Disclaimer:Not my characters; not my worlds
Summary:The English major at home.
Kaleb was reciting a bedtime story when the front doorbell rang. He felt a blade of fear keen as the bit of an axe cleave his heart. In the past three years, unexpected visitors had never been a good thing. He sat frozen for a long, unhappy moment until Madison roused him.
"Someone's at the front door, Daddy," she announced impatiently.
He patted her shoulder, reassuring himself more than her, before he stood and walked to the window. His feet felt as heavy as lead.
The car parked in the driveway was some kind of luxury sedan. A man stood in the front porch light, a striped shirt buttoned over a red t-shirt. His shoulders were hunched, and he shifted from side to side as though he were nervous, or maybe just too tired to stand on his feet much longer.
"Who is it?" Madison demanded.
Kaleb took a deep breath. Apparently he'd forgotten to breathe during the past minute. He crossed back to Madison's bed. "It's your Uncle Mer," he said, and then immediately put his hand on Madison's ankle to keep her from kicking back the covers. "You stay in bed, sweetheart. I'll send him up to say good night."
She subsided unhappily. Kaleb turned off her bedroom light and walked down the stairs, trailed by Madison's anxious, "Hurry, Daddy!" when the doorbell rang again. Kaleb punched in the pass code to turn off the alarm, noticing as he did that his hands were shaking, and then unlocked and opened the door.
"Is Jeannie all right?" he asked at the same time Meredith said, "Where's Jeannie?"
They stared at each other over the threshold. Then Mer sputtered, "It may have escaped your attention, but I'm the one who's been out of town. Way, way out of town. How should I know if Jeannie's all right? She is, isn't she?"
"You're not here because something happened?"
Mer harrumphed. "I'm here to visit my sister. Are you going to let me in?"
Kaleb moved out of the way and Mer stomped by him into the living room. He was carrying a battered leather duffel in one hand, two computer cases slung over the opposite shoulder. Out of the yellow glare of the porch light, his face was very white, and Kaleb thought he had lost weight since the last time he'd seen him.
"Jeannie's at her seminar," Kaleb said. "She'll be back in a couple of hours. Everything is really OK?"
"Uncle Mer!" Madison was out of bed, down the stairs, and crouched behind entryway's french door, which she clutched with both small hands. "What did you bring me?"
"What makes you think I would bring anything to a little extortionist who calls me 'Uncle Mer'?"
"Uncle Rodney!" Madison shrieked immediately. "Rodney! Unca Uncle ROD-ney!"
"Good god," Mer said, shaken.
"You're supposed to be in bed, young lady," Kaleb intervened.
Madison took a deep breath, prepared to press the point, but then thought better of it and trotted back to her bedroom. Mer was rooting around in the side pocket of his duffel, eventually pulling out a crinkly plastic bag that looked like it had come from an airport gift shop. He handed it to Kaleb. "Is this all right?" he demanded.
A little bewildered, Kaleb pulled out an orange t-shirt that would have been over-sized for Jeannie. On the front was a stylized blue horse tossing its head.
"It's a horse," Mer pointed out unnecessarily. "After a Denver sports team."
"Uh, the Broncos," Kaleb agreed. He hadn't figured out the significance.
"For Madison!" Mer rolled his eyes. Then he blinked. "I thought. Don't little girls like horses? Jeannie used to."
"Oh. Oh, of course. Madison will love it. Do you want to give it to her? It's probably the only way we'll get her to calm down enough to go to sleep."
Mer looked dubious, but he shoved the gift back into its plastic bag, shed his luggage on the living room floor before Kaleb could offer to help him with it, and walked up the stairs like a man on his way to war.
Kaleb grinned to himself, but it didn't last long. He still had no idea what Meredith was doing here.
He went to the kitchen, measured out tea and filled the electric kettle. He badly wanted to call Jeannie, but he wouldn't disturb her in the middle of her class. Not if Mer were really just here for a visit. Hard as that was to imagine.
He was pouring hot water over two tablespoons of oolong when Mer reappeared and fell into a kitchen chair. "Coffee, please," he snapped.
"I've got tea," Kaleb said, setting an empty cup in front of him. "Give it another thirty seconds to brew. Did Madison thank you for the shirt?"
"Well, would you start a pot of coffee for me? I've been traveling all day. And yes," Mer waved one hand dismissively. "Madison thanked me as well as a hyperactive child up past her bedtime could manage."
"We don't have any coffee in the house, I'm afraid." Kaleb poured tea into the two mugs he had set on the kitchen table. Steam rose up, fragrant as blooming flowers.
Meredith just stared at him. "You're out of coffee?" Realization hit. "Wait a minute. You don't drink coffee?
Kaleb shook his head. "We both quit in graduate school."
"What are you talking about? People don't quit drinking coffee in grad school. That's when they learn to mainline the stuff."
"Jeannie did. Quit, I mean, when she found out she was pregnant. That's when I stopped drinking it, too."
"Really?" Mer blinked at him. He groped for the mug of tea Kaleb had poured him and downed it in two swallows. He looked speculatively at his empty cup. "Definitely had worse. You really gave up coffee? Was it some sort of guilt thing?"
"No! Maybe out of solidarity," Kaleb admitted.
Mer shook his head. "So what is this seminar Jeannie's attending? I can't believe there's anything the local college could teach her unless, oh my god, is it underwater basket weaving for housewives or something? Has she really fallen that low?"
Kaleb kept himself from rolling his eyes. "It's a graduate seminar in arithmetical
geometry. Uh, etale cohomology, right? Jeannie is teaching it."
"How long has she been doing that?"
"Since last year. I have time off during the summer to watch Madison, so it works out for both of us."
"Wow. Huh. Yeah, at least Jeannie can get out of the house, but what do you get out of it?"
"And I get to spend more time with Madison," Kaleb repeated slowly.
"Got anything to eat?" Mer demanded. He grabbed the teapot and poured himself the rest. "Hypoglycemic, you know. It's important that I have regular meals."
Kaleb went to the refrigerator. "Well, there's leftover stir-fry from dinner." He pulled out a couple of glass bowls and set them on the table by Mer, hustling a bit to get him a plate and silverware before Mer simply dug into the serving bowl with his bare hands. Mer piled up the jasmine rice on his plate, but hesitated when he got to the vegetables.
"Just what did you stir fry here?"
"Um, vegetables? Carrots, onions and yams. Broccoli and sprouts. Tofu. In a peanut sauce."
Mer looked so dismayed, Kaleb might have told him it was ground puppies. "Don't you have anything else?"
And the thing was, he really did look pretty pitiful. Kaleb's first impression of exhaustion, seeing Mer in the front porch light, was right. His pale face was haggard, the skin under his eyes blue, shadowed by cheekbones that were a little too prominent. Kaleb found himself saying, "Oh, actually there may be some chicken still."
He went back to the refrigerator and checked the meat drawer. Sure enough, there was half a boned chicken breast carefully wrapped on a plate. Mer was saying, "Since when is chicken a vegetable?"
"It's for Madison." He set the plate on the table. "You have to be careful with a vegetarian diet for children. Some nutrients are more difficult for the body to absorb from vegetables. Jeannie and I will let her make her own choice when she's old enough."
"Huh." Meredith picked up the chicken with his fingers and was devouring it in enormous bites.
"It's just steamed," Kaleb started to apologize. "Not even a little tarragon--"
Mer's head snapped up. "There's no lemon on this, is there ?"
"That's what I was saying. "There's no seasoning at all."
Good," Mer approved. He finished the chicken in one more bite. Then he started on
the rice, shoveling it in.
"Would you like some tamari sauce or something with that?" Kaleb asked, feeling a little helpless. It was like watching Madison eat, and that thought actually calmed him. Jeannie had complained about her brother's childish qualities for years.
"No, I'm fine," Mer mumbled, his mouth full of rice. "Maybe some more tea?"
"I can do that," Kaleb said and turned on the electric tea kettle again. He poured Mer another cup as he was finishing off the rice. "Can I get you anything else?"
Mer shook his head and immediately slurped down the hot tea, his free hand making some sort of complicated gesture in the air. "What time will Jeannie be home?"
"Another hour or so. Unless she gets tied up answering questions after class. She'll give me a call if that happens."
Mer nodded, finishing the tea in another slurp. Then they sat looking at each other across the table.
"So how is everyone?" Kaleb tried. "John and Ronon and Radek and um, everyone."
Meredith sighed with more drama than Kaleb would have thought the question merited. "Everyone is fine. John has a broken ankle and apparently hates the universe right now, especially me, but we're all fine."
"I'm sorry to hear that, Mer. Rodney." he corrected himself too late. Meredith didn't even respond to the name.
"A split second decision made under extreme duress, as you can imagine-- well, no, you probably can't, but you can take it from me, circumstances were not ideal, and do I get any credit for making the tough choices?"
"It sounds difficult," Kaleb said, meaning it. "Is John going to be all right?"
"Jennifer says everything should knit back together just fine. But will Sheppard ever speak to me again? That's the real question. As if that Brillo pad that walks like a man has never made a bad decision when the chips were down. If it even was a bad decision, which it wasn't. Look, Kaleb, I'd love to stay here chatting with you all night, but I think I'm going to to go lie down."
"OK," Kaleb said. He was thinking of the state their guest room was in. "Did you want to stay with us?"
Meredith's face fell. "No," he announced, his chin coming up. "Of course not. I was planning to get a hotel room all along." He stumbled to his feet so quickly that he knocked over his mostly-empty mug of tea.
"Wait. That's not what I meant." Kaleb set the mug upright. "I just didn't know you were planning to stay with us. Of course we're glad to have you."
Meredith wouldn't look at him. "I can see my being here is inconvenient," he announced, blustering his way back to the living room. "I'll just leave my cell phone number for Jeannie, if it wouldn't be too much trouble to tell her I'm in town."
"Would you please stop?" Kaleb planted himself in front of Meredith. "In the first place, Jeannie would skin me alive if I let you leave before she even got home. And secondly, you're obviously worn out from traveling all day. If you want to find a hotel room tomorrow, that's fine, but at least for tonight, would you please stay with us?"
It was really amazing, Kaleb thought. His six-year-old daughter was better at disguising her emotions than Meredith, whose face cleared like the sky after a storm. "Well, all right," he said. "Wait. It's not that fold-out couch that was here last time, is it?"
Kaleb helped Mer pick up his luggage, taking the duffel while Mer heaved the computer bags back over his shoulder. "No, you'll like it," he said. "We've got a new futon in the guest room."
It was impossible to misinterpret the sigh from behind him as Kaleb led the way upstairs. The "guest bedroom" was their project room most of the time, and now was
serving as Jeannie's office as well, so the futon was buried under a stack of clothing that needed buttons sewn back on or hemlines adjusted, an unopened box of fingerpaints, sample textbooks, mail from the university, credit card offers they were going to shred before recycling, interesting catalogues, a favorite mug with a broken handle Kaleb was planning to repair as soon as he remembered to pick up some Gorilla Glue, and a load of clean laundry no one had gotten around to folding yet.
"Um, I just need to find the bed first," Kaleb joked weakly.
Mer didn't notice. "Your bathroom is down the hall, here?" he asked, and trundled off without waiting for an answer. Kaleb stacked what he could on the overcrowded bookshelves, piled the sewing repairs into the laundry basket with the clean clothes and carried them all back to his and Jeannie's bedroom. He came back with clean linens to find Mer already stretched out on the futon, which he hadn't unfolded yet, one of his laptops open on his chest. "You've changed your WiFi log-on," Mer accused.
"Uh, I guess we have, " Kaleb agreed. "Wight in wode be fleme," he said, spelling it. "That last 'e' is a three."
"So Jeannie let you choose the password," he sneered.
"She thought a titanic Merseinne prime would be too easy to crack."
"Huh," Mer said. It might have been agreement.
"I brought you some clean linen. Would you like me to make up the bed for you?"
"Just put it down there." Mer gestured vaguely without looking up.
Kaleb did look, however, and saw that Madison had crawled out of bed once again, and was sitting in a tight little bundle of pink flannel and blond hair right outside the door. Kaleb laid the folded sheets down next to Mer on the futon. "Is there a reason you're not in bed, young lady?"
Madison wrapped her arms around her drawn-up knees, the very picture of wronged innocence. "You didn't finish telling my story."
"It's already past your bedtime."
"But Uncle Rodney came and you didn't finish!"
Kaleb sighed. "All right. Just a few more lines! But only if you get back in bed right now, quick like a bunny."
Madison popped to her feet and dashed down the hall. "There are clean towels in the bathroom closet," Kaleb told Mer, who didn't acknowledge him at all.
Madison was tucked in bed with the light off. Kaleb sat down next to her. "Now where were we?"
"And then reproved he the prince with many proud word-ez," she announced, smug in her victory.
Kaleb looked at her sharply. "Are you sure?"
Madison wilted a little. In fact, they had been in the middle of the boar-hunt, but he really couldn't blame her for skipping ahead to her favorite part.
"No," she confessed. Then she looked up. "But can you tell me them anyway? Since Uncle Rodney's here?"
"Just this once," he agreed, and began.
"And þenne repreued he þe prynce with mony prowde wordez:
'Þou art not Gawayn,' quoþ þe gome, 'þat is so goud halden,
Þat neuer ar3ed for no here by hylle ne be vale,
And now þou fles for ferde er þou fele harmez!"
Madison sighed and snuggled down into the covers. Kaleb grinned down at her, his strange little darling. "I've created a monster," he whispered to her.
"That's not in the story!" she protested, opening her eyes. At this rate she was still going to be wide awake by the time Jeannie got home. Kaleb made it to the end of the next stanza, declaiming, "With þe barbe of þe bitte bi þe bare nek!" then bent forward and pressed a kiss to Madison's forehead. "And that's the last we're going to hear from you tonight."
Madison nodded sleepily. "Tell Mommy goodnight when she gets home."
"And tell Uncle Rodney goodnight."
"I'll do that, too."
"And tell Uncle Rodney I'm going to wear his shirt tomorrow."
"I've got a better idea. No more messages. Go to sleep. You can show your uncle that you're wearing his shirt in the morning."
He got up and turned around, and found that Mer was standing in Madison's bedroom door. What a family I married into, Kaleb thought. To Mer's credit, he didn't say anything until they were both back in the guest room, and then he announced, "Interesting bedtime story. How much of that does she understand?"
"You would have to ask Madison. I'm not grading for comprehension."
Mer narrowed his eyes, as if he suspected Kaleb of making fun of him. Which he wasn't, though he supposed an evening in Mer's company was making him a little defensive. He tried to relax and smile.
"What was that?" Mer asked. "It didn't sound, uh, pretty enough to be Canterbury Tales."
He had a good ear for an astrophysicist. "Same time period, more or less, but in a northwest Midlands dialect. And part of the Alliterative Revival, so more Beowulf than Geoffrey Chaucer in some ways. It's Sir Gawain and the Green Knight."
Mer blinked at him. "Isn't that a lot of beheadings for a six-year-old?"
"You're a reader," Kaleb said, surprised.
"Only out of necessity. Tolkien edited an edition of The Green Knight, and Roddenberry once claimed that it inspired Star Trek. Of course I had to read it. In Jessie Weston's translation, though. Does Jeannie not worry about the violence if it's told in Middle English?"
Kaleb shrugged. "Fairy tales are violent, too. I think I started, no, I know that I started reciting Sir Gawain before Madison was born. I was studying for my comprehensives while Jeannie was pregnant, and I would lay my head on her belly
and read and recite for hours at a time. I guess I never really stopped."
"My god," Mer said softly. "Poor Jeannie."
"So was there anything you needed?" Kaleb snapped.
"Yes. Dental floss. I couldn't find any in your medicine cabinet."
"Sorry about that," Kaleb said, and then wondered why he was apologizing for the contents of his own medicine cabinet. "We have to keep it put away because Madison likes to pull it out of the box and suck on it. The mint flavor, you know." He led the way to the bedroom and pulled a box of Dent-o-Mint out of the top dresser drawer for Mer.
"You could just not buy mint flavored," Mer observed, pulling off several long strings and handing back the box.
"But I like mint, too," Kaleb said. Mer harrumphed as though that were an opinion he could actually agree with.
Jeannie was a few minutes late getting home that evening. Kaleb folded the clean clothes he had taken out of the guest room. Then he tried to relax with Bolaño's 2666, but he kept stumbling over the commas in the novelist's coiling periodic sentences, and every time he looked away from the screen of his Kindle, he wondered what Meredith was really doing here. He hadn't heard anything more from him, and assumed he was still on his computer, since he could see the circle of light from the guest room's lamp on the ceiling when he looked up the stairway.
Jeannie finally came in the front door, talking a mile a minute. "Whose car is that in the driveway?"
"Oh my god, is that Meredith? I don't know anybody else who would rent a Lexus. What's he doing here? Is everything all right?"
"It is Mer; as far as I can tell he's all right, and all he would tell me was that he came home to visit you."
"Oh my god," Jeannie said again, not comforted. She dashed up the stairs, but was back a minute later. "He's out like a light. I set his laptop on the floor so he wouldn't roll over on it in his sleep. He looks terrible, Kaleb! Didn't he say what's been going on?"
"I think he had a fight with John. Anyway, he said John has a broken ankle and he blames Mer for it. He wasn't making a whole lot of sense, actually."
"Oh, Meredith, what have you done now?" Jeannie exclaimed, sitting down heavily on the couch next to Kaleb. "Something must be going on. Why would he come to see me?"
"A fight with John? Of course he's going to come to you. I think it's sort of sweet."
Jeannie stared at him. "What are you talking about?"
"Although he's still struggling with how a family you can depend on actually works. You should have heard him when I told him I couldn't make him a pot of coffee."
"It must be something else. Even Mer isn't going to cross two galaxies to see me after a fight with a coworker."
Kaleb blinked. "I thought they were a couple."
"John Sheppard and Meredith? Where would you get an idea like that?"
"Well, I don't know." Kaleb shrugged helplessly. "When they were here last year, I just assumed."
"You have the most non-existent gaydar on the planet! You didn't even know your department secretary was gay, and that man is flaming."
"OK, I'm an idiot," Kaleb said ruefully. "Hardly a surprise by now."
"And anyway, Meredith isn't gay." Jeannie settled back on the couch. "That guy he was dating in grad school was just to make Dad crazy." She hesitated. "Oh my god. Is Mer gay?"
Kaleb raised his hands in surrender.
"Is that why he never asked that nice girl Katie to marry him? Why wouldn't he tell me? And John Sheppard of all people. Aw, Mer."
"Look, Jeannie, I have no idea. Mer really didn't tell me anything. He did remember to bring Madison a present. A Denver Broncos t-shirt about fifteen sizes too big, but it's the thought that counts, right?"
"The Broncos? What, was that the quickest thing he could grab in the gift shop next to the terminal?"
"Well, probably. He did think Madison would like the horse picture."
"You're right," Jeanne agreed. "He is trying."
Meredith came down to breakfast the next morning wearing the same clothes he had gone to bed in. His hair was wet, and he smelled of Jeannie's deodorant.
Jeannie smiled at him, a little too brightly. "Good morning, sleepyhead. How are you feeling this morning?"
Meredith blinked at her. Kaleb thought he looked better after a shower and a full night of sleep.
"Uncle Rodney!" Madison shrieked, and rocketed out of her chair to wrap himself herself around Meredith's knees. He flinched, but then reached down to pat her head carefully.
"I'm wearing your shirt," she announced proudly and unnecessarily. The short sleeves came down past her elbows; the hem fell to her knees.
"Let me fix you some oatmeal," Kaleb said. "They're steel-cut oats. Jeannie cooks them in the crockpot all night, and they have a lot more texture than you get with rolled oats."
Meredith tried unsuccessfully not to make a face. "It sounds really, uh, something, but I'm going to go out and have some coffee. Where's the closest place to get breakfast around here?" He looked at their bowls of oatmeal. "I mean the kind of breakfast that's less Goldilocks and the Three Bears and more coffee and fried eggs?"
"No need to go out for coffee," Jeannie said brightly. "Look on the counter, next to the electric kettle."
"Oh." Mer picked up the single serve filter, then the pound bag of coffee beside it. "This is really very, uh--"
"Kaleb picked it up for you while he was out running this morning."
"Thank you," Meredith finally managed, shaking ground coffee into the filter and plugging in the kettle.
"It was my pleasure. You're welcome." Kaleb spooned a bowlful of oatmeal for Mer. "Now you can stay and have a healthy breakfast with us."
"Oh. That's great."
"So, Madison," Kaleb said. "Mer heard me telling you your bedtime story last night."
"Yeah!" Madison agreed eagerly. "Daddy will tell you Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, too. He'll tell everybody! You just need to ask him!"
Jeannie giggled behind her hand. "She's got that right, Kaleb."
"Yes, wonderful," Mer agreed sourly. "If I'm ever short on middle English poetry, I'll keep that in mind." But then he asked, "What part of the story was he telling you last night?"
Madison's eyes got big. "Oh," she exclaimed. "Oh!" she repeated, as the full wonder of being able to tell the story to Uncle Meredith burst upon her. "Gawain was waiting for the green knight to chop off his head," she exclaimed, tripping over her words in her eagerness to get it all out. "But his shoulders shrank a little, for the sharp iron? And the green knight said, 'Oh, you're not Gawain who everyone says is so good, and now thou fles for ferde, ere thou even feels harm-ez!'"
"I bet your teachers love the occasional complete archaism from you," Meredith observed, but he actually sounded like he approved.
"Wait, wait!" Madison interrupted, eager to get to the good part.
"We've had one or two discussions," Jeannie agreed.
"The vocabulary will sort itself out as she gets older," Kaleb put in.
"Daddy!" Madison stomped her foot in frustration at the continued interruptions.
"You're bordering, sweetheart," Jeannie said, but not too sternly. "Even when grown-ups interrupt you, you have to be polite."
"Life isn't fair like that," Kaleb put in.
"OK, but then Gawain was embarrassed? Because the green knight didn't kest no kauelacion before Gawain cut his head off. But Gawain wasn't magic! He couldn't just pick up his head again if someone cut it off!" Madison experienced the unfairness of this keenly.
Meredith took a seat when his first cup of coffee was ready, nodding vaguely as the story went on. He poured a lake of maple syrup on the oatmeal Kaleb had dished out for him and shoveled it away, his fist clinched around the spoon. Then he drained his cup of coffee in a single dramatic swig, his adam's apple bobbing like he was a frat boy chugging beer, before he stood to fix himself another cup. He looked around at last to see the rest of the family watching him with some wonder. Even Madison had ended her recounting of Gawain's travails.
"Good coffee," Mer said cautiously.
"The fellow at the roasting company recommended it. Nicaraguan, I think he said?"
"Well, I'm really more a fan of Ethiopian Harrar beans, but this isn't bad."
"I'll take you there," Kaleb said. "You can pick out your own."
"How long will you be able to stay with us, Mer?" Jeannie asked with a quick glance at Kaleb.
"Oh! Well." Mer made himself very busy with his cup. "Just a day. Or a week or two, maybe? I'm actually sort of on medical leave right now, but Jennifer says I'm not contagious."
"Oh, no, Mer!" Jeannie exclaimed. "What have you gotten yourself into now?"
"That is completely unfair. I did not 'get' myself into anything."
"I'm going to summer camp this week," Madison interrupted eagerly. "I'm going to make a lanyard and a potholder. Uncle Rodney, do you want a potholder?"
"I can't really think of anything more I need less." He saw Jeannie's expression, and quickly added, "So I hope you'll make me two."
"I will!" she agreed, ecstatic
"And we are going to be late, young lady," Jeannie said, getting up from the table.
She gave Mer a one-armed hug. "You and I will talk later," she told him. It only sounded a little bit like a threat, Kaleb thought.
The kitchen got very quiet once Jeannie and Madison were gone. Mer sank into his chair and drank his second cup of coffee more calmly than he had his first. When he finally set the cup down, it was to ask, "I don't suppose you have any bacon hidden around here."
"I'm afraid not."
"What about little Madison and those necessary nutrients she can't get from kale?"
"You know, somehow Jeannie and I just don't feel like she needs to get them from salty, fatty strips of nitrate-soaked pork."
"Freaks," Meredith said sadly, and without malice. He consoled himself with another bowl of oatmeal and the rest of the bottle of maple syrup.
Later Kaleb looked in on Mer in the guest room and found him with one of the laptops open, but his gaze focused out the window. "I was about to go out to a bookstore to check on my texts for next semester, and I wondered if you would like to come."
"No, I wouldn't." Mer said, not breaking his million mile stare.
"Because Jeannie says they have a great science fiction section, and they're also right down the block from the roaster where I bought your coffee this morning."
Mer turned to look at him then. "You should have mentioned that to begin with."
Meredith insisted on driving. Kaleb didn't mind. He couldn't remember ever having ridden in such a ridiculously luxurious vehicle before. Once the doors closed, the outside world practically ceased to exist. "Is this what piloting a spaceship is like?" he joked as the neighborhood slid silently by.
Mer shot him a sour look. "I wouldn't know." And then, to be sure Kaleb took his point, he added, "Unlike some blabber-mouthed members of my family, I understand what a confidentiality agreement means."
"Right," Kaleb said, wondering why he had invited Meredith along in the first place.
At the coffee roaster, Mer drank four espressos, standing at the bar, tossing them back one after the other in the time it took Kaleb to finish his single cup of blue people ginseng oolong. The cumulative effect on Mer was frankly alarming. By the time Mer put down the fourth tiny black cup, his hands were shaking and the shadows under his eyes were bluer than ever against his white, white face. Frankly, Kaleb was glad they could just walk across the street to the bookstore. He didn't think he would want to get into a car with Mer right now.
He lost track of Meredith among the bookshelves. After he found the manager to talk about ordering backup texts for the fall semester -– the campus bookstore never bought enough copies -– he browsed in the music journals and then looked at children's books for something Madison might like. He finally met Meredith again at the checkout stand. He seemed to have a stack of graphic novels. Kaleb didn't know whether to be surprised by that or not. "They're for Sheppard," Mer said shortly. Then he seemed a little embarrassed and wouldn't meet Kaleb's eye on the way out of the store.
Outside, the street was busy with the lunchtime crowd. Meredith was heading towards a gray Lexus, but it must have been the wrong car, because there was a man already fiddling at the driver's side door. All those espressos, Kaleb thought. They've scrambled Mer's brains. "I think we must be the next block down."
Meredith paid no attention to Kaleb and put his hand on the man's shoulder. "Excuse me. You've obviously got the wrong car."
The man jerked in surprise and threw his hand out against Meredith's chest. Kaleb had time to see he was just a kid, and to think that a Lexus was an unusual choice for a guy that young. Something popped, and Meredith grunted and fell against the car. The stranger ran, his shoulder clipping Kaleb with so much force that Kaleb spun around and stumbled to his knees.
"Oh my god," Meredith gasped. "I've been shot."
The world got very dark. Kaleb felt as though someone had planted a knee in the middle of his chest, and he writhed against the pressure as Jeannie whimpered in terror. He couldn't believe this was happening, his lungs constricting until he couldn't think or breathe or speak. Bright dots sparked before his eyes.
Mer groaned, "Call 9-1-1 for Chrissakes, Kaleb!" but he had to take care of Jeannie first, and the men in balaclavas were hustling her out of the room, telling her to be quiet or they would shoot her husband, shoot her child. Madison! The weight of his fear was a blade against his throat. Blood spattered the snow, dark against the blinding brilliance. Mer wheezed, "Jesus, Kaleb, get a grip! Useless fucking English major--" and Kaleb coiled on the sidewalk, his shame as crippling as his horror, and still he couldn't speak. He wasn't sure he was still breathing. His heart thumped weakly against a cage of thorns. Jeannie, he thought. Madison. I'm so sorry.
Mer was saying in a choked, angry voice. "We need an ambulance. I've been shot in the chest. Fuck, no, I don't know the address." A horrible, rattling gasp, then he managed, "Outside One World Books and some coffee store with yellow awning. Jesus Christ, hurry or Vancouver will be the city where Rodney McKay died before his time."
( Kaleb Miller and the Green Knight - Part 2 of 2 )