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where we can live

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Karen has nightmares every night.

Sometimes she doesn't try to sleep at all. She paces in her bedroom, walking until her legs ache. They ache a lot these days; she thought she was in fair shape, but this new life is showing her the truth in her age.

She'll get stronger, she thinks. She'll get stronger because she has to.

*

Kathryn asks her a lot of questions.

She's desperate to know that her son is safe. Karen understands that. She really does.

And Karen's the one who saw him. She's the one who stood side by side with him waiting for the boats to come in. She's the one who can verify to Kathryn that her little boy was safe, was okay.

But she's told the same tale a hundred times at least now. She has no more answers. She can only tell the same stories again.

So she does.

*

"We need a project," Kathryn declares. "Come with me."

Karen follows, because what else will she do?

As she sits cross-legged on the ground sanding a table top, she wonders who this is even for. She wonders if Kathryn is just giving her pity projects because she's tired of Karen skulking around the house.

She's never been this kind of person before. She feels like a ghost of herself. She can't shy away from the thoughts pulling her under.

Her baby boy. Her baby boy.

She uses her upper arm to wipe her tears away and sands harder.

*

There are blisters on her fingers that night.

They hurt as she turns the pages of a book, but she keeps reading. She might not even remember the story in the morning but it's something to do.

*

She sits in front of the piano.

"Do you play?" Nigel asks.

He's a good man. His presence fills a room in a quiet way.

"No," she says, running her fingers lightly across the keys. She remembers Dan and his lessons. She remembers aching when she watched that video he made about them. "But I always wanted to learn."

*

There's a framed photograph on a table full of them.

It's Dan, with Phil and the rest of Phil's family.

Phil's arms are casually around Dan. Dan's head rests on his shoulder.

She feels like she's looking at a stranger.

She's known for a while, of course. He's her son - how could she not? Maybe it took her longer than it should, but she's not stupid.

She understands what love looks like. She's felt it once or twice herself.

But in her mind she only really ever thought as far as Phil. It's shakes her now, to look at this picture, settled into a spot in this house. To realize that Dan is also settled in here; that Kathryn has a multitude of stories about Dan that Karen's never heard before.

She doesn't want to hear them yet.

Maybe one day.

*

"Do you sew?" Kathryn asks. "Or quilt?"

Karen laughs. "Oh, no. No. No."

Kathryn laughs, too.

She's a kind woman. She's a warm woman.

Karen's never been able to capture that and she knows it. She wouldn't call herself a cold person, but distance feels more natural to her. She's confident, she's capable, but people wear her down.

She's the kind of person that likes her long quiet nights alone to let herself unwind. A glass of wine and some music. People are just fucking exhausting.

Kathryn doesn't seem like the type of person that's ever avoided a phone call from someone that might need her because she just didn't have it in her. Kathryn's probably baking a cake for them before that mystery person even picks up the phone to ring.

*

Kathryn makes a cake that night.

It's delicious.

*

Every month they go to where the boats come in.

Every month they wait and see if their boys are on this one.

Every month it's harder to walk back home alone.

*

"Here's our next project," Kathryn says, out of breath. Her hair is pulled back but messily so, wisps of a faded-dye shade of red curling against her cheeks.

She stands in front of the prize she's just pushed into the driveway where she told Karen to meet her.

Karen frowns. "It's a sofa."

"We're going to reupholster it," Kathryn says, standing up and brushing her hands off.

"Do you need another sofa?" Karen asks.

Kathryn shakes her head. "No. it's..." She squares her shoulders. "Come on. Come with me, then. I'll just show you."

Karen glances at the battered sofa and its torn cushions, then sets out behind Kath.

*

Karen's first thought is that it's for her, and her second is that she doesn't want it.

She doesn't want to live alone in a little stone cottage. It feels cold and she'd be lonely and do they want her gone? Is she being exiled?

But Kath is staring at her like she's waiting on something to connect. "Do you think they'll like it?" she finally says. "They'll want their own space, I thought."

They.

Karen looks around. She swallows thickly.

It's a good size for two people who are already used to sharing a life.

She reaches out and grabs Kathryn's hand, squeezing it tight. "I think they'll love it."