Someone watching from far, far away would have seen a small blue-green planet orbiting a middle-sized yellow star.
A comet, which the planet's inhabitants called Tempel-Tuttle, traced its own elliptical orbit around the star every thirty-three years. On one of its visits it had crossed the plane of the planet's orbit leaving behind it a trail of fine dust, impossibly ancient leftovers from the formation of the star and its attendant planets - a tenuous cosmic cobweb. And like a cobweb, it was periodically swept by the planet as it followed its ordained orbit around the star and passed through the comet's leftovers. Whenever the two cosmic dancers met they gave anyone who was in the right place at the right time a brief but spectacular display of fireworks as the planet's atmosphere slammed through the trail of primordial dust bunnies at a little more than 67,000 miles per hour.
As Vincent and Amanda drove north behind the Kombi on a cool Autumn morning, the Earth and Tempel-Tuttle's cobweb were less than twenty-four hours from their annual pas de deux.. The air was cool and the windows were wound down as if the two were inviting the world to come in and share the trip with them.
Vincent reached forward and turned on the radio.
...with high winds forecast for tonight. And now, here's The Turtles, with "Elenor".
"Oh cool! I love this song!" Vincent turned up the volume and sang along at the top of his voice, replacing 'Elenor' with 'A-man-da'.
Youíve got a thing about you,
I just canít live without you,
I really want you A-man-da near me
Amanda laughed and joined in, though she had to break up 'Vincent' into longer syllables to make it fit.
Your looks intoxicate me,
Even though your folks hate me,
Thereís no one like you Vi-i-ncent really
As the chorus hit they sang louder. He glanced across, his eyes sparkling, then looked back at the road, grinning and matching her volume.
A-man-da/Vi-i-ncent gee I think youíre swell,
And you really do me well,
Youíre my pride and joy etcetera
A-man-da/Vi-i-ncent can I take the time
To ask you to speak your mind
Tell me that you love me better
I really think youíre groovy
Letís go out to a movie
What do you say now A-man-da/Vi-i-ncent can we?
Theyíll turn the lights way down low,
Maybe we wonít watch the show,
I think I love you A-man-da/Vi-i-ncent love me
They left the rest of the song to The Turtles as Vincent put his arm around her and she snuggled up to him as they drove on.
That morning Amanda had noticed that the baby had moved in the night, sitting lower down somehow. Getting more comfortable she'd thought, imagining how cramped it must be in there. It was a long drive, and three times Vincent flashed his lights at the Kombi in a prearranged signal for them to pull into the next gas station.
Finally they reached the cabin that Willow and Coyote had rented for a few dollars from the park service. It was basic, no more than four walls and a roof with a fireplace at one end, a wooden table and two bench seats, and two wooden bunks. The roof beams were exposed, but it was better than a tent and the location was worth more than the best five-star hotel, high up on a foothill with tall timber all around the clearing that had been made for the cabin. The nearest town was more than ten miles back and away from town lights that the sky would be dark - perfect for meteor watching. Amanda sat on a bench while the others brought things in from the cars, putting air mattresses on the bunks and bringing in wood for a fire. They were high enough for it to be noticeably cooler - with any luck it would be cold tonight and the sky would be free of warm-night haze.
When everything had been brought in Coyote opened a cooler and broke out some beers and a bottle of Coke for Amanda. They sat outside on log seats around a picnic table, drinking, chatting, and soaking up the setting. To the north-west the snow-covered bulk of Mount Shasta rose sparkling white tinged with pink in the late afternoon sun. Vincent fetched a camera out of the Willys and he and Coyote strolled off down a trail that led through the trees to a small lake that they'd noticed on the map. A stiff breeze had come up by the time they got back three quarters of an hour later and the sun was well down behind Sheep Rock a mile behind the cabin. Amanda and Willow had gone back inside out of the wind.
"Man," said Coyote as he pulled a poncho out of a box, "it's outa sight! The mountain was just changing colours every minute while the sun set. Vinny got some shots of it reflected in the lake!"
"Cool," smiled Willow. "We'll check it out tomorrow. You guys make a fire and we'll get some food happenin', then we'll get an early night I think." She walked over to a box and laughed, pulling out an alarm clock. "I'll set it for one-thirty so we can get up in plenty of time for the show to start."
After dinner they sat around talking and enjoying the fire and listening to the wind whistle through the gaps in the windows. Vincent got up and walked to the door, feeling it push back against him as a cold wind blew in. He came back a minute later. "Damn - it's getting cold and there are clouds. It'd be a major bummer if it clouded over." Amanda's heart sank. She'd been looking forward to this so much and, sensing her disappointment, Vincent walked round the table and put his arm round her. "It'll probably be fine. This is just an evening wind off the mountain. When things cool down it'll stop and clear up."
Amanda took the flashlight and went outside to the outhouse before she went to bed. It wasn't as bad as she'd expected. The wind was strong and cold, but the clouds were scattered and scudding quickly across a velvet sky. The air was crystal clear and the stars shone brightly between the clouds and she heard the wind wailing in the trees as she sat, thinking. When she came out Vincent was setting up a tripod. He stopped and looked up at her. "Okay?" he asked.
"Great. I wouldn't mind an inside bathroom, but other than that it's beautiful." She looked up at the sky. "Do you think you'll be able to get some photographs?"
"Sure. I've loaded with fast film. As long as it stays clear it'll be fine. The wind could be a problem if it shakes the camera."
"Maybe it'll stop, like you said."
He put his arms around her and kissed the top of her head. "As long as you're here I don't care if it blows us all the way to Kansas, Dorothy." She hugged him and laughed, and they went back inside.
* * *
When the alarm when off at half-past one Willow was already up and had stoked the fire to a cheery blaze but it was still cold and the wind howled in the trees outiside. They dressed as warmly as they could though they hadn't bothered to bring winter clothes. Vincent wrapped a blanket around Amanda and they stepped outside, expecting the worst.
The wind had picked up during the night but the sky was still mercifully clear. The lion rode high and within seconds a bright streak flashed from its head to the treetops, provoking a an involuntary "ahh" from the four watchers. Vincent went inside and came back a minute later with a camera which he screwed to the tripod head and a cable release for the shutter. They all moved back around the tripod and Coyote spread a blanket on the ground. They lay down in a line, Amanda spreading her blanket over them, and they lay back, their arms around each other, staring up as the sky exploded above them. Every few minutes a particularly bright meteor flashed above them to breathed 'wow's and 'far out's. Amanda felt a sharp little pain low across her back. "Shouldn't have had so much of that spicy food last night!" she said, and they laughed and hugged each other tighter.
Though the meteor display was a hundred miles above their heads, in their minds they imagined the screams and explosions of fireworks, and the sound of Amanda's voice above the low moan of the wind in the trees broke the spell. "You know," she said, looking up at the sky. "I think if it's a girl...Jaqueline Star Mor...er...Phillips..." She paused, and they waited. "It won't have its father's last name. I just realised that...it won't have a father." Her voice was quiet and sad, and she felt Willow hug her a little tighter.
"Yes it will."
It was Vincent.
"Jaqueline Star Lane. You know, I like the sound of that," he murmured.
Coyote smiled, feeling rather than hearing a little sigh from Willow as she turned to him, sharing in the moment. The two couples kissed while the sky fell in burning embers above them, and for the first time the things Amanda had lost over the last year didn't matter at all.
* * *
They sat at the table in the flickering light of a kerosene lamp, Vincent and Amanda staring into each other's eyes.
"I don't think they saw much past that first shooting star," Willow remarked to Coyote, sotto voce.
"Yeah - the were more interested in the stars in their eyes than the ones in the sky." returned Coyote.
"I guess they'll make their own fireworks soon enough."
"I thought Vinny was about to launch a rocket." Coyote grinned, warming to the task at hand but Amanda giggled, stopping the flow of bad puns.
"Cut it out you two!"
"Ah - welcome back. We thought we'd lost you."
Amanda ignored Willow and turned back to Vincent. "If we want to do it before the baby's born we're going to have to find someone to marry us fast."
"I thought you were going to marry each other." said Coyote, looking surprised.
Vincent laughed, but Coyote shook his head. "I'm serious, man. Getting married is about making a commitment to each other. No one can marry you - you marry each other. I mean it's cool to have someone say some words and someone to share it with, but in the end it's between the two of you and the universe. Anyone can say the words - they're just words. Marriage is deeper than words. You get married in your hearts. Anything else is just window dressing."
Amanda felt the same stab of admiration that she'd felt for Willow. What Coyote had said was contrary to everything she'd been brought up to believe, that marriage was a sacrament ordained by God, that only a Priest could deliver a sacrament. But in her heart she knew that, for her, he was right. She turned and stared at Vincent, seeing everything she felt returned in his eyes. "I love you," she whispered.
* * *
Amanda lay back in the bathtub, staring up at the familiar off-white ceiling and the pink glass lampshade that always had a little brown dot in the centre where the water condensed, trickled down, then evaporated to leave a stain. It was nice, comforting. She wished it was little warmer. The wind howled outside and the bathwater was tepid. She thought about getting out of the tub and going back to her bedroom, snuggling down in her nice warm bed and falling asleep to the sounds of the television in the lounge room or her mother pottering around in the kitchen.
Suddenly the bathtub started shrinking, getting shorter, pushing against her neck and back. She struggled, trying to get out, but the tub trapped her and it was hurting...she groaned as the pain across her back got worse...shrinking...squeezing...
She woke, breathing heavily, lying in a puddle of luke-warm water.
Michael Donovan Morgendorffer passed away on Thursday, after losing a lengthy battle with cancer. He was a decorated veteran, awarded the Silver Star for the rescue of an injured comrade in the Second World War. He is preceded in death by his parents Austin Jacob and Quincey Mae Morgendorffer, a brother Darren Lee Morgendorffer and a son Michael Donovan Morgendorffer Jr. He is survived by his loving wife Ruth Ann and his son Jacob.
Corporal Ellenbogen folded the newspaper and laid it on the seat beside him. He glanced across at Jake, who'd been staring silently out of the window into the darkness for the whole trip.
Listening to Jacob's angry words about his father in the mess had made him lose his self-control and he was deeply ashamed of the way he'd broken the news of Mad Dog's death to Jacob. It was a small betrayal - Mad Dog himself probably would have approved - but he wasn't Mad Dog and Jacob wasn't his son. What was the boy thinking? His face was blank. He'd tried talking, but Jacob's had been monosyllabic, not much more than grunts. He could understand why Mad Dog hadn't been able to relate to Jacob. The boy was...closed to him, completely unlike his own son. He thought about how Mad Dog would have wanted Jacob to be like Andy Junior. Now there was a son. But Jacob was a son too, the son of a man who he owed his life to. Now that Mad Dog was gone at least some of the responsibility for Jacob passed to him, no matter what Mad Dog had said. He was tempted to tell the boy to snap out of it, to take it like a man, but somehow he couldn't.
He went back to thinking about the eulogy that he'd deliver at the funeral while Jake continued to stare out at the darkened landscape slipping by.
Through all she'd experienced, all she'd felt, all the torture of deciding in one sleepless night that her child was more important than her parents, her school...her life...through all the imagined pain and loneliness, nothing had prepared her for the abject terror that stabbed through Amanda now.
The tough membrane that had encapsulated her baby for nine months had burst. The warm, protective fluid that had surrounded it, had buoyed it up, filled its lungs, shielded it from the bumps and shocks, had run out of the birth canal and onto the airbed. The muscular womb that had been its home had started to contract like the bath in her dream, gently at first, but later it would contract violently - with enough force, as incautious doctors and midwives had found to their grief, to break the bones of anyone trying the help and getting a finger caught in a contraction..
She stood up, feeling the warm amniotic fluid running down her legs, and she held Vincent's arm as he lay asleep in the top bunk, and she squeezed. The first light of dawn dripped in through the cabin windows and the first things he saw when he opened his eyes were hers, and sleep fled. In that instant another contraction started and she winced, not yet with pain, but soon.
"Oh fuck," he breathed, seeing the news in her eyes. "It's started."
Vincent threw off the sleeping bag that covered him, swung his feet over the edge of the bunk, and leaped down. His left foot hit the floor in a puddle and slipped out from under him. He grabbed the bedpost and caught himself before he fell but the noise woke Willow and Coyote. "The baby's on its way," he said, turning to grab his clothes from the floor, then realising that Amanda was still standing, watching him. He turned and went to hug her, but half stopped, not knowing whether he should, so he held her gently and felt her arms grasp him, shaking slightly. "It's okay," he whispered in her ear, stroking her matted hair, feeling as if he was telling her a gigantic lie.
"Come on, babe," Willow said quietly, unwrapping Amanda's arms from Vincent and taking her hands, "sit on the..." she looked at the wet mattress, "...seat," leading her over to the table. She went back and grabbed the sleeping bag off Vincent's bunk and wrapped it round Amanda's shoulders against the cold morning air. She dampened a washcloth and gave it to Amanda with a towel so she could clean herself off, then went to get some dry underwear and a dress for her to wear.
Coyote was collecting Amanda's things and throwing them into her bag. "Get your stuff together man, I'll take this out to the car. Get her into town - there's bound to be a doctor there. We'll get the rest of the crap into the Kombi and follow you." He lifted the bag and forced open the door against the wind, more like a gale now, but instead of going out he stood there in the doorway.
Willow turned, puzzled, and went to join him. "Oh shit," she whispered, inaudible over the wind.
"What's wrong?" Vincent half-ran to the door. The track that led from the clearing around the cabin into the forest was blocked by a pine that had fallen in the night. Cushioned by the trees around it and masked by the sound of the wind, the fall hadn't woken them. The trunk lay at an angle, propped a couple of feet off the track by branches that had caught in the trees on the other side. Even from the cabin they could see that they weren't going to get out that way.
He turned to see panic on Amanda's face and walked back to the door. "It's okay," he said, putting an arm around her and sounding much calmer than he felt. "A tree's blown down over the track, that's all. We'll be able to get round it. I'll go and check it out."
He tugged on his jeans and a shirt and shoes and went outside. The clearing ended a couple of hundred feet in front of the cabin and the fallen tree was another hundred feet or so past that. The trees and underbrush were thick - there was no way that they'd be able to drive straight round. He started trotting along the edge of the clearing looking for spaces that he could get through. There were a couple of likely paths but they all closed off without leading back to the main track. Finally he ended up back where he started from and a rising sense of panic made him run to where the tree lay across the track, knowing that there was no way in hell that he could move it, but desperate to do something. He ran back to the cabin and put his head round the door. "Coyote," he said, beckoning Coyote to join him outside.
They walked down the track. "How's it look, man?" Coyote yelled over the roar of the wind.
"Bad. I couldn't find any way round."
"I went all the way round the clearing. Twice. There's nothing. They cut the track in and cleared the space but they didn't make any other tracks out - none you could drive a car through."
"Let's check out the tree. Maybe if we could get a rope round it we could use the cars to..." but by that time he could see that the size of the tree and the way it was wedged between the others meant that there was no way they'd be able to drag it, even if they had rope, which they didn't.
"Yeah," Vincent said, answering Coyote's unspoken thought.. "You saw from the lake yesterday, there's nothing around - no campgrounds, nothing closer than the town ten miles back. We didn't pass anyone on the way in - there's no-one around at this time of year. I think we're fucked, man."
Coyote heard the stress in Vincent's voice. "The rangers'll be in. They'll be checking the tracks for fallen trees after the windstorm. They'll get here."
"Yeah. After the windstorm. Not during the windstorm. I don't think we've got that long, man. What the fuck are we going to do?" Coyote could hear a note of panic creeping into Vincent's voice.
"Easy, man. Look - we can't afford to lose it. The worst thing we can do is freak out." He gripped Vincent's shoulder tightly in his hand. "Don't let her down, man. She needs us."
Vincent took a deep breath. "Yeah. Thanks, man." He stood still, collecting the pieces of himself that had started to fray.
"It happens all the time, right? People have babies all the time. I read that before the civil war a pregnant slave working in the cotton fields'd just go behind a tree, squat down, have the kid, and go back to work."
Vincent thought about the fear he'd seen in Amanda's eyes, her body shaking in his arms. She wasn't going to go behind a tree, pop out this kid and then go back to work. If it ever had been like that, and he doubted that it had, it wasn't going to be like that now. They were alone and she was probably going to have the baby in the cabin. But she wasn't alone. He was here, and he was going to be everything that she needed. Besides - Willow was there and she was one of those people who just seemed to know what to do. He was too involved in that thought to hear her come up behind them.
"So what's the deal?"
He turned, staring past her, to see Amanda standing in the doorway, one hand on the door frame and the other on her stomach. "Come on," he croaked, putting his arms behind their backs and starting walk back towards her. "I'll tell you inside," he said, though he could tell immediately he looked at her face that Amanda already knew. Another contraction started just as they went inside and she winced again.
Willow heard Amanda say "We can't get out can we?" She heard Vincent say, so kindly, his voice so calm, "No, we can't get out. The tree's blocking the road and there's no way round it. But the Park Service will be checking the tracks for fallen trees. They'll be her any time. We'll be okay." She saw him hold her and she saw Amanda put her arms around him, but she also saw that Amanda was looking over Vincent's shoulder straight at her, straight into her eyes, soundlessly pleading, and an icy hand reached into her chest and squeezed.
Willow had cultivated the Earth Mother image for years and she was good at it. Most of it was natural. She was a smart, confident woman and she knew what a woman could be. Vincent was so busy taking photographs of the hippie revolution that he completely missed the fact that one of the most revolutionary results of it was right there in front of him. The change from fifties Barbie Doll Bobby Soxer to braless, self-contained, confident woman - the equal of any man and more than most - someone who did what she did because it was her decision, not her husband's or her father's or anyone else. Amanda had felt it immediately she'd met Willow. She hadn't put it into words, but that's what it had been, and had wanted to be like her.
In a way, Willow was a throwbacks to an earlier age when women had been the keepers of the lore, the wise women, the nurturers and healers. Part of their wisdom was to let men believe that they were in charge most, and most of the time it worked. But then men had started burning them, pretending to be wise themselves, calling them witches, and it screwed things for a few hundred years. Now the balance was being restored.
Willow knew what she had to do; she just didn't have a clue how to do it. Well, she thought, swallowing the lump in her throat, fake it till you make it. Be what you have to be.
"Vinny, take Amanda to the outhouse please," then turning to Amanda she said "The longer you wait the harder it's gonna be, babe. Get as empty as you can - know what I mean?"
Amanda blushed, nodding, as Vincent led her outside.
"Dog Man, you're gonna have to help. Best thing we can do know is keep her mind off it as much as we can. Distract her."
Coyote nodded, looking at Willow and knowing what she was feeling. He took her hand. "You can do this."
"No, I can't." Willow said quietly. "But I have to make them think I can. I'm not gonna lie, but we're just gonna do what we need to."
He saw her facade fall for a second, only the second time he'd seen her drop it, and he kissed her on the forehead. "So what kind of distraction are you thinking of?"
"I was thinking..."
Vincent walked back in. "Can you really do this?" he asked, getting straight to the point.
"Guess I won't know till I try, right?"
Vincent paused. "Have you done...anything like this before?"
"When I was fourteen my cat had kittens. I watched, but unless she's gonna lick the baby clean and gnaw her way through the umbilical cord I doubt that's going to be of much help."
Vincent looked a little green around the gills and Willow realised that too much honesty might not be the best policy. "It's gonna be okay, hon." She took both his hands in hers." But she's gonna need everything we've got, and when she gets back in here you're gonna help Coyote keep her distracted. I'll probably have work to do."
He looked at her, puzzled. "How am I going to do that?"
"You're gonna marry her. Now get back out there and wait for her."
"...a fine man, a man who risked his life to save a comrade's, a man who wanted the very best for his family - the best that he knew how to give." Corporal Ellenbogen turned to the flag-draped coffin, snapped to attention, and saluted, holding it while a bugler played Taps.
When the bugler finished he marched up to the coffin and stood at one end opposite another veteran in uniform. Together they lifted the flag from the coffin and folded it smartly in military fashion. The Corporal walked up to Jake who was sitting next to his mother at the front of the twenty or so veterans who had assembled at the graveside. As he'd been trained, Jake, wearing Buxton Ridge's full dress uniform, stood, saluted the Corporal, and took the flag from him.
"It's a proud keepsake, Jacob. Your father was a good man and I hope that one day you'll understand that." He spoke quietly, privately. Jake looked up at him, wordless, his face fixed. Everyone stood while the coffin was lowered into the grave.
The first of three rifle volleys rang out in the cool morning air.
"Let's get you comfortable," Willow said as confidently as she could, leading Amanda towards the seat.
Think! How far apart are the contractions? Hell - what does that mean anyway? She's been in labour since...Willow looked at her watch...about six, maybe before that.
Amanda sat down gingerly as another contraction started. "They're...getting...stronger. Ahhh. Damn. It's hurting..."
"Gotta expect that, babe. That's one big watermelon you've gotta squeeze out. You okay? Handling it?" Amanda looked up at Willow and forced a smile as Vincent sat down beside her, rubbing her back.
"Oh - yeah - that's nice," Amanda breathed, closing her eyes as the contraction eased up.
"See - men can be useful for something!" Willow quipped, provoking a smile from Amanda. "And speaking of being useful - Coyote, get out there and bring in plenty of wood for the fire. We're gonna need to keep the place warm for the little visitor."
What are we gonna need? Think, dammit! Something to wrap the baby in. Something to tie the cord with - something to cut it. Sterile..."
"Vinny, hon, have you got a pocket knife?"
Vincent blanched and Amanda looked up at her.
"Heh - don't worry - I'm not thinking about doing a Caesarean." Oh Jesus no. Please. Not that. "I just need something to cut the cord with. What - you thought I was gonna bite through it like my cat did?"
Vincent smiled this time and visibly relaxed. "Yeah - I've got one of those Swiss ones - you know - knives, scissors, all that stuff."
"Would you get it please, hon, and make it sharp, like a razor. Can you do without him for a minute, babe?"
Amanda nodded, feeling the start of another contraction.
Shit - they're coming faster. Come on park guys - please - hurry - don't make me do this!"
Willow knelt down in front of Amanda and smiled. "Must be a boy. Always in a damn rush!" Amanda forced another grin. Jake came back in with a fancy pocket knife as Coyote put a bundle of logs on the fire. "Coyote, get a pot with plenty of water on to boil so I can sterilise this knife." She opened it and felt the blade. It was razor-sharp. She gave the knife back to Vincent. "Did you say scissors?"
He took the knife and flipped out a small, gleaming pair of scissors and handed it back to Willow. "Uh - what..."
"Might be easier to use the scissors. I don't know. It's good to have the option." And in case...fuck...in case I have to do an episiotomy there's no way I'm gonna use a knife. How would I know? How do I know if she's gonna tear? She turned toward the window, hoping against hope to see the face of a Park Ranger. Nothing. Get everything ready, then start the wedding. Distractions. What have I forgotten?
Coyote came up and snapped to attention. "Fire burning, pot filled. What now, Sir?"
"Shouldn't that be 'Ma'm?'" Amanda said, her voice shaking a little, but a smile on her face.
"You're going to have a job to do in a minute or two, lover. In the meantime entertain the baby."
Leaving coyote babbling nonsense at Amanda's belly and Amanda laughing at the silliness of his antics, Willow stepped out into the gusting wind, shielding her eyes from the blowing leaves. She walked toward the Kombi and stopped, looking round at the trees bending in the wind. "I don't know whether there's anyone out there," she whispered to no-on in particular. "But if there is, please..." She felt her eyes fill. "Please...don't let anything go wrong. She's scared. And so...so am I. Please...I'll do everything I can but please help me if you can." She drew the back of her hand across her eyes. A gust swept past her, whipping her skirt against her legs. She opened the latch and pulled the Kombi's sliding door open and climbed inside. In the back was a small wicker basket. She took a reel of thread and a packet of needles, put them in a pocket in her skirt then closed the lid and returned the basket to its place behind the back seat. She climbed out of the Kombi, closing the door behind her, and went back inside.
Three pairs of eyes turned toward her, expectant, waiting for their orders.
No doubt about who they think's in charge, Willow thought.
Every trace of uncertainty was gone from her face and the old, confident Willow was back. "Okay - here's..." Amanda had started another contraction and, from the look on her face it was a doosie. Willow waited, hearing Amanda straining and breathing fast and shallow when the pain hit. She turned to Vincent and Coyote. "Uh, guys, would you mind stepping outside for a minute or two? Go and get some more firewood or something. I'll call you." They got up and left without question.
Willow watched them go and walked over to the fire where the pot full of water was steaming slowly. Hearing Amanda groan with another contraction, she poured some out into a bowl and cooled it with a little cold water, then taking some soap from a bag she washed her hands, dried them, and came back to Amanda. "Okay, babe. Time to see how things are progressing."
Five minutes later she went to the door to call Coyote and Vincent but they were nowhere in sight. "Okay," she called. "Things are moving fast - you can come back i...oh my God!"
The last few stragglers left the wake and Ruth drifted around like a ghost, picking up empty glasses and plates and carrying them out to the kitchen.
She looked down at Jake,, sitting on the sofa where his father used to sit, and she stopped. "You look terrible, Jakey. Go to bed. I'll tidy up."
He stood, kissed her, and mumbled. "Yeah. See you in the morning, Mom," and trudged off to bed.
He lay in a state of semi-shock, tossing and turning, hearing his mother pottering around in the kitchen, wrapping up the leftover food . How many times had he wished his father dead? How many times had he thought that if only Mad Dog would die, everything would be alright?
He was waiting to see whether it would or not. He was waiting to see how things would be, now that the person he blamed for all his troubles was out of the way. And nothing was happening. Nothing had changed. He didn't feel that weight lifted off his shoulders at all. He didn't feel the happiness that he should feel, that he always expected to feel when the day finally arrived. He hadn't expected it to arrive so soon of course, but he knew that it would happen, and on that happy day Jake Morgendorffer would escape from the cocoon, unfurl his wings in the sun, and fly away. Instead he was lying on his bed in the darkened room, still a caterpillar, still waiting.
He was starting to realize what that horrid little knot in the pit of his stomach meant...maybe his dad had been right.
Finally he slept for the first time in three days.
Vincent and Coyote stepped out from behind the open door. Coyote had fished an old, battered top hat that he'd picked up for a dollar at a flea market in San Francisco from his store of gear in the Kombi and Vincent had found a tie in the Willys which he'd tied in a perfect Windsor knot over his t-shirt. In his hand Vincent held an assortment of the local vegetation, among which were a few sad flowers still clinging on through the storm and the late Fall weather.
"Perfect," Willow whispered, smiling despite herself. "Be quick, guys - the baby's in a hurry and..." She was interrupted by a groan from Amanda that threatened to turn into a scream.
"Oh Jeezuz..." Vincent an in to see Amanda standing up, holding her stomach and wincing in pain. She looked up and managed something that might have been a laugh in other circumstances. He got down on one knee in front of her, looked up, and held out the "flowers".
"I love you, Amanda. Will you marry me?"
Willow and Coyote stood by the door, their arms around each other's waists, watching.
Amanda breathed deeply as the pain subsided and looked down at him. Whether it was the pain, or the hormones, or simply the knowledge that she was past outside intervention, her fear had gone. Willow would do what had to be done and, if things went terribly wrong and...well, whatever would happen would happen. She had enough to deal with. And besides, it was her wedding day.
She took the bouquet from him and looked up at Willow and Coyote. She looked down at Vincent again, feeling the tightening across her back that signalled the start of another contraction, smiled while she could, and said, simply. "Yes."
Vincent got to his feet and they hugged, then he turned to Willow. "Shouldn't she be...you know...lying down?"
Willow shook her head. "That's bullshit. The natural way for humans to give birth's either squatting or on all fours. The lying down thing's just to make it easy for the doctor - you'd know that it'd be something invented by men. When women were in charge they used things called birthing stools that supported the mother in a squatting position. And guys - guess what?" She grinned. "You two have just been promoted to birthing stool. Here's what you're gonna do..."
Following Willow's instructions Vincent and Coyote, still wearing his top hat, squatted down on either side of Amanda, who squatted between them, her arms around their shoulders. As the contraction came on she transferred her weight to them and they struggled to balance.
"Nnnnnnnggggg ahhahhahhhhhhh ffffFFFFUUUUU...." Vincent took her hand and squeezed, wanting desperately to relieve her pain, but knowing that he was doing all he could.
Willow walked over to the fire where the pot was simmering with the pocket kife, the thread on its wooden spool, and the needles, all now sterile. She poured another bowl of hot water from the pot, using most of it up so that it would cool down enough for her to retrieve what she needed when the time came, and cooled the water in the bowl with some cold water from the jerry can they'd brought with them. She threw a pile of logs onto the fire. It was still cool in the cabin and she needed it to be uncomfortably warm. Taking a clean towel to wrap the baby in she closed her eyes for a second, once more silently asking whatever spirits might be lurking for their blessing, and took the things back to where the three had stood again between contractions.
The wind screamed and the cabin creaked..
"Okay, " she sighed. "We've got what we need. I just wish we had some alcohol."
Coyote shot her a surprised glance. "This is not time to be getting drunk, man."
"Idiot!" She grinned. "For sterilising..." Shit. Bad move "...things." The less said about torn perineums and episiotomies the better. If the gods were smiling she wouldn't have to do one anyway. She wished that she hadn't read about that, but then it was one of those things you had to know, wasn't it?
Vincent ran off like a scalded cat, leaving the door open behind him.
"What the..." Willow stared after him.
"He's got some." Amanda remembered the flask of brandy he always carried, half tempted to take it and drink it dry when he came back.
Thirty seconds later Vincent came back and handed the small silver flask to Willow.
"Good boy," she said, putting it down on the floor with the other things and hoping to hell that it would all still be there to toast a healthy mother and baby when all this was over.
"Ohhhh jeeezzzzz...." groaned Amanda as another contraction started. They took up their squatting positions again.
Willow waited until it was over then reached under Amanda's dress. "I can feel its head." She looked at Amanda. "You're just about open enough, babe. Not long now."
"The who's what in the where?" asked Coyote.
"The neck of the womb," said Willow, looking up at him. "It has to expand to let the baby out. The contractions push the baby's head down against it. The bones in the skull don't fuse for months and they're still separate so the skull can deform. The pressure's incredible. When the baby's first born its head'll probably look a little strange for a while until its skull goes back into shape."
Coyote's face turned pale and he swayed a little as Amanda's face contorted in another contraction. She felt him start to topple and, still crouching and breathing raggedly, she turned to him and leaned forward, stretched out one arm and jerked Coyote to her until his nose was inches from hers, and in a deep growl that shocked everyone in the room spoke four words before releasing him with a shove. "GET US MARRIED, NOW!"
Coyote shook his head like a dog shaking water off its coat. "Uh - married - yeah." He swallowed, collecting himself, the turned to Vincent.
"Make it short," said Willow.
Coyote nodded and turned to Vincent. "Do you love Amanda, Vincent?"
Vinny reached up to her hand and held it tight. He turned and looked into her eyes, sweat trickling down her brow. Pain, mixed with love but mainly pain, and more beautiful for all that. "Oh yes. I do." he breathed.
"Amanda, do you love Vincent?"
"Easy, babe," whispered Willow. "You're doin' great." She reached under Amanda's dress again and smiled. "You're fully dilated. The baby's started making that short trip. I'm gonna need to see what I'm doing now, the dress has gotta go."
Amanda managed a smile while Willow slipped the dress up upver her head. "Keeep goinnnnnggg," she moaned to Coyote through clenched teeth.
"Then," said Coyote, his voice sounding strangely measured and resonant in the small space, "by the earth and the sky, by the mountains and the sea, by the sun and the moon and the stars, by all the gods and goddesses, by the infinite and the infinitesimal, the great and the small, by the birds and the beasts and the trees, I announce now by all these that your love has made you...Vincent and Amanda...man and woman...one."
Amanda, naked and sweating from the heat that the fire was pumping into the room but mainly from the exertion, panted out a "Haaaaah," a sigh of relief.
Willow looked up into their faces and allowed herself a smile. "Congratulations. Now next contraction, babe, push for all you're worth, okay?" Then, to Vincent. "Well? Are you going to kiss your wife?"
They turned their heads to each other, leant in, and kissed.
"MmmMMMMMMMAAAARRRRRRGGGGGGGGHHHHHH" screamed Amanda and Willow turned her concentration to the business at hand.
"Great, babe - push - oh Yeah! The baby's crowning! Just one more. Come on!" She put her hand under the baby's head, hoping that her perineum wouldn't tear..
Willow cradled the baby's head as it was forced down the most perilous few inches it would ever travel. "Yes! Yes, babe! That's it, that's it. One last time."
As the baby slid out Willow supported it and gently lifted it forward and up. She looked up at Amanda's face, red with exertion, and grinned. "It's a boy."
Amanda almost fainted with relief, her eyes struggling to stay open. She stared at the wet, bloody, but perfect baby, unable to speak.
"Just a little more work yet, babe. It's nearly over." breathed Willow. "Hold her up guys, we're not quite done yet," she said to Vinny and Coyote. Cradling the baby, she reached down to the pan, pulled out the thread and broke off two six inch lengths. She sat, and held the baby, which was obviously just about to voice its displeasure, on her lap while she tied the umbilical cord off a couple of inches from the baby and again two inches higher up. She reached down for the knife and deftly cut the cord between the two ties, just as the afterbirth dropped out onto the floor.
The baby howled.
"Well done babe - I mean Mrs Lane, well done." breathed Willow. "You too guys," she said, winking at Amanda's supporters, one of whom was looking distinctly unsteady. "Help her over onto the bed then tidy up. Uh, Vinny, it looks like you're gonna have to do most of it, hon." Vincent turned to look at Coyote, staring at the afterbirth on the floor, as he sighed and collapsed in a dead faint.
Willow wet a washcloth in the warm water and gently wiped the wailing infant clean of the blood and mucous that clung to it, then wrapped it in the towel. For the first time, she looked down at it while she carried it over to Amanda. It...he...was beautiful. He had her blue eyes. She knelt by the bed, unwrapped the towel from around him, and gently lay him on his mother's breast. Amanda was still panting from the exertion but she held her breath as she looked down at her son, smiled, and let her head flop back onto the pillow. Her eyes closed. On her face was a look of transcendent bliss.
Willow fetched the pot of warm water and the washcloth and gently parted Amanda's knees to clean her up. If she'd torn it was too late to do much now but stitch her up and hope for the best. Carefully wiping Amanda clean, Willow sighed with relief. No tear. The baby had stopped crying. The only sound was the occasional crackle from the fireplace.
Amanda opened her eyes and raised her head. "Listen!" she said.
The others stopped what they were doing and stood, listening.
"I can't hear anything," Coyote said.
Amanda smiled. "I know."
As one they realised what she meant. The sound that had been a constant background since they'd arrived had stopped.
"I know what I'm going to call him," Amanda said, looking down her son asleep on her breast. "Wind Jacob Lane."
Jake awoke with a start. Someone had spoken his name. The house was dark and silent, but the sound was so close - he was sure that whoever had said was in the room with him . He waited, motionless, straining his ears to hear in case they spoke again, but there was nothing, and he finally conceded that it must have been a dream. Had he been dreaming? He couldn't remember. He closed his eyes, hoping to get back to sleep, but it was hopeless. He sat up and turned on the light on his nightstand, glancing at the clock. Quarter past two. He was dog tired. He sighed and sat up, swinging his feet over the side of the bed into the slippers that his mother had put out for him while he slept, before she went to bed. What was she feeling, he wondered, how was she coping?
He stood up. His head felt as if it was full of cotton wool. His eyes were sore. He looked in the mirror as he passed and almost cried out. The face looking back at him was haggard, dark circles under bloodshot eyes, creases in the forehead. It was Jake's face, but for the first time he saw echos of his father in it.
He trudged to the kitchen and drank a glass of water, reluctant to turn on the light in case it woke Ruth in her room across the hallway. The cold water washed away some of the fuzz and he walked slowly back down the hall, stopping as he passed the room they used as an office. In the reflected light of the street lamp outside the Corcorans' place across the road he could just make out the shape of the old maple desk where Mad Dog used to sit and read the paper or write to his old army buddies. Ruth sat there too, to pay the bills and write the Christmas cards. Jake had sometimes used it for study or building models when he was younger, but his father got impatient with him and he'd moved his base of operations to his bedroom, the only place in the house that he felt was his, and he'd never come back to that room.
Feeling round the door frame he flipped up the light switch, screwing up his dark-adapted eyes against the light. He walked slowly around the desk, dragging a finger over its rough surface, his mind's eye full of the sight of his father, and he sat in the old bentwood swivel chair with the cracked brown leather padding that had been a part of the room as far back as his memory stretched. The walls were hung with memorabilia of the Second World War - photographs, yellowing newspaper clippings. And a photograph of Jake's dead brother, Mike Junior, holding a football, a smiling and younger Mad Dog with his arm around him, grinning at the camera. How many times had Jake stared at that photograph, knowing how much Mad Dog had wished that Mike hadn't died, how much he wanted Jake to be like Mike - or at least what Mad Dog had hoped Mike would be like? But the thought didn't penetrate the numbness Jake was feeling right now.
He picked up the black Parker fountain pen with the gold nib from the inkstand, feeling its weight in his hand, and idly pressed it against his finger. It was dry. Perhaps there was a bottle of ink in the drawer. Not that he wanted to write anything. It was just something to do, something to while away the darkness. He opened the drawer, feeling the friction of wood against wood and noticed that over the years the base of the drawer had worn away a little leaving a wider gap between the top of the drawer and the bottom of the desk than there would have been when the desk was new. A faint musty smell rose from the drawer as it opened. Inside was a jumble of corroded paper clips, old ballpoint pens empty of ink for the most part, envelopes, stamps, postcards - one he recognised from Aunt Lilly's trip to France three years ago - the ephemera of his father's life. He pulled out the pile of envelopes and started flipping through them. One from the insurance company, one from that guy in Maine who was always trying to sell them timeshare vacations, one from...Buxton Ridge?
Jake turned the envelope over, wondering whether he should read it or not. Finally figuring that it must have been either about him or at least of interest to him - besides, he was the man of the house now - he slipped the crisp paper out and unfolded the letter.
Dear Mad Dog,
I'm so sorry. But I know you wouldn't want me to do anything except come to the point, so that's what I'll do.
I felt I needed to write to you about a situation that's come about here. It seems Jacob has made a mistake with that girl. I hate like hell to drop this on you, Mad Dog, but knowing how you felt on the matter I feel obliged to keep you informed. Maybe you have a chance to straighten things out, to keep him on the right path.
Give those bastards hell for me. I'll see you on the other side.
Jake put the letter down on the desk.
That girl? What the... knowing how you felt on the matter?
Ellenbogen and Mad Dog had been talking - corresponding - about "that girl". Amanda! What the hell did Ellenbogen know? What had he told Mad Dog? That misbegotten bastard had been spying on him! No doubt because that's exactly what Mad Dog had asked him to do. Now that he knew that Mad Dog had saved Ellenbogen's life it all fell into place - the reason for sending him to Buxton Ridge. To be spied on. Watched.
He looked down at the desk and felt the floor drop out from underneath him. His hand trembled as he read his own name on the top envelope, written in a familiar hand...a hand he'd never expected to see again...and a cannonball hit him in the gut as he took the letter out, unfolded it, and read...
I've been trying so hard to work out the best way to tell you this.
This is the fifth time I've written this letter. I've screwed up the last four and thrown them away. The problem is that no matter how I say it it's the same. I'm pregnant.
I love you Jake. I don't know what to do. I'm so scared.
Please write to me or call me. Please Jake.
He put the letter down on the desk and sucked in a breath, hardly noticing that he hadn't breathed since he'd seen his name on the envelope. He looked down at the pile of letters, refusing to believe what he saw next. He picked up and slit the sealed and unstamped envelope with his finger, taking the letter out to read though he already knew exactly what it said.
I got home three days ago. So far it hasn't been too bad. Mad Dog and I keep out of each other's way and Mom's been trying to make me feel at home but it hasn't worked. I feel like I don't belong here any more. It's not that anyone's different but, well, I guess I am...
He screwed up the letter and dropped it on the floor.
She loved him.
She was pregnant.
Just that once...
Ellenbogen had known all about it.
Ellenbogen had told Mad Dog everything.
Mad Dog had known the whole story before Jake had come home.
He'd intercepted Amanda's letters.
He'd intercepted all of his letters to Amanda.
You thought that I wasn't writing to you.
You were pregnant and scared and you needed me and you loved me and you thought that I'd...that I'd...
And all the time Mad Dog knew everything.
All that bullshit.
It was just more exquisite torture.
He saw it all, saw Mad Dog sitting here - where he was sitting now - reading Amanda's letters. Laughing. Thinking about how he could torment Jake the next day.
Perhaps it wasn't too late.
If he could find her, get the right phone number...
He flipped through the letters. They were in order. He found the last one - the most recent one. Surely that one would tell him where she was, what was happening. He controlled the shaking enough to take out the letter.
I don't think this will get to you. I don't know what's gone wrong but I know that the things in the note to my parents weren't true.
Note to her parents? What note? What goddamned...
In case this does ever get to you, I want you to know that our baby will be safe.
Dad was going to send me away to have the baby and then have it adopted, but I can't do that. I'm hitch hiking to San Francisco. I don't know why, but it just seems to be a good place to be and they have a great art community that Sister Assumpta used to talk about. I guess I'll find out when I get there. Maybe I can get a job in an art gallery or something like that. Sister Assumpta gave me some money - it's a long story and I wish that more than anything in the world I could tell you about it. I should be fine now until I can get a job.
I suppose we won't see each other again so there are two things I want you to know. I love you, and I'll look after our child.
All my love. Always.
An inhuman howl shattered the silence.
There was a gasp from across the room and Jake looked up to see his mother; barefoot and clutching at her nightgown, almost like a lost little girl.
"Jakey?" she whispered.
Had he called out? He couldn't remember. It was strange. There was a small, quiet part of him watching, detached, logging everything around him, seeing the confused look on her face.
"Do you know what he's done? Do you?"
Jake's head jerked up. His eyes were unfocussed and he was as white as a ghost. Slowly he rose from the chair.
"Do you know what that BASTARD'S done?" Jake hadn't raised his voice by a single decibel, but the way he spat the words out was so violent that his mother involuntarily raised her hands as if to cover her ears.
"Do you know what these are?" He swept his hand across the pile of letters, scattering them across the room as he walked around to her.
Ruth shook her head, staring at him.
"She loved me. See?" He held the one letter out to her with a trembling hand. His voice was quiet, pleading.
Jake stared at her looking down at the letter, a realisation dawning...
"Did you...did you know...?" he whispered, holding her arm tightly, "Did you help him?"
He waited for an answer, tightening his grip, watching her face turn pale, seeing a look in her eyes that he'd never seen before. Ruth looked into his face, and her eyes rolled up as she slowly collapsed unconscious on the floor.
While the seething mass of screaming red fury that made up most of his conscious now boiled and raged inside him, the part that crouched in that tiny, quiet corner struggled to process what he'd seen on her face. Could it have been fear?
What did she have to be afraid of now?
The red fury burst like a bubble and he dropped to his knees beside her.
"Mom?" he whispered, cradling her head.
She's just lost her husband, She's just buried him for God's sake. I'm all she has and I accused her of...I yelled at her...treated her like crap...just like...
Jake shook his head, holding his hands up to his temples.
He fought to hold back another animal scream.
She was weightless in his arms as he carried her back to her bedroom and laid her gently down on the bed.
He turned the covers back and lifted her again, putting her down and drawing the covers back over her as the last vestiges of hope drained away and he knew that Amanda and their child were better off without him.
He stood, watching his mother.
How could he ever have imagined in his wildest dreams that he could ever have children? He'd hurt them. Destroy them. Just the way that Mad Dog had done to him and his mother. Even in the almost impossible event that he ever met his child, or...impossible...had other children...he could never let himself get close to them...knowing what he'd do to them.
Stay tuned for the next instalment of All My Children.
Disclaimer: All characters are copyright MTV.
Special thanks: Martin J Pollard for A-man-da; our beta readers: Renfield, Bootstrapper, Aradia Goblin Queen, and the always astounding Malevolent Turtle, who is anything but.
Quirks: Deref, who typed the words, is an Australian, so he's used Aussie English spellings and grammar conventions. He may also have inadvertently used some Aussie idioms though he's tried to keep in culture.
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