It was Halloween night and there was a horse at my door. Or at least a horse’s head. And he was carrying a basket of candy. And he stood six feet tall, wore a wine colored sweater, artistically ripped jeans and expensive tennis shoes.
I sighed and started to close the door, and the horse said, “No, Eileen, listen.” He lifted the basket, “I brought candy for Tori and Talon.”
I sighed again. I hadn’t seen Paul in six months. The lawyers had almost made everything neat and ready for signing. Seeing him at the door hurt. I didn’t want it to hurt. On the other hand, really, he had never been abusive or done anything that justified keeping him away from the twins. Particularly on Halloween.
On yet the other hand, they’d been asking where dad was. Particularly since they couldn’t trick or treat, not really. Not like they were used to in the suburbs. It’s not that there was was no trick or treat in rural areas, but as cold as it was, and with snow falling, I wasn’t about to drive them the half a mile to the next neighbor and then the mile to the neighbor after that and so on. Besides the fact that the rural road was not paved, and there was a significant fall off on either side.
“How did you get my address?” I asked. Not that I’d ever expected Paul to stalk me, but for various reasons, including being a woman living alone with two small children, I’d never publicized my address and the farm was bought under a corporate name, of which I was main holder, with shares devolving to Tori and Talon if something happened to me.
He hesitated. Don’t tell me how I could see. There was this expelled little puff of breath, and he shuffled his weight from foot to foot just a little, then he huffed, reached up and pulled off the horse’s head, to reveal an embarrassed face. Also, ridiculous. His reddish hair was all on end. And he’d lost weight. And not in a good way. He opened his mouth, closed it. “My mom gave it to me.”
I almost asked him if he was wearing the wrong part of his horse’s costume. His mom had died three months ago. But Paul had been very close to his mom, and he wouldn’t say that as a joke.
I made a face. “Okay, but you come in, you give them the candy, you talk a little and you leave, understood? And then it’s every other weekend, and I’ll bring them to you, okay?”
He nodded. It was less a nod and more just moving his head down fast, then up again. “You moved to the middle of nowhere,” he said.
“Kind of had to. To do something I could do from home that would feed the kids. Besides the school here is great.” I closed the door behind him, and he put the horse’s head on the hat tree in the entrance.
It reminded me of other times. Like when he’d come into our suburban condo, at this time of year, and removed hat and coat, and the kids would rush to him.
“But there’s not trick or treat,” he said.
“Oh, we had trunk and treat at the school parking lot earlier,” I said.
We’d come to the end of the hallway, and he hesitated. “To the right,” I said. “They’re in the kitchen, coloring while I make dinner.”
He did that almost-nod again, and walked to the right, where the stub of hallway opened up into a vast eat in kitchen with a big wood stove. It was warm and well lit and the kids were working so hard at their coloring books they didn’t even look up.
Until Falada came charging in, of course. They say geese are sometimes used as guard dogs. I believe it. She came charging at Paul’s legs, head down and honking, like she thought he meant to take her eggs. Which she probably did think.
“Whoa,” I said, stepping out in front of Paul. “Whoa, Falada, easy, it’s a friend.”
She stopped, confused, because I was her safe person, and therefore I wouldn’t be protecting a bad person. Her head turned up, her beady eyes focused on us, and she made a weird honking sound that was probably a swear word in goose. Then she waddled back to the basket, by the dinner table.
Paul’s voice sounded a little squeaky as he said, “You have a goose in–“
And then the twins were on him. I remember it like a slow motion sequence. First Talon saw him and jumped up, “Dad!” and then Tori. And then they were all over him, clambering up. He dropped the basket, and took them, one in each arm, saying things like “Whoa,” in the same tone I’d used for Falada.
The kids were telling him about the trunk or treat, in a big jumble. And about the school. And how this house had coops in the back where we kept the geese, and why Falada was in the kitchen.
“’cause she’s having her babies out of season, ’cause she’s crazy, and mom said–“
He walked to the table with the twins one in each arm, and somehow managed to peel them off and onto their chairs, and admired the “Halloween princess” coloring book my mom had sent Tori. Think a little girl in various gowns, surrounded by pumpkins and bats and black cats. Talon, bigger and more introverted than his sister waited silently to show his dad his own Halloween Avenger book. Yeah, super-hero like character, pumpkins and bats and such. Talon colored it in tiny minute strokes always within the lines, and was starting to work on shading. Tori, on the other hand just colored really big, nevermind the lines and as long as there was plenty of pink and sparkly crayons, she was fine.
She was also pushy and obnoxiously loud, and as her mom I say that with love, interrupting Talon’s explanation of why he’d used a darker color in the background with a shout of “Look, dad, she’s got sparkles on her cloak” and shoving her little face forward, with a big gapetoothed smile.
Paul said, “I brought you candy,” almost as an afterthought, pushing the little basket into the middle of the table. Even from where I was I could see it was about half Pixie sticks which were Tori’s most favorite thing ever.
The kids looked at it, and then away, and continued chattering at Paul. He had this big stupid smile on his face.
I couldn’t tell him to leave. I was going to have to invite him to dinner. The kids really had missed him. I didn’t want to think about that. The papers were almost ready. And it’s not like I’d just decided to leave him, okay? He had been dating the nanny. While married to me. But the kids were his, and–
I took one of those deep breaths that seem to never end, and turned back to cook. After a while the kids settled down a little, and Tori went to get their favorite book — the big, illustrated fairytale book Paul had bought them for Christmas last year — and asked Paul to read. I didn’t actually remember his ever reading to the kids.
Okay, sure, he might have. It’s just that with the kids being small and both of us having had demanding jobs, we’d tried to take turns staying home with them when the other was working over time. We had a nanny for the daytime, and then after work, one or the other of us stayed home. It occurred to me, suddenly, that this was a stupid way to run a marriage. But–
They were pressed on each side of him, while he read. He was doing voices. I took the big tray of meatballs out of the oven. I’d planned on two meals from it, but of course, with a man at the table…. So, I did two packages of spaghetti and started making the marinara.
Timing worked out right. Paul had just finished The Goose Girl, when I said, “Tori, silverware, Talon plates.”
“Four, mommy?” Talon asked.
“Of course.” I tried to remember when the last time had been we’d eaten together. I’d moved out six months ago, and before that–
Talon was reaching for the step stool when Paul picked him up and reached him to the upper cupboard for the plates. He grinned his own gap-toothed smile, “Thanks, dad.” Had he got quieter these last six months? He’d never been garrulous, mind you, but–
Dinner was loud and boisterous as I didn’t remember it ever being, and Paul was funny, and kept making voices, including giving Falada a voice, when the goose made soft sounds, in her sleep on the eggs.
“How many eggs is she hatching?” he asked. “And couldn’t you have used an incubator.”
“Sure,” I said. “But incubators are … Well, you have to turn the eggs at the right time, and it’s more work for a single person, who is busy with other stuff, you know. This way Falada does it. It’s just inconvenient for her to become broody in October, and just before the big snow storm.”
“I thought all geese did this on a schedule,” he said.
I shrugged. “Some critters are mixed up, you know? Anyway, I was about ready to consign her to the thanksgiving oven, when lo and behold, I found she’d been hiding eggs and had a clutch and was sitting on them. All the other geese hatched in Spring, they’re full grown, so I brought her indoors. She’s a pretty good guard dog.”
He looked worried. “You guys are living so isolated…”
He didn’t say it seemed strange to him, considering how close to Denver we used to live. Tori asked him about bats — no, I don’t know why, my daughter was like that — and eventually Talon told him a long and complicated story about the bat cave, at the end of our property.
After a while, food was eaten and the kids were starting to nod off, with sauce all over their faces. To my surprise, it was Paul who said, “Go wash up, and into jammies, okay? I’ll come and tuck you in when you’re ready.”
I started putting away the leftovers, and he started to pile the dishes by the sink.
“So, about your mom giving you my address?”
“I was going through her things,” he said. “You know, my sister already went through, but she asked me to go to the folk’s place and see if there was anything I wanted to keep. So, I took the day off yesterday and went to do that…”
“I fell asleep on the sofa. There really wasn’t much, by the way, though I found some books… Anyway, I fell asleep on the sofa, and I dreamed she was giving me a royal talking to.” He paused. “I guess because I had talked to the lawyer earlier, and he said it would be ready to sign on Monday. You know. So, I fell asleep, and she said I should talk to you. She said I’d been miserable, and I should talk to you or… Or I’d never forgive myself. And the kids might never forgive us. And I said I didn’t know how to talk to you, I didn’t even know your phone number. So she said look at the calendar. So I went and looked. And she’d written your address down.”
I hadn’t ever given my mother in law my address. But lying wasn’t one of Paul’s abilities. No, seriously. That was part of the reason I’d left. I’d asked him if he loved Iris, and he’d just got all red and tongue tied. Remembering that put pepper in my voice as I said, “And what does Iris think of that?”
He looked startled. “I have no idea. I haven’t seen her since you moved out.” He paused. “Well, since the month you and the kids moved out. Took about a month. We went for coffee, a couple of times, and I took her to dinner, but…”
“We had nothing to talk about. And she wanted to do things.”
“Go to a concert. Go to a movie. Stuff like that. I just…. I didn’t care that much.”
“But you were in love with her.”
He chewed the inside of his face. I knew that expression. He used to do that in college, when he was trying to figure something out. “I thought I was. Turns out it was just she was the adult companionship around, outside of work.”
I had been all ready to wall myself off, to be all remote to say “you only came here because she left you.” But I had realized earlier we’d been raising the kids in the most stupid way possible. And we’d thought ourselves so smart, too. You know, we could both have high powered careers and still raise the twins. Brilliant.
“Do you miss work?” he asked.
I shrugged. “Weirdly no. Surprising amount of work in a goose farm. I do miss adults sometimes. Did you– Do you often read to the kids?”
“But the other was never around to see it,” he said. “I realized that about a month after you left. I missed you, you know? Mom was right. I had to tell you. I’m sorry. I was an idiot. I mistook someone always there and willing to listen for love. Mostly we talked about the kids. And we never did anything, you know. Stuff. I just took her out for coffee sometimes, when I got out of the office, and you were at home. I shouldn’t have.” He gave a half laugh. “The weird thing is I mostly talked to her about the kids.”
“You could have talked about that to me.”
“I know.” He pointed at the goose. “I’m like Falada, you know. Doing things all out of order. Just a crazy critter, I guess.”
He got me to smile, before I could stop. But then I said, “If we stop the process, it’s going to take a while to restart.”
“Or — we don’t restart?”
“But– I invested everything I could spare from my dad’s inheritance on the farm. I don’t want to close it.” I paused. “Besides, I don’t want to go back to living the way we were.”
“No,” he said. “I…. I got permission to work from home. If you…. If you don’t want me to move in, I will find some place to rent around here.”
“There’s nowhere to rent around here. It’s like twenty miles away.” I paused. “You probably shouldn’t drive back, anyway. It’s snowing hard out there, and that road isn’t safe. You…. could stay in the guest room tonight, and we’ll talk it over in the morning.”
He nodded and got up. “Let’s load the dishwasher. Tomato sauce sticks like nobody’s business.”
I started rinsing while he loaded, and as I handed him the last plate, he said, “I do love you, you know. I always did. I really never fell in love with Iris. I just thought I had. I was just so lonely.”
I sighed. “I still love you.” It came off very curt. “I almost didn’t let you in because of that.” I paused. “And that probably is more than just today. I was afraid, you know. If I gave you too much, if I didn’t have a fall back. I could end up like mom, when you left me for the younger chick. And then Iris.” I felt tears in my eyes, and he must have sensed it, because he put his hand on my shoulder. “Hey,” he said.
“Right,” I said. And with the last of my strength, “Tomorrow. We’ll talk tomorrow. The guest room is near the kids’ rooms. Did you bring a change of clothing?”
“Just the horse’s head,” he said, making me snort.
Which is why the next morning, I found him, with a sheet wrapped around him toga-style making pancakes for the kids while his clothes tumbled in the dryer.
Turns out it’s much easier to look after the kids when you both take turns, at the same time. And even easier when you actually talk to each other.
Which is good because there were three more kids in time.
By the time Falada the goose died of old age, Talon and Tori had finished college and the others were in high school.
We stuffed the horse’s head and mounted it over the fireplace. It didn’t tell us that either of our mothers’ hearts was breaking, but every time I looked at it, I thought of my mother in law with gratitude.
I eventually saw the calendar, and there was indeed my address, under “Aileen” written on the calendar in her handwriting, the way she wrote things she didn’t want to forget.
It was in July. On the day she’d died. But she’d been in the hospital for a week, after a stroke. I had no explanation for it, but I was grateful anyway.
In some other time line, we got divorced. And maybe we fell in love later with other people, who knows? But what was the point of finding another love, when the love we had was perfectly fine?
I kept the calendar page too. Framed. Over my desk. Some people believe around Halloween the world of the dead comes close to that of the living. But no one ever said anything about ink and paper.
And it doesn’t matter. Marriage, like an egg is a mystery. You treat it right, you trust it, and in the fullness of time something wonderful bursts forth.
Even if sometimes someone needs to nudge it at the right time.
It occurs to me, I’m an idiot who always forgets to promote, and should tell you that if you like my short stories, you might enjoy my collections, like:
Or perhaps Wings
Or Dragon Blood
Or even Here Be Dragons