Derek stepped into the dark living room and walked over to Marie. He crouched down in front of her and felt a smile tug his lips when he got a clear look at her. The tension he had experienced for the past few hours seemed to fall away instantly. She had her hands tucked beneath her cheek and her hair fell wildly around her face. He touched one of the locks that hung over the tip of her nose and pushed it back gently. After a mostly quiet half hour of assisting his father in preparing dinner, Cleo ran into the kitchen and announced that Marie had fallen asleep. Knowing how much she needed the rest, Derek decided to suck it up and endure an awkward dinner with his father and a little girl he hardly knew. The only thing was, it wasn’t that awkward. Cleo entertained the two men with stories of her experiences on the farm, school, and of what it was like to live with her mother. The awkwardness came when Cleo had to be put to bed. Mr. West felt Derek’s discomfort and excused himself to the study, claiming he had some admin to do and that they should call him when they needed him. Derek was silently relieved at the space he had been given and decided to take a little drive. The feel of the farm mixed with the night air brought back memories of the years he spent as a teenager forced to visit his father due to law and taking every chance he got to get away from the house and explore the farm. He also had a chance to sort through his thoughts. He thought about work and how well the project was going along. Everything was going his way in that department. The problems that arose were minor and manageable, and he was looking forward for the reveal day. That, of course, brought his thoughts back to Marie. He knew she would get excited when she saw the little things he added here and there for the ones who had more spirited and childlike hearts.
Her phone buzzed from the floor and Derek reached for it. He rose to his feet and stepped into the hall. He didn’t need to check the name to know it was Giselle calling, the picture on the screen bore enough resemblance to Marie that it wasn’t difficult to guess it was her sister.
"Hi, Giselle. You don’t know me. I’m Derek West, a friend of your sister’s."
A pause. "She’s mentioned you. What’s wrong? Where’s my sister?"
Derek smiled at the concern in Giselle’s voice. "She’s fine. She’s just been severely stressed and had deprived of sleep for a while. She spent the afternoon with me and my father... well she fell asleep within the first hour of the visit, but she’s fine. I’m about to wake her so that I can take her home if you’d like to speak to her," he said. There was another pause. "No . . . that’s alright, I’ll speak to her before her flight tomorrow . . . Marie’s been stressed?" She asked. Derek frowned. "Yeah. Tests, rehearsals, not to mention your family name seems to be a bit of a burden," Derek said, biting back his sarcasm. "It can’t be that bad." Derek could hear a questioning note in Giselle’s voice. "I mean, I’ve been through it. I know it can be hard but Marie hasn’t complained much."
"Marie’s not the complaining type. I don’t know if you’ve noticed that before," he said. He heard Giselle let out a breath of air. "Derek, please take her home and tell her to sleep in tomorrow. I’ll give Professor Tech and my father a call and cancel her rehearsal."
Derek was surprised. He half-expected her to say something along the lines of "Marie should suck it up". He didn’t think she’d accept his word so easily. "You believe me?" He asked. "It’s happened before. Of course my parents don’t know about it, she’s very good at hiding her emotions from them. If I hadn’t lived and rehearsed with her, I might have never noticed it. She stops sleeping, barely eats . . . I’ll handle it. Thank you for taking care of her today."
When Derek returned to the living room Marie was sitting up with her head low. She lifted her head when she heard him enter, eyes glassy and eyelids heavy.
"Giselle called," she murmured. Derek sat down next to her and her head dropped onto his shoulder. He chuckled and pulled the side of his sweater up that exposed her shoulder. He gave in to temptation and let his thumb stroke over the warm skin before covering it up, keeping his hand there. Marie didn’t seem to notice. For a moment he thought she had fallen asleep again, but she spoke. "What time is it?" She asked. "Around twelve," he said and rested his cheek on her head. It was the safest position he could think of. If she dared to lift her head and look at him, he knew he would kiss her and that couldn’t happen. At least not when she was half asleep and not in full control. Marie groaned and pushed away. She sat up and ran a hand through her hair then dropped her head in her hands. "I’ve got to get home. I’ve got rehearsal and packing . . ." Her voice came out as a rasp and was half-muffled through her fingers. Derek grinned and placed a hand on her back. "Don’t worry, your sister said she’d give your professor and dad a call. You should sleep in tomorrow."
Marie’s head suddenly lifted and she looked at him. "What did you tell her?"
Derek’s smile fell at the bite in her voice. "The truth. You were stressed, you needed sleep–."
"I’m fine," she said in a caustic tone. "How many times do I have to say it for you to believe it?"
"Once. Truthfully," Derek answered. Marie sighed heavily. "Let’s just go." She tossed the blanket off her lap and stood up. "Why don’t you want her to know? She’s your sister and she sounded really concerned," Derek said and stood as well. "I can handle it. Giselle wouldn’t understand anyway. She’s never been anything short of perfect in her entire life."
Before Derek could respond, the anger in Marie’s eyes evaporated and was replaced by deep guilt. Her mouth dropped open as if she herself couldn’t believe her own words. Marie dropped her eyes. "I can’t believe I just said that," she whispered and dropped back onto the couch. Marie brought her fingers to her mouth and stared at the carpet blindly. Perplexed, Derek went down on his haunches to peer into her face. "What’s wrong?" He asked. She shook her head. "I shouldn’t have said that," she said and lowered her eyes further. "Giselle’s worked so hard and she deserves everything she’s getting in life. . . She’s amazing . . ."
Derek nodded but didn’t really understand why she was acting this way. So he waited.
"Giselle lost her hearing when she was a few months old," Marie explained after a while. "For the first six years of her life she couldn’t hear but that didn’t stop her from trying to learn to play the piano." Marie smiled and stared blankly at her braided fingers as she recalled the memory. "Even though she was still a child, she’s had her own struggles." Marie blew out a breath. "It’s just . . ." Her fingers began to fidget. "She’s so good. She hardly ever blunders and when she does, it’s so easy for her to fix it. I can practice for hours – weeks and I’d still struggle."
Derek watched and realized with relief and concern that she was beginning to open up. "Look, I don’t want to be jealous of my sister. I just . . ." She trailed off and looked away, seeming ashamed of how much she had said.
"You’re an amazing pianist, Marie," Derek said quietly. Marie scoffed. "Have you heard Giselle? Have you heard my father?" She looked at him with frustration that reflected the internal battle she fought daily. "You’re not Giselle and you’re not your father. Why do you keep comparing yourself to them?"
"I’m a Balaco."
"You’re Marie Balaco. You know the difference between a ruminant and a monogastric–."
"Anyone who has high school biology would know that."
"You know the difference on a nutrient usage level." He smiled. "You understand the physics around the viscosity of ketchup, you can explain – for reasons I will never understand – how the brain functions during a meal, you know what oxytocin is, you even understand the chemistry behind global warming."
"What’s your point."
Derek knew he had to be careful with his next words. One wrong thing said and Marie would close up again. "My point is, you’re incredibly bright, and maybe you’re not as good as Giselle in music because that’s not where your passion lies. Nature and science . . ." His lip tugged at a careful smile when he saw her eyes begin to glass over. Derek cupped her cheek when one tear escaped and wiped it away with his thumb. "I think you know where your passions lie, Marie. Don’t let a family name hold you back from that."
Marie stared at him as his words sunk in. He knew he was echoing thoughts she had always suppressed. Marie swallowed and looked away, removing her face from his hand then wiped at her other eye. She cleared her throat. "I don’t want to talk about this anymore," she said quietly. "I want to go home," she added and stood again. Marie folded the blankets that had covered her while Derek decided to give her space again and fold the ones Cleo had left on the floor. They didn’t say another word to each other even as they greeted his father and got into the jeep. Only when they reached the university and Derek parked next to his car that Marie decided to say something.
"I know you mean well, Derek, and I really appreciate that you care, but you don’t have to concern yourself with me," she said. The parking lot was dimly lit so that when he looked at her, her face was half shadowed. "Marie, someone has to."
She flinched at his words and dropped her eyes. Heart racing, Derek cupped the back of her skull and leaned over to meet her lips with his. He pulled away before she could respond. Marie stared wide-eyed at him. Derek slid his hand from her head to her neck and ran his finger over the throbbing of her carotid artery, pleased to know he wasn’t the only one effected by that kiss. "Maybe I care a little more than I let on," he whispered and opened the door then got out. He fished his keys out of his pockets and waited until she made her way to the driver’s side of her jeep. She glanced at him before getting into her seat, the surprise still evident in her eyes. Derek closed the door for her. "Drive safe," he said before going to his own car.