"I'm glad Bess and Charlie are keeping their distance."

"Are you?" Tim O'Dwyer stretched out on the sun-dappled grass, stuck a weed in his mouth - a boyhood habit he'd never been able to break - and grinned up at Rose Archer.

Coming from her, that remark about his sister and her boyfriend was daring. Even though she and Tim were practically engaged.

Rose finished stowing the leftovers in their picnic basket, then gave him an affectionate nudge. "Come on, sit up. After all the months you were away, I'm not letting you fall asleep this afternoon."

"No danger!" he protested. But he sat up straight, got rid of the weed, and pulled her close as she settled beside him. He planted a kiss on her dark, neatly bobbed hair.

"You really like my bob? I was afraid you didn't, the way you reacted to the pictures I sent you in New York."

"I was an idiot. Now I'm here, I can see it's beautiful. Perfect, like everything else about you."

The whole day was perfect, Tim thought. The clean, fresh air, the sunlight unobstructed by tall buildings. Rose in his arms. Bess and Charlie spooning in the shadow of Charlie's Model T. Music borne on the breeze from the park's distant bandstand.

And from their hilltop picnic site, a superb view of Troy. The Hudson shimmering in the sun. In the foreground, plumes of smoke from a half-dozen foundries - not a nuisance, just a reminder of the booming economy. A dozen smaller industries, among them the shirt factory that employed his mother. A bustling retail business district. He could make out the moving trolley cars, conveyances that were kept in good repair by Rose's father and uncles.

He'd been a fool to think he needed New York. There were plenty of opportunities for a bookkeeper here. Though New York's higher salaries had enabled him to attend night school, a year of college...if he stayed here and married Rose, he'd never earn his degree.

No matter. He'd gotten far enough to ensure that he wouldn't end up like his father. The elder O'Dwyer, a barely literate immigrant, had toiled as a gardener - ironically, on a college campus - till a sunstroke sent him to an early grave.

Tim put a hand to his shirt pocket, and brought it away empty - for the excellent reason that the pocket was empty.

He frowned. What had he been reaching for? Damned if he knew.

He stared stupidly at his hand. The right hand. Was there something strange about it?

It was perfectly formed. Fair-skinned and lightly freckled, like his face. A bookkeeper's hand, not a laborer's.

The fingers. Why did those unmarked fingers seem...different, somehow?

"Why are you looking at your hand?" Rose captured it in her own. "It's a very nice one. But aren't you supposed to be admiring mine, while I admire yours?"

"That's a good idea." He relaxed as he smiled into her shining blue eyes. "Pretty soon I'll be able to buy a ring for one of those hands of yours. It won't be much of a stone, but -"

"I don't need a diamond, if that's what you're thinking of." She snuggled closer. "Just...after we're married, a place of our own would be nice. It can be rented, a flat. But I want a home for us and our children, with no in-laws, no aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews underfoot."

"We'll have it." On this golden day he was sure they could accomplish anything. "And I remember two other things you've said you want, a porch and a hedge. We'll have them too."

"I shouldn't ask for so much," she murmured. "I already have what I've wanted most, for as long as I can remember. I always wanted to fall in love with a man with red hair!"

"I hope you'll still love me when it's gray." They giggled. Deep down, like all twenty-five-year-olds, they expected to be twenty-five forever.

Rose lifted her face to his, and they shared a lingering kiss.

x

x

x

Then he felt it.

He couldn't have described what it was. A chill, perhaps. But more than that. A tugging at his mind, his soul.

He scrambled to his feet. Looked down at the sprawling city and choked in disbelief.

The trolley cars had stopped moving. They were frozen in place, as were the barges on the river.

The band music had stopped. Not come to an end. Just stopped.

He was dimly aware of Rose beside him, white with shock. "Tim, what...?"

Suddenly, he knew.

"Rose," he blurted out, "something's wrong with the baby."

For a moment her lips seemed about to form the words "What baby?" Then she sucked in a breath. "Yes," she said tersely. "I feel it too."

Guided by some deep instinct, they stood face to face and pressed their hands together. His right to her left, his left to her right. Open palms and fingers to open palms and fingers.

They closed their eyes.

Then Tim saw "the baby." A graying woman in her fifties, writhing in agony in a hospital bed. The only sound that escaped her cracked lips was a moan, but he heard the thought behind it. "God...Mom, Dad. Help me, help me!"

The baby.

No. Susan. How she had hated it when he couldn't break his habit of calling her "the baby"...

Susan. Middle-aged now. An age he had never reached. He had died when Susan was twelve, died young because of the damn cigarettes. Another habit he couldn't break. The cigarettes that had done far more than take up space in his pocket and stain his fingers.

Rose had died in her eighties. She at least had been there for Susan all those years. But they'd both had to manage without him.

Now he and Rose joined together to project their love, their strength. To aid Susan in her hour of greatest need.

Tim would never know how long Susan lay at death's door, how long he and Rose fought to sustain her.

He only knew, at last, that the crisis had passed. Their baby would live.

Eyes still closed, he and Rose sought one another's lips. Theirs was the kiss of two beings who had loved forever, grown and shared and endured forever.

Then they opened their eyes. Each of them wiped away the other's tears.

"Tim," Rose whispered, "you felt her before I did!"

"Yes."

Even if he had left them so long ago.

A burden he had never known he bore was lifted from his shoulders.

"I did, didn't I?"

x

x

x

The trolley cars moved again on the streets of Troy. The barges resumed plying the river.

Brassy music blared from the bandstand.

Charlie ambled over and asked, "Any more of those ham sandwiches?"

Tim rummaged in the picnic basket. He looked up with a smile. "Yes. I think we're ready for more, too."

x

x

x

(The End)