Falls Church, VA
There is a U-Haul parked in front of the house across the street, but the “For Sale” sign is still spiked in the front lawn. The house is a charming — two stories with two garages, a pretty front lawn with hydrangea bushes lining the walls and a dogwood tree in the center. It’s the beginning of May, so the cool bite of winter has yet to fully release, and the tree branches are full of white flowers. The house is one of many on this cul-de-sac. It’s a charming neighborhood in a charming part of the city. The kind of neighborhood that gets touted as “A Great Place to Raise a Family.” You wouldn’t even know that the center of the democratic free world was only a thirty minute drive from here. The high school a few blocks away is a good school, with plenty of opportunities for its students to thrive in college after graduation.
Rey watches the movers hauling things into the garage across the street from her room. She always hated that her room faced the street. It gets the most sun in the mornings, and at 20, she isn’t so old that she doesn’t mind sleeping in until noon on a Saturday morning. At best, she could get to 7:30 in the summer.
It’s rather thrilling to have new neighbors. They don’t come around so often in general, and that house has been for sale ever since she crossed the Pond three years ago. She’s originally from London. All you have to do is listen to her to find out, but a series of mishaps (to be kind) and misadventures (to be generous) had happened during her sixth form, and due to the magnanimity of a grandfather she didn’t even know existed, she’s here. She’s been watching them for at least an hour, and hasn’t seen any kids yet. Which is good, because there’s enough of them. It’s not that Rey doesn’t like kids—she absolutely does—but there is such a thing as enough of them.
Rey has seen The Wife, a tall and broad blonde woman with short cropped hair and a lovely smile, all morning. She directs the movers with boxes to the kitchen, “Through the garage, guys. It’ll be easier.” The Wife has a flat American accent, impossible to tell where in the enormous country she could have come from. There’s a joviality to her that Rey thinks her grandfather called Midwest Nice at one point. The Wife even takes a box herself and leads the gentlemen inside.
Rey wonders what brought the couple here. Had they grown tired of the hustle of the District? But The Wife didn’t strike Rey as a politician’s trophy. Or were they implants from afar? She can’t see the car in the driveway anymore from the U-Haul, but she caught a glance of it earlier — an older red Honda Accord. The most she can pull from that is that they’re safety-minded people. She’s too far, U-Haul or not, to tell where the plates are from.
Rey hears a new voice from the garage — The Husband, probably. It’s masculine and low, but not a deep, rumbly bass. In fact, his tone is sharp and a little sarcastic. “Oh no, I’ll be just fine by myself,” he says in a way that perfectly captures how not fine he’ll be. But before Rey can catch a glimpse of the speaker, her grandfather bellows out her name. She doesn’t have much time to get to him. Rey’s grandfather, Sheev Palpatine, has little patience for waiting.
Rey sticks her pencil behind her ear and bounds down the carpeted stairs and into the living room, where her grandfather, decrepit at 62, sits in his armchair. He’s dressed in a long black dressing gown, lined with red satin. His old blue eyes beneath wild white brows are trained outside the window. He only moves to bring his wafting cigarette to his mouth. She finds it odd that he still smokes, that he can be that close to fire, given that half his body was burned in the accident that sent him into early retirement. Some of the puckered pink skin creeps up from his neck. The scars are worse on the other side, but she can’t see them now. The whole house smells like an ashtray and it makes her stomach coil.
“I called for you child,” her grandfather says. His voice, unlike The Husband’s across the street, is deep and rumbly, worn and weary.
“Yes Grandfather,” she says.
“Then you must answer me.”
“Or I will think someone has snatched you away.”
“Of course, Grandfather.”
Rey grasps at the seams on the side of her jeans. He doesn’t say anything else to her while he finishes his cigarette, and while her jaw aches from being clamped so tight. He stamps the butt out in the crystalline ashtray beside him.
“You seeing that Negro boy today?” he finally says.
Rey rankles under the question. “You aren’t supposed to say that.”
“Fine.” He chuckles, but it’s a cruel sound. “Are you seeing that — ”
“Don’t you dare,” Rey says with as much venom as she can muster. “His name is Finn.”
The smile upon his burned and wrinkled face seems to widen, as though he takes glee in her offense. “Must have slipped my mind. Old age, you know.” He taps his temple.
“I am seeing him,” she says definitively. “And Rose too.”
Her grandfather curls his lip. Rose is Vietnamese. “Where are you and this diversity drive off to?”
“That’s none of your business.”
Now he turns his hideous face to her. “So long as you’re under my roof it is. Where are you going?”
“The cinema,” she says. He circles his hand, waiting for a further explanation, so she continues. “To see the Rocky IV matinee.”
He seems pleased enough with that answer, and he settles back into the chair. “Goddamn Russians,” he mutters. “You’ll be back in time to greet our new neighbors?”
Rey blanches. “Er, yeah, I guess.”
“Good. I want them to have a warm introduction. Now, be a dear and fetch me my Marlboros from the kitchen.”
Finn is shadowboxing as they step out of the theater, completely enraptured by the last hour and a half. Rey and Rose walk behind him arm in arm, a little less enthusiastic. Rose is downright shell-shocked.
“That was the dumbest thing I’ve seen this year,” she says.
“It was awesome, babe, and you know it.” Finn ducks before taking another few jabs at nothing. He pivots on his back foot and asks Rey, “What did you think?”
Rey wobbles her head, considering the options. “If I’m being perfectly honest…” To answer fully, she breaks away from her second best friend to match her first best friend’s moves. They pretend to fight each other while Rose stands under the marquee and throws her hands up.
“Unbelievable,” she cries out.
“Oh, come on Rose, it’s just a bit of fun,” Rey says. She starts for Finn’s side, but he whacks her arm away.
“It was jingoistic and disgusting.”
“Is that what we’re calling exciting these days?” Finn tries lobbing a jab at Rey, which she easily blocks. She admonishes him, tells him to try harder. She asks if he’s even going to boxing class, though she can tell by the weight he’s put on recently that he is.
Rose crosses her arms. “It was cheesy.”
Rey and Finn stop for a moment, before conceding her point and returning to their sparring.
“It was a flagrant display of American impetuousness, recklessness and chauvinism.”
“I hate to break it to you, but you are American,” Rey drawls with a sly grin.
Rose scoffs and raises a fist. “I’m a socialist.”
Finn finally stops, sensing that his girlfriend might actually be upset about this, and pulls away from Rey. Rey stuffs her hands in her denim jacket pockets and takes an even further step back. She kicks a rock to the side. They’ve been together for as long as Rey has known them, the children of old family friends. Even back in London, Rey never had anything of the sort.
“Babe,” Finn says lightly. He takes her fist into his hand. She laces their fingers together, though her scowl only deepens.
“Rose-Marie Tran,” Finn continues, “I will take down the whole rotten Western imperial system brick by brick right beside you. I hate these white bastards as much as you do.” He cups her face with his free hand and runs his thumb over her cheek. “I love you, you know that?” She tries to stifle the grin that pulls at the corner of her lips.
“There’s a ‘but’ coming, you jerk,” Rose says.
“But,” he does say. “But, you have to admit that KO in the end was pretty kickass.”
Rose snickers before she kisses him. “You’re absolutely incorrigible.”
“And yours forever.”
“Forever, he says!” Rose gawks. “Why, Finn Freedman, I’d swear that sounded like a marriage proposal.”
“One day. Absolutely.” Finn picks up Rose and spins her around one before melting into a deep kiss.
A familiar tug catches Rey in her chest, equal parts bitter and sweet and a little gritty, like a chocolate covered coffee bean. She isn’t jealous of them. Far from it. They’re her best friends and she wishes them nothing but the continued happiness that they so clearly have in each other. She doesn’t even think she wants a boyfriend per se. She didn’t date all that much in school, and in a country that still feels new and strange, Rey doesn’t know where she would begin.
It’s not the physical intimacy she longs for. It’s a someone who can harness her anger and flip it into joy with just a look. It’s the trust.
Rey clears her throat loudly. The two lovebirds pull apart, and Finn pops an eyebrow. “Yes, Peanut?”
“You did say we were going to get ice cream,” Rey says with a shrug. “You’ve got the keys.”
It’s just after five when Finn drops her off in the driveway. Rose shouts from the window to call her later, and Rey waves. The U-Haul across the street is gone. The plates on the Toyota are white and blue and say New York across the top. How interesting.
Rey pulls up the garage door and steps around her grandfather’s black Pontiac. She kicks off her shoes at the door, and steps into the kitchen for some water. When she turns, she startles at first. Her grandfather has been waiting for her in the dining room. Whatever shred of happiness she had bubbling inside flattens to a thick sludge and sinks into her stomach like lead.
He’s changed since she left, dressed now in a sensible black shirt and dark jeans. He approaches her. The stench of tobacco and…whiskey, it seems, is heavier now, and seems to waft off him in waves. Rey bites the inside of her cheek to distract herself from covering her nose.
“Did you have fun with your friends?” he asks. His grin is like a threat.
If Rey opens her mouth to answer him, she’ll vomit. So she nods curtly instead.
The cruel grin widens. “Good, good. Now, let’s be kind and welcome our new friends to the neighborhood.” He hands her a box of store-bought cupcakes.
“Did you poison these?” she asks. It’s meant as a joke, honest, but his smile falls and his expression hardens. He doesn’t say anything to her, but his grip on her arm is surprisingly strong. Tomorrow, she will have a grape-sized bruise where his thumb is pressing.
Rey rings the doorbell. She stands in front of her grandfather and drums the bottom of the cupcake box. Her grandfather hisses at her to knock it off. She would shoot him a petulant look, but the door opens, and Rey beams widely at The Wife, who answers the door.
She is very tall. Rey isn’t short, but the woman standing before her must be at least six feet. She is also gorgeous, in that way powerful career women are. Her beauty is like steel-forged armor. Rey thinks it’s rather appropriate that she wears a solid necklace made of platinum silver.
“Hello!” Rey bleats. “We live across the street. Welcome to the neighborhood.”
With a jab from her grandfather, Rey pushes forward the box of cupcakes.
“Oh, how lovely,” The Wife says, taking them. Now Rey knows for sure that she’s Midwest Nice, because these are the saddest looking Safeway cupcakes she’s ever seen. The frosting shines like plastic. “I’m Eleanor, by the way.”
“Charmed,” her grandfather says, shaking her hand. “I’m Sheev, and this is Rey. What brings you to the neighborhood?”
“It’s the darndest thing, you know. My husband and I, we were both travel agents with Triple-A, but Hux, a friend of Kylo’s — my husband — had this crazy idea of starting his own agency in DC. He asked if we wanted to join as partners.”
“Oh, travel, huh?” To Rey, her grandfather sounds politely interested at most, but Eleanor nods along enthusiastically.
“Anywhere too. Domestic, international. Where’ve you always wanted to go?”
“It’s been a while since I’ve been to Germany.”
Rey did not know that her grandfather had ever been to Germany.
Eleanor grins. “Depending on how good these cupcakes are, we might be able to get you a good deal into West Berlin. The falls are to die for.”
Knowing the quality of cupcakes, they were looking less at a trip to Berlin and more like a banishment to Sheboygan.
“What’s the name of your company?” Rey asks.
“First Order,” Eleanor says. “As in, our First Order of business is your premier travel experience.” She adds a wink, and Rey is about ready to ask if they have a spare bedroom she can move into. Her grandfather seems less than enthusiastic.
“Who’s at the door, Eleanor?” a voice calls from somewhere inside the house. It’s the same one Rey heard earlier. The Husband. Eleanor, calls over her shoulder and fills him in on what’s happening, and tells him to join her.
It happens in a nearly instantaneous moment. The figure that steps into frame is, like Eleanor, tall and broad. He’s in a gingham shirt, with the sleeves rolled to his elbows, exposing taut muscular forearms, tucked into dark jeans that emphasize a slim waist and are far tighter than any married man should be wearing. He is handsome, and when he smiles to greet them, Rey practically melts under her grandfather’s cold and steady hands.
“Hey, I’m Kylo,” he says, offering a little wave. “Ooh, are these for us?” He reaches over Eleanor’s shoulder and plucks a cupcake, before she can swat his very large hand away. The cupcake is like a toy for a child’s playset in his hand.
“These are our new neighbors, dear,” Eleanor says. “Sheev and Rey.”
Mouth full of Safeway plaster cupcake, Kylo musters out a Nice to meet you. “What do you all do. You in school?” he nods to Rey and it takes a moment to remember how to breathe before she can respond.
“Er, I uh. I mean—” Great.
“She’s looking to get into the mechanical engineering program at Virginia Tech,” her grandfather picks up, squeezing her shoulder.
“But I’m not from around here…obviously,” Rey says. “I still need to take the SATs.”
“And we need to get your transcripts from that school in London,” her grandfather adds.
"I'm twenty, by the way," Rey adds quickly, as though that's a detail a gorgeous married man should care about. "I'm not a kid."
“Life leads us all down our own paths at our own time,” Kylo says. His smile is warm and kind and Rey is sure he gives exceptional hugs. Then Kylo turns to her grandfather and asks, “And what about you sir? Who’s pension are you collecting?”
It’s a joke and her grandfather laughs long amicably. “Who needs retirement,” he says. “No, I’m far too young and handsome to be cooped up on the shuffleboard patio all day.”
It’s a test and the couple passes. Neither of their smiles drop.
“So what do you do, Sheev?”
“I do some consulting work here and there for my former employers.”
“And who might that be?” Eleanor asks.
“Why the Federal Bureau of Investigation, ma’am.”
It happens in a nearly instantaneous moment. The corners of Eleanor’s mouth twitches and Kylo’s grip on his cupcake tightens. Tomorrow, Rey will think that she is crazy — how could she not be after all those years with Plutt and now her grandfather. In a few years, Rey will stand alone at the Amtrak station in Alexandria and will realize that she knew the truth the whole time.
“Welcome to the neighborhood again,” her grandfather says.