Back - Part I

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THE DAY dawned crisp and (too early) sweet.

September light dropped heavily over the stretching acreage of the farm, drenching the quiet world in the warm sepia of all the best nostalgia. The sky was the sort of open blue that prompted content, indulgent thoughts of a step-ladder and a spoon, just to see if it tasted as ripe as it looked. For a breathless second, even the birds and the insects seemed to share in the gentle glory of the early autumn sunrise, too awed to break the hush with the busy matter of attracting a mate.

It was, of course, promptly shattered by Gwennie's shrill demand for breakfast. She was always better when someone else did the waking, lazy-eyed and pillowy and pliable.

"S'comin', s'comin'," Mark mumbled into the comforter. He heaved himself upright. His wife cracked a sandy eyelid in sympathy as he poked sleep-warmed feet into the chill morning air. Dawn feedings were Mark's responsibility. He had to get up to do the milking, anyway. He hinged upwards like a rusty door, legs crooked and then holding him up as if gravity was some sort of recent miracle and he hadn't quite gotten the hang of moving with it just yet.

Safe from the comfort of her down duvet, Evvie winced as Mark ricocheted off the corner of the solid wood dresser - an heirloom from his own grandfather's farm, if you could call such a battered and scuffed piece of sturdy wood an "heirloom" - as he struggled to pull on a pair of jeans that he'd left crumpled on the foot of the bed the night before. A year ago, Evvie would have appreciated the flex of his biceps, the fact that he'd neglected to put on anything else under the denim; that meant he was feeling frisky and nothing but good things would come of it when he got back in from the chores. Now it meant that he was too bleary to remember anything as banal as underwear.

The only things Mark and Evvie were doing in this bed nowadays were cuddling the baby, failing to sleep, and cultivating a lovely matched set of shiny purple bruises under their eyes.

Awake now, Evvie tracked the sound of her husband stumbling downstairs, the clatterbang of the fridge door opening and closing, the gurgle of a small pot being filled with tap water, the metallic swish of it being placed over an element, and the slow crescendo of bubbling as it boiled on the stove. Gwennie's cries subsided into desperate, miserable sniffles and breathy gasps; it took everything Evvie had to stay in bed, denying the itch in the marrow of her bones to go and gather her daughter up, press her close, and soothe.

Dawn was for Mark and Gwennie, special daddy-daughter time. They'd agreed.

The stairs creaked as Mark padded back up them, bare feet on bare wood. The door to the next room made a soft hiss in counterpoint as the wood slipped over the new carpet in the nursery. Mark said something gentle, his voice a low, crooning buzz filtering in through the wall that separated Gwennie's room from theirs, repeated in surreal electronic stereo on the other side of her head through the baby monitor. Finally, Gwennie's hitching wails wound down into even, soft breathing.

Evvie unclenched her teeth and worked her fingers out of the knots they'd balled into the blankets, amazed that even after so many months Gwennie's discomfort could cause such acute anxiety in her stomach.

Selfishly, Evvie considered the day ahead: raspberries to rescue from the cooling nip of nights outside, to wash and sort through and start to mash up for jams; vegetables to pick and preserve; weeds to pull; a garden to tuck in safe under a blanket of home-grown fertilizer and straw for the coming winter. All with a baby strapped to her back. She snuck out of bed, chilly toes creeping along hardwood floors, to steal the first warm shower and a few moments of privacy.

She loved her husband. She loved her daughter. But God, did Evvie Pierson love hot showers, too.

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