Try this on and tell me if the 'tone' works. A story, in progress. Not sure where I'll end up. Thanks. Heather
He stood alone in the alleyway, listening, in the dark, to the sounds of the traffic in the street, one block over. He hadn't eaten all day and his head ached. He pulled a cigarette from his jacket pocket, balancing it on one lip, and didn't light it. The smell of the steaks on the grill in the club kitchen were making him nauseous. He should either go back inside to join the band or just throw up, one or the other. He thought about Joanna instead, and how much he loved her.
They had argued. Stupidly. About stupid things. He'd come on the phone talking to her about inane things. Work things. Things she played no part in. She had wanted to hear how much he had missed her, how much he WAS missing her, this first summer season apart. But he had gone on and on about the silly interview; how they'd gone on a photo shoot that day and someone had asked him for his autograph, thinking he'd been with the band.
She'd been sulky and withdrawn, listening to him having a good time. She missed him so. And told him so. And he'd gotten angry and told her not to put such a damper on his parade and all. And she'd hung up on him.
She picked up the phone.
"Hi. It's me. Your husband."
"Hi. I know. It's me too."
"I miss you, babe. I'm so sorry. And stupid. And thoughtless. And my head aches. And I haven't eaten all day. And I'm sorry."
"That you haven't eaten all day? I bet you're feeling sick. Aren't you? You usually get nauseous when you don't eat. I worry when you don't eat. I worry when you do. I worry."
"--and I love you. And I'm listening. The guys can wait. How are you feeling? How are the kids? You wanna put them on the phone and I'll talk to them?"
"Derek, it's late. They're all asleep. You should be asleep. But eat something first. Are you at the club? Have a steak. You love steak."
"Yes, I know. At least when I'm not throwing up."
"You're throwing up?"
"Not right now. Not on the phone. I like this cellphone too much. Thought I'd keep it for a little while longer."
"Haven't thrown it against a wall yet, eh?"
Derek laughed. He'd done that once. Scared the shit out of her. Smashed beyond repair. So was Derek, at the time.
"No. Not tonight. Let me take you to bed with me. Would you like that? I'll head back to the hotel. The boys won't miss me."
"You should really tell them."
"Oh, hell with that. They'll be fine."
"All right, then. Let's go to bed."
Derek laughed. "Interesting things, these cellphones. I love you, Joanna. And I'm sorry to have upset you."
"I love you too, Derek. What are we having to eat? You really should eat."
"I need to lie down for a while. I'll grab some bread and meat and cheese at the Quickie Mart and take it back to my suite. What would you like, my sweet?" She laughed.
"Ah, bananas and mustard."
"Bananas and mustard. Oh god, now I really AM sick." He laughed.
"Oh. Sorry, dear. Pregnant habits, you know. I'll have some ice cream. You must buy some chocolate ice cream--Ben & Jerry's, is preferable but I won't hold you to it. And eat every bite."
"While you talk."
"Yes, while I talk. You've got it, buster. Let's go. Hold me in your left hand. I like your left hand best when we talk on the phone."
"How can you tell?"
"I will know you're driving with your right. That's much safer--don't you think?"
Derek laughed. "God, you think of everything, don't you? How could I go on without you?"
"Let's not test that theory," said Joanna getting up from the table, crossing the kitchen floor and taking the ice cream out of the fridge.
"That fucking Derek, he's always disappearing."
"He went home, Daniel, it's after five."
"I've got that new client stopping by at 7:30. Derek needs to be in on this."
"No, he doesn't, Daniel," Jean, a tall, lithe blond, stood in the doorway to Daniel Cateway's office. "He went home to his wife Joanna. You remember Joanna, his wife of six years and half as many children. He has a LIFE, Daniel. He's not your slave."
"How dare you speak to me like that," Daniel, an equally slim yet cherub-faced man in his late twenties, swiveled in his chair. "I need Derek here. Now. Call him on the phone. If you have to, send a car round to pick him up--Joanna can come along. You can go round to the apartment and babysit the three children. Wonderful children he has, so well behaved."
"You haven't seen them since the family came back from Florida, have you?" said Jean. "Those children are a terror. Derek is never home. You've had him working round the clock for the past ten months now. Joanna is at wits' end. You've got to cut him some slack, Daniel, he's your friend. You're turning him into an ogre."
"No, I'm not--"
"Yes, you ARE, Daniel." She laughed. "You most certainly are. I've seen him sitting alone in his office at lunchtime. He's drinking too much. You're pushing him too hard--let him take the weekend off; you can manage this without him."
"Don't be silly. Derek would scream if he wasn't in on this. He hates to miss out on the fun."
"Hmm. That's true," Jean came in and sat opposite him at his large oak desk. A solitary picture hung on the wall behind Daniel. The Group.
"Derek, come down for dinner now."
"Derek, are you awake? I've fixed you corn on the cob. Sweet corn. Remember?"
Joanna climbed the stairs to the two up two down apartment, running her hand carefully along the wall. She was feeling queasy since the doctor visit. Pregnant. Again. Three months gone. The first trimester was always the worst. She paused at the top of the stairs and ran her hand over her eyes.
"Mum, Billy's calling me a slut."
"Mary honey, go get the juice out of the fridge and fill all the glasses. Get Billy to help you and tell him not to call you a slut. I'll be down in a minute. I need to wake your Dad. Run along now, I'll be down in a minute."
"Billy, you booger, Mom says to stop calling me a slut." Mary, four-and-a-half and bright, spun on her heels and disappeared back into the kitchen.
"Christ. Sluts at four-and-a-half, what next?" Joanna sighed and pushed open the bedroom door. Derek lay in the centre of the queen sized bed, his eyes closed, his hand on his cellphone. Joanna came in and sat on the edge of the bed.
"Derek honey, time for dinner."
"No, it's not," said Derek, his eyes still closed. "I have to go back to the office." He sighed and moved his hand over to hers. She squeezed it tight.
"Oh, Derek, what does Daniel want now, your left lung? And you've been smoking too much again, haven't you, your voice is hoarse."
"Guilty as charged. If I had a hammer--nice song that--I'd hit myself in the eye--that might slow him down."
"Oh honey, I'm sorry." Joanna traced a line in Derek's cheek. He grinned and turned to face her, his eyes still closed.
"God, honey, I'm sorry. I should have known this would happen. Daniel is so...so inTENSE."
"I know, honey. So are you. Now come to dinner."
"What do you mean, you can't."
"We have to go back to the office."
"What do you mean 'we'? Are you speaking editorially? Editorially, 'we'? Or do you mean, you and me, we?"
"You and me, we, oui." He laughed. The sound was tired. Derek Tavner was really, really tired.
"This has to stop, Derek. You're not sleeping enough. You're smoking too much--"
"Drinking too much--"
"I wasn't going to mention that. But you shouldn't be drinking, Derek. Not and not eating. The way you've been doing. Remember what the doctor told you when you sprained your ankle."
"I know, I know. I have to slow down. Take smaller bites. Life will be there tomorrow but I won't--or so he said--if I don't slow down and--"
"Mom, Billy's calling me a booger."
"Mary hon, live with it for five minutes. Me and Dad need to talk."
"Mary hon, Daddy will be down in a minute and he'll beat up Billy, okay?"
Laughter from below.
"Okay, Daddy. You're my hero, Daddy."
"No," said Derek, opening his eyes and looking up at Joanna, "you're mine." He cupped her face in his hand.
"Yes, I know, Joanna, something has to change. This wasn't the idea--I'll talk to Daniel after dinner. Let's go eat. This stupid thing isn't til 7:30, anyway. Jean's coming round to babysit the kids. They're sending a car--"
"Oh, they're sending a car, are they?" She made a face. "Isn't that nice? Daniel won't pay you enough yet he sends round cars."
"Hon? We've talked about this before. You know Daniel. Pennywise and pound foolish. Tell ya what," he brushed her back with the fingers of his left hand, "let's make love. Before dinner. I have a spare five minutes. I think I can fit you in."
"Don't you mean, I can fit you in?" She laughed.
Derek smiled, his eyes softening, "I so love that laugh. Give us a kiss and I'll call it even."
"Just a sec!" Derek and Joanna called back, in unison.
"Okay now, everybody," said Mary, "listen to this." She waved the sheet of notebook paper in her right hand.
"Mary honey, wipe your hands. You're getting butter all over that drawing."
Mary gave Joanna a look.
"Mary honey," said Derek, gently removing the paper from her hand. "Tell me what you've got here. And finish your dinner first, this isn't a race."
Joanna laughed. Derek gave her the same look. Then he grinned and settled back in his chair, staring closely at Mary's drawing. "So, tell me what you've got here. Don't leave anything out. My heart's all aflutter."
"Oh, Daddy, you're silly; hearts don't flutter, they bahdub. I listened to Billy's heart today. At the doctor's. He let me use his insteadascope," said Mary, chawing on bread, her mouth and brown eyes wide open.
"Really?" said Derek.
"Really," said Mary.
"Really," said Billy, and when I put them on, she yelled into the mike."
"Really," said Derek. "You okay?"
Billy grimaced. "Yeah. Sure." He looked down at his half-eaten corn on the cob. Derek looked at Billy, then at Joanna. He narrowed his eyes, motioning with his head toward Billy. Joanna shook her head, saying nothing, but a look of concern crossed her face. Billy took hold of his juice glass and sat back too, sipping it slowly, not looking up. Derek looked at Billy again.
"So ANYway. Anyway..." said Mary, "the picture is my house plan."
"Building a house, are you?" said Billy. "When are you planning to move out? Mom, can I turn Mary's room into a closet?"
Derek snorted, in spite of himself. Billy looked at Derek and visibly brightened.
"Now Billy," said Joanna, "that's not funny. You know you'd miss your sister if she was gone--don't you think?"
"No," said Billy, shaking his head.
"Really?" said Derek.
"Really," said Billy, now grinning and picking up his corn.
"Moving on," said Mary, staring icily at Billy. "This house is an amazing house. It has secret walls and secret floors and secret names on unmarked doors."
"God, Mary, that's brilliant. Did you make that up?" said Derek, putting his arm around her shoulders. Billy put down his corn and sat back in his chair again, slowly starting to hum some strange tune.
"Of course I did, Daddy. And I did it just for you." She beamed, an impish light in her eyes.
"Yer silly," said Derek.
"So are you, Daddy," said Mary. "But I love you anyway." Joanna laughed.
"Hoisted on my own petards, eh?" said Derek, looking at Mary then Joanna. "You know, you're all insane."
"Wonder where we get that from," said Billy, deadpan. Derek threw his napkin at him and laughed. "Gee, I miss you guys."
"We miss you TOO, Daddy," said Mary. "Why do you work so much?"
"I dunno," said Derek. "Some days, I really don't know. And I have to go out again tonight. In fact, your mother's coming with me."
"I wanna come too," said Mary.
"So do I," said Billy.
"Good idea," said Joanna. "Let's all go. When Jean gets here, we'll all go in the car and she can mind the baby."
"Hmm. You sure?" said Derek.
"Sure, I'm sure. Sam is feeling a lot better now. He just needs some rest. I'll let Jean know what to watch for when she gets here. I see more of Jean, some days, than I do of you."
"She knows all my secrets, does she?"
"You dunno the half of it."
"Oh great. Thanks." Joanna grinned at him with Mary's impish eyes.
"Oh, I give up. You win."
Joanna came round the table and put her arms around Derek's neck, nuzzling his cheek. He smiled, lowering his eyes then looking up. She said, "Okay, you guys. I ain't the Mom here. Everybody. Dishes in the sink. We'll clean up when we come home. Mary go wash your face and hands, you're covered in corn."
"Yes, Mom." Mary grinned, triumphant. "I'll bring Uncle Daniel my house plan. I bet he can use it for something."
"I WISH," said Derek, grinning from ear to ear and no higher.
"Hi, Jean," said Derek. "Thanks for stopping by."
"Oh, you can be such an ass sometimes," said Jean, "do you know that?" She laughed.
"Moi?" said Derek, in all seriousness, his eyes wide, bending down to ungrapple Mary from his left leg, and hoisting her up over his shoulder.
"Da--dee," said Mary, in hushed tones, "you mustn't lift me like a bag of potatoes," she said. "I am a lady, you do know that--don't you?"
Derek laughed. "Jean, you talk to this kid too much--do you know that?" He looked at Mary and she at him, and they both squinted with fierceness at each other.
"Bet you break," said Derek.
"Bet you break," said Mary.
"You are BOTH mad," said Jean. "I shall have nothing more to do with you. And with a toss of her head, like an imperious queen, she headed into the kitchen, leaving Derek and Mary, squinting at each other, trying hard not to laugh.
"You broke!" said Mary.
"I did not, you nasty child," said Derek, laughing and cradling her in his arms.
"Those two," said Jean to Joanna who was standing beside Billy, them both rinsing dishes in the sink. "They are so alike. It's uncanny." She shook her head. "How's the ball team coming, Billy? Did you find that extra man?"
"Yes, Jean," said Billy, breaking away from the sink and giving her a wet hug. "We found more equipment too, so we'll be all set for the season. Great, huh?"
"Yes," said Jean. "Are you going to pitch his year?"
"I dunno," said Billy. "I was thinking of being assistant coach though. Mr. Makum asked. Do you think I should? I'm not that good yet."
"Oh, I dunno," said Jean, "you do okay. Remember that kid from the other team you helped last year? I thought that was pretty nice."
"Do you?" said Billy, drying his hands on his pants and putting the condiments away in the fridge. "All set, Mom. You ready to go?" he said.
"I am, in a sec, Billy. Go get Mary and your Daddy dressed to go in the car," said Joanna. "I just want to show Jean a couple of things, we won't be long."
"Okay. Thanks for asking, Jean. Can I count on you for ten boxes of candy for the ball drive? Just like last year? You could stand to put on some weight, you know, you're looking thin," he said.
"Joanna, what do you FEED this boy?--can I take him home with me for a month?" she laughed.
"That's strictly his own doing, Jean. He's as smooth as his dad." Billy smiled and put his arm around Joanna's waist.
"You are growing up too fast, young man," said Jean, ruffling Billy's hair and gently touching his cheek. "Why, I remember you crawling about the floor in your Batman pyjamas."
"Not me," said Billy, "not me. I wouldn't be caught dead in a Batman suit." He laughed and went into the front room where Derek and Mary were now sitting quietly, talking, on the floor. "Come on you two, hurry up. This isn't a prayer meeting." Derek wrestled him to the floor and Mary climbed on Derek, yelling, "beat him UP, Daddy! You promised!" Billy's laugh was as bright as the sun.
"So," said Jean, "how is Mom doing today? Any more inges and twinges?"
"No," said Joanna, checking to see that the faucets were shut tight and wiping around the counter with a cloth. "And don't you go dropping hints to Derek, either; you know how hincky he is about me being pregnant."
"I know, I know," said Jean. "He's got enough on his plate. Daniel is being such an ass."
"I know, I know," said Joanna, leading Jean up the stairs to the baby's bedroom, "but he's allowed, Jean, he's allowed. Remember when I had your job once; you KNOW how crazed Daniel gets. But he'll ease off, I think. Derek is planning to talk to him too and I really think Derek has just been encouraging him, y'know? I dunno about Derek, right now, Jean. Something's on his mind. He gets crazed too--like he's been doing since this thing started--you can't completely blame Daniel. Something is going on here, I'm not sure what it is."
"Woman's intuition?" said Jean, leaning over the crib and smiling at Sam, who smiled back. She lifted him into her arms. "Or something else? You're not catastrophizing, are you? You pregnant mom, you." She grinned at Joanna.
"No," said Joanna, thinking for a moment. "Hard to know; hard to say. I just feel some change in him. Time for a change, maybe."
"Hm," said Jean, sitting down in a bentwood rocker and settling back, Sam playing with the beads on her blouse. "Hey there, fella, how you feeling?"
"Gee," said Sam, "Gee." Jean looked at Joanna. They both smiled.
"Hey, Grey, fancy meeting you here," said Derek, leading Mary by the hand along the sidewalk.
"You still owe me twenty bucks, partner, pay up," said Grey, coming to the other side of the limo to open the door to the back seat.
"What's this? What's this?" said Derek, "I never welch on a bet. What are you talking about?" settling Mary in the back seat, and opening the front door for Billy. "Wanna sit up front, Bill?"
"In ya go, then. Hon, you okay? You look a little wan," said Derek.
"That's okay," said Joanna, shaking a plastic bag, "I brought Billy's candy for Daniel. I'll eat some too. Later. Don't worry, I'm fine." Derek frowned.
"Hm," he said loudly.
"Derek, get in the bloody car," said Joanna, "or me and the kids will leave you here on the sidewalk and I'll tell Jean to lock you out."
"Okay okay okay, I just asked," said Derek. "I worry about you too, yanno. I'm allowed. You're not the MOM, remember, I just heard you say that." He gasped when Joanna put her hand against his groin and glared at him. "You wouldn't."
"I would," said Joanna, her smile firm.
"You're a beast," said Derek, "and Jean and I will have nothing more to do with you--did I tell you I was running away with her?"
"Away from, is more like. Jean thinks you're too smooth. And you have CHILdren, you know. They will miss you." she said, putting on Jean's previous imperious tone. "You won't see a dime from either one of us. Let's be clear on that."
"You're such an ass," said Derek, again mimicking Jean's earlier tone. "I don't know how I put up with you. Kids, I really hate your mom."
"Dad," said Mary, "can we go now? I want to show Uncle Daniel my house plan."
"Dad, who is this client?" said Billy.
"I'm not sure," said Derek, helping Joanna into the seat beside him, then looking at Mary. "Daniel has mentioned a few things. Musician, I think. Or maybe an architect."
"Architect," said Mary, leaning against him. "Maybe he'll like my house plan. Do you think, Daddy?"
"I dunno, hon," said Derek, nodding to Grey who pulled out into traffic. "Behave yourselves now, you two. Daniel isn't expecting you, remember?"
"I know, I know," said Billy, "but Uncle Daniel needs to share. He sees you all day long. We should have a turn too, right, Mom?"
"Right," said Joanna. "If the kids get restless, we'll send out for pizza and hang out in your office--would you like that, kids?"
"I want pizza, I want pizza," said Mary, burbling on her seat. "Mom, can I have pepperoni? And pineapple?"
"Sure, hon, sure," said Derek, "But you behave. This account is really important and this man may not LIKE children, okay? If I give the signal, then off you go."
"Can we play on the computer, Daddy?" said Billy. "How about a movie? Do you have any?"
"Sure, Bill, sure. Whatever you like," said Derek, putting his arm around Joanna, leaning against her and closing his eyes.
"It'll be okay, Derek," said Joanna, patting the inside of his thigh. "The kids'll be fine." She looked at Billy who was turned in his seat, looking at Joanna and his dad. Joanna reached out her right hand and Billy squeezed it tight, grinning a tiny grin. Then he sat around in his seat and stared at the dashboard.
"How ya doing, Grey?" he said.
"Fine," said Grey and switched on the radio. Billy fiddled with the buttons, punching them slowly then listening in to each song.
"Got anything new for me?" said Billy.
"Sure," said Grey, "sure, Bill, go nuts. Billy rummaged through Grey's CD collection.
"My word, who do we have here?" said Daniel, getting up from the edge of his desk. "Is that you, Marybelle? IMpossible. IMPOSSible. Here, let me look at you."
Mary, suddenly shy, moved against Derek's left coat sleeve, pushing her face against the back of his hand. Derek looked down at her.
"Honey? You okay?" he said. "Honey, it's Uncle Daniel. What's the matter?"
Daniel, a puzzled, almost sad smile on his lips, came over to Mary and knelt down in front of her.
"Mary? What's wrong?"
"Mary, it's okay, it's Uncle Daniel."
"It isn't," said Mary, in a small, choked voice, staring at Daniel.
"Oh my," said Daniel, dressed in an extremely well-made suit. "Then I shall just have to sit here on the ground until I AM," he said, and sat down.
"Mary honey, what's the matter?"
"I...I...," said Mary.
"Mary honey, comere, for a sec," said Joanna. Mary, who had been clutching her drawing in one hand, dropped it and ran to her mother. Billy looked down at her, incredulous.
"Hi, Uncle Daniel," he said. "Would you like to buy some candy for the ball drive?"
"Later, Bill, later," said Derek quietly. "Daniel, I have no idea what's happening--"
"Is this your drawing?" said the man who'd been talking to Daniel when the family first came into the office.
"Show Mr. Chambers your drawing, Mary," said Daniel, picking up the drawing and eyeing it.
"What medium do you use?" said the man, getting up slowly, turning to face Mary and settling back down against the edge of Daniel's desk. "I prefer watercolors, myself. You have a good eye for color. Do you draw a lot?"
"Goodness," said Joanna, "Everyone is looking at you, Mary; now's the time for the sales pitch."
Daniel laughed, which broke the ice.
"Oh," said Mary, her voice growing warm. "It IS you. Oh. Hello." She grinned.
"Christ, Mary," said Billy, "I was beginning to wonder if it was YOU."
"Billy, Language," Joanna laughed and smiled at Daniel. "I think she's going through a phase. Sorry, hon. I know how much you enjoy seeing her."
"Goodness," said Daniel. "She had me thinking I was somebody else. He spread out his arms, shaking the picture in one hand. "Come. Show," he said. He tipped his head. "Would you?"
Mary made a face, looked at her mom, looked at Daniel, then walked to him, and climbed unceremoniously into his lap, hugging him about the neck. She grinned, peering up at him.
"Marybelle," Daniel exclaimed. "So glad you could come."
"And it's Steve. Call me Steve," said Steve Chambers, shaking Joanna's hand and offering her his seat. "When's the baby due?"
"Don't remind me," said Joanna, "this will definitely be the last." She laughed and looked over at Derek, sitting on the edge of Daniel's desk. He actually blushed but hid his bluster with a highly infectious grin. Steve had somehow captivated him, the way Derek had first captivated Daniel. Daniel, standing behind Billy seated in Daniel's chair, was positively beaming.
"Oh, I'm so glad you're all getting along. I had a feeling you would."
Mary, who had been standing beside Daniel, came round the desk, pawing at her Dad, until he settled her into his lap, his arms enfolding her. Content, she scratched her nose and looked over at her mom.
"What I have in mind is managing a building," said Steve. "You could move into one of the suites, if you like, and have your run of the place. I am looking at a building that could be used, for a number of things. I leave that up to you, Derek. I have some friends who are looking at moving their offices to new digs, so occupancy is not the issue--I'm simply looking at seeing what comes up. Would you be interested?"
"Would I be interested? Sure," said Derek, "but I'm not interested in being a caretaker. Is that what you need, Mr. Chambers?"
"Sorry, Steve. Steve. Is that what you mean?"
"I'm not sure what I mean but I've heard a lot about you and I'm impressed. This might be helpful for all of us. You....could even set up an office, if you like."
"Meaning," said Joanna, "That you'd be home for lunch, if you like. It sounds rather grand. What do you think, kids?"
"I dunno," said Billy, "I'd have to think about it. How about you, Mary? What do you think?"
"Would I have to be quiet?" said Mary.
"I suppose," said Steve. "Are you noisy?"
"She is," said Billy. "Sometimes, like a train wreck. But you could see more of Dad, Mary. Even though he'd be working, see? Hmmm...." He leaned forward, spreading his hands across the desk.
"Hm," said Mary, "I dunno. Mom?" She looked at Joanna.
"Well," said Joanna, folding her hands across her stomach, "could we just try it for a while? Would we have to move right away? Hm. Moving. I hadn't thought of that."
"I could help you with that," said Steve. "Don't worry about that."
"But it's up to you," he said. "Whatever works. I could set you up in temporary digs, really. The place is nice; and we plan to renovate to suit the tenants. Daniel, you can help too, if you want, okay?"
"Sure," said Daniel. "This sounds like fun, really." He grinned, and looked at Derek. Derek laughed.
"You would, you slavedriver." Daniel laughed.
"Yes, Jean was giving me the gears, tonight. Guess you and I should talk, huh?"
"Yeah," said Derek. "You okay with that?"
"No," said Daniel, "because I really AM an ass."
Derek and Daniel both laughed.
"We can sort this out, Daniel," Derek said. "I understand what's happened, but, guy...I'm beat. I need a break, you know?"
"I get carried away," said Daniel. "You realize that's not the plan, to piss you off..."
"Of course, I do. But you're really pissing Joanna off--"
"Oh yeah," said Joanna, "fob it off on me--who is being crazed here? You two, not me. If Jean was here, she'd have you BOTH horsewhipped for being such shits."
"Huh?" said Derek, "Now wait a minute..."
"Dad," said Billy. "LANguage"
Joanna laughed and looked at Billy.
"You look good behind that desk, Bill," she said.
Billy beamed. Derek looked bemused. "I think I need a drink."
"No you don't," said Joanna, smiling beatifically. "No you don't, Derek. You need a week off. How about that, Daniel? Give us a week off and we'll do the deed, with Steve. How's that sound?"
"How about a week off, regardless?" said Derek. "Actually, make it two; I find I need at least a week to unravel."
"True," said Joanna. "That's very true. Okay, make it two. Can you live, Daniel? Cos I think Derek deserves a break."
"So do I," said Mary. "Can we have some pizza, please?"
"Sounds like a plan," said Steve.
"Actually, guys? Let sleep on it," said Derek. "This is all a bit much for my brain, tonight."
"I want pizza," said Mary. "Daddy, please?"
"Yes, hon--did I just see you yawn?"
"Hm," said Mary, "Can we have pizza? I'll pay for it."
"With what?" said Billy, "you nasty child." He laughed. "What money do YOU have?"
"Fifty bucks," said Mary, patiently.
"Fifty bucks? Where'd you get fifty bucks?" said Billy, getting up and coming round to face her in Derek's lap.
"Uncle Daniel gave it to me," said Mary, still quite patiently.
"Why would he do that?"
"I dunno. He liked my drawing. Asked if he could have it. I said sure. He said, I'll buy it from you. For fifty bucks."
"Daniel..." began Joanna, "...what are you doing?"
Daniel looked sheepish. "I just wanted to get her something, a present, you know? And I thought...well...this would be nice. I mean...she did do it herself--even Steve liked it, don't you, Steve?"
"Uh oh, family squabbles," said Steve, "I ain't gettin' in the middle of this; both these women" he looked at Mary, who was now grinning at him, and Joanna, who was shaking her head, smiling, "look FIERCE!" Derek laughed.
"And don't stand too close to either one of them, either." Mary wriggled on his lap, laughing. "Careful, there, partner" he said, "I may plan to bring you another brother or sister, some day, you know?" He caught her about the waist and lifted her to the ground. She continued laughing and ran up to him, attempting to climb back into his lap.
"Da-deee!" she said, "You're emBARassing me." Joanna laughed and stood up.
"Come on, hon," she said, patting Mary on the shoulder, "let's go order some pizza in Daddy's office. We can eat it there, okay? Bill, come pick a movie. We'll watch some while we wait for your Dad-how's that sound? Billy nodded his approval.
"Okay," said Mary. "Thanks, Daddy, I'll pay, okay?"
"Oooh, my daughter is growing up!" said Derek. "Now, off you go, I'll be there shortly. It was really good to meet you, Steve. This sounds fun." They shook hands. "Perhaps you can swing by the house next week or so for dinner; we can talk some more then. While we're on vacation. Right, Daniel? Two weeks, firm? No interruptions? No emergencies? Two whole weeks so I can sleep late?"
"Okay, " said Daniel. "We'll talk more about on this, in a minute, when everyone has left." He headed for the liquor cabinet. "Can I fix you a drink, Derek?"
Derek looked at Joanna, who smiled and looked back.
"No..." said Derek, in a quiet voice. "No, you can't, Daniel--but thanks." He smiled. "I think all I need right now, is some time away. A vacation, perhaps..." His voice trailed off. He stood and stretched out his arms to the corners of the room.
"See you later, Daddy," said Mary, running up and hugging Derek about the knees, almost toppling him as she did so. He laughed and stroked her hair. "I'll make sure there's plenty of pizza for you too--okay, Daddy?"
"Yes, mame," said Derek and Joanna, got up and came over to him, giving him a small hug about the waist and pushing the hair out of his eyes. He grinned and looked at Steve, picking up his topcoat and putting it on, and heading out the door with a wave of his hand to everyone. She held him in her arms for a moment and then she and the kids left the office.
"And so," said Derek to Joanna, "you want to try this arrangement out for a while, do you?" He petted Mary under her chin as they all sat in silence, in the car, heading back to the apartment. Mary, her mouth covered in patches of pizza sauce, turned in her sleep, and put her gentle arms across Derek's waist. Derek looked down at her, dead to the world, and he smiled.
"I'll be able to spend more time with Mary," he said, pulling and then pressing a strand of hair off her cheek. Mary awoke suddenly, startled. "Oh, sorry, honey," said Derek, lifting his arms and settling them on Mary's shoulders and back. Mary coughed once quietly, licked her lips, and said: "Derek needs more sleep; Mom is getting pissed." Derek, his eyes wide and grin forming on this lips, looked at Mary, then Joanna. Joanna grinned knowingly.
"Little pitchers have big ears," she said, putting her left hand on Derek's right wrist and leaning against him. "Dear lord, hon. You've lost too much weight. I think the best preoccupation for this wonderful holiday we've all talked you into is fattening you up." She squeezed his wrist again and Derek gently kissed her left cheek.
"Placemarker," he said. "Wait till we get you home. Then, we'll unwrap the presents." Joanna laughed.
"I'm sure I have a writ for that somewhere," she said. Derek chuckled, rearranging Mary on his lap--she didn't seem to mind this time--and Joanna put her head on his shoulder, her arms, around both Derek and Mary, who was now, again, dead to the world.
"Mary honey, what are you doing?" said Joanna quietly; then she smiled and sighed as she stood in the doorway to hers and Derek's bedroom. Mary sat down suddenly, right where she was, startled at being discovered in the midst of her secret quest. Her secret quest? To spend as much time with her Daddy as light and love and energy would allow. This past week, Derek's first week of vacation, Mary had become Derek's little shadow and Joanna had even found her, on a few occasions, sitting on or near her daddy when he was on the toilet in the washroom. She and Derek both laughed at Mary's determination to be with her Daddy--completely understandable, because these last ten months no one had seen much of Derek. He'd become a spectre and a spectator in his own household, and generally too busy, too distracted, or just plain tired to see how the family was going. Oh, it was going, all right. To hell, in some small ways.
"Mary honey," said Derek, very carefully turning around and under her, "You are a very cheeky chappie and you must be destroyed." He laughed, rolling over on his back and taking her hands in his. She had come into the bedroom, snuck along the bedside, then climbed over Derek--well, almost; Joanna had startled her as she was stepping gingerly over Derek's right side, to crawl into bed beside him while he slept. Joanna had surprised her and she'd sat down on Derek instead. Derek laughed again and pulled her down against his chest, breathing in the sweet smell of her hair.
"How are you today, Daddy?" said Mary, patting Derek's cheeks gently with the palms of her hands. "Ow, you need a shave; you need a shave, Daddy. Your cheeks are all briskully." She kissed him gently on the mouth and Derek formed a pout with his lips.
"All briskully, am I, my razz-ma-tazz. How'd you like to have to shave your face every day? I'm on vacation. I don't have to shave, no I don't. What do you think of that?" He stared up into her eyes, then made a goofy face. She laughed.
"Mommy says you can do whatever you want, even sleep all day. Right, Mommy?" She turned on her side, cupping Derek's face in one hand, and looked at Joanna.
"That's right," said Joanna, "Daddy is the King and Queen for a day, a week, ah, I mean, two weeks, right, Derek? Daniel gave you two weeks with no interruption--let me hear you say that back to me, Derek, would you please?
"Okay, okay, so he called me yesterday. Guilty as charged." Joanna lay down beside him, Mary between them, Joanne's head near his chin. Derek kissed the top of her head. "We were just touching base on a few things, that's all, I promise. I'm not going anywhere, thinking about anything or making plans of any kind, okay?"
"Promise?" said Joanna, her expression serious, stroking Derek's chest with one finger, moving it slowly up and down against his skin. She frowned and sat up. "Honey, you're kind of warm; do you feel okay? You're not coming down with anything, are you?" She slid up the bed to look at his face, meeting his gaze with sudden concern.
"Hm..." said Derek, and he closed his eyes, listening.
"What hmm," said Joanna, running her fingertips over his cheeks, then stroking his hair. "If you get sick after all this time--you haven't been sick for over a year--I'll..." she stopped, looked down at Mary and said, suddenly quieter, "Never mind." She stroked Mary's forearm. Mary turned and snuggled into her mom's chest, gripping at her hair and her blouse, and closing her eyes, content.
Derek grinned and looked at Joanna. "Hello," he said, and pulled them both close. Mary giggled.
"Da-dee, you're squishing me." Joanna laughed and tousled Mary's hair and sat back to watch the day begin with two of her very special loved ones.
"Hey, what about me?" said Billy, appearing in the doorway to Derek and Joanna's bedroom, nervously rubbing his palm up and down the doorframe, oddly self-conscious.
"What about you?" said Derek, turning to smile at Billy, in the doorway. "Do I know you from somewhere?--no, let me guess. I have an identical twin somewhere--let me think now; he lives in Illinois--that's it: he lives in Illinois, and you're his forlorn son, am I right? I mean, no son of mine would wear such a basket of blue." Mary, curious about the strange turn in conversation, crawled to the foot of the bed, put both hands on Derek's bare feet--he was, in fact, completely undressed under the covers--and began to rub the soles.
"Hey there, kid," said Derek, his voice a little louder than before, and his smile even wider. "Quit picking on my feet, why don't you? What'd they ever do to you, huh?" Mary giggled, continuing to rub his feet. It was a game they had played, since Mary was two.
"I'm not blue," said Billy, coming in to sit down on the edge of the bed beside Derek and putting his hand on Derek's chest. He smiled shyly, and Derek covered his hand with his own, waiting for Billy to begin.
"I..." Billy looked down at Derek's hand, covering his own. "I MISS you, Dad. I miss you lots. It hurts when you're not around to talk to. You're my best FRIEND, you know?" He looked at Mary, his eyes starting to tear. Derek's expression softened. He lifted the edge of the cover with his left hand and slid his right hand up Billy's arm to his shoulder, pulling him under the covers, against his chest. Billy began to cry and Derek hugged him close.
"Don't cry, Billy," said Mary, climbing back up the left side of the bed between Derek and Joanna, who had been listening carefully to this entire exchange. "Don't cry, Billy, I'll be your friend. I promise." She began to cry too, and put her head down on Billy's shoulder, wrapping her arms tightly around his neck. Joanna laughed. "So this is good," she said, running her hands through Mary's thick, dark hair. "One big happy family." She looked at Derek and her expression grew soft. She looked at Billy who wiped his eyes and looked back at her. Derek lay silent, gently stroking Billy's cheek.
"God, I'm sorry, guys. I am so sorry. I'll make it up to you, okay? I promise. I'll give you each large sums of money and copious quantities of food and drink and movies--you guys still like movies, don't you?--Bill, I know you do--we'll go to the store right this minute and buy you any movie you want--how does that sound?" His expression was dead serious. Billy sat up and stared at Derek, his eyes dark. "Silly man," he said, and laid back down on Derek's bare chest. "Silly man, are you trying to bribe me with gifts of guilt?" A smile crept across his face; a smile and a sly expression in his eyes.
"Bribe?," said Derek, pulling him close again and running his fingers through Billy's hair. "I wouldn't bribe you, boo. Not ever. Not ever." Derek's tone grew serious. "I'm sorry, son. You're absolutely right. I've been away too long but now I'm back. Okay? Friends?" He looked at Joanna, and then at Mary, who joined Derek and Billy in their hug. She petted Billy's head.
"No more lonely nights," said Mary.
"EXACTly, said Joanna, wrapping her arm around Mary and Billy, and lying beside Derek.
"My head aches," said Derek. "All this emotion so early in the morning has worn me out. Mind if I sleep a bit, guys? Sorry."
"Sure, Dad," said Billy, still hugging him close. "Sure, Dad, sure. We have lots of time." He closed his eyes, in fact, near falling asleep.
"I'll go make some coffee," said Joanna, gently pulling Mary up, who crawled into her arms and closed her eyes. "Come on Mary. You can add the sugar and the cream--how's that sound?"
"Okay," said Mary, "I'll be there. Or be square." Joanna laughed. "Ah yes. My daughter, the hippy." Mary giggled and climbed off the bed, heading for the door. "How many sugars, Daddy? How many sugars can I get you?"
"You're all the sugar I need, hon," said Derek. "Make it black. No sugar, no cream. Okay?"
"Okay," said Mary. "Come on, Mom, let's go. Can I have a poptart, please? And a glass of milk?"
"Sure," said Joanna, getting up, kissing Derek hard on the mouth, whose eyes grew wide and he pulled her back down on the bed. Billy laughed.
"Shall we leave you two alone?" He grinned at Mary, who took Billy by the hand and kissed his palm.
"I promise to be better, Billy. You're my brother and I love you and I've been such a shit, of late."
Both Derek and Joanna laughed.
"That's okay, Mary," said Billy, "I've been pretty shitty too and I apologize." He kissed Mary on the cheek then gave her a tiny slap.
"Hey!" said Mary. "Mom, Billy slapped me!" Billy laughed.
"Come on, Mary. Let's go make coffee. What kind of poptart do you want? Don't you want juice? Let's squeeze oranges; shall we squeeze oranges? Come on." And with that, Mary and Billy headed for the kitchen, downstairs.
"Oh my," said Derek, "What a way to start a day." He looked at Joanna, who was unbuttoning her blouse. "Why madame, what are you doing? Do I see lovemaking in my future?" He touched the tendrils of her hair that hung about her face. "I could manage some love right now, thank you. And you?"
"I could see that happening," said Joanna, as she slipped out of her clothes and under the covers with her husband.
"How's your head now?" said Joanna, caressing his neck and kissing his shoulders.
"I'll live," said Derek, settling back and closing his deep brown eyes. "After a nice long sleep."
"Sleep?" said Joanna, "I had my heart set on something else."
"I know," said Derek, "I'll sleep after. Won't that be nice?"
"Yes," said Joanna. "Come here, sir. I have your placemarker for you."