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.

image

“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?

2.12 Somebody that I Used to Know

The hot sun beat down on Martin Luther’s head, exacerbating the heat already generated by the stiff mortar board he wore.  He stood patiently by the rose trellis his mother had planted soon after their house had been built while February cooed and fawned over him, snapping picture after picture of him in his cumbersome graduation gown.

In the months following January’s death, the remaining members of the Callender family had each tried in their own way to knit themselves back together, with varying degrees of success.  In spite of her resolution, February had not managed to break things off with Cameron after all.  Cameron seemed so different to her now, though still the same handsome guy she’d danced the night away with at Prom. As they’d talked and caught up the day after January’s unexpected passing, February came to discover that, although she did have feelings for Hector, she still cared for Cameron as well.  Martin Luther, on the other hand, had been forced to cool his romance with Tam down a bit after his eighteenth birthday, as Legacy Town kept strict regulations regarding teen-adult relationships.  Ever rebellious, Tam had initially balked at Martin Luther’s adherence to Legacy Town laws, but when Martin Luther’s resolve remained firm, Tam had reluctantly followed suit as well.

Meanwhile, Connor, never having been one for familial bonding in the first place, seemed to withdraw even deeper within himself after losing January.  Connor had been alone with his wife at the time of her unexpected death, so it had fallen to him to tell both of his children the grim news.  Afterward, he had retreated into a deep, impenetrable silence, leaving February and Martin Luther to deal with all of the details surrounding putting January to rest.  Bewildered by all of the responsibility, February had elected to quietly have January cremated; Connor kept her remains in a small, plain box in their bedroom, which he rarely vacated.  Connor’s total disengagement terrified February, as much for Martin Luther’s sake as for her own.  As kids, Martin Luther had always been the one to seek out his big sister while she had always shunned him; now, guilt-ridden, February attempted to be both mother and father to her younger brother.

In actuality, Martin Luther was truly fine.  While Connor grieved for his wife and February mourned the loss of any opportunity to forge much-needed connections with her mother, Martin Luther had concluded long before January’s actual death that his mother was absent from his life.  While January’s physical disappearance seemed to matter much less to Martin Luther than it did for Connor or February, Martin Luther recognized his sister’s gestures toward him and appreciated her concern.

“It’s kind of nice, to have family,” he thought idly as he landed a gorgeous rainbow trout several weeks after his graduation ceremony.  He’d taken up fishing soon after his eighteenth birthday as a distraction from Tam, whose physical demands had started becoming more…demanding.  Although Tam had gotten much better about the hands-off approach more recently, Martin Luther found that he still enjoyed the peaceful solitude he could find when casting a reel and pulling in various forms of aquatic life.  It was nice to have family, but it was also nice to get away from them occasionally.  February was being almost too nice to him and his dad lately.  It was as if she were trying to cram about eighteen years’ worth of solicitude and family bonding time into a few months.  Martin Luther didn’t quite have the heart to just ignore her, as Connor was wont to do, but neither could he simply wake up one day and pretend they were all one happy family.  Luckily, February had been seeing more of Cameron again, and, between him and Hector, February hadn’t quite managed to smother her father and brother to death — yet, anyway.

“Still, Martin Luther considered as he gently released the trout back into its pond, “at least she’s trying…which is certainly more than I can say for that little traitor Marie.  Maybe I should help her out…she can’t get through to Dad, but maybe Uncle Jared can.”  Martin Luther knew that Connor and his brother had once been close, but, after Connor’s marriage to January, Connor had become something of a recluse and the relationship between the brothers had suffered.  Connor hadn’t spoken to Jared for years, and Martin Luther was sure he’d never actually met his uncle.  Seeing no real reason to begin letting little things like common social formalities stop him now, Martin Luther gamely made his way across town to the small house that Jared lived in.

****

Darkness had nearly fallen by the time Martin Luther returned home.  February and Cameron had apparently just come in from the water slide and were standing at the kitchen table in their bathing suits, flirting and dripping all over the floor.

Martin Luther paid them no mind as he crossed the house to the bedroom his parents had shared.  Cameron had grown up quite a bit since that long-ago day that Martin Luther had accosted him from the safety of his tree house, and Martin Luther was glad to see his sister happy; nevertheless, he remained convinced that Cameron was still a stranger with no possibility of becoming a permanent fixture in the Callender home.  Gingerly, he knocked on his parents’ bedroom door before opening it to face his father.  Connor sat very still on the edge of the bed he’d shared with January for so many years.  The furniture now seemed too big for his slight frame.  He raised his eyes slowly, barely acknowledging his son’s presence.

“Hey Dad.  I just came in to say that I visited Uncle Jared today.  You know, he’s not heavy.  He’s your brother,” Martin Luther announced.  His abrupt statement earned him a raised eyebrow from Connor but little else.  “So anyway,” Martin Luther continued, unfazed, “He’s hardly a stranger in the night.  But nothing lasts forever, especially candles and rain.  Everyone eventually spreads their broken wings and flies away, but before that, you have to lift your sunken eyes so you can see.  Got it?”  Before Connor had a chance to answer, Martin Luther had closed the door, leaving his father alone with his thoughts and memories once more.

For long moments, Connor remained still, staring at the wall and contemplating Martin Luther’s words.  Regrets…he had so many of them.  His son was a very strange boy, but Connor knew that he had a good heart.  February…she was so much like her father, always content to be alone, always unsure of what her next step should be.  He knew that he had failed them both in many ways, but they, at least, had had the benefit of his physical presence.  He didn’t know their older half-siblings at all.  He had left his first wife, Janis, while their daughter Delilah was still only a toddler.  He’d never bothered to look back.  Harrison, his son with his  ex-girlfriend Diana, had hardly fared better; he used to come around from time to time as a child, but eventually had given up on Connor and moved on with his life.  Why had Connor let them go?  Why had he allowed everyone he loved to slip away?

Suddenly he rose from the bed, an unfamiliar firmness fixing his chin.  “Why am I just sitting here moping about the past?” he thought.  “The past is over and done with…but I’m still here.  My kids are still here.  My brother is still here…but Martin Luther is right.  He won’t be around forever.  None of us will be.  It’s time to start fixing things…it’s time to go visit Jared.  Right now.  Well…” Connor’s gaze fell upon the darkened window pane that divided his room from the night that had long since settled in.  The hour had grown much later than he’d realized.  “First thing tomorrow morning,” he amended, and settled back onto his mattress with a sigh to wait for another long, sleepless night to slowly pass.

2.10 Turn Up the Music

This isn’t real.

This isn’t real.

This isn’t real.

Dimly, February could hear Hector trying to soothe her as she sobbed uncontrollably onto his shoulder.  This isn’t real.  She couldn’t believe what her father had said, couldn’t believe that January, her mom, was really just…gone.  She had faithfully maintained her position as CEO of a major corporation while juggling her gardening and the housework.  Martin Luther was still a teenager in high school, for crying out loud, and February hadn’t had time to make up her mind about who she should settle down with…this wasn’t real.  This couldn’t be real.  January had been so (distant) vibrant and full of life…this wasn’t happening.  This wasn’t real.  She would never see her grandchildren.

****

This isn’t real…

“You can’t be serious,” Tam said incredulously.  For the second time in one day, he had been on the receiving end of surprising phone calls.  What exactly had gotten into the normally predictable residents of Legacy Town?

“Well, no, I can’t be, because I’m Martin Luther,” Tam’s “prom date” answered calmly enough.  “But my mom is dead apparently so I don’t think I should go to Prom.”  For once, Tam was struck speechless.  In all of his wildest dreams of orchestrating Martin Luther’s eventual humiliation at his hands, he had never even considered the possibility that Martin Luther would not actually come to the dance with him.  Not that he supposed it mattered, as that Richards-Calvert goon had quite inconveniently dropped out of Tam’s plans.  Still, Tam was certain he could come up with an adequate plot that he could easily enough fulfill on his own…without implicating himself, of course.  However, he could do absolutely nothing unless Martin Luther agreed to come to the Prom with him.

“Martin, I’m so sorry to hear about your mother,” Tam purred smoothly.  “Please, allow me to take you to the dance tonight anyway…the last thing you need is to be rattling around in that house filled with memories.  I would be perfectly honored to have your company for the evening so that I might take your mind off of your sadness, even if only for a few hours.”  Martin Luther was silent for so long that Tam was sure for a moment that he’d been hung up on; he only let out a long breath he hadn’t been aware of holding once he finally heard the older boy agree — albeit reluctantly — that leaving the house might not be such a bad idea, especially given that she was still around.  “Although if she follows us, there could be trouble,” Martin Luther added just before disconnecting the call.  “She does best where there’s not much light.”

****

February, grief-stricken and confused, found herself torn both with feelings of unendurable sadness and almost irresistible longing. Her mom was gone forever, but Hector was just so…nice. It felt so good being held in his arms, so different from being with Cameron…but Hector had Kurt; how could February cause someone the same sort of pain her mom had caused by getting together with her dad?  Thinking of January brought February full circle; she couldn’t stand the thought of returning to the home where her mom had just died.

“Hector,” she gulped, “Would you mind terribly if I stayed here, just for tonight.  I don’t think I can…”  she trailed off doubtfully, wondering what Hector must think of her for even considering such a request.  But Hector just smiled and wiped her tears gently away with his thumb.

“Sure!” he agreed, “What are friends for?”  His use of the word “friends” put an inexplicable dagger in February’s heart.

****

The gymnasium was loud, dark, and crowded, much like the state of Tam’s mind.  He scanned the crowd sulkily, wondering if his so-called boyfriend, Dwayne Langerak-Bunch, had really had the nerve to show up.  He was still irritated about the little fit Dwayne had pitched when Tam informed him that he’d be taking Martin Luther to the Prom.  Relationship status notwithstanding, Tam could take anyone he pleased anywhere he liked, and if the Langerak twit couldn’t handle it, then he was welcome to take his prehistoric misconceptions of relationships and stuff them.  As if Tam even relished the idea of spending the evening in the company of the town imbecile.  Tam cast a withering look in Martin Luther’s direction and frowned.  Martin Luther had been unusually quiet on the ride to the school and remained rather subdued, almost austere, even in the midst of the standard juvenile frivolity present at all high school social events.  In the dim lighting, his face appeared solemn and vulnerable — somehow, he appeared to be both the little boy he’d been not too long ago and the man he was soon to become.  Watching him sent unfamiliar feelings rocketing through Tam’s gut, piercing his heart and clouding his intentions.  Scowling, he grabbed Martin Luther’s arm.

“Would you like to dance?” Tam asked, attempting to keep his tone light.  Offering a bemused smile, Martin Luther obligingly allowed Tam to escort him onto the dance floor.  The music drifted into a dreamy ballad, prompting the young couples to clutch each other tighter; warily, Tam followed suit, carefully cradling Martin Luther’s body against his own.  “You know,” Martin Luther began, suddenly breaking the stillness that had grown between them, “I know what you really think of me.”

“You do?” Tam replied, honestly caught off guard for once.

“Of course.  I’m not stupid, you know.  I hear things….I mean, outside of my head.  I know you think I’m foolish and ridiculous, and you’re right.  I am.  But it’s only because I’m afraid.”

“Afraid?  Of what?” Tam prompted, curious in spite of himself, as Martin Luther drifted once more into silence.

“Of being alone,” Martin Luther answered softly.  “But…now I know.  We’re all alone.  Surrounded by people, we’re still alone.  We live and we will die alone, and –”  But Tam could bear to hear no more of Martin Luther’s words and, to stifle him, bent his head forward and crushed the boy’s lips to his own in a searing kiss.

****

2.9 Without You

February was spending yet another relaxing, stress-free afternoon with Hector.  Hector had been accepted into an accelerated program and soon graduated far ahead of the rest of his peers, finally giving February the encouragement she needed to pursue more than a casual acquaintance with him.  Despite his youth, Hector had high hopes of reaching out to kids and someday becoming a principal…dreams that differed so much from Cameron, who had barely finished high school and seemed to prefer ensuring that youngsters needed counseling to counseling them himself.  Today, February and Hector had met at the beach and spent most of the day laughing, talking — and flirting.  February felt a little guilty about that last bit, but, as Hector was involved with an individual named Kurt, February had deduced that all of the teasing and hand holding she and Hector participated in was all in harmless fun.  In the midst of giggling through one of Hector’s flowery compliments, February glanced behind Hector’s shoulder and froze in horror — Cameron was seated on a bench several feet away.  In the space of a few panicked seconds, February’s mind blazed through the various possibilities associated with encountering her boyfriend while cavorting about with another man without his knowledge, innocently or not.  February knew that her mother had practically stolen her father not from one, but from two women, and she didn’t want to repeat the sins of her mother; but she couldn’t deny the attraction she felt towards Hector.  She considered breaking things off with Cameron for good, but she didn’t like the idea of feeling like she belonged to Hector, either. Besides — Hector had a boyfriend. Instead, she and Hector made their way to the Bistro for dinner and February put Cameron out of her mind.

Unbeknownst to February, the site of her with another man struck Cameron to the core. He was terribly hurt by her transgressions…but he didn’t blame her; he had always known how uncomfortable she was dating the town bully and thug. He’d never really thought he could lose her because of it, though.  He stayed on the bench overlooking the beach, staring moodily at the spot where he’d watched his girl flirting with that red-headed little freak he used to give swirlies to back in the day.  He clenched his fists in rage and then sighed sadly, slowly releasing his anger — who was he kidding?  He was just some chump guy getting his thrills by picking on kids that couldn’t defend themselves…he’d never deserved a great girl like February, and it wasn’t anyone’s fault but his own that she’d finally started to figure it out.  But…maybe it wasn’t too late; after all, February hadn’t actually dumped him, yet.  Perhaps it was time to give up his nefarious titles and get a decent job, maybe at the stadium…he’d always loved Simball and Simby as a kid, and he’d been pretty decent; maybe he could get on one of the local teams and give February a reason to be proud to be his girlfriend.  However, before he could start focusing on his new career goals, he had to take care of a little business first.  Steeling his resolve, Cameron pulled his cell phone out and dialed Tam’s number.

“Hey Tam, this is Cameron.  Look, man, about the plan for tonight…I’m out.”

“What?!” Tam growled, his outrage palpable even through the phone connection.  “You can’t be ‘out.’  Prom is tonight…there’s no time to find someone else.”

“Well, maybe that’s for the best,” Cameron said reasonably.  “I don’t know what your problem is with Martin Luther…he’s not a bad kid.  Just a little unstable.  And what you’re planning on doing to him..it’s just vile, dude.”

“Technically,” Tam snarled, “I wasn’t planning on doing anything to the little cretin.  I merely masterminded the plan; the doing was all supposed to be your job. ”

“Whatever, dude.  It’s off now.  Find some other way to get your dirty work done,” Cameron replied before disconnecting the call.  He remained on the bench for a long while cradling his cell, half-expecting Tam to call back with a mouthful of vinegar and threats.  Cameron knew that Tam wasn’t a Sim to be toyed with, and crossing him could be dangerous…however, for the first time since early high school, Cameron finally felt good about himself.  He knew he’d made the right decision, and, with luck, February would recognize his good intentions and find her way back to him.  With that in mind, Cameron finally rose from his seat and made his way towards the stadium.

****

Across town, Connor Callendar had just ended an unpleasant call of his own.  His children’s distraught sobs still rang in his ears as he slowly made his way through the empty house.  He knew that neither February or Martin Luther could really believe the words he’d been forced to say to each of them…he could still hardly believe it himself.

January was dead.

2.7 Keep Me in Mind

In spite of the near catastrophe that had befallen, Martin Luther’s birthday went off without a hitch, as soon as his new, uncharred cake arrived.  January and Connor dutifully clapped and cheered their son on before wandering off to pursue their own interests.  February observed her parents sadly, but Martin Luther seemed unaffected by their apparent indifference, choosing instead to race down to the park for a rare moment of human interaction.

****

As the kids grew older, January and Connor had less and less to do with their children.  In spite of any worry either of them might have felt at the total preoccupation Martin Luther had seemed to have with Marie, both parents completely ignored the sudden string of kids he began bringing over once he started high school.  February, on the other hand, noticed her younger brother’s friends; in particular, she noticed a boy with violently red hair and sharp, angular features.  Although most of the other teenagers cruelly referred to Hector Cusack-Little as “Ronald McPlumbob,” the somewhat garish mascot for a popular chain of restaurants that sold cheap llama burgers, February found the boy to be unusually intuitive and sensitive.  She caught herself thinking of him often, but, as he was merely a freshman while she was a freshly minted graduate, she knew it was best to keep their relationship platonic.

February was not the only one preoccupied with somewhat romantic thoughts concerning Martin Luther’s friends.  Although he never played with the weird doll he’d been so obsessed with as a child anymore, Martin Luther seemed completely uninterested in girls. In fact, he didn’t seem interested in anything in particular at all…except maybe for boys.  Girls, he had decided, could not be trusted.  Marie had told him that long ago, and, although he had thought that she had been overly dramatic about the whole thing, he had come to believe that maybe she’d had a point after all.  First, of course, there had been his mother.  He knew that no one thought that he had noticed how little attention she paid to him in all this time, but he did.  He had thought that he could count on her, because she was his mother; instead, all he could rely on her to do was ignore him.  And then there was his sister.  For the longest time, he had really believed that he could trust February to always look out for his best interests, no matter how different the siblings were…but then, first chance she gets, she brings home some stranger that turns around and beats up other kids.  He had known all along that that Cameron guy was trouble, but she had brought him home anyway.  She didn’t care about him, either.  Finally, Marie herself became a traitor.  For years, she had insinuated that the little friendships he tried to build with girls were nothing compared to what he had with her, thus isolating him…and finally abandoning him herself.  Her voice had grown fainter and fainter, until it finally disappeared altogether, leaving nothing but a hollow feeling full of doubt and paranoia…and the belief that, though she now refused to talk to him, Marie still kept close guard on his activities at all times.

So, Martin Luther concluded, if females were dangerous creatures that should be avoided at all costs, that naturally indicated that perhaps boys were a safer option…

2.6 Give Me Everything

The next few days flew by in a blur for February. Although she had plenty of opportunities to schedule another evening at home alone with Cameron, she found she didn’t really have the nerve. Cameron had been the perfect gentleman on that first night; the closest thing to “scandalous” that they had done was creep closer together while stargazing on the lawn. February had been both relieved and disappointed when Cameron left without even trying to kiss her, but, with all of Martin Luther’s antics, and the fact that her parents had never let her in on when to expect them back, February contented herself with just talking on the phone with her beau and chatting with him at school. Cameron didn’t seem to mind; as with everything else, he seemed perfectly happy to just go with the flow when it came to February.

Finally, as the weekend drew to a close, January and Connor came breezing back through the door.  February’s breath caught as she stared at her parents; they seemed so…old.  Had they really been that grey when they’d left?  She had always known that January and Connor had had children relatively late in life, but at that moment, it suddenly struck her that her parents were getting on in years and would not be around forever.  Brow wrinkled, she tried to dismiss her saddening revelation as her parents hugged her and Martin Luther and exclaimed over how fabulously their impromptu vacation had turned out.

****

In what seemed like no time at all,  summer rolled around, heralding the close of the school year and Martin Luther’s thirteenth birthday.   As she meticulously applied her lipstick and arranged her hair, February wondered wryly if getting older would make Martin Luther act more — or less — strange.  Critically, she surveyed herself in the mirror.  Strange was what was staring right back at her, she decided.  There she was, in a newly purchased blue dress, face garnished with make-up and hair curled like a puffy yellow cloud around her face.  She looked, she thought, something like a dandelion suffering from a severe case of hypothermia.

Dandelion or not, February gamely made her way across town for her prom.  Just as she had imagined, the dance was everything she had feared it would be: too many hormonal teenagers packed together in one dark spot, noise, flashing lights…she could hardly wait for it to be over, even after Cameron pulled her close and asked her if she’d go steady with him.  She was so distracted by a rowdy throng of football players drunkenly screaming the Legacy Llama fight cheer that she said “yes” before really thinking it through.  Afterwards, she came home in a daze, her lips tender and bruised from Cameron’s kisses, wondering what on earth she’d gotten herself into.  Her concern only deepened in the following weeks, as strange rumors about what Cameron liked to do in his spare time found their way to her…stories about how he’d pushed this kid around, or managed to threaten that kid out of their allowance.  February wasn’t sure what to believe; Cameron was never anything but polite with her, and he’d always been nice to Martin Luther…but it certainly seemed like more than a coincidence that everyone in town believed him to be a bully.  February thought about this as she mixed up the batter for Martin Luther’s cake.  She could hardly believe that her immature little brother was actually becoming a teenager, even if he HAD finally stopped dragging Marie around…and just what should she do about the situation with Cameron?  Should she break up with him, or should she ignore the rumors, or….?  Suddenly, the sharp acrid scent of smoke stung her nostrils; frowning, she whirled around.

“Oh…oh no,” she whispered, staring in stupefied horror at the sudden inferno the kitchen stove had become.

“February, what is that sme — oh my God, Connor, call the fire department; the kitchen is on fire!” January screamed. throwing her hands helplessly in the air as she encountered her rabidly burning kitchen.  “February, what have you done??”  February could barely hear her mother; instead, she continued to gaze almost rapturously into the flames.

  

“Why, that girl’s about as useful as an empty plate to a starving man,” Connor muttered, wandering away to let the firefighter who had just arrived finish saving what was left of the Callender kitchen.  Overhearing his comment, February snapped out of her reverie and cast a baleful stare at her retreating father’s back.  Useless?  Her??  Why, her father probably didn’t even know she HAD a boyfriend, let alone all of the issues she was currently having with him.  He spent more time with the fictional characters in his books than he did with his own family.  Her mother, she was no better, always so busy and precise when taking on the corporate world, then coming home and wandering around with a glazed look in her eyes every time one of her children so much as peeped at her.  February was so sick of the double standards, and of being ignored.  She would never let her children feel like they were merely living on the periphery of her life.  Moodily, she made her way to the bathroom to sulk alone while her parents ordered a store-bought cake for Martin Luther.

2.3 Moves Like Jagger

It certainly seemed to have started out just like any other day.  February rolled out of bed, grabbed something to eat, got dressed and then boarded the big yellow bus with her little brother to start yet another exciting day of school.  As usual, both she and Martin Luther rushed to finish — or, in some cases, begin — the homework they’d put off the night before in hopes of managing to turn it in on schedule.  There never seemed to be enough hours after school to get it done, though God only knew where that time went.  Martin Luther spent what seemed like an extraordinary amount of time locked away in his room with his weird little doll, and February, well…February just sort of managed to lose all track of time doing whatever random thing caught her fancy at the moment.  At least she talked to other people; Martin Luther constantly seemed immersed in long, drawn out conversations he held solely with himself.  It was a little creepy.

February managed to shake off her deeply disturbed thoughts involving her brother as she entered the wide double doors of the local community school and began negotiating her way through the already crowded hallways towards her locker.  After eleven long years, she knew the place almost better than her own home; still, she had never gotten used to the throngs of kids that ranged in age from five to eighteen constantly mobbing the building.  She had heard that other towns practiced separating children into different schools according to their age group; why Legacy Town liked cramming all of their offspring into one location was beyond her.  However, as she would be graduating next year, that dilemma was hardly her problem anymore.

Having finally made her way to her locker, February was surprised to see the tall figure of her lab partner, Cameron Richards-Calvert, practically camping out nearby.  She knew his own locker was all the way across the building, so why he’d be over by her’s seemed to be a complete mystery, unless it had something to do with the hideous dissection project they would soon be embarking on.  She tried to suppress a shudder as she smiled up into his dark, handsome face and cheerfully greeted him.

“Hey Cam, what’s up?  Looking for a good recipe for frog legs?” she asked mischievously while simultaneously wrestling with her stubborn locker combination.

“What?  Oh, no..uh, actually, you wanna go to prom with me?” Cameron asked quickly.  February, having finally wrested her locker open only to become immediately entangled in a fierce battle of wills with its contents, instantly froze with her chemistry book in one hand and a bagged lunch she strongly suspected was well over a week old in the other to process this seemingly alien statement that had incongruously popped out of her lab partner’s mouth.  Prom?  With Cameron?  She had honestly given no thought to prom, let alone who she’d go with; it actually sounded like kind of a nightmare to her…all those people crowded in a dark, stuffy gymnasium, thrashing around and…wriggling on each other, or whatever it was you were supposed to do.  But…she couldn’t say all of that to Cameron; for one, he’d think she was some kind of freak, and besides…he was cute.  She’d never even suspected he’d thought of her like that.  So, swallowing her fears, she shoved the mini-avalanche of school paraphernalia into her locker and turned to face her nervous would-be suitor.

“Sure, Cam.  I’d love to go!  Thanks for asking me,” she said, smiling encouragingly.  Relief flooded her brand new prom date’s face as he returned February’s enthusiastic grin.  “Really?  Wow, that’s awesome, that’s…okay, we’ll talk later; see you later, Febs!”  Cam babbled, rushing past February.   Unfortunately for him, she had left her locker door wide open, and he crashed into it.  February tried to supress her giggles as Cameron rushed red-faced to his homeroom.

****

 After school, February excitedly burst through her front door, eager to share her surprising news with her family — especially her mom.  February had often felt like everything she accomplished was nothing more than a failed bid to get her mother’s attention, but she had never had anything as interesting as a prom invitation to lure January into a moment of mother-daughter bonding.  However, January met her daughter at the door with some rather surprising news of her own.

“February, dear, your father and I have won a trip away!  Isn’t that amazing?”

“Wow, Mom, that’s really great!” February gushed, momentarily thrown off by her mother’s announcement.  “It must just be a lucky Callender day, ’cause you won’t believe what happened to me today!”  For one brief second, January’s face opened as February’s voice bubbled over with enthusiasm; just as quickly, she seemed to remember herself and turned instead to the suitcases arranged neatly by the door.

“Oh, how wonderful for you, dear.  Well, your father and I must be off; please look after your brother while we’re gone…try and see if you can get him to play outside for a change.  We will be back in a few days.”  Smiling through, rather than at, her daughter, January began gathering her luggage and heading towards the car.

“Oh!  But…uhm.  Sure.  Ok.  Have fun, ” February murmured as Connor passed, absently dropping a kiss on her head as he walked by.  “Sure thing, sweetie.  Behave yourself, and remember…no boys!”  February frowned at her father’s back as his parting comment registered.  No boys…seriously?  As if she even KNEW any boys that she would have over…sudden realization dawned as February remembered that, actually, there was a boy that just might be interested in coming to spend an unspecified amount of unchaperoned time with her.

February smiled.  She had just had a new idea of how to get her parents’ attention.