Charlotte was stopped at a red light on the way back to the house, Ava screaming in the backseat, Mason sitting silently, staring out the window. Charlotte glanced in the rearview mirror. "Mason, try to calm her down. Rub her stomach, put her pacifier in her mouth, play with her toes, make funny faces at her. Can you do that for me? I can't concentrate on the road with her screamin' like that."
"Why's she so fussy today?"
"My guess is she misses your daddy. He was gone 'fore she woke up, hasn't gotten to say hi to him yet today. Or she's comin' down with somethin'. Just please, try to distract her."
Mason nodded. "I can try, momma."
Mason switched to the middle seat and tried tickling Ava, only a weak smile resulting. "Ok, baby sis, I see you don't wanna be tickled today." He kissed her on the cheek and messed up her hair. "You have a very powerful set of lungs." He put her pacifier into her mouth, which helped quell her boisterous cries for about five seconds before she spit it out, it falling back down against her chest. "Plan C? Ok, Ava. Let's try funny faces. You love my funny faces." He stuck out his tongue, made his eyes bug out of his head, and stretched his mouth out with his fingers. He relaxed his face and sighed. "Nothing? Really?" Mason grabbed her rubber keys from the seatback pocket and handed them to her. "Please? It's ok, Ava. Daddy's gonna be home soon. You'll get to smile at him and give him a hug soon. Just suck on these and stop crying." He wiped away his sister's tears and pressed his lips to her temple. He let her wrap her hand around his finger while she sucked and nibbled her multi-colored keys. The car fell almost silent.
"Thank you, Mase," Charlotte said, glancing at her children in the rearview mirror, while paying attention to the road at the same time. "I knew you could do it."
"She's not in a good mood."
Charlotte shook her head. "Maybe she's got another tooth comin' in. I don't know what's botherin' her, but you're right, she's not in a good mood at all." She paused. "She's tired too, which isn't helping. Just keep talkin' to her. That should keep her calm until we get home."
Mason nodded and brushed his thumb against Ava's little hand. "Don't cry. Daddy's gotta work 'cause he helps a lot of kids, you'll understand when you get bigger, but he'll be home later. People say I'm just like him so I can be a substitute until he gets home. You just gotta stop crying and smile." He tried tickling her again and this time, she giggled, dropping the keys into her lap and smiling. "There you go."
Charlotte turned onto their street and then into their driveway. She noticed a moving van across the street with a whole bunch of boxes stacked up high. "Looks like we're gettin' new neighbors, Mase."
Mason looked out the window. "Hope there are kids." He unbuckled Ava from her car seat and unbuckled himself. He opened the door and jumped out. He scooped Ava up and cradled her in his arms.
Ava closed her eyes and fell asleep, finally tiring herself out.
Charlotte smiled. "Would ya look at that? Big brother's got the magic touch." She kissed the top of Mason's head. "Let's go inside."
"I have to tell you something."
"Not outside. Inside. It's hot."
"Ok." She unlocked the front door and held it open. "Let's get her in her crib 'fore she wakes up screamin' again." They filed upstairs, putting Ava down for a nap, and coming back downstairs.
Charlotte was in the kitchen, arranging Ritz crackers on a plate while Mason was in the living room, lying on his stomach, on a bunch of pillows, playing a videogame. She walked out with the plate of crackers, and set it on the coffee table with a tall glass of iced tea. "Whatcha playin'?"
"It's a racing game."
"I can see that. I was lookin' for what the name of it was." She sat down on the pillows, pressing her back against the coffee table. She took a sip of her drink and nibbled on a cracker.
"Oh. It's Need For Speed: Nitro."
"Cool car." She smiled. "So what're we gonna talk about?"
He paused his game and sat next to her, hugging a pillow in his lap. "I wanted to tell you that—I wanted to tell you that you're a great momma."
She blinked and choked on bits of cracker. This must be what Amelia was talkin' 'bout.
"Are you ok?"
She smiled, wiping a single tear from her cheek, and swallowed a huge gulp of iced tea. "I'm ok." She paused and grabbed onto his belt loop, pulling him closer to her. "Why are you so far away?" She laughed. "You think I'm a great momma?"
He nodded, suddenly embarrassed, his cheeks tinged red. "Uh-huh."
"Well, I think you're an awesome son."
"You bet." She paused. "And thank you. It means a lot. Glad all my effort's payin' off."
"Are you gonna take time off of work when Ethan comes?"
She nodded. "I'll be home for six weeks, unless there are complications."
"Good—that you'll be home, not that there may be complications."
"I got that, Mase." She studied him, noticing he was now staring at a crack in the floor. "Mason?"
He lifted his head and looked at her.
"I'm the queen of sayin' nothin' is wrong when there really is somethin' wrong. I know you're lyin'. What's wrong? You can tell me."
He let out a breath. "You work a lot—more than my dad."
"I've got a more important job than your daddy does—and I've got two of 'em."
He nodded. "Yeah, um, I know that."
She shifted, so she was facing him. She put her hand on his knee and sighed. "Am I workin' too much? Is that what you're tryin' to tell me, Mase?"
"I've got an idea."
"What is it?"
"Go get the calendar on the desk in the kitchen and I'll tell you."
He was confused but did as he was told. He came back into the living room, sitting back down, and handed Charlotte the calendar. "What are you gonna do with the calendar?"
"You got a pen or a crayon on ya?"
He checked his pockets as a joke. "I'll go get something to write with." He pushed himself up and grabbed a pen from the kitchen. He dropped it in her lap when he came back, and sat down. "So what are you gonna do with the calendar?"
"Once a month for as long as you want, I'm gonna take the day off of work and you and me are gonna do somethin'—whatever you want, doesn't matter. I'll let you skip school if there's nothin' important goin' on in class that day or we'll go after school if you have a test or somethin' like that, but once a month, we're gonna do somethin'."
"So why do we need the calendar?"
"Because you're gonna circle one random date, and I'm gonna make my schedule 'round that date."
"What about emergencies?"
"Unless they involve you, Ava, Ethan, or Cooper, my pager will be turned off. I'm not the only doctor in the hospital and security can do more about crazy emergencies like what happened today, than I can. I'll have more paperwork to deal with, but you are worth it. Plus, it's only one day a month, there are plenty more. The hospital can survive without me for a day—at least I hope it can." She paused. "So circle your dates, they can be any day of the week, even Saturday 'cause I work Saturdays sometimes."
He smiled and got to town marking up the calendar with black pen.
"But I have to warn you ahead a time, I'm 24 weeks pregnant, so what we do may have to be modified a little. And this month is a little crazy 'cause of Ava's birthday, but this will start next month."
He nodded. "I figured." He finished circling and smiled. "This is serious?"
She smiled. "Mmhmm. I'll even pinky swear to it." She held up her hand, separating her pinky from the rest of her fingers slightly and hooking it around his. She moved her hand up and down and then they separated. She hugged him and pushed his hair out of his face. "But for some crazy reason I have to go into work or you're sick or Ava's sick or something like that, we'll just pick an alternative date for later in the month."
"So this actual gonna happen? Just you and me? No dad, Ava, Ethan when he gets here?"
"Just you and me, sweetie, and yes, this is actual gonna happen. I promise." She paused. "You could have told me this a long time ago, Mase. You can talk to me about anythin' and I mean anythin'."
He nodded and wrapped his arms around her, resting his head on her shoulder. "Am I really an awesome son?"
She laughed and messed up his hair. "The most awesome son a mother can ask for," she said, touching the tip of his nose with her finger.
"But what about Ethan?"
"I haven't met him yet, but all three of you guys are special. You know why?"
"Because Ethan will be the baby, Ava's the only girl, and you, you'll always be my first kid—no one can take that title away from you."
"But I'm not yours. I'm my dad's and my mom's."
"And you think that matters? You think your daddy's parents thought he wasn't their son 'cause he didn't have their DNA? Not in the least, Mase. DNA isn't the only thing that matters and it certainly doesn't matter in this house. I love you even if you can from some other woman's egg."
He scrunched his face. "That's gross."
She laughed. "Good. Keep thinkin' it's gross for a very long time."
"I love you too, momma. I really do."
She smiled and lifted up his chin, so they were looking directly at each other. "Anythin' else you wanna talk about?"
He shook his head. "I think I'm good."
"Well, if you think of anythin' else, let me know."
"Can I go swimming?"
"Course you can."
"I can do a front flip now. You wanna see?"
She shuddered. "That sounds dangerous."
"I'm always really careful—jump far enough out and don't jump in the shallow end."
"I don't wanna take you to the ER for a cracked open skull, ever. Be careful."
He nodded. "I've been practicing. I've gotten really good. The only thing bad that's happened is I belly flopped a few times. That really hurts."
"Not as much as cracked open skull will."
He laughed. "If I crack my head open, I won't do anymore front flips."
"Very funny. Go get your suit on, crazy."
He smiled and shot up to his feet. "You won't be disappointed. I'm gonna start a How-To course on front flipping. I accept donations—cash only."
She couldn't hide her smile. "I'll take everyone out for ice cream tonight, my treat—that's the only donation you're gonna get out of me, aside from your allowance."
"Ice cream donations work too." He laughed and went up the steps, skipping a stair each time.
The next day, Charlotte went up to the NICU to see how Makayla was doing. She wasn't paying attention and ran into some man, standing to the side in the entrance. She stepped back. "Sorry," they said in unison. She lifted her head and blinked. "Derek?"
Derek nodded. "Oh, hey, Charlotte."
"What're you doin' here?"
"I heard I had a niece."
"You do indeed. Does Amelia know you're here?"
"Not yet. I came up here first."
She felt someone pull on her pant leg, so she turned her head. "And who's this little cutie?" She bent down and scooped the toddler up in her arm. "Hey, there."
"Zola, can you say hi?"
Zola just smiled and giggled.
"She's being shy today."
Derek took his daughter from Charlotte and bounced her on his hip. "Is she ok?"
"Your niece or your sister?"
"Amelia's doin' ok. She's got a lot of emotional stuff goin' on and she had to have a C-section so she's dealin' with the physical stuff that goes with that." She paused. "Makayla is quite a fighter. She stopped breathin' on her own yesterday mornin', and she lost some weight, but that's normal with preemies. Their weight can fluctuate. She's holdin' on."
"Her name's Makayla? Addison didn't mention she had a name when she called." He paused to tend to the squirmy toddler in his arms. "What, Zola? What?" He tickled her and smiled.
"So Addison called ya?"
"Thought I should know what's going on with my sister because Amelia surely isn't going to tell me what's going on."
"She's a tough nut to crack sometimes." She paused. "Amelia's in room 5210, by the way, but since you're up here, you wanna meet your niece?"
Derek nodded. "Zo-Zo, you wanna meet your baby cousin?"
"Yeah? Ok, let's go." Derek followed Charlotte over to the isolette.
"Meet, Makayla Hope Shepherd."
Derek rested his hand on the plastic and smiled. "She looks like Amelia. She's tiny, but I can tell that she looks just Amelia did when she was a baby." He adjusted the toddler on his hip. "Look, Zo, it's your cousin. That's Makayla."
Zola reached her arms out. "Baby Mak."
Derek laughed. "That's right, Zo-Zo."
"She's adorable—your baby girl."
"Thanks." He looked at her. "Oh, I didn't even notice that you're pregnant. Congratulations."
"I just assumed, I'm—."
She laughed. "I'm only messin' with ya. I know I'm pregnant."
"I heard about Erica. I'm sorry."
She nodded. "You win some, you lose some."
"How's, what was his name, her son?"
"Mason. He's doin' great." She looked down when her pager went off. She looked at it and sighed. "Well, I gotta go, but Amelia's in room 5210," she repeated. "I suggest you go see her." She smiled and waved to Zola. "Bye, Zola."
"Can you wave bye-bye to Charlotte?"
Zola waved. "Buh-bye."
"Bye." She turned around and walked out of the NICU. Oh, Addison, you're gonna be in trouble. She laughed and disappeared down the hallway.
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