Liz Dolan sat on a stool behind the counter of her family-owned antique shop. Her auburn hair was pulled back into a practiced bun and her green eyes were glued to the sketchpad she was penciling in front of her. Across the glass countertop from her (on the customer side) she had set up similar stools for the Schaefer twins, Billy and Emma. Both had reddish-brown hair and brown eyes with freckles scattered across their faces and were pretending to make an effort on their homework. At the moment, the storefront of Dolan & Sons Antiques was empty except for the three of them tucked in the front corner of the shop in sight of the front door.
Outside, the weather was bright and sunny. It was one of the nicer days that Washington, D.C. had seen in quite some time after a rather brutal winter. The faint sound of traffic could be heard through the gold-lettered windows facing the street. Liz thought she heard the low rumble of what she guessed was a motorcycle.
“Miss Lizzie, what are you drawing? Is that for one of your picture books?” asked Emma, peering over her math to the sketchpad in which Liz was drawing.
Her twin brother chimed in, “They’re called comic books, stupid! And that’s obviously Captain America.”
“Don’t call me stupid, stupid. It’s hard to see it upside down!” Emma retorted.
Billy ignored his sister, “Do you have pictures of the other Avengers, Miss Lizzie? I like Iron Man the best.”
“Iron Man?” exclaimed Emma with mock disgust, “Everyone knows Black Widow is the coolest.”
“You just think that because you’re both girls!”
Liz was struggling not to laugh. Ever since the Battle of New York about a year ago, superheroes had exploded back into popular culture, and the Avengers were by far the most famous, probably because they were real-life heroes. Every kid wanted to be at least one of them, and these particular two would use any excuse to delay doing their homework. Liz smiled.
“Maybe I do, and maybe I don’t!” Liz stated mischievously, “The two of you be nice and get back to your fractions. If you finish early I might let you see my other drawings. And wouldn’t it be a nice surprise for your mom if you finished before she got home?”
The twins lived in one of the apartments above the store with their mother, Catherine. Liz had volunteered to keep an eye on her ten-year-old neighbors for a few hours after their school day had ended until their mother could get home from work.
“But we hate fractions…” the twins grumbled in unison, but the idea of seeing the drawings later placated them.
A chime sounded as the front door of the shop opened. Liz looked up from her sketch to see that a tall, broad-shouldered man had entered wearing a navy blue baseball cap and matching jacket. He looked a bit lost.
Liz put on her standard helpful-shopkeeper smile, “Hello! Is there anything I can help you with, or are you just looking?”
Navy Ball Cap looked as if he had not been expecting to be addressed quite so suddenly as he looked around and found Liz behind the counter. He smiled politely and answered a bit nervously as he stepped towards her, “Good afternoon, ma’am,” he looked down at a small piece of paper in his hands, “I’m not sure I’m in the right place… I’m looking for a Mr. John Dolan. I’m here about the apartment. I was told this was the address?”
“Sure, you’re in the right place. He’s in the back. I’ll grab him for you.” Liz smiled and turned, walking down the length of the counter to a door in the adjacent corner towards the rear of the shop. She opened it and poked her head through it.
“Hey, Pops?” She started, “The new tenant is here!”
“Just a moment Elizabeth! Be right with them!” Was returned from what seemed like a distant corner of the back area.
Liz walked back over towards her stool across from the twins. Navy Cap was eyeing the sketchpad that had been left open on the counter.
“He’ll be right out,” she informed brightly, “I’m Liz, by the way; John’s granddaughter. It sounds like we’re going to be neighbors.” Liz extended her hand in greeting.
Navy Cap looked slightly more at ease now that he was sure that he was where he was supposed to be. He took Liz’s hand for a shake, “Nice to meet you, ma’am. I’m Steve.”
There was a kindness in his blue eyes and a hint of what Liz might have guessed to be sadness. Steve’s hand felt very warm, though being as how Liz was almost always in need of a hoodie even in mid-summer (and today was no exception), this hardly surprised her. What did surprise her was how gentle his handshake was for someone his size. He was at least a foot taller than Liz’s five-foot-two, not to mention apparently muscular beneath his navy lightweight jacket. For some reason, she blushed at his repeated use of the contraction “ma’am”. It added a certain amount of charm to his obvious attractiveness.
Liz made to brush a phantom strand of auburn hair behind her ear as their hands separated, even though any loose strands that would normally escape the bun they were normally drawn into were already neatly tucked beneath a hair clip of a similar shade. Liz averted her gaze shyly back to the twins, who were both watching the exchange.
“You guys done yet?” She teased, grateful for the opportunity to deflect attention.
“We need serious help…” Billy proclaimed, theatrically exasperated.
“You mean in general? Or with fractions?” Liz joked cheekily. The twins laughed and Steve almost chuckled.
The door to the back room opened and shut. Out shuffled a grey-haired man in what looked to be his eighties. He was carrying a cane off the ground as opposed to using it to walk (as he probably should have been doing) and a set of keys in the same hand. He used the other to guide himself along the counter.
“You must be the army lad Miss Hill is sending our way. Always a pleasure to provide housing for those who serve our country!” He greeted Steve happily, moving relatively quickly for a man his age down the front side of the counter.
“That’s me, sir,” Steve said warmly.
“John Dolan, owner of this establishment, but everyone calls me ‘Pops’ these days so you might as well, too,” Pops reached the point where Steve stood. Steve went to shake his hand, but the old man continued ambling quickly past him towards the front door.
“No time for that, my boy! Can’t waste any momentum before we get upstairs!” He shook his cane in the air defiantly and the keys jingled.
The twins giggled and Steve turned to see that Liz was also stifling a laugh. He looked at her mildly concerned.
“Go on, Pops’ll be fine,” Liz started, “He’ll show you up to your apartment, if you can keep up with him.”
Steve nodded and smiled, “Thank you, ma’am,” he said, tipping his baseball cap and following Pops towards the front door. Steve beat Pops to it and opened the door for him.
“Thank you, lad! You’re one lucky fellow, you know. You’ll be on the top floor across from my beautiful Elizabeth there! And next door to a lovely nurse who moved in not too long ago herself! Now, what was her name?” Pops’ voice grew fainter as the door closed behind him and Steve and they made their way to the separate apartment entrance of the building.
Liz was blushing to herself as she overheard Pops’ last comments. Her grandfather never missed an opportunity to inform a complete stranger of how wonderful he thought she was, especially strangers of the male variety. It was Pops’ opinion that she needed to find herself “a nice fella’,” and stop spending so much time unnecessarily babysitting him.
“Miss Lizzie?” Emma asked shyly.
Emma paused for a moment before continuing with her question. “Pops said that man, Steve, was in the army…” she trailed off, glancing at Billy as if for moral support. Her twin continued after another pause, “Do you think he knows our dad?”
Liz sat back down on her stool so that she was closer to their eye level. She took the moment to think about a response. Mark Schaefer, the twins’ father, had been stationed in Afghanistan and later Iraq for most of his children’s lives. He wrote often and called when he could, but it was difficult on the family who had been left behind. They had only seen their father in person a few times while he had been deployed.
Liz understood their situation better than most. Her own father, John Dolan, Jr., had been an Air Force pilot during the Gulf War; only he had never made it home. Liz was only four years old when he had been shot down during a combat mission towards the end of Operation Desert Storm. Liz had been living with her grandparents at the time since her mother, Pamela, had passed away during the birth of her first and only child.
“I don’t know, guys...” Liz began in response to the twins’ question, “The army is pretty big. You can always ask your dad next time he calls.” She smiled warmly, trying to pass on a bit of hope to their young faces. “Now, what seems to be the trouble with this math of yours?”
“It just sucks,” Billy mumbled putting his hand on his fist.
“Oh, come on. Fractions are easy!” Liz stated enthusiastically.
“Easy for you to say!” Billy countered, “You went to college for math. I’m only in the fourth grade!”
“She didn’t go to college for math, stupid! She went for engineering,” Emma corrected coolly.
“You don’t even know what engineering means!”
“Do too! It’s, like… learning how to build stuff.”
“Learning how to build stuff with math.”
As entertaining as she found the twins’ heated discussions, Liz knew them too well not to realize they were only trying to prolong any breaks in their work as long as possible.
“Alright, enough of that…” Liz interjected, “You are both right. Now let me see these. Your mom will be home soon, so let’s buckle down and get these done.”
The twins quieted down as Liz began to walk them through their remaining homework problems.