“Mom! Mom! Help me! Where are you?”
“I’m here Summer! I’m right here, but I can’t see you. I don’t know where you are. I need you to help me. I need you to help me find you.”
She bolted upright, her chest rising and falling in rapid succession. “Summer?” Her eyes searched the room for only a moment before she felt his hands on her back. “Oh,” she whispered, the sinking feeling quickly returning. Somehow the panic had been better.
Nick shifted forward, moving so as to sit beside her on the sofa. “Dream?” he asked softly, already knowing the answer. He’d initially been grateful, albeit a bit jealous, when she’d finally found some reprieve in sleep in his arms, but it hadn’t taken long for the nightmares to start. She’d flail her arms frantically, her face contorting into tortured expressions, her mouth sometimes whispering—other times nearly screaming their daughter’s name.
“Yeah,” she said softly, looking over at him. Her hand reached up to touch his face. “I’m sorry if I woke you.”
“I wasn’t sleeping.”
“I can tell. You’ve got those lines near your eyes. Those always show when you haven’t been sleeping.”
“Yeah,” he sighed flashing a sad sort of smile. “Sometimes I forget how well you know me.”
Phyllis nodded. In any other circumstance, they could have joked about something, they would have ribbed each other about some relationship disaster, or given one another grief about a way in which they’d screwed up in years past, but now it all seemed so trivial. The one thing they’d always agreed on, the one thing they’d both never doubted was that Summer had been the thing they’d done right. She had been the only good and perfect thing to come out of their relationship. No matter how many people said it was wrong and that it shouldn’t have happened, they could always know that Summer was the reason they never had to regret anything. If they didn’t happen, there wouldn’t be Summer and now….
“You want some breakfast or something?” She looked up now and saw Nick standing in the kitchen, already pouring what appeared to be pancake mix into a skillet. She stood up, quickly joining him.
“You don’t need to do that. Please don’t go to any trouble. I’m gonna be going soon anyway.” The reaction was immediate.
“What?” He stared at her for a moment, his expression a mix of confusion and pain. She knew she was part of his coping strategy. As long as she was here, as long as he had something else to occupy him, something else to keep himself busy, he didn’t have to think about Summer being gone. He didn’t have to accept it. Maybe, in a way, she was playing the same game, but that game had to end—and it was better that it end now.
“Nick…I don’t want you to think that I don’t appreciate what you’re doing. I do. It means a lot to me, but we can’t hide behind each other.”
He shook his head. “That’s not what I’m doing. Helping each other, leaning on each other, that’s not hiding behind someone…that’s just being a decent person. That’s helping a friend that you care about.”
“I just think…”
Christian’s sharp cry pierced the awkward moment. Nick glanced towards the stove. “Can you watch..” He paused, smiling as he considered the absurdity of the statement. “Ummm..”
Phyllis grinned. “Why don’t I go get Christian? I think that’s the safer bet.”
“Yeah. I mean, if we burn the house down, none of us have anywhere to live.” He laughed softly as he watched her head up the stairs.
“Uh huh,” she muttered. “Funny.”
Nick grabbed the plates with the pancakes and the carafe of coffee before heading into the living room. “Breakfast is served,” he announced as he stepped towards the table.
“Smells good,” Phyllis said softly, smiling at Christian who sat contentedly on her lap. “Since when did you become a short order cook?”
“Yeah..go ahead, get your digs in. it might not be gourmet, but I guarantee you, It smells a lot better than it would have it you’d cooked it.”
“Touche. You ready to eat?” she grinned, looking down at Christian who smiled happily at her. She stood, hefting him onto her hip and walking over towards the table. She watched as Nick situated him in his high chair and handed pieces of pancake.
“What’s the matter?” he said softly, catching her staring intently at them. “You ok?”
“Yeah,” she whispered. “It’s just…I was just thinking how nice it must be to be like that.” She pointed at Christian. “You know? To be that little and to have no idea of how bad things can get…the only thing you know is family and being loved and safe. It’s a whole different world when you grow up and realize that life isn’t really like that.”
Nick sighed. “Yeah, they just know the good things..but that’s the way it should be right now. They should only know the good stuff. That’s my job. That’s all of our jobs.”
Phyllis nodded slowly reaching out and slowly stroking Christian’s soft hair. “Right,” she whispered. She smiled as Christian turned to her, holding out a mashed piece of pancake towards her.
“I think you’ve got yourself an admirer,” Nick grinned. “This kid really likes you.”
“I gave him cheerios. He’s easily bought.”
“Nope. He’s tough. We’ve gone through three nannies already. He’s weird about strangers and he hardly ever lets anyone outside our immediate family hold him, but he went right to you. It’s like he could tell that you’re good people.”
“You might not want to let your father hear you say that,” Phyllis said with a slight huff.
“Phyllis.” Nick looked at her, his face a little more serious now. “I’m not joking around here. I know you said you were going to leave, but maybe you think about staying…just for a while. It would be really nice to have some help with Christian and there’s gonna be a lot to take care of. We’re gonna have arrangements and packing.”
She sat quiet for a moment. “I just think it might be too much, Nick. I can’t just run away from everything and hide out here.”
“You’re not running away. You’re here. You’re helping me and who better to spend time with than the one person who really understands. Look.” He slid his chair closer to her. “I know your instinct is to shut the entire world out, but there are people that really need you to lean in right now. And, to be honest, I think this will be good for us—for both of us. You can’t deny that we used to have a really great time together, right?”
“We did have some pretty great times together.” She smiled at him. “I always had fun with you.”
“And I know fun seems like an insane idea right now,” he whispered, “but it won’t forever. We’re gonna need that. We’ll need that to help us get through this.” He could see the real hesitation that still sat in her eyes. He took a deep breath before touching her arm, her eyes snapping back to attention and looking straight into his. “I need you, Phyllis,” he said quietly.
In her life she’d been hated, wanted, envied, and a host of other things, but rarely had she ever been needed. It was nice. “Then I’m here,” she said softly. “I’m here.”