Generation 2.3 ... Anton.
He made it a point to be home and awake every day at 3:30, when Xiu walked in the door balancing her briefcase in one hand holding the baby with the other. Then he could always offer to hold Étienne for a bit while Xiu changed out of her work clothes and had tea. Today he was a bit more tired than usual. He played with Étienne for about half an hour, and then he laid down on the couch to take a nap.
He never opened his eyes again.
*** For the past two years, Layla had been progressively growing weaker, and more reclusive. On the eve of her husband's death, she collapsed. Just as Mei had predicted, no one was home at the time—the girls were at the morgue, making the necessary arrangements for their father's burial—and it was nearly an hour before anyone returned and found her sprawled on the floor.
They rushed her to the ER as fast as they could, but the attending doctor's prognosis was grim. Layla would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Xiu cried, but Mei just accepted it philosophically as usual. "I told her this was gonna happen. Well, she's old. Guess we need to remodel the house, since none of us will be going upstairs anymore now."
"How can you be so cold?" Xiu muttered, but even as the words left her lips she already knew why. Layla had made no secret of her dislike of Mei's career path, but now she had a new target—Judson. He was too sleazy-looking, too suspicious ("Why does he need so many tattoos? Why are his ears so full of rings?"), and too childish—he would happily play on the floor with Étienne without a second thought. Mei had little to say in return, but the resentment in her eyes was impossible to miss. Layla's new infirmity wasn't likely to make her any less cranky, and Mei wasn't one for holding her tongue, even with her mother. Between their father's passing, their mother's injury, and the new house renovations, the small fund of savings was wiped out overnight. This was immensely frustrating for both women: Mei thought she might have finally tracked Rémy down, but now she couldn't afford to go to France to confirm it, and Xiu was literally trapped into her job. If she'd thought she needed the money before for the sake of independence, now she had to work overtime just to keep from going under.
And getting approval for overtime meant seeing Anton Carter face-to-face. If there had been any way around meeting him, she would have found one. But there wasn't. Overtime requests had to be signed by both parties at the same time and sent on to a superior manager immediately. She had no choice. Fortunately, he limited his conversation to her family.
"How's your mom?"
"Grumpy," Xiu sighed.
"And your son?"
"Grumpy." Now he looked up from his computer screen. She tensed for the inevitable, 'How about you?' but it didn't come.
He slid her overtime request back to her. "Need you to sign and date here, please. How's the new exhibit coming along?"
"Truth? … badly. I'm having to do damage control with every artist I speak to, seems your previous curator made a lot of enemies."
"That happens when you have his kind of problems," Anton said, and went back to answering emails. And Xiu wondered what that meant.
But it was too late to fret. The bills were mounting up, and as much as Mei might enjoy her job as a snitch, it didn't pay particularly well. So she kept on working. Her 'work' primarily consisting of inviting artists to present their works in the gallery, and then explaining in detail that no, she wasn't the previous curator, and no, she didn't know anything about the previous problems there.
She glanced at the computer screen and sighed. Forty-one rejections. Most were polite, some were exceptionally rude, one or two actually went into detail about the problems they'd had with the previous curator. She read those over and over, wondering just what she'd gotten into. Finally, she caught a break. An up-and-coming artist from the state university responded positively to her solicitation and even put her in touch with some of his colleagues. Xiu responded to all emails promptly and accommodated his requests, including transportation into the city. She justified the expense by attaching a spreadsheet of the admission receipts for his last two showings.
"Guy gets over a thousand unique visitors every night when he does shows, huh?" Anton mused. "Well, sure, I guess we can cover him then."
His eyes flickered. "You doing alright?"
… and there it was. She swallowed through a tight throat. "I'm fine. Thank you."
"Xiu, if you need anything—"
"You gave me just what I needed, Anton. An opportunity, and support. I can't thank you enough." And she left his office quickly. Étienne was drowsy on the way home. He could sleep through the smoldering tension in the house, he was probably the only one who could. But fortunately tonight was quiet. Mei was out, and Layla was sitting at the kitchen table. Her notebook was in front of her, but she was soundly asleep. Xiu rolled her back to the new bedroom, just off the kitchen area, and positioned her right next to the bed. Her mother would wake up eventually and decide whether to get into bed or keep writing. If anyone actually put her into bed, she threw a fit and screamed that her daughters wanted to take away her independence.
She was utterly lost without her husband. And they all knew it.
*** The showing was a resounding success. People came from other cities to view the gallery, the guestbook was filled with new entries, the young artist was overwhelmed with praise, and the last visitors left very late indeed. Xiu stayed until the end, and looked at the mess with a regretful gaze. She had to take care of it tonight, or she'd have a bug infestation come morning.
"Great job tonight," Anton Carter announced as he appeared out of nowhere. "Time to clean up, huh?"
He mopped the sticky floor while she took out the trash and packaged up the leftovers for a local charity. Once that was done, he offered her a ride home. "I couldn't dream of letting some cabbie take you home this time of night."
"If you insist, but it's not necessary."
"I do insist."
He escorted her to the front porch. Unlike Pascal, he didn't try to weasel into the house. Without even realizing it, Xiu began to relax her guard around Anton. And his demeanor, while always friendly, now became genuinely kind. The face-to-face meetings were no longer so tense. She made suggestions and recommendations about the gallery that he listened to and occasionally agreed with. And then the day came when he showed up unexpected and unannounced, lingering at the door of her office.
"Xiu! Hey there. I've just heard from Oskar-Budro, they're one of our foreign clients. They have a series of lithographs that they want you to display, since the gallery is actually popular now. The lithographs will be here in four days, need you to develop a showing for them by next weekend."
"D … develop?" Xiu squeaked. It was one thing to assist an upcoming artist with a show. It was an entirely different matter to create a show for a corporate client. Once again, she felt the weight of some heavy expectations on her shoulders. She looked at Anton with a pleading gaze, but his face was just as cheerful as ever.
"You can do it, Xiu. I have every confidence that you'll do fantastically. I'll send you an email with contact details and what you can expect to receive."
He turned to go and stepped on a squeaky toy. "Ah … perhaps we need to revisit your salary discussion, so that you can make more regular arrangements for a babysitter."
*** Two blocks away in a basement apartment, a man's computer chimed with an 'incoming mail' notice. Judson Goddard half-opened his eyes and quickly forwarded the email before going back to sleep.
On the other side of town, Mei Shin Yi's computer received a forwarded message. She read it several times, eyes narrowed. "I knew it," she muttered.
"Knew what, sis?"
"Nothing," Mei said, and hurried away.
~ to be continued
Strangers in a Strange Land -- Gen. 2.3
Jul 29, 2012 by spladoum
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