To say that Sylvie was surprised to see Nancy and Randy on their front porch two weeks before Christmas was an understatement. Asked two minutes before, she wouldn’t have even been entirely sure that Nancy knew their current address. Sylvie had not spoken to her mother-in-law since the wedding, and Matt only rarely spoke to her. He never mentioned Nancy’s husband, but given his feelings about his stepfather, Sylvie didn’t expect anything else on that front.
“Nancy, Randy, hi.”
“Can we come in?” Randy asked.
“Matt’s at work.”
“You and Matthew work the same shift. He’s not at work.”
“Matt’s at work on a construction project.” Sylvie wasn’t lying. Matt might have not taken any big projects to have some extra time off during the holiday season (and because his shoulder needed the rest, it still wasn’t back to normal), but he was still taking calls from established clients. Besides, it had been Mrs. Danvers who called. She was ninety years old, still living on her own, and she’d been Matt’s client since he was still working for someone else as a day laborer: she’d called with a door that was sticking, and Matt went over to fix it. He’d come home full of whatever treats the surprisingly sprightly old lady had made for him. Sylvie had met her a few months back when Matt took her and Jack by. It had felt a little like meeting Matt’s grandmother in a way – though seeing him blush when Geraldine Danvers went on about how he’d finally settled down with a good girl and started making adorable babies had been well worth the calorie bombs that were the cupcakes and dessert breads she’d made for their visit. For some reason, Sylvie did not want to tell Nancy any of that, or even where exactly Matt was.
“I’d like to talk to you anyway.” Nancy said.
“It’s nearly five, Matt should be home soon.” Sylvie admitted. “Come inside, it’s cold out.”
“The house is nice. I didn’t think firefighters made enough money to afford this sort of place, this is a nice neighborhood now.” Nancy remarked as they stepped inside.
“It was a fixer upper.” Sylvie replied. “Matt just about took it down to the studs.”
“This floor looks original.” Randy gestured downwards. As if Sylvie couldn’t tell where the floor was.
“It’s reclaimed, from another house of the same period.”
“Matthew did this work?” Nancy asked.
“Yes, he did.”
“I had no idea.” Nancy looked around, impressed if Sylvie was any judge of her expressions. She should be. Matt had done beautiful work, he always did good work, but in his own home he’d really created something beautiful, a balance between keeping (or replacing) period-appropriate material and modernizing the house for twenty-first century life. She took them through to the kitchen, mostly because she needed to keep an eye on dinner. It had nothing to do with wanting to show off her favorite room in the house (well, no, their bedroom had a certain appeal, and the furniture in Jack’s room, but this was her favorite to really show off because the kitchen looked like it belonged in some truly fancy house).
“Matthew did this?” Nancy asked again.
“I helped with the design, but he did all the labor himself, well, he had a little help with putting in the cabinets, but he did almost all the labor himself.”
“I’ve never seen his work before.” Nancy admitted. “I knew he did some light construction on the side, day work, but this is beautiful."
"He’s a licensed and bonded contractor, not a day laborer.” Sylvie pointed out sharply. There was a big difference between the two in terms of skills and expertise, or at least, there should be and Matt was good at what he did. She knew Nancy had lived with Matt for a time when she got out, in a place Matt had renovated, but maybe Nancy hadn’t known Matt had done the work there.
“Is my grandson here?”
“He’s upstairs, sleeping.” Sylvie answered.
“I’d like to meet him.”
“You can do that, just as soon as-“
“That’s ridiculous.” Randy cut in. “Just because she was in prison-“
“Everyone has to have the booster, I had one, Matt had one, everyone who has held my son or been within a few feet of him even, has had a recent DTAP booster. Matt has explained this to you, Nancy, many times, I know he has.”
“This is just a reason for Matthew to be hurtful and exclude me.”
“We’re being reasonably cautious-“
“We’re not leaving until we meet our grandson.” Randy stepped toward her, and Sylvie was just about to chew him a new asshole for thinking he could intimidate her in her own damned house, when the backdoor shut very firmly just as she registered a draft of cold air.
“You get an inch closer to my wife and you’ll regret it.” Matt’s voice was damn near a growl, Sylvie barely recognized it. It scared her more than Randy’s approach had initially, in fact, not because she thought Matt might hurt her but she realized just how close Randy was to her and suddenly she didn’t want to be there. Something about Randy had always set her on edge, the way he talked down to people, even Matt, even Nancy sometimes, but she’d always just thought him a jerk. Matt’s reaction said he’d registered a different threat.
“Mom, shut up. I told you the rules for meeting Jack. Randy, get away from my wife.”
“Matthew, don’t talk to him like that.”
“Why are you here?”
“I came to meet my grandson. You won’t bring him to me.”
“I’m busy. And you know the rules for that.”
“You go to see her parents all the time, I’ve seen the pictures on her Instagram.”
“Her parents have had their shots.” Matt pointed out sharply.
“So have I.” Nancy shot back, pulling a paper out of her purse and slapping it down on the island’s counter top. “You got what you wanted, Matthew, treating me like I carry diseases, but there you go. I want to meet my grandson.”
“Sylvie?” Matt looked at her, and she took up the paper. It really was a record of Nancy’s vaccination, dated almost two weeks ago.
“She’s good, Matt. It’s two weeks old.”
“Randy?” Matt asked, challenge in his voice. “You got yours?”
“I’ve got four other grandchildren, never needed any shot just to meet them.”
“Then your kids are morons.” Matt shot back immediately. “And not other grandchildren, he’s not yours.”
“Matthew, he’s my husband.”
“He’s nothing to me. I barely know him. What I do know, I don’t like.”
“Matt.” Sylvie shook her head at him. That wasn’t going to help, but Matt’s temper was up and he got mean sometimes when he was angry. Not with her, not really (everyone got sharp when angry), but with other people, he could be pretty mean. “Why don’t you go up and get Jack? As long as Randy doesn’t hold him, and he doesn’t have a cough or any way likely to spread anything over any good distance, it’ll be fine.”
“Why Jack?” Nancy asked, apparently randomly.
“It’s John Andrew, officially. John after my mom’s dad and Andrew after Matt’s friend-” Sylvie informed them.
“Then you should call him John. If I’d wanted Matthew called Matt, I’d have named him that, just like we named Christie – we didn’t name her Christine and call her something else entirely. Your parents they wanted you called Sylvie, so they named you Sylvie, not Sylvia. You have a beautiful name, Matthew, you should use it.”
“He should be up in a few minutes any way. Go get him.” Sylvie urged Matt upstairs. He nodded, but shot a look at Randy.
“Have a seat. Over there.”
“I’d say you’re a son of a bitch, but I don’t want to insult your mother.” Randy replied. “No wonder Nancy says you remind her of Greg, asshole with a nice face, though – must be why she can’t stand to look at you.”
“Randy.” Nancy gasped.
“That’s really how you feel, Mom?” Matt looked like he’d been smacked in the face.
“Sweetheart, that’s not-“
“Tell him the truth, Nancy. You’ve told everyone else enough times. He’s Greg made over.”
“No, no he’s not.” Nancy protested. “He doesn’t have that same…cruelty in him. Sweetheart, I never said that. It just sometimes, when you’re angry, sweetheart, sometimes you remind me of him. You say things, when you’re angry, things that…he was like that, too.”
“I’ll bring Jack down.” Matt capitulated. “You can meet him.”
Matt arrived with Jack in his arms a few minutes later. Sylvie had been silent the whole time. She wanted to do something, possibly violent, to both of her ‘guests,’ but she wasn’t sure what to say. Randy had, at least, taken a seat at the table, while Nancy stayed at the island. As much as Sylvie right now almost hated her mother-in-law, she couldn’t help being moved at the sight of Nancy just about in tears. She wondered how it would feel, someday, seeing Jack with his own child in his arms. It was hard to imagine a day when Jack was taller than her, though she knew it would come.
“Can I hold him?”
“Hey, Jack, this is…” Matt paused, looking at Nancy, “what do you want to be called, Mom? Grandma? Grannie? Nana?”
“Nana, I like that. It’s close to my name.”
“Jack, this is your Nana. You want to say ‘hi’?”
Jack’s response was a strung-together series of mostly vowel sounds, but he didn’t cuddle into Matt’s shoulder so he wasn’t unwilling at least. If he had retreated closer to Matt’s body, Sylvie was certain Matt wouldn’t have handed him over, but as it was, there was a very ginger exchange as Nancy took Jack.
“You don’t look a thing like your daddy did.” Nancy spoke softly to Jack. “He was skinny and sort of yellow-skinned, always had his fingers in his mouth, he was so fussy, and sort of ugly, like a little alien baby. You’re a nice chubby cute little boy, John.”
“My mom thinks he looks like me.” Sylvie volunteered.
“Is he sleeping well for you? Matthew didn’t sleep more than four hours a night until he was about a year old. And be ready for lots of time with diapers.”
“You didn’t potty-train during the day until you were two and a half, Matthew.”
“That’s not even late, especially for a boy.” Sylvie couldn't help sort of defending Matt.
“He wet the bed at night until he was almost eight.”
“What? She should know these things, in case he takes after you more than he looks like you. Has he started playing with his little thing, yet? Matthew figured that out very early-“
“Well, you did.”
“No one ever needs to know that!”
“Why? She’s your wife, I’m sure she’s plenty familiar with your little thing. Otherwise we’d not have John here, would we?”
“His name is Jack.” Matt insisted.
“No, his name is John. You said so yourself, John Andrew Casey. It is Casey isn’t it, not one of those hyphenated things, or keeping the mother’s name?”
“It’s Casey. So is mine now, actually.” Sylvie assured her.
“Good, that whole idea is ridiculous, you should have the same name as your children, you know. Though you’d never know Matthew had anything to do with making this one, he sure is adorable.”
“Aaaaaa.” Jack reached towards Matt, repeating that simple vowel sound. Sylvie had a sharp sudden jerk that maybe he was trying to say something like Dad, but had only managed the vowels. Maybe it was just parental wishful thinking. Either way, Matt plucked his son from Nancy’s arms.
“I hear you, Peanut. It’s okay, we’ll have dinner in a few minutes.”
“Oh, Matthew, don’t start that sort of thing.”
“What? Feeding my son?”
“No, the nickname thing. He’ll be forty and people will still call him ‘Peanut’. You always hated when your father or uncles called you nicknames.”
“Yeah, well, from what I hear, Uncle Gary’s favorite ‘nickname’ was faggot, so I can’t blame him for hating it.” Sylvie tried to keep her tone a little less hateful than she suddenly felt. It wasn’t even all directed at Nancy, it was just that Nancy’s way of speaking to Matt set her every nerve on edge. “Peanut is cute.”
“Still, you should call him his name.”
“He’s our son. We’ll decide what to call him.” Matt replied firmly. “I let you decide what he’ll call you, and when he’s old enough, I’ll let him decide what people will call him, but for now, we decide, and it’s Jack.”
“I suppose we should go. We’re meeting Randy’s daughter for dinner, but I had to…well, I had to see him in person, Matthew. I never got to know my granddaughter when she was little, I’d like to know John.”
“Try letting us know when you’ll come by next time, we can arrange a bit more time in everyone’s schedule.” Sylvie kept it polite, but hoped that the slight dig about just dropping by had been made clear enough. She wasn’t at all sorry to see Nancy and Randy go a couple moments later.
“I worry sometimes.” Matt spoke seemingly randomly, after they were in bed that night. Sylvie was in her spot, curled into his side.
“I feel like I worry every day now that I’m a mom, but what do you worry about sometimes?”
“That she’s right.”
“Who’s right about what?”
“Mom. That I’m just like him.”
“Matt, you’re nothing like your dad.”
“You never knew him.” Matt pointed out gently. “He wasn’t all bad, Sylvie. There were years, even, when it was good. And even in the rough years, it wasn’t bad every day. He took me to hockey games and taught me to skate. He taught me to build things, to fix stuff around the house. We used to play those complicated strategy board games on winter weekends when it was really cold outside: you know, Risk, Axis and Allies, stuff like that. He was strict, but lots of dads are strict. Mom knew him. She thinks…”
“Nancy might have known your dad, but I don’t think she knows you.”
“She’s my mom.”
“And I’m married to you. I think I know you a lot better than she does. Even if she does have the embarrassing stories from when you were a baby. Like that you figured out your ‘little thing’ early in life.” Sylvie teased lightly, not wanting to let him get too far down the rabbit hole tonight.
“It’s not that little anymore.” He paused. “It’s weird that she says Jack doesn’t look anything like me. I think he’s got some of me in him.”
“He does. I can see it.” She considered for a quiet moment whether to go on, but maybe it would be good for him to hear it. “The things she talked about Matt, those are signs of a baby who was underfed. So Jack might not look like you did because he’s healthier. That’s all.”
“Christie still blames me. I think Mom does, too. It’s my fault.”
“No, Matt, it isn’t. You didn’t cause her to do what she did. She made her own decision about how to deal with your dad’s abuse. She could’ve done other things.”
“Randy believed what he said. Mom’s said that to him. That she can’t stand to look at me. She always says I look so handsome and it’s always weird. I’m not particularly handsome, I mean, I’m not ugly, I know that, but…I think I do look a lot like my dad. What I remember of him. He was heavier set than I am, by the age when I remember him anyway, and he had hazel eyes, but Christie and I got his blond hair. I’m shorter than him, by about four inches. But I do look like him. Do you think that bothers my mom?”
“If it does, that’s on her. You can’t help your ravishing good looks, Matt.”
“I’m glad you think I’m good-looking, even if I respectfully disagree.” Matt kissed the top of her head. “She’s going to call him John his entire life, you know that, right?”
“Moms can be stubborn.”
“She calls me Matthew. I’ve been Matt my whole life, as long as I can remember, to everyone but my mother. And apparently her husband now.” Matt tightened his grip on her a little. “Did Randy bother you today? He was trying to intimidate you.”
“I know. Matt, I’m a paramedic in Chicago, I’ve seen scarier guys than your stepfather.”
“It doesn’t excuse him being a bastard to you, especially in our house. I don’t want him around. I don’t care what they say, if I’m not home, I don’t want him here.”
“He’s not dangerous, Matt.”
“You don’t know that. More importantly, I don’t know that. My mom’s taste in men is pretty awful. Just promise me. It’ll make me feel better.”
“Fine. But it’s winter. I’m going to feel bad about making them wait outside, so you owe me, mister.”
“Owe you?” Matt asked, tilting her chin up to meet his eyes. “Should I start paying on that debt now then?”
She had hoped she was just being silly, but she was late. She was late, and they’d been sexually active. And condoms weren’t absolutely effective. And there was his birthday, and the fact that they hadn’t used a condom in the shower, she’d remember only after she realized she was late. And they’d broken the condom that one time, too. So it was possible. It made her want to puke, but it was possible. So she bought the damn test and this morning, before shift, she’d peed on it and prayed for the answer she wanted, but then realized she wasn’t even entirely sure what answer she wanted. Was she?
She wasn’t sure how she was feeling, now that she had the answer. She wasn’t entirely sure about a lot of things at the moment. The only thing she was sure of was that she had to tell Matt. No matter what she felt about it, this was happening and they would have to deal with it. She just hadn’t expected it. She certainly hadn’t wanted it. But here it was. She spent so much time staring at the damning evidence that Matt popped his head into the bathroom.
“Babe, you gotta get dressed. We have to leave for Herrmann’s in like five minutes or we’ll be late for shift.”
“Yeah, of course, sorry.”
“Sylvie, is that…” Matt stepped into the room, seeing what was in her hand. “Are you…are we…again?”
“Apparently, yes. I’m pregnant. Again.” Sylvie managed to tell him. She watched his face, a moment for shock was expected, and then that grin, God, that boyish crazy grin, and he pulled her into his chest into a crushing hug.
“I love you.” Matt whispered into her hair as he hugged her so tightly.
“I know.” She did know that. She knew it just like she knew he was going to be happy about this, even though they’d not been trying, had been trying to prevent it, in fact. But he wasn’t the one who was pregnant. He wasn’t the one who was going to have to take a bunch more time off work, barely a year after the last long leave of absence. He wasn’t the one who hadn’t even gotten all the old baby weight off yet, and now she was going to be gaining it all back, and he wasn’t the one whose body wouldn’t be her own again for…frankly a lot longer than being pregnant by itself and that was long enough.
“Sylvie.” Matt pulled back, gently bringing her chin up to meet his eyes. “This is good news, isn’t it?”
“Well…not entirely.” Sylvie wanted to be honest with him. She had promised him that much and more importantly she knew he needed it. He was working so hard to overcome his certainty that everyone lied to him (at least by omission) she couldn’t start being less than honest with him now, no matter how much it might hurt him in the short term. “We weren’t trying or planning, we were using condoms to try to prevent this, in fact, and I’m going to have to take another leave from work, and babies are expensive-“
“Don’t worry about the money. I can pick up some extra shifts, and some more construction work.”
“You already work too hard.” Sylvie argued. He did. He worked what seemed like every hour God sent, especially April through October, preparing financially for the ‘lean’ winter months without much construction work. “And I’m not sure I can handle Jack as a toddler and a little one, too. He’s already crawling and he’s as fearless as you are, and I already have nightmares of hearing ‘Mommy watch this’ from the other room and if I have another baby in my arms, who is going to catch our cannonball of a son?”
“He’s not a cannonball.” Matt chuckled lightly. “He’s just…speedy for a kid who is only crawling. Agile. I’ll finish up all the last of the child-proofing tomorrow, I promise. But Sylvie, another Jack…another baby that’s part of me and part of you and…God, we could have a dozen of them and I’d be happy.”
“Uhm, no, we couldn’t.” Sylvie was firm on that. She was tired just thinking about two. “I love Jack so much, but he’s…a lot. This one may be our last. Hopefully it’s our little princess you wanted so badly.”
“Nah. This one’s a boy.” Matt put a hand over her obviously-still-flat stomach. “Jack’s little brother.”
“Uh-huh. Given that you spent all of my pregnancy with Jack insisting he was a girl, I’m not going to believe you about this one.” Sylvie smiled, knowing his enthusiasm was contagious. She had no doubt she was going to love their child, of course she would, it was just a lot to feel and think about and deal with right now.
“I know I’m not the one pregnant, and having to interrupt my career, and…deal with all the pain and inconvenience of pregnancy. But aren’t you happy, Sylvie? To have another little one? To grow our family?” Matt met her eyes carefully.
“Not yet. I will be. I just need some time. To adjust my plans, I guess.”
“Give me a few days, Matt. This is a surprise.” She tried to reassure him.
“Days I can give.” Matt’s smile was small and a little taut. “I just want to ask one thing.”
“What one thing is that?”
“We wait to tell anyone at all until you’ve hit ‘happy’. Honestly happy, because you have a glass face, Sylvie.”
“Well, I wasn’t going to rush out and tell anyone just yet, in case…just in case.”
“Okay.” Matt paused. “I just want us to be, I want it to be a happy announcement. Good news.”
“Matt, your parents weren’t happy, were they?” Sylvie realized suddenly.
“Yes and no. They traded. Mom was happy at first, so I was told, but Dad wasn’t. Another mouth to feed and all that.” Matt shrugged, but it wasn’t nonchalant. “Then when I was born, and was – well, am – a son, Dad was happy. Mom wasn’t. I just…it was always…I felt guilty, for the long labor she used to talk about, and being unplanned, Dad not even wanting another, and for not being the little sister for Christie that she and Mom both wanted. I know they’re my parents, they loved me, I just…it was weird to know I wasn’t wanted. So, I don’t want anyone to tell any stories to this little one that we weren’t ecstatic.”
“I would never tell a child they were unwanted. And it isn’t unwanted. Poorly timed. Unplanned. Yes to both. But Matt,” She cupped his jaw, and kissed him softly, “I could never not want your baby. We did want another child, eventually. Because while I wouldn’t have a dozen, one or two more little Matt-Casey-juniors running around, well, both me and the world could use that.”
“He doesn’t look that much like me.” Matt wrinkled his nose kind of adorably.
“No. Jack’s a pretty good mix of us, I think. But I hope he grows up like you. Happier. But strong and stubborn, proud and noble, and kind and good – like you.”
“You flatter me.” Matt was smiling genuinely again, though. “I may not think that describes me all that well, but I’d be damned proud if my son – sorry, sons – turn out that way.”
“What about it doesn’t describe you?”
“Well, okay, stubborn, that one fits. Both of us actually so I think we’re pretty much guaranteed to have two stubborn mules for kids.” Matt grinned. “Two. I am definitely the luckiest son of a bitch on the planet.”