Chapter 99: Epilogue / Summer's Heart

It was the day after they had moved into the new old house. She stood in the garden and watched the cherry blossoms sail away on the warm late-May winds. She turned the sparkling wedding band on her finger. She hadn't quite gotten used to it yet.

"Are you ready?" His deep voice behind her vibrated in her stomach.

"I wish we could take the bikes."

He came the last step towards her and laid his arms around her. They barely reached around her belly anymore. "I think Junior wouldn't appreciate."

"Still."

"I know."

She let herself sink against him. He held her up easily, for a moment alleviating the back pain that had become her constant companion.

"So, are you ready?"

This time she nodded. "Can you get me a twig from the cherry tree?"

"Everything for you, darlin'."

He brought her the twig and she put it in her purse, together with the photo of herself and Ally on the Titan in front of Carla's.

They didn't talk on the way. Mark drove safely and carefully, as he always did. Still, the last quarter mile was a bumpy ride and Junior complained in his usual manner by kicking the hell out of her. He was his father's son for sure.

Ann was relieved when they finally reached the woods. They looked different now in late spring. The dust had been washed away, and all the greens were bright and new. When she got out of the car, the birds greeted them loudly. Or maybe they were just used to making a racket at all times.

She walked to the rear of the pick-up.

He joined her a moment later.

His eyes had taken on the color of the new leaves around him, a brighter green than she had ever seen them. It made her smile.

Slowly and deliberately they made their way down the hidden path together. He helped her whenever the roots were trying to trip her. She loved Junior dearly but that belly got in the way. She was out of breath by the time they reached the bottom of the path.

They held hands as they approached the river. For a few moments, they stood still, letting the world fold around them.

"Do you want to be alone?" she asked him.

He shook his head. "You?"

"No."

She took the cherry twig and the photo out of her purse and knelt.

She had fastened a string to the photo and she tied it around the cherry twig now.

Ally's smile was wide and beautiful in the photo. She remembered that day. She remembered that they had been happy.

"Ally, I wish you hadn't done what you did. I wish you were still here. I'd have wanted you to be my Maid of Honor and I'd want you to be Junior's Godmother. But you're not here anymore. I can't pretend that you are. But I promise you, I'll tell Junior about you. I'll tell him about what a wonderful sister you were. I'll tell him about how we faced the world together. And I'll tell him that we were happy. That we were happy." She had tears in her eyes. "I won't forget you. Not ever. I love you, sister." She kissed the Ally in the photo good-bye and then sat the twig on the river.

Within seconds the current caught the photo. She saw how the water soaked into the paper, blurring first the bike and then her and finally Ally's features. Her own vision was blurred already by her tears.

Mark knelt down next to her and drew her close. Like the first time that he had held her, in the attic an eternity ago, he rocked her until her sobbing subsided and then gave her a light kiss on the hair. She smiled through her tears. So familiar now where it had been so strange then. She stretched her body upwards so that she could kiss him.

He kissed her tears away and held her for another heartbeat. Then he let go of her and fished a photo out of the back-pocket of his jeans. He looked at it intensely. Rebekka, her blonde hair flying in the wind, the plains rolling all the way to the horizon.

"I'm sorry, luv." That was all he said. He set the photo on the water and watched it float away, taken up by the same current that had taken Ally's picture.

Where Ann had cried, his eyes were dry. But it wasn't the icy dryness of caged feelings, as it had been when she met him. He smiled, a little sadly, but his eyes were warm and the deep creases in his face had been smoothened. A portion of the peace that had always shown when he was asleep had settled over his day-time features. As far as she could tell, there was no trace left of the icy barrier that had been inside him.

The smile that spread from her eyes over her face was unstoppable. She grabbed his hand. With a burst like flowery fireworks, her heart was suddenly utterly full of joy and she felt like singing and jubilating. She drew him up with her and twirled around, as she good as she could twirl in her current state.

He laughed and his laugh was catching and soon they were standing there, in the middle of the forest, the sun shining through the leaves and laughed as loud and as happy as they ever had.

The way home couldn't have been more different than the way to the forest. It was as if a great burden had been taken of their shoulders. They were laughing and chatting and the way home seemed much shorter than the way there.

They stopped at the grocery store to get some food for dinner. Everyone they encountered commented on her pregnancy, wanted to know how long it was till the baby was due and congratulated them on their luck. They looked into each other's eyes and smiled the message at each other that the people didn't even have half an idea.

Once home, Ann laid down for a while, while Mark rummaged around the kitchen. Her feet were swollen and her energy levels severely depleted in this final month before Junior would be joining them.

Only the call "dinner is ready!" finally brought her back to her feet.

When she came down to the living room, though, it was not dinner that caught her eye. They had reassembled Mark's bookshelves in their new living room. So far, they had been bare of any decorations. But no longer.

Her smile already deepening, she walked closer. In the place where Rebekka's photo had been in the old house stood a photo again. She took the frame down and looked at it. Mark in his tux and her in flowing white silks, the two of them holding hands in front of a flower bed and gazing into each other's eyes as if the rest of the world had stopped existing. Their official wedding photo.

He came up next to her: "You like?"

She nodded: "Yes."

He took the photo out of her hands, wiped reverently along the frame and set it back to its place. "Are you ready for dinner, Mrs. Calaway?" He held out a hand to her.

She took it. "I love you, Mark. Now and forever"

"And I love you. Now and forever."

He bent down to give her a kiss. She closed her eyes and let the feeling of his lips on hers spread its warmth inside her.

"Come on, darlin'", he tugged at her hand and led her to the table.

THE END


Author's Note: I'm sad and exhilarated at the same time that this story is finally finished. Mark and Ann have been companions for me for 8 years now. They have grown and changed with me over the years. I'm going to sorely miss them. As for you, my dear readers, all of you who stuck it out with me for 99 chapters: I want to thank you so much. You have brought me so much joy with your reviews and just with the knowledge that I was able to share my story with you. Thanks y'all!