“She changed his world, this woman who wandered uninvited into his life and demanded the very best of him. Before he knew it, he had stopped drinking and he’d taken the first steps toward becoming a parent again, and he’d fallen in love—for the second and last time in his life.”
“You’re drowning me, Nick,” she whispered brokenly.
“I don’t mean to. I just wanted to let you know that you aren’t alone. Love can rise above tragedy and give us a way home. You taught me that, and now you need me to remind you.”
Annie’s days bled one into the next in a monotonous flow of hours spent huddled alongside the incubator in a helpless, hopeless confusion. The hospital had given her a new room, so she was always close to Katie, but at night, when she lay alone on her narrow bed, she felt miles away from the people she loved.
She counted the passing of time in little things: Natalie was here on the weekends and at school during the week; Hank showed up unannounced and came daily to the hospital. Terri and Blake both visited each day after work. The clock ticked. Every day, Rosie O’Donnell showed up on the television screen in the corner of the room, and with each new segment, Annie knew that a day had passed. Thanksgiving came and went; they ate pressed turkey and canned gravy off yellow plastic trays in the frighteningly empty cafeteria.
But Annie barely noticed any of it. Sometimes, when she sat beside the incubator, Natalie became Adrian and Adrian became Katie, and in those moments, when Annie closed her eyes, she couldn’t see anything except that tiny coffin draped in flowers. But then an alarm would go off, or a nurse would come in, and Annie would remember. With Katie, there was hope.
She talked to her baby constantly. (I am sitting beside you now. Can you feel me? Can you hear my breathing? Can you feel me touching you?)
Annie wiped her eyes and glanced at the door. Natalie and Hank stood there. Her dad looked ten years older than he was.
“We brought Yahtzee,” he said.
Annie smiled tiredly. It must be another week gone by; Natalie was home again. “Hey guys. How did the Psych test go, Nana?”
Natalie pulled up a chair. “That was two weeks ago, Mom, and I already told you I aced it. Remember?”
Annie sighed. She had no memory of that conversation at all. “Oh. Sorry.”
Natalie and Hank sat beside the bed and started unpacking the game. They kept up a steady stream of chatter, but Annie couldn’t concentrate.
All she could do was stare at the side of her bed. It was where the bassinet belonged, where they put it when the tiny, pink-swaddled baby inside of it was healthy. She remembered that the bassinet had been there with Natalie— and never with Adrian.
Hank leaned toward her, touched her cheek. “She’s going to be fine, Annie. You’ve got to believe that.”
“She’s gaining weight steadily, Mom. I talked to Mona— you know, the ICU night charge nurse—and she said Katie’s a champ.”
Annie didn’t look at either of them. “She hasn’t been held yet . . . does anyone realize that but me?” It plagued her, that thought, kept her up at night. Her baby, stuck full of needles and tubes, had never felt the comfort of her mommy’s arms, had never been soothed to sleep by a lullaby. . . .
“She will, Mom,” Natalie said, squeezing her wrist. “She’s going to be fine. Maybe—”
There was a knock at the door, and Dr. North pushed through the opening. Dr. Overton, the neonatologist, was standing beside her, wearing green surgical scrubs.
Annie’s heart stopped at the sight of them. Blindly, she reached out for Natalie’s hand, squeezing the slim fingers until she could feel the birdlike bones shift. Hank shot to his feet and squeezed Annie’s shoulder.
“Oh, God,” she whispered.
The door opened again and a stout, white-clad nurse named Helena swept into the room on a tide of rustling polyester. In her arms she held a small pink-swaddled bundle.
Dr. North came to the end of the bed. “Would you like to hold your daughter?”
“Would I—” Annie couldn’t seem to draw a solid breath. She hadn’t believed in this moment; hoped, yes, but she hadn’t really believed. She’d been afraid to believe; afraid that if she believed and lost, she would never find the surface again.
Unable to say anything, she reached out.
The nurse moved toward her and placed her daughter in Annie’s arms.
The newborn smell filled her nostrils, at once familiar and exotic. She peeled back the pink blanket and stroked her daughter’s forehead, marveling at the softness of the skin.
Katie’s rosebud mouth puckered and yawned, and a little pink fist shot out from the blanket. Smiling, cooing, Annie peeled back the cotton fabric and stared down at her little girl, dressed in a tiny doll’s diaper. A network of blue veins crisscrossed her pale chest and dappled her thin arms and legs.
Katie opened her mouth and made an angry squeaking sound.
Annie’s br**sts tingled; moisture seeped through her nightgown. Quickly, she untied her gown and eased Katie toward the nipple. There was a moment of fumbling around, a few repositionings, and then Katie latched on.
“Oh, Katie,” she whispered, stroking her daughter’s soft, soft head, laughing quietly at the miracle of it all. “Welcome home.”
The first days home were crazy. Hank and Terri hovered beside Annie, demanding to help, refusing to take no for an answer. They decorated the house for Christmas, dragging box after box from the attic and squealing as each new treasure was found. They put up a ten-foot tree in the living room and proceeded to add an obsessive number of gifts beneath it. Natalie called home between every class and asked how Katie was doing. Annie couldn’t handle it all, not when all she wanted to do was stare at the miracle of her child. At last, Hank went home—but only after he vowed to return at Christmas.
Alone again, Blake and Annie tried to find their way back to the familiar routine, but it wasn’t as easy as before. Annie spent all her time huddled on the sofa with Katie, and Blake spent more and more time at the office.
In the third week of December, Hank met Natalie at the San Francisco airport, and they flew down to LAX together. The family shared a tense, quiet holiday dinner that only reminded Annie of how shredded their relationships had become. Even opening the presents on Christmas morning had been a subdued affair.
Hank watched Blake every minute. Annie had heard the questions he jabbed at her husband: Where are you going? Why won’t you be home tonight? Have you spoken to Annie about that?
Annie had known that Blake felt like a stranger in his own home. Natalie watched him warily, waiting for him to pick up Katie, but he never did. Annie understood; she’d been through it before. Blake simply wasn’t one who fell head-over-heels in love with newborns. They frightened and confused him, and he was not a man who liked either emotion. But Natalie didn’t understand that, and Annie saw her daughter’s disappointment again and again as she handed her baby sister to their father, only to watch Blake shake his head and turn away.
Now, Annie lay huddled along the mattress’s edge. Beside her, Blake was stretched out, one arm flung her way, one knee cocked against her hip, hogging the bed in his characteristic fashion. She could hear his breathing; the rhythmic score had accompanied her own sleep for so many years.
She gently peeled out of the bed and went to the French doors, opening them. Sheer white silk curtains billowed with night’s breath along her bare leg.
She woke so often, alone, desperate to reach out for comfort in the darkness, but there was no comfort in her marriage. Oh, they’d tried, each of them in their own way. Him, with gifts and promises and quiet conversations about things that mattered to Annie; her, with brittle smiles and rented movies and elegant dinners for two. But it wasn’t working. They were like butterflies caught on separate sides of a window, each trying with fluttered desperation to break through the glass.
With a tired sigh, Blake pushed the Dictaphone aside and shoved the depositions back into their folder. He was having trouble concentrating lately, and his work was beginning to suffer. Katie only slept a few hours at a time, and whenever she woke up, crying or whimpering, Blake couldn’t get back to sleep.
He got to his feet and poured himself a scotch. Swirling the amber liquid around in the Waterford tumbler, he walked to the window and stared outside. The city was a blurry wash of January gray. A few ragged New Year’s decorations swung forgotten from the streetlights.
He didn’t want to go home to his strangely unfamiliar wife and his squalling newborn daughter. As he’d expected, Annie’s whole existence revolved around the baby’s needs. There was no time left for Blake, and when she did finally get the child to sleep, Annie stumbled blindly to bed, too exhausted for anything beyond a quick peck on the cheek and a mumbled good night.
He was too damned old to be a father again. He’d been no good at it when he was young, and he had even less interest now.
There was a knock at the door.
Blake set the glass down. “Come in.”
The door swung open and Tom Abramson and Ted Swain, two of Blake’s partners, stood in the opening. “Hey, bud—it’s six-thirty,” Ted said with a wicked grin. “What do you say we head on down to the bar and celebrate the Martinson decision?”
Blake knew he should say no. In the back of his mind was the thought that he had something to do at home, but he couldn’t for the life of him remember what it was.
“Sure,” he said, reaching for his coat. “But just one. I have to get home.”
“No problem,” Tommy said. “We’ve all got families.” It was true, of course. All three of them had wives and children at home, waiting for them. But somehow they were still at the bar at eleven o’clock that night, laughing and shouting and clanking toasts.
Ted went home at eleven-thirty, and Tom followed him out. That left Blake, sitting alone on the bar stool. He’d told his friends that he wanted to finish his drink, but the truth was, he’d been nursing the same cocktail for about an hour. He kept looking at the door, thinking, I should go; then he’d think of that big bed at home, and the way his wife slept huddled along the mattress’s edge, and he stayed where he was.
Annie had set the table beautifully. Candlelight flickered above the Battenberg lace cloth, casting slippery shadows on the sterling silver dishes that held all of Natalie’s favorite dishes: homemade macaroni and cheese, hot crescent rolls with honey and butter, and corn on the cob. There was a small stack of multicolored, foil-wrapped presents at one end of the table, and bright, helium-filled balloons were tied above each chair.
Tonight was Natalie’s eighteenth birthday party, and they were all coming together to celebrate. Annie was determined to fit this family back into its groove, at least for these few hours.
Annie glanced once again at the table, her critical eye missing no detail. Hank came up beside her, put an arm around her shoulder and drew her close. Through the open archway to the kitchen, they could hear Natalie and Terri laughing. Annie leaned against her dad. “I’m glad you could come down for the holidays, Dad. It means a lot to Natalie and me.”