(Author's Note: You thought I was never going to update it again, didn't you? Don't lie, you totally thought that. Anyway, here's Chapter Four. Peace out.)


That Sunday, Emily and Brian came over for dinner. I tried a new pasta recipe. I was stirring my homemade pasta sauce and sipping a glass of good bourbon that had been a gift from my brother when there was a knock at the door.

"It's open!" I called over my shoulder.

The door burst open and Emily came bounding in.

"Daddy!" she shouted. She came up behind me and hugged (or, if we're being realistic, nearly tackled) me, burying her face between my shoulder blades. I wondered idly in the back of my mind when she'd gotten so tall.

I replaced the lid on the pasta sauce and turned to return the hug, kissing the top of her head.

"How's my Emmybear?"

"Dad, I'm in high school now, you can't call me that anymore," she said, but she was smiling.

I ruffled her short brown hair. "Okay, my Emmy-wemmy-pookie-wookie-pumpkin-muffin-schookie…"

"Daaaaaad…." she groaned.

During this exchange, Macavity was twining himself (well, as much as he could, fat as he is) around Emily's feet, begging for attention. She stepped back and picked him up, holding him up in front of her.

"Who's the cutest Mr. Crankypants fluffy kitty? You are! You are!"

The cat gave me a glare that clearly said "Make the small girl human stop talking to me in that fashion and put me down." Emily was the only one he'd let pick him up like that. With me, he usually just bit me and ran away to hide behind the couch, especially if he saw the cat carrier out.

"Emily, put the damn cat down."

I looked up to see Brian lounging against the doorway to my kitchen in a perfect cultivation of teenage apathy.

"Nice to see you too, Brian, and I love the fact that you're using profanity in my house around your highly impressionable younger sister," I said.

"It's an apartment. You couldn't afford an actual house."

I stifled the urge to prove that he was neither too big nor too old to spank.

"I am your father. I still demand some degree of respect."

"Why? Because you're a smoker and a drunk who spends his nights wallowing in self-pity with his stupid cat, or because you feed us once a week and send Mom money for our upkeep? Yeah, you really earn my respect. It's no wonder Mom left you."

"Brian, shut up!" Emily shouted.

"No, Emily! You would agree with me if you weren't too young to know the difference!"

Emily dissolved into tears. I hugged her as she cried into my shirt.

"Go to your room," I told Brian. My voice shook with anger, but I didn't care.

"That's not a room, it's a closet."

"Go to your room or get out of my house."

He glared at me, then turned toward the door. "Come on, Emily, we're leaving."

She shook her head, her face still buried in my chest.

"Come on, Emily!"

"No! I want to stay with Dad! Why do you have to be so mean all the time?" she cried.

"I'll drive Emily home, Brian," I said. "Leave."

Brian threw one last look over his shoulder at me, then left, slamming the door on his way out.

"I'm sorry, Daddy," Emily said.

"Oh, sweetheart, it's not your fault." I squeezed her a little tighter.

I was reminded of the times before Vivian and I got divorced when we would fight and scream and she would break things and I'd go down to my study for refuge. Emily would come down with some coffee or dinner and a hug and cry and say she was sorry we were fighting. The thought made me want to cry along with her.

After a few moments, she sniffled and let go of me.

"You gonna be okay?" I asked.

She nodded and sniffed, wiping her eyes on her sleeve.

I smiled and tweaked her nose. "Okay. Go sit down, I'll bring you your plate."

-----

My days fell into a rhythm of lecturing, grading, making copies, bad coffee, dinner alone, and drinks with the guys at King's on Fridays. Emily and, usually, Brian, would come to dinner on Sundays – Brian was often sullen and silent, and Emily would try to make up for it with bubbly chatter about school and friends. It became just another school year, except instead of hormonal preteens constantly seeking attention, I was dealing with pompous almost-adults who thought their time was too valuable to be spent in my class.

There were a few who actually wanted to be there. There was Katie, the girl who sat in the front row with Laurie, who enjoyed historical fiction and had visited England frequently. She apparently also volunteered at the local renaissance faire every year. As such, she had a clear passion for history. She was a little overexuberant at times and her thinking was a little unoriginal, but she put in more effort than many of her peers. There was Jonathan Michaels, who sat in the very back corner and watched everything intently with heavy-lidded dark eyes. He had a perpetual five-o-clock shadow and was rarely seen in anything except sweatshirts and fraying jeans. He was quiet, but just when I'd start thinking he wasn't paying attention, he would make some profoundly astute observation and then clam up for the rest of the period. He liked military history and showed a general aptitude for the subject. His essays were well-written, though his handwriting was atrocious.

Then, of course, there was Laurie. Teaching her was not nearly as awkward as I had thought it had the potential to be. If she still had some sort of misguided feelings for me, she hid them well. She wished me a bright "good morning" each morning, and once or twice a week would bring me some sort of designer coffee first thing in the morning. I had a feeling she found Jonathan Michaels attractive, as she would always turn in her seat to look at him when he spoke and either beamed or dissolved into giggles nearly every time he spoke to her directly. She would frequently correct her classmates before I could if they made an incorrect observation. She was a wonderful writer and frequently did better on the essay portions of her tests than the multiple-choice portions. I often wondered if she might actually be able to teach the art history portion of the course, as when I showed slides of relevant artworks she would frequently contribute comments and observations that even I, who consider myself an art aficionado, would never have thought of. She always had a smile for me, though there were days in class when I'd set them on an assignment and go to sit down at my desk and, since she thought I couldn't see her, she'd stop smiling and just look…profoundly sad. Occasionally she'd stop what she was doing and pull out a dark green composition book and write something for awhile, then close it, sigh, and slip it back in between her textbooks. Mondays were more prone to the sad looks than other days; I wasn't sure why. If I asked her if she was okay, she would smile brightly and nod, then come up with some question or comment about the assignment.

It was a day in late September when she popped into my room during lunch. I often used my lunch for answering emails and listening to music than for actually eating or socializing. She peered around the doorway.

"Hello," she said.

I looked up from my computer screen. "Hi. What's up?"

"Well, um…" she held her bag in front of her. "I don't mean to intrude, but…well…would you like some company for lunch?"

"Don't you have…friends or something to eat with?"

"I do, but they're all doing stuff. Luke's making up a quiz and I think Katie's printing off a paper or some such thing."

I sighed. "Sure. Pull up a chair."

She pulled up a chair to the opposite side of my desk. "You don't have food?"

"No, I don't really eat lunch," I said.

"Can I offer you something?" she asked. "Half of my sandwich? Pickle? Multigrain chips? Kolacki?"

"What the hell is a kolacki?" It was pronounced ko-latch-key.

She laughed. "Polish cookies; I made them. Here." She passed a plate of little burrito-shaped cookies filled with something and topped with powdered sugar over to me.

"Try one of the ones with the brown filling if you like nuts, or the reddish ones if you like raspberry."

I took a brown one. They reminded me a bit of shortbread, except the dough wasn't sweet – it was the filling and sugar that made it good. The filling tasted like almond and honey.

"They're good," I said.

She blushed. "Thanks. You can have them all."

"Thank you."

We sat in silence for a few minutes as we ate; then Laurie said, "Would it be impertinent of me to ask you a personal question?"

I looked at her for a moment. "I suppose not. Though I don't know what kind of teenage girl uses words like 'impertinent.'"

"Those of us that have a vocabulary of more than fifteen words. When did you get divorced?"

I was slightly taken aback by her bluntness, and I sighed inwardly. Of course she would notice that I didn't wear my ring anymore.

"Two years, three months, and five days ago," I said. "Any more questions?"

She looked down. "I'm sorry. Both about the question and…you know." She gestured vaguely. "You still love her, though, don't you?"

"No," I said. "I'm done with her."

"Then why do you still wear your ring around your neck? You can see it when you wear golf shirts," she answered before I could ask, "and you touch it sometimes."

"That's more personal than I would like to get with you. No offense."

She looked embarrassed and upset for even asking. "I'm sorry, it's none of my business."

She was quiet for a moment, then said "If it makes you feel any better, I still wear this." She withdrew a silver locket from inside her shirt. She opened it, revealing a small photo of a young man with dark curly hair and glasses.

"This is Owen. He was my boyfriend for a little more than a year."

"Sarah – I mean, Ms. Thomas – said that you didn't have a boyfriend."

Laurie sighed and rolled her eyes, reminding me rather of my own daughter. "I didn't tell her about him because I thought she'd disapprove. Or tease me. Or something. It doesn't matter now."

"How long ago did you break up?"

"In June," she said simply. She still gave me a small smile, but there was something behind her eyes that made me want to hug her. It wasn't until she looked away that I remembered that I occasionally stare too intensely. It apparently unnerves people.

"You miss him," I said.

She laughed humorlessly. "Of course."

"But he doesn't miss you."

"Of course not."

"I'm confused as to why you think it's a given that he shouldn't miss you when you so clearly miss him."

She shrugged. "More things to miss on my end, I think. I mean, he was a sweet guy with beautiful eyes who was the first one to ever tell me I was pretty, the first to ever say 'yes' when I asked him out. He'd let me cry on him when I was upset, and… Of course I miss him. And I'm just an overly emotional, self-centered little brat who doesn't know what she wants."

I smiled. "I'm sure there's more to you than that."

She clapped her hand over her mouth and squeezed her eyes shut.

"Are you going to throw up?" I asked, alarmed.

She shook her head. She cleared her throat and said, after a moment, "No. I just have this thing about crying in front of people whose opinion I care about." She opened her eyes and looked at me.

"What did I say to make you cry?"

"It's not so much what you said as what you implied."

"And that was…?"

"That I could be a good person."

"Is that so odd?" I asked.

Right as I finished my question, the bell rang, signaling the end of lunch.

Laurie stood up quickly. "I have to get to class," she said. She gathered her things and walked towards the door.

"Laurie," I called. She stopped but didn't turn around.

"Yes?" Her voice broke, giving her away.

"You gonna be okay?"

She cleared her throat and turned around. Her eyes were shining with unshed tears, but she gave me one of her smiles as she blinked them away.

"Of course, Sir. Have a nice day." She turned and walked out.

I was reminded of another conversation with another girl that had happened a few days earlier. I realized I had been the reason for two girls' tears within a week: Emily's for fighting with Brian and Laurie's for asking a question.

I sighed, popping another one of her odd Polish cookies into my mouth and wishing I had something alcoholic with which to wash it down. I stood to write the day's assignment on the board for my world history students.

"Today's Aim: War and Peace in Ancient European Empires…"