“Annie,” someone whispered accompanied by a hand pushing on my shoulder in an effort to rouse me. I think I groaned in reply, desperate to return to the land of nod but the person was persistent. “Annie, wake up,” they commanded, impatiently and I slowly managed to peel one eye open as my body started to register the pain of sleeping on the couch.
“What is it?” I croaked, noting that it was still dark and therefore far too early for me to be woken.
“I-I had a bad dream,” Instantly, I was alert, and I leant up on my elbow to get a look at the little boy standing in front of me with a look of both shame and fear.
“Oh Theo, come here,” I murmured, sitting up so he could step into my waiting arms before I lifted him onto my lap.
“Annie, I’m scared,” he whispered, snuggling in close as I tightened my arms around him.
“I know,” I soothed. I hated the tremor in the young boy’s voice as he dug his hands into my side.
“Why don’t the bad dreams leave me alone? She always leaves me.”
“Who leaves you, Theo?” I coaxed already knowing the answer he was going to give me. I could never understand how a woman could leave their children behind, but then I had first-hand knowledge of parents who didn’t possess the gene to love their child.
“Mommy,” he murmured, and I felt something hot and wet fall against my chest and it may as well have been a knife, piercing straight through my heart.
“Why don’t you sleep with me for a while? I think between the both of us we might be able to scare your bad dreams away. What do you say?” He nodded emphatically, his lip still trembling from unshed tears. He was trying to be brave and while it melted my heart I couldn’t help the spike of anger that flashed through my body. He shouldn’t have to be brave.
“Come on then,” I coaxed, lifting the blankets and shuffling over to allow him room. He hesitated for a minute before he dove under the warm, floral scented blankets and pulled them up to his nose. Fighting the urge to laugh at his antics, I shuffled down beside him and got comfortable.
When I felt his hand pull my arm around his middle, my heart nearly stopped. And in an instant, his breathing had evened out, and his body had given over to the blissfulness of unconsciousness. I settled beside him and quickly followed.
When I woke the second time it was because the sun was beaming across my face in an annoyingly bright manner, much to my displeasure.
“Turn it off,” I grumbled, burrowing further into the fluffy mattress and slamming the covers over my head. Wait, mattress?
“You sleep like the dead,” a droll voice said from somewhere outside my haven. I was exquisitely warm beneath the silky bedsheets and had no intention of coming out anytime soon. No matter who was on the other side. Movie star or not.
“You slept through Keely’s tantrum and that girl can reach decibels not yet discovered by man.” Xander continued and if I wasn’t mistaken his voice was getting closer.
“If you come any closer to this bed I will not be held responsible for my actions,” I warned, tightening my grip on the covers until my fingers felt numb. I pressed myself further into the mattress and smelt the most wonderful scent, filling me with a sense of calm. It was a delicious mix of soap and something distinctly male or more accurately, Xander. Realising I was sniffing my pretend boyfriend’s bedsheets, I jerked back slightly as a shameful blush dusted across my cheeks, and I mentally scolded myself.
“But I’ve come to give my sleeping beauty a kiss,” he teased, and it suddenly felt very hot beneath the covers and suffocating.
“I think in this fairytale I might just be the ugly swan or even the frog prince, warts and all,” I argued, taking deep breaths to try and calm my heart but it only made Xander’s scent more overwhelming which in turn sent my heart into a savage flurry of beats. It was a vicious cycle.
I was waiting for his response when suddenly the sheets were ripped from my body exposing me to the chill of the room as well as the intensity of a certain movie star’s eyes.
“Satan’s spawn,” I shouted, curling up until my knees were tucked beneath my chin and my arms caged them in tightly to my chest.
“Now that’s not very nice, teach. I’ll be telling my mother about this.”
“I don’t think she’ll be very impressed with the ‘F’ I’m going to give you for your manners,” I shot back, glaring at the humour dancing in his hazel eyes.
“You’re cute when you’re angry.”
“I want to throw you under a bus,” I grouched, launching a pillow at him and woefully overestimating my ability to aim. He didn’t even need to duck out of the way.
“Come on sweetheart, let’s get some food into you,” he coaxed, reaching out and tugging my arm free.
“How’d I even get in this bed?” I grumbled, going limp in his grip, so it was twice as difficult to pull me from the bed. However, judging by his bulging muscles, he wasn’t struggling by any means.
“I forgot last night that the kids were sleeping in your bed,” he answered apologetically before scooping me up and throwing my dead weight over his shoulder to my weak protests. “You should have told me and I would have slept on the couch.”
“Couldn’t have that, big shot. Movie stars need their beauty sleep.”
“Do you enjoy making fun of me?”
“It is becoming a favourite pastime of mine,” I smirked, leaning on my elbow against his back as we left his bedroom.
“Annie,” Theo greeted, jumping up and down in circles around Xander and I. “Uncle Alex says he’s making us chocolate chip pancakes.”
“Is that wise?” I laughed, watching the already exuberant child launch himself onto the couch only to bounce back up and start jumping on it.
“I’m only now questioning the wisdom in my choice,” he chuckled setting me down surprisingly gently on the couch beside the jumping boy. His dark frames were at risk of bouncing right off his nose, but it didn’t seem to slow him down any. He had now started chanting, ‘pancakes’ at the top of his lungs.
“You better get cooking. I don’t want to be here when that excitement turns sour,” I warned playfully as Xander gave me a mock salute.
“Where is your sister?” I frowned, tugging on Theo’s arm to get him to sit down beside me.
“She is playing hide and seek,” he shrugged, straightening his frames as he studied the television remote.
“And who is in charge of seeking her?”
“Who is Terri?”
“Terri the turtle, her imaginary friend,” he explained, settling on a channel with cartoon fruit jumping around the screen. I saw a blender in the background and wondered how kid-friendly the show could really be.
“Maybe we should give Terri a hand, why don’t you help me find her?” He nodded, losing interest with the fruit on death row and taking my hand as we started our search. All we needed to do was follow the giggles. I had a feeling Terri would be no competition for our seeking abilities.
“That’s not fair,” Theo whined as the room was filled with a certain two-year old’s hysterical laughter. “We can’t find Terri if she’s invisible.”
“Terri win, Terri win,” Keely chanted before she waddled across to where I stood and gripped tightly to the hem of my dress as she wrapped herself around my leg.
“Then I’m invisible too. No one will saw me if I’m invisible like Terri,” he pouted, running away and hiding himself under the dining room table. His little feet were sticking out from underneath one of the chairs.
I barely contained my laughter as I glanced over at Xander who was watching from where he had been sitting on the couch splitting his attention between the person on his phone and his niece and nephew. He gave me a knowing smile, and I couldn’t help but return one of my own.
“You can’t find me now,” Theo taunted, and I swiftly hauled a mischievous little toddler away from her ‘invisible’ brother as she ambled over to pull at one of his feet.
“Theo, wherever could you be. How will I find you now that you are invisible?” Answering giggles came from under the table, and I started to walk in the opposite direction with a squirming little blonde.
Keely and I were looking beneath the television cabinet when we heard the front door open and a heavy set of footsteps. I looked up at Xander in alarm, but his relative calm set me at ease as he continued to listen to whoever was on the other end of the phone.
“Where are my little munchkins?” I heard Jamie boom, and I quickly got to my feet and scooped Keely up with me. “Theodore James what on earth are you doing under the table?”
“You can’t saw me, daddy,” Theo shot back, his little feet wriggling as he moved further under the table.
“I can see you, young man.”
“Nuh uh,” he insisted, “You can’t saw me because I’m invisible.”
“Invisible?” He smirked shooting me a humorous look before moving over to where his son was still laughing to himself. He crouched beside him before unceremoniously pulling the giggling boy from his hiding spot.
“No daddy,” he screeched, flailing as Jamie threw him over his shoulder. “You can’t sawed me; I’m invisible. Like Terri.”
“Sorry to tell you son but Terri does it better.” Jamie mockingly consoled walking in our direction to collect Keely.
“Thanks for watching them Annie.”
“No problem, they were angels,” I smiled, handing a reluctant Keely back to her dad.
“Uncle Alex,” Theo whined, reaching for Xander as he hung up the phone and stood. “Help me Uncle Alex.”
“Who’s saying that?” Xander asked curiously, glancing around the room looking for the source of the voice.“Uncle Alex,” Theo groaned, but Xander continued to act like he couldn’t see him.
“Is that my nephew Theo?”
“But where are you? Are you invisible?” Xander asked the room, stepping around his brother in search of his nephew.
“It worked,” Theo whispered. “I am indivisible.”
“Alright invisible man, it’s time to say goodbye to your uncle so how about you make yourself visible again.”
“Fine,” Theo sighed as Jamie set him down at his feet.
“Bye Uncle Alex,” Theo droned, pushing his glasses higher on his nose. Xander jumped back in practised surprised when Theo spoke and looked down at his nephew.
“Where did you come from? You just appeared out of nowhere.”
“I let you see me again,” Theo said proudly, reaching up as Xander pulled him into his arms ad gave him a bone crushing hug.
“Bye, little man. I’ll see you next time.”
“Bye, Uncle Alex,” Theo replied as Xander reached across and brushed a gentle kiss against his niece’s forehead before he said his goodbyes.
The family then ambled out of the apartment, taking the noise with them until only Xander and I remained in the silence.
Feeling exhausted, I dropped onto the couch, leant back and shut my eyes.
“Always,” I smirked, looking over as he sat beside me and pulled out a thick wad of bound paper.
Noticing my curious looked he told me it was his latest script and he needed to read through it and start remembering lines if he was ever going to be ready in time for the start of filming in a few weeks time.
Leaving him to his script, I flicked the television on, absently flipping through the channels until I landed on one with Xander on it. I couldn’t help but think his two-dimensional counterpart had nothing on the real thing.
“Now, it is hard to ignore that after these few days you were accused of physical violence against your current girlfriend, but it is now believed to be a falsehood with many of the public quite convinced of your affection for the charming Miss Annie Reiner.” I watched Xander’s face intently for a moment, and it was unmistakable that with the reporter’s words there came a dark shadow over his eyes, but he waited, forcing the woman to break the awkward silence herself. It seemed to be a replay of a morning show interview he must have done recently.
“Accusations like this, which have been proven to be baseless can be detrimental to any actor’s career. The public’s perception of an actor deeply affects their ability to gain work. How did you feel about the accusations made against you?” Again, Xander was silent, a tempest of dark thoughts hidden beneath the gleam of his eyes but the direct question required an answer, but it seemed he would do it in his time. I was keenly aware of Xander sitting beside me, but I couldn’t seem to find the motivation to change the channel nor to draw my attention away from the screen.
“Of course I was unhappy that there were people out there who had judged me in such a way that they believed me to be capable of such an atrocious act, but I would never discourage people from making them.”
“But these accusations could have ruined your career?”
“And if the accusations had been proven true, and still we had ignored them my actions could have ruined the life of an innocent woman. Whether I am famous or not, every woman deserves to have their voice heard, and they should never be silenced because it is believed their accusations will ruin the life of a man who has already influenced her in such an abhorrent way.”
“But there will always be doubt that you are capable of these actions.”
“Good, my actions like all those out there should be held to account, so there aren’t women out there who feel voiceless and helpless.”
“Yes, but there are people out there being wrongfully accused who can no longer get jobs.”
“There are women who have been assaulted and had their privacy violated online who face the same fate but with more humiliating consequences. I would rather be wrongfully accused than strike down on the woman who accuses me and prevent other women from having their rightful claims legitimised. If we allow people to avoid scrutiny and brush women’s fears under the rug, then we are part of the problem. We shouldn’t be afraid to speak up when we have been wronged or feel as if we haven’t been wronged enough to demand justice. We have a right to be safe and heard and when we trivialise actions like abuse and harassment it makes them okay. I never want any woman in my life to think it’s okay for a man to belittle, humiliate and take advantage of them.”
“That woman was a harsh critic of her own gender,” I started at Xander’s sudden comment, glancing back to see him sitting beside me glaring at the screen. His script was forgotten on his lap.
“You spoke very well.” I conceded, returning my attention to the adverts on the television, not willing to look him in the eye. “Was that scripted?”
“I had no idea she was going to attack me like that. She was specifically told to steer clear of topics of abuse. It was meant to be an interview about my upcoming movie not an inquisition into my character or my personal opinions.”
“You seemed very passionate in your responses.”
“I don’t like giving out my opinion like that. I don’t like the power my word holds as a celebrity. My job is to act not to shape the views and morality of a nation. I’m not qualified to do that. I am qualified to play the role of someone I am not. Not to give my opinion on issues I have no authority over.”
“She was adamant that you give her a response. I’m not sure she got the one she was hoping to receive.”
“I wanted to put her in her place, but I thought it might undermine my argument a bit.” He sighed, sitting beside me on the arm of the couch.
“Probably a wise move,” I smiled, trying to ignore the beating of my heart as it made itself known when I looked at the man as if I were looking through a new set of eyes. Why did he have to be good? Why couldn’t he be more of an arse?
I watched as he put the script aside and reached for his phone from where it was ringing on the tree stump coffee table. When he saw who was calling him his face seemed to drop, almost in horror before his eyes found mine and I felt my heart drop in anticipation.
“What?” I frowned. What could have him so spooked?
“It’s my mom.”