Today's Reading

Hen's eyes were on her iPhone, which rested face-up beside her. Doug and Josie had a rule about phones at the table, but since she was only looking at the screen, not touching, I let it slide. When Tim's brother J.C. brought his phone to dinner, it was constantly lighting up with notifications: texts, TikTok posts, social-app messages. Hen's phone was black and silent. Softly, I said her name.

'Hm?' The kid steered her lips into a smile that didn't meet her eyes. 'Boating. That sounds so great,' she said, enunciating every word. Stretching out the so along with that ersatz smile. 'May I please be excused?'

My gaze hooked on Tim's; his wide eyebrows lifted. She'd hardly touched her dinner.

I said, 'You need to eat, hon.' That much was clear even without my brother's instructions, but he'd been adamant that Hen finish her meals and put some meat back on her bones. 'You like fish, right?' I said, encouraging. 'Tim made it especially for you.'

'I do,' Hen replied, head bobbing, 'and it's amazing. I just think all of this' a wave of her arm, the cuff of her sweatshirt pulled taut over pale knuckles 'is making me feel a little... I don't know. I'm just not hungry right now.'

'No problem,' said Tim quickly, though I'd seen how hard he'd worked on the dinner. 'It's been a big day. You can make it up at breakfast right, Shana?'

'How about just a few more bites?'

As soon as the words were out, I winced. I was pretty sure I'd spoken them before, when Hen was in a high chair. She was looking at me with a mixture of disdain and amusement, like she couldn't believe I really thought I could sway her with a line like that.

Hen said, 'It's delicious really! I feel so bad for not being hungry. You're a really good cook, Tim, but... make it up at breakfast?'

'Go ahead,' Tim said, watching as she lifted the beautiful plate of sole Florentine he'd lovingly prepared and set it in the kitchen. Without another word, Hen retreated to the second floor, and we heard the door to the guest bedroom close behind her.

'Sucker,' I said when she was gone. 'I thought you said you knew teenagers?'

Tim frowned. 'What do you mean? She asked politely. Polite's good, right? Polite is progress.'

'She's playing us. Good people? You're a really good cook? Please. She was looking for an escape hatch, and you pointed her straight to it.'

Tim glanced in the direction of the stairs, disappointment blooming across his face.

'This isn't going to be easy,' I said, blowing out a breath. 'I can't look at her without seeing a child, but she's this autonomous being now, and totally... unpredictable. It makes me nervous.'

Outside, a ripple of wind caused the window to shudder. I rose from my chair and walked toward it. It had a built-in seat that concealed a deep chest we were currently using to store paint and tools. I lifted the lid and pulled out a bottle of red wine. After what happened to Josie's liquor supply, I didn't want Hen to see us drinking. Now I unscrewed the cap and, straight from the bottle, took a deep slug.

I had to hand it to Tim for agreeing to let Hen stay. We were still settling into our life as an engaged couple, still molding a routine. Every morning before work, we propped up our feet on the back patio and watched the river. It was always changing bluer or grayer based on the sky, flatter or more bloated due to rainfall, wind. While sipping hot coffee, we studied it, along with the windswept pitch pines growing crooked on the shore and the boats gliding to and from the marina, with the curiosity of anthropologists. On warm days, Tim liked to cook breakfast in his boxers, and I had taken to bathing with the door open so he could pretend to happen across me and run his fingertips down my steamy bare arm. All of that had gone out the window the minute Hen walked in the door.

'You hid the wine?' Tim asked as I passed him the bottle. He pressed the mouth of it to his curled lips.

'I want to trust her. Really, I do. Shit, I said. 'I'm supposed to be the fun aunt. The one who takes her shopping and gives her sweets.'

'You take her shopping?'

'I have,' I said defensively, snatching back the wine. 'A couple of times. OK, it's been a while.'

Tim said, 'You can't be that kind of aunt right now, but you will be again. As long as she's here, with us, you're her guardian, and keeping her safe and happy is what matters most. I'm sorry I let her pull that. You're right she has to follow the rules. Think of it as practice,' he said with a playful smirk. 'A trial run.'

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