Sweet Child of Mine
Chapter 1: Married to a Teddy Bear
It was a particularly slow morning for the invincible Point Man. His last job wrapped a month prior in Austria with another a half a year to go before his next gig in Dallas, TX. Due to a rumored sting operation in mind crime that resonated from the upper Manhattan area, he declined several requests for recon work during his down time. He was certain his research, ip address and the like couldn't be hacked much less tracked because of his impeccable ability to cloak his online activity but was wisely being careful of the clients involved in case any of them were working as part of the sting. Without any real duties to speak of it was safe to say Arthur was going slightly stir crazy. He took to organizing his book collection in the study and then rearranging and organizing his file cabinets full of contacts. His clients (former, recent, current), Extractors, fellow Points, Architects, Chemists, Forgers. People on the 'hire' list and people on the 'hit' list. Who to work with, who to avoid. It was another way of keeping his tracks covered when going into prospective jobs. A Point Man's version of spring cleaning. Before he got set to continue work on that task that morning, Arthur made himself a scrambled egg and a cup of coffee and sat down in front of CNN. The newscasters were hounding each other in a heated debate about the debt ceiling. A debate Arthur hardly paid attention to. He was fixing to grab the remote and change the channel to a more relaxing morning show when there was a knock on his apartment door.
You can imagine how strange that was for someone to be calling on the man. He had no friends but Dom and Eames. He hadn't spoken to Eames in a while and Dom always let Arthur know ahead of time if he was going to drop by because he knew Arthur liked time to make his place guest-tidy. Only his family—and by family, we also mean only the closest semi-circle of family members within in his family—knew the location. But since his family had basically shunned him because of his chosen profession, they wouldn't be the ones to visit. No one he worked with, no one from the coffee shop, not even the pizza delivery man, the mail man, knew exactly where Arthur lived. But it wasn't a person visiting someone else in the building who'd mistaken the room number either. The entire floor minus the thin hallway between the elevator and his front door was Arthur's penthouse. Always suspecting the worst, the Point Man gravely shut the tv off, rested his hand on the gun in his waistband and padded quietly to the door. He didn't say a word. Nor look through the peephole. He stood to the side of the door where the hinges were and listened for movement. All he got were small knocks that came from halfway down the door. It was then that he looked out the peephole but couldn't see anyone. With his hand still touching his gun, he swung the door a quarter of the way open, "Hello?"
"Hi?" It was an innocent (looking) little girl with brown hair. The wispies at the nape of her neck and the ones that framed her face were coiling up from the humidity outside. It was a very hot July in New York. She looked tired and thirsty and like maybe she'd been walking or running. She had fair-ish skin but it was flushed from her exertion. Her outfit was quite extravagant: A white tee with quarter-sized cartoon elephants printed all over it in green, blue, yellow and red. It was tucked into a yellow cotton skirt which was adorned with a stretchy bright blue belt clasped together by a flower. The belt matched her bright blue ruffled shin socks but not the white (or once white) converses. Apparently she had a backpack on (the straps over her shoulders provided another unnecessary pop of color) but he couldn't see it. Some bubbly looking, pink and white polka dotted rolling suitcase was propped to her right, handle still raised (and almost as tall as she was) and a generously sized matching duffel (which looked so stuffed, the zippers might burst open any second) sat on her left.
Perplexed, he jumped to the most plausible conclusion. "I'm sorry. I don't need any friendship headbands or girl scout donuts today." Especially if she was carrying donuts in that duffel. Surely they were squished and melted and downright nauseating if even remotely intact. As politely as he could, he went to close the door on her.
Her tiny hand shot out and slapped his door, "Wait! Are you Arthur Nolan?"
"Yes?" It may have been a little girl but the subject of his name got him wary and suspicious. His hand grazed over the weapon concealed in his waistband again as he quickly surveyed the hallway. Was she a distraction? A plot to lure him out so he could be taken down? People were tricky; he wouldn't put it past some sicko from Cobol to manipulate a kid.
The little girl's eyes widened at seeing the handle of the gun. But she swallowed, adjusted her flower belt courageously and continued, "My dad's your brother. Or was…" she added sadly. "Gregory? You remember him?"
Greg. He hadn't spoken to Greg since Arthur decided to come clean to their mother about dreamshare and the family told him to quit or cut all ties. He was barely twenty-one the last time he saw Greg in person. Their dad was a retired general and connected with some higher ups in the military. With the knowledge of Arthur's exceptional skill to find information on anyone and anything, their dad used his position to put a block on the entire family's records, accounts, social media pages. There was nothing too small. If it pertained to their family, it was protected from Arthur. That was the deal. If Arthur wanted to continue on in that illegal manipulation he called work then in exchange for their silence about his dealings, he had to forfeit all of them. It was mostly to keep them safe should anyone hunt for revenge using Arthur's family but also so their father could keep his pristine reputation. Now some years ago, a sliver of information on Greg had slipped through the cracks by a mutual friend of the brothers' (before the friend was told and warned not to open his mouth or associate with Arthur again). The Point Man had learned that Greg married a woman named Sydney—the sister of one of his Coastguard buddies—and together they had a daughter. Nothing else since. That is until news that his brother and wife had died in a freak accident about a year ago. Arthur's father had the decency to purchase a disposable phone and leave a message on Arthur's machine to inform him. The story aligned…
"What's your name, kid?"
"Chloe Marie Talesco." She grinned knowingly. A grin that looked creepily like his and Greg's, "Talesco like your real last name." Chloe looked up at the metal plate by the door with his fake name engraved on it, "Why'd you change it?"
Arthur didn't hear her last question. He was still reeling from the fact that this kid knew let alone shared his true last name. It was a solid piece of proof that she was indeed family, if that was truly her name. If she hadn't found it out and slapped in on the back of her first and middle names to outwit him. The Point Man couldn't necessarily ask for an id because children don't have one. It was as if the girl had read his mind (or his face) and knew he didn't believe her one hundred percent yet. Chloe pulled a slip of paper out of her pocket and held it up for him.
It wasn't a birth certificate but it was a boarding pass. Airlines were very specific about traveling minors, no doubt traveling minors without accompaniment. It must've been authorized. The name on the ticket matched the one she told him exactly. The date matched the date. Her birthday marked her as eight years old. And her departure location was San Diego, CA where his family was located (last he knew, but he was nearly certain they hadn't moved). Arthur gave her an incredulous look. One that she ignored as she squeezed between his doorway and his side, "Can I stay with you for a while?"
"Can you—" Arthur stammered as he twisted around to watch her ladybug backpack swing off her shoulders in the middle of his living room floor. What in the hell was happening? Wide eyes, gaping mouth, "Where'd you come from?"
Chloe pointed at him as she jumped back onto the couch, "It says it on the ticket. Duh. I flew in from California."
Arthur glanced down at the ticket again and laid it on the table in his foyer next to the bowl of keys and change, "Have you been living with mom and da—I mean—grandma and grandpa or—whatever you call them?"
Pursing her lips, the little girl avoided his gaze and ran her hands along the smooth leather of the arm rest, "They sent me here for ballet camp but I want to run away." Arthur sympathized in that moment. His parents, especially his father, could be very distant and cold. His mother tried to be softer but she too was oblivious to the feelings of children. How do people think Arthur became emotionally stinted? Closed off? He was raised that way. That was all he knew. His father was in the military and he and his brother were treated as tiny soldiers their entire childhood. He was sure they hadn't been very comforting in light of Greg's funeral. The senior Mr. and Mrs. Talesco most likely retreated further into themselves in their grief and left little Chloe to deal with the emotional trauma on her own. Still, if his parents knew he'd come in contact with the family (even if he wasn't the initiator) their deal might be considered broken. His father might leak his name and dream criminal reputation to the authorities. "You shouldn't be here. How did you find me?"
"A lot of time, under the blankets, on the internet," shrugged the kid, walking her fingers along his coffee table. "It was easy using your real name. You use a credit card under 'Art N. Talesco' in the city a lot." Holy shit. The tiny intelligence connoisseur… The gene must run strong as an ox in the Talesco line. Greg no doubt taught Chloe a lot of information about computers and children these days are natural with technology, it was only fitting a tiny Talesco would be a groomed hacker and researcher at age…what was she six, seven? Arthur and Greg practically came out of the womb hacking into the pentagon. If it weren't for the unsettling idea that a small child could find the supposedly non-existent Point Man, he would be impressed. He never got around to teaching—never mind. At the forefront of his mind was, "You can't stay here."
"I already canceled my room at the camp." Well that was a rash decision thought Arthur. But all of a sudden her overwhelming, aimless, spunk screeched to a halt. She looked worried, eyes welling up, "Where else will I go?"
No, no, no for heaven sakes don't let the kid cry…Arthur was already having to deal with the fact that he was so rusty that a kid could find him (she's one of the like five people who know your real name, Arthur, it should've been easy for her), he wasn't ready to deal with going soft too. "My place isn't exactly kid proof…" winced the Point Man. Was he a horrible person? She was blood. This was his brother's child. His deceased brother's child. His niece coming to him for—well he didn't know the reason. If it was for solace than she'd be disappointed. He was as bad at comfort and relating to children as his parents were. Even if he used to—never mind.
The little one pouted her lip, "Please. My daddy…" the lip started quivering and she was getting all sad and Arthur didn't particularly want to think about his brother's death and get upset again either— "You're a lot like him. And I just miss him so much…" Pulling out the big guns, wasn't she? Arthur straightened determinedly to keep up the appearance that she wasn't slowly eroding his stance on the matter. "Can't I just get to know you for a little bit? My camp is only seven weeks and then I'll go back if you're tired of me..."
The battle was lost.
You can't cuss for the next seven weeks. You're gonna have an impressionable midget around.
Begrudgingly, Arthur sighed, "You can stay seven weeks." His reward was an earsplitting, high pitched squeal.
It was ultimately guilt from all sides that pushed him to it. He felt like it was a favor to his brother to get Greg's child out of that bleak, tiresome, old home even if his was scarcely better. It was also guilt for choosing dreamshare over his family. Chloe should know her Uncle Arthur and know him well. He should've been at birthday parties and thanksgiving dinners and brought presents at Christmas all those years his brother was alive. Arthur should've been a major part in the young girl's life. James and Philippa weren't even remotely related to him and they grew up seeing Uncle Arthur all the time. Why didn't his real niece know him like they did? She should've. And she should've been growing up, playing and bonding with her younger cousin—and that's where the real onslaught of guilt came from:
Andrew Manning Talesco. But, affectionately, Ender.
Arthur screwed up being a father to his own child. He chose dreamshare over his own son. If he regretted doing that, he might regret turning another kid related to him away. Regret tended not to hit the Point Man until after the fact. This time he decided to be ahead of the game.
Arthur sat stiffly on the couch, remote in hand, fixedly watching an informative documentary on the history channel about JFK conspiracies. It was a rerun but honestly, he learned something new every time. Every once in a while he would hear the little girl exhale heavily out of boredom and glance sideways at her. Chloe had kicked her shoes off at the bottom of the couch and sat sideways with her back against the armrest, her feet sprawled out on the seat and her chin in her hand. Arthur finally decided to grab her feet and move them to the floor, "Please keep your feet off the furniture." Ender was four when Arthur left. All Arthur had to do was stick him in front of some legos and give him a sippy cup. Surprisingly a—seven, eight, ten?— year old was more demanding.
"Uncle Arthur, I'm hungry." She didn't really whine. It was more of a complaint that she'd justifiably been holding back for three hours now. How long was this president show for?
"There's a fridge and a stove two rooms over," he pointed behind the tv system, "Feel free to make yourself something. I think there are spaghetti noodles in the pantry." When she didn't move Arthur looked down expectantly at her. Chloe gave him a dumb look back. Raised eyebrows, a small grimace. She looked at him like he was an alien. "Do you not know how to cook?" he inquired.
Still incredibly perplexed by his very intelligent dumbness, Chloe brought out the point: "Not spaghetti. By myself. I'm eight and a half."
What was it with children and halves? You're one age or another. People need to keep ages simplistic and reasonable. There's no need to clarify halves and quarters and months. Round up or down. Your kid isn't twenty four months, he's two years. Be logical; it takes less time.
Anyway, shouldn't an eight year old be able to do something so simple as boil water, cook pasta, chop onions and garlic and put together a marinara sauce? It wasn't as if he suggested she make filet mignon…but then again that was just cooking meat and then cooking bacon and wrapping it around. Arthur relented. After all, Chloe was a guest no matter how small and young. He turned the tv down, got up and traipsed to his kitchen. A small flick of his wrist behind him was Chloe's cue to follow.
She did so quietly but excitedly. Arthur hadn't given her a tour of the penthouse yet so her eyes roamed all over the walls as they maneuvered around the space. She was in awe of all of it. The sleek lines, the big windows, the way everything was placed in its spot so perfectly, everything almost sparkly from being so clean…It felt like a spy movie and a magazine page and a hospital all in one. Her hands ran along his black granite island, picking futilely at the flecks of silver before pulling herself up onto the barstool as he opened his fridge. "What would you like? An omelet? Fried tilapia?"
"A grilled cheese, please," she smiled.
Arthur paused, "Well that's…awfully plain," he pulled out the butter a package of sliced American cheese, set them on the counter, then went to the pantry for the bread. All he had was artisan, he hoped that was suitable.
Chloe watched him with admiration (he looked like an extraordinarily important person in his suit), her chin in both her hands and her feet swinging. She wondered if her Uncle Arthur was too fancy to have ever made a sandwich…and if that was the reason he looked confused. Like he was trying to guess (or remember) what it was made out of. "Have you never made a grilled cheese?"
"No, I have." Arthur dropped the loaf on the counter and reached under the stove for a frying pan uncomfortably trying to explain, "Just not in a while—my wife—" he mumbled, "My—She loves—loved these."
Chloe's eyes widened to the size of saucers. Her gaze darted to his left hand and sure enough there was a band on his ring finger that she hadn't noticed. "You have a wife?" Then curious, she looked over her shoulder and surveyed the apartment for a woman. She was really good at hiding and being quiet if she was there, thought the girl. Maybe she was in Uncle Arthur's bedroom though, asleep or something.
Arthur drizzled oil in careful circles to avoid the small child's stare, "Yes. Well, not really. We're not together anymore," he said stiffly. He wasn't sure why he was opening up and answering questions from an eight (and a half, sorry) year old about his personal life.
The brunette rephrased for him, "So you don't have one."
"Legally I still do," corrected the Point Man. Buttering the bread in as dignified a manner as he could manage, "We were never properly divorced. She just— Yes. Legally, yes."
Chloe knit her eyebrows and thought on it for a good minute. Staring hard at the pan and the hot bubbles of oil that popped off of it. She pursed her lips and declared, "You're confusing, Uncle Arthur." She seemed patient enough watching him stick a slice of bread in. While he let it toast and dropped the cheese on top. Kids were easy to talk to when they were silent. But then she got cheeky and mischievously smiled up at him, "What was her name? I bet I could guess it."
"Probably not; it's very unique." Her name was on the tip of his tongue…but he couldn't form the vowels and the consonants. He couldn't put them together and force out the syllables. Arthur hadn't said her name since she left him and took their son—about two years ago—the wound was still too fresh to try. It was too much trouble to even think of her name; he always referred to the woman as Her or She or The Wife or Ender's Mother. Even Mrs. Talesco…But never her name. Rather than dwell on Her for the sake of Chloe's interest he suggested, "I think the program is back on. Why don't you go in the living room and learn about Lee Harvey Oswald? I'll bring this to you."
Chloe was clearly disappointed about not receiving an answer but obeyed and skipped off into the living room. She left Arthur alone with his thoughts. The ones that laid idle on the back plains of his mind until the little girl stirred them up like dust devils.
Chloe made a slight detour on her way back to the living room so she could catch a glimpse at more of Uncle Arthur's place. She saw a sleek black bookcase across from her on the wall near Uncle Arthur's doorway and skipped to it. She LOVED to read. There were all kinds of smarty-pants books…with a name like Arthur, he sounded like a genius. After a cursory glance at the direction of the kitchen first, Chloe ran her index along the spines of the books on the shelf at eye level. He had all the volumes of the Encyclopedia and thick textbooks about psychology and dreams. Cool! Weird, but cool! There were some others she couldn't see further up but she could sort of read the titles: Sherlock Holmes and something about Monte Cristo (wasn't that like a type of sandwich?). There wasn't a speck of dust on the entire bookcase either. Her eye caught sight of something shiny on the other side of the room. Some crazy contraption on one of the end tables. It was like five silver balls hanging between two metal things. Just so she wouldn't leave fingerprint smudges she wiped her hand on her shirt then picked one of the balls up and swung into another. The ball on the farthest side swung out but none in the middle moved. And then the first and then the last and then the first and then the last. It was like magic. Whatever that thing was, it was splendid.
As soon as Chloe hatched her plan to find the mysterious extra Talesco family member and actually figured out where he lived—(she found a bunch of info on him hidden away in the family library and went from there), she'd hoped and wished and prayed that maybe one day she'd meet him. She pictured what it'd be like. Where he would live. She'd really anticipated him being more warm, welcoming and sweet. More like Daddy. Like—she'd imagined at least a smile and hug when she told him they were related. The girl guessed that since her debut didn't turn out as she hoped, fate was making it up for it by making the place she was staying for the next seven weeks exceed expectations. Everything was perfectly set, the furniture aligned just right, all the surfaces and windows gleamed. Chloe would scream if she thought it wouldn't annoy the solemn man in the kitchen.
Wisely, the girl held it in and used that energy to quietly yet hurriedly tip-toe down the hall beside the kitchen. The first door on the left was locked. The second was a super neat bathroom that reminded her of like—the airport or the cinema. It was all brushed nickel and automatic. The sink looked like it was floating off the wall. She jumped in front of the toilet, posed, and then jumped away from it to watch the red light blink and see it flush all by itself. Then played handsies with the sink; slowly sticking her hand under the faucet and then trying to pull them away before they got wet. After her fun with that, Chloe studied herself in the mirror. Uh oh…did she look like that when she came in? Uncle Arthur was so polished, refined and perfect…He probably thought she was some sad orphan kid off the street…Chloe hurriedly combed through her hair with her fingers and re-tucked the ends of her shirt into her skirt before brushing off the front of it. (She had granola bar crumbs from the taxi ride over). Better. Chloe got too excited for her own good, "I'm really here!"
Chloe made sure to turn the light off before dancing into the hallway and sliding down it on her socks with her hands up in the air, her index, thumb and pinky raised to the sky. Abruptly, the little girl tripped and stopped in her tracks. Was something burning?
Ender happily went off playing with his train backpack full of new toys. Ender's mother however was less enthused. She left her bouquet of roses in their wrapper on the counter and her new bracelet in its box beside them. Arthur gave her a goofy look, "What's the matter?" He hugged his wife's waist, "Don't you like your present?"
"Where is it?" The woman asked numbly.
Was she talking about a missing personal item? Her favorite jacket? Her purse? "What are you talking about?"
"The job." Arthur's innocent façade fell. "I'm not stupid, Art." He was caught. It was becoming his M.O: Whenever he got an offer from a client, he drowned his wife and son with presents. He took them to dinner or Disneyland. He took Ender to Chuck-E-Cheese. He cooked Mrs. Talesco breakfast in bed and made love to her even more often— like they were going to die. It made him feel better about the months he'd be away. Arthur tried to compensate for the time together they'd lose while he was working. That, and he thought if he made his wife and son increasingly happy, they'd be more forgiving.
"Russia. It's just four months." There he went again. Pitching the idea. Making the importance of the job seem overwhelming but the sacrifices he and his small family would have to make for it simple.
Nothing was simple about dreamshare. That Mrs. Talesco had come to know very well. "Four months?" It was never just the amount of time Arthur stated at first. For at least a month before he physically left, he'd be mentally preoccupied. Arthur would sit in his study or in their bedroom for countless hours doing preliminary research. And then on top of that, after the four months away there was a refractory period. He had to wait at least three weeks to determine whether a job was successful or not and yet another week to check for tails and decide it safe enough to come home. After calculations, this short and frivolous but "urgent" job of his would take him away from them for half a year. And that was if everything went according to plan and schedule.
That woman was too smart for her own good. Arthur winced, "I know, I know…"
Hands on her hips, Arthur's wife shook her head at him. Disappointed. "You're going to miss Ender's birthday again."
"I was here for the last one," was his attempt at justifying it.
The woman got louder, her hands gesturing in the air wildly, "You flew in halfway through his party and were so tired you were in bed by three in the afternoon. And then didn't get out of it again for about a week."
Arthur wasn't proud of it. He harbored some guilt in his mind and heart over it. But he wouldn't be working like this forever. He was on his way out. Couldn't she see that? Besides, his abilities were direly needed right now. There was no one like him. The Point Man pinched the bridge of his nose momentarily then took her elbows and pulled her closer, reasoned with her, "Babe, they need me."
"You know who else needs you?" She asked sarcastically. A smile she didn't mean. "Your family," then she turned her back on him and stormed to their bedroom.
"It's just one more job," Arthur followed and reasoned.
"That's what you said last time." The woman twisted in their doorway and hissed, "And the time before that. And the time before that." Her venom watered down, her eyes softened and she pulled on his tie. Like she could physically keep him there in her and Ender's lives by holding his tie. "You promised you were done."
"I—" He was losing his resolve to the power of her eyes. Arthur just needed her to understand. Needed her to love him despite the distance, "I owe these guys. If I don't comply I'm afraid there'll be reper—"
His wife let go of his tie and took a step back, hardening again. She didn't know why she tried. She knew everything he was going to say. This conversation had been had enough times she could recite it in her sleep, "Repercussions for me and Ender. How thoughtful of you. That may have worked the first three hundred times but I'm sick of hearing it now." Arthur huffed. He watched her angrily unzip and step out of her dress and into their closet. Despite the heat of the argument, he admired her beauty. Was mesmerized by it. The woman spat at him from inside the walk-in amidst the sound of drawers opening and closing and hangers tinkling. "You think I don't miss it too? You think I don't crave Somnacin or that I don't doodle mazes on every scrap of paper I can find?"
If she missed it too…then there was an easy, brilliant solution to this fighting. They could both jump back into it; they could both work together, spend all that time together again. "Do you want to go back to dreaming? I can make it happen. We can leave Ender with Miles or your parents."
"Do you hear yourself?" Appalled, she marched back out of the closet in her silk pajama pants and bra. "We're not both leaving and pushing him off on someone else for four months so we can go selfishly gallivant in dreams." The t-shirt in her hand was yanked over her head and onto her body as a punctuation. A finality in her rejection. "When did I become the responsible one?"
Arthur racked his brain for another plausible answer. How could he make their marriage work? How could he keep his wife from being upset with him all the time? How could he make it up to her? "Then we'll take turns. You go and I'll look after him while you're gone. Will that make you happy?"
"No!" Ender's mother snatched her puddle of a dress off the ground and went to hang it up, "I gave that up for a life with you. I'm a parent. I can't go back to that now, not while he's growing up." Arthur padded to the doorway of their closet and leant against the frame. Dejected about her refusal. Feeling guilty—yet again. Especially when she looked at him incredulously with an undertone of hurt, "You make our son sound like a pet. Do you love him at all?"
Arthur was offended by that. She and Ender were the two most important people on earth to him. He truly loved them with everything he had. The Point Man gaited into the closet with her, defending himself and pulling her into his arms, "Hey. You know I do." He did his best to reassure her by rubbing his nose against her temple, "I love the two of you so much."
"You make me wonder…" The man was moved off and avoided.
Arthur furrowed his eyebrows at her, "Don't act like that."
"How do you expect me to act?" A pair of socks was yanked out of one of the drawers and for the fourth time that night, Arthur's wife paced away from him in anger, "You've been home two months. ONLY two months. And you're fixing to up and leave us again." The woman refused to look at him as she sat on their bed and shoved on her socks one by one. The injury inflicted on her at the thought of him leaving them again was evident in her voice. The pain of THEIR son feeling like hers and hers alone was even harder to bear. "Ender's almost five and he barely knows who you are."
That was nonsense. Ender ran to the door and hugged him when he came in from trips. Ender still asked him for apple juice and to play cars with him. Ender listened to him when Arthur scolded him. Smiled when Arthur complimented a drawing. Ender called Arthur dad for heaven sakes. "He's knows I'm his dad."
The woman deadpanned, "He thinks 'Dad' is part of your name. He calls you 'Arthur Dad.' It's not an endearment, he's confused." Then she emphasized as the bed dipped under his weight next to her, "He is our child, Arthur. Your own flesh and blood. You can't treat him like you do James and Philippa. You can't visit three times a year with presents and expect to have the relationship the two of you should. He sees all these other little boys whose dads pick them up from kindergarten and take them to tee-ball and wonders why his daddy isn't here to do that."
Arthur sighed. It's not that he didn't want to do those things. It's not that he didn't care about Ender…he changed his diapers and all but he had a difficult job. He had to be away a lot. "I know I need to be a better father…" he whispered, "and a better husband. And I will be."
It sounded like the beginning of a promise. The start of something new…like he was finally going to give in and put her and Ender first. But it turns out he was promising to put them first by putting them second. "Once this is all settled, I'll—" It made Arthur's wife dissolve into tears. She leaned forward and put her face in her hands.
And you can imagine that her reaction made Arthur melt into a puddle. He pulled her into a hug, rubbed her arm and kissed the top of her head. Instead of refusing him, she let him hold her. Too weakened by sad realization and her regret over loving him so damn much. He tried to soothe, "…Baby, come on."
"I can't do this anymore," wept the woman.
"You won't have to." Arthur peppered her with kisses of apology. Kisses of compromise. Her cheeks, her neck, "You won't have to anymore, Sweetheart." He kissed her palm, "Just let me do this last extraction."
His wife halfway believed him. She had a glimmer of hope in the words before 'last extraction.' That's what he always said. Every time he said those two words, it was a lie. There was always another one. He was always needed. She was in love with an addict. A workaholic. He couldn't give up the world of dreamshare. Not for her or their child.
Arthur couldn't sacrifice that part of himself.
Arthur's wife, however, now realized that was what she had to do. Sacrifice. She wiped the stray tears off her face, "If you feel obligated to them—those people—then do it. Take the job." She had to sacrifice their relationship. Their marriage for the good of her and Ender's mental and emotional health. If Ender was going to grow up without a father then he was going to grow up without a father. No mixed messages. And if Arthur never wanted to settle down and be a family man, he shouldn't have offered her empty vows, he shouldn't have promised to quit if they had children. If Arthur wanted to be the Point Man, if that's what he chose, then he could have it. "But don't expect Ender and I to be here when you get back."
What was once a relieved smile over her understanding and the end of their argument turned into a look of pure terror on Arthur's face as his wife pushed off from the bed and marched out of their room. "Ari." He called. His tone sounding like he was scolding her. Like she'd just cussed. "Ariadne," (there it was. Her name…) he flew into the hallway and grabbed her elbow, "Let's talk about this rationally—" Arthur thought he could talk her down as he always did. Reason with her. Appeal to their feelings for each other, get her to wait for him once more. Ariadne had begun threatening to leave him the past few jobs but he was always able to cool her off before she flew off the deep end and acted rashly. Nevertheless, it scared the shit out of him every time.
"We've had enough talks about this," Ariadne's head tilted. It was when Arthur saw the way her eyes shined with tears of resolution (a way they never had before when they fought like this), the utter broken determination in her frown, and when she finished, "It's time one of us did something to end it," that he got scared to death that she meant it this time.
"Ariadne, it's just one job." Arthur rasped, "Just wait for me one more time. One."
The Architect didn't respond to his request. Instead, Ariadne padded down the hall towards their son's room, "I need to bathe Ender—"
"Baby, please. Just one job—"
"—and get him to bed before it gets too late," Ariadne closed Ender's door in Arthur's face and locked it to prevent further discussion about it where the toddler could hear.
The man insisted after her, knocking, "Ariadne."
"Ariadne…" Arthur repeated to himself before the smell of something burning grabbed him and yanked him into the real world. He jolted and looked down, "Shit." The piece of bread was charred and crumbling, the cheese oozed over and was turning crispy. Dark grey smoke wafted around in his face as he picked up the whole pan and dumped it in the sink to run cold water on it. He wasn't thinking that the pan was still too hot and that would crack it. When that happened he threw the spatula at it in aggravation. THIS is why he didn't think of her…why he didn't say her name…things like this happened.
Chloe came running into the kitchen with her mouth in a perfect O. "Whoa…" The columns of smoke spewed out of the sink endlessly. The smell of burnt bread made the little brunette scrunch her face and pinch her nose. Arthur power walked around her to open the kitchen windows before the smoke alarms went off but it was too late. They shrilled and screamed and now not only was Chloe hunched on the ground in the middle of the floor holding her nose but trying to cover her ears at the same time too.
"Mr. Nolan," the sky began talking. Chloe looked to the ceiling eagerly. Unfortunately she spotted a speaker and was not about to be introduced to God. It would've been really cool if he and Uncle Arthur were really good friends. Actually, who it was turned out to be: "This is the front desk. We got a reading from your smoke alarm; should we send a fire truck?"
They could get a fire truck all the way up there? She didn't think the elevators looked big enough for that…unless they had whole separate elevators for fire trucks and ambulances and stuff. That'd be neat. Arthur pressed the button and spoke into a matching speaker system on the wall she hadn't noticed before, "No, everything's fine. Just a cooking blunder. Could you shut it off? Thank you, Max."
Thankfully, the alarm silenced though Chloe could hear bells ringing in its place. Once her ear drums settled down from the trauma, the sounds of honking horns, car engines and a million different conversations bled into his penthouse through the windows. The view was pretty too. Skyscrapers: silver, grey, white, tan, reflecting off the sun and each other. She innocently skipped to the window to better study the skyline and the ant-like people bustling around. She loved New York; this was like living in the clouds. She could pretend she was an angel. In the background, her Uncle Arthur was tossing the ruined pan into the garbage and fishing out another piece of bread to start all over. He cleared his throat and put another pan on the stove. For some reason that motion called her attention. Chloe looked at him over her shoulder and teased, "How did you expect an eight and a half year old to cook if you can't even do it?"
"I got distracted," he waved her off with the butter knife. Ever the Point Man…ever too prideful to admit a mistake.
She smirked, "At least I didn't ask for the spaghetti. That would've been a tragedy."
Arthur unfolded the couch out into a bed and brought out extra sheets, blankets and pillows. He didn't have a guest room (which was surprising considering the largeness of his penthouse) so Chloe would have to sleep there for the length of her stay. Speaking of, the little girl sat in the leather loveseat with her knees to her chest and waited. Her pajama pants had clouds on them and her shirt had frills and a rainbow all of which were tied together by red elephant house slippers—Obnoxious things if Arthur's opinion was to be considered. He didn't know how she managed to walk amidst the trunks and not trip and break an ankle. Next to her in the seat was her stuffed (very unrealistic looking) mint green elephant (she really had a thing for elephants and random colors didn't she?) with baby pink ears named Penny. On her other side was a yellow and blue paisley pillow that'd come out of her suitcase. After their afternoon of going over Chloe's schedule for the ballet intensive camp, making a chart of times so he'd remember when to pick up and drop off and a spaghetti dinner, Arthur gave in at last and agreed to let her watch a movie to fall asleep. It was her first night in this city, in a new place, new bed and with an Uncle that seemed more like a stranger than anything else so he felt he could let it slide if the volume was kept down.
Uncle Arthur was really precise in everything he did. It was familiar; a trait Chloe recognized in all the Talesco men she'd known. She studied his agile movements as he tucked the sheets into the corners, adjusted the length the covers hung on each side and folded the top back just so. With his back turned, she imagined him as her dad. Imagined him giving her a bear hug, pulling the sheets to her chin and kissing her forehead. Instead he grabbed her dvd case to put her movie in. Not very much like her dad at all. She expected him to have slight more compassion than he had…to at least help her into bed. But he called from his spot by the tv, "Hop in. Get comfortable."
Slowly and uneasily, Chloe obeyed. She took Penny by one of her legs and her pillow by the top corner and crawled on top of the bed. The sheets were tight like in a hotel (or like bunks in the cadet barracks), nothing like she was used to at home. Real home. She had to pry them out of the sides to pull them down enough to slip in then struggle for extra room next to her so Penny could be under the covers too. The hum of the dvd plate closing sounded as he turned around with hands in pockets, "All set?" Chloe nodded.
"Alright. Well, if you need anything use the intercom. And um," Arthur surveyed the empty air in the room. Perhaps he was looking for an invisible teleprompter to tell him what to say. What was it that he said to Ender when he helped put him to bed? "Sweet dreams." It sounded forced and the Point Man couldn't bring himself to do anything but pat the top of her head even though Chloe halfway sat up. Her round eyes clearly expecting that a hug was in store. When he walked away, Chloe snuggled into the covers and turned her attention to the movie.
It was Annie. Yes, that one. The timeless musical starring a red headed orphan. It was Chloe's favorite movie. She knew every line, every lyric. She'd had Annie birthday parties and drove her family and friends crazy by asking to play the soundtrack over and over and over again in the car. It was the movie she watched on road trips and sick in bed at home. When she missed her mom…or her dad…No matter how sad or bored little Chloe got, when those first chords of Tomorrow chimed in the beginning credits she was a happy camper. The girl hugged Penny tighter and hummed quietly along. The day (or Arthur) hadn't turned out like she expected but on the bright side she was in NYC and that's where Annie lived back then.
In the other room, Arthur was sitting up in bed and rolling his dice around in his palm. What had he gotten himself into? Taking care of a child for seven weeks? When would he do preliminary research for his job in Texas? Then he thought about her. What would Ariadne think of this? Him (for all intents and purposes) abandoning his son and then taking in a niece? The notion of replacement might be brought up. Would she despise him for it? Then again it wasn't as if she'd ever know. He didn't know how to get in touch with her. She and Ender disappeared off the face of the earth. Arthur suspected Ariadne contacted his father shortly after leaving him and asked the man to put a block on them too so Arthur couldn't find them. That would be the only theory to explain why he couldn't get a scrap of information about her or her whereabouts. Not even a glimpse into her past anymore—she simply didn't exist. Ender would be…six this year. Starting first grade. Ariadne was more than likely having a breakdown over her baby growing up, Arthur mused. Arthur fell asleep weighing the pros and cons of having an eight year old kid living in his apartment for almost two months.
"Mommy!" Ender cried through the house. Ariadne and Arthur were in the living room drinking coffee, her feet propped on his lap as they watched the weather channel. "Mommy my tummy hurts!" Ariadne was instantaneously on her feet and Arthur on her heels. She hurried into his room and knelt by his bed. There was an immediate sour smell and Ariadne noticed wet stains on the top of his footie and around his pillow. She fished in Ender's covers for his sippy cup. "His pj's are sopping wet. What cup did you give him to drink with last night?"
Arthur shrugged, "The orange cup with the tiger."
Ah yes, the Architect pulled out a mostly empty cup from under Ender's side, "We never use the orange cup at night. It spills when it's turned over. He always uses the blue one with Buzz Lightyear on it when he's in bed."
Arthur could tell his wife was annoyed by his mistake, "I'm sorry—" Ariadne then pulled his covers down and Ender's sheets and the seat of his footie were stained. She breathed, "My God, he's messed everywhere…"
"Mama…" the little boy's stomach gurgled loudly as he bawled and held his tummy. Ariadne took his hands and gently pulled him out of bed, "It's ok, Baby, we need to clean you up and then I'll give you some medicine," and led her son into his bathroom. The pounding of the water running in the bathtub nearly overpowered the boy's sobs. Nearly. Ariadne knelt in the floor, wiped Ender's tears and tried to unzip his pajamas while he was hunched over in pain. "What did you give him?" She asked her husband.
Arthur thought back and declared, "Milk. He asked for milk." Then the man grabbed the wipes from the shelf, got on the floor and helped wipe Ender down.
With widened eyes, she regarded Arthur dubiously, "Real milk?"
He didn't know what the problem was. "Yes."
Ariadne scolded her husband with both disbelief and rage, "He's lactose intolerant!"
"Since when?" Arthur's stomach dropped from not knowing (or remembering) something that important about his son. There was soy milk in the fridge but Ariadne was such a clean eater he figured it was hers. It was an honest mistake. He didn't mean to make Ender sick. Or Ariadne upset…she already complained he didn't know enough about their son.
She was definitely upset though, "Since he was born?!"
The movie menu was playing on repeat in harmony with Chloe's deep breathing when incessant buzzing woke her up. It was her backpack humming against the wood floor. Uh oh. Chloe forgot to call and let "the wardens" know she landed safe. Half asleep she crawled to the edge and reached for the front pocket of her backpack, accidentally knocking Penny off in her haste. The buzzing stopped but the girl knew it'd start again momentarily. With crusty eyes, she tiptoed through the penthouse into the bathroom off of the kitchen (the automatic one!). She closed herself inside and sat in the bathtub just in time for her phone to vibrate again. "Hello?"
A stern male voice began the conversation with a reprimand, "Chloe. Do you know what time it is? You were supposed to call when you got in. We've been worried."
"I know. I'm sorry…" apologized the girl, "I had to turn my phone off for the plane ride and once I got to camp I was so excited I forgot to turn it back on."
"Well don't do it again," the man warned. "Are you settled in ok?"
Chloe looked at the door unsurely. Her imagination saw through it, around the corner, through the kitchen into the living room and looked at her makeshift bed. Her dorm room at the ballet school would've been much comfier. An actual bed in an actual room of her own (and one other little girl's) where she could spread all of her stuff around instead of keeping it stuffed in her backpack under the couch and in her suitcase and duffel in the closet by Arthur's front door. But it was only seven weeks and she'd much rather be there with Arthur so she could learn all about him. But boy if her family (well technically Uncle Arthur's family too) knew where she was truly staying, they'd flip. "Yeah, I guess."
The older man harrumphed, "Which chaperone were you assigned?"
"Um…" Quickly, the favorites tab on her phone's internet was pulled up to the camp's website so she could read the list of chaperone names. "Ms. Tate. But I've got to go; we've already been told lights out and I don't want to get into trouble."
She smiled and rushed to get off before any more questions, "Love you, bye." Chloe would have to check in every day…how stressful would that be? And what if they wanted to talk to her chaperone? Oh no… the eight (and a half) year old slumped down into the bathtub and blew air out of her cheeks. This was going to be hard. She was in for so much trouble.
After a bath, a tablespoon of medicine forced down by daddy and new clothes, the little boy fell asleep in Ariadne and Arthur's bed. Gurgling noises still came from his tummy and made it sound like his small intestinal system was being ripped apart. Arthur sat on the bed by the child. His hand rested comfortingly on Ender's chest and rubbed soothing circles. Ariadne smoothed the boy's sweaty black hair back before she got up to change and wash Ender's sheets. She refused to talk to Arthur since she had to hose their son down. Wanting to make up for it in some way (and thinking that her attitude was mostly because she was worried about her baby boy), the father kissed Ender's forehead and followed his wife. She was clearing the bed of stuffed animals and pillows when he got to the doorway, "He's going to be ok."
Ariadne glared at him, "I cannot believe you." His jaw grit. Arthur despised her being mad at him. "You know nothing about our child."
Arthur took a deep breath then plunged in to help her remove the soiled sheets, "I know plenty."
Sarcastically she balled the sheets up with raised eyebrows and an approving (fake) nod, "Ok. What else is he allergic to?" Without waiting for an answer because she was certain he didn't have one, Ariadne brushed passed him to get to the laundry room. Arthur grabbed Ender's bunched up pajamas and did the same. He knew this one because they'd all three been at the park together and had to rush Ender to the hospital for it. "Ants."
"And? That's it," insisted the Point, tossing the pj's in after the sheets and watching Ariadne pour in detergent and softener.
"No," she corrected. The tray of soap shoved closed, "There's walnuts. He can't have corn; he can't digest it for some reason. And he's allergic to latex."
Arthur thought she might be joking. He'd never heard of such. "Latex?"
Ariadne swung the washer door closed and jammed at the buttons to turn it on. Ender was a pretty heavy sleeper like her, thank goodness. "Yeah. They have to use special gloves at the dentist and doctor's office. He breaks out."
Being helpful, Arthur reached into the linen closet and got fresh train-printed sheets from the top shelf and carried them into the bedroom for her, "Ok, well I can't help that you discovered those and never told me."
"What's his favorite color?" The fitted sheet rolled out of the set and she began moving it up and down to open it up.
Well Ender's room was decorated with cars and trucks. So Arthur picked the color there was most of when he looked around, "Red."
"Orange," huffed his wife. I mean, it was in the spectrum right? That was close. Now instead of questions these become accusations. Arthur was incriminating himself as a horrible daddy and husband with each wrong answer. But didn't mothers normally pick up on more things than the fathers anyway? Now the mother was emphasizing each tuck with her increasingly upset demeanor, "You know what stuffed animal he sleeps with every night? What he calls the toy he takes everywhere?"
Arthur rubbed his forehead self-reproachfully, "No, I don't."
"What? I'm sorry, I do—"
"No, that's what he named his teddy bear: Arthur." The Architect's hustle and bustle slowed down. Now she seemed borderline lethargic as she put the new pillowcases on. "When you leave, the bear sits at your place at the dinner table." As she began to choke up, Arthur swooped in and took over the job of the pillows with a repentant kiss on the cheek. "He puts the bear in the passenger seat when we ride in the car. He sneaks into our closet while I'm cooking dinner, sits on the ground between all your suit pants and puts your ties on the bear. He makes the bear kiss me goodnight, every night, while you're gone." The Point Man sat on Ender's bed, weaved his hands with Ariadne's and pulled her to stand in front of him. Ariadne looked at him with a melting pot of different emotions: she longed for him, she missed him, she loved him but then she was disappointed in him, hurt by him, angry with him, "When Ender's friends come over for playdates and ask where his dad is, do you know what he tells them?"
Arthur swallowed. He sort of didn't want to know. Her brows knitted, "Across the street. He says it's Mr. Bates. The neighbor that gets our mail mixed with his all the time. When he goes to games or the zoo or for gelato with his son, he takes Ender too. Ender sees him more than he sees you." At that point, Ariadne wrapped her arms around his neck, sat in his lap sideways (like being carried bridal style), and tried to make an indent in his neck with the bridge of her nose, "Can't you say no this time? Stay home with me and Ender, just once. Put us first, just once."
"Baby, you know I would…you know I want to…" crooned the Point; his thumb rubbed back on fort on her calf.
She looked up at him. Eyes all watery. "You're crushing me, Arthur."
The man sniffed, "I'm sorry. But it'll be over soon. Just give me four to six months." The straw holding them together broke and Ariadne got off of him. Stormed down the hall. He tried to defend himself, "I've given them my word already, Ariadne."
Yeah that was a favorite line of his wasn't it? He used it every time. Before every job, after every fight. The Architect was sick of him putting his obligations towards strangers first. "What about the word you gave me? When we got married we made a vow to be by each other's side through everything. I have never felt more alone. You break your word to me every day. Year in, year out." They halted in the middle of the hallway, the constant clunk of wet laundry sloshing around in the washer. "Does it mean nothing? Does our marriage mean nothing to you?"
"Stop. You know it does. I love you."
"I have tried to be supportive and understanding. For the past four years, I've bitten my tongue, swallowed the ache in my throat and watched you walk out of that door for months on end a million times. Whether I like it or not, if walking out that door myself is the only way to end it, then that's what I have to do." There were so many ways Arthur could've come back and made a case for himself. But as he opened his mouth, she was already passed the threshold of their bedroom with the door in hand, ready to lock him out again. There was no use trying to march to the door before it was shut so Arthur stood their shell-shocked. Ariadne sighed before closing the door, "I'm tired of being married to a teddy bear."
I'm just a little girl lost in the moment
I'm so scared but I don't show it
I can't figure it out, it's bringing me down
I know I got to let it go and just enjoy the show.
I want my money back…—The Show by Lenka
Super lengthy start, I know. It's significantly different from the initial requests—which were for an A/A domestic life fic. And I liked the idea of exploring them (mostly Arthur cause it seems almost but not quite uncharacteristic for him) as parents but of course…I can never write a story without conflict/angst between them.
I imagined Greg and Sydney (Arthur's brother and sister-in-law/Chloe's parents) as Keanu Reeves and Michelle Trachtenberg. I've posted a linked picture of both Ender and Chloe's face claim on my profile under elaborations (this story will have quite a few). Ender's is an unknown model kid but Chloe's is Mackenzie Foy (from her youngest, pre-twilight, years of course.)
What do you guys think? Off to a promising start, I hope?