The Next Day
Sue had been aware that she would be expected to leave the hospital promptly, however she was still surprised to be given her marching orders the day after. She had barely managed to persuade Bethany to latch on more than twice. She told herself that was the major issue. The pain was something that she had expected. She had understood that when she embarked on this entire journey. She had not expected anything else.
Except, well. She hadn’t expected adult diapers, night sweats, and cramps. She hadn’t expected to be so hurt when Kent mentioned the nanny and the night nurse. Mentioned so casually. She shouldn’t have been surprised that he had already made arrangements. As far as he had known he was going to be raising Bethany by himself. Naturally he had hired help. He wouldn’t have been Kent if he hadn’t been organising interviews and the like months in advance.
He hadn’t mentioned it to her. He hadn’t talked to her in great detail about his plans for Bethany. She hadn’t asked. There was time enough to discuss it. Time enough to discuss the fact that he wasn’t going to be making decisions on his own. At least, that was her assumption. He would have to take her opinions into account. Wouldn’t he? Of course, he would. Kent was an extremely reasonable and, above all, rational man.
He held Bethany against his chest, breathed in the scent of her skin, and passed entirely to some other world. Sue chewed her lower lip. Bethany had been seven and a half pounds at birth, exactly average, but when Kent held her, she looked almost incomprehensibly small. Sue knew, because Kent had told her, that Bethany couldn’t see very far yet or very well. However, when Sue saw Bethany raise her head and apparently look into Kent’s face it was impossible not to believe that there was some deeper communication at play. It was no real surprise to know that Kent would do anything for his daughter. Perhaps it was merely that Sue was realising that what she had thought was this knowledge was merely belief or assumption. It was not the deep, solid bedrock of knowing absolutely and without any question that he would turn the world upside down and inside out for her.
‘Sorry,’ he said, looking at Sue. ‘I didn’t mean to be an attention hog.’
‘What do you mean?’ she asked.
He smiled. ‘You were looking at me as if you were ready to hit me over the head and grab her back.’
Sue tucked her hair behind her ear. ‘I certainly wasn’t thinking that.’
‘What were you thinking?’ he asked passing Bethany to her.
She nervously adjusted her grip and gently placed Bethany against her shoulder. ‘I was thinking that you are going to be one of those fathers who threaten potential boyfriends with a shotgun.’
He chuckled. ‘I hope not. It’s rather misogynistic. Not to mention heteronormative. She might bring girlfriends home. Or both.’
‘Well if you’re going to be woke then she might bring someone non-binary home,’ Sue said. ‘In which you absolutely shouldn’t wave a shotgun at them. We’d make the national news.’
‘I don’t even own a shotgun,’ Kent pointed out.
‘What do you do about coyotes bothering the alpacas?’
‘I don’t shoot them!’ he protested. ‘We put scent bombs on the perimeter to put them off along with motion activated alarms at night. The dogs are normally out with the alpacas during the day. Coyotes generally go for small prey, but I don’t risk it.’
Sue stroked Bethany’s head. ‘What dogs?’
‘The farmhands’ dogs. I pay a small premium for farmhands with well-trained large dogs. They scare off the coyotes and the rats. Erdos takes care of the mice and smaller pests.’
‘The dogs don’t attack her?’
‘They’re leashed,’ he said. ‘Although she has been known to sit on an alpaca’s back and taunt them.’
There was a long and drawn highly… biological sound.
Sue looked at Kent. ‘Your daughter needs to be changed.’
‘Oh, I see how it is,’ he said lightly. ‘When there are cuddles to be had then she’s your daughter but when she fills her diaper then she’s mine.’
As he took her, Sue pulled back the covers. ‘I have to finish getting ready before they throw me bodily from the room.’
‘I wasn’t entirely sure… I’ve prepared both rooms,’ he said carefully. ‘I didn’t know if you would like some time alone. I’m very aware that it will take you some time to recover and, even then, you might prefer not to share a room with me. Or you may wish to take some time until you desire to do so.’
Sue eased herself out of bed. ‘Is this because you claim that I snore?’
‘Like a rusty chainsaw,’ he said lightly. ‘But primarily because this is quite new, and we haven’t entirely sketched out our boundaries. I don’t wish you to feel that I’m pushing you into anything.’
Sue gripped the bed as a cramp seized her body. ‘Amy says that we’ve done everything in the wrong order,’ she panted through gritted teeth.
Kent was changing Bethany and so could only wince in empathy. ‘A non-traditional order, certainly,’ he said. ‘I would say that “wrong” is a value judgement that I don’t think is very helpful.’
‘I can’t have sex for at least four weeks,’ Sue said.
Kent raised his eyebrows. ‘I understood that four to six weeks was generally recommended.’
‘As I said, at least four weeks.’ She scowled at him. ‘Don’t come at me with extra details.’
‘Okay,’ he said meekly. ‘I certainly didn’t expect… You have stitches in your perineum and less than twenty-four hours ago you pushed an entire human foetus out of your vagina. I cannot imagine that sex is something you would be interested in for some considerable time.’
‘Good,’ she said. ‘I’m glad that we understand each other.’
‘What?’ she asked.
‘I was just thinking how beautiful you look.’
Sue tried to frown. ‘Stop being ridiculous and help me get ready.’
The Next Week
If pressed, Sue might admit that the nanny and the nurse were quite helpful. She handled the daytime feedings herself, she had her pride, but allowing the night nurse to feed Bethany expressed milk did allow her to get some sleep.
Not that she wasn’t tempted to express milk for the daytime feeding. A week on and Bethany was still struggling to latch on. There were days when Sue spent hours forcing herself to cry silently so that Kent wouldn’t notice and come in. Breastfeeding was the most natural thing in the world. How could it be this difficult? What was she doing wrong?
‘It’s okay if you can’t do it,’ Tonya said in her lilting accent. ‘Lots of women struggle with it.’
Sue glowered at the nanny. ‘Don’t patronise me.’
‘I’m just saying that stressing yourself out about it isn’t helpful either.’
‘I’ll choose what to stress myself out about.’
Her mother, when she finally found the time to visit, brought a bottle of Scotch for Kent, a stuffed Koala for Bethany, and tubs of haemorrhoid cream and nipple cream for Sue.
‘Is this a joke?’ Sue asked sourly.
‘They’re practical,’ Imelda said.
‘Why are my things practical but Kent gets whiskey?’
Todd was over by the window looking out. ‘He’s got two ladies in the house and both of them crying all the time. Whiskey is medicinal.’
Sue narrowed her eyes. ‘I am not crying all the time!’
‘You called me up on Tuesday –’ Imelda began.
‘One time! One time I called you!’
‘ – because your hormones are naturally a little disrupted at the moment,’ she continued. ‘Although I was surprised that you would be so at the mercy of them.’
Sue folded her arms. ‘I am continually surprised that a therapist would shame someone for expressing their emotions.’
Imelda leaned over the bassinet to look at Bethany. ‘A healthy expression of emotion in a measured and appropriate manner is one thing. A hormone-induced hysterical blow-up is quite another.’
‘Aren’t all emotions hormone-induced?’ Todd asked. ‘Thoughts are electrical sparks across our neurones and feelings are squirts of chemicals. That’s all we are really. Chemicals and electricity.’
Sue rolled her eyes.
‘Why don’t you go and… help Kent with the animals or something,’ Imelda suggested.
He shrugged. ‘You sure you don’t want to give me ten dollars to go to the movies?’
‘Would it work?’ Sue asked.
Todd laughed and wandered out.
‘She doesn’t look much like you,’ Imelda said.
‘Perhaps I should ask for a maternity test,’ Sue suggested acidly.
Imelda ignored this and picked Bethany up. The baby blinked eyes the colour of ocean seaweed. ‘Are her eyes going to stay this colour?’
‘They’re not sure,’ Sue admitted. ‘Kent has hazel eyes so they might become a dark hazel or possibly brown.’
Imelda pursed her lips. ‘But they aren’t going to turn blue?’
‘That’s not how eyes work, Mother.’
‘Good.’ She let the tiny fingers fasten around her thumb. ‘I couldn’t breastfeed you,’ she said, her attention on Bethany.
‘What?’ Sue asked.
Imelda shrugged. ‘You had no difficulty latching on, but it was exceedingly painful and, to add insult to injury, I was unable to produce much milk. After three weeks I was producing no milk at all. I had to use formula.’
Sue pushed back her hair. ‘I didn’t know that.’
Imelda pulled a face. ‘I’m hardly going to volunteer to admit that without good reason.’
‘I don’t see why not,’ Sue said.
Her mother shot her a look. ‘That lie is utterly unworthy of you. You know precisely why not. It was a humiliating failure. Everyone knew that. I was told that I wasn’t trying hard enough. That I was lazy. That I was denying you essential nutrients because I was afraid of a little discomfort.’
Sue clasped her hands together. ‘None of that is right or fair.’
Imelda pursed her lips. ‘That is scarcely the point, Susan. Very little in life is right or fair.’
‘Could you perhaps get to the point before Bethany graduates from college?’ Sue asked tartly.
‘Merely that I had to bottle feed you and it has in no way impeded your progress in life,’ Imelda said. ‘So, if it is necessary for you to bottle feed Bethany you should not feel that you are letting her down. That’s all.’
Kent had set up a picnic table and comfortable sun chairs under a spreading oak tree. He brought out a cooler of food and soft drinks for her while she brought out Bethany and a bag full of expressed milk, diapers, and the like. It was late autumn but still warm and the sky was honey and brown sugar.
‘I feel as if I haven’t been out of the house in months,’ Sue said.
‘You went to your mom’s last week,’ Kent said.
Sue settled onto the chair with a sigh. ‘I defy anyone to imagine that visiting my mother is any kind of day out.’
‘I could find a little cottage or similar?’ Kent suggested. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t think that you were feeling up to being out and about.’
Sue held Bethany against her shoulder and patted her back. ‘I’m not sure that I am.’
‘There’s no rush,’ Kent said, sitting next to her. He took Bethany as Sue handed her over. ‘Hello sweetheart.’
Bethany gurgled at him.
‘It feels ridiculous that I’m still at home,’ Sue said.
She noticed him smile as he kissed Bethany’s forehead. She had grown to have more appreciation for his many and varied smiles.
‘I saw that,’ she said.
‘You, smirking that I called this home.’
Kent gently bumped her shoulder with his. ‘I certainly hope that this is your home.’
She leaned against him. ‘I feel very much at home.’
He sighed softly. ‘That makes me very happy.’
Sue put her hand over his and squeezed it gently. ‘We haven’t talked about that. About where I’m going to live in the long-term.’
He licked his lips. ‘I didn’t wish to raise the issue.’
‘You weren’t even going to ask?’
Kent crossed his legs. ‘I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t wary of… making you feel pressured in any way. I don’t feel there’s any rush to cast anything in stone.’
Sue clasped her hands together. ‘What do you want?’
He smiled slightly as he shook his head. ‘No, I’m not taking responsibility for this. This is your decision, Sue. What do you want?’
She raised her eyebrows. ‘I told you that I wanted to be in Bethany’s life. It’s your turn to admit something important.’
He chuckled. ‘Oh, you’re turning this into a tit-for-tat thing?’
‘I’m merely saying that I shouldn’t be the only person opening up emotionally,’ she said.
Kent was quiet for a moment. ‘That’s fair,’ he said. He took a breath and released it slowly. ‘I would very much like it if you moved in permanently.’
Sue gently rocked Bethany’s bassinet. ‘Okay.’
She raised an eyebrow. ‘Were you expecting a speech?’
He shrugged. ‘You didn’t give me much time to expect anything. I suppose that, if I were to expect anything it might be for you to present me with paperwork to sign detailing our individual rights and responsibilities.’
‘Very droll,’ she said. ‘You had the paperwork for the surrender of parental rights, but you never suggested anything detailing our particular behaviour.’
He chuckled. ‘I can imagine how you would have reacted to that.’
Sue looked at him. ‘You took a risk.’
Kent clasped his hands together. ‘In theory. I assessed the risk and considered it too low to be of concern.’
She pursed her lips. ‘What does that mean?’
He looked at the sky as he considered his words carefully. ‘You didn’t want children. I had no reason to believe that was going to change. Additionally, while our relationship ended badly, I have never had any reason to doubt your integrity.’
Sue smiled. ‘You trusted me.’
‘I did,’ he said.
She leaned across and kissed his cheek. ‘Thank you.’ As Bethany began to fuss, Sue picked her up. ‘Your daddy is an excellent judge of character.’
‘I’m not sure that she’s as impressed as you are,’ Kent said lightly.
‘Well, she’s a baby. She’s still learning.’ Sue put Bethany against her shoulder.
Kent shook his head. ‘Disappointing. I would hope for better particularly after an entire week.’
Sue leaned against him. ‘I think one of us has had suffered a urinary accident.’
Kent raised his eyebrows. ‘It wasn’t me.’
The Next Month
‘Babies are gross,’ Amy said, scowling into the cot.
‘Frequently,’ Sue said. ‘But in this case, she is merely lay asleep; clean, dry, and not even slightly soiled by the many and various bodily fluids that I had little awareness that babies could produce in such riotous profusion.’
‘You’ve been spending way too much time around Kent,’ Amy said. ‘What’s happening with that?’
Sue stepped away from the cot. ‘We’re together now.’
Amy followed her out of the nursery. ‘You’re fucking, Kent? Shit. I owe Ben twenty dollars.’
Sue threw back a look as she walked towards the stairs. ‘I gave birth a month ago,’ she said. ‘There will be no fucking for some time.’
‘Then what’s the point?’
‘That is a bizarre question from someone who has repeatedly stated that she doesn’t enjoy sex.’
Amy was quiet for a moment as she clomped down the steps behind Sue. ‘I wouldn’t say that I enjoy sleeping but it’s gotta be done.’
Sue shook her head. ‘I think it might be quicker to ask you what you do enjoy.’
‘Oh, you’re gonna claim that sleeping is awesome?’ Amy asked. ‘You’re unconscious. Nobody enjoys sleeping.’
Sue moved into the kitchen to put on the coffee machine. ‘People very much enjoy the sensation of waking up.’
Amy pulled a face. ‘I can’t imagine why.’
‘Are you dating?’ Sue asked.
Amy waved her hand. ‘I’m too busy for that bullshit.’
‘I saw that Buddy was “outed” for sleeping with another man,’ Sue observed.
‘That was so weird,’ Amy said. ‘He never said anything to me about hating gay people but then as soon as Selina wanted his support he was all “ban gay marriage” and all that shit.’
‘Don’t blame yourself,’ Sue suggested.
Amy’s eyes bugged out. ‘Don’t blame myself? Why the fuck would I blame myself? Are you suggesting that I made him gay?’
Sue raised her eyebrows. ‘I wouldn’t dream of suggesting such a thing. I’m only saying that I hope you don’t.’
Amy put her hand on her hip. ‘Kent might pretend to find your jokes funny, but nobody likes a passive-aggressive smart ass. Especially not me.’
‘I’m not passive aggressive,’ Sue said. ‘I’m aggressive-aggressive.’
‘That’s not funny either.’
‘That’s because you have a terrible sense of humour.’
Sue made two cups of coffee and handed one to Amy.
‘Getting back with Kent after so fucking long must be weird,’ Amy suggested. ‘You wouldn’t catch me doing that.’
‘If Dan Egan called you now you would be in be with him tomorrow,’ Sue said.
Amy spluttered into her coffee. ‘Hey!’
‘That’s not… You can’t…Hey!’
Sue sipped her coffee. ‘Lots of people have one particular former partner holding a special place in their memory. Some of them deserve that place, like Kent, and some of them do not, like Dan.’
Amy pulled a face. ‘I’m probably supposed to defend him like he’s got some softer vulnerable side that I’ve seen, and you haven’t. But he’s not. He’s just a dick.’
‘But not a soft and vulnerable dick,’ Sue observed.
Amy looked disgusted. ‘I swear that having a kid has made you think that it’s okay to be gross. It’s not okay!’
‘It’s quite difficult to be as fastidious afterwards,’ Sue admitted. ‘There is absolutely no dignity in childbirth.’
‘That’s because for fucking centuries men have been in charge of maternity wards,’ Amy said.
It had always been the intention that Sue would return to work as soon as possible after giving birth. At least, that had always been Sue’s intention. Kent had never said anything on the subject and if Bethany had an opinion then she kept it to herself.
President Meyer agreed, with extreme reluctance, for Sue to return in the mornings initially. Sue had realised that Meyer’s frequent, if sometimes half-hearted, support for universal childcare was less due to a desire to help low-income parents, and more an outcropping of her desire to have other people deal with the messy parts of parenting.
Kent drove her to the Capitol. There was no need for this as she was capable of driving herself, but she assumed at first that he was being overprotective. She rethought this when he dropped her off and gently urged her to kiss Bethany goodbye.
‘You won’t be seeing her again until I pick up at one,’ he said. ‘It’s quite a long time.’
Sue rolled her eyes. ‘It’s five hours, Kent, don’t be dramatic.’
‘Okay,’ he said simply. ‘We’ll see you then.’
A little after half past ten, Sue walked briskly to the restrooms, locked herself in a stall, and cried for almost ten minutes.
It was clearly the hormones. She had just about had enough of the damn things.
When she returned, Selina Meyer was screaming for someone, anyone to get her a coffee. It was tempting to feel some schadenfreude. While Sue did not know any of the details, she was, nonetheless, confident that Gary would have always been unwilling to hurt Selina in any way and incapable of actually perpetrating any manner of fraud. Though she had not discussed the matter specifically with Kent, he had said enough that she believed he thought the same way. Sue had never been particularly close to Gary, she would not have considered him even a work friend, however she did feel that she knew him fairly well. Kent had even a lower level of personal affection for Gary than she did, and yet he did not believe Gary capable of it either.
Sue made a coffee and took it into Selina. She was having an entirely typical temper tantrum, throwing papers around, and kicking over a chair.
‘Oh,’ Selina said, pushing back her hair. ‘Hey, Sue. Did I interrupt your break?’
‘I was in the restroom,’ Sue said.
Selina pulled a face. ‘Babies fuck up your body. Nobody tells you that.’
‘Yes, Ma’am,’ Sue said.
Sue picked up the coffee and took a gulp. ‘First day back, huh?’
Selina cocked her head. ‘I wish I could’ve handed Catherine over to Andrew and gone to work.’
Sue raised an eyebrow. ‘Is he good with children?’
‘Yes,’ Sue said. ‘He’s much better with Bethany than I am. Not that I would admit that to him.’
Selina snorted. ‘Oh, hell no. Well, I guess since he’s the one who wanted the kid that makes sense. He probably took courses and shit.’
Sue smiled slightly. ‘He hasn’t mentioned it, but it does sound very much like something he would do. He had a nanny and a night nurse hired before I gave birth.’
‘I should hope so! You have no idea the waiting lists for those people.’ Selina shook her head. ‘Don’t even start me on how long it takes to get a kid into prep school, and you have to get them into the right prep school to have a hope in hell of getting them into any other decent school.’
Sue opened and closed her mouth. ‘She’s barely a month old.’
‘If Kent moves quick, he might still be just about to get her onto an alternates list,’ Selina said. She flipped back her hair. ‘That’s assuming he hasn’t already put her on a waiting list. That’s the kind of thing I’d expect him to have absolutely nailed down.’
Sue took a deep breath. ‘You’re right. This is Kent after all.’
Selina gave her a strange look. ‘It’s his problem, right? You just handed the kid over.’
‘In fact, no,’ Sue admitted. ‘That was the plan, however things changed.’
Selina shook her head. ‘Hormones. Those fuckers will get you.’
‘That seems to be the case.’
Selina perched on the edge of the desk. ‘If you need a lawyer or anything talk to Joe Chandler in Justice. He should be able to find you a real barracuda.’
Sue looked at her blankly. ‘A lawyer?’
‘For custody,’ Selina said. ‘Child support. All that shit. If you’re gonna be mom then that changes everything and you gotta protect yourself. You can bet your life that Kent is.’
‘Did you have a bad day?’ Kent asked.
‘Not notably.’ Sue glanced out of the window. ‘Why do you ask?’
She heard him drum his fingers on the steering wheel.
‘You seem somewhat tense,’ he suggested.
‘I’m hungry,’ she said. ‘Selina was annoying.’
Kent chuckled. ‘You’ve got out of the practice of spending time with annoying people,’ he said. ‘You’re used to Bethany and me, and we are wonderful.’
Sue’s lips twitched as she looked at him. ‘That is certainly one suggestion.’
Kent glanced at her. ‘I know that we missed you.’
‘Good,’ she said quietly.
The Next Year
‘Stop laughing at me, I’m dying,’ Sue said gravely.
‘You’re not dying, you’re hungover,’ Kent said, kissing her forehead. ‘Drink your coffee, eat your breakfast, take your painkillers, and quit whining.’
‘I do not whine!’ Sue threw a pillow after him as he left the room.
‘Whining!’ he called back.
She lay back in bed gingerly. She had finally finished breastfeeding Bethany and had celebrated by going out for some drinks with Amy. Real drinks. Finally. Evidently, they had been making the drinks much stronger last night than usual.
Sue took her painkillers and sipped the coffee. At the bottom of the bed, Erdos stretched out. Kent’s cat had not been entirely enthused at Bethany’s arrival although she relaxed a good deal once she got used to the various screams, sobs, and gurgles. She had spent the first few days hiding every time Bethany made a peep. At this point, however, even the loudest scream resulted merely in momentarily flicked back ears. Erdos had quickly learned an equanimity in the face of Bethany’s crying that Sue quite admired. Sue had been rather concerned how the cat would react once Bethany began crawling around. However rather than hiss or, worse, scratch, Erdos was much more likely to accidentally knock Bethany over by rubbing up against her a little too affectionately.
Sue closed her eyes momentarily as she heard Kent’s step on the stairs. She could hear him talking to Bethany. She had heard many people talking to very young children. They generally had a tendency to use “baby talk” a tone of voice which Sue found… irritating. Kent had informed her, in some detail, about research that had been into exactly what form of “parentese” had been found to be beneficial and which had not.
That was why he was combining a sing-song tone, which was known to hold the attention of the infant, and his normal polysyllabic vocabulary. The effect could be unsettling although Sue now mostly found it amusing.
‘…and mama is in the bedroom having her breakfast, shall we say hello to her?’
Sue smiled slightly as Kent opened the door. She had been expecting him to be holding Bethany, instead the little girl was stood at his feet, tightly gripping his hands, and not so much taking steps as a series of postponed collapses.
Bethany bounced up on her toes as she saw Sue and then smiled as she saw Erdos.
‘She’s more excited to see the cat than me,’ Sue said.
‘Erdos is a much more unpredictable presence in her life than you are,’ Kent said. ‘Therefore, she is innately more intriguing.’
Sue leaned over the bed to address Bethany. ‘You father seems to believe that you find me boring.’
Kent lifted Bethany up and sat on the bed with her. ‘I am saying you are a predictable presence in her life. That is extremely reassuring to a child her age and very necessary.’
‘Less unpredictable than a cat,’ Kent said. ‘I would imagine that most people would consider that to be a good thing.’
Bethany reached out to pat Erdos with a heavy hand. Erdos’s head ducked under the pressure but she turned her head to lick Bethany’s hand.
‘I am her third favourite person in the house,’ Sue said, shaking her head.
Kent raised his eyebrows. ‘So, you’re admitting that Erdos is a person?’
Sue rolled her eyes. ‘As one strong and independent woman it behoves me to recognise another.’
‘Game recognises game is a much pithier sentiment I think you’ll find,’ Kent suggested.
Sue pursed her lips. ‘I refuse to use such a hackneyed and cliched phrase. You should be ashamed of yourself for using it.’
Kent leaned down to kiss Bethany’s head. ‘Isn’t “ashamed of yourself” a hackneyed phrase?’
‘No,’ Sue said firmly. ‘Shut up.’
‘I’m not sure we should say things like that in front of Bethany,’ he said mildly. ‘Just because she can only say a dozen words doesn’t mean that she doesn’t understand.’
Sue sighed. ‘You’re probably right.’
‘Am I allowed to be right?’
‘No, it’s outrageous,’ she retorted.
Bethany looked up at Kent. ‘Dada!’
He smiled at her. Sue had always liked his smile but there always an extra something when he smiled at Bethany. It might have been soft deeper softness in his eyes or mouth. She wasn’t sure. The details eluded her, but the effect was clear.
‘I’m due in BKD at nine,’ Sue said, squinting at her watch.
‘When are you due at the opticians?’ Kent asked.
Sue scowled at him. ‘I don’t need glasses.’
‘There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that your eyesight is changing.’
She took a bite of her toast. ‘That is a weak euphemism for failing.’
‘Lots of people need glasses when they hit your age,’ he said.
Kent rolled his eyes. ‘Fine, go around squinting at things because you can no longer see them and you’re too proud to admit you need glasses.’
Sue took a gulp of coffee. ‘You don’t wear glasses.’
‘I had surgery,’ he pointed out. ‘You could possibly do that, but not if you won’t even consider the possibility that you need checking out.’
Sue addressed Bethany. ‘You daddy is pretending that I’m old, which is clearly not the case.’
‘I don’t think you’re old,’ he protested. ‘How can you be considered old when your projected life expectancy is ninety-eight? You’re not even at the mid-way point for that.’
Sue stared at him. ‘You worked out my projected life expectancy?’
‘It’s not particularly complex.’
‘I was not concerned that it might have been hard work,’ she retorted. ‘It’s creepy.’
He looked a little crestfallen. ‘I found it reassuring.’
‘Oh.’ Sue’s mouth quirked up. ‘You’re reassured by the idea that I’ll die at least twenty-five years after you?’
He chuckled. ‘That sounds quite alarming when put in such stark terms. I was reassured that in theory you should live a long life and be around for Bethany well into her adulthood.’
Sue was quiet for several moments. ‘I don’t like talking about this.’
Kent touched her hand. ‘Okay. Hmm, are you signing the paperwork at BKD today?’
‘Yes. Assuming I can find someone to read it to me,’ she said tartly. ‘You’re still happy for me to take over your position?’
‘Absolutely. My focus is on the ranch, so it makes much more sense for you to take over my position,’ Kent said firmly. ‘I am sure that you will do an excellent job.’
‘Good.’ Sue leaned forward to kiss him. ‘Now go away, I need to get ready.’
Sue gave both Kent and Bethany a kiss before she left. She was absolutely not a woman given to unnecessary guilt, especially guilt imposed by the ridiculous strictures of patriarchal society. Bethany had a parent at home 24/7 in addition to professional caregivers. That the parent at home was her father and not her mother was completely irrelevant. She did feel a slight stab of jealousy that Bethany quite clearly ranked Kent above her. That rankled. She would have never admitted that to Kent, but it did. Of course, she had no need to admit it. He knew. He never said anything about it, but he knew. Even Todd knew it, and everyone knew that he was an idiot.
She was being ridiculous. Kent was with Bethany all day. It was entirely natural that his bond with her would be stronger. It was only temporary. As soon as Bethany began going to school then Kent would lose his advantage.
School. It was both astonishing and horrifying to consider than in only four years Bethany would be entering school. Four years was nothing. One year was nothing and Sue was consistently taken aback at how much her life had changed in that time.
She had missed Bethany’s first steps and first words. That had bothered Kent more than it bothered her. He knew more about milestones than she did. He cared more about milestones than she did. Nonetheless there were times when she had moments when she felt that she was missing out. Mostly about Bethany but not exclusively.
She had realised that working for Selina was no longer viable when the other woman had refused to allow her to leave on time for Kent’s birthday. Yes, he was a grown man, and had many other birthdays before. That was irrelevant. It was important to both of them and Selina had, in a moment of spite, stopped Sue from being there.
Kent was used to changing roles regularly. Sue was not. The idea of doing something wildly different had been… alarming. The idea had felt much as she imagine it would feel to teeter on the edge of an enormous precipice.
Yet she had been bored for some time. Had been stagnating for some time. Perhaps it was the fear that had kept her from moving forward. Whatever it was, Kent had been far more patient than she would have expected given his own ease in switching professions.
BKD was not precisely a difficult step. She knew everyone involved and it was still politics, albeit in a less powerful way. But taking over Kent’s seat was more than a change of company. Sue had always considered herself powerful, but she had rarely held herself as accountable, at least not in any significant sense. She did not make policy decisions and she did not offer advice on them. When things when wrong, and in Selina Meyer’s presidency they went wrong with far more frequency than in Laura Montez’s presidency, they were never Sue’s fault. Taking over Kent’s seat on BKD’s small board meant accepting accountability as well as responsibility. As the company continued to grow that would only become more pressing. It would have been quite daunting, if Sue had been the kind of woman who would ever admit being daunted.
Amy’s face didn’t so much twitch as ripple, as if the muscles under her skin were spasming.
‘You’re a partner?’ she demanded, her fingers gripping tightly the stem of her glass.
‘Kent has become a silent partner and he suggested to Ben and Dan that it would be wise to have another partner join in order to avoid any deadlocks on decisions,’ Sue explained ‘I had most of the money for the shares and Kent lent me some a small amount to cover the rest.’
Amy swallowed her entire drink in two quick gulps. ‘I don’t remember that being advertised.’
Sue pursed her lips. ‘And I do remember that they ask you to join the company when they began. You had your shot, Amy.’
‘No, no, that’s not what I’m saying.’ She flipped back her hair. ‘I’m not jealous.’
‘Then what are you saying?’
Amy shifted in her seat. ‘I’m just saying… It’s not an obvious career path. Going from secretary to partner in a political consultancy.’
Sue narrowed her eyes. ‘Administration is a role that covers a vast variety of different skills.’
Amy poured herself another drink from the pitcher. ‘Dating Kent has nothing to do with it.’
Sue rolled her eyes. ‘This drink was expensive. Don’t make me throw it at you.’
‘You would never waste the alcohol.’
Sue leaned back in her chair. ‘How is your career?’
Amy shook her head. ‘I don’t even wanna talk about it.’
‘Who are you and where is the real Amy?’
Amy pushed a lock of hair behind her ear. ‘I’m going nowhere. Hell, maybe there’s nowhere I can go. I got into this with plans to change the fucking world, but nothing changes, not really. We’re just repeating the same damn cycles endlessly.’
Sue was quiet for a few moments. ‘You need to quit and find a completely different career.’
‘I know,’ Amy said. ‘I fucking know.’
Kent was still awake when Sue returned. He was sat in bed reading when she came in, but he looked up and smiled at her.
‘You’re back earlier than I expected,’ he said.
‘Last time we were celebrating,’ Sue said. ‘This time we were merely connecting as friends.’
‘Did you have a nice time?’
‘Mostly.’ Sue undressed and sat down at the dresser to remove her makeup. ‘Amy is unhappy with her career.’
Kent looked at his novel. ‘When has Amy been happy with her career?’
‘Not for some time.’ Sue looked in the mirror at his image. ‘It seems antithetical to ambition.’
‘Hmm, that does make sense.’
Sue came over to the bed and slipped in beside him. ‘Kent?’
He looked at her.
‘Would you have suggested I become a partner in BKD if we weren’t together?’
Kent closed his novel and put it on his bedside table. ‘If I had known that you were looking for a new challenge, yes.’
Sue turned towards him. ‘You didn’t suggest purely because we are together?’
He pursed his lips. ‘Did Amy suggest that?’
‘Yes. I would still like to know the answer.’
‘No,’ he said. ‘That’s not why I suggested it.’ He licked his lips. ‘Amy is an extremely capable woman –’
Kent ignored this. ‘She doesn’t have your confidence. She has taken advantage of the connections provided to her by current or former romantic partners on several occasions. She assumes that other people do the same.’
Sue folded her arms. ‘How is that different from you or Ben utilising your contacts for job opportunities?’
‘I didn’t say it was.’ Kent shrugged. ‘I suspect that Amy is the person who feels that in utilising romantic or sexual contacts she is somehow… doing something underhanded or inappropriate. You will admit that she at least implied there is something shameful in it, or you would not have felt the need to question if I acted due to our relationship.’
Sue turned off her lamp. ‘I’m unsure if the implication is that it is somehow “cheating” or that it is somehow akin to sex work.’
‘Either way it shouldn’t entirely be a surprise that Amy feels conflicted,’ Kent said. ‘She’s rarely a woman at ease in herself and her own choices. You are much more confident and comfortable with yourself.’
Sue glanced at the video baby monitor on the bedside table: Bethany appeared fast asleep. ‘I’m greatly confident and comfortable in myself.’ She put her hand on Kent’s chest. ‘Take one of your pills.’
He smiled. ‘Yes, Ma’am.’
The Next Decade
It wasn’t surprising or at least it shouldn’t have been surprising. Ben had been having heart attacks since before Sue had met him. Statistically, logically, a relatively early death by heart attack was by far the most likely end for him.
Yet, she was surprised. Shocked, even, perhaps. Certainly, she was shocked when she saw him in the casket. It had been a couple of years since she had seen Ben in person, on the odd occasion he socialised with Kent they met up somewhere, and in her mind’s eye he was still the man with whom she had worked. But that had been a long time ago. Ben had not been young then, but now, even with all the funeral director’s art, he had clearly been an old man. Not older, not aging, not any of the euphemisms that were so liberally thrown around. Old.
His face had grown thin. His cheeks hung loose, and, under his eyes, bags doubled up. His skin was sallow, and his hair was now iron grey. The colour didn’t suit him. Kent’s hair had changed over the years from salt and pepper to silver with the odd fleck of darker grey and some hints of brown in his moustache: that suited Kent. It didn’t suit Ben.
The suit Ben was being buried in was a little too large and at least a decade out of fashion. Ben had never been fashion conscious, but Sue was a little surprised that Ben’s wife hadn’t made sure he was buried in something a little more appropriate.
She heard Kent sigh. He hadn’t talked much about Ben’s death. Sue hadn’t asked him. It wasn’t her style to prod or poke anyone to talk about their feelings. Frankly, she would rather not know. Sue slipped her hand into his and squeezed his fingers.
‘Let’s sit down,’ she suggested.
It wasn’t a particularly large venue; smaller than perhaps she would have expected for someone of Ben’s large family and social circle. He had been a public figure for decades. Presumably, there would be other public figures there to pay their respects.
Amy and Bill sat next to them. Sue didn’t know why he was there. He hadn’t known Ben well or for long. Ben certainly didn’t have any particular affection for him of which Sue was aware. Perhaps he was there to support Amy, as unlikely as that was, or maybe he simply wanted to get out of the house. He had proven to lack Kent’s ability to pivot successfully from career to career.
‘I didn’t think that she’d come,’ Amy said. She was looking over her shoulder, back at the door.
Sue followed her gaze. Selina Meyer, still reflectively looking for attention and interest that had long since worn thin, came in with a few Secret Service agents. Some of the agents looked older than Ben. Some looked barely out of college. They all looked a lot less sharp that Sue had grown to expect.
‘Retirement and retribution,’ Kent said.
Sue looked at him blankly.
‘Agents who are not considered physically up to the challenges of a higher profile target and agents who have committed some indiscretion that is not sufficient to fire them but is sufficient to try to embarrass them into quitting,’ Kent explained.
‘It’s amazing nobody’s taken her out yet,’ Bill muttered.
‘Nobody fucking cares enough to try,’ Amy said. ‘Except maybe Catherine and Marjorie or some other gay couple.’
‘She hasn’t seen Catherine since the nomination,’ Sue said. ‘It’s very sad.’
Bill snorted. ‘They’re better off without her. I heard that she and the ex-husband tried to pin the embezzlement on Marjorie.’
Kent pursed his lips. ‘Good Lord.’
‘You wouldn’t have known anything about that,’ Amy said. ‘You or Ben.’
He rolled his eyes. ‘Certainly not. The embezzlement was before we returned to her employ and we would have never directed her to blame Marjorie.’
Bill cleared his throat. ‘Uh, I didn’t hear you protesting when I was snowballed?’
‘Are you still complaining about that?’ Sue asked. ‘It was years ago. You need to move on.’
‘You were at least as guilty as anyone else,’ Kent said. ‘Marjorie, to my knowledge, had no guilt in the embezzlement at all. I would be astonished if Gary did.’
‘If Marjorie had done it,’ Sue said, ‘it would have never been found out.’
After the funeral, there was a reception for family and close friends. Kent was invited but made his excuses. Instead they went to a local bar with Amy and Bill. Kent said very little, even when Amy drank enough to start reminiscing about Ben.
‘I never got you two,’ Bill said to Kent. ‘You were constantly taking chunks out of each other but then you’d turn around and socialise.’
‘It was just work,’ Kent said.
‘He tried to get you fired!’
‘No, he talked about getting me fired,’ Kent said. ‘There’s a difference.’
‘God, how many fucking ex-wives and kids did he have?’ Amy said, hiccupping.
‘Too many,’ Sue said.
‘Right. Some people can’t even have kids and there’s assholes pumping them out and barely part of their lives,’ Amy said, shaking her head. ‘It’s so fucking unfair.’
Sue looked at Bill who shifted in his chair.
‘We’re going through IVF,’ he mumbled. ‘Not going well.’
‘I didn’t think that you wanted children,’ Sue said to Amy.
Amy threw herself back in her seat. ‘Oh! Oh! I suppose you think that because of the abortion. You think aborting a pregnancy means I don’t want children!’
Sue shared a look with Kent. ‘It seems to be quite a common cause, yes.’
‘Or a health issue,’ Kent suggested. ‘Not that we need to know any details.’
Amy sneered at him. ‘Squeamish, huh?’
‘I’m getting you a coffee,’ Bill said, standing up.
Amy ignored him. ‘Thought more people would be there.’
Sue nodded. ‘Although I was surprised to see President Meyer.’
‘Ha! She’d come to the opening of a stamp,’ Amy said.
Amy leaned in closer. ‘I thought Dan might be there.’
Sue forced herself not to roll her eyes. ‘He’s on his honeymoon.’
‘He got married like five years ago!’ Amy sniggered. ‘Wait, did he get divorced since then? What happened, did she catch him cheating?’
‘Yes,’ Kent said.
‘We had to buy out his shares so that she wasn’t awarded half of his shares in the company,’ Sue said, scowling. ‘Men shouldn’t be trusted with any kind of financial decisions.’ She took in Kent’s expression. ‘What?’
‘Nothing,’ he said meekly.
‘You had a face,’ Amy said. ‘A bullshit face like Sue was talking bullshit.’
Kent shrugged. ‘I merely remember that you were not unhappy to have the opportunity to buy Dan out.’
‘I was merely being practical,’ she said primly.
‘You said it was only a shame that you couldn’t buy Ben out,’ Kent said.
Sue smiled sweetly. ‘Again, practical.’
Bill plonked a cup of coffee in front of Amy and sat down. ‘What’re we talking about?’
‘Sue is plotting world domination,’ Kent said.
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ Sue said. ‘If I were plotting world domination then the first you would hear of it would be when I had you chained up in my bedroom.’
‘Wow,’ Bill said. ‘I really regret asking that question.’
Sue drove them to her mom’s house. That was unusual, she was normally happy to let Kent chauffer her around. Now though she knew without asking that he was in no mood to drive. He was quiet and distracted as she put on the radio and drove them towards the townhouse. She didn’t think that he’d cried over Ben. She certainly hadn’t heard him. To be fair the only times she had seen him cry had been when his mother died and every damn time that Bethany was on stage at school. It didn’t matter if she was playing a tree, dancing with the grace of Bigfoot on shrooms, or torturing her violin, Kent cried. Not even in pain.
She found a parking spot and pulled in. ‘You can stay in the car if you like.’
He blinked at her. ‘Why? Is your mother running around naked again?’
‘Not that I know,’ Sue said with a shudder. ‘I thought you might not feel like dealing with her nonsense.’
Kent smiled. ‘Well, I rather implicitly agreed to dealing with her nonsense when I married you.’
‘On your own head be it.’
There was a slightly chill in the air as they climbed up the steps to the front door. Kent gave the door a perfunctory knock as Sue unlocked the door and pushed it open.
‘Mom, we’re here.’
‘In the back!’
The walls were papered with photographs of Imelda and her grandchildren. Where her children appeared, they were purely as props. It always made Sue roll her eyes. Her mother had never been interested in photographs of her children when they were children. Why should she care now?
‘Play nicely,’ Kent suggested.
‘I always play nicely.’
‘You always grind your teeth,’ he said.
Imelda’s garden was as pristine as money and a team of gardeners could provide. The grass was lush and green. The flowers in perfect lines. It was also, as Bethany had once cheerfully declared, “so cute, it’s like a doll’s garden!”
Imelda had been speechless with outrage. Sue had been speechless with shock. Kent’s attempts to explain that Bethany was used to a ranch which was, of course, many, many times larger than Imelda’s garden, had not improved matters.
Bethany was sat cross-legged on a rug, reading Children of Blood and Bone, while Imelda talked on her cell to her literary agent. That had been another point of contention. From what Sue could tell it was an unspoken law that every therapist worth their salt had to publish as many books as possible and then segue into “wider spheres” like podcasts, apps, conferences, and, the holy grail, television appearances. Imelda had stalled out at the very first stage: producing a couple of books which had not sold well so far. Finding out through casual conversation that Kent was a published author, even of fiction, had not gone down well. Kent helpfully telling Imelda that he had never expected to make as much money from it as he had, since it was primarily a hobby, had not mollified her in the slightest.
‘Hi, Daddy!’ Bethany said, throwing down her book and running over to hug him. ‘Hi, Mommy!’
‘Don’t throw your books around,’ Sue said.
Kent kissed her forehead. ‘Have you had a nice time with your Grandmother and Chad?’
Imelda glanced over her shoulder. ‘I do not answer to that word.’
‘I wasn’t addressing you with it,’ Kent said mildly.
Imelda waved her hand dismissively and stalked back into the kitchen.
Bethany lowered her voice. ‘Chad and Grandma had a big fight! I don’t know what they were fighting about. I was in the kitchen and they were in the living room and they were shouting. It was so scary! She told him to fuck off back to his slut and he called her a dried-up hag and he banged the door really hard!’
They stared at her.
‘Oh,’ Kent said. ‘That is… It is entirely inappropriate for you to repeat such things.’
Sue squeeze the bridge of her nose. ‘Young lady, you know very well that you are not allowed to use language like that.’
Bethany attempted to look innocent. She was getting better at it, but she was still not very convincing. ‘But I was just telling you what Chad and Grandma said! It wasn’t untrue or anything!’
Kent tilted his head. ‘Do you seriously intend to pretend that you believe that is a valid excuse? You know better than that.’
‘But Daddy! I was just –’
Sue folded her arms. ‘Bethany, stop. Whining will not change anything. I am sure that you got a lovely rush of excitement at saying words you know are not appropriate and hoped to escape the consequences by blaming your grandmother. That never works. There is always enough blame for everyone.’
Kent snorted. ‘The one resource that’s never in decline.’
It wasn’t uncommon for Imelda’s relationships to end badly, or suddenly. Nonetheless, Sue had not seen this break-up coming. She had no particular liking for Chad, but she also knew that every one of Imelda’s break-ups had a longer recovery time. As much as she reserved the right to roll her eyes at her mother’s choice of young men, and they all very young, she suspected that there was at least as much loneliness at play as lust. While Sue certainly did not blame her mother for lust, it was a drive that age appeared to be in no danger of dimming, she understood the fear of loneliness more than she would admit.
‘Are we going home now?’ Bethany asked.
‘Yes,’ Kent said firmly. ‘After your mother has had a word with your grandmother.’
Bethany picked up her book. ‘I’ve never been to a funeral.’
Kent held out his hand for her to hold. ‘I know that you wanted to go, but funerals can be very upsetting for people. I think you might have found it disturbing.’
‘Because Ben is dead?’ she asked as they walked into the house.
Kent picked his words carefully. ‘Partly, and I know that you have found that quite upsetting.’
‘You told me that poem about energy and how people are never really gone,’ she said.
He nodded. ‘Right, although that doesn’t mean it can’t still be terrible when someone dies. I didn’t want you to come to the funeral because Joyce was there. She was extremely upset. Josh and Joanne were there, and they were inconsolable. I wanted to protect you from seeing that.’
Bethany squeezed his hand. ‘I saw Grandma and Chad throwing plates instead!’
Kent winced. ‘Please tell me that’s a joke.’
She grinned and shook her head.
‘There are many times when I wish that my mother was still alive,’ Kent said. ‘This might be the first time that the reason was wishing for someone else to babysit.’
He expected a complaint about the term “babysit” but Bethany was deep in thought.
‘Nana died because she was old. Ben died because he was old too.’
Kent waggled his free hand. ‘Nana was a lot older than Ben. Ben was quite old but primarily he died because he didn’t look after himself. He had a bad heart because he had a poor diet and he didn’t exercise.’
She looked him in the eye. ‘Are you and mom going to get old and die?’
Kent bit his lower lip. ‘Yes, eventually, but not for a very long time.’
Bethany screwed his toe into the ground. ‘How long is that?’
‘For me perhaps thirty years. For your mother it is likely to be closer to fifty years.’
‘Fifty years!’ Bethany squealed, as if he had said five thousand.
Kent chuckled. ‘Not something you have to worry about just yet.’
‘Can I read my book in the car?’ Bethany asked.
Kent unlocked the door and ducked down to put on her seatbelt. ‘It’ll only be a few minutes.’
‘Daddy, I wish that Ben wasn’t dead,’ she said.
Kent sighed and touched her face. ‘I know. I miss him a lot.’
He shut the car door as he heard Sue walking down the path.
‘I am almost sorry not to hear that conversation,’ Kent said to Sue. ‘I hope no thrown plates were involved.’
Sue flicked back her hair. ‘She generally saves throwing crockery for her lovers.’ She waved at Bethany through the car window. ‘Is she alright?’
Kent glanced back at Bethany. ‘She asked me if we were going to die of old age.’
Sue winced. ‘And you said what?’
‘That we would,’ he said. ‘But not for between thirty and fifty years.’
Sue’s lips twitched. ‘She’s eleven. You might as well have told her that we would be alive for a thousand years.’
Kent rubbed his head. ‘I can hardly be held to blame for that.’
Sue kissed him softly. ‘No blame, Kent. Bethany is so fortunate to have you as a father.’
‘And you as a mother,’ he replied, gazing at her. ‘I will be forever grateful for that.’
Sue opened the car door. ‘Stop being so sentimental,’ she said, a tiny tremor in her voice. ‘It’s time to go home.’
Kent smiled. ‘It is.’