The scream comes from the cottage, and I knock over my lemonade. Thick shards of clear glass float in a sugary puddle. I'm torn by which mess I should clean up first - the lemonade or the source of the scream. When I hear the door slam, I know I won't need to choose. Shawn will be here soon, so I focus on the sticky, dangerous mess on the old hardwood floors. This won't help the resale value.
“She shouldn't be there!” Shawn begins. He has the cool, confident charm of all great pretenders: Jay Gatsby, Tom Ripley - hell, even Don Draper. “I'm trying to entertain a guest.”
Shawn's guest glides across my lawn: short shorts, barely-buttoned blouse, and unruly red hair. She's a knock-out, and possibly out of his league.
The source of the commotion follows her. My angel skips through the grass, her black hair spiked like an anime character. Her sundress has a rainbow of stains, and she has only been playing outside for five minutes. Her giggle cuts through the humid air, and I smile because she's my baby.
“Lauren,” Shawn continues, oblivious. “We've talked about this. Cici needs to stop snooping. It's creepy.”
Shawn was the only person who contacted me about renting the cottage. It was a long shot, being so far from campus; I thought maybe I could snag a grad student, solitary and focused. Listening to the blossoming undergrad track star describe how he would “just, you know, run to campus every day,” I had my doubts. There was something sad in his voice, and I pitied him for being the popular kid no one liked quite enough.
When he showed up on my doorstep, I knew it would be a problem. The full, pouty lips. The small bump in his nose. Eyelids so heavy I don't know how he kept them up. Smooth skin. The clumsy beauty of youth.
Like I said, I pitied him.
“You knew about my daughter when you agreed to rent the cottage. What do you want me to do about it?”
“Make her stop looking at me!” Shawn says.
“Well, that's never going to happen,” I reply without thinking. Shawn stares at me with a look of repulsion and confusion. I sigh. “House trip. Let's go.”
Normally, “house trips” involve the grocery store or the buy-in-bulk warehouse a town over. Normally, Shawn and I make awkward small talk over our lists, dividing up territories of mutual interest and annexing aisles. We bond over efficiency, and the fact that he doesn't mind shopping in the aisles I fear taking Cici: the ones with cookies, chips, and cleaning supplies.
This trip we are quiet, except for Cici's regular chatter from the backseat. My answers are short but soothing; Shawn's are terse and harsh.
“You're taking me to campus?” Shawn finally realizes we're driving his daily running route. The brick buildings loom ahead of us. “Lauren, I mean, we just need to figure this out – I don't have anywhere else to live – ”
“You think I would kick you out and keep all your stuff?” My laugh falls into the same rhythm as the turn signal. “You need to see something in the Sculpture Garden.”
“Oh,” Shawn visibly relaxes in the passenger seat. “There's an easier way, if you go by the English Department and – ”
“No, I like going this way.” It's the last thing I say to him until we arrive at the Sculpture Garden.
“Go play over there, Cici,” I point to a couple of polished metal pieces that I know she likes. With her distracted, I lead Shawn over to the sculpture. She’ll be here soon enough.
“I've never really looked at the stuff here,” Shawn says.
“I brought Cici to campus one day. It wasn't a good trip. She was so excited to meet him; I thought maybe he might change his mind. She’s not used to feeling unwanted,” I look away before Shawn can see me stiffen. The memory still leaves me angry and embarrassed.
I stop in front of a small stone sculpture.
“We were both upset. I brought her out here to cheer her up. She danced through the garden, laughing and twirling. She stopped at this one and started whispering, like she was telling it a secret.”
The full, pouty lips. The rough bump in the nose. Eyelids too heavy, even for stone.
“We come here on her birthday. We can't leave until she's seen this one.”
“It looks a lot like me,” Shawn says.
“Her guardian angel,” I say. “Stories you tell your kids...you never know how they'll play out later.”
“Does she think I'm her guardian angel?” Shawn asks.
“Yeah, I think she does. In her little world, that's how you fit.”
The trip back is silent. Exhausted, Cici naps in the backseat.
“Why wasn't it a good trip for her?” Shawn's question interrupts the still serenity of the ride, and it surprises me so much I almost drive the SUV into the guardrail.
“Wh-what?” I stammer.
“You said the first time you were at the Sculpture Garden, it wasn't a good trip for Cici. Why not? Does it have anything to do with not wanting to go near the English Department today?”
I do not answer. I don't want to. I don't know how.
“You don't have to say anything, Lauren, but people talk. I'm not interested in spreading gossip; who would I tell? But – well, I have Professor Lowell this semester and, uh, I'm going to give him really bad eval scores.”
I burst out laughing. Bad eval scores? Like that matters or makes a difference, or undoes any of what happened, any of the denials and fights and lonely, aching nights.
Who is this kid to think he can make a stand with a shitty survey?
Cici lets out a little whimper in her sleep, and her leg spasms. I smile, because she's my baby.
“Thanks,” I say to her guardian angel. “Say he didn't have that 'academic gravitas' you expected from a man with his pedigree. It'll drive him crazy.”
“Yeah?” Shawn says. His smile is so bright that for a second, I see what Cici does.
“Bonus points if you can work in 'esoteric.'”
Written by: Erin Justice
Photograph by: Chris Boyles