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The Space Where She Was

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He didn't mean to start crying. He hadn't thought he would.

John Childermass had done a lot of it in the three years since his wife had died, sometimes for no reason, sometimes for many very good ones. There had been a woman's life to sort through, long nights alone with a toddler who didn't understand the new and sudden absence in the house. Childermass didn't feel ashamed that he had cried after his wife passed, but he had always, until now, cried when he was very much alone. Now, the man he had come to speak to about placing Sebastian in this school pushed a box of tissues across the desk toward him with a sympathetic frown. Childermass took one and wiped at his eyes quickly and balled the tissue up.

"It's-"

"No need to explain," said Honeyfoot.

"I haven't really left him, not since his mother died."

Honeyfoot paused. His grey eyebrows knotted together for a moment.

"Not at all?"

John Childermass shook his head.

"I took time off after she- after Hannah died- and then when I went back, I started working from home." He balled up the tissue in his hand. "I mean, I've gone places. Just, always with Sebastian."

"Oh, Mr Childermass," said Honeyfoot softly. "I do understand. It was a shock to lose your wife so suddenly, I'm sure. Being nervous is natural. Would you like to go peek in on Sebastian in the classroom, see how he's doing? It might make you feel better."

Childermass straightened himself and nodded.

They left the office together and went to the door of the room where he had dropped his son off earlier for a visit.

Sebastian was in there now, sitting at a table with group of other children painting. A large tee shirt had been put on over his clothes and he held a paintbrush clutched in his left hand.

A man was couched down at the other end of the table, looking at a painting a little girl showed him; a man with large eyes and dark hair, wearing a grubby, paint flecked apron tied around his middle. Sebastian said something to the teacher and the man looked up. Sebastian waved his painting at the teacher and he smiled a dimpled smile at it and whatever it was Sebastian has said. John Childermass felt a little better seeing how happy his son was and how kind the teacher.

"He seems nice. The teacher."

"Oh, Teacher John is very well liked by the children and their families," said Honeyfoot. "I couldn't do this without him. He's been a real godsend."

Teacher John.

The children began to clean their paints and the teacher walked between them, wiping hands and listening to stories about their paintings as he hung them up.

Childermass pushed from his mind the thought that at one time, he would have found someone like Teacher John very cute.

"So is this...is this the Montessori stuff?" asked Childermass.

"Oh no," said Honeyfoot. "This is just a bit of a break. They'll go back to the classroom after rest time this afternoon."

"And you speak French here?"

"John does."

Childermass nodded. He thought that if Hannah were here she would like this place. She'd like Honeyfoot and his obvious steadiness, she'd like watching her son paint, and she would like this teacher who smiled at him. Childermass watched Sebastian push up the rolled up sleeve of the tee shirt keeping his clothes clean and study the painting he had done.

 

Segundus rubbed the paint off his hand with a tissue from his apron as he called the children to begin cleaning for lunch. He kept a careful eye on the boy visiting today, Sebastian, after what Honeyfoot had told him about him losing his mother shortly before he turned two. Sebastian was a kind and happy boy though, very interested in the other children. Segundus was not worried that if Sebastian came again that he would fit in. He talked to Segundus like he was much older than his nearly five years, which had first caught Segundus off guard and then made him smile. He read better than any other child in the class as well, and did well with the French that they spoke.

When Segundus looked up at the window, he saw Honeyfoot and a man who looked just like Sebastian peeking in the room. And the man was crying. Or had been. He stared at his son moving among the other students and for a second, the two men met eyes through the window. Segundus smiled at him. The man blinked at him a few times and one side of his mouth twitched like he might want to smile back. Then, he nodded in a not unfriendly way and looked away.

The door to the classroom opened and the man and Honeyfoot stepped inside.

Sebastian looked up and when he saw his father, he left his picture and ran to him. "Well, did you have a good time, then?"

"Yeah," said Sebastian. "Teacher John let us paint."

Sebastian pulled his father to the table where he had left the picture he had done and began to chatter about it.

Segundus watched the two of them, the way the boy's father kept a hand on his shoulder, where the end of his long hair fell. He was more sure than ever that the man, Sebastian's father, had been crying while he had been in the office with Honeyfoot.

"Ready to go?" asked Sebastian's father. John. Segundus knew that he was John. He had been the one to take the first phone call from him last week when he called about bringing Sebastian here. He remembered the accent well and his name was easy to remember since it was his too.

"Can I come back?"

John Childermass took a breath looking down at his son and the painting he had had done.

"That's the plan, Seb."

 

They both turned around at the sound of the door to the school opening behind them as they made their way to the car.

"Teacher John!" said Sebastian.

His son's happiness eased Childermass and at the same time, brought on another wave of sadness that Sebastian would not be with him every day.

Segundus crossed the parking lot, squinting into the brightness of the afternoon, and walked up to them.

"I'm sorry if I'm bothering you," he said. "I know you're on your way home. But..."

Segundus looked down at his feet.

"I'm glad you came today. And I'm glad Sebastian is coming back. I, uh, I really enjoyed meeting both of you."

He slipped his hand into the pocket of his apron and brought out a tissue that he handed to Childermass.

"I thought you might...It looked like you were a little upset."

Childermass took the tissue with a sigh.

"Thanks," he said to the teacher.

"See you again soon," Segundus said.

Sebastian gave Segundus' legs a hug. Segundus told him, in French, that he had very much liked the painting he had done that morning. Childermass thought that if his son had to be with someone other than him every day that it might as well be this man.

"See you soon," said Childermass.

 

It got a little easier, each day.

The first day Childermass brought his son to school, he went back at 11:00 to get him because the worry had been too much. Sebastian hadn't liked that much. Childermass had felt bad then, when he arrived to see his son in the school's garden, crouched in the dirt next to to his teacher and putting fresh herbs into a basket. He had been smiling.

Sebastian pouted on the way home and was out of sorts the rest of the afternoon. He had talked about the other children while they ate lunch and what he had done during the morning, but he seemed more focused on Teacher John than anything else. Childermass heard stories about him all afternoon and evening; the songs he knew, the things he said.

The next day, Childermass had made himself stay away until 1:00. He paced the house for an hour before leaving though and the relief when he arrived and saw his son safe nearly knocked the breath from him. The group of children were asleep on cots on the floor, most of them anyway. Sebastian was awake and reading a book on his cot.

"I'm going to miss the nature walk," Sebastian protested as he was put into his coat.

"Nature?" Childermass raised his eyebrow at his son as he buttoned up his rain jacket. "What nature?"

"We were going to go to the park."

Childermass looked up. John Segundus stood about a foot from them, holding a book in his hand.

"Oh," said Childermass. "That does sound nice. For the kids."

"No worries. We'll go again."

Segundus held out the book. It was something in French about an elephant. Sebastian hadn't read picture books for a while, thought his father, but Childermass could tell by how he looked at it that he had enjoyed it.

"Sebastian seemed to like this. You can borrow it if you like."

Sebastian took the book with a grin.

"Thanks," said Childermass. He looked over at his son. "Shoes, Seb."

Segundus stayed close, watching Sebastian put the book on the floor and sit down to put his shoes on.

"John," he said. "I couldn't help but noticing when I looked at his paperwork that Sebastian's birthday is in a few weeks. I normally bake the kids a little treat, as long it's alright with their parents."

"Really?" asked Sebastian. "Dad, is it alright?"

"It's...of course." Things were moving very fast for Childermass, but he knew that should not affect his son. John Segundus did not know that Sebastian had never celebrated his birthday with anyone but but his parents, first two of them and then just his father. "That sounds great."

Sebastian read the book he had borrowed from school on the way home. Throughout the afternoon, John Childermass was reminded from time to time of Teacher John's promise of a birthday treat.

It got a little easier each day.

Childermass knew his son was safe and happy and each day, when he came back for Sebastian, John Segundus was there.

He didn't realize that they didn't have the toy until was too late and Sebastian was already crying.

The elephant had only gotten a name last year when they read 'Matilda' together. Sebastian liked Miss Honey so much that he started calling his favorite toy by her first name; Jennifer. Seb had had it for years though, since his mother was alive. It had been, for that reason, hard for Childermass to look at and comforting at the same time. For Sebastian, it was his favorite toy, the one from the pictures with his mother.

They arrived home from the first day that Childermass had been able to be away from his son for a full day of school; both of them tired. Childermass bent to take off his shoes. There was a moment of silence, of too much quiet from his son. When Childermass turned around, he knew that something was wrong. Sebastian didn't like crying and he seemed at first confused that he was as he stood in the middle of their living room looking around with his eyes slowly filling with tears.

"Seb?"

"Dad. She's not here."

And then the crying started in earnest and Sebastian ran to the couch and buried his face in it.

Childermass began a frantic search for the stuffed animal. It was not there; not in the car, not in the house anywhere. In the end, he could only pause to comfort his son and say that he would try his best to find where she had gone. After he had looked everywhere, Childermass sat next to his son on the couch, feeling just as defeated as Sebastian looked.

Sebastian crawled into his father's lap as his tears slowly began to slow and his breath became more even. Childermass thought of the one person who might be able to help. He reached for his phone in his pocket and he dialed John Segundus.

Childermass felt bad that Segundus answered. He should have been home already, Childermsss thought, but Segundus answered the school phone and quickly. All he said was hello and Childermass felt an unexpected wave of relief at his calm voice.

"Did Seb have his elephant with him today?"

"Jennifer?" asked Segundus.

Childermass was caught off guard that Segundus so readily knew the name and he paused.

"Yeah. Jennifer."

"He did."

"He can't find her now. Did he leave her there? It's only...his mother gave her to him and-"

"I'll go look now."

Childermass hardly had time to thank him before Segundus was gone.

 

Sebastian lay on the couch, calm now, but frowning as his father tried to get him interested in having something to eat.

"Pizza?" asked Childemass.

"I don't feel good, Dad. I'm not hungry."

"Seb, love."

Sebastian continued to frown and look uncommonly tired and sad and Childermass sighed before he leaned down and gave the top of his head a kiss. There was a knock at the door and Childermass stood to answer it. When Childermass opened the door, John Segundus was there, still in his school apron and holding the worn stuffed elephant.

"John?"

"I hope I'm not interrupting anything. I found her and I thought..."

Sebastian heard his teacher and jumped from the couch to run to him, stopping suddenly when he saw what Segundus held. He stared at it and then, he cried again. Childermass bent down and picked his son up and Sebastian buried his face in his shirt.

Childermas took the elephant and motioned Segundus inside.

"Long day," he said to Segundus. "Sebastian. Here you go. Look what John brought."

Sebastian took the toy from his father and hugged it to his chest but didn't look up. Childermass and Segundus shifted their feet as seconds of quiet passed and Segundus lifted his hand to reach for the door knob.

"I was just about to cook dinner," said Childermass. "if you wanted to..."

Childermass stopped. Segundus was flushed from the bicycle ride over and as well seemed to have just realized that he still had on his apron and he began to blush a little, letting his hair fall in front of his face.

"I mean, you came all the way over here. And you found Jennifer. It's the least I could do. We could do."

At that, Sebastian lifted his head.

"Teacher John is coming to dinner?"

The two men looked at each other.

"I would love to," said Segundus. "I mean, as long as it's not too much."

"It's not," said Childermass.

"Well. Thank you. I'll stay then. "

Childermass put Sebastian down. The boy smiled up at Segundus and Segundus smiled back.

"I..." Segundus reached behind him for the strings of his apron and pulled them loose. "I was so happy to find her that I rushed right over. I didn't even think to take this off."

"I don't think I've ever seen you without the apron before," said Childermass as Segundus pulled the apron over his head and hung it on the hooks by the door where the coats were.

Childermass wasn't sure why he had said that. Segundus, for his part, looked for a moment everywhere but at Childermass, and his blush spread initially before retreating back into the paleness of his skin as he took off his shoes. Childermass found himself watching Segundus for just a bit too long and nearly blushed himself. It had been so long since he had looked at anyone, really. He had forgotten what it was like, the vulnerability it could bring.

They walked into the kitchen together.

"I'm not going to be a good dinner guest, I think," said Segundus. Sebastian sat at the table with the elephant in his lap and Childermass began to open cabinets, looking for something to cook.

"Why is that?"

"I'm a vegan."

Childermass stopped his search and turned to Segundus.

"Oh. No problem."

"Really?"

"What would you like? An omelette or something? That's easy."

The blush returned.

"No. No meat or eggs or dairy. It's a lot, I know. I understand. I can go home. Or-"

"No," said Childermass. "It's fine. I just might need you and Seb to go to the store. Curry is okay? A veg one?"

Childermass thought that Segundus seemed a little overwhelmed at the effort that was being put forth, but after a pause, he spoke.

"Sure. That's great."

The three sat down together and Segundus helped Childermass make a list of ingredients. Then, Segundus and Sebastian left for the corner store.
It wasn't until they had been gone for nearly ten minutes that Childermass realized he had never let someone besides him take his son out of the house out before.

 

She was pretty.

She had been pretty.

From the time he walked into the house to the time he and Sebastian left with the shopping list was only around fifteen minutes. It was enough to see the pictures though; the pictures of Sebastian's mother and John's wife placed around the living room.

They had smiled a lot, the three of them, while they were the three of them.

She, Hannah, had been a pretty woman; brown hair to her shoulders and blue eyes.

The pictures of her in the house stopped suddenly when Sebastian was a small toddler with pink cheeks. Then, the few that had been taken since and displayed were just of him and his father.

Sebastian carried the elephant with him while they walked through the grocery store and put the things they needed into a basket on Segundus' arm.
Sebastian chattered as they walked through the store and people smiled at them as they went up and down the aisles.

Segundus wondered what they looked like to the other people, the two of them. He loved children but had never thought much of having his own. Something about the marked absence of Hannah in John and Sebastian's home had made him think for a moment of what it would be like to walk through a store with a son of his own, to have a husband waiting for him. For them.

Segundus had insisted that Childermass did not have to pay for the groceries for a dinner that was being cooked only because he couldn't eat what they already had in the house, but when he and Sebastian got to the cashier, he retrieved the money that had been put into his hand before he left the house to buy them and that he had promised to use.

After they arrived back to the house, Childermass cooked the dinner while Segundus and Sebastian played a game in the living room.

"Now, this isn't going to be haute cuisine," said Childermass when they sat down at the table. "But I think it tastes alright."

It did. Segundus said so a few times and then noticed he might be be over complimenting and stuck to eating. Luckily, Sebastian had a lot to say about a lot of things and talked a lot so that Segundus felt comfortable settling into quiet. In a pause, Childermass asked him about his work, how long he had been at the school.

"A few years now. I like working with Honeyfoot a lot."

"He's got a name like Miss Honey from Matilda. He's nice like she is too."

"He is," said Segundus.

"It's nice to have good coworkers," said Childermass. "And bosses."

"Dad's boss asks a lot of him," whispered Sebastian to Segundus.

When dinner was over, Segundus offered to clean and then when he was told Childermass didn't need any help, he offered to leave and was told that he wasn't in the way.

Sebastian halted any progress toward him actually leaving by asking for a story.

Childermass stopped in the middle of putting a plate in the dishwasher. He and Segundus met eyes across the kitchen.

"Please? You'e great at stories, Teacher John."

"I wouldn't..."

"John wants to go home, Seb," said Childermass.

"No. It's...I wouldn't want to overstay my welcome. Or intrude."

Childermas finally remembered the plate in his hand and put it on the rack.

"No. It's fine. If you want to."

"Well. Um. Okay. Okay, Seb."

Childermass stood up and shut the dishwasher door.

"Go get changed then," he said.

 

He was good at stories. Childermass stood in the door and watched Segundus pick up a chapter of the book they were reading together each night.
He thought Seb would be too wound up to sleep, but he was out within a few pages, hugging his elephant to his chest. Segundus shut off the lamp and put the book on the bedside table. He stood up from the bed and walked to the door and Childermass closed it quietly behind him as they stepped out into the hallway.

"Thank you for dinner," said Segundus.

"Thank you for finding Jennifer. I was just as upset as Seb, I think."

Childermass wasn't sure why he has said either. Now Segundus looked sad and he hadn't meant that.

"It's not a problem. I'll get out of your way now."

"You're-" Childermass stopped. His hand was still on the door knob and he pulled it away and put it in his pocket. "You're really not in the way."

"Oh, good."

"Actually. There's...I opened a bottle of wine days ago and I only had a glass. Would you like to have one? Before you leave? It'll be nice to have adult conversation."

He was sure for a second that Segundus was going to say no. The pause after he asked was long.

"I could, I think," said Segundus. "It's not late yet."

 

After the second glass, Segundus wished he had gone home earlier.

It wasn't John. John was lovely and listened to everything he said. But Segundus felt that at some point, he had started to speak too much. He started to talk about men, and about dating therm, and now he felt he was being a bore. But Childermass didn't stop him. And he didn't stop himself.

"It seems sometimes like..."

He had been poured a third glass. Segundus looked up at picture of John and Sebastian and Hannah on the mantel, one when Sebastian had been only a baby in. He saw Hannah's smile first and then noticed John's.

"It seems like all of this might be sort of out of reach for me. This family thing. This husband and kids thing."

"Why?" asked Childermass.

"I'm not always great. At dating. I'm a little shy."

"I could tell," said Childermass.

Now he was going to blush too, on top of it all.

"Could you?"

"Not that it's a bad thing," Childermass said quickly.

Neither of them said anything after that

"Is it..." Childermass looked down into his own glass, "something that you want? To get married? To be a father?"

"I hadn't thought about it too much, I guess. Maybe because I didn't let myself. I don't know. Oh look, at me. I'm talking so much."

"Don't worry. Like I said; adult conversation."

Childermass picked up his drink and took a sip.

"It was nice," he said. "Someone there, you know."

Segundus decided it was time to be quiet all ready. It was after midnight and he had made John sad.

Childermass stood took the empty bottles and the glasses into his hands. Segundus reached for the arm of the couch to pull himself up and felt that he was watched.

"Are you- Sorry, John. If you're drunk, you can-" he motioned to the couch with a glass. "You can stay."

"Oh. I didn't think I'd had that much. I'm really embarrassed."

Childermass shrugged.

"Don't be. Let me put these away. I'll get you some blankets."

Segundus was nearly asleep the time Childermass returned with a quilt and a pillow. He opened his eyes long enough to take them and to arrange himself on the couch. The next thing he knew, it was morning.