I don't own it.
"Uncle Eddie! I gots to go bad!" Sweet little cupie bow mouth quivers and big, pleading eyes shimmer with unshed tears as they meet mine in the rearview mirror.
"Are you sure you can't hold it until we get to the house?" We'll be there in less than five minutes, but something is telling me that will probably be too long. That something being the tiny little body squirming around in the backseat.
"No no no! I gots to go! I gots to go now!"
"All right, all right. Just hang on a minute, sweetheart." Thinking fast, I make a left turn at the next intersection, then a quick right two blocks up.
I thank the parking gods as I spot an empty space several feet down from the front door of my favorite coffee shop, screeching to a stop and jumping out almost before the engine has time to stop turning.
I don't even bother setting her down once I untangle her from the seatbelt, instead tightening my grip and making a mad dash for the door.
Familiar with the layout, I rush straight past the line waiting at the counter and skid to a halt in front of the short hallway leading to the bathrooms. There I hesitate, suddenly unsure of the etiquette concerning a grown man taking a five-year-old girl into the bathroom.
Bree solves my quandary an instant later, squirming fiercely as she loudly demands that I put her down.
I don't hesitate to obey, because this much I know; when the little girl yells at the man in a public place to put her down, he puts her down.
Tears and pout suddenly nowhere in evidence, she glares militantly at me as her hands prop themselves on her little hips. "I can do it myself!" She's gone with a flounce, the door to the ladies' slamming shut behind her.
I can hear a few quiet snickers behind me, overruled by the nasally voice of the girl at the counter calling for the next person.
I'm listening absently to the conversations going on around me, debating whether or not I should order something, when a sudden chill goes down my spine.
I know that voice.
I turn slowly, eyes tracking across the room until they settle on the back of the woman standing at the register and giving her order to the bored-looking barista.
It's not the same as I remember. Shoulders wider, hips rounder; all slender curves rather than the slim figure that lives in my memories. Hair a shade darker, smooth and sleek and pulled back into some kind of updo instead of hanging in tousled waves down her back. Shapely legs and tight ass shown off to perfection by a figure-skimming skirt and high heels—a far cry from the jeans and scuffed sneakers of teenage-hood.
There's hardly anything of the girl I once knew in the woman standing barely fifteen feet away from me, but I know it's her just the same.
If there had been any doubt at all, it is dispelled seconds later when she turns my way, moving aside to make room for the next person in line.
Her gaze skims past me—distracted, unseeing, mind obviously elsewhere—and before I have time to think about it I'm stepping forward, smiling, saying her name.
She startles a bit, then her eyes widen in shock as they finally settle on me. Her mouth opens, but for several heartbeats there is nothing but the sharp sound of her indrawn breath. The silence seems to drag on, but that could just be my heart suddenly beating too fast. Finally, I hear my name escape on a long exhale, and let out a breath of my own as the corners of her mouth pick up.
"Hi." She takes a few steps in my direction at the same time that I take another toward her, and suddenly we have gone from too far to too close. My arms twitch at my sides, unsure of what they should be doing. Do we hug? Shake hands? But then she's moving away, taking a shuffling little half-step back, and I let out a nervous laugh as I do the same.
"Wow. I can't believe…it's been…" I stumble over my words, manners and public niceties instilled since I was a boy somehow failing me. "You look…great." My hand makes some sort of waving gesture toward her before I manage to reel it back in.
"Thanks. Um, so do you. Look good, I mean."
"Thanks." We stand there in awkward silence for a few seconds before she breaks it.
"So, what are you doing here?" I look around, not quite sure what she means, and she shakes her head, glances down, laughs quietly. "I mean, what are you doing here in Washington? Last time I heard, you were living somewhere back East. Are you visiting, or…"
"Oh, yeah. Chicago. No, I moved back a couple of years ago. Well, not back-back. Seattle. I'm, uh, working up at Harborview now." Painfully aware that I'm one short step shy of rambling, I manage to stop the flow of words before I start saying things that I probably shouldn't be getting in to.
"Harborview? The hospital? But, I thought…" her voice trails off, and I'm certain that we're both remembering the same thing. All the times I swore I had absolutely zero interest in becoming a doctor. I wanted to go my own way, make my own decisions, have my own life…not follow in my father's footsteps, no matter how sainted they may be. Now it's my turn to laugh and shake my own head.
"No, it's nothing like that. Strictly IT."
"Oh." Another short pause, and I can feel the time slipping away from us. Any second now, Bree will come out of the bathroom, or Bella's name will be called from the counter, and there won't be any excuse for us to stay here, talking to each other for the first time in over twelve years. We'll go our separate ways, live our separate lives, and very possibly never see each other again. The thought is like a fist squeezing around my stomach, and I'm suddenly determined to make every second count.
"What about you?" I ask, leaning in a little bit closer. "Are you here on a visit?" How long will you be around? Will I maybe have a chance to see you again before you go back to wherever your life is now? Do I want to even think about opening that door?
"Oh, um, not exactly." She's flustered, fingers twisting in the material of her skirt as she shifts her weight from one foot to the other. "I mean, I'm on my way to visit Charlie for the weekend, but I'm living in Seattle now, too." My breath catches in my throat. This I didn't expect.
"Really? I didn't know…nobody mentioned…" I trailed off, uncertain what to say.
"Yeah, it's really recent. It's just, after last year…I just needed to be here."
"Right, I'm sorry." I mentally kick my own ass. In the shock of seeing her again, I had completely forgotten about her dad's heart attack. "I heard about Charlie. How is he doing now?" I barely restrain myself from moving closer, offering some kind of comfort.
"Better." She nods her head, smiling slightly. "Bored out of his mind, though." I laugh.
"I can imagine. So, this is your 'going to hang out with my Dad' outfit?" I wave a hand at her skirt and blouse, and watch as her cheeks flame.
"Oh, God no. Usually I head up Friday night, but I had to finish up a few things at the office this morning."
The sound of a door opening behind me grabs my attention, and I turn to see a head full of blonde curls bounce out and over to where I'm standing. "Did you wash your hands?" The question is automatic, and if she were just a couple of years older she would be rolling her eyes at me.
"Yes. I even sanged Happy Birfday." She holds out her hands so I can see, and I smile at her as I reach out to take one before turning back around.
The pretty blush is gone from Bella's cheeks. Skin pale and lips slightly open, her eyes are glued to the little girl beside me. It hits me like a freight train—what this looks like—but I don't know what to say that can fix it. Do I want to? Does it matter?
Bree catches my notice again as she pulls at my hand. Looking down, I see that her attention is fixed on the glass case several feet away, where an assortment of pastries and other baked stuff is displayed. I'm shaking my head even before those big blue eyes land back on me, unable to keep the laughter out of my voice as I head the begging I see coming off at the pass.
"Don't even think about it. Your mom would have my head if I let you have a donut before lunch, and you know it."
Eyelashes bat and lower lip pushes out. "Please, Uncle Eddie?" And there it is. Forcing my eyes to stay focused on the little girl beside me rather than the bigger one in front of me, I take a deep breath, let it out slowly.
"I'll tell you what. How about you go pick one out, and you can eat it tonight after dinner."
Brilliant smile. "Okay!" She skips over to the case, putting her hands behind her back as she leans so close that her nose is almost touching the glass. I straighten slowly; unsure of what I will find when I look up, unsure why it even matters. I open my mouth, but before anything can come out we both turn at the sound of Bella's name being called.
I use the seconds it takes for her to retrieve her coffee to take several deep breaths. This is it. Time is winding down, goodbye so close, and I'm not ready. Maybe she isn't, either, because rather than well, it was good to see you, and a quick exit, instead she comes back over and stands next to me. Both hands are wrapped around her to-go cup, steam curling up lazily from the open lid.
"She's adorable." Her voice is soft, eyes on Bree as she waffles between the bearclaw and an apple fritter.
"She is," I agree. Take a deep breath. "I probably spoil her, but it's hard not to. Rose is always saying she can't wait until I have one of my own so that she can get some payback." Which is true enough, even if it is usually said in jest.
"So, you don't…" she leaves the question unfinished, but I answer it anyway.
"No. Call me old-fashioned, but I always figured on going the traditional route." That pulls her attention away from Bree, and she lifts a questioning eyebrow at me. "Marriage first, then kids." She looks away again. Brings her cup up to her mouth, but doesn't take a drink.
"I take it that means you're not? Married, I mean?"
"No. Never." Neither of us is looking at the other, both staring hard at the little girl in front of the donut case. "You?"
"No. I…" She stops. Lifts the cup to her mouth again and takes a sip, wincing as she does. Licks her lips. "I, um, came close once. But…no."
The silence is heavy with all the things said and unsaid. We've gone as far as we can without going any further, taking that next step. My mind is whirling, my thoughts scattered all over the place even as every inch of me is concentrated on the woman next to me. It's a strange sensation, and I'm still trying to make sense of it when Bree comes running back, grabbing my hand to drag me over and point out her selection. By the time I turn back to Bella I can sense the change in the air. Whatever edge we were balancing on the lip of is gone, and her face is smooth as she offers me a small smile.
"I should probably be going. You know how Charlie is; if I don't show up when I said I would, he'll be on the phone trying to get them to send an officer out to check the highway for accidents. And they'll probably do it, too. Everybody's still so used to taking orders from him."
I can't help but chuckle at the thought. "You're probably right. You should go." The smile fades. "It was really good to see you, Bella."
Bree is pulling hard on my arm, trying to steer me over to the counter. "Come on, Uncle Eddie! We has to get in line! Hurry up, before somebody else getses my donut!" By the time I look back up, Bella is out the door and disappearing down the sidewalk.
Back in the car, I listen with one ear while Bree chatters on about how much fun she had this morning, giving automated responses wherever I'm required to contribute.
"I can't believe I caught so many fishes. Can you, Uncle Eddie?"
"Mommy said if I caught enough fishes, she could cook them for dinner. Do you think I caughted enough fishes, Uncle Eddie?"
"Uncle Eddie, who was that lady at the place where I had to go to the bafroom?" Now she has my attention.
"What lady?" This time she does roll her eyes. My God, she's growing up so damn fast. Next thing I know she'll be wearing make-up and driving all the boys crazy. No. No way.
"You know! The lady you was talking to!"
"That was…" I hesitate. How do I answer that question? "She's somebody I used to know," is the best answer I can think of for a five-year-old.
"Does I know her?"
"No, sweetheart. You've never met her. I knew her a long, long time ago. Way before you were ever born."
"Oh. She was really pretty."
Then it's back to fishing, and can we go again soon, and can she pretty pretty please have some of her donut after lunch; and as hard as I try to force myself to stay in the here and now, I keep getting distracted.
She was really pretty.