"Do you think two weeks off is too much?" Jim asked from his chair in the living room.
He could hear occasional grunts and slurps from the couch as Christie fed the babies. To Jim, his daughters weren't instantly the cherubic bundles of love everyone else saw. He experienced them through cries and wet diapers and razor sharp nails that scratched no matter how Christie clipped them. But he smiled as he thought of the indescribable smell of baby and of the way he felt when he held them and took a deep breath through his nose. He was even beginning to think they didn't smell exactly alike, although it would take time to test that theory.
"Why do you ask?" Christie said, her voice deceptively light. Jim heard the suspicion in there somewhere. She was preparing to be annoyed.
He didn't know if he could explain it. Taking time off felt weird. Wrong. Like he was newly blind and off the job again, getting his bearings around the apartment. He should have had his bearings, but somehow the presence of two needy beings filled his head, distracting him as he went about his business. Addison cried and suddenly Jim was bumping into pillars or stubbing his toes on barstools. Both of them cried and Jim was forgetting which room he was in. And all the stuff! Christie said the place was still clean and organized, so it must have been a coincidence that whatever was left out always happened to be where Jim wanted to step.
He arranged his features into something he hoped looked clueless and winsome. "No reason. I just—well, I haven't had any time off since I got shot and I'm not used to just being…home."
Christie sighed. "I understand, Jimmy. I really do. This is a weird time. Beautiful, hard. Just weird, right?"
The weird part for Jim was trying to picture what Christie was doing at that moment. The breastfeeding was going surprisingly well and the thought of her, with her special nursing pillows, feeding both of them at once the way she had been shown, was more than Jim could grasp. He tried to help her situate herself at feeding time, but once that was done, it was out of his hands and he would wander around the apartment or out in the park with Hank, longing to be back at work where he felt useful. How had taking two weeks off ever seemed like a good idea?
"Jim?" Christie prodded. "You okay?"
He sighed and shook his head. "It's just…two weeks is a long time."
"But I need you here. You've been a life saver. I don't know how you ever got so good at changing diapers, but…"
Jim put his hand to his mouth so she couldn't tell he was trying not to laugh. Christie didn't know about some of his clumsy early attempts at diaper changing and Cara had been nice enough not to tell.
"Don't you like being home with your babies, Jimmy?"
He dropped his hand and straightened, his smile fading. "Of course I do. I just—I get antsy."
"Katie seems to be done," she said. "Would you mind taking her?"
He walked to the couch and leaned over Christie, placing a hand on the head of each daughter. Some sort of instinct always seemed to guide his hands straight to them.
"Which one?" he asked.
"Sorry. Your left."
Gently, he lifted Katie, situating her comfortably in his arms.
"Here's a receiving blanket," Christie said, thrusting it into Jim's hand. "You may need it."
He sat back down in his chair, blanket draped over his shoulder, Katie in burping position as he patted her back, rocking her the way she liked.
"You're a natural," Christie said.
He smiled and kissed Katie's head. He always allowed his face to linger close after a kiss, picking up things about his babies his hands missed; the fuzz of their heads, their smell, the satiny warmth of their cheeks. They looked different when seen with his face. "I'm just a dad," he said.
"Do you feel like you're bonding with them?" Christie asked. "I mean, you look like you are, but some of the stuff I read about blind parents…I know it can be hard when they're really young."
Jim had to think about it before he could respond. "I don't have anything to compare it with," he finally said. "But in a way, I think I may be even closer to these babies than I would have been. You know. Otherwise."
Did he even want a response to that? Did he like the idea of Christie thinking about how things had been before? How they could have been now?
"Otherwise," she repeated. The hard sound in her voice told Jim how she had decided to interpret that word. She wasn't thinking about how nice it would have been to have had a sighted daddy for her babies. She was thinking about that other Jim Dunbar. The one who had cheated on her. The one who wouldn't have still even been her husband had the healing power of blindness not intervened, inexplicably saving their marriage.
It was that trade-off he had discussed with Dr. Galloway. For the vision lost, he had regained his marriage. And now he had two daughters. He remembered how he had felt when Dr. Galloway had asked him if it was worth the trade. At that time, he had been hard pressed to come up with any answer that could remain consistent from one moment to the next. Now, however, something inside him stirred as he wondered if he would have willingly made that trade, had he known what was to come as a result.
Katie hiccupped and then started cooing against his shoulder. She sometimes seemed to be singing, but only when he was the one holding her. She didn't even sing for Christie. She was so warm. So real. So alive. So dependent. It hit him at that moment that he now had an answer for Dr. Galloway. He didn't even need to think about it any longer. Trade his vision for the life of his daughters? In a heartbeat. He smiled, realizing that, in a way, he had already done that.
That other Jim Dunbar, the one who now only existed in the realm of "otherwise," may not have even appreciated the gift of the life he now held in his arms. Why couldn't he have had it all? That was something else he had asked Dr. Galloway. Who said he couldn't have found a way to keep his marriage alive while keeping his sight? But he knew. Everything was too easy for that other Jim. He might not have realized what he had with Christie or how miraculous his girls were. He would have loved them, of course. He hadn't been a complete dick back when he could see. But…something told him the twins had been born for a reason. He considered them his reward for the adjustment he had made and the work he had put into his marriage. And now there was his newfound tenderness for Christie. The way he cherished their relationship. The way her feelings mattered to him. His sighted self hadn't had any of this to offer his family. He probably would have found a way to screw everything up.
"I like the look on your face right now," Christie said, speaking softly.
"What does it look like?" he asked.
"Like peace. That's not a look I've seen you do very often. So two weeks is really seeming long to you?"
It was jarring, trying to jump back into that other mindset. His mind had wandered far in a short time.
"I've never been good at not working," he explained. "You know that. All that time I spent, waiting for my reinstatement to go through…"
"I know. That's why I got on board when you started trying to get your job back. Not working was killing you."
"So that's all this is, Christie. You know that, right?"
"I do know that, but I also know you won't get this kind of time with them very often, so I want you to enjoy it."
"Want me to take them out for a while?" he asked. "Hank needs some exercise and I'd like to give you some time to yourself."
"Or I could go with you."
Jim's mouth tightened at the corners. "You're not ready for me to be out with them alone yet, are you? You don't think I can keep them safe."
"That never even entered my mind. Honestly, Jim, I just thought I could use the exercise too. But a little time to myself also sounds good. Maybe I'll take a bath and then cook us up a nice lunch. Sound good?"
"Sounds great. So, stroller or that kid backpack thing? I've been wanting to try that out."
"How would you manage the carriers?"
"I can wear them both. One in front and one in back."
"At this age, it will be easier for me than the stroller. I need a little practice with that."
"Okay. Addison's just about done. Once they're changed and ready, we'll figure out the carriers."
They were harder to figure out than Jim had expected, but he wouldn't let Christie just put them on him. He needed to understand how they worked so he could do it himself the next time. Christie had grown used to this and was patient as she explained how everything was worn and allowed Jim's hands to go over each step until he felt competent.
"Which one is this?" Jim asked, pointing to the baby he wore in front.
"Why'd it take you so long? You can see her."
"I had to check her left pinky nail. I put a little spot of nail polish on Katie just to be safe. What if their weight changed and you couldn't do that baby-juggling thing you do to tell them apart?"
"We'd never get them mixed up for long, no matter what. They're just—different. I can always tell which one I'm holding within a couple minutes…the noises she makes, the way she reacts to things. I just know."
"I know Addison is louder," Christie said. "She's fussier."
"And Katie really seems to like me. Have you noticed?"
"Yeah," Christie admitted, a grudging smile in her voice. "I guess you're right. We'd never get them mixed up for long. They've tricked my eyes into believing they're exactly alike, and I guess I don't trust my other senses to tell me otherwise, yet."
"So if the nail polish makes you feel better…"
"It really does."
Jim felt like a spectacle as he walked through the park. With Addison up front, Katie on his back, and Hank leading the way, he wondered how Marty would react to such a sight.
Still, being out alone with his girls felt good. Christie really trusted him to be able to take care of their daughters.
The woman's voice came from straight ahead. Jim stopped short, drawing in his breath sharply. He couldn't help it.
The voice brought an image to mind. Something forbidden. He used to imagine he heard that voice after the shooting, back in those early days of blindness when Christie's justifiable hurt, even when paired with her staunch support, had made her difficult to confide in. He used to wonder how things would have been if Christie hadn't stayed—and if Anne had.
"Anne," he said, facing the voice.
There had been no closure. No chance to explain. To say good-bye. Everything had happened at once and then it was over. Jim was blind, Christie had stayed, and Anne was no longer a part of their lives. To go from the complication of having two lives hidden from each other to barely having one life hidden from himself had been a shock.
Her footsteps approached. "Hey. I didn't think you'd recognize my voice."
He shifted his weight and cleared his throat. "Yeah? Well, I've got a good memory…"
Her laugh sounded nervous. "I know. So…you look good."
"That's a good look for you."
"Jeans, dog, wedding band, and baby."
He laughed. "Try 'babies.'" He turned so Anne could see Katie behind him.
She was close to him now. "Karen told me you had twin girls."
Karen hadn't mentioned Anne once since that first day they were partnered. Jim appreciated her tact, but he often longed for the topic to reemerge in some innocuous way so he could find out a few of the little things he had always wanted to know. Had Anne forgiven him? How did she feel about his blindness? Had she moved on with someone else? These were things Jim couldn't ask Karen and that he wouldn't be able to ask even now, face to face with Anne.
Face to face. It hit Jim that, in the confusion of getting ready to take the girls out for the first time by himself, he had forgotten his sunglasses. If ever there was a time to hide his eyes, to keep up that barrier, it was now.
"So…how are you?" he asked lamely.
"I'm doing great. I'm—I'm engaged. Has Karen…?"
"No. We don't—"
"That's right. She told me you don't talk about me."
"It's better that way."
Through the silence, Anne was making friendly advances toward Addison. From the movement he felt in front, he could tell Addison was gripping Anne's finger and that they were having a mini tug-of-war.
"She's got a firm grip," Jim observed. "She's pretty feisty."
Anne's laugh no longer sounded nervous. "How did you…?"
"I can feel you playing with her."
"How old are they?"
"One week today."
"Aren't you going to introduce me?"
Jim pointed at Addison. "You and Addison have already met. And this is Katie in the back—we'll have to let her ride up front next time. Oh, and this is Hank. Can't forget Hank."
"Hello, Hank. Jim, your girls are beautiful."
He nodded. "So I've been told. Well, everyone says that except for Marty. He says they look like aliens."
"I've met him. I can't picture you working with him. How is that going? Karen says you're great on the job, but Russo…"
"He's okay. Better, since he started dating my sister."
His longing for some kind of closure with this woman was growing as their talk edged politely along the surface. Jim didn't know if he could take leaving without her knowing a thing or two, but how did such things get brought up after such a long time?
"You ready to have Russo as a brother-in-law?"
Jim laughed, but then fell silent as fragmented memories of Anne, her smell, the shine of her hair, her easy conversation, the lie he had lived, filled his head.
"Are you okay?" she asked. "You're zoning a little."
"I'm sorry, Anne. This is just—unexpected. It's really good to see you again and you seem—happy. I'm glad you're happy."
He had just crossed into a more somber place and was sure it showed on his face.
Her hand rested on his arm for a moment and then she gave him a reassuring squeeze. "I am happy. I never thought I'd say this, but I'm glad you're happy. You know, that you smoothed things over with your wife. That you—recovered. Karen says things are going well with your marriage. I won't say you deserve it, but…"
He shook his head. "I don't deserve it. I didn't deserve you, either. I just—I wish I could explain what happened. I can't, so I'll just say I'm sorry. I'm sorry I lied to you and put you in that position. It was wrong and I've regretted it ever since."
He heard a slow inhale and then an even slower exhale from Anne before she spoke again. "It's nice to hear you say that, Jimmy. I know in the end we just didn't get a chance to—to talk. I wanted to be mad for a long time but it's hard to stay mad at a hero. Someone who—"
"Someone who's blind," he finished for her.
"That thought was in there somewhere. When Karen told me she had been partnered with you, I was just…I can't even tell you what went through my mind. Then, after everything I had told her about you, you won her over in just a couple of weeks. Soon I wasn't allowed to say a word against you."
"That must have been annoying," he said dryly.
"It was. But her admiration—it was so innocent. She trusts you and you've never crossed the line. I don't know if you know this, but Karen is gorgeous."
"But you never even tried anything. I'm impressed. That was what showed me you really have changed."
"I've tried. Christie and I have worked hard to fix our marriage."
"Good. Don't fuck it up, Jimmy."
"I don't intend to. Hey, Anne? Thanks. I'm glad we got to talk. I always felt weird about the way we left things."
"Me too. It's really good to see you healthy and happy—and behaving yourself." She laughed teasingly at that. "Bye."
Jim headed back to the apartment. "Maybe we shouldn't tell Mommy about that," he suggested to the girls. "You too, Hank."