I’d made him wait an hour. Well, three counting the two extra ones I’d spent in the training field doing light exercises. Make that three hours and five minutes—I’d locked up for the sergeant on duty.
All that time, and still no call.
The car grew suffocating.
After another three minutes, I turned the keys and drove to the driveway. At least he’d left the porch light on.
I found him sitting at his makeshift desk in the den corner, his blond head bent over his paperwork. I dropped my bag instead of hanging it next to his gun and badge and waited. His shoulders straightened slightly, but he ignored me otherwise.
I stared at his back for another minute and then went to the kitchen. I was starving, but the smell of burnt hot dogs and chili made my stomach churn. I braced myself against the sink and held my breath until the feeling passed.
The sound of shifting papers slithered in from the living room.
I ground my teeth and stalked back to stand over him.
“You’re blocking my light,” he said.
“Damn you,” he muttered, sliding his chair and papers out of my shadow, but I grabbed his pen before he could pick it up again. “The hell—”
“We have to talk,” I insisted.
“Finish the paperwork later!” I snapped.
“I’m out of time! It’s the case from yesterday.”
“What, the abuse call?” I asked. “Why haven’t you done that already?”
“With you dropping in today, I didn’t have time.”
“Pathetic,” I said. “You spoke to me for all of three minutes!”
“Pathetic is you sitting in the car for an hour and a half,” he said. I paused at that, and he smirked without humor. “Next time, park a street down.”
“You made your point,” I said, but I still kept the pen, dropping it in my pocket. I went to the sofa and looked at him expectantly. After a moment he sat on the opposite side, hands on his knees, and stared ahead at a blank TV screen. The conversation we’d had earlier hung between us. My visit at lunch hour, his return to work with a question and a dissatisfying answer.
Impossible, he’d said. That’s what I’d thought, too. Uterine scar tissue, we’d been told, probably from the beam of wood that had landed on me while overseas. And we were both fine with it—happy, even. I had tried to reason with myself during my extra drills that night. Just a whim, I told myself. But a whim had never grown like this.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Alex said.
“It’s not going to go away!” I retorted.
I listened to his slow exhale, wavering like the sound of feet running. “Are you sure the test was accurate?”
“I had a second test done at the clinic today,” I told him. “It was positive.”
“Shit.” He pinched the bridge of his nose.
“Why are you so against this?” I asked.
“Why are you so for it?”
“I haven’t decided yet,” I reminded him. “I wanted to talk about it, but you stalked off today.”
“But you will decide,” he said. “And when you do, you’ll decide without me.”
“My first instinct was to get rid of it without telling you,” I said. “But I thought better of it.”
“Fine. I don’t want it either. So what’s the hold up?”
I crossed my arms. “I don’t know. I started thinking about it, I guess.”
“You mean you’ve been thinking about the Amery baby.”
The chubby two-month old with bright blue eyes—the first baby in our group of friends. I wanted to deny it. I’m being too soft, I chided myself. But I’d already hesitated, and Alex would see through me.
I picked a loose string in the sofa’s fabric. His fingers drummed his kneecaps.
“I know we weren’t expecting it,” I began. “But now that it’s happened, we should think about it. It probably won’t happen again.”
“We should have used birth control.”
I slapped my hand over the loose thread and stared at the profile of his face. “You could at least look at me.”
I thought he would ignore me again, but then he twisted and drew a knee onto the cushion. “Happy?”
“Tell me why you won’t consider it,” I said. “The accident happened before we got serious, so we never actually talked about it.”
“I hate kids. They scream, and they’re demanding.”
“Is that all?”
“You tell me why you want it,” Alex said. “To stop you from training? Prevent you from going overseas with your troop? Use up the money we don’t have?”
“If you put it like that, no one would have kids!”
“So give me one good reason why we should.”
I stared back at him for a few seconds before I realized I couldn’t answer. I got up and started pacing, packing a fist into my other hand. He was right. Kids and practicality didn’t go together. But it seemed…
“Wasteful,” I said.
I didn’t know where it came from, but the word felt right. Alex cocked his head as though he hadn’t heard me.
“I don’t want to waste the chance,” I said.
“Chance?” Alex stood up. “To do what? Ruin another human being? Look at us! How could we raise a normal kid?”
“I don’t know! This is why I wanted to talk!”
“It’s ridiculous!” he shouted. “If you want a baby, you’re raising it yourself! Even when you’re deployed!”
“How can you be so cold?”
“Because I don’t like you pregnant!”
His shout bounced off the walls, as though no object wanted to absorb it. The air clicked on, and a fake plant in the back corner stirred. I headed for the door.
“Maddie, I didn’t mean that!” He tried to catch my arm.
“Get out of my way!”
I shoved him off, but he recovered and grabbed my shoulders. I yanked away again and would have struck him had he not held up both hands.
“How could you say that to me?” I demanded.
“I didn’t mean it the way it sounded!”
“I meant that I didn’t like the situation, not that I didn’t like you.”
“Right. And it just slipped out!”
“I don’t want you to go.”
“You should have thought of that before you refused to help raise your kid!”
He looked away from me, and I tried to get past him again. But he slammed a hand against the doorframe and forced me back.
“Just wait,” he said.
“Why should I? You’re being a dick and a deadbeat, just like you always are when—”
He slapped me, and I bit my tongue. Instinct took over, and I punched him. Alex staggered into his gun and police jacket, the gun falling off the hook.
“Fuck, I hit you,” he said. I came towards him again. “Stay away!” he shouted, dodging me.
“Should’ve let me go when I wanted to!” I retorted, stalking after him.
He moved behind the sofa. “Stop! I don’t want to hit you again!”
I paused my advance. “Since when? Brawling’s how we used to say ‘I love you.’ Do you not anymore?”
“Cut the crap!”
Both his arms came up, almost like a shrug, and then he seemed to deflate, his arms smacking his sides. “Damn it, Maddie, I can’t stop loving you even when you’re being so damn infuriating!”
“There’s more of me love now,” I challenged.
He breathed in and out a few times, glanced at my stomach, and shook his head. “I don’t think I can.”
“Because, I—” His mouth moved helplessly for a moment. Then it clicked together. “You say I’m cold and stubborn! What about you? You insist on talking about it, but you’ve made the decision without me!”
“It’s my body! I can do what I want with it!”
“But it’s my life! Or did you forget, we were sharing one?”
I chewed my lip, wondering how to answer that. “You talk like I could help it!”
He waved his hand. “It has nothing to do with that.”
“Forget it,” he said.
“I can’t forget something this important!”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“Try me,” I insisted, watching him. He rubbed his forehead with the heel of his hand. He glanced at me, his eyes unfocused as they dropped to the floor. I sighed. “I can’t try to understand if you won’t tell me.”
“I can’t be a father, all right?”
“That’s not who I am.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
He stepped closer, his hands open and flexed. “Can’t you just accept something for once?”
I eyed him but held my ground. “Not when it affects us like this. I need to know!”
We stared at each other a second longer, and suddenly he raised his arms. I flinched back, but instead of a slap a light breeze and material brushed my legs. I looked down to see his T-shirt discarded at my feet, then up at him. His back faced me, and under the fanlights I could make out the thin lines of lighter skin across his shoulders.
My anger deflated. I had been so caught up in my own anxiety that I hadn’t realized his would be worse. I closed my eyes and touched my belly. “You would never do that,” I whispered.
“You don’t know that.”
“Your father beat his wife. You don’t beat me.”
“What do you call that a few minutes ago?” he demanded. “A love tap?”
“You don’t hurt me.”
“You’d hurt me back.”
I allowed that. “You wouldn’t hit a child, though. You’re too protective.”
“Don’t patronize me,” he snapped, snatching his shirt off the floor.
“When have I ever patronized you? What do you call what you did for that boy yesterday?”
“You could’ve waited for back up,” I said, working to get the irritation out of my voice. “Your captain was unhappy that you didn’t.”
“They would’ve been too late.”
“You took a risk to save his life,” I said. “And I know abuse cases are difficult for you.”
“What does this have to do with anything?”
“You wouldn’t harm a child for the same reason.”
“What reason is that?”
I sighed, searching for the right way to say it. I was afraid that it’d hurt his pride, or the persona he liked to keep, or that he just wouldn’t believe me. Finally, I met his eyes. “I never told you this, but you have a gentle side.”
“Me, gentle?” He laughed scornfully.
I barreled through my next question. “Do you remember the time we wanted to have sex, but I ran out on you?”
“Of course I do,” he said, clasping his hands together and then spreading them wide. “Which time?”
I suppressed a growl. “The time we were in Virginia.”
Alex dropped my gaze and leaned against the back of a chair. “Yeah,” he mumbled.
“You were so gentle that night. I knew you were falling in love, and I was following.”
“Is that why you ran?”
I snorted softly. “Yeah.”
We were both quiet then, remembering.
“Again,” said Alex, “why does this matter?”
I stepped towards him, touched his shoulder. He half turned to me. “Because no man who can touch like that could ever hurt a child.” He began to protest, but I kissed him quickly. “Never.”
He sighed and dropped his head from me.
“If you keep arguing with me, you’re a dead man,” I warned.
“Since when did you become a romantic?”
“I told you the truth. That’s it.”
He braced himself against the chair again. “Maddie, all it takes is one slip…”
“Do you really think I’d let you hurt our kid?” I asked. When he didn’t respond, I added, “You might hit first, but I hit harder.”
He looked at me and half-smiled.