It was fifteen minutes past nine, which was just about the time Richard was due to trudge through her front door. Caroline thundered down the stairs, hoping to get to the kitchen and have enough time to set up her April Fool's Day joke.
As she rounded the landing, she caught a whiff of food cooking. She slowed and softly thudded down the last few steps.
"Richard?" she asked.
Turning from the stove, he looked at her, smiled, and slung a dishtowel over his shoulder.
Caroline was stunned into silence. Richard stood in her kitchen, dressed in only boxers and an undershirt, making scrambled eggs.
He walked over to her and kissed her forehead. "Hi, hon," he said, and then went back behind the counter. He placed a plate before one of the stools and beckoned her over. "Come eat before it gets cold."
Hon? Caroline mouthed in shock. She suddenly remembered which day it was and decided to go with the flow. At the very least, she'd get breakfast out of it. Very well-played, Richard, she thought.
She took a seat at the counter and smirked at him. "So what's on the agenda for today?" she asked.
"Well," Richard said, as he poured them each cups of coffee. "I have to pick up Caitlin from Del and Annie, and then-"
"Who's Caitlin?" Caroline interrupted.
Richard frowned and set down the coffee pot. "Caitlin. Your daughter? Mischievous five-year-old?"
Caroline's eyes bugged a bit at his statement. He was really taking this joke as far as he could! Better just keep going with it, she thought.
"Okay, so what will I be doing, then?"
Richard walked around the counter and stood in front of her. He placed his hand on her forehead.
"What are you doing?"
He dropped his hand and stared at her. "Seeing if you have a fever. Do you not remember last night?"
Caroline's eyes widened. "You know, I do feel a little strange," she said. "Suppose you clue me in." Mentally, she began to wonder if Richard was joking or serious. Had something happened between them last night?
Richard removed his glasses and sank into the stool next to her. "We went to Remo's to celebrate…"
Caroline shook her head in confusion. "What deal?"
Richard took her hand in his, which Caroline found strange, but not entirely unpleasant.
"The deal for the Caroline in the City animated holiday special."
"Yeah, you know. One of those Christmas things, like they have on every year with the fat orange cat and the bald kid."
Caroline dropped his hand and sat up straight in her seat. "I'm getting a holiday special? Like Garfield and Peanuts?" Richard nodded. Under her breath, Caroline muttered, "Cathy never got a holiday special."
Richard heard her and rolled his eyes. "Yeah, that's what you said when we first heard the news." He stood and returned to the other side of the counter to fetch his coffee cup.
Caroline looked up at him. "You wouldn't toy with me like this, just for an April Fool's Day joke, right?"
Richard looked at her blankly. "April Fool's Day?"
Caroline shook her head. "Never mind. Look, let's say that, theoretically, I was having trouble remembering the last few… years," she said, slowly.
Richard narrowed his eyes. "Years?"
"Yeah, humor me."
He sighed. "What do you want to know?"
"Pretend that the last thing I remember is March 31, 1997. What's been happening since then? What's today?"
Richard stared at her and raised the coffee cup to his lips. As he lowered it, he said, "Well, I guess you should know that Y2K was a bust."
Caroline frowned. "Not global. Personal stuff. Like the thing about me having a daughter."
"Ok." Richard shrugged. "Well, it's 2004."
"2004?" Caroline breathed.
"Rip Van Winkle, are you going to let me continue?"
Caroline nodded her head. "Sorry."
"You have a five-year-old daughter named Caitlin, who I'm due to pick up in a little less than an hour, you're a successful cartoonist with a long-running strip and a pending holiday special, which we celebrated last night. And with the way you're acting, you've got me terrified."
"Tell me about it," Caroline said. "I don't know if I'm having a bizarre dream, or I hit my head, or just had way too much to drink at our little celebration."
Richard frowned again. "It couldn't have been that last one. The only thing you had to drink was grape juice."
Caroline grimaced. "To celebrate, I had juice? Why not champagne?" She picked up her cup and took a sip as Richard answered.
He gestured towards her cup. "The same reason that's decaf."
She stared at her mug. "Decaf?"
Exasperated with her behavior, he quickly crossed the room, reaching behind his side of the partner desk. "Here," he said, thrusting a silver-framed picture into her hands.
It was black and white and she wasn't quite sure what it depicted. Richard noticed her confusion.
"It's an ultrasound," he said softly. "You're three months pregnant, Caroline." He placed his arm around her, resting his hand on her stomach.
She pulled away from him, dropping the picture to her side and raising her other hand to her forehead.
"By who? Am I married? Please tell me I didn't resort to a sperm donor. Ugh. I'm…" she paused as she did the math quickly in her head, "38 years old and still single."
"What?" Richard asked, genuinely shocked. "Caroline, we've been married for seven years."
"We?" She gestured to him and then to herself.
Richard nodded. "Yes, we. You and I."
Caroline stared at the ground and nodded. "So that explains why you're in my kitchen in your underwear at 9 A.M. We're married." She sank into the cushions of the sofa and sat with her hands in her lap, absentmindedly staring into space.
Richard wasn't sure what to do. This behavior was completely unlike her. He briefly considered calling a doctor, but she didn't seem to be in any danger. Just very, very quiet. Suddenly, she stood and walked to the door.
"Oh, no," he said and bolted after her.
Caroline knocked on the door across the hall from her. Annie wouldn't lie to her. There's no way Richard could have gotten to her. She pounded on the door. "Annie, find your clothes and answer the door."
The door opened a crack and a wrinkled, grey-haired face peered out. He/she/it snarled something in a foreign language and then slammed the door. Caroline heard what sounded like cats hissing, and then silence. She turned towards her own apartment, to see Richard standing in the doorway.
He smiled wryly. "Annie doesn't live there anymore. She and Del moved in together four years ago."
"So I didn't mishear you earlier."
"Nope. They babysat Caitlin last night while we celebrated signing the deal for the special." They walked into the apartment and Richard closed the door behind them. The smile disappeared from his face as worry took over again. "Caroline, can I trust you to stay here while I go get Caitlin?"
Caroline nodded as she drifted towards her side of the table. Richard sighed and quickly ran up the stairs to get dressed.
Caroline pulled open a drawer and took out a blank panel and some pencils. "I might as well at least get a strip or two out of this."
An hour later, Richard returned to the apartment to find Caroline engrossed in her work. That's a little better, he thought.
Caroline instinctively turned at hearing the small voice. She found herself being hugged by a pink jacket topped by a cloud of fiery red hair. Shocked, she didn't know what to do but return the hug. After a moment, she reached down and raised the little girl's chin.
"Oh, wow," she said, at seeing her daughter's face for the first time. Caitlin was undeniably their daughter. The hair was Caroline's, but the eyes, the eyes were Richard's. They were dark and soulful and somehow sad, which was a strange expression for a five-year-old.
Until Caitlin ran to her, Caroline almost thought Richard was still joking. But now, she was more confused and conflicted than ever.
She looked at him through tears. Upon seeing the look on her face, Richard reached down and picked up his daughter. "Why don't you go play with your dollhouse, sweetheart?"
Caitlin made a face. "Dolls are for little girls. Can I color?"
Richard chuckled and set her down. "Sure," he said, as he pulled her jacket off of her little arms and watched her scamper off. "We're going to go have lunch in a little bit, but Mommy and I need to talk first."
"Okay, Daddy," she called over her shoulder as she made her way up the stairs.
Caroline had sat quietly through the entire exchange, reeling from the sight of what had to be her daughter, and Richard's interactions with her. She'd never really thought of Richard as being a good father. She thought of him as a good friend, and briefly considered him as a potential boyfriend, but not seriously. She began to wonder what other things she didn't know about him.
She craned her neck upwards to look at him. Really look at him. His brow was creased with worry as he determined that she seemed okay. He stepped away from her and began to discard the uneaten breakfast and wash the dishes. Caroline took the opportunity to stare at the muscles in his back as they moved under his sweater. Her thoughts began to move in a direction she wasn't entirely comfortable with. Apparently, in this reality, they were husband in wife, but in her mind, it was 1997, and he was still her cranky assistant.
"Cranky assistant?" he said, drying his hands and giving her a look. She glanced at him apologetically, not realizing she had voiced the last of her thoughts.
"I'm sorry, Richard. Like I said, I feel strange, like I've become unstuck in time."
He nodded and crossed the room. He took a seat across from her at the partner desk.
"Richard, could you tell me how we got together?"
"You want to do this now?"
As ever, he was unable to refuse her. He sighed. "Well, it was April 1, 1997.
At Caroline's sharp intake of breath, he glanced at her. When she said nothing, he continued.
"I came in about 9:15, freezing, took off my coat, and sat here," he said, running his hands over his side of the desk. "You were standing behind the counter, pouring coffee. You brought two mugs to the desk. When I took my cup, your hand came with it."
He chuckled. "You'd apparently decided to play some sort of practical joke. Fake hand. Anyway, I didn't bat an eye, which disappointed you a bit. When I went to set the mug down, it spilled all over the desk. You rushed to help me clean up, though I tried to push you away, because I didn't want you to see…"
"See what?" she whispered.
He looked at his lap, and then picked up another frame from behind his side of the desk, again handing it to her.
As she took it, she asked him, "How many more of these have you got?"
"Just one," he said, and showed it to her. It was a family portrait, taken on a sunny day in the park. Tiny versions of Richard, Caitlin (minus a front tooth), and Caroline smiled back at her.
Caroline grinned at that, and looked down at the frame in her hands. It was a coffee-stained piece of paper, a note. THE note.
She began reading aloud. "Caroline, I don't know what I'm really writing…." Her voice tailed off midway through the letter. She read the rest in silence. After she finished, she stared up at him.
Though hearing those words read aloud had once caused him pain, he was past it. He could now meet her eyes, with their unspoken question.
"I've loved you, I think since the day I met you. I wrote this the night before your wedding. Then I ran off to France to avoid you. Fortunately," he laughed. "I couldn't. " He walked around the desk and wrapped his arms around her. "We were married three months after you read the letter. We had Caitlin about a year and a half later. And yes, I am still your assistant, at least part-time."
He nodded. "Yep. After Caitlin was born, I realized that sometimes good things do happen, even to me. I sold my first painting."
"Caroline Marrying Someone Else. It was part of a series. A series that I realized had ended. They were some of the best works I'd ever done. The emotion in them was real, but I wasn't the same. My works now are different in tone. Like that one, there," he gestured to the painting above the fish tank.
Caroline had noticed it, but didn't think it could possibly be Richard's. It was abstract, as all of his works were, but it was so bright.
"I'm the reason?"
"You, and then Caitlin. You changed my life. I'd always worked off of my feelings. For so long, they were dark, and so were my works. Now, I'm happy, and so the tone of my work has changed. What's also changed is how other people view them."
Caroline wrinkled her forehead in confusion. He took her hands in his. "I mean, people are buying them. I still help you with the strip, but I also paint, putting in long nights if I need to. We raise our daughter. We prepare for the next child. We have a good life together, Caroline." He released her hands.
Caroline cleared her throat, about to say something, but then the world blurred, and when it became clear again, Richard was gone and she was standing alone in her bedroom. As she had done earlier that morning, she took the stairs two at a time, reaching the kitchen just as she heard a key turn in the lock. She grabbed the fake hand off the counter and slipped it over her own hand. She hid it behind her back as Richard walked through the door.
"Hey, Richard. You want some coffee?"
"Not as much as I wanted to jump in front of the subway car this morning instead of riding it, but yes, thank you."
Caroline grinned and poured two cups of coffee. She carried them to the desk and handed him one mug. When he took it, the false hand slipped off her own hand and dangled from the cup. Caroline screamed in mock pain and held up the sleeve she had pulled over her fist. Richard simply glanced at her and took a sip, the fake hand drooping from the handle.
"Oh, you're no fun," she said, pouting into her own cup.
Richard swallowed and tried to set the cup down on top of the desk. He started to form a retort to Caroline's accusation, but stopped when hot coffee spilled all over as the mug toppled down his side of the desk.
Caroline grabbed a dishtowel off the counter and started to help mop up the mess.
"No, Caroline, it's okay. Please stop!" he barked the last bit, causing her to freeze in her tracks, a damp slip of paper caught between her fingers.
"What's this?" she questioned, noticing that it was addressed to her.
Richard hung his head. He didn't lie or try to grab it out of her hands. He was resigned to pain and humiliation. He was standing in rapidly cooling wet pants, after all. He shifted uncomfortably.
"Just read it," he whispered. "Silently."
Caroline already knew what it said. Everything had happened exactly like future Richard had said. He hadn't given her details beyond this point. She decided to act as if she was seeing the letter for the first time. Too bad she was a terrible actress.
"When did you… how long have you felt this way? Do you still…?"
Richard glumly looked into her eyes, not quite sure what he was reading in them. She didn't seem as shocked as her words let on. She seemed to almost know the answers. But that wasn't possible.
"I understand if you want me to leave," he said, not answering her questions directly.
Caroline crossed the gap Richard had placed between them. She raised herself on her tip toes and curved her arms around Richard's neck. "Richard, I want you to stay. Forever." She kissed him, and after a moment, he responded, still dazed at what had just transpired.
She broke the kiss and smiled at him. "What do you think of the name Caitlin?" she asked.
"Never mind," she said and reached up for another kiss.