“It’s really snowing.”
The five year old in the Elsa dress stands on tip-toes at the living room window. “Teddy might get stuck.”
“He won’t get stuck. He’s a big, strong boy.”
The teenager in the reindeer jumper stays on the couch. He’s seen snow before. When it comes to snow, he’s pretty cool.
“It is a lot of snow,” says the girl, star-fishing her hands on the glass, adding finger prints to the ones she made earlier.
The teenager laughs. “You want to build a snowman later, Queen Elsa?”
The little girl turns around and sets her wide eyes on the teenager. “Yes!” She runs to the couch, barely avoiding either of the toddlers sitting on the rug. Little hands gripping the boy’s knees, the girl says, “The picture won’t be right if we don’t have a snowman. I wanna build a snowman now.”
“Later,” says the boy.
The girl takes a breath, she’d clearly like to escalate her demand, just in case the boy doesn’t get it. Instead she, stares at him and whispers, “Later when?”
And that settles it.
It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.
In Luke’s house, at least, there is one teenager who embraces the trappings and traditions of the holiday season.
Still two weeks of the school term left, but the living room is ablaze with twinkling lights and tinsel, with a string of Christmas cards above the mantelpiece.
Molly has helped with the decorations. With a boost from her big brother she put the big red star on top of the tree, she patted gel shapes to the living room window, leaving a chaos of fingered smudges in the process.
Rewarded with a chocolate biscuit from the special Christmas tin, Molly sits on the couch and wipes crumbs from her mouth.
“They don’t know about Christmas,” she says disdainfully from her perch.
Luke follows her gaze and nods at the two toddlers on the rug.
“No,” Luke agrees, “Ryan and Lily are too little.” He puts his arm around his sister. “Good thing I’ve got a big girl like you to help me with the decorations.”
Molly nods. “You love Christmas,” she states soberly.
“I really do,” says Luke. Because that’s when we met, he doesn’t add. Doesn’t need to. Molly doesn’t need more evidence to win the case for Christmas. Five years old, dressed as Princess Elsa from a film she swears she never stop loving, she needs no prompting to get into the spirit.
The girl wriggles her toes, snug in thick red tights, red as the star on top of their tree, and says, “They’re not as much fun now.”
Ryan and Lily. They were older before, older than Molly.
Not today. Not for a month. A complicated issue, but less so for a five year old, and definitely less so in Parkdale.
They just needed to learn some things again, Luke had said. And he says it again, like a mantra, like a bedtime story.
Were they naughty? Molly had asked. And she asks it again now, resting her head against Luke’s chest.
“It’s not forever,” says Luke, stroking her hair.
Ryan and Lily are dressed in matching onesies, at fifteen months they could be twins, not just brother and sister. There’s a clatter of plastic as Ryan swipes at his sister’s toy ponies.
“Gentle,” Luke says to the boy. “Hey, let’s play a different game, shall we?” He fetches a wooden, brightly-coloured activity cube that features games designed to keep little hands and minds busy, including a bead run, shape sorter, xylophone and a clock.
Sure enough, both toddlers are soon enjoying the sounds and feel of the toy, ably assisted by Molly.
Soon one or both of them will need a nappy change, and then it’s lunch-time, then nap-time, and then more nappy changes and more play.
“When will you make them older?” Molly asks after she’s finished praising Ryan’s ham-fisted attempts at guiding the wooden ducks home. Again. Ryan and Lily used to be older, older enough for Molly to follow them around, to want to be part of their games.
“Soon,” replies Luke. “And it’s not up to me.”
“Is it up to their daddy?”
Luke kisses her head. “Kind of.”
“Don’t do it on Christmas Eve,” Molly declares, wrinkling her nose.
“‘Cause then Santa will give them baby toys but they won’t be babies.”
“Gotcha,” Luke says.
Disaster averted, Molly gives her big brother a cuddle.
“That’s Rudolph,” Molly announces, poking the front of Luke’s jumper.
“Huh,” says Luke, looking down. “Thought it was Prancer.”
Molly gives him a serious look. “Rudolph,” she corrects him. “He’s got a red nose.”
“Fair point,” Luke says. He hums the melody and says, straight-faced, “He has a very shiny nose.”
Not shiny,” replies Molly, petting the nose with delicate fingers. “Fuzzy.” She considers her own stomach and then asks, “Can I have another biscuit?”
Luke shakes his head. “Not long ’til lunch.”
Molly tilts her head at him. “How long?”
“This much.” Luke puts his thumb and forefinger an inch apart.
“But I’m hungry.”
Luke raises an eyebrow. “Hungry for chocolate biscuits.”
Molly twists her lips and then says, “Real life hungry.”
“Fine,” Luke says. “Go open the fridge, you can have all the celery you want.”
“Bleh.” Molly sticks out her tongue.
“Not sure Daddy can afford to keep feeding you,” says Luke, looking his little sister up and down. “You’re getting too big.” He pokes her in the stomach.
Molly giggles and squirms away. “I’m not too big!”
Luke pounces, grabbing and pulling Molly by the waist, and she’s all arms and legs, shrieking as he pulls her onto his lap. “Maybe I’ll smoosh you down for Daddy, hmm? Then you won’t eat as much.”
“No!” Molly cries delightedly, “Don’t squash me!”
“I won’t squash,” says Luke, “I’ll smoosh. Like a snake, squeeeeze.” And the girl is in his arms, shiny and slippery in her Elsa dress but Luke’s grip is true. Molly’s helpless, but here’s one person Luke would never make smaller for real, he is her protector, her guardian angel. Parkdale won’t touch this one, as long as Luke stays his same, helpful age. And there’s one difficult question Molly hasn’t thought to ask yet; when will you stop being fifteen?
“Of course,” he whispers, “If I make you too small, then you won’t be able to play…” He releases her. “That violin you asked Santa for.”
Molly takes her chance and wriggles off Luke’s knee. She slides onto the floor, red-faced and breathless. “I want…a blue…one,” she says.
“I know,” Luke says mournfully. “It’s a terrible colour for a violin.” But Molly wants the violin so she can be like him, and how can Luke resist the five year old’s compliment? And how can Santa bring her a violin that is isn’t blue? There’s no way.
Luke wonders at the future challenge, will he be able to teach her, will she love it like he does? He sits back, rubbing at his eyes, suddenly feeling the strain of looking after the children.
His father is away all day, toddlers are always a handful, and Molly’s helping isn’t always so helpful. Teddy has agreed to come over and help, jumped at the chance to do Luke a favour.
The least he could do. No kidding.
Luke’s phone buzzes. A text; Teddy is ten minutes away.
“Come on,” says Luke. He looks down at Ryan and Lily; not a squeak, not a squall. Good as gold, as if they’ve done all this before.
He gets up and holds his hand out to Molly. “Want to help me make coffee for Teddy?”
Molly looks at her big brother. “Special coffee?”
“Pumpkin spiced mocha.”
Molly grins. “I wanna do the scoops.”
Luke holds out his hand. “Who else?”
Deal made, they go through to the kitchen. There won’t be any smooshing, no squashing. Molly doesn’t have to be made smaller, and besides, what happened to Ryan and Lily isn’t a frivolous game.
Parkdale doesn’t make someone younger unless they have a very good reason.
Do you want to build a snowman?
“What do you think?” Luke asks.
Teddy licks his lips and replies, “I think someone else made this coffee.” He looks down at Molly, who’s supervising the toddlers with the play cube, and gives her a wink. “Did your brother sneak out to Starbucks?”
Molly shakes her head. “Luke made it and I helped.”
“Huh,” says Teddy. “Well, it tastes very Christmassy.” He gestures around the room with his free hand. “You really went all out with the decorations this year.”
“I did the scoops,” Molly clarifies.
Teddy peers at the Christmas tree. “Oh yeah?”
“In the coffee.”
“Oh,” says Teddy. He sips his drink from a red, strawberry-patterned mug. “Yeah, I can tell. It’s the scoops that make it.”
Molly produces a satisfied beam and Teddy must have earned some points because she asks, “Do you want to be in our picture?”
Teddy tilts his head at her. “Hmm?”
“We’re making a special picture for my daddy.”
“They’re dressing up like Frozen characters,” Luke explains, waving a hand at the children. He grins at Teddy. “You any good at snowmen?”
Teddy has no intention of playing in the snow, but he says, “I’ve been known to build a snowman or two.” He makes a show of glancing at his phone. “I promised my mum and dad I’d see them when they got back from Christmas shopping.” And he gives the little girl a regretful shrug. “I don’t think I’ll have time for a snowman.”
“Your mummy and daddy can help too,” Molly offers.
Luke laughs. “We’ll see, Molly, okay? Now, you promised me you’d keep the babies happy.”
Molly gives her big brother a superior look. “I know.” She turns her attention back to the toddlers.
Teddy wraps his fingers around the mug and smiles. Isn’t this nice? Despite the Disney music coming from Luke’s phone. Not just because the coffee really is good, or because it’s so cosy inside after a cold walk over, kicking snow off his boots at Luke’s front door.
But because Teddy has gotten away with something.
He says to Luke, “Cool jumper, mate.”
Luke shrugs and smiles. “Molly likes it.”
“Cool tunes, too.”
Doesn’t Disney offend Luke’s classically-trained sensibilities?
“Gotta keep the helper happy,” says Luke. “Besides, you expect Queen Elsa of Arendelle to listen to anything else?”
Teddy rolls his eyes. “Anything her royal highness wants that she doesn’t get?”
Luke laughs. “Not much.”
Yes, this is nice. Warmed from the coffee, Teddy can hang here, helping out his friend. The least he could do, everything considered. Although everything is not in the open. Teddy has decided that he’ll keep some of everything to himself. Because when does anyone ever have the complete picture of anything?
Teddy glances down at Ryan and Lily. Good as gold.
He crouches by the toddlers long enough to give the xylophone a playful tap with his fingers and say to Lily, “Who needs the big city, right? Lils? Got everything we need right here.”
Lily looks back at him innocently. She probably doesn’t remember a single moment of her trip to London.
Teddy won’t feel guilty; it’s a slap on the wrist for them, they’ll be back to normal soon enough. He sips his coffee. “You heard from Marty?
Luke nods, and he looks at the toddlers as well, as if his mind is only half on the conversation, as if this is nothing.
“Still in London.”
“How long for?”
Teddy looks up to catch a flash of irritation cross his friend’s face.
“Until he finds her,” Teddy says, answering his own stupid question.
‘Her’ meaning Hannah. He won’t question the determination of big brothers. “Marty was pretty angry, last time I saw him.”
Now Luke smiles grimly. “Ryan left the device where Lily could find it, he left it in her bedroom. And those three girls, off by themselves in that city…”
It could have been worse, Luke doesn’t say.
True, but it was bad enough. Hannah missing, out of contact. Let’s be honest; Marty’s sister could be anywhere.
“Ryan just didn’t know any better,” says Luke, “and we’ll fix that. Bigger question is where he got the device in the first place.”
Teddy nods. A fantastic question. He finishes his mocha and puts the mug on the table. Gently, carefully, he rests china against polished wood.
“Ryan didn’t say where he found it?”
Luke shakes his head. “Where’s a cub agent gonna just find a device like that? No one’s stupid enough to just leave it lying around.”
Teddy looks out into the snow. He could leave the conversation right there, he could come up with an appointment, make his excuses and leave.
Instead, because he has to know, because it’s been eating at him ever since the three girls aged themselves and ran off to London.
Ever since Teddy tracked them down, caught all three of them at the club and almost managed to make this story one about a silly slip-up, something they could laugh about, until Hannah wrecked the anecdote by running off, and meaning Teddy would return to Parkdale without getting a victory lap, having to show up at Marty and his father’s door with only one twin.
I’m sorry, Teddy had said, apologizing for more than just letting Hannah run off.
Marty had watched an adult-sized Emma toddle into her father’s arms, gleefully describing her big adventure, before turning to Teddy with shaking hands and saying, Not your fault.
If Teddy was going to feel guilty enough to confess his wider role, it was then and there, looking into Marty’s grief-stricken eyes.
The words were on Teddy’s lips, but when Marty’s expression turned cold, turned furious, Teddy kept his mouth shut and he had backed away, making Marty shake his head and say, Really, I don’t…it’s not your fault. His voice shaking to match his hands, Marty had said, his words sealing Teddy’s own lips, I just feel like fucking killing somebody.
Teddy swallows at the memory, and the coffee after-taste has turned bitter in his throat. There’s an acidic heat in his chest. He may ask his host for Rennies, but first he has a bigger question.
“You think Ryan was covering for someone?”
Luke shrugs. “I think he didn’t give us the whole story.” He looks down at the fifteen month old fumbling with the play-cube’s wooden ducks and adds, “We thought making him younger would loosen his tongue, but it’s always a gamble. He told us all kinds of things, mostly about his sister, but he wouldn’t tell where he got the device from, and then he just started babbling.”
“What about the device?” asks Teddy, a thoughtful look on his face. “Anything they can track or I.D.?”
Luke shakes his head. “Wiped clean, that’s why I’m guessing someone gave it to him. Ryan wouldn’t have known how to cover his tracks like that, he hasn’t had the training.”
He rubs his hands together and gives another shrug. “It’s going to have to stay a mystery, we’ve got bigger priorities.” He looks down at the children. “My job’s helping Ryan and Lily, and Marty has to find Hannah.” He looks at Teddy. “He just wants to bring his sister home.”
Teddy blinks. “Of course,” he says, “of course he does.” And just like that, the acidic sensation fades from his chest, and he can taste the sweetness of the spiced pumpkin on his tongue again. He smiles despite himself and says, “Hannah’s the big picture, sure enough.” He grins down at the toddlers. “And these guys.”
Shop talk over, does Teddy really need to stay? Luke looks as if he’s got everything under control.
But when Luke checks his phone and announces that it’s time to feed the toddlers lunch and Molly automatically tells him that she wants to help, Teddy almost says the same thing.
I wanna help too.
He’s saved from blushing, the words safe in his mouth, along with his confession about giving Ryan the device.
Luke says to Molly, “I thought you wanted lunch as well?”
Molly nods in the affirmative. “I want to help and eat too.”
“Let me get these two sorted, and then we’ll find something for you.” Luke bends and performs a little bow. “Cheese on toast for your majesty?” he asks in a deep, clipped voice.
Molly grins and then clarifies hurriedly, “With-mayonnaise-like-Daddy-does-it.”
“Of course, your royal coldness,” Luke confirms, and Teddy laughs. No wonder the girls find him so charming.
Molly narrows her eyes, suddenly spotting loopholes. “Can I put it on the bread?”
Luke nods at her sister and then picks up Lily and grins at her. “Hi!” he says to her. “Let’s have lunch!”
He nods at Teddy. “Bring Ryan for me?”
Teddy picks up Ryan and smiles at the boy, jiggling him in his arms. “All that playing, you must be starving!”
Ryan just reaches out for Teddy’s face, patting his cheek.
Teddy’s slow to join Luke in the kitchen, pausing in the hallway to kiss the toddler’s cheek and whisper, “Thanks for keeping quiet, buddy.”
“Tuh,” Ryan replies.
“Yeah, I’m Teddy.” He enters the kitchen and puts Ryan into the second high chair.
“Need a hand?” he asks Luke.
Luke shakes his head. “Just keep an eye on Molly for me,” he says, and then he grins. “Although she’ll probably think she’s the one looking after you.”
Teddy smiles. “Well, she is a queen.”
Teddy returns to the living room to find Molly on the rug next to the cube. He sits down opposite her and asks casually, “Your turn to play, huh.”
Molly frowns at him. “It’s for babies,” she says dismissively. “I’m tidying it.”
“Oh,” Teddy says. “Right.” He resists the urge to laugh. So much for doing Luke a favour by being here. Still, it’s comfortable enough sitting on the rug. He feels more tired than he had expected after his walk through the snow, and the coffee hasn’t perked him up. If anything, he feels sleepy, no doubt thanks to the central heating pumping warm air around him.
He sits back and leans against the couch. “Doing a great job,” he observers as Molly collects the wooden ducks.
“I’m the best at tidying,” Molly replies without lifting her gaze. “Lily used to be the best but now she’s just a baby.”
“Yeah,” says Teddy. “Not for long, I bet.”
“She has to learn how to be a good girl again,” Molly says. She looks up at him now. “And Ryan has to be learn how to be a good boy.”
“Got it,” Teddy says. He swallows a groan as the Frozen playlist coming from Luke’s phone starts from the beginning. A mind-numbing loop.
Molly grins. “Do you want to build a snowman?”
Teddy laughs. “No thank you, Queen Elsa.”
The final piece of the toy put back in the cube, Molly gets to her feet and stands in front of Teddy, looks down at him and says, “But it’s so snowy outside!”
Teddy holds up his hands. “I just got my boots off. Later.”
When Molly’s sees Luke put his thumb and forefinger together, she wrinkles her nose and says, “When Luke does that, it means never.”
Teddy rubs the back of his neck and says, “Well when I do it, it means just not right now.”
Molly seems to consider this for a moment, and then she asks, “Is it really-really cold outside?”
Molly nods. “I wanna wear my dress.”
“You’ll need a coat,” says Teddy. “And gloves.” He points to her head. “And a hat.”
Molly nods again. “I got all that stuff.” She picks up Luke’s phone. “You wanna hear Christmas songs?”
Teddy exhales. What’s worse? Christmas carols or Frozen?
“How about we just have some quiet time?” He’s gone from cosy to a little too warm, the heat creeping over his body and making him sweat. He pulls off his jumper, feeling a strange moment of claustrophobia before it comes over his head.
That’s better. He smiles at Molly, who miraculously has turned off the music on Luke’s phone with a single tap.
Teddy smiles. “Your brother got any good games?”
Molly shakes her head. “He put a bunch of baby ones on for Teddy and Lily and now I can’t find anything fun.” She puts the phone back on the table and say abruptly, “When Santa come I can play my own music for real.” She stands with her hands behind her back, as if holding a dramatic secret. “Guess how?”
Teddy shrugs, even though he knows exactly what Luke is planning to get for Molly.
“Record-player?” he asks.
Molly frowns. “What?”
Teddy laughs. “Never mind. Is Santa bringing you a phone?”
Molly shakes her head. “I’m not allowed one.”
“Oh, okay.” He shrugs again. “What’s Santa bringing you?”
“You have to guess,” Molly orders.
Teddy sighs. “A piano.”
Molly bounces lightly on her toes and smiles. “No, but you’re warm.”
“Huh,” says Teddy, and he makes a show of stroking his chin, and there’s something funny about actually thinking of all the different musical instruments. What can he guess, what ones does Molly know?
Teddy closes his eyes for a moment, and he can visualise an entire orchestra, the shining brass section and the sweeping strings. He feels a rush of pride at knowing so many instruments and he focuses on the loudest, the booming percussion.
“A drum!” he blurts.
He opens his eyes to find Molly looking at him critically.
“No-oh,” she says. “You can’t play a tune with a drum.”
It was a silly guess.
“You’re all cold again,” says Molly, and Teddy wants to argue the point, to insist that he’s actually pretty warm, that maybe he should take off his shirt, before he melts, and the next picture in his mind is a puddling snowman, and the image makes him laugh.
“Why aren’t you guessing?” asks Molly.
Teddy sighs, suddenly annoyed. “It’s a violin,” he says abruptly.
Molly stares down at him. “How did you know?” she asks suspiciously.
Teddy blinks in confusion. Great question. A moment later, it obvious. Luke told him. But that answer won’t wash with Molly. Because Luke isn’t in charge of Molly’s Christmas presents, Santa is.
And Teddy holds two ideas in his head, balancing Molly’s idea of Santa Claus with the reality of the girl’s big brother making her Christmas wish come true.
Thinking these two things feels like sitting on a fence. He has to pick a side, he can’t just balance, walking an intellectual tight-rope, or he’ll end up falling off.
“How’d you know?” Molly asks, her voice whiny, the guessing game ruined.
Teddy shakes his head. He’s going to make his way to the toilet, he’s going to splash a sink-ful of cold water on his face.
He shrugs. “Just a guess,” he says.
Molly seems to consider the possibility. She steps from one foot to another. “Because Luke plays violin?”
“Yeah,” Teddy says, taking on the suggestion gratefully. “You asked Santa for a violin so you can play like Luke.” He nods, feeling short of breath. “That’s cool.”
Molly smiles in agreement. “I want a blue one.”
“Huh.” Teddy wipes at his face with his shirtsleeve. “Do they make them that colour?”
“Uh-huh.” She seems to loom over him as she replies, “They can paint them any colour you want, like coloring in, it’s easy.”
Isn’t that funny.
And a bigger question; is Teddy getting smaller? He looks down at his sleeves that are crowding his hands. Even if there was something in the room with regressing qualities, it’s impossible; resistance to AR devices is in his blood, backed up by the necklace on his neck. He could flap them, he could make them like birds wings, and he could take off, fly away to where the air is cooler, where there aren’t five year olds who ask difficult questions.
Yes, get higher up. Get off the damn floor. Stop sitting on the ground. It’s distracting, it’s…
Teddy wipes at his face and feels a spark of fear.
He’s not getting smaller. He’s just melting.
“Where are you going?”
“Nowhere,” Teddy replies. He pushes off the ground and gets back into his chair. He shouldn’t think about how his feet don’t touch the ground, how he could swing them, kick against the material with his heels.
But then again, he probably should think about it. He should think about the how and the why, or at least the what.
He reaches for the mug, holds it in his hands.
He’s not melting, don’t be silly. But did Luke-
“You’re using the store-berry mug,” Molly declares brightly, climbing up to join him on the seat. She’ll sit on his lap. But no, there’s plenty of room, and she sits down beside him, and now Teddy feels more than ever like he’s shrunk down, on an adorable date with a endlessly chatty five year old.
“Yeah,” says Teddy.
“It’s got bumps,” says Molly, running her little fingers down the outside of the mug.
“Dimples,” Teddy supplies, the word coming to him and then a moment later, he’s unsure if it’s right or not.
“Dimples,” echoes Molly, putting an companionable arm around his shoulder. “Like a store-berry!”
Teddy nods. “Yeah, I thought I could taste a little strawberry.” Because he’s still the teenager, he has to be, and he can tease her.
Molly shakes her head, hair tickling Teddy’s cheek.
“No, silly,” she says authoritatively, “it doesn’t have store-berries in it. It’s just a mug.”
“Oh. Well store-berries happens to be my favourite fruit.”
But that’s not true. And did he just forget how to say the word properly? Did he just sound like a little boy?
“Mine too,” Molly says. “Store-berries are mine…my favourite.” She smiles at him, and they are the same height, they are undoubtedly, undeniably equals, except that Molly is better dressed, immaculate and glamourous in her Elsa dress and cape, while Teddy feels even younger in his over-sized shirt and trousers.
It’s time to go. Time to go all the way to the kitchen and get Luke to help. Because Teddy’s out of his depth, and there’s no way this has happened by design. It’s another mistake, another screw-up, like when Lily found Ryan’s AR gadget.
Oh crap. Time to-
” What other fruits do you like?” asks Molly.
Teddy blinks, distracted. The girl has such a pretty dress, so shiny and blue. He can’t help running a finger along the sleeve. He smiles at her shyly; is she a real queen? No, of course not, it’s just for pretend. But it’s fun to pretend.
“You’re all shiny,” Teddy announces.
Molly giggles. “You’re silly.” She looks him up and down. “You have to learn things.”
Molly pulls on his arm. “You have to learn everything, prob’ly. Look.”
She takes him from the chair back to the rug.
“Banana,” Teddy says abruptly, and the giggles.
“You’re so silly,” says Molly again. “Look, you can play music on the cube.”
“Banana’s my fav’rite,” says Teddy. He feels a flicker of injustice. She had asked the question, after all.
Molly huffs at him. “You can’t have two fav’rites.”
Teddy ponders the idea and comes up with nothing. Why on earth can’t he have two favourites?
“Look,” Molly says impatiently, pointing forcefully at the cube. “It’s a…” her nose scrunches. “It’s called…”
Teddy smiles at the keys, painted in engaging primary colours. “It’s a piano.”
Molly shakes her head, pulling a matching hammer from the cube. “It’s not a piano, you hit it with this.” She’s quick to demonstrate, tapping the keys with the hammer and earning notes for her trouble.
“I wanna try!” Teddy shouts, both his manners and volume scattered to the wind.
Molly switches hands and holds the hammer out of reach. “What’s the magic word?”
Teddy sticks out his bottom lip – he doesn’t want to play that stupid game – but the lure of the coloured keys, of the noise he could make, wins the day.
“Peez,” Teddy says begrudgingly.
Sure enough, it is a magic word. As soon as he says it, Molly says, “Good boy,” as if she’s a real-life baby-sitter and not just a bossy little girl, and hands over the hammer.
Teddy immediately gets to work, banging the keys with the hammer in no particular order, with no interest in melody.
Molly sticks her fingers in her ears. “Too loud!” she wails.
Undeterred, Teddy continues to bang on the keys, delighted by something that finally makes sense. He’s not too hot anymore, no longer concerned by his baggy clothes. None of that matters, and he’s lost in the mess of notes, delighted by the din, and it’s only Luke’s arrival, a toddler in each arm, that makes Teddy look up in surprise. He had quite forgotten about his friend.
Luke looks down at him.
“Find the xylophone, Teddy?”
Teddy’s mouth opens in surprise. That’s what it’s called. Of course it is! He clutches the hammer and grins up at his friend.
“I’m putting these guys down for their nap, so you’ll have to find something quiet to do.”
Teddy frowns. He doesn’t want to be quiet, but there’s something in Luke’s voice that tells him he’ll have to do what his friend says.
Molly says, “I told him to be quiet but he didn’t listen.”
Teddy looks at the girl beside him. Why is she being nasty? It’s not Teddy’s fault that the piano is noisy. She’s the one who told him to play it!
“Okay,” Luke says. “I’ll be back in a minute and then it’s time for lunch.”
“Cheese on toast!” Molly remembers, grinning.
“Right,” says Luke.
Teddy smiles as well, it’s clear that he’s going to get the same. “Cheese on toast is my fav’rite,” he announces.
Molly takes in a big breath, ready to protest the number of Teddy’s favourites, but Luke gives her a firm look and says softly, “Quiet as mice, please, while I’m upstairs.” He nods at the cube. “Show Teddy the ducks.”
Molly nods. And she does, and really it’s for babies, this game, but playing with Molly, Teddy’s happy to find that the ducks are almost as much fun as the bangy piano.
Isn’t this nice?
After lunch, Teddy sits with Ryan and Lily on the rug, with the toddlers in just their nappies and Teddy in his big boy briefs, and Teddy shows them how the duck works.
He’s happy to sit like that on the rug, playing with the activity cube. It’s just for babies but he can show Ryan and Lily, he’s so much cleverer than those two. He slides the duck along the zigzag path, it’s just like they’re swimming, and when Molly starts quacking, Teddy is quick to join in, and then it’s even more fun.
It’s funny, how much trouble Ryan and Lily have with the game. They really are just babies, not like Teddy. He had felt moments of uncertainty during lunch, knocks to his confidence, when he saw the Paw Patrol plastic mat under his plate, when he seemed to be smaller than Molly, when Luke insisted on wiping his face and hands before letting him go back to play with Molly. And then, close to a final straw, when Luke was finding Teddy something to wear and asked if he needed a nappy
Teddy had shaken his head energetically.
“I’m a big boy!” he had said forcefully, and Luke had smiled and said, “You sure are,” and Teddy knew then that Luke had only been teasing him about the nappy.
Lily loses interest in the ducks and starts playing with the colourful bead maze on top of the cube, holding onto the corners for support as she stands, pushing the beads haphazardly without showing any true understanding of the game.
“Swimmy ducks!” Teddy shouts, encouraging the remaining player, and when Ryan manages to push the ducks to the end, Teddy claps his hands and decides it’s time to show the baby the clock, but Ryan and Lily aren’t interested, far more focused on hitting the piano keys that Luke had already made clear was a no-no – how could they forget such a clear instruction?
Indeed, Luke pounces, but it’s not to punish, just to check and then to confirm the need for nappy changes. He whisks the toddlers away and Teddy is left with Molly beside the play cube.
The music from before is back, thanks to Luke’s phone, but Teddy doesn’t mind. It’s nice to recognise the tune, and when the snowman song comes on, he tries to sing along with Molly.
“You really, really like this music,” Teddy observes.
“It’s my fav’rite,” Molly agrees. “I don’t have any other fav’rites,” she says, folding her arms as if ready for an argument. “You can only have one.”
But Teddy doesn’t dispute her point, instead choosing to spin the play cube sticks on the clock-face that Molly declares are called hands.
Teddy calls out different times, even though the actual numbers feel slippery and unreliable in his head. That’s just how sleepy he feels, his stomach full of cheese on toast.
He feels perfectly comfortable in his underwear, and he looks down at the pattern for confirmation. Yes, brightly coloured puppy dogs wearing cool uniforms. Perfect.
“Do you wanna build a snowman?” Molly sings sweetly, and Teddy looks at her, distracted.
“It’s snowy outside,” he says, and he leaves the play-cube in favour of the windowsill and looks out into the white garden.
No snowman there, not even evidence of a snowball fight. They could have fun out there,
“Can we go outside?” he asks. Because really, his head is sleepy but not his body. Given the chance, he’ll run around. Given the opportunity, he’ll sprint for the finish line. He grins at his windowed reflection. “I’m the best at doing snowmans.”
Molly giggles. “Not in just your pants!”
Teddy looks down and joins in the giggling, but in truth, without the toddlers, Teddy feels self-conscious in his underwear, next to a queen, next to a girl in the fanciest, shiniest dress and cape, along with the multi layer skirt with glittery snowflake that he’d like to touch but he knows he’s not supposed to.
“If you get dressed, we can go and play in the snow,” Molly announces grandly, joining him at the window.
Feeling grateful, Teddy gets to his feet and looks around the living room. Where are his clothes? And aren’t they too big anyway?
The memory warms his face in a new blush. This isn’t right; this isn’t right at all.
He looks up at the sound of footsteps on the stairs.
“Look what I found,” says Luke, coming back into the living room. “A princess and a reindeer!” He puts the toddler down and tells them, “Go see Molly.”
Teddy watches as Ryan, dressed in a fuzzy brown costume complete with strange-looking horns, makes his way clumsily but determinedly to Molly, followed by Lily, wearing a satiny dress with a flowered, sparkling skirt and a pink cape.
“Hi Sven!” Molly says, and she giggles, cuddling Ryan. “Hi Princess Anna,” and she hugs Lily.
Teddy wrinkles his nose in confusion. Those are the wrong names, and why is Ryan dressed as some kind of dog?
He asks as much, and is rewarded by Molly jumping up and down in a fit of giggles, which sets off Lily and Ryan until Teddy feels as though the whole world is laughing at him – and perhaps they should, he’s the only one in just his underwear.
Luke provides the answer, crouching beside Teddy and translating, a reassuring hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“So you met Queen Elsa already,” says Luke. He points at Lily. “That’s her sister Anna, and that’s-”
Molly squeaks and points at her big brother. “Luke, I wanna say!”
Luke puts a finger on his one lips, and Molly grins. She points at Ryan’s brown costume and says, “That’s Kristoff’s reindeer, Sven.”
Teddy frowns. The explanation hasn’t really explained anything.
“It’s from Frozen,” says Molly impatiently when she sees his puzzled expression. “You must have watched Frozen,” she says. Molly looks up at Luke and says, “Everyone’s seen Frozen.”
Teddy nods, although his memory of the film is as blurred and jumbled as the events before he got to the house.
Luke squeezes his shoulder. “Ryan’s a reindeer, like the one on my jumper, see?”
Teddy glances at Luke’s chest and smiles. “Like for Santa,” he says, and yes, those memories, those facts are solid. The reindeer helps Santa drive his sleigh. He nods, confidence returning, Santa’s easy, he knows all about the big fat man in the red suit, and Teddy forgets about reindeer for a moment, distracted by the thought of coming downstairs on Christmas morning in his pyjamas, presents waiting underneath the Christmas tree.
Teddy grins. He knows a secret, he knows what Molly’s getting from Santa. He grin fades as he wonders; how does he know about the blue violin?
“It’s not the same reindeer,” Molly declares.
“Doesn’t really matter,” says Luke gently.
Teddy watches Molly pout. “Does so! Santa’s reindeer are from fro the North Pole and Sven is from Norway.”
Luke stands back up and raises his hands as if in self-defence. “Okay, okay.” He winks at Teddy and says softly, “Molly’s a bit of a Frozen expert.”
“I seen Foh-zen,” says Teddy, determined not to look foolish. He points at Ryan and says, “That’s Suh-ven.”
“Right,” Molly says with evident satisfaction. And then her mouth drops open. “Oooh, now we can take the photo!” She grabs the phone from the couch and runs over to Luke.
Luke takes the phone and taps the screen, silencing the music. It feels strangely quiet without it. “Hmmm,” he says thoughtfully.
Molly tugs on her brother’s jumper. “Take it now,” she demands, “before the babies mess up their costumes.”
“Hang on,” says Luke. He turns to Teddy and says, “Molly wanted to give her daddy a special photo for Christmas, and we thought something from Frozen would be fun.”
Molly nods her head so hard that Teddy wonders if it might just fly off.
“Daddy’s gonna love it,” says Molly emphatically, fists bunched at her sides, and no one in the room seems ready to argue with her.
“Yes,” Luke says, “It’s photo time, but we’ll need something for Teddy to wear. I don’t remember anyone in Frozen running around in his undies.”
Molly giggles. “He’d be really really frozen then!”
Teddy grimaces. He doesn’t want to be dressed up like the babies. He shakes his head. “Don’t want it”
“Well you’re the only one without proper clothes on,” Luke says. “I know it’s warm in here, but that’s really just for babies, and you’re not a baby, are you?”
Teddy shakes his head, horrified at the prospect of being mistaken for an infant.
“Well then,” Luke says reasonably, “Time to get dressed like a big boy, so you don’t freeze outside.” He grins. “Don’t go anywhere.”
Teddy does as he’s told – where on Earth would he go, anyway? – and watches Luke sprint energetically upstairs, only to return a few moments later with a folded piece of clothing.
When Luke unfolds the outfit, Molly claps her hands. “Perfect!”
Teddy looks at Luke in disbelief.
“You know this guy, right?” Luke says to Teddy.
Teddy shrinks away and says, “For babies.”
Luke shakes his head. “No, I think it’ll fit you.”
“Don’t want it.” Teddy says again. He looks around the living room and catches sight of the play-cube. “I’ll stay inside.”
Molly laughs. She points at Teddy and says, “You just said you wanted to build a snowman and the snow’s outside, silly.”
“Besides,” Luke says, “I can’t leave you in here by yourself, Teddy.”
Teddy frowns. Why not? But his argument goes back to the costume. “It’s all fuzzy, like Ryan’s.”
Luke looks at the mostly-white costume and shrugs. “Just means you’ll be warm outside.” He gestures at Molly and Lily. “They’ve just got their capes to keep warm. Besides, would you rather wear a dress?”
“No!” Teddy replies sulkily. Luke’s just being silly.
“He could be Kristoff,” Molly suggests.
“I don’t have a Kristoff costume,” Luke replies. “Only Olaf.”
“Luke,” says Molly, the whine heavy in her voice. Loo-oook. “We have to take the photo before the snow melts.”
Her brother laughs. “That snow isn’t going anywhere.” He glances at his phone. “It’ll be getting dark soon, though.”
Luke puts the costume down and bends in front of Teddy. “Tell you what. I can see dressing-up isn’t your thing, but this is a big deal for Molly. So here’s the deal; if you wear the Olaf costume, I’ll let you make a real snowman.”
“A really real one!” Molly says excitedly. “We’ve got a carrot for his nose and everything, I saw it in the fridge.”
Teddy looks into Luke’s face. All sparkling eyes and encouraging smile, how can he refuse?
He twists his lips and then says, “Oh-kay.” He’ll look silly in the costume, but at least he’ll get outside this way.
“Good boy,” Luke says, and the praise feels faintly insulting until Teddy is wrapped up in Luke’s arms, and he relaxes into the cuddle, enjoying the warmth and softness of the big boy’s jumper, and there’s something about being cosy that tells Teddy that he has nothing to worry about, nothing at all.
He’s even cosier once he’s wearing the onesie, white with brown sleeves. He feels Luke press on his back, fastening the costume, and Teddy looks down at himself.
“Nice buttons,” Luke says, poking the black felt patches on Teddy’s front playfully.
Teddy grins, but he feels even better when Luke helps him put on the headpiece, which fastens under the chin.
“Watch out Sven doesn’t eat your carrot,” Luke says with a smile, and he taps the top of Teddy’s head.
Teddy giggles and reaches up to touch the carrot for himself. “It’s not a real one,” he says, still giggling. And when Luke shows Teddy what he looks like with his camera, any anxiety about how small he looks is swamped by Teddy’s amazement that he hadn’t wanted to wear the costume a few moments before. He looks fantastic!
“Luke,” Molly whines. Loo-ook. “We have to go now.”
Luke gives her a little bow of reference. “Of course, your majesty.” He looks at the children. “Let’s get outside, guys. It’s picture time!”