Upon crossing the blackwood threshold, Garry saw that the burnished marble surface below him was quick to end at the foot of an elevated wooden floor. His eyes immediately fell onto the few pairs of heels placed just to the side and understood that he was going to have to take off his shoes. He glanced down at the little girl in his arms and shifted her so that he would have a more comfortable grip on her.
He watched as the married couple took off theirs, before timidly wriggling himself out of his own, trying to make the action as polite as it could possibly be. He was a tad thankful that his old shoes had always been easy to slip off.
Placing his bare foot onto the cool wooden floor, he secretly breathed a sigh of relief. Thankfully, because he’d had all of his socks washed, he didn’t wear any today. His toes were successfully poking a hole through them.
The corridor abruptly led to the right, and Garry mindfully drifted back behind the house owners, letting them lead the way. As they walked, the wall to his left slowly made a nice transition to pristine glass that revealed a courtyard garden whose beauty was simply breathtaking, leaving him in awe.
The living room could have been taken right out of a real estate magazine. Stylish black stone walls, coupled with the ivory shade of the ceiling and warm lighting, gave a comfortable sense of homeliness as he stared out the frameless windows into the night garden outside. The clear glass table had a fragile yet durable quality to it, complementing the stout cinnamon-coloured sofa just nearby.
When he was invited to take a seat on those beautiful mattresses that seemed like they had never been sat upon, Garry could only bring himself to sit at their very edge, putting most of his weight onto his legs. It wasn’t easy with Ib snoozing away in his lap; still, he managed not to slip from his seat.
Ib’s father was… quite a complicate individual. He was quiet – Garry could certainly see whose child Ib was – and had an easygoing air to him, all the while still giving off the feeling that he shouldn’t be crossed. Crow’s feet from many years of stress were beginning to etch onto his features, giving him a shrewd appearance that Garry was sure extended beyond his skin. His dark eyes and muddy brown hair seemingly dulled any edges he might have had, but Garry believed they were still there.
As Ib’s mother set down the porcelain teacups and seated herself next to her husband on the other side of the table, he could tell that the interrogation was beginning and unconsciously put up walls in his head. Much to his surprise and relief, they only asked about simple things like his age and schooling. The Lowells were very amiable, and the friendly atmosphere helped Garry relax to the point that he could admit to having been disowned by his family, albeit ruefully. They both seemed shocked; the wife outwardly displaying her disapproval and the husband nodding his head slowly in a sort of musing.
Nathan crossed his legs and leant back on the sofa, eyes studying the young man before him. The kid didn’t seem like a bad company to have, modest and well-mannered – and actually quite fun to watch, he added with a note of humour in his head as the boy squirmed nervously. He was most impressed with the lad’s resolution to follow his own dream despite the cost, and getting disowned at the fresh age of eighteen was a large cost. Being a business man, he didn’t find fashion too favourable a career choice, but to abandon their own child because of it was just preposterous.
However, a dirt poor university student approaching his, a rich man’s, nine year old daughter, he couldn’t say he was too comfortable with that.
Garry surreptitiously adjusted Ib to a more snuggly position – but not too snuggly – wondering if he’d been wrong to have confessed that wretched episode of his life. The air had now gone heavy and no one spoke a word. The parents asked the questions and he simply answered was how the conversation went on. Now that they both seemed to be contemplating something – most likely concerning him, or specifically him – he didn’t know what to say, or if he should saying anything at all.
“So, Mr. Wolfe,” the man broke the silence that had formed in the room. Bending forward to rest his elbows on his knees, he continued. “My wife and I are both wondering how exactly you came to be acquainted to our little Ib. Can you tell us the story?”
“Yes, I’d very much like to hear it,” his wife said, inching slightly closer as though anticipating gossip.
Garry gulped, heart skipping a beat. Here it was, the talk he so dreaded. “W-well, in the… Guertena exhibit… we… met…” he said lamely.
Behind his smiling countenance, Nathan kept a keen gaze on the boy’s reaction. This direction of the conversation had clearly thrown the teen off his seat of comfort. As opposed to his honest attitude with the questions earlier, the boy was now jumpy and fidgeting, even suspiciously avoiding eye-contact.
“So we’ve heard,” Nathan said with a small chuckle. “But we’d love to hear more details about our daughter’s encounter. It’s such a rare thing for her, you see.”
Garry smoothed his lips into a thin line, looking down at Ib. In a way, he wished she would wake up to help him – her wits had never failed to surprise him.
If he thought about it…
“Hm, what is it, little miss?” he’d asked when he’d seen Ib stare intensely at a painting with a cacophony of colors. Maybe it had been because she was the only human around at the time, and he was so glad that he wasn’t alone, that Garry didn’t feel too uncomfortable being with a child.
“This painting…” she said cryptically, not sparing him one single glance.
Then again, maybe it was because she didn’t act like a child.
“…Yeah? Abstract Art,” he read the title offhandedly. “What about it?”
The little girl turned to him, her face betraying no emotions, yet her eyes somehow had a different light in them. “Ab…stract?” she pronounced hesitantly.
“… Hm? You don’t know that word?” Garry asked in a bit of confusion, then it dawned on him and he said with a smile, the kind that he thought would appeal to kids. “Ah, you want to know the title? It’s ‘Abstract Art,’ dear.”
She raised her brows slightly, which he suspected was her way of nodding, and turned back to the painting. The silence stretched as she kept staring at the title beneath the painting, which he again suspected was her memorizing the word, until he couldn’t take it anymore and cleared his throat, “Will that be all?”
A bit more silence, then she suddenly spoke, “Which means…?”
“H-hm?” Garry stuttered, titling his head. Ib broke her gaze from the artwork and stared up at him, showing no intention of repeating herself. Seriously, this kid…
“Er… what it means?” he scratched his chin thoughtfully. “Hmm… well, basically… it means… art that is… abstract…”
At the kid’s dull expression, he felt like an incompetent idiot. “Yeah, well… anyway!” he clapped his hands together loudly. “I’ll gladly help with anything you can’t read,” he promised in an attempt to sound more capable.
Ib’s eyes then might as well have lit up. She had led him along the corridor, into a grand room with huge statues and… a lady in red roaming about…
What happened next had been them desperately fleeing from the monstrosity, but Ib, being the curious little dear she was, had refused to leave the scene until he’d read to her every single word she hadn’t known in that room. It was certainly a frightening experience, but now as he looked back on the memory, he realized it actually had a comical side. A small laughter escaped his lips, and he brought a hand up to his mouth. The two parents regarded him with questioning, albeit surprised looks, so he did his best to contain himself. “Ah, sorry sir, ma’am… Well…” he inadvertently paused, shoulders trembling before continuing. “… Ib was having trouble reading a painting’s name so I offered to help her. Then one artwork led to another… I think we might’ve seen everything in the gallery,” even ones that weren’t supposed to be seen, he thought with a shudder.
Nathan could only blink at the boy, trying to decipher the meaning behind his sudden and questionable amusement. The kid was becoming increasingly suspicious – problems with emotional stability, perhaps – but strangely enough, it wasn’t in a bad way, didn’t feel like such.
His daughter stirred, gaining everyone’s attention. They all watched closely as her brows drew together – he believed she was more expressive asleep than awake. She rubbed her eye a few times, before drifting back to her dreams.
A smile crept up on his face as he continued watching his little girl, then the boy, who gently ran fingers through her bang endearingly. There was small a part of him that bristled at the stranger touching his child, but seeing the little angel so peacefully at sleep, he melted.
He turned to his wife – her smiling back at him with a soft look.
The lad wasn’t bad company.
“Seems like she finally let go,” he commented.
It was Garry’s turn to blink, his eyes tearing away from Ib to look up at her father, only to drop back down to her. She really had let go of his shirt, leaving a noticeable crease on the fabric. “A-ah, yes…”
“Sorry to have troubled you,” Mr. Lowell rose from his seat and walked around the table. “I’ll take her to her room now.”
“I-it’s no trouble, sir,” Garry hastily got to his feet also, gently handing Ib to the older man.
He just stood and watched as Ib was carried further into the home, until the father and daughter disappeared behind a corner. Honestly, he didn’t want her to leave his side. He wanted her near to reassure him that this was no dream – well, to be fair meeting her parents was enough of a reality check, but… her presence was simply… reassurance.
It couldn’t be helped.
Garry sat back down, stifling a sigh. His gaze remained down as he reached for the tea that had gone lukewarm before him, having nothing better to do. He hadn’t had the chance to take a single sip, with Ib having occupied his arms, but he still remembered how soothing a fragrance the tea had when a brush of smoke was still coiling up from it.
It was delicious as he’d thought.
His head perked up at the sound of his name. “Ah… yes, ma’am? And please, just call me Garry,” he insisted.
“Oh, sorry,” Mrs. Lowell giggled, putting her fingers to her lips. “You should stop with ‘ma’am,’ then. It gets me all formal.”
“Alysha would be nice.”
“A… lysha…?” he mumbled reluctantly, receiving an approving hum from the older woman as she took a sip of her own tea.
Garry patiently waited. They both said nothing.
She sat in a posture that exuded grace. Her ruby eyes were partly shadowed by long lashes as she placed the near empty cup down onto its plate. Her gaze lowered in a sort of meditation, she daintily twirled a finger into her thick auburn hair that stretched past her shoulder blades. It was obvious whom Ib got most of her traits from. He could see the beauty Ib would grow up to be looking at the woman before him.
Brow raised in confusion, he wondered why Mrs. Lowell hadn’t said anything despite addressing him earlier. Still, he kept silent.
“You didn’t tell us everything,” she suddenly said without looking at him. Her voice wasn’t accusing; it was calm and neutral, as though she had made an offhanded comment. “In fact, I don’t think you told us anything.”
Mrs. Lowell didn’t say anything after that, and he didn’t either.
“You’re not going to explain yourself?” she asked, training her eyes on him.
Garry leant forward. Fingers knitting together, he hesitated, “I don’t know… I felt that there was a but.”
The woman gave a small smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “There is,” she admitted, letting a frown form on her features. “… Ib hasn’t been sleeping properly. She keeps getting these nightmares every time she closes her eyes.”
His eyes widened and he slowly straightened up. Grabbing a handful of his hair, he bit back a curse. Ib had been suffering these past two months, just like him… just as he had feared. He could feel the bile rising in his throat, but he kept his tone normal. “B-but, she was sleeping fine just now,” he defended – what and from what, he wasn’t sure.
“Exactly,” she closed her eyes in a pensive manner.
“I haven’t a clue about your relationship with our Ib. You’re hiding something and not even hiding that you are. But she slept in your arms, so serenely it felt like her nightmares were just my own imagination,” the woman shrugged with her arms folded, and Garry could hear the hysteria seeping through her composure. “I know what I saw, Garry. I saw her quiver under her blanket at night. Somehow, she manages to keep her voice down despite waking with a jerk. She sleeps with the lights on even though she was fine without them before. I saw my daughter run. She only ever does that in school, when I promise her omelets as prize. I saw her cling to you. She rarely ever hugs us… Then I saw you. You cried and embraced her… and, young man, you would be with a few officers by now if it hadn’t been for those tears.”
Upon hearing that, Garry stiffened and consciously sat upright. He could tell that Mrs. Lowell didn’t mean any menace – it actually sounded more like a stern scolding – but that didn’t erase the fact that he’d almost spent a night behind bars.
“If you really met in the exhibit, it was only two hours. I can’t think of any reason why such a secluded child would be so familiar with someone whose age is so far apart from hers in that short amount of time. I have a myriad of things I want to demand answers for, but…” the mother exhaled, her smile returning. “She sleeps so peacefully, I find myself not caring any more than that…”
Garry found himself at a loss for words; a sense of gratitude and accomplishment filled him. He’d gotten accepted… at least he thought so. He wasn’t quite ‘there’, but he dared to believe he was going to be allowed to exist in Ib’s life.
“I think Nate is thinking the same thing,” the woman added.
Garry nodded dumbly. “I’m sorry, ma- Alysha,” he muttered, shuffling his foot. “I wouldn’t know what to tell you.”
“The truth, perhaps?”
“It’ll sound like a lie…”
“You’re not a liar.”
He chuckled wryly, rubbing the back of his neck. By making it a statement, she put pressure on him rather than meaning it as a praise. “I don’t even want to remember,” he admitted, much to the woman’s confusion. “I think Ib is also trying to forget. I hope you haven’t pursued this topic with her.”
“We haven’t. She tries to hide it from us, thinking we don’t know,” Mrs. Lowell sighed, sinking into her seat. “We respected her effort and decided to wait until she comes to us, but it’s getting hard.”
His heart sank at the information. Ib had been suffering alone, and he wasn’t there. All because he hesitated. “I-I’m sorry,” he said under his breath, his head hung in chagrin. He knew there was no point in crying over spilt milk, but he couldn’t get over the fact that things could have been so much better if he hadn’t been such a chicken and just come to her.
Garry lifted his gaze to the older woman, but before he could say anything more, a plaintive cry pierced through the silence in the house.
- Garry fervently refused to inherit his family’s luthier business