Word count: 8,000
Summery: It’s the 4th of July and after almost 20 years Colby is heading home to Winchester, Idaho. And he’s bringing his husband and daughter with him.
Spoilers: Toxin, Janus List, Trust Metric, Counterfeit Reality, Greatest Hits, Finders Keepers
Notes: Part of Vignettes ‘verse taking place after Dumped but you might also want to look over A Direct Threat as it gets mentioned. Long Author’s notes will come at the end.
Beta: The very brave and amazing swingandswirl with autumnwriting fixing the Hebrew and boymommytotwo fixing the plot.
Esther pushed open the screen door in the pre-dawn grey light. Under the slight squeak of the door was the sound of metal scraping against metal. It sounded suspiciously like a round being chambered. Esther quickly darted back inside.
“Who’s there?” A male voice asked from the porch.
“Esther? Esther Eppes?” Esther whispered loudly. When she didn’t get a response she nudged the screen open again and carefully peaked around the corner. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust. When they did she could make out Andrew Granger sitting on the porch swing, a gun clasped in his hands.
Esther put up her hands and carefully stepped out. “Hey, just me. Unarmed innocent bystander.”
Andrew looked at his weapon in surprise and carefully lowered it. “Sorry,” He mumbled.
“No problem.” Esther approached carefully and sat down next to Andrew, close but not too close, keeping her eyes on the weapon the whole time. “It’s Andrew right?”
“Yes, well, Andy. Only my father and grandmother call me Andrew.”
“Right, Andy. So, not sleeping?”
“I think… I think my brain is still in another time zone.” Andy answered.
‘No shit.’ Esther thought. “I’m an insomniac myself. Especially in a new place.”
Andy just nodded and continued to stare at the slowly brightening horizon.
“Soooooo. Decided to take a little walk with your service weapon?” Andy looked at the gun in his hand again. The look was distinctly confused.
“I just...” He stumbled.
“May I?” Esther held out her hand. Andy looked between her and the weapon several times then slowly handed it over. Esther took it slowly and gently.
‘God bless Glocks,’ she thought, looking it over. One of the first things she’d been shown how to do with a gun was how to secure one and Glock had kept the same basic, simple design since before she was born. Esther ejected the clip and removed the chambered round. Then she put the pieces to the side covering them with a bit of her night shirt.
“There. We’re in Idaho and I don’t think the potatoes are about to rise up and revolt.”
Andy gave an almost frightened little chuckle. “We grow more than potatoes you know?”
“Yes, I noticed the cow out front that did not make a sound that sounded anything like moo. Sesame Street lied.” Andy chuckled again. “I’m afraid someone’s going to try to tell me that pigs don’t go oink.”
This time Esther got a small smile. “They don’t.”
Esther put on the most exaggerated look of disappointment she could manage. “The lies they tell you growing up in the city. Do chickens at least cluck?”
“Sort of, it’s more of a boack sound.”
Esther laughed and got a larger if slightly fragile smile from Andy which quickly faded.
“You’re going to ask.” Andy whispered.
“About Afghanistan. Everyone asks.”
“I wasn’t planning on it.” Esther said truthfully. If anything she had planed to take the conversation as far away from that as possible.
“My dad was there. I don’t ask him either. If he ever wants to tell me one day I’ll listen but I don’t ask.”
Andy let out a long breath his whole body collapsing in on itself. “Your dad’s my Uncle Colby, right?”
“But also, um... Mr. Eppes.”
“Yeah, that’s my other dad.”
Andy nodded and seemed to think about it for a long time. “Is that ever weird?”
Esther shrugged. “Define weird, define normal. In LA having two parents that are actually happily married is weird so...”
“My folks are divorced. My mom ran off with this Parks Service guy when I was four. They live in Alaska now.”
“That sucks. My mom left me in a box on my dad’s porch when I was a week old.”
“I’m not. I met my mom once. She’s a raging bitch. I’m a dirty secret and the best thing she ever did for me was to leave me with my dads.”
Andy nodded and fell silent. Esther kicked herself a bit. Talking about her mother was always a conversation killer. One of these days she was going to try to work out how to make that factoid about her life into funny anecdote.
“Soooo... Penny for your thoughts?”
Andy frowned, his face scrunching up in thought. “You’re Jewish?” Andy blurted out. “I mean I heard someone say...”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m Jewish.” Esther answered carefully.
“There was a guy in my unit who was Jewish, Isaac.”
“Well, we do get around.”
“There was this thing he'd always say to himself while we were on patrol. He said it was for luck. A prayer or something, I’ve been trying to remember it but I never really listened all that close, and just since I left, it’s like I’ve got a song in my head but I can’t remember any of the words.”
“What do you remember?” Esther asked. If it was one of the more common prayers she might be able to get it just from the rhythm of the words.
Andy squeezed his eyes shut. “Het glad, tey it quad... something. I just can't remember. It’s driving me nuts.”
Esther put her face in her hands. She was pretty sure she knew what Andy was looking for. They were words she’d heard nearly every Saturday since she was a small child but she had never heard them butchered to that extent. “Yitgadal v'yitkadash shema raba.?”
Andy’s head shot up. “Yes! Yes that was it. For luck?”
“Well...” Esther wasn’t even sure where to begin. The Kaddish had a long history culturally, spiritually, and linguistically. She couldn’t recall any mention of luck but Andy looked half way happy. “Yeah, sure, luck. I’ll... uh... I’ll write it down for you later.”
“Thanks, Isaac always swore he… well… I mean the other guys laughed but the one day he stopped...” Andy’s smile faded.
“So,” Esther clapped her hands together. “It’s Saturday morning. I’m going to guess this one-Starbucks town doesn’t have a synagogue.”
“I don’t even think we have a Starbucks.”
Esther could see the first hint of color in the sky. “Let’s take a walk.”
“A walk. Let’s take a walk.”
Esther pointed to the tree-topped hill in front of them. “Let’s go up there. Watch the sun rise. I’ll do a little reading, you can contemplate non-hostile nature and protect me from cows that don’t say moo.”
Andy laughed. “Sure, um...”
Esther realized that Andy was looking at her bare legs. “I’ll go throw something on, and,” Esther picked up the gun from the bench. “How about if I just keep this for you for a bit?” Before Andy could answer Esther grabbed it and half ran into the house.
Once she got back to her room she stashed the gun, the clip, and the bullets in three different bags, while trying her best not to wake Katie. She fished out some clothes mainly by feel and since it was Saturday grabbed her smallish well read study copy of the Tamuld on the way out
Andy was still waiting for her on the porch.
“Well, come on, soldier, let’s go climb a mountain.”
Andy smiled and followed as Esther headed in the general direction of the hill. The long grass was still a little damp as she hopped oven a split wood fence. There was a good deal more color in the sky now. The sun would probably be nearly up by the time they reached the top. Around them she could hear early morning birds run through the grass and occasionally take flight.
Andy made his way behind her and a little to the side. Esther had a funny feeling they were in some sort of two man patrol formation. Once at the top of the hill Esther took a deep breath and marveled. The sun was just creeping into a lightly wooded green valley with a small river that was painted pink by the new day’s light.
“Well, I think that was worth a little hike.”
Andy stood beside her. “In winter you can ice skate on parts of that river. There are bends where the water goes deep and still and you can swim in the summer and skate in the winter.”
“That sounds nice.”
Esther poked around a bit of grass with her foot before sitting down leaning against a solitary tree. “We should have brought a blanket or something.” Andy was looking down at her. “Sit down. Enjoy the view. Breath the fresh air and just think about nothing.”
Andy sat but was looking at her instead. “What’s that?” Andy asked nodding to the thick book Esther was holding.
“It’s called the Talmud.”
Esther chuckled a little. “It’s a fifteen hundred year old text covering Jewish oral law and tradition and rabbinic thought at the time. It’s incredibly dense in a lot of places and there are people who study it every day and spend their whole lives learning and adhering to every inch of it.”
“Oh, so real page turner?”
Esther couldn’t help the smile that crept across her face. “It has its moments. I mainly just read it on Saturdays and meditate a bit on... faith, tradition, history, language. I’m not actually that conservative, despite what my family thinks.”
“Read me some.” Andy asked quietly.
“Yeah, the bits you like.”
Esther looked down at the thick book in her hands then out to the view. “Okay.” Esther opened the book easily finding one of sections she returned to regularly. She skimmed her eyes over it making sure she could translate as she read. She looked up at Andy. His eyes seemed a little unfocused but he had a small smile on his face. Esther took a breath and began to read.
Colby stepped into the kitchen and drew in a deep breath, savoring the sweet smell of bacon cooking.
“Good morning, dear,” his mother greeted brightly from the stove.
Colby winced a little, his hangover still in full force. “Morning. Hey have you seen Esther?”
Emily turned briefly from the stove. “No. I thought she was still in bed.”
“No. She’s not in bed and Katie doesn’t remember her getting up.”
“I’m sorry dear. I’m sure she’s around.”
“Yeah, I’m just afraid she got up early and decided to take a walk and has twisted her ankle down the road or something.”
Emily patted her son on the cheek. “I’m sure she’s fine. If she’s not out in the yard then get Andrew to help you look.”
Colby gave an absent nod and grabbed a slice of bacon before heading back down to the maze of bedrooms. He knocked on the door to Frank’s old room then carefully pushed the door open. The bed was empty and neatly made and seeing as how it was made in his mother’s style and not a tight military style he was willing to bet the bed had not been slept in.
Now Colby was beginning to worry. He remembered what his head had been like at the end of his first tour and it hadn’t been entirely pretty.
Colby headed through the house and out the front door with the intent of searching the immediate farm buildings. He barely made it off the front porch when he noticed two people making their way down the east hill the sun behind them.
Colby waited and watched counting the time by the thumping of his head. When Andrew and Esther got to the fence she easily vaulted herself over it. Esther spent so much time with her nose in a book that Colby often forgot that she now had nine years of Krav Maga care of Auntie Megan. A couple more years and a little extra training and she’d probably be able to take on the Quantico obstacle course. Not that Colby wanted to see her within spitting distance of Quantico.
The two of them came up the walk, Esther in the lead and Andrew following looking a little like a puppy. Dread sunk into Colby’s stomach and joined the hangover.
“Morning Dad.” Esther sounded far too perky.
“Good morning, sir.”
Colby didn’t correct Andrew on the sir bit. “Good morning you two. Out for a walk?”
“Yeah, it’s nice out.”
Colby turned to Andrew. “Andrew, I believe your grandmother could use some help with breakfast.”
“Yes, sir.” Andrew answered quickly and disappeared into the house. Esther went to follow.
“Just a second young lady. We need to talk.”
Esther rolled her eyes. “What did I do now?”
Colby took a big breath, then another and tried to think through the hangover. “Sweetie, I know you’re growing up and you’re starting to have certain kinds of feelings...”
Esther’s eyes went wide. “Oh God, Dad, no, please stop.”
“And Andrew’s a very attractive young man...” Colby continued.
“Dad please, I will actually die of embarrassment if you keep talking.”
“...But he is older than you...”
Esther slapped her hands over her ears. “We were talking okay, I have insomnia, he’s still on Kabul time or something. He was on the porch getting a little cozy with his gun and I just thought he’d like to talk. That’s it. Talk.”
Colby’s train of thought skittered to a halt. He pulled Esther’s hands away from her ears. “What do you mean getting cozy with his gun?”
“He was sitting on the porch with his gun waiting for the potatoes to stage a revolt or something. He just looked a little out of it and I thought he just might want someone to chat with. It’s not like I was sleeping.”
“What were you talking about?”
“Just stuff... I don’t know. The fact that cows don’t say moo and apparently pigs don’t say oink either. Just nothing.”
Colby rubbed his face a few times. He was going to have to talk to Andrew. The kid obviously hadn't fully transitioned out yet. “Do you know what he did with his weapon?”
“I’ve got it.”
Esther gave a little shrug. “He didn’t look like he should have it so I said I’d hold it for him.”
“It’s in my bag.”
“You just left a weapon in your bag?”
Esther gave another epic eye roll. “I’m not an idiot, Dad. The gun’s in one bag, the clip’s in another, and I took out the bullets and stashed them in a third.”
“Okay, good. Look it, be careful around him, okay?” Esther pulled a face. “I’m serious. He’s not completely okay. He obviously hasn’t transitioned out yet and if he doesn’t things could get very hard for him. He might be okay in a few days, he might not.”
“Dad, I could totally break his arm if I need to and he’s fine. Well, okay he’s a little out of it still but it’ll be fine.”
Before Colby could say anything else Esther darted past him and into the house.
Colby followed but Esther had already vanished towards the bedrooms. Andrew was setting out dishes for breakfast.
“Good morning, Andrew.”
“Good morning, sir.” Andrew replied while laying out silverware with military precision.
“I hear you and Esther had a nice little chat this morning.”
“Talk about anything interesting?”
Andrew stopped and stared into space. “The almost universal human need to believe in a higher power so as to have something greater than ourselves to blame our own faults and random miseries on and yet if we blame God for our pains then we must also give him credit for our joys, absolving us from guilt but also robbing us of personal victories.”
“Right.” Colby made a bet with himself that that was the longest sentence Andrew had ever uttered and probably the most complicated thought he’d ever had. “By any chance did cows come up in all this?”
Andrew frowned a little. “Yes. Cow’s don’t say moo and I think that is a great disappointment to Miss Eppes.”
Colby rubbed his temples. “Okay, Andrew.”
“You can call me Colby. I’m your uncle. Okay. I need you to know that I know where you are right now.”
“I’ve been in exactly the situation you are in. Eighteen months of just trying to keep yourself and your buddies alive and then all of a sudden you’re back in Idaho and everyone’s going around like nothing has changed and no one can begin to understand what you’ve been doing. But I do. I know exactly what you’ve been doing. A couple of weeks debriefing isn't exactly the same as suddenly walking down Main Street and smiling at your friends so if you need to talk to anyone, if you need to still work anything out, if you just need someone to scream at and bitch to about the brass and the food and whatever I’m here. Okay?”
Andrew nodded a little. “Yes, sir.”
Before Colby could go much farther his mother came out of the kitchen with a large bowl of scrambled eggs. “Colby, dear, go round up everyone for breakfast.”
Charlie watched Colby drive a wedge into a long piece of wood. Apparently the other purpose of the annual Granger 4th of July reunion, aside from just getting the family together, was to get all the little repairs and projects that needed to be done on the farm done at once.
According to Colby it wasn’t much of a farm anymore. His grandfather had been a reasonably successful rancher but his father had been a lousy farmer and they mainly just kept a couple of cows and sheep and a garden to feed the family. They still had a good amount of land. There was the valley the house was in and the one over. Colby told him there had been a third valley but it was sold off when he was a kid.
Colby and Robert lifted the split wood into place as part of a new fence. Frank had been sent off to do something on the other side of the property.
Mary Jo came up beside Charlie. “It’s good to see Colby finally home,” she said without much preamble.
“I’m enjoying seeing him in his natural environment.” And Charlie was. Colby was sweating through his plain white t-shirt and it was sticking to his still reasonably well defined body.
“I’m sorry I didn’t get to say hello last night. After all these years it’s nice to meet face to face.” Mary Jo held out her hand for a handshake.
“Same. And it’s good to see Katie is doing well. Her last paper was quite interesting.”
“I’ll take your word for it. I haven’t understood a thing she’s done since she was seven.”
“Well, she’s quite brilliant.”
Mary Jo shook her head. “I remember the first time I heard you say that. I was up to my elbows in turkey gravy and there was some guy on the other end of the phone talking about tutors and accelerated programs and all I could think was that if Colby was playing some sort of practical joke on me I was going to kick his ass ‘cause the gravy was about to burn.”
“No joke. I had her up to single variable algebra in twenty minutes.”
“Yeah, I know. The next day Colby drove a couple of hours out of town just to find her graphing paper and protractors and all kinds of other stuff.” Mary Jo got quite for a moment. “I think that was the last year I saw him.”
“You know I never asked him to stay away. I know family’s important.”
“I know. I know why he stayed away. This is a small town and getting smaller. It still thinks like a small town. Acts like a small town. Plus after our dad died Frank sort of tried to take over as head of the family and as much as I love my brother he’s a stubborn idiot.”
“Colby said something pretty similar last night.”
“Tell me Dr. Eppes...”
“Charlie. Were you and Colby together that last time he came home?”
Charlie reached back into this memory trying to recall exactly where he and Colby were in the evolution of their relationship at that time. “Um... sort of. Nothing official yet if I recall. Why do you ask?”
“I just remember Colby being distracted and Frank teasing him that he was mooning over some girl back in California.”
Charlie laughed. “I doubt he was mooning for me. We were still at a very... casual stage of the proceedings at that point.”
“That may have been so but I still remember he was here but he wasn’t.”
“Colby’s done so much, seen so much, sometimes I’m amazed his mind stays here at all. When things get hard I have the math I can vanish into, just let it override every bit of my thought process. I still don’t know what Colby does.”
Mary Jo just nodded and watched as Colby and Robert moved on to the next section of fence. “How’s your family? With Colby I mean. Are they okay with him?”
“Yeah. I mean I don’t have a lot of family. Me, my brother, my dad, that’s about it. But he and my brother get along and my dad gave us his blessing...”
“After we got married, yes.”
“I can’t believe Colby got married and didn’t invite me.”
“We eloped. No one got invited. It was us, Esther, the judge and two friends who were witnesses.”
“That sounds like a Granger man. Quick, and efficient.”
“He can be romantic too. He has been known to spring for flowers and nice dinners on our anniversary.”
“Well that must have come from some weird recessive romance gene. I don’t think our father took our mother out for dinner once.”
“Well, now, please don’t take offence but I don’t think Winchester is brimming with Michelin star restaurants.”
“True. But after Frank was born I don’t even think he took her out of town.” Mary Jo shrugged. “Well I shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, right? Especially my own father.”
“I’m sure in his own way he tried.”
Robert felt a twinge in his back as he lifted the next split of wood. He wasn’t going to admit to it though. Not with Colby still looking trim and fit. Robert supposed he’d have to be, still chasing down bad guys through the tough streets of LA. Robert would never admit it to his brother but he had a pretty big collection of cop and FBI movies. He always wanted to ask Colby how accurate they were but knew he would be terribly disappointed to find out that they weren’t.
Not that there’d been much of an opportunity to talk to his brother. Robert knew he could have called. He could have just picked up the phone and Colby would have answered. He could have probably even reversed the charges and Colby would have accepted them. But his big brother had become some strange, foreign creature in his mind, inhabiting the land of movies in a very real way, chasing bad guys down the Sunset Strip with palm trees going by over head then going home at night to a house that, according to their mother, had a lemon tree and a koi pond.
“Have you ever been up to the Hollywood sign?”
Colby pounded an extra long nail into the chunk of wood. “Yeah, a few times.”
“What’s it like.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean is it a good view?”
Colby shrugged a little. “Yeah, I guess. I mean the couple of times I’ve been up there it was mainly ‘cause someone dumped a body but yeah when the smog’s not too bad you get a pretty good view of the city.”
“Meet any movie stars?”
Colby chuckled. “A few. No one really big. It’s mainly producers and writers that get tangled up in really nasty things. You know, when money meets ego.”
Robert knew he was grinning and somewhere in his head he was writing out his own script with a hero FBI agent and the sleazy movie producer who gets more blood on his hands as he tries to hide his original crime.
“You and Clair should come down with Mom for Thanksgiving.” Colby offered.
“Nah, I couldn’t.”
“Why not? You could do the whole tourist bit. Chinese theatre, walk of fame, day trip to Disneyland.”
Robert wanted to say yes and book his ticket. “I don’t know if LA’s is my kind of place.”
Colby laughed. “That’s the big secret. LA is nobody’s kind of place. You just get there and try to chisel out a place for yourself where you can squeeze in and it’s like carving through granite.”
“How’d you manage it?”
“Found someone who already had a place and just so happened to have a little extra room for me.”
“So that’s what it was? Extra room.”
Colby looked up at Robert. “Do you want to ask me something directly?”
Robert squirmed inside. “You dated Patricia Philip.”
“Yes I did.”
“I mean she was beyond hot.”
Colby grinned. “Yes she was.”
“So... What happened? I mean how do you go from Patricia Philip to...” Robert leaned his head a little in the direction of Charlie.
“Honestly Robert, it just sort of happened.”
“You just sort of happened to switch teams.”
Colby shrugged. “We worked well together as part of a team and we just kept working well and one night we just worked very well.”
“You just worked well?”
“Life is what happens where you’re making other plans. I wasn’t even making other plans, I was just surviving and one day I looked around and realized I had a partner, a daughter, a father-in-law that treated me like a son and I was happy.”
Robert still couldn’t picture something like that just happening. “Just tell me you were drunk the first time.”
“We were both completely shit faced wasted.” Colby said with a completely straight face. “Does that make you feel better?”
“Actually, yes it does.”
It was far too hot to eat indoors so everyone had gathered around the back porch for a lunch that was the cold leftovers of the previous night’s feast washed down by copious amounts of lemonade.
Esther was collapsed under the broad apple tree looking a little worse for wear. Colby was sure she hadn’t slept more than a few hours if that and had spent the morning with Katie and Andrew weeding and watering the extensive vegetable garden. Not the easiest thing if Colby’s memory served him. Of course the garden was much smaller than it had been. When he was a kid they were nearly self-sufficient food wise and the cellar was always filled with canned vegetables from the summer and autumn harvests. It wasn’t that his mother didn’t trust her husband to provide for the family but she had been raised to assume that the rainy day you’re preparing for was always just around the corner.
As Colby pulled through some cold grilled chicken, Andrew got up from his location at the far end of the porch (a good tactical position), poured a large glass of lemonade from the big iced jug sitting by the door, and took it over to Esther. Esther took it with a smile and said something. Andrew sat down cross-legged beside her. Not touching, but close.
‘Okay.’ Colby thought.
Colby got up and went to track down his brother who was eating his own lunch on one of the benches scattered around the back yard.
Colby sat down next to him. “Frank.”
“Colby.” Frank’s tone was neutral.
“We need to talk.”
“You may have noticed my daughter over there.” Colby pointed to the tree.
“She’s kinda hard to miss.”
“Yes. Well the thing is Esther is many things. She is brilliant, she can be kind, she has a good sense of honesty, fairness, she’s a good cook, she is devoted to her family, if she takes after her mother in a few years she will be stunning, she is my pride and joy and the light of my life.” Colby put his arm around his brother’s shoulder in a less than friendly manner. “She is also fifteen years old. That is a fact you may want to bring to the attention of your youngest son.”
“Now hold on just a second.” Frank snapped. “You honestly think my boy...”
Colby grabbed his brother’s head and turned it towards the tree. “Look, Frank.”
Esther was leaning against the tree chattering away happily and somewhat obliviously. The look on Andrew’s face was perhaps best described as mildly twitterpated.
“Oh, indeed. Now it’s probably been a while since he’s seen a woman who wasn’t in a hijab or fatigues but Esther is fifteen and about to go to college and as much as I am aware of the fact that your son is still transitioning his mind back into the civilian world if he lays a hand on her I’m going to have to break it off. You have daughters of your own Frank, you should understand.”
Frank nodded. “I’ll talk to him.”
Charlie found as he aged that math became more and more interwoven with memory. Soap bubbles covered his hands as he helped to wash the lunch time dishes. With soap bubbles came memories of a case in the mountains. He’d been so young. Barely twenty cases under his belt. More than a little intimidated by big bad Agent Edgerton but still determined to prove that his math could hold up in the field. He would never have believed it if a time traveler told him that maybe a decade later he would watch big bad Agent Edgerton throw up after taking his daughter on the tea cup ride at Disneyland.
Charlie chuckled a little to himself.
“Are dishes that amusing?” Emily Granger asked.
“Classic Newtonian physics allowed one to postulate that if you knew where every particle in the universe was and what it was doing in a particular moment then you could completely predict the future. I was just thinking that even if you could predict the future it doesn’t mean you’d actually believe it.”
Emily smiled. “Life does take interesting turns, doesn’t it?”
“There was a time in my life when I barely spoke to my own brother. He got engaged and didn’t tell me. There was a time I was sure I was going to marry a girl called Amita Ramanujan in some vastly complicated fusion wedding and have two carefully planned children. There was a time I dismissed Colby as some dumb jock not worth paying attention to ‘cause I didn’t think he’d survive more than five minutes in LA.”
“Honestly I didn’t think he’d survive LA either. I thought he’d come home after the Army and when he joined the FBI I thought he’d ask to be assigned somewhere close.”
Charlie rinsed away the bubbles. “I’m sure he meant to come home at some point.”
Emily shook her head. “No he didn’t. Honestly I have the first letter he sent after he got settled into LA. He spends half of it talking about the weather and the other half talking about this guy called Charlie who keeps finding their bad guys with a bunch of math.”
Charlie laughed. “Well I’m glad I made an impression on him.”
“Even if he didn’t make one on you.”
“Oh he made an impression,” Charlie confessed. “It just wasn’t a very academic one.”
“Well, as long as it’s all worked out in the end.”
Colby stood on top of the hill and looked down into the eastern valley. The sun setting behind him was still warm on his back. The little river at the bottom of the valley twisted around through the hills as it always had.
He had learned how to ski on the particular hill and in spring when the new grass was wet after rain a piece of cardboard made for an equally high speed ride. His mother would stand at the bottom and tell them they would break their necks if they kept it up. It didn’t stop any of them.
Colby was sure growing up he’d only seen the hill as a plaything and had never stopped to appreciate the idyllic view.
He was only looking at it now because after lunch he had been sent to check the far fences that separated the Granger land from county land. The fence was only thin wire easily damaged by cows, deer, and drunks.
Colby heard steps tramping up the hill behind him but he didn’t turn around.
“I have been sent to find you and bring you home for dinner,” Charlie said once he reached Colby’s side.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Colby mused aloud.
“You can swim in that river. Ice skate too on certain parts.”
“Not at the same time I assume.”
“No. Frank fell through once. Me and Robert had to fish him out and by the time we’d hiked home all three of us were sick. Me and Frank got bronchitis and Robbie got pneumonia.”
“Sounds like fun.”
“As soon as Frank was better dad gave him one hell of a hiding for going out on the ice when everyone knew it was still too thin.”
Colby felt Charlie’s hand slide into his and give a little squeeze. “Come down for dinner, love.”
Since there were only half as many people as the night before dinner was held inside. Colby took a deep breath savoring the smell of roast that was wafting from the kitchen. Alan might be a very good cook but there was nothing like home cooking.
Emily came out with a lovely large leg of lamb and roasted vegetables on a tray. It was large enough that it probably wasn’t technically lamb but hogget. Any which way it probably came from the Johnson’s farm next door. They had a deal with Emily which was good meat in exchange for access to grazing land the Grangers just weren’t using any more.
“What’s that?” Frank asked as the beautiful roast was place on the table.
“It’s called a roast, dear.” Emily replied with considerable quantities of sarcasm.
“You usually do ham on Saturday?”
“I thought I’d try something different.”
“It looks great, mom.” Colby said quickly. “Did you get it from the Johnson’s?”
“Oh yes. They had a bumper crop and we had a mild spring so they didn’t lose nearly as many of the lambs as usual.”
“Well, looks delicious.”
Frank reached for the large carving knife but before he could get there Emily snatched it away. “Colby, dear, why don’t you carve?” Total silence descended upon the room.
“Uh... okay.” Colby carefully took the knife from his mother’s hand. The Granger family had a very careful hierarchy and there were certain things that were simply done by the eldest male. Hacking apart roast meat was one of them. Not that Frank had ever really gotten the hang of it. He had a habit of just whacking off chunks of meat that were either all lean or all fat. But that did not matter, Frank was giving him the kind of evil eye Colby had not seen since they were kids.
Colby eyed up the roast and the number of people at the table and set about carefully carving across the grain then along the bone. Alan did not stand for letting a good roast get destroyed by bad carving and had always kept a careful eye on any cutting done at the Eppes table.
The plates were passed around and his mother said a quick and surprisingly neutral grace and everyone tucked in.
Colby tried to avoid making pornographic moaning noises. For as much as he had adapted to the city he had not been raised with the concept of red meat being a luxury or necessarily a bad thing. Even when they didn’t have two red cents to rub together there was still good meat on the table, either home farmed or hunted.
Colby kept one eye on his brother who was poking a little at his lamb. “What’s this white thing in the meat, Mom?” Frank asked.
“It’s garlic, dear.”
‘I will not kill my brother for being a boorish idiot.’ Colby thought to himself.
From the other end of the table Robert spoke up. “It’s really nice, mom. You should make it more often.”
“Thank you, Robert.”
The table lapsed into silence. Lively dinner table conversation had been another Eppes trait that had taken some getting used to. For the Grangers dinner was a time to put food and probably beer into the mouth. Chew, swallow, repeat at a reasonably steady pace. When Colby got to basic training he realized just where that habit had come from. Five generations of wolfing down food before being sent out on a 30 mile jog.
“Oh, while all you boys are here,” Emily suddenly interjected into the silence. Colby’s stomach dropped with dread. “I got a call from Davy down at Fish and Game and he said if we can find that buck we can put it out of its misery.”
“What buck?” Colby asked quickly.
“Edna Jones hit a three point buck the other day but it was just in that little truck of hers so it hobbled off the road. The Johnson’s said they saw it in the east valley limping on a front leg and dragging a back one. Even if they heal it’ll starve come winter. Davy even said if it’s in good shape we can keep it. No point wasting the meat even if it’ll be a stringy this time of year.”
“Ah.” That was another reality of rural life Colby had half forgotten, tending and maintaining the population of game animals, especially on private land. The only predators in the area were occasional packs of stray dogs and once in a rare while a big cat came their way. If there had been a mild spring the deer population was probably going to explode in the next year.
“We’ll take care of it tomorrow, Mom.” Frank was practically bouncing with glee at the though of getting a gun in his hands. Then he slapped Andrew on the back. “Won’t we, boy?”
‘I’m gonna kill my brother.’ Colby thought quite calmly to himself.
“I think I would prefer not to, sir.” Andrew’s reply was quiet but Colby cheered internally that the kid was standing up for himself.
“Aw, come on. We haven’t been hunting in ages.”
‘He doesn’t want to kill anything right now you fucking idiot.’
“I’ll go.” Esther suddenly said.
“You will not.” Charlie replied instantly and at the exact same instant Frank said ‘Sure’.
Esther looked at Colby. “I don’t mind, convince your father without resorting to shouting or name calling.” The last part was directed as much to Charlie as Esther. When they fought as father and daughter Charlie could be as reasonable as any parent. When they fought as fellow geniuses they could devolve into pettiness very quickly. The problem was while Esther was getting a steadily better grip on her own intellect she was also being slammed by all the standard teenaged insanity, as a result the genius/father/daughter divide was getting more and more muddled.
“You’ve never handled a rifle.” Was Charlie’s first volley in the debate.
“Over the holidays when you had that thing in Brussels. Uncle Ian helped me qualify.”
“Of course he did. Range or course?”
“M99SR, Longbow T-85, Barretta M101C, DARPA EXACTO 2, and a SIG-Sauer SSC 5000.”
Colby heard Frank make a little choking noise. After the mess with the Cromwell brothers Esther had tackled firearms training a little more seriously.
“None of those are exactly hunting rifles.”
“I’m sure the skills are transferable.”
Charlie squinted as Esther a little. “Shooting at paper targets is a little different to killing a living creature.”
“Well maybe it’s time I find out if I’m actually capable of taking a shot.”
“Or maybe that’s something that should be left unknown.”
“Knowledge for knowledge’s sake.”
“You really want to start debating me on scientific ethics?” Charlie had been stuck on the CalSci ethics committee for five years running and had developed a rather short fuse about it.
Colby was aware that the entire table had paused in their dinners. For the most part they looked like they had all accidentally turned to a documentary channel and gotten it stuck there. The only exceptions were his mother, Katie, and Andrew who was still looking mildly twitterpated.
Esther looked at her plate for a second. “Dilemma of the modern omnivore, should I be allowed to eat something that I am not, myself, willing to kill.”
“Ah.” Charlie jumped. “Is deer kosher?”
“You’re not kosher.”
“You are. Sort of.”
“Under a mildly liberal reading drawing primarily from Leviticus 11:3 through 8, yes. Not that you would know that.”
“Keep it on topic.” Colby said quickly before the discussion turned to religion which was currently on the Charlie and Esther’s list of no go topics.
“You’ll get poison oak.” Charlie stated with absolute certainty.
“Will too. You can’t get within five feet of nature without getting poison oak.”
Esther’s face was going a little red. “And each time the case is more mild. Another few rounds and I’ll be immune.”
“Or go into anaphylaxis.”
“Wow, big word. Spell it and I’ll drop my case.”
Charlie’s face quickly went cold. “Nine digit factorial prime and I’ll drop mine.”
Colby was about to mediate since they had basically hit the name calling stage without actually calling each other names, when Katie leaned over and whispered into Esther’s ear.
“Four hundred seventy-nine million one thousand five hundred ninety nine.” Esther quickly rattled off.
Charlie scowled down the table at Katie then looked back to Esther. “That’s cheating.”
“I stated no rules, you could have gotten a dictionary.”
Charlie looked at Esther long and hard. Esther looked back. “Fine. Do not get hurt, do not tell your grandfather, and try not to touch anything green.”
Esther looked rather smug as she tucked back into her dinner.
“Well, that’s settled then.” Frank’s brain had obviously needed a moment to catch up with the conversation. “We can go tomorrow afternoon.”
Charlie suddenly looked up from his dinner. “How the hell did Ian get his hands on an EXACTO 2?”
“I don’t know.” Esther mumbled through a mouthful of mashed potatoes.
“Those still have a restricted, classified, distribution and I’ve seen the distribution list and Ian’s not on it.”
Esther shrugged. “I think his new special friend is Secret Service.”
“I don’t care if his new special friend is God, he’s not supposed to have one and he certainly shouldn’t be letting you shoot it.”
“How’d it shoot?” Colby asked. Ian had told him he would get Esther proficient with a basic rifle but he’d obviously gone a little overboard.
Esther shook her head. “Kinda sticky, kicked weird. I liked the M99 better. Uncle Ian said he’d get me one when I turned 18.”
“No.” Charlie voice had the firmness of a steel rod. Esther looked at Colby but Colby shook his head.
“But...” Esther tried.
“No.” Charlie repeated. “I understand that Ian is like your best girlfriend and he really has no one else to spoil which is why I don’t say anything about shoe shopping or book shopping or the small arms training but as long as I am paying any part of your tuition or you want to live even partly under my roof then I say what weapons come into the house and you have no need for a .51mm high powered sniper riffle in the middle of LA. What would you do with it? Really?”
“Well...” Esther stumbled. “There’s that racoon that’s always trying to eat the koi?”
“And do you plan to shoot it from your bedroom window? Setting aside the fact that it would be incredibly illegal, that caliber, at that distance, you’ll get a ten foot, rabies infected red haze.” Esther pouted a little and just pushed her dinner around her plate. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. I’m sure Ian will happily buy you stilettos or something instead. And I mean the shoes not the knives.”
“I think they’re equally lethal.” Katie pointed out.
“Yes, but only one is a felony to walk down the street with.”
Esther was flipping through a journal under the back porch light when her father sat down next to her.
“Anything interesting?” Charlie asked.
“Just a translation of some medieval French church Latin texts that I’m pretty sure is completely wrong. I’ll write a letter of response when I get home. I can’t wait until I can throw at least a couple of letters after my name so they’ll actually take my shit seriously.”
Charlie pulled her into a one armed hug. “You’ll get there, sweetie. Few more years.”
“I want to be there now.” Esther whined throwing as much attitude and frustration into it as she could.
Her dad just laughed and gave her a kiss on the head.
“Do you really not want me to go hunting, ‘cause I won’t?”
“It’s okay. I mean I’m not thrilled about the idea but you should bond with your cousins.”
Esther leaned into her father’s shoulder. “Dad, these people are weird.”
Charlie laughed. “I’m sure they are thinking exactly the same thing about us.”
“Probably. And they all look alike.” Esther said suddenly. “What was that movie? Children of the Corn?”
“Children of the Damned I think.”
“It’s creepy. And have you noticed Dad’s accent changing?”
“Yeah, I have. It’s kinda cute.”
“His vowels are starting to do weird things.”
“I’m waiting for him to say y’all.”
Esther giggled with her father. She knew she shouldn’t be joking about her dad like that but it was weird to hear his accent slip from a pretty flat Californian basic into the soft, rolling, country one that was apparently what he was raised on.
Charlie brushed a long curl away from Esther’s face. “So, I hear you didn’t sleep last night?”
‘Oh, don’t bring up Andy.’ Esther silently pleaded. “You know me.”
“Yeah, I think I sort of almost do some days. Think you’re going to get some sleep tonight?”
Esther wanted to stay up and keep an eye on Andy but she was tired enough that she was starting to get little twinkles on the edges of her vision. “I think so. I’m just going to finish this?” Esther waved her journal.
“Okay.” Her dad gave the top of her head a kiss. “Don’t stay up too late. Love you.”
“Love you too, Dad.”
Esther turned back to her journal as her father disappeared back into the house. Every so often she’d look out into the night. She couldn’t see much but she was sure there was a shadow moving. After a while the shadow grew near then climbed the three steppes to the back porch. Andy sat down next to her.
“Is the perimeter secure?” Esther asked, only half joking.
“Yes.” Andy replied and he didn’t sound like he was joking at all.
“You should try to sleep tonight.”
“I once went three days with no sleep.” Andy offered.
“So did I.”
“Did you go into battle on the third day?”
“No, I passed out in gym class. My doctor gave me a prescription for sleeping pills after that but I don’t take them.”
“Because if I’m taking the pills I can’t wake up from my nightmares.”
Andy was quiet for a long time. “I think I know that feeling,” was what he eventually said.