3.9 Happy

March stared at the fish tank in her last period class, once again hypnotized by the graceful undulations of the animals within. Just as they had been on that day a mere few months past, the two girls behind her were all abuzz with excitement, only this time March shared their enthusiasm. In a matter of hours, she and her peers would hear the bell ring as high school students for the very last time.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the only members of the Callender family to have found romance on that now seemingly long ago prom night had been February and Hector. March had no idea what had finally led to to the big thaw, but now, although Hector still officially lived in Martin Luther’s old room, he spent more nights in February’s.

Not that prom had turned out to be a complete waste of time; instead of bothering to mingle with her peers, March had cornered the president of the prom committee in order to pick apart the entire decorating scheme that had been employed.

“This is supposed to be an under WATER theme…why do you have mini tiki torches at each table? Flames can’t burn UNDER WATER!”

“Well, because — ” the startled girl had begun to stammer, but March cut her off. She’d only just begun. For nearly twenty minutes, she harangued the poor girl, who really didn’t care what the decorations were anymore and just wanted to dance with her boyfriend. Finally able to seize a rare break in March’s diatribe, the girl suggested hopefully that March compile a list of ideas and suggestions for the following year to discuss on Monday. To her immense relief, March agreed and allowed her to return to her beau’s waiting arms. For her part, March spent the remainder of the dance trolling the premises and taking copious notes.

On Monday, March and her ideas for next year were far from the now retired president of the prom committee’s mind, and the girl could not be located. Undeterred, March instead ambushed the faculty advisor, who also happened to teach her last period class. Mrs. Hillenbrand may have officially presided over Geography, but was at her core a frustrated artist. She listened in awe as March passionately outlined possibilities she’d come up with and watched closely when March would stop to make small sketches from time to time in order to further illustrate her points. By the end of the conversation, Mrs. Hillenbrand was eyeing March thoughtfully.

“These are excellent ideas, March, and I must say, your drawing skills are quite good. Why have I never seen you in any of the art classes?” Bewildered by the unexpected change of topic, March frowned at her teacher a moment before replying.

“Well, I draw sometimes in my journal I guess, but honestly, the classes here are sort of silly. Leaf rubbings, really? Are we still in kindergarten?” Mrs. Hillenbrand barely attempted to restrain her smile; truthfully, she’d felt the same way. Amazing how much farther a silly diploma would get a Sim than raw talent.

After chatting a while longer, Mrs. Hillenbrand commissioned March to sketch out more ideas for the following year. When March brought her drawings in, Mrs. Hillenbrand determined that March or herself would be the only individuals up to the task of painting the scenery, so she set March in front of an easel and began teaching her the basics.  March took to the challenge like a fish to water and was expertly sweeping paint-laden brushes across canvases in no time at all.   She and Mrs. Hillenbrand spent many peaceful afternoons painting murals and props for the next year’s festivities, and March grew to cherish those long hours, mostly spent in companionable silence save for the damp sounds of paint being applied to various surfaces.

“I’ll miss that,” March thought now as an electric blue tang darted gracefully through emerald fronds of aquatic plants, “but not much else.”  High school hadn’t been particularly hard on March…true, she had no strong friendships outside of Cal, but she had never been bullied, and she received reasonably good grades.  Still, she found herself eager to be past this tumultuous period of her life and onto the next thing…whatever that might be.  In only a few more moments, the school bell would ring, releasing her from her teenage bonds and freeing her to go home to celebrate her first birthday as an adult.  February had insisted on planning a small party for both March and Valentine, who was ushering in her teenage years as well.

“Oh, you two are growing into such beautiful young women,” February had gushed that morning.  To her embarrassment, March found herself bursting into tears at her mother’s words; Valentine merely glowered and muttered something about the whole process being “inevitable.”

“Inevitable or not,” February pronounced, planting a kiss on Valentine’s dark head, “it has been an absolute joy watching you both grow up.  It’s a privilege to be your mother.”  March hid a smile as her little sister’s sour expression softened.  Although Valentine’s eccentricities only seemed to grow more amplified by age, March knew that, beneath all of the mad outbursts and increasing paranoid behavior, her baby sister was still just a little girl, secretly excited about hanging out with her friends and turning into a teenager.

March’s concentration was drawn back to her present where, all around her, her peers had excitedly begun a countdown to the day’s last bell.  Mrs. Hillenbrand had given up any pretense of order and was instead paging through what looked like a magazine with glossy photos of verdant green fields, and an elegant, thin tower overseeing the landscape.  The clamor of the bell was nearly surpassed by the shrieks and whoops of the excited seniors as they gathered their belongings and began their final exit as students.  March shrugged her backpack on and stood, preparing to merge into the exodus, when Mrs. Hillenbrand  called her name.

“March, I know you’re probably most eager to  join the hullabaloo, but I wondered if I might have a moment of your time?” Mrs. Hillenbrand inquired as March drew near.

“Of course, Mrs. Hillenbrand.  What’s up?” asked March.

“Well,” the teacher began, straightening her glasses.  “I wanted to let you know that all of our hard work regarding next year’s prom has gone to naught.  It appears that administration did not approve of us shanghaiing the theme, as it were, from the next crop of ingrates on the prom committee.”

“Oh.”  March’s shoulders drooped as she furrowed her brow and thought about all of the pieces she and Mrs. Hillenbrand had spent so much time on, but before she could seriously consider having a tantrum over the event, Mrs. Hillenbrand was dropping a new bombshell.

“Yes, well, I strongly suspect that they’ll go along with our work in the end anyway, once they’ve seen it.  The better for them to go back to concentrating on what they’ll WEAR, and looking pretty, and all of that foolishness.  Anyway, it’s neither here nor there for me, as I will no longer be here.  I’m moving to Champs les Sims over the summer.  I’ve had enough of whiling my life away here in this llama-forsaken little town, attempting to teach insipid little boors who spend their entire time in my classroom gazing stupidly upon my fish and completely ignoring anything of substance I have to say.”  March flushed, recalling all the moments she had done that very thing, but Mrs. Hillenbrand continued, impervious to March’s discomfort.  “Painting with you for all of these months has forced me to remember that I am, at heart, an artiste, and I’m finally going to do what I should have done when I was your age and pursue art.”  Mrs.  Hillenbrand tapped the magazine she had been thumbing through before, drawing March’s eye once again to the beautiful countryside gracing its pages.  “Champs les Sims is the very epicenter of the artistic world, the place where all the creme de la creme congregate, and where I truly belong.  I’ve sold my house and am flying out tonight, and I suggest you do the same, post haste.”

“What?  Me?” March gaped at Mrs. Hillenbrand in confusion as the older woman made her way over to the fish tank and stooped over to peer at its inhabitants.

“Well, yes, of course you.  Who else would I be referring to?  You quite have the talent, I’ve seen that for myself.  No use wasting it here in this nowhere place.”  Having made her proclamation, Mrs. Hillenbrand stood, still frowning at the fish in consternation.  “All I have left to do now is to throw these creatures into the pond and drive to the airport.”

“Throw them in the pond?  Your fish?”  March repeated, sure she’d misheard and starting to worry that Mrs. Hillenbrand was going to think her mentally deficient due to all of her mindless parroting.  Mrs. Hillenbrand, however, merely shrugged and made a dismissive gesture towards her pets.  “Yes, it’s hardly practical to drag them along with me, and anyway, their presence would only remind me of less pleasant times.”

“I’ll take them,” March blurted out before she really knew what she was doing.  “Looking at them will make me remember you, and…how happy I’ve been working with you.”  She blushed, realizing her words probably sounded much stranger to her teacher than she had intended, but Mrs. Hillenbrand’s mind was already far across the sea, and she paid no mind to any possible innuendo behind the flushing young girl’s statement.  Instead, she happily helped March scoop the blue tang and its companions into an old punch bowl that had been laying around the classroom and wished her luck, reiterating her hopes that March would move to Champs les Sims sometime in the near future.

****

When March arrived home, incongruously bearing her punch bowl full of fish, she found that February had spent the day busily preparing for the girls’ birthday party.  Two identical cakes had been baked and exquisitely decorated, and an assortment of young people were already milling around the water slide in the yard.

“Honey, you’re home!…why do you have fish?” February exclaimed in surprise upon seeing her older daughter’s unexpected acquisition.  “Never mind; Cal and some of your other friends are here; go on out and enjoy yourself!”  March carefully situated her new pets onto the table between the two birthday cakes before changing into swim clothes and joining Cal and the other kids at the water slide.  Before long, everyone — including February and Hector — was thoroughly drenched as each person attempted to come up with a move down the slide that was more spectacular than the next.  March was experimenting with a particularly complicated maneuver that involved spinning down the toy on her bottom when she caught sight of a familiar figure through the haze of mist and bubbles that sprayed her face.

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“Uncle Martin!” she shrieked, barreling off the slide and colliding into her uncle with a damp squelch.  “Mom didn’t tell me you were coming!”

“They say it’s your birthday!  It’s my birthday too, yeah!” Martin Luther replied, returning his niece’s moist embrace.  March giggled.  “It’s so good to see you, Uncle Martin.  I’ve missed you.”

“Like the deserts miss the rain?” teased Martin Luther, tugging one of March’s long pigtails.  “Hey little girl, is your daddy home?  I’m taking care of business.”

“Oh yeah, I think he’s out back,” said March.  “See you later for cake?”  Martin Luther nodded, and March ran back to the slip n’ slide.  As she had predicted, Hector was in the backyard, preparing several hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill for the party attendees to eat.  He seemed unsurprised to see Martin Luther.

“Hey, Martin Luther,” he called softly, raising a hand in greeting.  “Were you able to bring it?”

“Signed, sealed, delivered, it’s your’s,” Martin Luther responded, withdrawing a small package from his pocket.  “Are you ready?  For what’s to come?”

“I believe so,” Hector replied seriously.  “If not now, then when?”

****

All of the kids were so busy sliding and splashing one another that no one noticed when Hector returned and took February’s hand.

“February,” Hector said, “Come with me, please.  There is something I need badly to discuss with you.”

“What is it, Hector?” February asked.  “It’s the girls’ birthday…can’t whatever it is wait until after the cake?”  Her silvered hair was dripping wet, her cheeks were flushed with exertion, and her voice was breathy from all of the laughing she had been doing.  Hector thought she had never looked lovelier.

“No, February.  I’m afraid it cannot.  It is in fact a discussion long overdue, I believe.” Mystified, and slightly apprehensive, February followed Hector behind the house, away from the commotion of the birthday party.  The sun had just set, but the light from their home’s windows cut the darkness in the yard with a comforting glow.   February could just make out the two cakes she had labored over for their girls and smiled wistfully, realizing that her days of parenting small children were long over.

“Hector, what is all this about?  I really don’t want to miss any of the girls’ birthday,” February reiterated, turning to face Hector.

“Nor do I, but this business is of the utmost importance,” explained Hector, taking February’s hands.  Alarmed, February noted that Hector’s hands were shaking around hers, and that his face wore an expression of deep gravity.

“What is it, Hector?  Is this about that Somer woman again?” February demanded suspiciously, but Hector shook his head.

“Oh no, of course not…the very opposite, in fact.”  Hector cleared his throat nervously before continuing.  “February Callender…you started out as my best friend, and then you gave me the greatest gifts a man could ever receive.  We have had so many ups and downs, but, until recently, I truly believed I could not possibly ask for more in life. Today, as we celebrate the births of our beautiful, unique daughters, I realize that there is yet one more gift you can give me, and if I may be so bold…”  To February’s complete astonishment, Hector sank down to one knee and began fumbling around in his pocket. “Please, February,” Hector entreated, finally withdrawing a small box.  “Please give me this honor, and be my wife.  We are far too old and have lived too much life to continue to carry on merely as boyfriend and girlfriend.”  With this pronouncement, Hector opened the box, and February gasped.

“Mama’s ring!” she exclaimed, instantly recognizing the piece of jewelry, “Where did you…how did you get that?”

“Well, I had a little help in that department,” Hector admitted.  “Of course, you can have it regardless of your answer…or, if you’d prefer a ring of your own choosing –“

“No!  This one is perfect,” February interrupted.  She turned beet red as she realized what her statement implied.  She and Hector stared at each other silently for several moments before Hector asked, “Does this mean…?”

“Yes…yes, of course.  I will,” February confirmed, nearly as surprised as Hector by the firmness of her answer.  Hands quaking more than ever, Hector slid the ring on February’s finger and smiled up at her as she gazed admiringly at the bauble.

“I still can’t believe you had Mom’s old ring…you know, it was one of the few things she brought with her when she came here.  She made Dad use it instead of buying her a new one when they got married…she thought it would be more practical, of course.”  February smiled at the recollection.  “I thought it was lost after she died…where on earth did you find it?” she asked, helping Hector back to his feet.

“Oh, well, it seems that Martin Luther has had it,” Hector explained, brushing grit from his knees.  “When I made these plans, to, you know, ask you, I went to him for advice, and he told me I should give you that.  Not in those words, naturally.”

“Naturally,” February repeated musingly, then startled as she realized how late the evening had grown.  “Oh!  The girls!  We have to get changed; it’s almost time to cut the cakes!  Hector…let’s not tell them about this quite yet.  I don’t want to take away from their night.”

“Of course, dear,” Hector agreed readily, still steeped in relief — and shock — that February had actually said “yes.” Prepared to celebrate the birth of their daughters, the pair clasped hands and entered the house where they were soon joined by the dripping party.  By the time everyone had changed into clean, dry clothes, the hour had grown late.

“Hey, Vally, everyone’s going to want to be getting home soon…wanna skip dinner for now and go straight to the cake?” asked March.

“It doesn’t matter to me…it isn’t like we’re going to erupt in sparkles and magically transform into new people as soon as we blow out the candles,” Valentine replied.  March took that as assent enough and gathered her friends and loved ones around one of the cakes.  Grabbing a nearby party favor, she held the noise maker high above her head and twirled it merrily, gazing happily around her at all the faces of people who cared for her.

Valentine stood at the other end of the table, surrounded by her own small entourage. Together, the sisters leaned forward and simultaneously blew out their candles, accompanied by the cheers and whistles of their parents and friends.

Afterwards, having cut the cake and opened — and, in some cases, donned — their presents, March and Valentine surveyed the scene.

“Looks like you were right, Val…not a sparkle to be seen,” March remarked teasingly.

“Not a one,” Valentine agreed.  Directly after extinguishing her candles, she had changed into a long sleeved turtleneck and a ball cap in an apparent effort to cover as much of her body as possible.  March eyed her little sister’s new look curiously, half afraid of whatever reaction an inquiry might provoke.  “Sooo,” she hedged at last, “Feel any differently?”

“Nope,” Valentine answered glibly, carefully balancing a fat slice of cake.  “Except I’m pretty sure I know what I want to do with my life.”

“Oh?  Already?  And what is that?” March asked cautiously.

“I’m going to crossbreed creatures and robots,” Valentine mumbled around a mouthful of cake.  March frowned, certain she’d misheard her sister.

“You heard me,” Valentine asserted, swallowing her lump of cake with some difficulty. “I’m going to be a creature/robot crossbreeder.”

“Valentine,” March began gently, “I don’t believe that’s even possible…”

“You’d be surprised at what’s possible,” Valentine interrupted, stabbing a fresh chunk of cake from her slice.  “Anyway.  Maybe don’t be so concerned about me.  Maybe you should be concentrating more on yourself.  You’re the one who just finished high school, you know.  What are you going to do with your time now?  Just sit around and stare at fish all day?”  March’s frown deepened as her gaze found her new bowl of fish.  As much as she hated to admit it, Valentine raised a valid point…just where did her path lead her now?

3.8 All of Me

March stared moodily at the fish tank kept in her last period classroom, lost in the hypnotic movements of the fish within. The teacher’s voice had been reduced to a droning hum at least half an hour earlier while she had watched the fish, thinking about her family and trying hard to ignore the whispered conversation two girls were carrying on behind her. In the months following February and Hector’s big dispute, March had struggled to accept the changes that indicated the “new normal” for the Callender family while enduring the latest obsession of all her classmates — prom.

March hadn’t exactly been dying to go to prom even before her life was turned upside down, but her mother had insisted it would be something she’d regret missing out on. While shopping for a dress, March had tried — without success — to talk some sense into February.

“I don’t get it, Mom…YOU didn’t even want to go to prom. Why are you making such a big deal about this?”

“Yes, I know…but looking back, it was so…magical and romantic,” February explained dreamily, a misty look in her eye. “Cameron held me so close…it was kind of like a fairy tale.”

“Cameron? Who’s Cameron?” The misty look in February’s eyes vanished at the question. She cleared her throat as she began busying herself shuffling through the closest rack of dresses.

“Oh, Cameron. He was my, well, my boyfriend…uhm, for a while. Through a lot of high school. What do you think of this one, honey?” She held up a garish purple number full of sequins. March wrinkled her nose in distaste, her mind still full of this sudden piece of romantic intrigue from her Mother’s past.

“Ew, no! And stop trying to change the subject! How come I’ve never heard about Cameron before, since he was so DREAMY and everything?” March demanded, her interest piquing as a slow flush began to overtake February’s face. February sighed, clearly wishing the subject could be as easily dismissed as the purple dress she was now shoving back onto the rack.

“Honestly, March, it isn’t that big a deal. We were just high school sweethearts, I guess…we grew apart. We didn’t really have that much in common to begin with.” March stared as her Mother’s face took on a deeper brick hue, sensing there was somehow more to the story than February was letting on.

“Oh, ew, Mom!” March squealed as a sudden thought occurred to her. “You aren’t about to tell me this guy’s my actual dad, are you?”

“Of course not, March! There’s no question about that…Hector is definitely your father. Unfortunately.” February muttered the last bit under her breath peevishly, but March still heard her. The teen rolled her eyes, electing not to comment. An uneasy truce had been forged between February and Hector after February’s discovery of Somer; initially, she had demanded that Hector move out immediately, but had eventually relented and allowed him to merely move into Martin Luther’s former bedroom — “For the sake of the girls,” she had said. Hector had seemed under the impression at first that February’s freeze out would only last for a few days, especially when she seemed to accept the copious amount of apologies he made towards her. But the days stretched into weeks that grew into months, with February refusing any of Hector’s advances. Valentine had left toddlerdom behind and grown into a child, watching as her mother spitefully threw roses Hector would bring her back into his face, and March wondered to herself how that environment could possibly be healthy “for the girls.”

To maintain some peace in the house, March had relented on the prom issue. She told herself that maybe the experience really would be a romantic chapter of her life to look back on rather than the overly crowded, tacky occasion she feared, but now, hours before the commencement of the dance, she found her hope harder to hold on to. Throngs of hyped up teenagers surged around her as soon as the closing bell sounded, chattering giddily about the evening’s festivities. March groaned inwardly as she eyed the lurid streamers festooning the hallway. Cal met her at the end of the hallway, grinning at her knowingly as he twirled his maroon scarf.

“Looking forward to tonight?” he asked mischievously, his light accent lending a musical quality to his query. March scowled and swatted her friend’s arm.

“You know I’m not,” she growled. “Are you SURE you can’t come and keep me company in my misery…just for a little while?”

“No can do, lovely. You know I have an Egyptian thing…I simply can’t get out of it. And besides, you don’t need a third wheel dogging you as you’re swept off your feet by the man of your dreams.”

“As if,” March muttered darkly. She cast a wistful eye at Cal, wishing, not for the first time, that she could summon some kind of attraction for him. It would have been perfect…he was so cultured, so witty, not hard to look at, and she loved him, with her whole heart. But there was no fire in her affection for him, no desire for anything more romantic than the chaste kiss he planted on her cheek as they left the school building.

“Cheer up, my lovely. It will be over before you know…and who knows? Maybe you will be surprised?”

*****

Somehow, March doubted that coming out of the shower with an unexpected head of turquoise hair was quite the surprise Cal had had in mind. Clearly, someone had been tampering with her shampoo….again.

“VALENTINE!!!” she screamed, glowering at her moisture streaked reflection in the mirror. “I’M GOING TO KILL YOU FOR THIS!!!”

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“Chill out, sis. You look good in blue. Anyway, THEY would never let you go to your precious teenage ritual with blue hair, so don’t waste your time being mad.”

March opened her mouth to argue, but one look at her little sister’s eyes was enough to tell her not to bother. Valentine had been an odd baby, prone to finding provocation in anything, good or bad. As she’d grown into a child, the premonitions March had expressed regarding Valentine’s behavior had proven true; Valentine not only seemed completely disassociated with reality, but was prone to outbursts that had grown so alarming in their intensity that Hector and February has deemed it necessary to medicate their youngest daughter. Doped up Valentine still insisted that their lives were all under the control of “them” and refused to eat animals under the basis that they were only “fellow victims of the All Seeing Eyes”…but did so in a much more mellow, containable fashion. Tractable as she was in those states, March secretly preferred her excitable, lunatic baby sister.

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“Ok, Vally, I’m sure you’re probably right,” murmured March soothingly. Valentine threw March a penetrative stare before turning back to the chess pieces she’d been shuffling around, muttering darkly to the board under her breath while March slipped back into the bathroom to rewash her hair and get dressed.

****

Long after March had left, and Valentine had retreated into her room, February sat by the window, gazing out at the night and pondering the fleet passage of time. After a while, she sensed Hector beside her. For a time, they sat in silence within their own thoughts, until February asked,

“Do you think I did the right thing, having her go?”

Hector hesitated, torn between honesty and the desire to keep peace between himself and February. Finally, he spoke tentatively.

“I’m not sure why you felt it was important….you certainly didn’t enjoy your own experience.” February glanced at him, surprised.

“You remember that?” she asked. By the time she and Hector had become good friends, that fateful prom had been long over. She hardly recalled even mentioning it in passing.

“Of course,” Hector answered, smiling. “I remember a lot of things…the important things.” He paused a moment before adding carefully, “I’ve had a lot to remember through the years.”

February considered Hector’s statement, mulling over the long period of time they’d shared. Looking at him now, she saw how his once bright red hair had acquired a silvery sheen; her own head was streaked with gray strands of its own. Their relationship unfurled before her like a ribbon, faded and knotted in some places, frayed thin in others, but still there, stretched between them, their two girls holding tight to each end. She thought of their girls — March never dating and going to prom alone, Valentine all too often lost in her own mad ramblings — and her own parents, living practically like strangers, leaving her and Martin Luther to lead lonely, fractured childhoods.

Then she took Hector’s hand. They sat silent once more, hands clasped, as they shared the evening and waited for their daughter, together.

3.7 Loyal

Life in the Callender household didn’t miraculously change overnight, but, after the nearly disastrous kitchen fire, a marked improvement took place. February began to take great pains to pay more attention to both March and Valentine; her writing suffered as a result, but her family benefitted and grew closer as a whole. Practically overnight, March became a lovely teenager while Valentine grew into a precocious toddler. March began reveling in her role as a big sister and was often found at home playing or cuddling with Valentine.

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In spite of all the extra attention, Valentine was a bit of an unusual toddler. To February’s horror, Martin Luther sent her youngest daughter a doll similar to the one he’d had growing up. Valentine spent hours with her toy, though she seemed much more inclined to abusing the poor stuffed thing than to singing to or hugging it, as Martin Luther had seemed to spend most of his childhood doing.

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Nevertheless, in spite of her youth, Valentine was already portraying some of the same kinds of tendencies that Martin Luther had always had. March couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but something about the way Valentine would look at things, or the odd manner of things she said, concerned her.

“March, stop worrying!” February chastised. “She’s only a baby still; of course she’s going to say odd things. You and I both know there aren’t REALLY other beings out there controlling and observing our every move. That’s just her imagination. And who cares if she does turn out a little like Uncle Martin? He’s just a little eccentric…that doesn’t make him bad.”

Deep down, March knew her mother was right and she shouldn’t worry so much…still, she resolved to keep a sharper eye on Valentine, just in case.

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Aside from Valentine’s occasionally peculiar behavior, things had never been better in the Callender household. March’s grades were excellent, Valentine grew like a weed, and, true to his word, Martin Luther stopped by often to spend time with his nieces, leaving February and Hector time to feel connected. Life seemed good, and the family was full of love.

On the other hand, love was all March could seem to think about. Now that she was a teenager, and felt more secure at home, she turned her attention to the all important goal of coupling up. All around her, friends had managed this very thing, while the reality of becoming half of a romantic duo remained elusive to March. It wasn’t that she lacked for admirers; with her coal black hair and deep blue eyes, she was a natural object of infatuation for many of her peers.  However, few possessed the nerve to actually approach her. Although she was artistic and clever, March had never outgrown her childhood tendencies to throw emotional outbursts at the drop of a hat, giving her the reputation of being somewhat high maintenance. The few students that viewed her as an appealing challenge always gave up within a short time; March wanted love, but she was particular about it and had yet to encounter anyone that drew forth that special spark she was searching for.

Even friendships suffered from March’s often extraordinary moodiness; the only constant mainstay in her life was Cal, who had been her best friend since his family had emigrated from Egypt in fifth grade. Cal’s apparent immunity from the bleaker aspects of March’s personality was not a fact that went unnoticed by Hector, who harbored some concerns for the state of his eldest daughter’s romantic prospects.

“You know, that Cal that’s been coming around here for a while now…he’s a nice young man.”

“I know he is, Dad,” March answered wearily, already familiar with Hector’s plane of thought. “You say that about all the boys I bring home.”

“Well, all the boys you bring home are nice young men. I suppose I just don’t understand why they never seem to come around for long.”

“Because, Daddy…they aren’t right. They aren’t what I’m looking for.”

“Well, dear, do you even know what you’re looking for? How can you possibly know what you want at this age?”

“I don’t,” March admitted. “But I know what I don’t want, and so far it’s all the boys in our high school….including Cal, EXCEPT as a friend!” Hector, recognizing the unmistakable edge that had developed in his daughter’s voice, backed off hastily.

“Ok…ok…I’ll let it go. I just worry about you sometimes, you know? I don’t want you to spend your whole life looking for something that may have been right in front of you all along.”

“Oh?” February, who had entered at the tail end of the conversation, now stood in the doorway, glowering at Hector. “Funny YOU, of all people, should mention that.” Before a startled Hector could respond, February hurled his cell phone in his face, missing by mere inches.

“Your girlfriend just called. You might want to call her back,” she snarled before turning around and leaving the house, slamming the door angrily behind her.

****

February stood in the yard, seething. She could still hear the lightly accented voice of that girl…what had she said her name was? Somer?….breathlessly requesting Hector after February’d answered his phone. “I am back in town,” Somer had trilled, “from France, and I would, how you say, like very much to take up where we left off.” February had barely been able to respond; after an abrupt, “He’s busy,” she had hung up the phone and stood staring at it as her pulse raced and sweat erupted from her suddenly trembling palms. In the living room, she could just make out Hector talking to March about her friend, Cal. He was forever trying to get the girl to stick with one boy or another, the lying, conniving, sneaking, hypocritical — February had stomped into the other room, still shaking, just in time to hear Hector’s last comment.

Behind her, February heard the door click open as Hector entered the yard to talk to her; before he could utter a word, she whirled to confront him.

“How could you?? How could you do this to me…to the girls?? Don’t we mean anything to you, hasn’t any of this meant anything at all?” she shrieked, only dimly aware that March had accompanied her father and stood behind him, her eyes huge and her face pale.

“Of course…the girls, you, it’s been everything to me — ” Hector began in a soothing voice, but February cut him off.

“But not ENOUGH, apparently! We haven’t been ENOUGH for you!”

“NO!” Hector yelled back, his temper finally slipping. “It hasn’t been enough! I wanted to get married…a wife, a proper family, not just this limbo of living with the woman who happened to bear my children. You wouldn’t even be my girlfriend, for crying out loud!”

“Oh, and I suppose you want to marry HER, then? Go off and live happily ever after with a ‘proper’ WIFE, instead of just ‘shacking up’!”

“No!…I don’t know. Somer and I, we haven’t even talked in years, aside from a few emails here and there. We had a brief fling before you and I moved in together, while she was here on business. It couldn’t have led anywhere then, she hardly even crosses my mind now. Frankly, I don’t even understand why you’re upset…I didn’t think you’d even care.”

“Not care??  How could I NOT CARE?  We have children together, we live together…”

“Yes, but that’s IT, that’s ALL…just living together.  No formal commitments, no permanence!”

“Mama…Daddy…are you going to get divorced?” March whispered tremulously, her gaze moving from one angry parent to the other.

“You can’t get divorced if you aren’t even MARRIED,” Hector spat viciously, glaring at February.

“Oh yes, I forgot…the only thing that could POSSIBLY make a relationship relevant is a meaningless piece of PAPER. FINE. If you feel that way, then GO! Get out and find someone else who wants that SPECIAL PIECE OF PAPER!”

February’s screaming response was followed by an anguished wail from March; sobbing violently, the girl turned away from her parents and ran. She ran until her lungs burned and her feet blistered, only then collapsing in a heartbroken heap in the fields beyond her house, knowing in her heart that the period of peace in the Callender home had come to an end.

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3.6 Dark Horse

When I look back on my childhood, the day that always stands out to me is the one after my uncles both left. Everyone thinks my Uncle Bert died in an accident, but I know the truth — he was tired of living. He had nothing left and I wasn’t enough. He knew fixing that stereo was out of his realm of knowledge but he tried anyway, knowing — hoping even — it would get him away. Away from the world where his girlfriend broke his heart. Away from days of nothing and more nothing. Away from me.

Uncle Martin moved out the same day. I couldn’t believe it. All that time, he was the only one that really paid any attention to me while Mom and Dad were busy playing house, and then, when I need him the most, he abandons me too, just like that. He said I could visit any time, that him moving out had nothing to do with me…I knew better. Mom pretty much left everything in the house up to him — bills, cooking…me. It got to him. She said I was silly, that it was just his time to go live his own life, but I think she knew the truth and felt guilty about the way she’d taken advantage of him. Of course, by then it was too late, and I was left alone. I hate being alone. I’m not like my mom, too scared to give up her own space to commit to anything. I’ve always just wanted to be with people, to be loved.

I guess that’s why I started the fire.

*****

One day. It had only been one day since Bert had died and Martin Luther moved out. Twenty four hours, the longest twenty four hours of March’s young life. She had spent the majority of it migrating hopelessly from room to room of the suddenly too-empty Callender house, hoping to connect with her parents…but they, as always, seemed too busy for her. Hector was far too consumed with mourning the loss of his brother to recognize how keenly his daughter felt Bert’s loss as well —

“Honey, can you go play in your room for a little while; I’m trying to remember this fishing trip Bert took me on when I was a boy. I want to share it during his eulogy, and I need to get the wording just right.

— while February dealt with a confusing mixture of guilt over Martin Luther’s departure and her feelings of relief regarding Bert’s unexpected demise.

“March, can you go watch some tv or something? I don’t really have the energy to play right now.”

And then, of course, there was the baby. When Hector and February weren’t involved in their own affairs, they were busy caring for Valentine, who, of course, was far too young for March to commiserate with. March had never felt so alone.

She found herself in the kitchen, making pancakes. She’d done it dozens of times before; Martin Luther had taught her so that she could fend for herself on days when all the adults were too busy to make sure she had something to eat. She was a natural at it and had never made a mistake.

Only this time, as she watched the burner glowing red, she found her mind racing uncontrollably. She had been with Bert when he died, and had seen the way Martin Luther behaved when he came into the room. Later, she had heard February telling Hector that Martin Luther had behaved even more oddly than usual following Bert’s death; he had been swinging his arms around and ducking erratically as though dodging invisible blows from something.

“Maybe he and Bert were playing volley ball or something,” she had joked. Hector had not seemed amused, but the remark had stuck with March. What if Uncle Martin had been able to interact with Uncle Bert from beyond? Did that mean life went on after death?

Lost in her musings, March at first failed to notice the thin plumes of smoke wafting from the griddle as the pancake batter began sizzling itself into a charred black mess. The sharp smell assaulting her nose finally brought her to her senses, but, as she hurried to turn off the heat, the bloom of a sudden, dark thought stayed her hand….

****

Slowly sliding her hands out from under the sleeping baby she’d just laid in her crib, February straightened and wrinkled her nose in consternation. Was that smoke she smelled? Perhaps the neighbors were grilling hot dogs…but the scent seemed too strong to be coming from outside. Frowning, she hurried from the nursery where a horrific site met her eyes: March, standing stock still in the kitchen while a tower of flames leaped and danced before her.

“March!” February screamed, racing forward. She grabbed a dishcloth, frantically attempting to bat down the growing blaze but unintentionally only feeding the fire. The searing heat finally forced her to drop the rag, which was quickly consumed by the flames.

Oh crap, oh crap, oh crap,” February thought maniacally, shielding her face from the sheet of fire before her. “Bert, you old bastard, guess I might be seeing you again soon.” March, she noted with alarm, still hadn’t moved from her spot.

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So great was February’s panic that she didn’t notice Hector, who had immediately called the fire department upon assessing the situation. He then proceeded to fight the burgeoning inferno on his own with an extinguisher he seemingly retrieved from thin air, continuing his battle even after a fire fighter arrived.

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“Excellent work, Mr. Cusack,” the fireman declared after, at last, the fire — as well as a substantial amount of the kitchen — had been reduced to a charry, wet mess. “Without your help, I’m afraid this house may very well have burned to the ground. However, you and your family must be more careful. This incident was clearly avoidable.” He turned a stern eye upon March, who finally appeared to have emerged from her stupor. Seeing his expression, March promptly burst into tears; Hector hurried to offer an explanation to the fire fighter.

“Ah, yes; I’m afraid we’ve had quite an upsetting week. You see, my brother passed away unexpectedly only yesterday, and our whole family is still reeling from his loss.” At his words, March bawled even louder.

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“Oh well, it’s all right, really…I kinda like the extra crispy look. Maybe we’ll do the rest of the house to match!” February quipped, hoping to defuse the situation.

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The firefighter leveled his stern gaze upon February.

“I can assure you, domestic fires are no joking matter, Miss Callender. House fires account for a significant portion of accidental deaths. This one in particular strikes me as somewhat suspicious…I do hope you understand the gravity of the matter.” Embarrassed, February averted her gaze, but March, panicked by the fireman’s grim demeanor, began babbling hysterically.

“P-p-p-please don’t arrest my m-m-m-m-mom!” she stammered brokenly through her tears. “It isn’t her f-f-f-fault, she d-d-d-d-didn’t d-d-d-do anything wrong!”

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“March, shhh, it’s ok,” February crooned, embracing her young daughter as the girl dissolved into fresh tears. Uncomfortable with March’s unbridled display of emotion, the fire fighter shifted awkwardly and cleared his throat.

“Ah….I guess all’s well that ends well. Just be more careful in the future, ok?” With that, he promptly made his exit.

****

“Hector,” February began as she toweled her straight blonde locks dry. She had been doing some thinking while in the shower in the aftermath of the nearly disastrous fire. She couldn’t shake the image of March standing frozen and blank-faced as the kitchen burned around her. “I know this may sound crazy, but the fire…I think March may have set it on purpose.”

“You’re right,” scoffed Hector, “it does sound crazy.”

“Just hear me out,” February insisted. “You weren’t there in the beginning…you didn’t see her face.”

“I’m sure she was just in shock –”

“It wasn’t just shock, Hector! It was…I don’t know what it was, I can’t explain it, but it was almost like she wanted the fire to spread. And you saw how she reacted when the fire guy mentioned it looked suspicious…”

“February, March reacts that way when you tell her to brush her hair. She’s sensitive….and you joking around didn’t exactly help the situation.” February sighed. She knew Hector had a point…but she also knew what it was like to be a sad, young girl who felt alone in the world. She remembered the fire that had started when she was a teenager, and, for just one fleeting second, how tempting it had seemed to surrender to the flames. And March, poor, sweet March….a stab of guilt pierced February’s conscience as an image of March’s forlorn little face from earlier that morning filled her mind. She knew what it was like to grow up feeling alone and neglected, yet she was doing the exact same thing to her own daughter.

“Oh Hector,” February groaned, burying her face in her hands. “What are we doing? Poor March.” Without waiting for a reply, February hurried down the hall to Martin Luther’s former bedroom, where March had relocated after her uncle’s departure. February timidly knocked on the door before opening it to find her oldest child sitting on the bed, looking at her in surprise.

“Hey March. How ya doin’? Is it ok if I come in for a minute?” March nodded, wide eyed. February slipped in and sat beside March, tenderly sweeping a lock of coal black hair from the girl’s face. “March….you know, baby, we love you so much,” she said falteringly. “You do know that, right?” March’s blue eyes filled with tears as she nodded slowly at her mother. February released a shaky breath and took hold of March’s hands. “I know we aren’t always so good at showing it…but we’re gonna try really hard from now on, ok? Promise. Is there anything you need right now, anything I can do for you?” March hesitated for just one second.

“Could you maybe read me a story?” She asked tentatively. February smiled and pulled her daughter close.

“Of course,” she said.

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3.5 Demons

Martin Luther had been doing some thinking, which wasn’t easy to do when new ideas and designs were constantly crowding out almost all of the thinking capacity that did not govern the bare necessities of eating, sleeping, bathing, and occasionally seeing Tam.  Since March’s birth, February had seemed completely content to leave practically all the household work to Martin Luther — the cooking, the cleaning, the repair of any broken appliances, and the maintenance of their mother’s faltering little garden.  He had also been the sole provider of a steady source of income, as February’s writing career had come to a hard, fast standstill after the release of her first — and thus far, only — novel, Right, But Wrong.  He hadn’t minded at all, not at first.  While carefully tending fragile new buds and navigating inexplicable wiring mazes, he would experience a certain calmness that actually helped him find the right mindset to focus on his work, and he couldn’t deny being overtaken by a deep sense of satisfaction as a result of taking care of all the bills.  Furthermore, he expected all the work to be temporary; once March got a little older, and February felt less overwhelmed, he was certain February would start pitching in more to help him out.  However, the months had soon turned into years without any indication that February intended to pick up any of the slack.

Martin Luther knew February’s complete reliance on him was unintentional; she probably had never even realized he was unhappy.  For that matter, HE had only recently discerned just how swamped and tied down he had been feeling.  At first, the additions of Bert and Hector had helped; both provided extra income — though Llama knew how exactly Bert came by what he brought in — and March had practically blossomed overnight; for whatever reason, she particularly loved Bert and took any opportunity she had to follow him around, chattering away sometimes, and sometimes just playing quietly, or watching him work.

But shortly after February and Hector brought home their new daughter, Valentine, Bert’s longtime girlfriend had unexpectedly called things off, leaving him in a constant state of barely contained anger.  He stayed out long hours, spending his simoleons on only he knew what, and would only come home occasionally to sleep or take a meal. March was crushed, and her parents were far too enamored and busy with the new baby to really notice her distress, or Martin Luther’s mounting frustration.  Once again, Martin Luther was left to pick up all the loose ends, while his career stuttered to a halt.

“Why don’t you just leave?” Tam had suggested in his typical cool manner.  “They are adults; it is certainly not up to you to manage absolutely everything.”

“We are family,” Martin Luther tried to explain.  Tam pursed his lips grimly, but didn’t push the issue.

However, in spite of his protestations, there was no denying that Martin Luther was beginning to feel caged in.

As he sat at his drafting table contemplating his future and what steps he might be able to take to ensure that everyone, including himself, was well taken care of, the front door slammed open and the unmistakable irate grumblings that heralded one of Bert’s rare appearances sounded from the entrance.

“Uncle Bert! You’re home!” Martin Luther heard March cry, delighted as always to see the curmudgeonly old man.  He could faintly make out Bert’s mumbled reply, something about being tossed out of one of the local bars and needing to hear his “listens”…meaning he must have run out of money to pay his tab (again) and had returned to the Callender home to hear a sports program on the stereo…..which, Martin Luther recalled suddenly, had sprung some sort of short a week earlier that he hadn’t had the time to repair yet.  Martin Luther cringed inwardly as Bert discovered the stereo’s malfunction and began swearing profusely.

“It’s ok, Uncle Bert, Uncle Martin can fix it in no time! Let me just go get him,” March chirped earnestly.  Martin Luther rose from his seat, resigned to spend the remainder of the afternoon wrestling with the electronic, but Bert’s angry response stopped him cold.

“Don’t need no namby pamby to do a man’s job! I can do it myself!”

Shrugging, Martin Luther took his seat once more.  “Any way you want it, that’s the way you get it,” he thought, wondering how long it would be before Bert, who had no experience working with electronics, would give the task up and go find something else to do.  Sure enough, Martin Luther soon heard a sharp zzzng, shortly followed by one of Bert’s foul oaths.  He tried to stifle some of his self-satisfaction as March gasped in alarm.

“Are you all right, Uncle Bert?? Are you sure you don’t want me to get Uncle Martin; he’s fixed it loads of times —”

“Blast, it was just a little shock!  I’ll get the best of this damn contraption without no help from nobody, y’hear me, kid?”  Martin Luther knew he ought to go see if he could insist on helping Bert with the aging stereo, but he simply wasn’t in the mood to put up with the old man’s attitude. Besides…a few small shocks might do Bert’s ego a little good.

All at once, the lights flashed ominously and March screamed.  Martin Luther leapt to his feet as the lights gave up and remained dark, his heart struck cold by the sickly scent of charred flesh that grew stronger as he rushed into the living room.  He knew immediately there was nothing to be done; Bert’s crumpled body lay with an unnatural stillness near the smoking stereo, while March continued to scream helplessly nearby.

February burst from the nursery where she’d been tending Valentine and immediately grasped the situation.  Gently, but firmly, she took March by the shoulders and steered her towards her room.

“Honey, go keep an eye on your sister,” she instructed, but Martin Luther barely heard her. He stood transfixed as a shimmery gold apparition rose from Bert’s body, taking on the misty appearance of Bert even as February crouched next to the corporeal body, apparently taking no notice of the evanescent form hovering nearby….or of the dark, hooded specter that soon materialized before it.

“Reaper,” Martin Luther whispered hoarsely, unable to believe his eyes as the grim vision approached what Martin Luther knew must be Bert’s ghost.

“Took yer sweet time gettin’ around to me, didn’tcha, ya dusty old boggart.  I been sick and tired of hangin’ about for years now,” the ghost pronounced peevishly, using an odd, hollow version of Bert’s voice.

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The Reaper made no reply outside of a grand sweeping gesture that Bert’s ghost must have taken as his signal for departure, for he evaporated into a fine pale cloud and vanished somewhere amongst the deep folds of the Reaper’s cavernous robes.  Then, to Martin Luther’s great surprise, the Reaper turned and faced Martin Luther directly.

“Don’t fear the Reaper,” the creature intoned solemnly.  Martin Lither swallowed, barely feeling the uncomfortable scratch of his suddenly too dry throat.

“Can we pillow fight?” he asked absurdly, saying the first words that came to mind.  Although the Reaper’s faceless expression was impossible to ascertain, Martin Luther was sure he felt an air of surprise emanate from the ancient entity.  Nevertheless, the Reaper inclined his head solemnly in acquiescence and produced two pillows from thin air, offering one to Martin Luther.  The pair began their game, solidly sparring with their fluffy weapons, while February, oblivious to her brother’s actions, phoned 911.

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“Martin Luther,” the Reaper intoned ponderously in the midst of giving his opponent a solid thrashing around the head, “Life is a highway.  One comes of it, love it.  You’re not of this world for long.  Live this life until this life won’t let you live here anymore.”  Martin Luther blinked once, the forgotten pillow dragging limply from his hand.

“I understand,” he answered at last.

“Good,” the Reaper answered, straightening his tall form.  His figure began to dissolve, taking the pillows along with him.  “I will see you again,” Martin Luther heard before the Reaper vanished altogether, leaving no trace of his presence save a single white feather that had escaped from one of the pillows.  Martin Luther leaned over, thoughtfully plucking the rogue feather from the floor.

He knew what he had to do.

3.4 Let Me Love You

In hindsight, February supposed she really shouldn’t feel surprised at being faced once again with a surprise positive pregnancy test…yet there she was, in much the same state of disbelief she’d found herself nearly twelve years ago after having unexpectedly conceived March.  True, she and Hector hadn’t really been what you’d call “careful” in the more recent past, mostly because February honestly hadn’t expected that she could get pregnant again at her age…which was foolish, she now realized; after all, hadn’t her own mother been well into her adulthood when Martin Luther was born?  Figuring there was no time like the present to break the news, February rather reluctantly  made her way to Hector’s house.

To February’s surprise, Hector was overjoyed at the prospect of having another baby. He seemed to experience none of the shock or angst February felt regarding the idea of starting all over again with an infant, especially at their ages, or the stress of trying to maintain a career, a home, and meaningful relationships with loved ones. His unbridled enthusiasm gave February an idea: why not just have Hector move into the Callender home?  That way, he could help with the baby, get to know March better…and it wouldn’t hurt her to have him near by more often, either.  Sharing responsibilities would provide them both with more time to focus on their other needs…and, of course, their relationship would still be considered casual. Hector enthusiastically agreed, on the condition that his older brother, Bert, come along as well.  February wasn’t keen on cohabiting with Bert, who she suspected might be involved in nefarious activities, but, as he was an elder, neither she nor Hector could in good conscience leave the old man to his own devices.  So, within a few hours, the Cusack-Little house merged with the Callenders.

For all of her moodiness, March seemed to take the sudden household increase in stride. February had been so worried over how her tempestuous young daughter would react to living both with her dad and a cantankerous elderly uncle she barely knew that February had put off telling March she would be a big sister. She knew she would need to let March know soon; being pregnant at a later stage of her adulthood was a far cry from being pregnant when she was younger. Her bones protested doubly hard at having to accommodate an extra person, and she discovered her bump wasted little time in making her condition obvious this go round. Even so, she found herself nonplussed when March approached her one morning.

“Mom,” March began, “I’ve been doing some research, and I think you must be pregnant, not just getting fat.”

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“Oh?” February found herself torn between amusement and horror at her daughter’s assessment. “And what makes you think that?”

“Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? You’ve got all the classic symptoms…swollen ankles, weird cravings, bad gas.” February flushed at this apt, if embarrassing, description as March listed her points. “But the thing that REALLY gave it away was letting Dad move in. You’ve been avoiding making any kind of commitment with him for years now; it would hafta be something REALLY major to make you reconsider even a little bit.”

With no idea how to respond to her perceptive young daughter’s ingenuity, February deftly changed the subject.

****

While lying together in bed that evening, February retold the story to Hector, who chuckled and laid a hand fondly over February’s swollen belly.

“I hope this one has half as much personality,” he said, rubbing his hand gently along the rounded crest that housed his newest child.

February smiled wanly, thinking about how full their hands already were with all the personality March had. “I hope it has your red hair,” she finally offered. They lay contently for some moments before February broke the companionable silence.

“I’ve been thinking,” she began tentatively, “Aren’t you at all worried about Bert?”

“Nah,” Hector replied through a yawn. “Bert has a….questionable…demeanor, I’ll admit. But he would never harm a child. You’ve seen how March adores him…and besides, he’s always out with Latoya, anyway,” he added, referring to Bert’s long-time girlfriend.

“I hope you’re right,” February murmured into the darkness before drifting off into a troubled sleep.

~An Infectious Legacy~

I’m very pleased (and somewhat nervous) to unveil my newest project…

An Infectious Legacy will follow the Simselves of my husband and I as they found an alphebacy named after diseases, conditions, and ailments.  Although I love my Callenders, they’ve become much more of a story than I had originally intended, and their blog is way behind my gameplay.  In order to catch up — and continue to feed my Sims addiction — the Simptoms were conceived.  They will (hopefully) be a lighthearted, just-for-fun family that won’t be so plot-heavy and wordy.

We hope to see you soon!  🙂