Squire’s Isle Created by Geonn Cannon

A Warm December

Summary: The women of Squire’s Isle enjoy the lull between the two biggest holidays of the season.

Thanksgiving was long enough in the past that people had resumed their normal everyday routines, albeit with one eye on the big holiday that loomed at the end of the year. Hanukkah marked the exact day when Christmas was as far into the future as Thanksgiving was in the past, the tipping point of holiday cheer. Stores had time to restock their turkey, ham, pumpkin pie, and cranberry reserves, and people still had time to shop without hitting the Black Friday rush or the pre-Christmas panic.

Callie Marcus was bundled up in her thick coat and scarf, tugging off one mitten with her teeth as she fished the keys from the pocket of her jeans. Her cheeks were almost as red as her knit cap, teeth already chattering just from the short walk from the parking lot to work. Butler Photography was usually closed on Sundays, but Mrs. Butler had given her permission to use the darkroom for a personal project.

She let herself in and took off her winter gear, draping it on the front counter that was her usual domain. She checked the overnight deposit to see if anyone had left any film to be developed, but the box was empty. The radio behind the counter was tuned to KELF, since the owner’s daughter worked there, but Callie switched it to a different station since she’d be alone. The school had a Photography Room that she could use, but the teachers had succumbed to the domination of digital, and their equipment for film was dated and obsolete.

Callie loved digital film. She loved that she was able to pull out her phone and take a picture whenever she wanted. But something about the weight of an actual camera, the snap of it, the brilliant flash of light… it all combined to make her feel like she was actually capturing a memory rather than just taking a picture. She had an old Nikon camera – a fact that always put Paul Simon’s voice in her head when she mentioned it to someone – with a strap that let it hang around her neck. She was so used to the weight that once she put it on she could ignore it with ease.

The last time she’d worn it was the night of Patricia Hood-Colby’s watch party. She’d held off developing the film during lunch breaks because she didn’t want to take up time or equipment that could be used for paying customers. She wanted to take her time and develop them right. Just because it was possible to print a perfect shot with the punch of a button didn’t mean the old-school process deserved to be forgotten.

Her father was surprised to learn she’d gotten the job, mainly because he was shocked photography shops still existed. But even with a camera in everyone’s pocket, the shop provided other services that kept them relevant. They sold camera equipment for people like Callie who wanted to preserve the craft of picture-taking, lenses and replacement parts and film. They also provided portrait-taking for graduation, yearbook photos, Christmas cards, birth announcements, and the like.

In the six months Callie had been working for them, she’d put together a website for the shop that educated people of what they offered. Photo restorations, scanning old pictures to preserve them online… The shop may not have been doing exactly the same work as they’d done twenty years ago, but there was a lot of work left for them to do.

She spent the morning developing the pictures she had taken on election night. Some of them were posed – Michael and some of her friends, the Hood-Colby family standing in front of a large poster with Patricia’s name on it, partygoers displaying their “I Voted” stickers – but she was after the candid shots. She had discovered the treasures that were possible by keeping the camera at chest level and snapping a quick, unframed photograph of a general area.

One of those pictures was of Patricia and Jill Hood-Colby, and she was dying to see how it had turned out. She watched as it faded into being and smiled at the result. It was definitely going to be a successful picture.

When she finished with her roll, she left the photos and bundled herself back up for another jaunt into the freezing air. Coffee Table Books was just down the street and she was dying for a cup of that new hot chocolate they were selling, the Spyhopper. Michael had bought her one after school the day it was introduced, and she’d fallen in love immediately. It was–
*
“–really easy to make. Okay, pay attention.”

Amy Wellis placed the two cups of hot chocolate on the counter in front of her newest employee, a girl named Sofia. “The whipped cream, you want to apply in a circular pattern so that it leaves a divot in the middle.” She demonstrated, leaving a frothy circle of wavy white around the rim of the cup with a dip in the center. She plucked a full-sized marshmallow from the bin and placed it in the perfectly-shaped hole, and the whipped cream seemed to surround it. “And the chocolate sprinkles…” She dusted them in the cream all around the marshmallow

“And that,” Amy said with a smile, “is how you make a Spyhopper.”

“But why is it called that?” Sofia asked.

Amy handed the two demonstration glasses over the counter to the customers. “It’s named after something orcas do. They stand straight up out of the water to take a look around. It’s not a breach, it’s just a little look-around. When the harbor is icy like it is now, it makes the water look like whipped cream. And there you have it. Think you can handle it?”

“Sure,” Sofia said with a smile.

Amy brushed her arm and went to check on the next mini-crisis. The Spyhopper was the result of Kate’s idle musing over a cup of cocoa the previous Christmas. She had bemoaned the fact that cocoa only came with tiny marshmallows. Amy had come up with the variation for Kate alone, but Kate had insisted it was something that needed to be sold. So Amy waited until the holiday season rolled around again and started selling it the week before Thanksgiving.

The result was an entire island of people who seemed addicted to the new drink. Her first fear had been that using large marshmallows would be cost-prohibitive, but she was making enough of a profit that the added expense was hardly noticeable. She spelled Casey on the cash register, taking payment from a young redheaded girl who was holding a book she’d retrieved from the shelves.

“Which one did you get?” Amy asked. She may have kept the books in the store out of ambivalence, but she liked seeing what her customers chose.

The girl showed off the cover. “It’s a book on photography.”

“Ah, very cool. Enjoy your read, and enjoy the drink. Happy holidays!”

“Thanks, you too.”

Amy wished she could spend more time with the customers, but Sundays were always insane. The regulars knew to stay away during the peak tourism hours when the hordes descended. It was even worse in the weeks between Christmas and Thanksgiving. It seemed like she didn’t have a chance to stop and breathe until the doors were shut and the sign was flipped to Closed. Amy smiled at the next person in line. “Hi. What was your–”
*
“–order up!” Molly Page slid the plate into the pass-through, rang the bell, and tugged another order slip off the wheel. She was grateful that her rhythm hadn’t suffered since she was working with a replacement crew. Shane was home sick and, as much as Molly wanted to be there to take care of her, Gail’s couldn’t afford to have both of them out of commission on one of the busiest days of the week. The after-church lunch rush was still going strong, but her backup sous chef was handling it well. She had no reason to think he would do poorly; he was Shane’s usual backup and had worked the same number of rush shifts. But she still missed Shane. The lack of their shorthand made the kitchen seem silent, even though it was anything but.

Before she could start on the next order, Shane’s understudy held out his hand for it. “I’ll take it if you want.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah. We’re on the downward slide. You can go ahead and take a cigarette break if you want.”

“Sure.” She handed him the slip and began untying her apron. “When I get back we can swap.” He nodded and she went to retrieve her coat. She wrapped a scarf around her neck and stepped out, gasping as the wind swirled snow in through the door around her. She pulled the door shut and moved immediately toward the front of Joe Lack’s pizza. The door was closed, of course, but the heat from their pizza ovens formed a small bubble of warmth in one corner of the alcove.

She took out her cell phone even though she knew Shane was probably napping. After two rings it switched to voicemail.

Shane’s voice was tinny and metallic. “You’ve reached Shane Sanborn. Why?”

Molly smiled. “Hey, Shane. I just wanted to make sure you didn’t need anything. I can probably get away for twenty minutes or so, or I could stop by somewhere on my way home and pick you up something.” She remembered Shane’s red nose and heavy eyelids as she burrowed into the blankets that morning, coughing and clutching a Kleenex like it was a life preserver. “I hope you’re feeling better. I really miss you.” She used the toe of her shoe to push sugar-fine snow around on the wooden deck. She didn’t have much else to say, but she didn’t want to hang up. “Call me back when you get this. Leave a message. I don’t care if it’s coughing and sneezing, I just want to hear you. I love you. All right. Get back to bed.”

She hung up and stuck the phone back in her pocket. Her fingers brushed the side of her cigarettes, and she considered taking one out and smoking it. Technically her break was twenty minutes, and she’d barely been outside for a fraction of that. Finally she walked back to the kitchen door and stepped back into the warmth.

After she hung up her coat and scarf, she went back to her position on the line. The replacement was still working on the order he’d taken from her when she left.

“That was quick.”

“I decided to skip it. I’ll work through and go home a little early. My girlfriend is sick.”

“Oh. That’s too bad.” He glazed the salmon. “Tell you what. I’ll take my break when the rush slows down a little, and when I get back you can just head out.”

Molly tried not to get too excited at the prospect. “I can’t leave you hanging on Sunday afternoon.”

“You’re not. I got my crew, I got your crew, we’ll be fine. Your girl is sick.”

“Thanks.” She looked at the clock. “I’ll give you two more hours at least.”

He nodded and went back to work, and Molly took the next order off the wheel. Now that she knew she was going home early, she had a new burst of energy. Part of her felt like if she worked fast enough, she could prepare a plate for every citizen of Squire’s Isle and there’d be no reason to stay. A quick glance out to the dining room made her feel like every citizen might actually be out there. The cold was keeping the line from extending through the door, like it did on most Sundays during big tourist weekends, but it was still a daunting crowd. She put it out of her mind and brushed her hand against the stove.

She hissed and pressed a wet towel against it.

“You all right?”

“Yeah,” Molly said. “Just a little–
*
“–burn. Basically just common sense tips.” Alex Crawford looked down at the notes she was holding. She hated public speaking, and even giving winter safety tips to the Homeowners Association at Sandpiper Condos counted as a large group. “Keep your trees well-watered, make sure you always have plenty of water in the tree stands. This should go without saying, but lit candles are not a good decoration. I know it looks pretty, but they make those plug-in electrical kinds for a reason. And that brings me to overloaded outlets… just don’t. Just because you can theoretically plug an extension cord into another extension cord doesn’t mean you should.”

The assembly laughed, at least those who were paying attention. Alex didn’t blame the ones who had faded away. Most of the tips were plain common sense, but she knew that it all needed to be said. The previous Christmas she had responded to seven house fires caused by easily-preventable means.

“Heat sources will dry out your tree in no time flat, and then you’ve got a six-foot piece of tinder standing in your living room. So keep it away from vents, fireplaces, the kitchen. I’ve yet to meet anyone who put their tree in a kitchen, but hey, I’m no decorator.” More chuckles. She scratched her neck and went back to her notes.

“I know we’re not scheduled for a winter storm, but just in case… remember your safety in power outages. Generators can be a fire hazard, and in an enclosed space they can take you out a lot quicker than you’d think. Well-ventilation may seem counter-intuitive when it’s this cold but it could save your life. I’m happy to report that Thanksgiving passed without any, uh, turkeys getting revenge by burning down anyone’s houses. So well-done on that.”

She rolled up the notes and rested her hands on the lectern. “I’m not going to treat you like you’re little kids. The tips are all written out on the flyer you’re going to get, so just heed those. Use common sense. I like you people just fine, and I’d love to be invited to your holiday parties, but I don’t want to crash them even if I make up for it by saving your lives. Thanks for coming by today and listening to what I had to say, and I hope you all have a very wonderful holiday. I hope I don’t drop by any of your houses uninvited this year.”

The group chuckled and began to split up, and Alex gathered her notes. The head of the condo board, a silver-haired man named Arthur, came up and shook her hand.

“Thank you for taking the time to do this, Chief Crawford.”

“It’s my pleasure. If I can get paid for doing this instead of actually putting out the fires, I’m happy to do it. I just hope they didn’t get too bored.”

He scoffed and shook his head. “No, no. We used to have Don Bradley do these, and the man was so dry he constituted a fire danger. You kept it light, didn’t try to act like you were telling them something they didn’t know… it’s like the safety instructions on an airplane, ya know? We can see where the exits are, but we like having someone point them out.”

Alex smiled. “If you need me to do any refreshers, let me know. We had a pretty good group, but that couldn’t have been every resident who lives here in Sandpiper.”

“No, no.” He looked at the empty chairs and the people who were leaving. “We have a couple of no-shows. But I’ll put the ditto sheets in the front office and they can come by to pick them up at their leisure.” He leaned forward and said, “Don’t worry. I’m sure their decision to stay home has nothing to do with you.”

Alex laughed. “Right. I’m not worried. This close to Christmas, I’m sure most people have better things to do than listen to me ramble on about fire safety. I’m just glad you didn’t make it mandatory. It means everyone who did show up actually wanted to–”
*
“–come… don’t stop.” Nadine closed her eyes, unable to believe she was close to her fifth orgasm in ten hours. The living room was the latest location in their recent debauchery, with Nadine slouched in the armchair with her legs draped over Miranda’s shoulders. Her pants were on the floor next to the coffee table, her underwear held aside by two fingers while the other two joined Miranda’s thumb and tongue in driving her absolutely crazy. Nadine had one arm curled over the back of the chair and pressed her blush-pink cheek against her bicep as she came again.

Miranda withdrew her fingers but kept her lips and tongue in place, gently stroking Nadine until her tremors stopped and she sagged against the cushions. Miranda pushed up the hem of Nadine’s T-shirt, licking her stomach before moving higher to tease her breasts through the thin cotton. Nadine hunched her shoulders and tugged gently at Miranda’s hair to pull her away.

“Stop. Stop, you’re trying to murder me.”

Miranda smiled and kissed the spot of Nadine’s chest just above the scooped neck of her T-shirt. She licked up to Nadine’s neck, and Nadine squirmed.

“What was that?”

“Counting last night, it was five.”

She exhaled, still red-faced and giggling from her last round. It started as a typical Saturday night make-out session on the couch, which turned into full-fledged lovemaking in the bedroom. Then Miranda woke her with a slow and tender massage, they moved it into the shower, and between breakfast and lunch Nadine had pulled Miranda to her on the sofa to try repaying some of the kindness that had been done to her. And now her reading had been interrupted by an impromptu pantsing and her wife trying to write a coded message between her thighs. She stroked Miranda’s hair and caught her breath.

“So. What brought that on?”

“Friday at work I saw you dancing in the booth. I don’t even remember what song was playing.” She turned her head and kissed the inside of Nadine’s wrist. “You were standing in front of the console, headphones still on and your back to the window, and you were shaking your hips and rocking your shoulders. I wanted you so badly. And then you were tired on Friday, yesterday afternoon we had to get groceries, and I finally couldn’t help myself.”

“I’m glad you couldn’t help yourself.” She kissed Miranda’s nose. “I love you so much. Help me sit up…”

Miranda helped Nadine sit up straighter, then climbed onto the chair and settled in her lap. Nadine stroked Miranda’s legs from knee to ass, smiling up at her. Miranda brushed Nadine’s hair away from her face and kissed her eyebrows.

“I’m sorry I’ve been mauling you all day.”

Nadine furrowed her brow. “I’m… sorry… did you mistake some of what I cried out as pleas for you to stop?”

“No.” Miranda chuckled. “I’ve just been thinking a lot about us lately, and a lot about how lucky I am you’re with me. I wanted to spend a little time showing you how much I appreciate you.”

“Well. I’ll have to find the energy to repay the favor.”

She lifted her head and pressed her lips to Miranda’s, using the tip of her tongue to part her lips. Miranda moaned and moved her hands to Nadine’s breasts. She squeezed through the T-shirt and Nadine squirmed, gasping at having her sensitive nipples manipulated. She hunched her shoulders and pulled back, inhaling sharply as the kiss broke.

“So what do you say, Miranda? Want to go for number–”
*
“–six times. And the worst part is that I know he’s just making me repeat myself so that he can hand in something sub-par and claim he didn’t understand the assignment. The kid is devious.”

Patricia glanced toward Jill, watched her angrily type out a response to the student’s email, and let the comment go without trying to appease Jill’s anger. It felt wrong, like not blessing someone after they sneezed. Jill sighed as she hit send, shaking her head and reaching up to take off her glasses. Patricia focused on the sink in front of her. Normally she would go over and offer an impromptu shoulder massage, whisper something encouraging into her wife’s ear, and generally try to alleviate some of the frustration as best she could. Hell, on an ordinary Sunday when Michael wasn’t home, Jill wouldn’t be grading papers. But this was no ordinary Sunday.

Patricia had no idea how the fight had even started. When Michael left on Friday night they were still planning on two days of walking around the house in their underwear and randomly attacking each other on any available flat surface. But Saturday morning phone calls from City Hall, an unexpected email from the elementary school’s principal, and an overlong grocery shopping session, plus the stress of packing up the house to move across town to the mayor’s residence finally reached a tipping point. They took their anger and stress out on each other and, by the end of the night, they weren’t speaking. Their exchange of ‘good-nights’ were barely sociable, let alone the sort they normally gave.

She was mad at Jill, and Jill was mad at her, and neither of them could really pinpoint why. She was washing dishes and Jill was working at the dining room table because it had more light, but they had hardly spoken a word to each other even though they were only a few feet apart. Patricia could feel the pull, the want that came with being away from Jill for too long, but she wasn’t quite ready to give in.

Jill looked at the dining room window in response to some noise. “Is that Callie?”

It was the first thing she’d said all morning that was directed specifically to Patricia, so she dried her hands and went to the back door. She arrived just as Callie knocked, opening it and forcing an ‘everything is fine’ smile. “Hi, Callie. Michael’s not getting back until tonight.”

“I know. I sort of came by to talk to you guys.” She was wrapped in a heavy coat and scarf, her frizzy red hair hidden under a cap. She was clutching a large flat package to her chest. “Can I come in for a minute?”

“Oh, of course. Get in out of that cold, sweetie.” She stepped out of the way and glanced toward Jill. Jill stood, her frustrated expression becoming neutral when she met Patricia’s eye. In a split second they silently agreed to be civil for the duration of her visit. “Is everything okay?”

Callie nodded. “Fine. Uh.” She looked down at the package. “You know on election night when I was going around taking pictures? I took a couple that I wanted to make sure were just right before I showed them to you, and I wanted to give you this one special. I was going to wait until Christmas, but…” She shrugged and held it out.

Patricia took it and opened the paper, slipping out a framed and matted picture. Patricia was framed in the middle of the image, looking at something to her right. A few strands of hair had fallen across her face in an arc, dipping down to her cheek with the ends tucked behind her ear. Over her shoulder, standing in a group of people about three feet away, was Jill. They were the only two things in the entire image with any color; everything else had been saturated and slightly blurred. But Jill stood out sharply, the smile on her face impossible to miss, her eyes locked on the back of Patricia’s head. There were proud tears in her eyes. Her right hand was extended to grip Patricia’s, which was stretched back without looking to meet Jill’s grip.

“I call it Behind Every Good Woman.” Callie shifted her weight.

Patricia felt Jill at her shoulder and angled the picture so she could see it. “Oh, wow. Callie, this is gorgeous. How did you do this?”

“Most of it was done on the computer, but I wanted to make sure the important part was highlighted. So you like it?”

Patricia handed the picture to Jill and put an arm around Callie’s shoulders to pull her close for a hug.

“We love it, Callie. Thank you so much.”

“You have so much talent,” Jill said. “Thank you.”

They both hugged her, and Callie shyly stepped out of their embrace. “I’m glad you like it. I was really hoping I could get something from that night that was really special, so. Um, I’ll develop the rest of the pictures this week and I’ll get them to you before Christmas.”

Patricia nodded and looked at the picture again. “Okay. Thank you again. This is just beautiful, Callie. I’m blown away.”

Callie’s cheeks were red, but not from the cold. She smiled and shrugged. “I don’t know. I thought it would be a nice thing. I’ll get out of your hair. I have to get home, so… uh. Tell Michael he can call me tonight when he gets home, ‘kay?”

“Okay. Drive safe, Callie. The roads might be a little slick.”

“I will. Bye.” She shut the door and turned to face Jill, wondering if they were going back to the silent treatment. She didn’t know how they could after seeing that picture. “She has so much talent, doesn’t she?”

“This isn’t just talent,” Jill said. “This is skill. She has such an amazing eye. I’m so glad she’s working toward improving herself. She’s going to be an amazing photographer. Hell, she already is one.”

Patricia ran her teeth over her bottom lip and said, “I’m sorry.” Jill looked up with a question in her eyes. “This past year, you’ve done nothing but support the campaign. Support me. And I took that for granted. I just assumed you would be there when I reached for you. And now that it’s over, I think I’m still trying to lean on you more than I should. Marriage needs to be give and take, and I’ve just been taking. It’s been selfish, and I don’t blame you for being angry at me.”

Jill exhaled and put the picture down. “That’s not why I’ve been acting like a bitch. I don’t know why, really. I’ve just been irritable and pissy. I was able to control it because I didn’t want Michael to see us fighting, but when he went to the mainland with his dad, it all just boiled over.” She crossed her arms and looked down at her sneakers. Suddenly she barked, “I hate that he’s there.”

Patricia’s eyes widened. “Where? Who?”

“Michael. With Nichols. I know Nicholas is Michael’s father, and I know it doesn’t change anything, but when he goes to spend a weekend with Nicholas, I feel like the replacement. I feel like I’m cut out.” She pressed her lips together and leaned against the side of the table. When she spoke again, her voice was softer. “The rest of the time, I know where I stand. I know that I’m Michael’s stepmother, and I know how much weight that carries. I adopted him, and he’s ours, but when he’s away with Nicholas…” She blinked away tears. “I don’t like it.”

Patricia gave in to the urge she’d been fighting all weekend and took Jill into her arms. Jill seemed to melt into her.

“I know. I’m not exactly a fan of Weekends at Dad’s, either. When we divorced, Nicholas told me he wouldn’t fight. He said that Michael shouldn’t be forced to deal with that, and he knew how devastated I would be if Michael was taken away, so he let me have custody. That’s why I okay all these weekends. If Nicholas had decided to be a jackass, I could have lost Michael for good. But he did the right thing.

“You’re not cut out, Jill. Nicholas is. He’s on the outside. No matter how many weekends Michael spends on the mainland, this is his home. We’re his family.” She stroked Jill’s hair and kissed between her eyebrows. “I wish you’d told me you were feeling this way.”

Jill sniffled. “I guess I just got into the habit of taking your burden. I forgot how to give mine away.” She kissed Patricia’s chin, cheek, and then lingered on her lips. Patricia couldn’t help but moan; she’d missed Jill the past few days.

“Well, I’ll try to get back in the swing of giving as well as taking.” She looked at the picture, which was now lying on the table next to Jill’s laptop. “It’s so beautiful. I always knew you were there. Right there. Behind me, ready to take my hand or hold me up if I needed it. Thank you, bunny.”

Jill laughed. “Wow. You haven’t called me that in a while.”

She kissed the top of Jill’s head. “There’s a lot of stuff I haven’t done for a while. I’ve been selfish. It’s time you got to lean on me.”

“Thank you.”

“No thanks necessary. It’s my job.” She slipped her hand into Jill’s. “In fact… we’ve spent way too much of this weekend circling each other. We should take advantage of being alone.” She backed up, lifting the picture with her free hand as she pulled Jill out of the kitchen and toward the bedroom.

Jill smiled. “What did you have in mind?”

“Oh, I have lots of ideas. I was thinking I was going to start with–”
*
“–tie you to the bed, or are you going to behave?”

The patient grumbled and sagged against the pillows. When she was convinced he would stay put, Rachel smoothed out his blankets and stepped back from the side of the bed. Matthew Rogan was seventy-eight, the victim of a car accident caused by icy roads. He was mostly fine, but Rachel wanted to monitor him overnight just to be sure there was nothing waiting to go wrong. Unfortunately he was demonstrating the hale and hearty constitution that had saved him from further injury by refusing to stay in bed.

“If you promise to stay put, I’ll bring you a nice big dinner from the cafeteria. What do you feel like for dessert? Pudding or cake?”

“Spyhopper.”

She sighed. “Mr. Rogan, I’m not sending an intern to Coffee Table Books just to get you a hot chocolate.”

“Go yourself!”

Rachel narrowed her eyes at him. “It would freeze by the time I got back here.”

“Then I’ll have to go.” He started to throw the blankets back, but Rachel pulled them back across his narrow torso. “You’re being unreasonable.”

“I’m looking out for you. And I don’t care how hard you make it on me, I’m going to keep on taking care of you until I decide you’re healthy enough to go home. And even if you curse me out as you’re wheeled through the doors, and even though I will be thrilled to see the back of your head, I’m not letting you go a second before I’m satisfied.” She pointed two fingers at her eyes, indicating he should look close. “You doubt me?”

He sucked his dentures, then crossed his arms and looked out the window. Pouting was fine. She could handle pouting.

“I’ll be back with your dinner at four. Behave, Mr. Rogan.”

He made a noise of irritation. Rachel turned and left the room. She assumed she could make a Spyhopper in the cafeteria. It was just cocoa, whipped cream, sprinkles and a marshmallow. And if it appeased him enough to leave her alone for an hour, it would be worth the effort. She made a note in his chart and glanced up as Dr. Zoe Hudson approached. Zoe was new to the island, having transferred from a hospital in New Hampshire.

“Has Mr. Rogan been making a fuss again?”

“Nothing I can’t handle.” Rachel finished with the chart and checked her watch. “I’m headed down to the cafeteria to see if I can put together a bribe for him. Want to join me?”

“I just had lunch. Rain check?”

Rachel nodded. “You have much longer on your shift?”

“I’m here until Doomsday. You?”

“Dinner with my sweetie.”

Zoe smiled. “Ohh, I see. Do you want to head home and get ready? I could take care of the beastly Mr. Rogan and you can slip out early.”

The offer was tempting, but she shook her head. “I only have an hour left anyway. And I have a change of outfit in my locker and we’re planning to meet at the restaurant anyway. Thank you, though.”

“Any time. I’ve got no one waiting for me at home, so it’s not too bad if I’m stuck here all night. You can pay me back by hooking me up with one of your hot, single friends.”

Rachel laughed. “I’ll keep my eye out.” She slapped Zoe on the arm as she passed by her. “See you in a bit.”

“See you.”

She thought ahead to the night they had planned. Yes, there would be dinner, but they were also celebrating Hanukkah. Alex had been raised Jewish but drifted from the religion after her mother died. They still celebrated Christmas, but they observed Hanukkah as well to keep in touch with Alex’s roots. They would have an early dinner, then go home and light the candle and exchange their gifts.

The elevator door opened and Rachel almost ran into Alex. “Oh! I was just thinking about you.”

“It’s my superpower.” She kissed Rachel’s lips and stepped to one side to let her into the elevator. “Going down?”

“Maybe later.” Rachel nudged Alex’s arm and pressed the button for the second floor. “I’m going on a cafeteria run for a patient.”

“Ah. I was going to see if you wanted to skip out early for dinner.”

“I actually got an offer to cover the rest of my shift. Should I take it?”

Alex shrugged. “Up to you. I don’t mind waiting when the reward is so sweet.” She nudged Rachel back. “If you have something here that needs your attention I can hang out.”

“Well, I have one patient who needs monitoring, but Zoe can do that. I think I can swing getting out early. I mean, as long as nobody is–”
*
“–dying.”

“You’re not dying.” Molly was sitting with her back to the headboard, Shane’s head on her lap. She was warm, weak, and whiny. Her hair was lank and her skin was clammy. She sniffled and brought a tattered Kleenex up to her nose. Molly made a face as Shane blew her nose; she thought only animals made noises like that. The radio was playing so quietly Molly couldn’t even identify the artist, but it was better than silence.

Shane shifted on the bed, either trying to pull the blankets up or kick them away. There was a chance she was trying to do both. She grunted and thumped her head lightly on Molly’s chest, snorted, coughed, and wiped her nose with the Kleenex again.

“You should go.”

“Where am I gonna go? I live here.”

Shane made a noise. “Somewhere you don’t have to hang out with a sick and dying person. Sick and whining person.”

“There’s nowhere else I want to be.” She realized it was true as she said it. “I don’t care if you’re moaning and groaning all night. I want to be with you.”

“Masochist,” Shane intoned nasally.

“No,” Molly said. “It’s just worth the disgust.” She kissed Shane’s hot forehead. “Try to sleep a little more. I’m right here if you need me.”

Shane laughed weakly. “Oh. Cool. The only thing duller than hanging out with a sick person. Hanging out with an unconscious sick person.”

Molly squeezed Shane’s shoulder. “Just go to sleep. I’ll wake you up when it’s time to take your medicine.”

“Mol…”

“Hmm?”

“I love you.”

Molly smiled. “I love you, too. Just relax and get some sleep.”

“Okay. For you, I’ll try.”

“That’s all I ask.”

Shane sighed and settled into a more comfortable position. She was snoring in under five minutes, her head heavy against Molly’s chest. Molly watched her, examining her puffy eyes and the raw skin around her nose, the dry lips parted so she could breathe, and the sheen of sweat on her forehead and cheeks. It was disgusting. It was horrible. But she knew even if she could get free she wouldn’t want to. She thought about the ring she had hidden in the drawer, the one she’d bought on a whim after the gay marriage bill passed, just to have it and see what it was like.

Having the ring didn’t terrify her. And now, sitting in bed fully-clothed with a sickly half-alive girlfriend, she realized it was more than that. It wasn’t that she was okay with having the ring, she wanted it. She could legally ask Shane to marry her. Maybe she would wait until Christmas morning. Maybe she would do it on New Years. She wasn’t sure of the timeline. All she knew was that when the bad parts of a relationship were this tolerable, the good parts had to be pretty damn good.

“What?”

Molly looked down and stroked Shane’s cheek. “I didn’t say anything.”

“Thought you said something. Don’t go anywhere…” She smacked her lips and rested her head again. “I can hear your heart.”

“Oh, yeah?” Molly tried to think of an appropriate response to that, but she couldn’t. “What’s it sound like?”

“Whump-whoosh. Whump-whoosh.”

On the third recitation, her voice faded. She didn’t make it to a fourth. Molly stroked her hair and rested against the headboard.

“I’ll be here when you wake up. I’m not going–”
*
“–anywhere. I want a nice place, but something within the town limits.” Nicole Bronwyn scratched the back of her neck with the cap of her pen, leaning forward to scan the newspaper’s real estate section. She was in overalls and a thermal undershirt, her hair tied back so she could lean forward without it falling in her face. “I’m fine with small apartments as long as they’re not shoeboxes with carpeting.”

“You know you’re more than welcome to stay here as long as you have to.” Kate came out of the kitchen with two bowls of Hamburger Helper. She put one down next to Nick’s paper and sat next to her on the couch. She looked to see the listings herself. “Are you completely dead set against renting a house?”

“The upkeep alone…” Nick shook her head. “Plus it would be too much like putting down roots.”

“Would that be so bad? You’ve been here for a couple of months now. It might be nice to have a home base to come back to.”

“You and Ames are my home base.” She put her hand on Kate’s knee and squeezed, and Kate leaned against her. Since Nick’s less-than-triumphant return to the island, the three of them had renewed their polyamorous relationship. Kate couldn’t list the ways it shouldn’t work without a pad and pencil, since she had always thought herself the jealous type, but with Nick it just felt right. Nick knew she was the “extra,” the one who would get cut out if their unique relationship came to an end, and she was fine with it. For the time being she was happy just being included.

To a point, anyway. She was fine with camping out with them for a few months, but she needed a place of her own if just to establish that she was the tertiary part of their group. It was a gesture that was easily planned than done, it seemed.

“You have the inside track, right? You work at the paper. You can get the real-estate listings before they hit the paper and give me an edge.”

Kate faked a gasp. “So illegal, Ms. Bronwyn.”

“Illegal?”

“Well, unethical at the least.” She reached out and closed the paper. “For now, just focus on dinner. We can find you a place to live tomorrow.”

Nick picked up her bowl and leaned back, placing her bare feet on the edge of the table. Kate leaned back with her and pressed the side of her foot against Nick’s.

“You really like having me here?”

Kate chuckled. “You think I wasn’t having a good time last night?”

“Well, last night. And Friday.” She grinned. “I mean the other times. When I’m taking up your fridge space, or I’m in the shower and you’re running late for work. This is a great apartment, but it’s kind of stretching the limits for three people to live here. I’m sure I’ve been getting on your nerves. You and Amy both.”

“You’re worth the aggravation. I mean, anyone you love is going to be a pain in the ass from time to time. You just get past it.”

Nick stared at her. “What?”

“You get past it.”

“No. You said you loved me.”

Kate nodded slowly. “I do. Amy does, too. We’ve talked about it.”

Nick looked down into her bowl.

“Is that okay?”

“That is really… really okay,” Nick said softly. “I love you, too. And I love Amy.” Nick laughed and shook her head. “I didn’t think I’d be saying that to anyone so soon after…” She waved her hand to indicate the entire thing that sent her fleeing from Chicago. “Let alone two people.”

“Well, it’s not just anyone. Amy and I predate–” She copied Nick’s dismissive hand-wave. “So it’s not as monumental.”

“Oh, it’s monumental, all right. I want to kiss you to commemorate it. But I think we should wait until Amy’s here.”

Kate nodded. “Yeah.” She grinned and rubbed Nick’s foot with her own. “And then we can commemorate with more than just a kiss.”

“Mm. Can’t wait.” She stirred her meal and said, “So we’re just going to act like it’s a normal night until Amy gets home?”

“It is a normal night.”

Nick smiled. “I could get used to this kind of normal, I think.”

Kate said, “Yeah. Forget real estate. Right now we’ve–”
*
“–got everything?”

“I think so.”

Michael checked to make sure he had all of his stuff, then slung the strap of his backpack over his shoulder. His father was sitting in the booth and had twisted to look out the window at the island as it approached. He had only been back a few times since the divorce, and those times he hadn’t stayed very long. He turned back to face his son and smiled.

“Winter wonderland, as always.”

“You oughta try this new drink they have at Coffee Table Books. It’s called the Spyhopper.”

“Maybe next time.” He slid out of the booth and hugged his son. “Hope you had a good time this weekend. Sorry to keep you away from your girlfriend for two whole days.”

Michael scoffed and shrugged. “Whatever.”

Nicholas grinned and playfully punched Michael’s shoulder. “All right. Tell your mother congratulations on winning the election. I haven’t had a chance to do it myself, but I’m really proud of her.”

“I’ll tell her. If I come to your place for Christmas, can Callie come visit?” He realize he was eliminating his manly dismissive attitude from earlier, but he wanted to be sure.

Nicholas said, “Actually, for Christmas, I think I’ll let your Moms have you. I’ll swing by and see you.”

“Really? You’ll come to the house and everything?”

“Yeah. It’s been a while. It’ll be nice. And I can try that, uh… Sky Hop thing.”

“Spyhopper.”

“Right.” He put his hand on Michael’s shoulder and walked him to the stairs. “Tell your Mom and Jill that I’m grateful for these weekends.”

“They know.”

“Yeah, well, tell ’em anyway. They should know I’m not taking it for granted.” They stopped at the bottom of the stairs and he turned to face Michael. “All right. See you at Christmas, pal. Try to stay out of trouble ’til then, all right?”

He chuckled. “I’ll try. Bye, Dad.”

“See you, champ.”

When the ferry docked, he waved goodbye to his father again and walked off onto solid ground. He expected either his mother or Jill to be there to pick him up, but he spotted Callie’s station wagon parked off the main drag in front of Gail’s and changed direction. She saw him coming and flashed the headlights, and he waved as he picked up his speed. Callie got out of the car and they kissed hello.

“Hey. I missed you.”

“I missed you, too. I thought Mom was going to pick me up.”

“She called and asked me to. I didn’t mind.” They walked back to the car and he got inside, grateful that the heater was already running. “I didn’t eat before we got on the ferry. Wanna get some dinner?”

Callie nodded. “Sure. Where do you wanna go?”

“Vic’s Subs?”

Callie’s stomach growled in response and she chuckled self-consciously. “I think that’s a yes. Vic’s it is.”

She waited for traffic off the ferry to pass and then pulled out onto the main street. Michael tossed his bag into the backseat and noticed there were a lot of empty picture frames. “Did you go to a rummage sale or something?”

“No. I was just trying to find the perfect frame for this picture I took.”

“Oh.” He watched the streets pass by. Coffee Table Books was lit like a ship lost at sea, a pale yellow glow shining through the icy glass of Callie’s car. They seemed to still be doing a pretty brisk business even with the late hour. He decided if they were still open when they finished dinner he would buy Callie another Spyhopper. She seemed to really like them.

“So anything exciting happen while I was gone?”

Callie scoffed and shook her head. “Are you kidding? Nothing big ever happens here. Just another boring Sunday on Squire’s Isle.”

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