Quick note, but catch me at the bottom: if you haven't read Under The Willows, this might be a little tricky in places to understand. That said, I think you could probably follow this as a standalone if you wanted.
Disclaimer: The usual Twilight crew belong to Stephenie Meyer. Jax, Finn, and Arlo are all mine, as are a select few others ;)
Waves of Hope
There's a mark on the ceiling.
It's about the size of my palm and a pinkish red color, directly over the bed.
The click of the bathroom door interrupts me wondering what it could be, and how I haven't noticed it before now, light spilling in from the bathroom as Edward clears his throat. "Uh, what the heck are you doin', short stuff?"
As he pulls the door so it's almost shut, but not quite, the bathroom light slightly illuminates his face. When I twist my head around to look at him, I can see his confused, upside-down frown.
I'm upside-down, not him.
Wiggling my toes against the fabric headboard, I smile sheepishly. "It's supposed to help," I offer. "Gravity, I guess."
Glancing at the bedside clock, I see that I only have a few more minutes to go—which is good because my legs are starting to go numb being up in the air for this long.
"Right," Edward breathes as he sits beside me on the bed, raking a hand through his hair with a grimace he barely stifles.
Twisting myself around so I'm up the right way, I decide five minutes is probably enough and lean over to kiss his beard-covered jaw. "Sorry. I know it's not the most romantic thing in the world, is it?"
With a soft sigh and an apologetic smile, he reaches up to brush his thumb over my cheek, the rest of his big hand cradling my face. "But helpful, right? We want to give ourselves the best odds, and if this helps…"
Not for the first time, I feel a swell of gratitude for this man and how very accepting he is.
"I love you," I whisper, a little choked up by the sheer intensity of just how much I love him and want this for us.
Having more children after the boys was a 'maybe' for me, but with Edward...I can't imagine not having at least one more. I know how much he'd love another child, too, which makes every negative test and my like-clockwork cycles all the more heartbreaking.
"I love you, too, short stuff."
His soft green gaze turns my insides to mush. Sighing like a lovesick fool, I plant a kiss right over his small smile and gingerly hobble to the bathroom as he chuckles at my predicament. After taking care of business, I rejoin him in bed and snuggle against his warm, solid chest with a happy hum.
Our journey to add to our family has been fraught with stress and disappointment, and it's only been five months. We expected it to be tricky, but I didn't anticipate how crushing it would be seeing negative test after negative test, month after month after month.
As we settle in to sleep, I mouth a silent plea over Edward's good, pure heart.
Please let this be our month.
~ oOo ~
When I wake up, I'm in an empty bed and it's almost silent. I can hear the bedside clock ticking and the faint sounds of birds singing outside my window, but that's it.
Stretching out, I grin at the ache in my muscles—the one that reminds me how thoroughly Edward loves me—and decide it's probably best if I get up and find out what my boys are up to.
Once I'm dressed in some warm pajamas and my new favorite fluffy socks, I pad out into the hall in search of Edward. I find him by the big windows in the great room, coffee in hand, all broad shoulders and low-slung sweats.
"Mornin', short stuff," he rumbles as I slip my arms around his waist, my cheek against his back.
"Morning, handsome. Where're the boys?"
I feel his body shift as he nods; peering around him, I spot Jaxson, Finley, and Arlo outside with Max.
We've had a fresh, very thin blanket of snow arrive overnight, so they're busy trying to make a snowman out of the little they've got. Max is running around them, stirring up the meager offering handed down by the snow Gods and making the boys chase him away every time he bumps their little snowman. Now two years old, he's no longer a mid-sized dog. He's a full-blown floofy bear with a coffee-table-clearing broom for a tail and a tongue that somehow finds its way into my tea every morning, no matter where I hide it.
"What's the plan for today?" I murmur, not wanting to break the calm, quiet spell that seems to have befallen the house this morning.
"I have to call to check in with Sully and Garrett..." he trails off as I shift around to lean into his side. "And I promised I'd take the boys over to see Mom. You're welcome to join us, if you want?"
I have housework to get on top of, a dog that desperately needs a head-to-paw bath, and three boys who need haircuts and new cold weather clothes. Our summer wardrobes just aren't cutting the fifty degree weather when we're used to it being more like seventy in late October, but...
"I'll come with you," I agree, giving him a squeeze around the waist before leaving him there to pour myself some coffee.
It doesn't take long for our little sun worshippers to get bored of the cold and come tearing inside, Max on their heels and snow in their hair. Stopping just inside the door as the screen snaps shut with a clack, Arlo shakes his head like a dog, sending fluffy white snowflakes flying everywhere.
"It's so cold," Finley mumbles, hurrying his butt over to the fireplace where Edward already has a little fire crackling away.
"Cocoa, boys?" I offer with a grin, already reaching for the saucepan and the cocoa before they sing their "yes, please's!"
"Can I have some of the muffins Gamma sent over?" Jaxson wonders, stripping off his coat, mittens, and boots, leaving them in a trail across the great room as he heads for the sofa.
"Jax—" I start.
"Hey, buddy," Edward says at the same time, shooting me an 'I got this' wink as he points at the clothes littering the floor. "You think you could put these where they actually live?"
"Oh, yeah, sorry."
My lips curl up into a grin as Jaxson scoops his stuff off the floor to go put it away. Over the last few months, we've all been slowly transitioning into our new family-of-five dynamic. As if moving in together back in May wasn't a big enough change for us all, we then found ourselves facing an infinitely more complicated move in September—from Jackson Bay, Florida, to St. George, Utah.
We switched sandy beaches for desert mountains, flip-flops and boardshorts for hoodies and boots.
Instead of dropping the boys at school every weekday morning, we do all our learning at home, at the park, the library...wherever we want to, really. With Edward's sister-in-law Alice's instruction and guidance, I homeschool the boys myself. That was a huge adjustment, not just for the boys, but for me, too. It's more flexible and we have a lot of fun, for sure, but saying 'goodbye' to the friends they'd made and the routine we'd all established during our first year back in Jackson Bay was hard on all of us.
Familiar guilt for uprooting the boys yet again rises within me as I cup my coffee and watch the boys goof around with Edward on the sofa, but this is the bed we've made. Now we have to lie in it.
A little while later, after wrestling the boys into clean clothes and settling Max in his bed with a new bone, Edward and I load the boys into the car for the short drive across town.
"Be gentle," they chorus as we ascend the porch steps at Edward's parents' house.
Arlo flashes me a grin. "We'll be careful, Momma."
Gently tugging his ponytail, I nod and breathe out a sigh, mentally crossing my fingers when I catch Edward's eyes as he lets us inside.
I hope today is a better day.
Thankfully, my silent plea falls on sympathetic ears. When Edward calls out "Mom? Are you down here?" we hear a soft but cheerful "In the kitchen!"
Shucking off coats, scarves, and boots, the boys hurry through the house with me and Edward following behind them. Just before we step into the kitchen, he pauses and his hand seeks mine. We listen to the boys excitedly greeting their Gamma and Pops, but I can feel how tense Edward has become. Squeezing hard, he sucks in a deep breath through his nose before plastering a smile on his face and leading me through the arch into the main living area.
"There's my boy," Esme croons, reaching up to cup his face as the boys clamor for Carlisle's attention behind her. I smile and join them, giving Edward and Esme a moment.
Carlisle's smile—Edward's smile—is warm as he ruffles Finley's hair before pulling me into his side for a one-armed hug. "It's been a good day, so far," he whispers when I ask how it's going. The relief in his tired eyes puts a lump in my throat, because I know the good days have been few and far between recently.
Turning toward Edward and Esme, we can both see the way her hands tremble around his face, the way her sallow cheeks stretch taut with her smile. The cream scarf wrapped around her head does little in the way of bringing color to pale complexion, and the too-big sweater and sweatpants she's wearing only highlight how much weight she's lost in the last couple of months.
"How did your treatment go this week?" Edward asks with a furrow between his brows.
"Better," she promises firmly. Glancing around at us, at the boys, she smiles wider and pats her son's cheeks. "But we'll talk about that later. Let me get a look at these boys. You've grown!"
"Gamma," Finley snorts, shaking his head as he lopes over to wrap his arms around her middle. "It's only been a week."
"A week too long, huh?" she murmurs, hugging him to her.
She was a petite lady even without the chemotherapy and radiotherapy that's been ravaging her body for months. Now, she's almost scarily thin. Even at eight, Finley is almost the same size as her, but she never looks smaller than when Edward wraps a meaty arm around her shoulders and tucks her into his side. He dwarfs her.
"How about some muffins?" Arlo asks, jumping up to sit on the counter and quickly adding a hopeful "please" onto the end of his request when I shoot him the Mom-brow.
Thankfully, Carlisle and Esme love the boys like their own and they're used to Arlo's heavy-handed way of asking for things. They laugh off his brashness and Esme makes his—and his brothers'—day by admitting that she made a fresh batch this morning because she knew we were coming.
As Esme and the boys convene in the nook with a tray of still-warm muffins, Carlisle hovering close by in case his wife needs him, Edward slips his hand into the back pocket of my jeans, I lean into his side, and for the moment, everything is right in the world.
~ oOo ~
"C'mon, Momma!" Arlo yells, running ahead of me and his brothers. I'd be quicker if I didn't have a big bag to carry. "We're gonna miss them!"
"Where are they gonna go?" I sigh, more than a little exasperated with my littlest dude and his boundless energy today. Cursing under my breath as he almost wipes out a toddler in his ridiculous attempt to beat the speed of sound to the 'arrivals' gate, I speed up and apologize to the toddler's mom just as my hand lands on the back of Arlo's hoodie, pulling him to a stop. Jaxson and Finley keep their faces carefully blank in the way they mastered early on so they can't be dragged into their brother's messes.
"Arlo, slow down. The plane probably hasn't even landed yet, so there's no reason for you to be running off like that. You almost wiped that little girl out, did you even notice?"
Arlo's cheeks flush pink as he pushes his hair out of his face and glances over at the little girl now playing happily with her mom's keys. "Sorry, Momma."
"Uh-huh," I drawl, shaking my head. "If you run away from me again, I'll make you hold my hand the whole time we're here, got it?"
"Got it," he mumbles, already looking over his shoulder toward his brothers waiting a little ahead of us.
Trusting that his new hatred of public affection will keep him beside me, I follow Jaxson and Finley, and remind Arlo that Mom promised them all ice cream on the way home if I tell her they've been good today. As soon as the words are out of my mouth, I wince. I've been trying to get out of the habit of bribing him to behave.
There's been a noticeable change in the way he acts since we moved out here. I know he's growing up, so there's a bit of that to account for, but he's growing up too damn fast. His brothers already alternate between calling me 'Momma' and just 'Mom,' which of course he's copying because he doesn't want to be the baby. Out here in St. George, the only real friends he has are older than him—Jaxson and Finley, obviously, and then there's Matty who's a year older than them—so he's playing catch-up with a lot of things, and it breaks my momma-heart watching him try to grow up before his time.
It doesn't feel like two minutes ago that he was a chubby toddler babbling nonsense in place of English and banging his little fists on my legs in a request to be picked up.
I miss that stage. I miss having a baby around the house and being needed more than just occasionally. The boys obviously need me to help them do some stuff, but they're pretty self-sufficient now. They don't need me to feed them or open their juice boxes, they don't crawl into my lap to watch cartoons with me in the mornings as often, and they definitely don't hold my hand in public unless there's some serious bribery going on.
Coupled with the look in Edward's eyes every time we visit our friends with babies, it makes our infertility unbearable.
When we make it to the 'arrivals' hall, the screen still says the flight hasn't landed yet.
Good. We've got time.
"All right, boys. Let's dinosaur up!"
For Halloween this year, Edward, the boys, and I all dressed up in inflatable dinosaur suits. We drove up to Salt Lake City with Carlisle and Esme to attend Jasper and Alice's Halloween party and had great fun bumbling around in our ridiculous costumes, the heads too big to stand close too each other and the tails too long to avoid bumping into things.
When Jude saw the video of the boys running around the yard in them, she called to say how jealous she was and made them promise to put them on for her when she comes to visit, which is today. We thought it would be funny to have the boys put them on to meet her, Dale, and Mom and Dad today, so while the people around us watch with confusion, the boys shrug off their coats and step into their dinosaur rig-outs.
"Can I put the fan on?" Finley asks, the first to be all zipped up and enclosed in his costume.
"One sec, kiddo," I tell him as I zip Jaxson up and eye the screen. The flight we're waiting on changes to 'arrived' just after I get Arlo's suit all straightened out, so I smile and tell all three of them to go ahead. It only takes a minute or so for the suits to fully inflate thanks to the built-in fans, which works out perfectly because the first few passengers start to filter through after a few minutes, not one of them able to stifle their amusement when they're immediately greeted by three impatient, inflatable tyrannosaurus rexes.
It doesn't take long before I realize we're not the only ones who thought bringing a dinosaur into the airport was a good idea.
"Oh my God!" I sputter through a laugh, hitting 'record' on my cell in time to catch the sliding doors as they open to reveal Mom, Dad, a smiling Dale...and a T-Rex.
Jaxson, Finley, and Arlo look ridiculous bouncing around with surprise and excitement, the giant dinosaur heads bobbing around, but seeing Jude in the very same costume is too much. I almost forget to keep recording the entire thing as I double over laughing, Mom filming from her angle while Dad and Dale chuckle and shake their heads at the antics unfolding in front of them.
We've got quite the audience gathering, but I focus on my mom as she makes her way over, both of us stowing our phones once Jude has the boys in a four-way hug that looks awkward as heck thanks to the short T-Rex arms.
"I can't believe it," Mom wheezes, wiping her eyes as she beams and tries to catch her breath, wrapping her arm around me. "I thought she was crazy when she disappeared to the bathroom as soon as we landed to change into that costume, but the boys are in theirs!"
We look over at the little cluster of dinosaurs in time to see Jaxson, Finley, and Arlo trying to show Jude how to dab, and instantly erupt into laughter all over again. When Jude finally makes her way over to me, her laughter easily permeating the thin costume, I can't help but ask if she knew what we were planning.
"I promise you, I had no idea you were planning to do this." She crosses her heart, and it's the first time I've been promised anything by a dinosaur. "I couldn't believe it when I got the first look at them and saw their costumes through the doors."
Following dutifully behind Jude, Dale offers me a long-suffering but fond smile as he pulls me into a hug. "She keeps me young," he tells me with a soft chuckle when I tell him he ought to be keeping Jude in line now she's his officially his responsibility.
The matching gold bands on the fourth fingers of their left hands shine in the fluorescents. They tied the knot on a warm spring day earlier this year. Jaxson, Finley, and Arlo proudly escorted Jude down the aisle to 'Granddad Dale,' I was Jude's maid of honor, and Edward stood up front as a groomsman with Dale and his grandsons, Dale II and Emmett. It was a beautiful day, which is all I could ask for two people who deserve nothing more than happiness and love in their lives.
"All right," Jude finally sighs after we've all caught our breath. "I need to get out of this thing. I need to tinkle and I don't even want to try and squeeze this big booty into one of those itty bitty cubicles."
The boys crack up at her frank announcement while I just roll my eyes and smile, linking my arm through Jude's to lead her toward the bathroom, as a feeling of contentment rushes through me.
Home is across the country, but with my parents, Jude, and Dale here...I can almost talk myself into feeling at home here, too.
~ oOo ~
"I forget how beautiful it is out here," Mom breathes later as we watch the boys leaping around on the in-ground trampoline. We haven't had any more snow since the flurries the other day, so they can finally see it again and bounce to their hearts' content. Jude and Dale have gone to freshen up and rest for a little bit before dinner, which Edward and Dad are preparing in the kitchen, while Mom and I gently rock ourselves on the porch swing.
I sigh, twisting a loose piece of the afghan draped over my lap as my eyes roam over the view. We got lucky when we were searching for a place to rent while we're here in Utah. This house has plenty of room for the six of us—including Max—and a great view of the dusty mountains beyond the back fence. We have neighbors on either side of us, but none behind.
Honestly, I will be sad to say 'goodbye' to this house and the view when we return to Jackson Bay, but it's not home. St. George isn't home.
It doesn't matter how many times I try to tell myself that home is where my family is, where Edward and my boys are, I yearn for the sunny days and sandy beaches of Jackson Bay. I dream of swimming laps in the pool as the sun rises and walking Max along the shore after we collect the boys from school. I miss having my parents and siblings close enough to see every day, then I feel guilty as hell because for that to happen, Edward would have to give up being close to his own family. Right now, at least, that's just not an option.
"How's Esme doing?"
Tipping my head toward Mom, I tilt it side to side in a 'so-so' sort of gesture. "She's better," I admit with relief. "Her treatments seem to be taking less out of her this time around, so that's really good. It's so tough on her."
"Oh, honey, I bet." Mom sets her drink on the little wicker table in front of us to wrap an arm around my shoulders. "Cancer is ruthless, but Esme is strong and determined. I have faith that she'll beat it."
I'm not as confident as Mom is, not after watching Esme shrink into a shadow of herself these last few months, but I draw strength from the conviction in Mom's voice and huddle into her side with a hum. Content to watch the boys, we sit in silence and enjoy the peace until the screen door flies open, Max tearing down the steps with what looks like…
Mom snorts as Dad and Edward come tearing out of the house in pursuit of the dog, both of them hollering and calling for him to give his loot back—they should be so lucky.
The boys stop their bouncing to watch the craziness.
"What's Max got, Papa?" Jaxson wonders.
"The ribs!" Dad moans, running after Max. Edward yells for him to switch direction as Max gallops around the patio table, skidding on the cement as Edward and Dad corner him. His tail is wagging ten to the dozen and he has barbecue sauce smeared all in his fur when Edward leads him back up the porch by his collar, a sour look on his face and the mangled ribs in his hand. The smell of Dad's secret barbecue sauce recipe catches the breeze as Edward mutters something about Max already having eaten half the ribs before they realized what was going on, but I can't concentrate on his voice.
Nausea hits me in the gut like a sledgehammer. Slapping a hand over my mouth and nose, I yelp something unintelligible and almost trip over the blanket in my hurry to get to the bathroom.
A few minutes later, as I kneel over the toilet and pant, white-knuckling the side of the tub as I screw my eyes shut and will foolish hope not to well up inside me, I hear the bathroom door click open.
Edward's warm hand sneaks under my hair to gently cup the back of my neck, his thumb rubbing soothing circles on the skin behind my ear as I listen to him emptying the toothbrush glass, then the trickle of the faucet as he gets me a drink.
I squeeze my eyes shut against the tears threatening to fall and murmur my thanks when he hands me the half-full glass of water.
"How're you feelin' now?" he whispers, dropping into a crouch.
"Better," I whisper back, refusing to look at him because I'm afraid of what I'll see.
I'm afraid to see his hope because I don't want it to fuel my own.
My period is due tomorrow. I've forced myself not to obsessively chart my temperature and take a bunch of ovulation tests every day for the last two weeks, but thanks to the last five months of tracking, I know when I ovulated. I know that if we were finally successful, there's a tiny foetus growing inside me right now.
One shaky hand comes to rest over my abdomen and a few tears escape, tumbling over my cheeks.
He blows out a breath, lightly squeezing the back of my neck as he leans in to press a hard kiss against my forehead. "I know, Bella. I know."
We stay there for a minute or five—I have no idea how long we really spend on the bathroom floor before he finally breaks.
I know what he's reaching for when he opens the cupboard under the sink before he holds the plastic-wrapped stick out in front of me. I still can't look at him, but I silently take the test and nod when he says he's just going to go reassure everyone that I'm okay, but he'll be right back. With a racing heart and nerves fluttering in my stomach, I pee on the end of the stick before slipping the cap back over the end and setting it face-down on the counter. I'm washing my hands and staring at my ashen face in the mirror when Edward slips back in, quietly murmuring that everyone is distracted by dinner.
"Your mom is suspicious," he admits, handing me a towel to dry my hands.
I nod, chewing my lip. "I'm not surprised."
"Hey," he whispers, cupping my chin and tipping my face up to his. For the first time since I bolted, I force myself to look into his grass-green eyes. His lips twitch toward a smile. "There's my beautiful Bella. We're in this together, right? That's what you keep telling me. Whatever that thing says, we've got each other and we've got our boys. We can handle anything as long as we remember that."
Sucking in a deep inhale, I bury my face in his chest and release a shaky sigh as he wraps his strong arms around me, enveloping me in his warmth and comfort. He's right. The random nausea, this test...whatever the results, the important thing is that we still have each other.
After a few moments, I feel his hand moving away from my back and I know he's checking his watch.
My pulse pounds in my ears as I remain glued to Edward's chest, squeezing the shit out of him and gripping the back of his tee so hard my fingers hurt. "I can't look."
He brushes a kiss to the top of my head. "We'll look together."
I hesitate...please, please don't be blank...before squeezing my eyes shut for a second and turning my head to face our future, whatever it holds.
Or doesn't hold.
He waits until my eyes slowly slide open to turn the test over, but it's not the plastic stick I'm looking at in the mirror when his chest expands with a sharp breath.
It's the blossoming grin on his handsome face.
That's right, we're back! Whoot!
Thank you for joining me back in...well, St. George, actually. The Jackson Bay crew have relocated, at least temporarily, but their hearts are still on the sandy beaches of Florida. The world is a scary place right now, but just know I'm sending you all the biggest, squishiest hugs. If you're having a tough time, please know my inbox is always open and I've always got a listening ear for anybody who needs it. I'm working one last shift tomorrow, then I'll be off for three months to protect myself as I have a heart condition and asthma that leave me vulnerable to the virus sweeping the globe. I'm not happy about tapping out and leaving my brave, beautiful colleagues at the supermarket where we all work, but as people keep reminding me, this isn't a drill and it's safer for me to be home.
So, with that in mind, you can expect a pretty good posting schedule. I have four more chapters pre-written right now and another almost done. Coupled with the free time I now have ahead of me, I think we're on track for at least one chapter a week for the foreseeable.
Big hugs and thanks to annaharding for picking up her beta hat once again, and to maplestyle for pre-reading!
If you're not already there, please come join me in my reader group, CiaraShayee's Dreamers (formerly CiaraShayee's Subconscious) where we chit-chat, share memes, and have a grand old time. That's also where I'll be posting teasers and graphics.
Also, Under The Willows is now live for pre-orders on Amazon and I have a sign-up sheet running for signed paperbacks. The regular version will go live on the 27th with the ebooks, if you'd rather just order one that way.
Did you love the first glimpse at this little gang and their new normal? Hate it? Stay safe and let me know *mwah*