The infant gave a vicious kick inside his blanket cocoon, eliciting another laugh from the watchful faces above.
"Sorry, Pelé, you don't get to do that to my ribs anymore," Diana said, smoothing her hand over the fuzzy blue material her son was swaddled in. She felt a tiny foot nudge her palm in response.
"We're going to have our hands full with this one," Dan noted, his fingers absentmindedly toying with the strands of Diana's auburn hair. She'd tried to make room for him on the rickety hospital bed, but he was perched dangerously close to the edge, his arm behind her shoulders as extra support to them both.
She rested her head against his biceps, tilting her gaze up to his. "Look what we made," she murmured, voice and smile becoming drowsy all at once. She fought a sleepy blink, tightening her hold on the newborn to keep him from slipping.
"Get some rest, love," Dan whispered into his wife's ear, giving the delicate seashell curve a light kiss. He eased from behind her, guiding her back to the stacked pillows -- he'd put up a fuss until the nurse brought a second paper-thin cushion -- and carefully removing the baby from her persistent grip.
Diana made an unintelligible protest, but quickly drifted off with Dan's gentle reassurance: "Gabe and I will be here when you wake."
Diana's pulse raced and she clutched at her chest, fully convinced she was having a heart attack. What was it they always shouted on those medical shows when a patient was flat-lining? She's in V-fib! Paddles, stat!
God, she had to stop watching Must See TV before bed.
Fingertips plying at the spot over her heart, she let her other hand flutter out into the dark until it met with the solid, breathing mass of husband that had rolled to the far side of the bed. Dan. She heaved a sigh of relief, respiration shaky.
Dan had grown so accustom to her nighttime disturbances, it took more than a brief touch to stir him. She hesitated for a moment, biting her lower lip, then socked his shoulder with a balled fist. He groaned and she gave a startled yelp, flopping onto her opposite side and feigning sleep. The rapid breathing would have given her away. If Dan had actually woken up.
"His wife's in cardiac arrest and he just goes on in La La Land," Diana said to the red glow of the alarm clock, clucking her tongue. "I guess I have to dial 911 myself."
She hauled herself out of bed, feet feeling their way into slippers. Arms extended like a child playing Blind Man's Bluff, she made it to the bedroom door and slipped out, quietly shutting it behind her. She flipped on the hall light, muttered, "Oh, shit," and promptly switched it off. The nursery door was open.
Stock still, she listened for the rustle of footie pajamas on crib sheets, the familiar kitten mewl that would escalate to a siren wail. When it didn't come, she massaged her chest again, fingers twisting into the silky fabric of her nightgown, and remembered why she'd gotten up in the first place.
You're not dying, Diana. You are not. Twenty-two-year-olds do not have heart attacks at 4 AM in the middle of June.
She repeated the mantra with each unwilling, molasses-slow step toward the nursery, and then: But sometimes babies die.
The thought seared her like a cattle prod, and she ran the remaining distance, dropping to her knees in the doorway. Scuttling across the floor on all fours, ignoring the rug burn, she clutched the bars of the ridiculously expensive oak crib Dan's parents had bought for Gabriel. She gulped a lungful of air, making herself stand on wobbly legs to peer at the infant below. The nightlight near the diaper disposal gave off a faint blue-white glow, just enough to see that the baby's eyelashes didn't tremble, didn't part and create spidery shadows on plump cheeks.
Oh, Jesus, his face is blue!
For a moment Diana was sure she had screamed it. And still the baby didn't move. Tentatively, she put her hand out to stroke the plush blankie that covered her child.
Her fingers peeled back the edge of the blanket, revealing the name embroidered at the corner in pink thread. Natalie. She recoiled with a gasp and nearly tripped over the seldom used rocking chair behind her. It made for quaint decoration, according to Dan.
"Oh, Jesus," Diana said, and this time she knew she'd spoken aloud because the baby monitor's sound indicator spiked from red to green. "I'm sorry." She paced back and forth alongside the crib, wringing her hands and apologizing to her oblivious daughter. "I'm so sorry."
When Natalie refused to move a muscle, Diana grabbed the carved headboard and shook the baby's bed. Damn thing was so sturdy, it hardly budged.
"Come on, sweetie," she pleaded, finally plunging her hand in as if it were a pit of vipers for which she was reaching, not a fuzzy purple blanket with a warm little body underneath. She gently squeezed a pudgy leg, a foot. "Kick. Kick or something, please!"
Natalie awoke with a vengeance, her three-month-old lungs put to stellar use. When Dan rushed into the room seconds later, bleary-eyed and ashen, his boxers and hair in disarray, he found his daughter squalling at the ceiling above her crib, tiny fists beating ferociously at the air. His wife was curled into a ball in the rocking chair, weeping just as loudly.
"Natalie, hold still for Mommy," Diana said, making her tone pleasant, though she was about to lose her temper. Why her daughter insisted on bare feet in the car was beyond her.
She kept hold of the girl's overalls pant leg, maneuvering a small foot and its bright sock into an equally colorful shoe. "Wiggle worm," she added with a smile, regretting that she'd used a bit more force than intended. She gave the bottom of Natalie's dangling sneakers a slap to activate the light-up heels, a feature the little girl adored. Sometimes she fell over trying to watch herself walk.
"Will you play with me, Mommy?" Natalie asked, hopping off the park bench and bending to tie her shoelaces before Diana had the chance.
Diana glanced at the swarm of noisy children who were climbing, swinging, sliding and falling over every inch of playground equipment. She looked down at her denim jacket, prairie skirt and sandals, and considered using them as an excuse not to follow her daughter into the dusty ruckus. But those wide brown eyes were so beseeching.
"Okay, let's go." She tried to stroke the girl's unruly curls with a naturalness she didn't feel. Natalie rescued them both from the awkward moment by darting towards the swing set, kicking up sand in her wake. Silently cursing Dan for arranging these mother/daughter bonding days at the park, Diana trudged over to the swings and let her mind wander as she dutifully stepped into place behind Natalie and gave an occasional push. The four-year-old was in midair, legs straining for the sky, when she mentioned him.
"Now push Gabe, Mommy!"
It was like a fist to the gut, and Diana leapt aside just as Natalie came careening backwards. She steadied herself on the swing frame and couldn't tell if the tremors were in her own body, or aftershocks that traveled through the metal and the squeaky chains that never ceased when active children were present. Never ceased. Never ceased. She repeated the words in her head until the rhythm matched her daughter's to-and-fro trajectory.
Without thinking, she sought to quiet some of the white noise in her ears, catching the ends of the chains that were Natalie's only tie to reality. The little girl gave a sharp cry as she continued forward but the support beneath her halted, along with her daydreams of flying.
"What did you say?" Diana demanded.
Natalie's hands were locked in a death grip inches above her mothers, and she scooted back, trying to regain purchase on the pliable rubber seat. "Mommy," she whimpered.
"Oh. Fuck." Diana hooked an arm around Natalie's waist and pulled her to safety, lowering the child and swing until the toes of both light-up sneakers touched ground. Ignoring the scowls she received from several women nearby, she rounded the girl and knelt so they were face to face. "Now, tell me. What did you say?"
Silence. Natalie twisted a long, chestnut curl around her index finger and pretended to be fascinated by a rivet on her bibs.
"Natalie Marie. Where did you hear that name?"
It was embroidered on a fuzzy blue blanket in the cedar trunk Natalie wasn't supposed to open at home. But when she'd discovered she could understand books without her father's help anymore, it had been too tempting not to scour the house for other things to read. There had been all sorts of baby toys in that trunk, most of which did not interest her, but she liked the blanket and remembered it well because it was exactly like the one she'd had since birth. The only difference was the color and the name in the corner. Gabe. Natalie had heard Diana whisper the name when she thought no one was listening, too.
That desperate pitch in her mother's voice was never a good sign. Natalie winced and blurted out the first explanation that came to mind: "He's my imaginary friend." She leaned over and gave the empty swing beside her a wild shove. "See, he's right here. Hang on, Gabe!"
For several breathless moments, Natalie feared she had made a horrible mistake. She watched a flood of emotions play across Diana's features, twisting them into a face she didn't recognize. Eyeing the nearby jungle gym, she considered running to one of the cubbies where adults couldn't fit. Gabe would have to fend for himself.
"You see him?"
The question was so soft, Natalie strained to hear it. She glanced from her mother to the space where the boy she had conjured supposedly sat. No. She didn't see him. But Diana's pale blue eyes brimmed with tears, and Natalie felt she knew how to keep them from falling. A way even her father didn't dare try.
"Yeah, I see him, Mommy. Don't you?" She pointed to a general area at her level. "He's got a red jacket and his hair's the same color as the sand. He's got darker eyes than you, but I like yours better. He's kind of annoying--"
Natalie was prepared to keep going, the game of pretend becoming rather enjoyable, but she realized her mother had stopped listening. Instead, Diana held either side of her own head, palms pressed to temples as if she had a migraine. Her quavering smile was frightening, but even more so when it became a fixed beam, directed at the nonexistent boy. Genuine smiles were rare in the Goodman family, and Natalie didn't like this one at all.
"I don't want to swing anymore," she said, risking a touch to her mother's shoulder. She nudged it when there was no response. "Let's go to the monkey bars."
Diana continued to stare at nothing, her lips forming silent words.
"Can he come with me?"
Finally, Diana's pupils focused and the elated grin began to fade. She glanced at Natalie as if she'd never seen her before. "Huh?"
"You stay here."
Though not a mean child, Natalie savored her mother's crestfallen look, as if she'd just lost her most prized possession. It boosted the girl's confidence, made her bolder. She mimed grabbing the invisible kid's shirt and tugging him away. "Come on, my mom can't play with us right now."
Still kneeling in front of the swings, Diana watched her children trudge to the monkey bars, a large red apparatus with at least eight other youngsters climbing and dangling from its rungs. Such a high piece of equipment for a playground. "Be careful, Gabe!" she hollered, standing and offering a wave to the boy as he tossed a carefree smile over his shoulder.
Natalie held her breath and waited for some cautionary words of her own. When she received none, the clench in her belly became a full ache. She spent the remainder of her playtime pretending to kick Gabe when her mother wasn't watching.
I can do this. It's chicken noodle soup, not rocket science.
Diana placed the Campbell's can under the spigot to rinse the top, muttering a curse and stepping back when she misjudged the water pressure. She snatched the gingham tea towel -- "Diana's Kitchen" in red lettering across its front, a sentiment that made every last member of the Goodman family roll their eyes -- from the counter and dabbed at the wet seeping into her blouse.
"I just threw up again," Natalie's miserable voice announced from the living room.
"Of course you did." Diana gritted her teeth and called back, "Did you hit the bucket this time?"
Shit. "I'll be right there, sweetie."
"She's totally faking," Gabe said as he ambled in and examined the contents of the fridge. Finding them unsatisfactory, he nabbed a saltine cracker from the pack Diana had set out and dipped it into an open tub of Country Crock. He licked the butter off, perching himself on the granite countertop.
Diana giggled at his reaction to sitting in a puddle of sink water she had overlooked. It was the first time she'd laughed all day, and she wagged the damp towel teasingly in his face before tossing it onto her shoulder. "Get Chuck off my cupboards, bub," she said, indicating his black Converse high tops and their dingy soles.
Gabe shook his head, cracker crumbs dispersing from his lips as he spoke, mouth full. "You're so weird." He flashed a perfect fourteen-year-old boy smile that showed he meant no harm.
"Hence my giving birth to you," Diana shot back, the can opener almost clattering into the sink as she tried everything short of beating the soup can with it. Her hands had been shaking uncontrollably since she'd gotten the call from Natalie's school, telling her she must pick up her daughter, who was ill with some sort of stomach flu. She'd driven white-knuckled all the way to Billings Junior High.
Of course Dan would choose today to be out of town on business.
"Here, gimme," Gabe said, observing his mother's struggle with the willful appliance. Plucking it from her grasp, he had the can open in seconds and presented it to her, along with the suggestion, "You should take a Valium."
"And you should go watch TV with your sister." Diana filled a sauce pan with the chicken broth and noodles, then set it on the back burner of the stove, coaxing the knob a little past high. When she turned to face her son again, he was rummaging through her purse, where it hung on one of the kitchen chairs. "Stop, thief," she said, only slightly joking.
Gabe ignored her and kept searching until he found the prescription bottle, shaking it like a maraca as he brought it over. "Seriously, take some. You'll feel better."
"You sit through two episodes of Grey's Anatomy with me and now you're a medical expert, huh?" Diana quirked an eyebrow at him, but let him hand over the medication. She palmed and dry swallowed two of the baby blue capsules under his watchful eye. "Happy, McBossy?"
"Yes," Gabe sidestepped her and grabbed a ladle from the drawer, using it to stir the already steaming soup. "Yes, I am. Now go tend to your diseased spawn, Mommie Dearest."
"Damn it!" Diana took a small hop in the air, as if leaping to her feet in surprise. She yanked the towel from her shoulder and pitched it at her laughing son's head as she hurried for the living room to check on Natalie. Instead of recuperating on the couch, she found her daughter on hands and knees beside it, using paper towels to swab vomit off the hardwood floor.
"Nat, sweetie, let me do that."
"I got it," Natalie snapped, carefully lifting the soiled rags to the plastic bucket and releasing them with an unsavory plop. "And I told you not to call me that anymore."
"Sorry… I keep forgetting."
"Yeah, I know you do."
Diana clasped her hands behind her back and rocked nervously on her heels. Fidgeting with the belt loop on her jeans, she searched the girl's pallid face for some clue as to what to say next.
The twelve-year-old was unyielding. She flopped onto the couch, her arms, still chubby with baby fat, crossed over her chest to match her stubborn expression.
"I've got your soup on," Diana said. She edged towards her daughter, sitting down a cushion away from Natalie's outstretched feet. "It should be ready in a minute. And I wasn't sure if you wanted butter on your crackers, or not?"
Natalie sighed, some of her resolve melting away. She gave a tired nod and pulled the shaggy afghan she'd been wrapped in closer. "Butter sounds fine. Do we have any 7UP?"
"No, but--" Diana had to force the rest from her mouth, everything within her wanting to resist. "I could go get some if you really want it."
Her heart palpitated at the mere thought of getting behind the wheel again. Sometimes she went weeks without using the car that Dan insisted they keep for emergencies, and every time she did get back in the driver's seat, it felt like the first time all over again. On a good day she could remember which was the accelerator and which was the brake.
The skin between Natalie's eyebrows puckered as she drew them together in a dubious, but not unkind, expression. They both knew it would be safer for everyone involved if she drove to the market herself, no license and barely able to see over the dash. She shrugged it off lightly. "Nah, I'll drink water."
"Okay," Diana said, trying to mask the relief in her voice. She tucked the afghan a little tighter around Natalie's legs and gave them a pat. "Is there anything else you need?"
"Early allowance?" Natalie attempted a wan smile and held out her palm.
"Um, besides that."
"Well…" Natalie toyed with a piece of fringe that was tickling her neck and used it as an excuse to look down. "Would you watch TV with me? Biography is re-airing that Debussy special I told you about. It's really fascinating."
For the life of her, Diana couldn't remember Natalie ever mentioning Debussy before. " 'Clair de Lune,' right?" she said, covering. "That's always been one of my favorite classical pieces."
"Yeah!" Natalie sat forward, her curls, which had turned frizzy with puberty, mashed and disheveled from leaning against the couch's headrest. But she had more color to her cheeks now. "I love that one. I can't wait to learn it, but I'm not good enough yet."
"You'll get there."
A rare moment of ease passed between them while Natalie searched for the remote control and eagerly turned up the volume. Determined to keep Diana's attention as long as possible, she ignored the scorched smell drifting into the room at first. Her appetite was iffy anyway; she didn't much care about the soup burning. But seconds later the smoke detector in the kitchen gave a shrill chirp, then let loose with a full-blast scream that made them both jump.
Diana jerked as if she'd been shot when the hall alarm echoed the other. The jolt to her nerves was paralyzing, and her movements were sluggish when she managed to stand. It seemed hours before she made it to the kitchen and discovered a nightmarish scene.
"Oh, my God!" Natalie exclaimed from behind her mother. She pointed at the window overlooking the stove, as if Diana might have missed the curtains engulfed in flames. "What the hell did you do, Mom?"
"I didn't do it!" Diana shrieked. She watched as the blaze spread from one valance to the other, charring the blood red apples that decorated the once country cream edges. Even through billows of dark smoke and the consequent tears, she could see the remainder of her tea towel resting near the stove's back burner, the indisputable source of the conflagration. Fire danced along its surface and licked the curtain frills that hung just low enough, begging for it. She thought of the Sistine Chapel, "The Creation of Adam," man reaching out to touch the finger of God.
It was strangely beautiful. Had Natalie not been yelling at her, she might have stood there a while longer, mesmerized.
"Your brother." Diana rounded to face the girl, suddenly remembering she had left Gabe standing in the spot that was now an inferno. "Where's your brother?"
"What?!" Natalie froze in a perfect pantomime of horror, hands spread, mouth gaping. "You have got to be kidding me! OUR HOUSE IS ON FIRE!"
"I know that," Diana snarled, pushing past Natalie and heading for the stairs. Whenever Gabe wasn't downstairs or at school, he could be found up in his room playing some video game or another. She quarreled with him often about his anti-social behavior.
Pausing at the bottom step, she bellowed, "Gabriel!"
Natalie followed right behind her mother, tugging at Diana's waist, frantic to distract her from the search that would prove fruitless. Always did. But she received an elbow to the ribs for her efforts, and when Diana broke free, racing upstairs and calling for Gabriel, Natalie was sure they were both going to end up as dead as her brother. She snatched the cordless phone from its base on her way to living room, punching in 9-1-1 as she gathered the old afghan into her arms and sprinted back to the kitchen. The fire appeared to have doubled in size, and she gasped, almost dropping the handset.
Her first words to the emergency operator were, "Oh, shit."
"Uh, yeah, um, my kitchen is on fire and my mom--" Natalie took a timid swing at the blaze, then shook the afghan furiously when it started to smolder. Overwhelmed, she heaved the blanket on the flames, hoping to smother them and giving a choked cry when it only fed the beast. The heat was unbearable and she stumbled away to safety. "I don't know, she's freaking out. We need help."
"Is everyone out of the house?"
"No! Me and my mom are still in here. My mom thinks-- she's looking for something. I don't know if I can get her to leave."
"Is this 1412 Walton Way?"
Natalie nodded, forgetting to speak. She struggled to swallow, unsure if she was about to cry or vomit. Her head hurt and she wanted to lie down.
"Yeah, 1412 Walton Way."
"Okay, there's someone on the way. Can you get out of the house?"
"Yes, but my mom…" Losing her battle with tears, Natalie began to sob. The relentless sound of Diana's footsteps and hysterical cries were still audible overhead. "She's sick. She won't listen to me."
"What's your name, honey?" asked the female voice on the other line.
"Natalie, I want you to listen, okay? If you can get out of the house, you should.
"I can't leave my mom!"
"Someone else will be there to take care of your mother."
But I'm supposed to take care of her, you stupid bitch, Natalie wanted to scream. She considered hanging up on the clueless woman, even had her thumb to the Off button, but "someone else" arrived sooner than expected, not in the form of firemen or EMTs, but a next door neighbor who had spotted smoke and heard shouts while pulling into his driveway. The next few minutes passed in a blur for Natalie -- her life had a knack for doing so -- as she led Mr. Fisher to Diana and stood aside as he first reasoned with her, then moved her bodily to the stairs and out the front door. It was common knowledge on their street that the matriarch of the Goodman family had "episodes," and Mr. Fisher didn't require much convincing that there was no Gabe still trapped inside.
But calming words had little effect on Diana. Though Mr. Fisher was twice her size and by no means weak, he clearly found it difficult to overpower one hundred and twenty pounds of determined mother. He held Diana in a bear hug from behind as she flailed and swore at him. A crowd had gathered in front of the house, the sound of sirens approaching in the distance, and Natalie's cheeks reddened at the sight of Diana squirming to get free, the top of her blouse displaying far too much cleavage to onlookers.
Attempting to blend in with the Douglas fir, the single tree in her yard, Natalie kept the phone pressed to her ear, though she hadn't spoken directly to the operator since Mr. Fisher's entrance. She remained there, like any other observer, until the fire engine and ambulance arrived on the scene; only after she'd watched Diana take on two paramedics, who administered sedation and strapped the limp woman to a gurney with mechanical skill, did she allow herself to dry heave into the decorative mulch at the tree's base.
The world was spinning now, and when she was next aware of her surroundings, Natalie smelled antiseptic and felt an unpleasant pinch at the crook of her elbow. Bee sting? She blinked in confusion, eyes focusing on a slender tube that traveled from her arm up to a fluid filled bag on a silver pole. A familiar face, etched with worry lines (too old to be thirty-eight), hovered near the IV. Several blinks later, she realized she was in a hospital room, her father standing over her.
"Mom?" she croaked, throat and lips parched.
"She's fine," Dan said softly, brushing the matted bangs from Natalie's forehead. "Resting. She might have to stay a day or two."
Dan sighed and shook his head. "Doesn't look good, Nat. There was a lot of damage, especially in the kitchen."
"She was making soup."
A faint smile crinkled the corners of Dan's mouth, but his eyes shone with tears and his voice was unsteady. "God save us all."
Natalie tried to chuckle, but coughed instead. Sitting up, she let Dan pat and rub her back, tossing aside her rules about being treated like a baby. For the time being. "She saw Gabe again. Mr. Fisher had to carry her out because she thought he was still inside."
"Yeah." Dan kissed the girl atop the head. "I got the lowdown. We live in a very informative community."
Natalie snorted appreciatively at the sarcasm. "Never gonna forget this one, are they?"
"Hey, Dad?" The humor of the situation was fading fast, but Natalie settled against her pillows and cast Dan a look of feigned solemnity. "No more business trips for a while, okay?"
Dan crossed his heart. "Deal."
"Really, you don't have to do this. Dad promised he would teach me."
With a flippant wave of her hand, Diana shooed away the statement as if it were a fly. She patted the leather upholstery on the passenger's side, inviting Natalie to take a seat and stop balking outside the open car door. Sometimes the girl was as stubborn as a mule.
"Have you ever seen your father pull into a parking spot?" Diana queried, ducking for a better view of her daughter's apprehensive face. "Takes a full ten minutes and he never gets it in straight. It's like he thinks he's having sex."
"Oh my God," Natalie groaned, wishing for a mental mute button. She especially needed one on days like today, when the lithium was failing at its job of stabilizing Diana's mood. The manic episodes were preferable to the depression that sometimes consumed her mother and kept Natalie up nights, straining to hear sounds of life through her bedroom walls, worrying what she would encounter come morning. But a pill that promoted healthy communication skills and fewer mentions of intercourse would have been a blessing. "If I get in, will you stop talking?"
Diana displayed her widest grin, exposing gums and the lone dimple in her right cheek. It was her most charming pose, and she knew it. "I'll be quiet as a lamb."
"Yeah, one of those screaming lambs on Uncle Starling's farm," Natalie added, her tone light and teasing as she joined her mother inside the silver Honda. She couldn't stay annoyed for long when Diana was voluntarily spending time with her.
The first few rounds of maneuvering through the orange safety cones positioned in the driveway were spent laughing at their own corny jokes, but the admonishing honk they received from a passing Taurus upon rolling too far into the street sobered them quickly.
"Want me to take over?" Natalie asked, pretending not to notice her mother's hands quake on the steering wheel at the harsh sound. Pity; she had been demonstrating the techniques of smooth parking so well, maybe even better than Dan would have.
Creeping forward until the rear bumper was no longer a hazard to cross-traffic, Diana pursed her lips and nodded. "I'll pull up so you can start from the beginning," she said, keeping her voice even and her gaze fixed on the garage ahead.
Just breathe. You didn't cause a ten car pile-up -- they beeped, for God's sake.
"Watch out for Brahms."
Distracted by a vivid scenario in which she had pressed her foot to the wrong pedal, reversed into the middle of the road and been crushed by an oncoming semi (never mind that semis were nonexistent in this neighborhood of cul-de-sacs and streets named after birds and flowers), it took Diana a moment to register her daughter's warning. By the time she spotted the gray tabby cat that had emerged from beneath the porch steps and paused in the drive to lick its fluffy stripes, she was cognizant enough to punch the brake.
Afterward she would recall the benign look Brahms had given her before either of them realized she was accelerating instead of stopping. Her half-fulfilled prophecy emphasized itself with a macabre crunch she could still hear days later.
First, Natalie screamed, "Brahms!" and then, "Stop!" as they continued to speed towards the vacant garage, no signs of slowing down.
A trail of blood was visible in the rearview mirror and Diana did not see Dan's tool rack until she had collided with the wall it hung on, several heavy wrenches, hammers and pliers raining from above, battering the hood as it crumpled like tin foil. The clamor seemed to last forever, and neither Diana nor Natalie broke the silence for a full minute after the final tool -- a miniature screwdriver -- made a droll little clink bouncing to the concrete.
"Are you okay?" Diana whispered, as if anything louder would invite another maelstrom. She was afraid to look at her daughter just then, but getting no response she turned abruptly, thick auburn bangs tumbling into her eyes. She batted them aside. "Natalie?"
"I…" Natalie rubbed her knee where it had banged against the dashboard. "I think you killed him." She peeked over her shoulder long enough to catch a glimpse of the gruesome smear that had been Brahms, then faced the front windshield again. Dazed, she tried to recall what two human years added up to in the feline world.
Diana's fingers twitched uncontrollably in her lap and she didn't know she was crying until a tear fell from her chin, wetting them. "I'll get you another one."
"I don't want another one." Natalie reached for the overhead console and pushed the button programmed to shut the garage door. She hoped whatever was left of the cat was outside so her mother wouldn't have to see it when they finally went in the house.
For now, she waited in what remained of the car that would have been hers, keeping Diana company. It was the least she could do as an all-encompassing sadness swallowed the woman whole.
With the greatest of care, Natalie rearranged the soft, yellow blanket that seemed determined to conceal her newborn son's face. Her fingertip grazed his cheek, and in his sleep he crinkled his brow, resembling a grumpy 80-year-old man.
"He looks just like you when he does that," Henry said, the words lilting as he suppressed a giggle. The birth of his child was the most natural high imaginable; he was so giddy, he'd hugged every single doctor and nurse involved with the delivery. And probably a few who weren't.
Natalie rolled her eyes, but couldn't keep a straight face long enough to scowl at her husband. She nestled into his embrace when he leaned across the hospital bed, his head resting against hers as they admired the baby together. "Well, I think he looks like you."
"Poor kid," Dan chimed in, giving Henry a good-natured pat on the back. He'd had his doubts about the young man at first, but in the past five years he'd proven himself to be worthy of Natalie's affection. And she never looked happier than when she was with Henry.
After a collective chuckle, they turned expectant gazes to Diana, who stood opposite the men and a safe distance from the mother and child before her. She stepped forward with a habitual shrug, appearing to acquiesce to some unspoken request. She'd been unusually quiet since arriving at the hospital, though vigilant and attentive to her daughter's needs; once the baby bed had been wheeled in and its dozing inhabitant placed in Natalie's arms, however, Diana hadn't spoken at all.
She peered down at the boy child now, as if examining a rare and dangerous species.
"Isn't he something, Di?" Dan prompted, then bit his tongue and gave her an apologetic smile. Years of separation, a few disastrous attempts at dating, and too many therapy sessions to count had led to a slow but promising reconciliation with his not-quite-ex. Sometimes, though, he caught himself slipping into the old role of caregiver. It both pleased and hurt him to find that Diana needed very little of his guidance anymore.
"He's perfect," Diana agreed, meeting Natalie's hopeful, brown eyes with her own misty blue ones.
"Would you like to hold him?" Natalie asked, already preparing to hand the baby over. She lightly grasped her mother's wrist, urging her to accept the tiny bundle.
The last infant Diana had held was Natalie, and those moments had been few and far between. Terrified of the fragile little life cradled to her chest, she remembered only to support the head, but not to relax.
"It's a baby, not a bomb," Henry teased, as was his way with Diana. They had bonded over their mutual love for picking on each other, and his mother-in-law typically gave as good as she got.
Today she let the comment pass. It was her heart she was concerned about -- ticking wildly, ready to blow with one false move. The newborn had begun to gurgle and squirm, and she lowered him to the crook of her elbow, stunned to find him looking straight back at her.
Diana exhaled slowly, realizing she'd expected to find someone else behind those stormy blue eyes. And, true, there was a strong resemblance. But she felt no explosion from within, heard no beguiling voice whisper in her ear. She didn't bother to glance around the room for a ghost. Keeping her eyes on her grandson, she saw him for who he was.
"Hi, Sebastian," she said. "It's Grandma."