John woke up earlier than he needed to. He hadn't asked Claire where the kids would think he was sleeping, but he knew being found together probably wasn't a good idea. It snowed a bit during the night but it hadn't accumulated much. His SUV had a light dusting of snow sticking to it, but that was about all.
As it wasn't his house there wasn't a whole lot for him to do being awake when no one else was. At his place there'd be tons to do. Here, though, well, about the only thing he could come up with was cleaning out the fireplace from the small fire they'd had last night. Greg had a bucket by the fireplace to collect the ashes.
There was a small partial ring of plastic on the carpet in front of the fireplace from when Greg scooped the ashes into a bucket too soon after the fire went out, melting the bucket. The bucket they had now was metal so that wouldn't happen again, but John still chuckled when he stepped on the melted piece of plastic imbedded in the carpet as a result of that mistake. Honestly, Greg was lucky he'd been here to notice it or it could've been pretty serious.
It was still funny, though.
Bill was the first to come up the stairs not long after John had finished in the fireplace. John heard the footsteps, chuckling softly at the uneven gait of the boy climbing up the stairs. He started up a couple of stairs and then stopped, started again and then stopped. John wondered if the boy wasn't sure it was okay to be out of bed yet. One disadvantage to the basement was there were only very small windows down there so it was difficult to tell exactly what time of day it was, especially during the winter like this when it was kind of a gray day to begin with.
"Good morning," John said.
"Morning," he said, sounding like he was still half asleep. Maybe he was.
"Is your brother still sleeping?"
"Mm hmm," he said.
"Do you want to still be sleeping?"
He shook his head.
"All right. Your mom is still sleeping."
"Really?" he asked, sounding surprised. John imagined he probably was. He knew Claire didn't get enough rest not to mention sleep. She was awake until after ten most nights and up before six every day. Anyone who thought being a teacher was easy didn't realize how much time went into things like grading papers, lesson plans, and working on tests.
"Yes," he said. "Are you, uh," he paused. What the hell was he supposed to say? "Supposed to get dressed right away or are you allowed to hang out in your pajamas for a while?"
"I can stay in them until after I eat."
"All right. I was going to make you and your brother some pancakes and eggs so you can stay in them until that happens I guess."
"I like pancakes."
"Yeah? Me, too," he said. He didn't know a kid who didn't like pancakes. "Do you like eggs?"
"Good. Bacon and sausage?"
"Well, then you'll eat just fine. Your mom bought some good stuff for us to eat while we're here at the store last night."
She hadn't bought a lot, knowing they'd be getting in too late last night to eat anything and would be leaving before dinner Sunday. They could bring the stuff home with them that they didn't finish. About the only thing he could imagine being left might be the eggs. Greg had told him to help himself to anything in the cabinets they wanted, just to let him know if they took anything so they'd know it was gone for their next trip up.
John had spotted the Bisquick in the freezer last night when putting the ice cream away they'd bought. He'd taken it out, figuring it'd make for a good breakfast in the morning.
"So," John said. "It's Saturday. We could go downstairs and see if there are some cartoons on."
"You watch cartoons?"
"Sure," John said with a shrug. He hadn't in years, but he didn't dislike them or anything. "The Ninja Turtles might be on. You like them, huh?"
"Who's your favorite?"
"I don't know them well enough to pick a favorite, but if you like Raphael he must be pretty cool."
"He is. My friend Tommy likes Dona…"
He knew crap about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but he did know they were named after famous artists. He didn't know a lot about art or artists, but he knew who Raphael and Donatello were.
"Yeah, him better."
"My friend, the one whose cabin this is, he's got a son about your age. He likes Two Stupid Dogs. Do you watch that?"
"I've seen it."
"Yeah? I've heard my friend talk about it, it sounds kind of funny."
"The TV is downstairs?"
"Yup, there's one upstairs, too," John said, gesturing to the stairs leading to the loft. "We'll go down, though, so Justin doesn't wonder where everyone is when he wakes up."
John followed him down the stairs. The uneven gait he'd noticed coming up the stairs was gone now, so John imagined it was more an uncertainty of his surroundings and whether he should go walking around than anything else.
He turned the TV on. He had no idea what the channels were up here, so he just started flipping through the channels until Bill told him to stop.
"Captain Planet, huh," John said.
"Yes. I like him."
"Yeah? All right then," John said, setting the remote down on the arm of the couch next to him.
Justin didn't sleep too much longer. He came out of the room and climbed up onto the couch with John and Bill to watch the end of the cartoon Bill had turned on after Captain Planet had finished.
"You guys hungry? You can stay down here and keep watching while I get stuff ready."
"Sure," Bill said.
Justin leaned in toward Bill then.
"Will, nicely," Justin whispered. Well, he tried to whisper. He probably thought he was whispering, but John heard him say his brother's name pretty clearly.
"Yes, Sir," Bill said and John chuckled. "Sorry."
"It's all right." John supposed he shouldn't say it was, because that was undermining what Claire was trying to teach them. He sighed. "Please would work pretty well, though, instead of sir."
"Yes, please," Bill and Justin both said.
John couldn't remember hearing Justin say Bill's name before and wondered if he always called him Will. He had no idea and wasn't sure it was something he should ask Claire or not. What he knew about kids and how they learned to talk was nothing.
He went upstairs then, finding what he needed in the kitchen to make breakfast. Watching cartoons hadn't been that bad. He'd expected for some reason for Bill to be all over the place, hyper. Maybe he had been around the wrong kids or he'd just been around the right kids at the wrong time, but younger kids always seemed so busy. Part of the reason John stayed away, he didn't do well with people who needed his undivided attention, big or little people.
He fried up the bacon and sausage, figuring whatever they didn't eat this morning could be heated up later or tomorrow morning. Then he made pancakes and last fried up eggs. He hadn't asked how they liked their eggs, but he felt safe in making them scrambled eggs.
He thought about letting them eat downstairs, but decided against it because of the pancakes and syrup. Had it just been the eggs he wouldn't have had a problem doing it.
"All right, guys, come on up," he said, just as Claire came into the living room.
"It smells delicious," she said.
"Yeah?" He leaned in and kissed her lightly since the boys hadn't started up the stairs yet.
"You going to join us?"
"I was hoping there would be enough for me."
"There is for sure," he said. He tapped her stomach lightly. "Even enough for that one, too."
"That's good to know."
She blushed. "I'm fine."
"All right. Did you sleep all right?"
"I slept great. I can't believe what a difference closing that shade made."
"I'm glad," he said.
He'd woken her up before getting out of bed. Despite what had happened last night he'd needed to be inside of her this morning. He wouldn't have blamed her for saying no, but she hadn't. He was more careful this time, going much slower and not nearly as deep as he had last night. She hadn't seemed too happy about that, but he didn't care what she said seeing even the remote traces of blood it had been on his dick scared the crap out of him. There were places blood just weren't supposed to be. That part of him was one of them.
"What did you do with your morning?"
"Nothing really. Just sat, looking at the lake," he said.
"It's beautiful. I can't wait to walk down there with Justin later."
"Just be careful. I don't want you falling while Bill and I are gone."
"I will be, don't worry."
"I worry. You tell me your balance is a little off. There are rocks and stuff down there."
"I know. I will be careful, John. Really. I've done this before."
"Yeah, you have and I haven't. I get it. I'm no expert." He walked to the stairway leading to the basement then. "Hey, guys, should your mom and I eat all of the breakfast or what?"
"Coming," they both said in unison and he shook his head a little at how similar they sounded.
"John, I didn't mean it…"
"Yeah, I know what you meant. I'm sorry for being concerned I guess that exceeds the limits of our arrangement. Don't worry about it."
"No, that's not it. Don't do this now, please. I will be careful. I'm always careful. I was just saying it's not like I haven't walked around this far along in the winter before."
She sighed and he saw tears in her eyes that she tried to hide as soon as she heard footsteps on the stairs indicating the boys were finally coming upstairs to eat.
"Thank you for worrying," she said softly. "You realize though he or she is pretty protected. If I fell or something he'd be okay."
"You think that's what I'm worried about? The baby? I mean, I am, sure, I wouldn't be human I don't think if that didn't pass through my mind. I don't want to have to bring you home to your mother's house having fallen or something."
"I know," she said.
The kids were sitting at the big table off the kitchen. It wasn't really a dining room since the whole first floor aside from the bedrooms was open and the kitchen was right there. With eight kids and a husband to feed, Greg's mom hadn't wanted to go far with food when they were little he imagined.
They ate and Claire went downstairs to get Justin dressed while Bill did the same thing. John came down a little while later and unlocked a door in the hallway of the basement he was pretty sure none of them had even noticed was there until he did.
"Why does it have a lock?" Bill asked.
"Because there's tons of stuff in here. Hunting and fishing stuff. Some of it could be dangerous if a kid got a hold of it. Or even the wrong adult. People know cabins like these aren't lived in all year long and know what the owners likely have inside of them. They built the door like this, flush into the paneling, so people would hopefully keep going. They've kept pretty much everything there was to keep over the years. Ice skates, snowmobile suits, and everything else you can imagine. With eight kids and grandkids they've accumulated a lot of stuff."
"What's that mean?" Bill asked.
"They have lots of different sized stuff. I'm pretty sure we'll be able to find a snowmobile suit to fit you."
"Oh," he said, brightening at that.
"You mentioned ice skating," he said to Claire, pointing at the shelves containing more ice skates than he'd ever seen in one place. "Help yourself. There should be some Justin's size, too. Greg says he was skating almost before he could run so I'm sure they have little sizes for Justin."
He wasn't sure how well she would be able to ice skate if she couldn't stay properly balanced with her feet planted on the ground, but he wasn't going to make that mistake again. If she wanted to ice skate who the hell was he to tell her no? He gathered what he and Bill would need for their ride.
She hadn't grabbed skates for herself he noticed and he felt a little better about that.
Claire helped Bill get ready first.
"You're surprisingly calm about me taking him on a snowmobile," he said.
"I trust you," she said with a shrug. "Besides, he's been looking forward to it since you first mentioned it. I couldn't say no to him now. He deserves something fun."
"So does his mom."
"I'm not a little boy who's lost his dad."
"No, I guess you're not. No skates for you?" he asked against his better judgment.
"No, I figure I can walk with him at the pace he'll go today anyway."
"Thank you," he said.
She smiled a little at that.
"You're welcome. You had visions of coming back here to me being sprawled out on the lake with Justin sitting there crying, didn't you?"
"Yes! He wouldn't be much help if you fell and broke your ankle or something."
"I know. I thought about that and I want you and Bill to have a good time. I don't want you worrying about me. I'll be fine. I promise."
"All right," he said.
Claire checked Bill one last time to be sure he was dressed and everything was closed up and zipped, all extremities covered.
"You listen to John and do whatever he says. If he tells you to sit still you listen immediately."
"I know, Mommy."
"All right. If you get cold or anything you need to tell John so he can stop."
"I can go now?"
"Yes. Have fun."
John helped him onto the snowmobile, checking to be sure he was secure. He wasn't going to go far with him. He didn't know the area well enough to go on the longer trails that led very far from here. He did know if he kept the lake on the same side of as when they left they'd be all right.
"Why are we stopping?" Bill asked a while later once John had slid his helmet off.
"I figured you could use some hot chocolate or something. You all right? You haven't complained about being cold once."
He'd stopped more than once to be sure he was doing okay and not scared or anything. John didn't go real fast, but there were no seatbelts and there were bumps and rough patches of snow that he was sure could be a little frightening to someone not used to it.
"But it's a grownup place."
"It is, but it's lunchtime, and it's one of the only places around here so anyone can go in there."
"Even you. Now if hot chocolate doesn't sound good…"
"Yes, Sir, it does," he said.
"Good. Come on then," he said.
John ordered Bill a hot chocolate and some chicken strips because he said he was hungry. John was kind of hungry himself so he ordered a burger and a glass of Coke.
"So you like snowmobiling so far?"
"You're not cold?"
"A little, but it's fun I don't mind."
"Do you think Justin is having fun ice skating?"
"He'll probably fall a bunch."
"Probably. Your mom said you play hockey."
"You know when we get back if you want to find some skates that fit you we could."
"Sure," he said.
"What else did you do? Baseball?"
"Is your mom going to register you for Little League this summer?"
"I think so."
"Did you play?"
"No," he said.
"I didn't have a mom like yours."
"What kind of mom did you have?"
John shrugged. How to explain it to a seven year old? He wasn't sure. "She didn't," he paused. He had to remember he was talking to a kid. "There are good moms, the ones like the one you have. There aren't so good moms. I had that kind."
"Me, too, but you're lucky and I can tell you as a guy who knows what it's like not to be lucky."
"You don't like your mom?"
"That's a pretty tough question to answer. It's hard to like someone who's supposed to be nice to you and isn't."
"There's a girl at school I think she has one of those moms."
"Oh?" he asked.
"She never comes to anything. She didn't even get to go trick-or-treating on Halloween."
"Some people don't believe in it," John said.
"No, that wasn't why. Her mom just didn't get her a costume," Bill shrugged. "She didn't have a tree either she said at Christmas."
"Even you had a tree and you don't have kids."
He didn't always have trees, but he figured that maybe wasn't something he should say at the moment.
"She comes to school though?"
"Peggy? Yeah," Bill said.
"No, I mean her mom."
"Oh, no, not really. We had a show for Christmas and she didn't come for that."
"Your mom did?"
"Yes," Bill said as if his mom being there was a given. John was glad he had that confidence in her. John had the opposite experience. He prayed on those days that his mom wouldn't show up and cause a scene, embarrassing him even more.
"Is she all right?"
"Her mom?" Bill asked, sounding confused.
John shook his head. "No, the girl in your class. She's all right when she comes to school."
Bill frowned and John knew he'd exceeded the boy's understanding with that question.
"Never mind, it's not important. Do you like her?"
John chuckled then. Yeah, he remembered being in second grade and girls weren't anything that interested him. "I meant is she your friend."
"Oh well, she's nice to me. She's a good drawer. She colored me a picture of Raphael once."
"Wow. That was pretty nice."
"That's what Mommy said. Her name isn't really Peggy."
"No, it's something else that doesn't sound like Peg at all. We had a substitute one day and they called all our names and hers was different."
"Hmm," John said, thinking on that. "Margaret maybe?"
"Yeah, I don't know why people named Margaret are called Peg or Peggy, but they are. You be nice back to her."
"I am," Bill said, that frown back in place then.
"Yeah, I know, just keep being nice to her. Sometimes people with not very good mommies they need friends. You know?"
"Okay," Bill said.
John knew he didn't know, though. Maybe one day he would. Maybe that day John would still be around for Bill to ask him about what he meant. John wasn't sure where he was going to be if and when Peggy's situation revealed itself to be anything like John's. It could've been nothing. Maybe she was just a girl who had disengaged parents. Some parents didn't give a shit. John couldn't understand that thinking. If he had kids who were in school he'd go through the effort of being involved in everything he could.
John paid for their food, surprised Bill had eaten everything on his plate. The chicken strips were pretty big so he guessed he was hungry. He'd eaten pretty well at breakfast, too. Claire hadn't, but she'd assured him that was normal anymore. She ate less more often.
"Thank you," Bill said.
"You're welcome. I wonder what your mom and Justin had for lunch."
"Justin doesn't like much."
"No. Not as much as I do."
"Yeah, well, he's a little younger than you and probably still learning what things taste like."
"Will I be a big brother again?"
"What?" John asked.
"When the baby comes. Can Justin and me both be his big brother?"
"Yup. It'll be a very lucky baby."
"You're pretty lucky, too, because you'll be the oldest brother to both of them."
"Mommy says it's a ponsibility."
"Responsibility. And she's right it is because if you do things they'll want to do them, too. Good and bad."
"I don't do anything real bad."
"You do bad things?"
"Sometimes I don't brush my teeth even though Mommy tells me to."
John nodded slightly at that. "Well, I won't tell her, but you should brush your teeth. You should always do what your mom tells you. You know why?"
"Because she's smart and if she tells you to do something it's because she thinks it's the right thing for you to do."
"I know," he murmured.
"All right. You ready for more then?"
"Yes," he said.
John helped make sure he was all bundled up again since they'd gotten comfortable while eating. The gloves were a little odd to pull on, so John helped him with those, too.
John knew where they were because he'd been to the bar before. Bar was selling it short. It was one of those places in the little town the cabin was in that anyone could go to during the day. Once the sun set, though, that was an entirely different story. It was a nice place, though, that Greg said had been there since he was a kid and would likely be there when Greg's kids' kids came up here.
It was close to dusk when they finally got back. He could tell Bill was starting to get tired. Hours of fresh air could knock kids out he knew.
"Next time can I ride behind you?" he asked. They were in the garage. John was showing him how to cover it and stuff.
"Maybe. I think Greg mentioned he had a belt like thing that I could wrap around us so if your hold on me slips you won't fall off. I didn't want to take the chance today since you've never been on one before. Your mom would probably kill me if something had happened to you."
"She wouldn't have killed you."
"I bet if someone hurt one of you kids she'd be pretty mad."
"I've only seen her mad once," he said.
"I don't know. Daddy did something."
John nodded. Daddy had done a lot of things that probably would've made Claire mad.
"Daddy's do that sometimes. Mommy's do too, for that matter. People get mad at each other. It doesn't mean they stay mad or don't like one another."
"You said Mommy got mad at you once."
"I did?" John didn't remember that, but he didn't think the kid would make that up. "But see we're still friends and that was a real long time ago before she'd met your dad."
"Oh, that's a long story. Maybe when you're older."
"Mommy said that, too, when I asked her why she was mad at Daddy."
"Well, then ask her when you're older. She still may not tell you why she was mad, though. She may not even remember by then."
"I'm the only kid at school without one."
"I bet you are. Does that make you feel bad?"
"Do people treat you different because of it?"
"No, not really."
"Well, that's good."
"He was famous."
"I know. Your mom's told me."
"I saw his picture on a bus once."
"Really?" Claire hadn't mentioned that.
"Was that cool?"
"He looked funny."
Bill giggled softly. "Because his face was so big."
John chuckled at that. He could see that, yeah. To fit on the side of a bus they'd have to really enlarge a picture.
"Do you have a picture of it?"
"Good. You hang onto that stuff. Don't lose it."
"Do you want to see it?"
"You have it here?"
"No," he said as if that should be obvious. John had no idea what a kid like Bill would bring with him on a weekend trip.
"Well, sure, some day if you want to show it to me. You can show me anything you want, Bill."
John had absolutely no desire to put a face with the name, but he wasn't going to say that to the kid. He certainly couldn't say he didn't want to see what his dad looked like.
"All right. Let's go see what Mommy and Justin did all afternoon."
"Wow, it smells good in here," John said.
"Mommy's making spaghetti," Bill said, sounding very excited about that.
"How do you know?"
"Because I can smell it," he said.
"Ah," John said. "Does she make good spaghetti?"
"Well, then I guess I can't wait."
No one had come to the door to greet them so John helped Bill out of his stuff, setting the boots on the mat by the door. He'd worn a helmet, but he'd lifted the plastic shielding off a couple of times to say something to John so his cheeks around his eyes were still a bit red from the wind.
"I bet your mom will want to put some lotion or ointment on that," John said.
Bill went to the bathroom that was upstairs just off the entryway while John went to go see where Claire and Justin were. He saw Justin's stuff by the door so he knew they were inside. The kitchen was empty, though John saw a pot on the stove that judging by what Bill said held spaghetti sauce.
He went downstairs then and paused at the base of the stairs when he saw them. Claire was on the floor on her side with Justin pressed as close against her as he could get. Even sleeping her arm was around him protectively, preventing him from going far. Justin and Bill were lucky kids because John was pretty sure his mom had never had a protective bone in her body when it came to him even at this age.
Bill started down the stairs and John turned around, shaking his head to tell Bill to stay upstairs. He settled a blanket from the back of the couch over the two of them and went back upstairs. The TV wasn't on, but there was a game on the floor so evidently Justin and Claire had been playing that when they drifted off. That explained why they hadn't come to see them when they got inside.
"They're sleeping," John said when he got upstairs.
"Oh," Bill said, sounding disappointed.
"You're hungry already?"
"No, I just wanted to tell Mommy about the ride."
"Oh, well, you still can when she wakes up. There's a TV up in the loft if you want to go up there we can."
"Sure," Bill said.
John had no idea what else to do with him. He was way out of his league, he'd discovered that this morning because he'd had no idea what to do with Bill then either. He could've gotten Claire up, but she needed her rest. He knew in a couple of months, less than that now, she wouldn't be getting nearly as much rest as she needed.
They found a movie on TV that John thought Claire wouldn't kill him for letting Bill watch and sat on the couch up there. Bill sat next to him, which surprised him a bit. He figured he'd sit on one of the chairs or something.
It didn't take long for them to be joined by Claire and Justin.
"Hi," she said.
"You made it back."
"We did and in one piece."
"Obviously I wasn't that concerned."
"Or you were just that tired."
"Do I have you to thank for the blanket?"
John tried to keep track of the conversation after that. Bill and Justin seemed to be in some sort of competition with one another to share about their day as fast as they could right on top of each other so John couldn't understand anything either of them said. Claire didn't seem to have that problem, but she did tell them to talk one at a time. After that he had no problems.
Justin ice skated, not very well and he'd fallen and would likely have a sore ass for a day or two as a result. He'd had fun, though. Claire had not fallen.
"You took him to a bar?" she asked John.
"It's not. I mean, it is, but Greg brings his kids there all of the time."
"I didn't drink anything!"
"He had Coke, Mommy."
"Really, you think I'd do that?"
"No, I just had no idea."
"I just thought he could use a little break and it's the only place around here."
"That was nice of you, thank you. And if Bill didn't thank you."
"Good. I made spaghetti. Well, I made sauce for spaghetti. I was going to wait until you guys got home and were hungry to actually cook the noodles."
"Bill told me you make good spaghetti."
"I do all right. I haven't cooked since we moved in with my mom, though, so I'm a little out of practice."
"It smells great."
"Thank you," she said.
"I'm not sure why you're thanking me. You made the sauce that smells very good, but you're welcome."
Tonight's fire had been way better than last night's. Bill and Justin had gotten to roast marshmallows. They'd eaten some plain by themselves, but had both loved when he and Claire had put them with chocolate on graham crackers. Both were young enough yet that sitting with their mom for hours doing nothing but playing a game and hanging out was still a cool thing to do. John imagined in a few years Bill wouldn't think it was so cool anymore. Then, maybe he wouldn't stop thinking it was cool.
The kids had gone to bed a while ago, leaving them alone up here until the fire went out. He could've put it out, but Claire didn't seem to be in any more of a hurry to go to bed than he was. He liked spending time with her like this, away from everything. That was probably bad because getting her away from everything again anytime soon wasn't going to happen.
His house was away from everything in a way. That was one of the things he loved about it. He could go home, close the gate, look out over the lake and forget about the traffic, his shitty day, or anything else he wanted to forget about for a while because it was his place.
"Have you met this Peggy girl he told me about?" he asked.
"No, why? He's mentioned her. She drew him a picture."
"He told me that. Just wondering. He mentioned her mom's not too involved. No Halloween costume and didn't show up for the Christmas thing."
"No, she didn't. I didn't know about the Halloween costume."
"You're worried about her?"
"I hear about a kid whose mom's not involved with her second grade aged kid, yeah I guess I wonder. Aren't most parents involved?"
"Most. Some aren't and some are just not as actively as others."
"I'm as active as I can be. I can't go on field trips with his class or anything."
"Because I'm at work when they go on field trips."
"Oh, yeah, I suppose. You're not going to be working next year, though."
"No, I won't, but I'll be in school."
"True, but maybe you could go on one if your school schedule allows."
"I could, yeah."
"You'd like that?"
"Yes. I'm not sure Bill would."
"I don't know I don't think the kids actually like their parents going along."
"Oh," he said. "I guess I don't remember."
"I don't remember you going on many field trips."
"That's why I don't remember."
"Oh," she said.
"What?" he asked. She looked as if she wanted to say something.
"No, it's something. What?"
"You were mad at me earlier."
"I wasn't mad at you. I was worried you were going to do something and get hurt."
"Yeah, I know what I said."
"No, don't do that. You said that exceeds the boundary of our arrangement."
"Is that what you view this as?"
"Isn't that what it is? I'm fulfilling a need you have."
"But after the Bulls game you asked me."
"You said you weren't ready for something, which to me implied this is what things are."
"I don't know."
"That I'm fulfilling your need. Once the baby comes you probably won't have that need. You couldn't anyway for a while."
"So, we're not friends?"
"I never said that."
"So how would worrying about me be bad?"
"It's not. It just bothers me, okay?"
"Nothing," he said.
"I have no rights. We're doing this. Whatever we're doing. Most people who are as intimate as we are have the right to be concerned. To worry. I mean, I know the baby isn't mine. You do know I know that right?"
She laughed softly.
"I'm serious. Sometimes I don't know what you think I think."
"I know you know that."
"That doesn't mean I'm not going to worry. I worry about you. I know you've done it before, but I wasn't there when you did it before. I've never been around someone as pregnant as you are before. So I don't know."
"I'm sorry. You think this is easy for me, John? You don't think I feel incredibly guilty."
"We're not doing anything wrong."
"You think what we're doing is wrong?"
"Not wrong, but it's not entirely right either."
"No, it's not, John. Not even seven months ago I was married. My life was what it was. I got pregnant."
"Yeah, I'm aware of that."
"I know you are, but I can't just stop feeling married. I can't stop feeling like I'm doing something wrong. I can't stop looking at my mom and know she's incredibly disappointed in me."
"Disappointed in you for moving on?"
"So soon, yes."
"Soon? Jesus. Claire, you thought about leaving him, does she know that?"
"I don't know. She hasn't said. It doesn't work that way and until I have stopped feeling that way I just don't think I can make any decisions."
"You know, maybe you should talk to your mom. Maybe she'd be a little more understanding if she knew the things I know."
"Claire, you're her daughter. I'm sure if she liked Dan it was because he was your husband and she assumed it was because he was good to you. It sounds like overall he was. Bill talks about him fondly, so I have to believe he wasn't an asshole in general. What he did to you is wrong and maybe your mom wouldn't be so quick to judge you if she knew. Her loyalty's going to be with you not him."
"It'd just be weird."
"Yeah, I bet it would, but at least I wouldn't worry she thinks I'm out to sully your spotless reputation or something."
Claire snorted softly. "Sully, really?"
"Shut up," he said with a chuckle. "Is that all that's stopping you? Your mom?"
"No. I'm not ready."
"I still don't know what you want from me."
"You don't want a relationship. Kids."
"I actually never said that. You've put words into my mouth based on who and how I was ten years ago. I dated Amanda."
"As far as kids, no I don't want any of my own. I worry that somehow my DNA will be screwed up."
"John, there's nothing wrong with you or your DNA."
"You don't know that! I'd never hurt anyone, but what if I produced someone worse than my father."
"What if you produced someone better than you?"
"Well, you've said after that one there you're done."
"Well, since you're the person I'm interested in that would rule out more."
"And you'd be okay with that?"
"Sure. I assumed I'd never have any."
"I've just been busy. You know? I had a lot to overcome and I didn't want to repeat my parents' mistakes."
"I can understand that."
"I mean. I have friends. I do things. I think I've carved out a decent and solid life for myself. I've done that on my own, though, and I felt I had to do it on my own. It would've been easy, you know. You."
"You've mentioned your interest in me back then. I could've snatched you up and held on for dear life, but that wasn't what I wanted for myself."
"And neither of us would've been happy."
"I know that, too."
"I knew I wanted to prove Vernon wrong, that was about the extent of what I wanted back then. That's been my focus since."
"Ultimately. I mean, I've stopped thinking about him, but the drive to be better than what anyone expected of me is still there."
"There was nothing wrong with you."
"You say that, and you saw things probably no one else did after that day. That's you, though, not me. I think that's what makes you a good mom and a good teacher."
"Yet you're encouraging me not to teach."
"Sure, because it's not what you want to do, but I'm sure your kids have been better off having you as a teacher the past five or so years you've been teaching."
"I like to think so."
"I'm sure they are. That doesn't mean that you can't be the house where all of your kids' friends come to hang out and be the cool mom everyone wants but can't have."
She laughed softly at that.
"I like to think that you deserve better than a built-in family, too."
"I like your family."
"Yeah, but you could have your own kids."
"I could and I guess if I really wanted them that badly we wouldn't be here. If I had my choice between kids and a chance with you and your kids I'd still take a chance with you."
"What if my being ready means I want to date people?"
He sighed softly.
"I told you a while back that you should do that."
"And you'd be okay with that now?"
"Honestly? No, it'd piss me off beyond belief and I'd hate every second of it. If that's what you needed to do. What could I do? Stop you?"
"No, I guess you couldn't."
"So if it was understand what you need to do or get told to get the fuck out of your life I guess I'd have to choose to understand."
"And be miserable?"
"Until you made a decision."
"Why would you do that to yourself?"
"Why wouldn't I for the right person?"
"You think I've ever told anyone in my life I love them? Ever?"
"I guess not."
"I can't even remember the last time I told my mom that. Maybe I was older than Bill, but I doubt it. That's why the things he said about that girl Peggy got to me. I remember what it was like to have the different parents and to be viewed as different because of them. Kids couldn't place what was different about me or why, but they knew that my life wasn't like theirs."
"I wish I could remember you from that grade."
"I remember you, but you were always memorable."
"It's because of my hair, right?"
He chuckled a little. "Yeah. It was because of your hair."
"I just don't want to hurt you."
"It's kind of too late for that, sweetheart. From Halloween on I kind of knew. I wasn't anticipating things happening between us the way they have."
"I know. How could you?"
"It'd bother me a lot more now than it would've then."
"I'm sorry. I really messed things up, haven't I?"
"You haven't, Claire, don't say that. I don't regret any of the past couple of months."
"Not even getting caught by my mother?"
"Well, she didn't really catch us. We weren't doing anything at the time."
"Oh, I know she knows."
Claire stood then. He always felt kind of bad, watching her struggle as she did. He wanted to help her, but he knew there was nothing he could do to help her. As she'd said earlier she had done this before. He just felt kind of guilty that he couldn't do anything.
"You know what I would like to do tonight?"
"Uh is that a trick question?"
"No, really," she said, offering him her hand.
He took her hand, following her in the direction of their bedroom.
"I'm going to ask again. Is this a trick question?"
"Be quiet, John."
"Yes, ma'am," he said.
They got ready for bed, John wondering just what she had in mind for tonight that she wouldn't even tell him what she was thinking.
He was staring at the ceiling, waiting for her when she finally got into bed with him.
"Hmm. You skipped the nightgown thing entirely tonight?"
"Because you said you liked me like this."
"I do, very much."
"That's why I did."
"Thank you," he said.
She slid beside him and kissed him, lingering a bit before turning onto her side.
"I told you once that what I really missed was the other stuff. The rest of it. I mean if I wasn't pregnant my hormones wouldn't be so out of control and I wouldn't be like I am."
"Yeah, I remember and I get it."
"Tonight I want the rest of it."
He snorted softly at that. "I think that's the easiest thing you've asked me to do yet, sweetheart."
"And the nicest." He slid his hand along her side, resting against her abdomen. "Hmm, he must think so, too."
"It would seem so."
"Did you have fun with Bill today?" He thought she'd drifted off she'd been quiet for a few minutes. He wanted her to sleep so he hadn't said anything else.
"I did. I didn't know what to do with him exactly, but I'll work on that if you let me."
"I'll let you."
"Maybe you could be at the house if we invite Peggy over."
"You'd know what you're looking for more than I would."
"You have good instincts, Claire. You'd know, too, but if I can be there, sure. She's the only girl he's talked about."
"She's cute. I mean, the picture she drew was cute and the way he describes her."
"Just wait, a few years from now you won't think she's so cute. You'll think she's after your son or out to break his heart or something."
"Well, of course, but for now she's cute."
He kissed her shoulder.
"Did you have girls after you?"
"No, really. I mean, I know you had lots of girl friends, but did you have girls who actually wanted to be your girlfriend?"
"Their loss. I would've been, you know?"
"We've covered this already, Claire. I know, but I couldn't have been what you wanted."
"You think you can be now?"
"I don't think. I know I can be now, sweetheart. I would never hurt you."
"I'm glad. Now get some rest. I'll make more pancakes tomorrow."
"I thought so."
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com