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?

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.

20140530-112116-40876203.jpg

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.

20140521-161241-58361251.jpg

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.

20140519-133422-48862520.jpg

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.

20140530-121018-43818208.jpg

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.

20140313-094504.jpg

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.

20140313-112444.jpg

“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.

3.3 Live While We’re Young

Encouraged by Hector’s apparent change of heart — and in spite of any reservations concerning Martin Luther’s message– February continued to see, and share her bed, with Hector while juggling her toddler and her career.  In the meantime, Hector himself never offered any clarification as to his relationship — or lack thereof — with Kurt.

Time passed.  Both Martin Luther and February remained in something of a state of stasis; only March seemed to grow at all.

Martin Luther continued to climb the stylist ladder and see Tam from time to time, but he was beginning to feel like the relationship he’d had with his high school sweetheart had staled.  Although they had been together for years, Martin Luther felt as though he barely knew his own boyfriend.  Their relationship seemed more physical than anything else, and Martin Luther was starting to wonder if he wanted something more.  February, on the other hand, remained completely enamored — and entirely unwilling to commit — to Hector.  Eventually, it became clear that Hector had begun seeing a gentleman named Jamal, but he continued to visit the Callender household regularly.  His relationship with February remained steamy, although he had a harder time bonding with March.  In what seemed like mere days, March grew from a giggly little baby that loved nothing more than finger painting into a moody, occasionally even petulant, little girl.  If Hector had taken his time trying to get to know his daughter as an infant and toddler, he appeared to flat out avoid March as a child altogether, a fact that didn’t go entirely unnoticed by February.

“You know, Hector,” February began one day as the pair strolled idly about downtown one evening.  “You really ought to spend more time with March.  I know she knows you’re her father, but I think it’s hard on her to see how much all the other dads in her school interact with their kids while you barely seem able to spare her a word every now and then.”  Hector was quiet for so long that February was afraid she’d made him angry.   She was just beginning an apology when finally Hector sighed.

“I know.  You’re so right.  I love her.  I do.  But I just don’t know what to do with her.  She’s so different from the way she was as a baby.  Back then, it was easy to make her laugh…now any little thing seems to set her off.”  February nodded silently, reflecting on the massive meltdown March had had just that morning after February had casually remarked that her pink striped shirt clashed just a bit with her aqua plaid shorts.  “Yeah,” February agreed ruefully, “she has become quite a handful in that way.”

“Well…” Hector began hesitantly, “I think it might help if I spent more time with her…”

“That’s a great idea!” February broke in excitedly, “Maybe you can come over more often, or even have her at your place from time to time!”

“Actually…well, actually I was thinking more along the lines of perhaps having the three of us live together.  You know, like a family.”  February froze, her heart lodged in her throat.  Hector stopped as well, grazing February’s cheek gently with the tips of his fingers.  “My house has always been a bit lonely since Mom died,” he continued softly, “You girls would be more than welcome there with me.”  February felt certain she was having a panic attack; her pulse was racing madly in her throat, and a fine sheet of sweat had coated her brow in spite of the relative coolness of the evening.  She knew that she should be thrilled by Hector’s proposal, but the idea of leaving her house to move in with him terrified her.  Reluctant to reject Hector’s offer outright, February cast her eyes about desperately  for a source of distraction; they landed on Martin Luther’s salon just across the street.

“Hey!” she gasped eagerly, “Look!  There’s the salon…you think my brother’s still at work?”

“Uh…I don’t know…why would it matter…?” Hector stammered, confused by the sudden change in subject.

“Oh! Well, I was thinking, having March was such a…novel…experience that I might want to commemorate it…like with a tattoo!”  February explained, beaming exuberantly.  Actually, the idea of getting a tattoo hadn’t ever crossed February’s mind, but if the acquisition of one would take Hector’s mind off of moving in together, she was more than willing to subject herself to a little ink.

“A tattoo?” Hector repeated dubiously.  “You’ve never mentioned getting a tattoo before…”

“I know,” February said, dragging Hector into the salon.  “But I really want one.”

“Well, it kind of looks like they’re closed now.  Maybe we should come back later,” Hector suggested, surveying the dimly lit, deserted space.  “Why don’t we go back to my place for tonight?  Maybe we can talk about converting an area into an office space so that you can work on your writing — ”

“Oh look!” February interrupted, brandishing an intimidating-looking apparatus, “Here’s the tattoo gun!  Hey!  I have a great idea…why don’t YOU give me a tattoo?”

“Uhm.  What?”  Hector stared in disbelief as February thrust the tool into his hand and settled herself into the tattoo chair.  “February…you’ve got to be joking.  I am certainly not qualified to give anyone a tattoo.”

“Oh, Hector, it’s easy!  Martin Luther showed me how to do it, you just push that pedal there, and try to keep your hand steady.  They’ve even got stencils and stuff ready; I’ve already drawn on what I want…you just follow the lines.”  Hector edged forward uncertainly, incredulous that he was even considering such a foolhardy project.  February, already stripped down to the bathing suit she’d been wearing underneath her street clothes, eyed Hector warily as the first inklings of doubt began to invade her nerves.

Hector raised his eyes to meet her’s.  “February…are you really certain you want to go through with this?”  February gazed unsteadily at the tattoo gun, noting uneasily how the dim light glinted off of the sharp edge of the needle.  Hector was right.  How could she possibly think that allowing an untrained individual to put a permanent mark on her body was a GOOD thing?

On the other hand…she’d already come this far; she would just seem neurotic if she backed out now.  Besides, getting tattooed by the father of her child was sort of romantic, she supposed…

“Of course I’m sure,” February said out loud.  “What’s the worst that could happen?”

“Tetanus.  Permanent scarring.  Possibly an infection that leads to loss of limb,” thought Hector to himself as he studied the simple dolphin design that February had inscribed on her arm.  Nevertheless, he would do it, he knew, no matter how foolish the enterprise proved to be.  February seemed to have that sort of effect on him; she always seemed to break through his stodgy shell and get him to really live life instead of merely existing from day to day.

“Okay then,” Hector gulped, steadying his hand.  “On the count of three….one….two….”  February squeezed her eyes shut and turned her head away.

7 February Has a Funny Looking Face
A few seconds later, she heard the ominous buzzing of the tattoo gun, shortly followed by a sharp prickling, burning sensation in her upper arm.  Gritting her teeth, February clenched her fists in her lap and tried hard not to squirm.

4 Hector Tattoos February

Although uncomfortable, the feel of the needles wasn’t nearly as unbearable as February had feared; however, she couldn’t summon the nerve to actually look at Hector’s work until he was preparing to add color to the completed outline.

“You all right?” Hector asked, his forehead beaded with perspiration.

“Sure,” February responded gamely, inspecting the reddened flesh of her arm.  Though noticeably swollen, the area just below her shoulder now clearly bore the image of a dolphin.  She smiled thinly and turned away again as Hector began filling in the shape.  In what seemed like no time at all, Hector was turning the machine off and carefully wiping away the excess ink and gore that coated February’s skin.

“Okay,” Hector murmured shakily, “That seems to just about do it.  I think we should get you straight home so that Martin Luther can instruct you on how to care for it so as to prevent infection.”

“Okay,” February agreed, admiring her new body art in the shop’s mirror.  To her’s — and Hector’s — relief, Hector had done a very good job; the average observer would never be able to tell that the tattoo was the first work of a complete amateur.  From the doorway, Hector watched February, marvelling at how quickly she balked at the mention of any sort of commitment, yet would accept a permanent mark on her body from him without question.

“Shall we?” he invited, gallantly opening the door.  Linking arms, the couple left the shop and turned towards home.

3.2 Some Nights

The months flew by in a hazy blur of diapers, tantrums, feedings, and more diapers.  Martin Luther, who had planned originally to move out with Tam as soon as possible, changed his mind after seeing how hard of a time his big sister was having being a single mom.

He faithfully maintained his stylist position and happily continued making over the ratty and tatty citizens of Legacy Town.  He had discovered that he had finally found something to occupy his erratic mind; styling and makeovers began to consume his every waking thought.  He didn’t remember feeling this fulfilled since the happy, carefree days of his youth when all he ever thought about was Marie.  Gradually, although he continued to help out around the house and would on occasion hang out with Tam, Martin Luther began withdrawing from nearly everyone in his life not directly related to the Salon.

Meanwhile, February was doing the best she could to keep up with her hectic writing schedule and raise her daughter.  March continued to be a demanding baby that kept February up at all hours of the night; to make matters more complicated, Hector continued to seem utterly disinterested in helping out with his infant daughter.  Although he almost always refused to pay child support, February insisted on trying to reconstruct their friendship, at the very least.  Hector seemed content to humor his former friend and lover, and would nearly always visit her house when invited.  Slowly, the friendship that had been shattered began to rebuild.

Finally, at March’s first birthday party, the deep freeze that had broken both Hector’s and February’s hearts seemed to thaw a bit.  As worn out as she was, February had managed to put together a respectable crowd to herald the first year that February had managed to keep her daughter alive without going insane.  Any member of the gathering could have escorted March to make her birthday wishes, yet Hector insisted on carrying his little girl to her cake himself.

March had grown into a beautiful toddler, with the jet black hair that Hector’s father had sported and February’s deep blue eyes.  Hector stood with February after the festivities of the day had dwindled to a close and surveyed their sleeping daughter as she lay peacefully in her crib.

“We didn’t do so bad,” Hector whispered to February, breaking the comfortable silence that had grown between them.  Smiling, February nodded in agreement.  “Er…that is to say, you haven’t done so bad…you’ve done marvelously, really.”  February froze, unsure how to respond to any kind of praise from Hector.  “I know that I….well…I really haven’t been there for you.  Either of you.  And I wasn’t really fair to you, about the, ah, circumstances surrounding March’s conception…” Hector continued hesitantly, trailing off uncertainly.  When February remained silent, Hector cleared his throat awkwardly before quickly finishing his impromptu apology.  “I just wanted you to know that I really do appreciate everything you’ve done with raising our daughter on your own, and even letting me come and see her, and I’m really sorry for treating you so shabbily before.”  Finally, February turned to him, the sheen of tears that filled her eyes glowing in the little light that shone from the window.  Wordlessly, she leaned close to Hector, cradling his face with her hands, and kissed him.

****

“Whose bed have your boots been under?”

Flushing, February set March’s bowl of oatmeal in front of her and turned to face her brother.

“For your information, I don’t own any boots…but if I did, they would always be under my own bed, thank you very much.”

“Well…on his side of the bed, he’s sleeping like a baby….dreams are dancin’ in his head, lying with his lady,” Martin Luther retorted.  February’s blush deepened and she ducked her head to avoid Martin Luther’s gaze.  “It’s not like that,” she protested weakly.  “We’re…you know, just friends.  Having fun.  He knows that.”

“So it’s all about the nookie?”

“No!” February exclaimed, horrified that she and Martin Luther were even having this conversation.  “No, of course not, we have March, and…I mean, no, we’re not an ‘item,’ but it’s not…all about the nookie.”  In her high chair, March laughed suddenly, as if she understood the context of her mother’s conversation with her uncle.

February cut her eyes to her daughter before glowering back at Martin Luther.  “Do we really have to talk about this in front of the baby?” she hissed.

“With so little experience, her mind not yet cognizant,” Martin Luther answered, shrugging at his sister.  “Anyway, they split.”  Ice formed around February’s heart at Martin Luther’s last pronouncement.  Trying to disguise her sudden apprehension with aggravation, she turned back to March, wiping the oatmeal smeared around the toddler’s mouth and growled, “Who split?  What are you talking about now?  Why do you even talk like that, Martin?  You didn’t when we were kids.”

Martin Luther, his face paled slightly, paused a long moment before finally responding to February’s question.  “My Marie…I hide myself.  She let go of my hand.  From darkness, dreams are deserted…I remember her whispering yet.  I was with her too long….for she ain’t the same.  Of this, I can’t say very much,” he murmured almost to himself in a dazed voice.  Realizing February was staring at him, wide-eyed, he broke out of his stupor and cleared his throat.  “Anyway, rumor has it he ain’t got his love anymore,” he concluded, his usual demeanor seemingly restored.  Before February could question him further, he snagged an apple from the fruit bowl and left for the studio, munching the fruit and humming tunelessly as he walked.

What did he mean?” February thought to herself, momentarily forgetting March, who had finished her breakfast and was beginning to kick her heels restlessly against the confines of her high chair.  “Is he talking about Hector and Kurt?  Did they split up?  If they did, was it…because of ME?  Do I want it to be…?”  Since the evening of March’s birthday party, February and Hector’s relationship had practically been restored overnight; the twosome had started spending most of their days — as well as their nights — with each other. However, while February loved being with Hector, and certainly enjoyed the things they did in bed together, she couldn’t say for certain that she wanted a real relationship with him.  February turned her mind to the more disturbing image of her brother, slack-faced and pale, as he’d uttered those strange words…what was it?  Something about Marie?  Was he talking about that old doll?  Before February could follow her train of thought to any clear conclusion, March, her patience with being trapped in her high chair finally dissolved, released an ear-splitting howl.  “Oh, Marchie baby, I’m so sorry,” February gasped, hurrying to release her screaming child.

And anyway, I’m sure that Hector feels exactly the same way that I do,” February told herself as March crawled off to play with her toy xylophone.

****

3.1 Call Me Maybe

In what seemed like no time at all, unbearable cramps woke February from a deep sleep.  “Oh no,” thought February, “The baby’s coming!”  She felt so unprepared; after the disastrous way things had ended with Cameron — not to mention the horrific events the last time she’d seen Hector — she had thrown herself into her writing, loosely basing the torrid events of her short life in a novel she called Right, But Wrong.  Of course she hadn’t forgotten that she’d soon be a mother…but she was completely unprepared for the reality; she hadn’t even gotten around to buying a crib.  Terrified, February drove herself to the hospital, where she gave birth to a baby girl she named March.

March was not an easy baby, especially for an exhausted, emotionally overwrought single mother.  Between feedings, diaper changes, and generally comforting her newborn daughter, February could barely find time to shower, eat, or use the bathroom, and she never got a full night’s sleep.  Martin Luther helped occasionally…when he remembered that March existed…but was usually busy doing his own thing, especially after Tam finally turned eighteen.

Seeing her little brother with his boyfriend was bittersweet for February; she loved that he was so in love, but she was so lonely.  Although, surprisingly, she rarely found herself thinking of Cameron, she still missed Hector terribly.  She called him every now and again, using March as an excuse to talk to him, and, although he was always courteous with her, he maintained a polite distance.  Gone was the camaraderie they had once shared; furthermore, although he seemed interested in his daughter, he never offered to help care for her.  February told herself she didn’t mind; she even felt that she deserved it after what she had done to both Hector and Cameron…still, she wished that he would at least come see her.  Finally, she summoned the courage to invite him over; to her surprise, Hector agreed.

****


February snuggled her infant daughter close as they waited patiently for Hector to arrive.  Hector had always been punctual, in the past…of course, that was before all of the misunderstandings that had ruined February and Hector’s friendship.  Although Hector had sounded civil enough over the phone, his first visit with March had been scheduled nearly an hour ago, and there was still no sign of him to be found.  Always fussy, March had begun to grow restive and February was just about to give up and go back inside when an errant ray of sunlight caught a familiar thatch of brilliantly red hair, heralding Hector’s arrival.

“Hey, you,” February offered Hector a crooked smile as he crossed into her yard, his hands shoved deep in the pockets of his cargo shorts.  Hector nodded and returned her smile halfheartedly, but his eyes remained focused on the squirming pink blanket she held.

“Is that her?” he asked.  February nearly retorted that no, this was actually a completely different baby that she’d been holding in her yard for three quarters of an hour, but thought better of it.

“Yeah, this is the little screamer.  Isn’t she gorgeous?”  She pushed back a fold of the blanket so that Hector could better see March’s perfect, round face.  “Would you like to hold her?”  Hector, who had leaned forward to look at his baby, rolled abruptly back onto his heels, his hands burrowing even deeper into his pockets as if he expected that February would force the baby onto him.  “Er…no, that’s quite all right.  She looks a little fractious; I’m sure you know how to handle her much better than I.”

“Well, she did get a little…fractious…while we were out waiting on you,” February remarked, trying to keep an edge out of her voice.  “She could probably use a bottle; do you want to come in and feed her?”  Hector actually backed up slightly at February’s offer, though whether his nervousness was due to entering the house or feeding the baby February couldn’t be sure.  “Oh no, no, it’s probably best if I just stay out here…but please, feel free to bring her inside and get her comfortable.  I don’t mind remaining out here.”

“Oh…okay,” February answered agreeably, although she couldn’t help wondering why Hector had come all the way out today if he didn’t even want to hold his own baby.  She suspected that he still felt uncomfortable around her and planned to leave as soon as she brought March inside; to her surprise, she found him waiting still when she came back out, in spite of the fact that she’d taken her time settling March down.  He turned as she approached, gesturing towards the water slide that Martin Luther had recently purchased on a whim.  “I don’t remember seeing that around before,” Hector pronounced a bit awkwardly.

“Uh…no, it’s fairly new….you wanna play on it?” February asked, nonplussed when Hector eagerly agreed.  The pair spent much of the remainder of the evening slipping merrily along on the rubbery toy, careful to keep their conversation light, until February was finally forced to give in to her mounting exhaustion and call it a night.  “I’ll just go get the baby so you can tell her good-bye,” she said, emerging a few minutes later with her refreshed, sweetly cooing daughter.  Though Hector still made no move to actually touch March, he seemed content to spend several minutes drinking in the sight of his now serene baby daughter.

“She’s really beautiful,” he breathed reverently.  “She’s so…pure, like snow or…or lamb’s wool.”

“Yeah,” February agreed affectionately, surreptitiously eying Hector’s still damp, shirtless torso.  “She’s just as pretty as her daddy is handsome.”  Hector, picking up on the flirtatious undertones February had unconsciously injected into her remark, recoiled immediately, frowning disapprovingly.

“I should really be going,” he said gruffly, tugging his shirt back on.  February nodded silently in resignation, keeping her eyes chastely on March until Hector had clothed himself.  He hesitated just a moment before bidding her farewell in a stiff voice and beginning his walk home.  A few moments after he’d left, February went inside to get ready for bed, convinced that, no matter how she felt about Hector, whatever shortlived romance there had been between them was over for good.

2.15 Wide Awake

After the fight with Cameron, February spent the next two months being pregnant and hoping that time and space would allow Cameron’s wounds to heal enough for him to forgive her.  She avoided Hector, in spite of Martin Luther’s not so subtle hints and the gnawing of her own conscience.  February’s confrontation with Cameron had left her dreading Hector’s reaction when he found out he was going to be a father with someone he wasn’t even in a relationship with.  As usual, Martin Luther eventually provided the guidance that gave February enough courage to broach the subject with Hector.

“February, listen, I’ve been doing some thinking, and I can’t fight this feeling anymore,” Martin Luther began one morning at the breakfast table.  February sighed, already exhausted by the prospect of trying to divine Martin Luther’s meaning out of the muddle of words that normally made up his monologues.  Sensing her displeasure, Martin Luther opted to keep his message short.

“Tell him,” he said, glancing meaningfully at her bulging belly before getting up and leaving for the studio.  Crestfallen, February buried her face in her hands for a moment before taking a deep breath and dialing Hector’s number.

****

An hour and a half later, February found herself waddling down to the secluded fishing spot where Hector had asked her to meet him.  Like Cameron, Hector had been delighted to hear from February, although his normally chipper demeanor had been significantly dampened by the recent death of his mother.  “It’d be great to see you,” Hector had remarked wistfully towards the end of the conversation.  “I’m just out fishing, you know, trying to ‘find myself’ or whatever…why don’t you come on up?  It would do my heart good.”

“Ah…that would be nice…I mean, there is something I kind of need to tell you about,” February had responded, absently grazing her burgeoning girth with her fingertips.  Now she took a deep breath, smoothed down her billowy blouse, and prepared herself for the ugly scene she was sure would proceed shortly after greeting Hector.  To February’s surprise, Hector regarded her newly lush figure with frank admiration.

“Wow, February, it’s been longer than I’d realized…you look…amazing,” Hector gushed, a silent question forming in his eyes as he gazed appreciatively at his friend.

“Yeah.  I mean, thank you.  I’m pregnant.  With your baby,” February babbled, too unnerved to attempt a more graceful pronouncement.  She squared her shoulders and prepared for the inevitable outburst that would soon break Hector’s stunned silence.  Instead, his eyes lit up as a wide grin slowly began to take over his face.

“Really?” he gasped, clasping his hands together excitedly.  “That’s terrific news!”  February stared at him, dumbfounded.

“You mean…you’re not mad?” she asked, too stunned to feel relieved by Hector’s unexpectedly pleased reaction.

“Mad?  No way, I couldn’t be happier!  I love kids, always wanted some of my own…I only wish that Mom was around to see her grandkid, but, regardless, this baby is going to have everything he, or she, could ever want, aren’t you, sweetie-pie?” enthused Hector as he leaned over to coo adoringly at February’s belly.

Happiness flooded February’s body as she watched the joy that radiated from Hector transform his features.  “Oh, Hector…I’m so glad you feel this way.  I’ve been so worried about how you’d react, after what happened with Cameron and everything; now I think maybe things are gonna be okay.  You don’t have to break off things with Kurt, of course, and Cameron…well, Cam will come around.  He just has to, and what happened between us just won’t ever happen again….what’s the matter, Hector?  Why are you looking at me like that?”  During February’s elated monologue, Hector had straightened and was now staring at her, wearing a look of confused suspicion.

“What do you mean, ‘Cameron will come around’…?” he asked.

“Oh!” February exclaimed, misunderstanding the meaning behind Hector’s sudden change in manner.  “I’m sorry, Hector…I told Cameron about the baby first.  I wanted to tell you, of course, but I thought he should hear it from me instead of someone else, just in case it got out.  Not that I guess it really mattered, in the end…he was still pretty upset,” she sighed pensively.

“…why would he be so upset?” Hector questioned, frowning.

“Well, because we’ve been together so long…” February stammered, then broke off as Hector’s expression shifted ominously.  A cold feeling of dread began to gather in the pit of her stomach.

“Together?”  Hector repeated.  “You and Cameron?  As in, he’s your boyfriend?”

“Yes…of course.  Since high school…I thought you knew,” February responded.  Hector’s face had grown as bright as his hair; he took a step back from February as if he needed more distance to decipher what sort of person she actually was.  “I don’t understand,” February murmured miserably.  “You have a boyfriend…why should it matter if I do, too?”

“It’s different with us,” Hector growled, his eyes stony. “Kurt and I have an understanding. We aren’t to see other men, but are free to have relationships with women, should we choose to do so. I never would have become involved with you, had I known that you were not free.”  February gaped at him, horrified and ashamed. She’d had no idea that Hector had never been cheating on Kurt with her, nor that he’d been unaware of her relationship with Cameron. All this time, she’d merely assumed that they had both been involved in an illicit affair. She felt so guilty.

February was certain that the situation could not possibly get any worse as she and Hector regarded each other in a silence that was becoming increasingly more awkward; she realized she was wrong when she heard a familiar voice behind her say, “Well, well, well…might’ve known you’d be up here with…him.”

“Hello, Cameron,” February muttered, turning to greet her estranged boyfriend.  “Hector and I were just…” she trailed off, unsure of how to finish her sentence.  Hector filled the tense pause.

“February was just explaining her…situation…to me.  I assure you, Cameron, I had no idea that you and she are involved.”

Were involved,” Cameron corrected coldly.  “That’s what I came to say.  You and me, we’re through, February.  I went to your house to tell you in person… figured it was the right thing to do, not that you deserve it.  Your brother told me you’d be here.  I wanted to get it over with…didn’t realize I’d be interrupting…something.”  February cringed, but otherwise took Cameron’s news rather stoically; given all of the more recent events, not much could shock her at that moment.  “Yeah, so…you and your baby daddy are now completely free to…whatever,” Cameron concluded rather lamely.  Hector shook his head furiously.

“Oh, no.  No, of course I’ll be there for my child — assuming it even IS my child — but I want no part of the mother,” he pronounced emphatically, behaving almost as if February wasn’t even standing right in front of him.

“Well…whatever,” Cameron repeated, turning to begin his trek homeward.  February watched despondently as her former sweetheart walked away without even bothering to spare her a backwards glance.  “Well…I suppose that’s that, then,” she thought dismally.  “There’s really nothing left to say, either to Cameron or to Hector.”  Casting Hector one last sad look, February began her own journey towards home to decide what to do next.

2.14 Where Have You Been

February stared down at the test in her hand and waited for the imminent shock and fear she knew she should be feeling to take its hold on her.  It was hard to believe that what ultimately amounted to nothing but a small, cheap bit of plastic could hold the power to alter her life so drastically…yet there she was, sitting on the edge of the bathtub in her family’s tiny bathroom, feeling nothing but wave after wave of numbness.  The four short months since February’d awakened  groggy and confused in her parents’ bed next to Hector seemed like an eternity ago.  She had at first believed herself small again, snuggled deep under the comfort of her parents’ presence after waking from a childhood nightmare, until she’d seen Hector’s shock of red hair and all of the sorrowful memories had come flooding back.

A solitary tear trailed its lonely way down February’s cheek now as she continued to stare blankly at the device confirming what she had been suspecting for some time now.  At first, she hadn’t thought much of it when her cycles had stopped; she’d blamed stress from losing her parents, and, of course, her own act of betrayal without stopping to think that sleeping with Hector maybe had more to do with missing her periods than just causing her some emotional anguish.  Then her weight had started climbing, while certain smells and foods made her stomach turn.  Suspicions had begun weighing on her mind at that point, but she ignored them in the hopes that the problem wouldn’t exist so long as she failed to acknowledge it.  However, Martin Luther, who was spending more and more time out of the house now that he’d secured a job as a stylist at the local salon, took one look at his sister after not seeing her for about a week and remarked, “You’re having his baby…what a wonderful way to show how much you love him?”

“Oh, shut up,” February snapped, glowering moodily at her brother.  Martin Luther raised his eyebrows but refrained from making any additional comments.  Later that evening, February had found the pregnancy test sitting unobtrusively on her bed and had finally condescended to face the consequences of her actions.

“Well,” she sighed, tucking the used kit in the trashcan and wiping her face.  “I guess it’s time to talk to Cameron.”

****

Cameron was just heading out of the Wan household where he’d been hanging out all evening when his cell phone rang.  The sight of February’s name on his screen set his pulse racing, just as it had been since the day she’d been assigned his lab partner in high school so many years ago.  He hadn’t heard much from her in the past few months since her dad had died, so he was naturally elated that she was actually calling him for a change.

“Hey beautiful, what’s up?  It’s good to hear your voice,” Cameron enthused, then sobered as he registered February’s somber tone.   “You need to talk?  Nothing too bad, I hope,” he joked, hoping to lighten the mood; unfortunately, his forced joviality did nothing to improve February’s spirits.  If anything, she actually sounded even sadder when she asked if it was all right for her to come by his house.  “Oh, hey, don’t worry about coming all the way out there; I’m just over at the Wan’s house; it’d be much easier to meet me here, or I can come to you — no?  Ok…if you’re sure…I can’t wait to see you.”  Cameron hung up, concern creasing his features.  The last time he’d heard February sound quite so serious had been the time she’d met him at the stadium to break things off with him.  He had instantly known that day what her intentions had been, and, although he’d never been sure why she hadn’t gone through with it, he’d always been grateful that she had seemed to change her mind.  He’d also been relieved when she stopped hanging around that Hector guy so much; there had been a time when he’d really begun to think that something might be going on between them.  Trying to calm his nerves, Cameron settled down on the steps of the Wan’s front porch to anxiously wait for his girlfriend to arrive.

It wasn’t long before February rounded the corner and began to make her way down the street.  Excitement burst through Cameron at the sight of her in spite of the likelihood that she bore bad news; he jumped to his feet to greet her, then paused uncertainly.  He had actually seen February even less than he’d spoken to her since the death of her dad; he had been aware that February was avoiding him, but believed at the time that she had merely wished to grieve in private.  Now, cold dread poured like ice water down his heart as he regarded the figure of his girlfriend.  There was something subtly different about her, a foreign fullness that he may not have noticed had he seen her on a more regular basis.  He stood still and watched her slow approach until she stopped a few feet from him and regarded him solemnly.

“Hello, Cameron.”

“‘Lo, February.”  February hesitated a moment, struck by their sudden formality.  “I have something to tell you,” she finally murmured.

“You do.”  Meant as a question, Cameron’s utterance came out as a flat statement instead.  February flushed, then took a deep breath and began.

“Cameron, I…we’ve been together a long time, and you know that I love you…”  February paused, possibly waiting for Cameron to say something to encourage her; when he remained silent, she forced herself to continue.

“I…know this is going to be hard to take but…Cameron, I’m pregnant,” February finally managed to blurt out.

For a long moment, Cameron simply stared at February.  He wanted to feel surprise, shock, even anger, but all he seemed to feel as he looked into the tear-filled eyes of the girl he’d loved since they were teenagers was numbness.

“It’s Hector’s, isn’t it?” he asked quietly.  February nodded and then began spilling out  an explanation as to why it had all happened.  Cameron watched her silently, listening to the river of words she was pouring at his feet like an offering of wine, but not really hearing anything she was saying.  A spark of anger finally began to grow, fed by the sheer volume of sounds February was relentlessly expelling.

“Stop.  Just…stop talking.  Everything that’s coming out of your mouth is garbage,” he fumed.  Shocked, February tasted rich, coppery blood coat her bitten tongue as she abruptly snapped her mouth closed.

“How could you do this to me, to us?” Cameron continued.  “I love you….I changed everything for you.  I tried to give you space, and this is what you do?  You go behind my back and get yourself knocked up like…like some kind of back alley tramp??”  February cringed, but Cameron was too consumed with hurt and anger to notice, or care if he had.  “I know you, I know you better than everyone else, even that little red-headed freak you hang around with…I know why you did this.  I know it’s all about your parents, but dammit, February, why didn’t you come to ME for once?”

“I…I…I’m so sorry, Cameron, so sorry, please…you’re right, I should have come to you when my dad…just please —,” February stammered through the rain of tears that flooded her face and clogged her throat.  Cameron’s anger boiled over at the mere sight of her.

“Shut up!  Shut up!” he screamed, completely losing control of his temper.  “Just get away from me!  I don’t even want to look at you anymore!”

Terrified, February broke down.  “No, no, please Cameron, I love you so much, I do, please, I just want things to be ok, please…”  Cameron glared at her as she dissolved in tears in front of him, his face impassive.

“Go home, February.  Just…go,” he advised stonily before turning away from her and walking back into the Wan home, leaving February no choice but to return to her own house, exhausted and broken.

2.13 Brokenhearted

click click clack click clack clack…

February had been sitting in front of the computer for well over an hour, simply staring blankly at the screen, before the right words  to express the idea she’d been brewing finally began to leak into her brain.  Writing had always seemed like the obvious choice for her as a career…long hours of quiet solitude, setting her own hours, and working exclusively with her own ideas…so she was surprised when composing her first novel turned out to be a struggle for her.

“Dad could have warned me,” February had thought grumpily when she had first taken her place at the desk in the wee hours of the morning.  “But then, THAT might have required actual communication of some sort.”  A stab of guilt pierced February’s heart at what she perceived as an uncharitable thought towards her father…true, Connor had always been known for being pretty taciturn, but he had lost his wife only months ago.  With a sigh, February laboriously began the process of putting her thoughts onto paper.  Martin Luther got up to find his sister furiously typing away, her thoughts having finally begun to find their flow, and had unobtrusively settled himself at the kitchen table with his breakfast when Connor unexpectedly stepped out of his room.

“Kids,” he began awkwardly, training his gaze at his shoes rather than at his children, “I’m going to be going out in a bit to visit with your Uncle Jared.”  February spun in her seat and gaped openly at her father, all of her carefully constructed plot lines forgotten instantly.  Martin Luther, on the other hand, merely nodded approvingly.  “Good vibrations,” he mumbled through a mouthful of cereal.  “We are family.”  Connor nodded hesitantly at his son before shuffling back into his room and quietly closing the door.  Utterly perplexed, February swung her baffled gaze from her parents’ bedroom door to Martin Luther.  “What,” she demanded “was that all about?”  For once, however, Martin Luther seemed to have nothing to say; he merely smiled enigmatically at his sister and slurped noisily at his Frosted Llamas.   “Whatever,” February muttered, rolling her eyes and resettling herself in front of the computer.   She had only just regained her lost train of thought when the jarring notes of Martin Luther’s ringtone cut through her senses, sending everything she had just come up with dancing away just out of her reach once again.

“Martin Luther!” February shrieked, slamming her hand on the keyboard in frustration, “Seriously??”  Martin Luther grinned a bit evilly at his sister before pressing the “receive” button and holding the phone to his ear.  He didn’t say “hello;” he never did unless he was sure of the caller’s identity.  “Could be a stranger,” he would explain.  February couldn’t believe he still hadn’t gotten past the whole “stranger danger” thing…honestly, he was so weird.  She crossed her eyes and stuck her tongue out, trying hard to distract her brother, but, aside from the tips of his ears flushing crimson, Martin Luther failed to take February’s bait.  Shrugging dismissively, February was just beginning to turn her attention once more to her slowly developing novel when Martin Luther’s face suddenly changed.  Before February’s concerned eyes, the somewhat vague smile that normally adorned her brother’s face slipped from his lips and his shoulders fell into a dismal slump.  “What is it?” February hissed, “What is going on?”  In response, Martin Luther wordlessly held his cell phone out to his sister.  With trepidation, February accepted the device and held it to her ear, expecting to hear Tam on the other end explaining that he no longer wanted to be Martin Luther’s boyfriend.  Instead, the distinct tones of Pauline Wan came shrieking through the earpiece.

“You hear me, Martin Luther??  Your uncle, he is dead in my house!  You come get him RIGHT NOW!”

“Oh, my Plumbob…” February murmured.  Quickly, she identified herself to Pauline, who wasted no time in explaining that Uncle Jared had come to visit the Wan home a few hours earlier before succumbing to a heart attack in their living room.  “I don’t want no stinky old dead man in front of my t.v. while I watch my shows!  You come get him right now!” Pauline was quick to add at the end of her shrill tirade.  “Erm…I think you’ll need to call the police about actually, ah, picking him up —” February managed before Pauline interrupted with an outraged squeal.  “Police?!  No way, that good for nothing scumbag Hank Goddard is police.  No way he stepping foot in my house!”  After several more minutes, February finally convinced Pauline to call Jared’s longtime girlfriend, Claire Ursine, while February contacted the police station, on the condition that the “good for nothing Officer Scumbag” not be assigned the case, of course.

“This can not be happening,” February groaned after disconnecting the call.  “Dad’s finally starting to get out of his funk and now we’ve gotta tell him that his brother just died.”

“What…?”  Unnoticed in all of the commotion, Connor had crept out of his room just in time to hear February’s upsetting proclamation.  February exchanged a horrified glance with her brother before turning concerned eyes to the suddenly ashen countenance of her father.  “My brother…?” Connor asked feebly, his trembling hand pressed tightly against his chest.

“He…died this morning, Dad; I’m so sorry….we’ll take care of everything, you won’t have to worry about — Dad?  Daddy?!”  As February spoke, Connor seemed to melt into himself until he was lying in a limp heap on the ground.  Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion, yet far too fast for February to react at all.  Instead, Martin Luther made his way across the kitchen and knelt by his fallen father’s side, carefully cradling Connor’s slackened hand with more gentleness than February had been aware her brother was capable of.  After several tense moments, February tentatively called Martin Luther’s name; Martin Luther met her eyes and slowly shook his head.  “Another one bites the dust,” he intoned solemnly.

****

Well, people, this is it.  This is the moment right here that changed everything…although I guess you could say that it all really started after my mom died.  You know, I never could quite recall my exact actions right after Martin Luther’s little pronouncement…I don’t know why I automatically went to Hector instead of Cameron, unless it was ’cause Hector was with me when Mom passed and so maybe I thought he could help me get through Dad’s death, too….I dunno.  I guess it doesn’t really make any sense.  I really didn’t mean for the rest of it to happen; I barely even remember the rest of it happening…I remember showing up at Hector’s house right after he got home from work….I remember crying a lot, thinking that he looked really great in his work suit, feeling guilty about thinking that, and crying some more.  He convinced me to let him take me to the Bistro ’cause I was starving, and I felt guilty about that, too, because that would leave Martin Luther to take care of Dad all alone…but Hector reminded me that I had had to take care of Mom all alone, so it was only fair.  And then….well, and then I asked him to spend the night with me.  Well, not with me, but you know, at my house…I didn’t even want to go back, honestly, but I didn’t know where else to go…yeah, I know, this is the part where I probably should have called Cameron…I should have.  I know.  But I didn’t.

When we got to my place, it was all still and cold, and I honestly didn’t think Martin Luther was even home.  I told Hector he could take Martin Luther’s bed, and then I got into the shower.  When I got out, there was a light on in my parents’ room…I figured it must’ve been left on by mistake, but when I went in to turn it off, there was Hector, sleeping in my parents’ bed.  See, Martin Luther was in his own room, but I didn’t know that, and Hector got confused and just went into my parents’ room instead.  He didn’t know any better, but I totally freaked out.  I woke him up, crying like some kind of psycho, and he tried to calm me down…and…I don’t know, one minute I’m crying, and the next minute he’s kissing me, and, and….well.  I guess you probably can figure out the rest for yourselves.

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.