Author's Note: Finishing this epilogue took an absurd amount of time, and that's not due to a lack of time or ideas. In fact, I've had the first 3,000 words for this chapter written for almost four weeks now. Thus, in actuality, the issue was that I simply found it difficult to put this story to rest. Finishing a story leaves one hollow inside, and after completing more than half of this chapter, I couldn't bring myself to write the final two pages. I suppose I've been mourning, so I apologize for the long wait.
Additionally, my avoidance probably wasn't made better by the fact that I turned seventeen a little over a week ago, and I've been balancing my SATs and the beginning of the college application process with crippling fear. Adulthood is rapidly approaching on this end, and I've been suffering from a bit of role confusion, unable to put this story to bed without feeling like I was beating my spirit with the remainder of my childhood. xD Regardless, it's been a privilege to be able to write for you all, and I can't thank you enough for allowing me the opportunity to share this story. I will be writing more stories in the near future!
Stay wonderful. ~Mandelene
In essence, time eluded them all in the end. Seasons passed and memories grew dusty in the midst of adulthood, but settling down had brought them a solace unlike any other. Their destinies had been carved with the remains of old dreams and ambitions like old wine being poured into the chalice of wisdom.
Their once miniscule family had expanded, taking their stories in their stride without hesitance. That's what children did, after all, they tore away one's exterior, looking straight into the raw regrets in order to soak them in new life again.
But for reasons better left unvoiced, Alfred was not truly appreciating the healing innocence of children that morning.
"Daddy! Wake up! You said you would take me to Uncle Matthew's house today!"
Groaning and flopping over onto his back, Alfred cracked one eye open, glaring accusingly at the little girl perched at the end of his bed, knees propping her up as she toyed with the hem of the flowery summer dress that Amelia had dressed her in.
"Daddy's tired," Alfred grumbled lowly, pushing away the grogginess in his voice. Bracing himself for impact, he winced as his daughter hopped onto his abdomen, little knees now digging into vital digestive organs.
"But you promised!" she whined, as though he had committed some sort of serious misconduct.
He thought he would've learned his lesson the first few times when he had made promises that he hadn't foreseen to keep. Usually, promises were made on his part as a ploy of bribery to get a certain someone to go to bed on time without making a fuss. Thus, Alfred promised many things, though he'd been hoping that his daughter wouldn't have had such a good memory.
"Mommy said you have to wake up and take me. She said that you've been getting lazy!"
Alfred raised an eyebrow comically, lifting his head up marginally. "Oh, did she now? I'll show her lazy. Where is your mother?"
"She's making breakfast in the kitchen."
And with that, Alfred sat up with a final little grunt of displeasure, swinging his daughter onto his back and giving her a piggyback ride downstairs. She squealed with delight, arms wrapped around her father's neck as they approached the scent of fresh waffles.
Amelia smiled at the sight of them as they neared the stove behind her, trying to contain her amusement in an attempt to seem annoyed. "Oh, you're finally up. It's about time that—"
The weight on Alfred's back hopped away, taking a seat at the table eagerly and leaving him to focus all of his attention on his wife. With a sly grin, he wrapped his arms around the woman, pulling her close.
"What's this I've been hearing about me being lazy, huh?"
Letting out a gasp of laughter as Alfred nuzzled her neck with his nose in a ticklish manner, Amelia swatted him with a dishtowel lightly, trying to wriggle out of his grasp. "I wonder who could've ever said such a thing."
Alfred pecked a kiss on her cheek and tensed his arms to prevent an escape. "Hmm, mysterious. I've been slaving away here and all I wanted was some R&R, but I see that I haven't earned that sympathy."
"Apparently not, but there's always next time," Amelia replied in a coy tone. "Now, take Molly to Matthew's like you said you would, and I expect you to keep an eye on her! I'll swing by after I get things sorted out here, since Emma and I haven't had a chance to chat in a while."
Alfred scoffed knowingly, "Chat? You mean a gossiping session."
"Oh, don't accuse me of gossiping when you're the one who's always asking about me about the latest news on the block! You're just as bad if not worse!" Amelia retorted defensively before stuffing a piping hot waffle into Alfred's mouth to keep him quiet.
It seemed to do the trick, and soon Alfred was in the car with Molly, driving toward Matthew's house while nursing a headache the entire time. He had an inkling of suspicion that the aforementioned migraine had something to do with the fact that Molly was rambling the entire ride in the backseat, recounting every detail surrounding her friends in her kindergarten class.
"And Jillian got a dog! Why can't we get a dog, Daddy? I would take good care of it and everything!" Molly went on enthusiastically, bouncing in her seat. "Please, oh please!"
"I don't think that's such a good—"
"I'll think about it," Alfred conceded with a long sigh. Molly had him around her finger, and he was certain that he spoilt her too much, always making it seem like Amelia was the mean parent as she gathered the firm resolve to strike down Molly's pleas.
Finally, after what seemed like an endless drive to his grave, they reached Matthew's house and filed out of the car. Immediately, Molly ran up to greet her uncle, who was on the front porch, watering the flowers hanging from the pot on the windowsill.
As Alfred locked the car and joined them, Matthew hugged his niece and told her to head for the backyard, which was where his own children were gathered.
"Hey, Mattie," Alfred greeted as well, patting his twin on the back. "Thanks for letting the kids play today. Hopefully, they'll tire themselves out and we'll have some peace."
Matthew chuckled, "I wouldn't look forward to it if I were you. Those kids have plenty of energy to spare. So, how's everything going?"
"The same as always," Alfred responded indifferently. "How about you?"
As if his body had been anticipating the question, Matthew coughed roughly before shrugging his shoulders. "This high pollen count has been making my allergies and asthma act up, but I'm sure it'll be fine as soon as we get deeper into the heart of the summer."
Serious and concerned now, Alfred furrowed his brows at the man critically, letting his eyes scrutinize his figure. "Have you been taking any medications for it?"
Avoiding the pressing question, Matthew merely smiled sheepishly to placate his brother. "I'm fine, Al. Emma's probably got some iced tea inside; you should try it."
Not giving up so quickly, Alfred reached out a hand and grasped the other by the wrist, catching his attention.
"Let me help you. Don't be so prideful."
"Prideful? I'm not—"
"Mattie, you've got two kids that need your absolute guidance and supervision, so you have to take care of yourself. I know your asthma's always been a sensitive topic for you, but you have to be able to talk about it with someone," Alfred reasoned, shooting Matthew a stern expression.
Matthew nodded his head begrudgingly, rolling his eyes at the other. "You don't have to make such a big deal out of it, you know."
"Did you have the kids take PFTs? Are they showing any signs of asthma too? It's genetic so—"
"I know, Alfred," Matthew assured steadily. "Let's just not worry about everyone's potentially declining health and just enjoy the beautiful day, okay? Now, how about that iced tea?"
But they had barely crossed the threshold when a piercing wail filled the atmosphere, leaving their ears ringing as they exchanged worried looks. Not sparing a moment, they ran into the backyard where the children were, finding the source of the sound with ease. However, what surprised them thoroughly was the chaotic scene that they had entered.
For reasons unknown, Molly was lying face down in the grass, adjacent to a decent sized ditch that someone had dug. Her cousins stood beside either side of her, trying to shush her crying.
"What's going on here?" Matthew demanded, glancing back and forth between his children as he seethed over the mess they had made as well as how they had upset Molly within ten minutes of her visit. "Why is your cousin so upset, and why is there a gaping hole in the middle of the yard?"
The two children, Michael and Peter, stared guiltily at their father, eyes downcast as Alfred rushed forward to scoop Molly up and console her. She continued to sob into his chest, trembling in his hold as he made futile attempts at calming her.
"How many times do I have to explain that Molly is younger than the both of you and that you shouldn't play rough with her?" Matthew asked rhetorically, already beginning his lecture before wrenching the story out of them. "Now, what happened?"
"It's not our fault. She just fell in the dinosaur trap we set up!" Michael explained in a tone that made it seem like the problem was obvious. "She needs to watch where she's going."
"Be nice," Matthew warned, clenching his hands into fists. "And what's this whole dinosaur trapping business about?"
"We were trying to catch a dinosaur, but we caught Molly instead," Peter groused disappointedly, pointing at the offending ditch. "She fell into it and started crying. We helped her up but she just laid down on the grass and wouldn't talk to us."
Matthew and Alfred both made sounds of disapproval before Matthew ordered the boys to wait outside and ushered Alfred and Molly into the house.
In no time at all, Emma came out to say hello, only to stop herself as she registered the crying child still nestled against Alfred. "What happened this time?"
"Dinosaurs happened," Alfred joked darkly as he entered the living room and laid Molly down on the nearest couch.
"Dinosaurs? Do I even want to know?"
At this, Matthew shook his head firmly, raising a hand up to signal a call for silence. "No, please don't ask any more questions before I decide to head back outside and knock some sense into those boys." He then turned to Alfred remorsefully. "Is Molly unharmed?"
Alfred sucked in a terse breath through his teeth, pulling off Molly's shoe carefully as she continued to howl unabatedly. He ran his fingers over her foot, pressing down with some pressure in various spots before taking to massaging it comfortingly, rubbing away the worst of the pain. "I think it's just a sprain. She'll be fine."
"Thank goodness," Emma breathed a sigh of relief, petting Molly's head as Alfred elevated her foot with the help of a few pillows. "I'll get some ice."
Alfred nodded gratefully as she went to the kitchen, whispering soothing words to his daughter as she finally began to relax, too tired to keep up the crying. He smiled fondly at her, placing a feathery kiss on the tip of her nose and clearing the tears off of her cheeks. "It'll be all better soon, sweetie."
"So much for a day of peace, huh?" Matthew commented dryly. "I'm so sorry for all of this commotion. I'll be sure the boys are punished and that they apologize to Molly."
"Don't beat yourself up over it," Alfred advised with a wry smile. "Kids will be kids, and Molly's caused her fair share of trouble too. Amelia, on the other hand, will probably hold a grudge against me for a week for letting Molly out of my sight."
Matthew laughed in a lighthearted and sympathetic manner. "I can talk to her for you, if you'd like. I'll take the heat for this one."
"It won't matter, she'll find a way to be upset with me as well," Alfred predicted playfully, carding his hand through Molly's hair as she began to doze off from all of the excitement. "She's a lot like her mother, this one. You should see the face she makes when she gets irritated with me—she could be Amelia's clone."
"I can imagine," Matthew said with a growing smile. "God, things really have changed over the years, haven't they? I hate to sound so old and nostalgic, and even though I've said it so many times, I still can't believe we've made it this far. I can't help but wonder what's next for us."
Alfred exhaled in a way that made him seem like he'd held a thousand years' worth of wisdom. He gave Matthew a toothy smile, preparing to give his brother an earful. "We wait for our kids to grow old and then we die so the next generation can take over. We become just another little family lost in the wind of some possible afterlife. If not—that is, if there is no heaven or hell—we'll be in a perpetual state of slumber, caught in some collective unconsciousness as the remainder of civilization goes on, eventually giving away to some sort of global warming or nuclear warfare that leaves mankind extinct. It's all pretty morbid if you think about it, Mattie."
"Well, thanks for reinvigorating my will to live, Alfred. Really, you'd be a great counselor," Matthew mocked sarcastically, beckoning for Alfred to leave Molly to sleep in relative silence. The twins relocated to the kitchen, where they sat together at the table with the iced tea that they had previously forgotten about. Meanwhile, Emma had entered the backyard to have a word with the boys.
"In other news, Dad's going to be moving in with us," Matthew informed casually, chuckling as Alfred spit up some of his iced tea, grimacing as some of it dribbled down his chin. Hastily, he cleaned himself up before returning to his prior state of gaping at his brother.
"How? What? When? Why didn't you tell me sooner?" Alfred asked in a rapid sequence, barely sparing a moment to catch his breath.
"I thought it'd be good if we spent more time together, and I can't stand to think about how he's been trapped in that apartment of his for years now. It's about time he has a permanent change of scenery. Plus, he's getting older and it can't be healthy for him to—"
Alfred cut him off abruptly. "I can't believe it! You two finally reconciled properly?"
"I guess you could say that," Matthew admitted shamefacedly. "I couldn't ignore him forever, could I?"
"You did the right thing," Alfred applauded, placing a hand on Matthew's shoulder. "It's about time we put the past behind us for good."
Matthew frowned at that, crinkling his nose. "Well, some things are better left in plain view."
"You mean Arthur?"
There really wasn't a need for a verbal response. Somehow, they both seemed to know the answer to that.
"Do you still think about him sometimes?" Matthew queried after a heavy moment of uncomfortable reluctance.
Alfred cracked a smile and rested his head in his palm, sipping the iced tea slowly to savor the contrast between the sugar and lemon. "Every day. He's that voice in the back of my head that always seems to know when to offer helpful advice." He stirred his drink with his straw, looking a little perturbed all of a sudden. "How about you?"
"More frequently now than ever before, but I think that's because of everything that's been going on in terms of the kids and work," Matthew elaborated.
"Speaking of plans, what's your next step?"
"I don't know, yet," Matthew remarked rather insecurely. "I think I might try to run for the democratic nomination for mayor, but that's a big risk, and the fundraising would be a challenge."
Alfred huffed, giving his twin an incredulous look. "C'mon, you know you could do it. Don't be afraid to take some risks."
"I can't do that to my family. I mean, like you said, they need my guidance, and I can't be selfish in pursuing my own goals without considering them," Matthew reasoned, trying to convince himself that he was being too ambitious.
"You have nothing to worry about because even if you do end up failing, you've got a safety net to catch you. Brothers stick together, right? We didn't make it this far to just decide that we've had enough. You have to go out there, Mattie, and show 'em that we've still got plenty of things to accomplish."
Alfred knew Matthew would need more persuading than that, but the little pep talk had been a good start, and hopefully it would plant some more ideas for future plans in Matthew's mind.
After mulling things over for a little while longer, Emma entered the kitchen with the boys, ordering them to wash their hands in the sink for lunch. "You're both expected to be on your best behavior for the rest of the day while your father and I decide a proper punishment for ruining the yard and putting your cousin in danger. Have I made myself clear?"
"Yes, Mom," both boys chimed simultaneously, racing to the sink. Matthew rolled his eyes at the pair, mentally exhausted already.
Fortunately, the doorbell rang a moment later, providing a distraction. Matthew went to let the visitor in, already aware of who was at the door. Amelia stepped in a moment later, exchanging greetings and little formalities with Matthew before registering that Molly was sleeping on the couch. Immediately, she went over to the child, pushing strands of hair off of her forehead.
When Molly awoke, it was difficult to tell that she was the same child who had been so distraught previously. She jolted upward and hugged her mother tightly, allowing herself to be carried into the kitchen to accompany everyone else. When she was seated at the kitchen table, she began talking animatedly with her cousins again, complaining only occasionally that her foot still hurt from falling into the 'dinosaur trap'.
"Are you certain that we shouldn't take her to the hospital just to make sure that she hasn't broken any bones?" Amelia asked Alfred as the entire group settled down for lunch.
Alfred shook his head with a little laugh, unsurprised to find that Amelia was skeptical of his judgment. "No, I'm positive that she'll be perfectly fine. Don't worry about it, dear. Right, Molly? How are you feeling?"
"I'm okay!" Molly assured from the other end of the table, cheering with her cousins as their lunches were placed before them.
Alfred gave Amelia a smug look. "See? We'll wrap her foot in an elastic bandage tonight to make sure she doesn't further injure it. Molly's tough, so you shouldn't worry so much. She gets it after her mother."
"What a flirt," Amelia muttered, sticking out her tongue at him immaturely in a manner that she knew would make him laugh. "You think you know everything, don't you?"
Alfred pretended to scratch his chin in thought. "Well, almost everything," he teased with a wink, causing Matthew to make a derisive noise beside him.
"What a shame, I was thinking about what you said this morning and considered sending you off with Matthew to relax for a while, but if you're feeling happy-go-lucky enough to—"
Alfred interjected her abruptly, taking the chance without sparing another second. "You're right, darling, I am exhausted. Thanks for the suggestion. Let's go, Mattie! We'd better not stick around for too long 'cause once Amelia and Emma start talking, there's no stopping them. It's about time we have some time for sibling bonding."
Matthew grinned and shook his head. "I don't even want to know what you have in mind, but I hope it's not another brain-cell destroying movie" he teased, but stood from his seat anyway, trailing into the foyer after his twin.
"Hey, just because you can't appreciate great comedic films doesn't mean they aren't any good."
"Depends on your definition of comedy."
"Whatever, you're still not allowed to pick the movie because you always find something depressing to watch, leaving me to question my life choices for the following week."
"It wouldn't hurt to contemplate life's questions more often," Matthew argued, opening the front door.
"What are you trying to insinuate? That I don't think things through enough?"
"That's not what I meant… Not exactly anyway."
Alfred grumbled to himself for a moment, glaring daggers at his brother. "You always do this. This is why we can't bond."
"I think we've bonded just fine. Just because I don't like your taste in movies doesn't mean—"
"I have an awesome taste in movies!"
"Maybe if you'd let me pick the movie for once—"
"Maybe if you were willing to compromise more often," Alfred critiqued, still standing in the doorway as Matthew waited on the steps leading up to the porch.
"Look who's talking, Mr. I Can't Watch Depressing Movies Because I Hate Expressing Remotely Thoughtful Emotions."
Alfred glowered, sullen and sulky as he regarded the other. "You just had to go there, didn't you? Maybe we shouldn't watch a movie at all then!"
"Maybe I'll go watch a movie with someone else. If you're the third wheel, you won't be able to have much of an input."
A period of adamant silence hung about them after that, neither willing to back down. Then, finally, Matthew breathed a sigh and groaned. "A romantic comedy it is then."
"Yup," Alfred agreed, satisfied as they decided to take his car, finally exiting the house.
And as they approached the movie theater with a comfortable air amongst them, they noted that at long last, everything was going to be just fine.
And well, they couldn't ask for anything more than that.