Amber was perched on the edge of the bed in her nightclothes. It wasn't too late yet, but she was ready for bed because she wanted to read a bedtime story with her son tonight, hoping to make reading a little more fun.
Jay was lying on the bed, drawing up a chore rota with a little more aggression than was wholly necessary. His pen tore through the paper, which simply served to aggravate him further. He scrunched the failed rota into a ball and threw it angrily across the room.
"You're being more childish than Bray," Amber started, but was met with a growl.
"I do not want to hear that name right now!"
Amber scowled and snatched the pen from him. "I meant my son. You're probably where he got the stupid habit of throwing things when he's frustrated! Now will you stop acting like a jealous pig."
"Oh, so he's my fault now. You never let me near him. I've not even been a substitute father to him, so don't you dare blame him on me!"
"Bray is no one's fault," exclaimed Amber in disbelief. "He's a living, breathing person. He's my son!"
"Amber that's not what I…"
She interrupted him aggressively. "You know very well what you meant!"
"Amber…" He reached out a hand to her. She tried to push it away, but he pushed on regardless and drew her down beside him. "Amber, please."
"Please what?" she spat.
"Let's talk, not fight," he said simply. She was placated, although just barely, and Jay realised that one wrong word would force her back into yelling. "Remember what we planned. We came back to this city to build a better future; for Bray and for our future children." He touched her stomach gently. "We were going to have a family, Amber, once we had a home. Don't you want to be a family?"
With a sigh Amber gave him a pleading look. "We've only just got back, Jay. It's too soon to think about more children."
Jay shook his head at her misunderstanding. "I don't want a baby yet either, Amber. There's simply too much to do to introduce more children into this tribe. But you have a child, and you have me too. Can't we be a family now?"
Bowing her head, Amber stood up. "Don't ask stupid questions, Jay. We've been a family for years already now. I'm going to go and read Bray a story."
"That sounds fun!" encouraged Jay, trying to diffuse the argument. "Can I come with you?"
Amber shook her head, and refused to look him in the eye. "Not tonight," she muttered, and quickly left the room.
Jay put his rota to one side and wept.
When Amber entered the children's bedroom she was surprised to find Bray perched on Bray jr.'s bed. The little boy was not under his covers, but merrily bouncing up and down on Brady's bed. Brady was nowhere to be found.
Worried that she'd cause herself to get angry again by trying to take control of the situation straight away, Amber decided to start by addressing the simplest situation at hand. "Where's Brady?" she asked by way of greeting.
Bray jr. ceased bouncing and sat down beside his father. Bray gave her a smile. "She's staying in Trudy's room tonight; Trudy wanted to give me some space to put Bray to bed."
Staring up at his mother Bray jr. said, "What are you doing here, mum?"
A smile crept onto Amber's face. She knew by the tone of his voice that Bray jr. was only refraining from using her name to please his father, but she was still thrilled by the simple word anyway. "I came to read you a bedtime story," she replied cheerfully, moving to the bookcase to choose a book.
"I want Daddy to tell me a story," Bray jr. insisted.
"What story do you want to hear then, son?" asked Bray.
Bray jr. quickly arranged the covers around him and curled up comfortably. "Tell me about one of your adventures in all the years you were lost," he begged.
"No!" said Amber, straightening up. She had a book under her arm. "You're not getting out of reading that easily mister!"
Laughing, Bray said, "So that's what you're playing at!" He ruffled his son's hair lovingly. Next he looked to Amber. "Can we reach a compromise? If Bray reads his story like he's supposed to I'll tell him a new one."
"Do I have to?" whined Bray jr.
Amber settled on the opposite side of the bed to Bray. "I'm afraid you do. You'll like this story."
Together they read The Story of Peter Rabbit, and despite his aversion to reading books Bray jr. found himself having a great time. Amber read the part of the mother rabbit, and Bray did impressions of Mr McGreggor. Bray jr. had to read all the parts in-between.
When the story was finished Amber closed the book with a smile. It had felt oddly uplifting to read a simple tale with her little boy.
Bray settled his son under his covers before he began his tale. "I'd been in Australia about a year, mostly doing odd jobs for tribes in order to pay for some food and a roof over my heads. I'd not come across anyone in days by this point, because I'd decided to follow the coast instead of the road. I was quite far from the nearest towns, let alone cities, so I hadn't expected to meet anyone for at least another couple of days. I was shocked when I rounded an outcrop of rocks and came upon a little girl playing in the sand." Bray jr. leaned forward, looking at his father expectantly.
"She was probably about your age, son. As soon as she saw me she ran up the beach, screaming loud enough to wake the dead! I didn't know what else to do, so as quickly as I could I followed her."
"She ran to a little hut set back from the beach. It had a yard at the back that was full of chickens, and a garden overflowing with fruit and vegetables and good things to eat. I knew that this much luxury in such a strange place must be a secret from all the world, so I hoped that whoever lived here would pay me with some food if I promised to keep their secret. I walked up and knocked on the door."
Bray jr. was shaking his head insistently. "You shouldn't do that!" he said. "They might have weapons. They could have killed you!"
Amber frowned. "Obviously he got out of it, since he's here. Hush, and listen to your story Bray."
"No one answered the door. I suppose they hoped that if I thought no one was there that I'd leave. Instead I shouted that if they didn't come out and greet me I'd simply take all their food for myself. That brought the girl to the door, and she had an older girl with her.
"The older girl was probably about eighteen years old. She had long hair that reached down to her waist, the sort of girl that used to be in all the TV adverts before the virus. She looked furious.
"'I suppose you want a hot meal in return for your silence? Men are all the same,' she said. 'Come in, but if you take more than you're given I'll gut you with my kitchen knife, and don't you think I won't!'"
"She should have threatened you away, not let you in," Amber interrupted. "You don't let an enemy into your house!"
"Mum, you're ruining the story!" chastised her son, and Amber lulled back into an uneasy silence.
"The girl sat me at the table. She fed me the nicest meal I'd eaten in as long as I could remember. It was just so fresh, as well as so beautifully cooked. When I couldn't eat another bite we exchanged stories. I told her how I had lost my girlfriend and my baby, and gone out there in search of something to fill that hole. She told me that she had lived with her brother and his girlfriend ever since the virus. One day five years ago they'd gone for a walk and never come back. They'd left her behind with their little girl. 'We survive easily,' she said, 'but it's terribly lonely.'
"I negotiated a bed for the night, and breakfast for the morning, in return for me fixing a leak in the roof. In fact I ended up staying two nights, and being given five meals, in return for fixing lots of little things around the hut. It was pleasant in that hut, and so peaceful. By the time the third evening came around I was ready to leave. As I packed my bag with the food that she'd given me, the older girl came to me to ask a question. 'Won't you please stay forever?'"
The little boy's eyes were wide as he listened to his father, drinking in every word of the tale. Despite everything, Amber also found herself enamoured with the account too. Bray had a wonderful voice for telling stories.
"When I refused she started to beg. 'Your own wife and child are surely dead. Stay with us, we need you!' Again and again she insisted, not relenting for over an hour, and when at last I'd had enough and stood to leave she flew at me in a rage. She hit my head with something hard, and when I came around after the blow it was already morning. I found that she'd chained my ankle to hers!"
Bray paused dramatically. Amber wore a look of disbelief, but her son's face showed terror.
"How did you escape?" asked Bray jr. who was obviously not enjoying his father's theatrical break.
Bray smiled at his son. "Are you too tired? Shouldn't we save the rest of this story to tomorrow?"
"No!" shouted the little boy. "Please no! I want to hear how you got away!"
"Don't taunt the boy," said Amber, although her eyes were smiling.
Bray lowered his voice to a whisper to finish off his tale. "She needed some wood for the fire, so together we went to the bottom of the garden. There was no wood chopped, but there were some large branches lying nearby. She gave me a hatchet and stepped as far away as the chain would allow, although I think by now she knew that I wouldn't harm her, even though she was my captor. I'd barely started my chopping when the smaller girl started screaming and shouting from the house. The older girl seemed torn, but since the shouting didn't stop, and the girl didn't appear, she decided to chain me to the fence, and then run swiftly back up to the house.
"We could have gone up to the house together, of course. Choosing to leave me behind was her one mistake. I used the hatchet to chop through the fence. I lost all of my belongings that day, so the next week was a hard one."
"You're amazing," said Bray jr., his face shining with admiration as he stared at his father.
Bray laughed. "No more than anyone else. We all do what we must to survive." He leaned over and placed a kiss gently on his son's forehead. "Sleep well little one."
Bray left Amber behind to say goodnight, but she quickly caught up with him. "That story was too farfetched," she scolded. "You'll start putting ideas in his head! He worships you already."
"It was true, every word."
"Nonsense. Any man would have stayed, what with the house by the beach, and the food, and the girl like a supermodel fawning all over you. You'd have us believe you turned all the down for a wife and a son who you believed to be dead."
"I never believed…I always hoped you were still alive, somewhere," he corrected gently. "And besides, she was some little kid."
"You weren't tempted at all."
"No, and I'll tell you why. She didn't need me to survive, she'd been doing alright by herself for five years; yet despite that she insisted I was abandoning her. I don't need women who are needy Amber. I like women who can stand up for themselves."
She scoffed. "And did you find any of those on your adventure around the world?"
Weakly he smiled at her. "A few," Bray admitted readily. "But none of them even came close to you."
A red blush crept across Amber's cheeks. It was difficult to tell whether it was due to anger, or flattery, or both. "Look!" she began in a furious whisper. "You can't come back after ten years and simply expect to flirt your way back into my life. Jay and I have been together for a long time now. Don't think you can tell a pretty story, and tuck in our son, and that will suddenly win me, because it won't. I'm happy with Jay."
Bray glared. "I told a story and tucked in my son because I care for him. He's our baby, Amber, not a tool to manipulate people, though you seem to have forgotten that long ago." He held up his hand to halt her interruption, and earned an even fiercer glare in return. "And don't ever accuse me of trying to win you. I wouldn't ever be so stupid. I simply offer myself, just as I am. It's up to you to make the choice."
Aggressively Amber poked Bray in the chest. "No more flirting. Or else."
As she stormed off down the hallway back to her techno lover, Bray couldn't help feeling that it wasn't over yet.
Author's Note: Well I'm back from New Zealand! I hope you enjoyed this chapter.