Please make sure, if you haven't already, that you've had a chance to read the new Chapter 4 (new as of 6/24/18, named Felicity 1) before continuing.
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The crashing patter of several pairs of feet broke through my concentration as I tried with varied success to alphabetize a stack of filing. I turned my head toward the hallway, knowing that a gaggle of running children was about to come flying around the corner. I stood up, alarmed. The group was loud enough that I could hear them over the rumblings of the lunch room down the hall, and I got up to meet them. I imagined a dozen emergencies in the time it took them to come into my field of vision with huge, mischievous smiles on their faces.
I stepped into their path, crossed my arms imperiously, and put on my sternest face.
The students pulled up short, but their expressions didn't change.
That didn't surprise me. With the energy levels I currently possessed, the fiercest face I could manage was about as intimidating as a hissing kitten.
"Walking in the hallways," I instructed.
My voice must have been more convincing than my face, because the smiles fell off of their mouths, one by one, like leaves in the autumn.
Now that they were still, I noticed for the first time that I was familiar with most of the children. I saw Jamie, who'd found an excuse to come to the office at least once a week since I'd helped her with her injured hand, and Michelle, her protector, who was obviously leading this particular group. There were several other boys who I knew by sight, and another girl whose mother worked part time in the office with me.
I softened slightly, but I was still the adult in charge and my frustration was peaked because of their carelessness.
"The rules still apply, even if you only have a few more weeks of school."
A string of muttered apologies rustled through them.
"Where should you be?"
Michelle took over. "We came to see you. Mrs. Peterson said we could."
"To see me?" I asked, after a moment of struggling to hold back the incredulous words 'she did?'
Their faces extended into full brightness, and from some unknown hiding place, they produced a colorful sheet of construction paper, folded in half to create a card.
"Happy birthday!" they chorused.
"But…how…?" I stammered as they pushed the card into my hand. It was garishly decorated, a hodgepodge of well-wishes and drawings centered around their signatures.
"Jamie saw the flowers on your desk."
"Oh. Oh." Mystery solved. I hadn't told anyone about my birthday, which had been earlier in the week. Anyone who wanted to know would have had a clue though, when a springtime array of flowers had arrived with a not-so-subtle card from Gabriella.
"Thank you," I said, giving the card a more thorough look. "You're very observant and kind. I appreciate the thought."
I smiled at them, which was invitation enough. I found myself in the middle of a brief group hug, and then the group turned back towards the lunch room, walking with soft steps.
Warmth filled me, the unrivaled sensation of feeling appreciated. Those moments had come few and far between lately, and they'd always come from the children. If they were my joy, I was glad that sometimes I was theirs.
All at once, I jolted back into reality. I was standing stupidly in the middle of the hallway, my thoughts overtaking my physical senses. Now that I was paying attention, I was aware of the card in my hand, the rough texture of the paper and the tear at one edge. My other hand was resting where I so often found it, low on my belly. I left it there for a moment, feeling the shape of the buttons on my shirt, the firmness of my body. And then I pulled my hand away, disgusted at myself for reveling in the feeling, for being unable to break this useless habit. It was just my body now. There was no longer anything inside of me that deserved a caress.
"Felicity, just pick one. They're exactly the same."
"No, they aren't," I insisted. "One is ripe now, the other will be ripe in a few days." I weighed the two cantaloupes in my hands. Truthfully, I'd just been staring aimlessly at them until Gabriella had commented. I decided that I didn't have the energy to cut up a melon tonight, and put the unripe fruit in my shopping cart. Maybe I would have the energy in a couple of days.
I moved off, and Gabriella followed with her own cart after a short pause in which I knew she was staring after me.
"What else is on your list?" I asked.
"What list?" she replied.
"What are you eating for dinner tomorrow?"
Gabriella, next to me now, shrugged indifferently. "TV dinner, maybe?"
I paused to glance over the dairy display, the cold of it washing across my cheeks. "Busy, or lazy?"
"Bit of both," she admitted, reaching over me to put a selection of yogurt in her cart. "I keep waiting for you to invite me over so I don't have to think about it."
"Oh," I said. "Yeah, I guess it has been a while." It had been exactly two weeks and three days since Gabriella had last been planning to come eat dinner with us. I'd planned on finally telling her about the baby that night, and then there had been no baby and I couldn't stand to let her near the house.
"So, feed me," Gabriella replied.
"Aren't you the older sibling? Shouldn't you be taking care of me?"
"I stopped being in charge the moment you started making more money."
"Sounds fair," I said, though I doubted she picked up on my sarcasm. "You know you can come over any time. You don't need an invitation."
"David won't mind?"
"Why would David mind?" I snapped. I hadn't meant to snap, but there it was.
"I didn't mean anything by it," Gabriella said carefully. "He just prefers to have a warning, that's all. You know."
I did know. David needed time to prepare for people and decide how much strength each interaction would cost. That quality just hadn't been what was on my mind.
"No warning would be enough to handle you," I said mildly.
We moved on, wandering the aisles. I almost always shopped with Gabriella because it was one social interaction I could save David from and because she needed someone to drag her to buy food or she'd starve. She'd been surprised when I'd shown up after school today, though, since we usually did this on the weekends.
When we went past the liquor section, I paused on a whim. Without looking, I pulled several bottles off of the shelf and placed them decisively in my basket.
"You don't drink," Gabriella commented with a frown.
"Not really," I agreed.
"Not ever. You have one bottle of wine in your whole house and it's gathering dust on top of your fridge."
I shrugged. I was in the mood for something new, but I didn't know how to explain that.
Suddenly Gabriella was in front of me, her basket forming a 't' with mine as she blocked my way.
"All right," she said, and any playfulness or indulgence that had been on her face since I'd randomly gone to her house was gone. "What's going on?"
"What do you mean?" I tried to play dumb, but she was expecting that tactic. she raised her hand in an imperious gesture and began to count off on her fingers.
"You're distracted. I haven't seen you smile once. You're moving around here like someone dared you to be out of the house for two hours." She took her time raising a fourth finger, the question 'Need I go on?' apparent in her expression.
I looked across at my sister, really looked at her, it seemed, for the first time in a while. She was two years older than me, but once we could have passed for twins. We had the same build and the same colors, the same expressions, like a dog who began to look like their owner. Now the differences were clear. Gabriella had cut her hair into a shaggy bob, and the advent of thirty had given her face a distinctly worn-in quality.
I wondered what she saw, exactly, when she looked at me. I knew that what she'd noticed went deeper than the things she'd listed. Maybe even to a suspicion of the truth. I'd never had the chance to tell her the actual truth. We'd lost our baby the day before we'd planned to put our strategies for a universal reveal in place.
I could tell her now. She was watching me, the two of us standing in the middle of an aisle, as if she expected a life-changing disclosure. She wouldn't care that I hadn't told her at first. She might even understand that I was glad for my initial reluctance, because it meant fewer broken hearts. The only thing that remained to be seen was whether I was capable of admitting our loss out loud.
"David and I," I began. But the words gelled together and refused to split into separate entities. "We…I…"
Gabriella tried to help. "Did something happen? Are you fighting?"
I shook my head, but not as decisively as I would have liked. "We're not fighting. We're…"
"Having problems," Gabriella supplied. She said it automatically, but she seemed surprised to be saying it.
I was surprised to be considering it. David and I had fought, of course, but what she was suggesting—a prolonged and repeating something to be worked through—was foreign to us. And yet…
"We need some reconnecting," I told her, and knew in that moment that I would never tell her the truth. The baby would stay between David and I forever.
Gabriella's face softened. She pulled her cart beside mine and drew me into a side hug.
"Aww, it's okay. You were bound to need some space sometime."
"I know," I sighed. "Natural."
Gabriella hugged tighter. "It's all right. You two will work it out." She pulled away so I could see her thoughtful face. "You know, it's kind of annoying how confident I feel about that."
"Yeah. Honestly, it's about time you hit a snag. All this perfect fairy tale living is totally unfair to us common folk."
I grinned, which had been her aim. "You would know."
"Hey, a little drama is good for a person. Not to mention a lot of fun."
"If you say so."
"I do. And you have to listen to me, because I'm the oldest."
I shook my head in helpless bemusement. "Thanks, Gab."
"Any time. Now, let's get this done," she began to push my basket forward, "so you can go home to kiss and make up." She wiggled her eyebrows suggestively, which I couldn't help but laugh at.
I let the spark of joy carry me forward, and pretended that it really was as easy as Gabriella made it seem.
I sat outside of our house for much longer than was necessary. I wasn't even sure exactly why. Perhaps I was gathering strength, but that didn't make much sense, because I knew that, even with our current difficulties, David would supply me with plenty of strength.
At last, I gathered up the groceries and went inside.
I'd hoped that David would be downstairs, in the living room or in the kitchen, starting dinner, but one look at the first floor told me otherwise. David was still upstairs, undoubtedly in his office, not quite ready for interaction, even though I was home over an hour later than usual.
I deposited the groceries in the kitchen, put away anything that needed immediate refrigeration, and then turned towards the stairs. I paused at the office door, knocked once, and then quietly entered without waiting for any acknowledgement. David was sitting at his battered old desk, which had originally come out of his college dorm room. His back was to me, and the first thing I noticed was his black hair, curling up at his collar, in need of a trim. I imagined touching it, the coarseness of it against my fingers like an anchor.
David's attention was on a pile of documents. He was skimming through them quickly, one stapled item at a time, and then throwing them either back onto the desk, or into the trashcan next to him. I came around him and perched on the corner of the desk, bringing myself into his line of sight. I waited for him to acknowledge me, which didn't take long. He raised his dark eyes to me, and a light rose in them as if the upward movement of his chin had flicked a switch.
"Hey," he said, and his hand let go of a document to rest on top of mine. "How was your day?"
He stopped sorting long enough to raise an eyebrow at me.
"Really. Some of the kids brought me a birthday card."
"That was nice of them. You should get a frame."
"Good idea. How about you?"
David went back to busily sorting. "Hard day," he said shortly.
I winced. David worked at a vet's office as a technician. I knew what he must have seen that day and why, after spending all of himself on comforting others, he was still up in his office right now. I fiddled idly with his fingers, tracing the cracks and lines that were the result of a vicious cycle of washing and lotion.
"You want to talk about it?"
He shook his head. "No. But thanks."
We sat silently, and I cast my eyes around, looking at the room whose details I'd been studiously ignoring. David had put it all back together; there was no hint that once it had looked almost ready for a moving company in order to make room for the baby. David went back to vigorously arranging papers.
I watched him do it for a few minutes, and then asked, "What are you doing?"
"I figured it really was about time to go through all of my old research papers," he answered, and dropped one that must have been twenty pages into the trashcan with a thump. "There's really no point in keeping them."
I tensed. "You don't have to do that. If you like them, keep them."
"No," he said. "I'm keeping the medical ones, but when am I ever going to look at a group project about Romantic poets?"
"When you want a good laugh?"
He chuckled, but his next paper went into the trash as well.
And just like that, I wasn't sure what to say to him. There was so much to say that it was getting harder and harder to stay on the surface. I wasn't ready to dive under yet. Underneath was the fact that David had been treating me like glass, emotionally and physically, and that I couldn't work up the willpower to prove that I didn't need it. There was the question of culpability, and wondering if David blamed me as much as I blamed myself, or if I was just imagining increased distance. There was a different guilt too, a kind that felt ashamed for how badly I'd allowed this to affect me when women all over the world had to handle it too, without the luxury of time to grieve. And I was grieving. We were grieving. We were morning the loss not necessarily of a child who we hadn't had the chance to know, but of the life we'd started building up that involved the three of us. It was very hard to go back to a life of merely two.
His name was out of my mouth before I was ready to let it escape.
He turned to face me fully, leaving the documents on the desk. He looked at me expectantly, waiting for me to finish my thought. He knew as well as I did that the thought, whatever it was that planned on escaping, was going to be a big one. He waited for me to get it out, and for some reason, that made me want to pull my hand away. I didn't want him to wait. I wanted him to bring it up himself and ask me how much longer we were going to be in this state of managing. I wanted him to say exactly the right thing that would make this go away. But he only stared, as if waiting for me to confess, or even to apologize.
I didn't pull my hand away, but my voice was sharp and loud. "I hate that you put the room back together."
It wasn't fair to say. It wasn't even a thought I'd been wholly aware of. I knew that David had fixed the room as his own way of resetting his thoughts. But it got me what I wanted.
David's eyes flared, brightly enough that the heat seemed to bounce off of his lenses. He was angry with me, finally outright angry instead of the passive, suppressed anger I'd been attributing to him. I felt like screaming, and I hoped he did too.
But David was the bigger person. Or maybe he was still just too drained from his difficult day to rise to my challenge. Either way, he sighed, and the hissing sound doused whatever fire he'd generated. He gripped my hand tightly, almost painfully.
"I know, darling," he said. "Me too."
I looked away from his face, down at his useless English papers.
"It'll be okay."
"Yeah." I stood up, letting David go and edging away from the desk. "I'll be downstairs if you decide you want to talk about your day."
I knew he wouldn't change his mind. I wasn't even sure if he'd come downstairs. I was difficult to be around right now, too much of a drain on his fragile stamina.
My urge to scream still in my throat and unfamiliar doubts in my head, I went back to the kitchen to take care of the groceries.