“Oh, I remember this one,” Jess whispers, pressing his cheek into Mayven’s hair, still curly from when she was asleep some twenty minutes before. “That,” he reaches around his daughter to point at the picture, “is where your papa and I met.”
“Really?” The five year old said in an awed whisper.
The picture in question, held safely in plastic in the photo album spread open on the counter, was taken in a small diner known as Vera’s. It features Jess, with a cardigan pulled over a button up shirt. His hair is a bit longer, but just as fluffy now as it was then, and he’s absolutely beaming at the camera. Jess can barely remember the exact moment -- precise memories can become a bit hazy when you stop aging -- but he remembers the feeling. How surprised he was that Io, his lovely now-husband, had “borrowed” his mother’s camera just to take pictures of him. How elated he was.
“Yeah, really.” He sits down on the stool beside her, moving her mug of hot chocolate back a few inches so she doesn't knock it off the counter. “That had to have been in, gosh, ‘64? Maybe late ‘63? This is where your papa worked.”
“He worked in a ress’ront?”
She spoke too fast for most of her words to be understandable. They just ended up all tumbling into each other, like a pack of running puppies. But, Jess had spent many years doing his best to decipher her words, as well as teach her more English, so he didn’t mind. He simply conceded to her point with a tilt of his head, and replied: “Diner, technically. Too small to be a restaurant. But yeah. I used to come and study here, and he used to sneak me free coffees when I was running off an all-nighter.”
“Wassat?” May asks as she rests her head against her folded arms.
“An all-nighter?” She nods. “That’s what you and I are doin’ right now, baby-bean. It’s when you stay up way-way past your bedtime.”
“All-night-way. We don’t gotta stay up all night though. Let’s keep lookin’. I’m pretty sure your zia Cassie is in here somewhere.” He reaches over and turns the page. “Ah-ha! I knew it. See that?”
He points to another picture. It was of a young woman with hair cropped in an attempt to tame wild curls that were frozen mid-bounce around her jaw. She stood on a stage with her arms outstretched, her favorite swing dress half-fanned around her. It was navy blue, if Jess remembers correctly. Her chin was tilted up, and her smile almost matched Jess’s, except hers was filled with the superiority of a victor engulfed in applause.
“That was when she was a singer!” May bounces in her seat, and Jess picks up her drink in time to dodge her arm.
“Close,” Jess grins and takes a sip of the lukewarm chocolate. “I believe she was still a dancer then. Look,” he taps the picture again. “She still had both of her legs.”
May squints at the picture before nodding, her face pulled into a serious frown. “That makes sense.” Jess hands her back her chocolate. “Where’s Isa?”
Jess frowns at the picture as well. “I think this was when she was still in Louisiana. She didn’t dance with Zio Isaac until they moved to Chicago, just after this.”
May nods as she takes a sip of chocolate, and dribbles half a mouthful onto the counter. Jess reaches across the counter to snatch a rag, putting it over the spill. He’d clean it up properly later.
“Whatta ‘bout that one?” She points at another picture. This one was a family photo, probably taken by Io or Isaac. It was a lovely shot of Cass with her arm intertwined in Jess’s, and their younger sibling Elio perched on the railing of a bridge just by Jess’s shoulder. “Where wassat?”
Jess hums, and leans in to take a closer look at the picture. “That’s in Sill, when Elio first moved there I think. You remember Sill, yeah? It’s been a while since we’ve been.”
“Is it the place with all the lights and the kindle-stick houses?”
Jess grins. Last time they visited, Cass had made a comment about how all the houses being made of wood, “all tightly packed together and reaching across the streets like they had separation anxiety” (her words, not his), was gonna cause the whole city to go up in smoke one day. Houses made of kindling, she said. May had taken a liking to the word kindling, and now used it to describe most things made of wood, including but not limited to: kitchen tables, trees, and the cashier’s hair from the local grocery store.
“Yes, the place with kindle-stick houses. That’s on The Bridge.” There was only one bridge, so it didn’t need a proper name, though Jess had heard some of the kids that tend to loiter where people drop the most food call it Rickshaw. He sometimes calls it that when talking to Elio or Cass, but not to anyone else, because they don’t know what it means.
May hums as she puts her head back into her folded arms. “Tell me ‘bout the… the future teller party?”
“Fortune teller,” Jess gently corrects. “And what you’re thinking of is called The Festival.” There was only one, so it didn’t need a proper name. “For one week, every year in Sill, people gather in the streets of the city to eat and drink and dance. Everyone wears masks so you can’t tell who anyone is. Cloth makers sell these masks that shift to fit not only your outfit, but your ability. People from all over the world, who can do all kinds of things, gather in Sill to celebrate themselves, and what they can do. You know, it all started many centuries ago, when...”
Jess trails off as he looks over and sees his daughter, fast asleep on the kitchen counter. He smiles to himself and moves to get up, when the floorboard creaks behind him. He whips around, fully prepared to have to fight some intruder, or at the very least give them a stern talking to. But, that’s unnecessary, because it’s only Io, leaning against the doorframe with his arms crossed over his chest and an amused look on his face.
“I didn’t mean to scare you,” he says as Jess’s shoulders slump with a huff of relief.
“Is she asleep?” Io steps up behind him, winding his arms around his waist and pressing his face into Jess’s hair.
“Yeah, thank Gods.”
Jess hums a yes, and twists to press his face into the space just above Io’s collarbone.
“Why didn’t you wake me up?”
“You need more sleep.”
Io frowns. “So do you, Jessie.”
“We all do.” Jess leans back in Io’s arms to look him in the eye. “So we should probably get back to bed.”
Io rolls his eyes, but agrees, and releases his husband to carefully lift May into his arms. She curls up into him, mumbling something in a language Jess does not know well enough to decipher. “Did she tell you what her dream was about?” Jess shakes his head no, and Io sighs. That was to be expected -- she hardly ever remembered her dreams, and if she did, she never talks about them. “Figures. Can you grab Oscar?”
Jess hadn’t noticed earlier, but on the little table by the doorway between the kitchen and sitting room -- a little wooden thing that surprisingly hasn’t broken beneath the mountain of law books and a vaguely concerning amount of succulents -- is a little stuffed ferret. The ferret, Oscar, was May’s favorite toy, and last Jess had seen it, she had placed it just outside his bedroom door, (“To pro’ect Papa from the bad dreams”), when the two of them were on their way to the kitchen for hot chocolate. Jess figures that Io likely stepped on it, and brought it down with him. He plucks it now from the table, only barely jostling the succulents, and places it on May’s chest. She immediately winds herself around it, and it’s ear somehow finds its way into her mouth. Jess thinks about taking it out, but then retracts that thought instantly for fear that she’d wake up.
Jess looks up at Io, and the two of them start walking towards the stairs. First Io, then Jess, who stays behind just a second to close the photo album.
He’d put it away properly in the morning.