Disclaimer: I think it should be obvious by now, butHarvest Moon is not mine.
Author's note: I feel that I've been writing this monster since the dawn of time. In reality, it's just been since the start of the latest Writing Contest at the Village Square. It really has taken me the whole time. The theme was 'Family' this time around, and I think this story fits in with that. Oh, and I really should have been revising for my upcoming exams... but never mind! Enjoy!
She was the best auntie in the world; so proclaimed a mug given for a thirtieth birthday present. It was green, a rich, mossy colour that matched her eyes. As little Faith was Kai and Popuri's daughter, Karen rarely saw her, unless it was summer. Or during the festive season, for Lillia's sake. Faith was her only grandchild, you see, and Lillia wanted to make the most of her because... well, nobody lives forever, do they?
That was the line she always used. To make them all feel better.
Anyway, Karen adored Faith. And how could she not? The girl was as chirpy as her mother, as out-going as her father and miraculously, not at all spoiled - something Karen could not have claimed to be when she was just nine years old.
Whilst babysitting one summer's evening, allowing Kai and Popuri to head to the bar, Rick admitted his surprise to his wife.
"Don't take this the wrong way," he warned, "but I never thought this would be your scene. You're like... a natural."
Karen glanced up from the lounge floor, where she sat surrounded by thick colouring books and an entire rainbow's worth of crayons. There was a long indigo smudge along her cheekbone. She grinned. "To tell you the truth..." She broke off to stroke Faith's dark hair. "I've surprised myself!" That was the truth. Who could have predicted such a motherly streak in the girl who spent her youth in a wine bottle?
She brushed back her blonde fringe to look Rick squarely in the eyes. "You wait, though," she told him. "This is nothing. This is easy."
"Yeah?" He crouched beside her, gently wiping away the indigo mark with his handkerchief.
"Mhmm." A strange, new expression passed across Karen's face. "Wait until the day, a few months down the line, when I come back from the clinic with that news. You'll be a bundle of nerves, darling."
Aside from the repetitive scratch of paper behind them, the room was intrusively silent. Blue eyes blinked rapidly behind thick glasses, as Karen smirked not unkindly, the desired effect achieved. "You think we should start trying?" Rick whispered.
Wordlessly, she leaned forward to plant a kiss on the corner of his mouth. Lowering her voice, she said, "Well, why the hell not? You said it, babe, we're both naturals!"
That was six years ago.
Lillia was an unusually optimistic lady. She believed you were given your lot in life and you either learned to live with it, or gave up and didn't live at all. In her case, that meant adjusting to a rare, crippling illness, an absent husband and two children to bring up. Karen was utterly in awe of the woman.
She hadn't had to deal with anything on that scale, of course. Thinking of Lillia's struggles was the one thing that put Karen's supposed anguish into sharp perspective. She didn't face the aches, pains and daily uncertainty her mother-in-law did. Karen was a perfectly healthy young woman. Well, almost.
They said - and she wasn't exactly sure who they were, or what right they had to assume - that you couldn't possibly miss what you'd never had, and couldn't miss who you'd never known. Maybe there was some truth in that. But just because you couldn't miss something, didn't mean you couldn't want it. 'Want' was such a selfish sounding word; it made her seem awful.
And Karen was sure she wasn't an awful person. Just an empty one.
As her disbelief rose like a tide, Karen felt a stinging sensation prick the back of her eyeballs. Sure enough, as a wave of bitter disappointment crashed over her, the tears began to stream down her face. She scarcely felt them. Why did the incredulity still linger? Why should she have expected anything different?
Her eyes focused blearily, through the haze of tears, at yet another pregnancy testing kit. She'd ordered it from the City, no longer trusting their doctor's conclusions. It hadn't been cheap. In a scarlet flash of anger, she flicked it away. It bounced off the bathroom wall and into the bin, with the others.
Negative. Negative. Negative. Negative. Negative.
She clumsily dabbed her eyes dry with toilet paper, and went in search of Rick. He was emerging from the chicken coop as she entered the yard. The sight of her, pale and tear stained and dishevelled, almost caused him to drop a bucketful of chicken feed. He managed to catch it before grain could spill out across the floor. She had not told him about the tests. They'd agreed not to go there.
Karen felt awful.
"What?" said Rick, naturally thinking of Lillia. "Is it Mom? Has something happened?"
But Karen smiled, or tried, no doubt surprising him. "No, no. Goddess, no." She sniffed. "Just me... being stupid, y'know."
Lying was pointless. Nobody knew her like Rick did. It was a peculiarly warm day for early spring and the sunshine bounced off his glasses as he walked towards her. "Karen," he started dubiously, "you haven't - ?"
She just shrugged and, with a faint sigh, he brushed past her. When she heard the farmhouse door shut behind her, a switch flicked 'on' in Karen's head. Auto-pilot. She did what she had always done as a teenager when things got tough - though admittedly the definition of 'tough' had altered - and headed straight to the beach. Such a dazzlingly bright day could be summer in disguise.
And Rick, dependable as ever and well-aware of her hiding places, wasted no time in following. Karen was sat by the shore, waves licking her scruffy trainers, when he sank beside her onto the sand. As he made to stretch his arm over her shoulders, she fought against his touch, only giving in when he refused to.
"I've been in the bathroom," Rick explained, to which Karen sighed. She leant more heavily against his shoulder, breathing in the comforting aroma of home-baking and the odd, but equally comforting smell of poultry feathers. "Doesn't matter - " Did he mean the result or her lies? Probably the latter - "Honestly, Karen."
True. Could she really be blamed for snapping in the face of a nightmare that had stretched out for so long? "We've got options," Rick said delicately. But she already knew that.
Karen snorted derisively. The Mineral Town Clinic could not even conclusively say whether she or Rick held the problem. Or even, if fate could be so cruel, whether both of them did. He was referring to revolutionary treatments, exclusive to the cities; dreams well beyond the grasp of two humble poultry farmers earning barely anything.
They had tried all of the doctor's suggestions. Lost weight. Gained weight. Upped their fruit, dairy, protein, you-name-it intake. Yet none of this had resulted in a child.
Karen wasn't the sort of woman who gave in easily. Ask anyone. She was steely, somewhere, beneath a cool, laid-back surface. As a girl, her snow ball fights became epics she would not lose; with Rick, she could argue until dawn if she truly believed in something.
It was only when she wondered, "but what's the point?", that her faith tended to slip. The Goddess was probably trying to tell her something. Every time she left the Clinic, laden with a heavy heart, she was failing to take the hint. She would be back a month or so later, a true glutton for punishment.
"Forget it," Karen insisted, lifting her head from Rick's shoulder. She tried to pull away from him, but, again, he wouldn't let her. "We can't afford any of those things, and even if we did, by some miracle, make enough money, what would be left over to raise a baby? Wouldn't be fair..."
Not that any of this was, of course. Karen stared with blank eyes at the green ocean. It was so vast and bleak. There was nothing out there; no boats today, no islands nearby. Empty.
Just then, Mineral Town seemed as if it qualified as the official Middle Of Nowhere. Help was there, certainly, but too far out of reach.
With the festive season approaching at an alarming rate, a group of Mineral Towner's gathered at the edge of the woods, surrounding a clutch of frosted evergreens. They had been chopped down by Gotz who was selling them at a price slightly increased from last year; it had been a slow twelve months for house expansions.
"A tree is an absolute necessity this year, according to Mom," Rick was telling Ann, "because Kai and Popuri are visiting."
"Excellent!" laughed Ann. "And I mean that from a business perspective as well as a friend. I'm not gonna lie, we could really use the custom." Ann was as sharp as her electric blue eyes. "Especially since you two stopped popping in every evening like clockwork, like you used to."
Karen glanced fleetingly at Rick, unsure. "Well, we had to wake up and grow up some day," she laughed, at the same time as Rick said, "We're not teenagers anymore." Needless to say, both their desire for and failure to conceive a child went no further than the Clinic. It was just possibly the best kept secret in a town where everybody left their doors unlocked; not even Kai and Popuri had been explicitly told.
Not that nobody had asked Karen and Rick about kids. It seemed to her that there was this unwritten rule regarding newly-married couples whereby making such private, personal inquiries was perfectly acceptable. "It's not for us," they claimed, when first asked about parenthood. The answer just stuck.
The sudden squeal of childhood cut the icy winter air. Snowballs were thrown in furious, quick succession as children darted in and out of the trees. Karen didn't think anyone had ever had to stretch their imagination too far when she protested that a mother was the very last thing she wanted to be. There was just something about her, something that not even she could identify.
Ann bent down to pick up a clump of snow, which she casually cobbled together into a crafty missile. Swinging her arm back and flexing her long, thin baker's fingers, she threw it, not hard, at one of the little boys. He shrieked just before it exploded on his head. "I love kids," Ann muttered out of the corner of her mouth, "but permanently? No thank you!"
The three boys were Elli and Tim's.
They were called... Karen had to think hard for a moment... TJ, Warren and Joey. What she couldn't tell you, however, was which one was which. They each had wild, dark hair and equally wild, dark eyes.
The small girl hopping excitedly as she held her mother's hand was Jasmine. Her hair was shining, golden in the clear winter air. She was seven years old and always played with Faith when she was in town. Jasmine was Cliff and Claire's daughter and she was pointing at the tree she most wanted her mom to buy and Karen couldn't take her eyes off her.
In that moment, she recalled something: that first time she said motherhood wasn't for her, she had not been lying.
The first time she had been asked, Faith had not been born.
In what was probably a horribly misguided attempt to re-capture their teenage years, Karen and Rick sometimes pushed aside their chores and retired to their favourite seats: a weather worn bench sat outside her parent's supermarket. This was one of those sun kissed summer mornings. There was a breeze in the air, keen and fresh, carrying the tangible scent of salt in from the sea.
Like teenagers, their fingers curled together, entwined.
A sleepy smile blossomed on Rick's face as he turned to Karen. She leaned towards him -
"Rick! KAREN! RICK!"
It was Kai, roaring down the road as if he had rockets attached to his shoes. Rick, truly revisiting his teenager years here, leapt up as though in anticipation of a confrontation. Karen planted her hand on his chest, holding him back. "Don't be stupid," she muttered. "What's up, Kai? It's Popuri, isn't it? The baby... "
"Yeah... she's... it's... " Kai was bent double, so breathless he could barely force the words out. "I don't want to sound melodramatic, okay, but I think there's a good chance of my first child being born on the floor of the Snack Shack."
"Excuse me?" spluttered Rick, flying, immediately, into a blind panic. Karen, however, positively thrived on stress. A wave of pure feeling pulsed through her; she was just the sort of person you wanted in a crisis, and she knew it. The excitement she felt was not in anticipation of the baby; it was excitement for its own sake. "Rick," she said, taking her rightful place in charge, "you fetch Elli and the Doctor. Make it clear it's an emergency. And if my dad's in there, as he probably is, tell him to grow-up." She nudged him towards the clinic. "Go on! Kai, come with me..."
On the way to the beach, Karen quickly pieced together the whole story. There wasn't much to it other than the fact that Popuri's waters had broken behind the counter, there was a mess on the floor and Kai was much aggrieved to learn that his child, who was due a week or so later, would in fact be born here in Mineral Town.
"Perhaps it's a sign," she suggested calmly, stopping before the front door. "I think Lillia was always meant to be at the birth of her first grandchild. I know she said she respected your wishes and was fine with it, but I think, deep down, she wanted it this way."
"Shut up, Karen." Kai pushed past her, and though she didn't understand what he was going through, Karen charitably decided to let it slide. "Crap," he swore.
Kai whipped around and raced in the other direction. "Lillia," he hollered, "no one told Lillia!"
"Men," she hissed. The interior of the Snack Shack was clean, cool and shadowy, like an oasis in which to escape the blazing heat of the day. Karen hadn't ever had the misfortune of experiencing childbirth, but she thought that giving birth on the hottest day of the year so far would not be anyone's first choice.
"Thank goddess it's you, Karen," came Popuri's tired voice, "I was praying for you."
"Not Rick?" Karen quipped.
They both just laughed. Perhaps it was because Karen's only knowledge of childbirth came from corny, afternoon soap operas, but she expected something more dramatic than the sight that greeted her in reality. Popuri was sat - yes, not collapsed - on a chair in the middle of the room looking slightly drained, but otherwise normal. How boring. No screams, no howls, no blood. Even her hair was immaculate.
"How's it going?" Karen debated kneeling down in front of Popuri, decided she'd find it patronising, and pulled up a chair instead.
"Fine, good." Popuri nodded jerkily, presumably through the pain. "Not as awful as I thought it would be... so far!"
Was it appropriate to laugh there? Probably not, thought Karen. So she kept her mouth shut.
But the silence rumbled on and on, with no break on the horizon. Popuri fiddled with a candy pink curl of hair and made those pant pant pant noises women were apparently supposed to make during labour. Eventually, Karen couldn't stand it. She fully meant to say, "Kai and Rick won't be long," but what she actually asked was something different entirely:
"Are you scared?"
Popuri's head shot up. Whatever she said next, Karen was sure she already knew the answer. There was something nervous flickering in her eyes. Popuri stared down at her lap again. "I'm not afraid of the pain, Karen; I expect that."
"But nothing," she answered.
"Poppy!" When you've known someone for that long, you know when nothing really is nothing, and when it's hiding something else. Karen patted her friend's shoulder and pleaded with the higher powers that Rick and Kai and Lillia would arrive right now, please...
"I'm worried that I've been selfish."
That was the very last answer Karen was expecting. She couldn't see anything selfish in what Popuri was about to do. Maybe it was madness, stupidity - but that was only a matter of opinion. It could never be called selfish.
Karen squeezed Popuri's shoulder, only to have her hand shrugged away. "Don't be silly, Pop - "
"I'm not silly!" Popuri burst out. "I'm not a stupid kid anymore." For just a fleeting moment, Karen saw a young, pink-haired girl sobbing because she was too small to go skating or sledging or swimming. All that did was remind her just how different the person sat before her now truly was.
She offered her first genuine smile. Genuinely nervous, but genuine all the same. "How is it selfish, Popuri?" she asked.
"Because of mom. Because we don't really know what we're getting into."
"No first time parent ever does," Karen muttered, in a line ripped directly from one of the daytime soap operas.
"My mom's ill, isn't she?" said Popuri through gritted teeth, as another contraction tore through her abdomen. "Everyone's been saying that this baby is just what she needs. Something to take her mind off it all. Something to show her that life's not all that crappy after all. But you know what, Karen? We don't even know if my mom's illness is genetic. I could have it, I could be like her, I could... die... young. Anything. And what if my baby - what if my baby has it too? How am I going to live with myself?"
The fact that Karen didn't - couldn't - answer immediately was, itself, answer enough. Uncertainty was the key word, and it hung over them like a menacing storm cloud darkening a perfectly sunny day. Karen wanted to repeat her earlier statement - "Don't be silly!" - but she never had the chance to. The door crashed open bringing with it Rick, Doctor Tim and Elli; Kai and Lillia soon followed. In the seconds before the doctor took over, Popuri caught Karen's eye one last time. She shook her head a tiny fraction, and Karen stayed silent.
The next afternoon, when it was all over, Karen and Rick were sat at the dining table with Lillia, lemonade and freshly baked chocolate cake. Everyone expected the gentle knock at the door, yet when it came, they all jolted out of their seats. Popuri crossed the threshold first. Kai followed, immediately throwing his arm around her. His smile was so wide it looked in danger of cracking his face clean in two. In Popuri's arms was a bundle of pink blankets, the sight of which caused a soft hush to fall over the farmhouse.
Karen - the only one in the room not a blood relative - was, to her surprise, the first to be beckoned forward.
"You haven't said anything?" was the first thing Popuri muttered.
Karen replied with a very vehement shake of the head. "Don't be -" she started to say, before realising she sounded like a broken record and catching herself. "You know I wouldn't," she answered instead.
"Then you'll be godmother?" was Popuri's next question.
There was barely time for Karen to yelp, "What?", before the baby was thrust into her arms.
Was it strange, that as a twenty-two year-old woman, she had never held a baby before? Never - much less a newborn. Perhaps it wasn't all that odd these days, but delve back into Mineral Town's history and she'd probably already be lumbered with five kids and chained to the kitchen.
All the basic stuff bounced around her head, like a frenzied pinball machine. Watch her head, don't hold her too tight...
The baby wriggled against the blankets co-cooning her and began to mewl pitifully.
"She's got her father's hair," Popuri told them proudly, but unnecessarily, "and his eyes. Dark. Nothing like me."
"So the pink-haired gene is recessive," Karen hissed in Rick's ear. "Who knew?"
Rick snorted. "Do you know what you'll call her yet?"
Kai and Popuri had so far been quite secretive regarding that matter, expertly re-buffing every inquiry sent their way. And as Karen looked down at their daughter, the task of putting a name on her seemed unthinkable.
"Actually..." Kai leaned over to slip his hand inside Popuri's. "We've kind of had an idea all along, really..."
"Faith," Popuri announced. The single syllable slipped out smoothly; Karen could tell she'd been practicing. And though Popuri didn't add, "For Mom", she had already guessed that part for herself.
"Faith," Karen repeated assuredly, passing the baby into the waiting arms of her husband.
She might have been a farmer's wife, but Karen was far from ready to embrace the lifestyle. When the alarm went off an hour early, at five o'clock, she simply pretended it hadn't. But Rick was dependable to a fault and rolled over just once before slowly rising from the bed. It didn't give Karen any incentive to do likewise.
"I can hear your joints creaking, you know," she mumbled into the pillow, which obscured half of her face. "Old man."
As it was only five o'clock and still the deepest depths of winter, their bedroom was bathed in darkness. Karen could only hear Rick pottering about; the groan of a wardrobe door in need of oiling and finally the rustle-rustle as he slipped on his shirt. The thought alone made her shiver and burrow further below the blankets.
"May I remind you," Rick whispered, as he swooped down to collect his glasses from the bedside table, "that you are, in fact, four weeks and five days older than me?"
"Urgh. Go away."
Obviously, Rick didn't. He continued to shuffle around the room, under the pretence of searching for something, when Karen knew he was just doing it to annoy her.
Or wake her up, whichever; it amounted to the same, didn't it?
"You remember that it's the Stocking Festival tomorrow?" Rick prompted. "And that you promised to meet Kai, Popuri and Faith's ferry?" There was an uncomfortably long pause in which they both accepted that Karen did indeed know this.
She struggled upright, fumbling for the lamp next to their bed. The light it cast across the room was dim and patchy, but not quite dim and patchy enough for Karen's taste. "Why have I got to meet the ferry?" she grumbled, throwing off the covers. "Have they forgotten the way here? Every time I have to do this..." She was still moaning, albeit half-heartedly, as she threw on her clothes. "Kai and Popuri aren't idiots."
That, of course, was a matter of debate.
They really did make her laugh, those two. Whatever the weather, be it snow, rain or hail, Kai and Popuri refused to turn up in Mineral Town wearing anything other than shorts and summer dresses respectively. Karen sniggered to herself as she forced on a bottle-green jumper that Lillia had knitted for a birthday present once. Rick, who was used to feeding the chickens before even the first hint of dawn, followed her down the stairs – creaky and in dire need of repairing – and through the gloomy house.
He kissed her quickly, before heading for the coop. For a split second, Karen remained where she stood, grinning idiotically into the dark. When she married Rick, she felt too young to be doing so. She was nineteen. It wasn't hideously young and, in truth, Karen had made more than enough of her teenage years, not to feel like she was missing out. What worried her most, though, was herself. Would she get bored of Rick? Would he get bored of her?
Her fears weren't exactly alleviated by Manna's advice. She told her – in what Karen initially assumed to be poorly disguised advertisement for the Vineyard – that marriage was not like a bottle of good wine; it did not improve with age. If anything, the old gossip insisted, a marriage was more likely to sour. You probably wouldn't even notice it, she warned. It was like missing a step on the stairs: you wouldn't realise you'd done so, until you were falling.
Poor, lonely Manna.
Karen shuddered, more from the memory than the cold. She was simply glad that she and Rick had not turned out twisted like that. She was even more relieved not to have been warned off marriage altogether.
The ferry was docking at Mineral Town's single pier as Karen arrived at the beach. She crossed the beach to the gentle, if repetitive, whisper of waves. It felt alien to be slipping, sliding and crunching across the beach in the midst of winter. A small family clambered off the boat. Karen could hear, but not see them yet; hushed voices drifted towards her. First to stagger in to view was Kai, laden, somehow, with several cases and his sleeping, nine year-old daughter. "Karen," he said, when he spotted her, nodding and smiling wearily as he couldn't manage a wave. Popuri as good as skipped along behind them. She, too, had armfuls of boxes and bags and cases weighing down on her, but like a child, Popuri's step was always little bit lighter than everyone else's.
"Oh my Goddess!" It was as if the last person Popuri expected to see in Mineral Town, was Karen. She emptied her arms of the boxes and bags and cases, and flung them around her sister-in-law instead. With the hug, came a waft of tropical smelling perfume, of summer in an instant. Karen just smiled.
"Great to see you, Poppy," she said, so casually. Inside, she was fizzing. As an only child, Karen saw Popuri not only as little sister more grown up than she was, but as her best friend. "Hello, Kai. Glad to be back in sunny old Mineral Town?"
Kai pulled a face that said otherwise. "I think my ass is frozen."
"Kai!" Popuri hissed. She nodded at Faith, who was still sleeping, blissfully unaware. Their breath swirled, as mist, between them. "Watch. Your. Mouth!"
Karen noticed that as he rearranged the burden in his arms, Kai held his daughter tighter to his chest. "She's asleep, Popuri," he muttered, "and probably dreaming of that last, sweet sunset before we had to set off." He let out a wistful sigh that just riled his wife up even more.
"Dreaming of Nana Lillia's homemade gingerbread, more like," Karen cut in.
"Too true!" Kai laughed, whilst Popuri gasped, "Goddess! I can't wait for those!"
"Let's go then." Karen was smiling to herself, but for an entirely different reason; it was as if – and it always was – they had just never left. She had no sensation in her toes, unprotected as they were in her battered trainers with holes in, which she took as an indication that she needed to be at home, snuggled up in an armchair with Rick over hot chocolate and breakfast. Heaven.
Kai strode ahead, glancing back at the desolate Snack Shack. Karen helped Popuri gather up the fallen cases, allowing herself to ignore the faintest of trembles in her sister-in-laws hands – that was how Lillia started – and fell into step with her as they chattered. Just in front, Faith seemed to stir. "Daddy?" she mumbled, her voice laden with sleep. "Where are we?"
To which the adults replied, "Home," all at once.
"It's too short, isn't it?" Karen craned around desperately in front of Ann's mirror. "It's too short."
"Nonsense," said Mary, but she wasn't even looking.
"Aw, shut up," Ann yelled, but she was in another room altogether, still cooking. "You chose it!"
"Don't be silly." Popuri sashayed past, twirling the skirts of her bridesmaid dress. She clearly wasn't paying attention, either.
Her frustration boiling, and reaching its peak, Karen threw off her headdress, where it spiralled pathetically onto Ann's bedroom floor. Elli poked her head around the doorway at just that moment. "Karen!" she squeaked. "Your hair. Goddess, don't mess it up now, will you…" She picked up the shimmering white veil with a sort of reverence.
"Thanks," Karen muttered. She placed the hat back over her recently styled hair. It was scooped up and tightly clipped into place; though it didn't, at first glance, seem very her, she had fallen in love with it, unexpectedly. The dress on the other hand…
Karen tugged at the hemline. "You wanna come and say hello to my knees?" she moaned, making Elli laugh – albeit nervously.
"Oh, now you really are exaggerating." She tutted to herself, before bustling out of the room. "I'm going to collect the bouquets…"
Bundled up like a pretzel, with a fat paperback balanced on her knees, Mary finally looked up from Ann's bed. "I don't know," she mused, eyes sweeping over the dress, "it's got a classic, simplistic feel. Old-fashioned style, and not too… fluffy." She nodded, smiling the tiniest bit. "The only problem I can see -" Her head twitched towards the window "- is that it might rain. Might!" she added hastily, when Karen flew across the room to check the sky. It had been a plain, but clear, powder blue earlier; now it was stained with grey, and darkening by the minute.
Karen swore violently. She knew it was autumn, and unpredictable, but she'd hoped that, just maybe, the sun would've shone on her wedding day. Ann's head swung into view around the door frame. "What's up now?" she asked, having heard Karen swear. She was slapping the icing sugar from her hands and her face was floury white.
It was no use: Karen could only gape. She had only just noticed that her friend was very much still in dusty, denim overalls. "Ann…" she said, rather faintly, "You've not changed…"
"Do you expect me to ice a wedding cake in my one good dress?"
"Well, why are you still icing it now?"
"Because you only announced your engagement six days ago," Ann pointed out, irritably. "Nothing like a wedding to turn a girl a moaning, paranoid mess, eh? Anyhow, if you two could clear out of my bedroom, I might actually be able to get dressed. Come on." Mary scurried off the bed, following Karen out of the room. The door slammed shut, before anyone could offer the redhead any advice. She wasn't exactly known for her feminine tastes; Karen couldn't quite recall the last time she'd seen her friend in anything pink or frilly.
In the kitchen, Popuri was skipping back and forth, humming what sounded suspiciously like a wedding march under her breath. Karen frowned at the young girl – who would, about an hour from now – be her sister-in-law. Every flat surface in the kitchen was covered in platters, bowls, and dishes of food of all colours. The cake towered above them all, the white icing still glittering wet. Would it dry in time? How did Doug plan to sort the place in time for their return from the church?
But it was when Elli called two terrifying things from the front room – "Your parent's have arrived" and "We've got five minutes, people!" – that Karen realised she was missing the point. It wasn't the dress, or the food, or even the fact that Ann would never be ready and respectable in five minutes time. It was something else entirely; those were simply distractions she kept placing in front of herself to avoid the real problem.
She was, to put it simply, the most nervous she had ever been in her life. Nervous to the core, in fact; she was shaking inwardly and outwardly. Beyond that swooping, seasick feeling, associated with falling. Beyond simple butterflies in her stomach. She had spent a year helping Rick recognise the obvious: that she loved him. What if, in reality, she'd actually forced him into this?
Karen felt suddenly faint.
She could hear Elli fretting that Mary's dress was creased and her mother consulting Doug over decorations for the reception.
Out of nowhere, seemingly, Popuri was stood before her. Her forehead was anxiously crinkled and she'd stopped singing. "Here," she said, handing over an armful of flowers. "Your bouquet."
"Oh. Yeah, thank you…"
Popuri leant close to Karen's ear. "You… okay?" she whispered.
Karen nodded too quickly.
"I've known you long enough to know when you're not at all okay." A sad, little smile tugged at her lips. "And this is one of those times, isn't it?"
It wasn't often that Karen found herself lost for words, but this was one of those moments. She nodded, hoping it wouldn't happen at the altar. Presuming she even got there, of course…
"Thing is, my mom and I have been waiting for this wedding since before you and Rick, probably. And, even if it's selfish, I want to be a bridesmaid. We know this is going to work. I know it's not always obvious, but two just… work." Popuri's sad, little smile blossomed into a cheeky grin. "I know that Rick will be wetting his pants right now –"
The bride-to-be giggled.
"- and if you don't turn up, I dread to think how he'll react. There'll be a puddle on the church floor, anyway."
Somehow, that was a comforting, steadying thought for Karen. No, not the idea of her boyfriend squirming in urine soaked trousers, but the idea that she wasn't the only one who was totally, utterly terrified by what was about to happen.
It was after a deep breath that Karen strode forward, Popuri only a step or so behind her. She embraced her mother, thanked Doug for the trouble he had gone to, and linked her arms with her father. Her new found courage wavered, though, when she opened the door on a torrential downpour – just as Mary had predicted.
"Wow." Karen watched in green-eyed awe as raindrops the size of bullets bounced off the cobblestone street. For a moment, everybody was frozen in motion. Then –
"Wait!" Someone popped up at Karen's shoulder. There was a swish, and a click, and the bride found herself sheltered by a rainbow canopy. Spinning on the spot, she came face to face with Ann, who was holding a huge umbrella. "It's dad's," she explained. She had released her red hair from its tight braid, creating natural waves. The group stepped outside, miraculously dry. "See?" she said. "Sorted."
"Jasmine is dumb!"
Karen was scattering chicken feed on the frozen ground, when she heard Faith arrive behind her. "Huh? Why, honey?" She turned, smiling, to the little girl. "I thought you liked Jas."
Light flakes of snow were drifting through the morning air. "I did," Faith sniffed, "but she's too young for me now. She just wants to play house all the time; I want to play snowballs and snow angels and stuff. That's what winter's about, right?" Faith certainly looked out of place in a bleak and dreary, snowed under Mineral Town. Her mother had bunched her up in years old snow wear, including a too-big woolen hat, mittens as large as oven cloves, and a scarf that had been wrapped around her five times. But in spite of all that, Faith still had her summer tan. In spite of her red, runny nose, she still looked like a mini, female Kai – in other words, ludicrously exotic. Her hair fell from beneath the hat in ribbons the colour of dark chocolate.
"Thing is, honey," said Karen, as tactfully as she could, "it's been winter for a long time here. Jasmine's probably fed up of it by now."
"Hmpf." Faith sent her the sulky look that children aged seven to ten seemed to specialise in. "Well… she's still dumb!" And with that outburst, Faith tore off across the yard, towards the farmhouse and the promise of her grandmother's home-baking.
The bag of feed long forgotten in her arms, Karen watched the three generations through the kitchen window: Lillia, Popuri and Faith. It was that Karen couldn't always get her head around. She and Rick would never be grandparents. When Lillia was long dead and at peace in Mineral churchyard, when Popuri and Kai had nothing left to return to, there would be just Karen and Rick. And it would end there. There would be no extension of them. Nothing of their traits, their stories, their love…
Now that was a selfish thought. It was also very human.
How could there be nothing from them? The end. Full stop.
It was unnatural.
When the farmhouse door swung open, Karen wiped her eyes hurriedly.
Popuri was stood in the threshold, laughing before she'd even started talking. "Karen," she called, holding up a pair of old boots, "Faith's decided: we're going ice skating!"
Karen snorted with laughter, forgetting her previous morbid thoughts in one hilarious moment. "The lake at Mother's Hill?" she asked. "I'll fetch Rick."
"Don't forget. When the sky gets darker, the moon gets brighter... Yeah, um, something like that."
Karen could not help laughing. "Where'd that one come from?"
"Well – "
"Doesn't make sense, anyway," said Rick, sniffing. "There is no moon in the day."
"Sometimes there is!" Ann argued – one of the many things she was accomplished in. "All pale, you know, but still there." Karen shared a bemused look with her husband, who shrugged. "Don't ask me! Mary's been feeding me metaphors and simi-whatsits all week. Crap, the lot of it."
When Ann had returned to the ice, Karen stared at Rick in amazement. "Huh. That was- "
Karen found herself giggling yet again, but her laughter soon became shivers. The temperature at the lakeside was sub zero; it was especially bitter standing still. Because the sky was cloudless, the air was like frost, and Karen – being Karen – hadn't brought a scarf. Repeatedly, before they left the house, Rick warned her to take one; typically, he had. Karen had been preoccupied with Faith and her new skates; Faith, who was currently still finding her feet out on the slippery lake. As Karen glanced over, the little girl was clinging vice-like to Popuri's hands while they skated around with growing confidence, in endless circles.
When the sky gets darker, the moon gets brighter.
"Come here." Rick leant over and grasped her hand in his large, gloved one. "You're frozen, you idiot." And because she could barely feel him grabbing her fingers, Karen was inclined to agree. He flung his own scarf around Karen's shoulders, knitting the two together. Rick still smelled of home-baking and poultry feathers. Her face pressed against his shoulder, Karen felt a smile developing, small at first, then wider and mirthful.
"Why do people know everything round here?" she huffed. "Even when you think they don't, sure as hell, they really do."
"I don't get you," said Rick.
"What Ann said?" Karen prompted him, feeling as though nothing could be more obvious.
But Rick had missed the point, clunky though it was. And a bit preachy, too. Clearly, it was your typical be thankful for you've got and be careful what you wish for fable. Clearly, Ann and everybody else had realised that their childlessness was not a choice. If Karen had been in a worse mood, she might even have felt offended. She knew that people genuinely meant well, but it was almost as if they were suggesting that she took her husband for granted.
Because this was what people misunderstood: the want of one thing didn't automatically displace the love for another.
It could. But Karen would never let it.
Ann must have gotten it wrong, she thought, because Rick was so much more than just her silver lining. He was her life; she was his. Karen didn't marry simply for a child somewhere down the line –even though she longed for one. In that case, wouldn't anyone have done?
She married for one thing only: love.
Karen felt Rick's chest heave with a sigh. "Faith's coming along fantastically, isn't she?"
Not looking up, she said, "I love you."
Which was not really an answer at all. It made Rick smile, though. Karen stayed exactly where she was, warm, comfortable and content to watch Faith and her mother from the sidelines.
They married for one thing only: love.
And that, thank you very much, was a feeling far from defeated.