ACT 1

“Barkeep! Another!”

 Doris slammed her empty glass down onto the counter with a wince as her latest shot of amber liquid burned her throat. Olivia rolled her eyes as she reached for the now half empty bottle of Wild Turkey.

 “Don’t you think you’ve had enough now ma’am?” she said as she refilled her friend’s glass.

 Doris shook her head. “I can still see, think and remember,” she replied.

 Olivia smiled sadly. “Yeah...I get that.”

 Doris knocked back her...she counted internally...fifth drink, and looked around the farmhouse kitchen. Her eyes lighted on all the cosy little domestic touches – the dishes lined up on the draining board, the fresh herbs in pots on the window ledge, the corkboard next to the fridge filled with photos and to-do lists and coupons and little notes from Natalia to Olivia and vice versa. She stood up, a tiny bit unsteadily, and wandered over to it.

 “Aww, sweet,” she said, running her fingers over a little Valentine from Emma to her mom. “Ashlee never did things like that as a child. I don’t think I’m that type of mom, you know?”

 Olivia surreptitiously screwed the cap back onto the bottle before walking over to her friend. “It’s the first time she’s ever done it,” she said softly. “I kinda think she had a little help, you know?”

 Doris snorted in amusement. “Where’s Natalia’s card then?” she asked, her eyes scanning over the nearly full board. “Is the message too saucy to put up in public?”

 Olivia smirked, and rolled her engagement ring to the left and right with her thumb. “Something like that,” she murmured.

 Doris looked away from the board, and for a second Olivia thought she was about to dive back into the bottle. Instead, the Mayor sighed and wandered through to the living room. Olivia followed, just in time to see her friend slumping onto the couch and pulling up a cushion to hug against her chest.

 “I don’t know how you do it,” she said quietly, so quietly that Olivia wasn’t sure she’d heard her properly.

 “Do what?” she asked, lowering herself onto the other side of the couch. She flicked her eyes briefly towards the baby monitor sitting on the coffee table. Francesca hadn’t made so much as a peep for an hour, but she was bound to wake up from her nap soon, probably cranky and hungry for food and attention.

 “This,” Doris continued, waving her hand around to encompass the room, the house, the life. “How did you just get over it? Why is it so easy for you to trust her after what she did? How can you share your family and wear her ring when she broke your heart?”

 Olivia took a deep breath and looked away, her cheeks burning. Silence stretched between them for several long, excruciating moments.

 “Shit,” Doris muttered eventually, rubbing her hands across her face. “Ignore me, please, that was way, way out of-”

 “It wasn’t easy,” Olivia interrupted, staring at the baby monitor and refusing to meet Doris’s eyes. Her voice was flat and distant. “You of all people should know that it wasn’t easy. Sometimes I wake up in the night and she’s in the bathroom or feeding the baby and for a split second I forget-” Her voice cracked and she had to take another deep breath. “I forget that she came back to me. And it’s all fresh again, just like the day she left.” She shook her head and wiped the faintest hint of tears from her eyes. “But you know what, she did come back. She came back for me, for our family, for our life.” She set her jaw, and her eyes seemed to dare Doris to say any different.

 “I know,” Doris said softly. “I know. I just...you are so much more forgiving than I am.” Their eyes met at last and they shared a small smile. “I thought she was it, you know? I thought I’d finally found my happily ever after only to discover it was more of a...a...I don’t even know, what’s the opposite of a happily ever after?”

 Olivia raised one eyebrow and smirked. “Nice verbal acuity there Madam Mayor. Did they teach you those tricks in law school?”

 “Oh screw you,” Doris replied, flicking the cushion and smacking her friend on the leg, a little less gently than she’d planned.

 “Abuse!” Olivia exclaimed. “I can see the headlines now.”

 “Screw you times two,” Doris said, and this time the cushion was aimed at Olivia’s head.

 Before an outright cushion fight could ensue, the baby monitor squawked to life. “Saved by the baby,” Olivia said, dancing out of reach as Doris attempted to land one last whack. Slightly bleary blue eyes followed her friend up the stairs before the Mayor sighed and dragged herself to her feet to trail after her.

 She found Olivia in the nursery, holding Francesca against her chest and bouncing her a little as she paced from door to window. “Want me to do that?” she asked. Olivia shot her an incredulous look.

 “Yeah, I’m going to hand over my infant child to you after you just downed five shots of bourbon,” she said. She flicked her head across to the Vertical Limit that Phillip had given them at New Year. “If you really want to help you can get me a bottle and warm it up.”

 “You keep baby bottles in a Vertical Limit?” Doris said, shaking her head. “God, you are so whipped.”

 Olivia stuck out her tongue and held Francesca more closely against her chest. “Yeah yeah, yuck it up,” she grumbled. “But I know a certain someone who’s already started eating a little solid food, don’t I?” She held Francesca up so she could look into her chubby little face. “Don’t I? And I think that mama will just have to let me use that thing properly once you’re weaned, won’t she? Won’t she Sweet Pea, my little milk monster, hmm?”

 The baby giggled, then stuck her fist in her mouth and began to gnaw gently on it. “Teething already?” Doris said, coming up alongside her friend and handing her a now warm bottle.

 “Yeah, it’s great. An utter, utter delight.”

 Doris laughed as she flopped down onto Natalia’s rocking chair and watched Francesca feeding gently as she stared up at Olivia’s quietly joyful face. The sweetness of the moment was so thick that for a moment or two Doris was afraid she might actually weep.

 “I told you you’d love her,” she said softly.

 Olivia’s eyes flicked over to the other woman before meeting the steady brown gaze of her daughter once again. “Yeah, you’re the all knowing Mayor, I bow to you.”

 Doris’s face fell. “Not quite all knowing,” she murmured.

 Olivia squeezed her eyes shut, internally kicking herself. “There was no way to know that Anna-”

 “Xing Lung,” Doris muttered.

 “Whatever she wants to call herself,” Olivia continued. “I’m just saying, there was no way for you to know that she wasn’t what she said she was.”

 Doris sighed and looked out of the window. “It’s hard to know who to trust these days, for some reason. Something seems to be...in motion. But I have no idea what it is.”

 Olivia put the now empty bottle on the window ledge and cuddled her daughter close, rubbing the child’s back as a shiver ran up her spine.

 Doris shook her head. “Xing Lung...Anna...she says she’s here to help us. To protect us.”

 Olivia’s throat tightened. “Protect us from what?”

 Doris swallowed hard. “I have no idea.” She let that sit there for a beat, allowing it to sink in. “I don’t even know – in my head – if we can trust her.”

 Olivia jutted her chin forward. “And in your heart?”

 For a moment, Doris made no reply. Then she leaned forward a little, rubbing her hands over her face. “My heart is so in love with her it physically hurts,” she admitted, her voice raw and broken. Olivia took a step towards her, but Doris held a hand up to keep her at bay. “I don’t know if we should trust her or not,” she said after a few moments of silence. “For now...be careful, Olivia. I couldn’t bear it if my mistake...hurt you...” She swallowed hard. “Or your family...”

 This time when Olivia moved towards her she was not rebuffed. She balanced Francesca on her hip, and leaned down to wrap her free arm round Doris’s shoulders. Doris sighed, and leaned against her friend wearily.

 “Don’t turn your back on her, Olivia,” she said softly.

 Olivia’s jaw clenched. “Oh, I don’t intend to,” she replied. “I don’t intend to.”

 * * *

 

Natalia smiled tightly at the priest, wringing her hands and resisting the urge to glance again at the clock. It would only show, as the last few glimpses had, that much less time had passed than she would have guessed. Father Ray continued to smile impassively, one hand resting over the Bible on his lap, the other stretched out over the back of the sofa on which he sat. Natalia’s eyes flickered down to the vase of flowers and the untouched coffee and biscuits on the low table separating them.

 “I’m sorry Frank’s late,” she said, for the third time.

 “That’s all right,” the priest replied, his voice low and even. “Maybe it’s a good thing. We haven’t talked in a while, have we Natalia?”

 Natalia raised her eyes to meet his, and a sliver of tension rolled down her spine. “No, I suppose we haven’t,” she allowed. Absently, she began to play with her ring, rolling it around her finger, slipping it up and down. “I’ve been busy.”

 Father Ray’s eyes dropped to the ring finger of her left hand. “I see that,” he said.

 Natalia straightened, preparing herself for what she expected he was about to say. To her surprise, he made no mention of her and Olivia’s engagement, which had been the talk of the town since Phillip and Beth’s wedding. Instead, he smiled. “So...why exactly do you want to get your baby baptized, Natalia?”

 Natalia couldn’t help but do a slight double take. This was the third of four scheduled baptism preparation classes that she and Frank were undertaking, and she considered it a slightly odd question to crop up out of the blue.

 “Well...” she began slowly. “I want Francesca to be a part of the community.”

 Father Ray nodded. “Is that all it is?” he asked. “Just the community?”

 Natalia frowned. “I don’t understand.”

 The priest smiled, showing his teeth. “What I mean is,” he said, “do you intend for her to share your faith?”

 Natalia’s frown deepened. “Well...of course I do,” she said.

 Father Ray nodded once in acknowledgement. “And Olivia?”

The faintest rumblings of annoyance made Natalia’s eyes harden. “Olivia respects my faith,” she said shortly. She thought of Olivia throwing her cookie away as a show of family unity in observing Natalia’s Lenten sacrifice, and allowed a small smile to creep onto her lips. “We’ve discussed it,” she continued. “Olivia agrees that Francesca should be baptized.”

 Reaching down to pick up a biscuit, Father Ray looked around the room. “Then where is she?” he asked.

 The annoyance was back. Natalia bristled. “She’s looking after our child,” she said, her voice cold. “This is a meeting for Francesca’s mother and father. She’ll be here next week, with the other godparents.”

 “You want her to be a godparent?” Father Ray said, chewing slowly. Natalia’s eyes flicked down to the biscuits, suddenly regretting her decision to choose sweet things to give up this year. She rather wanted some sugar right at that moment.

 “Of course I do,” she replied, dragging her eyes back up to his face.

 The priest leaned forward. “Do you think that’s really her place, Natalia?”

 Before Natalia could answer, Frank noisily barged through the door. “Sorry, sorry,” he breezed, pulling off his gloves to shake Father Ray’s hand. Natalia was glad of the few moments this afforded her, because they allowed her to take a couple of deep breaths and calm down. Her knuckles gradually became less white as she unclenched her fists.

 “So, what did I miss?” Frank asked, flopping down next to her and laying his arm over the back of the sofa. It reminded her of the moves a teenage boy would pull at a movie theater, pretending to yawn so he could put his arm round his date’s shoulders. Surreptitiously, she scooted a few inches closer to the edge of the couch.

“We were talking about godparents,” she said tightly.

 Frank grinned. “Oh, well, I know my dad is really desperate to do it,” he said breezily. “And Blake just loves Francesca, so...”

 Father Ray looked to Natalia. “Those seem like acceptable choices,” he said.

 A tinge of colour appeared on Natalia’s cheeks. “I want Olivia to be a godparent,” she insisted.

 Frank shrugged. “Okay,” he agreed. “Well...people have three godparents sometimes, don’t they? Two godmothers and one godfather for a girl; one godmother and two godfathers for a boy.”

 Father Ray nodded. “That’s true,” he said. “But I was just speaking to Natalia about Olivia, and whether you both think she’s the best choice.”

 Frank glanced at Natalia briefly. “I don’t have a problem with it,” he said, and Natalia felt a sudden rush of affection for him.

 “So that’s decided then,” she said, looking back to the priest. He shook his head.

 “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m not sure I can agree.”

A sick feeling began to settle in the pit of Natalia’s stomach. It felt just like the anxious near panic she’d experienced when she and Frank had first approached Father Ray to seek baptism for Francesca. She’d had nightmares the night before, with visions of refusal and condemnation following her all the way to church. But the priest had accepted them warmly, and his easy acquiescence had convinced Natalia to dismiss her fears. Now it seemed one of them had crept out of the dark corner to which it had been banished.

 “Why?”

 Father Ray smiled, a little sadly. “You know why.”

 Natalia leaned forward, the movement swift and sudden. “Explain it to me,” she ground out.

 “Natalia,” Frank began, glancing between her and the priest like a spectator at a tennis match. She held up her hand, silencing him.

 “Explain it to me,” she said again, never taking her eyes from her priest’s.

 He sighed. “It’s not church policy to deny the sacrament of baptism, if sought, to children being brought up by...by homosexuals.” He coughed, and Natalia’s face burned. “But that doesn’t mean we can give that relationship the appearance of any kind of blessing. I’m afraid that having Olivia standing up as Francesca’s godmother would not be...appropriate.”

 The feeling coursing through Natalia’s veins was depressingly familiar. A slosh of panic, a cup of dread, a pinch of anger. It felt like what she’d endured when she first found out she was pregnant – weak and alone and so afraid of what it might mean. She imagined the look on Olivia’s face if she went home now and told her she had to watch her own daughter’s baptism from the sidelines. That she had to watch Frank grinning and laughing and being congratulated while she, Olivia, was the one who got up and talked to Francesca in the night, fed her, comforted her, changed her diapers.

 “No,” she said, shaking her head. “I can’t...that’s not...”

 Father Ray held up his hands. “Why don’t we move on from this for the moment?” he suggested. “We have other things to cover today. Natalia, I think you should reflect on this and try to decide if this is really what’s right for Francesca...or if it’s just what you want.”

 Natalia bit back her impulsive angry retort. After a moment or two of consideration, she nodded tightly. Father Ray smiled.

 “Okay,” he said. “Frank. Let me start by asking you something I already asked Natalia. Why do you want your baby to be baptized?”

 Natalia never heard Frank’s answer. Her mind was in another place as he talked, imagining what it would be like to stand up next to Frank with her daughter in her arms, and to look down into the congregation and meet Olivia’s eyes, filled with pain and abandonment.

 And betrayal.

 * * *