The laughter floated through the quiet afternoon of the town, reaching my ears as I stood in the shadow of the screen door, looking out at the backyard. Hayley was chasing a little boy with dark hair, both of them laughing their heads off. The sun shone down on them through the leaves of all the oak trees that had been scattered across the yard, lighting Hayley's hair on fire. As I watched, a big grin on my face, Hayley at last caught up to the boy and grabbed him, both of them falling in a heap on the long grass that I would have to mow tomorrow.
"Gotcha Frankie!" Hayley exclaimed, as he wrapped his tiny arms around her neck.
She giggled, ruffling his hair. When she glanced over his shoulders at me I opened the door and walked out into the sun, letting the screen fall closed behind me.
"Look Frankie! It's Daddy!" Hayley said excitedly, pointing to me.
Frankie shrieked and ran at me, attacking my legs. I let him pull me down to the ground in victory.
"I got you Daddy, I got you!" Frankie exclaimed, sitting on top of me. Hayley walked over to us as I chuckled, pulling her down too so she was sitting cross-legged next to me.
"Why don't you show Daddy what you got from the zoo today?" she suggested, standing Frankie up and patting his two-year-old bottom.
"Go on, Big Guy," I said to him, running my hand over the little hair he had. "Go get your toy."
He ran off into the house and as soon as the screen door slammed shut, Hayley bent down and kissed me. I laughed against her lips, kissing underneath her jaw. We both sat up then and I watched Hayley as she looked at our home.
"Isn't it just beautiful?" she asked me, her eyes tracing the outline of the white wraparound porch that surrounded her blue Victorian home with the swing set in the big backyard.
"Yes," I said, my eyes only seeing her. She looked absolutely peaceful as I moved closer to kiss her nose. Turning to me, she smiled softly, her hand fluttering down to her expanding stomach, seemingly without her notice.
"Thank you, Maxipad," she whispered as we heard Frankie shouting happily inside. She had not called me that since I had graduated high school.
For a minute, I was thrown back to that day, the graduation of the class of 2009. Blue cap and gown for the guys, white cap and gown for the girls. An endless mix of color as we paraded across the stage, accepting our diplomas as a ticket into the world that waited for us. Hayley had been sitting in that audience, grinning with such strength it was easier to see why they had let her out of the hospital just that day. That day had been one of the best in my life, coming in right after our wedding day, Frankie's birth, and that day at the slurpee building.
"I love you," I said quietly, coming back to the present as her hand cupped my cheek.
"Hello? Hello?" someone called from the front of the house.
I heard car doors slam and excited voices. Just as Hayley and I reached our feet, Mom and Dad came around the corner, balancing tupperware containers in their arms.
"Mom, Dad!" Hayley shouted, running to greet them.
She took the food out of their hands, handing it to me so she could hug them. I laughed, my grin widening as Momma Bridge and Grace came around the corner, Grace's husband Tyler hurrying to catch up.
"Oh, hi sweetie," Momma Bridge said to her daughter. Hayley hugged her tightly. "I can't believe you're twenty-five today," she said, pulling away to look at Hayley, who shrugged.
"Happy birthday!" Jillian, who had just walked up, and Grace chorused as Momma Bridge came over to hug me.
"You're taking good care of her, I can tell. Thank you," she said quietly. I smiled at her, nodding, before moving over to shake Dad's hand.
"Where's Patrick?" Hayley asked, laughing excitedly as Melanie and her husband Alex walked around the corner of the house, their two-year-old, Stanley, running happily ahead. She hugged them both, her smile reflecting onto everyone's faces.
"Julia had a strong craving for a rootbeer float," Momma Bridge said laughing, "so her and Patrick were stopping by the A&W in town on their way from the motel."
"And Dan?" I asked, turning to watch Stanley and Frankie race each other towards the sandbox.
"Right here," he huffed, appearing around the corner just then holding an enormous boxed cake. I immediately moved forward with Alex and Tyler to help him with it, leading everybody inside to the house.
The graduation of the class of 2009 was exactly as Max described it, full of color and laughter and tears. Hayley had been healing miraculously at the hospital so they released her just that day. Max had gone on to Michigan State University for their Army ROTC program and had minored in music while Hayley had finished out her high school career as an all-state pitcher.
The day Hayley graduated from the University of Michigan, after having played four years of softball there, Max took her back to the now abandoned slurpee building down the road from the Spicklers' home. There, he proposed.
After a perfect wedding, Max saying 'I do' with his usual smirk, and a healthy pregnancy, Hayley and Max finally headed back to Missouri in search of the blue Victorian house Hayley had seen on the road trip. They found it almost immediately, a shining For Sale sign in the front yard. Two weeks after moving in, Hayley found her 1966 cherry red mustang, sitting in an abandoned lot. Together, Max and Hayley fixed it up, naming it Horatio II after Max's van, which had heaved its last sigh the week before he left to go to college.
Now, he spent his time teaching band at the town's middle and high school while waiting for the day the Army would officially need him to go overseas. Hayley, on the other hand, had gotten a job at the high school, coaching varsity softball. She had coached all through her pregnancy with Frankie, before picking it up again a few months after the birth. She planned to do the same through her second pregnancy; her, Max, and Frankie excitedly awaiting the due date of the new baby. As they had with Frankie, they were waiting until the birth to find out the sex.
Now, as the candles were lit on Hayley's cake, and the family gathered around her, Max could only watch, a peaceful smile on his face. As everybody began to sing, Frankie and Stanley loudest of all in their little kid voices, Max's eyes slid to the shelf behind Hayley's head. There in the very center sat the strip from the photo booth in Chicago's Rainforest café. One had been cut out from it and set next to a more recent photo, practically a duplicate of the original. Max's eyes traced over them, the picture Hayley laughing hard, her hand pressed against her mouth and her eyes squeezed shut, while the picture Max watched, a soft expression on his face.
As everyone else took their slices of cake into the living room, talking and laughing loudly, Max looked over at Hayley, who had been watching him. She walked over to him slowly, wrapping her arms around his waist and pulling his hips to hers.
"We did it," he whispered, reflecting her grin. "We did it."
It has been said that Max and Hayley's love for each other could move mountains, and I have never doubted that for a second. If you never believed in soul mates before...well, I guess now is the time to start.
Thank you. All of you. For sticking with me throughout all of this, all the rewrites and the sloppy, rushed chapters, and the sad scenes. Thank you for reading and talking to me and just letting me know that you were there.
Thanks especially to pixidancer22, for being with me from the start.
This was one hell of a ride for me, and it makes me sad that it's finally, officially over. Maybe one day I will revisit this, write a few onexshots about the wedding, or the proposal, or some moment in Hayley and Max's lives.
Please check out In The Absence of Doubt if you haven't already, and look for a new story in the next month!
You guys are the best. -zoomie