“Shhh,” he whispers. Even that sounds loud in the early morning quiet. “You’re going to wake her.”
“But I need help,” she whispers back, a whine creeping into her voice.
“Okay, hold on.” Burt waits until she stops wriggling in her perch on his shoulders. When he feels her small hands fisting in his hair for balance, he reaches up to knot the string around the branch.
“Good?” He takes a step back once he’s finished so they can see all the fruit that’s hanging lopsidedly from the tree. They’d gone to the farmer’s market yesterday, just the two of them on a top secret mission, and he’d given her free reign, holding the basket while she picked out all the fruits by herself. She’d proudly held up every single one for his approval before dropping them in; Burt had had to swap out more than a couple bruised apples when she wasn’t looking.
Now it’s all hung up and there’s too much tape -- more tape than fruit, probably, but the peaches kept slipping and though Burt was prepared to tie strings onto the stems of each pear, his daughter doesn’t have that kind of patience. It was easier to tape the string on and hope for the best. It looks like an art installation, the kind people would pay obscene amounts of money to see.
“Looks great,” he says, angling his head so he can look up at her, see the openmouthed look of awe and pride on her face and the way she nods at him as she stares at the tree.
In the distance a door slams. The grin falls right off her face.
“Hide!” she says, her voice high as she tugs sharply at his hair. There’s not enough time, though, and all Burt manages to do is duck behind the tree, turning sideways like that will help hide them.
He knows Verona’s expecting it -- birthday traditions don’t carry that much surprise after the first few years -- but she wasn’t expecting something of this magnitude. He can see the second Verona notices, the way her steps falter just a little bit, and he feels a burst of pride that he’s still able to surprise her after all these years.
She walks closer and he can see her pressing her lips together like she’s trying not to laugh.
Maybe comparing it an art installation is giving it too much credit, Burt thinks. Maybe it looks more like a five year old’s art project.
“Happy birthday surprise!” their daughter yells, and just like that they’re done with the hiding.
“Happy birthday,” Burt echoes, stepping out from behind the tree. A mango falls to the ground, leaving behind a shell of tape and string.
Verona laughs for real then, making her way over to them. She goes up on her toes to kiss their daughter’s cheek.
“Did you do all this?” she asks, pointing to the tree before rising up on her toes to kiss their daughter’s cheek.
She starts talking, her hands waving, and Burt lets it wash over him. He holds her ankles to keep her steady and is amazed at how the way his whole hand can wrap around it. He remembers when she was just a baby, barely bigger than a football, and how she’d screamed and screamed, louder than anyone that size had any right to.
“She gets that from you,” Verona had said, her chin digging into him as she leaned over his shoulder. “She’s going to keep going until she wins everyone over.”
Burt had felt like he was going to split open with pride, even at that stupid thing. Even though he hadn’t gotten more than two consecutive hours of sleep in three days because of it.
He’d been sure that feeling would go away with time, but it hasn’t. It’s only getting stronger, like some emotional mutant.
Verona rests her palm on his cheek, thumb sliding along the curve of his cheek, bringing him back to the present, forever his anchor.
“Happy birthday,” he says again.
“Thank you.” She kisses him softly. His daughter’s idly kicks her heel against his chest. Somewhere in the distance birds are chirping. Something else falls off the tree, lands on the ground with a small thud. Verona ducks her head trying to stifle her laughter, and suddenly Burt feels too big for his skin, like everything inside him is clamoring to get out.
“Marry me,” he says, his voice hoarse. He hasn’t asked in years. He means it just as much as the first time.
There’s a pause that feels like eternity, and then Verona laughs, loud and bright. Lines crinkle up at the corners of her eyes when she smiles at him, squinting against the glare of the rising sun. She reaches out to brush the hair off his forehead and is still grinning when she says, “Not a chance.”
Burt’s laughing when she kisses him. He can feel the tension draining from his body.
“Don’t touch me, I smell like a train,” Verona says before he even has a chance to rest his hand on her belly. He laughs has he pulls his hand back.
“Like a freight train? Do you smell like coal?” He makes a face and leans over the console, trying to get closer to her while she shifts away from him, laughing.
Burt goes back to driving, absently humming along with the radio.
Sixty-four miles to Wisconsin.
“Where did that come from?” Burt asks, nodding at the apple he’s pretty sure Verona pulled out of thin air. They haven’t stopped anywhere since the train dropped them off in Chicago.
Verona points to her bag in the backseat.
“Have you been carrying them around this whole time?” Burt widens his eyes. “Did I knock up Johnny Appleseed?”
Verona bites off a piece and spits it at him.
“Charming,” he says, wiping it off his arm and flicking it back at her. A rush of cool air hits him when she rolls down her window to flick it outside. “So they just appear in your bag? Like a really nutritious magic trick?”
Verona rolls her eyes. “I bought them while you were getting the car.”
Burt nods. The line had been fairly slow-moving; all he had focused on was the way the ground felt like it was moving beneath him, a side effect of the long train line. He’d assumed Verona was just sitting somewhere, waiting, feeling like she was going somewhere even though she was standing still.
“Did you buy only apples?” He’s pretty hungry. They’d been disoriented from the train ride, still groggy and confused, trying to figure out how to get from the station in Chicago to Madison. Grabbing breakfast before getting back on the road hadn’t even crossed his mind.
It takes a minute for her to turn in her seat enough that she can actually reach her bag. She digs around until she finds whatever she’s looking for and tosses it to him.
“Thank you, God,” he says, tearing the wrapper off. The car swerves in its lane. Verona shakes her head as she reaches over to steady the wheel while he chews. He touches her wrist. “I have honestly never loved you more than in this moment.”
She brushes some crumbs off the front of his shirt. “You’ve had better moments.” She smiles fondly at him and settles back into her seat, resting her temple against the window, watching the mile markers whip past them.
They drive a couple miles silently. The road’s empty at this hour. Everyone else is at work or in school. What should be relaxing only serves as a reminder of everything that’s gotten them here -- no windows at home, no family, nothing holding them in place. Everything’s so fucking open-ended that it’s making him claustrophobic.
“We’re not fuck-ups,” he says quietly, because he knows it’s been eating at them both, this heavy, indescribable thing following them across the country.
He glances at Verona. The light through the window is like a halo behind her; it makes her shadowy and blank. He catches the way her hand smooths over the swell of her stomach once. He reaches towards her and then stops, settles his hand on the gear shift instead.
“I know,” she says, so quietly that he almost doesn’t hear it.
After a minute, she reaches over and rests her hand on top of his. The pressure that’s been settled in his chest since they left home eases up a tiny bit. The sun streams through the windows, reflecting off everything so he has to squint against the glare.
Just like that, he starts to feel a little better about Madison. About everything.
“You were laughing and you had ink smudges on your hand and, I don’t know,” he trails off. “I just wanted to know you.”
Verona’s quiet for a minute, staring out at the water. “When you put it that way it sounds kind of creepy,” she says eventually.
“It wasn’t, I swear,” he says automatically, his voice going weirdly shrill because he’s suddenly on the defensive. When he looks over, Verona’s biting her lip like she’s trying not to laugh. “Oh, I get it. Real nice.”
“You just wanted to know me.”
“I sound nothing like that,” he says, and then she does laugh. It seems to echo in the quiet of the night.
“The ink was from my drawing class,” she says after a minute. “It took forever to get rid of. That first time we went out I spent like, twenty minutes scrubbing my hand. Right here.” She points to the heel of her hand. “It was like a fucking tattoo. I was sure I was going to smell like Comet all night.”
“I don’t think -- are you supposed to use that on skin?”
“It hasn’t killed me yet.”
Burt laughs. “That date...” He doesn’t know shakes his head.
“It went pretty well.”
He scoffs. “I thought you hated me. You wouldn’t give me an inch.”
“Why should I? You kept falling all over yourself when you asked me out and apparently you’d been stalking me for weeks -- ”
“You didn’t know that at the time.”
“And then we got lost on the way to the restaurant because you lost the address and couldn’t remember the name.” She’s ticking all the offenses off on her fingers, holding her hands up for Burt to see. “And when we finally found it you spent twenty minutes telling me about the mating rituals of flatworms”
“And then you told me never to talk about them again, even though it’s actually really interes --”
Verona claps her hand over his mouth, cutting him off.
“It’s not,” she says, so serious that he wants to laugh. “It’s really not.”
They sit like that for a moment, staring each other down. Her fingers are cool against his skin. He kisses her fingertips and watches the way her face softens. She pulls her hand away, turning on the bench so they’re sitting side-by-side again.
She doesn’t look at him, just stares out at the water as she says, “So it was a rough date. Don’t worry. I hear it all works out in the end.”
He doesn’t say anything. They both know it’s true. After a moment Verona leans into his side.
Burt waits another beat longer and then says, “So is that why I get turned on by bleach?”
Verona doesn’t say anything, but he can feel it when she laughs just a little. They sit like that for a while, not talking. He watches the lights on the Ferris wheel, shockingly bright against the night sky, and listens to the water lapping in the distance, the way it mixes with the sounds of the city behind him and Verona’s breathing. It’s hypnotic.
And then, all of a sudden, he’s thinking that he could do this forever. It hits him out of the blue, like a freight train, startling, unstoppable visions of the two of them, old and washing dishes in a kitchen somewhere, sitting on opposite ends of a couch while reading the paper, just like he remembers his parents doing every weekend when he was a kid.
His chest aches like someone’s squeezing him too tight. He never knew he it was possible to want something so much.
“Hey.” Verona nudges his arm. “Are you okay?” She twists on the bench again, pulling her knee up so she can face him. He’s distantly aware of the way she’s watching him, studying his face. It’s not until she runs her hand through his hair that he’s pulled out of his fog.
“Yeah,” he says, letting out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. Her fingers trace the curve of his skull, grounding him to the present. “I’m good.”
Verona doesn’t look convinced, but she lets it go. She settles back against his side, squirming closer, tucking her hands into the curve of his elbow. It’s getting colder out. Burt digs his hands into his pockets, buries his face down into his scarf. He can feel it when Verona sighs, the way her body sags a little heavier against his. He closes his eyes.
Bit by bit, his body relaxes.