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Sneak Preview--Just Say Christmas

Sneak Preview--Just Say Christmas

Book 13: Escape to New Zealand

Coming November 21, 2019!

Wednesday, December 9

Chapter 1 – An Important Thought

Rhys

“Dad,” Casey Fletcher said, interrupting her father in the middle of reading Thumbelina on her princess bed, “I had an important thought.”

Rhys eyed her warily. Casey’s important thoughts tended to involve big eyes, earnest explanations, and things he didn’t want to do, and he’d discovered that he wasn’t quite as tough as he’d always assumed. Witness the fact that he was reading a story about a teeny-tiny girl who was basically a fairy and slept in a flower. You couldn’t spin that too many ways.

“What’s that?” he asked, abandoning Thumbelina to her fate. If you were going to take the tackle anyway, you faced it. That was how he coached his players, and it was how he lived his life.

“You know how you’re my dad, but I didn’t know you were?” Casey asked. She was sitting cross-legged in bed, her curly hair in the loose plait he’d fashioned, and she had new summer PJs on, because she kept growing. These were purple, had fluttery little sleeves, and were covered with colorful butterflies, and when he’d brought them home, she’d gasped in dramatic fashion, thrown her arms around his waist, and said, “I love them. You’re the best dad ever.” Which was why he enjoyed shopping for her. She was appreciative.

“I do remember that, yeh,” he said. Since he’d discovered her existence at the same time she’d discovered his, ten months earlier.

“And how you’re Isaiah’s uncle?” she persisted.

“I recall that as well.” He had a feeling this was going nowhere comfortable. Yes, she had the big eyes, and she also had her hand on his forearm. He hardened his heart.

“So Isaiah calls his mom ‘Mum,’ Casey went on. “And he calls you ‘Uncle Rhys,’ because you’re his dad’s brother, except he’s dead. And I call you ‘Dad,’ but I can’t igg-zackly call Auntie Zora ‘Auntie,’ because she isn’t really.”

“Of course she is,” Rhys said. Well, not exactly. Zora hadn’t been married to Casey’s uncle. She’d been married to Casey’s father. That, however, was a secret both he and Zora planned to carry to the grave, so he asked, “Why would this even come up?”

“Because you and Auntie Zora are getting married soon,” Casey said, “which Isaiah says is OK, because it’s like elephants. For mating.”

Yes, this was going to be awkward. “Mating, eh,” he said. “Sounds to me like this is Isaiah’s question, not yours. What’s the strength of that?”

“No,” Casey said, “because he didn’t tell me except when I asked him, and anyway, Isaiah is very smart. He knows how to do multiplying and about science, and he can read grown-up books. Isaiah says you and Auntie Zora are probably going to have lots of babies, because rugby players always have lots of kids, but you only have me, and you sort of have Isaiah. And you could have babies, because even though you’re kind of in each other’s family, you don’t share blood. For mating. So it’s OK. And then there’d be a baby, who’d be really your family, and Isaiah and me, who are half. I asked Isaiah, and he said.”

“Right. Family conference.” Rhys closed the book on Thumbelina, about to be married off to a wealthy older man—well, mole—who admired her looks, swung his legs off the bed, and prepared to summon his ten-years-younger bride-to-be, because he needed her, and not just because he admired her looks. Zora had never pretended to be tough. She was just strong in the quietest possible way, which was better for this. She was also streets better at sorting out emotional tangles than he was.

“Except it’s not really,” said Casey. “That’s the whole point.”

“Who says?” 

“Ricky Franks in my school,” Casey said. “He says people aren’t a really family until they get married, and anyway, you weren’t my dad until I was six, and lots of times you just have a stepfather who says to call him Dad, but he isn’t your really dad, like from when you were a baby. And also you and Auntie Zora aren’t supposed to get married, because you’re almost her brother, even though you’re not each other’s blood, and it would be OK if you were elephants.”

If Rhys hadn’t been a cool, controlled rugby coach, he’d have lost his temper. Instead, he took in Casey’s too-innocent expression and asked, “And what did you say to Ricky Franks?”

Casey looked away, and Rhys said, “Casey Moana. What did you do?”

“I sort of tackled him,” she said, then hurried on with, “I didn’t punch him in the guts or anything, though. Plus it was just one time, and he stopped saying things after that. Boys don’t like girls to hit them. So it worked, see?”

“Boys don’t like girls to hit them,” Rhys said, “because they’re not allowed to hit back. Which doesn’t make it OK for you to hit them. Or anybody,” he decided to add. He put up a hand, because Casey had opened her mouth again. “No punching, and no tackling when you’re angry. You don’t solve problems by violence. Understood?” Geez, he sounded old.

She sighed. “You say that all the time, but rugby’s about hitting, and you used to hit really hard. Harder than anybody. You were a mongrel. Isaiah told me.”

“I had a bitof mongrel, yeh. In the game, which is all right. Tackling isn’t hitting, and even tackling’s only for in the game, full stop.” He’d done his share of hitting outside the game as a kid, but she didn’t need to know that. Nobody could draw the line like a man who’d crossed it. That was how you knew where it was. 

“But that’s what I did,” she said. “I tackled. I remembered about no punching and I tackled instead. It was kind of hard, because he’s in Year Four and I’m only in Year Two, but I got down low and went really fast so I surprised him, and I wrapped my arms like you showed me, and it worked.So I think you should be proud.”

“I’m not proud,” he said. Well, maybe a little. The kid was Year Four? Yeh, he was a little proud. “And hang on, because I’m going to get Auntie Zora and Isaiah, and we’re going to have a talk.”

Casey said, “I’m very, very tired, though. I’m about to fall asleep.” She yawned. It wasn’t convincing.

“Too bad,” Rhys said. “We’re having a talk anyway. It’s family time.”

* * *

Finding Isaiah was easy. He was on the top bunk of the beds Rhys and Zora had moved over from the other house last winter, after Rhys had made his public declaration and finally got his ring on her finger. Isaiah was reading, no surprise. A grown-up book, as Casey had said, that appeared to be about space exploration. Isaiah was interested in many subjects, but space ranked pretty high.

“Mate,” Rhys said, “come into Casey’s room. We need to have a chat.”

“Lights out is nine o’clock, though,” Isaiah said, “and I’m in the middle of a chapter. It’s a very exciting book. It’s about a guy who gets stuck on Mars, but he’s a scientist, so he can use his knowledge and figure out how to survive. Plus, he’s not an exciting scientist, like you’d think. He’s a botanist, which is plants, but he’s good at other things, too. Physics and math and things.”

“Ah,” Rhys said. “Uses his brain, does he.”

“Exactly,” Isaiah said, and blinked at Rhys as if he was having a hard time bringing him into focus. “He has to stay calm and think. That’s why it’s a good book, because it explains how he thinks things out, and they’re scientific knowledge.”

“Awesome,” Rhys said. “Maybe I should read it, too. I can always use some more scientific knowledge.”

“Really?” Isaiah asked. “If you read it, we could discuss it.”

“We could,” Rhys said. “Meanwhile, I’d like to discuss something else. In Casey’s room, and right now. Where’s your mum?”

Isaiah closed his book. Reluctantly. “She went to do flowers, because she has twelve centerpieces for the wedding on Saturday. I said I’d help, but she said no, because it was too late.”

“Never mind,” Rhys said. “I’ll help. After our discussion. Rattle your dags.”

* * *

Zora

“Hard-working or bloody-minded?” Zora heard. “That’s the question I’m asking myself.”

She nearly dropped her clippers. She didn’t nearly drop her flower, though. It was an orchid, and it had cost twenty dollars a stem. “Don’t scare me. Huge, hulking fellas sneaking up behind me when it’s nearly dark?”

Rhys came up—yes, behind her—wrapped his arms around her waist, and buried his face in her neck. “Except that the only huge, hulking fella who’s going to be doing any sneaking is me. That’s why we have a fence. And what I’m here for, of course.”

She was laughing. His confidence always got her. Also, his mouth felt good. “Scare them off, will you? I’m a wee bit . . .”  She caught her breath as he found the best spot. “Busy. Some of us haven’t made it to the offseason yet.”

“What if I helped?” he asked.

“Depends.” She set down her orchid, turned in his arms, wrapped her own arms around his neck, and kissed him, because here he was, big and hard and hers, and he still made her knees weak. “Are you going to mash my roses? It’s an all-white wedding. Enormous fingerprints will be noticed.”

“Nah,” he said. “I’m gentle with fragile things.” Which was true. “Got ten minutes for a conversation first, though?”

“Uh-oh.” She got her mind back on the program. “What happened?”

“Casey. I could explain, but I’d tangle myself up. I need your communication skills. In other words, I’m out of my depth. So come on. Afterwards, I promise to help you with your white flowers, and maybe to make you happy, too. You never know. Like you say—it is the offseason, and I’ve got some time to make up for. Also, I’d like you to want to marry me. Next month. You and me. Rings. Vows. Lifetime. Let’s get on with it.”

It took a while all the same, once Zora was sitting on Casey’s bed, along with Isaiah and Rhys, to sort out the issue.

“So,” Zora said slowly, “you’re wondering about what our family is. It’s called ‘blended,’ I think. Means we all mash up together. Is it your mum, though, Casey? That you think having me be your stepmum means forgetting her, somehow?”

 “No,” Casey said. “I can’t forgether, because I remember her in my mind.I don’t think you can forget your mom. She was the one who said what my name was, and at Christmas, we did fun things, like hot chocolate and ice skating, and she held me up so I could put the angel on the tree. She wasn’t very tall, so she couldn’t reach, but together we could reach. So I can’t forget her. But I kind of wish she was here to hold me up for the angel.”

That was the thing about Casey. She just took your heart. “Would you like to do some of those things this Christmas?” Zora asked, putting her hand on Casey’s knee and squeezing. “Christmas is a bit different in New Zealand, but the important parts are exactly the same. We’ll go to the beach instead of ice skating, and we’ll have a barbecue, but we’ll have family time. Special time. And we can have a tree.”

“An artificial one,” Rhys put in, and Zora gave him a look that said, Not helpful.

“We could buy it together,” Zora said, “and a new angel, too. One that looks like your mum, with blonde hair. Your mum is a little like our angel, because she gave you to us, in a way, and we could all remember that and thank her when your dad lifts you up to put our new angel on the tree. What do you think?”

“OK,” Casey said. For once, some of her confidence had deserted her, and she looked like the lost little girl she must have been, no matter how brave she’d tried to be. Her mother dead, her bunnies gone, sitting on a couch in a foster home on an icy winter day, waiting for a dad she’d never met to take her to a land she’d never seen.

“And I know you miss her,” Zora went on. In for a penny, in for a pound. “I won’t be the same person, the same kind of mum, but there are all kinds of mums, you know. The only thing that matters is that they love their kids, and I love you with all my heart.”

Isaiah said, “That’s right, Casey. Mums are all kinds of people, and they do all sorts of things. They can be astronauts or teachers or just mums. Just like Uncle Rhys isn’t home very much, which isn’t like most dads, but he’s still a dad, just a weird kind, because of rugby. Mum isn’t exactly your mum, but she’s close. And Uncle Rhys isn’t my dad, but he’s kind of close, too.”

Rhys said, “You do the best you can with what you’ve got. That’s life, eh. And what you’ve got, the two of you, is us. You’re stuck with it, so get used to it.” Which wouldn’t have been how Zora would have put it, but Casey’s face cleared, so it worked for her. “But we’ll get that angel,” Rhys promised after a moment, which was better. “Sounds good.”

“OK,” Casey said. “But you haven’t said about the other part.”

“What other part?” Zora asked.

Casey looked at Isaiah, then away again. “How come you fixed the stairs,” she said. “And made more rooms.”

“Uh . . .”  Rhys said. “Because you said the stairs were scary. Holes in them, eh. A floating staircase isn’t safe for kids.”

“And because of a baby,” Isaiah said. “I heard you and Mum talking about it. A baby could fall through the holes and get hurt, and besides, you need carpet on the stairs for a baby, because they could fall. Babies cry heaps, though. Harry says babies always cry, and they mess up your LEGOs and rip your books, and they poo in their nappies and stink.”

“Babies are like dolls, though,” Casey said, “only better, because they’re real. You can change their clothes and give them a bath and make them laugh, and they’re cute.”

Isaiah looked dubious. Rhys said, “To recap. A baby would cry and sometimes be stinky, but it would be cute, and you could be a big brother and sister. Pluses and minuses, I guess.”

“And maybe . . .”  Casey said, then stopped.

“What?” Zora asked. “You can say, my darling. We’re all here to listen.”

“Maybe it would be different,” Casey said, pleating the pink duvet cover between her fingers and frowning ferociously down at it, looking too small against the big bed. “You know. If you had a real kid.”

Rhys stood up so fast, it took Zora by surprise. His black brows slammed together, and in that moment, he looked exactly like Casey. He said, “No.” Explosively.

Rhys always controlled his temper, and he did it now. It took an effort, but fortunately, Rhys also always made an effort. “No,” he said again, and then, “You’re my daughter, and once I marry Zora, you’ll be her daughter, too, and Isaiah’s sister. I don’t want to hear any more about elephants and blood. We’re not elephants. We’re a family, full stop. We’ll buy a Christmas angel. We’ll buy a Christmas tree. We’ll have Christmas presents and Christmas surprises, exactly like we planned. Auntie Zora and I will get married, and we’ll have a baby, and maybe another one, and you’ll be a big sister. And you’ll be my daughter through all of it. Forever. Understood?”

Another kid might have been intimidated, but not Casey. All she looked was relieved. She nodded.

“Good.” Rhys took a breath and sat down on the bed again. “Right, then. Let’s read this book, and then it’s bedtime. We may not know exactly how to do all of this, but we’ll work at it until we get better. You can’t win unless you get in the game.”

Friday, December 11

2

Not a Carnivorous Dinosaur

Kane

Kane Armstrong was big. You could call it the central fact of his life. Whoever had first said that size didn’t matter hadn’t been nearly six foot nine, and he hadn’t weighed two hundred seventy-four pounds.

When you were this size, the world didn’t fit you. Getting shoes made was a major undertaking, and a T-shirt with sleeves that stretched over your biceps ballooned around your waist. No car ceiling was ever high enough, and the only comfortable way to kiss a girl was to have her in your lap. Which, all right, wasn’t terrible. Scratch that one from the list. You ducked through every doorway, though, and tended to turn sideways as you went for good measure, like a human in a hobbit hole, in order for your shoulders to fit.

So, yes, he was unusually large. It wasn’t the most fascinating thing about him or anybody else, in his opinion, but it was what everybody noticed first, and as often as not, they assumed it went along with a walnut-sized brain and/or uncontrolled aggression, as if he were a particularly carnivorous dinosaur.

In reality, your size had nothing to do with your personality, as far as he could see. It wasn’t even necessary for rugby, which was actually a game for all sizes, from the bullet-headed, no-neck fireplugs that were your props to the Jack Russell terrier that was your halfback, yipping at his forward pack like so many recalcitrant sheep. And the locks, of course. Every player might be a certain size, but that only suggested your position, it didn’t dictate your success playing in it.

Six foot nine did, however, enable you to paint ceilings without a ladder or a roller, which was helpful when your stepsister was inconveniently and decidedly short, and insistent that although you’d actually come to Auckland for her fiancé’s stag weekend, this ceiling must be painted now, and there was only One Right Way to do it.

She wasn’t the only one, either.

“You should put more white in the middle there,” the room’s normal occupant, Isaiah Fletcher, aged nine, told Kane. “On either side, for the Magellanic clouds. You’ve only got the Milky Way so far.”

Kane swirled a bit of white paint into the still-damp dark-blue underlayer, as he’d been instructed, to create the proper night-sky effect, and felt another glob of white paint drop onto his forehead. “I’ll do my best, but it’s not going to be perfect. It’s not a scientific rendering. At least not with me doing it, it isn’t.”

He’d asked why you couldn’t just slap one of those stick-on murals up there, job done. Nyree had looked horrified. “Mass production,” she’d said. “No personality. No.” And then, “Never mind. You don’t have to help. I’ve got it.” Pugnaciously, because nobody had ever alerted Nyree that you had to be tall to be aggressive. Then she’d seemed to remember that she was on a serious deadline and looked stricken. As in—he wouldn’t help her, and what was she going to do now?

In other words—yes, he was here painting.

“If it’s the Southern Hemisphere, though,” Isaiah said, “the Magellanic clouds have to be there, or it’s wrong.”

Kane would have given him a sardonic look, but he had paint in his eye.

Nyree chose that moment to pop into the room. She was wearing stretchy black shorts and a faded Blues T-shirt that had to be Marko’s, from the size of it. She also had paint on her cheek and on her thigh, but then, she usually did. “How’re you going?” she asked Kane. “Tom came by to help as well. Lovely of him, though I think he could’ve had an ulterior motive. Ella’s coming up this evening for my weekend, along with Marko’s sister Caro. My timing could’ve been better for all of this. I was meant to finish up with everything two weeks ago, but oh, well, it didn’t happen, so here we are.”

Here they were indeed. Nyree, as usual, was juggling about three jobs, including being a painter of the fine-art kind, not the house kind, with her first show coming up in February. She was also a server and barista, a volunteer photographer at the animal shelter, and a bride. Four jobs at least. Kane happened to know that Marko had received an extra hundred fifty thousand dollars a month ago, his reward for helping the All Blacks bring home the Webb Ellis trophy once again at a Rugby World Cup. He knew because he’d earned that same bonus himself. Nyree, though, still worked like the next painting might be her very last chance to hold a brush, and like the rent was due. Cheerfully, which was probably even more maddening to Marko.

She went on, as if to prove his point, “I just had a brilliant idea. I should skip all that beauty-and-fun stuff this weekend and paint instead. If I don’t finish this, I won’t be ready for the wedding, and Marko’d probably have something to say about that.”

“Well, as it’s his wedding, too,” Kane said, “I expect he would. I also expect that he wants you to do the beauty stuff and possibly even relax a bit instead of working until the wee hours of next Sunday morning, when you drive up to the venue, breaking the speed limit all the way, throw on your dress, and dash down the aisle without your zip done up. Assuming he gets a vote.”

“I’ve got Tom doing Casey’s room with me,” she went on as if she hadn’t heard, “but he could help you instead. I think you need it more, because you’re a mess. I’m not the one with paint in my hair. You also have it in the corner of your eye.”

Kane said, “Thanks. I’d barely noticed.” He’d taken off his specs, because they’d quickly become impossibly paint-spattered. Now, he lowered his brush and, out of that same corner of his rapidly blinking eye, saw a drop of paint elongate on the ceiling, then tremble for a second. He could have got out of the way. He resigned himself to the inevitable instead. No point in dodging now. It fell on his head, just like all the others.

He didn’t get to say more, because Casey Fletcher, the daughter of the house that Kane had been dragooned into helping to redecorate, spoke up now. Casey was seven years old, even more determined-looking than Isaiah—it must be a family trait, because heaven knew her dad had it in spades—and sitting cross-legged on the tarp beside her cousin. Both of them were considerably less speckled than Kane. They’d changed out of their school uniforms, but he’d still been careful to keep them out of harm’s way. Where was the gratitude? Now, Casey asked Nyree, “When do I get to see my room? Is it almost done?”

“Not even close,” Nyree said. “It’s got to be special, so I need to take the time to do it right, and your dad wants it to be a surprise. I’m afraid you’ll have to sleep on the couch, or maybe on one of Isaiah’s bunk beds, once this paint’s dry, for a wee while before you find out. I have this hen weekend to do in the middle of it. It’ll be hard to wait, but it’s always hard to wait for Christmas presents, eh.”

“Does it get to be enchanted, though?” Casey asked. “Did my dad say to make it enchanted? Do you know how? I have a princess bed. My dad put a sheet over it so it wouldn’t get painted, so you can’t see, but it’s igg-zackly like Cinderella’s coach, except with butterflies. I have a castle rug, too. If my whole room was enchanted, I could pretend I was a princess. It could be like I was magic.”

“Your dad told me about it,” Nyree said. “No worries. It’s going to be so enchanted, it’ll take you into a whole new world every night, and you’ll have wondrous dreams. You’ll see.”

“It can’t really be enchanted,” Isaiah said. “Magic’s not real. It’s just science that people didn’t know about yet.”

“I know,” Casey said. “You told me. It’s pretend.”

“But you can imagine realthings instead,” Isaiah said. “That’s better. Like going to Mars, or exploring the Marianas Trench. That’s more interesting, because it could actually happen.”

“Too deep,” Kane said. “The pressure would squash you, surely.”

“Except three people already did it, in special submarines,”Isaiah said, “which means more people will be able to do it in the future, the same as Mars. If you learned enough about it, you could help make it happen. You can’t make enchantment happen no matter how hard you try, because it isn’t real.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Nyree said. “Sometimes you can. If you’re in love, for instance.”

Isaiah said, “Eww,” and Kane laughed. He’d gone back to painting, because Nyree had made a hurry-up motion at him. That could have been annoying, but as it happened, he wanted to hurry up. He had his reasons. It was Friday afternoon, and there was somebody he didn’t want to see. It wasn’t the house’s owner, even though Rhys Fletcher, Casey’s father and Isaiah’s uncle—soon to be his stepfather, which had been a bit startling—was the coach of the Blues, and Kane played for the Crusaders. It wasn’t Kane’s own soon-to-be brother-in-law, either. Marko might play for the Blues, too, but however it looked from the stands, once you got done smashing each other on the field, the hostilities ended.

Anyway, there were worse people to have as a brother-in-law, even though Kane wouldn’t always have thought so. Much too tough a fella for Nyree, he’d have said—and would have put himself on the line, if that was what it took, to keep it from happening—but the shy, plump, bespectacled, Maori girl of fourteen whose mum had married his dad had turned out to have warrior blood of her own. Nyree didn’t need his protection anymore, and Marko Sendoa, enforcer and hard man, had finally met his match.

The last time Kane had seen Marko, they’d been on the back of a truck, doing a parade through downtown Christchurch after the Rugby World Cup. Marko hadn’t done much smiling, or much talking, either, but Kane had been raised by an uncommunicative man who didn’t smile, so he wasn’t fussed. Marko had your back on the rugby field when it counted, and he’d be piling into the breakdown every time to lend a hand, as careless of his own skin as you were of yours. If he was fishing with you, or golfing, he wanted you to get on with it, but he didn’t tell you how to do it. Did Kane feel brotherly enough towards him to get paint in his eye for him, though? It was a question.

“Why isn’t Marko doing this?” he asked Nyree.

“He suggested it, no worries. Are you joking? The most alpha man in the world? Of course he suggested it. But he’d get narky when I told him he was doing it wrong, and he’s meant to want to marry me, so I said no. You wouldn’t call him visually artistic, and you’ve got to keep the magic alive. Also, he’s off getting the final fitting for his wedding suit, and here you were, and Tom, too. Better, eh.”

“I notice you don’t mind telling me I’m doing it wrong,” Kane said. “Never mind, I’m just the brother. Couldn’t Marko have worn the suit he already had?” Like all the All Blacks, Marko had his suits tailor-made for his outsized, hard-to-fit frame. In black. Went with everything and cost you nothing. There you were.

“No,” Nyree said. “Because, first, wearing your suit that the All Blacks gave you doesn’t exactly say, ‘I’m burning to make this a special occasion, seeing as I’m getting married and all,’ and, second, because navy blue is more formal than black.”

“Who says?” Kane asked. “That makes no sense. Not practical, either. When’s he going to need that again? You can’t even wear a blue suit to a funeral.”

“Thank you, Dougie Downer. You’re helpful. I don’t make these rules. Heaps of things I didn’t know about getting married, as it turns out. Good job I only have to do it once. And I like to think he’s out buying me a present of my own. Christmas, the groom’s gift to the bride, something like that. At least I hope that was why he was so eager to get out the door. Either that, or he’s making a run for it. You need to blend more, by the way. Get the white worked in there.”

She left before he could point out that he was the one doing the favor here.

“It’s not really the right place for the Magellanic clouds, either,” Isaiah put in. “It’s close, though, I guess.”

“If they’re clouds,” Kane said, “they move. Maybe there was wind.”

Isaiah eyed him sadly. “Actually, they’re galaxies.”

“If they’re galaxies,” Kane said, “they’re many light years away. Maybe this is where they are now. Could be I’m ahead of my time.”

“They orbit the Milky Way,” Isaiah said. “They don’t move like that.”

Kane kept painting the cloud in anyway. Call him stubborn. “Exposed in my scientific illiteracy. Do you want to paint this ceiling instead?”

“No,” Isaiah said, “because I’d have to stand on the top step of the ladder and reach way up. I already asked, and Uncle Rhys said no. He said I could tell you how.” His sigh expressed his disillusion with the attention to detail of the non-scientific. “But he said I should say thank you for painting it anyway. Even though it’s wrong.”

Kane laughed. He was in a bit of a hurry, but Isaiah still made him laugh.

Casey said, “It’s good that you’re so tall, so you can do the painting. Lots of rugby players are tall, but you’re even more tall. You’re kind of weird, actually. I never saw anybody as tall as you.” And, yes, she’d pointed it out. 

“You shouldn’t say,” Isaiah told her. “He can’t help it. He’s probably got gigantism.”

“I do not have gigantism,” Kane said. “I’m just tall.”

“You probably do, though,” Isaiah said. “It’s like dwarfism, only the opposite. It’s a gland in your brain that doesn’t work properly, but that doesn’t mean you’re stupid, just because it’s in your brain. It’s not the part of your brain that does executive functioning That means thinking.”

“Cheers,” Kane said. “That’s a relief. I expect I’d know if I had gigantism, all the same.” The doorbell rang, and he thought, Not yet. Can’t be. He moved into the corner, decided to add some smudges of black paint, as per specifications, waited to hear that it was the wrong place for a dark patch, thought about how much criticism he was going to cop from this undersized drill sergeant for the rest of this, hoped it wouldn’t take more than an hour longer, because he could feel his time running out, and felt a drop of paint run down the back of his neck.

The doorbell rang again, and Isaiah disappeared. Footsteps back and forth in the passage, and he thought about the weekend, breathed in and out, and thought, You’re all good. Bound to happen sometime here. Harden up.

He slapped some more white on, hoped despite himself that he could wait until tomorrow for this, and heard the voice say, “Oh. Sorry. Just looking for Nyree.”

His time had run out.

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