Something terrible happened to Peter when he fell in love with Molly; he fell even more in love with her mother. He knew it was terrible the way only people who truly are in love can know that it is terrible, and dangerous.
Peter was left there alone with her. No, the "her" was really "them." Tom would be at the station for two more days, and it was almost time for the kids' nap. He sweated inside, and it threatened to escape, trapped as he was between action and agonizing inaction.
He was playing with Molly, and she alternately bossed him into being a dragon and a prince, depending on her whims. It made little difference to him, as long as he could keep the delighted giggles and prattle coming.
Peter had no children, and feared to. He feared for them, the way he feared for Molly. Today she had a friend. Now, he could be that for her. In a few years, he could not, and she would come home from school, when she went to school, and cry as he had used to. She would get over it, as he had. She would learn too, and probably even sooner, that she wasn't bad or stupid, but that her brain simply worked differently than most, better in some ways.
Molly was safe now, though. It made him happy. But he knew the same thing made her mom, Victoria, even happier. It was an opportunity, the kind he had trained himself to see, the kind that hid behind the meanings of spoken words, that flitted mysteriously in gestures, faces, tones of voice--all a foreign language to him that he had recently begun to learn.
Virginia was in and out of the living room. She carried baskets of laundry to and fro, and occasionally skulked into the kitchen to keep tidying dishes and cleaning between loads. She did all this, of course, to the extent that she could do these things and endure little Todd's demanding cries. She never raised her voice to the baby, working with seemingly effortless devotion and patience. None of this diminished her.
The books on the shelves were her's. The home she'd created was safe and beautiful.
She strode in. She strode out. Those legs, he could not but help but notice. Even in sweatpants-
It was like junior high school, feeling the need to hide what he felt, and yet hoping the object of his attention would notice and appreciate it.
"Go in there!" Molly shouted, her white-gold hair, floating wildly, tickling her face as she pointed her chubby little finger at him.
"Okay, okay," he obeyed, scooting deeper into the makeshift cave with walls of felt blanket, tenuously strung over stools, a piano chair, and an end table. The top of his head brushed the ceiling of Princess Molly's living room castle. Molly was not even two, but could speak in sentences and read. What would she be imagining, he mused, when she was twelve, or twenty? Would she survive until then?
"Molly." Virginia's warning voice came from the laundry room. "Didn't we talk about being so bossy?"
Peter heard her coming down the hall. She poked her head around the corner, her pretty brown ponytail brushing down around her chin. Every look he got felt a little like stealing, and so he did what he could not to linger on her eyes, or her hair, or anything else she might notice. He wasn't confident that he could know if he'd been caught.
Molly looked abashed, but only a little. As soon as Mother was safely down the hall, Molly repeated the order, this time more quietly, though he had already obeyed.
"Go in there!"
A washing machine lid closed. Todd began, again, to fuss and gurgle. Virginia muttered gentle words to him. The frustration leaked out, though she was earnest and soothing.
Whatever it was she had said, it wasn't good enough. Todd's noises escalated to wailing, and Virginia's tone grew more discouraged--hopeless, even.
"Please stop," she pled.
"You're in the dungeon!" Molly proclaimed, confident now that Mother was too occupied to notice her relapse into tyranny.
Peter sighed, grateful for a chance to sit still for a second.
"Okay. I'm in prison," he acquiesced, raising his hands. "Can I have visitors?"
"N-n-no!" she barked. She was trying to drop her infantile squeak as low as it would go. A little bigger, a little older, he thought, and she'd be genuinely scary. Not scary enough, he was sure.
Todd was only louder now. Virginia walked out of the back room, striding like she was on her way to halt one of Molly's tantrums. But she was clutching the baby to her shoulder, pacing back and forth. Todd's face was bright red as he wailed.
Her eyes were clamped shut. Her jaw was clenching, grinding.
"Please stop. Please stop."
She sounded defeated.
Now almost a whisper. "Please stop."
"Anything I can do to help?" he tried to say, croaking on nerves. He winced.
He cleared his throat and tried to be heard over the baby.
"What can I do to help?"
"Umm, look, I don't know. I just-"
A knock came at the door, rhythmic and musical. Todd stopped screaming, gently whimpering now, his attention fixed on the source of the noise.
"Trisha!" Molly screamed. She ran to the door and flung it open.
"Oh, Trish. Hi! You have no idea how glad I am to see you."
Virginia's desperation melted a little.
A girl, around eleven, stood in the doorway, smiling at Molly. In a flash Molly was wrapped around the girl's calf, squeezing tight.
"You can help me decide what to do with my prisoner!"
"Do you think you can just look after these two while Pete and I get some things done around here? I'd really appreciate it."
"Really? I'll make it worth your while, honestly. You have no idea what good timing this is."
"Yeah," Trisha said, "I was passing by and it sounded like you could use a little help. She eyed Peter. Probably wondering why I couldn't handle it, he thought. Anticipation, however, throbbed louder in his chest than any resentment ever could.
Trish managed to pry Molly off her, and draped Todd over her shoulder. The boy was quiet now, his contented murmurs threatening to turn into giggles. Trish settled down on the couch and hummed to the baby, squeaking away at him in a high baby talk while Molly waged a ruthless campaign for her attention.
Virginia sighed, long and deep.
"Peter," she said, as though he had just arrived, and couldn't be more relieved to see him. "Can you come on back and help me tackle the mess back here?"
"Sure," he said, trying not to sound too eager.
He followed her back to the laundry room, his eyes eagerly wandering where they would as she strode down the hall in front of him. If only this house had a longer hall, and more hidden corners.
Virginia set-to, wasting no quiet moment. Peter looked around, thinking of what to talk about.
"How can I help?"
Laundry covered the floors, the top of the drier. Some of it was half-heartedly folded. Most of it was part of the mess.
"If you can wear it, fold it. If you can't-I don't know. We'll figure it out later."
Strands of her hair were falling down in her face, coming loose from the ponytail. She wiped beads of sweat off with her sleeve. Certain he might be making a horrible mistake, Peter spoke.
"You know I've been reading some really insightful books lately." Insightful? He prayed he had used the word correctly.
"Yeah. How's that English degree going? You going to graduate soon, or-"
"Oh, I never finished. I want to go back soon, but--."
"That'd be tough, I guess. With the kids and all."
"Tough. That's the word for it. School," she said, wrapping the sleeves of a long-sleeved T around her shoulders, folding the fabric up, meticulous work. "You know how it is, though, I guess, right?" Sure, he knew, having barely graduated himself, single and unattached.
Peter worked absently, his mind turning with what to say next, his palms sweating.
Common ground. That was supposed to be a good place to start.
"So, like I said, I've been reading a lot. If you wanted to, uh, you know, like, get together and talk about books or something-"
A scream came from the living room. Molly was probably just playing. Virginia didn't seem to think so. She moved her head closer to the door.
"Everything okay out there?"
Molly was balling now. He could hear Trish say "I told you that wasn't safe! Oh, you're okay. I think someone needs a time out."
Virginia was already on her way out. She snatched up her child and carried her to the kid's shared bedroom.
She said nothing. Molly protested, screaming all the way. She kissed the bump on the head the way a customs official stamps a passport. In a moment the child was behind a closed door, wailing and pounding on the door in protest. Trish was hushing and calming the baby in the front room. A moment later Molly's fit had faded into the background, and even began to burn out.
Nap time. Compulsory, perhaps, but right on schedule.
Virginia rested herself against the door, her eyes closed. She tried to rub the spreading exhaustion out of her face.
"So, what do you think? You can go ahead and pick the book, if you want, you know, we could read it. And I was thinking we could maybe get some coffee sometime-" Peter rambled, oblivious.
Virginia looked at him blankly, incredulous.
"Coffee," she muttered. "What makes you think I have time for coffee?" She hadn't raised her voice, but it might have been less of a blow to Peter if she had.
He stammered. And then stopped, holding his breath.
"Look, it's cool. Just an idea," barely audible.
He looked away. She studied him for a long moment. He wondered if she was wishing his head to explode, or if she would ask him to leave. He wouldn't know, but neither happened.
"Sorry," he muttered.
"No, I'm sorry," she said, coming to herself. "I shouldn't have-I'm sorry. It sounds good, really. Maybe if I could carve out some time, hire Trish or something. I don't know if it's such a good idea for me right now, though, you know? I mean, I used to go to a book club and all. I just don't have a lot of reading time these days, as you can see."
"Oh, hey, whenever. It's cool."
Peter heard the door open.
"Hey," he heard a male voice in the front room, and his heart almost stopped.
"Tom, hey," Virginia said, her long legs striding out to the tall man in the front room.
Peter almost didn't follow. He didn't know if hiding back there or coming out would look more suspicious.
The tall man hugged Virginia, firemen's arms wrapping down around her little shoulders. She gave him a short kiss, but it bore no resemblance to anything a customs official would do with a stamp.
"Howdy, Pete," Tom said. "What brings you around here?"
Peter swallowed, trying to avoid his brother's cool eyes. "I could ask the same," he said, trying to feel brave.
"They had a mix-up on the schedule at the station. Or I had the mix-up. Anyway, I've got duty tomorrow. Not today."
"Pete was just over to play with the kids. Kinda giving me a break, you know," Virginia said.
Tom eyed Trish playing silly face games with Todd on the couch.
"Look," said Peter. "I gotta go."
"Yeah," said Tom.
"Sure you don't want to stay for dinner or something?"
Dinner. A kaleidoscope of faux pas, discomfort, foot-in-mouth disease, and worst of all, the possibility of awkward, one-sided confrontation. All worth delaying, if not entirely avoiding.
"Nah. Thanks, though." He headed for the door. Not too fast, he hoped. Don't run from dogs or bears, he had been told.
"Thanks Pete," Virginia said.
He turned, and got a last look at Virginia before he waved to them all and left.
He kicked small stones down the sidewalk on the way back to his studio apartment. It'd be best not to go back there for a long while. Cool it off, maybe. Leave it be for a while.
When the kids get a little older, and have school. Firemen work long shifts.
He looked behind him, half afraid Tom would be following him. He feared a knock on the door, or a call.
When he got in the door, his place it was silent and still.
He slumped in a chair, breathing deep, speaking to himself in the language of his own thoughts: the only one in which he was truly fluent. Molly would miss him, and not know the name for what she missed, or remember his face.
He could not go back.