(Originally published on The Write Room Blog)
Black coffee made from beans passed through the elemental tract of some exotic mammal—little swirling bubbles disturb its surface. After an appropriate time and one fake sip, Marcus puts the gold-lined cup down in its matching saucer on the marble end table.
“So this woman comes forward and has the temerity to ask Joan for the podium… .”
His ear focuses on the faint drone of a wall-sized TV screen mounted on the far side of the room—some game show. His eyes move to sweep the broad, multi-paned front window, its austere white drapes open to a cloudy afternoon.
His eyes stop. In the corner of the very lowest left-hand pane, a child of maybe six-years-old stares back at him, dark eyes huge in a pale white face surrounded by black, glossy curls.
Frowning, he sits forward. He knows those eyes. Yet, he knows no children, save his sister’s son.
He turns and almost says something to his wife. He quits that idea when he sees Lynda’s mouth working through a gasp of outrage at something their hostess just said. He hears his new law partner laugh with a hearty ha-ha-ha—just three ‘ha’s delivered in the exact same manner that he himself responds to some important client’s bad joke. His eyes again seek the window, and, still, the child looks in. She’s watching him.
He clears his throat, butts in. “Excuse me. Where’s the bathroom?”
It’s not George Sutherland, his boss and partner, who answers him, but Tanya, Sutherland’s gorgeous, perfectly coiffed, redheaded wife. “You can use the one in there.”
She points toward the kitchen. “By the back door.” She’s indicating the exact opposite direction of the bathroom Lynda was escorted to when they arrived.
He nods, says, “Thank you,” and, rising, all three faces tracking him, finds his way where well-tended, long-nailed finger still directs.
Beyond the swinging door, a Hispanic woman stands at an eight-burner island of stainless steel stove. She has a rag in one hand, and her backside jiggles as her other works with yellow sponge, scrubbing at some spot. Marcus sees the back door…slips out.
A small, paved path leads the way between the house and the garage to a cobbled driveway where his car is parked beside a broad expanse of pristine lawn. A stone angel with a bucolic expression stands in the corner flower bed, alabaster white icon to benevolence. Beside this angel stands the little girl who watched him through the window. “Hi,” Marcus says.
Lively eyes look up at him, their familiarity uncanny. She smiles.
“You live around here?”
She shakes her head ‘no’, the dark curls bobbing.
He squats down, sitting on his heels. “Just visiting, then?”
Again, she smiles, but shakes her head. “Mommy’s packing.”
She looks back toward the window. “You didn’t look happy.”
Marcus nods. Six-year-olds are very direct. His sister’s boy is, anyway. “No, I don’t suppose I did,” he answers. “So what’s a little girl doing looking through other people’s windows?”
She tips her head, precocious eyes looking toward the clouds. “I was curious.”
“What you were doing.”
He chuckles, the sound a bit grim in his ears. “Not much.”
“That’s what it looked like. Mommy says that people who don’t do much always shrivel.”
At a loss for response, Marcus runs suddenly tense fingers through his well-trimmed hair, black hair cut to tame its curls.
Startled, Marcus glances toward the voice and sees a short, slightly plump, jean-clad woman step out from the far curb into the street. The little girl bites her lip…twists back and forth, the pleats of her plaid school skirt swinging. “I have to go. That’s Mommy.” She holds out her hand as if he is some country gentleman she expects to help her from the flower bed.
Marcus rises, backs off—two, three steps. The child watches him, her hand still extended.
Footsteps coming up the driveway… . “Alyssa!”
The approaching figure stops. “Marcus?”
Still fighting shock, he acknowledges her: “Hello, June. I–I didn’t know you— …I didn’t know you had a daughter.” His mind is reeling with the implications—June with a five or six-year-old. That child steps from the flower bed as June, joining them, reaches with beckoning hand.
“We’re going, now,” the little girl says. “You should come to. We’re happy. All the time.”
“Shush, ‘Lyssa.” June’s face flushes. The wind stirs her so pale hair. “You look well, Marcus,” she says, her voice strained. Then, her soft brown eyes change to something he can only name a wistful. “Somehow I knew you’d never call again.”
She bends down to brush imaginary dust off the child’s shiny, black shoes. When she stands up, she seems recomposed, maybe even friendly. “We’re here to pack up Mom. I’ve got a good offer in New York City with the prosecutor’s office.”
He blinks, mind still gasping. “You’re moving, then?”
“We’re moving, yes, and Mom is coming with us.”
He wants to ask her for an address. Doesn’t.
“Good to see you,” she says, her voice (and eyes) distant, once again. “Come on, Alyssa.”
The child grins at him. “Bye.”
He nods…can’t seem to return the smile. His mind’s still churning.
The little girl waves, and, freed to, as his brain wakes up, he waves back, watching mother and child walk down the driveway. At the curb, they wait for a car to pass. He’s thinking.
“Marcus! What are you doing out here?”
Looking up, he sees his beautiful, tall, thin wife standing on the porch, her expensive clothes impeccable as usual. She’s perfect for him—for his career and its advancement.
“Who was that?!”
He glances back. June and her daughter are, just now, crossing the street. He smiles, a tiny surge of warmth licking at his solar plexus. “A little girl and her mother.”
“Were they lost or something?”
They turn the corner, heading south down Prospect Avenue. They’re heading toward June’s childhood home. He knows the place. “No. Just stopped to say ‘hi’.”
He tears his eyes away from them, returning from something past to present circumstance. He meets his wife’s eyes. He smiles up at her. She’s gorgeous.
“Do you know them?” She looks aghast at the idea.
Sharp, contact-green eyes flash. “From where?”
His eyes stray toward the street again, but June and her little girl are gone. “I knew June in college.”
“Oh.” Finely plucked eyebrows frown, a strong crease forming between. (Marcus knows the meaning of that crease.) “…Well, get in here. We need a fourth.”
He flinches at the tone of voice. It warns him: This isn’t the end of it. The muscles in his face freeze when he attempts a mollifying grin. He gives it up. “Okay. I’ll be right there. I need something from the car.”