“How on earth are you going to fit all your books in here?” exclaimed Abby, setting the last of the boxes marked “CLARKE’S ROOM” down next to the one rickety little bookshelf and dusting off her hands. “This room is tiny. Why is your room so tiny?”
“All the rooms are tiny, Mom,” said Clarke patiently, her voice barely audible through the giant armload of pillows and blankets entirely obscuring her face. “It’s a freshman dorm. Comes with the territory.” She dumped the whole pile down on the mattress and stood back to look around.
Her mom wasn’t wrong. The room was hardly bigger than a closet. Clarke’s mystery roommate had already arrived, unpacked and disappeared again, having claimed the bed on the left side of the room for herself. (“Bed” was a generous term; it was a twin mattress that pulled out on creaky metal sliders from the wall, like an ancient sleeper sofa. At the moment, there was a bit of breathing space in the center of the room, but at night there would be hardly enough space between them for one of them to get up and go to the bathroom without bumping into the other.) Raven, the R.A. for this floor, had made signs for everyone’s door cut out in the shape of different animals – her own being a large winged black bird. (“Not very warm and fuzzy,” Abby had remarked as they passed by.) Clarke’s was a galloping palomino, which they both liked. And, at the moment, all they knew about Clarke’s roommate was that her name was Octavia and that Raven had for some reason decided she was a badger. Which made her seem, potentially, a little terrifying.
“She doesn’t have much stuff,” said Abby a little dubiously. Or I have too much stuff, Clarke thought but didn’t say, amused by the contrast between Octavia’s half of the room – clean, neat, blank walls, plain white bedding, only a handful of boxes – with the volcanic explosion of shopping bags that had swallowed up every square inch of Clarke’s half, overflowing with sheets and towels and decorative throw pillows and lamps and pens and notebooks and every single Residence Life Office-approved dorm room appliance and the one kind of sticky adhesive poster hangers the freshman handbook permitted and an earthquake-preparedness kit (“Mom, we’re in Vermont.” “You can never be too careful”). Whoever Octavia’s mom was, she had clearly not forced her daughter to endure the same marathon 7 a.m. shopping extravaganza that Clarke had only come out of alive because there was a Starbucks next door to the Target.
“I’ll take the closet, you take the desk,” Abby decided. “Let’s start sorting out these bags.”
“You don’t have to stay and do all this, Mom,” said Clarke. “It’s okay.”
“Do you want me to go?”
“No, no,” Clarke hastily corrected, “I didn’t mean that. I just meant if it’s boring for you to be, like, hanging up all my clothes –“
“I’m your mother, Clarke,” Abby said in amusement. “I’ve been hanging up your clothes for eighteen years.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Look. This is my last opportunity for hands-on parenting. I’ll feel better if I know your closet is organized.”
“You’re a crazy person.”
They began by sorting through the dozens of bags, organizing everything into piles. The only trash receptacle in the room was the cute purple wicker basket that Abby and Clarke had just bought that morning, which was far too small for the five giant shopping bags full of paper and plastic and assorted packaging shrapnel they soon accumulated, which they opted to temporarily store on Octavia’s bed to get it out of the way. By the time they heard footsteps behind them and a crowd of new people entered the doorway, it looked a little bit as though a hurricane had swept through a department store and deposited all the good stuff on Clarke's side of the room and all the garbage on Octavia's.
"Cool," said a dry, amused female voice from behind them, "you've redecorated." A tall girl with long dark hair and a leather motorcycle jacket entered the room.
“Sorry, sorry,” mumbled Clarke a little awkwardly as she gathered up all the bags of trash from Octavia’s bed.
“No problem,” the girl shrugged, tossing her jacket carelessly on the bed. “I’m Octavia Blake. You must be my roommate.”
“Clarke Griffin,” said Clarke, and they spent a moment trying to decide whether to hug or shake hands before settling, awkwardly, on the latter. “And this is my mom, Abby.”
Abby, who was a hugger, just went for it, and while Octavia was clearly startled, she seemed also amused. It broke the tension somewhat.
“Hi,” said Octavia. “This is my brother Bellamy Blake, and my dad Marcus Kane.” Clarke and Abby turned to see two men standing in the doorway, arms full of boxes and bags.
“Oh good,” laughed Abby. “You’ve brought more stuff. I was beginning to worry that this was all she brought to college with her. It makes Clarke’s half of the room look like overkill.”
“This is all she brought to college with her,” responded Marcus, a little stiffly, as Clarke and Abby realized the bags in his hands were full of textbooks. Not an epic Target shopping run, just a trip to the campus bookstore with Octavia's syllabus.
Dammit, Mom, said Clarke’s glare, and Abby flushed a little awkwardly.
“And our record collection,” added Octavia, sailing smoothly into the breach to cover over the silence. “Me and Bell trade off which of us gets custody of the turntable and Dad’s records every year.”
“Still don’t know where the hell you’re gonna put a turntable in here,” muttered Bellamy, entering the room and setting down the box of records on Octavia’s bed. “Nice to meet you, Clarke. Abby.” Then he dusted off his hands, stood up, and he and Clarke got their first look at each other.
Whatever temporary discomfort Abby created with her accidental slight towards Octavia's scant possessions was completely swallowed up by both parents’ mutual expressions of horrified amusement as their children turned into awkward idiots right before their eyes.
“Hey,” said Clarke to Bellamy, trying desperately to sound cool.
“Hey,” he said back.
“You go here too?”
“Yeah. I’m a junior.”
“Are you in this dorm?”
“Uh, no. This dorm’s just for freshmen.”
“Oh, right. Duh. Like, I knew that.” Clarke blushed and stammered in mortification.
“I have a house off-campus.”
“A house? Awesome.”
“Yeah. Me and some guys.”
“Awesome. That’s awesome.”
“Yeah. Totally. You should come check it out sometime.”
“No, you absolutely shouldn’t,” interjected Marcus firmly, the moment the teen flirting finally too much for the two adults in the room to bear. “It’s a horrifying place. We just came from there. Not one of them knows how to wash a dish or scrub the bathtub after they shower.”
Octavia laughed. Bellamy glared at his dad and shuffled his feet in embarrassment, and the room suddenly felt very crowded.
“Octavia, I’m going to run back out to the truck to get the tool kit,” Marcus said, breaking the silence. “That shelf in your closet’s a little wobbly. I’ll be right back. Bell, either stay and help the girls unpack or go find something else to do; this room’s too small for people to just stand around.”
“I’ll help,” he exclaimed a little too eagerly, and Clarke’s face lit up.
“Good,” said Marcus. “Take those bags of trash down to the dumpster in the parking lot so they’re not in Clarke and Abby’s way.”
Abby was an adult, and much less obvious than her daughter, who could hardly lift her eyes to Bellamy’s handsome freckled face without blushing and fidgeting. But as Marcus ushered his son (and his son's armload of trash-stuffed Target shopping bags) out the door, he turned back and shot a conspiratorial grin over his shoulder - a look clearly intended only for Abby, the only one who could see him. And she did see him, then, for the first time, really and truly saw him, and suddenly it was impossible for her to judge Clarke's lack of cool too harshly.
Marcus was very tall, with slightly shaggy dark hair and the kind of stubbly jaw and angular features that should belong on an action hero, even though at the moment he was wearing jeans and a flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up like any other ordinary dad. But his eyes were dark and warm and there was a little bit of a sparkle in them as he shoved Bellamy out the door and said “For Christ’s sake, kid, give the girls some breathing room” and left them alone.
Things relaxed somewhat once the boys were gone, and Octavia sat down on the side of her bed to begin unpacking the record collection Bellamy had brought over.
“Those are your parents’ records?” asked Clarke, the piles of school supplies on the desk temporarily forgotten as she peered over at the box Octavia was sorting through.
“Parent, singular,” said Octavia absently, without looking up. “No mom, just dad.”
Clarke nodded and shrugged it off, barely registering it, and went back to putting pens and pencils in their decorative cups on her desk. Abby looked from one girl to the other and felt her heart crack a little - not just at how easily Octavia had said it, but at how easily Clarke had absorbed it. She recognized Octavia's tone of voice as one she heard from her own daughter sometimes - that devastating nonchalance, that casual mention of a loss so far in the past that she'd forgotten the question ever used to be painful.
It was different for the kids. The kids didn’t always remember. Clarke had been so, so young when her father died. It was such a huge percentage of her life ago. But it was still painful for Abby. And she’d have been willing to bet that whatever had happened to Octavia's mother, it was still painful for Marcus.
Long enough ago that Octavia could mention it with no emotion was a long time for a girl to be missing a parent.
Abby’s reverie was interrupted by Marcus reentering the room with an old, beat-up metal toolbox in his hand. “I’ll take care of yours too, Clarke,” he called across the room to her, pulling out a screwdriver and opening up Octavia’s closet. “The braces on these upper shelves are a piece of crap. They’ll come crashing down the second you set anything heavier than a sweater on top of them. Let me put some new screws in before you unpack anything in there, okay?”
“Thanks,” said Clarke.
“That’s very nice of you,” Abby said, maybe a little too enthusiastically, and she might have found herself embarrassed if Marcus, halfway inside the tiny oak closet, had not appeared to notice. She started to say something else when Clarke vaulted off her bed to look at the record in Octavia’s hand.
“Oh my God, let me see that,” she exclaimed. “Is that Blondie? Your dad likes Blondie?”
“We were all cool once,” quipped Marcus, his voice nearly inaudible from inside Octavia’s closet.
“Not all of us,” retorted Clarke with a meaningful look at her mother, whose devotion to the Spice Girls had not wavered since 1995 and was a constant source of conflict in their household.
“I just dropped like six hundred bucks at Target making sure you had the right kind of adhesive poster hangers and a year’s supply of Diet Coke,” said Abby dryly. “Have I earned one day off from mockery about my musical taste?”
“There’s a special kind of poster hangers?” asked Octavia, faintly concerned.
“Yeah,” Abby explained, “the ones with the clear removable adhesive backing. They were on the list. In that email from the Residence Life office.”
“I didn’t get that email.”
“It went to the parents.”
“I saw it,” Marcus reassured her, voice still muffled by oak paneling. “I got you everything labeled ‘Mandatory.’ And then the rest of it I figured you could just let me know if you need it.”
It was clear, from the silence that greeted this straightforward and sensible pronouncement, that this was the wrong answer. Marcus emerged from the closet to find all three women staring at him.
Abby reached into her purse and pulled out the list she had printed so she could check off the boxes while they were at the store. Octavia took the list out of her hands and stared at it.
“Dad, I don’t have, like, any of this stuff.”
“Yes, you do.”
“I don’t have an alarm clock.”
“You use your phone.”
"I don't have a wastebasket."
"Use the one in the hallway."
“I don’t have drawer organizers, I don’t have dryer sheets, I don’t have a camping chair –“
“Why do you need a camping chair?” He turned to Abby. “Why does she need a camping chair?”
“For if they have a party outside or something,” Abby explained. “Or for soccer games, or outdoor concerts, things like that. So she doesn’t have to sit on the ground.”
“She can borrow mine,” Clarke offered. "It's fine. We can share it."
“I didn’t know I was supposed to get her a camping chair,” said Marcus helplessly.
“Dad, it’s on the list.”
“Okay,” announced Abby firmly. “Clarke, you and Octavia stay here and keep unpacking. Marcus, come with me,” she said, in a voice that brooked no argument. “We’re going shopping.”
* * *
“They sent the list like months ago,” sighed Abby, shaking her head at Marcus as they each pushed a shopping cart through the aisles of Target. “Didn’t you look at it?”
“Yeah, but half that stuff said ‘Optional.’ So I figured she didn’t need it.”
“Well, she might not need it,” she conceded, “but it makes life a lot easier. Laundry detergent, she needs. A pack of stain-remover pens isn’t mandatory, but she’ll thank you for it when she spills coffee on her favorite shirt.” She turned left and Marcus followed her obediently down the aisle full of bathroom linens. “How many towels did you send her?”
“What do you mean, how many?”
“You only packed her one towel?”
“How many towels does one person need?”
“She’s not going to do laundry every single night, Marcus,” explained Abby. “She needs more than one. She should have four, probably, just in case. That covers about a week’s worth of laundry. Unless she showers every day. Or plays sports. Does Octavia play sports?”
“She’s on the intramural soccer team.”
“Six towels, then,” Abby decided.
“Six towels? That’s a lot of towels.”
“They’re on sale, look, these ones are only eight bucks. What’s her favorite color?”
Marcus stared blankly. Abby sighed and pulled out her phone.
“What’s up, Mom?” asked Clarke, answering on the first ring.
“Is Octavia there?”
“I’m at Target with her dad, and it’s like a sitcom episode,” said Abby. “Put her on.” She turned over her shoulder to Marcus. “Write all of this down."
Within minutes they had assembled a comprehensive list of Octavia’s likes and dislikes, from favorite colors (orange, as it turned out) to preferred brands of tampons and pens, to what products she needed for her hair that she hadn’t brought with her. Marcus seemed a little confounded at the sheer volume of information he had never thought to ask about his daughter (“What the hell is ‘volumizer?’” “Just write it down, Marcus”). He was a little overwhelmed, but he seemed happy; and the faintest little flutter came to life in Abby's heart as she watched him search high and low, intently focused - a man on a mission - hunting through every aisle to find orange things for his daughter. They filled up his cart with orange hangers and orange towels, orange mugs and orange plates, orange plastic organizers for her closet and orange boxes to store school supplies in – even a fluffy orange chenille throw rug. He resisted nothing until the bedding aisle, where he plucked the adorable orange retro floral bedding set out of Abby's hands and set it back on the shelf.
“She already has sheets and a comforter, Abby, I bought new ones, that was on the list.”
“Yes, but they’re beige.”
“They’re sheets. She’s not going to be looking at them, she’s going to be sleeping in them. Preferably alone. Until she’s forty.”
“Okay, well, we’ll save that thing you're wrong about for another day, but Marcus, it's a dorm room. The girls will hang out in there. They'll have friends over all the time. She’s going to want cute sheets and pillows and a comforter.” He opened his mouth to argue further, saw the look on her face, then sighed and relented. “Besides,” she added, “it’s only $49.99 for the whole set. It's like they're practically paying you to buy it."
"That's not a thing."
"It's 25% off, it's orange, it's going to tie the whole room together, she's going to love it, and $49.99 for a whole bedroom set is a really great deal."
“We are very, very different people, Abby.”
“Well, right now that’s a good thing. You sent your daughter off to college with sheets that look like they came from a prison.”
“And you sent your daughter off to college with an earthquake preparedness kit, in a state that has not had an earthquake since dinosaurs roamed the earth.”
And it went on like that for the next hour. The tussle over the bedding - or perhaps concern over the size of the ever-growing pile in his shopping cart - had awakened a curmudgeonly strain in Marcus, and their trip through the home goods section was peppered with enjoyable bickering. As they argued over cleaning supplies – Marcus asserting that a bottle of the cheapest brand of spray cleaner and a roll of paper towels would work just fine, Abby overruling him to toss three packs of Swiffer Wet Wipes into the cart – Abby realized that what she had mistaken for a variety of all-around stereotypical dad cluelessness was actually something a bit more complex.
He had raised two children on his own, after all. It wasn’t like this was his first time buying his daughter shower gel and notebooks and tampons. It wasn’t that he was an idiot with no idea how laundry worked; he just had his own, more utilitarian way of doing things.
Abby suddenly began to wonder if maybe there was something to it, to the way he trusted that Octavia would have been perfectly fine out on her own in the world with beige sheets and just the one towel he had packed her. She wondered if maybe the brand-new laptop and comforter and alarm clock and laundry hamper and electric teakettle and blow-dryer and boxes of highlighter pens her daughter was now unpacking had less to do with what Clarke needed and more to do with what Abby needed. As though ensuring that Clarke’s reading lamp matched her throw blanket would somehow make Abby feel better about getting into her car tomorrow morning after breakfast and driving back to the house her daughter did not live in anymore.
“Goldfish crackers,” she heard Marcus say, piling box after box into his cart. “She likes goldfish crackers.”
Octavia was going to be just fine.
* * *
Lunch was a posh, catered affair on the lawn outside the dormitory, with a vast spread of focaccia sandwiches, salads, cookies and lemonade on white-linen-draped tables, with real silverware and cloth napkins. “Don’t get used to this,” warned Abby, handing Clarke a plate. “This is just how they suck up to the parents so they can hit us up for money later. The second we’re gone it’s going to be burnt mac and cheese in the dining hall.”
“I know about dorm food, Mom.”
“I’m just saying. Make sure you keep healthy snacks in your desk drawer. The grocery store on campus had a pretty sketchy produce section, and if you get hungry between meal times –“
“Mom. You seriously need to chill.”
“Bellamy has a car,” came Octavia’s voice from over Abby’s shoulder, and she turned to see Clarke’s roommate in line on the other side of the buffet table, pulling her dad along with her. “He says he’ll drive us to the good grocery store whenever we need it.”
“That’s nice of him,” said Abby. “Tell him Clarke’s un-chill mother appreciates it.” Clarke rolled her eyes, which did not go unnoticed by either of the parents, who shared an amused glance over the tray of chicken sandwiches but wisely said nothing.
They lost track of each other in the lunch line almost immediately – Marcus and Octavia’s side of the buffet table was moving much faster than the Griffins’, which stalled out after the pasta salad had to be replenished – so they took their plates over to a shady spot underneath a cluster of trees at the edge of the lawn and sat down together, alone. Abby watched Clarke wolf down her sandwich and thought about all the future years of lunches that Clarke might eat in this very spot, long after Abby had gone back home. She thought about the purple-striped outdoor lawn blanket she had bought Clarke for this very purpose, imagined it spread out in the leafy shade as Clarke leaned her back against this same tree, headphones around her neck, sketchbook open in front of her. Just sitting here on the green, being a college student.
Oh my God, you cannot cry into your chicken sandwich at the Parents’ Weekend Luncheon, she snapped at herself. Get it together, Abigail.
“Clarke!” hollered a pair of voices from the other side of the lawn. “Hey, Clarke!” They looked up and saw Harper and Fox (Clarke and Octavia's next-door neighbors) waving frantically to get Clarke's attention. Octavia had spotted the group too, and was headed over to join them.
“Mom, can I –“
“Go,” said Abby, smiling.
“Are you gonna be okay?”
“Of course,” she lied. "I'm good. Go."
Clarke looked at her suspiciously. “You look like you’re having feelings. Are you having feelings?”
“I’m fine, kid,” Abby insisted. “I’m really fine. Go make friends.”
Impulsively, Clarke leaned down and kissed the top of her mother’s head. “You’re the best mom ever, you know that, right?”
“I do, in fact, know that,” agreed Abby, laughing. “Now go. Your friends are waiting.” And she watched with a pang of wistful happiness as Clarke scampered off across the lawn, Diet Coke in hand, to where the others were eating cookies and exchanging cell phone numbers, a happy little oasis of giggling girl energy amidst a vast sea of teenagers awkwardly lunching with their parents.
She watched them with a strange, complex knot of emotions – happy to see her daughter fitting in so easily, yet overwhelmed by the recognition that Clarke’s childhood was, effectively, over. This was one of those life milestones that meant everything would be different now. Abby felt a mix of powerful nostalgia for the shrieking, gleeful little blonde-haired ball of energy Clarke used to be, intermingled with fierce pride at the woman she was becoming.
This was what it was like, watching your baby grow up.
She was so absorbed in her thoughts that she didn’t notice Marcus Kane until he sat down on the grass beside her.
“I brought you a brownie,” he said, handing her a small napkin-wrapped bundle. “They were almost out."
“You’re a lifesaver,” she said gratefully, unwrapping it and taking a huge bite. “I was starting to wish I’d packed a flask in my purse. But chocolate will do nearly as well as whiskey, in a pinch.”
"This thing should have an open bar," Marcus agreed. "Not for the kids. For us. We all need it." Abby laughed. “It's a little exhausting, all this,” he added ruefully. “They’re so young.”
“Were we ever that goddamn young?” Abby wondered. “It feels like another lifetime. And then also, kind of, like just yesterday.”
“I know. Too slow and too fast at the same time, somehow.”
They sat there in companionable silence for a few moments, Marcus sipping his lemonade and Abby eating her brownie, watching Clarke and Octavia at the center of a giggling cluster of girls.
“They sure lucked out,” said Abby. “Clarke and Octavia. My freshman dorm roommate was horrible. I think we were three days into orientation week when she came home drunk from a frat party and vomited into my shoes. For the first time, but not the last.”
“Oh my God.”
“Fortunately she hooked up with a soccer player about a month in and basically moved into his dorm, which is the only reason I didn’t actually murder her. I switched dorms at the semester and got stuck with a germaphobe math major who lined up all her books by height. She didn’t get drunk and do property damage, but she did snore like a freight train.” Marcus laughed. “I was so worried about Clarke," she murmured, almost more to herself than to him. "I mean I always worry about Clarke – I’m a mom, it’s what we do, I worry about everything – but it’s always been just her and me, you know, she’s never had to share space with anyone else.” Off in the distance, a tall older boy with a shaved head and tanned skin walked by the cluster of girls, making brief eye contact with Octavia. She blushed and leaned in to whisper into Clarke’s ear, and then both girls burst into giggles. “That,” said Abby, smiling. “That’s what I wanted. That’s what I wanted this to be.”
“Me too,” agreed Marcus quietly, and there was something in his voice that made Abby turn and look at him in puzzlement, detecting some little flicker of wistful sadness inside the warm fatherly affection. He smiled at her, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Their mom is . . . out of the picture,” he explained haltingly. “And I’m not good at – you know. The girl things.”
“I think you’re better at them than you think you are,” Abby reassured him. He shook his head.
“I bought her beige sheets,” he said helplessly. “Beige.”
“I didn’t know that girls wanted cute sheets.”
“All her life she’s had plain white or beige sheets, I didn’t know that fancy sheets were a thing –“
“It’s okay,” she assured him. “It’s fine. Now she has a backup set.” She considered explaining why having a second pair of sheets you didn't care about ruining came in handy once a month, but instead went with, "She can use the other ones while the flowered sheets are in the laundry."
“Clarke probably has a backup set of everything,” said Kane glumly. “Clarke has a purple beanbag chair and her lamp matches her pillows, and she has the right kind of poster sticky things, I didn’t even know there were kinds, and I’m a terrible dad who sent my daughter to college with beige sheets.”
“You’re being too hard on yourself,” laughed Abby. “Look at your daughter, Marcus. Look how great she turned out. She's standing in a group of girls she met three hours ago and they’re all already talking a mile a minute like best friends. Look how happy she already is. There’s more to good parenting than just matching the lamp to the pillows.”
“I didn’t even know her favorite color was orange."
“It’s going to be okay,” said Abby. “I promise.”
* * *
Under the firm guarantee that Bellamy would be with them the whole time, that it was a campus-sponsored event, that Raven and the rest of the Res Life staff would be present, and that “like literally everyone is gonna be there” (which both parents correctly interpreted to mean “that guy with the shaved head from earlier that afternoon”), Abby and Marcus finally stopped resisting Clarke and Octavia’s pleas to ditch dinner with their respective parents and hit the luau mixer instead. Marcus, to whom it had not occurred that the tiny town of Arkville would be literally overrun with eight hundred sets of parents all wanting to eat dinner at the same time, had made no plans; Abby didn't have the heart to tell him that if Bellamy and Octavia hadn’t decided to go to the party, the three of them would have been stuck having their final family dinner at Pizza Hut, since every halfway decent restaurant in town was full.
Abby, of course, had made plans months in advance, with three separate dinner reservations depending on what Clarke might be in the mood for.
“I can’t believe I didn’t think of making a reservation,” muttered Marcus, pulling the plastic wrapping off a set of the pop-up cardboard storage boxes that Abby had made him buy for Octavia’s closet. They had decided, after the girls left, to continue attempting to tackle the Herculean task of organizing the room – or, rather, Abby had decided that she would sleep better tonight if she knew that Clarke and Octavia’s laundry supplies were organized properly.
“What did you do last time?” she said, removing the crappy wire hangers in Octavia’s closet and replacing them with orange plastic ones.
“I helped him carry his boxes into the dorm and then I left,” he said. “That’s what he told me to do.”
Abby laughed. “Of course he did.”
“I didn’t do any of the Freshman Weekend stuff,” he said, uncertainly, almost apologetically. “Maybe I should have. I didn’t know. He said he was fine, so I just . . . I thought he was fine.” He paused suddenly, and Abby turned to look at him and they both felt it, a little electric current zinging between them. “I was distant, when they were little,” he began, and Abby froze, eyes locked to his, the sudden intimacy of the moment apparent to both of them, the orange plastic hangers and cardboard storage boxes forgotten in both their hands. “Their mom was – Well. She was difficult. She had . . . a lot of problems. I wasn’t cut out to be a single dad, I didn’t really know how to be around kids, and I think I was a little – afraid of them. Afraid of the damage Aurora might have done. Afraid I wasn’t going to know how to fix it. So we weren’t close, not really. I wasn’t good at the kid stuff. I wasn’t good at playing catch or having doll tea parties. I wasn’t good at parent teacher conferences and school plays. I loved them, you know, I always loved them, but I didn’t really know how to be around them. It wasn’t like what you and Clarke have,” he said, and there was such a depth of emotion in his voice that Abby found her eyes suddenly welling up. “It wasn’t like this. Where you just know exactly what she needs.”
“Marcus,” said Abby softly, and she set down the hangers, stepped over the pile of bags in the middle of the floor and took the wadded up plastic wrap out of his hands so she could take them in her own. “Listen to me. This is the hardest part. They’re not our babies anymore, they’re learning how to go off and be on their own. This was always going to be the hardest part. But everything that Octavia needed from you, you’ve already given her. It’s got nothing to do with bean bag chairs and doll tea parties. It’s about how much you love her. It’s about her knowing that whatever was going on with her mom, she could count on you.” She squeezed his hands. “That’s what being a parent is,” she told him. “That’s the part that matters. Your kids love you, Marcus. Anyone can see that. You did good.” She smiled up at him, and he looked down at her with some deep emotion in his eyes. “You did good,” she said again. “You did good.”
Voices from the room next door startled them both, and they pulled apart almost guiltily (and then wondered why they both felt guilty, wondered what would have happened next if Fox and Harper hadn’t come running down the hall). Marcus busied himself with Octavia’s desk again, unfolding the storage boxes and filling them with the pens and Post-It notes Abby had made him buy, while Abby went back to re-hanging all of Octavia’s clothes. They worked in silence for awhile until a soft alarm buzzed on Abby’s iPhone. “Oh,” she said. “It's seven-thirty. Are you hungry?”
“Starving,” he admitted frankly. “I was about to break into that box of granola bars.”
“Well, it just so happens that I still have a reservation for two for eight o’clock at the Mount Weather Brewery,” she said. “I think we both need a burger and a beer.” She grinned at him. “Would you like to have dinner with me?”
He looked up at her sharply, startled and a little flustered.
“Is this a pity thing?” he asked. “Because I was too dumb to make real dinner plans and you feel bad for me?”
“I don’t do pity things, Marcus, I’m asking you out on a date.”
“This is a date.”
“Well, no, this is unpacking our daughters’ tampons and highlighter pens and laundry detergent, but dinner would be a date.”
He didn’t answer, just kept staring at her in puzzlement, and she felt suddenly embarrassed.
“Oh,” she said, flustered. “You’re not – I didn’t think – I’m so sorry. I should have asked. That was presumptuous of me, just to assume –“
“No,” he interjected, “you assumed right. I just . . . Nobody’s asked me on a date in a long time.”
“Well, I haven’t asked anybody on a date in a long time either,” she admitted, “but we’re not that old. I don’t think the rules have changed all that much since our day.”
“I wouldn’t imagine that they have, no.”
“So I think we can handle it.”
"I suppose you're right." He grinned at her, then, and she felt a flutter in her heart for the first time in longer than she could possible remember. "Then yes," he agreed. "I'd love to have dinner with you."