||Some angst, romance
words, 44 pages (8 ½ x 11 paper)
||Through Season 9
||Go, characters. I
release you. Title comes from the poem “The Night Before
||Well, I decided that I
wanted to write about the baby deal too. So, if you’re sick of
those stories, here’s your out. Hopefully, I’ve taken a slightly
The house is quiet now. Outside, the snow has been falling steadily
and it’s drifting in heaps and piles around the yard. Everyone is home
so she doesn’t have to worry about her family. She can watch the snow as
it coats the trees and the yard. Tomorrow, the schools will close and
the children will trample over the yard. Leaving footprints and criss-crossing
trails across the lawn. There will be snowmen and angels, forts and
small mountains of snow. The silent, white and blue landscape will be
transformed by red and green boots and noisy shouts. But, for now, the
streets are still and the snow is an even blanket on the ground.
In the family room, the fire has gone low and cold. A log crackles as it
caves in on itself. An ember hisses when a snowflake falls through the
chimney. She can hear his occasional snore as he sleeps on the couch.
Later, when she goes to wake him up and pull him to bed, he will deny
ever having slept. He will grumble his way up the steps and into the
bedroom, where he will turn on the television just to prove he wasn’t
Upstairs, the children are playing quietly. They know they won’t have
classes tomorrow but they haven’t heard the official announcement so
they muffle their sounds. She hears giggles and soft hushes as they
think they are fooling their parents into believing they are asleep. She
knows that if she were to walk upstairs, her footsteps heavy against the
treads, she would hear the sudden rush of feet as they hurry to turn off
lights and dive under their covers. If she were to open their doors, she
would see two heads, barely visible above the blankets, and hear the
heavy sounds of faked sleep breathing.
It seems so simple now. She wraps her arms around her waist and leans
against the wall. Her fingers trace a light pattern over her ribs.
Beneath her fingertips, her ribs contract and expand as she sighs
softly. It really was so simple; it makes her wonder why they never saw
it. Although it made no sense, less now that time has passed, they
approached their problems from the middle and worked their way to the
She is older now and somewhere in the years between the woman she once
was and the woman she has become, she grew quiet. Not silent, but the
things that swirled insider her have settled, disappearing somewhere
into the dark. She knows what love is now. It’s apples, sugar, and
cinnamon. It’s simple, sweet, and a little spicy. It’s stirred carefully
in a heavy bowl with a wooden spoon to form an easy recipe for
happiness. An easy list of ingredients, but harder to learn the
technique of coating each apple slice so that there is just the right
amount of cinnamon and sugar. But like everything else, it gets easier
with time, patience, and practice.
For almost half her life now, she had lived in places where there were
four distinct seasons, not just cool, warm, and hot. She had grown used
to winter, learned to tolerate snowfalls that paralyzed traffic or air
so cold it made her cough just because she inhaled, but she still loved
the first warm days of spring. Every March she began to watch the trees
for buds and leaves. She studied the ground for daffodils and crocuses.
In her mind and on her calendar, she marked off the days in a countdown
But this year, the days moved faster than she wanted. April seemed
intent on becoming May and there wasn’t anything she could do to
convince that that was just a bad idea. By April thirtieth, her palms
felt permanently itchy, the butterflies in her stomach were
choreographing ballets, and she jumped every time she heard his voice or
little AJ’s name. She felt foolish, almost ridiculous as she watched him
through her office blinds. She tried to time her entrances and exits so
that she would just miss him and hoped that he didn’t think she was
Harriet was throwing two birthday parties for little AJ, one for family
and one for his friends. She told Mac as they sat at her kitchen table
one night that she didn’t think it was fair to make the adults suffer
their way through a party with twenty five year olds. Mac’s already
frayed nerves agreed with her.
“Plus,” she added, “if we have the party late enough, AJ will go to bed
and then it’ll just be a nice evening for the adults.”
“Sounds like a good idea,” Mac murmured as she studied the invitations.
“I thought we could use a party. A lot has happened this year.” Harriet
divided the stack in half and gave a pile to Mac. “Thank you so much,
Ma’am, for helping.” Harriet nodded towards the family room. “Bud and I
can use the extra hands.”
Mac smiled and cupped her chin in the palm of her hand. A flickering
blue light cast shadows on the foyer wall. AJ’s laugh bounced into the
kitchen as he watched a cartoon with his father. Over the baby monitor
at Harriet’s elbow, Jimmy’s soft breaths whispered through the room. “I
want this.” Mac sighed the words out in a low voice.
“What’s that, Ma’am? Mac?” she corrected herself. She glanced up from
“Oh,” Mac waved her hand a little, brushing aside the want, “don’t mind
me.” She shook her head and went back to the stack of cards in front of
“Harriet, can I talk to you about something?” she asked after a minute.
“And you have to promise that you won’t talk to anyone else about it,
not even Bud.”
Harriet put her pen down and looked at Mac. “Are you okay?”
She nodded and smiled. “It’s nothing bad, really. I just don’t want it
being discussed, I guess.”
“Then what is it?” Harriet rested her forearms on the table and leaned
Mac took a deep breath and let it out in a soft whoosh. After another
steadying breath, she said, “Okay, you have to promise not to interrupt.
See, Harm and I,” she began and then laughed self-consciously. “Oh, this
sounds so stupid when I say it out loud to someone that isn’t Harm. We
made a deal when AJ was born.”
“You made a deal?” Harriet echoed.
She nodded. “Yes. You know what? Never mind. Forget I said anything.”
She started to rummage around her feet for her purse, getting ready to
run and forgetting about the invitations she promised she’d help with.
She stilled her motion when Harriet laid a hand on her arm.
“What kind of deal?” Harriet asked softly.
“That,” she blew her hair back from her face and cupped her hands around
her cheeks to cover the blush that was spreading across them, “if
neither of us was in a serious relationship in five years, we’d have a
Harriet took a long drink from her water glass before squeaking out,
“You made a deal to have a baby?”
She shifted a hand from her cheek to her eyes. “Yes,” she nodded.
Cracking her fingers open, she said in a small voice, “So what do you
Harriet’s chair scraped against the tiles as she pushed herself back
from the table. Mac watched as the other woman leaned against the sink
before pouring herself another glass of water. Rubbing her forehead, she
turned to face Mac, the small of her back resting against the
countertop. “Do you,” she paused, catching her lip between her teeth as
she contemplated the ceiling. “Do you want my honest opinion?”
“Yes,” Mac whispered between her hands.
Harriet inhaled and exhaled slowly. “With all due respect, I mean it’s a
bit of a shock.” She took another long pull of water. “Frankly, Ma’am,
it sounds awful.”
Tension slid under her skin and raised goose bumps along her arms. “That
bad, huh?” she asked weakly.
“It – it just doesn’t seem like a good way to bring a child into the
world.” She shrugged. “It sounds a little, I don’t know, cold, I guess.”
She ran a hand down her arm and glanced towards the doorway. “And you
must have some misgivings or you wouldn’t have asked.”
Mac lowered her hands and twisted them together, pinching her fingers
tightly between each other. She studied the tabletop as she weighed and
measured her words. “I do,” she agreed softly. “But the thing is, I want
to have kids and I’m getting older. Eventually, time is going to run
“What about adopting?”
Her shoulder hitched. “I’ve thought about it.” She paused. “But I live
alone and I have a pretty demanding career and that’s going to make it
harder for me to adopt a child.”
She sighed and forced her fingers to uncurl. “It doesn’t matter anyway.
Harm and I, well, we’re barely friends now and he has Mattie.” She
sucked her lower lip into her mouth and angled her face to see the
flickering lights. Turning back to Harriet, she said, “You don’t know
how lucky you are.”
“Yes, I do,” Harriet disagreed quietly. “But, Mac – Sarah, you can still
have it. I just don’t see that a deal is a good way to bring a child
into the world.”
A soft breeze ruffled the curtains on the kitchen windows and made a set
of wind chimes tinkle somewhere in the distance. She exhaled softly as
she thought about her dark apartment. “Would it be the worst thing to
happen to a kid? It would still have two parents that loved it.”
She tapped her finger against her chin. “So its conception wouldn’t be
the most romantic one but it would still be wanted and loved. That’s
more than some people can say about their parents and their childhoods.
“I want a family, Harriet. I’ve given up on finding a man that will love
me for the rest of my life. I’ve given up a lot of things I used to
want, but I just can’t bring myself to let go of the idea of having
children.” She studied the pale blue network of veins in her wrists and
waited for Harriet to comment. Minutes passed and silence filled the
room, spreading outward from the two women until there wasn’t any room
for words left in the kitchen.
Harriet eased her body into the chair next to hers and curled her
fingers around Mac’s. “Maybe it’s not such a bad deal,” she said in a
low voice after time had passed.
“Maybe,” she shrugged and ran a finger over one of the invitations. “But
it’s practically null and void now.” She suppressed another sigh and
picked up her pen. “Let’s get back to these invitations or AJ will have
to have his birthday party in July.”
She concentrated on writing dates and times. Her vision narrowed on the
black ink curlicues of the invitations. She tried not to notice when AJ
ran into the kitchen pretending to be an airplane and demanding juice.
Or when Bud brought the baby into the room because he was fussy and
needed his mother. It didn’t matter, she told herself, that the thing
she wanted most in life was all around her and completely beyond her
The room glows in dull gold tones against the dark yard. Pale yellow
squares of light etched with darker lines form rectangles on the snow.
Inside, lamplight and the low fire cast exaggerated shapes on the walls
and wooden floors. Shadows hover at the edges of the room, softly
creeping closer as his wife closes up the downstairs for the night. But
light cocoons the room, wrapping filaments of warmth around it.
From the couch, he can hear her move quietly through the rooms. She will
save the family room for last, not wanting to wake him until she has no
choice. He shifts slightly, repositioning his weight on the cushions,
and cranes his neck to see her. He catches a glimpse of her head as she
bends to scoop up piles of jackets and scarves. The coat closet door
squeaks slightly as she straightens the mess of clothing and he makes a
note to find the oil can for the hinges. Backpacks and lunch boxes still
crowd the kitchen table. Before she comes in to wake him up, she’ll move
those, too, and set the table for the breakfast.
The muffled clink of china and mugs on wood and the metallic rustling of
the silverware tray confirm his suspicions. He should get up and help
her, but he likes listening to her sounds as she moves across the
kitchen. The whisper of her clothes as she puts down the small stack of
plates, her soft footsteps as she tries not wake him. It’s such a
contrast to the days before. Before her, before their children, when his
life was silent, not quiet. It’s odd, he realizes now, as he lies on the
couch, wrapped in light and listening to her, that the one thing he
convinced himself he didn’t need turned out to be the thing he needed
He was watching Mattie and Jen giggle over something while sitting in a
corner of the Roberts’ yard. The young women sat close together and had
their hands over their mouths to cover their laughter, but he could see
their shoulders shake as they tried to control themselves. Twilight had
settled over the backyard in a wash of deep blues and navy colored
shadows. Paper lanterns, hung in the trees that were just beginning to
bloom fully, cast colored rings of light around the lawn. The grill
smoked and AJ ran around his father’s legs. And he was very nearly a
completely happy man.
His spine itched as he waited for her to arrive. She had been avoiding
him for a month now. He figured that the party would be the first full
glimpse he’d had of her in over a week. He knew why she was uneasy
around him. He wasn’t particularly anxious to talk to her either. On his
list of things he never wanted to do again starting a conversation with
the words “in five years” was quickly ascending to the top.
Whether or not he wanted to, because of those three words, he found
himself watching her relationships with other men, tracking their
progress the way an anthropologist studies other cultures. He ticked off
each year and made notes every spring. Until here they were, five years
later and both alone. Only, he wasn’t alone like she was.
With Mattie’s arrival, he’d been able to see what he missed by not
having children. There was a part of him that would like to experience
being a parent from the beginning, but if it never happened, then he was
okay with the way his life was.
The events leading up to this night spread out before him like points on
a time line. And although he could remember them like distinct pictures,
he couldn’t figure out where their friendship had dissolved. It
disappeared so quickly that he never noticed until it was gone. Once he
had thought he was in love with her, but his emotions were sent spinning
when he saw her kissing another man. He couldn’t stop love as it rushed
to anger and dislike. Couldn’t stem the flow of words or even bring
himself to stop her when she stopped them before they even began.
He was just getting used to hearing her lips say Webb’s name when they
stopped. He had just adjusted to the fact that the deal no longer had
any force or weight behind it because she was with another man when he
realized she was alone. Now, those three words were like a living thing
between them and followed them, mocking their relationship.
He tilted back in his deck chair and took a drink from the beer bottle
dangling loosely from his hand. May seemed to be intent on apologizing
for its behavior the year before. The air was soft and warm and a light
breeze made the lanterns dance in the trees. He watched them bounce in
brightly colored swoops against the dark branches. His friends dotted
the lawn in noisy clumps and AJ, the birthday boy, was resting his head
against his mother’s arm as she chatted with the guests.
He heard her before he saw her. Her laugh bent around the corner of the
house, carrying across the lawn and drifting on to the deck. He watched
as she emerged from behind a large box, brightly wrapped and bigger than
her torso. She handed it to the admiral before crossing the lawn to say
hello to Harriet. Halfway across the yard, she spotted him and turned to
wave and smile. A paper lantern hung over her head and she was caught
between the light and the dark lawn. He waved half-heartedly, wishing,
for a moment, for something that was never his.
Then Mattie rushed up to his chair, flopping dramatically over his lower
legs and pretending to faint from hunger. She giggled as he groaned and
tried to move his legs out from under her. And the want drifted away
like the smoke from the barbecue, not gone but lessened, and he was once
again very nearly a completely happy man.
A sliver of the moon hung low on the eastern edge of the sky. The stars
were just beginning to appear overhead when someone lowered the volume
on the radio. AJ had long since gone to bed and only a handful of guests
remained. The conversations grew softer, the laughter less raucous, as
they moved closer to the house. Farther away from the house, nearer the
trees, the cicadas’ and crickets’ sharp sounds drowned out the softer
noises of the guests.
She was sitting on a low bench, canopied under blooming branches. Her
knees were pushed together, heels turned out to form a diamond of
negative space between her calves. She stretched her arms out, wrists
braced against her thighs, and studied the night sky. Across the yard,
her friends were laughing and pointing at each other as they reminisced.
She had been enjoying their stories, but had slipped away from the
group, leaving the candlelight drenched porch for the safety of the
Almost as much as she wanted to go back, to laugh with them, she wanted
to stay tucked away beneath the shadows. She didn’t want to worry about
saying the wrong thing and offending someone – him. Beneath the
branches, she didn’t have to ward herself against thoughtless, careless
comments tossed about like a child’s bright red ball. It was calm on the
bench and she liked being able to breathe without worrying about
exhaling too loudly.
He dropped onto the bench before she realized he had crossed the lawn.
“Are you planning on joining the party?”
She smiled slightly and tilted her head back to the breeze. “Just taking
a break.” She nodded towards the group of people. “What are you doing
“Just taking a break,” he mimicked her answer. He stretched his arm
across the back of the bench and tried not to notice the way the muscles
in her back twitched as his skin brushed against hers.
“Pleasant night,” she commented. Her breath hitched slightly, catching
in her chest and sticking. She pulled a leg close to her chest; her
skirt fanned down around her thighs and she leaned her cheek against her
knee to look over at him.
“It is,” he agreed. “You’ve been avoiding me.” He raised his eyebrows
and leaned against the bench, stretching his legs out in front of him
and crossing them at the ankles.
“I haven’t.” She hoped she sounded indignant instead of guilty. Sighing
a little, she adjusted a strap on her sandal. “I have,” she admitted
after a minute.
“I’ve noticed.” He drummed his fingers restlessly against the arm of the
“Oh,” she blew out a soft laugh, “and I thought I was being subtle.
Silence pushed its way into the conversation, nudging into the spaces
between the words until they scattered and disappeared. She studied her
toes, wondering if she should give herself a pedicure and if the
awkwardness between them would ever go away. A plane flew overhead,
turning in a wide arc towards the moon and the ocean, and she wished she
were on it. Headed some place far away, some place new. Then she heard
Harriet’s laugh above the cicadas followed by Mattie’s and Jen’s
giggles, and she realized why she had to stay.
“I haven’t really minded,” he confessed after minutes had passed and the
words still had not returned. He cringed slightly as the wrong words
tumbled out of his mouth and sounded harsher than he had intended.
“Oh,” she repeated and pulled her leg a little closer before setting it
down and stretching the muscles in her back. “We should get back to the
party.” She placed her hands on the bench and got ready to stand up.
“Sit down, Mac.” He put a staying hand on her forearm. “I didn’t mean it
“Then how did you mean it?” she snapped the question out and then
sighed. Tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, she said, “Sorry. I
don’t want to fight. Let’s just go back to the party.”
He held up his hands in defense before resting his forearms against his
thighs. “It’s a big night,” he said.
“Yeah,” she agreed quietly. She shifted slightly so she could see the
party over his shoulder. The wind was getting stronger and the candles
were flickering wildly in their glasses. Leaves shifted on their
branches, forming black on night blue lace patterns in the air. A front
was supposed to move in later that night, bringing rain and cooler
temperatures. “Just out of curiosity, did you ever think we’d actually
go through with it?”
He stared at the ground through the space between his knees and
wondered. “I don’t know.” He shrugged. “Maybe. Once in a while. Did
“I don’t know.” She tilted her head. “It doesn’t matter now. You’re in a
“I am?” He glanced up, puzzled.
“Mattie,” she explained. “You have a family now.” She smiled as she
watched her. She was gesturing at Jen, trying to cover the young woman’s
mouth. “It’s a nice one.”
“It is,” he agreed, glancing over his shoulder. He smiled, too, as
Mattie dropped her head between her knees and covered it with her hands.
“A little dramatic.”
“She’s a teenager, Harm. They’re all dramatic.”
He stood up and paced away from the bench. Shoving his hands in his
pockets, he turned back to her. She was looking up at him, waiting for
whatever he had to say. Her hands were braced against the bench, one leg
tucked behind the other, poised to flee if she didn’t like the
conversation. “Why did you say what you said in Paraguay?” His pacing
stopped and he frowned, as surprised by the question as she was.
“You mean when I said we would never work?” She slumped against the
bench and pulled on the hem of her skirt. “Because,” she lifted a
shoulder in a semi-shrug, “I was tired. I’ve heard of people waiting
years for a marriage proposal, but not for a date.”
She looked over at the porch. “I want that,” she said in a low voice.
“I’m getting older and my chances are running out.”
“You can still have a family,” he argued. “What about Webb?” he asked,
wondering why he brought the man’s name into the conversation.
“There was never anything there. You never believed me.”
“You spent Christmas Eve with him,” he pointed out.
“Because I didn’t want to spend it alone.”
He crossed his arms over his chest and looked down at her. “I invited
you to spend it with Mattie and me.”
She re-tucked the strand of loose hair and looked away. “On Christmas
Eve. After the service and after I brought Mattie to the Wall.” She bit
her lip and added, “And after you told me I’d screw up your custody
She held up a hand. “No, I’m sorry. I meant it when I said I didn’t want
to argue. That was a low blow and I’m sorry.” She crossed her ankles and
bit back another sigh. “We’re going to miss the whole evening if we stay
here any longer.” But she didn’t stand up and she didn’t move away when
he sat down again.
“We haven’t talked like this in a while,” he commented as he settled
into a more comfortable position. “It’s kind of nice,” he added.
“What? Civilly?” she asked. “It is nice.” The side of the house was
illuminated for a brief moment as headlights flashed on it and then
pulled away. The temperature was dropping and more people were leaving.
“Harriet had a good idea.”
“Yeah. She did.”
“I should really go see if she needs help with anything.” She pushed
herself to her feet and scanned the sky. Clouds were easing along the
western horizon. The front was moving quickly and soon the rain would
His hand reached out and caught hers, tugging lightly on it. “Wait.”
She shook her head. “Let me go, Harm.”
She bit her lip and turned her gaze to the house. It was lit up, inside
and outside. She could see Harriet moving around the kitchen. She
watched as the woman laughed at something Bud said and swatted him
lightly on his arm. Around the porch, people helped move the large piles
of presents into the house. Mattie chased a stray ribbon that danced
away in the wind. The lanterns were swinging and the candles were low,
their smoke now a ghost in the night sky.
“Okay,” she shuddered the word out. “But just for tonight.”
She tugs lightly on his earlobe, pinching it between her thumb and
forefinger. His hand wraps around her wrist and pulls her closer.
“Time to go to bed,” she whispers against the shell of his ear and she
smiles as he shivers as the words drop onto his skin.
“I’m up,” he mumbles and opens his eyes a little. “I’ve been up the
She runs her free hand over his cheek and says, “Liar. I could hear you
He yanks on her arm and she tumbles on to the couch, lying partially on
top of him. “Can’t go to bed now.” His chin tilts into his neck so he
can see the side of her face. “You’re lying on me.”
“Mmm,” she mumbles sleepily, tucking her head into the space between his
neck and his shoulder. “Suck it up, sailor.” She rubs her face against
the soft cotton of his sweater.
The house is dark now except for the family room and the hallway. The
logs burn an orangey red in the fireplace. It’s quiet now. The children
are asleep; she hasn’t heard their feet as they run from room to room in
a while. Beneath her cheek, his chest rises and falls in a steady
rhythm. Outside, the wind whistles around the corners of the house; the
snow falls silently to the ground; and the streets are empty. Her eyes
drift shut, lulled by the quiet, comforted by him.
Her car slid easily into the space behind his. All through the drive,
she’d been tempted to flip on her turn signal and follow the direction
of its arrow. To drive straight when his car turned left. She fought the
urge to throw up when Mattie must have realized she was trailing them
and leaned over the backseat to wave.
She pulled her key out of the ignition and clutched it tightly between
her fingers. The clefts and grooves formed angry red lines on her skin
and she had to force herself to let go and get out of the car. Wind blew
her hair forward. It pushed at her skirt and wrapped it around her legs.
She picked her way carefully over pavement, trading in her normally
confident walk for mincing steps that wouldn’t let gravel or dirt force
its way into her sandals.
He was leaning against his car door, watching her struggle against the
wind. Mattie and Jen were already at the building’s door and Mattie was
gesturing impatiently at them, looking nervously at the sky. “Need a
hand?” he drawled the question out.
She let go of her hair and skirt and held her arms out to her sides.
“With what?” She held up her purse. “You can carry this if you want.”
He looked skeptically at the little bag. “I don’t think so.”
“I can pretend you mugged me if it’ll make you feel more manly.” She
smiled and combed her fingers through her hair. “I think the rain is
going to miss us.”
He glanced up at the sky. Deep purple clouds were illuminated by flashes
of lightening, revealing piles of thick clouds. His hand slid down her
forearm to cuff her wrist. “I don’t think so.”
Mattie was bouncing in the doorway. “Colonel, I didn’t know you were
coming over.” She nodded at the door. “Open it please,” she smiled up at
Harm. “It’s an emergency and I forgot my front door keys. Are you here
for work or something?” she asked, shifting her attention back to Mac.
Harm pushed the door open. “Or something,” he answered for her. “There
“Thanks,” she said as she dashed inside. Jen trailed after her, waving
at the couple and giving them a curious look.
“We’re going to be the subject of so much office gossip on Monday,” Mac
murmured under her breath.
His arms were crossed over his chest. “Does that bother you?” His gaze
was fixed on the elevator doors and he had the smallest hint of a smile.
She leaned back against the elevator wall, feeling the cold seep through
her skirt. She pressed her shoulder blades together to keep her spine
from settling against the wall. “Well,” she answered, “you know what the
gossip mill is like.”
“I do,” he replied. “Are you backing out?”
She sucked her lip between her teeth and rested a hand on her hip. “No,”
she said slowly. Her voice betrayed her nerves and the two letter word
had a few more syllables added to it. The elevator ground to a halt with
a stomach lurching jolt. “I’m starting to worry about the safety of your
“Starting to?” he questioned, his eyebrow raised to punctuate his
sarcasm. Unlocking his door, he ushered her in and flipped on a light.
He watched as she wandered around his apartment, exploring it as if she
had never seen it. Her fingers trailed over the kitchen table and he
could see her shoulders rise and fall beneath the fabric of her shirt as
she took a deep breath before turning around.
They stared at each other from across the room, each wondering what they
were doing. He reminded himself that he was happy and content. After a
rocky year, and the upheavals of the previous one, he was finally
finding even ground. And he couldn’t figure out why he insisted on
throwing everything off again. Sarah Mackenzie was a seismic event in
his world and he didn’t know how he’d be able to piece it together again
when she left. He regretted telling her that he wouldn’t let go of her.
He regretted not telling her sooner. And he wondered how he’d let go of
her when the night was over.
The tension pulsed. It throbbed around them, radiating out from them and
beating in the corners of the room. The small circle of light from the
lamp dissipated as it stretched to light the whole room. It oozed across
the furniture and floors before giving way to the dark. They stood
still, frozen in the half-light, paralyzed by the awkwardness between
“I should go,” she said suddenly. Her thumb hooked around her purse
strap and her foot extended towards the door.
He took a step closer to her, then paused. Raising an eyebrow, he asked
again, “Backing out? Where’s that gung ho Marine attitude?”
She pursed her lips, biting the inside of her cheek to keep the smile
off her face. “Do you really think that’s attractive? That’s about the
least sexy thing I’ve ever heard. Seriously do you think that’s going to
“Yes.” He inched closer. His hands reached out for hers and pulled her
towards him. She shivered lightly as she felt his thumbs run over the
insides of her wrists, tracing the sides of her bones in feather-light
caresses. Her lips parted slightly and she leaned in to kiss him.
Her brain begged her to stop. Her heart pleaded with her. But she
couldn’t make her body respond to their demands. It was going to ruin
everything between them. She would never be able to look at him the same
way in the morning. She prayed that she wouldn’t do anything stupid like
telling him that she was in love with him. Then her thoughts dwindled
away like spun sugar until all she could focus on was him. Her heart,
helpless to do anything else, sighed and succumbed and waited quietly
“So, what do we do now?” Her voice was soft in the dark room. A gray
light had washed over the room and blanched it of its color, leaving it
shaded in tones of light and dark. The mattress squeaked a little and
the sheets slid over her skin as she shifted on the bed to study his
face. She tucked her hands under her chin and waited for his answer.
Rain beat steadily against the window, its patter filling the silence.
He hadn’t slept. Or, at least, he didn’t remember falling asleep. He had
laid in bed listening to her breathing, to the rain on the glass panes,
the sounds of cars driving through puddles, and had wondered how he was
going to answer that very question. “I don’t know.”
She sat up, easing a leg from beneath the sheets, and dangled it over
the edge of the bed. “I should get going.” She pulled the flat sheet
tightly against her chest. “Do you mind if I borrow this?”
He raised an eyebrow. “A little late for modesty, don’t you think?”
She fell back against the bed with a thump, sheet still firmly tucked
beneath her arms. “Well, this a little weird for me.”
“Whereas,” he pushed himself up onto his elbows, “this happens every
other day to me.”
Her breath expelling in soft gasps, she laughed softly. “Okay, then,
since you’re such an expert, what do we do next?”
“I can make you breakfast,” he suggested. He swung his legs out of the
bed and searched the floor for his boxers.
She pushed her hair back from her face and watched him. The muscles in
his back were bunched and tensed and his movements were jerky. Reaching
across the bed, she laid a hand on his spine, in the space between his
shoulder blades and rubbed the skin. Her fingers curled and uncurled on
his vertebrae. “Harm,” she said quietly, “relax. We’re both - ” She
broke off, unsure how to phrase her sentence.
He stopped his search and leaned back against the wall, pulling the
covers across his lap. “I can at least make you breakfast,” he offered
“Maybe.” She shrugged. “You don’t have to.” She paused again, then
added, “I had fun last night.” The comment sounded hollow in her ears.
Inadequate and trite, but she didn’t know what else to say. Or how to
alleviate the pressure in the room.
He tried, but he couldn’t stop a smug smile from spreading. “We should
do it again sometime.”
Laughing, she sat up and pulled her knees to her chest. Leaning her
elbows on them, she scraped her hair back into a ponytail and held it
between her fingers. “Possibly.” She glanced at the sky again. It was
lighter; the gray was less severe. “I really should go.”
His gaze followed hers to the window. “It’s still early,” he countered,
wondering why he was arguing with her.
She twirled the sheets around her fingers, weaving the fabric in and out
of them. The bed was painted in a chiaroscuro, the shadows contoured in
the shapes of their bodies. Her clothes were strewn around the room,
some tangled up in his. She shifted her legs, stretching one out in
front of her, and flexed her toes. “It’s getting later,” she sighed.
“So, about tomorrow?”
“What about tomorrow?” He rolled his head against the wall to look at
her. So, they had circled back to this and he still didn’t have an
answer for her or for him. He wanted to ask her what she wanted, but he
didn’t want to hear her response. He didn’t want to hear the words
‘never’ or ‘accident’ fall from her lips. “We could always let tomorrow
take care of itself.”
She shrugged and watched the rain. It was letting up and, if she waited
much longer, she wouldn’t even get wet on the walk to her car. “Harm,
I-” She stopped and shrugged again. Her laugh was self-conscious and
strained. “Honestly, did you think it would be this awkward?”
“We probably shouldn’t have done this.”
“Maybe we should have done this sooner,” he argued. “Gotten it out of
She nodded quickly and her “yeah” came out in a small voice. Whenever
she had allowed herself to imagine a morning after between them, she had
always pictured it differently. She chastised herself for being such a
girl about it. Hadn’t she said never? Hadn’t she told him it was just
for one night? It was silly and stupid and, most of all, pointless to
want to change things now. He had a life separate from hers now. Maybe,
if she were lucky, this wouldn’t ruin their friendship. Or at the very
least, their truce. “I really should go,” she said again. “I don’t want
to get caught doing the walk of shame by the girls.”
“The walk of shame?” he echoed. The corners of his mouth turned down a
She smiled to let him know it was a joke. “See the things you miss out
on when you don’t go to a regular college? It just means getting caught
wearing the same clothes you had on the night before.” She tugged on the
sheet, gathering the material around her body and tried to climb out of
the bed. “I’ll see you tomorrow?” she asked, picking up her clothes from
“Yeah.” He resumed his hunt for his boxers and watched as she
disappeared into the bathroom, the sheet dipping low at her waist. He
was pulling on his jeans when she emerged fully clothed. She tossed the
sheet at him, hitting him on the chest. Yanking on her sandal, she bent
over and kissed him lightly on the lips before dashing out of the room.
Her hurried “bye” was nearly lost in the sound of the door closing. He
realized then that he had been wrong. She wasn’t a seismic event. She
was a tornado and he decided to listen to the warnings this time around.
A thick rind of ice coats the trees and snow glazes the branches. The
leaves on the rhododendrons make small clinking sounds, like distant
wind chimes, in the breeze. The wind whistles around the corners of the
house, making the shingles creak under its pressure. The snow falls
thickly in large flakes. A snowplow rumbles down the street; its
vibrations shiver through the house.
She nestles into the space between his body and the back of the couch,
tucking her lower leg beneath his. She presses her fingers into the
juncture of his jaw and neck and makes him flinch. “Cold hands,” she
“No kidding. Mind taking them off of my neck?” he asks, opening his eyes
“I’m cold,” she says insistently. She wedges an elbow under his ribs and
leans more closely on his chest. She rests her chin on him and waits.
His arm reaches around her and pulls a blanket off the back of the
couch. It settles down around them with a quiet whoosh. “You could have
gotten it yourself,” he points out.
“Easier for you,” she defends herself. “Listen to that wind.” She angles
an arm so that she is propped up on her elbow. Her fingers brush at his
hair, combing it back from his face. It’s salted with gray now, but she
still pictures him with the same dark brown he had when they first met.
She hopes that by the time he’s completely gray, she’ll have adjusted
and will be able to see the changes. Her own hair would probably have
some gray in it, too, if she ever missed an appointment with her
Something falls to floor upstairs and they both look up. “I thought they
were asleep,” she frowns at the ceiling. Her head drops on to his
shoulder and she sighs.
“I’ll go,” he offers. He moves a hand to her ribcage and pushes a
little, trying to slip out from under her. “I think it’s my turn to be
the bad guy anyway.”
She kicks the blanket away and untangles their legs. “No, it’s okay.”
She kneels over him and pats his chest. “I’ll take care of it. You can
take care of the fireplace.” She leans over him and kisses him. “Don’t
fall asleep,” she warns.
“Yes’m.” He nods, his eyes already drifting shut again. He hears her
sigh as she leaves the room. The treads squeak under her feet and the
noises above him stop suddenly. Even though he is downstairs, he knows
what the scene will look like upstairs. The children are still too young
to think quickly and they will be frozen in place, waiting to see if her
shadow passes by the door. It won’t. She’ll open the door and urge them
into their own rooms and their own beds. Light kisses on warm cheeks and
sleepy goodnights will follow. He rolls to his side and listens to the
sounds of the house and falls back to sleep.
Late Spring 2004
Spring was spinning into summer. Sunshine and longer days were weaving a
tapestry of yellows and greens. The cherry blossoms had faded and were
falling to the ground, forming puddles of pink leaves around the city.
The late afternoon sunshine had turned the bullpen a yellow gold. On his
way to his office, he glanced at her door. It was closed, but her blinds
were open and he could see her on the phone. Her elbow rested on her
desk and her head was cradled in her hand, pressing against the space
between her thumb and forefinger. It amazed him how easily they had
slipped into their old roles of co-workers and friends. If their
relationship lacked the warmth it once had, at least it was closer than
it was when he had returned to work. But if he hadn’t been an active
participant in their – what should he call it? affair? one night stand?
just sex? – he never would have believed it had happened.
He was picking up his messages when he noticed she was off the phone. At
first, he thought that she had somehow managed to leave her office
without walking by him. Then, he saw the arc of her back over the top of
her desk. He knocked on her office door and opened it without waiting
for a response. “Mac?”
She jerked upright; her hair settled around her jaw as she tried to
focus on him.
“Everything all right?”
“All right?” she echoed, then shook her head a little. “I, uh, yes.
He narrowed his eyes and lowered himself into one of the chairs facing
her desk. Her gaze drifted around her office, refusing to settle on him.
He followed it as he waited for her to speak to him. When she only
twisted a pen in her hands, he commented, “You know, this is nice.
Having windows, I mean.”
She sniffled a little and pretended to smile. Her lips curved before
dipping down. “It adds to the atmosphere,” she said distantly. She
exhaled slowly and realigned a file with the edge of her blotter. “I
should probably get to work.”
Instead of picking up her cue, he leaned back against his chair and
crossed his legs. “What’s
“You’re lying,” he said bluntly.
“How?” she asked loudly, then quickly lowered her voice. “How can you
tell? I fixed that lip thing years ago.”
“Aha,” he pointed a finger at her, “so you are lying.”
“No. Yes,” she sighed. “I don’t know.” She laid her hands on the desk,
folding them in front of her, and bit her lip.
“Well, which is it?” he asked confused. He shifted in his seat, edging
forward to lean his elbows on his knees.
“We need to talk,” she said at last.
“Uh oh,” he muttered. “That’s never good.” He stood up and walked around
her office. Pacing its confines, he paused to straighten a picture on
the wall. He eyed the distance to the door and tried to calculate how
many steps it would take to leave the small room.
“Um,” she licked her lips and paused, “no, I guess not.” Combing her
fingers through her hair, she propped her head in her hand and stared
out the window.
“Are you going to tell me what it is?” he asked. He began to think of
all the possibilities, creating and rejecting horrible scenarios in his
mind. He settled on the most plausible explanation. “Is Webb back in
“No,” she drew the word out, “this has nothing to do with him.” She took
a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I just got off the phone with my
“Oh.” He studied her face and suddenly he knew what she needed to tell
“Apparently, your little swimmers have pretty good aim.” She buried her
face in her hands as she said this, dragging them down her face and
pulling at the skin.
“But you-” he broke off and lowered himself into the chair again. “You –
we were protected.”
“We were,” she agreed and shrugged. Shuddering out a slow breath, she
tried to keep her tone light as she added, “Well, they do say the only
foolproof method is abstinence. We certainly didn’t go that route.”
A corner of his mouth twitched upwards and he snorted lightly. He rubbed
a hand over his jaw and tried to think of something to say. “I think,”
he stopped his sentence and ran a hand over his head.
“Can you? Because, I’ve got to say, I’m not so sure I can.” She rocked
her chair a little and finally looked at him.
“No,” he answered. The sounds from the bullpen were beginning to trickle
back into the room. He could hear the telephones ringing and the voices
calling to each other. “I need a little time to digest this I think.”
She waved a hand weakly and dropped her sight to her desk. “Go.”
He skirted around her desk. Turning her chair around to face him, he
crouched down in front of her. A lock of her hair fell forward and he
tucked it behind her ear again, tracing the shell of her ear with his
finger. “It’ll be okay.”
Nodding, she sniffled, “I know.”
“Uh,” he wished that he could think of something to say. “Should we have
She shrugged and knit her fingers together in her lap. “Maybe.” Freeing
her hands, she patted him on the shoulder, dusting her fingers over it.
“I really just want to be alone right now. I know this is a shock to
you, too, but I just really need to be alone.”
Rising, he nodded and placed a light kiss on her forehead. “I’ll, um,
I’ll stop by a little later, okay?”
She grasped his hand and clung to it before letting him go. “I’ll see
you later,” she said as he was closing the door. He smiled at her
through the glass before hurrying back to his office.
A knock on his office door startled him and Harriet’s head peeked around
the door when she heard his enter. “Excuse me, sir,” she said. “I just
saw the Colonel and she asked me to tell you she’s gone home for the
day.” She paused and added, “Is she okay, sir? She looked a little
He nodded. “She’s fine. Thank you.” When she shut the door, he leaned
back into his chair. He picked up his phone and started to dial her cell
phone. Hanging up before it could ring, he sighed in disgust. Steepling
his fingers together, he wondered how long it would be before he could
catch more than a glimpse of her again. This, he thought, was not
supposed to happen. He was unprepared for this, had never even
considered it. He was going to be a father.
Late Spring 2004
The early evening shadows stretched across her apartment floor, leaving
small patches of sunlight on the walls and furniture. It was almost
summer and the sun was setting a little more slowly, lingering a little
longer on the horizon. She had been watching the spots of light for over
an hour as they waxed and waned with the sun’s movements. Her feet were
coated in dark now; the red polish looked shades darker than it had been
when she first put it on.
Her arms were wrapped around her knees; her head rested against the back
of the couch. She had been sitting in that position for so long that her
muscles felt frozen. Harden and set like she had become a figurine of
herself. She pushed a heel against a cushion and nearly winced as her
muscles let her know their discontent. She needed to move; she needed to
It had been cowardly to leave before he could get his bearings. But she
had needed the space and time to think without him hovering over her and
so she left. She slipped out of the office and out of the building
before he could find her. She felt guilty and she knew he would accuse
her of running away. Which, to be fair, she did.
The knock on her door didn’t startle her. Although it surprised her that
it didn’t come sooner. She smoothed a stray hair back into the ponytail
she had pulled it up in and levered her body off the couch. “Hi,” she
said quietly as she opened the door. “Come on in.” She stepped back and
held the door open for him.
“Why’d you leave? Are you feeling okay?” he asked without preamble. His
hands fiddled with his cover, turning it around and around in his hands.
“I’m fine.” She walked back to the couch, tucking her legs beneath her
and angling her body to watch him. “I just needed some time to think.”
“About what?” He sank into a chair and braced his elbows on its arms.
“What do you mean ‘about what’?” she snapped the words out, then sighed
and ran her fingers over her toenails, examining them for chips and
trying to collect her thoughts.
“I just meant have you decided what you want to do?” he explained,
rephrasing the question. His fingers tensed and flexed on the armrests.
“I – it looks like we’re having a baby,” she said, shrugging. The words
and the tone sounded casual and she wondered how she managed to pull it
off. Her stomach was queasy and she had a headache building behind her
eyes. And she hoped that he wouldn’t ask her a difficult question, like
how she was feeling. Because she couldn’t answer it, or at least answer
it truthfully. She shifted slightly and tugged at the hem of her shorts
as she waited for his response.
He tilted his head back and stared at the ceiling of her apartment. The
shadows were a little longer and only his face and shoulders remained in
the sunlight. “Uh,” he started and then stopped. “It looks – this is
what you want to do?” He leaned forward and wove his fingers together.
“You don’t want it?” Cold seeped into her skin, trickling slowly through
her pores and her hand tightened on the afghan on her couch. She hadn’t
considered that. She knew she was overwhelmed. Terrified by the prospect
of being a parent and not being ready for it. But she wasn’t a young
girl who had to worry about providing for her baby. The truth was, she
wasn’t young anymore. The biological clock she once mentioned to him
only had a finite amount of time left on it. She had thought she was
ready for it, but now that the time was finally here, she couldn’t help
but wish that she had just a little more time to prepare herself.
“No, yes,” he said, “I didn’t say that.” He moved to the couch and sat
down next to her. He raised a shoulder and let it drop. “I think I was
trying to be supportive.”
“Oh.” She brushed a hand over a cushion. “So what do we do now?”
“I don’t know.”
She sighed and looked out the window. The sunset had doused the city in
pale pinks and reds and the bricks outside her windows were painted an
orange-red under the sun’s rays. Across the street, people were flicking
on lamps and drawing their blinds. Through an open window, she could
hear the sounds of dirt and gravel shifting beneath wheels as cars slid
into parking spaces. Car doors opened and slammed shut as people
returned home from work.
“Well,” she said, “we’re both lawyers. Should we – do you think we
should work out custody and things like that?”
“Mac,” he elongated her name on a sigh. “We have eight months. I think
we can wait.” He raised an eyebrow. “Besides, I’d like to think we could
be adults about this.”
“Could we?” she asked, doubt creeping into her voice. “I don’t know
about that.” She laid a hand on his forearm and rubbed her thumb over
his wrist. “Sometimes I don’t even know if we’ll be talking to each
other from one week to the next.”
His free hand covered hers, patting her fingers a little. “So we’ll work
harder,” he suggested.
“I guess,” she agreed. “We’re going to be stuck with each other for the
next eighteen years or so.” She eased closer to him and laid her head on
His chin angled over her head. “Anything you can dish out, I can take.”
“We’ll see about that.” She let out a small laugh and pulled herself
closer to his body.
“What do you say you come back to my place and I’ll make dinner? I’ll
drive you back,” he offered. “If we’re really lucky, Mattie will have a
long, involved story that will take hours to tell and end with ‘I guess
you had to be there.’”
Chuckling, she nodded. “That sounds like a good idea.” But she didn’t
move and he didn’t stand up. “Harm?” she asked quietly.
“Yes.” His voice was hushed, too.
“We’re going to be parents.”
The room was dark now and cool. She could hear people on the street as
they went out for dinner, or just out. The sunset was fading, leaving
the sky a clear blue. Her head nestled into the corner of his neck and
shoulder and she sighed a little. His fingers tightened on hers and they
watched as the last of the light slipped from the sky.
The early morning light was lemon yellow and rolled ashore on the backs
of the waves. A few people were already on the sand, fishing or
collecting shells that had washed on to the beach overnight. Seagulls
hovered above Mattie as she tossed stale breadcrumbs into the air. He
could hear her shrieks above the noise of the waves when one of the
birds dived too close to her head. He smiled as she turned to wave at
him before jogging down to the water’s edge. Despite the season, the
ocean was still toe numbingly cold and only fit for people her age. But
she didn’t appear to mind the temperature as she waded out to her knees
to scan the water for shells.
The Fourth of July would have gone by unnoticed by him, a barely
perceptible blip among a series of daily upheavals and minor, and not so
minor, readjustments. But Harriet had called it to his attention. He
should have been suspicious when she first approached him, but he
wasn’t. It wasn’t until she started talking about the beach and houses
that he began to understand what she wanted. And he said no. But she
followed him around with pictures of lovely houses on the waterfront.
When those photos didn’t work, she tried guilt, pointing out how Mattie
would love it and Mac looked like she could use a weekend away. He
crumbled under her pressure when Mac told him that she had accepted the
Roberts’ invitation. As he sat on the house’s upper deck, legs crossed
at the ankles and propped up on the railing, he couldn’t help but feel
glad that he gave in.
The screen door scraped open and he heard her step out onto the deck.
She pulled the door closed behind her and walked over to the railing and
into his line of sight. With her back to the water, she pushed her
sunglasses back from her face and squinted at the sun. “It’s nice out
here,” she said, stretching her legs out in front of her. “Where’d
“Mattie’s right there.” He pointed to the ocean. Angling her head, she
followed the direction of his finger. “And Harriet and Bud took the boys
for a walk on the beach.”
“Oh.” She nodded. She patted his ankle lightly and smiled at him.
“Enjoying yourself there?”
“Can’t say that I mind this.” He crossed his hands behind his head and
smiled back. “It feels good to relax a little. How are you feeling?” He
nudged her hip with his foot.
She shrugged. “Better now.” She ran a hand over the back of her neck and
glanced down the beach. “I guess everyone left while I was in the
“Harriet wanted to know if you wanted to go with them. She offered to
wait, but I told her that your dinner made you nauseous.”
“Thanks for that.” She lifted herself onto the porch railing and swung
her feet back and forth. The tips of her toes and side of her foot
brushed against his leg. “Thank God they suggested this trip while I
could still fit into all my clothes.” Her fingers pulled at a button on
the shirt she was wearing.
He eyed her stomach, looking for signs of the baby but it was still
flat. Rationally, he knew that it was still too early in her pregnancy
for it to show, but he still found himself searching her body for some
“You can stare all you want, it’s not going to make the baby any
bigger.” Her head was tilted back to the sun and her eyes were closed
against its light.
“How did you know what I was doing?” He raised an eyebrow even though
she wouldn’t see it.
“You do it every day.”
“Yes. It’s okay, you’re mostly subtle about it.” She leaned her head to
the side and let the light catch her cheek.
“Mostly subtle?” He uncrossed and re-crossed his legs. A breeze off the
water kept the air from getting too warm. The fishermen were packing up
their rods and tackle boxes and the empty stretches of sand were
beginning to fill in. By afternoon, the beach would be a patchwork quilt
of blankets and umbrellas. Radios and childish shrieks would fill the
air until the early morning silence was only a memory. “I thought I was
being very stealthy.”
“You?” she questioned. Using his ankle for leverage, she edged off the
railing. Her feet hit the deck with a light thump. “No, but I’ll let you
keep your dreams.” She tried to slip past him, but his arm hooked around
her waist and pulled her onto his lap.
“I’ll remind you that I was employed by the CIA.” He readjusted his legs
so she fit comfortably on the chair.
“Oh, that’s right,” she laughed. “My mistake. You were very subtle and
“I knew you’d see it my way.” His fingers threaded through hers and then
slid away as she stood up. Her hand lingered on his shoulder before she
disappeared into the house, the sound of the screen door marking her
exit. A gull squawked in the distance and he heard AJ call out to Mattie
as the Roberts returned from their walk. And a thought, one that once
been vague and indistinct, began to gather shape and form, and he
started to wonder about all the possibilities.
The sun’s arc traced a path over the water and sand, past the houses
before dipping at the horizon. She had watched as teenagers and
sunbathers changed their positions on blankets and towels to catch all
of the sun. Like sunflowers, their bodies followed it as it marched
across the sky.
Now the sky was dark and the fireworks had ended in a cacophony of noise
and a symphony of color. The barges that had lined up parallel to the
horizon were detonating the left over fireworks and the pleasure boats
that dotted the ocean’s surface were slowly pulling away. Families were
packing up beach blankets and sand chairs and leading sleepy children to
cars parked just behind the dunes. There were a few parties in the
houses around them, their laughter and music floated down the beach.
The smoky ghosts of the fireworks were drifting across the water’s
surface and fanning across the sand. Harriet and Bud were putting the
boys to bed, leaving her with Mattie and Harm on the beach.
Mattie cupped sand in her hands and let it trickle through her fingers.
The small grains caught the thin moonlight as they shivered in waves to
the beach. “I had fun tonight,” she said, burying her toes in the sand.
“Thanks for bringing me here.” She leaned her head against Harm’s arm.
“Good and you’re welcome.” He glanced down at the top of her head. His
gaze shifted to Mac and he asked, “How are you holding up, Marine?”
“Fine,” she smiled, pulling her sweater cuffs over her hands. “A little
cold, but fine. The fireworks were really lovely.”
“I liked the gold ones,” Mattie said, picking her head up and leaning
forward to see around Harm. “The ones that looked sort of like
“They were pretty,” she agreed. She raked her fingers in the sand,
cross-hatching the lines and creating little grids. The day had been
almost perfect. She had spent it with people she loved. And if some of
them, one in particular, didn’t love her the way she wanted, then she
was almost okay with that. The problem was, the way they were acting was
slowly killing her. The affectionate pats and little glances reminded
her of everything she had wanted and would never have. They reminded her
of everything she had tossed away in an effort to stop dancing.
Mattie pushed piles of sand around her ankles and wiggled her feet under
the mounds. In the dark light, huddled next to Harm’s body, she looked
young. She looked happy. “What about you, Harm?” she asked, watching the
sand undulate as she flexed her toes. “Which ones did you like best?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” He propped himself up on his elbows. “I liked them
“But if you had to pick,” Mattie persisted.
“Then I would have to say the shapes.”
Mattie nodded, then smiled sheepishly. “I’m acting like a little kid
who’s never seen fireworks before, aren’t I?”
Mac smiled. “It’s okay. It’s cute.”
Seeing Mattie’s flinch, Harm said, “Uh oh, now you’ve done it. You said
the dreaded ‘c’ word.”
“And with that,” Mattie stood up and brushed the sand off her legs, “I’m
going inside.” She turned on her heel and marched towards the house.
“Good night,” she called over her shoulder.
“Are you ready to go inside, too?” he asked, tilting his head back to
She tucked a corner of the blanket around her feet and said, “No, I
think I’ll stay out here for a few more minutes.” She looked down at
him. “You can go in if you want.”
He sat up. “No, it’s nice out here.”
Her lips turned up in a small smile and he took a deep breath. The words
popped out of his mouth before he could stop them. “Marry me.”
She sucked air in and had to remind herself to exhale. “What?” she
He shifted on the blanket and felt the sand slip out from under him. He
hadn’t meant to say the words. Not so soon anyway. He had wanted to wait
until he could convince her that he wanted her, too, and not just the
baby. But as usual, where she was concerned, his vocal chords and mouth
had overridden his brain. And now, she was looking at him like he had
“What did you say?” she asked again.
“I said, marry me,” he repeated.
“I – oh.” She placed a hand beneath her breastbone and inhaled slowly.
Her breath hitched as she tried to exhale. Her fingers grasped at her
sweater’s weave, looping through the spaces. “Why?”
“Why what?” he asked.
She uncurled her legs and straightened them on the blanket. “Why do you
want to marry me?” she asked, then added, “Don’t tell me that I know the
reason, because, quite clearly, I don’t.” She wanted to ignore the voice
in her head that was yelling that she needed to be careful, and just say
yes. What she wanted, what she thought she would never have, was just
offered to her. But it was a hollow offer, made because of a baby and
not because it was what he wanted. It would be so easy for her to ignore
the vicious voice and pretend that it was exactly what she had dreamed
of. “Is it because of the baby?” she asked, screaming at herself to just
shut up and not probe deeper.
Later that night, when he was trying to sleep, he would try to figure
out where the conversation had gone wrong. And strangely enough, he
wouldn’t think that it had been when he asked her to marry him. It could
have been when she didn’t say yes right away or it could have been when
he said, “Partly.”
“Partly?” she echoed, wishing that the conversation was over, that she
could tuck herself into bed and sleep the words away. “Would you have
asked if I weren’t pregnant?” she choked the question out.
The silence that followed the question gave her the answer she didn’t
want. “Okay,” she said. “That answers that.” It was absurd. He wouldn’t
have asked because they had barely managed to interact civilly before
this. He wouldn’t have asked because she had told him that nothing would
ever happen between them.
The parties were slowly ending. Cars were starting and he could hear
people calling out good-byes as the night drew to a close. Behind them,
the light in Harriet and Bud’s room switched off, leaving the house dark
except for the living room and porch lights. He felt her pat his knee
and he knew she was getting ready head to back in. “Mac,” he started,
relying on his weakest argument, “this will simplify-”
She interrupted, “Custody? Estate planning? Housing? You don’t honestly
think I’d do anything to keep you from your child, do you?”
“No,” he said emphatically. “No.”
“Then why-” She shook her head. “No, never mind. Don’t answer that.” She
stood up and dusted off the sand that clung to her legs. “I think I’m
going to go to bed now.” She glanced at the house and sighed. Her lips
twisted as she tried to control her emotions until she could retreat to
her room. “Night.”
“Mac, wait,” he called. He scrambled to his feet, but she walked away,
shaking her head and waving her hand a little. Sighing, he shook out the
blanket and wondered why he had to open his mouth. Why had he rushed to
change things when they were fine the way they were? But she hadn’t said
no, hadn’t answered the question either way, and it was going to be up
to her to bring up the subject again. He surely wasn’t going to ask
again and he didn’t know what he would say if she did.
He flicked the porch light off and stood on the darkened deck. Only a
few boats remained on the water. The waves crashed against the jetties
and the beach was empty. The tide was rolling in and the waves were
creeping closer to the houses. As he watched the water, he couldn’t help
but wonder what kind of wave it would take to reach the point where they
had been sitting. And he couldn’t help but wish a wave would carry the
whole beach away, leaving nothing of this night behind.
She smothers a smile as she pushes open the door that leads to her
oldest child’s room. Only the nightlight is on. The stuffed animals and
dolls scattered around the room cast large, exaggerated shadows on the
walls. The floor is littered with dolls and clothes and a baby carriage,
one wheel still spinning slowly, lies on its side. She surmises that it
was the source of the noise she’d heard downstairs.
In the midst of the clutter, two little faces stare at her with large
eyes. Dolls sit mid-change on their laps. “It’s time for all good little
girls to be in bed,” she says softly.
“But we were,” Claudia begins to explain, holding her doll out in front
“No buts,” she stops her youngest daughter. “Bed.” She sighs as she
surveys the room. Toys and dress-up clothes are piled around the toy
chest. She plucks the crown off Molly’s head and nudges her to her bed.
“I’ll come back in a minute to tuck you in. Come on, Claud, beddy-bye
Claudia rises to the tops of her toes. “Up, Mommy.” She holds out her
arms and bounces a little.
Mac offers her hand and hopes that her little girl will accept it
instead. But Claudia only shakes her head and repeats, “Up.”
Sighing, she gives in and hauls the child to her hip. “Okay, sugar,
bedtime.” She pulls Molly’s door shut behind them and walks to Claudia’s
“Mommy,” she declares, “I want to sleep in Molly’s room tonight.”
Claudia wraps her arms around her mother’s shoulders and rests her chin
against Mac’s clavicle.
“Yes, tonight,” Claudia insists. Her lips pucker into a frown and she
nods against Mac’s neck.
“You need your sleep if you’re going to play in the snow tomorrow.” She
pushes open the door to Claudia’s room. When she turns on the
nightlight, she realizes tiny fingers must have been hard at work
because the room fills with music. Little tinkling notes float into the
corners of the room and settle in the shadows. Claudia has lined her
stuffed animals up on her bed and tucked a few beneath her comforter.
“They got cold,” she explains to her mother.
“Well, how about we put you in bed, too?” She pulls the blankets down
and lowers Claudia to the mattress.
“Can I have the fish light tonight?” She smiles at her mother. “You
wouldn’t let me sleep in Molly’s room.”
Mac reaches across the bed and turns on the soft light that makes fish
appear on the wall. As the lamp turns on its base, the fish swim over
the pale blue and white walls. Claudia claps her hands and snuggles
under her covers. “Night, Mommy.” She lifts her arms for her hug and
Kissing her nose, she murmurs, “Night, baby,” before slipping quietly
out of the room.
Late Summer 2004
They were barely speaking to each other. July had sailed into August,
the days merging and blending into a stream of hot, humid days. The
sharp, bright light of summer was fading into a softer hue as fall moved
closer. The sun set minutes earlier each day and the nights were getting
a little cooler. Before she had realized it, she was sliding into her
second trimester and was starting to show. She could start telling
people but she found that the words were locked tightly away. It was
something she had once looked forward to and now she couldn’t do it. She
knew she had to tell the Admiral, but she couldn’t push the words out of
her mouth. She didn’t want to have to answer the questions that she knew
she would be asked. She didn’t want to have to tell people the story of
the shotgun wedding proposal and so she said nothing and each day that
passed and she stayed mute, the words moved a little farther away.
But on the day her zipper started to strain, she realized she had to say
something. And she owed it to him to talk to him first. She brushed a
piece of lint off her skirt and knocked on his apartment door. Licking
her lips, she clasped her hands in front of her and waited for him to
open it. Through the metal, she could hear whispers of movement inside
and she had to clamp down on the desire to turn and run.
“Mac,” he said as he opened the door, “what are you doing here?”
“I need to talk to you.” She leaned forward to see over his shoulder and
into his apartment. “Is this a bad time or can I come in?”
He glanced back into the room and stepped out into the hall. “Why don’t
we go out?” he suggested. “It’s a mess. I’ve been doing a few repairs.”
He grabbed his keys and pushed her out into the hallway. He had taken
his frustration out on his apartment and was in the process of putting
it back together.
“I – okay.” She tucked a lock of hair behind her ears and followed him
down the stairs and outside.
“A café okay?” He called over his shoulder, careful not to make eye
contact or look too closely at her. He was unprepared for her visit. He
needed a little more time away from her before he could think about what
to do next, but here she was and he was, once again, left with very few
choices about how to handle the situation.
“It’s fine,” she sighed.
The window by their table showed an unusual collage of the street and
the inside of the café. She could see his image superimposed over the
sidewalk and street as he waited at the counter. People strolled through
his reflection in twos and threes or large, laughing groups. She watched
as they walked with their arms interlocked or holding hands.
Occasionally, someone ambled by alone, hands in pockets or clutching a
purse strap, and looked in the windows. She wondered what she must look
like to them.
She tried to picture herself on the street. Stared at her reflection and
imagined that she could join it on the sidewalk. The air was soft and
still. There were no clouds and the first stars were beginning to appear
in the sky. She knew that if she stood up and walked out the café door,
she could be at the Capitol in twenty minutes, maybe less. She could
stand on its terrace and see the city spread out before her. The
monuments would be lit against the night sky, the clear white lights
surrounding them, giving them weight and presence even in the dark. She
could almost feel the air on her face and the stone railings beneath her
hands when he placed a tall glass of iced tea in front of her.
“Thanks,” she said, pulling her gaze from the window and her escape.
She sighed and folded her hands on the tabletop. “We need to talk.”
“You said that already.” He leaned back in his chair and crossed his
ankle over his knee. Steam from his coffee cup rose over the table and
disappeared into the air-conditioned room. His gaze shifted to the
window and he hoped he looked like he was unaffected by the pregnant
woman sitting across from him.
“I have to tell the Admiral.” She poured sugar into her tea and stirred.
The spoon and ice clanked against the walls of the glass.
“So tell him,” he shrugged. He wanted to wince as he heard how harsh he
sounded, but he kept his expression neutral. He wanted to ask about the
baby. He wanted to ask about her. About why she had walked away again.
The questions were jumbled and confused and piled up on top of each
other until he couldn’t separate them and so he said nothing.
She hissed the words out between her teeth. “Any chance that you’ll stop
acting like a jackass anytime soon?”
He sat up and looked at her. “Me?”
“Yes, you.” She wanted to shout, but she dug her nails into her palms
until she could regain control of her volume. “Just because I didn’t say
yes to your little proposal, you-”
Resting his elbows on the table, he breathed deeply and tried to control
his temper as he interrupted, “Little proposal?” he repeated. “Well,
that’s lovely, Mac. Really nice way to make everything better.”
“Well, what would you call it? True love?” she asked, regretting the
words as they left her mouth. She hadn’t wanted to fight with him. She
wanted to start over or find a way to put the pieces back together, but
the hurt from his hasty proposal lingered. Like a bee sting, the place
where the words had landed was swollen and sore. It itched and nagged at
her until she found herself hurting him in an attempt to appease her own
A table of women, girls in college really, giggled in a corner of the
café. Over her shoulder, he could see people playing chess. The sound of
milk being steamed hissed out over the restaurant. A bell over the door
rang once as it opened and again as it closed. He listened to the sounds
of the café, feeling the marble tabletop warm beneath his hand, and
waited for the words to come. Words other than yes. Yes, he thought it
was love, but now he wasn’t sure. “I honestly don’t know what to say.”
She pushed her hair back from her face. “I’m sorry,” she breathed the
words out on a sigh. She bit her lower lip before continuing, “I’m not
going to marry you.”
“I think it’s fair to say I got that,” he said. “I think it would also
be fair to say that the offer is no longer on the table.”
She nodded. “Yeah,” her voice was quiet. Her fingers twisted around the
spoon, it’s edges bit into her hand. “I know,” she said. “The thing is –
The reason I said no.” She blew out a soft breath that fluttered the
ends of her hair. “You grew up with two parents who loved you and each
other. Even when your mother married Frank, she still loved you. My
parents hated each other. So much that my mom left me to get away from
him. I don’t want that for this baby.”
He rolled his shoulders and forced himself to look at her. “It wouldn’t
be like that for this baby.”
“You don’t know that,” she argued. “Were you listening to us? We’ve
gotten so good at hurting each other. Do you honestly think a marriage
would stop that?” She released her grip on the spoon and trailed her
fingers over the condensation on the glass. “You don’t love me, Harm.
How long would it be until you felt trapped and unhappy?”
His jaw clenched and his hand tightened on the mug’s handle. “I never
“You didn’t have to. It’s what would happen.”
“No,” he exhaled sharply, “I never said I didn’t love you.”
She blinked. “You have no idea,” she said quietly, “how much I want to
believe that.” She leaned her head in her hands and stared at her lap.
“Mac,” he started to reach across the table, but his hand fell back onto
his leg, “how could you not-”
She shook her head. Her movements rattled the table, making their drinks
slosh in their cups. A puddle of iced tea formed around her elbow. “I
don’t know.” Dashing a finger below her eyes, she glanced up. “You never
said – I just assumed.” Her shoulders rose and fell as she took a deep
breath and exhaled slowly. “What was all that crap about simplifying
He grabbed a pile of napkins and began to sponge up the mess on the
table. “You weren’t answering me.” He shrugged, wishing he had a better
explanation. “I panicked.”
“Oh.” She cupped her chin in her palm and focused on the street. “Oh,”
she murmured into her palm. “Well, don’t I feel silly. I must have just
read you wrong. I mean, I assumed when you said that the baby was the
reason, it meant you were proposing because of the baby. Silly me.” Her
voice was bitter.
“That wasn’t it.”
“How was I supposed to know?” she demanded, turning her attention back
to him. “You didn’t say anything.”
“Would it have made it better?” he questioned. “Would you have believed
me?” He saw her flinch and he knew she had already thought of that.
“We’ll never know, will we?” She picked up her purse and shoved her
chair back from the table. “We should work out a custody agreement,” she
said. “I don’t know how we ever thought we could work things out on our
own. I’m going to go now. I’m tired.”
His hand clamped down on hers. “Stay.”
“Because I asked.”
She paused. “Can we,” she bit her lip and looked outside, “can we take a
walk instead? I need fresh air.”
He nodded and followed her to the door. “Where to?”
“You pick,” she said.
“The Hill okay with you?”
She sniffled and nodded. “Yeah,” she said, “that’s perfect.”
They run into each other in the hallway outside Molly’s door. “All in
bed?” he asks quietly.
“Almost.” She nods at Molly’s door. “I just have to tuck Molly in.
Claudia should still be awake if you want to say good night.”
“Good idea.” He kisses her temple and moves down the hall. “I’ll be back
in a minute.”
She lets a smile inch across her face before pushing the corners of
lips down and opening the door. Molly sits in the middle of her room,
surrounded, again, by dolls. She tugs nightgowns over their heads and
tucks them into makeshift beds. Where the tiara once sat, a conical
shaped hat with long ribbons sits. An elastic band around her chin keeps
her princess hat in place as she hurries to finish changing her dolls.
“Alright, Mugwump, what did I say about bed?” She puts her hands on her
hips and hopes she looks stern. Her lips twitch as she studies Molly’s
outfit of footed pajamas and princess hat.
“Princess Mugwump,” Molly corrects as she smiles at her mother. “I had
to finish putting them to bed.” She holds up a doll that is
half-dressed. “They’re tired.”
“Oh,” she nods. “Well, I’m sure they’ll be fine. Their mommy needs to go
to sleep now.” She crouches down in front of her daughter and removes
the hat. She taps Molly’s nose and says, “Bedtime, sweetie.”
“Tell me a story.”
“Not tonight. It’s too late tonight.” She guides Molly to her bed and
tucks the blankets tightly around her. Kissing her cheek, she says, “You
go to sleep now. Sweet dreams.”
The door opens and Harm ducks under its frame, carrying Claudia on his
shoulders. She resists the urge to sigh, knowing it will do no good.
“Claud wants to sleep in here tonight. That okay, Mols?”
Molly nods and edges to the far side of her bed. Claudia giggles as he
drops her onto the now vacant side of the bed. “Tell us a story, Daddy,”
He drops down next Mac on the bed. His chin resting against her
shoulder, he begins, “Once upon a time, there were two beautiful
Early Fall 2004
Fall crept in and coated the leaves with a fine film of dust, making
them a dull, flat green. Grey clouds pushed against the blue, crowding
the sky until only thin bands of sunlight filtered through their bulk.
As the wind ushered summer out, the heat began to dissipate. Only traces
of its warmth lingered in the afternoons.
They were meeting for lunch to discuss a case. He claimed he needed her
opinion. The case was easy; an anesthesiologist was accused of stealing
drugs from Bethesda. Because he was prosecuting, he really didn’t need
any help. It was an excuse, an attempt to find a way back to where they
had been before. Before Paraguay, before their rash decisions and
thoughtless comments had pushed them so far apart they could barely see
each other. Their lunches, though more frequent than they had been, were
often awkward and filled with more pauses than words.
“I got the results of the amnio this morning,” she said as he stepped
into her office. Boxes and files sat on her chairs and desk. Telling the
Admiral, and their friends, had been easier than she had thought it
would be. If they were shocked, then years of training kept them from
showing it. If there were whispers, she found she could ignore them. But
she was still moving to the judiciary. They were short judges and the
more structured schedule would be easier for her.
“You had an amnio?” he asked, pushing a box away from the door. “What on
earth is in that thing?”
“Books.” She glanced at the box. “I told you that I was going to,
“Vaguely.” He lowered an eyebrow as he tried to recall the conversation.
“I was on the Patrick Henry, right?”
“Give the man a cookie.” She signed the last of the reports she was
reviewing and looked up at him.
“Is everything all right? Aren’t they risky?”
“Yes, everything’s fine. Better than fine.” She capped her pen and stood
up. “And yes, there’s a risk, but it’s small.” Gathering her cover and
purse, she walked around the desk but didn’t move to the door. “Harm,
can I ask you something?”
His hand rested on the doorknob. “What?”
“Do you care if we have a boy or a girl?”
He frowned and leaned against the doorframe. “I haven’t thought about it
much. I mean, in terms of preferences.” He paused. “I have Mattie, so it
would be nice, I think, to have a son.”
“Oh.” She turned her cover in her hands, running her fingers over its
crease. “What about a little girl?” she asked quietly. “Would you be
disappointed?” The space between her shoulder blades tightened and she
eased onto the edge of her desk to take the weight off her feet.
“No,” he said. “Why would you-” His cover slipped from his fingers. He
bent down quickly to retrieve it, eyeing her stomach on the way up. “Are
She nodded and glanced into the bullpen. “Shut the door.”
“We’re having a girl?” he managed to push the words out.
“I hope you don’t mind knowing. The doctor told me and I had to tell
He stepped forward, then stopped, reconsidering his actions. “We’re
having a girl,” he stated, this time a little louder and more
She gestured at him, the flat of her hands pushing down to the floor.
“Ssh, keep your voice down,” she ordered softly. “Yes, we’re having a
He enveloped her in a hug and rested his head on top of hers. She
hesitated before wrapping her arms around his waist and sighing. “So you
really don’t mind?” she asked, her voice low and muffled against his
He reminded himself not to be annoyed by the question. They had been
tentative with each other for too long for either one to make
assumptions. “Why would I mind? Besides,” he joked, “we don’t get much
choice in the matter.”
She pulled back, resting her hands on the curve of her stomach, and
looked away. “I don’t know,” she shrugged. “It matters to some people.”
“Is she okay?”
“Yes,” she said. “I already told you that.”
“Then isn’t that enough?” He laid his hands on her biceps and waited
until she looked at him. “Do you mind?”
“No,” she said. She smiled, a real smile, one that hadn’t made an
appearance in a while around him. “I’m thrilled. Scared out of my mind,
He moved a stack of folders from a chair and guided her into it.
Cleaning off the other chair, he pushed it closer to hers before sitting
down. “Why are you scared?” He rested his elbows on his knees and said,
“I’ll tell you why I am, if you give me your reasons.”
She stared at her hands. Bargaining for time, before giving voice to a
fear she would rather remained quiet, she said, “You go first.”
“All right,” he agreed. “I’m not sure I know how to be a father,” he
Her gaze shot to his. “What? Why? You’re already a good dad to Mattie.
You’re great with AJ and Jimmy. What gave you that idea?”
He smiled. “I didn’t say it was rational.”
Reaching out, she touched his cheek lightly, brushing her thumb against
his cheekbone. “You’ll be a great dad,” she said softly. “You had good
“Some of the best,” he agreed, the words barely above a whisper. “Now
let’s hear your concerns.”
He suspected that they were similar to his. That she was worried about
how she would handle a child when her own childhood had been so dismal.
But she turned her face away and drew a deep breath. Her shoulders
shuddered as she exhaled slowly. “They go beyond irrational,” she said.
“Mac,” he put a finger under her chin and turned her face to his,
“what’s got you so worried?”
She waved a hand and let out a small, nervous laugh. “I reserve the
right to say I told you so at the end of this when you tell me I’m
crazy.” Biting her lip, she paused. “I’ve been thinking about this since
my doctor called. Little girls here,” she gestured to the bullpen,
“don’t have a very good history. First little Sarah and then Loren’s
little girl. I don’t want anything to happen to her.” She looked at him.
“Please tell me I’m being stupid and hormonal.”
He leaned back in his chair and ran a hand over his face. He hadn’t
expected his. How could he allay her fears when there were no guarantees
that he was right? Telling her she would be a good mom would have been
easy. Assuring her he wanted a daughter was a cake walk. But this was
different. Only medical science could give her the assurances she wanted
and, even then, there were still small chances that things could go
wrong. He almost regretted asking, because he couldn’t say what she
needed to hear. “The doctor said everything was fine.”
“No,” he interrupted. “No buts. We’ll stop at yes. She’s going to be
okay. She’s going to be happy and healthy and loved.”
She nodded slowly. “I have to talk to Harriet.”
“Yeah,” he agreed.
Scooting forward in her chair, she placed a light kiss on his cheek.
“Thank you for not telling me I’m crazy.”
“Same goes.” He stood and tugged her to her feet. Her stomach bumped
against his waist as she struggled to find her balance.
“Shifting center of gravity,” she laughed a little. Her hands gripped
his forearms and his cupped her elbows while she tried to find her feet.
“I’ll keep that in mind.” He loosened his hold, but didn’t let go.
“Ready for lunch?”
She nodded. “Do you need your file?”
“Nah,” he said, “we can discuss it some other time.” He stepped back and
released his hold on her arms.
“Harm,” her fingers caught the cuff of his jacket, “I know I haven’t
said it, but I’m glad you’re her father.”
He blinked, then smiled. “That makes us even, because I’m glad she has
you for a mom.”
Early Fall 2004
She was waiting in the courtyard for Harriet. Thin wisps of clouds, high
and lacy, stretched across the sky. A flock of geese, not waiting for
the cold, winged south. The sun cast long shadows on the ground,
covering the picnic table in thick bands of dark. In the canopy of
branches above her head, the leaves were starting to change colors. Reds
and yellows played hide and seek among the mostly green leaves.
She fidgeted with the milk she didn’t want but promised him she would
drink. He had offered to join her, and she wished she could have said
yes, but she wanted him to talk to Bud. Rolling the neck of the bottle
between her fingers, she watched the milk bottle form a kaleidoscope of
shadows on the tabletop.
“Colonel, sorry I’m late,” Harriet apologized as she plunked on to the
metal chair next to her. “The babysitter called and-” Blowing a strand
of hair away from her mouth, she waved away the annoyance.
“Is everything okay?” she asked.
“Everything’s fine.” She rolled her eyes. “She couldn’t find something.”
“Oh.” She bit her lip. “Okay.”
Harriet took a deep breath and let it out slowly, letting the rest of
the frustration evaporate into the blue sky. She tilted her face up to
the sun. “It’s nice out this afternoon.”
“It is.” She glanced around the courtyard, scanning the tall brick
building and the trees, studying the angle of the sun on the bricks and
ground, before turning back to Harriet. “I’m going to miss being able to
“I’m trying to convince Bud to take a weekend off and go away for a
little vacation before it gets cold.” She took a sip of water. “I’d like
to go to the Shenandoah Valley or the Smokey Mountains or some place
“That sounds nice.” Poking at her salad with her fork, she tried to
adjust her weight as the baby started to squirm.
“Kicking?” Harriet asked, noticing Mac’s flinch.
“No, not really. Just a little restless.” She rubbed her hand over her
stomach. To quell the nerves, to calm the baby. “Harriet?”
“Yes, ma’am?” Harriet asked absently. Her vision was focused on the
trees in the courtyard as she tried to plan a weekend away. She could
see a small cabin with two bedrooms and a fireplace. The leaves would
begin to change colors in the mountains soon. The foothills and lower
peaks would be covered in yellows, oranges, and reds. She thought the
boys would like playing in the woods. Maybe they could find a low-stress
trail and take a long walk. She could show them how to make rubbings of
their leaves with crayons. She could almost smell the smoke from the
fire at night.
“Harriet,” she repeated, touching her lightly on the hand.
“I’m sorry, ma’am.” Harriet shook her head a little, clearing the leaves
from corners of her mind. “I was daydreaming.”
“It’s okay. I just – I wanted to tell you.” She bit her lower lip again
and glanced up at the sky through the tree branches. “Before you hear it
from someone else, I got the results from my amnio.”
“You did?” Harriet eyed Mac’s stomach. “I didn’t realize that much time
had passed. Everything’s okay, right?”
“Everything’s fine.” She said quietly, “Harriet, I’m having a girl.”
Harriet’s fingers tightened on her sandwich before lowering it to the
table. The cabin, brightly lit against the night sky, disappeared
slowly, dismantling log by log. She swallowed heavily. Forcing her
fingers to uncurl from the bread, she picked up her napkin and wound it
around her fingers. Looping it over and under, pulling on the white
paper. “I – oh.”
Mac circled the top of her bottle with a finger. Her hand inched closer
to Harriet’s but didn’t touch her. “I wanted to tell you before you
heard from the office grapevine.”
“Of course.” Harriet blinked. Her heel scraped against the concrete as
she shifted in her chair. She tried to focus on the iron tabletop,
concentrating on the thin metal lines as they wove together and
separated. But she kept seeing Sarah’s nursery, the quilt she bought for
the crib. She saw the stuffed giraffe with a soft pink bow tied around
Mac pressed a hand to the side of her neck, tapping lightly on her
clavicle, and waited for the silence to pass. “Did I…” she trailed off.
“I didn’t know how else to tell you.”
“Sometimes,” Harriet said, then stopped. “I was going to say that
sometimes I think it’s all a bad dream. I’ll wake up and it’ll be four
years ago and I’ll still be pregnant with her. But that’s like wishing
away Jimmy and I really love my sons, you know? It’s just – sometimes it
sneaks up on me and catches me by surprise.”
“I’m sorry, Harriet.” She leaned forward and laid her hand on Harriet’s
wrist. “I really didn’t…”
Harriet shook her head. “It’s alright. What else could you do?” She
eased her wrist out from under Mac’s fingers. “I’m not very hungry,” she
said, looking down at her sandwich. “If you’ll excuse me.” She couldn’t
look at Mac. Didn’t want to see her stomach where her baby girl sat warm
“Of course,” she murmured, toying with her own lunch. She watched
Harriet hurry into the building, never once looking back or looking up
to see the people around her.
Harm had been watching them and he waited until Harriet had vanished
from sight. “Did it go okay?”
“I guess.” She shrugged. “As well as it could go.”
He nodded at her salad. “You need to eat.”
“I’m not hungry.” She pushed the meal away. “It’s not fair, Harm.” She
leaned against his shoulder for a minute, closing her eyes before
reminding herself where she was and sitting up right.
“I told Bud,” he said. “He’ll look after her.”
“That’s good.” She leaned her head into her hand and watched the front
of the building. She felt his fingers brush her hair back from her face
and she directed her gaze to him.
“Now, let me take care of you,” he offered. She nodded, too tired to
remind him she could do that on her own.
The box arrived at her apartment a week later. The blanket was soft and
pink, edged with white satin and embroidered with flowers. The card was
addressed to the baby and signed with love from her Aunt Harriet and
Uncle Bud. She ran her cheek over the cotton before folding it carefully
and putting it away. Tucking it in a drawer so it would be safe until
the baby came.
It was their last night of vacation. The sunset had faded and the sky, a
clear, deep blue only seen in colder weather, was mirrored in the lake
outside the cabin. Twilight settled in a hush, calming the frantic
colors of the trees. Frost hovered in the air in crystalline molecules,
waiting to descend upon the ground and lake. The workweek beckoned, but
the fire whispered in the fireplace. The room was drenched in light and
shadows. Each competing for supremacy, gaining and losing ground as the
logs shifted on the grate.
A cup of tea sat in her hand; an afghan covered her lap. Her arm lay on
the back of the couch, her head propped up in her other hand. Behind her
and down the hall, the kitchen light, dim at this distance, flicked off
as he finished putting away the last of the dinner dishes. His footsteps
sounded against the floorboards. The floor squeaked, announcing his
presence, as he eased on to the couch. She gathered a corner of the
blanket and tossed it at him. Instead of pulling the material over his
lap, he tucked it around her feet.
“Back to the grind tomorrow, huh?” he asked, leaning back to rest his
head against the couch.
“Would you like a pillow?” She gestured to the throw pillows littering
the floor next to her seat.
“Nah.” He closed his eyes and stretched his legs out in front of him.
She nudged his hip with her foot. “This was a really good idea that you
He cracked open an eye. “Thanks.” They had come to the cabin to discuss
the baby. He had suggested a vacation because it would have been harder
for either of them to storm away if the conversation went poorly. So, on
a weekend when Mattie had a sleepover and both their schedules were
clear, they packed up his car and drove to the cabin he’d rented. She’d
objected to the expense, demanding to pay her share, but he’d waved her
off, saying later.
And now here they were and the weekend was at their backs. They had
discussed baby names and baby rooms. Cribs and changing tables. But they
hadn’t talked about custody or living arrangements. Instead, their
conversations circled back to their own childhoods. To trips to the zoo
and the first time they saw the Grand Canyon.
“Jessica,” she suggested.
“Dated a girl named Jessica once in high school.” He rejected the name.
“Fine.” She stretched the arch of her foot against his thigh, hoping to
get a foot rub, but he didn’t move. “Harm?”
He opened his eyes slowly. “Yes?”
“About custody?” she asked quietly, not want to disturb the calm.
“Mac,” he leaned forward and took her mug and set it down on the table,
“we’ll talk about it some other time.” He tugged lightly on her hands,
pulling her closer until she followed his suggestion and eased her back
against his chest.
“Okay,” she agreed. His arms circled around her waist, his hands lay on
top of hers. Careful not to lose contact with his skin, she readjusted
their hands until his sat on her stomach and hers layered his.
“Do you ever wonder,” she asked, watching the trees grow darker, “what
would have happened if things had gone differently?”
“When?” he asked, snorting lightly.
“Pick a time.” She waved a hand. A history of missed moments and petty
comments, of poor choices, crowded into the room. Filling the space and
smothering the air with its bulk.
He rubbed his chin over the crown of her head. “All the time.”
“Me too,” she said. Her fingers twisted his ring around his finger.
“It’ll be better for her.”
“It’ll be better for all of us,” he said.
Outside, the lake’s surface echoed the night sky. Orion hunted by the
dock and the big dipper ladled lake water. A star fell, disappearing
without a ripple into the lake. Against the dark, the firelight
flickered in the windows. Smoke rose steadily from the chimney, thinning
into air as calm as the water.
The air was more gold than blue and filled with the thick scent of
decaying earth. Leaves fell, raining down on cars and yards in dense,
multicolored shadows. Sunlight, no longer strong enough to warm the air,
settled on trees and branches. It hovered in the air, hanging on the
dust motes and filtered weakly through windows. The stores were putting
out Halloween decorations and candy found its way into bowls and desks
throughout the offices.
The manila envelope sat beneath a bag of candy corns on her desk. She
recognized his handwriting on the post-it note stuck to the front of the
folder. More out of curiosity than anything else, she picked up the
folder and began to scan its contents.
To: Sarah Mackenzie
From: Harmon Rabb
Re: Proposed Custody Agreement
The heading made her gasp. After returning from the cabin, he’d avoided
all conversations about what to do when the baby was born. She was
adamant about filing a custody agreement. More to protect his rights
than to set up a schedule. She hounded him, asking him about it
constantly. So she didn’t understand why it hurt so badly to see her
demand on paper.
Proposal of terms for a custody agreement to be agreed upon and
consented to by the parties.
Definitions of People Involved and Terms Used:
The child (“the child”) is the biological child of Sarah Mackenzie
(heretofore “the mother” or “M”) and Harmon Rabb (heretofore “the
father” or “F”).
1. Mother and Father agree to joint legal and physical custody of the
2. Primary residence will be with M. until the child is older.
3. At a mutually agreed upon age, the child will share residency with
parents in a schedule agreed upon by both parties.
1. Medical expenses will be shared by the parents.
2. F. will place the child on his insurance.
3. Parties agree to contribute jointly to a bank account in the child’s
Additional Terms (Not originally discussed):
1. F. proposes that F and M contribute jointly to a primary residence in
an agreed upon location.
2. Furthermore, F proposes to M.
3. Conditions of acceptance are as follows:
a. F. promises not to be a jackass if M. promises to stop avoiding
problems. (If M. denies doing this, M. is lying.)
b. F. further promises to try a more open approach to discussions and to
not jump to conclusions.
c. F. asks that M also learns to trust F. and F. promises to try to give
M. reasons to trust him.
d. F. proposes that F and M. learn how to fight fairly without resorting
to rancor or childish insults.
e. F. promises to never use the words “you”, “know”, “the”, “reason”
strung together in the form of a declarative sentence.
f. The marriage must last for a term of not less than fifty years.
Please initial each agreed upon term and return. After a discussion of
the terms, a finalized agreement will be signed, notarized, and filed
with the court.
She knocked on his office door, manila file folder in hand, and waited
for his “enter.” Waving the folder at him, she said, “This won’t hold up
in court.” She shut the door behind her.
He sat up and leaned his forearms on his desk. “I guess we can reword
parts,” he suggested. “What do you think needs work?”
“Oh,” she sniffled. “Damn hormones,” she muttered under her breath.
He smiled. It had been her rallying cry for a month.
“I liked them all,” she continued, brushing the back of her hand over
her cheeks. “I just don’t know how enforceable they are.”
Standing, he reached across the desk and took the folder from her hand.
He was about to rip the agreement up, when she said, “No, don’t do
“You just said.”
“But you don’t have to rip it up.” She plucked the paper from his hand
and hugged it to her chest. “Maybe I want to keep it. It’s not every day
I get proposed to.”
“Mac,” he said patiently, raising an eyebrow, “at the risk of ruining a
beautiful,” his voice twisted on the word as he smiled, “moment, you’ve
been engaged once and married once.” He held his arm out and wiggled his
fingers. “Give me them.”
She shook her head. “No.”
“Think how it will look if little Sunny found them later on,” he
With a sigh, she handed them over. “Sunny?” she asked. “Fine. Here you
go.” She crossed her arms over her chest and tapped her foot. “Then I
want a real proposal.”
“Fine,” he said grudgingly, giving the word added syllables. “Marry me,
She arched her brow and waited. When he didn’t continue, she mimicked
his tone. “Fine,” she said. “Yes.”
He walked around his desk and put his arms around her, locking his
fingers together at the small of her back. She curled her hands around
his jacket, tucking her fingers under the lapels, and tilted her face
back to see his. Taking a deep breath, she leaped. “I love you,” she
said in a low voice.
He leaned his forehead against hers. “I love you, too.”
“We can make this work, right?”
“Sure.” His thumb swept over her cheek. His lips followed, brushing over
her skin before settling firmly on her mouth. “We’ve already made it
through the hard parts,” he said when he pulled back. “Besides, if it
doesn’t work out, we have a custody agreement ready to go.”
She cuffed him lightly on the arm. “Jerk.”
“Love you, too.” He tucked her head under his chin and felt her sigh
against his neck. A clock ticked in the corner and the office hustled
outside his door. The day was ending and he could hear the footsteps in
the hall as people left the building. But, in his office, where there
were no windows and no one to disturb them, they stood still.
She snuggles under the blankets and comforter, pulling them tightly to
her chin. He slips in bed behind her, his left arm moving under the
blankets to circle her waist. “Molly wants a puppy,” she says.
“Really?” he mutters against the back of her neck. “What about Claud?”
“Well,” he smiles as her voice changes cadence and tone, mimicking the
high, breathy voice of their daughter, “Claudia supposes,” she
emphasizes the word, “that a puppy would be okay, but she’d really
rather have a baby polar bear or a baby elephant.”
He raises his head on his elbow to peer at the side of her face. “Did
you happen to explain that those animals require rather different
environments than typically found in Virginia?”
Her eyes slide open and she turns her head to make eye contact. “Yes,”
she says, “because she’d understand that.” She snorts. “No, I said you
were allergic to them.”
“That’s right, blame me.”
She smiles. “You were handy. Maybe we could get a Pyrenees Mountain Dog.
They’re white and big.” Her voice is hopeful and he wonders who really
wants the puppy.
“Maybe,” he says.
“The wind is stopping,” she comments, dropping her head back to the
pillow. “Love you, g’night.” Her eyes slip shut and her back relaxes
against his chest and stomach.
He knows that she will be asleep in minutes. Her breathing is already
evening out. “Love you, too,” he says softly. “Night.”
The snow continues to fall. Tomorrow, he’ll dig out his car and pull his
daughters on their sled. The streets will be slick with snow and ice and
crowded with children. But, now, the house is quiet and dark. His arm
tightens around her waist as his eyelids blink once, twice, then slowly