"I'm down here on the hammock," Annie called to him, glancing up at her fiancé on the verandah above her.
He smiled, and found the railing. He knew how many steps it took to reach her. When he got close, he reached out his hand, and in a moment, her hand enclosed it and brought him to her.
"Hey," he said, a lazy grin on his face.
"Hey," she said, pulling him down to her. He kissed her, keeping his lips against hers for an extra long time.
"This hammock is built for two," Annie told him.
"Oh, it is, is it?"
"Why don't you come test it out with me?" She moved over, tugging on his hand. He sat down and slid across it until he felt it counterbalance, and then he lifted up his feet and lay beside Annie, cradling her in his arms.
"This is nice," Auggie said.
"It is." Annie closed her eyes. "I wish we could do this forever."
"No. I have to go to Geneva tomorrow. And I have to go to Paris in the middle of the week."
"Well, we have today. Besides, when do you find yourself being forced to go to Paris, Walker?"
"No, of course, you're right. I love Paris."
"You don't sound so sure now."
"No, of course I love Paris."
"Let me guess... you wish you had a bigger shopping budget."
"Of course I do," she laughed.
They lay there for a while in silence, listening to the birds around them.
"Are you reading?" Auggie asked.
"I kinda was. Well, I was kinda daydreaming."
"What could a woman like you need to daydream about? Unless it's weddings or something."
"I thought I could be practical," she admitted. "But it's not going so well."
"Why? What could possibly be impractical about a wedding?"
Annie made a little sound. Auggie turned to her, still holding her in his arms. "Annie. Don't get too far out of your realm. But if you want a little more storybook in your wedding, by all means, my dear sweet woman. You haven't even gone to get a dress, have you?"
"No. I just... I wanted Danielle here. I don't know. I didn't think I wanted to go too fancy. But now that it's getting closer, I keep thinking of these things I wanted when I was a girl."
"Oh, I don't know. Like, tradition, somehow. We were such an untraditional family... I think I wanted something that everyone else wanted. Just a little."
"You can have whatever you want. Within reason. Is that the phone?"
"Yes. Don't answer it, we don't answer today."
"You don't have to tell me twice," Auggie said. "I'm not moving again today."
"What about lunch?"
Auggie scrunched an eye in a display of thought, a grin on his face. "I'd be willing to sit up. Maybe. Or you could feed me grapes like the Romans."
"Oh, dream on, Buster."
"Well, can't blame a guy for trying."
The phone rang again.
"Desperate," Annie pondered.
"Don't care," sang Auggie.
"Neither do I," Annie said. "Do you think your whole family will come for the wedding? I haven't received all the RSVPs back yet."
"I think they've been waiting for any opportunity to scope me out," Auggie admitted. "I think I've caused a huge bottleneck of need-to-know. My whole plan backfired, and they are even more desperate to figure me out."
"Well," Annie said. "Maybe you should just let them."
Anything Auggie had been going to say never made it from his brain to his mouth.
"I mean it, Auggie. I mean, national security and all that, but the real details of your life, our lives, I'm sure you're tired of hiding. As much as I dreaded coming clean to my mother, to Danielle, even, it sure takes a huge weight and bother off me. I don't have to make up stuff. Or hide from them. My mother has everything to make her mind up, but I don't have to worry about my part in it anymore. That's what I'm realising I feel. Secrets and lies wear a person out."
"I know that as well as you," Auggie said.
"Well. I'm not telling you what you don't already know, then."
There was a sense of peace as they both stopped and listened to a bird in the tree along the edge of the wood. Their two worlds couldn't be further apart, and they both sat between them, deciding which one meant more.
"Okay, now I am hungry," Annie said. "I was fine until you talked about food."
"I didn't talk about food. You mentioned lunch."
"Yeah, well. I only had coffee this morning, and half of a bagel."
"I know. I found the other half," replied Auggie. "And I ate it with cream cheese and a side of bacon."
"You didn't," Annie said.
Auggie just smiled. "It was good."
"Oh, just to let you know, I do not see a Frisbee anywhere. I looked around this morning. I think that kid was playing you, Auggie. Wanted to come check you out. Probably saw your hot rod car."
"Your hot rod car," Auggie corrected her. "And he was looking for a playmate."
"Aw, it's too bad we have to disappoint him," Annie said.
"Isn't it? No kids, no dogs. We don't even have a fish. We are lousy new neighbours," Auggie said playfully.
"How old is he, could you tell?"
"No, eight, nine? I don't know for sure. Name's Toby."
"Well, that's weird. Did you tell him?"
"No. I figured if I told him I had a brother named Toby, I'd just be opening a can of worms. This kid had plenty to say, and then when he was done, he was done."
"Well, I think it's a sign," Annie said. "He's got the name of your closest brother. You'll be playing Frisbee with him before the summer is out," Annie said.
Auggie laughed, and squeezed Annie's hand. "I did enjoy a good game of Frisbee," he said.
Annie squeezed his hand back.
After a few moments of just lying there, Annie turned to look at Auggie. "Nope, I'm still hungry," she admitted to him.
"Well, I guess we could go in and make something."
"You know what? I could kill for one of those Tazel sandwiches." Annie sat up and Auggie rearranged himself beside her, his feet on the grass. "Why don't I run out and get us a couple and pick up some beer in case we have company tonight. Now that we have this normal couple lifestyle."
"You want me to come?" Auggie asked.
"No, you stay here. Hold down the fort. I won't be long." Annie stood and Auggie reached up, touching her back as he stood up, too. He kept contact with her as they headed back to the steps, feeling the soft texture of the cotton dress she wore. She stopped just before the steps and he put his other hand out, searching the air for the railing. As he located it, Annie began up the stairs. It had become a comfortable way to manoeuvre their home and property, his hand just barely grazing the small of her back, feeling her motion.
"Be right back," she said, slipping on some sandals, throwing a scarf around her neck, and grabbing her purse and her sunglasses. She put her hand on Auggie's shoulder and leaned in, kissing him.
He heard the sound of the car starting. The Corvette. He smiled, imagining how she would look as she stepped out of it, dropping men's, and women's, he mentally added, jaws everywhere. And she was all his.
He turned back to the living room where he knew there was a Braille novel on the table. He hadn't read a lot of novels since he'd lost his sight. It felt impractical and he was always working on something for Joan or Annie, not letting himself ever take pleasure in things that he'd enjoyed. But since this house had happened, Auggie had found himself looking for books in Braille. Annie was commonly found curled up around a book when she was on her down time, and it made Auggie miss it. He located the book and checked that the place was still marked. He was just debating on getting a drink of something when the doorbell rang.
Puzzled, he turned back to the door and opened it a crack. "Hello?" he asked, keeping his eyes cast down, so the guest would realise he needed a hint.
"August, hello," said the voice.
Auggie's mind raced through the bank of voices. He knew he recognised this one. It was someone to do with... Parker? No. It was Danielle. And Annie. The realisation hit him.
"Mrs. Walker," Auggie said.
"You knew me," she said, suspiciously.
"It was a close one," Auggie replied, unsure as to what he was supposed to say. "Uh, won't you come in? Annie just stepped out for a minute, but I'm sure if she had known you were coming—"
"I called four times." She stepped past him.
He turned, letting the door close. "Oh," he said.
"I'm sorry, August—"
"Auggie. You can call me Auggie."
"I'm sorry for barging in. I... I wanted to talk to Annie. I was too upset to ask the right questions. I don't want to go to Danielle's before I finish this."
"When you say finish," started Auggie.
"I mean finish this discussion. I'm assuming you were aware that I talked to her. That she told me about this little secret you both have been living. You told me she was dead, August."
"I know," Auggie said, with true regret. He knew he couldn't have done anything differently, but it didn't make it any easier when he had stood in front of Annie's own mother and lied to her face. "I couldn't say anything. Not without risking her life. Again. It was the hardest thing I had to do, that day I called Danielle."
"And Danielle has obviously forgiven you."
"It took her a while. And I don't blame her one bit. Just as I don't blame you for being angry. With her, with me. It's a position we all are put in when we make the choice to work for the Agency. Some people never tell their loved ones. Annie wrestled with telling Danielle for ages years ago. I remember having lots of long talks about it. She struggled."
"And so Danielle knew all this time," Mrs. Walker said.
"Annie needed someone who wouldn't walk away from her. Danielle almost did. It broke Annie. What would you have done if she'd come to you?"
"Lies. All of you with your lies. I guess the apples didn't fall far from the trees with those girls."
"Look, I'm not sure what happened with you and Annie's father. Annie hasn't told me everything about those times except about good times when they were young. I think she wants to just remember the good stuff. She and Danielle have done their best. They are so close, it's really good, Mrs. Walker. Annie needs that. Danielle, too." He walked over to the living room and gestured Annie's mother inside. "Please, come in and sit. Annie will be back shortly. She went to get some lunch and a few things."
He stood, waiting to hear her walk across the floor and sit. When she did, he sat down, too."
"So was that a lie, too?"
"Was what a lie?"
"Can you see, August? Or is it part of your cover?"
Auggie shook his head. He hadn't ever been accused of that before. "Excuse me?"
"You recognised me at the door. You watched me come over and waited for me to sit. What kind of crazy scheme does that place set you up with? Annie's dead, you're blind."
"First of all, I really am blind, Mrs. Walker. That's no lie, and definitely no scam. Why would anyone carry on that kind of charade if they didn't have to? I was blinded in Iraq, in a real war, with real men that really died. Not a lie. It's a disservice to all of them to think I'm lying about my representation." Auggie tried to keep his voice low. He took a breath. "Secondly, Annie wasn't made to do what she did. It was her idea. Just to set the record straight. And she came to you because, in the end, she wanted her mother to be here for her when she got married."
There was a silence, and Auggie wasn't sure what the woman was thinking. He hated that he'd had that outburst. He hadn't intended to speak of any of it until Annie came back, but her words had forced him to play a hand.
"This house," Annie's mother said.
Auggie waited for her to continue.
"You really love her."
"More than anyone I've ever met in my life."
"I'm sorry I said you lied. I just don't know what's real and what's not anymore. You say Danielle knew... and you knew..."
"Danielle didn't know, not at the funeral. Annie told her last year, before we went away."
"My own children," she said. "Where did I go wrong?"
"You didn't go wrong anywhere that I can tell, Mrs. Walker. They are wonderful women. You did a great job. They love each other, they look out for each other. They're stronger now than they were before. They are smart, capable, beautiful, productive, well-scrupled people. They worried about how you would react. You raised two great, strong women. You need to trust them. You need to trust Annie. Believe in her. She's been afraid for a long time that you don't. She thinks she disappointed you a long time ago, and that you've never appreciated who she is. And, I can vouch for her, Mrs. Walker. She's an amazing person. And I don't want to live without her. And I hope you don't, either."
"She loves you," Mrs. Walker said. "I could see it when she talked about you."
Auggie smiled a little. "I love her, too. I've loved her for years. It took me a while to admit it at the right time," he said.
"And you can take care of her? Provide for her?"
"I can. I do. Though she's pretty capable of taking care of and providing for herself. She doesn't need me to do it for her. But she's willing to let me try."
"And what about this house? How do you take care of this place? Surely Annie doesn't have to do all the cleaning and lawn care and—"
"No, Mrs. Walker. She does not." Auggie held his breath for a minute. He didn't want to go there. First she thought he was lying about his blindness and now she thought he couldn't contribute to the household or look after her daughter. He counted to ten, hoping his face reflected nothing to her about his inner patience being frayed. Instead, he stood.
"Would you like something to drink?" he asked. "Coffee? Tea? I think we have juice."
"No, I'm fine, August. I can wait until Annie comes back."
Auggie shook his head instead of opening his mouth, and then he headed to the kitchen. He needed something to drink, that was for sure, and he hoped Annie came home with lots of beer very soon. The woman in the living room would drink some tea if it killed her to do so, he'd see to it. And if the tea didn't kill her, thought Auggie, his kindness would. He took a deep breath and smiled back toward the other side of the house.
"You should take a look outside, Mrs. Walker. Nice little yard out there. Good peaceful place for Annie to come home to. She likes the flowers. They made her feel content when she looked after them. I don't know what's out there in bloom now, I can't keep track unless they're super fragrant, you know." Auggie talked as he set the kettle on the stove. He figured she would still be in the living room, scoping the room out, or maybe, if she were being polite, she'd go to the patio doors and have a look outside.
"Can I help you with anything?" Her voice was directly across the island from him and he jumped in surprised.
"Oh. I'm sorry, August. I shouldn't have snuck up on you."
Auggie set down the kettle, and snapped on the burner dial. "No. You gave me a start there, but it's okay. And no, I'm fine. Please, go have a look outside. I think you'll like it. Do you take milk or cream or sugar?"
"You don't have to go to this trouble," she protested.
"Ma'am," said Auggie, his patience wearing thin, "please. Cream or sugar?" Auggie was calm on the exterior.
"I'm sorry. Of course, um, just some cream, thank you."
Auggie set everything out to wait for the water to boil, and then he followed the edge of the island around to where Annie's mother stood, tentatively watching him to see how he worked. He held out his hand.
"Please," he said. "Let me show you. The kettle whistles. Nice and loud." He smiled at her as warmly as he could muster. "Come," he repeated, opening his hand up even more to her. Thankfully, she was her daughter's mother, and she took it. And he looped his arm around hers, like he did with Annie, and he physically walked her to the patio doors, sliding his hand along until he opened the door handle and led her through.
He remained silent, letting her look around, letting her see what he and Annie had for themselves. She stepped away from his side and moved to the edge of the verandah to the railing.
"A hammock," he heard her say. "She got her hammock."
He followed her sound movement around the verandah, staying close to the door in case the kettle began to whistle. He wished he could take her first impressions in, but other than that one comment, she gave nothing away. He waited.
Finally, she spoke. "You and she chose this place together?"
"We did. We looked at a lot of houses, and by looked, I mean Annie looked and I stood and listened. This one had stories."
She was appraising him right there, in his doorway. He felt her scrutiny on his skin. He knew it was because she loved Annie, and it was why he needed to keep trying with this woman. She wanted more for her daughter than what she had ended up with. She wanted to know her daughter was safe, was loved, was taken care of, was appreciated, and would not be left alone.
The kettle started to whistle, and Auggie moved back inside to the kitchen. He made Annie's mother her cup of tea, measuring in a little cream to start, and then poured one for himself. He was prepared to pick them both up and carefully make the walk back to the verandah, but Auggie felt her, like a shadow, moving toward the island.
He faced her and held out the mug, hoping she wasn't expecting anything classier.
"Thank you, Auggie," she said, receiving it.
"We'll sit outside?" Auggie asked, feeling a little less anxious hearing her say his nickname.
They each took a seat in a rocking chair out on the verandah.
"It's a beautiful home," Mrs. Walker said.
"Thank you. Annie will have to show you its finer details when she's back."
"You've known Annie as long as she worked... at... that place, true?"
"Yes. I took her into my charge on her first day. We've been pretty much together in some form or another ever since. Mostly as friends. Sometimes more. And finally more. I've always had her back, Mrs. Walker. No matter where in the world she was, no matter what time of day or night, Annie Walker had me. And she has me now. I'm not going anywhere, Mrs. Walker."
"When were you in Iraq, Auggie?"
"Two-thousand-and-seven," Auggie rattled off.
"And Annie started?"
"Oh-nine," said Auggie.
"So she never knew you before you were blinded then?"
"No, she didn't."
"And it's never been a problem?"
"For me it has been. For Annie, I don't think so. For us together? No. It's the smallest of the things we've dealt with since we met. Your daughter is an amazing woman. She's completely accepting and creative and thoughtful and empathetic and selfless. And I don't think she learned all those things on her own. And it wasn't just a fluke, because your other daughter is the same way.
"Mrs. Walker, I love Annie. I would do anything to keep her safe and happy. That's a promise to you. I will always put her first."
He heard the rockers under her chair creak forward on the wooden boards, and her hand rested on his forearm, though she said nothing.
Auggie heard Annie's car coming up the drive and the engine stopped. Mrs. Walker heard it, too, she took her hand from Auggie's arm and stood, walking around the deck of the verandah to the front of the house to meet her daughter. Auggie stood, too, knowing Mrs. Walker had already forgiven them both.