It was day ten of their new living situation, and Olivia awoke alone for the ninth morning in a row.
"Uncle Rafa, can I sleep in your bed tonight?" That request had come at 7:45 p.m. on day one.
Her pre-breakfast revelation that she could likely relax a little had faded steadily throughout that first day. Still very much feeling guilty about their imposition on Barba's time and his home, she'd kept the door to the bedroom that doubled as her office open a crack so that she could monitor Noah's behaviour. She'd popped out often with a mixture of gentle reminders and harsher crackdowns. She'd pulled him in with her for a few hours in the afternoon to give Barba a break, making him read and giving him iPad time with headphones, anything to keep him occupied and out of Barba's hair.
And honestly, that day was more exhausting for her than any she'd experienced at home since the state-side pandemic began.
When Noah had posed the question, Olivia had obviously opened her mouth to object, but Barba was already answering. "Of course you can! Go get ready and we'll meet you in there." And the boy happily scampered off.
"Barba, you don't have to - "
"Olivia, stop." He'd held his tongue all day as she'd tried to intervene, tried to remind Noah to be respectful, to give Barba space, to not talk Barba's ear off, to let Barba choose, but now he was so exasperated he finally couldn't help but say his piece. "Will you just trust me? I know I have agency here. You don't need to police it."
"But - "
"No 'buts'. This isn't going to be nearly as much fun for any of us if Noah isn't allowed to feel at home and I'm relegated to some elevated role just because I happen to own the place. You know eventually that's going to fade on its own anyway; the energy you're putting in to trying to maintain it isn't sustainable and I can promise you WE aren't going to help. So why don't you just relax?"
Ouch. Being told to relax when it had been her intention -- and her failure -- hurt. But then Barba was standing in front of the couch where she sat, offering her a hand. When she reluctantly took it, rather than immediately helping her to her feet he just held on. "When are you going to get it through that stubborn head of yours that I asked you here because I WANT you here, and not just for your sake?" His change of tone, his smile, took away some of the earlier sting. "I'm not nearly as charitable as you apparently think I am."
"I just... You know how strong-willed Noah can be. I don't want you to feel like to be a good host means you have to give in to him."
"Have you MET me?" he said with a laugh. "Aside from you, have you ever known anyone who could push me around?"
"I'll admit it's a very short list."
"You need to give him some agency too. He's a good kid. We'll all figure things out as we go." He tugged on her hand then. "Come on. You can read to both of us."
She did, and by the time the book was finished both Noah and Barba were fast asleep. Leaving her alone for the rest of the night, and realizing that she felt kind of lonely.
That feeling carried into the next day and well beyond, and only grew. When Noah was awake, he barely seemed to give her a second thought. And when Noah was asleep, Barba crashed from exhaustion. Her companions had doubled, but she felt lonelier than ever.
But she couldn't complain. Didn't want to complain. She was getting lots of work done, and finally able to focus. Hell, she was being positively pampered!
She was able to work uninterrupted in her "office", with snacks and coffee delivered regularly, and even meals when she couldn't get away. Otherwise, meals she didn't have to cook were enjoyed at the table on dishes she didn't have to clean. Except replace "didn't have to" with "wasn't allowed to". The first time she was chastised for trying to take her plate to the kitchen, it was gently and by Barba. The second time it was Noah, who she learned was now earning an "allowance" from Barba for each chore he completed, which he could then use to "buy" privileges and special items. While Noah had a pretty well developed sense of inner pride and intrinsic motivation, the combination of the right dangled "carrots" and his desire to please his Uncle Rafa put him in extrinsic motivation overdrive.
As a result, pretty much everything ended up monetized, with the colourful paper bills from Barba's old sentimental edition of Monopoly legal tender in their home. Noah was slowly taught how to set goals and budget for them in the short term and long term: a daily budget and a "savings account" for a big ticket item (a Lego Roller Coaster set that he had no idea Barba had already purchased for him and hidden away in his bedroom closet), and how to set up a general ledger of sorts to track money going in and out of his "account" (a shoe box).
On day eight, Olivia had asked, "Do you want some more dessert, Noah?"
Despite having had an awful afternoon, hearing him answer "No, thanks. It's not in my budget for today" had sent her into a fit of delighted laughter.
"Tell you what? This will be my treat," she told him.
"Do you even HAVE any money, mom?"
"She gets an allowance for working so hard all day," Barba offered. "And trust me, she makes more money than both us us."
"Oh! Then can you buy me the Lego set?"
"Sorry, sweetheart. That's not in MY budget. You'll have to keep saving."
While Noah was loading the dishwasher, Barba and Olivia chatted at the table over a glass of wine. "This is amazing," she told him. "I can't believe how much he's learning, and how quickly."
"I talked to my mom about it last night, and she said I just lucked out that Noah has the right personality for this kind of stuff. She said it wouldn't work for every kid." She'd also warned him that he probably only had two weeks of a "honeymoon period" to cash in on with Noah -- living in a new space, having Barba back in his life and seeing him every day -- so not to get too comfortable with things going so well. But he wasn't going to worry until he had to. Right now, he was having too much fun.
That's not to say Barba didn't run a tight ship, but Lucia had been right that the novelty put him at an advantage. It was obvious that Noah thought Barba hung the moon, and as a result hung on his every word and instruction.
But Barba wasn't one to just coast. All of the energy he'd put into his work for the last 20+ years he was now putting into "playing house" and "playing school", and like everything he put his mind to, he excelled at it.
He joined the Basecamp for Noah's class and became a regular contributor. He was now on a first-name basis with Noah's teacher and vice principal. Through the allowance system he had worked with Noah to develop, completing assigned school work became a part of the game, but BARBA'S assignments were much more varied and interesting. Noah was rewarded for reading silently and aloud, worked on his writing and typing by sending emails and letters to friends, and practiced along with dance lessons and choreography tutorials on YouTube for at least an hour a day. He learned how to tie a tie, fold a shirt like they do at stores, run the dishwasher, read a recipe, and order groceries online.
Except for TV that they all watched together in the evening, ALL screen time not related to learning had to be "purchased", but Noah was so enjoying Barba's focused attention, was so engaged by what he was taking in, that was more likely to choose to MAKE "money" by vacuuming or helping make dinner than to SPEND "money" on iPad or Netflix time.
Barba also made sure that they played hard as well as worked hard, even if work did feel like play much of the time. On day two, his mother dropped of a huge box of books, games and activities that she'd collected from the Charter School she directed. She'd already been at the school helping her staff to assemble learning packs for students without Internet and non-perishable food hampers for those who were struggling due to lack of school lunches. So after she had used the school van to make those deliveries and had dropped the teachers helping her back at their homes, she made a detour to her son's and left the box outside of his door without knocking, texting instead when she was already back in the vehicle. (She understood that while she'd been careful, she was still a risk to Noah, and she wasn't going to tempt her son to break quarantine just because she really wanted to see him face-to-face.)
After the box contents had been thoroughly sanitized, they provided hours of fun. Board games and card games filled their afternoons, and easy reader books in English and Spanish as well as chapter books were an important part of their bedtime routine.
Noah's days were so full that he rarely balked at the idea of turning in, which was lucky because by the time evening rolled around Barba was out of steam. "I can't remember the last time I was this tired just from a day well spent," he told her on night four as he and Olivia lounged in the living room after Noah had gone to bed.
She understood what he meant, and kept her jealousy unvoiced. She was always tired, now more than ever, but it was an emotional and mental exhaustion which rather than leading to a good night sleep made sleep difficult or unsatisfying.
Barba on the other hand was staying awake as long as he could to keep her company, but still always giving up ridiculously early and, sharing his bed with the younger of his houseguests at Noah's continued insistence, sleeping soundly, solidly.
On the morning of day 10, Barba had even managed to sleep in. Olivia, once again, had not. She'd awoken from a restless night and felt like she had barely slept at all. There was no reason for her to be awake just then since she didn't have a commute, but she knew there was no sense trying to drop off again as it would just see her starting her day with yet another failure.
She could hear the rhythmic sound of someone running on the treadmill; Noah, she could tell by the lightly weighted steps. Already working on his next leg of the "cross country relay" that he and Barba had mapped out after Noah had used an old atlas to look something up for school (using an altered scale, because none of them were willing to imagine the stay-at-home order lasted long enough for them to ACTUALLY run "across America").
It was TOO early in her estimation, but Barba had already humoured her by calling his neighbour in the condo below when they had first started their trek to see how much noise the treadmill, which had been dragged from under the bed that was now hers and into the corner of the living room, actually made when in use. After some testing, they'd assured him that it was barely audible and not remotely a bother, night or day, and that they would let him know if that were to change. Despite all that, Olivia still had to fight herself from telling Noah he should wait a few hours lest he wake them up.
She turned her attention to her newsfeed, and then to Twitter, only to have it confirmed that everything was just as awful in the world as it had been the last time she'd scrolled through. Lovely.
She didn't need a shower; she'd taken one the night before after Barba had nodded off on the couch. But she took one anyway because she didn't have a better way to fill the time. Then she stood in front of the fogged mirror, and after wiping it with a towel gave herself a good, long look, not liking what she saw. Her hair was too long and damaged. The ever-present dark circles under her eyes too pronounced. Her face looked too round, as she knew the rest of her was starting to do as well. How long now since she'd been to the gym? Or tried to exercise at home more than half-heartedly?
By the time she had dressed -- well, half dressed; she was becoming one of those cliche work-from-home types who only put on real clothes from the waist up for online meetings, but wore yoga pants and bare feet below -- and made her way to the kitchen, it was Barba on the treadmill and Noah was pouring his own orange juice at the table.
"Good morning, sweet boy. Where did you make it to this morning?"
"'Butt', Montana," he reported, snickering.
"It's pronounced "Butte", honey," she corrected with a smile. "Do you want me to make you something to eat?"
"No thanks. I'm going to wait for Rafa." Of course he was.
She made herself a coffee and sat down next to him. "So what do you boys have planned today?"
A loaded question apparently, because Noah was still chattering happily five minutes later when Barba joined them, cheeks pink and shirt damp with sweat.
"Morning, Liv," he greeted cheerfully.
"Good morning." She tried to match his tone, but could tell by the look he gave her that she hadn't been successful.
"Bud, why don't you mix up some pancake batter while I take a shower, and then when I get out I'll cook them up."
"Do you need any help?" Olivia offered, hopeful for a distraction.
"Nope, I have a recipe," he called proudly over his shoulder as he climbed up on the counter to reach the measuring cup.
Barba was still measuring her up. "You okay?"
She meant to say "yes". Tried to say "I'm fine", as she always did, as she had many times in the last few days. But it had now been almost a month since COVID had become part of her vocabulary, since her world had turned upside down. And she just couldn't get the words out.
He glanced at the clock, and then into the kitchen where Noah was busy gathering ingredients. This wasn't the time. "Listen, why don't we put Noah to bed early tonight and we can talk. Okay?"
"Sure. If you can stay awake long enough." Her tone was much more bitter than she'd intended, but he wouldn't let himself be baited.
"I'll even take a nap this afternoon to make sure," he promised kindly. "I need to get cleaned up. Do you have an early meeting, or can you join us for breakfast?"
"I'm not really hungry. I guess I'll just go get started."
He knew better than to force the issue. "Okay. But we WILL talk tonight."
Barba was true to his word. He had in fact laid down that afternoon while Noah worked on his dancing, and he had in fact convinced Noah that 7:30 wasn't too early to go to bed as long as he was allowed to fall asleep watching a movie.
So at just after 8 o'clock he and Olivia settled into the living room and Barba wasted no time with pleasantries. "What can I do to cheer you up?"
She couldn't help but chuckle at his candor, though she answered it with her own. "Honestly, I don't know. I just...really hate this."
He assumed that she meant "this" as the broader state of the world and not specifically their living arrangements, and so didn't take offense. "I know you do," he acknowledged.
"But you don't."
It wasn't quite an accusation, but Barba felt it as though it was, and a deserved one. "And I'm going to go to hell for it, I'm sure. In my defense I'm in no way trying to cajole the universe into extending this nightmare on my account. But... yeah, I honestly haven't been this happy in... I don't even know how long."
A genuine smile came unbidden to her face. "THAT cheers me up."
"Come over here." He patted the couch beside him. "Come on." She gave up easily and left the chair she'd been in to tuck herself into his side. "Let's fix this. It's completely okay for you to hate what's going on out there. But what can we do to at least help you enjoy what's going on in here? Because we boys are having a blast."
As his arm settled around her and her head rested on his shoulder, she was surprised to feel tears prick her eyes. Apart from a few scattered hugs from her son, she realized she was running low on human contact, which drew a particularly stark contrast to their last few weeks at home when, in those times he wasn't acting out and being defiant, he would insist that he sit on her lap or be picked up and held or sleep at her side. She'd recognized all of it as him trying desperately to regulate amidst the fear and stress, but it had also served the purpose of her not feeling so isolated.
Now Noah's focus was almost entirely on Barba, and she realized SHE was having trouble regulating.
"I think we talked more before we lived together than we do now," she heard herself blurting, immediately wishing she could take it back. She didn't want to appear ungrateful. In truth, she was INCREDIBLY grateful. She was just So. Damn. Tired.
"I'm sorry," he apologized immediately. "I hope you know we're not trying to make you feel left out. We just wanted to give you space so you could find your rhythm with work."
"And I appreciate it, really I do. It's helped so much. But..."
"...But we've been giving you TOO much space. And you've had some trouble mustering the energy to break back in."
Now she was grateful again, relieved that he'd been able to sum up so succinctly exactly what she couldn't give voice to. "I don't even recognize myself any more. I deal with stress and danger all the time. I've certainly been through way worse than this, by far. But I just can't seem to get free of it." He held her tighter, and she sighed heavily. "The two of you being so unaffected and having so much fun... Please believe me that I love seeing you both like that. But it also makes me feel like there's something wrong with me."
"Olivia, there's nothing wrong with you. And you can't compare life before to life now. NONE of us are unaffected; we're just all trying to cope in our own way." He pressed a kiss to the top of her head. "You need to give yourself a break."
"What I NEED is to find ways to get out of my own head."
"Well, if you're looking for suggestions, I happen to know of a relay team who could really use a third member. I think we may have been a bit ambitious with our scaling, and I'm realizing daily that I"m not as young as I used to be."
She lifted her head and they shared a smile. "I think I'd like that."
"Good, because I promised Noah I'd have us in Bozeman by morning, and I don't think I have it in me. Get running, woman."
"Unless you want to get up early. But if you do it now, you'll be tired out before bed."
That was certainly a goal she could get behind. "And exactly how far is Bozeman?"
"Based on our system, you only need to run just under 3 miles."
"THREE MILES? Do you have any idea how out of shape I've gotten since the stay-at-home went into place?"
"Tell you what -- how about we put on a movie and we can trade off when we need a break." It wasn't a suggestion, and she recognized that he was trying to give her an extra nudge. "Let's go get our sneakers; this relay isn't going to run itself!"
And so they ran, and that night she DID sleep better. She also woke up on day eleven to find that sometime during the night Noah had crawled in with her and was cuddled against her side. She didn't know if he'd done so at Barba's behest and honestly she didn't care. Because either way, she felt a little less lonely.