“We should go in,” Gemma suggested, since it seemed like her dad would be content to swelter in the truck all afternoon.
“Yeah, let’s go in.” He nodded but didn’t move.
He was tan from working outside so much, but his skin was ashen today. His blue eyes were wide and frantic, scanning the gauges of the truck like they would hold some clue about how to deal with this situation.
This was the most scared that Gemma had ever seen him look. That wasn’t saying much, since he rarely showed any fear, but he was obviously terrified.
“Dad?” Harper had climbed out of the truck, but she leaned against the door, watching him. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
“No, yeah.” He nodded again and licked his lips. “I need to do this. I need to see her.”
Gemma reached over and took Brian’s hand, his huge leathery one consuming hers, and she squeezed it gently.
“You can do this, Dad,” Gemma told him.
He smiled at her, but he still appeared sick. “You’re right. Let’s do this.”
Brian finally opened the truck door and got out. Gemma climbed out more slowly after him. Her decision to wear shorts had been a bad one. Her legs were stuck to the plastic interior, and she had to carefully peel herself off before she got out.
Harper and Brian were waiting for her, and Gemma went to knock on the door, letting the two of them stay a few steps behind her. In all the times she’d visited her mom before, she’d never felt so unnerved. This could all easily turn into a horrible disaster.
Before the door even opened, Gemma could hear Nathalie yelling on the other side, “It’s for me! I got it!”
Nathalie threw open the door, already smiling exuberantly, and shouted, “My girls!”
The hardest thing about seeing Nathalie was that while the accident left her mentally impaired, she didn’t look any different. She was tall and elegant, appearing more like a model than a mother, let alone someone with brain damage. Her eyes were the same shade of golden honey as Gemma’s, and her smile was radiant.
The only signs were subtle, like the Harry Potter T-shirt she wore, or the bright pink streak she had running down her long brown hair, or the temporary Lisa Frank tattoos of puppies and kittens she had up and down her arm.
But to someone like Brian, who hadn’t seen her in years, it had to be a shock to see her looking exactly as he remembered her. It would be easier to accept that she’d become a different person if she looked different, but she didn’t.
“Hi, Mom,” Gemma said.
“Oh, you look so beautiful today.” Nathalie threw her arms around her, hugging her fiercely. Then she noticed Harper and reached out to squeeze her arm. “And so do you.”
“Hey, Mom,” Harper said. It was a few octaves higher than she usually spoke, so Gemma knew she was freaking out a little bit.
“We brought someone with us today,” Gemma said once Nathalie had finally released her. She stepped to the side so her mom could get a better look at Brian. “Do you recognize him?”
“Hello, Nathalie.” He raised one hand, waving awkwardly at her.
“Is this … is this your boyfriend?” she asked. Then she leaned down to Gemma and lowered her voice. “Honey, he’s too old for you.”
“No, Mom, this is Dad,” Gemma tried to explain.
“Brian,” Harper clarified. “Mine and Gemma’s dad. He’s your husband.”
“What?” Nathalie straightened up and shook her head. “No, I’m not married.”
“Yeah, Mom, you are,” Harper said gently.
“But he…” Nathalie stared at Brian, looking confused and a bit disgusted. “He’s so old.”
“I’m actually only six months older than you,” Brian said, doing his best to keep his voice light.
She crossed her arms over her chest. “When is my birthday, then, smarty pants?”
“October sixth, 1973,” Brian replied instantly.
“Lucky guess,” Nathalie said, but by her expression, Gemma wasn’t sure if Nathalie knew if that was correct. It was, but there was a chance that she didn’t remember her birthday anymore. “What’s my middle name?”
“Anne,” Brian said, then pointed to Gemma. “The same as Gemma’s.”
“How long have we been married, then?” Nathalie asked, but her disbelief was melting. Her expression had softened into something more curious.
“It was, um, twenty years this past April.” He lowered his eyes for a second, then looked back up at her.
“Twenty years?” Nathalie asked.
“This is really him,” Gemma said, hoping to help convince her mother.
“It’s me, Nat,” Brian said simply.
“Nat?” Her eyes flashed with painful recognition, and her arms dropped to her sides. “You used to call me that. Nobody calls me that anymore.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t have to call you that,” Brian said.
“No, you should.” She reached out and grabbed his hand. “Come on. Come in. We need to talk.”
She led him through the house, introducing him to the staff as her husband, and Brian would just smile politely. The staff cleared out her roommates so they could have some privacy. Nathalie sat down at the dining room table, scooting her chair close to his, and stared at him with utter fascination.
Gemma and Harper weren’t sure what they should do in this situation, so they just sat down across the table and watched their parents talk.