Time in Willow Creek: 1 year, 4 months, 1 week, 2 days
All her life, Hillary hated washing dishes. She and Harriett would fight for days about her running the dishwasher for one set of dishes. Hillary didn’t understand why it mattered. At least she loaded the thing. Those memories made her chuckle as she stood at the sink scrubbing plates. Washing dishes by hand had become therapeutic for her in the last few months. She saw an opportunity to pitch in when Juliana and Harriett’s work schedule got crazy. When things calmed down and went back to normal, she didn’t see a reason to stop. It was a mindless activity that gave her time to think about things she had pushed to the side for another time that never seemed to come.
As if the baby could hear her thoughts, she began kicking on cue. Hillary caressed her womb where the baby drew her attention. “I know, I know. I’m gonna tell him. I promise.”
She exhaled slowly as she dried her hands. Talking to her child’s father was always the last item on her agenda. When it became the sole item, she quickly added other things on top of it. She didn’t want to raise the baby alone, but bringing the father into the equation might lacerate wounds that had not yet healed. She wished for the conversation to go positively, but she knew otherwise. She only had herself to blame. It was past time he knew. Way past time.
As she left the kitchen to retreat upstairs, she caught a glimpse of her father’s motionless body in front of the television. He was never one to be lively anyway, but in those days he looked downright catatonic. He slept there. He ate there. He never moved. The only time he got up was to pee and bathe when Hillary made him. She served his meals on a TV tray, brought him fresh clothes, and begged him to eat and wash.
Six days. That’s how long Harold had banished himself to the couch. She knew why. The new behavior would exist for a while, but she didn’t cease wishing to see signs of life again. Thinking about those six days reminded her that Jase was still in the dark. Harriett was his mother too, and despite their estrangement, he deserved to know. That was the only reason she set her fear aside and made the decision to tell him right away.
He didn’t make eye contact. This painful behavior felt like having the old Harold back, but this time she understood him.
“I’m going out. I need to talk to Jase…” She waited for him to nod or something although she knew he wouldn’t. “…Ok…” She gave him one last longing glance and left.
# # #
When Jase felt stressed, he broke out his old childhood gaming console. Modern games he played for a living were too complicated to de-stress with. No. He needed horrible, pixelated graphics, terrible MIDI music, and a simple plot. He was whooping up on the “big boss” when he heard the knock. He pressed pause and looked at his watch. It was 9:30. He hadn’t invited anyone. It must have been the new neighbor again. He wasn’t quite sure how many cups of sugar he should lend her before it got ridiculous. Why couldn’t she go buy her own bag? Sugar was always on sale. And why did she always need it at night? Did she run a bakery inside her house or something? He got up to answer the door and almost fell over when he discovered it wasn’t the needy neighbor.
The hairs on his neck rose, and he felt a quiver in his stomach. His breath, his words, and anything that needed to exit his mouth was bottlenecked in his throat. He couldn’t even swallow. His mouth flew open like a fly trap waiting for a good meal. He didn’t care. He couldn’t even move. It felt like the big boss was sitting on his feet. The ticking from the clock behind him seemed so loud. Almost as loud as the night creatures’ song outside. She too looked as uncomfortable as he was. At least she knew not to expect a welcoming band.
The notification chime on his phone startled and snapped him out of it. He opened the door, and her not-so-hidden secret was revealed. He glared at her, shocked and confused, and tried to ask a question, but the bottleneck hadn’t been cleared yet. His attention shifted back to the baby bump. She was so pregnant. So very pregnant. They slept together about eight months ago. Was it…his? Was that what she came for? He wished he could ask her those questions. Instead, his eyes bounced between her eyes and the baby bump.
She cleared her throat and spoke, finally. “Jase…”
“May I come in?” She sounded as uncomfortable as he was.
He stepped aside and let her through. She looked like a weighted toy, wobbling back and forth as she waddled to the couch. He clenched his fists to keep his hands from reaching out to her.
She couldn’t make eye contact with him, and he was glad. She still made his heart leap. The ticks of the clock behind them was an awful reminder of how silent the room was. Deathly silent. Uncomfortable. Awkward. She came to tell him something, and he wanted her to spit it out.
At last, the bottleneck cleared. “Hill…”
It was so quiet, his voice startled her. He could feel her jump on his side of the couch.
She managed a tiny smile. “You cut your beard.”
“Oh… Yeah.” He chuckled but couldn’t meet her gaze. “Just…trying something new.”
“I like it.”
She seemed genuine. He did not do it for her, still, the compliment found a home in his heart.
The silence enveloped them again. They took turns clearing their throats and shifting their weight on the couch.
Finally, she closed her eyes and said, “Ok…”
He leaned forward, eager for her to answer all his secret questions.
“The first thing I need to say is…”
Her voice was shaky. He clenched his fists even tighter.
A few tears did roll, and she wiped them. “Mama passed away last week.”
Something quickened inside of him. He felt warm across his face. The heat created pressure behind his eyes. “No! H-H-Harriett? She’s gone?”
“I’m sorry I didn’t come sooner. Y-you should have been able to come to the service, and… I’m sorry.” She bowed her head as if she were ashamed.
He looked away. As terrible as the news was, it was strangely nice to be distracted from thinking about her and his might be baby. He couldn’t be mad at her, though. He knew why she stayed away. It was his own doing even though she was the cause.
He cleared his throat to bring his voice back. “Ummm… Wow. I’m-I’m so sorry to hear that, Hill.” His clenched hands were getting tingly. He couldn’t keep it up much longer. “H-how are you? And Harold?”
She sighed and shook her head. “He’s a mess as you would expect. I have to make him eat and take a bath, and he sleeps on the couch.”
He and Harold weren’t close, but he hated hearing he wasn’t well. “And you?” The words rolled off his tongue a bit more tenderly than he wanted.
She looked at him with a tiny grin. “I’m making it.”
He nodded and stuffed his hands between the cushions of the couch to restart the circulation in his fingers.
“The second thing I need to say…is…”
He thought for sure she was going to tell him he was the father of her baby. It’s not that he wanted to be the father, but the math made sense. And, if he wasn’t, poor her to be stuck with that dick head for the rest of her life. Or, worse yet, poor child being stuck not knowing who its father is–a feeling he knew all too well.
“…is…” She took a deep breath and pinched her eyes shut. “You were right… About me…”
He wasn’t quite sure what she meant. He said many things about her.
“About me and how I…how I feel… About you.”
A bolt of lightning struck his body. He dug his hands deeper into the couch. He had dreamed of that conversation many times on several occasions, but he had lost hope of it ever coming true. Now that it was real, he didn’t even know what to do with that information.
She continued. “I tried to tell you a while ago, but I saw that you had moved on. I’ve been afraid to talk to you or run into you because I already ruined your life. I didn’t want to ruin your relationship too.”
“My relationship? What are you talking about?”
Her eyes went wide. They were so beautiful. “I came over.” She said it like she was retracing her steps and trying to convince herself she had the right information. “I was so messed up when I found out I was pregnant. I knew you hated me, but I just had to talk to you.”
He knew why he needed to put distance between them, but he didn’t hate her. He hated she had to go through that crisis alone.
“But when I got here, some woman answered the door… She was wearing your nightshirt.”
He threw his head back and chuckled as quietly as he could. “You thought…I’m so sorry.” He was still laughing.
One look at her new face told him she had won the contest for the most uncomfortable.
“I promise I’m not laughing at you. Of all the days for you to come by! That was my cousin, Marcia, from out of town. She showed up at something crazy, like, four in the morning. Said she was running away from her husband and needed to crash.”
Her cheeks were so red. An awkward silence filled the room again when they both realized what could have been had she come another day.
She turned her eyes to the floor to continue her speech. “I know I messed up, and I hurt you really bad. I don’t expect you to go back to the way you were. I just need to tell you that I…”
His hands drifted away from the couch’s ravine.
“…that I love you.”
He placed his hands on his thighs and rubbed them against his pants. They were sweaty and probably covered in crumbs.
“I always have, but I didn’t want to know. And yeah, there were reasons, and I’m getting help for that now. I have a job, and…well…I’m becoming a better person.” She shrugged sheepishly. “I would love for us to be friends again, but I understand if that’s not what you want. But… I hope you’ll consider it…because…”
“The last thing I need to say…”
“…the thing I’ve been most afraid to tell you…”
“I think we’re having a baby…”
He sat there with his mouth gaped for several moments. The clock’s ticks filled the silence again as his mind raced in circles. “Holy smokes!”
He startled her again.
“Holy smokes! It…it-it’s mine? You’re sure?”
He had already done the math in his own head. He knew she was sure, but the timeframe was so close. It very well could have been Don’s baby.
“Pretty sure. Don always…” For some reason, she didn’t continue her statement. “We didn’t use anything, Jase,” she said just above a whisper.
He suddenly became aware of his own breathing. His breaths were deep and steady yet faster than normal. So much new information all in one night. He could barely take it. He wanted to be mad at her for dumping it all on him at once, but realistically how else could it have happened? Would he have allowed her to say all of that before?
“We can do a paternity test if you want,” she said.
He nodded as he stared into the swirled grain of the hardwood floor.
“It’s a girl,” she said tenderly.
Something inside his heart melted. Before their friendship exploded, he used to think about marrying her and having little blonde haired girls running around their house. It felt strange to know part of his dream would soon be real. Could he be satisfied with just a slice of the pie?
“I’m almost at 36 weeks, and she’s doing great. She started out super tiny and didn’t grow fast at all, but…” She opened her arms so he could see the whole baby bump.
“Wow,” he whispered.
He saw one of his hands moving toward her and snatched it back when he realized what he was doing. She looked disappointed.
He cleared his throat again. “Ummm…look, Hill… You’ve unloaded a lot on me right now.”
“I appreciate you coming by and telling me everything.”
She nodded again and gathered her things. She looked so sad. That look used to make him move mountains and command armies to defend her honor. There was nothing he wouldn’t do to take her pain away. But, those days were in the past. At least that’s what he was trying to believe.
“Wait!” That rogue hand reached out and grabbed her arm before he had time to discipline it. “I…I still love you, Hill. And, all this time I’ve been trying and failing at getting over you. I gave you my heart, and you smashed it!”
Tears rolled, she but nodded.
“As much as I want to forget that, I can’t.”
“I understand,” she said through tears.
“I’m glad that you’re getting help and everything. It’s great. I’ve always wanted you to be better. But, the fact is, I don’t trust you anymore. I can’t let you hurt me like that again. I won’t.”
She sobbed even harder, but she still said she understood.
He felt like he had an angel and the devil on his shoulders. The positive side was curious to find out if she was blowing smoke about changing. If she really was better, things could work. He couldn’t miss out on being with her for real next time. Besides, they were having a baby–maybe. He was not gonna leave her hanging with his child. The negative side admonished him to never let her in again. He needed to protect himself. Kids grew up without fathers all the time. He could throw some money at her every month and be done. He could even move away so he wouldn’t run into her ever. Heh, he already had a new look. He could find someone else who would appreciate everything he had to offer.
“Excuse me for a moment,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”
He went to the bathroom to get her some tissue. As he walked out, he stared at his reflection like he hoped the answer would materialize in the mirror. He wasn’t a bad person. Why would he consider such things? He shook his head and went back to Hillary.
“Thanks.” She wiped the running mascara and blew her nose. “I’ll, ummm, I’ll call you for my next appointment and we can–“
“Hillary…I want us to be friends again.” He couldn’t let her leave like that. Despite how damaged their relationship was, he couldn’t do to his daughter what his father did to him. “We have to…for the baby. I was just saying that we’re not gonna just jump back into old times. You need to earn my trust. I don’t know how long that will take, but if you’re willing to be patient with me through this, I’d be willing to give our friendship another chance. And then, we’ll see if things can grow from there.”
Her smile was as wide as it had been all night. “I’ll do whatever it takes,” she shouted happily.
He finally smiled at her, and she beamed brighter than the sun.
“So…what happened to Harriett?”
Her smile vanished. “She…” She sighed heavily and looked at the ceiling like she was trying to stop more tears from rolling. “Yesterday, when I was getting daddy some socks, I opened one of mama’s drawers instead.” She covered her mouth to keep more sobs inside. “There were all these pills! I didn’t know!”
Pain filled his heart.
“She had a heart attack. They did bypass surgery on her, and it went great. But, after we all went to see her… Her heart stopped.”
“Jesus!” Tears pooled in his eyes too. “I’m so sorry, Hill. I wish I could have been there for you.”
A piece of her smile returned. “I’ll take you to visit sometime.”
“I’d like that. Thank you.”
“Well… I’d better go.”
She attempted to pry herself off his low sofa. She always had trouble getting up, but especially now with their bun in the oven.
He sprang to his feet. “Let me help you.”
The devil on his shoulder reminded him he wasn’t supposed to be touching her.
He walked her to the door. Just as he was about to open it, she put her hand on his chest. More lightning struck through his body.
“Wait…” She looked at him square in the eyes with heavy breaths. “I just… I just need to say that I’m sorry!” She took a few more heavy breaths. “I did this.” She pointed to the baby. “I made a mistake! I lied to you and took advantage of the situation, and I’m so sorry I hurt you like that!” She paused for a moment to catch her breath. “I liked it. Being with you. It was the most amazing night, and I know why now, but I was scared then. I didn’t know how to love or be loved… I spent a long time convincing myself that I didn’t love you. But even then, it never felt right. I couldn’t get you out of my head because I loved you. I love you and I ruined you! I’ve hated myself for it and I’m so sorry! I’m not trying to win you back or prove anything to you. I just need you to know how sorry I am!”
She was a blubbering mess. He had to hold her.
“It’s ok, Hill. It’s ok. I know.” He held on a tad bit longer than he planned, but neither of them minded.
She pulled away and dried her tears with the tissues in her pockets. He opened the door for her, and she crossed the threshold. She grabbed the railing as she waddled down the steps. Even though there were only four steps, the waddling made him so nervous. He ran after her and held her other hand and wrapped his arm around her waist to steady her. There was taxi coming toward them, and she flagged it down.
“I’m glad we talked,” she said and smiled.
“Well, goodnight,” she said.
“Goodnight.” He put his hands behind his back.
She got in the car, and he watched her ride away. When she was gone, he felt weak in his knees and sick to his stomach. He had more than his fair share of new information. He needed to deal with never seeing Harriett again and wrap his brain around being a dad. More importantly, he needed to reconcile his thoughts about Hillary being back in his life. He hoped he made the right decision.