She'd been gone for a couple of weeks now. Since she was moving into a house that was essentially hers she was able to go down there whenever she wanted to. He tried not to take it personally that she'd elected to go down there sooner than necessary. She'd said it was so Jack would get adjusted to a new environment before her classes started. There was probably some truth to that, but he couldn't help but think she was running away from him.
Running might be too strong a word. He had her address and phone number so it wasn't as if he wouldn't know how to get a hold of her. She wasn't here, though, in town. As much as he'd like to claim it was Jack he was missing it just wasn't entirely the case.
He had taken Jack for a couple of overnight visits the week before she left. The scariest couple of nights of his life because for that entire time he was responsible for the guy. It wasn't as difficult as he expected it to be. She'd given him a bath before bringing him over both days so he hadn't had to do that. So, it was just feeding and changing him, plus keeping him entertained the little while he was awake during the evening before drifting off to bed. He'd managed all right.
He never thought he'd see the day he had things like baby food and bottles in his kitchen cupboards, but there were a few things there. It was a good thing the stuff didn't go bad because John couldn't be sure when he'd have him next without going to Claire and seeing him down there.
The playpen he'd bought was folded up and put away until the next time it would be used. He'd glanced at the space in his bedroom more than once, unable to shake the feeling that something was missing now that it wasn't there anymore. It'd only been there for a couple of weeks, but he'd sort of grown accustomed to working around it in the mornings as he got ready for work.
He'd gotten a letter from her today, surprising him to say the least. She hadn't said much, but had included a couple of pictures of not just Jack but Jack's bedroom so he could see how it was setup. He'd appreciated it, though there was a part of him that felt as though he should've been down there helping her setup not just Jack's room but the other stuff. He'd had to stay here, though, to work.
To this point she hadn't gotten lawyers involved. She and her father both seemed to feel that until he started reneging on the money he'd been sending her it wasn't necessary. He'd made sure both understood he had been giving her extra now to compensate for any slim months during the winter. There were temporary jobs to be had, sure, but since he didn't have to look into those things last winter he wasn't sure how much money they'd bring in.
John paused at the voice on the other end of the line. It was a guy, so very obviously not Claire. Had he dialed the wrong number?
"I think I have the wrong number."
'Who are you calling?'
"I'm looking for Claire. Claire Standish."
'Right number. Let me get her.'
"Thanks," John said, wondering if this was the guy in question her father had mentioned. He'd tried in a roundabout way to get her to admit to being involved with someone. He didn't want to ask outright because then he'd have to reveal his conversation with her father and John didn't think that would go over well. He had no idea if the comment about her dating someone last year had been true or part of the lie to see what might deter John most.
'Hello,' she said after a few minutes.
"Uh, hi, it's John."
'John, hi,' she said. 'How are you?'
"Fine. You? Both of you?"
'We're fine. I just got back from grocery shopping, though, so I was in the garage when you called. Sorry.'
"It's okay. I got your letter today, thank you for the pictures."
'You're welcome. I just thought you might like to see his room. It feels much more permanent this time than it did last winter when I put his room together.'
"I bet. You know you're staying put this go around. No leases to renew or anything. It's a nice thing your dad did."
'I know. I'm not sure how I'll ever repay him beyond being certain I get accepted into University of Illinois' law school program when I get to that point.'
The house her dad had bought was about an hour's drive out of town, sort of in between Champagne and Bloomington. Illinois State didn't have a law school program, but University of Illinois did. This way he'd get his money's worth out of the house if she was there not just for the next three years of college but for law school as well. It was a little closer to Bloomington than Champagne, but it was a straight shot on the Interstate to both schools. Her father had really thought it through.
"I'm pretty sure he doesn't want to be paid back beyond you being successful."
'I know. I still feel as though I should.'
'Yes. I had to pick up a couple of things for dinner.'
"What's for dinner tonight then?" he asked, noting now that it was kind of late for her to be cooking dinner.
She laughed. 'Actually, I'm just doing macaroni and cheese and some hot dogs. After I bought the stuff I got home and realized I don't want to cook an actual meal.'
'Yeah, at least the food will be here.'
"Well, I can let you go make your macaroni and cheese. I really just wanted to say thank you for the letter and pictures. I liked getting them."
'You're welcome, I'm glad. You don't have to go, though. I'm in the kitchen and Jack is in his playpen in the living room while I cook.'
'Sure, I can talk and boil noodles and hot dogs at the same time.'
'All right," he said. "I was thinking I could come see you guys this Saturday if it would be a good weekend."
'Sure, if you want to. I don't have anything planned.'
'I'm pretty positive. I mean, I'll probably have some homework, but I'll be sure to get it done before you get here. Unless you'd rather I not so you can spend time with Jack while I study.'
"No, that wasn't my intent."
He chuckled softly. "I guess neither of us are very sure of anything, but yes, I'm sure. I want to see both of you."
'Okay,' she said.
He sighed softly.
'What's wrong?' she asked.
"I have to ask. I have no business asking. What you do with your time is your thing and I realize I'm absolutely not in a position to expect explanations out of you."
"Why is there a guy answering your phone?"
'He babysat for me.'
'Because it's nice to get out of my house for a few minute trip to the store without having to strap Jack in, make sure I have a diaper in case in that fifteen minutes he needs a new one, and not have to worry about what kind of mood he's going to be in while there.'
"Who is he?"
'John,' she said. He could hear that she wasn't too happy with his questioning her, but he had to know. He was probably an idiot for feeling that way, but if he was wasting his time even thinking he had a chance with her well he wanted to know.
"I just find it hard to believe you have no one down there."
'You think I lied?'
"I think you weren't expecting to see me and maybe you didn't want to upset me by admitting to being involved with someone."
'Hold on, one second,' she said. 'Don't hang up,' she added. She didn't sound as though she really wanted to be talking to him anymore, though. She put her hand over the phone.
'Thanks Steve, I really appreciate it.'
'No problem, he's a breeze to take care of. He just wanted nothing more to do with that seat for the day. It happens.'
'Oh, what do I owe you?'
'Nothing. Forget it.'
'Okay, well, that's nice of you. Thanks,' she said. John couldn't help but thinking it was a little too nice of the guy. Free babysitting. Great.
'Have a good night,' the guy said. John heard the faint sound of a door opening and closing again and assumed Steve was gone now.
'Sorry,' she said. 'He brought the last bag of groceries in for me.'
"How nice," John added dryly. The guy wasn't stupid anyway. Offer to babysit, help her bring stuff into her house so she didn't have to leave Jack alone for any length of time, and he had no idea what else the guy had offered to do while John wasn't on the phone with her. John had never before taken notice of women with kids, but he had to admit if he had he'd be doing the same thing Steve there was doing.
'So, you think I'd kiss you if I was involved with someone else?'
"I don't know what you'd do, Claire. I really don't. I didn't think you'd have my baby and hide it from me either. So, who's to say you wouldn't do that? Keep your options open. I turn into the deadbeat bum you expect me to be you've got steady Steve there to fall back on."
'I should hang up on you. You know that, right? You're being an asshole.'
"Yeah, well, I'm not the one who didn't tell you about a girlfriend last year."
'I'm sorry, what?'
"You heard me. You had a boyfriend last year."
'Oh my God. I did not. I had a friend or two that I went out with, sure. I had no boyfriend. I was pregnant. Who the hell would want to date me like that?'
"I certainly would've if you'd given me the chance, and well, I've heard that pregnancy may not exactly be a deterrent to some guys."
'You think I slept with them, too?'
"I don't know what you did."
'I don't have a boyfriend. I didn't have a boyfriend. I've never really had a boyfriend because I don't consider a week with you a relationship. Steve is my next door neighbor, and he's married. He has two kids. Jack was cranky when we got home, Steve was out in his yard and saw us. I realized I'd forgotten to pick something up for dinner and Jack didn't want to have anything to do with going back in his car seat. Steve offered to help me. I took him up on his offer.'
"Is Jack okay?"
'He seems to be now.'
"What's wrong then?" John asked. He only had less than two months with the little guy to this point, but John had seen babies who wouldn't stop crying. Jack wasn't like that.
'My car got warm, I'm sure that's all it was.'
'My air conditioning broke on the way down here.'
"What? And you haven't gotten it fixed?"
'I haven't had the chance,' she said. 'I've been kind of busy unpacking and setting things up so I'm ready when school starts.'
He sighed softly. "I'll pick up parts and bring them with me when I come down on Saturday."
'You don't have to do that.'
"Yeah, I do."
'You're coming down to see Jack.'
"I'm coming down to see both of you. You can't be driving around in August and September with no air conditioning. I don't want Steve or anyone else thinking I don't know how to take care of what's mine."
'So you go from thinking I'm sleeping with Steve to my being yours? You can't have it both ways, John.'
"I wasn't expecting a guy to answer your phone."
'Well, he probably wouldn't have except he had to have heard me pulling into the garage, so he probably did it just to be nice. So whoever was calling would just have to wait a minute rather than get the machine. I don't know.'
"I'm sorry," he said softly.
'If I didn't know how difficult that was for you to say I'd pretend I didn't hear you and make you say it again.'
"I can say it again. I'm sorry."
'It's okay. And I did not hide being pregnant from you. I didn't tell you, but I wasn't in town avoiding you I was miles away at college.'
"No, it's not okay. I have no right to say those things."
'What's this boyfriend stuff anyway?' she asked.
"I could ask the same thing. You don't consider me a former boyfriend?" Her saying that had hurt more than he thought simple words could hurt. He didn't walk around announcing he'd dated her, but he certainly considered her an ex. His only ex.
'Well, no, not really. I mean, it was a week and you freaked out. I sort of assumed that meant I wasn't a very good girlfriend and left it at that.'
"So you haven't dated someone because of my reaction to dating you?"
'More or less, I guess. I really had no time, John. I was busy, and the last thing I wanted was that.'
"Someone to count on would be bad?"
'Well, no, that probably would've been nice. Someone expecting sex from me would be.'
"Ouch," he said. "I guess I should apologize for leaving you with that impression. I didn't think I showed you a bad time."
'We were in a closet in school.'
"Yeah, it seems to me you enjoyed yourself to some extent."
He closed his eyes. Really? Her answer to that was she guessed. "I didn't know. I've spent the last couple months thinking at least you didn't walk away from it hating sex and getting knocked up out of the deal. You certainly seemed to say you enjoyed it at my apartment that one night. I don't think I was hearing you wrong."
'It's not your fault. I don't mean it like that. I won't lie and say I didn't enjoy myself. You saw to it I did, I know that. I just don't want people to see me with a baby – or last year pregnant – and assume I'm going to sleep with them. So, I've just avoided the possibility altogether.'
"Is that why you didn't want to fool around with me?"
"The few times we were at my apartment you always stopped me."
'No. I was honest with you. I was leaving and, well, I don't want to get pregnant again.'
"There are things you can do where pregnancy isn't a possibility. Lots and lots of things, Claire, trust me. There are also ways to prevent them."
'Well, I don't know that I'd trust any of them.'
"Claire," he said softly.
'I have to go, John.'
"You don't, you just don't want to talk about this anymore. That's fine. We can talk about something else."
'Do you have to work Saturday?'
"Maybe. Probably. It shouldn't be a long day, though, just finishing up. It rained on Monday so we got a little behind on this job."
"If I get done Friday you want me to come down Friday instead?"
'If you want to,' she said.
"Claire," he said.
'That'd be nice,' she said.
"All right. Now I'll let you go so you can eat."
'You're such an ass,' she said, though he could tell she was teasing him.
"Yeah, so you keep saying. You must like that in your men, Princess."
'I don't have men.'
"You have me. And Jack."
'He's not a man yet.'
"Give him time."
'I'm definitely going to teach him not to be an ass. I kind of like him this age,' she said, almost as if an afterthought.
He chuckled. "He is pretty cute. I can understand that. Give him a kiss good night from his old man, all right?"
'What about his mom?'
"You can do it yourself."
Had he missed something? "No, what?"
'I was asking if I get one, too.'
"Oh," he said. Oh indeed. "By all means. I'd love it if you'd get beyond good night kisses, but that'll do for now."
'I'm sorry I made you think I didn't enjoy it.'
"One day, Princess, I hope you'll let me show you what we could be like doing it like normal people do it."
'We aren't normal?'
"That day we sure weren't."
'No, I guess we weren't.'
"Eat your macaroni and cheese."
'Thanks for calling.'
"You're welcome. Thanks for the pictures. I'll see you Friday or Saturday, I'll call before I leave so you know which day to expect me."
He hung up not at all sure whether it was a good conversation or not. She hadn't hung up mad at him or telling him to stay home this weekend, so he supposed that meant it was good. It was hard to tell with her. He couldn't blame her, he supposed, he had to prove he could be reliable and not run away at the first sign of getting scared or freaked out.
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com