Content warning: car accident deaths mentioned
Allen had gotten the phone call at six a.m.
People always said you could tell it was bad news if your phone rang at three in the morning, but six was a little more ambiguous. Was it a spam call? Allen had wondered. A relative who forgot what time zone they were in? Some business that had opened early?
It was none of those things. It was a medical examiner who’d found Allen’s name in his sister Jess’s phone as an emergency contact. Jess, the ME said, had been killed in a car accident, along with her husband, Riley. Their twin 5-year-old daughters were unhurt. By some miracle, they’d been found standing in the grass outside of the car, waiting for rescuers.
Over the next few days, Allen learned that Jess and Riley had made no will, named no guardian for their daughters. It was unclear how the girls had survived the crash, and unclear what would become of them in the future. Allen’s parents were dead. He was Jess’s only close relative now, and they hadn’t been close.
Allen remembered Jess in blonde pigtails, with her ever-present stuffed unicorn. She was two years younger than Allen, and when they were children, it had been easy. Certainly they got along better than their parents had. Allen had climbed a tree once to rescue the unicorn when Jess had thrown it up there, wanting to see if it would fly. He fell out and sprained his ankle, and Jess tried to have the unicorn heal him with magic.
When the divorce happened, Allen and Jess had been split up. They’d tried to reconnect as adults, but it had been hard. Allen felt guilty for it now, for their distance, for all of it. He’d cried after the phone call, wondering if the stuffed unicorn still existed. Was Jess one of those people who still had their favorite childhood toy on a shelf in their bedroom? Allen had no idea, and he wished he did.
On Riley’s side of the family— Allen hardly knew. That whole family was a mystery. He’d never even met any of them, apparently because they’d been so unhappy about Riley marrying Jess. And honestly, the feeling was mutual. Riley wasn’t right for Jess, Allen had always thought that. There was too much about him that was unexplained, and Jess would never even say why.
The unwelcome marriage had made things even more difficult. Allen had only met his nieces once or twice. Though they weren’t identical, they looked very similar, both with black hair and green eyes like their father. Clara was the taller one, with straight hair. Ophelia had curls. Allen couldn’t remember which was older, or by how much.
Allen lived alone. He liked it that way. No partner, no children. He worked from home as a video game programmer. He had some work friends, a couple of neighbors he occasionally saw, and a few hiking buddies. But now he was his nieces’ closest living relative. And so today, Allen was in a suit and tie, in a courthouse, and in a state of turmoil.
The girls were brought to the courthouse that morning by their temporary guardian, Heidi Bertleson, the mother of a close kindergarten friend. Allen had spoken to her several times on the phone. Clara and Ophelia were taller than Allen expected, and they had no idea who he was. When Allen said hello to them, they clung to Heidi’s legs.
The courtroom had quite a few people in it, and Allen was not used to courtrooms in general, so it took him a few minutes to notice that there was a person there who was going to throw the whole thing into even worse chaos.
For a second, Allen thought he was looking at Riley. It came to him immediately that it must be a relative— you couldn’t mistake the black hair and green eyes, those sharp facial features. The man was in a suit and tie, just like Allen. Allen began to have a feeling of dread.
When court opened, the judge talked to the girls’ social worker, a tiny woman named Jan. She explained that she’d done interviews with the girls. Clara and Ophelia were confused, she said, and grieving. It was her recommendation that whatever their placement be, they would not be split up. Having lost their parents, the loss of a sibling would be devastating. But, she said, if the girls went into the foster system, there was no way to guarantee that any future foster or adoptive family would be able to take them both.
Allen turned to look at the back of the room. Clara and Ophelia were sitting at a table with Heidi, coloring with crayons and whispering to each other. They looked like any other girls, not ones whose world had just fallen apart.
The judge called on Allen next.
“My name is Allen Wright,” he said. “I’m Jessica Wright Smith’s brother. I have a home in a town about an hour from here. I own the home, I mean. It has two bedrooms. I’ve got a steady job that I’ve had for the last eight years, which provides health insurance for me and any dependents. There’s an elementary school a few blocks from my house. They have an after school child care program, but I may not need to use it, as I work from home.”
“Do you have experience with children?” the judge asked.
“Not really,” Allen had to admit.
“And you don’t know your nieces well?”
“No, I don’t.”
“But you want to be their guardian?”
“Yes. I don’t want them going into the system.”
The judge looked satisfied. But then she called on the man who sat opposite Allen. He stood, looking both uncertain and brave. “My name is Devin Smith,” he said. “I’m Riley’s Smith’s brother. I also work from home, and I’m quite flexible in my living arrangements. I’ve contacted a realtor here, in Pleasant Grove, and there are a couple of houses for sale near the elementary school that Clara and Ophelia attend. If the girls were placed with me, they would have very little additional disruption to their lives.”
Allen’s stomach lurched as he listened. A month ago he’d never even dreamed of becoming a parent, and now seeing that chance possibly being taken away filled him with anger. “You disowned your brother!” he exclaimed. “And now you think you can come in here—”
The judge called for quiet, but Devin paid it no attention, turning sharply on Allen. “And where have you been for the past five years?” he snapped. “You live an hour away and you know nothing about them—”
The judge banged her gavel, and at that, they fell quiet. “That kind of behavior is completely inappropriate,” the judge said angrily. “If you want to argue, you do it outside of my courtroom. In fact, I want you two to sort out your differences before you appear in this court again.”
Court adjourned shortly after. Appointments were made for social worker visits and inspections. Clara and Ophelia went home with Heidi, and Allen was left alone outside the courthouse. He was surprised to see Devin approach him.
“I’m sorry,” Allen forced himself to say. “I shouldn’t have spoken to you like that.”
Devin, who had been looking quite severe, fell into a more regretful expression himself. “I didn’t help things.” He had the same faint accent as Riley, one that Allen had never been able to place. He’d asked Jess once and had not gotten an answer. “I’m sorry for your loss,” Devin said.
“I’m sorry for yours. But the girls— at least the girls are all right.”
Devin looked away for a moment. Allen had the unsettling realization that the man was actually quite handsome, with his dark hair and angular features. “If Riley had a choice,” Devin said, “he’d have saved the girls.”
“Jess would have done the same. Nothing mattered to them more than their daughters.”
“They matter to me too,” Devin said.
Allen ran a hand through his hair, strawberry-blond curls that were bouncing about in the wind. For some reason, Devin seemed to track the motion very closely. “You’d think they’d have made a will,” Allen said. “I guess—” he tried to speak kindly— “I guess they assumed it would be me. What with your family disowning Riley.”
“He wasn’t disowned,” Devin said, in a tight voice.
“But I’ve never met any of you until today. You weren’t even at the wedding.”
“My parents disapproved. They made it clear no one was to attend the wedding.” Devin looked regretful, and Allen wondered if his feeling of guilt matched his sorrow as well.
“Is that still the case?” Allen asked. “If you take the girls, will your parents disapprove of you, too?”
Devin pressed his mouth into a thin line, his expression very dark. “Yes.”
“So you’re doing this on your own?”
“So are you. You don’t have any other family left.”
“But at least I don’t have people actively opposing me.”
Devin was glaring at him now. “Those girls are all I have of Riley.”
“They are all I have of Jess!”
“If you were so close to Jess, how come you’ve hardly seen the girls? I have a family opposing it, what’s your excuse?”
A couple of passers-by gave them concerned looks, and Allen tried to calm himself. “What do you do for a living?” he asked, in a mostly civil tone. “Can you support them?”
“I’m an artist.”
“You’re an artist. Do you sell your art?”
“Yes, in galleries.”
“Oh? Where are they? I would like to see.”
“You wouldn’t know them.”
Allen groaned in frustration. “Why is your family so damned secretive? For all I know, you’ll disappear with the girls and I’ll never see them again!”
“I’m moving here,” Devin said forcefully. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“You know what?” Allen snapped. “So am I!” He pulled out his phone. “I’ll call a realtor right now.”
Devin looked stunned, and angry. But he just said, “Fine.”
Allen looked down at his phone, and when he looked back up, Devin was gone. Confused, Allen looked around, but he didn’t see the man anywhere.
Allen was out of his depth the minute he walked into Clara and Ophelia’s school a week later. For one, there was the noise. Allen lived alone, and although he’d attended gaming conferences and competitions, somehow even the crowds at those events could not compare to an elementary school hosting a carnival.
It was also just so strange to be in a place where most of the people were half Allen’s size. He felt impossibly tall wading through the crowded hallways. Had he ever been so little that he’d needed to use a stool to reach the drinking fountain?
There was a spaghetti dinner in the cafeteria. The line was full of kids wearing plastic bead necklaces and parents juggling more plates than they had hands. Eventually, Allen picked out Heidi by the tables. She was taking pictures on her phone of Clara, Ophelia, and a little blonde girl that must have been her own daughter, Anne. They had already eaten, judging by the spaghetti-sauce lipstick they were wearing. Anne had a frog painted on her cheek; Clara and Ophelia had parrots.
“It’s very loud,” Allen said, very loudly.
Heidi laughed. “Wait til you get to the bounce house in the gym.”
Allen didn’t know how, but the three girls picked the words “bounce house” out of the clamor without any trouble. They started bouncing even without a house. Heidi passed them tickets, tearing two red paper pieces each off of a long roll. The girls disappeared into the crowd, but somehow Heidi kept track of them, guiding Allen down a hallway and into the gym. There the girls kicked off their shoes and ran for the bounce house, which was a large, inflatable red and yellow balloon building. It looked more like a castle than a house, with towers on the corners.
Heidi was right. The noise in this room was deafening. Nevertheless, Allen tried to listen to Heidi tell him about the prizes in the prize room, which was the library. Clara had her eye on a big prize, apparently, a fashion doll. It was unlikely that she would have enough tickets, though. And no, Allen couldn’t simply buy more tickets, the prize tickets you had to win at the carnival games in the different classrooms. Prize tickets were yellow and had stars on them, while the game tickets were red and had no stars. If Clara combined her prize tickets with Ophelia’s, she might have enough for the doll. The girls had been in negotiations about it for an hour, Heidi said.
The girls bounced back out of the house, put on their shoes, grabbed more tickets, and took off toward the carnival games, with Heidi and Allen in tow.
Devin met up with them in the bowling room, where plastic pins had been set up on the carpeted floor. Kindergarteners got to stand right by the pins to use the plastic bowling ball, so the three girls didn’t have too much trouble winning the game and getting more prize tickets.
It was a little easier to hear people talking in this room, but even if it hadn’t been, the look on Devin’s face was easy to read.
“I don’t understand the tickets,” he confessed to Allen. “Why do you buy tickets in the first place? Why not use money to play the games? Why do you just win more tickets?”
Allen explained the prize ticket thing to him like he was an expert. Devin still looked dubious. He was wearing jeans and a plain blue t-shirt, both of which looked new. He looked, inconveniently, just as handsome as he had in a suit, if not more.
But the more Allen looked at him— unfortunately, it was proving very difficult for Allen not to constantly look at Devin— the more Devin’s beautiful face began to register as a little strange. Allen wasn’t sure what it was. Were the eyes somehow uneven? The cheekbones too sharp?
Allen firmly reminded himself not to get distracted by how attractive his adversary was. Allen had a mission. “You know, the smell of this place takes me right back,” he said casually. “Glue and green beans. Don’t you think so?”
Devin frowned, at a loss. “Oh, I didn’t go to a school like this.”
“It was— an academy?” Devin looked uncertain. “Away from home.”
“Yes! Boarding school. With my brother. We were always together back then.” Devin looked down, frowning.
Allen was a bit surprised that he’d had such quick success in getting information out of Devin. He immediately pressed for more. “So what kind of artist are you?”
“I’m a painter.” Devin had to say it loudly, as they were now following the girls down the hallway to another game room. This one had a plastic pool with a little water in the bottom, on which was floating a flock of plastic ducks. For a ticket (a red one), you could pick a duck, turn it over, and win a prize based on the number written on the bottom of the duck.
“Got any photos of your paintings?” Allen asked.
Devin looked surprised by the question. “On my phone.” He scrolled through a gallery, then handed the phone to Allen.
The pictures were not at all what Allen had been expecting. They were landscapes, most of them. Gorgeous gardens full of unfamiliar flowers and strange insects, trees with blue trunks, an ocean with deep purple sea-foam. Night skies with lights too close and detailed to be stars, floating in the air by an enormous moon.
“Those are incredible,” Allen said, with complete honesty.
Devin looked surprised again. “Oh. Thank you.” He nodded toward Clara and Ophelia, who were getting their sleeves wet trying to catch ducks. “They tell me the girls really like art class.”
Allen had another question ready, but Devin cut him off. “So what is it that you do?”
“I program video games.”
Devin seemed a bit confused. “Like the console— the box. With the TV?”
“You don’t play video games?”
Devin held up his phone. “Candy Crush? Yes?”
Somehow, Allen doubted that Devin had a single game installed on his phone. “Candy Crush, yeah,” he said.
They were interrupted by a shrill cry. Allen turned in alarm to find Ophelia on the ground crying, rubbing her knee. Another kid was on the floor beside her. They must have run into each other.
Allen went down on his knee immediately, extending a hand to Ophelia. Devin did the same, which irritated Allen. But Ophelia got up, passed them both by, and went to Heidi.
Allen and Devin exchanged a dismayed look.
As the night ended, and the girls got tired, they made their way to the prize room, where there was a long line of kids waiting to go past the tables and spend their prize tickets.
It was time, Allen, figured, to lay his cards on the table. “I’m renting an apartment a block west from here,” he told Devin. “Three bedrooms, the girls will each have their own. Once my house sells, I’ll buy one here.”
Devin countered it easily. “I’ve made an offer on a house south of the school. Close enough to walk.”
“So you’re really committed to this.”
Devin gave him a sharp look. “Are you implying that you aren’t?”
“No! I just— I wasn’t sure if you were going to go through with it. I don’t even know where you’re moving from.”
“You don’t need to know.”
Allen gave a frustrated sigh. “Look, you don’t have to do this, to go against your family. The girls will be perfectly safe and happy with me, I promise you that.”
Devin didn’t answer. He was watching the girls closely, and Allen quickly realized why.
Clara and Ophelia had reached the prize table now. Clara was by the pile of fashion dolls in their pink boxes, but Ophelia was on the other end, looking at little rubber bouncy balls. It was a little hard to tell, with the room being so loud, but the girls were talking— apparently to no one. Except that when one stopped, the other started. Allen could have sworn Clara and Ophelia were having a conversation while they were nowhere near each other. It seemed to be an argument about prizes, and Clara apparently won, because she grinned suddenly and grabbed one of the dolls. Ophelia put back her bouncy ball.
The adult on the other side of the table asked for Clara’s tickets, and Ophelia showed up, handing hers in without a word. Together, they had enough, and Clara hugged her doll to her chest.
“Must be a twin thing,” Allen said. “I’ve heard about that, you know. A psychic link between twins.”
“Is that common?” Devin asked, giving Allen an unexpectedly intense look.
“I don’t know. I suppose so.”
What was most odd about the night came at the very end. Allen watched Heidi fit Ophelia and Clara into their car seats in her van, and just before the door shut— Allen could have sworn that both of them were holding fashion dolls.
The next outing was to the zoo, and now, Allen and Devin were on their own. Heidi and Anne stayed home.
It was a little odd, Allen thought, that he and Devin had agreed to do this together. Perhaps they wanted to scope out the competition a little more. Or perhaps they were afraid of being outnumbered.
Or maybe— just maybe, Devin wasn’t actually that awful of a person to spend time with. But of course, it was so much more complicated than that. Allen still had no answer to most of his questions about Devin and his family, which meant he couldn’t be sure of his motivations. And yet— for all Devin was close-mouthed about things, he didn’t seem to be lying about what he did say. It was clear he cared for the girls.
Devin was, of course, stupidly attractive today in another t-shirt and jeans. He smelled like sunscreen and looked just as out of place as he had at the school. Not that Allen was much better.
Clara and Ophelia knew them now. They had begun to call them “Uncle Allen” and “Uncle Devin.” And they had marked them immediately as soft touches, which was why the girls had their faces painted again— hummingbirds this time— and had new sippie cups that looked like dolphins. Plus, they’d been on the carousel twice. At least both Allen and Devin had said no to ice cream before lunch.
Devin took a lot of pictures on his phone, and, surprisingly, volunteered something. “I thought my parents might like the pictures,” he said.
“Really?” Allen asked.
Devin flushed a little, or maybe he was getting sunburned after all. “They’re not bad people. It was just— star-crossed.” He gave Allen a curious look. “Do you know what that means?”
“Like Romeo and Juliet?”
“Yes!” Devin smiled, which he did rarely. “Warring families,” he said. “Like ours.”
“Devin—” Allen tried to phrase it carefully. “Honestly, if my family knew more about your family, maybe we wouldn’t be so opposed. Do you really need to be so secretive?”
Predictably, Devin wouldn’t answer that. And Allen was so done with all of it. “All right,” he said. “Look. I think maybe we should share custody.”
Devin looked at him in shock. “What?”
“We’re both here in Pleasant Grove now. We’re both financially stable. The last thing those girls need is a court battle. They were growing up with just their parents after both our families pulled away. Surely it would be best for them to have as much family now as they can. Anyway, I’d rather share them with you than risk losing them altogether.”
Devin’s mouth had fallen open a little. His gaze was softer than Allen had ever seen it, for the first time without a trace of anger or fear. He was utterly beautiful. “That—” Devin’s voice faltered. “That’s a very generous—”
A loud squawk interrupted them, and a girlish squeal. They were by the bird cages now. Clara and Ophelia seemed delighted by the birds, and they’d been dashing up and down in front of the row of cages, giggling. But now, oddly enough, they weren’t the loudest thing there. More bird calls filled the air as what looked like every bird in the exhibit came to the front of their cages, turning their heads to watch Clara and Ophelia wherever they went. The birds squawked and the girls squealed back, almost like they were having a conversation.
“Wow,” Allen said. “They have really friendly birds here. You should definitely get some pictures of that.”
But Devin wasn’t reaching for his phone. Instead, he was looking at the girls with an almost heartbroken expression. For a moment, Devin’s eyes closed, and then he turned to Allen. “I can’t allow you to have the girls,” he said.
Allen was stunned. “What?”
“I’m sorry. I really am. But you don’t understand. Your family has never understood what it means to marry into my family. And to have children—” Devin made a gesture of frustration. “What were they thinking? Riley knew better—”
Allen felt like he’d been hit with something heavy. “Is that really what you think? That Clara and Ophelia shouldn’t exist?”
Devin looked at him in shock. “No, that’s not what I meant—”
“Sure sounded like it.”
Allen dropped his voice low. “I think we’ve said enough. It’s time to get the girls back to Heidi. And then I’ll see you in court.”
Allen had the girls for an overnight visit a few days later. He’d decorated their rooms, one for each, unable to settle on a color, but unable to acquiesce to the world thinking little girls’ bedrooms should be nothing but pink. So they were both multi-colored: purple, yellow, pink, and blue. And on each bed he’d put a stuffed unicorn.
(On a shelf in Allen’s bedroom there now sat a very old, scruffy-looking, beloved stuffed unicorn. Jess had kept it, after all.)
Oddly, it wasn’t the unicorns that had Allen in such a melancholy mood. It was the realization that he’d expected to talk to Devin about the rooms, to commiserate on the pink problem and compare notes on nightlights.
Allen had no idea how the hell his mind had decided that he and Devin were friends. They clearly weren’t. The man was unpredictable, possibly unstable. Unfit. The best thing Allen could do for the girls was to win custody of them.
When Clara and Ophelia arrived, Allen immediately blundered by asking them each to pick a room. He realized a second later that it would be a disaster if they picked the same one. But instead, they looked at the rooms and then said, “Both.”
“You like them both?” Allen said, unsure. “That’s good. But you should each pick one. Or I can pick—”
“We pick both,” Clara informed him. At that moment the doorbell rang and the arrival of the pizza overshadowed the bedroom discussion.
After they ate, Allen showed the girls one of the video games he’d worked on that was aimed at kids their age. Cute baby dragons solved puzzles by matching colors and shapes, winning themselves fruit as treats. Allen had never seen an actual child play this game— that was not his department— but he was gratified to find that the girls liked it.
Clara, he was learning, was rather cautious, wanting to think carefully before making a choice. Ophelia, though she seemed the shyer of the two when out in public, was bold in her decisions. Her little blue dragon bounced confidently through the game, shrugging off mistakes. When Clara got a little nervous after choosing the wrong shape, Ophelia leaned close to the TV and said, “That’s okay, dragon, try again!” Clara seemed heartened.
Allen was very proud that he was able to bribe the girls into going to bed sort-of on time by promising to show them a letter-matching level in the morning before they got picked up. “The dragons can win cool hats!” he said, and the girls appeared to be impressed.
Bedtime was chaotic, anyway. The girls were more interested in running up and down the hallway with their unicorns than brushing their teeth. Finally, Allen managed to get Clara, who wore a purple nightgown, into the bathroom. He looked away for one second to find a washcloth and when he turned back, Ophelia was at the sink, brushing her teeth. Clara was nowhere to be seen.
Allen took a moment to be sure of what he was seeing. Clara had been there, he was sure of it. Straight hair, purple nightgown. Now it was Ophelia, curly hair, yellow PJ’s. The door to the bathroom was closed, because it was a small bathroom and Allen had to close the door to get at the washcloths on their shelf. He was certain they could not have changed places. Even if the door had been open, there wasn’t time.
Allen wrote it off as him being a bit overwhelmed. After all, he was outnumbered.
But it happened again, when he was tucking Ophelia into bed. He turned away to click on the nightlight, turned back and it was Clara under the covers.
Allen must have looked bewildered, because Clara did too. “You’re sposed to laugh,” she said. “Mommy laughed when we switched. But we’re not sposed to switch after you turn the light off.”
“Oh,” Allen said. “Well, that sounds like a good rule. So please, no more switching now.”
“Okay.” Clara curled up with her unicorn. “Good night!”
In the morning, Allen found both girls in the same bed. He couldn’t definitively attribute that to anything strange though, because it seemed a natural thing for sisters sleeping in a new place for the first time. Maybe it was a natural thing for sisters at any time.
But the windowsill outside their room was crowded with birds.
Heidi picked the girls up at nine that morning.
“Do they ever do weird stuff?” Allen asked.
Heidi raised her eyebrows. “Five-year-olds make no earthly sense.”
“Yeah—” Allen laughed, a bit nervously. “But Clara and Ophelia— do they ever like, switch on you?”
“Oh, that. I guess it was a game they played with their parents. They are very good at making it look like that, I will say. My daughter seems to have bought it completely.”
“But not you.”
“To be honest, they look so alike that sometimes I have trouble telling them apart.”
“What about birds?” Allen asked. “Did you ever notice that birds— like them? A lot?”
“I’m not sure.” Heidi finished with the last of the three car seats. “Sorry, with three of them— I love having the girls, but three is a lot.”
“Yeah, no.” Allen waved a hand. “No, you’ve been so great, thank you.” He waved as they drove off.
The girls had soccer practice a few days later, a Thursday evening. On Monday the court would reconvene and the judge would hear the assessment from the girls’ social worker, Jan. She’d done an inspection of Allen’s apartment, and interviewed the girls about their daytrips and the overnight visit. Allen assumed she’d been doing the same with Devin. They hadn’t seen each other since the zoo.
The soccer field was half-size, for such small players. Practice didn’t involve much skill, more learning basic rules of the game. But it looked to Allen as if the kids were having a little too much fun chasing the ball wherever they accidentally kicked it to listen to their coach.
Ophelia had wanted pigtails for practice, so Allen had put her hair up with sparkly hair bands. Clara had wanted a braid. Allen was prepared. He’d been practicing on the two fashion dolls. It was not an even braid, but Allen was proud to note that it stayed in as Clara ran across the field.
Out here with other people, Clara was the more aggressive twin, unafraid of the ball. Ophelia hung back a little. She missed a kick once, and Allen shouted, “That’s okay, dragon, try again!” The crowd of kids was close enough to Allen that he could see Ophelia smile.
The sky was darkening early for summer, because a storm was threatening. The coach had explained the rules to the parents when they’d arrived: at the first sound of thunder, the kids would have to clear the field. Older kids at the other practice fields would try to wait out the storm in one of the shelters before resuming practice, but the little ones would just be sent home.
So far, there had been silence from the sky. Allen was fussing with the zoom on his phone camera when someone approached him. He looked up to see Devin.
“This is my time with them,” Allen snapped, before thinking it through. He realized a second later that Devin didn’t seem to be in the mood to argue. His face was pale, and his expression apologetic.
“I know,” he said. “I know. Sorry. I just— I thought it might thunderstorm and I got worried.”
“I can take care of them just fine,” Allen said, trying to be a bit nicer with his tone.
“Just in case,” Devin said. He actually had his hands raised in a non threatening gesture.
Allen sighed. “Not a fan of storms?”
“No. Not really.”
“Well, don’t worry. I don’t think it will—” Allen was interrupted, of course, by a loud rumble of thunder. “Never mind,” Allen said. He put his phone away and started gathering up the girls’ jackets and water bottles.
The kids, of course, were much more interested in collecting the juice boxes their coach had brought them than clearing the field.
Beside Allen, Devin was agitated, bouncing on his feet. “Girls!” he yelled. “Time to go!”
The girls looked up at his voice. “Uncle Devin!” Ophelia called. She began to run across the field to him.
Another peal of thunder sounded. Devin took off across the field and scooped Ophelia up. “Where’s your car?” he shouted to Allen. Allen pointed. Devin passed Ophelia to him and turned around to get Clara.
Spooked by Devin’s unease, Allen hurried Ophelia to his car, settling her in her car seat. Suddenly, she gave a distressed shriek. “I forgot my juice!”
“Clara will get it,” Allen said, starting on her buckles.
Ophelia was not mollified. “I’ll get it,” she said, and then Allen was looking at Clara sitting in the seat.
Clara giggled at him. “Ophelia forgot her juice.”
Outside the car, thunder cracked so loudly that the car shook. Before it had even faded, Devin materialized in the car with Ophelia in his arms. She was holding her juice box.
The skies opened up and rain began to pour down. Wordlessly, Devin and Allen buckled Ophelia into the other car seat and then braved the rain to climb into the front seat. Allen didn’t start the car, though.
Eventually, Devin spoke, his voice raised over the rain. “Lightning is very dangerous to our kind.”
He looked so distressed that Allen reached over and put a hand on his arm. Devin looked up at him in shock, his expression almost painfully grateful. “I was wrong,” Devin said. “I should have told you. I mean, they’re half human, too. And I don’t know anything about schools or carnivals or soccer. I’ve only been in your world for a few months. I don’t even know how to drive a car.”
“Where are you from?”
Devin seemed hesitant, as if he wasn’t sure if Allen would believe the answer. “The other side of the fairy circle.”
“What— you mean the mushrooms that grow in a circle on the lawn? My mom told us never to step in those.”
“Oh, they’re harmless, usually.” Devin smiled sadly. “But your sister was a believer. The magic works for believers. Riley said that she took to it so easily. The other world, the fae race, the unicorns—”
“Well, that explains it,” Allen said.
“They were a good match. Good for each other. But your family was suspicious, and my family was livid. I was forbidden to visit Riley or to meet his daughters. I didn’t even know for sure if the girls had any fae traits before the zoo.”
“You mean the birds.”
“Yes. We’re sort of— related to birds, I guess you could say. Allen, I’m glad that Clara and Ophelia are here. I do love them.” Devin’s eyes were wet, and for the first time, Allen understood his otherworldly beauty. He could see it in his nieces.
The rain was lessening, and it was easier to see, so Allen started the car and pulled out of the lot. “We have court in a few days,” he said. “We could still try for joint custody.”
Devin looked at him in a sort of dazed hope. “Really?”
“Honestly, I don’t see how they’re going to make it without both of us.”
Devin watched Allen signal and turn. “I don’t suppose you could teach me to drive?”
Three months later
It was spaghetti night at Allen’s apartment. Allen had cleaned his place while the girls were at Devin’s house for a few days, but now it was a mess of school papers, crayons, and stuffed animals again. The girls themselves were messy with spaghetti sauce. Allen had Clara on a stool by the kitchen sink and was wiping her face off. “Next!” he called, and Ophelia instantly appeared in Clara’s place.
Devin was clearing the table. He’d dropped the girls off, and Allen had invited him to stay. That had been happening a lot lately, the four of them spending time together, despite the rotation the court had worked out. The judge was much happier now that Allen and Devin were getting along, and joint custody was going to be approved in a couple of weeks.
Allen washed dishes while Devin got the girls into their pajamas. When Allen came out of the kitchen he found Devin patiently working Ophelia’s curls into an intricate braid. Clara was watching with impatience. “Me next!”
“I can do it,” Allen said. Clara gave him a dubious look. “I need the practice,” he pleaded.
Allen and Clara sat beside Devin on the couch so Allen could get guidance. “Start a little higher,” Devin said, watching Allen’s clumsier fingers work on Clara’s hair. “There you have it. A little tighter.” He finished with Ophelia’s braid and helped Allen to keep all the strands separate on Clara’s. Allen had no idea how he was supposed to do this with only two hands.
With their hair done, Devin told the girls a story about a far-off land that had trees with blue trunks and oceans with purple foam. He illustrated the story with graceful movements of his fingers, painting the air with beautiful images that lasted a few seconds before twinkling out of existence again. Clara was getting sleepy, and she curled up in Allen’s arms, watching the story with her eyes half-open.
When the girls had been put to bed, by request in the same room tonight, Allen and Devin tidied up the rest of the mess.
When Devin went to leave, Allen said, “You could stay,” He attempted a casual tone, but didn’t really achieve it. “I mean, the girls are in the same room tonight. You could take the other one. We’re just going to meet up tomorrow morning for the soccer game anyway, so—”
Devin had stopped his movements, watching Allen with a searching expression. “Allen,” he breathed. “I don’t want to screw this up. I think we almost have it right.”
Allen held out his hand. Devin came down the hall quickly and took it, and Allen pulled him close. Shyly, Devin leaned in and gave Allen a kiss. It was soft at first, exploratory. Then it became more open, and their arms closed around each other.
Devin sighed against Allen’s mouth. “Damn it, Allen, you’re so—” He kissed him more deeply, but slower now, and finally they came to a stop, resting against each other.
“You could move into my house,” Devin said. “Give up the rent on the apartment.”
“You don’t have a guest bedroom, either.”
“I know.” Devin had that fragile hope in his eyes again.
Allen found himself smiling. “Your family will hate this.”
“My family doesn’t know what they’re missing.” Devin rested his hand on Allen’s cheek. “I want to show them. I want to show you and the girls my home.”
“I want the four of us to be a family,” Allen said, tightening his hands on Devin’s waist.
“I think we are.” Devin said softly. “I think we are.”