She was chopping vegetables for a salad, listening to the sounds emanating from the livingroom behind her. A wild series of screeches and crunches were interspersed with noisy engine sounds. Her men at play. She smiled and swept the chopped vegetables into a bowl.
Her son was in seventh heaven. His father was proving to be a more-than-adequate playmate, at least where toy cars were concerned. It was something hed been missing. Laura felt she was a perfectly adequate mother and she was quite in demand for stories and songs and bathtime play. She was even a welcome companion at the park. But when it came to her offsprings choice of imaginative play, somehow she always fell short.
Her sons toy cars never rolled easily along well-maintained roadways. They raced over mountains, climbed the sides of buildings and crashed wildly, often bursting into imaginary flames. His plastic dinosaurs had an alarming tendency to eat his cars and, quite often, each other. Tall towers of blocks were merely explosions in the making. Her son inhabited a messy, violent world that left her completely at sea. Now hed finally found someone who could join him in it wholeheartedly.
A miniature fire engine screamed noisily across the floor in pursuit of a flaming police car that refused to pause long enough to let itself be extinguished. And where, she wondered, had this man, whod had such a deprived and neglected childhood himself, learned to lose himself in a childs play with such ease?
But hed always been good at this. Her own nieces and nephews had delighted in playing with Uncle Remington. Why hadnt the oddity of this struck her years before?
She sighed and placed dinner rolls in a small wicker basket, her one attempt at setting a gracious table. This wouldnt be the dinner shed envisioned serving him during the past few lonely years. For one thing, it was meatloaf.
Veal Marsala would have been perfect. Even spaghetti or lasagna would have at least been better, but lacking veal, pasta and tomato sauce, it was meatloaf and instant mashed potatoes by default. And, with a rambunctious two-year-old at the table, even one carefully ensconced in a safety seat, the tall taper candles theyd once been fond of would pose a definite fire hazard, and not one her sons toy fire engine would be able to cope with.
There was an inexpensive bottle of wine in the fridge, but she couldnt decide whether to serve it with dinner or afterward. Perhaps it would be best to hold it until after their sons bedtime. Not the champagne theyd usually ended their nights with, but the best substitute she could come up with. Iced tea would have to do its best to set off the meatloaf.
Hey, guys, dinner!
Oh, boy! Dinner! There was a small thunder of sneakers that was abruptly cut off.
Hold on there! Dont we wash up first? His father was grinning down at him, a grin he returned willingly.
Oh, yeah! Cmon, Daddy. I show you! And the two of them headed up the short staircase toward the bathroom, leaving Laura to stare after them. It would seem that having a second parent around was going to come in very handy.
She frowned at her reflection in the small ladies room mirror. The mirror was dark and cracked and the light wasnt the best. As near as she could tell, her makeup was fine, but what if it werent?
The door opened behind her.
Hi. Dont tell me theres a line?
No, Grace said. Its open. Im just checking to make sure my face hasnt faded.
The other woman offered a friendly, sympathetic smile. It hasnt. You need another coat of lipstick, though.
Thanks, Grace said, fishing out her lipstick as the other woman vanished into the stall.
Her voice floated out from behind the small, swinging door. So hows your evening going?
Oh, so-so, I guess. Slim pickings tonight. Grace blotted carefully and frowned at the effect, considering yet another coat. Hows it going for you?
There was a flushing sound and the door swung open again. Oh, about like it usually does, the other woman said, joining Grace at the small mirror, not great, but I keep telling myself it could be worse. I could still be hanging out with Gene. Ick.
I hear you, Grace said, thinking of Reggie.
And I dont know about slim pickings. You seemed to be doing o.k. earlier.
That guy? Grace said. Hes a little on the geeky side, isnt he?
Yeah, well, honey, theyre all on the geeky side if you ask me, her companion answered, fluffing her hair. But havent you heard? Geeks are in.
Yeah, but short geeks?
Short geeks have tall credit ratings. You could do worse.
Hey, Ive got my claws in a short geek, too. And Im thinking of hauling him home tonight. She patted her hair down across her forehead and checked her mascara. Beats the late show, anyway.
You might have a point there, Grace said.
Besides, I need something to celebrate my new job with, the woman added. I made the short list and then got the job, so Ill celebrate with a short geek and maybe Ill get made. The woman headed for the door. She was already starting to sashay a bit. Well, good luck to you.
Grace nodded companionably. Yeah, you too. The door closed again and Grace decided against another coat of lipstick. She also decided that she was not going to be sitting up tonight watching the late show. This guy might not be Prince Charming, but he beat a good book. At least tonight he did.
She straightened her shoulders and headed back to the dance floor. And her destiny, whatever it might be.
So weve got some competition? he said throwing an arm across the back of the couch.
Oh, I wouldnt call it competition, she said with a smile, settling back against the couch herself. I look at it as more free time for us.
Well, Joe Giambetti added, I guess I can get behind that theory. As long as I still get to see the little guy from time to time.
Oh, I wouldnt worry about that, Mildred told him. I dont intend to just abandon the three of them. Besides, those two are gonna need lots of adult time to themselves, so Ill still be babysitting. Just not quite as often. Dont worry, you havent lost your baseball buddy yet.
Long as he doesnt lose his arm, Ill be happy, Joe responded. Hed taken to playing catch with the youngster who spent so much time with his Auntie Mildred, using an oversized rubber softball and had discovered what he called a natural talent in the child.
Right now, Mildred told him, Im more interested in not losing your arm. She smiled encouragingly and he didnt disappoint her. Small boys and newly-rediscovered fathers were not even thought about for the remainder of the evening.
She was putting away the dishes and ruminating happily on the changes that were rapidly taking place in her life. While she had cleared the table and put the leftovers away in the fridge, he had washed the dishes, as hed done that morning at breakfast. Then, while she dried and put the dishes away, hed gone off to watch cartoons with his son. They were snuggled together even now on the couch, the larger, dark head hovering protectively over the small, brown-haired one. Bursts of giggles wafted out to her. It was a good sound. It was a good evening all round.
Dinner had gone well. Somehow, the presence of a third table setting seemed to complete them. Everything just seemed to run smoother. There was another adult to hold a conversation with. There was another person to distract a small child when playing with food seemed more interesting than eating it. There was another face smiling at her, and a warm hand brushing against hers as dishes were passed.
Life was good.
She put the last dish away and then paused at the edge of the livingroom, just behind them, out of their line of sight. Daylight had faded and in the soft lamplight, their faces looked eerily similar. He was watching the television, where the news had come on, while his son, disinterested in the news, was looking casually at the wall over the television.
How come youre different?
What do you mean?
Youre different the child seemed to be groping for words. You dont look like you.
How dont I look like me? his father asked, looking down at him.
You got fur. The child said, looking earnestly up at his fathers face.
You mean this? his father said, fingering his beard.
Thats called a beard. Its just hair, like you have on your head. Its something grown men get on their faces. Sometimes it gets shaved off and sometimes we just let it grow.
Oh. Can I see? His father nodded and the child climbed to his knees and began to gently stroke his face. Soft!
Thats right. It looks prickly, but its just hair.
Can I have one on me?
When you get older, if you want.
The child nodded. O.k. Do you look the same under?
You mean, without the beard, do I look the same as in my picture?
Uh-huh, the child answered, looking gravely across at the portrait of his father that had stood on top of the television for as long as he could remember.
If I shaved off my beard, Id look pretty much just like that. A little older, I guess.
Can I see?
Not just now. I think Ill keep my beard awhile longer. But someday Im sure Ill shave it off and then youll see.
How come not now?
Because it takes a long time to grow back and I dont want to shave it off just yet.
But some day?
Yes, some day.
O.k. Can we play cars again?
Uh-uh, kiddo, Laura broke in from the doorway. Its too late for that, now. In fact, its time for your bath.
His father smiled down at him and patted his back. Sounds like fun.
Uh-huh, I got toys there, too. Wanna see?
Oh, I might pop in before youre done. Im going to check out the news first, though. You go with your Mom, o.k.?
O.k. He climbed off his fathers lap and took his mothers hand with a wide smile, which she returned. The two of them went off up the stairs as he watched. He had the feeling that some private mother-son time was definitely called for at the moment. It had been, after all, quite an eventful day for all of them.
And a good day. A better day, in fact, than almost any he could remember. With the possible exception of yesterday, of course.
The news came back on, then, but he scarcely paid attention to it, being totally absorbed with far more pleasant thoughts.
Which was how he missed the story on the trouble brewing in the Sanitation Department. Not that it would have meant anything to him. Which was a genuine shame, as it turned out.
His eyes were burning. Hed been staring at the screen for hours and it was starting to tell on him. He rubbed his eyes absently and scrolled a bit further. Behind him there was a scuffling noise and a burst of laughter.
Hey, Jimbo! Whatcha doin? Tryin for a promotion? Whatsa matter? Detective shields not good enough for you? Now what, you wanna be Commissioner?
Jarvis sighed. Leon was a good cop. A very good cop. A lousy human being most days, though.
No, Leon. I wanna drive a dump truck when I grow up. Now go away like a good boy, ok.?
Yeah, right. Dump truck. Thats a good one, Jimbo.
Leon was also the only person who ever called him Jimbo, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it annoyed the hell out of him. But Leons voice was receding toward the hallway, which was a blessing anyway. Just a little more scrolling, he felt sure, and hed have his answer. Hed pushed hard for this overpriced, underutilized international law enforcement computer database and the least it could do was justify his faith in it.
Just a little more. He was sure of it.
He wasnt aware of having nodded off, but his small son landing, knees-first, on his lap woke him abruptly.
Daddy! See? Read me this!
He blinked blearily and managed to focus on the wildly waving book in front of his face. Something about a monkey. Of course, a monkey. He caught at the corner of the book and stopped its wayward motion long enough to read the title.
Curious George Rides a Bike. You want this one, eh?
Uh-huh! Read me it! Kay?
He smiled down into his sons earnest face and ruffled his hair. O.k., but only for a little while. Till Mommy says its time for bed, o.k.?
Yeah! Read me it. The child snuggled comfortably down against his chest and impatiently pulled the book open. The age-old familiar story of the inquisitive monkey and his oddly-hatted friend lay before them, and he began to read.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Laura perched on the bottom stair. She looked tired. But, more importantly, she looked happy. He aimed a small smile in her direction and she returned it at a much brighter voltage. A small hand slapped the page in his hand.
Daddy! Turn it. I wanna see!
He obediently turned to the next page and continued reading. As far as he was concerned, life could continue on just like this forever. Hed be perfectly content to read about monkeys delivering newspapers and men in lemony headgear for the rest of his life if only Laura would keep smiling like that. Anything was worth the joy of that smile. Anything at all.
She was here, as hed known she would be. As if shed come here specifically to wait. For him.
He wasnt surprised. She must know it had to end. How it had to end. For both of them. So shed waited for him. Knowing hed come.
Of course shed tried to stall the inevitable. Pitiful small talk. Drinks. Even dancing. Sexy dancing, as if that would placate him for all the years, all the lost, wasted years. And hed gone along with her charade. One last charade. Hed give her that much. Even buy her drinks to soften that one last blow.
But the time was drawing close. Very close now. And soon it would be time for it to end. Finally. Once and for all.
Hed been patient and now the time had come. And for that, he was very thankful.
As she should be.
If the evening had begun with a computer database, it ended with the good old Los Angeles phone book. His bible. His encyclopedia of choice. His all-purpose genie with all the answers ever needed.
It was there. He read. He made notes. Then he sat back and reconsidered. Did he really want to go this road? This wasnt his way.
A small voice in the back of his head shrilled that it was wrong, all wrong. He couldnt do this thing. He should stick to the old ways, the tried-and-true methods. And if they didnt work, he should just accept that fact. But this? This bordered on the monstrous.
Detective James Jarvis leaned back in his chair and massaged his tired eyes. It had been a long night. It had been a long several months.
It had to end. Somehow.
Behind his closed eyelids he saw a large, industrial dumpster, with cracked, peeling green paint, and the lid thrown back to reveal
No. Monstrous or not, it had to end. If this was the only way, then so be it. But it had to end.
He took the scrap of paper his notes were on and stuffed them deep into his hip pocket. Tomorrow. Tomorrow, if he was lucky, would be the beginning of the end.
In the darkness of that decision, he switched off his desk light and headed home.
The end. He closed the yellow cover of the book and laid it gently aside.
Read nother one, Daddy!
Oh, no you dont. Its bedtime! Lauras voice was firm and her sons crystal eyes sought out his fathers.
Uh-uh. Daddy read me one more, kay?
No sir. You heard your mother. Bedtime. That little wrinkle between his sons brows was pure Laura and he chuckled at the sight.
But his father resolutely pushed him off his lap and set him gently down on the floor. Yes.
Now his son twisted away to appeal again to his mother. Mommy, one more, kay?
Not a chance, Charlie, its time for bed! And she swooped down on him, lifting him up in a swinging flurry of tickles. He kicked his feet and giggled.
O.k., but Daddy come, too! Daddy come!
Oh, I guess we can let Daddy help tuck you in tonight, his mother announced indulgently, with a soft twinkle at the corners of her mouth. The three of them swept up the stairs and into the small bedroom with its toybox and books and plastic dinosaurs. The still-giggling youngster was brought to a swooping landing on the bed and his parents leaned over him, laughing softly.
My bed, Daddy! See?
I see, his father announced in a grave tone. Its a nice one. The best bed ever, in fact.
For a moment Laura wondered what beds he had occupied at this young age, if any.
You can sleep in my bed with me if you want, her son assured him earnestly.
Really? Oh, I think Im a bit too big for this bed. Its just the right size for you and Joji, though.
Yeah, but you could sleep in Mommys bed, his son said casually. Its bigger.
Laura had to fight to hold in her laughter at the sight of his face. Hes trying to be so cool and calm about this, she thought, but his small son is positively unhinging him.
Oh, I dont know. He said, trying to sound nonchalant and failing. Its a nice bed, too, but then where would Mommy sleep? Ill probably just go home and sleep in my own bed tonight.
No! No, no, no!
They stared at him in astonishment, unprepared for the sudden emotional storm that had risen, out of nowhere it seemed.
You stay here! You stay here with us, Daddy! You not go! You stay here! You stay here! Tears were suddenly pouring down his face, sobs wracking his thin chest.
Sweetheart? Harry? Laura leaned down and hugged him close. Whats wrong? Tell Mommy.
Daddy stay here! Make him stay, Mommy! Make him stay!
Hey! his father said gently, Hey, none of this, now. Look at me. Harry? Look at me, o.k.?
It took a few minutes before the child could unscrew his eyelids enough to look up. His lashes were coated with liquid crystal. His eyes seemed to float, huge in his small face, as he stared up at his father in something like despair.
Now, I have my own bed in my own apartment. But that doesnt mean Im never coming back. In fact, I bet I see you tomorrow night! Would you like that? Eh? I can come over, just like today and we can play and maybe read some more. Would that be o.k. with you?
The small lower lip quivered once and was caught between the tiny white teeth before the little head nodded sadly.
Harry, listen to me. He stared into his sons eyes, trying to drive the message down as deep into them as possible. Im not going away again. Im going to be here. Im always going to be here. And if you need me, you call and Ill come. It doesnt matter when. Ill be here for you. And Ill be here for just as long as you need me to be. But I dont live here. I live in another place. And someday maybe Ill show you that place. But for right now, Im going to promise you that Ill come see you tomorrow. And maybe the next day and the next. Just as much as you want. O.k.? Im not going away from you ever again. I promise. And Daddies never, ever break their promises. Can you remember that?
His son nodded sadly. They ever-never break promises, he whispered. A huge sigh seemed to heave itself out of his small body.
His father blinked rapidly for a few moments. Thats right. And Ill see you tomorrow. You can count on it.
Harry, you need to give Daddy a kiss goodnight, Laura said softly. Hes never had a goodnight kiss from you before, you know.
Their son lifted his tiny chin and reached up to clasp his fathers neck. Gnight, Daddy. I love you. For a moment father and son held each other so close they seemed to melt into one another.
I love you, too, his father said in a slightly choked voice and dropped a series of kisses on his small sons head and cheeks. I love you more than I would ever have believed.
Then he pried his sons hands away and scooted him down on the bed, drawing the covers up to his chin. Im going downstairs and let Mommy say goodnight, o.k.?
His son poked one hand up out of the covers. His starfish fingers curled and uncurled in a slow wave. But he didnt smile. After a moment, his father slipped out the door and they could hear his footsteps going down the stairs to the livingroom.
So, what do you think of your Daddy, huh?
Her son shrugged under the blankets.
I think he really likes you, yknow that? And he plays cars, too.
An he reads good, the child said softly.
Yes he does, she answered with a smile. You think youll like having a Daddy around from now on?
Her son looked up at her. I love you, Mommy. You stay here, kay?
She paused in confusion. Of course Ill stay here. You mean now? Until you go to sleep?"
No. Here. You not go way.
Harry, are you worried that Ill leave you because your fathers here now? Im not going to leave you. Im still your Mommy and Mommies dont leave their little boys.
Her son said something too softly for her to catch. What, darling?
But he snuffled and clutched Joji, turning away from her.
Harry, I love you, o.k.? And your Daddy loves you. And were both going to stay here with you. Nobodys going away from you. Do you understand that?
Uh-huh. Nobody goes way. But his eyes didnt look as if the message had really sunk in. She sighed, not certain whether to try and explain further or just let it rest for the night.
Her son settled the matter by saying, softly, I love you, Mommy. Can I have my gnight kiss?
She dropped several kisses on his small, upturned face before tucking him in firmly and turning on his nightlight. He had an uncanny knack, sometimes, for sensing her internal dilemma and answering it for her. Tomorrow it would be.
But she paused at the door and looked back at his small form, lying curled under the covers. What he had said when she had told him that Mommies didnt leave their little boys, what she hadnt quite been able to catch, was something she strongly suspected would keep her up at least half the night.
Because what her son had said sounded suspiciously like, Sometimes they do.
In the darkness of the car, his eyes and teeth seemed to glitter. It was a weird, slightly disturbing effect, brought on, no doubt, by the parking lot sodium vapor lights, and she thrust her unease to the far back of her mind. This was no place for silly notions.
So its your place for a nightcap, then, she purred and his glittering smile froze for an instant before broadening.
Thats the plan, he said softly.
Im in the mood for a nightcap. I hope you have a big bar. Was she really saying these things? To him?
Ive got everything we need, he assured her, his smile fixed against the darkness of his face.
And can I have anything I want?
Well see, he answered. When we get there, well see if we can both get what we want.
In the silence that followed this, he started the car's engine and pulled smoothly out of the parking lot and onto the night streets, where all that glittered was not gold.
She came down the stairs and found him waiting for her in the livingroom.
I think hes asleep, she said. Are you o.k.?
Im fine, Laura. Really. He took her hand in his and rubbed it gently. You look tired, though.
I am a bit, she admitted. And that whatever it was came out of nowhere. I have no idea
Let it go, he advised. I dont think were going to puzzle it out tonight. Not without more information, anyway.
Youre probably right, she said, looking up at him. In the lamplight, his eyes were the color of night, with small flecks of reflected light shining like stars in their depths. I have a bottle of wine in the fridge that Ive been saving for a special occasion. Its no particular vintage or anything, but I thought
He smiled at her and squeezed her hand gently. Wheres the corkscrew?
Ill get it, she said happily. No matter what hed told his son, she was determined that he wouldnt spend this night alone in his apartment. Not if she could help it. And she had a fair idea that, maybe just maybe she could.
She ran one hand lazily along the back of the couch. Not a great fabric, but it was clean. And from the look of it, the couch had probably come with the apartment.
She could hear him in the bathroom, the water running, running funny how his eyes had still seemed to glitter, even after theyd arrived. Not that it mattered.
She sipped her drink, feeling a slow, pleasant warmth spreading along her limbs. She'd have to remember to have him set the alarm so she wouldnt be late to work tomorrow. He worked at home, hed told her, so he probably didnt need to get up as early as she did.
And if he didnt hurry up in the bathroom, she though vaguely, shed just fall asleep right here on this nice, comfortable couch. Funny how tired she was. And it wasnt even that late.
She heard the bathroom door open. Through half-closed eyelids, she saw him coming back to her. She laid her head back against the couch. He wasnt wearing his shirt. Or his pants. Or much of anything but a smile.
He came close and smoothed her hair back from her face.
How are you feeling now? His voice was soft. She thought the concern in it was sweet and tried to tell him that she was feeling fine, just fine.
But although her lips moved, she didnt seem to be making any noise. Puzzled, she tried again.
Now he was smiling again. That same, glittering smile.
Good. Thats just fine. Ive got everything ready. Well just go into the bathroom now. Its easier while you're still awake and can walk. So walk with me now, o.k.? He slipped one arm under her shoulder and lifted.
His small stature was deceiving. He lifted her with ease. The fact that she came off the couch like a pile of loosely jointed sticks might have made it easier, but he showed no strain as he half-carried, half-walked her across the livingroom and into the bathroom. Her head sagged and she only had a clear view of the green carpet beneath her feet. When the carpet ended and the linoleum began, she finally managed to lift her head to look.
It was a small bathroom. The water hed run wasnt in the sink, though. It was in the tub. The tub was full of water. There was a huge stack of towels sitting on the floor under the sink. And against the wall next to the tub
She tried to scream, but all that came out was a high-pitched whine. He sat her down gently on the closed toilet seat and began removing her dress. She stared at the thing on the floor, the thing that didnt belong, and continued to try to scream.
Finally he turned his head to look at what she was staring at.
That? he said gently. Oh, my dear. Dont worry about that. I wont use that. Not while you can still feel it.
Her dress was on the floor and his hands were gently stroking her hair, her face, her neck.
And there they stopped. And clutched. And squeezed. And squeezed. And squeezed.
She couldnt move. She couldnt speak. And, most importantly, she couldnt breath. Even her thoughts were dissolving into a confused muddle. But before her vision disintegrated into small flecks of amber-colored light, and then to a final black, she managed to focus her desperate gaze on the thing that lay waiting on the floor at her feet.
A gas-powered chainsaw.