Chapter Fourteen

As it turned out, Ellie didn’t have even one day in preparation for her talk with Reid. When her father pulled into the driveway, a black convertible sat in front of the garage.

“Oh no! Ellie, Reid’s here. I didn’t know he was coming, I promise.” Stella looked panicked.

“Dad, can you give us a minute?” Her father nodded and left them alone in the truck. “Stella, it’s okay. I’ll talk to him today and then you guys can go out like you’d planned.”

“But I haven’t gotten the present and card and stuff.”

“Then you have to decide if you can keep it a secret until you can get them or if telling him now is more important to you. I won’t say a word, of course.”

“Okay. Shoot, here he comes. I guess I’ll just wing it and see what happens.”

Reid jogged over to the truck, opened Stella’s door, pulled her out, and threw his arms around her. “Hey, baby. I’ve missed you.” He buried his face in her neck. “I’m so sorry,” Ellie heard him whisper. Stella was hugging him back. Then their arms loosened and he was kissing her. Ellie looked away. Should she just wait in the car or get out the other door since her side was blocked by their bodies? She started to scoot to the other side when her door opened.

“Hi Ellie,” Reid held out a hand for her. She took it and he helped her out of the truck. “I, um, guess we need to talk.” She nodded. Stella was climbing the front steps to the porch. She looked over her shoulder once before she opened the screen door and walked inside the house.

Would this day never end? Ellie was exhausted from the full day, probably the busiest she’d had since she came home. She limped toward the porch, her leg was screaming at her, and stumbled when it buckled beneath her. Reid caught her before she hit the ground, then picked her up and carried her to the porch. Her face burned with embarrassment. She hoped Stella couldn’t see them right now. She’d imagine all sorts of inappropriate things.

“Thank you,” Ellie said when he set her feet on the porch. “Can we do it out here?” That sounded wrong. “Talk, I mean.” C’mon Ellie, pull it together.

“Sure, if you want.”

“Or maybe we should go somewhere more private, so my parents can’t hear anything.” That didn’t sound right either. “Accidentally. I don’t think they’d purposely listen in.”

He held up one hand to stop her. “Is there somewhere close by that you’d prefer?”

“Ummm,” she considered her nature sanctuary, but that was too personal. “No, not really.”

“We could go somewhere else on the farm here, in my car, if that’s okay.”

“Okay, yeah, I guess that’d be fine. Let me text Stella so she doesn’t panic.” She fired off the text while he brought the car up to the porch. “Thanks,” she said as she plopped down into the low seat of the Jaguar. “I forgot you guys had this car.”

“I’ll never sell this baby. Stella and I love this car.”

Ellie wondered if that would still be the case in about nine months. “It’s a beauty.” Ellie pointed him in the direction of the barn. She figured it would be as non-romantic a place as possible and she didn’t want to be in the car while they talked.

He followed the dirt road around to the barn. “Just park here, it’s fine,” she said.

“All right.” He did as she suggested. He had to help her out of the car, though. Her leg wouldn’t cooperate. “Do you want me to carry you in?” She bit down on her lip, trying to decide whether she’d make it on her own. He scooped her up and started walking. Could she just sleep out here so he wouldn’t have to touch her any more after they talked? Why was her own body betraying her?

“There you go.” He set her down inside the barn. “That leg’s still giving you trouble, huh?”

She rubbed her thigh and winced. “It’s doing better every day. But today I’ve been on it too much.” She sat on a hay bale and rubbed her way down to the ankle. She was stalling. How was she going to do this?

He finally sat down beside her. “Ellie, I’m really, really sorry I betrayed you by reading your journals. It was a despicable thing to do to you.” He leaned forward, elbows on knees and hands clasped in front of him.

Minutes dragged by. He didn’t move. “I don’t know how to go forward from this,” she finally said. “How do we act like you don’t know what you never should have found out?”

“Looking back, I wonder how I could have been so clueless. But I’ve come to realize that while you may have been in love with me, you loved Stella even more. That’s what I noticed about you. Your devotion to her. That’s why I never questioned why you hung around with us. I always figured it was because of her.”

She’d been staring at him while he spoke. It was strange seeing him in the world she grew up in. He seemed very out-of-place in his dress shirt and slacks sitting on a hay bale inside an old barn. Still handsome, though. And he still smelled fantastic.

“We wouldn’t be having this conversation if you hadn’t read my diaries and I don’t know why things have turned out like they have. Maybe because you have to make choices when you’re in a relationship. Maybe there’ll be some other woman along the way who will want you and maybe she’ll let you know that. What will you do? Are you going to stay with Stella or are you only with her until someone else catches your eye?” He didn’t answer; he was still staring out into the barn. “If I said I still loved you, what would you do?”

His head turned slowly until he was looking straight into her eyes. “Do you?” She swallowed. He sat up and his whole body turned toward her until their knees touched. The moment of truth. “Do you still love me, Ellie?”

No,” she whispered. A lie, because the truth would’ve ripped them all apart.

Reid’s eyes seemed to grow in size until Ellie realized he was leaning toward her. Slowly, waiting to judge her reaction. If she did nothing, she could picture it all happening. The kiss, the first one, the next one. The ones that would make her forget everything she thought she knew about herself.

If things had been different, if he hadn’t been in love with her best friend, would there have been any chance with him? It was there for a moment, this alternate life.

Unconsciously she’d been moving just as slowly away from him; her head and shoulders bumped the wall behind her. What about her own morals? Did she believe some things were wrong, like kissing a married man, or was everything all right if it was what your heart wanted?

Her hand came up. Her hand against his chest. A little pressure. It didn’t take much. He stopped. Waited a few long seconds to see if she would change her mind. And turned away.

Maybe Reid was a great man for Stella, but he was definitely the wrong man for her. She’d made her decision. The rightness of it flooded through her. It swallowed up the little bit of regret that tried to surface. Drowned it until it was gone. Forever.

“No,” she said again. The truth, because the lie had been revealed. “The Ellie who was in love with you died in an automobile accident earlier this summer.”

His eyes found hers again and she tried to read his face. He didn’t look disappointed. He looked almost relieved. “Then those weren’t your journals I read, were they? They belonged to someone else.”

“Yes, that’s it exactly. I’m not her.”

“And I’ve never been him either–the Reid in your diary. You only saw the man I allowed you to see. And Stella probably didn’t tell you about our arguments.We’re two strong-headed people and that’s not always easy in a relationship, as you’re about to find out. Are you ready to return to the house?”

“Yes.” What did that last part mean?

He picked her up and hurried back to the car. They drove back to the house. He carried her inside and up the stairs while she gave him directions to the guest room where Stella was staying. She knocked lightly.

“Come in,” they heard Stella say. She pushed the door open.

Reid carried her in and set her on her feet before he went to Stella. “You were right, babe.”

Stella beamed. “I knew it!” Stella turned to Ellie. “He tried to kiss you, right?”

“How–” Ellie looked from one face to the other. “How did you know?”

Stella rushed over and enveloped her in a hug. “Because I told him to, Ellie. Actually, it’s the only way I’d agree to him coming out here. He had to agree to try. I’m sorry. That was probably a dirty trick to play on you. But I wanted to know if the girl who was in love with my husband would try to take him away at the first opportunity. I wanted to be able to trust you completely. But . . .”

Ellie didn’t feel quite right. The air, the room, everything seemed to be receding into the distance rapidly. Her eyelids drooped. She couldn’t fight it so she didn’t.

* * *

There was something cold pressed to her forehead. She tried to remove it and heard her mother’s worried voice surround her. “Oh, she’s okay. Ellie? Ellie can you wake up please?” She opened her eyes. Her mother was leaning over her. “It’s been a long day, hasn’t it sweetie. You probably did too much. How do you feel?”

Ellie considered it. Her leg ached more than usual and her head still felt a little strange. “My leg hurts pretty bad, Mom. And I still feel a little light-headed. But I think I’m good. Let me sit up.” She caught the washcloth as it slid off her forehead, but other than a little dizziness, she seemed to be all right. Reid and Stella were standing behind her mother, looking a little chagrined. She’d been set up. By her best friend. It all came back. “I think I just need some sleep.”

“Are you sure, honey? Do you want me to bring you something to eat or drink?” Her mother was still worried.

“Some water would be nice, Mom.”

“I’ll be right back.”

Ellie turned to Stella. “Are you still planning to go home tomorrow or what?”

“Well, we were thinking maybe we would leave tonight,” Stella answered.

“I think that would be a good idea.”

“You’re mad at me for testing you like that,” Stella said.

“Hurt and betrayed are more what I’m feeling. Anger might come later.”

“Ellie, I’m so sorry. Maybe it’s my pregnancy hormones, but it seemed like a good idea when I thought of it.”

“Wait. Did you just say pregnancy hormones?” Reid stepped between them, his eyes darting from Stella’s to Ellie’s. “She said that didn’t she?”

“Aw crap, there goes my special way of telling him,” Stella grumbled.

“What? Telling me what? That you’re pregnant? WOULD SOMEONE PLEASE TELL ME WHAT’S GOING ON?”

“Calm down, Daddy, she’s getting to it,” Ellie said.

“Yeah, I’m getting there! I had this whole plan on how I was going to tell you, but at least I can still surprise you with the twin thing.” Stella clapped a hand over her mouth.

“She did not just say twins, did she?” Reid sat down on the bed.

“Oh crap, I just spilled that too, didn’t I? What is WRONG with me today?”

“Well, you were just in the hospital for several hours,” Ellie added.

“That’s true.”

“You were in the HOSPITAL today?” Reid’s face was turning an alarming shade of red.

“I think you’d better start from the beginning and tell him everything.” Ellie said.

So Stella did. With Ellie filling things in whenever Stella forgot something. Ellie’d had enough when they started kissing. “You guys should get a room,” she muttered. “Oh wait, I think I’m still in your room. I’ll just go then.” She got up to leave and barely made it to the door before Reid caught up to her.

“I don’t think you’re quite ready to be on your own just yet.” He wrapped an arm around her waist and they limped along like that for about three steps before he whipped her up into his arms again.

“I think you like this damsel-in-distress thing a little too much. You really need to cut back before it becomes an out-and-out addiction,” she said. He scoffed. “Unless Stella likes it, then I’d say go ahead.”

“And I’d say you’re still out of it because you’re not making any sense.”

“I am pretty tired. It was a tough day.”

“Your mom forgot your water,” he said, setting her on her bed.

“Yeah, the room service sucks but the views are amazing.”

His eyebrows pressed together. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

Not really. He had some explaining to do. “Reid, why did you do that to me?”

“I think you need to ask Stella about it. She told me to try to kiss you. When your wife tells you to kiss another woman, you just do it, okay?” He was trying to be funny.

She didn’t laugh. “What if I had let you? What was your plan?”

The smile and playful manner disappeared. “I could see you fighting yourself. I was feeling pretty conflicted, too. I’d like to think that I’d have stopped it before anything happened.”

“But you can’t say that for sure.” He didn’t respond and in the ensuing silence she heard footsteps on the stairs. She held a finger to her lips to silence him.

“Ellie, I’m sorry I didn’t bring this earlier but–” Her mom stopped at the door, glancing between Ellie and Reid. “Oh, sorry. I didn’t know you had company.”

“It’s okay, Mom. I’m still not too steady on my feet so he helped me back and we’re just talking.” She turned to Reid, “Do you want to share your big news?”

He turned, excitement playing across his face. “Stella’s pregnant with twins! I’m going to be a daddy!”

“Congratulations! That’s really exciting. Do twins run in your family?”

“Not in mine, but maybe they do in Stella’s.”

“Well no wonder she hasn’t been feeling too well. Morning sickness, I presume?”

“Yep,” Ellie answered. She smiled at Reid. “Good luck getting her to eat. And thanks for helping me but Stella’s probably waiting for you. She might need help packing.”

Reid paused at the door. “Do you want us to stop in before we leave?”

“Yes, please. I’d like to see you guys off.” He nodded and disappeared.

“You okay, sweetie?” Her mom handed her the glass of water.

She took a few sips. “Just really, really tired. What were you getting ready to tell me when you walked in with my water?”

“Oh! That your uncle called and he wants you to stop by Spencer’s tomorrow to pick up your books. He’ll be there all day.”

“Good. If Dad has time, we can go whenever he wants.”

“Got it. Well, I’ll let you rest and say goodbye to your friends in peace. Sleep well, sweetie.”

“Thanks, Mom. Love you!”

“Love you too.”

Stella and Reid came in shortly afterward to say goodbye. Reid gave her a hug, told her not to be a stranger, and went to put Stella’s bags in her car. Stella sat down. “Reid told me you guys talked a little more and that you’re still confused about tonight.” Ellie nodded. “You have to understand, Ellie, that your father called out-of-the-blue saying that you wanted Reid to take care of your dog after your accident. Reid, not me. I didn’t know why that was. Had you changed in the years we’d been apart? Maybe decided that you weren’t going to walk away after all? And you’ve become exotically beautiful, too. Reid even mentioned it. So, I panicked. Especially now that I’m pregnant I needed to know if you’d changed. And, I’ll admit, it was kind of a test for Reid as well. I didn’t tell him that, of course. But if he followed through with anything, that would’ve given me a lot to consider.”

“I have changed in the past few months and we haven’t really talked about it but you’ve changed too, Stella. All through college you seemed to trust me, even though you supposedly knew that I was in love with Reid. When you showed me your engagement ring, I told you that he’d shown it to me, in his bedroom, and you just laughed. Was that fake? That trust?”

“No. I did trust you. And Reid. But I’m a divorce lawyer. I’ve represented hundreds of women, mostly, who are divorcing their husbands for things like unfaithfulness. All of these scenarios kept coming into my mind and I couldn’t shake them. I came here, hoping to get to know you again and lay those demons to rest once and for all. Then I found out I was pregnant and I panicked. I felt like I’d run out of time to figure it out.” She paused. “It really seemed like a good plan when I thought of it at the clinic today even though Reid didn’t agree. Maybe he was right. Can you forgive me?”

Ellie thought about it for a moment. Wasn’t forgiveness an act of the will? Hard to do, but easier than trying to forget it ever happened. Stella waited, eyes pleading. “Yes,” she finally answered.

“Oh, thank you!” Stella jumped up and threw her arms around her. Ellie hugged her back. “I promise I won’t ever test you again like that. I hope someday you can forget I ever tried.”

Me too, Ellie thought, drawing away. “You take care of yourself and those little ones, Stella.”

“Thanks, El. For everything. Call me if you’re in town and we’ll go for lunch or something.”

“Sure thing.”

“I guess I’d better go.”

“Yeah, I bet Reid is wondering what’s taking you so long.”

“See you around?”

“Bye, Stella. Drive safely.”

Stella waved as she walked out the door. Ellie listened as she hurried down the steps, heard the screen door slap shut, and then the sound of the tires on the gravel as they drove away. They were finally gone and she was relieved. Now she needed to put Misty outside again. After she rested for a few more minutes. She closed her eyes.

It was pitch black when she woke up and she needed to use the bathroom. She flipped the blankets off, thanking her mother for them, and glanced at her alarm clock. It was just after three in the morning.

When she returned to her room she quickly changed into pajamas and climbed back into bed, settling onto her side. Misty jumped over her legs and wriggled into her arms. She stroked the soft fur a few times and closed her eyes. A brief shake of the mattress caused her to open them again. Something pressed against her legs. She reached down to find a bigger dog curled up in the crook of her knees. She stroked his head and ears a few times. “Welcome home, Jack.”

Chapter Thirteen

Ellie’s phone chimed. “I hope that’s her. I’m starting to get really worried.” She’d kept her phone right beside her for the last two hours, worried she’d miss a response. Stella had been in Urgent Care for over five hours. Ellie and her father had gone to the bookstore, spent time talking to her lawyer uncle, and picked up their new dog in that time. To kill another hour, and because they thought she wouldn’t want to smell the food anyway, they’d driven to Culver’s and picked up supper to go. They took their meal to a nearby park and were eating at a picnic bench, allowing Jack to get out but keeping him on the leash so he’d stay close.

Ellie sighed as she read Stella’s text. “She says it’ll be even longer. They want to run some tests before they release her. Should I go to be with her and you can run Jack home?”

“If you think she’d like you with her, we can certainly do that. Why don’t you ask her?”

Ellie typed her reply and sent it. A few moments later, she heard back. Stella would like for her to come, but didn’t want to pull her away from anything. She read the message to her father. He nodded. “Tell her you’ll be there in about twenty minutes.” She sent the message. They weren’t completely finished with their meal, but she knew they weren’t far from the clinic.

Jack was lying quietly at her feet. She tried to share a french fry with Jack, but he sniffed at it and turned away. She knew he’d have to go through a bit of a depression in his new setting as he let go of his old life and embraced his new one. “It’ll be okay, Jack,” she murmured to him as she scratched his ears. “We’re good people too and I already love you.” His ears perked up as she spoke, his eyes meeting hers briefly before looking away. She pinched off a bit of her burger, with cheese melted on it, and offered him that. He accepted it readily and even rose to his feet, sniffing the air around her. She laughed and pinched off another bite for him.

“Don’t spoil my dog, kiddo.” Her father smiled, but she knew there was a grain of truth in the tease.

“Oh Daddy, you know he’ll never be allowed in the house while we’re eating. How many chances will I have?”

“If I know you, there’ll be plenty.” But he didn’t complain when she gave him the rest of her burger. She couldn’t eat the whole thing anyway. And she wanted the dog to know he could trust her.

Fifteen minutes later, she walked into the clinic and asked for Stella. It took her a few minutes to follow the directions she was given, but eventually she found the right area. A nurse escorted her to Stella’s room.

Stella was sitting up in the hospital bed watching television when she walked in. “You look better already! How do you feel?”

“Much better! They even brought me some soup and I ate it all. Everything still tastes a little off, but maybe that’s what pregnancy does to me.”

“Maybe. What kind of tests do they still want to do?”

“They’ve ordered an ultrasound because I’m measuring bigger than what I should be for six weeks along.”

“Huh, well maybe you’re further along than you thought? How cool would that be? Just skip some of those queasy weeks and get to the baby sooner.”

“Sounds too good to be true so I won’t believe it until they tell me.” She put her hand in front of her mouth like she was trying to hide and leaned toward Ellie to whisper, “But I sure wouldn’t complain if that turns out to be the case.”

Ellie chuckled. “Do you know when they’ll be doing the ultrasound?”

“It was supposed to be done about an hour ago, but there was an emergency so it got pushed back a bit. Which is fine. If it were me having the emergency, I’d want others to be patient and understanding. In the meantime, I’ve been googling different ways to tell Reid. Some people have waaaay too much time on their hands. I don’t want to wait longer than I have to so that I can plan some elaborate scheme. I’ve decided that I’m going to buy a stuffed animal made for a baby, wrap it up really nice, and have a card for someone who’s expecting attached to it. Maybe I’ll take a picture of the pregnancy test and throw it in the card, too. As proof. I left it sitting on my bathroom sink because I keep looking at it to make sure I haven’t dreamed this up.”

“That sounds like a fun way to tell him. Have you guys been talking?”

Stella’s eyes lost a little of their sparkle and her smile faded. “We talk every night and text through the day. It’s mostly insignificant stuff, but he’s apologized more than once so I’m taking that as a hopeful sign that he wants to stay with me.”

“I can’t imagine him with anyone else. It’s always been you Stella, for as long as I can remember.”

“But he didn’t know you were in love with him, too. Now he does. I don’t know if that changes anything. Why would he want to stay with me, when he could have you?” Tears filled her eyes and she blinked them away.

“No, Stella, he can never have me. I was in love with him a long time ago. But that was before a lot of things.”

“Like what?”

“Like, it was before he showed me your engagement ring. Before you got married. Before he read all of my journals without permission.” She pressed her lips together, remembering. “It’s going to take a while to forgive him for that last one. I should let you read them all so that you guys can talk through anything you need to. Then I’m going to burn the blasted things. I never imagined anyone, especially him, ever reading them.” She paused. “Were you ever in love before Reid?”

“Yes, once. Why?”

“Well, imagine that you put all of your feelings about that guy down on paper and then years later he gets to read them. You don’t feel that way about him anymore, but now all of that is out there between the two of you and you can’t really talk it through and so it just sits there, worming it’s way into your friendship. And every time you catch him looking at you, you wonder if he’s thinking about what you used to dream about.”

Stella was quiet for several minutes. “I’ve never thought of it like that but I can definitely see your point. I don’t need to read the journals, Ellie. I’m pretty sure I can imagine it well enough. And I don’t think I want to be talking with Reid about your journals in the future. You two will have to hash that out between you. And I’d really like for you to do that before Reid and I try to work it out. Because I need to know that he’s really there for me and this baby. Not that he’s secretly hoping that you two have a chance someday.”

“I’d hoped we could just act like it never happened, but I guess I see your point. I’ll talk to him about it the next time I see him.”

“I think that’s going to be tomorrow, so be prepared. I’m going to tell him to come out and pick me up for dinner tomorrow and then I’m going home. I’ve really enjoyed hanging out with you, but I really want to spend the rest of my vacation at home. I’m actually excited to start planning the nursery and stuff.”

The door opened and a woman came into the room, pulling a large cart with a monitor and some other things on top. Ellie leaned toward Stella. “You get to see your baby now!”

Stella grabbed her hand and didn’t let go. “I’m so nervous. I’m glad you’re here.” Ellie squeezed her hand in reply and smiled.

The ultrasound technician introduced herself and began to set up the procedure. She asked Stella to pull her hospital gown up and then squirted a clear gel over her lower abdomen. She explained what she was doing as she went. “Now, Stella, I want you to know that this is new equipment so I’m still learning how to work with it. And right now, your fetus is very small and has a lot of space to hide in. It may take me a few moments to try to find him or her but when I do, I’ll turn this screen toward you so you can see your baby.” Her voice sounded distracted as her hand adjusted the wand she held pressed against Stella’s belly. Then it froze and she began tapping buttons.

Stella’s eyes darted between the technician’s face and Ellie’s. Her expression grew more and more serious as the moments flew by. “Is there a problem?” Her voice shook.

The technician glanced at Stella and then returned her focus to the screen. “Oh, no, no, I’m just trying to get everything in order.” Her hand relaxed and she withdrew the wand. “I told you before that this is a new machine and I’m trying to learn it. But there’s someone who’s worked with it a lot more than I have and I want her to come in. Is it okay if I go get her?”

Stella nodded and the woman turned off the screen, rose, and left the room. Stella stared after her. “Something’s not right, that’s why she left, isn’t it?” Her soft voice sounded frightened.

“We don’t know that. She might have had trouble getting the baby to stay still long enough to get a picture.”

Stella shook her head. “No, something’s wrong.” She closed her eyes. Ellie pressed Stella’s hand between both of hers. The door opened and two women came in. The technician was followed by an older woman.

“Hello, I’m Dr. Rebecca Stern.” She shook Stella’s hand, then Ellie’s, and then clicked on the machine as her hand swept the wand up and over Stella’s abdomen. “Now let’s take another look.” She paused and began to click buttons and adjust the monitor. “There you are!” Stella’s shoulders relaxed and she sighed audibly. “And there you are!” She clicked more buttons before turning the screen toward Stella. “We found out why you’re measuring bigger than you should. Take a look at your twins!”

“TWINS!!” Stella and Ellie shouted simultaneously.

The doctor pointed out the two babies on the screen. “If you look carefully, you’ll see that they’re identical. They share the same sack.” Her finger drew a circle along a thin white line on the monitor. “Here’s baby #1,” she traced again, “and baby #2. Now, if you look at the two in comparison, you’ll see that one of the babies is quite a bit bigger than the other. Both have heartbeats, so both are alive, and you can see them moving. But you need to be aware that occasionally one of the two won’t survive. It’s possible that the littlest one may not make it. Sometimes it just depends on whether he or she is a fighter.”

“What happens if it doesn’t make it?” Stella stared at the screen.

“Usually your body just absorbs it when they’re very small like this. And the surviving baby is fine.”

“Hang in there, little one.” Stella’s eyes flitted between the screen and her abdomen. “Don’t give up. Fight!”

The doctor took some more measurements very quickly and recorded them. She printed out some pictures and handed them to Stella. “These are for you to keep. You need to call your obstetrician and tell them you’re pregnant with twins. They’ll set up appointments differently for you. And will try to help you prepare for an earlier delivery than what you thought. Twins generally do not go full term. You need to be prepared for the possibility of confinement–bed rest–during the last few weeks too.” She wiped the gel off Stella’s abdomen as she spoke. “Do you have any questions?”

“Tons, but I think I’ll save them for my doctor,” Stella answered.

“Sounds good.” She shook their hands again. “Take care of yourself and congratulations!”

“Thank you.” Stella waited until they left the room and then studied the pictures in her hands. “How am I going to tell Reid now?”

“Just put the pictures in the card or in the box and let him figure it out,” Ellie said.

“Oh my gosh, he’s going to flip out! Two babies, Ellie! We’re having twins!”

Ellie laughed. “I know, I was here!”

“I just can’t grasp it. Double everything! TWO nurseries?!”

“Well, maybe not. I believe I’ve heard that twins like being together and if you separate them it’s harder for them. And for you in that case.”

“Oh, yeah, I think you’re right.” She threw the blanket off. “Where are my clothes? We need to get out of here.”

“Whoa, I think they have to tell you that.” She put the blanket back over Stella.

“Fine. Where’s my nurse button.” She dug it out from under her elbow and pressed the button several times.

“I’ll call my dad and tell him to come back for us,” Ellie said, digging her phone out of her pocket.

“Okay, but don’t tell him about the twins. I want Reid to know first. Or, I guess it would be third since I found out first and you found out second.” Stella talked and talked. She seemed to be in chatterbox mode, so shocked from finding out she was carrying two babies instead of the one she expected. Ellie let her talk, trying to be calm in the storm of excitement surrounding her friend.

 

Chapter Twelve

Ellie and her father arrived before her uncle, so they waited inside the truck. Ellie sipped at her Coke and tried to imagine Mr. Spencer as a younger man. Was he the young man in the picture with a young, pregnant Miss Ruby? It was possible. If so, what had happened to them? They’d looked so happy in the photo.

A black Volkswagen Passat pulled up and they watched Jim Thompson, Esquire, get out and walk into his office. Ellie chugged the rest of her Coke, knowing it would be warm when she returned.

“You ready, honey?” Her dad still looked nervous. She was feeling pretty anxious herself so she just nodded.

Uncle Jim was talking with his assistant when they entered. “You can take a seat in my office and I’ll be in shortly,” he said, winking at Ellie. She smiled in response.

Ellie and her father settled into chairs arranged in front of a huge, antique desk. Ellie’s hand brushed the aged wood, tracing the grain with her fingers. She’d found the desk for her uncle at an estate sale a few years back and immediately called him. He’d bought it on the spot, sight unseen, based solely on her recommendation. She had no idea what he’d done with the desk he’d had before, a practical piece without the beauty, charm, and character of the one in front of her now. Sold it? Given it away since he’d found something better? Her father drummed his fingers on the edge of his chair, fidgeting again, and suddenly she thought she understood why.

“Dad, Mom told you that I know about Miss Ruby being my biological grandmother, right?” He nodded and looked away. “Are you worried that I’ll love you and Mom less if I know more about her and Mr. Spencer?”

Her father sighed, but the way his shoulders relaxed told her enough. “It’s new territory and I’m a worrywart, I’ll admit, but I think I’m more concerned that you’ve been through so much lately and I don’t want you feeling overwhelmed.” He paused. “And I guess I’m also concerned that whatever we learn today could change everything we have.” He trailed off and she could tell by the way he kept swallowing that he was struggling for control.

She reached over to take his strong, calloused hand in her own. “Dad, no matter what, I love you and Mom more than anyone or anything else in the world. Nothing can ever take your places in my heart and in my life. Love isn’t genetic, Dad. It’s relational. You two are my parents. End of story.” She squeezed his hand and felt him return the gesture. When Uncle Jim entered the room a few seconds later, she didn’t let go.

Just as his hands had lent her strength and security as a little girl, they did the same now. She held on just as tightly.

Jim Thompson dropped a thick manila folder on his desk and settled into his chair with a sigh. He folded his hands on top of the folder and looked at each of them. “Dave, Ellie, thanks for agreeing to come here. I wanted to do this formally, as Murphy and Ruby would have wanted, I think. I’ll cut to the chase and tell you what most people want to know the most. Yes, there’s money coming to you, Ellie. A lot of money. When Ruby Jefferson died, you became a millionaire.”

Ellie’s mouth dropped open and she turned to her father with wide eyes. He smiled and lifted his free hand to gently tap her chin. “We are not a fish, as your mother likes to say.” His reaction brought a touch of normality back to her and she responded to it by sticking her tongue out at him. His lips twitched up.

Clasping her father’s hand between both of her own, Ellie turned back to her uncle. “Okay, so I’m a millionaire. That’ll have to process for a while. Is—was—Mr. Spencer my biological grandfather?”

Her uncle nodded. “He was, yes.” Ruby and Murphy were married for twenty years, but Madison’s death drove a wedge between the two of them that evidently could not be overcome. I was friends with both of them at the time and it was difficult to watch. Her grief was overwhelming and she couldn’t understand when Murphy went back to work as if nothing had happened. There were a lot of arguments. He confided in me. He said that he could feel the distance between them increase each day when he left to go to the bookstore. She filed for divorce the day after the first anniversary of Maddie’s death.”

“Did you know my mother, too?”

“A little. As well as any middle-aged man can relate to a teenager who is unrelated to him, I suppose. She wasn’t around much whenever I was in their home.”

“How did you meet them?”

“My former business partner was their lawyer. When he retired, they decided to give me their business. Most of my library came from Spencer’s Antiquities so we already had a good rapport.” He shrugged. “They invited me to their annual Christmas Eve party that same year and the rest is history.”

“Did you have anything to do with them choosing your brother and his wife as adoptive parents?” Ellie inwardly cringed that she’d asked such an obviously stupid question, but she wanted to know for sure.

Uncle Jim’s eyes softened. “I did, Ellie, and I’ll go to my grave feeling as if the entire purpose of my being on this earth was so that I could do that one beautiful thing—find you a new home with very loving parents who’d wanted children for years.”

She fought back tears as she looked from her uncle into the loving eyes of her father and back again. “Thank you for that, Uncle Jim. I couldn’t have asked for a better life.” She squeezed her father’s hand again and finally let it go. “Mr. Spencer stayed in town, obviously. Did Miss Ruby, too?”

“They owned a huge estate about twenty miles from the city. It’s yours now, by the way. We can drive out and take a look any time you want. Miss Ruby stayed in the house and Murphy moved into an apartment over the bookstore. A few years later he married a widow with a young son. He adopted the boy and from what I could tell they had a good family life. His adopted son grew up to become a paramedic and lives in Springfield. He visits often, though, on his days off. I’m sure he’ll take good care of his mom now that Murphy’s gone.”

“They’re okay financially? When you finish liquidating the store, they’ll be okay?”

“Oh yes. Murphy did quite well and they were careful with their money. He wouldn’t take a cent from your grandmother in the divorce. It was her inheritance from her parents and he wouldn’t budge even though she offered to share it with him.”

“He was always very kind to me,” Ellie said. “Always wanting to know if there was a book I was particularly interested in finding. I suspect that he only charged me a fraction of the cost for the ones he sold to me.” She turned to her father again. “Thanks, Dad, for taking me on those monthly excursions to town. It was your way of sharing me with my grandfather, wasn’t it?”

Her father nodded. “Your mom made sure Miss Ruby stayed up-to-date with you and I made sure Murphy did. It was a small way to say thanks for the best gift we’d ever been given.”

Ellie laid her hand on her father’s arm and squeezed gently. “To me, too, Dad.”

Uncle Jim opened the file in front of him and then slid it over to her. “That’s a listing of assets and unpaid bills. Only the utilities and such. She always paid off her credit cards each month. The woman loved to shop online.”

Ellie tugged on her father’s arm to draw him closer so he could read along with her. She had a feeling she’d need his grounding council as she made decisions in the future. They read down the list of properties Miss Ruby owned and the income, in the case of a few apartment buildings, and expenses from each. Then there were the stocks, bonds, and other investments. Finally, a brief listing of bills left to pay. “Why aren’t you listed on here, Uncle Jim? You’re working and you should also be paid.”

“Ruby already paid me. She was always very generous, too.”

“Maybe so, but you’re still working so I want to see your billing listed on here in the next update. I don’t want to take advantage of your services. Please bill me?”

He studied her for a few moments and then nodded his head once. “It’ll still be a few more weeks before everything’s settled. Ads have to be run in papers for any creditors to file if there are any outstanding debts we didn’t know about. Stuff like that. But as soon as we can, we’ll finalize things and get the money transferred to you.” He glanced at his watch. “Do you have any more questions for me?”

Ellie looked at her father who shook his head. She couldn’t think of any more either. “I think we’re good. For now. And I know how to reach you if I think of something.”

Her uncle rose from his chair and they followed suit. “You certainly do.” He smiled as he walked around the desk to give each of them a hug. “Now don’t go spending any money just yet. Wait until you have it before you start buying jets and motor boats.” He winked at her again.

“HA! No worries. I have no plans to buy anything right now. Mom and Dad are spoiling me at home. I have everything I need.” She turned to kiss her uncle’s cheek. “Thanks, Uncle Jim. For everything.”

“You’re welcome, Ellie girl. Drive safe, you two.” He ushered them out of the office and walked them to the door. “I’ll be in touch.”

Ellie clicked the seat belt around her and checked her phone. Nothing from Stella. “Shall we go see the new dog now?”

Her father glanced at his watch. “We’re a few minutes late, so I suppose we should get moving.” He reached out to touch her shoulder. “Are you okay? That was a lot to deal with, wasn’t it?”

“I’m fine, Dad. Yeah, it’s kind of overwhelming, but thankfully I have some time before I have to learn to handle all of it. And I’m planning on asking you and Mom a lot of questions as I make decisions. You’ll probably get sick of it.”

He chuckled. “I guess we’ll get used to it eventually, right? It’ll be a new kind of normal.”

She nodded. “Now about the new dog. What’s his name?”

“Jackson. Randy says he was born on June 25, 2009, the day Michael Jackson died. They named him in tribute to one of their favorite artists.”

“Oh, well that’s nice. I love some of his songs.”

“I liked the Jackson Five.”

“Me too, Dad. You sure listened to them enough when I was growing up. Do you think Randy would mind if we shortened it to Jack occasionally?”

“Nope. Don’t think he’d mind at all since he also told me that’s what they call him.”

A few moments later, they pulled into the parking lot of Ace Hardware and saw Murphy’s great-grandson sitting quietly beside his owner. Randy waved and approached the truck. Jackson stayed where he was, but his eyes and ears were trained on Randy and he came immediately when he was called.

Ellie bent down to scratch the soft, black ears. Brown, intelligent eyes lifted to her own and she smiled. “I hope you like Cocker Spaniels, Jackson. Misty is a little wound-up at times, but I imagine she’ll have to work hard to keep up with you.” He licked her hand, wagging his tail. “You sure look like Murphy.”

“Yeah, and he’s dependable, just like his great-grandfather. I’m glad you guys are taking him. We’re retiring from the dog breeding and training business. I figure forty years is long enough.”

“Oh, are you staying on the farm?”

“For now. We’re still young enough to work it just fine. Eventually our son will take over.”

“Well, happy retirement, Randy!” Ellie’s father said. “Maybe now you’ll have time to come out for dinner sometime.”

“We’d love to. Now, do you think Jack will work for you?”

“He’s ready to work with my cattle?”

“Yep. He’s had a refresher course, but he didn’t need it. Remembered it all like it was yesterday.”

“Then we’ll take him.” Ellie’s father pulled out his wallet but Randy put his hand on his arm to stop him.

“He’s a gift, Dave. To you and your family. You guys have been wonderful customers from the beginning. I’m glad he’ll have a great home. We had him neutered last year, but knew it would have to be a special family for us to be willing to part with him. Don’t let him roam for a few weeks, until he gets used to being a part of your family. Then he should be good to go.”

“Well now. That’s quite a gift, Randy. Thank you!” Ellie’s father shook Randy’s hand. “You know we’ll take good care of him.”

Randy nodded and then bent down and tousled the fur on top of Jackson’s head. “You be a good dog and I’ll see you soon.” He clipped the lead onto his collar and handed the leash to Ellie’s father. “This is another reason we’re retiring. It’s getting harder and harder to part with them. They take a little bit of me with them when they go.”

“Are you sure you want to part with him? We can look elsewhere.”

“I’m sure. We’re keeping the last one. And as you know, one Border Collie has more energy than any two people combined. She’ll keep us busy well enough. Thanks for asking.” He shook her father’s hand and then turned to Ellie. “I heard the story of how Murphy led your rescuers to you when you had the wreck. I’m glad he helped to save your life. Dogs understand love. Much better than we do, I sometimes think. It’s good to see you on your feet. You take care of yourself.” He stepped back, nodded goodbye to each of them, and then turned and left.

Jackson whined once, but didn’t pull at the lead. They watched Randy drive away. When Ellie’s father turned toward the back of the truck, and the cage for Jackson, Ellie stopped him. “Dad, do you think we could just let him ride in the cab with us? Like Murphy used to?”

Her father paused, and the two of them locked eyes.

She missed Murphy, more than she ever thought she would. They’d bought him as a pup when she was thirteen and she’d talked her parents into allowing him to sleep inside the house at night instead of in the barn with the animals. He had free roam of the house, after he was house-trained, and was always curled up next to her in her bed whenever she woke up. He’d been her protector and her friend when everyone else was untrustworthy. He’d known all her secrets.

When she’d left for college it had been hard on him. He’d kept circling the house, looking for her, and whining. She’d had to come home for a few weekends so that he knew she was okay. When she graduated, she would’ve taken him with her in an instant. But Murphy belonged on the farm.

Until he’d managed to somehow find her at the time of the accident. She wished she could remember how.

Maybe her father read what was on her face and in her eyes. Maybe he was thinking about Murphy too. But for whatever reason, he turned and led the dog to the cab of the truck. “Up,” he said, holding the door open. Jackson leapt into the truck and was waiting for her—tail wagging, tongue lolling out, smile on his face—when Ellie climbed inside.

 

How Many Hours are in a Lifetime?

The day began as normally as it could when you have a child home from school with a fever. My son, Brett, was six years old and in the first grade. Since this was the third day of his illness and the fever didn’t seem to be breaking, I called his pediatrician’s office and scheduled an appointment for 1:30 that afternoon.

With no energy or appetite, he lay lethargically across my bed while I plugged a rented copy of Babe into the VCR and hit Play. I propped some pillows against the headboard and hauled myself up onto the bed to watch with him. He nestled in beside me, curled his arm across my protruding abdomen, and gave my belly and the baby inside, a few gentle pats.

* * *

The baby had kept me awake until well after midnight with his usual antics. He would be a night-owl I was sure.

I already knew that he loved music. Every time I turned the radio on, he’d wake up and listen. Once, when my husband—a classical pianist—was performing a recital, he woke up and then barely moved throughout the concert. I could tell he was awake because I could feel his small hand, nestled low in my womb, moving ever so slightly every few moments. Perhaps he was already conducting in there.

Oh, and he hated seat belts. I would snap it closed and he would start rolling. Not that I blamed him. It went right across his head, which I’m sure didn’t feel too nice. He paid me back for this apparent cruelty by kicking every rib he could reach several times for good measure, pummeling my bladder with his small hands, and rolling from one side to another as he tried to find a comfortable position in his cramped space.

* * *

I was awake and getting Brett ready to leave for the doctor’s office when I realized that I hadn’t felt the baby move for a little while. He always slept in, often not waking up until around lunchtime, but even while he slept he moved and his twitches, hiccups, and other little motions reassured me that all was well in there. Then I remembered that often babies slept very deeply—storing up energy—just before labor began. I made a mental list of the last-minute items I would have to add to my suitcase before we left for the hospital.

I snapped the seatbelt across him and he didn’t move. I tried to turn on the radio, but it only worked sporadically so I couldn’t. For a few minutes I considered asking the pediatrician to listen for the heartbeat when he finished examining Brett.   But I dismissed it as my overactive imagination running away with me.

Brett had a virus. His ears weren’t infected and his chest was clear. The pediatrician told us to wait-it-out and we left to pick up my nine-year-old daughter, Valerie, from school.

We had a couple of errands to run before dinner, so I told the kids to stay in the car as I ran inside our home for a moment. Before I walked out of the house again, I quickly lay down on the couch and gently shook my belly to try to get some response out of him.

I waddled back out to the van. My brain was now in “automatic” mode as I drove to my husband’s office to pick up a check that he wanted me to deposit before the bank closed. I really wasn’t very aware of my surroundings; I was distracted and distant. I wanted to get home as quickly as possible so that I could try again to wake up the baby.

“What’s wrong?” My husband, Jay, asked as he scanned my face.

“I haven’t felt the baby move for a while, not even when I used the seatbelt.” He knew how unusual that was.

“Okay, well, go home, call the doctor and see what they say. I’m sure everything’s fine, but call them. And then call me and tell me what they say.”

“They’ll probably think I’m overreacting.”

“That’s why they’re there, to help you when you need it. Call them.”

“Okay, I will.”

I deposited the check before returning home. When I got home, I went to my bed and lay flat on my back so that I could really move the baby around. When that didn’t get a response, I called the doctor’s office.

The nurse reassured me that it was probably just the baby sleeping deeply. She gave me two options. The first was that I could drink some orange juice, eat something, and see if the baby responded within an hour. But by then their office would be closed and I would need to go to the hospital if I needed further help. The second was that I could come in now and they would strap the monitors on me so I could see the baby’s heartbeat and relax. I chose the second option and called Jay to tell him. I was surprised when he told me to come pick him up because I knew he would have to cancel a few of his college students’ piano lessons. I tried to talk him out of it, but he insisted.

When he got in the van, I told him that I hadn’t been able to turn the radio on. He fiddled with it and got it going. Classical music floated around us. The children were unusually quiet in the back seat.

We arrived at the doctor’s office around 4:30. The office was preparing to close for the day; there weren’t many people around. Valerie and Brett sat down at a Lego table and began to play with the toys. The nurse assured us that they would watch over them for the few minutes we’d be in the room.

She led us back and I struggled to lie down on the narrow bed. I was so big that I had to have assistance to lie down and to sit back up again. My CNM (Certified Nurse/Midwife) came in and greeted us. Her manner was reassuring and calm, but also ready to get down to business and go home.

I pulled my shirt up exposing my mountain of a belly and flinched as she squirted some cold gel on my taut skin and moved a small, black Doppler device over it. At this stage of pregnancy, it was usually extremely easy to find the heartbeat. We heard the steady beating of a working heart and I was instantly relieved. I looked at her, but she hadn’t relaxed.

“Is that the baby’s heartbeat?” I asked.

She took my wrist and her lips moved as she counted. “No, that’s yours.”

All I could think was, “This can’t be happening to me.” She moved the Doppler again and again as she tried to find what she was looking for. After a few moments she said she was going to try something else and brought out the more sophisticated portable monitors that they strap on you during labor. These were so sensitive that they could also record the pressure from the contractions. She belted them across my abdomen and turned the machine on. Nothing. She rearranged them a couple of times. Still nothing.

Next, she told me that she was going to get an ultrasound machine and left the room.

My eyes sought Jay’s. His brows were furrowed over his eyes, which were intent on my face. He squeezed the hand that he’d been holding since we arrived.

The CNM backed into the room pulling a cart with the ultrasound machine on it. She turned it on, and I didn’t notice immediately, but she had the screen turned to her instead of me as it usually was every other time we’d used it. She picked up a different device and started working it across my belly.

After a few moments she turned to me. “I’m not as experienced at using this machine as the OB/GYN’s are. I’m going to go find one of them to help us.”

She returned with an obstetrician who knew exactly what she was doing.   She studied the screen briefly and then turned the monitor screen to me. “I’m sorry, Ma’am, but it’s not good news.” She pointed to a spot on the monitor. “Here’s the baby’s heart. It’s not beating and it’s dilated.”

As I think back on those words that were spoken to me on April 15, 1996, they are concise and terribly easy to understand. But at that moment I struggled to make sense of them. “You mean my baby’s dead?” I asked. My eyes were locked on hers. Her face reflected a cautious sympathy.

“Yes.”

With that single word, a very specific part of my soul—the part that contained all my hopes and dreams for this baby—began to die a slow, excruciating death.

Small revelations broke through my sorrow. I stifled the sobs long enough to choke out a question for my husband. “You mean, now I have to go through labor for nothing?” It was a nonsensical question, but I panicked as I considered the hours of labor ahead of me.

His voice was rough with grief, stress, and most of all worry for me, as he answered, “Yes.”

With a great deal of effort I pulled myself together. We had to talk with my doctor and find out how to proceed. She gave us two options to consider. Since I was nine months along, they could give me medications that would start my labor, or I could go home and wait for my body to go into labor on its own. I needed time to think, so we left. As we drove home, we talked about names; we didn’t want to use the ones we’d already picked. We hadn’t wanted to know the sex of the baby—I liked that reward after the laboring was over—so we needed to allow for both possibilities. We decided if the baby was a girl we would name her Elizabeth Joy, and if he was a boy, Stephen Lewis.

We arrived at home and Jay started making the phone calls to relatives and friends. Each time he explained what was happening, it was like another slash to my heart. And I realized, as I listened to him tell people over and over again, that I didn’t want to wait for labor to begin. I needed to get it over with. I called the doctor and told her what I’d decided.

We walked into the hospital around 7:00 p.m. At 10:45 they induced labor and at 1:39 a.m. on Tuesday, April 16th, Stephen Lewis Hershberger was born.

Stephen weighed exactly seven pounds and was twenty-one inches long. He was beautiful with reddish brown hair, long fingers that were shaped like mine, full cheeks like his brother’s, and the little ball at the tip of his nose that resembled his Papa’s. But his lips and the beds of his fingernails were a deep red and his skin was a dusky gray instead of pink. And he was too still. Stillborn.

We knew after his birth what had happened. While he was still very small, a knot had formed in the umbilical cord, and on April 15th it had pulled tight, cutting off his oxygen. So I held him and told him how sorry I was that I hadn’t been able to keep him alive. Guilt was added to the sorrow. I felt that, as his mother, I should’ve instinctively known something was wrong in time to save him.

We took pictures of him. I tried to memorize every little wrinkle in his hands and feet, the shape of his ears, and fingers, and toes. How do you cram a lifetime of loving into a few hours?

The nurse gave me a peach quilted bag. It contained a little yellow sleeper, a blue flannel blanket, a tiny stuffed giraffe that some church ladies had sewn, some booklets on dealing with the death of a child, and a typed note offering their sympathies.

I gave Stephen his first and only bath, dressed him in the yellow sleeper and wrapped him in the blanket. Afterward, the nurse offered to take some pictures of him in the hospital bassinet, with the little stuffed giraffe. She took some great pictures, and one of them—my favorite—is framed on my bedside table.

Through the minutes and hours I held him, our pending separation hung over me like a suspended tidal wave. I knew it was coming and I knew I couldn’t do anything to hold it off forever.

At around 5:30 a.m., I told Jay that I knew it was time for me to give him up. He buzzed the nurse and told her. I held Stephen’s hand, stroked his face, and kissed his tiny head once more before she carried him away. When she walked out of the room with him, the tidal wave surged in, burying me.

I didn’t think I could survive. I didn’t know if I wanted to anymore. It was hard to breathe. Jay held me, rocking me gently. I asked him to read to me from the Psalms again. They had calmed me down while we were waiting for Stephen to be born. I fell asleep to his soft voice reading the poems that David had written all those centuries ago.

Jay was my rock through the storm. He couldn’t keep the rain away, but he shared his strength so we could get through it. I needed him more than I ever had in our thirteen years of marriage. And while I gratefully acknowledge this, I also have to confess that at times he made me really mad. Like when he insisted on talking about the funeral while we waited for labor to

begin. I was holding onto a delusional hope that maybe they were wrong, or maybe this was just a nightmare. But he kept asking me what hymns I wanted, what scripture verses. It made me want to lash out at him. But I didn’t. I couldn’t, because I knew that he was trying to help me.

I found out later that day, that Jay and I both had a feeling something was going to happen to me during labor. It had crossed our minds that I might die. We hadn’t said anything about it; neither of us wanted to scare the other. But since I was still alive, it was a reason to feel just a little bit of relief during this oppressive time.

The days ahead were torturous. I didn’t know how to handle the grief. I cried so long and so hard that my diaphragm felt bruised. It hurt even more to breathe. One morning, while I was still in the hospital, I walked into the bathroom and when I looked into the mirror I was shocked. The face that was staring back at me didn’t look like mine anymore. The pain in her eyes—my eyes—made me wince. I tried not to look in mirrors after that.

When I was released from the hospital, we drove straight to Herberger’s to pick out the clothes that Stephen would be buried in. From there we went to the funeral home to drop off the clothes and plan the funeral. We had to pick out the programs, decide the order of the funeral, and then—as if all of that weren’t enough to deal with—we had to pick out his casket.

I wanted to tell them to stop, to give me some time to think about it, but we couldn’t. The funeral was in less than forty-eight hours. So I picked the small, white, steel casket to bury my son in, and when I found out that the casket I was standing beside was going to be the casket he was buried in, I kissed my fingers and placed the kiss on the pillow that his head would rest upon.

Friday morning, April 19, 1996, was the day of his funeral. Family and close friends met us at the funeral home to view Stephen for the last time. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it ahead of time, but I vividly recall the moment after everyone else had left the room, when I realized that in a few minutes I was going to have to say goodbye to my son for the last time.

We were truly out of time. I knelt beside his casket and told him again how much I loved him and that I would always love him. Jay helped me up, and slowly walked me from the room.

It was a cold, blustery day with the high only in the thirties; quite a shock after having several days of temperatures in the seventies. After the funeral, a handful of family and close friends stood with us beside Stephen’s casket at the gravesite. We stood, huddled in our heavy coats, shivering against the bone-chilling wind. Three young men stood on the other side of a copse of trees, leaning on shovels and speaking quietly together. Their services would be required again after we left.

“Ashes to ashes; dust to dust.” The pastor said, sprinkling dirt on shiny white metal.

Jay placed his hand on top of the casket. I placed a kiss.

* * *

On Saturday and Sunday our home was a study in opposites: tears and laughter, loud children and quiet adults, hellos and goodbyes. The first time I laughed, I was surprised by how good it felt. This realization was instantaneously followed by guilt. What kind of a mother was I?

My milk had come in the morning of the funeral. My breasts were so full that every time someone hugged me, pain lanced through my chest and into my back. I didn’t have breasts anymore—I had boulders.

I alternated between Advil and Tylenol every two hours to try to mute the pain I was enduring from more and more milk being stored in already full milk ducts. I stuffed my bra with ice packs that had to be exchanged about every thirty minutes. Hormones don’t understand stillbirth.

* * *

After our relatives left to return to their homes in other states, I had to learn to deal with my new reality. Valerie and Brett went back to school and so did Jay. I was left at home, alone. Before Stephen’s death, I had been looking forward to those hours when the older kids would be at school and I could have a few uninterrupted hours with the new baby. Now I dreaded the silence. I knew what I was missing—what I should have been doing. And as the permanence of death settled into my mind, I got angrier. I’d been unsuccessfully fighting the growing anger since the day of his birth.

As the days dragged by, I drew away from Jay. I didn’t want him to know how I felt. How I was mad at God and questioning Him. And, because he was able to go to work every day, he seemed to be getting over this tragedy so much quicker than I was. That also made me mad.

I still tried to be a good mom for Valerie and Brett.   I did most of my crying when they were at school, but I couldn’t help but cry occasionally around them, too. We talked about Stephen whenever they wanted, but they were also handling his death well. I understood that, even though they’d seen and touched their younger brother, he’d never been a part of their lives. They had other concerns.

* * *

“Mom, if I died like Stephen, would you cry as much for me?” Brett asked, standing in front of me, staring up at my tear-streaked face. I was sitting in the kitchen, listening as Jay informed others about the death of our baby. I looked him straight in the eyes as the agony of just the thought of losing Brett or Valerie pierced through my hazy brain. I silently prayed, Please God, not them, too.

“Brett, if you died, I would cry even more,” I answered honestly. He gave me a timid, relieved smile and nodded his head. I opened my arms. “Come here, bud.” The smile grew as he walked toward me and reached his short arms as far around my bulging belly as he could. I enveloped him in my arms and laid my cheek against his hair. “I love you, son.”

“I love you too, Mom.” His arms began to loosen; he patted my side a few times. I quickly kissed the top of his head before I released him. He ran off to play.

His question became a talisman against the thoughts of giving up—wishing for death. I couldn’t leave them motherless.

Valerie, a few days after the funeral, told me she’d seen Stephen the night before. I said, “In a dream?” I was immediately jealous. I wanted to see him again—even if it was only in a dream.

“I’m not sure. Is Stephen an angel now? Is he wearing white?”

“I don’t know exactly how it works. Maybe that’s a question for your dad. Why? Was Stephen wearing white when you saw him?”

“I think I woke up last night, or I dreamed I woke up, and Stephen was floating in the doorway of my room. He just looked at me; he looked so sweet. When I blinked, he was gone. I really miss him, Mom.”

* * *

Two weeks after Stephen’s death, Jay got a phone call from one of his co-workers whose wife had just had their second child, a daughter. I was very glad that their baby was okay, but my arms were so empty. I started to cry while he was still on the phone and left the room. After he hung up, he came to find me. I was furious. In my mind, I’d been singled out by God. How could He love me and put me through this?

Jay could only tell I was very upset at first. My anger was manifesting itself through torrential tears. He tried to hug me—I pushed him away. He tried to get me to talk to him—I clamped my lips closed and shook my head every time he asked me a question. He sat quietly beside me on the couch, watching my leg swing back and forth in agitation. He finally let out a long sigh. “Cindy, I love you and I want to help you. But I can’t if you won’t talk to me. Please don’t shut me out.”

There had been many times in our marriage when I would recall the vows I had made on our wedding day. It had been easy to repeat after the minister, “For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part,” because I couldn’t imagine a time where they would be hard to fulfill.   I had thought I loved him so much. Now, as I sat beside this man who was trying to show me how much he loved me, I was reminded of them again. I had to make a decision. Was I going to continue to shut him out and slowly kill our marriage? Statistically, I had read that something like seventy-five percent of marriages fail after the death of a child. I could see why. Or was I going to let him in and let him help me?

“I’m not sure you really want to know what I’m thinking right now. You’ll know what a bad Christian I really am. And He’ll know, too.”

“Cindy, doesn’t God already know your thoughts? Will He be surprised at anything you tell me? And, honey, He’s big enough to take whatever you have to say. Just get it out.”

So I did. And Jay wasn’t surprised or angry or hurt or appalled. He just listened, and asked questions. I couldn’t answer one of them yet: “Can we trust God?”

My mom called and I told her, too. She also asked me a question: “Is your anger hurting God?”

Mom’s was easier to answer. I knew that my anger wasn’t hurting God, it was hurting me. If I didn’t want to become one of those bitter people who can’t get over the bad things that happen, then I was going to have to let my anger go. But how? I set that question aside.

Can I trust God? Do I still believe? It didn’t take all that long for me to have my answer. Yes, I do believe. Yes, I can trust Him.

That day was the turning point. I realized that God loved Stephen even more than I did, and His Son had died once, too. He could understand my grief. I gave Him my pain, my anger, and my bitterness. It came down to a matter of my will against His.

“Thy will be done,” I finally prayed, and He gave me peace.

It’s been fourteen years since Stephen’s short life changed mine. I now have empathy toward other people’s suffering that I never had before. And, when a friend of mine had a stillborn son a few years after Stephen, I walked through the pain with her.

Every April 16th, if you were to visit his small plot in Evergreen Memorial Cemetery in South Moorhead, you would find a rose lying across his footstone, and a small gift that reminded me of him. One year it was an angel, another it was a whirligig that I could picture him blowing on, yet another it was a bouncing butterfly on a pole because he would have been at the age where he would have been chasing them.

And in the summer, geraniums bloom continuously on top of his grave.

Metamorphosis of a Reluctant Caterpillar

Today is the 19th birthday of my son, Stephen Lewis Hershberger. But there will be no party, no cake, no candles, no singing. We’ve never even sang the Happy Birthday song to him. Because he was stillborn at 38 weeks gestation.

I’ll post his story separately so that anyone who’d like to read it may do so, but this post is about the journey since that day.

This morning I woke up and my first thought was “It was over by now. The metamorphosis was complete.” But then I corrected that thought. Because it wasn’t. Not quite.

That morning, nineteen years ago, was the most brutal day of my entire existence. I’d had to say goodbye to my newly born, stillborn son. And he was so beautiful. Perfect in every way. As I held him, bathed him, kissed his lovely, peaceful face, I marveled at his perfection. And I asked God why. Why would he go through all the trouble of making him so well, knitting him together in my womb so breathtakingly, and then take him away from me? It didn’t make sense. I held his hands, studied the way his fingers lay draped over mine, and pictured the way he should’ve been grasping them instead. I kissed his eyelids and wished with all my heart that I could see his eyes flutter open at the gesture. Could picture him stretching and yawning and squirming in my arms. Smacking his little lips as he anticipated his next meal. He was my third baby. I could picture it all very easily.

He was born at 1:39 a.m. on April 16, 1996. By 5:30 that morning I knew it was time to let him go. His body had grown cold, even though I held him close. So I told Jay to call the nurse to come get him, my heart ripping to shreds at the thought of the separation. And then I kissed him and handed him over. As I watched the nurse leave with him I couldn’t breathe. I panicked. I didn’t know how to really let go of him. This baby who was still as much a part of me as if the umbilical cord were still attached. All I could do was ride out the waves of desperation and overwhelming grief. Let the sobs and the tears break free once more. And then the numbness took over for a bit. I calmed down. I asked Jay to read the Psalms to me again, letting the soothing words wash over me. Understanding David’s pain better than I ever had before. Eventually I fell asleep for a short time but you can never sleep for long in a hospital. It was about 7 a.m. when a nurse came in to take my blood pressure and do all those normal things that they do for new mothers.

And the very reluctant caterpillar I was, started seeing things very differently. Jay turned on the television where I listened to a reporter say that a woman famous for pushing the envelopes of decency had just announced her pregnancy. I was furious. She would be allowed to have a baby and I wouldn’t? Pride reared its ugly head. I was sure I would’ve raised my son much better than she could raise a child.

Stephen was born on a Tuesday morning. I was dismissed from the hospital on Wednesday. After stopping at a department store to purchase clothes, a blanket, and a stuffed lamb to bury Stephen with, we headed to the funeral home and there I was overwhelmed with decisions we had to make for the funeral service. Jay and I had talked about hymns, special music, what Scriptures we wanted read, etc, while I was in the hospital. But I wasn’t prepared to pick out the guest book, funeral bulletins, thank you notes, and worst of all, the casket to bury him in. I wasn’t numb enough to get through it without tears.

We couldn’t see Stephen until Thursday so we went home. What should’ve been a welcoming time was horribly empty. My husband, a college professor, had students with recitals coming up. He tried to spend as much time at home with me as he could, but he had to help them prepare. My daughter and son were at school. Those quiet moments I’d been looking forward to as time alone with the new baby, now scared me. Then the friends and relatives started arriving. I was rescued from the aloneness. Besides, I told myself, at least I’d weathered the worst of it, hadn’t I? It had to get better from here.

Thursday arrived and I was able to see Stephen again. He looked better than I thought he would and I was relieved. Our son and daughter got to meet him for the first time. I wanted to hold him so one of the funeral directors picked him up and placed him in my arms. It was the closest I’d felt to normal for two days. I was almost happy for a moment. I could see him again. Touch him again. But it still wasn’t right. He was still too still. I don’t know how long we stayed with him that day. It was both too long and too short. I tried to memorize every hair on his head, every crease in his fingers. More relatives were arriving. We had to go home but I only wanted to stay there with him. We left and I looked forward to seeing him again the next day.

Friday morning was very busy. The funeral was at 2. We all had to be completely ready before we left but we got there plenty early since many of the relatives hadn’t seen Stephen yet. I stood nearby, my eyes constantly returning to him lying so still in his tiny casket, and wished I could hold him again. So many flowers and plants. So many dear friends and family. So many tears. But I was holding it together, for the most part. And then people started to leave. It hit me then. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it earlier. But all of a sudden I realized that this was the last goodbye. When I walked out, I would never see him again here on earth. I panicked. My husband was beside me. Only God knows what I experienced during those final moments. And every mother who has had to bury her child. It’s indescribable. Jay had to guide me out of the door.

And that was the final moment of metamorphosis for me. I, the reluctant caterpillar, changed that day. I entered the chrysalis and would never be the same again.

I tried to explain it to one of Jay’s cousins who couldn’t come to the funeral but called to talk with me. I told her that everything had changed for me. But she disagreed with me. She told me that time would heal me and I was still the same. She was correct in saying that time would heal me, but I could never go back to being a caterpillar again.

Change was slow. Diversions were few. I couldn’t watch the news because my buffer for dealing with tragedies was gone and I couldn’t concentrate well enough to watch movies. The Weather Channel seemed like a safe bet but the Michelin commercials, with the sweet baby riding in the tires, brought back the pain. I couldn’t watch anything for months.

One day, jealous of my husband’s escapes to the office, I asked if I could go with him and surf the internet. We didn’t own a computer at that time and I needed to know I wasn’t the only person going through this constant grief. He agreed and I spent the afternoon on the SIDS Network page reading stories of other stillbirths and infant deaths. As strange as it sounds, reading other mothers’ stories helped. It was a step toward accepting the inevitable. Stephen was gone. I had to go on without him.

It took time. A lot of time. Spring had always been my favorite season of the year but it would be six years before I felt even an inkling of joy at spring’s arrival.

The new butterfly took a long time emerging.

I am a new creature now. Time has healed me, but grief trumps time over and over again. Because I will always miss Stephen. He is, and will always be, my son. How can I be whole when he is always missing?

I am like a butterfly and on my wings are the initials of my son. They are scars of a painful metamorphosis. They are also a beautiful part of me.

Chapter Eleven

The next morning Stella walked into Ellie’s room around ten a.m. “Morning, Stella. How are you feeling?”

Stella’s eyes filled with tears. “I’m scared. What if the whole pregnancy is like this? How am I supposed to work when I have no energy and I can’t keep food down?”

Ellie patted her bed and Stella sat down next to her. “Maybe you should go see a doctor.” She rubbed her friend’s back gently.

“I called and they said the next available appointment is in two weeks. I could be dead of starvation by then.”

“Let’s drive in and you can go to Urgent Care. There has to be something they can give you to help.”

“You can’t drive. And I’m so shaky I’m not sure I should try either.”

Ellie’s father cleared his throat from the hallway. “I wasn’t sneaking up on you ladies, but I was just coming to tell Rosie that I have to run some errands and to see if you two wanted to come along. If you need to be dropped off at the clinic I can do that.”

Stella’s face brightened. “That would be wonderful. If it’s not too much trouble.”

“Not at all. I’ll go bring the truck around.”

“That’s so nice of him.” Stella turned to Ellie. “Is Rosie your middle name?”

“It’s actually Rose, but he’s called me Rosie for as long as I can remember. It’s so old-fashioned sounding, but I love it.” She smiled and shrugged. “Although Elanor is also old-fashioned so I guess they go together.”

“It’s classy sounding. So much better than Stella. Do you know how many times someone’s asked me if I’ve gotten my groove back yet?” Stella rolled her eyes. “I’m going to go brush my teeth. I’ll meet you downstairs.” She left the room and Ellie grabbed Misty to put her outside.

Ellie watched her father pull up with a dog crate latched in the bed of the truck. She arched her brows and pointed to the crate.

“I need another working dog, sweetie. We’ll always miss old Murphy, but I need the help with the heifers.”

Ellie nodded, feeling ridiculous for questioning him. Of course he needed the help. Murphy wasn’t just a dog; he had been an important part of the cattle operation. “Of course you do, Dad. I’m sorry. Are we meeting Randy in town?”

“Yep. At Ace’s. And the dog we’re getting is a great-grandson of Murphy’s. Good stock.”

Ellie was actually looking forward to seeing him. Wait. “Dog? Didn’t you mean to say ‘pup’?”

“Nope. This late in the summer the pups are all sold. I got lucky though. They bought a new stud last year so they were glad to make a deal on this dog. He’s been the stud for the past five years and they retired him. Randy’s been putting him through a refresher course on herding.” The squeak of the storm door opening and closing announced that Stella had arrived. “And now honey, you know we aren’t mad at you or anything, but the next time you decide to take the dog with you, please let us know a little beforehand. I could have had another dog ready before you took Murphy with you the day of the accident.”

“Ready to go,” Stella announced as she stopped beside the pickup. “I’ll get in back.” She reached for the door handle but Ellie grabbed it first.

“No, no. You take front. The seats are more comfortable and it’ll be less bouncy.”

Stella paled. “Bouncy? Ugh. I’ll take you up on your offer. I don’t think I could take bouncy right now.

Ellie climbed into the back seat of the extended cab truck. Stella hauled herself up into the front seat. They chatted about something, but Ellie didn’t pay attention. What did he mean about taking Murphy the day of the accident? Her memories were fuzzy about that day and many of the days following the wreck, but Ellie had gone to an antique show down in Branson that weekend and had been on her way back to her apartment when it happened. Did she go to the farm and just couldn’t remember?

Her father dropped Stella off at the clinic and Ellie moved into the front seat. “Dad, you said something about me taking Murphy from the farm?’

“Yeah, but it’s okay honey. Don’t worry about it.”

“Thanks Dad, but did you see me at the farm that day?”

He kept his eyes on the road, but his bushy eyebrows twitched the way they always did whenever he was worried.

“Dad, there are gaps in my memories from that day, so I’m just wondering when I would have picked Murphy up.”

He nodded. “We weren’t home during the afternoon so we think that’s when you came out. If you would’ve told us, we definitely would’ve stayed home. Both of us feel guilty about that. We think that if we were there, you would’ve probably stayed for supper and then you wouldn’t have had that wreck.”

“Aw, Dad,” she touched his arm, “You guys shouldn’t feel that way. It was an accident, pure and simple, and I do remember wanting to get back to Misty so I probably wouldn’t have stayed.” Something occurred to her. “Wait, Dad, what time did you and Mom get home?”

“About 4:30, I think. Why?”

“Because I didn’t leave Branson until after 5. I’d lost track of time and was still browsing when the store closed.”

“But . . . Murphy?”

Ellie closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. “I . . . I don’t know, Dad. I don’t know how he could’ve been with me in the car, but I have flashbacks and he’s in them. When did you notice he was missing?”

“Well, he wasn’t on the porch when we got home. He didn’t come running to the truck for a treat either. We even honked the horn in case he hadn’t heard us pull up. Nothing.”

“That’s so weird.” She looked at her father. “Could you show me where I went off the road sometime soon?”

“If you really want me to, then I guess I can.” He held up a finger. “That’s another thing. The paramedics who rescued you said a Border Collie led them to you. They described Murphy perfectly, right down to his collar. They even said he was limping on a bloody paw.”

Ellie’s eyes burned as tears filled her eyes. “Yes,” she whispered, “He’d shown it to me, too, and there was nothing I could do for him.”

“You really think he was there?”

“He looked and acted like Murphy. But I don’t remember picking him up from the farm. And Dad, I would never take him without asking you first. I knew he was a working dog.”

“Then . . .”

“I can’t explain it, Dad. I didn’t take Murphy, but he somehow turned up when I needed him.”

“That’s, I don’t know, incredible? Is that the right word?” He scratched his head.

“Yeah, I think that’s the perfect word.”

“How would he even have known where to find you?”

Ellie shrugged. “I think it was a miracle.”

“Miracle. Now that’s the perfect word.” He pulled her close for a one-armed hug and quickly released her. But not before she noticed the tears in his eyes.

* * *

Since they weren’t sure how long Stella would be at the walk-in clinic, they decided to visit their favorite bookstore in Springfield, Missouri. They parked about half a block away and were mildly surprised to see people gathered around tables in front of Spencer’s Antiquated Books as they approached.

“Do you think he’s having a sale?” Dear old Mr. Spencer had never held a sale in the thirty-five years he’d been running the bookstore. Occasionally he would discount a book to move it along, but since he dealt in hard-to-find acquisitions he tended to hold onto them until the right buyer came along. He was also known to call his repeat customers if he found something he thought they would like. Ellie’s heart sank as she read the sign posted in the store window: Inventory Liquidation and Estate Sale. “Oh no, Dad.”

Her father sighed. “He said he planned to retire at the end of the year.”

“I wonder what happened.”

“Let’s go inside.” He held the door open for Ellie to enter first.

“STOP RIGHT THERE!” A male voice bellowed. Ellie and her father jumped out of the way as a man raced out the door. “DIDN’T I JUST TELL YOU ALL THAT I HAVE CAMERAS MOUNTED OUTSIDE SO I CAN WATCH YOU? GIVE ME THAT!” The irate man, Ellie realized, was her Uncle Jim, the lawyer she wanted to speak with about Miss Ruby’s will. “I saw you start to earmark that page,” he continued, taking a book away from another man, “and I will call the police if you don’t leave this instant.” The would-be-book-defiler gave her uncle a withering look and turned on his heel to walk away. “Oh no you don’t,” her uncle muttered as he grabbed another book tucked under the retreating man’s arm. “That’s it! This sale is over for today. If you want to buy what you have in your hands, go to the register. If not, put it down and leave. Right now!”

Several people complained loudly until Jim the Lawyer turned their way, eyes blazing and hands on hips, while the rest grasped their books tighter and hurried to get in the checkout line.

Uncle Jim shook his head. “Do either of you know that man I ran off?”

Ellie glanced at her father, who shook his head. “No, we’ve never met him before.” She studied her uncle’s frown. “Do you know him, Uncle Jim?”

He nodded. “He’s a multi-millionaire.”

“No!” Ellie searched the sidewalks and nearby cars to see if he was still nearby. “Why would he try to damage, or steal for that matter, a book he could easily afford to buy?”

“He’s got a reputation for that kind of thing. He’s known for finding the cheapest way of getting what he wants and occasionally it’s landed him in trouble. Nothing that his lawyers haven’t been able to handle, so far, but I refused to be one of them and he’s not likely to forget that.”

“We’re witnesses, if you need us.” Her father put his hand on Jim’s shoulder.

“Thanks, but I’ve also got it on camera.”

“What a sleaze ball!” Ellie clamped a hand over her mouth, not intending to say that out loud, but her father and uncle just chuckled.

“I think I’d better move those tables, and one of those cameras, inside before we open again.”

“What books did he have?” Ellie cocked her head, trying to read the title off the spine of the book in her uncle’s hand. He gave it to her. “Is it worth very much?” She passed the book to her father.

“About three hundred.” Jim’s hands swept the air, indicating the book-laden tables. “None of these out here are worth much more than that. Murphy kept impeccable records of each acquisition. But I’ve got yours behind the counter, just like I promised.”

“Like you promised? When?” It had been months since Ellie had last spoken to her uncle.

“I called you last night to tell you about the sale but no one answered so I left a message. Isn’t that why you’re here?”

“We didn’t get the message.” Her father turned to her. “He must have called while we were outside hunting for you, Ellie.”

“Why were you hunting for Ellie?” Uncle Jim looked alarmed.

“It’s a long story. I fell asleep under the willow tree and didn’t get home until the middle of the night.” She waved her hand dismissively. “But Mr. Spencer’s first name was Murphy?” She glanced at the name on the door. “It says ‘Rupert Spencer’ on there.”

“His middle name was Murphy and that’s what we, who were his closest friends, called him.”

“I’m sorry.” She paused. “Do you know what happened?”

“Haven’t heard yet. But I handled his business affairs and had the will so here I am.” He stroked his chin. “I’ll get back to you on Miss Ruby’s will when I’m done tonight. I haven’t forgotten you, just been swamped. It’s somehow fitting that Ruby and Murphy died the same day. They’re together again now.”

“Miss Ruby and Mr. Spencer had a past together?” Ellie’s head swam. She leaned back against the door frame.

Jim eyed her for a moment before he motioned them inside. “Come in and sit down, you two. We’ll talk after I close up the shop.”

Ellie and her father entered the small bookstore and he put an arm around her shoulder. “Are you okay, Rosie? You look a little pale.”

She smiled up at him. “I’m all right, Dad. I’m just feeling a little light-headed.”

“Do you want me to get you something? A sandwich maybe? Or a Dr. Pepper?”

“Oh, a Dr. Pepper would be awesome! Would you mind?”

“Of course not. There’s a deli right next door. Be right back, sweetie.” He kissed the top of her head and hurried away.

Ellie hobbled over to an upholstered chair and collapsed into it. Another Murphy? She remembered the old bookseller with fondness. How many times had they come to this store through the years? And he’d always waited on them with genuine interest and kindness. He’d also been extremely generous. If she had an item she was interested in, he always managed to find it. And at a very reasonable price, too. She realized with a pang that she would honestly miss him, and not just because of the books, but because of his gentility. She supposed it could have been just a persona he’d put on whenever they stopped by, but shook her head at the thought. No, she could tell when someone was being obsequious. Mr. Spencer was not one of those people.

Her father returned with a bottle of Coke. “Sorry, Rosie, but they don’t sell Dr. Pepper. Will this suffice?”

“Dad, it’s Coke with pure cane sugar. I love this stuff! So, yes, it’s perfectly sufficient.” He smiled, but still seemed a little tense. “Are you okay?

“Well,” he glanced around, “I’m not so sure we’re supposed to have that in here. I maybe shouldn’t have brought it in.”

“Oh, well I won’t open it until Uncle Jim says I can. How’s that?” He nodded. “Why don’t you pull that chair over and join me.” He did as she suggested but still couldn’t seem to relax. His hands stayed busy either smoothing imaginary wrinkles from his jeans or literally twiddling his thumbs. What was up with him? Did he think she wanted him to buy her a lot of these books? A buzzing sound interrupted her thoughts and she dug her phone out of her purse.

“It’s a text message from Stella. She’s dehydrated and they’re giving her an IV. She’ll be there at least another hour.”

“I’m glad they can help her. She doesn’t have any fat stores to use up. Morning sickness, right?”

“You’re a good guesser, Dad. She just found out.”

“Does Reid know yet?”

She shook her head. “She wants to tell him in person.” He didn’t respond, just studied her. “I’m fine, Dad. All of that is way over.”

“Is that right?”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“So seeing him again hasn’t changed anything?”

“Nope. He’s Stella’s problem.” She smiled so he’d know she was teasing.

“We men are problems, that’s for certain.”

“Some more than others, Dad. If I could find someone like you, I’d be thrilled.”

“Oh no. Thankfully that mold broke over fifty years ago.”

“Gosh I hope not. We need more loving, hardworking, honest, dependable, faithful men like you in the world.” He put his hands on his head and then expanded them outward, like his head was growing from all the praise. She gently knocked one of them aside. “Goof ball.”

Her uncle approached them. “Do you have time to come to my office? I’d like to lock up the shop for the day and let Mrs. McLane go home.”

Ellie looked at her father. “We have to wait for Stella anyway.” He nodded. “Okay, that’s fine, Uncle Jim. We’ll meet you there.”

Chapter Ten

Stella didn’t come out of her room until after lunch. Her pale face and the circles under her eyes told Ellie that she hadn’t slept well. They sat out on the porch for a short time, but when the scent of cooking hamburger reached them, Stella clamped a hand over her nose and ran back inside.

Miss Ruby’s will could wait until Stella felt better. Or maybe she should just talk to her Uncle Jim since he was the lawyer who drew up the papers. That seemed like a better option, so Ellie went to her room and called his office. Unfortunately, he was in court and his assistant couldn’t say when he would return.

Ellie opened the box and read through more of Miss Ruby’s letters to her daughter. Each year, on the anniversary of Maddie’s death, the fragile, barely-healed scars on Miss Ruby’s heart tore open again, and the words she read left Ellie feeling vulnerable and raw. The tenth anniversary letter was particularly tough to read and afterward she desperately needed to escape.

She drove the Ranger out to the edge of the woods as near as she could to a secluded little area her father had cleared for her. This was her private little sanctuary. An Adirondack chair sat under a willow tree she’d planted near the body of her first pet—a goldfish who had died, probably from overfeeding, when she was seven years old. Murphy and she used to spend hours out here. She’d read whatever book she was absorbed in at the moment while Murphy hunted squirrels and rabbits as a younger dog, or rested beside her when he grew too old to care about the wildlife.

Ellie found the clearing and glanced around. A couple of summers ago, she’d planted a small shade-loving perennial garden with hostas, bleeding hearts, columbine, and bluebells. A new tree now stood in their center and she smiled. A dogwood! Her father had planted a dogwood tree in her little garden. It seemed to be thriving here, nestled in among the larger trees and protected from the harsher weather. She took a deep breath, enjoying the scents of the forest surrounding her and already feeling more at peace than she had in her bedroom.

She parted the hanging fronds of the willow and settled into the chair. She couldn’t stay long, the sun was already heading for the horizon and it was hard enough finding the place in the daylight—a ten minute trek winding through oak, hickory, ash, maple, and fir trees—but this spot had always calmed her when nothing else could. Oh Murphy, I wish I could have buried you here.

She woke with a start. It was pitch dark under the willow. She reached for her crutches and hurried from the clearing. If she headed as straight as possible through the trees, they would end eventually and then she would just have to locate the Ranger. She shivered. It was too quiet in the trees and that worried her. Shouldn’t there be crickets or something making some noise? Or was her presence keeping them silent?

It was nearly impossible to stick to a straight line as she skirted the trees, but she tried to adjust and readjust as she hobbled through. Several times she caught a crutch on an exposed root and almost fell, catching a branch or a tree trunk to stay upright. She decided to slow down since she didn’t want to rebreak her leg. Why did she leave her phone in the Ranger? What a stupid thing to do! But she hadn’t planned to stay long. Only half an hour or so to recharge her mental batteries. Her parents must be worried sick. Maybe that was good though. Maybe they would come hunting for her.

The sound of a stick breaking high up in the trees behind her made her whirl around. She searched the boughs for reflective eyes and felt relieved when she didn’t see any. But what would they reflect? She carried no flashlight. Her heartbeat sped. Were there any black bears in their woods? Or wildcats?

She gasped as something touched her good leg and lost her balance when she shifted onto her cast automatically. She landed on her side and cried out in pain. A wet tongue swiped at her face and she threw her arms around the furry body standing over her. “Murphy!” Her dog whined and his whole back end wagged in time with his tail. “You’re alive! How did you get home?”

Murphy squirmed free and pushed against her, propelling her to her feet. He took several steps away from her, then paused, looking over his shoulder. “I’m coming, Murph. Lead the way.” She followed the old dog as he picked his way through the trees at an angle from the direction she had been heading. It took longer than she thought it should, but he led her straight to the Ranger. She climbed in behind the wheel and waited for him to jump up beside her. When he didn’t, she went looking for him.

The old dog sat at the edge of the forest. “Come on, Murph. Let’s go home, boy.” She patted her leg as she spoke. Murphy didn’t move so she approached him. She bent over in front of the Border Collie and stared into his intelligent eyes. “Murphy?” The dog, his tail wagging again, stood on his back legs and put his paws on her shoulders so he could lick her face once more. She hugged him tightly. “I love you, Murphy. And I always will.” She felt his flanks rise and fall with a deep sigh. As soon as she let go, Murphy turned and raced back into the forest. She waited in the Ranger, eyes searching the tree line, hoping he would return. But knowing he wouldn’t. Her phone rang and she picked it up. There was a long line of missed calls illuminated on the screen. All from her parents. “Hello?”

“Ellie? Oh thank God! Where are you honey? Your dad and I are worried sick. We were just about to call the police but we knew you’d taken the Ranger out so we thought at first that maybe you just needed some alone time. But it’s four in the morning. Are you alright?” Her mother’s words rushed out. Relief and worry mingled in her voice.

“I’m okay, Mom. I went to my clearing for a few minutes and fell asleep. I’m on my way back and I’ll explain more. I’m sorry I worried you but I’m fine. Relax and I’ll be right there.”

“Oh thank God. Thank God.” Her mother replied, but her voice sounded distant so Ellie assumed she was talking to her dad. She hung up the phone and, with one last glance around the area, started up the Ranger and pointed it toward home.

Her mother and father were waiting for her on the porch when she pulled up. Her father bounded down the stairs, took her crutches away from her and propped them against the Ranger, then picked her up, cradling her in his arms as he carried her to the house. “Ellie-girl, you scared us near to death.” He kissed her forehead and put her down in front of her mother, who immediately clamped her arms around her tightly, tears streaming down her face.

Her father brought her crutches to her and both of her parents flanked her as she hobbled into the living room. “Sit down, baby, and tell us what happened. You’re as white as a ghost.” They positioned themselves on either side of her.

“Well, as I told you on the phone, I went to my clearing to escape. Some of Miss Ruby’s letters are heartrending to read. Tonight’s was the tenth anniversary of Maddie’s death and I just wanted to spend a few minutes in my sanctuary.” She turned to her father. “Thank you for the Dogwood, Dad. It’s so beautiful and looks perfect there. When did you plant it?”

Her mother huffed, probably frustrated at the sidetracked conversation.

But her father’s face had lit up. “I bought it when we got back from visiting you the first time in the hospital.” He shrugged, looking sheepish. “I spent a little more than I normally would for a tree, but we were so relieved to know you were going to be okay. I kind of went hog wild.”

“Aw, Dad, that’s so sweet!” Ellie gave her father a hug. “I love it. Truly!”

“I knew you would. You can’t believe how hard it’s been to keep it secret. I was beginning to think you didn’t care about the clearing anymore.”

Ellie chuckled. “I do. I just hadn’t gotten out there yet.”

“Well don’t go just before dark anymore, please,” her mother said.

“I won’t, Mom. I promise.” Ellie paused. “Murphy found me.”

Both of her parents reacted with shocked expressions and exclamations. “What?” “How?” “Where is he now?” “Are you sure it was Murphy?” The words flew at Ellie from both sides. She held up her hands to stop them.

“I don’t know if I can fully explain it. I was trying to find my way out but it was so dark and I kept getting tripped up.” She took a deep breath, the feelings of fear returning with the story. “I heard a branch snap in a tree behind me. It was over my head but when I tried to see anything, I couldn’t.”

Her mother clamped a hand over her mouth. Her eyes wide. “It could’ve been a wildcat,” she murmured.

Her father grimaced. “Don’t borrow trouble, honey. Now go on, Ellie.”

“That’s when Murphy found me. He brushed against my leg and nearly frightened me to death. I fell down, but he licked my face and I realized it was him. He let me hug him and he gave me more doggy kisses, but then he pushed against me and I realized he wanted me to get up. After I got back on my feet, he started leading me out of the woods. I must have gotten way off track, because it took him a while but he eventually led me right to the Ranger.”

“He’s always been such a great dog,” her mother mumbled. “I’m going to spoil him rotten.” Her expression changed to puzzlement as she looked back toward the front door. “Where is he now?”

Ellie shrugged. “I don’t know, Mom. He wouldn’t come with me. I called and called him. I even went back to get him. He was sitting right at the edge of the trees, but . . .” Her voice broke and she choked back the tears. “He just stood up on his hind legs and licked my face.” Sobs broke free. “I told him I love him. And then he ran back into the trees.”

Her mother held her while she cried. Her father patted her back. She pulled herself together after a few minutes and sat back up.

“Tomorrow I’ll comb the area and see if I can find him.” Her father smiled gently.

“Thanks, Dad.”

“Why wouldn’t he come with you? Was he hurt?” Her mother still looked puzzled.

“I don’t think so. He raced back into the woods like he used to when he was a pup.”

“And you’re really, really sure it was Murphy? Maybe you dreamed it.”

“It was Murphy, Mom. He was wearing his collar with his dog tags and everything.”

“That’s so weird.”

“I know, Mom. I know.”

It was quiet in the room until Ellie yawned. “Well, we can discuss it more in the morning. We should all get some sleep.” Her father pulled her to her feet and helped her up the stairs and to her room. Her mother hugged her, asked her if she was okay, and left with her father to get a couple of hours of sleep before the new day began.

Ellie changed clothes and collapsed into her bed. Misty jumped up beside her, snuggling in, and Ellie curled around the little dog. Her last thoughts before she fell asleep were of Murphy.