Chapter 1: PROLOGUE: Snow
The whole thing is over very quickly.
The patch of ice on the highway catches them off guard and sends the front tires skittering left. There is a moment of wild, frantic whipsawing which appears to be chaos but is in reality a desperate pitch to regain control over the wheel.
It works for a moment, and then it doesn’t.
The front of the car meets the side of the mountain and the night is ripped violently open by an explosive sound – a thunderous crash, containing millions of tiny shattering crashes inside it.
And then . . . it’s over.
The hush descends once more. A cold Oregon night, indigo skies alive with stars, a gentle snow falling. Peaceful and still.
In seven minutes, this will change. That’s how long it will take for the next car – a diner waitress from two towns over, hauling a Douglas fir home in the back of her pickup while singing along loudly to Ella Wishes You a Swingin’ Christmas – to round the curve where the smoking wreckage will first become visible. Then she will do these things, in this order. First, she will stop singing and a cry of horror will choke in her throat. Then she will screech to a halt and call out to the silent, slumped-over figure in the drivers’ seat as she vaults from the cab of her pickup truck, cell phone in hand, already dialing the police. Then she will notice the pile of Christmas presents in the SUV’s capacious trunk – someone, it seems, is getting a new bike – and the phone will drop from her hand into the snow. When the paramedics arrive she will have to be sedated.
Twelve minutes after that, this quiet stretch of deserted rural highway will be transformed into a riotous circus of color and light. There will be a great clamor of voices shouting at walkie-talkies and cell phones and each other, and in the distance the pulsing hum of a Life Flight helicopter. There will be two middle-aged state troopers wearing flannel-lined parkas over their uniforms, shaking their heads sadly about why Oregon drivers wait so goddamn long to put on their snow tires. There will be drivers in the other lane, slowing down to a crawl around the glow of orange flares, swallowing hard as they watch paramedics with hydraulic rescue tools pry open the crunched metal. And over it all, through the wide-open door of the waitress’ ramshackle Ford truck, from a crackling old cassette player that nobody has bothered to turn off floats the voice of Ella Fitzgerald.
“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, with every Christmas card I write . . .”
But let's not get ahead of ourselves just yet. There will be plenty of time, very soon now, for all the things that are about to happen - for the two telephones that are about to ring in two apartments, four thousand miles apart, which mark this story's real beginning. Like the slow, labored creaking of gears as a great machine is awoken from slumber, like the expectant hum of an orchestra warming up before the curtain rises, the snow is merely here to set the stage. This is the Prologue. The rest of the story is slowly stretching and rising to its feet. It is coming. It is already on its way.
But for right now – for the next seven minutes – there is only silence. For the next seven minutes, there is nothing but a light dusting of snow still falling from the sky, frosting the broken glass that glitters on the highway as if all the stars had crashed to earth.
Chapter 2: Two Telephones
And so it begins, rather like a play.
The frantic chaos of the crash and the snow and the lights and the shouting and the roadside flares and the music were the overture. Now the curtain rises and, as if on cue, two telephones ring at the exact same time, four thousand miles apart.
The first is an iPhone sitting in the pocket of a man’s wool winter overcoat, hanging on a brass hook in the entryway of an airy, spacious exposed-brick-and-wood-beam loft in Brooklyn – the kind of loft that looks like it used to be a 19th-century warehouse, because of course it was a 19th-century warehouse, and whose price tag would make anyone not from New York start so violently they’d spill their drink. The phone doesn’t ring so much as emit a dull, humming buzz, muffled by the thick fabric surrounding it – and forgotten, at any rate, by its owner, who is currently all the way on the other side of the room and thoroughly distracted. It rings five times before going to voicemail, entirely ignored by both of the partially-obscured figures whose rising and falling shapes under expensive gray flannel sheets cast undulating shadows on the wall, wavering in the dim light like sea creatures.
The second is a landline, thousands of miles away on an elderly wooden desk in a small office in Portland, Oregon. It pierces the night silence with a harsh, braying beep and is answered on the first ring.
We’ll start there.
* * *
There were a thousand small, quiet joys in the life of a professor that had been unavailable to Abby Griffin when she was a surgeon, but the most unexpected delight was proofreading. She pulled another red rollerball pen from the neatly rubber-banded bundle in her top right drawer – she only ever used one kind of pen for proofreading, it had become over the years like an extension of her eyes and hand, drawn with magnetic force towards typographical errors and weak arguments – and flipped back to the final page of Monty Green’s midterm paper to finish her notes. Despite nearly two decades surrounded by the most gleaming white-and-chrome, state-of-the-art medical equipment as Chief of Neurology at Mount Weather, there was a peculiar streak of the Luddite within Abby, who remained stubbornly resistant to the ever-encroaching chokehold of technology and had held out as long as she could against the department’s new electronic grading system. But hadn’t she become a professor for just these moments, the warm golden light from the brass lamp on her desk and the soft fall of snow outside muffling what little sound remained on the mostly-deserted campus and her favorite warm shapeless cardigan – the one that lived on the back of her office chair – draped over her shoulders as she sat blissfully alone with her tea and a sea of proofreading errors and the buttery-smooth flow of ink from her favorite red pen? Mount Weather was light years away. The noise and the chaos and the shouting was all in the past. There were no more lives in Abby Griffin’s hands. There never would be again. It was just her, and the quiet.
Monty Green was a bright kid, so the treasure hunt for misplaced semicolons and improper source citations turned up very little, which pleased Abby. His insights into the relationship between changing urban life and the medical profession had interested her, and she was glad she could give him high marks.
(Which meant a B-plus. Dr. Griffin was not known for handing out A’s freely.)
She had just moved Monty’s paper from “Unfinished” to “Finished”, straightened both piles and topped off her teacup from the steaming pot that sat on the table beside her when she heard the phone ring.
Campus office caller ID displayed numbers only, no names, and even at this late hour, a local number she didn’t recognize nearly always meant a student. She considered, for half a second, letting it go to voicemail and dealing with it during tomorrow’s office hours, before she remembered that her mailbox was full. With an exasperated sigh, and braced for panicked enquiries about when midterm grades would be posted, she answered the phone.
If you had asked her, afterwards – not that you would, of course, for who would do that to a person – she would tell you that she remembered very little of that brief conversation. She would wave her hand and say something vague but plausible about shock. “I went numb, mostly,” she would say quietly. “It was like watching it happen to somebody else, very far away.”
But that wouldn’t be the truth. Because the truth was that from the moment she picked up the phone and said, “This is Dr. Griffin,” everything that happened afterwards – every word, every breath, every pause in the voice at the other end of the phone – was seared into Abby’s memory like she’d been branded with a hot iron.
She could not, in those first moments, immediately make sense of it. Her brain was simply refusing to process the information it was receiving, unable to sort the words it was hearing into coherent meaning.
Words like “spinal fracture.”
“ . . . fatalities.”
“ . . . Mount Weather Hospital.”
“ . . . what to do about the children.”
The voice said things and then Abby said things and then the phone on the other end clicked into silence. Abby stood there for a long moment, holding the black telephone handset, staring at it without really seeing it, words crashing against each other inside her skull underneath the low, insistent mosquito buzz of a dial tone. “What to do about the children.” It was both a statement and a question. And in that moment, a Dark Thing was born inside Abby Griffin’s chest and began shifting, squirming, trying to claw its way out. She took a deep breath, swallowed hard and forced it back down.
Abby Griffin was a fixer, and her only natural enemy was finding herself in situations she could not fix. And while she knew, down to the very marrow of her bones, that she could not fix this, still she only allowed herself a few moments to stand there, staring blankly out the window as the snow fell on the park benches outside, before the dial tone snapped her back to reality and she hung up the phone in her hand and forcibly returned to being Abby Griffin again.
The hospital, first, of course. And on the way she would make a list. There were phone calls to make, there were things that needed to be done, she did not have time for this to be a heartbreak right now because at the moment it was a crisis which needed to be handled. So first the hospital, then a list. Feelings afterwards – when there was time. A list would make everything better. The more things she crossed off it, the more the world would slowly begin to click back into some semblance of its proper place. A good list could hold the chaos at bay for quite some time.
Brisk and efficient, emotions tidily stowed away for the moment, Abby removed her office cardigan and exchanged it for her winter coat, pulled on her scarf and boots, grabbed her purse from the coat hook, turned off the power strip and lights to remain in compliance with the school’s new campus-wide energy-saving initiative, locked the door, took the elevator three floors down to the underground parking garage where her always-spotless car sat waiting, retrieved her keys to click the “Unlock” button, then turned away into the empty parking space beside her and was suddenly, violently sick.
Chapter 3: Mount Weather
By the time she had finished vomiting onto the bare expanse of concrete on the floor of the campus parking garage, taken the elevator back up two floors to the nearest bathroom to splash cold water on her face and clean herself up, returned to her car and driven across the river to Mount Weather, they had already been moved from the emergency room to the morgue. In a strange way, Abby was grateful; for one, it made it far less likely for her to run into anyone she knew – condolences being something for which she was entirely unprepared just yet – and for another, the frigid steel-and-white room lent the whole event a curious air of unreality which made everything just a bit easier. Abby did not become sick again. She did not cry. She was not angry. The Dark Thing had receded from her chest, leaving a vast hollow nothingness in its wake. It had taken every emotion with it, and so Abby stood in that metal box of a room with the two white bodies on silver slabs and she felt absolutely nothing at all.
There was paperwork, of course – there was always paperwork – and she got it over with as fast as she could. They had all had The Talk, years ago, about wills and funeral arrangements and all of that (Abby was a doctor, she was sensible and practical, she’d forced everyone in the family to do it) and it had all felt as distant and unreal then as it did now, here in this cold white room. The attendant had turned her back for a few minutes and returned to the sleek white computer screen in the corner, her keyboard click-clacking away, leaving Abby alone with these two pale things that were once the two people she loved best in the world.
She bent down and absently brushed a strand of glossy dark hair back from the woman’s temple. Only her head and shoulders were visible. The cuts had been stitched up already, leaving winding tracks through the dusky blossom of dark bruises. Abby could barely recognize this cool-skinned stranger with marks all over her face. It had been Jackson, all those years ago, who ran and tumbled and roughhoused and fell down stairs and ate mud and fell off the swings and the monkey bars. It had been Jackson whose elbows were always in slings, who served as little Abby’s first patient as she clumsily bandaged his scraped shins and bloody knees, who logged the most hours on the decrepit old pair of crutches that lived in the basement, while Callie sat quietly on the porch with her book. Abby reached down and lightly brushed a finger over the first and last stitches Callie Griffin had ever had in her life.
She could not look at Jake at all.
“They did everything they could do,” said a soft, apologetic voice from behind her, and Abby turned with a start to see a paramedic standing in the doorway. He was young, with a gentleness about him that felt wrong somehow inside this cold white room.
“I don’t think you’re supposed to be down here,” was all she could manage to say, falling back on the comfort of protocol. (You can take the doctor out of the hospital, but after all, you can’t take the hospital out of the doctor.) She looked down at his name badge. “Wells.”
“I was the one that brought them in,” he said, as though he hadn’t heard her. “I was the one in the helicopter. I heard that someone had come for them, and I wanted to –“ He stopped again, and then looked down at the floor. “It’s my first day,” he said quietly.
It was impossible to know how to respond to this. Abby said nothing.
“They said they got a hold of her family,” Wells went on, looking at Callie’s body on the slab, looking at Jake underneath that blue sheet behind her, looking anywhere but at Abby. “Are you her family?”
“Yes,” she finally said, after a long, long moment. “That’s my sister.”
Chapter 4: The House
It was only a few minutes’ drive from Mount Weather Hospital through the tree-lined streets of Laurelhurst to the rambling Craftsman home that Jake and Callie had shared – the home where Abby had grown up. This had been the hospital where Abby visited Jackson when he had cracked his skull in a bike accident in middle school and had to stay under observation overnight, the hospital where she’d held Callie’s hand in the delivery room, the hospital where they’d said goodbye to their parents. Even in the dark, in the snow, she could have driven from Mount Weather to the Griffin house blindfolded. She knew the way like the back of her hand.
It was only just barely December, but already the night streets were aglow with colorful lights, strung along rooftops and around doorways and through rhododendron bushes. There were wreaths on doors and even, in a few houses, lit trees visible through frosty living room windows. Abby had always liked the architecture of this part of the city, the jumble of Arts and Crafts homes next to midcentury stucco apartments next to tiny rows of storefronts. The suburbs disconcerted her, long stretches of sameness extending as far as the eye could see. The East Side always felt to her like where real people lived. Abby lived on the other side of the river so she could walk to campus, and there was much in the soothing clean expanse of her fifteenth-floor river-view condo that she loved, but this was the Portland she’d grown up in and it felt right to her in a way no other part of the city did or could.
She drove slowly, carefully through the snow, forcing her mind to stay focused on these ordinary things – on architecture and urban development, on the changing shape of the city – and willing the next few minutes to stretch out as long as they possibly could. She would have liked to live in this moment forever, driving down the dark snowy streets of her favorite part of the city, rather than have to face the next thing she was about to do. Because as awful as the hospital had been, the house would be worse.
The hospital was nothing compared to what would happen when Abby pulled into that driveway, climbed the steps to the porch and opened the front door.
She turned her car onto Glisan and drove the handful of blocks until she reached the turnaround on 39th, with its small oasis of green grass and shrubbery surrounding the big gold statue of Joan of Arc. Out of nowhere came the unexpected memory of their mother driving them to school and looping one extra turn around the traffic circle each time – “for luck,” she had always said. In Abby’s youth the statue had had the dull green patina of aged bronze, but a few years ago the city – or someone – had burnished it to brilliance again, and Joan gleamed with an almost artificial golden shine under the streetlamps. Abby drove around the traffic circle three times before continuing on; she was not superstitious, or particularly spiritual, but maybe Mom had been right. Tonight she would take whatever luck she could get.
And, besides, she was stalling.
But eventually her car turned – almost of its own volition – right, and then right again, and there she was. Jackson’s bike was parked on the porch, but the car she’d hoped against hope to see in the driveway hadn’t arrived yet. Abby had made one call from the hospital, to the only person she trusted as backup in this situation, and if she was being honest with herself she had driven here as slow as she could in the hopes that by the time she arrived, somebody else would have taken charge and handled things for her.
But no. It was just her. It was all up to her.
The lights were out all over the house; Jackson would long since have sent the kids to bed and probably turned in himself. She let herself in, enveloped in the telltale humming stillness of a house with people sleeping in it. Her steps down the hallway towards the guest room were nearly soundless, and she could hear the sounds of Jackson’s still breathing on the other side of the door.
This was it.
She had held out as long as she could, but now she had arrived, she had run out of time, she could not hide any longer from the thing that she had to say. She took a deep breath, steeled herself, swallowing the Dark Thing as far back down inside her as it would go – lists, she thought, I am crossing “Tell Jackson” off the list, I am in control, I am doing my job – and knocked on the door.
* * *
“I don’t understand,” he said, running a hand through his sleep rumpled hair. I just . . . I don’t understand.”
Abby had already had to narrate the basic facts to him three separate times, and her nerves were beginning to fray under the strain.
“It's hardly snowing at all,” he said, “there was like a centimeter. It's just powder. I don't understand. It isn't cold enough for ice.”
“That was here,” she said with heroic patience. “It was icy in the Gorge. It came on fast, and the roads were terrible. That’s what the paramedics told me.”
“It must have been a mistake. Jake would never have –“
“Honey, I saw them,” she said gently, and Jackson’s eyes widened with a look that she knew was half horror, as he pictured the scene himself, and half guilt that she had had to face it alone.
"Have you told -"
"Yes, she's on her way. I called her from the hospital. Will you go downstairs and put the tea water on? I have to –“ She halted abruptly and had to take a deep breath to compose herself. “I have to go tell the kids.”
“Oh, Jesus,” whispered Jackson. “The kids.” Abby nodded. “Do you want me to – should I –“ Abby shook her head.
“No,” she said. “You go wait for the door. I’ll be down in a minute.” He fumbled around on the floor to pull a t-shirt and cardigan on over his bare chest and flannel pajama bottoms, to make himself presentable. “You look ninety years old in that sweater,” whispered Abby, unable to stop herself, and Jackson almost laughed, and Abby forced herself to remember that she was not the only one this was happening to. Jackson had also just lost his sister and brother-in-law. Jackson needed her to be strong for him too.
It felt like too much to ask of Abby to have this conversation three separate times, so Abby first went to Clarke’s room to scoop up the sleeping four-year-old in her arms and carry her down the hall to the room Bellamy and Octavia shared. The twins were seven, and shared the largest bedroom in the house, which was also the kids’ playroom. Clarke’s was smaller, and would never accommodate a bed larger than a twin, but Abby sometimes wondered whether teenage Clarke would happily accept the sacrifice of small size in exchange for her privacy – or whether by the time they hit middle school, the positions would reverse and the single room would be given over to the only boy. Abby felt a little pang of sympathy for Octavia, to whom the room would probably never belong. Teenage Abby had had this bedroom until she was in middle school, when Jackson came along, and had spent the rest of her adolescence sharing the big bedroom with Callie. Callie didn’t make much noise or take up much room, but she was always there.
This train of thought stopped Abby short in the middle of the hallway that she almost dropped the sleeping child draped over her shoulder. Because that part of her life was over.
Callie would never be there again.
The Dark Thing began to scratch and claw its way out of her chest again, and she felt a sense of pressure building up inside her, like a dam about to burst. She tried swallowing it down, but she couldn’t. She felt Clarke’s warm, sleepy weight draped over her shoulder and she thought about Callie on that metal slab and she thought about the second metal slab with the blue sheet draped over it that she had not quite been able to go near and she thought about the sleeping twins in the other room and she was suddenly paralyzed, unable to move from the spot where she stood in the middle of the hallway. Unable to go on.
And then the window at the end of the hallway, in the stairwell, lit up briefly as a pair of headlights swept down the street and into the driveway, and the Dark Thing receded back into its cave, because rescue had arrived.
You can do this, Abigail, she told herself firmly. You just have to do one more thing.
The yellow door with its painted nameplates creaked faintly as it opened, and the two sleeping children instantly bolted awake, highly-attuned powers of monster detection alerting them to the slightest unfamiliar sound.
“Aunt Abby?” whispered Bellamy, eyes blinking against the hallway light.
Octavia, who took much longer to wake up in the mornings, smiled sleepily and rubbed her eyes. “Is it Christmas?”
“No, dummy, it’s not even Advent until tomorrow,” retorted her brother.
“No, Octavia, it isn’t Christmas,” said Abby, approaching the beds with some trepidation. Children made her uneasy. Jackson was great with them, and had always been their favorite babysitter. He was warm and earnest and got right down to their level, neither talking down to them nor talking over their heads. He made them feel comfortable.
When they were babies, all three of them used to cry when Abby held them.
She set the sleeping Clarke down on her sister’s bed. “Clarke, wake up please.” Clarke stirred but didn’t open her eyes. Abby looked at the twins. The twins looked at Abby. “Bellamy, come sit over here. Octavia, can you please wake up your sister?”
Bellamy obediently got out of his bed and climbed into the other as Octavia leaned in close to Clarke’s face, her long dark braid brushing against the quilt. “Clarke, Clarke, wake up, Aunt Abby’s here!” whispered Octavia. “Wake up wake up wake uuuuuuuuuuuuup!” It worked, finally, and Clarke sat up, looking around her in bafflement, as though wondering how she’d ended up here. Abby sat down on Bellamy’s bed to face them.
“There’s been an accident,” she began, her voice sounding stiff and cold even to her. The three little faces stared back at her blankly, uncomprehending. She tried again. “A car accident,” she elaborated. “They hit a patch of ice coming through the Gorge.”
The children’s expressions did not change. They had no idea what she was talking about. Just get it over with, thought Abby, who had a sudden desperate desire not to be in that room any longer, to run as far away as she could from Jake Griffin’s blue eyes watching her in puzzlement from Clarke Griffin’s face.
“I’m very sorry, children,” she said abruptly. “Your parents are dead.” Then she stood from the bed and walked out of the room.
“You said what?” Jackson exclaimed as Abby poured coffee into three mugs and carried them into the living room.
“I just told them the truth,” she explained defensively. "They were just sitting there, staring at me, all confused, they thought it was Christmas or something, and I just - I know I said I'd do it, you offered, I said no, this is my fault, but the way they were looking at me, I just -"
“Abby, they’re kids. Not patients."
"You have to be a little more gentle with them than -"
“Jackson, I swear to God,” she snapped as the front door opened, “I am doing the best I can.”
“Of course you are,” said Aunt Vera, and instantly her arms were around them both, and for the first time since her office phone had rung what felt like a hundred years ago, Abby could breathe again.
Aunt Vera had been their father’s only sibling and was the last remaining member of the older generation of Griffins. She was aunt and grandparent and parent all rolled into one; the children called her Nana. Both Abby and Jackson let out quiet sighs of relief as she sailed into the room and embraced them and held them both close against her soft shoulders, and they both found themselves soothed, as they always were, by her air of effortless, gentle competence. Now there was a grownup here to take care of things.
Aunt Vera had been the Abby of her generation – the fixer, the level head, the conscience. And people like Abby – people who are always the shoulder and never the one who is leaning – tend to attach themselves with a desperately grateful fervor to the scant handful of people around them who can bear their weight. Abby had too many people relying on her for her to rely on supports that would not hold, and as much as she loved her baby brother, right now Aunt Vera was the only person who could help her.
“Oh, my darlings,” she said, as she pressed kisses into the tops of both their heads. “Oh my darlings. I am so sorry.” Her eyes glistened, but her jaw was set and firm. She did not cry. Aunt Vera had buried a husband, a brother, a sister-in-law and both her parents, and she would not be broken by grief. Abby was depending on it.
“Where are the children?” she asked, and Jackson could not restrain a gently reproving look in Abby’s direction.
“In the twins’ room. I was just there.”
“Do they know?”
“Yes,” said Abby hesitantly, “they know.”
“But?” prompted Vera, who could read her niece like a book.
“Abby’s bedside manner is a little rusty,” Jackson offered, and Abby shot him a dark glare.
Aunt Vera sighed. “Shall I –“
“Yes,” Abby cut her off desperately. “Please. Please, go fix it.” Vera placed a comforting hand on Abby’s shoulder and turned to make her way up the stairs.
“Do you realize,” Jackson said after a long silence, “that every living member of the Griffin family is currently in this house?”
“Don’t,” she said wearily. “Please. Just don’t.”
* * *
Octavia and Bellamy were still sitting exactly as Abby had left them, curled up together in Octavia’s bed. Their eyes were blank and unseeing. Clarke was very busy and important as she bustled about the room, and it took Aunt Vera a minute to understand what she was doing until she saw that the girl had neatly arrayed their three favorite stuffed toys – Clarke’s white kitten, Octavia’s pink dolphin, and Bellamy’s grinning green Tyrannosaurus Rex – at the foot of Octavia’s bed, facing out into the room like sentries. Only after this task was finished did Clarke climb back into the bed with the twins.
When they saw Aunt Vera, all three of them seemed to relax slightly. It wasn't only on Abby and Jackson that she exercised a power of reassurance and calm. “Hello, my chickadees,” she murmured quietly. “May I sit?” The twins were still unresponsive, but Clarke nodded. Aunt Vera sat down on the bed beside them, careful not to disturb the colorful stuffed guardians. The twins sat up, almost as one, and clung to her tightly.
“Nana, I want Mommy,” said Clarke, and Octavia began to cry. This puzzled Clarke very much.
“She doesn’t understand,” said Bellamy helplessly. “Aunt Abby was mean.”
“She wasn’t trying to be mean, darling,” said Aunt Vera. “She’s just very, very sad.”
“She sounded mean. She said mean things,” Octavia’s muffled voice came from buried deep in Aunt Vera’s chest.
“I know it sounded that way,” said Aunt Vera, stroking her hair. “Sometimes when Aunt Abby says things that are serious, they sound mean. But she was just trying to tell you something very important. Very important and sad. She loved your mother and father so, so much and she misses them as much as you do. Different people act different ways when they feel sad. Sometimes we cry, sometimes we sound angry, sometimes we don’t want to talk at all. Everyone is different. The important thing is that your Aunt Abby and Uncle Jackson and I are here for you, and we love you very, very much.”
“Are they . . . are they you-know-what, for real?” asked Octavia, lifting her face and looking at Aunt Vera tentatively, as if saying the word would somehow make things worse.
“Yes, angel, they are,” said Aunt Vera, pulling all three children tighter. “I'm so sorry. Yes, they are.”
Clarke, who had been participating very little in this conversation, piped up again. “Nana, when are Mommy and Daddy coming home?” The twins looked at her in near-panic.
“Sweetheart,” said Aunt Vera gently, “Mommy and Daddy love you all very much, but they can't come home anymore. They're in Heaven now.”
“With Jesus?” asked Clarke, who paid only intermittent attention in Sunday School unless there was coloring.
“Yes. With Jesus.”
“Like in the sky?” This was interesting. Clarke was puzzled by the logistics of this. It seemed like it might involve learning to fly, like Peter Pan and Wendy, which she wasn't sure her mother would enjoy very much.
“In a way, yes.”
“When will they be done?”
“When will they get done with Jesus and come back here?”
“They're not coming back, sweetheart. That's not how it works.”
“Were we bad?” asked Octavia in a small voice, tears shining on her cheeks in the dim light. Aunt Vera pulled her into her lap and held her tightly.
“You are three wonderful, beautiful, perfect children, and your parents loved you more than anything on God's earth. You have done nothing wrong, do you understand that? This isn't because you were bad. This is because . . .” She thought for a moment. “Because . . . because Jesus needs them and they had to go to Heaven. But they will still be watching you every day, even if you can't see them.”
“Like, invisible?” Bellamy was skeptical. He was a level-headed and literal boy, very much like his Aunt Abby, and lately he had been experiencing some grave concerns with his second-grade religion class and some of the information the teacher was providing. There were things about bread becoming flesh (which Dad had said meant meat) and people coming up and down from the sky and things turning into other things which he had a hard time crediting. Invisible parents seemed like something he would hear in religion class from Father Wallace, and not from Nana, who seemed like a very sensible person and who knew a lot about prehistoric times and outer space and other things that interested Bellamy. He was torn between an implicit trust based on years of knowing that Nana was always right, and warning Nana that she might have been the victim of a scam.
“Not invisible, not like in Harry Potter, not the way you're thinking of it,” said Aunt Vera gently. “Watching you from Heaven. Like Jesus does.”
“But if they're watching us then they'll know that we're sad and then they'll be sad,” said Octavia with great concern. “Should we pretend to be happy so we don't make Mom upset?”
Aunt Vera shook her head. “Whatever you are feeling is okay. If you want to cry, you should cry." Octavia burrowed her face deeper into Aunt Vera's soft chest, and Clarke and Bellamy moved in closer too. “I know, angels,” she said softly, gathering them to her. “I know. It's awful. But it won't always be awful. Someday, and you can't imagine it now, but someday, you will be able to think of them without being sad all the time. But for now, you just tell me what you need and we'll do it.”
“Do we have to go back to school tomorrow?” asked Bellamy, worried.
Nana shook her head. “No, I don't think so. Not unless you want to.”
“We don't,” Octavia and Bellamy said in unison. Clarke looked relieved and hugged Octavia tightly.
“Then you don't have to. But for now, I think you should sleep.”
“Can we sleep in Mommy and Daddy’s bed?” said Clarke.
“Of course,” said Aunt Vera.
“Are Aunt Abby and Uncle Jackson staying?” asked Bellamy. Aunt Vera nodded.
“Yes,” she said, “they’ll sleep in here. And I’ll be downstairs. So if you need anything at all, you’ll know where to find us.”
Octavia climbed out of her bed and helped Clarke down, their matching flannel pajamas covered in pink rosebuds sending a fierce pang through Aunt Vera’s heart. Bellamy, in his blue dinosaur pajamas, stayed behind to gather up the three important toys and then trooped down the hall after his sisters to their parents’ bedroom. They climbed into the wide, soft bed, all tangled together in a clump of arms and legs, with tiny Clarke in the middle. Aunt Vera tucked the covers around them and carefully replaced the toys at the foot of the bed, feeling the children’s soft teary sniffles ease ever so slightly. Their defenses were back up. The cat, the dolphin and the dinosaur would protect them. This little corner of their world had been safely reclaimed. Aunt Vera gave them one last look, her heart aching with ferocious love, and closed the door behind her.
* * *
“You’re meeting with the attorneys on Monday?” asked Aunt Vera, once they were seated around the dining room table, a pot of coffee and a plate of sandwiches in front of them. Abby nodded, her mouth full of ham and cheese. She had no idea how long it had been since she had eaten anything, since this day had felt a hundred hours long.
“I went over all the papers with Jake a couple years ago when he and Callie updated their wills,” she said. “It’s all in the safe-deposit box in the basement. The power of attorney stuff, the bank and house information, the kids’ birth certificates and Social Security cards and passports, everything.”
“They were very organized,” observed Aunt Vera. “That’s good. People aren’t, always, and it can lead to disaster.”
“No, I was very organized,” Abby said a little sharply. “Callie thought it was morbid and Jake made fun of me.”
“Well, you did the right thing,” said Aunt Vera encouragingly. “You know exactly what the terms are, you know all the details, you already have all the information. You’ve made things as uncomplicated as a hideously complicated situation like this can possibly be. An ounce of preparation, darling.”
“That’s what I told them.”
“So you’ll be moving in here?” asked Jackson. Abby nodded. “Do you want me to . . . I mean, should I – Will you need me to –“
“You don’t have to move in, Jackson,” his sister said, and his face collapsed in relief. “This is on me, not on you.”
“Not that the kids won’t need you too,” Aunt Vera reassured him hastily. “But –“
“But Abby is the oldest,” Jackson agreed. “And she’s, you know, Abby.”
“Thank you, I think."
“There’s one in every generation of the Griffin family,” said Aunt Vera. Though she had told them this many, many times before, Abby never tired of hearing it. “There’s always one Griffin who carries the weight of all the others. It was my grandmother, and then it was my father, and then it was me, and now it’s you.”
“And it’ll be Bellamy next,” said Jackson, but Aunt Vera shook her head.
“I don’t know,” she said thoughtfully, thinking about the three talisman animals laid out in a row at the foot of the bed upstairs. “My money’s on Clarke.”
“Did you manage to get them to sleep?” asked Abby, looking at the clock with concern.
“I think they’ll be all right. I put them in their parents’ bed.”
“You did what?” exclaimed Abby.
“That’s where they wanted to be.”
“You don’t think that’s going to freak them out?”
“They’re already freaked out, darling.”
“Yes, but –“
“They have the animals, they’ll be all right.”
“The dolphin, the T-Rex and the cat,” chimed in Jackson. “How do you not know about this?”
“Jackson,” said Aunt Vera repressively.
“They have a million stuffed animals,” said Abby, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Yeah, but these are the favorite ones,” said Jackson, “so they keep them with them pretty much all the time. Clarke has the white cat – her name is Princess, by the way. Bellamy’s is the big green stuffed Tyrannosaurus Rex. His name is Murphy. And Octavia’s is the pink dolphin, whose name is Dolphin. He’s kind of the spokesman.”
“Dolphin holds regular conferences with Princess and Murphy,” explained Aunt Vera. “He speaks for all of them. So if Octavia tells you that Dolphin told her something –“
“That means it’s a general consensus,” said Jackson. “That it’s what all three of the kids are thinking.”
“How about I just talk to them like normal human beings instead of using a pink stuffed dolphin as an intermediary?”
“Because they’re traumatized right now –“
“Yeah, well, so am I.”
“ . . . and because you scare them.”
“I scare them?” Abby set down her coffee cup on the table just a little too hard, and the loud noise jarred them all. She took a deep breath to collect herself. “How do I scare them?”
“You forget that they’re children,” Aunt Vera pointed out. “They love you, but they’re not entirely sure that they like you. You’re going to need to get to know them. You’re going to need to meet them at their level.”
“I know they’re children, Aunt Vera,” said Abby tightly. “I think I’m very reasonable with them. I understand that they need a little extra breathing room right now with what they’ve been through. But I don’t think communicating through a Lisa Frank toy is going to be the thing that makes the difference.”
Aunt Vera started to say something, but something in the way Abby was clutching her coffee mug in hands so tight their knuckles turned white gave her pause, and she decided everything else could wait.
“I think it’s time for bed, my darlings,” she said. “There’s a great deal to do tomorrow and we all need sleep.”
Abby nodded. “You two go on to bed,” she said, gathering up the dishes. “I’ll be along in a minute.”
Jackson kissed his sister on the cheek and went upstairs, while Aunt Vera lingered for a few moments longer in the kitchen doorway, watching her niece’s deft hands as she washed coffee cups. There was something in the way that Abby carried herself – that ramrod-straight spine, the elegant curve of the back of her neck beneath her soft dark hair – that spoke of a rigid loneliness, an intentional distance from the maelstrom of the human world. There was so much weight on those small shoulders, and so little that anyone could do about it.
“When does it get easier?” Abby asked her suddenly, not turning around. “How many times do I have to go through this before it stops feeling like I’m being buried alive?”
Aunt Vera was silent. They rarely discussed the death of Abby’s parents or grandparents, but she knew the girl well enough to know that the scars were always there, just under the surface. How many times, she thought to herself wearily. How damn many. But this was different. This was Jake and Callie, and they were too young, they were half a century away from what should have been their time, and there was nothing Vera could say or do to make any of it better.
Abby turned around then to see some deep emotion blazing in Aunt Vera’s eyes, and they looked at each other for a long moment before Vera surprised Abby by her next choice of words.
“’I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground,’” she said softly, then kissed her niece on the cheek and departed, leaving a wake of rosemary-scented calm behind her. Abby was feverishly grateful for that soft figure with her untidy copper-gray hair as she watched her close the door of the guest room behind her. She placed the last mug on the yellow tea towel next to the sink to dry, then climbed the stairs towards the twins’ room, where Jackson was already contorting his lanky frame into Bellamy’s twin bed, lit by a soft rosy glow from the Disney princess night-light in Octavia’s corner of the room and the glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling over Bellamy’s. Abby climbed in across from him, rustling the flannel sheets as she tried to make herself comfortable, and the poem’s final lines floated into her mind with a piercing clarity. She whispered them to herself over and over, like a mantra, as she tossed and turned in Octavia’s narrow bed.
“I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.”
The poem Vera and Abby are referencing is called "Dirge Without Music" by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Listen to fellow "The 100" shipper @reblogginhood read it aloud in her beautiful voice here - http://reblogginhood.tumblr.com/post/117652066493/for-grrlinthefireplace-the-first-of-the-bazillion - or read the text below.
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.
The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.
Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
Chapter 6: Marcus Kane
The car accident had happened on Thursday.
By the time the weekend was over, the list of new things Abby had learned to hate in the past three days – including but not limited to tuna casseroles, sympathy phone calls, shiny smiling families in holiday commercials, and snow – had reached a considerable length. Upon careful reflection, however, she decided that the one she hated worst of all was obituaries.
Probably nobody liked obituaries – probably even the people who wrote them secretly wished they had other jobs and said vague things when they went to high school reunions like “I write for the paper” instead of admitting what they actually did – but they had gone very rapidly from something that Abby had never particularly considered in her life to her deepest and most violent loathing in all of the world, the magnitude of which staggered her. They filled her with an echoing, hollow sadness she could scarcely bear. She couldn’t have fully articulated it to someone else – had tried, a little, to explain it to Jackson and then given up – but it was piercingly clear in her mind, and was something to do with the weight of them. The density of all that grief. An entire section of the newspaper devoted to nostalgic remembrances written by people trying to hold back their sorrow. Tiny windows into the life of someone who had been loved and lost. “Her favorite flower was daisies.” “He loved trains.” “She won six national awards for her Lady Baltimore cake.” “He was a devoted grandfather.” “She was a beloved school librarian.” All real people, all loved by someone. Why, why, why? Why pretend that it was a golden anniversary toast? Why call it a “Celebration of Life”? Didn’t these people understand that if any one of us ever learned to think of the dead – all the dead, everyone’s dead – as real people, people who had been loved, that the world would stop moving, actually stop spinning altogether on its axis, because the weight of all that weeping would make us all collectively unable to move on? Who could live like this? Who could read these pages every day, witnessing the intimate private grief of all those parents and children, husbands and wives, and let themselves feel any of it? “He is gone and we are broken without him and nothing will ever be the same again.” What more is there, really, to say?
Spouses. Spouses were the worst. It was excruciating. It made her never want to get married. Because which was worse? “Betty is survived by Paul, her husband of fifty-two years,” a statement which would break your spirit completely under the crushing burden of pity for poor lost Paul, who probably never cooked a meal in his life and doesn't know where Betty kept the broom, and will live out the rest of his days sitting in a recliner in front of his TV eating frozen dinners reheated by some perpetually irritable niece who wishes Paul and Betty's children lived nearby so she didn't have to take precious time from her spin classes to come over here and make Paul dinner like this was 1957? Or, is it worse the other way, is it worse to say “Betty was preceded in death by her beloved husband Paul,” which only sounds cheerful and silver-lining-ish if you're a person who believes in the afterlife (which Abby wasn’t sure she was). And this scenario is no improvement, of course, because now here you have the specter of all the years Betty spent alone without Paul, sitting in her dining room with no one to talk to, staring at the fading wallpaper and eating alone at a table designed for six. Honestly the thought of it was enough to make you crawl underneath the blankets and never come out again.
Of course, there was a third story, a very different story, the one which Abby was currently struggling to find any remotely appropriate words for. Because sometimes, every once in awhile, you could dispense with the soul-shattering pity for the lonely surviving spouse and introduce a new kind of horror with the words, “They died together, simultaneously, in a fiery car wreck.” No sunshine and roses, no nostalgic soft-focus flashbacks. Just hot smoking metal and ambulance sirens and two dead bodies. That was what she wanted to write. That was the only thing, in this moment, that felt sufficiently true.
But Aunt Vera would kill her, and Jackson would sigh, and everyone at the funeral Mass would stare at her like she was some kind of monster, so instead it was all about Jake’s groundbreaking research on industrial pollution in the Columbia River and Callie winning the Governor’s Award for her work with the domestic violence shelter, it was all “church choir” this and “soccer mom” that, it was a lovely rosy portrait in bullet points of all their greatest achievements that would never in a hundred years be able to capture a fraction of the people that they really were. Or why Abby had loved them. Or how the hell she was going to keep herself from permanently screwing up their children.
She closed her laptop with a decisive click and leaned back against the sofa cushions, wishing for the millionth time in three days that there was someone, anyone, who could carry this burden for her. But that person – those people – were gone. She had no one but herself. She had no one to lean on when everyone else was leaning on her. Jackson and Aunt Vera would do as much as they could, but it was going to be her living in this house. It was going to be her, now, the one who had never wanted children, who had to become the parent. Everyone was looking to her to take care of this, and she had to do it right.
And she would be doing it alone.
There were very, very few times when Abby wished she was married. She’d come dangerously close to it once, and had very clearly decided it wasn’t for her. She had lived alone a long time and could fix her own flat tires, kill her own spiders, install new electronics without a manual, climb up on the roof to clean out the gutters by herself, and handle all the other things that sitcoms seemed to indicate that households needed men for. She had her family, her colleagues and her students, so she wasn’t lacking for social interaction; and as for other, more intimate kinds of loneliness, and what she might or might not do to assuage them . . . Well. Those were things that well-brought-up people did not discuss. Regardless, Abby was thirty-eight years old and her last (and only) serious relationship had flamed out rather spectacularly four years ago – there’d been nobody since – and yet she had felt for the most part, when she looked at her life, entirely satisfied. Content. Happiness didn’t always look like what Hollywood told you it would look like; not everyone gets wild romance in New York and Paris, after all. Sometimes happiness is a class full of bright, competent students who showed up on time with their reading actually completed and asked smart questions, followed by dinner and a movie on the couch with your siblings and returning home to a glass of wine and Jane Austen in bed. That was plenty. She was fine.
She had been fine.
But, of course, that was before.
The ache she was experiencing now was more than just grief, she realized; it was the sudden realization that what she had thought of as her own self-reliance was really, all this time, a quiet dependence on someone else to help her shoulder the family’s burdens, leaving her free to focus entirely on herself. While Jake was on top of things, there had been no reason for Abby to worry about the family. While Callie was the family matriarch, Abby could be a supporting player. She was valued, she had skills the others lacked, but she was not the anchor. She could move about freely.
But, since following that particular line of thought would end in nothing but heartache, she took a deep breath, swallowed the Dark Thing back down into the pit of her stomach again, and got up off the couch to go make herself look presentable. She had to be at the attorney’s office in less than an hour. The fate of three small children was about to be legally and permanently placed into her hands, she reflected, so she ought to at least brush her hair.
* * *
“Miller and Miller, please hold. Miller and Miller, please hold.” The blonde receptionist barely looked up at Abby as she waved her into the lobby and motioned her to take a seat. The firm was small – a father-and-son team with just a few associates. Abby had lobbied hard, four years ago after Clarke was born when everyone in the family updated their wills, for Jake to go with Wheaton Bartlett Pettygrove, the largest and most-respected family law firm in the city, but Jake had gone to high school with David Miller and claimed David was the only attorney he trusted.
“Miller and Miller, please hold. Miller and Miller, please hold.”
The waiting area was small, though reasonably elegant and comfortable, and Abby – who had arrived early – had it to herself except for one other person (a tall dark-haired man who needed a haircut) who arrived a minute or two after she did and had sat down in one of the other leather armchairs with his back to her. Abby picked up a two-month-old New Yorker and began flipping through it as she listened to the receptionist’s singsong refrain. Who here was so goddamned important that everyone in the greater Portland area was perfectly willing to brave the desolate no-man’s-land of tinkling classical hold music until Miller or Miller or one of their lesser minions were finally at their leisure? Abby raised her eyes from the article she had been reading about the National Zoo in Washington D.C. to glare at the receptionist, watching her send phone call after phone call into the abyss of waiting on hold, and felt the girl’s chirpy voice begin to grate on the inside of her skull. Had anyone who placed a call in the last half hour had actually been connected to anyone they were trying to reach? Were they all just on hold forever? What the hell were they paying her for? Was she someone's niece? How did she get this job? Shouldn't a law firm receptionist know something about the law? Was she chewing gum? Abby had taken a sudden, irrational dislike to this girl and badly wanted to be rude to her. She briefly considered walking over to the desk and saying something scathing, just as the incessant rhythmic torture of “Miller and Miller, please hold” ceased abruptly and was replaced by blissful silence. Abby looked over and saw that the girl was on the phone, listening intently to someone. She hung up and looked over at Abby and smiled, with real warmth, and Abby felt a little kick of guilt in the pit of her stomach. The girl was very pretty and very young. She was a kid. Couldn’t have been more than twenty. Maybe she was new and just figuring out the switchboard. Maybe there was another receptionist in another office who directed the calls where they were actually supposed to go. Maybe Abby could stop judging people as incompetent just because she was having a terrible day.
She was so busy feeling relieved that she hadn’t actually gone over to yell at her for not answering the phones that she didn’t realize the girl was speaking to her.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I said Mr. Miller is free, you can both go on in. Left at the end of the hall, then right.”
“Did you say ‘both?’” Abby started to say, but the phone rang again and “Miller and Miller, please hold” commenced anew. She picked up her purse and coat to head towards the door the receptionist had indicated and realized that the shaggy-haired guy was following her. Evidently their appointments were for the same time; Abby hoped for her sake that Jake Griffin’s will rated a high enough priority that she got Miller Senior. Please let this guy have the kid lawyer.
They walked in slightly awkward silence down the hall, left then right as instructed, and found themselves suddenly in front of a conference room, where a young man who must have been Nathan Miller shook their hands one by one.
“Ms. Griffin. Mr. Kane. Please come in.”
He was so clearly waiting for both of them that Abby simply stared at him blankly in utter bafflement, as the other man looked up with a start and turned to Abby, eyes wide.
“Griffin?” he said, as though the name had startled the life out of him. Miller looked uncomfortable. “Abby Griffin?”
“Obviously,” she retorted, her confusion growing with every passing moment. “What is –“
“Why don’t you come in, please,” Miller said again, holding the conference room door open and ushering them out of the hallway where people were beginning to stare. Abby – at a loss for how else to proceed – followed him inside.
The man from the lobby could not stop staring at her as she seated herself at the large, expensive-looking walnut table removed her jacket and smoothed her skirt. His searching gaze made her uncomfortable and she couldn’t quite bring herself to make eye contact, but she sized him up out of the corner of her eye as she pulled the stack of files she’d brought out of her purse. He was very tall, and handsome in a scruffy, Irish kind of way, and his clothes were simple but expensive – dark jeans, impossibly soft gray sweater, black leather jacket. The same wave of pointless rage that had made her want to strangle the receptionist came over her again; for Christ’s sake, you at least put on a goddamned tie for your lawyer, she thought irritably.
And that was when she looked up, and their eyes met, and she got her first good look at his face. And then it clicked.
She had been so baffled at the idea that someone else was here for the same meeting she was that she hadn’t heard what Nathan Miller had actually said. She hadn’t registered his name.
“Jesus,” she exclaimed involuntarily. “Are you Marcus Kane?”
They both looked at her in surprise, though for very different reasons.
“Obviously,” said Kane, imitating her sarcastic tone from earlier, which made her blood boil.
“What in God’s name are you doing here?”
“What do you mean, what is he doing here?” asked Miller, confounded. “Ms. Griffin, all of this was clearly laid out in the new will.”
“What new will?” Kane and Abby repeated, temporarily unified in their confusion. Miller went pale and looked from one to the other of them, unsure how to proceed.
“I’m sorry, is this not about the motorcycle?” Kane asked him. Abby hadn’t thought she could get any angrier, but life is always full of surprises.
“The motorcycle?” she snapped. “What the hell does Jake’s motorcycle have to do with the kids?”
“What do the kids have to do with Jake’s motorcycle?”
“Okay, I’m going to go get my dad – I mean, I’m going to go get Mr. Miller for you,” said the young man a little desperately, and fled the room as fast as he could, leaving the two of them alone, glowering at each other from across the table.
“You’ve got a lot of nerve showing up here to collect your prize when he’s not even in the ground yet,” Abby hissed.
“To collect my prize?” he fired back, incredulous. “Are you kidding me? Jake Griffin’s the only family I have left. I didn’t come to Portland to raid his garage for free shit, I came because my brother is dead. But funeral guests don’t usually get called in to meet with the attorney, so I assumed the only logical reason I was here was because of the will. Jake said I could have the motorcycle.”
“Half brother,” Abby found herself passive-aggressively correcting him, and was pleased to see his jaw clench with annoyance. It felt good to make somebody mad. “Which I’m sure was your excuse for why you’ve never come out here to visit him once since his kids were born.”
“You don’t know the first thing about me or my life,” he said, and would have said more if David Miller hadn’t walked in just then, shaken both their hands and sat down at the head of the table.
“I understand from Nathan that there appear to have been some . . . irregularities in this case,” he said calmly.
“Ms. Griffin here was just accusing me of –“
“It’s Doctor Griffin, thank you, and –“
“That’s enough,” said David Miller, and even though his voice was very mild and very polite, something in it shut them both right up. “Dr. Griffin,” he said, turning to her, “I’m sorry but I understood that you had gone through all your sister and brother-in-law’s legal and financial arrangements with them.”
“I did,” she said. “Jake and I did all of it together. I have the will, I have the paperwork on the house, I have the girls’ documentation – medical records, all that.”
“Then how – forgive me, I don’t mean to doubt you – but how is it possible that you don’t know about the arrangement with Mr. Kane?”
“I’m sorry, what arrangement with Mr. Kane?” asked Kane, and David Miller – who had, so far, held out much better than his son had – began to look just the faintest bit panicky.
“You don’t know either?” he asked.
“Know what?” Kane snapped.
“That you two have shared custody of the children.”
Chapter 7: The Will
The silence that followed these words was like no other silence any of them had ever experienced.
Abby stared at Kane. Kane stared at Abby. The air around the conference table was so thick with unasked questions that the confusion felt almost palpable. It was Abby, after a long moment, who finally spoke first.
“Okay,” she said slowly. “Start over. I came here a little under five years ago – just after Clarke was born – and the four of us, you and me and Jake and Callie, we sat here and we went through all the logistics and I witnessed the will.”
“The will that said that in the event that anything happened to Jake and Callie, I would be appointed sole guardian of the children. And you asked about joint guardianship, just in case it was too much for one person to handle, but we decided it was too much pressure to put on Aunt Vera at her time of life and Jackson was still in college then. So it was just me.”
“I mean, I’m not hallucinating, right? I was here. We did have that exact conversation.”
“Of course,” said David Miller, a little impatiently, “and then six months later Jake came back to draft the new one.”
“Jake came back alone?” Abby stared at him.
“Yes, he said he’d discussed it with both of you,” explained Miller, “that the three of you had had another conversation about joint guardianship and that he’d decided caring for three children was too much to ask one person to handle alone, because he didn’t want you to have to quit your job. So we drafted a new version” – he pulled a sheaf of papers out of the file in front of him and handed one copy to Kane and one to Abby – “wherein joint guardianship of Bellamy, Octavia and Clarke would be shared between his brother and Callie’s sister. Obviously neither of us found this scenario likely, with both of them young and in good health, but he felt confident that should the worst occur, this would be the best thing for the children. And also for you.”
“There must have been a mistake,’ she said helplessly. “Or . . . I don’t know. He was playing a joke.”
“Thanks a lot,” retorted Kane.
“Well, what do you expect?” Abby exploded. “Did you think I would be happy about this? As if this whole situation weren’t already the worst kind of disaster, now I’m being asked to believe that somehow Jake would entrust the care of his children to an alcoholic, womanizing –“
“Whoa there,” Kane interrupted irritably, “you don’t even know me.”
“Oh, I know all about you,” she said. “I've heard about all the pranks you pulled in college, the all-night benders, the shoplifting -”
“That was once.”
“Mr. Miller, there’s no way this can be right. Jake would never do this.” She swallowed hard. “Jake would not have made this decision without me. I know he wouldn’t.”
“It appears that he did,” said David Miller gently, and something inside of her collapsed. All the fight went out of her suddenly, and she felt nothing but weary exhaustion. “We can go over the details more thoroughly,” Miller continued, “but the gist of it is that the house belongs to both of you, and all the assets are held in trust for the children, with the exception of a separate account for their personal expenses. The account is quite sufficient to provide for the possibility that one of you might wish to quit your job in order to stay home.”
“Sure,” said Kane. “I don’t mind.”
Abby stared. “What are you talking about?”
“He said the reason Jake wanted there to be two of us was at least partly to make sure you didn’t have to give up your job,” said Kane reasonably. “That must mean you have a job you don’t want to give up. I don’t hate mine, exactly, the money’s really good and everything, but it’s not like being a Wall Street suit was what I always wanted to be when I grew up. I’m happy to stay home with the kids.”
“You’re agreeing to this?”
“You’re not?” retorted Kane. “They’re my brother’s children. They’re all the family I’ve got left. And he wanted me to do this. Of course I’m agreeing to it.”
“I was perfectly capable of handling this on my own.”
“Well, Jake didn’t seem to think so.”
David Miller cleared his throat. “Dr. Griffin, if I may – this is rather, I suppose, a delicate matter, but best to clear it up right away . . . You do understand of course that you would serve as legal co-guardians and there is of course no presumption on anyone’s part that you and Mr. Kane would actually be married. That’s quite unnecessary, I assure you.”
“’Unnecessary’ is certainly one way of putting it,” Kane muttered under his breath.
“Don’t be sarcastic,” she snapped. “This is my family we’re talking about.”
“Mine too,” he fired back, with a flash of real, cold anger, “which you seem to keep forgetting,” and Abby shut up.
She knew very little about Marcus Kane. She knew he lived in New York, that he had a job in finance and made a lot of money. She knew that he had been the son of Jake’s father by a previous marriage, and that when that wife – like all the others before and after – realized what a dirtbag she’d married and split, taking her child with her, she had taken refuge for a few years living with Marcus’ mother in her apartment. Unified by their shared regret at having married Carl Kane, and their relief at having escaped before his violent mood swings turned their focus to the children, Marcus and Jake’s mothers had forged an unusual but powerful friendship, and for five years the boys were raised like brothers. Then Jake’s mother had gotten a job in Oregon, a good one she couldn’t say no to, and Jake had moved across the country and said goodbye to the only big brother he’d ever known. They stayed in touch all through high school, and reconnected again when Jake moved back to New York for college. But Marcus didn’t like the West Coast, and his job in New York kept him busy; he had been closing some multi-million dollar land deal for a client and missed the wedding, and he’d never once been out to Oregon to visit Jake since the kids were born, although she knew that Jake had flown out there a handful of times to see him. Callie had met him herself only twice, and Abby never. He had taken on a kind of mythical status to Abby and Jackson and even Callie, to whom he was something of a private family joke – Jake’s ne’er-do-well half-brother with a million-dollar loft and a juvenile criminal record, who had slept with every leggy size-zero supermodel in the New York metropolitan area. They joked about him among themselves so often – every time a hotshot Wall Street asshole was in the news for bulldozing a community center to build condos or throwing their two-year-old a $400,000 birthday party, they would email each other the article links with a joke about how Jake’s brother was at it again. After a few years Abby had, quite honestly, forgotten Marcus Kane actually existed except as an excuse for the game. She hadn’t actually remembered, until she looked up and recognized his face sitting across from her, that he was a real person.
“You really didn’t know?” she asked him suddenly, her voice flat and tired. She didn’t sound combative anymore, just puzzled and sad, and it took some of the fight out of him too.
“No,” he said honestly, and it helped a little – although he said it a little bitterly, as though there was still a part of him petty enough that he wished he had known, that he wished he’d had something to lord over her.
Or maybe he was bitter that his life had been transformed in an instant without anyone asking him what he actually thought about it. Welcome to my world, she thought, and he looked at her suddenly with something like understanding, making her wonder just how easy it was for him to read what she was thinking. She hadn’t wanted a strange man underfoot at all, let alone one that seemed able to divine her thoughts.
“I’m going to go make you both copies of the new documentation,” said Miller, “and I’ll send out for some lunch, shall I? We’re going to be here for awhile longer. In the meantime, I suggest the two of you try getting to know each other.” He rose to leave the room, then turned back in the doorway. “And if either of you feels compelled to start throwing things,” he said politely, “please aim away from the windows.” And then he was gone.
“What are you thinking right now?” Kane asked, his tone a little cautious but not unfriendly, as Miller shut the door behind him. Abby sighed and rubbed her temples.
“Right now,” she said wearily, “I’m just wondering what in the ever-loving hell my brother is going to say.”
* * *
“Jake did what?” exclaimed Jackson into the phone so loudly that Abby had to hold it away from her ear.
“Keep it down,” she hissed. “I went into the hallway, not to the moon. He’ll hear you.”
“I’m sorry, I just – I can’t believe it.”
“I can’t believe he would have made this decision without consulting you.”
“That’s what I said. He had to have known how I’d feel about it.”
“I wonder if Callie knew.”
“She’d have said something, you know she would have. She’d never have kept this to herself.”
“Well, maybe,” conceded Jackson gently, “except –“
“Except that they didn’t think it would ever actually come up,” he said. “The only way this would ever matter would be if they both died before the kids turned eighteen. Nobody would ever have predicted that would happen.” Abby was silent. “Jake loved his brother,” said Jackson. “It probably made him feel good to know that if something happened to him, that at least Marcus wouldn’t lose every tie to family. It doesn’t mean he didn’t think you could handle it on your own.”
“Then why didn’t he tell me?”
“I don’t know,” said Jackson. “We might never know. But right now there’s nothing you can do about that part.”
“I hate it when you’re right.”
“What’s he like?”
“Awful. I hate him.”
“Why?” asked Jackson, his voice infuriatingly reasonable. “What did he do?”
Abby thought for a moment, and was forced to admit that Kane hadn’t actually done anything that would sound reasonable if she said it out loud to Jackson. The motorcycle thing was defensible, really. And he’d only snapped at her because she’d snapped first. She knew she didn’t like him, but she also knew that she didn’t have a reason for it that would hold any water with Jackson.
“Nothing yet,” she muttered darkly, “but he’s going to.”
“Give me one good example of any time when Jake Griffin made a decision even half this significant without thinking it all the way through.”
“Three kids are a lot of work, Abby,” he pointed out, “and you’re already –“ He stopped short.
“I’m already what?” she said snappishly. “In over my head? I’m already screwing this up?”
“That’s not what I’m saying.”
“I could have handled this alone,” she insisted. “I wanted to do it alone.”
“That’s the problem,” said Jackson quietly. “You’re thinking about what’s best for you.” Abby was effectively silenced by this, and Jackson would have said more but stopped short at a noise in the background. “Hang on, it’s Aunt Vera,” he said, and Abby could hear the muffled background sounds of Jackson setting the phone down and filling in Aunt Vera. All in all, it sounded from the lack of obscenity-laced exclamations that Aunt Vera was taking the news better than anyone else had so far.
“What did she say?” asked Abby when she heard Jackson pick the phone back up again.
“She wants to know if he’s cute.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake.”
“She says it’s a valid question.”
“She knows I’m not marrying him, right?”
“She knows,” said Jackson, with a faint hint of a smile in his voice, “but she says it will be less obnoxious having a stranger underfoot all day long for the rest of our lives if he’s at least pretty to look at.”
“I’m hanging up now,” said Abby, and she did.
Miller still hadn’t returned by the time she came back into the room, and Marcus was on his phone, texting with someone whose name (Abby wasn’t really reading over his shoulder, she just happened to walk behind him on the way back to her seat and her eye just happened to glance down, that’s all, easy mistake, it’s not like she had any reason to care what he was saying about her or anything, because that would be crazy) was apparently “Raven.” Of course he’s dating a woman named Raven, Abby thought dismissively. She’s probably half his age. Probably a stripper. Probably has purple hair. She probably rides a motorcycle too. Ugh.
She sat there in silence for a moment, fiddling absently with her own phone to avoid having to look at him and sending quiet hate rays to all the men in her life – to Jake, to both of the Millers, to Jackson, to this asshole – and felt the silence around her grow hard and cold. She knew Kane could sense her annoyance, and that it made him both irritated and uncomfortable. Good. She didn’t owe him comfort. She didn’t owe him anything. She held her anger close, deep inside her, like a thick plate of metal armor around her heart. It was so easy to keep the Dark Thing chained up when she was annoyed. It was so much easier not to feel things that way.
Then he spoke, suddenly, out of nowhere, and his words completely unstitched her.
“I’m so sorry,” he said, in a warm voice that pulsed with emotion. Her head snapped up and she stared at him, uncomprehending. “I haven’t said it yet,” he went on. “I should have. It’s unforgivable that I didn’t. I can’t even imagine what – I mean, I can, a little, but you were here. You were the one that was here, and she was your sister. I’m so sorry,” he said again, and there was so much kindness in it that she thought it would rip her open entirely. “You loved your sister,” he said. “I loved my brother. We’re in this together.”
“I loved Jake too,” she said very softly, and he nodded.
“I know you did,” he said, in a voice so full of unexpected comprehension that it struck her suddenly half-dizzy with panic. “I know. I’m so sorry.”
Chapter 8: Revelations
A reading from the Book of Revelation.
I, John, saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them as their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.”
The One who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give a gift from the spring of life-giving water. The victor will inherit these gifts, and I shall be his God, and he will be my son.”
The word of the Lord .
* * *
Abby leaned back against the cushions, sighed and stretched, sending the stack of papers in her lap scattering across the white-and-rose quilt on her lap. She had moved into the guest room when Aunt Vera and Jackson went back home; Aunt Vera had tried to talk her into taking Jake and Callie’s room, but it was still the only place the girls could sleep. Behold, I make all things new. It reminded her of those creatures of Greek mythology, like sphinxes or oracles, who would lure you into doom by handing you just one tiny, easily-misinterpreted fragment of the truth, and leave you to destroy yourself with it. “Behold,” thunders the God of Abraham, “I make all things new,” and technically He does, but what He doesn't say, what He crucially leaves out, is that making things new requires the destruction of the past, it requires the old order to pass away, and sometimes that old order involved some things you can't live without. The old order had a sister you loved. The old order had a brother-in-law who kept the family together. The old order had a sense of stability that kept everyone from skidding off the rails. So don’t come to me with this “I make all things new” business and expect me to be happy about it, she thought to herself irritably, unless we all get the chance to review the fine print first.
A part of Abby thought it might be a good thing, particularly in times like these, to be able to lean on some kind of faith. But since she had none at the moment, since she had only herself, she would have to be enough.
She gathered up the scattered heaps of paper –printouts of potential Mass readings; a to-do list for the Altar Society in coordinating the reception, as if anyone could spare time to answer questions about what color forks were needed at a time like this; the daily stack of cards and letters of condolence that flooded in through the mail every morning; receipts from the funeral home, from the florist, from the print shop making the programs; and a half-mocking list of banned songs for the funeral which Jake had left in the safe-deposit box with the will. This she took up and re-read for the dozenth time, feeling the closest she had felt all week to hearing Jake's voice in her head, to any of this feeling real.
BANNED UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES: “On Eagle's Wings”, “Amazing Grace”, “I Am the Bread of Life”, anything drippy, sappy, or overly funereal (they’ll all know it’s a funeral, Abs, you won’t have to remind them), anything with Latin, anything involving a harp in any way.
STRONGLY RECOMMENDED: Jake would like the casket to be carried in by Stormtroopers as the Imperial March plays in the background. If this is beyond the scope of the Saint Philip Neri Sunday Morning Chamber Choir, a recording can be substituted. Jake is not fussy. [MARGIN NOTE: Hi Abby, if I die first and can’t forcibly stop you please do not actually do this or I will haunt you to the end of your days, THANKS SIS LOVE YOU BYE]
If Stormtroopers are not available, or if a lighter tone is preferred, Jake will also accept the “Ghostbusters” theme as entrance music.
For the Recessional, when everyone's weepy and maudlin: Jake votes “Piano Man,” because it makes him feel what Callie describes as “Man Feelings,” and rebukes Callie's claim that it's because it's the only song he knows all the words to. Callie’s vote is “Africa” by Toto,
but honestly you could ask Callie to pick a song for literally any circumstance and she would always pick “Africa” by Toto, so DON’T TRUST CALLIE. [MARGIN NOTE: Ignore this last part, it’s clearly the work of a delusional mind]
OTHER CHOICES TO CONSIDER: Callie thinks she saw part of a movie on TV once that ended with a funeral where “Bittersweet Symphony” by The Verve was playing and it sounded pretty cool. Also “Super Trouper” by ABBA is WAY catchy and its lyrics are total gibberish, it could literally be about anything, so if you need something more upbeat, that’s a good option. Also both parties agree that depressing Irish drinking songs or murder ballads might strike a nice, appropriately somber tone to encourage all participants to reflect upon their own mortality; though as Callie points out, since the odds are greater than zero that Jake will meet his eventual end by her shoving him off a cliff after he deletes Project Runway from the DVR queue one too many times to make room for a recording of a soccer game he plans to watch in real-time anyway, maybe use your best judgment on the murder ballads part.
Okay, fine, Abby, we did it! We made you a list! You’re welcome! And now in case we die in a murder-suicide pact at the end of our tri-state crime spree, you’ll be able to plan the world’s most awesome funeral. You’re welcome!
Abby closed her eyes and heaved a bone-deep sigh. She could hear the two of them cackling to themselves as they scribbled notes back and forth on this scrap of yellow legal paper they assumed nobody would ever see. It would never have occurred to Jake, as prepared as he was, nor to Callie who found the whole thing a touch morbid, that the only reason this had come up when they went through the process with the wills because at some point, someone somewhere was actually going to have to hand some funeral director a list of Scripture readings and hymn choices, and if that person was Abby then that person would really, really appreciate someone taking ten minutes out from their busy lives, the same amount of time it would have taken to make a “hilarious” fake joke list by the way, you assholes, to make a real list of real songs that were liturgically appropriate and which a choir of indeterminate quality and size could easily work up into a decent arrangement in less than a week's notice. This was not too much to ask. People did it all the time. She, Abby, had carefully crafted a list of her own, assuming that even as a lapsed Catholic it would not hurt to err on the side of a solidly religious funeral service, and that if there were any fuss Aunt Vera would settle it. (Abby was convinced that, however long she lived, Aunt Vera would outlive her. People with that kind of energy were capable of living forever if they had enough things to do.)
As much as she loved Callie, it was so typical, this lack of foresight. Jake, though – she’d expected better from Jake.
ABBA at a funeral. Honest to God. She could slap him.
* * *
A reading from the second Letter of Saint Paul to Timothy.
Beloved: I am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who have longed for his appearance.
The word of the Lord.
* * *
Jackson read well. He had always had a nice voice and had done well in school with drama and public speaking. And Abby had to give him credit for keeping his voice composed. She hated funerals where someone got up to read, or God forbid, to speak unscripted, and began crying so hard that you couldn't understand what they were saying. You wanted to feel badly for them, but didn't you also feel like people should know themselves well enough not to volunteer for a speaking job if they were the kind of person likely to fall apart in public? Didn't that seem like basic common sense? Wouldn't a deeply grieving person, or maybe just a particularly emotional one, who had any sense at all say, “No, I shouldn't offer to read the Prayers of the Faithful, I'm probably going to cry”? And then a more suitable replacement could be found who could be trusted, during the most important moments, to keep themselves together.
But Jackson had never, in all his life, failed to come through when Abby needed him, and it was the same today. His voice was not powerful or loud, but it was clear and strong and it eased something inside her somehow. She had always liked this reading; even someone with her touch-and-go relationship with all things spiritual could not help but be moved by those words: I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. I did what I came here to do. I'm done now. Come back and take me home.
But they hadn’t, had they? They hadn’t finished. They hadn’t had a chance to finish anything. Just one more way in which all of this was wrong. The Dark Thing began scratching at the back of her brain and she swallowed hard, fighting it back.
A fidgety movement beside her caught her attention, and she looked down at Octavia, face tearstained, who had crawled over Bellamy and Aunt Vera to sit beside her.
“Aunt Abby,” Octavia whispered, not nearly quietly enough to go unnoticed.
“Hush, Octavia, the priest is about to read the Gospel. This is very important.”
“Dolphin has a question.”
Abby sighed. "What is it?"
"What's a bibation?”
“A what?” People were beginning to stare. She bent down to Octavia and whispered quietly, “What did you say? I didn't hear you.”
“What's a bibation?”
“What’s a – Oh. Libation. It’s an old-fashioned word for drink.”
“Yes. Like water. It’s a metaphor.” That didn’t help. “That’s a, um, a way of describing an abstract concept – okay, Paul is saying that he’s coming to the end of his life. Like a pitcher runs out of water when you pour it out.”
“Oh.” Octavia thought for a moment. “Is that how it happens?”
“When people die?”
“Honey, we can talk about this when we get home.”
* * *
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John.
Jesus said to his disciples: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be. Where I am going you know the way.” Thomas said to him, “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
The Gospel of the Lord.
* * *
The funeral reception was a blur.
The Altar Society had done their usual flawless job in setting up exactly this kind of event; there was cake and cold cuts and lemon bars and small doughy white rolls and a sort of fizzy sherbet punch that Abby found inexplicably depressing. There were hours of mechanical, forced greetings to endure, lots of awkward condolences and unwanted hugs from women who smelled ferociously of department-store perfume or shed face powder on her neat black suit, hundreds of strangers who knew her and addressed her by name without Abby having any clue who they were or how nice to be. It was exhausting.
After about two hours, she finally decided upon careful reflection that she had greeted everyone she could possibly have been expected to greet, and her head was starting to ache from the noise in the parish hall. Grabbing a frosting-flower-bedecked square of cake on a yellow paper plate, and a cup of the depressing sherbet punch, Abby slipped quietly outside to the cement-and-brick patio outside the parish hall. Just beyond the view from the glass doors was a small concrete bench, where she sat and began poking at her cake. She wasn't sure she wanted to eat it. She didn't like cake that much, certainly not cheap grocery store sheet cake. She didn't even know really why she had taken it, except as something to do with her hands.
“Are you going to eat that?”
She looked up, startled, to find the source of the voice, and saw Marcus Kane staring down at her. His hair was neatly combed, and he was wearing a very nice suit. She had seen him come into the church a few minutes before the service began and had expected him to make his way up to the front pew with the Griffins. He had seen her, made eye contact, given a little wave, and then seated himself in the very furthest back corner of the right side section. She wasn’t sure if he was trying to get as far away from her as he possibly could, or if he simply just didn’t want to see or speak to anyone he knew. Besides, they’d decided in David Miller’s office that it didn’t make sense to throw the kids into further emotional chaos by introducing him to Kane at their parents’ funeral, so perhaps it was sensible that he’d kept his distance. Which made it all the more surprising that he had walked out here so purposefully, as though he’d been looking for her.
“I haven't decided,” she said, looking down pensively at the cake.
“If you decide not to, can I have it? I'm sort of hungry but I couldn't brave the mob scene at the buffet. I'm hiding out here.”
“I think I only want the frosting flowers. You can have the cake.”
“You're a lifesaver.” She smiled a little at that, without intending to. She neatly severed a yellow buttercream rose from the surface of the cake with the tines of her plastic fork, and licked it off.
“Where are the kids?” Marcus asked.
“With my Aunt Vera. Inside.”
“They must be a wreck.”
“Clarke hasn't said a word all day,” replied Abby, “and the twins aren't much better. They’ve had a rough week.”
“So have you,” said Marcus, and she turned and looked at him, a little startled. His voice sounded almost kind. It was as though he actually saw her. And just as she was beginning to think, Maybe I misjudged him and he’s not so bad after all, he looked conspiratorially around him to make sure no one was around, sat down beside her, and pulled a hip flask out of his coat pocket.
“You brought booze? To a funeral?”
“You people are Catholic,” he said defensively, “there should have been booze here.”
“At eleven a.m.? On a Tuesday?”
“Keep it down, someone will hear you.”
“I cannot believe you brought a flask to church.”
“I can’t believe you didn’t,” he retorted. “And anyway we’re not in church anymore, we’re on a concrete patio outside the parish hall, and I’m not apologizing for needing a drink at my brother’s funeral.”
“I cannot believe you.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I'm – what is it?”
She hesitated, just for a moment, just long enough that he knew he’d won, and then he did something totally unexpected. He pulled a second flask out of his other pocket.
“You brought two?” she exclaimed. “Jesus, Kane, how drunk were you planning on getting?”
“This one’s for you,” he said, and so clearly meant it as a truce that all the irritation just evaporated right out of her. It had been an awful day, and it wasn’t even noon yet, and the whiskey smelled good, and Aunt Vera had the kids, and she was so tired of being hugged by strangers and nodding politely while they recited lines from the same script – “I’m sorry for your loss,” “they’re with the Lord now,” “if there’s anything you need” – that she finally sighed, looked around, saw that no one was coming, and took the flask from his outstretched hand.
He raised his to toast her, and muttered something unintelligible.
“Are you speaking in tongues?” He repeated it again, slower.
“Slainte mhaiph saoil fada is bas in Eireann.”
“What's that mean?”
“'Good health, long life, and may you die in Ireland.'” She smiled at that, against her will, a real and unforced smile, clinked her flask against his, and drank. Perhaps, just perhaps, she thought, this might not be a total, utter, crashing disaster.
Chapter 9: Thelonious
Aunt Vera took the children home to stay with her after the funeral; she thought, and Abby agreed with her, that a little change of scenery might be good for them. And the sea of flowers in the house, with their heavy, intoxicatingly sweet scents, seemed to trigger something in them, some new and unspecified terror. So she had left Abby and Jackson to take care of the house, while she took the kids back with her to her apartment. (Secretly, though she knew it was unfair, Abby would not have been disappointed to make this arrangement permanent.)
The reception at church had lasted into the late afternoon, and Marcus had unexpectedly stayed afterwards, offering to help her clean and haul all the leftover food and flowers back to the house. They had had little conversation with each other, but the silence had been amiable, and Abby found herself thinking that it might not, in the long run, be such a terrible thing to have an extra pair of hands around the house.
It was dark before six p.m. that day, a depressing, rainy, gray Oregon evening turning into a cold, black, wet, depressing night. By the time the last bag of cold cuts was packed away in the fridge and the last trunkload of floral arrangements driven out to the cemetery – Abby thought she could add lilies to the list of things she’d learned to hate this week; really just white flowers in general – it was after eight and she was starving.
“I’m going to crack into one of these frozen casseroles,” she called to Marcus, who was carrying a box of leftover funeral programs out to the recycling (because apparently somebody thought she’d want to keep an extra three hundred of them herself). “Do you have dinner plans?”
He stopped short in the back doorway and turned back to her, as if unsure whether or not it was a trap. “I – no, I don’t,” he finally said.
“Stay, then,” said Abby, surprising them both.
“Yes. And for the night, if you want.” He looked at her curiously and she found herself fighting back an unexpected blush. “I mean I know you have a hotel, so, if you’d rather –“
“I’d love to stay,” he said. “I think you being alone in this house tonight of all nights is . . . not a great idea.”
“You shouldn’t be alone either,” she said, pulling a frozen pan of macaroni and cheese out of the freezer and turning on the oven to pre-heat. It was somehow easier to be nice to him when they didn’t have to look at each other. “It’s been a hard day for everyone.”
He set down the box of programs, closed the door, and pulled down two wineglasses from the cupboard. Abby wasn’t sure what to make of the fact that he already seemed so at home here, but then reminded herself that the papers were all signed, and technically he lived here too. So instead of fighting it, she pulled a bottle of pinot noir from the rack where Jake kept the good stuff, uncorked it, and sat down at the kitchen table. Marcus sat down across from her. They both seemed to feel that the awkward tiptoeing around each other could only continue for so long before one of them broke the ice, and for a long moment they just sat there with their wine, wondering which of them it was going to be, before Marcus finally spoke.
“I don’t know quite where to start,” he said, “but since I think we’d better get to know each other, maybe – why don’t you ask me a question, and I’ll ask you one.”
“You want to play Truth or Dare?” she said skeptically, and he laughed.
“No dares,” he said, “I don’t trust you. You seem like the kind of girl who would draw moustaches on kids at slumber parties for fun.” Against her will, Abby laughed, since it was the most wildly inaccurate thing he could possibly have said, and he appeared to know it. She took a long drink of wine.
“I’ll go first,” she said. “Did you ever want children?”
“Honestly, no,” he said, and his candor was refreshing. She liked that he didn’t apologize for it.
“Neither did I,” she said. “I love them – I mean of course I love them – but this was never the plan.”
“Well, we have at least one thing in common, then,” he said encouragingly. “That’s good. That feels like progress.”
“I suppose it does,” she said. “Now you.”
The oven beeped just then and he got up without being prompted to put the frozen casserole in the oven. "How long?”
“Seventy minutes,” said Abby. “So go easy on the wine, you won’t have anything to soak it up for a little while.”
“That’s not true,” Marcus corrected her, a conspiratorial tone in his voice, “there’s cake in the fridge.” He raised a questioning eyebrow, and she relented.
"Oh, fine," she said. “Get the cake.”
He returned a moment later with a white pastry box and two forks.
“We’re not bothering with plates?” she asked skeptically. “Or cutting the cake into pieces, like civilized humans?”
“There are no kids watching, Abby,” said Marcus. “You can eat cake out of the box. You buried your sister and brother-in-law today. You can do absolutely anything you want.”
And for just a fraction of a fraction of a second she thought he might not be talking only about the cake.
She shook it off abruptly. “Your turn,” she said, her mouth full of frosting roses. “To pick the question.”
“Oh,” he said. “Right.” He thought for a moment, dug a huge chunk out of the side of the cake with his fork, popped it in his mouth, and regarded her with great interest.
“He talked about you guys a lot,” said Marcus. “The whole family. I feel like I know you all, at least a little. And there was one thing I always wondered about – something he never seemed to know either.”
And then Marcus asked the only question in the entire world that Abby had no answer for:
“Whatever happened between you and that doctor?”
* * *
Abby had lived with a fellow neurosurgeon named Thelonious Jaha for four years – had, in fact, been his fiancée. Her family did not know this. While she was with Thelonious she had forborne to tell them for a whole host of slightly complicated reasons even she was not fully able to articulate. After it ended, she had kept quiet out of embarrassment. It was such a cliché, after all. He had been the chief of neurosurgery – handsome and charismatic and so brilliant that he was spoken of throughout the halls of Mount Weather with hushed reverence. She had been bright and lovely and phenomenally gifted, and thirteen years his junior. It was the oldest story in the book.
Except not at all.
Abigail Griffin had walked into her first-year internship at Mount Weather with impeccable credentials and a first-class mind. She had been at twenty-three – as she was now, at thirty-eight – quick and clever and indisputably impressive, but with a brittle, tensile air that tended to put people off. She came from an almost suffocatingly close-knit family, whom she was frankly glad to be rid of for the moment, and she kept mostly to herself, relishing the quiet. She was widely recognized as one of the most promising young doctors the hospital had ever seen, but was difficult to get to know. When she met Thelonious Jaha, she was a focused and disciplined first-year resident. He watched her on her rounds, watched her in the operating room, watched as others in the neurology department peeled off for less demanding programs or quit altogether. But nothing fazed Abigail. Her focus and intellect were astonishing. He approached her before the end of her first year with an offer to serve as his research assistant.
If Abby had been a friendlier person – if she had let her guard down – if she had ever, even once, gone across the street to the pizza place where the other young residents tended to congregate and let off steam at the end of their shifts and joined her peers for a drink – someone would probably have told her what everyone assumed she knew. As it was, she was taken entirely by surprise when Thelonious began to show an interest in her, but she naturally assumed that when he said “assistant,” he actually meant “assistant.” Abby was serenely confident in her status as the smartest person in the room; but the pretty one in the family had always been Callie, and the charming, warm, likeable one was Jackson, so Abby had just instinctively assumed that “smart” was the only card she had to play. It was the one thing she knew she could rely on. So it genuinely never occurred to her that the legendary Thelonious Jaha – with his smoldering eyes, his hair going perfectly, aristocratically gray at the temples, and his rumbling baritone that turned the hearts of weaker interns to jelly – might possibly have seen anything in her other than the logical first choice to help him spend that $1.2 million research grant.
Jaha had been running a clinical trial to test whether electrocorticography sensors implanted in the cranium could interact with brain signals, allowing someone with motor disabilities to operate a computer cursor or simple communication device; the Department of Health had recently handed the hospital a huge pile of money to expand their base of test subjects to see if the ECoG sensors could be successful with a task as large and complex as operating a wheelchair or prosthetic. Abby had read all of Jaha’s field research and was thrilled to be asked to take part in such a career-making project. With the exception of the fact that phase one of the project involved subjects in the pediatric epilepsy wing – meaning children – it was a dream come true. And so she showed up early in the morning and left late at night and her notes were always prompt and thorough, and she was a perfect assistant. (And if the children and her parents found her chilly demeanor a little terrifying, it was a small price to pay for her skill with monitoring and assessing the brain sensors.) She never let her regular rounds slip either; she continued her work as a resident full-time, and worked with Jaha between shifts. She was competent and professional and so completely unaware of Jaha’s interest in her that his attraction transmuted to a kind of obsession. All his usual moves crashed and burned, and he tried so many new ones he ran out of ideas. She never wanted to go get dinner or a drink after work. She thanked him politely when he brought her coffee and always immediately reciprocated the following morning, as though unwilling to be even four dollars in his debt for longer than a day. She brushed off compliments about anything other than her work. If he moved closer, discreetly, trying to find an occasion to subtly bump up against her and make some kind of physical contact, she assumed he needed to be standing where she was standing and would move to the other side of the table. He began to wonder if she was willfully misunderstanding. Other pretty young first-year residents came and went, women who a year or two ago would have caught his eye in a heartbeat, but Jaha had lost interest, focused on the single-minded pursuit of the one woman in the entire goddamn hospital with absolutely no interest in sleeping with him. Jaha had no particular qualms about keeping business and pleasure separate, so it never occurred to him that anyone else would – that when Abby came to work, work was the only thing she was thinking of. He never quite saw her clearly enough to understand that. Instead, he wondered if she was gay, or asexual, or frigid or prudish or traumatized, or whether sex was something that simply . . . never occurred to her. For a man who made his career studying the complex inner workings of the human brain, Thelonious was frustrated to find himself day after day after day so very much out of his depth.
Seven years went by like this, and Abby became invaluable to him. Her critiques were gentle but incisive, her research impeccable, her insights occasionally astonishing and always apt. She became, in a way, his partner. He began to treat her as an equal. (Well. Almost. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The ego of a male genius is a species unto itself.) It was when this shift took place – when Thelonious finally began to defer to Abby, to show genuine interest in her ideas, when he began to encourage her in her own research and throw his support behind her own career, that she began ever so slightly to view him in a different light. She was thirty now, and faint simmering questions about what else besides work her life might have to offer – questions she had effectively silenced while the research study was her life’s top priority but which began to seem more time-sensitive now that the study was drawing to a close – were bubbling up in her mind. And in looking back over the course of the past several years it finally clicked into place that Thelonious Jaha had, all this time, been pursuing her. That even though she had never considered herself in a relationship with him, he had certainly been in some kind of one with her. Certain thresholds had been passed. They had traveled to conferences together and stayed in the same hotel rooms and learned that they shared space easily and well. They had pulled countless all-nighters without ever trying each other’s nerves. He had taken her to lunch with his mother. They had spent nights on each other’s couches and cooked breakfast for each other in the morning. They were already a unit – which was, after all, sort of like a couple. Maybe that was enough. Maybe the next step was inevitable.
And so, one night in her thirtieth year, as she helped him haul file boxes full of research notes out to the trunk of his car, she asked him:
“What if we got married?”
The box in his hand dropped to the asphalt and files spilled everywhere. He didn’t notice. He turned back to her and took a step closer, leaning in, trying to read the expression on her face.
“To each other.”
“Oh. Yes. That’s what I meant. I’m sorry. I should have said.”
“You –“ He stopped. “Abigail, you – you want to marry me?”
“The papers are blowing away, Thelonious,” she said, leaning down to begin gathering them up. “And yes. I do. I wouldn’t have said it if I didn’t.”
She shrugged. “It makes sense,” she said simply, reassembling the pages of a case study that had spilled loose from its folder and handing it back to him. “Doesn’t it make sense?”
“It does,” he said, feeling a surge of elated joy in his chest. “It does make sense.”
They were engaged for four years – three good ones and one bad one. Abby was now the department’s second most-respected neurosurgeon, after Jaha, and the success of their ECoG study had put them both on the map. They traveled all over the world, presenting their findings. They worked and wrote and lived together in relative contentment, with only one significant relationship issue, which started out minor and then blew the whole thing apart.
Abby did not like sleeping with him.
Jaha had never wanted for female attention before Abby Griffin came into his life, and his reputation as a player was at least in part founded on the hushed, giggling rumors that he was – to put it simply – amazing. He had spent seven years in celibate, single-minded pursuit of this woman who had entirely bewitched him, and the thought of finally being able to possess her drove him nearly wild. But it never quite seemed to work out as planned. After the engagement – which she was peculiarly insistent upon keeping quiet about – she had given up her apartment and moved into his house. He made more money, was older, had been settled longer; he explained that it just made more sense for their married home to be at his place. Abby conceded with little fuss, and told herself that the pang in her heart for the peaceful sanctuary of her pre-war two-bedroom apartment that looked out over the rose garden in Ladd’s Circle was a reasonable price to pay for adult stability. She was the oldest single woman she knew, and getting married seemed simply like the next step in adulthood. But the transition was not without its emotional toll, and Thelonious tried to be understanding. She did move into his bedroom, but he waited a few weeks until the dust had settled before he attempted to push things any further. But time went on, and she still showed no interest. Finally, after she had been sharing his house and his bed for three months, he turned to her one night and asked her if something was wrong.
“Of course not,” she said, without looking up from her reading.
“Is this a Catholic thing?” he asked. “Waiting for the wedding night?”
“Waiting for the – oh!” she said, with a small laugh he found inexplicably infuriating, and set aside her book. “You want to have sex.”
“I – well – yes.”
“Sure,” she said agreeably. “That’s fine.” An answer which, while infinitely better than “no,” still was not anywhere near in the ballpark of what Thelonious Jaha was used to.
If young Abby Griffin, back in her resident days, had ever gone across the street with the others to the pizza place for a drink, she would have been unable to avoid hearing the stories about Jaha’s bedroom prowess. The way his voice sounded when he whispered in your ear, how attentive and persistent he was, the things he could do with his mouth and hands that would ruin you forever for idiot boys your own age. Jaha was that irresistible temptation, The Older Man, and the myth of his decades of experience in pleasuring the female body was the only reason that girl after girl, who all knew better, threw themselves in the path of a broken heart anyway.
But Abby knew none of this. She simply took off her reading glasses, stripped off her cotton camisole and panties with the businesslike efficiency of a woman used to changing into and out of scrubs in rooms full of people, switched off the light, and waited.
It was . . . not good.
It was fine – but it was not good. He was hard already – achingly so – but it took him so long to get her ready that he nearly gave up. “How is that?” he kept asking her, as his hands and mouth ventured between her legs, trying to find a spot that would unlock her pleasure and make her wet and ready for him. And each time her answer was always the same.
But her tone of voice was flat, almost toneless, and – most irritatingly – civil. As though she were trying to reassure him. As though she were patting him on the back. Finally he gave up.
“Don’t worry, we’ll get there,” she said encouragingly as she rolled over and switched off the light, and in that moment there was a tiny piece of Thelonious Jaha that began to hate her.
They tried again the next night, and the night after that, and many nights after that, and only eventually climbed up the step from “bad” to “fine” when Jaha discovered that things went better when Abby closed her eyes. Sometimes when she closed her eyes – when she went to some entirely other place in her mind – his touch seemed almost to please her. When she closed her eyes, he could make her wet enough to enter her, to come inside her, and she would go soft and unyielding in his arms, and from time to time he could even make her come. He tried very hard not to think about what it meant that she could only come when she was deep inside some interior world that left no room for him. He tried very hard not to think about what it would be like to marry a woman who patiently tolerated, but never sought, his touch. Because hadn’t he gotten what he wanted? Hadn’t he waited for seven damned years to break through the icy façade that kept Abby Griffin separate from the rest of the world, and wasn’t he here now, his body pressing hers down into the mattress, feeling her warm wet heat surrounding his cock, her soft breath against his skin? Hadn’t he won?
Or was the distance between them as vast as it had always been?
And so the years passed – one became two, then three, then four, and then suddenly one day every question Thelonious Jaha had ever wondered about Abby Griffin was answered in one fell swoop, and the missing piece, the key to that locked inner door, fell into place.
He had finally, finally, after four years of engagement, convinced her to set an actual date and tell her family. Jaha's relationship with his own mother was strained and distant, but still, Abby had met her half a dozen times. Yet her own family – to whom she was obviously close, and who he knew lived mere minutes away – still knew him only as her research partner and had no idea they were going to be married. She had never been able to give him a satisfactory answer to this question, becoming more irritatingly vague the harder he pressed her, but finally she relented and agreed to bring him to her sister’s house for Sunday dinner, and – if all went well – announce the engagement then. For Abby, this amounted to a sizable concession, and though it was less than Jaha had wanted he knew it was the best he was going to get. And so he put on his best suit, zipped Abby into the charcoal dress he had bought her for Christmas, and drove them in amicable silence across the river to the tree-lined street where Abby had grown up. He kissed Callie on both cheeks and handed her an expensive bottle of wine, shook hands with Jake and Jackson, was charming with Aunt Vera and pleasant to the children. He could see the tension in Abby’s shoulders begin to ease, and felt his own chest unclench slightly. This was going well. This was going to work.
And then he heard something, heard a sound that startled him so badly that he turned away from Jackson with a start, leaving the boy to deliver the rest of the question he’d begun asking about the clinical trial to the side of Jaha’s head.
Abby was laughing.
She had followed Jake into the kitchen to help him plate the salads while her family vetted the first gentleman caller she had ever brought over for Sunday dinner, and Jake had handed her the salad tongs and made a joke too quiet for any of the rest of them to hear, and Abby had burst out laughing.
Jackson and Vera had no reaction to this startling (to Jaha) new side of his fiancée, who he had known for eleven years now and never seen laugh like that, and Callie’s only response was a weary, exasperated eyeroll that bespoke how used to this she was.
“We’re starving!” she called over her shoulder. “Quit goofing off and bring out the salads!”
“I’m telling her the German shepherd story!” her husband called back, and Callie conceded with a resigned grin at Jaha, who could hardly rouse himself to force a smile back.
Who in the name of God was this woman, and why had he never met her before? He stood from the sofa and went around to the end table that served as a makeshift bar, ostensibly to freshen his drink but really to buy himself a few moments to stare openly at whatever was happening in the kitchen. Jake and Abby had an easy rapport, her mincing herbs and sprinkling them over plates of crisp greens as he zested a lemon into a small glass bowl where he was mixing up a vinaigrette, talking in quiet cheerful voices as they worked, happy in each other’s presence in a way that Work Abby never, ever was.
And then Jake reached across the butcher-block kitchen island they were both sharing to grab the small knife that sat next to Abby’s pile of herbs, and his hand brushed hers, and they both flinched so hard that for a moment Jaha wondered if he’d cut her. And then suddenly Abby was silent and could not look at Jake anymore, and he could not quite look at her either.
Abby was composed and amiable all through dinner, and Jake was gregarious and warm. It was all so infuriatingly normal. Everyone was simply behaving as though they were an ordinary family having an ordinary Sunday dinner, and Jaha began to slowly feel as though he were losing his mind. He makes her laugh, he wanted to cry out. Have none of you noticed that he makes her laugh? Am I the only one here who sees what’s going on?
The drive home was awful. Abby could tell that she had somehow done something wrong and Thelonious was upset; but – aside from the fact that she had ventured far as to call Thelonious her “partner” but opted, in the end, not to mention the wedding – she was not entirely sure what her infraction had been.
“You didn’t tell them,” he finally said, after six full minutes of stony silence.
“Next time,” she said reassuringly, but it sounded hollow to both of them.
“Is there actually going to be a next time?” he retorted, his voice almost a growl, and she leaned back against the headrest with a sigh.
“I want to marry you, Thelonious,” she said, as his hands gripped the steering wheel so tightly that she could see the muscles in his forearms tense beneath the cotton of his shirt. “I can’t think why you’re so convinced I don’t.”
Her voice was not angry, only puzzled and weary and sad, and it stoked the flames of his fury even higher. Thelonious adored Abby in the desperate, obsessive way that only an egomaniac denied a thing he wants for eleven years can be, and he had never been anyone’s second choice, for anything. He found himself mentally tallying up all the women he could have slept with over the past decade but didn’t – even when handed the opportunity – out of this clearly-misguided desire to be faithful to a woman whose heart had been lost to him before he had even met her. Meanwhile Abby, who thought Thelonious had a long list of good qualities and would be a highly compatible life partner and believed it would alleviate some of her anxiety about the direction her life was headed if she decided to get married, had carefully weighed her options and settled on Thelonious as an entirely reasonable choice. She did not quite understand why this was a crime.
They pulled into the driveway in silence, and Thelonious switched off the ignition but did not get out of the car.
“Do you love me, Abigail?” he asked suddenly.
“Thelonious, it’s been a long night.”
“Do you love me?”
“What does that –“
“It’s a perfectly simple question,” he snapped at her, his voice sharp and dangerous, and Abby did not recognize him anymore. She was suddenly very, very tired.
“I don’t love anyone, Thelonious,” she said simply, staring straight ahead, not looking at him. “Not like that. Not the way you mean. I’m sorry. I wish I did.”
And for a moment, he believed her. For a moment, he let out a long sigh too, and turned to look at her, to reach out a hand, to say, this is my fault too, for asking you to be something you weren’t, let’s untangle ourselves from each other gracefully and shake hands and say goodbye. He wanted to say these things. Or rather, he wanted to be the kind of man who would say these things.
And then he saw her staring absently out the window, her fingertips lightly brushing the place on her wrist where Jake Griffin’s hand had touched hers, and he snapped.
“You bitch,” he said. “You bitch. You’ve been leading me on for eleven fucking years.”
Abby did not dignify this with a response, except to get out of the car, close the door behind her (calmly, not even a fraction of a slam) and head towards the house. It was clear that he had expected anger, had expected her to yell back, and this cool dismissal just made him even more furious.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you,” he barked at her, and instantly knew it was a mistake. She froze where she stood for a long moment, then turned back to him, arms folded, face ice cold, and a more level-headed man than Thelonious Jaha was in this moment would have known immediately that it was over. But he had been sitting on his rage all night, and he still had plenty left, so as she stood there on the porch steps with her arms folded over her chest, she watched him flail and grow angrier and angrier.
“I have given you everything,” he hissed, “everything that has ever been in my power to give, I have given to you.”
“Well, that’s . . . dramatic,” Abby murmured dryly. “Not to mention a little grandiose. Are you saying you gave me my career? That you gave me this relationship, when I’m the one that asked you to marry me? Honestly, Thelonious.”
“I tried so hard to make you happy, but you –“
“Oh Lord,” she sighed. “Is this about sex? Is that what this is all about? Look, Thelonious, you knew this about me when you met me. You’ve known this all along. I’m just not a person who . . . who has those kinds of feelings.”
“No,” he said coldly. “You do. You do have them. You just don’t have them for me.”
“What on earth does that mean?”
“You’re doing it again,” he said. “Jesus. You don’t even know that you do it."
“Do what?” she snapped, then followed the direction of his eyes and realized he was staring at the way her left thumb was stroking absentminded circles over the curve of her right wrist, and that was when she knew.
Abby Griffin, expert in the study of the human brain, had not allowed herself to know the thing that she knew – that she had always known – until she saw Thelonious see it himself, and the full weight of realization hit her with the force of a runaway train.
Four years sharing a bed with her naked body, four years of his mouth and hands on her skin, his cock inside her, and he had never once seen her physically respond the way she had tonight when her brother-in-law’s fingertips brushed against her wrist in the kitchen.
“Jake,” he said, and it was both a statement and a question, and there was no point, now, in denying it, so she didn’t. She said nothing at all. “How long?” he asked after a moment, and she thought about it. She had never been forced to put a name to these feelings, she had told herself this was simply the way families worked, she had told herself he was her friend. But once Thelonious saw it, of course, she could not unsee it herself. So she tried, out of respect, to take the question seriously.
“I don’t quite know,” she said finally. “I think probably always.”
And he suddenly recognized her tone, this was her work voice, this was the Abby who was in the middle of solving a puzzle, she was analyzing, she was researching, he could feel her press her emotions downwards and go flipping back through the catalog of her relationship with Jake Griffin to mine it for clues, and this was wrong, all of this was wrong, because she wasn’t apologizing, she wasn’t repentant, she wasn’t crying, she wasn’t promising that there was nothing between the two of them or begging Thelonious to stay. She was just . . . thinking.
And so he drew back his hand and he slapped her.
Whatever he had expected to happen after that, obviously, did not. Abby hardly flinched. She looked at him with some unreadable expression in her eyes, a long silent look, and he felt his shame and self-loathing begin to boil over at the same time that the cold voice of self-preservation that had spent the past eleven years hissing quietly in his ear crescendoed to a loud shout. She drove you to this, it whispered. This is her fault. She did this. She did this, not you.
All he wanted was one tiny crack in that wall of ice. Just one. All he wanted was to rouse some kind of emotion. All he wanted was a response. He had spent eleven years killing himself trying to reach her, and all along the woman who was so cold in his bed had really been warm and passionate and alive – with somebody else.
A part of him still loved her – desperately, fanatically, with the devotion of a religious zealot – but mostly, he hated her. And, more than that, himself.
Abby still had not spoken, had not even lifted her hand to her cheek. She had barely responded at all. Finally, after a long moment, she wordlessly slipped the engagement ring off her finger, dropping it onto the porch where it pinged loudly against the wooden stairs.
Then she punched Thelonious in the face.
She did not stay to watch him cry out in pain, realizing she had broken his nose, and shout obscenities after her. She turned her back on him, got into her car, and drove away.
When he arrived at the hospital on Monday, he was informed that she had quit with no notice. She had arrived three hours before he had and by the time he got there, her office was as bare as if she had never existed.
He was startled from his solitary dinner that evening by a knock at the front door, but hope died in his chest as he opened it and saw, not a contrite Abby, but a tight-faced Jake Griffin with four of his friends behind him and a U-Haul parked in the street. “I’m here for her things,” said Jake in a voice that would have frozen lava. “Don’t you say a word to any of us. And don’t you ever, ever come near her again.”
And Thelonious Jaha’s last thought, as he made his way to the bar down the street to get out of the men's way, was this: Abby might have been ignorant of her own feelings all these years, but Jake Griffin had known the entire time.
And Jake Griffin had loved her back.
* * * * *
That was the story that Marcus had asked for. That was the story he had wanted to hear. But Abby could not say any of this to Marcus. She had never told anyone the real reason the relationship had ended, and she could not bear to say it out loud. Not in this house, of all places, and not to Jake's brother.
So instead she took a long drink of her wine and stared down at the table and said, in a flat voice, “It just didn’t work out.”
Chapter 10: Marcus and Abby
Perhaps realizing that there were no personal questions he could ask her that weren’t laced with emotional landmines, he didn’t push anymore after that.
Instead, they sat at the table for an hour, polishing off a whole bottle of wine and most of the cake, and they talked about absolutely anything in the world that was not Callie and Jake Griffin. They talked about books – Marcus had a hidden weakness for English murder mysteries, while Abby admitted to getting caught by a coworker reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on her lunch break and then lying about it, claiming it was for her nephew (“How old even was he then?” “He was a fetus. But I had to think of something”). They talked about music (Abby surprising Marcus by sharing his love of The Ramones) and about movies (agreeing on almost nothing). An amicable debate about whether Alfred Hitchcock’s visual artistry peaked with Vertigo (Marcus) or North by Northwest (Abby) was interrupted when the oven timer rang, and as Abby pulled the pan of macaroni and cheese out, she noticed Marcus opening a second bottle of wine, which was the first time she’d consciously noticed that they’d finished the first one. There was a part of her that sensed very strongly that tonight of all nights, she ought to be careful how much she drank. That a hangover was the last thing she’d have time to deal with in the morning, waking up in that house with the funeral over and the long desolate stretch of her new sisterless life stretching out ahead of her. That things were progressing nicely with her new future roommate and she didn’t want to ruin it by becoming a sloppy drunk.
Her back to him as she scooped bubbling hot mac and cheese onto a pair of plates, she could hear him refilling both their glasses, and his words from before came back to her suddenly. She had buried Callie and Jake today. She had permission to do whatever she wanted. And right now, the idea of not thinking, the idea of plowing through another bottle of Willamette Valley pinot noir and making small talk about classic 90’s sitcoms with Marcus Kane and forgetting as hard as she could about the empty bedroom upstairs she was eventually going to have to move into, seemed the only way she was going to survive the night.
Abby Griffin had been the good girl her whole life. She had always followed the rules. She had always done the correct thing.
But for tonight – just for tonight – she was giving herself a pass.
The macaroni was delicious, spiked with English mustard and black pepper and the sharp tang of real cheese – apparently when someone dies it’s not classy to skimp and go for the cheap Kraft stuff – and cake or no, they were both starving. Conversation softened down to a minimum as they ate their dinner, and made their way through most of the second bottle of wine. Abby had eaten enough by this point that the wine wasn’t landing on an empty stomach, but she’d still had about three-quarters of a bottle; and while she was a hardy and experienced drinker, she was not a machine, and the warm languid haze of intoxication was beginning to hit her.
Marcus reached over to top off her glass, and she stopped him, taking the bottle out of his hand as if seeing it for the first time.
“Willakenzie Winery,” she said, running a light fingertip over the label.
“It’s good,” said Marcus carefully, not sure how to respond.
“It’s the best in the region,” she said. “They’ve served it at the White House, even. It’s a famous pinot noir.”
“Should we not have –“
“I didn’t remember,” she said, still staring down at the label, “until just now. I didn’t remember why I bought it.”
“Abby, are you okay?”
“They went wine-tasting in Yamhill County on their third date,” she said, in a toneless voice. “This was their favorite place. The tasting room’s up on a hill, you can see miles of vineyards all around it. All golden and green. And the mountains in the distance. We all used to drive up there every year.”
“This is a 2006,” she said. “I bought it for them. They were saving it for January. For their tenth anniversary.” Marcus looked up at her sharply. “But there’s not going to be a tenth anniversary,” she said, “is there.” And it wasn’t a question. “So we might as well drink it today. We might as well drink it at their funeral.”
“Abby,” he said softly, and his hand on the table twitched a little, as though he’d been about to reach out to her and then changed his mind.
"There's not going to be a ten-year anniversary," she said again. "No parents at their high school graduations. No father to walk Clarke and Octavia down the aisle. Their kids are never going to know their own grandparents."
"She's never going to turn forty. There's never going to be any such thing as Callie at age forty. Callie as a grandmother. We just assumed there would be, you know, you just assume people stick around forever, but her whole life never got any farther than that patch of ice on that corner of the highway. That was always where it was going to end, we just didn't know. We just assumed there would be an after, but there wasn't. The kids don’t have Christmas presents, did you know that? They were in the car.” Her voice was barely audible. “They’d gone down to the outlet mall and bought all the kids’ presents. All the presents were in the car with them.”
“The paramedics said everything was too burned to save.”
“There was a bike for Bellamy, I know that,” she said, a note of hysteria creeping into her voice, “but I don’t know what they got for the girls, I don’t know what was supposed to go in the stockings –“
“We’ll figure it out. We’ll think of something.”
“There wasn’t a list, people should make lists, if Callie had written it down I could have just gone back to the store and bought them all again, but she didn’t, I’ve been through every drawer in her desk, there’s no list, how am I supposed to buy Christmas presents for three children who can hardly stand to be in the same room with me if their mother never made a fucking list?”
“You’re not alone anymore,” he said softly, and she turned to him, startled, as though she’d partially forgotten he was there. Her eyes were blank and confused. This time he did reach out to her, he took her hand in his for a moment, and suddenly Abby felt a surge of something shoot through her entire body and realized that, despite the peculiar intimacy they’d forged over the past week, this was the first time he had actually touched her.
“You’re not alone,” he said again. “You don’t have to carry this all yourself. That’s why Jake sent me, Abby. That’s why I’m here. Remember? Because he didn’t want you to have to do it alone.” He squeezed her hand. “There are two of us now,” he said, and his smile was so comforting that she could feel it seep inside her, wrap its warm hands around the Dark Thing and lock it safely away, and something in Abby eased just a little. “I’m here,” he said gently. “I’m here for anything you need.”
She looked at him then, really looked at him, as though for the first time. She saw his still-just-a-little-too-long hair, which he’d gotten cut before the funeral so he didn’t look quite so shaggy, and she thought about how soft it looked, what it would feel like beneath her hands. She saw his disheveled suit – jacket long since cast aside, shirt sleeves rolled up, tie loose, coming ever so slightly untucked, like James Bond at the end of a long day. She saw his warm, dark eyes, intently focused on her, heavy with something that looked like worry – and something else that looked like a very different thing altogether.
“Anything I need?” she asked, her tone of voice almost unreadable, and he leaned in a little closer, swallowing hard.
“What do you need, Abby?” he said in a voice with just the hint of a rasp in it, as though he wasn’t quite in control of his breath.
What do I need, she thought to herself, as a heady brew of exhaustion and grief and panic and too much red wine and the fingerprints of Jake Griffin and her sister all over this house began to swirl and bubble over inside her. What I need is to stop being Abby Griffin. Just for one night.
If I think about that patch of ice or Bellamy's scorched bike or those two coffins or the winery I will lose it. That's what I need. I need those pictures out of my mind. I need to disappear into a place where their faces, their voices, can't follow me. Just for minute, so I can breathe again. That's what I need.
But she didn’t say any of that.
She didn’t say anything.
Instead, she did the absolute last thing in the world he would ever have expected. She stood up from the kitchen table and she walked around to the other side, standing so near to him that he could smell the light floral fragrance of her perfume, and then her hands disappeared beneath her crisp black pencil skirt for just a moment. And then he stared blankly as she stepped out of the black cotton underwear that now lay discarded at her feet.
“You said I could have whatever I wanted,” she said. “This is what I want, Marcus, I want to not think.”
“Abby,” he began helplessly, but he couldn’t form words after that because her hands were on his belt buckle and in a heartbeat he was open before her – and yes, he was hard already, he couldn’t help it, it had come on fast, it was the perfume and then the underwear that had done it. Her hands gripped his shoulders and her legs pressed against his hips and his hands came around her waist, reflexively, to help her balance as she lowered herself onto his lap.
“Don’t talk,” she said hoarsely, reaching down a hand to guide him in and then in a heartbeat, sweet Jesus, he was inside her.
It was such a bad idea. It was truly disastrously awful idea. To his credit, Marcus knew that. He opened his mouth, he took a breath, he meant to say, "Stop, Abby, we can't do this, this isn't going to help anything, we're drunk and it's been a horrible day and we should both just get some sleep." But then she arched her back and threw back her head and gasped as he slid inside of her, and as good of a man as he wanted to be, he couldn’t resist anymore. She felt so good, and she needed him so urgently, and he’d held out as long as he could, but he wasn't a saint. Keeping one hand firmly on her back for balance, he tore open her white blouse with the other hand so he could bury his mouth between her breasts. He heard the sound of a button flying off, but he didn’t care. Her breasts were perfect, and he tongued the soft swelling curves that rose up from the cups of her white bra and felt her shudder at his touch. Her nails dug into his flesh where her hands gripped his shoulders as she rode him, rising and falling, faster and faster. His hands found their way lower and lower, pushing up the prim pencil skirt until he could grip her ass with both hands, caressing the soft skin.
It would have made him feel like a monster to be too aware, in that moment, of the way her eyes were squeezed shut and she made almost no sound. Her hips rocked against him almost violently as she pitched forward, bracing herself against him, and bent her face so close to his that their foreheads touched, but still she did not look at him. She was somewhere else. “Are you close?” he heard her murmur, her voice oddly hollow, and he croaked out a harsh "yes" in reply. "Take me with you," she said, guiding his hand down between their bodies so he could find her wetness with his fingers. He gently took her clit between his thumb and forefinger and began to caress it, which sent her whole body into spasms of trembling pleasure, but she still hardly made a sound and did not open her eyes. But his touch clearly stimulated her, because she moved against him faster and harder, harder and faster, until with a vast echoing cry he emptied himself inside her and then a short moment later she moaned aloud and fell forward, collapsing against him in the chair.
They sat like that for a long moment, breathing heavily, before something in Abby collapsed. It was as though she pulled back suddenly and saw herself the way he must see her – skirt askew, blouse and underwear on the floor, hair disheveled, fucking a near-stranger on the kitchen chairs of her dead sister’s house. Jesus Christ, you’re a train wreck, she thought to herself, overcome with despair and mortification. She felt Marcus’ hand slide up her back, holding her comfortably in place, and she pulled away from him suddenly, as though his touch was poisonous. She would not cry in front of him. Which meant she had to get out of that room.
She left her clothes on the floor and bolted.
He rose to go after her. “Abby,” he said gently, following her out of the kitchen, through the living room and into the front hall. "Abby, wait."
“Marcus, if you tell me we need to talk about what just happened I swear to God I will stick a kitchen knife through your hand.”
“I wasn’t going to say that,” he said, and it stopped her in her tracks.
“No,” he said. “I wasn’t.” And he moved a little nearer. She eyed him warily, but didn’t back away, so he took a few more steps toward her. “If that’s what you wanted,” he said, in a gentle voice, “if you want to forget –“
“You think I’m a terrible person,” she said defensively, and he shook his head.
“No,” he said. “I was going to say, I think we can forget a little better than that.” And then before she could say anything else, he took two long steps, wrapped his arms around her back, and kissed her.
All her shame and anger – at herself, at him, at everyone – evaporated completely at that kiss. He tasted like wine and his mouth was so warm and so urgent on hers that she felt shivery all over. He’d come already, after all, so he wasn’t kissing her as some perfunctory first step in the machinery of foreplay. He was just tasting her, savoring her. She’d never been kissed like this. He kissed with his whole body, and she found herself unexpectedly beginning to rouse to him again.
“Let’s forget some more,” he murmured, pressing his mouth against her throat, his breath warm in her ear. “Let me do it right this time.” She could not speak, could only nod, pulling against his rumpled shirt until they were in the doorway of her room.
He closed the door behind him as he entered, shutting out the bright kitchen light and leaving them alone in the dim lavender glow of a small bedside lamp. Abby stepped out of her heels, then turned her back to him and waited. After a moment, his hand trembling slightly, he realized what she wanted. He stepped in close and brushed tentative fingertips over the nape of her neck, then her shoulder blades, then down her back, where he unclasped the hooks of her bra and slipped it off her, brushing her nipples with his fingertips as he dropped the creamy fabric to the floor. Unable to resist, he ran his fingers down the smooth white skin of her back, tracing the ridges of her spine to the place where it met soft round curves, which made him think again about that pair of black cotton underwear she’d shed earlier in the kitchen. The bra was white satin and didn’t match, which caused his heart to constrict a little bit with worry. She had gotten dressed this morning for a funeral. She hadn’t dressed for anyone else to see what was underneath that black suit. Which meant she hadn’t decided she wanted to do this until she’d done it. After they’d killed nearly two bottles of wine.
But oh Lord, he knew all about forgetting. Who was he to tell her she didn’t know what she really wanted? Who was he to tell her no? Maybe a better man than Marcus Kane would have said no to her and walked out the door, but Jesus Christ, her white skin and her dark hair and the soft swell of her breasts and the curve of her waist and how tiny she was with no high heels on and the way she was looking at him, confident and unafraid, saying yes with her eyes and her whole body. And so he said yes too.
“Abby,” he said, and seized her in his arms – she was so tiny, how was it possible for that much strength, that much force and grit, to live inside the body of such a small woman? – and he buried his mouth in her throat, and something inside Abby Griffin snapped.
It had been fast and rough and desperate in the kitchen, and she’d only been half there. But this time, when he touched her, she felt things. She let herself feel things. It had never been like this with Thelonious, never, not once. His mouth was hot and hungry and she could feel a whisper of roughness where his cheek touched her skin. She had a curious sensation of melting, as though she’d been frozen solid and everywhere that his warm breath touched her she began to thaw. She yanked off his tie and started on his buttons as he pulled off his slacks and kicked off his shoes. Together they frantically tore off his clothing until he was completely naked, and then he took her in his arms and carried her over to the bed.
“I’m going to ask you again if you’re sure,” he said as he set her down and pulled back the covers to climb in with her. “I need to hear you say it.”
“You told me I could have anything I wanted,” she said. “This is the only thing I want.”
And because he wanted so badly, in that moment, as he moved beneath the covers to lie on top of her, for those words to be true, he decided to believe them. And so he brushed the hair out of her eyes and he pressed his warm mouth against her bare skin and he let himself feel good about it, he let himself feel like he was rescuing her. Like some part of him had already begun to care for this tiny, impossible woman. And so he let himself pretend, just for tonight, that he was the good guy. That he was the hero. He was going to make Abby Griffin feel good. He was going to help her forget.
He was determined, this time, to go slow, to draw it out. She had come, on his lap in the kitchen, but he was pretty sure he could do a little better. So he started, first, with his hands and mouth all over her body. He kissed her breasts, her hands, her stomach. He grazed gentle fingers over the white skin of her forearms, sending shivers up and down her body. He found the warm wetness between her thighs and he caressed it, lightly and gently, just running his fingers back and forth in delicate strokes. And he kissed her mouth, over and over again, he kissed her until she began to feel the tiniest bit dizzy, he kissed her until she was ready again, desperate even – and he was ready too. He looked at her then, his eyes a silent question, and she nodded back, yes, and with his mouth pressed against her throat he wrapped his arms around her and he plunged inside.
For the second time that evening, Abby was almost incapable of incoherent thought. Marcus filled her completely, warm and heavy and dizzyingly deep, and her entire body felt electric, almost faint. He pulled himself out, just a little, then dipped back in again, deeper this time, and she heard as if from a far-off distance the hoarse, wild, breathy moans coming from her throat, sounds she’d never heard herself make before. She heard herself calling his name, she felt her legs wrap around him to draw him deeper in, she felt her fingernails dig into his back as she writhed beneath him, but the sensations were so ferociously intense that she thought she might burst. She had not let herself feel anything in the kitchen, but she felt everything now. She felt her body begin to swell toward climax almost immediately, an alien sensation; sometimes with Thelonious, or with the men she’d dated in her younger years, she’d been able to come – businesslike, perfunctory little orgasms that mostly seemed to serve as a checkmark on a score sheet, like Thelonious could let himself do what he’d really wanted, pound wildly away at her until he came, once he felt like he’d performed his due diligence and given her something first. But it wasn’t like that with Marcus. Marcus wasn’t stingy, Marcus wasn’t tracking whose turn it was, Marcus wasn’t waiting with bored and annoyed patience to try and come up with some way Abby could tolerate his touch. Marcus was enjoying himself. He was exploring her. Every time he looked down into her eyes, he was smiling.
And so when he finally came, that’s where he was – his head bent over hers, foreheads nearly touching, staring deep into her wide-open eyes, mouth parted in a ragged gasp, but smiling, and she felt more warmly toward him than she had since the first day they’d met. And just when she was about to think, what the hell, I already came once tonight, let him just finish however he wants, his hand slipped down between her thighs and his thumb swept across her clit and the double sensation was too much for her. Her arms tightened around him and her back arched and her gasps turned into strangled cries that made them both desperately grateful to be alone in the house, as he brought thirty-eight-year-old Abby Griffin to the first really good orgasm of her life. She stared at him, eyes wide, feeling lightheaded and woozy and tingly all over, as he followed her almost immediately after, groaning and trembling as he emptied himself deep inside her. She held him there for a long moment, held his body against hers, and felt their racing hearts slow, felt their breathing ease back down to normal.
“Better?” he murmured into her shoulder, and against her will she almost laughed.
“Are you going to say ‘I told you so?’”
“It’s a matter of pride,” he said between kisses, his mouth tracing the soft skin of her collarbone and throat. “I just wanted to show you what I could do if you gave me a little heads-up first. So I was ready.”
“You were ready pretty fast the first time,” she reminded him, and he had the good grace to blush a tiny bit. He kissed her mouth again, warm and gentle.
“Did it help?” he asked. She said nothing, just sighed sleepily and closed her eyes. She was drunk, and she was tired – she was so, so tired – and her whole body felt warm and liquid and his arms around her were comfortingly solid, and she didn’t want to talk anymore, she just wanted to sleep. And so he held her close and kissed her hair as her breathing tapered off from ragged post-coital panting into a smooth, even rhythm and she drifted off to sleep.
And so she didn't notice the way Marcus looked at her as she slept. She could not see the look on his face. This was a good thing; if she had opened her eyes just then and looked at him, she would have seen things she was never meant to see.
* * *
These are the things Marcus Kane knew that Abby Griffin didn't.
He knew a story told to him in bits and pieces over the years, many many times, about the night Jake rallied the neighborhood dads to go pack up his sister-in-law's belongings and put the fear of God into the man who had hurt her.
He knew that there was a curious intensity to the way Jake told this story, to the way he hated this doctor he had only met once and about whom he knew practically nothing, that had pinged a soft alarm bell in the back of his mind the first time he heard it - a bell that had begun to ring again when he saw the way Abby had looked down at the label on that bottle of wine.
He knew that in the bedroom Abby had responded to his every touch with something that felt, heartbreakingly, like astonishment - as though the sensation of pleasure itself were foreign to her - but in the kitchen she had closed her eyes and there had been something in her silent, furious urgency that told him she was only half there with him and half of her was somewhere else.
He knew many things about forgetting, about losing yourself in bed, about running from the person you once were, even just for the night. He knew it always looked different in the morning. In the morning she would hate him, and maybe even herself, and it was too late for him to do anything to stop it.
He knew there were many, many ways to betray someone, and the most dangerous of them never felt like betrayals at all. They slipped inside you, soft and light and quick, burrowing down into the dark places and whispering seductively into your ear that it wasn't a sin for two consenting adults in need of stress relief to seek it out by falling into bed together, you're both single, no one has been unfaithful, what's the worst that could happen, who are you hurting?
The worst kind of betrayals slither over your skin with alluring, wine-scented caresses and murmur, hush, it's all right, darling, you haven't done anything wrong.
Chapter 11: Morning After
These are the things Abby Griffin knew that Marcus Kane didn’t.
He did not know she had awoken at 8 a.m., hours earlier than he had, drifting very slowly and very grudgingly back into consciousness, feeling blinding white sunlight hammering at her aching eyelids, and a dull throbbing in her eardrums, and a wall of heat at her back that took her a second to place.
He did not know that as she felt her heart begin to pound in horror as the events of last night came slowly back to her, he had shifted in his sleep and made it suddenly very apparent how naked they both were.
He did not know that she had pulled away from the arm he had draped across her belly, bolted from the room, raced down the hall to the bathroom, and tried very hard to vomit as quietly as possible so he would not wake up and ask if she was all right.
He did not know about how she had crawled into the bathtub and sat there, knees drawn up underneath her chin like a little girl, letting the shower rain steaming hot water down on her hair and back, and finally, finally, for the very first time since that phone rang in her office what felt like a lifetime ago, she let herself cry. She sobbed and sobbed and the scalding water turned her white skin pink and she felt the steam rise up around her and she buried her face in her arms and let the hot tears and the hot water run together down her face as the Dark Thing broke triumphantly free and snaked around her small, trembling body.
He did not know that while he slept peacefully in the bed they’d shared all night, she was hating herself more than she had ever hated anyone in all of her life. Hating herself for showing weakness in front of a near-stranger. Hating herself for how good it had felt, for how pathetically grateful she had been, for how desperately she wanted to feel like that again. Hating herself for hating herself, crushed by guilt for something she knew she had no right to think of as an infidelity, but did anyway.
She hadn’t just fucked Jake’s brother. She’d fucked Jake’s brother on the day of Jake’s funeral.
The number of people she had betrayed the moment she drunkenly climbed on top of Marcus Kane in that kitchen chair seemed nearly infinite, and it was all made incalculably worse by the fact that she would now have to look at that kitchen chair every single day because, of course, she lived here now.
And so did he.
Which meant she’d have to look at him every single day now, too.
For Christ’s sake, Abby, what’s happened to you?
They had tiptoed around each other so carefully, since that first disastrous meeting at the lawyer’s office, and Abby had been so prudent and so meticulous about making sure they both knew where the lines were drawn. And then she had blown it all to hell. But the children would be home from Aunt Vera’s house in three hours and her new life with them was about to begin, which meant somehow she had to get the old Abby back – the controlled, mechanical Abby who knew how to put her emotions away. The Abby she’d been before she’d known what it was like to sit through your sister’s funeral, before she’d known what it was like to be kissed the way Marcus Kane had kissed her.
The Abby she'd been before she decided to take a day off from being Abby Griffin and make nothing but horrible decisions.
“You buried your sister and brother-in-law today,” he had said to her, “you can do anything you want.”
“I’m not sure he meant that,” she could hear Callie laugh, so clear in her mind that it gutted her completely. This was the kind of situation Callie excelled at. This was where she shone. Messy emotions, boy drama, fights with friends, relationship crises - anytime a person needed sensible, compassionate advice delivered with just the right amount of humor to remind you that a slightly dented and banged-up heart wasn't going to kill you. When they were young, whenever Abby was upset Callie would climb into Abby's tiny twin bed beside her and pull the covers over their heads and whisper, "Tell me everything," and Abby would. And Callie would always know what to say to make it better.
And then they'd grown up, and Jake had come along, and something between Abby and Callie had shifted ever so slightly - not a coldness, not exactly, they loved each other as much as they ever had. But a guardedness on Abby's part - a fear perhaps of inadvertently revealing too much - turned her inward, made her her own best counsel, and kept her from seeking advice as often as she used to. If Callie noticed, she didn't say. Things hadn't been bad, not at all; but they'd been different.
The irony of all this, of course, was not lost on her - that she longed desperately to hear Callie's advice on a situation that only existed because Callie was dead.
She closed her eyes against the stinging water and she missed her sister so desperately that she felt it like a cold iron fist clenching her heart, actually felt it - a physical, palpable ache. It hurt too badly to think about Jake – not now, not with his brother's touch all over her body – no, she could not miss Jake right now. But Callie . . .
We expect, in some way, to lose our parents. It pains us, but its cold steely logic is clear. It’s the necessary cost of life spinning forward. It’s simply the way the world has always worked. But it was too unfair, thought Abby, it was too cruel and merciless, not to be allowed to keep our siblings all the way up to the end. She had buried her parents, both of them, too young, and it had only been survivable because Callie and Jackson were right there holding her hands.
Abby did not know how to do any of this without Callie.
She leaned her head back against the wall of the shower and closed her eyes and let the hot water baptize her. As the tears began to slowly recede, they left a great echoing hollowness behind them. She was not sad anymore, not really, she was just . . . empty. She had nothing left.
Take a deep breath, Abigail. Get it together, she told herself firmly. You need to get dressed and go be an adult.
Abby Griffin did not have time to lie in bed all day drinking coffee and reading the paper and having lazy afternoon sex, or to sit sobbing in the shower of the guest bathroom (the only room in the house that felt reasonably free of ghosts), because today Abby Griffin had to take three traumatized orphans to their very first appointment with their therapist.
So many people were depending on her not to lose it. And she’d gotten off to a terrible start.
* * *
When Marcus finally roused himself out of a heavy, sated slumber two hours later – he’d always been the kind of person who had a hard time getting up without an alarm clock (or, to be honest, even with one) – he was not surprised to find the bed empty. He got dressed and followed the smell of coffee to the kitchen, where he saw Abby, showered and dressed, scraping out the pan of macaroni and cheese into the garbage disposal. He started to ask what she was doing, then remembered that they’d left it out all night after they got distracted by . . . other things. And the determined, stony look on her face as she chiseled dried burnt cheese out of the corners of the glass pan with her spatula didn’t exactly invite him to bring that up.
He started slow.
“Good morning,” he offered, in a carefully neutral tone.
She didn’t look up. “There’s coffee,” she said. “And some kind of egg casserole thing I found in the freezer. I put it back in the fridge but you can microwave it.”
“You ate already?” he asked. “How long have you been up?”
She shrugged. “Two hours or so,” she said, a little tightly. “I had to - clean up. The kids are coming home this afternoon.”
And we left wine and cake and underwear and clothes all over the kitchen, he thought but didn’t say. Privately, he wondered if she was less worried about questions from the children and more worried about questions from Aunt Vera, but he kept all this to himself.
“What time is your flight?” she asked as he opened the fridge and pulled out a glass dish of egg casserole.
“Two o’clock,” he said, scooping eggs onto a plate and sticking it in the microwave. “My hotel check-out time is noon, so I’ll probably just run back there to get my stuff and then head straight out.” She nodded.
“And you’re back –“
“The 24th,” he said. “I’m sorry. I know that leaves all the Christmas hassle on you. That’s the earliest I could finish up with work.”
“Let me take care of the presents, though,” he said, and that got her attention. She paused in her angry scrubbing and turned to look at him. “It upset you,” he said. “Thinking about the kids’ Christmas presents. Let me do it, then.”
“Do you know what kids that age like?” she asked skeptically.
“No idea,” he admitted. “Do you?” She shook her head, but he could feel her thaw ever so slightly, could feel what might have been the ghost of a smile.
"I'll show up with presents on Christmas Eve," he said. "I'll be Santa Claus. It'll be fun."
“You don’t have to do this,” she said.
“I want to. Let me take one thing off your plate for you. While you’re stuck dealing with all the rest of it. Plus your job. I have to go back to New York but this is like the one thing I can do for you from there. Let me do it.”
“Fine,” she said, and went back to her scrubbing, and even though her face barely changed at all he knew she was relieved. He knew it had been the right thing.
His eggs beeped in the microwave, and he pulled them out, poured a cup of coffee, and sat down at the kitchen table. She had, finally, scoured the glass pan to such a sparkling shine that she could no longer use it as a pretext to keep her back to him, so she busied herself with refilling her own coffee cup, then stood leaning against the counter, watching him eat.
It was silent for a long moment. He would have given anything to know what she was thinking, but he could not ask.
“There are movers coming to my apartment on Tuesday,” he said. “There will be boxes arriving here probably by the end of the week. I gave them your cell phone number in case they need to reach you.”
“You don’t have to do anything with them,” he said, “they’ll haul everything in for you and I’ll unpack when I get here. You can just leave them all in my room.”
The last two words landed with a heavy, startling thud on both of them.
“Your room,” she said tonelessly.
“I only meant –“
“No, I know what you meant,” she said. “It’s fine. You didn’t say anything wrong. This room is your room now. The upstairs room is my room. I suppose we’d better start getting used to it.”
“Would you rather we switch?” he asked, trying to be kind. “Is that better? Because if you’re more comfortable –“
She laughed at that, a flat hollow laugh with no real amusement in it. “Better?” she repeated incredulously. “You really think which bed I sleep in makes a difference, Marcus? You really think one room’s less haunted than the other? I’m screwed either way, so I might as well take the room with the balcony.”
“Don’t say anything,” she said warningly. “Whatever you were about to say, don’t.”
It was silent for a long moment after that.
“You should go,” she said abruptly. “The hotel. You have to pack.”
The hotel was five minutes from here, and he had two hours before he had to check out, and he was only halfway done with his coffee. All of which she knew. Which meant she wanted very badly to get him out of her house (their house?), and he didn’t want to pain her by prolonging it. So he simply nodded, stood from the table, left his dishes where they were, grabbed his jacket and made his way to the door. She followed him silently, uncertainly.
He began to open the door, then stopped and turned back to her.
“Abby,” he began, but he never got the chance to finish.
“Nothing happened,” she said firmly, her voice hard and sharp and cold. “It’s fine. We’ll deal. I got drunk and made a stupid decision. And you – “ She waved her hand dismissively. “This is just what you do. So.”
He was so startled by the sudden turn he could not even be offended. “What do you mean, it’s what I do?”
“Your delightfully consequence-free life,” she said, leaning against the wall with her arms folded, regarding him with studied casualness. “You buy up companies and sell them for scrap, never mind that people lose their jobs, and then you go home to your fancy loft and you drink expensive whiskey and you bang supermodels and you fly Jake to Vegas for his 30th birthday and give him like ten thousand dollars of chips to lose, and it all just rolls right off you. That’s your thing. I get it.”
“Are you trying to trap me into saying that last night meant nothing?”
She rolled her eyes. “You don't have to say it. I'm not an idiot. I don't need to be let down gently, Marcus, I'm an adult woman. Not one of the 22-year-old fashion majors you usually date.”
He was astonished at how quickly simmering irritation erupted into full-blown fury. “You know what, Abby,” he snapped, “you don’t know nearly as much about me, or about my life, as you think that you do.”
“So you’re not currently entangled with half a dozen women half your age?” she said, eyebrow raised. “Your brother made that up?”
“It’s not half a dozen, it’s one,” he fired back defensively, before he could catch himself, the self-satisfied look on her face as he realized he’d accidentally confirmed her petty little dig causing him to seethe inwardly.
“But she is younger.”
“Why are we even doing this, Abby?”
“Is she a model?”
“She’s an auto mechanic,” said Marcus, and Abby laughed out loud.
“Jesus Christ,” she said, “it's like the beginning of a bad porn film. First he screws a girl mechanic, then he cheats on her with a woman he meets at a funeral. I think I’ve seen that one, actually. Wasn’t very believable, though.”
“All right, first of all,” retorted Marcus, who was so tense with anger now that he could hardly look directly at her, “don’t talk about Raven that way.”
“Raven. God. Of course her name is Raven.”
“And second of all, I didn’t cheat. It’s not like that with me and her, it’s not a – we don’t live together or anything, we have busy lives, we just see each other occasionally. There’s nothing scandalous, there was no infidelity. We have an arrangement.”
“How bohemian of you.”
“Why are you being like this?” he asked her, genuine astonishment beginning to filter through his anger. “Why are you being so nasty? I haven’t pushed you, I haven’t crossed any lines, I haven’t asked you for anything you didn’t want to give, I’m genuinely confused as to what you think I did that's so wrong.”
Abby did not, of course, have a real answer for this, but she was not quite willing to admit that. “I just hate what a cliché this all is,” she said dismissively, looking away. But she could feel his eyes on her and knew that he didn’t believe her.
“You’re really going to pretend like last night didn’t happen?” he pressed her. “That’s really what you want?”
“I can’t be trusted with the things that I want, Marcus,” she said frankly, a note of desperation creeping into her frosty tone. “Right now, I’m trying to think about what this family needs.”
“You’re part of this family,” he pointed out. “You get to ask for things too.”
“Marcus, if I got all the things I asked for, you wouldn’t be here,” she said, almost absently, and it stopped them both short.
He looked at her.
She looked at him.
“You haven’t changed your mind,” he said, realizing as the words came tumbling out how desperately true they were. “You still wish you were doing this all yourself. You still think I’m just in the way.”
She didn’t deny it.
It was foolish of him to feel so hurt, foolish of him to think that things might have changed after last night. Not when she was looking at him like this. Not when she was all but throwing him out of the house. It was what he had rationally expected – he had known she would wake up mortified and resentful and that there would be consequences – but there was something warm and open in the way they’d looked at each other last night that made him feel like the ground had shifted beneath his feet and changed something fundamental between them.
Except that either it hadn’t, or she had decided to behave as though it hadn’t – the net impact of which was very much the same.
“Now at least we’ve gotten to the truth,” he said. “This was never about Raven or my job or whatever mental picture you have of my rich asshole life. It’s not even about what happened last night. This is about you. You decided to resent me the minute you learned that all of this hadn’t been left solely and completely in your hands, like you thought you deserved, and you’ve been finding things to criticize about me ever since. But I haven’t done anything, Abby. I showed up and I said yes and I’m doing the best I can. You don’t have a real reason to hate me – except that you want to. Because you can’t be angry at the person you’re really angry at.”
“Which is who, exactly,” she said coldly, “if you know me so well?”
“Jake,” he said, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world, and she reeled back as though she’d been struck in the chest. “He asked for me. He’s the reason I’m here. He took sole responsibility off your shoulders. He did it to be kind, he did it because he cared about you, and because he was thinking about what was best for his kids. But you hate him for it. You’re so angry at him you don't even know it. You’re so angry at him, you’re angry at me. Because Jake took away the only piece of him you had left to hold onto after he was gone – the chance to martyr yourself for him. You’re not thinking about what’s best for the kids, Abby. You think you are, but you’re not. You wanted to be the one he leaned on. You wanted to be able to tell yourself that you were the most important person, that he trusted you the most. And you can’t do that if someone else is carrying half of the burden too.”
“Get out, Marcus,” she said after a long, cold silence, opening the door and standing aside for him to walk through it. He stepped out onto the porch, then turned back to her suddenly.
“I don’t know why it’s not enough,” he said. “That he cared about you so much. That you were so important to him. That he loved the Griffin family so much that he changed his own last name. That wasn’t just for Callie. You know that, right? It was for all of you. It was for you too.”
“Marcus, leave. Now.”
“I know so little about you,” he went on, as though she hadn't spoken. “I don’t know your middle name or where you went to college. I don’t know what your favorite color is, or even what your job is, except that you used to be a doctor and now you teach. I know almost nothing, really. But I know that my brother went up and down the street knocking on doors and rallied half a dozen neighborhood dads out of bed to collect boxes and tape and stacks of old newspaper and pickup trucks to drive over and spend a whole Friday night packing up all your things so you never had to go back to your old house and see your ex again. And I know that you didn’t ask him to do it. Callie didn’t either. Callie was going to hire movers. Jake went himself. Because he wanted to look at the guy, he said. Because he wanted to tell him never to speak to you again. Because he was planning to punch the guy in the face, until he saw him and realized you’d beaten him to it. He liked that. That was his favorite part of the story.”
Abby could not look at him, could not move or breathe. Marcus made his way down the porch steps and towards the driveway where he’d left his car last night, then turned back to her. “By the way,” he said. “You wouldn’t know this, of course, because you’ve never asked me anything about my relationship with my brother, about our childhood or our life – you’ve made some assumptions, but you haven’t actually asked anything. So of course you’d have no way to know this, but it might interest you to hear that Jake Griffin never hit a guy in his life. Never threatened to. Never even wanted to. Except that once.” Abby looked at him then, looked him straight in the eye, startled and a little shaky, her heart pounding strangely in her chest. “It’s not an insult that he wanted you to have someone to lean on when things got hard, Abby,” he said. “It’s because he knew you better than you know yourself.”
And then he climbed into his car, and was gone.
Chapter 12: Doctor Lorelei
“I’m Doctor Lorelei,” said the very pretty woman in the green dress, kneeling down to eye level with the children. “Did your Aunt Abby talk to you a little bit about why you’re here today?”
Bellamy and Octavia nodded. Clarke was murmuring quietly to Princess, the stuffed kitten, and didn’t hear. “Clarke?” said Dr. Lorelei gently, and Clarke looked up. “Is it okay if we put the kitten down for a little bit, and maybe we can all just talk?”
Clarke gave the doctor a skeptical once-over and leaned over again for a hasty, whispered exchange with Princess. Princess seemed to think all of this was above-board, but they hadn’t had time for a full conference, so Clarke leaned over and tapped Octavia on the shoulder and whispered in her ear.
“Dolphin says it’s okay for now,” Octavia reassured her. Clarke passed this information on to Princess, who agreed to be set down on the floor at Clarke’s feet.
There was a little kid-sized couch with room for all three of them. Dr. Lorelei sat across from them in a chair, and Aunt Abby was by the door. She had explained in the car on the way over that they would be visiting Dr. Lorelei every Tuesday but for this first visit only, she would come in with them.
She spent the entire rest of the fifteen-minute car trip explaining that this was not the kind of doctor’s visit where you had to get a shot.
“Are you sure?” pressed Bellamy. "Are you sure we don't have to get shots? I hate shots."
"She's a therapist, not a psychiatrist,” said Abby from the driver’s seat without turning around. "She can’t legally offer you any medication."
"Besides, it's irrational to hate shots, it's one second of pain in exchange for herd immunity preventing the country from undergoing another polio epidemic."
She sighed. "No, Bellamy," she said as calmly she could muster. "I promise, you do not have to get a shot."
“Are you double triple quadruple sure?” asked Octavia.
“I am quintuple sextuple septuple octuple sure,” said Abby, which sent Clarke into paroxysms of giggles. Sometimes Aunt Abby made up the silliest words.
Dr. Lorelei didn’t use big words. She used regular words, and she sat in a low chair so they could look at her face, and she asked them questions that didn’t all make sense but seemed to be about The Thing That Happened. Clarke and Octavia did not like to talk about The Thing. Neither, really, did Bellamy, but he had been born nine minutes before Octavia which made him the oldest, and his sisters were his responsibility. Sometimes he did the brave things so the girls didn’t have to.
Aunt Abby sat quietly in the corner watching them. Aunt Abby didn’t smile very much and she was sometimes a little scary, she didn’t give good hugs like Aunt Vera or tell good stories about Uncle Jackson, and sometimes she talked to the children like they were tiny grownups, which was very puzzling. But it made them all feel safer that she was there.
Dr. Lorelei asked questions for what seemed like a long time. Some of them were funny questions, like asking each of the children to describe what Mommy and Daddy were wearing when they left the house that day before The Thing happened. And some of them were questions that seemed important, for reasons the children couldn’t quite understand. Like she asked Bellamy if he felt like he needed to take care of his sisters now, which was silly, because of course he did. He always had. But Dr. Lorelei asked it in a Serious Grownup Way, and it made them all wonder. Then she asked Clarke if she understood where Mommy and Daddy had gone, which made Bellamy and Octavia sit up straight and tall and squeeze each other’s hands. Clarke sometimes understood, and sometimes didn’t, but she was little. She was only four. They were seven, and in school, which made them big kids, and they tried their hardest to explain everything to Clarke. Information tended to stick a little better in her brain if conveyed from Dolphin to Princess and then to Clarke. But Princess was sitting on the floor and Dolphin and Murphy were in Aunt Abby’s purse which meant they had no idea what Clarke was going to say.
They looked over at their little sister, who was busily chewing on the ends of her hair. Bellamy sighed. She didn’t used to do that, and now she did it all the time. He leaned over and pulled the hair out of her mouth.
“Clarke?” said Dr. Lorelei again, very gently, “did you hear my question?”
“They’re in space,” said Clarke, and Octavia – overcome with the anxiety of having to keep explaining this to her sister over and over and over again – began to cry a little bit. Aunt Abby moved like she was going to get up from her chair, but Dr. Lorelei shook her head and she sat back down again.
“It’s okay,” whispered Bellamy as he squeezed her hand, and then Dr. Lorelei looked at him.
“Bellamy,” she said, in a very gentle and pleasant voice, “what would happen if when Octavia started to cry, you let her cry without trying to make her stop?”
This was a ridiculous question, so he didn’t bother hiding his disdain. “Then she’d be sad,” he explained, very patiently.
“What if it was okay that sometimes Octavia is going to feel sad?” was her response, which wasn’t a question Bellamy was sure how to answer.
But the most surprising and difficult question of the day was directed, a little while later at Octavia. They had introduced Dr. Lorelei to their animals, and Dr. Lorelei had looked straight at Octavia and she had asked a very strange question.
“Octavia,” she said. “Dolphin knows things, doesn’t he?”
This was not a concept that grownups were usually swift to grasp, so it made Octavia like Dr. Lorelei a little better, and she forgave her for not letting Bellamy give her squeezes when she had wanted him to before. She nodded.
“Is Dolphin the boss of the other animals?” she asked. “Does he tell Murphy and Princess, sometimes, what to do?”
What a relief to talk to a grownup who gets it, Octavia thought. They’d had an impossible time getting this concept through to Aunt Abby.
“Yes,” she said. “He’s the leader.”
“Okay,” said Dr. Lorelei. “What would happen if Dolphin wasn’t there?”
They all stared at her.
“What do you mean?” asked Octavia suspiciously.
“If there was no Dolphin,” said Lorelei, “then could you tell Bellamy and Clarke the things that Dolphin tells to Murphy and Princess?”
Octavia shook her head. “Only Dolphin,” she said. “He finds stuff out, and then he tells me.”
“How does he find stuff out, Octavia?”
“I don’t know,” she said helplessly. “He just does.”
Dr. Lorelei gave Octavia a long, unreadable look, then turned to Aunt Abby. “All right,” she said pleasantly. “I think that’s enough for today.”
* * *
"So what's the deal with Dolphin?" asked Abby once they were all back in the car. Clarke was drawing pictures with her finger on the window and not quite paying attention, but Bellamy and Octavia tensed up slightly.
"He's a dolphin," said Octavia carefully, not quite sure what Aunt Abby was asking.
"Well, right," she said. "I mean, I know that. I just meant - how come he's the leader? And not Murphy or Princess? Well, Princess is the youngest, probably, so I guess that make sense. But isn't Murphy the oldest? Since Bellamy's the oldest?" In the rearview mirror, she saw them nod. "Plus, you know, a T-Rex in real life is a lot bigger than a dolphin," she said. "In the wild, you realize Murphy would be eating Dolphin and Princess right now." This struck all three children as hilariously funny. "Anyway, all I'm saying," she said, "is that I question the internal logic of this animal kingdom democracy you have going on here. That's all."
"Why do you use big words?" asked Clarke, tuning suddenly into the conversation, and making Abby feel ever-so-slightly like she'd committed a social faux pas.
"Because I'm smart," she said, "and I think you're smart too, and I see no reason to talk down to you in a patronizing tone of voice and create the impression -"
Clarke's expression in the rearview mirror was dubious. Abby sighed.
"Because I like using big words," she said, and Clarke nodded happily like that was the correct answer and returned to drawing on the window.
Later, as they were walking back up the steps to the house, Bellamy lagged behind slightly, letting the girls run on ahead, and tugged at Aunt Abby's hand. She stopped and looked down at him.
"It's because of Daddy," he said, and was startled at the stricken look that came over her face, so he hastened to explain. "Murphy came from Uncle Jackson," he said. "For my birthday. And Clarke got Princess from Aunt Vera for Christmas. But Dolphin is from Daddy. That's why he's the boss of everyone. That's how come he knows things everybody else doesn't know."
Aunt Abby looked down at him for a long moment, with a very strange expression on her face before she said, "Thank you, Bellamy, that's very helpful. You can go inside now." He scampered in after his sisters to the kitchen, where Aunt Vera and Uncle Jackson were cooking. Aunt Abby went straight up to her room and didn't come back downstairs until dinner.
Chapter 13: Advent
As promised, a truckload of boxes arrived at the house before the end of the week. Boxes from Marcus, addressed to Marcus, packed with the belongings that Marcus would now need, because he lived here – a fact Abby was still trying mightily to adjust to.
She had spent a few days clearing out the guest room for him. The closets were packed full of spare bedding and board games which all needed to be rehoused, and he’d be bringing his own books and lamps and things to hang on the wall. Abby wasn’t quite ready to throw anything out, so she simply boxed it all up, hauled it up to the attic, and left Marcus’ room bare of everything except a bed, dresser and bookshelf.
She had given up fighting the inevitable, and had begun very slowly to move her own things into Jake and Callie’s bedroom. She had resisted as long as she could, but the longer she pretended like she was a visitor the worse it would be. She would simply have to make the best of it.
The gray and dismal weather – Portland's typical mid-December damp chill – was beginning to take its toll on Abby's spirits. The sparkling white snow which had created such a false sense of serenity the night of the accident, had long since dissolved into hideous brown slush and then to rain. Oregon winters were rarely pleasant. Abby felt chilled all the time in the old creaky house, and missed her well-appointed downtown loft with its spare modern furniture and gleaming kitchen. Jake and Callie's house was large and rambling and beautiful, a classic Portland-style Craftsman with a porch swing and a back yard and big bay windows in the living room. But inside all was chaos. Two weeks after the accident, Abby had still altered very little. There were still papers all over Callie’s desk, sweaters tossed over the backs of chairs, half-finished books on end tables. There was even a load of clean laundry she had not been able to bring herself to take out of the dryer. The house was in many ways just as its true owners had left it that day when they went early Christmas shopping and never came back; a snapshot of one moment in time, captured forever and endlessly repeated in every single room.
And then there were rooms with new, equally unsettling ghosts floating about, thought Abby, who could not enter the guest room which now belonged to Marcus without memories flooding back through her mind, uninvited, of the way he had felt inside her and the sound of the rough moans he had breathed into her skin and the way he had slept all night with a protective arm around her body. And that did not make anything easier.
Unsure quite how to proceed without traumatizing the children, Abby had at first only brought over a suitcase full of clothes and her laptop, taking up as little space as she could – until Aunt Vera pointed out to her that this was futile. “You live here, you’re not a guest,” she said. “It’s time to start taking up some room. The sooner you begin adjusting to your new normal, the easier it will be on the children.”
Abby did not agree. She felt them watching her warily, reproachfully, as she moved from the guest room to their parents' bedroom. She was so aware of their discomfort, and so singularly uncomfortable with them herself, that she had not yet quite begun to broach the subject of Uncle Marcus. They had watched the boxes being loaded in and piled away, and they had observed that the boxes must not be Aunt Abby’s because she was not sleeping in that room anymore, but if they wondered what was in the boxes, they did not ask. Which was a relief. One strange adult, she thought, was plenty for the moment.
And maybe if she was lucky, Marcus would change his mind and stay in New York.
* * *
She could not have been more wrong.
“You’re going to be sharing a house with these kids until they’re eighteen,” an exasperated voice at his side was, at that exact moment, explaining to Marcus. “You really, really, really don’t want to buy them a drum set.”
“But it’s awesome,” he complained to the dark-haired girl who was extracting a pair of wooden drumsticks from his hands and shoving him off the bench of the giant toy drum set he had just sat down to play.
“It would be, if you were their cool uncle from New York who came to visit for Christmas and then left again,” she pointed out, “but if you buy loud presents for kids who live in the same house as you, then you’re literally just paying good money to annoy yourself.”
He sighed. Raven was right.
Raven was always right.
If you had asked him directly, Marcus would not have been able to articulate quite how it was that the Christmas presents had become so suddenly, vitally important.
Maybe it was because today was the 8th of December, and he had flown home on the 3rd, and had not heard from Abby since – except a brief memoranda with information about the shared checking account, which she had sent him through David Miller’s office. Maybe it was because it felt like an audition, in some strange way, like he had one chance to prove to her – and to those three small children he had still only met in passing, and who had no idea they’d be stuck with him for the rest of their lives – that this was something he could do.
Maybe it was because he was as bereft without Jake to give him advice in a crisis as Abby was about Callie – one of the countless areas in which they could have helped each other if they hadn’t both been quite so stubborn.
“Maybe it’s because you’re an idiot,” said Raven helpfully as they wandered through F.A.O. Schwartz, and she removed yet another absurdly-overpriced designer toy from his hand.
“Thanks a lot.”
“This isn’t a platinum AmEx problem, Marcus, this is a relationship problem,” she explained reasonably. “Kids can smell bullshit. They know when they’re being bought. If you show up with a truckload of expensive toys that your brother would never be able to afford, you’re just going to mess with their heads. Put that down,” she said, yanking the American Girl doll out of his hand. “What do you know about them? What do you know about what they actually like?”
“Well, there’s your problem,” she said. “If you want to be the Christmas hero, here’s what you need to do. You need to get to know the kids. What they like, what makes them happy, what are their favorite TV shows and classes in school, what’s got the least chance of messing with their – seriously, Marcus, toy cars? What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“Kids like toy cars.”
“Not the ones whose parents died in a fucking car accident.”
He put the toy cars down.
“You need help,” said Raven.
“I can’t call Abby,” he said. “I told her I’d take care of this.”
“Well, duh,” said Raven, to whom he’d told the entire story. “Of course you can’t call Abby. No, Abby’s gotta think you nailed this all on your own.” She reached into his back pocket to grab his phone (hand lingering just ever so slightly longer than necessary, causing him to blush) and began scanning through it.
“Should I ask how you know my passcode, or –“
“I wouldn’t,” she said absently as she skimmed through the contacts, then found was she was looking for and gave an “AHA!” of triumph.
She held out the phone. He looked down at it.
“No,” he said. Absolutely not."
“You have to.”
“What are your other options?”
“This is important shit, Marcus,” she said pointedly. “You’ve got one shot at this. You’ve got to get this right. You said it yourself – this is the one thing you can take off her plate. Do it right, and you’ll show her she can let her guard down around you. Do it wrong, and you’ll never regain the ground you’ll lose. Come on. Tell me I’m wrong.”
“You’re not wrong.”
“Ha! Because . . . “
“Because Raven Reyes is never wrong,” he sighed wearily, and took the phone out of her hand. There was a bench nearby, around a corner by the elevators, and he followed her out of the chaos to sit down where it was a little quieter.
She picked up on the first ring.
“Hello, Vera,” he said. “This is Marcus Kane.”
* * *
It probably shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that Marcus and Vera clicked immediately, but it was a surprise to Marcus.
He had met her only very briefly at the funeral, and she impressed him favorably, projecting an air of quiet warmth and competence. He thought he could see why it was that the rest of the family leaned on her. He'd heard all Jake's stories, of course, and had somehow formed an image of someone more grandmotherly than maternal. Somebody tall and angular with severe Victorian posture and impeccably coiffed gray hair. Not this soft, comfortable-looking woman with kind warm eyes who had been the first and only person at the entire funeral to tell him she was sorry for his loss.
Still, he had been reluctant to take Raven's advice and ask the woman for help. So he was surprised by how much he liked her.
"I'm at F.A.O. Schwartz with a friend," he said, having put the phone on speaker so Raven could chime in, "and I'm totally at a loss."
"I had to stop him from buying them all toy cars."
"Toy cars?" exclaimed Aunt Vera.
"That's what I said!"
"What's your name, darling?" asked Aunt Vera.
"Well, Raven, you and I are clearly going to have to take charge here. Marcus needs help. Only it can't look like he's had help, of course, which is the tricky part. He has to impress Abby with his ability to handle this on his own."
"I said that too!" Raven shouted back into the phone, grinning at Marcus. "I love her."
"Look," said Aunt Vera, "I can email you a list of basic likes and dislikes - Octavia likes butterflies, Clarke likes to draw, Bellamy has a whole arsenal of Nerf guns, that kind of thing - but that's not the thing that really matters the most. The thing that matters here is that these children, the twins particularly, are accustomed to Christmas traditions unfolding in a particular way. And if you attempt to replicate their parents' traditions without their parents there, it will be traumatic. You need to start making some new ones."
"Well, the most pressing thing to address," said Vera, "is the tree."
"Jake always took the kids to pick out the tree," said Vera, "and then they would help Callie hang the ornaments while Jake strung the outdoor lights. Then they would all make hot cocoa and watch A Charlie Brown Christmas." Raven's eyes became suspiciously shiny at this, and she busied herself with digging through her purse. Raven hadn't had a great childhood either - not any better than Marcus and Jake's - and he knew he was feeling what she was feeling.
What a waste.
What a waste that parents like this should be snatched away so soon while the shitty ones always seemed to stick around forever.
"So you see," Vera continued, "if Abby just goes to the lot and buys a tree and comes home and they all decorate it together, it's going to feel like a pale imitation of the real thing."
"No, I get it," said Marcus thoughtfully. "You're right. It has to be something completely different." And he felt the beginnings of an idea stirring in the back of his mind. He did not say anything about it to Vera or to Raven, not just yet, and he thought perhaps it might be a trifle insane. But he thought about the looks on the children's faces and he thought about making Abby smile and he thought about all the weight she was carrying, how lost she must feel about what to do, and decided that come hell or high water, he was going to get Christmas right.
"It was kind of you to stay over with her after the funeral," said Vera in a neutral tone, causing Raven's head to snap up abruptly as she and Marcus stared at each other, wondering what Vera knew.
"She seemed like she was - having a hard time," offered Marcus carefully.
"I'm surprised she asked you," said Vera. "I'm glad, but surprised. The Griffins don’t trust people they don’t know well,” she explained. “Which means that for the most part, Griffins only trust each other. It took a very long time even for Jake to find his place. Abby was very uncomfortable around him for the first few years. It took a long time for us to find our new normal again.”
Marcus had some thoughts of his own as to why Abby had not felt comfortable around his brother, but he forbore to mention them to Aunt Vera.
"And now you all have to find it again," he said. "Only you're stuck with me this time. Which can't make things easy."
“You’re not your father, Marcus,” she said unexpectedly, and he was so startled he almost dropped his phone. Raven's eyes widened.
“I – what?”
“Jake told us all the stories,” she said. “I understand. You’re very different men, you and your brother, and you had different mothers, of course, which explains a great deal of it.”
“A great deal of what?”
“Jake dealt with it by running fast and far in the opposite direction,” she went on as if he hadn’t spoken. “He had a terrible childhood so he wanted to give his children the perfect one. Being a good husband, a good father, was the most important thing in his life. Everything else came second to that.”
Yes, it did, he thought, feeling a dull, heavy ache in his heart for Abby.
“And you,” she said, “you did the opposite. You built a life for yourself where you could never disappoint anyone, because you’d never stay in one place long enough to hurt anybody.”
“That’s not – I – what?” Marcus stammered, hating himself for having decided to put this conversation on speakerphone to include Raven, who was staring in wide-eyed astonishment and clearly hoping that Vera would keep dropping truth bombs on Marcus for the rest of the day.
“If you found her chilly and difficult to get to know, that’s why,” Vera explained. “Think about the things she knows about you. All those colorful, crazy stories, exaggerated by Jake in the telling. That time you stole a helicopter and went joyriding –“
“That’s not quite how it happened –“
“Jake’s birthday in Vegas –“
“Yeah, she already yelled at me about that one.”
“The time that one supermodel whose heart you broke pushed the other one off the catwalk at a Versace show –“
“That’s what he said? No, okay, listen, what happened was –“
“She doesn't really believe you're a real person, Marcus,” Vera interrupted him, and he shut up. “She doesn't really trust yet that you're going to come through. And she doesn't let go of burdens easily because she's afraid no one else can actually bear the weight.”
“She’s afraid I’m going to let down the children,” he said flatly. “Because she thinks I’m selfish and irresponsible.”
“Well, to be fair, darling,” said Vera in a reasonable voice, “you’ve been selfish and irresponsible.” There was, of course, no possible answer to this, although Raven looked like she had some thoughts. “But you haven’t learned one thing about her if you really think that’s what she’s afraid of.”
“Then tell me what it is.”
“She just lost two of the people she loved most in the world,” said Vera simply, “and she never saw it coming. She lost her grandparents and then her parents, and then whoever that doctor was he was clearly important to her, and that ended too. And now this. She doesn't trust anyone not to leave her, Marcus. She doesn't really believe she'll ever stop being alone.”
It was so agonizingly, excruciatingly true that he felt staggered by it. He actually felt himself lose his balance the tiniest bit, and braced his hand on the bench to collect himself. He had given credit – or thought he had – to Abby’s grief for her sister, and at the particularly painful nuances of her losing Jake. But he had not tallied up the full measure of her losses, of the people who had left her in her thirty-eight short years. Of course she held everything on her own shoulders. Of course she resented the dilettante brother from New York, jetting in to wreak havoc. Because she was looking ahead to a future where she was convinced she’d be picking up the wreckage of the mess he’d left behind him when he, too, inevitably left her behind and went back to his life.
“What can I do?” he asked her.
“You show up, and you stay,” she said. “That’s the only thing that matters. You stay. No matter what happens. No matter how hard. Your brother did this for you as much as he did for her, Marcus. It’s time for you to grow up.”
“That’s a little harsh.”
“Do you think I’m wrong?”
“Marcus, if you don’t want to do this,” she said, her voice softening, “if you’re not ready to take on the challenge of raising three children, nobody will think any the less of you. It is not a character flaw to admit there are burdens we are not ready to bear. If this is not something you want – if this is not something you are ready to do – say so. The lawyers will fix it. We can take care of it. But you must decide now. Because if you come back, dear heart, you must come back to stay. Come to stay, or don’t come at all. Don’t uproot her life, and then leave her. She’ll never be able to put the pieces back together if you do.”
After they hung up - Vera promising him an email with a more detailed list of toy preferences - he and Raven sat side-by-side on the bench in the toy store elevator bay, staring straight ahead at the white wall in front of them.
"Don't take this the wrong way," Raven finally ventured carefully, "but I think I might love Aunt Vera."
"I know," said Marcus. "I think I love her too."
Chapter 14: Indra
While Marcus was in New York, emailing with Vera several times a day about holiday logistics and recruiting her assistance with the grand secret plan he’d begun to formulate that day at the toy store, Abby was dealing with a Christmas crisis of her own.
She had been so focused on the well-being of the children in theory – how to move in while disrupting their lives as little as possible, how to handle the question of Marcus – that she had not spared as much attention as she maybe should have for the children themselves. Jackson and Vera were around a great deal, after all, and they were better at this than she was, so she sometimes found herself simply trying her hardest not to be invasive. Dinner table conversation was minimal. Jackson drove the twins to and from school, and Aunt Vera came on the weekends so Abby could work. (Her T.A. was handling the last week of classes before the students went on break, but she had a stack of term papers to grade that was piling up paralyzingly fast.) And so, with the exception of driving them to their weekly appointments with Dr. Lorelei and sitting in the waiting room for an hour until they were done, she managed over those first few weeks not actually to have to be alone with them very much. They had not exactly established a rapport.
So when the first real parenting crisis arose, it caught her unprepared.
It was a rainy Saturday afternoon and Abby was sitting at Callie's desk, sorting out the mess of papers into three piles: personal items she couldn't quite bear to look at; things which needed filing; and things which required immediate attention. Fortunately the last pile was small, but there were a handful of bills that still had to be paid by check and the twins were due for a checkup at the dentist. She added these items to her ever-growing list of things to do.
The knock at the bedroom door startled her. “Aunt Abby?” said a small voice. Abby turned around.
“Octavia. Hi,” she said. “And hello, Dolphin.” There was a long silence before Abby forcibly reminded herself that she was the responsible adult and should make the next move. So she added, uncomfortably, “You can come in. If you like.” Octavia did. She looked around the room a little nervously, as though all the furniture might have secretly rearranged itself since she last saw it. She disliked change, Abby could see. They had that in common.
“I have a question. About school,” she began. The twins had decided the week after the funeral to go back for their final two weeks of classes before Christmas break; they were out this Friday. It seemed to be going well so far, or at least no one had broken down crying in the middle of gym class, but when she asked them about it they just shrugged and said “fine.” So this, perhaps, was progress.
“Sure,” said Abby, turning her full attention to Octavia. “I’m pretty good at math and science stuff. If it’s about history or religion, though, you want Aunt Vera. And Jackson’s your best bet for English.”
“It's not about homework.”
“Oh. Okay.” Abby waited patiently for her to continue.
“There's a Christmas party at school on Wednesday.”
“With food and stuff. For the whole class.”
“Okay.” Abby looked at her with a raised eyebrow, waiting for the question, when she realized that Octavia’s lip was trembling and she was holding Dolphin close to her chest. Abby felt like an idiot.
“Oh, Octavia,” she said heavily. “Your mom was supposed to bring treats for the party, wasn’t she?” Octavia nodded, biting her lip and valiantly attempting not to cry. “Okay,” she said in as reassuring a voice as she could muster. “Don’t worry. It’s okay. It’s fine. I can do it. Thank you for telling me. What should I bring?”
“You need me to make cookies?”
Octavia looked impatient. “You can't make cookies. It's against the rules. You have to buy them. Ms. Byrne says.”
“Is Ms. Byrne your teacher?”
“Ms. Byrne’s the principal.”
This was not going well.
“Okay,” Abby said comfortingly, trying to salvage it. “That’s fine. I can do that. I'll buy cookies. What kind would you like?”
“There were special ones.”
“They were our special Christmas cookies,” said Octavia, lip trembling again.
“Okay. What kind?”
“I don’t know.”
“Oh. Well, what did they look like?”
“We called them Saint Agatha cookies,” said Octavia.
“Saint Agatha cookies? What does that mean?” asked Abby, puzzled. “Is that the brand? Is that, like, a nickname? Do you know where she bought them?”
Octavia couldn’t answer. Her face was buried in Dolphin, her dark hair hanging messily around her face like a tangled curtain, and she was trembling all over, and Abby felt like a bully.
“I’m sorry, Octavia,” she said quietly. “I didn’t mean to make you cry. I’m trying to learn a lot of things right now and sometimes when I don’t know something I’m supposed to know, it’s very frustrating. Does that make sense?” Octavia did not look up, but nodded. “I’m going to figure this out,” she said. “Okay? I’m going to find the right cookies for you. I promise. Don’t worry about it.” Octavia nodded again. “Should we,” Abby began, then stopped herself. “Would you – would you like a hug?”
“That’s okay,” said Octavia without looking up, and carried Dolphin out of the room.
Abby leaned back in the desk chair and sighed wearily.
Of course. Of course there were special cookies Callie bought every Christmas, and of course Octavia had no idea what they were called or how they were obtained. They were the Christmas cookies. They just magically appeared in the house, because that was the kind of mother that Callie Griffin had been. Abby could not ask the children for more than the children knew, and she could not dig for further information on the cookies without, apparently, inadvertently bullying children to tears. A tiny disloyal part of her thought that maybe it might not be entirely horrible having Marcus here, and not having to carry the entire burden of this herself. But that was ridiculous. How could Marcus help with this? Marcus knew less than she did. She did try Jackson and Vera, but they were as baffled as she was. (“Saint Agatha? Is that the brand?”) The internet was useless, and there was nothing helpful in any of the kitchen cupboards or the boxes of holiday ornaments she had finally hauled down from the attic. No, this was something she would have to figure out herself.
Dinner was quiet that night. From the freezer stuffed with casseroles Abby had arbitrarily selected a frozen lasagna, which Clarke mistrusted; she suspected there were hidden vegetables. No grownup would feed you something covered in that much cheese if it wasn't hiding something.
Abby made bright and cheerful conversation, praying that no one would ask about the cookies. With every passing hour, they increased in importance. They had suddenly become a symbol of every maternal trait she lacked, every battle she would fight over the endless, yawning, weariness-inducing vista of years in which she would be the only woman taking care of these children. But she was a woman who was not a mother. She didn't know what the special Christmas cookies were. She had already failed.
Oddly, in the end it was Marcus who (indirectly) pointed her to the solution of the mystery – an unexpected side benefit of his Super-Secret Grand Master Plan.
All the information Abby had been given was that she and the children needed to be out of the house until 6 p.m. for what Vera described as “a surprise for the kids.”
“What am I supposed to do with them?”
“Take them over to Indra’s house,” said Vera. “Have you met the Grounders yet?”
“They live in the green house on the corner, the one with the black shutters and the balcony,” she said. “She has three kids too. They all play together. Take the children out to lunch after Mass, and then bring them to Indra’s. I’ll call you when it’s time to come home.”
“This all seems like a very elaborate scheme to get me out of the house,” Abby observed.
“Or, alternately,” offered Vera, “it’s a very elaborate scheme to force you to make a friend.”
Abby knew better than to argue with her aunt when she was trying to get in the last word, so she wisely let the conversation end there.
They stopped for burgers on the way home from Mass, Abby attempting to place a drive-through order while Clarke sang a made-up song about French fries and Bellamy couldn’t remember if he liked pickles and Octavia tapped Abby on the shoulder over and over to ask her questions about the Advent wreath at church. By the time the teenager in the drive-through window handed the bags out to them, Abby felt like she had aged twenty years, and pulled up into Indra’s driveway already exhausted.
Abby lifted her hand to knock on the door, but Bellamy stopped her.
“We don’t regular knock,” he said.
“We have a special thing,” he said. “Watch. Octavia will do it.” And Abby stared in bafflement as Octavia got down on her hands and knees, lifted up the flap of the cat door, and yelled “KNOCK KNOCK!”
“WHO’S THERE?” came a small voice from inside the living room, and the scurrying footsteps of what sounded like a dog and at least two children came racing over.
“TREE PEOPLE, THIS IS SKY PEOPLE,” bellowed Octavia. “COME IN, TREE PEOPLE.”
“SKY PEOPLE, YOU ARE CLEARED FOR ENTRANCE,” a child’s voice shouted.
“What in God’s name is happening right now?” said Abby.
“Shhhhhhhh,” said Clarke, and the front door opened.
“Hi hi hi hi hi hi!” shouted Octavia and she flung her arms around the little boy – probably right around her age – who stood in the doorway next to a smaller girl with dark serious eyes.
“Hi Lexa,” said Clarke to the little girl.
“Hi Clarke,” said Lexa.
“Can they come inside now?” came the very welcome voice of an adult, as a tall, striking woman came out of the kitchen, followed by a girl who looked about twelve or thirteen and was already rolling her eyes at the noise. “Did you guys do the thing?”
“We did the thing,” said the boy, “they can come in.”
“I’m Indra,” said the woman to Abby, as the children all scurried inside. “This is Lincoln, and Lexa, and the one over here making faces is Anya.”
“I’m Abby,” said Abby, shaking Indra’s hand. “What was that whole secret password business?”
“We’re the Tree People because our house is green,” she explained. “Yours is blue. Sky People.”
"There's an Ice Nation too."
"Let me guess, that white house two doors down?"
"Good guess," said Indra, smiling. “I don’t know how it started, but now we’re no longer allowed to knock on each other’s doors like civilized humans, apparently. Nia came over last week to borrow my rake and Lexa made her talk through the cat door too. We finally had to lay down a rule that they can't actually make the adults do it. I have a bad back and you guys have a very low mail slot. Come on in."
The children disappeared immediately – the five smaller ones to the TV room where Abby could hear the opening score of Sleeping Beauty (“It’s their favorite Disney movie,” said Indra. “Clarke gets scared when Maleficent’s eyes come out of the fire, but Bellamy always tells her when it’s safe to look. They’ve got a good system”), and exasperated Anya up the back staircase, presumably to get away from the annoying babies. Indra motioned Abby over to the sofa.
“I was told to keep you occupied until 6 p.m. so the Christmas surprise could get set up,” she said, “which I figured gave us a reasonable window for this.” And she set two crystal tumblers on the coffee table in front of them alongside a bottle of Knob Creek.
“Indra,” said Abby sincerely, “You might be my new favorite person.”
“I’m not usually this nice,” Indra allowed, “but these are extenuating circumstances.” She handed her a glass. “Drink,” she said. “And tell me everything.”
* * *
“So are you drowning in casseroles yet?” Indra asked, topping off their glasses, as Abby – who had followed Indra’s lead in taking off her shoes and curling up more comfortably on the couch – gave a bemused sigh.
“Hundreds,” she said. “Thousands. The second freezer in the garage is totally full. But I hardly have the stomach for them. Neither do the kids.” Indra nodded.
“I thought so,” she said. “That's the usual way. There’s a cooler and some grocery bags in the kitchen I’m sending back with you guys when you go home. Just some basics. Spaghetti and sauce, some cans of good soup, macaroni and cheese – some pretzels, Bellamy likes pretzels – peanut butter, jelly, bread – they only eat white, by the way – cocoa for them, coffee for you – you drink coffee? Of course you do – crackers, cheese, lunchmeat, lettuce, tomatoes, and juice.”
“Oh, no – you don’t have to –“
“My wife died about two years ago,” Indra said.
“I'm so sorry,” said Abby, and meant it. Indra waved it off with a “let’s not do that right now” gesture, and Abby – who had always found it so restful to be among people who also never wanted to publicly talk about their feelings – found herself liking Indra even more.
“Anyway,” said Indra, “I remember this part well. Everyone thinks you need to eat but don't want to cook, so they bury you in giant frozen trays of something covered in cheese. The casseroles keep coming and coming and you don't have the heart to tell people that you're running out of fridge space and can barely keep food down, let alone polish off an entire lasagna in one night, because you know they mean well, but they have no idea. I opted for lots of soup and cheese and crackers. After Diana died, that was about all I could handle.”
“What about your kids? Did they eat?”
“I bent the rules for the first few months,” said Indra. “They couldn't eat anything for almost a week, I had to force them. I decided I was willing to serve absolutely anything that they would eat. We had ice cream for dinner more than a few times,” she said, smiling, though the memory was clearly painful. “After things . . . resettled . . . I steered us back to the regular eating rules. But I wasn't above Taco Bell three nights a week if the choice was that or starvation. I think when you're grieving,” she went on, sipping her bourbon, “the most important thing is to listen to your body. You need to sleep when you're tired, eat when you're hungry, and not force yourself. Especially for the first few weeks, when your whole body is in shock. If all you want is crackers, just eat crackers. Your body will tell you when you're really hungry. How are the kids eating?”
“I . . . don't know. I mean, I don't have anything to compare it to. I don't know how they usually eat.”
“You don't have kids, right?” asked Indra, and it was so clearly a simple question of fact with no implicit judgment or criticism attached that Abby thought she might burst into tears. God, it was nice to talk to someone who hadn’t already decided she was a failure at parenting.
“No, I don't have kids.”
“Okay, so here's the thing you have to know. These kids are not generally picky eaters. They all have the standard vegetable phobia, although Clarke will eat potatoes and Octavia will eat corn, and they all like tomatoes. They'll eat salad and carrot sticks and stuff if you let them dip it in ranch dressing. But other than vegetables, they're pretty easy to feed. I think Callie -” her voice cracked for a second and Abby saw her forcibly steady herself - “usually let them help her make their lunches in the evenings. Octavia and Bellamy will usually want the exact same thing. Clarke likes cheese sandwiches better than PB and J.”
This did not sound like “not picky eaters” to Abby, whose apprehension must have registered on her face. Indra laughed. “It's really not that bad,” she said soothingly. “They're way better than most. How have you been getting on?”
“I haven't paid a lot of attention to how they've been eating,” she admitted. “Aunt Vera’s been here.” Indra grinned.
“She's a force of nature, your aunt.”
“You know her?”
“I've met her at some school functions. They do a Grandparents Day at the school, and she's been to some fundraisers. I liked her a lot.”
“She's definitely something,” agreed Abby. “It's much less terrifying when she's here.”
“This must be excruciating for you,” said Indra, and there was compassion in her voice but no pity. It was a simple, frank statement of fact – I am acknowledging that I see you in pain – but it was startling in its difference from the hundreds of other conversations she had had with strangers at the funeral. Indra knew what loss felt like. She could meet Abby right where she was.
All the neighbors had seen the van pull up the other day with Marcus Kane’s boxes inside it, and the story of Jake’s brother from New York moving into the house with the children’s aunt had made its way through every house on Juniper Street. “It’s . . . an unusual approach,” even Indra had admitted. “But I liked Jake Griffin. He was a practical guy. No bullshit. If his brother was the wrong guy for the job, Jake wouldn’t have done this.”
“Don’t you think it’s weird that he didn’t tell me, though?”
“He probably just didn't want to spend hours and hours arguing with you about something there was a million-to-one chance was literally never going to come up,” said Indra reasonably, and it was so painfully accurate that she couldn’t argue. “Besides,” Indra added, “speaking as someone who is a single parent with three children, you’re going to be glad to have a second pair of hands around. Three is a lot. Sooner or later, a parenting crisis is going to erupt, and you’re going to be grateful you’ve got someone around to help you out.”
“It’s erupted already,” Abby said gloomily, and knocked back a huge swallow of bourbon.
“Oh Lord,” said Indra. “And he’s not back for another two weeks?” Abby shook her head. “All right,” said Indra. “Lay it on me.”
Abby recounted the entire story of Octavia and the special Christmas cookies, and to her relief, Indra got it immediately.
“This is one of those things that children just expect adults to know,” said Indra with an understanding sigh. “Octavia’s probably never given two seconds’ worth of thought in her whole life to how those cookies end up in the house every Christmas. They’re just there. Adults just take care of things. She thinks you’re magic.”
“And I can’t risk asking Bellamy for more details,” she said, “or pushing Octavia any more. Not if it’s something that’s so clearly upsetting.”
“No,” said Indra thoughtfully, “no, you can’t ask the kids.”
“I don’t suppose there’s any chance you magically know what my sister’s special Christmas cookies were,” asked Abby, not expecting an answer. Indra sipped her bourbon thoughtfully, brow furrowed, for a long moment. Then, suddenly, her face lit up and she turned back to Abby with a triumphant expression.
“What did you say Octavia called them?”
“Saint Agatha cookies,” said Abby, “but I don’t have any idea what that means.”
“I do,” said Indra, and pulled out her smartphone. “Saint Agatha is another Catholic grade school,” she said, “over in Southeast. Octavia and Bellamy did their First Communion classes there last year. And look.” She held out her phone, where she’d pulled up the school website on her browser. “Look at the uniforms,” she said.
On the homepage of the Saint Agatha Parish and School website was a picture of three young girls playing on the playground, wearing typical Catholic school uniforms – white button-down blouses and bright red pleated plaid skirts.
“I don’t –“
“Walker’s Shortbread,” said Indra. “Those are the cookies she meant. The plaid on the boxes is the same as the Saint Agatha uniforms. That’s what she was trying to tell you.”
“Oh my God,” said Abby, staring at her. “Oh my God. You’re a genius. I’ll go tell her right now.” But Indra shook her head.
“No,” she said. “Don’t tell her I figured it out. Don’t tell her we had to look it up. Just show up to the party with the cookies in your hand. Let her think that you’ve got a little bit of the grownup magic too.”
Abby started to say more, but a soft ping on her phone alerted her to a text from Vera. “WE’RE READY! COME ON HOME.”
“Time to see whatever this magical Christmas surprise from Aunt Vera is,” Abby sighed. “I hope she’s not making us make gingerbread houses again. We tried that once. It’s a hundred times more boring than it sounds.”
“It’s not gingerbread houses,” smiled Indra, “and it’s not from her. She’s just coordinating the logistics.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Get the kids,” said Indra. “We’ll walk over with you. I want to see the look on your face.”
Anya declined to join them, but Lincoln and Lexa happily grabbed their coats and pulled their shoes on. Two glasses of bourbon in, Abby decided she’d rather leave the car in Indra’s driveway and walk back down the block with the kids, and then come back to get it later, so the seven of them set off down the street to the house of – apparently – the Sky People.
They had only made it two houses down before Clarke stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and refused to budge another inch.
“Clarke?” said Abby uncertainly, as the whole group paused and turned back to her. “Clarke, honey, what –“
“Shhhhh,” said Clarke, staring up at the sky with wide eyes. “Listen.”
“Clarke, keep walking please."
“Aunt Abby, what’s that noise?” asked Octavia, tugging at her sleeve, and then Abby really did stop and listen.
What the hell?
She turned to Indra. “Do I hear – is that –“ But she stopped herself.
“Oh, go ahead,” said Indra with a smile. “See how crazy it sounds when you say it out loud.”
“Are those . . . sleigh bells?”
Chapter 15: Sleigh Bells
The sun had set early that day, and by 6 it was already nearly dark. So at first, as they made their way down the street towards their house, all Abby could make out was a huge crowd of people in the street at the end of the block.
“What in God’s name is happening?” muttered Abby, and heard Indra chuckling at her side.
“Oh, just wait,” she said.
And then they came around the other side of the vast, overgrown rhododendron that grew in front of the Sinclairs’ house four doors down from theirs, bringing the Griffin house into view.
All four of the Griffins – yes, even Abby – let out the same startled gasp of astonishment.
The house was covered in lights.
There were gaily multicolored ones framing the big picture windows and green ones on the shrubbery in the front yard and long strands of white ones – the good old-fashioned kind with the warm glow, not those chilly LED ones – strung along the roof. There were snowflakes made of lights hanging from the trees and a big green wreath with a merry red bow hanging on the front door.
“Aunt Abby, look!” said Bellamy, his eyes wide, and the girls gasped out loud with delight.
“It looks like Candyland,” whispered Octavia reverently.
And then Indra, from behind them, gave a loud, shrill whistle, and the crowd gathered in front of their house turned to see them coming – and immediately broke out into song.
“Deck the halls with boughs of holly / Fa la la la la, la la la la . . .” they sang, making up in boisterous enthusiasm what they may have lacked in all starting in the same key at the same time.
“Carolers!” shrieked Clarke.
“What in the world –“ Abby began, and felt Indra move up beside her.
"There wasn’t a single person in this whole neighborhood," she said quietly, "who didn't drop everything they were doing when Marcus called to ask for their help."
“Marcus arranged all this?”
“And there’s more,” said Indra. “Just wait.” And as if on cue, there came the sleigh bells again.
“Aunt Abby, Aunt Abby, it’s Santa!” shrieked Clarke.
“No, honey, it’s not Santa,” she said absently as they came nearer and nearer, straining her eyes in the darkening streets to spot the source of the sound.
And then she heard it.
Just as they reached the commotion in front of their house, the crowd in the street parted and around the corner came a huge, majestic white horse, pulling behind it a brightly painted red-and-green sleigh bearing two teenagers in elf costumes and a gorgeous Douglas fir.
“Special delivery from the North Pole for Bellamy, Octavia and Clarke!” shouted one of the elves, ringing her sleigh bells, as the children grabbed each other’s hands in wild delight and bolted towards them, Lexa and Lincoln following in hot pursuit. Within seconds every child in the whole crowd had mobbed the sleigh to pet the horse and get a candy cane from the elf girls.
“I’m Vincent Vie,” said a voice at Abby’s elbow, and she turned to see one of the neighborhood dads standing beside her. “That’s my daughter Maya. We’ll carry the tree in and get it all set up for you.”
“That’s our Christmas tree?” said Abby, mouth agape.
“Our Christmas tree is being delivered via one-horse open sleigh?”
“Well, it’s really a wagon,” Vincent demurred, “there are wheels under it, the red and green sleigh part is just plywood.”
“It’s a one-horse open sleigh,” said Abby. “It’s the most Christmasy thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I think the kids are going to pass out.”
“My brother own the business,” said Vincent. “We deliver trees all around town.”
“How much do I –“
He shook his head insistently. “For Jake and Callie’s family, no charge,” he said. “I won’t hear of it.”
“Vincent – “
"Sinclair broke his back last summer," he said, "and Jake came over every week to mow his lawn. Callie organized the Fourth of July barbecue every year. They took Maya for a week when her mom was in the hospital so I could be with her. There was nothing they wouldn't have done for this community," he said. "So there's nothing we wouldn't do for their kids." They watched in silence for a moment as Bellamy and Octavia stroked the horse’s soft coat while Clarke chomped on her candy cane. “There’s so little we can do to make their loss more bearable. And yours,” he added, squeezing her hand, an unexpected kindness that made her eyes well up with tears. “There’s so little any of us can do. But we can do this.”
“I don’t know how to thank you,” she said.
He shook his head. “It’s the least we could do."
Maya hoisted Clarke up onto the front seat of the sleigh so she could hold the reins and pretend to drive it, making both Abby and Vincent laugh. “It’s good to see them happy,” said Vincent.
“Yes,” agreed Abby. “That it is.”
* * *
Marcus answered his cell phone on the first ring.
“Guess what I’m looking at,” she said, climbing the steps to the porch where it was quieter. Maya coaxed the horse to bend his head down so the twins could pet his nose, sending them into wild howls of delight.
“A stack of boring midterms?”
“No,” she said. “A one-horse open sleigh. With sleigh bells. And elves. And a Christmas tree in the back.”
“Well, it’s technically a one-horse open wagon,” he corrected her, “there were pictures on the website. A sleigh doesn’t have wheels, it’s built for snow, so it has – “
"I can't believe you did this," she said, an unexpected throb of emotion in her voice.
"I just -" He paused. "I wanted to -"
“Aunt Abby, Aunt Abby, the horse ate a carrot from my hand!” yelled Octavia, so loudly that Marcus could hear it through the phone.
“That’s very exciting, Octavia!” she yelled back. “Let some of the other kids have a turn please!”
“How many other kids are there?” asked Marcus.
“Are you kidding? All of them,” she said. “We’re the coolest family on the block. The sleigh bells got every kid in a fifty-mile radius. The whole neighborhood is here. Did you know they hung all the lights? Was that your doing, too?"
“Oh, we did a little more than just the lights."
“What are you talking about?”
“Have you gone inside?”
“Go look inside."
“Oh God, Marcus, what did you do?”
“If I tell you, it will ruin the surprise."
Reluctantly, she left the mob of children snuggling the horse in the street and opened the front door –
And stepped into a winter wonderland.
It wasn't just the lights and the tree. The whole house had been decorated top-to-bottom.
And they’d done it right. Abby felt her heart constrict in her chest, trying to swallow back tears, as she looked around. Everything was exactly where it was supposed to be. Everything was exactly where Callie and Jake would have placed it. Over here, on the dining room sideboard, was their grandmother’s collection of handpainted Russian wooden Santas. Over here on the living room end table, low enough that the children could reach it, was the nativity. There was red satin ribbon wound around the banister and paper cutout snowflakes taped on every window. There was pine garland strung along the mantel, with three little stockings made years ago by Aunt Vera bearing the children’s names – and two brand-new ones. Abby ran her fingers over the impossibly soft crimson velvet of the stocking that said “MARCUS” in flowing golden script, and beside it, a rich forest green one with her own name embroidered in silver.
“You got me a stocking,” she said in disbelief.
“Well, it only seemed fair,” he said. “Why let the kids have all the fun?"
“I can’t believe you did all this,” she said, her voice low with wonder. The whole house felt alive. There were pine boughs everywhere, filling the rooms with their crisp scent. There was an Advent wreath in the center of the dining room table. The special Santa mugs were stacked neatly on the counter by the coffee canister. The colorful glow of the lights outside lit the living room in a merry riot of color.
Abby had not thought it would ever feel like Christmas in this house again. And yet, here it was. Marcus had singlehandedly given it back to them.
“I only left one thing for you to do,” he said, and that was the first moment that she noticed that the furniture had been moved around and the metal base set up and filled with water, old towels at the ready beneath it to catch spills, to set up the Christmas tree. And all around her, on every flat surface in the living room, were trays and box lids full of all the family Christmas ornaments. Even the stepladder was neatly tucked into the corner, at the ready. “I thought that decorating the tree was something they’d want to do themselves,” he said, “but the neighbors took care of all the setup.”
“I don’t know what to say, Marcus,” she said softly, looking out the window to where Clarke was losing her mind with hysterical excitement as the horse bent down its soft nose to nuzzle her hand.
“You asked me before if I had any idea what kids this age like,” he said. “And I know they like Christmas. So I went with that."
She was prevented from replying by loud shrieking from outside. “Aunt Abby Aunt Abby Aunt Abby Aunt Abby!” hollered Bellamy. “It’s snowing it’s snowing it’s snowing it’s snowing it’s snowing!”
“It’s snowing, it’s snowing!” sang Clarke, and soon all the children had taken it up as a celebratory chant. Abby peered more closely out the window, and sure enough, soft white flakes were beginning to fall from the night sky, glowing under the light of the streetlamps.
“It’s snowing?” asked Marcus, delighted.
“Don’t act so surprised,” she laughed, “I’m sure somehow this was your doing too.”
“Well, I wished pretty hard,” he conceded. “I’m not sure if that counts.”
“I still can’t believe you tracked down a sleigh.”
“Go get that tree inside before the snow soaks it,” he said. “Those kids have some tree-trimming to do."
“I wish you were here,” she said before she could stop herself, the words tumbling out of her mouth clumsily and surprising them both.
“I’m not saying it again.”
“You know I heard it.”
“I heard it, and you can’t take it back.”
“I hate you.”
He laughed. After a moment, she laughed too.
“All I meant was,” she explained, fumbling a little, “that you did so much work to make everything magical for the kids, and it’s too bad that you’re in New York missing all the fun.”
“Yes,” said a voice behind her, “that would be too bad.”
Her heart stopped. And then she turned around, and there he was.
They just stood there for a moment, looking at each other. Abby was framed in the doorway of the living room, backlit by a wild rainbow of colored lights from the porch outside. Marcus was standing in the doorway of his bedroom, which was lit by a sleek glass lamp. He had unpacked, she could see; the boxes were gone, and it looked like a room where somebody lived.
Marcus lived here.
Marcus had sent a tree in a horse-drawn sleigh and rallied all the neighbors to decorate the house for Christmas and hung a stocking over the fireplace with her name on it and he was here.
Staring, with a raised eyebrow, at a spot somewhere above her head.
She looked up and realized for the first time that she was standing directly beneath a beribboned sprig of fresh mistletoe.
“I didn’t actually hang that there," he informed her. "Just so you know."
"No," he said. "But it is there. And you are standing under it. And rules are rules."
And then he bent his head and kissed her.
It was nothing like the last time. It was not frantic and hungry and raw. This time it was sweet, and gentle, and he cradled her face in his hands as his mouth moved gently on hers, and she felt warm all over, warm and safe. And then he wrapped his arms around her and he pressed a kiss onto the top of her head.
“Hi,” he said, smiling down at her.
“Hi,” she said back. “Come with me.” And she took his hand and led him out onto the porch. “Bellamy! Octavia! Clarke!” she called down to the street. “Time to come inside. We’ve got to get that tree set up and put all the decorations on it.”
“And say thank you to your Uncle Marcus,” she said, turning and grinning at him as the kids scampered up the porch, Vincent and two other dads hauling the massive tree up the stairs behind them. "This is all from him."
“Whoooooooa,” exclaimed Bellamy as he entered the house. “It’s all Christmasy in here!”
“Did you send the horse?” Clarke asked Marcus.
“And did you do all the decorations?” asked Octavia, looking around with wide eyes.
“Well, I coordinated,” he said. “All the neighbors helped.”
“And the snow too?”
“He claims no responsibility for the snow,” said Abby, “but I’m not convinced.”
“Is he magical?” Clarke asked in a whisper. Abby watched Marcus as he began untangling strings of lights to hang on the tree.
“Honestly, I’m not sure yet,” she said. “But I wouldn’t be surprised.”
Chapter 16: White Christmas
Of all the things for which Abby found herself, years later, still venomously detesting Thelonious Jaha, the worst of them – worse than the coldness, worse than the slap, worse than the bad sex, worse than the accusations that she had somehow deceived him by promising a very different Abby Griffin than the one she actually delivered – was the way he had reached down into the darkest hidden depths of her heart and pulled out the thing that lived there and shone a brutal, blinding light on it. The precarious balance in the Griffin family was only possible because of Abby’s careful and meticulous persistence in not acknowledging The Thing. And she had lived for nearly a decade without knowing what The Thing was before Thelonious had – cruelly, but correctly – looked her in the eye and given it a name.
Because of course that’s what it was.
Of course she loved Jake Griffin. She always had. She always would. Of course that’s what it was. So crystal-clear in hindsight, so startling and awful when first spoken out loud.
The Griffins were an introvert family, for the most part. So nobody had been more surprised than Callie Griffin when a loud, cheeky, soccer-playing Sigma Chi environmental studies major named Jacob Kane saw her reading Zora Neale Hurston in the library and walked over to her, introduced himself, and told her that Their Eyes Were Watching God was his favorite book. Jake had been good for Callie; good for all of them, really. He was funny and warm and he said what was on his mind, something the Griffins rarely did. He hit it off instantly with Aunt Vera, who loved him like one of her own, and he slowly coaxed shy Jackson out of his shell, and he made Callie so happy that she became nearly incandescent. Even Abby, slowly but surely, grew warm when bathed in his light. The Griffins opened their arms and welcomed Jake in, and he loved them so much that when he and Callie got married, he was eager to buck tradition (and leave his own estranged, abusive father’s name behind him) by becoming a Griffin himself.
After Bellamy and Octavia came along, the family began to coalesce around them, as families do when children are born, and Jake became a significant person in new, unquantifiable ways. He was suddenly everyone’s dad. He was the one who drove back and forth to the hospital when Aunt Vera had knee surgery, he was the one who found Jackson his job, he was the one who bought the family house when it suddenly and unexpectedly came back on the market again. Abby, as the oldest, had sometimes felt worn down by the weight of carrying the family’s burdens, but Jake changed everything. He was Callie’s husband, certainly, but he was – in a way – her partner too. No man ever came into her life to compete with him. And they went on this way for years, as what had begun as a family of four became a family of eight, with three children at the center of it, and there was balance and contentment and everything worked.
And then Thelonious had seen, without ever having to be told, that two and a half hours later Jake Griffin’s casual touch was still alive on Abby’s wrist as though his fingertips had branded her skin, and he had known in an instant the thing she had been so careful not to let herself know for the past decade of her life. And once she knew it, she could not un-know it, which meant she could not be in the same room with Callie and Jake without suffering. It had done something to her, she was different now, and the level-headed Abby Griffin was gone now. Everything had changed – not because Jake had touched her hand, but because she had been forced to realize what it meant. I am in love with him, she thought to herself over and over – as she lay in bed at night staring up at Callie’s guest room ceiling, as she drove to the grocery store, as she made her coffee and went to work. He is married to my sister and I am in love with him and I have no idea what to do.
But as painful as that had been – carrying that burden all by herself – it was exponentially worse now.
Because Marcus was here.
He had swept in with snow and a sleigh and he had kissed her, and then he had planted himself in the guest bedroom which already looked like it had belonged to him forever, and he was never going to not-be here again, and since Abby still was not sure how she felt about the kiss, his presence very quickly became troubling.
Marcus was here, he was so extremely unavoidably impossible-to-ignorably here – in the kitchen when she stumbled in to make coffee, in the living room when she wanted a quiet place to read, drifting off in front of the TV in the den halfway through the Blazer game and snoring. Suddenly someone else’s dirty coffee cups, someone else’s alarm clock, someone else’s nighttime footsteps to the kitchen for a glass of water, were interfering with her tidy and peaceable routines. And now not only was she perpetually crashing into and stepping on and being disrupted by his constant unignorable presence – which was bad enough, just the fact that he was here, he was always here, he would be here forever – but there was the other, subtler, more sinister problem he posed. The thing that made him actually dangerous.
She didn’t know what he knew, or how much. She didn’t know if he knew from watching her face when Jake’s name came up or from the way she had lashed out over the will or from something he had seen when they were in bed – or if he had known long ago, had known before he ever met her. And this raised a powerfully troubling question that Abby had, for the most part, successfully avoided ever really having to consider: which was, of course, the question of whether Jake had known.
And - by extension – Callie.
Abby would never know the things that Jake Griffin had said in confidence to his brother over the years. Marcus would not tell her, and she could not ask. In a way, of course, it had ceased to matter – he was just as gone, either way – but there was something unsettling in the way Marcus looked at her sometimes when the ghost of Jake Griffin flared up brightly before them. Which happened at least a dozen times a day, in some form, since he was everywhere in every room of the house, in everything Abby saw or felt or touched. The bed, of course, was the worst; she hated herself, a little, for the fact that she could only fall asleep on Jake’s side, could only choke down the knot of emotion that confronted her every time she entered the room by curling her body up into the valley of the mattress left by ten years of Jake Griffin’s weight pressing down on it. But the whole house was full of landmines. And every time she was struck by one – every time her hand paused for a fraction of a second as her fingertips brushed the “HAPPY FATHER’S DAY” mug in the cupboard or she had to swallow hard as she threw away all the junk mail that still arrived day after day with his name on it – she could feel the way Marcus was watching her.
He knew more than nothing. But she did not know how much. And she could not ask him without saying out loud things that could not possibly be said out loud. So instead she felt herself coiling up more tightly in his presence – afraid to give anything away, afraid to say too much. Every time Abby felt herself seized by some painful memory of Jake, she would fight to swallow it down, not wanting to reveal weakness in his presence. So it made her silent and tense, it made her walk hastily out of rooms he was in, and it caused him to watch her with a gentle compassion that just reminded her over and over that he seemed capable of reading her thoughts.
The children, however, were crazy about him.
It was hard not to feel a pang in her heart every time Clarke asked for Uncle Marcus to read the bedtime story, every time Bellamy asked him for help with his math homework (he always gently corrected him with “that’s a good question for your aunt, I’m sure she’d love to help you!”, but she was the clear second choice and they all knew it), every time Octavia wanted to sit by Marcus instead of her when they watched TV.
“He’s new,” Aunt Vera had explained to her, in a comforting voice, when she had finally gotten up the courage to voice her frustrations. “They’ve known you all their lives. Marcus is the one who blew in from New York and brought a tree in a sleigh. There’s a novelty factor. But it will wear off, and you’ll get balance back again once everyone’s a little more comfortable.”
“That’s not it,” said Abby. “It’s that they like him, and they don’t like me.”
“That’s not true.”
“It is. They think I’m harsh, they think I’m mean, because I’m the one that says ‘Clean your plate’ and I’m the one that says ‘Go upstairs, it’s bedtime – ‘”
“And you’re the one who told them that their parents were dead,” said Vera gently. Abby looked away. “You have to stop punishing yourself for that.”
“I feel like I’m doing all the hard parenting, and he gets to do all the fun stuff, and it makes the kids think I’m mean. I’m Mean Aunt Abby.”
“No, you’re not,” said Aunt Vera. “But if you feel like Marcus isn’t doing enough of the heavy lifting, you should say so. You shouldn’t feel like you’re doing all the hard parenting with no help from him. He needs to be doing half. And you, by the way, my dear one, need to let him.”
* * *
Then the snow came back – just in time for Christmas – and suddenly everything was magical again, and the problems of what Marcus knew, of what to do about him, of what the kiss meant, of her fidelity to Jake’s memory, of her fear and grief, receded into the background. Not forever, but for a little while.
The snow lasted, off and on, until after the New Year, and Abby felt a bit like she was living inside a snow globe. Everything was soft and festive and lit with the bright glow of holiday lights. It wasn’t real, of course; there were moments when she would wake up in the morning and feel the weight of the thick blankets on her body and remember whose bed she was in, who those blankets belonged to, and why she was here, and she would have to curl up tightly as small as she could and wrap her arms around her abdomen and bury her face in the pillow in order to swallow the Dark Thing back down.
But those moments were few and far between, once the snow returned. It was as though the family’s grief had agreed to take the holidays off, knowing it would have plenty of time to come back for them after they had to pack the decorations back up to the attic again in January. After the snow melted and turned from a glowing white confection that frosted the streets with diamonds back into a cold gray hostile slush that would make going outside miserable. After the sweet rhythm of Christmas break was replaced by work and school and normalcy.
No, there was plenty of time later for all of their Dark Things to return. They would bide their time. They were perfectly happy to wait. Let them have this, the Dark Things said. Let them rest, just for a moment.
And so the snow fell, wrapping the city in a sparkling blanket of velvety white, and inside the Griffin house there were board games and bedtime stories, hot chocolate and winter walks and endless viewings of A Charlie Brown Christmas, and while Jake and Callie were never far from anyone’s thoughts, the poisonous sting was taken out of the memories, just for a little while. Octavia could show Uncle Marcus how Mommy put cinnamon on the whipped cream for hot cocoa without her lip quivering at all, and Bellamy’s broad hints about how much he wanted a bike were amusing without being fraught with trauma; nobody was thinking, for these next few days at least, about what had happened to the bike he was supposed to get.
For the next few days at least, it was kind of like they were a family.
The kids were operating at a high-pitch of pre-holiday mania, and Marcus had dived into Christmas mayhem so deeply that he was, in some ways, a big kid himself. Which was sometimes endearing and sometimes exhausting, leaving Abby the only adult. But it was hard to be too annoyed at him for tracking mud in the house when he’d been out for hours sledding down the driveway with Clarke in his lap. But it did generally mean that by the time they put the kids down, Abby was worn out to the point of exhaustion and made her way straight to bed herself shortly after.
Christmas Eve dawned cold and clear, with a brisk snap in the air and a temporary respite from the falling snow. Lexa and Lincoln came over to play for the afternoon, and then Marcus and Abby took the kids to the 5 p.m. Children’s Mass with Jackson and Aunt Vera, followed by dinner at Vera’s house. The children dozed off in the back seat on the long drive home from Hillsboro, the sugar rush of cake and cookies finally wearing off and sending them into a heavy stupor. Abby drove along the dark highway with Marcus at her side and realized it was very nearly her first real moment alone with him since the shock of finding him in their house last week on the day the snow first arrived. He seemed to suddenly become aware of it too, and she could feel him wanting to say something without being entirely sure what he should say.
Because, after all, they still hadn’t talked about the kiss.
They had orbited around each other at a friendly, respectful distance, and they had come over the past few days to feel far more familial towards each other than Abby would ever have expected. But the moment under the mistletoe had not repeated itself. Abby told herself this was a relief, that it made things simpler, that the last complication the children needed in their lives was their aunt and uncle trying to sort out the impossibly complex tangle that would emerge if they tried to move towards any kind of – well, anything.
So it was a good thing that he hadn’t kissed her again. And she really ought to let it go. That was the sensible thing to do.
Instead, staring straight ahead along the dark highway, she said to him in a light, casual tone, “You know, I held out as long as I could, but I have to ask – did you really not hang that mistletoe?”
He laughed, a low, delighted chuckle that made her whole body suddenly feel warm and alive. It was very easy to like him, when it was like this. Dangerously easy, in fact.
“I definitely did not hang that mistletoe,” he said in a meaningful tone. “Definitely. For sure. One hundred percent.”
“Marcus,” she said suspiciously.
“I mean, it definitely was not me engaged in the act of physically hanging that mistletoe, no.”
“Marcus – “
“Like, if you were standing there in the room watching as the person who hung the mistletoe was doing the actual hanging, then no, that person would not be me, Marcus Kane.”
She sighed. “Okay, Marcus, are you the one who was responsible for the mistletoe?”
“I plead the Fifth.”
“You lying liar,” she said, trying to hide the irrepressible smile that kept bubbling up to the surface. “You told me it wasn’t you.”
“It wasn’t,” he said. “All I did was hand the hammer and the nail and the mistletoe to Vincent and then give him the ladder and then tell him where it was supposed to go. But that’s not the question you asked.”
She couldn’t help laughing at that. She could feel him looking at her, could feel the warmth of his smile on her face, and she wanted so badly to smile at him back.
And so, just for a moment, she took her eyes off the road.
The deer came out of nowhere, loping across the long stretch of open highway and disappearing into the distance as Abby slammed violently on the brakes, jolting the children awake.
“Jesus,” exclaimed Marcus as the car jolted to a halt.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “there was a deer. It just jumped out of the trees, I didn’t see it. I’m sorry if I scared you.”
“I’m fine,” he said. “Everyone okay back there?” And he turned to the back seat to look at the children.
“Stop the car,” he said suddenly to Abby.
“Pull over,” he said, so forcefully that she obeyed him without question, then watched in astonishment as he yanked off his seatbelt and climbed over the divider into the back of the car.
“Marcus, what are you doing?” she asked, and then saw him unbuckle all three of the children’s seatbelts and gather them all as one into his arms. Only then did Abby notice that they were crying – big noisy gasping panicked sobs that seemed to pull all the air out of the space around them.
Bellamy clung to Marcus’ arm, burying his little face in one shoulder as Clarke burrowed her way into the center of his chest and Octavia wrapped her arms around her sister. “We’re okay,” he said over and over again, kissing their hair and stroking their trembling backs. “It’s okay. We’re okay. Everybody’s safe. It was just the brakes. That’s all.”
“I was scared,” Octavia mumbled into the fabric of his sweater. “I was scared it was going to be like the other thing.”
“I know, baby,” he said. “I know. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t like that. Look, everybody’s okay. Everything’s fine.”
Abby sat in the driver’s seat of the motionless car, watching them through the rearview mirror, and hated herself. It was Christmas Eve, for God’s sake, and she had thrown the children into an anxiety attack that made them picture the accident that had taken their parents.
But Marcus was magnificent. He held them close and he said the right things and he listened as they murmured things into his ear in small, confiding voices and he squished into the back seat with them for the rest of the ride home, holding them close as their soft, frightened sniffling sobs subsided.
When they got into the house, faces red and tear-stained, Marcus disappeared into his bedroom and reappeared holding a small bundle in his arms. “I have a Christmas present for you that I was going to give you tomorrow,” he said to the kids, “but I think it might be a fun surprise to do it right now.”
Curiosity temporarily won out over the tears, and as Marcus knelt down the bundle revealed itself to be a small cardboard box with a cloth draped over it. He removed the cloth so they could peer inside.
Staring up at them with perplexed eyes was a tiny brown and gold striped kitten.
“IS IT REAL????????” shouted Clarke so loud that the kitten began to quietly panic. “DO WE GET TO KEEP IT DO WE GET TO KEEP IT????”
“Yes, it’s real,” said Marcus. “It’s yours to keep. Now, you’re going to have to be the ones to take care of it – I’ll help show you what to do, but you guys are going to be in charge of having to feed it and clean the litterbox and make sure it doesn’t make messes. Don’t put this all on Aunt Abby.”
“I can’t believe we have a cat!” exclaimed Bellamy. “I always wanted a cat.”
“Can I pet it?” asked Octavia.
“Gently,” said Marcus. “He needs to get used to you. Don’t freak him out.”
“What’s his name?”
“I thought Dolphin might want to pick the name,” said Marcus.
“I’ll go get him!” yelled Octavia, racing up the stairs.
“All of you go put your pajamas on while you’re at it,” he called after her. “And brush your teeth!” Clarke and Bellamy followed Octavia upstairs. Only after they had all disappeared out of sight did he turn to see Abby leaning against the wall, arms folded, watching him.
“How much trouble am I in exactly?” he said warily, as he set the box with the kitten down on the floor and stood up.
“That depends,” she said. “How long have you been hiding a cat in your bedroom?”
“Only like two days.”
“There’s been a cat in this house for two days and you didn’t tell me?”
“I was afraid you’d try to talk me out of it,” he said. “Vera told me they’ve always wanted one. Are you furious at me?”
She thought for a second. “I feel like I should be,” she finally confessed. “It’s a huge decision to make without me knowing about it.”
“Animals are a lot of work.”
“But fifteen minutes ago they were sobbing in the back seat of the car,” she said quietly, “and now you made it Christmas again. And I can’t be angry at that.”
He crossed the wide hallway towards her and wrapped her in his arms, holding her comfortingly close just like he had with the children. “I do it too,” he said. “Every time we’re in the car when it’s snowing. My whole body feels it. I don’t feel safe again until I’m out of the car.”
“I know,” she said. “Me too.”
“And I was so busy making sure the kids were okay that I didn’t even check on you,” he said. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Are you okay?”
“I am now,” she said. “I was scared too.”
“Do you think it will be like this forever?”
“I don’t know,” she said, burying her face in the soft wool of his sweater and feeling the tension in her body begin to ease. “I hope not. But I don’t know.”
The kids came thundering back down the stairs, stuffed animals in hand, and dove onto the floor to stare adoringly at the tiny kitten.
“Does Dolphin have an idea for a name?” asked Marcus.
“Yes, Dolphin says his name is Bug,” said Octavia.
“Hi Bug!” said Clarke, waving at the kitten. “This is Princess. She’s your cat friend.”
“Can Bug sleep in our room tonight?” asked Bellamy.
“No, for a little while Bug is going to live in the guest bathroom where his litter box is,” said Marcus. “Once he gets used to it, then he can sleep upstairs with you.”
“Can Clarke sleep in our room tonight?”
“Clarke can sleep in your room,” said Abby. “Clarke is not a cat.” This made Clarke fall down giggling.
“It’s almost time for bed,” said Marcus, “and we have some important stuff we have to do first, don’t we? It’s Christmas Eve. We’ve got to get ready for Santa.”
“I’ll go get the cookies!” hollered Bellamy.
“Wait, Bellamy, stop,” called Marcus. “Freeze.” Bellamy froze, a confused look on his face, in the living room doorway.
Right under the mistletoe.
“What?” asked Bellamy, puzzled. Then Octavia and Clarke started giggling, and Bellamy got it. “Awww man,” he exclaimed. “Not again!” But it was too late. Marcus had swept him up in his arms.
“Sorry kid, it’s the law,” he said, and deposited a loud series of noisy kisses on both of Bellamy’s cheeks.
“My turn, my turn!” yelled Clarke. “I want kisses!” She ran to the doorway to stand under the mistletoe, and then she did something that astonished everyone in the room.
Instead of calling to Uncle Marcus, or to her sister and brother, she turned to the person standing by herself in the hallway, watching everyone else, and she held out her arms. “Aunt Abby, Aunt Abby, I’m under the mistletoe!” she sang. “Come get me!”
Marcus looked at Abby with pure joy shining in his eyes, and Abby felt the surprise sting of tears. This was the first time any of the children had openly sought affection and comfort from her before, and both of them knew it. Both of them knew what that meant.
And yet there she was, tiny and blonde and pink-cheeked and wearing her candy cane pajamas, standing there with her arms wide open, ready and waiting.
Ready for Abby to love her. Ready to love her back.
So Abby picked Clarke up in her arms and held her tight as Jake Griffin’s blue eyes sparkled back at her out of a tiny, happy little face that she kissed over and over and over.
Marcus set Bellamy back on his feet and he scampered off to the kitchen with Octavia to get the Santa cookies. “We need carrots for the reindeer,” said Clarke a little drowsily, and Abby – who did not want to let go of the warm, soft weight of the child on her shoulder – carried her into the kitchen to open the refrigerator and pour a Christmas mug full of milk for Santa and hand Octavia a fistful of baby carrots. Then she watched from the doorway as Bellamy and Octavia set out the treats for Santa, giddy and bouncing and ecstatic, and she thought about what a miracle it was that the universe had granted them all a reprieve, just for a little while, from the agony of their grieving so that it could be Christmas Eve. Clarke snuggled in closer against her shoulder, and Abby held her close and it was suddenly so clear to her, so blindingly bright, as impossible to ignore as a star shining bright over the roof of a Bethlehem stable, that she had been wrong about everything that mattered. She had been afraid that her heart was unstable, convinced it needed to be locked away for its own protection.
I love you, she thought, pressing a kiss onto the curly blonde head. What will get me through this is loving you. Every one of you.
“Hurry up, slowpokes, come put out the cookies for Santa!”
Maybe even that one.
* * *
After they had tucked the kids in – Clarke snuggled up in bed with Octavia so they could all wake up on Christmas morning together – and given them explicit instructions that they were not allowed to A) wake up either adult or B) touch anything until 8 a.m. at the earliest, Abby and Marcus returned downstairs for the Christmas Eve night shift.
Marcus had taken his job seriously, and there were heaps of presents piled in his bedroom closet to wrap and place under the tree. They decided to divide and conquer, with Marcus filling the stockings while Abby – who was the kind of person whose presents always looked professionally-wrapped since she used a bone folder to create perfect, sharp edges and never used too much tape – tackling the shopping bags full of presents.
He had done good, she had to admit, as she sat at the kitchen table enjoying the satisfaction of pressing crisp, clean edges into the green-and-silver paper. Surprisingly good, actually, even if you weren’t counting the cat. Nearly everything, no matter which child it was for, was something the three of them could share – a boxed set of Narnia books for Octavia, a stack of kid-friendly board games for Bellamy, a pile of Disney DVDs for Clarke. They each got a new sleeping bag and a kids’ pass to the science museum and a box of craft supplies and new Christmas socks. Even the most obsessive child, counting his or her gifts in comparison to their siblings, could have found no fault with Marcus’ shopping. And it did something to her heart, how carefully he had thought about giving the children presents they could enjoy together. It was as though he was trying to tell them something important about holding onto each other while they still could.
“I should have done this years ago,” he said suddenly, almost as though he could read her thoughts, and she looked over from the kitchen table and turned to him. He was holding Bellamy’s stocking in his hand and staring down at it, not looking at Abby.
“What do you mean?”
“Seven years of Christmases,” he said. “I should have been here. Not just shipping gifts from New York and then making excuse after excuse why I was too busy to come and saying, ‘Maybe next year, maybe next year.’ I should have been here. I should have been with my family.”
“Why weren’t you?” she asked, but there was no judgment in her voice, no reproach. It was a simple question. She just wanted to know.
“You want honesty?” he said, looking up at her.
“As a general rule, yes, nearly always.”
“I was afraid his life would feel small to me,” Marcus said, his voice low and embarrassed, waiting to be criticized for it. “I was afraid it would be stifling. Claustrophobic.”
“Is it?” she asked. “Now that you’re here?”
“Not at all,” he said. “I’m as surprised as you are.”
“It’s funny,” she said thoughtfully, going back to her wrapping. “I’m the opposite of you, I think. You had this big life in New York, full of all these adventures, and you were afraid being a stay-at-home dad would make you feel confined. It was the other way around, for me. I liked my narrow little one-person life. I liked my quiet apartment that was just mine. I was so comfortable there. I was so afraid this – you, the kids, it’s just so many people – “ He laughed at this, and she did too.
“You were afraid Callie’s life was too big for you,” he said. “While I thought Jake’s was too small.”
“Maybe we were both wrong,” she said.
“Or maybe people can change.”
“Sometimes I worry if we can really do this,” she said. “But sometimes I think maybe we’re gonna be okay.”
He hung the last stocking back on the mantle, stood back to admire his work, and then turned to smile at her.
“We’re gonna be okay,” he said.
Together they hauled all the gifts from the pile in the kitchen and placed them underneath the tree. “Not even midnight yet,” said Marcus approvingly. “That’s not bad. I was afraid it would take us a lot longer to finish before bed.”
“Not quite bedtime yet,” Abby amended, and he looked at her with a raised eyebrow that made her blush. She pulled a pile of gifts, wrapped in lush crimson wrapping with gold ribbons, out from beneath the tree. “I had a few things I didn’t want you to open in front of the kids,” she said. “And it will be Christmas in just a few minutes anyway, so I think it should count.”
He stared at her. “These are all for me? From you?”
“I considered putting them in your stocking and claiming they were from Santa, but I didn’t think they’d all fit.” She sat down on the couch in front of the window, her shining hair aglow under its colored lights, and held out her hand for him to come sit next to her.
“Why can’t I open them tomorrow?”
“You’ll see,” she said, as he carefully peeled back the wrapping paper of the first gift. And then he froze, and turned to stare at her. Inside the glowing garnet wrapping was a very old, very beat-up hardback copy of Treasure Island – with “THIS BOOK BELONGS TO JAKE” scrawled inside the front cover in green crayon.
“I thought after you guys finish Alice In Wonderland, you could read this to the kids,” she said.
“This was Jake’s,” he said. “This belonged to Jake.”
“These are all things of Jake’s,” she said. “The contents of the house went to me, technically, although of course you can keep anything of his that you want. But there were a few things of his that I knew I wanted you to have. But I didn’t want the children – “
“No, no,” he said. “Of course not.”
“It felt too private, somehow,” she said. “And I thought it would make them sad.”
Marcus didn’t say anything for a long time after that. He set the book down and opened the next one – a flat square parcel containing Jake’s favorite Bruce Springsteen records – followed by a beautiful set of vintage boar-bristle shaving brushes with silver handles. “Those were my dad’s,” she said. “He gave them to Jake. They were meant to go to Bellamy next, but they can be yours first, until he needs them.” Marcus set the brushes down next to the book and the records and turned to Abby, his eyes shining with tears. She felt suddenly shy. “I tried to pick things that I thought you might like,” she said, fumbling to explain. “I know it’s strange to give you things that never belonged to me, not really – I mean they do now, on paper, sort of, but they were never supposed to. But you’re the person who should have them now. And I didn’t – when you were here for the funeral, I never – “
“Abby,” he said softly.
“I didn’t ask,” she said. “I didn’t ask if you were okay. I’ve never asked. It’s not just me that this happened to, it’s not just me that lost my family, you lost your brother, and I never asked.” She took his hand. “Tell me,” she said. “Tell me about Jake.”
“He was my best friend,” said Marcus simply, and then he sank into her, he wrapped his arms around her and rested his head on her shoulder, and she held him close and tight and she let him cry.
“We’re gonna be okay,” she said, running her fingers through his hair. “We’re gonna be okay.”
Chapter 17: Auld Lang Syne
The snow stayed through the holidays, and the little bubble of Christmas magic lasted along with it. They went to the science museum with Uncle Jackson, they played with their new games and toys, and Bug slowly began to acclimate himself to the chaos of a house full of shrieking children who adored him beyond all reason. Chasing Bug around the house, and then struggling to rescue him when he got his paw or his head or his tail stuck somewhere he wasn’t supposed to, occupied an enormous amount of their time. But it was a pleasant kind of chaos, and everyone was happy.
The kids tried valiantly to stay up until midnight on New Year’s Eve, but fell asleep in front of the television by 9:30 in the middle of rewatching Frozen. Marcus and Abby carried them upstairs to tuck them into bed, then returned to the den to tidy up.
“I think I’m going to stay up,” said Marcus. “Are you?”
Abby tried to remember the last time she’d stayed up until midnight on New Year’s Eve (for fun; not counting all the years she’d volunteered to work holiday shifts at Mount Weather to relieve other doctors who had families to be with) and couldn’t. “Sure,” she said. “But it won’t be much of a party, I don’t have champagne and noisemakers and party hats or anything. You’re probably used to New Year’s being a little more glamorous.”
“I was just going to read a book and have a drink,” he said, smiling, “so don’t worry about the party hats.” And he poured two large tumblers of bourbon, then bent down to add another log to the fire as she retrieved her book from the den and curled up in the armchair by the fireplace. He handed her a drink, then took a seat across from her on the sofa.
On the other side of the window, a wild winter wind howled, kicking up clouds of snow from the ground and whistling its frosty way down the street. But inside, they were warm from the fireplace and the whiskey, the room bathed in gold from the lamp at Marcus’ elbow and the dancing flames and the warm glow of the Christmas tree lit behind them. It was quiet, but it was a happy kind of quiet, full of the soft rustle of pages turning, the clink of glasses, the snap and crackle of logs in the fireplace, the hushed tick of the mantle clock, and the muffled faraway sound of the wind.
Over the pages of his book, Marcus watched Abby.
She sat in the large armchair beside the fire, legs tucked up beneath her, a blanket in her lap. She wore a loose, shapeless gray cardigan over her nightgown that had slipped down on one side, baring a creamy expanse of shoulder. Her head was bent over her book, and the hair that curtained her face was gilded with flickering amber lights from the fire. He could hear her breathing. He watched her read for a long time. She was immersed in her book, had forgotten he was there.
From time to time she would finger the delicate silver chain she was wearing – one of his Christmas gifts to her – which he had placed around her neck on Christmas morning, and which she had not taken off.
It had come up in a conversation with Vera, while he was still in New York; he had asked what Abby’s favorite children’s books had been, and if there were any that the kids didn’t have yet that he could buy for her to read to them. Vera had told him that her favorite had been a book called Miss Rumphius, about a plucky young girl who grows up to be a world traveler and then settles in a house by the seashore where she plants lupines all over the countryside for children to enjoy. It wasn’t hard to imagine why Abby, even as a young child, fell so deeply in love with a book whose heroine lives alone her entire life, and yet is never lonely or unhappy. And so he had found a hardback first edition of the book, which he wrapped and placed under the tree for the children, and then called one of Raven’s many artist friends – this one a silversmith and encaustic artist in Williamsburg. “There’s this book called Miss Rumphius,” he had begun, “and this woman I know –“
“I’m on it,” Fox had said without hesitation, or even letting him finish, and four days later had delivered into his care a square pendant with three tiny purple lupine blossoms encased in glass, surrounded by a filigree silver frame with the book’s most famous line: “You Must Do Something To Make the World More Beautiful.” Abby had cried when she saw it, and if the children had not been sitting right there, howling with glee over their Disney sleeping bags, he would have kissed the white hollow of the back of her neck as he fastened the delicate clasp.
He watched her read for a long time, watched her fingers absently caressing the pendant that rose and fell with her breathing. Watched the way she tucked her hair behind her ears from time to time. Watched the way the shadows played across her face.
There were so many things he wanted to say. But he did not know how to say any of them. He was used to wining and dining girls in Versace dresses at impossibly hip SoHo nightclubs and then gracefully parting ways after a month or two without looking back. He didn’t know how to share a house full of rain boots and coloring books and mismatched coffee mugs and the ghosts of Jake and Callie – a house like this, a house that was domestic and permanent, a house that pulled you in and held you in place and said, This is where you live now, Marcus – with a woman in a gray cotton nightgown spending New Year’s Eve reading Sense & Sensibility with bourbon and bare feet while three children slept upstairs, whose hair shone like a new copper penny where the firelight hit it. This was so much more like being a husband, like being a father, than he had ever imagined he would reach, and he was terrified down to the very center of his being by how much he didn’t hate it.
Bug made himself known just then with a theatrical kitten yowl, and sidled up to Marcus’ feet. The sound pulled Abby out of her book, and she looked up to see the tiny fuzzball clawing its way up the leg of Marcus’ pajama pants. She laughed.
“One week in and that cat’s already trouble,” she said with a grin.
“This may have been a terrible idea,” he said, wincing as a claw poked through gray flannel and stabbed him in the shin. He lifted up the cat and set it down on the sofa beside him.
“It’s a brilliant idea, actually,” Abby conceded, “though I have to admit I was dubious at first. But it’s going to be good for the kids, I think. Part of me thinks they need as many distractions as they can get.”
“What about you?” he said, the words coming out before he could stop them. She looked up at him, startled.
“What about me?”
He set down his book and his glass, then made his way over to Abby’s chair. He gently removed the book from her hands. “Do you need to be distracted too?”
“Marcus,” she said, a note of caution in her voice, but she didn’t protest when he took her by the hand and guided her down to sit on the floor beside him, the fire at their back. “Marcus, we can’t do this again.”
“We can’t, or we shouldn’t?”
“What’s the difference?”
“’We can’t’ means you don’t want to,” he said. “It means you think it’s a bad idea. ‘We shouldn’t’ means you’re afraid that other people will think it’s a bad idea. What do you want, Abby? What do you really want?”
“I want to know that we’re doing whatever is best for the children,” she said. “There’s so much at stake. There’s no room between us for anything to go wrong. The risk is too high.”
“Abby,” he said, and he leaned in so close to her he could taste her breath. She closed her eyes. He rested his forehead against hers and ran an idle fingertip along the skin of the bare shoulder that had made it impossible for the past hour for him to concentrate on his book. “I want to kiss you again.”
“Do you want me to?”
But how could she answer him? How could she say, Yes, I want you to kiss me, I can’t stop thinking about the last time you kissed me, or the time before that, every single night there’s a part of me that wonders what would happen if I came down those stairs and knocked on your door and climbed into your bed, but how can I ask for that for myself at the expense of stability for the children, how can I risk something as traumatic as a relationship between you and I going wrong and throwing their lives into chaos?
“I can’t be trusted with the things I want, Marcus,” she had said to him that first night, and part of her knew it had never stopped being true.
But then his hand found the bare skin of her back and she remembered the feel of his body on top of hers and the way he had felt inside her, and her mouth parted, she moved in closer, she felt her whole body begin to soften and melt towards him, and he moved in closer too, and there they were, the kiss was so near, it was on its way, it was close enough that they could taste it –
And then abruptly, the picture in Abby’s mind clicked into a very different one. She saw herself as if from above, from far away, lying in Jake and Callie’s bed, nestled in the warm hollow in the mattress where Jake’s body used to lay, and she saw Jake sitting in the chair in the corner of the bedroom, watching with empty, desolate eyes as his brother’s back rose and fell, rose and fell as he thrust into her and she cried out with pleasure, and suddenly she felt sick.
“No,” she said, pulling away from him so violently that he almost lost his balance. “No. No more, Marcus. No more of any of it. There can never, ever, ever be anything between us. Nothing.”
“Abby – “
“Nothing,” she said again, more insistently this time, trying to hide the quaver in her voice. “Not ever.”
“All right,” he said finally. “If that’s what you want.”
“That’s what I want,” she said firmly. “I’m your sister. That’s all. There can’t be anything else.” And she rose from the floor to bolt out of the room.
She was halfway to the stairs when the mantle clock gave a soft chime.
“It’s midnight,” said Marcus. “Happy New Year.”
* * *
Marcus' cell rang just as he was opening the front door, returning home from dropping the kids off at their third day back to school.
"Happy New Year," said Raven.
"How's the cat?"
"I think he's defective," said Marcus, hanging up his raincoat and stepping out of his boots. "I thought cats were smart. This dummy could get lost inside a cardboard box. Sure is cute, though."
"Are the kids crazy about him?"
"Uncontrollably," he laughed. "I'm honestly afraid sometimes that Clarke will snuggle him to death."
"I saw the Christmas pictures you sent," she said. "Those kids are ridiculously adorable."
"Yes, they are."
"You sound a little smitten."
"I might be."
"With the kids, or -"
"I meant the kids."
"Raven," he said with a faint note of reproach, "if you're fishing for information, just come right out and ask."
"Hey, your personal life is your business."
"That's literally never been your attitude before."
"I'm turning over a new leaf. Did I tell you I got a Christmas card from Aunt Vera?"
"Yeah, she thanked me for all my help picking out the presents. If you and Abby don't want her, I'm stealing her for myself. I need an Aunt Vera."
"We all do."
“Oh hey,” she said, “I forgot to tell you. Jasper and Monty are on tour in Portland and Seattle and they’re bringing me along for the week to run lights for them. Are you around Friday?”
“Raven, I’m not hauling my thirty-seven-year-old ass out to some underground rave at the skate park just to get elbowed by mobs of college students while listening to Jasper and Monty’s ‘electronic noise-scapes.’ Did you learn nothing from The Great Staten Island Disaster of 2013?”
“First of all, it’s soundscapes, not noise-scapes –“
“I respectfully disagree.”
“And second of all, no, Grandpa, I’m not forcing you to stay out past your 8 p.m. bedtime, I know you have important things to do like drink warm milk and complain about your bad knee – “
“I hurt that knee in a motorcycle accident, goddamn you, I’m not decrepit –“
“I notice you’re not denying the warm milk.”
“I put bourbon in it.”
“Well, all right, that’s fair.”
“So you didn’t call to drag me out to some concrete bunker full of teenagers shooting acid?”
“’Shooting acid?’" She howled with laughter. "‘Shooting acid?’ What are you, a hundred? Jesus Christ. I should make you go just for that. But no, the show’s Saturday, so what I actually wanted to know is, are you free on Friday to buy a girl a drink? We’ll be done with setup around nine. Or is that too late?”
There was the tiniest pause before Marcus answered, and it pinged Raven's radar immediately. “No sex,” she amended, “just so we're clear. I’m not sleeping with you until you sort out whatever’s going on between you and Abby. You don’t need any extra baggage right now. This is just you and me having a friendly drink so we can catch up without you having to spend two hours listening to electronic soundscapes.”
Marcus was annoyed at himself for how relieved he was that Raven had said it out loud, so he didn’t have to.
“I can do that,” he said. “I’ll see you then.”
“You better have a lot of stories for me,” she said.
“Oh, believe me,” he said. “I’m sure I will.”
* * *
That was on Wednesday.
On Friday, disaster struck.
Chapter 18: Epiphany
"I'm sorry, I don't quite understand," said Abby blankly. "Bellamy did what?"
Principal Byrne regarded her coldly over the vast expanse of her vaguely menacing mahogany desk, and repeated herself patiently.
“He punched a classmate in the face.”
“That’s impossible. He’s not a violent kid.”
“Ms. Griffin –“
“Dr. Griffin, everyone at St. Philip Neri is aware of the particular family circumstances – “
“I’m sorry, I just don’t – Bellamy hit someone? You’re sure it wasn’t an accident.”
“It was not an accident,” said Principal Byrne. “It was malicious and intentional. There were a number of teachers nearby who saw it.”
“He just, out of nowhere, he hauled off and hit some kid in the face?”
“Apparently there was an altercation involving his sister.”
“Octavia hit someone?”
“No. Cage Wallace said something to Octavia that apparently upset her, and Bellamy retaliated with violence.”
“Hang on,” said Abby irritably. “Okay. Hang on a second. What did the other kid say?”
“I don’t know. That’s not relevant.”
“Like hell it’s not relevant,” Abby snapped. “These are not violent children. These are kind, gentle children who had kind, gentle parents and they love each other very much and they are all they have. So if this Wallace kid said something threatening or cruel to Octavia, something that made Bellamy angry enough that he did something he’s never done before in his life, why isn't he in this meeting? Where are his parents?”
“Cage’s father is with him in the infirmary.”
“In the infirmary.”
“Because he’s the victim. My kids are the aggressors and he’s completely innocent.”
“Are you really equating playground teasing with physical violence?”
Abby had not thought she could get any angrier, but her whole body began to constrict and tighten with rage. She was taut as a bowstring from head to toe, ready to snap.
“I’m well aware that physical violence is not acceptable,” she fired back, “and believe me, I will be having a conversation with Bellamy about this when we get home. I’m also taking them both straight from here to meet with their therapist.”
“An excellent idea.”
“But if you think for one fucking second – “
“Please watch your language, Dr. Griffin, there are children in this building and this is a Catholic school –“
“ . . . one fucking second that this Cage Wallace kid – and by the way, what the hell kind of rich white boy name is Cage? – is some innocent little lamb while Bellamy is a big nasty bully, you don’t know one thing about children. I want to know what he said to my kids and I want to know what the consequences are going to be for him. I want to know that you called his damn parents in for an emergency meeting too.”
“I can certainly understand why it’s natural that you would take your nephew’s side, Dr. Griffin, but I assure you, we have the situation under control.”
“Like hell you do.”
“Well, be that as it may, Bellamy is suspended for three days – “
“And Octavia is suspended for one day.”
“What the hell did Octavia do?”
“I’ve already explained to you. She provoked an altercation – “
“She damn well did not, you just said to me that this kid said something that made her cry and that’s when Bellamy stepped in.”
“She provoked an altercation that turned physical. The rules are very clear here.”
“And how long is Cage Wallace getting suspended for?”
“Dr. Griffin, I’m not interested in continuing to have this same argument with you over and over. I would advise you that your idea to take the children to see their therapist is a very good one. We understand that they are in a complicated situation, but we still cannot condone violence at this school.”
“It’s not a ‘complicated situation,’” Abby snapped, grabbing her coat and purse and storming out. “Their parents have been dead for less than a month and a half, and they’re seven years old. You go down to that infirmary and you tell that Wallace guy that I’ll keep my kids in line if he handles his.”
The children were waiting in the secretary’s office next door. “I’ll need you to fill out this early-release form,” she said, “so we have a record that the children were taken out before the end of the day with their guardian’s consent. And so we can get the children’s homework for them from their teachers.” Abby nodded without speaking and bent over to sign the form. “He’s the school board president,” the woman whispered, too quietly for the children or anyone in the office next door to hear.
“Dante Wallace,” she said under her breath. “He’s the school board president and his brother is the priest. Cage is a bully. Everyone knows it, but nobody can do anything. I’m sorry about your kids.”
“Thank you,” said Abby, and meant it. Then she turned to the row of chairs by the front door, where Bellamy and Octavia sat with their backpacks, jaws clenched and faces set like stone.
“We’re going to see Doctor Lorelei,” she said crisply. “Get your things. Let’s go.”
As she strode briskly through the parking lot, the children scurried to keep up.
“You yelled at Ms. Byrne,” Octavia said in a tone of wonderment, breaking the silence. “We heard you.”
“I did not yell. We had a disagreement.”
“You yelled,” said Octavia. “You were awesome.”
“Nothing about this is awesome, Octavia,” she snapped as she opened the car door and ushered them inside. “My point with the principal was not that Bellamy should not face consequences for his actions. My point was that the punishment should be levied fairly.”
“He called me a orphan,” said Octavia in a small voice.
“We watched the Annie movie in class today and I didn’t know what ‘orphan’ meant and at recess I asked Bellamy if he knew and Cage heard me and he said ‘Orphan means you don’t have parents, like you,’ and then he said that all kids that are orphans have to go live in those scary places because nobody loves you, and then Bellamy got mad and hit him.”
Abby gripped the steering wheel so hard her knuckles turned white. “Okay,” she said, “first of all, the term ‘orphan’ has no positive or negative moral correlation. It is simply a descriptor applied to anyone whose parents have passed away. I’m one too, remember.”
“Oh,” said Octavia. “I forgot.”
“So you see, it’s not an insult. And Cage is wrong to behave like it is. Also, while it is true that there are children who live in group homes and other facilities, that does not mean nobody loves them. It may simply mean that the people who love them do not currently have the ability to care for them right now. In either case, the three of you have people who love you and who also have the ability to care for you, and we are going nowhere, you are stuck with us forever, so Cage was both unnecessarily cruel, and factually incorrect. Is that information helpful at all?”
“Bellamy?” Bellamy folded his arms, stared pointedly away from her out the window, and did not respond. “Bellamy, don’t think I have failed to notice that you haven’t said anything.”
“Ughhhhhh, I don’t want to talk about it,” he snapped.
“This isn’t like you.”
“I said I don’t want to talk about it! Stop talking to me!”
Abby gave up. “Have it your way,” she said, pulling into the clinic parking lot. “But you’re not going to get off this easy with Doctor Lorelei.”
* * *
Bellamy was so uncharacteristically sullen and hostile the entire trip from school to Doctor Lorelei’s office that all Abby’s attention was focused on the strain brewing between him and Octavia. He did not seem angry at her, but she had no better luck than Abby had in getting him to respond. She seemed puzzled and unhappy, sitting at his side and talking quietly to him, but his stony face, tight with fury, did not change expression at all. Abby was watching them, waiting anxiously for the receptionist to call their name, when she felt a buzzing in her pocket and pulled out her phone.
“Marcus, I can’t really talk right now, I’m in the middle of –“
“No, it’s an emergency,” he interrupted her, “I'm at the pickup area by the school and Bellamy and Octavia aren't here."
Shit, she thought, her stomach dropping to the floor in a sudden clench of panic. She had forgotten to tell Marcus.
Shit, shit, shit.
“I looked everywhere,” he went on, his voice rising with near-hysteria, “I tried calling the school receptionist but the office is closed or something, it kept ringing and ringing, and I couldn’t reach Vera –“
“Marcus, it’s okay,” she interrupted, “they’re with me.”
“They’re with you?”
“Yes. Vera has Clarke all day. I have the twins. Bellamy hit another kid at recess after he said something mean to Octavia. The principal called me to come get them. We’re waiting to get in to see Doctor Lorelei.”
There was a silence.
“Were you planning to share this information with me at any point?” he finally said, in a frosty voice, and Abby felt her cheeks grow hot with guilt.
She had genuinely forgotten, she hadn’t meant to leave him out, it wasn’t intentional, she had been too angry to see anything besides what was right in front of her - but she also knew exactly how this was going to look to Marcus.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I just – it was crazy, it all happened really fast, I was angry – this other kid, he said – “
“You’re sitting in Doctor Lorelei’s waiting room now, you said.”
“Just sitting there, tapping your feet, waiting, doing nothing. There’s been literally nothing preventing you from calling me since you arrived. You just didn’t think it was something I had any need to know.”
“Marcus, I’m handling it,” she said reassuringly. “It’s fine. There’s nothing for you to do. It wasn’t personal, I swear, I just didn’t think of it, I’m sorry you were worried, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about picking up the kids – “
“This isn’t about you picking up the kids without telling me,” he said harshly, “this is about how in God’s name it’s the first I’m hearing that Bellamy was violent in school today. Why didn’t I get a phone call? I’m their legal guardian too.” There was a guilty silence, and he gave a short, dry laugh. “Let me guess,” he said. “Their secondary emergency contact is Vera.”
She said nothing. There was nothing to say.
“I can’t believe we’re back here again,” he said, his voice tight with anger. “I can’t believe I’m still having to convince you to include me in these decisions.”
“Marcus, I swear –“
“Look,” he said, cutting her off, “I’m not having this fight with you over the phone. I’m not having this fight with you while you’re in the same room with the kids after their already traumatizing day. But when you get home, you and I need to have a conversation about when the hell you’re going to stop freezing me out.” And then, before she could say anything else, he hung up.
It always made Abby tense and off-kilter when she didn’t get the last word in an argument, so being hung up on before she could think of the right response to Marcus got under her skin like an unscratchable itch. She was so vexed by it that she didn’t notice, until Octavia tugged at her hand, that Doctor Lorelei’s assistant was summoning not only the children – but her too.
Great, thought Abby. Called to the principal’s office twice in one day.
* * *
“I understand you share guardianship of the children with their uncle,” said Doctor Lorelei, without looking up from her notes. Bellamy and Octavia had been – to their great dismay – separated from each other, sent into separate rooms with two of Doctor Lorelei’s colleagues, while Abby had drawn the short straw and gotten stuck with the woman herself.
“That’s correct,” said Abby warily. She had never been to a therapist before and decided on the whole it seemed safest for her to say as little as possible.
“And he is where, exactly?”
“What, right now?”
“Home, I guess?”
“Or on his way there.”
“And can you walk me through, please, how the two of you make decisions as co-guardians about these kind of situations?”
“How did you arrive at the decision that this particular –“
“You mean, why isn’t he here.”
“Yes,” said Doctor Lorelei, looking up from her papers for the first time and fixing her frank, direct gaze on Abby. “That is what I mean.”
“I forgot to call him,” said Abby a little defensively. "But he knows now."
“But the school didn’t contact him because, I’m guessing, they don’t have his phone number.” She paged through her file and held up Bellamy’s new patient intake registration form. “Neither, for that matter, do I.”
“I can give it to you. That’s not a problem.”
“Dr. Griffin,” she said firmly, and Abby shut up. This was a tone of voice she recognized. This was peer to peer. Lorelei Tsing spent most of her days dealing with children, and occasionally with their parents, and for that she used a gentler, more reassuring voice. But Abby was a doctor too, and Lorelei knew it, and suddenly the energy in the room shifted and they were done bullshitting each other. Dr. Tsing had gone to medical school, she was a brain expert too, and Abby’s weak answers weren’t cutting it anymore.
“It’s fruitless to pretend,” said Dr. Tsing in a much more adult voice than Abby had ever heard her use before, “like you don’t understand the question I’m actually asking you. This has nothing to do with Marcus Kane’s phone number and everything to do with creating a home environment for the children that meets their emotional needs. You’re a doctor. You know about the impact on childhood psychological development in households where there is a male parental figure who does not participate in the communal emotional life of the family.”
“And I don’t just mean for Bellamy, who badly needs the continued presence of a loving, adult male role model and parental figure in his life. I also mean for the girls. It sets a troubling precedent to raise women in households where all the emotional labor of parenting is placed on the female figure’s shoulders while the male figure is nonpresent.”
“I know,” she said. “I get it. I need to do better, I need to make sure Marcus is in the loop. But it's not like they never - I mean, they had Jake. I know it’s too soon for them to think of him without it being painful now, but when they’re older, when the girls are grown adults who are thinking about their own parenting choices. Even if Marcus wasn’t here, they’d have Jake. They've already had a good example of a man doing the emotional labor of parenting. Jake did that. Always. They already know what that looks like.”
Dr. Tsing looked at Abby in silence for a long, uncomfortable moment, her face unreadable. Finally she spoke, and her words were very simple but they devastated Abby entirely.
“Dr. Griffin, I’m concerned that you’re not fully comprehending the stakes here if you and Mr. Kane can’t establish a harmonious parenting relationship,” she said. “You haven’t seemed to grasp the fact that Jake Griffin is not the father these children are going to remember.”
Abby stared at her.
“Clarke is four years old,” Dr. Tsing went on. “Her memories of her father, by the time she reaches adulthood, will be barely flickers. Bellamy and Octavia will very likely retain somewhat stronger impressions. But they will be impressions only. By the time these children turn eighteen and leave your care, you will have had them for more than twice as long as their own parents did. I don't know to make this any clearer to you, but Jake and Callie Griffin will not be the defining influence shaping their children’s lives. You are.”
* * *
Abby’s only consolation, by the time the three of them got back into the car, was that it didn’t seem like Bellamy or Octavia had fared any better than she had. They were both taciturn and expressionless the entire drive home. Nobody said a word.
Vera was upstairs in the playroom with Clarke when they got home. Marcus was waiting in the living room, his arms folded. The stern look on his face temporarily united Bellamy and Abby in both their discomfort, and their secret hope that it was the other one he was more mad at. (It had not been lost on either of the children that Aunt Abby forgot to tell Uncle Marcus not to come pick them up from school, and Aunt Abby was louder on the phone with him in Doctor Lorelei's waiting room than she thought she was. Bellamy was mad at everybody right now, but he thought he might be the littlest bit less mad at Uncle Marcus, since he hadn’t really done anything yet. Though he sure looked like he was about to.)
“Octavia,” said Abby carefully, “I need you to go upstairs to the playroom with Clarke and Aunt Vera, okay? Uncle Marcus and I need to have a talk with Bellamy by ourselves.” Octavia plainly did not want to leave her brother to his fate, but she had never seen Uncle Marcus mad before either and decided it wasn’t worth risking being the first person to push him over the edge. So she scampered up to the top of the stairs, where they couldn’t see her eavesdropping.
“Inside the playroom, and close the door behind you!” called Marcus, who was not an idiot, and Octavia sighed from her hiding place and disappeared into the other room, closing the door with a passive-aggressive slam behind her as Bellamy flopped dramatically onto the couch with a grouchy sigh.
Once they were alone, Abby was not quite sure how to proceed. She was still too angry at Cage Wallace herself to be able to muster much in his defense, which made her worry a little. Was her rigidity, her black-and-white judgment, something that Bellamy would see and absorb from her? Were the children watching her and repeating her mistakes? Bellamy was the responsible one, the child she had always secretly felt was the most like her, but no matter how much she loved her sister and brother she would never have hit someone in their defense.
Would she? Or did she simply have the luxury of thinking that because it had never come up?
She had no idea what to say to Bellamy.
But Marcus did.
"You hit a boy at school," he said in a measured tone. "That's not acceptable."
"But he said -"
"It doesn't matter what he said, Bellamy," said Marcus. "There is nothing that makes this behavior okay."
"Why are you even here?" Bellamy shouted back at him. "Why don't you go home? You're not my dad."
"No, I'm not," said Marcus, who was completely unfazed. "But I'm the grownup right now. Me and Aunt Abby, we're the grownups. We know we're not your mom and dad, and we know you miss them a lot, and it makes things hurt in weird new terrible ways, and we understand that. But the fact that you're hurting inside does not give you the right to take that out on other people. Not even with words, but especially not by hitting them."
"Fine," huffed Bellamy, "sorry," in a sullen little voice that made it plain just how very not sorry he really was.
Abby was just about to step in and send Bellamy to his room with no dinner when Marcus said something that stopped her in her tracks.
“Our dad used to hit us,” he said, in an extremely calm and balanced tone of voice, and both Bellamy – seated on the couch and staring up at him – and Abby at his side stared at him with wide, astonished eyes. “Did you know that? Did your dad ever tell you?” Bellamy shook his head. Marcus sat down next to him on the couch, a perfectly-calibrated distance apart – wide enough that Bellamy still felt safe, had room to breathe, was not stifled, but close enough that suddenly the two of them were the only people in the whole world.
“He would get mad,” Marcus went on, “or he would have too much to drink, or my mom would say something that he didn’t like. Or maybe nothing happened. Sometimes there wasn’t even a reason. Honestly I think sometimes it was because he just – he liked the way it felt, you know? To hit things. He liked the feeling it gave him. Does that make sense?” Bellamy nodded silently again. “Has anybody ever hit you?” Bellamy shook his head. “Then you don’t really understand,” said Marcus, “how scary it is. And how much it hurts, how mad it makes you. But most of all you don’t understand how hitting doesn't get rid of that bad feeling inside you, it just gives it to somebody else instead. You love your sister, you want to protect her. So you want to hurt the person who hurt someone special to you. But you know what? That boy is special to somebody else. No matter how much you don't like him, there are people that do. Everybody has someone who loves them. So by hitting Cage, you’ve hurt other people the way Cage hurt Octavia. You know what it’s like when you love somebody and they’re sad and you can’t make it better. You know exactly what that feels like. Right?” Bellamy nodded, tears welling up in his eyes. “So what I need you to think about,” said Marcus, moving just the tiniest bit comfortingly closer to Bellamy, “is how that boy felt after you hit him, and how his mom and dad probably felt when he came home from school with his nose all bloody, and how scared I bet they were. I want you to think about what happens when you take the hurt inside you and you put it onto somebody else. And I also want to tell you something very important, about protecting your sister. I’m going to tell you something that Octavia might not have the words to tell you right now, but this is what my mom said to me. When my dad hurt her, when he would slap her on the face or when he would smash up her things or when he would yell at her to scare her and make her cry, I wanted to hit him. I always wanted to. Every time. But I never did, not once. Because when I told my mom that I wanted to hit Dad back, she shook her head and you know what she said to me?"
"What?" sniffled Bellamy, curiosity winning out over silence.
"She said he would rather have Dad scream at her all he wanted than for her son to grow up to be a man who hits. She couldn’t change my dad. She couldn’t make him a nice man. But the reason that she finally left was because she wanted me to be safe. Not just safe from his fists, but safe from becoming him. She knew that I loved her and she knew that every time he hurt her it made me so mad I wanted to stand up on my tiptoes and stretch as tall as I could and just whomp him one right in the face. But she also knew that that’s how it starts. Sometimes all it takes to turn a person into somebody violent is doing it just one time, for maybe what seems like a good reason, to protect somebody that you love. But then it feels good. You feel powerful. You want to do it again. It makes you want to hit somebody else. You stop caring who you hurt. My mom didn’t want me to be that boy. And Octavia doesn’t want you to be that boy either. Do you understand what I’m saying to you, Bellamy?” He nodded, tears in his eyes. “And I’m going to tell you one last thing,” he said. “This is important too. Octavia sometimes needs to fight her own battles. I know you feel like she’s your responsibility. I know you feel like you have to be the dad sometimes, because you’re the oldest. But you’re still a kid. You need to let me and Aunt Abby be the grownups. Your sister knows that you love her, Bellamy, and she knows that you want to keep her safe. But there isn’t a single bad, sad thing in your life, or in hers, that’s going to be fixed by you hitting people. In this house, that’s not what we do. Not ever. Do you understand me?”
“I’m sorry, Uncle Marcus,” he said, sniffling and wiping his nose, and Marcus opened his arms so Bellamy could climb into them. “I miss Dad,” said Bellamy, face muffled in Marcus’ sweater, and from the doorway Abby could see the warm golden lamplight shining off tears in the corner of Marcus’ eyes that matched her own.
“I know,” he said. “I know, kiddo. I do too. But maybe instead of being unhappy separately, we could be people who miss your dad together. Maybe we could talk about it, sometimes, instead of squeezing everything up tight inside. How would that be?” Bellamy nodded and snuggled in tighter, and even as her heart turned over inside her chest at the unexpected sweetness of it, Abby wondered which of them those words were really meant for.
Marcus kissed the top of Bellamy’s head and sent him upstairs so he could go hug his sister, and told him he needed to go borrow Aunt Vera’s cell phone because he had to call Cage Wallace to apologize. Then he turned back to Abby, who was – by her estimate – about to receive her fourth angry lecture of the day. Marcus had been firm but gentle with Bellamy, but from the way he rounded on Abby the second they heard the twins’ bedroom door close, he had no intention of being equally gentle with her.
“Are we really back to this?” he said, making a disbelieving sound that was almost a laugh. Abby looked down at the floor, both abashed and defiant. “I thought we’d made some progress since that day in David Miller’s office, but we haven’t, have we? Not at all. You still don’t want me here. You still don’t think I belong.”
“You were great with him,” she said honestly. “You’re good at this.”
“And that surprises you.”
“No, I didn’t mean that.”
“I’m your partner, Abby,” he said. “You didn’t ask for this, and I didn’t either, but this is what it is. It’s you and me. You can’t shut me out.”
“Marcus, I forgot, I'm sorry, I forgot to call you, I didn’t mean to –“
“You never mean to,” he said, exasperated, “you always think you’re right, you always think you’re doing the right thing, you always think you know what’s best for everybody else. Always. Every time. You were surprised, just now, that I was the right person to talk to Bellamy about what happened today. Weren’t you? You were surprised because it never occurred to you that Jake might have wanted me in his children’s life for exactly this reason. That I might be good for them.”
“I never said I thought you didn’t have anything to contribute,” she said snappishly, finally losing her temper, “it’s just frustrating always having to be the bad guy while you get to be Fun Uncle Marcus, with the sleigh and the bedtime stories -"
“No,” he growled at her, standing up from the couch and coming closer to her, eyes dark with fury. “No. Goddammit, Abby, you do not get to stand there and tell me how hard it is for you carrying the weight of all the real parenting when the only reason you’re doing it alone is because you shut me out.”
“You wouldn’t have had to do this alone if you'd called me, Abby! I could have been there with you for the principal, for Dr. Lorelei, for all of it. You could have equal balance in this household any time you wanted it, but you don’t. You don’t ask for help. You say ‘It’s handled.’ You say ‘Don’t worry, I took care of it.’ You were so wrapped up in handling everything yourself that you forgot I was even here. I don’t want to just be Fun Uncle Marcus, Abby, I want to be in this with you. Don’t turn this around and make it my fault."
"Marcus, I promise you, I'm not shutting you out, I didn't do this on purpose."
"Of course you did," he said. "Jesus, Abby, of course you did. Since the day you met me, you've shut me out and pushed me away over and over and over again. The first thing you said to me, the first thing, was that you didn't want me here because you could handle this yourself. I thought we had made progress, the things that have happened between us, I thought we had moved past all that -"
"We did -"
"No, we didn't, we're right back where we started. We've gotten nowhere, Abby. We're going in circles."
"Marcus, I'm sorry," she said honestly. "It's not about you. I'm just - look, this is who I am. I'm used to making decisions by myself. I'm used to handling things alone. I'm trying to be better, I really am, but this is just - this is what I'm used to. I'm doing the best I can."
"It's not who you are, it's who you choose to be," he said coldly. "Because it's safer than letting anyone else in. You're alone because you want it that way, Abby. You always have. And you know it.”
The silence that followed was awful.
Abby stared at him, stricken, her eyes wide with astonishment and humiliation and fury, and Marcus tensed up a little, as though even he realized he'd finally gone too far. They both stared at each other for a long moment, neither one willing to speak first, when the silence was broken by the sound of Marcus' phone buzzing in his pocket. He pulled it out, looked at it, and put it back in his pocket.
“I’m leaving,” he said, and pulling his coat off the hook and heading for the door. "Don't wait up."
"You're - wait, what?"
"You heard me."
"Marcus, this is - where the hell are you going?"
“Out," he said shortly, hating himself a little for how childish it sounded but unable to stop himself.
“For God's sake, Marcus, talk to me.”
“I can’t be in the same room with you right now,” he said abruptly. “I need to cool off. We both need to clear our heads. We can talk in the morning.”
But he was already gone.
Chapter 19: Unspeakable
The sound of the coffee grinder roused Abby the next morning.
It was an electric one, probably fifteen years old at this point, and louder than a freight train, but Abby didn’t mind it, smiling a little to herself at how the sound always took her back to her childhood. It somehow always made her think of Christmas morning, when her father would be the first one up and the children would be roused from sleep by the noisy grinding of coffee and the smell of frying bacon. As an adult who lived alone, you were denied these simple pleasures; as irritating as Marcus could be, still, having someone else to make coffee in the mornings had turned out to be a pleasant thing to get used to.
She rubbed her eyes a little blearily and looked at the clock. It was only nine. And she hadn’t heard Marcus come home last night, which meant he’d been out until after midnight – how much later, she didn’t know, since midnight was simply when she’d given up pretending that she wasn’t waiting up for him and gone to bed. It was a surprise, though not an unwelcome one, that he was awake in time to actually make her coffee. Maybe it was an olive branch after last night. Maybe she would have a chance to apologize, for real this time, and they could start fresh.
She yawned and stretched and slowly eased out of bed, throwing a cardigan over her cotton nightdress. This had been her one concession to living with a man in the house – attempting to look ever-so-slightly more pulled-together in the mornings. Gone the faded floral old-lady nightgown she had loved for nearly a decade, which Jaha had once described as “the least sexy garment ever manufactured in the United States” (“It’s made in China” had been her comeback, which he hadn’t thought was funny), to be replaced by a series of equally comfortable but far less threadbare jersey shifts that fell below the knee. By no means would you call them lingerie, or even remotely seductive – today’s was a plain heather gray with the tiniest bit of white lace trim at its very modest neckline – but with one of her loose, comfortable cardigans and her hair pulled up into a hasty bun it made her feel like enough of a human being in the morning to be in the same room with Marcus before she was fully dressed.
She padded downstairs softly, careful not to wake the children or disturb the sleepy silence on the other side of their closed doors.
“I heard the –“ she began, then stopped short.
Because the person in her kitchen, casually opening and closing cupboards to hunt for mugs as though she’d always lived there, was a girl with caramel-gold skin, a long dark ponytail, and no clothes on except one of Marcus Kane’s white shirts, which was far too big for her. She reached up on her toes to pull down three mugs from a shelf and the hem of the shirt rose up enough to reveal the flawless ass of a woman still on the right side of thirty inside a pair of navy blue cotton panties that read "HELLO SAILOR."
She turned as she heard Abby’s voice. “Oh, hey!” she chirped happily, for all the world as if she were not a total stranger standing half-naked in someone else’s kitchen wearing no pants while three children were sleeping upstairs. “Abby, right?”
“Who are you?” Abby said through gritted teeth, forcing her voice to remain level.
“I’m Raven,” she said. “It’s so great to finally meet you. Do you want coffee? I’m making lots. Our idiot is gonna have a hell of a hangover when he finally wakes up.”
“I didn’t know you were in town,” said Abby carefully as Raven handed her a cup of coffee. The girl's brow furrowed.
“He didn’t tell you?”
“No,” said Abby, and there was something curious in how Raven’s expression changed. Abby wasn’t sure she liked how carefully the girl was reading her, as if every thought in her head was laid bare to Raven’s searching gaze.
“Just passing through,” she said. “My friends' band is on tour and they pay me to come along and run the light board sometimes. And I thought it would be a good chance to catch up with Marcus.”
“Catch up”, thought Abby with a hint of bitterness as she sipped her coffee, suddenly feeling very old and very tired. Raven poured two more cups of coffee, and Abby watched with a little pang in her chest as she confidently added the exact right amount of cream and sugar to the mug that was clearly for Marcus.
It was hard to blame him, thought Abby with a hollow, sad little ache inside her chest, for wanting this woman. She was Abby’s opposite in every way. She was gorgeous and sexy and half Abby’s age, and even the fact that she walked with a limp and her thighs were laced with scars didn’t detract a bit; it just made her seem more interesting and glamorous, somehow, like she’d led an adventurous life. Her skin glowed amber-gold in the kitchen’s warm morning light, and her body was the perfect balance of soft curves and strong muscle. Abby was nearly forty, she had gray hair coming in at the temples, she was stiff and dull and wound too tight and all she did was drive Marcus crazy. Raven was young and fun and asked nothing of him; back in New York they lived separate lives and got together occasionally to go have beers or watch the Knicks game, after which they would probably have mind-blowing sex and then part ways perfectly amicably.
Abby came saddled with three children, a house full of painful memories, an almost pathological need to keep Marcus Kane at arm's length, and far too much baggage to expect a man like him to carry.
Raven came with no strings attached, and she knew how he liked his coffee.
You’re such an idiot, she hissed at herself, blinking back tears of frustration for having been so stupid as to think that one kiss under the mistletoe meant anything. She was delusional for having misread his signals so badly. Raven had been in his life for years. Abby would never be able to stop herself from pushing him away, and Raven was the kind of woman he would always come back to.
That was all it would ever be.
As if on cue, to add the one missing note in this symphony of awkwardness, Marcus – clad in a pair of gray flannel pajama pants and a soft, perfectly faded Springsteen t-shirt - stumbled into the kitchen, rubbing his sleep-bleary eyes and running a hand through his mussed hair. He stopped short when he saw both women there in front of him, and looked rather helplessly from one to the other as if trying to gather as much information as possible before opening his mouth. If she hadn’t been so angry at him already, Abby might have laughed; but right now all her energy was going towards not losing her temper in front of the girl Marcus had brought home to fuck last night while she and the children slept upstairs.
At that moment, she hated him more than she had ever hated anyone in her entire life.
Well, no, actually, she might have hated Raven a little bit more, since at this moment Raven was watching Abby watch Marcus with a curious, thoughtful intensity, as though she were solving a puzzle.
“Abby, it’s not what it looks like,” Marcus began, and both women’s heads swiveled towards him as one, making the same incredulous expression.
"Nope," Raven interrupted scornfully, making Abby hate her a tiny bit less. “Worst opening ever. Try again."
“I’ve got this, Raven,” he said quietly.
“You didn’t even tell her I was in town. That makes me look like an asshole."
“Okay, I’m not doing this right now,” said Abby, setting down her coffee and feeling like the room was suddenly far too crowded for her personal comfort.
“Abby, it’s not – we didn’t –“
“You’re an adult, Marcus,” she said in a carefully neutral tone, swallowing down tears as she turned her back and left the room. “You can sleep with whoever you want. I would simply prefer not to have strange women parading in and out of the house at all hours when the children are here. Raven, it was nice to meet you, help yourself to anything in the fridge.”
“Abby, come back,” Raven started to say as Marcus stood stock-still, staring after her, watching her walk away. Raven gave him a violent shove. “Jesus Christ,” she hissed, “go fix it.”
“I don’t –“
“Go after her right now, you dumbass,” she said, gathering up her clothes, “or so help me God I’ll never speak to you again. Did you see the look on her face? Go. I’ll drop your car back here this afternoon." Then she tactfully disappeared, leaving him alone in the living room.
He gathered himself for a long moment before climbing the stairs and, for the first time ever, entering Abby’s bedroom. She was pacing back and forth in front of the window, her arms wrapped tightly around her torso the way she did when she was trying to press her emotions back down inside her.
“I didn’t sleep with her,” he began, his voice low to keep from waking up the children.
“That’s a good one, Marcus,” she said with a sneer, “that’s hilarious. You’re not sleeping with the gorgeous twenty-something I found half-naked in my kitchen wearing nothing but the shirt you had on last night? You didn’t leave the house after we had a fight to go hook up with your girlfriend? Why else would you refuse to tell me where you were going?"
“It wasn’t like that.”
“Look, I know you have an arrangement, I know you’re all very modern and bohemian and I’m the Victorian spinster in this story, I get it, I’m old-fashioned, but if you’re going to call up your fuck buddy –“
“Don’t call her that.”
“ . . . and fly her across the country whenever you want to get laid, then we’re going to need to set up some ground rules because there are children in this house.”
“She's my friend, Abby, it was just a friendly drink.”
“Look, I know you think I’m a thousand years old, but even I know what that means.”
“We didn’t do anything,” he snapped. “We drank beer. We ate French fries. All I did was get too drunk to drive and talk about you.” This stopped her in her tracks, but she still could not quite look at him. “There’s nothing to be jealous of,” he said, trying to be reassuring, but it was the wrong thing to say. She whirled around on him, eyes blazing, her voice full of fury.
“Jesus,” she said, “that’s what you think this is? You think I’m jealous? You think my first thought when you don’t come home until after midnight without telling me where you’re going –“
“Were you – did you wait up for me?”
“ . . . and then I find a half-naked stranger in my kitchen –“
“Marcus, you can stroke your male ego by banging as many twenty-year-olds as you want,” she said wearily, “I couldn’t give less of a damn who you sleep with. But you cannot just bring them uninvited into this house.”
“Our house," he said, his own voice rising to meet hers. “Our house. Our kids. Our family. I live here, Abby. You don’t have to like it – I know you’ve never liked it, you’ve made that abundantly clear – but it wasn’t your decision, it was Jake’s decision, and my love life was not one of the qualifying factors.”
“So Raven’s your love life?” retorted Abby, hating herself for how catty the words sounded as she spat them at him. “I thought you said you weren’t sleeping with her.”
“I’m not,” he said. “I haven’t slept with her since I slept with you.”
“Well, that’s big of you.”
“Jesus, Abby, what do you want from me?” he snapped. “Tell me what you want me to do. Honest to God, tell me and I’ll do it, because right now I am doing the best I can and I am out of ideas. I quit my job and I put my life on hold and I walked away from everything that mattered to me to fly across the country and try to be some kind of a father to these kids –“
“I didn’t ask you to do any of that!”
“It wasn’t yours to ask!” he shot back. “They’re not your children. This is a choice that their parents got to make, and you’re so angry at Jake Griffin right now that you can’t even see straight, you’re so angry that he didn’t let you play the noble heroine and carry the whole burden yourself –“
“How dare you –“
“ . . . and if you knew yourself a fraction as well as you think you do, Abby, you’d realize the thing that’s been blindingly obvious since the moment you came onto me in the kitchen after the funeral –“
“Shut up, Marcus, just shut up right now –“
“I’m not him, Abby,” he exploded, and she froze. The world stopped moving. Her skin went cold all over and she stared at him with icy fear in her heart, begging him not to say the thing she knew he was about to say. But was too late. She’d pushed him too far, pushed him past the limits of his compassion and kindness, and so he was going to do it, he was going to say the terrible thing out loud, and it was all her fault. She felt the Dark Thing stir from its slumber and begin to rise up inside her chest, making itself ready.
“Stop it, Marcus,” she said quietly, but it was a feeble attempt, he barely heard, he smashed right through it and kept going.
“I’m not him,” he insisted again. “You want me to be him, and I’m not, and you’re so angry it makes you hate everybody. You hated that other man you were with because no matter how tightly you closed your eyes, you couldn’t quite convince yourself he was Jake.”
“And you hate the children for existing, and Callie for meeting him first, because by the time you realized how you felt it was too late, there was no way out without wrecking his family. The one thing he’d never, ever do.”
“No, you need to hear this, Abby, somebody needs to say this to you. And nobody else can see you the way I can. Nobody else is willing to say what needs to be said.”
“Oh, suddenly you’re the person that knows me best?”
He stepped in closer to her then, eyes flashing bright with anger, but with something else too, and she felt her heart quicken with a sensation that wasn’t fear.
"I see right through those walls," he said softly, "I know all of it. I see all of it. Do you want to know why you really hate me? And why you hate yourself? I saw it. I'll tell you. It's because that first time, in the kitchen -"
“No, this is important. The first time, in the kitchen, you were thinking of Jake. You were picturing Jake. Jake's hands. Jake's mouth. Jake inside you. That's where you go, when you disappear in bed. That's what you do. I saw it happen. I was there. I know you. And you hated me for not being him, but you hated yourself more, for betraying your sister. But the second time,” and he moved in even closer now, their faces were just inches apart, “the second time you weren’t thinking about Jake at all. The second time you were right there, with me. And you hate yourself for that most of all," he said softly, "for how good it made you feel. You hate yourself for being unfaithful to Jake." They were so close that she could feel his breath on her skin. His eyes were dark and wide and right there and she wanted to tell him he was wrong but her whole body would have made that a lie. "You don't want to let go," he whispered, "you don't want to move on. You're so scared of what lives on the other side of that door."
Everything he was saying to her was true. How badly she wanted to press her mouth to his - even now, when she was so angry - was proof that he was right. She hadn't disappeared. She hadn't gone inside to that remote, faraway place where she had spent all those strained nights with Thelonious, where she had gone that first time with Marcus on the kitchen chair. The devastating truth was that she had forgotten Jake Griffin existed from the moment Marcus Kane kissed her mouth in the hallway until she woke up in his arms the next morning. That was why it felt like having her heart ripped out. That was why this hurt so badly.
She pulled away from him then and moved to the window, wrapping her arms protectively around herself, unable to look at him anymore. “I want so badly for you not to hate me,” he said, the ribbon of anger in his voice fading the slightest bit, replaced by a bright note of desperation. “But I don’t know how to tell you that this isn’t a competition. I don’t know how to tell you that I’m not a threat to your place in this family. It was over before it started, Abby, I was never going to be able to make a place for myself equal to yours. Don’t you get that? But you hate me just for being here, for existing, for reminding you that Jake didn’t think you could do this alone. Reminding you that you weren’t his partner. You weren’t the only person he trusted. You don’t get to win at everything, Abby, you don’t get to always have your way.”
“You think this is about winning?” she shot back at him. “Are you forgetting that I lost the two most important people in my life?”
“Am I forgetting? How would it be possible for me to forget when you spend every minute of the day constantly reminding me? You are in love with your grief, Abby, it’s the only thing in the whole world you really trust. Your sadness. Your isolation. You’ve built temples to them, you worship them, you can’t see anything else. You’re terrified to let them go. You are terrified of being happy.”
“I don’t have time for happy, Marcus,” she snapped, “I have three kids depending on me and I am at my wits’ end here. You don’t think I know I’m not cut out for this? You don’t think I’m aware of just how badly I’m failing?”
“I didn’t want this, Marcus, I didn’t choose this life. I liked the life I had. I know it wasn’t glamorous like yours, it didn’t have a chauffeur and a penthouse loft, but it was mine, and I was happy, so don’t expect me to be jumping up and down because my only sister was hurled through the windshield of her car and left me to pick up the pieces.”
He looked stricken, unsteady, and all the fight had gone out of him. He reached out a hand for her but she slapped it away. The words were pouring out of her now, like a geyser, she couldn’t have stopped if she wanted to, she was incandescent with rage and it had simply taken over her body, so she just stood there, ice-cold, and let it happen, let the words fall onto Marcus Kane’s skin and seep inside, down to his heart, like corrosive poison. He had said things she could never, ever, ever forgive, and all she wanted to do in this moment was hurt him as badly as she possibly could.
“You weren’t there,” she said, “so you don’t know. You weren’t the one that had to go to the morgue. You weren’t the one that talked to the paramedics, or had to file the death certificates. So you don’t know anything. Let me tell you. Let me fill you in on what you missed while you were going down on that girl in your hip New York apartment and not answering your phone.”
“There were cuts all over her body from the broken glass,” she interrupted, pushing on as though he hadn't spoken. “Sliced up her skin top to bottom. Callie never had a scar in her life, but when I saw her on that table in the morgue it was like someone had taken a knife to her. Just gone to town all over her face. See, the passenger side seatbelt, it had kind of a glitch to it sometimes, you’d think it was buckled all the way because it made the little click sound, but you always had to check it. So if you got in the car in a hurry and you forgot to check, then when the car crashed into the side of a mountain –“
“ . . . then it would just snap right open and send you flying through broken glass into the snow. But she was the lucky one,” she went on, ignoring him, “because at least she got thrown clear of the car. You know what happened to your brother?” she said, turning to him, “you know how Jake died? You want to hear? You want to hear the words I had to hear? See, his seatbelt worked fine. It did its job. Which means he was burned. I couldn’t look at him, that day in the morgue, I couldn’t bring myself to look at the body. They brought his doctor in to identify the remains – that’s what they call it, you know, that’s our cute little insider hospital lingo for what you call it when the man you love most in the entire world dies in a fire on the side of the highway while his wife bleeds to death in the snow. That’s who I am now, Marcus Kane. You complete asshole. And you think this is about winning? You think I enjoy feeling this way? That I like holding onto this? That there is one single tiny piece of my life right now that even remotely resembles what I wanted? I swear to God, Marcus, I am holding it together by the skin of my teeth right now, I am this close to losing it, I loved them more than anything else in the world and they died on the side of the road like animals and where were you then?”
She had not even noticed when she’d begun to cry, did not even notice until she stopped to take a breath and found that she couldn’t, found that her chest was constricted with rough, gasping sobs. Marcus was rooted in place, his face white with horror, tears making their way down his cheeks too. They regarded each other for a long, awful, silent moment.
Then they heard the screaming.
Chapter 20: The Worst Imaginable Thing
Clarke was lying in bed flipping through a book about unicorns and explaining the stories to Princess when she heard noises from down the hall that sounded like Aunt Abby was watching a scary loud movie in her bedroom with the sound turned way up. Which didn’t seem like her, especially not in the mornings. Bell and Octavia were still sleeping, so Clarke gathered up Princess and decided to go investigate herself.
But it wasn't a movie. It was Aunt Abby and Uncle Marcus, and they were mad.
Neither one of the grownups heard her tiptoe down the hall on little bare feet, or saw her standing behind them in the hallway. They shouted for a long time about some things she didn’t understand at all, and when Clarke saw that Aunt Abby looked like she was about to cry, she was just about to enter the room and go give her a hug when something awful came out of Aunt Abby's mouth. She was telling Uncle Marcus all about The Thing That Happened, shouting things at him that Clarke didn't ever ever want to know, and her words made a picture in Clarke’s mind, a picture of Mommy and Daddy and the car, a picture with smoke and fire and snow and shouting people and blood, and she couldn’t get the picture out of her head, no matter how tightly she held onto Princess, but she couldn’t make words either, she couldn’t say, “Stop talking, just stop talking, both of you, I'm right here, I can hear you, just stop.”
So instead she did what small children do better than anyone else in the world.
She opened her mouth and began to scream.
It only took a heartbeat for Bellamy and Octavia to come sprinting down the hall to fling their arms around her, but even that didn’t help, it didn’t make the bad things in her head go away, it didn’t make anything better. Clarke screamed and screamed and screamed, her whole body growing pink and tense from the exertion, every muscle strained to breaking point, emitting full-body howls of anguish that seemed to echo from the soles of her feet to the top of her head, and which eventually – when she could not be consoled, no matter what Abby and Marcus did – set off equal hysteria in her sister and brother. In the end, out of better ideas, Abby called her brother, who broke the speed limit to get there, raced up the stairs and simply picked them all up as one, awkwardly lugging the shrieking, three-headed creature out to the car to drive them to Doctor Lorelei’s office.
Which left Aunt Vera to deal with Marcus and Abby.
“I hardly even know where to begin,” she said to them, pacing back and forth on the living room carpet as they sat side by side on the sofa like schoolchildren in the principal’s office, too miserable, guilty and ashamed to make even the slightest protest to anything Vera said. Lord knows they deserved it. “I find it almost impossible to believe that the two of you, who are mature, responsible adults with three very young and vulnerable children in your care, would engage in a shouting match twenty feet from their bedroom doorways about the most horrific thing that has ever happened in this family. How could you be so careless? What on earth can have possessed you?”
There was, of course, no possible answer to this.
“These children,” she continued sternly, “are traumatized. Do you have any idea what that means? Their grief is different from yours. You are adults, with a far higher level of cognitive function – though you have, apparently, decided not to use any of it today – and are capable of processing the things that have happened to you in a clearer manner. But Clarke is four. This entire family has worked very, very hard to protect these children from as much of the horror of this situation as we possibly can, and now you have implanted into her head an image she will be replaying over and over again at night before she falls asleep for the rest of her life. You have taken whatever small degree of progress Doctor Lorelei has made and you have set her back so far that the children are worse than when they started. It is hard enough to explain to a four-year-old the reality that her parents are not coming back. It is just barely possible to do even that much. To ask her – any of them – at this age, with their limited emotional intelligence, to process the understanding of the horrific nature of a car accident, is unspeakably cruel. I have no idea what happened between the two of you this morning that caused you both to forget yourselves and your responsibility to so shattering a degree, and quite frankly I do not care. You are adults. You were supposed to protect her. And instead you have thrown her into emotional trauma so deep that for the life of me I don’t know how we can turn back the clock. And you have damaged both your own relationships with her permanently. She was afraid of many things before this, but now she will also be afraid of you.”
Marcus’ eyes were tightly closed to keep back the sting of tears. Abby stared blankly and expressionlessly at the carpet in front of her. Neither of them said anything at all. Aunt Vera gathered up her coat and her purse and made her way to the door.
“I’m going to Doctor Lorelei’s office to meet Jackson and the children,” she said, “and after that I am taking them home with me for the next two days. By the time I bring them back here, I expect you both to have sorted this out. I don’t care if you resent each other. I don’t care what your grudges are. I don’t care if right now you can hardly stand to be in the same room with each other. You will learn to. There are children’s lives at stake here.” She buttoned her coat and strode briskly towards the door, before turning back to deliver one devastating parting shot:
“I am very disappointed in you.”
She closed the door, and Abby felt the whole world collapse in on her.
* * *
They sat side by side on the couch, silent and motionless, staring out into the now-empty living room, for a long time. The bright light of early afternoon sharpened into gold, then dimmed from copper to rose to violet as day faded into night. For hours and hours, they sat there. They said nothing. They did not acknowledge each other. They could not even form conscious thoughts. They just sat, as the shadows deepened and the darkness swelled up around them.
Suddenly a soft sound of footsteps triggered both their parental instincts, and both heads snapped up to see which child had made the sound. But it was only the cat, padding softly downstairs (having missed all the excitement earlier while he napped under Bellamy’s bed). But the noise broke the spell somehow, drawing them both out of the gray silent fog and back into the real world. Abby switched on the lamp that sat at her elbow, and a warm golden light bathed their corner of the room.
“I don’t know what’s the matter with us,” said Marcus softly, the first to speak, and she turned to look at him for the first time since they had watched Jackson carry the children downstairs what felt like a lifetime ago. There was no reproach on his face, no blame. He just seemed tired, and puzzled, and sad. “I don’t know why we always end up wanting to hurt each other.”
“I don’t know either,” she answered him heavily.
"Every time it seems like things might be getting better -"
"I know. But we can’t keep going like this.”
“Is Clarke going to be okay?”
“I have no idea,” said Abby helplessly. “Would you be, if you were four and you heard the things I said?”
“We both said things."
"But I'm the one she's going to hate. I'm the one she's going to connect with her parents' death. Forever."
"Don’t take this all on yourself. I was awful. I was unforgivable to you. None of this would have happened if I hadn't said the things I said."
She shrugged, dismissing it. She was too tired to argue, too tired to remember why she had been so angry. She replayed the words of their argument over and over in her head, but she felt no rage, no desperate fury. In fact, she felt nothing at all. Hard to believe she had been so angry about Raven. Hard to believe that only a few hours ago she had been coiled so tightly with rage that the only right thing to do had been to hurt Marcus as badly as she could possibly hurt him. It felt distant, alien, like the Abby upstairs in that bedroom hurling venomous words at him was a different person altogether. Every emotion had dried up. Even the Dark Thing had gone underground, leaving nothing behind it but a vast, echoing hollow where Abby’s heart used to be.
“I didn’t sleep with Raven,” he said to her. “I know that’s the last thing that matters now. But I didn’t. I would never have done that to you. Never. I don’t know why it’s so important to me that you believe that, but it is.”
“I believe you,” she said tonelessly. “But it doesn’t change anything.”
He leaned his head against the back of the couch. “I know it doesn’t,” he said. “I know.”
The next morning, he was gone.
Chapter 21: Jake
For nearly a month, after the children returned from Aunt Vera’s house only to find the guest room stripped bare, its contents a heap of boxes piled against the walls, and Uncle Marcus gone without a trace, they could hardly bear to be in the same room with Abby.
She didn’t blame them. She could hardly bear to be in the same room as herself.
Nobody – not the children, not Jackson, not even Vera – managed to get a satisfactory answer out of her for why Marcus had gone, beyond “It wasn’t working out. It’s better this way.”
Bellamy was furious, but not at Aunt Abby. Or at any rate, not as much. Uncle Marcus had made a promise and he didn’t keep it, and now Bellamy was the only boy in a house full of girls, and there was nobody he could talk to about how much he missed his dad. (He tried, once or twice, to bring it up with Aunt Abby, but it didn’t go well.) Octavia, however, was mad at Aunt Abby. There had been a lengthy conference at Aunt Vera’s house that night after they left Doctor Lorelei’s office where Murphy and Princess and Dolphin had discussed the terrible things Aunt Abby had said about Mommy and Daddy and the car, things that woke Clarke up in the bed she shared with Octavia and made her squeeze her big sister tight out of anxiety and fear. Dolphin’s personal opinion was that the big mean fight – which Bellamy blamed on Uncle Marcus – had really been Aunt Abby’s fault. When Aunt Abby was mad, she was scary. Whereas Uncle Marcus had been kind and funny and had given them a cat.
Clarke was not angry at anyone. Clarke simply withdrew. She did not like to ride in the car anymore; she screamed and cried and clung to the door, and only Bellamy could calm her down. She did not like to be touched by Aunt Abby, even by accident. She clung with obsessive desperation to Bug, and grew panicky when she didn’t know where he was. Mostly, the thing that you couldn’t help noticing was how all the sparkle had gone out of her.
January passed into February. Abby and the children tiptoed around each other, as though the whole house was full of emotional landmines they might inadvertently set off at any second. And then, one gray Tuesday morning at breakfast, two very important things – which didn’t seem, at first, to be connected to each other at all – happened at the same time.
The first thing that happened was Bellamy opening the glass doors from the kitchen to the backyard to retrieve his soccer ball from the deck. He was pretty quick, but Bug was quicker, streaking like a bolt of lightning between Bellamy’s legs and zipping across the lawn to his hidey-hole under the rhododendron bushes. Clarke began to panic slightly, but Aunt Abby told her – in the same distant, faraway voice she used all the time now since Uncle Marcus had gone away, a voice that sounded like she was only halfway hearing or seeing them – not to worry about Bug. The yard was fenced, after all, and it was about to rain, which meant he’d be back up on the porch yowling to be let back in soon. And anyway, they had no time to run around the yard and chase him down, because they would be late for school.
The second thing that happened, as Abby martialed the children outside with their backpacks to go meet Indra for their morning carpool, was that the mail came early that day, bringing with it a serious-looking envelope on Miller & Miller letterhead. Inside the larger envelope was a smaller one, folded inside a typed sheet of letterhead and signed by David Miller.
Dear Dr. Griffin,
I hope this note finds you well. Enclosed please find a letter which was delivered into my care when Mr. Griffin visited me last year to complete his revised will. He stated that in the event of his death – if and only if he was not survived by his wife – you were to be given this letter three months following his decease. Please forgive me not making the contents of this envelope known to you beforehand, but his instructions for discretion were very clear. I am not, of course, privy to the contents of this letter, as the envelope remains sealed, but please do not hesitate to contact me directly should any further assistance be required.
The inner envelope was not on legal letterhead. It was small, and white, and it said “ABBY” on the front in black Sharpie marker, in a sloping, angular left-handed scrawl she thought she would never see again.
Five years ago, Jake Griffin had written a letter to his sister-in-law that she would only ever see if he and Callie were both dead.
This is what it said.
* * *
I’m sitting at the kitchen table right now.
Callie’s upstairs, resting. She’s a motherfucking warrior, that one, but still, she gave birth like three days ago; why is it this hard for me to force her to stay in bed and rest? Nobody ever taught you Griffin women how to slow down, did they?
Clarke’s upstairs in the crib, where Callie can hear her, and Bellamy and Octavia fell asleep next to Callie.
Everyone’s asleep but you and me.
You’re on the couch, grading a stack of papers. I still don’t know why. None of us know why. None of us know what happened six months ago. None of us know how the best damned neurosurgeon in the state ended up as an adjunct professor of biomedical ethics at Ark University, and I know you’ll never tell us because if it was something you wanted us to know, we’d know already.
Just another one of the mysteries Abby Griffin holds inside her. Just another thing about you I’ll never be able to ask.
Like why that doctor looked at me the way he looked at me when we sat across from each other at dinner. Like why he looked at me the way he looked at me when I came by the next night for your things.
Like what in God’s name he did to make you break his nose.
There are so many things I don’t know about you, Abigail Griffin. So many things I’ll never understand.
But there are other things.
Things you think I don’t know, but I do.
I’m not sure why I’m writing this down. Is it tempting fate for a healthy thirty-three-year-old man in the middle of revising his will – oh, don’t worry, we’ll get to that in a second, I’d imagine you’re still pretty pissed at me – to write a letter that will probably go nowhere? Or is it good? Maybe it’s good. Maybe it will exorcise the ghosts, at least a little, if I say this just once – here, on paper, in an envelope that will be sealed and sent to my lawyer and locked in a metal box and only taken out if, and only if, you outlive first Callie, and then me. Maybe if I say it here, where it can’t hurt anybody, it will make things easier.
My father was not a good man. That’s the first, most important thing to say. He was a very bad husband, and he was a very bad father. And he had two sons. And those sons watched him, and they learned, and they said to themselves – and to each other – “I will never become that man.” Marcus took a different road, Marcus decided the best way to avoid the risk of letting anyone down was never to get close enough for anyone to depend on you. (Which, frankly, is stupid. But we’re not quite up to the Marcus part of this letter yet – please hold all questions until the end of class, thank you.) But I always knew. I knew I wanted to be a dad. I knew I wanted to be a husband. I knew that I could take all the lessons I learned from watching my mother survive and watching who my father became and I could run so fast and so far in the opposite direction that I could build a family out of all the love my dad never gave to us. And when I met Callie, I knew. I knew that very second. It was just there. Right away. She was it. She was always it. There it is, I thought. I did it. I broke the cycle. I fell in love with an amazing woman with this amazing family and we had amazing children and I loved all of you so much it was like that love went back in time to the scared little kid I used to be and it healed all those broken things inside him. I thought I’d won, you know? I thought I’d done everything right.
That’s why I never saw you coming.
When I told Callie I wanted to revise the will to include Marcus, she tried to talk me out of it. “That’s ridiculous,” she said. “You can’t saddle Abby with a man she hardly knows for the rest of her life. What if she gets married?” And maybe you’ll think I’m an idiot – hell, maybe I am – but I think that’s the first moment I knew. I mean really, really knew. Because it did something to me, it felt like a punch in the stomach.
What if she gets married?
What if one day, a guy comes along, a really great guy, and he gets to be the one that you let inside all those locked rooms full of all your mysteries and secrets? What if this precarious little balance we have right now is thrown off-kilter because there’s a man in your life who isn’t me? A man you love, a man who loves you back, a man who might even come close to deserving you?
I’ve never hated a hypothetical person so much in all of my life.
Jesus fucking Christ, I thought. What if she gets married? And I’m so stupid, I’m the stupidest person who’s ever lived, because really and truly, Abigail, until I saw you in my mind in your white dress walking down the aisle with your eyes full of happy tears for some other man – I didn’t know. I didn’t know what this was.
Because I didn’t have to know. It was so easy not to, when it was always just us. The three of us. You didn’t belong to anybody, which meant I was free, just a little bit, to think of you as mine. Or at least, there wasn’t another man with a better claim on you. That’s a horrible way of putting it, but it’s the truth. I was the man in your life. I liked that. I needed it. I didn’t know how afraid I was of losing it - of some other man being the one who broke through your walls and into your heart.
You’re tapping the edge of your pen against your bottom lip right now as you turn pages. Do you know that you do that when you’re concentrating? Do you know how hard it is for me right now to stop staring at your mouth and thinking the things about it that I'm thinking?
I can’t believe I’m writing these things down, with you so close to me that I can hear your breathing. I think this may be the stupidest, most dangerous thing I’ve ever done. But I’m in too far, and I can’t stop, and it feels so good to say this, even though maybe – hopefully – you’ll never get this letter. I don’t want to be dead. I don’t want Callie to be dead. I don’t want this letter ever to make its way out of that locked metal box. But if the worst happens, then David Miller is going to put a new will into your hands that you’ve never seen before and you’re going to want to know why.
I know you. I don’t think I’ve ever been wrong about you. And you’re going to think I stuck you with Marcus because I don’t think you can do this on your own. Which is ridiculous. You’re the only person in the whole world I do trust to handle this on your own.
I just don’t want you to have to.
I’m not an adventurous guy, not really. I’m not a risk-taker. I’m not like Marcus, with his skydiving and his high-stakes real estate deals and his motorcycles. I’m not the kind of person this was ever supposed to happen to. I’m just a boring, vanilla dad who mows the lawn and carves the Thanksgiving turkey and drives his kids to school and never, ever, in a hundred years, would have thought it was possible he could love two women at the same time.
Who could possibly have seen that coming? Who would have a contingency plan for that?
You’re reaching up to fix your hair, it’s coming undone from its knot. I love your hair like that. It makes you look softer, somehow. Less stern. More human. I like that it’s a side of you that only the people in this house get to see. Our own private Abby. The one with a smile like the sun.
Do you remember that day, years and years ago, when I came over to your house at like six in the morning to install your new garbage disposal before I had to take the kids to school? (Least romantic setting ever, am I right? Installing your sister-in-law’s garbage disposal. Even the hardest-working porn script writers in the world would have a hard time making that compelling.) I didn’t want to wake you, so I just let myself in and was trying to be quiet, but I dropped the wrench and it woke you up anyway. And you came stumbling downstairs, and you were wearing this thing, this kind of flowy, flowery thing, the kind of nightgown a woman wears when she thinks there’s absolutely no chance anyone’s ever going to see her in it. And your hair was all messy around your shoulders, no makeup, no defenses up, just you. Raw and vulnerable and open and rubbing your eyes with the back of your hand, like you were only partly awake. And then you looked at me with this kind of sleepy half-smile like you weren’t sure I was really there, and I realized – she doesn’t quite know whether she’s dreaming or awake, because she’s had this dream before.
I couldn’t un-see it after that, the way you looked at me. All I could do was try not to let anyone see me looking at you the same way back. I knew even then that if I let myself fall for you I would never stop falling, and everybody would get hurt. We both love Callie too much. We both love the children. There was never a good way out of this, Abby. There was never a happy ending for you and me.
Why Marcus? That’s why. Because I know you, Abigail. I know you like I know my own self. You’ll think to yourself, “I only ever loved one man in my whole life and I lost him, only an idiot would risk that twice.” You’d close the door and you’d lock up your heart and you’d never let anyone in ever again. And I don’t just mean a man, I mean anyone. I mean Jackson and Vera. I mean the children. You’d go down into the darkness and you’d never come back.
But I know one person as stubborn as you are.
I know one man good enough, kind enough, tough enough, loving enough to deserve you. He is not, as of the present time, anywhere closer to settling down and getting married than you are – in fact, he’s sworn it off altogether. He’s too afraid of becoming our dad. He needs a kick in the ass to open himself up too. He also needs to be forced to learn how to let someone else in.
I told Callie it’s because the kids need two parents. I told Callie that it’s so one of you can stay home, that there’s a second pair of hands, that Bellamy has a guy around to teach him how to be a good man, that the girls have someone to put the fear of God into their future boyfriends. (Or girlfriends. Or whoever.) I told Callie that it was practical, that it would help Marcus feel less isolated from his remaining family, that it would alleviate the burden on Jackson and Aunt Vera (please, God, let Aunt Vera outlive us all; please, God, let Aunt Vera get her chance to take a crack at knocking some sense into Marcus).
And they’re true, all those things. They really are.
But they’re not the reason.
I chose Marcus because I don’t want you to live the rest of your life without letting yourself love someone who is free to love you back. Free in a way I never was. I know my brother. He’s going to fall for you in ten seconds flat, though he’ll probably be able to convince both of you for a fairly long time that he hates your living, breathing guts. Oh, the fights you’ll have. (Don’t worry, though, he’ll never win. I’d back you against Marcus Kane anytime.)
You have the most extraordinary heart of anyone I’ve ever known in my life, Abby, but the reason you’re unhappy is that you’ve never had anywhere for that love to go. You could be the fiercest, most heroic mama-bear warrior woman the world has ever seen, but you’re so terrified of failing your hypothetical future children that you think you don’t want any. And you could be the most earth-shattering, heart-smashing love of a man’s life, but you’re afraid once you open that door you’ll never be able to get it closed again. And so here you are, thirty-four years old, one of the two most beautiful women I’ve ever seen in my life, and you’re spending a Friday night grading papers on your sister’s couch while her husband sits fifteen feet away from you and pretends like he’s doing his taxes.
I don’t want my children growing up surrounded by fear and loneliness. I don't want them to learn the lesson that love only comes once. I don't want them to believe you can never start over.
I haven’t said the thing yet. I wasn’t sure, when I started this letter, if I would, and I’m still not sure now. It feels perilous, somehow, to make those words conscious when you’re sitting so close to me. What if you looked up? Would you be able to see it on my face? Would we have to endure that unspeakable moment here, in this kitchen, with my wife and two toddlers and a three-day-old baby all asleep upstairs?
Am I a monster because there’s a tiny, reckless part of me that wonders what would happen next?
Or maybe it’s a talisman, this letter. Maybe that particular suffering is one we’ll never have to endure. Maybe I’m purging something inside me by writing this, getting it out of my system, and you’ll never have to read it. Maybe we’ll all end up happy and old and fat and lazy together, living in some retirement home and golfing on the weekends and having Thanksgiving with our grandkids, and peacefully keeping our secrets locked up where nobody can get hurt. Because of course that’s how it will end. Of course it will. I can’t imagine living in a world that you’re not running. I can’t imagine an existence where you aren't my family.
But just in case the worst happens, here it is.
I’m going to say it. I have to say it. Just once. Just so I know that it’s been said. So you’ll know.
You looked up at me, just for a minute, just now. I couldn’t read the expression on your face. Was I thinking about you so hard that you could feel it? Did you know? Can you look at me and tell that I love you?
There it is. I love you, Abby. I love you. I love you. I always have. I will never stop. And I know that you love me. And if I could be two men – if I could live two lives, side-by-side, one of me would be upstairs lying beside my wife and children, holding them in my arms, and would be perfectly content. And the other would put this pen down, walk over to that couch, take that stack of midterms out of your hands, and kiss you until you didn’t know which way was up.
But I’m just one man, and I can’t say these things. I can’t even think them, ever again, once they’re sealed inside this envelope. I have to lock them up and put them away.
And so, this is the last thing I’ll say to you, before this letter goes in the envelope to disappear forever into a safe-deposit box that you’ll hopefully never, ever see.
The woman you were always meant to be has a fierce heart, and she is not afraid to love. If I die first, don’t use that as an excuse. Don’t close the door forever. Love the kids with your whole heart. Be the mother they need. And maybe – if you can – let yourself love someone else too.
Take care of my brother when I’m gone. He needs it. And please make sure my children know how very much their father loved them.
* * *
Outside, the rain crashed down in silvery sheets. The neighbors brought in their potted plants. Cars slicked by, tires hissing through puddles. The children went to school, and then came home. All around, things were happening, the world was full of movement and life and activity, full of color and light and sound.
But Abby heard nothing.
She did not hear Bellamy and Octavia in the back yard shouting for the cat. She did not hear Clarke stand at her doorway and ask about dinner. She lay on the bed, motionless, cold, still, inside the empty space where Jake Griffin used to be, and she felt her entire world shrink down to the size of the piece of paper in her hand. She lay her head down on the pillow and she closed her eyes, and the Dark Thing inside her flexed its muscles and snapped free of its restraints and surged triumphantly forth, wrapping Abby in a heavy gray fog of silent despair, bending its shadowy head to her ear where it lay on Jake's pillow, and murmuring, It was all a dream. The snow, the hope, the man who might have loved you. None of that was real. Only this is real, Abigail.
Jake is dead, and you are alone, and you will be alone forever.
Chapter 22: The Grounder Alliance
That was Tuesday.
Aunt Abby did not leave her bed at all that day, or the next. Bellamy gave everyone Cheerios for dinner that night, and breakfast the next morning. They put themselves to bed, and walked themselves to the carpool pickup, and rode home after school with Indra. (“She’s sick,” Bellamy explained when Indra asked where their aunt was. Octavia worried that this was a little bit of a lie, because she didn’t look sick, she just looked like she wasn't really there; but then again, she had spent the whole day in bed, which was a thing people did when they were sick, so Bellamy felt confident he had plausible deniability if it came up again later.)
Octavia tiptoed upstairs to check on Aunt Abby and returned back downstairs to report.
“She’s still on top of the bed in all her clothes,” she said as Bellamy pulled string cheese out of the fridge to give them all an after-school snack. “I said ‘Hi Aunt Abby’ and she didn’t move, but she didn’t look asleep.”
“Where is Bug?” asked Clarke suddenly, and Octavia and Bellamy looked at each other guiltily. They had forgotten about the cat.
Bug’s food bowl was still untouched, which meant that he hadn’t come in since breakfast yesterday. And he was only a little kitten, and he hated the rain, which had kept up steadily overnight and into the next day. So now they had two problems.
Clarke spent most of the afternoon and evening with her face pressed up against the glass of the French doors, her sharp little eyes scanning all the nooks and crannies in the shrubbery where Bug liked to hide, and Bellamy even went outside with his umbrella to call for him again. But by the time they had done their homework and eaten another bowl of Cheerios apiece and put on their pajamas, Bug had still not returned to the porch. He wasn’t under the rhododendron bushes, and they couldn’t hear him yowling anywhere.
On Thursday, Bellamy tried again, without success, to rouse Aunt Abby before they left for school.
“Aunt Abby, are you okay?” he said. She mumbled something inaudible in reply. “Aunt Abby, do you know what day it is?” But she shook her head and didn’t move from the bed. And there was something strange in the energy of the room, something Bellamy couldn’t identify or name, that made both him and Octavia afraid to actually cross the threshold and set foot inside the room. They would only call to her from the doorway, but neither one of them could bring themselves to go in. There was something sinister and dark wrapped around her that made it impossible for them to get too close.
Thursday was the beginning of the weekend; school was closed Friday for teacher inservices, which meant one less day that Bellamy would have to deflect questions from Indra about Aunt Abby. When they returned home from school Thursday afternoon, there had still been no change. And, just as worryingly, there was still no sign of Bug.
Something would have to be done.
Dolphin called an emergency conference in the kitchen as they ate their after-school snacks. None of the children knew what was written on that little envelope that lay on the bedspread next to Aunt Abby that had made her so sad, but they knew it must have been something big. “Aunt Abby doesn’t cry,” said Octavia. “Not really. Something bad must have happened.” Clarke’s eyes grew wide and worried.
“If it was a Bad Thing, she would tell us,” Bellamy assured them confidently. “This isn’t like before. She is just sad about something. But we don’t need to be scared.”
“Maybe it’s about Uncle Marcus,” suggested Octavia. Bellamy’s face darkened slightly, and his jaw clenched. He was still mad at Uncle Marcus. None of this would have happened if he had kept his promise, and stayed.
But thinking about one uncle redirected their thoughts to the other one, which raised an important point that they felt they needed to consider. Namely – should another grownup be told that their cat had gone missing and Aunt Abby had not gotten out of bed for three days?
Here they arrived at some disagreement. Bellamy was all for asking Uncle Jackson or Aunt Vera to come over and help them look for the cat, which was the kind of emergency that definitely required a grownup. But there was only one grownup in the house right now, and she wouldn’t get out of bed, and there was no way for them to conceal that fact from Aunt Vera once she was actually here. Octavia thought Aunt Vera should be told anyway. “We can’t just babysit ourselves forever,” she pointed out to Bellamy. “What if we have to go to the grocery store? We need a grownup.”
“I want Bug,” whispered Clarke plaintively, and Bellamy squeezed her hand.
“We’re gonna find him,” he said. “I promise.”
“We need to tell a grownup,” Octavia insisted again. “We need Aunt Vera.”
“But what if Aunt Vera says Aunt Abby can’t take care of us anymore?” said Bellamy, finally voicing the fear that had been bubbling up inside him the whole time, and it silenced Octavia thoroughly. “She’s supposed to take care of us and she’s not doing it,” he said. “She’ll get in trouble with Aunt Vera.”
“What about if we call Uncle Jackson?”
Bellamy shook his head. “He’ll tell,” he said. “And then they will take us away and say that Aunt Abby is doing a bad job. She got in big trouble with Aunt Vera before. About . . . you know, The Thing.” Octavia nodded sagely.
“I don’t want to go live at Aunt Vera’s,” said Octavia. “It’s small. And Uncle Jackson’s house smells like boy. I like it here. Plus if we go away, Bug will never find us.”
“So we can’t tell Aunt Vera and Uncle Jackson,” said Bellamy. Octavia and Dolphin nodded their agreement as Clarke got up again and wandered over to look out the window for Bug.
“We can call Uncle Marcus,” suggested Octavia. “He won’t get Aunt Abby in trouble. He won’t call Aunt Vera.” But Bellamy shook his head vehemently.
“He said he was going to stay,” Bellamy said, with a dark edge in his voice. “He promised. He was nice. He was going to be my friend. And then he left and he didn’t say goodbye or anything. Plus Aunt Abby didn’t get sad until he went away. This is his fault.”
“Nuh-uh, she wasn’t sad about Uncle Marcus, she was sad about the mail.”
“She was extra sad about the mail,” Bellamy corrected, “but she was sad before. Besides, Uncle Marcus can’t help with the cat. He’s in New York. He can’t do anything.”
“Yeah,” said Octavia glumly. “I guess you’re right.”
They sat in silence, listening to the rain, watching worriedly as Clarke pressed her nose against the glass and waited for her lost cat to come home.
Then – just in time – Dolphin had an idea.
It was time, they decided, to call in the cavalry.
* * *
Lincoln and Lexa were there in minutes.
Bellamy had lied just a little bit to their mom when he called and said that Aunt Abby had told him it was okay if the Grounders came over for play time. He felt a little bit guilty, but then reasoned that Aunt Abby would have said it was okay, probably, if she wasn't so sad right now, so really it was only kind of a lie. And anyway, this was a kitten emergency.
The children sat in a conspiratorial circle in the playroom to discuss what was to be done. “Dolphin says that Bug is lost,” said Octavia, calling the council to order. “We have to go find him.”
“It’s raining,” said Lexa dubiously, looking out the window. “I don't want to get wet. I already got wet today.”
“Maybe he likes the rain,” suggested Lincoln hopefully. “Maybe he’s just fine.”
“Cats don’t like water,” said Bellamy. “Even baths.”
“Bug hates water especially,” said Octavia. “He's probably really unhappy.”
“And lost,” said Bellamy. “What if he got through the fence and can't find his way home because it's rainy and he can't see?”
“Cats have good eyesight,” said Lincoln. “They told us in school.”
“Not in the rain,” Octavia rolled her eyes.
“He’ll be okay, Octavia,” said Lincoln, trying to make her feel better. “Bug is a smart cat.”
“Not really,” said Clarke a little dubiously. She felt a twinge of guilt at speaking ill of Bug, who was snuggly and soft and fun to chase around. He was nice, and she loved him more than anybody in the world except her family and Princess. And Uncle Marcus had given Bug to them which made him extra-special, especially since Uncle Marcus himself was now gone. But the brutal truth was that Bug really wasn’t all that bright. Aunt Abby and Uncle Jackson had suffered many an afternoon in trying to extricate his head from some tiny enclosed space, like the narrow opening underneath the dishwasher, or the space between the sofa and the wall, which always seemed far too small to accommodate a cat head. And Bug was sometimes too dumb to know he was being rescued; he’d yowl and mew and whine until someone came to find him and said, “Oh my goodness, Bug, how did you get stuck in there?” and then try to carefully squeeze him out. But he would scratch and claw sometimes, as if to say, “Hey! Leave me alone! I’ve got this under control, I don’t need your help.” By the time Aunt Abby pried him loose, her hand would be covered in scratches and she always said to him, in an irritated voice as though he spoke Person and they were having a conversation, "You know, one of these days I'm just going to leave you there."
“Bug is pretty dumb,” agreed Bellamy, who was thinking the same thing as Clarke. “He might get washed away by tomorrow. We can’t wait.” Bellamy had thought about making some flyers – had even gotten out his paper and the good markers – but decided there was no point if they’d just get smeared in the rain. He wasn’t sure he could draw a very accurate portrait of Bug anyway, though he did know how to write “LOST CAT.”
“Okay,” conceded Lincoln. “But we need a grownup.”
They all looked at each other in silent agreement.
Something would have to be done with Aunt Abby.
It was time.
Clarke made her way down the hall to the bedroom that used to be her parents’, where Aunt Abby was lying on top of the covers with all her clothes still on, her back to the door, curled up in a little ball.
Clarke did not do what Octavia and Bellamy had done. She did not stand in the doorway and fruitlessly call her aunt’s name. In fact, she didn’t say anything. She just climbed up on the bed and crawled, a little awkwardly, over her aunt’s body – kicking her in the abdomen once or twice with clumsy little feet – until she was on the other side of Aunt Abby and could look at her face.
Aunt Abby’s mouth formed the word “Clarke,” though no sound came out. But she was looking at Clarke. She could see her. She had remembered that she was not all by herself.
Clarke had brought Princess as backup, and once she saw the glazed-over fog inside Aunt Abby’s eyes begin to slowly clear a little bit, she nuzzled Princess up against Aunt Abby’s neck, and picked up her aunt’s limp arms to wrap them around the cat’s soft white fur. Then she put her own arms around her aunt’s neck too. They didn’t say anything for a long time. Clarke could see that she was crying a little bit. So Clarke and Princess hugged her tight and let her get on with it.
Sometimes you needed to cry and then snuggle with something soft and then get a hug. It worked on Clarke, when she was sad. Maybe it would work on Aunt Abby.
Because Clarke had figured out something that Bellamy and Octavia hadn’t grasped yet. Aunt Abby said things sometimes that sounded mean or angry or scary, but she never meant them that way. Aunt Abby was just very, very, very sad. She was sad about Mommy and Daddy, just like they were, but she had also been sad before that. Aunt Abby had always been sad.
But right now, Clarke had to help her not be the kind of sad that lays in a bed for three days anymore. She had to help her be the kind of sad that can still get up and do things.
After a long pause, Clarke tapped her aunt on the shoulder. “Aunt Abby,” she whispered. “Dolphin says that Bug is lost. We have to go find him.”
“It’s pouring rain,” said Aunt Abby dully, the first real words she’d spoken in days, which heartened Clarke considerably. This felt like progress. “We can go look for him in the morning.”
“No, now,” Clarke insisted. “He has been lost for a long time. He will be wet and cold and scared. Something bad might happen.”
“He’ll be fine,” said Aunt Abby, and Clarke began to worry she still was not really getting it. She tried again, a little more forcefully this time.
“We have to go find him before something bad happens,” she urged her aunt. “Before the bad things find him.”
“What bad things?”
“Like the one that took Mommy and Daddy,” she explained, and Aunt Abby froze.
Then she sat up.
For the first time in three days, Aunt Abby came back to the world.
“Clarke,” she said, looking down at her with her Super Worried Grownup face. “Clarke, honey, nothing like that is – Jesus. Okay. Honey, it’s going to be okay. Do you hear me?” She wrapped her arms around Clarke then and hugged her, tighter than she’d ever hugged Clarke in her life. Surprised, but pleased, Clarke wrapped her little arms around Aunt Abby and hugged her back.
“Please come help us,” said Clarke. “Please come make it better.”
“It’s going to be okay,” whispered Aunt Abby, her voice slowly beginning to return to something that sounded more like normal. “I promise. I’m here, baby. I’m right here. I’m sorry I went away, but I’m right here. And we’re going to be okay.”
Then the miracle happened.
Aunt Abby set down the piece of paper she had been holding for three days. She got out of bed. She pulled her tangled, messy, unwashed hair into a neat braid. She changed into clean clothes. Then she took Clarke by the hand and she marched into the twins’ bedroom, startling the life out of everyone inside it.
“Raincoats and flashlights, everyone,” she said firmly. “Lincoln, does your mother know you’re here?” He and Lexa both nodded. “Good,” she said. “Then you can come along and help. We’re on a mission.”
“Are we going to go rescue Bug?” asked Octavia, and Abby nodded.
“Yes,” she said. “We’re going to go rescue Bug.”
* * *
God, the rain.
The second they stepped off the shelter of the porch, Abby could barely see. The hood of Callie's raincoat, which she had grabbed from the coat closet, did nothing but funnel a never-ending river of water down over the bill and in front of her face, as if she were looking out from behind a waterfall. So she gave up on the hood and let the rain soak through her hair and the collar of her shirt. The children were bundled up in coats, galoshes and hats, even the Grounders; Indra had forced them to put on all their rain gear to walk down the street, so they had arrived prepared.
Octavia had tucked several blankets inside her coat, explaining to Abby that Bug would need to be warmed up when they found him, and what if he was far away and it was a long walk back? Abby was impressed at this level of planning. The others were too, so much so that no one commented on the comical appearance of her giant potbelly created by the folded blankets.
Once outside, standing on the darkening sidewalk in the sheets of rain, Abby realized that she had no clear plan. Looked at logically from the outside, the chances of them finding the cat were slim. There were thousands of places within three day's walk for a cat in which Bug could have gotten his head stuck, and the odds that the tiny idiot was still alive weren't actually all that great. And the thought of having to explain another loss to these children made her feel ill.
Out of nowhere, Abby suddenly, nonsensically, remembered something Jackson had once told her about turkeys. Most of the turkeys in the country that were raised for meat were some breed that was genetically modified to be pretty much too stupid to live, he said; they couldn't even mate on their own, they all had to be inseminated. He'd read an article once where a farmer watched several of his turkeys drown just from looking up at the rain. No idea what was happening to them. No idea what to do when water started falling from the sky, so it just filled up their lungs and they drowned. Too stupid to live.
But sometimes it wasn't your fault, it wasn't stupidity, another voice in her head corrected her. What if the turkey just didn't know what rain was? It wasn't his fault that all his instincts had been bred out of him. And weather was unpredictable. It could kill turkeys, or spook and confuse cats, or cause cars to crash, and these things couldn't always be helped, sometimes they were just accidents, just things that happened, things that nobody could ever have stopped no matter how hard they tried.
But you owed it to the cluster of tiny children looking at you expectantly, needing reassurance and direction, to keep trying to stop them anyway.
She had seen it in Clarke's eyes, back there in the bedroom, had seen it in a flash, lit up in her mind as though illuminated by the lightning outside. The children were terrified. There were wounds deep below the surface that she couldn’t see. Marcus had helped keep the Bad Things at bay while he was in the house – not just for the children, but for her too. And now he was gone, maybe forever. Another person snatched away with no warning. God, why hadn’t she thought about that? Why hadn’t she thought about what it would do to the children to send him away, for her own selfish reasons? She had told herself she was doing it for them, but that was a lie and everyone knew it. She had sent Marcus away because he made everything too painful for her.
And now, the damn cat. The damn moron bonehead cat who could probably come up with seventeen new and ingenious ways to die of sheer cat stupidity. Clarke had come to her in pleading desperation. Clarke had hoped that maybe, just maybe, after losing first her parents and then her uncle, that maybe this time, maybe, maybe, maybe, Aunt Abby could make it right.
Well. Maybe she could, and maybe she couldn’t. But goddammit, this time she was going to try.
“Okay, Clarke, you're with me,” said Abby decisively. “Lincoln, hold your sister’s hand. Octavia and Bellamy, you two stick together. Everybody be extra careful crossing the street and nobody go further than I can see you, okay?” They nodded, serious and adult. Thus the search began.
They spread out on opposite sides of the street, calling Bug's name and looking under streaming wet bushes, shining the flashlights under porches, knocking on doors. The sky got darker and darker. The lightning became more terrifying and the thunder louder. “Bug! Bug! Where are you, Bug?” called Octavia, her voice high-pitched and quavering. But no answering feline yowl came back to her.
Nearly an hour later, after they had sent the Grounders home for dinner, everyone was beginning to crack. Abby stood up from her crouched position, shining a light under the porch stairs of a large house five or six blocks from their own, and turned to look at the children. Octavia’s face was white and calm, determined, a girl on a mission. But Bellamy was struggling. Bellamy was afraid this was a loss he could not protect his sisters from, and Abby could see him blaming himself for his failure to keep the bad things away. She could see his lip beginning to tremble. And then Octavia reached out and took his hand, as though she just knew, and instantly everything was okay again, and at that moment Abby loved them so fiercely that she thought her heart would burst.
She watched them for a long moment until she felt Clarke tug at her hand.
“Let's go check in with the twins,” she said, wondering hopelessly how much longer they would wander around the neighborhood before they gave up. What should she say? How could she possibly explain it to these tiny, beautiful creatures without making them look at her, again, as if she was somehow responsible for taking away everything they loved? For the love of God, how many times was she going to have to say it? She wasn't cut out for this. She didn’t have that thing that women like Callie and Aunt Vera had, that gentle, reassurance. The ability to explain to children what death meant, to calm them out of tears when they skinned their knee, to say, “Let's go home and make cocoa and say prayers for Bug and come back to look for him in the morning when it's dry.” Abby couldn't do that, she was blunt and awkward and she used words they didn’t understand and she frightened them. They wanted Uncle Marcus and their parents and Bug, and Abby was no substitute for any of them.
She couldn't fix this. Uncle Marcus gave them a cat, and then left with no goodbyes, and now the cat was gone too, the cat wasn't coming back either, she couldn't make this right. All she could do was the only thing she ever did - try her hardest to tell them the truth.
All she could do was get out of bed, put on a raincoat, pick up a flashlight, and do the best that she could.
“Octavia! Bellamy! Come over here!”
They dropped what they were doing and scurried across the street hand-in-hand. “Did you find him? Did you find him?” hollered Bellamy as he ran.
“What? No, honey, I didn't find him. Listen. Sit down.” The house behind them had a set of low concrete steps rising up from the sidewalk. Abby, soaked through so thoroughly that she had stopped noticing it, sat down with Clarke on her lap, and motioned the twins to sit down next to her.
“You guys, I think . . .”
She stopped. Their big shining eyes were expectant and hopeful. They thought she had an idea. They were depending on her to fix this. The thought of how their faces would change when she said what she was about to say squeezed her heart like a cold hand, and she suddenly, inexplicably, burst into tears.
The children stared. They had never seen Aunt Abby cry – like really, truly cry. Secretly, each of them had thought that maybe she didn't know how. This was new territory. It was disorienting.
Clarke began to cry first in response, a gentle whimper and then, when Abby kept crying, a full-throated wail that brought tears to her sister’s eyes as well, and then eventually to Bellamy’s. Soon they were huddled together, clutching Abby, who sobbed and sobbed as though her heart would break, sobbed at the horrid brutal unfairness of a world that insisted on taking everything from these children, these sweet tiny people who hadn't done anything to deserve what had happened to them, and it was her fault, at least a little, because some of this she could have prevented, not all of it but some, if she had been thinking about anything besides herself.
There was no telling how long they sat there, as the rain crashed down in sheets. They had ceased to notice the thunder and lightning, and were barely conscious of being wet and cold. The hot tears mixed on their cheeks with cold raindrops as they clung to each other, shaking with sobs of desolation.
The stupid, stupid cat. Abby had been so careful, she had made rules and stuck by them so nothing could go wrong – and the whole house of cards had come tumbling down because of the damn cat. If it wasn't so awful it would be funny. But it wasn't funny, because nothing and no one was safe. You could keep the night light on, you could organize the books by height and enforce bedtimes and serve broccoli, you could line up stuffed animals in rows to keep watch over you, you could do all those things and still someday, something would get past those walls. Like a thief in the night. Like a dumb-ass cat forever getting his head stuck under the refrigerator. Like a car accident. Like a cocky New Yorker with shaggy black hair who saw all the hidden things nobody was supposed to see, and then said them out loud. Something would break in and get through your defenses and then you'd get hurt again. And again, and again.
No one was safe in this world, not ever. That was the only lesson Abby felt competent to provide to these children, at this moment.
You are never safe. There is always a breach in the walls. You can never hide for long.
* * *
It was Clarke who looked up first.
Thinking about Bug, wet and lonely under a bush, shivering with cold and waiting for them to come rescue him, Clarke could not stop crying. Bug didn't like the mud, or getting his paws wet. He would be really unhappy, wherever he was. Clarke couldn't bear to think of him unhappy, burrowing into a bush for warmth, rustling around in the leaves trying to find a dry spot. Poor, nice Bug.
Suddenly she heard a rustling and looked up, hoping with great excitement that maybe he had found them. She looked down and saw a cat, but it was the wrong cat, black instead of stripey, and he bounded through the bushes for the shelter of his porch. That cat was not lost. He was by his own house and he knew where he lived. Clarke sighed and looked off in the distance, in the direction the cat had come from. Maybe he was Bug's cat friend, maybe Bug was coming over to play at the black cat's house and would see them sitting there. She watched for awhile but didn't see anything.
Then, way off down the block, through the walls of rain, she saw something moving.
Someone was coming towards them.
She poked Bellamy wordlessly and pointed. Bellamy saw and stared, and he in turn poked Octavia. They watched a rain-drenched figure holding something in its arms, head bent protectively over it, as it came nearer and nearer. The shape was only a baggy raincoat, and wet jeans until it stopped a few feet away and looked up at them.
“You idiots lose something?” said Anya, rain streaming through her hair and down her face, and they all stared, startled, at the wet, gray, unhappy bundle of fur in his arms beneath his raincoat.
“You found him, you found him!” crowed Bellamy. “He's okay!” Anya bent down and they crowded around to see.
“He was in our backyard,” said Anya. “I spotted him while we were eating dinner.” And she very carefully handed the cat to Octavia, who seized him with grateful, loving arms and snuggled him tight inside the warm blankets she had squished under her jacket. Bellamy reached in and petted the cat’s head sympathetically.
“He’s all wet,” he said. “We better get him home.”
Clarke tugged at Aunt Abby’s hand.
“Aunt Abby,” she said, puzzled, “why are you crying? Bug is okay.”
Aunt Abby shook herself slightly, as if she hadn’t quite been listening, and dashed the tears from her eyes. “Yes,” she said. “I’m sorry. I just – for a moment, I thought Anya was someone else. But yes, it’s very good news. Anya saved the day.”
“Anya saved the day! Anya saved the day!” The children took this up as a kind of chant, dancing wildly around the tall, dark-haired girl who was looking at them with a poignant combination of embarrassment, pride, annoyance, gratitude, and a valiant effort to look cool.
"Whatever, dorks," she muttered, her face deliberately expressionless, and Abby's heart fractured in two at the sound of it.
Anya was twelve, and the Griffin kids were babies, they were constantly underfoot, they were her uncool little siblings' uncool friends, and in her own home she could barely be spared to make eye contact with them. Yet she had bolted out of the house, in the middle of dinner, so fast that she hadn't even changed out of her pink sneakers (which were drenched through) into her rain boots, because she didn't want to waste another second before reuniting them with their cat. Anya did not show she cared about you with her words or her voice or the look on her face. Anya would never say, "I thought about how painful it would be if this was happening to me and I wanted to make it better." She had not said anything. She had barely refrained from eye-rolling. But she had shown up.
Anya, too, had a heart she was too proud to show in public. Anya, too, wore armor between her and the world, holding everyone at arm's length. Maybe she would grow out of it, when she wasn't twelve anymore. But Abby was in no mood, right now, to endorse another woman - even one who was really still just a girl - in the act of pretending for her own pride's sake that she didn't have any feelings.
And so she did something that astonished everyone.
She took two long strides through the crowd of happily dancing children, and she hugged Anya.
Anya resisted in surprise for a moment – the Grounders weren’t really huggers, and Abby was only just barely not a stranger, and Anya was twelve – but then after a heartbeat, she relaxed, and hugged Abby back.
“You’re their hero,” she whispered into the girl’s ear.
“It’s not a big deal,” Anya shrugged.
“It is to them,” said Abby. “And to me. You are wonderful and magnificent and you have saved us all and these children are going to love you forever." And just for a fraction of a second, Anya' arms around Abby tightened even closer. "Now go home, go get dry, and tell Lincoln and Lexa how much we appreciate their help,” Abby said, kissing the girl on the cheek and letting her go. Anya nodded, pulled the black raincoat hood that had so disconcerted Abby at first sight back up over her hair, and ran back up the street towards home.
Once she was gone, Abby let out a breath she hadn't realized she had been holding, and tried not to think about the way her heart had stopped when she had first seen the dark shape moving through the rain towards her. Anya was a foot and a half too short, at least, and she was wearing hot pink Converse. It was the mark of a desperate woman that even for a heartbeat, she had thought it might have been . . . someone else.
Get it together, Abigail, she chided herself. He’s in New York. He’s right where you sent him.
“Okay, chipmunks, let's get this cat home,” she said. “He needs to dry out. Good thinking on the blankets, Octavia.”
“I'm a brilliant genius!” Octavia yelled triumphantly, as they skipped down the street, heedless of the rain now that their cat was safe – if slightly miserable trapped inside Octavia’s coat, at the mercy of her aggressive petting.
“I was going to make flyers and put them up all around the neighborhood!” said Bellamy.
“Well, you're also a brilliant genius,” said Abby agreeably.
“Did I help too?” asked Clarke, and Abby reached down then and lifted the wet little girl into her arms.
“Oh, my baby,” she said softly. “Yes, you did. You're the one that rescued me.” Satisfied, Clarke wrapped her arms around Abby’s neck as the twins raced on ahead of them for home.
Chapter 23: Here Comes the Sun
This story began with two phones ringing, thousands of miles apart.
The end of the story begins that way too.
* * *
Abby held a latte in one hand and her cell phone in the other, checking items off her list as she pushed the shopping cart through the produce section. She had spent three days in a near-catatonic state, and the house was out of nearly everything, from toilet paper to cereal, and her own appetite – which had dwindled considerably during the month of gray fog that only Bug’s disappearance had pulled her out of – had returned with a vengeance. And the kids were home all weekend, which made this a good time to teach them how to bake something.
Indra had told Abby, way back when they first met, that part of coping with grief was to listen to the body – to eat what your body tells you it wants to eat. And Abby had emerged out the other end of her lengthy absence from the world with an irresistible craving for Callie’s plum cake.
Maybe it was time to teach the children how to make it.
Maybe Dr. Tsing was right, and left to their own devices, Jake and Callie Griffin would slowly fade from their children’s memories over the decades to come. But Abby could push back against that as hard as she could. She could tell stories about her childhood with their mother, instead of shrinking back in fear from hearing her name spoken aloud. She could bring the photo albums back down from the attic. She could teach them all how to make a flawless plum cake so that when they were fifty years old and had friends over for dinner and pulled the golden, sugar-crusted masterpiece out of the oven, oozing indigo juice, and everyone said, “That looks amazing,” they could say, “It was my mother’s recipe,” and just for a moment Callie would be right beside them.
She could not bring their parents back.
But she could still, in her own way, keep them alive.
And so she heaped a bag of the biggest, juiciest plums she could find into the bottom of the shopping cart and set off down the next aisle when her phone rang.
“This is Dr. Griffin,” she said, tucking the phone between her ear and her shoulder as she steered.
“Don’t hang up,” said the voice of Raven Reyes on the other end of the phone, and Abby was so startled she almost spilled her coffee all over the Whole Foods floor.
“What – how did you get this number?”
“Marcus is dumb about passwords,” said Raven dismissively, as if this fact was of no importance whatsoever. “Listen. We need to talk.”
“Is he okay?” Abby asked, unable to keep the rising note of panic out of her voice. “Did something happen?”
“Nothing happened,” said Raven. “Not like what you’re thinking. I mean he wasn’t like hit by a train or got cancer or something.”
“Well, that’s a relief.”
“But he’s not okay,” Raven went on as if Abby hadn’t spoken. “I’ve known him for five years. He’s not okay. He misses you.”
“I don’t know what to do with that.”
“I didn’t have sex with him while I was in Portland, by the way.”
“I wanted to make sure you knew that. And we haven’t done anything since.”
“Raven, I’m not having this conversation with you in the pet food aisle of a Whole Foods.”
“Oh, yeah,” said Raven, temporarily distracted, “how’s the cat?”
“Impossible,” said Abby. “But cute.”
“Well, you know what they say,” said Raven. “Pets resemble their owners.”
“Was that about me, or him?”
“If the shoe fits – “
“Raven, you hacked into Marcus’ phone to get my number, you must have had a reason besides just a new audience for all your sass.”
“I mean, you can hardly call it ‘hacking’ when he uses the same pin for everything, I could clean out his checking account if I wanted to – “
“He’s miserable without you, Abby,” she said abruptly, and Abby stopped short, her cart in the middle of the aisle, oblivious to the irritated shoppers trying to navigate around her. “He’s a wreck. He misses those kids like crazy. He can’t stop talking about them. And he hasn’t said anything about you at all, which is how I know he misses you even worse.”
“I’m not doing this with you right now.”
“I care about him too, Abby. And I’m worried. He’s never been like this before.”
“Look, Raven, you seem like a nice girl – “
“I’m legitimately impressed at how sincere that sounded, go on – “
“You seem like a somewhat nice girl,” Abby amended dryly, and Raven laughed, tricking an unexpected fraction of a smile out of Abby too. “And while I am middle-aged and old-fashioned and will admit that I don’t quite have a handle on your relationship with Marcus in all its glorious modern complexity, I know he’s important to you. And you want him to be happy. But what happened between him and me is between him and me.”
“He’s in love with you, Abby,” said Raven, and her matter-of-fact words sent a shockwave through Abby’s body.
“He’s in love with you,” she said again, more firmly. “He wants to be with you. He wants to be with those children.”
“I wanted that too, Raven,” she said, trying hard to keep her voice from wavering, trying hard not to be the crazy woman who bursts into tears in the middle of a Whole Foods. “We all wanted that. But it’s just too hard. Everything’s too hard.”
“You love him, he loves you, you both love the kids,” said Raven impatiently. “I’m not seeing the downside here.”
“You sound like Jake,” said Abby before she could stop herself.
“He got a letter from him,” said Raven, “isn’t that weird?”
“Yeah. From the lawyer, I think. There was a letter in the safe-deposit box for him with Jake’s will and stuff. He wouldn’t tell me what it said but I couldn’t get him to answer his phone for like three days after he got it. I finally had to just go over there and bang on his door. He was a mess. I stayed around for a couple days to make him feel better. Not with sex,” she assured Abby again. “Just with, like, takeout dim sum and Vin Diesel movies.”
“Does he know you have my number?” asked Abby. “Does he know you called me?”
“What, am I an idiot?” snorted Raven. “Of course he doesn’t. He would have told me to mind my own business. He would have said the same thing you said. Only he would have said it and then hit me on the head with a rolled-up newspaper like I was a bad dog.”
Against her will, Abby burst out laughing. Raven laughed too.
“I can’t believe I’m talking to you and enjoying it.”
“I’m very lovable,” said Raven. “You’ll see when you get to know me a little better.”
“I wanted so badly to hate you,” said Abby, in a thoughtful voice. “I’m genuinely surprised that I don’t.”
“It was a terrible first impression,” admitted Raven. “I had no idea that you didn’t know. A sane, non-stupid person would have told you that I was in town and then texted you from the bar to say ‘I'm drunk as a skunk, Raven’s driving me home and then crashing on the couch.’”
“A sane person might have,” said Abby. “But not a person who was that pissed at me.”
“I felt awful,” Raven said frankly. “I’m not the kind of woman who would ever do that to another woman. Not ever. I don’t have a lot of rules, but that’s one of them.”
“Well, I appreciate that. But truly, Raven, there’s nothing between me and Marcus that would get in the way of – I mean, you two – if you –“
“Look,” Raven said. “Marcus is one of my best friends. We’ve known each other for years. And every once in awhile, when neither of us is entangled with anybody else, we’ll engage in some casual, uncomplicated messing-around with each other. It’s light. It’s easy. But he’s not my boyfriend. It’s not a relationship. He’s in love with you, Abby. Like stupid, crazy, over-the-moon, terrible-Lifetime-movie in love with you. And like I said – I’m not the kind of woman that would ever do that to another woman.”
There was a noise in the background, and Abby heard the sound of men’s voices shouting. Raven turned away from the phone and yelled something in Spanish. “I have to go,” she said. “I’m the only person in this whole damn shop who knows anything about European cars and if Carlo so much as lays a finger on this Citroën Picasso it’s going to literally crumble into metal shavings right in front of me.”
“Well, it was nice talking to you,” said Abby. “Surprisingly.”
“Call him, Abby.”
“You know I can’t do that.”
“Call him. Don’t fuck this up. You may both be stubborn idiots but you deserve to be happy.” Then there was a click, and she was gone.
* * *
The second phone rang and rang and rang and went unanswered - just like it had before.
This time, Marcus was alone, and missed the call while he was in the shower. The message was very short, and entirely devastating, and he sat down on the bed as water trailed down from his damp hair onto his bare shoulders and he listened to it over and over and over again.
This was all it said.
“I only asked one thing of you,” said Aunt Vera’s voice, without greeting or preamble. “Just one thing. Either come and stay, or don’t come at all. That was all I asked. I gave you an out, and you did not take it. Instead, you are one more person that my children thought they could love and rely on, who left them.” There was a pause. “All my children, Marcus. Not just the little ones.” Another pause. “Your father is dead, Marcus, he’s been dead for years. You can stop running from shadows now. You can actually have a family. If you want one.” She gave a sigh that was somehow both exasperated and fond at the same time. “Call me when you’re done being an idiot, my darling,” she said, and hung up.
* * *
“Dr. Griffin,” said Dr. Tsing, looking up from her desk. “Have a seat.”
Abby didn’t. She hovered in the doorway, a little uncertainly, holding her coat tightly around her as if for protection. Dr. Tsing didn’t comment.
“Thank you for making the time to see me,” said Abby, still standing
“What can I do for you?”
“I think I need a therapist,” said Abby, blurting it out before she could stop herself.
Whatever Dr. Tsing had expected her to say, this was not it.
She gave Abby a long, appraising look. “You realize I work with children,” she said finally. “I don’t actually treat adults.”
“I got a letter from Jake Griffin,” said Abby. “From the lawyer. It was with the will. I got it last week. And I didn’t leave my bed for three days. The kids were feeding themselves Cheerios for dinner. I left them alone for three days because I was crying in bed. Something terrible could have happened. I could have let something terrible happen. I'm doing the best I can, but I'm falling apart here, and I don't know who else to talk to."
There was a pause. Then, “I’m going to ask you what will sound like a horribly invasive question,” said Dr. Tsing, “but –“
“Yes,” said Abby bluntly, before she could finish. “Yes. I was in love with him.”
Dr. Tsing looked at Abby. Abby looked back at her.
“You’d better sit down,” she finally said. “And start from the beginning.”
And Abby did.
An hour and a half later, when she had finished giving Dr. Tsing a reasonably comprehensive overview of the whole story – from the moment she met Jake Griffin until last week when Bug ran away and she had finally dragged herself out of bed - she fell silent, and waited for the axe to fall. Waited for the therapist to be horrified. Waited for a comment about how it was certainly clear now why the children were such a mess. Waited for judgment.
“My God,” she said. “You deserve a medal.”
Abby stared. “What are you talking about?”
“You’re saying to me,” said Dr. Tsing, in her marvelously, refreshingly unsentimental voice, “that for over a decade you were in love with Jake Griffin – who was also in love with you – while he was married to your sister, who he also loved. And that for all that time, despite being each other’s closest family and seeing each other practically every week, neither one of you, ever, even once, did or said a single inappropriate thing. And when you finally realized that you had feelings for him, and that you were being emotionally unfaithful to the man you were seeing, you ended the relationship immediately; yet you never put the burden of knowing the reason why you ended it onto Jake, because it would only cause him more pain. In fact, both of you worked yourselves to the point of exhaustion to place your own personal desires – which you knew you could not act on without hurting people you cared about – on the back burner, for the good of the family. Even though it’s clear, from everything you’re saying, that you loved this man more than you had ever loved anybody before in your life. Do I have that all correct?”
“Jake put his feelings for you aside to be a good husband and father,” she said. “You put aside yours for him to be a good sister and aunt. But you fell in love. That’s not against the law, Abby. That’s not something you can control. We don’t choose who we fall in love with.” She sat back in the chair and regarded Abby with cool, appraising eyes. “Look,” she said. “If you want to, you certainly can continue punishing yourself for the rest of your life for not being able to legislate your own feelings. For not being able to make your emotions follow orders. You can do that. If you want to. You can keep beating yourself up about that forever. It’s a good one, forbidden love. It’s an ever-replenishing well of guilt. You’ll never run out of new material. So sure. Go ahead. You can keep telling yourself you’re a terrible sister, a terrible aunt, a terrible caretaker, a terrible person. You can do that. But personally, I don’t think that serves you. I think it’s time to consider what it might be like to take that weight off your back and set it down and walk away from it. Because the problem isn’t just that it’s a false narrative, Abby, the problem is that it’s getting in the way. The reason that you have struggled to help the children navigate their grieving process is that you have not given yourself permission to navigate your own. All of it.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” said Abby, something in Dr. Tsing’s voice making her suddenly uncomfortable.
“You’re tangled in a knot composed of many different kinds of grief,” said Dr. Tsing. “There’s how much you miss your sister, how much you miss Jake. There’s your grief for their loss as the axis of your family. There’s the children’s grief, and Marcus’ grief, which you have absorbed just by being near them. But Abby,” she said, “did you not think you were allowed to grieve your love for him too?”
“I don’t – “ Abby began, and then stopped. “It doesn’t do any good, though, to think about that now,” she said. “He was never going to belong to me. Now he’s gone. What’s the point of letting that be one more thing that hangs over me?”
“Because it’s true,” said Dr. Tsing. “You haven’t allowed yourself to feel the specific thread of your grief whose existence makes you secretly afraid you’re a terrible person. You’ve locked it away, deep inside, this poisonous dark thing just lurking there. But it was always going to come out. Of course your body shut down and you couldn’t move for three days after you read that letter, Abby. That’s the most sensible thing you’ve said to me all day. Of course it did. Because you spent three months telling yourself you weren’t allowed to let those feelings into the light. You spent three months telling yourself you were only allowed to feel certain kinds of sadness, but not others.”
Abby looked away, feeling the sting of tears behind her eyes.
“You loved a man and he died,” said Dr. Lorelei simply. “You have permission to feel that part of it too. That’s the plainest, most straightforward version of the truth. Start there. Let yourself grieve that. Not just his death, but the relationship you never had. Let yourself grieve that other life, that other Jake and Abby that never had the chance to exist. You’re allowed to feel that. Because honestly, Abby?” she said, “you did everything right. You were loyal and you were selfless and you put the needs of your family before anything you might have wanted for yourself. Congratulations,” she said with a wry smile. “You’re a parent.”
“I don’t know how to be a parent.”
“Sure you do,” said Dr. Tsing. “You’ve been doing it the whole time. You’ve spent the last decade of your life facing multiple sets of unbearable choices, and while perhaps you have made mistakes, you have been guided, every single time, by the thought of what was best for the children. Listen to me, Abby,” she said, as the tears in Abby's eyes began to spill over. “You did everything right.”
* * *
There was no parking near the school pickup area, so Abby left the car two blocks away and walked to the lobby door to wait for Bellamy and Octavia. The afternoon bell rang, and a sea of children began to flood out the door. An aristocratic silver-haired man with a boy about the twins’ age in tow – a boy with a faint rosy blossom of bruising around one eye – brushed past Abby. She whirled around and tapped the man on the shoulder.
“Excuse me,” she said politely. “Are you Dante Wallace?”
“And you are?”
She ignored him. “And you must be Cage,” she said, looking down at the boy at his side, who gave her an arrogant, disdainful glance before dismissing her. The children came out the door just then and saw Abby talking to the Wallaces. They approached close enough that she could see them, but she could feel Bellamy's desire to keep his sisters far away from Cage Wallace.
“I’m Abigail Griffin,” she said. “I’m Octavia and Bellamy’s aunt.”
This did get Cage’s attention, and he began to shift his weight a little guiltily. It got his father’s too.
“Your nephew attacked my son,” said Dante coldly.
“Yes, he certainly did,” said Abby, without taking her eyes off Cage, “and your son knows exactly why. Don’t you?”
“I wasn’t doing anything!” Cage whined.
Abby snorted. “Oh please. Listen to me, Cage, I’m going to tell you something. When you tell a girl whose parents have just been killed in a car accident that she is an orphan and nobody loves her – “
“He said what?” said Dante, a note of shock creeping into his voice almost in spite of himself.
“. . . and then you act surprised when her brother comes to her defense, do you know what I think?” Cage was silent. “That makes me feel very sorry for you, Cage. That makes me wonder just what kind of relationships you are going to form as an adult when you are so clearly unable to demonstrate the barest minimum of compassion for another human being. Do you understand what the word ‘orphan’ means, Cage? You used it on Octavia as an insult, you used it as a weapon to hurt her deliberately, but you used it incorrectly. Here’s what it actually means. It means she has experienced a loss, and a degree of suffering, whose magnitude you yourself, with your rich white happily-married parents, cannot begin to understand. And yet, less than a month later, there she was, back at school, doing her best, trying to live her life. She is heroic, and so is her brother, and so is Clarke, who is four years old and has already survived traumas that would break the spirit of an adult ten times her age. They would certainly break yours. And yet you thought it would be tremendously amusing to use the word ‘orphan’ to taunt Octavia, to hurt her on purpose, by telling her that it meant a child that nobody loved and nobody wanted. And that is not correct, Cage, that is so far from correct that you cannot even begin to comprehend its level of incorrectness. Because I love those children. I want those children. They have lost their parents, but they have me. Next time you come after my kids to poke and prod at the memory of the most painful moment of their lives for your own entertainment, know what the damn word means before you use it.” She turned towards the awestruck children and held out her hands to them. “Callie was the nice sister,” she said to Dante, who was staring at her, slack-jawed. “I’m not the nice one. I’m the stone-cold bitch. I'm the one everybody's afraid of. I’m the one that spent my entire adult life taking human brains apart for a living. And there is nothing that I will not to protect those kids. My kids. I don’t care that you’re the school board president. I don’t care that your brother is the pastor. I’m not afraid of you. And I’m going to be watching.” Then, without even a glance behind her, she sailed out the door.
"You said the B word," said Octavia once they were out of earshot.
"Yes, I did," said Abby, "don't tell Aunt Vera," which made Clarke collapse into helpless giggles at Octavia's side.
"Sometimes you're kind of scary,” said Bellamy.
"Well, I apologize,” Abby said. “I wasn’t trying to scare you.”
"No, it's okay,” he said cheerfully. “That time it was the good kind. You were scary on our team."
"I'm always on your team, Bellamy,” she said, and she squeezed his hand. “I promise.”
“Hey, Aunt Abby,” Octavia piped up suddenly. “Are we gonna do anything next week for spring break?”
“Yeah, can we go to the zoo?” asked Bellamy. “Or to the beach? Oh please oh please, can we go to the beach?”
“There are dinosaurs at the science museum this month, Bellamy, we could go see the dinosaurs! Aunt Abby, can we go see the dinosaurs?”
“I have a better idea,” said Abby slowly, a plan beginning to formulate in her head.
“Have you guys ever been on an airplane?”
Chapter 24: New York
This is how the story finally begins to come to its ending.
We begin in Marcus Kane’s apartment.
It’s one big open space, with a pair of big folding wood-panel screens he found at the Chinatown night market to divide the bedroom from the rest of the loft. They’re painted green and blue with winding golden vines, and he likes them because it feels a little bit like living inside Jack and the Beanstalk, though this is not something he has ever told to anyone.
In the 1900’s this building was a factory that built parts for Ford automobiles. Now, in 2015, the impossibly high vaulted ceilings and exposed brick walls and floor-to-ceiling windows that made it functional for manufacturing have become the kind of commodities that realtors use as selling features. Marcus likes the gleaming hardwood floors the last owner added, and the sparkling steel-and-glass bathroom, but he likes the history too. He likes thinking about the men that used to come to work in this building, and the America that they built with their hands. He wonders about their stories.
It’s a Monday night in March, and the sun is just thinking about setting. Marcus has had a pretty good day. He’s doing some consulting work for a friend, but it’s the kind of thing he can do from anywhere, so he spent the afternoon with his laptop at a coffee shop in Williamsburg and then went to the farmer’s market.
The light streams in through his wall of windows, bathing the space in gold. He’s in the kitchen, absently humming along to Miles Davis. (He can’t cook while listening to music with words. He starts to sing, and gets distracted, and burns the garlic.) Cooking elaborate dinners distracts him. It gives him something to do. Filling the days isn’t hard; he has a little bit of work, now, and he goes for walks and runs errands and visits bookstores and stops by Raven’s auto shop to bring her lunch.
But nights are harder.
Marcus Kane used to have one guaranteed way to fill his nights, to keep the dark things at bay, to push back the loneliness that sometimes woke him up at two a.m. in this vast brick cavern that used to be a factory. There was one thing that always worked.
But he doesn’t do that anymore.
And so, in the absence of gourmet dinners at restaurants whose chefs are on television where they charge you nine dollars for a side order of bread – in the absence of fifty-dollar pours of whiskey at the kind of swank, lamplit, brass-and-mahogany bars where men like Marcus Kane take girls like the kind of girls Marcus Kane used to date – in the absence of sweaty, breathless nights under his gray Calvin Klein sheets beneath the moonlight pouring in through the big industrial windows – he discovers a very different New York.
A New York that fits the very different Marcus Kane he was when he and his boxes arrived home two months ago.
And this new Marcus Kane has a lot of time to fill, but very few people, anymore, he wants to fill it with. He doesn’t have much to say to his old friends. A few of his former coworkers threw a big “welcome home” party for him when he got back to town, and he made a reluctant appearance, Raven at his side. But after the tenth or twentieth or hundredth person to congratulate him on whatever he’d done to weasel out of getting stuck in Oregon for the rest of his life babysitting three kids he’d never met, Raven seized his hand, murmured “Let’s get out of here,” and took him home to make popcorn and watch The Hunt for Red October instead.
So the new Marcus Kane doesn’t do any of the things the old one did.
Instead, he cooks.
And so tonight, on this chilly March Monday in Brooklyn, he is making cassoulet. He is following Julia Child’s directions exactly, down to the letter, even making a side trip to a specialty grocer for rendered goose fat. He likes dishes like this, ones with a lot of steps, ones that take hours. It buys him some extra time before he has to remember that he’s alone again. (Funny how much he used to revel in the blissful silent solitude of this vast open space. Funny how eerie and oppressive he finds it now.)
It is six twenty-three. The cassoulet, with its herb-flecked layers of sausage and roast duck blanketed in velvety white beans, has just gone into the oven. It will be done cooking in ninety minutes. He closes the oven door, pours a glass of wine and sits down at the kitchen table to read. Before he has even turned the page, his phone chimes in his pocket.
“Yo, I’m downstairs,” reads the text from Raven. “Buzz me in. I have a surprise for you.”
He’s not really in the mood for Raven’s snarky banter right now – he’s in a softer mood, full of jazz and red wine and the smell of thyme and garlic. He knows exactly who he wants right now but he can’t have her, she’s four thousand miles away, it’s pointless to dwell on it, Marcus, and Raven’s his only real friend so this is much better than nothing. He made enough cassoulet for eight and seeing it sitting in his refrigerator all week, neatly parceled out into single servings, will depress him.
So he presses the buzzer.
His back is to the door when he hears the knock – he’s pouring a second glass of wine for Raven and putting his book away so she doesn’t make fun of him for reading the collected letters of Julia Child. “It’s unlocked,” he calls to her over his shoulder, and hears the door open as he’s tidying up a little, moving the messy cutting boards and pile of prep bowls into the sink in case Raven wants to play cards later. He washes his hands, and dries them, and that’s when he realizes that Raven hasn’t said anything.
He turns around.
But Raven isn’t there. Raven is nowhere to be seen.
“Surprise,” says Abby, with an uncertain smile that slices directly into the deepest part of his heart, a smile that says Please, a smile that says she's not sure whether he would have opened the door if he'd known who was really on the other side of it.
“Abby,” he says, over and over, it’s the only word he can say, and he feels the world begin to spin on its axis until it clicks into place and suddenly everything is right again.
* * *
“This is a terrible idea,” said Abby, sliding into the cab next to Raven.
“It’s nice to see you again too.”
“Hi. Nice to see you. This is a terrible idea.”
“It’s a brilliant idea.”
“He doesn’t even know we’re in town. Shouldn’t I give him some warning?”
“It’s more romantic this way.”
“But it’s also very bad manners.” Raven shrugged this off. “Besides, he might not be home.”
“Oh, he’ll be home,” said Raven emphatically. “He’s always home.”
“He might have gone out. With friends or to dinner or something, or – “
“Or on a date? No, idiot. He’s home. He’s probably in his kitchen right now, listening to jazz and drinking wine and cooking something elaborate from that Julia Child book he thinks I don’t know he’s become weirdly obsessed with. He will definitely be home.”
“So what, we just go knock on his door?”
“This is New York,” said Raven with an eyeroll. “There are buzzers. That’s why you need me.”
“The apartment buzzer is hooked up to his phone. I text the buzzer number, he gets the text, he pushes a button in his entryway to let me in. So for this to work he needs to see it coming from my phone number.”
“You don’t think this is a pointlessly elaborate plan?” asked Abby, raising an eyebrow. “You don’t think I could have just called him and said ‘Hey, we’re going to the Museum of Natural History tomorrow to see the dinosaurs, do you want to come with us?’”
“How the hell are you going to have makeup sex at the Museum of Natural History?”
“This was a terrible idea.”
“Don’t worry, Abs, I’ve got your back on this. I’m like such a good wingman.”
“Left at the light,” she said to the cab driver, “it’s this brick building on the corner. And leave it running, I’m not going in.” Abby followed her to the door and watched her push the button, then pull out her phone to text Marcus. Her heart began to beat faster and faster. Finally, an eternity later, the door buzzed and Raven held it open for her. Abby looked in front of her towards a high-ceilinged brick foyer with a wrought-iron staircase. “Second floor,” said Raven.
Abby didn’t move. She just stood there, staring ahead of her, thinking about the apartment at the top of the stairs.
“It’s gonna be okay,” said Raven at her shoulder. “Go.”
“I threw him out of my house, Raven. And I haven’t seen him in two months.”
“If you think there’s any chance in the world that he’s not going to be happy to see you,” said Raven, “you don’t know Marcus Kane at all.” And with that she shoved Abby through the door and closed it behind her.
* * *
She stood in the open doorway. Behind her was a cold brick hallway. In front of her was a warm open space that bathed her in quiet music and the scent of rosemary, and there he was.
He was in the kitchen, with his back to her, and she just stood there for a long moment, taking him in. The soft waves of his thick dark hair. The strength in his back. His arms, with the sleeves of his shirt rolled up to the elbow. The way even in this room she’d never seen before, he looked like home to her.
She could live anywhere in the world, she thought to herself, and it would be home if he was there.
Then, suddenly, heart-stoppingly, he turned around.
She could not breathe. She could not move. They just looked at each other, for a long, long time, and then he spoke her name.
“Don’t be mad at Raven,” she said hesitantly, still not quite able to coax herself to actually step into the room until his face made whatever he was thinking a little bit clearer. He was just standing there in his kitchen, staring at her, his face wide-eyed with startled astonishment, but he still hadn’t said anything that wasn’t “Abby.” There were so many reasons for him to slam the door in her face, the way she had done to him, so many ways this could all still turn out to have been a terrible mistake.
“Mad at her?” he finally said, his voice incredulous. “For this? Are you kidding me? I’ve never loved her meddling ass more in my life.” And a smile of joyous, giddy delight broke through the baffled blank expression on his face, like the sun breaking through clouds, and then he was there, and she was in his arms.
“You’re here,” he murmured in a low voice, full of wonder, as he wrapped her in a bone-crushing embrace and pressed infinite kisses into her hair. “You’re here. What – how – “
“The short answer is spring break, an airplane, Raven, and dinosaurs,” she said into the crisp white cotton of his chest. “The long answer is – longer.”
“Stay,” he said immediately, then stopped himself. “I mean I don’t know if there’s somewhere – if you have to – “
“I don’t have to be anywhere until tomorrow,” she said, and felt her heart begin to race a little, wondering if he would see inside those words to understand what she really wanted. He beamed back at her, guiding her inside and closing the door behind her.
“I just put a cassoulet in the oven,” he said. “It has to bake for an hour and a half.”
Abby looked at Marcus. Marcus looked at Abby. She felt her skin begin to grow warm and flushed, felt a wild throb of excitement low and deep within her. What the hell, she thought to herself. Take the leap. For once in your life, Abby Griffin, ask for the thing you actually want.
“An hour and a half, huh?” she said, hanging up her coat and purse on the brass hook next to the door and making her way with assured, purposeful steps, as though she lived there too, back to the blue and green panels with the winding golden vines. “Whatever will we do to fill up that time?”
She stepped out of her heels, and he swallowed hard, moving towards her as if pulled by some immutable force.
“You know, the recipe serves eight,” he said, following her to the bedroom and slowly unbuttoning his shirt as he watched her pull the pins out of her hair and shake it loose around her shoulders.
“Does it?” she said archly. “We’d better work up an appetite, then.”
“I can’t believe you’re here,” he whispered, stepping in close to her and running his hands through her soft hair.
And then he saw it.
She was wearing his necklace.
“You kept this?” he said wonderingly, tracing the silver frame of the pendant with his fingertips, feeling her chest rise and fall, feeling her pulse quicken as his skin touched hers. “After everything between us – you still have it.”
“I put it away, for a long time,” she said. “It hurt too badly to look at it. It felt like it belonged to this other life, this other Abby, this person that I wasn’t anymore. But when I put it back on – the day I decided to come see you – it felt like it became a part of me. The way you are.”
She stood there, so real and warm and alive, right in front of him, in her perfect wool dress, her honey-colored hair tumbling loose around her shoulders, her face tilted up towards his, and something was different, she was different, the thing that had made her tense and cold and frightened before, even on her best days, that thing was simply . . . gone. This was the Abby Griffin she was always meant to be, he realized. Strong and loving and brave. This was always the real Abby, she just didn’t know it.
It was impossible for him to hold out any longer without kissing her, so he didn’t even try. His mouth crashed into hers, and she made a soft sound of fierce delight that undid him completely. She was right here. She was so present. She was so happy. She kissed him back with abandon, her body melting into his, and his hands slipped behind her back to slide down the zipper of her dress as she began to unfasten his belt. They could not tear themselves apart from kissing long enough to concentrate, and so their hands were clumsy, and they fumbled, and “Goddamn this thing,” Marcus muttered at the stubborn zipper, and Abby burst out laughing.
It was a laugh he’d never heard before. A laugh with no shadows inside it. A laugh that bubbled up from deep within her like water from a spring. He would go to hell and back for that laugh, he thought. He would chase that laugh the rest of his life.
This was the real Abby Griffin. The grief was still there, the losses still real – they always would be, carved in dark letters into her soft red heart – but something was different.
She had decided to live.
She had decided she was allowed to be happy.
And she had put on his Christmas necklace and gotten on a plane and worked up some bait-and-switch with Raven (Is Abby friends with Raven now? a voice inside him asked in bafflement, before filing that away as a question to address at another time when she wasn’t standing in his bedroom stepping out of her dress), she had flown four thousand miles with his necklace around her throat and she had been wearing lacy red underthings beneath that tailored gray dress, the sexiest red underthings he’d ever seen, the kind you wear when you want someone to see them, she had made plans for this, which meant it was nothing like the last time, everything was different, and she was smiling like she finally knew, in the deepest corners of her heart, the thing he had known from the very first moment he kissed her.
His mouth brushed the white skin of her shoulders and collarbone before sweeping across the soft curves of her breasts where the red lace met her skin, and she inhaled deeply at the feel of his mouth, and her giddy delight, her laughter, turned to something else entirely. Something deeper and hungrier, something that pulled him towards her like gravity and wouldn’t let him go.
He scooped her up in his arms as though she weighed no more than Clarke, and carried her across the wide expanse of wood floor to his bed.
“How long until dinner’s ready?” asked Abby as he set her down.
“How many times do you think we can do it in eighty-two minutes?”
“I’m more about quality over quantity,” he said, running a gently exploratory finger over the soft red lace between her thighs, making her gasp.
“Marcus,” she whispered, her breath coming hard and fast as his fingers became more assertive. “Marcus.” He pulled his hand away only for a minute, to unhook her bra and toss it free so he could take her breasts in his mouth – but the second his fingers left her body her thighs rose desperately to meet them, to get them back. “No, don’t stop,” she moaned, before realizing what he was doing. When his hands returned, this time they were a little bolder, darting beneath the red fabric with light stroking caresses that made her breath catch in her throat every time. “Take them off,” she finally cried out hoarsely. “Marcus, take them off. I can’t – I need – “
He seized her mouth with his own, hungry, desperate, and fumbled first his own underwear off and then hers. When he finally lay down beside her, their bodies pressed up against each other skin-to-skin, he felt her sigh with pleasure. Now, all preparations settled – and with seventy-eight minutes on the clock – he commenced in earnest.
He kissed her mouth, over and over and over, as his fingers found her warm wet center, found her ready and open and half-frantic with want. He traced lazy circles around her clit, making her writhe against him to capture more, then slowly lowered himself beneath the gray sheets to take her in his mouth.
The effect was electric.
Abby had never done this before. Or, rather, she had only done it with Thelonious, which was worse than nothing. Oral sex was so vulnerable, it left you so exposed, and she had never felt safe opening herself up that way to Thelonious.
But Marcus Kane’s mouth lit her entire body on fire. She was incandescent with desire. It burned through her like flames devouring paper. His tongue, his lips, his hot breath – the way he seemed to want her very badly, the way he seemed to love how she tasted, the way he listened so carefully to the sounds she made to learn the places she most liked him to touch her, the way he seemed to derive such pleasure from giving pleasure to her. Her hips rose desperately, frantically from the mattress, sending his tongue deeper and deeper into her, and she came the first time almost without realizing it. The orgasm was already sweeping through her before she knew what was happening.
“Marcus,” she whispered, unable to form any other words, but it was enough. He understood. He kissed his way back up her thighs, her hips, her stomach, her breasts, her throat and found her mouth again. She tangled her hands in his thick dark hair and kissed him wildly, the orgasm that ought to have sated her simply waking a deeper hunger, as she pressed him back against the mattress and climbed on top of him. “I’ve been wanting this again for so long,” she breathed into the warm, flushed skin of his chest, and then reached down and guided him inside her.
It had been good the time before. Really good, in fact. So good that it had haunted both their dreams in troubling ways even though they had only done it the once, and that was months ago. But it was even better now. They noticed things about each other – about themselves – that they had never noticed before. Marcus had never known that his hands were this sensitive to touch, but as Abby traced her fingertip along the lines of his palm and drew circles around his wrist, he cried out from a pleasure that was so much more than just the way it felt to be inside her. And as Abby pressed hot, frantic little kisses against his chest, she felt her whole body go dizzy at the way he smelled – herbs and red wine and a faint salty tang of sweat and a light flicker of some subtle, spicy cologne layered over the rich deep Marcus scent of him. Neither of them had ever lost themselves like this. Neither of them had even known this was possible.
He came deep inside her, he rose and rose and rose and rose and then the mounting pressure of desire burst inside him, like fireworks inside his veins, and he sank back down to earth, kissing and kissing and kissing her.
“How much time do we have left?” she murmured against his mouth, and he looked at the clock.
“Thirty-nine minutes,” he said. “Ready to go again?”
“Let me catch my breath,” she said, laughing, but he shook his head.
“Fun now,” he said, as a finger slipped inside her and made her gasp. “Breathing later.”
“You’re relentless,” she panted, fingers clutching at the sheets beneath her, as she felt him disappear below the surface again.
The first time he had devoured her, wolfish and hungry, but this time he was unbearably, agonizingly, magnificently slow. His tongue glided in long, lazy strokes and his mouth pressed little kisses against the hard, aching bud. Abby felt herself begin to melt and swell at the same time, like a warm river was running through her body and carrying her away. She closed her eyes, every sensation centered at this one place where her soft dampness met his hungry mouth. She felt his tongue move against her, tracing lines and swirls that woke up every nerve ending in her body. Then she realized what he was doing.
The shapes his tongue was making weren’t random.
He was writing her name.
A – B – B – Y.
He was writing her name with his tongue, over and over and over.
When she finally began to soar near climax again, it was the circling loops of the second B that did it, making her cry out his name. “Marcus,” she gasped. “Marcus. Yes.” He responded by burying his face deeper, nuzzling into her like a wild animal as she clutched at his hair, pulling him closer and closer. This time, when she came, it was like being hit by a runaway freight train. Her whole body jolted with impact. Who would she be, she wondered dizzily, as the room began to spin, if she came home every night to a man who made her feel like this? Who would she become if he came home with her and shared her bed and it was like this forever? If she finally accepted the fact that all the things she wanted and needed were within her grasp?
The timer rang just then, and he climbed up from beneath the sheets to look at her. “Cassoulet’s ready,” he said, and hopped out of the bed.
“I’m trying to come up with a joke about how in God’s name you could still be hungry,” she said, “but it’s not quite there yet.”
“You have a dirty mind,” he said approvingly. “I like it.”
“You’re naked in the kitchen.”
“Ow,” he exclaimed as he pulled the bubbling, sizzling stoneware dish out of the oven. “Yes. This might have been a questionable idea.”
She sat up in the bed, inhaling the rich scents of thyme and garlic and roast duck and red wine, and she watched the naked man walking back towards her and she thought –
Not “I love him.” Not “this is love.” Just the one word, over and over and over. It was a complete sentence on its own. It was the only thing she needed. And it was hers, now. Hers forever.
"It needs to sit for another fifteen minutes or you’ll burn the roof of your mouth off,” he said, pressing her down against the mattress beneath his body, then sliding into her so deeply that she cried out with pleasure so fierce it was almost pain. “Now. Where were we?”
* * *
He came inside her again, and then ten minutes later he came inside her again in the gleaming marble shower as the hot steaming water turned them both pink and fresh and clean, and then once he saw her walk over to the kitchen in nothing but her red satin underwear and the faded Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers t-shirt he pulled out of his bottom drawer, he began to worry he’d never be able to go anywhere in public with her ever again without wanting to throw her up against the wall and rip her clothes off her. But dinner was ready to eat, and they were both starving, and the sensible adults inside them knew there were things that needed to be said. So he scooped two heaping helpings of the sizzling stew into a pair of stoneware bowls, grabbed the forgotten glasses of wine he had been pouring when she walked in the door, and he sat down on the couch to eat Julia Child’s cassoulet in his underwear beside the only woman he had ever loved in his whole life, and who until ninety minutes ago he thought he’d lost forever.
“What are you doing tomorrow?” she asked. “This is amazing, by the way. I didn’t know you cooked.”
“I didn’t used to,” he said. “It’s a new thing. And tomorrow I’m doing whatever you say I'm doing.”
“Good,” she said, smiling. “Because we have someplace very important that we have to be.”
“The American Museum of Natural History,” she said. “I brought some people with me who would very much like to see you. And I promised them dinosaurs.”
“Abby Griffin,” he said, “are you asking me out on a date to come look at dinosaur bones with your entire family?”
“No,” she said, “I’m asking you on a date to come look at dinosaur bones with your family,” and she meant it, she so clearly and plainly meant it, for the very first time, that it broke his heart open completely. “They need you,” she said softly, taking his hand in hers. “Please come back, Marcus. The kids need you.”
“What about you?” he said, looking her straight in the eye – because, after all, it was time she said it.
But she didn’t even flinch.
“I need you too,” she said. “And I didn’t think I needed anybody.”
* * *
Nothing in Abby Griffin's entire life had prepared her for the way it would feel when she walked up the stairs to the 4th floor dinosaur wing of the Natural History Museum, at eleven the next morning, hand-in-hand with Marcus like they were just two ordinary people who belonged together, and watched those three tiny children spot them and zoom towards Marcus with supersonic speed.
"Uncle Marcus, Uncle Marcus!" Clarke cried out, burying her tiny face in his knee while Octavia wrapped her arms around his waist and snuggled in close. Bellamy hesitated just the tiniest bit behind his sisters, until Marcus gently disentangled himself from the girls and knelt down to Bellamy's level to look him in the eye.
"I promised you I wouldn't leave," said Marcus, "and I didn't keep my promise. I'm so sorry." He held out his arms and Bellamy rushed into them, burying his face in Marcus' shirt. "I promise," he whispered, kissing the boy's head over and over again, "I'm not going anywhere this time. Not ever again. I promise, okay? I promise."
When the children finally gave him some breathing room he rose to his feet so he could come greet the rest of the family. "I was an idiot," he murmured in Vera's ear as he kissed her on the cheek, "but I'm done being an idiot now."
"Good," she said, and her smile felt like a benediction, like a sign from the heavens that everything was going to be okay.
Jackson was a little more circumspect, and his protectiveness of Abby made him wary. But he shook Marcus' hand and his smile, though hesitant, was genuine.
"It's so good to see you both," he said. "And . . . also Raven."
"What up, Kane," she said, sipping Diet Coke out of a giant dinosaur-shaped novelty cup. "How'd you make out last night?"
"Why is she here?" he asked Vera, who laughed.
"We invited Auntie Raven to come see the dinosaurs with us," said Octavia. "She's never done it before."
"Auntie Raven?" Abby exclaimed. "Jesus Christ, how long was I gone?"
"Don't worry, Abs," said Raven, "they've still got a few more years yet before I start teaching them how to hotwire cars."
"I accept responsibility for Jackson and Vera's behavior," murmured Abby into Marcus' ear, "but that handful is all yours."
"Oh God," he groaned, rubbing his temples. "And she's drinking sugar. It's going to be an unbearable day."
“Uncle Marcus, Uncle Marcus,” said Octavia, tugging at his hand. “Are you gonna marry Aunt Abby?”
Abby flushed. "Oh," she said awkwardly. "Honey - it's too early to - we haven't - "
“Yes,” said Marcus. He was really very firm about it.
Abby turned and stared at him, eyes wide. Raven and Vera grinned at each other conspiratorially, and even Jackson smiled.
“You are?” said Octavia.
“You bet I am. Want to be a flower girl?”
“I want to! I want to!” shrieked Clarke.
“I want to too!” exclaimed Octavia.
“But she hasn’t said yes yet,” Bellamy pointed out. “And you didn't get down on your knee. And you don't have a ring.”
“Right, right, and wrong,” said Marcus, reaching into his coat pocket and pulling out a small Tiffany box.
"Marcus, what is that?"
"It's exactly what you think it is."
"What, did you sneak off to go shopping while I was asleep?"
"No," he said. "It's been sitting in my coat pocket since the day Vera called me. Next to a plane ticket. For Portland. For tomorrow." He smiled at her. "You were faster than I was, is all." And he knelt down on the museum floor, right in front of the Triceratops, while everyone around them turned to whisper and pull out their cameras and stare.
“Marcus, what are you doing?” whispered Abby.
“What does it look like I’m doing?” he retorted.
“It looks like you’re about to propose to me. In front of our entire family. And five hundred tourists. And a Triceratops. And Raven.”
“Yeah, it went a little different when I rehearsed this,” he admitted, grinning, and opened a small Tiffany box to reveal a gleaming emerald on a silver band.
“Ooooooooh, Aunt Abby,” whispered Clarke reverently. Octavia hushed her. Marcus waved the children over to him.
“Okay, what do you guys think should I say?” he stage-whispered. Bellamy leaned down and said something quietly in his ear. “Good, Bell, that’s good,” he said approvingly, then cleared his throat. “Bellamy thinks you're the prettiest woman in the world – ”
Bellamy kicked him. “What?” Marcus exclaimed in exaggerated surprise. “You said, 'Say I think--' “
“I meant you think,” he hissed, exasperated. He was totally ruining this.
He tried again. “I think you're the prettiest woman in the world.” He glanced at Bellamy for confirmation, and he nodded his approval. Octavia leaned over and whispered something in Marcus’ other ear, and he nodded. “Also you're very nice and smart and I would like to marry you and make you happy forever.”
“Good job, Octavia,” whispered Clarke. Octavia beamed.
“And also, even though you drive me absolutely crazy,” he said, “I’ve never been more unhappy in my entire life than these past months being back here without you. That wasn’t Octavia, by the way,” he added hastily, “that’s just me.”
“That was pretty good,” Octavia allowed.
“You’re a good influence,” said Raven, as she and Octavia exchanged a solemn fist-bump while waiting to see what would happen next. Everyone suddenly realized that Abby still hadn’t spoken. She was still standing there, a Triceratops at her back and her family all watching her, staring down at Marcus Kane kneeling in front of her holding an emerald ring in a Tiffany box.
“I don't want them to learn the lesson that love only comes once,” Jake had said. “I don’t want them to learn that you can never start over.”
So Abby got down on her knees too, and took his other hand in hers. “It’s not just me anymore,” she said. “And it’s not just you. We’re not two people. We’re five people. Think about what you’re asking, Marcus, because you’re not just marrying me, you’re marrying all of us.”
“Not me, technically,” Raven corrected her, and Vera silenced her with a smack on the head.
“First of all,” said Marcus without looking up, “one more word out of Raven and I will call security and accuse her of trying to climb the Stegosaurus.” This sent the children into an explosion of wild giggles. “Second of all,” he said, smiling at Abby like no one had ever smiled at her in all her life, never, not even Jake Griffin, “this is what I want. I want to have a family with you, Abby. I want PTA meetings and beach picnics and Thanksgiving dinners with all these people sitting around our table.”
“I think I have plans.”
“Raven, so help me God –“ Marcus began, and Abby burst out laughing. She couldn’t stop herself. She felt a wild, bubbling joy flow throughout her whole body.
“Aunt Abby, you have to say yes or no,” whispered Octavia, and Abby turned to her.
“That depends,” she said. “What does Dolphin think?”
The children stared at each other. Abby had never consulted Dolphin’s opinion before. This was new. Octavia pulled him out of her backpack and they conferred briefly. “Dolphin thinks it’s a really good idea,” she said.
“Oh, he does, does he?” said Abby with a grin. "Well, Dolphin's usually right."
"Aunt Abby, you have to sayyyyyyyy it," groaned Bellamy, exasperated.
"Yeah, Aunt Abby," said Marcus. "You have to say it."
“Yes, you idiot,” she said, and he slipped the ring onto her finger as she leaned in and kissed him while a museum full of strangers burst into wild applause.
Bellamy and Octavia tactfully covered their eyes, but Clarke toddled over and put her arms around Marcus’ neck, and she looked at Abby and smiled, making Abby's heart turn over unexpectedly inside her chest.
Clarke would always have Jake’s eyes and golden hair. She would always be a living, breathing reminder of her father. Abby had been so sure, at first, that it would always hurt.
But it didn’t. Not now. Not anymore.
Now it was just one more thing for Abby to love.
“Uncle Marcus, can we go look at the velociraptors?” she whispered into his ear, and he laughed, and swung her up onto his shoulders.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Velociraptors it is. Let’s go.”
“I know where they are,” said Bellamy importantly, “I looked at the map.”
“Well, you lead the way then,” said Marcus agreeably, and Bellamy scampered ahead, Octavia at his side.
“They’re not always this cute,” said Jackson to him, a little dubiously.
Marcus grinned at him. “Don’t I know it.”
“Neither is he,” muttered Raven irrepressibly, earning another swat on the head from Aunt Vera.
Abby hung back for a moment and watched them as the whole cluster rounded the corner and the velociraptor skeletons came into view. She watched as Bellamy grabbed Octavia’s hand and dragged her over to the skulls in the glass display case. She watched Marcus, tiny Clarke on his shoulders, stroll up behind them in friendly conversation with Jackson. She watched Vera and Raven, the self-satisfied matchmakers, who had lost all interest in the dinosaurs and were fully occupied with ogling what looked like an entire Scandinavian men’s soccer team worth of tourists over near the T-Rex exhibit. Raven said something under her breath and got swatted on the head again, but Vera was laughing.
All these people were hers. Hers to care for. Hers to belong to. It was incomprehensible how she had gotten so lucky, how out of the shadow of her deepest grief, all this bounty had come. But there they were.
She watched them, tears in her eyes, heart aching with ferocious love.
You were right, Jake, she thought to herself, and smiled. You were right all along.
It's not too late to start over.