If he had left anyone else to watch the kids while he ran to the store, Anthony Partridge would have been somewhat, ah, alarmed when he opened his front door to darkness and the sounds of an explosion. But given that Sally was here, and that the resultant shrieking coming from his kitchen sounded more victorious than afraid, he just sighed and set down his bags. He attempted to flip on the hall lights, but they didn’t seem to be working, which he took as an omen of whatever was to come.
“Groceries,” he called plaintively, although Anthony had little hope anyone would be willing to tear themselves away from whatever experiment they’d cooked up to come help. After a couple more trips to the car, everything was at least inside; it felt foolish to take anything a) fragile or b) edible until the kitchen until he’d gotten a handle on the situation, so he left it all by the front door and prepared himself.
Inside the kitchen, chaos reigned, as it so often did in the Cook-Partridge household. Benedict was covered head-to-toe in some unidentifiable sludge, but Anthony knew that beneath all of it his face was red with remorse as he stared doggedly at the ground, determined not to meet Anthony’s eyes. Carmen had managed to shield herself from the worst of it by ducking underneath the table, and as she crawled out her smile was also puckered by guilt. But Ginny and Petra showed no sign of repentance for the mess that had consumed the room. When Carmen emerged they tackled her, presumably as punishment for the crime of having common sense. In the middle of it all, Sally sat on the table. She held some jerry-built device that was still dripping muck and her head was thrown back in laughter.
“Once, just once, it would be nice to come home to find everyone safe, clean, and in one piece,” Anthony told her.
“Two out of three isn’t bad,” Sally pointed out. “Besides, don’t you want me to help foster their interest in science? Teach them to take chances, make mistakes, and get messy?”
She said it in the voice she always used when making references she knew Anthony wouldn’t get, so he ignored her. “What is that thing, anyways? Is it...stable?”
“Of course it’s stable!” Sally responded indignantly.
“It’s stable now ,” Petra muttered.
Sally shot her a look. “And it really was safe, I promise. No dangerous chemicals here, just good ol’ flour, eggs, water, and...whatever else goes in cake.”
“Whatever else goes in cake?” Ginny rolled over from where she was lying on the floor, propping herself up on her elbows to face the adults. “Sally, you were the one putting ingredients in the mixing bowl!”
“It’s Aunt Sally,” Benedict corrected automatically, before Sally had the chance to. She grinned at him before turning to placate Ginny.
“Don’t worry, kid, I promise I was listening when you read me the recipe. I definitely put in enough food coloring, at the very least.”
Anthony valiantly pressed on. “And you were putting cake in this box because...you wanted to reinvent the Radarange?”
“It’s a prototype Easy-Bake Oven!”
“Does my oven not bake easily enough for you?” he asked, in the pained voice of a man who knows that more questions will never yield more answers.
“Sally said you said she had to find more ‘propriate games to play with us because Mom said you said we shouldn’t cheat at cards and Ginny said we should help Mom out and Carmen said we should bake something for her but I said I can’t use the oven so Sally said there was this oven made ‘specially for kids to use and Petra said that’s any oven if you’re not silly and I said I’m not but Sally said she always is so we were gonna build one of the special ovens but we needed a lightbulb so we took one from the ceiling but then it broke so we took another one and—” Benedict paused for air, considered his story so far, and decided he was satisfied with it. “And then it blew up and that’s it.”
“Right.” Anthony grabbed a cloth from the counter and tossed it to Sally. “ You’re cleaning this up before Helen gets home.”
“She’s already here,” Carmen said.
“Who do you think got us the lightbulbs?” Ginny added. “She just went to go put the ladder back.”
As if she’d been waiting for a cue—which, given that her profession was performance, was not outside the realm of the possible—Helen waltzed into the kitchen through the back door, making a hmmm noise and side-eyeing Sally. “Really, dears? I leave you alone with this miscreant woman for five minutes and everything’s fallen to pieces? You promised me you’d keep Hurricane Sally under control, Petra.”
“Please, Helen, we both know that I’m a lost cause. And you were fully complicit in this disaster,” Sally countered.
Helen took the cloth from her and wiped Benedict’s face down, against his protests. “I’ve learned by now that the chaos can’t be prevented entirely, and the only way to minimize it is to stay on the scene.”
Contenting herself with the knowledge that all of the kids appeared to be whole and happy, she finally noticed her partner outlined in the dark door frame. “Anthony! When did you get home?”
“Just in time to witness the crime scene, just too late to prevent it,” he told her grimly.
She laughed. “Too late to join in, you mean.”
“That too,” he said, and found himself laughing with her, as he always did. "How was work?”
“Oh, coming along. But you know how my manager is when there’s a deadline approaching,” she answered, with a wave of her hand.
A few years ago Anthony would have accepted that was all she cared to say on the subject. But after their separation (and getting some sense knocked into him by the cake-covered physicist lounging on his kitchen table), he’d arrived at what should have been the obvious fact that Helen’s language of life was not his own. While he would have been happy to brush off any further questions if things were reversed, he could tell that her day sat heavily with her and she’d need to talk once everyone was settled in for the night. So he nodded and said, “I want to hear all about it later.”
Even when you had never fallen out of love with someone, rebuilding a life together was demanding work. But Anthony and Helen were both determined, and they’d spent the past year mending bridges side by side.
(Not alone, of course. Sally and Van had been right there handing Anthony metaphorical hammers and nails, while June and Bentin stood by Helen every step of the way. Not to mention the kids, both theirs and Van’s, and all the others—Esther, Jack, Nikhil, Bridget, Maggie, Chet, Ted, Penny, Lou, Mateo; friends and neighbors and coworkers. Even before you started counting parents and siblings, Helen and Anthony had more family than they knew what to do with. Standing there in the ruins of a baking cataclysm, more than anything else, they were delighted those families had come to include each other once again.)
Anthony clapped his hands together. “Groceries!” he said, for the second time. “I already brought everything in. I think we can manage to cut a clear path through to the refrigerator and pantry, if someone would like to help me.”
Ginny volunteered, and the others began mopping up the floor and furniture (and themselves). After everything and everyone was more or less in order, Anthony began work on dinner and Helen gently took charge of a second attempt at a cake, this one in the actual oven. While the kids measured out ingredients, Sally stepped back to survey the scene.
After a moment, Anthony waved a spatula in front of her and she blinked.
“You alright?” he murmured.
She nodded. “I was thinking...never mind.”
“According to Ben, you’re always silly,” he reminded her.
She conceded the point with a roll of her eyes. “I just...this is nice. I like being here with you, all of you, in your home.”
“Your home too,” he told her. “Whenever and for however long you need it.”
She batted at his spatula and mumbled something sarcastic under her breath, and he pretended not to notice that she was dabbing at her eyes as she went to fetch bowls from the cupboard.
Carmen was whisking the cake mix under Helen’s supervision, while Petra had taken over for Anthony on the stovetop. Ginny and Benedict helped Sally set the now-spotless table.
As usual, Sally was right, Anthony reflected.
This was pretty nice.