Once I’d gotten spackling done at the Davison house, Basil had me painting their kitchen. They’d wanted a garish shade of orange, but, hey, I didn’t have to live there and I only had to stare at it for a few hours.
After new years, my brother would have me sanding baseboards at the Moran’s. I’d taken a walk-through of the place with him because most of the crew wouldn’t be around to begin with. Basil had said something about it being a fixer-upper a new couple to the area had bought. It obviously needed a lot of work. I’d be tearing away the paint on the running boards and trim of the main floor to begin with.
I was looking forward to starting that job as I’d be alone again for a little-
“Oh, my god, you have to try this one on,” Nita said. She’d dragged me to the local bridal shop, the Next Chapter, which catered to men as well, and was traipsing down the aisles like she owned the place.
“Yeah, uh, they’re all going to look the same on me,” I said as she forced another tux into my arms. Apparently, there was a difference between the cuts, the fabric, or something else I couldn’t understand.
“You have no imagination.”
She’d already picked out her dress for the wedding. It was shoulderless with a lace-up back and hugged her curves until about mid-thigh where it flared out. The print was red, gold, and black arrows and lines in a Native American Indian print on a white backdrop. She’d shown me when I’d first started dating Haven. I mean the first time I first started dating him. Last night had been our first date. I knew that because Haven had walked me to my family’s front door. And then he’d kissed me. Again. He’d done so several times on the way home ever since we’d agreed it was a date.
I still didn’t know what I was going to do with the information. I’d been planning on moving on and still held on to that like a lifeline. I figured I had until Nita’s wedding to figure out if this was real. After all, she’d made me her best man.
“…sixty seconds.” I turned in time to see the door shut and realise I’d been led into the changing room. I sighed. Nita had used my wandering mind against me. I hung up half a dozen tuxes I hadn’t noticed her piling on me. Wait… “What was that about sixty seconds?” I called out alarmed.
“You better hurry up and change, space cadet, you’ve got thirty-nine seconds left.”
“That’s not enough time,” I squawked even.
“It’s down to thirty before I change you myself.” I could hear the evil smirk in her voice. “Chop, chop.”
I ripped my clothes of and was nearly panting as she opened the door.
“You missed a button.”
My hands froze at the top of the shirt. Sure enough, there was an extra buttonhole up there.
She tsked as she walked forward and smacked my hands away saying, “You never could dress yourself.”
“You just caught me in compromising positions.”
She started on the tie. “Well, if I didn’t mom would have. And then you’d have been hitched with several calves of your own by now. Or kits, since you’re a mink.”
If that had happened, I wasn’t sure the residents of Hidden Pines would have the life they did now. But I couldn’t bring myself to say so. I’d exposed my family to censure and left them high and dry in the aftermath.
She stepped back to examine her work. “You know, this one looks silly on you. The wide lapels make you look way too skinny.” She went over and flipped through the suits, picking the second one in. “Try this one next. I think it’ll be perfec for yout.”
She’d been right on the money. The one she’d picked had been perfect. The relief didn’t last long as she then started shopping for a vest, shoes, a tie, a tiepin, a pocket square, cufflinks, and she spied a pocket watch she also thought would be ‘perfect’. And I couldn’t even tell her she was wrong. I also couldn’t let her buy my outfit, so had to give up more of my precious savings.
But I’d make it up between now and her wedding.
As we exited the store there was a high pitched squeel. We turned in time to see a toddler barreling toward us on her tiny legs. She smashed into Nita’s legs screaming ‘ma’ over and over and giggling.
“Hello, little bee.” Nita swung the little girl up and propped her on one hip. The girl squeeled in delight when Nita poked her in the belly.
Lavinia strolled up not far behind her daughter. “She really wanted to see you and you did say you were headed to lunch, so I thought we could go together.” She turned to me with a serene smile. “If it’s alright with you?”
“Of course.” I turned toward the little girl in Nita’s arms. She hid her face in her mother’s neck and peeked at me with one eye. “May I have lunch with you miss…” I pause, exaggeratedly trying to remember her name. “Elfie?” A small smile tugged tugged the corner of her lip but she bit it. “No? Was it Ella?” She stopped biting her lip as she shook her head. “Not that one either, huh?” I snapped my fingers. “I got it! Your name is Esther!”
By this time she was grinning. Lifting her head up she looked me straight in the eye and said, “I’m Erink, silly.”
I clapped my palm to my forhead in defeat. “Of course! How could I have got that wrong?” I bowed.“I’m so very sorry.” Presenting my hand for her to shake , I said, “My name is Keelan.”
As she took my hand, an earthquake spoke from the child’s stomach. “I’m hungry,” Erin announced. We all burst out laughing. She looked at each of us in turn seeming to get more and more angry. “What?” We laughed harder.
In the end we went to Daily Grind for a light lunch. It had turned into my favorite place to go for coffee. They had sandwiches, chilled pizza slices with odd but tasty combinations like spinach, fresh tomato and artichoke hearts, and other to-go items that you could also eat in if you wanted. Plus the owner had a very welcoming personality, like drinking hot cocoa during a blizzard. We’d started talking when I’d first stopped in few days ago and I’d made a point to stop by again.
Lavinia sat by with her back to he window while I sat so I could see all the exits and Nita and Erin sat with their backs to the main part of the restaurant around a tall round table near the back.
“Keelan! I was disappointed you didn’t come in for your morning coffee today. I wanted you to meet my husband, I really think you’d hit it off.” Pulling up a chair, he turned toward the rest of the table. “And who are the lovely ladies you’re escorting today? Why, Nita, this is quite the surprise. You don’t stop by very often anymore.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve been selling more propteries in the cities lately.”
He clapped his hands together. “That’s fantastic! So, business is booming and I hear you’re finally tieing the knot soon?”
No pun intended, I thought, chuckling.
Nita shot me a look. I figured she’d have slapped my shoulder if it was in reaching distance.
“Actually, this is my fiance, Lavinia. Lavinia, this is Peter. He’s a god with coffee beans.”
“How do you do.” She sounded like she should be in a black and white movie. Looked like it too.
“My, you landed a goddess, eh?” Peter said, nudging Nita with an elbow. Lavinia stiffly pulled Erin into her lap and started running her fingers through the girl’s hair as if to straighten the immaculate locks.
“Right?” Nita grinned teasingly. “I’m the luckiest girl in the world. I have a gorgeous fiance,” she reached over Erin’s empty seat and tickled her belly to make her giggle, “and the cutest little girl imaginable.”
“I’m so jealous,” Peter said wistfully. “I’m trying to convince Victor to have kids.”
“Oh? That’s great!” Peter grimaced. “Oh, not so great?”
“He sees a lot of broken homes at work.”
“Well, you’ll work it out. I know it.” She patted his arm. Motioning toward the far corner of the room, she continued, “I see you’ve finally set up some computers.”
There were six computers sitting along a high-set counter with tall swivel chairs in front of them. A sign over them said that the price for an hour of computer time was a Daily Grind drink. One person sat in the corner alone while another pair sat at the far end, but all of them were drinking from covered to-go cups.
“Yes and it seems to be going over well.”
“Should you allow people to drink near them?” Lavinia asked, eyeing them dubiously.
Peter grinned slyly. “Each person who uses them gets their own user and if something happens to my equipment, they’re banned for however long I choose.”
“Sounds like a library.”
Peter turned to me, his eyes sparkling. “Where do you think I got the idea? Oh, hey, Max, I’ll be right with you,” he called out to the man who’d just walked up to the counter. To us he said, “Anyway, we’ll have to hang out sometime. Let me know a good day. Wait, you’re all going to the New Year’s run tomorrow right?”
“The what?” I said at the same time Nita said, “Of course!”
“Great! Maybe I’ll see you there.” With a wave he headed back to work.
I looked dumbly at Nita. “The what now?”
“The New Year’s run.” She face-palmed. “Oh, right, I keep forgetting you weren’t here for the start of that. Everyone spends the day playing ice games on Mystic Lake, there’s a race, there’s ice hockey, some people ski, and, oh, my god, the Thompson’s started selling their whisky there, the humans come, there’s-”
“It’s a day of fun and games and a night spent in your second skin ” Lavinia cut her off with a hand on her arm. She looked at me apologetically, “I’m sorry, she can run on at times.”
I snort. “I remember.”
“I do not,” Nita interjected.
“Ma,” Erin whined and tugged at Nita’s sleeve while wiggling in her seat, “ma, ma, ma, ma, ma.”
“Pee pee,” she said plaintively, her tiny face contorting in pain.
“Of course, sweetie,” she lifted the toddler out of the chair, “Let’s go. We’ll be right back,” she added to Lavinia and me.
I spun my cup in my hand, occaisionally taking sips, while Lavinia seemed to straighten and reorganize everything on the table.
“So,” I began lamely in an attempt to break the awkward silence. “What do you do for a living.”
Lavinia settled back in her chair after placing the salt shaker. “I teach first grade at
“Oh.” I took another sip. “Is Mrs. Strictling still the warden there?”
“Sorry, bad joke. She was the principal of elementary and middle school when I went there. She was very strict and not very nice.”
“Ah,” she gave a half-hearted laugh. “Yeah, she’s the high school principal now. She used to be quite strict with my sister and I when we were kids, but she’s softened over the years.”
“That’s hard to believe,” I scoffed. “One time I just went to the bathroom and she busted me for not having a hall pass even though Mr. Long’s classroom was right across the hall and he never gave bathroom passes. I got a lunch detention and Mr Long had to start giving hall passes for the bathroom.”
“Yeah, Aunt Sylvia wasn’t the easiest person. I think she had some control issues when she was younger. There was this one time when she’d come to visit when I went out with some friends to the bowling alley and she flipped when I came back after 10. I was sixteen and it was a friday night. Plus I had permission from my parents.”
“Wait, back up a second. Did you just say ‘Aunt Sylvia’?”
“Holy crap, that makes sense now.”
“Excuse me?” Her eyebrows did their best to hide from her indignation in her hairline.
“Sorry, sorry,” I raised both hands placatingly, “I didn’t mean it like that. It was just how you looked,” her lips thinned, “no, I meant your eyes like you kinda seemed irritated whenever you saw me,” her eyes narrowed slightly as her chin came up and she looked down her nose at me, “yes, like that. Perfect” I said and snapped a quick photo with my phone.
Her tone was quiet, the kind of quiet that made you strain to listen but that you knew would end badly, “You do nothing but add insult to injury.” I cursed my wayward tongue. “You should never have come back.”
I sat stunned. I knew I’d tripped over myself in that speech, but this seemed to go much deeper than that. I’d thought we were getting somewhere, like maybe we could be friends. It seemed however, that all I did was antagonize Nita’s fiance. It was okay, though. I took a breath. I’d be leaving soon anyway. It might be better if I just left and came back for the wedding. Or just tell Nita she had to find a new best man.
“Oh, my god,” I jumped out of my chair and was in a low crouch with my arms up and my hands stiff and flat before I realized it was Nita and Erin I’d been prepared to attack. She just looked at me, an eyebrow raised, as I slowly stood up and pretended I’d been stretching for the dubious benefit of the rest of the café that had stopped to watch. “Jeez, Keelan, what are you taking and where can I get some?” She chuckled as she picked up my phone where I’d dropped it on the table. “But you know what, Honey Bee,” she turned the phone toward Lavinia, “he had you there. You do look like your aunt.”
Lavinia’s shoulders went slack for a moment, “oh, my god, I do. Ugh.” She slid the phone back across the table in my direction.
“You know,” Nita’s grin turned sly, “I used to have a thing for Mrs. Strictling.”
Lavinia’s breath hitched and her eyes dilated a little. This was as good a time as any to make my farewell.
“Well, I should head back. I promised Ryan we’d shoot some hoops.” That was a lie.
“Oh, come on,” Nita pleaded, “we were going to go to the movies.”
“Maybe next time.” I was just a couple bus stops away from the greyhound station. I didn’t really have anything in my backpack that I needed to go back to aunt Peggy’s to get.
Peter came over right then, “You’re heading out too? Let me give you a ride.”
“No, that’s alright. I can walk.” I put my hands in my pockets and felt the cash I’d made so far.
“It’s no trouble, I have to get home to get dinner started for Victor and Peggy’s is practically on the way.” No. I had to go back for my parents’ ashes first.
Peter ran to get a last-minute cookie for Erin. I ended up standing next to Lavinia, watching as Erin squeeled excitedly and offered part of her cookie to Nita who valiantly accepted it, making Erin giggle even more at the drama.
“Uh, Lavinia,” she turned her head to meet my eyes, “sorry about earlier. About, well, everything.” Lavinia’s pale lavender eyes stared back impassively for a moment as if searching for something.
Then she looked away again. Before I could walk away defeated she said softly, “Alfred was the youngest of us. He had the friendliest dispostion and a heart-melting smile. But he was a kakapo.” Her eyes welled, but she blinked away the tears. “You can guess what happened.” She turned to fully face me and I got it. I got why she hated me. And I didn’t blame her. The only thing I could do was listen to her, for her. “You worked for her. The Architect. You helped her. And she did so many awful things. I don’t know what he went through. I don’t know if my brother is still alive or not. Maybe he’d be better off dead. And you had a hand in that. For that, I will never forgive you.” My head jerked to the side, my shoulders hunching, as if the words had been a physical blow. I blinked my eyes a few times in a short burst and concentrated on each breath, gripping my thighs to keep from crossing them defensively over my chest. “But you also brought her down. I was angry. Furious. I still am. But. She can’t hurt anyone else, not anymore. You did that too.” It was getting more difficult to breathe. “And for that, I can never repay you.” My eyes snapped back to hers.
She stared at me openly, her guard down, and continued, “So, don’t leave. Not yet. Not because of me.”
“I-” wasn’t sure what to say. How had she known? Should I deny it, try to play it off?
A slight smile graced her lips. “I teach six-year-olds, remember.”
All the tension I’d held broke in a cascade of laughter. “Ouch, I think I got third degree,” I said as I wiped away tears.
“Hey, you coming, slow poke?” Peter called from the doorway. Somehow, Nita had been slain in the time I’d looked away and was now slouched against the wall with Erin sitting on her lap munching on both halves of the cookie.
“I’ll be right there as soon as I can find a way past the cookie troll.” The little girl giggled, spewing crumbs across the floor. Turns out the price was a cup of milk.