Ten Months Before Impact Day
Aidan and I ate dinner together most nights, but it was rare for Mark to join us. Usually he ate much later, reheating whatever was around and taking it back into the study with him. Whenever he did eat with us, neither Aidan nor I really knew what to do.
The three of us sat in relative silence, Aidan and I glancing over at each other every so often, just to confirm that yes, it was awkward, we both felt it. Mark seemed completely oblivious to it, though with him it was always difficult to tell.
I’d always thought of Mark as a strange-looking man. He was kind of elongated, thin and long without being particularly tall. His short hair was starting to turn grey, and he looked perpetually tired, but never weighed down by it. His mannerisms were almost always slow and deliberate, as if he were making a point of every slight movement.
“You’re in a much better mood today,” Aidan said to me, trying to break the silence.
“You think so?”
“You do seem a little less dour than usual,” Mark chimed in.
“I don’t even know what that means,” Aidan complained.
“He’s calling me gloomy,” I translated for him. Aidan nodded, then snickered. I glared at him.
“I would say more melancholic,” Mark said, as if they were radically different concepts. I think he was just trying to annoy Aidan.
“Dad, we’re having dinner, not writing an article,” Aidan snapped. He was always a little touchy about vocabulary.
“And you have done a wonderful job with it once again,” Mark praised him, diverting the conversation.
“Oh, it was nothing.” Aidan was suddenly embarrassed. He was easily the best cook in the house, and even though he clearly enjoyed it, he always treated it like a chore.
“So, Charlie, what brought on this sudden shift in persona?” Mark asked, surprising me.
My mood had improved, that much was certain. A couple of months ago, I’d been depressed to the point of being suicidal. A lot had changed since then. Mostly with Rachel, and with my burgeoning scheme to make the city a safer place. Neither of those were things I was comfortable discussing with my adoptive family.
“I seriously don’t know what you’re talking about,” I lied.
“Well, you definitely seem different,” Aidan said. I really wished he’d just keep his mouth shut.
“Perhaps a special someone has entered the picture?” Mark ventured, his probing grey eyes locking onto mine. It took all of my self-control not to react at all.
“We tried that angle already,” Aidan said.
“We?” Mark asked, his curiosity shifting.
“Liz and I already asked, I mean,” Aidan clarified, embarrassed again.
“Don’t you think it’s weird how he says ‘we’?” I asked. Aidan glared at me, so I smiled sweetly back.
“Weird? Not at all,” Mark said, and Aidan’s sigh of relief was almost audible. “Noteworthy, though…”
“What are you trying to get at?” Aidan snapped, shrinking down in his chair.
“I believe Charlie is trying to deflect the focus on the conversation onto you.”
Dammit, he’s right.
“Y’know, if you and Liz are like, dating or anything, you can just say so,” I said.
“We are definitely not dating,” he said.
“Well, that is disappointing,” Mark said indifferently. “You two always look so comfortable together. And how about you, Charlie?”
“How about me what?” I asked, wondering if I could get out of this without lying. Mark could always tell when I was lying, and beside that, I didn’t want to lie about Rachel. I just wasn’t ready to have a coming out conversation with two straight men.
“Do you have a boyfriend at all?” Aidan pressed, tasting revenge. I’ve told him too much.
“No, I don’t have a boyfriend.” And if you keep pushing, I’ll punch you so hard-
“Well, it’s better for both of you to focus on your schoolwork, of course,” Mark said. “But do remember to enjoy your youth before it gets old.” He chuckled at his own joke; he was the only one.
“Why do you always talk like such a weirdo?” Aidan demanded.
“He doesn’t want anyone to forget that he’s a writer,” I offered.
“Doth my tongue offend thee, dear child?”
Aidan just rolled his eyes.
“So, what about you, Mark?” I asked, changing the subject as far away from Rachel as I could. “You don’t often have time to eat with us.”
“Well, I just so happened to have wrapped up another story. And besides, if I didn’t eat with you both once in a while, you’d forget what I looked like entirely.”
“Would that really be so bad?” I asked, my smirk challenging him to fight back. Amusement twinkled in his eyes, but he didn’t say anything.
“Working on anything interesting?” Aidan asked.
“I like to think everything that I work on is interesting,” Mark replied vaguely.
“Interesting to us, he means,” I clarified for him.
“Ah. Well, no, not unless either of you have suddenly developed an interest in local politics.”
“Nope,” I said flatly.
“Not really,” Aidan added.
“Then I am no good to either of you, I’m afraid,” he said solemnly.
“Aww, don’t say that,” I comforted him. “You’ll always be good to us, so long as you keep paying the bills.”
“Charlie!” Aidan cried, mortified. I just laughed.
“Well, I am glad to be of use in some way, at least,” Mark replied evenly.
“Dad, she’s only joking.”
“A lot of truth is said in jest,” Mark said, feigning offence, then lightened his tone. “Truthfully, being able to provide financially for the two of you is very important to me, so I’m not in the least offended.”
“See? He’s fine,” I said, vindicated.
“Well, now you can make yourself useful, and clean up,” Aidan said, scowling at me.
“Ugh, fine,” I grumbled. It was only fair.
“And will tonight be another late night out for you, young Charlotte?” Mark asked, making me freeze up.
I regained my composure, twisting around to glare at Aidan. He threw his hands up in a display of innocence, a look of genuine surprise on his face.
“I didn’t say anything!” he protested.
Crap. Left with no way to avoid it, I decided to opt for playing it cool instead. Maybe if I acted like it was a totally normal thing to do, he would believe it.
“I might step out for a bit of fresh air later, I guess,” I said nonchalantly.
“Well, be sure to take your phone with you, just in case,” he replied mildly.
That’s it? That was almost too easy. It seemed suspicious, but I wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth.
“Seriously?” Aidan asked, clearly unimpressed.
“I trust her,” Mark told him.
“I don’t think it’s about trust,” Aidan argued.
“And when you’re a father, your opinion on the matter will carry an equal amount of weight,” Mark replied dismissively.
“Hah!” I laughed victoriously at Aidan.
“But you will be safe, won’t you?” Mark said to me, his tone and expression serious.
“Good, I’m glad to hear it.” He pushed his chair back, and stretched out. “Now if you’ll both excuse me, I still have plenty of work to do.”
Next Week: This City Isn’t Yours Anymore