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Classification Some angst, romance (H/M)
Length Approximately 19K words, 44 pages (8 ½ x 11 paper)
Spoilers Through Season 9
Rating Rating: GS
Author's Notes Go, characters. I release you. Title comes from the poem “The Night Before Christmas.”
 
Summary 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 different approach.

 

 

 

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 asleep.

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 beginning.

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.

 

Spring 2004

 

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 to warm.

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 avoiding him.

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 the invitations.

“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 her.

“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 closer.

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 baby together.”

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 think?”

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 out.”

“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 reach.

 

Winter 2011

 

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 most.

 

Spring 2004

 

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 trees.

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 here?”

“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 bench.

“Oh,” she blew out a soft laugh, “and I thought I was being subtle. Sorry.”

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 that way.”

“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 you?”

“I don’t know.” She tilted her head. “It doesn’t matter now. You’re in a relationship now.”

“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 hearing.”

“Mac-”

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 start.

His hand reached out and caught hers, tugging lightly on it. “Wait.”

She shook her head. “Let me go, Harm.”

“Not tonight.”

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.”

“Deal.”

 

Winter 2011

 

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 whole time.”

She runs her free hand over his cheek and says, “Liar. I could hear you snoring.”

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.

 

Spring 2004

 

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 you are.”

“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 elevator.”

“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 them.

“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 work?”

“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 for morning.

 

Spring 2004

 

“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 again.

“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?”

“Honestly? No.”

“We probably shouldn’t have done this.”

“Maybe we should have done this sooner,” he argued. “Gotten it out of our systems.”

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 little.

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 the floor.

“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.

 

Winter 2011

 

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 says.

“No kidding. Mind taking them off of my neck?” he asks, opening his eyes a little.

“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 hairdresser.

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. Everything’s fine.”

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
wrong?”

“Nothing.”

“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 town?”

“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 doctor.”

“Oh.” He studied her face and suddenly he knew what she needed to tell him. “Oh.”

“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 dinner tonight?”

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 tired.”

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 find him.

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 shoulder.

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.”

“I know.”

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.

 

Summer 2004

 

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 everyone go?”

“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 bathroom.”

“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 telltale sign.

“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.”

“I do?”

“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 incredibly stealthy.”

“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.

 

Summer 2004

 

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 waterfalls.”

“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 all.”

“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 see her.

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 squeaked.

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 punched her.

“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.

 

Winter 2011

 

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 of her.

“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 time.”

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 room.

“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.

“Not tonight.”

“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 kiss.

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.

“Welcome.”

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 discomfort.

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 said that.”

“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 things?”

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.”

“Why?”

“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.”

 

Winter 2011

 

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,” Molly demands.

He drops down next Mac on the bed. His chin resting against her shoulder, he begins, “Once upon a time, there were two beautiful princesses…"

 

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, remember?”

“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 we-”

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 someone.”

He stepped forward, then stopped, reconsidering his actions. “We’re having a girl,” he stated, this time a little louder and more assertively.

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 girl.”

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 sleeve.

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, but thrilled.”

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 said quietly.

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 role models.”

“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.”

“Yes, but.”

“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 eat outside.”

“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 like that.”

“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 its neck.

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 and protected.

“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.

 

Fall 2004

 

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 had.”

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.

 

Fall 2004

 

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.

Issues:

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”).

Custody:

1. Mother and Father agree to joint legal and physical custody of the child.
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.

Expenses:

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 name.

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 that.”

“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 suggested.

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, Sarah.”

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.

 

Winter 2011

 

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 fall shut.

 

The End

 
 
   

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