It was a difficult call, but I finally decided to leave out the potatoes. I scraped the wedges into tupperware and made a note to fry them up later in the week. In their place I added more broccoli stalks, two whipped eggs, and an extra half-cup of mozzarella.
I had the casserole in the oven and was starting to dice up some apples for a cobbler when the doorbell rang, followed by some vigorous knocking. My View showed one person on the other side; I certainly hadn’t been expecting her.
“Sienna, was it?” I asked the scowling young Asian woman as I opened the door. She wore a suede jacket over a blouse and skirt that reminded me of a department store retail worker. “Come in, please.”
Kim’s roommate followed me back to the kitchen, taking the same bar stool that my date had used that morning. “What smells good?” she asked, but the question was flat, with more wariness and forced politeness than genuine interest.
“Cauliflower casserole,” I explained, resuming my apple peeling and dicing. “I’m leaving in an hour for dinner at my parents’. What brings you out this way?”
“Kim spent the better part of the day in her room, visibly upset,” Sienna replied. “She wouldn’t talk about why. Said she ‘would only be making it worse.'”
“So, you came here to ask me.” I started mixing the batter for the cobbler crust, making sure to add brown sugar. It provided better contrast that way, rather than putting it in the apple filling.
My uninvited guest didn’t immediately respond. When I looked up at her, she raised her eyebrows and spread her arms. She expected me to begin explaining.
“I’m sorry to hear she was upset. Can I offer you a drink?” When she nodded, I added, “Wine?”
She shrugged, so I took two glasses from the cabinet and uncorked an inexpensive red from a rack in my pantry. I selected it pretty much at random, poured generously, and added a bottle of water from the refrigerator next to each of our glasses.
“You’re sorry she was upset,” Sienna echoed, “but you’re not sorry about what you did.” It was half a question.
I sat down across from her, my baking abandoned for the moment. I mulled over a mouthful of the wine and her inquiry. “I… suppose I could have handled it better than I did. But I don’t regret my decisions. Asking her to leave was the right choice. Taking some time to figure this out, also the right choice.”
“Which leaves her devastated, crying in our apartment, waiting to hear from you,” she glared at me.
I nodded, sipping from my glass. “I take no pleasure in that. Is there something I could say… or do… that might help?”
“Other than moving past whatever happened this morning?” the grad student threw out rhetorically. She sighed, “No, nothing else.” A large gulp of wine preceded her next words. “It’s just… she means a lot to us, do you understand? I want to know that you’ll give Kimberly as much as she seems intent on giving you.”
I topped off her glass and studied her earnest expression. “If we get past this hurdle and we’re still together, there’s a good chance I will be able to tell you that.”
“But not today?”
I shook my head. “I’m still deciding, and I’m not going to pretend otherwise to reassure you.”
Her eyes narrowed. “You really think you may be finished? Entirely done with her?”
With a sigh, I stood back up and returned to my batter.
“I guess that’s as good an answer as I’m going to get.” Sienna pushed back from the bar and nodded to me as she made her way to the door. “I hope you make the right decision.”
Nodding, I let her show herself out. I sank into my View and followed her as she got into her sedan and drove away. Out of interest, I kept watching her for the better part of ten minutes, until she was back on the main loop in the direction of the university.
Upon opening my eyes, I bounded to the basement and pulled out a portable evidence kit I had gotten from Paris for just such a situation as this. A latex glove was all that touched Sienna’s wine glass as I placed it in a specimen bag.
Did I suspect the fingerprints or – if there was enough saliva – DNA from Sienna would yield any useful information? Not really; at the most I thought they’d identify the same person I’d get from just doing a background check on her name. But, even so, I placed the wine glass next to Kim’s coffee mug and used tissues. My sister would appreciate the gesture.
I finished prepping the cobbler and jumped into the shower, barely finishing in time to pull the casserole out of the oven. The small evidence case joined me in the front seat along with the casserole bag and a covered dish with the unbaked dessert.
One reason I preferred breakfast to dinner at my parents’ was the commute. More of the traffic was directed the other way in the morning, but whatever time from the early afternoon on that I headed from my neighborhood to theirs, I ended up slowed to a crawl for at least some of the trip.
Despite my frustrating delay, the absence of a vehicle in the driveway told me that I had beaten Paris home. My hands were quite full with two dishes and the evidence case, and it was fortunate that Dad was waiting to open the door for me.
Any time I saw Arthur Donnell on a day other than Sunday, I was reminded how much my very conservative instincts regarding fashion I owed to him. His button-down shirt and slacks would make him look like an elderly office worker if he weren’t so broad and well-muscled; instead, it made him look like a bouncer dressed like an office worker. Mom had taken me aside years ago to remind me that, as an older white man, Dad could get away with a lot of things that would get me in trouble as a younger black man. But in the end, I had found that emulating a lot of Dad’s choices – particularly on my much smaller, thinner frame – marked me as rule-abiding and nonthreatening. Not a bad approach navigating different neighborhoods in and around Detroit.
“Casserole?” Dad asked with a smile as I passed him. I gave him a nod as he followed me into the kitchen. “What’s with the evidence kit?”
“Specimens from Kimberly and Sienna.” At Dad’s questioning glance, I explained, “Kim’s roommate came by this afternoon. Since she wouldn’t say why she was so upset, Sienna wanted to try to get it from me.”
Dad nodded. “So you sat her down and had her drink a cup of coffee or something.”
“Wine,” I supplied.
“Paris will appreciate that. She’s really riled up.”
“Am not,” my sister rejoined as she swept into the room, giving our father a kiss on his cheek. “Worried, suspicious, sure. But hardly riled. Ooh, specimens?” She popped open the evidence case and took a look. “The wine glass was from last night?”
“No, from Kim’s roommate. She came by this afternoon.” I turned on the oven light and peeked in at a roast. “I need to put the cobbler in as soon as that’s done; where’s Mom?”
Paris frowned. “A roommate so involved that she treks halfway across town to grill you. That doesn’t raise any red flags.”
“Pretty common in my day,” Dad put in. “Your Mom’s friends certainly worked me over. Close girlfriends feel like they have to provide support and vetting for relationships.”
Paris coughed. “Yeah, I guess I wouldn’t know much about that.” She held up a hand before Dad, his brow now furrowed in consternation, could reply. “No, I get it, Dad. I don’t need a talk about it. The ‘no close girlfriends’ thing is a choice.”
“None?” Mom said as she swept into the room. Although she came from upstairs rather than from outside, her path was identical to Paris’s minutes before, including a peck on the cheek – greeting me, rather than Dad. She wore a subdued blouse and skirt, meaning she hadn’t changed since coming home from work.
It struck me, then, what an interesting set of crossed pairs we made. Mom was slightly shorter than me, just as Paris was slightly shorter than Dad, and our mannerisms were in many ways the same just as theirs were from their shared occupation. We were certainly lucky to have each other, for both affection and mutual support.
“You know what I mean,” Paris said defensively. “Close girlfriends other than my mom. Love you Mom!” She grabbed the evidence case and ran it to her car.
My mother opened the oven and checked the meat thermometer, then grabbed mitts to take out the ceramic pot holding the roast. “So, how’d you manage with her, after Paris left?” She glanced over at my cobbler, and turned the heat on the oven down, leaving its door slightly ajar.
“Poorly,” I admitted. “She was looking for emotional reassurance, and I didn’t really have any. I let her know I wasn’t ending things, but pretty much just kicked her out of my house.” I set the oven timer as I slid the cobbler in; it should be done before we’d finished with dinner.
“Are you in love with her yet?” Mom asked, just as she had after my first encounter. Paris stepped in the room to grab the plates and silverware and go set the table; Mom tossed a large salad as Dad and I just stood in the kitchen leaning on different counters.
“Still no,” I answered honestly.
“Dump her,” Dad shot firmly.
“Arthur!” Mom stopped her salad-tossing long enough to give her husband a reproachful look.
“She’s dangerous,” he shrugged, nodding to acknowledge Mom’s ire but not heeding her rebuke. “If you’re not tied to her yet, don’t make things harder on yourself.” And the rest of the family, was the unspoken but very clear addition there.
“I disagree!” Paris shouted from the dining room.
“The casserole smells delicious, dear,” my Mom smiled as she picked up four small bowls that she had already filled with salad. She nodded to me and my contribution, and to Dad and the roast, and we all joined my sister at the freshly-set table.
There was a short reprieve as we sorted out salads and drinks, then munched away happily on the mixed greens in vinaigrette. Dad picked up the line of inquiry as he began to carve the roast; I passed the casserole around at the same time so everyone could choose their own portion.
“You don’t think he should dump her?” Dad asked Paris, polite surprise in his voice.
My sister shook her head. “She’s very intelligent, and more than a little emotional.” When she noted my expression, she added, “Being emotional isn’t a bad thing, lil’bro. Most guys like it. It’s pretty much a given, with girly girls.”
“But in this case, it means she’s volatile, is what you’re saying?” Mom supplied.
“Right. She at least paid lip service to the idea of privacy and secrecy. I’m a lot less worried about her accidentally letting something slip, than I am about her getting ticked at you and going out of her way to say something.”
I tasted the roast while I thought about what Paris was saying. “It’s certainly something to consider, but I don’t see it as a big concern,” I finally explained. “If Kimberly is who she appears to be, then she’s both honest and kind-hearted. She wouldn’t try to hurt me like that, either directly or through you. She’s the sort whose emotional responses would be self-harm rather than harming others.”
“That’s an oddly confident assessment,” Mom said.
I shrugged. “We’ve talked a lot. I have a good bead on the person she at least presents herself as. I’m much more worried about whether there’s something shadier going on.”
“Well,” Paris slid her tablet over to me, “her record’s clean. So are her roommates, except that Juniper got too many points on her license at one time and had to take a class.”
“You ran those today?” I asked.
Paris nodded. “We’re past the point where it’s reasonable to be skittish about this, Hector. I did my police thing, and you need to do your Delphic thing on them, too.”
I looked to my parents, Dad and then Mom, and they both nodded their agreement.
“Okay,” I assented. “So… what exactly should I do?”
Mom kept tucking into her food as Paris and Dad exchanged confused looks. “You know… look into their pasts? Make sure they are who they say they are?”
“You mean, like, jump five years back and make sure their pasts aren’t manufactured?” When Paris just looked at me again, I continued. “You understand my powers well enough to know that I can’t just follow someone everywhere they go through months of time. I can quickly run through weeks of time in a specific location, stopping whenever something unusual happens. Or I can spy on an event we are already aware of. But tailing a person day or night for month after month, everywhere they go, would take a ridiculous amount of my time.”
Paris nodded. “Right, so look back a few days and see if Kimberly has had unexpected calls or contacts with anyone. And get her passwords, obviously. The same stuff you did with the CIA.”
“Even though there’s no evidence she’s doing anything wrong? Spy on her for safety’s sake?”
“Yes.” It was Mom who voiced it, but the sentiment around the table was clearly unanimous. “This isn’t just about you anymore, baby. Either through a good guess, or something worse, this girl knows about your sister. You need to stop shying away from this, and find out what you can.” She nodded at Paris. “You owe it to her.”
Paris blushed at that, but didn’t contradict Mom.
“I still say you should cut her loose,” Dad offered again, but the rest of us ignored him this time.
We turned to more mundane and pleasant conversation topics during dessert. I had put too much cinnamon in the cobbler. Fortunately there was vanilla ice cream in the freezer, and that offset the strong flavor enough to make it palatable.
By the time I packed up my dishes and headed home, I was already considering the best lines of approach for Viewing Kimberly… and trying not to hate myself for it.