“They’re getting so big, Bette.” I glare at my wife and she laughs as she strokes the enormity that used to be my stomach, making the babies perform flips as she meets my gaze. “You have to know how gorgeous you are, especially pregnant.” She smoothes her hand across the front of me in a decidedly romantic touch as she steps closer to my head and knowingly avoids my aching breasts. “I mean, just think about last night… you were so…” She closes her eyes as she dips down to kiss me. There aren’t words for last night, but this kiss explains it perfectly.
I can’t help but return her grin as she pulls back and I say, “I’ve never climaxed that hard before, or… had that happen.”
She kisses me again and I reach up to link my hand behind her head and lock us together. She whimpers softly and I feel a breeze rush over my stomach before someone in the background clears her throat. Tina pulls away from me and steps out of the way to show a smirking Doctor Wilson. “I knocked twice. Glad to see you two are keeping the torches lit.”
She winks at me as she steps around the table and pulls up her chair. Tina takes my hand in both of her own and says, “Sorry, we didn’t hear you.”
Doctor Wilson pulls some gloves from her pocket, smiling as she says, “I gathered that.” She turns on the monitor and slips the gloves on. “Hopefully these stubborn children will give us a good view today so you two can pick out appropriate names.”
I look to Tina with adoration at this prospect. We haven’t even discussed names yet because we aren’t sure what we’re having. She named Angelica on what might have been a weaker person’s deathbed. How could I not have honored that request? I had no idea what she had been through while she pseudo-slept, but hearing her tell it was… frightening and inspiring all at the same time…
I was still clinging to Tina’s hips, my cheek resting against the inside of her flushed thigh, waiting for my frenzied heart to return to a normal pace as I lie surrounded by her legs, her very smell, her very touch, her warmth, the most intimate pieces of her body laid out before me. I could feel the pulse of her heart beating through the thin, smooth skin against my cheek and I reveled in its quickened rhythm. She was incredible, and she was alive. I closed my eyes and went through the robotic mantra I had been clinging to for the past few months. ‘She’s alive, Bette. She’s alive. She’s not going anywhere. Angie’s not going anywhere.’
But they were just words; less than words, they were thoughts, and they may as well have been a puff of warm breath on a cold morning. They hadn’t yet penetrated me in any way, and I kept saying them dutifully. But then, her frantic heart, doing no less than the most amazing job on earth, was singing to me, talking to me, telling me, ‘She’s alive. She’s alive. She’s… alive…,’ and for the first time in months, I knew it, I felt it, I heard it, and it sunk through. My wife was alive, and well, and mine; and I had been so wrapped up in my insecurities and fear, that I couldn’t just find the will to live it with her.
We had come so very far, but this was just one more thing that we didn’t need, I didn’t need. We had truly seen it all. There was nothing left of anything insubstantial anymore. Her wildly pounding heart was beating against me like a wrecking ball, destroying everything left of the carnage, heartache, and sorrow of all that had happened, and leaving only a healthy, secure place in which to take shelter.
I could not help but close my eyes and let the tears come as I spoke from my heart. “Thank you…” I kissed the calming pulse point before the gentle movement of her realignment brought me face-to-face with her wonderful, shining eyes. ‘She’s alive!’ I started to laugh hysterically and she cleared the tears from my eyes with full sweet lips, their touch causing me to sigh with intense relief. She released me, and I would never be able to repay her.
She stroked the damp curls from my forehead and smiled as she saw the weight lift from my chest. Her voice was awed and incredulous as she whispered, “It worked…”
I took her face in my hands and pulled her forward, kissing her with all of the pent up passion that used to be held in fear’s tight grip. When I finally released her, her eyes were nearly crossed with the intensity of it. I began to laugh more and she joined me, burying her head in my neck and holding me tightly. “God, Bette, I’m so glad. I was so worried you’d run yourself into the ground forever…” She leaned up. “I tried everything: Forcing you to sleep, not letting you work, suggesting therapy, giving you time alone to feed Angie, forcing you into fun…” She squinted her eyes playfully. “…I should have known it would be lovemaking…”
I chuckled at her and rolled us onto our sides, holding onto her as I pulled her leg up, hooking it on my hip to keep her close as I slid one leg between hers to anchor us. We fit together perfectly, and it’s little wonder. We’re soulmates; there could be no other. I smoothed the honey tendrils from her face and sighed as I gazed into her eyes. “I’m sorry, T. I wasn’t sure what to do either. I just couldn’t bear the thought of losing you or being away from Angie.” She leaned in the tiny distance and kissed me before I continued. “Thank you for pushing me. If you hadn’t, I don’t know how long it would have taken.” I furrowed my brows. “Why weren’t you scared that you could die, or even Angie? I mean, you’ve been so calm throughout this ordeal…”
She eyed me for a moment and I could see the thoughts swirling around in her mind. I stroked her cheek with a single finger and smiled reassuringly at her. “Come on, tell me.”
She smiled grimly and kissed the pad of my finger before taking my whole hand and playing with it. “You’re going to think this is crazy…”
My grin reached my eyes. “You’re not crazy, you’re… quirky.”
She slapped me on the ass playfully and we both started to laugh at the sharp sound that reverberated throughout the room. She collected herself and she blew out a breath. “Okay, you remember when I first woke up and we talked? How I knew stuff, heard stuff, but wasn’t really awake?” I nod my head. “Well, I was in and out, just not… physically.” I adjusted my head so I could see into her eyes better but she stared at our hands as she continued. “I was awake, but I was in this… I don’t know; it was like a purgatory, or something. It was just a black, swirling expanse. I could walk and stand, but there was no floor. I know it doesn’t make any sense…”
Well, this was unexpected, but it’s common for people to have a similar experience when they die. She died twice. “T, you don’t have to make sense of it to me. Just tell me about it. I’m not judging you.”
She raised an eyebrow at me and kissed me sweetly, smiling sadly as she continued. “I wasn’t alone. There was a demon there, Abraxas.” I eyed her incredulously but she soldiered on. “At first he showed me things, things from our life together, feelings I had been trying to ignore and bury. He tormented me with them.” A single tear fell from her eye and I felt my heart implode with anger. She was hurting that whole time. I was right there, and I didn’t even know it. And even if I had, just like everything else, there’s nothing I could have done.
Her gentle voice cut through my thoughts and pulled me back to her story. “And I saw everything I had been doing to you. The things I should have been honest with you about, the way my lies were hurting you, how I hadn’t really forgiven you. I know I’m not supposed to say it anymore, Bette. But I’ll regret that as long as I live. I’m so sorry…”
I brought the linked fingers of our hands to my lips and kissed each of hers reverently before returning my eyes to hers. “T, I truly forgive you, and you’ve proven you truly forgive me. I understand regrets, I have them as well, but they just don’t stand a chance anymore. There’s too much love here for them to thrive…”
I reached my hand to place it over her heart and she did the same to mine. We gazed at each other as we started to laugh because it’s utterly true. We laughed in the face of those regrets because they were dying, just like our indifference, our hurt, and our troubled past. They were being replaced with unconditional love, joy, and a bright future. There was no room for them anymore, and they had no chance at survival.
We allowed ourselves this incredible feeling of contentment for a long moment before I could see that there was more to her tale. She smiled and continued without hesitation. “After I saw all of that, I heard your voice.” She smiled warmly. “You were like this bright light that would pierce the darkness. You were talking to me about Angie, about coming back to you, and I tried, Bette; I tried so hard to get to your voice, but I couldn’t reach you no matter how hard I pushed. And Abraxas…” She closed her eyes in anguished memory and I squeezed her hand. “He kept me from you. He beat me and tortured me to the point to where I couldn’t even try to come to you anymore.”
She lifted her eyes to meet mine and, as odd as it sounds, I wanted to find and kill this demon, as if such a thing were possible. She read this on my face and stroked my cheek tenderly. “But you kept calling to me, giving me the strength I needed to get through the pain, to find the answer, and finally release myself.”
I let go of the anger. It was a useless emotion at that point. He didn’t win, and she was here, alive and healthy. “What was the key?”
She snorted indelicately and I chuckled at her indignant expression. “I had to forgive everyone who had wronged me in my past, and then I had to forgive myself. I had to face all my inner demons, including myself, and let go of everything.”
Her smile was so satisfied it reached her eyes and I returned it with one of my own. “Sounds easy enough.”
She poked me in the hip before kissing me. “But that’s why it was so different for me when I woke up and we brought Angie home. I had truly let all of it go. I just didn’t know how to help you get there with me.” I closed my eyes and felt her warm hand touch my face. “Why wouldn’t you go to therapy or at least let yourself sleep at night?”
I opened my eyes and sighed. “I actually went to see Doctor House a few times on my way home from the gallery.” She eyed me in shock and I continued. “I had planned to tell you once things had settled down, but I just needed… I needed this for myself, with no outside influence or pressure.”
She squeezed my hand before quietly saying, “Bette, I’m sorry if I was pressuring you. I just didn’t know how else to help you out of this… rut.”
I took her hand and placed it on my cheek, holding it there to ground me. “I know, and I’m glad you were pushing me. I just needed this to be separate from everything. I should have told you, and I’m sorry.”
“Bette…” She waited for me to look into her eyes. “…you don’t have to tell me everything you do; we just can’t hide things that have any potential to be harmful. You needed privacy with your doctor; I don’t begrudge you that.”
I was astounded by her then, just as I have been perpetually since she woke. “Thank you, T.”
She stroked my cheek with her thumb and asked, “Did it at least help?”
I couldn’t help the smile that lit my face. “Actually, yes. I like how direct he is. He doesn’t sugar coat things, but he’s not cruel either. He just lays it out there matter-of-factly. I just couldn’t shake it, despite knowing the truth. I don’t want to live without you, T…”
Tears gathered on my lashes and she tucked her head under my chin. “I wouldn’t want to live without you either, Bette. I’ve had enough of that to last a lifetime. But I’m not dead, you’re not dead, and neither of us is going anywhere. I don’t know how long we have. I’m just going to take every moment I have with you.”
The tears began to fall and I curled my arms around her tightly, burying my nose in her lavender-scented hair and letting out a deep breath. “I’ll love you forever, T… however long that may be. Let’s just make it another sixty years, okay?”
I felt her soft laugh against my throat and sighed. “Saggy skin, varicose veins, and blue hair, I’m all yours, baby.” I laughed with her for a long moment before we began to fall into a peaceful, restful sleep, the first in months, and the first with the knowledge that six years or sixty, any time with her will be fully lived from this point on.
The cold shock of the jelly hit my tummy and I turn my focus on the screen, Tina intently glued to it as well. The first dark space is now filled to bursting with one of our children and a delighted smile brightens my face. “Okay, so, this is baby A…” She moves the device across my stomach, pushing gently. The baby on the screen fusses a little bit but his or her back is still facing us. “…and baby A needs to turn.” She looks to me. “Are they very active?”
I let out a short laugh. “It’s like a civil war in there sometimes.”
Both Tina and the doctor laugh before she replies, “Well, we need the baby to turn so we can determine the sex.”
Tina lets go of my hand and says, “Allow me.” She smiles at me and I playfully roll my eyes as she partakes in her favorite ritual of prodding at the babies until I have to use the bathroom. She leans in as she pokes and says, “Come on, babies. Let’s see the goods.”
I feel the first protesting nudge and it’s surreal to see what I’m feeling happen on the screen. Tina prods again and I feel a solid thud from within. So that’s a kick, literally. The baby starts to turn and Doctor Wilson smiles, taking a still shot of the baby’s profile in case the he or she refuses to hold position. As expected, nothing but the back is displayed again and the baby is now nudged from within, a sound display of sibling rivalry. We all laugh at the antics on the screen and Tina shakes her head at me. “All our babies are going to be just like you…” She kisses me sweetly. “…I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Doctor Wilson smiles at us as she brings the still frame up onto the screen to get a closer look. “Okay, so you can see the profile… and those are arms, and those are legs… and that…” She points to a strange looking lump at the end of the baby. “…is a boy.”
I meet Tina’s watery gaze with one of my own before we look back to the screen with hopeful longing. Tina takes my hand again as I ask, “Are you sure?”
Doctor Wilson grins at me. “Oh, I’m sure. He’s very well endowed.”
Tina and I chuckle through our tears and her voice is awed and adoring as she whispers, “A boy…”
She strokes my hair sweetly and kisses my hand. “Okay, let’s check the other one out…” We both snap our attention back to the screen as Doctor Wilson glides the sensor across my stomach, pulling up an identical image to the first, only this baby is facing the other and completely curled up. I feel sorry for them. There’s only so much room in there. The doctor turns to Tina. “You want to try again? We need this one to spread out a little bit.”
Tina doesn’t hesitate to step over and push on the baby. This one tries to move away from the touch but there’s just nowhere to go. Tina prods a little harder and I feel a solid kick right in my ribs. I wince and the baby finally rolls away from the other, giving us a full frontal view. Doctor Wilson takes a still shot but there’s no need. This baby seems to be trying to sleep, which would explain the previous outburst. The doctor points out the area between the legs and there’s no lump. “Baby B is a girl. Congratulations.”
I turn to my wife as the doctor starts to take the pictures and Tina doesn’t hesitate to kiss me and bury her face in my neck as we both quietly cry. A boy and a girl to add to our family. I can barely comprehend the joy of this moment, yet alone believe it yet. Doctor Wilson says, “I’ll get you a video of this ultrasound. That disgruntled attack on her brother should make for interesting conversation when they’re older.” We all chuckle and I try to wrap my head around what I’ve just seen. My family now consists of two girls and two boys, and while one isn’t with us any longer, he’s still just as much present in our hearts. He just never got a chance…
I adjust the pillows behind my back, trying to get comfortable. I just can’t seem to manage it today. I look around me and see that Dana’s not using her pillow so I grab it and wedge it under my lower back, sighing in relief. Finally… I put my aching feet up on the coffee table and eat my olive ice cream as I watch Doris Day sing her heart out on the big screen in the media room.
Dana is lying face down next to me, bundled up in a thick blanket and sound asleep – well, as asleep as someone who’s constantly sick can be. Today has been a particularly bad one for both of us. I got some ice cream down her earlier, but she wasn’t brave enough to try my favorite flavor, or anything with substance for that matter.
Angie’s sweet, but recorded voice interrupts my thoughts. “You have a phone call…” I stare at the cell phone on the coffee table about two feet away with exasperation. Fuck, I just got comfortable. I grumble as I take my feet down one at a time and grunt as I reach forward, unable to get the leverage to reach for it. “Fuck…” I rock myself back and forth, building momentum until finally I’m able to push myself forward. I stretch my arm fully and my fingers barely reach the device, but I’m able to fumble it closer to me. I pick it up with an immense sense of triumph only for it to stop ringing. I push myself back and collapse with a sigh, but of course, it’s not as comfortable as it was.
Dana stirs next to me and weakly gets up to a sitting position. She rubs at her eyes and yawns. “Who was it?”
I hand her my ice cream and she takes it reluctantly, holding it away from her with a scrunched face as I settle myself further, again trying find that comfortable spot. It’s a little better now and I look at the phone in my hand to see who it was. “Malcolm.”
I hit the call button on the touchscreen and wait. He picks up on the first ring and his voice is irritatingly excited as he says, “Hello, sis! How are you feeling today?”
I put the phone on speaker and rest it on my belly as I take the ice cream back from Dana. I scoop up a big chunk of it and hold it up to my mouth as I say, “Oh, you know, my body’s putting me through agony as it prepares for a finale where two humans tear me apart to enter the world, so I’m perfect. How are you?”
There’s a long moment of silence and I put the giant bite of ice cream in my mouth, closing my eyes as the sweet and salty treat satisfies me for at least the moment. Finally, Malcolm clears his throat. “I um… well, that’s good, I guess. I’m doing fine. I just wanted to ask if the invitations came.”
I don’t bother to finishing chewing or swallow as I mumble, “Yeah, they got here this afternoon. They look great. You can pick them up anytime.”
His voice is booming as he nearly shouts, “Brilliant,” and both Dana and I lean our faces away from the phone. I eye it malevolently as I click the button on the side to lower the volume.
“Malcolm, have you spoken with Tom?”
I hear the heavy sigh. “Actually, I did. He wouldn’t talk, Bette, and he still refuses my attempts to get him to hang out. It’s bloody irritating. He’s a good friend. We normally get on well…”
I blow out a breath. “Okay, I’ll call him later.”
His tone brightens considerably. “Great. I’ll keep on him as well. He’ll crack eventually.” I hear James’s voice in the background before he continues. “Alright then, I have to go, but I’ll stop by after work. Tell Dana I said hello and hopefully I’ll see you both later.”
Dana’s voice is defeated as she says, “Hi Malcolm.”
“Oh, hi, Dana… am I on speaker?”
I roll my eyes and take another bite of ice cream. “No, Malcolm, she’s clairvoyant. What you’re hearing is her speaking directly to your mind. Just stop by later, okay?”
I don’t wait for him to finish his sentence before I disconnect the call. “Okay, see you la–”
I set the phone on the end table next to me so I won’t have to move so far next time and readjust the pillows. Finally, that’s the spot. I sigh with relief and drop my head onto the back of the couch. The babies start kick-boxing each other and I close my eyes. Is there no peace, even for just a moment? I look down at my stomach and stroke it. “Quiet down, you two.” Dana eyes me like I’ve grown a second head and I say, “What?”
She looks to my stomach. “Have they started moving already?”
I snort indelicately at her. “Dana, I’m more than six months pregnant and you’ve been here nearly every day.” She lowers her head and I sigh. “I’m sorry. I’m just bitchy today. Yes, they have a personal vendetta against each other and my bladder.”
I set my bowl down on my stomach and lift my shirt to scratch the side of the enormous protrusion. If I get any bigger, I’m going to need a steel support to wedge under the overhang anywhere we go. One of them kicks at the bowl, which is apparently unappreciated, and it nearly dumps into my lap, well, the area that might at one time have been considered my lap. I haven’t seen it in what feels like ages. Fortunately, I was quick enough to catch the bowl before it toppled.
Dana laughs and I want to be cross with her, but how can I? She needs to laugh, and the babies are cute, even though they’re rearranging my insides. Dana gestures to my stomach and asks, “Can I?”
I smile at her and lift my maternity top, exposing the monstrosity. My belly button is fully extended. It reminds me of a turkey thermometer that’s popped out to indicate I’m done. And am I ever ready to be done. Dana hesitantly reaches forward to the area where little extremities are noticeably pushing around and places her hand over the movement. Her eyes go wide and I laugh at the expression of wonderment and disbelief. “Fuck, Bette. It feels like they’re really going at it in there.
I feel a drop kick land on my bladder and want to tear my hair out in frustration. I just got comfortable again. Dana starts to stroke over them and her shocked expression starts to melt into a warm smile. One of them kicks me in the ribs and I sigh wearily. “Come on, you guys. Give Mama B a break…”
Dana laughs again and I stroke my stomach, cooing and shushing them into a calmer state. Dana watches this whole exchange and I look up to see tears running down her cheeks. Oh, Dana… “Dana, what’s wrong? Are you okay?”
She swipes at her face and smiles sadly at me. “Yeah, it’s just…” She gestures at my stomach. “…they’re so alive. They have a whole life ahead of them, and two moms who love them so much.”
I grin warmly at her. “Yeah, they do. They also have wonderful aunts and uncles like you to show them things.” My smile turns radiant. “Maybe you can teach them how to play tennis.”
Her returning grin is wide and I can actually see that she’s forgotten that she’s sick. I want to cheer in triumph, but the moment doesn’t last long before her eyes glaze over in defeat. “You know I can’t, Bette. I won’t be here.”
She curls up at the other end of the couch and I sigh. At least there was a moment, one shining moment, where she knew who she was again. That means there’s hope for her yet. I’d laugh maniacally but I really need to use the facilities. I place my ice cream on the end table and start the rocking motion to again give myself leverage. Dana laughs and I scowl at her playfully as I get unsteadily to my feet. I brace my aching lower back with my hands and hold my head high with what little dignity I can muster as I waddle from the room, the echo of Dana’s laugh following me and further bolstering my faith in her recovery.
I flush the toilet and awkwardly doff my clothes before I wash my hands and head for the bedroom. Tina comes in and smiles as I awkwardly pull myself up on the bed and start the nightly process of cocooning myself in pillows. She starts to undress as well and I watch her. “Angie asleep?”
She smiles as she pulls up her foot and removes a sock. I eye her enviously. I miss being able to do that. “Yeah, she was done when you had to use the restroom. You didn’t miss anything but the nightlight.”
I smile back at her. “Good.” She disappears into the en suite and returns several minutes later, sitting next to me on the bed, and starting my nightly rubdown. I groan. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
She grins at me. “I know you’re miserable right now. This is the least I can do to help the three of you.” I close my eyes and sigh contentedly as she works her magic fingers to relieve overstressed muscles and rubs stretch mark butter into overextended skin. “We haven’t talked much about names.” I open my eyes and smile at her. “I’ve been thinking. I named Angie, so why don’t you name the girl. You can pick anything you want. We can name the boy together. What do you think?”
The joy in my heart is honest and complete as it settles on my face. “I’d love that.”
She nudges me further onto my side and starts rubbing at my lower back. “So, do you have any idea what you want to name her?”
I think about this for a moment and fondly recall the times I spent painting with my mother. “When I was growing up, my mother had a painting that always hung just above her easel, no matter where she painted. She said it helped her to feel close to my grandmother and that gave her inspiration. It had been handed down through the generations of my family, but sadly, since she died so unexpectedly, and I was so young, I have no idea what happened to it. The painting was called Aurora by a Victorian painter named Guido Reni. She loved the name just as much as the art.” I laugh softly. “That’s what she wanted to name me, but daddy wouldn’t have me called Rory. He said it was too masculine.”
Tina kisses my stomach before stretching out beside me. Her burnished face is open and radiant, like a newly born star as she says, “I think it’s a beautiful name, and I like the nickname. What does it mean?”
I stroke down her arm and take her hand, playing with her fingers as I say, “It means dawn, like the dawning of the sun, or a new beginning.”
She raises and incredulous eyebrow and I don’t hesitate to reach out and stroke it. She quirks a grin at me. “This seems too easy. Are we really already settled?”
I chuckle softly. “Yeah, I think I am. Do you really like it?”
She leans in and kisses me before leaning down to kiss my tummy. “You hear that Rory? Mama B doesn’t believe me…”
I laugh at her but my voice is low in warning as I say, “Don’t you dare get them riled up. They’ve only just calmed down and they’ve been rambunctious all day.”
She pulls back and settles in next to me. “Fair enough. I can go one night without turning your stomach into a warzone.” Her gaze turns serious as she lifts her index finger to me. “But just one. I don’t get to spend all day with them and get my fill like you do.”
I dip my head and kiss her sweetly. “I love that you want to play with them. So if you want to get them going, be my guest.”
She strokes my cheek and gazes at me adoringly. “No, I’d like to focus on you tonight. I miss you during the day just as much.” She never fails to let me how much she loves me with so little effort. “So, the boy… any ideas?”
I sigh and settle into the pillow. Tina turns off the bedside lamp and snuggles up to me. I stroke her hair as I think. “Nothing sounds right and I refuse to name any child, especially one of my own, Melvin.”
We both laugh quietly and she says, “Yeah, outside of Malcolm and Tom, I think family names are a bust.” A funny thought occurs to her. “We could name him Shane.”
I chortle with her. “I don’t mind Shane, but it just doesn’t…”
She sighs, “I doesn’t feel right. Aurora felt right and we need to give him the same consideration. How about Ali?”
I snort. “You’re not serious…”
She rattles with silent laughter and says, “No, but he certainly seems like the fighting kind.” As if to punctuate this, we both feel a dull stab come from my midsection. “How about we think on it and keep talking? Eventually the right name will come to us.”
I yawn. “Okay, that sounds good.”
I feel her stroke my stomach and kiss my breast bone before sighing out, “I love you…”
I bury my nose in her lavender-scented tresses, saying “I love you too…,” as we both slip off into sleep.