If you need come build your home in me
And you know I won't complain
And I can't fix what was done to you
But I'll shield you from the rain
And if the walls they build become too high
Then step up on my back and climb
'Cause I never mind
No matter the day or time
I never mind
- Small Hands, Radical Face
Klaus isn’t sure what’s worse, that he apparently fathered a child he was unaware of, or that he didn’t even remember the mother’s name.
“Michelle!” He says, leaning against the alley wall, and her already unamused face sours further. “Miranda? Myra? ...Mindy?”
“Misty,” she says, mouth a flat, angry line of cheap red lipstick.
“Well, I had the right letter.” That doesn’t help, because Misty looks even more pissed. “Look, it’s been like two years, sorry for not remembering!”
Ben gives him a look, like if he could kick Klaus and make him feel it, he would.
“What can I do for you?” He asks, trying to sound suave and charming, but the fact that he’s high and hasn’t showered in three days is probably putting a damper on that.
“Look, I didn’t bother you with this before because I know you’re an unreliable asshole— “
“Hey,” he says, a little offended.
“—But I gotta go away for awhile, you know? You know.” She hugs her skinny torso, shivering in the late autumn air. She’s wearing a tube top and a leather skirt, her flimsy overshirt not enough to cut the biting wind. She’s clearly on her way home from a night of walking the streets.
Misty’s an addict like him, though when they’d been together she’d preferred heroin to pills, and has been selling herself since she was a teenager. They’d met through their mutual dealer (truly romantic) and had had an on-again, off-again fling for several months, never serious, until Klaus went to jail for possession and theft and Misty fell off the radar. He honestly hasn’t thought much about her since then, except sometimes when he misses how talented her mouth was.
If Klaus was more of a gentleman (and not only wearing a crop top himself), he’d give her his coat.
“Sucks, but what’s that got to do with me?” He’s got a baggie of pills in his pocket, newly purchased, calling his name.
“You gotta take her until I’m out, okay?” Misty’s shoulders are up near her ears at this point, and Klaus knows it isn’t entirely because of the cold. “I usually leave her with my sister when I’m working, but Mandy has two kids already and— “
“Take who?” Klaus asks, not following the thread of this conversation, the same time Ben says, “holy shit.”
“Your daughter, Klaus,” she says, voice soft. She turns her face away, a mixture of shame and anger on it before it’s obscured by her brittle, bleached-blonde hair.
“My what,” he says, dumbly, way too stoned for this conversation, and Ben really does kick him then, ghostly foot sliding through Klaus’s skinny ankle.
“Her name is Lily. Lilith. She’ll be one next month, on the 11th.” Misty opens her pocketbook and pulls out a Polaroid, passing it over to him. It’s of Misty, face open and beaming with happiness in a way Klaus had only seen a couple of times during their time together. In her lap is a laughing, chubby baby, almost a toddler, with a short fluff of dark curls and bright green eyes, wearing a pink onesie.
“Oh yeah, she’s yours,” Ben says, peering over Klaus’ shoulder to get a better look at the photo.
“You don’t know that!” He hisses at Ben, before remembering where he is. “How do you know she’s mine?” Misty’s head whips back to face him, just anger now, and he backpedals. “I mean, with your job— not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s my job sometimes too! But— “
“I know when she was conceived, and you’re the only one I was having unprotected sex with. Because we’re stupid assholes,” she says, anger smoothing out. “I know, I get it. But I’m sure. Have a test done or something, I don’t care. I know I’m right. Look at her.”
The resemblance is uncanny, it’s true. Klaus can’t deny it. “Why me, though? I’m probably the last person on the planet who should be responsible for a baby.”
“There’s no one else. Mandy can’t take her full-time— she’s already struggling to keep her kids. My mom’s out of the question. If you don’t take her, I’ll have to give her up to the state, and they’ll never let me have her back.” Misty’s eyes are suspiciously wet. “At least, if you have her, I know I can see her again.”
“I’m a homeless junkie,” Klaus says, and she shrugs.
“You’re a homeless junkie with a rich family and a bunch of siblings,” Misty says, and it’s a low blow, but an accurate one. “You always raved about how great your mom is. She’s better off with you than foster care.”
Misty slumps against the wall, rolling her ankles. Her feet must be killing her after walking in those heels all night, Klaus thinks.
“I got clean when I found out I was pregnant,” she says, staring at the filthy alley floor. “I got so sick Mandy said she thought I’d die, but I got clean. She’s healthy, that’s why they let me keep her at the hospital.” She’s not clean now, obviously— the track marks on her arms say as much— but that’s big.
“I’ve tried so hard to be a good mom and keep her,” she continues, and shit, she’s crying now, Klaus can hear it in her voice. “It’s so hard. I don’t want to lose her now. And maybe it’s selfish and awful, maybe she’d have a better life in some suburban foster home, but she’s mine, something good that’s mine, and I don’t want to lose her.” She looks up at him, mascara smearing down her cheeks. “Please, Klaus.”
Ben is glaring daggers at him, working himself up to a rant once they’re alone, Klaus can tell.
“How long is your sentence?” He finally asks after a long, uncomfortable silence, broken only by Misty’s phlegmy sniffles.
“A year,” she says. “Possession. Solicitation. But I could get out sooner with good behavior.”
“Christ,” he says, leaning against the wall next to her. “The fuck am I gonna do with a toddler?” Still, he reaches over and links her cold, bony hand with his. “When do you want me to take her?”
Misty sobs in relief, shoulders shaking, and after another look from Ben, Klaus wraps her in his arms, rubbing her cold skin, letting her cry into his coat’s faux-fur collar.
“Thank you,” she sobs, and Klaus is just so, so uncomfortable with all of this. Still, he’s not an unfeeling monster, so he rubs her back and rocks her a little. She clings to him. “I’m sorry, I’m getting makeup all over you.”
“It’s okay, I’ll wash it,” he says, which is a lie, but Misty knows him well enough that she doesn’t call him on it.
“I have to report in a week,” she says, and he nods.
“I’ll, um, have to find a place to stay— where can I reach you?” He’s not sure where he’ll go— he knows he’s burned most of his bridges. He certainly can’t go home, not where Dad’s cold beady eyes will be judging him.
“I live with Mandy and her kids. Um, here, I have her address and the phone number,” Misty says, drawing out of his embrace to dig a slip of paper out of her purse. He knows the area. Not far from here, definitely not the nicest part of town. Still, she has an address, which is better than him.
He puts the paper in his coat pocket and then, after hesitating, puts the photograph in as well. “I’ll call,” he says, and finds that he means it, surprisingly enough. Ben would never leave him alone anyway if he didn’t.
Misty smiles, watery and weak, wiping at her face with her hands. All it does is smear her makeup worse. “Thank you,” she whispers. “You have no idea how much this means to me.”
Don’t thank me yet, he thinks.
Klaus waits a good five minutes after Misty leaves to have his freakout, bouncing his leg against the pavement and ignoring Ben’s increasingly insistent pestering.
When he’s sure she’s long out of earshot, he swears, kicking an empty bottle and muffling a scream into his hands. “Fucking shit,” he shouts, shoulders shaking. “What am I going to do?”
“I guess you’re gonna step up and be a dad,” Ben says, and Klaus hisses at him through his hysterics.
“Oh, great, thanks. That’s a big help. Because I have such a great role model, and I’m in such a great place to be a parent.” He pulls at his hair, sliding down the wall to sit among the trash and dead leaves.
“Maybe this will finally be what helps you get clean,” Ben says. “Look at Misty. She got clean for the baby.”
“Misty is a junkie who is going to jail, Ben, not a great comparison.”
“Well, you’re a junkie who’s been in jail, Klaus, so maybe don’t throw stones. Would you really be happy knowing you have a daughter who’s out there, being raised by strangers? What if she develops an ability like yours or mine? We don’t know if this shit we can do is genetic. Those people who adopt her aren’t going to know what to do.”
He hasn’t thought of that. Shit, no, he wouldn’t be happy with his daughter— Lily, apparently— with other people. Misty, sure, she’s Lily’s mom and a genuinely good person, if you look past the drugs. But strangers could be like dear old Reggie.
“I don’t know what to do,” he says, speaking into his knees. “I’m not ready for this.”
“Tough shit,” Ben says. “None of us are ever ready for what happens to us. Deal with it.”
“You’re an asshole,” Klaus says, but he smiles up at Ben after. Ben grins back. No hard feelings.
Klaus lets himself wallow on the ground for another couple of minutes before hauling himself up and dusting himself off. He’s freezing, anyway.
He sticks his hands in his pockets to warm up and brushes against the baggie of pills with one hand and the photo of Misty and Lily with the other. He draws them both out, bobbing his hands as if weighing the two.
“You can’t keep both,” Ben says, like death has made him some sort of wise fucking sage. Klaus grimaces.
It hurts, an almost physical pain, to tip the pills onto the ground and crush them with his heel. But Klaus knows himself. He knows if he doesn’t destroy them he’ll be back, digging through whatever trash can he tossed them in. “Do you know how much those cost,” he gripes, scraping the pill residue off his shoe.
“I’m proud of you,” Ben says, and it certainly does not cause a warm feeling inside. He’s not that desperate for validation.
The problem is, Klaus really doesn’t know where to go. Home is out, obviously. It’s fine for a night or two, when it’s really cold out or he’s can’t find anywhere else to shower, but he isn’t sure he can handle the constant judgement from Dad and Pogo on a regular basis. Luther, at least, is on the moon and can’t judge him from all the way up there.
Besides, he hasn’t been back since he stole and pawned a bunch of Dad’s fancy shit a couple of months ago. Better to let that dog sleep a little longer.
Diego hasn’t spoken to him in years, not since he took Klaus in during a snowstorm and Klaus promptly screwed him over by stealing everything not nailed down and selling it for drug money. It’s a bad memory and Klaus winces just thinking of it.
He did the same to Vanya— multiple times, in fact— and the worst part is, he knows she’d help him again in a heartbeat, out of desperation to be loved and part of the family.
Klaus also knows neither of them are in a place to house him. Diego lives in a shithole so he can do his stupid vigilante bullshit and makes peanuts mopping floors and occasionally boxing. Vanya at least has her own place, but her apartment is tiny, no place for Klaus, let alone a baby. Also, she wrote that shitty tell-all about them, so screw her. Klaus mentally crosses her off the list.
Allison, of course, has made millions, but she hasn’t acknowledged his existence since she moved out at 19. He wouldn’t try calling her even if he knew her number.
Ben, his constant companion and infuriating conscience, is dead and therefore broke. Five is long gone, hopefully living a fabulous new life somewhere, but probably buried in a shallow grave under some creep’s back patio or in a national forest somewhere.
No, Klaus is alone in this. He says as much to Ben, who doesn’t look convinced, but doesn’t argue.
“Call Misty, maybe she knows somewhere you can stay,” Ben urges as they pass a payphone. “Or call home. It’ll suck, but Dad won’t kick you out, especially if you get clean. He’s not going to throw you out with a baby.”
He doesn’t, in fact, call Misty, choosing instead to spend the day sulking around the city, mourning his last ghost-free hours before the drugs wear off completely and the screaming horrors return. He sucks an asshole businessman’s dick for cash in an alley, lifts two fat wallets off distracted Midwestern tourists downtown, and gets spectacularly laid by a frat boy with equally spectacular abs, a bad haircut and a hideous tribal armband tattoo.
“Really?” Ben asks, face judgy as fuck, once Brad or Chad (Tad?) falls asleep snoring loudly, popping back in from wherever in the ghostly unknown he goes when dicks get involved.
“Considering I’m going to be feeling like shit for the next couple of weeks, I think I deserved this,” Klaus says, rolling off the come-stained sheets and strolling into the guy’s bathroom. Tad or Todd is sleeping like a log, so there’s plenty of time for a shower before he leaves. He’s not showing up to meet his daughter with lube drying in his ass.
Klaus’ clothes aren’t clean, but at least he smells better, so that will have to do. He steals a t-shirt from Tad or Todd’s dresser (small, well-worn, women’s cut, of a local, obscure goth band Klaus once fucked his way through— must belong to a girlfriend, ex or otherwise) to replace his rather fragrant crop top, slipping on his shoes and closing the door to the dude’s apartment behind him. There’s a payphone outside, and with dusk falling, he dials the number Misty gave him.
It rings several times, enough that Klaus thinks no one will answer, before someone picks up with a loud clatter and the sound of children arguing.
“—No, I’m getting it! Hello, Chambers residence,” a young voice says, definitely not Misty.
“Is Misty there?”
“Hold please,” the girl says, before hollering “Aunt Misty! Phone for you!” with her her mouth way too close to the receiver. Klaus winces, ear ringing, while Ben, that jerk, laughs at him.
There’s more commotion, the loud clunk of the receiver being dropped, a woman scolding someone (probably the girl) and then Misty speaks. “Hello?”
“Uh, hi, Misty,” Klaus says. “It’s Klaus.” Ben rolls his eyes at him and Klaus waves him away.
“Wow,” Misty says. “I uh, honestly didn’t think you’d call.” And wow, that actually kind of hurts, but he probably also deserves it.
“Me neither,” he says, going for honesty, even if it exposes him for the asshole he is. But then again, Misty already knows he’s an asshole.
There’s a long, awkward silence as Klaus freezes up, unsure what to say. “Ask if you can meet your daughter, moron,” Ben says. Klaus waves him away again.
“I, uh, I was wondering—”
“If you could come meet Lily?” Misty asks, voice hopeful.
“Yeah. Is now good? My schedule is free for the evening.” Ben rolls his eyes again.
“Yeah, come on over. She’ll be awake for the next hour or so, probably,” Misty says. There’s another pause, like she’s hesitating. “Um… if you’re high, please don’t come.”
Klaus grimaces. “No, I am unfortunately extremely sober right now,” he says. “Can’t wait to start puking.”
“Thank you, Klaus. You don’t know how much this means to me,” she says, sounding like she’s about to cry again, so Klaus quickly says goodbye and hangs up. He bangs his head on the payphone booth.
“Am I really doing this?” he asks softly.
Ben snorts. “Yes, now get going. I want to meet my niece.”
The house Misty and Mandy live in has not only seen better days, it’s seen better decades. The paint is chipping off the siding and the roof is missing shingles. The chimney looks like it’s crumbling. The steps to the porch are loose and the porch itself sags on the left. The lawn is mostly dead.
There’s a pot of geraniums on the porch though, bright pink, with a faded yellow ribbon tied around the black plastic pot. It’s the one spot of cheeriness.
Klaus sidesteps the plant, a worn pair of child-sized sneakers and a battered soccer ball and knocks on the door. It was once painted white, but the paint has cracked and yellowed.
The door swings open on squeaky hinges to reveal a young girl, maybe 10 or 11. She reminds him a lot of Allison at that age, dark curls and big brown eyes. She has a skinny toddler on her hip, a boy with dishwater-blond hair and a gummy smile, who is gnawing on a cookie.
“Is Misty here?” he asks, wondering if he’s at the wrong house.
“Aunt Misty!” the girl calls back over her shoulder. “There’s a guy here asking for you!” She looks at Klaus critically, hiking the toddler higher on her hip. “He looks weird,” she whisper-shouts.
“Hey,” Klaus says, looking down at himself, while Ben just about pisses himself laughing.
“What? You are,” the girl says. “I mean, no offense. I’m Hannah. This is Jake.” The toddler gurgles as she jostles him.
“Are you Mandy’s kids?” he asks, shivering a little in the cold. Hannah hasn’t invited him in, which sucks, but also is pretty smart, he guesses.
“Yeah. Are you Lily’s worthless asshole Dad?” She says it without malice, as if she’s just parroting something she’s heard every day. She probably has.
He hears Misty shriek “Hannah!” from somewhere in the house and he chuckles.
“That’s me. I’m Klaus.”
“That’s a weird name,” Hannah says.
Klaus chuckles humorlessly. “You should hear my real name,” he says. Before Hannah can ask the follow-up question he can see burning on her face, Misty comes down the stairs with a chubby baby in her arms.
Oh, Klaus thinks, realizing who the baby is. Oh. That’s his daughter, holy shit, she’s real and he’s about to meet her. He suddenly wants to be anywhere but here, and if it wasn’t for Ben practically vibrating in excitement next to him, he might make a break for it.
That, and he can’t help but hear, are you Lily’s worthless asshole dad echo in his head. He is, he is, but he doesn’t have to stay that.
“Hi,” Misty says, drawing him out of his self-retrospective. She’s dressed for comfort tonight, yoga pants and a hooded sweatshirt, face free of makeup and hair in a messy bun. She looks worn, tired, sick from withdrawal. She looks beautiful, Klaus thinks.
“Hi,” he says back, dumbly, shifting his weight awkwardly. Ben rolls his eyes and rudely strolls through Misty and Hannah into the house.
The baby— almost a toddler, really— babbles in Misty’s arms, makes a whining noise and flails. “Oh, fine, be that way,” Misty says, lowering Lily to the ground. “Sorry, now that she’s crawling she doesn’t want to be held anymore. Come on in.”
Hannah has retreated inside, placing Jake, who looks a little older than Lily, but not by much, Klaus guesses, on the sofa. She plunks down next to him and unpauses the VCR, which is playing a tape recording of Sesame Street.
Klaus steps inside gingerly, aware of his dirty shoes and his daughter— his daughter— on the ground.
“Shoes off, please,” Hannah calls from the sofa. Misty grins.
“Mandy’s a stickler for that, which means Hannah is too,” she says, crouching down to Lily’s level. Lily babbles, slaps the worn floorboards with her chubby hand as she rocks in place, looking up at Klaus with big green eyes.
He toes off his sneakers and kicks them to rest by the door, where a pile of shoes already rests. They look, oddly enough, like they’ve always been there, fitting right in. He follows Misty’s lead and crouches on the ground, glancing up at Ben as he goes. Ben looks soft, like he’s— proud? Can’t be.
“Hi, Lily,” he says, uncertain and voice trembling just a little. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“Lily, that’s your Daddy,” Misty says brightly, and Lily shrieks happily at the attention.
She crawls over to Klaus, a strange one-legged movement, like an army crawl. One leg is bent like a frog’s, the other dragging behind her, pushing occasionally. Misty snorts at his concerned look. “It’s apparently a completely normal way to crawl,” she says, petting at Lily’s dark curls as she moves over to Klaus. “I asked a doctor at the clinic.”
Lily makes it to him, grunts and uses his knees to balance herself as she stands. She looks immensely proud of herself once she’s on her feet and only wobbles a little, clutching at his pants for support. Klaus instinctively grasps her hands in his to steady her and almost gasps at how soft and small her hands are in his.
“Can she walk yet?” He asks. He knows nothing about babies. The only babies he’s ever been around are his siblings, and they don’t count as he was a baby himself. He’s never met Allison’s daughter.
“No, she’s just standing now. Probably soon though,” Misty says, sounding proud and happy, though her face fades to sadness. “I’ll miss it. I’ll miss everything, her walking, and talking…” She trails off, resting her chin on her knees. “I’m such an asshole.”
“Hey, no you’re not, stop it,” Klaus says, instinctive. “You made mistakes, sure, but you’re not an asshole. I’ve only seen you with her for about two minutes, but I can tell she means everything to you.” God, being sober makes him a soppy asshole. Everything is terrible.
Misty smiles, wipes her face where tears have started trickling down her cheeks. “Thanks, Klaus,” she says, barely more than a whisper.
“We’ll get through this,” he says, hoping he sounds confident or at least soothing. He glances up at Ben, who is watching with approval, so he must be saying the right things in the right tone.
He gets the chance to hold Lily a little bit later once she starts getting tired. Misty unceremoniously plops her in Klaus’ arms, laughing when Klaus panics. “Don’t I need to hold her neck or something?” he asks, frantic, as Lily snuggles into his chest, drooling into his stolen t-shirt.
“That’s only for little babies,” Misty says, settling into a faded armchair with stuffing coming out the side. “Once they’re this age, they’re pretty resilient. Just don’t drop her on her head or hold her by a limb and she’ll be fine.” Klaus gingerly sits on the sofa, cradling his daughter (his daughter!) to his chest. Ben perches on the arm of the sofa, hand hovering above Lily’s hair. The longing in his eyes is almost painful to see.
“She’s amazing, Klaus,” Ben says and Klaus smiles, stroking Lily’s soft, chubby cheek.
Hannah took Jake off to bed and hasn’t come back down, so it’s just the three (four) of them, sitting quietly in the living room while Lily sleeps in Klaus’ arms.
“So it’s just you and Mandy and the kids here?” he asks, stroking Lily’s pouty bottom lip, soft as a rose petal, damp from drool.
“Yeah. Hannah and Jake’s fathers aren’t in their lives, so it’s just us,” Misty says. Her hands are trembling, like she needs a hit.
“You getting clean?”
Misty nods, face drawn. “Figured I might as well. I’d rather get through the worst of withdrawal here than surrounded by a bunch of strangers.”
Klaus knows he’s only a few hours from full withdrawal himself, shaking hands, nausea, diarrhea, fever. “We’re both going to be out of commission this week, you know,” he says. Lily makes a noise in her sleep as he shifts her, arm aching from holding her weight.
“You find a place to stay yet?”
He shakes his head. “I’ll figure something out,” he says, glancing at Ben’s concerned face before looking back at Lily. He could call Diego or Vanya, he supposes. They’d probably help. Dad might even let him come home.
“I talked to Mandy. She said you could live here, in my room, while I’m… away,” Misty says, chewing on her thumbnail.
“Really? Why would she do that?” Klaus isn’t sure he’s even met Mandy more than once or twice, and he’d certainly been high out of his mind when he did.
“This is Lily’s home,” Misty says. “She loves her cousins. We think it would be good, at least at first, if she stayed here in her normal environment.” She pauses, chews the nail more. “Plus, it would give you time to find your own place, figure out a job.”
Klaus wants to protest— he has a job, thank you— but he stops himself. Sex work and theft aren’t things he can do anymore. They can’t risk both of Lily’s parents going to jail.
“If she means it, I’d like that,” Klaus says, and Misty lights up in a smile, bright despite the sickly pallor withdrawal is giving her. “Until I can figure something out for myself. Besides, I need someone to show me what to do with a baby.”
Misty reaches over (through Ben, which Klaus doesn’t comment on, though Ben shifts uncomfortably) and takes Klaus’ hand, squeezing it lightly.
Withdrawal is a bitch. Both he and Misty are sick as dogs, shaking and puking and desperate for drugs. They curl together in Misty’s bed, stripped to their underwear, sweaty and stinking.
“I can’t do this,” Klaus says, voice ragged. He’s so fucking dope sick and he’d do anything for heroin right now. Pills. Coke. Even pot, he’d take that. A beer. Benadryl. Anything.
Misty, so thin and shivering in the cold air coming from the open window, ashes her cigarette into an empty cup and blows the smoke toward the window. Technically Mandy doesn’t allow smoking in the house, but there’s no way Misty or Klaus can handle the stairs right now to go outside. They can barely get to the bathroom before they puke or shit themselves.
Mandy and Hannah are trading off watching Lily for them until the worst is over. Ben’s off keeping an eye on his niece, not wanting to see Klaus like this. Klaus appreciates the privacy.
If there is a God, they must like Klaus at least a little because despite his sobriety, he hasn’t seen a single ghost in Mandy’s house. Either no one has died here or they moved on, because it’s blissfully spirit-free. He’s seen one or two wandering in the neighbor’s yards, which lets him know his powers are working at least, so Mandy’s house must just be some kind of ghost-free zone.
Even with the pain and grossness of withdrawal, it’s nice being around Misty again. The spark is gone between them, but that’s a blessing in disguise, because it turns out it’s easier to live with your ex if neither of you are harboring feelings for the other. It’s like sleeping in bed with a sibling— though in his family, that could mean a lot of things, so maybe he should say a normal sibling.
“Yes you can,” Misty says, snapping Klaus back to the present. “We’re almost through the worst of it.” She doesn’t sound like she believes her own words and she probably doesn’t. This isn’t her first rodeo, just like it isn’t Klaus’.
But this time, he has something to stay clean for.
It’s five days before they’ve stopped puking and shitting and shaking enough to clean up and come downstairs. Lily makes a squeal of delight when she sees Misty, reaching for her from the blanket she’s playing on. Misty bursts into tears, falling on her knees and scooping Lily in a tight hug.
“Mmm,” Lily says, snuggling up to her mom. “Da.”
“I missed you, baby girl,” Misty sobs, rocking her. It’s a dramatic reaction for a few days of separation, until Klaus remembers that in two days, Misty is headed to prison.
At Ben’s urging, Klaus sits next to Misty on the ground, stroking Lily’s wild hair and squeezing Misty’s knee with his other hand. She gropes blindly for him, almost crushing his fingers when her hand catches his.
Hannah is at school, so Mandy is home with Jake and Lily, junkie-sitting as she called it that first night. She’s older than Misty, with the same dishwater-blond hair as her son and tired blue eyes.
“Glad to see you’ve rejoined the land of the living,” Mandy says from the couch. Jake isn’t in sight, so he must be napping in his crib, Klaus guesses.
He’s not sure how to handle Mandy, who is allowing him, a virtual stranger, to essentially squat in her home while her sister heads off to jail.
“It’s not entirely out of the kindness of my heart,” Mandy had said that first night, when the nausea hit Klaus like a hammer. Misty had been curled up in her bed sleeping fitfully, so Mandy had sat on the edge of the tub, rubbing Klaus’ back and giving him water to rinse his mouth while he knelt in front of the toilet, alternating between painful dry-heaves and vomiting his guts up. Lily sat in the dry tub, playing with a worn rubber duck and babbling to herself. “I’m looking forward to the babysitting help.”
Klaus had barked a laugh through the vomiting, clinging to the seat of the toilet. “I don’t exactly have a lot of experience with that.”
Mandy had just made a considering noise, smoothing back his sweaty hair. “It’s not hard. Hannah will be in charge. You just need to be here in case CPS comes by to make sure there’s an adult here with the kids. She’ll show you the ropes.”
Nausea temporarily abated, Klaus spat into the toilet bowl and raised his head to look at her. “Why do you trust me?”
Mandy had just shrugged and handed him a glass of water. “Misty trusts you. That’s enough for me.”
Turns out Misty has to report to prison on her own, so Mandy loads all three kids, herself, Misty and Klaus into her battered station wagon and begins the trip. It’s a long car ride and the toddlers are restless and unhappy, sensing the tension. Hannah sits sullenly with her Walkman, reading “Anne of Green Gables” and blasting pop music through her headphones. Misty alternates between crying and trying to give Klaus every piece of advice and information she can think of on Lily.
If Klaus thought Misty was crying hard in the car, she flat-out sobs when they get to the drop-off location. She clings to Lily, weeping, and Klaus finds himself wrapping her in a hug. “You’ll be fine,” he says. “You can do this. Just… be good, keep your head down, be cooperative and stay clean.”
She nods into his shoulder, getting his shirt damp. Well, it’s actually Mandy’s shirt. Klaus doesn’t exactly have a lot of his own stuff, and they haven’t had a chance to go by the thrift store yet. “Will you bring Lily to visit me?” she asks, voice tiny.
“As often as I can,” he promises. Misty has to go then and he’s forced to pull Lily from her arms. Misty sobs, Lily screams and he wants to cry too seeing them. “Say bye-bye to Mama, Lily,” he says instead, holding her arm and waving one chubby hand at Misty. His raises his other hand, the one that says GOODBYE. “Be good.”
“I love you, Lily,” Misty says through her tears. “I’ll be home as soon as I can.”
He steps back, rocking Lily awkwardly as Mandy takes her turn hugging Misty goodbye. Hannah stands nearby, face stoic as she holds Jake, but Klaus can see she’s hiding her upset. He’s had a lifetime watching children hide their hurt, after all.
He walks over to her, letting Lily chew on his shirt collar as her screams quiet to unhappy whimpers. “It’ll be okay,” he says to Hannah. “She’ll be home before you know it.”
Hannah nods, mouth tight. Her eyes are bright with unshed tears.
“I’m gonna need your help, you know. I’m new to all this. Your mom said you’re great at helping her with the babies. You’ll have to teach me.”
“Yeah, you seem pretty hopeless,” Hannah says, but there’s the ghost of a smile on her face, so Klaus mentally pats himself on the back.
They stand there until Misty vanishes into the building, then trek back to the car for the long drive home. It’s a couple hours trip, which means visits won’t be often. Mandy had to take a day off work specifically for this, she said, which, compounded with the time she took off while Misty and Klaus went through withdrawal, has made things tight for the month.
It’s weird entering Misty’s bedroom— his now, at least for awhile— without her. Lily fell asleep on the car ride home and he somehow manages to put her down in her crib without waking her. It’s crammed awkwardly into an alcove in the room. Klaus is always fucking stubbing his toes on it.
A week ago, he wouldn’t have even thought of this, but now, well, new leaf and all. He pulls out his stash of money, several hundred dollars, from his big blowout final day of freedom a week ago.
“This could get me high for days,” he mumbles. His dealer is certainly in the same place, not too far from here. He could sneak out while Lily sleeps and Mandy is cooking dinner, buy some—
“Klaus,” Ben says in warning, like he can read Klaus’ mind. “Come on, you’re doing so well.”
“I know,” he gripes, pulling out two hundred dollars and tucking the rest back into his stash in one of the drawers Misty cleared out for him. “It’s not for me.”
Leaving the door ajar and the light in the corner on for Lily, he heads back downstairs to the kitchen. Mandy is throwing together something for dinner, some sort of casserole. Hannah is in the living room, watching television and reading her book while Jake sleeps in his playpen.
“Hey,” he says, standing awkwardly in the doorway. Despite living here for a week, he hasn’t had much of a chance to spend time with Mandy.
“Hey!” she responds, throwing him a tired smile. “Come to help with dinner?”
“Sure,” he says, though that wasn’t what he had planned. “I’m not much of a cook, though, fair warning.”
She sets him to chopping vegetables, which she says even he can’t screw up, and they work in a comfortable silence while Klaus builds up the nerve to offer her the money.
Once the casserole is in the oven and they’ve washed up, Mandy collapses into a chair at the kitchen table, resting her head on her hand. She looks exhausted, Klaus thinks.
“I wanted to thank you,” he finally says. “For letting me stay with you.”
“It’s not a problem, I told you. You’re doing me a favor.”
“I know, you said that. But I feel bad not contributing, especially with you having to take off work to junkie-sit. Here,” he says, thrusting the cash at her. “It’s not much, but I wanted to help out.”
She takes the money automatically, eyes widening when she counts it. “Klaus, I can’t take this,” she says.
“Please. I won’t be able to get more, not until I figure something out, but I want to help a little.”
She looks at him, assessing. “Where did you get this?” He looks away and she nods. “I guess you and Misty were in the same line of work, then.”
“Sometimes,” Klaus says, and the words are like ashes in his mouth. He’s never really been ashamed of it, until now.
Mandy doesn’t look judgmental. She looks worried. “No more, you hear me? I hated Misty doing it, but she didn’t listen and look where it got her. I don’t want to anything happen to you. Lily needs you here, not in a jail cell or the hospital or the morgue.”
Klaus nods, unable to speak. He’s never really had anybody worry about him like this before, other than Ben.
“And I don’t care if you don’t contribute monetarily, or if you end up walking dogs or mowing lawns or, I don’t know, telling fortunes to tourists. Just stay clean and take care of the kids, help around the house, that’s all I ask.” Mandy tries to hand the money back but he refuses to take it, shoves it back at her.
“Put it toward formula and diapers, then. Just keep it. I don’t need… I don’t need the temptation.” Mandy nods, tucking the cash in her jeans pocket, and it’s such a weight off Klaus’ shoulders he lets out a breath in relief.
There’s still 45 minutes on the oven timer and Hannah is engrossed in her show, so he and Mandy settle on the back porch steps to smoke. “Don’t judge me,” she says as she lights her cigarette. “It’s the last vice I have left.”
“No judgement here,” Klaus says, smiling. He’s more of a social smoker, but today has been a nightmare and the craving to get high is so strong he’ll take anything to distract him. His mind plays back their conversation in the kitchen. “Telling fortunes to tourists?”
Mandy laughs. “Well, I don’t know how your powers work, The Seance. Seances, fortune telling, same thing, right?”
Klaus blinks, caught completely off guard. Even Ben, who’s been lounging against one the porch posts, nearly falls over. “Uh,” he says, ever eloquent. “I didn’t know you…”
“Knew who you are? Hargreeves isn’t exactly a common name, you know.” Mandy smirks. “Plus, the ouija board on your hands, the whole 90s-goth-aesthetic you have going on, talking to yourself when you think no one is looking. You’re not as subtle as you think you are.”
“So, big fan then?”
Mandy barks a laugh, coughing as the chilly night air catches in her throat. “Misty loved The Umbrella Academy. Papered her room in posters and magazine clippings. Sorry to tell you, her favorite was the knife one.”
Ben doubles over laughing at “the knife one,” which Klaus vows to call Diego forever and ever. “Well, I never got to do anything cool,” Klaus says, stubbing out his cigarette and tossing it in an empty flower pot half-full of butts. “Spooky ghost powers mostly meant I was the lookout, not in the action.”
“Maybe that was for the best,” Mandy says, and there’s something unreadable in her face.
“So Misty was the superfan… not you?”
Mandy smiles, but it’s a sad smile. “Misty was young enough to get dazzled by the uniforms and the interviews and the glossy magazine posters,” she says, tossing her butt in the flower pot. “I was older and I’d spent too many years with our shitty, abusive mom not to see the signs in all of you.”
Klaus can’t help the sharp intake of breath he makes, hands curling on the edge of the step he’s sitting on. “You must think I’m the biggest fuck-up in the world,” he says. Ben just looks so, so sad.
Mandy shakes her head and gets to her feet. She rests her hand on top of his head for a moment, gives it a light, friendly shake. “I think you’re a lot like me, Klaus Hargreeves,” she says. “You’ll figure it all out. I did.”
She heads back into the house, pausing in the doorway for a second. “For the record, you were my favorite, because I saw a lot of myself in you,” she says. “But I thought The Horror was the cutest.”
Mandy lets the door close behind her as Klaus shouts, “Oh, come on!” and Ben crows in delight.
The self-indulgence continues, with just a touch of plot.
Thank you to everyone for all the kudos and comments!
Mandy works at an assisted living facility, which means long hours and low pay. It gives her health insurance though, so it’s a decent tradeoff, she says.
“They’ve been really generous about letting me take time off this week, but we can’t afford for me to take any more unpaid time off,” she says through a mouthful of casserole. “I’m sorry to just throw you in the deep end like this.”
Klaus is just about pissing himself with terror, but he shrugs and tries to look casual. “It’s okay, I can handle it,” he says, which, no, he cannot.
Mandy smirks, reading him like a book. “Luckily, Hannah doesn’t have school tomorrow, so she’ll be here to show you the ropes.”
Hannah beams, looking proud, then goes back to encouraging Jake to eat. Her plate is already empty, growing girl that she is.
Klaus makes a big show of wiping his brow and saying whew, aimed to make Mandy and Hannah laugh. It does, much to his satisfaction.
Lily’s fairly easy to handle at dinner, it seems. As long as the food is cut up small, she can eat pretty much anything he does, excluding honey for some reason, and she can hold her bottle of formula herself.
Hannah does the dishes when they’re all finished, while Klaus and Mandy mop off the toddlers and plop them on a blanket covered in board books and toys.
It’s all very cozy and domestic. The radio is tuned to a local station, outdated hits Klaus remembers Luther playing on his record player. Hannah sings along under her breath as she does the dishes, tone-deaf but uncaring. Mandy, finished wiping down the table, goes over to help her dry.
Klaus wants nothing more than to be high. He wants it so bad he could scream. His skin crawls with the need to use.
He settles for going outside to smoke again, hands shaking as he lights the cigarette. He sits on the porch steps, shivering in the cold, and wants. God, there’s money upstairs still, or the cash he gave Mandy. He could even pawn the VCR, get enough for a hit.
“Stay strong,” Ben says, sitting next to him. “You’re doing so well.”
“I’m going to fuck this up,” he whispers, ashing into the flowerpot. “What was I thinking? I can’t take care of myself, let alone a bunch of kids.”
Ben shakes his head. “You’re doing great. This is the longest you’ve been sober outside of rehab since we were kids and you’re doing amazing. I’m here, and you have Mandy. And I’m pretty sure Hannah could kick your ass if she wanted to.”
Klaus laughs softly. “I’m sure she could,” he says. “How am I going to do this?”
“Let’s just get through tomorrow,” Ben says. “And then we’ll worry about the day after, and the day after that.”
“Are you reading self-help books when I’m not looking?” Klaus asks, and Ben laughs, swiping his hand through Klaus’ head.
Lily is a heavy sleeper, undisturbed by Klaus banging around the bedroom getting ready for bed. He thinks he’ll never sleep, the cravings eating him up inside, but eventually Lily’s soft, gentle breathing lulls him into slumber.
She’s a good sleeper, doesn’t wake during the night, and is only a little grouchy when she wakes up. It’s early, a little before 6 o’clock, which is so fucking early for Klaus. Apparently that’s normal for babies, according to Misty and Mandy.
“Hey you,” he says to Lily, who is fussing in her crib. She smells awful, which is Klaus’ least favorite part of this whole parenting thing so far. “Ugh, thanks Lil.”
They don’t have a changing table in here, but Misty uses some kind of pad on top of the dresser, which seems to work the same. Diaper changing is a new and terrible challenge for Klaus, who struggles not to gag as he wipes Lily clean of the foulest shit he’s ever smelled and struggles to get her new diaper on.
“Stay still please,” he begs as she attempts to roll, whining at being on her back. “Just let me get this on and we can go eat! Okay? Please?”
It takes a few minutes but she’s clean and diapered and cuddled in his arms again, sweet-smelling and content.
He can hear Mandy bustling around in her bedroom as he heads into the bathroom to deposit the diaper bomb into the trash and wash his hands. Hannah’s door is cracked and her room is dark. He peeks his head in and she’s still sound asleep in bed, covers kicked off and her arm dangling off the mattress. She sleeps like a starfish.
“Klaus?” Mandy calls quietly. “You up?”
“Morning,” he calls back.
“Can you take Jake down? I need to finish getting ready for work.” She opens her door and holds Jake out to him. She’s half-dressed, in a scrub top and faded, dingy white panties, shower-damp hair in disarray and face free of makeup.
Jake is chewing on a stuffed bunny. “Mngbla,” Jake says around the toy.
“Sure.” He shifts Lily over to his hip, much to her displeasure, and gingerly accepts Jake on his other hip. He’s heavier than Lily. Not by much, but it’ll be a struggle getting down the stairs.
“Thank you!” Mandy says, already turning back to her closet. “I’m running late and he’s hungry. There’s some fruit and yogurt in the fridge, and if you can make eggs, they like scrambled.”
Klaus could maybe swing scrambled eggs. It’s been a while. “Okay,” he says, trying to look confident. “No problem.”
He gets down the stairs without dropping any toddlers, a huge success if he does say so himself, and wrangles them both into their highchairs in the kitchen.
Lily whines, unhappy at being restrained. “Gimme a second and I’ll get you some breakfast, okay? Please chill,” Klaus says, trusting Ben to keep an eye on them while he roots around in the fridge. Formula, okay, he knows how to do that. There’s the cut-up fruit Mandy promised, and the yogurt.
Mom usually made sunny-side up, but he remembers enough to turn out fairly decent scrambled eggs.
“Nice,” Ben says from the table, supervising Lily and Jake making messes of themselves with the yogurt. “Just like Mom used to make.”
“Well, close enough,” Klaus says, setting aside two small portions to cool for Lily and Jake before dishing out some for himself. He leaves Mandy and Hannah’s eggs to warm in the pan on the stove.
Lily squeals happily when Klaus sits at the table, mouth full of strawberry, yogurt in her hair. “Ugh, Lily,” he says, taking a bite of his eggs. “Now I have to give you a bath.”
“That’s why I don’t get Jake dressed before breakfast,” Mandy says, coming into the room. Dressed, hair tamed back into a ponytail, she smiles at Klaus. “Thanks for this.”
“There’s eggs on the stove for you,” Klaus says, adding some strawberry and banana to his plate. Mom would be so proud. He passes the eggs to the toddlers, who start devouring them with messy gusto.
“Ugh, I love you,” Mandy says, starting the coffeemaker brewing. “Marry me.”
Klaus laughs around a bite of banana. “Only if I can have a cup of that coffee.”
“Deal,” Mandy says, eating a big bite of eggs directly out of the pan. “Hannah, come on! Your breakfast is getting cold!”
Hannah thunders down the stairs, still in her pajamas. She looks extremely grumpy and slumps into her chair at the table.
“Morning, chickadee,” Mandy says, kissing the top of Hannah’s head as she drops a plate of eggs and fruit in front of her. “Want juice?”
Hannah nods, shoveling her eggs in like she’s never eaten before in her life.
“Not a morning person?” Klaus asks. Hannah grunts.
“Not even remotely,” Mandy says, pouring Hannah a glass of orange juice. “Sometimes I think I’ll have to send her to school in her pjs. Coffee’s ready.”
Klaus eagerly abandons the remains of his breakfast for the coffee pot, letting Mandy take the first cup before pouring himself some. He drowns it in milk and sugar, sipping the sweet elixir with a happy sigh. “Coffee and cigarettes, that’s my life now,” he says, mostly joking.
Mandy gives him a sympathetic look and clinks her mug with his. “Don’t I know it,” she says. She finally moves to sit at the table with her eggs, alternating between eating and wiping at Jake’s messy face.
Lily’s done eating and is whining to be out, slamming her hands on the tray. “There’s some rags in the drawer by the sink,” Mandy says, stopping Jake from tossing a piece of banana on the floor.
Klaus finds them, wets a couple and brings them over to the table. Mopping Lily’s face and hands is a challenge, as the squirming, wailing baby does not want that, but he gets her relatively clean. He wipes the rag through her hair futilely, but getting the yogurt out is probably going to require a bath.
“You’re a mess,” he says to Lily’s pouting face. “All sticky.”
“Sorry, I should have told you I usually handle the yogurt, not the kids,” Mandy says, using another rag to wipe Jake’s face.
“It’s okay, I guess I can hose them down in the backyard.” Klaus is only half-joking. Hannah laughs, the first reaction they’ve gotten out of her all morning.
“Honestly, that’s what I want to do most of the time,” Mandy says, laughing. “I used to do that to Hannah in the summer.”
“Used to?” Hannah exclaims, finishing her juice. “You did that to me this summer.”
“Well, you were filthy,” Mandy says, finishing her coffee and standing to pour another cup into her travel mug. “I wasn’t about to have you track all that through the house.”
Hannah pouts, pushing her empty plate away. “Mean,” she says, but her voice isn’t angry. She looks a little like she’s trying not to smile. “So mean.”
“The meanest,” Mandy agrees, kissing her head again. “Okay, I gotta catch the bus. I’ll be home by 6:30, I hope.”
“We got this,” Klaus says cheerfully. They do not got this, but fake it until you make it, right?
Mandy leaves the house in a whirlwind, juggling her bag and her coffee and her coat. It’s just Klaus and the kids.
“You look terrified,” Ben says.
“I am,” Klaus replies under his breath. “Okay, what’s the plan for today?” He looks at Hannah, hoping his face doesn’t show the naked desperation he’s feeling.
“Well, I have this huge science project I have to get done by tomorrow,” she says, looking extremely guilty.
“I forgot until just now! I know what I need to do, I just have to do it. You do know how to make a working model of the solar system, right?” Hannah squints at him. “I also have to write a 10-page research paper.”
Klaus nearly hyperventilates, gripping the table. “Hannah— how could you— what—”
Hannah holds her worried look for another couple of seconds before cracking up, nearly falling out of her chair. “Your face,” she howls, clutching her stomach. “I thought you were going to pee yourself!”
Don’t strangle a child, Klaus. “Hannah,” he says, trying to sound stern.
“Klaus, I’m in the fourth grade,” Hannah says. “Why would any fourth grader have to write a 10-page paper?”
“You’ve never met my dad,” he mutters, pushing his hair out of his face.
“Sorry,” Hannah says, still laughing. “I couldn’t help it.”
Klaus smiles at her, even though his heart is still racing. “What do we actually need to do today?”
Hannah thinks, humming out loud as she gathers the dirty dishes and starts washing them. Klaus takes the opportunity to wipe down the high chairs. There’s food on the floor, thanks to the messy toddlers, and he wipes it up as well.
“We could go to the library,” Hannah says as she rinses the egg pan. “I need a new book, and you can get some too. And they always have something going on, storytime or whatever.”
“I don’t have a library card,” Klaus says.
“You can use mine until we can get you one.” Hannah’s done, leaving the dishes to dry in the drainer and she wipes her hands on a dish towel. “But first, we gotta deal with them.”
She gestures to the babies. The yogurt is drying in their hair and there are food stains on their pajamas. Klaus sighs.
“You’re the boss,” he says, to Hannah’s delight. “Let’s do this.”
Bathing two squirmy toddlers is definitely a two-person job, and getting them dried, diapered and dressed after is even harder. Klaus needs a nap by the time they’re done.
Hannah vanishes into her room to get ready and Klaus does the same, plopping Lily and Jake in her crib to keep them contained. Lily wails, unhappy to be back in her crib, and Klaus tries to tune her out as he pulls on a pair of torn black skinny jeans, the goth band shirt and a cozy black cardigan belonging to Misty. It’s a little short in the wrists and tight in the shoulders, but it’s cute and warm. He doesn’t exactly have a whole lot of his own clothes, just what he had stashed in a battered duffel bag he’d stored away. Mandy had taken him on an extremely supervised trip to retrieve his stuff before they’d taken Misty to prison.
The library, it turns out, is within walking distance, just a little over a mile. He’s not looking forward to juggling two toddlers the whole way there, but Hannah produces a battered double stroller from the front closet.
“Mrs. Fujimoto gave it to us when Lily was born,” Hannah says, bouncing Lily on her hip while Klaus buckles Jake in. “She gives us lots of stuff.”
Mrs. Fujimoto is the elderly Japanese widow who lives in the house next door. She’s a hoarder, with junk spilling out of the house onto the porch and the lawn. She’s a sweet woman, tinier than even Vanya, and extremely friendly and generous. Klaus has only met her once, but he’s pretty sure she’s already adopted him.
“That’s nice of her.” Klaus takes Lily from Hannah and gets her settled. “We ready?”
The sidewalks in this part of town aren’t great, but Hannah knows where she’s going. Klaus just follows her, pushing the babies and trying to get his bearings. The library seems like a good place to kill time, and Hannah goes back to school tomorrow.
It’s a little rundown looking, but the library is clean and bright inside, crammed with books and VHS tapes for rent. A young, chubby woman in a turtleneck, patchwork skirt and horn-rimmed glasses is just starting some sort of storytime in the children’s section.
“Perfect!” Hannah says. “They love this.”
They get the toddlers out of the stroller, parked in a corner crammed with others, and settle on the rug. Lily babbles happily from Klaus’ lap, riveted by the librarian reading the story.
“Aunt Misty brings her here a lot,” Hannah whispers to him when the story’s over and the librarian starts singing a song. Hannah helps Jake clap along.
That chokes Klaus up a little. Misty hasn’t even been gone a full day. Lily hasn’t realized Mama is gone yet, but he’s betting she’ll catch on soon and he’s not looking forward to it.
Hannah beelines to the shelves when the storytime is over. She’d dumped an armload of books into the return slot when they’d arrived at the library and it looks like she’s replacing them quickly, her pile growing as she reads back covers, muttering to herself.
Jake and Lily are distracted with a bead maze toy, so Klaus takes the opportunity to glance around the library. There’s the children’s section he’s in, of course, and a collection of microfiche machines in an alcove. There are tables and chairs for studying, cozy armchairs for reading and endless shelves of books in every subject.
The children’s librarian comes over and greets Jake and Lily, warm and familiar. She’s Miss Rachel, apparently, and both the toddlers seem to know her well.
“And you’re definitely not Misty,” Miss Rachel says, so bubbly and sweet it makes Klaus’ teeth ache a little.
“I’m Lily’s dad. Klaus,” he says, and wow, it’s still so weird to introduce himself like that. “You’ll probably be seeing me for a while.”
She welcomes him to the library and digs up a flyer for him, listing all the events this month. “We put a new list out every month,” Miss Rachel says, “and there’s stuff for older kids and adults, too.”
He’s not sure how she does it, but Miss Rachel pulls a few strings and ten minutes later, Klaus has his own library card. “Misty was here a lot with Lily, before…” Klaus guesses Miss Rachel knows what’s going on with Misty, which is a relief. Now he doesn’t have to make awkward excuses. “I know she’ll want Lily coming back while she’s away.”
“I guess they can’t watch Sesame Street at the house all the time,” Klaus jokes, and Miss Rachel smiles.
Hannah comes back a few minutes later with five books in her arms and dumps them on the floor next to the babies. “I’m done,” she announces, tickling Jake. “You want to go look? I can watch them.”
“Thanks, Hannah.” He doesn’t even remotely know where to begin, so he just drifts over to there Ben is browsing, a longing look on his face. “See something you want?”
“Everything,” Ben says, turning to him with a smile. “This is torture.”
Klaus laughs quietly. He doesn’t want to get thrown out of Lily’s favorite library for being crazy if he can avoid it. “Well, yours truly is now the proud owner of a library card, so pick out a couple and I’ll turn the pages for you tonight.”
Ben’s eyes light up and they spend several minutes scrutinizing the shelves, Ben pointing to books and Klaus flipping through them for his approval.
Ben picks out two, which look boring to Klaus but Ben’s over the moon, so he doesn’t rag him for his choices. He’s been dutifully following Ben around and before he knows it, they’re out of literature into nonfiction. In fact, Ben has come to halt in front of a collection of books about addiction.
“You’re not smooth, like, at all,” Klaus grumbles to Ben, who just shrugs.
“Can’t hurt to try, right? I just thought, you’re doing so well, maybe one of these can help.”
Klaus rolls his eyes, but sets Ben’s books aside to flip through some of the books on addiction. A lot of them seem to preachy to him, focused on religion or spirituality, neither of which dear old Dad ever had time for, and some others are too difficult. More like a textbook than a self-help book.
There’s a couple that seem promising, however, including one about addiction and trauma that Ben makes significant looks at.
“It’s not like any of these can address the very real issue of why I use, Ben,” Klaus says, scanning the book’s dust jacket. “Highly doubt there’s any advice on how to make ghosts go away and leave me alone in this.”
“Probably not,” Ben concedes, “but I bet there’s still some useful stuff. Besides, this one’s clearly a winner.” He points to the card tucked in the pocket at the front of the book, worn and battered from use. In her childish cursive is Misty Chambers.
Klaus pulls the card out. Misty had checked this book out several times. Going by the dates, it must have been while she was pregnant with Lily. He smiles, touching her name on the card.
“Clearly,” he says, tucking the card back in. He picks up Ben’s books, along with the book on addiction and trauma. “Let’s go get Hannah.”
There’s some kind of free arts and crafts thing for kids starting soon that Hannah wants to do, so after checking out their books, Klaus leaves her at the library with a promise to stay out of trouble until he returns and heads out to explore the area.
There’s graffiti, garbage and homeless people, but the area around the library plaza also has a couple of thrift stores, an independent used bookstore, a mom-and-pop cafe and a small, relatively nice park with a tiny playground.
Klaus and Ben have at least an hour to kill, so they lug the stroller along the sidewalk, window shopping and exploring. Ben drifts into the bookstore, looking longingly at the bins of bargain paperbacks, though they both wince at the battered copies of The Umbrella Academy comics shoved in a box near the register. They’re marked at 25 cents each, which is only a little insulting.
The thrift stores are of more interest to Klaus, and he spends about 20 minutes poking through one of them and comes out $35 poorer but with an armload of new-to-him clothes and a battered, but sturdy, pair of boots. He’s especially thrilled about the black, lacy skirt he found crammed on a rack in the back of the store.
They end up in the park, where Klaus sits on a bench and feeds pieces of dried fruit and cheerios to Jake and Lily, who have been pretty patient but are hungry and cranky by now.
“We’ll go get Hannah after this and get some lunch, okay?” he says, handing Jake a piece of dried banana. “I bet she’s hungry too.”
Things have been going so well this morning he’s honestly caught off guard when the ghosts show up.
There’s three of them. A man with a gunshot wound to the stomach, an elderly woman in a housecoat with her face beaten in and worst of all, a little girl not much older than Hannah, nude and strangled.
“Klaus, don’t look at them,” Ben whispers, but it’s too late. Klaus averts his eyes as quickly as he can, but the girl spots him and staggers over.
“Help me,” she gasps out around her crushed throat. “Help me!”
“I can’t help you,” Klaus says, trying to pack up the stroller as fast as he can. “Go away.”
“Klaus,” the man groans. “Help me!”
“You’re dead,” Klaus almost shouts. “Move on!”
The woman just gurgles and moans, either unable to unwilling to speak.
He jogs out of the park, doesn’t look back until he’s about to turn the corner to the library. The man and woman have vanished, either gone back to wherever ghosts go or out of sight. The girl stands on the border of the park, hands at her sides, staring longingly after him.
He’s jittery on the way back to the library, nerves jangling in terror. “I can’t do this, I can’t go back to seeing that,” he whispers under his breath.
“Klaus, it’s okay,” Ben says, placating and soothing. “You’re okay. Don’t give in.”
He’s still freaked out, but manages to put on a calm face for Hannah, who tumbles out of the library clinging to some sort of beaded necklace she made, face beaming. “Oh, very nice,” he says. His voice only shakes a little.
“Thank you!” Hannah holds the necklace up so the beads sparkle in the sunlight. “I’m gonna give it to Mom.”
“She’ll love it.” Hannah stashes the necklace in the stroller’s storage pouch, which is crammed full of books, clothes and Klaus’ new boots.
“Oh! You went shopping!” Hannah pulls out one of the shirts, a faded, tie-dyed tank top, and admires it.
“Well, most of Misty’s stuff is too short for me,” he says, tugging on the sleeves of his cardigan.
“Yeah, you do kind of look like a goth scarecrow.” Hannah puts the shirt back and tickles Jake’s tummy. “I’m hungry, can we go eat lunch?”
“Yeah, sounds good,” Klaus says, though his appetite fled back in the park. “Do we have stuff at the house or do we need to stop somewhere?”
“Weeell…” Hannah saying, wheedling. “We have sandwich stuff at home. But we’re already out, so...”
Klaus laughs. “Oh? You gonna buy me lunch, Miss Hannah?” His hands are shaking a little on the stroller handle. He wants heroin, but he’ll take a cigarette if that’s all he can get.
Hannah deflates, slumping against the front of the stroller. Jake squeals and tugs on her hair once it’s in reach. “Ow, Jake, no—” she whines, freeing herself and standing up, out of his reach. “I guess sandwiches are fine.” She’s sulking, and Klaus thinks about how if any of them had sulked about what they were served as kids, they’d go to bed hungry— and usually, with a sore backside. Instead, he’s actually kind of thrilled. She’s such a little adult most of the time, it’s nice to see her acting like the child she is.
Klaus sticks his hand in his pocket, fingering the little folded wad of bills. He’d spent most of his cash on clothes, but he probably has enough for lunch for the four of them. “Just this once,” he says.
Hannah shrieks in happiness and throws his arms around his waist. “Thank you!” He hugs her back, hesitant at first, but she doesn’t show any signs of discomfort, so it must be okay. “Can we go to McDonald’s?”
He cringes. “Let’s go somewhere I can put a vegetable in you, okay? We need to at least try and pretend I’m a responsible adult.”
Hannah sighs, but it’s a good-natured sigh, not the sulk from before. “Okay,” she says, leaning on him, like agreeing to his completely reasonable request has sapped all her energy. “I guess, if we have to.”
They end up at the little cafe he saw before, near the bookshop. It’s a little close to the park for comfort, but a quick glance shows even the little girl has vanished, so he relaxes a little.
It’s later than expected, about 1 o’clock, and the lunch rush has died down. Hannah snags the table in the window as Klaus drags the little cafe’s only two high chairs over and crams them by the table.
“Can you keep an eye on them for a second?” he asks, holding his pack of cigarettes up. “I’ll be quick.”
“Sure,” Hannah says, buried in the menu. Ben nods at him as well.
“I’ll keep an eye out,” he says, smiling faintly.
He steps outside and lights the cigarette, far enough away the smoke won’t hit the restaurant, but close enough that he can see them in the window. He smokes fast, firmly keeping his back to the park and his eyes on Hannah and the babies. Hannah is making them laugh, he can tell. Lily has her head thrown back, cheeks bright pink.
There’s a sudden presence next to him, a coldness that makes him want to shiver. He doesn’t want to look but he has to, almost compelled.
It’s the dead girl from the park. Up close it’s worse. He can see the blue tinge to her lips, the tangles in her lank blond hair, the bruising on her arms and thighs. The thick, ugly mark around her neck— not fingermarks, but something more solid, a belt or a wire, maybe— stands out like a brand.
Klaus holds himself still, the cigarette clamped between his fingers. “I can’t help you,” he murmurs, trying not to draw attention to himself. He doesn’t want Hannah to see him talking to himself.
The girl doesn’t say anything at first, just stands next to him. When she speaks, it’s that same, gasping sound from before. “Is that your daughter?”
“What?” He almost drops the cigarette, then takes a drag to cover his fumble.
“You’re watching her.” The girl looks up at him, dirty bruised face and dead, sightless eyes. “Is she your daughter?”
He’s never spoken to a ghost that was so coherent before. Well, except Ben, who is an exception in every way. “The baby girl is,” he says, nodding at Lily. Hannah has broken out the snacks again and Lily is gnawing on a piece of dried apple.
“I’m Jessie,” she says.
“Klaus.” He flicks the butt of the cigarette into a nearby trash can and contemplates lighting another.
“I know,” Jessie says, and her mouth turns up briefly into a weak smile. “We all know who you are.”
Klaus shivers, because that isn’t creepy at all.
“I want to go home,” she says, voice froggier than ever, almost like she’s about to cry, though Klaus doesn’t know if the dead can cry.
“I wish I could help you, but I don’t know how,” Klaus says, and he does light up another cigarette, just for the excuse to stay out here if Hannah looks. “I can’t do anything but talk to the dead.”
Jessie just smiles again, sadly. “That’s okay.”
“Do you… need me to pass on a message? Tell someone who killed you? Or—”
“No, there’s no one left to tell anything to,” she says. “They’ve all been gone a long time. I just…” Jessie trails off, looking out at the street. “I don’t know how to leave.”
Klaus wants to cry. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” she says. “Thanks for talking with me. It’s been nice.” She holds her hand up to his, like she’s holding his hand, though hers goes right through his. “Will you come back and see me again?”
Klaus wants nothing more than to never see this tragic waif of a ghost again, but he nods. “If you promise not to scream at me, yes.”
Jessie smiles at him and for a split second, it feels like her hand is solid in his. A faint squeeze, and she drifts again, back to the park.
Klaus lets the cigarette burn down until he feels the sting of heat on his fingers, then goes back inside the cafe. He's got living kids to deal with. He doesn't have time for the dead.