Therese used to dread being alone with Rindy. It felt so much like a test, though that was all her doing, not Carol’s. Carol was forever the one insisting that everything would be fine, how could the two girls she loved so much not love each other? Still. Therese had nearly driven herself into a panic, newfound confidence be damned.
That first time at the park was particularly nerve-wracking. The place had seemed larger than it was, with a thousand ways for Rindy to disappear under her watch. Therese never had to worry much about the consequences of falling into her own mind before, losing herself in thought. She’d never been left in charge of a just-turned-five-year-old either, much less the most important five-year-old in the entire world. Because that’s who Rindy was, to Carol, and, by extension, Therese. And dear God, what would Carol do and think and say if Therese failed at the most important job in the entire world, taking care of Rindy?
Therese still maintained she’d had a minor stroke when Rindy’s hand slipped momentarily on the monkey bars before she giggled and corrected herself. When Carol joined them there later, after a meeting with potential buyers had ended, she’d looked genuinely concerned for Therese, though Rindy was happy as anything, not a mark on her.
“It was supposed to be a nice day at the park,” Carol said later. “Darling, you look like you’ve barely survived a warzone.”
Therese hadn’t much appreciated the laughter in Carol’s voice, not then. A few months later, with nothing more than what Carol promised were the usual scrapes and bruises for any child, and Therese could look back on that day with some amount of humor. More importantly, she could enjoy today’s visit to that same park without white-knuckling the bench and struggling to remember everything she knew about first aid.
Rindy had been flitting between friends since they arrived. Therese recognized some children, not others. Though somewhat shy with adults, Rindy was open and playful with kids her own age, so it wasn’t unusual for her to interact with so many friends, old and new. The last while though, she’d stuck close to one girl in particular, someone Therese didn’t remember seeing before. Smaller than Rindy, probably younger, though she had no trouble keeping up. Rindy’s new friend had blonde curls and, from what Therese could hear over the chatter of other kids, a sweet laugh.
Keeping one eye on Rindy, Therese found herself scanning the park for whoever was responsible for the other girl. On a bench not far from hers, Therese spotted a woman she hadn’t noticed before. Which was a bit startling, considering how beautiful the stranger was. Dark hair, gorgeous, wearing a shade of red lipstick Carol would envy.
From what she could see, the woman looked nothing like Rindy’s friend, but Therese tracked her eye line, knew they were watching the same pair. She had a few seconds to wonder, be curious, then curiosity turned to embarrassment as the other woman looked right at her.
Therese ducked her eyes, hoping she wasn’t blushing and knowing she was. She’d met the stranger’s eyes for all of half a moment, but got the distinct, inexplicable impression that the woman had been aware of her scrutiny long before their gazes locked. Again, she didn’t have time to sit with her feelings for too long, because suddenly Rindy was barreling toward her, new friend at her heels.
“This is Aunt Therese,” Rindy said to the smaller girl, both of them grinning. “Aunt Therese lives with my mommy now that my mommy doesn’t live with my daddy anymore.”
With that enthusiastic but slightly painful introduction hanging over her, Therese tried not to fidget as she smiled at both girls. “Hi,” she said, still not terribly used to being with children who weren’t Rindy. “It’s very nice to meet you.”
“Hi. I’m Lizzie,” the girl replied with no signs of shyness. “Can I see your camera, please?”
Therese blinked, then felt like even more of a fool as she remembered the camera strap around her neck. She’d grown so used to carrying Carol’s first gift to her that she barely thought of it anymore. Therese opened her mouth to answer, but someone beat her to it.
The voice was kind enough, but with a hint of warning. And British. That voice was very, very British. Therese looked up from the camera to find the slightly older, very gorgeous, very British woman she’d been shamelessly staring at approaching her.
“I said please, Mommy, promise.” Lizzie looked at Therese. “Didn’t I say please?”
“You did. She did.” Therese said, eyes moving from Lizzie to her mother. Her mother with a British accent, who looked nothing like her. Who Therese had been caught red-handed staring at. If it would make a difference, she would’ve pleaded for someone or something to swallow her down into the grass under their feet.
“You did indeed,” said the woman before turning her attention to Therese. “I’m very sorry if she’s bothered you.”
“She hasn’t,” Therese said honestly.
“Mommy, Mommy, this is Rindy.”
Those red lips that Therese absolutely did not notice curved into a smile as the stranger bent to be nearer to Rindy’s level. “Well hello, Rindy, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Rindy’s smile turned slightly nervous, but she didn’t shrink toward Therese, as she sometimes did with Carol when meeting new people. “Your voice is funny. In a nice way.”
“Rindy…” Therese wasn’t very skilled at scolding Rindy yet, especially for something that was meant to be a compliment.
The woman just laughed and thanked her before standing to her full height again.
“Mommy, this is Aunt Therese,” Lizzie said. “She lives with Rindy’s mommy now that Rindy’s mommy doesn’t live with Rindy’s daddy anymore.”
Was it possible to be charmed and mortified at the same time? Apparently. Therese was devising reasons to leave before Lizzie finished talking, but the woman’s expression showed no signs of anything Therese expected to find there. Still, she wondered if the girls wouldn’t like to play in the dirt for a bit, dig that hole which was taking far too long to swallow her up.
“Therese is fine,” she said instead of asking that question, holding out her hand. “The rest is a bit of a mouthful.”
The woman chuckled again and they shook. “Yes well, this one has quite the talent for creating mouthfuls,” she said, free hand touching Lizzie’s shoulder. “Peggy,” she said in a belated introduction.
“Peggy,” Therese repeated, instantly deciding that the name suited her, and almost-instantly realizing how absurd that was. She was hardly qualified to know what did or didn’t suit Peggy. She did, however, have eyes, and therefore noticed the perfectly manicured red nails on the hand that grasped hers. She tried not to compare that red, that flawlessness, to Carol’s own shade of nail polish. She failed. If the color wasn’t an exact match, the difference was minimal.
“Can I see your camera, please?” Lizzie asked.
The repeated question caught Therese’s attention, but not for long.
“Lizzie,” Peggy said. “Those aren’t toys.”
“She knows,” Rindy said, with the confidence of someone who’d known Lizzie far longer than twenty minutes. “I told her what mommy tells me.”
“And what’s that, darling?”
The last word was as warm and casual and accented as all the others. Therese tried not to shiver at hearing it a second time in as many minutes.
“That Aunt Therese’s camera is one of her favorite things in the whole world and she needs it for work and she’d be sad if it got broken, so I have to be very careful with it.”
Therese caught a hint of something in Peggy’s eyes. She didn’t understand it, and the girls seemed blissfully unaware. “It’s fine, if she wants to have a look.”
An odd moment passed, Lizzie bouncing on the balls of her feet, awaiting Peggy’s answer. Therese found herself waiting and watching just as intently, though she had no idea why.
“All right then. But you’ll be very, very careful.”
Slipping the strap from her neck, Therese passed the camera over. She started to explain how it was to be held, how the various parts functioned, but Rindy beat her to it, reciting with expertise and enthusiasm everything Therese had ever told her about the camera. Leaning back on the bench, Therese experienced a kind of pride she couldn’t express because she’d never felt it before. She thought maybe that this was how Carol felt when Rindy counted out her brushstrokes so perfectly every night, reciting the numbers just as her mother had taught.
Rindy was still explaining about the camera. Once she’d finally run out of things to say, Peggy favored her with another smile. “Well. You certainly do know your cameras.”
“Just this one. Aunt Therese knows about all of them though.”
Therese laughed and blushed, flattered by the inaccurate praise.
“My uncle made a camera out of a pen,” Lizzie declared. “And a flying car. The pen works better than the car though.”
“Does he make trains? I have a trainset. Aunt Therese knows all kinds about trainsets too.”
“I don’t know. Probably. He makes lots of stuff.”
Therese had time to wonder if this uncle was of the biological, or Abby variety, if he was some kind of toymaker, if she’d ever wrapped up any of his creations during her Frankenberg’s days.
“Aunt Therese, can you take a picture of us?”
Another odd moment. Lizzie shot her mother a glance, and Peggy looked at the camera. Therese started to change the subject, though she opened her mouth without knowing what would come out.
“Go on then, if you don’t mind. I’ve yet to see this one refuse a photo op.”
Peggy ran affectionate fingers through Lizzie’s hair, spoke with an ease that made Therese question herself, if she wasn’t making things too complicated, seeing things that weren’t there.
The girls giggled and yelled and crowded in next to each other, making silly faces. Therese smiled along with them, caught herself taking shot after shot of the antics, and then stopped. Lowering the camera, she almost apologized to Peggy, though she wasn’t quite sure why.
The kids scampered off moments later, attention caught by some new form of adventure. Therese watched them, then rushed to move aside when Peggy asked if she minded company.
“I’m sorry about the camera,” Therese blurted, losing that battle with the apology.
Peggy smiled. “That’s hardly necessary. Did I hear that you use it for work?”
The question was casual enough, but Therese swore she heard an undercurrent there. “Well yes, technically.”
Therese explained about the job at the paper, how she’d yet to actually sell a picture, how it was more about organizing the work of the real photographers. And, fetching coffee. That happened often.
Peggy chuckled. “Well, I suppose some things are the same across most professions.”
“I’ve served more coffee, taken more lunch orders, than I care to remember.”
“You don’t seem the type to take lunch orders.”
“Most women are the type to take lunch orders. Until they prove they aren’t. Which takes much longer than it should, in my experience, but there’s something to be said for paying your dues.”
“Are you speaking from experience on that, too?”
“Are you asking if chasing after Lizzie is my only occupation?”
Therese shrugged, lips quirking. “You don’t seem the lunch order type,” she repeated.
Peggy made vague reference to cleaning up other people’s messes, making sure things were done as they should be. Peggy asked more about Therese’s work, which led to mention of her brief time at Frankenberg’s. Therese remarked, quite honestly, about how polite and well-behaved Lizzie seemed, remembering some of the more…rambunctious children she’d seen at the department store.
“Oh, she is that,” Peggy said dryly. “Among many, many other things, great actress included.”
They talked briefly of Rindy, making Therese wish Carol was there. Carol was so much better at explaining how lovely Rindy was, but Peggy seemed to understand. Therese was shocked to learn that Lizzie hadn’t yet turned three. The girl spoke incredibly well for her age compared to some of Rindy’s other, older playmates.
“Good genes,” Peggy said “And chatty adult influences."
Therese assumed that was a reference to Lizzie’s father, because Peggy certainly wasn’t talking her ear off. Aside from their brief but pleasant small talk, they said little after the kids ran off. Silences rarely bothered Therese and it seemed the same for Peggy. Their quiet was easy and lasted until Therese glanced at her watch and saw it was almost time to meet Carol back at the apartment.
Rindy and Lizzie were reluctant to part, the latter asking about the pictures Therese took, how and when she would see them. Peggy said she was sure they’d see each other again soon, after Therese had had time to develop them.
It was only after she’d left with Rindy, and a promise to come back next week, that it hit Therese again. Peggy had asked more questions about Therese’s work and the camera than she had about why Therese was living with an unmarried woman and taking her child to the park.
She also realized that, while she’d told Peggy bits and pieces of her life, more than she’d intended to really, Peggy had reciprocated to the barest minimum.
It seemed she had a pattern of stumbling into older, attractive, frustratingly mysterious women.