"What the fuck is your problem?" Dawson asked.
"Nothing," John said.
"Go home. I don't know what your deal is, but you're going to hurt yourself - or me - if you keep being as careless and inattentive as you have been this afternoon."
"Sorry," John said. "You don't have to send me home. I didn't realize I was that distracted."
"Problem apartment hunting? You get turned down for one you had your heart set on or something? I told you I'd be willing to fudge your work dates a little into the May side of things if that helps you out."
"No," John said with a sigh. "Claire said she loved me."
Dawson started at him as if he'd grown a second head or something.
"What?" John asked defensively.
"You're surprised by this?"
"Well, no, not exactly. She just hadn't until now."
"Oh. So, what's the problem? You don't want her to? You're not one of those guys that was in it just to get her to say those words, are you? Because you've been doing a pretty good imitation of a guy wanting a woman to love him for the past six months. So if she said it and now all of the sudden you're getting cold feet because of it you're an asshole and don't deserve her."
"You do, I suppose?"
"So, she said it," Dawson said, changing the subject John noticed. "You didn't say it back I take it?"
"She drove off before I could have said it even if I'd been able to process what she'd just said!"
"Process she'd said it. What the fuck does that mean? You need to think about whether you want to say it back."
"No," John said.
"She drove off. As if she did it on purpose, waited until her door was closed and just her window was open so she could leave after saying it."
"Sounds like she might not be too sure you want her to feel that way."
John sighed. "I don't know why she would be unsure."
"Really? So you've told her that's how you feel?"
"No," John said. "I spent my childhood getting shit on by people that were supposed to love me. They're not easy words for me to say."
"They're not easy words for anyone to say. Are you going to say them when you see her tonight?"
"I don't really have a choice, do I?"
"John. Those aren't words you want to say because you think you don't have a choice. Do you love her?"
"That's a stupid question."
"I'm asking it."
"Then what's the problem?"
"I haven't even met her parents yet. She loves me, sure. So they meet me and despise me. You can't tell me they won't have some influence over her."
"Her dad already knows you."
"Sure, not personally, though. We didn't sit around and talk cars or football. He's a busy guy who did a child custody case basically pro bono for me, finding out later I was having sex with his daughter during the time he was doing that."
"I suppose, but he still knows you and has to have a handle on the kind of guy you are."
"The having sex with his daughter part aside."
"Yeah, they want me to go over there for dinner."
"Yeah," John said.
"Too serious? No more too serious than my wanting her to live with me next year. I mean she'll have a dorm room but she and I both know that's just a formality. Her parents have to, too."
"She's agreed to that, though, right?"
"Yes, I mean, I don't know, maybe she won't spend as many nights there as I want her to. I worry, too, that it's only been a couple of weeks we've been together so much with Holly being with me all the time, every time I see her. A couple more months of that she may not find it as cute as she does now."
"If she didn't want the girl around she wouldn't be with you. I mean, if she had a problem with kids she'd know already. And so would you."
"It's different, though. She's going to be babysitting her every week three and possibly four nights a week."
"I'm not sure holding off telling her how you feel is going to help that, if anything if she gets frustrated with Holly and you haven't said it she'd be out the door pretty fast I'd think."
"I don't know."
"So, what has you irritated then?"
"Nothing really, I didn't realize I was. Just," he shrugged. "Wondering why she drove off."
"Sounds like she's maybe scared of how you'll react to her saying so. That's a pretty big step for both of you I'm guessing."
John could see that. He hadn't exactly been forthcoming about having feelings for her. He thought it was obvious he did, but he supposed that wasn't the case when she knew he wasn't overly experienced on the girlfriend front before.
"Yeah, neither of us has much experience with relationships."
"Why wasn't she swimming in boyfriends?"
John scoffed. Of course Dawson was only surprised by the fact Claire didn't have a team of ex-boyfriends back at Shermer High. He didn't seem surprised that wasn't the case for John. Why was that exactly?
"I honestly don't think she wanted them. I don't know. You'd have to ask her, I guess. I know it baffled me. I just know she never dated in high school. She went to dances and stuff, she had dates, she just," John shrugged. "Never had a serious guy."
"Uh, no. Not the way you mean. I didn't want anyone to find out about Holly. I had a reputation before her mom and I didn't do much to refute or change it. It was easier that way, no one found out I had a kid at any rate."
"And why didn't you two date in high school?"
"I didn't even really meet her until March of our senior years. We fooled around that one day, but like I told you before I couldn't have sex with her. Well, I could've but I chose not to. We were at school for one thing, I didn't have protection on me for another thing. I hadn't done that since Betty told me she was pregnant with Holly either I was scared it was going to happen again."
"Right, I remember that. Understandable."
"I never realized not going all the way with someone like her would be problematic, but she didn't know why I didn't and thought it was her or something I guess," he shrugged. "I don't know. I'm not sure I would've told her about Holly then anyway. I didn't want my parents to find out so the fewer people who knew about her the better chances of me staying alive."
"Betty never told them?"
"No," John said. "It was one of the reasons I felt kind of bad taking Holly away from her. She did me a huge favor, no one will understand the God's honest truth behind the words that she probably saved my life by not telling my parents."
"Yeah, well, you have to think about what's best for your little girl not her mother. You owe her nothing as far as I'm concerned. It was certainly nice she didn't tell your parents, but that doesn't indebt you to her for the rest of your life."
"I know," John said.
"All right, well go, get out of here."
"I know you are now, but I'm sending you home anyway."
"I don't know. Your girlfriend just told you she loved you. Maybe you want to, you know, do a nice boyfriend thing for her."
"John, if you need me to tell you that you need more help than I can give you."
"Yeah, all right," he said.
"I know what I'd do if it was me she'd just told she loved."
"I don't even want to know what you'd do."
Dawson chuckled softly at that. "Get out of here before I change my mind and keep you here extra late so she thinks you're avoiding her after she told you that."
"That be a lot more of a nice idea if I didn't have Holly to worry about. Even if I wanted to find a sitter I can't with two hours' notice. The girl I've used before babysits during the week as a job."
"Would you actually take her somewhere if you had one?"
"I don't know. Probably. Fuck I don't know what I'm supposed to do."
John watched as Dawson peered at him, wiping his hands on a towel. John could tell the guy was probably thinking he was the biggest moron in the world. He didn't know anything about love. Not the real kind, the good kind. He knew the kind he was supposed to have for his parents. He had no other experience with it.
"Bring her here," Dawson said finally as if sensing John was thinking about things he didn't want to be right now. The last thing he needed was to think about his parents.
"I'm sorry?" John asked, certain he was hearing things.
Dawson shrugged. "Bring her back here. I'll take her for a while if you're actually going to do something nice for her."
"Shut up," John said.
"Better not make me say it again, you have plenty of time to go get her and bring her back here. The free babysitting makes up for the gas."
"What are you going to do with her?"
"I'm going to drink beer and smoke cigars with her. What do you think I'm going to do with her?"
"Do you even know what to do with her?"
"I do have nieces and nephews. You remember that, right?"
"I do, sure, but…"
"The couple times I've seen them here or there I've babysat so my sister could go out for a while. The oldest is seven so it's been a while since I was around a toddler, but we'll be fine. The offer is going to be off the table in about thirty seconds. Get the hell out of here or I'm not doing it and I'll never offer again."
"Yeah, all right, sure," John said.
Was he absolutely insane for doing this? He wasn't sure, but Dawson had never done anything to make him think he was irresponsible. He was a jerk at times, but really once he and John had gotten to where they were comfortable working together he stopped being so bad. And, yeah, some of that might have been John's inability to take criticism at first. John was used to his old man's version of criticism and if it didn't get fixed the next go around words were foregone. He knew now, though, that he could learn a lot from Dawson and that Dawson wouldn't have offered him the direction if he didn't want John to be around. He would've just fired him.
He'd showered by the time John got back with Holly.
"Having second thoughts?"
"I can admit that."
"I don't blame you. I promise you we'll be fine. Put her seat in my car while I write my address down for you so you can pick her up at my place later."
"Yeah, sure," John said.
"Figure out what to do?"
"Uh, no, not really. I have no fucking idea."
"You could just ignore it."
"Yeah, that'd be good. I know if I don't say something she'll assume I don't feel the same way."
"Well, yeah," John shrugged.
"Her parents weren't the best, but they at least did the best they could. They were decent. She's going to college and everything. She had things. I mean they weren't abusive assholes at any rate. That's my experience with people who supposedly loved me."
"You could be honest with her."
"Sure," John said with a sigh. "That'd go over just about as well as my not saying it back."
Dawson picked Holly up when she wandered near him. He looked so strange holding her. He honestly forgot he had a sister who had kids because they were never around. His mom came by once in a while, but Dawson never talked about her or what she was doing when she came here.
"Well, go do something."
"Yeah, sure," John said, glancing at the address Dawson wrote down. He'd written directions from the expressway, too, so John had a vague idea where he was going and how long it would take. "You have somewhere to put her to sleep?"
"She still sleeping in a crib?"
"Then yeah, if nothing else I'll sit with her on the couch until you show up so she doesn't roll off."
"She's been pretty good…"
"That may be, but I don't think I want her falling on the floor on my watch or you'll never do this again."
"I didn't realize there were more offers."
"You never know. Maybe she'll be my new best friend."
"Right," John said. He walked up to them then.
"You be good for Mr. Dawson, okay?"
She babbled something that John was certain he was supposed to understand but he just didn't. Dada was in there so he assumed she was at least talking to or about him. He kissed the top of her head, running his hand over her hair.
"I don't blame you. I wrote my number on there, too. If you're worried or something…"
"Thanks," John said. "All right. I'll see you around ten?"
"I'll just add it to your tab."
John rolled his eyes, but he wasn't entirely sure Dawson was joking. He'd done some pretty decent things for John where Holly and Claire were concerned. Asking Claire out on a date aside anyway. It wouldn't surprise him entirely if Dawson expected something in return.
He probably came up with ten thousand excuses not to show up at her house unannounced on his way home to shower and change and then on the way here. He absolutely did not want to have a run in with her mom right now. He was pretty sure that was the last thing he needed. He heard tell that mothers knew things, not that his mother ever showed evidence of that being the case. Never mind her mom knowing what Claire had told him that morning, though he was a little worried about her knowing that. Was him showing up there, knowing she'd basically slammed the door in his face on his last visit proof there was more to their relationship than just dating? He still wasn't sure what to make of her showing up at Holly's sitter's house. He was afraid his irritation at that would come through.
He wasn't sure what to make of it. He sure as hell wasn't sure he liked it. He'd passed it off as being no big deal when he was talking to Claire about it, but it bothered him a lot that her mom would do that. To what end? To hope Holly was so unkempt and disheveled that she could tell Claire once and for all not to see him again? He honestly wasn't altogether sure if her mom put up much of a fuss about her choice in boyfriends she wouldn't give in after all.
Claire was innately a good person, and along with that she wanted to please her parents. He knew that it'd be awful hard for someone like Claire to go against her parents' wishes on a long-term basis if they were adamant about something.
Like who their daughter was going out with.
Speaking of their daughter. He still had no clue what to say to her. Oh, he knew, he just wasn't sure where to start. How to say it.
If he said it once, would she expect him to say it all of the time? Would she understand why those words were difficult for him to say let alone believe hearing from anyone? He believed she meant it, knew she wasn't going to flip out and turn crazy or anything because she'd said them. But what did it mean? What did she expect?
He'd thought about getting a haircut a couple of days ago, but had decided against it for whatever reason. Claire had mentioned she didn't mind his hair longer so he supposed he just got lazy and figured he didn't need to. Now that her mom was standing in front of him again, though, he sort of wished he'd gone with getting it cut. Not that he was going to lop it all off, but still.
"Hi, Mrs. Standish. I was wondering if Claire was home," he said when she didn't say anything. She wasn't looking at him as if she was going to shoot him or tell him to leave, though, so that was an improvement.
"She is," she said. "She's down in the basement."
"All right," he said.
She stepped aside, holding the door open for him, and he knew he didn't do a good job at all of hiding his surprise at that.
"Do you know the way?"
"Uh, no, ma'am," he said. He'd never been in her house before. Her mom was probably immensely relieved to hear that.
She closed the door and started walking down the hall. Was he supposed to follow her? Wait for Claire here? Fuck if he had any idea what the thing to do was in this situation.
"Is she expecting you?" she asked after a second. He took that as an indication he was supposed to follow her.
"No, I mean, not this early," he said, hoping that wasn't a bad thing to say. The last thing he needed was her thinking there was something wrong with his job or something. "I got done a little early today."
She opened a door.
"Claire," she said. "You have company. You can go on down," she said.
"Thanks," he said.
That was it?
He started down the stairs, not altogether surprised the door wasn't closed behind him as it had been when he'd gotten here.
"Oh, hi," she said.
"Hey," he said.
He chuckled softly. "You probably wouldn't believe me if I told you. I'm not entirely sure I'm not insane as it is."
"John?" she asked.
"Settle down, she's fine and in capable hands. She's with Dawson."
"Don't ask. I was going to see if you wanted to help me take advantage of having a last-minute babysitter, though."
"And do what?"
"I don't know. Dinner? A movie? Whatever you want. I told him I'd be there to pick her up by ten so we have time."
"Uh yeah," he said. "You sound surprised."
"I don't know," she said with a shrug.
He moved in front of her where she was sitting on the couch. She'd been watching something on TV when he came down, but turned the volume down once she saw it was him so he had no clue what she was watching. He knelt, settling his hands on the couch at either side of her.
"You thought, what? You'd say that and you'd never see me again?"
"The thought occurred to me, yes."
"Why did you say it then?"
"Because I realized I had to tell you. It's how I feel. You're worried about an apartment when I don't care as long as you're in it."
"And you don't think I worry about things like an apartment because that's how I feel? That I worry if I pick out something you don't like that you're going to think I can't afford anything better?"
"John, I know you can…"
"You say that, but I also know what you're used to and what your earning potential is studying to be a lawyer. So I worry and I want to be sure the place I get is something you not only like but want to stay at. You know, live in. Maybe not this year, but next year."
"I don't care how much you earn."
"Sure, you say that now when things like new cars and stuff don't matter."
"John," she said, leaning toward him a bit. She settled a hand against his cheek and kissed him.
"I do love you, you know," he whispered.
"You had to know I do, too."
"Yeah," he said with a shrug. "You wouldn't put up with me otherwise."
"There's nothing to put up with."
"Sure, just what every woman our age wants, a potential step-daughter right out of the gate."
"I haven't left yet, have I?"
"No," he said.
"It's nice to hear the words, though, isn't it?"
He turned his head a bit, kissing the palm of her hand resting against his cheek. Underneath the overwhelming sense of panic that she'd said those words and driven off as if she felt guilty or something was the feeling that he'd enjoyed hearing them. Immensely. Hearing them with no ill will or negative side effects. His mother's 'I love yous' had grown hollow and lacking in meaning so long ago he couldn't even remember when the last time she'd said it and meant it.
"Yeah," he admitted.
"Have you ever heard them before?"
"No," he said.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, kissing him again.
"Not your fault," he said, moving a bit so he could slide her off the couch and onto his lap.
"Was actually bordering on polite to me today."
"That's good, but she's right upstairs."
"She is. She left the door open when I came down here, too, but I'm betting she probably guesses we kiss, Princess," he whispered.
"You wanted to go out," she said.
"I still do. This, though, seems pretty important right now."
"Uh huh," he murmured.
She sighed softly but didn't put up any more of an argument after that.
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com