None of his fantasies about Eliza had ever included a luxurious, languorous, protracted awakening in which she was curled attractively against him, they both had magically minty-fresh mouths, and she whispered shyly (but with great detail) just how he'd rocked her world the night before. Good thing, because the reality was nothing like that.
"Henry," Eliza groaned, drooling on his chest, "if you don't turn off that alarm right now, I will do something bad to you." At least that's what he thought she said, because she hadn't lifted her head to speak, so he mostly got his sternum tickled by her lips.
He twisted and slapped at his alarm clock, finally connecting on the third try. "Sorry," he said, trying not to breathe morning breath all over her. "I usually work out first thing." Plus the gym was emptier on Saturday mornings, so he could actually get some time in with the free weights as well.
"Mmm," she said, lifting her head and smiling wickedly at him. "Good idea."
Before he could suggest that they roll out of bed, take turns brushing at his sink only three feet away - he had extra orientation packets with toothbrushes stacked in his closet - and hop back into bed, she'd clapped her hands on his face and kissed him. The sour taste of her stopped mattering as soon as he'd registered it, because her mouth was hot and wet and she was on top of him, next to naked, and he was in pretty much the same condition. The skin of her back was so soft under his shirt, and she smiled against his mouth when he peeled her panties down.
"Condom?" she asked, and he thunked his head against the pillow as everything came crashing down. He hadn't carried a condom in his wallet for ages, not since Olivia, two summers ago, who'd slipped her number into his hand along with a tip when he'd delivered food to her fourth-floor walk-up.
"No," he admitted before remembering those welcome boxes had not just toothbrushes and toothpaste but also condoms and dental dams and all sorts of other stuff that could be handy in situations like this. "Wait!" he said, bounding up and dumping the contents of the box at the top of the stack on the floor. The condom he held triumphantly up was an unfortunate shade of blue, but he'd take it.
Eliza was eagerly waving him in like an air-traffic controller - he still had no idea what he'd done that got her thinking he was worthy of her seduction - but they both froze when they heard a knock at his door. "Ignore it?" she whispered.
"That's Charmonique's knock," he whispered back, not sure why he was whispering since he already knew he'd be opening the door.
The eyebrow Charmonique gave him when she saw that he was naked except for a pair of silky soccer shorts was mortifying, but she mercifully said nothing except, "Here," as she thrust a bottle of coconut water at him.
He accepted it wordlessly and tried to hustle her inside so he could close the door behind her, not needing any of his impressionable freshmen seeing him in makeshift underwear. His plan was foiled by the way she stopped dead upon seeing Eliza, sitting up and pulling her underwear back on. Henry suddenly remembered he still had the royal-blue condom in his hand and dropped it like it had grown hot.
It landed near his stained-stiff jeans and underwear, Eliza's shoes and dress and armor-thing - corset his scattered brain suddenly supplied - and all three of them looked at the mess on the floor and started to laugh.
Eliza stood and stepped off the bed, kissing his shoulder and stealing the coconut water as she went. So she was a thief as well as an orgasm donor.
The door finally closed behind her with a click, and he found himself able to think. "Two seconds," he said to Charmonique, who was giving the bed as wide a berth as she could, sitting instead in his extra chair. He brushed his teeth, washed his face, and pulled on his pajamas. "Okay, I'm all yours. Are you going to tell me what's wrong?"
But Charmonique was wearing her stubborn face, the one she got whenever exam week was on, like nothing and nobody was going to stop her from doing as she damn well pleased. "What makes you think something's wrong?"
"You always try to hydrate me when we need to talk through a problem," he pointed out. "And we haven't really worked on anything for class in about a week." Charmonique wasn't cracking. "Come on, please tell me. I've been worried."
She looked right at him for a long moment. "If you got . . . sick, would you stay in school or take a break and come back when you were healthy again, even if you had to do it without your scholarship?"
His heart felt like it had dropped into the bottom of his stomach, as dense as a cannonball. "You're sick?" She looked fine, glowing even, nothing like his dad, who'd seemed to grow more brittle every day for that last long year. She shook her head, but he wasn't about to be reassured by a gesture. "What is it?"
"Henry. I'm not sick."
It was someone else, then, because she was the type to look out for everybody. It couldn't be her parents - one or both of them would have been shipped back if they couldn't serve. "Is it your grandmother?" Who else did she have? Her terrible brothers, Mitchell – it was Mitchell, it had to be. How bad was it?
He didn't realize he'd started to pace until she caught him by the hand, stopping him in his tracks. "I'm pregnant."
"What?" That was the last thing he'd expected her to say, and the whiplash of hearing what was potentially very good news when he'd braced himself for the worst made him dizzy. He sat on the rough, thin carpet, not entirely sure if his brain or his legs had made the decision.
His mouth kept opening and closing as he tried to formulate the question delicately. "Have you decided -"
His hand was still in hers, so he squeezed. "When do you have to decide by?" She couldn't still have a decision to make if she was more than three or four months along, right?
She swallowed, hard, that stubborn mask slipping to show him scared eyes. "Next week."
His imagination had deplorable limits, apparently. He'd never dreamt, after spending so much of his time in neuron-dulling fantasies about her, that actually having Eliza in his room demanding to be touched would spur him to greater heights of academic achievement. But it was true - he felt sharper than ever, more able to connect disparate pieces of research into a coherent thesis, even more likely to take a stand in the lively debates in his Victorian Poets seminar. It was like his brain wanted as much stimulation as his body was getting.
And his body was getting plenty - enough that he had to put his foot down and say no to the drug Eliza was peddling, no matter how much he wanted to say yes.
"Come onnnnn," Eliza wheedled. "I can wash your hair," she said, smiling, so it was clear she'd picked up on just how much he liked it when she tugged at his hair, "among other things." She walked her fingers up his chest and slid her hand around his neck, drawing his face close. "There might even be a 'look, Ma, no hands' situation, if you know what I mean," she said, her breath warm on his lips.
Of course he knew what she meant; clarity was always her strong suit. "We can't," he said again, retreating to the authority of undeniable fact. "Pickering Hall has single-sex bathrooms, so I cannot enter the women's bathroom and you cannot be smuggled into the men's bathroom." If, in the back of his mind, he was worried about getting carried away and foregoing a condom for sex with her as water rained down on them, he wasn't going to mention it to her; Charmonique's secret was still her own.
"Ugh, why is the fact that you're such a good boy such a fucking turn-on?" Eliza groaned, throwing herself back on his bed dramatically. It was only fair that he should get on top of her, if she was going to take up the entire bed. As usual, she started pinching the soft skin at his elbow, and at some point he was going to have to sit her down, ask if she was even aware of the habit, and wait for an explanation. "Wait, isn't there an RA bathroom? We could totally play Harry Potter and the Mermaid in the Prefects' bathroom."
Henry pulled back from kissing her chin, surprised. "You read those too?" They weren't exactly obscure titles, but he'd assumed she'd been out having a wild-child life while he'd been poring over all the books in the nerd library. Or maybe she'd seen the movies.
"Hello, Weasley pride! You write a series about magical redheads, of course I'm gonna read it," she said. "You and me, baby, we'd rule Ravenclaw."
"The Weasleys were Gryff-" he managed before she interrupted him in the best way possible.
Charmonique's room was usually neat – more likely to have papers and books scattered around than clothes or trinkets – but it looked like a hurricane had swept through recently. Henry started gathering up all the loose sheets of graph paper covered in her neat, swift handwriting and stacking them so that he had a place to sit. She was in her old purple robe, fluffy and comforting, the hood drawn up over her twists and her comforter pulled over her knees.
"What do you need?" he asked, holding out the sizable stack of pages to her. His eyes widened when she uncharacteristically shoved them into a folder without tapping the stack to get all the edges straight.
"What've you got?" she said quietly.
He had Macaroni Rosa in the insulated delivery bag he'd dropped by the door, but that wasn't what she needed right now. "Funny you should ask," he said, perching next to her and opening his arms up wide. He rocked her a little when she fell into his arms, her face pressed into the side of his neck. "Did you want to talk?"
"Feels like that's all I've been doing since I peed on a stick," she said.
"What's Mitchell saying?" he asked, trying to reason it out for himself. Mitchell was very religious – though not enough to abstain, obviously – so he probably wasn't super pro-choice, but it didn't look like Charmonique was sporting an engagement ring either.
"Not much," Char said, sitting up and wiping her eyes. "I do this, it's gonna be me and Granmama until my Moms and Pops get back."
"They don't know?" Henry guessed, stricken for her. He'd never dream of telling his mother he'd gotten a girl pregnant, but Char was as close to her parents as he'd been with his dad.
"I haven't been able to get through to them," she said listlessly. "Granmama said a baby's happy news but I could have been smarter about the timing." She opened the folder and looked with unseeing eyes at the top sheet, where he could see two columns. "There's a lot of variables . . ." she said, trailing off like she just didn't have the energy to continue.
"I'm not a variable," he said, enunciating as clearly as he could. "I'm a constant." She was the sister he'd never had, and he hoped that he was the brother she deserved.
Her smile was small and sad, but she reached out and held his hand. He shivered when her cold skin touched his – he was used to her running warm. He was used to her being bright and joyous.
"I mean it. If you're not living with Ms. Mae, you and the baby are living with me once we graduate. And we're graduating together." If he could just impress Saperstein enough to get a permanent offer from KinderKare, they could even live on his salary and find a place near enough to Ms. Mae's that her help wouldn't have to be purely theoretical.
Her lip trembled a little, but he thought he saw a dimple's quick flash in her cheek. "Look who's large and in charge."
"Damn straight," he said, and she laughed outright.
"I'll talk to my professors," she conceded. "I don't want to be so close and not finish."
"You know my notes are yours," he offered, just in case she wasn't thinking clearly enough to realize.
"And Eliza's in the rest of my classes," she said, mulling it over. "Hey," she said, poking him – which might have been worse than cheek- or elbow-pinching but still wasn't as bad as nose-booping – "what's Eliza gonna say about us shacking up together?"
His throat immediately went dry, but Charmonique was all about knocking his excuses down before he could even utter them, so of course she handed him her bottle of iced tea. He swallowed and felt not even a little bit better for it. "Why should it matter to her what we're doing after graduation?"
"Henry," Charmonique said, and she was totally channeling Ms. Mae, which meant he was in big trouble. "That girl is crazy about you, straight-up dizzy, I'm talking doodling little spiky-haired boys in her notebooks kind of head over heels, and you think you're just gonna say 'Congratulations!' at graduation and go your separate ways?" Char was shaking her head wisely – she loved being right just a little too much, but then again, so did he; it was part of why they'd clicked. "Ginger Thang is thirsty for some Henry."
"Ha, maybe I should be a refreshing beverage for Halloween." It might have been weak – okay, it was totally weak – but Charmonique's eyeroll did not have to be quite so profound.
"You really think you're getting out of a couple's costume?" she asked pityingly.
"Watch me." She looked better when she was teasing him rather than worrying about her own future. "Are you feeling any better now?"
After guilting him into fetching the macaroni, Char just smiled at him, cuddling into her robe and resting her hand over her belly. "I really did want to have this baby. I always wanted to be a mom," she said quietly.
"Good," he said, handing over her fork and digging in.
"You're my favorite," she said, joining in.
Thanks to Char's warning, he stood firm against Eliza's big eyes and naughty hands when she did everything in her power to convince him he should be Prince Eric to her Ariel. His Shaun of the Dead costume was cheap, comfortable, and hilarious, so that was that. Plus he would look terrible in flowy pants and a shirt open to the waist.
Thanks to Eliza's sweet mouth and shamelessness, he was actually looking forward to going to the alcohol-free party he and the other RAs were throwing for the freshmen of Pickering Hall and then to whatever after-party she found.
He had his door propped open so his freshmen could find him if they needed him while he was centuries back with Keats. The enjambment of the heroic couplets in "Lamia" was much more irregular than in Keats's stanzaic works, and maybe he could spin that into a commentary on Lamia's hybrid nature, the serpent who lived and loved as a woman.
"Henry," he heard, and looked up to see Eliza standing in his doorway, a garment bag draped over one arm and the other bent behind her. There was no anxiety on her face, but he knew by now that she tugged at the ends of hair behind her back whenever she was nervous.
"Hi!" he said, smiling and closing up his notebook. She grinned back, her hidden hand reappearing, and he tipped his chair back just enough that she had to lean in to kiss him. "Um, the door's open," he pointed out when she swung her leg over to straddle him, her weight getting all four feet of the chair back on solid ground.
"These infants grew up on HBO," she said breathily into his ear, making him squirm. "Is some PG kissing really going to horrify them?"
"That's not the word I'd use," he said, swallowing her reply with another kiss and trying to banish the thought of his freshmen lined up, agog, at his door, watching the slinky curve of her spine as she rocked her hips.
"Oh, the English major speaks," she mocked, pulling gently at his hair to guarantee that his vocabulary deserted him entirely. "C'mon, why aren't you ready yet?"
He clasped his hands around her waist. "It's gonna take me five minutes to get into my costume and the party doesn't start for another two hours." He looked over her shoulder, saw no one, and decided to bury his face against her skin. "Don't tell me you need all that time to get ready," he said into her cleavage.
"Nope," was all she said, but he caught her meaning and slammed the door shut.
Lying on his bed gave him an excellent vantage point for watching Eliza get ready. The fragrant breeze that she made when she flipped her head upside-down to brush out her hair cooled him down a little, but there was a funny sinking feeling in his stomach as her mouth opened in a perfect oval so that she could carefully apply her makeup. Char's assertion that Eliza was crazy about him echoed in his head; he was crazy about her too, and he wanted to say something about their future but couldn't figure out what.
Eliza approximated a mermaid tail with a shimmery blueish skirt cut diagonally at the hem and then strapped on a purple clamshell bra that made him sit straight up in his bed in wonder. "That is –" he started, only to be interrupted.
"An A+ costume, I know, right? You totes need to step up your game."
"I'm bringing it," he assured her loftily, digging in his closet for the white button-down shirt that'd been covered in soot and smoke from an altercation with the coal-fire pizza oven. He pulled it out triumphantly and tossed it on the desk along with a red Sharpie and his black pants. Eliza lifted an eyebrow and draped herself over his unmade bed, the red of her hair bright against the navy-blue pillowcase. It really did take him only a few minutes to slip on the pants and shirt, knot the tie around his forehead, and stain the pocket of his shirt with the marker tip. "Done."
There was no recognition in her eyes when he turned to present himself, but she looked him appreciatively up and down and he still had no idea what she found so appealing about him. "I think I'm a little offended," she said. "You're so worried about your RA-ees catching a glimpse of us making out a little, but you haven't thought at all about Sebastian's tender feelings. How do you think he feels about our non-stop bonefest? About the free subscription to Skinemax?"
Henry mutely pointed to the little plant's shining leaves. "Sebastian appears to be thriving in an atmosphere of sunlight, limited water, and plenty of intimacy." And it took him seeing her in her Ariel costume to realize why exactly she'd named her plant Sebastian.
"Sebastian's a little perv," Eliza said, smiling and tugging him closer by the hand. "That's my boy."
He let himself be pulled down into her arms, into her undemanding kisses. "Come on," he finally said, rolling so he could rest his weight on his side and one elbow and tracing her hairline with a careful, marveling finger. "I need to get things set up."
"You go ahead," she said, pushing the ends of his tie-headband away from her cheek. "I need to get my shoes anyway, so I'll meet you down there."
He'd realized what felt like ages ago that he couldn't choose between the sustained happiness he felt when she stayed glued to his side all day and the uprush of joy he felt when he saw her again after having been separated – it was a tie – and in any case he really did need to make sure Billy and the rest of the brain trust hadn't messed anything up. He tied his shoes, grabbed the banners and decorations he'd made, jammed his keys into his pants pocket, stole one last kiss from Eliza perched on the edge of his bed, and jogged out to the elevator.
The rec room was empty, but at least it was clean. He was trying to figure out if he'd hung the biggest banner properly when Charmonique walked in. "Hey," he called, "is this thing straight?"
"Sort of," she responded. "Real answer: you're the only one who cares."
That was no doubt absolutely true, so he nodded and stepped back; it was close enough. "What's wrong?" he asked, uneasily aware that it seemed to be all he was asking her lately.
"Nothing's wrong. Just some things finally got settled." Her voice was flat but not in a bad way, exactly. Henry just waited for a clearer explanation. "This baby is gonna be a Whitaker, not a McMoney."
"Oh, Mitchell called?"
"Yeah, he finally remembered how to dial my number, and then it was only to say that Halloween was a pagan holiday that went against the church, and that he hoped I would not be participating in any celebrations of it."
"Really? That's it?" What the fuck was wrong with Mitchell?
"Yuuuup. So that's it, we're done, and he doesn't have to call me ever again."
"What if he comes to his senses, though?" he asked, just in case, because Mitchell had at least been cool enough to fall for Char in the first place.
"He better do it on his hands and knees," Char said, adjusting her little panda ears and walking toward the table at the front. "When did you even have time to draw all of these?" she asked, flipping through the stack of decorations he'd made between deliveries. "And why can you draw cats but not pumpkins?" she asked, not quite successfully choking back a laugh.
"Shut up," he requested politely, which just made her laugh openly in his face, but at least she helped him blu-tack all of his spooky kitties and deformed vegetation to the walls and even sang "The Monster Mash" as she worked.
Thanksgiving was approaching at a rapid clip, but Henry was managing not to get sucked into an anxiety spiral. He had to work crazy hours because his mother wasn't going to pay any delivery boy the holiday hourly rate, but he had his thesis research done and a solid grip on what he needed to know for finals, so at least he wasn't about to fail out of school. The internship was for the whole academic year, which meant he had some time before he needed to ask Saperstein if he could transition to a permanent role; he had no idea how to do that, but there was time.
He was being run off his feet making deliveries, but at least he didn't have classes and exams to worry about for the week, just work and the internship. He wondered whether it would be Eliza or Charmonique who would mock him more for considering a sixty-hour work week a bit of a break. Honestly, though, it could just as easily be Saperstein, who swung by at least once a week and always looked vaguely disappointed to see him working quietly every time; Saperstein seemed to want a much more exciting employee in that spot. Henry had no idea how to spice himself up, and anyway he might have been reading his boss wrong, given that the resolutely unspicy Joan was the most senior employee at the company.
He could figure it out later, when he wasn't hauling giant pans of lasagna from one end of the city to the other.
"Why are you taking a Women's Studies seminar?" Eliza asked, jostling his shoulder with hers as they all sat on the floor of Charmonique's room, the better to gain access to the tray of Spicy Chicken Rigatoni his mom had sent home with him. "I mean, what are you gonna learn that the two fiercest ladies you know can't teach you?" she went on, high-fiving Char, who was nestled deep into the zebra-striped pillow with arms Ms. Mae had sent back with her after Thanksgiving.
"It's a requirement for the major," he said, stealing his tentative schedule for next semester back from her and tucking it under his butt for safekeeping. He tried to spear a second pasta tube with his fork, only to be blocked by the two of them, eating like a swarm of locusts. Stealthily, he reached into the insulated bag to draw out two smaller trays, one of meatballs and the other of garlic mashed potatoes, and opened them up, but their aromas drew unwanted attention.
"You're so handy to have around," Char said, smiling at him as she deployed her fork to stab a particularly juicy-looking meatball. "Tell your mom we said thanks."
"OMG, it's got to be wrong to get O-face from two people in the same family," Eliza chimed in as she finished off the rigatoni with a dramatic moan.
Yeah, that rated a full-body shudder. "Please never again mention my mother in connection with orgasms," he requested, at which they both laughed.
"Hey, are we good with our schedules?" Char asked Eliza, tapping her knee to draw her attention away from the meatballs, so he used the diversion to stuff one in his mouth and get a second one primed on his fork.
"We're totes ab-fab," Eliza said. "And at least we don't have to take seminars on ourselves." She paused and cocked her head. "Wait, how long has it been raining?"
"It started right after I got in," he told her. Her heels were absolutely not the all-weather type, but he was too tired to get excited about the idea of her clinging to him like a vine as he made his way across campus.
"I love this sound," she said, and he stopped chewing long enough to hear what made her so happy. "Gentle rain against windows."
"Then you're just like John Updike," he informed her. "He said if he could be any animal, he’d be a turtle so he could enjoy the sound of rain tapping on his shell."
Char and Eliza exchanged a look. "This boy has no game," Charmonique finally said, sounding apologetic.
"Yeah, but he's got an ass that won't quit, so, you know, I'm good," Eliza said.
"Don't objectify me," he protested, holding a straight face for as long as he could.
"I have to go back home over Christmas break," Eliza grumbled. "So here." She thrust a small, brightly wrapped package into his midsection and walked into his room to sulk on the bed.
"Wait, I didn't know you wanted to exchange gifts," he said. He'd had no free time and very little disposable income, considering the internship was unpaid and his mom compensated him with food. "I don't have anything for you," he said, holding the package out toward her.
She raised her hands, refusing to take it back. "This is for both of us, really, so just take it, please." She flopped back, her hair spreading out like a jellyfish's tentacles. "Plus, you feed me all the time, so whatevs."
The box held a gleaming smartphone that he was almost afraid to touch in case he dropped it or accidentally programmed it to set off a bomb somewhere. "How is this in any way for you?"
"I told you, I have to go see my stupid mom and stupid sister and maybe my stupid dad over Christmas, so I'm gonna need a steady stream of sexts from you to get me through it. Also, nudes."
"Nude what?" he asked, confused.
"Nude pics of you. Look, I got you started," she said, sitting up. She took the box, turned the phone on, and showed him a picture of herself, bare to the waist, one arm coyly shielding her nipples from the camera.
"I am never doing anything remotely like that."
"Come on, just enough to make Bethany jealous!" she wheedled.
"First of all, absolutely not. Second, please tell me Bethany is your sister, not your mother."
"Boo, you non-whore. And yes, Saint Bethany is my older sister who is apparently perfect in every way."
"She can't be. She's not you," he said, because every once in a while he didn't stumble over the words he wanted to say, and she turned a wondering face to him before launching off the bed and kissing him so enthusiastically that he slammed into the opposite wall and saw stars.
Pickering was so quiet without his freshmen keeping up a constant buzz of activity and drama that he was not only able to catch up on his sleep - his mom's griping about how tired he looked seemed to die down pretty quickly - but also write a very rough draft of his honors thesis. He'd volunteered to stay over Christmas break because one RA had to and he hadn't wanted to cope with another Christmas at home without his dad, but he had not anticipated how surreally post-apocalyptic a nearly empty dorm could seem. The janitors, busy deep-cleaning the carpets and generally sprucing up the building to cope with the students for the spring semester, kept him from feeling like the last man on earth.
Eliza's texts also helped with that, since they all came with sexy selfies attached and made his phone beep at all hours. Each time one popped up he took a break from writing or sleeping just to marvel that he had a supermodel for a girlfriend and send back x's and o's. The one selfie he sent back was of himself in his uniform and a Santa hat, waiting for the food for his next delivery, and the string of emojis he got in response was long enough that he had to scroll multiple times to get to the end.
His mom nearly caught him with his new phone that time, and before she could pounce he started gathering the napkins, plates, and crushed red pepper most customers forgot to request but needed anyway. When he turned around, she was still there, looking up at him.
She touched the fuzzy white puff at the end of the hat and said, "I found your stocking this morning. Do you want to hang it up at school or shall I keep it in your room?"
"You can keep it," he said, determined not to think of the tiny apartment where he'd spent the summer, a far cry from the house they'd had before his dad got sick, where there'd actually been enough room for a tree. "I'm not really celebrating this year. But I got you something. It's in my locker." At his request, Ms. Mae had knitted a scarf, hat, and gloves in his mother's favorite forest green. "I'll get it before my shift ends."
She nodded and pointed at the pocket where he'd stashed the phone. "Tell your friend I said hello."
"You know you're gonna have to introduce Eliza to your mom sooner or later, right?" Charmonique asked.
He knew better than to talk with his mouth full, so he just shook his head while continuing to plow through Ms. Mae's home fries. "Henry," Char said warningly when he tried to make a start on his second Belgian waffle, piled high with fruit and whipped cream.
"That would be so awkward," he said, aware he was grumbling like a small child. "My mom expects me to find a nice Korean girl just like her, and Eliza's so weird about her family that I bet she's dreading meeting mine. Did you even know she has a sister?"
"Yes, and that her family founded Eynsford College, where she had an automatic free ride, and she left it behind to pay her own way here for senior year. Which shows she really wanted this."
"Exactly! She's not a family kind of girl."
"The two of you," Charmonique said, sounding tremendously put-upon. Her hands moved agitatedly in the air above her sizeable baby bump. "Did you think that maybe she'd like to be part of your family, since she's not happy with her own?"
"You're my family," he said, but he knew what she meant. "My mom -" he started without any idea how to finish that sentence. How could he complain when Char would have given anything for her parents to be close by and permanently out of danger?
"I know you miss him," she said, keeping her eyes kindly fixed on the hot cider she was pouring. "But your mom's still here."
Sam Saperstein ran very odd meetings. Henry was still trying to get used to the improvisational-comedy feel of KinderKare meetings – there had been one in which each pair of employees had had to come up with a dance routine based on a KinderKare product, which had given him severe anxiety shivers – when Saperstein opened the first meeting of the new year. "Knock knock," he said, beaming at all of the employees and interns.
"Who's there?" a few people chorused, the loudest being Eliza and Freddy.
"Adore," Saperstein said, caressing the word in a way that was a little unsettling.
"A door is between us. Open up!" Saperstein was grinning from ear to ear. "Shapow! Just like that, I've made you think in a whole new way about words you use every day, and, incidentally, given you a terrific opening for the upcoming Valentine's season." He held his hands up modestly, like he didn't think he deserved the rapturous applause led by Larry. "Let's remember how useful a tool humor can be, how powerful a sense of play is." Joan kept her stern face on even as she threw a handful of sparkly confetti in the air. "There it is!" Saperstein said, fist-pumping. "I want new ideas! New, fun ways of handling the same old business! I want enthusiasm! Shipoopi!"
Henry had always had a soft spot for puns – his dad had learned a million of them back when he was first studying English and had passed them on – and he wasn't entirely sure but he thought Saperstein's latest wild hair might just have given him a great idea. The minute the meeting drew to a close, he jumped up. "Gotta go," he said, kissing Eliza goodbye without even thinking about it – Saperstein, mortifyingly, gave him the finger-guns for that and Freddy, weirdly, looked impressed - and getting on the nearest downtown bus.
The pharmacy next door to the post office and two down from the bank was a giant three-floor structure that had an entire aisle for vitamins. Every bottle of children's vitamins looked basically the same – a dark plastic cylinder that had bright stickers advertising either "delicious new flavors" or some branding tie-in with various cartoon characters. He pushed the feeling of giddiness down and forced himself to look again, more slowly this time. No, there was nothing that looked like what he had in mind. He exhaled slowly and made his way to the next aisle, which had cough and cold remedies. There, on one shelf, was a decimated army of koala bears – the bottles he'd designed for cough syrup. Those bottles were eye-catching and to have so few of them left must mean that they'd been selling. So maybe he was on the right track with his new idea, and it would be enough to turn this internship into not just a real job but a long-term career.
"Sooooo," Eliza said, dragging out the word as she and Charmonique muscled past him to claim their seats on his bed. "What was up with the vamoosing this morning? You power-walked out of there like a soccer mom at the Galleria."
Char snorted. "Good call. Baby boy has what he likes to call a brisk gait and the rest of us would call a flat-out run."
He was too excited to give them a real stink-eye, so he contented himself with a quick glare and pulled his sketchpad off his desk. "I was thinking about what Saperstein said this morning, about a sense of play, and realized that we could be the first children's vitamin to use animal shapes." Both of them looked politely interested at best. "Come on, I want to pitch this to Saperstein before I lose my nerve, so help me out."
"Like the koala bottles?" Char asked, hands clasped over her belly, and he nodded.
Eliza said, "Wait, aren't there already vitamin animals?"
"Not like this. If there are animals – and I didn't see any – they're all branded cartoon characters. The licensing fees must be exorbitant. But what we'd be doing is more realistic animals, and we could make them fun and educational, like doing a beasts of the Sahara series with free downloads of Saharan maps and stuff."
"Look how excited you are!" Eliza said, wide-eyed.
"It's endearing, right?" Charmonique said. "This is how he gets you, every time. Show us what you got, Henry."
"I was thinking each bottle would have four animal variations. So I need four animals to pitch to Saperstein. He, uh, said once that he liked storks. So that's one." He held up the sketch of the stork, then flipped the page to the next drawing. "I pretended I was an elephant a lot when I was a kid – so that's two."
The girls were smirking at each other. "Uh, what exactly did that involve?" Eliza asked.
"I read a lot and memorized jokes to tell my dad, because elephants never forget," he said quickly. Charmonique's raised eyebrows dragged the rest of the truth from him. "And because the kids at school called me Dumbo because of my ears, and I wanted to show them that elephants were majestic, not dumb."
"So presh," Eliza said, running her foot up his shin.
"Nuh-uh," Char said, swatting Eliza's foot away. "Not in front of company."
"So now I just need an animal for each of you." He was absolutely not going to suggest a giraffe for Eliza, no matter how many times he and Char had referred to her as one back in the day.
"I could be a turtle, like you said, because of the sound of rain," Eliza said. "Plus, your childhood bullies suck, bae."
"I'm feeling like a tiger," Charmonique said thoughtfully. "Or maybe an otter. How are you at drawing otters? I already know you can do felines."
"Oh! Or you could do a whole set of aquatic animals," Char said. "Whales, jellyfish, dolphins, octopuses. And then amphibious animals too."
"Yes, good!" he said, jotting all of her ideas down. "And I was also thinking, maybe we could do a series of mythological creatures. A unicorn, a medusa, a gryphon, and a siren?" He resolutely did not blush when he mentioned the last one, but Eliza pounced anyway.
"If by siren you mean mermaid, and if by mermaid you mean me, then yes. Clamshell bra gets them every time."
"Y'all are obsessed with each other's elbows," Charmonique observed from her seat, fanning herself; she was running even hotter than usual in this last trimester, which he'd read was pretty normal. "Do I even want to know what is up with you?"
Eliza, still madly pinching his elbows, just shook her head and stayed uncharacteristically mute, but he said, "I'm not touching her elbows. I'm . . . pulling on her hair." Halfway through, he'd realized he wasn't making a great case for his normalcy, but he'd already committed to responding; anyway, he'd infected Eliza with his nervousness by telling her what was at stake and since she couldn't tug on her own hair and pinch his elbows, he was just helping her out like a good boyfriend should.
"Cut it out before Joan sees you twitching every which way."
"Yes, good, will do," he said and tried to focus on his breathing instead. Joan popped up before he could establish a good rhythm, and then he was in Saperstein's office and Joan was directing him toward one of the chairs in front of the glossy desk.
Saperstein swiveled around in his big chair to bestow a smile on him. It was not at all reassuring, and Henry could hear his own voice, half an octave higher than it usually was, explaining the idea. At least he was speaking at an acceptable pace, crediting Char and Eliza properly, and laying out his illustrations at the appropriate moments. Through it all, Saperstein's smile never wavered, which was unsettling, to say the least. It vanished completely once Henry finished, and Saperstein steepled his fingers and announced, "I'm mulling."
Henry sat quietly, watching and waiting. He hadn't told Char just why he wanted this job so badly – why this pitch was so crucial – in case he bombed it, but she was definitely smart enough to be planning on how to provide for herself; he was trying not to take the fact that she hadn't kept him in the loop on her plans as a sign that she'd be heading out on her own once they graduated.
"Strike the griffin," Saperstein said, "and make it a sphinx instead. A rascally dame is always a strong seller."
"Oh!" he said. He hadn't expected such granular feedback. "The idea's okay, then?"
"Okay? Son, I told you the day I met you that you were going to be a gold mine for this company, and here you are, proving me right. There's an offer letter coming your way."
"It wasn't just me, sir. Charmonique and Eliza both contributed significantly –"
"Henry," Saperstein said, studying him as thoroughly as he had the sketches, "what kind of a boss would I be if I broke up such a dream team?"
"Not the kind of boss you in fact are, sir," he said, relief coursing so strongly through him that he felt like he might be levitating, just a little.
He slammed back down to earth when Joan – had she been there the whole time? - piped up behind him, "Amen to that. Ms. Whitaker's letter went out a few months ago, and you and Ms. Dooley will receive yours within the week."
Char finally spilled everything she'd been sitting on; her job had officially started in March even though she'd only get her degree in May, same as him, and her packet had included KinderKare's maternity-leave policy. She hadn't said anything because she knew he hadn't yet heard whether he'd be getting the job. Now that he had his offer letter in hand, they could look for places to live and get all of their baby-prep done right after finals. Char laughed at him when he said "nesting," and of course pinched his cheek. "Eliza and I are gonna get a lot of the shopping done over spring break while you're mothering all of your freshmen."
He had to stay at school throughout spring break in case any of his freshmen, blitzed out of their minds, got up to anything unusually dangerous or illegal. He'd prepared for all sorts of scenarios that could be triggered by freshman stupidity, but was pretty sure the ones who were staying on campus instead of heading for more exotic locales would be fairly tame and he'd have plenty of time to study for finals.
Of course he was proved wrong.
He hadn't prepared for Charmonique's water breaking when he was tied up elsewhere, counseling a couple of freshmen high off their asses against climbing up and then skateboarding down the dome of the observatory. Or, not so much counseling as literally sitting on top of them so that they wouldn't get up. He didn't register that his phone was beeping until one of them said very seriously, "Your ass is beeping, dude. You should probably get that checked out."
"I bet he's a cyborg," the other one said, equally thoughtful.
"Shut up," he said, squirming around to wrest his phone free while keeping his perch. Text after text was coming in, all from Eliza, all with at least five exclamation points. Shit. He couldn't leave Thing One and Thing Two to their own devices, but neither was he about to miss being there for his best friend. First things first – he called Ms. Mae and managed to communicate where Char was and in what condition while the two doofuses debated whether he might have a bomb in his ass. He hung up with her and got Billy on the line; by the time he convinced Billy that he needed to get there pronto, both the boys had fallen asleep underneath him. He got up as gracefully as he could and stretched; idiots were the opposite of ergonomic.
He started running for his car the minute Billy came into view.
After convincing the hospital staff that he wasn't the father of Char's baby and therefore needed neither scrubs nor - holy shit - scissors, he was free to sit in the world's ugliest waiting room. At least until Eliza walked in, dropped all the vending-machine goodies she'd bought, and flew over to sit on his lap. "Henry," she whispered, her arms tight around him.
"Yeah," he said. He didn't even have a specific fear – Char was healthy, and all of her checkups had indicated that the baby would be too – but his guts still felt twisted up with anxiety.
"I love you, you know that, right?" Eliza was saying when he finally tuned back in to the world outside his head.
He still didn't know why, but that was the moment he decided it didn't matter. Whatever the reason, she loved him, and that was that. "I love you, too," he said, murmuring the words into her shoulder.
"Duh," she said, but she had tears in her eyes, so he let her get away with it.
The baby – a boy, judging by the blue knit cap sitting askew on his little head – was squirming in Ms. Mae's arms and Charmonique was half-asleep but smiling, watching him kick. She was an entirely different person now, Henry realized; she was the central fact of someone's life. "Hey," he said, bending down to kiss her sweaty cheek, "this guy give you any trouble?"
"Nah," she said, smiling drowsily up at him. "Kevin wouldn't do that to his Moms."
"Henry," Ms. Mae said, "come hold this child so I can see to my granddaughter."
"Oh, I've never – I –" he sputtered, giving up when she raised her eyebrows just the same way Char did. A soft, squirmy bundle was placed in his arms, this tiny fragile creature with skin that glowed just like Charmonique's. "Hi, Kevin," he said softly. "I'm glad to meet you." Kevin yawned, his pink mouth tiny even at its widest, and Henry caught Char's eye. "He seems unimpressed with me."
She grinned back at him, but it was Ms. Mae who said, "Too bad he'll be carrying your name around all his life, then."
He looked, startled, at her and then back to Charmonique, who said, "It's Kevin Henry." He was trying to formulate a response when one of Kevin's fists smacked his nose and Char held her hands out for her son.
He gave the valedictory speech at graduation but the butterflies in his stomach were for after the ceremony was over. "Mom," he said, "this is Eliza." He held his breath, waiting for her response. She'd warmed up to Charmonique only after she understood that Char had no romantic designs on him, and that wasn't the case with Eliza.
"Henry," Eliza said, "let me handle this." She turned to his mother. "Graduation selfie, come on!" she said, throwing one long arm around his mother's shoulders and extending the other in front of her to take the picture. Henry watched disbelievingly as his mother wrapped her arm around Eliza's waist and smiled brightly for the camera. They both pulled him in for the next shot, and he laughed as the flash went off.
As always, I'd love to hear what you think.
This same entry also appears on Dreamwidth, at http://innie-darling.dreamwidth.org/461058.html.