Upon a Midnight Clear (Chapter Six)
"You finish with the tea. I'll see what's going on in there," Quinn said, grateful for an opportunity to flee the kitchen's close quarters and the overwhelming nearness of him. It was far too much too soon, after way too long. Hearing her approach, the boys scurried back to their places on either end of the sofa.
"So, guys," Quinn asked as she righted the lamp, "what's doing?"
"We are being bored," the one on the right told her, his arms folded across his chest in much the same way as Cale had done earlier.
"Yeah," said the one on the left, narrowing his eyes meaningfully, "and you know what happens when little kids get bored."
"No." She pulled up a small ottoman and sat down facing them. "What happens when little kids get bored?"
"They bounce off walls," one said, repeating the phrase he had heard his father use earlier.
"They get carried away," the other told her.
"Well, I wouldn't know, not having any little kids," she said. "But if I did, there would be no wall- bouncing. And no one would have time to get carried away."
"Why not?" they asked in unison.
"They'd be much too busy."
"Like watching TV and stuff, rfcht?" One nodded approvingly.
She shook her head. "We'd be doing much more fun things."
They exchanged an uneasy glance. Grown-ups never referred to TV as a fun thing.
"Yeah, what's more fun than watching cartoons?"
"Who's art kit is that on the table?" Quinn pointed to a box on the table under the front window.
"It's Eric's," the boy on the left told her.
Quinn smiled. Now she knew that Eric had the cowlick and Evan did not.
"Eric, may I look at it?" she asked.
"Sure." He shrugged. "I don't use it. My Aunt Val sent it to me."
Quinn retrieved the box and unsnapped the closure. "Ah, look at all these goodies."
The twins rolled their eyes. What was so neat about a bunch of paper and colored pencils and crayons and such?
Quinn drew out a sketch pad and the colored pencils and smiled.
"Well, you boys may go back to whatever walls you were planning on jumping on."
"Bouncing," Evan said meaningfully, craning his neck to see what she was doing. "Off,"Eric added. "Bouncing off."
"Whatever," she said casually, without taking her eyes from the sketch pad on her knees, and the lines and curves she was making with a light brown colored pencil.
It wasn't long before both boys had hopped down from their perches to lean over her shoulder, as she had intended.
"It's Miss Jane Mousewing." Eric pointed to the figure emerging from Quinn's rapidly moving pencil.
"How do you know how to draw Miss Jane so good?" Evan asked.
"Because that's what I do." She looked up at them, and seeing that they did not understand what she meant, she added, "I write the Miss Jane stories, and I draw the pictures, too."
They looked at each other, then said in unison, "S. Q. Hollister writes the Miss Jane books."
"Right. Selena Quinn Hollister. That's me. Quinn is my middle name, but I use it as my first name."
"Why?" Eric leaned ever closer until he all but hung over her shoulder, fascinated as the picture of the little mouse-girl became more defined.
"I guess 'cause my mother liked it." She shrugged as Evan closed in on her other side. "And because I have a cousin named Selena and it would be confusing if there were two of us."
"Then why didn't your mother just name you Quinn? Why did she name you Selena if she was going to call you 'Quinn?"
"Because in my mother's family, the first girl is always named Selena, after my mother's great-aunt. But my mom's brother had a little girl before I was born, and he had named her Selena. So my cousin got to be called Selena and I got to be called by my middle name."
"Hmmm." They both nodded, and leaned just a little closer.
"So, do you have any of the Miss Jane books?" Quinn asked.
"No," Eric told her, "but our teacher read them to us at nursery school sometimes."
"They're girls' books," Evan sneered. "We dont read girls' books."
"Miss Jane is not just for girls." Quinn fixed him with a stare. "What makes you think she's just for girls?"
" 'Cause she's a girl mouse. And because she does girl things."
"Like what?" Quinn asked him, really wanting to know.
"Like she always wears a dress and dances or plays the flute and stuff." Evan shrugged.
Quinn looked down at Miss Jane, a vision in a little flowy dress, her flute raised to her lips.
"She plays to the bees and to the butterflies," Quinn told them, as if needing to explain, "so that they can fly to music."
"She has tea parties," Evan said with a mild touch of disdain.
"She's a girl mouse," Eric repeated, as if that said it all.
"Well, then, if you were writing the Miss Jane books, what would you do to make them more interesting to boys?"
Eric and Evan sat uncharacteristically still for an overly long moment.
"I know!" Eric hopped up and down on one foot. "You could give her a brother!"
"A twin brother," Evan added.
"Hmmm." Quinn contemplated the possibility. "And if I gave her a brother, what would I call him?"
"You could call him…" Eric bit his bottom lip, pondering the very important task of naming Miss Jane's only brother. "Jed! For Jedidiah!" Evan shouted gleefully. "Like Jedidiah McKenzieJ"
"Perfect!" Quinn exclaimed. "Jedidiah Mousewing. Now, what do you suppose he looks like? Describe him for me, so that I can draw him. Help me to put him on paper…"
For the next fifteen minutes, Quinn bent over the sketch pad, a small boy at each elbow, totally oblivious to the man who stood in the doorway, her forgotten cup of tea in one hand, his heart on his sleeve. After all the nights he'd dreamed of her, all the times he'd unconsciously sought her face in every crowd in every airport he'd walked through, in every stadium he'd ever played in, there she was, calmly sitting there sketching away, looking for all the world as if she belonged there with his sons. As if this was her place, her cabin, her family.
This is the way it should have been all along, he told himself. The way it would have been, if only she had been here that day….
"Is that my tea?" she asked, her eyes bright with the excitement of creating a new character as she sketched to the boys' specifications.
"Ahhh… it might be a little cool," he told her, realizing that he'd been standing there staring for much longer than he'd intended. "That's okay." She smiled at him, and he thought for a moment that the cabin seemed to tilt at an odd angle. "Would you like to meet Jed Mousewing?"
"Sure." He cleared his throat as he crossed the small distance between the kitchen and the ottoman and peered over her shoulder, much as his sons had done.
"See, Dad, he's a pioneer, just like Jed McKenzie was," Eric told him.
"He sort of looks a little like Davy Crockett," Cale noted, trying to ignore that scent of lilac again. "If Crockett had had a tail, two big front teeth, and big round ears."
"It's the buckskin," Quinn explained, tensing at his nearness. "The boys gave me an excellent idea for my next book. If it works, I'll give them credit."
"What does that mean?" Eric asked.
"It means that inside the book, it will say something like, 'Thanks to Evan and Eric McKenzie, for all their help in bringing Jed to life.' Something like that"
"You mean our names would be in the book?" Evan asked, wide-eyed.
"Of course, you'll have to help me think up things that mice-boys might like to do."
"We can do that. We're good at thinking up things to do."
"I think Quinn means things that do not involve rough-housing or breaking things. Or watching TV," Cale offered.
"Does Miss Jane have a TV?" Evan asked.
"No, she does not," Quinn replied. "We'll just have to think of other things mouse children would like to do."
"Well, why don't you two think about old Jed here while you wash up for dinner," Cale suggested.
"Okay." They nodded, and, miraculously, flew from the room without argument.
Alone with her, Cale hesitated, feeling awkward. Until she smiled up at him and his knees began to unravel. He sat on the sofa before they could betray him.
"So, that's Jed, eh?" he said, to have something to say.
"Jed Mousewing." She smiled, her heart pounding, and she blushed, certain that he could hear it banging against her chest.
"Where did the Mousewing come from?" He licked dry lips with an equally dry tongue. "Actually, her original name had been Mousding, as in small mouse. But the daughter of a friend of mine, who had trouble with her's, pronounced it Mousewing. I thought it was cute, so I kept the name." She shrugged, feeling trapped all of a sudden. While the boys had been there with her, it had been easier to ignore the fact that he was here, and she was here, and after all this time, they were together. Just as she had dreamed they would be someday. It was a dream she had never had much faith in. Until today.
"I guess you've done well for yourself, then," he said.
"I'm doing what I like to do." She shrugged and tried to sound nonchalant.
"So was I," he told her, the slightest hint of shadow darkening his face.
"I was sorry to hear about your accident," she said softly. "I know how much it must have meant to you, to have been able to play…"
He started to shrug it off as perhaps not so big a deal, as he had done so many times over the past six months, then stopped, suddenly feeling no need to pretend.
"It hurt like hell to give it up," Cale said quietly, his words barely above a whisper.
"I'm sorry, Cale." Instinctively, she had placed a hand upon his, and the softness of it, the tenderness of the gesture, shot through him like a bolt.
"Well, so am I." He stood abruptly and her hand fell away. The place where her fingers had touched his wrist seemed marked as if by fire. He cleared his throat again–a nervous gesture that he hadn't found the need to use for years–and backed away from her in the direction of the kitchen. "Dinner will be ready in about two minutes. I hope you don't mind having your spaghetti sauce come out of a jar."
"Not at all," she assured him.
Cale fled back into the safety of the small kitchen, where he would not have to look into her eyes.
"How `bout if I set the table?" Quinn was just a few steps behind him.
Cale resisted the urge to sigh openly. Nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide…
"Sure." He forced a smile and pointed to the cupboard behind him. "Plates and glasses in there."
He tried to pretend that her presence wasn't disconcerting, that he wasn't watching her, but it was impossible not to in so confined an area. Their backs collided mildly as she reached for plates from the shelves above her head. She brushed against him when she sorted through the flatware drawer for knives, forks, and spoons. His awareness of her was closing in on him at a pace that was rapidly accelerating.
He turned and brushed aside the curtain at the kitchen window. If anything, the storm had intensified. There was no chance she would be leaving before the morning.
How would he last a whole night with her here, under the same roof with him?
She looked up and smiled again, and he felt his insides begin to twist and twitch.
This could very well be the longest night of his life.