When Kylie opened her eyes, reluctantly lifting from a dream world she would have preferred to stay in forever, her bedroom was bathed in the brilliant rays of late morning sunshine.
“Oh, shhhh…” In a panic, she whipped back the covers and sprang from the bed. A quick glance at the bedside clock confirmed what she already knew. She was running late—really, really late.
Damn it, Jimmy.
Running in crazed circles, Kylie scooped up the first clothes she laid hands on and made a mad dash for the bathroom, stripping and re-dressing as she went. Too late to shower, she made due with a rushed ponytail, extra deodorant, and a quick spritz of body spray. She slapped a glob of toothpaste onto her toothbrush and brushed in route to Brayden’s room to wake him for the day.
Luckily, he was already awake and sitting up in bed, playing with his stuffed dog. Unfortunately, he had wet through his Pull-Up. Both his pajamas and his sheets were soaked.
He held up the dog and asked, “Where Boo?”
“Oh, Bray.” She let out a heavy sigh as she pulled the toothbrush from her mouth. “You pottied your bed.”
“I’s sorry,” he said, his blue eyes open wide in surprise over what he had done. He did look sorry, so she left it at that. It was her fault he’d had an accident. If she had heard her alarm go off—three hours earlier—he would have made it to the bathroom in time.
“Mondays are yucky, Bray.” She lifted his heavy, wet body into her arms, his soiled clothes soiling hers, the sticky-sweet smell of urine filling her nose. “Especially when they fall on Thursdays.”
“Yucky.” Sticking his tongue out for emphasis, he added, “Bleh!”
“You got that right.” She laughed. “Bleh!”
The few precious minutes she had saved by not showering were wasted giving Brayden a bath. After changing her own clothes again, she quickly stripped his bed and disinfected the plastic mattress cover, then bundled the soiled laundry into her arms. A quick glance at the clock and she gave up trying to save the day. Her morning ethics class at the community college had already started.
“No point in going now,” she muttered to herself as she carried the dirty laundry over to the washing machine.
“No point,” Brayden echoed, more than content to spend his day repeatedly driving two Hot Wheels cars into each other. Spittle flew from his lips as he voiced explosion sound effects with each head-on collision. “Uh-oh!”
Not going to class would make it that much harder for her to keep up with her assignments, but it would save her from suffering through a twenty-minute lecture from her ethics professor about how unethical tardiness is. He was not the kind of man to accept weak excuses, like oversleeping, and she was not in the state of mind to make up something more creative. At least all she had in the afternoon was a few hours of clinical work at the hospital. She wouldn’t have to worry about running into him on campus.
Nursing was not her life’s ambition, but since she had no idea what her life’s ambition was, it would have to do for now. She couldn’t afford to keep sitting around, waitressing at Captain Jack’s while she waited for inspiration to strike. Not when she was already twenty-five years old and had a son to support. His future was more important than her need to discover herself. Her opportunity to do so had long past. Once Brayden was all grown up and off living his own life, in twenty years or so, she planned to try it again, maybe finally sign up for some of the art classes she’d been dying to take but couldn’t afford the luxury of. Until then, she’d wear scrubs.
Once Kylie got the washer going, she started a pot of coffee and poured a glass of juice for Brayden, then dug through the cupboard. “What do you want for breakfast today, Bray?”
As he cried out his usual answer, “Cocoa Puffs!” her cell phone rang. Jimmy’s mother, Mary Ann, greeted her with a warm hello.
Kylie opened the cereal and reached for a bowl. “How’s Florida treating you today?”
“It’s trying to cook me alive,” Mary Ann said, her voice laced with a laugh.
“Nebraska’s doing the same to us.” She turned toward Brayden and asked, “Do you want milk?”
He shook his head and crashed his cars off the edge of the table, onto the floor. “Uh-oh!”
“Is Jimmy there by any chance?” Mary Ann asked.
“No, he left for work pretty early this morning.” Kylie carried the dry cereal over to the table, holding the chair steady as Brayden scampered into his booster seat, and sat next to him to ensure he ate at least a few bites of his breakfast. “They’re still swamped, trying to get Charlene’s done and keep on top of everything else coming in.”
“Maybe that’s why I can’t get a hold of him.”
“I’m sure he’ll call you as soon as he gets a chance. Maybe on his lunch break,” Kylie said, though she knew her words were nothing more than a little white lie. Since James’s funeral, Jimmy had avoided speaking directly to his mother, relying instead on Kylie or Brent to relay any information to him regarding her well-being. He deserved a good throttling for being so intentionally cruel, but Mary Ann seemed unfazed by his stubborn tendencies.
“Both of my sons seem to be avoiding me today. I can’t reach Brent either,” Mary Ann said, which Kylie found odd. Brent and his mother spoke daily.
“Aria’s been sick,” she offered as a possible explanation.
“Oh, I know, the poor dear. I talked to her a bit last night. She sounded absolutely drained. How’s your mother?”
“And your sister?”
“She’s doing okay,” Kylie lied again, for Mary Ann’s sake. Mary Ann had always held a soft spot in her heart for Ashley. Unfortunately, Ashley had never shared the sentiment. She considered Mary Ann nothing more than an annoying busybody flitting about her personal life, constantly butting her nose in where it didn’t belong. Kylie would be the first to agree Mary Ann did ask a lot of questions, but she only asked because she truly cared about the answers.
“I hear she’s living in North Carolina with Trevor,” Mary Ann said.
Always amazed by how fast news traveled from Allman Falls to Florida, Kylie let out a startled laugh. “You probably know more about it than I do.”
“Remind her North Carolina is close enough to Florida to require a visit.”
“I will,” Kylie promised.
“I missed her at the funeral.”
“She wanted to come,” Kylie said, piling one white lie on top of another. She sure hoped God forgave those. Her phone beeped and she checked the screen. “I’m going to have to let you go, Mary Ann. My mom’s on the other line.”
They said their goodbyes and Kylie clicked over.
“Kylie, dear, you will never believe who just called me.” Without waiting for Kylie to guess, Martha Johansen rushed, “Ashley!”
“Wow! Seriously?” Kylie asked in disbelief. “What, does she need money?”
“Well, I don’t know about that, but she did say she wants to get together for dinner at Gimp’s tonight.”
“She’s in town?” Kylie asked, even more surprised, and, if she was being honest, somewhat disappointed. “When did that happen?”
“I didn’t ask her, but I’m assuming just today. Do you have to work tonight?”
“No, I actually have the night off for once.” She’d looked forward to it all week, a stress-free, blissfully quiet night of popcorn, wine, and Netflix. Like many of her dreams, it wasn’t meant to be.
The doorbell rang, and Brayden looked up in wonder. “Jimmy?”
“No, Bray.” Jimmy never rang the bell. He had a key.
Brayden didn’t believe her, and tried to squirm out of his booster seat. She tucked the phone against her shoulder so she could lift him out before he could work his way loose and land on his head.
“Mom, I’ve got to go. Text me the time and I’ll see you then.”
By the time Kylie caught up to Brayden, he was already to the door. Using all his body weight, he tried to turn the knob. What he possessed in strength and sheer will, he still lacked in fine motor skills. The door refused to budge.
“Would you like some help?” she asked when his frustrations got the better of him, making an almost-possible task an impossible one.
Brayden grunted, but he let go and scooted out of her way. She turned the knob with the ease that would soon come to him, and opened the door to Brent’s wife, Aria.
“Ah-ree-ah!” Brayden cried out and danced into her arms.
With her face alit in matching delight, she lifted him high. “Good morning, my little Macho Man!”
As she kissed his cheeks and nibbled on his chin, his back arched and he broke out into a fit of laughter. His cheeks colored the deep, rosy pink they always blushed whenever Aria was around, the blush born from the little-boy crush he had on her.
Kylie couldn’t fault him. Grown men flushed with the same rosy blush whenever Aria gifted them with a smile. Gracefully beautiful with hair the color of creamed honey, Aria attracted attention wherever she went, but it was more than her stunning good looks that drew the eye of men and women alike. She carried an aura of peace and tranquility about her, her willowy frame moving with mesmerizing fluidity, as though her soul breathed in perfect harmony with the rhythm of the earth. It was impossible to look away from her.
“Ah-ree-ah.” Brayden brought his hands to either side of her face, and squeezed. “Why you ‘mell like candy?”
“I don’t know, Bray. Why do you smell like chocolate?”
“Ba-cuz I eat Cocoa Puffs!”
“You smell so good I just wanna gobble you up.” She peppered his cheek with more kisses, then nibbled on his neck and hummed, “Num, num, num, num, num.”
He threw back his head and laughed to the sky, his love for her absolute. As soon as Aria set him down, he ran past Kylie into the house, but abruptly stopped, returning to command, “You stay here! Oh-tay? I go get sum-fin.”
“Okay,” Aria agreed with a wink to Kylie.
Kylie smiled as her little Lothario ran off to his bedroom. “I believe he has another gift for you.”
“Aw, he’s such a little sweetie.”
Brayden loved to present Aria gifts of crayon drawings and backyard rocks, Lego creations and accidentally-crushed flowers. She adored them all, and displayed them prominently throughout her home so Brayden could see them whenever he visited. So far, he had only asked for one gift back—a dented and wheel-less Hot Wheels car he suddenly remembered was his favorite when he saw it sitting on her bookshelf. She had returned it graciously.
Kylie stepped back to welcome Aria inside. “You look like you’re feeling better today.”
“Oh, much! These past few weeks have been terrible. I can’t remember the last time I felt so bad.”
She tossed her heavy purse onto the closest armchair and slipped off her shoes, lifting up onto her pedicured toes with a sigh of relief as though she had kicked off heavy, steel-toe boots instead of breezy flip-flops. She ran a hand through her silken hair. The bracelets on her wrist jangled, her summer sundress floated around her body in a whisper of sky-colored, airy cotton as she turned to face Kylie.
“I still wasn’t feeling the best after breakfast this morning so I took the day off and went to the doctor. Just thinking about driving in the hills made me want to hurl.”
Employed as a rural mail carrier, Aria spent her days flying around the dusty, Nebraska countryside in her little, orange Jeep. Sounded like a dream job to Kylie—except when feeling queasy.
“I don’t blame you. I’d hate to be stuck in a car all day with food poisoning.”
“It’s not food poisoning.”
“Oh! Please don’t tell me it was the flu.” Kylie’s mind replayed every kiss Aria had planted on her baby’s face. “Brayden’s a magnet for sick germs. Poor kid always has strep or a runny nose.”
A giggle bubbled from Aria’s glossed lips. “Nope! Not the flu either.”
“Okay…” Kylie said with a wary smile. “Well, that’s good.”
“Exceptionally good,” Aria trilled. Her excitement level higher than usual, her entire body pulsed with the vigor of the earth just before the explosive burst of a geyser.
Kylie’s eyes narrowed as she studied Aria’s eyes for sign of fever. “What’s going on with you?”
“Nothing.” With a shrug of innocence, she bounced around the living room and fingered the knick-knacks on Kylie’s cheap and flimsy, pressed board entertainment center. She picked up one of the origami flowers Kylie had folded out of her tip money, and turned it over in amazement. “Is this a dollar bill, Ky?”
“Yeah.” Kylie blushed in embarrassment over the adolescent art. “It gets kind of boring at Jack’s sometimes.”
“This is amazing.” Aria turned it over again, inspecting the intricate folds, and then picked up a pair of bills folded into a butterfly. “Can you make other shapes?”
“Sure. Birds, elephants, dresses, stuff like that.”
“Can you make a dolphin?”
“I could try.” Kylie headed for the kitchen. “Want some coffee? I could make it Irish if you twist my arm hard enough.”
“Ooh, I’d love some, but I can’t have any for nine months. Doctor’s orders.”
“Doctor’s…?” Kylie paused in the middle of the living room, realization slowly dawning. Her jaw dropped and she whipped around. “Are you pregnant?!”
“Uh-huh!” Aria confirmed with a wide-eyed, giggly bob of her head.
They both froze, staring at each other in utter shock, and then Aria let out a piercing squeal of joy. Kylie squealed with her as they flew into each other’s arms, squeezing tight, dancing and hopping in a circle like giddy thirteen-year-old girls—the only appropriate hug for euphoric moments such as this.
“Oh, my gosh—Aria! That’s… omigod!”
Kylie held Aria at arm’s length, keeping a tight hold of her as she took in the gorgeous glow of motherhood engulfing her beautiful friend. “Oh! Look at you!”
Aria blushed, her entire body vibrating in joy.
“I can’t believe Jimmy never told me!”
“He doesn’t know—well, he will as soon as Brent gets to work—we just found out like ten minutes ago,” Aria said in an excited, bubbling rush, her hands attempting to gesture wildly despite Kylie’s grasp. “Can you believe this? I never imagined—we weren’t even trying—we weren’t not trying either, but—oh, my gosh, Ky! A baby!”
Kylie wrapped her in another hug. “I’m so happy for you!”
“I’m scared out of my freakin’ mind,” Aria said, but she was laughing. “What do I do now?”
“You don’t really have to do anything. You just keep doing what you’re doing and let that baby grow.” Kylie felt close to hyperventilating. She let go of Aria and motioned her over to the sofa. “I can’t believe this! Brent, a father.”
“Oh, I know!” Aria broke out in laughter as she rolled her eyes. “Scary, isn’t it?”
“Horrifying,” Kylie gasped in terror, but it was all for pretend.
Brent would be an amazing father, and not just because he still acted like a big, goofy kid himself. He possessed the same deep compassion, patience, and unconditional love as Jimmy did for children. It was a testament to how well they were raised.
Kylie patted her heart as she struggled to express how happy she was. Words weren’t enough to say all she felt. “Oh, Aria…”
“What a crazy year. Me and Brent. Dan and Stace. You and Jimmy. All of us together. Weddings. Babies. Life is just… It’s…” Aria laughed harder as she, too, fought against the confines of the English language. “I don’t know what it is, but it feels amazing!”
Kylie smiled so big it hurt her face, but it was a happy pain.
“Ooh! Speaking of Stace, I have to call her!” Aria jumped up from the sofa, grabbed her purse from the armchair, and started digging around for her cell phone. “She’s probably teaching right now. Think I should text her the news?” Aria didn’t wait for Kylie to answer. As soon as the phone was in her hand, she flopped back onto the sofa, her fingers dancing across the keys, typing in a flurry. “We’re doing dinner tonight. Brent wants to celebrate. Gimp’s? Seven o’clock?”
“I’ll be there for Ashley’s thing anyway.”
“What Ashley thing?” Before Kylie could answer, Aria sat up straight with a sharp snap of her fingers. “Oh! And before I forget—” She scooped up her purse and frantically searched in its depths, emerging with a ripped magazine page which she thrust into Kylie’s hand. “I found the perfect wedding dress for you! I saw this and just knew! This is your dress, Ky! I called around and they have one at the bridal shop in Juliette. They never have anything good there, but they have this one. It’s fate! You’re trying it on this weekend. I already made the appointment.”
Kylie opened her mouth to argue, but Aria cut her off.
“Don’t argue with a pregnant lady!”
“Alright, alright,” Kylie surrendered to Aria’s addictive joy. She unfolded the page and tried to look at the dress, but her eyes refused to cooperate. Her focus bounced around the picture, blurring it into a hodgepodge of white, white and more white—white dress, white flowers, white veil—blinding-white teeth on the too-pretty, white model posing as a woman in delirious, unrealistic love.
“Isn’t it perfect? You’re going to simply die when you see it in person, Ky. It’s gorgeous!”
The longer Kylie looked at the face of the woman in the picture, the more her vision swarmed, the tighter her heart squeezed in panic. She folded the paper in half, then in half again, and then set it on the coffee table before she accidentally folded it into an origami noose.
“You need to hurry up and set that date so we can get this show on the road!” She accentuated each word with a sharp pat on Kylie’s thigh.
“Aria…” Kylie started to protest, but it was a waste of breath. Aria was worse than Jimmy. She practically had Kylie’s entire wedding planned out, right down to the ribbon of raspberry glaze running though the center of the three-tier, sugar-glazed lemon cake. “Now’s not a good time for a—”
“A baby, Ky!” Aria exclaimed, her excitement in the moment mercifully distracting her from harassing Kylie for too long. She pulled Kylie in for another spontaneous hug, squeezing every breath of air right out of Kylie’s lungs. “I still can’t believe it! I’m going to be a mommy!”
“Stace is due the first of January—we’re due at the end of March—Ooh!” Aria pushed Kylie, sending her off balance. “Jimmy needs to hurry up and get you pregnant so you guys can have a baby in May! Then our kids will all be in the same class at school! How awesome would that be?”
“Not going to happen,” Kylie said, dead serious.
She shrugged innocently. “I had to try.”
“You wouldn’t be you if you didn’t.”
Aria laughed. “Congrats on the house, by the way. I know Brent’s being all negative about it, but don’t listen to him. He’s just jealous what Jimmy can do with a massive overhaul like that. It’s a ton of work, sure, but it’s going to be gorgeous!”
“Overhaul like what? What house?”
Kylie’s question blew right past Aria as she bounced to her feet. “Oh! And I was thinking while we’re trying on your dress we should also pick out our bridesmaid dresses for Stacy’s wedding. I’m thinking earth tones since she’s talking about Thanksgiving now. Maybe something deep crimson or a bronzy brown—rich, lucsious colors. Like chocolates or a good wine.”
“Sounds good.” Kylie laughed as her head spun trying to keep up with the whirlwind that had possessed Aria.
“Of course, if she switches back to spring like she originally planned, we’ll want Easter colors. Something sorbet—ooh! Lemons or strawberry, maybe.”
“Okay, now you’re just making me hungry.”
“Speaking of hungry, I’m meeting my mom for lunch. Oh, she’s going to freak when I tell her the news!”
Aria flung her arms around Kylie’s neck one last time, and disappeared on a swirl of vanilla-scented energy before Kylie could even say goodbye.
Physically and mentally drained from the encounter, Kylie collapsed onto the sofa. A baby… A brand new, mini Rogan… Heaven help us all if he’s anything like his Uncle Jimmy, she thought with a laugh of surrender.
Brayden barreled full-speed into the living room, calling out in his sweet voice, “Ah-ree-ah!”
“Oh, baby, I’m sorry. Aria had to go home.”
Instantly, his shoulders slumped, his face crumpling in disappointment. “Oh.”
“Sorry, Bray.” She patted the cushion next to her. “Come sit and show me what you drew.”
His cheeks puffed up and his bottom lip stuck out as he looked down at the ragged page he had ripped from one of his coloring books. Instead of coloring with only his preferred orange, he had used a full rainbow of marker colors for Aria’s picture. His heavy, deliberate strokes bled through to the backside of the paper, his creation as bright and vibrant as the heart he had poured into it.
“Ah-ree-ah come back?”
“No, she’s not coming back.”
“Oh.” It didn’t seem possible, but his shoulders slumped further yet. If he slumped any lower, he would be nothing more than a puddle of broken-hearted little boy lying on the floor.
“She invited us to go to dinner at Gimp’s tonight. You could give her the picture then.”
He frowned at his picture with studious concentration, debating the pros and cons of delayed gratification. Finally, he gave a dejected sigh. “Oh-tay.”
Kylie bit back a smile. “Okay.”
His sigh was the exact same sigh of dejection every single man in Allman Falls had sighed the day Brent had slipped his ring on Aria’s finger and she had said, “I do.”