For our first Official #FringeFanFriday, Fringe fanfiction writer – DixieGirl256 – has submitted the first part of a ten chapter-plus-epilogue story that deals with the month after Walter disappeared in 2015.
She says: “It’s my attempt to fulfill Joel’s hope that we would imagine our characters the next day.”
Story is rated T, however one upcoming chapter will be M rated.
We’ll be posting an update each week. Enjoy!
Olivia smoothed the curls away from Etta’s face and pressed a kiss to the sleeping child’s forehead before slipping out of her room. She walked down the hallway to their bedroom; finding it empty, as she often did lately, she walked downstairs.
At the foot of the stairway, she paused and listened for signs of activity. She heard faint strains of music from the back of the house. She paused in the doorway of the darkened room, its only occupant barely illuminated by a small lamp on the side table next to the overstuffed chair. Peter’s face was in the shadows, but she could see a dog-eared album cover in his hands. His fingers traced the worn spots on the cover as he gazed into their back yard, watching the fireflies’ tiny bursts of gold.
He didn’t look at her as she entered the room, just reached for his glass on the side table. She perched on the arm of his chair, and silently accepted the glass he offered after he’d taken a sip. Black Bush, a couple of ice cubes barely covered by the whisky.
“This was one of his favorites, wasn’t it?” she said after the song ended.
“Violet Sedan Chair,” he replied with a low chuckle. “Remember Roscoe Joyce? The old guy from the nursing home that saw his son who’d been dead for twenty-five years? He was one of Walter’s heroes.”
“He was so excited,” Olivia said, with a soft smile. She took the album cover from his hands and walked over to the turntable Peter had brought home a week earlier. She removed the album from the turntable and sleeved the vinyl carefully, then turned to him, a questioning look on her face. When he shook his head, she replaced the album on one of the shelves commandeered by Walter’s extensive collection and walked back to his chair.
She held out her hands to pull him up, but instead, he tugged her gently into his lap. She relaxed into his loose embrace and rested her head against his shoulder, nestling her face into his neck. He smelled of whisky, and soap, and faintly of the cologne he wore occasionally, and of something that was uniquely Peter. It was why she loved sleeping in his shirts after they’d made love, and why she hated taking his peacoat to the cleaners; it lost that Peter scent that permeated the dark wool.
He rubbed his thumb over the fingers of her left hand, playing with the simple band that matched his own. She waited… sometimes he needed to talk, sometimes he just needed her close to share the silence and the dark as he sank into his own thoughts.
“Etta told me she missed her grandpa today,” he murmured. “She wanted to know if I missed him, too.” He sighed. “It’s been thirty days…”
The sound of Etta’s squeals and splashing, and Olivia’s teasing voice seemed to fade away as Peter stood in the foyer. The rest of the mail lay forgotten on the table as he studied the simple outline of a tulip and the envelope in which it was delivered… from Walter, postmarked only a couple of days ago. A day when Walter had seemed quieter than usual.
Suddenly, he was overcome by a rush of emotion – it wasn’t déjà vu, he hadn’t had this experience before, but he KNEW. He’d felt the same way earlier in the park as he called to Etta and held his arms wide for her. There was something about that moment, something important, something he should know.
He shook his head and closed his eyes briefly. It’s just the sun, he thought, being outside all afternoon on one of the last really nice fall days in Boston. And then he KNEW…
Gray suits and fedoras coming out of nowhere, coming over the hill. Screaming and running for Etta, Liv right behind him, reaching for her, seeing the terror in Etta’s eyes as she called for him and stretched out her arms…. Then nothing.
Days on end, searching hospitals, refuge centers, morgues…
Arguments with Liv, days without speaking, then terse voice mails and text messages. Nights with their backs to each other, if he came home at all. Finally, a hurried lunch in a crowded restaurant, both of them begging, in their own way; Olivia, for him to come to New York with her and fight the invasion; him, insisting that Etta was still alive, that he’d find her on the next list of centers, in the next town. She’d turned her face away from him to hide her disappointment; she kept it averted when they stood, when he tried to kiss her. He settled for an awkward embrace, brushing his lips against her cheek and knowing she wouldn’t be there the next time he came home.
Arguments with Walter; Olivia needed him, Walter needed him, when all Peter could think was that Walter, of all people, should know the feeling of losing a child. He helped him in the lab when he could, when he was waiting for phone calls to be returned, missing persons reports to be filed, lists of names from the shelters springing up across the country to be faxed.
He was about to head to the West Coast. He’d gotten some new leads, rumors that people were being shuffled from coast to coast to avoid reunions with their families and further undermine what little social stability remained. Walter had insisted that he meet ‘them’; Peter assumed Walter meant Olivia, back from one of her tours of duty in New York, as he’d begun to think of them. He wanted to see her one more time before he left, to hang on to what frayed connection still existed between them.
When he entered the building, he glanced around the unfamiliar location. It was a lab, haphazardly arranged, much like Walter’s lab at Harvard. He couldn’t see Walter, but he heard his voice near the back, arguing heatedly with another man.
“Walter, where the hell are you?” he called out crossly. He didn’t have time for this, he thought, he needed to be on the road. “Walter!”
The voices continued, but he saw Astrid hurrying from the back of the building. “Peter, I’m so glad you’re here. We’re getting ready to…”
“Astrid, what does he want? I’m leaving for California this afternoon. Is Olivia here?” He glanced around as he strode in the direction Astrid had come from, forcing her to break into a run to keep up with him.
“Peter, you can’t! We need you here. Walter needs – “
“I don’t give a damn what Walter needs. Etta needs me more.” Peter stopped suddenly as he recognized the voice arguing with Walter. He whirled to face Astrid, who wouldn’t look him in the eye.
“What is that sonovabitch doing here? How did he get here? “ He headed in the direction of the voices, his hands in tight fists and his jaw clenching.
“Peter, wait!” Astrid scurried to catch up with him, and laid a small hand on his arm. “It’s his lab. Walter needed another place to work besides Harvard, and it’s safer for Olivia to come here.”
“It’s safer for Olivia to be in a lab with Walter and William Bell?” he scoffed. “The world’s become more fucked up than I realized.” He paused, listening for her voice. “She’s not here?”
Astrid looked down, but she didn’t let go of his arm. “No, she left again this morning for New York. She’s picking up something for Walter, but she wanted to talk to you if you showed up.”
As he reached for his cell phone, Astrid stilled his arm. “Use this one. She’s expecting a call from this number and she’s #2 on speed dial.”
He accepted the proffered phone, but continued to glare at the petite woman stubbornly planted in front of him. Olivia answered on the first ring.
“Astrid, have you seen Pe-”
Peter sighed heavily. “Liv, it’s me. Where are you?”
“Peter…” She almost sounded relieved to hear his voice. “I’m on my way to New York.” She hesitated, then continued with a softer tone in her voice. “Peter, please stay there. Things are getting worse, I’m not sure how much longer we’ll be able to move around freely, and I don’t want us to be separated… in case…” she drew a deep breath. “In case something happens. I’ll be there tonight and you can come back with us.”
“No, Liv, I can’t.” His voice was weary, and more than a little irritated. “That’s even more reason for me to get out of town while I still can. I’ll wait for you if you’ll come with me.”
Her voice was sharper this time. “Peter, you know I can’t do that. I need to be here, not running across the country for no good reason.”
Peter gritted his teeth, and Astrid moved a few more steps away. When he spoke again, his voice was low and measured, but there was no way to mistake the intensity of his anger. “Olivia, I’m ‘running across the country’ for a very…good…reason. I’m looking for our daughter, in case you forgot.”
“Peter. Peter, she’s… she’s… “ Even though she believed that Etta was dead, Olivia still couldn’t bring herself to say it. If she didn’t say the words, she didn’t have to think about it right then, she could push it to the back of her mind and think about it later. “You’re being selfish. Walter and I… we need you.”
Peter snorted. “Selfish? Well, maybe I am. I’m not giving up on her, Livia. If that’s selfish… then it is. For the last time, will you come with me to help me find our daughter?”
There was a long silence. Peter looked at the face of the phone to make sure the connection still held.
A pained look crossed his face, but it was quickly replaced with the grim, determined expression he wore most often since the invasion a couple of months ago. He pressed the disconnect button without replying, then silently returned the phone to Astrid and walked heavily to the back of the cluttered building.
Hours later, Peter found Astrid keying rapidly into a laptop. She looked up at him with arched eyebrows. “Well?”
He grimaced. “I’m in… for now.”
“It’s important, Peter. They’re so close, and it could make a difference for all of us…” Astrid’s voice trailed off.
“Instead of just one father, and one child?” Peter’s voice had a bitter edge. “We all know how well THAT turns out.”
He was frustrated, and angry, but after hearing Walter’s plan, what there was of it, he felt he had to stay. What use was finding Etta if they’d missed their best chance to rid the world of those bald-headed bastards… and somebody with a relatively level head needed to stick around to keep an eye on Bell.
Astrid kept her eyes on the laptop screen; she knew Peter’s harsh words were rooted in his anguish over losing Etta, but they hurt, nonetheless. Despite her feelings, and his, they had to stick together. Walter had convinced her that this was their last chance; if they didn’t succeed now, Walter surmised, the Observers would continue their domination, not just here, but all over the world. Reports had been trickling in… France, Johannesburg, Tokyo, Mumbai – the same thing was happening everywhere.
“You’re here, now. That’s what matters.” She glanced up at Peter, who was pacing restlessly. “Do you want to call Olivia?”
“Do you think she’ll care?” At her exasperated look, he held up his hands as a sign of apology. “Sorry, sorry…”
He stretched out his hand and Astrid gave him her cell without comment, but smiled sadly as he walked away.
Four calls… all straight to voice mail. She’s busy, nothing to worry about, Peter kept telling himself. Finally, he gave in.
“Liv… it’s me. I’m still with Walter. He’s given me an update and I’m staying… for now. I’ll be here when you’re back from New York. Liv…” He scrubbed his hands over his face. “Olivia, I’m sorry. I know this is hard for you, too. I’m still going to LA. I can’t give up, but I’ll help you and Walter get started. And Liv… I want to see you before I leave. Be careful.” He took a deep breath. “Liv, I lo-“
“Peter! I need you!” Walter’s voice commanded his attention and he hit the disconnect key.
He hurried into the alcove where he’d last seen Walter. Astrid stood beside him, a worried look on her face.
“What is it, Walter? Where’s Bell?”
“Not important. Peter, this is to protect us. And the plan. Think of something pleasant.”
“What? What’s going on, Wal-“ Peter’s eyes dropped to the small ambering device in his father’s hands. “What the hell? Walter, don’t!”
And as he saw the gas escaping from the canister in Walter’s hands, he thought of Etta, and Olivia, and how much he would miss them.
He felt a little like he did when he stepped out of the machine; his head was spinning with images of familiar faces in an unfamiliar environment, and the emotions associated with them ran the gamut from relief and elation to fear, anger, despair, grief…
He staggered a bit and dropped the rest of the mail on the table, steadying himself with one hand while looking at the line drawing of the tulip in his other.
He was still weak from being in amber all that time, still getting his bearings in a world where he’d been frozen for 20 years. Even in the dark, he could tell the landscape had changed considerably since his last trip to New York. Walter and Astrid told him what happened, how the modern day equivalent of the Fringe team put together a way to extract them… and how one of them, the male agent about Peter’s age, pushed him out of the amber when their device broke, sacrificing his freedom for Peter’s.
When he felt he could stand, he walked to the back of the train car and over to the window where the other Fringe agent, a young blonde woman, stood, gazing back at the city.
“I’m sorry about your friend. We’ll do everything we can to get him back. I promise.” His voice was rough with disuse.
Her reply surprised him. He was prepared for any number of reactions, almost anything but the one she gave him. She studied his face intently. “Do you… know me?”
He gave her what he hoped was still his best apologetic smile. “Well, I don’t know how I could.” Her face fell and her eyes welled with tears. “I’ve been stuck in that Amber for over twenty years, you barely look old enough…”
Barely look old enough to be my daughter… he finished the sentence in his mind as he took in her long blonde hair, blue eyes, and slender frame. Fringe agent. Stubborn. Bad ass, at least from the way Walter had been describing her. After all this time… it wasn’t possible.
But the longer he studied her face, the longer she gazed up at him with tears just before spilling over, her lips trembling and a mixture of longing and fear on her face… he was sure. He had to ask. He raised his hand to brush her hair back; long and straight now, instead of the towheaded curls he used to push out of her face a hundred times a day – but he stopped. What if…
“Henrietta?” He whispered cautiously, afraid to hope. He cupped her cheek.
The tears fell now, and the smile that illuminated her face assured him that this was Olivia’s daughter, HIS daughter.
He pulled her to him, crushing her to his chest. He was never letting her out of his sight again.
The memories were coming faster now, snowballing…
Finding Olivia in Markham’s apartment, that bastard…
Holding her again, hearing her say his name… and the joy of being able to say “I found her…”
Watching his two girls embrace… for so long, he thought he’d never see that again.
Moments of panic seeing his daughter in danger, and at the same time, swelling with pride that she was so brave, so fearless, so willing to fight for her world.
Rescuing Walter… the terror he felt seeing what Windmark was capable of doing firsthand…
Holding Etta as she cried over the sight of Simon in the Observers’ lab…those images were seared into his brain, just as the sound of her sobs forever would be.
Seeing the joy on Etta’s face when he gave her the necklace, knowing he put it there, feeling her hug.
Looking down at her blood on his hands, at her lifeless body.
He felt as if his heart was breaking again, even as he heard his daughter’s much younger self laughing gleefully as she played with the bubbles in the bathtub upstairs.
Seeing Walter reunited with his old friend, Donald. Watching his eyes fill with affection as Donald called his name.
In the lab, watching another of Walter’s tapes, this one addressed to him. “You will be looking for me, but I won’t be there.”
Walter, looking at him with tears in his eyes. “I know, in my soul, that this is what I’m supposed to do.”
Standing in the street, watching Walter extend his hand to a young boy, knowing that he would not see his father again. “I love you, Dad.”
“Peter, are you ok?”
He felt Olivia’s hand on his shoulder. Somehow, he’d ended up on the stairs, slumped against the banister, still holding the sketch, the white tulip, in his hands.
“Peter, what’s wrong?”
He shook his head, not trusting his voice to speak yet. He handed her the sketch, and she drew a quick breath.
She sat next to him on the stairs and leaned against him, resting her head against his shoulder.
“Liv… I know this is crazy, even for us, but – “
“Do you remember?”
He looked at her sharply. “Remember… remember what?”
She looked at the slip of paper in her hand.
“How long, Olivia?” His voice was rough with emotion.
“Since this afternoon, in the park. When….” Her voice broke. “When you called Etta and she ran to you.”
“At the point the timeline changed.”
She nodded. “When…”
“Just now. When I opened the letter from Walter…” He took the sketch from her hand. “I guess seeing this made me remember. All of it.”
Peter stood up unsteadily and handed the sketch back to Olivia. He patted the pockets of his shorts, looking for his cell phone. “I’ve got to find him.”
As he waited for the connection, he paced, running his hands through his hair.
“Peter… he won’t be there. He told us.”
As his call went to voice mail, Peter stopped. “Walter, pick up. Walter, it’s me. Pick up the phone.” He paused. “I’ll call you at the lab. When you get this, call me. Please.”
He repeated the process, leaving a similar message at the lab. His next call was to Astrid’s cell phone.
He skipped the pleasantries. “Astrid, have you seen Walter today?”
“Peter! Hello to you, too…”
“When was the last time you saw him?”
“This morning. I ran by the lab to check on him. What’s wrong?”
Peter looked at Olivia, who shrugged her shoulders. “Nothing, nothing…“ He tried to sound unconcerned. “Just trying to get in touch with him, that’s all.” He took a deep breath. “Did he seem ok to you?”
“Peter, he was fine. You’re scaring me. What’s wrong? Do you want me to check on him?” Astrid’s voice took on a tinge of anxiety.
He looked at Olivia again and shook his head. “No, no, everything’s fine.” He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to recover a sense of normality. “We’ll see you tomorrow, ok? Sorry to bother you.”
“Call me if you need me, okay? I can run over –“
“No, thanks, Astrid. I’m sure he just didn’t hear the phone. We’ll see you tomorrow.” He stood silently, staring at the phone.
“She didn’t remember, did she?” Olivia spoke quietly. When Peter shook his head, she stood up and rubbed his arm. “Do you want me to go?”
“No, hon.” He sighed in resignation, already knowing what he would find, but unable to accept it without proof. He slipped the phone back in his pocket and picked up his keys from the table, where he’d dropped them with the rest of the mail. “I won’t be long.”
“Peter…” She moved to him, and wrapped her arms around him, leaning her head against his chest and rubbing his back gently.
He embraced her loosely and rested his cheek against the top of her head. He didn’t want to move. As long as he stood there, he could pretend to deny that there was anything wrong. His three year old daughter was freshly scrubbed and sleeping in her bed upstairs. His wife was happy, with him and with her life, and content in his arms. And his dad was puttering around the lab, probably stoned and playing his music loud enough to drown out the phone.
“If you change your mind… if you need me.” Olivia whispered. “I can ask Amanda from across the street to come over for Etta.”
Peter tightened his arms around Olivia and kissed her head. “I just need to be sure.”
Olivia pulled his head down to hers and brushed her lips against his. “I love you, Peter. I WILL be here when you get home.”
He hugged her close, not trusting his voice, then headed to the lab.
It was late when he returned to the house. Olivia was in bed, her black reading glasses perched on her nose as she reviewed case files, scanning the latest batch for any indication that more had changed than just their outing in the park today. So far, everything was just as she remembered it.
She heard Peter’s SUV pulling into the garage, the door opening and closing, his footsteps on the stairs. The door to Etta’s room made a little squeak; they’d talked about oiling the hinges, then decided they liked the idea of an early warning system in case she decided to wander after bedtime. She heard the drowsy voice of their daughter, and Peter’s low, comforting response.
She looked up as the door to their bedroom opened. His eyes were red-rimmed and his shoulders slumped as he walked heavily to the edge of the bed and sat down, toeing off his flip-flops. She dropped the files beside the bed and grabbed her robe as she moved to sit beside him.
Wordlessly, he handed her a DVD. As she slid it into the player, he mumbled, “It’s a copy of the tape he left.”
As they watched it, tears welled in Peter’s eyes. Olivia, seeing it for the first time, couldn’t tear her gaze away from Walter’s face.
“…I don’t want to say goodbye…but I will say I love you, son.”
When the screen went black, Peter leaned over her and picked up the remote with a shaking hand. He stood up and clicked off the TV, but seemed to be unsure of what to do next. He stared at the darkened screen.
Olivia stood and took his hand. “Peter, come to bed.”
He nodded numbly, then went into the bathroom to shower and brush his teeth. He returned in a pair of dark blue boxer briefs, curls still damp, eyes still red. Olivia pulled the covers back on his side of the bed and he lay down, pulling her close. She wrapped her arms around him and nestled into his chest, hoping that he could find what he needed that night in her embrace.
Peter woke up much earlier than usual. At first, the dim glow of the rising sun was the only difference; usually, it was up and shining full on into their bedroom window by the time he rose. Olivia, still sleeping, was snuggled in the crook of his arm. He didn’t hear any activity or sounds of distress from their daughter’s bedroom down the hall.
What the hell am I doing up at this hour?
But when he opened his eyes, his gaze fell on the DVD on top of the player. He remembered. He remembered, and the grief hit him all over again. He eased his arm from under Olivia’s head and slipped into the bathroom to shower and dress. He wanted to arrive at the lab before Astrid.
He scribbled a quick note to Olivia and left it on her nightstand, under her phone. He picked up his phone, took a deep breath, and started his day.
The first day of life without Walter.
At the lab, he checked Walter’s office first. Nothing had changed since last night. The papers on the desk were undisturbed, the fold out couch that had been Walter’s bed for so long was still just a couch, and the unopened package of Red Vines next to it was still sealed.
He started coffee and checked on Gene.
Guess I’m going to learn to milk her after all.
“Walter, I’m here!” Astrid called cheerfully as she strolled into the lab with a coffee cake fresh out of the oven. “I brought your favorite… cinnamon coffee cake.”
Peter gave Gene one last pat on the head, and headed to the front of the lab to spoil Astrid’s day.
“Let’s get coffee. I have something you need to see.” Peter steered her towards the coffee pot and poured two cups, handing her one before heading back to Walter’s Betamax.
When Astrid joined him, he turned to her and said “I came back to the lab last night after I talked to you. Walter left this for me.”
“Is he ok, Peter? I went by the house, but he wasn’t there. I thought he might’ve stayed here last night, or that he was with you.” Astrid was starting to worry.
Peter turned on the Betamax and hit the pause button. “Astrid…. Walter left me a message on this tape. I need you to watch it, see if it jogs any memories.” He leaned against the table holding the TV and pressed the play button.
He couldn’t watch Walter’s image on the screen; just hearing his voice was bad enough. As Walter continued, Astrid’s eyes filled with tears and the worry turned to anguish as she began to realize that Walter was gone.
By the time the screen went black, tears were rolling down Astrid’s face. “Peter, what… I don’t understand…”
In two steps, Peter stood in front of Astrid and wrapped his arms around her. Although he’d watched the recording a dozen times by now, it still left him with a painful, empty feeling, knowing that this was all he had left of Walter… this and his memories.
Peter stood with his arms around Astrid, rocking gently. As her sobs dwindled, she pulled away and looked up at Peter. “I still don’t understand…”
He pulled a handkerchief from the back pocket of his jeans. “It’s clean,” he said with a small smile.
“Astrid, I have to ask you something…Does seeing this,” he gestured at the TV, “make you remember anything?”
Astrid shook her head slowly. “Should it?”
“Well, this doesn’t make sense, even for us… but Olivia and I, we remember… we remember the future.”
Phillip Broyles didn’t think it was possible to be surprised anymore. Pattern cases, shape shifters, Observers, alternate universes, megalomaniac scientists creating new worlds…
“So, what you’re telling me…” he stared intently at his best agent across the desk, “Is that we all lived a future vastly different from this one, and the reason that Dr. Bishop is not here now is because he’s in… he’s in…”
His best agent’s husband/partner, a person with an odd past himself, was leaning in the doorway of Olivia’s office. “He’s in the year 2167. In 2036, he went to 2167 in order to stop the invasion that originally happened almost a week ago.”
Broyles had a pained expression on his face. “And that made him disappear?”
Olivia looked up at Peter. “Yes, sir, I’m sure Peter can provide the specifics… but that was the plan that he and September developed, and it appears that it was successful.”
Broyles stood. “Detail it in the report. All of it. And think about what additional resources you might need now that Dr. Bishop is… is no longer available.”
Olivia looked down at her desk. “Yes, sir, we’ll have a complete report to you by Monday.” She didn’t trust herself to look up at either of the men.
Broyles stopped next to Peter in the doorway and extended his hand. “Peter, I’m sorry. If there’s anything I can do…”
Peter took his hand automatically, but he was surprised when he looked at Broyles and saw genuine empathy rather than his usual stoic reserve. The image of a much older Broyles looking fondly at his adult daughter and embracing his wife with tears in his eyes flashed through his mind; it was another event that would (probably) never happen now, but it brought a unique perspective to the Broyles standing before him. Peter grasped his hand. “Thanks, Phillip. We’re still trying to make sense of it all.”
Broyles turned to Olivia before walking out of her office. “That goes for you, too, Dunham,” he said gruffly.
Broyles’ footsteps echoed through the almost-silent lab. Without Walter’s music, an almost constant presence, the space seemed empty and cold. Peter sank into the chair in front of Olivia’s desk.
“I don’t know how to do this without him.”
Olivia smiled sympathetically. “He said the same thing when you were gone.”
He shook his head. “Anybody could do the things I did. He was the genius.” He looked at Olivia; the even tone of his voice belied the panic building in his eyes. “I’m just a hack compared to him.”
Olivia walked around the desk and leaned against it in front of him. “Says the man with the 190 IQ.”
“Still 6 points less than his. He was awfully proud of those 6 points,” Peter smiled. “He never let me forget it, especially in the early days.”
She nudged his leg with her knee. “Do you remember what you used to tell him when he would get worked up about something?”
Peter nodded and smiled again, but with a hint of sadness. “Yeah, I’d tell him that we’d do what we always did… figure it out together.”
She knelt by his chair and balanced herself against his legs. “Well, I’m no mad scientist… but we’ll get through this together, Peter. We have to.”
He nodded, drew a deep breath, and blinked a few times, unable to speak. Olivia leaned her head against his knee and said softly, “I miss him, too.”
“Shhh,” Peter cautioned a giggling Etta, “This is a surprise for Mama, remember?”
Etta bounced up and down in the kitchen while Peter flipped pancakes on the stove. “Are you making whales for Mama? Grandpa always makes me whale pancakes.”
“Daddy! You gotta flip the pancakes else they burn, Grandpa said.” She pointed at the stove where the edges of heart-shaped pancakes were beginning to crisp.
He swallowed hard and took a deep breath. Be in the moment, he scolded himself. “You are so right, Princess. What would I do without you?” He deftly flipped the pancakes, then crouched down to lift Etta so she could check their progress.
She wrapped her arms around his neck. This was her favorite vantage point, and Peter was her preferred mode of transportation.
Peter cleared his throat and tried to sound cheerful. “So what do you think, Princess? Do you think Mama will like these?”
“Uh-huh.” She patted his cheeks. “What’s the matter, Daddy? Why are you sad? They aren’t burnt.”
He transferred the pancakes to a waiting plate and turned off the stove, then swiped his free hand across his face. “I’m ok, kiddo.”
She hugged him and he buried his face in her blond curls that smelled of baby shampoo and fresh cotton. If he hugged her tighter these days, she didn’t seem to mind.
“Don’t be sad, Daddy. We can ask Grandpa to make you whale pancakes next time.”
He felt Olivia’s arms around them both, and her lips grazed his cheek.
“Maybe you and I can make whale pancakes for Daddy next time, baby girl? Would you like to do that?” Olivia eased Etta into her arms and shot a concerned look at Peter over her head.
He rubbed his hand over his eyes and whispered, “I’m ok, hon.” He busied himself with getting the pancakes and bacon to the kitchen table while Olivia helped Etta pour milk and juice. He filled a couple of mugs with coffee and joined them at the table.
Her somber mood forgotten, Etta bubbled with excitement that only Saturdays with both her parents could bring. Watching her, Peter smiled and let his mind drift.
I want you to give Olivia your daughter back. I want to give you your life back. As a father, how could I not do that for you?
He heard Walter’s voice every time he looked at Etta, every time Olivia kissed her cheek, every time her laughter echoed through the halls of their Brookline home.
After breakfast, Olivia and Etta cleared the table and Peter brought one of the kitchen chairs over to the sink. Even though they used the dishwasher for other meals, washing dishes after Saturday morning breakfasts had become a tradition; having the time to do the dishes meant no early morning calls from Broyles about a case, time to leisurely catch up or plan their day. Once Etta thought she was big enough to help, she took her place at the sink, too – sometimes, they all ended up soaked or sudsy, but it was a little piece of normalcy that they treasured when the rest of their world seemed to spiral out of control.
Today, Olivia washed, Peter rinsed, and Etta dried.
Olivia held up a handful of suds, and with a puff, sent bubbles wafting across the sink. Etta laughed as they drifted in front of her. “Look, it’s double bubble jection!”
Both Peter and Olivia turned to look at their daughter. “It’s what?” Peter said with a grin.
Etta looked up at him with all the seriousness she could muster. “It’s Playdoh’s law ,” she explained. “Grandpa told me about it when we were blowing bubbles at the lab… he drew pictures on his board and everything!”
Olivia nudged Peter with her elbow, “Translation, please.”
“My daughter,” he said, with more than a touch of pride in his voice, “is explaining Plateau’s Laws.” At Olivia’s obvious confusion, he added “It’s the physics of soap bubbles…. Double bubble conjecture is one of the theorems.”
“Grandpa said he would make giant soap bubbles for me the next time we go to the park. Can we go today?” Etta looked up at her parents with pleading eyes. “I bet Grandpa would REALLY like to go to the park and teach me more fizz… fizz…. Fizz-ick,” she finished triumphantly.
Peter and Olivia exchanged glances; they hadn’t come to terms with Walter’s absence themselves, yet they knew they had to tell Etta something about her grandfather, who was a constant presence in her life. Peter nodded and leaned into Olivia. “I’ve got it,” he murmured, and brushed his lips against her cheek.
“Hey, kiddo…” he said, swinging Etta from the chair, “Mama’s got a little work to do, whaddaya say we draw some pictures of bubbles for Grandpa, and then we’ll talk about going to the park.”
Etta ran off to find her sketchbook and crayons while Peter refilled his coffee mug and sat at the kitchen table. Olivia turned to face him, leaning against the sink.
“Are you ok with this?”
He studied his coffee mug and shook his head. “No, I don’t know if I’ll ever be ok with it… but she needs to know what Walter did for her.”
Etta burst back into the kitchen with a large sketchbook and a cigar box full of crayons. She waited impatiently while Peter moved his mug out of the way, then climbed into his lap and opened the sketchbook in front of them.
She rummaged in the cigar box until she found just the right crayons… a light blue one for her, and a bright purple one for Peter. “I’ll draw the circles,” she instructed Peter, “and you draw the curves, okay, Daddy?”
He wrapped his right arm around her and leaned over her shoulder to watch as she scattered circles of various sizes across the blank expanse of her sketchbook. As she concentrated, she wrinkled her brow in the characteristic Bishop crease.
Olivia finished the dishes and brought her laptop and a couple of files to the table, sitting across from Peter and Etta so she could watch them surreptitiously. Peter glanced up and she gave him an encouraging smile.
“Daddy, can we take these to Grandpa when we go to the park today?” Etta continued her work, moving Peter’s arm when it got in her way.
“Well, Etta, we need to talk about Grandpa… You know how he’s the smartest scientist in the whole world?”
“I thought that was you, Daddy.”
Olivia ducked her head and pretended to study her notes.
“Well, your grandpa and I take turns sometimes, kiddo.” Peter kissed the top of her head. “And you know how we all try to help people when we can, when we can do things that nobody else can do? Like your mom helps people in trouble even when she’d rather be home coloring with you.”
“Uh-huh. And you help Mama even when you’d rather be home, too.”
“Ahhh…” Peter looked at Olivia sheepishly.
“That’s right, baby girl, but Daddy also helps me because he wants to.”
“But what does that have to do with going to the park with Grandpa?”
Peter closed his eyes for a moment. He thought he was ready for this… but he realized he would never be ready.
“Kiddo, a friend of Grandpa’s told him about a whole lot of people who needed his help. He needed Grandpa to fix a problem that only the smartest man in the world could solve.”
He blinked a few times, and Olivia looked up at the silence. He shook his head, and nuzzled the top of Etta’s head, breathing in that little girl smell.
“But to fix this problem, Grandpa had to go far away, to a place he’s never been before.”
“Why didn’t you go with him, Daddy? You could take turns being the smartest guy in the world.”
“Well…“ his voice broke. “Well, because Grandpa knew that he probably wouldn’t come back. And…” he took another deep breath, “more than anything in the world, Grandpa wanted me to stay here with you and Mama, and take care of you.”
Etta put down her crayon and wriggled in Peter’s lap. When she looked up at him, Peter swore he could see his 24 year old daughter looking back at him.
“Can we go visit Grandpa?
“Kiddo, where Grandpa is might as well be a million years away.”
The crease deepened in Etta’s forehead, and Olivia thought she’d never looked more like Peter than at that moment. Two pairs of blue eyes glistened.
“But I can still draw pictures for him, right, Daddy? So he knows I’m not gonna forget about him?”
Peter wrapped his arms around Etta. “I think he would like that very much, kiddo. And we’ll find a special place to keep them safe until he comes back to find them, okay?”
Etta hugged Peter’s neck, then turned back to her drawing. Peter looked over at Olivia with a stricken look on his face. She smiled back reassuringly and nodded.
Etta sorted through the crayons scattered across the table, until she found the one she’d picked out originally for Peter. “Here,” she pushed the violet crayon into Peter’s left hand. “Do the curves.”
Olivia stuck her head into Walter’s old office. “C’mon, Bishop, time to go.”
“Can’t, Liv. One more box of files.”
“You said that 2 boxes ago.” She walked into the office, surveying the chaos. Peter had brought up all the files from Walter’s lab basement, everything from the offices, and emptied all the filing cabinets. Bankers’ boxes lined the perimeter of the room. “Peter, you can’t go through it all tonight. And even if you could, how you could remember any of it?”
I don’t know how to do this.
“I can’t figure out how to neutralize the compounds if I don’t understand the components, and most of them are synthesized.”
“And Nina has her best people on the analysis.”
I can’t do this without Walter.
“I need to be ready once they’re through.”
How many more people are going to die before I figure this out?
“Peter, Massive Dynamic can tag-team their scientists 24 hours a day…. But there’s only one of you, and you’ve been at this a couple of days already.” She looked pointedly at the empty coffee cups lining one edge of the desk. “Etta misses you.”
“Alright, alright, you played the trump card,” Peter ran his hands through his already-disheveled hair and rose slowly to his feet, rolling his shoulders to ease the cramped muscles. He powered down his laptop and studied the pile of folders on his desk, then picked out a dozen or so and shoved them into his backpack along with the computer.
Olivia walked closer to the desk and thumbed through the files remaining on the desk. “What does anamorphic polygenetic algae have to do with the case?”
“Probably nothing. I’m trying to get into Walter’s state of mind, if nothing else. Figure out how his brain worked.”
Olivia laughed. “Are you forgetting that Walter was crazy and high on one or more illegal substances most of the time this work was done?”
He shouldered his backpack and slung his arm around her as he rounded the desk. “Ah, that’s what I’ve been doing wrong,” he joked as he kissed her temple and strolled out of the office.
A pink, blue, and green projectile hurtled through the door as Peter opened it.
“Daddy, I missed you!”
Etta tightened her arms around his neck as he shrugged the backpack off his shoulder and dropped it by the door.
“I missed you, too, Princess. But you have to be careful flinging yourself at open doors, okay?”
In the confident way that children speak their truths, Etta said simply “I knew you’d catch me, Daddy. You always do.”
Not always, kiddo, but I get a second chance to try.
“OK, kiddo, we’re flipping a coin…. What are the odds?” Peter idly flipped a quarter over his knuckles.
Olivia rolled her eyes? “Teaching her odds? Really?”
Peter gave her his best conman grin. “Hey, between your ability to count cards, my good looks and charm, and her lightning intellect…”
Etta giggled at her parents’ banter.
“So, what is it, kiddo, what are the odds? Heads, Mama gets bath duty, and tails, I do?”
“Fifty, fifty, Daddy.”
Peter beamed at his daughter, who was mimicking his hand movements now, watching the coin skim over his hand.
“Unless you break the laws of physics,” Olivia added, laughing.
Peter flipped the quarter, caught it, and slapped it into Etta’s waiting palm. “What’s the verdict?”
“Mama gives me a bath, and you tell me a bedtime story!” Etta announced triumphantly.
“So, off you go, Princess. The cleaner you are, the better story you get.” Peter hugged his daughter, then stood up and pulled Olivia into a hug. “S’alright with you, my Queen?” He kissed the corner of her still grinning mouth. “You clean the kid, and I’ll clean the kitchen?”
Olivia smiled. “You’ve been up forever; I can take care of the kitchen. Why don’t you relax a minute?”
“Nah, I don’t mind.” He lowered his voice and looked at Olivia. “It’s normal, you know?”
She nodded her head, then turned to look at Etta, trying to flip the quarter across her hand.
“I need it, Liv.”
She nodded again, and then she pulled Peter’s head down for a quick, hard kiss. “We’ll talk later, okay?”
“Alright, baby girl, let’s get you in the tub.” Olivia leaned over to tickle Etta, and the little girl headed upstairs, giggling and squealing.
Peter leaned against the doorway and watched as Etta splashed in the tub. Olivia’s t-shirt seemed to have blocked most of the water, since it was drenched and the floor was (relatively) dry. She didn’t seem to mind, though; she was leaning over the tub and splashing with Etta to make her flotilla of rubber ducks bob amid the bubbles.
“We gotta get the ducks clean,” Etta said between giggles.
“You AND the ducks,” Olivia replied, feeling around for the washcloth. “We’ll take turns, okay?”
Peter felt a tightness in his chest.
How many baths, how many days in the park, how many bedtimes has Walter given us back? How many ‘Grandpa’s’ will he miss?
The first time Etta went to Reiden Lake, she and Walter built a sandcastle taller than she was. Walter had infinite patience with her and, at the end of the day, proclaimed her to be an architect to rival IM Pei and Frank Lloyd Wright. She fell asleep draped across his shoulder on the walk back to the house.
“Hmm? Sorry, thinking about something else…”
“Could you hand us a towel?” Olivia pushed a strand of hair out of her face and sent bubbles drifting through the air.
Peter grabbed a couple of fluffy bath towels from the stack, then leaned over and kissed the top of Olivia’s head. “I can do better than that… whaddaya say I take over from here, kiddo? Are you very, very, very clean and ready for a bedtime story?”
“Yes, Daddy,” Etta giggled.
Peter knelt beside Olivia and tilted his head back and forth, as if he was studying Etta. “Are you SURE you’re very, very clean?” he teased her.
“Of course, Daddy! I’m IN the bathtub, after all!”
They both suppressed a chuckle at her adamant reply. Olivia leaned into Peter and whispered “You just wanted to check out the wet t-shirt, didn’t you, Bishop?”
Peter flashed his conman smile again and shrugged his shoulders. “Just here to help,” he murmured, holding out his hands to Etta.
He wrapped the towel around her and patted her dry, then handed her the pjs that Olivia had placed on the vanity behind them.
“They’re Grandpa’s favorite animal. He says he sees them running around the lab sometimes,” Etta said seriously.
Olivia stood in the doorway, with a towel wrapped around her shoulders. She and Peter exchanged a look, amusement tinged with sadness. “Well, that may be true, Princess. Would you like a story about Grandpa and the unicorns tonight?”
“Oh, yes, Daddy… and the unicorns are green! Grandpa said so!”
Shaking his head, Peter let the little girl tug him towards her room.