Claire took a shaky breath, still gripping the steering wheel despite the fact that her car had been in park for about five minutes. She was parked in the Abernathy driveway, a store-bought apple pie (something she’d discovered that Americans eat on Thanksgiving) sitting in the passenger seat.
Thanksgiving had been this past Thursday, but both Claire and Joe had been working. Upon realizing that Claire had never celebrated Thanksgiving and had no intention of really doing so, he insisted that Claire come over on Sunday when he was off for her and Faith’s first Thanksgiving Dinner.
Claire had no idea why she felt so panicked; it was just Joe, after all. He had seen her at her absolute worst at the hospital, repeatedly. He knew the ins and outs of Faith’s condition because Faith seemed to be the only thing Claire could talk about other than actual hospital business. He had promised that his wife would be aware, that he would make his kids as well aware as possible. He’d texted her several times that he and Gail were so excited to have her, that their little Delia was dying to meet Faith.
Still, the devil on her shoulder was screaming that Faith wasn’t ready for this, that if she showed the slightest bit of discomfort, Joe would never welcome them into his home again, and he’d look down on her as an incompetent parent for the rest of her life.
“Do you have any idea how embarrassing that was?”
Faith’s sensory overload had been triggered at an Oxford event, a full-blown meltdown had ensued, and they’d had to leave twenty minutes after arriving.
“She can’t help it, Frank. It was too much for her. I should have known that she couldn’t handle such a big crowd.”
“You’re right,” he snarled, roughly loosening his tie and throwing it on the dresser. “You should have known.”
Claire shook her head to clear her mind, repeating the familiar mantra:
Joe is not Frank. His family is not the Oxford faculty.
Taking advantage of a sudden boost of confidence before it disappeared, Claire got out of the car and unbuckled Faith. She got halfway up the driveway before she realized she left the pie on the passenger seat, then ran back to get it. She stood on the porch and crouched down to straighten Faith’s brown and green dress and flatten a few wild curls, then stood up and straightened her own sweater, pulling it further down over her jeans.
“Ready, baby?” Claire said. “We can do it, yes?”
Faith gave Claire a thumbs up, and that was all she needed to ring the doorbell.
“Lady Jane!” Joe exclaimed as he opened the door. “You look lovely, my friend.”
“Thanks, Joe.” Claire smiled warmly.
“And this little cutie must be Faith.” He crouched down, eye level with her, as Claire had mentioned made her least anxious when meeting strangers. “Hi there, sweetie. I’m Joe, your mom’s friend. It’s great to meet you.” Faith shyly pressed Horsie into her face. “I like your horse, Faith. I’m glad you brought him. There’s plenty of food to go around.”
Claire chuckled as Joe stood to full height once more. “She okay?”
“Yes, I think she’s fine.”
“Great, come on in. Let me take that pie.” As they crossed the threshold, a beautiful black woman swooped in from the end of the hall, her purple sweater making her eyes glimmer.
“Oh, look at you!” she exclaimed. “It is so good to finally put a face to the name.” She gave Claire her hand. “Gail.”
“Claire. And this is Faith.”
She hid behind Horsie again as Gail crouched down. “Hello, little lady. It’s great to meet you. Your dress is very pretty.”
“Say thank you, baby. You know the sign.” Claire crouched down next to Faith and signed thank you . “Miss Gail said your dress is pretty. Say thank you?” She signed again, and Faith copied the best she could with one hand clutching Horsie. “Good girl, Faith. Very good.”
“You’re welcome,” Gail said warmly. “What’s the sign?” Claire’s smile got even wider, showing Gail the sign, and she repeated it to Faith. “You’re welcome, Faith.”
Faith hid her smile in Horsie, but Claire could see it.
“She likes you,” Claire said, standing up along with Gail.
“Well I like her, too.” Gail winked down at Faith. “Here, give me your coats, come in, have a drink, relax.”
A loud shriek suddenly rang through the house, and Faith dropped Horsie to cover her ears.
“Easy, little man,” Claire heard Joe’s voice, followed by:
“Gotta be quiet, Lenny,” a little girl said. “Mama said.”
Claire picked up Horsie and Faith and rocked her. “It’s alright, darling. It was just a little baby. It’s okay.”
“I’m so sorry,” Gail said as they entered the living room. “I swear he doesn’t usually do that.”
“It’s okay, she’s fine,” Claire assured her, despite the fact that Faith’s hands were still glued to her ears.
Joe was standing by the fireplace holding a toddler, three-year-old Lenny, and standing next to him was an adorable little girl in a blue dress.
“Hi, Miss Beauchamp,” the girl said politely. “I’m Dee-Dee.”
“Well hello, there,” Claire said, smiling again. “Your Dad has told me all about you, Dee-Dee. Please, call me Claire.”
Delia looked skeptically to each parent, waiting for their approval to address her informally.
“Okay. Hi, Claire.”
“Faith, lovie,” Claire coaxed, whispering into her temple. “There’s a little girl who’d like to meet you. Can you please move your hands now? It isn’t loud anymore, I promise.” Faith looked down at Delia. “I’m going to put you down now, okay?” Claire slowly lowered Faith to the floor, and she didn’t object.
“Hi, Faith,” Delia said. “My Daddy told me you’re real special. Wanna play?” Faith stared back at her. “I brought lots of dollies from my room that you can play with. Wanna see?”
“Can you show her the dolls, Dee-Dee?” Claire said gently, taking Faith’s hand.
“Uh-huh, follow me.” She led them to the corner of the living room, where the girl had obviously created a little arrangement of all her favorite dolls, surrounding a little dollhouse. “See? They’re pretty.”
“They’re very pretty,” Claire agreed. “Here darling.” Claire picked up one of the dolls and handed it to Faith. “See? Dee-Dee is going to share her dolls.” Faith took the doll in the hand that wasn’t holding Horsie. “Can you be a good girl with Dee-Dee, Faith?” Claire held up her thumb, and Faith copied. “There you go. Good girl.”
“Don’t worry, Claire. Daddy told me we gotta play quiet games,” Delia said seriously. “All my dollies are quiet, and I’m really quiet, too.”
“That’s very good, sweetheart. Thank you so much.”
Delia nodded, then sat down on the floor. “C’mon, Faith. Sit down and play.”
Claire slowly backed away from them, waiting for Faith to start whining for her to come back. She breathed a sigh of relief when she made it to the couch without Faith protesting. Gail was already waiting with a drink, and a plate of appetizers had been put on the coffee table.
“She’s so sweet,” Claire said as she accepted the drink from Gail. “Very thoughtful and sensitive. And she’s only six?”
“Yeah, she’s a good one,” Gail said, sitting down next to her. “Not like that one.” She gestured to Lenny, who Joe had to scoop up again to prevent from launching himself at the girls. “Troublemaker.”
Claire chuckled. “Drives her crazy, I bet.”
“Sure does. Doesn’t help that she bosses him around.” Gail took a pig-in-a-blanket into her fingers.
“Big sisters do that,” Joe piped in, sitting in an armchair with Lenny in his lap.
“So, Claire, tell me all about jolly-old-England. I’ve never been out of the States,” Gail said eagerly, popping the mini hotdog into her mouth.
Claire chuckled and took a sip of her drink. “Well, what do you want to know?”
The afternoon progressed without a hitch; Joe and Gail were always careful to remove Lenny from the room if it seemed like he was about to be loud, and they took turns keeping him occupied so he didn’t bombard Faith. Claire was overwhelmed. Never before had anyone taken such measures to be sure that her daughter was comfortable. Back in England, if Claire had merely suggested that they bring awareness to Faith’s special needs to anybody who invited them over, Frank immediately shut it down. He had truly made her feel like she was crazy, like there was really no need for her to worry at all. And then when things inevitably went wrong, it was her fault for not having the foresight to leave her home.
Delia was especially a marvel. She must have been the calmest six year old Claire had ever met. She was so gentle with Faith, and spoke so calmly. She didn’t seem bothered at all that Faith didn’t answer when she talked to her; she seemed more than happy to take the lead on whatever game they were playing. She just chattered away to her, and Faith seemed quite content.
She’s never had a friend.
Claire almost cried into her turkey to think about it.
The meal was quite delicious, a wide assortment of things that Joe assured her were “Thanksgiving foods.” Faith refused to eat the turkey no matter what Claire tried so, in the end, to avoid a meltdown, Claire removed the poultry from her plate and gave her extra carrots instead. Faith’s favorite, by far, was the sweet potatoes with marshmallows, something that Claire had reflexively wrinkled her nose at. Joe, however, insisted she try it at least once, and she had been proven wrong immediately.
The Abernathy Thanksgiving tradition was a board game in between dinner and dessert, and Delia decided on Candy Land. Faith sat in Claire’s lap while she played, letting her pick the cards and move the piece where Claire told her to. Lenny had free range of the living room while Faith was otherwise occupied. Claire found herself dizzy with glee for the entire game, thoroughly enjoying Joe and Gail’s competitive banter, as well as Delia’s constant insistence that she would win.
But it was Faith’s joy that took the cake.
She wasn’t just comfortable, she was happy . She was enjoying herself. She was humming, and stimming, and bouncing in Claire’s lap. How many years had Claire been terrified to take her out of the house, and now here she was, happy as ever…?
Joe had nearly won the game, but he purposely kept making silly mistakes so that Delia would win. Winner, of course, had to clean up the game, while Gail and Joe set out dessert in the dining room. Claire blushed with embarrassment to see that the pie she’d brought was the only store-bought item on the table.
“I almost put it in my own container and pretended I made it myself,” she said jokingly.
Joe laughed. “Doesn’t matter where it came from, Lady Jane. What matters is that you brought it.”
Claire almost burst into tears again.
Dessert was just as delicious and fun as dinner. Evidently, Claire’s apple pie paired quite nicely with Gail’s homemade pumpkin and chocolate pie. Everyone made sure to have at least one piece of each, Joe going in for a second of each. By the end of the night, Claire’s stomach hurt from laughter, and her cheeks were sore from smiling. Faith fell asleep on Claire’s lap, face nuzzled into her breast, and Lenny was down for the night upstairs. Delia was more than content to sit at the table and listen to grown-up conversation, though she was quite close to falling asleep on her hands.
Claire had mentioned Faith’s therapy at the hospital, but Joe was eager to hear more, and Gail was excited to hear about it at all. She regaled the story of Faith’s first interaction with the horse, and the first time she got on the horse. She told them all about Jamie, how he had this magic touch that settled Faith immediately, how he went above and beyond to make Faith happy.
The more Claire went on, the more Joe was getting this look on his face that Claire couldn’t put a name to. Then, as she continued, she realized that the look appeared every time she mentioned Jamie…which was actually quite often. She said his name again, and Joe looked at her again , cocking an eyebrow. She opened her mouth to say something in response, something snarky, but she lost her nerve the longer she thought about it.
Which was strange, because she was never one to lose her nerve.
She quickly turned the conversation back on Joe, and before long, Mister Jamie and his blue eyes were out of sight and out of mind.
“You know,” Claire said, everyone coming down from laughter over an anecdote of a particularly spirited patient they’d had this week. “I’m really, really grateful that you had us today. Your home is beautiful, the food was great, and you’re all just…wonderful.”
“Please, Claire, it was our pleasure,” Gail said. “You’re great company. Ever since Joe’s family moved we’ve missed having people over for Thanksgiving. And Dee-Dee loved playing with Faith.”
Delia shook herself awake enough to nod in response.
“Faith liked playing with her too.” Claire rubbed her back. “She was really great with her. You’ve both done a lovely job with her.”
“Well thanks,” Joe said. “You’ve done a great job with yours, Lady Jane.”
Claire smiled and leaned her cheek on the top of Faith’s head.
“Speaking of…” Gail said. “Looks like it’s past somebody’s bedtime.”
“Not tired, Mama.”
“Oh, yes you are. Come on, young lady.”
“I should get going, too,” Claire said reluctantly, standing up with Faith.
“Oh, are you sure?” Gail said. “You can put Faith down in the guest room and we can have some more drinks.”
“I appreciate that, truly. But I do have a six o’clock shift.”
“Ah, that’s right. Claire takes all the crappy shifts,” Joe said.
“Just so I can have weekends off,” Claire said. “I’d do anything they asked if it means I don’t have to work Saturday or Sunday, or Fridays past four for that matter.”
“Of course, of course,” Joe said.
“Well hold on, now, you’re not going anywhere without leftovers.” Gail shuffled into the kitchen. “Come on Dee, you wanna stay up, you’re gonna help Mama.”
“It’s your food,” Claire objected, following her into the kitchen and shifting Faith’s weight around. “I don’t want to take it, please, we don’t need — ”
“Oh, stop being so damn polite.” Gail waved her off, shoveling potatoes into a Tupperware container. “No way we’d eat all this before it goes bad. This’ll feed you both for a week.”
Claire couldn’t help but smile. “I guess all those microwave dinners will have to sit in the freezer for another week.”
They all laughed at that.
Leftovers packed in containers and a paper bag, everyone shifted from the kitchen into the main hallway.
“Listen, Claire, let’s not wait for another holiday to do this again, alright?” Joe put a hand on the shoulder that Faith’s head was not laying on. “It was really great to have you. Both of you.”
Claire’s heart felt fit to burst, and she couldn’t stop the tears that rushed to her eyes.
“Thank you, Joe. Really. This means…a lot to us.”
“Us, too,” Gail said, Delia wrapped around her waist, half asleep.
“Goodnight, Lady Jane.”
“Goodnight Joe. Gail, Delia.”
Claire had to keep pausing in her buckling of Faith’s car seat to wipe tears from her eyes.
“I’m so proud of you,” she whispered, brushing frizzled little curls off of Faith’s forehead. “We’re doing it, lovie.”
This fresh start was truly the best thing that ever happened to them.
Claire was bouncing in her seat, almost exactly like she’d seen her daughter do countless times. She’d rearranged her entire schedule this week so that she could meet Gillian’s plane. She’d come straight here from work, with Faith still at home with Mrs. Lickett. As much as she’d love to have Faith greet her Auntie right away, she figured that would not be wise considering how things had gone the last time they were in an airport together.
She kept checking her phone, as if planes could actually adhere to their exact schedules. The plane was supposed to arrive in five minutes. Claire remembered quite vividly the day she’d said goodbye to Gillian back in Oxfordshire, the bone crushing hug and the tears they shed on each other. They hadn’t been apart more than a few days since the day they met, and no one else had been there for her as steadfastly when Frank left. That day, she wasn’t sure she could go on without her. Which was more than she could say for going on without her husband. She was quite sure she could do that.
So to see her in more or less five minutes after three months had her as giddy as Faith anticipating the opening notes to Frozen .
After an eternity of about fifteen minutes, the announcement that her flight landed sounded and Claire jumped out of her seat. Obviously it would be another ten minutes at least before the plane was lined up at the gate, but she just couldn't sit still anymore.
When people finally started pouring out of the bridge, and Claire caught sight of that strawberry-blonde head, she suddenly felt like a freshman in college again, waving like an idiot to get her attention across campus.
Her elfin face lit up immediately upon seeing her, and she shoved past about six people and started sprinting toward Claire. With a girlish squeal, the two women collided with a force that knocked the wind out of Claire.
“Oh my God !” Gillian exclaimed, squeezing the life out of Claire. “Jesus! Let me look at you!” She held Claire at arms length, and she squealed again. “My God, Claire, ye’ve gotten even hotter!”
Claire gave quite an unattractive guffaw and swatted her arm. “You look great too, Gi.”
Gillian promptly squealed again and pulled her in for another air-compressing hug.
After about five more minutes of fawning over one another, they proceeded arm-in-arm to baggage claim, then outside to Claire’s car.
“Hope ye didn’t pay too much fer parking,” Gillian said as she slung her suitcase into the trunk.
“Oh, you know, America,” Claire said, rolling her eyes. “It was robbery, of course.”
Gillian snorted before getting into the passenger seat. “It’s a lovely set o’ wheels. How long did it take ye to no’ drive on the wrong side o’ the road?”
Claire chuckled as she put the car in reverse to pull out of her spot. “Not as long as I thought. I do still have to consciously think about it.”
“I hope it isna too long to yer place, I’m starving . That shite on a platter they give ye on the plane just doesna cut it. No’ to mention I’m dying to see my wee niece.”
Claire beamed. “She is so excited to see you. I’ve been telling her every day for a week how many days until Auntie Gi. She was practically vibrating this morning when I told her today was the day.” They both shared a laugh at that. “And as for being hungry, I already placed a delivery order to arrive shortly after we get home.”
Gillian leaned her head back into the seat, sighing. “I could kiss ye.”
Claire scoffed affectionately, giving Gillian’s thigh a pat before turning her attention back to the road.
When they arrived at the apartment, Gillian was in awe at the sheer suburban-ness of the place. Together, they lugged the suitcase up the stairs, and Claire couldn't help but smile already before she even turned the lock.
As she’d expected, Faith was already right by the front door, having heard the car arrive, and promptly threw herself on Gillian’s legs.
“There she is!” Gillian cried, bending down to lift her and settle her on her hip. She gave an exaggerated grunt as she did. “Jesus, Faith, ye’ve gotten so big I can hardly lift ye anymore!”
Faith was squealing with giggles, stimming without restraint, humming loudly. She threw her arms around Gillian’s neck and squeezed tightly, causing everyone, including Mrs. Lickett, to laugh affectionately.
“ Och , I missed ye so much, wee girl,” Gillian crooned as she stepped into the apartment, Claire following behind with the suitcase. “She really has gotten so big, how has it only been three months?”
“I know, I can’t believe how fast she’s growing.” Claire leaned against the couch, her heart full. “Oh, Gillian, this is Faith’s caretaker, Mrs. Lickett.” The older woman smiled warmly from the other side of the coffee table.
“Great to meet ye, I’ve heard so much,” Gillian said.
“So have I, about you,” Mrs. Lickett returned.
The woman gathered her things and left, Gillian coaxing the little girl in her arms to wave goodbye.
“Fifteen minutes until Italian food,” Claire sighed, plopping herself on the couch.
“Ah, New York Italian food,” Gillian said, sitting down beside her and putting Faith in her lap. “A delicacy.”
“Indeed. You were right about that.” Claire watched gleefully as Faith hummed and ran her fingers through Gillians straight, silky hair. It was quite a different texture from her mother’s untamable curls, so she was likely enjoying the sensation quite a bit.
Dinner arrived and was eaten with much celebration, including a bottle of wine that Claire had been saving for the occasion. Faith had vehemently insisted on being given some, which Claire had anticipated, and cleverly served her a little cup of grape juice. They clinked their glasses and cups together, making Faith smile wide as ever.
A comedy of manners ensued when they tried to get the air mattress blown up in the living room, especially with the obtrusive Christmas tree in the way. Several failed attempts later, it was blown up and fully made, just before Faith’s patience ran out in waiting for her movie. They sat cuddled under a blanket on the couch watching Beauty and the Beast , Faith laughing her head off at Gillian’s extremely poor attempts at singing along.
After Faith was in bed, Gillian and Claire spent hours cuddled under the blanket, passing the wine bottle back and forth, updating each other on anything and everything. They were up much later than Claire should have been, being that she had a shift at eight in the morning, but she couldn't bring herself to care. Sitting there, tipsy, with her best friend, whispering and giggling into the wee hours of the morning was the most uninhibited she’d felt in years.