Warnings: talk of war
Word count: 10,271 (yes I know it’s long but I couldn't figure out where to cut it)
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 got up early on the morning of the fourth. There was something he needed to do. He didn’t want to do it and he knew he could get away without it but he knew like a lot of things it would make his mother happy.
Colby made his way over the hill with the crumbled tomb stones to the newer part of the Winchester town cemetery. Little American flags fluttered over the graves of those who were veterans. Winchester had never been a town afraid to send its young men to fight so hundreds of little flags brought life and movement to the silent graves. Colby stopped in front of one. Not old but just old enough not to look fresh anymore.
“Hi Dad,” Colby started. “So Mom finally got me back here. She played dirty, talked to my father-in-law. Yeah, I’m married. Got a kid too. My other half is named Charlie and no that’s not short for Charlotte or anything, it’s short for Charles. So, yeah, I married a guy. Surprise, surprise. Surprised the hell out of me too but there’s no one else on earth like Charlie. I... He and Mom get along great. She even laughs at his jokes and I don’t even do that. I tell myself that you would like him; that you’d grump and grumble for a bit but accept us in the end. I tell myself that. Easier than telling myself the truth.”
Colby closed his eyes and ran his hand through his hair. The morning breeze was already heating up.
“I have a daughter. Esther. Well, technically she’s Charlie’s daughter but... She’s a Granger. She wants to serve. She’s scaring the living hell out of me every damn day. She’s fifteen and all I can see... God, all I can see is a nameless star on a wall ‘cause that’s all she would get. We didn’t plan her and she’s right. We didn’t give her ballet lessons. We gave her hand to hand combat and let people like Ian Edgerton teach her how to hunt and track and shoot and kill. What the hell did we expect would happen? Maybe she’ll go to college and discover she really wants to be an actress or something. I can pray for that.”
Colby looked around. There was a small family about fifteen graves up the row laying down flowers.
“All the things you taught me Dad, you missed a few things, a few really important things. I did what I was supposed to do. I was a soldier, I served my country, I received a commendation. You told me about honor and service and duty but you left out a few things. You left out what a skull sounds like when a bullet hits it. That cracking sound. And you never mentioned what flesh smells like when it’s burning. Frank’s youngest just got back from his first 18 months and he ain’t in one piece either. And what the hell were you thinking?”
Colby had to suddenly wipe his eyes.
“If you did it on purpose, if you took that drive on purpose I can almost, just almost understand but it’s the not knowing. No note. Nothing and Frank’s been trying to pick up the slack for years and people wonder why I left and didn’t come back.”
Colby took a few deep breaths and stared at the grass.
“Don’t worry about me though, I’m fine. I got people looking out for me. Alan, he’s my father-in-law, he’s a good man. He’s been looking out for me even before Charlie and I were together. Anyone who can’t make it home for Thanksgiving is welcome at the Eppes table. That’s just the kinda guy he is. He gave me his blessing as a son. Said it was old magic, kept things working. Of course he’d just had a heart attack when he said that but... Still. I have family. I have my own family. Charlie and Esther, Alan, Don and Becca and Aaron, Megan, Larry, even Ian. So don’t worry about me living in Sodom and Gomorrah. I’m happy, I’m fine. My life is a good one. I wouldn’t trade it for anything, anything at all. I wish you could have found that, Dad. Something to make your life... If it wasn’t Mom and us kids what would have done it? What would have made you keep going?”
Colby let out a long sigh.
“Well, anyways, happy 4th of July.”
Charlie looked at the milling crowd. There were even more people than their first night. According to Colby 4th of July lunch was the thing everyone had to come to. It would start around 11 and would usually drag out until 6 at which point everyone would migrate into town to the big party and to watch the town fireworks.
The long table that had been dragged out to the back yard was filled with food. By the looks of things it was also an opportunity for every Granger household to clear out their fridge and freezer. A lot of the dishes on the table looked like the kinds of things made with that ham that had been sitting in the freezer for four months and the excess dry pasta that was taking up too much space in the cupboard.
The grill had also been lit up again but just for hot dogs and one of the younger members of the family was being allowed to tend it.
Charlie had grabbed a plate of food and squirreled himself away from the main crowd so he could watch people without being in the thick of things. Try as he might he knew he would never be great in social situations. Colby and Mary Jo were talking about something over by the grill and Esther and Andrew were chatting by the large tree. Charlie was glad that Esther had made a friend. She might growl about being held back but Charlie knew she was already more self confident, better adjusted and had more friends than he did at the same age.
Charlie was picking the watermelon bits out of some fruit salad when much to his surprise Frank Granger sat down next to him. The two of them had not traded more than a handful of polite greetings all weekend and Charlie had simply filed him away as the disapproving brother.
“Looks like those two have taken a bit of a shine to each other.” Frank said with no preamble gesturing to Esther and Andrew.
“Well I’m always glad to see Esther make friends. She can be a bit confrontational. Takes after her mother that way. God that woman could fight about anything.” Charlie mumbled a bit to himself at the end.
Charlie inhaled a piece of watermelon and went into a coughing fit not helped by Frank slapping him on the back.
“What did you just say?” Charlie finally squeaked out once the worst had passed.
“Just asking about your girl’s mother. Your ex?”
Charlie frantically shook his head. “Oh, fuck no. No, no, no, no. God, no. I would not marry that woman if she was the last sentient creature in the solar system. I would say I wouldn’t touch her with a ten foot pole but obviously I did. No, no. Combination of a long day, a boring party, a stupid fight and way, way too much alcohol. Nine months and a week later I’ve got a baby, a note and a birth certificate with my name on it.”
“And you didn’t fight it?” Frank asked.
“Nah, just freaked out for a few weeks. I mean I wasn’t looking to have a kid but I wasn’t completely against the idea. Esther’s mother obviously was and it wasn’t like I was about to throw her into the system.” Charlie took a little sip of beer. “Actually Colby was my saving grace. Any normal guy would have run screaming into the night, Colby just picked her up and fell in love. Diapers, feedings, colic, all of it, he just went with the flow. She cut her teeth on his knuckles; was calling him daddy weeks before she’d call me that.” Charlie took a slightly larger sip of beer. “I mean genetics are genetics but at the end of the day she’s daddy’s little girl and that ain’t me.”
Frank nodded and took a pull of his own beer. “I know what you mean. Andrew’s a lot like his mother. Looks like me but he got her brains. He thinks too much, always has, just stares into space, thinking.”
“Trust me, it’s not thinking too much until he locks himself in a garage for three months trying to solve a problem that doesn’t actually have an answer. That’s thinking too much.”
Frank just grunted a little and sipped his beer. Charlie went back to his fruit salad.
“Your girl’s a good shot.” Frank said suddenly.
“Yeah.” Charlie dragged the word out. “She used to hate guns. Or at least not like them much.”
Charlie realized that Frank was making a considered effort to make conversation.
Charlie took a large gulp of his beer. “Couple of brats I got in a fight with when I was eight. Flash forward thirty plus years and they’ve set themselves up as minor crime bosses and decided take out a hit on the whole family. We intercepted their messages but we couldn’t decode them for months. Esther was the one who broke the code. She decoded her own kill order.”
“Yeah.” Charlie stabbed at a bit of melon with a bit more force than strictly necessary. “She had nightmares for months. We took her to a therapist but she’s got an IQ of 190, reads everything, and has a nearly photographic memory for anything she’s read. The guy didn’t stand a chance, she ran circles around him. Not that I was any easier on my shrink at that age.”
“Well she seems to be okay.”
Charlie shrugged. “Ian finally took her out to the range and let her shoot at things until she got blisters on her hands. I guess it was cathartic.”
Frank nodded. “When we were all still kids Old Mad Towler’s wife went missing. He told everyone she’d run off with someone else. Months later they found her in his freezer. People still talk about that. They had to put a special fresh lock on the cell door at the police station ‘cause everyone in town knew how to jimmy it open but that was okay ‘cause the only people who were ever in there were drunks.”
Charlie chuckled and drained his beer. “I was born and raised in LA. We all drive hybrids or electrics and the air is still terrible. The water tastes kind of funny. Every decade or so there are riots. Every year there are wildfires. Million dollar houses burn to the ground. We’re way over due for another major earthquake. The Dodgers haven’t had a good season in a decade. And despite a personal arrest record of 97.2% and a 94.9% conviction rate, children still shoot children in the street.”
“Not exactly the kind of place to raise a kid.”
“I don’t know, Frank. Maybe, maybe not but we did it anyways. We figured as long as she knew who her family was and knew they’d be there for her that in the end she’d be okay.”
Esther was beginning to worry about Andy. They’d gotten some food and found a quiet spot. Andy had even gotten a beer. Apparently the rule in the Granger household was that if you are old enough to kill someone you are old enough to drink.
Andy had kept close most of the day. There had fortunately been no repeat of his attempted romantic overtures but Esther couldn’t help feeling that he was being perhaps a little clingy. It was not something she was used to, people actually wanting to be around her.
The conversation had turned at some point to matters of faith. Again it was something unusual for Esther. Her family accepted or at least tolerated her faith but it was not something talked about much.
“What do you pray for?” Andy finally asked his eyes again focused at some point over her should.
Esther just shrugged. “Don’t know, depends how hard the test is.”
Andy chuckled weakly.
“You must pray for things.”
“I guess I more have more one sided conversations than anything else. Debates, diatribes, bitch sessions. Let’s face it I could very well be talking to myself. I don’t pray for things and I don’t expect things. I was raised to believe in science and rationality as strongly as anything else. More so really. I mean if I woke up in the middle of the night to a blinding light and a great booming voice saying ‘Ehyeh asher ehyeh’ the first thing I’d do is check for speakers and a lighting rig.”
“But you have faith?”
Esther plucked a bit of grass and twirled it in her fingers. “And yet I have faith. And yet I pray.”
Andy tilted his head back staring into the thick leaves of the tree. “They pray a lot in Afghanistan. I mean a lot.”
“I’m not surprised.”
“We had this interpreter. Aamer. I asked him once what he prayed for. I mean he prayed five times a day. He told me he prayed for his mother’s arthritis to get better. We were under almost daily attack. It hadn’t rained more than a drizzle in almost two years. People were starving and dying and he was praying for his mother’s arthritis.”
Esther became still. Andy’s voice had developed an odd high crack in it.
“Arthritis. He said he didn’t want to bother the almighty too much but it was for his mother. Then there was Isaac. He prayed. Prayed for luck. Same words over and over. And we gave him so much shit. And he was short.” Andy whispered.
Esther gently took Andy’s hand but he didn’t look at her.
“And our CO was always telling us. ‘Men, think of the people back home praying for you.’ That’s what he would say. All the people here praying for us there.” Andy’s eyes slowly closed. “I can’t go back.” Andy’s voice cracked. “Isaac was always praying and... I can’t go back.”
“I don’t think you have a lot of choice, Andy.” Esther pointed out as gently as she could. Something was squeezing tight in her chest. It wasn’t a feeling she was used to.
Andy shook his head. “I...”
There was a bang.
In a split second Esther found herself face down in the grass Andy covering her. Her heart was racing and she could actually feel the beat of Andy’s heart against her. There was another bang, then pops and crackles and children laughing.
“It’s just fireworks.” Esther wiggled herself out from under her would-be-protector. Andy was still pressing himself to the earth. With each bang and pop he jumped. Esther grabbed his face and turned it towards her. “Hey, you, listen to me. Fireworks. Just Fireworks. Toys okay?”
Andy squeezed his eyes shut tight. “I can’t go back.” He whispered then jumped up and ran to the house.
Esther chased after taking a detour past her father. “Dad, I think we’ve got a problem.” She said quickly before continuing after Andy.
Esther found him in the living room a half packed duffle over his shoulder. Colby was right behind her.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Esther cringed a little internally at how much she sounded like her father in that moment.
“Where’s my gun?”
“Someplace safe. You can’t have it. Where are you going?”
Andy just turned away and headed out the front making a line for his truck. “North. I can make it to Canada by the end of the day.”
“You’re talking about desertion.” Colby said.
Andy stopped by his truck. “Yeah, I guess.”
Esther quickly put herself between Andy and his truck. “This isn’t 1970. Canada extradites and what you’re talking about gets you prison time. Nasty military prison time.”
“I don’t care.” Andy shouted. “I can’t...” He wiped his eyes. “All the praying doesn’t work.” Esther took a quick look over Andy’s shoulder, along with her dad, Frank, her father and grandmother had shown up. Well at least she’d have help if they just ended up needing to tackle Andy and tie him up for a bit.
“I’m sure there are people you can talk to...”
Andy made a move towards his truck but Esther was pretty quick on her feet as well and managed to stay between him and it. She tried to go for a different tact.
“What happened to Isaac?” She asked. Andy froze. “He was your friend, wasn’t he? What happened to him?” Andy made another quick move towards his truck. “No. Not until you tell me what happened to Isaac.” Andy’s eyes squeezed shut. “What happened?”
“He... the area was supposed to be clear. They told us...” Andy started shaking. He dropped the keys to his truck.
“It was dark and so loud and... There was nothing left. It was like shrapnel.” Andy ran a hand over his arm. “The doctors pulled bits of his skull out of me like shrapnel and they gave me a medal for it and that thing of his just keeps going around my head and I don’t know the words...”
Andy pressed his hands to his ears squeezing his eyes shut. Esther’s stomach lurched. She saw her dad and uncle begin to move forward but motioned them to stop. She carefully reached out and pulled his hands away. “It’s called Kaddish.” Andy opened his eyes and looked at her through tears. “It’s not for luck, really. It’s used. Well it’s used in a lot of places. It’s also called the mourners prayer. Ten men of Isaac’s family would have gathered together, after, to recite if for him.” Esther had no clue if that was actually true but Andy wouldn’t have a clue either.
“Why would he..?”
“I don’t know. It’s not about death at all. It... exalts the almighty, praises his name. Maybe it was for luck. Maybe he was just making sure he was in good with someone.”
Andy’s head dropped in defeat, his shoulders shaking.
“I can teach it to you. It’s not hard. Really.”
“I can’t go back there.” Andy whispered.
“Okay.” Esther said as calmly as she could despite her heart racing. “But you can’t leave tonight.” Esther added hoping that if she could get Andy to hold off ‘till morning it would give other people time to talk to him.
“Why not?” Andy asked.
“Because...” Esther’s brain quickly scrambled for a good answer then defaulted a bit to spoiled brat. She put her hands on her hips “Because you promised me you’d take me to that party and I already got dumped by my prom date and I will be damned if I’m going to some Hicksville barn dance alone just because you’re having a freak out.” She stamped her foot a little for emphasis and/or comedy. She didn’t care which one got through.
Andy suddenly looked guilty which was a major step up from depressed, possibly verging on suicidal. “Oh.”
There was sudden loud and rather unhappy throat clearing. Esther looked up and Andy whipped around. Emily had her hands on her hips a scowl on her face.
“Andrew Bartholomew Granger did you ask Esther to the 4th of July dance?”
Andy’s shoulders hunched in under the assault of the full name and he quickly wiped his eyes. “Yes, ma’am,” he mumbled.
“Did you ask her father’s permission first?”
Andy curled in on himself even more. “No, ma’am.”
“And, were you intending on leaving and leaving her without an escort to the dance after asking her in the first place?”
Andy was turning some rather special shades of red. He gave a tiny shrug.
Esther was impressed. Three questions and Andy had gone from traumatized soldier to little boy with hand in cookie jar. That was seriously leet powers of psychological manipulation. She felt like she should be taking notes. Emily folded her arms and gave Andy a Look.
“Sorry.” He whispered his shoe twisting in the driveway dust has he crumbled under the disapproving looks of his grandmother and uncle. Frank on the other hand was looking oddly confused.
Emily gave a small nod. “Do you have something you want to ask your Uncle Colby? Now.”
Andy turned to Colby his shoulders still hunched. He managed to ever so slightly raise his eyes. “Sir, could I possibly, maybe, have permission to escort Miss. Eppes to the dance?” He managed to stutter out his face still a flaming shade of red.
Colby was silent for a long time then he folded his arms. “Ask her father.”
Andy turned to Charlie. Esther recognized the cold look on her father’s face. She had seen it a few times but mainly on the face of her Uncle Don.
Andy cleared his throat. “Mr. Eppes...”
Andy took a half step back. “Doctor Eppes. Could... Could I have permission to escort Miss. Eppes to the dance this evening?”
Charlie squinted silently at Andy for a long time before turning to Esther. “Sweetie, how badly could you hurt him?” He asked.
“What?” Esther wasn’t sure if she heard right.
“We’ve given you nine years of Krav Maga. How badly could you hurt him? In detail.”
“Uh...” Esther shrugged a bit. “I could probably crush his windpipe with a good hit. Maybe crack his skull at the temple. Do damage to major joints. Break his nose. Maybe collapse a lung if I got some leverage. Crack some vertebrae if I had a step stool and a running start.”
Charlie nodded and looked at Andy. “All those things she just said, if you behave in a manner even marginally inappropriate, that is what you will be praying for in comparison to the hell I will arrange to have rained down up on your very soul.” Andy swallowed hard. “She is fifteen. You may escort her to this dance. That is all. Am I clear?”
Andy nodded quickly having shifted from bright red to dead white. “Yes, sir.” He choked out.
“Well that’s settled.” Emily stated pleasantly but firmly. “Now do you have anything nice to wear?”
“Uh...” Andy’s brain obviously wasn’t up for shifting gears that fast.
“You can wear your dress uniform. It will look very nice. Come along, I’ll help you iron.” Emily took her grandson’s arm in a firm grip and escorted him quickly back into the house.
Esther let out a long breath. “Shit, dad. The poor guy’s verging on a break down. Could you have brought a little less of the scary?”
“You are fifteen and I love you very much. He touches you and he won’t have to worry about Afghanistan ‘cause I’ll cripple him myself.”
“He didn’t tell me.” Everyone turned to Frank who hadn’t said anything. Now his face was knotted with confusion and worry.
“Didn’t tell you want, Frank?” Colby asked.
“That he was injured. He didn’t tell me. I’m his father.”
“He probably didn’t want you to worry.”
“But I’m his father.” Frank repeated.
“I didn’t tell Mom when I got injured.”
“You were injured? In Afghanistan?”
Colby sighed. “Yes Frank, got the Purple Heart to prove it.”
“Humvee got hit. Got trapped inside. Buddy pulled me out but I got a little cooked in the process.”
Esther could hear the wheels turning in Frank’s head. She could also smell a bit of smoke coming from them.
“Look, Frank, I know this is a really, really foreign concept in this family but he’s your son, go talk to him and listen to what he has to say and tell him the truth, don’t just repeat back the same shit Dad fed us. If you don’t have an answer, or a good one just tell him that.” Frank nodded and slowly made his way into the house himself.
As soon as Frank was gone Esther found herself under the scrutiny of her fathers. “And as for you young lady.” Esther rolled her eyes. “That was gutsy.”
“Well I couldn’t let him go AWOL, get himself arrested. Would have been a bit of a blot on the whole seven generations of duty and honor thing.”
“And did you have a back up plan if throwing a tantrum didn’t work?” Charlie asked.
“And it was?”
“It mainly involved hitting him over the head and keeping him tied up in the kitchen.” It was Charlie’s turn to roll his eyes. “Well I was still working on the finer details.”
“And I can’t believe you let him ask you to the 4th of July dance without telling us.” Colby suddenly cut in.
“I didn’t know it was that big a deal.”
“It’s the highlight of the Winchester social calendar.”
“Oh, silly me.”
“Why do you think I told you to bring a nice dress?”
“I don’t know, Dad. This whole place is really weird. I’ve just been trying to go with the flow.”
“Well at the very least he should have known better.”
“Yeah, I kind of gathered that.”
Colby rubbed his face. “Okay, hand me his keys.” Esther picked up the dropped keys and tossed them to her father. “I’ll keep these, you and your dad should probably head back around back before people start asking questions. I’m going to go make sure Frank doesn’t put his foot in his mouth or anyone else’s.”
Esther was trying not to worry about Andy and focus on her macaroni salad when her father sat down next to her. He had that ‘we need to talk’ look on his face.
“So dad, I’m thinking next summer we forgo Idaho and maybe consider... Fiji. I can do a bit of study into Polynesian language groups.”
Charlie sighed. “We need to talk.”
Esther groaned. “I’m not interested in Andy I swear, dad already had this talk.”
“Okay, we’re still going to talk. I realized I never had the talk with you.”
“I know were babies come from, really.”
“Don’t be a smart ass.”
“You are about to go off to college so I am going to tell you a cautionary tale from my own university days and this will fall under the category of do as I say not as I did.”
Esther gave up. There was no stopping some parents. “Okay. Go ahead.”
“This is the story of the first time I got really drunk.”
“I don’t plan to drink.”
“Shut up and listen.”
Esther jerked as if she’d been struck. Her dad never said things like that. He preferred to reason and/or argue with her.
“Now your father does not know this story, neither does your grandfather, your uncle Don or really anyone else.”
“Okay.” Now Esther was curious. She rather hoped puking in a gutter was going to feature somewhere in the next few minutes.
“When I was fifteen, at Princeton, there was a professor. Her name was Julia. She was tall, blond, athletic, brilliant and I was in her multi-dimensional geometry class. I started making up excuses to go to her office because like any fifteen year old boy I was mainly thinking about one thing and it wasn’t math.”
Esther cringed. “Is this story going to completely traumatize me?”
“Possibly, yes. Anyways I thought that if I could dazzle her with some brilliant piece of math I could somehow get a 29 year old, married, tenured professor interested in me. Unfortunately I succeeded.”
Esther couldn’t help her jaw dropping.
“And for the record yes, it was grossly illegal. Not that I thought about it that way, everyone I knew was an adult and I was fifteen and an idiot. After about four months of semi regular carrying on I looked at her one day and being fifteen and an idiot ask her if she’d put on weight.” Esther snorted. “Well she starts crying and I freak out and announce that I forgot that I had somewhere else to be, grab my pants, and run for it.” Esther started getting a feeling about where this story was headed. “Jump ahead six months, I am now sixteen and I am sitting in a little courtyard at the Princeton teaching hospital more terrified than I have ever been in my entire life. Julia’s husband sits down next to me and hands me a bottle in a paper bag. I tell him I’m not old enough to drink. He tells me that if I’m old enough to screw his wife I’m old enough to drunk.”
“Well I take a drink and it burns and I choke and cry and I take another drink and another because I am sure that my life is about to go to hell in a hand basket. Because upstairs is a baby. And the father of the baby is not Julia’s husband and that was pretty obvious seeing as how he was African American and the baby most certainly wasn’t.”
“It was yours? I have a brother? Sister?”
“No. Sorry. It wasn’t mine. But I didn’t know that at the time. I was sitting down there because I was waiting on the blood tests. I was reasonably sloshed by the time Larry came down with the news.”
“How did Uncle Larry know?”
“Well he was also on the list of possible fathers.”
Esther covered her eyes. “Wait. So this woman was doing you, illegally, Uncle Larry, and her husband?”
“And one other guy. A visiting Norwegian physicist named Sphen or something.”
“Sphen turned out to be the father. By the time I found that out I had gotten halfway through a bottle of whiskey then proceeded to get violently ill in the landscaping.”
Esther nodded a couple of times. “And the exact moral of this story is?”
“There are several. The big one is just because you are a genius does not mean you are an adult. It is easy to forget that. It is easy for other people to forget that or to take advantage of the perception that you may be older than you are.”
“I won’t let Andy touch me.”
“I’m not just talking about Andrew. You are going to college. The next oldest person is going to be eighteen. My mother was living with me and I still managed to get into trouble. You’re going to be in the dorms, on your own. You are going to be surrounded by adults and adult situations but just because you are there does not mean you are ready for them. Your father and I won’t be there to tell you no. You need to be able to tell yourself no and other people no.”
“I’ll be okay, Dad.”
“Forgive me if I don’t take your word for it right off. The other morals of that story are, don’t get involved with married women, there is no such thing as 100% effective contraception, and never chug whiskey, especially on an empty stomach.”
Esther was once again in hell. She did her absolute best to un-focus her eyes as Katie shimmied out of her jeans then pulled a blue, cotton, wrap around summer dress from her bag. They were so heading towards daytime talk show territory. Andy wanted her, she wanted Katie and Katie’s boyfriend back in Boston was the child of Iranian political refugees and had not had the guts to face Winchester, Idaho despite Grandma Emily’s invitation. Throw on the fact that technically she, Andy and Katie were cousins and the whole thing was just made for TV.
“Can you zip me up?”
Esther blinked. “What?”
“Can you get my zipper?” Katie asked.
“Yeah, sure.” Esther quickly zipped up the blue dress being very careful not to touch skin. For the first time in months she found herself actually missing Caitlyn and her pompoms. Esther consoled herself with the fact that Caitlyn had at least had the good grace to dump her before she dropped a grand on a prom dress.
“So, what are you wearing?”
Esther opened the dress bag she had dragged all the way from California. Her dad had told her to bring a nice summer dress for an evening party. He’d even told her she could spend some money on it. She had found a dress of red brown silk, corseted with a circle skirt like a 50’s hostess dress. Strapless it came with a matching shawl of the same fabric. The unusual bit was the heavy gold embroidery that wrapped around the hips and down one side of the skirt. Esther knew it was horribly trendy and would be so out in six months but some rising star had gone down the red carpet at the Oscars in a dress re-cut from a couple of wedding saris with all the embroidery kept intact and repositioned. As a result silk and metal embroidery were very in.
Katie reached out and touched the dress lightly. “Wow.”
“Brown is actually one of the few colors I look good in. Yellow and green make me look sick. Red and orange make me look sun burnt. I look boring in blue. No one wears white. I look like a failed Goth in black. And purple is just making some kind of statement. So, brown.”
“I’m sure you look fine in other colors.”
Esther took the dress from the bag shaking it out a bit. “I wouldn’t know. I had to beg one of my baby sitters to teach me how to put on make-up and my Uncle Ian taught me how to walk in high heels.” She held the dress up to herself. “Well?”
“There’s only one dress shop in Winchester and I can guarantee they’re not carrying anything like that.”
“Oh good. Hate to turn up to a party and find someone in the same dress.”
Katie laughed her high sweet laugh. “Come on, get undressed, we don’t have much more time.”
Esther closed her eyes for just a moment and cursed the universe for having a sick sense of humor.
Colby smoothed down Charlie’s shirt. It was too hot to go for a tie and the unspoken rule was once you had your own children you could show up a little less polished, but for Winchester the 4th was the day to spruce up a little, come together, and have a good time. Of course if you were between the age of 15 and 30 it was also a time to find someone to dance close with then maybe sneak away with into Make Out Grove before the fireworks started.
Andrew came out into the living room along with Emily who had put on a fresh summer dress herself. Colby looked Andrew over. He was obviously dressed for inspection from the shiny shoes to the fresh shave. He also looked a bit more relaxed. Maybe not completely in one piece but he didn’t look like he was about to take a runner. Maybe what they had seen would be the worst of it.
Colby went to the main hall. “Esther!” He shouted down. “Hurry up.”
That was another thing Colby could blame Ian for. He and Charlie had dressed Esther in coveralls and t-shirts shirts when she was little. Things she could run around and get dirty in. Ian had given her a frilly light yellow dress for her third birthday. They put it on her to be polite and she refused to take it off. She still ran around and got dirty, she just insisted on doing it in satin and lace for much of her childhood after that. Now as a teenager she took slightly better care of the dresses but could take forever picking one and getting ready. For a girl raised in a family of predominantly men she’d somehow ended up quite girly.
Mary Jo joined Colby in the hallway. “Katie! Hurry up!”
A couple of female voices shouted something back down the hall at them but it was muffled by the closed door. Colby could hear his mother snickering.
“Ah, grandchildren are truly the finest form of revenge.” Emily mused aloud.
Colby went back to the living room to wait. Just as he was about to go and knock on doors Katie and Esther showed up. Colby looked at Esther’s dress. “I said a summer dress, sweetie.”
Esther looked down at herself. “It’s from the summer catalogue.”
“You both look very nice.” Emily said.
Colby couldn’t argue with that. Esther did look very nice. She looked all grown up in fact. He wondered to himself what exactly it would take for coveralls to become the hot LA fashion trend.
“You look very nice.” Andrew echoed shyly. Esther smiled.
Colby looked Andrew over again. He was looking less twitterpated and more heart broken.
Frank clapped his hands. “All right. Let’s get going.”
“Just a second.” Emily picked up a camera. “We need pictures.” There was eye rolling from all of her assorted children and grandchildren but no one argued. Andrew offered his arm to Esther and they stood politely for pictures, Andrew in his dress uniform and Esther in her Hollywood high fashion.
Then Charlie and Colby had to stand for pictures, then all the Granger children, then just the grand children, then finally Frank put his hand on the camera. “Mom, that’s enough. Let’s go.”
It was still dusk but the park was lit up with strings of lights running from tree to tree. A band on stage was fiddling away and people were already on the makeshift dance floor. A long grill on the other end of the park was steadily turning out hotdogs and children were running around, many with lit sparklers.
Andrew’s arm was secure in hers. It was perhaps a bit of a debate as to who was escorting whom. Andrew seemed a bit more stable but Esther had a theory that it was a Pavlovian reaction to being back in uniform.
“This is nice.” A little girl ran by with a sparkler, laughing. “I want a sparkler. I haven’t had a sparkler in ages.”
“Don’t you have sparklers in California?” Andrew asked.
“Most fireworks are illegal. Usually by the time July rolls around you can rub two sticks together and accidentally burn down half the state.” Another kid went by with a sparkler. “That looks like so much fun.”
“I’ll see if I can’t find you one.”
Esther looked up from watching the kids run around to see a woman in a yellow dress heading their way. If Katie was a perfect ten then this woman was working on a whole different scale. Her hair was golden, almost the same shade as her dress. The dress clung to her perfect figure in all the right ways. Her lips were softly red and her skin unblemished cream. Esther felt her brain completely shut down and as the woman got closer she just knew she was going to make a complete idiot out of herself.
“Andy?” The woman’s voice was soft and musical.
Andy let go of Esther’s arm as the woman in yellow threw her arms around him. “Oh my god. I didn’t know you were back. Are you back?”
“I redeploy in a few weeks.”
Vicky took a half step back and looked Andy over. “I’ve never seen you in uniform. You look so handsome.”
“Thank you. You look nice, yourself.” Esther suddenly found herself the focus of almost unnaturally blue eyes. “This is my cousin, Esther. Up from California.”
Esther held out her hand. “Hi.”
‘An IQ of 190 and ‘hi’ is all you can come up with?’ Esther screamed at herself.
Vicky took her hand. Her skin was smooth and perfect. “It’s nice to meet you.”
Esther just smiled and nodded.
‘Nine major language groups and you say nothing!’
“How’s Jacob?” Andy asked in a perfectly polite tone.
Vicky shrugged. “He’s Jacob. You know.”
Esther took Andy’s arm again, to help her stay on her feet if nothing else.
“He’ll be so glad to know you’re back in town. Everyone will.”
Esther felt Andy squeeze her arm a little. “It’ll be nice to see everyone.”
“Well, I have to meet my folks. Save a dance for me.”
“It was nice to meet you.” Vicky said to Esther. Esther just smiled and nodded so more as Vicky left.
Once she was out of sight Esther found her voice. “Is that the one you told not to wait for you?”
“Are you a fucking idiot?”
Andy’s laugh was slightly manic. “Possibly, yes.”
“Holy, shit. Seriously. Is it the potatoes? Is there something in the potatoes, ‘cause I swear I could sign half the women in this town to modelling contracts tomorrow.”
“I guess they’re okay.”
“You guess...” Esther put her face in her hand.
“I think you’re more interesting.”
Esther sighed. “Come on soldier boy, let’s hit the dance floor and see if we can’t find both of us a good Winchester girl tonight.”
Charlie accepted a hotdog and a red cup of soda from Colby. They’d managed to get a spot at a picnic table where they could keep an eye on the dance floor. He watched as Andrew attempted to teach Esther how to polka. A very large part of him had wanted to tell the boy no but the memory of Esther sitting at home watching TV on prom night acting like she didn’t care was still very fresh. He couldn’t bring himself to completely destroy one of her few chances to put on a pretty dress and go to a dance with a handsome boy. Of course it was going to happen under his supervision.
“How are they doing?” Colby asked.
“Esther is proving surprisingly uncoordinated when it comes to the polka.” Charlie took a sip of his soda. It burned.
“Yeah, this is only an alcohol free event in the sense that you don’t directly see any of the alcohol.”
Charlie raised his cup. “Well cheers to that.”
Esther was trying her best to keep time but after almost an hour the subtleties of polka still eluded her. Part of the problem was a distraction called Vicky. She kept dancing by in the arms of some guy who looked liked he’d have a hard time finding Afghanistan on a map. After bumping into some people the guy wandered off the dance floor leaving Vicky without a partner. Esther quickly spun Andrew around. “Look, Vicky needs a dance partner.” Before Andrew could comment she gave him a push in Vicky’s direction and ran off the dance floor herself.
Esther didn’t realize just how tired she was until she collapsed on one the benches encircling the dance floor.
She was still catching her breath when a girl in a red dress sat down next to her. The girl looked about Esther’s age and Esther though she might be one of the girls from the ice cream parlor.
“Hi,” the girl said.
“You’re the girl from California, aren’t you?”
Esther tried to smile pleasantly. “Yes, yes I am.”
“Is that your boy friend?” The girl asked gesturing to Andy.
Esther laughed. “No. He’s my cousin. I needed an escort and he needed a wing man.”
The girl held out her hand. “I’m Lisa.”
Esther took Lisa’s hand. It was warm and soft. “I’m Esther.”
“Nice to meet you. That’s an amazing dress. Where did you get it?”
Esther looked down at herself. The dress was nice. She wouldn’t call it amazing. “Veronica’s. It’s a boutique a bit off Sunset.” Esther looked Lisa over. Her dress was deep red with spaghetti straps and a full skirt. “I like your dress.”
Lisa just shrugged a little, looking down at her own dress. “It’s just from Becky’s dress shop like everyone else’s.”
“It looks good to me.”
Lisa very carefully touched some of the embroidery along Esther’s skirt. “I really like this dress.”
Colby jumped a bit a Frank plopped down next to him. He’d obviously gotten well into the whiskey and soda. “Hey, Colby.” Frank slurred a bit.
“Guess what I just saw?”
“A fuchsia unicorn being ridden by a leprechaun.”
Frank looked supremely confused for a couple of moments. “No.”
“Then I don’t know what you saw, Frank.”
“Saw your girl heading towards the trees.”
Colby’s head snapped to the dance floor. Andrew was easy to spot with some girl in yellow but there was no Esther. He looked to the grill where Charlie had gone to fetch them some hotdogs. “Frank, stay here and wait for Charlie.”
Colby didn’t even wait for an answer, just got up and headed to the trees. Officially the grove was named after some guy that had died a hundred and fifty years before. Unofficially is was called Make Out Grove because probably more that half the town had, had their first kiss against one of the large, dark oaks. Possibly half the town had been conceived against the large dark trees.
Colby checked every tree startling teenagers from their lust. Pretty soon he found himself heading away from neatly planted grove towards the wilder bit. The light and the music from the dance began to fade. Then Colby came around a corner and froze.
Over the years being Esther’s father had provided him with many uncomfortable situations. The first attempt at a stranger danger and bad touch talk had been so painful they let Megan do it in the end. The ‘where do babies come from’ talk had been bad since Esther knew full well where babies came from and was being purposely obtuse just to torture her fathers. The ‘why don’t I have a mommy’ talk had been hard. The talk a few years later when Esther found out she had been lied to had been worse. And the day Colby found tampons penciled in at the bottom of the shopping list had been one where he sort of wanted to die from embarrassment.
None of those moments held a candle to what Colby was seeing, which was his dear, sweet, innocent, baby girl quite forcefully pinning a blond in a red dress against a tree. The other girl did not seem to be minding the fact that Esther had one hand knotted in her hair and her other hand under the dark red skirt. There was copious moaning.
Colby cleared his throat. Esther whipped around into a fighting stance putting herself between Colby and the blond.
Esther didn’t lower her stance. “Hey, Dad.”
“Do we need to have a talk?”
“I like girls.” She said flatly.
Colby nodded slowly. “Okay. That’s fine. However you do not get to make out with people you just met in the woods at night. This is how horror movies and homicide investigations start.”
“I...” The girl in red squeaked a little. “I should go.”
Esther slipped out of her fighting stance as the girl started to edge back in the direction of the dance. “Hey, call me.” Esther flashed her a little smile.
Colby groaned. He knew that smile. That exact smile and that exact way of saying those three words. He knew them from hanging out in bars with Don during their mutual single days. That quick little smile and twitch of the head was 100% classic Don Eppes. It was something Colby never expected or wanted to see from his daughter.
Colby couldn’t tell in the dark but he’d bet money the girl blushed before scurrying off.
Esther turned back to her father, folding her arms. “Well?”
“Did you at least get her name?”
“I was working up to it.” There was silence for about half a minute. “Are you going to tell Dad?”
“Do you want me to?”
Esther shrugged. “Guess it doesn’t matter.”
Colby could feel his right eye begin to twitch. “Fine. But you are going back to the party and you will stay within line of sight, young lady.”
There was exaggerated eye rolling and a sulking march back out of the grove.
Charlie was waiting for them. Esther walked right past her father back towards the dance floor. “Frank told me what was going on? Who was she with?”
Charlie looked around. “Which one?”
“In the red dress.”
Charlie became very still for a long time “Oh.”
Charlie took a sip of his drink. “Well... I guess we don’t have to worry about her getting pregnant.” Colby cracked up and Charlie followed. “Oh, god. That explains so much.” Charlie croaked out between fits of giggles.
“The whole James Bond thing. She just wants Bond girls.”
That comment sent Colby into another fit of giggles. “Oh god I need a drink. Let’s go find Frank. He’s got to be holding.”
Esther sat down next to Andy who was resting his feet a bit. “Where’d you get off to?” He asked.
“Oh, was just getting a quick tour of Make Out Grove and unfortunately didn’t get close to getting off before Dad showed up. How are you holding up?”
“Jacob is probably going to ask Vicky to marry him.”
“I’m sorry. He looks like an idiot.”
“He is.” Andy looked quietly at his hands. “They’re going to shoot off the fireworks soon. The launch them from the football field.”
Esther took Andy’s hand and gave is a squeeze. “I’ll be here.”
The band started a slow song. Andy stood up. “Can I have this dance?” Esther looked across the dance floor. Lisa was being pushed into the arms of some skinny teenaged guy by a couple of other girls. Esther took Andy’s hand. “Sure.”
Andy put his arms around her as they swayed to the sound of the soft fiddle on stage.
“Will you teach me that thing of Isaac’s?” Andy asked softly under the music.
“Sure. We’re here for a few more days. It’s not that hard. Comparatively.”
The two of them swayed quietly to the music. Esther found it surprisingly comfortable. Not that there was any sexual attraction but Andy was just a comfortable, platonic, physical presence against her.
The band wound down then started up the first chords of the Star Spangled Banner. There was a high pitched whistling and the sky above began to erupt in red, white and blue sparks. With each explosion Andy jumped.
Esther kept a death grip on him. “They’re just fireworks. Just keep watching. They’re just pretty fireworks. Grown up toys. That’s it.”
Three phosphorous white lines cut their way across the sky then erupted. Andy jerked, squeezing his eyes shut.
“Hey, look at the kids. Look at how much fun the kids are having.” Esther pointed to a small group of kids who were jumping up and down, laughing with glee.
Andy started to shake almost violently.
The Star Spangled Banner was almost at its end. A dozen trails of lights whipped across the sky. Andy pressed his face to Esther’s shoulder as the sky, for a moment, turned to fire with a dozen deafening bangs.
People whooped and cheered. Andy shook and Esther held him tight.
Once the last sparks had faded from the sky Esther gave him a little tough. “Come on. Let’s go sit down.”
Colby almost fell over as Frank’s arm fell heavy around his shoulders. Colby knew he’d had a few but Frank smelled like he’d fallen into vast of whiskey.
‘Like father like son.’ Colby thought.
“Colby.” Frank slurred.
“Yes?” Colby sighed trying to push Frank’s arm off him.
“Was it something I did?”
“Was it something I did? I mean after Dad died I tried to be there for you and Robbie.”
“I know, Frank.”
“...but I had to work, I had to help mom.” Frank’s voice was thick with emotion and he was still leaning heavily on Colby.
“I know you did.”
“Should I have spent more time with you? You seemed okay?”
Colby suddenly fought through his own alcohol to figure out what Frank was talking about. “Frank, look at me.” Frank’s eyes were unfocused. Colby patted his cheeks. “Frank, come on. Look at me. Focus.” Frank blinked, his eyes coming into focus. “Frank, it was nothing you did. It was nothing you didn’t do. It was nothing anyone did.
“You want to know why I’m with Charlie?”
Frank gave a drunken nod.
“Here’s what happened. I met someone. They were brilliant. They were funny. They were remarkable and unique. They saved my life and demanded nothing in return. And I fell in love with them. And they happened to be in a male body. That’s all Frank. I met Charlie and slowly over many years and with a lot of friendship involved I fell in love.”
Franks face crumpled in thought.
“I’ve only ever been with one man, Frank, and fell in love with him and I married him and raised a daughter with him. Not in that order but we made it work.”
Frank still seemed to be thinking deep. Or perhaps had passed out on his feet.
“Hey, Mom always wanted one of us to marry a doctor. I took what I could get.”
Frank frowned then laughed a high drunken laugh and slapped Colby on the back.
“He’s a good man?”
“Yes. And he comes from a good family. All good people.”
Frank nodded heavily until his eyes closed and his head dropped. “I talked with my boy.” Frank mumbled softly.
“He never had nightmares when he was little. Even after his mother left. All the others would wake up crying but he never did. I thought he was okay. He never cried.”
Colby didn’t say anything. Anything he could say would either be criticizing Frank’s parenting or give a bleak outlook on Andrew’s mental health.
“Come on, Frank. Let’s find one of your brood to take you home.”
Esther still had her arm around Andy. He looked calm but she could feel him still twitching and trembling. People were milling around, finding each other, then fading away from the park.
Lisa walked by with a group of other girls. She turned and smiled at Esther. Esther smiled back.
Then her dad stumbled in front of them. Andy quickly straightened up. “Good evening, Dr. Eppes.”
“Hey.” Esther could tell by the way he was blinking that her dad had had a few. “Sweetie, your dad is pawning your uncle Frank off on somebody then we’re heading home.”
“Okay. Are you or dad okay to drive?”
“Nope.” Charlie pulled the keys to the rental out of his pocket and tossed them to her. “Time to put that learners permit to work Miss I’m So Grown Up I Can Make Out In The Woods With People I Just Met.”
“It’s six miles and one turn and you don’t even have to back the car out. You should be able to manage that.”
Esther was pretty sure that the rental agreement forbade her from driving the car and there was possibly something on her learners permit about driving at night. She didn’t mention either of these things. “Okay, no problem. Go find Dad and we’ll get out of here.”
Esther drove very, very carefully up the dirt driveway, stopped, and made sure the parking break was fully engaged before turning off the ignition. Then she turned to the back seat where her dads were kissing. “Cut it out you two. That’s traumatizing.”
Colby looked at her. “Sweetie, if anyone here got traumatized tonight it was me.”
Esther rolled her eyes as everyone started piling out of the car. She’d been making out with Lisa for maybe two minutes before her dad showed up. It wasn’t like they’d gotten naked or anything.
Andy offered his arm to walk her up to the porch. They stopped at the door. “You don’t get a kiss.”
Andy actually smiled a little. “I know.”
Everyone traipsed into the house and made their goodnights after that. Katie wasn’t back yet. She’d gone off to party with some old friends. Esther sat on the bed until the house sounded like it had quieted down then dug a brown bottle out of her toiletry bag and snuck down the hall.
Light was still creeping out from under Andy’s door. She knocked softly then pushed it open. Andy was sitting on his bed, still in uniform, staring into space. She sat down next to him.
“I know this is going to sound so unbelievably trite but things will feel a bit better in the morning.”
“How do you know?” Andy’s voice was small and tight.
“Because I’m really fucking smart, that’s how.” Andy smiled. “You need to sleep.”
“Think you will?”
Esther took out the prescription bottle and fished out a small purple tablet. With her fingernails she broke it in half. “Here. They’re my sleeping pills.” She put half a pill into Andy’s hand.
He looked at it. “I thought you said you can’t wake up with these.”
“That’s a quarter of a dose for me. You’re eight inches taller and built like a brick wall. That should just relax you enough to let you fall asleep. You’re tired enough that you’ll just sleep after that.”
“I’ll have nightmares.”
“I’ve had nightmares almost every night of my life for as long as I can remember, price of a genius brain. I learned really quick that nightmares can’t actually hurt you, where as sleep deprivation on the other hand turns you into a spaz that walks into door jambs and breaks teeth.” Andy smiled. Esther tapped her two front teeth. “Capped.”
Andy looked at the pill, laying tiny in his large hand then with a quick movement tossed it into his mouth and swallowed it dry. “How long should it take before that kicks in?”
“Pretty quick. I’d change into jammies if I were you.”
Andy took her hand. “Thank you. I mean, I’m falling apart, I think. You shouldn’t have to deal with this. Take care of me.”
“You’re family. Why wouldn’t I take care of you?”
“I think you must come from a better world than me.”
It was Esther’s turn to smile. “Not by a long shot. Now come on.” She gave Andy a quick hug. “Bed.”
Andy began to take off his uniform as Esther slipped out. She found her father waiting in the hall, arms folded, looking displeased. “In case you missed the blonde in the red dress earlier tonight I’m not interested in him and he knows it. I was just checking on him.”
“How not interested?”
“I have about as much interest in boys as Uncle Ian has interest in girls.”
Colby’s eyes went wide. “Wow. Okay. So, none at all?”
“Not in the slightest.”
“Well, at least we don’t have to worry about you getting pregnant.” Esther snorted and leaned against the wall opposite her father. Colby gestured to Andy’s door just as the light clicked out under it. “How is he?”
“I gave him half of one of my sleeping pills.”
“Those are prescription.”
“That’s why I only gave him half of one, besides he hasn’t slept for more than a couple hours any night since he got here and speaking as a card carrying insomniac, sleep deprivation can lead to one doing stupid things like going AWOL.”
Colby gave his face a quick rub. “Are you going to sleep tonight?”
“Wasn’t planning on it. We’re not really doing anything tomorrow are we?”
“Nah, just hanging out.”
“I told Andy I’d start teaching him Hebrew some time tomorrow. Told him it was relatively easy.”
“Easy relative to what?”
Esther shrugged. “Welsh?” Colby stifled a chuckle. “I think we should take him home with us.”
“He’s not a puppy.”
“Come on, Dad. I’ve been down main street. This town has five bars and no dentist. He had to get bits of his buddy picked out of him. That’s got to screw someone up and he’s not going to get any help hanging around here.”
“We can’t just shove him in our luggage.”
“I’ve got money saved up, I’ll cover his ticket.”
“It’s not that and you know it.”
“Dad...” Esther took a deep breath. “He’s family. Weird backwoods hick family but... I don’t think he’s going to make it here.”
Colby let out a little puff of air, in what was not quite a sigh. “We’ll see.”
“Thank you.” Esther let the silence of the house settle around her before taking a deep breath to break it. “Dad, what was it like?” Esther knew she wouldn’t have to spell it out.
Colby was quiet for a long time. “It was war. I was a soldier, I followed orders and they told me that knowledge would be enough.”
Esther took the half step across the hall and hugged her father laying her head against his chest. He was warm and strong and even smelling a bit of alcohol he felt safe. He hugged her back. “That is a very pretty dress.” He said smoothing down an errant curl.
“You look all grown up.”
Esther just held her father a little tighter.