Oliver fidgeted with his tie. It was a special occasion, and there would be pictures taken today for several magazines and newspapers. He had to look his best, and yet the stupid tie wouldn’t play along.
“Let me do that,” Milly said. She maneuvered herself to face him.
At six months pregnant, she was no longer the slim-figured woman he’d married. Her growing belly had necessitated her getting a whole new wardrobe of less constrictive clothing. Oliver didn’t mind. He thought she looked like an angel no matter how round she got. The only thing worrying him about her size was the possibility of twins.
Leonard kept telling them that twins ran in his mother’s family and they should be prepared. Twins! How did one prepare for that? One baby was something he was having trouble dealing with as it was. The idea that one might turn into two scared Oliver more than he was willing to admit. Two, at once. It seemed insane to him. At least they still had about three months to go before they would know if Leonard’s predictions were true.
Milly had fixed his tie. He looked down in wonder. He’d been miles away.
“Thank you, dear,” he said.
“Well, we can’t have you looking half-dressed,” she said with a chuckle. Her hand slid to her belly again, and she winced.
“This child of yours is kicking my innards something awful today,” she said, rubbing a spot on her side.
“I’m sorry,” Oliver said. What else could he say?
She smiled and patted his cheek. “Come on. We’re going to be late.”
In the months since their wedding, he and Milly had moved into a house, with Leonard taking over the apartment above Oliver’s store on his own. Milly hadn’t liked the idea of him living all alone, and so she had hired him a housekeeper to clean and cook for him. It was better that way. Oliver had hired one for them too since Milly’s bakery was now open and doing a roaring trade.
It had been open for two months, and she’d already hired three women to help out and run it when she wasn’t there. Between them, they had decided to buy some round tables and chairs and set them outside the bakery. Now people could buy something delicious and sit and have a coffee or a tea with it. It was a brilliant business idea, and Oliver was convinced that a good deal of Milly’s success was this addition to her store. It was always full.
Today however, was all about him and Leonard and the new school they were opening. As two highly educated men, they were more than qualified. After perfecting Leonard’s extraction process at the mine, which was what they were calling the combination of the crusher, frother, and collection trough, they had needed another project.
Milly waddled down the stairs, and Oliver followed, still wrapped in his thoughts. He would have to give a speech. He hated those. He hated writing them down more than speaking them, though, so he was mulling over what to say. Luckily, Milly had seen him like this enough times to know not to bother him too much.
They climbed into their buggy, and Oliver flicked the reins. The horse trotted out of their drive. Their house was actually quite lovely. It was in a part of town that was close enough to the bakery and Oliver’s new school for neither to feel put out about traveling. It also had a lovely big garden that Milly kept insisting she would get around to landscaping eventually. Oliver suspected they would have to get someone in for that.
Still, he liked the house with its white picket fence and cheery facade.
The school was three blocks away. Built in the middle of a field, it stood alone, a white building with a red roof. It was a secondary school, picking up where the local previously established school left off, somewhere around grade five. Oliver and Leonard would each have a classroom to call their own, and they had great plans for it in the future. The fact that Uncle Leonard’s university endorsed their education plan spoke volumes about the level of education they were about to offer come September and the new school year.
“Don’t forget, we have to pick Leonard up,” Milly said.
Oliver froze. He had forgotten. He turned the horse’s head and started up the street again.
“What would you do without me?” Milly asked with a chuckle.
“Go without a tie and forget to give Leonard a ride,” he replied with a wink.
She snuggled up next to him despite the hot day and kissed his cheek. “I love you, Dr. Townsend.”
“And I love you, Mrs. Townsend,” he said.
It was hard to believe everything that had happened to them since they’d met. And it was even harder to believe it had all come right in the end. There was a time there when Webster had had his thug hold a gun to Milly’s head where Oliver had been convinced that he would lose her.
The thought of ever having to live without her by his side was something that gave him nightmares. It was horrific. That was plain and simply what it was. He pushed those thoughts from his mind. This was no time to be thinking about such things, not when he was about to embark on a new project, and soon, he’d be a father.
The town was relatively quiet today. It was a Saturday, so most folks had the day off and were busy with things around their homes. There were a few folks out and walking the streets.
As they pulled the buggy to a halt outside the store, Oliver spotted an unwelcome sight just inside. The door stood open, and he could see Leonard inside talking to someone.
“I’ll be a moment,” he said to Milly and climbed down.
When he entered the store, he heard Mrs. Hodges’ voice before his eyes adjusted to the dimness, and he saw her. She was holding the darn music box out to Leonard, who was backing away.
“You have to fix it this time!” she said. “You simply must. I don’t know what that nephew of yours does, but…” she turned, hearing him come in. “Oh, it’s you. I’ve asked your uncle to fix it since you keep giving it back to me faulty.”
Oliver sighed. “What’s wrong with it this time?”
“It doesn’t wind up,” Mrs. Hodges said. “It makes this terrible clicking noise, and nothing happens.”
To say that was odd was an understatement. The last time Oliver had worked on the music box, he had cleaned it out from the dust caked inside, replaced the winding mechanism, and tightened several screws. It should play beautifully.
“Why don’t you put it down here on the counter and show us the problem?” Leonard asked. He moved behind the counter and lit the lamp Oliver kept there to light his work surface.
Mrs. Hodges moved to the counter, scowling. She placed the box down carefully enough, and then after making sure both men were watching, she took hold of the handle and began to turn. A terrible grinding clicking noise erupted, and Oliver’s hand shot out of its own accord, clamping down on hers.
“Please,” he said. “I know what the problem is.”
“Well?” she asked, jerking her hand out from under his. “What is it?”
“You’re turning the handle the wrong way,” Oliver said. “It goes this way.” He demonstrated. The handle turned no problem, only making the little noise it made as the spring tightened.
Mrs. Hodges’ face began to redden, and she huffed as though she were a steam train needing to release pressure.
“But…” she stammered. “But I’ve always turned it this way. You changed it and didn’t tell me! How terrible of you!”
“Mrs. Hodges, this is the way all music boxes are wound,” Leonard said gently. “Oliver hasn’t done anything wrong. I think you need to take a breath and take your box home. There’s nothing wrong with it.”
“But—” she began.
“No, we have somewhere important to be, so excuse us,” Leonard said, taking her by the arm and leading her out of the store.
Oliver watched in fascination. When Leonard returned without Mrs. Hodges, he applauded his uncle. “You are amazing!”
“Yes, I know,” Leonard said. “Now come on, or we’ll miss our own interview.”
The university had set up this photo session and interview outside the new school building as part of its program to expand education in the country. The Dean was extremely forward-thinking, and he had insisted that Oliver and Leonard be in the pictures and speak to the reporters.
Of course, then the mayor had caught wind of it, and now he was going to be there and use it as an opportunity to boost his popularity with the citizens of Doleman’s Hills. He had taken a lot of flack from the whole debacle at the mine. All that illegal activity right under his nose. It was only his support of the sheriff and Detective Hawthorn that had saved him. Still, it wouldn’t do to keep all of them waiting.
Oliver followed Leonard out and locked the door. Then he climbed into the buggy where Leonard and Milly were already talking happily together and got them underway.
There was a crowd outside the school building standing in the field it occupied. Oliver had plans for future expansion should the school be a success, and so they had built in a spot with enough space around it to accommodate that. It was all very exciting.
Oliver wondered how much to talk about in his speech. He shouldn’t get too far ahead. Perhaps he could just mention or hint at bigger things to come. That would be good. Yes. People would like that, and perhaps the population would become as excited about this project as he was.
He stopped the buggy under a spreading pine tree and tied up the horse. Then he helped Milly down from the buggy, and together with Leonard, they walked up to the building. It had white walls and a red roof with a wide porch. The crowd was gathered in front of the porch and watching them walk towards them.
Oliver spotted Robert and Cookie in the crowd with their little ones. They smiled and waved, and Robert shot him a thumbs up. Oliver grinned and waved back. It was good to see them there. It was always easier to speak to people one knew than total strangers.
He also spotted AnnMarie and Arnold. They were holding hands and staring into each other’s eyes. Their wedding was in two weeks. Milly kept reminding him as though he were an absent-minded professor. It was a little annoying, but he put it down to pregnancy and put up with it. They looked happy together, and he was thrilled for them.
After all, Arnold had proven himself to be a true friend, helping to save them from Webster and his men. It was a brave thing Arnold had done that day, and Oliver suspected he could never repay the man. Not properly anyway.
In the front, their cameras on their tripod legs standing out like aliens in a herd of humans were the photographers. And next to them, their notebooks in hand and slightly bored expressions on their faces were the journalists they were here to impress.
“Good luck, darling,” Milly said. She kissed his cheek and hurried off to stand with Cookie and AnnMarie, and the others. She smiled at him and also gave him a thumbs up.
“Well, boy,” Leonard said, a proud smile on his face. “Shall we impress the socks off them?”
Oliver nodded. “Let’s.”
He and Leonard mounted the steps together, and Oliver lost his nervousness. Suddenly, what he wanted to say all came to him in a neatly ordered manner, and he found himself speaking with no trouble at all. When he was done, the journalists asked questions which he and Leonard took turns answering with a little tongue-in-cheek humor to boot. There were laughs and plenty of applause, and soon it was all over.
He and Leonard took the journalists through the school, pointing out the improvements made to the classrooms and laying out their plans for future developments without giving too much away.
When it was all done, and the pictures had been taken and the notes made, and the journalists had left, he found Milly with AnnMarie and Arnold still standing outside in the field.
“How did it go?” she asked, taking his arm.
“Well, I think,” he replied.
“I’m sure it went swimmingly,” Arnold said. “I think this school is a marvelous addition to our little town.”
“Oh, Arnie,” AnnMarie said with a chuckle. “You’re too old to attend.” She winked, showing she was teasing him.
“I was thinking of our children,” he said plainly. “After all, isn’t that what it’s all about? Finding someone you love, getting married, and having a family? It’s all I’ve ever really wanted.”
“And people wonder why I love you,” AnnMarie said and kissed his cheek.
“Alright, enough of that,” Milly said in a mock harsh tone. “We have a pregnant lady here who desperately needs to get off her feet and find some food. I am famished. Honestly, it’s like this child wants me to eat constantly.” She rubbed her belly again. “Well, that and it clearly wants more space because it’s kicking me like mad!”
“Let’s go to your bakery,” AnnMarie said. “I could do with a pie myself.”
“I won’t say no,” Milly said. “Where do you want to go?”
Oliver considered the question and smiled. “To the bakery.”
“Marvelous,” Leonard said. “Come on then.”
They all piled into their vehicles and rode along the streets to the bakery. It was busy as usual. They saw one or two of the reporters there, too, clutching cups of coffee as though they were their lifeblood.
Milly had the girls, as she called her employees, set up a large table in the shade of a tree outside the bakery and sank onto a chair. Soon they were drinking lemonade and ginger beer while munching on delicious pies and salad.
It was a perfect day. Oliver sat back in his chair and began to fiddle with his tie again. Milly glanced at him. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s rather constrictive,” he said.
“Then undo it, for heaven’s sake,” AnnMarie said. “It’s too lovely a day to be uncomfortable.”
And she was right. It was a perfect Saturday. Oliver was happier than he had ever been.
Three Months Later
He would continue to pace until someone came and told him that all the screaming and grunting and crying he’d been hearing for the last eight hours wasn’t Milly dying.
“Relax, old boy,” Leonard said.
Sitting on the top step before the landing, Oliver was wearing a hole in the carpet, while Leonard was folding paper swans one after the other in a compulsive manner.
“You’re a fine one to talk,” Oliver said hotly. “She’s been in there forever.”
“Yes, and she’s likely to be in there a while longer. But you know Dr. Adams is there and so are Cookie and AnnMarie. She’s young, fit, healthy…” his words trailed off. “She’ll be fine. Childbirth is a natural event.”
“And what do you know about it?” Oliver snapped. His nerves were shot. Ever since Milly had been standing in the kitchen baking and suddenly the floor beneath her had been wet, Oliver had been in a flat spin. He could hardly bring his scattered panicked thoughts under control. Of course, as the time of her giving birth had come closer, he’d started reading all the medical information there was on it, and he had frankly scared himself. The statistics were terrible. So many women and children died at this time; it was horrific. And the thought that something like that could happen to Milly was more than he could stomach.
What if the baby was a breach, then…No! No! No! he had to get a grip on the fear. For goodness’ sake, he’d survived being shot at and held prisoner. He could survive the birth of his child. His wife would be fine too.
And yet, he was pacing. Pacing and chewing the inside of his cheek. And pacing a little more.
More screams and groans and horrible noises coming from inside his own bedroom. He slept there, and now it was the scene of a horror story told in sounds that had no earthly anchor for him. He couldn’t say what was happening in there beyond the things he’d read, which he now wished he hadn’t.
An earsplitting scream cut through him, and Oliver burst into the room before he realized what he was doing.
A scene like no other greeted him. His wife was being supported by AnnMarie and Cookie, one on either side of her, and the doctor was…
Oliver looked away, drawing his eyes to her face. “Milly!” he exclaimed.
She smiled an exhausted smile at him.
“Come on, Milly, last one!” Dr. Adams said. “And push.”
She did; there was an awful lot of blood, and Oliver saw his daughter come into the world. It was the single most spiritually intense moment of his life. And as he felt the blood drain from his body and the world spin around him, all he could think was how happy he was.
He woke up a while later with a bump on his head. Milly was sitting up in bed with their daughter clean and dressed and snuggled in a blanket. All the mess and concern were gone, and Dr. Adams pronounced both mother and daughter in very good shape.
“See,” Milly said. “There was nothing to worry about.”
Oliver nodded. “I’m just glad that you were wrong, Leonard.”
Leonard hovered by the door, wanting to come in but also not wanting to intrude. He waved the man inside the room and moved from the chair he’d been propped in to sit on the bed beside Milly.
“What are you going to name her?” Leonard asked.
Oliver looked down into the little face and frowned. “I don’t know.”
“How about Alice, like your mother?” Milly asked.
Oliver considered it, looking to Leonard to see what he thought and when his uncle beamed with joy, Oliver nodded. “Alice, it is.”
And just like that, the future became a wonderful thing, filled with bright moments, happiness, and a love that transcended all. Alice would be the first, and others would follow, and Oliver would love them all. He would teach them all, and they would be a caring, loving family. He smiled, wrapping his arms around his wife and child. It was good to be alive.