Dan’s head is in his hands when Jack arrives. Jack doesn’t knock, he lets himself in, walks through the house and finds Dan sitting on the edge of the sofa.
“I should have told you.” Dan speaks without looking up.
Jack, bone-achingly tired, lowers himself slowly into a chair opposite Dan, every muscle protesting, his battered body trying to find a position that doesn’t ache.
Dan speaks, head still angled to the floor. “There’s something you don’t know, something I should have told you a long time ago.”
“It’s just that I pretended to myself it wasn’t my business to tell you. That it was up to Raife.”
“Dan.” Jack’s voice is louder now and Dan looks up, eyes bleary and red. “I know.”
Dan takes a deep breath, bringing his hands to his head, slowly running his fingers backward through messy hair. “How?”
“Raife just told me.”
“You don’t have to be. You’ve done nothing wrong.”
“But I didn’t tell you. I stayed quiet, knowing.” Clenching a fist, he bangs the table and the sound echoes around the sparsely furnished room. “I knew that Raife was messed up. I knew he’d go out that night and drink to forget. When I heard about the crash I wasn’t surprised. Desperately fucking sad, but not surprised. The only shock was that you were driving and not him.”
Jack turns to the window; it’s all too much, all of it. And this new and unexpected angle was not, has never been, part of the story. The story that mapped out his life for seventeen years. Seventeen fucking years of believing the world looked one way, only to find he’d been looking at the wrong picture.
“Well, say something.” Dan looks up for the first time since he’s arrived. “Jesus Christ, what happened to you?”
He doesn’t have the energy to explain. “Got any beer?”
Beers to hand they sip as Dan works, cleaning and mending Jack’s face and hands. The silence is good and by the time the slice across Jacks eye is sutured and the crusts of old blood washed and cleared, a quiet healing has taken place.
Jack hadn’t been angry at Raife’s confession, just shocked. He’s still shocked, the news that Raife is gay circles around his head, settling only to be shaken off in disbelief.
Raife is gay. Raife has always known, and most of his life he’s hidden it away. Ashamed of who he is and how he feels, then later of what he did. Raife and Dan together, just once. The night before the crash - the night life changed for everyone.
For Raife, the repercussions were evidence of everything that was wrong about who he really was and how he felt. For Dan, his night with Raife had brought an understanding of who he was and why he’d always felt different, a joy of connection and a reason not to feel alone.
Two teenage boys in a small community where differences are bigger and gossip louder. They’d agreed not to talk about it again, to tell no-one and to carry on like normal. Dan felt happiness believing he’d found something he hadn’t known he’d been looking for. The experience changed his world. Raife felt terror. The experience changed his world too.
The next day, he’d gone on like nothing had changed, although everything was different. He’d kissed his girlfriend Lil like he meant it, he’d gotten them drunk, found some good weed and got everyone high. He was afraid. He knew now why nothing fit and why he was different, and later why he was always angry. He would never be truly happy because back then he could never, ever admit how he really felt.
That was the night of the crash, and here they are years later hashing it all up. Years later, when everyone’s life should have moved on and grown roots, blossomed and settled. Instead they remain moored there, unable to move on from the tragic accident and the heavy load of blame.
“It was the first time for me. I mean, the first time I realised fully.” Dan speaks quietly as he dabs Jack’s face with a cotton ball doused in antiseptic. “I knew the kind of guy Raife was; I knew he’d pretend like nothing had happened. Then, the next night…” Dan stops and Jack pushes his hand away from his face.
“It’s okay, that’s enough, it’s all good,” he feels his cheekbone where the new sutures sting.
“But it’s not, is it?” Dan sits down beside him.
“Dan, I’ve spent a lot of time blaming myself for Lil’s death, for Raife taking off and screwing up. Now don’t get me started on feeling bad because you’ve been nursing guilt all these years.” He reaches out squeezing Dan’s forearm. “You’re a great friend, I know you, I know how you are. None of this, you hear me? None of this was ever your fault. If I’ve learned anything today, it’s that it was all fucking tragic accident.” He sighs heavily and sips his beer. “If Lil was here she’d be kicking all three of us up the ass and telling us to move the fuck on.”
Dan turns away to hide the tears that fall silently.
Jack pulls him in, Dan’s head tucked tightly into his chest. No words, but comfort, forgiveness and acceptance of differences and mistakes.
Outside in the car, Jack’s phone lies face up on the passenger seat. Missed calls: seven. It rings again but he won’t hear it, not yet.
Sadie and Jed came to take Sunny. I was a mess and he was scared and confused. I couldn’t get hold of Jack, his phone rang and rang, I’d left messages. Ginny had called Sadie and they’d come straight away.
Jed promised to find Jack and Sadie swooped up Sunny and plied him with smiles and the promise of treats at Beaujangles. He was a little dazed and unsure about leaving, but I’d lied and promised Evie would be just fine and so would Louie, and we’d all be at home together tonight.
Sunny kept talking about Louie and how Ginny was hitting him with the blue spade. He’d somehow blocked out the sight of his sister’s mangled face and for that I’m glad.
Scratch that, I’m not glad or sad, or angry. I’m terrified. Shaken to the bone, waiting to hear if my baby will still be able to see. If her face can be mended and if her life will be marked by this terrible moment; before and after.
Ginny waited with me, no word from the doctors yet, nothing. The nothing is too much to bear. I can deal with something, anything, but the nothing is killing me.
When Jack strides through the double doors I crumple. His face looks like he’s wrestled a crazed dog too but I don’t care. Sobbing I rush to him; his eyes are dark his expression barely composed. He becomes the focus of everything that’s gone wrong and for a short hysterical time I lose complete control. As his arms open to me, I bat them away with my fists and launch myself at his chest, punching and pummelling and yelling. If there’s a scene and people are staring, I don’t notice or care. Jack takes the blows then after a time pulls me in, crushing my flailing arms against his chest, burying his face in my hair.
“I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t tell me your sorry Jack, don’t tell me you’re sorry.” I drop to my knees and sob.
He picks me up, and asks the nurse if we can go somewhere quiet, she ushers us into a small empty room where Jack lies me down on the bed. I’m shaking but so is he, it’s not his fault, but I don’t know what to do.
He holds my shoulders firmly. “You have to hold it together Billie.” I nod desperately trying to. I can’t let Evie down, I must hold it together.
Shakily I tell him what happened. He nods, hands tight around my shoulders, eyes closed, feeling his way through what comes next. I pull the hand that holds my shoulder around to my lips then bring it to my heart as fat, heavy tears roll silently down his rough and bloodied cheeks.
When the surgeon knocks a few minutes later, he looks kindly at us both. His eyes are warm and caring but they widen a little at the sight of Jacks battered face.
“Mr and Mrs Skylark?”
We’re on our feet. “No, I mean I am, he’s not, sorry. How is she?”
“She’s asleep now, the surgery went well. She’s a very lucky little girl.”
I breathe, but it’s a careful unsure breath. “What does that mean?”
He smiles, ushering us to sit but I don’t want to. “The puncture wounds missed her tear ducts and the lacerations on either side of her eyes have been stitched and should heal with minimal scarring.”
“She’ll be able to see?” I don’t wait for his answer? “Her eyes are okay? I mean, it just looked so bad, the bleeding was terrible and…”
“Mrs Skylark, facial lacerations are messy and the bleeding is always heavy, luckily the wounds were not deep and her eyesight will be unaffected. You can go in and see her now, she’s asleep.”
In a haze of relief, we thank the surgeon profusely and are led into the recovery room where Evie lies heavily bandaged, her eyes swollen and bruised. She looks peaceful despite everything. It will be okay, we have dodged another bullet, but we will be okay.
I sleep at the hospital in an armchair beside her bed. Jack waits till we are settled then leaves. We haven’t talked about what happens next, for now I know Evie will be okay and that’s about all I can deal with after this day of days. I kiss him goodbye, pretending I don’t know what he has to do. But I know.
He hears the howls from the road. Tied up beneath the gum tree, Louie cries and Bets answers, cowering under the deck, alone and afraid.
He’d known Louie was old, but he hadn’t known he was sick. He must be in pain; he must have been hurting to do this. Wrapped up in himself he hadn’t noticed the change in his faithful dog. Louie howls again, and Jack waits in the car, head in his hands.
He has to be strong and do what’s right; he must fold his heart away till it’s done.
It’s raining again, and there’s no beauty in this rain. It’s cruel and colourless, but when it’s over everything will be washed away. Unlocking the box in the work shed he pulls the gun free. Bets whimpers beside him, he stoops and ruffles her smooth fur, motions her to lay down then locks her inside.
As he crosses the fence to Billie’s yard Louie’s howls soften to a whine. He can sense Jack is coming, he’ll soon be free. Jack keeps his eyes to the ground, tries not to look as Louie wags his tail, ears back, flooded with happiness that he is no longer alone. It has to be quick, he mustn’t stall, but he has to say goodbye.
He lays the gun on the ground and kneels to Louie who folds himself into Jacks arms, licking and wagging, all eyes and tail. “Good boy, good boy.” Jack strokes his back and lets his face rest against the wet nose, “I’ll take care of you boy, it’s okay.” He brushes his lips on the silky wet head, steps back, picks up the gun and fires.
The gunshot is muffled by the heavy rain. He unties Louie and holds the limp body for a time before carefully wrapping him in his jacket. Walking slowly to the end of his garden, he lays the bundle down and begins to dig.
It’s our first night home from hospital, the twins are asleep and the house is dark. It’s good to be home. Moving out into the still darkness I walk to the edge of the deck and down the steps to the grass. There is no breeze, tree frogs and mosquitoes drone and chirp as wafts of heady perfume rise up from the earth as it cools.
I’m drawn to the gum tree. On the grass below lies the rope that tied Louie, and alongside, lying awkwardly is the blue plastic spade, its handle broken. Kneeling down on the soil I say a little prayer to Louie, hands flat to the spot he took his last breath.
As I untie the rope and pick up the spade a light comes on in Jack’s workshop. I hear him opening the door, he moves slowly and without meaning to I say his name aloud. He turns, and the door to the work shed gapes open, light spilling across the yard to where I stand, on the other side of the fence beneath the gum tree.
Jack comes to me slowly, his steps careful and quiet. We have not been alone since the accident. I want to hold him and comfort him and have him hold and comfort me in return, but I feel a barrier between us. Both too sore, too sad, guilty, and needy to be of any use to the other. I hold my hands out to him wondering if there will ever be a time for us, the fences that separate us grow higher. He takes my hands but doesn’t pull me in and doesn’t speak. We stand there in the sliced, electric light, arms length, holding hands, together but apart.
Nothing is the same after Louie and Evie. We’re all dejected, a little broken and desperately sad. I keep my distance from everyone for a time, not wanting to spread the despair that has settled in my heart. It will pass I know. I’ve been here before but for now, I can manage only my own feelings. Take care of the twins, be a good mother, small steps every day. It’s all any of us can do.
Is it possible we are at the mercy of the stars, the pull of the moon and tides? Or are pawns in a chess game of life controlled by the heavens? Sometimes it’s easier to believe that we have no control and we deal with what we’re dealt. And that what we’re dealt is not necessarily a reflection of what we deserve but what we can manage. In the inevitable stew that is life and living we are each given our portion.
Evie is happy at home, battle-scarred but smiling. She doesn’t seem to remember much of what happened so we don’t talk about it. Her bandages are off, her eyesight is fine, her tear ducts weep, but the doctor says it’s a reaction to trauma and soon it will pass.
Mike moved out permanently and Ginny has their house up for sale. She’s put in a bid on an apartment downtown, a new beginning and I think it’s good.
Sadie and Jed are due to be married next month, here in St. Cloud at La Misère, our most beautiful beach. Sadie has good and bad days but as she tells me regularly, her head is always good; it’s her body that lags a little behind. Jed is generally the happiest guy around and the coffee is so damn good I think profits are soaring in Beaujangles.
Dan comes by every day to check Evie and dress her wounds. We drink coffee and eat Tim Tams. We talk about something and nothing, and it’s exactly what we both need.
Zoe and Felix are underground with their little family, absorbed in the intense first few months of a new baby with a big personality.
Raife has been at Sentinels Bay, repairing their father’s old boat, keeping out of Jack’s way for now. He came to me not long ago and apologised, I accepted, Jack had told me everything; and I have to believe that everyone deserves a second chance.
Jack and I circle around one another, so much has happened and we both need time. I see him at night, down at the end of the yard where he buried Louie, Bets at his heels. The words I rely on are empty, there’s nothing to say to change or make it better. Today, he leaves for St. Eloise and Raife has agreed to go too. Together they will return home, spend some time with Amandine and Joseph and help Saul and Jess with the farm. Their baby is close and there is much work to be done. We said goodbye this morning, and the departure has left me with a heavy heart.
The phone rings and reluctantly I put down my pen. I’m journaling, before I get down to the real work of editing. The being signed by a publisher malarkey isn’t quite the quick road to success I’d first thought. God damn they want me to change things! And much as it galls me, I know they’re right. So we communicate by email, they send me their comments and I go about editing. At this rate my book might be for sale by the twins’ eighteenth birthday.
I grab the phone impatiently but it’s Cam, and I’m so thrilled I forget about my journal, and my book, and my heavy heart. And I listen happily to his news before telling him mine.
When I hang up I feel lighter, less sombre and self-indulged. I pick up the phone and call Ginny, she answers first ring. “Ginny, it’s me, Billie. I think Sadie needs a hen party.”
They travel in silence, he thinks this is what they need. To learn to be around one another again; removing the resentment leaves their relationship saggy and wavering. They need time to let it find its shape.
It’s a beautiful road and Jack enjoys this drive, Bets lies in the bed of the truck, mouth open to the breeze. She’s happy to be with them but looks at Raife like he should know he’s no replacement for Louie.
The drive has been peaceful, the weather good. They’d stopped and camped on route. Soon they’ll take the boat to St. Eloise. It feels right, like the last piece in the jigsaw, to go home and try and make peace with Joseph and see if together they can support their mother.
Jack’s not sure how things will go. Raife hasn’t spoken to Amandine since the last call when she didn’t know who he was. Saul has gone quiet, snowed under with the orchard and the fishing business. With Jess unable to work and a handful of unreliable island staff he’s just getting by. It will good to be there for a while and help, even if the help is only physical.
The radio plays and Raife dozes in the passenger seat. They haven’t spoken again about the past; about the accident, about Billie or Dan. Jack doesn’t want to and he assumes neither does Raife. He has no expectations of what might happen with Raife, where he will go and what he’ll do but he’s willing to give him a chance.
Together they are all starting over.
It’s dark when they arrive. Saul hasn’t come to meet them and they hitch a lift the last few kilometres. The driver drops them at the intersection beside the dirt road leading to Saul’s place and together they walk through the night with Bets at their heels.
“Do they know we’re coming?” Raife sounds anxious.
“I called, they know.”
“No welcoming party huh?”
“That what you were expecting?”
Raife shrugs. “I’m still getting used to the fact the world doesn’t revolve around me.”
Jack hears the smile in his voice. “Good, you’d better. Saul will have you working for your keep starting 5.00 am.”
They can see lights now, two houses, set well apart. As they reach the gates a voice breaks the dark.
“Is that you boys?” A flashlight flicks on, dazzling Raife who raises an arm to shield his eyes. “Holy shit, it’s the prodigal sons.” Saul laughs, vaulting the gate and jogging toward them.
It’s nearly midnight and Jess is asleep on the sofa. Saul’s voice is so loud she jumps as they enter, smiling and struggling to her feet. “You’re here.” She’s up and across the room before they can stop her.
“Are you sure there’s only one in there?” Jack embraces her, although her tummy makes the manoeuvre a challenge.
“So they tell me,” Jess smiles indulgently at Raife and moves toward him as he waits awkwardly in the corner of the kitchen. “Look at you.”
Raife nods, grinning. “I should say the same to you.” She pulls him into a warm embrace, manoeuvring her belly sideways to get close.
They spend the next hour around the kitchen table. Raife entertains, telling stories of his time away, leaving out the bad stuff and exaggerating the good. It’s what he does and Jack doesn’t mind. Saul talks about the orchard, the crop and the coming season, the fishing boats, the days’ catch and finally, the locals. The brother’s talk boats a while longer - its safe territory and a shared passion.
Jess excuses herself after a while shuffling uncomfortably across the room, kissing them all goodnight, saying how happy she is they’re all home. The stairs creak as she ascends to bed.
“So, she’s been okay since that last stay in hospital?” Jack asks.
“Yeah.” Saul sighs. “They’re keeping a check on her blood pressure, seems okay for now. She’s been worried though. I think that’s the problem, not the size of the baby.”
“You sure?” Raife pipes up. “That’s one big baby.”
Saul ignores him. “We’re falling behind here, it’s just timing. We’ve had a few guys quit at the same time and we lost a fishing boat. It needs a new engine we can’t afford to buy and it’s almost harvest. I’m trying not to let her hear too much, she’s worried enough. But if we take a hit on the harvest this year, it’ll be tough to recover.”
“Why didn’t you say things were bad? I could have come before.” Jack eyes Saul reproachfully. “I’d have been happy to pitch in. We’ll muck in now, get you through.”
“You’ve got a business of your own to run Jack, things will be fine here. It’s just a bad phase, you know how it is. I’ve been over at Mama’s a whole lot too, just those few hours a day has got me behind. Now you guys are here, you can spend some time with her and I can put in some extra hours.”
“How’s she doing?” Raife asks uncertainly.
Saul shrugs. “Ask Jess you’ll get a better answer. I don’t know what to think right now, you’ll see what I mean tomorrow. He shakes his head. “You’ll see. Anyway, I’m beat. See you guys in the morning.” Saul rises and passing behind Raife’s chair ruffles his hair. “Good to see you kid.” Raife doesn’t look up.
Jack wakes early. It’s still dark, barely 5.00 am, but he wants to walk to the beach and swim. Sunrise will be beautiful.
The house is quiet aside from the sound of Saul’s snores as Jack lets himself out into the pre-dawn air; soft and still with a hint of promise. He walks barefoot along the dirt road between the two properties. A light burns brightly from this parents’ house and as he approaches music drifts from an open window. Puzzled he follows the sound, stopping abruptly on the porch with a view into the small living room.
Inside lights burn brightly and Elvis Presley croons from an old record player in the corner. In the middle of the floor stands his father - his sullen, quarrelsome father - wearing pyjamas, dancing barefoot on the rug. Across from him, twirling and snapping her fingers, smiling like she’s the happiest woman in the world is Amandine in a white nightdress.
Transfixed he stops, then steps quickly into the shadows, unwilling to intrude on the strangely beautiful scene. He watches his mother and father together in a way he’s never witnessed before; comfortable, happy, relaxed and unselfconscious. God damn it, he’s quite sure Joseph is smiling.
The record stops abruptly and Amandine stops with it, like a puppet the music has propelled, the dancing stops and her face regains the years. Joseph changes the record quickly and the sounds of The Drifters croon through the bright room and out into the early dawn.
“Come on now, one more.” Joseph entreats.
“I’m so tired darling.”
“It’s important, one more and then we rest.”
Joseph claps his hands and the dance begins.
Jack slips away, feeling he has intruded on something private, but he can’t help feeling glad he saw them. That for a moment he could imagine their youth, how it once was and what they once had; perhaps still do. Despite how he may feel about his father and what he’s always believed his mother deserves, somehow together they work and there is love, deep and lasting.
Reaching the beach, he swims as the light lifts, and later back at Jess and Saul’s he sees the magazine open on the bench. Some journals Jess had borrowed from Joseph - an article circled in pen, the page edges well thumbed: Dancing Away Dementia.
After a few hours in the orchard they had gone to Joseph and Amandine’s house. Jess had prepared Amandine for the visit, worrying the surprise would be too much. But when they’d arrived she was waiting, smiling, delighted to see them, looking older and frailer but sharp. The light in her eyes was bright, brighter maybe then than ever.
Raife’s relief was evident. He’d smiled at Jack and shrugged his shoulders as if to ask what all the fuss had been about. Jack had to admit he was relieved too, maybe the dancing was helping, who knew? Only Saul seemed unexcited by her manner, he stayed a short while then headed back to the orchard. Amandine had fussed over Jess, and Joseph complained about everything. Things felt very normal.
Later, Raife and Joseph had gone for a walk together. Their father’s manner toward Raife had always been different, even before the accident. They’d all known who the favourite child was, and Jack had always been fine with it. What hurt was the blame; Joseph’s anger directed solely at Jack. When they had returned from the walk something had changed; a subtle shift in energy, both Raife and Joseph seemed somehow lighter.
Later after lunch, Joseph thanks Jack for bringing Raife home. The words of gratitude are bittersweet, too little too late, but none of it matters now. He tries to be gracious and accept the thanks. He must focus on a new start with his family and leave old baggage behind.
By evening Jack has almost relaxed. He’d spent the afternoon on one of the fishing boats with Saul, the catch had been good and Saul’s easy company was a tonic of sorts. Being out on the water, absorbed in the ocean, the boat and business of fishing; it was calming. He’d remembered how much he loves his work and was happy at the thought of Galileo in the work shed, close to complete. It had been a good day, one to remember. Heading to dinner with his family he feels a seed of something good settle and take root. A seed of happiness that might have room to grow.
“God, that was good Jess.” Raife pushes his plate forward and rocks his chair back from the table. “Thank you. You are an amazing woman and if Saul hadn’t married you, I know I’d have talked you round.”
Jess laughs piling dishes up at the sink. “You Raife Kelly, were never my type, too much trouble.”
“I’ll say.” Jack pipes up, finishing the last mouthful of pie and standing to help Jess. Joseph as usual had read the newspaper throughout dinner despite it being the first time they’ve all been together in years. Some things just don’t change.
“When the hell will they stop opening damn tourist bars around here? The island’s full of damn tourists. There’ll be no place for community soon.”
“Because you’re so involved in the community Papa.” Raife teases. Joseph glares over the top of his glasses but doesn’t respond; only Raife could get away with back chatting him.
Amandine sighs and claps her hands together. She’s been quiet throughout dinner, seeming restless and uneasy. “When can we go home Saul?” She’s looking directly at Joseph. “I want to go home now. I don’t much like it here. The food’s no good and there’s a man I don’t know, he keeps looking at me.” She gestures toward Raife.
There’s a terrible silence, hope falls from the table and spills messily on the kitchen floor.
Raife speaks first, his face pale. “Mama, this is your home, this is your kitchen, you cooked dinner with Jess, remember?”
She looks at him, eyebrows raised and turns back to Joseph. “Who is this man? Why is he here? Take me home.”
Joseph lowers his head then reaches slowly for her hand but she pulls it away and begins to look frantically around. No-one speaks for a moment then Jess steps forward “Amandine,” she speaks gently, “shall I help you upstairs to bed? Come now.”
“Whose baby are you carrying? Are you his other woman? I always knew.” Her voice becomes louder, on the edge of hysteria. “He thought I didn’t, but I knew about you. Don’t talk to me you whore, go back to Joseph.”
Joseph slams a hand on the table and Amandine jumps, frightened again. Saul steps forward, his face dark and angry. “Let’s go.” He ushers a shocked Jess out of the kitchen as Amandine starts to weep. Jack helps her to her feet, she doesn’t say a word, doesn’t ask him who he is or why he’s here. She wobbles weakly and Joseph turns away. Jack lifts her like a small bird and carries her upstairs where he lays her down and sits at the end of her bed till she closes her eyes.
When did they lose her?
Jack’s feet crunch the gravel road, the question repeating with every inhale, every exhale. Was it after the accident when Lil died and Raife left? Was it when she left St. Cloud forever, isolating herself with Joseph?
He picks up his pace and the movement feels good. When did they lose her and why didn’t they see it? Was it here in the quiet of St. Eloise with no friends and two of her boys gone? The truth is it was all of these things, not one of them. It was life. And the change was so gradual they’d barely noticed.
Lost in thought he doesn’t notice her on the porch watching him as he runs, past the house and down toward the ocean. A slight figure in a nightdress, white hair cascading over thin shoulders. She raises a hand, palm open, fingers reaching to touch him. He is gone. Her frail hand, translucent in the pale morning light flutters farewell.
On the sand Jack watches the sunrise, basking in the sensation of salt water drying on warm skin. Birdsong works in harmony with the tide, and as waves lap gently, sun-warmed, dewy leaves diffuse a musky, earthy fragrance in the still air. All around is a sense of calm, for now he is at peace. He waits, enjoying the solitude, sounds and smells of St. Eloise. He’ll take his time and think things through, for now no-one needs him.
The sun is bright over the farm as he jogs the trail home to Saul’s farm. Pale sunlight has turned bright and warm. He’ll have breakfast with his parents, then take the boat out with Saul. Maybe today he’ll have that chat with Joseph, convince him to get some support for Amandine.
When he reaches the orchard he hears the shout. He stops dead, hoping he imagined the sound, a call loaded with panic. Hands on hips, catching his breath his eyes search for the source, he sees her running, stumbling ungainly in his direction. She shouts his name again, fear in her voice.
“Jess! What the hell? Stop running! What is it?” Determined to reach him she keeps moving, waving with one hand, the other supporting her belly. “Stop! What the hell’s wrong?” She bends over, hands on her knees, breathing heavily, bump hanging like a pendulum about to overbalance her small body.
“What is it? Are you okay?’”
“I was…” she gasps for breath, “trying to find you. Amandine’s gone.”
“What? What do you mean gone?”
“She’s gone Jack, disappeared. She wasn’t there when Joseph woke up.”
“Shit.” Jack’s hands move to his head, palms pressing down on his hot scalp. “Where could she have gone?”
Jess is pale but her cheeks flushed. “Oh God, I need to sit down.” Before he can answer she plops herself on to the path, breathing heavily. “You need to go looking with the others.”
“Okay, calm down. Let’s get you indoors and I’ll go. Let me help you up.” He levers Jess to her feet and she winces, breathing heavily. “Jesus Jess, what were you thinking trying to run?”
“I’m fine, just out of breath, take my arm.”
At the house he lowers her into a shady porch chair and brings her some water.
“They’ve all spread out. They’ve been gone about an hour. Joseph went up through the orchard, Raife’s headed down as far as the neighbours’ farm and Saul was heading down toward the beach. Trouble is, we don’t know what time she left or how far she could have gone.” She winces again. “Oh God Jack, what a mess, get out there and find her please?”
“Don’t worry, we’ll find her. She can’t have gone far. I’ll head to the other end of the beach and work my way back.”
Jess nods, her eyes closed. “Good, go…” She ushers him off with a hand.
He nods then turns, taking the steps from the porch two at a time. At the gate he glances back, her eyes are closed, hands gripping the corners of the cane chair. “Jess…?”
“I’m fine Jack, just tired, go please.” She shoos him away, waving a hand but he’s torn, an ominous dread sinks over him as he runs through the bush calling Amandine’s name.
He reaches the beach ten minutes later. He’s seen no-one, heard nothing. The sand stretches out ahead; there is nowhere here to hide. He jogs along the tide line, at the far end of beach he sees Saul, they exchange notes quickly on the places they’ve covered and set off again. Dread settles, a heavy weight pushing down on his chest. When he closes his eyes he sees Jess on the deck, knuckles white, face pale.
Shit. He turns, racing back through the bush, toward the house, trusting instinct. Jess is no longer on the cane chair but the glass of water has fallen and shattered on the deck. Running inside he calls her name and finds her on all fours in the kitchen.
“Shit Jess, I knew you shouldn’t have been running. Let me…” He steps in to lift her on to her feet.
“Don’t touch me! I can’t move.” She tenses and her face contorts as her body stiffens and she whimpers. He kneels beside her watching helplessly. It seems like an hour before she opens her eyes. “I’m so glad you’re here. I thought I was going to have to do it on my own.”
“Just breathe, it’s okay. You’ve overdone things, it’s too early for this baby. I’m going to run and get Saul and we’ll get you to hospital.”
“Did you find her?” Jess cries as another wave of contractions descend.
“Christ. I’m going to get Saul, hang on Jess.”
“Jack Kelly!” She screams his name with such violence he freezes. “Don’t you fucking leave me, do you hear? Stay right there! Don’t. Go. Anywhere.”
“It’s coming Jack. Don’t tell me it’s not, and you’re going to have to help me.” She takes a long steady breath gaining composure. “Saul isn’t here and until he gets here you have to help me.”
“It’s okay, I’m staying. I’m with you, but I don’t know how to do this.”
She manages a small smile at the terror on his face. “Me neither so we’re going to have to wing it. Get some towels.”
Jack runs from the room and returns moments later armed with clean towels to find her once again mute with pain. Grabbing his cell from his pocket he speed-dials praying for a real person and not an answer machine.
“Jack! What’s up? Thought you were in St. Eloise.”
“I am. Dan, I have a big fucking emergency and I need you to help me.”
Jess looks up between contractions. “Jesus Jack, tell me you’re not on your cell phone. If you dare to video this, I will have your balls!”
“Who the hell is that and what are you doing?
“I don’t have time to explain. I’m putting you on speakerphone. Jess is about to have her baby on the kitchen floor and I’m the only one here.”
“Christ almighty! Jack, this is serious.”
“I know it’s fucking serious. You have to help me.” In the background Jess cries out. “Tell me you’ve done this before?”
“No, I haven’t!” Dan snaps, sounding terrified. “I’m a GP not a midwife, hang on…” Jack hears muffled shouting and a clatter as the phone falls.
“Jess are you okay?”
“Do I sound like I’m okay? I’m dying over here.”
“Lay out the towels and help me turn over.” Giving up on Dan he puts the phone on the counter and does exactly as she asks. “Okay, can you take off my underwear, I’m sorry.” She apologises seeing his face.
“Don’t you dare say sorry Jess. I’m on this, just relax. It’s going to be fine.”
He doesn’t really believe his words but saying them somehow reassures them both. He slides off her blood stained underwear and eases the towels beneath her.
Just then a high pitched female voice speaks from the kitchen counter. “Jack?” There’s a surreal moment when he forgets he left the phone on speaker. Ginny has manifested just when he needs her. “Jack, it’s Ginny. How’s she doing?”
“Hi.” Jess answers weakly, not caring where the voice is coming from, it sounds comforting and authoritative. “I’m getting close I think.”
“Okay Jess, I’m Ginny, Jacks friend, you’re going to be fine. How far apart are your contractions?”
From here Ginny takes over like she’s in the room with them. Jack becomes her hands; he does as he’s told. He holds Jess under the arms as she bears down. Then, when she’s ready he props her up, and as instructed prepares for the baby. As Jess screams he sees a crown of black hair appear between her legs.
“Almost there Jess, you’re so close. Almost there, just a few more pushes.”
Dan and Ginny speak words of encouragement via speakerphone and Jess braces her back on the cupboard and pushes her feet into Jack’s shoulders. Once more, and breathe, and again, he hears the words and Jess’s screams and feels his fear ebb away as he reaches forward to grasp the tiny body that slides its way into the world.
His face is wet, his hands hold the tiny baby steady. A girl, a baby girl. He wraps her carefully in a towel and places her in Jess’s arms, and they’re all crying and laughing at the same time.
“We did it.” Jess squeezes his hand.
Dan and Ginny whoop with delight from the counter, but Ginny is soon all business. She explains the checks Jack must do, how to cut the cord and what to do with the placenta.
It’s around this time that the door swings open and the others enter the kitchen. There’s a shocked silence, lingering disbelief as the men process what they see; silence broken only by the soft crying of a new-born. Jess smiles up from the floor. There’s a baby and there’s blood and there’s Jack looking like a trained medic. Saul tries to speak but can’t. He drops to his knees by her feet.
“It’s a girl Saul, a beautiful little girl.”