"Stop that," Cara chided him. She was trying to be stern, but barely suppressing a fit of giggles herself. He had always been able to do that to her, she remembered now. Joel was a wonderful husband, but not an especially humorous man; Ben could make her laugh even when she knew she shouldn't. Even when there was nothing, really, to laugh about.
Rico could not quite count to ten. It wasn't all that unusual for a barely-two-year-old, but he was extremely bright for his age in all other respects. He'd learned to walk and talk earlier than any of his little cousins, and it wasn't as if he was particularly bad with numbers-- he could count straight through from one to seven with no problem, and onward from nine up to twelve.
It was only the number eight that was a problem. No matter how many times Cara corrected him (gently, but firmly), Rico would habitually skip over it as if it didn't exist. Even with the big, bright numerals Joel had painted on the front yard wall to remind him, Rico would forget. He could repeat the proper sequence flawlessly right after Cara reminded him, but by the next day, the eight would disappear once more from his vocabulary. It was a mystery.
Cara lived a life that was generally devoid of mystery. Her husband was faithful; her son was open-hearted and affectionate even by toddler standards; even her yaya was as honest as the day was long. She and Joel had their own little home, one car each, and respectable careers with comfortable five-figure incomes. Everything clear and straightforward and perfect, really.
Granted, it had been a bit challenging getting back into workplace after more than two years away. Her old agency had turned her down (gently, but firmly) on the grounds that she had become 'stale' from being out of circulation for so long. Once she had gotten over feeling like a piece of month-old bread, however, she'd found a little ad company that was just starting up; and although it wasn't nearly as prestigious as her old job, Cara liked the thought of growing with the agency, a founding member.
There were some growing pains, naturally-- one of which had thrown her for quite a loop just that afternoon. They were still installing the computer system at the office; and to Cara's mingled delight and dismay, the lead installer had turned out to be Ben.
It was possibly the last place she would have imagined running into him. He had always been good with mechanical and technological things; but back in college, his real love had been rock and roll. He'd lived the life, too-- performing at backstreet dives, sleeping wherever the gigs took him, spending his money on guitar strings and cigarettes rather than clothes and food. And she'd lived it with him in her own way, venturing into neighborhoods she'd never heard of to watch him, pretending he was singing only to her.
She would've thought that he'd rather starve than compromise his dream... unlike her, the would-be poet turned commercial sellout. But everyone had to eat eventually, she supposed. Even Ben had had to grow up sometime.
Maybe more than she would've liked, in fact. It was a strange experience, exchanging small talk with him just like any pair of adults. But Ben was still Ben, essentially; and before long, Cara was so comfortable with him that she was telling him about her work, the haircut she was thinking of getting, even Rico's little counting problem. Without ever consciously deciding to, she found herself asking him to dinner at the house; and even as she was being amazed that the words had come out of her mouth, he was accepting.
Which was how they'd ended up in the front yard, waiting for Joel to come home, practicing counting with Rico, and laughing their silly heads off.
"I mean it, stop laughing!" Cara insisted, giggling helplessly. "You'll make Rico self-conscious."
"I'm not laughing at Rico," Ben explained, unfolding himself from his Indian-sitting position. "Come here, I'll show you what's so funny."
As she allowed herself to be led by hand down the footpath, Cara realized she had forgotten how tall Ben was. Joel was an average-sized man, only an inch or two taller than she was. It made kissing convenient, though she'd always secretly thought it looked so sexy in the movies when a man and woman had to strain to get to each other, to connect. It almost seemed worth the perpetual crick in the neck.
"It's this tree," Ben was saying. "There's a tree growing right in front of the number eight, see? That's why Rico skips over it."
Cara shook herself out of her thoughts and looked-- really looked-- at the yard for the first time in ages. It was true. Somehow this tree had sprouted up out of nowhere in her perfect yard, right next to the wall, directly in front of the number that Joel had painted there. She couldn't imagine where it had come from, or how no one had noticed it all this time. It was actually a rather attractive tree, but it had burst right through one of the flowerbeds, and completely obscured the number eight. And changed everything.
She could have it removed, of course, ripped out at the roots if necessary; but she knew, deep inside, that even if she did, nothing in her life could ever be clear or straightforward again.
"Where Daddy?" Rico was asking, peering down the road from his spot on the porch steps.
And suddenly Cara was crying, and Ben was asking why; and she didn't know enough words or numbers or music to possibly explain.