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* * * MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD! * * *
Between Octobers . . . Alternate Ending
(In this version, Grace never got to make the phone call to Marcus. Neither he nor Evan are aware of what has happened to her. But Grace has escaped her captor and is making her way through the woods, trying to find her Jeep . . .)
My head is throbbing. My arms are on fire! I need to scratch them. I can’t even wipe my mangled hair from my face because the rash from the poison ivy will spread. I stomp my foot and snivel in frustration. Determined to continue ignoring the discomfort, I turn towards the open field to search along the forest edge for tire tracks. I clearly remember the jeep being on the edge of the trees with no road in sight. Maybe there’s Calamine lotion in the cars’ first aid kit.
. . . .
. . . .
The distant hum is what grabs my attention: an unnatural sound that breaks through the silent wilderness.
At first, I thought I was dreaming. Nothing I have ever seen has ever looked so welcoming, so beautiful. Big black tires, shiny chrome handlebars gripped by two gloved hands. A painfully bright orange vest flickering in the morning sun. It’s a man riding on a four-wheeled ATV. He’s wearing sunglasses and a green baseball style cap turned backwards, bouncing through the tall brown and green grass of the clearing.
My heart leaps inside my chest. I’ve made no conscious choice to run, but that’ what I’m doing. Leaping toward the stranger, waving my bleeding hands and shouting in relief.
The second he spots me, I can tell. He’s stunned. His face goes from blank to open-mouthed shock as he turns the ATV in my direction. Tears well up, filling my eyes. Even as I blink them away, they refill. I slow my pace, feeling the reprieve of hope rush through me. Stopping, I am suddenly so tired, I can hardly stand.
As the man on the ATV nears me, he removes his sunglasses. I see his shocked expression, the flash of fear in his eyes, for just a second before they disappear into a careful mask.
I must look really bad.
I roll to my side, breathing in short, well rehearsed gusts, concentrating on controlling the urge to scream and kick and cry bloody murder. It feels like I’m passing a watermelon.
“Give me drugs!” I scream, “I don’t care!”
“Nope,” Lily doesn’t even look up from her calculations. I can’t believe she is balancing her checkbook. “You told me you didn’t want any, remember? You made me promise not to let you. You said, ‘no matter what.’”
“I changed my mind.” Hee-hee-hoo, I practice my Lamaze breathing. “I need dope.”
She looks up, closing the bank book. “You were already dilated to five centimeters when the contractions started. It could be ten any minute now. They are not going to give you anything. And I am not letting you ask for it. Now be quiet, I want to hear this.”
Lily has been so calm. My rock, through everything. She’s witnessed and coached me through every delivery. She knows what happened to me out there—what I had to do—and she doesn’t blame me. She’s treating me the way she always has. I love her for not coddling me. It’s this steadiness, the predictability that soothes me more than anything.
She takes the remote for the TV that is tied against my bed rail and turns up the volume to hear the old episode of Seinfeld over my grunting. She has seen this one a million times. We both have. Jerry is sitting in a restaurant, looking at a woman across the table from him. He gazes at his date with obvious, hilarious disgust as her large ‘man-hands’ rip apart a lobster dinner.
Lily laughs. I would too, if I wasn’t in labor.
“Come out!” I order in unmeasured decibels, squirming. It hasn’t been very long, only an hour, maybe, since the hard labor started, but I have had enough.
I keep my eyes on an imperfection in the wallpaper near the head of my bed. Every ounce of control I have is focused on remaining calm through this storm. I roll onto my back as the pain subsides. My irritation with Lily leaves with it. She is right. I don’t want pain killers, so there is nothing to be done but suffer through it. I can hang on. I can do this.
“How’s your head?” She asks, at once recognizing the sane expression has returned to my face.
“Fine.” It hurts, but the pain of my concussion is not comparable to the pain of childbirth.
I have been here for nearly a week, already. The doctor decided to keep me for treatment and observation. The rash from the poison oak is gone. I have a sprained knee, a concussion, a severe bruise on my shoulder but no ligament damage. Thank God. My main worry is little Ethan. Or Daniel. Maybe Elijah. Or possibly Judah. He is probably fine, but my blood pressure won’t stay down, so they induced labor a few hours ago.
I like all of the names, but I don’t want to jinx anything by saying them out loud. I have been very fortunate so far and I do not want to assume anything. Part of me also hopes Evan will want to weigh in on the naming process.
I shudder as another contraction starts. I check the monitor next to me. It has only been a few minutes since the last. I start on my practiced breathing, but let go with a sudden sob.
“What is it?” Lily adjusts my pillows and pulls back the blanket, touching my stomach, making sure we’re comfortable.
“Please, call Marcus.”
I asked her not to tell him anything before. Actually, I demanded. I want to be the one to tell Evan about the baby. I want to see his reaction and determine for myself what he wants. I do not want him to know what happened to me until after I know how he feels. I am not willing to take the risk of his sympathies clouding his judgment. That’s probably what happened before. The only reason he wanted to be around me was to . . . I don’t know . . . maybe somehow make him feel better by making me feel better?
She shakes her head, “Okay, anything else?”
Hee-hee-hoo- hee-hee-ho . . .
I shake my head, “I’m an idiot!” I groan in shredding agony. “He needs to be here! I don’t care!” Hee-hee-hoo. The tears spill down my cheeks. “I’m awful. A terrible person!” The sobs come out, mingled with the growling eruption of agony.
“I’m calling him right now.” Lily pats my arm and steps away to make the call.
“Don’t go!” I yell as she nears the door.
“I’m not leaving you,” she promises, picking up her phone as she lingers in the doorway.
I suffer in silence through the strongest contraction so far. As my agony subsides, I can’t help but think about that night in the woods. That day in my laundry room; I slipped on my belly belt and a black sweatshirt for no reason. By chance, I slipped on my sneakers when I got out of bed. I was in the midst of divine circumstances and did not even know it. If I had been without any of the three, we may not be here right now. Even with the distance and the time to consider . . . I cannot fathom what or why this has happened.
My hands grip the sides of the bed. The sheer force of another unexpected pain catches me off guard. This time, the pain is lower and much stronger. A massive gush of fluid spills to the floor.
“Lily! Get the doctor!” I scream, rolling to my side again. My hands stretch around the mountain of my stomach as I wail.
The urge to push is overwhelming.
I have to wait . . .
About seventeen breaths later, three people rush through the door, two nurses and Lily. The fourth is a doctor, but not my doctor. Doctor Grainger is on vacation, of course. Doctor Hollis is covering for her.
He strolls in, uber-casual and I want to whack him upside the head. I watch in fury as he nonchalantly presses the lever next to the sink for hand sanitizer and then slips on a pair of latex gloves. He lowers his backside onto the stool at the foot of my bed and turns to face me. All at once, he lifts the sheet and has his hand inside my hoo-hoo in one no time flat.
“Cervix is fully effaced, that’s a solid nine.” He nods to the nurses, removes his hand, then the gloves and rolls away, turning his attention to the TV.
I hate Seinfeld!
One nurse is setting up the warming bed for Baby, and the other is to assist the doctor while he delivers the baby and stitches me up, should I need it. I am sure I will, too, since the labor has been so mercifully quick.
“This little guy is determined. That’s a good sign,” Lily has pulled her long wavy hair into a high pony tail. She wears no makeup and looks beautiful, taking a seat next to me. She grabs my hand. “Ready?”
“No,” I whine.
“He’s calling right now.” She nods in reassurance. “It’s only matter of time.”
I squeeze her hand. “What did you say?”
“Only what I needed to.”
One of the nurses sets my feet into the stirrups, instructing me to keep my chin down and keep breathing.
The next round of pain is thoroughly unbearable. The massive contraction makes me writhe in heaving bouts of pain that rage from severely debilitating to absolutely torturous. I gnash my teeth together to keep from screaming. I can feel the intensity gaining ground as I pathetically cling to my practiced method of breathing exercises and focus on the imperfect crease in the wallpaper set just above Lily’s head.
It is all I can do to keep from going completely insane.
The time between the contractions becomes shorter and the length of each pain grows more intense, lasting longer. Soon each pain jumbles with the next without reprieve.
I have to push.
My teeth chatter as I stuff my arms into the gray zip-up hoodie, grateful that Lily thought to bring it. I can’t seem to stay warm. It doesn’t help that the air conditioner is blasting the frosty air all over me. My bed must be setting directly below the vent. I pull the two sides of the front together, trying to zip them up, but it’s no use.
My breasts are so swollen, literally filled to over flowing with milk, even after I’ve pumped for a half hour on each side. I got tired of the noisy suction and immobility of the breast pump and put it away. The absorbent discs in my nursing bra are in place, just in case. But, I still cannot fit anything over them. I struggle to stretch the cotton across my chest but quickly give up. It doesn’t matter. I will just have to take it off again when he gets hungry. In the meantime, it helps to cover the unsightly bruises on my wrists. They are fading, but still noticeable and I don’t want to see them.
Such perfection, I think, as my hand brushes the top of Baby’s perfect head as he lay sleeping in his little bed placed strategically next to mine.
I check the air above him for a draft and move him closer to me. He sleeps peacefully, wrapped tightly in the blankets Lily bought for him, dressed in the same jumper Caleb wore home from the hospital. It was too big on Caleb, though. He was a stalky baby, perfect in his own way. But it was difficult to find clothes that fit him properly. Most of the things we had for him were tight around the midsection and shoulders and the legs of his jumpers were always too long. His baby brother fits into the little white and red suit perfectly.
Needy and impatient, I lean over and carefully scoop him into my arms. I have to hold him. I watch his eyes move under his lids as he dreams. I wonder in admiration as the corners of his mouth pull into a half smile for a split-second before changing to an O as he yawns. I giggle at the beauty.
An active mind for a newborn, I think indulgently. He is very intelligent.
He is beautiful. Not just because he’s mine, either. He really is a beautiful newborn. Most babies are red and swollen or blotchy right after they’re born. It takes several days, sometimes weeks for them to start looking normal. Aside from the mild swelling of his eyes, my son has none of these.
His skin tone is perfect. No blotches, just a lovely even creamy tone. The top of his perfectly round head is covered in an unusually thick mass of wiry brown hair. His little hands and feet are also duplicates of his father.
His little knees are bent around his tummy while he stirs. His eyes flash open. I speak sweetly to him, the love pouring from my heart to his perfect little ears. His dark blue eyes wander until they find me and contentedly close again. I place my pinky in his grasp and feel the automatic tightening of his tiny hand.
“You’re so strong!” I whisper adoringly in baby talk.
The light tread of the nurse comes through the door. A second later, the curtain pulls back along the metal track in the ceiling. Just as the whirring sound cuts off, I hear the stampede of my family and smile.
Leticia, the nurse calls to me, “I see you are all ready to go.” Her eyes sweep over my baggy, blue hospital scrubs. “If you were wearing a badge I could put you to work.”
“Well, I didn’t choose them for the fashion.” Scrubs are frumpy and comfy and I’m down for both right now. I shrug, feeling self-conscious.
“They need him for the final exam and then the doctor will release you both.”
I reluctantly hand him over into her capable arms and watch her walk him back in his bed. “I should have him back within the hour.”
My family stands just behind her, quietly watching, praising our newest addition with an adoring gaze. As Leticia lays him gently into the bed, he stirs. Stretching hugely, Baby arches his back and lifts his arms over his head. His mouth stretches into a huge yawn. We all giggle and coo at the simple motion, enjoying our own common novelty. Everything Baby does will be an entertainment to those of us who love him.
I pretend to be unafraid as they all shuffle out, following my newborn son to places I cannot because I have to wait for Doctor Hillson. The nursery is on the other end of the hospital and it will be a while before they come back. I whisper to Lily, asking her to tell the nurse to check on me in a few minutes. She agrees and pats my arm reassuringly. Truthfully, I am terrified of being alone, but I also need a moment to myself. More than that, I don’t want to be a burden.
I stand up, almost ready to break out in dance. My body belongs to me again! The ever-present swelling is almost gone from my face and hands. No more headaches or high blood pressure. He’s here, he’s healthy, and I can eat salt again! I will celebrate with a bag of pretzels. I can run again, when I’m ready. Up my hill. I grin, willing myself not to be upset. Not today. Everything has worked out better than I could hope for and I will not be concerned by any of it.
As I bend down tying my shoes, I catch myself thinking of putting my wedding ring back on but think better of it. I have to stop thinking of myself that way. This is a different life than I hoped for but I am going to squeeze every bit of joy from it. Savor every drop.
“No room for pining.” I tell myself.
Looking around the bathroom and the nightstands, I’m making sure everything is packed. Lily took my bags to the car earlier this morning, because I cannot wait to get out of here and back to my house. Despite what happened there. When I find no lingering belongings, I begin mindlessly making the bed and fluffing the pillows, even though these sheets will come off once I’m gone.
Out of ideas and things to do, I sit on the chair next to my bed and wait. Placing my head in my hands, I close my eyes and listen to the sound of the controlled air. All this excitement is exhausting.
The unnerving sound of shoes clapping against the linoleum catches my attention. I hate the sound. Fear and adrenaline increase with my heart rate, because it isn’t the soft, squeaky tread of nurses’ feet in the corridor. I inhale, expecting to feel the raw pulse in my temples but the headache does not come. The absence of pain reminds me of my surroundings.
“I’m safe,” I take a deep breath and force myself to relax.
I must jump a foot at the unexpected sound of my name—flying from the chair, yelping in frenzied alarm. Just as my feet come back to the ground, I realize I’m overreacting.
I must have heard wrong. The voice is out of place. I doubtfully lift my eyes and my jaw falls open.
He’s here. Almost two days late. Evan is standing right in front of me. “I didn’t mean to scare you,” he apologizes, holding out one hand.
“Evan.” I mumble his name while coaxing my heart back to a normal pace. I have thought his name a million times but never allowed myself to say it.
Looking very handsome, his hair is cut shorter than he usually keeps it and dyed a dark brown. He is dressed in black from head to toe, still thin, but looking healthy and more importantly, sober. His eyes gleam, untainted. He holds a set of car keys in one hand.
“I’m glad I found you. Do you have a moment? I’d like to talk.”
I shake my head. “Of course,” I gesture to the bed for him to sit.
He steps to one side and sits on the foot of the bed facing me.
“You look good.”
His full lips pull into a lopsided grin. “As do you. Your hair’s different.” He notes, “The blonde suits you.”
“No it doesn’t,” I look to the floor.
I have spent hundreds of hours in preparation for what I need to say to him but now, when he’s here in front of me, my mind goes completely blank. I stare at the floor trying to piece together the fragments of everything I planned to say.
“Marcus called and told me to come see you.” He dips his head sheepishly, “I went by the house and saw the boxes. I hoped to catch you before you left.” The trace of his smile disappears. “He said you were leaving?”
Marcus. . . right. “Wait . . . you went by the house?”
“I didn’t break in or anything,” he rolls his eyes. “I looked through the glass door. Nigel looks good. I knew you would love him. He’s getting big, for a Pomapoo.”
“You know about Nigel?”
“Who do you think gave him to you?” He runs a hand through his hair, shuffling it back.
“Your hair’s different too,” I note the change, but my thoughts drifted.
“Yeah, it’s for a thing I’m doing.”
“What is it?”
He looks a little surprised by my question. “Um, I’m playing Bobby Fischer. You know the crazy Chess genius?”
I nod, remembering. “That’s right. I just read a book about him. You’ll do great, Evan, I know you will.” He is capable of anything, limitless when it comes to his work.
“You are welcome.”
He adjusts himself on the bed, looking like he’s uncomfortable while I wonder how to begin the real discussion.
“This bed sucks,” he stands up, takes another chair from beyond the curtain, noisily sliding it across the floor until it’s next to mine and sits down again. “Much better.”
I clear my throat to get rid of any lingering quivers and ask, “You came to discuss hospital furnishings?”
I want him to start, figuring I might get some idea of what he is thinking and work my way around it, sort of a jumping off point.
His warm, wonderful hazel eyes stare into mine. “I came to ask you to change your mind.”
My stomach drops. I feel the corners of my mouth wanting to tug down in a grimace. I try to maintain a poker face, but I’m not sure how well I can do, knowing he wants a divorce. Anger and disappointment shoot through me at once.
“You really are the world’s biggest asshole. You could have called if that’s all you wanted. I’ll sign the papers when I get back to the house.” I cross my arms over my empty belly.
He leans back in the chair, looking completely appalled. “Where did that come from? And since when do you use that kind of language? I’ve never heard you—”
“Don’t try to charm me, okay. I’m immune.”
“What?” The word comes out sharp.
“You’re cross with me?” His question is low, ringing with incredulous disbelief. “If anyone in this room has the right to be cross, it’s me.” He maintains a normal volume but the vein on his forehead has popped out.
“Ha!” I scoff, growing comfortable with my fury.
His nostrils flare. “I shouldn’t be upset that you left me for no reason? Or that you never even bothered to the visit when I was in the hospital? Did you know that I died? I was literally dead when that guy pulled me from the water.” He raises his hand in awkward demonstration, then closes his eyes tight as if he regrets saying anything.
My stomach lurches. Bile rises into my throat. I have no idea what to say, except, “You’re okay, now?”
“I don’t want to talk about that.” After a moment of marked silence, Evan shakes his head and opens his eyes. “I do want you to know, I’m not the same person, Grace. I’ve not touched alcohol or anything else since then. I don’t want to. And I don’t want you to sign the bloody divorce papers. I want you to change your mind. Forget about him and come back to me.”
My mind is racing. There are a million things wrong with what he just said. So why does my heart leap when he says it?
“Forget about him,” seems to be the most significant portion.
“I know you love him but—”
“There is no ‘but’. I love him! Period!”
“It’s like that?”
The implication in his tone infuriates me. “So, that’s what this whole thing is about? Your ego? You want me to cast him off, just pretend that he’s not—”
“My ego?” He jolts from the chair, aiming an accusing finger at me. “You never even tried to see things from my perspective. You went off and did what you wanted. You took everything with you! My family, my home—I have nobody!”
“Don’t you dare lecture me about family!” I stand in response, fisting my hands on my hips.
Evan drops his eyes and they bug out of his head. “Damn! When did you get those?” He points to my swollen chest with an exaggerated wiggle of his eyebrows.
For some reason, I wanted to smile. “Don’t be a juvenile. We’re arguing.”
His raised shoulders drop. “I don’t want to fight with you, Gracie.”
I shake my head. “Even when you’re being impossible, I don’t want to fight with you. I’m sorry . . . about the name calling.”
He tosses his hands in the air. “Where does that leave us, then?”
“I don’t know.” I take off my sweatshirt to avoid breaking into a sweat. Sitting down again, I catch Evan staring. “What?”
“They look really good.” My brow furrows at his bitter tone. He shrugs, looking away. “Don’t mind me, I’m just jealous.”
“There is nothing to be jealous of.”
Suddenly he’s glaring at me. “You are my wife. I have everything to be jealous of.” One hand goes to his eyebrow. “So what’s his name?”
I shake my head, because I haven’t given him one, yet.
He releases a rough breath. “You know what? Don’t tell me. It’s better that way.”
I feel my face crumple. He doesn’t want to know his sons name. He doesn’t want to think of him as a person. “Why?”
“I’m sorry I hurt you. I know I’ve ruined everything. I have to go.”
“No, you—” I shake my head.
“Yes, Grace. I hurt you first when I lied about the truck. I knew you would hate the idea of Noah driving but I really wanted to give it to him. I also knew you would never consider it unless it was right in front of you.”
I thought about the explanation and knew he was right. It seemed like a lifetime ago when we stood in my garage arguing over the birthday present.
“Then the whole thing with the rubbers; I was afraid of betraying his trust and in doing so, I broke your faith in me. But I was never unfaithful, Gracie, not in the sense that you think.
“That was the worst part of all of it!” He tosses his hands into his hair and pushes it back, resting his hand on the back of his neck. “I could hardly believe my eyes. I looked in your face and I knew . . . I had finally pushed you over the edge.”
I shudder at the idiom.
He clears his throat. “It would have been so easy for me to lie. I thought about it. I knew I could tell you whatever you wanted to hear and you would forgive me. We could move on, but I couldn’t let you think of me that way.”
My mind is spinning. He has no idea what’s happened to me. He doesn’t want the baby. After all these months, he still maintains his innocence—that the used condom I found in his motel room was not used by him, but a friend of his.
Evan takes a deep breath, staring while I try to think. He leans towards me. My shielding impulses take over and I step back.
He shakes his head, sighing. “Do you remember what you said to your brother on your birthday?”
I shake away the fear. “What? Were you watching?”
“I brought Nigel and set him on the porch. When you opened the garage, I hid in Marcus’ yard. You said you were afraid of me.” He looks down at his hands.
“Evan, it’s too late. We are going home together today.”
He puts his head down so I can’t be sure, but I think he looks disappointed.
“I don’t understand why.” If he saw me pregnant back in August . . . is that the reason he was lying drunk on the beach that night? “This isn’t a surprise to you. If you’ve known since my birthday—why didn’t you stay and talk to me? Why did you wait until today?”
“You recall how strung out I looked that last day, when I nearly hit y—” he cut off mid-way through the sentence. “Well, I got worse. I wanted to see you, but I couldn’t face you like that.”
“You were so pale.” I recalled the gray pallor hidden by his mangled beard as he lay unconscious in the hospital that night.
“How long do you have? Would you like to come along, maybe grab a bite with me?”
The odd sparkle in his eyes brings tears to mine. “I have to wait for the doctor to release me. But if you’d like to stay . . . and meet him, maybe we can talk, then.” The hope in my tone is hard to miss.
“Release you?” He asks.
“I can’t just clock out. There’s a protocol involved.”
I hear the soft footfalls of a nurse in the doorway and look past the edge of the half-drawn curtain. “Grace, Doctor Hillson wants you to know he’s on his way. And I’m on my way to get your family; it will be just a few more minutes. You doing alright?”
“Yes, thanks Leticia, I appreciate it.”
She nods and walks off toward the elevators.
“That’s my cue.” Evan reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out his keys.
“Won’t you even stay to see him?” The tears well up and spill over.
Evans eyes are soft as he steps close, reaching to tenderly dry cheek with his hand.
Fierce anger seethes from the pit of my stomach. I slap his hand away. “Don’t act like you care if you’re just going to walk away!”
He yanks his hand back. “But I do, Gracie. I, more than, care.” He moves towards me again.
I square my shoulders. The terror is welling up as his posture shifts, leaning towards me. I concentrate on reminding myself he does not want to hurt me. I am in a safe place.
“No you don’t,” I throw my hands up, blocking his arms as he tries to put them around me. “What is wrong with you?”
“Lots of things.” He whispers seizing me by the arms and stepping closer.
I shake him off me and back away, until my legs rest against the foot of the bed. “You know why I didn’t go back to the hospital, Evan? Because I couldn’t stomach being humiliated again.”
The air between us charges when his eyes slid over me. But I can’t trust it. I can’t trust anything about myself where he is concerned. Ignoring the heat his eyes inspires, I focus on the anger, letting it bury the lingering fear I’ve held since I woke up in the trunk.
“Did you say ‘back’?” He raises one eyebrow and slightly tilts his head. “What is that?” He touches the hospital’s ID bracelet, covering the ring of bruises on my wrist. “You’re a patient?”
“Uh, yeah!” I bark incredulously. “Isn’t that why you came?” I thought better of my question and back peddled, “Oh, of course not you came because—”
“Because Marcus told me to! He left a message saying you were leaving today. I went by the house, saw the boxes in the bedroom and came straight over. I thought you were moving.” He eyes me suspiciously. “Something is wrong.”
“Why are you here?” I whine, stomping my foot like an impatient child.
“To find out why you’re here! Apparently.” He runs his hand through his dark hair mumbling, “What the hell is going on?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” I pat the front of my shirt.
He looks at the made bed then the tray table with the remnants of my breakfast on it. “You’re in the hospital because you’ve had a boob job? That doesn’t sound right.”
“I am here because of something you obviously have no interest in.”
His face goes blank. Two long fingers head directly for the eyebrow, picking at it. The unexpected reaction doesn’t faze me, I keep raving, finally putting my upset into words.
“Well you can just go, then. Forget about all of us. After everything you went through, I would expect you to be more sympathetic to my situation. I guess maintaining an open mind on your part was too much to hope for. I can understand if you’re angry with me, but don’t you dare take it out on him! He needs you to—”
“Wait!” Evan holds both hands out in a halting gesture. “I am not following anything you’re saying. Back up and slow down.” His expression now more confused than blank.
I take a long look at his manner. The slump in his shoulders, the furrowed brow . . . he seems utterly clueless.
“What exactly happened when you woke up in the hospital?”
His forehead creases, his bottom lip juts out just a little as he explains. “Sheri was there hovering. I asked where you were, if you knew what happened. She said you did, and you didn’t care,”
An icy shiver rips down my back at the sound of that name. “She lied.”
“Then I wasn’t completely remiss in firing her.” He offers no smile with his cheerful tone so I know he is being sarcastic. I wait for him to continue, but he sits there, looking worried, staring at me.
“Are you ill?”
“Evan, what did Marcus say to you when he called?”
“I didn’t speak to him. He left a message saying I need to see you today, before you leave. That I would regret it if I didn’t. Is there something wrong with you?”
“That’s all he said?”
“He said where to find you.” His lips flattened.
“You came to me because he asked you to?”
He shakes his head. “No, dammit. I came because I want you to change your mind. Now answer me—are you ill?”
With my hopes hanging by a thread, I muster my strength for one last question. “Do you . . . do you love me, Evan?”
He looks down, shaking his head and I can’t tell if it’s a negative response or not. Frustration has me gasping. He’s probably wondering what he ever saw in someone so pathetic.
“You do realize, at this point we have been separated twice as long as we were together. And after all this time, there is still nothing in this world that I want more than you.”
I sit on the end of the bed, relaxing into the comfort of his answer. “Then what took you so long to get here?”
“I was filming. No one ever calls me accept my agent and Marcus, and my agent was with me. I came as soon as I could.” A smirk builds around the edge of his mouth. “Do you believe me, then?”
“You’re sure?” I have to ask. For so long, I thought I was the only one. Forever unrequited.
“It’s the only thing I know anymore.” He touches my cheek again.
“But . . . do you want to be with me and stay married?” I fidget.
“Where are you going with this, exactly?”
I gulp down the lump in my throat. “Please, just say it.” My head feels light and tingly like a helium balloon that wants to float away.
“You’re not answering any of my questions. Are you trying to punish me?” His eyebrows draw together in a clear expression of bitter sarcasm.
“I’m trying to figure out why you sent me divorce papers on my birthday.”
“No, no, no. You sent them to me on your birthday! Your freedom at my expense!”
Without thinking, I am on my feet again, holding his face in my hands, looking up into his eyes. “I never wanted to be apart. I only wanted some breathing room to try and make sense of everything. Time for you to get better, time for me deal before I told you—”
“She lied about that, too?”
Hope surged from deep inside. I wasn’t the only one she lied to. And that meant that I couldn’t trust anything that she told me—which I already knew, but was having trouble trying to recall exactly what I could trust this relationship with this man that I needed so badly.
I shook my head, trying to clear it. The most important thing was the baby. That was why I needed to talk to him. “Evan, I need you to meet someone.”
He seized my hands in his and dropped them as he stepped away. “I may punch him in the mouth, you know.”
I had hoped to ease him into this. A confrontation was the last thing I wanted. I had no idea where things stood with us, or if there was an us. He wanted me to be with him, but that meant nothing if he didn’t want his son. I may never see him again after today.
Standing here, staring at his beautiful face, his softly glowing gaze and the hurt he is trying to hide in them, I know I can’t say what I need to. I know it will chase him away. I have no choice but to show him. “You can handle it.”
“No, I can’t. I’ll call you later.” He kisses my forehead.
We both hear the noise from the hall. The clatter of many feet mixed with the ripples of several conversations and the steady hum of wheels. Noah, Caleb, Lily, a little one yet to be named, the nurse and hopefully my doctor.
“I’m not done talking to you.” I sound desperate but I don’t care. “You can’t leave now.”
“Change your mind, then.” He turns.
“If you leave, so help me, Evan, I will never speak to you again.”
He stops, spins around, and almost yells, “What the hell more do you want from me? I’m not going be his second!”
“You’ve never been—you don’t have to be—” I plead, choking on the words. “Please.”
Everything suddenly makes sense. Everything between us, all that went wrong. Every mistake was an opportunity. She probably told him the same things she was telling me, initiating the miscommunication and using it to her advantage.
I stare past his tall frame to see his exit is blocked by their entrance and relief courses through me, until I realize how hard this might be for Evan. A knot settles in my stomach as three jaws dropped open. Lily, because she is as shocked I as am to see him here. Noah, probably for the same reasons as his Aunt, and the nurse, Leticia, because she was not expecting to run into the Rhys Matthews. I watch her hands brush across her hair, fixing it.
Caleb leaps for Evan, hugging at his waist the second he sees him.
Evan’s head turns down. His hand sweeps gently across Caleb’s shoulders and back in embrace. “Hey you’re so big, my boy. I think you grew a whole foot.”
Doctor Hillson isn’t fazed. He claps Evan on the back and presents his other hand to shake. “You must be the lucky father. Congratulations!”
Evans lips move but no sound come. He swivels around, rocking back on his heels, I assume, with absolute surprise on his face. Quickly, Evan turns back to me and I see his shocked expression. Before I can respond he turns back around, bending down over the baby’s bed to get a closer look. Evan reaches out to pick him up. His hands set awkwardly on his newborn sons’ shoulders then retract. He places them under his back, then moves again, obviously unsure of himself.
“Here, let me,” Lily takes up my little miracle and sets him in Evans hands, showing him exactly where to place them to support Baby’s neck and head. She uses no words.
I walk over, upset that I missed the initial look on his face, jealous that I didn’t make it fast enough to give him his son for the first time.
“He looks just like me.” Evan whispers when I touch his back.
Relief washes over me. It was a deficit he mentioned more than once. One of those things that bothered him his entire life—never having a family member that shared a trait—it was also his greatest fear. I watch Evan as he cradles our child. There is no anger in his eyes, none of the anticipated rejection. Only joy and curiosity light his features.
They all gather around to coo and wonder over our joyful addition while Doctor Hillson harasses and distracts me with stupid instructions and paperwork.
Caleb mentions how happy he is that Evan has finally finished filming so he can come home and eat breakfast and watch cartoons with him. Four pairs of eyes stare at me, waiting for a reaction. I stare at Evan, who looks as if he hopes for the same. Pausing on a deep breath, I smile and tell Caleb I’m glad, too.
I let Evan hold Baby while I am pushed down the hall in the mandatory wheel chair. On the way out, he trades looks and snide remarks with Lily while they discuss who should get to drive the baby home. Lily thinks she should, because the car seat is already strapped into her car, but as the parent, Evan wins out. Lily rescinds with good grace, and shows him how to properly install the baby’s chair in the back seat of the black SUV.
Joy overflows. I giggle and give instructions while Noah holds his new brother. Caleb sits in my lap, impatiently complaining, waiting for the opportunity to climb into his own booster seat that’s still strapped into the back of Evans car.
“Only three rides home?” Leticia chuckles at the line of cars in the parking garage.
“Big family,” I shrug and grin.
“A happy family,” She notes, watching while I climb into the front seat from the required wheel chair.
As I buckle my seatbelt, I look over at Evan as if to make sure he is really there. He is already looking at me. He offers an award-winning smile when our eyes meet.
“You had my baby.”
Filled with a strong mixture of happiness and guilt, I can’t answer.
The car is quiet. Caleb wears a pair of headphones, watching a movie in the back seat. One of his hands is resting on his baby brother’s car seat. I turn to check that everything is alright in the back, and see Evan staring at me between glimpses at the road.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
I swallow, my throat tight from the nerves. There is still so much more to tell. “I wanted to— I should have, even after. . .”
“I understand,” he nods.
In an overwhelming instance of guilt I blurt, “I should have trusted you. After everything you told me—and considering what part Sheri played in everything . . .” The words I want to say are lost on that name. I can’t believe I just said it outloud.
“It was my poor judgment that got me into that one. You had no reason to—”
“I believe you. I know you would never—not with her . . .”
There is more to say, but my sentence trails off as Evan unexpectedly pulls to the side of the road and into the parking lot of an empty building.
The car comes to a stop and he sighs. “Obviously, we have a lot to talk about,” he glances at the back seat and back to me. “Gracie, I need to you to understand something. I’m a dick. There’s no way around it. I accept this about myself. I can be petty and jealous, obstinate. This, you already know, I’m sure.”
I nod, letting him know I am following, paying close attention.
He chuckles and my heart dances at the sound. “Now, if you wish to think better of me, so be it. But I cannot have you thinking worse. The lower your expectations are, the more likely I am to meet them.”
“Evan, I never expected—”
He raises his hand to my lips, quieting me. “I know you didn’t. I painted myself into a corner and blamed you. I know you need honesty. I just didn’t have the faintest fu— . . . the slightest clue how difficult it would be to give to you.” He stares examining my face. “I want you to be happy Gracie, even if it’s not with me. Now tell me, what did you think I meant when I asked you to change your mind?”
“I thought you didn’t want him.” I gesture with a nod of my head to the back seat.
“You know me better than that.” He leans in, taking my hand.
“I’m supposed to.”
“She told you I was with her?” He asks and I nod. He shudders. “That’s not true, love. Where’s your ring?”
I tug at the chain around my neck. “My hands were too swollen.”
“But you still wore it.” He smiles.
“I had to. It felt wrong to take it off.” I stare at his comforting eyes and explain the things I had no words for the entire time we were apart. “That day I left your hotel, I was wrong. I felt it in my gut, but still, I kept walking, ignoring the instinct to stay and listen to you. We are friends first, Evan. Friends are supposed to believe each other but my stupid pride wouldn’t let me stay. I had other chances to tell you about the baby, but I didn’t because I was afraid. I was so willing to believe you were guilty—so ready to accept the worst of you. I wasn’t being a very good friend. Since that day, every decision I made was a step in the wrong direction. I am sorry for everything.”
Evans hand slips across my neck, touching the chain set around it. He unhooks the clasp and slips off the ring. Then, after setting the empty chain in his pocket, he takes my left hand slides my wedding ring back onto my finger. It goes easily into its proper place. He kisses the palms of my hands when I touch his face.
I wait until he looks at me to reciprocate.
Leaning forward, my stomach flutters. I brush my lips across his cheek and inhale, breathing in the sweet scent of him. Smoke and honey. I feel his tousled hair against me as we nuzzle. Every remembered part of him seems surreal; like a faraway dream of the amazing that fades when you’re forced to wake up. A dream I long to live again. The burning intensity is still there, stronger and more magnificent than I remember. Even better because it is not a memory. I hear the click of his seat belt as he slides closer, pressing more firmly against me. His hands slide behind my back in a sweet embrace. I bite my lip to keep from complaining of the pain in my shoulder. His breath tickles as he kisses my neck, raising goosebumps up and down my arms.
We are interrupted by a honking horn. I look back to see Noah’s truck. He’s sitting in the drivers’ seat with raised hands, gesturing for us to get moving.
A small whining comes from the back seat. “I want to go home.”
“Me too, Caleb.” Evan smiles, “Let’s go.”
I still have a bunch explaining to do but how do you start a conversation like that? Where do I start? I have no idea when or where she decided it was appropriate to . . . A tremor shatters the thoughts as I force my mind to skip over the name and the dark memories. I can’t think about it. Evan has to be told, but I don’t want to ruin the happy moment and there is no way I am going into any detail in front of Caleb or Noah. Maybe later, after they’ve settled in for the night.
Despite the heavy traffic, the drive home is fast. In my occasional glances away from Evans face, I notice he doesn’t have to make any extra turns to avoid unwanted attention. I consider asking but am afraid the question may steer me towards topics I am trying to avoid.
As the car gently turns up the hill towards home, I swallow the ire and ask, “When was the last time you spoke to her?”
He glances at to the road and back to me before answering, “She called a about a month ago but I didn’t call her back.”
As we pull into the driveway, I ask him not to park in the garage. He seems a little confused but does as I ask.
I notice Noah’s truck and Lily’s car are already in front of the house. They pop out the front door just as we are getting out.
I show Evan how to release the car seat from the base since he’s insisting on carrying the baby inside. I watch as he recruits Caleb to bring the diaper bag. Caleb snatches it from the floor boards as Evan indulges him with compliments on his absolute talent at being a big brother. I take the one bag he allows me to carry in my good arm and follow them both into the house while the others retrieve the rest of my things.
The house smells like cinnamon. Recognizing the scent, I peek inside the kitchen to see my favorite crumb cake on the counter. I draw in a deep breath, filling my nostrils with the delicious scent. Lily must have baked it this morning before she came to get us.
Everyone has to do something for me, or they simply don’t want me to have to do anything for myself. Either way, I feel appreciated. As soon as I came inside, they made me sit down.
Lily brings me hot tea and a slice of cake. I sit on the loveseat up against the long wall of the living room with my cup and saucer, rather than at the table. It makes me feel better having something solid behind me.
Evan sits next to me, his arms full of baby. I watch as he stares, in awe, at the little person.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”
He shakes his head. “He’s so cute, I can’t stop staring at him.”
Noah and Caleb settle in around us, conversing with Evan, talking over one another, vying for his attention. He loves it. Caleb holds Nigel on the floor between our feet, and Noah is sitting on the arm of the small couch beside me. I smile to myself, enjoying the lively sounds of conversation, quietly amazed by the little guy who sleeps peacefully in the arms of his father through all our noise.
A flash of light bleaches the room for a split second. My head snaps up. Lily is standing on the other side of the room with her camera. I clutch my hand over my heart, calming it down.
She shrugs. “You all look so happy.” She raises he camera again, gesturing.
Automatically, we all adjust ourselves and smile. Noah leans over, lightly brushing against my shoulder. I flinch from the pain.
“Sorry!” He jerks back.
“I’m fine, honey.” I whisper, pulling him closer before the camera simultaneously snaps and flashes.
Evan did not miss the small exchange. He looks as if he’s about to ask when there’s a rap on the front door. My body reacts to the sound with a jolt. He doesn’t miss that, either.
“I’ll get it,” Lily announces.
At the same time Evan asks, “Are you alright?”
Capping my tremendous anxiety I answer, “I’ll be fine,”
“Noah, your friend’s here!” Lily calls from the foyer.
Noah leans over, kisses my forehead, and then gets up, disappearing into the formal living room.
“Grace,” Evan speaks at a low volume. “I have some things to discuss with you. I hoped to put it off a bit, because you may find it upsetting.”
I shrug, unsure how to answer. I cannot think of anything more upsetting than what I have already been through.
I nod. “I’m all ears.”
Lily comes to sit on the couch across from us. She takes one look at our faces and says, “Hey Caleb, why don’t you take Nigel out to the backyard. I think he wants to play fetch.” With the last word, Nigel’s ears perk up. He jumps eagerly waiting for his ball to appear. Lily speaks another word, naming the object of Nigels anticipation and he dances anxiously, ready to play. He trots ahead of Caleb to the glass door of the patio.
As soon as they are outside Lily turns to me. “Do you want me to stay?” I nod. She looks to Evan, “Do you mind?”
“No,” he seems a little wary. “Do you mind?” Evan holds out the sleeping baby towards Lily. She leans forward, gently taking him from Evan, and lays him on the couch next to her. I can tell he is still unsure of himself.
Evan clears his throat and begins. “First off, I have to tell you both, I’ve known about this for some time. I didn’t tell you straight way because—well there’s no acceptable reason. I am simply at fault.”
“For what?” My throat is already tight, waiting for the news.
He looks very cautiously at me. “Do you recall the last conversation we had about the video?”
“I found out who it was.” He scrapes the palms of his hands across his jeans. “You recall that fella—the one who used to follow you on your walks with Arnold—the one with the pear shape and flashy sunglasses?”
“Yes,” I can see him clearly in my mind. I recall my distasteful encounter with him the day of Noah’s birthday party last year. He was the one who started the premature rumors.
“How did he get onto a closed set?” Lily asks, leaning forward.
“He had a press pass. He bought the phone that took the recording. It was—I think it was recorded by either him or Sheri. I found out he worked for her and am in the process of suing.”
I shudder involuntarily at the sound of her name.
Lily scoffs. “Evan. How long ago did you find out?”
“Lily, please,” my tone is meant to be reprimanding but it sounds weak, like a plea.
“I’m sorry,” she tapers her tone, “but all of this could have been avoided if he had said something— anything.”
Evan points toward me but speaks to Lily. “I know it was selfish, but I thought she wanted nothing more to do with me. When I heard, it was just another reason for Grace to hate me—”
“You don’t know, Evan. You think you do, but Grace hasn’t told you anything. You have no idea what’s been happening.” She turns her soft gaze on me. “Here’s your opportunity. Do you want to tell him or should I?” Lily crosses her arms over her knees and waits for my response.
“Tell me what?” I feel Evans eyes on the side of my face.
“I don’t know where to begin.” I mumble, feeling rather than seeing Evan’s puzzled face.
“You could start by showing him.” Lily instructs with a gesture at my shoulder.
“Show me what?” I hear Evan say, but can’t look at him.
I sigh, taking off my sweatshirt and pushing up my long thermal sleeves to reveal the binding marks on my wrists. I hear him gasp when he sees the ugly streaks of yellow and purple that still linger, but aren’t nearly as bad as my shoulder.
“This, too.” I push aside both v-necklines to reveal the swollen mass of black and blue marks stretched across my shoulder, winding around and underneath, half way down my arm. I point to the darkest line that runs down the center of the massive bruise, the most painful part. The line that was created with the end of a shovel being stabbed into my flesh as a test. Thank God, I passed.
After a moment of waiting for his reaction, I bring myself to look. Evans bulging eyes are studying the markings. “What the hell happened?” He turns to ask Lily, somehow knowiung I can’t talk about it.
Lily looks to me for permission. I nod my consent. She turns back to Evan. “Sheri tried to kill her.” Blunt as ever.
“What?” The word is so harsh and flat, it doesn’t sound like a question. His arm reaches over, pulling me into his chest.
Happy to comply, I set my cheek on his shoulder. He touches the side of my head, trying to embrace me and I gasp in pain.
“She’s recovering from a grade three concussion, too, so be careful.”
I hear a choking sound echo in his chest as his hands struggle to find a safe place to make contact. After a moment of tender hesitation, he sets them around my waist. I feel him touch my hair. I listen to the sound of his heart beating while Lily explains everything.
“Nine days ago, Noah came home from school after picking up Caleb. He was supposed to leave him here with Grace and go back to school for football practice. Instead of dropping Caleb at the front door like he usually does, he came inside to use the restroom. Thank God, he did, because when he came out, he noticed Grace was not in her room. This was cause for concern since Doctor Grainger put her on mandatory bed rest.”
She exhales, impatiently, explaining. “Preeclampsia. It’s high blood pressure, protein in the urine, water retention—it’s not good. Anyways, Noah searched the living room and the backyard before he found Nigel whimpering inside the garage. He saw her Jeep was gone so he called me, worried. I called her cell phone while I was talking to Noah. He heard the ring and followed it to her purse on top of her bed.
“It was like this alarm went off. Grace does not leave anywhere without her phone. She is never out of touch with the kids.” Her voice quivered. I looked up and saw Lily’s eyes begin to shine. She roughly cleared her throat and continued at Evan’s urging.
“Together, the two of us called her doctor, the hospital, emergency rooms, everyplace we could think of. There was no sign of her. After about an hour of concentrated worrying, I explained everything to Dr. Pataki and he let me leave work.
“When I got here, Noah was in a panic. He’d been busy. He searched the whole property again, both houses, and even checked beneath the cover of the pool. The very idea that he was worried enough to look in a place like that let me know I was not the only one who suspected something bad. I can’t explain it.” She paused. “There was this tangible dread in the air of the house.
“While I was on hold, trying to convince the Police to come out and take a look around, Noah discovered Marcus’ trunk, the camouflage one he left behind—”
“I know that one. It used to be mine.” Evan says.
Lily shakes her head, deep into the recollections. I listen carefully, preferring her memories to my own.
“It was missing. Marcus’ clothes were on the floor. Noah missed them at first because he was only concerned about her car being gone. Once we saw that, we felt like we had our proof. The police, though, they wouldn’t listen. There was no sign of a struggle or forced entry.”
Evan made a disgruntled noise, mumbling something unintelligible.
Lily responded, “I know! Because why would she take an empty a trunk and none of her own belongings? That’s not Grace. They said we had to wait 24 hours and there was nothing they could do until then. They told me I probably just missed her or something stupid like that and said she probably went into labor, drove herself to the hospital and we should try calling the hospitals again before assuming the worst. I wanted to ring their necks. I put some thought into it, and did the next best thing. I called the main number and reported her car stolen.”
“Where were you?” Evan whispered, kissing my forehead.
Lily answered that for me, too. She knew I couldn’t talk about it. It was hard enough saying it the first time when I had to explain it to the police. I heard him gasp, rendered speechless as Lily explained what that woman did.
Right around the time the Ranger up in Sequoia National Park was cutting my restraints off, Lily was officially reporting me missing. Within an hour of making the report, the local police informed her that I was found and alive. The Park Ranger was following the tracks of a vehicle that was reported by a hiker to have swerved off the road into the parts of the Forest Reserve that are not open to the public. In my concussed haze of confusion, I went way off my intended path, swerving miles out of the way I meant to follow and passed the jeep without even seeing it. If he had not crossed my path, who knows what would have happened. As I told him everything I heard and saw, more officials showed up. He took me to the ranger station while the others swarmed. They swept the area I described and found the path from my car, through the woods, up the mountainside to the plateau and down the precipice.
Lily tells Evan how I was taken several hundred miles away to a place where no one would think to look for me. She is right. No one thought for one second to look for me buried inside of a box in the redwood forests of Kings Canyon.
Once rescued, I received treatment immediately, staying at a local hospital only until Lily arrived to pick me up. She and the kids drove me directly to my hospital, where they kept me for further observation.
The next day, a detective came to see me. He said the body of my kidnapper was exactly where I indicated. He also told me it was not a man, as I assumed. Between what we learned from the police and what I went through, we thought we had almost everything figured out.
The only question left, Evan asked. “Why? Why would she do such a thing?”
“Because she was a crazy lunatic!” Lily almost screamed at him.
I raise my head, eyes on the baby to make sure he’s still sleeping. Lily is looking at him, too. His tiny legs are raised, kicking inside of his little blanket. She rubs his tummy, soothing him.
“Give him to me,” Evan reaches for our son.
I sit up, looking him in the eyes for the first time since the terrible conversation began. I watch him take the newborn, clutching him to his chest with one arm. With the other, he pulls me back to his side, holding us both. His lips are pale, his expression horror-struck. His eyes are full of tenderness, combined with a deep sorrow and something I can’t identify.
“Did you know she was in love with you?” Lily asks.
That seemed to be the key, though it felt furthest from the truth. But she was intent on trying to make me believe it. The police explained many things to me, but they could not tell me what motivated her to . . . They searched her apartment and office, and a storage space she rented, but they only found more means and seeming plans of execution. They found no motive.
The only thing I could think of that made any sense was her obsessive need to be in control. I was the one element of Evan’s life that she had no power over. That last conversation we shared, in hindsight, seemed to be her tipping point. I told her I had no intention of listening. There was no way I would consider doing what she wanted. She was at the end of her rope at that point already, since Evan had long since fired her. And I would have learned that when I spoke to him. Maybe that explains the yelling in the hospital. She made me think the hostility was directed towards me, when it was all hers.
Evan blinked and slightly shuddered. “She mentioned something like that.”
“The day she gave me the divorce papers. About five seconds after I fired her. It isn’t true, though. She’s incapable.”
I’m yawning. This topic of conversation provokes me to slumber. Something in my mind doesn’t want to deal, so it puts me to sleep. I set my head on his chest, within smelling distance of . . .
“We have to name him,” I mumble, closing my tired eyes.
I am tired, literally, of talking about this. I don’t want to think about it. Not today. Evan must know this, because he starts making jokes.
“How ‘bout Herbert? People can call him Herby, little Herby.” I hear the flat tone of familiar sarcasm.
Lily laughs a little. I hear her open the back door and call Caleb inside.
“That’s awful,” I complain, “I like Ethan, Daniel, and Elijah.”
I wake up to deafening fear—in a fright from a dreamless sleep—to the steady sound of rain outside. The feeling of the fluffy sofa cushion at my back helps me stay calm as I remind myself I am safe. The sky outside, visible through the open window, is dim and gray. The overhead lights and lamps are all turned on. There is no trace of shadow in the room, that I can see. It makes me relax.
Noah is standing behind the couch watching something with a huge grin on his face. Evan is sitting on the long couch next to Lily. They are facing each other, with the baby set between them. Lily is laughing and Evan looks mildly disgusted, but he’s smiling, too. It takes a minute to understand, but once I do—it’s so sweet, it makes me want to cry. Lily is teaching Evan how to change a diaper. I woke in the midst of their disagreement over the use of baby powder. She is against it, he wants to know why. I listen to the lighthearted exchange while Evan fumbles with a pair of tiny legs, wearing a proud smile.
“Caleb, I’ve got a ball for you.”
Caleb jumps up, eagerly taking the object from Evan. His happiness is short-lived. Once he sees the tiny diaper tightly wrapped up on itself, Caleb tells Evan he doesn’t think it will bounce, and throws it away. They all laugh, explaining the joke to Caleb who giggles sheepishly. There is so much mirth in the house with Evan here.
I sit up slowly, being careful to avoid a dizzy spell.
“It’s about time,” Lily chides with a grin. “You hungry? There’s spaghetti.”
I shake my head, reaching for the baby. “No, thank you.”
“She didn’t make it.” Noah adds, dodging a playful blow from his aunt.
Evan brings Baby over sits next to me while I lay him across my legs to finish dressing him. “How do you do that?’ He marvels, “He moves around so much, and he’s so tiny. I’m afraid I’m going to hurt him.”
“Practice,” I smile at him. “Why don’t we name him after you?”
“I don’t even like my name.” He shakes his head, a half smile on his face. “And he is going to be nothing like me if I can help it. My last name is enough.”
“His name is Ethan,” Caleb stands tall and proud in front of me, holding out his hand in presentation of his little brother.
“How do you know?” Evan asks.
“She said,” he points to me.
“I did?” This is news to me. I suggested it, but that was it.
“You said Ethan and then you waked up.”
“Woke up,” Evan touches a finger tip to Calebs nose, making the correction. “I think it suits him. Well done, Caleb.” Evan gives him a high-five. “Ethan Daniel, it is.”
Bedtime could not come soon enough. Once Lily was finished overseeing Caleb’s bath, so she left for the night.
I say prayers with Caleb and tuck him in. Noah is packing up his football equipment when I kiss him goodnight and surprisingly, he doesn’t complain. Instead, he draws me in for a hug. “I love you, Mom.”
My eyes water. “I love you, too, baby.”
Now, I am on my way to get some Z’s. As I pass through my bedroom door, I see Evan leaning over Ethan’s cradle set near the bed, gently touching his pink chubby cheek.
“I love his name. Ethan means long-lived, and Daniel means, God is my judge.”
Evan turns his head, looking me straight in the eyes. Warmth spread through me. “What does my name mean?” A smirk plays on the edge of his lips.
“God is gracious.” I had plenty of time to research names being on bed rest for so long.
As I move closer, I notice he’s holding a rolled up sleeping bag.
“Going camping?” The imagery my mind creates along with the question sends a chill up my spine.
Evan straightens and shrugs. “I don’t want to assume anything.”
“Please, assume,” I gesture towards the spot beside me as I sit on my oversized bed. “I don’t want to sleep alone.”
Evan eyebrows draw together. “Is that the only reason?”
I shake my head, eyes automatically filling with blinding tears. “No.”
His features smooth out. “Okay,” he kicks off his shoes and plops down next to me.
I jump, nervous by his sudden movement. My hands fly over my heart as I shut my eyes, reminding myself everything is okay now.
“Gracie.” My name sounds like an apology.
Being mindful of my injured shoulder, Evan leans over touching the side of my face. I close my eyes as he presses his lips to my forehead, the tip of my nose, then my mouth, placing a soft, sweet peck on each.
“I need you to tell me what scares you, so I can avoid it.”
I nod, biting my lip.
He reaches behind me and pulls back the comforter for me to crawl under. Once I am comfortable, he covers me up and moves to turn out the light.
“Leave it on. Please.”
He pauses before turning to me with a pained look. “Alright, Gracie.”
I watch as he slowly climbs into the space beside me. Leaning over me, Evan asks, “May I put my arm around you?”
“Please. I need you to hold me.” I turn to my side, away from him, as he nuzzles against my back. Taking his arm, I set it around my waist, and curl against him, fitting myself into the shape of his body. “This is good. I like having something at my back. It makes me feel safe. You can’t walk up behind me unless I hear you coming. And you can’t make sudden moves unless you tell me ahead of time. I can’t stand the dark yet, either.”
He pulls me tight against his chest. His lips brush my neck. “I wish I could make it go away.”
I raise the arm he has wrapped around me and kiss his hand. “You are, Evan.”
“Does it hurt?” His eyes look to my swollen shoulder.
“Only if I use it. Or touch it.”
“I have an idea. Bear with me.” He moves slowly away, pulling and turning me until I lay flat on my back. He raises himself off the bed, maneuvering very carefully. He moves over me, and for just a second, hips press against mine, before rolling onto the bed on the opposite side of me.
“May I?” He gestures with a raised arm.
“You may.” I’m already smiling. “I missed you. Every day.”
He smiles, moving in closer as I roll back onto my side, now facing him. He sets one arm beneath my head and one across, encircling and comforting me with his strong embrace. I set my face against his chest and stretch my sore arm around him.
Evan inches down and presses his lips to mine. Softly at first, but when I respond, he takes me by the back of the neck, gently tugging my hair in the way he always did. That small, familiar action makes me groan. Evan responds, opening his mouth, opening my lips with his tongue. I raise my leg, using it to grab his hip and pull it against me.
Evan pulls back to look me in the eye. “You are my only love.”
“And you’re mine.” I press my nose against the skin of his throat and inhale deeply. “I love the way you smell.”
“Onions?” he chuckles, “Seriously, I must stink. I’ve been up since yesterday,” he yawns hugely through the last of his sentence.
“Where were you?”
“New Zealand—part substitute for Iceland.” His arms tighten momentarily as he pecks my cheek.
“Where Bobby Fischer played the World Chess Championship. Wow, that’s far.”
“A world away.”
In what seems like a split-second, clarity disappears. His lips are so soft, their taste—so sweet. My heart thunders in my chest, for all the right reasons. He moves against me, raising his head over mine. I reach with my good arm, raking my hand through his hair.
He groans. “Finally, I have you exactly where I want and I can’t do anything about it. For six weeks!” He shakes his head, disappointed.
I laugh stridently before correcting. “Five weeks, five days.”
“That is eternity,” he crows. “Longer than the first wait.”
“Let the countdown begin.” I say, as he turns back to embrace me.
Evan’s eyes are wide. His mouth a serious line. “Promise to never let me go, Gracie.”
“I promise, gladly.” I squirm closer. “When do you go back?”
He sighs, “Location is changing, so I’ll be in Ontario next week. After that we’re heading into studio, here, for the last bit.”
“That’s not much time. We have to get luggage and pack, find a tutor, and make arrangements for—”
“You’re coming with me!” He almost squeals, squeezing me tight.
“We’re a family. Where you go, I go, and where I go, the kids have to go.”
“We’ll rent a house.”
“Yeah, let’s ask Lily to come, too. She needs a vacation.”
“Noah’s really got you pegged, love.” He chuckles, “he said not to let you worry about him, in case you brought it up, because he wants to go. And Marcus will be back soon, as well. He may bring his mother along.”
The plans unfold naturally—each contributing ideas to make the transition as easy as possible. We are going to make it work this time. No more waiting around in passive resistance. I will embrace the changes and make the most of every opportunity. Evan is worth it.
The joy mingles with drowsiness as his thoughts on the immediate future come slower, growing slightly garbled in frequent yawning. When he stops talking I listen to the sound of his breath breezing over my head. It is a comfortable silence, warm and welcome. His arms enfold me in a waking dream.
So many nights, I was alone in my over-sized bed, weeping, wishing for a way to get him back where he is right now. I dreamt a thousand different scenarios with varied conversations we’d have. None ended like the real one. In most, Evan would wish he never met me, or say everything I wanted to hear to get me to go to bed with him. After, he’d ask for a divorce.
I never truly knew. I thought I did, but I was wrong. This man holds much more than my heart. That is simply a concept—the idea not yet realized.
That morning I left the hospital, I was so extremely grateful he was alright; I thought for sure I knew how much Evan meant. Maybe I am just a mass of post-natal hormones, but what I thought I felt that day is incomparable with what I feel now. It was the impression, the initial thought, a singular crumb from the bread of my truth.
From the moment we spoke in the museum, I felt the ties binding me to him and I was, still oblivious. Inside my Jeep, when he first mumbled the three words that changed my life, I felt the surge like a laser that shot through every door, every wall I built up. Ones I never knew were there until I felt them crumble and sensed the freedom. Still, I held up inside the rubble. I let him in but not completely. While we settled here in my nest, I rebuilt the barriers and hid behind them, propping my excuses against them as reinforcements. I told him I had to be here and he knew better, but he let me make the choice for myself. I spent my time the way I had become accustomed, bathing in the fear of living. I complained about the separation I created with my selfish need to cling to familiarity.
I was so afraid to accept the changes I made; any attempts I made were superficial at best. I changed the house and the furniture, my name, but nothing that really mattered. I didn’t change my behavior, my way of thinking.
I was a newlywed and still a widow. Evan knew it. That was why he kept bringing Sol into our conversations. He was the ever-present shadow. I thought Evans light made it go away, and it did for a time, but a person who is fully committed will make sacrifices. Not make themselves a martyr.
Now I see I was still pivoting. I gave the illusion of movement while my life and marriage crumbled. I am the worst kind of hypocrite. The kind that holds others to standards that they, themselves do not adhere to. A blind guide.
Evan was only reacting to the empty promises. His coping mechanisms were drinking and pills. And I refuse to believe, for one second, that he ever broke his vows to me. I have thought over the scenario in the hotel a million times. I know that, had I been presented with the explanation before I saw the evidence, I would have believed him. Without a doubt.
I never gave him the consideration he deserved as my husband.
I treated him differently. I never would have let Solomon go away for any period of time without me. And not because I feared infidelity, but because in my life, the way that I am put together, it is unacceptable for a me to spend any significant time amount of time apart from my husband.
Through the unavoidable setbacks, love is the one thing that will remain. It is the one thing that may be taken, given, and left behind, all at the same time. And this is what I hold onto.
Whatever Evan says, I will take at face-value. He has always loved me and I should have known. He loves our family, my children and ours. Evan is the best friend I have ever had. He infuriates and challenges me, presses me to do better, to want greater things for myself. He demonstrates such patience and willingness to understand parts of me that don’t make sense. He listens even when he would prefer to be heard, and points out traits of mine that I never noticed. In some ways, he knows me better than I know myself.
The moment I am about to fall asleep his quiet snore starts. The sound is wonderfully ill-timed, ringing right over my head. His arms hold me and the reverb in a strong embrace. I turn my head and press one ear against the inside of his forearm, trying to muffle the racket. This man, this beguiling, eccentric, intrinsic part of me—the one most dearly missed throughout the last eight months of my miserable life—is going to keep me up all night with his snoring.
My muffled chuckle grows until I can’t contain it. I press my mouth to his neck and laugh.
Evan snore cuts off. He finds my mouth and takes my breath away, stopping the world in that way that only he can. With a single touch.
To say I love him is not enough. I am going to spend the rest of my life showing him and our family what it means to have faith in something greater by exercising my faith in him. I will give every part of me, even the petty, jealous, insecure parts. All of my ugliness is restored in the beauty of his love.
There is no better ending to a dream than that.
The (alternate) End