“Oh bollocks,” Jim exclaimed as he read the screen in front of him.
“What’s up?” Ange asked. Jim rarely swore anymore and never in front of the children, so she knew it had to be something pretty bad. He had scrunched his eyes in that deeply contemplative way he had, revealing a deep ridge, evidence of his age and life experience. His once black hair was getting more and more peppered with grey, although the spring sunshine had his skin glowing with healthfulness.
“Kieran’s just split up with Maura. He’s due some leave and he wants to come here.”
“Sure that’s hardly the end of the world, is it?”
“For three bloody months! I don’t know how Brent would take to that. It’s a long time and it would be hard to hide what Corbin’s Bend is.”
Ange understood his anxiety. Although Kieran wasn’t the worst of them, neither Jim’s nor Ange’s family were too impressed when their spanking kink had come to light, very publicly. And if they couldn’t handle the kink, then full domestic discipline would definitely not go down well. There wasn’t a hope in hell of Kieran understanding it, or the community they lived in.
“You’ll have to put him off, simple as that. Tell him it’s a closed community and we are only allowed visitors for a week or so. Anyway, it’s not really lying; we aren’t supposed to have long term visitors without the board’s approval,” Ange said.
“Yeah! You’re right, that’s what I’ll do. I doubt Brent would like it. Perfect. Thanks, love.” Ange listened to the rapid click, click, click of the tablet’s keyboard. She was amazed at how computer literate Jim had become since working with Hank Methon. In Ireland, everything was thrown in a shoebox and handed to the accountant. He always said that stuff was beyond him, and yet off the top of his head he could tell you the profit on any job, the cost of any material and what he had in his bank account to the penny, with nothing more than pen and paper and a good memory. He was just too run ragged to set it down formally in a spreadsheet or to get to grips with changing technology.
“Feck it!” Jim exclaimed loudly a few minutes later. Ange looked over. His face was red with anger.
“Bugger had only gone and booked his ticket earlier, it wasn’t a bloody request; he was merely informing us he’s coming.”
“Nice of him to let us know in advance of landing here! So when is he arriving?” Ange asked.
“Next week. Bang goes my study for three months. Brent did say I could have an office, but I always preferred doing the paper work from here. I like having my coffee breaks with you.”
The loss of the office was the least of Ange’s worries. She was concerned about the interference in their private life. She and Jim were closer than ever before, and their sex life was amazing. She wasn’t happy at the idea of another adult staying with them. It would mean they would have to keep the noise down. And the domestic discipline she had fought so hard to avoid was almost like a drug to her, a sedative when she was stressed, a pick me up when she was down. She didn’t want that curtailed. Not to mention another person to feed, clean up after and have under her feet.
“I don’t want him to know what this place is, Jim. Please don’t tell him. He won’t understand.”
“It’ll be hard to hide it, love. Anyway, I thought we left the shame behind in Ireland.”
“Yeah well, it seems Ireland just followed us here. Please. For me?”
* * * * *
At nine pm the flight touched down in Denver International Airport. Kieran cleared customs and immigration much more speedily than he had anticipated. Too quickly in fact; the several beers he had consumed on the flight were still fresh in his system. He needed coffee. Kieran was hoping his niece and nephew were not waiting in arrivals, or Ange would be gunning for him. Kieran had liked Ange a lot when she and Jim started dating, and after they were married and Ava was born. But after little Jack was born, she seemed to change. She lost her sense of humor and got as uptight as bejaysus. She wouldn’t appreciate his landing half cut. But he had needed those few drinks. It had been a tough few weeks. It was bad enough that Maura ditched him, but to hear she was getting married in a couple of months had gutted him. They had been living together for a year. Kieran had been on about getting married for longer than that, but Maura had always insisted she was not the marrying kind, and he had accepted it. Kieran had figured that in time they would have had children and then she would either change her mind about marriage, or at least agree to a civil partnership to give the children a sense of security. To hear she was half way down the aisle already was just devastating. When Kieran boarded that plane, he made a resolution to leave it all behind him. Not normally much of a drinker, he toasted his freedom with far too many beers.
A wave of relief washed over Kieran when he saw Jim standing behind the barriers alone. Kieran was struck by how amazingly fit and trim his brother looked. He had become positively porky before they left Ireland, and no wonder; Ange was an incredible cook. The thought of being fed by her for the next three months was making his mouth water in anticipation. Looking at Jim made him wonder if she had given up on the cooking elaborate dishes for the family, now that she was running a bakery business.
“Is the missus not feeding you right, now that she’s back working?” he asked once Jim released him from the bear hug.
“Don’t you dare say that to Ange, or she’ll serve you your goolies for breakfast in the morning,” Jim replied with a laugh. “It’s living here. The facilities are great and there’s no going to the pub every weekend. You smell like you could do with a dry out too!”
“Christ, I didn’t expect you to have a pop at me. Ange maybe. I haven’t turned into a lush. It’s a once off, I swear. But I could seriously use a coffee before we go any further. How long is the drive?”
“Over an hour. We’ll get coffee to go.”
“I suppose you heard Maura’s getting married,” Kieran said as they started out on the journey.
“Fuck, no! I’m sorry, man.”
“Ach, I suppose it’s better off happening now than when we had kids. At least that’s what I try to tell myself. She’d have left me sooner or later. You’re lucky you found Ange. She’s so dependable.”
“We’ve had our share of ups and downs, every couple does. But yeah, she’s pretty great. And coming here was a brilliant decision. We’ve become a team.”
“Oh my God, that sounds so American. We’ll have to get you back home to sort you out.”
“Scoff away, but you’ll see. Things are different here. Once Corbin’s Bend gets under your skin, you won’t want to leave. And no, before you ask! You can’t extend your stay. Three months is definitely your limit. I had to do all sorts of begging and pleading to get permission for you to stay this long.”
“Why, what’s the big deal with visitors?”
“It’s a housing co-operative, none of us own our houses, but we own shares in the co-op. New residents go through a screening process. And a three month stay is a long time. The board may well want to meet with you, I don’t know yet.”
“What sort of screening? Like work ethic, clean living and that kind of thing?”
“Um, yeah?something like that,” Jim replied. Kieran got the feeling that Jim was holding back, something he wasn’t saying, and his curiosity was piqued. But he knew Jim of old, nothing would convince him to spit it out if he didn’t want to, so Kieran let it pass.
“That’s a great idea, we should have those co-ops in Ireland. Hey, maybe I can look into it when I get back. Could be a business proposition.”
“You’d have to get the right legislation first. And as far as I can see, they’re not profitable. But Brent, the man who started the whole thing, he had a vision and he doesn’t seem to mind helping to fund his dreams.”
“Nice,” Kieran said as they pulled into the community.
“Wait ‘til you see it in daylight. It’s beautiful, especially with the mountains as a backdrop. This is our street now. That house is Brandon Delt’s, he’s a great mate. You’ll like him.”
Kieran couldn’t help but envy the enthusiasm in Jim’s voice as he spoke of his new community and life. He was a different man to the spent force that had almost been hounded out of Ireland almost three years earlier. Kieran, while saddened by the contrast with his own circumstances, could only be thrilled for him. He’d had a rough few years. He wondered if Ange was as happy or if she was here because of Jim. They entered through the front door and headed straight through the hall to the living room where his sister-in-law was waiting their arrival.
“Kieran, great to see you. How was your flight?” He had to stoop pretty low to accept the kiss the diminutive Ange was offering. She was radiating health. Positively glowing. His guess was she was just as happy as her husband.
“Good to see you too, Ange. You look mighty. Thanks for having me.”
“It’s not like you gave us a lot of choice,” Ange retorted, punching him playfully. “You get more like Jim every year, you’d want to be careful I don’t mix you up and snuggle into the wrong brother.”
“I wouldn’t mind,” Kieran said.
“Well I certainly would, hands off ? this is mine, all mine,” Jim cut in, grabbing a fistful of his wife’s shapely bottom as she giggled and playfully slapped his hands away.
Yes, things had certainly improved between them, Kieran surmised. He hadn’t seen them so at ease together in years. He suddenly felt better about Maura’s departure. He’d never had that easiness with her. Maybe she hadn’t been the one for him.
The heat and the bright sunshine were the first things that struck Kieran when he woke up in Jim’s study, the room that was to be his bedroom for the coming months. Kieran felt kind of guilty about that ? he hadn’t considered the inconvenience he might have been putting Jim and Ange to when he booked his flight ? all he had been concerned about was getting away. Their house in Ireland, while a similar size, had been much more compartmented. More rooms of a smaller size. The open plan on the ground floor was wonderful, opening the whole area to suit family needs. But throw a third party into the mix and Kieran could see it was tricky. He would either have to stick to his bedroom, or get under their feet.
The aroma of pancakes, bacon and maple syrup soon made lying in impossible. The scents ascended the stairs, with one purpose in mind ? to tempt him from his bed! He checked his watch. At first he was embarrassed at the lateness of the hour, then he remembered he hadn’t yet switched to Colorado time. A bit of speedy mental arithmetic convinced him it was only seven a.m. What in the hell was wrong with these people? Sure it was almost the middle of the night! He raced through his shower, washing away the after effects of his in flight indulgences. There was nothing like a good feed to get you right after a night’s drinking.
When he went into the kitchen, Ange had already gone to work. Jim had apparently whipped up the pancakes himself. Even that was astounding to Kieran. For years, Kieran had watched Ange keep the home fires burning. Even when other things were bad. There were times he had wanted to whap his brother for being so bloody obtuse. He should have seen she was cracking under the strain, but he kept working ridiculously long hours and burying his head in the sand. After little Jack was born, Kieran could see Ange was losing it, and tried to point it out to Jim in as nice a way he could, but Jim kept saying everything was grand. Grand my arse, he thought. How could all that crap in the newspapers be grand? She must have died a new death with each headline. Still, Jim was master of his own castle. It was his business how he ran his life.
“Nice grub. Very American,” Kieran commented as he surveyed the plates on the table.
“Kids like it,” Jim explained. “Didn’t expect to see you for another few hours.”
“Damn, I thought I was missing Ange’s cooking. If I’d known it was only yours, I would have stayed in bed,” he said helping himself to a heaped plate of pancakes, bacon and smothering it in syrup.
“Cheeky bugger! Eat it and be thankful. Now, no offense to the company, but I have to drop the kids off and get to work. Here’s a key. I’ll pop in on you in a few hours. I’ve taken the next few days off, but I thought you would sleep late with the jet-lag, so I figured today should be a work day. Seems like I was wrong. Sorry.”
“That’s grand. Sure I need a bit of time to sleep off this head. I’ll look around later,” Kieran replied through a mouthful of pancake. “These are good, the missus must have taught you a thing or two since you got here.”
“Keep that chat up and I’ll forbid Ange to feed you for the full three months! Oh, I nearly forgot, a neighbor has a key, and she often pops in and out looking for paperwork and stuff. Long, lanky lass by the name of Carla. Don’t piss her off, her father is my business partner. And watch out for her, she eats men for breakfast. She’s a great girl, apart from that.” With that, he exited leaving Kieran no chance to ask any questions.
The One She Loves by Constance Masters
“Did you see Catherine? She looks like she’s about to burst!” Erin said.
“Seriously?” Sienna asked, topping off everyone’s coffee before sitting down at the table. “She only has one in there. Imagine having two children inside you wrestling for the prime evacuation position. I felt like a beached whale! All I did that last few weeks was lay on the couch and beg them to get out of my body.”
“I liked being pregnant,” Jen said. “My favorite thing was laying down and watching the lumps in my belly move. One side would go up and the other down. I’d touch the lump and try to guess what I was touching; an elbow, a heel.”
“What about that last bit when you’re getting really close to going into labor and you can feel them grinding their head into your bladder,” Erin added.
“Oh God yes. You almost have to eat in the bathroom, you spend so much time in there.” Jen winced at the memory.
“It takes you half the day to get yourself comfortable on the couch only to have to struggle back up to rush to the bathroom. Then most of the time the effort is wasted because when you get there, you realize that you don’t need to go at all.”
Carol sat back munching her cookies, listening and feeling just a bit uncomfortable. It wasn’t that her friend’s stories weren’t entertaining. They were, and she could kind of relate. She had seen pregnancy close-up while her girlfriend, Crystal, was carrying their daughter. It wasn’t like Crystal hadn’t tried to include her, she had, but she was twenty and it was hard to put herself in Crystal’s position. She was more into preparing the room and buying the things they needed.
“How long were all your labors?” Sienna asked. “Mine was surprisingly short, considering they were twins. I guess they were competitive even then.”
“Twelve hours with Avery and six with Jordan,” Erin said. “Funnily enough though, I don’t think Avery’s was as painful as Jordan’s was.”
Carol blinked. Going home and doing the laundry would be fun at this point. “Anyone fancy a game of cards?” she asked to kill the baby conversation.
“Oh sorry, hon, because you have Brianna, I forget that you haven’t actually had a baby,” Sienna said, her mouth dropping open when she realized what she’d just said. “Okay, that came out wrong.”
“No, it’s fine,” Carol said. The birth stories get a little old though.
“No, I didn’t mean it that way. What I meant was, that of course Brianna is yours in every sense of the word.”
“But I didn’t actually give birth to her, I get it. I was there though, right next to Crystal spurring her on and holding her hand.”
“Of course you were,” Jen, her best friend, said, putting her arm around the smaller girl. “I bet you were the best support person that there ever was.”
“Of course I was!” Carol scoffed, giving Jen a nudge. Suddenly the penny dropped. “I was the support person, who didn’t feel any of the pain, who didn’t actually experience that moment when the baby slid from my body.”
“I’m sure you felt joy though as you watched your daughter being born,” Erin said.
“Of course she did! I love my kids but I would have felt just as much joy if I could have watched Toby give birth. More actually,” Sienna said with a giggle.
“There’s no joy in watching the one you love go through all that, believe me,” Carol said. “But the birth itself was amazing.”
“Are you sorry?” Jen asked. “I mean, do you wish you had been the one to get pregnant and give birth to Brianna?”
“No. How could I? I love Brianna. If I was her biological mother, then she wouldn’t be her. Besides, at the time, Crystal was more ready than I was. No, I wouldn’t change anything.”
“You wouldn’t change anything then,” Sienna said. “But what about another baby now that you’re older.”
“I don’t know. We haven’t talked about it. I know that Crystal doesn’t feel the need to go through another pregnancy. It took her a while to regain her fitness last time.”
“Is that your nice way of saying she put on weight?” Jen giggled.
“She may have gained a few extra pounds.” Carol smiled. “I liked her that way. Not always pushing vegetables under my nose.”
“I get it. I put on weight after Jack, and Brock was always pushing the vegetables at me. Not to mention all the spankings I earned for not sticking to my diet. He couldn’t stand me whining about how fat I was.”
“Geez, if I was thinking about having a baby, you people aren’t making pregnancy look too appealing.”
“Maybe it isn’t just about the great bits, and there are plenty, or the terrible bits where morning sickness goes all day, and your skin gets bad and your hair goes all limp. Maybe it’s about the ups and downs and that spectacular moment at the end when you look into that little face. Instant love,” Erin said.
“I felt instant love when Brianna was born.” She tried to keep the defensiveness out of her voice but it was hard. It grated on her when people assumed that she wasn’t just as much of a mother to Bri as Crystal. There had been some resentment. Such a tiny bit that she’d been able to push it away when it surfaced. She had felt joy, but it had been Crystal’s tummy the baby had been placed on the minute her daughter was born. It was Crystal’s breast that she had suckled. When Crystal went back to work, she became the Mommy, but it was still Crystal’s expressed milk that gave their daughter sustenance.
“And maybe that will be enough for you,” Sienna said.
“Hmm,” Carol said. “You know what? I don’t think it will. I think I would like to give birth.”
“That’s so exciting!” Jen said. “Are you sure?”
“Do you think that Crystal will be up for having another baby?” Sienna asked. “Brianna is nine, you’re kind of out of the diaper and strained food age.”
“Crystal loves babies,” Carol said. “Besides, what I want matters too doesn’t it?”
“All you can do is put it to her,” Jen said. “I’m sure she’ll be over the moon. She loves you.”
“Yeah she does,” Carol said.
* * * * *
“Carol honey? Bri?” Crystal called. “I’m home!” She placed the boots that she’d stomped off on the welcome mat outside on the shoe rack neatly. They were the only shoes there.
“Momma!” Bri yelled, running to wrap her arms around her mom’s waist. “We’re having spaghetti and meatballs and Mommy’s cooking it from scratch!”
“Well aren’t we lucky.” She hung her cap on the back of the door hook and picked two off the floor, hanging them up beside her own. “Let’s go taste.” She followed her skipping daughter through to the kitchen.
“Hi!” Carol said happily. “We’re having spaghetti. I’m even making the sauce.”
“I can see that,” Crystal said with a giggle at the disaster area that was once the kitchen. In the middle of the counter, on the only space left, was an army of homemade meat balls that were ready to be dropped into the fragrant sauce. “Thank you for going to this much trouble.” She wrapped her arms around her girlfriend from behind and nuzzled her neck.
“You’re welcome,” Carol said, turning to press a sweet kiss on her lips. “Nothing is too much trouble for my girls.”
Crystal couldn’t help but remember the evening before when dinner was a frozen macaroni dinner on a tray in front of the TV because Carol’s favorite show was on. “Honey, I love your special sauce. I have to ask though, is something wrong? No bills that you forgot about, no trouble, nothing you want to tell me?”
Carol shrugged. “Nothing bad.”
“Okay, but there’s something right?” Crystal persisted.
Carol’s eyes flicked over towards Brianna. “I’ll tell you later,” she said.
Taking the hint that whatever she wanted to tell her couldn’t be said in front of their daughter, Crystal dropped it. She tried to push it out of her mind, although that wasn’t easy. She loved Carol to death, but the girl got some interesting ideas sometimes, like the time she went on a hippy fantasy and managed to get herself into all kinds of trouble and her friends along with her. Although she suspected they hadn’t taken a lot of convincing. “How’s your math homework going?” she asked Brianna.
“It’s fine, Mommy helped me with that.”
“That’s great,” Crystal said, relieved. There was nothing more humiliating than being shown up by your grade four daughter. She’d hated math when she was at school, and she wasn’t too keen on it now. Thankfully she didn’t need to do long division anymore. “Well, what are you doing now, spelling?”
“Why don’t I test you?”
“Okay,” Brianna said, handing her the book. “But we don’t have to do that. All we have to do is copy them.”
“I know but if I test you, then you’ll really know how to spell them.”
“I do know how to spell them.”
“I guess we’ll see won’t we.”
Crystal called out each word, impressed when Brianna only stumbled over one rather large word. “Good girl, all done. You can go and watch some TV if you like.”
“Thanks, Momma!” Brianna said, running off to her room to dump her school things before heading back to the living room.
“I’ll set the table if you like,” Crystal said, collecting an empty jar and rinsing it before placing it in the recycling. She gathered a few other items and dropped them in the trash, including a bunch of onion peels and garlic remains.
“Thanks, that’d be a big help. You don’t have to clean up you know, I’ll do it. I’m just not finished yet.”
“You’re cooking. I don’t mind helping out.” She washed her hands and gathered some plates from the cabinet and placed them on the table along with silverware. “Water or wine?” she asked, pausing at the glasses.
“I thought we might share a bottle of wine.”
“So we’re celebrating,” Crystal said with a grin. “I’m intrigued.”
“Momma, can Avery stay over this weekend?” Brianna called out from the living room.
“What did Mommy say?” Crystal spoke to the child but looked at Carol who shrugged.
“She said to check with you,” Brianna called back.
“I don’t mind,” she mouthed.
“I don’t see why not,” Crystal said. “More the merrier.”
Carol blew out a sigh.
* * * * *
“Dinner was fun,” Carol said after Bri had left to get ready for bed. It had been nice to sit at the table and hear all about the school news. She usually heard what was going on, either on the way home or while they were at the grocery store or on their way to soccer practice, but it was Crystal that often missed out when she was on shift at the fire station. Brianna had usually gone on to the next piece of news by the time her momma was home.
“Yes it was,” Crystal said. “I never would have found out that Jeremy Spinks liked Amelia who’s never going to love him in a million years because she hates red heads.”
“I know right? Remind me not to invite that little witch to Bri’s birthday party.”
“You can’t do that,” Crystal said. “They’re just kids.”
“You won’t,” Crystal said. “Anyway, when did we decide that Bri was having a birthday party, it isn’t for months?”
“When Amelia decided she hated red heads.”
“You can’t get upset with a nine-year old. Anyway, I’ve waited long enough. I want to hear your news.”
“Okay,” Carol said. “Here’s the thing. I was thinking today that I’m almost thirty and I have a few things that I’d like to experience in my life that I haven’t got to yet. I’ve decided?”
“Yes?” Crystal said when she paused. “Just say it.”
“I want to have a baby.” Her eyes were shut tight and she couldn’t bring herself to open them to see the look on Crystal’s face.
“Open them, Carol. I’m still here.”
“You don’t want to, I can tell,” she said when she did finally open her eyes to her girlfriend’s blank face. She wasn’t giving much away.
“It’s a big thing, Carol, having a baby.” Crystal put her hand over Carol’s, her thumb tracing delicate circles on the soft skin.
“I know. I was there with Bri.” Carol could feel hurt bubbling. She wanted to say that she had been the one raising Bri but she didn’t want to be petty or to lessen the love she had for their first child by making it sound like raising her was a chore. She’d loved every minute of being a Mommy. Well maybe not the temper tantrums and the homework was hit and miss, but nothing in life was perfect was it?
“I know that, honey, you were there then, you have been there ever since.”
“Then why don’t you want to have a baby with