The Willys turned into a paved driveway through a gap in a high and neatly-trimed fir hedge. Verdent lawns planted with sweet gum and sycamore sloped gently up to a long, flat-roofed two storey house with picture windows overlooking manicured grounds.
Amanda swallowed as Vincent stopped the car under a wood-panelled portico at the bottom of three wide steps that led up to a leadlight-panelled front door. Holding Wind, she slowly opened the car door and got out, peering around at the house, mentally comparing it and its grounds with the little cottage she'd grown up in with its small front yard, cracked pathway, and peeling paint. The thoughts triggered a sudden and unexpected wave of nostalgia. She felt Vincent's arm around her waist and looked around to see him smiling at her. Feeling his excitement she smiled back at him as they climbed the steps to the door.
Vincent put his finger to the doorbell and a chime sounded faintly somewhere inside the house. In the seconds that passed Amanda found herself hoping that there'd be nobody home - that they'd have to turn round and drive back to San Francisco; back to their little apartment where Wind's toys would still be lying about on the floor of his crib and...
The door opened.
The first thought Amanda had when she saw Vincent's mother was that she was tall. As she hugged Vincent, though, she realised that she and Vincent's mother were about the same height, but there was something about the way she carried herself that made her seem taller. Her short auburn hair, greying at the temples, was brushed back and held in place by a simple tortoiseshell comb.
They hugged in a much more formal way, Amanda noticed, than the friendly hugs between the two of them and Willow and Coyote.
"And this," she said, looking over Vincent's shoulder at Amanda, "must be Amanda and...Wind, was it? What a charming name." She smiled and held out her hand. Amanda felt herself blushing furiously as she fumbled to hold Wind in her left arm to take Vincent's mother's hand in her right. She hadn't known what to expect, but a handshake was definitely off the list and she felt very out of her depth.
"I'm very happy to meet you Mrs Lane."
Vincent's mother laughed gently. "Please, Dear. Call me Veronica." She looked down at Wind and smiled. Her words and the manner were welcoming, but Amanda still felt a sense of discomfort.
"Veronica," she said nervously, "thank you. I..."
"Vinny, welcome home, son!"
Vincent's father, taller by half a head than his wife but the spitting image of Vincent as Amanda imagined he'd look at fifty - suave, assured, strode up with his hand outstretched, oblivious to Amanda's presence. She watched as they shook hands. Wind squirmed and whimpered, and Vincent immediately turned to her.
"Dad, this is Amanda, my wife, and our son, Wind."
Amanda forced her most charming smile, and held it unnaturally for what seemed like minutes as Vincent's father looked her over in a glance, and smiled back at her. "Amanda, delighted to meet you", he said, making no attempt to approach her.
Wind whimpered again and Veronica turned back to her. "He's probably hungry. Vincent," she said. "I've put Amanda and Wind in the guest room. Why don't you show her in, Dear, and bring the things in from the car? Your room's just as you left it. Come and join us out the back when you're settled in." She looked at Amanda. "Do you need to make up a formula for him, dear?"
"No," Amanda said nervously, "I'm br..."
"Of course you are, Dear." Veronica interjected. "Back to nature and all that. It's all the rage these days, isn't it?"
"Uh, I...guess so," Amanda replied.
What would Willow have said, she wondered, blushing. "Maybe, but I do it because breast milk's the perfect food for babies. It delivers all the antibodies that the baby needs to protect it from disease and that I'm not supporting the military-industrial complex and its food cartels. Do you know that they're killing babies in the third world by promoting bottle feeding as "modern"? Lots of those babies die of cholera because the water they mix the formula with is contaminated with sewage. Not to mention that I feel closer to my son than you could possibly imagine when he's breastfeeding." And I say "I guess so".
Vincent turned quickly and took Wind from her. "Come on, Honey," he said, leading her towards the stairs as his mother and father watched. At the top of the stairs he led her to the right to a room at the end of the hallway. He opened the door and they walked into a large room with a long window overlooking a pool in the back yard.
Vincent stared at the bed, puzzling over the fact that there'd alway been two beds in there up until now, and he was just about to say something about it when he saw the look on Amanda's face as she sat down heavily on the bed, still holdinig Wind in her arms.
"Honey?" He sat down beside her and took her hand in his. "What's up?"
She looked at him, thinking about how he'd been talking about this for weeks, getting more and more excited as the day got nearer. The expensive motel, the nice dinner - it made sense now - the closer he got to home the easier it was for him to remember where he'd come from. He'd never complained, never expressed any dissatisfaction with the frugal realities of their life. He'd done anything and everything he could to make their lives comfortable. The cake, the flowers. Gods, she thought, I love him.
"Nothing. I guess I'm tired too," she said, smiling at him. "I'd better feed Wind."
Vincent returned an embarrassed smile. "Uh, look, I'm sorry about the seperate rooms. I didn't think...well, it's hard, you know. I mean I've never talked about...sex...with Mom and she's...well...I guess she's old fashioned. Do you mind? It's not for long?"
You're my husband. Would your mother make visiting married friends sleep in seperate rooms? "No. It's fine. I understand."
"Thanks," he grinned and, kissing her on the forehead, left to bring their luggage in from the van.
As he walked up the path Jake's hand involuntarily reached up to straighten his tie before he realised that he wasn't wearing one. He stopped, wondering if Helen might not be pleased if her Mom or Dad opened the door to see him wearing Helen's thong around his neck. Still, he thought, a thong's a thong. Everyone wears them, and he walked the final steps to the front door. His heart beat a little faster, whether from nervousness at seeing Helen's parents or seeing Helen he wasn't sure.
He raised his hand to the doorbell
He pulled his hand away from the button, hearing the sounds of an argument inside. Whatever it was, Helen was against it.
"But Mu-om!" He recognised Rita's voice. "I've got an assigment due and if I don't get the library it'll..."
"You've had all week to get that done, Rita. Why should I have to..."
"You just want me to fail this history assignment so that..."
"What? You think I want to tag along on your date with General Patton? Hold on while I get a knife so I can do something fun like perform a hysterectomy on myself."
Jake grinned, hearing Amy's voice. He'd liked Amy as soon as he'd met her - maybe even admired her. When she came out with that stuff about being a spy he'd thought back to how he was at ten. There was no way he could have said anything that clear and confident. She was a probably hell to live with but since he didn't have to do that he was free to share her jokes on an almost equal level. He almost shuddered thinking about how smart she'd be when she got to his age. Scary. How would you ever handle someone like that?
"I can just imagine... 'Ooh General Patton - kiss me!' 'Ohh, Heleny-Weleny!'"
"Amy!" (Helen's mother, Jake thought, his finger hovering.)
"Well I don't wanna spend my afteroon with those two dorks! I bet they're gonna see The Love Bug or some crappy Disney movie!"
"Well if you're tagging along, short stuff, that's about all we'll get to see! Mom - tell Rita..."
Silence fell as Jake pushed the button, and the sound of muffled exclamations and hurrying feet came from inside. A second later the door opened. Helen glanced quickly back into the room and turned to Jake.
"Hi. Did you...."
He saw her eyes light on the thong around his neck, and her eyes met his and smiled.
"...hear any of that?"
"Uh, I, um, heard something going on but I didn't..."
"Jaaaaake! How lovely to see you. Come in."
"Oh - hi Mrs Barksdale." Jake smiled at Maureen and walked in, looking around. "Gee, what a lovely house."
"Why, thank you dear! Now Jake - I have a little favour to ask of you..."
"Mom! Please!" Helen whined.
"Helen - I'm absolutely certain that Jake wouldn't mind..."
"Er, sure Mrs Barksdale. Anything at all," he said.
Helen glowered at him.
"It's just that I have to go out this afternoon and poor Rita's been working so hard on a homework assignment. She'd promised to look after dear Amy, but she has to go to the library and I wondered whether..."
Damn, Mom! That was completely underhanded! Helen thought.
"We'd take Amy along with us? Uh, sure." He quickly took a step away from Helen, avoiding a foot that never came.
Maureen beamed. "There! See? What did I tell you, Helen? Thank you, Jake. I'll go and tell Amy - she'll be so pleased" She hurried off.
Helen looked apologetically at Jake. "I'm sorry. She really trapped you into that."
Jake smiled. "It's okay! I like Amy. She's funny and really smart - if the movie's a drag she'll liven things up. I really don't mind. Besides, it doesn't hurt to get on your Mom's good side."
Amy blushed and felt a little twinge of guilt as she slipped out from behind the curtain and circled round the back of the house to the kitchen.
Helen couldn't resist smiling back as her mother came back into he room. "I don't know where that girl's gone off to. I swear she'll bury me yet. Amy!"
"What's up Mom?" Amy said, emerging from the kitchen. Looking at Jake, she said demurely "Hi Jake. It's nice to see you you again."
Helen stared at her little sister in surprise. "Amy?"
"Yeah? What's wrong? Damn - you people are acting weird today!" Then, turning to Jake again, "So you got conned into taking me to the movies I guess, Jake. Um, what are we going to see?"
Jake grinned. "The Love Bug! Won't that be great?"
Amy blushed again. "Oh - yeah. I've been wanting to see that."
"Great," he grinned. "Let's go then."
Helen turned to her mother, scowling and holding out her hand. "Mom...?"
"Oh, yes, of course dear," Maureen said, handing Helen the keys to the car.
Jake turned and held the door open for the girls. Helen stared inquisitorially into his eyes as she passed but his face was the picture of innocence.
Willy always felt a little ambivalent as he walked into Gilberts Malt Shop these days. Once he'd been stopped in his tracks, seeing the back of a blonde head sitting just where she'd sat that day, and he had to force himself not to run up to her. As he'd passed her he saw what he knew would be true, but it had been a shock and ever since he'd felt a sense of unease whenever he met Hilda there and he looked forward to the day when they wouldn't have to. It was a shame. He was sorry that he'd never really be able to think of it, years from now, with the sort of quiet pleasure that was one of those things you were supposed to be able to do about the place where you met your true love. He suspected that Hilda probably felt the same. They didn't talk about it.
He was a regular these days and when he walked up the counter Rosie greeted him with a cheery "Hi Willy. Meeting Hilda again?"
"Nope, not this time," he said, returning her smile. "I wanna ask if you can do something for me, Rosie."
She put down the glass she was holding. "Sure. What's up."
Willy blushed. "I wanna propose to Hilda, and I...well, I sort of thought it'd be nice to do it here, make it special, you know?"
Rosie grinned. "Why Willy! You romantic man, you!" She leaned over the counter to him and asked, conspiritorially, "What did you have in mind?"
"Uh, I dunno, really. I sort of thought that I'd like to have some special treat for her. You know how much she likes the stuff you make..."
Rosie thought for a minute. "Hold on," she said, taking off her apron. "Look after the tables, April," she called to her daughter, who nodded to her as she came round to the other side of the counter. "Come with me, Hon," she said, leading him to the back of the store where she opened a dark wood-panelled door in the back wall.
"This is a room we use for private functions - you know - birthday parties, that sort of thing. You could use this. We could do it up real nice, and make something special for you."
Willy looked around. The room ran for half the width of the shop. There were high windows in the back wall that let the light in but, like the door, it had dark wood panelling on the walls which made it sort of...sophisticated. He grinned. "This'd be perfect, Rosie!"
"We could set up a table for two, white linen tablecloth, flowers. It'd be real nice."
"Yeah! Yeah! Rosie - this is great!"
"How about food then? What do you think she'd..."
They looked at each other, and said at the same time "Chocolate cake!"
"Tell you what, Willy, I'll make one of my special triple chocolate cakes."
"Triple chocolate? How's that?" he asked.
"Well, it's a real rich chocolate cake. I slice it into three layers and put chocolate icing between them, then I put it back together and cover it with deep whipped chocolate frosting with cherries on the top. I only make it for special occasions."
"Aw, Rosie, if she doesn't accept m' proposal after that then I ain't never gonna be married!" All of Willy's teeth grinned at once, threatening to damage the fittings.
"It's a deal then. Next Saturday?"
"Yeah. Say, two o'clock?"
"No problems, Honey."
"Oh, uh, how much is it gonna cost me, Rosie?"
"Well," she said, sucking in her breath through her teeth. "The cake's expensive, Hon, twelve dollars, but I tell you what - you and Hilda are my best cusomers and I'm gonna miss you both real bad when you graduate. You can have the room for nothin' and I'll throw in one o' them ice cream sodas that Hilda always orders." She looked at him. "Hey - don't you go grinnin' any wider, Willy! I'll have to charge you extra if you scratch the furniture!"
Willy guffawed, but then his expression turned serious. "Rosie, there's one more thing I'd like t' ask."
He put his hand into his pocket. Wrapped in a clean handkerchief, his fingers traced the outline of a hard shape. Almost reverentially he took it out and unwrapped it.
"Wow! You're serious, ain't ya, Honey."
"Yeah," he breathed. "I am. Could you put this on top of the cake?"
"I've gotta say, Willy, it's an unusual order, but sure! Why not? A sparkler like that - it'll probably sink into the frosting some, but sure."
Amanda watched Vincent go, wanting to scream in anger and frustration. She stood up and walked over to the window. The pool sparkled in the early afternoon sun and, as she watched, a body appeared in the water from under the porch awning that blocked the pool immediately beneath the window, swimming in a languid breaststroke. A woman. Not Veronica - wrong colour hair. Neecy? Probably. She sighed, turning back to the bed where Wind was starting to complain that it was dinnertime and he wasn't being fed. Would the meeting with Vincent's sister be as catastrophic as meeting his parents had been, she wondered? Probably.
She undid the strap on her dress and picked Wind up. He ate hungrily and she relaxed, staring at the wall, letting her mind drift in aimless meditation.
"Uh huh. I'm feeding Wind. Come in."
Vincent opened the door and turned to close it behind him, a suitcase in his hand and the bag containing Wind's collapsible cot over his shoulder.
"Neecy's here," he said, putting down the suitcase and cot bag. "She's gone for a swim."
"Mmm hmm. I saw her out of the window."
"Her fiancee's here too. His name's Trevor. He's a pretty weird guy but he's into what Neecy's into and I think that's why they get along. She's been unlucky with guys."
"Uh huh. What's she into then?"
He unzipped the bag and started to take out the wooden cot struts. "Hats."
"Yeah." He turned and took out the rest of the cot. "Weird. Hats - really, really weird hats. You'll see."
As he lay the parts of the cot on the floor he said "Is everything okay? I mean apart from the separate rooms?"
Amanda looked down at Wind. It's only for a few days, she thought. "I'm just a bit nervous I guess."
"Yeah - I guess my folks can be a bit overpowering when you first meet them, but you wait. They'll love you when they get to know you."
"I hope so."
Vincent finished assembling the cot . "I'll bring the rest of the stuff into my old room and put the car in the garage. Come out the back when you're ready." He smiled, kissed her on the forehead, and closed the door quietly as he left.
Amanda slipped back into her mental drift as Wind continued to feed. As much as she didn't want him to finish, he eventually did and fell asleep almost instantly. She put him down gently in the cot and quietly unpacked a few things, recognising that she was delaying the inevitable. Standing in front of the mirror she ran a brush through her hair and, checking to see that Wind was well settled for his nap, walked out onto the landing to look for the bathroom, leaving the door open so she could hear Wind if he woke, though he usually slept soundly for an hour after a feed. As she walked towards the room that Vincent had indicated was his a door opened and a woman, maybe two years older than Vincent, with brown curly hair stepped out drying her hair with a towel. She turned to Amanda and looked at her, her face blank as she took in the visitor.
"You must be Amanda," she said unemotionally.
"Yes," Amanda replied. "Neecy?"
A flicker of annoyance passed over the other's face. "It's Bernice."
Amanda blushed. "Sorry. Bernice. I'm pleased to meet you."
Bernice looked Amanda up and down again, with what Amanda interpreted as disdain. "Yes. Well, no doubt we'll be seeing more of each other over the next couple of days. Where's the baby?"
"He's sleeping. I've just fed him," Amanda said, smilling, pleased to know that someone at least was interested in their son.
"I hope he doesn't wake me up at night," Bernice said. "I'm a light sleeper. Please try to keep him quiet."
Controlling her disappointment Amanda said as politely as she could, "I'll do my best. Could you tell me where the bathroom is, please?"
Bernice pointed to a door. "It's there."
"Thank you," Amanda said coldly, and walked past Bernice in the direction she'd indicated.
Figuring that it must have been providence that made him notice that The Love Bug was showing downtown Jake bought three tickets, grinning at the thought of the trick he'd managed to play in Amy. They found their way to seats in the seventeenth row, about halfway back. The lights went down and the promos came on as Jake fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a five.
"Wanna go get some popcorn and candy before the main feature starts?" he asked, handing the money to Amy.
"Oh, yeah, but it's okay - Mom gave me some money to..."
"Don't embarrass me, Kiddo. It wouldn't be right if I didn't pay for both my dates. And it looks as if this is gonna be way more fun than the last time I dated the Barksdale sisters."
Amy laughed and, smiling at him, took the money and edged her way out of the row of seats, thinking that Jake was a pretty cool guy. It was the "smart" that had done it. He'd said it like it was a good thing. "Kiddo," she muttered, smiling a little and shaking her head. "What a dork."
Helen turned to Jake. "Okay Mister Smartypants - spill the beans."
Jake grinned. "I heard most of the, um, discussion. I wasn't eavesdropping or anything - you were talking pretty loudly - I couldn't help it. But I really don't care. I meant it when I said I like Amy - she's cool. Besides," he said, trying to retrieve the situation, "I'm sitting next to you. I don't care what's showing or who I'm with."
"Oh, You silver-tongued devil!" Helen purred, taking his hand and leaning over to kiss him on the cheek.
Amy, meanwhile, came back into the darkened theater holding a giant box of popcorn in one hand and three Three Musketeers bars in the other. As she turned the corner she heard a familiar voice in the dark.
"...so I told her I had to go to the library."
Recognising the outline of her sister's head against the screen, Amy slid into the row of seats behind her and sat down quietly, leaning forward to hear what Rita was saying.
Amy didn't recognise the boy Rita was with. Not that she expected to. Rita hadn't earned her reputation as the town bike for nothing.
"Yeah! Can you believe it! Talk about gullible! And I palmed the shrimp off onto my other sister and her date, who's a real creep. So I get three for the price of one! I ruin Helen's date, I mess up Amy's day - there's nothing she'd rather not do than spend time with either of us - and I get to be here with you, Andy."
Rita watched as she turned and looked into Andy's eyes. Their faces got closer...closer...and Amy was seized with the desire to pour to box of popcorn over their heads as their lips met but she resisted the temptation, figuring it was likely to get better before it got worse. After a minute they parted and Amy saw Rita wriggle.
"Ooh - well, I am supposed to be studying anatomy..."
That's it - I'm out of here Amy thought, quietly edging out and getting back to her seat just as the main feature began. Not even the genius of Walt Disney's finest screenwriters could compare with the scenes that took shape in the subtle mind of Amy Barksdale as she looked up and smiled.
She hurried back to where Helen and Jake were sitting and handed them the popcorn and a Three Musketeers bar each. "I'm going back to sit with some of my friends," she whispered. "I'll leave you two alone to do whatever it is that people with active hormones do in the movies."
Jake grinned, whispering a "Thanks, Kiddo" and, reaching into his pocket, he stuffed another five into her hand. She smiled at him and hurried off.
Helen looked at him in surprised. "Bribery! So that was your plan! Jake Morgendorffer - you're more cunning than I gave you credit for."
Jake smiled as Helen squeezed his hand, more than happy to acccept the underserved compliment.
Amy walked back to the concession stand and bought a box of Jujubes, a box of Snocaps and, as an afterthought, another box of popcorn to replace the one she'd left with Helen and Jake, to eat during the entertainment. Arms full, she walked to the side of the foyer and up the stairs to the balcony. The theater was half empty and she easily made her way to the front row where she chose a likely-looking seat. Peering over the top of the rail in front she moved one seat to the left and ate a handful of warm buttered popcorn.
As the main feature started and she opened the box of Snocaps and took one out, feeling its weight in her hand. Leaning forward again, she closed one eye and sighted down her fingers, estimating the trajectory that the hard candy would follow when released, dropped it, and sat back. She was rewarded a second later by a loud "Damn!" from below.
Amy smiled contentedly. It was going to be a good movie.
As they walked downstairs for dinner, Amanda stopped and stared. On the hall stand hung a hat, its broad brim was covered with screen printed flowers in pinks and reds and yellows, the crown a mass of twisting and interweaving shapes, hard to distinguish from one another in their complexity. She ghasped.
Vincent sighed. "See. I told you they were weird. Bizarre in fact."
"Incredible!" Amanda said, staring at the hat and oblivious of the fact that Bernice and her fiancee, Trevor, had walked silently up behind them.
Bernice glared at the back of Amanda's head and took a breath ready to lambast her brother and his "friend". She was so sick of people making fun of her hats. Only Trevor understood. She was interrupted by Amanda.
"Bizarre? It's beautiful! The brim's pure Warhol but the crown - I'm trying to think..."
Amanda and Vincent spun round to see Bernice, her scowl fading to surprise as she turned towards Trevor.
"That's it!" Amanda grinned. "Robert Ryman!"
"Trevor," he said, smiling and extending a hand. "I'm impressed. Ryman's hardly known outside New York."
"Amanda," she replied, taking his hand and almost wincing at its limpness in hers. "I don't know much about him, but I love what he's doing - he's part of the reinvention movement, if you could call it that. I think he's got more depth than Warhol, but I love the way the milliner juxtaposed the two styles. There's almost a synergy about it. It's brilliant!"
Trevor's eyes widened. "Do you think there's any confluence between Ryman and Richter?"
Amanda's brow wrinkled. "I've never thought about it. I guess there's something in the way they're experimenting with intricacy, but Richter's more photographic so I wouldn't have said so. But Warhol..."
"Warhol's a populist," Trevor snorted.
"Well, yes," she replied, "but in the ironic sense. He's critisising the mass-produced nature of modern society by imitating it - the lack of taste and appreciation for originality as opposed to a destire to repeatedly enjoy the familiar - like watching a favourite TV show over and over again."
Bernice glared at Amanda as she and Trevor walked off into the dining room, clearly enjoying their animated discussion. Vincent turned and, smiling at her, shrugged his shoulders then followed them into the dining room.
Amanda sat between Vincent and Trevor, but Vincent spent the meal talking to his father, about business from the snatches of conversation she could overhear. The table was set formally with more knives and forks then she knew what to do with, and though she watched the others closely for cues about which to use when, she felt clumsy and ill-at-ease, feeling that Veronica was watching her every move and disapproving of every mistake she made. For a while she and Trevor carried on their conversation and she started to enjoy herself. But neither of them noticed Bernice getting increasingly agitated until she stood and curtly excused herself, dragging Trevor with her. That was the last she was to see of him.
Over the next two days Amanda felt increasingly isolated. As families do, they talked about the comings and goings of people she didn't know and he hadn't mentioned, of events past, of business. They were polite to her, but never warm. Every now and then she thought that she'd caught a look of vague disapproval, a word with icicles hanging off it, but she said nothing to Vincent and she increasingly felt that it was just her own sense of inferiority. Vincent's family were well-off if not strictly rich (what she'd come to think of later as middle-class, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant establishment to her bog-Irish Catholic), and she felt clumsy and awkward around their easy familiarity with manners and and lifestyle that were alien to her. Amanda found herself longing for the times when she and Wind could be alone together when he was feeding, daydreaming of San Francisco, of the night at Willow and Coyote's house where for the first time she'd felt a sense of belonging that, now, seemed like a beautiful but fading dream.
On Tuesday Vincent's father had taken a phone call during breakfast and come back looking worried.
"Dad? Is something wrong?" Vincent asked.
"The GM account. They're thinking of dropping us."
Veronica looked at him. "Oh no. Can they do that?"
"Damn right they can. The contract..."
Vincent leaned over and explained quietly as Veronica and John talked. "GM buys about half of the output. If they drop Dad's company it could totally screw him."
"Can you do anything about it?" Vincent asked.
"I can try. I'll have to try to renegotiate the contract. The problem is that I need to close the deal with Nash today. It's all but done, but if I don't turn up it could fall through. But I haven't got any choice. Nash is big but GM could make or break us. I'll have to call them and see if I can postpone it, but they're in a hurry and...well, if I have to lose Nash to keep GM I'll have to do it. Of course if they both fall through..."
"Can you send someone else to Detroit while you talk to GM, John?" Veronica asked.
"Who? There's no-one I'd trust to cut the deal and besides, they'll want a signature on the spot if it goes ahead, and only a company official can..."
Amanda realised that both he and Veronica were looking at Vincent.
"Me? But I'm not..."
"Yes are are, boy. You're legally a Director of the company now that you're over eighteen."
"But I don't know anything about the deal? How can I..."
"The deal's aready done. All you need to do is sign."
"Well, I guess I could..."
John jumped up from the chair. "Great! Well done, son! Come on and I'll fill you in while you get changed and I'll get the ticket transferred. Hm - one of my suits'd probably fit you now..."
They went upstairs while Amanda finished her breakfast.
"So did you enjoy it?"
Amy smiled. "Well, It was very educational."
Jake looked at her. "Educational?"
"Oh. You mean the movie. I don't know. I didn't really pay much attention to it," Amy muttered. "Neither did you two," she said, sticking her fingers down her throat and pretending to gag.
"Amy!" Helen exclaimed over Jake's laughter.
"Take it easy, big sister. I've got bigger fish to fry than you. Anyway," she said, turning to Jake, "it was nice of you to take me. Thanks."
"My pleasure, Kiddo. I hope that guy didn't spoil it for you."
"Guy?" Amy asked innocently.
"Yeah. Some guy up the back kept cursing and finally got thrown out by the ushers."
"Didn't hear a thing," said Amy.
Amanda turned to see Veronica's face appear around the door of the office.
"Would you spare me a minute please, Dear?"
She walked in and sat in the deep-buttoned red leather chesterfield that Veronica indicated.
"Amanda, This is all a little embarrassing, so I hope you'll forgive me if I'm blunt. Dear, Vincent is going to take his place as head of the company in the not-too distant future. John and I have been talking about retirement and we're looking forward to a long and enjoyable one. Vincent's had a lot of fun playing with his photography, but the time's coming when he's going to have to settle down and do some serious work." She turned and looked out the window. "He's always been a good-hearted boy. He told us about your...condition, how he felt so sorry for you. You're a pretty girl, Amanda, and I'm sure that you must have felt very lucky when someone with Vincent's...resources...took you under his wing. But the fact is that he's been - you've both been - living off our money. This silly idea of his to be a photographer was never going to work." She turned back to Amanda. "Not that we mind the money of course but, as I said, he can't play these games forever." She looked Amanda in the eye. "I'll come straight to the point, Amanda. You're just one of his games - one of his silly fantasies." She paused, for less than a second. "John and I are prepared to pay you ten thousand dollars if you'll leave now and simply...disappear."
Amanda was speechless. She stared at Veronica open-mouthed.
"I know it sounds callous, dear, and it probably is, but I want you to think hard about it. Ten thousand is a lot of money. Invested wisely it could set you and your baby up for life. We've already arranged for a bank account to be opened in your name and we've deposited ten thousand cash in it. No tricks, no cheating. If you agree, we can go straight to the bank where they'll take down your deatails and record your signature. It'll be all yours. All you have to do in return is agree, in writing, never to approach Vincent again."
Amanda tried to speak.
"No - don't say anything. I'm going to leave and let you think about it for half an hour, then I'll come back and see what you're decision is. But I want you to think hard about this. If you really care for Vincent, what do you think would be better for him - a life struggling to make ends meet as a photographer or..." she looked around at the room, "...a life of ease as the President and owner of a successful business? No - don't say anything. Just think."
She rose and left, closing the door behind her as Amanda stared after her.
Amanda sat, too stunned to move, trying to come to terms with the reality of the situation, to believe that she'd just been offered money to walk away from her life.
Parallels with Jake flooded her memory, but Jake was a mystery and probably always would be. She wondered what would have happened if she hadn't been pregnant - would she have loved him? And it hurt so much the she drove the thought away.
She'd made a life with him, seen their lives stretching ahead forever. Coyote's words taunted her "made you...one".
Why did they hate her? What had she ever done to them?
How he felt so sorry for you
Is that what it was?
...one of his games...
He felt sorry for her?
He was good-hearted.
...one of his silly fantasies...
She was right. They were from different worlds.
And sooner or later he'd go back to his real world, and it was somewhere that she could never follow him.
Through blurry eyes she could see the office, its wood panelling, the dark polished wood desk and the leather chair. Behind it the neat lawns sloping down to the road. And she saw her parents' house again, the cracked paint, the faded path.
But to be offered money to leave the man she loved.
Money. The love of it was the root of all evil the Bible said - First Timothy if she remembered correctly. Is that what it does to you? It makes you think you can buy love?
And she knew what she had to do.
She wasn't one of his "silly fantasies". He was one of hers.
"Willy Johanssen! What's all this about?"
Willy led Hilda down to the back of Gilbert's and into the private room that Rosie had set up. It was perfect, just the way he wanted it to be. Hilda was blindfolded and on the table was the most luscious looking chocolate cake Willy had ever seen and - he hoped - than Hilda had ever seen. The frosting was thick and dark brown, and right in the centre, just as he'd asked, a tiny sparkle hinted at something buried deeply. The table was set with two plain white plates, two forks, and a large knife.
He guided her to a chair and sat her down.
"Comfortable, sugar pie?" he asked.
"Get this goddam thing off'n me, Willy! What are you up to?"
He chuckled to see the smile on her face. "Okay, sweetie. Close your eyes now."
"They're closed!" She giggled.
He untied the blindfold, lowering it slowly to make sure her eyes were closed. Crossing his fingers and saying a silent prayer, he said. "Okay. You can open them now."
She did, looking straight at the cake.
He watched her eyes widen in surprise. She looked around to where he stood, a smile as big as all outdoors on her face. She stood and hugged him until he couldn't breath, then sat down again. She took the knife, cut deeply into the cake, missing the tiny glint in the centre by the width of a hair, and cut two large slices, the first she placed on Willy's plate and the second on her own then, picking up a fork, she took a large chunk off the slice on her plate and lifted it to her mouth. As it went in, her eyes closed again in a paroxysm of ecstacy and she didn't chew, so much as absorb the cake. Willy sat down opposite her and watched, spellbound, as she ate the rest of the large slice and slowly dragged her finger across the plate to pick up the last of the rich butter frosting which almost dripped from her finger as she lifted it to her mouth to suck the last, delectable drops of delight.
Slowly, she opened her eyes. Looking straight at him she said "I think I love you Willy."
"I was hopin' you were goin' to say that, sugar-pie. For a minute I was afraid you were gonna eat it."
Hilda looked blank. "Eat it? What are you talking about?"
Willy grinned again. "Look close at the middle of the cake."
She looked down, and he watched her eyes widen as she spotted the tiny mound of buried treasure, and that her hand shook slightly as she plunged a chubby finger into the deep frosting to recover the chocolate-coated but unmistakable morsel. He blushed as the words of the old nursery rhyme came into his head...what a good boy am I.
Hilda picked up the white linen napkin that Rosie had laid next to the plate and gently wiped away the frosting to reveal the ring underneath. As she turned to Willy, her eyes still wide, he said "Hilda, you'd make me a proud and happy man if you'd agree to be my wife after we've graduated."
Vincent paid the driver and got out of the cab, surprised to see that his Dad's car was already back and hoping that the GM deal had gone well. He walked up the steps, opened the door and tossed the envelope with the signed contract onto the hall table. His hand went to loosen his tie but thought better of it. For what he had in mind it was appropriate to be wearing a tie and he bounded quietly up the stairs to his room, pleased that he'd been able to get the contract signed and catch the early flight. Opening the top drawer of his nightstand he took out the box he'd collected the previous night from the safe in the office and flipped it open. His Grandmother's engagement ring. It was old-fashioned, Victorian. Two rows of fine clasps rose in curves from the edges to hold five diamonds, two small ones on the outside, then two larger stones, framing a central stone that was larger again. It wasn't ostentatious or large - the total weight of the diamonds was probably less than half a karat though they were fine and flawless. But it was elegant, simple. Perfect.
Coyote's "wedding" had been just what they needed at the time and, in the terms that Coyote described it, no-one could ever be more married - he loved Amanda desperately. But it hadn't been a "real" wedding. He wasn't religious though his family had always been regulars at the Episcopalian Church, but the important thing was the ceremony - the public declaration of his love in front of family and friends, and this - his Grandmother's ring, was the symbol that he'd grown up knowing that he was going to give to the woman he loved. He snapped the box closed, took a deep breath, and turned to go and find her.
And she appeared from the office as he reached the bottom of the stairs.
His heart was pounding and he was too nervous to see the look on her face as she saw him, and he stopped. He grinned and, for the second time, knelt before her.
He opened the box again and held it up to her. "This is my Grandma's ring. She died before I was born. I was six when Dad first showed it to me. He told me that Grandma had left it to his first son in her will, she wrote that she wanted his first son to give to his wife. I guess I didn't think much about it then, but I've always known that one day I'd give it to the woman I wanted to take care of forever." He looked, blindly, into her eyes. "This is why I wanted to bring you here. I want to take care of you for the rest of my life."
Amanda was hardly conscious of what was going on. She saw and she heard, but only snatches came through. She'd wanted to be gone when he got home.
...take care of...
Veronica was right.
It was pity, not love.
She forced herself not to cry, just shook her head, and ran up the stairs.
Vincent knelt, transfixed, staring after her.
Feeling a hand on his shoulder he looked around to see his mother standing beside him. He got up, stunned. "I..."
She put her arm around him. "I know. I heard."
She looked at him sadly. "It's for the best, Vincent."
"Best? What do you mean, best? What happened?"
"Honey, I think Amanda's realised that she - that you and she are from very different worlds, that it might be best if..."
"Different worlds? What do you mean? What the hell have you been saying to her?" he asked, his intonation rising.
She stepped back. "We just had a little talk about the future, that's all. I think Amanda's realised that you can't go on living this...dream. That you'll have to come back to the business. Your father and I can't support you forever, now can we?"
"Of course dear."
He stared at her. "Support? You...you haven't been looking at the account, have you?" His voice betrayed his astonished disbelief.
"Of course not, Dear. You know that money's not the issue..."
The blood drained from his face. He didn't notice Amanda, backpack on her shoulder and Wind in her arms, come out of the room and down the stairs, or his father and sister who'd come in from the back yard and who were standing at the kitchen door listening.
"You told her, didn't you?" he half-whispered. "You told her that we've been living off your money!"
"She had to know dear, but it's not about money!"
"Then what is it about?"
"Oh, Vincent! Be realistic! Amanda's a pretty girl, but you have to be sensible. How long do you think it'd last? Sooner or later you're going to need someone who'll be able to support you while you're working to make the company what it could be! Your father and I worked hard to build it up and you know that it could be much bigger. Now that you're back and starting to take responsibility the last thing you need to distract you is some...hippie girl and her ba...baby that you picked up on the street."
Amanda stopped at the foot of the stairs, surprised by how much Veronica's words hurt. Her contempt for Vincent's mother should have been her shield, but they drove through her defences. Her mind flashed back those few short months to the schoolgirl Amanda, with the loving family and an unknown future. And now...a whore. With a bastard. No...two bastards.
A sense of calm descended on Vincent. He walked over to the table and picked up the contract from where he'd left it. "This was a setup, wasn't it? You used this to get me out of the house."
Veronica blushed. "No. Not exactly. We did need someone to go and pick it up. But listen, Vincent..."
"No," He said, his voice resonant in the open space. "You listen to me." He stared at her with a cold intensity.
"I want you to listen well, because I'm only going to say this once. If you'd bothered to look at the account you'd have seen that all the transactions for the last six months were credits. I've paid back the money I used to live on at first and I've nearly paid you back for the Willys. You think the photography's just a hobby? It's a damn good one then. I've been published in papers and magazines around America including the New York Times. Oh - and that's partly thanks to Amanda who taught me more about the use of light in a week than I'd learned in college in a year. We're doing well, and we're doing something important." He held up the contract. "I was going to tear this up, but that'd be too easy. Take it." He handed it to his mother. "It's more important to you than bothering to find out how I'm doing."
She looked at him. "Vincent, I..."
"No. Don't talk. I've only got one more thing to say. Amanda's the most wonderful woman I've ever met. She's smart - smarter than I'll ever be and she's got more artistic ability than I'll ever have. She's more than I ever hoped for and she's all I want."
Amanda failed to stifle a sob.
Vincent looked round to see her standing at the foot of the stairs, and the rest of the world vanished. "Amanda," he said, turning to her, his voice quiet and charged with emotion. "I don't know what anyone said to you and I don't care. None of this..." he looked around at the entry foyer "...matters a damn to me. Only one thing matters to me."
He took the ring out of its box and, taking her hand, slipped it onto her finger. "Marry me, Amanda. Legally. Officially. Make Wind legally ours so he'll never have to hear the sorts of things that you just heard. They're lies, but they hurt. Marry me. Please?"
Bernice stormed up to him, her face red with anger. "I'm damned if I'm going to let you give Grandma's ring to some gold-digging slut who's trying to wheedle her way into our family! You need to open your eyes, Vincent! Your family matters here! Not some..." she reached down and, grabbing Amanda's wrist, snatched the ring off her finger. "...hippie WHORE and her brat!"
Vincent turned to her. When he spoke it was soft in comparison to Neecy's raving, but there was an edge to his voice as hard as the diamonds in their Grandmother's ring..
"Neecy, you're my sister and I love you, but I'm not going to let you talk about the mother of my children like that."
There was a sharp intake of breath behind them as the meaning of what he'd said registered with his mother.
Ignoring it, Vincent continued, staring straight through Neecy. "If Amanda's not worthy of Grandma's ring then neither am I." He handed her the box. "It's yours. I guess Grandma's wishes for it don't mean anything to you."
Bernice stood, speechless as Vincent turned back to his mother. "That's right. Amanda's pregnant. But Wind's my son every bit as much."
I was there. You'll never understand. She could have died that night. He could have died. I was there.
When he turned back to Amanda all the anger had vanished as if it had never existed. "I love you, Amanda. Will you marry me?"
She smiled up at him and nodded.
Vincent looked back at his mother. "These people are my family now. If I have to give up the past for the future..." He turned back to Amanda. "...then you need to know that it's no competition." Amanda shifted wind from her arm and hugged him close to her as Vincent's gaze swept back to his parents and sister. "Your choice. You can accept Amanda and Wind and our new child and me, or you can reject us all. All or nothing."
He turned to where she stood, their eyes fixed on each other. "Let's go home."
He gathered their things and carried them out to the car. Amanda turned back as she walked through the door to see them standing there, silent, staring. She couldn't read them.
The next morning Amy walked in to the kitchen as Rita sat down at the table. Their father was making pancakes and he looked round at her.
"Hi Princess. Pancake?"
"Sure," she said. "Thanks Dad."
He turned back to the griddle and poured an extra dollop of batter onto the sizzling surface. "How was the library last night, Rita?"
"Boring," Rita answered. "I hate history."
Amy turned to her. "History? I thought you were studying anatomy last night?"
"Uh, no," she nervously looked round to see her father still intent on the pancakes. "What makes you say that?"
"Oh, I just thought it might have been hANDY," she said, de-emphasising the h.
Amy smiled her "I own you now" smile as Rita glared at her.
Jake sat on his footlocker polishing his shoes as Willy walked in. He smiled at his buddy. "Hey, Man. How was Hilda?" As Willy approached Jake saw the moonlight glinting off his teeth and he grinned back. "As good as that, eh?"
Willy came up and sat down beside him. "Jake, Hilda and me are gettin' married. I want you t' be my best man."
Stay tuned for the next instalment of All My Children.
Disclaimer: All characters are copyright MTV.
Special thanks: As always, to our beloved beta readers: Malevolent Turtle, Renfield, Kristen Bealer, Bootstrapper, and AhMyGoddess1953.
Quirks: Deref, who typed the words, is an Australian, so he's used Aussie English spellings and grammar conventions. He may also have inadvertently used some Aussie idioms though he's tried to keep in culture.
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