"So Tara's been spending an awful lot of time with you all," Mr. Maclay remarked. He stared at Willow over his glass of ice water, and she felt her last bite of garlic bread get stuck in her throat. She forced it down.
"I...uh...I suppose so?" Willow replied, hoping it was the right response. She glanced toward Tara, who was pushing her salad around in its bowl. 'Poor thing,' Willow thought. 'She must be a nervous wreck.' Seeing Tara so uncomfortable bolstered her own confidence. She could be strong for the both of them. "Yes, we have. Tara's great."
Mr. Maclay smiled. "I think so, too. And you're a student at the University?"
'That's right. Ask about school. Good topic.' Willow nodded. "Uh huh. I'm double-majoring in chemistry and computer science."
He raised his eyebrows. "Really? That must open a lot of career opportunities."
"I hope so. There are lots of people in my computer classes, so there's probably going to be lots of competition for jobs." Willow liked the way the conversation was going. If it stayed on college and work, she was sure to shine.
"You'll probably beat them all out," Tara said. To her father, she added, "She's really smart."
"Well, that's good," he said to Willow. "Sounds like you've got a good head on your shoulders."
"Thanks for saying so. Tara mentioned that you all moved here because your company was contracted for all the new construction on the campus?"
"The parking garage, mainly," he corrected. "The University is used to hiring from certain other companies, but mine has worked with the firm that designed the garage, so we got the recommendation. It's a good job. Solid, tough work." Mr. Maclay looked like he was impressed by her show of interest, and Willow gave herself a mental high-five for thinking to ask.
"Well, congratulations for getting the contract, and...uh...welcome to College Park!" She smiled.
From the quiet side of the table, Donny asked, "Papa, may I be excused?"
"Donny, we have a guest..."
"I know. I'm sorry. I've got a lot of homework to do, though."
Mr. Maclay looked at him for a full five seconds before deciding, "All right, but I don't want to see you sitting in front of the television, later. You hear me?"
"Good. You may be excused." After Donny left the table, Mr. Maclay returned his attention to Willow and flashed a sheepish smile. Willow wondered whether it was due to her presence; Tara had mentioned they did not often have company, and it must be an awkward situation, to be strict with your child in front of a guest. Whatever discomfort he felt, he seemed to recover quickly. "Tara and I talked yesterday about the time she's been spending with you and your college friends," he said.
'Uh oh. Red flag! Red flag!' She looked at Tara, who picked that moment to glance back. She tried to send comfort across the table to her, in that brief connection, but Tara just as promptly looked away.
"We've set up a few reasonable ground rules," Mr. Maclay continued. "She's got a ten o'clock curfew." He looked at Tara and added, "Ten o'clock means ten o'clock, too. Not ten fifteen." He chuckled. "I remember how tempting it was to test a curfew by pushing it back little by little..." Back to Willow. "Ten o'clock. If Tara can't be the responsible one, I want you to be."
She nodded. "Ten o'clock. Got it."
"The other thing I ask is that she tells me where she is. Especially if plans change, and you all want to move to a different location. I know how it can be with kids; you sit around until you're bored, then somebody suggests doing something irresponsible or dangerous, and you feel pressured into going along with it. I won't have any of that for Tara. I want to know where she is, who she's with, and what she's getting herself into."
"Oh, definitely," Willow agreed. "You don't need to wor-well, I mean, it's good that you worry, 'cause, uh, daughter...and-and strangers in college. I just mean, well, our group-the people Tara's been hanging out with-we're all mostly in one building. In, uh, in the honors dorm, actually. Not a whole lot of irresponsibility or danger, there, I can assure you. And if we go anywhere, like to the dining hall or to see a movie-which play in the Plant Sciences building while they're working on the real theater-we're always in a pretty big group."
"Do you hang out with boys?" The question was directed at Willow, and she noticed Tara frown. She thought it was kind of rude that Mr. Maclay was turned away from his daughter, asking her all the questions, when he could have been including them both. But maybe he'd already given Tara the third degree, and now he was looking for her to verify his daughter's answers.
"Yes, a few. There's Andrew, Carl, and Eddie. They live in my dorm, three floors down. All three are honors students; they're smart, responsible, and basically harmless." Willow tried to imagine Tara and herself fending off the boys, and it made her chuckle. She was pretty sure they could take Andrew and Eddie. Carl was big, though... Suddenly, she found herself very uncomfortable with the thought.
"And alcohol? Is there drinking?"
She spared a glance at Tara, who was looking at her father's profile distastefully. Willow nodded. "Yes, we had some drinks one time. Tara didn't have much at all." When Mr. Maclay turned to Tara, she automatically lowered her gaze. Willow hurriedly added, "We looked out for each other, and nothing got out of hand. Honestly, the whole drinking thing was not all that great, and I doubt we'll do it again."
Mr. Maclay snorted, his lips flattening to a grim slash on his face. Willow hoped her answer was the right one. She looked to Tara, who gave a tiny bob of her head. "I appreciate the honesty," Mr. Maclay said. "It's a refreshing change. And it's good that you girls learned that lesson without getting hurt, which you easily could have been."
Willow checked everyone's plates and was relieved to see the food dwindling on each one. She had caught Mr. Maclay's remark as well as Tara's reaction to it. When they spent time together, Willow treasured seeing Tara caught up in the moment and able to set aside her worries. Relaxed and carefree, Tara's laughter would bubble to the surface; her smile could really shine. But her demeanor plunged toward darker places when she was around her father. It masked the deep love of life Willow knew she possessed. Willow didn't like seeing her distressed. Tara deserved to shine.
"C-can I take your plate, Papa?" Tara asked.
Willow pushed back her chair. "Oh, I can help."
"Don't be silly," Mr. Maclay insisted. "You're a guest, and you two did all the work preparing dinner. I'll clean up."
Tara thanked her father. He began shuttling dishes into the kitchen while Tara led Willow toward the living room. "I guess I should give you the grand tour, seeing as how I grabbed you and put you to work the moment you stepped through the door." Tara swept her hand in a wide arc. "The living room slash family room. For television viewing and general loafing. That's just a little entry closet, there. Um, this way to the bedrooms. That's the bathroom. Washer and dryer. The door on the end is Papa's room. Donny and I share this one." She nudged the partly-open door and leaned around it. Willow hung in the doorway as Tara entered the room and approached her brother, who was sitting at a desk with an open textbook beside him. "Hey, Donny. How's it going?"
He glanced up from his work and grunted a greeting. Then his eyes flicked to Willow. "Hey."
Tara looked at his stack of papers. "Lots of homework?"
"How's it going?"
He grimaced. "Not good. I just can't get this crap into my head."
Tara examined one of the papers more closely. "Math?"
He shook his head. "Naw, that's done. Math's pretty easy. It's science that kicks my butt."
Tara looked confused. "Isn't that basically like math?"
From the doorway, Willow said, "Not always. Eighth grade, right? What is it, biology?" She stepped into the room. "Ah, yes. Good ol' bio. Um, I might be able to explain some of that stuff more clearly than your book, if you, uh...if you need any help." Tara bumped her hip and offered her a sideways smile of gratitude.
"Thanks," Donny said, "but I'll figure it out, eventually."
"Sure." Willow nodded. "Well, the offer stands." She looked to Tara, who threaded a hand under her arm and drew her into the hallway, then swung the door to its former position.
"So this concludes our tour," said Tara. She shrugged. "I guess there isn't much to see."
"What's out there?" Willow asked when they returned to the living room. She nodded at a heavy glass door. "Some kind of porch thing?"
"Mm hm, the balcony. It's kind of small."
Willow headed toward the doors. "Do you have a nice view, at least?"
"I think so." There was an odd cadence to her voice, and Willow turned to see Tara lift her gaze quickly to her eyes. She hurried past Willow and fiddled with the latch on the door. "Oh, it's just...you know. Route One." Willow grinned. Had Tara been making a saucy remark? About her? The thought made her giddy. Tara slid open the door and stepped onto the balcony, then beckoned Willow to follow. When she did, Tara pushed the door shut behind them, cutting them off from the warmth of the apartment. "Sorry for the mess," she apologized. "I keep all my painting supplies out here." She futilely tried to shove an easel into the corner.
"It's not so bad," Willow said. She leaned over the railing and panned her vision from left to right. "The view's not terrible, either, I guess. It's got that whole...traffic and liquor store motif going for it." She chuckled.
"Mm. Yeah, that was a real selling point." Tara moved beside her. "You know, it's-it's kind of strange, having somebody over here."
"Oh? Not a lot of guests to your apartment, right?"
"Mm hm. Faith stopped by once, for an hour or so. Otherwise, it's been pretty quiet."
The conversation lapsed, and they stood in comfortable silence. They huddled closer together when a breeze whipped through the brisk air. As the sky grew darker, Willow watched the view change. The road became a flowing river of lights; the storefront faded to neon lettering against a black backdrop. People walking along the sidewalk became shades between the oases of light that dotted the street, each crowned by the glowing halo of a streetlight.
Willow shivered, and Tara rubbed her arm. "I'm glad you came over," she whispered. "Sorry for-for putting you through that dinner, though. Papa can be...you know."
"Intimidating?" Willow grinned. "It wasn't so bad, actually. I didn't know what to expect, but...I mean, he seems...uh, he seems like he's trying to look out for you, you know? A concerned father."
A frown flickered across Tara's face, but she nodded. "Yeah."
"Was it bad that I admitted to having had drinks? I-I wasn't sure how to answer."
"No, no. It's w-worse to be caught in a lie than to be up front. Trust me."
It was Willow's turn to frown. "Are you going to get in trouble?"
Tara shook her head. "I already got in trouble for the party." She made sure she had Willow's attention. "Don't worry. You did the right thing. Now he knows you're nice and honest, and he'll be okay with us spending time together." She turned back to the view. "Well, that's the hope, anyway."
"I hope so, too." Willow leaned sideways toward Tara and slipped an arm around her back, but she quickly drew it back when Tara stiffened. A hundred thoughts crowded her head at once. It had felt like a hug-worthy moment. Tara had always seemed to welcome her touch. Had something changed? Had she said something bad? Willow traced the conversation back several lines and replayed it in her mind. Was it the dinner conversation, after all? Maybe Tara actually was upset that she had confessed their drinking to her father-'Oh! Duh. Her father...' Tara had automatically checked behind her when she tensed up. Willow looked through the glass, half expecting Mr. Maclay to be peering back. He wasn't, but she could tell from the play of shadows that he was just around the corner in the kitchen.
"I-uh...I didn't mind," Tara said, clearly picking up on her distress. "It's just, um..."
"An unsettling audience?"
Tara nodded guiltily.
Willow offered her a reassuring smile. "Well, you can take a rain check if you want."
They stood in companionable silence for a minute longer, before Willow asked, "So, uh, should I take off soon? I don't want to keep you up or anything."
"You don't have to. I mean, I shouldn't be up really late, but it's not even nine o'clock, so...you could stay a while longer if you wanted to." She looked so hopeful that Willow had to chuckle.
"Okay. On one condition: we have to go inside. I'm freezing!"
"How is that possible?" Willow asked.
Tara stilled her hand on the remote. "What?"
"There's like fifteen million channels, but not a single thing worth watching."
"I think you might be exaggerating a little bit," Tara chuckled. "We've got some videos in the cabinet, there."
"Mm hm." Tara set the controller down and moved next to Willow, who had crawled over to the cabinet and swung open the door. "What kind of movie do you feel like watching?"
Willow thought a moment. "Something light," she decided. "Not too serious. We could use something fun. Don't you think?"
Tara nodded and scanned the shelf of videos. "A Fish Called Wanda?"
"Mm, I don't know." Willow shrugged. "Hey, you've got Flight of the Navigator. I've seen that way too many times. Oh, what about Goonies?"
"I actually watched that a few weeks ago," Tara said. She shifted some videos to see those behind them, then read the titles aloud. "Big, The Breakfast Club, Clue-"
"You have Clue?!" Willow practically crawled across Tara's lap to search the other side of the cabinet, and when she located the video, she pulled it off the shelf and began reading the back of the box. "I love this movie."
"Well, put it in. I'm always up for watching that one." Tara retrieved a second remote from the top the VCR and scooted back toward the sofa. She began humming the theme music as Willow found a comfy spot beside her. While they waited for the menu to appear, Tara asked, "Should I make popcorn?"
Willow's stomach, still stuffed from one too many servings of Tara's delicious casserole, issued a stern warning against the idea. "No, thanks," she said. She wished she'd saved room; popcorn and movies were supposed to go together, after all. She let her mind wander, and it built a classic scene...
She was sitting dead center in a crowded movie theater as the opening credits ran. Tara squeezed past the other moviegoers to reach her, then handed her a soda before easing into her own seat and positioning a huge carton of popcorn between them. Their hands dipped into the container, at first waiting patiently for the other to vacate, then accidentally nudging against each other, and finally timing each reach purposefully to brush against skin. The touches grew more daring. Her fingers slid across Tara's palm, then grazed her wrist, then lingered. Tara dropped the kernel she held back into the carton when Willow's thumb began tracing the faint lines of her veins. Their fingers found each other and intertwined, and together their hands slipped under the armrest. Tara drew Willow's hand toward her lap, then folded over the back of it, spreading Willow's palm over the curve of her thigh...
"You know, on second thought, I think popcorn would be great," Willow decided.
"All right, look. Pay attention, everybody." Willow peered at Tara while continuing in a gruff voice. "Wadsworth, am I right in thinking there is nobody else in this house?"
"Mm, no," Tara replied.
"Then there is someone else in the house?"
"No, sorry. I said no, meaning yes."
"No meaning yes?" Willow tried again. "Look, I want a straight answer. Is there someone or isn't there? Yes or no?"
"Um, no." Tara looked unsure of her answer.
Willow pressed on with her questioning. "No there is or no there isn't?"
Willow made a throwing motion with her cup of soda, but managed to keep herself from actually hurling the drink against the wall. The soda sloshed to the lip of the cup, and some of it splattered her hand. She stopped to suck the errant droplets into her mouth, then rushed her next line to catch up. "Please! Don't you think we should get that man out of the house before he finds out what's been going on here?"
Tara bobbed her head from side to side while on the television screen the camera followed Professor Plum's progress across the room. "How can we throw him outside in this weather?"
"What are you guys doing?" Donny asked. His voice caused Willow to jump back a few inches; she hadn't noticed him entering the room.
"Oh, um...nothing," Tara said.
Donny looked from them to the screen, then back again. "You're watching Clue muted and doing all the dialog yourselves?"
"Okay, so maybe, uh, something," Tara admitted.
Willow chipped in, "We both said we practically knew the whole movie by heart, so we thought we'd see if it was true." She pursed her lips in thought. "It wasn't, exactly."
Tara giggled, and the color in her cheeks darkened. "I kind of liked our version better."
Donny shook his head in disbelief. "You guys are strange." He watched a few seconds of the muted movie, then sat down on the floor in front of the sofa with a sigh.
"Donny, Papa said not to watch any-"
"I finished my homework, and he's asleep already."
Tara looked at Willow and shrugged. On screen, Colonel Mustard was growing increasingly agitated.
"...Would you just give me a clear answer?" Willow began.
"Certainly," Tara replied. She cleared her throat. "What was the question?"
"Is there anybody else in the house?!"
"No!" Tara and Donny roundly denied.
"They all did it," Willow said, "but if you want to know who killed Mr. Boddy, I did-in the hall, with the revolver. Take 'em away, Chief." She gently curled her fingers into Tara's hair as Mr. Green mouthed the final line. "I'm going to go home and sleep with my wife."
Tara had stopped responding to the touches several minutes ago. While Donny had been providing dialog for Wadsworth's lengthy monologue-he had done a remarkable job of it, Willow thought-Tara had sprawled sideways onto the couch, leaving her head irresistibly close to Willow. Tara's next few sentences had been muttered sleepily, and when she had begun missing lines Willow and Donny had taken over all the parts. Willow's fingers had found their way to Tara's scalp during the second ending and caused a series of content whimpers to burble from her lips. By the third ending Tara had been asleep, yet Willow had continued the loving strokes.
Donny punched a button on the remote so he could listen to the music. Whether from the upbeat Shake, Rattle and Roll or from Willow's jostling chuckle at the name of Lee Ving, the actor who played Mr. Boddy, Tara's eyelashes fluttered apart. She focused on Willow's face and breathed a happy sigh, then let her head loll to the side, giving in to Willow's ministrations. Willow caressed the sandy blonde strands once more, then brought her fingertips to Tara's hairline and massaged tiny circles near her roots.
When she finally tore her gaze away from the parted lips on Tara's serene face, Willow realized that the credits had finished and the VCR had been shut off. The television screen was now black, and in it she could see Donny's reflection looking back at her. He stood and turned. Willow caught for the briefest moment a strange look on his face-she could almost see the gears churning behind his eyes-and it was enough to cause her fingers to still, then retreat. "I'm gonna go to bed," he said. "It was nice to meet you."
She nodded. "You, too."
Tara was so comfortable that she was practically in a trance, and she sank deeper with each stroke Willow feathered through her hair. She processed the brief conversation between the two as though she were replaying a fuzzy memory. A ring of warmth pressed to her forehead. Then there was silence. She wanted to reach up, to take Willow's fingers and bring their tips to her mouth. She had them as far as her lips when the sofa dropped out from underneath her. Her body spasmed once, shedding sleep, and her eyes flew open. She sat up and took a few seconds to reorient herself. She was alone in the living room. Had Willow gone?
She groggily rose to her feet and wobbled toward the kitchen. Her father had even emptied the dish rack. She checked the time-ten thirty-nine. Willow must have seen herself out. Tara sighed. She would have liked to have said goodnight to her, maybe even gotten another hug while she was at it. Falling asleep on the sofa didn't feel like something a good hostess should do.
Her father was coming out of the bathroom when Tara entered the hallway. She was glad he had donned underwear, this time. "You still up?" he grunted.
"I, uh-I was just going to bed."
She glanced up. "Willow?"
"Mm." He nodded. "I liked her."