Warnings: on screen animal hunting
Word count: 6,540
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 help from autumnwriting and boymommytotwo
Colby tried to get up without waking Charlie but the guest bed was really meant for one. Maybe one and a half.
Charlie opened one eye. “What time is it?” He mumbled.
“Where are you going?”
“I have to go to church with Mom.”
Charlie opened his other eye and raise an eyebrow. “You’re going to church?”
The last time Colby had been to church was the last time he was home. “It’ll make my mother happy.”
“Is the gay Jewish atheist required to put in an appearance?”
Colby gave Charlie a quick kiss. “No. Go back to sleep.”
Charlie closed his eyes and snuggled back into his pillow. “Love you.” He mumbled.
Colby quickly changed into a clean pair of good pants, a work shirt, and just for God and his mother, a tie. Luckily years of FBI life had given him the skills to get into a suit and tie half dead in the dark.
Colby was shoving some pre church toast and coffee into his mouth when Esther stumbled out. He quickly made a mental note to tell Esther to buy longer night shirts. Floor length for preference.
“What’s everyone doing up?” She mumbled rubbing her eyes.
“Go back to bed sweetie, we’re just going to church.”
Esther frowned in thought. She wasn’t a morning person by nature and like Charlie it sometimes took a bit for her genius brain to boot up. “Can I come?”
Now it was time for Colby’s brain freeze up. “Why?” Last time Colby checked Esther took her faith quite seriously much to the confusion and slight disappointment of Charlie.
Esther shrugged. “I’ve never been.”
“Of course you can come, sweetie.” Emily said before Colby could start up a debate of his own.
“I’ll go get changed.” Esther said then disappeared down the hall.
Colby turned to his mother. “That might not be the best idea.”
“Why ever not?”
“Esther likes to argue.”
“All teenagers like to argue. Lord knows you did.”
“Yes but most teenagers haven’t memorized most of the world’s major religious texts including the Bible in English, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. And she spent the last two years on the debate team.”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine. She’s just curious and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Colby dropped the argument but a low dread had sunk into his stomach. Esther came out a few minutes later in a long dark skirt and a tidy blouse. It was what she usually wore to temple and Colby knew she would stick out amongst the flower print dresses and summer hats the other women would be wearing. Church in Winchester was as much for seeing and being seen as anything else.
Colby handed her a piece of toast to eat on the way. When Esther had been small Charlie had agreed to let Alan take her to temple mainly to give them a couple of hours of child-free peace once a week. Alan had picked a Reform synagogue just a few miles up the road. Colby was never sure if it was the language or ritual or what but Esther had latched on. For a while he had been sure it was just an act of rebellion but it hadn’t faded and for such a liberal Californian, left-wing upbringing Esther’s personal faith had taken an oddly conservative bent.
In the center of town, just where Colby remembered it being, was the Winchester Community Church. Winchester was a small enough town that no one denomination was willing to set up shop except for a little place for the three Mormon families on the edge of town. The Community Church had a vaguely Baptist feel but Pastor Mike, who had been there since Colby was a boy, had been an Army chaplain back in the day so while he preached hell fire and brimstone he did it in a reasonably non denominational manor.
He, Esther and Andrew piled out of his mother’s truck. Colby leaned close to Esther. “Behave, don’t argue, and don’t cuss.”
Esther pinched her lips and looked rather affronted.
The four of them climbed the steps where Colby could see Pastor Mike shaking hands and greeting people. Like apparently every other man in Winchester, Pastor Mike had lost hair and gained weight but he was still an imposing six foot six with hands the size of pie plates. Colby was a little surprised the man was still alive actually. At the bottom of the steps waiting for Emily were the rest of the Grangers. They would easily take up two or three whole pews.
Emily climbed the steps of the church with three generations worth of her ducklings following obediently behind.
Colby was waved forward by his mother. “Pastor Mike. You remember my boy Colby?”
Colby accepted the firm handshake. “Of course I do. Never thought we’d see you again, son. Thought we’d lost you to the wilderness.”
“Not lost sir. Just figured out how to make it home.”
Emily pulled Esther over. “And this is my granddaughter, Esther. Esther, Pastor Mike.”
Colby watched as Pastor Mike quickly appraised Esther and Esther appraised him right back. “Well it’s very nice to meet you, young lady.”
“The pleasure is mine.” Esther said sweetly before being ushered along.
Colby was right. The collected Grangers took up two and a half pews. Esther picked up a bible sitting in its little slot. She thumbed through it and made a bit of a face. “What?”
“Nothing. It’s just a kinda old translation.”
“Well, sweetie, not everyone’s a linguist.”
“Don’t I know it. So how does this work?”
“Uh...” Colby hated to admit that he’d completely forgotten what order things were done in it had been so long. “Just follow along.”
Things went pretty smooth to start with. Hymns, readings. Esther only rolled her eyes a little at the readings then Pastor Mike got up on the pulpit. Since Tuesday was the 4th of July Pastor Make started giving his annual America as a Nation of One God sermon. Colby kicked himself. He had forgotten about that. If he had remembered he would have made Esther stay at home.
Colby saw her hand begin to creep up. He grabbed her wrist. ‘Don’t. Please.’ He mouthed silently. Esther rolled her eyes but lowered her hand. Even as she was doing that Colby got a good look at Andrew. Andrew was twitching and looked like he was about to raise his hand to interrupt as well.
‘Shit.’ Colby looked around. They were in the middle of the pew in the second row. There was no way he could get either of them out without everyone noticing and embarrassing his mother and probably making a scene with his brother. Colby took a deep breath and just hopped they could ride through it.
Colby spent the next ten minutes as tense as he’d ever been outside of a fire fight or hostage situation. He felt like a hostage himself to Pastor Mike’s grossly dated, nationalistic, philosophies. The sermon finished to a rousing Amen and the whole thing wrapped up pretty quickly, though the call to pray for America’s fighting forces caused more twitching on Andrew’s part. One last hymn and they were done.
Everyone stood and made their way outside and with as much heavy tradition as any other part of the church everyone made their way to the small hall adjacent to the church for bad coffee and cookies prepared by the church ladies.
Just before going in Esther grabbed Colby’s arm. “America as a Nation of One God?”
“I’m sorry, sweetie. He gives that sermon every year, I completely forgot.”
“Blocked out is more likely.” Colby cringed but silently agreed. “Can I at least have coffee after that?”
“I’m so proud of you for turning out, you know, not stupid.”
“Thank you, sweetie. Let’s go inside.”
Once inside the smell that hit Colby was one of pure sense memory. The smell of cheap, watery, percolated coffee in the giant urns mixed with the sugary sweet of hard packaged cookies laid out on plastic trays, that were, for some reason Colby had never grasped, fish shaped.
Colby grabbed a cup of coffee and handed it to Esther, knowing that unlike the first cup of coffee his father handed him it wouldn’t be 50% whiskey. Esther took a sip and made a bit of a face.
“I know, it aint Peet’s.”
“It’s not even Starbucks.”
“Put some milk in it and grab a cookie.”
“We mingle and try not to pick a fight.”
Esther grabbed a sugar cookie the peered around Colby. “Hey dad, there’s some woman in a really ugly green flower print dress checking you out.”
Colby looked over his shoulder. “Shit.”
“Who is it?”
Esther grinned a more than slightly evil grin. “I got your back. Don’t worry.”
Colby turned around and was almost immediately ambushed by Patricia Philip. She had lost some of her looks over the years. The flaming red hair had faded a bit and the twenty inch waist had thickened a little but she was still reasonably attractive. “Colby?”
“My God, that is you? You haven’t aged a bit.” Patricia pulled Colby into a tight hug that he pulled away from quickly.
“You’re looking good yourself.”
Colby grabbed Esther. “Patricia, this is my daughter, Esther.”
“Hi, so nice to meet you.” Esther gushed taking Patricia’s hand and giving it a strong two handed shake.
Patricia wiggled her hand away. “And you. So you have children, Colby?”
Colby put his arm around Esther. “Just the one.”
Patricia looked over the gathering. “Is your wife around, I’d love to meet her.” Colby knew by Patricia’s voice that would be that last thing she’d want.
“My mother’s in Stockholm.” Esther piped up suddenly. “‘Tis the season for early Nobel politicking. You know how those committees are, you need every bloody quark lined up right or it goes to the next guy. Though personally I really don’t see how she can lose out this year, I mean no one has looked into mater/energy micro particle transition like this, ever. It’s some of the biggest breakthroughs in particle physics since they got the LHC spun up at CERN.”
Colby blinked. Technically that was all true. The Bitch Ice Queen of physics land who was biologically Esther’s mother was probably going to pick up the Nobel in physics this year. The fact that Colby would not marry that woman if she was the last person on earth was rather secondary. And Esther hadn’t said she was Colby’s wife, just volunteered information about her mother.
Patricia blinked a few times herself obviously trying to keep up with Esther’s little speech. “Well, I hope she wins.”
“You and many other people.” Colby said with a smile. ‘Just not me.’
“Well, it was good to see you Colby. You should come home more often.”
With a quick smile Patricia wandered off to spread the rumor that Colby was married to an almost Nobel Prize winning physicist.
Esther grinned up at him. “See, no problem.”
“You could have told her the truth.”
Esther shrugged. “I did.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I’m sure the town will find out about you and Dad from someone. Probably Grandma Emily. This will just confuse the rumor mill even more.”
Colby had to admit that Esther had a point. “You know if that woman does win there could be problems.”
“Some reporter might come digging, I know. But I figure I can deal with that nightmare when it gets here. Besides I’m rooting for Uncle Larry to take the prize this year.”
“So am I.”
Colby grabbed another cookie and saw Pastor Mike heading his way with his mom, Frank and Andrew as well. “Sweetie, brace yourself.”
Pastor Mike made it to Colby and gave him a handshake and a slap on the arm. “It is good to see you Colby. I always worry about my wandering flock.”
“Well, I’m just fine, Pastor, thank you.”
Then in the slow motion from a horror movie Pastor Mike turned to Esther. “And how are you doing young lady?”
Esther smiled and sipped her coffee. “Fine, just fine, thank you.”
“Small town set up probably not what you’re used to.”
Esther managed to not choke on her coffee. “Not exactly, no.”
“Still, the good word is the good word.”
“That’s what they say.”
‘Oh please stop there.’ Colby begged any god or gods that might be listening.
“You know I baptized your father here.” Pastor Mike continued.
“I’m sure you did.”
“All the Grangers in fact, except of course for your grandmother here.”
“Well when you’re the only game in town.”
Pastor Mike laughed. “You should ask your father to let me do you, really get the whole family.”
Esther took a half step back into Colby who quickly put a protective arm around her. “We don’t really...” Colby tried to say.
“Ah, it’ll be good for the girl.” Pastor Mike reached out and ruffled Esther’s hair. That was not a good move. Esther had enough problems with her curls frizzing without someone working them up. Esther gave a little squeak.
“Thank you for the very kind offer,” Esther said quickly. “But getting dunked in potentially religious water was on the list of things I promised my rabbi I’d try to avoid while venturing into the wilderness. That and pickled pigs feet. Those actually exist, right? Nice coffee by the way. Not over done.”
A bubble of silence enveloped their little group. Emily looked at the ceiling, Frank looked dumb, and Andrew was managing to look twitchy and twitterpated at the same time.
Pastor Mike stared hard at Colby. “Have you strayed, son?”
“No, sir. My faith is what it’s always been. I just happen to respect the strong faith of others including my spouse, in-laws and daughter.”
Pastor Mike looked at Emily who met his gaze with equal strength. Frank was, for some inexplicable reason, keeping his mouth shut.
“I see. Well I have others of the flock I must speak to. You should come home more often Colby.”
Pastor Mike moved off and Esther dropped her head. “I’m sorry Dad, I panicked.”
Emily patted Esther’s arm “Don’t worry about it, sweetie. Mike’s an old man. He hasn’t written a new sermon in a decade and probably hasn’t thought a new thought in two.”
Colby let Esther go. “I think however we should take that as a cue to make a tactical retreat.”
Esther tipped back her coffee, quickly draining the cup. “I’m right behind you.”
When they got back to the house Colby found Charlie and Katie hunched over a tiny travel chess board. Charlie was winning but not by much. Charlie peered at Esther. “You actually went to church?”
“To see what all the fuss was about.”
“And how’d it go?” Charlie asked with no small amount of trepidation in his voice.
“They tried to baptize me.”
Colby was quickly on the receiving end of a very hard look. He put up his arms. “I had nothing to do with it, we got ambushed.”
Esther took her hair down from the tight bun that was keeping her waist length curls under control. “I missed taking a shower this morning. I’m going to go wash.” She announced before heading towards the bedrooms.
Charlie had not stopped staring at Colby. “Hon, really, I had no idea Pastor Mike would bring something like that up. It never even crossed my mind.”
“Is she okay?”
“She’s fine. She said thanks but no thanks and we made a quick tactical retreat. I never took my eyes off her.”
“This is why I object to religion, things like that. Faith is one thing, what people believe they believe and you can only do so much to try to change their minds but religion...”
“I know, I know. You’re in check by the way.” Charlie looked over his shoulder and made a quick move. “And you know as well as I do that Esther would drop kick someone before letting them get near her with a cup of suspicious water.”
Charlie scowled a little. “Next time she stays away from church.”
“No argument from me there.”
It was still several hours to dusk but Frank had wanted to get the hunting party together early. It would be him, Robert, Robert’s boy David, his oldest boy Frank Jr. and Colby’s girl. Since it was off season he figured it would be best if they double checked the weapons and spent some time at target practice first. If this buck was in as bad shape as people were saying he’d want to make sure it was a clean mercy kill.
Frank kept a close eye on Colby’s girl. He knew the others knew how to handle weapons. So did she by the looks of things. Her movements were clean and precise like the ones he remembered from basic training. And she was an odd one. There were moments when she didn’t seem too different from his own girls when they were that age, rolling their eyes, stamping their feet and trying to argue about every little thing, then there were times when this girl was something else, and not just smart.
She’d seemed honestly afraid of Pastor Mike at church had Colby looked more than a little nervous himself. Now Esther was bracing the rifle he’d loaned her along the top of the fence. There was something hard in her profile he was more used to seeing in the old men down at the VFW.
Esther sighted down the length of the rifle.
Frank had spent a lot of his military career stationed in Germany. There had been a girl when he first got there. She spoke English and was studying sociology. Frank never understood most of what she said but she was tall and blond and beautiful and liked his uniform and could do things in bed the girls of Winchester had probably never heard of.
After a few months he’d gotten a weekend off base and they had taken a train for hours out into the countryside to visit her parents. The town they got off the train at had been built hundreds of years before America had been discovered. It was full of tiny streets and picturesque spires. The girl’s parents hadn’t spoken English and Frank volunteered to just walk around the town and they could meet up for dinner.
Frank basically walked in a straight line until he came to a neatly ordered forest with a couple of paths heading in. He had kept to the tidy paths, enjoying seeing forest again when it suddenly cleared out. There was a huge open meadow with a chain link fence around it. Frank looked around. An ancient woman was shuffling up the tidy path with an equally ancient looking dog. Excuse me? Frank had asked, hoping the woman perhaps spoke English. What is this place? It was a camp. The old woman had replied in perfect English. It was one of the small ones. She added as if this somehow changed what it was. Frank looked back through the forest, he could see the spire of some medieval cathedral over the top of the trees. It’s so close to town? Yes. People must have known it was here? Yes. And no one did anything? The old woman had shrugged. What were we supposed to do? The old woman had shuffled on after that dragging the dog which had managed to fall asleep during the brief conversation.
Frank had stood there and kicked the ground until his boot hit something hard. He brushed away some dirt and had found a railroad track. It headed in a straight line from the cute little village to the flower filled meadow. Frank had stood there until it got dark then got lost making his way through the town and was late meeting the blond for dinner.
Frank jumped. Colby’s girl had pulled the trigger on the rifle and the can he had set on the furthest stump for his own practice leapt into the air. In one fluid movement she ejected the casing and reloaded. The whole thing took under two seconds. There was no pride or satisfaction on her face, just calm control.
Frank cleared his throat a little. Robert and the other boys were looking at her as well. “That was a good shot.”
“Who taught you how to handle a rifle like that?”
“My Uncle Ian.”
“He must be a pretty good shot himself.”
“He’s a professional hunter.”
“Really, what does he hunt?”
Colby’s girl grinned. “People.”
Esther crouched low in the grass knowing the stains were never going to come out of her jeans. There was a fresh deer track in the soft dirt and a drag mark behind it. It was probably their buck dragging its back leg. For a city kid Esther knew she wasn’t a half bad tracker even if she didn’t have a lot of hands on experience. Ian had showed her as a game when she was little. She was sure her dads were just happy to get her out of the house for a bit probably not realizing that Ian’s ideas of games were showing her how to track animals across the playground and up into the county park brush. She had spent several years with semi chronic poison oak as a result of this.
Esther waved her hand and pointed the direction. She suddenly wondered if FBI hand signals were the same as military hand signals. She’d never asked.
They made their way down the slope towards the river, luckily into the wind. Esther knew she had taken point without any discussion but she’d found the track. She spotted another set and there were chew marks on the leaves of a nearby bush. At least she thought they were chew marks. She waved the others over to look.
Frank looked to the horizon then pointed north east. “It’s probably heading to Rope Bend. There’s a little beach and they like to water there.”
They followed the tracks until they reached some low bushes that looked like they had been pushed aside. Esther could hear the river not too far off. She got low and looked through the bushes. There was a slight slope and at the bottom was the river and a three prong buck, its back leg twisted around. It leaned forward to drink but couldn’t seem to get its head down to the water. It finally crumpled, laying itself down to drink then struggled to raise itself back up with just its two good legs.
‘This is mercy.’ Esther thought. ‘It’ll dehydrate before it starves.’
Esther signaled that she had a clear shot. She could feel her heart banging in her ears. ‘This is mercy.’
She slowly and quietly removed her weapon from her back. She could feel a slight tremor in her fingers. ‘Mercy, mercy.’
She slid a bullet into place. It sounded impossibly loud. Louder even then the heavy but steady beat of her heart, which was deafening.
She peered through the scope, carefully adjusting it and took aim. She exhaled and waited for a moment between heartbeats. ‘Mercy.’
Esther pulled the trigger and the buck dropped.
The shot echoed around the valley and a hundred birds lifted from the trees and grass. Esther ejected the shell but didn’t reload.
The four men were already gathered around the buck by the time Esther managed to get back to her feet. Her heart was still pounding loudly in her ears. The men all looked confused.
“Where were you aiming?” Frank asked.
“The head?” Esther answered. She wasn’t sure if she was supposed to be aiming for some other bit.
“Where’s the bullet hole?”
Esther kneeled down beside the buck and lay her hands on the neck. It was still warm but she couldn’t feel any pulse beneath her hands and it certainly wasn’t breathing. She must have hit it.
She carefully lifted the head. There was a small pool of blood. “Oh, ear.” That hadn’t been exactly what she was aiming for but the weapon she was using wasn’t exactly a SIG. She suddenly heard her Uncle Ian in her head admonishing her for blaming her weapon for a bad shot. “I missed.”
“What do you mean you missed?” Frank Jr. asked.
“I was aiming for the medulla oblongata.” She touched the back of the bucks head low near the neck. “I got the ear.”
“That’s only a couple of inches.”
“In a hostage situation that’s the difference between the hostage taker and the hostage.”
“Deer don’t usually take people hostage.”
Esther just shrugged. She knew why she had missed. She hadn’t been able to calm herself enough. Her heart had been beating too hard and fast and she’d taken the shot anyway.
She stroked her hand along the neck a few times and silently apologized in case the deer had felt any pain. If she had gotten the shot right it shouldn’t have felt anything at all.
“Now what do we do with it?” Esther asked.
“Ever dressed a fresh kill?” Frank asked.
A large knife landed in the sand next to her. “Well, time to learn something new.”
Colby was out front when the guys came down the hill, a mid sized buck being carried between them. Esther was taking up the rear. When they got closer he could see that Esther had blood on the sleeves of her shirt. Colby was not impressed.
“You made her dress it, Frank?”
“Hey, rules are rules. You shoot it you dress it.”
Colby looked to Esther. She had a slightly distant look on her face. One of the reasons he had been okay with her going was because he didn’t think she’d be the one to take the shot. That was Frank’s thing. “You got it?”
“Yeah.” Esther replied not looking at him.
“Yes, but not quite what I was aiming for.”
“How much did you miss by?”
“About four inches.”
Colby cringed. “That’s a bit.”
“I know. I couldn’t get my blood pressure down, I could feel it in my fingers, but took the shot anyways. I think its neck was broken or something. It couldn’t put its head far enough down to drink.”
“Discover something about yourself?”
Esther stared at a random patch of dirt. “I think so but I think it’s still processing.”
Colby plucked a stray leaf from her hair. “Okay. Leave your weapon with me and go take a shower. And take a couple of Benadryl just in case.”
Esther handed Colby her rifle and went into the house. Colby looked at his older brother.
“Cole, I hate to say this but your kid’s a little creepy.” Colby gave a snort. “She’s also a fucking good shot I don’t care what she or you says.” The other guys all murmured in agreement.
“We are trying not to encourage her into any career path that involves weapons. She already wants to be James Bond when she grows up and quite frankly I’d much rather see her become a librarian or something. Some job where she’s less likely to get herself killed.”
“Well, Cole, I don’t think you’re gonna to get much of a choice in the matter.”
Dinner was a little tense. Emily had of course invited everyone to stay. David and Frank Jr. had to go back to their own homes but Robert and Frank had both accepted the offer of a free meal. Especially Frank who probably still thought of cooking as women’s work and had yet to pick up another one of those as far as Colby knew.
Strangely enough though it was Frank who was trying to make conversation. And with Esther.
“So, uh, I hear you’re heading off to college?”
“In September, yeah.”
Esther rolled her eyes and finished off glaring at Charlie. “I could have gone earlier but someone felt it would effect negatively on my psychological development.”
“I will feel no guilt for holding you back two years. You’ll thank me when you’re older.” Charlie stated quite plainly.
There was more eye rolling and even a bit of face pulling.
“Don’t make faces at the dinner table.” Colby said feeling like he was channeling his mother more and more each day. The fact that his mother was smirking was not helping.
“I could have gone earlier. I could have gone on an eight year scholarship.”
“You don’t need it and you sure as hell are not taking money from them.” Colby snapped. He couldn’t help it. It had been the raging unsettled family debate for the last six months.
“Who?” Frank asked.
“The Agency offered to pay all my schooling.”
“As long as you agree to work for them.”
“CIA.” Colby and Charlie said in unison.
“Maybe I want to work for them.”
“You are fifteen. You have no idea what you want.”
Esther put down her fork hard. “God, Dad. What is it with you? I want to serve my country, not spend my life with my nose in a book.” Colby knew that was an incredibly low blow, especially sitting at the Granger family table. “Seriously, what is it? I’m not yours genetically, I’m not worthy enough?”
Colby saw Charlie just put his face into his hand. He had stated his feeling on the issues clearly, at length, months ago.
“You are talking about being a spy. The uniform at least has some protection.”
“Oh, so I should join the Army?”
“Over my dead body.”
“Well you didn’t exactly raise me to be a kindergarten teacher. Other girls got ballet lesson, I got nine years of Krav Maga. I can kill people with my bare hands.”
“You could have taken ballet.”
“I didn’t know it was on offer. Just like I didn’t know not every eight year old could disassemble a Glock.”
“That was for your own safety.”
“No, the locked gun cabinet was for my safety, weapons training was just putting more information into my head.”
“Can we discuss this later?”
“Am I ever going to change your mind?” Esther’s voice was cold.
“No! And you know why, because I’ve been where you want to be and it is hell. I lied for three years to everyone I knew. I spent six weeks in federal prison. I looked your Uncle Don in the eye and had to confess to selling out my country to the Chinese so as not to blow my cover.” Colby grabbed Esther’s hand and held it to his chest. “I got a syringe of potassium chloride shoved right here. They used to use that to execute people. For two minutes I was dead.” Esther pulled her hand away. “And you think it’ll be a grand adventure but all I can think about is losing track of you for months on end only to turn on CNN to some grainy footage of you getting beheaded by militants in some desert shit hole and it would destroy me and it would destroy this family.”
“It wouldn’t happen that way,” Esther said softly.
“You can’t know that.”
Colby watched as Esther’s jaw locked and her eyes went hard but her lip quivered. Then she took a deep breath, got up and walked away. After a few seconds the sound of the back door shutting echoed through the house. The table was silent.
Colby looked at his dinner, suddenly not hungry. After a moment he felt Frank’s hand on his shoulder. “Ain’t having teenagers fun?”
Esther had been walking down the road for a while. It wasn’t like she could get lost. There were no turns and the moon was nearly full. She heard the truck coming up behind her. She moved to the side of the road so it could pass. Instead it slowed and pulled up along side.
Emily rolled down the window. “Come on, sweetie. Before your dads realize how far you’ve gone and really freak out.”
Esther sighed and got into the truck. Emily turned the truck but didn’t take the road back at any speed. “You know when John was courting me, that’s your grandfather, I spent a lot of time thinking about how good he looked in his uniform. All the shiny medals he had. And he would talk about four generations of Granger family duty and honor and I thought it was so heroic and romantic. Then Frank was born and the doctor told me I had a son and suddenly it went from heroic and romantic to terrifying. If you told your father you wanted to be a librarian he’d be terrified of you getting a septic paper cut.” Esther chuckled a little. “It’s his job to be worried for you.”
“It just... You know babies’ brains do a weird thing after a few months. They start breaking themselves. Everyone is born able to recognize every possible sound another human can make but if a baby doesn’t hear a particular sound its brain just gets rid of the neural connection associated with it. It’s why people raised in a lot of Asian language groups can’t differentiate between l’s and r’s. Their brains just don’t have the connection for one. But something went wrong with mine. Mine never broke. Last year one of my tutors had me listen to fifty different clicks used by Bushmen in Africa and I could hear the difference between all fifty. I started kindergarten speaking English, Spanish, Latin, Greek, Hebrew and both kinds of Tolkien Elvish. Our security forces need linguists on the ground. Desperately. Especially ones that can learn regional dialects quickly and accurately.”
Emily turned the truck up the drive. “I know that. And you know what? Your father knows that too. I begged all my boys not to join the Army but I knew they all would so at the end of the day all I could do was hug them and be proud of them and pray they would come home. If you chose to serve your country your father will be proud of you. He’ll just be terrified as well.”
Esther looked at the white washed house glowing softly in the moonlight. “You know what my mother put on the note she left with me?” Esther’s voice was soft.
“She wrote ‘she’s probably not a genius.’ She left me to be a burden on my father. To distract him from his work and embarrass him with my inadequateness.”
Emily laid her hand on Esther’s. “Well then she didn’t know your father. Either of them. Or you.”
“The bitch might win the noble prize this year.”
“Physics. She is actually generally referred to as the Bitch Ice Queen of Physics Land, and that’s in polite company. I don’t want anyone to ever know I’m related to her.”
“I don’t want her to ever be able to take even the smallest amount of credit for anything I ever do. Ever. If I was a drooling idiot I’d want the world to know about her, but I am a genius just like my father, just like her and I don’t want her to be able to ever take any sort of credit or even false pride in me. Especially in public.” Esther turned to her grandmother. “Does that make me horrible, to have absolutely no affection for my own mother?”
“No dear, it doesn’t. Not in your case.”
Esther rubbed at her eyes. The day seemed to be spinning around her brain in a heavy gale. “I wasn’t upset that I killed that deer today. I was only upset that the shot wasn’t as clean as I wanted it to be.”
“From what Frank tells me you did the poor thing a kindness and it was the cleanest shot he’d ever seen.”
“Would that guy have really tried to baptize me?” Esther asked, her mind leaping about.
“Don’t worry. I wouldn’t have let Mike get near you. Your grandfather would never have forgiven me and I’m still trying to get his meatloaf recipe off of him.”
Esther grinned. “Cumin. That’s the secret. Ketchup and cumin.”
“I’ll keep that in mind, now come on inside. There’s still some chilled peaches left for you in the fridge.”
Colby tossed in bed. The night was hot and still and he was having a hard time getting comfortable. That and he knew he was still agitated. In two months he’d be packing his little girl off to college. She wasn’t going far. Ninety minutes up the coast in light traffic, it wasn’t like they were sending her to Jersey but she wouldn’t be at the dinner table every night. She wouldn’t be staying up with Charlie, her nose in a book, until 4 a.m.
Colby was pretty sure it had been last week she was cutting her teeth on his knuckles. And just the week before that he’d come home with a couple of pizzas to find a baby cradled in Charlie’s arms. Charlie had been so terrified, not sure what to do, or how to do it. Colby had fallen in love as soon as he held her and looked into her eyes, still an odd dark green blue in those days.
Now she was leaving, she was leaving and making plans to put herself in danger. And after all the time they had spent trying to protect her and teach her how to protect herself.
He felt Charlie’s fingers find his in the dark. “We can’t write her life for her. You know that.”
“I can try.”
“Yeah, you can. And you know as well as I do that will only push her away. She’s your daughter Colby. Sometimes I think she’s more your daughter than mine.”
“There’s plenty of you in her.”
“I’m not so sure some days. I think she picked up the Eppes stubbornness but I think she got your flavor of passion and drive. Your way of looking at the world. You, Don, Megan... Ian, you all made sure she knew how to kick ass and take names right from the beginning. I could help her over some of the genius road bumps but you can’t raise a child surrounded by good, brave, honorable men and women serving their country with distinction and not expect them to get ideas.”
“Charlie, tell me you aren’t terrified that something will happen to her.”
“I have nightmares about it almost every night and I don’t know if there are Jewish nuns but I’d be perfectly happy if she announced that she wanted to spend the rest of her life studying on a safe mountain top somewhere.” Colby chuckled into the dark a little. “As long as she knows she’s got someplace safe to come home and people who love her I’m sure she’ll be fine in the end.”
“You can't know that.”
“No. But I have to believe it.”