"You look terrified," Annie said.
"I do?" Auggie asked.
"Little bit," Annie admitted. She put her hand over the hand he held the ice-cream bowl with. "I promise I won't go overboard. Trust me, the last thing I want is a lot of fuss. I already told that to Danielle."
"Well, Danielle's invited," Auggie said. "I mean, we have enough room for a few people."
"Well," Annie said. "Why don't we have... fifteen people each?"
"Do kids count as people?" Auggie asked, puzzled.
"You have four nieces and nephews, right? And I have two. They should be included."
"My side is already twice yours," Auggie said.
"Okay, family doesn't count. We'll just lump them all in as five. And... I'll have to invite my mother," Annie said.
"Yes, you do," said Auggie. Annie needed to bring her mother into her own life again, if her mother wouldn't do it.
"I just want Danielle to stand with me," Annie said. "And the girls."
"Okay," Auggie said. "Well, I've got Barber."
"Will your brothers be mad if you don't include them?"
"Are you kidding? They'll be overjoyed not to have to wear a monkey suit. Oh, and speaking of that, I know I look super fine and everything in a tux, but can we just go with maybe a suit?"
"As much as I do adore you in a tuxedo, Auggie, I am fine with you in a suit. I like how you look in a suit. Or just vest. Or just jeans. Or nothing at all."
"Someone might notice that," Auggie said, scraping the bottom of the dish of ice-cream. He set it down and felt for the napkin to wipe his lips. "Suit it is. Now. The important things: your dress."
"Well," Annie said. "I won't break the bank. I dunno. I don't want to spend tons of money, Auggie. Just simple."
"Weddings are never just simple. Or cheap."
"They always get away from people. I was a bridesmaid three times, Auggie. I've seen what damage happens."
Auggie nodded. "Well, we have control," he said. "We'll have something that suits us exactly."
Annie took up his hands. "Where do you want to do this?"
Auggie shook his head. "I don't know."
"Do you want to travel?"
"No, there's too much involved. I want a honeymoon with you. Just you."
"Well, let's concentrate on that part for our big event, and we'll make the actual affair small and as simple as we can." She was quiet for a moment. "Why not the house?"
"The house? Our house?"
"Yeah. We could have something there. It keeps it from getting too big. We could rent a hall after for a dance or something, if we had to. I'd rather just dance with you under twinkle lights in our own trees, though. You'd be more comfortable there then somewhere you've never been. We could let the kids play, or sleep... We have three bathrooms and a kitchen. What more do we need? Danielle and Michael can help us get it all ready. We just need a nice little arch or something pretty. Just a little garden wedding. Or if it rains, we can go on the verandah."
Auggie's smile grew bigger as she talked. It was like she was sneaking into the place in his mind where he'd stuck hopes that he didn't know he had. He squeezed her hands. "Are you sure?"
"I'm so sure," she said.
"Can we even invite Joan and Arthur? What is the protocol there? I mean, I want our friends from work there. Eric is your best man, right? And Holmon and James..."
"Annie," Auggie said. "Don't you have any friends from home that you want there? Old besties?"
"You're my bestie, remember?" Annie said with a smile.
He nodded back at her, "I know. But what about girl friends?"
"I left everyone behind. I never had besties, because we moved around so much. Danielle was my bestie."
"Okay," Auggie said. Well, that is a tentative list. We can work on that. So, the house... Food?"
They both answered that question immediately. "Danielle," they said in unison.
"Of course, we need to actually ask her, not tell her," Auggie said.
"I'll make it so she thinks it's her idea," Annie replied.
"Perfect execution to that," Auggie agreed.
"We're civil people, I'd say yes."
"Anybody in your family get mad if we don't do this in a Church?" Annie asked.
"None that would dare," Auggie replied. "You?"
"Well," Auggie said. "This seems easier then I thought it was going to be."
"Don't worry," Annie said. "It will get more terrifying and confusing the closer it gets."
"I was hoping you wouldn't say that," Auggie told her.
"It'll be okay," Annie said, and he believed her. It would all be okay. They would have the people that they loved and respected and needed the most and they would be in their own back garden, so that every day after, they would always remember that they made their lives and their home together there.
"So is that all we need? Place, date, idea of a list, general theme?"
"I'll handle the finer details. It won't overwhelm you, Auggie, I promise."
"You done? We ready?" Auggie made to climb out from the picnic table.
"Yup, back on the road," Annie said, bumping her hand against his wrist, and they returned back to the Corvette.
The next part of the road was less exciting. Annie kept at a decent speed, and there were no more road chases, police or otherwise. Auggie found himself zoning out, and so he fumbled around for another radio station.
"I'd like to visit the girls inn Italy on our honeymoon."
"Me, too. We'll have a stopover there."
"Where do you want to go? We've gone so many places. Together and alone."
"I have a request."
Annie turned to look at him for a second. "What is it, Hun?"
"I'd like to go to Egypt."
"Egypt?" Annie sounded surprised. "You want to go to Egypt?"
"I haven't seen the pyramids. And I guess I won't now. But I'd like to touch one. I don't even know if they let you get that close. I guess if I can't touch it, though, I could be anywhere in the sand."
"We'll look it up, Auggie. We'll figure that out. It's good to have ideas on the table. I'd love to go there, too."
Annie slowed the car, and pulled off into gravel. Auggie tilted his head, listening, trying to figure out where they were heading. Before he could ask, Annie gave him his answer.
"No. I have a better spot."
"Of course you do."
She parked and they unloaded everything they needed. Auggie linked onto Annie's elbow and they headed onto a quiet path that had long grasses on either side. Auggie felt the sand and rocks under his shoes and he could hear the trees.
"Is there anyone here?"
"Okay," Auggie said, a smirk on his mouth.
"There's a little sandy bit of beach here," Annie said. "And then, there's a trail back up on our right."
"And you know this, how?"
"I know lots of things."
"I won't deny that."
"We can have our picnic here on the beach. In the shade of these trees here. And then maybe, if you want, we can hike up this hill. Or down the beach. Nothing like a little physical exertion."
Auggie was grateful then. They'd done so much walking on their big tour in the winter, and Auggie had missed it. It wasn't something he could do on his own, and working out at the gym was nowhere near the same thing. At all.
Annie brought out the goods, and Auggie did his best to spread the blanket she'd handed him. When he was done, he sat and pulled off his loafer sneakers without unlacing them and put them just off the top corner of the blanket. He took off his sunglasses and put them in the right shoe. He stuck his feet in the sand, and dug his toes in. It had been too long.
"Good?" Annie asked, moving down beside him, bumping his shoulder with hers. He felt her mbare foot push sand over his and everything weighing over him dissipated.
"Definitely," Auggie replied. "But I still wanna know how you knew this was here?"
"I always had a tendency to drive when I'm angry... or sad... it's probably why I'm so good under pressure behind the wheel. I was pissed off one day... at a guy... and one of my friends... I just drove and drove and drove."
"Yeah. Good old emotional times."
"And it brought you here?"
"I just stopped. I got to here, I was heading to the coast, I guess. I came along the river and there was this road and I just pulled in and stopped."
Auggie was quiet. He liked to know about her. They so rarely gave up much of themselves, even as close as they had become, they didn't bring up the past. But Auggie knew that the past was important, because it moulded a person by every phase they passed through, into the person they were at the present. He wanted to know what made Annie Annie. Anyone who said the past didn't matter, Auggie didn't believe them. Not one bit. He knew they didn't believe it either, how could it not matter?
Every step forward begins with a firmly planted foot in the past, he thought again. He wasn't sure where he had heard that, or if he'd made it up, but it carried him through a lot of his own trials and troubles. And if he wasn't mistaken, he thought he gave Annie this sage piece of advice right after he'd met her. He really needed to start writing these things down, he thought. They actually sounded pretty good.
"Whatchya thinkin'?" Annie asked.
Auggie sighed and then turned his head toward her a little. "Just thinking about how everything happened the way it did so that we could sit here right now."
"That's pretty deep, Anderson," Annie said, pressing him sideways.
"I can't help it. I think a lot."
"Yeah, it's pretty sexy," Annie said.
"So when you stopped, I'm assuming you got out of the car."
"Yes. I did. I found this nice little beach, and I walked up the hill. I think it's an old walking path of some kind. There were a couple of marker posts."
She passed him a cold can of soda, bumping it against his forearm. He took it and found the key, and it fizzed a bit as he opened it.
There were sandwiches, and apples, and a bag of potato chips. There was a container of strawberries, and a handful of granola bars. She had a big bottle of water for them to share.
"You're a pretty good picnic packer," Auggie said.
"I know. I really am. I can't say I ever lost a guy because of my picnic basket."
"Well, you'd better only be packin' 'em for one guy now," Auggie said, feeling out on the blanket for one of the apples. "Sticker?" he asked.
"Nope, I de-stickered it," Annie said.
"Thanks," Auggie said, taking a bite.
"So you want to go for a walk, then?"
"Yeah. Maybe we can get a good heart rate up."
"You were used to moving around a lot," Annie said, matter-of-factly. "I mean, running and stuff."
Auggie gave her a poignant smile. "Yeah. I was pretty physical."
"That time in Sardinia... when you just ran on the beach. That must have felt freeing."
Auggie sighed, remembering the feeling. "It did."
"You should get a running partner. I mean, it wouldn't be as good as flying down a beach in an Italian island, but if you had a good pace-partner. You don't use the treadmill in the cardio room, do you."
"I tried it a few times," Auggie said. "It wasn't pretty. I'm supposed to be stationary on a moving track. Problem is, I can't tell where I am. I fell off the back a few times. I run into the front bar and then lose my bearings. Unless I hold on to the handrails, I don't stay in the right place, especially if I'm on an incline, and you just can't run holding onto handrails. It frustrated me, so I stopped."
"You should ask James. I bet he'd run with you."
Auggie thought about that. James was a sturdy guy, more a stamina man than a speed man, but he and Auggie could very well be evenly paced.
"Will you ask him?" Annie asked.
"I'll ask him."
"Good. I'd like to go with you, but I doubt we'd be a good match."
"We're a great match everywhere else," Auggie said.
"You don't lie," Annie said, eating a strawberry.
"I wish we had a pool at the gym," Auggie said.
"Euff, where would they put it, in the broom closet?" Annie said.
Auggie laughed. "Well, I wouldn't get lost," he said.
"You like to swim?" Annie asked, putting the trash in a bag. "I mean, we never really got to swim when we were away. We didn't pick one warm shore the whole time."
"I used to be on a swim team at college," Auggie said.
"Really? How come I didn't know this?"
"Hey, I'm not giving it away all at once," Auggie said. "I like to have some surprises for you."
"Just like you spending time with a host family in Buenos Aires?" Annie asked.
Auggie grinned, cheekily. "Just like that," he said.
He could feel the smile on her face, like a glow that warmed his cheeks and forehead. Why did that happen? And why, only with Annie? He reached out to her and she slid close to him.
"I love you, you know that, Anderson?"
Auggie was set with a smart reply, but he stopped, and let the smile soften on his mouth. "I love you, too, Walker. All the way," he said, feeling her fingers intertwine in his.
She stood up, tugging his hand behind her. He reached over for his shoes, pulled his sunglasses from the right one, and hooked them over the pocket on his shirt Then he undid the laces and put on his shoes before standing up and brushing the sand off.
"I'm pretty sure we can just leave this stuff here," Annie said. "You ready? Think you can keep up?"
"Bring it, Walker," he replied, and he felt her tap his folded cane against his hand. He took it and slid his hand up her elbow, feeling her warm, moist skin under his fingers. He relished the feeling, enjoying the opportunity that he had to do this all the time with her. In a slightly jealous part of his brain, he felt a moment of smug pride that Ryan McQuaid had never had this intimate touch with Annie every day he'd spent with her.
They headed back out from the beach and before they came to the gravel path leading to where the car was parked, Annie turned them to the right.
"It's kind of good," Annie said, hope in her voice.
"What's that mean?" Auggie said, screwing his face up at her.
"It's wide enough most of the way," Annie said, "but we'll have to watch out for the odd branch, and there are roots to content with. But it's pretty good. You okay with it?"
"Lead on," Auggie said, motioning with his hand, pulling the sunglasses from his pocket and putting them on. Sometimes, if the sun was bright, it made his eyes water and his head ache. It wasn't worth it.
They climbed the hill, and Auggie did his best to not trip over the roots and rocks as his cane kept catching on the terrain, but Annie somehow manoeuvred him around anything that would catch him up, or at least alerted him to duck for branches or step over anything she couldn't lead him around.
There were birds, singing, calling. Auggie turned his head as they walked, getting a full radar of sound, like an owl, Annie had told him once in Ireland. They walked for a long time, and part of the hill got steep. Auggie felt good, like the air was clearer and he was pumping more of it through his body.
"I don't have my phone," Auggie said, all of a sudden.
"So? We're off-book, off-grid."
"So, Annie, don't fall down or anything. There's no way I could get you out of here, and drive you to a hospital."
"I promise, I'll be careful," Annie assured him, her hand over the one on her elbow.
"Good, 'cause, as amazing as I am, there are some things I just can't do." He liked to project cockiness when he admitted a weakness beneath it.
"Well, as far as I can tell, you can pretty much do everything," Annie said.
"One big exception, there. You might have noticed it."
"All I noticed was how sexy you were," Annie teased him.
Auggie laughed, picking his feet up more than usual over the rough terrain.
"Then I may have noticed your headphones," she added.
"Gets 'em every time," Auggie said.
They climbed a little more, their path leading them around a few twists.
"Can you see down to the river?" Auggie asked.
"Nope," Annie said.
Auggie tilted his head and pulled Annie to a stop. "What that?"
Annie listened. "Water?"
Auggie nodded. We have a spring or something. Must feed the river from this hill. Can we find it? Maybe we can stick our feet in."
"I think the path goes over there. I didn't come this far before. I think it's a little brook, it looks like there's a little waterfall just at the top. Actually, more like rapids than a waterfall. Small scale rapids." The walked a little further and then rounded a knoll and Annie could see where the water was coming from.
"Oh, Auggie," she said. "I found our treasure."
"What? What is it?" Auggie could get no further clues from his senses, but he kept on beside Annie until she stopped.
"You're standing just in front of a fresh-water lake," she told him. "A small one. Maybe a really big pond. It's so clear, Auggie."
"Are there fish? Can you see any fish or anything?"
"Not right here. I would think it would have to be stocked every year if fish were to thrive. There's a little bit of garbage, but mostly it's pretty tranquil. We'll grab that when we go."
Auggie turned to Annie. "Could we swim here?"
Annie turned away, and Auggie let go of her arm as she asked, "Can you unzip me?" He reached back up and trailed his fingers across her back, locating the tab on the zipper.
"Either this means you're swimming," Auggie said, leaning in and kissing her neck, "or you're coming on to me."
"I have my swimsuit on underneath," Annie informed him.
"Oh." Auggie sounded disappointed.
"Come on," Annie prompted. "As much as you like to take your shirt off, you're holding back there, Soldier."
Immediately Auggie started unbuttoning his shirt. The knee-length grey cargo shorts would do for swimming; he'd realised that morning that the one pair of trunks he had were left on a boat in Eritrea a few years ago. He'd also realised he had not been swimming for a very long time.
Annie took his cane, laying it by her sundress. She took the shirt off his shoulders and as she did so, she traced the tattoo across his back before she put his shirt and shoes with her clothes. Auggie's back tingled from the slight touch she'd given him. She returned, and this time, the flat of her hand pressed against his back.
Auggie smiled at her and nodded, holding out his hand. She clasped hers around it and squeezed twice.
"Okay. We have about three steps and then the water, and it's all sandy, not muddy. Some small rocks. No grass here. It looks like it gets pretty deep towards the middle."
"Come on." Auggie started walking, pulling her with him. She pulled ahead, still holding his hand, and they both ran into the water, laughing, splashing as they raced. Annie dropped down into the water and Auggie dove a shallow dive beside her, coming up and wiping the water off his face.
"Whooo!" Annie gasped. "Beautiful!"
Auggie smiled, feeling unbelievably happy as he lifted his feet to float for a minute. He found the bottom again and stood. "Can we swim a distance at all?"
"We sure can, babe, it's about a hundred feet across. By about fifty."
"Okay. Keep me straight. Just go ahead a bit, I can hear you if you give me cues."
He heard her splash and the sound of her body breaking the water. Auggie pushed off and started in a breast stroke, listening to Annie until he had the direction mostly sorted. Then he switched into a crawl, breathing every second stroke, pushing through the water swiftly. It had been so long since he felt the feeling of weightless motion, almost like flying. It was something that couldn't be touched by blindness. Though it had taken him several moments of panic to first reacquaint himself with water without sight, he'd learned to breathe and focus on not panicking. Once he learned this, he could always orient himself to what was up and what was down, and once above the surface, the sound of the wave breaking on the shore, or the sound of land birds and sea birds, he could usually find his way to shore. It depended on where he was swimming, but he'd learned to control his panic in the water so that he could feel the freedom it gave him.
He felt Annie touch his back gently and he stopped, his feet touching ground. "Are we at the other side?" he asked.
"Yes. I didn't know you were so..."
Auggie broke out in a laugh. "Race you back," he said, turning a hundred-and-eighty-degrees and diving back into the water.
She shouted him back on course twice as they raced back through the water, and then she called out for him to stop before he beached himself. Three more times they did this, and then they just lingered in the water together. Annie swam a few circles around Auggie as they talked and laughed. He pulled her onto his lap, where the buoyancy of the water made her so light she barely stayed in contact. She revealed that she really wanted to renovate the closets in the bedroom because they were horrible. Auggie agreed with her completely. After being able to navigate his old closet so easily without sight, this one seemed desperately cramped and disorganised, all pushed together. They pondered what would work best with the space they had and then they finally realised they'd been in the water long enough for their fingers to pucker a little, and so, reluctantly, they climbed from the lake, water streaming off them.
"We have no towels," Annie said.
"We'll be dry in no time," Auggie told her, taking the shirt she pushed into his hands. He put it on and left it untucked after he buttoned it. He put his shoes on and then she was standing in front of him again. He reached out, gliding his hand down her back to find the zipper pull. He drew it up and then turned her toward him, his hand reaching over her arm to pull her close to him. He pressed his right hand against the wet hair on her neck and reached up with his left hand to touch her cheek. Smiling, he closed his eyes and kissed her. He felt her arms around his back, her fingers rubbing against the linen shirt.
He would never stop loving this woman. He never had stopped loving her since she'd come into his life on those high heels of hers.
"We're coming back here again," Auggie said when they broke away.
Annie just laughed and pressed herself against him one more time and he hugged her tight.
The drive home was quiet. Auggie loved the feeling of the evening air whirling around. A few places they passed were swampy enough to host choruses of frogs. Auggie was once again grateful that, though he hadn't realised it, part of his brain had foreseen that Auggie still needed that car when he gave it to Annie. And had he listened to that part then, he wouldn't have left to follow Parker. The sounds that being in a convertible afforded him were above and beyond the stifling confinement of a car. They didn't even have the radio on, but the rumble of the engine calmed him like the sax of a jazz tune. He wasn't sleepy, but he felt content to just sit back and listen, to feel everything in even more powerful ways than he had a long time ago, back in the days when sights were all that mattered in the fast paced world he threw himself in. He hadn't known how to fully take it all in back then.
Annie reached over and put her hand on his knee. He put his hand over hers. There was absolutely no doubt in Auggie's mind that everything was exactly as it should be for him, for them, at last.