It's Matthew who calls him.
Emily had the baby, he says casually, almost like he's talking about an algebra test.
Worse yet, he waits for John to respond, and John hates that about Matthew: that even after how the shit hit the fan, Matthew still expects a happy ending. He still expects everything to go back the way they were in Italy, that he and John and Em would be best friends again.
It's a girl, Matthew adds when John doesn't say anything.
Okay, says John, afraid of what else Matthew might tell him. He swallows hard and and tries to breathe through his nose. His throat feels tight, but that might be his tie choking him. He's been home for all of two hours and hasn't changed out of his uniform.
Matthew says, I'm going to send flowers.
His parents won't let him near Emily. They think she's a bad influence on him. They never liked her much and liked her even less after she got pregnant, but they still like John all right, John thinks. They still let Matthew call him at least and they say hi to his parents after Mass.
I'll send some too, John wants to say. He will have to ask his parents first, which reminds him, somebody has to tell his parents, and he really doesn't want it to be himself.
Johnny, Matthew says, half-pissed but not really surprised. John hates that about him too, how willing Matthew is to think of John as the bad guy for not taking responsibility and all that. John supposes that he is, but it isn't fair. He's only sixteen. He can't be somebody's parent, he still needs parents.
She's at St. Matilda's, Matthew tells him. He doesn't even sound mad anymore. Just matter-of-fact. Fourth floor. It would be nice if you went to see her, you giant fucking prick.
The phone slams and the line goes dead.
John figures that if he has to choose between facing Emily and facing his parents, who thankfully won't be home for another few hours, Emily might actually be the easier choice. His mother would start sobbing and his father would look grim, whereas Emily at this point is mostly disappointed and John can deal with that. He is used to people being disappointed with him.
He jimmies open his father's liquor cabinet for a shot of Jack Daniels before calling a cab and tries not to vomit the whole way. The cabbie drops him off at the main entrance, revealing a gold tooth when he grins at John telling him to keep the change.
Near the entrance there is a gift shop. No flowers, but there are balloons and stuffed animals. John scourges up another twenty in his pockets and picks out a soft pink rabbit and a balloon that says Get Well Soon! because they only have It's a Boy! left.
The baby isn't in the room when he comes in and he is ridiculously grateful for that. He is equally grateful for the fact that Emily's parents aren't there either, and that Emily herself looks remarkably calm, not scared or angry or sad like John expected. She looks startled to see him, and it stings a little.
"Hi," John says, approaching the bed.
"Hi," Emily says. She looks the same, maybe a little more tired than usual. Drained.
John hands her the balloon and the rabbit wordlessly and she thanks him. It's quiet for a long time after that and John shuffles his feet, picks at the lint inside his pockets, until Emily asks, "Do you want to see her?"
No, John thinks. He does not want to see her. He wants to get out of here, this room, this life, his skin. He wants to disappear because he knows he is a shitty person and he is not sure if he can live the rest of his life with that knowledge, but neither is he sure if he can live with the alternative.
In steady, measured steps, Emily walks him to the nursery, which is on the same floor but tucked away in one corner. The lights are softer and behind the large plexi-glass window is a row of bassinets with squirming little bundles of blankets.
She points to one of them. "That's her."
John looks. He sees a tiny, pink face peeking out from the blankets. At first he thinks she is sleeping but then she opens her eyes and they meet his, and it only hits him then, that she is a person. She is a person who exists because of him, and there is no way of changing that.
"She's pretty," he tells Emily, because that's what dads are supposed to say, he thinks, and either way it is probably what she wants to hear.
"She's perfect," Emily corrects, and when John sees the way she smiles at the baby, he wants to ask her, How are you not scared out of your fucking mind?
A nurse pokes her head out and asks Emily if she wants to hold the baby, and Emily breaks into a huge smile. She's beautiful. It's something John has always known, just like he has always known her to be smart and funny and brave, and as Emily lifts the baby (his daughter) from the nurse's arms into her own, he wonders if she can teach him how to do that. Be brave.
"I'll do the right thing," he blurts out as Emily whispers hi to the baby and examines her impossibly small fingers. "We'll be a family. I'll step up. Do the right thing."
He doesn't love his daughter yet, not the way Em already does, but he can learn. Emily can teach him. After all, they are his family now.
"Johnny," Emily says, turning from the baby to him. She is still smiling but this is a different smile. His SAT tutor, if John bothered to listen to her at all, would probably describe it as "rueful."
"I'll do the right thing," he repeats, hoping to get it through to her this time.
"Johnny," Emily says again as she holds the baby closer. "Don't you get it? This really isn't about you anymore."
He's in the middle of closing up when the door opens, stacking overturned chairs on top of the tables so Eduardo might actually clean the floor tomorrow morning instead of just dragging the mop around the legs of the chairs and hoping Dave doesn't notice.
"We're closed," he says without looking up, but the door doesn't open again and when he does look up, he's staring at a teenage girl with a backpack on one shoulder and a baby on the other.
He pegs her at about seventeen, eighteen at most. Skinny kid with straight dark hair bunched into a messy ponytail and an expression that is equal parts vulnerable and equal parts don't fuck with me.
"I need a job." She is telling, not asking. "Any job."
Dave is still trying to process this when the baby stirs and starts to make an unhappy noise. The girl hushes it by rubbing circles on its back until it quiets and starts glancing around the restaurant.
"Babysitting isn't paying enough these days?" Dave asks. He doesn't have a job for her or for anybody else. The restaurant is still in the red and he's thinking about laying off Eduardo as it is, though more of that has to do with the busboy's general incompetence than financial circumstances. Damn if he isn't curious, though, as to what the hell a teenage girl is doing in his place almost midnight on a Tuesday. Doesn't she have homework, or parents?
The girl's expression soften as she looks the baby. "I'm not babysitting," she says stoically, shifting the baby onto her hip. "She's my kid."
That makes things a little more interesting.
Dave can tell he is going to need to sit down for this, and it dawns on him that the girl --- girls --- might not have had dinner yet. "Do you like soup?"
She cocks her head to the side and smiles, sarcastic but mostly grateful. "Who doesn't like soup."
Over a bowl of minestrone (his Nonna's recipe) and half of loaf of ciabatta, he learns that the girl's name is Emily and the baby's is Miranda. Emily is sixteen. Miranda is six months, and very advanced for her age.
Dave asks if she does tricks, and as if on cue Miranda looks up from the piece of bread she's been gumming on and reaches out for him.
"I told you," Emily says smugly. "Very advanced."
By then Miranda is stretching out her little arms in earnest and Dave picks her up just because he is afraid the highchair will tip over. He's not even sure where the highchair came from.
It's the first time he has held a baby since Jamie, which is surprising, really, since he comes from an Italian family that seems to multiply like spores. Miranda is older than Jamie was, older than he will ever be. She is warm and loud and determined to put her finger into Dave's nose.
(Dave will learn this soon enough: Miranda believes everyone who meets her loves her, because everyone who meets her does.)
"I don't want her to grow up like I did," Emily says, as Dave settles the baby on his lap and asks what brought them here. "I --- moved around a lot, when I was a kid. I just want her to belong somewhere. And, I don't know. This seems like a nice place."
It's the first time since she stepped through his door that Emily Prentiss actually looks unsure of herself.
"You said something about a job?" Dave hears himself saying. He's always wanted to fire Eduardo anyway.
He gives her a place to stay as well, because the only choices nearby are limited to a kitschy bed-and-breakfast designed to rob tourists and a seedy motel down by the Interstate occupied mostly by truckers and prostitutes.
Jimmy thinks it's a bad idea, Dave letting them live in his poolhouse. Whatever happened to help thy neighbor, Dave asks him. It isn't like he is asking them to live with him, which admittedly would make the town think he was a wife-collecting, mob-affiliated millionaire recluse. Which the town already does anyway, so fuck the town.
"David," Jimmy says, and Dave winces. The last time he heard this tone in Jimmy's voice was at his son's funeral. "Are you screwing this girl?"
"Jesus fucking Christ," says Dave, forgetting that he is talking to a priest. "No."
"Are you going to screw this girl?"
Dave wonders if he would go to hell for punching a priest. He's probably going to hell for a myriad of other transgressions anyway, so it probably doesn't matter. "I'm only helping the poor kid out, all right? If you're really that concerned, I'll throw her and her baby out onto the street."
Jimmy shakes his head and doesn't say anything else. Never mentions it again.
When Dave gets back to the restaurant, there are a legion of Crown Vics out front and about two dozen FBI agents with their weapons drawn. Emily, apron still tied around her waist, is arguing with a woman in the window, a brunette with a severe expression whom Dave thinks he has seen before. An actress, maybe, on one of those daytime soaps Carolyn hated to admit she loved.
Turns out the brunette is Emily's mother (no surprise) and her name is Ambassador Elizabeth Prentiss (surprise) and Dave discovers himself suddenly wanted on two counts of federal kidnapping charges. ("Really?" he will say to Emily afterwards. "You couldn't have told me your mother, the Ambassador, was looking for you?")
None of the agents bother with cuffs, especially when the baby starts crying and the unmistakable smell of a soiled diaper fills the room. The agents look at each other and then at Dave, and Dave says, "For god's sake." They don't stop him when he walks into the backroom where Miranda is red-faced and wailing inside the playpen Emily set up.
"Hey there," Dave says, taking the baby by her pudgy middle and holding her at arm's length, a time-bomb that has already exploded. "Your mom's busy so you're stuck with me for now. Now, you're stinking up my restaurant which can't be good for business. Let's do something about it."
There is a changing table in the ladies' room and Miranda's diaper bag is sitting on the beat up old softa where Dave spends his nights whenever he's too tired or lazy to go home.
"Here you go, sweetheart," he sing-songs as he unsnaps the yellow sleeper and pulls off the plastic tabs.
Dave never changed his son's diaper. Never had the chance. But Carolyn's sister had a baby girl around the time Carolyn announced her pregnancy, and everyone in the family was determined to make him practice. From feeding to burping to changing diapers, they made him practice.
Changing a diaper is more or less like riding a bike, and within minutes he's got Miranda all cleaned up and sweet-smelling like all babies should be.
"Here you go," Dave says again, lifting her onto his shoulder. Her eyes are wide and wet but her sobs have tempered into hiccups and as she buries her face against his neck, he realizes that Jimmy's right, that son of a bitch. This is a bad idea, a monumentally bad idea.
("They're not yours, he can almost hear Jimmy saying in that irritatingly patient tone of his.)
(But Jimmy's wrong. They are his, and eventually Jimmy himself will admit, yes, they've always been his.)
By this time, the Ambassador has decided to throw in the towel and when Dave goes back into the other room with the baby, the agents are already re-holstering their Glocks and getting ready to harass the next unsuspecting Good Samaritan.
Miranda beams as her mother enters her sight. Dave lets Emily take her and heads towards the kitchen. No way will they open in time for lunch, but if he hurries he might be able to turn the lunch special into dinner's. Thursday is chicken cacciatore. His own recipe.
Emily is at his heels, apologizing. "My mom, she overreacts." She stops, fusses with Miranda's collar a little. "Are you going to make me leave?"
Years later, at Miranda's birthday party --- this will be the year she turns thirteen, skinny like her mother was but far less damaged --- the Ambassador will say to him. "You should've turned her away."
Dave will not answer, but Elizabeth Prentiss won't be looking for one. "You should have sent that girl and her baby back home, where they belonged. You had no right to keep them."
Miranda will defuse the situation, taking her grandmother by the arm in a way Emily at her age would never have done, and say, "Grandma, it's time to cut the cake. One of them anyway. I couldn't decide what I wanted, so Penny made four. You can cut one of them, but not the one shaped like my face, because that would be weird."
"We're a pretty weird crowd here, in case you haven't noticed," Emily will yell from the other side of the room. Her eyes will meet Dave's and she will smile at him. Dave will think, Maybe the Ambassador is right, maybe he should have sent those girls back.
But he didn't, and he's glad. He's glad.
Babysitting is decent money, considering, but by no means easy money. Especially not when summer looks to be stretching indefinitely and there is no end to making sandwiches and slathering on sunscreen and saying, on repeat, "No, we cannot get ice cream from the ice cream truck because your mommy and daddy didn't give me money for treats and I'm saving up to get the hell out of this town."
JJ's charges are three boys under the age of seven: Ryan, age too-old-for-diapers-but-still-wearing-them, and his older brothers Max and Cole, six-year-old twin rejects from hell. As in, they are such unrepentant little monsters that even Lucifer himself said, Sorry, nope, not letting them in here, no way.
JJ likes kids, and on occasion, she even likes these kids, but it's two weeks into July and the end of summer seems as distant as the prospect of college. She and the boys are getting sick of each other, sick of the heat, sick of the pool and the playground and the same stories about trucks and robots and trucks that turn into robots.
On top of everything, her period is late.
Which can mean nothing, or it can mean --- well, JJ prefers not to think about that. Not when Max is trying to throw his brother off the slide.
JJ learned about anarchy in social studies (she gets good grades, she doesn't skip class, doesn't drink doesn't smoke doesn't do anything bad ever, except that one time) and now she bears witness to it every afternoon at the playground. Her rule of thumb is that unless there is blood, or a reasonable forseeability of blood, she is not going intervene.
Ryan's been good about going to the potty lately, and to reward him, she takes him over to the baby swings. "Me not baby," he says, indignant, gazing longingly over at the big kid swings. He suddenly snaps his head around and points his stubby finger at the little girl in the neighboring swing. "She is baby!"
"Ryan," JJ says, closing her hand over his finger. "Don't point. It's rude."
The girl's babysitter laughs it off. "He's right. She's a baby compared to a big boy like himself."
"I big boy," Ryan agrees.
"How old?" JJ nods in the baby's direction, the universal unspoken language of babysitters.
"Eighteen months," the babysitter answers.
"I've got two others," JJ tells her. Out of the corner of her eyes, she sees Cole poking Max with a stick. No blood, not yet. "Twins. Six."
A curious expression crosses the other girl's face, and a moment later she lets out a short chuckle. "You're a babysitter."
JJ blinks, momentarily confused. "Well, yes. What else would I be?"
"Sorry," the girl says, really laughing now. "It's just. I'm not."
"You're not what?"
"A babysitter." She stops pushing the swing and the baby turns around to look at her. "I'm her mother."
"Oh." It takes moment to hit JJ.
The girl nods conspiratorially. "Yep. I'm Emily. This is Miranda."
"Ooooh," JJ says, at once acutely aware of how stupid she must sound and being completely unable to help herself.
She knows who this is, has heard about her, David Rossi's child bride. She's JJ's age but works at his restaurant, lives in his mansion. Has a baby that everyone suspects is his, though no one knows for sure. It was a heated topic among JJ's mother's sewing circle until Reverend Collins' boy came out of the closet. Gay football player always trumps unwed teenage mothers, even if they do live with the town's very own Mr. Rochester.
(She needs to get out of here. The colleges, they'll begin scouting in the fall and she has to be in top shape to get a scholarship. There is no way she can play soccer if she's pregnant.)
She realizes she hasn't said anything other than "oh" in the last five minutes and even Ryan looks disgusted with her lack of vocabulary. "I'm Jennifer Jareau," she says, extending her hand. She feels like an idiot at the formality but Emily doesn't seem to mind.
"JJ, right?" Emily says, pushing the swing again, lightly. "You came to the restaurant once. With your folks."
It was the anniversary of Allison's death and JJ and her brother had came up a plan to get their parents out of the house for a nice sit-down dinner. Instead of taking their minds off Ally, the whole exercise only served to remind everyone, herself included, that they will never be a family again; they are now, and forever will be, a chain with one link missing.
JJ shakes the memory away. "Yeah, that was us. Couple weeks ago. I'm surprised you remember."
Emily shrugs and they watch their kids swing in silence. Ryan gets bored and starts whining about the ice cream truck again, and JJ decides to take the kids home now that they've worked off most of their energy.
"I'll see you around?" Emily says with a hint of hopefulness.
"Believe me, you will," JJ says, plucking Ryan out of the swing. She waves bye-bye to Miranda, who waves back.
Mrs. Forrester comes home early that afternoon, much to JJ's relief, and she gets out half an hour earlier than usual. When she gets home, her mother tells her that Will called, and as JJ yells back she'll call him later, it hits her that Emily's is a babysitting job where the parents never come back. JJ wonders how Emily gets through her day, knowing that there isn't an end to it, that she can't hand the kid to someone else and say, That's it, I'm done. She's all yours.
Next afternoon Emily's not at the park. Not the day after, either, but on Friday JJ sees her at the library, alone. JJ taps her on the back at the check-out counter and scares the crap out of her.
"Jesus, don't do that at a person," Emily says when she's regained herself, holding a worn copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar like a weapon.
"Napping. I left her with Rossi to see who snores louder. My money's on the kid."
"Do you want to get a soda or something?" JJ asks, because they have exchanged pleasantries about each other's kids and that probably makes them friends or something.
"Okay," says Emily, stunned but pleased. "What about the boys?"
"Story Hour's about to start. Free babysitting for babysitters."
Emily groans. "Mrs. Neville is going to hate you."
"I do this every Friday. I'm pretty sure she hates me already."
The town is so ridiculously backwards that the soda fountain is a testament to generations of unwillingness to change. It is dark and shabby and serves the best egg creams on the East Coast.
Over milkshakes, JJ tells Emily a little about her babysitting gig, but mostly about herself. School. Soccer. Nothing about Will or Ally. In return, Emily tells her about Miranda, the restaurant, and a little about her past life as an ambassador's daughter. She skims the details, but JJ barely notices; she's still having trouble wrapping her head around the fact that Emily has a kid.
"What's so hard to believe?" Emily asks. She doesn't sound offended, just curious. "Lots of people have kids."
"But you're my age," JJ says. There's a part of her that knows how stupid she is being, and although she's spent considerable time and effort learning how to suppress that part, it tends to pop up at the most inopportune moments, which is precisely how she ended up this mess with Will.
"It's not that hard to have a kid. Anyone can have a kid," Emily says. "It's easy to have a kid, in the literal sense of the word. But actually having a kid, keeping it alive and clean and happy, that part is hard. I wouldn't recommend it."
JJ is surprised. She remembers the way Emily looks at her daughter, the casual way she refers to parenthood. There is no shame, no resentment, nothing that JJ's mother keeps warning her about. "If you get knocked up, Jenny, you'll never be able to lift your head around here again. You'll never have your own life. You'll love that baby, yes, but it will remind you every single day what you never got to be."
"You seem ---" JJ stumbles for the right word. "You seem to be doing okay," which is not the right word but close enough.
"I'm more than okay," Emily says, leaning to catch a stray trickle of milkshake before it drips onto the table. For the first time, she actually looks JJ's age. Before, she's always looked older, grown up, someone who's got her life in order, illegitimate child with a former member of the Mafia notwithstanding. "I love Miranda. But like I said, it's hard. It's scary and it's hard but it's something I would do again, if I could go back."
"Even though it's hard."
"Even though it's hard. Even knowing how hard it's going to be. I would still choose Miranda, but it's not something I would wish on other people. Or --- well, it's not something I think everyone should run off and do. Obviously." Emily rolls her eyes a little and takes another sip of her milkshake. "It's not something I'd ever tell anyone they should do, if they were in my position. I love my kid, and I'm glad I have her. I was always going to have her. But it's hard. We get through, but it's hard."
The soda fountain is silent except for the ceiling fan and the faint tinkling of windchimes as another patron steps inside.
"It's so goddamn hot," says Emily, the sudden change of topic so jarring it might have given JJ whiplash. Emily looks at her watch. "Story Hour's almost over. You better go and relieve poor Mrs. Neville."
"She can tough it out for another few minutes," JJ says. She's chewed through her straw until she could barely drink her strawberry shake, and as Emily tells her briefly about growing up in the Middle East, where the heat is even more oppressive, more relentless, JJ thinks, Emily Prentiss might be the bravest person in the world.
JJ's period comes that night, ruining her sheets and filling her with a relief that is almost palpable as she scrubs her underwear clean in the bathroom sink at three in the morning.
She quits her job the following week, tells the boys' mom that she needs to practice for the scouts. Mrs. Forrester offers her a raise, which she turns down. Sorry, JJ tells her. It's a part of her life that is over.
First thing Elle checks is their teeth.
That way she can tell if they are methheads. Methheads are stronger than they initially seem, will sucker-punch you out of nowhere, put you in a chokehold before you know what's coming.
(In additional to methheads, Elle also specializes in alcoholics, drug-seekers, battered wives, abused children, welfare mothers, rape victims, prostitutes, and a garden variety of petty criminals. She should've been a cop like her daddy, but her mama said she would sooner kill her own two children than let either of them die in the line of duty, so Elle became an ER nurse instead, which gives her access to all of the same people but denies her the badge and gun.)
(The gun she has, actually. A 9mm she got after Randall Garner. She keeps it in her bag, next to her chapstick and her mama's rosary.)
Emily Prentiss not only is not a methhead, but evidently she has also had braces before. Her teeth are straight and clean and even though she looks as exhausted as every other teenage mother that has come into triage before her, she is well-groomed and polite and doesn't look to be living off stale Wonderbread and diet soda.
She is toting a crying three-year-old though, so that much is the same. A crying three-year-old with what Elle can tell from experience is a broken arm, or at the very least a nasty fracture.
"What happened?" Elle asks as she writes up Miranda's chart.
She's a little surprised, too, that Emily has insurance.
This part is not so surprising. "Fell from where?"
Emily glances away for a moment, and Elle can smell the nervousness on her. "Off a bar stool."
"You took her to a bar?"
"No! I would never --- I can't even get into a bar."
She's only nineteen, but there are ways. Elle knows. She's been nineteen before.
"I work in a restaurant, where there's a bar. But I don't serve alcohol. My boss won't even let me touch it. Oh, god, I haven't called him yet, he's in Long Island visiting his sister ---"
"Slow down," Elle says, gentler. She doesn't know what to make of the whole story yet, but she doesn't need anybody freaking out on before the end of her shift, which is in two hours. "Take a deep breath."
Emily complies, shuddering as she exhales. Miranda has stopped crying and is patting her mother's cheek with starfish fingers. "She likes the bar stools. They let her see everything and she likes to spin around, but I don't let her, because it's dangerous."
"No spin!" Miranda pipes up.
"Uh-huh," Elle prompts. "And then?"
"It was mad rush and I looked away for one second and the next thing I knew, she was on the floor, screaming and holding her arm."
"I falled," Miranda explains earnestly. "Ouch."
Emily is looking straight at Elle now, like she's begging Elle to forgive her. "I swear, I looked away for just one second."
Elle doesn't answer as she continues filling out Miranda's information. Call her cynical --- call her a bitch, call her anything you want to --- but she's been working in the hospital long enough to have heard every single variation of that story. You look away for one minute, and your kid falls down the stairs, or he bumps his head against the coffee table, or puts his fingers on the stove. Elle thinks there might even be a part of her that wants to believe Emily Prentiss' story, but she can't. Life doesn't afford her that kind of luxury.
So instead, she says, "A doctor will be with you as soon as possible," without explaining that "as soon as possible" means at least three hours. Two and a half, if they're lucky.
"Thanks," Emily says, as she puts Miranda down on the ground and takes her hand. The ER is less crowded than usual since it's not flu season yet, and they find a seat between a 63-year-old hypochondriac that Elle would know by name if she bothered, and a Hell's Angel with a gaping wound where his fellow biker drunkenly smashed a bottle over his head. The hypochondriac (Louie, Elle thinks his name might be), shifts to another seat when Emily sits down but the biker gives both girls a friendly smile and holds his hand up to Miranda for a high five.
"Owwie," Miranda tells him, pointing to her left arm with her right index finger. "I falled."
"Happened to me once," says the biker. "Don't worry, honey. Doc's gonna fix you up in no time."
"No more hurt?"
"No more hurt."
Miranda turns to look at her mom and says, almost reassuringly, "No more hurt."
"That's right," Emily says, pulling her daughter into her lap and kissing the top of her head. In the harsh fluorescence of the waiting room, Elle can see the beginning of tears.
(Doesn't mean anything. They're always sorry afterwards.)
Elle doesn't exactly watch them on purpose. It just so happens that they are in her line of sight, and things are slower than usual, the way things usually are when you've got ninety minutes left on the clock. Arthur, who visits once every other week thinking he can get a refill on his Vicodin prescription, comes back and asks Elle how long it will take, and when Elle says, "Forever and a day," he says, "Okay, I'll just be across the street at Burger King. You want anything?"
Once Arthur leaves, it's quiet except for the dry, regular wheeze of Howard, late stage emphysema. The biker gets called into Room 2 and Miranda slides off her mother's lap, stretching across the row of seats and using Emily's leg as a pillow.
"Tell me a story, Mommy," Miranda says, her crisp voice cutting through the low hum of the vending machine and the whoosh of the glass doors as they slide open.
"Which story do you want?"
"Once upon a time, there were three bears ---"
"No! Other story!"
"What other story?"
"I not want bears now."
"Okay, no bears then. Sheesh." Emily snubs Miranda's nose between her fingers and they grin at each other, a moment so private and loving between them that Elle looks away, feeling like a voyeur. "What story do you want?"
"The story about the girl named Miranda?"
"Once upon a time, there was a girl named Miranda. She lived with her mommy on an island all by themselves for many, many years."
"And Dave, but Dave was on the island before Miranda and her mommy got there."
"He live inna tree."
Emily snickers at this. "Don't let him hear that. Most people think Miranda and her mommy rescued him from the tree, but actually he taught Miranda and her mommy how to live on the island."
"Also a monster!"
"Right. There's a monster who tries to take Miranda and her mommy away from the island, but Miranda's mommy wouldn't let her."
"And then one day, there was a big storm and a ship got washed onto the island. Out came two people. They were the first people Miranda had ever seen before, aside from her mommy and Dave."
"O brave new world!" Miranda recites --- probably from memory, Elle guesses --- and although Elle wasn't an English major in college, she paid enough attention in high school to know Emily's version of The Tempest is an extraordinarily loose adaptation of the original.
"Yep," Emily says, "that's what Miranda said when she saw the people. O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in't!" She strokes Miranda's cheek softly and tucks an errant strand of hair behind her ear. Miranda sighs, shifting onto her side to lie on her good arm and snuggling her face against Emily's knee.
"Actually, that's me," Emily tells her.
Miranda looks at her like she's crazy. Elle doesn't blame her. If Emily could see Elle right now, she would see that Elle is pretty much doing the same thing. "I Miranda."
"I know you're Miranda," Emily says. "But you're the people that got off the boat too, 'cause you're my brave new world."
"No, I Miranda," Miranda insists with a scowl.
"All right, all right. You're Miranda."
Elle is almost relieved when somebody raps his knuckles against the bulletproof glass of the triage station. It's Arthur, back from Burger King and still jonesing for a fix. "You sure I don't need to see a doctor right away?" he asks, his mouth glimmering with grease. "These headaches are really killing me."
"The doctor will see you when you're actually sick, Arthur," she tells him. "Go home."
"I'm sick! Look at me! I look like shit!"
"You look like shit because you're a drug addict."
"THIS IS FUCKING BULLSHIT!" Arthur yells, startling everybody in the waiting room, including those who have nodded off from the wait. Elle feels an intense surge of anger towards him, for everything that he is and everything that he has failed to be and the fact that he is scaring the shit out of a three-year-old with a fractured (possibly broken) arm who is somebody's brave new world.
Fortunately, as with all drug seekers, his emotions are short-lived and he calms down within minutes in an effort to appeal to Elle's benevolence or at least her authority. "Okay," he says, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands. "Okay. Maybe I'll get another burger." He saunters off again, tipping an imaginary hat at Emily as the door glides open and he lets himself out.
Elle manages to get Miranda in to see a doctor before her shifts ends. Strauss flips through the chart with her usual harried disinterest and asks, "Do we need to report to CPS?"
"No," Elle says. "It's just an accident."
For a moment, Strauss looks dubious. "You sure?"
Elle nods. "I'm sure."
This is how you remember Emily: five or six years old, a bundle of raw energy and scraped knees and big brown eyes. Hair that kept slipping out of her pigtails. A polka dot nightgown she wore every night as she waited for you to come home.
You're not sure what exactly you are expecting as you drive down to see your daughter on her twenty-first birthday. You're not even sure you will make it all the way there making a U-turn at the last minute, which is why you don't tell Emily you're coming. Maybe you're afraid that she won't want to see you. You like to think you knows your daughter better than this, but the truth is you barely know your daughter at all.
The town is not difficult to find and you arrive earlier than anticipated. You park in what you assume is the town center. There is a general store, a pharmacy, a gazebo lined with pumpkins. There is a bakery that says in the window GIVE US THIS DAY OUR DAILY BREAD. In the playground across the road, a man is playing chess with himself
The restaurant is two streets down. You pace yourself, and with every step you remind yourself that you can get back into your car and drive away. You don't have to do this. Emily doesn't know you're coming, this Emily whom you've spoken to four times in the last three years, so she won't be disappointed if you don't show up. You've disappointed her long before this.
You are almost afraid to look up when you reach the restaurant, afraid that you will see your daughter clearing tables and counting change and forcing herself to smile at bullish customers. You are afraid of what you might do if you see her like that. You are afraid you will walk inside and slap her hard across the face, because this is not what you raised her to be.
(Some might say: You did not raise her at all.)
But it's three in the afternoon and there is nobody in the restaurant. None that you can see anyway. The sign out front says CLOSED and there are balloons tied around the door handle, which makes your shoulders relax. Somebody remembers your daughter's birthday, and you are grateful for that.
You don't remember walking up to the door and opening it, but you must have, because the next thing you know, you are standing inside the restaurant and your daughter's voice is calling out, "We're closed until five-thirty!"
A minute later you are staring at a replica of the girl in your memories. Not identical --- denim overalls instead of a polka dot nightgown --- but similar enough to make you take a step back in astonishment.
"We're closed until five-thirty," Miranda says somberly. Her cheeks and shirt are smudged with fine white powder. "It's my mommy's birthday today."
You are physically unable to stop staring at her. Your granddaughter. Your baby's baby.
"I know," you say at last. "I came to say happy birthday."
"Okay," Miranda says, then hollers, "MOOOOOOOOOOMMY! Someone is looking for you!"
"MIRAAAAAAAANDA," Emily hollers back. "Don't yell when I'm doing the books. It messes me up, you know that."
"My mom is counting all the moneys," Miranda informs you, and you find yourself nodding. "Dave and I are making pasta. I did the eggs."
When Emily steps out from the back, you swear your heart is going to stop like it did the first time you saw her, all those years ago, when she was less than an hour old. You are filled with awe and fear at this person in front of you, bursting with the kind of untrammeled love that hurts like a wound refusing to heal.
Emily, bless her, doesn't look completely shocked to see you. "Dad," she says, and you're willing believe that she might even be pleasantly surprised. "You're here."
"Happy birthday, honey," you tell her, and at once you move forward together, stepping into an awkward, stiff-limbed embrace, actors rehearsing a play for the first time.
Miranda observes you curiously until she grows disinterested and starts towards the kitchen, but Emily holds her still by the strap of her overalls. "Hey, say hi to your grandpa first."
"Hi, Grandpa," Miranda parrots before squeezing out of Emily's grasp like a pint-sized Houdini. She disappears into the back and reappears moments later, clutching the hand of an man about your own age, maybe a couple years younger. Miranda tugs at the man's sleeve and he bends down to let her whisper into his ear. At four and a half (turning five around Christmas, you think) she hasn't yet mastered the art of being discreet, and you can hear her saying indignantly, "He came to say happy birthday to Mommy but he didn't bring a present."
"Miranda, that's rude," David Rossi chides gently, wiping the flour off Miranda's cheek with his thumb. He turns to look at Emily in a protective way that makes you bristle, but he doesn't say anything. Miranda leans back into his legs like Emily used to with you, trusting completely that he would not let her fall.
Emily introduces you to Rossi, who gives you a handshake so firm and no-nonsense that Elizabeth would probably, ironically, approve of it. "I think I'll take my break now," she tells him, then turns to Miranda. "How about we take Grandpa to Gina's for some coffee and blueberry pie?"
Miranda looks torn between the promise of pie and whatever is the next stage of making pasta. She studies you for a long, hard moment, assessing you in a way that Emily never did at her age, and you realize it's because she does not love you. She does not love you because she does not know you. All she knows about you is that you showed up to her mother's birthday empty-handed and now she is being asked to make an impossible choice, and you wonder a little about who your granddaughter is, what her life is like, what makes her love making pasta as much as any other four-and-a-half-year-old loves dessert.
"We're almost at the dough balls," she says hesitantly.
"I'll wait for you for that part." Rossi squeezes Miranda's shoulder. He smooths out her hair and slides her headband behind her ears. "Put on a sweater, okay?"
You stand idly as Emily helps Miranda into a yellow cardigan with letter-shaped buttons that spell out her name. "Actually, I want strawberry shortcake," she tells Emily as she takes Emily's hand, curling her fingers around her mother's. "But I can have cake again later, right? 'Cuz it's your birthday?"
"I honestly think you're more excited about my birthday than I am, kiddo. But yes, you can have cake again later."
"As much as I want?"
"How much can you eat?"
Emily laughs, and you find yourself laughing along with her. You are back out on the street again, and you feel safer somehow. The air is lighter. "How are you going to fit a hundred slices of cake inside you?"
Miranda considers this. "Maybe ten."
"Maybe five? How many cakes can you eat, Grandpa?"
Her question catches you by surprise, which in hindsight, shouldn't have, really. After all she takes after her mother and your daughter has always managed to surprise you. "Maybe two slices," you tell her. "Three, if it's chocolate. I like chocolate."
"I like chocolate too," she says, widening her eyes like you've just told her the most amazing secret in the world. "What's your favorite color?"
"Um . . ." It's been too long since anyone has asked you this question. "Blue, probably."
"Oh." Your granddaughter sounds disappointed by this. "I like yellow better. Mommy likes red."
"I thought you liked pink," you say to Emily, who rolls her eyes and says, "Yeah, maybe when I was six."
The owner of the bakery greets the girls by name and you expect Emily to introduce you as her father, but she doesn't. Instead all three of you sit down at a table looking over the park where the man is still engaged in his chess game. Emily orders a coffee for you and herself and strawberry shortcake for Miranda, who requests extra whipped cream.
"Do you think he's winning or losing?" you ask Emily, because you don't want to talk about the obvious: how she's doing. how you're doing, how the Ambassador is doing.
(Why did you leave? Why did we let you? How can I save you?)
"Who? Gideon?" Emily peers out the window. "I'd say he's winning. He's really good. I've played him once, got beat like a rug."
"Snug as a bug in a rug," Miranda says absently as she fashions a tower out of the salt and pepper shakers. You smile knowingly at her. You used to say that to Emily, on those rare occasions you put her to bed, before Elizabeth's postings took them both farther and farther away from you.
The coffee arrives and Miranda gets onto her knees, leaning forward to reach for the little containers of half and half. "Can I do the cream?"
"Be careful not to spill any, okay?" Emily nudges her cup of coffee towards Miranda, who peels back the lid of the container with lip-licking concentration. She pours everything in and begins to stir, watching gleefully as the ribbons of white disappeared.
"Can I do yours too?" Miranda asks you, and you nod. You watch as she repeats herself, still having a hard time wrapping around the fact that she is her own person and not simply an extension of Emily herself, not simply the reason why your family fell apart.
It's an ugly thought, and you hate yourself for it, as much as you hate admitting to yourself if you're going to be honest, you're fairly certain your family started falling apart long before Miranda even came into existence.
Halfway through her shortcake, Miranda decides that today will be the day she makes it across the monkeybars. "I can do it," she insists around a mouthful of strawberries, but twenty minutes later you and Emily are sitting on a bench watching as Miranda stares at the monkeybars like David facing Goliath.
"We've been practicing," Emily tells you. "She can get across if I'm there to hold her legs. Which I'm perfectly happy to do, but since last week she's decided she wants to do it on her own."
"You used to like the monkeybars too, didn't you?" You have a vague recollection of Emily around the same age, getting into an incident, something or other that Elizabeth sighed about and you didn't listen.
"Yeah, I was. I was addicted to them. I used to have the worst blisters on my hands because I kept going back and forth and back and forth and they would bleed, and Mother got so mad because god forbid you have blisters when you shake the hand of the Israeli Prime Minister or whoever. You know how important a handshake is."
"You can only make a first impression once," you mimic your wife. The grin from Emily feels cheaply earned.
Miranda has finally jumped off the edge of the wooden platform and is dangling hopelessly from the metal bar.
"Do you need some help, M.P.?" Emily shouts into the distance.
"NO!" Miranda shouts back and continues dangling.
"She'll get there," you say to Emily, who tilts her head to look at you and she looks twenty-one and seventy-five at the same time, the wisdom she has beyond her years proof of your failure as a parent.
"I know," Emily says. She sighs a little, eyes on her daughter. "She figures out these new things all the time, sometimes all by herself, and it's amazing. I know she's my kid so I'm supposed to say this, but she's turning out to be a really cool person and it just wows me, you know? Sometimes I worry that eventually it'll stop and she'll just be, I don't know, normal. I mean, normal is good, but I guess --- Dad, when do parents stop being amazed by the stuff their kids can do?"
Never, you want to tell her. At once you are filled with both shame and pride, you feel like Gideon winning and losing at the same time, because your daughter is a better person than you are and you have had absolutely nothing to do with it.
"Mommy!" Miranda is screaming, and Emily snaps her attention towards her. "Mommy, look!"
There she is, swinging across the bars like an Olympic gymnast, a seasoned expert, and Emily is standing up and cheering for her. Miranda does it again and again and again, and you clap until your hands are stinging red, until the sky bleeds pink and orange and it is time for you to go.
"You really can't stay for dinner?" Emily asks as she and Miranda walk him back to his car.
"You can have three pieces of cake," Miranda says. "It is chocolate."
You tell them no, you'd love to but you can't, and you kiss them both goodbye. Don't be a stranger, you think about saying, but Emily is not the stranger here.
You get behind the wheel and start the engine. You wave at your daughter and granddaughter and catch one last glimpse of them before they disappear from your rearview mirror.
It will be a longer drive back than it was coming. When you arrive home, dinner will have already started without you. Your wife will not ask you where you have been, but she will know. Maybe you will even tell her. Maybe you will hold her and let her wipe the tears from your face as you apologize for not being able to save your daughter. You will tell her that it is not your daughter who needs saving.