Dan sighed a disappointed good-bye to his third interview of the day and tossed her resume into his ever-growing ‘no’ pile. As she sashayed to the door, Brent leaned back in his chair to better watch her leave.
He nodded his approval. “She seems… smart.”
“Aw, come on, let’s give her a shot. You know, like on a trial basis.”
“Some people don’t interview well.” Failing at being discrete, Brent twisted further in his chair to watch through the window as she crossed the parking lot to her car. “You probably made her nervous with all those stupid computer questions.”
“Yeah, I bet,” Dan barked out in laugh as his cellphone rang. “Hello?”
“Hey, kochanie, it’s me,” Stacy replied, sounding a little out of breath.
“Are you girls home already?” Dan glanced at the clock on the wall. It was early afternoon, hours before he’d expected them back.
“No.” Stacy let out a short breath. “I need to tell you something, but before I do, you have to promise not to get mad at me.”
“What’d you do, Stace?” Dan asked, not even wanting to guess what trouble Stacy and Aria had gotten into.
“Promise me, Dan,” Stacy insisted.
“Okay, I promise,” Dan said, wondering if he should have his fingers crossed.
As though she could read his mind, she asked, “Are your fingers crossed?”
“No.” Dan laughed. “What’s the problem?”
“Um, well… I uh… Oh…” Stacy started breathing faster, her voice taking on a note of panic, and he could hear noises coming through the phone. “Hang on a sec.”
His heart slammed in instant fear. “What’s going on?”
Brent whipped away from the window, immediately joining Dan in panic mode.
“What?” Brent asked in pantomime.
Dan just stared at him, unable to reply, his mind running rampant, imagining horrific car accidents, building collapses, earthquakes, fires, volcanic eruptions.
“Dan?” Aria’s voice came onto the line, her calm, soothing tone doing nothing to settle his nerves.
“What the hell’s going on, Aria?” Dan demanded.
Stacy cried out in pain in the background, cutting off Aria’s words, and Dan’s heart plummeted to his feet, his body instantly numb. He swayed, seconds away from passing out.
“What?” Brent demanded. “Is something wrong with Aria?”
“Aria, give me some fucking answers!”
“Dan, you have to stay calm,” Aria started. “Promise me, you’ll stay calm.”
“I’m not promising you shit until you tell me what’s going on!”
“What did she say?” Brent made a grab for the phone, but Dan shoved him away.
“Stacy’s in labor. For real this time,” Aria said, her voice unnervingly calm considering the situation she had just revealed.
Dan snapped into action, rushing for his jacket. “Get her to the hospital!”
“Oh, shit!” Brent dove for the shop door and hollered out for his brother, “Jimmy!”
“We are at the hospital, and the doctor says she’s getting really close. It could be anytime now.”
“I’ll be there in two seconds,” Dan said. Jimmy rushed into the office and helplessly watched Dan as he spun in circles looking for his keys. “Tell her I need two seconds—where the fuck are my keys?”
“She’s not in Allman Falls,” Aria said. Stacy cried out again, her pain coming through the phone as clear and sharp as a knife.
“Where is she?” His stomach twisted into a tight knot, stealing his air as he listened to his wife cry.
“Where are they?” Brent parroted.
“Dan, don’t be mad…” She paused, then blurted, “We’re in Omaha.”
With an angry, exasperated growl, he squeezed the phone, barely stopping himself before he smashed it against the wall.
“The one on the west side.”
Hissing curses under his breath, Dan unearthed his keys from under a stack of paper and gripped them in his fist. “Let me talk to her.”
He heard rustling and brief, muffled voices, and then Aria came back on the line. “She doesn’t want to talk to you right now.”
Damn, that stubborn woman. “You better take care of her until I get there.”
“I promise, I will. Is Brent with you?”
“Have him drive you.”
“No fucking way.”
“Have Brent drive you,” Aria insisted. “Stacy needs you here in one piece.”
Dan turned to Brent, who stood stock still, his face a sheet of white. Jimmy looked more put together. He tossed him the keys.
“You, drive me to Omaha.”
And then, because he felt like screaming and crying and puking all at the same time, and because he couldn’t remember how to breathe, he threw the phone to Brent.
“You, talk to your wife.”
With a shove of his shoulder against the office door, Dan crossed the parking lot in three, angry strides. Jimmy followed a step behind. He had the truck started and put into gear before Dan shut his door. Brent barely made it into the backseat of the crew cab before Jimmy reversed onto the road.
Dan did his best to block out Brent’s voice as he stared out the windshield, willing Jimmy to drive faster. Mile after long mile passed with Dan feeling as though they were moving backward, instead of forward. It took everything he had to stay in the vehicle, to not rip open the door and try to outrun the truck to Omaha.
As anxious as he was to get to Stacy, he was just as anxious to run the opposite direction. Suddenly, he wasn’t ready to be a father. He could never be the kind of father his own had been. He was not strong enough. He sure as hell wasn’t patient enough. He would never be good enough to be the kind of father this little baby deserved.
Panic set in and his chest tightened as his heart stopped beating. He needed the world to stop, for just one, single second, so he could think. Jimmy looked over at him and Dan opened his mouth to tell him to turn around, to take him home to Chelsea Lake.
He could think at Chelsea Lake.
He could hide at Chelsea Lake.
He rested his head against the window and closed his eyes, willing the whirlpool of emotions swirling through his body to slow.
As she did every time Dan closed his eyes, Stacy filled his mind, smiling her gorgeous smile, her laugh landing on his cheek in a whisper of air as she breathed, ‘Kocham Cię,’ into his heart, loving him the way only she could love him.
Brent tapped Dan on the shoulder, causing him to startle.
“Aria wants to talk to you,” Brent said and thrust the phone at Dan.
Before he even had the phone to his ear, Dan asked, “What’s happening, Aria?”
“This baby is anxious to be born,” Aria said with a hint of a smile in her voice.
“Tell him to wait. I’m not ready yet.”
“No one ever is. You’re going to do just fine.”
“Real good,” Aria assured him. “Everything’s happening so fast she’s doing this all natural, and she’s amazing.”
Dan already knew she was. She always was the strong one. “Can I talk to her?”
He heard Aria talking to Stacy for a long moment before she gently said, “She doesn’t want to talk, Dan. She thinks you’re angry with her.”
“I’m not angry.” Dan sighed with a mixture of frustration and fear. “Tell her I’m not.”
“I did, sweetie,” she assured him. “She doesn’t believe me.”
“She’s too stubborn for her own good,” Dan muttered.
“I know,” Aria agreed with a light laugh.
“How’s the baby?”
He felt some of the weight of worry lift from his shoulders. “What happened, Aria? Why are you in Omaha? You promised you would stay in Allman Falls.”
“I know, I’m sorry. We thought it would be a quick trip there and back to pick up a few things for the nursery. If I had any idea this would happen we never would’ve come.”
“She wasn’t feeling well all day, but she thought it was from the chili dogs. She said it didn’t feel anything like the false labor pains she’d been having. She thought it was just indigestion, but by the time she realized it wasn’t, it was too late. I drove her straight to the hospital… I thought she called you, Dan—I really did—but she thought it would end up being another false alarm. She didn’t want to worry you and have you to drive all the way out here for nothing, so she didn’t call. As soon as the doctor told her she was really in labor, and that the baby was coming fast, she panicked and told me she hadn’t called you yet. She wants you to know she’s sorry. So am I, Dan. I’m so, so sorry.”
“Can I talk to the doctor?”
Aria passed him over to the doctor, who assured him Stacy was doing fine, that the baby was healthy. Still, Dan couldn’t think past his worry. He handed the phone back to Brent and stared out the window, watching the miles fly by in anxious frustration. He wished Stacy would talk to him, but he knew she wouldn’t, not until she decided she was ready to.
Every time Brent passed the phone back to Dan, Aria did all the talking. He had to make do with listening to Stacy in the background as she talked to Aria and the nurses. The closer they got to her, the more Dan could pick up the rising panic in her voice. They made it to the outskirts of Omaha in record time and Dan relaxed, just a little bit, until he saw the line of traffic filling up the highway in front of them, and Jimmy was forced to slow down.
“Shit,” Dan whispered. His body tensed as he strained to look for gaps in traffic. His foot stomped on the imaginary gas petal on the floor, but it didn’t do any good. They didn’t move any faster.
“We’re almost there,” Jimmy said. They were the first words he’d spoken the entire trip.
“It’s rush hour,” Dan answered.
“I’ll get you there,” Jimmy assured him.
“I don’t think you will,” Brent said, sudden panic in his voice.
Dan made a grab for the phone. “Aria, I need to talk to her! Make her talk to me!”
“Hang on, Dan.” He heard the phone switch hands and Stacy’s voice came over the line.
“Are you mad at me?” she asked, her voice full of fear, pain, and a hundred other emotions Dan had never heard before, couldn’t identify, and didn’t like the feeling of.
“No.” He exhaled a long pent-up breath, tears burning in his eyes. “I’m just scared to death.”
“Me, too, kochanie.” Her breathing rapidly sped up, and as she cried out, the sound of the phone falling rang in Dan’s ear. She started crying from the pain again, and Dan cried with her. It felt like hours to his heart before Aria came back on the line.
“Dan, I don’t think you’re going to make it in time. The baby’s crowning.”
“Fuck!” Dan punched the dash. Jimmy didn’t flinch. He continued his steady driving, but he pushed the gas pedal down a little harder.
“Hang on…” Aria said.
The line went silent and for a heartbeat Dan thought she’d hung up on him. He uttered another hot curse under his breath, and indulged in fantasies of wringing Aria’s slender neck, but before his imagination ran away with him completely, she came back on the line.
“I’m going to put you on speakerphone, so you can talk to Stacy, but you have to calm down. You’re scaring her, Dan.”
Aria switched the phone to speaker and put it right next to Stacy. “She can hear you now.”
“Dan?” Stacy cried. “I’m so sorry, kochanie!”
“No, no, no… shhh, baby. Don’t worry about it that now. I don’t care about any of that, I just care about you. Are you okay?”
“It hurts,” she cried.
“I know, Stacy, baby. I’m so sorry.”
“I don’t think I can do this,” she said through her tears.
“Yes, you can.”
“I don’t want a baby anymore.”
“It’s a little late to change your mind.” Dan laughed despite himself. “You are strong, and so damn tenacious. You can do this.”
A voice in the room said, “Okay, Stacy, you have another contraction coming. I need you to push really hard this time.”
Dan’s heart pounded as he listened. Over Stacy’s pain he heard Aria’s encouraging words and someone else counting. He held his breath while she pushed, only drawing air for himself once he heard Stacy’s heavier, panting breaths of her body relaxing at the end of the contraction.
“How’s she doing, Aria?”
“She’s doing amazing. She’s almost there.”
“Stacy, baby, I love you so much,” Dan said through his tears, wishing there was a way for him to climb through the phone and hold her.
“Kocham Cię, Kocham Cię, Kocham Cię,” Stacy breathed.
Dan listened through three more contractions, Stacy pushing hard through each one. Aria talked her through the cresting pain while Dan listened, and then he took over and talked Stacy through the rest periods, trying to shower her in love and encouragement, while Aria held Stacy in her arms for him. The hospital was so close Dan could see it on the horizon, but he knew they wouldn’t make it in time.
“Okay, here we go again. This one’s the big one.”
Dan held his breath again, every muscle in his body tight, willing his strength to his incredible wife. Brent also held his breath as he leaned over the seat, listening. Jimmy stayed focused on his driving as he wove through even the slightest gaps in traffic, trying to close the distance between Dan and Stacy.
After what seemed an eternity, Dan heard the doctor say, “Great job, Stacy. The head is out. Rest for a second and then we’ll do the easy part.”
The light ahead turned red, bringing traffic to a stop. Jimmy whipped his head around to check his blind spot, and then dove for the shoulder. The truck bumped over the rumble bars and into the snowy ditch as Jimmy closed the final mile between them. Cutting off the line of turning traffic, they bounced onto the side street and flew into the parking lot, the tires chirping as they tried to gain purchase on the slick pavement. Dan had the door open and was two steps towards the door before the truck stopped moving.
“I’m here, Stace! Where are you, Aria?” Dan yelled into the phone.
“Fourth floor!” Aria cried. “There’s someone in reception to take you through security!”
“I can’t hold her any longer, kochanie!” Stacy cried.
“Go ahead, baby,” Dan said. “I’ll be there two seconds later.”
He ran past the elevators and took the stairs four at a time as he listened to Stacy master the final push. A baby cried at the exact same moment he pushed open the door into the Women’s Center. Dan paused, eyes closed, for a single heartbeat, allowing the sound of his baby’s first breath of life to wash over him. A nurse took him by the arm to lead him through security, and he finally closed the last bit of impossible distance between him and Stacy.
She was pure beauty, her face flushed and glistening with sweat, her hair soaked from the effort, her face radiating joy. In her arms she held their brand new world, only seconds old. His lips were on Stacy’s in an instant, kissing her as though for the first time, and then lightly kissing his baby’s head, and then back to Stacy’s. He didn’t know where to look or touch first, he wanted to hold and kiss them both at the same time, but he didn’t have enough arms and his tears were washing the room in a blurry, wondrous glow.
“Congratulations, Dad. It’s a girl.”