Fall 2004

It was their last night of vacation. The sunset had faded and the sky, a clear, deep blue only seen in colder weather, was mirrored in the lake outside the cabin. Twilight settled in a hush, calming the frantic colors of the trees. Frost hovered in the air in crystalline molecules, waiting to descend upon the ground and lake. The workweek beckoned, but the fire whispered in the fireplace. The room was drenched in light and shadows. Each competing for supremacy, gaining and losing ground as the logs shifted on the grate.

A cup of tea sat in her hand; an afghan covered her lap. Her arm lay on the back of the couch, her head propped up in her other hand. Behind her and down the hall, the kitchen light, dim at this distance, flicked off as he finished putting away the last of the dinner dishes. His footsteps sounded against the floorboards. The floor squeaked, announcing his presence, as he eased on to the couch. She gathered a corner of the blanket and tossed it at him. Instead of pulling the material over his lap, he tucked it around her feet.

"Back to the grind tomorrow, huh?" he asked, leaning back to rest his head against the couch.

"Would you like a pillow?" She gestured to the throw pillows littering the floor next to her seat.

"Nah." He closed his eyes and stretched his legs out in front of him.

She nudged his hip with her foot. "This was a really good idea that you had."

He cracked open an eye. "Thanks." They had come to the cabin to discuss the baby. He had suggested a vacation because it would have been harder for either of them to storm away if the conversation went poorly. So, on a weekend when Mattie had a sleepover and both their schedules were clear, they packed up his car and drove to the cabin he'd rented. She'd objected to the expense, demanding to pay her share, but he'd waved her off, saying later.

And now here they were and the weekend was at their backs. They had discussed baby names and baby rooms. Cribs and changing tables. But they hadn't talked about custody or living arrangements. Instead, their conversations circled back to their own childhoods. To trips to the zoo and the first time they saw the Grand Canyon.

"Jessica," she suggested.

"Dated a girl named Jessica once in high school." He rejected the name.

"Fine." She stretched the arch of her foot against his thigh, hoping to get a foot rub, but he didn't move. "Harm?"

He opened his eyes slowly. "Yes?"

"About custody?" she asked quietly, not want to disturb the calm.

"Mac," he leaned forward and took her mug and set it down on the table, "we'll talk about it some other time." He tugged lightly on her hands, pulling her closer until she followed his suggestion and eased her back against his chest.

"Okay," she agreed. His arms circled around her waist, his hands lay on top of hers. Careful not to lose contact with his skin, she readjusted their hands until his sat on her stomach and hers layered his.

"Do you ever wonder," she asked, watching the trees grow darker, "what would have happened if things had gone differently?"

"When?" he asked, snorting lightly.

"Pick a time." She waved a hand. A history of missed moments and petty comments, of poor choices, crowded into the room. Filling the space and smothering the air with its bulk.

He rubbed his chin over the crown of her head. "All the time."

"Me too," she said. Her fingers twisted his ring around his finger. "It'll be better for her."

"It'll be better for all of us," he said.

Outside, the lake's surface echoed the night sky. Orion hunted by the dock and the big dipper ladled lake water. A star fell, disappearing without a ripple into the lake. Against the dark, the firelight flickered in the windows. Smoke rose steadily from the chimney, thinning into air as calm as the water.

Fall 2004

The air was more gold than blue and filled with the thick scent of decaying earth. Leaves fell, raining down on cars and yards in dense, multicolored shadows. Sunlight, no longer strong enough to warm the air, settled on trees and branches. It hovered in the air, hanging on the dust motes and filtered weakly through windows. The stores were putting out Halloween decorations and candy found its way into bowls and desks throughout the offices.

The manila envelope sat beneath a bag of candy corns on her desk. She recognized his handwriting on the post-it note stuck to the front of the folder. More out of curiosity than anything else, she picked up the folder and began to scan its contents.

To: Sarah Mackenzie From: Harmon Rabb Re: Proposed Custody Agreement

The heading made her gasp. After returning from the cabin, he'd avoided all conversations about what to do when the baby was born. She was adamant about filing a custody agreement. More to protect his rights than to set up a schedule. She hounded him, asking him about it constantly. So she didn't understand why it hurt so badly to see her demand on paper.

Issues:

Proposal of terms for a custody agreement to be agreed upon and consented to by the parties.

Definitions of People Involved and Terms Used:

The child ("the child") is the biological child of Sarah Mackenzie (heretofore "the mother" or "M") and the Harmon Rabb (heretofore "the father" or "F").

Custody:

1. Mother and Father agree to joint legal and physical custody of the child. 2. Primary residence will be with M. until the child is older. 3. At a mutually agreed upon age, the child will share residency with parents in a schedule agreed upon by both parties.

Expenses:

1. Medical expenses will be shared by the parents. 2. F. will place the child on his insurance. 3. Parties agree to contribute jointly to a bank account in the child's name.

Additional Terms (Not originally discussed):

1. F. proposes that F and M contribute jointly to a primary residence in an agreed upon location. 2. Furthermore, F proposes to M. 3. Conditions of acceptance are as follows:
a. F. promises not to be a jackass if M. promises to stop avoiding problems. (If M. denies doing this, M. is lying.)
b. F. further promises to try a more open approach to discussions and to not jump to conclusions.
c. F. asks that M also learns to trust F. and F. promises to try to give M. reasons to trust him.
d. F. proposes that F and M. learn how to fight fairly without resorting to rancor or childish insults.
e. F. promises to never use the words "you", "know", "the", "reason" strung together in the form of a declarative sentence.
f. The marriage must last for a term of not less than fifty years.

Please initial each agreed upon term and return. After a discussion of the terms, a finalized agreement will be signed, notarized, and filed with the court.

She knocked on his office door, manila file folder in hand, and waited for his "enter." Waving the folder at him, she said, "This won't hold up in court." She shut the door behind her.

He sat up and leaned his forearms on his desk. "I guess we can reword parts," he suggested. "What do you think needs work?"

"Oh," she sniffled. "Damn hormones," she muttered under her breath.

He smiled. It had been her rallying cry for a month.

"I liked them all," she continued, brushing the back of her hand over her cheeks. "I just don't know how enforceable they are."

Standing, he reached across the desk and took the folder from her hand. He was about to rip the agreement up, when she said, "No, don't do that."

"You just said."

"But you don't have to rip it up." She plucked the paper from his hand and hugged it to her chest. "Maybe I want to keep it. It's not every day I get proposed to."

"Mac," he said patiently, raising an eyebrow, "at the risk of ruining a beautiful," his voice twisted on the word as he smiled, "moment, you've been engaged once and married once." He held his arm out and wiggled his fingers. "Give me them."

She shook her head. "No."

"Think how it will look if little Sunny found them later on," he suggested.

With a sigh, she handed them over. "Sunny?" she asked. "Fine. Here you go." She crossed her arms over her chest and tapped her foot. "Then I want a real proposal."

"Fine," he said grudgingly, giving the word added syllables. "Marry me, Sarah."

She arched her brow and waited. When he didn't continue, she mimicked his tone. "Fine," she said. "Yes."

He walked around his desk and put his arms around her, locking his fingers together at the small of her back. She curled her hands around his jacket, tucking her fingers under the lapels, and tilted her face back to see his. Taking a deep breath, she leaped. "I love you," she said in a low voice.

He leaned his forehead against hers. "I love you, too."

"We can make this work, right?"

"Sure." His thumb swept over her cheek. His lips followed, brushing over her skin before settling firmly on her mouth. "We've already made it through the hard parts," he said when he pulled back. "Besides, if it doesn't work out, we have a custody agreement ready to go."

She cuffed him lightly on the arm. "Jerk."

"Love you, too." He tucked her head under his chin and felt her sigh against his neck. A clock ticked in the corner and the office hustled outside his door. The day was ending and he could hear the footsteps in the hall as people left the building. But, in his office, where there were no windows and no one to disturb them, they stood still.

Winter 2011

She snuggles under the blankets and comforter, pulling them tightly to her chin. He slips in bed behind her, his left arm moving under the blankets to circle her waist. "Molly wants a puppy," she says.

"Really?" he mutters against the back of her neck. "What about Claud?"

"Well," he smiles as her voice changes cadence and tone, mimicking the high, breathy voice of their daughter, "Claudia supposes," she emphasizes the word, "that a puppy would be okay, but she'd really rather have a baby polar bear or a baby elephant."

He raises his head on his elbow to peer at the side of her face. "Did you happen to explain that those animals require rather different environments than typically found in Virginia?"

Her eyes slide open and she turns her head to make eye contact. "Yes," she says, "because she'd understand that." She snorts. "No, I said you were allergic to them."

"That's right, blame me."

She smiles. "You were handy. Maybe we could get a Pyrenees Mountain Dog. They're white and big." Her voice is hopeful and he wonders who really wants the puppy.

"Maybe," he says.

"The wind is stopping," she comments, dropping her head back to the pillow. "Love you, g'night." Her eyes slip shut and her back relaxes against his chest and stomach.

He knows that she will be asleep in minutes. Her breathing is already evening out. "Love you, too," he says softly. "Night."

The snow continues to fall. Tomorrow, he'll dig out his car and pull his daughters on their sled. The streets will be slick with snow and ice and crowded with children. But, now, the house is quiet and dark. His arm tightens around her waist as his eyelids blink once, twice, then slowly fall shut.

~the end~