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The Kaleidoscope House

Chapter Text

Unfortunately, Anne Lister was in Halifax, West Yorkshire. Not Thailand, not Italy, not Antarctica. She was on her family’s farm, dozing off in front of the fireplace with her thumb tucked between the pages of a travel magazine. It was an issue published last year.

The flow of time felt slow here. Everything numbed her senses. The crackling of firewood, the wind rattling the old windows, and the creaking of her wicker rocking chair. The silence crept into her from under the fingernails. 

Peace made her suspicious. At her workplace, it told of a fat storm brewing under their nose. 

Her legs jerked just as she had fallen off a cliff in her dream. She thought she had heard a scream or the piercing sound of a whistle. But in the living room, the loudest thing was her own drumming heart. 

She looked around the room for a clock, but found none. The life on the farm didn’t seem to need a clock. The sky above the vegetable beds outside the window looked grey. She checked the time on her good ol’ smartphone. 

There were still a few hours, her phone said, until night fell. But Anne felt too restless to wait. She did not mind hitting the town early if the alternative was the anguish of boredom. She returned to her bedroom, where her duffle bags full of clothes sat on the floor. When she had come home to the farm, hope still haunted her that she might spontaneously get on a plane. That was one week ago. It might be time she gave up and unpacked.

She rummaged through the bags for nice clothes and got dressed. It was when Marian appeared in the doorway with her cat, Percy, rubbing against her legs.

“What are you dressing up for?”

“Going out,” Anne said. “I don’t mind pulling out vegetables all day, but having nothing to do is torture. And since we’re done for the day—”

“We aren’t done for the day. What are you, CEO of a mega-corporation?”

Anne frowned. “Didn’t you say we were done?”

“The fieldwork is done. I need you to deliver to a customer. You can go out later.”

They walked down the hallway and stepped into the cold storage outside the house. In there, several wooden crates with winter vegetables in them sat on racks. Turnips, broccoli, onions, beans and peas, asparagus, carrots, cabbages, and more. The air smelt of soil. Anne hated this smell as a teenager, believing it made her appear unsophisticated. 

“This one.” Marian pointed at the crate with assorted vegetables at their feet. 

Anne picked it up, carried it out of the storage, and loaded it onto the rear bed of their pickup truck. Marian handed her a piece of paper with a house address on it. 

“Ha,” Anne said. “It’s on Anne Lane.”

Marian gave a blank stare as though she had heard that joke a thousand times already. “It’s near a big car park. Two-storey house. Has a rainbow flag hung in the window. Only a colour-blind person can miss. Oh— And this.” She gave Anne some cash. 

“I’m getting paid for this?” Anne said with delightful surprise, which turned out to be short-lived.

“No. Buy some bread from her. Whatever she has is fine. She will refuse to take the money. Do not let her.”

If the woman, whoever she might be, refused it, Anne decided it would be her bonus. “Can I go out after that? After buying her bread?”

“Yes, but why do you want to go out? You’ve got no friends,” Marian said it with genuine confusion in her voice. 

Anne ignored her, stuffing the banknotes and memo into her pocket, and climbed into the car. 

As the car drove on the uneven roads, she reflected on the past week she had spent helping her sister around the farm, and wondered why she hadn’t chosen to go travel abroad instead. 

She shouldn’t have come back home. Her work had always kept her from pursuing her dreams, but she was on suspension now. Six months of suspension. A ridiculous, misguided decision made by her superior. It had thrown her off balance, so much so that going home had seemed like the only option for her then. 

Her mind was clear now. She didn’t want to spend the next six months in her shabby hometown. This is the opportunity she had always coveted. When she got home, she would tell Marian.

Her truck stopped at an intersection, at the end of Anne Lane. She looked around. If there was a house with a rainbow flag in the window, she had missed it. Making a U-turn on the deserted intersection, she drove back the street more slowly, with her head out of the clouds this time. 

The house turned out to be close to the other end of the lane. The rainbow flag was big, screening the entire window like blinds. It was a mystery how she had missed that, even in reverie. 

She parked the truck and rang the doorbell. The mouthwatering smell of fresh bread wafted in the air. While she unloaded the crate of vegetables, a shadow behind the flag caught her eye. The person lifted the rainbow flag a little and peeked out through the gap. Anne could only see their dark-skinned hand. A moment later, the door opened. A young white woman stood behind the door with a friendly smile.

But the woman faltered as soon as she saw Anne. Her eyes darted to the crate in her hands and then to the truck behind her. “Oh, you’re not Marian…” She seemed bashful. And very pretty.

“No, I’m her sister. Name is Anne.” 

The woman briefly looked at her lips. It reminded Anne that she had a cut on the upper lip that was healing. 

“Marian has told me a lot about you,” the woman said. “She told me last week that you were coming home.”

“She took the piss out of me, didn’t she? I know it.” Anne repositioned the crate in her arms. The edge of the wood was digging into her fingers.

The woman saw it and apologised with a troubled grimace. “I’ll take it. Let me take it.” She extended her arms.

“I can bring it in,” Anne said. “It’s rather heavy— Not to patronise you, though.”

With a quiet chuckle, the woman took a step back and invited Anne in. The smell of bread was thicker. Calm piano music came flowing from somewhere in the house. 

“I just remembered,” Anne said, “my sister wanted some of your bread.”

“Her favourite is banana bread. Every time she drops by, she asks for it.” 

The air in the kitchen felt warm, probably because of the oven. On the table sat trays of bread, golden and fluffy. 

The woman made a gesture at the corner closest to the doorway. There was another crate that looked identical to the one Anne held. It was empty. “Put it down here. Thank you.” 

Anne lowered it next to the empty crate. “Do I take this back, then?”

Nodding her head, the woman went to the table. She picked a brown paper bag and slid a whole loaf of banana bread into it. One strand of her hair seemed white and powdery, coated with flour.

Anne had assumed that whoever needed their delivery service, instead of coming to the farm or the farmers’ market, must’ve been old and frail. But the woman looked young, a decade younger than Anne herself, perhaps. About the same age as her sister. There was no ring on her left ring finger, though it was possible that she had taken it off to bake. Some people never wear a wedding ring to begin with. 

The woman handed the bread to her. It really was fresh out of the oven. The warmth of it travelled through her clothes as Anne cradled it within the crook of her arm.

“Splendid. How much do I owe you?” Anne pulled the banknotes out of her pocket.

“No, I shouldn’t take money from you.”

“Ah, yes. Marian warned me about that.”

“No, I really shouldn’t,” the woman said. “I always have to tell that to Marian. I always tell her it’s me that has to pay.”

“What do you mean?”

The woman blinked as though the question confused her. “It means—” Her hand drew circles in the air, reeling words into her mind. She just pointed at the crate of vegetables across the room. “Marian never lets me pay for them.”

“Huh.” Anne, though still clueless, had no choice but to put the money back into her pocket. 

With the empty crate on the truck, Anne said goodbye to the house. 

During the short drive back to the farm, she thought about the woman and remembered why she had chosen not to go travelling abroad. She had nobody to go with her. The world was too vast and beautiful not to share it with someone she loved. A sudden burst of loneliness clouded her heart. 

She had forgotten to ask the woman’s name. 

In the living room of their farmhouse, Marian expressed eloquently that she was pissed off.

“I’m pissed off, okay? I told you to give her the money even if she refused it.” She talked with a chunk of banana bread in her mouth.

“What could I have done?” Anne said from the opposite side of the table. “She didn’t even tell me how much it was.”

“How much do you think it is?”

Anne looked down at the fancy bread. She got a thick slice for herself. “I don’t know. Twenty pounds?”

It looked like the shot in the dark was way off-target. Her sister regarded her with disappointed annoyance. “What kind of place have you been living in that a loaf of bread costs that much?”

“London?”

“That’s a made-up place, I tell you. You are not the sister I used to know.”

“Why do you give vegetables away?”

“She has three kids to feed. That’s the least I can do.”

Anne coughed out a piece of bread that almost entered her airways. She took her time sipping her tea, sorting out her thoughts. “Three kids?” 

“Not hers biologically. No. They are all her foster kids. She dotes on all of them, though. The oldest one is in high school. The youngest one just turned five.”

It took some more moments for the information to sink in. “What’s her name? I forgot to ask her.”

“Ann, without an E. Ann Walker.”

“How well do you know each other?”

“We went to high school together, took some classes together. I knew her late aunt, too. That house used to be hers.”

So Ms Walker had grown up in this town. Anne had never noticed her before. “Do you know why she has that rainbow flag in the window? Is she married? Does she like women?”

Marian fixed her judgemental gaze on her. “What happened to your girlfriend?” She didn’t have a high opinion of Anne’s most recent girlfriend. And judging from the tone of her voice, her attitude had not changed. 

“We broke up,” Anne told a half-lie. 

“Do I want to know why?”

“No.”

Marian accepted the answer with a shrug and returned to the previous topic. “Her neighbours are a nosy bunch. Old-school, too. They think a woman her age must need a man. She sometimes goes out with some faceless, nameless wankers. But they all walk away eventually. Maybe she’s aromantic. She’s never asked me about my romantic life.”

“Not everyone is aromantic like you, Marian.”

“And not everyone is attracted to women like you, Anne.” 

They glared at each other but, understanding the futility of it, agreed to a truce between two queer people. Anne could never stay mad at her sister for long. Her face looked too absurd for any sort of seriousness, and she knew Marian thought the same of her.

Anne finished her slice of bread. “Am I wrong to want to look for true love in this town? I’m in my forties. I’m tired of heartbreaks.”

“Is romantic love the only true love?”

“Ugh, you know what I mean.” Anne sighed. “I can’t change what I want.”

Percy the cat jumped onto Marian’s lap and curled up in a ball. “You can never be just ‘happy enough,’ can you? You know what they say, good things come to those who wait. Isn’t that right, Percy?”

Anne chewed on that idea. Then, a light bulb went on in her head. “Romance runs away when I pursue it, therefore I should ignore it. Once it realises that it's being ignored, it'll come to me. How about that? A genius plan!”

Marian didn’t look impressed. “Congratulations. You just described a cat.”

Confused, Anne glanced at Percy. “He hates me. He hisses when I try to pet him.”

"You just met him a week ago. It’s not his fault.” Marian folded him against her body in a protective embrace. 

“So, what, I should actively seek it?” Anne said. “Just like I’ve always been doing?”

“Maybe. But not too aggressively. Desperation only attracts desperate people. And there are a lot of desperate people in Halifax. That much I know. The rest of the romance talk, I don’t know what I’m talking about.”

Anne stood outside Ms Walker’s foster house the next afternoon. No truck today. The lane was close enough to go on foot when there were no vegetables to carry. From the opposite side of the street, Anne had the full view of the house. There was no smell of bread in the air. She didn’t know whether Ms Walker was home.

The curtains on the first floor were drawn, except for the two windows on the ground floor. One of them had the rainbow flag, and the other one had open blinds. On its glass, there was a sheet of paper put up. It had not caught her attention the previous day. She crossed the empty street for a closer look.   

It was a handwritten poster with hand-drawn flowers in the margin. 

*** 

Looking for someone to convert the attic.

We cannot afford to hire professionals, so the pay won’t be good. 

But we will cover the cost of any tools necessary. We can also cook for you. 

Call or knock on the door if you have questions.

***

There was a phone number at the bottom of the text. Anne looked up at the house again. It didn’t look new by any means, but not that decrepit, either— 

Something moved in the corner of her eye. She whipped her head around. A little far from where she stood, a black girl with a reusable shopping bag slung over her shoulder was giving her a suspicious stare. Neither of them made a move. Anne felt awkward. She never liked it when children stared at her as though they had never seen an adult before.

At last, the black girl took off her gigantic headphones and said, “May I help you?”

After initial confusion, Anne soon gathered that the girl must be one of the foster children that lived here. “I was just—” She pointed at the poster. “Looking at this. The attic needs remodelling. Do you know anything about this?”

“It just… needs to be turned into a bedroom. The floor is already insulated, though I don’t know how good their job is. They tried to do it themselves once before, but gave up, I guess. So, we just need the walls, paint job, the windows, maybe. Ern… Yeah.” 

Staying in the same spot, the girl averted her gaze from Anne’s as she spoke. And there was so much mumbling. Anne had to lean forward and read her lips, and still had to fill the blanks inside her head. 

“Okay, that sounds complicated. But I’m sure once I take a look, it won’t be so bad,” Anne said. “Is your mum home?”

At the same time the girl murmured something, the door between them opened a crack. Ms Walker smiled at Anne, took one step over the threshold, and smiled at the black girl on the other side of the door. 

“Oh, that was quick,” she said to the girl.

The girl made a one-syllable reply before entering the house. Then, Ms Walker’s attention returned to Anne.

“She was just telling me about the attic.” Anne pointed at the poster for the second time. “I think I can help.” 

Her blue eyes twinkled. “Really?”

“I’ve never done DIY before, but I’m a quick learner. My farm already has a lot of tools for it, too. Like drills and hammers, right?”

There was a moment then, where Ms Walker stared at her in a mesmerised manner. “Please, do come in,” she said.

The house smelt different from the day before, but the same calming piano music still seemed to reach every corner. On one wall of the hallway,  there were a bunch of Polaroid photographs of children. Ms Walker led her into the kitchen again. The black girl was putting groceries into the fridge and overhead pantry. 

The fridge had drawings and postcards on it. Ms Walker took a piece of paper that was almost buried under these things. She then looked at the black girl. “Eugénie, have you met Ms Lister before?”

The girl called Eugénie slowly turned around to face Anne, still not meeting her eyes. “Marian’s sister?”

“I am. Yes. Call me Anne.”

Eugénie cast a side glance at Ms Walker, who gave her an encouraging smile. “Eugénie Pierre. Pleased to meet you,” she said as if there was no pleasure in the world.

“The pleasure is mine,” Anne said.

Eugénie turned to Ms Walker. “Where are the kids?”

“Upstairs, taking a nap.”

Eugénie gave a nod, finished putting away the rest of the groceries, and left the kitchen without another word.

“She’s very shy,” Ms Walker said. “But she’s such a nice kid. I hope you’d come to love her as much as I do.”

The paper in Ms Walker’s hand was a colourful drawing of a bedroom. But before getting to work, Ms Walker put the kettle on. Anne walked around the kitchen while she waited. 

Everywhere she looked, she saw kids’ drawings. Uninterested, she paid no attention to them and stood in front of a notice board, the good ol’ cork kind. It had a sheet of paper with the house rules type-written on it. The three main rules were: 1) Look out for each other, 2) Be kind and honest, 3) No yelling. Other more minor rules included things like ‘sharing is caring’ and ‘apologise when you’re sorry’ and ‘keep your word.’ There was also ‘If somebody is speaking, listen’ with ‘including sign language’ hand-written in addition. 

Anne then walked out into the hallway to look at the Polaroids on the wall. There were a couple dozens of them, pinned in a row. She supposed they were photos of foster children that had ever stayed in this house. 

Each of them had a name and a date written in the bottom part. Some dates even went as far as twenty years ago. Those photos had weathered so much that the images of the children were unrecognisable, reduced to haunting shadows confined in grey squares. But they still had a place on the wall. The more recent photos had more colours. Their names and dates were written with colourful markers, as opposed to the black words on the old ones. Not only that, but the images also had colours. The first coloured photo was dated eight years ago. 

Anne spotted the photo of Eugénie near the left-hand end of the gallery. Her name was in purple. The date said she had only come to the house last year.     

Anne turned her head around when she sensed another presence in the hallway. The black girl, Eugénie, was again staring at her from a distance.

“Hey, it’s you, isn’t it?” Anne said. 

But in the split second her gaze was on the photo, Eugénie had walked away and up the stairs. It was fine by Anne. Very fine. She resumed her observation of the photos.

It soon came to her attention that there were two kids that had their photos taken more than once. One of them first appeared in the gallery three years ago. It looked like a regular boy. But the unusual part was that the child’s name was blacked out, and a girl’s name was written in orange above it. Eliza Washington. That was the name of the other child that also appeared a few times on the wall. They looked identical. Only, Eliza’s hair was longer, and after the appearance of Eliza, there was no more photo of the other child. They were the same child, Anne realised.

Ms Walker poked her head out from the kitchen. “Tea is ready.” But as she saw Anne in front of the photos, she came to stand next to her.

Anne tapped her finger on the photos of Eliza. “This child…”

“She loves to have her pictures taken. Begs me every time she comes back.” Ms Walker chuckled, though she ended it with a little sigh. 

“Is she trans?”

Ms Walker nodded. “I helped her choose her name while she was here. Her father wasn’t happy at first. Didn’t know how to handle it. Everything is fine now— Well, fine in terms of that, at least.”

“Where’s the father now?”

“In jail.”

They went back into the kitchen and had tea and homemade cookies. They tasted better than cookies bought in France, Anne commented.

“I’ve never been abroad,” Ms Walker said. “I’ve never been really outside Halifax, either.”

“I haven’t been able to travel since college, so my situation isn’t any better.”

“Marian told me before that you were a prison guard in London. Is that still what you do? She told me you got a suspension.”

Her reputation always preceded her. That was nothing new. But she wished her sister had kept her mouth shut about this. “Yes. We had a big argument the night I came back. She thinks I’ve done something stupid to get my arse suspended.”

“Is that why your lip is cut?”

That threw Anne off. 

Ms Walker frowned at it. “I’m sorry. That was rude. I’m— I’m sorry.”

“No.” Anne reached across the table for her hand. “I was just surprised. Nothing to apologise for. But, are you asking if Marian gave me the cut or…?”

Ms Walker shook her head, a tiny smile re-appearing on her face. “I know Marian would never do things like that. I meant, at work.” She squeezed Anne’s hand back.

Anne’s heart skipped a beat while her stomach dropped simultaneously. Keeping her cool, she ran the tip of her tongue over the scab on her upper lip. “Yes, at work.” She was used to inmates wishing her harm. But this one hit her differently. “To be honest, it’s only been two weeks, and my memory is still in a mess.”

“Okay.”

“Ask me again in a month. I might have found an answer by then.”

After finishing the tea, Ms Walker gave a quick tour around the house and led her upstairs. Quietly, because her kids were napping.

The attic hatch had a silver frame, very easy to find. Ms Walker opened it with a stick with a hook attached to one end. It opened creaking. The ladder that appeared had to be manually unfolded. It looked bulky, and Ms Walker’s thin arms looked too delicate to support the weight. Above their heads, darkness opened its mouth. 

Anne went up first. Once she secured her footing, she offered Ms Walker a hand, pulling her up. Her hand felt cold. The light from the open hatch wasn’t bright enough to reach their faces. In the relative darkness, they stood close to each other for a brief moment. 

The air was mouldy. The smell felt almost tangible in the back of her throat. Ms Walker bent down and picked up something. With a click, the flashlight in her hands lit up the place. The ceiling was much higher than Anne had expected. It was cold. Anne remembered Eugénie was saying something about insulation.

“We tried to do it ourselves once,” Ms Walker said. She shone the flashlight on the light bulbs that hung between the naked beams. “Hired an electrician to put up wires. But the bulbs were burnt out last time we checked. ”

Anne asked to see the ‘blueprint’ of the bedroom. It had green walls and ceiling, a tiny red bed, and a purple study desk. Next to the bed was a line drawn from ceiling to floor, and a squiggly arrow pointing at it and saying CLOSET.

“I think I can handle it,” Anne said. 

To be honest, Anne had no idea where to start or why she had even asked to see the blueprint. The place looked like an abandoned shed from an indie horror film. But her pride wouldn’t allow her to say no. This was her project now. She had to carry this through to the end. 

With her smartphone, she took pictures of the place for reference. Ms Walker followed her from corner to corner like a duckling. When they finished, they returned to the hatch.

“I need to go back to the farm,” Anne said. “Marian must be fuming. I told her I was just taking a short walk.”

After a quick nod, Ms Walker frowned. “I’m sorry it was so dirty here. I promise that there’ll be no dust when you start.”

They quietly descended downstairs. 

Ms Walker rushed into the kitchen and came back with a tiny paper bag. “Cookies for you and Marian. But tell her not to put more than one in her mouth at once. She’s nearly choked on them before.”

“So typical of her.” Anne snickered. “You’re too good for her, Ms Walker.”

Ms Walker gave a shy smile. “Call me Ann. Or Adney. That’s what the kids call me.” Next moment, however, her face clouded. “We forgot to discuss your payment.” 

“Let’s not decide it now. You haven’t seen my work yet,” Anne said with a sarcastic smile. “I might be a completely useless tit.”  

Adney put a hand on Anne’s, with the same gentleness Anne had shown earlier at the table. “I’m sure you’re very capable, Anne. I believe in you,” she said as if she was talking to a child. 

It didn’t sound patronising to Anne. Maybe because it came from her. Maybe because her cheeks flushed a little.

“I should let you go now, shouldn’t I?” Adney withdrew her hand, grabbed Anne’s coat off the rack, and helped her put it on. “I’m glad I know you. I mean, we’ve only met once. This is our second time. But I know Marian, and she tells me about you all the time. I feel like I’ve known you for a long time. I’m sorry if I made any rude comments today.”

Anne couldn’t help but smile at her. “You didn’t. I’m excited to get to know you better.”

“I was feeling unsure about the poster. I don’t know what I would’ve done if some stranger had offered to help.”

“I’m glad I was taking a walk, then.” Anne winked before leaving the house.

Once on the pavement, she took a moment to adjust her scarf and coat collar. The blinds on the window swayed slightly, and she saw Adney take down the poster. 

That night, Anne received a text from an unknown number. It was Adney, who had gotten her number from Marian.

Adney: I wanted to make sure Marian isn’t cross with you. I told her it was my fault you got home late.

Anne replied, Wasn’t your fault. She’s alright. She ate most of the cookies.

Adney: She said you had a fight again.

Only bickering. Told her I’d be fixing your house, and she got worried I might slack off my farm work. 

Anne had also accused her sister of telling every person in the town about her suspension. 

Adney: Oh my God. I’m so sorry.

Don't apologise. She understands. I’m doing research on attic conversion now. Will go borrow more tools from my neighbour tomorrow. How does this Sunday sound?

Adney: Sounds good. 

Adney: Would you like to have lunch with us? We can get to work after that.

If you insist :)

Adney: I do. The kids can’t wait to see you. 

Anne had forgotten about the kids, and this reminder produced ambivalent feelings in her. Children were not her field of expertise. A shortcoming that mainly came from inexperience. The life she had led so far hadn’t offered many opportunities to interact with them. 

But the farm life was so monotonous. It would drive her nuts if her only conversation partners were her sister and the cat. The choice was between Marian and the kids. There didn’t seem to be any difference at all.

Chapter Text

Adney’s typical weekday started early in the morning. Wake up at 6:15 and make the bed. Take a shower. Get dressed and prepare breakfast for her kids and herself— Eggs, bacon, and toast with homemade jam or butter. 

At 6:30 she would turn on the radio in the living room. Eugénie would come down to eat, still in her nightclothes, with her hair yet to be done. She would return to her room to get dressed after breakfast. When she came down again at 7:15, her natural hair would have been arranged. The school was a 10-minute walk from home. Enough time before her first period at 7:30.

Around the same time Eugénie arrived at school, Adney would have to wake up Eliza. The biggest challenge of her morning. Adney would keep talking to her, about the weather and the day ahead, until Eliza became lucid and jumped out of her bed. It usually took about five minutes. Once she was up, the rest was easy. They had everything—her clothes, shoes, and school bag—prepared the night before. She would get dressed and eat in 30 minutes, talking about the dreams she had. Then, off to school. From the house door, Adney would watch Eliza meet up with a neighbour kid and storm off. 

8:00 would strike shortly after. It was time for Naveen to wake up.

With the school children gone, the house was free from the shackles of time. Adney would feed him, help him get dressed, and play with him. He also needed education, to learn to write and read and sign language. Naveen had hearing problems. Time always flew. While he ate lunch, she would clean the house and do the laundry. 

If there was any time to spare, she would bake. The smell would attract her neighbours, and soon they would knock on her door to buy her products. This part—the customer service—took most of her time and energy. Small talk exhausted her, and some of her patrons would even linger for an hour for chitchat. Adney’s polite smile stayed on the entire time. The only let-out was Naveen. Sometimes he demanded her attention and rescued her, sometimes he remained in his own world.

Around 3:30 in the afternoon, Eliza and Eugénie would come home from school together. After snacking, it was a nap time for Eliza and Naveen. It created a brief window of opportunity for Adney to finally sit down and relax. In the blink of an eye, it would be time to prepare dinner.

They dined at 7:30. They would talk about the day, always in imperfect but well-intentioned sign language. It was never quiet at the dinner table. Except for the first and third Wednesdays of the month, when Eliza’s father was scheduled to call her from prison. Few words would come out of Eliza’s mouth on those evenings. And the moment the land-line phone rang in the hallway, she would drop her utensils and race to pick it up. Even then, ten minutes was all they had each time. 

After dinner, Adney would help them with homework, and make the younger kids take a shower and brush their teeth. Eliza would have to organise her clothes and school bag for the next day, too. At 9:30 p.m., Eliza and Naveen would go to bed. Eugénie did not have a set bedtime, though. Adney believed she was capable of having a responsible sleep schedule. 

When the house fell into the silence of the night, Adney finally had time for herself. She would spend a couple of hours studying. Studying what the kids were learning at school, reviewing the day’s lesson on sign language. And doing paperwork if there was any. It was always past midnight when she went to bed.

It was tough work being a parent, and to do it on her own. (But not completely on her own thanks to Eugénie.) It required quick thinking and adaptive skills, which she lacked. One challenge at a time, each day she would overcome.  

But everything she did was for the kids. When their laughter and screams of joy filled the house, painting the air for Adney to swim in it, she knew with a gentle conviction that this was the best version of her life.

Life was good. Not perfect, but good enough. She had nothing more to wish for.

Then, last Thursday, her life had been shaken when Anne came to deliver the vegetables. A faint tremor. Like one simple beat of the heart. But the deliverer had always been Marian, and Anne’s presence felt like a disruption in the comfortable repetitiveness of her life.

It was not her first time to see Anne’s face. Marian had shown her some photos of her sister before. Adney knew how she looked, how handsome she looked. But nothing could’ve prepared her for the way Anne imprinted herself into Adney’s mind. Her voice. Her deep voice and her laughter. It was bluish green. 

Adney really liked that colour blending in with the house’s natural colours. She was real flesh and blood, not a two-dimensional image that fit in the screen of a smartphone.

Little tremors. The beating of her heart. 

Too loud and too dazzling in the dead of night.

Sunday came too fast. It always did. Her weekend routine was not so fixed as the weekday one. It was whatever the kids wanted to do and needed to do.

Adney preferred to sleep in just a little. This morning, however, the thought of Marian’s sister began rolling around her mind the moment she awoke. Since inviting Anne to lunch two days ago, not a single hour had passed where she didn’t think of it. 

She made chicken salad wraps. The kids would have fun making their own, and hopefully make little mess. Anne had said she had no food allergy, but hated carrots. (On principle, Adney didn’t ask why.) Naveen had a nut allergy. Wraps would be easy to customise. 

As she set the table for lunch, the doorbell chimed. It was fifteen minutes to noon, earlier than Adney had expected. 

Eliza skipped down the hallway. “Marian’s sister, here I come!”

Adney took off her apron and untied her hair, making herself as presentable as possible, and stepped out into the hallway. She wished she had brushed her hair earlier.

But behind the open door, there was an unfamiliar woman in a pleather jacket. 

“Are you Marian’s sister?” Eliza asked her. “You look different from your pictures.”

“She’s not. Go wait inside. Thank you,” Adney said to the girl before turning to give the woman a questioning look.  

The woman in a pleather jacket gave a toothy smile. “I was wondering what happened to the lovely poster on your window. Your house needs repairs, am I right?”

“It does, sort of. I mean— We already found someone.”

“Is that right? Oh, that’s a shame. Darn it, I should’ve volunteered the first time I saw the poster.”

“That’s sweet of you.”

“I can still help, though, if you need. I know a bit about carpentry.”

Adney simply smiled, hesitant to give her a solid no. She wanted to brush her hair.

“I suppose that’s a no,” the woman in a jacket said in an amicable voice. She began to leave, but stopped and faced Adney again. “Can I give you my number? The truth is, I sometimes see you around town, and I always thought you were lovely.” She pulled a piece of paper out of her jacket pocket and handed it to Adney.  

It was at this moment that Adney took notice of Anne, leaning against her farm truck in front of the house, watching the scene. Just watching. Waiting for her turn. 

Adney momentarily forgot about the woman in a jacket. She then accepted the piece of paper with a polite nod. “Thank you. I’ll text you.”

The woman nodded. She threw a quick glance over her shoulder at Anne before walking off.

At last, Anne ambled to the door with a toolbox in her hand. “She was chatting you up.”

“How did you— I mean, how would you know?”

“I’m proud to tell you I have an excellent gaydar.” Anne nodded over at the receding figure of the woman. “The jacket, the combat boots, her demeanour. And, you said you’d text her. Isn’t that her number?”

Adney had said that. Although, she didn’t know what to do in a situation like this because— “My neighbours have never set me up with a woman before.” 

It made Anne pause, and Adney feared it might’ve been a weird thing to say. 

Adney apologised. “Please, come in. Lunch is ready.”

Entering the house, Anne put down the toolbox by the foyer table. Adney wondered what it was for, but immediately got her attention steered away by Anne’s buttocks. (Not that her eyes were drawn to them.) Her jeans hugged her legs loosely as she bent forward. Adney remembered lunch was not today’s primary goal. 

“Does that mean you’ve never dated a woman?” Anne said as they lingered in the foyer. 

“No, I’m— I think I’m asexual.” 

A sense of shame came over her right away. She knew that was not true. But the shameful and unnecessary lie had leapt out of her before she could even think to react. 

In the kitchen, Eliza was circling around the table. “Lunch, lunch, lunch,” she chanted with original choreography. 

Adney said to Anne, “She does it to keep herself from touching the food before everyone’s ready.”

When she spotted them in the doorway, Eliza came forward. “Good afternoon, Marian’s sister. My name is Eliza Washington. Nine and a half years old. My favourite dinosaur is the Ankylosaurus because I think it’s cool.”

It never failed to impress an adult what an intelligent young girl she was. And although Anne seemed slightly rigid, Eliza would get her to warm up to her in no time. Adney left them to look for Naveen. He was drawing, as usual, in the living room. By the time they returned to the kitchen, Eliza had had Anne sat next to her at the table, teaching her how to make a wrap. 

“Eat carrots, too,” Eliza said. “They are very nutritious. Marian says colourful foods are good for you.”

Anne caught Adney’s gaze and gave a bashful smile. “I don’t like them,” she said to Eliza. “You see, I grew up on the farm, and one vegetable we had in every meal was carrots. Three meals a day. Always carrots. We were lucky if we got meat once a week.” 

“That’s terrible,” Eliza said. “I like Marian’s vegetables, but I like meat, too.” Now that Naveen was in the room, her hands moved in sign language.

Anne saw it and smiled at Naveen across the table. 

“This is Naveen.” Adney fingerspelled his name so he would know they were talking about him. “He’s five and likes to draw.”  

“Hello, Naveen,” Anne said.

“You say ‘hello’ like this in BSL.” Eliza waved her right hand next to her face.

Imitating her, Anne waved at him. “Hello, Naveen. My name is Anne. Nice to meet you.”

Adney gave him Anne’s name in BSL. “Naveen, didn’t you have a question for Anne?” She looked at Anne. “I told them about you yesterday.”

“I asked what her favourite dinosaur is,” Eliza said. “It’s the T-Rex. Naveen is very good at drawing, Anne. Have you seen his drawings yet?”

“I think so.”

“There’s more in our room. Come and see after we ate, and—”

“Eliza, please let Naveen speak,” Adney said gently.

The girl gave a meek apology. They all looked at the boy as his hands moved with the awkwardness of a young kid. 

“He said, what’s your favourite colour?” Eliza said.

Anne’s hands came to rest on the table. Her fingers wiggled as though trying to speak the language she couldn’t speak. “Deep blue, I think.”

As Eliza relayed it to him, Adney smiled internally. Deep blue and bluish green. Close enough. 

They ate at last. Adney helped Naveen make his own wrap and made her own quickly.

Anne looked around the table at one point. “Where’s Eugénie?”

“She’s out,” Adney said. 

“She’s babysitting,” Eliza said. “She’s making money so we could fix the attic.”

Anne’s face clouded, her gaze darting to Adney.

“I always tell her to keep it,” Adney said. “I will never pay you the money she earned, I promise.” 

Eliza dragged Anne, after lunch, to the room she shared with Naveen. “I’ll show you my drawings of dinosaurs!”

Adney had dishes to do, so she caught up with them upstairs afterwards. Anne sat on Naveen’s bed with the kids on either side of her, looking through his drawings. Naveen’s hands moved tirelessly as he explained his work, while Eliza almost sat in her lap. Their laughter hung coloured clouds in the air like a Monet’s painting. 

She looked up at Adney. “Oh, we need to get to work. I totally forgot.”

“Are we going to the attic?” Eliza flashed a beaming smile of an adventurer. “I saw a ghost yesterday. Adney, do you remember that I told you?”

Adney nodded.

“A ghost!” Eliza signed with a dramatic expression. “It’s a haunted attic. But you don’t need to be scared, Anne, because Adney is a witch. She can see things other people can’t.”

“Is that right?”

Eliza threw her hands in the air. “Let’s go, explorers!”

The suggestion generated a thrilled squeal from Naveen. They opened the attic hatch with the stick.

“I’ll go get the stuff from the truck.” Anne went down the stairs.

“Do you need help?”

“Nope.”

“Can we go now?” Eliza already had one foot up on the ladder. 

Adney nodded. “Please, be careful.”

The kids ascended the ladder on all fours. At the top, they both let out a high-pitched laughter that echoed through the house. No doubt it had reached the ears of every person in the neighbourhood. Adney was about to tell them to keep quiet when Anne came back, bolting up the stairs as though she’d heard a gunshot. 

She was empty-handed. “What happened? Are they okay?” 

“Nothing. Just laughing, loudly.”

“Oh, I thought that… Never mind.”

Eliza poked her head from the hatch, her hair hanging upside down. “You can come up now, Anne. The ghost is gone.”

“Will be there soon.” Anne walked back down the stairs. 

She returned with a huge bundle—the logo said wool—the size of a small child. It hid her head and upper body. At the foot of the ladder, she repositioned it over her shoulder and ascended. But the large bundle escaped her grasp. It fell to the ground with a soft thud. 

“Actually, I do need help,” Anne said. 

As instructed, Adney entered the attic. She received the bundle—it was lighter than she’d thought—from above while Anne lifted it over her head. It wasn't the only one. Anne scurried back outside and brought another one of the same wool product. They repeated the process a few times. The kids helped to pile them up by the wall. The attic looked even smaller with the growing heap.

The day before, Adney and the kids had cleaned the room to the best of their ability. Cardboard boxes had been blocking the windows. Now that they were gone, sunlight had no obstacle and made the lightbulbs unnecessary. The kids were hurling themselves into the wooly heap, stirring up the dust that they had missed. 

Downstairs, Anne returned with something new. Boards. They looked trickier than the wool bundles. Anne hoisted them— Sure enough, they didn’t fit through the hatch. 

“Uh-oh,” Eliza said. “What are we going to do?”

Anne studied the hatch and the boards with a contemplative frown. “It’s alright. I have more things on the truck.” Propping the boards against the landing banister, she left. 

After a few more trips, Anne joined them in the attic at last. There were now an intimidating-looking cutting machine, timber, and a toolbox. 

Anne exhaled and sank down by the wooly heap. “Good post-lunch workout, that one.” 

“What’s this?” Naveen signed to her.

Anne smiled at all of them. “These are insulation material.”

“What’s insulation mean?” Eliza said.

“It keeps the room warm in winter. Blankets for buildings, basically. In summer, it keeps it cool.”

“What are the boards downstairs?” Eliza said.

“Good question.” Out of the toolbox next to her, Anne took a sheet of paper. “I’ve talked to my neighbour who does DIY. I showed him the pictures of this place. Here’s the plan—” She patted the spot next to her, gesturing for Adney to sit down. 

Adney’s heart sped up. Despite her body that refused to obey her commands, she sat down with a small gap between them. 

Anne showed her the plan paper. “First, I fix the lights to see if the power wires function—”

“We already changed the bulbs yesterday,” Eliza said. “Didn’t we, Adney? The lights were okay.”

“Were they? Good job.” Anne examined the light fixtures on the ceiling. “I need to disconnect them so I could put the insulation material and walls and everything else. Which, brings us back to the drywalls downstairs. My neighbour said you needed to make the stairs. A real staircase. For fire safety. It means creating a new hole in the floor somewhere. We could bring the drywalls through it.”

Anne seemed to keep the vocabulary simple for the kids, talking slowly for Eliza to interpret for Naveen. Still, her attention stayed on Adney. Her tongue poked out to lick the cut on her lip now and then. Adney wished she would stop doing that. It was distracting. Everything felt tangled up inside her head.

Anne got to work. The first step was to install insulation material. The kids helped with measuring. But after Anne accidentally knocked Naveen down with a block of insulation material twice, she and Adney agreed to keep them out for their own safety. 

“You’ll have to stay out either way,” Anne said when they whined. “Because I need to cut up wood after this.”

Adney left with the disappointed kids. 

Within a couple of hours, the wood-cutting started in the attic. The roar of the machine had a yellowish tone, poking around inside of her ears. The windows were open to let sawdust out. The neighbours must be wondering what the racket was. Adney baked cookies. She would visit each house with the offering to keep them happy. 

At least, Naveen enjoyed the noise. It was one of the few sounds in the world he could hear.

...

Among cutup timber, Anne sat and binge-watched online DIY videos. Most of the sawdust was in a rubbish bag, but a thin carpet of it still covered the floor. It snuck under her clothes and protective gear and stuck to her skin.

It had taken several hours, including multiple calls to her DIY neighbour, to calculate the lengths of the beams. It’d taken one more hour to cut up wood. It nearly cost her a finger using the cutting machine. But it’d be a huge embarrassment if she gave up on the first day. 

Adney had left the house some time ago. “The kids are napping. Can I ask you to work quietly?” She had brought fresh cookies to the attic. “I have to go out. I'll be back soon.”

Adney was back in thirty minutes. The kids were awake now, too. 

Anne had pretended to enjoy the children’s company. Their existence made her nervous, and so did their sign language. There was an inmate at her prison back in London. He was mute or deaf. None of the officers had ever bothered to find out which. She couldn’t remember what had become of him.

The ladder under the hatch creaked, and Adney’s head emerged. In her hand was another plate of cookies. 

Anne went to pull her up. But close to the hatch, she flinched at the sight of a spider on the wall.

“Wait. There’s a spider,” Anne said. “Don’t worry, I’ll kill it.”

“No, don’t.” Adney climbed up the rest of the ladder and stood next to her. “Please, don’t kill it. It’s not doing anything. Let it exist, please?”

It took Anne by surprise. “I thought you’d be scared.”

Adney gave a calm smile. “I’m not. None of the kids are. Insects are safe in this house.” 

“Because you are a witch, yeah?” 

They walked to the centre of the room. Anne picked up one of the insulation material’s packaging films, brushed sawdust off, and spread it out on the floor.  

Adney sat down on it and gave the cookies to Anne. “Sort of. I have synaesthesia. I can see the colours of sounds. It’s how my brain is wired. But children don’t understand neurology.”

“Synaesthesia. I’ve never met anyone who has it.”

“It’s not as rare as you might think. It’s so part of me I often forget that not everyone sees the world the way I do.”

“That, I can relate,” Anne said. “I often forget that not everyone is queer. It’s… baffling.”

Adney gave a smile, amused and bashful. “I just remembered— Marian wants to know if you’re dining with us or coming home. You can stay, of course. Have you seen her texts?”

“Is that what it was? I was preoccupied.”

And preoccupied, Adney looked around the room with knotted brows. “You said we needed to make a hole for the stairs…”

“Yes. But there are many things to do before that.”

“How do you make a hole?” 

“With a saw. Why?”

Adney twisted her face. “I just didn’t expect that to be part of this. It feels too much. I should’ve told you this sooner, but I needed time to— I inherited this house from my aunt.”

Anne put down her cookie and took her hand. “I will talk to Mr Pickles to see if there's any alternatives. Does that sound good?”

Slowly, a smile replaced her frown. “Is everything going well?” 

“Sure,” Anne lied without delay. “Everything is lovely.”

Adney’s expression softened as she put her hand on Anne’s. “I think you deserve a break. We have plenty of time. ”

It felt strange to be seen through and yet not made fun of. 

Adney looked at the timber around them. “Tell me what these are for?”

“Beams for the closet. I’m figuring out how to put them up. There’s a lot more calculations than I thought. I should’ve paid more attention in maths class.”

“I think I can help,” Adney said. “I sometimes help Eugénie with her maths homework.”

“That’d be helpful.” Anne munched on a cookie. “Your kids are lucky. You’re smart, kind, and a fabulous cook. You know the way to a person’s heart is through their stomach.”

Adney flicked a glance at Anne’s lips. She did that a lot, in fact. Anne wondered if she was aware of it herself, and that Anne was aware, too.

“Can I ask you a question?” Anne said. “About your sexuality.”

Adney’s posture stiffened. Without meeting her gaze, she nodded. 

“You said you were asexual. But do you date? Women? Do I have a chance with you?” 

Her lips parted and closed, searching for words that eluded her. She brooded, and each passing second punished Anne. 

“Have I overstepped the mark?” Anne said. “I always like to be upfront about my feelings, but— If I made you uncomfortable, tell me, and I’ll never mention it again.”

It was not a look of relief Adney gave. It resembled disappointment, some kind of vulnerability. “I don’t… I don’t date people. My neighbours always find me some rich man who could provide for all of us. I’m not the one to choose. And it’s fine. I’m happy with it.” Still, she sounded calm.

“Are you?”

“Yes. Although, they are getting impatient. My neighbours. I always mess up somehow and drive the men away.” A quiet giggle fell from her lips. “They think I’m strange. They think I'm some kind of alien.”

In this moment, Anne decided this was a person who could understand her without judgement. “They think I’m a damaged good.”

“You are beautiful the way you are,” Adney said without missing a beat. The following silence brought a hint of red into her cheeks. “I meant— See? This is what drives them crazy. My mind just jumps.”

“I don’t mind,” Anne said. “It’s not everyday that a beautiful woman tells me I’m beautiful.”

Adney stared at her as though her response amazed her. “Marian told me you have a girlfriend in London.”

“She left me. On the same day I got my suspension letter.”

“I’m sorry,” Adney said. “Do you still love her?”

“In a way, I do. I always will. I thought I’d marry her one day.” The cookies were gone. Anne picked up the remaining crumbs with the pad of her finger. “I keep looking. I want the kind of devotion that no hardship could break. I have the right to happiness like anybody else.”

“You will find it, one day,” Adney said. “My neighbours, they tell me it’s time I got married.”

“Would you marry whoever they pick for you?”

“If he stayed. I could be happy, I think.” Adney sounded detached. “It’s just hard to imagine calling myself Mrs Someone. I have no imagination. That could be why.”

Anne’s phone buzzed with a text from her sister. While her previous messages had words, this one only had one emoji of a knife.

“I have to go home. Her majesty’s not amused.” Anne promised to stay for dinner another time. 

They stood up. With the insulation material installed, the ceiling felt lower and slightly claustrophobic. Anne descended the ladder first and helped Adney down. At the bottom of the stairs, the kids rushed to their side.

“Anne! Is the attic done yet?” Eliza wrapped her arms around Anne’s leg.

Watching Eliza, Naveen claimed her other leg in the same manner. 

“Not even remotely,” Anne said, chained to the ground. “Not yet. Patience, please.”

“Hey, come look at our pictures!” Eliza took her by the hand to the display of Polaroid photographs on the wall. Standing on tiptoe, she pointed. “That’s me. My hair was very short when I came here for the first time. And that one’s Naveen. Look, we have Marian on the wall, too!”

Until now, Naveen’s photo had escaped her attention. No wonder why she had missed it. In the photograph, he was a toddler, as chubby as he was now. The bulge of his nappy was clear under his onesie. This was taken about three years ago. His name was written in green. No last name. 

Eliza tugged at her sleeve. “We should take your picture,” she said. “Adney, she can be on the wall, too, right?”

“I don’t see why not.” Adney said to Eliza. “But Anne has to consent. Some people don’t like their pictures taken.”

Eliza looked up at Anne. “Do you like your pictures taken?”

Anne had no objection. Their Polaroid camera was in the drawer of the console table near them. Adney took it out and made Anne stand in front of the wall where the incoming sunlight provided adequate lighting. 

“Say CHEESE BURGER!” Eliza grinned behind the camera.

The camera made the good old shutter sound, spitting out a picture after a few seconds. While the image developed, the kids showed her a selection of coloured markers in the drawer. 

“You get to choose a colour for your name,” Eliza said.

Naveen grabbed, without hesitation, a blue marker and handed it to Anne. He gave a shy, dimpled smile when she thanked him.

Her face in the developed photo looked horrendous. Rigid and phoney. It was the smile of someone who lacked the basic skill of feigning joy. But, at least, the yellowness of the photo film camouflaged the healing bruise around the cut on her lip. She wrote her name in blue, and Adney put it up next to the photo of Marian. It looked out of place.

… 

Anne settled herself in the rocking chair in front of the fireplace. They’d had a satisfactory dinner, with a side of whining and snide remarks from Marian. Most of them went straight over Anne’s head. It was something about their Polaroids. 

“This is injustice.” Marian glared at her fried turnips. “It’s only last year that they put my photo on the wall. But you! On your second visit!”

“Third. They like me,” Anne said. “Children with taste and discernment, clearly.”

“They need their heads examined is my opinion.”

Anne’s head had no more room for sarcasm. “Did you know Naveen has been there since he was a baby?”

“Yeah?”

Anne tried to swallow this fact with her fried turnips, but had a hard time. “It really is a foster home, isn’t it? I knew it, but— I can’t imagine what it’s like, not knowing your parents.”

“You weren’t close to your own, either.”

“But I knew them. That’s the difference. He doesn’t know his origins like us.”

“He does. It’s Adney. His life starts with her and that house. It might change when he grows up, but for small kids, things are that simple.”

That was an impressive thing she’d said. The rest of the dinnertime she spent complaining about the weather, as one does. Anne ignored every word.

Now, her sister was on the floor with Percy the Cat. He lay in a luxurious cat bed, sleeping with his belly exposed. Next to him, Marian sprawled in the same way.

Anne’s phone had a text from Adney. 

Adney: I thought about the staircase. Please ignore what I said this afternoon. I want you to make proper stairs.  

Marian spoke from the floor, “Have you figured out how to put up the beams yet?”

Anne threw her head back. “Why did you remind me?”  

“Somebody has to be the killjoy. Are you talking to Mr Pickles?”

“Tomorrow.” Anne quickly texted Okay to Adney. “I have to learn sign language.”

“For Naveen? That boy only leaves Eliza’s side when she goes to school, and Eliza is like his mandatory interpreter. But it won’t hurt to learn some basic words. Want me to teach you now?”

“Later. Brain’s closed for the day.”

“Did you ask Adney out? How did it go?”

Anne massaged her forehead. “Has she ever talked to you about marriage?”

Marian lifted her head off the floor. “Is she getting married?”

“No. But she told me she’d be happy to marry a stranger of her neighbours’s choosing. It’s disturbing. She treats it like a commercial business.”

“To be fair, the institution of marriage started out as a type of trade. Nothing wrong with marrying for financial stability.”

“But to a stranger?”

“Not every arranged marriage is bad.” Marian petted Percy, playing with his tail. “Maybe she really is aromantic. Ask her. She’s familiar with the topic. I taught her.”

“She told me she was asexual.”

Marian stopped her hand and stared at the cat. “Some people are both aromantic and asexual. Some people, yours truly for instance, are just one of the two.”

“What does it mean if she keeps staring at my lips?”

“It means you have weird lips. Next question.”

Glaring at her, Anne repositioned herself in the chair and gestured at her travel magazine on the coffee table. “Give me that magazine. No more questions for you.”

The table was behind Marian within arm’s reach. She twisted her body contortionist-style, grabbed the magazine, and held it like a frisbee. All while still on the floor. “Catch.”

“Don’t throw it.”

“I’m going to throw it.”

“I swear—”

The magazine flew from her hand. Pieces of paper that Anne had put between the pages succumbed to the resistance of air and scattered across the floor. The magazine crashed far from the chair with a thud. One piece of paper landed too close to the fire. The cat narrowed his eyes at Anne as though she was the guilty one. 

Marian put her hands up in the air. “In my own defence—”

“Shut up.” Anne stood up to pick up the pieces of paper. 

Making a show of helping, Marian snuck a look at them. “What are these?” She picked one up. “Travel plans? You never go anywhere.”

Anne snatched it out of her hand in silence. Marian, unrepentant, picked another piece of paper, which Anne confiscated without delay. But it wasn’t a travelling memo. It was her bucket list. 

“What is it?” Marian literally poked her nose into it. “Let me see.”

Answering her request, Anne showed her back and retired to her bedroom. She read the list in the comfort of her own place.

Her messy handwriting filled the A4 paper from end to end. Swim with sharks, try hang gliding, ride an elephant, climb a volcano, and more. Only a handful of the boxes were ticked, like watching a meteor shower. But even this one was iffy since she’d watched it from the prison’s small window with her crappy then-colleague. 

It was many years ago when she’d written this list. She was at work with a different colleague. A nice one. Their late-night shift at the block, the solitary confinement, suffocated them with boredom. The inmate was an aging serial killer who was in for life. He had a passion for art. His walls were covered with his work.

“It’s the only thing left for me to remember my own humanity,” he once said. 

Anne had laughed in his face. 

While the inmate tried to sleep, Anne and her colleague ripped out a blank page from the inmate’s sketchbook and created their bucket lists. They kept the harsh lights on and listened to high-volume music on the radio throughout the night. And in the morning, Anne went home and slept in peace.

 

Chapter Text

The kids were asleep. Adney was in the backyard, taking in the laundry during this time. The winter air made clothes cold and damp to the touch. Not her favourite texture. But with three children to raise, every day was a laundry day. 

When she finished the task, she stretched her arms into the sky.

Something moved in the corner of her eye. Something black behind the paneled fencing, which was tall enough to hide the yard from passers-by. There were soft thuds and under-breath expletives. Someone was jumping— The person (intruder?) put both of their hands on the top part of the fencing. The next moment, Anne’s head emerged. She saw Adney, waved a couple of fingers at her while lifting herself, and disappeared behind the fencing. 

Nothing about the situation made sense to Adney. But she went to open the gate. 

“Did I spook you?” Anne chuckled as she entered. “I knocked on the front door. When you didn’t answer, I called you on your phone.”

Anne had promised to visit today. It had slipped her mind. “My phone is inside. I’m sorry. I was taking the laundry in.” 

“Yes, I can see.” Anne dropped her gaze to the two laundry baskets at their feet. “I’ll help you.” She picked the bigger one up and opened the backdoor for Adney.

“The kids are napping now,” Adney said as they entered the house. “Could you wait until they wake up?”

“Of course.” Once in the hallway, Anne went to the front door and brought in another tool for the attic. “A work light, so I could work after sunset.” 

In the living room, they settled themselves and the laundry baskets on the floor. It was Adney’s usual routine to fold the laundry here. But as she sat by Anne’s side, it occurred to her that it was rude to do so in front of a guest. (Her undergarments were in the basket, too. She didn’t want Anne to see them.)

So, she asked if Anne would like to dine with them tonight.

Anne said yes. “Actually, I’m glad we have alone time.” She pulled a sheet of paper out of her jean pocket. “I found this the other day. It’s my bucket list.”

Adney ran her eyes over the strong handwriting. Try hang gliding, visit a ghost town, pet a lion, climb a volcano… Why would anyone want to climb a volcano was a mystery. Isn’t that where an eruption happens? “They all look rather…” 

“Yes?” Anne aligned her face with Adney’s, peeking into it. 

Her palms grew sweaty. “Dangerous? Courageous? I don’t know. Eliza would love them.”

Anne gently took the paper and studied it in silence. It might’ve been the wrong answer. She picked at her scab on her lip. Her nose looked a little crooked as though it had been broken many times before. 

“How about this one?” Anne pointed at one line. “Watch Cirque du Soleil.”

“I don’t think it’s dangerous.”

Anne grinned like Adney had said something weird again. “I meant, do you want to go see their performance with me? Or do something else on the list, with me.”

Adney’s brain short-circuited. The question felt so sudden. 

“You see,” Anne said. “The life on the farm is uneventful. It bores me to death. Marian may be happy with it, but it’s not enough for me. I intend to enjoy life to the fullest. My current options are limited. But that doesn’t mean I can’t make the best of it. And since you’re the only friend I have here—”

“Friend?”  

Anne nodded. “We can be friends, can we?”

The word, coming from her, had a pleasant ring. It felt easier to gather her thoughts now. “I… Yes, I’d love to do these things with you— The ones that aren’t dangerous. But I can’t leave the kids on their own. One time—I didn’t mean to—but I accidentally left them unattended for an hour. When I came back, the kitchen was covered in flour.” She laughed. “They wanted to make bread like me, and the only step they knew was to mix flour and water.”

Anne gave a gentle laugh. “We don’t need to do my things. Have you ever made a bucket list?”

Adney shook her head. 

“Why don’t we make one now?” Anne asked for a pen and paper. Upon receiving them, she wrote Adney’s name in the upper part of the paper and drew one tick-box below it. “So, what do you have?”

Adney scanned Anne’s list for some reference. 

“You don’t need to mimic mine,” Anne said. “Just think about what you want.”

Adney stared at the blank list, feeling guilty when her eyes darted to Anne’s again and again. “I don’t know… It’s not that I can’t think for myself. But I’ve never— You know the magic lamp? I’ve never been good at that. Imagining what to wish for.”

“Is there anything you want to do before you get married and become busier? What would you do if you had a big sum of money and limitless time today?”

“Today? I’d say ‘convert the attic,’ but you're already doing that. Pay you well? Wait— I keep forgetting to talk about your payment.”

Anne only gave a simple smile this time. In silence, she drew more empty tick-boxes.

This was starting to feel like a test. With each question she got wrong, the rabbit in her mind raced around more desperately in the vast blackness. She was failing, and no doubt Anne was getting impatient. 

Adney looked around. Today's mail was on the table, unopened. There was a flyer of a Chinese restaurant that had opened recently near the school. She slowly slid the flyer into Anne’s peripheral vision. “I’ve never been to a restaurant like this. So, if I had money, I would take myself and my kids to this place.”

Anne looked at the flyer. “An all-you-can-eat buffet?”

“I want my kids to eat until they are full. Myself, too. My aunt was a thrifty person. She made me and my siblings believe it was sinful to want excessive food. I still carry that shame a little.” Adney shot her a nervous glance. “Is this okay? I can think of more if you give me time.”

Slowly, a gentle smile spread across Anne’s sunburnt face. “It’s perfect.” She jotted it down. “See? You could do it.”

“It’s not as exciting as your wishes.” At least, it wasn’t the wrong answer. 

“Everyone’s list is different.” Anne took Adney’s hand and looked her in the eye. “Adney, wishing yourself happiness isn’t shameful. I hope you know that. You say you’re happy with your life—”

“I am happy.”

Anne cradled her hand in both of hers. “Then, you deserve to be happier.”

Happier. It had never occurred to her before.

Her heart felt like it’d grown bigger and stronger. The tremors. The colour of her own heart painted inside her. She stared at Anne’s face, her lips. The sunlight that passed through the rainbow flag on the window caressed her features. It revealed the faintest yellow of a healing bruise on her left cheekbone. Adney wanted to touch it. 

But a door opened and closed upstairs. Little footsteps came down the stairs and came straight to the living room.

“Anne! You’re back!” Eliza jumped into her arms. 

Behind her, Naveen caught up and waved his little hand. 

“Hello, Naveen. How are you today?” Anne signed to him awkwardly. 

But to Naveen, it was more than enough. “I was sleeping. You were a cowboy.”

“A cowboy?” Anne said after Eliza had interpreted for her.

“In his dream,” Eliza said. “We learnt a new word, too. Right, Naveen?”

Together, they signed, “Anne is fixing the attic because she’s a carpenter.”

Adney had taught them the word carpenter two nights ago. Moving their fists forward and backward in front of their bodies, it looked like an easy dance move. It was one of their favourite BSL signs now.  

Satisfied with their successful demonstration, Eliza picked up Anne’s list from the table. “What’s a bucket list? Adney, do we need to buy a new bucket?”

“No—” 

“Oh, pet a lion? I want to do that. And pet a dinosaur. Naveen, look.”

The kids debated what dinosaurs and imaginary creatures they’d like to pet. Anne watched them with a smile. When she caught Adney’s gaze, she grinned and winked at her.

… 

After a while, Anne patted Naveen’s head and lifted Eliza off her lap. “Now that you two are awake, I should start working in the attic.”

The kids answered this proposition with cheers. They all moved upstairs. Eliza sang her original, never-before-performed song, swinging her arms in the exaggerated version of BSL. 

Let’s go to the attic 

Say hello to spiders and mice and zombies and cowboys and spider-girls

Let’s go to the attic

A-T-I-C-K! Go! Go!

Anne ascended the ladder first. The kids followed, getting pulled up, while Adney stayed at the bottom of the ladder in case they fell. Once they all stood under the naked insulation material, Anne switched the work light on. The flood of bright artificial light gave a dull ache in the back of Adney’s eyes.

“What are you doing today?” Eliza said to Anne.

“I’m going to make the closet,” Anne said. “But before that— Adney, are you sure you’re fine with a new staircase?”

It still made her apprehensive. But Adney had decided. “ Sometimes, we can’t improve things without destroying what we already have.

Anne smiled. “Very well.” Standing near the hatch, she seemed to do some calculations in her head. She poked her head out of the hatch. 

The kids knelt down and tried to imitate her.

“Eliza, no.” Adney pulled Naveen away from it simultaneously and asked him not to do it.

“I’ll explain to you two later,” Anne said and beckoned Adney closer. They both looked down. “That’s Eugénie’s room, yes?” She pointed at the door near the ladder.

“Yes.”

Anne then pointed at the wall next to the door. “That’s where the stairs start. They go over her room and reach there”—she nodded over to a nearby corner in the attic—“Eugénie would need to give up some space, like I told you. But only a bit of the overhead space.”

Anne had already explained it over the phone. Still, Adney’s brain refused to visualise anything. The only thing she understood—Anne had assured her it was the most important thing—was that they’d make a hole in Eugénie’s ceiling. To do it, they needed access to her room. 

“Eugénie said it’s fine,” Adney said.

The rest was in Anne’s hands. Adney trusted her.

As Anne worked, Adney left the kids there and folded the laundry downstairs. The sound of a hammer echoed through the house. It made her nervous. She wondered how long her recent offering of cookies could make her neighbours happy. When the kids’ laughed loudly, she had to go up and ask them to be quieter. 

Her mind was busy. Whenever she noticed, she was thinking about Anne.

When was the last time someone called her a friend? She’d forgotten—or perhaps she’d never understood—how friendship worked. She repeated the word in her head, Friend , enveloped in the bluish green of Anne’s voice. A warm feeling spread through her chest. She felt like jumping around, so she tapped her happy feet on the floor.

That night, Anne stayed to play with the kids until it was time for them to shower. Their activities produced some loud noises, but Adney kept her telling-off to a minimum. (Anne’s strong biceps distracted her too much for it.) 

Naveen took a liking for getting picked up by Anne. She would lift him and spin above her head, and he struck a pose in midair like a superhero. He taught her how to fingerspell Spiderman in BSL. Most of the time, he and Eliza took turns. To Adney’s surprise, though, Naveen sometimes tried to monopolise her. 

Time flew too quickly for all of them. Reluctant as she was, Adney had to call it a night when the time came. She made the kids get ready for the shower and walked Anne to the door. 

Anne rubbed her sore bicep. “Those kids are more strict than personal gym trainers.”

Adney only gave a smile, not knowing how to answer smartly.

“I will start on the staircase tomorrow. Tell Eugénie I’ll be in her room to cover her furniture? It might be messy.”

“I will”

From the staircase landing, Eliza said, “Adney, we are ready!”

“One more minute, please.” Adney turned back to face Anne. “Thank you for today. They hadn’t looked that excited in a long time. I can’t play with them like you did.”

“I’d do it everyday. It’s good exercise.”

Adney nodded. “Thank you for learning sign language for Naveen, too. Most people don’t bother. I could see you practiced hard.”

“He deserves respect like any other kids,” Anne said as though it was common sense.

Adney wanted to tell her it was not common sense. It was rare. To be given basic respect. In the little town of Halifax, respect was rationed, and it ran short for people like them. But she couldn’t speak. She felt a lump in her throat.

… 

Eugénie came home past ten o’clock. Adney first saw the light on her push-bike flicker in the backyard. The back door creaked open. Her soft footsteps passed through the hallway, going to put her shoes on the rack, and came into the living room to greet Adney.

She sat next to her on the sofa, hugged her, and held out a twenty-pound note. 

Adney didn’t move her arms. “I told you I don’t need it. You keep it.”

“No, you keep it.”

“I get paid by the government. You’re already babysitting in this house. You don’t need to worry about money.”

Eugénie averted her eyes, fiddling with the banknote. Her jumper collar had a small food stain. (Ketchup was Adney’s guess.) The pay wasn’t even that good. In Britain, a babysitter costs cheap. If the sitter is underage, the rates are lower. Eugénie worked for five hours after school, just to earn enough to buy maybe two meals.

Adney remembered something. “I forgot to talk to Anne about her payment again.” 

To take a note, she grabbed the nearest piece of paper on the table. It was her bucket list, blank except for one sentence. She contemplated writing on the other side of it. But a thought came. This was basically a to-do list for her life, and paying Anne was an important task. Surely Anne would approve? Mustering her nerve, she wrote ‘Pay Anne’ below ‘Go to a buffet restaurant.’ Now it had two tasks.

“What’s that?” Eugénie said.

“A bucket list, I think. Anne showed me hers and encouraged me to make one for myself. But I still haven’t got the hang of it.”

Eugénie raised her brows. “Only met you last week, and she’s already showing you her bucket list? Is that smooth or weird?”

“What do you mean 'smooth?'” Adney said. Smooth like the eggshell. Smooth as in flirty, like the woman in a jacket that had given Adney her number in front of Anne. 

“The kids played in the attic, too, didn't they?” Eugénie said. “I ran into Mrs P. She was being a bitch about the noise again.”

Adney's efforts had failed to pay off, then. “Can’t blame them. Being with Anne excites them.” 

"I'll be forced to listen to Eliza brag about her at school tomorrow. All of you are madly in love with her."

That last sentence got Adney stammering. 

"Don't be shy," Eugénie said with a grin. "Admit you fancy her." 

“She’s my friend. Of course, I like her,” Adney said, only whispering the word like. Thankfully, another thought popped up. “She’s making a hole in your ceiling tomorrow. Is it okay to enter your room?”

“Yeah. You already asked me that.”

“We need to make sure you haven’t changed your mind.” Adney set her eyes on her list. Still blank. She’d make a fool of herself when she showed it to Anne tomorrow. “What would you wish for if you had a magic lamp?”

Eugénie glanced at the list. “Turn all fascists into mosquitos and obliterate them. Become a billionaire so I could support this house and other charities. And become a master of all the languages, both modern and ancient.”

It impressed Adney. Her wishes were altruistic and intelligent, as opposed to the ambitious goals on Anne’s list. (That didn’t mean Anne’s wishes were selfish and unintelligent.) And her answers were quick. Perhaps, she’d thought about this before. 

“What if money wasn’t an issue?” Adney said. 

At this, Eugénie’s poised demeanour changed to a bashful one. “I want to say goodbye to Mum. Genie doesn’t bring back the dead. So, maybe I’d be a psychic and find her, and tell her that I don’t hate her. That I love her.”

“She knows,” Adney said. “But it’s a wonderful wish.”

Eugénie went to bed, leaving the money on the table. Adney wouldn’t touch it. It would go to the secret university fund for Eugénie. 

Adney continued to consider the list. If she had a magic lamp, she would… 

Give every child a loving home.

Wish for something for Marian and Anne.

Anne’s name on the paper stirred something in her again. A murmur of a voice inside her. It fed on her heartbeats and grew louder. 

Anne had said it wasn’t shameful to wish herself happiness. 

Eugénie wanted to see her departed mother.

Maybe Adney, too, wanted to see her biological parents. 

She wrote,

Meet my biological parents.

That didn’t look right. She crossed it out. On second thought, she wrote the same thing below it. Did it look alright? No, it didn’t. What a silly wish that was. She crossed it out again, using more than two lines. But, her inner voice said, if she dismissed it as foolish, it’d mean belittling Eugénie’s wish. That was wrong.

She wrote the wish for the third time and left it there, uncrossed-out. 

… 

Anne and Mr Pickles entered the house just after Naveen had finished his breakfast. It would be a busy day. The planning stage, according to Mr Pickles, was the trickiest and most crucial in stair-making. There was a legal standard for safety reasons. She had to get it right.

But Naveen was uncertain of Mr Pickles' presence. "Why's he here?"

"I'm sorry," Adney said. "He doesn't like men."

"He's here so I could finish it faster," Anne said to the boy. "Eugénie doesn't want to sleep with a big hole over her head. So, can Mr Pickles stay? For Eugénie?"

Although Naveen still acted shy, he accepted it and stayed with them while they spread plastic sheets over Eugénie’s furniture.

There wasn’t much to cover. Her room was bleaker than Anne’s bedroom on the farm. There were no posters, no dolls, or anything that hinted at her interests. Only one drawing of her, with Naveen’s signature, on the wall. It looked too plain for a room of someone who had lived here since last year. 

It looked like a prison cell. 

They cut a large rectangular hole. It started from the wall next to Eugénie’s door and ate up half of the length of the ceiling, leaving the room exposed. Adney grew pale at the sight. But when Anne asked if she was alright, she only repeated her ‘can’t improve without breaking’ line. 

It was going as planned, until they encountered a problem in the calculation stage. Neither of them could work out the maths formula in his DIY book. 

“We’re in a pickle,” Mr Pickles said.

“Is that right?”

“Been a while since I last made stairs.”   

Anne peeked into the book. The pages had enigmatic diagrams and symbols and terms, like an instruction for witchcraft. But now she learnt that they wouldn’t simply detach the ladder from the hatch and use it for the stairs. They would make them from scratch. That was what the calculations were for.

In the end, they relied on Adney. She studied the formula, asked Mr Pickles some questions, and quickly solved the problems Anne listened as the other two checked the answers.

“She’s an intelligent lady, eh?” Mr Pickles said to Anne while they carried wooden material to the attic. “That little deaf boy, too. I see his eyes and know he’ll grow up to be a very smart man. Such a shame they have to live like this.”

“They’re happy here,” Anne said.

He shrugged. “If you only know one place, that’s the happiest place for you. Did you know they were both left on the doorstep of this house as toddlers? I’m not interested in meddling in other people’s affairs, but gossip like that leaves nobody out in such a small town.”

“But, I thought this was her aunt’s house?”

“Not her real aunt. I knew her a little. A scary woman. Looked like a pug— Give me that saw.”

Anne did as told. The electric circular saw roared. In a flurry of sawdust, she pictured the Polaroid of baby Naveen in her mind. 

Throughout the day, Anne walked down the hallway many times and scanned the row of Polaroids for Adney’s name. But she couldn’t find it at a quick glance. If it was there, perhaps it was one of the Polaroids that had weathered into greyness. 

They’d built the frame of the stairs, the two big parts that supported step boards, by noon. The rest was relatively easy. Mr Pickles showed how to secure step boards to it and left the house for lunch.

“My knees hurt,” the old man said. “You do the rest by yourself.” And true to his words, he never came back.

Anne worked diligently after lunch, while Naveen doodled on Eugénie’s bed that was still protected by a plastic sheet. She couldn’t see what he was drawing. Every time she stopped her hands, he’d look up and make a hammering gesture. She first guessed he was reprimanding her for slummocking. But no, he was demanding the hammering noise. It thrilled him.

“Do you want to help me?” Anne fake-drove a nail, pointed at him, and encouraged him to hold the hammer.

He gave the brightest smile she’d ever seen as he hit one nail. He wasn’t strong enough, of course, and needed her help. But his proud smile filled her with tenderness. 

“I have to let Eliza do it, too.” Anne fingerspelled Eliza and held up the hammer. “When she came home.” 

He seemed to understand her imperfect BSL.

The kids were quickly growing on her. The little ones were, anyway.

… 

The stairs were half done when the girls came home from school together. There were voices downstairs, and then Eliza's nimble footsteps came dashing the stairs. 

“Anne!” Without a hint of fear, Eliza ran up the freshly secured steps and dived into her arms. “I got a perfect score on an English test! I was the only one in the class!”

Anne was worried the stairs might not be able to support the weight of them. “Well done."

“The hard question—” Eliza stopped and looked down at Naveen on the bed through the hole. A gasp left her mouth, then. "Really?” Her bright eyes returned to Anne. “Anne, let me do it, too, please?” 

Anne had missed what Naveen said. "Is it about the hammer?" 

“Yeah!” Eliza held out both of her hands in front of her and squealed when Anne placed the hammer in them. “I'm Thor, the mighty god of hammers! Which nail do I hit, Anne?”

Eugénie came up on the landing in the middle of this. While Eliza marvelled at the half-finished project, Eugénie betrayed slight shock at the gaping hole. Perhaps, like Adney, it was more than she'd agreed to. Verbally, she said nothing as she entered her room.

“How was school?” Anne greeted her through the hole. 

Throwing her a dubious glance, Eugénie put some textbooks in her backpack and went downstairs. “Eliza, you haven't washed your hands.”

“Okay!”

“Why’s she in a bad mood?” Anne whispered to Eliza.

“What do you mean?” Eliza hit one nail, wiped her forehead after the strenuous task, and left with Naveen for a snack.

Anne continued to work, but had to stop shortly after since it was a nap time for the little ones. Adney invited her to tea, and they moved down to the living room. They sat on the sofa.

“How are the stairs coming along?”

“Very nicely,” Anne said. “I just have to keep nailing down step boards until I reach the top.” Anne looked around as Adney gave her a cuppa. “Is Eugénie out again?”

“Yes.”

“She sort of glared at me earlier.” Anne gave an awkward smile. “I’m worried I might have upset her. All I said was hello, so I know that's not it.” 

“No, she doesn’t—” Adney took her hand. “She’s very shy. I assure you she doesn’t hate you. Please, don’t ever think that. Neither of you deserve that.”

Anne stared down at their connected hands. This had become their common means of communication. “Okay.” She squeezed her hand back, but a strange dullness shot through her wrist.

“What’s wrong?” 

“Nothing’s wrong. My wrist just feels funny.” Her finger joints popped when she wiggled them. “Occupational hazard. I don’t use hammers often.” 

"Would a massage make it better?” Her hands were already reaching for Anne’s wrist. But this time, she restrained herself. Her eyes begged for an answer.

Anne placed her wrist in the offered hands, warm and soothing. 

Adney caressed the inside of her wrist with her thumbs. “I sometimes get a pain in my neck, too. I don’t know why. I also get a migraine when it pours, but I think it’s psychological.”

“Tell me when that happens. I will repay you.”

“Oh, that reminds me what I wanted to talk to you about.” Adney let go of her hand to leave the room. She came back with a sheet of paper and a coy smile. 

It was her wish list, with more stuff added. But rather than showing it to her, Adney studied it herself. The gleam of joy had weakened. She looked worried or, at least, uncertain.

“What is it?” Anne said.

Despite her lingering hesitation, Adney took one deep breath and handed her the list. 

Anne read the additions— Pay Anne. Find loving homes to kids. Something for Anne and Marian. And two lines of the same sentence that had been crossed out, and the third one of the sentence, intact. Meet her biological parents. 

Anne had expected more things similar to ‘Go to a buffet restaurant.’ These were heavy. Adney's altruism eclipsed her own thoughtless wishes.

“Are they okay?” Adney sat down next to her. “You told me it didn’t have to look like yours, but—”

“They are good.” Anne looked her in the eye. “You are good.”

“Am I good?” Adney’s shoulders relaxed. She smiled like a child who had never been complimented before— 

Perhaps that wasn’t an exaggeration. 

“Mr Pickles told me about you,” Anne said. “Is it true that you came here when you were a baby? Like Naveen?”

Adney shrugged. “I reckon everyone in the town knows about it. Yes, it’s true. I’ve lived with a few adoptive families, but I always came back. Like a migratory bird. This is my home.” The way Adney chuckled felt disproportionate to the tone of their conversation.

Images of young Adney flickered in her mind, being passed around as adults pleased, having to learn to swallow disappointment. Raised by a stranger who chided her for craving food. It was unbearable to think. It was so different from Anne’s carefree childhood.

“What would you do if you met your biological parents?”

Adney tilted her head. “They are strangers. I don’t even know who they are or where they live.”

“But you want to meet them.”

“I think so. I think— I want to know what kid of people they are.”  

“Is that all?”

“What do you mean?”

“Don’t you want to know why they left you? Have you never wanted to blame them? You could’ve had a happy childhood.”

But Adney’s expression remained neutral. “Some people have it worse. I don’t know how to… be angry? I’m not good at being angry. They must’ve had justifiable reasons for their decision to leave me.”

“Like what? I can’t think of a single thing that justifies abandoning your newborn baby.” To imagine it enraged her. Anne was angry, on her behalf, and Adney’s emotional detachment upset her more.

“Some of my siblings used to talk about their parents,” Adney said. “I’ve always wondered what it was like, missing my parents. Eugénie and Eliza, too. Sometimes they look so lonely I don’t know how to comfort them.” She hung her head down, at last. “If I know what it’s like to have parents and to miss them… I think if I know it, I can be a better mother.”

“Adney, you are a good mother.” Anne took her hands. She ran her thumbs across the inside of Adney’s wrist the same way she’d done to Anne. “I’ll help you find them. I’ll be with you to the end of it.”

The topic of the payment eluded a proper discussion yet again. Anne stayed for dinner that night, and only when she was about to go home did Adney look at her wish list and recall it.  

“Let’s not discuss it now.” Anne went to the foyer and put on her coat. She waved at Eliza, who appeared on the landing upstairs. 

“See you tomorrow, Anne,” Eliza said. “Adney, we’re ready for the shower.”

“I’ll be there soon.” Adney turned to Anne in front of the door. “I wish I wasn’t so forgetful.” 

The truth was, it never slipped Anne’s memory. But she’d opted not to bring it up. 

“How about we wait until all is done?" Anne said. “I still have a long way to go”

Adney gave a few nods, deep in thought. “How much would you like?”

Anne chuckled. "How much do you think my work is worth?”

“How much does Marian pay you for the farm work?”

“Ah. Nothing.”

Adney looked confused. She looked towards the stairs when Eliza called for her. “She makes you work for free?”

“Yes, it’s outrageous. Anyway, I’ll let you go. We’ll talk when it’s done.”

“Remind me if I forget?”

But all Anne could think about in that moment was how Adney caressed the inside of her wrist. “I'll think about it.”

She hoped Adney would forget about it for good. It was immoral to take even a shilling from this family. All this time, the money in her bank account had slept for this purpose, not for travelling abroad. Every day, this belief grew stronger. 

But Adney remembered it from time to time. She would stand in front of the fridge, and the list would catch her eye. Sometimes she mentioned it out of the blue, repeating it as though to imprint on her mind. Eventually, she dragged Marian into it.

Her sister came into her bedroom one evening, brandishing her phone. “Quick question. Did you tell Annie that I wasn’t paying you for your work here?”

Anne was just about to go to sleep. “Yes?”

“Sweet!” Marian gave an exaggerated smile. “She’s accusing me of enslaving you.”

“I told no lie.”

“I’m providing you with food and shelter. What more do you want?”

“Actual money.”

“Snitches get stitches.”

“Are you threatening me? Your own sister?” Anne laughed. “I’m more like a whistleblower. My suspension is without pay. Try giving half a fuck, at least?” 

Marian thought it over. “A quarter of a fuck. That’s all I give.”

"Capitalist."

"If you hadn't got yourself in trouble at work, you wouldn't be throwing a pity party here like a sad rat. Consider that, maybe?"

Of course, all this was harmless bickering. They’d forget about it in the morning. Still, a myriad of thoughts kept her up that night.

Two weeks had passed since she’d returned to Halifax. Only three weeks since the incident at work that had flung her into this life. Her bruises had faded away. Her lip had healed, too, despite her constantly picking at the scab. She had to confront the reality, what had happened back in London.

Chapter Text

In a couple of days, the stairs were completed and received a thumbs-up from Mr Pickles. The hole in Eugénie’s room was gone, though the new walls required a paint job. They also needed a door at the foot of the stairs and a landing banister in the attic. So much left to do. But at last, Anne could bring drywalls up into the attic. The first big obstacle was off the list of things to worry about. 

The kids could play in the attic as long as they stayed away from her and her tools. Their favourite spot was the closet. At the moment, it was only a skeleton of a closet, with its four beams marking its place. But Eliza found it entertaining enough to spend her post-snack-time there. She jumped in and out of the frame, saying, “I’m in the closet. Now I’m not! I’m in the closet. Now I’m not!” 

Naveen clapped his hands, and whatever that was turned into a chase. 

“If you don’t turn it down a little,” Anne said, “Adney would come up and tell you off.” The name Adney was one of the first things she'd learnt to fingerspell by heart.

“Okay!” Eliza ran back to the closet. The next moment, she squeaked and dashed loudly back to Anne. “Anne! Quick, look at my tooth!” She stuck her index finger into her mouth and wiggled her molar, saying Ahhh

Cheek to cheek with Naveen, Anne looked into her mouth. “What? What about your tooth?”

“It’s falling out.”

“It’s falling out!?” Anne's blood ran cold. 

She dropped her tools and rushed out of the attic. Usually, she kept her steps light and slow in case the stairs turned out to be less sturdy than designed. There was no time to fret over it now. The soles of her feet banged against the step boards.

Adney was already at the foot of the stairs. “Anne, can you tell the kids to—”

“Adney, something's wrong with Eliza’s tooth. I don’t know what happened. I wasn’t looking. Maybe she’s hit her mouth. Shit. Her tooth— It’s falling out.”

“Is she bleeding?” Adney remained calm as she followed Anne up the stairs.

The kids, too, seemed unfazed as though there was no emergency. 

Adney knelt down in front of Eliza and examined the inside of her wide open mouth. “Which tooth is it? This one? Okay— Don’t talk with my fingers in your mouth, please. Does it hurt? You didn’t whack yourself in the mouth, did you? It happened naturally, yeah?”

With her mouth open, Eliza only answered with the movement of her head. She was drooling from the corner of her mouth.

“Good. Try not to touch it with your tongue. Tell me when it becomes looser.” Adney wiped her fingers on her apron. “Have you brushed your teeth yet?”

Eliza giggled. “Not yet.”

“Do it now, please. I saw a piece of spinach in there.”

As the kids went downstairs, Adney smiled at Anne. “A loose tooth. She’s not hurt.”

Despite this, it still took a moment for Anne to understand. “Teeth get loose… Oh! Oh .”

Adney laughed. “Yes. We don’t keep our baby teeth.”

“That was embarrassing. Have to admit, a lot of things about kids are new to me. It’s been a long time since I was a child.”

The kids’ laughter echoed downstairs.

“You looked so worried…” Adney’s smile was gentler. “They are lucky to have you. Someone who cares about them so deeply. I am lucky.”

“Even though all I did was freak out?”

“It’s all that counts.”

Still, this was an embarrassing event for Anne, who often dealt with people’s teeth falling out at work in London. It wasn’t a rare sight. Inmates fought each other all the time, sometimes to the point of creating pools of blood. And sometimes, these pools had teeth in them. Officers like Anne would order other inmates to mop it up. With their hands dyed red, they’d pick up the teeth and throw them into the rubbish bin with crumpled tissue paper and candy wraps.

Adney said she and the kids were lucky to have Anne. 

Anne wondered if her view would remain the same after learning what had happened in London.

… 

The answer came soon.

As it was a Thursday, Anne had a crate of vegetables to deliver to Adney’s house. Her breath was white in the cold winter weather. On the street in front of the house, Eliza and Naveen and a neighbour kid were playing with pavement chalk. 

Anne had never seen them play outside before. It was a good change. They all wore clothes that exposed their knees. The sight of it made her shiver, while their toughness struck her with awe. She was like that as a child a long time ago.

Parking the farm truck, Anne waved at them. She went to the back of the vehicle to unload the crate when Eliza yelled.

“Why did you say that? Apologise!”

The neighbour kid said something Anne couldn’t hear.

“It’s still not okay to say things like that,” Eliza said. She was now on her feet, her fist clenched around a piece of pink chalk. “Not everyone is born like you. Apologise!”

The neighbour kid screamed back and shoved her down to the ground. The pink chalk in her hand rolled away, disappearing into a nearby storm drain. Eliza stood up. With her chalky hands, she pushed the kid back.  

Anne took a quick scan of her surroundings for any additional trouble, but the street had no other people. The screaming continued. She looked over to them. Ugly thugs baring their fangs at each other. The crate was heavy. She couldn't reach for the walkie-talkie on her upper chest with it in her hands— But no, she didn't have a walkie-talkie, nor was she at work. 

The prison ward around her dissolved into a regular town street. The kids' faces regained innocence, albeit still red-cheeked. She was in Halifax. All of this happened within a second or two.

As this mirage vanished, the house door opened and Adney rushed out. Her gaze was directed at the kids. But when she found Anne standing there, a look of confusion flitted across her face before she went to the kids to intervene.

“Eliza, what are you doing?” Adney knelt next to the neighbour kid as though to defend him from Eliza. 

Anne looked around again to be safe, put down the crate of vegetables, and crossed the street. Naveen met her halfway. On the verge of tears, he extended his arms towards her, asking to be picked up. Anne did and hugged his trembling body. She noticed Adney was bare-footed.  

Before Eliza got to speak, the door in front of them opened. “Hi, there. Can anyone tell me what's happening?” A white woman stepped out.

“She pushed me, Ma!” The kid pointed his finger at Eliza.

“Oh, my poor boy.” Her voice was calm. But the white woman looked at them with a blatant sneer.

Adney lightly slapped Eliza’s chalky hand prints off the kid’s clothes. “I’m so sorry. I don’t know how it started, but— He says he’s not hurt. I’ll talk my daughter and— And make sure that—” 

“Didn’t anybody teach you to look people in the eye when you apologise?” the mother said, her saintly smile glued to the surface of her face. “I mean no disrespect, of course, Miss Walker. But you really need to teach yourself manners before training your foster children to be civilised. Do you follow me?” 

Adney remained silent, staring at the ground. Her face was red. She opened her mouth, but no word came out. 

“What’s wrong, darling? Do you need more time to think?”

Anne had had enough of her arrogance. “Your kid was the first to use force. I was here when it happened.”

The mother looked Anne up and down. Her smile stayed on. “Of course, you were watching. Just watching, and only stepping in when you’re free of all responsibilities. Such an exemplary gentleman.”

How satisfying it'd be to wipe that snobby smile off her mayonnaise-coloured face. It would've been a piece of cake. She hadn't spent the last two decades dealing with bloodthirsty criminals for nothing. But she didn't want to cause trouble for Adney. She averted her gaze. Eliza was wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. Her skin had a red stain. 

“Eliza, are you bleeding?” Anne said.

The girl looked up and nodded. “Tastes like blood in my mouth.”

“I didn’t do anything!” the boy said, ashen-faced.

The mother looked similar. Her gross smile stiffened, and she was finally lifelike. “You heard him. He didn’t do anything. Miss Walker, keep your eye on your foster son, will you? He’s too feral.”

The mother and son hurried back into their house. The door slammed shut. Still, Anne felt the mother lingering behind it, watching them through the peephole. Anne glared at it before following Adney into their own house, with Naveen still clinging on to her.

Eliza was washing her chalky hands in the bathroom. Anne let Naveen down there and went outside for the crate of vegetables on the truck. Across the street, forgotten pieces of chalk lay on the colourful concrete ground. She was, for a moment, afraid of going back inside.

They were all in the living room. In the weak sunlight from the window, Adney was examining Eliza’s mouth. Her mouth was agape, unconsciously mirroring Eliza. “It’s the loose tooth. You probably gritted your teeth too hard. Does it hurt?” 

Eliza shook her head. “But it’s been moving and never falling out. I hate it.” Her usual perky smile was absent. “Pull it out like you did before.”

Adney fetched dental floss from the bathroom and made Eliza sit on the sofa. Anne stood by the wall and watched, helpless. There was an invisible line between them and her. She didn’t dare to cross it.

Eliza didn’t yelp or whine. She only squeezed Naveen’s hand for emotional support as Adney’s expert hands pulled the molar out. It had a small amount of blood. “I don't cry because I’m a strong girl.” Her eyes were slightly watery.

“Yes, I know.” Adney smiled. She put down the molar on the table, then patted on her lap. When the girl sat in it, she gave her a tight embrace. “Will you tell me what happened? I won’t be cross.” 

“We didn’t want to play with him because he didn’t know BSL,” Eliza said, signing for Naveen next to her. “But I thought I could teach him. So, I taught him. Then, he made fun of Naveen for his disability. I told him to apologise, but he pushed me.” She looked down. “So, I pushed him, too.”

With a pensive smile, Adney ran her fingers through Naveen’s raven hair. “He shouldn't have made fun of Naveen,” she said to Eliza gently. “He shouldn’t have pushed you. But it’s still bad you responded with violence.”

Eliza gave a reluctant nod.

“But you know something? I’m so proud of you for standing up for your little brother. You make me a very, very proud mum. You’re a kind girl, Eliza. That’s why you’re so strong.” Adney hugged her again, rocking their bodies. 

Naveen touched his little hand to Eliza’s. Their shadows on the floor merged into one shape, wrapped in the kaleidoscopic light filtering through the rainbow flag. It was a world reserved for them and nobody else. Anne stood on the other side of the invisible line, where the reach of the coloured light ended. 

Adney’s eyes opened, and their eyes met across the room. Her gaze was unbearable to Anne. She’d been caught witnessing a holy scene with her profane eyes and heart. 

Adney let go of the kids. “Why don’t you go play in the backyard, yeah?”

The hug couldn’t remove the dejected pout from Eliza’s face. But Naveen took her hand and led the way like he was the older brother. Adney, coming to stand next to her in the doorway, watched the little ones go out of the backdoor. 

“Are you okay?” Adney said.

Regrettable as it was, Anne couldn’t answer right away. She felt ridiculous for letting such a minor incident affect her. 

Adney wrapped her hands around her wrist. “What she said to you wasn’t right. She misgendered you on purpose.”   

“And misgendered Eliza. Fucking terf. I’m okay. I’m not interested in labelling my gender.” Anne chuckled. “People mistake me for a man all the time. Now I wish I had thanked her for getting my gender ‘correct’ just to see that terf’s reaction. At work, I—” But her work was the last thing she wanted to think about. “My skin is thicker than you think. Don’t worry.”

Adney’s smile seemed laden with melancholy. “I always have trouble estimating people’s strength. Eugénie says I’m an owl parent. Like a helicopter parent, but silent.”

They decided to slack off in the backyard that afternoon. The attic could wait. The chores could wait. In the current state of her mind, Anne couldn’t accomplish much anyhow.

Adney washed Eliza’s baby molar and opened a special drawer in the kitchen. It stored several tiny tooth-shaped plastic cases. She popped the molar in a case with ‘E. Washington.’ written on it. 

“You keep their teeth?” Anne found it a little unnerving.

“For medical purposes. Some parents ask to have them, too.”

It reminded Anne of the time Marian insisted on making accessories out of her own wisdom teeth.  

Then, Adney made tea. As the laundry on the line swayed in the faint breeze, they sat on the narrow doorstep in the backyard. The kids were digging tiny holes in the ground and burying dead leaves. It was their original game, though Anne had no idea what the rules were. But Eliza's face glowed with earnest joy, with no trace of the indignity from the earlier incident. Children's world was simple. Anne envied that.

Next to her, Adney stared into her teacup in silence. Complicated was the world of grown-ups. Anne knew there was a question to be asked and answered, and a whole story to be told. 

“That woman was right,” Anne said. “I was just watching. I didn’t try to step in.” 

“I won't blame you. If you’ve never seen kids fight, how could you know how to stop it, right?”

“No. It’s not that.” Anne tensed her body to drive her fear away. “That’s how we handle physical fights in prison. Between inmates. We watch from a distance and let them fight until they stop one way or another. It’s easier and safer that way, staying away from their blood. And… I was back there for a split second.”

Silence fell and persisted for a minute. Adney averted her gaze towards the little ones, her lips parting and closing the same way she'd done in front of the white neighbour. 

“Do you think I'm not fit to be around the kids?”

Adney snapped out of her thought. “What do you mean?”

“I can't be trusted to protect them. Aren't you scared of that?”

“No?” Adney, puzzled, sank back into pondering. “Eliza’s father is in jail.” 

“Yes. You told me before.” Anne kept her voice low so Eliza wouldn't hear.

“Is every prison like what you described? Sounds so different from Orange is the New Black.”

The topic of her job often invited a mention of the show. It usually came from someone who believed everything on TV must be realistic. “I've never watched it. It's a women's prison in America, isn't it? Men's prisons are a different world. What's her father in for?”

“Shoplifting. Not his first time.”

“Nonviolent offenders go to low-security prisons. Mine is one of the most dangerous in the country.”

Murderers, rapists, robbers, terrorists. Category A prisons, like Anne’s workplace, often house criminals that get front-page coverage. Some are professional criminals. Convicts, they proudly call themselves. Low-security prisons are calm in comparison, but their power structure is the same. It's a hierarchy that rests on the foundation of violence and fear.

Adney threw a troubled glance at Eliza. The girl was in the middle of an adventure where she inspected the new krater in her gums with her dirty fingers. 

At first glance, she was such an ordinary child. Nobody could guess what a tough childhood she was going through. 

“Why did you choose that career?” Adney said.

“I wanted to serve my country. It was this or a police officer. Then, they told me that prisons were short-handed. It’s a demanding job. But I was needed. It was enough.”

It was the year that a lone gunman shot and killed students and a teacher at a school in Scotland when she made this decision. The news shocked the nation. Many people wanted the system reformed, including her family. A couple months later, Anne graduated from high school, moved to Hatfield, South Yorkshire, and put on her prison officer’s uniform for the first time. 

She was proud of her choice in the beginning, as most things happened that way in her life. There was a sense of responsibility. The euphoria that arose from the notion that she was a protector of the powerless. A clear moral line divided the world into black and white, into the bad and the good. Youth blinded her. 

But even her naivete couldn’t keep the blindfold in place for long. The system had holes everywhere. The people in power only cared about themselves, and ‘they’ didn’t include their officers. They incarcerated thousands of innocent people just to have another yacht or a house in a foreign land. She felt betrayed. 

It was not her faith in them that made her stay. She stayed for her mission to serve people. The system was salvageable. If they exploited the broken system, she was going to be the one to change it. Change it from the inside. From the top. She had faith in herself.

She’d never stopped working her arse off since then. She seized any chance for speedy career progress. Still, being a high school graduate, her starting point in the career ladder was lower than that of her colleagues with university degrees. The ladder prepared for her was made of barbed wire. Every step she took upward, it absorbed the blood of her competition and herself.

When she got her first deputy governor position at a Category A prison in Manchester, she was only thirty-three years old. One of the youngest deputy governors in the system’s history, and the first woman. 

She bound her chest and pretended to be a man in order to evade disrespect and potential assault. She worked out twice as hard as before to win the respect of male subordinates. She’d had many close encounters with inmates with hidden shanks, had experienced one riot where she was held hostage by prison gang members for 15 hours. And outside, there were more people in the government to please. 

Everyday, she struggled to keep her head above the water of bureaucracy and violent dehumanisation in the prison. The top of the ladder was close. But the top of the system was far away, out of her reach. By the time this dawned on her, she’d forgotten about her mission. The idealistic youth was a stranger from the past. 

There was a term for this, a criminologist friend of hers often warned. Prisonisation. The process where an inmate learns and adapts to the prison culture. Their version of “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” It inevitably makes a person more violent than before their incarceration. That is why long-time inmates do so poorly in the outside world. They have different values and common sense. And ironically enough, officers weren‘t immune to it. Anne was infected. 

But identifying a symptom and recognising it as part of a bigger issue were two different things. Her ex-girlfriend often pointed out, that Anne acted like she didn’t belong in this world. Anne dismissed it. Then, one night, they witnessed a stabbing incident in a bar. Her ex later asked why Anne hadn’t intervened.

“You didn’t even blink at the pool of blood,” her ex said.

At last, her concern made sense to Anne. 

She wasn’t cruel. No. She was desensitised. That was worse than cruelty.

She saw her work in a different light— The same light as the beginning. The system was broken. Nothing had changed. Except, she now had influence in her prison.

She ordered her subordinates to treat inmates like humans and allocated more budget to rehabilitation programmes the way lower-security prisons were trying to do. The governor, her superior, found her efforts meaningless. Some inmates never got out. Some had spent too much time in the system for rehabilitation. Their opinions didn’t matter to her. Humanity was her choice.

But it was a world where compassion was seen with suspicion and taken advantage of. 

First, a rumour spread among her officers that she was involved with one of the inmates, which was wrong on many levels. The inmates also felt a change in her attitude. They didn't care why. The important thing for them was that the deputy governor had become softer. Weaker. They jumped her and another officer during one of their education programmes.

Her memory of the incident remained foggy. It might never fully come back. They carried out a week-long investigation. The officers who checked the CCTV footage said she'd beaten seven bells out of her assailants. But she only remembered the fury of her instinct for self-preservation. The rush of a fight-or-flight response, decisions made in a millisecond, the weight of a burly man on top of her, and his blood dripping onto her cheek.

A cut lip and numerous bruises were her trophies. If other officers hadn’t come fast enough, also a severe stab wound, without doubt. These weren’t serious injuries. The other officer, who was specialised in educating inmates and not physically fit, ended up with a broken cheekbone and a minor concussion.

Everyone, both inmates and officers, believed Anne had invited this mess. Her boss was reluctant to punish her. But what with the recent rumour about her secret affair, the dissatisfaction among officers was growing. He placed her on suspension for endangering other officers. The system betrayed her for the second time. All she wanted was to be good.

“Then, just to sink the boot in, my ex dumped me a few hours later that day,” Anne concluded with a sarcastic smile. 

It was difficult to talk about. Not just because her memory was foggy, or it was a sensitive subject, but also because she lacked objectivity to measure how dreadful her story was. She watched Adney’s reactions. Although, her poker face posed a challenge of its own.

“That’s… a lot, isn’t it,” Adney said. “That’s quite a lot.”

“Yes, I’m still processing. My approach may have been too idealistic. Better luck next time.”

Adney raised her gaze. “You want to go back even when it’s dangerous like that?” 

“They need me there, I think. If not the people, the system does. Here, I’m a nobody. Marian’s sister. That won’t do.”

“You’re not a nobody. Anne, you’re needed here, too.”

Anne laughed. “Needed for the attic conversion.”

“You're my friend. You're my teacher. You're my family.” Adney looked at the kids at the garden facet. “Their family.”

They watched as Eliza helped Naveen wash his hands. When she laughed, Anne could see the krater her molar had left. 

To be included in this family… 

“I don’t hate this place,” Anne said. “I just want to be happier. More special.” 

“Do you need to be special to be happy?”

“Well—”

“You know, I've raised many kids that were left by their grown-ups. They are ordinary kids. They don’t have cool jobs or magical skills. Some of them have disabilities. Some constantly get told who they are is wrong. When a new child comes to this house, the first thing I ever teach them, no matter how young they are, is that they are wanted. That they're loved. That it’s okay to want to live even when their life isn’t full of beauty. Sure, we don’t have everything that regular people have, and our desperation can rear its ugly head at desperate times. But I am happy. We are happy, because we know what our happiness looks like. We don’t need to want what other people have.” 

What struck Anne about Adney, which had been an enigma since the beginning, was that she seemed to truly believe what she said about her happiness. There was no blatant self-deception. Without the smile of a martyr, she said her life was more than enough. Until now, Anne had regarded it with cynicism. Nobody like this had existed in Anne’s life before. 

Adney was staring back. Anne looked away.

“I wasn’t trying to invalidate you,” Adney said with a frown. “I just wanted to… Um… I’m sorry.”

Anne took her hand, and caressed the inside of her wrist with her thumb. “You didn’t. It’s okay.”

A faint smile came to Adney‘s lips. Their connected hands slid off her lap and rested on Anne’s knees, where Adney laced their fingers. She touched Anne’s arm, then, drawing a faint line from one old scar to another with her fingertips.  

Anne wished she could kiss her. “Say,” she said nonchalantly. “What happened with your lady-woman that gave you her number? Is that going anywhere?”

“The woman in a jacket?” Adney shook her head. “I texted her. Out of courtesy. I told her I wasn’t interested in dating, and we eventually stopped talking. Why? Do you want her number?”

Anne waved a dismissive hand with a smile. 

They finished their tea. The little ones were sitting on the ground. Their obsession with the tooth krater continued. Now, even Naveen was sticking his finger in her mouth to touch it.

“Eliza, Naveen, please stop doing that,” Adney said. “It’s not clean.”

“But he washed his hands!”

“I know. It’s still not safe.”

Anne went back inside with empty cups. As she put them in the kitchen sink, the kids’ laughter reached her ear. And Adney’s voice. Her skin grew warm.

Someone had told her once it was impossible to fall in love with a person without dating them. If there was passion, it was infatuation. A version of the person your mind created. 

But if that was true, what was the name of this feeling swelling in her heart? Because the Adney who had caressed the old scars on her arm was real. She was flesh and bones, with a past that Anne had yet to see, more alive than any of the people she’d ever met. She was turning Anne’s world upside down without knowing it.

But nothing would happen between them. Adney wasn't interested in dating, period. At least, she didn’t hate Anne for her past. She even said Anne was part of their family. That should be more than enough. It should be.

There came footsteps down the stairs. Anne looked up and saw Eugénie standing in the doorway, staring at her from behind the wall. Only half of her face was visible.

“When did you get home?” Anne said. “I didn’t—”

“Were you telling the truth about your job? Just now, outside?” Eugénie didn’t meet her eyes.

“Oh, I didn’t know you were listening…” 

“Were you?”

“Every word is true. How long were you listening?”

But Eugénie silently left and returned upstairs.

That was bizarre. It was their first two-sided conversation since Anne had first visited this house. And the first time that Eugénie struck up a conversation with her. Anne didn't know how to interpret that.

Chapter Text

Eugénie remained a mystery. The girl wasn't out of the house all the time, as Anne had assumed at first. But she always stayed in her bedroom. Even on rare occasions where she dined with the rest, she never acknowledged Anne at the table. Adney said it was her shyness. Anne rather sensed distrust emanating from the girl’s gaze and body language. 

Anne knew this type. Prisons had a bunch of them. The problem was, their distrust was none of her business, and it wasn’t the same with Eugénie. Her trust mattered.  

“Eliza, Naveen, can I ask you about Eugénie?” Anne sat down with them. Eugénie’s name was hard to fingerspell.

They had a kids’ table in the attic now, where they could draw and do homework. At first, they did so on the floor. But Adney worried it’d worsen their postures and brought the table from their room. The closet, completed a few days ago, no longer fascinated Eliza for unknown reasons.  

Eliza put down her pencil. “Sure. What do you want to know?”

"Anything. I just want to get to know her better.”

Naveen raised his hand like in class. “She’s in secondary school.”

“Yeah, she is… Good info. What else?” 

“She helped me learn about dinosaurs,” Eliza said. “I don’t have a smartphone, so we used hers. Her favourite is the pteranodon. It’s not a dinosaur because only the land lizards are dinosaurs technicially. But it’s okay. Pteranodons are still cool.”

Beating around the bush with children was useless, Anne learnt in this instant. She had to put her feet into the bush. “What about her family? Do you know where she’s from or who her parents are?”  

“Oh, you should ask her,” Eliza said. “It’s very personal. Eugénie needs to give her consent if we want to talk about that.”

“I— Yes, you’re right.” Embarrassed, Anne could only chuckle. It always impressed her how well Adney had taught them. “She came here last year, right? How did you become friends with her?”

“We introduced each other, and I said we're family now!”

“I can’t use that tactic,” Anne mumbled. “You see, I want to get close to her because I want to take all of you to a Chinese restaurant. All of you—”

“Chinese!” Eliza threw her hands up in the air. “We love Chinese food!”

Naveen’s eyes sparkled.  “Spring rolls!”

“Yes, spring rolls!” Eliza said.

The little ones took turns naming every Chinese dish they could think of, clapping their hands each time like on a quiz show. Another original game of theirs with undefined rules. Most of the dish names were clearly made up on the spot. 

Naveen signed to Anne. “Eugénie likes dumpings!”

“Dumplings!” Eliza threw herself on the floor and laughed as though it was the funniest joke. 

Her laughter had something so infectious about it. It felt like being tickled, but only with sound. Anne laughed with her. And even though Naveen looked puzzled, he joined them, too. 

“Dinner’s ready,” Adney said from the landing. 

As the little ones stood up, Anne blocked their way. With the conversation hijacked by Chinese food, she almost forgot what they were talking about. “Let’s keep this restaurant thing a secret from Adney, okay?” she whispered to them. “I want to surprise her.”

“A secret. Like pirates!” Eliza skipped out of the attic with a squeal. At the foot of the stairs, she looked up at Adney. “I won’t tell you what we were talking about. It’s a secret.”

Adney threw Anne a smile of delighted confusion.

Without being told to, the little ones washed their hands in the bathroom. Anne followed Adney into the kitchen and washed her hands with dish soap. On the stove was a pot of steaming bean soup.

“Is Eugénie out again?” Anne said. 

Adney nodded. “Babysitting.” 

“What do the parents do for a living? She babysits for them almost every day of the week.”

Adney didn’t answer right away. All her attention was on scooping the soup into bowls. She set four full bowls on a tray. “She’s not… There are multiple families.”

“Makes more sense.”

“It wasn’t like this before. I tell her every time she doesn’t need to work so much.”

“You mean she used to be at home more often?”

Adney nodded. “More or less.”

That fact troubled Anne. “When did she—”

They heard the kids’ footsteps down the hallway. Anne put this issue aside and lifted the tray. The soup bowls were full to the brim. With every cautious step, it threatened to spill over.

“Be careful. It’s very hot,” Adney said behind her. 

Right then, the little ones came in, hopping like two frogs. They got a whiff of the soup, erupted into cheers, and performed their ritual by circling around the table. Amid the chaos, Anne never looked away from the bowls. She slowly placed the tray on the table, and it was when the little ones bumped into the table from the other side. The soup spilled over. With an innocent plash sound, it splashed onto her legs.

“Oh, FUCK!” Anne jumped back. It was, as Adney had said, really hot. 

Adney rushed to her and saw the drenched jeans. “What happened? Take them off. Right now— Eliza, get an ice pack from the freezer.”

Eliza did as ordered. And before she knew it, Adney lowered her jeans to her ankles and touched an ice pack to her thighs. Anne yelped again at the cold pain. 

Adney made her sit down, kneeling in front of the chair herself. She offered soothing words as she held her hands. She turned to the kids. “Are you hurt?”

They both shook their heads.

Adney lifted the ice pack. The skin was red, either because of the cold or the burn. “I hope this doesn't leave any scars.” Her fingers glided over the inside of her thigh in an innocent way that ignited an inappropriate feeling in Anne. 

Eliza came forward with her head hung low. “I'm sorry. I was running around and not paying enough attention.” She was too upset to even sign for Naveen.

Adney did it instead while holding the ice pack in place with the other hand.

“It’s nothing.” Anne smiled. “Both of you are safe. That's all I care about.”

“But will you accept her apology?” Adney said.

Anne nodded at her, then at the little ones. “Yes. I will.”

“Let's shake hands,” Adney said. 

Anne did so with both of them, patting Eliza on the head for good measure. “Let's eat!” She looked down at Adney, who was still between her legs, who was staring at Anne’s boxers. 

Their eyes met. Adney went red. “We— We need to get you trousers first. Come with me. I'll lend you mine— Wait.” She opened a drawer near the stoves and grabbed a tube of first-aid ointment. “Let’s go.”

Anne, in her boxers, followed her upstairs and entered her bedroom. It was her first time seeing the inside of the room. The bed was made as though done by a professional. The bookshelves had books about parenting and financing and textbooks. The bedside crib was empty, but had some toys in it.

Adney made her sit on the edge of the bed. Kneeling between Anne’s legs again, she applied the ointment to her skin. 

This was quite a predicament. Anne was, to put it bluntly, experienced in having a pretty woman between her legs. But she sat transfixed as if it was her first time. Adney’s touch left an electrifying trail across her skin. She looked oblivious, and it was what made this excruciating.

Anne averted her eyes. “So, about Eugénie. Do you think she’s not home often these days because of me?”

“Why do you think that?”

Anne shrugged. “I want her help with looking for your parents. I can’t do it alone. She could provide a new perspective, I believe.”

Adney stared up at her with round eyes. 

“Did you think I'd forgotten about your bucket list?” 

“No, I didn't. I didn't think that.” Adney chuckled. “I had forgotten about that. I wonder what else I’m forgetting…” She looked around, but her head snapped back. “Sorry. You were talking about Eugénie.”

“Hmm. I need to get to know her,” Anne said. “Do we even have anything in common? Maybe I could buy her something to like me?”

“I don’t know if that’s a good approach…”

“I might not have given a positive enough impression.”

Adney put a hand on her bare knee. “She doesn’t hate you… She doesn’t talk about herself much. Her hobbies or— I think she’s still looking for herself. That’s why I want to send her to uni. But I don’t know if she wants that from me.”

"From you? What do you mean?"

The hand on her knee slid off as Adney looked down. “If I adopted her, she’d be stuck with this house for good.”

There was great sorrow in her voice. It reminded Anne, again and again, that life in this house was different from hers. No matter how deep their love was, this was supposed to be a temporary house for the kids. A halfway point. To offer a forever here probably wasn’t a favourable thing. 

When Adney looked up, though, her smile was genuine. “But don't worry. She doesn't hate you. She knows you make the kids happy. They never shut up about you. You’re the coolest person on earth.”

"That’s a little hyperbolic." Still, Anne couldn't hide her shy smile.

"It's not. I told you this before, they’re lucky to have you in their lives.” On Anne’s knees, Adney put both of her hands and rested her chin on top of them. “You listen to us. That’s why you’re so good. You listen like we matter.”

Anne could find no words. Her heart swelled, and undeniable heat gathered in her lower abdomen. She was gratified and horny. That was a strange combination she’d never experienced before.

“Can I put on trousers now?”

“Oh! Of course.” Adney stood up and opened the closet. But looking at her clothes, she slowly turned around. “I just realised I only own skirts and dresses. No trousers.”

“Oh…”

“I don’t like clothes touching my legs. It makes me claustrophobic.” 

Anne didn’t know how a person could function without a single pair of trousers. “I only have trousers and no skirts of any sort. They make me feel whatever the opposite of claustrophobic is.”

“Eugénie has some pairs, but she's not home…”

“It's fine. I'll be fine in a skirt.”

Those words left her mouth automatically. Anne regretted it. But the only option left was to stick to it and mean it. So, by a cruel twist of fate, Anne Lister, a proud butch, found herself in a women's skirt in the house of kids who adored her. 

She glared at her own reflection in the mirror. The combination of her black turtleneck and Adney’s medium-length plaid skirt was accidentally fashionable. 

“You’re beautiful.” Adney stared at her in the mirror without a hint of sarcasm. 

Anne grew horny again. “I look like a person at London Fashion Week. Pop a top hat on my head, and a B-class fashion magazine will call it a proper winter look. This is atrocious.”

Adney laughed, but grimaced a moment later. “How're your legs? I sometimes burn my fingers while cooking. But I’ve never had a big burn.”

“It wasn’t that hot. I’ve endured worse.” Anne smiled.

Instead of smiling back, Adney’s grimace grew more sombre. She touched Anne’s arm over her shirt. Her scarred arm.  

Before they left the room, Adney took her hand again. “Can I ask you not to tell Eugénie what I said, about sending her to uni? We’ve already talked about it too many times. I hate to make her feel pressured.”

Anne nodded. “It’s a secret between us.”

At last, Adney’s eyes sparkled. “Like pirates.”

They returned to the kitchen. At the table, the little ones were waiting politely. The floor was clean, and the four soup bowls had moved from the table back to the area by the soup pot. They turned a curious eye at her skirt, but didn’t laugh like Anne had expected. 

“You look good, Anne,” Eliza said. “You look Scottish.”

“She means it looks like a kilt,” Adney said when Anne looked at her for help.

… 

“No comment,” Marian said upon seeing her in the skirt. She was snuggling up on the living room sofa with Percy in her lap. The coffee table had a bottle of wine and a bag of beef jerky.

“Should’ve kept your mouth shut, then,” Anne said.

Mockingly, Marian zipped her lips closed. The silence lasted two seconds. “For what it’s worth, it’s a very lovely skirt. You look like a 007 villain and a heroin combined.”

“I came to say good night, but you don’t deserve it. Good night.” Anne turned her back.

“Wait. You wanted to befriend Eugénie, right? I ran into her today. She asked me stuff about you.”

“Eugénie?” Anne strode to the sofa. “Eugénie from Adney’s house? What did she ask?”

“Personal stuff. Like how close we are, how many people you’ve dated, how many of these relationships were serious…”

That was a strange set of questions. “Why would she want to know about my relationship history?”

“I assumed it’s a know-your-enemy type of thing.”

Anne glared down at her. “We aren’t enemies— You cooperated, assuming she was on an espionage mission? Why? What did she give you?”

“Whoa, mate. What gives you the idea that I need a bribe to snitch on you?” Marian brought a strip of jerky to her mouth. 

Anne narrowed her eyes at it. It seemed too healthy a snack for her sister, who filled her pantries with junk food.

Reading the suspicion on her face, Marian clutched the bag of jerky to her chest. “I bought it from her.”

“So, that’s a bribe.”

“Do I look like someone who takes advantage of an impoverished teenager?” Marian asked the cat before answering herself. “No. I paid for this. There was a monetary transaction. It’s not a bribe.”

Talking to her was like getting lost in a mental maze. 

“That reminds me.” Marian reached for something on the table and gave it to her. 

It was banknotes bundled together by a potato chip bag clip. There were ten £50 banknotes. Definitely not an amount of money to be treated like a bunch of memo paper. 

“Why are you bribing me?” Anne said. 

“It Is Not A Bribe. It’s your monthly pay.” 

Anne scrunched up her nose. “I make way, way more in London—”

“Do I need to remind you—” 

“Fine.” Anne had no energy left. She wanted to get out of the skirt. “How did you answer Eugénie’s questions?”

“With honesty and integrity.” Marian held her fist in front of her face.

“I mean what did you tell her?”

“I told her you have enough exes to form a soccer team. Don’t know how many that is, but I know it’s a lot.”

Eleven was the number of players that could be on a pitch at a time. And Marian was wrong. She only had ten exes.

“You also compare romance to cats,” Marian continued. “You want to settle down, but still want to do shite like climbing a volcano. Oh, and she asked me if you’re aromantic like me.” She guffawed, which startled Percy out of her lap. “You, the biggest romantic since Dorian Gay.”

“Dorian Gray…” Anne shook her head. “It wouldn’t surprise me if you were sharing my private life with strangers online just for laughs.”

Marian gave two thumbs-up. “Why are you trying to befriend Eugénie?” 

“I want her help with something, which I cannot tell you without their consent.”

“Is this about Adney's birth parents?” Marian said. “Adney told me. If you want her help, why don’t you just ask Eugénie?”

“You clearly don’t understand how human interaction works.”

“Some social psychological studies suggest that asking a small favour of someone can change their opinion of you favourably.”

It was all gibberish. “Did Eugénie react to all my personal information favourably, though?”

“Nah. She looked judgemental.”

Damage control would be a bitch.

Adney turned off the radio music after putting the kids to bed. It was 9:30. Eugénie hadn’t come home yet. 

Silence robbed the house of its colours. Someone in the neighbourhood was blasting music. The ticktock of clocks clung to the back of her ears. These small noises haunted her nights, but never gave colours.

She filled the bathroom sink with cold water. Next to the sink was a basket that held dirty laundry. Anne’s damp jeans—minus the soup ingredients—lay on top of the heap. She picked them up and ran her hand over the rough fabric. They smelt of Anne.  

She flushed as the memory of Anne’s bare legs returned to her. Those toned legs. It was her own hands that had undone her belt and unzipped her jeans. And rubbed ointment into her skin. Her boxers were black. Pure black.

In retrospect, (it occurred to her) that was a rude thing to do to an adult. Adney had, in panic, treated her like a helpless child. How patronising. It must’ve irritated Anne, or worse, disgusted her. Waves of self-loathing washed over her. Hanging on to the jeans, Adney stayed afloat. 

But, she told herself, surely it wasn’t as bad as her brain made it out. The incident never affected Anne’s mood or attitude. She’d even squeezed her hand when Adney apologised for the jeans for the fifteenth time. So—

“I’m home.”

Surprised, Adney dunked the jeans in the water. The droplets splashed down her face and the front of her dress.

Eugénie walked in. “Are you alright?” 

“Yes. Welcome home.” Adney gave her a hug.

In her hands, Eugénie had her denim jacket. It had a big splodge on the chest. “Little Jean puked on me.”

“Good. I was about to wash these, too.” Adney gestured at the submerged jeans. The soup seeped out of the fabric, slowly browning the water. “They’re Anne's. We had a minor accident.” 

Eugénie raised her eyebrows. 

“Not that accident.” Adney suppressed a chuckle. “She spilled soup— I made your favourite. Have a bowl before it's eaten up, okay?”

Eugénie nodded, put her ruined jacket on the heap of laundry, and pointed at the jeans. “I’ll do it.” Before Adney got to protest, her hands were in the cold water.

She squeezed the soup out of the fabric. Then, out of a box of baking soda, she got a scoop of it and sprinkled it on the splodge.

Adney sat on the rim of the bathtub and watched. Silently, because she herself disliked being interrupted in the middle of a task. The sound of water made her shiver. The neighbour had stopped playing music.

“Can you roll up my sleeves?” Eugénie said. “They keep sliding down.”

Adney did as asked. “Your elbows are dry, love.” She found a can of shea butter in the mirror cabinet. “Can I?”

Eugénie craned her neck around to glance at her own elbow. “I need to shower.”

“Don’t forget to use it afterwards, okay?” Adney placed the can by the soap bar case and sat back down. “You have to take care of yourself. Not just the kids.”

“I am.” Eugénie nodded towards the can. “Looks expensive, that one.”

“Oh… Someone gave it to me. I forgot who. It’s been years.”

Eugénie smiled. “One of the men?”

“Who else? They are the only ones that bother to give me gifts.”

“Marian’s sister.”

It summoned back the memory of the earlier incident. Her cheeks grew hot. She had to divert from the subject. “She was asking about you. Anne.”

“Was she?”

That was a very sophisticated redirection. Now, her blanking mind refused to pick another topic. “She was worried that you might be avoiding her. She wants to get to know you." 

“Why?”

“Because you are part of the family.”

Eugénie’s expression in the mirror was hard to read. “Do you believe her story about her job in London?” With a pop, she pulled the plug and drained off the water. “It could be a ploy to get close to you. Remember whatshisname? He bragged about saving people from car accidents, but it turned out his scars had nothing to do with it?”

“Mr Ainsworth. But, no. I trust her.”

Eugénie stared into the sink. Her hands weren’t moving.

Adney stood next to her and looked into her face. “She's a good person, Eugénie. She won’t hurt you.”

But Eugénie had a faint smile on her lips, as if this conversation entertained her. Maybe this wasn’t as serious as Adney had assumed. 

“Even if not all she says is truthful,” Adney said, “her love for the kids is real. I see that. So, I believe.”

“And her love for you. It’s real, too?” Now, her smile was full of mischief.

Adney was too flustered, too mortified, to let out a word. With burning cheeks, she made stern gestures at the jeans and the yet-to-be-washed denim jacket. The message was clear. 

“Yea, I’ll wash them,” Eugénie said. 

After their goodnight hug, Adney escaped to her bedroom and buried her embarrassment into the pillow. Her heart beat hard against the mattress. 

In the darkness, her phone’s notification light blinked like a will-o'-the-wisp. A text message. She’d asked Anne how her legs were before washing the jeans.

Anne Lister: They’re sticky with the ointment. Everything else lovely :) Stay warm. It’s cold tonight.

Anne’s love for her.

It was real. Adney felt it every day. The way Anne helped her out with chores, the way she explained jokes for her without getting annoyed, the way she exchanged smiles with her when the kids did or said something. 

It was a type of love Adney had never received. Tender and warm. Buzzing. It was real. It was for her.

Next morning, an incoming text message woke Adney up.  

Anne Lister: Good morning. Shovelled the pavement yet? If not, I could do it.

This must be one of the best ways to welcome a morning. To be someone’s first thought as their day started. 

But what did her message mean?

It was eight o’clock on a Saturday. She had slept in. Even on weekends, the hungry kids usually stormed in around seven-thirty. She got out of the bed and opened the curtains. 

The town glowed in white outside the window. Too bright for her eyes. She closed them tight, covering them with her hand, and waited for the ache in the eye sockets to subside. She peeked out, then, from between her fingers.

A thick blanket of snow had covered the streets overnight. The kids would have a field day. She remembered about Anne’s message—it made sense now—and texted back to request her help.  

Out in the hallway, the door to the kids’ bedroom was open. The beds were empty, and so were all the rooms downstairs. They could be in the attic. Adney was about to return upstairs when some noise came from the backyard. 

All three kids were there in the snow. Adney opened the backdoor and—she froze,  petrified—saw a fat person as tall as Eugénie with them. But as her eyes adjusted, the silhouette devolved into a snowperson. The clothes on it gave it the look of a real person. It had Eugénie's denim jacket on, its sleeves bent up as though flexing their arms. Plus Anne's jeans. 

“Good morning, Adney!” Eliza hugged her, followed by Naveen.

Adney hugged both of them. It was all she could do in her confusion. 

Eugénie, after a morning hug, put icicles on its white head like spiky punk hair. “I hung them out to dry last night after you left.” She pointed at the jacket. “I didn’t expect it to be this cold or even snow. These two”—she pointed an icicle at the kids—“woke me up an hour ago. And when we came out to play, the clothes? Yeah, frozen.”

“Crispy!” Naveen said. 

“The jeans stood by themselves,” Eliza said proudly. 

“They wanted to make a snowperson. I was the only one tall enough to put these icicles.” In conclusion, Eugénie stabbed another icicle into the snowy head.      

Still, Adney remained stupefied. “Those are Anne’s jeans…”

“Yes!” Eliza said. “I can’t wait to show her. When’s she coming over?”

Adney's phone buzzed in her hand right then. At the same time, a voice came from the inside of the house. Both were from Anne.

Adney answered the call. “We're all in the backyard.”

The kids rushed inside and returned shortly after with Anne, who wore rubber boots and a big winter hat. They led her by the hands to their latest art project.   

“We made it.” Eliza’s cheeks were red in the cold. “Do you like it?”

Anne seemed as amazed as Adney. But unlike Adney, she recovered quickly. “What species of denim creature is this, professor?”

Eliza threw her hands in the air. “Jeansaurus!” 

Anne laughed at that. “And whose jacket is this?”

“Erm, mine,” Eugénie said.

“How did you bend the arms like this?”

“We froze them. They were frozen straight when we found them, so we thawed them and…”

“Re-froze them?” Anne laughed again. “That’s ingenious.”

A tentative smile appeared on Eugénie’s face. Her eyes met with Adney’s, and her smile grew bigger. 

Eliza tugged at Anne’s sleeve. “Hey, let’s have a snowball fight.”

“Ah, sorry. I have to go back to the farm soon.” She threw Adney a weary look. “The vegetables are covered in snow, and Marian isn’t in a good mood. Got to return and work for the majesty.”  

“Marian never gets cross,” Eliza said.

“Don’t be deceived— I mean, she’s not just a stupid face. She can be scary at times.”

“You need to say please,” Naveen said.

“I need to say please?” Anne chuckled. “Maybe you’re right. I’ve been forgetting to use the magic word.”

There was a window of opportunity for Adney to insert herself into the conversation. “How about we get inside? You haven’t had breakfast yet, have you?” 

The kids shook their heads before heading back in. The adults followed them. As the door closed behind them, Anne picked up a fancy paper bag from the floor. Her skirt was in it.

Adney shook her head. “I’m sorry about the jeans. So embarrassing. I didn’t know—”

“It’s fine. It was funny. Marian would love this.”

Adney knew she would. “How are your legs?”

“Nothing happened, thanks to your quick treatment.” Anne caressed the inside of her wrist. “Stop worrying about it.”

Her raw warmth, against Adney’s cold hand, set her heart beating hard. It felt very inappropriate. How could the same gesture they’d used many times before feel so different?

Adney looked over Anne’s shoulder towards the kitchen. Eugénie was poking her head through the doorway, spying on them. She quickly withdrew her head after getting caught. But last night’s conversation was already replaying itself in Adney’s mind.

Chapter Text

Anne dug a shovel blade into the snow in front of the house. The street was quiet. Their neighbours had already dealt with the other parts of the area. Adney’s was the only house with untouched snow around it, as if a cursed barrier forbade anyone to step in.  

The shovel was wider than her shoulders. It gathered the dirt under the snow and made it all muddy. As a new prison officer, she used to take on physical tasks like this that her senior colleagues shirked onto her. She never thought to complain. Although, in retrospect, those should’ve been inmates’ work.

About ten minutes in, Eugénie came out all bundled up. In her hands was a snow shovel smaller than Anne’s. A little far from her, the girl shovelled the snow.

“Are you helping me, Eugénie? Have you finished your breakfast already?”

“‘Help when you can’ is one of the house rules.” Eugénie’s tone was apathetic, as usual.

Having read their rules on the kitchen notice board many times, Anne was familiar with them. But this was the first time Eugénie ever offered to help her. Something had changed between them. 

Anne tried her luck, to see how far that change could go. “I heard you talked to my sister.”

Eugénie made a vague gesture of confirmation.

Anne, mirroring her level of nonchalance, resumed her work. “Don't believe her. She lies.”

“She adores you, though.” A tiny smile was on her face. “She wouldn’t know so much about your life if she didn’t.”

Her analysis was fascinating, but incorrect. “She smells out things like a hyena and threatens me until I spill everything.”

The little ones came out onto the street, then. Bundled up like snowmen, they ran around, kicking the virgin snow and leaving their shoe prints on it. After they got bored or satisfied, they made snowballs with their small hands and threw them skyward. Where they landed wasn’t part of the game. Some of them hit Anne in the back of her head by accident. It was harmless child’s play.  

Eugénie didn’t see it that way. “Eliza, Naveen.” She took her mittens off to sign. “Why don’t you make snowpeople instead? Those snowballs could hit someone else’s window.” 

The little ones listened to her easily. Soon, quite a number of mini snowmen stood at attention along the house wall. 

“They’re an army that protects our castle,” Eliza told Anne. “Because there’s a princess inside.”

The little ones collected pebbles and twigs for the face-less, limb-less army. Eugénie helped them. But her mittens made it hard to pick up small objects or talk to Naveen. She eventually took them off,  exposing her hands to the cold air.

Her mittens had holes where the thumb and index finger met. They were sewn up with a regular white thread, though it barely did the job of mending the knitted gloves. Anne considered lending her leather gloves to her. The shovelling was almost done. 

“She won’t come out.” Eugénie was standing next to her.

“What?”

“Adney. The snow is too bright for her eyes. She’s light-sensitive.” The girl must’ve seen Anne staring off into space and assumed Adney was on her mind. 

Anne didn’t have the heart to correct her. “Where are you from originally, Eugénie?”

Eugénie threw her a hesitant glance. “Scarborough.”

“I’ve never been there. What do you miss the most?”

“Dunno. I moved here when I was five.”

“Oh.” 

Was this a minefield of a topic? Anne might’ve pushed her luck too far. Another step in the wrong direction could spoil the positive change in their friendship.

In silence, Eugénie pushed her shovel into the snow mountains at their feet. She looked Anne straight in the eye. “Do you like Adney?” 

Her directness caught Anne off guard. “I mean, yes. Of course.”

Just like Adney, she wore a poker face. “Don’t hurt her, okay?” She looked down. “If you ever break her heart, I’ll make you pay for it.” 

This girl was full of surprises. Anne was used to threats, but never in her career had she received one from a teenager who couldn’t meet her eyes during the statement. She figured this was why Eugénie had come to help, for the chance to talk to her alone.

“She’s not interested in me.” Anne lowered her voice. “Not like that.”

“Who told you that?”

“Adney, when we met. Yes, I’m attracted to her. But I won’t pursue someone who’s given me a no.”

Something flashed across Eugénie’s face. She looked towards the house, deep in thought.

“You’re protective of her,” Anne said.

“She deserves someone who cares about her.”

“Agreed. And she has you.”

Eugénie mumbled something. 

The proposal by Marian, about small favours, popped up in Anne’s mind. It was nonsense, but worth a shot. What is life if we don't take odd risks now and again, carrying out preposterous ideas?

“Eugénie, can I ask you for advice? It’s about her.” Anne nodded over at the house.

“Um, okay.”

Anne explained about their bucket lists and Adney’s wishes. “She wants to meet her birth parents, so I promised to help. I think social media would work. The problem is, I don’t know where to start—” 

“Oh,” Eugénie said. “I thought you were going to ask me what her favourite flower is or something.”

“...What’s her favourite flower?”

“Social media…” Eugénie thought with tightened lips. “It’s the fastest way to spread information, only if we do it right.”

“Could you help me? I don’t have Facebook or Twitter.” 

Eugénie shrugged. “I have both accounts. I’ll help you write a post.”

Internally, Ann punched the air in joy. This had gone way more smoothly than she’d feared. She should’ve brought up this topic sooner.

They finished shovelling in a few more minutes. The snow mountains on the pavement stood as tall as Naveen. The snow soldiers now had eyes of pebbles and arms of twigs. On top of these mountains, the little ones placed them like Humpty Dumpty. Anne and Eugénie regarded their job well done and, despite Eugénie’s superficial apathy, high-fived each other. Her leather glove against Eugénie’s bare hand. 

Anne went back inside the house. In the living room, Adney was lying curled up on the sofa, asleep. With her temple pressed against the armrest, her neck was bent at a right angle. It’d give her neck trouble later. But in that moment, Anne wouldn’t dare wake up the angel in the rainbow light. 

… 

Back at the farm, Anne got more snow off their vegetable beds while Marian helped by critiquing her shovelling technique.

“Don’t dig that deep, you’re breaking the plastic. Not that shallow, we don’t have all day. Don’t put the snow there, or over there, or especially over here.” Blah blah blah. She might’ve even demanded Anne breathe out fire to melt the snow if it had taken longer.

Eugénie was wrong. There was no affection between them. 

But as time passed, Marian spoke less. The cold was the only thing she complained towards the end. 

“Go inside, then,” Anne said. “This is keeping me warm.”

But Marian stayed, pouting like a child. 

Anne’s stomach was growling when she finished. They had a cuppa with Percy the Cat as the centrepiece, but Marian soon left the room, muttering something about soup. Anne got ready for lunch at Adney’s.  

“Are we going already?” Marian, red-nosed, came back with a sack over her shoulder. 

“We?”

Oui.” Marian looked down at the sack. “Figured a cold day like this needs a hot, nourishing soup. Cabbages, carrots, potatoes.”

“I hate carrots—”

“Let’s go. Bye, Percy, I’ll be back soon!”

They walked down the streets together, against Anne’s will. Between the farm and Adney’s house, there was a long cobble-stoned hill. Someone had shovelled it, but a thin layer of snow remained across the ground. The stones glittered in the sun. The snow was melting and turning into ice.  

Marian clung on to her arm to keep balance, so hard Anne thought she’d dislocate her shoulder. Her entire body would be sore tomorrow for keeping them both on their feet. Not only that, Anne was the one holding the heavy sack of vegetables.

“Seriously, Marian. It’s Sunday, and I’m working harder than usual.”

But to add to her struggle, Marian made a call to someone.

Anne’s exhaustion multiplied at the sight. “Either focus on walking or—”

“Adney? Yeah, can I come with Anne? Let’s make warm soup… Wonderful… No, I already got it taken care of. Right, see you in a bit.” She hung up and turned to Anne. “She’s worried about the snow at the farm. I told her I took care of it.”

“I took care of it. You just stood there, whining.”

As usual, Marian ignored her.

They continued on their way carefully. At the foot of the hill, they passed by a group of kids having a snowball fight, and another group building an igloo. The street was flat now.

Marian still clung on to her. “How’s the attic thingy coming along?” 

“Lovely— Stop pulling at my scarf. You’re strangling me.”

“Which part are you working on?”

“The walls. Truth to be told, I wish I had more than two hands. I make the little ones help me, only sometimes, provided it’s safe for them.”

“Child labour. I see—” Marian slipped on the ice a little. With a scream, she tightened her grip on Anne’s scarf.

But half-deep in thought, Anne paid little attention to it. “It’s not child labour. It’s… teaching them the importance of kindness. You know, kindness isn’t wishing you could help, but actually helping. It’s the action that counts.”

“I’m calling the Children’s Services. My ex works there.” 

“Fine. What if I paid them real money? I’d want that if I was, hypothetically, an unpaid labourer.” 

But either the sarcasm had gone over Marian’s head or she ignored it. “That would solidify the fact that it’s child labour…”

On closer look, it did, indeed. This was why Marian was so insidious and intolerable. She always, intentionally or not, dragged Anne down and then rose alone with the stupidest take, making herself the righteous winner of the argument.

“Anyway, enough with your nonsense,” Anne said. “I think I’ve made friends with Eugénie this morning. We shovelled together. She made a snowman with my jeans.” 

Marian cocked her head. And no matter how many times Anne described the snowman, she couldn’t picture it or appreciate the humour.

Anne gave up after the fourth attempt, devoid of joy. “You’ll see when we get there. The point is, I’m glad to see Eugénie doing childish stuff like that. She’s so different from the little ones. So quiet. Is it her personality, or is it just a teenager thing?”

“As a teenager,” Marian said, “you didn’t know how to shut up.”

“So, it’s her personality.”

“She acts too mature for her age, that’s for sure. Good thing she felt comfortable enough to mess with your clothes— Ah!” Marian slipped and lost her balance. 

Anne bored the weight of her sister. “Stop pulling at my arm.” But the icy concrete road offered no foothold. “You’re going to make both of us fall.”

“If I’m going down, so are you!”

“Let me—”

They fell together, letting out a screech and a growl respectively. Anne fell on her bum. So did Marian. Children were laughing, either at them or something else, in the distance.

“Are the vegetables okay?” Marian said. 

… 

The vegetables were unharmed. Without suffering another incident, they made it to the house. Shamelessly, Marian declared their soup would have carrots. It gave Anne a headache. 

“Don’t worry,” Adney whispered to Anne. “I’ll make sure your bowl doesn't have any.”

Before anything else, the little ones took Marian to the backyard. And Marian, the moment they stood in front of the punk snowman, burst out into hysterical laughter. She pointed at the frozen jeans and at Anne, holding her sides. What Anne had said finally sank in. But her reaction was too exaggerated. She was laughing at the expense of Anne, as always. 

Next place was the attic. The little ones showed off their tiny workplace with a table, chairs, and colour pencils. Their hands never stopped as they chatted away. They told Marian about school, cartoons, dinosaurs, drawing, and of course, Eliza’s tooth. 

This was the first time Anne saw her sister interact with the family. Her sign language skills were better than Anne’s, and without Eliza’s interpretation, Anne would’ve understood only a fraction of their conversation. 

“Can we have a snowball fight with Marian?” Naveen said.

Anne patted his head. “Maybe after lunch.”

They waited in the living room. Eliza asked Marian to pick her up like Anne did. But as Marian tried it, she screamed something about her noodle spine. Her high-frequency whines delighted Naveen, who climbed her body to make her scream more. Thus, they converted Marian into a human jungle gym. Marian fought back by tickling them, chasing them around the house. 

Meanwhile, Anne, Adney, and Eugénie prepared lunch in the kitchen.

“I apologise on her behalf,” Anne said. “I don’t know why she’s here.”

Adney smiled, chopping vegetables into dice. “She wants to spend time with you.”

That didn’t ring true to Anne. “At least, the little ones adore her. They’re on the same wavelength in terms of emotional maturity.” She put the diced vegetables into the soup pot. 

“You’re a meanie.”

They giggled together. 

Eugénie was rolling her eyes as she set the table. Her role was to wash the vegetables and set the plates. As soon as she finished her tasks, the girl left the kitchen. “I have something to do.” She gave Anne a look loaded with something. A mysterious silent message. It wasn’t hostility or apathy.

But Anne was finally alone with Adney. She took a paper bag out of the vegetable sack. It had a pair of insulated gloves. With them in her hands, she waited for Adney to finish the chopping. Adney wouldn’t respond in the middle of a task. 

When the vegetables went into the pot, they both looked in. It made Anne’s mouth water. The carrots swam in the colourful vortex, inviting her to make an exception of them.

“What’s that?” Adney pointed at the gloves.

Anne held them out. “I hate to be a busybody, but do you know Eugénie’s mittens have big holes in them?”

Adney stared at the gloves. Her hand hovered, uncertain whether to take them. She withdrew her hand. “No, I didn’t know. She never tells me when she needs something.”

“I extorted them from Marian. Don’t worry, she has many pairs. But, can you tell Eugénie they’re from you? I don’t think she trusts me enough for gifts yet.”

With a nod, Adney received the gloves. Then, she took her hand, too. “Anne, you’re hurt.”

There was a scrape on the heel of her hand. Anne had noticed it when washing her hands. “It must be from when we fell. Don’t worry about it.”

“You need to put a plaster on it.” Adney dragged her across the kitchen. But with one foot in the hallway, she stopped and let go of Anne. “Sorry. I did it again.”

“What?”

“You’re not a child. You can take care of yourself. The first-aid kit is under the bathroom sink.”

So, Anne went to the bathroom, just to reassure her. The first-aid kit had a variety of plasters, from the original beige colour to dark skin tones. She’d never known those darker plasters even existed. It’d been a while since she’d gone to the medical supply section of a store. She always stole them from work. 

Adney appeared in the doorway. “Are you okay? Can I help?”  

“Yes. All is good.”

Adney nodded, but lingered with a concerned look. It was the same expression she'd worn when she so frantically tended to her burnt legs. 

Anne picked a beige plaster, and held it and her hand palm up to Adney. “Actually, I could use a little help.”

As expected, Adney gave a shy smile before applying the plaster. She held her hand longer, making the adhesive stick to the skin. And a little longer, just because. “I think you should tell her the truth.”

“Tell who?”

“Eugénie. I think it’s ideal that you give her the gloves. Directly. With no lie.”

“You think so?”

Adney nodded. “She doesn’t like receiving gifts. But she needs to know there are adults who care about her.”

“Okay. I will.”

When lunch was ready, Anne put precisely two bits of carrots in her bowl. For the first time in her life, she made a conscious choice to eat them. Adney’s soup was warm and savoury. Carrots tasted better than she remembered. 

… 

After lunch, everybody went to the backyard for a snowball fight.  

Anne gave Eugénie the gloves, expressing her concern about the worn out mittens. Eugénie's thanks was dry, but she put them on in front of Anne. They looked good on her. As she joined the little ones, the girl flexed her fingers and smiled to herself. Anne had never seen her smile before. With the gloves on, she signed to Naveen successfully. 

The snowball fight comprised three teams and two spectators. Eugénie and Marian were on their own, while Eliza and Naveen teamed up. At first glance, it was fair grouping. But the little ones were experts in mischief. They lay the wheelie bin and the snowman side-by-side in their territory, using them as shields. Naveen made snowballs behind the bin, providing ammunition for Eliza to throw indiscriminately. 

Marian, being a half-decent adult, went easy on the little ones. But she often threw big snowballs at Eugénie, though with pathetic accuracy. Eugénie was an agile type, switching between making snowballs, attacking, and dodging. They all had unique styles. Just like in prison. Some with nothing but muscles. Some who used blitz attacks. Some with brains.

Just like in prison, Anne observed from a distance. But there was no bloodshed. 

Next to her on the doorstep, Adney was wearing shades for her sensitive eyes. 

“Don’t you want to play?” Anne said.

“I’ve never done it before. I’m happy watching them.”

“You could be happier playing with them?”  

Adney bit her lip. “I don’t know. Just— This house. You know I grew up in this place. It was crowded and stifling. It was never this happy. You make them happy.” Her eyes twinkled behind the frame of her shades. “The Lister sisters. You’re a gift to this house.” But as she spoke, she shivered and hugged herself. 

“Cold?”  

“My body isn’t good at regulating its temperature.” Adney gave a quiet chuckle. “When I get stressed out, I get heatstroke even in the middle of winter.”  

That sounded so bizarre. But without a word, Anne took off her own scarf and wrapped it around Adney’s neck on top of her scarf. The two scarves entirely concealed the lower part of her face. And the sunglasses were big enough to cover most of her upper face. She looked like a snowwoman. Anne couldn’t help her laughter. 

“What? Do I look silly?” Adney checked her own reflection on her smartphone screen. 

Anne stared at her. “You look pretty.” Not too seriously, but not too subtly. Straightforward, but not too forward. Just in the middle, but off-centre. She couldn’t make Adney think she was coming onto her. 

Adney buried her nose into the scarves. Her hand slipped into Anne’s. “Eugénie asked me some questions. While you were away.”

Those out-of-the-blue remarks of Adney still bewildered her, but not as much as before. “What questions?” 

“Things about my birth parents. Anything that might be useful in looking for them.”

“Oh, she told you she’s going to help me?” 

“Us,” Adney said. “She’s going to help us.”

The way she said us filled Anne’s heart with happiness. “Us.”

“Will you be there with me when it happens?” Adney said. But she shook her head right away. “Never mind. I blurted it out without… I know it could take years or not ever happen. And you’re going back to London soon.” Explaining, Adney’s hands twirled in the air. And at the end, her hands returned to Anne’s as though they belonged there. 

“Of course, I will,” Anne said. “I promised. Doesn’t matter where I am, or where your parents are.” 

From behind the scarves, Adney smiled. There was only a small gap between their faces, like it was their appropriate distance. Adney’s eyes behind the tinted lenses darted to Anne’s lips. Anne tried to say something, to ease the tension, or to intensify it. But no word came out. She clasped her hand. They needed a new language. 

Then, Eliza and Naveen ran towards them. As Naveen waved at them, Eliza came to tower over Anne on the doorstep. She patted Anne’s head and pulled the collar of her coat. 

“What are you—” But then, Anne jumped to her feet with expletives as Eliza shoved a chunk of snow down her clothes. 

Cackling, Eliza trotted back to Naveen. They covered their own ears with their hands, amazed at Anne’s foul language. 

“Fell right into the trap!” Marian high-fived Eliza.

But after the high five, Eliza threw another chunk of snow into Marian’s face. The little ones ran back to their territory with victorious fists in the air.

The snow trickled down Anne’s spine into her trousers. “Alright, evil monkeys.” She caught Naveen, swept him up from the ground, and held him horizontally over her head.

He resisted with a joyous shriek, throwing two snowballs at her face.

At her feet, Eliza was jumping. “I’m next!” She pulled at Anne’s coat.

So, Eugénie came and picked her up, making her ride on her shoulders. Naveen saw it and signed for Anne to put him on her shoulders, too. The little ones had their own loyal steeds.

However, a problem arose. They had no snowballs to throw, and just riding on people’s shoulders didn’t entertain them enough.

“Leave it to the genius here,” Marian said.

She made snowballs for them quickly, placing them on top of the brick wall they shared with the house next door. And an equal number of snowballs on the other wall. This way, the little ones didn’t need to dismount their steeds.

They went to their respective side of the yard. With their ammunition, the fight began on a signal from Marian. The rules were, as always, unclear. But even if there were, Naveen was too happy to care. Most of his shots missed the target by a mile.

Eliza, on the other hand, had good aim. Probably. All of her shots hit Anne square in the face instead of Naveen. Because Eliza didn’t want to attack him, or because it was her strategy to strike his steed first. Either way, it wasn’t accidental. Anne spat out snow, dodged the bullets, and tried being Naveen’s best steed. 

From the doorstep, Adney was filming them with her smartphone. Looking away, Eliza’s snowball hit Anne in the side of her head. But Anne paid no attention. She went to Adney with Naveen on her shoulders, waving at the camera with him.

“Me, too! Me, too!” Eliza made Eugénie go to the doorstep. 

They all stood in front of the camera, smiling with white breath steaming out of their mouths.

“Join us, Adney,” Anne said. But her head snapped around when her animal instinct stirred.

Sure enough, there was a neighbour poking her head out of the first-storey window, watching them.

“Look. It’s our neighbour,” Anne said with a smile. “Naveen, say hi.” She and Naveen waved at the neighbour. 

The middle-aged woman didn’t respond. Her body froze as though they’d caught her red-handed. She quickly withdrew her head, closed the window, and drew the curtains. 

“Polite,” Marian mumbled.

Adney came to them and looked at the neighbour’s house. “What? What’s wrong?”

Anne shrugged. “Your neighbour gave us a nasty look.”

It wiped the smile off Adney’s face. The jolly air died down in their backyard. Even though it didn’t affect Anne, the change in the others gave her an uneasy feeling at the bottom of her stomach. 

“We weren’t loud, though, were we?” Eugénie said. “We were just laughing.”

Adney looked at the three kids back and forth. Her eyes met Anne’s. She held her gaze as thoughts raced through her mind. She looked back at Eugénie. “No, you did nothing wrong.” Though stammering, she held her head high. “If you want to be a little loud, who are they to say you can’t?”

The air lifted.

“You’re right,” Marian said. “We aren’t the only ones in the neighbourhood playing outside and making noises.”

The snowball fight resumed. But Eugénie and Anne needed a break, having run around with little kids on their shoulders. They stumbled to the doorstep, only to find it not wide enough for three people. 

“You sit there.” Anne said to Eugénie, pointing at the spot next to Adney.

But Eugénie shook her head. She leaned against the wall by the doorstep and, with her eyes, signalled Anne to take the spot. She only rolled her eyes when Anne smiled at her.

The snowball fight was turning into an unfair match. Without their steeds, the little ones had changed their rules. Their target was Marian now, attacking her from both sides. 

Marian didn’t fight back. She let them have fun, screaming, “Mercy! Have mercy!” —Or maybe she really was losing.

Adney had a serene smile on her lips. It was a privilege to see her smile so closely. Anne wanted to stare at her forever.

Adney said this house used to be stifling. So, if there was anything Anne could do to help her breathe, it’d be to keep this house filled with happy noise.

Chapter Text

The drywall installation in the attic was close to completion. Most of the beams and insulation material were hidden, making the place look like a proper room. Except for the ceiling. It was still bare.
Anne had to get it done. But how?

Adney had baked cookies some time ago. The thick aroma of butter lingered in the air. Eliza was singing downstairs. She’d come home from school, which meant Eugénie was home, too.

The attic door opened and closed downstairs, followed by the creaking of the stairs. Anne turned down the work light, out of habit, for Adney. But the footsteps didn’t belong to Adney, but to Eugénie. Still, she asked Eugénie if she minded the harsh light. 

Eugénie shook her head and gave her a plate of cookies. “I was,” she mumbled, “wondering if there’s anything I could do to help.”

“Help? In here?”

“Marian told me you needed a hand… And I’d rather do it myself than having you violate child labour law.” 

Her monotonous tone made it hard to determine if it was a joke or a serious accusation.

“That was a joke,” Eugénie said, sensing the silence. “Sorry.”

But Anne couldn’t get offended. Eugénie was comfortable enough to share a joke with her. This was a big moment. Though the girl still avoided eye contact often, Anne figured it wasn’t her preferred means of communication. 

“Don’t you need to go babysitting?” 

Eugénie shook her head.

“Off day? Okay, I’d love to have your help. I was thinking how to put up the ceiling walls.” Munching on her cookie, Anne looked up. “Need someone to hold a drywall while I climb the ladder. Worst-case scenario, I could ask Adney, but—” She shrugged.

“She hates the sound of a hammer,” Eugénie said.

Anne smiled. “I’m glad you’re here, Eugénie.”

They got to work. While Eugénie held a wall from below, Anne nailed down the upper part of it from the top of the ladder. Once it was secured to beams, she hit the rest of the nails, eventually moving down the ladder to secure the bottom part. Eugénie’s only job was to hold walls.

But after the second wall, Eugénie asked, as Anne climbed down the ladder, to have the hammer. “I’ll hit the nails you can’t reach from there. You can stay on the ladder. It’s more efficient.” 

“Do you know how to use a hammer?”

“You hit nails. Is there more to it?”

There wasn’t. Eugénie received the hammer and drove nail after nail. From above, Anne watched, worried she could hit her own fingers. But she kept her mouth shut, like Adney. Hovering in silence, being an owl parent. 

She gave an approving nod when Eugénie hit all the nails. “Do you like making things, Eugénie?”

Eugénie glanced down at the hammer in her hand. “I do origami sometimes, but I’m not good at it. I’m not good at anything.”

“There’s no need to be an expert to like things. I liked the Jeansaurus you made with the little ones. Didn’t you enjoy making it?” She was wearing the jeans in question.

Eugénie chuckled and nodded. 

“Try as many things as possible, Eugénie. I promise, when you’re older, it won’t matter whether you did something well. Enjoy, and learn. We humans are aggregations of our experiences, of our choices. Look at me. I’d never done DIY, and here I am. I’m not good at it. I need everyone’s help. But it’s given me an opportunity to get to know all of you. I even started learning sign language. Don’t you think it’s wonderful?”

Eugénie stared up at her. After a long pause, she gave a slow nod. 

They exchanged some more words as they worked, handing the only hammer over to each other. When they finished, they stood in the centre of the room together. 

“If we’d done it my way,” Anne said, “it would’ve taken more time. Good job.” 

Eugénie gave a quiet, but proud smile. “What’s next? I can help.”

“The next step is…” Anne grabbed the plan paper out of the toolbox. “Taping and mudding. See those gaps between the drywalls? You fill them with mud. For safety reasons, I suppose. And tapes.” Actually, she didn’t understand it well. 

Eugénie, too, looked confused. 

“It’s alright,” Anne said. “I have to buy the mud first. And think afterwards.”

“I’ll come with you. I want to talk about Adney’s parents.”

… 

Eugénie climbed into the passenger seat of the farm truck. The roads weren’t icy. But snow remained on the pavement. It slowly melted into a stream, shimmering in the sun. 
“How’s it going with Adney?” Eugénie said when the truck stopped at a red light. “It looked good when we were playing in the backyard the other day, until Eliza interrupted.” 

The scene returned. Adney’s and the shine in her eyes. And the way her hands found home in Anne’s. Not one hour had passed where Anne didn’t think of that moment.

“Why don’t we talk about her parents?” Anne said. 

Eugénie’s gaze stabbed her in the face. “You react the same way Adney does. Changing the subject— It’s green.”

Anne looked back at the green light. The truck started. “Well, you’re sticking your nose in grown-up’s business."

“I’m not a child. I’m fifteen.”

Anne hid her smile. She used to consider herself mature when she was Eugénie’s age, too. “All in good time. I don’t want to jinx it, you know?”

Eugénie rolled her eyes with a sigh. “Adney’s birth parents?”

“Yes, please. You asked her some questions for that?”

“I wrote a social media post. But it’s not good.” Eugénie took off her new gloves, pulled out her smartphone, and read the draft aloud.


<Help us find someone> 

We’re looking for the birth parent(s) of my foster mother. 

Her name is Ann Walker. But both her first and last name were given by her foster carer. She’s white and has blonde hair and blue eyes. She was found on the doorstep of the foster house in Halifax, WY, on 20 Aug. 1992, when she was around 3 months old. She was wrapped in a pink blanket with a label written in a foreign language. (Her carer thought it was French, but this is unclear because we don’t have the blanket anymore.) 

If you have any info, please contact us. We really want to find them. My foster mother deserves to be happy. 

Right now, she takes care of three kids, including me, and she does it alone. But she never uses it as an excuse to neglect us. Her birthday (May 20. We don’t know her real bd.) is coming up. I want to give her good news. Thanks.


Eugénie read the last few sentences quickly. With closed eyes, she pushed her head against the headrest.

“Are you okay?” Anne said.

Eugénie grunted. “I get motion sickness when I read on the car.”

“What— We could’ve waited until we got there.” Anne rolled windows down, letting in fresh air. 

The rest of the drive was laden with silence. 

They arrived at a local DIY store near the train station. Anne suggested Eugénie stay in the car if she didn’t feel good, but the girl insisted on coming with her. 

The store felt cold despite the heating. Empty, too. Neither of them spoke a lot. And when they did, their voices echoed through the eerily hushed aisles. 

Anne bought the brand of mud and tape Mr Pickles recommended. 

“What’s the tape for?” Eugénie said, looking up from her phone.

“No clue. But Mr Pickles says it’s essential.”

“You don’t know…?”

Anne smiled. “Let’s watch how-to videos when we get home.”

As they left the aisle, Eugénie fidgeted. “I need to visit some place. I’ll see you at home.”

“Where? I’ll give you a ride.”

“It’s just around the corner.”

Anne nodded. “I’ll go with you.”

The place was a cafe, not around the corner, but several blocks away. Anne went in with her. A staff greeted Eugénie, calling her by her name. Eugénie showed them something on her smartphone screen. The staff gave her a pork baguette.

“I’d like two more of those, please?” Anne said. She winked at Eugénie. “For the little ones. Oh, why don’t you get a drink, too? You’ll feel better if you drink something.”

“I’m not sick anymore,” Eugénie said. “And you don’t have to buy more. We always share one.”

“Sorry,” the staff said. “That was the last one of that product on the app. Do you want a regular one?”

“What app?”

“It’s fine.” Eugénie gestured at the sandwich on the counter. “Just this, please.”

Anne was clueless, but still ordered a bottle of orange juice and paid on behalf of the girl. The sandwich only cost three pounds.

“That’s an… extremely cheap sandwich,” Anne said when they were back in the truck. “What’s the catch?”

Eugénie showed Anne her smartphone screen with a list of sandwiches. “It’s an app that lets you buy food that’s about to be thrown away.”

Anne didn’t know that was a thing. “You don’t like seeing food go to waste.”

“Who does? I wish I could buy all of it. But that’ll be costly.”

“Could’ve asked me.” 

Eugénie said nothing.

On their way home, Eugénie toyed with the bottle, uncapping it and taking a sip every ten seconds. 

At last she said, “What do you think about the post?”

Anne knew they’d come back to this. “It’s good. Well-written. Did Adney help you write it?”

“She gave me the information I needed. Then, I wrote it alone.”

“You didn’t know those things about her?”

“I’ve only known her for a year.”

It comforted Anne, knowing she wasn’t the only one who hadn’t known this part of Adney’s story. “You know, you say you’re not good at anything, but it’s not true. You’re just hard on yourself.” 

Eugénie rolled her eyes. “I’ll post it on Facebook later.”

Her adorable nonchalance made Anne smile. “Really.” She tried not to sound too pushy about it. “I’ve seen many types of people over the years. You know the saying ‘Cats hide their claws?’ It’s true. The weak and ignorant think they’re strong and wise. They’re easy. But most smart people are humble. They don’t show their true powers easily. Like Adney. I admire her for that. And you’re just like her. You’re smart, kind, and good. You have something special, Eugénie. Don’t you ever doubt that.”

Eugénie stayed quiet as she stared at the bottle. Anne pretended the sound of the engine had drowned out the sound of her sniffling.

Next day, Adney welcomed Mr Pickles into the house with Anne. Eugénie came home from school shortly after and joined them in the attic. But the kids weren’t allowed to enter. The walls were wet with mud. They could smudge it.
There was a lot of friction sound. And Mr Pickle saying, “Quick, quick! Before it dries.” 

He had what he called a taping knife. (Not like a regular knife.) In his other hand was another strange metallic tool (It resembled a pallet.) with grey mud on it. He rubbed these tools together a lot. The metallic sound tasted of iron, like blood, in the back of her mouth. It made her nauseous. 

“Are you sad Eugénie is keeping Anne all to herself lately?” Eliza said during snack time.

“Why would I be sad?” 

“Because you like Anne. I get sad, too, if I can’t spend time with people I like.” 

Sad wasn’t the word Adney would use. She was happy for Eugénie. Proud, even. When the girl became part of the family, Adney had toiled to earn her trust. It’d taken four months. Now, Eugénie was helping Anne, another adult she trusted, on her own will. That was a good thing. 

But part of her disagreed. The part of her that ached for Anne. Hyper-fixating with the colour of her laughter. Her lopsided smile, her alway-chapped lips, her dark eyes. Wishing for a reason—like a brief glance between them—for their hands to meet. Meet and hold each other. 

That part of herself didn’t have a name. Yet.

It was a childish feeling. If she had an artistic talent like Naveen, this could inspire her to create something special. But Adney was only Adney.

When dinner was ready, Anne and Eugénie finally came down. Like a child after playing outside, Anne had a fleck of dried mud on her skin and clothes. Adney could easily picture her putting her muddy hand on the back of her neck and immediately regretting it. Eugénie, on the other hand, looked speckless as if she hadn’t been handling mud. (But Adney had seen her using those obnoxious metallic tools.)

“Don’t you use hammers anymore?” Naveen said at the table.

“Not for now,” Eugénie said. “It’ll be relatively quiet.”

“Quiet, yes.” Anne twirled spaghetti with her fork. “But Mr Pickles says it’s the most challenging step. I thought it was easy. Didn’t you, Eugénie?”

“He was almost yelling at you to move your hands faster.”

Anne shrugged. “I’m sure it was his knees that were bothering him.”

“You really sound like Marian sometimes.”

They all laughed. Adney didn’t understand most of their banter. But she felt relieved to be finally free from the hammering sound.

“Eugénie is an excellent DIYer.” Anne signed clumsily with her free hand. “Efficient, dexterous. Her work is delicate.”

“I just mimicked the man in the videos.” Eugénie glared into her plate, genuinely embarrassed by the compliments. 

“Mimicry is a valuable skill.” 

Adney nodded along. Her dismal mimicking skill often led her into embarrassing situations in public.

“I can mimic any dinosaur’s noise,” Eliza said.

Anne grinned. “I know. It’s impressive.”

“Can we go up there tonight?” Naveen said. 

“No. Sorry,” Anne said.

“Tomorrow?”

“Not for a while.” Anne offered an apologetic smile. “The mud takes time to dry. And when it doesn, we need another layer, and another. Might take about two weeks.”

The kids went oww with disappointed pouts.

“But I could play with you while the mud is drying.”   

And the kids threw their hands in the air and went, Yaaay! Tomato sauce flew and landed somewhere.

Anne looked at Adney. “Mr Pickles suggested we hire a professional. It’s faster. But no— We’ve come this far on our own. Right, Eugénie?”

Eugénie confirmed it with a shrug.

“How much would a professional cost?” Adney wanted to know for reference. The attic was almost complete. It was no longer ‘too soon’ to think about Anne’s payment. 

“No need to worry about that. Oh—” Anne turned to Eugénie. “Why don’t you tell Adney about the Facebook post?”

“What Facebook post?” Eliza said with tomato sauce on her chin.

Eugénie wiped it off with a kitchen towel. She met Adney’s eyes, asking for her consent. 

Adney smiled at the kids. “Eugénie and Anne are helping me find my birth parents.”

Eliza’s eyes twinkled. “That’s fun! Like pirates looking for treasures!” She brandished her fork like a sword. 

In her mind’s eye, Adney saw Eliza dressed as a pirate captain, sporting a fake moustache and posing on the deck of a ship. Of course, Naveen was also there. 

“So, my post got some attention,” Eugénie said. “My friends shared it. Now it’s on other websites, too. But it’s not viral, yet.” Her signing hands paused. “How do you say ‘viral?’” she asked Adney.

Adney didn’t know. Internet slang confused her, so she tended to stay away from corners of the internet young people liked.

“It means ‘popular,’ doesn’t it?” Anne signed the word.

Eugénie accepted that answer. “Yeah. Popular online. Famous. That’s our goal.”

It was the liveliest meal the house had seen in a while. When a table had many people, food tasted better, and good food made good conversations. And when everyone talked, Adney could stay a listener, free from the pressure to talk. 

She stole many a glance at Anne.

After the dinner, Anne helped her with the dishes.

Adney hoped the online post would yield some results—favourable or nor—soon. Not for her sake. Waiting didn’t bother her. But for the sake of Anne and Eugénie. They both had better things to mind than this. 

With all the dishes done, Adney opened a drawer for a tube of hand cream. “Anne, hand cream?”

But Anne had left her side unnoticed and was playing with the kids. They hung on to her arms, demanding her to be their monkey bars. Anne flexed her arms. First, Naveen came off the floor, and next Eliza. As Eliza was heavier, Anne leant to that side like a scale.

With her arms up, her jumper rode up at the front. Her lower belly was on display.

Adney couldn’t look away. Compared to her arms full of scars, that part of her body looked unmarked— Unmarked, she meant, with scars. (Not anything lewd. Whether anyone had ever left a mark there wasn’t any of her business.) Adney blinked her indecent thoughts away.

Not so far from the racket, Eugénie was standing in the doorway with a grimace. A subtle movement of her head and eyes. A signal for Adney to come out into the hallway.  

Adney did.

“Someone dropped this now. ” Eugénie showed a sheet of paper. “I heard the letterbox rattle.” 

Adney’s blood ran cold. It was almost 8:30. It couldn’t have been their post person. She received the paper and peered into it. Her gut feeling was proven right. 

Dear neighbours, it said at the top.

She pressed the letter against her chest, hiding it from Eugénie. “Did you read it?” she whispered.

Eugénie nodded. But it looked more like she hung her head in shame. 

Adney wanted to burn the letter. “Don’t let it bother you, okay? I will do the thinking.”

“Maybe we should tell Anne—”

“No.” Adney shook her head. “Don’t tell her about this. It’ll be okay.”

Giving a heavy nod, Eugénie went upstairs. 

From the other side of the thin wall, the laughter of the kid and Anne poured out. Adney stayed in the dim hallway and read the letter alone.


Dear neighbours,

We recently noticed that your kids have been making a lot of noise, and this concerns a lot of people in the community. We understand that they are kids. They sometimes shout and laugh too loudly, so we have been sympathetic. They aren’t perfect! We know! 

But is it too much to ask you to be more considerate? Some of us have noticed there is an adult man who’s often at your house these days. Who you, an adult woman, court is nobody’s business, but it’s different when we know for a fact that he’s the sort of adult to encourage children to cause trouble in the neighbourhood. 

All we want is a peaceful community. Please be more considerate. We don’t want any trouble. However, we’ll be forced to consider taking further action if the situation does not improve.

Your well-wishing neighbours.


Adney wanted to rip the letter into pieces and burn them. What a nuisance. As if all the cookies she'd baked for them meant nothing. There was no pleasing her neighbours. She should’ve known.

This must be because of the snowball fight in the backyard. Mrs Cole, their next-door neighbour who was peeking from her window, had probably tattled on them. It gave the neighbours a convenient excuse to torment her family. 

Had it been a mistake to let the kids keep playing after that? Adney didn’t think so. They weren’t loud. 

“What’s wrong?” Anne had come out of the kitchen, making her start. 

Instinctively, Adney lowered the letter to hide it. “Nothing. It’s just… It’s nothing.” 

Anne’s eyes flitted to it. “But will you tell me if there’s something?”

“Of course.”

She couldn’t fool Anne even on her luckiest day. But without her permission, Anne would never take a look at it. 

Adney shoved the letter into her dress pocket. “Everything's alright.”

This wasn’t a lie. It was the second letter of this kind they’d received anyway. The first letter was addressed to her aunt. Like a fearsome schoolmistress, she read the letter with her hands shaking in rage. Adney feared her aunt would punish her for delivering it from the letterbox. (She understood why Eugénie had looked ashamed earlier.)

Her aunt went around the neighbourhood, knocking on every door. What repayment the neighbours received was still a mystery. But after that, nobody ever bothered Adney or her siblings again. 

Now, they knew Adney wouldn’t fight back. She wasn’t her aunt. Only Adney. 

She’d bake more cookies tomorrow. The day after, too, if necessary. Before going to bed, she stashed the letter in her nightstand, never to take it out. It’d only haunt her for the next six months.

She felt guilty, though, for keeping it a secret from Anne. The adult man referred to in the letter was her. No doubt. In a way, it had to do with her. But if Anne learnt of this, her reaction was an easy guess. She’d be angry, like her aunt, for the kids, for Adney, and take direct action. That would create a backlash from her neighbours. Adney couldn’t risk that. 

So, she’d keep quiet and take solace in that conviction. The confidence in Anne, who would fight for their rights without hesitation or fear. Because that was what mattered. Knowing they weren’t alone. That kept Adney strong.

 

Chapter Text

"How many dumplings do you think I can fit in my mouth at once?" Eliza asked as they all entered the restaurant. 

"One." Anne said. "Because you're not Marian."

It was Eugénie’s suggestion to go. She was available the day before, but it was a Wednesday that Eliza’s father was calling from prison. So, they’d reserved a table on Thursday evening.

"Things I would’ve said if the kids weren’t here." Marian hissed at Anne, and turned to Eliza. "Anne’s right, though. Eat slowly. We’ve got enough time."

Anne, Adney, Naveen sat on one side of their table and Eugénie, Marian, and Eliza on the other. Halifax had several Chinese restaurants. This one, called Fortune Panda Kitchen, was closest to the house. From Adney’s seat, she saw their sign outside with an illustration of a panda in an apron. 

Anne shook her head at Marian. "I really don’t get why you’re here."

"How many dumplings can you fit in your mouth at once?" Eliza asked Marian with a twinkle of awe in her eyes. 

Marian rubbed her chin. "Not sure. I haven’t tried that in years."  

"Let’s not do that today, okay?" Anne said. "We’re here to enjoy the food, not to drive them into bankruptcy."

Their server—an Asian person as young as Eugénie—served glasses of water. After that, they stood up to get their own food. Eliza dragging the Lister sisters round. Adney could focus on Naveen’s plate and hers. 

There were over thirty dishes lined up in silver trays, with their proper tongs or ladles. An obvious rule for food safety. But some trays had more, while some had none. To Adney, it was more than an inconvenience. Naveen’s nut allergy was severe, and even a little of it could cause grave harm. Each dish had a list of allergens it contained. But with such a mix-up of utensils, they were useless.

The server was nowhere in sight. 

Eugénie came to her, holding a few ladles and tongs. "They gave me clean ones. Just give them back afterwards."

Adney thanked her. Naveen quickly picked what he wanted—dumplings (of course), noodles with vegetables, chicken, and rice—making the rest of the task smooth. She sat him down at the table with his plate. 

The problem was her own plate. She stood, indecisive, in front of the dishes with an empty plate. They looked savoury, but some of them looked chewy. Chewy was bad. An infernal texture for her. She preferred crunchy. But— She accidentally looked into the beady eyes of shrimp. Some crunchy seemed just as risky.

"Are you okay? Still choosing?" Eugénie was by her side again. The plate in her hand was full.

"I’ll be just… quick." Adney picked some vegetable-based dishes.

The rest of the family was waiting for her at the table. As Adney sat down, they began to eat. 

Eliza and Marian had the biggest plates, unsurprisingly. But Eliza’s ambition persisted. She asked the others what they’d got. And if she didn’t have it on her plate, she asked for a bit of it. Her plate was only getting bigger.

Anne laughed. "It’s like you have a magical plate, Eliza. Save room for dessert, okay?" She looked at Adney. "She ran straight for the dessert. We had to stop her."

"What did you get, Adney?" Eliza leant over the table.

"Vegetables. Do you want some?"

"No, thank you." Eliza sat back down.

Marian, who’d been gorging silently, raised her head. "Speaking of vegetables, quiz time! Where does this restaurant get their vegetables?" She pointed her chopsticks at Adney’s plate. (Her own had not a single piece of broccoli.)

"Oh, I know!" Eliza raised her hand.

But Naveen skipped the raising-a-hand part and pointed his little finger at Marian.

"Ah, sorry, Eliza," Marian said. "He was faster." 

"But I was going to say the same." Still, her smile had no hint of disappointment.

"Very well. Both of you win first place." Marian then promised to give each of them a prize later.

In the end, Eliza made four trips to get food and ate a mango pudding. Everyone loved the dessert. Adney wondered if she could add it to her repertoire. After emptying their pudding bowls, they slouched back in their seats and relished the feeling of fullness for a couple of minutes. 

Anne asked for the cheque. Seeing that, Adney took out her wallet.

"I told you to leave that at home," Anne said.

"Let me pay for the puddings, at least?"

Anne only shook her head, hiding the cheque from Adney. 

They stood up and slogged towards the exit. But just before the door, Eliza and Naveen stopped to look at the gumball machine. They gaped at the colourful gumballs in the red dome on a leg. 

"Marian, can we play it?" Eliza’s smile glistened with oil. 

"Time to accept your prizes, yeah? Hold on." Marian turned around and held her hand out towards Anne.

Anne glared down at the hand. "Seriously? It’s only fifty pee each."

"I left my wallet at home."

Adney reached for her own wallet. But once again, Anne wouldn’t let her, putting her hand on Adney’s. She gave each of the kids a pound coin, and their hands reunited.

First, Eliza turned the handle of the machine round. But nobody had told her to rotate it 360 degrees. She only did it halfway, expecting for a gumball, and looked confused when nothing happened. They had a good laugh as she rotated it the rest of the way. Her prize was green. 

Next was Naveen. Since he wasn’t tall enough, Eugénie lifted him. Using both hands, he rotated the handle clumsily. He showed off his red gumball to everyone.

Adney’s focus soon returned to their connected hands. Too busy with their respective work, they hadn’t spent much time alone lately. Anne’s touch—warm, rough, and moulded against her hand—felt both familiar and new. She’d never struggled with touch starvation in her life. (On the contrary, she often dealt with touch aversion, especially with adults.) But this must be how it felt to have one’s touch starvation satiated.

Then, Eugénie’s voice brought her back to earth. "It’s too big for you. Can I break it into small pieces?" She signed to Naveen, pointing at his gumball. She received it. With her long fingernails, she put dents in it and pulled it apart into four. "Eliza, you should be careful, too."

Adney couldn’t hear Eliza’s response. She couldn’t hear anything.

It should’ve been her job, taking precautions for the kids. Those gumballs were an obvious choking hazard. But she’d let Anne’s hand distract her. It hit her like a bucket of cold water. 

"Let’s go home," someone said. 

Someone—Anne—guided her by the hand out of the place. The crisp air outside made Adney realise their hands were connected again. Freeing herself from Anne's warmth, she buried both of her hands in her coat pockets.

"Cold?" Anne said.

"A bit," Adney lied. The left pocket had a hole. Her finger fit through it, and fiddling with it helped to calm her down.

She and Anne walked at the tail of the party. Eugénie and Marian were at the front. In the middle, Eliza was teaching Naveen how to blow a bubble with gum. He brought the last piece of his gum into his mouth.  

"How did you like the buffet?" Anne said. "One thing off your list, yeah?" 

Adney smiled. "It’s nice to have something someone else cooked. There were so many dishes I got overwhelmed."

"You could’ve tried everything. Having too many options stresses me, too. So, I pick all when I can. "

"But if I hadn't liked it, it would’ve gone to waste."

"Could've given it to me."

It'd never occurred to her. Her aunt used to make her eat up even when some foods tortured her senses. "I got full quickly."

Anne chuckled softly. "Let’s go there again. Or a new place." 

"I’ll pay next time."

"Believe me, it gives me great joy to know you’re all full and well because of me." Her gentle hand rested on Adney’s arm. "What you need, Adney, is to learn to be spoilt, to treat yourself."

Her words and touch. Everything about Anne had a lulling effect on her. With her, all the worries in the world disappeared. But Adney couldn’t want it. Not that way. She needed to keep on her toes for her kids.

Now, Eliza and Naveen were competing to blow a bigger bubble. Eliza was winning by a great margin. Her bubble was the size of Naveen’s head, ready to burst at any moment. 

And it did. It burst because Naveen jabbed a finger in it. Instead of a loud pop, as Adney had expected, it only went pfft. The white gum—it lost its artificial colour—covered the lower half of her face, sticking to her hair and scarf.  Naveen had a triumphant laugh.

"Cheater!" Eliza touched it to peel it off. It only made her hands sticky. "Marian, help. What do I do?"

Right then, they arrived home. In front of the door, Marian turned to them. "What are you two doing?"

"Naveen popped my bubble."

Naveen grinned. "You look like Santa." 

Adney bent over to meet her eyes. "Try not to touch it anymore, Eliza. And don't touch anything until your fingers are clean."

Entering the house, they headed straight for the kitchen. Adney got an ice pack—the same one they’d used on Anne’s legs—out of the freezer. The best remedy for sticky gum. This wasn’t the first gum trouble in the house. She knew the drill.

While she wasn’t looking, Eliza had sat down on a chair. In front of her, Anne was on her knees, trying to get the gum off her scarf with her bare hands. Naveen was blowing a big bubble beside them, which Eugénie stopped gently. And Marian was in the corner of the tiny kitchen, recording this scene with her smartphone. 

Anne’s laughter echoed. "Stop licking my hands, froggy," she said to Eliza.

This sight. This insignificant moment of their life together. It squeezed her heart, and the tremors of her heart coursed through her body. Like a dam. It felt warm.

She adored Anne like she’d never adored anybody.  

After the gum accident, they went to the living room to play like always. But Adney stayed in the kitchen, watching the radio music in the air.

She must tell Anne. There was no other choice. 

It was an impulsive idea that grew bigger each second, like bubblegum. If she didn’t tell her or waited any longer, it would explode inside her.    

"What’s wrong?" Eugénie was in the doorway.  

Adney smiled. "Nothing. Why?"

With a slight shrug, Eugénie sat down at the table across from her. "You think out loud. And you pick at your lip when something’s bothering you."

Adney now noticed the taste of blood in her mouth.

"Is this about the letter?"

Caught up in this Anne thing, that annoying letter didn’t exist in Adney’s mind for a moment. "No, it's not."

Eugénie hesitated. "I think Anne needs to know—"

"She can't. Really, I can handle that alone. Don't trouble her with it, please."

"Then, what is it?"

Lying wouldn’t work. Eugénie was incredibly perceptive about people’s distress. Besides, they’d promised before to be honest with each other.

Adney confessed everything, in scattered sentences. Her feelings for Anne, her inattentiveness in the restaurant, her incompetence as a parent. "They could’ve been hurt. I almost failed them." 

"But they didn't," Eugénie said. "You aren’t doing this alone. When you can't look after them, I'll be there to do that."

"But you won't always be here. I can’t always depend on you. You're only a child."

Eugénie was quiet for a moment. "I'm fifteen. I'm not a child-child. And who knows? I might be here forever. Become like you."

"You're not me," Adney said firmly. "You won’t be like me."

That idea terrified her. Eugénie trapped here, getting old without a chance to do anything with her life. 

"But being a foster parent isn’t a bad thing," Eugénie said.

"No. But, I inherited this house because I didn’t have anything else. You’re different." Adney wanted to mention her higher education, but swallowed it.

Across the hallway, the kids let out a sharp laugh. Anne’s low voice vibrated the air. Adney’s heart broke. She had to tell her.

… 

Adney said goodnight to the kids and closed their bedroom door. She usually did it alone or with Eugénie. Tonight, it was with Eugénie and Anne. That had excited the kids so much that they asked to have three stories. If Marian hadn’t gone home, that would’ve been four stories. 

It was way past their regular bedtime.

"Eliza won’t wake up easily tomorrow," Eugénie said.

Adney could only smile. "I know." 

"I’ll go to bed, too." Eugénie hugged Adney goodnight, waved at Anne, and went into her room.

The remaining two returned to the living room.

Anne yawned and stretched. "Eliza won’t be the only one sleeping in tomorrow morning."

"We’ve kept you late. Do you want to go home?"

"Didn’t you want to talk about something?"

True. Adney had asked her to stay for that. 

Her stomach churned now that Anne was in front of her. She needed to think clearly. But, of course, her brain wouldn’t cooperate. There was a song—an adventure song composed and performed by Eliza in the shower—stuck in her ear. A song about a Chinese cat with a pudding dumpling.

Anne gave a lopsided smile. "I’ve never seen you in pyjamas before."

Adney looked down at her nightshirt. It wasn’t any shorter than her regular skirts, but Anne’s comment made her self-conscious. She must’ve looked vulnerable. 

"You look pretty. Come here—" Anne patted the space next to her on the sofa.

Feeling timid, Adney sat down. Her heart leapt as Anne took her hand. Despite it all, part of her still yearned for her touch.

"Eugénie and I were talking," Anne said, "while you were in the shower, that we could have a sleepover at some point. Here or at the farm. On a weekend, so the little ones can stay up late. Have you been to the farm? Eugénie said she sometimes visits Marian."

"I— Yes," Adney said. "I’ve been to the farm."

Anne must’ve sensed her awkwardness. She stared at her in silence for a moment. Then, her hand rested on Adney’s chin. Adney started, and as quickly as it’d come, the hand drew away. 

Anne put her hands in the air. "Your lip is bleeding. I got worried. Sorry."

The bitterness of blood was on her tongue. Adney hadn’t noticed it. 

"So, what’s the thing you want to talk about?" Anne said.

With that, Adney blanked out, almost going temporarily nonverbal. "I don’t know how to tell you. I just need to let this out."

"Okay."

"My kids are everything to me. They and this house. My entire life." Adney took deep breaths. She found comfort in knowing Anne would never rush her. "But you show me, every day, a world outside these four walls. And I I love it. Everything you teach me." She was losing her train of thought. Words were getting elusive. Not now, she prayed. "Anne, I adore you. When I’m with you, the whole world makes more sense. You make it all look right. And you give me this feeling… I don’t know. I’ve never felt it before. It’s just full and buzzing and itchy— It’s—" She’d rehearsed this earlier, taking tips from her ex-husbands-to-be. But she botched it. "I don’t know."

"Does it hurt?" Anne’s voice was soft. "That feeling?"

"No. I mean—" Adney shook her head. "My heart… aches. Yes, it does hurt."

"Mine aches, too, when I think of you."

"Doesn’t that frighten you?"

Anne seemed surprised, then smiled. "No, it’s a good kind of pain. It tells me where my heart wants to go."

Where did Adney’s heart want to go? The answer looked her in the eye, and she wanted to cry. "I need to keep my children safe."

"Yes—"

"I can’t be distracted. I can’t want this, whatever this is." 

Silence fell on them. She couldn’t meet Anne’s eyes. 

"This, meaning us?" Anne still spoke in a soft voice. "Because you need to focus on the kids? Are you telling me I’m too distracting?" 

Adney gave a serious nod.

Slowly, Anne took her hands one by one. She had, for some reasons, a smile reaching her eyes. "Adney, you don’t need to give me up. You can have both. You can have it all."

It got Adney confused. One, she’d expected it to sort itself out once her feelings were known. That wasn’t the case. Two, Anne’s reaction seemed odd. She hadn’t thought about Anne’s reaction, but if she had, joy would’ve been the last thing on the list to expect.

"That’s not what I was—"

"It can be overwhelming, but you’ll get used to it. You’ll learn to juggle between the kids and me—"

"No, I can’t." Adney stood up, separating their hands. Anne’s smile of misunderstanding frustrated her. She only remembered to keep quiet for the kids upstairs. "You know I can't do that. You know I can't multitask. If I need to focus on one thing, I have to drop everything else. And I can’t have my attention robbed by you."

"Then, I’ll watch over them for both of us." Anne reached for her hand, but Adney jerked away.

"No— It’s my job. Mine. If I was deemed irresponsible, they could take my kids away. And put them in an uncaring home. Can’t you see? I don’t want this. There’s no us."

Anne’s smile had disappeared. But her gaze was still frighteningly tender. "What do you want, then? Do you want me to stay away from you? From the kids?"

That would make them sad, which Adney didn’t want. But what she wanted, she didn’t know. Once again, her own lack of foresight astonished her. 

"I need my kids to be happy."

"And your own happiness?"

"I am happy." It sounded so fake. "I am happy." So phoney.

She repeated the phrase inside her head. Each time, the meaning faded away, getting worn out like a cotton shirt. She repeated it more, trying to hold on to it. Without Anne, she had nothing else to hold on to.

Chapter Text

Anne glared at the flickering flames in the farmhouse's hearth. The world was upside down. Literally. She was laying in the reclining chair with her legs on the headrest. On her chest was her favourite travel magazine. 

The gloomy weather sickened her. She wanted to go somewhere warm right now. Who cared if she had no company? There’d be plenty more fish in the sea, wherever it might be. 

Her head pulsated. She’d drunken too much last night, three days in a row. The frolic she used to enjoy as a youngster didn’t give her the same enjoyment anymore. Yet, she wondered if she should go out tonight.

"Serves you right," Marian said. "You are too old for this."

Anne buried her nose in the magazine. "There’s a festival in Thailand designed for you. It’s called Monkey Buffet Festival." 

"Monkeys?"

As the name implied, it was a buffet for monkeys. In the foreign city of Lopburi, these wild animals attracted tourists both from inside and outside the country, benefitting the local economy. Thus, they were a target of appreciation. 

"Never mind. It’s not for you," Anne said. 

Her ears ringing, she thought she’d heard the laughter of the little ones. And Adney’s voice. Adney’s smile.

"When are you going to Adney’s house?" Marian said. "It’s been a week. Usually you would’ve got over it by now."

Clearly, Adney had told Marian about their whatever-it-was. To what extent, Anne didn’t dare to find out. 

"You don’t understand," Anne mumbled. "You’ve never been in love."

"I know the pain of relationship loss!" Marian said a bit loudly. "Anyway, it’s Thursday. I won’t make the delivery. You do it."

Her shrill yell aggravated the pain in Anne’s head. And it worsened more as the house bell rang. Anne felt nauseous and moaned while Marian left the room. She felt her melting brain would come out of her ears.

The front door opened and closed a moment later. Footsteps came down the hallway, towards the living room. Anne stared at the flames, wishing the headache away, hearing the two sets of footsteps. One of them, she realised, belonged to Eugénie. 

Anne floundered to get up, lost balance, and fell head-first off the chair. Eugénie found her on the floor writhing in agony. The girl was in school uniform, her huge headphones dangling from her neck. Percy the Cat rubbed his head against her ankle, purring.

Anne got up and pointed at the cat. "He doesn’t do that to me."

"He has a refined taste in people," Marian said.

Anne sat back in the chair in the correct position. "How are you, Eugénie? Sorry I’ve been busy with farm work—"

"I saw you in a bar two nights ago. You looked hammered."

As her lie was seen through, Anne hoped Eugénie hadn’t caught her chatting up women in that bar. "Why were you out so late? Babysitting again?"

"I’d rather be working in the attic, but…" Eugénie looked her in the eye. "Are you avoiding us?"

"No." Another lie. "Not you, as a group." Great. Why not keep digging her grave deeper?

With a cuppa, Marian sat on the sofa like a curious observer of the skirmish. Anne glared to make her leave, but Marian stayed put and sipped her tea. 

"Adney is acting strange." Eugénie remained on her feet. "She’s quieter than usual. She doesn’t eat. She cries in her room at night. She says nothing happened between you two, but I’m not an idiot."

"Nobody thinks you’re an idiot."

"What happened that night? Didn’t she confess her feelings for you?"

That was a question. "She did. Yes," Anne said.

"Then… Why?" Clenching her jaw, Eugénie’s poker face gave way. It looked like she’d cry. "I warned you not to break her heart." 

It was Anne with a broken heart. But funny how everyone in her life was bound to misunderstand her, to make her the villain in their stories. Her head pounded. She felt like crying, too.

"Okay! Therapy time." Marian clapped her hands and stood up. "You both sit on this sofa. Quick. Gee, it’s always me who has to solve the problem. The cost of being the smartest person, I reckon."

Anne glared at her. "This is a serious conversation."

But Eugénie obeyed, sinking down on one side of the sofa, and looked up at her. The gaze had such seriousness that Anne could only follow suit. Meanwhile, Marian dragged the reclining chair to the other side of the coffee table, facing the sofa. It was a mockery of couple therapy. She offered Eugénie a box of tissues, which the girl placed on her lap.

Marian cleared her throat and looked at Anne. "The defendant. This young plaintiff inquires about the event that took place on the night in question. Explain?"

This was absurd beyond words. But Eugénie’s gaze offered her no choice. With her hangover, she had no energy to protest.

"That night… I had hope when she asked me to stay to talk about an important thing. As you’d guessed, she said she had warm feelings for me. Feelings she’d never felt before. But she didn’t want it because the kids are her top priority. I’m an unwanted distraction. There’s no room for me." 

Eugénie looked confused. "She rejected you?"

"Yeah. Told me nothing would happen." 

Anne had gone home that night more confused than dejected. The confusion still plagued her, swirling inside her with growing self-pity. Time couldn’t resolve this. She was only, like the incident at work, slowly learning to live with it. 

"No room for you?" Eugénie said. "But you’re an adult. She can rely on you with the kids, right?"

"She’s dead set on doing it all alone. Believe me, I tried to talk her out of it."

"But, you love each other," Eugénie mumbled.

That was true. But this wasn’t the first time Anne walked away from someone even though their attraction was mutual. Love alone was never powerful enough. It was part of the queer package sometimes. 

"Hope is a two-edged sword," Marian said. "It cuts your heart in half if you hold it wrong." 

Anne shrugged and smiled at Eugénie. "But how else can you live? Without the vulnerability of hope, how could anyone strive for happiness, right? Better luck next time." She crossed her fingers. 

Pensive, Eugénie nodded. "The kids are napping. If we go home now, you can talk to her."

"Hmm?"

"Ah," Marian said. With Percy in her lap, she looked like a Bond villain. "She thinks your ‘next time’ refers to Adney."

Eugénie looked at Anne. "It doesn’t?"

"No. I meant the next person."

"But you should talk to her again. She clearly regrets her decision."

"She’s given her answer. That should be the end." Anne chuckled at her own words. "It ended before it even started. How funny is that?"

As if it was Eugénie, and not Adney, that Anne was leaving, the girl gave a shattered expression. "Is that why you don’t come to the house anymore? Because it ended? What happens to the attic?"

"I’ll finish it, of course."

"And then? Are you going to leave us?" Tears came in her eyes. "Do all our memories lose meaning just because you can’t date her?"

"Take a deep breath, Eugénie," Marian said.

But Eugénie sprang to her feet. "You’re right. Hope is— Useless." She glared down at Anne before storming out of the house.

Anne stayed frozen on the therapy sofa. The front door closed with a bang. It hit her, at last, that Eugénie had come to her in hope. Eugénie, who was so self-reliant that she worked until late to help the family, had come to ask for Anne’s help. 

Anne made her cry.

"What am I doing?" Anne said to herself. But there was no time for self-blame. 

Marian gave an understanding nod. "Go to her. It’ll be alright."

Anne stood up and headed out of the room.

"Oh, Anne," Marian said, making her turn around. "Don’t forget about the delivery."

...

Adney’s sleep was light as she lay in her bed. The radio music was off. With the kids napping, the air of the house was grey.

Her mind was blank, but full at the same time. Like a bird that died of starvation with its stomach full of plastic trash. The kids kept her busy when they were awake. They distracted her. Now, her mind had no escape from the night that she’d rejected Anne. She regurgitated that memory. Over and over.

She wanted to bake, but couldn't. She needed to think about dinner, but couldn’t. She didn’t even remember what they had in the fridge.

Her phone had the video—Marian had sent it to her—of the scene where Eliza had gum all over her face. She repeatedly watched it. Everyone looked happy, full of laughter, until Adney had ruined it. 

Anne hadn’t visited them for some days. Marian said it’d sort itself out soon. But Adney was certain Anne hated her and refused to associate herself with her family.

Stress made her overthink, she knew. A bad habit of her brain. There was no remedy.

She’d become a foster parent because her aunt needed her to be. Someone had to take care of the children after her passing. Adney had no reason not to inherit her aunt's role. Like this, people had always set the path for her. Going astray was a treacherous act. She knew her place. But the path she’d chosen wasn’t wrong. She was happy. Her life was good.

Anne had to go. To protect that good life from crumbling. 

But Anne was still here. The blue fog of her voice lingered in her head. It was worse. She even thought she’d heard the farm truck pull up outside the house. 

If Ann really came now, what would Adney do?  

The doorbell rang downstairs. 

Adney remained in the bed, paralysed. It chimed again. It was real.

She went down the stairs on tiptoe, fearful her footsteps might give her presence away. In front of the closed door, she faltered. Her hair was messy. She hadn’t looked in the mirror since— But why would Anne care? She didn’t care about Adney anymore. 

Expecting to see Anne with disgust in her eyes, she opened the door. There was nobody. There was only, on the ground by the wall, a crate of vegetables. 

This was Anne’s answer. The delivery was Marian’s order. (Was it even Thursday?) But seeing Adney’s face revolted her so much she’d left the heavy crate. Fair. Adney deserved it. She wouldn’t cry. Swallowing back tears, she bent down to pick it up.

"Oh, here you are."

Adney turned around. There, only a few metres away, Anne was looking at her. Smiling. 

"I thought you might be in the backyard." Anne picked the crate up and grinned. "What, did you think I’d left this here for you to carry inside?"

Adney didn’t know how to react. As if nothing had changed, Anne offered the same tenderness that had always comforted her. Confused, she followed Anne to the living room, where she replaced the empty crate with the new one. 

"Is Eugénie home?" Anne said. "She came to the farm and… I didn’t see her on my way here."

"I don’t think so." 

So, perhaps the delivery wasn’t her only objective. Anne cared about Eugénie, too. But only Eugénie.

"How are the little ones?"

Wrong. She cared about her children. But not Adney. "They’re napping."

"And you?"

And Adney, too… 

Keeping her tears at bay, she could only nod. The resulting silence punished her more. She cursed her own weakness. If the children had been awake, they could draw Anne’s attention away from her. It’d allow her time to recompose. (Hopefully.) But in this living room, they were alone, trapped.

"There’s," Anne said, "a South Korean festival where you play in the mud. People wear white, and they roll around in it. It may sound nightmarish for people who have to do the laundry afterwards. But I know the little ones would love it."

Adney was confused where this had come from. Still, the image made her chuckle. The kids would be ecstatic.

"I saw a South Korean restaurant near the train station," Anne said. "Would you like to go there sometime, with everyone?"

Something in Adney’s heart thawed. "Yes. Yes, I’d love that." She was no longer a dead bird full of plastic. "Stay for a little longer? The kids. They ask me every day when you’re coming over."

"Of course." Her hand moved as though to take Adney’s. But she withdrew it. "I must’ve let them down. I prioritised my own feelings." 

"It was my fault. If I was better at… being human—"

"Adney, you taught me your boundaries instead of forcing yourself to do something just to make me happy."

"But, because of it, they—"

"I’m here, aren’t I?" Anne took her hands and looked into her eyes. "Eugénie scolded me. Talking to her, I realised one thing. Life in this town is still monotonous. But every minute in this place is precious to me because I’m with you, all of you. That never changes, even if I don’t get to call you my girlfriend." She gave the brightest grin. "So, sulking is over!"

Adney had decided not to cry. No matter what Anne’s verdict was, Adney had decided to take it. To be hated. To be abandoned. But Anne forgave her. And she cried. She clung to Anne, catching at her sleeve, and felt Anne gather her into her arms. This was their first hug. 

Adney realised how much she’d craved this all this time. The way Anne caressed her hair. The way she rested Adney’s head onto her shoulder. 

Anne’s warmth felt like home. A home she’d never had before. 

... 

In the rainbow light coming in through the window, they lay on the sofa together. Adney on top of her was light. Many times, her desire compelled Anne to hold her closer and kiss her forehead. But she resisted it.  

She kept her eyes closed. The sunlight and Adney's snivelling in her ear made her headache more acute. Everything tingled her senses. Perhaps, the overstimulation Adney often experienced felt like this.

The little ones came downstairs shortly after. At the sight of Anne, their eyes went wide, and they hurled themselves into her arms. Naveen sat in her lap. 

Eliza sat between Anne and Adney, bounding with excitement. "My dad called last night. He’s coming home, Anne. I’m so excited!"

"That’s amazing," Anne said. "When?"

Eliza put up two fingers. "In two weeks! I have tests at the end of the term, too. I told him I would study hard to make him proud."

They told her, in turns and without a pause, all the other things that Anne had missed out on. They got to have pizza for dinner two days in a row. They had their heights measured, and Eliza had grown 2 centimetres taller, and Naveen 1 centimetre.

In the middle of it, Eliza signed to Naveen only in BSL. It was too fast and subtle for Anne to understand. The little ones shared a nod, bounded off the sofa, and raced upstairs. 

"What was that?" Anne said.

Adney only gave a knowing smile.

They returned, their footsteps going tap tap. Naveen handed her a sheet of paper. It was his drawing of the family. 

Under an arch of the rainbow, there were more kids than the house currently had. They must’ve lived here before Anne. All of them were holding hands, smiling. In the centre was Adney, holding hands with another tall person. It had short dark hair and wore trousers. 

Eliza pointed at the figure. "It’s you. This one’s Marian. I drew the rainbow."

Naveen climbed back into Anne’s lap and hugged her. "I'm happy you came back. Adney said you wouldn't because she did something bad."

Anne understood all his words without Eliza's compulsory interpretation.

"I knew it wasn’t true," Eliza said. "Adney doesn’t do bad things."

"No, never," Anne said. "I missed you, too." 

She hugged Naveen back, and did the same with Eliza. Adney's head came to rest on her shoulder. On the floor, their shadows flickered as one. She wished Eugénie was here, too.

It was only after dinner that Anne could talk with Eugénie alone. In the attic, the bright work light cast their shadows on the walls. 

Anne ran her hand over the mudded wall. "I’ve got to add another layer tomorrow."

"I already did," Eugénie said. "Three days ago."

"By yourself?"

Without meeting her eyes, Eugénie shrugged. "I was tired of waiting. I could do it alone alright." Her tone was sharp.

"Eugénie—" 

"The layer has dried. The next is sanding, but that’d be difficult to do alone. I was going to ask Mr Pickles to help me if…" If Anne never returned. "I watched how-to videos. I know what to do. Mr Pickles can lend us tools. But we still need to buy protective masks and sandpaper." 

Anne stared at her silently. She couldn't help her growing smile.

"What?" Eugénie said.

"You impress me, Eugénie. Always have. Your kindness resembles Adney’s, but I see myself in you, too. You’re an action taker. You make change. Like today, you took initiative and came to me."

"I just hated seeing Adney miserable."

"Yes. You woke me up," Anne said. "Thank you."

Slowly, Eugénie looked up, met her eyes, and let down her guard. "So, have you made up with her? You two were hugging when I came home this afternoon."

Anne nodded. "You saw that?"

"She was wailing on your shoulder. Are you dating now?"

"No. I still distract her and make her job difficult. That hasn’t changed."

"Why can’t you date if it’s all the same?"

It felt nice to have the girl on her side. "Because that’s not what she wants. But, we reached a compromise. I’ll stay and help when she’s distracted, and she’ll learn to rely on you, too."

"Me?" Eugénie hesitated. "I don’t know."

"What do you mean?"

"She relies on you because you’re an adult. I’m a child." 

Anne hadn’t expected such vulnerability from her. "But you’re fifteen, no? Not exactly a child," she joked.

Eugénie’s anguished expression remained. Perhaps there was some teenage stuff she was going through. Anne had no clue how to comfort her. Her preferred approach was a hug or, depending on the person, a gift in the form of food. But she’d never even seen Adney make physical contact with her. 

"She trusts you, Eugénie. It’s herself that she doubts. She’s scared of failing you because she loves you."

"I love her, too," Eugénie said. "I can help her, too."

"We’ll make her see that. Together." Anne hesitated, but slowly rested her hand on her shoulder. "Eugénie, can I ask you to be patient with her? She’s still young, too. Still learning like you, like me. It takes time. But I promise, she’ll get there. Never think hope is useless. There’s always a reason to hope."

… 

With Anne back into the family picture, things were almost back to the way they’d been. Almost. It was the middle of February. For the students in the house, the end of the school term was approaching. 

Anne sat in the living room with Eugénie, her school material spread on the table. The notebooks and coursebooks had names that didn’t belong to her. 

Eugénie put her head on the table. "This is so boring. Why can’t we work in the attic?"

“Because school is more important."

"Can’t we go buy tools, at least?"

"Not until the exams are over." Anne opened the geography coursebook. "I promise, I won’t do anything without you."

"School is stupid…"

Adney came in after putting the little ones down for a nap. She brought three cups of cocoa on a tray. Setting them on the table, she sat next to Anne. Her hand snuck into Anne’s out of habit. But she drew away as if to correct the mistake. 

Since they’d made it up, Adney didn’t seem to know how to behave around her. Each of her actions was reserved. Only occasionally, once or twice a day, she made a mistake. Anne didn’t want her to change anything. 

Anne took her hand, squeezed it, and released it so they could hold their cups. 

Eugénie stared at them with no subtly. "Chocolate is an aphrodisiac."

"Yeah?" Adney tilted her head. 

Anne understood her allusion. It made sense that Eugénie got along well with Marian. "Let’s study. How many countries can you find?" She spread the world map at the end of the geography coursebook. It had a lot of tiny words.

"What’s the capital city of Greece?" Eugénie said.

"I give you questions." Anne glanced down at the map nonetheless, not to cheat, but to make sure. She mumbled, "Did someone move Greece?"

"You mean since Pangea?" 

It sounded like a flower's name. But judging from the context, Anne knew she was wrong.

Eugénie gave her a sceptical look. "Didn’t you want to travel around the world?"  

"I’m not visiting every country on foot."

"Do you even speak any other languages? Or are you one of those white people who think English is the universal language and there’s no need to learn anything at all?" 

Anne couldn’t argue back. "I’ll get there." 

"How do you say ‘I’ll get there’ in French?" 

"Stop pulling moi leg, fille." 

"J'y arriverai." 

"Did you just hex me?" 

Adney giggled next to her.

On the surface, Eugénie looked unamused. But she, too, had a ghost of a smirk at the corner of her mouth. 

They stayed quiet afterwards, sipping their cocoa. While Eugénie read her history coursebook, Adney studied maths. Anne, with nothing to do, flipped through the pages of her French coursebook. It was too advanced for her. 

Adney had a strange posture. The book was placed askew on the table, and to compensate, her neck was also bent to the side. It didn’t look comfortable. 

When they finished their cocoa, Adney took the cups to the kitchen. "I’ll go and take in the laundry." 

As she left, Eugénie grabbed her smartphone. 

"Are you done?" Anne said.

"I don’t need good grades. Adney doesn’t care. I’m not going to uni anyway."

That wasn’t what Adney wanted. But Anne kept quiet.

Eugénie looked at her. "She’s told you about sending me to uni, hasn’t she?"

"Unless you hate that option, she will at whatever cost. Why don’t you want to go to uni? Do you hate studying?"

The smartphone in Eugénie’s hand sank into her lap. "I don’t want her to spend any more money for me. Feeding me is costly enough already."

Anne didn’t know how to respond. "I mean, being alive costs money."

"Plus, I’m only her foster child. Why should she care about my further education?"

Anne recalled what Adney had said. That she didn’t want to adopt Eugénie and trap her in this house. "Eugénie, you being alive doesn't make you a financial burden."

Eugénie didn’t answer. 

Anne couldn't imagine what was going on inside her head. In her opinion, Eugénie was too smart for this simple world. "What do you plan to do after graduation, then?"

"Dunno. Get a job— That reminds me." Eugénie stood up, left the room, returned with a handout. "Eliza has Parents’ Career Day at school next week. Do you want to go and talk?"

Anne wasn’t done talking about her future, but conceded. "Talk about my job in London?"

"No, I don’t like your prison job. You know that." 

Anne hadn’t known that. But it didn’t offend her. People always hated something about her life. "Don’t they have exams next week, too?"

"It’s before the exams start."

Adney came back, holding one laundry basket. She sat on the floor with it and folded the clothes. 

Eugénie helped her. "I’m asking Anne to come to Eliza’s Parents’ Career Day."

"Oh, could you?" Adney said to Anne. "I can’t leave Naveen alone at home. Besides, I’m awful at public speaking. If you could go, Eliza would be delighted."

Anne had no reason to refuse. She accepted it without thinking it out. 

There was a similarity, Anne observed, between the mother and the daughter. A painful one in her eyes. Adney, who had pushed Anne away for the well-being of her kids. Eugénie, who was choosing the family finances over her own education. They thought their decisions were the best for everybody, including themselves. 

But who was Anne to judge?

Next day, Eugénie came to the farm again straight from school. Anne had just completed the annual maintenance work on the farm tractor. With grease all over her, she met the girl in school uniform halfway in the field.

"Is everything okay?"

Despite her alarm, Eugénie’s eyes sparkled. "More than okay."

They entered the house. Anne quickly showered, changed into fresh clothes, and rushed to the living room. There, Marian and Eugénie were sitting in front of Marian’s laptop. 

Eugénie beamed at Anne. "The Facebook post is going semi-viral. Look." She showed her smartphone screen.

Due to the bad angle, only her own reflection looked back. "Have you gone home? Does Adney know you’re here?"

"I texted her." Eugénie opened an app on her phone. "It’s shared on Twitter, too. Many people are offering donations. It’ll be a great Mother’s Day gift for Adney."

"Isn’t that sweet?" Marian said, and turned to Anne. "What are you giving me for Mother’s Day?"

Anne ignored her. "Any information about her parents?"

"There are too many comments," Eugénie said. "Can you help me read them?"

So, the comments on Facebook fell into the hands of the Lister sisters, and Twitter in Eugénie’s. 

To Anne, the word ‘viral’ held little meaning. She didn’t spend enough time online to comprehend the internet norms. What this meant for their quest, she didn’t know. 

But when the post came up on the screen, the significance of it was clear. It had over eleven thousand reactions, seven thousand shares, and countless comments. As Anne blinked, more new comments appeared. 

“Oh, dear,” Marian said, with her mouth agape.

"How do we read all of them?" Anne said.

Marian thought for a second. "Do you have the app on your phone?"

"No."

Marian handed her own smartphone to her. "Select the newest comments and start reading from top down. I’ll read the oldest ones. Don’t you dare open any other apps."

"The screen is too small. I want the laptop."

"The laptop is mine precisely because it has a bigger screen."

Though disgruntled, Anne played a reasonable adult in front of Eugénie. On the wee smartphone, she strained her eyes to read, taking a screenshot if a comment looked useful. 

Most of them were messages of encouragement. Some, however, mocked Eugénie’s naivete to think their quest would be quick and easy. There were creeps, too. Anne would beat all of them if physically possible.

Was Twitter kinder to Eugénie than Facebook? The grimace on Eugénie’s face said no. Anne no longer knew if using the internet was a good idea.

Marian gasped and tugged at her shirt. "This couple wants to adopt Naveen. Eugénie— What’s wrong, love?"

"There’s this piece of shit who keeps asking why I’m in foster care."

Anne had seen a similar comment. "Ignore them. Not worth your energy."

With a heavy nod, Eugénie put down her phone and forced a smile. "Someone wants to adopt him? That’s incredible news." But in her eyes, her distress lingered. 

Anne sat near her. "I’m sorry. This was my idea. I should’ve considered the risk—"

"I don’t regret it," Eugénie said. "We can’t stop here."

"But remember to take a break when it gets too much."

Eugénie nodded. "It’s not your fault that insensitive people exist."

"On the bright side," Marian said, "these mofos are total strangers, which means it’s reaching people outside your social sphere. We’re closer to our goal."

As if it hadn’t occurred to her, Eugénie’s expression became softer. She smiled at Marian, and at Anne. "We still have time until her birthday. We might really find her parents by then."

Comments kept coming in. For better or worse, there was no end to it. One hour later, their attention ran out. Eugénie packed her bag, Anne returned the smartphone to Marian, and two of them walked to Adney’s house.

Adney sat in the living room with Mrs Cole, her next-door neighbour. It’d been an hour since she’d come by. The tea had gone cold. But half of Mrs Cole’s plate of bread remained untouched. Currently, her nephew’s hair was her favourite topic to grumble about. 

"It’s pink. Some people have no shame." Mrs Cole nibbled at a slice of cranberry orange bread. "Is this new? I’ve never had this before." She’d asked the same question an hour ago as she bought it.

Adney nodded. "I’m trying to expand my repertoire."

"It’s a little dry. Try adding more oil next time."

"I will," Adney said with a polite smile. 

The amount of moisture wasn’t the issue. The recipe was good, though not perfect. Adney always did excessive research before trying a new thing. It was dry because the woman had left it untouched for an hour.

"It’s very quiet today," Mrs Cole said.

"The kids are napping."

Mrs Cole gave her a look. Perhaps it wasn’t the correct response. "I haven’t seen that black girl lately." She whispered the word black like it was a dirty secret. "Has someone adopted her?"

"No. She’s at Ms Lister’s farm."

"Of course. I knew it was very unlikely. Always grumpy, that one."

"She’s a wonderful child if you—"

"But so many people have been in and out of this place lately that it's hard to keep up."

Apparently, it was their job to keep track of the house’s status. The house hadn’t welcomed or said goodbye to anyone recently. Her neighbours knew it. There was only one person Mrs Cole could refer to— Anne.

"Speaking of which, I have something to show you." Mrs Cole showed her smartphone screen. A picture of a black person smiled at Adney. "He’s an insurance lawyer in Leeds. A distant relative of Mrs Priestley."

Another man her neighbours had found for her. They were always a distant something of Mrs Priestley. Distant cousin, distant colleague, distant stranger… 

"It never works out with anyone," Mrs Cole said. "We thought they might not have been your type. What do you think?"

And their conclusion was that her type was men of colour. Indeed, all of her arranged relationships had been with white men. Adney had always assumed their choice was intentional.

With a polite smile, she let Mrs Cole draw her own conclusion. Like usual.

The front door opened. Eugénie came home with Anne. They came into the living room and saw her neighbour. Anne offered her a friendly greeting.

Mrs Cole only gave a slight movement of her head. Putting her remaining bread in a paper bag, she stood up. "Think about it, darling, will you?" She scurried out of the house. 

"Stinky arrogant muppet," Eugénie said as the door closed.

"Don’t call her that, please," Adney said. "But I’m glad you’re home. I thought she’d never leave."

"Anne has some news for you." With that, Eugénie went upstairs, throwing them a cryptic look over her shoulder. 

"What?" Adney said.

Anne waved a dismissive hand. "Never mind that. Let’s have a seat. It smells scrumptious."

Adney made tea and sat on the sofa next to her. Dinner was in a couple of hours. But Anne insisted on snacking on her fresh bread.  

"Is something wrong?" Adney said. "The news…"

"No. Everything’s lovely." Anne turned to her and took her hands. "It’s about the Facebook post— We haven’t found your parents yet. But there’s a couple wanting to adopt Naveen. And many more people wanting to donate. I can’t show you now. I don’t have the app on my phone. But when Eugénie comes down— What I want you to do now is to make a cash app account. Once you got one, Eugénie will include it in the post. And people could send you money from all over the world. Isn’t this exciting?"

Exciting, for sure. But Adney had trouble wrapping her head around it. 

"Have I overwhelmed you?" Anne said.

"What's a cash app?"

"An app that is linked to your bank. But in order for others to send money, they don't need your bank information. Like Paypal."

Adney had never used Paypal. The idea of receiving money from strangers. Through the internet. It made her wince. She could bake and sell her goods. That was one thing. But receiving financial support when she'd done nothing to earn it… 

"Adney, you need to learn to rely on others. Remember we talked about that?"

"I— Yes."

"These people want to help you, to make your kids happy."

To make them happy. Like magic, Anne made her anxiety disappear without a trace. Adney nodded. With Anne’s help, she installed a cash app and made an account. 

"We’ll tell Eugénie later," Anne said. "What about Naveen’s thing? Do we tell him?"

"We should wait. This couple needs to be assessed by their council. If this is their first time adopting, it’s better to get help from an agency, too." And they didn’t know if the couple was serious about it.

“We’ll tell them so, then,” Anne said. "How many children have you looked after?"

"Eighteen. But it’s only the ones that have lived here since my aunt’s passing. I used to take care of my siblings, too, when she was alive."

"It must be bloody hard to do it alone."

Her neighbours always said that, too. She couldn’t do it alone forever. Someone—a man—must live in the house. To help her. For her own good.   

"Did you know Eugénie finished the mudding in the attic alone?" Anne said. "She’s smart. Doesn’t know it herself. But you’re lucky to have a daughter like her."

"I know." Adney smiled. "She smiles a lot lately. It’s all because of you, I’m sure. Everything you do is magic." 

There was a bread crumb on Anne’s coat collar. Adney picked it up. Not wanting to throw it on the floor, she held the minuscule thing in her hand.

"Is Eugénie upset by this?" Adney said.

"Upset? No."

"Why did she go upstairs right away?"

"Ah." Anne let out an awkward laugh. "She thought… If I delivered the news, you’d like me more."

That made perfect sense. "She’s been making strange comments, like she’s seen you with this woman or that woman. I suppose she’s trying to make me jealous?"

"I haven’t gone out with anyone," Anne said, "since we’ve made it up. If Eugénie saw me with someone, they are my acquaintance."

Adney believed her. 

She tried to imagine Anne with another woman. Anne calling someone her girlfriend. It was only an idea, vague and alien. That didn’t make her jealous. 

 

Chapter Text

Eliza’s class had about twenty students. There were four tables and five kids at each. Today, on Parents’ Career Day, the classroom was crowded with adults. They stood by the walls, dressed in a conservative style. Anne wore her best suit, while maintaining her playfulness with a colourful tie. Even that choice made her stand out. 

Eliza’s table was near the whiteboard. Like classmates, she was restless, turning on her chair every ten seconds to wave discreetly at Anne. Every time, Anne smiled and gestured for her to turn back to the teacher. 

Each adult had five minutes to talk about their occupation and answer questions. They all started with a self-introduction. Anne realised, with slight panic, that she and Eliza had never defined their relationship. They were family. But what exactly was she to Eliza?

When their turn came, Anne and Eliza stood in front of the class. Anne stood, as she did at work, with her hands behind her back.

"Good afternoon. I’m Eliza’s…" She looked at Eliza for aid.

"Sister!" Eliza said to the class. "Anne is my big sister."

Anne grinned like a fool. "Okay, I’m her sister—"

"But she’ll be my mum when she and Adney get married—"

"And I work on a vegetable farm. We grow vegetables that your grown-ups buy at the supermarkets. Cabbages, broccoli, turnips, things like that."

"And carrots," Eliza said. "But Anne doesn’t like them."

A few hands went up, but Anne ignored them. "Some of you may think we can’t grow vegetables in winter, and we get to rest until spring comes. But there’s still a lot to do. Catching up on the market, for example. To see what’s hot. Maintaining our tractors. Obtaining new devices…" At the end of her speech, Anne said, "Questions?"

Most of the kids raised their hands.

"I won’t answer why I hate carrots."

They all lowered their hands except for one white boy.

"My uncle said you’re actually a prison guard. Do you carry a gun? Have you killed anyone?" 

Anne winced at the enthusiasm on his face.

"Of course, not," Eliza said, indignant. "Anne is a good person. What kind of question is that?"

"But isn’t that what prison guards do?" the boy said. "Locking up the bad guys and punishing them. That’s a good thing."

"My sister says that’s not true."

"Which sister? You have so many."

The teacher intervened calmly. He thanked Anne and Eliza, and their turn was over. 

It was more exhausting than necessary. She was used to Adney’s kids and their eccentricity and limitless energy. But small humans still put her off. Sometimes their innocence could be brutal. 

If this had happened a few months prior, Anne would’ve approved his glorified idea of her job. She would’ve presented a clear and irreversible distinction between the good guards and the bad prisoners. But it was more complicated. Five minutes wouldn’t suffice to show it. She understood why Eugénie didn’t want her to talk about it today.

At the end of the period, the students and their adults had their photos taken. The class was dismissed after that. Eliza tugged at her sleeve and showed her art projects around the room. 

"Do you like school, Eliza?"

Eliza gave an excited nod. "I can see my friends. I get smarter every day. I don’t like homework, but Rome wasn’t built in a day..." She looked off into the distance. But then, a smile appeared. 

From the door, Eugénie was waving at them.

Eliza jumped into her arms. "Eugénie! Anne did her presentation perfectly. I’m proud of her."

"Perfectly?" Eugénie said to Anne.

Anne shrugged. "Better than expected. I’m relieved none of them asked a tough question. I just recited what Marian told me."

"But you work there," Eugénie said. "Didn’t you help your parents as a child?"

"Grudgingly. I remember nothing from that era. Plus, agricultural technology has developed since then. It’s almost unrecognisable."

As it was lunchtime, other students came to take Eliza to the cafeteria. Eliza said goodbye to Anne and Eugénie and dashed away with her friends.

"I used to run through the hallways like that," Anne said. "But not of this building. They built this one after I’d graduated. The walls were covered with graffiti. Some of it was mine."

"I have no doubt," Eugénie said. "I saw a comment on Twitter an hour ago. This one bloke lived in Halifax as a child. But none of Adney’s story rings a bell."

"I meant to ask you the other day, but are you allowed to bring your phone to school?"

"I only use it in the loo."

"Excuse me," a voice said behind Anne. A curious, familiar smile found her. "Anne Lister. I knew it was you."

"Bee Raine. Is that you?" Anne threw her arms around her childhood friend. "Are you a teacher here?"

"Can’t believe it," Bee said. "You used to say you’d never come back if you could ever leave this shabby town."

"Wasn’t going to."

"And at school, of all places?"

"Life works in mysterious ways," Anne said. "Now I have a family that considers me as part of it."

"You’re married?!"

That brought back Eliza’s earlier remark. When she married Adney…

"Not like that— Though, why would it surprise you if I was?" Flustered, Anne looked around.

A bit away from them, Eugénie was talking with a white boy her age. She said something, and his pale face went red as he smiled.

"A fellow spinster," Bee said. "Want to grab some drinks this weekend? We’ve never got drunk together."

"Sounds like a plan."

"Let me get you my number—" Bee produced a pen and paper, jotted it down, and gave it to Anne. She hugged her again before walking away.

While Eugénie talked to the boy, Anne examined the educational posters on the walls. Most of them explained the importance of hand-washing, of a balanced diet, and of sleep. Among them was a poster of a scholarship workshop. Students could learn about scholarships and receive support for free. This one, however, had already taken place back in November. Someone had to take it down.

The boy said, "Text me if you like." He handed Eugénie a slip of paper and left.

Anne pretended she didn’t know anything. She motioned Eugénie over. "Have you considered getting a scholarship? You can go to uni without making Adney pay for it."

Hiding the paper in her pocket, Eugénie studied the old poster. "But you have to be exceptional to get one."

"You are exceptional. When the right people look at you, they will know." With her smartphone camera, Anne took a picture of the poster. "I’ll send it to you later. I’m sure they’ll have a similar thing this year. You have plenty of time to think about it, okay?"

Eugénie, still not convinced, gave a lukewarm nod. 

As Eugénie dropped her guard, Anne seized the opportunity to tease her. "Not to force heteronormativity on you, but is that boy your crush?"

"Oh, shut up."

The school entrance teemed with the adults who had come for Parents’ Career Day. They seemed to know each other well, moving in small herds and gossiping. They were all strange faces to Anne, except one.

Mrs Priestley stood by the door as she greeted the adults on their way out. The first-year teacher that Anne used to enjoy mocking was now the school principal. She recognised Anne immediately. "Ms Lister! It’s been quite a while." 

"Indeed, Madam Principal." She shook her hand.

Mrs Priestley looked her over from head to toe. "You look well. I heard you’re vice-something at your prison. On holiday, if memory serves. Did they catch you puffing?" With her version of a mischievous face, she made a smoking-weed gesture.

Anne forced a smile. "I was an unruly student."

"But you work for the government now, protecting people. Such a noble job! I bet the students loved hearing about it."

The past was a cruel thing. The Anne Lister that Mrs Priestley knew was someone else. Someone Anne couldn’t be proud of. When she was ashamed of her choice, people’s respect only hurt. 

"I didn’t talk about it," Anne said. "I told them about my job on the farm."

Mrs Priestley poorly concealed her dissatisfaction behind a smile. "How’s Ginger, anyhow? You’re spending a lot of time at her house, I heard?" 

"Ginger? Adney Walker?"

"Yes, Ms Walker. I don’t know why that’s her nickname."

Until this point, Anne had been anxious to end the conversation. Now, she wasn’t. "How long have you lived in Halifax?"

"I was born here. Don’t ask how long ago!" Mrs Priestley laughed. 

"Were you here when Ms Walker’s aunt found her?"

"Ah, you’re looking for her birth parents, I heard. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack if you ask me."

"So, you don’t know anything?"

"No. Most people don’t, either. If someone’s pregnant, we know about it. And if someone gave birth but didn’t have the baby with her, we would’ve noticed. That’s what we’ve told her aunt."

"They weren’t from here, perhaps."

"Perhaps." Mrs Priestley seemed disinterested. "Ms Lister, does the farm work keep you busy?"

"Not much?"

"Are you, by any chance, looking for extra income? There’s a night security guard job. The current guard, he wants to retire. He’s 68. You’ll make his life a little easier if you can help, just until we find someone officially. We can pay you in cash if you wish." 

It wasn’t a bad offer, considering her circumstances. The compensation for her work on the farm was abominable. She needed to pay the rent on her apartment in London. She’d love to take the family plus Marian to a buffet restaurant now and again, too. But the attic wasn’t finished yet. It’d be unwise to take on so many responsibilities at once.

Anne told Mrs Priestley that she’d sleep on it.

… 

"I wish Dad had been there," Eliza said at the dinner table that evening. "Dad used to sell computers. Have I told you that, Anne? Now he studies to be a system engineer." 

"I didn't know," Anne said. "Good for him."

"Did you learn anything today?" Adney said.

Eliza shoved a meatball in her mouth and nodded. "Travis's auntie is an architecter." She used the BSL for carpenter. "Kaede's dad works in the bank. Zayn's mum is a nurse. And Siobhan's cousin owns a flower shop." 

"And Anne," Adney said, "were people nice to you?"

Anne’s wide eyes looked at her. "They were."

It relieved Adney. Because of her association with the family, some people had a negative attitude towards Anne. It should’ve occurred to her. But it only did that afternoon, as her neighbours were coming home from Parents’ Career Day. 

"I’ll be a palaeontologist when I grow up," Eliza said.

"I'm going to be a painter," Naveen said. 

Eliza turned to Eugénie. "What about you?"

Eugénie avoided everyone’s gaze. "I don’t know."

The idea of the future always made her retreat into her shell. Adney could relate. As a child, she didn’t have dreams. 

"You have time," Anne said. "All the time in the world to try out new things. Go to foreign places, eat new things, and"—Anne grinned—"pursue your crush."

"You have a crush?" Eliza shouted.

"She didn't say that." Eugenie glared at her salad. 

Eliza was almost standing on her chair. "How tall are they? Their favourite dinosaur?"

Instead, Eugénie looked at Adney. "Ms Raine flirted with Anne." 

"She didn't," Anne said.

"Who's Ms Raine?" Naveen said.

"She’s our music teacher," Eliza said. 

Eugénie again talked to Adney. "They looked really intimate."

"Enough, Eugénie," Anne said softly. 

Adney had trouble keeping up. First, she assumed—based on Eugénie’s response—that she didn't have a crush. But Anne and Eliza acted as if she did. Then, the conversation topics shifted with no consistency. Not in the same haphazard way her brain worked. 

With a look, she begged Anne for an explanation like usual. Their eyes never met. As if Anne avoided her gaze. But it was probably Adney’s brain being mean.

Had Ms Raine flirted with her or not?

She'd met Ms Raine. A smart, beautiful, confident woman. Older than Adney, she had more life experience. A perfect match for Anne. The idea of Anne dating someone crystallised in her mind.  

Something inside her stirred and clogged her heart. Like—as she did the dishes—food scraps clogging the sink drain. Adney picked them up with a bare hand and tossed them in the sink rubbish bag.

"I ran into Mrs Priestley today," Anne said. "She wanted to know how you are."

Adney remembered she hadn’t given them her answer to their ‘new proposal’ yet.

"She offered me a job," Anne said, drying the dishes. "But I’m not sure. I still have the attic to fix. When it’s done, Marian would make me work harder on the farm. It’s a security guard job. At school at night. I haven't done a night shift in years."

A job at school. If Anne accepted it, she’d have many occasions to interact with the school staff. With Ms Raine.

"Why do people call you Ginger?"

"Ginger?"

"Mrs Priestley called you that." Anne squinted at her head. "Are you naturally a redhead?" 

"No." Adney chuckled. "Nobody but Mrs P uses that nickname these days."  

"Is it a character from a book?"

Adney shook her head. "I don't know who started it. But in secondary school, I must’ve got on my classmates’ nerves. They called me cookie-cutter behind my back. That changed to Gingerbread Ann. Over time, it shortened and became Ginger."

Anne grimaced. "And Mrs Priestley still uses it?"

"She means no harm, I think."

"Why should that matter? It’s an insult. It’s wrong." Anne slammed her hand against the edge of the kitchen counter. 

Adney shrank away. "Please, don't shout."

"I'm not shouting— Not at you. But you tell me this story as if it’s fiction. Why aren’t you angry?"

At that time, Adney had no idea her friends mocked her like that. She was glad to have a nickname. Only many years later, she realised it wasn’t a term of endearment. In a way, it was a secondhand experience.

"Sometimes," Anne said, "I feel like you don’t respect yourself."

But it wasn’t about respect. "I need to keep my children safe and happy. Their classmates could bully them. Children imitate their adults without knowing why they do it."

"How is that related to them calling you names?" Usually, Anne asked for an explanation with such patience when Adney was incoherent. Now, her voice was sharp with irritation. 

"I don’t know what they’d do if I rebelled against her."

"Rebel? Demanding respect isn’t rebellious."

Adney cowered. She wanted to get out of this conversation. 

Anne took away the towel Adney had been fiddling with. Gently, she took her hands. "Look, I didn’t mean to sound harsh. I’m sorry. I just want you to know that you don’t need to sacrifice yourself to make others happy. There’s always a way to have both."

"No, there isn’t. Not in this case. Mrs P is the leader of the community."

"I’ll talk to her—"

"Don’t. You’ll only complicate the situation."

As she’d feared, Anne looked annoyed. She dried the dishes with a towel in silence. And when it was finished, she left the kitchen without a word. 

But for this one, Adney didn’t want to apologise. Her decision was right. She’d always been obedient to her neighbours for her kids’ sake. (She’d endure more if necessary.) A few words from Anne couldn't change their power balance. 

If Anne rocked the boat, it’d sink with all her family in it. They wouldn’t die. But the water would be freezing cold. She’d never make them go through that, even if Anne despised her for it. 

Anne’s footsteps came towards the kitchen. Adney straightened her back, wiping away her tears quickly. 

Anne entered and, with a tender smile, came closer. Their hands connected. Her other arm came around Adney’s shoulder, gathering her in a hug. "I’m sorry."

Adney let a few tears soak her clothes. She itched to apologise out of habit, but resisted it. 

"Eugénie heard us." Anne chuckled. "She said we argue like a married couple, fighting over the well-being of the kids. And it made me realise it’s our first fight." With a warm hand, she cupped her cheek and smiled. "When I realised that, my anger vanished. I thought, I must share this with Adney."

"I thought we’d already had our first fight when I— After the buffet."

"I don’t see it as a fight. It was…"

"Just me having hysterics?"

Anne laughed. "Something like that." Her hand stayed on Adney’s cheek, drawing circles with her thumb.

The warmth made her dizzy. Her inner voice ordered her to pull away. Their distance was already small. This yearning would lead to disastrous consequences and hurt the kids in the end. But she knew, deep down, it wasn’t all about the kids.

She was scared for herself. 

"What’s wrong?" Anne said.

"Are you friends with Ms Raine?"

Anne seemed confused. "We went to school together and— Well, she’s my ex."

It felt like a punch in the gut. Why hadn’t she thought of the possibility? "She must know a lot about you, then." She couldn’t look at Anne’s face.

"I guess? It was the first relationship for both of us. Why? How do you know Bee?"

"Bee?"

"It’s her nickname. I gave it to her many years ago."

For some reason, this trivial knowledge hit her hardest. "Are you going to date her?"

Anne grimaced, and shook her head. "Forget what Eugénie said. She wasn’t flirting with me—"

"Because if you are, I should be fine with it." Hot tears came in her eyes. "But I’m not."

"Adney, I’m not going to date her. She used to know a lot about me, but—" 

"I can’t want to want you. Can’t. Not in another way than this. But I’m jealous. I don’t like this feeling. It’s toxic. It makes me a selfish person."

"Let’s calm down. Breathe." Anne took deep breaths with her. Securing her in a tight hug, she ran her fingers through Adney’s hair. 

Tears still rolled down her cheeks. "You make me afraid."

"Why?"

"Because, you make my sadness disappear with one hug. If I get used to this, I’m scared nothing else would ever matter."

"Adney…"

"I know it’s irrational. I just need to let this out."

Anne hugged her more tightly. "Don’t make yourself a villain for what your heart tells you."

"It’s the action that matters, not the feeling," Adney mumbled. It wasn’t a foreign concept. "But it still makes me feel dirty."

Anne’s voice was quiet. And, Adney thought, it trembled. "I don’t know how to make you stop feeling so. Adney, I’m in love with you. I still want you." Pulling away, she offered a weak smile. "If you knew how much I want you, you’d be jealous of yourself."

Despite everything, Adney blushed and giggled. "I don’t think it’s possible to be jealous of yourself."

"No?" Anne grinned. "I’m jealous of my future self, who is smarter than I am. And I'm jealous of my past self. My back didn’t hurt as a teenager."

Adney laughed. That was a new perspective. "In that case, I’m jealous of…" But nothing came to her. 

The present was good. Happier than her childhood because she was better at life now. (Not good. Just better.) Unlike the future, the present had no uncertainty. Now was good because it had Anne in it. In the future—

Adney looked up. "We don’t know how long you’ll stay."

"In Halifax? Until my suspension is over."

Adney shook her head. "I mean here. With me. You say you’re in love with me, and that’s why you’re here—"

"I’m here because I love every one of you."

But it wasn’t what Adney wanted to say. "Forget it. I shouldn’t have said this."

"Tell me. I won’t be cross."

Adney still hesitated. Translating her thoughts was hard. Every time her words got misunderstood, it physically drained her. "Nothing ties you to this place. You go back to London, and for a while, you may miss us—"

"Adney, I wouldn’t forget about you just because I moved to a different place." 

"Most of the children say that before leaving— I’m happy for them, of course. That means they’re too busy with their lives to think of me, right? For some, the overall experience in the foster care system isn’t positive—"

"But I’m not your foster child."

Adney was confused. "I know that?"

"I love this house." Anne took her hands. "Why do you think I’d forget about you?"

Her warmth invited more tears. "I’m not worried about that. But you won’t be in love with me forever. I don’t have to be jealous of Mr Raine. But I’m jealous of the people you’ll be in love with after me. If I can’t give you anything—" An idea struck her. 

She stared at Anne, at her lips. There was something Adney could give. Something Anne wanted. Adney put her hands on her shoulders and leant closer.  

But Anne pulled her face away. "Are you sure?"

Adney nodded. She was sure she wanted Anne to stay. Though with trepidation, she touched their lips. Just a feather-light touch. Anne never moved—it would’ve made it easier for Adney if she had—to turn it into a proper kiss. 

She only held Adney closer and whispered, "Don't let me fall."

… 

This turn of events left Anne pleasantly confused. Her only goal in the kitchen had been to reassure Adney. When she confessed her unchanged affection, she never meant for Adney to make any move. It almost felt like she’d manipulated her into this.

Their relationship had seen so many changes in such a short span of time. Even Anne felt strange. It must be disorienting for Adney. 

But Anne was cautiously optimistic. 

As the school holidays began, Anne and Eugénie prepared for the penultimate stage of the attic conversion. Sanding. They bought protective masks, goggles, and sandpaper, and borrowed other tools from Mr Pickles. For ventilation, the window was wide open.  

Anne sealed the gap in the door with plastic sheets and adhesive tape.

From the other side, the little ones knocked. "May we come in, please?"

"You may not," Anne said. "We have no air on this side."

"I’ll be fine," Naveen said. "I can stay underwater for 45 seconds." 

They gently tapped their hands against the door. "Let us in. Let us innn." 

Anne laughed. "It’ll be dusty. The dust is a hazardous material."

"But the back of the washing machine has dust, and we’re fine?" Eliza said.

"It’s a different kind. Sorry. But I’ve got a very important job for you two. Wait." Anne went up the stairs and found the toolbox in the attic’s corner. With the ‘blueprint’ Adney had given her in the beginning, she returned to the little ones and slipped the paper under the door. "We’ll paint the walls after this step. Your job is to pick colours. For everything. The walls, the ceiling, the door… As many colours as you wish."

Naveen let out an excited squeal. They ran to their room.

Anne sealed the gap under the door and went upstairs. Eugénie stood all prepared, with a bandana around her head of afro, goggles, and a mask. In her hand was Mr Pickles’ hand sander. She helped Anne put on her goggles. 

"Do you want me to teach you how to sand?" Eugénie said.

"Worry not. I did my homework."

"Fine. Just don’t overdo it and produce a lot of dust. The neighbours won't like it."

"Fuck them neighbours."

The purpose of this step was to remove the ridges created by mud. The texture of the mudded area was different from that of the drywalls. The difference was meager now, but a paint job would make it obvious. Sanding would fix it. 

Anne sat at the top of a ladder and sanded the upper part of the walls. The lower part was Eugénie’s patch.

"This is easy," Anne said. "We could finish this in a day."

"You said the same thing about mudding," Eugénie said, sanding a corner with a sanding sponge like it was her nemesis. "By the way, I can’t work tomorrow. It’s Mother’s Day."

"Shit. Already? What are you giving her?"

"Flowers. We’ll do chores for her, too."

"I’ll pay for the flowers," Anne said. "Let's buy her the biggest bouquet she’s ever seen."

Eugénie considered it and nodded. "I wish we could’ve given her good news about her parents."

The social media post continued to spread online. Every night, Anne and Marian checked comments on Facebook. The results so far only disappointed them. Twitter was the same. It felt like their post had reached everyone except Adney’s parents and their friends. 

"But"—Anne smiled to cheer her up—"at least, many people support her. Emotionally, financially. Not just us."

"Yeah…" Eugénie fell quiet, brooding. 

The silence carried on, putting an end to the conversation. The girl worked, but with her head stuck in the clouds.

At lunch, the little ones presented their colour scheme. Every surface differed in pattern and colour. Wall One was polka-dotted, Wall Two had diagonal stripes, Wall Three had horizontal waves, and Wall Four had flowers and dinosaurs. 

"No regard for minimalism or colour theory," Anne said. "I love it."

"The ceiling is the night sky." Eliza pointed at it on the paper. "It has stars and the moon. They glow in the dark. I wanted the sun, too, but Naveen said it’s weird. So, the sun is on the door."

The sun at the centre of the door had a smiley face.

"You can see the sun and the moon at the same time," Anne said. 

"Really?" the little ones said together.

"When you’re lucky. I still like this design."

Adney put her hand on Naveen’s shoulder. "Naveen, you had a question for her. Why don’t you ask?" 

Naveen gave a sheepish smile. "Can we paint the walls?"

"Of course," Anne said. "I plan to make you do all the work."

They explained, as they ate, why they chose each colour.

Back in the attic after lunch, Anne put the colour design paper and the blueprint in the toolbox. The walls around her were still white. They couldn’t finish the sanding fast enough. 

Anne climbed up the ladder. "Buying all the paints will be quite a task. Eugénie, want to paint the ceiling? It’s too dangerous for the little ones."

Eugénie hummed, still absent-minded. "I should make another post. For tomorrow. People might feel generous."

"That’s a marvellous idea."

"Yeah… Have you gone out with Ms Raine yet?"

Anne hadn’t expected that. "Bee? We had drinks last night."

"Does Adney know?"

"Yeah. Why?"

With a frown, Eugénie turned to the wall. "Maybe Adney is immune to jealousy."

It clicked for Anne. "Still trying to be our cupid, huh?"

"It’d make a nice Mother’s Day gift."

This didn’t surprise Anne. Neither she nor Adney had told the kids about their romantic relationship yet. They still acted the same way. On the surface, nothing looked different.

"We’re a couple now." Anne assumed a nonchalant air, but watched Eugénie from the corners of her eyes.

Eugénie’s hands stopped, the hand sander hovering off the wall. "What?"

"What?"

"Who are you talking about? Ms Raine?"

"No. Adney. Me and Adney."

Finally, Eugénie’s eyes sparkled. The reaction Anne had been waiting for. Taking off the goggles and mask, she came to the foot of the ladder. "Since when?"

"A week ago."

"Why didn’t you tell me?"

"I wanted you to focus on your exams. We weren’t hiding."

Eugénie mumbled something. "How did that happen? Have you kissed?"

"I’m not telling you." Anne laughed away her sudden embarrassment. "Get back to work." 

But Eugénie stayed there. "Haven’t kissed? That’s your gift for her tomorrow."

"We let her figure out her boundaries at her own pace," Anne said, but let her smile fall. They hadn’t kissed since that night, if that counted as such. "To be honest, I’m a bit scared. What if she rejected me when I made a move?"

A wicked grin appeared on Eugénie’s face. "I can fix that." 

Anne chuckled. "Don’t be teasing poor Adney so much."

"The problem is that she’s scared, too. Sometimes it’s easier if someone gives you a little push."

"Is that what you need to pursue your boy crush?"

Her smug smile vanished. Glaring up at her, Eugénie returned to her work area. 

"What’s his name? Do you miss him, since there’s no school? Why don’t you invite him for lunch?"

Eugénie was silent as she fixed her goggles and mask. "He’s the most popular kid at school," she mumbled. "Why would he want anything to do with me?"

"He gave you his number." Anne couldn’t suppress her laughter. "Life’s too short for so much doubt, Eugénie. Text him. He did his part. It’s your turn."

It took some moments, but Eugénie slowly came back to her. "Too short for so much doubt."

"Yeah."

"If I text him, will you make a move on Adney? Just a gesture that encourages her?"

How this girl had brought them back to the initial topic was a mystery. Anne had thought she’d successfully veered the conversation away. 

"Fine." Anne held out her pinky. 

Chapter Text

Mother’s Day, for Adney, was a busy day. This special day, she got up at 7. The kids would wake up early to prepare breakfast on her behalf. Adney had to help them. Otherwise, they’d have breakfast at noon.

In the kitchen, the kettle was already on. The kids had yet to come down. But their aprons were out on the chairs. The step stool from the loo was also in front of the kitchen counter.

Eugénie, in Adney’s apron, gave her a good morning hug. "I told you to sleep in today."

"I couldn’t. When did you get up?"

"Only five minutes ago."

"You must be tired, working in the attic all day yesterday."

"I’m good."

Adney turned the radio on. While the kettle boiled, they sat together in silence. The morning sun lit the street outside the window. A perfect day for laundry.

"You let us do everything today, okay?" Eugénie said. "Your job is to sit and relax."

It’d be a big challenge. "I’ll try."

Soon, the kids woke up, making faint coloured fogs of noises upstairs. When they came down, they all hugged one another. 

"Adney, are you hungry?" Eliza said. "Can you wait five minutes?" It was what Adney always said when preparing a quick snack for them.

"Yes, I can. Thank you," Adney said.

"Have you gone to the loo?" Eugénie said.

"We did." Naveen showed his palms. "Washed our hands, too."

"Good. Put on your aprons."

With Eugénie’s help, they put on aprons. A superhero apron for Eliza, and a flowery one for Naveen. Both aprons were old, from when Adney was a child. She didn’t recognise the superhero. Eliza tied her long hair in a ponytail. 

The cooking began. Slowly. The step stool from the bathroom wasn’t big or sturdy enough for two. So Eliza and Naveen took turns on it. They cracked eggs one by one, whisked them, and seasoned them. Adney stayed patient. 

So far, so good.

But when Eugénie turned the stove on, Adney couldn’t sit still. In silence, she hovered behind them. Eliza stood too close to the fire. "Eliza—" 

"Eliza, don’t look into the pan." Eugénie pulled her away slightly. 

The doorbell chimed. Adney hesitated. She hated to leave the kids even momentarily, but nobody showed any sign of leaving for the door. Desperate for a job, this was what she got. At lightning speed, she went to unlock the door. 

As the door opened, the sunlight reflected off the neighbour's window and dazzled her. (In the last ten minutes, the street had become brighter.) Adney squinted, letting her eyes adjust. When she recovered, this time, Anne’s smile blinded her.

"Morning." Anne stepped in and—her heart imploded—kissed the back of her hand. "Happy Mothering Day."

"You, too." Adney didn’t know it even made sense. 

"I thought you’d still be in bed?"

"I couldn’t— I woke up… Yeah." 

Thankfully, Naveen came to hug Anne. His presence sobered her up slightly, enough to bring all of them back to the kitchen. Anne hugged Eliza and waved at Eugénie. 

"We’re making eggs for you," Naveen said to Anne.

"Thank you. I’m very hungry." Anne communicated with him without an interpreter.

"They’ll be ready soon," Eugénie said. "Take a seat with Adney."

But Adney preferred to stand near the kids just in case. In her chair, she sat with the kitchen counter in her field of vision. The second best option. Her hand remained in Anne’s. The phantom of her lips lingered on her skin. 

"Anne, do you know what day it is?" Eliza said. "It's Mother’s Day!"

"What are you doing for your mum?" Naveen said.

"Oh," Anne said. With a strange expression, she looked at everyone. "She lives very far away. I don’t have anything planned."

Eliza fully turned her back on the stoves. "You can celebrate with us. Adney is everyone’s mum—" She frowned. "But when you become her wife, she can’t be your mum…?" With a wooden spatula in her hand, she sank into pensive silence.

Adney exchanged smiles with Anne. Confused and embarrassed. 

Marrying Anne. It didn’t register, like with all the ex-husbands-to-be. But Adney tried and could imagine them together, living in the house (They were already halfway there.), wearing matching rings. They’d be golden rings, maybe. Nothing extravagant. Or, no rings at all, if Anne had no issue. 

Ten minutes later, breakfast was served. The eggs were well-seasoned. The bacon was crispy. Naveen poured orange juice into glasses and spilt some, but Eugénie quickly wiped it off. When—if—they got married, a scene like this would be more common. 

Adney would like that. 

After breakfast, the kids did the dishes. After that, the laundry. 

The washer and the drier stood in the kitchen. There was no need for Adney to leave the room. But Anne took her to the living room, away from the kids. 

"Relax here. I’ll make some tea." Anne returned to the kitchen.

Down the hallway, the kids were bringing the laundry basket from the bathroom. Eugénie and Eliza on either side, and Naveen touching his hands to the clothes. The washer would be tricky for them. It was old. Been in this house ever since Adney could remember. And old machines had their own characters.

Adney stood up from the sofa and peeked into the kitchen. It looked like the kids knew the first rule of laundry. Separating white clothes from coloured ones. They were almost done putting the first load of laundry. But— 

"Someone’s impatient." Anne grinned at her, preparing the cups on the counter. 

"I need to— The washer’s door doesn’t close easily—"

"I got it." Eugénie closed the door, pushed it upward, and pressed the upper right corner. It clicked shut. 

"I want to push the buttons!" Eliza said.

Naveen raised his hand. "Me, too!"

Eugénie let them.

The kettle water was ready. With a tea tray, Anne led her back to the living room. "If Eugénie says she’s got it, she’s got it. Trust her."

"Of course, I do. It still makes me feel guilty she’s always working like a housekeeper."

"It’s her own choice." Anne poured her a cuppa and sat beside her. 

In the kitchen, it sounded like the kids were putting the dishes and utensils away. The clattering sound made her jittery. 

"I didn’t have her last year," Adney said. "She was here. But she was new and didn’t trust me yet. Last year was busier because of that. The kids almost poured bleach directly on the clothes, thinking it was a detergent. We don’t use a detergent. Only baking soda, for the environment."

"You’d rather do everything yourself?"

"It’s what I’m used to."

"They want to help you," Anne said. "Watching them, I often wonder what I could’ve done for my mother."

It reminded Adney now. Marian had once told her about their deceased mother. Far away. Their mother lived far away. 

"You can tell them about your mother. They understand what death is."

"Didn’t want to trigger them. I don’t know their circumstances."

"Eliza’s mother left when she was a baby. Eugénie’s mother is no longer with us. We don’t know anything about Naveen’s parents."

After a moment of silence, Anne gave a tender smile. "Think of it this way. This day is for them as much as for you. Without you, they couldn’t have celebrated it again. For me, too. You give me a second chance."

It was for the kids and Anne. The weight of her anxiety rolled off her shoulders. "I love that you always teach me new perspectives. You’re far better at this than me."

"This?"

"Life." Adney smiled. "It doesn’t come to me naturally. Being human."

The kids left the kitchen. "Adney, we will clean our rooms now!" Eliza’s voice echoed.

When their footsteps reached upstairs, Anne looked at her. "Now, I’d like to teach you the art of being spoilt. But you can only learn it through rigorous practice." She brought Adney’s hand to her lips, kissing her knuckles. "Tell me what you want."

Earlier, Anne had kissed her right hand. Now, it was the left one. Heat numbed both of her hands, spreading through her body. Something made a chiming sound, Adney faintly registered. It sounded like the notification sound on her phone. But her senses were overwhelmed with everything Anne, whose hand moved to caress her cheek.

Adney leant forward. Around Anne’s neck, she wrapped her arms. 

Anne chuckled. "Is this your wish?"

"Nobody’s ever hugged me before, except for my children."

"Not even your aunt?"

Adney shook her head. Closing her eyes, she nuzzled her neck. Anne’s body looked muscular and hard. But in reality, it was soft and warm. Very warm. And Anne’s lips brushing against her neck burnt her even more. Her soft breathing touched Adney’s ear, fogging her entire vision. It drove her mad. 

But they jumped away from each other when Naveen came in. 

"I want a hug, too." He dived into their arms. "We made the beds. Eugénie is taking out the hoover now."

Adney took sip after sip of her tea, trying to calm her drumming heart. She was grateful for his interruption. The touch of Anne’s lips had got her overstimulated. She had trouble keeping it under control. 

"Naveen." Eugénie entered the room. "You said you needed to pee. Have you gone to the loo?"

"Not yet," he said. "Anne and Adney were hugging, and I wanted to join."

Eugénie gave Adney a sympathetic look. It made her flush. "Come on, Nav. Let them hug alone." She led him out of the room, mouthing ‘sorry’ at them.

Adney was too embarrassed to look at Anne. Luckily, her phone on the table chimed again. There were two notifications from the cash app. Both had a message saying, Happy Mothering Day.

Her mortification vanished. She showed the screen to Anne. "Two people have donated to me in the past ten minutes." 

"Eugénie said she’d make another post for today. This should be it."

Opening the app, Adney checked the transactions. The first one was twenty pounds. The second was fifty. 

Looking at the screen, Anne whistled. "Generous people." 

"This must be a mistake?"

"Why? This is amazing, Adney. And it’s still morning. Who knows how many more donations you’ll get today. You may not need to bake all the time anymore."

Adney enjoyed baking. But the idea of having fewer visits from her neighbours was enticing.

By the time the kids finished the cleaning upstairs, the washer had stopped. They hung the clothes out to dry in the backyard. (But only Eugénie could reach the laundry line. The kids undertook the role of handing articles of clothing and pegs to her.)

Lunch was rice with vegetables. Again, they made Adney sit in the kitchen and watch them use fire. They even used a knife to chop up vegetables. It gave her a stomachache, and they had no idea. But she laughed when Eliza sprinkled spices like it was pixie dust.

The kids’ nap time offered a chance for rest. Eugénie left the house and went somewhere, too. Adney was alone with Anne, and she spent it in her arms. 

There was an air—it could be her misinterpretation—that it might turn into another neck-kissing cuddle like in the morning. But listening to Anne’s heartbeats, she fell asleep and only woke up when the kids woke up upstairs.

"I’m sorry. I didn’t realise—" 

"No apologies," Anne said. "I enjoyed being your pillow. Genuinely."

Adney massaged her neck. "Strange. My neck doesn’t hurt. It always does after sleeping on this sofa."

"You talk in your sleep. Do you know that?"

"What? What did I say?"

"Something very embarrassing and weird." With a huge grin, Anne stood up and stretched.

Adney couldn’t tell if this was a joke. "Nobody’s ever mentioned it before."

"Because they’re very embarrassed." Anne’s grin remained. She burst into laughter. "I’m messing with you, Adney. You didn’t say anything." She planted a playful kiss on her forehead. 

Adney didn’t have time to react as the kids came down. Right on cue, Eugénie also returned. She had an enormous bouquet, hiding her face completely. It filled the room with a strong scent of roses and carnations. If Adney could see the colours of smells, it would’ve blinded her. 

"Happy Mother’s Day." Eugénie handed it to her. "Thanks for being the best mum."

Adney couldn’t find words. "I don’t know how to… I’m not good at receiving gifts."

"Get used to it," Anne said and winked. "You can’t escape our love." 

"We’ve made something for you, too!" Eliza said.

Eugénie and Anne put the bouquet in several vases—they didn't have a vase big enough—and decorated many parts of the house with them. They politely but stubbornly declined Adney's offer to help. So, she sat with the kids and received their gift. A handmade photo frame. 

"I made it at school," Eliza said. "And Naveen painted it."

"This is beautiful." Adney pulled both of them into a hug. "I can't wait to put a family photo in this."

"Is this the best gift ever?" Naveen said.

"I can’t pick favourites. All the gifts you and your siblings have given me are unique. I love them all. But I promise, I’ll never forget this day."

Anne sliced apples for a snack, then. In the warm living room, the kids ate. Naveen shared a slice with Adney, and Eliza and Eugénie gave her one each, too. This was happiness, Adney knew. Their own version of happiness. Nobody else in the universe had it. 

By the end of the day, an astounding number of people had donated money. It felt like a dream, a little nightmarish. Having so much money at once made her uneasy. So many supportive strangers, even when Adney had nothing for them. She'd never imagined a world like this. 

But she could buy new clothes for the kids, especially for Eugénie. And—she remembered it—pay Anne for the attic makeover. Even then, a considerable amount would remain for Eugénie's uni.

… 

On Adney’s street, there were many puddles. It’d been raining since the night before. Anne jumped over them, running in the downpour. Once, she miscalculated her move and shoved her foot into a deep puddle. Her solution was to run faster. Fortunately, her boots were water-resistant. 

Arriving at Adney’s house, she knocked on the door. There were a few pauses until it opened. She brushed raindrops off her jackets, slipped in, and kicked off her boots.

Adney looked horrified. "Where’s your umbrella?"

"It wasn’t raining hard when I left home. It’s only a five-minute run."

"You’ll catch a cold." 

Adney led her by the hand through the hallway. In the bathroom, She threw a bath towel over Anne’s head to dry her hair. But soon, she withdrew her hands. 

"You’re not a child." Adney apologised. "You can do it yourself."

Anne patted her smartphone dry before herself. "You can take care of me if I get a cold." 

"I’d rather not." Adney chuckled. 

"Don’t tell Marian, though. She told me to take an umbrella, and I ignored."

As her hair became dry enough, Anne took her hand and pulled her closer. She kissed her knuckles once. Adney ducked her head, which revealed her bare neck to Anne’s eyes. Anne ached to press her lips against it again.

"What were you doing?" Anne said. "Where are the little ones?" 

"The kids are in the living room. Eugénie is upstairs. I’ll make you a warm cuppa."

They walked down the hallway. While Adney entered the kitchen, Anne went to the little ones. 

They were on the sofa. But they were facing the window, with their heads behind the rainbow flag, motionless. On the floor was Lego they’d been playing with. Anne took cautious steps, keeping her eyes on the Lego-ed floor, and walked over to them. Still, there was no response. Maybe it was their new game. She put a finger under the flag to peek in. 

Naveen noticed her at last. "Anne! We’re watching the sky."

"Ah, I see." Anne lifted the bottom edge of the flag and draped it over the curtain rod. "Better?"

He nodded. The sky blinked, and after a couple of seconds, they heard thunder rumbling. He clapped his hands. 

"Do you like thunder, Naveen?" Not knowing the sign for thunder, she pointed at the sky and made an explosion gesture instead. 

With a bright smile, Naveen drew a vertical wave with his index finger. "Thunder. I can hear it. Black and gold is my favourite combination, too!"

The sun behind the thick clouds was setting, painting the sky dark grey. It’d be black soon.

Eliza was next to him, morose. She flinched slightly at another sharp clap of thunder. 

"Eliza isn’t a fan?" Anne said.

"I’m not scared." Eliza crossed her arms in front of her chest. "It’s just hard to predict when thunder comes. Sometimes it’s too fast and too loud."

"Sit with her?" Naveen said to Anne. "Emotional support."

Eliza finished interpreting for him and gave a shrug. "If Anne likes."

Anne sat next to her. The rain fell against the window. They had completed the sanding stage in the attic the day after Mother’s Day. Anne was relieved they hadn’t had this level of rain during the task.

With a cup of tea, Adney came over and handed it to her. "Be careful. It’s hot."

"Do you want to sit with us?" Anne said. 

Adney looked at the sky with a weary smile. "I wish I could. But I’m busy."

"Need any help?"

"No. Just doing some research online. Stay with them." Adney then said, "You’ll feel safer with Anne, won’t you, Eliza?"

Eliza looked at Adney, at Anne, and back at the sky. Too proud to admit it. 

After sharing a silent laugh with Anne, Adney returned to the kitchen. Thunder rumbled again. Elia gripped the back of the sofa. 

Anne wanted to make it less scary for her. She took out her phone and did an image search. "Want to see something cool, Eliza?" Anne showed the pictures of volcanic lightning. "When a volcano erupts, the ash causes friction, and it creates lightning."

The little ones held the phone in their hands. Their eyes grew round as they scrolled down for more images. 

"Is this where the thunder god lives?" Eliza said.

"Possible."

"I want this on the attic ceiling," Naveen said. "The stars at the centre. And lightning around them like bahhh!" 

Anne wasn’t sure if her artistic skills would suffice. It’d probably look like sea weeds. "Let’s ask Eugénie, later. Is that okay, Eliza?"

Eliza nodded, now relaxed. But she stiffened at another flash in the sky. "I’m okay. I used to be more scared. But Naveen can hear it. I like it if it makes him happy. And when I cover my ears like this"—she put her hands over her ears—"and say ahhh, I can’t hear it as much. Ahhh."

Naveen mimicked her. It seemed he could hear the vibration of his voice. With delighted giggles, he kept doing it. 

The sky blinked and rumbled, but neither of them reacted to it.

… 

Lightning and thunder stopped after sunset, though it still rained. The little ones were now building their thunder castle with Lego. 

Anne went to the kitchen with an empty cup. There was a laptop and an open notebook on the table. But instead of working, Adney was cradling her head in her hands.  

"What’s wrong?" Anne said.

"Nothing. It’s a minor headache."

Anne washed the cup, put it in the dish rack, and sat in a chair. "How’s the research going?"

"I’m looking at furniture to buy for the attic. Bed sets, desks, bookshelves, chests of drawers…"

"Plural?"

"It’s big enough to share. My aunt used to put four of us in the room Eliza and Naveen are using now. I don’t want that for my children. But I think two is okay."

"I can build them. I love assembling furniture." An idea came to Anne. "Maybe I could build them from scratch, if I had clear instructions."

Adney chuckled. "I wouldn’t ask that much from you." She touched the laptop’s touch-pad. "There are so many choices. Have bed frames always been so expensive? I’ve never had to buy furniture before."

Anne peeked at the screen. The price tags on the bed frames ranged from seventy to two-hundred pounds. "Good thing you’ve got extra income."

Adney’s smartphone chimed. The notification had the cash app’s name. 

Adney unlocked it and sighed. "Do you think it’s rude not to thank them individually? I used to, at first. Now, there are too many."

"Too many supporters?" Anne laughed. "Such a wonderful thing to complain about."

Adney looked hurt.

"Sorry. It was a joke," Anne said, taking her hand. "They’ll understand. If not, what can they do?"

"They could demand their money back?"

"Egoistic people wouldn’t give away money to begin with. Surely."

Absentmindedly, Adney flipped through the notes. There was a memo that caught her attention. She placed a finger on it like capturing a fleeing insect. "I need to pay you. Here, I took a note so I’d remember."

"Pay for what?"

"For the attic. You told me we’d talk about it when it was done." 

Anne cursed inwardly that Adney remembered it. "It’s not done yet."

"It will be."

"Adney, I don’t need money."

"But I can pay." Adney grimaced, then. "You need to tell me how much. But zero isn’t an answer." 

"Okay. One quid."

"Don’t be daft." Adney scratched her head with the head of her pen. Its clip got entangled in her hair. Confused, she pulled the pen and her hair with it.

Anne loved her. "Hold still." She stood behind her and gently removed the malicious pen from her hair. 

"Thank you." Adney massaged her scalp, then grimaced. 

"Did I pull your hair?"

"No. It’s my headache. It happens when it pours. Don’t worry. It’s psychological." 

"Psychological or not, it’s still hurting you. Want a massage?"

Adney hesitated. "I’ve never had one before."

"I’ll stop if you don’t like it." Anne stood behind her again. In her blonde curls, she buried her fingers, pressing her finger pads against her scalp. 

Adney’s shoulder relaxed as she breathed out. Her head came to rest against Anne’s chest. 

Anne imagined she had her eyes closed, her lips slightly parted. 

"Naveen can," Anne said, "hear thunder. He can hear the hammering sound, too."

"He can."

"Have you considered getting him a hearing aid?"

"We’ve tried. He hated it." Adney chuckled. "Maybe we’ll give it another try when he’s older."

As Anne sandwiched her head between the heels of her hand, Adney groaned and sighed. It made Anne hot all over, feeling inappropriate thoughts flooding her mind. She hadn’t meant to make this intimate moment sexual.

"How is it?" Anne said.

Adney groaned again. "Can you… A little harder."

Worse. Anne had made it worse. 

"My stepfather was a construction worker," Adney said. "On rainy days, he often got drunk at home, yelling at me." 

"The husband of your aunt?"

"A different person. I lived with the family when I was ten. After six months, they decided not to adopt me. So I came back here." Adney turned around, looking up at her. "I’m glad I did. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have inherited this house. And I wouldn’t have met you."

Anne’s heart was full. She cupped Adney’s cheeks and ran her thumb over her bottom lip. Would a quick peck hurt? Adney glanced at her lips. This was their moment.

"Oh, fuck."

Anne jumped back and looked at Eugénie, who stood in the doorway with her hands in the air.

"Sorry." Eugénie took steps back. "I didn’t know—"

"Come back in," Anne said. "What do you need? Tea?"

"Just a glass of water…" Eugénie grabbed the water filter container out of the fridge and poured a glass. As she drank, she looked at Anne. Her teasing smile grew bigger. 

Adney was frantically fixing her hair.

Fleeing from the discomfort, Anne went to look out the window. "Still raining."

"I hope it’ll stop when you go home," Adney said. "Maybe ask Marian to pick you up?"

Eugénie grinned. "You can stay over. The kids would love it."

"But the sofa is too uncomfortable," Adney said. "It always gives me neck pain."

Anne smiled gently. "That’s because of your sleeping position. You twist your neck."

Adney’s hand flew to her neck. She chewed over it, and finally connected the dots.   

"You can share the bed," Eugénie said. "No one will accidentally interrupt your quality time."

Adney went red. "But she doesn’t have her pyjamas." 

"Maybe she sleeps naked."

"Are you going somewhere, Eugénie?" Anne pointed at the bag over her shoulder, saving themselves from this ordeal. "In the rain?"

Eugénie’s cockiness vanished. She avoided their gazes. "I’m… meeting with a friend." 

Adney tilted her head at her. "You look different. Are you wearing makeup?"

"Just experimenting with a new style…" Eugénie mumbled. 

Anne crossed the room to take a closer look. There was faint glitter on her eyes and tinted gloss on her lips. Her eyebrows also looked trimmed. Anne twigged. This involved her boy crush. 

Eugénie gave a warning scowl.

"You look pretty," Adney said, oblivious. "Where are you going?"

"To the cafe near the station."

"Don’t forget your umbrella."

Eugénie glanced out the window. "It’s not raining much."

Adney looked at Anne as if she’d instilled this attitude in the girl.

"Take an umbrella," Anne said to Eugénie. "You never know."

The doorbell rang. Anne rushed to the window, pressing her cheek against it to see the person at the door. Their face was hidden behind an umbrella.  

… 

Adney was on her laptop until it was time to prepare dinner. Her research was fruitless. But she’d read so many descriptions of mattresses that she was now semi-expert. Tomorrow, it’d be easier. Hopefully.

Eugénie came home twenty minutes before dinner. Anne was with her in the kitchen, setting the table. But suddenly, she went to the window. Adney then heard voices outside. 

"What’re you doing?" Eliza mimicked her. "Oh, Eugénie’s home."

Naveen intimated them. Now, there were three people pressing their faces against the window. What was happening, Adney didn’t know. It was only Eugénie talking to her friend. Anyhow, there was no sign of danger. She focused on the chicken in the pan. 

"Who’s that boy?" Eliza said. "Wait, is that her crush?"

"You know him?" Anne said.

"I’ve seen him at school. He’s Mr Greco’s son. I once asked Eugénie if she liked him. She didn’t answer."

The faint voices outside stopped, followed by retreating footsteps. The front door opened. There was the sound of an umbrella being shaken.

Anne rubbed her hands together. "Alright, kids. Don’t ask her too many questions. It’ll annoy her."

As the kids nodded, Eugénie walked in. Her natural hair twinkled with raindrops. Her shoulders were damp. But she didn’t look cold at all. She had a small, but content smile.

"Did you have fun?" Adney said, receiving a hug.

Eugénie nodded. But, at the other three, she gave a suspicious frown. They grinned at her as if they knew her secret. (Except for Naveen. He was simply happy to see her.)  

"Only one question." Eliza held up her index finger. "Has he kissed you yet?"

Eugénie’s eyes went wide. "No."

Witnessing her embarrassment, Adney twigged at last. Eugénie liked that boy. The crush that she'd said she didn’t have. 

That evening, after putting the kids to bed, Adney went to Eugénie’s room. It rained still. Eugénie was sitting on her bed. 

"I’m reading the comments on my Twitter post. Come in."

Adney walked in with a pack of wipes. "I realised we don’t have any makeup remover. But these baby wipes can work."

"I have one. Didn’t you see it in the sink cabinet?" The faint makeup on her face was gone. 

"I must’ve overlooked it." Adney sat on the edge of her bed. "Where have you learnt to put on makeup?"

"Youtube. My friends gave me some products they didn’t need anymore."

Adney hadn’t known the internet could teach such things. Climbing into the bed, she sat next to Eugénie. "Do they peer pressure you into it? You’re beautiful the way you are."

"I told you, it’s just an experiment."

"Okay," Adney said. "You have a teacher. I’m glad. It’s something we can’t teach, Anne and I." 

Eugénie laughed. "Where’s Anne?"

"She went home. I lent her an umbrella."

"Could’ve stayed over. A wasted opportunity, I’d say." 

The memory of her earlier teasing returned. She flushed. The simple image of Anne lying on her bed almost short-circuited her. And the idea of her sleeping naked! Rationally, Anne would never do it without her consent. Still, her mind ran wild. Like she was a girl in puberty. 

"So, your friend," Adney said. "What’s his name?"

"Henry. He isn’t my boyfriend."

"You told us during dinner. I believe you. Does he treat you well?

Eugénie nodded. 

"Treat other girls well, too?" 

"Yeah. He’s a good person. That’s why I—" Eugénie tightened her lips and looked away.

"Like him?" Adney chuckled. "He’s good to you. That’s all I need to know. I won’t tease you like you tease me."

With a shy smile, Eugénie shook her head. "’Cause you were getting cold feet. Still are. Why didn’t you tell me you’d started dating?" 

"Oh. Anne wanted you to focus on your exams. I agreed. But I didn’t know how to— I still don’t know what it means to me."

"What your relationship means to you?"

"It’s still the same. We like each other. It just has a different name."

"Names are important," Eugénie said. "Isn’t it why you get upset when someone forgets the accent mark in my name?"

She got a point.

"Names matter," Adney said to herself. "We’re a couple. Girlfriends."

"Why don’t you go on a date? You only spend time together at home, looking after the kids. No wonder you feel no difference."

"But they can’t be left alone."

"I will stay with them, of course."

Adney smiled. "I can’t make you. You’re not their mother."

Her phone chimed in her dress pocket. Another notification of donation. The clock read five minutes past ten. Adney turned on Do Not Disturb Mode. 

She looked up. The bottom side of the stairs occupied some space above the bed. The hole Anne had created now had grey drywalls. They had white spots and lines. The work of mudding, Adney assumed. They’d probably sanded them, too.  

"Doesn’t it feel claustrophobic?" Adney pointed at them.

"I got used to it."

"It’s the first time I sit under them. We haven’t done this since Anne began working. I realised it now. I love our little chat." 

"Yeah…" Eugénie forced a tiny smile. Perhaps these moments didn’t mean as much to her. 

Even if so, Adney was fine with that. She wished they could have them now and then (as infrequently as Eugénie could tolerate) forever. But she kept it a secret. Forever was a forbidden wish. 

"You will paint them, right?" Adney pointed at the walls. She looked around the room. "Is it a lot of work to repaint the entire room? What colour do you want?"

Eugénie shrugged. "I don’t care if we didn’t paint them. But this won’t be my room forever. Might as well do it now."

Forever. How Adney wished its shadow would leave them alone. For just one second, if not forever. 

Adney patted her on the knee. "I'll let you go. Don’t stay up too late, okay?" 

"I’ll read more comments and get a shower."

Adney took a peek at her phone screen. It had lots of comment bubbles. "I feel like I should help you. It’s about me."

Eugénie shook her head. "It’s not so hard. Once you get used to it, you know how to spot the important ones."

"Okay. Goodnight." After a hug, Adney climbed off the bed and went to the door. 

"Adney," Eugénie said. "Think about going out on a date with her. I can look after the kids. I’m serious."

"Okay." Adney, with a smile, closed the door. 

For the rest of the night, she regurgitated that near-kiss moment from the afternoon. She’d wanted it. And it could produce a change in their relationship. A tangible change. Not hugs. Kisses. But every time Anne looked at her, it scared her. Kissing had always been an alien thing with her ex-husbands-to-be. Perhaps, it wasn’t for her. 

She wanted it, with Anne. But what if the moment their lips touched, her desire vanished? 

Chapter Text

The day finally came for the little ones to paint the attic walls. Anne and Eugénie had already got paints from the store. Paint rollers, brushes, and other tools were, as usual, borrowed from Mr Pickles. They’d primed the walls and applied masking tape. The rest was up to the little ones. 

Eliza showed off her ragged clothes. "Adney said we can get paint on them."

Naveen brought his sleeve to his nose. "Smells funny."

"And we got shoes on." Eliza showed them the sole of her shoe. "Inside the house!"

"Good," Anne said. "Let’s go over the rules. What’s the number one safety rule?"

"No running," the little ones said together.

"And no touching the painted walls." Eugénie brought cans of paint from the corner and placed them in front of them. "You’ll want to leave handprints. Resist."

Eliza pointed at the cans. "Why are there only three colours? How can we paint the room like we designed?"

"You can make any colour by mixing these three," Eugénie said. "Naveen knows about it."

Naveen nodded so hard Anne thought he’d dislocate his neck. "The primary colours!"

Back at the store, Anne was going to buy all the colours listed on the colour scheme sheet. But Eugénie reminded her of the primary colours just in time. It’d saved Anne and her bank account. 

"What’s that one?" Eliza pointed at the big can still in the corner. 

"That one is a primer," Anne said.

"I know what that is!" Naveen said. "It makes colours clearer. You have to put it first."

"Right. But Eugénie and I already did that. The walls are white, see?"

The little ones looked around and nodded. 

"Ready?" Anne held the scheme sheet in front of them. "Which wall do you want to paint first?" 

By kids’ telepathy, the little ones played rock-paper-scissors. After three draws, Eliza won. 

The winner studied the sheet. "First, I want… Eeny, meeny, miny, moe— Green!"

"I was going to say green, too," Naveen said. 

"Green it is. On Wall Three." 

Anne poured blue and yellow paint into a tray, mixing them until the little ones were satisfied with the shade of green. She gave small paint rollers to them.

Eliza, after dipping her roller in the paint, held it up. "Is this good?" The paint dripped and splashed back into the tray.

"Get rid of the excess," Eugénie said. "If it’s too much, it’ll run down the wall." 

She helped Eliza until she understood how to use the roller. Then, she helped Naveen. 

Wall Three had masking tape on to create horizontal waves. It’d been the most time-consuming taping work in the attic. The little ones, though, meticulously avoided the tape. With the edge of their rollers, they painted like colouring inside the lines. 

"You can paint over this." Anne tapped a finger on the tape. "We’ll peel it off later. And after this green paint dried, we put tape on it for protection while you paint the white part."

"Like crayon etching?" Naveen said.

Anne didn’t get the reference. "Yeah. Eliza, may I borrow your roller?" She received it and painted a vertical line over the tape. "Like that."

The little ones mimicked her. It was the best method, and they never did it any differently. Anne supervised them from the centre of the room. This process delighted her. It felt like they were making tangible progress. 

Eugénie stood next to her. "Aren’t you working?"

"I’m letting the forewoman handle everything. And the worker ants."

"What does that make you?"

"CEO?"

Eugénie narrowed her eyes at her, but with a tiny smile. She looked at the painted wall. "It’ll be a bitch to make waves again."

"Don’t remind me."

Eliza turned around with a raised hand. "Anne, question! We can’t touch the painted walls. But can we paint with our hands?"

The little ones already had paint on their clothes. It’d get messier no matter what. 

"Ask the forewoman," Anne said. 

Eugénie shrugged. "Why not? Go ahead." 

With triumphant cheers, they dipped their hands in the paint. 

"Fuck," Eugénie mumbled. "We should’ve told them to wash dust off their hands first."

How-to videos had warned about dust in paint jobs. It was too late. The little ones were leaving handprints everywhere, having the time of their lives.

Anne shrugged it off. "Nobody will notice."

"Eugénie. For-woman." Eliza, with green hands, beckoned to her. 

Eugénie went and, as Eliza cupped her hands over her mouth, knelt to give her an ear. Eliza whispered with giggles. The whole time, their gazes were on Anne.

"Like for body painting?" Eugénie said to Eliza. "Let me check." She picked up the paint can and examined the product label. 

Eliza’s grin widened. "Anne, is this paint safe for your skin?"

"You’re up to no good, are you?" Anne said.

"It’s safe," Eugénie said. "Make sure it doesn’t get in your eyes or mouth." 

Eliza went to Naveen, going hehehe, and plotted a mischief. Since she hid behind him, Anne couldn’t see their conversation. Eugénie, an accessory to this, had her smartphone out.

At last, the little ones came over to her. 

"Anne, you have an eyelash on your cheek," Eliza said. "Let me remove it for you. Close both of your eyes."

"Please," Naveen said.

Kneeling down, Anne did as told and braced herself for their secret prank. Their wet fingers touched her face. Anne stayed still and quiet, but scrunched up her nose when they touched the tip of her nose. 

"Done!" Eliza giggled after their successful mission. "Eugénie, take a picture!"

"I’m filming," Eugénie said.

Anne stood up. "What’s going on with my face? Let me see."

Eugénie gave her phone to her.

The camera’s selfie mode was on, displaying Anne’s face. They’d drawn whiskers and a nose. On her right cheek, the whiskers were neat. But on the other, they were thick. The paint ran down slightly. Eliza had put too much on her finger.

"You look like Grinch," Eugénie said.

Anne gave back the phone. "Thanks."

"Adney should see this," Naveen said.

"A good idea." Eugénie looked at Anne. "You can stay downstairs with Adney. She said she needed to hoover the washing machine."

"What’s that mean?"

Eugénie shrugged.

… 

Adney stared down at the washer in the kitchen. The old machine had an ugly amount of dust at the back. She’d hoovered it, as far as it could reach. Now she itched to clean the inside, too. They’d never done it since she’d inherited the house.

The doorbell chimed twice. 

As she walked to the door, there came a knock. Through the peephole, she looked— She broke into a sweat at the sight. It wasn’t a hallucination. Taking a deep breath, Adney opened the door and smiled at Mrs P. 

"Ginger, there you are. May I come in?" She already had her foot in the door, literally.

Adney let her in. (Or rather Mrs P let herself in.) They went into the living room. 

"I rang the doorbell a few times." Mrs P sat down on the sofa. "When you didn’t answer, I started to worry this was a bad time. It’s not, is it?"

"No. It’s— I’ll make some tea," Adney said.

Back in the kitchen, she nearly tripped over the hoover’s electric cord. She put the kettle on. They only had shop-bought biscuits. Better than nothing. Her sweating wouldn’t stop. School was on spring break. She wasn’t baking. This visit by Mrs P meant something else. Some serious business. 

With a cup of tea and a plate of biscuits, she returned to the living room. 

"Working hard, are they?" Mrs P pointed a finger towards the ceiling.

The kids and Anne were working in the attic. But there were only their footsteps and laughter. No loud noises.

"They are painting the walls," Adney said.

"I hope they also study, even during a break." It felt threatening. Everything coming out of Mrs P's mouth did.

Adney took a seat. "Is everything alright?"

"Don’t look so frightened." Mrs P laughed. "It’s not a crime to check up on your neighbours. We’re always worried about you."

"That’s very kind."

"And we’re pleased you’ve been blessed lately."

Adney didn’t know what it meant.

"Financially, I mean."

"Oh, the donations?"

"Someone told me. I wouldn’t have known it otherwise." Mrs P raised her eyebrows. A look asserting she’d never snoop around if given a choice. It'd be barbaric of her. "It’s impressive how people can ask for money online these days. Unfathomable in my day."

"It was Ms Lister’s idea."

"You’ve grown close to her, haven’t you?"

Adney went red. She smiled to keep calm. "She’s smart. I’ve never had an older person as a close friend. She teaches me many things about life, about the world—"

"Speaking of which—" Mrs P put down her cup. Out of her purse, she took her tablet the size of a magazine. 

It clicked. This was the goal of her unannounced visit. Mrs P had taken out that tablet many times before.

"Mrs Cole has told you about my distant cousin, I presume?" Mrs P said. "The photo she showed you was too formal. I asked him for ones that capture the more natural side of him. Look."

Mrs P showed her pictures of the same black man. Him on a golf course. Him at a New Year’s party. Him at the gym, posing in the mirror. 

Adney should’ve seen this coming. Her neighbours never abandoned their project once they found someone for her. It’d slipped out of her mind. Avoiding this would’ve been unachievable. But Adney always liked to, at least, be mentally prepared. 

"He also enjoys cooking. A versatile man. You can cook together." Mrs P stared at her, demanding a reply.

Adney considered saying yes. It could get her out of this. Her neighbours always left her in peace after Adney met her husband-to-be. Say yes now, and she could reject him on Day One— 

"Well?" Mrs P said. "Should I arrange dinner for you two?"

"I can’t leave my kids alone."

"Ms Pierre is old enough to babysit them. They could go with you if you’d like. That’s an option. He loves children."

He sounded sweet. Adney didn’t have the guts to be rude to him. 

Mrs P was staring. "How old are you, Ginger?"

"Twenty eight, ma’am."

"He could be the best man you’d ever meet. Opportunities like this come less frequently as you get older. We won’t give up on you, of course. But we can’t force anyone to marry you." Mrs P listed all the things that proved he was one of the best. A superb cook, loved children, good looking… 

Adney zoned out.

"… He knows about your situation and still wants to try this."

"What situation?"

"The kids." Mrs P pointed towards the ceiling. "Men like him are an endangered species."

They could go extinct today. Adney wouldn’t mind. Her situation? As if her children were a burden. "Can we do this another time? I’m busy with other stuff." 

"He can help you with it. Whatever it is."

"I don’t think he enjoys managing our finances on the first date—"

"He does it for a living. An insurance man, remember?" Mrs P made no effort to hide her growing impatience.

Adney, too, felt restless. She needed—not wanted—to pace around the room.

"Ginger, is there something you haven’t told us? You’re not usually this rebellious." 

Rebellious. 

Adney had an epiphany. Her brain worked for once, and she noticed Mrs P had only mentioned his work now. Usually, the man’s occupation was the biggest sales point. ( "He could give you financial stability." ) Not in this case. Adney didn’t need a patron anymore. Her neighbours knew about the online donations. Still, Mrs P insisted. It was never about her financial stability.

"I’m not rebellious," Adney said. "It’s that I don’t need a husband. I can provide for my children on my own."

"You need a companion."

"A person doesn’t need a partner to be happy. Ms Lister— Marian is unmarried and still enjoys—"

"Ms Lister has no child to raise."

"My aunt and I have raised many children without—"

"But you can’t be the mother and the father simultaneously."

Adney was lost for words. How can a child know what love is without their father and mother? It was rhetoric too common, too vile. 

Expressing her thought was a bad idea. No matter how Adney spoke, Mrs P saw it as rebellion.

"Look at your boy," Mrs P said. "Isn’t he afraid of men?"

Naveen didn’t like men because of the first man they’d found her. A man with a hot temper. Good thing he’d got fed up with her quickly.

Mrs P talked more. More poison, more passive aggression, more self-righteousness. 

Adney closed her eyes, refusing to see her voice. She had to contain it— 

"Adney, look!" 

They both looked to the doorway. There, Anne stood, pointing at the green whiskers on her face. 

With a smile, she came closer. "Mrs Priestley. Good to see you."

"You, too… Ms Lister." Mrs P looked at her with round eyes.

Anne gestured at her face again. "The little ones. You can’t kiss me hello. It’s still wet."

It violently threw Adney off balance. She didn’t know whether to remain annoyed or laugh. And this confusion created a crappy feeling in her heart. "I’m… Excuse me." She stood up and left the room.

At the foot of the stairs, she took deep breaths. Now she felt like crying. But shortly after, Anne stepped out into the hallway with Mrs P. They came towards her silently, but only walked past her to get to the door.  

Anne opened it. "Nice talking to you."

With her back facing the door, Adney heard Mrs P leave. The door closed. There were only the kids’ faint footsteps from the attic. Her kids, who didn’t need a father. Ever. 

She marched up the stairs. Walking by the attic door, she entered her own bedroom. She paced around and around, glaring down at the floor. 

Out in the hallway, Anne was speaking to the kids. She came in and closed the door. "Are you alright?"

"I will be."

"I heard the conversation. Wasn’t eavesdropping. I came down to show you this"—Anne pointed at her face—"and saw her there. I had to hide. But you looked so stressed I had to go in. It worked." She laughed. "My whiskers are old-lady repellent."

It was funny, and the crappy ambivalence ate at her. "Why is she like that?" she whispered. "She’s so arrogant. No matter what we do, our lives aren’t good enough in her eyes. She needs to fix it. Fix us." 

"Didn’t you tell her about us? You and me?"

"How could I? She thinks a child must have a mother and a father."

"I told her to leave you alone. After you’d left the room."

That alarmed Adney. "Did she get angry?"

"No. I told her softly. Didn’t work. She was too confused by my look."

Adney paced around more. This was the only time she wished for a bigger room. Too much turning around. It made her dizzy. "I wish she’d… I wish…" She couldn’t bring herself to say.

"Go on."

Still, Adney felt as if a magic spell had sealed her lips. "There’s this ugly feeling inside. Anger I didn’t know I had. It controls me when I’m with her."

"Anger isn’t always ugly. You feel it because she insulted you and your family. Let it out. It’s part of you."

"I don’t know how."

"Say what you want to say. What do you wish she would?"

Adney slowly stopped. She made sure the door behind Anne was closed. "I wish… she’d disappear," she mumbled. "I know it’s such a terrible thing to say."

"Yes. Very terrible," Anne said. "But not as terrible as I would’ve liked."

Adney chuckled weakly.

"Next." Anne came to put her hands on her shoulders. "I told you about my job before. I was constantly clashing with my boss. Constantly tired of his bullshit. He took it out on the inmates. Me, I screamed. In my office. Until my throat hurt."

"I can't yell. It’s against the house rule."

"Is it?" With a frown, Anne looked around and grabbed a pillow. "Scream into this. It muffles your voice."

Adney received it, still feeling unsure. "What should I say?"

"Doesn’t have to be words. Or, you could say ‘fuck Priestley.’"

That was setting a bar too high. Adney pressed the pillow against her mouth and groaned quietly. She looked at Anne afterwards for approval.

Anne laughed. "That’s it? Think of Priestley and what she said. Imagine her wrinkly face. She insulted the kids."

The yellowish purple voice—the colour of bruises—of Mrs P clouded her vision. The smouldering anger quickly filled her. Into the pillow, Adney groaned loud and long. She breathed in and groaned again and again. 

Anne smiled at her. "Good?"

"Better than good." It felt great. Like she could finally breathe. Even the pain in her throat was rewarding. 

"Say ‘fuck Priestly!’" 

Adney hesitated, but yelled, "Screw Mrs P! Screw her!"

"Drop Mrs . She doesn’t deserve it."

"Screw P!" Adney burst into laughter. P sounded like pee. "Screw Priestley!" 

Now she felt high, free, and a little brave. Anne was laughing, too, with her ridiculous whiskers on her cheeks. Adney laughed at them. She hadn’t laughed so hard in a long time, or maybe ever. She laughed until it caused a coughing attack. It made her laugh harder. She sank in the bed.

"Are you alright?" Anne sat next to her, smiling.

Adney wanted to kiss her. So she did.

Her desire never vanished. It only grew stronger each second and spilt from her lips. The cup was full, and she still thirsted for more. More Anne. But—

"Adney, are you okay?" 

They jumped and looked at the door. 

With her jaw dropped, Eliza was staring at them. Before Adney grasped the situation, Eliza ran away, leaving the door open. "Eugénie, they’re kissing! Eek!" Her voice echoed through the house. 

Bewildered, they looked at each other. 

Anne laughed again. She tapped a finger on her own nose. "You have the green paint on your nose."

… 

During the following days, Eliza badgered Anne with questions at every opportunity. In the attic, at the supermarket, in the backyard, her curiosity was insatiable.

"Why do you kiss? Is it delicious?" 

"Why do people in films munch each other’s mouth like koi fish?" 

"Would you kiss Adney after she ate carrots?" 

"I asked Eugénie if she’s kissed before, but she didn’t tell me."

Each question drained Anne’s energy. She brought up various unrelated topics to change the subject, but in vain. It always came back to kissing. 

"Is there a difference between ‘to kiss and ‘to kiss on the lips’ in BSL?" Eliza said as they painted the attic walls. To sign ‘kiss,’ she put all of her right fingers together and touched them to her cheek. "Maybe it’s like this—" She touched the fingertips to her lips, making an obnoxious kissing sound.

Anne silently asked Eugénie for help. But the girl averted her eyes, painting the upper part of the walls where the little ones couldn’t reach. Anne could tell she was enjoying this.

"Why don’t you ask Adney?" Anne said.

"Why?"

"Because I don’t know."

Right then, Adney came into the room.  

"Adney, a question." Eliza repeated her words and gestures. "Anne wanted to know, but I couldn’t answer," she said with a giggle. 

Adney blushed. "I think both can work. Um… Your dad is here."

"Dad?!" Eliza handed her paint roller to Anne before dashing downstairs.

Anne checked the clock on her phone. It was eleven o’clock. "Already? I thought we’d just started." 

Everyone put down their tools and headed downstairs. It was the day her father came out of prison. Since the night before, it was the only thing, besides kissing, Eliza had talked about. 

"Let’s hope her father will overshadow the kiss thing," Anne said to Eugénie. 

"Fat chance. It’s more likely that she tells him all about it."

"Fuck."

"Wait till the day you have to tell her about the birds and the bees."

That idea alone gave Anne aneurysm. "Better than diving in without any prior knowledge— Have you had the talk?" 

Eugénie only gave her a side glance.

In the living room, Eliza was with her father, talking louder than usual. "We use regular paint rollers, but Eugénie’s has a long neck."  

"It must take a lot of time," her father said.

"Yeah, Eugénie’s room also needs a paint job."

Adney carried a tea tray from the kitchen. As Anne and Eugénie followed her in, they found Naveen standing by the wall. He had a small pout. 

Eugénie knelt beside him. "Nav, it’s Eliza’s dad. Don’t be scared." 

"He didn’t have a beard last time," Naveen said.

Eliza’s father, a redhead like her, was sporting a scruffy beard. He had sunken cheeks. Anne didn’t know if it was due to the prison life or his natural face shape.

"But," Anne said, "doesn’t he look like Gogh?"

Naveen looked at him, and a smile appeared. "Yeah." 

They led him by the hand to the sofa. 

"Naveen, Eugénie, good to see you." Eliza’s father signed well. "You must be Ms Lister. My daughter has told me a lot about you."

Anne shook his hand. "Likewise, Mr Washington."

"Call me Sam, if you like."

They all sat with him. Since there weren’t enough seats, Adney had brought two chairs for her and Anne from the kitchen.

"She’s Adney’s girlfriend," Eliza said. "She’s Marian’s sister, and she can lift me and Naveen at once."

"Impressive. And you used to live in London?" Sam said to Anne. "I’ve never been. What’s it like?"

"It’s overrated."

"Right."

Usually, the natural flow of the conversation might lead to questions about her job in London. But what with his circumstances, he didn’t go there. Anne respected his choice.

Eliza tugged at his sleeve. "I’ll show you the attic later, Dad."

"Yeah, what an exciting project," Sam said. "All of you work together, then?"

"All except me," Adney said. "Many of the noises get me jumpy."

"But it’s fine now, right?" Anne said.

Adney gave a guilty smile. "The wet sound. It feels…" She shook her head. 

"The cheerleader is an important part of the team." Sam picked a cookie and took a bite. As he munched, he stared wistfully at it. "How I’ve missed these."

"I baked them an hour ago," Adney said. "Have as many as you wish. We have more."

"Dad, I got As on all of my tests last week! Except for my history test. I got a B."

"Still wonderful, Eliza. What matters is that you keep learning."

Eliza nodded. "Adney says education is a privilege. It means I’m lucky."

"You know such a difficult word." Sam patted her head. "Any more words you know?"

"Biostratigraphy! Theropods and Cerapods. They sound similar, but they’re different." Giggling, Eliza stood up. "Follow me. I’ll show you my dino drawings."

Sam followed his daughter upstairs, and Naveen trailed behind them. The living room had Adney, Anne, and Eugénie left. 

Anne smiled. "Kinda reminds me of when I first came here. They didn’t let me go until I saw all of their drawings."

"I remember." Adney chuckled. She looked at the clock on the wall. "A little early, but I should start making lunch."

"I’ll help you," Anne said. 

"I’ll work in the attic." Eugénie grinned. "Give you two alone time."

But after Eliza’s incessant questions, Eugénie’s teasing had no effect on Anne. "Thanks. Exactly what we wanted." She threw her arm around Adney’s shoulder and kissed her on the cheek. 

Eugénie acted disgusted. Without a word, she hurried out of the room. 

"Don’t tease her," Adney said.

"It’s payback." 

Anne kissed her on the other cheek, slowly this time, and felt Adney seeking her lips. Making sure Eugénie was really gone, they kissed. Adney’s smile looked a little drunk. They stayed in the living room for another five minutes, in each other’s arms, before going to the kitchen. 

Today’s lunch was BBQ tuna fritters and a black bean salad. 

"I hope I get this right." Adney put on her apron. "This is the first time I make them. Sam likes fish. He needs vegetables, too. I imagine the prison food isn’t healthy."

"We got halal food. The quality is shite."

"Can you read the ingredient list?" Adney handed her smartphone to Anne. "Multiply by three. That recipe is for two servings."

As Anne read it aloud, Adney gathered the ingredients. Eggs, fish, green peppers… Thankfully, the maths was easy. Anne said nothing else until Adney finished this task. 

"How long have you known each other?" Anne said before the next step.

"Sam? He grew up here. He used to help my aunt sometimes."

"Doesn’t he know something about your birth parents?"

Adney stood at the kitchen counter. "I hadn’t thought about it."

"We’ll ask him later."

Anne mixed the ingredients in a bowl, while Adney made the sauce. They made the mixture into patties next and cooked them in oil. One side browned in three minutes, and another three minutes for the other side. 

"He looks so gentle," Anne said. "Slightly nervous, but gentle. I expected differently."

Adney set a timer, staring at it for several seconds. "How did you expect him to be?"

"More cunning-looking. You said he was in for shoplifting. But I should’ve known better. He never forgets to call Eliza."

Adney nodded. "They love each other very much. Everything he does is for her."

Upstairs, the little ones let out a laughter. It sounded like they went up in the attic. 

"Is Naveen going to be okay with this?" Anne said. 

"He’ll be fine. It’s not the first time she goes home. He thinks she always comes back."

That made her realise, Anne hadn’t told the kids about her suspension. They thought she’d stay here for good. "That won’t end well."

"No. But this time, she will return," Adney said. "It’s a temporary release."

"How many days?"

"Three."

It was the longest a temporary release could get. 

"We should learn to say goodbye to things dear to us one day." Adney gave a sad smile. "I just hope the day will come when they’re a little older." Her voice had her heartbreak in it.

Anne took her hand, kissed the back of it, and kissed her lips. They kissed like it was a prayer.

Adney’s first tuna fritters were a success. Everyone loved them. Eliza even wanted to lick the sauce off her plate. But she didn’t, because it was bad table manners. 

"Can we have them for dinner?" Eliza said. She always said it when Adney tried a new recipe. 

Adney smiled. "You’re going back to your house. I can give your father the recipe, but I don’t know if he wants to have the same thing tonight." 

"It’s a special day," Sam said to Eliza. "I’ll make whatever you want. I’ve learnt to cook."

Eliza tilted her head. "How do you learn to cook in prison?"

"They assign jobs to us. Making furniture, doing laundries. I asked to work in the kitchen so I could become a better cook for you."

"Anne, did you learn to cook in prison, too?” Eliza said.

"Never been in prison," Anne said. "I work at the prison. A big difference."

It was always poignant to hear Eliza talk about prison. It was part of his life, and therefore part of hers. She never expressed shame. So, Adney didn’t treat it as a negative thing, either. Still, she wished this kind of topic wasn’t part of their everyday conversation.

"Sam, I have a question." Anne put down her fork. "We’re looking for Adney’s birth parents."

"Yes, Eliza told me about that. How’s it going?"

"Not good," Eliza said. "The internet is useless. It can tell you about animals that went extinct, but can’t find people."

Anne chuckled. "Do you have any information? Adney said you knew her aunt."

"She liked me for some reasons," he said. "But I hadn’t known her when Ms Walker came here. I was still in primary school."

This didn’t upset Adney. It was what she’d expected. 

But Anne had a small grimace. "What about your parents? Are they…"

"Alive, yes." Sam smiled. "They didn’t get along with Mrs Walker. They’d never come near this house— Maybe that’s why Mrs Walker was nice to me, to spite my parents."

Adney found it funny. It sounded like something her aunt would do. 

"But they might know something," Anne said. "Rumours don’t care who hates who. Eugénie, can you show him the post?" 

"Social media!" Eliza said to Sam. "Eugénie has Twitter and Facebook."

"I wish I did. I only have accounts on them." Eugénie showed him the post on her phone. 

While Same read it, they stayed quiet. It made Adney feel awkward. She stood up to remove the empty plates.

The idea of people knowing her story never bothered her. The cat had been out of the bag long before she had a name. But she’d never had someone reading it in front of her. Being stared at, it felt like. 

"The blanket," Sam said. "I’ve never seen it myself. But Mrs Walker mentioned it once or twice."

"What blanket?" Eliza peered into the screen.

"It says here that Ms Walker was wrapped in a pink blanket," Sam said. "Mrs Walker thought the laundry label was written in French. That snake accent mark. It had it under the letter C. And over the letter A."

"That C is called cedilla," Eugénie said. "But French doesn’t have an A with a tilde."

Sam smiled. "Do you speak French?"

Eugénie gave a shy nod. "Learning at school."

"Keep studying. Don’t want to forget like I did." Sam returned the phone to her. "That’s all I remember. Sorry. But yes, I could ask my parents."

"It’s more than we expected," Eugénie said. "Thank you."

After lunch, it was time for Eliza to go with him. She’d packed her bag the night before. Clothes, underwear, her favourite book of dinosaurs, and her toothbrush. Her work clothes were covered in paint. Changing into her favourite dress, she skipped to the front door. 

In the kitchen, Adney gave Sam a pack of cookies. 

"Don’t spoil us too much," he said. "Or I’ll start living here."

"I don’t see why not?"

He laughed. But he grew somewhat serious. "Ms Lister is a good person, isn’t she? Eliza told me, some months ago. She used to be a prison officer—"

"Still is," Adney said. "She’s taking a break. We haven’t had the chance to tell the kids the details."

"Oh… So, it made me nervous. My personal experience… They’re not the type of people I want around my child. But she’s"—he shrugged, searching for words—"good."

Adney felt proud like it was about herself. "She’s good."

They stepped out into the hallway. 

With her bag on her back, Eliza was talking to Anne and Eugénie. "Promise not to paint the walls without me?"

"Of course." Anne pinky-promised with her. "It’s your responsibility." 

Eliza did the same with Eugénie and Naveen. Then, she stood in front of the wall and looked at Adney. "I’m ready! Picture time, please."

Following the custom, Adney took the Polaroid camera out of the drawer and took a photo.

"Cheeseburger!" Eliza said as the camera made a shutter sound. 

They left before the photo finished developing. Eliza kept waving at them, her other hand secure in her father’s hand. The two turned the corner. Even still, Adney could hear her.

"See you soon!" Eliza was saying.

Such a bittersweet thing to hear. Adney didn’t want her to return, if it meant Eliza being away from her father again. But she could do nothing. She could only wait. 

The Polaroid snap, after ten minutes, showed the bright smile of Eliza. Innocent. Older than she was when she first came to the house. Happier. Adney pinned it on the wall, at the end of the row of pictures. The last few ones were of Eliza. Before and after her brief stays with her father. Adney wondered how many more times they’d do this. And when would be the last.

Chapter Text

March was the start of the growing season for vegetable farmers. Under the order from Marian, Anne worked and sowed seeds. They’d placed cloche, a type of covering that protected the soil from cold temperatures, two days ago. It’d warmed up, ready for seeds. 

Anne had been operating the seed sowing machine since the morning. It was monotonous work. Her back hurt when she dismounted it for a lunch break. 

In the farmhouse kitchen, Marian was preparing something. 

"I’m going for lunch." Anne put her coat on.

"No. You have lunch here today," Marian said. "Adney already knows it."

That made Anne pause. To make it more suspicious, there were three plates of sandwiches. "Do we have a guest over?"

The kitchen window gave a good view of the field and the gate. As Anne looked out, a shadow opened the gate and walked across the field towards the house. It was Eugénie. 

"Are you dragging me into your nonsense?" Anne said to Marian.

"Define nonsense."

The answer was yes, then. "I’m delighted Eugénie has a teacher in mischief. But I want nothing to do with it."

The doorbell rang. 

Marian brought the plates to the dining room. "If you have the guts to send her away—a hungry teenager—be my guest."

There was no escape now. Anne should’ve left without a word to her. She went to the door to let Eugénie in. As the girl hung up her coat, Anne also took off her own coat.

"What are you planning on?" Anne said.

"Good news. Remember what Eliza’s dad told us about the language on Adney’s blanket?" 

"The snake on the letter C."

"Cedilla. But the other one. A with a tilde." Eugénie walked to the dining room like it was her house. "After some research, I’m almost positive it’s not French, because it doesn't have that letter. It’s either Romanian or Portuguese."

Arriving at the table, they took seats.

"What’s not French?" Marian said. 

"The label on Adney’s blanket," Eugénie said. "Eliza’s father gave us a clue."

"Yeah, you told me. That’s great," Marian said. "Better update the posts."

"I will, when I get home."

With that, they began to eat. But Anne couldn’t let her guard down. They couldn’t have planned this lunch meeting only to share the news. There must be something more. 

"How’s the house without Eliza?" Marian said. "It’s only the quiet three, yeah?"

Eugénie nodded. "Real quiet."

"Does that make Adney less busy? With only one small child in the house?"

"One kid or two, it’s not a big difference."

Marian turned to Anne. "Could you spend some time alone with Adney yesterday after Eliza had left?"

Not liking where this was going, Anne stuffed her mouth with food and gave no answer.

"Not really," Eugénie said on her behalf. 

"No time for shagging, then?" Marian said.

Anne choked on her food. "Seriously?" She gestured at Eugénie. "I’m not talking to my sister or a fifteen-year-old about my sex life."

"Coward," Marian said. 

"I take that as a no," Eugénie said. "If it was a yes, you’d be grinning like an idiot."

This was their plan. Anne should’ve escaped through the window when she’d had the chance. 

"We’ve got a proposition," Marian said. 

"No."

"What if you and Adney spend a night here? Take her out on a date. I stay at Adney’s with Eugénie to look after Naveen."

"She’ll still worry herself sick," Eugénie said. "So I’ll text her a few times during the evening."

As much as their involvement troubled her, it was an enticing offer. Since the green paint kiss, they’d exchanged many kisses. Adney no longer seemed uncertain. But they never had enough time. All they had was brief moments between chores and stolen kisses. 

"Don’t you think it’s too soon?" Anne said. "For her. Not me."

Eugénie raised an eyebrow. "She’s been lusting for you since the beginning."

"Don’t put it that way. She’s your mum."

"I’ve lived there for a year," Eugénie said. "I’ve never seen the house with only one small child. This is a rare opportunity, Anne. Take it." 

That afternoon, Adney listened to Anne’s suggestion in the backyard. Without Eliza, the amount of laundry had decreased. It only filled one big basket. (A little full to the brim.) It felt strange. She hoped Sam had no problem at home.  

"A date night?" Adney lifted the basket and went back inside. 

Anne opened the backdoor for her. "Yes. We dress up. I take you to a restaurant. I take you home— We don’t have to do anything if you don’t want to. We can sit and talk. Just us. No interruption." 

In the living room, Adney set the basket down. Her face felt hot. Probably because of the sunlight pouring through the window. Maybe not. "Tonight?"

"Or tomorrow." Anne sat next to her on the floor. "The evening after is okay, depending on what time Eliza comes back in the morning."

"You mean I stay there until morning?"

"That’s the plan."

"But Naveen… What if something happened?"

"That’s why Marian and Eugénie will be here."

All those questions Anne had already answered. Still, Adney had to ask. It was the asking that helped her collect her thoughts. 

"I want this," Adney said. "But he’s my responsibility."

Anne took her hands. "Just one night. When was the last time something serious happened to him during the night?"

A while ago. He’d had a nightmare about sea monsters. He’d come to Adney’s room, sobbing, signing with his sleepy hands. Perhaps there’d been more nightmares since then. But with Eliza in the same room, he never came to Adney. 

"Trust Eugénie," Anne said. "She’s not a child anymore."

"I do trust her. And Marian."

"Then, let’s lean on them. Eugénie needs more than words from you." 

"It’s action that matters," Adney said to herself. 

They decided to go out the next evening. It’d give Adney enough time for emotional preparation. 

It wasn’t enough, though, it turned out. Every passing second made her more nervous. Her stomach hurt. The clock ticked away. Merciless. 

Thirty minutes before the date, Adney began the preparation in her room. Eugénie and Naveen were with her. He sat on the bed and drew. Adney sat in a chair, facing the bed to keep him in sight, and let Eugénie style her hair. 

"What’s wrong with my natural hair?" Her hair was slightly wavy.

"Nothing." Eugénie applied a hair spray. (The spray can said ‘heat protection.’) "But it’s a special day. I’m making you extra pretty." 

Naveen pointed at the device in Eugénie’s hand. "What’s that?"

"A hair iron," Eugénie said. "It gives her hair curls."

"Can you iron this?" He pointed at the corner of his drawing. "There’s a wrinkle here. I want it gone. It’s a gift for Eliza."

"I’ll take a look later," Eugénie said. 

Adney put her hand on her aching stomach. "I haven’t felt this nervous in years. The last time was when this social worker came to assess if I could be a foster parent."

"And you got their approval," Eugénie said. "You have nothing to worry about."

"I don’t know if I’d last until tomorrow morning."

The heated iron touched her hair. It sizzled, heating the hair spray. It didn’t smell good. 

"You didn’t buy this iron just for me, right?" Adney said.

"No, my friend let me borrow it."

"The same one that gave you makeup products?" 

"A different one, but from the same friend group." Eugénie wrapped another strand of her hair around the iron. "Do you think straightened hair will look good on me?"

Adney wanted to turn around to see her face, but couldn’t. "I think so. Do you want to straighten it?"

"My friends are doing it."

"You don’t have to do what others do if you don’t feel like it."

"Yeah, but…" Eugénie said no more. 

The iron let go of her hair. Turning in her chair, Adney looked at her face. "Does this have to do with your friend? Your crush. Did he ask you to straighten your hair?"

"No. He doesn’t say things like that." Still, it felt like the boy was part of it. 

"You’re beautiful because you are you."

Eugénie smiled weakly. "I know. But it’s hard to internalise that. Turn to the front? I need to get it done."

Adney did. The hair iron touched her hair again. "It takes time. I used to feel inadequate as a child, too. I still do sometimes. But I’ve learnt to shrug it off. The world is big. Someone will always be smarter, more beautiful, and more talented than me. But nobody else gets to be me. I’m proud of that."

Eugénie only hummed. The rest was in silence. When the hair was done, Eugénie also applied a little gloss on her lips. It smelt of artificial strawberry flavour. Her stomachache had disappeared, she noticed. 

But the doorbell chimed downstairs. Her heart leapt into her mouth.

While Eugénie got the door, Adney changed into her semi-fancy dress. A dress that one of the men—she couldn’t remember which—had bought for her. To charm her. Materialistic values never appealed to her. With these men, her appearance was her last priority. If it bothered them, it was none of her concern. 

But now, she did care. It was her first date with Anne, and she only had an ordinary black dress. 

Footsteps came up the stairs. Eugénie and Marian entered the room, but no Anne. 

"Anne’s still at home," Marian said, giving her a hug. "I got impatient. Oh, look at you."

"Do you think this is okay?" Adney looked down at her dress. "What’s Anne wearing? I feel like this isn’t enough."

"Don’t worry. She's seen you in an apron, doing the laundry. And you've seen her in... whatever she’s in."

"I’m so nervous."

"Let’s put the kettle on." With a hand on Adney’s shoulder, Marian led her out of the room. 

Five minutes before the scheduled time. In the kitchen, Adney stared out the window. No sign of Anne yet. 

Marian searched the pantry. "Where are the tea bags?" 

"I’ll get them." Adney opened the drawer farthest from the stove and took out a box of Earl Grey. She pointed at the pot on the stove. "I made soup. There’s a salad in the fridge, too. Don’t forget to eat it." She reached for the fridge door.

But Eugénie stopped her. "We got this. Relax."

Naveen, at her feet, tugged at her dress. He gave her a folded piece of paper. "Don’t be scared. This magic charm will protect you."

It had everyone’s name written, including Anne and Marian. No misspelling. Eugénie must’ve helped him.

Adney hugged him. "Thank you. I already feel much better."

Then, finally, the doorbell chimed. 

Adney put the talisman in her purse and hugged Marian and Eugénie goodnight. "Text me, okay? Oh, and Naveen has developed a habit of keeping his eyes open while getting shampooed. Make sure—"

Eugénie gave her a gentle push. "Go. We’re fine."

Adney wished Eugénie would make it easy for her and push her out of the house. But she had to walk alone and open the door— Anne was in a suit, her hair combed back, and with a dazzling smile. Adney had never seen anyone so handsome. How would she last until the end of the day?

Anne kissed her on the cheek, and on the lips. "You’re so gorgeous," she whispered. She then looked down. "Hello, Naveen." 

He handed her another piece of paper. 

Unfolding it, Anne looked at it and at the flip side. "What’s this?"

"A magic charm."

"He saw me nervous," Adney said. "He gave me one, too."

Anne patted his head. "I won’t let anything happen to Adney. Promise me that you’ll protect this house while we’re gone?"

Naveen nodded.

"Good." Anne stood up and looked at Adney. "Ready?"

Out of habit, Adney slipped her feet into her trainers. "Not these ones," she mumbled, reaching for the only high heels she owned.

"You could go in these trainers," Anne said. She had shiny shoes on.

"I don’t want to embarrass you."

"Embarrass me?" Anne grinned. "Fuck what other people think."

It reminded Adney of the scream session in her room. Her stomachache was gone, thanks to the talisman. She left the house in her trainers. 

The restaurant was located in a quiet neighbourhood. The Italian flag swayed in the breeze. Inside the brick walls, there was a small chandelier. The lighting itself wasn’t so strong. The waiter led them to a table on the terrace. (He glanced at Adney’s trainers, but kept his polite smile.) The other tables there, unlike the ones inside, were unoccupied. 

"It’s quieter outside," Anne said. "I thought you’d like it this way. But we could go inside if it’s chilly."

"It’s lovely. How did you find this place?"

"Eugénie told me. She’s babysat for a family that lives around here."

Adney hadn’t known that. At least, the neighbourhood, from the look of it, wasn’t sketchy. "It’s so different from the places my exes took me to. They were vulgarly posh. Everyone whispered instead of regular talking. I hate whispers. Sometimes, the colour fogs even hid my date’s face. I suppose every bad thing has its own advantages—" She shifted her attention from her surroundings to Anne. "I didn’t mean to… I think I’m still nervous."

Anne gave a tender smile. "You don’t need to apologise for telling me why I’m better than your exes."

"They aren’t even my exes, exactly. They were my neighbours’… men."

It was gibberish. They both laughed.

When it came to choosing dishes, Anne needed more time. Adney didn’t have many options because of her food preference. (Some dishes had shrimp. That was an instant no.) The waiter came, but walked away without their order. 

"I can’t choose between these two." Anne showed her pictures of pizza on the menu.

Eventually, she ordered both. On the table, they had two kinds of pizza—a bianca pizza with honey and a Neapolitan pizza—and a ham salad. A glass of red wine for Anne, and water for Adney.

"Always a good idea to have both if you can’t choose." Anne clinked their glasses. "Are you sure you don’t want a glass? I’ve never seen you drink." 

"It gives me a nasty headache— I mean, no. It doesn’t."

Anne tilted her head.

"It’s what I tell them. The men. I’m a lightweight. One glass is enough to make me dizzy. So, I always tell them I can’t drink for health reasons."

"But it doesn’t give you a headache?"

Adney shook her head. "I say that to avoid being taken advantage of. I feel safe with you, of course. But I don’t want to get drunk and say something weird."

With a slight frown, Anne stared into her glass. 

Adney shouldn’t have mentioned her ex-husbands-to-be. She had to fix it. "It’s strange. It’s always dinner first, and they start visiting the house. This time, it’s the opposite—" Talking about her past dates again. "I should stop talking. Shall we eat?" Her hand reached for the bowl of salad.

But Anne caught her hand midair. On her knuckles, she placed a lingering kiss. "Tonight is about you. There’s only us—"

"I won’t talk about them again. Promise."

Anne smiled. "What I mean is that there’s nobody to judge you. Talk if it calms you down. You always listen to the kids. You need to be listened to. Okay?"

"Okay."

"Let’s eat."

Anne picked a piece of the bianca pizza with her hands. The hot honey dribbled into her palm. She licked it off her fingers. In an innocent way, as Eliza might do. 

It still produced some spicy images in Adney’s mind. She remembered this dinner was only the beginning. 

They left the restaurant an hour later with full stomachs. Anne had a few pizza pieces in a take-away box. They could’ve eaten it up, but Anne had kept some for the kids. 

"It feels so nice not to have to do the dishes myself," Adney said.

"Let’s take a different route," Anne said when they stepped out into the street. "It’d be good exercise."

They turned their backs on the main street and entered a smaller one. The houses had their lights on. But it was quiet. Their footsteps echoed. With very few streetlights, it felt like a different world. 

"Why don’t you get a dishwasher?" Anne said.

"My aunt thought it’d make us lazy. I disagree. But I never learnt how to use one, and at this point, I’m too intimidated."

"It’s easy. Want to go to a home store some time?" 

That reminded Adney of something else. "I think we need a new washing machine. The door has been broken for years. Now the power button doesn’t work properly."

A dog barked somewhere near them. In the dark, the sound bounced off the house walls, disorienting Adney. She searched for Anne’s hand.

"It’s okay." Anne kissed her hand. 

Adney looked behind them. The street was empty. "It’s a bit scary."

"I used to do this in London. When I wanted to go to a foreign country, but couldn’t, I’d walk down unfamiliar streets."

"It sounds dangerous. You could get mugged."

Anne laughed. "If there was a brave idiot like that, I’d give them an award."

Adney’s phone buzzed. A text message from Eugénie.

"They finished dinner," Adney said. "Naveen brushed his teeth, too."

"There you go. Nothing to worry about— Hey, look at this house." Anne gestured at the house on their left. 

It had a garden arch adorned with vines and some flower buds. Roses, perhaps. The garden had various flowers, too. In a month, it’d give the whole neighbourhood a burst of colours and scents. Adney wanted to stop and admire. But it was too dark to see everything properly. They kept walking. 

"I want a garden like that," Anne said. "One day. In a warm country like Greece. I have a plan. It’ll have all kinds of flowers so even in winter there’s something in bloom. Everyone will stop and point at it, like I did now."

"That sounds lovely."

"Someone’s got to be there with me, too. I'm not living there alone." Anne looked at her, as if expecting something. 

"I can’t even leave the town."

"Yeah, but hypothetically," Anne said. "Would you come with me?"

But Adney couldn’t say. Even hypothetically, saying yes felt like a betrayal of the kids.  

Anne waved a dismissive hand. "Never mind. It’s just a wish." 

"I’m sorry—"

"It’s okay." Anne looked up at the sky. "Shit, it’s starting to rain." 

They walked a little faster. It helped, in a way, with her feeling of guilt. Adney had something else to focus on instead of dwelling on this hypothetical question. But passing by a butcher shop, she stopped. It was near closing time. The sign said some products were on sale at half price. 

"Want to take a look?" Anne said.

Adney nodded and entered the shop.

Among the sausages and stakes on display, one medium-sized chunk of smoked ham caught her eye. It was sold at a reasonable price now. The kids didn’t get to have such a luxury often. 

Anne stood next to her, pointing at the same ham. "That one looks good."

"I want to make a ham salad like the one we had. It was so delicious I feel a bit guilty."

They bought the ham. The butcher had overheard their conversation apparently. He asked Adney how many kids she had and gave her three sausages for free. It occurred to her, as they left the shop, that a conventional couple might not stop at a butcher shop after their first date. 

But Anne looked excited. "Can’t wait to show them tomorrow."

Satisfied with the purchase, Adney had forgotten she wasn’t going home tonight. She checked for texts from Eugénie. There was none. 

Adney texted, We bought ham for you. Anne has pizza.

In a few minutes, they climbed the cobblestone hill and arrived at the farmhouse. Adney had never been to this place at night. The house felt vast. Not in terms of size, but its emptiness. Its quietness. There were no children here. It slightly disconcerted her.

They put the ham and the pizza in the fridge. 

In the living room, Anne wrapped a blanket around Adney’s shoulders. "Still gets chilly at night."

Adney checked her phone again. "8:30. It’s time Naveen showered." 

"Then, they’re probably in the shower." With a smile, Anne loosened her tie, showing a bit of her skin.

This sight did something to Adney. The blanket got her too warm. Looking away, she saw Percy on his cat bed. He woke up, stretched, and meowed at her. 

She gave him a head scratch. "Is he hungry? Has Marian given him dinner?"

"She has. He does that to everyone to get more than he needs. A trickster. All cats are like that."

"How do you know?"

"My ex had two cats."

My ex. Adney didn’t want to let it affect her. "I’ve never had a pet. My aunt had no room for another living being. Emotionally and financially." 

She talked to distract herself. Despite the efforts, her eyes returned to Anne’s neck. Her collarbones. Against the black clothes, her skin was strikingly pale. 

"You’re staring," Anne said.

"Sorry—"

Anne gave a smile, tender but mischievous. "You’ve done more than staring." Without breaking eye contact, she slowly loosened her tie more. "Remember?"

Her kiss left Adney’s mind blank. Pressed against her lips, there was only her and Anne— And Percy, who had climbed onto the sofa and screamed in their ears. 

"Quit it, Percy." Anne said leant away from his reaching paw.

"Maybe he's really hungry."

Anne groaned. But she poured some kibbles in his plate.

While he ate, she pulled Adney up by the arm. "Let’s go to my bedroom."

They walked through the hallway. Anne closed the door behind them, shutting Percy out, and took her to bed. Her hands on her hips. Her lips on her neck. Her senses were overwhelmed. Yet, it felt right. 

But when Anne lay on top of her, it snapped Adney out of it.  

"Wait. The kids."

"What?" Anne got off her and turned on the bedside lamp. "They're with Marian. They're okay."

The light blinded her. Adney took deep breaths. "I know. I’m sorry."

"If you're not ready—"

"It’s not that—" Her phone chimed. Lifting herself up off the mattress, Adney opened the text message. "Naveen got out of the shower. But, what I was saying is that… It’s what I’d say as an excuse to make them stop, when they… I’d say I hear my kids crying. I said I was asexual when we first met. It was a lie. I’m sorry. That’s also what I used to tell them. Forgive me. I know you aren’t like them—"

Anne pulled her into an embrace. 

As tears came in her eyes, Adney realised she’d never cried about this, for herself. "It rarely worked." She laughed. How oblivious of her. "I really thought I could be happy like this, didn’t I?" 

"It wasn’t your fault." Anne cupped her cheeks. "Adney, I’m glad you told me."

"I want this. With you. I won’t freak out anymore."

Anne studied her face (Adney didn’t know what was the correct expression.) and kissed her cheek. "What freaked you out exactly? Being touched in specific places, me being on top, the dark?"

"Your weight on me, I think."

"Do you want to try being on top?" Anne lay down next to her and patted on her upper thighs. "Put your legs on either side. Let’s see if you like it."

Adney lifted her dress and straddled her hips. Her cold belt buckle touched the inside of her thigh. She looked down at Anne. Her hair was disheveled. Her tie was loose. (But not loose enough.) Yes, Adney liked this view. 

She rested her hands on Anne’s belly, slipping a finger under her shirt. To feel the warm skin. She’d seen this part of Anne’s body before, she remembered. 

Scooting down, Adney reached for the belt. But she stopped herself. "Can I?"

Anne grinned. "Didn't forget to ask this time."

Slowly, the trousers came off. Her black boxers greeted Adney, like the evening of the soup accident. Adney caressed the skin of her thighs. "No burn scars?"

"None. Told you it wasn’t that hot."

Anne had assured her many times. It’d never completely persuaded Adney, until now. 

Adney looked back at her legs. "Do you always wear black underwear?"

"I have pink lingerie."

"Really?"

Anne chuckled, shaking her head. "It’s a joke. I’m super nervous, actually. I haven’t felt so nervous in a long time."

Knowing she wasn’t the only one nervous comforted Adney. "Do you want to stop?"

"Hell no."

Adney hunched over her and kissed her. "Teach me what to do."

Since her childhood, Adney had slept in many different beds, under many different roofs. Always alone. Always cold. Even in someone else’s arms, it was the same. But with Anne next to her, she wasn’t trembling. 

It was past midnight. Eugénie had texted her goodnight an hour ago.

Naveen tried to stay up late because you aren’t home, Eugénie said. Fell asleep as soon as he got into bed.

"Today wasn’t so bad, was it?" Anne said.

Adney shook her head. She moulded herself against Anne’s naked body. "I like this. Our bodies touching." 

Anne kissed her forehead. "Happy?"

"I feel warm," Adney said. "Warm inside."

Chapter Text

Anne woke up next morning without the alarm clock or Marian’s yell. Even before her brain woke up, her eyes looked for Adney. She found her in her arms, still asleep. 

The first morning together always felt like an extension of her dream. It was one of her favourite moments. In the quiet hours before the world began to stir, all the walls were down, exposing part of her lover previously unknown to her. Some of her exes snored loudly. Some drooled onto the sheets. This one girl Anne dated for a brief period of time talked in her sleep and often pushed her off the bed. 

Adney snored softly. The curls of her hair had flattened, back to her natural waves. Her eyebrows had a remnant of last night’s makeup. There was a faint white trail running from the corner of her eye. It looked like a dried line of tears. Anne hadn’t heard her cry during the night. She hovered her thumb over it, wanting to wipe it away. But it might disturb Adney’s sleep. Anne didn’t want that.

Her shoulder had a mark Anne had left. It was discreet enough to pass as an accidental bruise. Adney had them all the time. Further down, the skin near her navel had a brown area of discolouration. Anne had seen her scratch her arm to the point of bleeding. This must be a similar scar. 

Adney looked angelic. But she was definitely human. 

Adney’s phone on the nightstand chimed. Now that Anne thought about it, that ringtone was what had woken her. It must be a text from Eugénie. Or another donation notification. Anne didn’t pay attention to it. 

But within a minute, her own phone buzzed. It was a phone call from Marian. It was just past eight o’clock. Too early for her sister to get impatient.

Creeping out of bed, Anne left the room and answered it. “What? Adney’s still sleeping.”

“Yeah, she needs to come home.” Marian’s voice lacked its annoying sharpness. “Eliza is back.”

Anne wasn’t fully awake yet. “What do you mean? I thought—”

From inside the bedroom, there came a bang and a thud, followed by some rattling noise. Adney was up. She was caressing her knee while gathering her clothes.

Anne said to Marian, “We’re on our way.” She hung up and walked in. “Eliza’s back.”

“I know,” Adney said. “I need to go.” She put on her dress, not bothering to hook it at the top of the zipper, grabbed her purse, and stormed out.

“I’ll drive. Let me get dressed.” Anne did so quickly. 

But as she jumped into her jeans, the front door opened and closed. 

“Adney?”

The hallway was empty, and so was outside the front door. Adney didn’t wait for her. It was such an unbelievable move. But Anne remembered to lock the door before hopping in the farm truck. 

The car soon caught up with Adney in the middle of the cobblestone hill. Her trainers were covered in dirt. Some of it was even on her calves.

Anne stopped the truck and rolled down the window. “Get in.” 

Breathing hard, Adney climbed in. Her hands shook as she fastened her seatbelt. 

“You could’ve waited for me.” 

Adney said nothing.

“Why is Eliza back so soon? I thought they had one more day.”

“I don’t know.”

Anne’s stomach growled. “Shit, we forgot the pizza and the ham in the fridge.”

Again, no response. 

“Is Eliza back alone? Is Sam with her?”

“I don’t know.” Adney’s voice trembled.

Something must’ve happened to Sam. Anne couldn’t imagine what it could be. Whatever it was, Marian’s serious tone meant it wasn’t positive. Adrenaline coursed through her. It reminded her of those emergencies at work. Walkie-talkies’ static sounds drowning out the voices of people in her vicinity. Officers rushing through corridors. They had no time to stop. They’d have to collect data as they move.  

Adney still breathed hard. It took all the drive to regulate her breathing. 

The house came in view. There was a regular car parked in front of it. While their truck approached, a black person with a shaved head came out of the house. By their car, the person looked towards the truck. But the sun seemed to be in their eyes. They put their hand above their eyes and squinted, and only smiled when Adney bolted out of the truck.

“Ms Walker, I thought you were in bed.” The person had a feminine voice. 

Anne, parking the vehicle, couldn’t hear their entire exchange. But the person, in a floral skirt and with a file folder in their hands, looked friendly. At least, they weren’t one of Adney’s antis. They showed something in the folder for Adney to sign. 

“Anyroad,” they said. “I think it’s better you go to her now.” 

Adney nodded, her face drained of blood. She hurried in. 

Anne got out of the car and followed her inside. Before anything, Eliza’s wailing engulfed her. They were all in the living room, standing in pyjamas. The only exceptions were Adney and Eliza, who was in a dress and had a picnic basket. With her little hands, she clung to Adney.

Anne went to Marian. “What happened?”

“It appears,” Marian whispered, “Mr Washington was supposed to be back at the prison yesterday evening, not today. So, they took him, and the social worker lady”—she gestured to the door—”brought her back.”

“But— It must be a mistake.”

Marian shrugged. “He requested to have a three-day leave, thought he’d got it. But they only gave him two days.”

“How could they make such an easy mistake? Sam made the request a month ago.”

“Don’t hiss at me. We’re all pissed off and confused.”

Eliza cried and screamed, now having a royal tantrum. “No! I want my dad! He promised to take me on a picnic today! I want my picnic!”

“I’m sorry, Eliza,” Adney said. “I’m so sorry.”

“I want him back!” Eliza stomped her foot. “It’s not fair!” Her face was red and wet with tears. 

It was a harsh reminder for Anne, who’d almost forgot Eliza was still a child. The words she liked to use might be difficult. She might act older than her age, looking after Naveen. But she was a small child herself. 

Anne tried to cheer her up. “Eliza, why don’t I take you on a picnic today? Where—"

“No! I want my dad!”

Her screams rang through the house. Adney put her on her lap, rocking their bodies together. The rest of them could only watch.

Anne stayed frozen until Marian next to her moved and went across the room to Eugénie. Like Anne, Eugénie had been standing paralysed. Her face looked tense as if on the verge of tears. Taking the girl’s hand, Marian brought her to the kitchen. 

Anne followed them. On the counter, there was a pile of pancakes and a bowl of mix. The one weirdly-shaped pancake in the pan was dark brown around the edges. Their tea had turned cold. 

Anne sat at the table with Eugénie. “I’ve never seen the little ones throw a fit.” She’d seen Adney cry and dealt with livid inmates. But she’d never handled a wailing child. 

“Me, neither,” Eugénie said. “I wish I could do something.”

Marian served them warm cups of tea. “Don’t beat yourself up. But, there’s something you can do to help Adney.”

“What’s that?”

“To have breakfast,” Marian said, putting the plate of pancakes in the microwave. “She always makes sure you’re not hungry.”

“We have pizza and ham at the farm,” Anne said. “I forgot.” 

Eugénie looked at Anne. “Can’t you do something? Like calling the prison director?”

“It doesn’t work like that.”

“But maybe your old colleagues work there.”

“Which prison?”

“Hatfield.”

Anne couldn’t remember anyone she knew working there. Anyone on good terms with her. “Suppose there was someone. Even then, it’s their business. An officer, under suspension to be precise, can’t fix that. I wish it wasn’t like this, but it is.” 

They dropped the subject after this. Marian cooked the rest of the pancake mix and added bacon and beans.

Eugénie went to the living room, but came back alone. “Naveen says he wants to stay with Eliza.”

"He'll come when he's hungry." Marian put the dark brown pancake on Anne's plate. 

"What is this?" Anne said.

"Peppa Pig."

It looked like a prick with the bee's wings. Anne didn't have the energy to discuss her artistic skills. "It's burnt."

"Yeah. Naveen can't eat that. It causes cancer."

Anne knew it'd upset Adney if she threw food away. The three ate like it was a chore. They could still hear Eliza's sobbing now and then.

After finishing breakfast, Eugénie began doing the laundry while Marian and Anne washed the dishes. Slightly past eight-thirty, Naveen came to eat. 

Anne served him a new Peppa Pig pancake that didn't look like a crispy dick. Eugénie had drawn the outline of Peppa's nose and eyes with the mix. According to her, it was called pancake art. 

Anne sat with him. “I heard you were a good boy last night.”

But with a distressed face, he shook his head and signed something. His hands were too limp, like slurring if it was spoken, for Anne. 

“What did he say?” Anne said.

“He said it’s his fault Eliza’s back,” Eugénie said. “Because he wished last night that he could see her soon.” She knelt in front of him. “Nav, it’s not your fault. You did nothing wrong.”

“Promise?” he said.

Eugénie squeezed his hand. “I promise. Now, eat.” 

The house had quieted down. Eugénie turned on the radio music, turning it up slightly. 

“I have to work on the field a bit,” Marian said. 

“I’ll go with you.” Anne stood up. “Let me talk to Adney first.”

Eliza had fallen asleep, curled up with her head on Adney’s lap. Not to disturb her sleep, Anne tiptoed to the sofa.

“I’m going to get the pizza and the ham,” Anne signed, whispering to assist her imperfect BSL. “Are you hungry? I can bring you food here.”

“I’m okay,” Adney signed. She could barely keep her eyes open.

Anne reached to caress her cheek. But Adney subtly pulled away from it, not meeting her eyes. Anne didn’t know how to interpret this, so she gave her some space.

Marian drove them back to the farm. 

"Do you think they’ll punish her dad for this?" Marian said. 

“Can’t say. Depends. On the governor. On his relationship with them.”

“You mean they could be arseholes about it?”

“Yeah,” Anne said. “We don’t know for sure it was a simple cock-up. Some officers seek every chance to abuse their inmates. If they can’t find it, they create one.” It was a horrifying fact, but she used to be one of them.

"Can't you really do something about this?"

"I told you I can't. Plus, say I succeeded in doing something. It'd be abuse of power. They'll give me a slap on the wrist."

Marian sighed. “I hope this doesn’t leave any scars on them.” 

“Why is Sam in jail? Adney told me it was for shoplifting. But incarceration? It's harsh. When did it start?”

“Last September, I think.”

“It’s too long a sentence.”

Marian went ahh and hmm, trying to decide how to say it. “It’s not his first time being in jail. He’d mainly steal food and other necessities. He’s a single dad, so the community is sympathetic, relatively. But he stole something expensive this time. And during that, he accidentally injured someone.”

“What expensive stuff?”

Marian shrugged. “Don’t know. But he said he needed money for Eliza’s hormone treatment.”

Anne struggled to comprehend. Sam’s friendly face appeared in her mind’s eye. It looked self-righteous and devilish. “Preposterous. How could he use Eliza as a justification?”

“He was trying to be a good parent—"

“And it’s costing more than if he hadn’t stolen anything. Money for Eliza’s treatment? It’s costing her childhood.”

“We can judge, or we can support them—"

“Support him while he ruins his daughter’s childhood?”

“You might think,” Marian said firmly, “there are only two kinds of people. The good and the bad. The moral and the immoral. But most people fall into the area in-between. It’s a spectrum.” 

“Are you fucking lecturing me?”

Marian gave her an annoyed side glance. “Don’t get so pissy. You aren’t a saint, either.”

They said nothing more to each other as they arrived at the farm. Anne went to her room for clean underwear and a quick shower.

She didn’t need a lecture on morality and its ambiguity from anyone. It was the world she lived in. She was a bad guy in rehab. But if she couldn’t blame Sam for Eliza’s pain, where could her anger go?

Caught up in her thoughts, she almost forgot the pizza and the ham again.

Anne came back to the house at ten, two hours since the unexpected call from Marian. People were out on the streets, ready to start their day. To Anne, it already felt like night. 

Mrs Cole, the next-door neighbour, was sweeping her porch.

“Morning,” Anne said out of politeness. 

Mrs Cole looked back at the ground and mumbled, “Yes, it was a good morning call.” 

Anne stopped, contemplated whether to strike back, but decided against it. “Idiot,” she whispered. People like that weren’t worth her time. 

Eugénie opened the door before Anne rang the doorbell. 

“How’s she?” Anne said.

"She ate, at least." 

In the living room, Eliza was drawing with Naveen on the floor. The air still felt sluggish. Anne turned her head to the other side and looked in the kitchen. Adney was in the middle of taking the clothes out of the washing machine. 

Eugénie, with a frown, whispered, "Did something happen between you and Adney last night?”

“Something?”

“She’s acting odd, like after she had a semi-breakup with you.”

The night had been perfect. But Anne couldn't ignore how Adney had pulled away from her touch earlier. “Perhaps she’s in shock. She needs time to process.”

“Maybe,” Eugénie said. “She talked to the social worker on the phone while you were gone. But I’m worried it’s not all.”

“I’ll talk to her."

Adney didn’t notice her as she walked in. On the table was Eliza’s picnic basket. It had a thermos flask and sandwiches with fish fritters. Sam must’ve made them for Eliza.  

At last, Adney closed the washing machine’s door. Picking up the basket, she turned around and started at the sight of Anne. 

“I got the pizza and the ham,” Anne said. “We could have them for lunch.”

“Anne, I have something to tell you. Come with me.” Adney didn’t meet her eyes. But her voice was resolute. She went down the hallway with the laundry basket, towards the backdoor.

Anne looked at Eugénie, but the girl only gave a grimace. 

The sky was cloudy outside. It didn’t look fitting for hanging the laundry out to dry. In front of the laundry line, Adney stood motionless like a statue.

“Have you had breakfast?” Anne walked to her.

Adney only stared at her feet. Her lips parted and closed. 

“It’s been a stressful morning for everyone,” Anne said. 

“Eliza,” Adney said slowly. “They came to take him back while he and Eliza were getting ready for a picnic. They didn’t explain to her why they were taking him away. She was confused and scared. Mrs Grose came to take her and explained to her, but it doesn’t change anything. They took her father in front of her.”

“Mrs Grose?”

“The social worker lady,” Adney nearly hissed. “I should’ve come home last night. I shouldn’t have gone out at all. This is my fault.” 

“Nobody could’ve predicted this.” Anne extended her hands.

Adney wrapped her arms around her body and took a step back. “But the likelihood wasn’t zero. Never was.”

“But how could it be your fault? It would’ve happened whether you were at home or not.”

“It’s my obligation to expect and prepare for the worst. I failed. They told her—to cover up for me—that I was sick and still in bed. But Mrs Grose saw me outside the house.”

“No, Adney. Stop this,” Anne said softly. But she didn’t like this. She looked up at the sky and turned to the house. 

Eugénie was standing behind the half-open door, clearly worried and distraught. 

“I can’t do this anymore,” Adney said. “I knew this was wrong. I knew I couldn’t just juggle my life and—“

“Adney, you did nothing wrong.”

“Yes, I did. I left my children alone. I’m lucky I’m not being punished.” And as if the conversation was over, Adney began hanging the laundry up. “You need to go. I can’t do this.”

“What?"

"I said I can't—"

"Are you breaking up with me?”

“It’s not a rushed decision,” Adney, through tears, said calmly. “I thought about this while Eliza cried in my arms.”

It was too ridiculous. Anne couldn’t help but release a dry laugh. “We just need to stay here in the future. No need to—“

“Stay and what? Neglect them while we have sex?” 

Anne recoiled at the frenzy in her eyes. “First of all, Naveen was with Eugénie and—“

“Eugénie is still a child. Why can’t you—“ Adney cradled her head in her hands. “I shouldn’t have burdened her with the responsibility of an adult.”

Anne wanted to be careful here. Eugénie was listening, even though Adney couldn’t see her. “Marian is an adult—“

“Marian isn’t me. Mrs Grose didn’t put these children under her care. She put them under mine. I could’ve been here when she dropped Eliza off. But I wasn’t, because I prioritised my wants over their needs.”

Anne looked behind her when the backdoor closed. There was no Eugénie. 

Her gut told her this was a crucial moment, that she shouldn’t leave Eugénie alone. So she made a split-second decision and went after the girl, leaving Adney in the backyard.

As she entered the house, a door upstairs closed with a faint bang. Anne looked in the rooms downstairs to be sure, checked in on the little ones, and rushed upstairs. Eugénie’s door was closed. 

Anne gave gentle knocks. “Eugénie, are you alright?” 

Instead of verbal words, the sound of sniffling answered.

“May I come in? Do you want me to go away?” 

No answer.

“I’m coming in, okay?” Anne slowly opened the door a crack.

Eugénie was on the bed with her face buried against her knees. She didn’t raise her head as Anne walked in. 

Anne turned the desk chair around and sat in it, resting her arms on the backrest. 

Her desk had nothing remarkable on it except for a couple of fiction books from the library. They had yet to paint the drywall. The little ones had pre-drawn stars with pencils to make it fun. But the room felt as bleak as the first time Anne had set foot in it. Like a prison cell, with Eugénie confined in it. 

“All I want is to be helpful,” Eugénie said. 

“And you were. You took good care of Naveen. What happened to Eliza has nothing to do with you or with Adney.”

Still not looking up, Eugénie hugged her knees more tightly to her chest.

Anne recalled how Adney had left her behind at the farm despite asking her to wait. It sucked. Perhaps this was how Eugénie felt every day. 

“As a child,” Anne said, “I couldn't wait to be an adult, because that meant I was no longer underestimated. I could protect my people instead of being protected. But time passes slowly when you’re young. So cruelly slow. And people can be cruel, too, even if their intentions are good. They don’t see you the same way you see yourself. You can take it from strangers. But when it’s from your people, it hurts.”

“I tell her all the time that I’m not a small child.” Eugénie sobbed, so quietly that it broke Anne's heart.

"Do you want me to talk to her?" 

Eugénie looked up and wiped her tears away. “I don’t want to hurt her.”

“Hurt her by telling her how her good intention hurts you?” Anne gave a comical groan. “You family don’t know how to blame it on others, to a fault. So opposite of me and Marian.”

With her eyes puffy and bloodshot, Eugénie chuckled. “Marian doesn’t unfairly blame anyone.”

“You don’t know.”

Eugénie’s smile grew. “I made her cry.”

“She cried, but you didn’t make her.” Anne grabbed the tissue box from the desk and handed it to her.

Eugénie let a few more tears spill, blew her nose, and took one deep breath. “I made her cry before, after I came to this house. I wanted to help her, but didn't know how. I saw her struggling to buy basic things sometimes. So, I stole formula milk. I didn’t get caught. My mum taught me skills. But Adney eventually found out. Instead of scolding me, she cried and apologised for making me feel the need to steal anything for her. I’d never seen an adult cry before that. Cry for me. I promised her to never steal or lie to her again. And I promised myself to never make her cry again.” 

The story sounded similar to that of Sam. Stealing necessities for their loved ones. 

“Eugénie, you did not make her cry.”

“But if I was a little older...” Eugénie shook her head. “I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.”

Anne gestured for her to come closer. “I’ll let you in on a secret.”

Eugénie sat on the edge of the bed, face-to-face with her. 

“Nobody really knows what they’re doing, including adults,” Anne said. “Especially adults.”

“Really?”

“Do I look like I know what I’m doing?”

Eugénie rolled her eyes and gave a genuine giggle. The smile and a smug glint in her eyes, they suited her. But they vanished again. “Did she really break up with you?”

“She can’t get rid of me like that.” Anne smiled. “We’ll talk tomorrow. She needs time and space now. Too much has happened today already.”

“I hope she’ll listen.”

Rain pattered on the roof. The tree branches in the street swayed in the wind. Downstairs, there were footsteps of Adney, rushing outside. They had to take in the laundry, like Anne had expected. Anne handed Eugénie the tissue box again before leaving the room. 

It was a day of tears for everyone. Anne wondered if this was the catalyst this house had been waiting for, like a grain of rice that tips the scale. One way or another, they all had sorrow and pain repressed in their young hearts. 

Anne couldn’t do anything. She felt powerless, as she’d felt back in London, standing against the tall wall of the system. Growing up didn’t solve everything. Sometimes, it just made unconquerable obstacles more visible. This, she hadn’t told Eugénie. 

She helped Adney take in the laundry and make lunch. It consisted of the pizza, the ham, and Sam’s sandwiches. The whole house was in hibernation for the day.

Chapter Text

It kept raining, and didn’t seem to stop. By Marian’s order, Anne spent the morning organising the farm’s tool shed. The air smelt of mould. It looked like nobody had cleaned this place in ages. 

After a couple of hours, Marian came and tipped her giant umbrella like a top hat. "How do." The raindrop ran off it, creating a paddle near the threshold. 

"If you came to supervise, I’m not done yet."

Stepping in, Marian looked around the shed. "It’s not very… I want it as clean as the product storage." 

"We rebuilt that storage. This shed has been here since when we were kids. This hoe was covered in cobwebs—"

"Was it?" Marian smirked at her own immature joke.

"So much rubbish. Why do you keep plastic sheets that have holes?"

"They still cover small areas."

"They’re mouldy." Anne tossed the sheets onto a pile of rubbish in the corner. Next to it was a pile of useful but dirty items. "This isn’t a job for a rainy day."

Suspiciously enough, Marian’s face lit up. "You want another job?"

"I didn’t say—"

"You’ve got a delivery to make. The crate is ready in the storage."

"It’s not Thursday."

"Not to Adney’s house. Here’s the address." Marian held out a slip of paper.

But Anne refused to take it. "Why don’t you do it yourself?"

"Because Percy needs a human pillow— How’s Eliza doing?" 

It annoyed her how Marian was changing the subject. "The dinner table was like a funeral last night." 

"And Adney? She says she’s fine, but I don’t buy it. Probably blaming herself for Eliza’s situation." 

So, Adney hadn’t told her about their argument. Anne had thought they shared everything concerning Anne with each other.

"They all need more time." Anne extended her hand for the paper with the delivery address. The street name didn’t ring a bell. "I’ll go straight to Adney’s for lunch after this delivery."

"Sure. Straight." Marian giggled. 

Anne left the shed, jumping over the paddle Marian had created, and went to the storage. The crate was by the door. It had a piece of making tape with the street’s name written on it. The rain had smudged the ink. She peeled it off, loaded the crate on the back of the truck, and covered it with a plastic sheet. 

Before starting the engine, she texted Adney, Marian making me work extra hard today. Will come for lunch.

It was her routine to have lunch with them. Usually, Anne texted her only when she could not. But Adney might assume that after yesterday’s conflict, Anne would act standoffish. It wasn’t true. Adney needed to know. 

The house in need of delivery had a big garden with a decorative arch. The leaves were lush. Though most flowers were still in bud, there were purple petals. Anne didn’t know what type of flower it was.

This garden looked familiar, Anne noticed, especially the arch. During the day, in the rain, the street looked different. But it was the street she’d walked down with Adney on their way back from the Italian restaurant. This was the house she’d pointed at, talking about her dream home. 

When she rang the doorbell, a middle-aged man answered it. With his fat hands, he received the crate of vegetables and invited her in. 

As friendly as he might’ve looked, Anne had no desire to enter a strange man’s house. 

"My wife has been expecting you." He called out to his wife inside the house. "Love, your old student is here."

Light footsteps approached the entrance. Like a skilled ambusher, Mrs Priestley appeared and smiled at Anne. "Ms Lister, so good of you to stop by— Oh, you don’t have the…" She pointed at both of her own cheeks.

"No," Anne said. "No whiskers today."

"You would’ve made a cute delivery cat. Come in for a cuppa." Mrs P beckoned her in, while her husband held the door with an amicable smile. 

This was a nuisance. Had Marian sent her knowing who lived here? 

"I have more deliveries to make," Anne lied.

"Just a little. New silver tips tea arrived from the Himalayas." Without waiting for her answer, Mrs P went back inside the house. "William, make a cuppa for Ms Lister, will you?"

Her husband gave an obedient nod.

Though reluctant, Anne stepped in. It’d be quicker to stay a little than continuing with the vain attempt to leave. She’d get Mrs P to talk, pretend to listen, and go to Adney’s. 

The house smelt of something artificial Anne couldn’t put a finger on. It smelt like the clean bathroom of a public building.

The drawing room had a nice view of the garden. If it'd been someone else's garden, Anne would've complimented it. But she refused to satisfy Adney's nemesis. They sat down as Mr Priestley served them tea. 

"How can I help you?" Anne said.

Mrs P laughed. "Straight to business. I wish some teachers were direct like that." 

"Well, if my directness pleases you, I won’t hold back. I suspect you've placed the order so I'd come here. Why? To talk to me about something. What is it?"

Still, Mrs P took leisurely sips of her tea. With a quiet clink, she put the cup on the saucer and looked out the window. "Mr Adams isn't doing so well."

"Who's Mr Adams?"

"The school night guard. If my memory serves me correctly, I've told you we were looking for someone to take over his position."

"Haven’t you found anyone yet?"

"It’s a small town. Eligible people look for jobs elsewhere."

Anne had expected something more cumbersome, although Mr P's indirectness still annoyed her. She relaxed a little. "You understand that I, too, have a job in London."

"And you’re under suspension until… when?"

Anne cringed internally. "Until the end of May."

"End of May." Mrs P looked at the calendar on the wall and made a pensive face. "The separation will be challenging for Ginger, won’t it? Speaking of which, it looks like you all had a busy day yesterday."

This was annoying. Adney’s snoopy neighbour knew of Eliza’s situation. It wouldn’t surprise Anne if Mrs Cole had also eavesdropped on their quarrel in the backyard.

But for Adney’s sake, Anne remained civil. "Do you have your spies in every corner of the town?"

"Of course, not." Mrs P laughed. "Just little birds, keeping a busy woman informed."

It sounded worse, more malignant. She wasn’t busy, but an ordinary busybody.

"So," Mrs P said. "We have more than a month. Mr Adams will surely appreciate your help."

Anne considered her options. "On one condition."

"We can pay you in cash."

"Thanks. But that’s not it." Anne braced her elbows on her knees. "Leave Ms Walker in peace. She’s an adult woman. If she wants to find someone to marry, she’s capable of doing so herself."

"Ah." Again, Mrs P looked out the window with a melancholic air. "We all want her to find happiness. That’s all."

"She can find it on her own. And tell your little birds to keep their beaks out of our business."

"That’s two conditions."

"I’m glad you could do the maths." Anne leaned back on the sofa. "So, how many days a week?" 

Mrs P flashed a tight smile. "Three. Four, if you’re enthusiastic."

"Three is fine. Where do I sign?"

"Just come in, say, tomorrow night? The shift starts at six. Mr Adams will give you instructions."

"Very well." Standing up, Anne walked around the coffee table to tower over Mrs P. She made sure to give her a firm handshake.

Mrs P held her head up high. "Tell Ginger I said hello."

"You shouldn’t call her that." Anne got the car keys out of her pocket, ready to leave. "That nickname wasn’t created in good faith."

"She never told me that."

"Her bullies gave it to her. So, I urge you to stop using it."

"But I use it as an affectionate term."

"Your intention hardly matters," Anne said. "Good day. The tea was exquisite." 

Anne left the house, casting one last glance at the gorgeous garden. It was such a shame she loathed this house now. 

… 

Another morning came, and Adney kept reeling from yesterday’s event. Her body felt heavy. The kids’ voices rang distant in her ears. The sound of the heavy rain made her dizzier. 

It was one of those days. She couldn’t get anything done today. 

She’d still work around the house. The washer, to her irritation, refused to cooperate. Its door wouldn’t click shut. The power button only responded after the fifth or sixth pressing. Her inner voice complained it wasn’t worth doing the laundry in this weather. But she did it anyway. Her routine tethered her to earth. 

Before nine o’clock, (She’d spaced out a bit watching the clothes in the washer.) Anne texted her. Marian was being a demanding boss.

The washer had twenty more minutes to go. Adney went to the living room to watch over the kids. 

Seated on the sofa, she stared at her phone screen. Anne always texted her in the morning. But Adney hadn’t expected this. Not after their breakup. 

Naveen tapped her on the knee. "Is Anne still asleep? She always comes early when it rains."

"She has work to do," Adney said. 

Eliza looked up from her book. "But the rain waters the veggies?"

"Will the rain stop today?" Naveen said.

"The forecast said no," Adney said. "Tomorrow will be cloudy."

Naveen turned to Eliza. "We can’t go on a picnic in the rain." He then said to Adney, "Anne said yesterday we could go to the farm and have lunch. I want to dig cabbages."

"Sounds nice." His words went over her head. 

"But"—Eliza tapped on his shoulder for his attention—"Eugénie told you. Cabbages don’t grow below the ground."

He tilted his head. "But I’ve never seen a cabbage tree before."

Adney smiled at them both. "Let’s ask Anne later."

"When’s she coming over?" Naveen said. 

"Around noon. For lunch."

Eliza let out a dramatic sigh. "So bored. Can we paint the attic walls by ourselves? It’s almost done. Just the ceiling and the door and…"

"Eugénie’s room, too!" Naveen pointed his finger towards the doorway.

With a cuppa in her hands, Eugénie was standing there. Adney hadn’t noticed. Her face revealed nothing. But when their eyes met, Eugénie looked away. 

"Guys, don’t trouble Adney too much."

"I’m okay." Adney smiled at her. "Do you want to sit with us?"

But Eugénie shook her head. "I’m okay." She looked at the kids. "Eliza, Naveen, do you want to paint my walls?"

The kids nodded their heads.

"I’ll get my room ready. Put on your work clothes and wait." With that, Eugénie left for her room. 

There was something strange about Eugénie’s air. Since yesterday, Adney supposed. But the reason was unclear. Perhaps, Eugénie felt betrayed by her. Their breakup had trampled on her sincere efforts as a wingwoman.

But this view could be wrong. It might be unrelated to Adney. Her perception could be deceitful sometimes, especially after she made a mistake. It made her over-sensitive. Sort of pessimistic.

Adney helped the kids change into their work clothes and put on shoes. 

"Still feel odd wearing shoes inside the house." Eliza looked down at her feet. 

Eliza hadn’t completely recovered from yesterday's event, either. Her spirits were low. She still talked the usual amount. Adney wasn’t sure if it meant good, but couldn’t do anything else.

They helped Eugénie prepare for the paint job. There were plastic sheets covering the bed and the floor. With Eugénie, Adney taped them, while the kids brought tools from the attic. A big can that said 'primer', a tray, brushes, three paint rollers… (She couldn't stay. But seeing there was no fourth roller, it hurt a little.)

"If something happens, you can find me in the house, okay?"

"We know." Naveen smiled and waved her goodbye.

The washer beeped in the kitchen soon after Adney had returned downstairs. She pulled the clothes out. She put some stuff in the dryer. And with things like bras and tights, she went up to her own bedroom to hang them. Her routine. It kept her sane.

The upstairs was filled with the pungent smell of paint. She went to Eugénie’s room to open the window for ventilation. But it was already wide open, with a towel placed on the sill for the rain. The air felt slightly chilly, she noticed for the first time. 

She stayed in the room with them for a while. But the moist sound of the rollers echoed at the back of her molars. Her sanity only lasted several minutes. She had to leave.

The rain continued, and Anne came—she had an umbrella this time—for lunch. Adney couldn't look at her, but felt her gaze. As the door opened, as they set the table, as everyone sat down to eat. Without a pause. 

"Why did you have to work?" Eliza said. "The rain did your job, no?"

Anne gave a kind chuckle. "The watering part, yes. But Marian needed me to clean the tool shed. It was dirty."

"We had to hoover under Eugénie’s bed, too," Naveen said. "It was dirty."

"It wasn’t that dirty," Eugénie mumbled. 

Adney didn't remember hearing the hoover. She must've spaced out somewhere again. 

"We painted her walls," Eliza said. "No stars yet. Just the primarying. We want colourful stars."

"Alright," Anne said. "Got to work quick so she could sleep under the colourful stars."

That was what they did after lunch. 

The whole time, Adney kept her distance from Anne. (Or, Anne from her, depending on the perspective.) No doubt she was mad at Adney. 

She replayed the scene in the backyard in her mind again and again. Not every detail was clear in her memory. Only fragments. But she remembered—clearly like a picture—the part where Anne turned her back on her. Anne had walked away. This memory stuck. It kept creaming in her heart.

Still, Anne stayed, helping her with house chores like before. 

All remained the same on the surface. It felt like only Adney was in a different dimension. A different reality, where their story had taken a different route from the world the rest of them was in. 

But if everything stayed the same, were they still girlfriends? What defines a romantic relationship exactly? Just names? Girlfriends, not girlfriends. Was it something that worked like a switch?

Adney flinched as Anne’s footsteps entered the kitchen. She looked up from her laptop. 

After offering a kind smile, Anne put the kettle on. She lingered there at the stoves, behind Adney’s designated seat. "Headache?"

Adney realised she was massaging her temples. 

"It’s raining hard." Anne came closer. "Do you want a head massage? It made it better last time."

"You’re busy."

"Until the kettle is ready. Do you want it?"

Despite all, Adney craved her touch. She gave a nod before another part of her got to protest. Anne’s fingers came entangled in the nest of her hair, in the same way—it occurred to her—they’d softly pulled her hair the night at the farm.

"We're done priming Eugénie’s walls," Anne said. "Getting ready to do the staircase door now."

"That’s nice."

"Looking at furniture again?" 

The laptop screen showed some images of study desks. 

Adney nodded. The movement agitated Anne’s fingers free, so she straightened her back. "The assembly has to be easy. I didn’t think about that last time."

"I could do it. We have Eugénie, too. She might be better at it than me."

"Okay."

The conversation died down. She was doing it wrong. 

"Anne, I need to—"

The kettle whistled behind them. Anne’s warmth disappeared as she went to turn off the stove. Their time was up. 

"What is it?" Anne said. 

Adney shook her head. "You said ‘until the kettle was ready.’"

"Tea should never be rushed." Anne sat down and looked into her face. "I won’t leave until you want me to. What were you going to say?" Her hand covered Adney’s on the table. 

Adney wanted to squeeze it back. To never let go. "I’m sorry I yelled yesterday. And thank you for staying for the kids."

"I’m staying for you, too. For all of you."

"I thought you were angry. It’s understandable. I’d be furious, too, if someone treated me like that. Probably."

"I’m not angry," Anne said. "I wanted to give you some space yesterday."

Adney didn’t know how to reply. 

From upstairs (probably the top of the stairs), Eliza’s voice came. "Anne, is tea ready yet?"

Adney withdrew her hand. "You should go. The water will go cold."

"You can always reboil the water. Is this all you wanted to talk about?"

Such a tricky question to answer. There was nothing more to say on her part. But at the same time, this ‘Are you angry? No, I’m not angry. Okay.’ interaction felt insufficient. 

Anne took her phone out and quickly did something. "I texted Eugénie. Told her I was talking to you. They won’t interrupt us."

"I’m sorry."

"For what?"

"For…" Adney couldn’t say. She felt like crying. "I was the one who asked for it. But when I finally had it, I didn't want it anymore... Just like a child. A stupid child."

"You wouldn't describe a child as stupid, so stop describing yourself so."

"I don't know what I'm doing. I never do."

Without a word, Anne stood up and walked towards the exit. Adney thought she was leaving the room. But she stopped in front of the notice board on the wall. "The house rules." She pointed at the pinned paper. "Remember what the fifth one is?"

"Nobody's perfect. You may not expect perfection from others or yourself."

"There you go." Anne came back. Grabbing the back of a chair, she aligned it with Adney’s and sat down. "You’re always busy loving others. But you also have many people who love and support you. Don’t forget that."

Anne’s tenderness left her in awe. Adney had broken her heart (Not for the first time), and Anne still smiled at her. It never went like this in the films. 

"How many exes do you have?" 

"Exes? Hmm, ten? One more and I could form a soccer team." Anne chuckled.  

Adney was one of them now. The soccer team of ex-girlfriends. It stung. Just a faint heartache. 

"You look like you have something you want to say," Anne said.

Adney shook her head. "Nothing. Just that... You're experienced."

"Am I?"

"You told me before you always stay friends with your ex." It was a simpler time. The attic roof hadn’t had beams or insulation material. 

"Except for this one cunt who called Marian names." With a wicked grin, Anne winked at her.

Adney forced a smile. "I'm glad you were my first. My real first. I know it wasn’t a good experience for you. I’m boring. Too unstable. But I’m—" I’m glad it was you. "I’m sorry."

Silence fell and sent ripples in the colour fog of the rain. Her head throbbed again. She massaged her temples herself, but it didn't work. 

"So," Anne said, "Do you really mean to break up with me? Was it not a spur-of-the-moment thing?"

In Adney’s eyes, they’d already broken up. But Anne's wording made her doubt this belief. "I want what’s best for the kids."

"I want that, too. But you’re human. It’s not healthy to keep repressing your feelings. It doesn’t set a good example to the kids, either."

Adney hadn’t thought of it that way. "But I might fail again if I don’t focus all of my attention on them."

"You have me. You have Eugénie. Even the little ones. I promise, they aren’t as helpless as you think."

But Eliza’s tears and screams were vivid in her memory. Adney still felt the fear and shame in her stomach. 

"Adney, do you love me? Or, if you feel unsure about using that word, do you like me?"

Adney nodded without hesitation. She liked Anne more than any words could describe. No doubt about it.

"I like you, too," Anne said. "Even if you want us to break up, I won’t stop caring about you. But I want to be happy, with you. It doesn’t make me selfish."

The look in her eyes mesmerised Adney. Her love, shining through the colour fog. 

"You might get sick of me," Adney said. "I might— will have a panic attack again. You don't want to deal with it every time."

Anne never looked away as her hand found Adney's. "You’re worth it."

All her life, nobody had ever told her that. Everyone—her aunt, her adoptive families, her husbands-to-be—always gave up on her. Always waiting for a chance, an excuse, to escape.

She'd always been a compromise. 

But to Anne, she was worth it. The sound of it rang strange, but not unpleasant. 

She didn't know how to conclude this, though. Saying "Okay, I'm not breaking up with you," would be direct and clear. But it didn't feel right. 

So, she took Anne’s face and kissed her. 

A little leap of heart. A little leap of faith. Because she was worth it. 

They made up. This storm had passed. Still, Anne had one more problem to solve. The kettle water had gone lukewarm. With a bare hand, she touched the kettle and enjoyed the warmth before turning the stove on. This time, it wouldn't take as much time to heat as the first time. 

"Want tea?"

Adney nodded. 

"Want to come upstairs and watch the kids work?" But Anne grimaced. "Wait, you don’t like the wet sound of— Do you suppose earplugs work?"

"I’ve tried them before. Some years ago. But having them in my ears was horrifying." Adney shivered, smiling. "Anyway, I need to look at desks." She gestured at the laptop.

"How’s the headache?"

Adney touched her temple. "Better, I think. Would you really do the assembly?"

"Yes. No need to worry about that." Anne turned off the stove as the kettle whistled weakly. She poured the water into the teacup and placed a tea bag in. "Adney, when you bought necessary furniture and your headache was still manageable, you should talk to Eugénie."

It took a moment for Adney to process it. "She’s really angry with me? I thought it was my brain lying to me."

"I wouldn't say angry."

"Upset? Because I tried to break up with you?"

"It’s a different issue."

Adney looked distressed. "What is it about? Can you give me a clue?"

"I’m not a fairy godmother. It’s between you two." Anne sat down and caressed Adney’s cheek. "Everything will be alright. I promise."

Still, Adney looked mousy.

"How about," Anne said, "we have a family event? A picnic in the attic. It’s something you can participate in. We have snacks, have fun, and when you’re relaxed, I’ll give you two some time to talk alone."

"Picnic in the attic?" Adney smiled. "It sounds fun. It’d make the kids happy."

"It’s Eugénie’s idea. Genius, isn’t she?"

Adney gave a nod. She leaned forward for a kiss, which Anne gladly gave.

They decided, consulting with everyone, that the picnic would start at three o’clock, in thirty minutes. Having a set schedule helped Adney. It gave Anne enough time to prepare snacks. 

Soon, the kids came downstairs. 

"Where’s tea?" Eliza said.

Anne held up a thermos flask. "In this. Do you want to have it here now or later in the attic?"

"In the attic," the little ones said in unison.

Anne turned back to the snacks on the kitchen counter. "Have you finished the door?" 

"Yeah. Eugénie’s painting the tiny parts now." Eliza then went to Adney at the table and peeked at the laptop screen. She pointed at one image. "I like this one. Are you going to buy it?"

"I don’t know," Adney said. "I might need more time to decide."

"How come we don’t have bunk beds? My classmates have them."

"Because when I was a child," Adney said. "One of my siblings fell from it and broke his leg."

Eliza gasped. "Anne, have you ever broken a bone?"

"I have." Anne put her face closer to Eliza. "Look at my nose. A little crooked, yeah? I’ve broken it many times."

Eliza’s hand rose as if she wanted to touch it. "How? Does it hurt?"

Many encounters with violent inmates. But Anne hated to paint a sinister picture of her workplace for the little ones. "I’m clumsy. It doesn’t hurt anymore." 

From behind, Naveen tugged at Anne’s trousers. "What are you making?" He pointed at the kitchen counter. 

"Ham sandwiches."

His eyes sparkled. "Haaaam." He danced, overdoing the sign for ‘ham.’ The first part of the sign looked similar to the ‘make it rain’ move. To untrained hearing people, it might’ve looked like he was dancing about money.

Sitting in her chair, Eliza raised her hand. "Can we invite Marian, too?"

"A good idea," Anne said. "I’m sure she’s dozing off with Percy."

"Percy can come, too."

"He’s old," Anne said. "You can always visit the farm to see him." She then texted Marian, Picnic in the attic. Bring cheese.

Marian arrived in fifteen minutes with blocks of cheese. Anne got slices from each block, helping herself to some. They sandwiches now had ham and cheese. 

"Cheeeese!" Naveen did his little dance.

When the snack set was ready, Anne grabbed Eliza’s picnic basket from the top of the fridge. "Eliza, can we use this?"

Eliza nodded. "Dad said Grandpa bought it for him when he was little." Her smile disappeared as she stared at it.

But Adney closed the laptop and smiled at her. "Let’s keep it neat so he could use it with you many times in the future."

"Okay." Eliza gave a brave smile.

The alarm went off on Anne’s smartphone. It was three o’clock. "Shall we go?"

Eugénie came into the kitchen. "Adney, where do we keep the picnic sheet?"

"Oh. Uh, the room under the stairs. I’ll get it." Adney unplugged the laptop, turned off the radio music, and followed Eugénie into the hallway. Her shoulders were tense.

The rest of them went after them like ducklings. 

The little ones chose the spot in the centre of the attic. They spread the picnic sheet, holding the corners in place with their phones. It was barely big enough for the picnic basket plus three people. Marian and Eugénie sat on the wooden floor. So did Anne, claiming the spot next to Adney. 

Eliza acted as the host, serving everyone tea. She held her cup up. "Thank you all for coming to my picnic. Enjoy the food and tea and the beautiful scenery." She gestured at the flowers painted on the wall. "And I hope we can have the next one with Dad, too."

They cheered and clinked their cups. 

"Blow on it first, please," Adney said to the little ones. "It’s still hot."

Marian’s hand reached for the sandwiches at the speed of light. 

Naveen pointed at her sandwich. "I love this ham. The best ham in the world."

"Already a gourmet!" Marian took a huge bite. "The world of ham is deep. Some people eat melon with ham."

"Why?" Eliza wrinkled her nose. "It’s like… mixing ice cream and broccoli."

"There’s a dish like that." Marian had the evil smirk of an expert liar. "In… Turkey." 

Eliza went ewww

"Ham is best in sandwiches," Naveen said. "Haaam." He made the exaggerated version of the sign again.

"Yes, make it rain!" Marian imitated his gesture, brushing the crumbs off her hands in passing. 

With a tilted head, Eliza joined them. "It’s already raining, though?"

Anne kept her mouth shut, not wanting to let Marian know that their brains worked the same way. 

Everyone looked at ease, except for Adney and Eugénie. They stole nervous glances at each other and exchanged awkward smiles. Anne hadn’t disclosed this picnic’s goal to Eugénie. But the girl was too intelligent not to detect anything. 

To distract them both, Anne took Adney’s hand and kissed it. "Have some sandwiches."

Adney did, taking absentminded nibbles. "What do you want for dinner?" she said to Anne. "It should be something light. These sandwiches are filling."

"We can manage with the leftovers in the fridge."

"What do we have?" Adney tried to remember. "Meatball sauce. We need to use the spinach… I have to go grocery shopping tomorrow."

Anne chuckled. "Let’s think about it later."

"What do you want to eat tomorrow? For dinner?"

But it reminded Anne of something. "I can’t come tomorrow evening. Remember when Mrs Priestley offered me a job at the school?" 

That also reminded her of Marian’s complicity in this. Their eyes met. Judging from the way her sister averted her gaze, she was guilty. They’d talk later. 

"The night guard?" Adney said. 

Anne nodded. "I ran into her today, and she pressed for my help. Said this old fellow needs to retire. The attic is almost over. So, I agreed to temporarily take it over. For a month."

Many thoughts flashed across Adney’s face. 

"I know you’re worried about Bee—"

"No. It’s…" Adney said. "Your health. Sleep is important."

"Night shifts usually have sleep breaks. A couple of hours."

Adney’s frown grew bigger. "That’s not enough sleep."

"It’s only three days a week. If I’m still sleepy, I can slack off during the farm work."

"I heard that," Marian said.

Eliza looked up, picking up a piece of ham from the picnic sheet. She quickly ate it. "Heard what?"

"My new job," Anne said, "at the school at night."

"Can we visit you? Naveen and I can sit in my classroom, and you can pretend to be our teacher."

Marian jabbed her with her elbow. "Are you sure? There might be ghosts."

But it excited Eliza even more. "I heard that the skeleton in the lab walks on itself at night."

"Ghosts don’t scare me," Naveen said. "But are there sea monsters?"

"They may be in the swimming pool," Marian said.

"Don’t be scared." Eliza squeezed his hand. "Ghosts and monsters are your friends."

It failed to cheer him up. 

There was another grimace in the room. Eugénie hadn’t dropped her unsatisfied expression since the first mention of Mrs P. 

"What’s wrong, Eugénie?" Anne said with a smirk. "Are you afraid of the walking skeleton?" 

Eugénie rolled her eyes. Her grimace didn’t disappear as Anne had hoped. "I just don’t get it. You basically accepted to have Mrs P as your boss."

"I won’t see it that way," Anne said. 

"She’s the head teacher. You’re a regular guard. She has power over you."

Anne gave a gentle nod. "Here’s another way of looking at it. I’m helping her. She owes me one. It’ll be helpful one day, don’t you think?"

With that, Eugénie couldn’t argue. 

"Useful for what?" Naveen said. 

Marian grinned. "Useful for when you start school. If Anne tells Mrs P, she can’t give you homework, ever."

"But I like learning. I already know how to write."

Placing her hand on her chest, Marian acted shocked. Half-fake, half-real. "Can you help me with mine?" she whispered, still signing. "I have leftover homework from high school."

Marian’s foolish behaviour irked Anne. But they were laughing, all of them. The problems in their world didn’t exist in that moment. 

Adney smiled at her and, like Anne always did, kissed the back of Anne’s hand.

Chapter Text

In the small space of the attic, the kids played Frisbee. (It was the only picnicky thing they could think of.) They had no real Frisbee. So, Marian put two paper plates together, cutting a hole in the centre, and made one. 

The players stood in each corner while Anne and Adney stayed on the picnic sheet. Adney ducked her head every time it flew over her. 

Anne chuckled beside her. "It won’t hurt if it hits you." Then, it flew into her head. She glared at Marian. "You did that on purpose."

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Marian said.

“It was an accident,” Eliza said, “because Marian’s aim is dreadful.”

Following this, the game added Anne as a target. They played hard as if it was a vast playground. In less than an hour, the kids ran out of energy. It was their nap time. 

"But I"—Naveen stifled a yawn—"still could play."

"You can play afterwards, okay? Let’s go." Adney stood up.

But with a hand on her knee, Anne stopped her. "Marian and I got this." She gave a subtle glance at Eugénie.

It brought back the heavy feeling in Adney’s stomach. 

Anne and Marian took the empty picnic basket and thermos flask.

"Brush your teeth first," Adney said to the kids.

They left the attic, leaving Adney alone with Eugénie. The staircase door closed. The sound of rain echoed loudly. There was a small distance between them. Adney on the sheet and Eugénie outside its edges. 

The Frisbee session had distracted Adney’s mind. It’d kept her anxiety at bay. But it also had denied her the time to think. She still had no idea what this could be about. For good or bad, her head was empty. 

But there was no going back. She was the adult here. 

"Eugénie—" 

"So—"

They spoke at the same time. They shut their mouths and waited for the other to speak. Neither did. 

Instinctively, Adney gestured for her to go first, (and immediately second-guessed herself.)

Eugénie fiddled with the paper Frisbee. "You and Anne. Did you get back together?"

Adney gave a slow nod, full of uncertainty. "We talked earlier."

"Good. She’s good for you."

"I’m sorry, for trying to break up with her." 

Eugénie didn’t raise her face. "You don’t need to apologise to me for that."

It wasn’t about that, as Anne had told her. Still, Adney’s anxiety demanded to hear it from Eugénie. Now, it was off the list of likely problems. 

"Anne said that you—we have something to talk about."

Eugénie’s fiddling paused. 

Adney waited patiently. But no answer came. "I wish I could do this more tactfully, but I have no clue… If you don’t want to talk about it now—"

"No, it’s fine," Eugénie said with little enthusiasm. "How much has Anne told you?

"Nothing. Only that you were upset. She said we needed to figure it out on our own."

Eugénie's lips curled into a lopsided smile. "Such a strict parenting style." 

Adney laughed with her. This, she felt, alleviated the feeling of tension. She patted the spot near her. "The floor is cold. Come sit here."

Eugénie shook her head. "It’s not that cold." She put the frisbee aside. It sailed a few centimetres above the floor before hitting the wall.

They stared at the motionless Frisbee for a moment.  

"How can I make it easy for you?" Adney said. "I could stand in the corner." She stood up and did so. The wall with vertical stripes on her left and the polka-dotted wall on her right. "Pretend I’m not here. It’s like you’re talking to yourself."  

"I don’t talk to myself."

Adney couldn’t imagine how anyone could think without talking to themself. But true, she’d never heard Eugénie doing it. 

"I’m not trying to—" Eugénie said. "I want to… Talk. I just don’t know how to start." 

"When my anxiety makes me semi-nonverbal, I just talk. About anything. Sometimes I end up saying the wrong things. But it works. It tricks your brain and mouth into believing that speaking isn’t so hard. And carrying that momentum, say the important things." 

Eugénie murmured, trying to start sentences. But she fell into silence soon. 

Adney saw her head hung down. "Eugénie?"

Eugénie only sniffled once. Her breathing trembled.

It broke Adney’s heart. But she was the adult here. She maintained her strong façade and slowly sat down next to her on the wooden floor. At a distance, but close enough for a hug if necessary.  

"I don’t want to hurt you," Eugénie said. 

Adney’s first thought was that Eugénie had got fed up with her. Eugénie wanted to live somewhere else. But it was absurd. Even if she hated Adney, Eugénie loved the kids. Leaving the house would sadden them. 

This reminded her of the earlier days. It was her second thought. The time when Eugénie first came to this house. The time around the powdered milk incident. 

One day after school, out of the blue, Eugénie had given her a can of formula milk. No receipt to give Adney. It was a gift from her new friend, she’d said. But no matter how many times Adney asked to know who the gifter was, Eugénie gave no answer. 

It was a stolen item, Adney had twigged.

The system had Eugénie's circumstances recorded. A broken home. A mother with addiction problems. She taught Eugénie how to steal. Even after her mother’s passing, her kleptomania lived on. Her relatives, not wanting any trouble, let her go. 

But for Adney, it wasn’t trouble. It meant her failure as a guardian. She cried and apologised, promising to be stronger for Eugénie and all of her children. 

"I didn’t mean to hurt you," Eugénie had said. "That’s not what I wanted."

They’d never talked about it again. (To this day, Adney didn’t know for certain that Eugénie stole that milk. Their mutual silence on this matter offered a little doubt, a little hope.) 

Adney failed as a guardian. Again. "Eugénie, whatever it is, I can take it. Let me take it. I’m not perfect. But I’m not as weak as you think I am." She put her hand, palm up, on the floor between them. "Help me become a better parent."

Eugénie stared at the hand. And slowly, she put hers on it. When her lips parted, a shaky whimper fell. "Do you not want me to stay in this house? With you?"

"Of course, I do. You’re part of our family."

"But whenever I say I could become like you and take care of the kids, you don’t like it."

Adney was confused. "You don’t deserve to be stuck here. You have a bright future…"

"But what if I didn’t want it?" Eugénie stared down at her feet. Every few seconds, she turned her face away from Adney to wipe her nose. 

Adney wished they’d had a box of tissues. "Why don’t you want your future bright?"

"It’s not what I mean. But it’s your idea of a bright future, getting out of here, seeing the world outside this town. I’m not interested in any of those. I want to stay with you." Her voice cracked, and Eugénie broke down. "But you act like you don’t need me."

Shock and confusion paralysed Adney. She’d never seen Eugénie cry. Not even a few tears. But when she recovered, she closed the distance between them. She wrapped her arms around Eugénie from the side. The position was slightly awkward.  

"You are needed. You are loved—"

"But you don’t accept my help. You treat me like— I know I’m legally a child. I need protection. I still don’t know many things. But I’ve always felt proud of helping you. When you refuse my help, it feels like I don’t matter to you. Aren’t we a team? Isn't a team supposed to help each other?"

Silence permeated the rain-coloured room again.

It was unclear when Eugénie had finished talking. Adney waited more, pretending to make sure Eugénie had nothing left to add. But her voice was stuck deep inside her. Like she’d been born without it. 

"I’m sorry," Eugénie said.

Speak. Adney must speak now. This was the one moment where she couldn’t lose her voice. "Don’t apologise. You showed me your boundaries instead of bottling it up. I’m sorry I couldn’t notice it for you." She squeezed Eugénie's hand really hard and pressed it to her chest. It anchored her. "You’re loved. You are needed. Please, never doubt that."

Slowly, Eugénie nodded. A quiet chuckle came out. Wiping her tears away, she lay down on the picnic sheet. "That was easier than I thought." There was a small smile.

"What was?"

"This. It wasn’t easy easy. But I was scared this would hurt you so much you’d want to abandon me."

"I would never," Adney said without hesitation.

"It’s ridiculous." Eugénie's gaze stayed on the ceiling. "This fear didn’t leave me alone, though. It made me feel like a traitor, like I didn’t trust you enough."

Not all of it made sense to Adney. But she knew about unwanted thoughts. Those little things her inner voice whispered. "Your thoughts don’t define you."

"I know."

Adney lay down beside Eugénie. The unpainted drywall looked like a white hole in a colourful galaxy. It could swallow her. This thought soothed her. "Anything I say might sound hollow to you. But I thought it was for your good. It’s not that I didn’t need your help. You’ve always helped me, more than I notice, probably. But I didn’t want to need it."

Eugénie glanced at her. "What do you mean?"

"I thought— As a child, I did house chores every day. My aunt made me. Once, I told her I was too tired. She threatened to kick me out if I was lazy. She shut me up for good.”

"Your aunt was a proper bitch."

Adney smiled. It looked like Eugénie was picking up Anne’s speech pattern. "Yes. I was too busy surviving to see it back then. It was only after she’d passed that I understood. She was abusive. My childhood was stolen. I didn’t want that for you. I wanted you to have a regular life, as much as possible in this house."

"My childhood is shite," Eugénie said. "You make it better."

"Every time you offered me help, I heard my younger self. Exhausted, but desperate to earn her right to stay." 

Eugénie seemed lost for words. "You aren’t your aunt," she whispered. 

Obvious. But Adney realised, hearing it from Eugénie, that she’d needed it. She had needed someone to liberate her. From her aunt’s shadow, from her stolen childhood. "I still hurt you. I thought I was treating you with love. But I didn’t respect you."

Eugénie hummed. Her eyes were closed. Tears had spilt from the corner of her eye and rolled down her temple. “Adney.”

“Yes?”

"I don’t know what happens in the future. But give me the option to stay. Please don’t try to let me go."

"You have a place here."

"Forever?"

Adney hesitated, but nodded. "As long as you’d like."

Eugénie wiped her tears away. She exhaled. "Six more years to go," she said to herself. 

"Until what?"

"Until I’m twenty-one and eligible to be a foster parent."

They’d never talked about it. Eugénie must’ve done research herself. 

Six years was a long time, enough to turn one’s life around. Naveen hadn’t been born yet six years ago. This attic had been a cobwebby storage a few months ago. 

Adney studied the almost finished place. From the floor, it looked bigger than she remembered. "I always mean to come look at this place at night. But it always slips out of my mind."

"Have you come here after we started painting?"

Adney sat up for a better view of the four walls. "The last time was when Eliza’s dad was here."

"See that dino?" Eugénie pointed at the wall with flowers and animals. "The blue one with a helmet?"

There were too many figures. Adney couldn’t find it. 

Standing up, Eugénie went to the wall and pointed at it. "We spent over an hour on this. Eliza wasn’t satisfied with the colours of its feathers. I think it’s still imperfect in her opinion."

Adney walked over to it. With its vibrant feathers, it looked like a bird from a psychedelic horror film. It had something above its sharp mouth. But Adney didn’t know if it was really a helmet. 

"And these." Eugénie had moved to the wall with horizontal waves. She was pointing at something in the bottom corner. 

On closer look, Adney saw two little handprints. The smaller one was green. The other one was orange. 

"No handprints was our rule," Eugénie said. "But Naveen convinced us, saying every artist leaves some kind of signature." 

Adney touched the handprints. "You didn’t leave yours?"

Shaking her head, Eugénie looked down. "It’s permanent… But now I wish I had."

"Couldn’t you do it now?" 

"I suppose." Eugénie looked over at the cans of paint near the staircase landing. "Do you want to do it with me?"

"Oh, but I never worked here."

"You’re still part of it." 

Eugénie got the paint set. With a flat brush, she first painted Adney’s palm red. Adney left her handprint next to Naveen’s. The size difference made them both chuckle. Then, Eugénie put her purple handprint next to Adney’s. They stood, with paint on their hands, and admired the four signatures. 

Adney’s heart tightened at the sight. These marks would stay with her in this house. Permanent. Forever. 

"You’re all growing up so fast."   

This realisation always took her by surprise. One blink. One gulp of air. Time was unfair to people like Adney. It never slowed down for her. No matter how much she focused on the present, its colour faded in the memory. There was always a smear of regret. She couldn’t touch it. She could only stop briefly, feel it, and say, "You’re growing up fast." Over and over again. 

Adney smiled at Eugénie. "We— I haven’t thanked you for looking after Naveen. Thank you."

In six years, Eugénie might find her passion and leave this place. But, Adney supposed, this was their version of forever. She needed to be happy with that. 

… 

Anne looked up from the Lego set as two sets of footsteps came down the stairs together. 

Eugénie first came in view, standing in the hallway. She and Adney looked at Anne in the living room and at Marian in the kitchen. They came to Anne. 

"Careful." Anne gestured at the Lego blocks on the floor. "I’m making a dinosaur for the little ones."

"Why are you in separate rooms?" Eugénie said.

"She’s in a bad mood because I called her Mrs P’s spy."

Marian yelled from the kitchen. "I’m not in a bad mood. She is."

"Hear that?" Anne said. "She doesn’t deny being a spy."

"What are you talking about?" Eugénie said.

"Don’t worry." Anne put away the Lego blocks in its box and stood up. "Neither Mrs P nor Marian could hurt you." 

She studied their faces. Though their eyes were puffy, they had serene smiles. Anne ran her fingers through Adney’s messy hair. One strand of it was red and crispy on the tip.

"Are you hurt?" Anne said. 

"No?" Adney looked at the red hair Anne held in front of her face. "Oh, it’s paint." She smiled at Eugénie. "We left our handprints on the wall."

"You should, too, if you’d like," Eugénie said. "You weren’t there when the kids did.”

"Alright." Anne looked at them both. "So, all good?" 

They nodded.

"I knew it'd be."

As if they were alone, Adney wrapped her arms around Anne’s neck and kissed her cheek. "Thank you," she whispered. 

Anne patted her back. With the other hand, she gestured and asked if Eugénie wanted to join the hug. 

But the girl gave a shy smile and shook her head. She didn’t feign disgust towards their display of affection like she always did. 

Lamentably, Marian came in. She threw a dubious look at Anne before pointing at something in Eugénie's hand. "Are you going somewhere?"

Eugénie lifted her headphones. "No. These are for Adney." She held them out to her. "I would’ve given them to you in my room, but the kids were asleep."

Adney took them, though with a look of confusion. 

"These are noise cancelling headphones," Eugénie said. "They can’t completely cancel external noise like the sound of painting. But try them on?"

As they all sat down, Adney put them on. "They’re heavy. How do you wear them every day?"

Eugénie shrugged. "I like the weight. What do you think?"

"I still can hear your voice clearly."

"Yeah, but if you play music, it muffles most things." Taking her phone out, Eugénie connected them via Bluetooth. 

The LED light on the side of the headphones blinked from red to white. Anne couldn’t hear the music. But it brought a content smile to Adney’s face. 

"Can you hear my voice?" Eugénie said.

Adney took them off, hanging them around her neck. "What?"

They all chuckled at that. 

"When we paint—though it’s almost over," Eugénie said, "you can wear them. You can stay, not to look after us, but to be with us."

"I’d love that," Adney said and smiled at Anne. 

As their hands found each other, Anne kissed her on the cheek. The music faintly leaked out of the headphones. She looked at Eugénie. "I sometimes see young folks blasting music. Can you hear when a car or someone is behind you?"

"I can," Eugénie said. "It’s alright."

"Young folks." Marian snorted. "Okay, grandma."

Ignoring her sister, Anne asked Eugénie, "Can I try them on?" 

Eugénie nodded.

Anne received the headphones from Adney. "Let’s see if they cancel Marian’s annoying voice." She put them on and adjusted them.

"Put clay in your ears. It’s faster."

"I’d squeeze play dough into your mouth."

Marian said something more, but the calm piano music muffled her voice. 

After that, Eugénie and Marian sat on the floor and played with Lego. The headphones were on Marian’s head now. Listening to Eugénie’s playlists, she made comments like, "This slaps," and "Good tier banger, this one." Neither Anne nor Adney understood the cryptic language of the youth.

The clock struck four, and the little ones came down. 

Eliza looked into the Lego box and picked up Anne’s dinosaur. "Cool giraffe! Marian, did you make it?"

Marian removed one side of the headphones. "No, Anne made that giraffe."

Turning around, Eliza waved the dinosaur at Anne. "I like your giraffe!"

Adney whispered in her ear, "Didn’t you say it was a dinosaur?"

"It’s a giraffe now," Anne said.

Naveen pointed at the headphones around Marian’s neck. "Those are Eugénie’s. What are you listening to?"

"Some nice beats. Want to listen?" 

Naveen nodded, and Marian put them on his tiny head. They adjusted the head band, but the ear pads still covered his cheeks. With her shoulders shaking with laughter, Marian held the pads to his ears.  

"Eugénie, turn the volume up. He may be able to hear it."

As Eugénie controlled the volume on her phone, even Anne could hear the beat from across the room. Naveen and Eliza danced. 

Eliza raised her hands. "I’m next!" She received the headphones. But like with Naveen, they were too big for her. She held one pad to her ear and signed with the other hand. "Do I look like an astronaut? Hello, this is Eliza Washington speaking from the Moon." 

"It was like when I’m under water," Naveen said.

Eliza gasped, then, and pulled him along to the corner. They schemed, hiding their hands from the rest as usual.

Besides them, Eugénie also seemed to conceive an idea. "Hey, what if we got him bone conduction headphones?"

Anne and Adney looked at each other, clueless.

"Might work," Marian said.

"Bone… headphones?" Anne said.

"Bone conduction," Eugénie said. "It allows you to feel the vibration of sound with your skull instead of listening with eardrums—"

But their attention turned to the little ones as they returned from the corner of plotting. Eliza looked around the room. Her eyes caught Anne, then Marian. 

"Ms Marian, please come and sit here." Eliza gestured to the centre of the room. 

Marian crawled on all fours. "Alright, I accept my fate."

"It’s just an experiment. Close your eyes." Eliza put the headphones on Marian’s head. She waved her hand in front of Marian’s face, making sure her eyes were closed. 

She and Naveen made funny faces. Squashing their noses, sticking their tongues out, crossing their eyes. 

"The music is still on." Marian kept her eyes closed. "Do you want it that way?"

By Eliza’s request, Eugénie turned it off.

After all that, Eliza said in a regular speaking voice, "Can you hear me?"

"I can hear you," Marian said. 

Eliza took Naveen’s hand. They took two steps back together. "Can you hear me?" she said at the same volume. 

Marian nodded. "Yes."

The little ones remained in the same spot. Eliza, cupping her hands over her mouth, used a quieter voice, "Can you hear me?"

Marian tilted her head. "A little."

With a giggle, Eliza interpreted for Naveen. They moved back to the corner of plotting. Eliza mouthed, "Can you hear me?"

Marian, naturally, didn’t respond. 

It made them giggle harder. They kicked the air and swung their arms, shouting only with gestures. Tiny squeals escaped Naveen as he jumped up and down. The floor squeaked.

"Are we done? Can I open my eyes?"

"Not yet," Eliza said. 

They tiptoed to another corner of the room. She signed to Naveen, one, two, three, and they screamed. "Can you hear meee?"

Marian turned her head in their general direction. "Clearly."

Delighted, they skipped to the next corner. As they passed by Eugénie in the armchair, Eugénie stopped them and signed, pointing at Marian. 

The little ones took her suggestion. Instead of going to the next corner, they crept up on Marian from behind. Naveen covered his mouth with his hands to stifle his giggles. Eliza tapped Marian on the right shoulder. But her hand remained perched on the shoulder. When Marian turned her head around, Eliza poked her cheek with her finger. 

"You got me," Marian said. "Well played."

Naveen tapped her on the left shoulder. Marian fell for it for their entertainment. Right, left, they kept playing this game like each time was their first. 

Anne leaned in towards Adney. "I’m glad they didn’t pick me."

There was sleepiness in her eyes as Adney chuckled. Her stomach growled. "I must've used up all my energy crying." 

Anne chuckled with her. "You barely ate at the picnic. Let's get you some snacks." 

They went to the kitchen hand in hand. 

Adney hugged her from behind as Anne searched the overhead pantry. "I’m so sleepy." She rested her head on Anne’s shoulder. 

"It’s been an eventful day." After grabbing a pack of biscuits, Anne turned around and kissed her. 

"Eugénie and I talked. It’s…" Adney looked towards the living room. "I don’t know how to tell you." 

"Is everything resolved?"

"I think so. The talking part is, at least. I still have to change a few things about myself."

"Don't worry, then," Anne said. "You don't need to share everything with me. As long as both of you know the truth, it's enough."

Adney sighed. "She wants to stay with me even when she grows up. I don't know if I deserve that."

"Deserve what?"

"To have her."

Anne couldn't find a definite answer. She kissed the crown of her head. "I don't think people deserve anyone. It's about choice. We choose to have them in our lives, because we love or need them."

"I do love her."

"And she loves you, too. She needs you." 

Adney opened her mouth, but hesitated. Instead, she kissed Anne again. It had intention. It had the lingering fervour from the night at the farm. Anne held her around her waist and deepened the kiss, feeling ecstatic at Adney’s whimpers. 

Then, her stomach growled again, longer than earlier. They looked at each other and burst into laughter. The little ones’ screaming came from the living room simultaneously. 

"Here—" Anne gave her the biscuits. "Food first. I’ll kiss you later."

But Adney grabbed her hand to stop her. "Anne, thank you."

"You can thank me more later."

Though with a giggle, Adney shook her head. "I meant, thank you for being there for Eugénie. For listening to her when I couldn’t."

They returned to the living room. Their shouting experiment had evolved into something else. Now Marian was lying on the floor, with the headphones still on, while the little ones circled around her. 

"Canyouhearmecanyouhearme," Eliza chanted. 

Marian’s eyes were open. "Help," she said to Anne.

Anne sat back on the sofa with Adney. "Looks like a sacrificial ritual," Anne said to Eugénie.  

Despite her chuckle, Eugénie looked apprehensive. "Don’t you think they’re a little too loud? Should I tell them to turn it down?" she asked Adney.

Adney, with a biscuit in her mouth, looked over at them. She shook her head. "No. Let them scream."

"What about the neighbours?" Eugénie said.

Adney smiled at her. "They can’t touch my children. I won’t let them."

There was a glow around her, Anne thought. Slightly timid, but the look of helplessness was fading away. 

Anne loved her this way. This was the face of the woman she fell in love with on that snowy day in the backyard. Anne kissed the back of her hand. When Adney reciprocated, she left some biscuit crumbs on her hand.

… 

A couple of days later, Eliza’s father called from prison during dinner. He apologised to Eliza and Adney and promised to make it up when he got out in a month. 

The phone call reminded Eugénie they hadn’t taken Eliza’s photo on her return. Adney let Eugénie do it, from taking the photo to writing the date to pinning it to the wall. It was the first of many with Eugénie’s handwriting. 

Chapter Text

Anne arrived at school for her new guard job five minutes before six. The backdoor was located in the shadow of the gym. From between the dark narrow gap, the old school building peeked at her. She pressed the buzzer by the door.  

A phlegmy voice answered the entry phone. Anne stated her business. Half a minute later, an old man opened the door. He introduced himself as Mr Adams.

"I meant to arrive earlier," Anne said. "But I’m not familiar with the new building."

"That’s fine. Nothing ever happens that requires our attention." He let her in and led her to a locker room with a sofa and a portable gas stove on a small table. "This is our green room. Now, I’ll show you around." 

He first went back outside. On the side of the building, there was a wall-mounted safe box. 

"The keys are in here." Mr Adams jingled the keys attached to his trousers. "Get them out when you arrive. Put them away when you go home."

"The code?" 

"0421. Queen’s birthday. The actual one. Not easy to forget."

Anne wrote it in her memo app so it wouldn’t slip out of her memory. 

They returned inside and walked through the hallways. The hollow sound of their steps echoed. Their silhouettes, lit by the torchlight in Mr Adam's hand, reflected off the window glass. It wasn't something Anne saw at work in London. The prison corridors only had walls. 

The building had three storeys, but they bypassed the stairs. 

"My knees hate stairs. Explore on your own." Indeed, he walked slowly. In an actual emergency, he wouldn’t be much of use. 

"How many times a night should I patrol?" Anne said. 

"Once at seven… and whenever you feel like it."

After the ground floor, they went outside again, checked the gym, and walked around the school's premises. It didn't have an ounce of efficiency. It felt like taking a slow walk rather than patrolling. In less than thirty minutes, they returned to the so-called green room. 

"I hope you’ve got something to help you kill time," Mr Adams said.

"What time does the shift end?" 

"Seven in the morning. Don't forget to put these back in the safe box." Mr Adams handed her the keys. "Have you eaten?"

"Yes." 

"If you get hungry, some lad left biscuits in the locker a few years back. Your uniform is in there, too." 

"Who should I contact when I have urgent questions?"

"I wouldn’t worry about it." Patting her on the shoulder, he wished her luck and went home. 

Alone in the green room, Anne put on her uniform and went to the upper floor. 

The science lab was on the first floor. She unlocked the door, entered, and threw light from the doorway. The skeleton stood by the teacher’s desk. It seemed to smile as Anne got closer. But it was only the trick of the light. 

She snapped a selfie with it before making it pose for more shots. In the process, she accidentally dislocated its shoulder. Luckily, it was met with no complaints.

She sent the photos to Eugénie. As promised, she texted. 

It was around their dinner time. Eugénie must be helping Adney prepare food, and while they ate, it was their rule not to look at their phones. It’d be a while before they saw the photos. 

She explored the rest of the building and returned to the green room. The biscuits in the locker were, to put it mildly, inedible. The transparent package was clouded from the inside. She poked at it with her foot, and some black crumbs scattered. They were dead ants. Anne laid the bin sideways with its mouth facing the locker and nudged the pack into it with her foot. 

At least, the sofa was comfortable to sleep on, much to her surprise. The only downside was the smell of old people. Not just the sofa, but also the walls and her uniform. But having a uniform on sharpened her senses. 

She was alone. It felt eerie to think she was the only one in this grand building. Back in London, she was never alone. Even at night, there were always some kind of movements. The guards patrolling, the watch towers shining light on the field, the inmates plotting or trembling in fear. 

This job bored her beyond words. But every time, she showed up in the hope it might be different this time. Maybe she had to tame this boredom. But a month passed, and nothing changed. 

… 

In the past month, Adney’s life had transformed. Since the conversation in the attic, she’d made the habit of relying on Eugénie with chores. Still a work in progress, though. She sometimes forgot, going on autopilot and taking a familiar route. 

Her neighbours had stopped bothering her about marriage. At first, some still stopped by for her goods when Adney baked. She told them she wasn’t selling any. Gradually, the smell of fresh bread and cookies stopped attracting them. It might be temporary. But for now, they were gone. She owed them nothing anymore.

There was also Anne. Her girlfriend. She’d given her a spare house key. (She had many of them for her kids.) With it, Anne didn’t have to ring the doorbell every morning after her night shift. This step felt special. Adney had never given one to any of her husbands-to-be. They never stayed long enough to earn the right. Only Anne. A milestone.

The morning after the first time Anne stayed the night, Adney was afraid something might happen. Something similar to Eliza’s instance. But nothing happened. The second time was the same. And the third time. Everything was peaceful. There were only them, their naked bodies under the sheets. 

None of it felt like a dream. She felt oddly grounded. Her brain fog became less frequent.

She even found herself humming, preparing breakfast one morning. 

During the school break, the kids often slept late. But this morning, Eliza was with her in the kitchen. Standing on a chair, she watched the street from the window. 

The clock read five minutes past seven. Without a delay, there was a jingle of keys outside. Eliza jumped off the chair and dashed to the door. 

"Anne! Do you know what day it is?"

Anne came into the kitchen with Eliza dangling from her arm. "It’s Tuesday." She grinned. 

"That’s not what I mean. It’s My Dad’s Day!"

"Is it?" Anne pretended to think. "What happens on My Dad’s Day?"

"My dad’s coming back! Yaay!" Eliza hopped around the table. 

"She woke up before me," Adney said. "I don't know how long she's been up." 

"She could’ve taken my place at work." Anne hugged her and gave her a good morning kiss. "It's lame anyway. Not worth the money." 

"You say that every morning." 

"I’ve never even met the other guards." Anne poured herself a glass of water and sat down. "Mrs P said she could pay me in cash, but I have no idea who’s responsible for the school finances. I have no one to ask about that. Simply absurd."

It gave Adney second-hand anxiety. "Have you asked her?" 

"I don’t want to deal with her if I could help it." 

"But you can’t work for free." Adney placed a plate of eggs and beans on the table. "Eliza, do you want to eat now?"

Eliza, back on the chair, turned from the window. "I will when my dad comes."

"But he won’t be here until nine," Adney said. 

"You might faint from hunger when he finally comes," Anne said. "Don’t want that, do you?"

"No." Eliza moved the chair back to the table and sat down. "Can my dad have some food when he comes?"

"Of course," Adney said. 

After breakfast, Anne left to work on the farm. Eliza kept looking out the window. Before eight o’clock, Naveen came down with Eugénie. 

"Are you baking?" Eugénie gestured at the iron trays and bowls on the kitchen counter. 

"For Eliza and Sam," Adney said. "When you finish eating, is it possible to do the laundry? I want to have it done before he arrives."

"Okay."

"I’ll get the baskets now." Adney went to the bathroom. 

The baskets had—she’d forgot about it—Eliza’s clothes from yesterday. It hadn’t occurred to anyone to check when they were helping her pack last night. Adney considered putting them in her bag, unwashed. It wouldn’t be nice. She hoisted the baskets with her clothes in them. 

In the kitchen, Eugénie was standing by the washer. With toast in one hand, she pressed the buttons with the other. 

"I said ‘after breakfast,’" Adney said gently.

"It’s not responding." Eugénie pressed the power button. 

But it stayed off. 

Adney put the baskets down. She slapped the machine on the side, shook it, and pressed and held the button. The washer slowly came to life. "Its time may be up. It was like this a few days ago, too." 

"How old is this thing? We should look for a new one." 

"It’s as old as me. But I don’t know. We already bought furniture for the attic…"

"Don't we have money anymore?"

"We do. I just feel like it might bring bad luck if there are so many new things."

Eugénie gave her a curious look. Justifiable. 

"Can we wait and see?" Adney said quickly. "At least, while I do my research?"

"Alright." Eugénie shoved the toast in her mouth and put the clothes in the washer. 

Adney baked cookies. But the familiar task didn’t ease her mind. So many things on her to-do list. The sole idea of doing more research—they hadn’t finished furnishing the attic—wore her down. And this washer business sort of had a deadline. She never did well with deadlines. 

At nine, Eliza announced Sam’s arrival with a delighted scream. Before the doorbell rang, she ran from the window to the door. 

He hugged her tightly and lifted her. "You’ve grown heavier, my love." With her in his arms, he greeted the rest of them. He was out of breath. "The bus was late. I ran as fast as I could." 

"Welcome back," Adney said. "I’ll fetch you a glass of water." 

They settled in the living room. Adney put down two glasses—water and milk—along with fresh cookies on the table. 

Naveen tugged at her sleeve. "His beard is gone," he signed discreetly. "He doesn’t look like Gogh anymore."

Adney agreed with him, though she didn’t know what he meant.

"Dad, I woke up at five. I’m not sleepy at all. What time did you wake up?"

"Five-thirty," Sam said. "I couldn’t sleep well last night."

"Me, neither. I kept having dreams where you came back. I’d open my eyes, but it was still dark."

Eliza clung to him, catching up with him on the events that had happened in the last month. The picnic in the attic, the sleepovers with Anne, her new knowledge about dinosaurs…

"I had my height measured last night," Eliza said. "I’ve grown 3 centimetres taller since the last time!"

Adney listened silently until the cookie plate was empty. She went to the kitchen for a refill. It was when Anne and Marian came in, bickering. 

Anne put a crate of vegetables down by the door and kissed her. "Is he here?" 

Adney nodded. "Vegetables for Sam?"

"Do you think it’s enough?" Marian said. "One crate feels ungenerous." 

"We could’ve brought more," Anne said, "if you’d let me drive."

Marian snickered and said to Adney, "Look at this environmentally ignorant egg." 

"You didn’t help me carry it."

Glaring at each other, the sisters went to the living room. Adney followed them in with more cookies. As there were more people than the number of seats, they returned to the kitchen again for chairs. But they barely sat down when Eliza stood up. 

"Dad, you must see the attic. Come with me." 

With Eliza at the head, they all went upstairs. The attic had some pieces of furniture now. On the floor was an unopened box of a desk. Adney had bought two of them. The other one was in the corner, already assembled. 

"This is marvelous." Sam examined the room with a stunned smile. 

Eliza pointed at the ceiling. "It’s the night sky. The stars glow in the dark. Adney helped us, too."

"We designed everything," Naveen said.

"And look—" Eliza pranced and pointed at the wall. "It’s our handprints. Mine, Naveen’s, Adney’s, Eugénie’s, and Anne’s. In Eugénie’s room, we painted colourful stars. It’s very cute. Yesterday, we helped Anne and Eugénie build that desk. Before that, these bed frames. Today—" But she stopped and frowned. "Adney, can I still come to build furniture?"

"Yes, of course."

"But, is it legal? I don’t live here once I go home."

Adney bent down to her eye level. "You can visit us whenever you’d like. You’ve done it before."

"Can I come tomorrow?"

"Yes. Every day, if you want."

This brought a smile back to her face. "Hear that, Naveen? We can still play together."

The kids took each other’s hands and did their joyous dance. When she swirled, her skirt flapped in the air. 

"Some of her clothes are hung up outside now," Adney said to Sam. "It’s my fault. I forgot. I’ll give them to her tomorrow." 

"Thanks," Sam said. "For everything. It’d help me greatly that she can spend time here still. I can’t be at home all day. Got to look for a job."

Anne chimed in. "What kind of job are you looking for?" 

"Anything that pays the bills, really."

"No night-time jobs, I reckon?" Anne said. "I’m temporarily hired as a night guard at school. They’re still looking for someone official."

"No. A daytime job." Sam looked at the kids. "I want to stay with her at night. My cellmate at Hatfield, he was a burglar. Breaks into houses at night."

It broke Adney's heart. Even after getting out of prison, this part of their lives still haunted them. It would, probably for life. Not just for Sam, but also for Eliza. There was nothing Adney could do to change it. 

Mrs Grose stopped by at ten for signatures from Sam and Adney. 

Eliza peeked into the form. "I can give you mine, too."

Mrs Grose gave her a pen and held the form before her. "Sign it here, please." She pointed at the blank space under Sam's signature.

Eliza wrote her name in cursive.

"Ms Eliza, you're officially ready to go home." 

"Yaay! Eugénie, take my picture." Eliza took the Polaroid camera from the drawer. But in front of the wall, she held up her hand. "Wait. Can we take this one together?"

"A family photo!" Naveen jumped and stood next to her.

Eugénie waved at the rest of them. "Gather around Eliza."

"No, silly," Eliza said. "You have to be in the photo with us."

Mrs Grose stepped in. "Go on," she said to Eugénie, holding her hand out. 

Eugénie put the camera in her hand and shyly claimed her spot next to Adney. Since the Polaroid film was square, they had to squeeze together. Still, the hallway was too narrow for an ample shot. 

"Why don’t we step outside?" Mrs Grose said. 

They did that and stood on the doorstep. Naveen, Eliza, and Marian (on her knees) in the front row. Anne, Adney, Eugénie, and Sam in the back. Mrs Grose held the camera from the middle of the street.

"Say cheeseburger!" Eliza said.

"Cheeseburger," everyone said in chorus as the camera flushed.

The photo came out splendid. The cloudy sky provided the right amount of light. Everyone’s smile was clear. They’d never had such a perfect family photo. (Besides Naveen’s drawing from Mothering Day. Adney kept it in Eliza's handmade photo frame. But it didn’t have Sam.) Someone always had to be the camera person. Adney was happy to take the role. But looking at herself surrounded by her family, it filled her heart with warmth. 

Mrs Grose left, (with a cabbage because Marian insisted.) Back inside the house, the kids wrote their names on the white part of the photo. The adults were in the kitchen, giving Sam food to take home.  

"I almost forgot." He looked between Anne and Adney as if not sure which one to talk to. "I tried to ask my parents. About your parents, that is. But it looks like they’ve changed their number and address. I can’t find them."

Anne frowned. "I’m sorry about that."

Fiddling with his hat, Sam gave Adney a resigned smile. "Seems like we're in the same boat."

Adney tilted her head.

"Both of our parents are…" But he quickly added, "Doesn't mean your parents don't want you to find them... They must've had a good reason to, you know."

Adney smiled. It didn’t affect her. 

"How’s the search going?" He looked at Anne.

"No luck so far." Anne then smiled at Adney. "But there’s always hope."

The kids entered, waving the photo. "Dad, what colour do you want? You write your name on it."

"Same colour as yours."

"But that’s boring. Everyone has a different colour." Eliza examined the photo. "Nobody is using pink."

"I’ll use that one, then." He wrote his name at the back. (There wasn’t enough space on the front.)

Adney, Anne, and Marian also wrote their names on the back. They pinned it to the wall. 

The colourful photo easily caught their eyes. Among the photos of mostly gloomy faces, this one only represented joy. Adney often stopped to admire it, hoping that it'd mark the end of this row of unhappy kids. She knew it couldn't. 

…  

Eliza spent daytime hours in the house like before. In the morning, after having breakfast at their house, Sam would drop her off. In the evening, he'd return to pick her up before dinner time. It gave Naveen the time and emotional space to adjust to their semi-new lifestyle. 

Since then, Anne had taken everyone out to eat twice, the second time including Sam. He found a job at an auto repair shop, but Anne refused to let him chip in. They’d gone on a picnic once to The Public Gardens. They’d had Eliza over for a sleepover twice, first at Adney’s and then at the farm. They’d added curtains, chests of drawers, mattresses, and a full length mirror to the attic. 

Almost every day, the kids laughed and screamed and ran around. It still seemed to worry Adney. But she rarely told them to turn it down. The house these days was unrecognisable from the quiet place that’d invited Anne in a few months ago.

Two weeks passed by in the blink of an eye. 

In the first week of May, Anne received a phone call during her night shift. The caller ID: Her superior officer back in London. 

"One more month until your resurrection, Lister," he said. "Did you get to travel like you’ve always wanted? Where are you now?" 

"In my hometown."

"Halifax?" He laughed through his nose. "You must be itching to come back, then."

Anne couldn’t blame him. All he knew about this place was the boring picture Anne had painted for him over the years.

The conversation was brief, but it brought Anne back to earth. She hadn’t thought about London in months. While this town wasn’t heaven, it’d become her sanctuary. For the first time in her life, the idea of leaving for a different place didn’t excite her. 

Her thoughts kept her sleep light. When she went home the next morning, she almost got hit by a truck driving out of the farm.

At the front door, there was a cardboard box as tall as her propped up against the wall. 

"There you are." Marian appeared from the kitchen. She pointed at the box. "Help me carry this mofo to the living room, will you? I need womanpower."

"What’s this?"

"A cat tower for Percy."

Anne looked down at Percy sniffing the box. "Isn’t he too old for that?" she whispered.

"Is having fun limited to the youth? Percy, your aunt is ageist."

"I didn’t say that."

They lifted the box together and carried it through the hallway, taking one step at a time. 

Marian groaned. "It has to be heavier than both of us combined." 

"Stop talking. Use your core muscles."

"My core is made of jello, and I’m proud of it!"

When they made it to the living room, both were short of breath. The box lay in front of the fireplace. Marian grabbed scissors from the coffee table, which also had screwdrivers and other tools.

Anne’s instincts sounded an alarm. "If we’re done here—" 

"No. You wanted a DIY project. This is it."

"It’s a cat tower."

"And it won’t assemble itself." Marian opened it, took out the parts, and removed the wrapping foam. She examined the miniature nut wrench in the package. “Oh, I didn’t need to get the screwdrivers from the shed.” 

Next step was reading the instructions, checking if all the necessary parts were there. But she did it so, so slowly. 

Impatient, Anne held out her hand. "Give me that. We don’t have all day."

Therefore, the job of assembling it fell on Anne, too. She put the tools around her within reach and sat on a cushion on the floor.

Marian was, as usual, useless and annoying. "No, you’re reading the instructions wrong again," she’d say, while doing nothing. "The short pole goes there, not the tall one."

"But we only have the tall ones left." Anne looked around her. "For fuck’s sake, I've built an entire attic."

"Not from scratch and not by yourself."

Anne grabbed the instruction paper. "Seriously, we should have one more short pole left."

"My diagnosis? It’s fucked."

Anne rubbed her face. "I was going to take a nap. Now my morning is wasted."

Marian points a pole at her. "Time spent having fun isn't a waste."

"I'm not having fun." She was, but she wasn't keen on entertaining her sister. "Hey, isn’t it the short pole? Give me that."

Marian stared at the pole with wide eyes. "It magically appeared in my hands." She gave it to Anne. "Why need a nap? You sleep on the job."

"Not last night. My boss called. Checking in on me. He thinks I’m having a miserable time here.” Anne fixed the pole to the base. “I have to start thinking what to do. This was never my plan."

"Assembling a cat tower?"

Anne glared at her. "I wanted to get out of here in the beginning. True. But it’s changed. If I return to London, it means I can’t see them every day." 

"Ah," Marian said. "Yeah, leaving will upset them. And I’ll have to work on the farm alone again."

Anne waved her hand. "Never mind the farm."

"Insolent. If you want to stay, then stay."

"I worked so hard to get that position," Anne mumbled.

"Live here and commute."

Anne, in the middle of tightening a nut, looked up to narrow her eyes. "It takes more than three hours by train. What are we, Americans?"

"Maybe ask to be transferred to Hatfield?"

But that idea made Anne cringe. If Sam were to be incarcerated again, which nobody could say would never happen, she’d be responsible for his torment. 

"Why were you suspended to begin with?" Marian said. 

"You’ve told everyone in town about it, but don’t know the reason?"

"I’m not psychic."

Too tired to evade her question, Anne shrugged. "I tried to do a good thing. It pissed them off. The governor thought my naivete was a bad influence on our officers."

"Incomprehensible," Marian said. "But you weren’t punished for something immoral. Good on you. It makes you a martyr."

The assembly finished in less than an hour. The structure was simple enough. Anne could’ve built it faster without Marian’s pestering. They moved it to the window overlooking the farm field. He immediately climbed to the first level, then to the second. Anne petted him on the back, but he was too busy to notice. 

Even he’d warmed up to her in the past five months. If she left, so soon after Eliza’s moving out, it’d throw the family through another major transition. She didn’t know if Adney could handle that. 

But— In her grip was always a strand of hope. She hadn’t given up on the idea that the system could change. But in order to make it happen, Anne must return to London. She wasn’t a martyr. Her career wasn’t over. 

Why did she have to make a choice, when all she wanted was to be happy? She wished she could pick both. It was the hardest choice of her life. 

… 

Without reaching a decision, more time slipped away. 

Summer term started and changed their daily routine back to the default. The lunch table at Adney’s was quieter. With the warmer weather, many people were in the street as Anne drove around the town for delivery. Even in the school yard and the gym, a lot of students were playing until late. 

It made no difference to Anne’s work landscape, or she thought. 

Shortly after she’d changed into her uniform, there was a knock on the green room door. Anne had never had any visitors there. If she asked her fellow guards, the answer would probably be the same. 

And certainly, a visit from the school mistress was rare. 

"Ms Lister. Just starting your shift, I presume?" Mrs P came in. 

Anne nodded and pointed at the purse on Mrs P’s shoulder. "Going home?"

"Yes. I wanted to say hi. How do you like the job?"

Anne shrugged. "Have you found anyone yet?"

"Not yet," Mrs P said. “If necessary, I’ll have my husband take you over. He’s been lazy since his retirement."  

"Nothing ever happens around here." 

Mrs P looked around the room. "Such a bleak place. Not suitable for a lady, is it?"

It felt patronising. But having spent years among boastful men, Anne was used to it. "It’s comfortable enough."

"I could bring some flowers from my garden tomorrow. They’re beautiful. You should come for delivery again. I always tell Ms Marian that I’d love another visit from you."

Anne offered a polite smile. Marian had tried and failed many times to make her go to Mrs P’s house. "So, I’ve worked here for a while. But I haven’t got paid yet."

"Oh!" The shock on Mrs P’s face looked genuine. "Didn’t Mr Adams tell you?"

"He told me not to worry about anything."

"Typical of him. Apologies. You can go to our finance officer. His office is next to mine on the third floor. He only works twice a week. On Tuesdays and Fridays. But I’ve already talked to him about you. So, everything should go smoothly."

"Splendid." 

"How’s Ginger? I haven’t seen her since…" But Mrs P didn’t finish the sentence. 

Anne realised she had her hands behind her back. Wearing a uniform had that effect on her. She shoved them in her pockets. "With all due respect"—which is none, she said internally—"it wasn’t a suggestion when I told you to stop referring to Ms Walker by that nickname." 

Mrs P acted nonchalant. "I seem to have forgot. Apologies." Those words lacked the sincerity that they’d had when she apologised half a minute ago. "Anyhow, can you please tell her that my distant cousin has found someone else? A lovely woman, I heard. Has she found anyone? Ms Washington’s father is back, isn’t he? 

The implication made Anne cringe. "You mustn’t bother them with your kindness. If he or Mrs Walker needs your help with finding a partner, they’ll come to you."   

"Perhaps. Do you need my help with it?"

"No thank you." Anne refused to believe Mrs P’s little birds hadn’t gossipped about her relationship with Adney. 

"Very well." Mrs P adjusted her bag on her shoulder and headed out of the room. In front of the open door, she turned around. "That uniform looks good on you, Ms Lister. The look of a superhero."

This interaction was uncomfortable at best. It couldn’t have been pleasant for Mrs P, either. But for some reasons, Mrs P still visited her in the green room at the beginning of the shift almost every day. Each visit lasted about ten minutes. Most of the time, it was just Mrs P asking questions about her job in London. Whether or not this was a special treatment, Anne had no coworker to ask.

Chapter Text

"I can’t figure out her ulterior motive," Anne said, helping Adney take in the laundry. "Every time, she comes in and spits bullshit, at least, once. She doesn’t like it when I call her out. But then, why does she keep coming back?"

Adney glanced at her neighbour’s window. It looked like Mrs Cole wasn’t eavesdropping. 

"Maybe if I let her bother me again, she might leave you alone."

"Out of the question. I’d rather she annoyed me than harassed you or Sam."

Adney unclipped a bedsheet from the line. Warmer seasons bugged her. The sunlight was too bright and strong. The humidity made her skin feel awful. Pollen sometimes made her sneeze several times in a row. But at least, longer hours of daylight meant more time for the laundry. She liked the smell of the sun on clothes. 

When all the clothes went in the baskets, Anne stood with her hands on her hips and looked around the yard. 

"Are you looking for something?" Adney said.

"No, I’m thinking…" Anne returned her gaze to their surroundings. "Do you want anything for the yard that I can make? I miss doing DIY."

Adney swept the yard with a glance. But no idea came to her. "You work day and night, and you still have energy left."

With a raised eyebrow, Anne came towards her. "Yes, I’ve got so much energy." She kissed her, wrapping her arms around Adney’s waist. 

Adney giggled against her lips. "Mrs Cole might be watching."

"Let her be jealous."

It wasn’t her neighbour that interrupted their moment. Instead, Eliza opened the backdoor and came out running. Behind her, Naveen was swinging his arms around. 

"Adney," Eliza said. "I forgot my maths homework at school. It’s due on Monday."

"Can’t you get it now?" Adney said. "It's still light out."

"It’s Saturday today," Naveen said.

Anne joined the circle. "I can get it for you. I’m going to work after this. Where did you leave it?"

"In my locker."

"Where’s your locker?" Anne said. "How can I identify it?"

"Identify? I’m a girl," Eliza said seriously.

Turning her head to the side, Anne disguised her laugh as coughing.

"She meant," Adney said, "how can she find your locker? Does it have your name?"

"No, we aren't allowed to put anything on the door. I have dino stickers on the inside."

Anne grimaced slightly. "On which floor, and do you remember the exact spot?"

"The ground floor. It's on the right side of the building. And the key combination is"—Eliza lowered her voice—"4321."

That particular number combination in a whisper sounded hypnotic to Adney. She counted in her head, 4321, 4321…  until Anne groaned.  

"I will try. I have a whole night. I could test every locker on the ground floor."

"Not just the ground floor," Eliza said. "On the right side of the building!"

Naveen raised his hand. "Why can't you just go?" He pointed at Eliza.

"Me? Because it's Saturday." 

"But Anne goes there tonight. And if ghosts can be at school at night, we can, too."

As if it was a compelling argument, Eliza crossed her arms in front of her chest. "Adney, is it legal for little kids to go to school at night?"

This conversation was taking a strange turn. Adney didn’t like it. "If you sneak in, it's called breaking and entering. It's a crime."

"We won't break anything," Naveen said. "Just entering."

"And walking." Eliza giggled. "And opening a locker."

Anne shrugged when Adney looked at her for help. "It won't take them long."

The kids threw their hands in the air. “Entering and walking!" They ran back inside. "Eugénie, get the torchlight! We're going on an expedition!"

Anne, lifting the laundry baskets, headed inside. 

"Are you sure?" Adney said. "I don't want to get you in trouble."

"I’m sure the night guard on duty couldn’t catch us.” Anne grinned and nodded over at the door. "Hold it for me, please?"

They went back inside. The kids’ laughter came from upstairs. Sitting on the living room floor, Adney quickly folded their underwear so Anne wouldn’t have to pretend not to see it. 

Eugénie came down the stairs. "Are they really going to the school this evening?"

"It seems so," Adney said.

"Naveen, too?"

Anne looked up. "Yes, unless you can separate them."

Eugénie thought briefly. "I'll come with you. Someone needs to take them home." Her eyes met Adney’s. "You can come, too. I might not be enough to control the kids."

With a smile, Anne clapped her hands. "A family expedition!"

Adney wanted to bury herself in the laundry— She didn’t want Eugénie to take the kids home after dark. (Eugénie had read her anxiety correctly.) But the compromise Eugénie offered wasn’t ideal. It meant taking part in their shenanigans.  

It also meant making an adjustment to her daily routine. The dinner preparation had to start earlier and finish before leaving. It was a minor change. But combined with her unease, it almost threw her into what she called ‘planning paralysis.’ She knew the goal, but couldn’t decide where to start.

"We got you." Anne kissed her forehead. "I’ll get the vegetables."

Eugénie set up the cutting board and pans. "We need to tell Mr Washington about it."

"Why?" Adney said.

"Because when he comes, the house is empty."

Her phone wasn’t in her pocket or anywhere near. Adney searched and found it forgotten on the living room floor. It had lint on it. She texted Sam (after some repetitive editing,) We’re all going to the school for a forgotten item. Will drop her off at your place.

Eliza’s dad Sam: Around what time, please?

Won’t be much different from the usual. 

After this nonverbal exchange, Adney could think more clearly. They made macaroni salad and hamburger patties. They’d cook them on their return.

When it was time to leave, Adney triple-checked the lock on every door. Her neighbour (the mother of the boy who’d pushed Eliza) was outside, checking their letterbox. Adney waved at her from across the street. But the woman didn’t wave back. Perhaps she hadn’t seen Adney in the afternoon sun. 

“Let’s all watch out for cars and bikes,” Anne said.

Eliza took Naveen’s hand and marched on. "Dad helps me with homework." She turned around and walked backwards. "He’s good at teaching maths. But he’s terrible at history."

"Please, look where you’re going," Adney said. At least, the street was empty.

"I can walk with my eyes closed, too. Watch." Eliza put her forearm over her eyes, turned back around, and wobbled forward. 

"Open your eyes, Eliza," Eugénie said. "You almost ran into a street light the other day."

Eliza giggled. She pointed her finger skyward. "Look, Anne! The sun hasn’t set, but we can see the moon already."

The white silhouette of the moon hung low in the blue-grey sky. Adney, walking while looking up, tripped over something on the pavement. She shot a sheepish smile at Anne, who was holding her hand. 

The school gate came into view soon. It was closed, but not locked. Entering, they went around the main building towards the gym. 

Anne held a finger to her lips as they approached the backdoor. She showed them the safe box on the wall. "The key to the door is hidden here. You have to enter four digits."

"A secret code?" Eliza’s eyes sparkled. "A hint, please!"

"Hint One. When's the Queen's actual birthday?"

Eliza scratched her head. "History? Eugénie, do you know the answer?"

"It was last month… Adney?"  

"April 14th, I think." Adney was almost certain it was the right answer. But she could be wrong. 

Anne winked at her. "Let’s see." She looked at the kids. "Who’s turn is it to press buttons?"

Naveen pointed at Eliza, while she raised her hand. He could barely hide his disappointment. 

"Don’t worry, boy," Anne said. "Eliza enters the first two digits, and you do the last two." She lifted Eliza and held her to the height of the box. "Zero… and four. Well done. Naveen, your turn."

He skipped to her and let Anne lift him. 

Anne pointed at the buttons, signing the two numbers. "One and two."

The box made a click sound. Naveen opened it and took out the keys. With a proud smile, he showed them to the rest. Eliza punched the air, but she still remembered to be quiet. 

They unlocked the door and walked into the dim hallway. Anne guided them to a locker room. The ventilation was horrendous. The smell of the humidity was thick in the walls.

Eliza looked around with an open mouth. "Wow, your office is dirty!"

"Look. Flowers." Naveen pointed at the vase on the table. "They’re getting old."

The petals’ edges were browning. 

Anne waved a dismissive hand. "Mrs P will probably bring a new bunch next week."

Eugénie scrunched up her nose. "Mrs P visits you here?"

"For unknown reasons."

"Definitely suspicious," Eugénie said. "She asks me about you, too."

"What sort of things?"

Eugénie shrugged. "Why you’re on leave and stuff. I told her I don’t know."

After Anne changed into her uniform, they explored the ground floor. Checking the locks on the doors, shining light into rooms. Eugénie also had a torchlight. She lit the kids so the dark wouldn’t inhibit their communication. The trip was supposed to be quick. But they were making too much of a detour. 

On either side of the hallway were rows of lockers. 

"Imagine seeing us from the playground now." Eliza’s quiet voice echoed. "They can only see the torchlight. They’d think we’re ghosts."

"Ghosts!" Naveen said.

Anne’s shoulder brushed against Adney’s. "Are you okay?"

"I’m… at least, not scared." There were many other feelings in her. She couldn’t describe them. "I’ve come here for parent-teacher conferences. But never at night. I didn’t learn in this building, either. Not that I have good memories with the old one—"

"Eliza, you’re forgetting your homework." Eugénie had stopped, now pointing the torchlight at the lockers. 

"Oh!" Eliza went to her locker with a giggle. She unlocked it (4321...) and took the homework paper out of a folder. 

"Are we ready to go home?" Adney said. "Is it the only thing you forgot?"

Eliza whined. "But we just got here…" She walked to one of the doors. "Anne, can we go in? I want to let Naveen sit in a classroom."

Jingling the keys, Anne looked at Adney. 

"Quickly, okay?" Adney said. "We haven’t had dinner."

In the cheers from the kids, Anne unlocked the door and let them in. 

Eliza took Naveen to one of the tables and pulled a chair. "Sit here. I’ll be the teacher."

"I’ll quickly look around the floor and come back." Anne kissed Adney before walking to the other end of the hallway.

While the kids role-played, Eugénie provided light from the doorway. The silhouette of her face turned to Adney. "I talked to my teacher about scholarships today."

"Scholarships?"

"You want me to go to uni. So… We have a workshop here in November . Until then, my teacher told me I have to study hard to improve my grades and maybe do some extracurricular activities."

Adney had never thought of that option. "My aunt always told me unis were too expensive."

"Some programmes offer full scholarships. They cover everything until graduation. I’m not qualified enough for those, I think. But I— We can handle that, right?"

"Do you want to, though? I believe higher education is important, but I won’t force it on you."  

Eugénie shrugged. "I never put much effort into school work. But I don’t hate it. In English class, we wrote short stories this week. The theme was love. The teacher said I was a good writer."

"What was your story about?" Adney said.

In the relative darkness, Eugénie’s voice had a shy smile. "About a family." 

"Will you let me read it?”

"I don’t know. Maybe. One day."

Adney’s heart swelled with pride.

A beam of light illuminated the nearby wall. Anne had returned. From the other side of the door, she beckoned for Adney. "Got a minute?"

Adney stepped out. "What’s wrong?"

"Nothing." Anne took her hand and led to the lockers. There, with the torchlight off, she leaned against the locker doors. "A question. Have you been kissed at the lockers?"

Adney shook her head. But she realised her gesture was invisible in the dark. "No."

"Do you want to?"

"Now?"

Anne softly chuckled. "You said you didn’t have good memories from secondary school. It’s not too late. Kissing at the lockers isn’t a quintessential school experience. But it’s the only thing I could come up with."

They were whispering, faces close to each other. It made Adney shy for some reasons. Looking towards the classroom, she saw the faint glow of light. The walls had Eugénie’s shadow.  

Adney raised her hand, searching for Anne’s lips. As her thumb found the slightly chapped skin, Anne kissed her fingertip. Almost with no visual clues, her lips—Adney had grown familiar with the feeling of them—felt peculiar. But in a way that quickened her heart. Adney pressed their lips together. Her first kiss at school, like in the movies.

It was the biggest adventure of Adney’s life. She’d had fun. There was no denying. But in her world, shenanigans like that always entailed consequences. Over the following days, mundane things—voices outside, notification chimes on her phone, the rattle of the letterbox—made her flinch. They would come to punish her. Just a matter of time. 

"Did someone at school mention it?" she asked Eugénie after school on Monday. 

On the table was their shopping bag and Adney’s wallet.

"Nobody knows," Eugénie said. "Eliza is disappointed, though. She wanted them to be whispering a rumour about a ghost family." 

Off the fridge, Adney took their to-buy list. "I know I worry too much. I can’t help it."

Eugénie gave a soft smile. "Even if they found it out, they’d go to Anne. She’ll handle it well." She held out her hand. 

But before giving her the list, Adney checked it again. Her memory could be unreliable at times. When something ran out at home, she always wrote it down on the spot. Not just Adney. Some words were written in Eugénie's handwriting as well as Anne’s. 

"Baking soda." Adney pointed at the word on the list. "You don’t need to buy it today. We can wait until the next time Anne can give us a lift." Taking new memo paper, she wrote ‘baking soda’ and crossed out the one on the original list. 

"Is Anne coming over today?"

"Yes. She texted me earlier. She’s making a delivery to Mrs P’s house."

"Gross," Eugénie mumbled. 

Adney gave her the list and cash. "Watch out for cars."

Eugénie put on her giant headphones and left. But before Adney had time to think what to do now, the door opened. Eugénie came straight towards her. 

Adney, assuming she’d returned for a hug, opened her arms. 

Eugénie stopped briefly, then hugged her. "No, it’s— Mrs P is in the street. I think—"

They froze at the sound of the doorbell. 

Adney whispered, "Do you think she’s found out about the expedition?" 

"But why would she come to us?"

The bell rang again. There was no escape— Not for her. Eugénie didn’t have to suffer from it.

"Through the backdoor," Adney said. "I’ll text you when she’s gone."

"Should I text Anne?"

"Don’t bother her. It’s no big deal." 

They stepped out into the hallway. Adney gently pushed her towards the backdoor and looked into the living room. 

"Eliza, Naveen, could you play upstairs? We have a guest."

"Who? Anne?" Eliza said.

"Mrs Priestley."

The name made the kids hop to their feet. They gathered their toys and drawing set and escaped to their room. Very organised. They were used to this. After their door had closed upstairs, Adney finally opened the front door. 

Mrs P greeted her with a phoney smile. In her hands was a flower bouquet. "I happened to be in the neighbourhood. Would you like a bouquet? These are from my garden." 

The ‘unplanned’ gift only aggravated her misgivings. "Thank you. Is everything okay?"

Mrs P laughed. "Oh, don’t look so frightened. As if the only time I ever visit you is to scold you. We’re more than that, aren’t we?"

Adney mirrored her smile, not certain what it meant in this context. She showed her into the living room. The bouquet luckily offered her an excuse to leave for the kitchen. She put the flowers in a vase and prepared biscuits. A brief break. Calm before a potential storm. She returned and served Mrs P tea. 

"Apologies, I haven’t been able to check up on you more often," Mrs P said. "How are the kids?"

"They’re well."

Mrs P looked around. "Where are they? I thought I’d seen Ms Pierre outside."

"She’s running an errand for me."

"It’s alright. It could be bizarre seeing your teacher outside school."

What she was referring to, Adney had no clue. Conversations with Mrs P always left her muddled. Her own communication skills (or lack thereof) couldn’t be the only factor. 

Mrs P brought the teacup to her mouth, holding up her pinky. "Has Ms Lister told you about my distant cousin? He’s found a nice lady for himself."

"Good for him." 

"Yes. So, he’s unavailable."

Only then, Adney realised they were talking about the distant cousin of Mrs P. His life was none of Adney’s business. But was this the goal of this visit? To pester her over marriage again? How ephemeral her peace had been.

"You don’t mind me supporting you this way, do you?" Mrs P said. "Ms Lister demanded me not to. Her intention is good, I’m sure. But it sounds unkind. I’d like to hear from you."

"Why?"

"Because I care about you."

Adney had meant why she considered Anne unkind. 

"She can be overbearing," Mrs P said. "She might be putting words in your mouth."

"She never— Anne cares about me, about what I need and want."

"Of course. Without a doubt. It’s not a competition of who cares about whom the most. But there’s more than one way of caring, don’t you think, Ginger?"

"Yes, ma’am." 

Mrs P’s little smile seemed to grow smug. (In Mrs P’s defence, she always looked smug.) "Ms Lister doesn’t understand our history. She accused me—again, I’m not saying she’s a bad person—of bullying you. Both of us know, don’t we, that Ginger is an affectionate nickname? You’ve never had issues with it." 

"No, ma’am." It was draining her quickly. Adney gave the obedience Mrs P wanted, hoping to make it as short as possible. 

She didn’t know how the conversation had become about Anne. Perhaps it was never about her marriage. It might be about something else, like the evening expedition.

"I’m glad we’re on the same page, Ginger. Since Ms Lister had come—" Mrs P shook her head. "Things have changed. I’m afraid she’s been a bad influence on you and your kids."

"Please, don’t talk ill about her," Adney said softly.

"She’s a great person. Very singular. But I must say, she may be too much for you."

Still, Adney remained calm. Her palms were sweating. "Nobody is too much. You think someone’s too much when your own capacity is too low."

"Excuse me?" Mrs P furrowed her brows. "My capacity?"

In a panic, Adney quickly said, "That’s generic you— It’s partially my fault— But you’re not completely exempt from it if you call her too much—" She tried to repair the damage. But words leaked from her, only digging herself a hole deeper.

Mrs P was quiet. Then, she released a breath, sounding like a laugh. "It’s okay. Everyone says what we don’t mean when we’re upset."

Her panic-induced rambling made her ashamed. Adney hated it. But none of it was a lie. "Our lives are better because of Anne."

"Are you certain? I’ve noticed you, as a family, has had more trouble with the community since she’s become involved."

"The problems had always been—" Her words got stuck in her throat. "What do you have against Anne?" 

"What’re you talking about?"

"You asked Eugénie why Anne is on leave. Why?"

"Ms Pierre? I never asked her anything of that sort."

Adney had been staring at her hands. But this made her look Mrs P straight in the eye. "Are you accusing my daughter of lying?"

With a little smile, Mrs P raised a brow. "Why don’t you have some biscuits? Perhaps you’re hungry." She moved the plate closer to Adney. 

But Adney didn’t move a finger. The little breathy chuckle of Mrs P got on her nerves. This topic shouldn’t be funny. It made her feel like Mrs P didn’t take her seriously.  

Adney kept staring. She noticed Mrs P’s smile was tighter. More forced than usual. It comforted her. It would’ve never caught her attention if she hadn’t stared.

Mrs P averted her eyes first. "You’re in a foul mood today. I should leave so you could cool down." She reached for her purse next to her.

"My kids are good," Adney said. "Never treat them unfairly just because they're different. You can still insult me with that nickname. You can still treat me as your communal project and offer me unnecessary help. But don't ever direct your hero-complex towards my kids... Please."

Mrs P stared back, her mouth agape, her hands frozen over her purse. "Hero-complex…" She laughed again, slightly louder. "What a difficult term! Did Ms Lister teach you?"

"No—"

"We want happiness for you. You’re part of our community. A family."

"A family pet, maybe," Adney said matter-of-factly.

Mrs P’s lips twitched. Quietly, she stood up. "Think about all the time and effort we’ve spent for you over the years. It’d be cruel of you to dismiss all that as unnecessary."

Adney stood up, but said nothing. 

"You can come to apologise when you’re ready." Mrs P left the house, stabbing Adney’s eardrums with the clicking of her heels. 

The sound bounced inside her skull. But before anything, Adney went up to the kids’ room. 

"She’s gone. You can come downstairs if you’d like."

"What did she say?" Eliza looked worried. 

Adney held both of their hands. "Nothing you need to worry about. Do you want the biscuits she left?" 

Once they returned downstairs together, Adney texted Eugénie, She’s gone .

The moment the message went through, the backdoor opened. Eugénie came into the kitchen with full shopping bags. 

"Have you been waiting outside?" Adney said.

"Not that long. What was that about?"

Her instinct was to trivialise it, to protect Eugénie from Mrs P’s poison. But Adney couldn’t lie to her. "Honestly, I don’t know. I think I angered her. She insulted you and Anne, so I talked back." 

"Wasn’t it about the exploration?" 

"No. I don’t know what it was." Adney realised she was pacing around the table. From the vegetable crate, she grabbed some carrots and put them on the chopping board. "I need to make dinner." 

Her entire body trembled. She clenched her jaw, keeping her teeth from clattering. She chopped the vegetables into cubes. Mrs P’s face appeared in her mind’s eye. Her breathy laugh touched Adney inside the ear canals. She chopped faster and stronger. The repetitive action and sound distracted her. 

She stopped only when someone called her name.

By the fridge, Anne was standing with Eugénie, both looking into Adney's face. How much time had passed, it was unclear. The pieces of carrots were the size of a grain of rice. 

Anne came closer. "You obliterated those carrots.... Making carrot cake?"

"Sorry. It isn’t intentional. I grabbed them without thinking—"

"It’s a joke. No worries." Smiling, Anne took the knife from Adney's hand and put it down. "Eugénie told me about Priestley. Want to tell me more about it?"

As they sat down, Adney recounted the interaction. (Many details were missing, though.) Occasionally, Anne and Eugénie threw in questions. It helped Adney though the shambles in her mind. 

Anne’s hand gently took Adney’s away from her lips. "Let’s not bite your nails off."

Adney scratched her fingertips with the jagged nails. "I didn’t tell her we’re dating. I doubt it would’ve changed her mind."

"No, it wouldn’t have," Anne said.

"I didn’t mean to be harsh— I don’t think I was harsh. But when I panic, my filter turns off."

"She needed to know the truth," Anne said. "You did the right thing."

"Mrs P doesn’t care what’s right," Adney said. "I’ve never talked back to her before."

Anne frowned. "Marian made me go to her house because Priestly said she had something special for me. There was only her husband. And what he had—" She flicked a finger at the can on the table. "Nothing more than some Himalayan tea."

"You mean," Eugénie said, "she planned it? So she could talk to Adney alone?"

"It’s the only logical explanation," Anne said.

Adney looked at them both. "Why, though?"

Eugénie fiddled with the can of tea leaves. "It sounds like she was trying to sow the seed of doubt, painting Anne as the root cause of our problems."

"We’re too powerful together." Anne gave a tender smile. "Priestley knows it."

It made sense. Adney knew it was a joke. But it was a good enough explanation. "It still didn’t work. I’d never doubt your intention."

Anne’s smile turned into a grin. She kissed the back of Adney’s hand. The leftover flurry from the earlier confrontation bubbled inside Adney. It made the kissed skin hot. She wanted to feel Anne’s lips more.

But clearing her throat, Eugénie snapped them out of the reverie. "So, what do we do now?"

"Nothing," Anne said. "We don’t apologise, either. But if she harasses you at school—"

"She won’t," Adney said. "I told her not to."

Anne, though silent, seemed to disagree, exchanging looks with Eugénie. "Just, tell us if it happens."

Nobody could predict what could result from this. Talking back to Mrs P was out of the norm. But Adney hadn’t had any other choice. It was about protecting the dignity of her kids. The breathy laughter—both the sound and the vision—haunted her for days. 

It wasn’t all bad, though. Mrs P hadn’t mentioned their evening expedition. Anne guessed Mrs P didn’t know about it. (If she knew, she would’ve used it to her advantage.) It gave Adney a huge sense of relief. Two issues with Mrs P would be too stressful.

The future was unreliable. Mrs P was even more so. Adney focused on the present instead, anchored by her family.

Chapter Text

The spring breeze blew through the half-open window, carrying the smell of rain into the farm living room. It was past ten at night. Anne felt slightly cold lying on the sofa, but was too lazy to grab the blanket at her feet.

She looked at Marian by the cat tower. "Close the window. It’s chilly."

"I’m not cold." Marian kept petting Percy. 

It was one of those rare nights. She didn’t have to work the night shift. In the morning, the rain would let her sleep in. Adney once said the rain had a faint green colour, closer to Anne's voice. 

The best way to spend a rainy day was to stay home, whether at the farm or at Adney’s. Rain made the school’s green room smell dreadful, nourishing the mould in the walls. Back at the prison, too, it caused leaks. Here, there was only the smell of wet soil. 

Anne checked the comments on the Facebook post, holding her phone above her face. The number of shares and comments had dwindled. She scanned them, refreshed the app, but had no new comment. The enthusiasm they’d received in the beginning was gone. The recent comments were kind, but uninformative. 

There was always hope, she knew. But her patience was wearing thin. 

She scrolled down to see other posts. A post caught her attention. The poster had her ex’s name and her face in the profile picture. Anne didn’t remember adding her to the friend list. But it was no issue. It wasn’t the ex who had mistreated Marian. 

The post was an announcement of her marriage. She’d got married to someone Anne didn’t know. She stared at the words ‘We got married!’ for a long moment. 

"What’s the correct response to your ex getting married?" Anne said. 

"Congratulate them… if they’re happy about it," Marian said. "Who got married?" 

"Someone I dated in Surrey. You don’t know her." 

"Sulking because they didn’t invite you to the wedding?"

"They didn’t have one." Shivering, Anne reached for the blanket. She spread it over her legs, lay down, but soon sat up again. "I didn’t even know she was engaged. We broke up over a decade ago, but we kept in touch. I cared about her."

"Ah, I hate it when that happens. It’s like being told your friendship isn’t that important to them."

Anne twisted her neck backwards to look at her. "I thought you’d take the piss out of me."

"I don’t always disagree with you for the sake of it," Marian said. "Most of the time your opinions are pure shite."

Anne stared down at the black phone screen. "Everyone’s getting married…"

"Jealous? Can’t relate." Marian left the room. It sounded like she was searching for late-night snacks in the kitchen. 

Social media was society’s mistake. Every time Anne opened the app, there was someone getting married or having a child. It was within her rights to be distraught. 

To distract herself, she reread Eugénie’s post. The whole thing, which she hadn’t done since they’d posted it in February. 

Percy meowed. From the top of the cat tower, he looked her in the eye. Keeping eye contact, he walked in circles. 

"Do you like the castle I built?" Anne admired her work before returning to the FB post.

Adney’s birthday, 20 May, was next week. It wasn’t new information. But Anne had thought they had more time—

Something heavy hit her in the stomach. Anne howled and dropped her phone on her face. Its corner jabbed her upper lip. In a frantic state, she saw Percy was now on the floor. His ears were flattened, his eyes round as if Anne had startled him.

Marian came in with cheese in her hand. "What was that unholy noise?"

"Your cat assaulted me. He jumped from the top of the tower and landed on my stomach!"

Marian bent down to pet Percy. "Did you? Didn’t you hurt your legs?"

"I’m hurt. I taste blood." Her fingertips had a red tint when she touched her lip.

"You deal with violent men for a living, and you’re whining because a cat landed on you?"

"He could’ve broken my ribs." Anne slid off the sofa and picked up her phone. "Don’t they think how to get down before climbing up something?"

"Have you never seen a cat stuck in a tree? Of course, they don’t." 

Anne needed to take a breath. Her body hadn’t had such an intense rush of adrenaline in a while. "Tomorrow—if I’m not dead from internal bleeding—let’s get Eugénie over here. We need a meeting."

Marian gave a suspicious grimace. "Why? What’re you planning?"

"To talk about Adney’s birthday. Despite your view on life, not everyone has ulterior motives." 

Next day, Eugénie came to the farm after school. While Percy purred at her from the top of the cat tower, she took pictures from every angle, mesmerised. Anne stayed away from him. 

After the photo shoot, Eugénie finally turned to Anne. She pointed at her own lips. "Did you get in a physical fight with Marian?"

Anne had checked the mirror earlier. The cut on her lip was small, but there was a noticeable swell. "Close. It’s the cat."

Eugénie looked up at Percy, questions written all over her face. But she shrugged. "So, I’m here. But I hope this isn’t any sort of trap."

Anne glared at Marian. "Why haven’t you told her?"

"I wanted to see her reaction," Marian said. "Great minds."

"Again, not everyone has ulterior motives," Anne said. "We need to talk about Adney’s birthday. Do we have a plan?"

They sat down around the coffee table. 

"I was going to bring it up some time this week," Eugénie said. 

Anne sat in the armchair, keeping the cat tower in her peripheral vision. "I was rereading your Facebook post. Isn’t there a way to spread that even farther? Can we post it on other sites?"

Eugénie shook her head. "Doesn’t matter. Every social media platform is connected these days."

"Great things take time," Marian said.  

"I know that." Anne frowned. "Anyway, how about a gift? Like jewellery?"

"She’s as interested in jewellery as you’re in men," Marian said. "Something practical is better."

Eugénie opened her mouth, but she shook her head. "No, it’s too expensive."

"Go on. Anne’s got money."

Eugénie still looked unsure. "The washer is broken. Adney says it still works, but it shrieks."

"I’ve heard it before," Anne said. "It’s odd that she can stand that noise. It sounds like you," she said to Marian.

Marian smiled. "Like a siren."

"The ambulance siren." Anne turned to Eugénie. "Let’s buy her a new one. The latest model— A surprise gift!"

"A washer as a surprise—" Marian twisted her face. "You can’t buy such an important thing without her input." 

Eugénie also wore a bitter expression. "Are you the type to think buying a car for a surprise Christmas present is cool?" 

"Of course, not." But Anne had nearly done it once for her ex’s birthday. They’d broken up before that. "I’ll take her to the store."

Percy meowed. He had his front legs on the edge of the top tier, threatening to take a leap into the armchair. As Anne jumped to her feet, he landed onto the seat. He sharpened his claws on the leather, jumped onto the coffee table, and became the centrepiece.

Anne looked at Marian. "Your cat thinks I'm a landing mat."

"Okay? Congrats," Marian said.

Eugénie gave him a kiss on the forehead. "Can I chip in? I can babysit a few times." 

"Focus on school," Anne said. "Adney told me you were studying to get a scholarship."

Eugénie shrugged. "I can study while babysitting."

"Then, do what you think is the best.”  

The same afternoon, Adney dozed off on the living room sofa. In her hand was a sheet of paper written by her neighbours. She’d found it in the letterbox. A handout about an event scheduled next week. For the past hour, she’d been staring at it, thinking. 

The sound of the front door opening woke her up. Anne walked in and stopped in the hallway. First, she looked into the empty kitchen, and then into the living room. 

Adney moved to sit up. She accepted Anne’s helping hand as she came in.

"Sleeping in a weird position again?" Anne sat next to her and kissed her. "You’ll injure your neck one of these days." 

Adney brushed her thumb over Anne’s lips. It had a micro cut. Invisible, but she could feel it. "What happened? Did you slam into something?"

"Had a little accident with Marian’s cat."

"Is Percy okay?"

"Yes. Eugénie's at the farm playing with him. She’ll be back in an hour."

Her lips drew Adney’s attention to them again. There was something familiar to this scene, in the rainbow light coming in through the window behind them. 

Anne kissed the back of her hand. "So, Eugénie and I talked about next week." 

"You did?" Adney glanced at the handout. It was on the floor now. "How did you know about it?"

"It was on Facebook." Anne, studying her face, grimaced slightly. "Aren’t you excited?"

"How could I? I can’t think of anything more daunting."

Anne’s grimace deepened. "Don’t you want us to do anything, then?"

"Let me handle it alone. I mean, Marian’s company may be a plus. But don’t let Eugénie go— Whatever she says, I’d never subject her to that kind of stress."

Anne nodded, but tilted her head. "What are we talking about?"

"The community meeting?" Adney picked up the paper. "Isn’t that…?"

Giving it a glance, Anne curled her lip. "We don’t have that in London," she said to herself. "No, I’m talking about your birthday. I want to take you to an electronics store to buy a washing machine." 

The room had no calendar. Only the kitchen did. But the date on the handout confirmed that it was May. Her birthday was the next day after the day of the meeting. 

Anne smiled. "Did you forget about your birthday?"

"Don’t bother," Adney said. "It’s a made up birthday." 

"Most things in life are made up. It doesn’t negate the meaning we give to them. Besides, you need a new washing machine sooner or later." 

"It still works…" 

Picking up the handout, Anne gave her an Are-You-Sure look.

The machine still worked. Technically. Not completely broken. But this morning, she’d spent twenty minutes trying to get it to start. "Can I have time for some research, at least? Just one day?"

"We go to the store the day after tomorrow," Anne said. "Is it okay?"

With a nod, Adney added it to the top of her to-do list in her memo app. 

Anne was scanning the handout. "A monthly meeting, huh?"

"I usually don’t go," Adney said. "Attendance isn’t mandatory. I pay community fees. But I have to pop in, at least, once in every six months. The last time I went was in November."

"You just said attendance isn’t mandatory?"

"It’s a rule I made up, to keep them happy. But I’m sure Mrs P has told everyone in town what I did."

"Why don’t you want me to come with you?"

Adney hesitated. "It’s not a big deal. I just need to pop in and leave soon." 

It didn’t seem to convince Anne. But she put the paper on the table and let go. "Tell me if you change your mind. Even if it’s at the last minute."

"Okay." Though, Adney wouldn’t change her mind. She was sure.

Anyhow, the meeting was next week. Nothing she could do about it. No escape from her neighbours. Better to forget about it until the day, until the very afternoon, and get it over with. Before that, she had to do research about washers.

She spent the evening reading up on the latest technology of washers. The next morning, the machine worked without a fuss. No issues the next day, either. Two days in a row. They hadn’t had that in a while. But not surprising. Old machines always seemed to know when their humans were planning to replace them. They’d start behaving well like nothing was ever wrong. (Her aunt’s toaster was the same.) 

But one day of research had changed Adney’s attitude. New models looked nice. She no longer felt so opposed to buying one.

"I’m sorry," Adney said to the washer. "But it’s time you retired."

For their shopping plan, Anne had given her two options beforehand. 

One: Go to the store while the kids were at school. This way, they only had Naveen to take with them.

Two: Wait until the kids came home. This wouldn’t disrupt Adney’s daily routine. They could go while the little ones took a nap and hopefully return in time. Since Eugénie could stay home, they could go alone and focus on shopping. 

By a slim margin, the latter appealed to her more. Adney preferred to know her kids came home safely from school.

But Option Two had a downside. (It was too late when Adney realised it.) The electronics store was, like the school at night, an enticing place of exploration. Eliza demanded to tag along. And wherever Eliza wanted to go, Naveen wanted to go, too.

"What about your nap?" Anne said.

"We don’t need it!" Naveen said.

But Adney knew that wasn't true. "Fine. We’ll wait until you wake up. Then, we can go together."

Eugénie also volunteered to accompany them. "Someone"—she looked at Eliza—"will be a huge distraction for you. I can keep them busy."

With kids, nothing went according to plan. Adney should’ve seen it coming. 

At four o’clock, they headed to the town centre. The kitchen appliance store was on the ground floor of an old building. But on the inside, it had white walls and shiny appliances. It looked out of place.  

At the entrance, Adney made them stop. "What are the rules inside the store?"

Eliza and Naveen raised their hands. "No running or screaming," Eliza said. 

"Yes," Adney said. "Because there are other people around." 

"No touching stuff," Naveen said. 

"You can only touch if we say it’s okay." Adney looked in through the window glass. The place looked small enough. She didn’t need to tell them not to go too far. "Okay, let’s go in."

The closest shelves to the door had electric kettles on display. The kids made a beeline for them. Anne and Adney asked a staff member where the washer section was. 

It was in an area farthest from the entrance. Mannequins stood on both sides of their latest dryer. A tall one in trousers, one of medium height in a dress, and a child-sized one—their idea of a perfect family—holding white towels. 

The store itself wasn’t small. But the washer section had little space dedicated to it, and half of it was occupied by dryers. There were only about ten models of washers. 

Anne stood in front of them. "Not many options. We could go to a bigger store tomorrow if you can’t find what you want."

"I’ll be okay, I think." Adney would’ve been happy with even fewer options. 

"Do you know what functions you want?"

"I took notes." Adney opened the memo app on her phone. "I want an energy efficient one." 

They checked the description of each washer. Most of them had the label ‘Energy Efficient.’

The kids came from the kettle section. Crouching down, they looked into the washers through their round windows. 

"This is a submarine," Eliza said. 

Naveen crouched next to her. "I can fit in it."

"We can go in—not together because it’s dangerous—and the other person can turn it on. It’d be like the hamster wheel in the water."

Naveen stood up. All the buttons were on the side, above its door, within his reach. His hand rose, but he turned to Eugénie. "Can we touch the buttons?"

"I don’t think it’s plugged in." Eugénie pressed a button on the far left. "No. You can press any buttons. It does nothing."

Delighted, Naveen pressed the row of buttons. Eliza played with a rotary knob, pretending to be a DJ.

Anne came to stand by Adney. "Do you want a fully automatic one?"

For a split second, Adney forgot their objective. "No, they’re expensive."

"How about a washer-dryer?" 

"The dryer at home still works. We don’t use it every day." Adney walked slowly, looking at the washers for the second time around. At the end of it, (near the mannequin family,) they had a washer on sale. "This looks nice."

"Stop looking at the prices," Anne said. "It’s your birthday gift. Get one of those latest models."

But old habits die hard. "This one only came out two years ago— When’s your birthday? Have you ever told me?"

"I don’t know. 3 April. Technology evolves significantly in two years—"

"April? It’s last month," Adney said.

Anne shrugged. "I forgot. Really. I stopped celebrating it after thirty-five. It has no meaning for me. Celebrate Marian’s. 13 October. She never tires of reminding everyone."

"What if we give meaning to it? Your birthday, I mean." Adney felt shy almost parroting Anne’s words. "I could give you something as a gift, too."

Anne gave a grin. A look Adney had learnt to interpret as suggestive. "A gift. Lovely. Do you accept requests?"

Adney couldn’t get flustered in the middle of a store. But a mischievous Anne did things to her, especially with her bruised lip. It reminded her of the first time they’d met. (This was why it looked so familiar the other day.) Back then, Adney couldn’t look away. Her lip, cut during an accident at work— Anne had a job in London. 

Anne’s grin widened. "Does my face fascinate you?"

"When does your suspension end?" Adney blurted out. "It’s six-month long, if I remember correctly. But how long do you have left here?" 

Anne, with an open mouth, didn’t meet her eyes. "Right…"

"Have I made you uncomfortable? I shouldn’t have mentioned it."

"It’s alright," Anne said quickly. "We have to talk about it. Maybe when we get home?"

"Okay." 

But their walk home—however short—would be agonising. Her inner voice would make up awful scenarios. It was already whispering. 

The decision-making ability abandoned her after that. She listened to Anne comment on other models. But nothing seemed better than the one on sale. 

They talked to a staff member and decided when people could come for delivery and installation. Adney said yes to tomorrow afternoon. They were ready to go home. 

Adney checked the time on her phone. "It’s not five yet. I’m sure it would’ve taken more time without you."

"You’re capable of making choices. What I do is to give you one final push."

Adney looked around. "Where are the kids?"

They’d moved away without her noticing. They were at the shelves near the electric kettles, trying on headphones. (Adney didn’t know why a kitchen appliance store sold audio devices.) Naveen had a pair on his—rather than ears—jaw bones, bouncing his body.

"Bone conduction headphones," Eugénie said. 

"He loves them," Eliza said. "They’re fun. When I touch them, they go vrrrrr."

Waving her hand, Anne got his attention. "Do you want them, Naveen?" 

He clapped his hands to the beat. It was a yes. 

Anne found a box of the same product and took it to the register. Outside the store, they opened it and connected the device to Eugénie's phone. 

Naveen skipped on their way home. He touched both hands to the headphones, lifted his hands, and touched again. "When I touch them, it disappears!"

"Let me try them on!" Eliza jumped. Receiving the headphones, she put them on and immediately made a face. "What kind of music is this?"

Eugénie looked at her phone. "Heavy metal classics. I thought he’d like the beat."

Eliza touched and un-touched them. "It’s true! The music gets quiet when I touch them!"

"Your hands are absorbing the vibration," Eugénie said.

Eliza showed her hands to everyone. "My hands are sponges!" 

It made Adney become conscious of Anne's hand in hers. Her inner voice was still a murmur. External noises drowned them out. She hoped her anxiety wouldn't travel to Anne through their connected hands.

The device was back on Naveen's face. The music was loud. Adney hadn't noticed it in the town centre. But away from the busy area, it could annoy other people. 

She was about to ask Eugénie to turn it down when they heard the police siren behind them. The car came in their direction, passed them by, and turned the corner onto their street. The family also turned the corner. Adney saw, a couple of blocks away, the car stop in front of their house. They all halted.

With a stiff expression, Eugénie looked at her. "I didn't do anything."

"I know," Adney said.

Naveen clung to her skirt. "Scary policemen?" 

"You don’t need to be scared. I won’t let them touch you."

Eliza glared at the car. "I hate them. They always take Dad away. Why are they here?"

"I'll go talk to them," Anne said. "You all don't have to rush." She strode to the house alone. 

… 

Anne looked behind her and made sure the family wasn’t running after her. She put on her prison officer face. Talking to the police, a tough first impression was crucial to have them believe you were their equal. 

Two police officers climbed out of the car. They waved at someone else, and Anne noticed Mrs Cole out on her doorstep. What a nuisance. The officers and Anne got to Mrs Cole simultaneously. 

"Hello, officers." Anne didn’t smile. "How could I help you?"

The officers, in confusion, looked at Anne and at Mrs Cole. One was stubbly with a face begging to be slapped. The other was tall with a face begging to be punched. 

"I’m Vice-Governor Lister of Belmarsh Prison." She pointed at Adney’s house. "That’s my friend’s house. Can anyone tell me what’s happening?"

"Someone was trying to break in," Mrs Cole said. 

The house seemed intact at a glance. There was no broken window. "Did you see the person?" 

"With due respect, ma’am—sir— We’re the ones who ask questions." Officer Tall turned to Mrs Cole. "Did you see their face?"

"It was a man," Mrs Cole said. "Could be homeless. He wore ragged clothes."

"Why did you think he was attempting to break in?" Anne said.

Mrs Cole only spoke to the officers. "He was looking in the windows, circling around the house for thirty minutes."

The family slowly approached. 

Adney, standing in front of the kids, threw the officers a wary look. "What is it?" she asked Anne.

Not to alarm the kids, Anne whispered, "Mrs Cole says someone was trying to break into the house." 

"What did you say?" Eliza said. "I couldn’t hear you."

Anne smiled at the little ones. "There may be a bad person around. Can you wait out here a little?"

"I need a wee," Naveen said.

Mrs Cole sneered at him. "Such obnoxious music." 

Eugénie quickly turned the music off.

Cole kept staring at Naveen. "I thought he was deaf? Has he been faking it all this time?"

"No—" Adney stood between him and Mrs Cole. 

"I have to go inside," Anne said to Adney, although she didn’t want to leave them with this middle-aged sow. "Make sure it’s safe."

"Ma’am, let us handle this." Officer Stubble looked unhappy.

"Then, I suggest you look around the area. Use your time wisely." Anne stood still, waiting for them to move.

Reluctantly, the officers communicated with the station on their walkie-talkie. They ambled into the alley adjacent to the house like they were taking a walk.

"I’d have to check the premises later myself," Anne said to Adney. "They look too incompetent. I’ll be back soon." She took out her keys and headed towards the house. 

A shadow appeared from the other side of the street. As the person hurried to the family, Anne did the same. But it was Sam. 

"Dad! I was worried for you." Eliza jumped into his arms.

"You scared me for a second," Anne said. "I was ready to strike you."

"That’s him." Cole pointed her excessively manicured finger at him. "Officers? Boys?" 

But they were too far to hear. 

"Hang on," Anne said. "He’s the burglar you saw?"

"It’s my fault," Sam said. "Nobody answered the door, and I got anxious…"

"We went to the town centre," Adney said. "I texted you."

"My phone… I forgot to buy data for this month. I was going to today. But work was too busy…"

Naveen tugged at Adney’s skirt. "I need to pee."

"Eugénie, can you take him inside, please?" Adney said. "I need to tell the officers it was a misunderstanding."

The kids walked towards the house. 

But Anne stayed put, scowling at Cole. "You know him. You know his daughter spends time here."

Playing with her pearl necklace, Cole gave a smug shrug. "I didn’t recognise him. It was too dark." 

"I don’t believe that. You did it to harass us."

"What an absurd accusation. If he was innocent, why did he hide from the officers?"

"Because some people are intent on misunderstanding him," Anne didn’t miss a beat, "like yourself."

"Anne, please don’t," Adney whispered.

Cole held her head high defiantly. "If my kindness is received with such hostility, well, don’t expect me to help if your house is on fire." As haughty as Cole was, her body language was honest. She was literally clutching her pearls. Her weight was on her heels, shifting her centre of gravity backwards. 

Anne towered over the petite woman. "Yes, stay away from us. Hasn’t your boss bird told you? Your help isn’t wanted."

Adney rested a calming hand on her arm. 

Cole looked at Adney. "No wonder you and your kids are so unruly these days."

"How dare you—"

Adney held Anne from slamming her against the door. "They’re being kids," she said to Cole. "Please, be respectful."

"My kids were never like that. You must be doing it wrong." 

"You’re a mother?" This new information struck Anne hard. As it sank in, it left her boiling inside. "How could you be so cruel, knowing how difficult it is?"

Adney tugged at her arm. "Anne, let’s just go. We’ll talk to the officers inside."

Willing herself to cool down, Anne took a step back. "I need a fucking drink," she mumbled before stabbing a finger towards Cole. "I urge you do some introspection, if you have the ability, as you seem too comfortable with your cruelty." She turned on her heel.

"It should be easier for you," Mrs Cole said to her back. "You’re not even a real family."

Anne lost it. 

Chapter Text

Adney didn’t have time to react. Anne’s hand slipped out of her grip as she lunged forward. "Anne, no!" 

It didn't reach Anne's ears. She bared her teeth at Mrs Cole, leaving no space between their faces. "You’re confused. I could break every bone of your body right here if you keep cussing us. You get me? Get your fucking nose out of our business!"

Adney tried to pull her away. Sam did the same from the other side. But it felt like Anne's feet were cemented in the ground.

Mrs Cole was pale. "What a barbaric—"

"You’re nothing but a bunch of snobs, who can only feel validated by belittling others. Who gives you the fucking right? Who!?"

Many more threats and curse words spilt out. Her shouting echoed throughout the neighbourhood. Curtains opened in other houses. Some people stepped out onto their doorsteps. In her own house, too, the kids were watching from behind the rainbow flag.

"Officers? I’m being threatened!" Mrs Cole called out.  

Anne gave a dry laugh. "Go ahead. All you can do is to hide your cowardly arse behind the Filth."

"Anne, please." Adney tugged at her arm.

Momentarily, it got Anne to turn her head around. But her wild eyes made Adney flinch. It was someone she didn’t recognise. 

The officers came rushing back. They took Adney and Sam’s places and stood between Anne and Mrs Cole.

Anne held her hands up in the air. "I didn’t lay a finger on her."

"She made threatening remarks!" 

"Let’s all calm down." The tall officer gave Sam a friendly nod. "Washington. Getting in trouble again?" 

"No, sir. I’m here to pick up my girl. That’s all."

"You mean your son?"

Anne glared at him. "She’s a girl, you pillock."

The beardy officer tightened his lips. He turned to Mrs Cole. "Do you want to press charges, ma’am?"

"Like the law will protect you in your sleep," Anne said to Mrs Cole.

"Anne, stop!" Adney turned to her neighbour. "Please, Mrs Cole, she doesn't mean any of that. Don’t let my kids see any more of this. It’ll traumatise them." 

Mrs Cole’s face revealed nothing. She didn't meet anyone’s eyes. "Well, I suppose someone has to bite the bullet."

"How noble of you," Anne said.

Adney was already pulling her towards the house. "Thank you, Mrs Cole. Sorry for the trouble, officers."

The door felt so far. Anne still felt heavy like a boulder. At one point, she shook Adney’s hands off and stormed into the house before her. Adney followed her in. From the hallway, she watched Anne pace around the kitchen.

In the living room, Eugénie had the kids on her lap on the sofa, keeping them close. She looked past Adney, into the kitchen. 

Adney might not excel at reading facial expressions, but she never misread her kids’ fear. No matter how subtle it was. It made her ashamed. She shouldn’t have let them witness that. "It’s okay," she signed before entering the kitchen.

Anne was searching every storage place. "Don’t you have any alcohol at all? Not even a secret stash?"

Adney stayed in the doorway. "You shouldn’t have done that."

Slowly, Anne looked up. "What?"

"What if she decided to press charges? They could come in and arrest you. In front of the kids. You could’ve got Sam in trouble, too."

"Are you saying I should’ve just watched?"

"You can’t threaten her." Adney kept her voice calm.

"But you screamed. Said ‘screw Priestly.’ You stood up to her when—" 

"Not in her face. We still have to keep them happy." 

"What about the happiness of the kids?" Anne’s voice was getting louder. "Why can’t they see you, their protector, defend them from bigotry?" 

"Please, don’t shout."

"You teach them to care for the weak, but you don’t do that when it matters." Anne came closer. "You have the ability to make a difference."

Adney couldn’t look her in the eye. Thoughts and emotions overwhelmed her.

With a loud sigh, Anne shook her head. "Have some courage, Adney." It sounded like a plea.

It was the harshest thing Anne had ever said to her. 

"This is why I didn’t tell you about the letter," Adney mumbled. "Why I don’t want you at the community meeting. You can’t stay quiet—" 

"What letter?"

"Aggression only creates vitriol."

"It shows them I’m on their side—"

"Your shouting is scaring them." 

Anne tightened her lips. She looked towards the living room. Her face seemed tense, but not with anger. "It’s unfair," she said in a regular volume. "People treat them like— Just because they’re different. I want to protect them—"

"You can't force-feed kindness."

Anne seemed too agitated for words. After tense seconds of silence, she left the room. 

The shouting rang in Adney’s ears, colours undulating in her peripheral vision. She closed her eyes and covered her ears. Slowly, the waves calmed down. Even her own breathing became distant.

When her eyes opened, Sam was in the hallway. So were the kids, worried for her. 

His lips moved. Are you alright?

There were no colours. Adney realised her hearing was paralysed. 

… 

Anne sat on the attic floor and gazed at the night sky on the ceiling. Outside the open window, there was no red light reflecting off the neighbours' houses. The officers were gone. 

The door opened, and Eugénie’s footsteps came up the stairs. The room was dim. After turning on the lights, she sat next to Anne in the corner.

"I don’t think you were wrong," Eugénie said. 

The handprints on the wall were within Anne's reach. She ran her fingers over them. "Did I scare you?"

"A little. We don’t like shouting."

Anne's heart broke. Seeing the fear on the kids' face devastated her more than anything she'd experienced. She’d had to leave the kitchen. 

"But"—Eugénie smiled—"it felt good to watch Mrs Cole shaking like a chihuahua."

Anne laughed weakly. "Hold me at gunpoint and tell me to care about the feelings of hateful idiots. I understand Adney’s perspective. But I don’t regret treating Cole like that."

"You won’t break up because of this, right?"

Anne reassured her with a smile. "We want the same thing, for you to be happy. We’re just trying in different ways."

"We’re a real family," Eugénie said. "We all know. Doesn’t matter what the legal papers or our DNA say."

Anne could never forgive Cole for it. "Adney mentioned something about a letter? Do you know anything about it?"

Giving a nod, Eugénie told her about the letter from the neighbours they’d received some months ago. "The gist is, they hate us being kids. I suggested we’d tell you, but Adney didn’t want to because—"

"Because she trusted me to go berserk to protect you." Anne felt the residual anger boiling, towards their neighbours, towards herself. "I wish I’d known."

"I wish I’d told you."

"Against her wish?" Anne made a pathetic attempt at laughter. "You did nothing wrong, love."

Slowly, a smile appeared on Eugénie's face. "I like it when you call me that."

Tears welled up in Anne’s eyes. She turned her head away, pretending to study the handprints on the wall. But there was no doubt Eugénie heard her sniff. 

It was time to talk to Adney.

… 

Adney’s breathing was returning to normal. But the world, as she sat on her bed, still had no sound. Every time she opened her eyes, the silence threw her back into panic. She closed her eyes and hugged her knees more tightly. 

Nothing made sense to her. 

She couldn’t return downstairs like this. It’d worry the kids. But perhaps she could try reading their lips and pretend— 

The mattress dipped. Adney flinched and looked up to see Anne in front of her on the bed. Her hand rose to wipe tears from Adney’s face. Her lips moved. But it had no colour. Completely clear and unfamiliar. 

Adney felt lost. "I can’t hear. My ears aren’t working now."

"What do you mean?" Anne said. (This, Adney understood by lip reading.) She then repeated it in BSL.

"It used to happen sometimes, as a child. When I couldn’t just take it anymore. My senses would shut off, like a computer." Adney didn't know if her words were clear. 

Anne had a deep grimace. "Is it my fault?"

But it wasn’t so black and white. "When you yelled, I didn't know who you were." 

Adney had always found it impossible to picture Anne as a prison officer. Fearsome, hitting back against her assailant. Until she saw those eyes. She froze as Anne took her hand.

It must’ve been noticeable. Anne withdrew it and brought the same hand to her own chest. "I’m sorry," she signed. "I shouldn’t have shouted at you."

"It’s against the house rules. They exist for a reason."

"I got myself… carried away." Anne finger spelled the last two words. "Do your ears hurt?"

Adney shook her head. "It’s scary. But it’s not permanent."

"How long does it usually last?"

"Not long. But one time, I couldn’t hear for three days. Something’s wrong with me. My aunt thought I was faking it."

"I believe you," Anne said without missing a beat. She took her hand again.

This time, Adney squeezed it back. The familiar warmth put a lump to her throat. It threatened to make her go nonverbal. "Anne, I want you to listen. Am I speaking clearly?"

Anne nodded. 

"I’m not angry with you. I’m hurt. I don’t care if my neighbours don’t understand me. But— You matter to me." 

"You matter to me, too." 

Using her voice was exhausting when she couldn’t hear it herself. Adney only used BSL. It felt more natural. She looked into Anne’s eyes. "I’m not a coward. I have courage. I sacrifice myself to protect my kids. I’m scared that I might mess up. Always. But I go on, every day, with that fear in my heart. It may not be the type of courage you think matters, but I have it."

With her eyes shut tight, Anne looked down. 

"Anne, look at me." She slammed her fist against her chest. It echoed inside her. "I can’t change these people’s unwilling minds. I’m not a superhero. But I can make a difference by loving my kids with all my heart."

Fat tears spilt from Anne’s eyes. "There has to be a way. Why can’t we have both? Love them and protect them?" But she didn’t demand an answer. Her hands only sank onto her lap. "They’re holding you hostage."

It took Adney by surprise and made her realise two things. 

One: She’d never seen Anne cry. (While Anne had seen her sob many times.)

Two: In fact, she’d never seen anyone cry for her, be furious about injustice for her. 

And—another revelation hit her—Three: She loved Anne.

Adney pulled her into an embrace. "Trust the kids. They’re stronger than we think," she spoke in her ear. "I am stronger than I think."

They held each other for some moments. After that, Anne rested her head on Adney’s chest as they lay together. In the clear world, Anne’s breathing anchored her. 

"I need to check on the kids," Adney thought out loud.

"Eugénie and Sam are downstairs. Don’t worry." Anne signed over her head, making her hands visible to Adney while lying down. 

Every person has their own sign language style. Not so much as an accent, but more like being a mumbler. Anne didn't quite enunciate her words. Fingers relaxed. When she said ‘don’t worry,’ her floppy hands looked like butterflies.

Anne turned over and put her head next Adney’s on the pillows. "Are my eyes puffy?" She finger spelled the last word.

"Slightly."

"I cried in front of Eugénie earlier, too. I hadn’t cried in front of people in a long time."

"Crying is not shameful." Adney caressed her cheek. "You look beautiful."

With a soft smile, Anne kissed her fingers. "Eugénie told me about the letter. I'm disappointed you never told me. But it was probably the right decision. I only would’ve made it worse."

"I didn’t want to make a big deal about it."

"Do you still have it?" 

Her memory was foggy. Adney opened the drawer of the nightstand. It wasn't there. "I think I put it in the recycling bin?"

"Recycling?" Anne threw her head back and laughed. "I would've put it on fire to make eggs."

"It coud've ruined the eggs." Lying back down, Adney kissed her on the lips.

"I’m sorry I called you cowardly."

Adney put her hands on her heart and pointed at her.

… 

After the tumultuous day, they got the new washer in the kitchen. It was quiet and looked shiny. The little ones even tried to play hide-and-seek in it. For the time being, it’d serve as a harsh reminder of the Cole incident. But Anne hoped the association would fade away soon.

The neighbours made no move for the next week. But they kept whispering, watching them from behind the closed curtains. This felt familiar to Anne. Her officers also used to whisper about her in the locker room. Their voices had fear, but for the most part, it was disdain.

It was only a truce, not real peace. Something would happen sooner or later, and if Anne were them, the community meeting would be an attractive setting. 

Anne walked to Adney’s one hour before the meeting. In the distance, the shadow of Mrs Cole was moving on her porch. The woman saw her, started, and hurried into her house. Eugénie had a point. It felt good to see her frightened. 

Inside the house, Adney and the little ones were in the living room. On the table were notebooks and pencils. 

"Anne, look," Eliza said. "I’m teaching him how to write in cursive because he’s starting school in August."

The pages were filled with Naveen's handwriting. The ABC as well as their names. 

"Your name is here." He pointed at a chunk of words resembling slug trails.

He still mixed up his bs and ds. Their priorities seemed a bit off. But Anne only gave an encouraging smile. 

On the sofa, Adney was already getting jittery. Instead of pacing around, she checked her phone every ten seconds.

"I’ll borrow Adney quickly. Is that okay?"

"One biscuit per minute." Eliza held up her hand with her palm up.

"Oh?" Anne searched her pockets and found a key. She put it in Eliza’s hand. "The key to the farm tool shed. Forgot to return it this afternoon."

Naveen smelt it. "Rusty! Can we keep it?"

"Until this evening. Marian will be mad if I lose it." Anne went to the sofa and took Adney’s hands. Smiling at her slight confusion, she guided her to the kitchen. 

Eugénie was studying there. As they entered, she removed her headphones. "Are you leaving?"

"Not yet." Anne pulled Adney’s chair out. "Take a seat. How are you feeling?"

"My stomach hurts." Adney sat down.

"Some tea?"

"I already made her peppermint tea," Eugénie said. "She had like five cups."

"I don’t want to have to go to the loo in the middle of the meeting." Adney checked her phone again. 

Anne took a seat. "Waiting for a call or—?" 

"No. I’m waiting for the alarm to go off."

It defeated the whole purpose of the alarm, but Anne let it go. "Now, about today’s meeting. You reiterated yesterday that you didn’t need me accompanying you—"

"Maybe I won’t go." Adney twisted her face. "It’s just a made-up rule anyway…"

"Okay. It’s your decision." Anne looked at both of them. "I still have to go, to talk to Priestley."

"Why, though?" Eugénie said.

"To apologise," Anne said. "Marian’s order. Priestley hasn’t bought our products for the last two weeks. Very possibly my fault. She stopped visiting me at school, too. I have to kiss her arse."

Eugénie gave a sceptical look. "Do you know how to do it?" 

"Kissing arse? No. I must improvise."

"That’s unfair," Eugénie said. "It’s her that should apologise. You should bite her arse."

Anne laughed. "I’ll just ‘apologise’"—she air-quoted—"and tell Marian it wasn’t enough to convince her."

Adney was biting her nails off. She only seemed to be aware of it as Anne made her lower the hand. "It’s affecting Marian’s business," she said to herself. "I have to go, don’t I?" 

"It’s up to you," Anne said. "But I always think it’s best to crack on with these things. If you sit this one out, it could mean another month of anxiety." 

But time didn’t allow Adney to process it at her own pace. Her alarm went off and startled her. "Fine. I’ll go." She stood up and looked at Anne. "Let’s go." With a strange bout of energy, Adney left the kitchen.

They arrived at the town hall thirty minutes early. The historical building was grand, with many parts to explore. So to use their waiting time effectively, they hid in the restroom. Anne examined the interior design by the basins, while Adney hid in a stall.

"I didn't think we'd arrive this early," Adney murmured.

Anne tried to offer her a positive distraction. "This entire building is much cleaner than I'd expected. I'd never come here before."

"You go look around. Did you see the skylight at the entrance? It’s gorgeous," Adney said in a miserable tone.

"We could go together? Time flies when you're having fun." 

Adney only groaned. At this rate, she wouldn't have any energy at the meeting. 

Anne knocked on the door. "Let me in, then? I'll wait in there with you."

As the door opened, Anne slipped into the tiny stall. They had no space between their knees. Anne made her stand up quickly, sat on the toilet, and let Adney sit sideways on her lap.

"There’s a video we shot last night." Anne took out her phone. 

In the video, the little ones were playing their own version of rock paper scissors. They called it Samurai-panda-rainbow. 

"What are the rules?" Eugénie, behind the camera, said.

"Samurai is stronger than Panda but weaker than Rainbow," Eliza said. "Because you can't cut the rainbow with a sword. Panda is stronger than Rainbow because it's prettier."

"When we tie," Naveen said, "we do the special dance and do it again."

It was about five minutes long. When it ended, Adney was less tense. 

They arrived at the meeting a couple of minutes before the scheduled time. With folding chairs all facing front, the room had about thirty people. Mrs Cole was there. The mother of the boy who’d pushed Eliza was also there. Anne still didn’t know her name. 

As they walked in, the air froze. People looked at them, and glanced to the front row, where Mrs P sat. 

"Look who’s here." Mrs P’s voice was clear in the silent room.

Adney put on a brave smile and went to the long table by the podium. A person sat there with a notebook and a cookie can with money in it. Adney paid the monthly community fee. After getting a schedule sheet, they sat in the back.

Mrs Cole, sitting nearby, changed her seat with no effort to hide it. The people stared and whispered. Anne hadn’t expected to have so many spectators. She couldn’t decide if this would be advantageous or not.

Adney held the schedule sheet to her. "Do you want to read it?"

Anne shook her head, but a moment later, took the paper. "How long does this last?"

"They say one hour and a half. But usually longer."

People in front of their seats turned around and shushed them.

The meeting had started. The facilitator went over, in a barely audible voice, their ambitious agenda. In the beginning, three guest speakers had fifteen minutes each. A ten-minute break after that. And the second hour would be for ‘community problem solving.’ This was probably where they’d gossip about Adney’s family.

The first guest speaker, from a local health organisation, stood at the podium. The guy didn’t know how to connect his devices to the computer.

"I have a theory," Anne whispered to Adney, "that some organisations choose their least charismatic people for their PR positions on purpose." 

More shushing came from others.

Anne continued in BSL. "How soon do you plan to leave?" 

"In thirty minutes," Adney signed back.

It’d be during the second speech. Anne would have no time to kiss Mrs P’s arse. But making Adney stay longer was out of the question. There must be a solution. While Anne contemplated, the speaker began his mumbling speech.

It dragged on for twenty minutes. "Questions before I end this?"

Instinctively, Anne raised her hand. 

"The person in the back." He pointed at her.  

"May I speak next?" Anne was already heading to the podium.

The facilitator grimaced. "We have a tight schedule."

"Indeed." Anne turned to the health speaker. "Work on your time management skills. It could’ve been a five-minute speech." 

But once on the podium, Anne realised her kissing arse plan was off to a terrible start. People glared at her. Adney, in her seat, had her head in her hands. But, at least, their attention was on her now. 

"I’m Anne Lister. Probably everyone here already knows who I am, what I do, and what I’ve done." 

"The AA meeting is at the church," someone said, generating snickers from others.

Mrs P wore a cruel smile, too. 

But Anne wouldn't yell. "I’ve come to apologise for the trouble I was involved in last week…" 

Mrs P’s expression shifted from annoyed to pretentious. She waited, as if the apology was matter-of-course and overdue. 

"But honestly," Anne said, "I’m not sorry. Never was. Why should I compromise myself in the face of cruelty?"

The crowd gave a collective groan. Her officers had done the same when she spoke out for their inmates. 

"Your time is up," the facilitator said. "Mr Davies, if you please."

One of the guest speakers rose from his seat. 

But Anne held up a hand. "Not done yet, sir."

"You’re wasting everyone’s time," Mrs P said.

"You’re wasting our time with your repetitive, banal sadism."

"Repetitive? Look at you continuing to make absurd accusations." Mrs P slowly shook her head. "You might’ve thought it’d be a fine idea to confront us all at once. But can’t you see? You’re making a fool of yourself and Ms Walker."

Adney raised her head. Her eyes met Anne’s, but she looked away. 

The shame on her face made Anne baulk. Was that a confirmation of Mrs P’s words? She should’ve thought this through. One step after another, she stepped away from the podium. 

"What a troublemaker," someone said, filling the room with snickers. 

Anne stopped and searched for the person who’d said it. But everyone avoided eye contact, like cowards. All of them. 

Calmly, she strode back to the podium. "At what point does 'confrontational' become ‘brave?' When we see a change? When it receives wider attention? Is your false sense of peace really that important?"

Everything reminded her of what had happened in London. She’d tried to do good, but her attempts only backfired. Not because she was doing it wrong. Because they were weak.

Mrs P’s posture seemed stiff. "Perhaps, our manner of offering help may have been met with slight reluctance. But given Ms Walker’s reserved disposition, we believe it was needed to get her out of her shell. And it saddens us—"  

"Shells protect you from harm, like you."

"It saddens us how she's learnt to bite the hand that’s fed her."

"You’ve been feeding her poison."

Mrs P’s smile twitched. "As I’ve told Ms Walker, we all love her family despite what she thinks of us—" 

"Your so-called love is self-righteous."

Her rapid rebuttals clearly irritated Mrs P. "You’re upset about last week’s event. I never told Mrs Cole to do anything. Calling the police was her decision, wasn’t it, Flora?" She turned around in her seat and looked at Mrs Cole. 

Anne didn’t bother to see her response. "I believe you," she said to Mrs P. "But you’re their leader. You’ve inoculated them with your poison, and they’re numb to their own cruelty and apathy." 

"They’re adults. They can make their own choices."

Her boss used to say the exact same thing. Adults with free will. Couldn’t control them. Not my fault. They’d flaunt their power, until their responsibility came under scrutiny. It was a caucus race. 

Anne felt so tired. "How long do you have to abuse them to see it? They’re not your puppets." She had no energy left to hold back her tears. 

In the quiet room, they exchanged looks, some rolling their eyes. But Mrs P stared as if Anne's tears shocked her. It no longer mattered to Anne.

A chair’s legs scraped on the floor as Adney stood up. She came to Anne and took her hands in front of them. "Let’s go home."

Anne walked off the podium without protest. 

As they passed by the front row, Mrs P spoke. "We never— Abuse?" She genuinely seemed muddled. "But we always had your best interests at heart—"

"You can’t force-feed kindness," Anne said quietly. 

Nobody had anything left to say. All eyes followed them. It brought her back to the ‘walk of shame’ she’d had at work, too. With distant curiosity, they watched her leaving the governor’s office with the suspension notice in her hand. 

In the dim corridor, Anne stood still. "Sorry. I fucked up again."

But Adney wrapped her arms around her neck. "I'm proud of you."

It'd vex Marian, and the neighbours' attitude might stay the same if not worsen. But in that moment, those words were all Anne needed. 

Chapter Text

The meeting, in Adney’s eyes, didn’t go so terribly. Not well, but better than the worst-case scenarios. (One including literal ostracisation.) It was over now. That was most important. She could focus on enjoying her own birthday. 

It was different from Mothering Day. It was a school day, and Eliza wasn’t here in the morning. No slow and dicey breakfast. No risk of mixed colours in the laundry. Adney could do the chores her own way. 

Anne came for lunch and stayed. "I got the afternoon off for this special day."

"Please don’t overdo it." Adney giggled. 

"Don’t be embarrassed. We’ve only just begun. There’ll be Sam and Marian at dinner. And after that…" Anne gave a suggestive smirk. She kissed her in place of the rest of the sentence.

After school, the kids baked cupcakes and sang her the birthday song. Throughout the afternoon, they sang it for her. Each time, Adney’s embarrassment faded away. 

But when the melody filled the restaurant during dinner, it made her freeze. Staff members brought out cake. Thankfully, though, they went to a different table. 

Adney sighed in relief. "I thought it was for me." 

"We know you hate that kind of attention," Eugénie said. 

"I think I’ll like it," Eliza said. (The place was noisy, but bright. No issue communicating through BSL.) "It’s wonderful to have strangers celebrate your birthday."

Anne smiled with a wineglass in her hand. "I'll keep that in mind, love." She then whispered in Adney’s ear. "I need you to write down their birthdays when we get home. I can’t remember them all."

Big gestures meant little to Adney. To share food. To feel Anne’s arm around her shoulders. To have a place to go back to, without any sense of guilt, fear, or loneliness. To end the day with a ‘see you tomorrow.’ They mattered. Love was an extract of these private moments. 

Back at home, Eugénie suggested taking care of Naveen’s bath. So Adney gave them a goodnight hug and followed Anne upstairs. 

As they entered her room, Adney sank into bed. She felt so full and warm. "We never celebrated birthdays when I was small. I didn’t know my birthday until I was seven."  

"Really?" 

"I assumed some people didn’t have one. My aunt only told me after I’d gone to my friend’s birthday party." 

With a grimace, Anne stood by the nightstand. "Your aunt is lucky I can’t casually visit hell." She took a small box out of the drawer. 

"When did you hide it there?"

"This afternoon." Lying next to her, Anne gave it to her. 

"You shouldn’t have. You already got me the washer."

"It felt insufficient. Practical gifts are nice, but to me, it’s about sentimental value." Anne smiled. "Anyway, I bought it a long time ago. Open it."

It was a golden brooch, wrapped in a piece of cloth. Adney held it up to the light. "A gondola? It says Venezia." 

"Italy is the first foreign country I ever visited. It’s been years. I want you to have it. And one day, I’d love to return to that city, with you."

Adney kissed her. Her heart swelled with feelings she couldn’t put into words. "This is the best birthday ever."

"The best one yet."

"Last birthday, I didn't even know you." Adney studied the brooch. A gondolier standing with a paddle in their hands. A passenger in a dress, holding an umbrella over her head. "I’ve never been outside this town. Have I told you before?"

"Yes, when we first met."

The day they’d met. Adney remembered it. Vividly. But the memory of that particular detail escaped her. They’d sat in the kitchen and talked about—

"We haven’t talked about your work," Adney said. "Or have we? Maybe I’m forgetting—"

"No, we haven’t." Anne turned over on her back. But she only glared at the ceiling.

The answer was there in front of her. But Adney needed to hear it. "You’re going back."

As if still uncertain, Anne slowly nodded. 

"When?"

"Next week. 1 June." Anne looked her in the eyes. "I should’ve told you sooner. I was undecided when you asked at the store. Then, I didn’t know when to mention it. I didn’t want to cause you more stress so soon after that meeting. I never meant to ruin this day like this."

Adney gave a gentle smile. "You didn’t ruin anything."

"I could still come back on weekends. It’s not a drastic change."

"Okay."

In the following silence, Anne stared at her face. "Aren’t you upset?" 

Her facial expression was absolutely neutral, Adney knew. Too much thoughts and no room for emotions. "Would you stay if I was?" 

As a child, it always bothered her when adults asked about her emotions. Those questions served little purpose. They rarely made changes even if she was upset. So she’d learnt to answer them with a question. Her little first and final act of defiance. 

Anne wore the expression too familiar to Adney.

"I’m not upset." Adney kissed her on the creased forehead. 

Perhaps she’d seen it coming. The shadow of this moment had been lurking for a while. But she’d hoped for a miracle, as if miracles existed.

"The kids will be," Anne said. "I’ll tell them tomorrow."

"They’ll understand. Eventually."

"I’m doing this for them." Anne’s grimace deepened again. "When the police were here last week, you were all scared of them. Eugénie thought they might’ve come for her. Eliza hates them for how they treat her father. Naveen knows to be afraid because they bully his family. And you… You see them as people who could hurt your kids. I was the only one." 

"Because you’re one of them."

"I know. It’s not right. Their— Our presence should invoke a sense of safety instead of fear." Anne sat up. "I want to return to London and make a difference. I can’t do it with the neighbours. But the system isn’t a person. It might work."

Adney had some thoughts on that. But— "If that’s your decision."

With a tilted head, Anne stared at her. "You can tell me if you’re upset. Really."

But Adney smiled and shook her head.  

"Do you still want me to stay over tonight?"

"If you’d like."

Lying back down, Anne nuzzled with her. "Maybe," she whispered, "you can move to London. Leave this shabby place."

Adney smiled. It sounded like a wonderful fantasy.

… 

The kids, as expected, didn’t take this news well. 

Anne assured them, telling them what she’d told Adney. But out of the three, Eugénie took it the hardest. In the middle of Anne’s explanation, she stormed out and locked herself in her room. 

And before dinner, she slipped out of the house through the backdoor. Will babysit tonight. Don’t need dinner, she texted Adney. 

"Is it Eugénie?" Anne gestured at her phone.

Reluctantly, Adney nodded. "She went out. She won’t be dining with us."

Anne frowned. "Didn’t even come in for a hug."

"She needs some time."

"Maybe I’ve waited too long. I was worried it’d only give them more time to be sad."

"I don’t think it would’ve made a difference."

But it worried Adney, too. Eugénie had never reacted to anything this way before.

That night, the backdoor opened past ten. Eugénie slowly looked into the living room. "Is she here?"

"She went back to the farm." Adney closed the chemistry textbook and patted for Eugénie to sit beside her on the sofa.

Eugénie did, gave her a hug, but kept her mouth shut.

"She says she’s sorry." Adney waited for a response, but got none. "Will you tell me what’s on your mind?"

"I’m angry," Eugénie said quietly. "Disappointed."

"She isn’t leaving us. It’s not a goodbye."

"I know. It’s just the fact that she’s leaving. Choosing her job over us."

"She wants to make the future brighter for you."

"So you’re letting her go? That easily?" Eugénie's voice got slightly louder. "Aren’t you sad?"  

They couldn’t see each other every day. Adney registered it as a fact. But her emotion hadn’t caught up yet. "I have no right to force her to stay. She’s her own person." 

"But you belong together."

Adney smiled. "It doesn’t have to mean being in the same physical place all the time."

"But…"

But— But— Eugénie sounded like a child, begging for something she desperately wanted. It shattered her heart. It was one of the rare moments where Eugénie was open about her desire. Eugénie, who’d experienced too many goodbyes. Goodbyes that weren’t meant to be. 

"It’s reckless," Eugénie said. "To have hope like her. One person can’t dismantle the system alone."

"I know." 

But Adney also admired Anne for it. Baseless optimism was a luxury for people like Adney. 

… 

On the last day of May, Anne packed in her room at the farm. Her clothes, purse, and magazines with her bucket list between the pages… There wasn’t a lot.

Percy found a perfect napping spot in her duffle bag. No matter how many times Anne removed him, he quickly reclaimed the spot. After the fifth attempt, Anne gave up and threw her clothes over him.

"Do you want to come to London with me?" 

"No thanks." Marian walked in. "I love this place." 

Anne gestured at the bag. "I was talking to him."

"That’s a small bag, even with a cat in it. I remember the day you came home, standing at the door with huge bags like a recently evicted person."

"I’m leaving the toiletries here. Some clothes, too."

Marian nodded. "And the sex toys in Adney’s room. Got it."

"You’re deranged." Anne looked at her wristwatch. "Alright. Let’s go. Percy, get out." 

As he refused to move a claw, Anne lifted the bag and walked down the hallway. It made him stir, making the bag swing.

She lowered it at the door, and he crawled out with a grumpy meow. 

Anne petted him. "I’ll see you in a week, old man." 

They stepped out of the house and loaded the bag onto the boot of the truck. 

Before climbing into the vehicle, Anne looked over the field, her workplace of six months. "Are you going to be alright on your own?" 

"Of course," Marian said. "I mean, I’ll miss your womanpower."

"So much for sentimentality." 

"Don't worry. I’ll leave some work for you to do on the weekends."

Marian drove the truck down the cobblestoned hill. Their next stop was Adney’s. The drive was slow, but Anne wanted to go slower. 

Anne stared at the road ahead. "I hope Eugénie is home." 

"She still hasn’t talked to you? It’s been a week."

"She ignores my texts. She’s out babysitting at dinner time. Like how she was in the beginning."

"What about last night’s party? She was there."

"For Adney’s sake. She didn’t even look in my direction." So Anne had spent the entire dinner like a loser, wishing Eugénie would pay attention to her.

"You found Adney’s weak reaction odd," Marian said. "And now you're bothered by Eugénie’s strong reaction."

"Does she speak to you?"

Marian gave a half-nod with a weird face. "She overtly refuses to talk about you, though."

Silent treatment from a teenager. It hurt more than Anne cared to admit.

The truck reached the bottom of the hill. Entering the residential area, they passed by a woman that resembled Mrs P. Anne didn’t look back in case it really was her. Neither did the silhouette in the wing mirror.

Anne had submitted a letter of resignation to Mrs P, but through the finance officer. The community meeting was the last place of interaction.

Anne looked at Marian. "Don’t tell people about this. They might assume I’ve given up on the family."

"They’ll find out eventually."

"I know. I don’t want you to escalate that process."

Marian gave a bitter pout. "Fine." Then, she stared at Anne.

"What? Look at the road."

"Are you sure about this?" Marian’s tone was soft. "Do you really want to go to London?"

"Marian, we’ve been over this."

"There’s more than one way to make positive change. Sure, vegetables don't bring world peace, but without them, life is colourless. And without you, their—"

"I told you, I'm not leaving them—" 

"You always say you want to be happy. Your happiness is right here." Marian swung her arm above the wheel, gesturing to their general surroundings. "And you’re…. You’re stupid."

"Shut up. You are stupid."

Just in time, they arrived at Adney’s. They both took deep breaths before entering the house.

The little ones had just finished their nap. Welcoming them in the hallway, Naveen held his hands up and asked to be picked up. 

"Me, too!" Eliza pulled at Anne’s trousers. 

Anne lifted them at once. "You two deserve an award for keeping me in shape for the past six months." 

"What kind of award?" Eliza said. 

"How about"—Anne carried them into the kitchen, smiling at Adney—"a trip to London? You can visit the Natural History Museum to see the dinosaurs."

"Yaaay!" Eliza punched the air with both hands.

That made Anne’s footing unsteady. She put both of them down, greeted Adney with a kiss, and looked down at the table. Beside a plate of cookies, there was a thermos and a paper bag. 

"I made sandwiches," Adney said. "They’re in this bag with cookies. And tea, so you wouldn’t get thirsty on the train."

Anne laughed. "Don’t worry. I’m not going on an excursion to a remote area." She kissed her on the temple. 

"Anne, when are you coming home?" Eliza said.

"Friday night. Probably after dinner."

Eliza grimaced. "But I go home before dinner."

"Let’s ask your dad if you can dine here on Friday," Adney said.

Naveen raised his hand. "Can we talk tonight?"

Anne nodded. "I’ll show you my apartment when I get there." She then glanced towards the living room. It seemed empty. She turned to Adney. "Is Eugénie home?" 

"She’s upstairs." Adney gave an understanding smile.

Anne looked at the little ones. "Excuse me. I need to talk to Eugénie."

She left the kitchen and went up the stairs. She didn’t know what to say. But leaving now without an attempt could scar Eugénie's heart. 

As she neared the top, Eugénie came out of the room. The girl stopped on the landing at the sight of Anne, hiding something behind her back.

Anne smiled. "Hi there. Can we talk?"

To Anne’s surprise, Eugénie nodded without hesitation. In her room, Eugénie sat on her bed, placing the thing she’d hidden earlier on her lap. Her hands covered the brown package’s logo. 

"I was going down to see you." She still didn’t look at Anne.

Anne sat in the desk chair. It was going much smoother than expected.

Eugénie handed her the brown package. It was beef jerky. "I babysat this week to give you something. But I realised you can buy whatever you want. Expensive gifts would mean nothing to you. So…"

So she got Anne a pack of beef jerky. 

"Thank you." Anne leaned in towards her in the chair. "Eugénie, you know I’m not abandoning you."

Eugénie averted her gaze. "But you have something better in London."

"It’s a different thing. Not better."

"What about the neighbours?"

"It’s an element of concern," Anne said. "But if I stay, I feel like it’d keep annoying them into aggression. It’s best I remove myself from this a little."

"What if it doesn’t work?"

"Then, Adney will protect you. She’d always done that before me. She has you, too. Right?"

Eugénie's pout stayed on. "What’s in it for you? They betrayed you, didn’t they?"

"They did. I haven’t forgiven them," Anne said. "That’s why I’m going back. I won’t let them get away with it. I’ll stay, close to them, and one day, maybe I could make a difference." 

"Some people are incapable of change," Eugénie mumbled. "It’ll make you miserable trying."

"You may be right. But some are capable. I think it’s worth that gamble. Life. Happiness."

Eugénie's lips parted, but closed right away. She stared at the beef jerky package in Anne’s hands. "You say there’s always hope."

"There is."

"What do you do when your hope contradicts someone else’s?"

Anne understood, then, she couldn’t convince Eugénie of her choice. "I keep that hope. There’s no shame in wanting happiness for yourself."

Silently, Eugénie's eyes filled with tears.

Though uncertain, Anne moved to sit next to her on the bed. With a gesture, she asked if Eugénie wanted a hug.

Eugénie wiped her tears with her sleeves. After a pause, she jumped into Anne’s arms and held her tight. The strong embrace had her final prayer. 

Anne could only hug her back as tightly. 

Back downstairs, the little ones gave Anne a drawing of the family for her apartment. Everyone had their name above their head, written in cursive.

"Put it in this." Adney showed her a wooden photo frame. 

Eliza pointed at it. "We made that for Mother’s Day. Remember?"

Anne flipped it over. It had ‘To Adney’ written on the back. And under that, they’d added ‘& Anne’ with a different marker pen. 

"It’s still Adney’s," Eliza said. "I told her she can lend it to you because your apartment may be boring."

"I won’t let anything happen to it," Anne said. 

Her apartment in London was a mess. Layers of dust coated every surface, floating at her feet. Miraculously, nobody had got a whiff of her long absence and broken in. She had no time to sit down. 

She opened all the windows. The humid air carried the smell of exhaust gas into the room. Some drunkards were singing in the street. She hoovered the entire apartment, meticulously as Adney liked to do. At the end, she dusted off the nightstand and put the photo frame there. 

Eliza was right. Her apartment was colourless. 

It was soon time for a video call to Halifax. She showed them around the place, gave them a brief report on the train ride, and said goodnight to them. They’d talk again tomorrow, after her first day back on the job. 

She needed some good sleep. But even with the curtains drawn, the street lights kept the room illuminated. The bed smelt so dusty she ended up sleeping on the sofa. Still, the city was too noisy and kept her sleep light.

There were no welcoming gestures from others the next day. Their faces only showed mild shock at her resurgence. They whispered how fast the past six months had passed. At least, they had the decency to mask it. 

Her boss, Governor Rawson, didn’t have that. "Lister. You’re back already?" He leant back in his office chair. "Did you get to travel like you’d always wanted?"

"I stayed in my hometown, as I told you a month ago."

"We talked?" He still didn’t seem to recall it. "Anyway, I hope you've had enough time to cool down and snap out of it."

"I never had anything to snap out of."

He held his hands in the surrendering gesture. "No hard feelings, alright? I did what I had to."

Anne was over it. The unfair punishment had gifted her with the greatest things of her life. But his flimsy excuses and lopsided smile irked her, bringing back some very poor memories.

In her office, piles of paperwork were waiting for her. The place looked like a storm had rearranged everything. Her chair’s height and angle were wrong. Files weren’t in their designated places. Judging from some papers left on the desk, one of the custodial managers had been filling her role. 

Reclaiming her office took the entire morning. She ate lunch there, too, alone and quick. Her sandwiches were from a corner shop in her neighbourhood. She drank tea from a paper cup because her office mug was missing. 

How did she use to sit and do paperwork for hours? All day, five days a week. This was madness. 

The daily video chat was the only source of joy and sanity. But they couldn’t find a way to accommodate everyone. The only time frame available was after the family finished dinner. But it was without Eliza, and only until Naveen had to shower.

"I was wrong when I said this wouldn’t be a big change," she said to Adney during their one-to-one chat. But there wasn’t much to talk about work. Most things were either too disturbing or classified. 

"Are your coworkers nice?" Adney said. 

"They aren’t plotting a coup against me as far as I can tell." 

Adney grimaced. "Is it something that can happen? A coup?"

"No. But I’m a nuisance to them. Even the new officers who weren’t there six months ago are wary of me."

"What about your boss?"

"Quite useless. Calls himself a pacifist, but he’s just a lazy dog."

The internet connection was unstable. Adney’s face on the screen was blurry. The audio was lagged, interfering with their communication. 

"What did you say?" Adney said. "You have dogs?"

With a smile, Anne waved a dismissive hand. "Never mind. I’ll tell you this weekend." 

"Today, Marian came for delivery. But I forgot you were in London, and opened the door expecting to see you."

"It’s already Thursday?" Anne said. "Did you let her know your disappointment?"

Adney laughed. "I just felt bad."

"You need to keep her humble somehow."

"I asked her to come to lunch, or dinner. It’s so quiet with just the three of us."

"I feel bad for Eliza. I wish I could talk to her while I’m at work." 

"Oh, that reminds me. We shot a video today. I meant to send it to you." Adney held her phone to the camera and pressed play. 

Eliza started the video with a curtsy, lifting both sides of her skirt. "Dear Anne, we miss you. I hope you’re eating and sleeping well. I’m sleeping well…" 

Not everything was audible because of the frequent freezing. Soon Naveen joined, followed by Eugénie. They waved at her, and Adney’s waving hand appeared in the corner of the screen. The video ended and returned to the first frame.

Adney drew the phone away from the webcam. "She practiced the speech twice."

"I’ll make a video for her later."

But Adney’s focus was on something else. "You’re freezing a lot."

"So are you," Anne said. "I want to hold your hands and look you in the eye when we talk. On the webcam, we can’t look at each other’s eyes. Have you noticed it?"

Adney stared at a spot below the webcam, probably where Anne’s eyes were on her laptop screen. "What do you mean?"

"I mean"—Anne looked at the camera lens—"now I’m looking at the camera so you see me looking straight at you. But when you look at my eyes on the screen, you can’t look at the camera, which means I can’t have you looking at me." 

"I never noticed that," Adney said after more demonstrations. "You’re clever."

Anne laughed. "Someone told me before. Modern technology. It’s got a long way to go." She looked into the webcam. "I miss you."

Adney didn’t say it back as Anne had hoped. But maybe, the bad connection ate it up before it reached Halifax. 

Chapter Text

Adney missed her, too. A week had passed since Anne’s departure. It was finally sinking in that this was her life now. Away from Anne. But not quite. A type of relationship new to her. People always stayed and, after a while, left her life completely. 

Adney stared at her wish list on the fridge. 

1. Buffet, 2. Pay Anne, 3. Home to all kids, 4. Something for the Lister sisters, 5. Meet her biological parents.

The first one had been ticked off. The second one was made impossible by Anne. The fourth one seemed attainable. It felt like it was only yesterday when they’d written it. Half a year, Anne had stayed with her that long. That itself was an achievement.

Deep in thought, Adney looked away from the list. 

Eugénie was standing by the counter. "Are you okay?"

Adney nodded. "Just thinking." She opened the fridge and stared inside. "What was I doing?"

"Looking at the shopping list?" Eugénie pointed at the papar in Adney’s hand. 

"Oh, how silly." Adney sat down at the table. "I’ve been forgetful lately."

"Do you think it’s because Anne’s not here?"

"That’s possible. I hadn’t thought about that." 

It could also explain her lack of focus. Adney read the shopping list. It was longer than usual because Eliza and Marian would dine here tonight. But the words eluded her like mist. 

Adney looked up. "Do you think Anne would give us a lift to the supermarket this weekend?"

"Why wouldn’t she?" Eugénie said.

"She’s not coming back to be our chauffeur."

Eugénie shrugged. "I don’t think she wants these things changed."

Eugénie was right. On Friday night, Anne texted to ask if they needed something from the supermarket. Adney asked her to pick up loo rolls. An hour later, Anne arrived with two packs of loo rolls.

"I also got a souvenir for everyone," Anne said.

A colouring book with Big Ben on the cover for Naveen. Organic hand cream for Adney (with a scent she knew Adney could handle.) A nail polish for Eugénie. A bottle of cognac for Marian.

"What’s for me?!" Eliza waited with sparkles in her eyes. 

"I got something special for you, miss." Anne slowly revealed three bundles of wrapping foam.  

Eliza carefully unwrapped them. Her eyes opened even wider at the mugs with dinosaur prints. 

"Pick two for yourself and your dad," Anne said.

"The T-rex and the stegosaurus!" Eliza didn’t hesitate.

"This pteranodon is for me, then. Someone has stolen my mug at work." Anne picked the third mug. She smiled at Eliza. "Sorry we couldn’t talk this week."

Eliza jumped into her arms. But before Anne could hug her back, Eliza grabbed her new mug. "I want juice in this, Marian!" She dragged Marian to the kitchen. 

Anne stood up and turned to Eugénie. "Do you like it? I didn’t have much time to choose at the station."

Eugénie turned the neon yellow nail polish over in her hands. "Do you think I can rock this colour?" 

"Of course," Anne said. "The model on the poster? Her skin was the same shade as yours, and all the colours looked gorgeous on her."

Eugénie held her fingers next to the bottle. A shy smile appeared on her face. "Do you want to paint our nails together tomorrow?"

"Our?" Anne said. 

Eugénie gave an affirmative shrug. 

"Fine. If that’s your wish." Anne laughed weakly. She turned to Adney, kissed the back of her hand, and winked at her. 

It’d be a busy weekend. It felt like the week was finally starting.

Before going to bed that night, Anne applied the new hand cream on Adney. She massaged each finger, examining them closely. "Lots of hangnails. It must hurt."

"I’m forgetful this week."

"We’ll do this tomorrow night. You can have your nails done with us, too. Your hands will be pretty."

"It’s going to be a waste. It’ll chip away quickly."

Anne kissed her forehead. "For Eugénie, I think it’s more about the act of painting the nails together."

They turned off the lights and lay under the blankets. Anne’s hand soon found hers. Like it was in her own right. (It was.) The familiarity of the simple action. It gave Adney the illusion that Anne had been here all week.

"I want to give you and Marian something," Adney said. "It’s on the wish list. But what can I possibly give someone who’s given me the world?"

"Food is all Marian needs. As for me?" Anne drew close. Her lips sought Adney’s, first landing on the chin, then on the lips. She giggled into the kiss. But only after a moment, she drew away. "I’m sleepy. Tomorrow maybe?"

"Kissing or talking?"

Anne gave a drowsy laugh. "Both. I’ve had trouble sleeping in London. A noisy and bright city, even at night. I think it’s also because I’m not tired enough. I sometimes find myself missing the farm work."

Adney chuckled, though she felt slightly bad. "Don’t worry. I won’t tell Marian."

"Absolutely not." Anne kissed her nose. "Tell me about your day till I fall asleep?"

Adney spoke slowly as she thought. "I found a new aubergine recipe. Eugénie changed her toothbrush. The bristles were all worn away— I need to take them to the dentist. Maybe I could take Eliza, too. Naveen needs her support."

Anne released a drawn-out breath. "I’ve missed you. So much."

It made Adney pause. Did this statement require a response? "It’s only the first week."

"I think I’ll miss you next week."

"I meant," Adney said, "for me, it’s only the first. Babies experience separation anxiety. It’s a regular part of development for children. Eventually, they learn that their caregivers will return. I’ll learn, too."

"So, you miss me?"

Adney didn’t want to say the words. If she did, it might make it more real. "I should be happy that you came back."

"And I will next week, and the next." Anne’s hand cupped her cheek.

Adney realised tears were gathering in her own eyes. Some of them must’ve rolled down and landed on Anne’s hand. 

Anne wrapped her arm around her waist. She kissed her eyes, her nose, and her neck. "I won’t get cross. What’s on your mind?" 

"I miss you," Adney said. "I’ve never felt this way about anyone. I don’t know how strongly I’m supposed to miss you. What if I overdo it and annoy you?"

"There’s no correct way of missing someone."

"I’m scared it could get worse over time. But I don’t want to get used to it, either."

Anne hugged her more tightly, entwining their legs under the blanket. "I’m glad you told me. Okay?"

"This doesn’t stop you from returning to London."

"No. But I can leave knowing I’m loved." 

… 

Over the weekend, they painted their nails, including Eliza and Naveen, and cooked a delicious aubergine moussaka. Anne spent some time on the farm, working while the kids helped here and there. It felt lovely to have soil on her hands. The weekend flew before their eyes.

On Monday, Anne used her new mug of the pteranodon at work. It was her first tea of the morning. 

Then, Rawson appeared and ruined her peace. He was whistling and had his hands in his pockets. "Lister, did you enjoy your weekend?"

"Yes."

Against her wish, Rawson stepped into her office. As if browsing around a store, he toyed with the paperweight on the desk. "You went home awfully early on Friday. Got a plan? I’m not nosing around. It’s your private life. I just wanted to take you out for—" He made a gesture of drinking.

"All my evenings are booked."

"What, you have a second job?" Receiving Anne’s silence, he raised both of his hands. "As long as it doesn’t create a conflict of interest, none of my business."

"It doesn’t." 

This conversation was irksome, useless, and more than anything, buffling. The only time they'd ever grabbed a drink together was years ago, when she became the vice governor. That was when Anne knew they’d never get along. 

This offer wasn’t a gesture of friendliness. Her presence probably made him feel awkward, believing she still held a grudge against him. So, he was buttering her up. He had to watch her closely just in case

She should sacrifice an evening for him sometime soon. 

But her evening chat with the family became more essential as time passed. They comforted and healed her. For Anne, it was the reset button she needed at the end of the day. For them, too, it was similar. They always ended their chat lamenting how short it was. 

One day, Eugénie came up with a solution. "How about you join us at dinner tomorrow?"

"It’s a weekday," Anne said.

"On the video chat, I mean. You still eat at your place, but we can talk while eating."

It was a brilliant idea. Next evening, Anne propped her phone against stacked cans of corn on the table, angling it to aim at her seat. In Halifax, they put Adney’s laptop on the table in front of Naveen. 

They were mostly each other’s background noise, saving their words for later. But Anne didn’t have to cook and eat alone in her dim apartment. The sound of silverware clinking against plates. Someone clearing their throat. Naveen yawning. Anne loved all of it.

Since then, it was their weekday dinner style. Skipping even one day of it for Rawson was less than ideal. 

Each day, she felt herself slipping back into her old self. Every time a scream echoed through the wards, every time an inmate’s tattoos with hateful meanings peeked out from their sleeves, her hate deepend. 

They’re evil, all of them, her inner voice would say. Different from Sam. 

Soon, it’d start whispering all of them deserved to be treated like insects. She felt ashamed and hid it from Adney. 

How fast and easily one’s old life could seep back into their heart. She could try to ignore it. But to achieve her goal, she had to open her eyes and uncover her ears. She had to keep Rawson and other officers under watch.

Every Monday morning, Rawson spent an hour at the chapel. The prison had no mosque or synagogue. It was no issue for him. Anne didn’t even know whether he was Christian or the chapel was simply the best place to read The Sun paper. She’d never seen him pray.

Rawson looked up from his paper as she entered the place. "Lister. What a surprise to see you here. Take a seat."

Anne remained on her feet. "They had a skirmish at Ward C over the weekend."

"What’s new?" Rawson folded his paper and yawned. "Was anything destroyed?"

"One toilet seat. It’s broken ceramic." It could be a fatal weapon. 

"It’s always the innocent toilets that get victimised."

"One of them claims the attack was racially-motivated. It needs an investigation."

"Fine. Do it. Throw everyone involved in the cooler first."

"Everyone?" Anne said. "We should find out who’s at fault—"

"It doesn’t matter who started it."

"We have the moral obligation to—"

"Moral? Don’t give me that nonsense. We’re already understaffed."

"They’re still humans."

"They’re scums of the earth." Standing up, Rawson headed to the door. "Take care of that. If they break a toilet again, they’ll be shitting in a bucket." 

Anne stayed in the chapel for some time, considering her options. The order was to place the inmates in solitary confinement, probably until the investigation finished. That could take a couple of weeks. 

In the end, she ordered the officers at Ward C to just keep an eye on the inmates. 

"Once the investigation is complete," she said, "we’ll give proper punishment to those that deserve it."

Rawson would find out about it tomorrow or in two years. But now, she had control over it. 

… 

Adney stood by the kitchen window, putting on her apron. Three weeks had passed since Anne had left. To check the weather before preparing lunch, this was her new habit. It looked stable now. That meant she had to make lunch for three.

What does Anne want today? she thought. 

She looked into the vegetable crate. Carrots lay in its corner. And she remembered it wasn’t Anne she should expect. It was Marian. She wasn’t Anne’s replacement. Three weeks wasn’t just enough for Adney to adjust to the new routine.

Marian came for lunch almost every day. Only on rainy days, the cobblestoned hill kept her stuck at the farm. "It gets slippery there. I’d like to stay injury-free."

At lunch, Marian did most of the talking. Even when chewing, her hands stayed animated. (Adney hoped Naveen wouldn’t pick up this habit.) 

But today, after the meal, Marian put on a serious face. "Adney, I must confess something."

Adney made sure Naveen was playing in the living room. Then, she sat at the kitchen table. "What’s wrong?" 

"I want you to promise not to tell Anne about this. And not to hate me."

"Don’t beat around the bush, please. It gives me anxiety."

"Alright," Marian said. "I went to Mrs Priestley’s house for delivery yesterday. She asked after you, and Anne. I may or may not have let it slip that Anne is in London."

Adney waited for the confession part. 

But Marian seemed to be waiting for her reaction. "I promised Anne I wouldn’t tell them about it, and I did."

"Oh." Adney gave a laugh of relief. "She probably asked you because she has a suspicion. We couldn’t hide it from them for long. Mrs Cole watches our every move." 

"Still, don’t tell Anne I told Mrs Priestley?"

Adney nodded. "I’m happy she’s buying from you again."

"Nobody can live without my vegs for long." Marian grinned.  

So, the whole community knew about Anne. No doubt. The problem was, Adney couldn't guess Mrs P’s next move—not that she was ever good at it—if she planned to make a move at all. She might only want Marian’s vegetables. Or, it could mean she was ready to forgive Adney. 

Adney could only wait. 

Good or bad, the waiting only lasted a couple of hours. 

Mrs P visited her, unannounced, with a bouquet and a stiff smile. But instead of letting herself in, she waited for Adney’s invitation. Adney showed her into the living room and served her tea and biscuits. 

"Thank you." Mrs P smiled, sparing her breath. Polite like an actual guest. 

Something was off. It made Adney uncomfortable. People like Mrs P acting out of character was a bad omen.

Mrs P pointed at Adney’s hands. "Lovely nails. I’ve never seen your nails done."

The nail polish was chipped. The skin around her nails was dry and white. Adney curled her fingers into her palms. 

"No, Ginger, don’t—" Mrs P said quickly. "I mean, Ms Walker. Your nails are lovely."

The compliment sounded genuine to Adney. But sarcasm often went over her head. "Is everything okay?"

"Yes. Well… Everything, in regard to me. Yes." Mrs P mumbled more, smoothing wrinkles out of her skirt.

Adney had never imagined one day she’d have to lead a conversation with Mrs P. And yet. "Marian told me you asked her about Anne."

"Ms Lister. Yes. The older one. The one in London."

"Isn’t that why you’re here?"

"Yes— No. It does have to do with her." 

This talking in riddles creeped Adney out. "She lives in London, but stays here over the weekends."

"Good for her." Mrs P nodded and shook her head. "You must forgive me. I thought I’d gathered enough courage for this."

"For…?"

Mrs P stopped her fiddling hands. "Here goes. I came to… You see, what happened at the town hall. It wasn’t the best place. For any of us. But I understand there was no… For you and Ms Lister. This may not be in a timely fashion, but some time was necessary to…" 

Her disorganised speech made Adney cringe. Something close to second-hand embarrassment. But because she was familiar with this type of impediment, it made sense to her. 

"You’re apologising," Adney said. Not as a question, but as a clear—and shocking—fact.  

"That, I am," Mrs P said quietly. She looked calmer now. "The truth is, I never thought what I was doing was abuse. I was strict at times. But it takes a village. That's how I was raised, too. And you’re so shy we thought you'd end up alone forever. You don't deserve it."

"I’m never lonely. I have love in my life."

"Yes. Ms Lister."

Adney’s face grew warm. "I mean my kids. My life isn't a prison like you imagine it is."

Mrs P smiled politely. "Your rejection hurt my feelings. I did mean things to you because of it. But— I was shocked you saw us that way."

They had nothing more to say to each other. Mrs P left the house, often turning back to look at the house as if she was lost. As if she’d woken up from the strangest dream. 

… 

Another day started for Anne with the news of an injured inmate. It was a serious case of self-harm. It had happened during the previous night. The officers, as it turned out, had discovered it quickly and taken the weapon, a sharpened spoon, away from him. But they’d left him bleeding in his own cell. 

Anne ordered two officers to send the inmate to the medical unit immediately. "How did this happen?" she said to the remaining officers. 

"He didn’t request help."

"Don’t you see that pool of blood?" Anne pointed to the cell floor. "Why wasn’t I informed of this sooner?" 

The officers all looked at the custodial officer responsible for this ward. 

"Judging from what I was told over the phone, I didn’t think it was severe enough to disturb your precious evening," the custodial officer said in a condescending tone.

Anne towered over him. "Here’s my advice, Sowden. If you act like I’m overreacting, don’t try to shift blame to your subordinates. Consistency. Have some."

She gave all the officers a warning for the last time. But even at the threat of disciplinary punishment, they never seemed to acknowledge their mistake. They only glared and cussed at inmates watching the scene from their cells.

These days, Anne was giving lectures to every officer everyday. It should be the governor's job. But Rawson was rarely there.

Adney’s text message came as Anne was getting ready to leave the office that afternoon. 

Adney: I think Mrs P apologised to me.

Already in her civilian clothes, Anne locked her office door and walked down the corridors. She greeted each officer spotted at some metal bar doors. At the reception, she handed in her keys and radio, signed out, and walked by the metal detectors. Behind the automatic doors, there was the outside.

Walking home, Anne called Adney.

Adney answered fast. "I didn’t think you’d call. Aren’t you still at work?"

"I’m going home early. What do you mean she apologised?"

Adney described the event with many detours and blanks. It conveyed her confusion adequately, but nothing else. "It was so awkward. I never knew she’s a nervous-mumbler like me."

"It doesn’t sound like an apology to me," Anne said. "More like an explanation."

"I felt she was being honest. But I’m not an expert. Could she be planning something again?"

"I wasn’t there. If you think it was sincere, I believe you."

Adney groaned into the phone. 

"You know you don’t have to forgive her, right? An apology isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card."

"I know. It’s just bizarre to me. They’ve been treating us terribly for years, and it’d never occurred to them to introspect. I’m shocked that she was shocked."

"Let’s hope this is the end." 

Despite Adney’s confusion, Anne was cautiously optimistic. Whatever that had opened Mrs P’s eyes, it proved one thing. People could change. Anne could make the system change.

Her agenda, though, had more obstacles than before the suspension. The officers couldn't disobey her, but like this morning, they didn’t hide their disrespect. 

There was a minority of officers who listened without resistance, if not willingly. Other officers labelled them as traitors and harassed them openly. One day, Anne noticed that she hadn’t seen those good officers for a while. She later learnt some of them had been transferred to different prisons. The ones that still stayed had got their shift patterns changed, working exclusively night shifts or weekends. She hardly saw them any more. 

They also snitched on her for ignoring Rawson's order and not putting innocent inmates in solitary confinement. The same day they received the investigation report on the incident in question, Rawson summoned her to his office. 

Sitting back in his chair, Rawson flipped through a bundle of paper. "Lister, do you remember the incident where I told you to put everyone involved in the cooler?"

"I do." 

"Did you do as I ordered?"

"Don’t you know the answer already?"

Rawson conorted his face. "Stop answering my question with a question."

Anne gestured at the paper on his desk. "Is that the investigation report? Did you read the whole thing? It concludes the attack was indeed racially-motivated. If we’d followed your order—"

"That’s not the issue here. You ignored my order. That’s the issue."

"Your order was immoral."

"Not again with morals." Putting the report aside, Rawson looked at the ceiling. "They told me you’ve been hindering them from doing their job."

"They misunderstand their work. Our job isn’t to be cruel to inmates."

"Kissing their filthy arses isn’t, either. Why must you always look for trouble? You just came back." 

"I’m only looking for justice," Anne said. 

"Do you know what they call you now? A tyrant. They say you’re abusing your power."

It was nothing new to her. "Then, why not call for an internal investigation?"

Their opinions didn’t matter. She’d fought for this power in order to use it exactly like this. Being called a tyrant by them was a compliment. 

Still, she needed more power. If talking to their conscience didn’t work, she’d be the symbol of fear, like a true tyrant, and force them to obey her. 

The irony wasn’t lost on her. She didn’t understand why it had to be this way. It felt as if there was no escape from cruelty in this small world surrounded by concrete walls.

She missed being kind. She missed the kindness that had nothing to do with her agenda or vengeance. She missed the kindness that came from love. She missed the better version of herself she’d left behind in Halifax. 

So she persisted by helping others outside of work. Those were small gestures, like escorting an elderly person at the zebra crossing, stopping for tourists who were lost, and moving a weakening insect to the hedges where it wouldn’t get squashed. When someone had a child, she especially went out of her way to make sure they were okay. 

Nothing filled the void in her heart.  

In the fourth week, Adney welcomed a new child to the house. But their stay was short, and Anne didn’t have a chance to see them. 

In the fifth, Eliza had another baby tooth fall out. When Anne returned that weekend, Eliza showed off the new krater. 

"I can fit a pencil here," Eliza said. "Not a pen, though. Pens are too big." 

Naveen raised his hand. "We went to the dentist. I had no bad teeth."

"I had an operation!" Eliza stuck her finger to rub a molar. 

"I know," Anne said. "You told me over the video chat many times. Does it still hurt?"

Eliza shook her head with a bright smile. "My baby tooth fell out of here a long time ago. But my adult tooth wasn’t coming out. The dentist cut open my gums to help it come out! I never cried!"

Eugénie smiled. "She kept talking with bloody cotton balls in her mouth."

"I wish I’d been there," Anne said. 

They left no milestone events untold. Still, Anne couldn’t help feeling left out. Things were happening in their life without her. Of course, it sucked she couldn't share big moments with them. But it was the small things that worsened her loneliness. Things that they didn’t think to mention, like running out of shampoo or the fridge smelling of the curry from the night before. 

Sunday nights always depressed her. Returning to her shabby London apartment, she'd ask herself what she was doing with her life. Then, before the answer came to her, another week would overrun her.

… 

The month of August started. In Halifax, school entered the month-long summer break. On the first Friday of their break, Adney took the kids to the railway station. Not to welcome Anne back, but to visit her in London. 

After departing the station, the scenery was dull for a while. Green leaves, houses and farms in the distance, occasionally fancy stations, more trees. But this was the scenery Anne saw every week. Thinking it that way made the three-hour trip bearable. 

The kids still enjoyed it. They sat backwards in their seats, with their hands on the windowsill, to watch outside. 

Eugénie had her face buried in the backpack on her lap. Her fingers were tight around her water bottle. She wasn’t sleeping. 

"Are you okay?" Adney said.

Eugénie nodded and sipped her drink. "I was reading on my phone. Now I’m feeling sick." 

Adney opened the window behind them a crack. She looked at the kids. "Don’t stick your hands out, okay? It’s dangerous. Eugénie needs some fresh air."

"Okay!" Eliza said.

Naveen tapped Eugénie on the shoulder. "Let’s look at the clouds together. That one is huge." He pointed to the horizon.

"A cumulonimbus," Eugénie said. "It’s raining hard down there."

"Is it raining in London now?" Eliza said.

"Not when I checked ten minutes ago."

The weather in London was acceptable. King’s Cross station had a glass ceiling. It gave the spaciousness and brightness Adney didn’t associate with railway stations. The station was full of people on their way home from work.

Taking Naveen’s hand, and making sure Eugénie had Eliza’s, Adney stepped out onto the platform. They walked along the wall, careful not to let the stream of people sweep them away. Out of the ticket gates, there was more walking to do around the concourse. 

"Where’s Anne waiting?" Eugénie said. "She’s coming straight from work, right?"

Adney nodded and checked the text from Anne. "By the information desk. She knows we were on that train." 

The information desk had a noticeable blue sign. They walked towards it. Adney looked for her, but many other people were using it as a meeting spot.

Naveen tugged at her arm. Pointing his finger, he led them to Anne. 

"At last!" Anne picked him up and gave him a tight hug. "How was the trip?" 

"It was fun!" Eliza jumped into her arms. "We saw so many cows!"

"I got motion sickness," Eugénie said. 

"You wouldn’t like a taxi ride, would you?" Anne looked down at the kids. "Do you mind waking to my apartment? It’s not that far."

Eliza and Naveen jumped around. "Yay, walking!"

They bought sandwiches to go near the station and walked down the streets. Adney had thought the station was loud. But it was calm compared to the city outside. 

"Do you want to wear these?" Eugénie handed her headphones. 

Adney put them on. Still, the colours came in waves. Not just the sound, but also the real colours. Their hair colours, their clothes, the electric billboards. Smells, too. They demanded her attention, giving her senses no time to rest. At one point, her head pounded. It was a huge relief when they arrived at Anne’s place in thirty minutes. 

They had dinner a bit early and went to bed, saving energy for tomorrow. The kids slept in Anne’s bed, Adney in an air mattress Anne hadn’t used in years (the kids had fun inflating it), and Anne on the living room sofa.

The several hours Adney had spent outside Halifax was enough to exhaust her. But she stayed awake with Anne in the living room. The next two days would be more frantic. They planned to spend the whole day tomorrow at the Natural History Museum. She didn’t know if she’d have any energy left for their alone time at night.

"What do you think of this city so far?" Anne said.

"Overwhelming. Also underwhelming. I've always seen this place in movies. But it's the same as Halifax, just with more people."

Anne laughed. "It sure isn't a different country. Though, it feels strange seeing you here."

Adney snuggled up to her and stared around the room. "This is a nice apartment. You made it sound like this was a terrible place to live."

"It doesn’t have you."

Outside, the sound of passing cars never stopped. The life here—that Anne dreamt of having with her—would be gruelling for Adney.

"Don’t you have friends here?" Adney said.

"They don’t know I’m back. I’ve been busy. How are the neighbours? I always forget to ask."

"I think Mrs P told them off," Adney said. "Some of them are still awkward. Like Mrs Cole. But they mind their own business."

"Why don't you stay longer?"

"You have work on Monday."

Anne shrugged. "I could call in sick. I deserve it."

"I can’t make you sleep on the sofa another night," Adney said. "How was work today?"

"Same as yesterday." Anne seemed to search for words. "Sometimes, I go to a nearby park to watch kids play— I know how it sounds. Creepy. Some parents inevitably ask which one is my child, so I can't stay there long." She chuckled quietly. "But I get lonely that much."

Her conceding smile broke Adney's heart. All she could do was to pull her into a warm embrace. 

"There was an officer from work, among parents at the park. One of the officers who are most honest about their distaste for me. A vile man. But at the park with his children, he looked like a regular loving parent. I stopped going to that park after that."

"Is there anything I can do for you?"

"This is enough." Anne buried her face in Adney’s neck. Her voice sounded teary. "I don’t know how much more I can bear. Nothing I do works. But I want to try more. Let me try a bit more." 

It was a losing battle. Anne must’ve known that. 

"All I want," Adney said, "is for you to be happy."