Always the Last to Know

By Becleigh Cyborg

Drama

Chapter 26

Hal was at the storm door waiting for me when I pulled to the curb in front of his pleasant suburban dwelling Saturday morning. The resemblance to the greeting I always received at my parents’ house was not lost on me, sending a pang of regret straight to my stomach as I slid from behind the wheel. Somehow, Hal knew I was about to arrive, just like my mother and grandmother always had, and I’d be spared the awkward standing-on-the-porch moment that usually accompanied visiting a new house.

“You’re early,” he said, opening the door for me as I approached. “Good. I’m late.”

I followed him through the entry hall, noting the duffle bag tucked haphazardly under a side table, accompanied by a colourful plastic snail.

“Emergency numbers are on the fridge,” he explained hastily, pointing to the kitchen as we passed it on the way to the back of the house. The boys are allowed one cookie each if they finish all their lunch. Sandwich crusts included. Don’t let them convince you to give them more cookies. They each have a snack lunch box on the kitchen bench, they’re allowed two or three items from the box throughout the day if they so desire, but they cannot take from each other’s boxes. No matter what Richie says, his is the Captain America one. We like them to have quiet time after lunch for at least forty-five minutes. Just put a DVD on. Julian will probably fall asleep in the first ten minutes, but you probably need to remind Richie that he needs to settle down.

“Forts are Richie’s new favourite thing,” he continued to explain, picking up a few toys from the floor, along with a blanket he took the time to fold. “He’s got a bucket of items he can use to create one, but only in the living room. They can play outside in the backyard if they want, but Julian is anaphylactic to insect bites and stings, so just be aware of that. His epipen is in the medicine cabinet in the downstairs bathroom. Instructions for its use are on the packaging and Richie knows how to use it on him when it comes down to it. There’s a care handbook on the kitchen table with all the information you may need.”

With that whirlwind of information still spinning around and around my head, he opened a pair of French doors to reveal a chaotic looking living room with toys everywhere and two small boys sprawled on pillows in front of the television. Richie, the older boy, had a mop of sandy blond hair waving all over his head. While Julian’s hair was a little more on the ginger side and much, it had the same amount of animation as he moved his head. They both wore pyjamas featuring superheroes.

“Richie, Julian, this is Kit,” Hal told his children, standing directly between them and the television. Clearly a habitual act to get their attention. “She works with Daddy, so don’t try anything with her.”

“I thought only boys worked with you,” Richie pointed out, staring at me with confusion and curiosity plain on his face.

“Kit is new,” he explained patiently.

“Did your boss change the no girls allowed rule?” he asked, sitting up. “Penny and Sarah have a club that I can’t join because no boys are allowed.”

“We don’t have a no girls allowed rule,” Hal said firmly, with an apologetic glance my way – probably, he’d heard about the very first conversation I – Kit – had had with Lester that day of my interview. “Daddy has to go now. Do I get a hug?”

At once the two small boys launched themselves at their father, their feet being lifted off the ground as he scooped them up, one in each arm. He squeezed them tightly, grinning at the squeals they produced while their legs flailed about wildly. After a moment he planted a loud, smacking kiss on each child and let them down.

“Be good for Kit – and for Mommy – and maybe I’ll bring you both a treat when I get back from my trip.”

As the boys cheered gleefully, bouncing up and down on their cushions, Hal turned to me. “Eloise should be home around seven. There’s a casserole in the fridge with reheat instructions attached.”

“Got it,” I said with a brief nod, even though he’d given me so much information since I’d arrived that I felt certain my head would explode if he mentioned even one more detail.

“Good luck,” he beamed, hurrying back down the hallways to retrieve his duffle bag. “And thanks again.”

When he opened the front door, I spotted a black Rangeman SUV at the curb that wasn’t there when I’d pulled in. I couldn’t quite make out the driver from the porch as Hal made his way down the front path, but I waved to them anyway before turning back inside and closing the door behind me.

Bright orange manual folder retrieved from the kitchen, I re-entered the living room as quietly as possible – which required Indiana Jones/Lara Croft type skills, given the booby trapping toys laid out for me – and settled on the sofa to brush up on the information I may have missed in Hal’s rapidfire instructions. Lucky for me, there was a tabbed section specifically for babysitters and occasional care givers. A cliff notes summary of the rest of the folder, essentially.

Forty-five minutes later, I was pretty sure I understood the important bits and the boys were still absorbed in some kind of superhero cartoon, so I took the opportunity to scope out the bathroom, and by extension, the epipen that would save Julian’s life should he be bitten or stung by an insect.

I was just exiting the bathroom when Richie appeared before me, Julian in tow.

“What’s up?” I asked, crouching down so I was on their level.

“Julian did a poop,” Richie informed me, a serious expression on his face. And so the fun begins.

*o*

At seven o’clock I was inside Richie’s latest fort on a pile of cushions and pillows with Julian passed out in my lap and Richie slumped heavily against my side. We were reading a book by the light of his battery operated lantern and I had a feeling that by the time I finished the last three pages we had left he’d be asleep as well. And truth be told, I didn’t think I was too far behind if I was left in this cosy cubby with its minimal lighting and no bouncing children to continue to entertain.

The day had been fun, but exhausting. I’d figured I was good with kids, having spent a majority of my time over the last six years interacting with and teaching them, but it had been a long time since I’d been sole slave to a pair of rambunctious children, and even then, I’d never babysat Mary-Alice and Angie for more than a couple of hours at a time. Ten hours of energetic antics had me completely wrecked. I had no idea how parents did this every day.

I’d just set the book aside and was leaning my head back against the side of the couch that formed one wall of the fort when I heard a key in the lock. Footsteps sounded all the way down the hall, pausing briefly now and then and I imagined the woman who’d won Hal’s heart checking each room for signs of life. She entered the living room, stepping on the squeaking dog Julian had dumped in the doorway on his way in from the kitchen after dinner, and swore under her breath.

“Eloise?” I called softly from within the fort.

“Kit?” she replied. “Are you stuck?”

“A little pinned down, yeah,” I chuckled.

In the next moment the sheet I’d draped over the makeshift frame was lifted from above me and I smiled up in greeting at the mother of the children draped on top of me. “Hi,” I said.

Her eyebrows drew together for a split second, but by the time I’d noticed it her forehead was smooth again. She returned my smile, setting a bag she still held down on the coffee table nearby. “Well this is certainly the weirdest introduction to one of my husband’s work friends to date,” she commented. Surveying our positions more critically, as if she were analysing the situation, she explained, “I’m going to take Richie and carry him up to bed, do you think you can handle Julian?”

“I think so,” I assured her, waiting for her to scoop up her older son before shifting the two year old into a two armed hold and awkwardly easing to my feet to follow her up the stairs to the bedrooms.

I waited in the hall while she finished tucking Julian in, not wanting her to feel like I was intruding on her nightly rituals. When she emerged, gently pulling the door closed behind her, she motioned for me to accompany her back down.

“Thank you so much for taking care of the boys,” she said, when we were approaching the bottom of the stairs. “The boss decided at the last minute that we all needed to update our training and there was just no way of getting out of it. Unfortunately, it fell on the same weekend Hal had a trip to Boston Rangeman scheduled. He’s workshopping some new take down techniques with the men there, but you probably already knew that... Anyway. I can’t thank you enough for stepping in like this.”

“Not a problem,” I insisted as we entered the kitchen. “Unlike the rest of the company I work normal nine to five, Monday to Friday hours, so I’m happy to give up a Saturday to help a friend out.”

“Of course,” Eloise, agreed, bustling over to the fridge and pulling out the remainder of the casserole. “Did you eat?” she asked over her shoulder.

“I ate with the boys, yes.”

“Good. I’d intended for you to.” As if just remembering something, she smacked the side of her head lightly and turned to face me fully for the first time in full light. “Sorry,” she apologised, though I wasn’t sure for what. “Where are my man- Stephanie?” Her eyebrows drew together once more, this time staying there.

Shock caused my jaw to drop and eyes to widen as I stared at the unfamiliar woman. I didn’t think I’d ever seen her before. “Wha- buh- um- H-how?” I stumbled out.

Her face softened into an almost indulgent smile as she reached for my arm and lead me to the small kitchen table. “I deal with people for a living,” she explained, crossing the space swiftly to shove the casserole dish into the microwave and hit a few buttons before turning toward me again. “I’m good with faces, and yours, I could never ever forget even if I wanted to. You’re the reason I’m with Hal.”

I made a noise of protest at that statement, unable to find my voice as of yet. The one place I’d figured I couldn’t possibly have been recognised, with Hal out of town, and I’d been made the moment she got a good look at me. How on earth had so many at Rangeman not made the connection yet?

“If it weren’t for you, Hal never would have come into the clinic where I work,” she insisted. “And had you not left, causing him to stop coming, I never would have realised how much I looked forward to seeing him. Thanks to you, I have a loving husband and two beautiful little angels.”

Rubbing the back of my neck, uncomfortable with everything she was laying on me, I mumbled, “Well I wouldn’t exactly call them angels...”

“You’re right, they can be little shits at times,” she agreed whole heartedly. “But Stephanie, everything I hold dear to me I have because of you. I owe you my life.” In a complete turn of mood, she clapped her hands together gleefully. “Just wait til I tell Hal!”



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