked, because it was the polite thing to do.
“Well enough, I think. Always tired, but Harge is suddenly full of energy. Was he like that with Rindy?”
Rindy. Not ‘you.’ “He was,” Carol said truthfully. He’d been less than thrilled with her body as soon as the weight came on, impatient with the changes on her physical and mental state. He’d doted though, in the last few weeks of the pregnancy, and then for months after Rindy.
Carol could ask if it was the same for Lilah, if he’d been excited for the end result of the pregnancy, frustrated by everything else that came with it. She could, but she couldn’t.
There was another one though, a question she might be able to get away with. “He hasn’t had his Navy friends over to see the baby already, has he?” Lilah frowned and Carol gestured toward her own eye. “Last time I saw him with a shiner, it was at one of their reunions.”
“Oh, that.” Lilah’s voice carried dry amusement. “I’m sure the family historian will enjoy recounting that in glorious detail, but it’s much less an event than she’ll make it out to be.”
“Rindy does have a flair for the dramatic,” Carol said, not rescinding the question.
“She must get it from her father,” Lilah agreed, and Carol couldn’t tell if she was being sarcastic. “There was a, oh, what did Harge call it after? ‘A family disagreement, settled with the old methods.’”
“That sounds, dramatic.”
“See? Family flair.”
Quick, odd sounding footsteps interrupted them. Within moments, Rindy was half running, half tripping into the room. She wore one shoe, untied. She grinned hugely on seeing Carol and Lilah stood together.
“Rindy.” Harge’s voice drifted in before he did. He sounded exasperated. “What did I say about running? You’ll hurt yourself, or,” he came within sight of the other two, “or someone else.”
Harge was suddenly paler than his wife. He looked like Carol had felt for the last several minutes. He stood frozen, one of Rindy’s shoes dangling in his hand.
Lilah smiled as though there were nothing abnormal about any of this. “Love, did you foist our offspring off on the guest?”
Harge worked his jaw a few times before answering. “I had to help Rindy. She was right there.”
Lilah tsked at the defense. “I’m sorry, Carol. He’s quite rude at times, isn’t he?”
Were they doing this? Was she actually expected to do this? “It’s been known to happen,” Carol said, feeling very drunk, though she’d had nothing since last night.
“Daddy’s rude,” Rindy giggled, then hop-stumbled to stand closer to Carol and Lilah. She leaned into Carol’s side, but put a hand on Lilah’s elbow, where it was bent as she held Sascha.
Harge stared at them. “This is why Rogers is a complete lunatic,” he muttered, “living that way.” He spoke at a more normal volume when he told Rindy it was time to go, helped her with her shoes.
Rindy kissed Sascha goodbye as Harge gathered the rest of her things, the softest peck to the baby’s head. He was handed to Harge again so Rindy could hug Lilah. It was, Carol thought, the gentlest, most careful hug she’d ever seen Rindy give, and it made Carol’s chest hurt.
Rindy told Lilah she loved her, and Lilah said the same, said something in German that started with an M, that Carol swore she’d write down as soon as she got to the car. The German accent came out, just barely, when Lilah spoke it. She blushed as Rindy kissed her cheek, looked away from Carol. Harge hugged Rindy with one arm, holding Sascha with the other. Lilah didn’t walk them out, but did tell Carol it was nice to finally meet.
“Oh,” she added, “and tell Therese we said thank you, for developing the photos.”
“Did we?” Harge asked over his shoulder.
“Hush,” said Lilah, then asked again if Carol would thank Therese. Carol nodded, probably looked like an idiot doing it.
Everything else odd about that conversation, and it still shocked her somehow, Lilah using Therese’s name.
A weekend at her mother’s house, that’s what Lilah said, about Rindy. Carol heard it one way, in her head, the obvious way. She didn’t realize until she was in the car with Rindy, scrawling out a guess on the back of a receipt about how to spell whatever German M word Lilah said to Rindy (she’d ask Steve or Peggy later) that she didn’t actually know where the apostrophe was in that sentence, where Lilah meant it to be.
She let Rindy sit in the front with her as she drove toward home, wondering how to dig for information about Harge’s eye with something approaching tact. Her daughter, fortunately, had no such worries.
“Oh my gosh, Mommy, you won’t believe what happened.”
There was more Angie Martinelli than Rindy Aird in that sentence, and Carol wasn’t sure whether she was amused or frightened. “Oh really?”
“Grandpa’s in time out again. Guess what he did, Mommy, guess.”
Carol was given absolutely no time to do so.
“He hit Daddy!” Rindy announced, with almost gleeful excitement.
Carol had to make herself focus on the road, not stare at Rindy for too long. “He what?” It shouldn’t be so hard to process, she’d seen the eye, but her brain simply refused.
“Yeah! And then Daddy hit Grandpa like, like five times as hard.” Rindy held her hands out to demonstrate.
“Your father hit your grandfather?”
“Yeah, but Grandpa hit him first. Then Daddy hit Grandpa ten times as hard!”
Carol very nearly missed her turn, had to recover quickly. “Rindy, what happened before…before all the hitting?”
“Oh.” Rindy seemed slightly displeased not to be talking about physical assault anymore, but warmed to her subject quickly. “Daddy said he was going to Grandma and Grandpa’s house, and first he said I couldn’t go, but I wanted to go because Sascha was crying and being loud, so I asked Daddy and asked Daddy and asked Daddy, and then Daddy said I could go with. Then we got there and Daddy said go to the playroom because he had to talk about grownup stuff. So, I went upstairs and hid behind that little wall part where nobody can see you if you hide.”
“Uh-huh.” Carol didn’t know if Rindy always had this penchant for spying, or if that could be blamed on Lizzie. She decided to blame it on Lizzie.
“Then Daddy tried to show Grandpa Sascha’s baby pictures, but Grandpa just wanted to yell at Daddy.”
“Did he?” That part didn’t surprise Carol at all.
“Yup. Grandpa called Daddy stupid. Grandpa said,” Rindy paused, screwed up her face in concentration. “Grandpa said at least the deviant came from a good family. What’s ‘deviant?’”
Carol bit her tongue against the rage that wanted to spill out. “It’s a mean word, baby, that’s all, and you shouldn’t say it.”
“Okay. But I didn’t say it, Grandpa did,” Rindy explained quickly.
“I know, baby. Just, you don’t say it, alright?” Especially around Therese.
Rindy stared at her, then shrugged. “’Kay. Grandpa said at least the you-know-what came from a good family and wasn’t some Nazi whore.”
Carol winced. It only got better. “Rindy—”
“He was talking about Mouse, right? But the Nazis were bad, weren’t they? That’s why Uncle Steve punched them all.”
“That’s, that’s right.”
“But Mouse isn’t a Nazi, Mommy. Mouse is nice. And all the real Nazis are gone already, because Uncle Steve punched them until they went away. Right? Mouse isn’t a Nazi?”
“No, Rindy, Mouse, she isn’t a Nazi.”
“Or a whore? Whore’s another mean word Daddy says I can’t say.”
Carol grimaced. “No, she’s not that, and you shouldn’t say it.”
“Okay. But I can say Nazi?”
What had her life become? “Only if you have to.”
What would a child even take from that? Carol nearly missed another turn.
“Okay. Well Grandpa called Daddy dumb, and he said at least the you-know-what came from a good family and she wasn’t a Nazi you-know-what. Then he said something about good breeding—I don’t know what that is—then Daddy said something about how the Nazis were the ones who liked good breeding so much. Or something. Then Grandpa hit Daddy and Daddy hit him right back, twenty times as hard.”
“I see,” Carol replied, sounding a little faint to her own ears. “Was your grandfather okay?”
Carol honestly wasn’t sure what answer she wanted to that one.
Rindy shrugged and nodded at the same time. “Daddy punched him into his favorite chair. It was funny.”
Carol knew she should argue that, but she didn’t have the heart. “And then what happened?”
“Grandma came in, and she was yelling and screaming and she started hitting Daddy too, but they were like sissy hits, slaps and stuff. Then Daddy said ‘Rindy get down here!’” She affected what she could of a deep, booming tone for that. “And I did, and Grandma and Grandpa were yelling, and Daddy just scooped me up like I was little like Sascha, and we left.”
Rindy didn’t seem upset in the slightest at being treated like Sascha. “Wow. That’s, that was something, wasn’t it? Are you okay, sweet pea? Were you scared?”
“No,” Rindy said too quickly to be believed. Whatever fear she’d experienced at the time had clearly worn off. “Mommy, if Daddy hit Grandpa and Uncle Steve hit all the Nazis, does that make Daddy the same as Uncle Steve?”
Carol missed her next turn.
Hey guys. Quicker update than last time because, guilt. And also because it's going to be a long few days for me, I could use the comments. Also, the dance scene is absolutely an homage to one of the greatest scenes in cinematic history, praise be to Avengers Endgame, Steggy is real again.
Also-also, we passed 200,000 words on this series with the last update. Which genuinely terrifies me. What have I done with my life? Anyway...onward!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“He really hit his father.”
Not a true question, but Carol answered anyway. “He did, it seems. The poor cleaning staff will never get rid of all the blood.”
This was said dryly as Carol passed Therese a plate to stack in the cupboard. The radio played over the slight clang of dishes being put away. Along with all that, there was Rindy down the hall, narrating what seemed to be a positively thrilling maritime adventure as she took her bath.
Carol heard the tale with half an ear, decided it still couldn’t hold a candle to Rindy’s previous forays into storytelling. She’d recapped the fight between father and son again for Therese, complete with full choreography, once she was no longer confined to the car. Then, realizing how much attention it got her the first two times, she gave a repeat performance. And another. And another.
Much like the several times they’d seen Angie in Peter Pan, no retelling was exactly the same. Carol had the core facts of it, she was sure, but the details changed. Grandma screaming after Grandpa got hit had become Grandma screaming loud enough that one of the windows almost broke. Harge’s punch to his father’s face went from something Carol could visualize fairly easily (and happily) to a Steve-level punch that left Grandpa’s head spinning, almost literally.
There was more blood each time too, which Carol tried not to dwell on. In any case, she’d seen Harge’s eye, and seriously doubted that it had, at any point, been in danger of falling out.
And now she cleared dishes with Therese while Rindy talked about one-eyed pirates during her bath.
“She’s going to flood the bathroom,” Therese said, placing a handful of forks into the drawer.
Carol shrugged without disagreeing. “Pent up energy. Apparently she’s not been allowed to make a single sound all week.” Carol rolled her eyes to show how seriously she took that claim.
“So, quiet as a Mouse, huh?”
Carol stopped what she was doing, holding a glass in midair and scrutinizing Therese. “Don’t even.”
“What? What did I say?”
Carol thrust the glass at her. “Don’t be smug. It’s bad enough she was so damn nice without you being smug. Nonsense, has me in a horrible mood.”
“Mmm. Maybe it did, for a full five minutes, before you realized the old man got hit.”
Carol couldn’t feign annoyance any better than Therese could feign innocence. She laughed. “Don’t say it like that, it sounds horrible.”
“Because it is horrible,” Therese replied, laughing too.
“You wouldn’t think that if you knew him. He is horrible.”
“I don’t doubt. And now he’s hurt, and it has you in a fabulous mood, so don’t pretend.”
“Fabulous is an overstatement,” Carol said, half-hearted. “You make me sound like the brute of the story, and I didn’t even get to punch him.”
“Which one, Harge or his father?”
“Either,” Carol replied. “This is why I go to Abby, you know. She understands.”
Which was true. Where Therese had been baffled and slightly exasperated, Abby was quick with an “Oh honey, I’m so sorry,” when Carol called to say that she might not be able to hate the new Mrs. Aird.
“I know,” Therese said, still very smug, dimples showing. “You’re so terribly misunderstood. Want to call Abby again after this, tell her I’m the real brute of the story?”
“Brute, brute, brute,” Carol repeated. Then she grabbed a dishtowel, swatted Therese’s behind with it. Drops of water went everywhere.
“Hey!” Therese shrieked, almost loud enough to be heard over Rindy as she laughed.
“Shush,” Carol admonished, tossing the towel aside and pulling Therese against her. They kissed while Therese was still giggling. The song on the radio changed and Carol rearranged her hands, guiding Therese into an impromptu dance.
“Yeah, you’re in a truly foul mood, I can tell.” Therese used her hip to close the silverware drawer, then fell into a more natural rhythm as they moved toward the middle of the kitchen where it was harder to bump into anything. “Hi,” Therese said, all white teeth an dimples, one hand in Carol’s, the other finding the back of her neck.
“Hi,” Carol repeated, holding Therese’s hip, drawing patterns there, over the material of her skirt. “Do you really think I’m awful?”
“I really do.” Therese kissed her again, mostly without laughing this time. “Has that happened before?” she asked, more seriously, but still calm in Carol’s arms. “Harge’s father hitting him?”
Therese was careful, Carol noticed, even with the music and Rindy splashing and yelling about mutinies, to keep her voice low. “Years and years ago,” Carol said, matching Therese’s tone, kissing her forehead. “Before Harge and I met, not enough that he mentioned it often. As far as I know, at least, he hadn’t done it since Harge was fifteen.”
“What happened at fifteen?”
Carol smiled wryly. “Harge says John realized that he was big enough to hit back. I guess he forgot.”
Therese hummed. “Are you okay?”
Surprised by the question, Carol followed the music, gave Therese a little twirl, their bare feet graceful over the tile. “Me? Why not?”
Therese settled again, coming closer this time, her cheek resting against Carol’s chest. “I don’t know. Because it’s complicated, and It would be okay if you weren’t all the way okay?”
Carol was certain that made no sense, but it did. She was, not for the first time, a little scared of Therese’s ability to hear the things she couldn’t say. Only a little. She kissed Therese’s hair, noticed how Therese stayed as she was. The angle meant that Therese couldn’t see Carol’s face, and vice-versa. Was that deliberate? For who’s benefit if it was?
“I suppose,” Carol said, her fingers tracing the line of Therese’s back, “I’m a little jealous.” She wouldn’t have admitted it, except Therese had gone days and days thinking she was jealous for the wrong reasons, and she couldn’t have that. “Not of him and the—Lilah,” said Carol catching herself a bit late. “But that he stood up for her in a way he never did me.”
“Well, his father did call her a Nazi,” Therese said lightly, squeezing Carol closer.
It wasn’t a defense or a dismissal, Carol knew, but permission. It was alright. They were alright. Carol could keep talking without jeopardizing that. “That he did.” She kissed Therese’s hair again, the best she could manage from this angle. “But he called me things too, they both did. And it was barely ever enough to make Harge take my side, let alone fight back like that.” Carol chuckled. “I am awful, aren’t I?”
“No.” Therese gave her another squeeze, the answer definitive. “Not at all.”
“I don’t wish I had him back,” Carol said, because she couldn’t have Therese thinking that for one more second. “I suppose I wish that when I did have him, he’d loved me enough to stand up for me that way.”
He’d probably wanted the same from her. Which didn’t make some of the things he’d done any less unforgivable. But that had always been the problem, one of them at least. They’d loved each other once, she still believed that. Just never in the right way, and never enough.
Therese pulled back enough to look at her. “It’s okay,” she said, a soft smile playing at her lips. “I understand that, I do.”
Carol let out a breath, brought her fingers to Therese’s jaw. Her thumbs traced the edge of that smile.
“And you should know,” Therese said, suddenly serious. “I would absolutely hit a sixty-year-old man for you.”
Carol choked on air, then burst out laughing. “Closer to seventy now,” Carol said between the kind of giggles she was much too old for, “but thank you, darling.”
They both shook, gripping each other tightly. When they fell back into something like a rhythm for their dance, all the tension had left Carol’s body, carried away by the laughter. “I could never dance with Harge like this,” Carol said, no longer scared to talk about him in this way, with Therese.
“No?” Therese’s cheeks were flushed, but her eyes on Carol’s were focused.
You didn’t just dance with Harge. Not just because, and not in the kitchen, in bare feet. Dancing was for best clothes, for perfect steps. Dancing was to be done in a roomful of people in the same fine clothes who’d learned the same steps. It was for showing all those people that their clothes didn’t look quite as fine, their steps weren’t as perfect. Even at their wedding, this was the case. Carol remembered dreading their first dance, knowing that his mother, his whole family were watching. Judging.
She didn’t tell Therese all this. Her desire to talk about Harge only went so far. “He was much too rigid,” she said.
“And what about me?” Therese asked, like she knew there was more to the statement.
They were interrupted briefly by an especially loud splash from down the hall. Therese asked if Rindy was all right. Rindy was a bit too quick to answer in the affirmative.
“She really might flood the bathroom,” Therese said.
Carol sighed. “She might. And you, my dear,” Carol brushed Therese’s jaw again, nuzzled there, “are so deliciously flexible. Which is how the bathroom got flooded last time, I think.”
“Hey, that was your fault, not mine.”
“Sure it was.”
Therese laughed, pressed a kiss to Carol’s mouth. “You want me to go get her?”
Carol sighed again. “No, but you should. If the bathroom’s going to flood, I want it to be worth it.”
“Is that an invitation?”
“We’ll talk about it on Sunday,” Carol said, reluctantly disentangling from Therese so she could finish up the dishes.
Harge would come for Rindy on Sunday night.
Therese helped Rindy find the pajamas she wanted. The bathroom was only a slight disaster. Therese had done worse to it herself the last time she interrupted Carol’s bath.
The pj’s were light and comfortable, with small polka dots. This somehow led to a discussion of Rindy’s teacher, who favored polka dot dresses, and giving out far too much math homework.
“We’ll figure it out tomorrow, okay?” Therese asked, tickling Rindy’s stomach a bit before helping to pull the pajama top over her head.
Rindy giggled and swatted Therese away. “I don’t like math.”
“I know, me neither. But that’s why we’ve got your Mommy to help us, right?”
Rindy nodded, flung herself backward onto her bed. It was very dramatic, and several stuffed animals were forcefully evicted from their home. “Mommy’s okay,” she declared, “but someone else would be better.”
“You mean like a tutor?” Therese asked, picking up the displaced toys before they could disappear under the bed.
Rindy sat up on her elbows, shook her head. “No, like a Southern grandma. We need one of those.”
“Do we?” Therese asked on a laugh. She had absolutely no idea what Rindy was talking about. “Why’s that?”
“They’re good at math,” Rindy said, the most obvious thing in the world.
“Oh?” Therese sat on the bed next to her. “Where did you get that idea?”
Therese frowned at the mention of Harge’s housekeeper. “Miss Ava was talking to you about Southern grandmas?” she asked, amused and bewildered.
“Yeah Because Daddy got mad and wouldn’t tell me, so I asked Miss Ava because sometimes she tells me things. She told me about the grandmas.”
The frown became something else. “You had to ask Miss Ava something because your daddy got mad?”
“Yup. Because Grandma called Sascha a bad word that I can’t say.” Rindy stopped, considered, rolled across the bed until her legs were in Therese’s lap. She drummed her feet against Therese’s thighs. “Grandma and Grandpa said a lot of words I can’t say.”
“Yeah? Did this happen the last time you visited them?” Therese wracked her brain. There were many, many retellings of that confrontation between the Airds, some of them more coherent than others.
“Yup. I can’t say it, but it starts with a B,” Rindy said, apparently excited to say it without saying it, have Therese guess. “But it’s not the real B-word, the one Mommy and Aunt Abby and Aunt Angie use.”
Therese didn’t know if she should laugh at that, so tried not to. “No?”
“Nope. I guess people say it about Lizzie sometimes, but they’re not supposed to.” Rindy shrugged.
Therese’s stomach sank with the realization of what Rindy probably meant. “Oh,” she said, trying to keep her voice normal. “And you heard that word about Sascha?”
“Yup, from Grandma. Daddy just said don’t say it, he didn’t want to talk about it. But Miss Ava told me a little bit.”
“Yup. But not that much more than Daddy.” Rindy sounded annoyed. “She said all it means is that Grandma does math faster than a Southern grandmother at a baptism. But she wouldn’t say what that meant,” Rindy rolled her eyes, “and we didn’t do any math at Jake’s baptism, did we?”
“No,” Therese said, catching one of Rindy’s feet when it landed a bit too hard. “No, we didn’t.”
“Anyway,” Rindy let out a long, frustrated breath. “She said Sascha’s my brother, and people are stupid about math, and I should love him and protect him and ignore what dumb people say, because that’s what big sisters do. But I already knew that part from Daddy, and if math is so dumb and people are dumb about it, then why do we have to spend so much time learning it? It’s dumb.”
Therese, more than a little bemused, could only muster a half-hearted explanation before saying she was going to get Carol. Carol still enjoyed brushing Rindy’s hair out, and Rindy never complained, even though Rindy was plenty old enough to do it herself now.
She found Carol in the hallway; mouth curved in an odd smile. “Spy,” Therese accused without heat.
“It’s not spying when it’s your own family. Peggy says.”
“Uh-huh. So, math and baptisms.”
“Everyone does math at baptisms, and first babies always come early.”
Therese frowned. “Rindy didn’t, you said, or Lizzie.”
“Lizzie is a bizarre child,” Carol said fondly. “Look at Jake. Jake was very premature.”
It took Therese an embarrassingly long time to realize that Carol was making a wedlock joke. “Babies and math, it’s worse than living with the nuns again.”
“Yeah,” Carol’s tone changed, almost imperceptibly. “Babies and math.”
“What?” Therese asked, because Carol’s expression had changed too.
“Nothing,” Carol said, distracted and lying. “Just, Harge said the rodent was due in late April.”
Therese let that one go, with some reluctance, knowing Carol was at least trying to do better. “And?”
“And, he shows up on the first of the month. Shows up fat.”
Therese sighed. “Stop calling the baby fat.”
“You haven’t seen him in person, he is,” Carol said. “A month early, you’d think he’d be smaller.”
“So? The dates are just guesses, right? They probably guessed the date wrong.”
Carol hummed, but it was a unfocused, slightly impatient sound.
“Carol,” Therese said, more firmly than she normally would. “Rindy.”
Carol blinked. “What?”
“Go brush Rindy’s hair.”
“Oh. Right. Thank you for getting her cleaned up, darling.” Carol pressed an absent kiss to Therese’s hair.
“I heard you, sweetheart.”
Carol went into Rindy’s room, leaving Therese nervous and wishing they’d just skipped Rindy’s homework this weekend, left it to Harge or that damn housekeeper.
“Did you really come all the way here just to dig up more dirt on your ex’s new wife?”
Carol glared. It was Sunday. She, Peggy and Jacob were in Peggy’s house. Therese had gone to church with Rindy, Steve and Angie. “Therese hasn’t been to services in awhile. She missed it.”
Which was probably not untrue. Therese and Rindy hadn’t gone since the Sunday before the snowstorm. Therese probably did miss it, despite her protests this morning.
“Darling, please. Don’t hide your nosiness behind Jesus. My wife and in-laws do it so much better.”
Carol scoffed, sipped from her coffee. They sat at Peggy’s kitchen table, with Jake asleep in his bassinet in the living room. “Will you please just tell me what that word is?” It wasn’t her main concern anymore, but apparently she’d have to work up to that.
“Mauschen,” Peggy said. “At least that’s what I gather from your terrible spelling.”
“It’s the language, not me. German spelling is more ridiculous than yours. What’s it mean?” She could’ve asked Rindy what it was Lilah called her just before they left, but she didn’t trust herself to hide her displeasure if the answer turned out terrible. And who was to say Rindy even had the right translation?
“Little mouse,” Peggy said, the corners of her mouth lifting.
Without Rindy there, Carol made no attempt to steel her expression. “Oh God. She’s recruited my daughter into her rodent brood.”
“It’s an affectionate term.” Peggy brought a cup of tea to her lips. “At least Rindy’s not calling her ‘mother,’ or the like.”
Fair point, and Carol acknowledged it. “What’s the word for mother, just in case?”
Peggy shook her head. “No. I will not aid you in mangling yet another language, even if it is German.”
Carol tried to scowl, couldn’t get there. “And the baby?”
“Do you really think I know who his father is?”
“I think you know a terrifying amount about a terrifying number of things.”
Peggy didn’t disagree. “I wasn’t there at time of conception,” was the dry response. “And unlike some people, I don’t record sexual escapades.” She paused. “Unless they involve myself or my spouses. Or unless I’m asked as a favor. In work cases, not unless there’s a necessity.”
Carol stared. “But was there someone, when she was in Texas?”
Peggy shrugged. “No one steady, that I’m aware of. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t someone. A lot of people have the occasional one-off shag.”
“I was at war for years before I met Steve. Before that, British prep school.”
Okay then. “So Harge might not be the father?”
“I wasn’t there at time of conception,” Peggy repeated. “I can’t say for sure that the boy isn’t a bastard.”
Carol sat back. “Son of a bitch,” she said, more to herself than Peggy.
“Didn’t you say she seemed quite pleasant?”
“You know what I mean.”
“Mmm.” Peggy sipped her tea again. “Does it matter?”
Carol could’ve laughed. “Of course it matters.”
The edge in Peggy’s voice was barely there, but it was enough to get Carol’s attention, make her heart speed. She barely caught the way Peggy’s eyes moved to Jake’s bassinet, lingered that second too long.
“Not, no, Peggy. Not for you, or the kids, or Angie.”
Peggy hummed, her face unreadable, and the coffee began to twist unpleasantly in Carol’s belly.
“Not for you,” she repeated. “Not…you aren’t him. Your family isn’t him.” Carol closed her eyes, struggled to form the words. “I spent so much of my life trying to fit into the narrow, perfect little box that he considered acceptable. Him, his parents, they…I’ve told you how they are. And then Therese, my aberrant behavior,” Carol’s voice cracked on the last two words, more anger than hurt. “It matters with him because he’s been throwing my imperfections back at me for years.” At least what he considered imperfections. “I never did the right things, I never fit the right mold. And now he and this woman…” Carol trailed off. “It matters because it’s him. Because he’s such a goddamn hypocrite.”
Peggy seemed to relax. She hummed again, and it was somehow less terrifying. “Well. Harge’s hypocrisy isn’t exactly news.”
“No, but to this extent?” Carol’s heart pounded a faster rhythm just thinking of it. She no longer needed the coffee to wake herself up.
Peggy watched her. “Indeed. And do you have plans for this speculation?”
Speculation, not information. “It’s hardly speculating. Any grade-schooler can do the math. If I’d been paying attention—”
“You would’ve told him what an arrogant, egotistical, hypocritical twat he was.”
Carol blinked. “Probably not in those exact terms, but yes.”
“And will you now?”
“Probably not in those exact terms.”
“I’m assuming you’re familiar with messengers and the hazards of their jobs?”
“If the boy isn’t his, and he doesn’t know, do you really want to be the one who gives him that information?”
Harge not knowing was absurd. With the math, with the housekeeper talking to Rindy about it, with his parents being the assholes they were. "My ex-husband may be an idiot in many ways, Peggy, but he’s not an idiot. There's no way he doesn't know that boy isn't his."
"You'd be surprised what love blinds you to. My cousin Johnathon is convinced that somewhere in our history we have Afro-Indian ancestry, because his baby boy came out dark as night." Peggy paused. “Johnathon also took a blow to the head a few years back, and thinks his wife can walk on water, so Johnathon Jr is a Carter."
Carol stared. “Johnathon Jr.” All she could do was repeat it.
“JJ, to the initiated. Darling little boy. Dimples like you wouldn't believe, and gorgeous brown eyes. His skin is dark as I've ever seen anyone's, and his hair is unmanageable as no one will recognize that it can't be done like they do their own hair as obviously he's a Carter and our great-great-great grandmother must have had an affair with an Afro-Indian gentleman back when great-great-great grandpa was a viceroy in the untamed British India."
"A what in the where?”
Peggy waved a hand. "Neither here nor there. Point being love blinds you to anything. Angie's cousin Val thought her man would stick around. He thought he could do math. Turns out he can't count to nine when twins are premature and bolted. I'd feel sorry for the poor man, but he joined the Navy to get away from his parental responsibilities and now there's a child named Paulie in Brooklyn who calls me Auntie."
“You’re making this up.”
“Come to Lizzie’s birthday in July, I’ll introduce you myself.”
Peggy was just as likely to hire a random child, relation or not, to confuse her. “I’ll take your word.”
“Excellent. You would be astounded at what a man is willing to believe about a child. Betty Dugan and I—Mcrae at the time—in a pinch, we once helped a woman convince her beau that some pregnancies only lasted five months. That his baby was quite strong and hardy and was quick to grow, but that nothing was really amiss.”
“Assume for a moment that Harge is not a complete simpleton. He knows, and you inform him that you have this information about the boy. To what end?”
“Why? What would it do?”
The question was almost nonsensical. “Peggy?”
“Assuming it isn’t his…it is. He’s given the boy his name, claimed him. One would think he cares for him, at least.”
Claim. That was Harge all over, his version of love. To love was to claim, to take possession. She’d doubted her theory in its earliest stages, because Harge was Harge. She couldn’t see him claiming something that wasn’t authentically his, someone he couldn’t take personal pride in, credit for. And then she’d thought about how much he’d wanted another child, how much he might like the idea of having another child to mold, one he wouldn’t’ have to share with her.
“He loves him,” Carol said. She’d seen Harge with Sascha. She knew how good he was at playing happy family, at pretend, but his affection for Rindy was never false. She saw the same thing in the way he treated Sascha, didn’t think he was a good enough actor to manufacture that. She believed he loved him, regardless of his other motivations.
“All right, he loves him. So why throw that in his face?”
Carol wondered what was in that tea Peggy was drinking. “I love Therese. I have loved her, all this time, and he’s never missed a chance to throw that in my face. He’s threatened me with it, he—”
“What will you do?” Peggy asked, her voice never rising. “Threaten him with this? I’m afraid that was a one-off card, and I played it. He’s married her, before the birth, even if it was a photo finish. If you and his parents and any grade-schooler can do the math, don’t you think they already have?”
“Don’t you think I have a right to be angry with him?” Carol retorted, not as calm as Peggy. “After all he’s done, don’t you think I deserve one moment of, of…?”
“Revenge?” Peggy offered. “Satisfaction? Yes, I do. I think, at least where you’re concerned, that he is an arrogant, egotistical, hypocritical twat. We’ve both seen a thousand like him, we’ll see a thousand more.”
“That doesn’t make it right.”
“No, it doesn’t. Not at all. He’s weaponized your child against you, and that backed you into a corner. Do you really want to do that to him?”
“It’s not his child,” Carol said. The words sounded hollow even to her. “Is this where you give me some grand speech about not stooping to his level?”
“God no. Steve’s the one for high ideals and grand speeches. I’m sure he’s more than earned whatever pain you’d inflict on him. But if you’re going to take a shot, make sure it’s damaging enough to matter. Otherwise all you do is poke the bear, and risk getting bitten. Is it worth it? The math may be suspect, but it’s not secret. You’ve no real leverage on him, you’d just be putting him on the defensive. From what I hear, he’s finally behaving himself.”
“Him treating me like a human being, treating Therese like one, shouldn’t depend on whether or not he’s in a cheerful mood.”
Carol’s teeth wanted to gnash together. “But it does.”
“He’s Rindy’s brother. Harge’s son or not, he’s Rindy’s brother, and Rindy is happy with the way things are right now. Do you want to take that away?”
“Don’t put that on me.”
“You’re putting it on yourself. You have the power now. Or think you do.”
“What would putting him on notice do, Carol? Would it change the situation? Would it make him 'behave' more than he is? Will it do anything other than anger a man who's playing nicely for once, and make him into that selfish asshole again?”
“He’s Harge, he’ll switch back soon enough.”
“Probably. Is it worth speeding that process along by days or weeks or months just for the possibility of a few seconds with the upper hand? Let me give you some advice a very smart woman once had to give me. If there isn't anything to be gained by breaking a happy family, beyond your own happiness, then there's no reason to do it. Steve, Steve’s all about truth, justice and all that. But sometimes it doesn't matter what the truth is, or what the truth isn't, sometimes you just have to smile, compliment the baby, and continue on with your life."
They sat in silence for awhile. “So, you’re telling me to shut up,” Carol said finally.
“I’m advising you to consider your options.”
“So you’re telling me to shut up.”
“I’m advising you to shut up.”
Carol was only halfway through her second cup of coffee, but felt herself crashing. "What woman had to give you that advice?"
"My grandmother. Maternal grandmother. I was younger, dumber, more prone to quick anger despite my career at the time."
"Who... what baby did you have to compliment?"
"Mmm." Peggy sipped her tea.
"My sister. I was furious and determined to prove she was conceived before my father's second marriage, when he was still married to my mother. I could’ve done it easily enough. I had dates, statements from the servants.”
Of course Peggy had those things. “But you didn’t use them?”
“My grandmother helped me realize that it didn't matter either way, proving it would only hurt my mother, and anger my father, alienate his new bride."
“How so? How did she help you?”
“She told me what I told you. She also said that the goddamn Germans were going to drop bombs on us any minute, and there was no point in me blowing things up first. We could die carrying on, screaming at each other, or we could be civil and have cake. In one scenario, we’d at least die full.”
"What did you do?" Carol asked, as if every word Peggy spoke so casually didn’t produce a thousand new questions.
"I visited their home, held my sister, complimented her, told them she looked like our brother, then went and got sloshed with Steve and the boys."
They were quiet again. The others would be back soon. “Well, fuck,” said Carol.
“Mmm.” Peggy stood from the table. “Shall I dump the coffee and prepare a mimosa?”
Not as strong as she’d like, but it would do. “Please,” said Carol, pushing the half-empty cup toward Peggy. She stood up too. “But I’ll make my own drink.”
We're getting toward the end here, folks. Couple more chapters after this.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Plans changed, as they tended to do with Harge. The original intent was to have him come and get Rindy on Sunday. But the baby was being fussy, and the nanny was off for the day, He called asking Carol to come to him instead. This meant a long drive, but also that she was in control of when Rindy would leave their company.
An easy trade-off, Carol thought, and she was only half an hour later than she should’ve been getting Rindy out the door.
Of course Carol had to come see the nursery of the newest Aird. Of course she couldn’t simply drop Rindy off and leave. Not when Sascha’s nursery was finally all done, and so pretty.
Rindy was the love of her life, and, occasionally, an alarming reflection of the people in it. She could be pushy and demanding, like Harge, dragging Carol along behind her to whatever it was she wanted, and therefore, what Carol obviously wanted. Yet sometimes her tactics were more in line with Therese’s. She wasn’t forceful or imposing because she knew she didn’t have to be. The right look or tone, and Carol would follow her anywhere, throw herself into anything, damn the sanity of it.
It was a clever combination of both strategies that had Carol in Harge’s house again, with his child. Again. Though it was hard to think of Sascha as Harge’s child in the same way she had a few days earlier.
Harge was there this time, Lilah wasn’t. The new Mrs. Aird was indulging in a bath while Sascha slept. In his admittedly well-appointed nursery, that Carol could (grudgingly) understand Rindy’s attachment to.
The bedroom was very... fluffy, it almost made Carol think of clouds. Plush white carpeting wall to wall that wouldn't last a moment beneath the feet of any active child who wasn't shadowed by a nanny and a housekeeper. She shuddered to think of what Lizzie would do to it. The walls were a light cream color as well, decorated with photos of circus animals up to various hijinks, complete with a roaring lion near the crib. Rindy was proud to have helped pick out the animals, quick to say that the lion was to protect Sacha, not eat him.
Again Carol thought of Lizzie, and how she would’ve made the opposite choice when it came to the lion’s intentions for her brother. Carol thought too of the walls surrounding Rindy as a baby. A soft yellow the decorator insisted was neutral and therefore preferable It’d forever reminded her of lemon meringue pie, leaving her starving every time she left the room, at least for the last weeks of her pregnancy.
She was relieved to know that Harge hadn’t painted the walls himself. He’d hired someone again, thank God. If Harge Aird ever got himself covered in paint (as Steve had when Lizzie was born, Angie still joked about the notebook of rejected mural ideas), it would more than likely push Carol over the edge. Nothing would make sense anymore; the world would become too unpredictable to survive in.
The crib was a light wood, fitted with pale blue sheets and blankets meticulously made up for the baby who'd sleep there eventually. Jake’s crib was iron, which Therese had asked about once. Angie, with no sign of deception, claimed practicality. That tiny Lizzie had once torn a bar off of her original wooden one, in a fit of newborn anger.
“And that sucker came from the Queen,” she’d added. “Think English would be permanently kicked out of the homeland if the other Lizzie ever found out.”
Steve, the picture of seriousness, added that iron kept the Fae away.
Like Rindy's crib, Sascha’s contained lace curtains that gathered to a point at the ceiling above it, able to drape around the baby's crib.
Carol hadn't ever found it useful outside of mosquito netting, a comment which never failed to make Harge laugh when Rindy was young and insistent that the material was climbable. With tiny, dagger like nails only Harge could cut. Carol swore those nails were the reason she still couldn’t stand having deep scratches on her body. Therese was, depending on the night, a different story, and thankfully never questioned Carol’s aversion.
There was no antique rocking chair in this nursery, no tiny bookcase filled with books far advanced for Sascha. Instead there was a plush looking armchair with a burp cloth on it, next to a side table that held only a lamp.
Carol had liked that old rocker, one of the few gifts from Harge’s mother she hadn’t lied about. A family heirloom that had been in Harge’s room, in his father’s. But not this room.
Rindy had trouble keeping her excitement down to a level that wouldn’t wake the baby. Harge told her to go check on Lilah, and Carol ignored the flicker of hurt that came with how eager Rindy was to comply. Things were helped by Rindy extracting a promise from Carol not to leave without saying goodbye. She stopped in the doorway, spent a long moment just looking at them and grinning before rushing off.
How badly had they screwed up, Carol wondered, when seeing her parents together and civil was such a treat, a rarity, that their seven-year-old thought to pause, to savor it?
Quite suddenly, she was alone with Harge, the both of them standing over a baby. Carol was surprised at how strong the memories were, how quickly they came back. She’d stood this way so many times, looking at Rindy. Soft and new and perfect, untouched by any of their mistakes up to then. She’d thought that this new, perfect being they created together might be enough to keep them that way. Even with Harge’s parents, even after what she’d done with Abby.
It was selfish, she realized now. Stupid and selfish to expect a baby to shoulder that much weight. Rindy had been so small, smaller than Carol even remembered until she looked at Sascha. He was bundled up again, on his belly. Curled into himself, the same way Rindy used to sleep. Carol remembered wondering if she’d slept that way in the womb, if she missed the old environment where things were less noisy and complicated.
It felt so familiar and so wrong to be here with Harge, like this. If he shared her unease though, he didn’t show it. His smile was small but proud, contented, and her being there did nothing to dim it.
“Was she good?” he asked in that same talk-whisper he used when it was Rindy in this crib.
“She always is,” Carol said, which wasn’t true at all. But it felt good, always, regardless of Rindy’s behavior. Having her there was always good.
Carol looked at the spot in the room where it seemed that old rocker should be. It’d felt good to hold Rindy in that thing, calming. No signs of the storms ahead. Its absence might be simple, down to the fact that Carol had used it first, but Carol doubted it, given what she knew.
There was no good reason to ask him about it. Carol did anyway.
“It was ugly,” he said, dismissive.
“It wasn’t. That’s why I was so shocked it belonged to your family.”
Harge laughed at that. “They decide who gets the honor of housing the damn thing, and considering their feelings on the situation…” He shrugged, his hands resting loose and comfortable atop Sascha’s crib. “It was ugly.”
So was Harge’s eye. The proof of his father’s feelings was still visible, swollen skin turning a variety of unpleasant colors. It drew Carol’s focus, but not as much as another color in the room. This was the first time she’d seen Sascha without a hat. His hair fully on display. He was, without question, the blondest child she’d ever seen. That hair was so new, but so light that it was almost white.
That boy was not an Aird.
What uncertainties she had fell away. Airds were not blonde. Every one she’d ever met had dark hair, like Harge’s, or hair that had grayed with age, like his father’s. Abby, eloquent as always, once stated that they all had shit-colored hair to go along with the content of their brains. Carol always looked quite a sight in the photos. Yet another way she stuck out like a sore thumb amongst what was meant to be family.
He was not an Aird, and if Harge didn’t see that, he was even more deluded about the baby than he’d been about Carol’s sexuality.
“He’s very blonde,” Carol said, because it felt wrong to not say so, to pretend.
“They come in all shapes, sizes, colors.”
“Colors,” said Carol, her mind drawn to JJ Carter and his dark skin, unmanageable hair. A picture in her mind so different from this baby in front of her. She saw Sascha, but she also Harge. The almost imperceptible tension in his neck and shoulders, the way his hands went from resting on the crib rail to fidgeting there. She wondered if Lilah noticed these things too, if they were reading from the same catalog of Harge Aird tells. “If he’d come out a different color, and with that hair, I’m not sure your parents would’ve survived it.”
Harge made a noise in the back of his throat. “Don’t get any ideas,” he said his tone still relaxed. “Just because he’s blonde, doesn’t mean Spangles can claim another Aird.”
Carol chuckled. So he could joke about it now, could he? That debacle that led to one of their most exhausting blowups in recent memory. “No, I guess he can’t.”
Steve couldn’t claim another Aird because there wasn’t one.
Carol watched a muscle in Harge’s jaw tic. The way it had so many times in the last three years, right before he sneered at her with such contempt, before he looked at Therese as though she were dirt on his newly cleaned shoes.
“Calm down, Carol. He’s blonde, he’s not Mowgli.”
There was an edge this time, mostly hidden, but so familiar to her. He was watching Sascha, but also her. She could feel it, the two of them doing that same subtle dance of the eyes. He would look at her at some function or other without fully looking at her, without making it obvious. Just enough for her to know she’d screwed up, wasn’t representing him well enough..
Mowgli. The Jungle Book. One of the stories that used to be on Rindy’s shelf when she was much too young to understand them. Gifts from his parents. Not here now. They wanted nothing to do with this boy, would give him nothing.
“Not Mowgli,” said Carol. “I’m just wondering if the stork didn’t have a mix-up.”
Rindy used to believe in the stork. Those were simple, beautiful days, before Lizzie told her things about mommies and daddies and wrestling. Rindy made a disgusted face while recounting what she’d learned. She looked like Harge when she did that, pulled that expression of shock and revulsion.
Harge had given Carol that look so many times. Which was not nearly as offensive as how often he’d subjected Therese to it. Therese, who’d done nothing to him, but was forever punished for Carol’s behavior.
He’d made their lives hell. He made Therese afraid to love Rindy, afraid to be around her own home on the nights he was there. He’d left Carol planning for hours before each of his visits. How far could he push her before she pushed back? She’d tried to think of every awful thing he could possibly say or do, the ones she would let slide and the ones she would have to rise to. So much of her time, time that should’ve been Therese’s, but went to Harge. He took from her even when he wasn’t there.
He didn’t deserve this, this easy happiness where he laughed and handed her his child that belonged to neither of them as though it was nothing, as though he hadn’t tried so damn hard to keep her unhappy. To hurt Therese. He didn’t deserve to just decide things were okay, to have everything on his terms, like always.
“He didn’t,” said Harge. “Stork doesn’t make mistakes, remember?”
What they’d told Rindy. A simple explanation, for simpler times. “I was thinking more Clark Kent than Mowgli. He’s much too pale for Mowgli.”
Rindy loved that show, her and Lizzie both. She had some of the comics. They sold them right next to the Captain America books that Steve laughed at.
Harge’s voice was careful, in a way most wouldn’t notice. “You calling my kid a space baby?”
Carol matched him. With humor, but something else too. It was easy. they were well practiced in these conversations, this code of hurt, anger, micro aggressions. Threats. “He doesn’t fit in with the rest of the Airds, that’s all. Looks like he might have a much more interesting…” What was the term, the one she couldn’t help but roll her eyes at? “Origin story. Seems he might have an interesting origin story.”
There was the smallest silence after that. Nothing but Sascha’s soft breathing, and them with a mountain of secrets and hurt and history between them. It’d been that way for so long. Harge had weaponized Carol’s loved ones against her, used them as knives in an attempt to wound her little by little. Over three years of death by a thousand cuts. How many were they up to now? How much blood, how much of this easy happiness he was so proud to display with Lilah, had he robbed her of?
Still gripping the rail, Harge turned his gaze away from the baby for the first time. He was looking at Carol fully now, seeing her fully. That’d become so rare as the years wore on, as their marriage wore them down.
“He’s enough of a Clark Kent, I’ll give you that,” said Harge, each word measured. “Almost too perfect. Interesting, what did you say, origin story? Interesting origin story, and parents who couldn’t care less about it, that love him no matter what.”
They stared at each other, the baby between them. Oblivious to all the pain and secrets that came before him, that would probably come after. He was, as Harge said, almost too perfect, Like Rindy.
“Well,” Carol said after a long moment. “Kent it is then. But watch him, please. Superman gets power from the sun. I’m not sure that sweet boy could survive five minutes in direct light.”
Harge studied her. Then he rolled his eyes. Then he smiled. “Thank you for your concern,” he drawled.
"I'm just saying, you might want to keep him out of the sun without at least two hats and a blanket. Or perhaps some of the thermal protection they put on TV meals."
"Do you actually eat those things? You know they're radioactive."
"Rindy enjoys them."
"Rindy enjoys frosted flakes."
“And which one of us got her hooked on those?”
Harge held up his hands. Surrendering.
In a few minutes, Carol was saying goodbye to Rindy. She missed seeing Lilah, but was assured by Rindy that the new Mrs. Aird had given her a warm greeting, and her best regards.
Harge walked her to her car held the door open, watched as she got settled in behind the wheel. “See you next week,” he said.
“See you. Oh, Harge?”
He looked at her.
“Sascha could never pass for a Rogers. He’s even more blonde than Steve.”
“Look who’s talking,” Harge replied, before slamming Carol’s door shut.
This is almost certainly the most Harge stuff I’ll ever write. The plot sometimes demands these things. Also, second to last chapter here. I’d consider skimming the last chapter of Bombshell and the first chapter of this fic before continuing. There’s some stuff established there that comes up again here, and I know it's been awhile. Connecting it all in my head is so much faster than actually writing it down and organizing it into coherent words you guys can (hopefully) understand. So not fair…
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Harge’s heart was beating too fast.
It was Sunday night, his entire family was in earshot, there was no reason for him to feel like this.
After Carol left, he went back upstairs, to Sascha. He was the picture of peace, his little chest moving steadily up and down. Sleep had been hard to attain, which was why Harge called Carol here in the first place instead of going to get Rindy.
Carol used to scold him for waking the baby. He’d get home late from work after a long day without Rindy, and he’d have to see her, hold her. And then, most times, Rindy would wake up and make her displeasure known.
He should know better by now. He picked Sascha up anyway, the triphammer of his heart slowing a little as he did it without waking the baby.
He brought Sascha to the armchair, sat with him. He had to be calm, or his stress would go to Sascha, and make the tricky maneuver he’d just pulled off pointless. He had to be calm, so he made himself do it.
Carol knew. They’d nearly whispered to each other the entire time she was in here, but Harge felt just as ragged as he had during any of their screaming matches, because Carol knew.
He’d assumed it would happen eventually. Rindy would say something, or she’d get it from Gerhard’s grapevine, or she’d have an idle moment, crunch the numbers herself one day.
He assumed it would happen. Didn’t mean he was ready for it, not ready enough. It was very hard to be ready for Carol, to anticipate Carol’s reactions. He knew that as well as he knew anything in this world.
He sat back in the chair that, blessedly, had nothing to do with his family. He held Sascha against his chest, enjoying the smell of him. Wisps of Sascha’s hair tickled Harge’s nose. Harge let his mind drift, which was actually less about letting anything happen and more about forcing it to. He breathed with Sascha, felt the impossibly soft hair that was, Carol was right about this too, every bit his mother’s.
Harge did not particularly like dating. He was out of practice, hadn’t done it since Carol. At this point, he couldn’t remember whether he’d ever liked it. He did remember a vague sense of relief when it was clear he’d be shipping out, that his courtship with Carol would be fast-tracked.
Now there was Lilah, and he couldn’t count on the Navy to get him out of the awkwardness of small talk. He could only hope, and he thought this was true, that he was getting better.
Harge took her out for Chinese food in the third or fourth week. Rindy loved the cuisine, despite initially swearing that it was “yucky,” and that she would never, ever touch it. She now had a favorite Chinese restaurant, not so far from the office. Harge did not take Lilah there.
His mind sometimes drew unpleasant comparisons to Carol and Abby, the secrecy, the sneaking around. He tried to remind himself that it wasn’t the same. Unlike Carol, he wasn’t betraying anyone. Anyway, she and Gerhard hadn’t snuck around in the traditional sense, had they? Carol brought Abby into their home, his home, while he was at work, on business trips. Even when they went out, they wouldn’t have had to worry about indiscretion. Both women, best friends, even if they were spotted by someone, that person wouldn’t think twice about it.
Harge himself had thought many, many times of that first short-lived furniture shop, the hours they had together in a controlled space, behind a locked door. He thought of Carol’s own business trips, always with Abby, driving here or there to examine some armoire or other. Sometimes they were gone whole weekends, leaving him alone in the big house with little else but the radio for company.
He tried not to think of all those trips, the hotel rooms. What they’d gotten up to after Carol made her obligatory check-in call before bed, assuring him that Abby’s driving hadn’t gotten them both killed.
Those thoughts were far less of a presence in his mind now. Especially since Lilah, their first drink together. The secrecy of it still irked him though, made him feel vaguely dirty. He wouldn’t push it, however. He understood Lilah’s reasoning, had thoughts and suspicions of his own on the subject. If he sometimes felt unreasonably guilty whenever they went somewhere away from prying eyes, well. He wanted to see her, above anything else. Small inconveniences could be tolerated.
He smiled at her from the other side of their table, enjoying the sound of her voice. He noticed, sometimes, the hint of a background she was so ashamed of. Traces of an accent she rarely let slip. When it did happen, she’d catch herself almost immediately, remaining stubbornly American for the rest of their time together.
He liked her voice either way.
She didn’t have much experience with Chinese food. She was more familiar with Mexican, which he had never touched. She’d vowed a few days ago to find a suitable Mexican place in this city, and drag him there. In the meantime, they were on his turf. He watched Lilah take in everything about their surroundings. The look in her eyes was similar but different to the way he’d seen her gaze move over freshly-typed documents before handing them over. Quick but thorough, missing nothing.
She had beautiful eyes, he thought, only a little disgusted with himself for being such a schoolboy.
The menu was beyond her, she claimed, so he offered to do the ordering. Carol used to like it when he did that. Lilah though, she only allowed a basic lesson on what was what, a few suggestions.
“Don’t you trust me?” he asked, teasing.
Lilah rolled those beautiful eyes at him. They sparkled. “It’s not your stomach, is it? When it comes to what goes in my belly, trust is hard-earned indeed, and you are most definitely not there yet.”
“Hard-earned, but not impossible?”
“That depends, I suppose, on your definition of impossible.”
He waved a hand, then used it to reach for hers across the table. “Not a fan of the word. I can be determined, when I want to be.”
“I noticed.” She tapped his fingers over hers, then pulled her hand back, sipping her drink.
Harge sensed no malice in the action. This wasn’t like Carol, all the times she’d rebuffed his touch as though he were some filthy stranger, not her husband. Lilah, he thought, simply wanted a drink, and moved to get it.
Maybe he had been a stranger to Carol, near the end. He’d certainly felt that way about her.
He didn’t want to be a stranger to Lilah. He wanted to know things about her. He sensed, or hoped, that she wanted to tell him, even if she was enjoying this game they were playing a little more than him.
Carol called him impatient, with everyone in the world besides Rindy. And his shrew of a mother, she’d said, because they were both angry and drunk that night. She was not wrong in that; he could at least admit it to himself. They may have been near-strangers by the end, but near wasn’t total.
He’d wasted too much time on Carol, on wanting things back the way they were. If that only made him more impatient now, more wary of time he couldn’t get back, he’d need to work on it. Lilah had made it quite clear in his office that he’d need to work on it.
“Why Chinese food?” she asked, pulling him from his thoughts.
“Most of the men, when I was in the Navy, they came back hating any sort of Asian food.”
“Most, but not you?”
“Didn’t say that.” He sipped his own drink. “But you have to move on, right? And the Chinese seem to have gotten their food pretty well sorted here.”
You had to move on. He had to move on. He hadn’t talked with a woman like this about his Naval service since Carol, not even casually. Doing so caused a lurch in his stomach, the kind that didn’t fit this place and it’s wonderful smells. He ignored it, at first, and then Lilah smiled at him, and the ache went away.
“Can you speak it?” Lilah asked.
“Chinese? I pretend sometimes, to impress Rindy, and usually the staff indulge me. And where I was stationed, a lot more Japs than Chinese.”
“Do you speak Japanese, then?”
“As far as you’re concerned, no.” She gave him a look, so he explained. “The only Asian words I know, I wouldn’t ever have reason to say to you,” he said, voice dry. “They’re not really fit for anywhere besides a smoking room, unless you’re wearing combat boots.”
He frowned. “Pardon?”
“Is it only suitable if you are the one in boots? What if I had them on?”
Harge tried to deal with that visual without making it blatantly obvious how hard he had to try to deal with that visual. He swallowed, hoped she couldn’t tell. “Seems an unlikely scenario.”
“Why? According to Rindy, her Aunt Peggy wore them quite well.”
He exhaled a laugh, sat back in his chair. “Do you enjoy this? Bringing that woman up just to annoy me?”
“I enjoy it tremendously, yes. It’s not as though I can do it at work without people noticing.”
“As long as you’re enjoying yourself.”
She touched his hand on the table, smiled.
This was the first time he’d taken her out for a proper meal. It was usually coffee, or a drink. When they went to the movies, one of the posters advertised a reshowing of all those cheap, fake war serials Rogers used to star in. Mercifully, Lilah hadn’t followed through on her threat to make him watch those.
Weeks in, and this was their first meal together. It went well, until the food showed up.
Lilah had ordered lo mein, declaring that noodles must be safe enough. He teased her for the tame choice, over his kung pao chicken. “I thought you’d go for something bolder,” he said.
“One thing at a time. I’m not sure you could handle me at my boldest.”
“And yet you’re here.”
“I said I wasn’t sure, not that I wasn’t willing to find out.”
She was three bites into her noodles when a waiter came by with dishes for another table. Egg foo yung, Harge recognized on one plate. He’d barely registered the strong scent of it before Lilah bolted without a word, only a series of harsh sounds and a hand over her mouth. In the brief look he got before she dashed around the corner and toward the restrooms, her fair skin had morphed closer to green.
Several people, staff and otherwise, looked up at the sudden retreat. Harge shifted in his chair, debated going after her, or asking one of the waitresses to check. Five minutes, he decided, glancing at his watch. He’d give her that long, or until someone offered to check on her themselves.
Carol hadn’t liked it if he crowded her when she was sick. She said that he hovered there, waiting for her to be finished, and it didn’t help. As with most things in their relationship, he eventually left her alone.
This turn of events was unfortunate, if not totally unexpected. The secretaries sometimes brought in treats to share with each other, and Harge noticed Lilah’s refusal to partake. He noticed the way she sometimes recoiled at the smell of fresh ink, before schooling her features to hide her discomfort.
Carol had nearly thrown up on him before they knew about Rindy, because he’d worn his favorite cologne, the one he’d worn for years. He tossed the bottle, nearly full, when they got the news.
Four and a half minutes, by his count, before Lilah returned. She’d gone from green to overly pale, her light skin closer to a ghost’s shade. He stood, pulled her chair out, a hand light on her back as he helped her sit down. He’d had the plates sent back while she was gone, wary of triggering another episode. He urged her to drink from her water glass, but kept his voice quiet.
“I’m sorry,” she said, between sips.
“Don’t be. Are you okay?”
There was a moment, just a moment, of something real in her expression before she schooled it, like usual. “Yes, of course. Doesn’t seem likely that I had any Chinese ancestry in another life, does it?”
Another life indeed. “We should talk,” Harge said, still quiet, but not losing her gaze. “When you’re feeling better.”
Her eyes went wide for longer than they should have, longer than she usually let them. “About how I’ve ruined our night?”
There was a tremor in her voice, under her try at a laugh. The accent was more prominent. Harge took her hand. “The night’s not ruined,” he said. “Nothing has to be ruined.”
Lilah stared at him with those keen eyes that missed nothing. Harge let her. When he put up a hand for the check, she didn’t argue.
Harge saw the inside of her apartment for the first time that night. Clean, lovingly decorated, about what he’d expect, knowing what she made. At the moment, Lilah’s coffee table was piled high with takeout containers. The remnants of bland, digestible food that made him long for the spiced chicken he hadn’t touched. A worthwhile sacrifice, since Lilah’s skin had returned to it’s more healthy shade of pale.
She sat on a loveseat. Harge occupied an armchair that was too small for him, and brought back memories of Rindy’s pretend tea parties. “Feeling better?”
“In a sense,” she replied, sighing with the answer. “’Morning sickness’ they call it. What lies.”
“That’s what my,” he caught himself, “that’s what Carol said too. How far along?”
She was watching him closely. “Far enough not to have it noticed. By anyone but you, I hope.”
“I don’t know about the other secretaries, but the other partners are ancient,” he said. “They barely remember what a baby looks like, let alone what a woman does when she’s having one. You should be fine.”
For now, at least. It wasn’t necessary to add what she already knew.
Lilah sighed again. “So, when did your ex stop throwing up?”
Harge tapped at his knee in the too-small chair. “Probably around the time Rindy came out?”
She closed her eyes. “Dear lord.”
“Everyone is different,” he said hurriedly. “That’s what I hear, at least. I’ve only experienced the one.”
Lilah opened her eyes, raised the brows. “You’ve only experienced. Well, Rindy’s a sweetheart, I’m glad you soldiered on and survived the ordeal.”
Harge laughed. Nervous habit had him reaching to smooth his hair, but that had his elbow hitting the chairback. “You will too,” he said. “I’m, you’ll be an amazing mother, I’m sure.”
“Are you?” Her voice was soft, but no longer teasing. “I’m not sure of that yet. And I’m definitely not sure you know me well enough to say that with any authority.”
“I’d like to. Know you well enough.”
She was looking at him like she did when he offered up a particularly bad excuse for why he couldn’t take a call with some idiot at work. His dodges, she said, were terrible. And then she would proceed to give a far better reason to whoever he was trying to ignore.
She was silent now, watching him with a new kind of scrutiny.
“My wife’s a lesbian,” Harge said into the silence.
Lilah blinked. “What?”
“Ex-wife,” he corrected. He hadn’t caught himself that time.
A clock ticked somewhere in the apartment, once, twice. “I repeat the question.”
“My ex-wife is a lesbian. She had an affair with her maid of honor, her best friend, a while before she…before Rindy. They used to run a shop together,” he added, “but it didn’t last. Then, while we were in the process of divorcing, she met another woman, a younger woman, while she was Christmas shopping for Rindy. They drove off together, literally. They have an apartment together now. And Carol has another shop with the first woman, the one she cheated with.”
That clock ticked. Again, again, again. “That was…unexpected.”
“For me as well.”
“Why tell me this?”
That was the question. Most in the office knew he was divorced, but not the gory details. Potentially, he’d just opened himself to a world of suffering. His father would blow a gasket if he knew.
That thought made the gamble a little less terrifying.
“I want to keep knowing you,” said Harge. “Hopefully, you want to keep knowing me.”
The clock. Five more seconds went by, loudly. At least it seemed loud to Harge.
“Well,” said Lilah, “now you’ve piqued my curiosity.”
“Regarding me, or my ex-wife?”
“Both. As well as the other lesbians.”
“I’m willing to discuss it. But can I possibly do it from over there?” he gestured to the empty half of the loveseat. “Or standing up, that’s fine too. But this chair isn’t.”
Lilah let out a real laugh for the first time since before the entrees arrived. “Come on, then. You can’t do much to me that hasn’t already been done.”
She touched her stomach in jest. The move still warmed him, brought back dusty, pleasant memories. Harge stood up, went to her.
The proposal was more accidental than planned, but not unplanned. Lilah’s pregnancy meant a ticking clock, but Harge had still intended to wait a bit longer. Until he had a proper speech, at least.
Lilah’s landlady derailed that. It was the landlady’s fault, Harge insisted, not his. Lilah’s rent on that shoebox of an apartment was running late, mostly because of all the money spent filling said shoebox with baby things. If Harge could’ve given her a raise no questions asked, he would have, but there were other partners involved, bureaucracy, and Lilah’s refusal to be one of those secretaries who openly bedded the boss.
The landlady grumbled, Lilah was short on cash, Harge happily wrote the wretched old woman a check. Which led to all sorts of questions about Lilah, the husband she claimed worked out of town, and Harge.
“I’ll pay you back,” she told him, flopping down onto his sofa, which would take up half her living room. “You damn fool.”
“You don’t need to pay me back.” Harge removed his jacket, draped it over a chair. “Not calling me names would also be nice.”
“They are accurate names.” She rolled her shoulders, rubbed at the back of her neck, smiled at him with a kind of indulgent exasperation. “You’ve ruined me with Mrs. Kimble. And the neighbors.”
“Good, we can meet here, then. Nearest neighbors are a couple miles away.”
“Don’t you think we meet here enough?”
It was late on a Friday night. Carol had Rindy, and the housekeeper went home hours ago. “I like you here,” Harge said, sitting down next to her. “Makes the place less empty.”
“So would a new lamp.”
“And, I’m not tripping over my own feet all the time, like at your place. Which that crone is overcharging for, by the way.”
Lilah didn’t argue when Harge scooted over, gestured for her to put her feet in his lap. She’d kicked off her shoes in the living room, removed the girdle in the bathroom, out of his sight. “You’ve blown my cover, Hargess Aird.”
“Don’t you think all the deliveries of baby things did that?” He rubbed her ankles, worked his way down.
“You hardly helped. Captain America says Rindy is his—”
“—and you come around waving your checkbook, claiming the Braun baby. It’ll be such fun, living in my building now. Though I will grant that you have better furniture.”
He smiled, watched her stretch out on the couch, shifting until she found a comfortable position. “You know, if I was really claiming the baby, he wouldn’t be a Braun.”
She’d closed her eyes as he massaged her feet, opened them now. “He?”
Harge shrugged. “It’s true. My mother and all her awful friends, they all say you can tell by the way she carries it.” It was a half-truth. They did say this, but he couldn’t remember what that even meant, how many ways there were to carry, or any of the specifics.
“Since when do you listen to your mother? What if it’s a girl?”
“The last Baby Girl Aird turned out pretty well.” That’s what Rindy had been, for a bit, until he and Carol could agree on a name.
“You’re being very presumptuous, don’t you think?”
He wasn’t thinking. Not with complete rationality. He knew this, yet the words kept coming. “Hopeful,” he said. “I’m being hopeful. And you already said you aren’t fond of your name.”
“I’m not fond of it because no one else is fond of it, not because it’s inherently terrible.”
The words were pointed. Harge raised his eyebrows. “Is Aird inherently terrible?”
“Aird,” Lilah repeated. The deliberate dullness of her voice didn’t match the sparkle in her eyes. “Braun just means brown. Or it did, before that horrible woman ruined it for all of us. There are plenty of lovely things that are brown. Chocolate, horses, pennies, that stuffed bear Rindy likes—”
Lilah kicked his thigh half-heartedly. “Then there’s Aird. Who wants to be named after desert air?”
‘I’ll have you know, those words are not spelled the same.”
“Close enough. You’d know that if you ever had to write your own name, instead of having me to do it.”
“What if I did want to write it down? On, on a marriage license, or a birth certificate?”
“Is this a proposal? Are you proposing that you do those things?”
Harge was very aware of their solitude in the house. He wished suddenly for Rindy, for her voice or her footsteps, or even the sight of her small body barreling in here. Anything to break the enormous tension he’d created.
“It’s a proposal of the idea of a proposal,” Harge said as the room stayed quiet and Lilah looked at him. “You wouldn’t have to pay that busybody anymore, and here you’d actually have space for the baby.”
“I have space there, too. My mother kept me in a dresser drawer for a bit, you know.”
“That sounds barbaric.”
“And you sound entitled. I look quite comfortable in the pictures.”
“But you outgrew the drawer. Kids tend to do that.”
Lilah tilted her head. “And what about Rindy?”
“The only time she ever resided in a drawer, she got in herself. It was a very short-lived housing arrangement.” He’d screamed at Gerhard when he found out Rindy was using the furniture shop’s merchandise as a playground. Abby only said that if she was going to lock an Aird up in a crate and ship them off to strangers, that it wouldn’t be Rindy.
“This wouldn’t be short-lived. Ideally.”
“It wouldn’t.” He wouldn’t lose another marriage. If he didn’t fear that possibility so much, he would’ve done this earlier. A better version of this.
“What about Rindy?”
“She loves you. And she’s been wanting a puppy for ages. This should make her almost as happy.”
“Are you certain?” Lilah asked, though she was fighting a smile.
“She loves you. I love you.” Harge held her gaze.
“I love you,” Lilah replied, very softly. “Your hands are shaking.”
They were. He hadn’t noticed. He’d stopped massaging Lilah’s feet, now simply held one of them between trembling fingers.
“How long have you thought about this?” Lilah asked.
It was cruel, asking him to form coherent words when he couldn’t even still his hands. He answered anyway, the best he could. “Since Christmas, maybe just before. When I saw you and Rindy dancing together.” It’d made him happy enough that even Gerhard coming into his home to take Rindy for the day hadn’t dampened his good mood. Much.
Lilah let out a sigh. “Hell. Work’s going to be a nightmare when it gets out. And lord, the Christmas party. That was awful enough already.”
Harge had to swallow twice before he could speak again. “Lilah?”
“Come here, you ridiculous man. I can’t reach you very well this way, can I?” She tapped the growing protrusion of her belly, usually well-hidden.
Harge went to her, kissed her again and again. He was back to being glad that, for now, Rindy wasn’t here.
Even with his Naval departure looming, Harge’s first wedding took months to plan. With a timer that was far more unforgiving than the US military (and without the involvement of his mother), the second time was very different.
They were in Atlantic City within weeks. Rindy was just as excited as either of the adults, and much less nervous. Harge was nervous, at least. He hoped Lilah wasn’t, but also, selfishly, that she was. A little.
The nerves were not helped when she sat him down on the bed of their hotel room right before he was about to leave.
“I thought I was banished,” he said, taking one of her hands, and using his other one to rest on her belly. Rindy was singing loudly as the shower ran behind a closed door. Once she was out, Lilah would help her get ready for the wedding. Rindy, supposedly, would help Lilah too, but that depended how loosely one defined terms.
“You are, the ladies must make themselves beautiful. But—”
“You’re already beautiful.”
Lilah rolled her eyes, touched his cheek. “We need to talk first.”
The nerves turned to a knot of dread. “Okay.” He kissed her hand. “What about?”
“Not tonight, you said, and I let it go. But it’s now or never, I think.”
He had no idea what she was talking about. Then when he did, he wished he didn’t. “You want to talk about Carol? Now?”
“Not want, no. But, now or never.”
“How about never?” She hadn’t brought it up again, and Harge let himself forget, made himself.
“Harge.” She rubbed his cheek, freshly shaven, with her thumb. “I need an answer.” She let her hand drop to her lap.
“To what?” His stomach rolled. He kept his hand on Lilah’s belly.
“Carol. If I told you I didn’t want her involved anymore—”
“I’d tell you you’re hardly the first.” He’d been listening to his parents go on and on about cutting Carol off for years now.
“And after that? What else would you tell me?”
“I wish you’d asked this question before you answered mine.”
Lilah ducked her eyes from his. “I should have, yes. But I was happy, very happy, with your question and my answer. I didn’t want to have to change it.”
Harge felt sick. “Would you change it?”
Lilah released the shakiest of breaths. She covered his hand on her belly with hers. “I wouldn’t want to.”
“What do you want me to say, Lilah?”
“If I tell you what I want you to say, then there’s no…” She shook her head. “Just say the truth, about Carol.”
“I did. There’d have to be a good reason.”
Harge let go of Lilah’s hand to run fingers through his own hair, doubtless ruining it in the process. “Yes, she complicates things,” Harge said, voice as measured as he could make it. “She complicates everything, in fact, and her choices…” He couldn’t begin to understand some of those, even now. “She…I worry she’ll hurt Rindy someday, with her choices. I worry every day that I’m doing the wrong thing here.”
“Of course I do. But it’s not… Rindy loves her mother.” That sweater of Carol’s was still lying in the next room somewhere, Rindy’s room. The sweater that she sometimes cuddled with at night in place of one of her many stuffed toys. “Carol is, is Carol, but she loves Rindy too. So yes, I would need a good reason.”
Lilah was silent a moment. “You still haven’t told me what ‘a good reason’ would be.”
He exhaled. “Having Carol in her life would need to be more harmful than not having her. I would need to be sure. If you’re looking for something more specific, I can’t give it to you, I’m sorry.”
Lilah closed her eyes, leaned into him as much as the baby would allow. “Oh, Gott sei Dank.”
Harge, who didn’t know nearly enough German, patted her back. “Excuse me?”
She pulled away enough to look at him. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, but I had to know.”
Lilah was blinking back tears and Harge was reaching new levels of confusion and alarm. “Know what?”
“A man who would keep a baby from one mother for selfish reasons would do the same to another. I had to know.”
Harge returned Lilah’s hug, continued to pet at her awkwardly. He’d forgotten how terrifying pregnancy could be. “I wouldn’t take your—our—child, Lilah. You’ll be an amazing mother; I’d never keep a child from that.”
“Thank God,” she repeated.
She kissed his cheek, wetting it with her tears in the process. The shower stopped, signaling Rindy’s imminent arrival. “I love you?” Harge said, uncertain. Not because he doubted the truth in it, he simply had no idea if this was the correct response.
“I love you too.”
“So…is everything okay?” he asked as Lilah continued to cry.
“Yes. No. No!” She grabbed hold of one of his hands, checking his watch. “Damn it, we’re terribly late. Go on, get out of here, now, leave, while we still have time.”
She kissed him, quick and light, and Harge felt dizzy. “You sure?” He missed Gerhard, in that moment. Abby was an absolute nightmare of a woman, but she’d borne the brunt of most of Carol’s pregnancy meltdowns with far more grace than he ever could.
“Yes, yes, get out,” said Lilah, laughing and crying as she gave Harge a light shove, urging him away from her. “Go. We’ll see you later. I’m so happy, I love you.”
“I’m happy too,” Harge said as Lilah continued to cry.
He was especially happy to leave.
Given the conversation he’d survived minutes earlier, the very last thing Harge wanted to do was to talk about Carol. He’d done it with Lilah because Lilah was about to be his wife, because it was necessary. He did not wish to do so again anytime soon, with anyone else.
And so, it made perfect sense that Steve goddamned Rogers was in the lobby of his hotel, occupying a sofa by the fireplace as if he was part of the décor, had every right to be there.
The bastard folded the newspaper he’d been reading, stood up. Had the audacity to give a little wave.
Harge sighed. He was starting to miss his mother screaming at the caterer, and all the other small miseries that came with his wedding to Carol.
He continued his walk toward the bar in long, silent strides. Rogers was at his side in seconds, matching him, the newspaper tucked under his arm. They entered the bar together. It was near-empty this time of day. Harge took the nearest stool. Rogers sat next to him, put the paper aside.
“Old fashioned,” Harge said the moment the bartender looked in their direction. “Put it on his tab.” He jerked his chin at Steve.
“Make it two. Thanks.” Steve smiled at the man, seemingly untroubled by Harge’s direction. “Harge.”
They didn’t speak again until the drinks came. Harge was quick to start in on his.
“So,” Harge said after the whiskey had him feeling slightly better, “was it my ex-wife who sent you here, or your…whatever you have?”
“I had other business in the area. Thought I’d stop in on my way, because yes, Rindy’s mother is concerned about her.”
“What other business would that be?”
“None of yours,” Steve replied, taking his own drink.
“So, you’re here to intimidate me.”
“God no. If intimidation was the point, Peggy would be here. Or Angie. Or Angie’s mother.”
Harge drank again. “Angie’s mother. Would this be the one who was supposed to be watching my daughter when she was lost and buried?”
Rogers gave him a look. “During the same accident my daughter was in? Yes, that would be her. Is that why you’re keeping Rindy from Carol?”
Rogers didn’t sound angry, mostly curious. That might’ve annoyed Harge more, he couldn’t decide. “I’m not keeping Rindy from Carol.”
“The calendar would say different.”
“I am not keeping my daughter from my ex, and if I were, it would be no concern of yours.”
“Your daughter is best friends with my daughter, who hasn’t seen her since they both endured something awful together. Who doesn’t understand why she hasn’t seen her, and is very heartbroken and very good at making everyone around her feel her misery. So, it is my concern.”
Harge took another drink. “I am not keeping her away from Carol.”
“How many weeks has it been?”
“Three. The first, I absolutely was keeping her home, with me. Because she was terrified and so was I. I almost lost my little girl because Carol left her with someone else, someone I don’t know.”
Rogers looked at Harge. “Rindy has a home with Carol, too. But I am sorry for what happened to her, Harge. I pulled her out of that snow and carried her back in my jacket, instead of taking my own daughter, so don’t think I’m not sorry. That everyone who was and wasn’t there that day isn’t sorry.”
Rogers stopped talking. It took nearly a minute before Harge could fill the silence. He lifted a finger. “Three weeks. Week one, I was pissed. Week two,” he raised another finger, “Rindy was sick. She had a cough and a fever, and I could barely get her out of bed for a bath. I wasn’t going to drive her out there so Carol could alleviate her guilt by taking care of her. Week three,” he raised a third finger, “we had this trip. A trip planned out weeks in advance”
“Which you told Carol nothing about.”
“I would have. I gave her to Carol during that business trip so that Carol wouldn’t throw a fit when I told her about this, that I was taking Rindy during one of her weekends.”
“Except you never told her about this.”
“I planned to. After I got home. I had to leave early, because of that mess in the snow. When I saw Carol again, I wasn’t interested in asking permission to go on vacation with my daughter. I would’ve told her, if she hadn’t screwed things up so badly.”
“You think I care whether or not you believe me?” Harge’s stomach turned, like it did whenever he thought of what almost happened. “You’re nothing to me, Rogers. Just the man who somehow, ‘accidentally’ claimed my daughter as his own., in front of the whole country.”
Harge finished his drink. Rogers signaled the bartender for a refill.
“That genuinely was an accident,” Rogers said after the bartender left, after he’d finished his own drink and refilled it. “I’m sorry for that, too.”
He looked it, Harge thought, and that was just frustrating as hell. “That’s it? You’re sorry?”
“I wanted to annoy you.”
Harge could’ve laughed, or punched him. It was hard to pick. “That’s it?”
“I didn’t want to be at that party. I wanted to be home with my family for the holiday. I was already in a shit mood. I saw Rindy there, I knew she wasn’t supposed to be there that day, that my friends would be upset because of it. I said a stupid thing, without thinking through the consequences, and I apologize.”
Harge stared at him. “So, America’s favorite soldier actually swears.”
Rogers scoffed in reply. “America’s favorite soldier was a soldier.”
Harge held the cool glass in his fingers. The burning anger over the snowstorm faded as quickly as it came. “Your ‘friends.’ You heard Carol say what a terrible person I am, decided to have a laugh at my expense.”
“In fairness, I would’ve taken any laugh at that lousy excuse for a party you dragged Rindy to. And the laugh wasn’t supposed to be shared with everyone else. But you’re right, I shouldn’t have taken Carol’s word on everything. I should’ve waited, confirmed the kind of man you are for myself.”
Harge heard a barb in there, but couldn’t bring himself to care. “If you were any sort of man, you’d give me a public apology,” he said, sipping the whiskey.
“I’m apologizing to you now, privately, and I promise it’s more sincere than half the shit I’m forced to say publicly, in stars and stripes. Carol wasn’t there that day, she had nothing to do with what I said. There’s no reason to hold that one against her.”
Harge laughed a little. “Twice in five minutes? Careful, don’t waste your quota for the year on me.”
Rogers sipped the drink, tapped the newspaper he’d set next to him on the bar. “If you want me to take out an ad in the Times, I will—”
“Not the Times, no.” Not when Carol’s shopgirl worked there.
“--but all it’ll do is bring everything up again. It’s been a year. Almost everyone’s forgotten, and those who haven’t wouldn’t be convinced by an apology. People have moved on. They're all interested in that nightmare down in Montgomery these days, and the Olympics. Acting like they care about events in a country that takes a week to get to if you're rich, a few weeks if you're not. The rest are fixated on that Presley clown.”
Harge made a face, drank. “Rindy likes him. It’s terrible.”
“So does Lizzie. And Angie. I’m not supposed to get headaches, and yet.”
They looked at each other, then away.
“They’ve moved on,” said Rogers. “You should too. You’re obviously capable of it.”
“I don’t see a ring, but—”
“How the hell do you know about that?” Harge asked, though he wasn’t all that surprised. Not
after the Carter woman brought up little strangers on the phone.
"I'm Captain America. You filed a marriage license. Most clerks aren’t that hard to bribe.”
“And you came here knowing what you were interfering with.”
“I came here to see about Rindy, not pipe up during the ‘does anyone object’ part.”
“You and Carter, you have no right to dig into my private life.”
“Yeah, I can see how that would get uncomfortable. A man you don’t know tracking your movements, checking up on the woman you choose to spend your time with, using that information against you? Can only imagine how horrible that must feel.”
Harge scowled. “The situations were entirely different.”
“True. When Carol left town without warning, she didn’t take Rindy with her. If she had, I’d guess you’d have called the police instead of some sleazeball PI.”
“She’s my daughter. I have custody. I can take her wherever I want, whenever I want. I don’t owe any explanations.”
“See, it’s when you say things like that. That’s when people get worried, and I get sent out here, where neither of us want me to be.”
“So sorry that crashing my wedding has inconvenienced you.” A thought hit him, made him lift his glass again. “Did you tell Carol?”
“I didn’t plan on telling her anything until after I knew what was going on here. If you’re not keeping Rindy away, does that mean you’re not moving her off to Texas?”
None of that last sentence made any sense, to Harge, and Rogers was looking as him like it should. “What?”
“You were looking at real estate in Texas. Because Ms. Braun’s family lives there?”
Harge’s first instinct was to tell him not to call her Ms. Braun, because Lilah hated that. But he didn’t want Rogers calling her Lilah either, because he had no right. In the midst of this internal struggle, Harge finally realized just what the hell Rogers was talking about. “Oh hell.”
Rogers looked at him, eyebrows raised.
Rogers kept staring.
“He’s a fucking mole, that’s all Texas ever was.”
“I don’t usually say this to anyone besides my four-year-old, but can you use your words, please?”
Harge sort of felt like breaking his whiskey glass over Rogers’s unbreakable head. It would only make a mess though. He might cut himself, making the ring exchange awkward. He’d have to change suits, which would mean going back upstairs, which Lilah definitely would not like. And Lilah might start crying again. She might not have stopped since he left. No, not worth it, especially when there was perfectly good whiskey left over. Harge drank some now.
“Bob Haversham. That’s where you heard about Texas, right?”
“Texas came from Abby.”
“And Gerhard got it from Bob Haversham. He works for me, he’s one of those idiots who find Gerhard charming. He spies for her. I couldn’t prove it, but now I know. I put out some nonsense about Texas to get back at the both of them, if they were listening, if they found out.”
Rogers stared, then sighed, then drank. “Well, they were listening, they found out, and Carol panicked because she thinks you’ve taken Rindy much farther than New Jersey. Good job.”
“That wasn’t supposed to come out now,” Harge said.
“Well, it did. You see why I’ve crashed your wedding?”
“I was just trying to annoy her,” Harge said pointedly. He wasn’t even sure if he meant Carol or Gerhard at this point.
“And now you see how easily that can backfire.”
“Go to hell, poster boy.”
“Been there. We called it Eastern Europe at the time.”
Harge's response to that was probably flatter in the vowels than it should have been, the words a little rusty and not nearly as musical as they’d been when shouted by Jap POWs, but given the way Rogers snorted it probably got his point across.
“You could’ve let Rindy talk to her for more than fifteen minutes in the last three weeks,” Rogers said. “You could’ve told her about this trip.”
“I was angry. I didn’t want an argument with her.”
“You prefer an argument with me?”
“Honestly, if it’s between her or you coming here on my wedding day, then yes.”
Rogers chuckled. “You’re going to have to tell her about this. Whether you believe it or not, you owe her that much.”
“I know,” Harge said. Maybe it was the whiskey and bitters, but all of his feelings toward Carol were dulled in that moment. The rage over the storm, the same rage that initially drove him to plant evidence of Texas (as if he’d ever live in that overheated hellhole, near Lilah’s unforgiving family) was mostly gone. He could call it up if he wanted, but thinking of that day brought more fear than anger. Fear of losing the only unequivocally perfect thing that came out of his relationship with Carol.
He didn’t want to be angry at Carol over what happened in the snow, or talk to this soldier frozen in ice. He just wanted to take the best thing that ever came from his marriage, and go start another one that wasn’t doomed to failure.
“Meaning that you’re going to tell her?” Rogers asked.
Harge sighed. He hadn’t let himself think that far ahead, it gave him a migraine.
“Because if you don’t tell her, I will.”
“Oh, you shooting your mouth off about my family? There’s a shocker.”
Rogers only sipped more of his drink.
“I will tell her when we’re back.”
“When, when you’re back?”
“Do you want an exact minute and second so we can synchronize watches?”
“Ideally. Yours is two minutes off, by the way.”
Harge lifted his wrist from where it’d been resting on the bar. “Slow, or fast?”
He definitely wouldn’t tell Lilah that. She was stressed enough about their timetable. “I will speak to Carol when I get back next week. Is that acceptable to you? Can I have my honeymoon first, before things blow up?”
“If they blow up, it’ll be because you set the fuses. Tell her, or I’ll have to.”
Rogers lifted his glass. “Enjoy your honeymoon.”
Harge clinked glasses with him. They drained their second drinks. “Thanks. Go away.”
“Tell Rindy I say hi?”
Rogers scoffed, got up from the stool. He pulled out a wallet, left bills on the mahogany of the bar. “Next time you take your kid out of state? Call her mother. It’ll be so much easier.”
“It barely qualifies as out of state.”
“You going to fire Haversham?”
“Now you know he’s a spy.”
"Haversham bats his eyes like one of your USO girls. He sashays if he's not concentrating, and knows all the gossip. Why do you think he and Gerhard get on so well?”
"Is that a yes?"
"No. Because if I fire him, he'll bat his eyes at clients and sashay and smile at them for my competition, and share my gossip with them. I don't need that in my life. Keep your friends close, and your gossip mongering employees closer."
“Fair enough,” Rogers replied, turning to leave.
“Finished with the paper?” Harge asked, because Rogers had left that on the bar too, with the cash.
“Yeah, that’s yours, actually. Thought you might like to show Rindy. Therese has some photos in there. Rindy hasn’t seen her in awhile, and I know she likes to keep up.”
“Not very subtle, are you?”
“I’m a poster boy. Not supposed to be subtle.”
“And another hamburger,” said Rindy, standing on tiptoes in front of the counter. “With everything except onions. Please.”
Harge smiled at the last second addition, happy he hadn’t needed to remind her. They were grabbing dinner to bring back to the room, since Lilah was tired more often than not lately. He got distracted by his own wedding ring as he pulled cash from his wallet, still not used to its presence.
“And another shake,” Rindy continued. “The big one, strawberry. Please.”
The diner employee smiled as Rindy finished giving Lilah’s order, something she’d insisted on doing herself. “That’s a lot of ice cream for such a little girl,” said the woman.
“She only wishes it was all for her,” said Harge. “My wife awaits.”
“Oh, I see.” The woman kept smiling at Rindy. “Well, you tell your Mommy that she has a very sweet little girl, who definitely deserves that ice cream.
Rindy frowned. “Lilah’s Daddy’s wife, not my Mommy.”
Harge swore to himself at the change in the woman’s expression. He was quick to hand over the money. “Thank you,” he said with polite finality.
She took the hint, handed him his change. “That will be ready in a few minutes, sir.”
“We’ll be here,” he said before thanking her again and steering Rindy away from the counter, towards the booths in back.
A pattern was emerging. A similar scene had played out at the gift shop earlier in the day. Harge had left it then, been able to keep Rindy from causing the kind of look they’d just received. He’d forgotten about it, mostly, because it was a small thing and he was happy.
He’d learned that small things liked to become larger, especially when he ignored the patterns. Ignoring the patterns had brought him the greatest unhappiness of his life.
“Rindy,” he said, sitting across from her in the booth as Rindy played with a ketchup bottle on the table. Diner food was hardly on the menu during his last honeymoon, but everything was different this time. He leaned in closer to her. “Does it bother you when people call Lilah your Mommy?”
“Yes,” Rindy said easily, her voice louder than his.
Harge fought the urge to look away, check the people around them.“But you like Lilah, right?”
“I love Lilah.” The reply came quick again. “But she’s not Mommy. Mommy’s Mommy, and Lilah’s Lilah.”
“I know, sunshine, I know that. But other people, they don’t.”
“So tell them,” Rindy said with a shrug. Then she jumped, giggled as she squeezed the ketchup too hard, almost got hit with a torrent of red.
Harge took the bottle from her gently, returned it to its place. “Mommy and Lilah both would yell at me if I brought you back a mess, wouldn’t they?”
Rindy grinned at the idea. “Yes.”
Resting his hands on the table, Harge fiddled with his wedding ring. “Rindy, honey. Some people, they don’t understand, about Lilah and Mommy and, all that.” He made a vague hand gesture, already frustrated with himself. “It’s complicated.”
Rindy looked at him. “No, it isn’t.”
He guessed it wouldn’t be, to her, wondered if she even remembered the time her parents sat her down to talk about divorce. “It isn’t to us, but it is for a lot of other people. And correcting them like you did before, sometimes it makes people feel bad. Makes them feel silly.”
“Sometimes it makes me feel silly when the teacher corrects us in school, but she does it anyway.”
“Because that’s her job. Making sure you have the right answers in things like math and spelling, that’s important.”
“Mommy’s important too.”
Harge ran a hand through his hair. “Yes, she is. But sometimes, sometimes you have to pick your battles.”
“What’s that? Like Aunt Peggy and Uncle Steve?”
Harge made a conscious effort not to roll his eyes. “Sort of. Mommy’s important, but those people who don’t understand, they aren’t, really. They’re people you won’t see again, and they’re not trying to be mean, they’re just confused.”
“But why can’t I just tell them?” Rindy repeated. “Un-confuse them? It’s not my fault they don’t understand.”
Harge almost laughed at her defiance. “No, it’s not, but nobody likes to feel silly, right? You don’t like it in school. We should only make others feel that way if we have to. If they’re just making an honest mistake, and they’re not all that important, not like Mommy or Lilah—”
A small part of Harge still railed against that, always. “Or Mama,” he said. This time he did glance around to make sure they weren’t being observed too closely. “If someone isn’t all that important in your life, and you’re only going to see them for a minute or two and probably never again…” He paused, had to regroup. “If they’re a stranger, and not being mean to you, sometimes it’s better to just be nice to them, and be on your way, because nobody likes feeling silly over an honest mistake.”
“So, nobody likes a smartass?”
He blinked at her, let out a heavy breath. “Peggy and Steve teach you that, too? Or was that Aunt Abby?”
“All of them. And Aunt Angie.”
Harge vowed to drink something stronger than a vanilla milkshake when they got back to the room. “Well, a broken clock still works twice a day.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means don’t say those words, and don’t be one either.”
“Don’t be a broken clock?”
He narrowed his eyes at her. “What you’re being right now. Okay?”
“Okay. Am I in trouble?”
She was preemptively giving him the look, wide eyes, wobbly lip. “No. We’re just talking.”
Her expression instantly transformed. “Okay,” she said happily. “Daddy?”
“Lilah can’t be Mommy or Mama, but am I still supposed to call her Lilah, if we’re a family now?”
“Do you want to call her that?”
Rindy shrugged. “I mean, it’s her name, but she’s not just Lilah anymore, is she?”
“No,” Harge said, fighting a grin. “No, she’s not.”
“She can’t be Mommy or Mama,” Rindy said definitively. “But maybe she shouldn’t just be Lilah, either?”
“Maybe not.” Harge let the smile form. “Why don’t we talk to Lilah when we get back? The three of us can probably figure something out. Deal?”
“Can I have pie to go with my milkshake?”
“Don’t wake him. He loves his after-dinner naps, as so do I.”
Quiet as Lilah’s voice was, it startled Harge. His eyes flew open, and he grumbled to himself over getting so lost in thought that he hadn’t heard her. “I won’t wake him,” he said, after having nearly jumped out of his skin and done just that.
Lilah shook her head, wore the knowing smile of someone who had learned too much. “You and Carol didn’t wake him either. Should I be impressed?”
“I don’t know why that should impress you, but if it does…”
Lilah crossed the room in a bathrobe and slippers. “According to prior history—and Rindy—that’s very impressive indeed.”
“She’s the family historian.” Lilah perched on the edge of the recliner, careful not to move it as she did.
“Doesn’t mean she’s not a tattler.”
Lilah hummed. "When she tattles on Carol, she’s providing valuable information. When she tattles on you—”
“Why did I think you were happy with me when you came in here?”
“Because I am. Ecstatic. The beautiful little tattletale upstairs and I would be elated to hear of an official cease fire.”
“Cease fire,” Harge repeated, very low under his breath. “It wasn’t that bad.”
“I have it on good authority that it often was.”
“Not today.” Lilah reached over, stroked his hair. “Should I be worried?”
She didn’t sound it, but Harge suddenly was. She didn’t need to know. It would only upset her, realizing the information Carol had. “Of course not. Why?”
Lilah’s hand drifted lower, to Harge’s temple. Her index finger rubbed circles there. “Your head gets wrinkly when you worry. Or lie. Or both. So does Rindy’s, poor girl.”
Harge huffed out a breath. “It’s not enough that I’m a divorcee, now I’ve got a wrinkly head, too?”
“You’ve always had a wrinkly head, so far as I can tell. Did Carol not tell you that?”
“Carol didn’t tell me a lot of things.”
Lilah squeezed his shoulder, an exaggerated show of sympathy. “But she knows, doesn’t she?”
Harge stared at her.
“Sweetheart, you may have a thing for blondes—”
“—but not dumb blondes. I am very smart,” she added factually, “and I hail from a very tiny town in Texas. Tell the girls who work the beauty parlor anything and they'll know it in Dallas by supper. New York isn’t all that different, there are just more people to spread the word.”
Harge let out a huff of a noise again. “We don’t need more people. Gerhard spreads everything, quicker than a Navy boy on shore leave.”
“Don’t be vulgar, Navy boy. I am smart and so is Carol. She’s had your child, and she was studying him. He’s too squishy and blond. Softer than desert air,” said Lilah, gently touching Sascha’s hair, the light wisps in question.
“He’s not squishy,” Harge said, half-hearted.
“He is, and if he’s lucky, he’ll get that wrinkly forehead by osmosis, and be just as bad a liar as his Daddy.”
Harge sighed. “All right, Carol knows.”
“You still say as if it’s some sort of revelation. Don’t worry so much. I like her.”
Harge gave Lilah a look. “I wish you wouldn’t.”
“And I wish you wouldn’t come in here at all hours waking the baby, but here we both are.”
With what he could muster of a scowl, Harge stood himself up. He went to Sascha’s crib and, every move measured, laid the baby back down. He covered Sascha with a blanket, lightly, then walked back to Lilah.
“I never wake him,” he said, proud of himself.
There was a small noise from the corner of the room, then a piercing wail.
Lilah sighed, then smirked. “You have fun, I’m going to make sure Rindy’s school things are organized.
Harge closed his eyes, shoulders sagging. As Lilah passed him on her way out, he felt her finger poke against his forehead.
So here we are at the end, folks. This one. This one, man…I have been anticipating and dreading it for longer than most of you would believe. So much Harge stuff, guys, so much. It means a lot to me that you stuck with it, and, more than that, some of you actually said you enjoyed it. Which I was genuinely concerned about.
So this thing came about because of my enabler who shall remain nameless in order to protect the guilty. They know who they are, and they know of their culpability in loosing this entire monstrosity of a series upon the world. They are also responsible for the idea of Lilah and much of her characterization/arc. So those of you who came to like her/are relieved she’s not a child-stealing Satan worshipper? Send kudos into the universe to them, my enabler. They know who they are and what they’ve done, damn them.
Full disclosure, I’m not going to kill Harge anytime soon. Or put him into an irreversible coma, or send him to prison, or anything of the like. Because he’s annoying, but he’s also Rindy’s father, she loves him, I can’t traumatize Rindy that way. As opposed to burying her in a snowdrift for several hours, which is fine. I personally find it more difficult/interesting/true to life that Carol and Therese are forced to deal with the guy, no matter how much of a tool he is. Adults having to be adults and figure out how to co-parent is sometimes more terrifying than death, comas, prison, etc. And because I don’t plan on killing hm off in the near future, he needed to be more than just the angry, blustering guy who makes trouble for Carol. Which isn’t to say that he won’t ever be that guy again but, he needed more depth if he was going to stick around. If he’s going to be a character, he needs to actually be a character Hopefully, he’s a bit more of a fleshed-out humanoid than he was before I wrote all these damn Harge scenes. If he is, I’ll call that a win.
Anyway, please, please, please, comment if you can. To those of you who already have and continue to, you are fabulous. The next installment…will there ever not be a next installment? Will I ever run out of things to do in this thing that absolutely no one asked for? There will be less Harge, more Steve, Peggy, and Angie, and more time being covered.
Thank you, thank you, thank you for reading, hope to see everyone next time.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
What had she done, Therese wondered, to deserve this?
She’d stolen some dime-store candy when she was around Rindy’s age, but her mother found the wrappers, punished her soundly. In a similar vein, when her mother was long gone, Therese had once let Eleanor Krakowski get blamed for an infraction of hers during her time at school. Ellie’s beating was severe, but she’d spent the next six months tormenting Therese in return, and Therese hadn’t put up much fight.
She had, by most standards, committed an unforgivable sin, and continued to do so, though Angie insisted that the Bible didn’t actually say anything about being queer.
Adultery, that was an unavoidable black mark, even if Carol’s divorce was ongoing at the time. But it was now common thought that Therese’s lover was her aunt, and that the girl who called her Mama was her cousin. Surely, she had paid for that one by now.
It seemed she hadn’t, because here she was, sharing an otherwise empty table with Harge Aird.
The restaurant bustled around them. Harge tapped his fingers against the table. “Carol still late all the time?”
It was just barely more of a question than statement, Therese thought. “She got held up at work. She’ll be here soon.” Not that he had much room for complaint, with how often he’d been late bringing Rindy over, early taking her back.
Harge nodded. His eyes kept darting, wouldn’t stay on hers for long. “Furniture thing?”
“Yes. A furniture thing.”
Did he think Carol had traded in her shop to go aid the scientists in their space race? The only solace Therese could take lay in the fact that, unless she was very, very mistaken, Harge didn’t want to be here either.
It started when Rindy won a penmanship award. From there, in some horribly misguided attempt to make up for the Easter meal Therese and Carol had very much enjoyed missing, Lilah suggested a joint celebration to Harge. Who was, it seemed, duty-bound to suggest it to Carol. Who told Therese that they really must go, because the newlyweds had once again shown the courtesy of inviting them both, not just Carol. Carol had to go because Harge and Lilah had already put the idea in Rindy’s head, now she was expecting them both, and it would be rude for Therese to beg off.
When Therese called her bluff, pointed out that Carol couldn’t care less about being rude to Harge, Carol caved. The last dinner with Harge was a nightmare, she admitted, and now he’d have someone else on his side of the table. It would be cruel to send Carol into that alone, especially when this was a substitute for that cancelled brunch, which Therese had already committed to attending.
She could not be alone with Harge again, Carol stated, and Lilah and Rindy didn’t count.
Therese sighed and gave in, made it clear that she couldn’t be alone with Harge either. Or Lilah, who she didn’t know at all.
And here she was, alone. With Harge.
A world-shaking furniture emergency had indeed come up. Something about very picky buyers with very deep pockets, and Carol was so, so sorry darling, she’d be there the moment she could.
Therese had reached the restaurant alone, seen Harge through the window, also alone. She’d had more than half a mind to dash around the corner, hide outside until Carol showed up so they could both suffer equally. And then Harge looked through the window Therese was looking at him through. Their eyes connected.
Therese had still considered running around the corner, for several more seconds, but ultimately decided against it.
He stood when she arrived, pulled out her chair. It was hard telling which of them was more uncomfortable with the action. He was not actually alone, he told her. Lilah had taken Rindy and Sascha to the restroom. Lilah was generally in charge of “things like that.”
Therese debated retreating there herself. But she had yet to meet Lilah, and according to Carol, the woman wasn’t shy about handing over her baby. The only baby Therese had any sizable experience with was Jake, whom she suspected was more durable than most.
Harge was the devil she knew. Also, it wouldn’t do to drop his child on a bathroom floor.
So, Therese sat with him now, musing over every terrible life choice that had led her here.
A server arrived, with menus. Harge grabbed his up, immediately hiding behind it. Which had to be a welcome change from looking in the direction of the restrooms every ten seconds.
“Can I offer some wine for the table?” the waiter asked.
“Yes,” said Harge.
“Please,” said Therese at the same time.
Harge lowered his menu just enough to raise his eyebrows at her over the top of it.
“You know this place better than me. Whatever you think.”
Harge liked being deferred to, Carol said, especially about food and drink. Hopefully this would improve his mood.
Also, Therese would take anything alcoholic at this point, and thought the same would be true for Carol. If it wasn’t, well, sometimes lateness came with penalties.
Harge ordered and the waiter left. He went back to hiding behind his menu, and Therese followed suit.
Six items to choose from. Six. It didn’t take long to read, then reread, then memorize six items. What the hell were Harge and Lilah thinking when they chose this restaurant?
Therese scoured the menu with the same thoroughness she used when Dannie sometimes snagged her away from her own job so she could search his copy for typos. There were none.
“You’re old enough to drink?” Harge asked after over a minute of silence.
Therese couldn’t help it, she had to look at him. She was almost sure he was joking, or attempting it. Still, who was to say with Harge? “I’m twenty-two.”
Harge lowered his menu, looked genuinely surprised. “I thought you were nineteen.”
If he’d thought that, it meant he was joking about her legal status. Small comfort. “I was nineteen when Carol and I met,” Therese explained, trying not to speak slower than normal. “Now I’m twenty-two.”
They were quiet.
“I’ll be twenty-three in September,” Therese offered, for no fathomable reason.
“Oh.” Harge flipped his menu to study the empty side of it. “Rindy’s birthday is in August.”
They were quiet again, until Harge shifted in his chair, his expression showing something like relief. He was facing the direction of the restrooms, she the door, so Therese heard Rindy before seeing her, heard eager feet rushing forward. Therese barely had time to turn before Rindy was hugging her.
“You’re here!” Rindy said, probably too loudly.
“I am!” Therese’s returned enthusiasm wasn’t false, other dinner companions not withstanding. She hugged Rindy back, kissed her cheek. “Hi, sweetheart. I’m so proud of you,” Therese said, talking about the penmanship award.
Rindy grinned. “Mouse helped me. Cursive’s hard, but she had to learn it in English and German, so she’s got the best handwriting. Isn’t that great?”
“It is. She did a great job teaching you.” Therese pulled Rindy in for another squeeze, spoke close to her ear. “Mommy’s on her way. She’s helping Abby with something, but she can’t wait to see you.”
“Okay.” Rindy broke the hug, sat down.
Therese was glad Carol hadn’t heard the casual response. She might misinterpret it as lack of interest in Carol’s whereabouts. Therese thought it simply meant that Rindy knew Carol would come for her, and wasn’t worried. And that she’d heard enough people throughout her entire life complain about Carol being late, Therese among them. Carol always arrived, if fashionably tardy. Hopefully Rindy knew that.
“Mouse’ll be here soon too,” said Rindy. “She’s fixing Sascha. He’s gross.”
“He’s your brother,” Harge said.
“Yeah, but he’s gross too sometimes,” Rindy said.
The waiter arrived with the wine. He poured two glasses partway, promised to come back with juice when Rindy asked for it.
“Such a sweet girl,” he said as Rindy scooted her chair closer to Therese’s. “And you look just like your mother. You and your wife must be so proud.”
Harge, who hadn’t wasted any time starting in on his wine, choked on it.
“Oh,” Therese said as Harge coughed, “oh, I’m not—”
“Thank you,” Rindy said with an absolutely charming smile, squeezing Therese’s hand under the table. She leaned in for a stage whisper after the waiter left. “Sometimes people get confused, but we’re never going to see him again, so it’s rude if we say something.” She looked at Harge. “Right, Daddy?”
Harge, coughing into one hand, raised the other in what Therese guessed was agreement.
Therese looked at him.
“Don’t ask. Please.” Picking up the bottle, he poured into both glasses until they were much closer to full, starting with Therese’s.
That was something, at least.
A few sips in, Therese saw Carol enter the restaurant. In her haste to raise her hand, get Carol’s attention, Therese almost hit Rindy with an elbow, which Rindy laughed at.
“Oh thank God,” Harge said under his breath.
For a bizarre moment, Therese thought he was verbalizing her thoughts about Carol. Then she realized he was looking in the other direction, at Lilah and Sascha. Lilah had the baby held securely against her chest. There were no overt signs of whatever horrible catastrophe she’d tended to in the bathroom for so long.
With Lilah and Carol approaching from opposite directions, Harge stood, edging away from the table as Carol reached the table. Carol’s eyes landed on the wineglasses, nearly filled to capacity. “Is it going that well already?”
“What did you expect?” Harge asked, a mutter without any real heat as he stepped around Carol to help Lilah.
Carol rested a hand on the back of Therese’s char. On the back of her neck, very briefly. “I’m so sorry.”
Therese pasted on a smile, spoke quietly enough that Rindy couldn’t hear. “I hate you.”
“Hate Abby, she’s the one who scheduled the meeting.”
“I’ll hate both of you, thanks.” She stood from her chair, but didn’t move.
“Okay,” Carol said. She mouthed the words ‘I love you,’ just before Rindy pulled her into a hug.
“Hi,” Rindy said, all smiles.
“Hello, my darling. I’m so sorry I’m late.”
“It’s okay,” said Rindy as Carol kissed her cheek. She pulled Carol down for another one of her whispers that wasn’t a whisper. “You can’t be Mommy today, because Daddy is married to Mama, and it’s rude if you’re Mommy.”
The look on Carol’s face was almost worth being left in the lurch with Harge, Therese decided.
“Don’t ask,” said Harge. He had returned with Sascha, carefully setting him in a tiny basket tucked near the table.
“I’m afraid to,” said Carol.
Lilah joined them, and there was a flurry of greetings. She clasped Carol’s hand, offered a warm hello. Therese got a slightly shorter handshake. Lovely to meet her, Lilah said, Rindy talked about her often. Harge helped Lilah into her chair, pushed it in. Carol was quick to get herself settled which saved Carol and Harge both the ordeal of doing the same for her. Rindy was grinning as though her August birthday had come early, and looking at them expectantly.
This resulted in Harge coming over to their side of the table to kiss Carol’s cheek, or mimic it, because there was no skin to skin contact. It reminded Therese of those quick, two cheek kisses Abby sometimes greeted people with at parties, except Abby’s gestures didn’t typically involve barely-concealed horror from both parties.
It seemed to make Rindy happy though, and when Harge glanced back at his wife as if to check that he wasn’t in trouble, Lilah wasn’t concealing her amusement.
The four adults settled on opposite sides of the table. Rindy was somewhat in the middle, between them. Up close, Lilah’s resemblance to Carol was both more and less striking than any photos had shown. Her face was a little rounder than Carol’s, they weren’t the exact same shade of blonde. Lilah’s nails were painted pink, not red. There was still enough similarity that Therese glanced away when Lilah touched Harge’s hand, scooted her chair closer to his. She looked at Carol, next to her, reminded herself that Carol was next to her.
Carol, who’d picked up the wine bottle first and her menu second, met Therese’s gaze, looked perplexed by it.
Carol didn’t see the resemblance. She still didn’t see it. Therese had no idea how that was possible, none at all, but these were strange times. She sipped from her wineglass until Rindy tugged on her arm, asked what she thought of the baby.
The tiny being at the center of so much controversy was resting comfortably in his little basket, utterly unaware of what a bizarre gathering he was at the center of. All this fuss over him, and he really was just another baby. And yes, Carol was right, a slightly pudgy one.
Panicking at Rindy’s question, and desperate to say anything that didn’t involve the word “fat,” Therese blurted out the next thing that came to mind. “He’s very blond.”
Harge groaned. Carol chuckled. Lilah laughed, a full sound that was almost musical.
“That he is,” said Lilah. She picked up her menu, smiled over the top of it at Carol and Therese. “So. Where shall we start?”