It was eleven days before Christmas, precisely eighteen months since I had become Mrs. Sean Howard. Sean and I were decorating our Christmas tree, our first Christmas tree in our first home. Sean was hanging the ornaments where I couldn't reach. He would not allow me to get on the ladder, not even the first rung of it. He had already hung the lights for me. I had insisted on a real tree, though a pre-lit artificial tree would have been easier and less messy. It had been a Horton family tradition every year — a special family outing — to go Christmas tree shopping. Mom and I always selected a tall, full one, even though we knew it would have to be cut down to fit under our low ceilings. Dad was always a good sport about it, never complaining about the extra work involved. I wanted to continue that tradition of the real tree, and Sean, also a good sport, had agreed. Sean, however, insisted on having the tree delivered once we selected the perfect one.
"No tree is getting tossed on top of my Porsche."
Sean was still driving the same one. His dad had offered him a new one when he became an official partner of the company one year after he had gone to work for the company on a full-time basis. Sean still loved that car and insisted he didn't need a new one.
"When you find the perfect one, no need to shop around for another, especially when she's still just as beautiful as the first day you laid eyes on her," he had said, looking straight at me at the time.
His dad had replied with, "Well, I'm not sure we're still talking about cars here, but if that's how you feel, how about I at least turn the title of the one you have over to you. It's still in my name."
"That would be great, Dad. I'd like that."
It had been a busy summer. I had graduated in May and finished my book of short stories in July. I had even found a publisher, a small one, but it was a start. The book would be out the first of the year. The title was To the Moon and Back. I couldn't wait to see it in print, to see it on bookstore shelves.
There had been a wedding in August — Alison and Tony's. It was a huge affair, a beautiful Catholic wedding. I was the matron of honor; Sean was best man. Lisa and Priscilla were bridesmaids, along with Alison's four younger sisters. Jeremy and Sam were groomsmen, as were Tony's brothers. The wedding was in Jackson, Ohio, Alison's hometown. It had been a fantastic weekend. We had enjoyed meeting all of Alison's family, as well as Tony's.
Tony had begun working in his dad's restaurant business in New Jersey since his graduation the year before. Alison had taught first grade in her hometown. She and Tony would live in New Jersey. They were honeymooning in Italy for a month, then they would return to New Jersey to begin their search for a home to purchase, and she would apply for a teaching job. She had considered working on her master's degree but had loved teaching grade school so much; she had put the idea of graduate school on the shelf for now.
I was thrilled for her and Tony. It had been a rough year for them, having a long-distance romance, but Alison said between planning the wedding and teaching, she had kept busy.
"How did you plan a wedding in six weeks, Sarah?" she had asked.
"Well, I didn't have anywhere near the wedding you had," I told her.
Yours wasn't as big, but it was just as beautiful," she replied.
I silently agreed with her. Mine had been beautiful!
Jeremy and the blond chick from our wedding were still a hot item. We had learned that she was a daughter of one of Mr. Howard's business associates in Atlanta. She had been a sophomore student at SMU in Dallas, Texas, and had been home for the summer, and had attended the wedding with her parents for something to do. Her name was Terri Monroe. She and Jeremy had spent a great deal of time traveling back and forth to see each other during that summer. Jeremy had taken a position with a Dallas Architect firm that September, and had begun working on his masters at SMU. He and Terri were "sharing" an apartment in Uptown, a popular, trendy area of North Dallas. No plans or talk of marriage, he had said and then had added: "maybe after she graduates, we'll see." I believed my dear friend Jeremy was finally in love. He and I had kept in touch, he called often, and most of his conversation concerned her. I was so happy for him and hoped it continued to work out for the two of them. He said he loved Dallas and had wanted Sean and me to visit, but with our busy schedules, we'd not found the time to make the trip.
Lisa and Sam were still a hot item; they had moved in together as well. They said they had no interest in marriage; they didn't want the restraints of it. Sean commented later, in private, that we all knew what kind of restraints they were into, what kind of knots they tied.
"Ha!" I had bellowed. I no longer was embarrassed by my unladylike outburst; I no longer tried to repress it. It was part of me, part of who I was. Sean insisted it was one of the things he loved about me, one of my perfect imperfections as the song he had dedicated to me at our reception said. I had loved that song, still did, still listened to it several times a day. It had been, and still is, Sean's ringtone for me.
"Just like your sweaty palms when you get nervous," Sean had said when talking about my imperfections. I had been embarrassed when he mentioned them until he had added, "I love every single thing about you, babe."
All our friends had made it to Athens to attend my graduation in May, and then we had all been reunited in August for Tony and Alison's wedding. We hadn't seen any of them since, so we were so excited that Tony and Alison were coming to see us a week before Christmas. Jeremy and Terri were planning to be in Atlanta with her family for the holidays and would drive over to spend a day or two with us while Alison and Tony were here.
I couldn't wait to see our friends, for them to see our new home. We had moved in late September. We had looked for a couple of months before finding the perfect one.
The house was old — built in early 1900′s, and was on the National Historic Registry. It was a beautiful two-story southern style home, complete with a covered porch across the front of the house, with several steps leading up to it. It reminded us of the sorority house where we had spent so much time, so many evenings. I think we both decided immediately it was the house for us, the moment we walked up and spotted the white porch swing. The swing was included, as well as the large white rocking chairs. The house had three bedrooms, three bathrooms, formal living room and dining room, family room, kitchen and breakfast room. The kitchen was awesome, with top-of-the-line appliances, and marble countertops. The master suite was huge, with a cozy sitting area. Most rooms had built-in bookcases, plenty to shelf all my hardbacks. We especially liked the high ceilings. The house was in perfect condition. The only changes I wanted to be made to it were the colors of the walls in the master bedroom, and well as the other two bedrooms. Sean and Tommy insisted they could do that and had spent two weekends painting walls. They were pretty good at it. We had continued to live in the mansion while the painting took place. Sean didn't want me around, inhaling the fumes.
Patricia and I had spent the time furniture shopping, mostly antique shops, and a few of the nicer second-hand stores.
The home had a huge backyard, beautifully landscaped, and large covered patio area with built-in outdoor kitchen. It even had a play area that was perfect for a swing set, or jungle gym.
I had been quite busy since we moved in. Mrs. Howard and Patricia had helped me with furniture selections and decorating. With our friends coming to visit, it was important the house be ready, and the tree perfect.
"Ouch!" I said, as Sean stepped off the ladder to admire his work, once he had placed the topper on the tree.
"What? Did I step on your foot?"
"No, your son just kicked me."
"That's my boy! Let me feel," Sean said.
I placed his hand where the baby had kicked.
"Good one," he said when the next kick came. "Strong kid," he added, kissing me.
I was six months pregnant. Sean David Howard II was due in March. Sean and I were confident he had been conceived June 14th, the night we had celebrated our one-year wedding anniversary. We couldn't be more thrilled, more excited. Sean was overjoyed that it was a boy. I was pleased, too, but I would have been just as happy about a girl.
We had known I was pregnant at the time of Alison and Tony's wedding but had agreed to keep it quiet, not wanting to take any spotlight off the bride and groom. Plus, it was so early in the pregnancy, there was always the possibility of a miscarriage, though Sean insisted that would not happen. I had prayed at the time that he was right, I wanted this baby so much. We both did.
We knew it would be difficult not to share the news with our friends, especially Alison and Tony. I wanted to shout the news from the rooftop. How would I possibly not whisper it to my best friend?
It turned out to be a non-issue. Alison had known almost immediately, the moment I passed on a glass of wine.
"Oh, my god, Sarah. You're pregnant!"
"What? Where'd you come up with that?" I asked.
"Don't deny it," she replied. "It's written all over your face. You have the glow. So does Sean. I knew something was up the moment I saw you both."
I looked at Sean for help.
"I think we're busted, babe," he replied, grinning.
"Okay, fine. I'm pregnant," I blurted.
"Freakin', man! Totally freakin'!"
Little Sean Jr was healthy. The doctor said he would be a big one, just like his dad. Sean was pleased to hear that but then began worrying about me delivering such a large baby. As always, Sean worried about everything. When Sean loved something — someone — he loved hard, and deep, and with that love came over-protectiveness. It was who he was, and I loved him even more for it.
The Howards were as excited about the baby as we were. They were furnishing the nursery as our Christmas gift.
"No second-hand furniture for my grandson," Mr. Howard had stated.
My life was perfect. The only thing that would have made it better would have been my parents around to enjoy the baby with us.
I no longer thought of their death as a hidden demon but of their life a sweet memory. They had lived, and loved. Mom had sung and danced in the rain. I was pretty sure she was still singing in the rain, and Dad was her Gene Kelly.
Once we had the tree decorated to my satisfaction, Sean carried the empty boxes and storage containers down to the basement and worked out for a short while with the small amount of weight equipment he had purchased so far. Just the bare necessities, he had said, to keep his body the way I enjoyed it. I had no problem with that!
Later in the evening, after dinner, we cuddled together in the family room over-sized lounge chair, our feet on the large, matching ottoman, drinking hot cocoa. The miniature marshmallows in mine were slowing melting, I stirred them around as Sean and I talked. We had turned off all lamps and overhead lighting. The room was lit by the twinkling of the lights on the Christmas tree, and the roaring fire in the fireplace.
The baby was more active this night than usual, kicking every few minutes, it seemed. Sean always loved to feel his kicks, and tonight was no exception. Sean also enjoyed my growing breasts, and tonight was no exception. He had one hand on my stomach where I had placed it so he could feel the kicks. He had the other hand up my blouse.
"This is nice," he whispered, as he nibbled on my ear.
"What is?" I asked.
"All of it," he replied, kissing my neck.
"Yes, it is," I replied, enjoying his touch, as his hand worked its way from one breast to the other. "Very nice."
"I love you, babe, I love our life. Everything is so perfect."
"I love you, sweetheart," I replied. "And I agree, things couldn't be more perfect."
Fairytale dreams with happily-ever-after endings did come true. I knew. I was living mine.