Chapter 1

 

The screaming vibrated along Josh’s spinal cord and not in a good way. Reaching for a cool towel off the tray, he wiped his sister Nicky’s forehead, trying to cool her off. “Breathe, remember to breathe like they showed us in class.” Josh tried to keep his voice calm, but his legs were twitching beneath him, and he was doing his best not to hyperventilate.

“Fuck the breathing! Get this out of me!” Josh barely understood the last part over the cry of pain that had Josh looking to the doctor. There had to be something they could do.

“The baby’s not moving,” the doctor said in a calm voice, and Josh knew that couldn’t be good, not with all the pain Nicky was already in. “Bring over a surgical cart. We’re going to need to do a Cesarean.” His voice remained calm even as the activity in the delivery room sped up.

Josh watched as everyone moved with a hurried but practiced grace. Nicky was strapped down, injections were given. At least Nicky calmed down and stopped screaming. Josh also saw that her eyes drifted closed, and he looked up at the others in the room. The person monitoring Nicky didn’t seem to notice anything wrong, but Josh still breathed a sigh of relief when her eyes slid open again. “Just sit where you are and stay with her,” the doctor told him, and Josh nodded, wiping Nicky’s brow once again.

Josh stayed behind the curtain, but kept looking up at the doctor as a feeling of complete dread settled in his stomach. What if Nicky wasn’t all right? What if something happened to her?

“Everything is going to be fine,” the doctor told them both, almost as if he’d been reading Josh’s mind. “We’ll be ready to begin in a few minutes. We’ve already given you something to stop the contractions, and you should see your baby soon.”

Nicky mumbled something and closed her eyes again. The doctor began quietly asking for instruments, and Josh watched and waited. Under circumstances like this, not that he’d ever been in a circumstance like this before, but when they were kids, Josh had always held Nicky’s hand. When they saw a scary movie, he’d held her hand, and when she’d fallen off her first bike, Josh had held her hand before helping her get back on. Nicky was his little sister, and he’d always been there to hold her hand. But now, at what seemed like such an important moment, he couldn’t hold her hand because of the arm restraints. All he could do was sit by her head and wipe her brow. “It’s going to be okay. You’re going to see the baby soon,” Josh encouraged her and stroked her cheek even as the activity around them continued. He hoped this would be over soon, because Nicky looked as weak and exhausted as Josh had ever seen her in his life.

“You’re going to be a proud father very soon,” one of the nurses said, and Josh didn’t correct her. The father of Nicky’s baby had taken off as soon as she’d told the lowlife that she was pregnant. Their other brother, Timothy, and his wife, Josh’s bitch-in-law, had actually tried to convince her to have an abortion. Nicky had immediately told both of them to go screw themselves. She was having this baby. It hadn’t mattered to her that she would be forty-one by the time the baby was born, she wanted this child. Josh had supported her then, just like he always had, and he was supporting her now, and he wasn’t about to stop.

“I can feel things moving around,” Nicky said.

“Does it hurt?” Josh asked.

“No. It just feels like pressure.” Then Josh saw the doctor lift out the red blood-covered baby, which he handed to a nurse.

“Just another minute,” the doctor said, and the baby began to cry. The doctor worked for a few more seconds, and then the nurse carried the baby to a table and they wrapped it in a blanket.

“You have a girl,” the nurse said, and she motioned for Josh to come over. “She’s beautiful and perfect.”

“Her eyes are closed,” Josh said as he looked down at the crying, openmouthed baby. The nurse turned down the light, and the tiniest baby Josh had ever seen opened her big blue eyes, and Josh felt his heart begin to melt. The nurse lifted the baby and handed her to Josh, who looked down into that beautiful little face, feeling a tear run down his cheek. Turning around, he showed Nicky her daughter. She couldn’t hold her because they had to finish the surgery, but Josh let Nicky look. “She’s gorgeous, Nicky.”

“She is that, and her name is Vivian.”

“Hello, Vivian,” Josh said softly, greeting his niece with a smile. He knew she couldn’t smile up at him, but she stopped crying and her eyes closed. “Is something wrong?” Josh asked.

“No,” the nurse said indulgently. “She’s falling asleep. She’s had a hard time of it too.”

Josh nodded and watched the precious child as he held her, waiting for the doctors and nurses to finish with Nicky. Josh sat on the stool he’d occupied earlier and let Nicky gaze at her daughter. “You did good, Nicky, really good.” Beyond that Josh didn’t know what to say, and his throat closed around his words. He was holding a new life in his hands. Josh had held babies before, but never like this, and the entire experience sent ripples up his spine when he thought about it. This was his niece, Nicky’s daughter, and as close to a child of his own as he was ever going to come. “Happy Thanksgiving,” Josh said to Nicky with a grin. “I can’t think of anything anyone could possibly be more thankful for than this little one.” Nicky didn’t answer, she simply smiled and stared at her baby.

The nurse took Vivian from Josh and carefully cleaned her up before placing her in a fresh blanket and handing her back to Josh. It was a good thing his partner, Sammy, wasn’t there; he hated the sight of blood. Eventually, once the incisions were closed, they checked Nicky over thoroughly before wheeling her to recovery and then into a room, where Josh was finally able to let his sister hold her baby. Once she was, Josh left them alone to get acquainted, and so Nicky could nurse Vivian.

In the hallway outside the room, Josh pulled his phone out of his pocket. “Sammy, it’s me.”

“Is everything okay? You’ve been gone such a long time. Nicky and the baby are okay, aren’t they?” The questions flew off Sammy’s nervously excited tongue.

“Yes. They’re both fine. She gave birth by Cesarean, but they’re both fine now. Nicky’s feeding the baby, and I wanted to take a few minutes to let you know what was happening. Both mother and baby are fine and healthy. It’s going to take Nicky some time before she’s 100 percent, but Mom is coming to stay with her.”

“She called a few minutes ago,” Sammy told him. “She said she’s on her way and she should be there in a few hours.”

Relief flowed through Josh. He knew Nicky was exhausted, but so was he. He had stayed up with Nicky through the long hours of her labor, and he hadn’t slept in over twenty-four hours. He hadn’t felt it until now, but with the adrenaline wearing off, he could barely keep his eyes open. After yawning, Josh told Sammy that he’d be home as soon as he could before hanging up the phone. Next, he called some friends of Nicky’s and gave them the good news. He had a whole list of people that he’d been given to call and dutifully made all the calls before pushing open the hospital-room door and peering inside. Nicky was resting back on the bed with Vivian in her arms, and both of them looked as though they were asleep. Josh motioned to one of the nurses, and she came inside and took Vivian to the nursery so Nicky could sleep.

Josh went in as well and leaned over the bed to kiss Nicky on the forehead.

“Are you leaving?” she asked.

“Yes. I’m going to try to get some sleep, and I’ll be back tomorrow morning. You get some sleep and take care of that beautiful niece of mine.”

“I will,” Nicky said with a smile. “You get some rest too.” Nicky took Josh’s hand and squeezed it. “Thank you so much for being here. It meant the world to me.” Nicky began to cry, and Josh handed her a tissue from the bedside table.

“You know I wouldn’t have missed this for anything. I’m never going to have a child of my own, so I intend to spoil yours rotten.” Josh gave her his best grin, and Nicky smiled behind her tissue.

“You’re too good to me,” Nicky said, dabbing her eyes.

“No, I’m not. The world’s just too hard on you,” Josh said before kissing her again. She released his hand, and Josh walked toward the door. “Call if you need anything, and I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“I will,” she promised, and as Josh left the room with a wave, he saw Nicky flash him a smile. Josh made it to his car and began to drive home. He stopped along the way for coffee more than once before pulling in front of his and Sammy’s home, a little more than an hour north from where his sister lived in Baltimore. Josh hadn’t been sure if Sammy would be home from visiting his family yet, and he smiled when he saw Sammy’s car parked in its usual spot. Getting out, Josh walked toward the front door, and it opened as soon as he stepped onto the porch. Once he stepped inside the house, Sammy closed the door and then pulled Josh into a hug. “I have soup for you, and Mom sent some Thanksgiving dinner home along with some of her fresh bread.” Sammy refused to let him go even while he talked, and Josh rested his head on his partner’s shoulder, already feeling the urge to sleep beginning to take over. “Come into the kitchen and eat, then we’ll get you up to bed.”

Josh was too tired to answer and simply let himself be led by the hand into the large and immaculately clean kitchen. Josh took a seat at the table, and Sammy moved around the space, opening drawers and cupboards. Josh had no real idea where anything was in this room of the house. He and Sammy had decorated the house together and done most of the work required to bring their century-old house back from near wreck and ruin. A warm bowl of turkey soup with a cream base was set in front of him, and Josh looked to Sammy with a grateful smile. “I love this,” he said and felt Sammy’s hand on his shoulder.

“I know you do. That’s why I made it.” Sammy smiled at him and sat at the next seat with a cup of tea. “How did it go?”

“It was rough,” Josh told him as he started to eat, the rich, creamy soup sliding down his throat, comforting from the inside. “The baby wasn’t coming, so they had to do a Cesarean. Nicky’s sore, but she’s doing okay. How was Thanksgiving at your mom and dad’s?”

“It was nice. They both said to say hello and to tell you that Nicky is in their prayers. Mom also sent lots of leftovers, and she baked you a special pumpkin pie.” Sammy took a sip from his cup, and Josh smiled. Mona always took care to make Josh’s favorites. He knew where Sammy got his love of food. In many ways, Sammy was the male version of his mother because, like Mona, he said love with food.

“I’m sorry I missed it,” Josh said quietly. He knew everyone would understand.

“I know, but you had something more important to do. They’ll see you around Christmas, and they said they’ll be down for the Christmas party in a few weeks. Mom asked if she should bring some of her homemade caramel corn, and I told her to bring whatever she’d like.”

“Tomorrow I’m going to ask Nicky to come. She and the baby can spend the night in the guest room. She’ll be ready to get away by then, and I’ll have the chance to spend some time with Vivian.” An image of her precious blue eyes looking up at him in the delivery room flashed in his mind. Josh knew he would never forget that moment as long as he lived.

Taking another sip of soup, Josh gazed at Sammy and saw a touch of fear in his eyes. He knew what that meant and had been expecting it. “Just don’t expect me to… do… anything with the baby. I’m allergic to dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, children, and I like it that way.”

“Sammy. Vivian is adorable. You’re going to take one look at her, and she’ll have you wrapped around her little finger.”

Sammy shook his head stiffly. “Babies scare me, you know that. They’re so small, and I don’t know a thing about them.” He shook his head again. “I know you’ve talked about children a few times, but I never realized you were that serious. They scare me to death, and don’t get me started on the pooping, peeing, diapers. Oh, and let’s not forget the puke and projectile vomiting. No.” Sammy continued shaking his head the entire time.

“I didn’t say we needed to adopt or have a child of our own. You told me how you felt about children when I first met you, and I’d never try to make you do anything you really don’t want to do.” Josh took Sammy’s hand. “But you know Nicky is going to need help with Vivian.”

“I know. You’ll need to help, and I’ll help too. Just don’t expect me to actually hold or take care of her. Once she’s older, I’ll show her how to cook and we can bake cookies and cakes together, but while she’s at that spit-up stage, she’s all yours.” Sammy grinned, and Josh went back to his soup. Once the bowl was empty, Sammy placed a plate with a piece of pie in front of him, and Josh took a bite of Sammy’s mother’s pie and groaned softly as the creamy pumpkin slid down his throat. “By the way, before I forget, Terry called yesterday, and he said they just got in a lamp that he thought we’d like. There are pictures on the web. It looks really nice, and I asked him to hold it until you could take a look at it. It’s a newel-post lamp, and it’s never been electrified. It looks like it needs some work, but he says it’s nothing we can’t do. I thought it would look great in the parlor.”

“Can we look at the pictures tomorrow?” Josh said with a yawn as he finished his pie. Now that he’d eaten, his bed was really calling to him.

“Of course. Terry said he’d hold it until Monday for us,” Sammy said, and Josh pushed back from the table. “Do you want to go right up to bed?” Sammy asked as he took the dishes to the dishwasher.

Josh covered his mouth as he yawned. “I think so.”

“I’ll be up soon,” Sammy said from the sink as he finished cleaning up the kitchen. Josh walked up the stairs and into the room they used as a family room. He and Sammy entertained a lot, so the main floor included the formal living room, parlor, and dining room as well as their kitchen. They used the extra bedroom upstairs as their television and media room. After turning on the television, Josh lay down on the sofa and turned on the Food Network. It wasn’t long before his eyes began to drift closed, and soon he felt a hand on his shoulder.

“Let’s get you to bed,” Sammy said softly as he reached over and turned off the television.

With a sigh, Josh forced his legs to work and walked into the bedroom, yawning almost the entire time. After cleaning up in their en suite bath, Josh stripped down and climbed into their bed with crisp, fresh sheets that Sammy must have changed just today.

Sammy took good care of him, there was no doubt about that. They both worked, but Josh’s days were much longer, and his job as a food-systems engineer involved a lot of travel. Sammy worked close to home, and early in their relationship, Sammy simply took over taking care of their home. With Sammy, everything had a place, and Josh could always find what he was looking for.

The bathroom light switched off, and Josh heard Sammy’s footsteps in the now dark room. The door to the closet where they kept the dirty-clothes basket opened and closed. Then Josh felt the bed dip, and Sammy joined him. They didn’t curl together like they used to. After almost fifteen years together, they rarely cuddled in bed anymore. Sammy usually complained that it made him hot and sweaty. Sammy did lean close to him, his warm hand stroking Josh’s cheek, and Josh felt Sammy’s weight shift as he was kissed good night. “Love you,” Sammy said before kissing him again.

Josh returned the kiss. “I love you too.” He felt Sammy hug him for a few seconds, and then Sammy rolled over onto his side, and Josh did the same. They had a good life together. They were settled and very happy. Sammy took good care of him, and he took care of Sammy. Sure, some of the passion had gone out of their relationship after fifteen years, but that was to be expected.

Josh rolled onto his other side, stroking Sammy’s shoulder as he closed his eyes. He was tired beyond belief, but he could not seem to fall asleep. Something was bothering him, but whatever it was seemed elusive and just out of reach.