Her eyes filled with tears, and the look on her face made my heart turn slowly in my chest. “My dear, this is what’s called family.”
I was completely undone by that. I began to sob, the sounds loud and harsh and broken. She just embraced me, murmuring soothing words into my ear, her soft voice filled with tears.
Family, I thought, absolutely floored by the thought. Family, I realized, my mind flashing back through the years of Bev and Jerry’s unfaltering generosity, their unfailing kindness. Family.
The thing I had yearned for had been mine without me ever having to ask. It was just there, through better or worse.
A few months after the accident, I got a call from my sister.
She was in labor.
I drove for five hours and made it to her just in time for the delivery.
We’d been talking on the phone and corresponding via email. I’d even gone out to see her a few times, before my first miscarriage.
But that birth is what made us sisters again.
It was a bittersweet joy to share that special moment with her.
I was the only family present, the only one there for her.
She named him Jack Markova, and I was one of the first to ever hold him. I cut his umbilical cord and fell in love with that darling boy.
I drove her home from the hospital, and helped her settle in with the new baby. I stayed with her for two weeks, staying up with the baby, letting her get some much needed rest while she recovered from her ordeal. I limped around her house and tried to help make it a home for that fatherless little boy.
I was tucking her in one night, the baby asleep in a bassinet beside her bed, when she looked at me and said, “I do know who the father is.”
I sat down at her hip, and she found my hand with her own. I stared at her face and waited.
I knew it was going to be something truly awful. Just knew it. The nature of that awful, however, eluded me. My head was in a dark place, and so the possibilities were endless.
The thing I feared the most, though, was not the worst thing that could have happened to her. I knew this because, the worst thing had happened.
She squeezed my hand tight and closed her eyes tighter. “I had no boyfriend. No lover. I didn’t know what had happened to me, until I realized I was pregnant. But I did remember a few nights that were…out of my recollection. And after those nights, I did know that something was off, things were askew. I woke up in ways and places that didn’t add up.”
“Oh no, Dahlia,” I whispered, stroking her cheek.
“It took me a while to piece it together, but…I had a few nights that made no sense, and as I began to uncover the facts, I realized that Dean had drugged me. A few times. I confronted him, and he wouldn’t admit it aloud, but I saw his guilt. And then, when I told him I was pregnant, it didn’t even faze him, and he straight up told me that he was the father.
“I hated him. Before any of that even happened, I couldn’t stand him. I didn’t have the stomach to get rid of the baby, or even to give it away, but I got the hell away from him. No way was I going to let him be in this baby’s life. He was a r**ist and a lowlife. I wanted to press charges, but I didn’t see what good it would do. I was so stupid. By the time I realized what had happened to me, all of the evidence was gone.”
“You poor dear,” I told her, kissing her forehead, aching for her. “I’m so sorry you got mixed up in that.”
Her hand moved from her side to rest on Jack’s little head in the bassinet beside the bed. “I’ve made peace with it. I love this baby, Danika, with my whole heart I love him. The rest is in the past.”
I had so much bitter poison inside of me, so many regrets, and it didn’t slip my notice that Dean’s ugly proclivities had produced a beautiful baby boy, while my and Tristan’s love had only ever ended in tragedy.
Life was so very cruel, but there could be no doubt that I loved that baby.
We doted on him, my perfect little nephew.
SIX MONTHS LATER
I didn’t look at his face, but listened to his words, hearing more what he didn’t say, than what he did.
We were sitting in the small café where I’d agreed to meet him. He was here with two other people, a young man and woman. I’d told him I hadn’t wanted to meet him alone, and that had been his solution. I hadn’t wanted to do this, but when he’d explained the purpose of it, as part of his rehab program, I hadn’t been able to refuse.
We wouldn’t be a part of each other’s lives again, but that didn’t mean that I was willing to cripple his recovery.
I’d wanted to show up first, so he wouldn’t see how I was still struggling to get around. That instinct was part pity, part pride on my part. I wasn’t sure which was stronger.
I’d dressed painstakingly, my hair loose and straight and shiny, my makeup heavy but flattering, my skirt long, to hide my knee brace and my orthopedic shoes, my shirt tight to show off my figure.
I couldn’t delude myself for long. Pride was stronger.
Unfortunately, I hadn’t shown up early enough. Tristan and his two shiny new friends had already been at a table, drinking coffee and laughing at something when I walked in the door.
I was ridiculously grateful to the man that held the door open for me so I could hobble through. It was amazing how the little things could help, and struggling with the door while Tristan watched was a humiliation that I did not care to contemplate just yet.
My chest burned as I made my way, one small crutch assisted step at a time, to an empty table near the entrance. I wanted to sit before he saw me, but I wasn’t so lucky.
One look at his face and I knew I wouldn’t be meeting his gaze for this little meeting. The raw regret, the crippling pity in his eyes was nothing that I cared to see. I’d prefer anything from him before I’d take his pity.
I couldn’t look at his face, so instead stared at his collarbone. I couldn’t face his eyes, the promises we’d made and broken, the things we’d lost. They were all there, accusing me, yet filled with guilt, filled with pity, all at once.
“Can I get you anything? Coffee or tea?”
A shudder ran through me. His first words to me were to offer to wait on me, because I was a cripple now? I couldn’t bear it. I almost bolted right then.
“Some tea, thank you,” I said through stiff lips, finally, after I’d debated in my head which would be more humiliating.
I didn’t so much as twitch while he went to the counter and got us both a cup of tea.
I stared down at mine, added one sugar, then stared some more.
“Milk?” he offered.
I shook my head, then added another packet of sugar.
I never took even one sip before he said his piece. I never touched that tea.
“I have many regrets, many bad things I must take credit for, but believe me when I say that the negative impact that all of my actions have had on your life is my biggest one.”
He stayed firmly on his side of the table, his eyes on his hands, and in their downcast depths, I saw his sincerity, but I hadn’t really been questioning it.
I quickly looked away.
Of course he was sorry.
So was I.
Neither of us had wanted things to turn out this way. But as I looked at him, whole and healthy, and when I’d seen him laughing, before he’d spotted me, happy. Perhaps things really had turned out for the best for him, in spite of this all. He’d been a mess of a man when he was with me, and look at him now, thriving.
It planted one tiny seed of bitterness inside of me, and over time, that bitter seed would grow. It would flourish.
“I do not deserve your forgiveness, after all that’s happened, but I am asking for it.” His words were stilted, as though he’d rehearsed them. “Know that I would take it all back if I could, and know that I hold myself responsible for all of the bad things that happened. I am so sorry that my hitting rock bottom the way I did impacted you. Any recompense you can imagine, anything you would ask of me, I would be happy to provide. I’m at your service. Always, Danika. And it is my most sincere wish that someday, perhaps over time, you might consider being my friend again.”
Friend? I recoiled from the notion. Of course I couldn’t be that. What a drawn out torture that would be. Friends? It felt like a slap in the face. Didn’t he know that if we tried that, if we stayed close in that platonic way, I’d never be able to move on?
“Tristan.” Just saying his name was a struggle. How on earth would I get through the rest? I took a few long, necessary moments to steady my voice. My words were very formal when I was able to continue. “Consider yourself forgiven. But please don’t think that I hold you responsible for everything that happened. Things didn’t turn out how I could have hoped.” What a joke of an understatement. “But no one person is to blame for any of it. So yes, I forgive you for any and all of it. That being said, I must decline your offer of friendship. Some things…What I mean is, some people, need to stay away from each other, and we are such a pair.” I wanted to say so much more, but chose to keep my composure instead.
His ragged breaths were his only response for the longest time. “If that is how you feel, I must respect your decision.” He seemed to me to nearly choke on the words.
“It is. But thank you for the apology, and I wish you all the best.” I swallowed hard, looking down. “I’m glad you got yourself help.”
After an eternal agony of waiting, he stood up and walked away.
We didn’t look directly at each other.
I refused to stand up before he and his friends left, and so I stared at my tea for a long time while I waited.
I never took one sip of that tea.
It had been torture. But every coffin needed its last nail, and that meeting was ours.
Heart in tatters, but will intact, I went on with my life.