“That was a great session!” Amanda
said as she repacked her bag. “Joy’s coming on really well.”
Sean grinned. “I think Ian motivates her. She sees what he’s doing and wants to do it too.”
The early intervention specialist smiled. “Sibling rivalry has a good side. Who knew?”
“She really did seem to be getting the hang of it,” Kemara said rejoining them in the living room. “I think it wore her out though. She went right to sleep.”
“Wish I was doing as well at sign language,” Sean said ruefully. “I try to say ‘milk’ and end up making obscene gestures.”
The two women laughed.
“You do not!” Kemara chided. “Don’t listen to him.”
“Oh, I know that by now,” Amanda assured her.
Sean pretended to bristle. “Hey!”
The therapist gathered up the last of her things. “Well, I’m off. I’ve got another session in the Bronx and then the party at Gigi’s Playhouse. Are you all coming?”
“Not this week,” Kemara said. “We’re having some friends over for dinner. But we’ll be back to our regular schedule next week.”
“Don’t you two usually have dance class on Tuesdays?” Amanda shook her head. “Every time I go Below Shelby’s always talking about what they’ve been working on.”
“This is the big performance and parade month. Classes are on break so Elaine can get to everything,” Sean explained. “We’ll be back at it after Easter, hopefully.”
Staccato noises from the baby monitor interrupted them.
“Ian’s awake,” Sean said unnecessarily.
Kemara rolled her eyes. “Which means they both are. So much for nap time!”
Amanda smiled sympathetically. “Well, I’ll leave you to it.”
“I’ll help you carry everything out to your car,” Sean offered. He hoisted the largest bag onto his shoulder.
In the nursery, Kemara found Joy and Ian awake and fretful. She lifted Ian out of Joy’s crib which they had been sharing.
“Oh, that’s what woke you up, huh? Well, we can fix that.”
Sure enough, a diaper change calmed him, and he lay quietly as she did the same for his sister.
“Do you guys want to go back to sleep or are you hungry?” She made the sign for milk, and Ian waved his hands as if trying to copy her.
“Come on, then. Let’s go see where Daddy’s got to.”
Kemara hoisted both babies into her arms and carried them into the living room. Sean stood at the front window staring out at the ocean, frowning slightly.
“Can you warm up a couple of bottles? Maybe they’ll sleep if they have a snack.”
Her husband didn’t respond.
“Huh?” He turned around. “Oh, bottles. Yeah, I’ll get them.”
Kemara felt her heart sink as
he left the room.
When the twins had eaten, Kemara and Sean put them in the pack-n-play in the living room, and set about making an early dinner.
Kemara had finished with the salad when her cell phone rang.
“Hi, Diana! That’s fine...we’re just getting it together now. OK... See you then.”
“School just got out, but she has a meeting,” Kemara told Sean. “They’ll probably be here about 4.”
“That should be fine,” he said, putting a dish into the refrigerator. “The chicken needs to marinate for a while.”
He wiped his hands on a towel and looked into the living room. “Kemara, come here.”
Curious, she peered around him. Warren had climbed into the playpen with Ian and Joy. All three were fast asleep. The Siamese lay stretched out with his head on Ian’s small foot.
“Oh, how sweet!” Kemara took several photos on her phone, careful not to disturb them. “I’m so glad he didn’t get jealous when we brought them home.”
“Yeah, he took to them right off, didn’t he?”
Sean got down a box of rice from the cabinet. “So, not to change the subject, but there’s a rather important event coming up.”
“You mean St. Patrick’s Day?” Kemara asked innocently.
He grinned. “Ha, ha. I thought it was always guys who forget their anniversaries.”
“Well, it is St. Patrick’s Day. I doubt either of us could forget it in any case.”
“I can’t,” his tone was serious. “It was too wonderful.”
She put down the butter knife and kissed him. “Yes, it was.”
“So... ” With an effort, he turned back to the stove. “Got any ideas for celebrating the occasion?”
“Oh, one or two.”
“Would you care to enlighten me?”
“Nope.” She busied herself with the bread, pointedly not looking at him.
He snorted. “Do I need to do anything?”
“Just show up.”
“I think I can handle that.”
As promised, Zeke and Diana arrived right at four bearing a bottle of white wine and one of sparkling apple juice for Kemara.
“Thanks!” Sean said, taking them. “This’ll go great with the chicken.”
“How do you know stuff like that?” Kemara demanded.
Sean stuck his nose in the air. “Because I have refined tastes that you do not, my little country bumpkin.”
“Uh-huh. I don’t think eating peanut butter out of the jar with a spoon is very refined.”
Diana laughed. “Zeke does that, too. It must be a guy thing.”
“We’re in trouble, my friend,” Zeke said to Sean.
He nodded solemnly. “Yup. When women start ganging up on you, all is lost.”
The twins slept on, waking up just as Kemara brought out the pecan pie and coffee.
“They want their dinner, too,” she said. “Sorry.”
Diana waved a hand. “We know how it is. Why don’t we all go in the living room?”
‘Do we ever!” Zeke said. “For the first year you pretty much eat with one hand.”
Kemara lifted one baby in each arm and carried them over to the couch. “My Mom said she hauled me around on her hip while she did housework. Now I know what she meant. I’m getting great muscles”
Sean heated up two bottles, and the four adults settled around the living room with plates and coffee cups.
“So when does Hailey get out for spring break?” Kemara asked. “I know Ivy and Violeta are dying to see her.”
“So are we!” Zeke said. “Her last class is the 18th, so we’ll go pick her up the next day.”
Diana nodded. “It’s been harder than I thought it would be. You get so used to having them around... ”
“Or at least seeing them every now and then,” Zeke interjected.
She laughed. “True! She emails and calls all the time. I just hope she doesn’t get tired of it.”
“I don’t think she will,” Kemara smiled. “You guys are all pretty close. Does she have any plans while she’s home?”
“You mean besides annoying her brother and sister?” Diana joked. “She mentioned something about visiting El Chanan for a day or two with Ivy and Violeta.”
“Kemara and I have been saying we need to do that ourselves,” Sean put in.
The conversation turned to the wonders of Dyeland’s sister city while they finished the last of dessert.
“OK. Back to bed with you two,” Kemara said, setting down Joy’s bottle.
“I have a better idea,” Zeke said. “Why don’t Sean and I take the kids for a walk so you ladies can have a nice chat?”
Sean nodded in agreement.
Kemara hesitated. “It’s kinda chilly out... ”
“We’ll bundle them up like eskimos,” her husband said. “Nothing exposed but their eyes.”
She laughed. “I guess I trust
“So how’s everything going?” Zeke asked when they had pushed the strollers some yards up the beach in silence.
“Really good! Joy’s early intervention sessions are going great. It’s amazing how much progress she’s made in just a few months. And Ian... ” He shook his head. “He’s got Kemara’s stubbornness, even at this age. If he doesn’t want to do something, you might as well give up! Getting his diaper changed can be a struggle - a messy struggle.”
Zeke chuckled. “Sy was like that. It lasted until he was about 3. Then it went away until the teen years hit.”
“And that was when you all met Joshua,” Sean added.
“Yep. And our lives were changed for the better.”
They were quiet again, until Zeke said, “So what’s on your mind?”
Sean looked at him, surprised. “What makes you think that?”
“I’ve been a dad for quite a while now. It’s a skill that develops with time.” He raised an eyebrow.
Joy began to fuss, and they stopped.
“Are you hot?” Sean asked, crouching in front of the stroller. “Yeah, you feel warm. Here, I’ll loosen this but don’t tell Mom.”
When they had resumed walking,
he said, “You’re right. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking
Kemara refilled the coffee pot and resumed her seat beside Diana.
“Here we go. I’m so glad you and Zeke stopped by.”
“Me too, we haven’t had a chat in ages.” Diana poured, and they both sipped the hot liquid gratefully.
“That’s good...It’s been so chilly lately... ” Kemara trailed off and began to laugh.
Diana smiled. “What?”
“I just realized it’s March 1,” Kemara said. “That’s the day before Monica and I had tea and cookies while we planned the St. Patrick’s Day party. Remember? During our first JCS run? I told her about this guy in my dance class named Sean and how much I liked him.”
‘So tomorrow’s an anniversary of sorts!” Diana cheered. “That’s sweet. And you two have a real anniversary coming up in a couple of weeks, too.”
Kemara’s smile wobbled just a bit. “Yeah, we’re looking forward to it.”
“Is anything wrong?” Diana asked gently.
The younger woman hesitated.
“You don’t have to tell me if it’s private,” Diana said. “You just looked like you need to talk.”
“No…it’s not private. I haven’t even said anything to Sean yet.” Kemara took a sip of her coffee. “I think he’s unhappy.”
Diana looked surprised. “Really?”
Kemara nodded. “Well, not unhappy exactly. But he seems...restless since we got home from Chrysalis Court. He’s great with me and the kids, but I’ve caught him looking distracted, and he’s been running on the beach a lot.” She smiled ruefully. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say he’s the one with postpartum depression.”
Diana frowned. “I’m sure it’s not unheard of. But you said he’s happy around you and the twins?”
“Yes, he loves playing with them, especially now that their little personalities are starting to show.” She smiled fondly. “And our relationship is still great.” She blushed slightly. “Umm…in the bedroom, too. “
“That’s a good sign then,”
Diana said. “But it sounds like he’s got something on his
“Thinking about what?” Zeke sounded genuinely interested.
“Just...options.” He glanced at the older man. “That didn’t…I don’t mean that I’m unhappy with Kemara or how our life is now... ”
Zeke nodded. “I understand.”
"Anyway, Graham and I talked a lot while we were at Chrysalis Court - since there wasn't much for us guys to do." He was unable to keep the bitterness from his voice. "He said the Manhattan Fire Department needs volunteers. Well, they always do, but especially so right now."
"So you're considering it," Zeke said. It wasn't a question.
"Yeah. But I wonder am I being selfish?”
Zeke looked at him. "What do you mean?"
"Kemara and I haven't even been married a year, we've got two kids, one of whom is....special. What if something happens to me? If I'm badly injured or killed? She'd be stuck with it all just because I decided to follow my dream." He made exaggerated air quotes around the last three words.
Zeke thought for a minute. "Let me ask you this...Let's say you drive over to visit your parents in Brewster this weekend. Just you. And on the way back, you're in a wreck that's not your fault. You're killed or hurt and in the hospital for months. Was it selfish of you to visit your parents that day?"
Sean pushed Joy's stroller over to where a large rock stuck out from the sand. He sat down on it and adjusted her blanket. "That's different," he said at last.
Zeke followed him, parking Ian's stroller beside his sister's before sitting too. "No. It's not. I'm sure you know that it's safer to fly in an airplane than it is to get on the road in a car. Yet one plane crash makes thousands of people decide never to fly again. But how many wrecks keep people from driving? Just because you choose a dangerous job doesn't mean you're more at risk than anyone else."
"Tell Kemara that," Sean
I think I know what it is.” Kemara studied her cup. “He’s always wanted to be a firefighter - since he was little. That’s what his grandfather did. But Megan pitched a fit, so he studied accounting.”
“And you think he’s changed his mind?”
“Yeah. I saw him talking to Graham a few times. You know Graham’s an EMT. It’s just…Sean’s almost 37, married with two kids. I think he feels like it’s now or never.” Kemara drew a deep breath. “And I think it’s great, and I’d be so proud of him,” she said in a rush. “I just…don’t know if I could handle it. Is that selfish of me?”
Diana reached across the table and put her hand over Kemara’s. “You don’t know for sure that’s what’s one his mind, though. You could be getting yourself worked up over nothing.”
“But what if it is?” Kemara’s voice was pleading. “What do I say? I want to support him, but the whole idea scares me to death... worse than when we got Joy’s diagnosis, even.”
“Have you met Tyron’s wife, Roslyn? She told me once that Tyron wasn’t a police officer when they married. I’m sure she could give you some good advice. But first…” Her hand squeezed Kemara’s.
“I know…I need to talk to him,”
“She might surprise you,” Zeke pointed out. “Does she know about this dream of yours?”
“Sure, we’ve talked about it. Last Christmas when Joshua gave me my ornament... ” He trailed off, looking stunned.
“My ornament is a fire truck. I told Kemara all about my grandfather that day and how my mom and I fought because I wanted to be a firefighter like he was. I thought Joshua just made it because he knew that’s what I loved, but what if it was his way of saying it’s okay to pursue it?”
Zeke nodded slowly. “It would be like him. He enjoys bringing people and situations together only to reveal the whole picture later on down the road.”
Sean looked out at the ocean.
“We’d better get back before the ladies think we’ve run away
Kemara and Diana met them on the porch.
“Did you guys have a good time?”
“Yep,” Zeke said as he lifted Ian out of the stroller. “We had a talk.”
Diana rolled her eyes. “You mean you argued about the Mets and the Yankees.”
“Mets all the way!” Sean cheered, raising one of Joy’s small fists into the air.
“You are touched in the head,” Zeke said sadly. “Never gonna happen.”
Kemara laughed. “I like the Yankees myself in as far as I care about baseball.”
“Well, at least you married a woman with sense,” Zeke joked to Sean.
“I have sense too,” Diana said wrapping her arms around herself and shivering. “And my sense says we need to head home. I have a huge pile of homework to grade.”
Zeke nodded. “Let’s get these little ones inside.”
When their friends had gone, Kemara and Sean turned to one another. “We need to talk,” they chorused.
“But not tonight,” Sean added. “Tomorrow if it’s nice, maybe we could take a picnic lunch down to the beach with the kids?”
Kemara smiled. “It’s a plan. But for now, it’s bath time.”
Having learned that it was easiest to bathe the twins one by one, they took care of Joy first. When Sean had washed and dried her, Kemara reached for a bottle of lavender oil.
“I think Maryam put magical - or heavenly - ingredients in that stuff. They always conk right out.”
“I know,” Kemara massaged Joy’s arms and legs. “It’s about the only thing that gets you to smile, isn’t it, baby girl?”
Sean handed her a onesie with “Thing 2” on the front. “I asked Amanda about that while we were loading her car. I wondered because you always read about kids with Downs being happy all the time. She said they just take a little longer to start smiling - like with most things.”
“I guess it has something to do with muscle control,” Kemara said, dressing the child deftly. “It’s the same ones she uses to nurse after all, and we know how much trouble she had with that.”
“Be right back.” Sean took Joy into the nursery and returned with Ian a few minutes later while Kemara refilled the sink bath. “Your turn, buddy.”
With both children bathed and put to bed, the two of them collapsed on the couch half an hour later.
“Now what?” Sean asked with a tired sigh. “The kids are asleep; it’s Tuesday but we don’t have dance class, still only nine o’clock... .”
“Ooh!” Kemara lunged for the remote. “iZombie’s on!”
Sean blinked, startled. “Uh -.”
“What? Can you think of something better than iZombie?”
He smirked. “Oh yeah... ”
“Well, I guess there’s always Netflix.”
Kemara watched his face fall and started to laugh, unable to hold back any longer.
“Shhh! If you wake them up…”
She buried her face in his shoulder, “What would you do?” she asked between giggles.
“I’ll tickle you!”
Remembering a particular incident during their honeymoon, Kemara made an effort to control herself. “I had you going! Admit it!”
“I admit nothing.” Sean took the remote from where she had dropped it. “So are we watching iZombie?”
“Of course not. I like your plan much better.”
He stood and pulled her to her
feet. “I thought you might.”
The next afternoon, they packed sandwiches and drinks into a cooler, and carried the babies down to the beach. After making sure the twins were out of the sun under a large umbrella, they settled down beside them on a blanket.
“I’m so glad it’s warming up,” Kemara said passing Sean a bottle of Coke. “It feels like it’s been cold for months.”
“That’s why they call it winter,” Sean teased. “It tends to be that way.”
She wrinkled her nose at him. “Oh, hush!”
They ate in between chasing away nosy seagulls - who frightened Ian to tears.
“It’s okay,” Sean said, cuddling the little boy. “Just wait. You’ll be running after them soon.”
Kemara shuddered. “Don’t remind me! I don’t want to think about them being near the water for a long time yet.”
“We’ll have to drill it into them not to come down here without one of us.”
“And how well did, ‘don’t do that,’ work with you?”
He laughed. “Not very! The minute my parents said, ‘no’, I wanted to do whatever it was.”
“Maybe we can build a fence around the house and keep a padlock on the gate,” Kemara said pulling Joy’s hat down to shade her pale skin. “Does she look pink to you?”
“Nah, she’s fine. We can move them if you want.”
“No, it’s OK.”
“So...Zeke and I talked yesterday,” Sean began.
Kemara took a deep breath. “About what?”
“I really want to volunteer...as a firefighter,” he said, watching her anxiously.
“I thought that was why you’ve been so preoccupied lately.” She busied herself putting away the food, trying to tamp down the panic that welled in her throat.
He nodded. “I’m sorry…I didn’t want you to worry, but I wasn’t ready to mention it.”
“Kemara...look at me. Please?”
She did, and he saw the fear in her eyes. “It’s just...fire terrifies me more than anything else. Ask JenniAnn - I won’t even light a candle.”
“So that’s why you never learned how to cook,” he said. “Before you met me, I mean.”
“Yeah, I was honestly scared I’d burn the house down.”
He hugged her. “If it makes you feel any better, I think fires will be a small part of my job. And it’s not about fighting fires...the excitement of it,” he explained. “I guess it was when I was younger, but now it’s...more about helping people. When we were at Chrysalis Court I was so angry. The way those women - and Daisy - were treated...”
“You should have told me,” Kemara said, lacing her fingers through his own. She felt a pang that she had never noticed. During their stay, Sean had been his usual, joking self, if a little subdued. But she had attributed that to a wish to be calm around the survivors.
He swallowed hard. “I wanted to do something. But as a man, I was only a reminder of what they had been through and who had hurt them.”
“Oh, love... ”
“Joshua talked to us, to me, but it didn’t really help much. Anyway, that was when I decided I couldn’t just sit around any more.”
She nodded and and squared her shoulders. “I don’t blame you. And...if this is what you want to do, I’ll support you as much as I can.”
He leaned forward and kissed her. "Thank you. It wouldn't happen right away," he said. "I'll have classes and certifications to take. And I'll need to get in better shape.”
She wrapped a hand around his bicep. "I think you're in great shape already, but I guess I'm biased."
They sat quiet for a minute before Kemara said, "I've been doing some thinking, too."
"I've been...I want to write a book - a kid's picture book about a child with Down syndrome."
Sean looked at her in surprise. "Really?"
She flushed. "It's just an idea right now. But the last time Mom and I were at the bookstore, I realized there aren't any books for young children about disabilities. I mean, even Lego just now came out with a figurine in a wheelchair, so I thought..."
"I think it's a great idea!" Sean cheered.
Kemara sighed, relieved. "I think Owen and Chris would agree to collaborate on the pictures. And Ivy and Shelby can help with the writing."
"I bet you'll have enough material for a series," he said.
"Wait until we've finished the first one!" Kemara warned, laughing as she felt tears prickle at her eyes.
She nodded. “Yeah, it’s just a little scary, isn’t it? Following your dreams?”
“Yeah, it is. But exciting, too.” He sighed happily. “So where do we go from here?”
Eagerly, they began to plan out
the newest phase of their lives.
"And Sean’s going to talk to some of the guys at the Brewster Fire Department since he knows most them... ” Kemara told the other women after Bible study that evening as they snacked on the cookies Monica, Arthur and Liam had brought. “He wants to get an idea what the job is like now, compared to when his grandfather was doing it. And I guess it never hurts to know people.”
“Very true!” Kylie said. As one, they all looked over to where Joshua was sitting with the men. “How long is he staying? I haven’t heard.”
Emma shrugged. “He said he’ll be in and out tying up loose ends at Chrysalis Court for a while.”
“But he promised to come see a show,” JenniAnn put in.
Violeta sighed. “I wish Ivy and I could have been in it this year. But we’ve been studying so much.”
“Almost done!” Ivy said. “And then we’ll have two weeks free.”
She turned to Kemara. “Shelby’s all excited about being in the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Will you and Sean and the twins be there?”
Kemara flushed slightly. "Not this year. We've... got plans."
The group of men broke up, and Sean wandered over in time to hear this. "She's got plans,” he said, wrapping an arm around his wife. "But she won't tell me what they are."
She returned the look. "You'll find out."
The married women exchanged knowing smiles as Violeta clapped her hands.
“Oh, your first anniversary! That’s so exciting!” Her expression fell. “But we’re still getting together to talk about the book, right?”
Kemara patted her arm. “Definitely! I don’t know how we’ll fit it around ‘Superstar’ performances and everything else, but we might as well get started.”
“Marco and I can’t wait to see the show!” Isolde said. “We haven’t watched last year’s DVD - we want to be surprised.”
Peter and Clay joined them. “We’re changing a few things,” Peter said. “Just to keep it interesting since we’ll probably have some repeat viewers. Not to spoil it, but there will be more audience participation for one thing.”
“I hate that we couldn’t be in it this year.” Kemara shrugged. “But maybe we can do ‘The Secret Garden’.”
“When do you start rehearsing for that one?” Marco asked curiously.
Emma laughed. “As soon as ‘Superstar’ is done. Actually, we need to sit down and figure out if we need to have auditions. The size of the ensemble is pretty fluid.” She smiled mischievously. “So those of you who have not participated before can do so.”
“Meaning us, I suppose,” JenniAnn said, nudging Andrew. “I think it’ll be fun.”
He shrugged. “Sure. I think I remember how to waltz.”
Kemara looked uncomfortable. “Oh, yeah....I forgot about that.”
“We’ll have some lessons,” Emma assured her. “I’m sure you’ll do fine.”
“You can’t be any worse than me,” Clay said. “I’ve got two left feet.”
”No you don’t!” Kylie rolled her eyes. “You’re a great dancer.”
“Any ideas who’ll play Mary and Colin?” Owen asked.
Emma and Peter exchanged looks. “I think so,” Emma said. “If they’ll do it…”
“We thought Shelby could be Mary,” Peter said. “She’s the right age. And... ” He turned to Kylie. “We thought if you would play Lily, then you and she look enough alike for ‘Lily’s Eyes’ to work.”
“The audience won’t be able to see what color your eyes are anyway,” Emma explained, “But your hair and facial features are very similar.”
Kylie blushed with pleasure. “I’d love to! But what about Colin?”
“There are a couple of boys in the Tunnels we’re considering,” Peter said. “We’ll talk to them when the time is closer. But for now…”
“One show at a time is about
all we can handle!” Emma said, and they all laughed.
“Hey, you. How was your day?”
Sean had left early in the morning for Brewster. He looked tired, but there was an air of suppressed excitement about him.
He tossed his wallet and phone onto the table beside the door and laid down on Joy’s other side..
When the baby reached out to him, he took her small hand in his own. “Pretty good…Where’s Ian?”
“Asleep - finally. I think he’s coming down with something, actually. He’s been pretty cranky all day.”
“Hope the rest of us don’t get it,” Sean joked, but he didn’t smile.
Kemara sat up. “Spill it. What happened?”
Sean gathered Joy to him and rolled onto his back, settling her against his chest. As usual, she lay with exaggerated limpness, like a rag doll. One chubby fist still clutched her father’s finger.
“What makes you think something happened?”
She snorted. “Because I know you. Very well.”
He kissed the top of Joy’s head. “Well, I talked to a bunch of people in Brewster... and in Manhattan.”
“And Manhattan’s not really looking for volunteers right now.”
“Oh, no! I’m sorry…”
He hesitated. “But...they do need full-time people. Or they will in the fall.”
Kemara went pale and sat up. “What? You mean as a real firefighter?”
“There’s no difference between a volunteer and a ‘real’ firefighter except one of them gets paid.”
“But it’s full time! At least if it’s volunteer you’re not always on call!” Kemara snapped.
Joy started and began to cry.
Sean wrapped his arms around her. “Hush, sweetheart. Mommy’s just upset right now.”
“You’re darn right I’m upset!” Kemara blinked back tears. “I thought it would just be an every now and then thing.”
He carried the still whimpering Joy to to couch. “Come here, and I’ll tell you about it.”
“Let me get Ian and see if he might want to nurse.”
She returned in a minute with the little boy. “Yeah, he’s a bit flushed.” She settled next to Sean and put the baby to her breast. “So... talk.”
Sean took a deep breath, not at all reassured by her tone. “Like I said, I talked to the guys in Brewster and then I came back to Manhattan. I stopped in at one of the firehouses and spoke to the chief there. He said they’re hiring and gave me a bunch of info. He said the next academy class will be sworn in on the 14th.”
“That soon?” Kemara looked up, startled.
He shrugged. “Yeah. There’s a class every few years. Anyway, I’d have to go through training, and there’s physical and written tests and certifications to get, plus the usual background check.”
“What kind of pay are they offering? Did he say?”
“Starting salary is $39,000, and it goes up every year you stay with the department. Plus, they offer medical insurance for the whole family and a pension. If something happens to me - if I’m hurt or... or killed. You and the kids would be taken care of.”
Kemara shuddered. “Well, I guess that’s something.”
“And -” he grinned. “There’s four weeks of vacation every year.”
She managed a tiny smile. “But getting to that point won’t be easy, I bet.”
“No.” He sobered. “Once I’m accepted, I’ll have classes. It’s really intense - a lot like the military. After graduation, I’ll be on probation for a year.”
“So then you’d be hired with a particular station?” Kemara was frowning in concentration.
“Actually, I’ll be a non-paid volunteer for this station while I’m training. When I graduate, I’ll start getting paid - and compensated for the cost of some of the classes.”
“I won’t ask if we can afford you essentially being out of work for 18 weeks - that’s your area. In any case, it sounds like you need to decide ASAP.” She raised Ian to her shoulder and patted his back gently. “Guess he’s not hungry.”
‘’Yeah, we can afford it.” Sean cuddled Joy close. “If you say no, Kemara, then I won’t do it. I know this is completely different from what we agreed on, and there’s really no time to think it over.”
“Did you pray about it?” she asked quietly.
“I’ve been praying about it since Chrysalis Court. Volunteering meant helping people and getting to do what I love - the thought of that was wonderful enough. But knowing that I can provide for you and the kids with the insurance and a pension on top of the pay... that’s even better.”
She studied him. “But you still weren’t sure until today. What changed your mind?”
“The fire station I visited was Engine 23 on West 58th. It’s called The Lion’s Den. I took a picture for you.” He retrieved his cellphone and handed it to Kemara.
She scrolled through the photos that showed a narrow, three-story, brick building. Its red garage door was emblazoned with a roaring lion surrounded by the names of firefighters lost on 9/11. An alcove on the side of the building held a stone lion, its paw resting on a shield which bore the number 23.
“I just... it felt right, you know?” Sean ran a hand through his hair. “It sounds crazy, but when I saw that lion, I thought of Joshua, and it felt like the perfect fit. He didn’t speak to me or anything like that, so maybe he doesn’t really approve…”
“I think he’d support whatever decision you made as long as you made it out of the goodness of your heart.”
He looked at her. “It’s not his support I’m worried about.”
"I meant it. If you say no, then that's it. Brewster is taking volunteers, so I could go there."
"But how would you go on calls?" Kemara protested. "It's too far away. And if you use the portal someone's going to wonder how you got there so quickly."
He shrugged, apparently unconcerned. "I'd figure something out."
Ian squirmed in her arms, crying fretfully. "Shh...Mommy's sorry you feel bad."
"Could he be teething, do you think?" Sean asked using the towel to wipe away some drool on the little boy's chin.
"So soon?" Kemara frowned. "I guess he could." She gently pressed a finger against Ian's mouth and he gnawed on the invading digit eagerly. "Yeah, look...his gums are all red and swollen."
"Well, we can do something about that. I'll put one of the teething toys Catherine gave us in the freezer to get it cold quick. Shouldn't take too long." He laid Joy carefully in the crook of Kemara's free arm and hurried out of the room.
"If it's not one thing, it's another, huh?"
Joy looked up at her with her usual calm expression. Her blue eyes were slowly turning green like Sean's, and as Kemara started into their speckled depths, she realized that her decision had already been made.
“Here we go!” Sean hurried back in. “I soaked a rag in some ice water. Give him to me.”
He took Ian in his arms and gently dabbed at the inflamed gums. The baby began chewing on the cloth, his tears lessening as the numbness spread.
“That’s better, isn’t it?”
Sean looked up, startled. “Huh?”
“I promised you before. I won’t take that back.” She laid a hand on his cheek. “My childhood dream was to be an astronaut. Obviously, that was never gonna happen, but you have a chance to follow yours. So do it.”
He turned his head and kissed her palm. “You’re sure?”
“Yes.” She blinked back tears. “I’m so proud of you.”
He laughed shakily. “Better wait and make sure I don’t flunk out. I’ll be up against guys a whole lot younger than me.”
“You’ll kick their butts. I know it!”
Joy squawked in agreement and they both looked at her in surprise. Because of her Down syndrome, she was a much quieter child than her brother who was becoming more and more vocal.
“I think she agrees,” Kemara said. “So, you’re blessed for sure.”
Sean leaned over and kissed
her. “Well, I knew that already.”
JenniAnn nodded. “Yeah. I guess it would be like Andrew deciding to be an AOD after I met him.”
“Or Max going into the army,” Rose agreed. “He’d already had that experience, so I didn’t have to adjust.”
Kemara nodded. “Sean spent Saturday in interviews and filling out paperwork. He said his training at Randall’s Island - they call it The Rock - will be a lot like the military. He showed me his 1,000 page ‘probie’ manual. There’s all sorts of crazy rules like not using certain doors and entering the building with their duffle bags in their left hands.”
JenniAnn snorted. “I couldn’t do it!”
“Me either!” Rose chimed in. “It’s a good thing you’ll have the book to work on. It’ll keep you busy.”
Kemara sighed. “Some. But that’s still a lot of time with just me and the kids. I suppose I could use it for sleeping,” she joked. “The kids were just starting to sleep through the night, and now Ian’s tooth is keeping us all awake. Bless his heart.”
The three women automatically looked over at the blanket where the twins lay. Belle sat beside them enthusiastically dangling a bunch of brightly colored plastic keys for them to grab.
“Gently, Belle,” JenniAnn reminded.
She turned back to the others. “You know....why don’t you teach some classes in the Tunnels? You could leave the twins in the nursery. And I’m sure Vincent would be glad to have you.”
Kemara looked interested. “That’s an idea. I mean, I know I’ve done a bit with the older kids on college application essays, but a more regular class or two would be fun. And it would bring in a little bit of money while Sean’s not getting paid.”
“So what would you teach?” Rose said.
Kemara shrugged. “Not literature. Vincent does a great job with that already. Maybe creative writing for the littles, with resume and college essay writing for the older kids?” She looked at JenniAnn.
“Sounds good!” her friend said. “Run it by Vincent and see what he says, but I’m sure he’ll be fine with it.” She grinned. “Especially if it means he gets to see Ian and Joy more often.”
Kemara smiled. “Babies really take to him, don’t they? Almost as much as they do with Joshua.”
“Yep. He has a gift, alright,” JenniAnn agreed. “I sometimes wonder -...”
A knock on the front door interrupted them. They heard footsteps coming down the hall.
“I thought you ladies might be here,” Sean said stepping into the kitchen. “Figured I’d better check anyway.”
Kemara smiled up at him. “I’m glad you did. I was just about to head out. I guess I’ll have to learn how to haul both of them and all their stuff around eventually.”
“But not today.” He smiled at the trio in the living room.
“So what did they say?” she demanded unable to contain her curiosity a moment longer.
“My first day of work is Friday.” He smiled at her. “Don’t worry! They won’t let me near a fire for a while yet except to ride along. I’ll start with washing the truck and other menial chores.”
“That’s wonderful!” Kemara kissed him as JenniAnn and Rose added their congratulations.
Sean’s smile faded. “Once I graduate, I’ll be scheduled for ten 24-hour shifts a month. But for now, I’ll go in on Fridays alternating days and nights.”
“I’ll have Max give you a call,” Rose said. “Maybe he has some general tips for surviving training.”
“I’ll take all the help I can get,” Sean said, only half joking. “One guy told me marine boot camp was easier - and shorter.”
JenniAnn smiled. “Talk to Andrew, too. You know he’s done the army thing a few times.” Her smiled faded as she remembered his time as a POW with Max.
“And Clay!” Kemara said, gathering up the twins’ things. “That’s three people... and maybe Adam.”
Sean chuckled and scooped up both babies. “And I’ll get plenty of weight training with these two.”
“Seriously!” his wife said. “I think they’re gaining a pound a day. Are we ready?”
They said goodbye to JenniAnn and Rose and headed back to Sol Mate in the cool twilight.
“JenniAnn suggested I teach some classes for the Tunnel kids,” Kemara said as they walked slowly down the dirt path between the trees.
“Good idea. Get you out of the house a bit,” he said with a smirk.
“For you information, I like being a homebody.” She sighed. “I don’t know… I need to get used to the idea.”
Sean looked confused. “What’s there to get used to?”
“It’s just I’ve been home - we’ve been home - with these little guys since they were born. I know the Tunnel nursery’s great, but it’ll be hard letting someone else take care of them.”
Sean put his free arm around her in a quick hug. “Kemara they’ll be fine. You don’t have a problem leaving them with your mom or mine, do you? Ciara wouldn’t let Parker stay with anyone overnight - even our mom - until he was 2.”
“I know... ”
“You’ll be close by and it won’t be all day unless you wanted it to be. I’m sure you could stay in a guest chamber when I’m working nights. Or at Willowveil...or with your parents…”
Kemara held up a hand, laughing. “Alright, alright! How can I fight against such logic? I still want to think about it just to get used to the idea.”
“So you’ll be gone all day Friday?” Kemara asked shifting a sleepy Joy on her shoulder.
Sean nodded. “I need to be there at least by 6, but I’ll try to be earlier like a good eager beaver. And then I’ll stay until 6 Saturday morning.”
“Are you excited?”
“Yeah, and nervous. Never experienced dorm living before.” He grinned at her. “You’ve got the advantage of me there.”
“I bet they’ll make you do all the cooking.”
He shrugged. “Suits me. It’ll be nice to have something to contribute while I’m still learning.”
“I can’t wait to see you in your uniform.” She gave him an appreciative glance. “I always did have a thing for a guy in uniform.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Oh, really?”
“So should I wear it on our anniversary, then?”
She shook her head. “Regular clothes will be fine.” She started to say something else, and caught herself.
He chuckled. “You’re winding me up, you know.”
“Well, that is the general idea.”
Home, with the children fed and asleep - at least until Ian’s tooth woke them again - Kemara sat down at her computer while Sean filled out yet more FDNY paperwork.
“Oh, darn... ”
Sean looked up "What's wrong?"
"Nothing... Joy just has her check up Friday morning at Children's. I completely forgot.”
Sean swore. "Honey, I'm sorry."
Kemara shook her head. "No, it'll be okay. I can leave Ian with my Mom - she and Megan are helping Ciara take her youngest ones to the zoo anyway - or I can take him Below to the nursery. Joy and I will manage the trip just fine."
"See if someone can go with you - JenniAnn or Rose or whoever. That's a lot of stuff to lug on and off the subway."
"I'm sure someone can.” She came over and kissed his cheek. "Don't worry about us. You just concentrate on learning.”
He pulled her down onto his lap. "But it's already starting - me being away from you and kids....That's the biggest regret I have in doing this."
"Then, we'll just have to make the most of the time we do have together." She wrapped her arms around his neck. "Look at Zeke and Diana: she's a teacher with all the extra hours that adds, and they've got four kids. But they've still made it work for this long."
"True. Doesn't make it any easier, though....."
"And as for Friday afternoon, I thought I'd see who can come over and work on the book. Then, those of us who aren’t in it will go watch ‘Superstar’."
"Sounds good; I hope I’ll have time to see it.”
She looked doubtful. "What about our anniversary? You don't have work or classes then, do you?"
"Nope." He kissed the tip of her nose. "I already asked. No classes on St. Patrick’s Day.”
"Good. Because you know how
much I hate having my plans changed...."
Kemara turned from the fridge to see JenniAnn and Belle in the doorway to the theater’s office.
“Sure!” Kemara put one of the bottles she held into the microwave. “Belle, do you want to help give Ian and Joy their dinner?”
The little girl clapped her hands. “Yes!”
“Bottles for both of them?” JenniAnn asked.
Kemara made a face. “Ian’s teething so bad he chomps like a starving piranha when you put anything in his mouth. I had to stop nursing just so I could recover!”
Her friend winced. “Sounds painful.”
“Yeah, but the salve Maryam gave me really helps. Let’s go back out. They’ve napped all morning, so they’ll probably stay awake for a while.”
“And it’ll be quiet,” JenniAnn said. “Gloria and Peter wanted to go over the new lighting before they run through act two tonight.”
In the auditorium, the two women settled Belle with Joy - her choice. Andrew caught sight of them and came over.
“Let me feed him,” he said, reaching out his arms for Ian.
“Thanks,” Kemara handed over baby, bottle and towel. “I appreciate it. Just have a care for your fingers!”
She picked up a notebook that lay on an adjacent seat and flipped back through several pages covered with small, neat script.
“Making a start on the book?” JenniAnn said, keeping a close eye on her daughter.
Kemara sighed. “Trying to, but it’s just overwhelming. What do I cover? Downs can have so many levels and when you combine that with the physical problems that can go along with it... I don’t know how I’ll ever create an “every child” character to address it all.”
“Hmm…” JenniAnn nodded sympathetically. “Maybe just focus on Joy and her specific quirks?”
“I suppose... ”
“I bet once you have a brainstorming session with everyone, you’ll come up with a ton of ideas.”
“Thanks.” Kemara looked a little more hopeful. “I guess I’m overthinking it.”
Andrew chuckled, surprising them. “I was just remembering when Metatron paid us a visit and gave you a pep talk Laja.”
Kemara looked blank. “Metatron? Isn’t that one of the Transformers?”
JenniAnn laughed. “You’d think so, but he’s an angel and a scribe - THE scribe apparently. He records everything that happens here on earth.”
“So he’s a writer too... ” Kemara said. “Or more like a reporter, I guess.”
Andrew looked thoughtful. “You know, he’s been asking me about everyone lately - well, since we’ve been at Chrysalis Court. And it’s not like he doesn’t already know what’s going on. I think he’d jump at the chance to help if you asked him, Kemara.”
“But it sounds like he must be really important,” the woman protested. “I’m sure he has better things to do than help with my little picture book.”
“He’d enjoy it,” Andrew assured her. “And he loves kids; he just hides it well.”
JenniAnn smiled. “He can be a bit intimidating, actually. But he was very nice.”
“Maybe we will, then.”
“So is Sean ready to get started?” Andrew asked. “I’m afraid I couldn’t tell him much since I never had to go through boot camp myself.”
JenniAnn looked at him, skeptical.
“I didn’t!” He grinned. “I just showed up in uniform with my ‘transfer’ papers.”
She sniffed. “I dunno if that’s really fair.”
Kemara laughed. “Actually Sean’s getting all his gear and being fitted for his uniform today. And then he’s got something at the fire station - house,” she corrected herself. “I’m still learning the lingo.”
“That I did warn him about,” Andrew said. “And that he’ll be the butt of a lot of jokes for a while.”
“He knows. He’s older than the usual recruit, but apparently a lot of firefighters are retiring this year and next, so they need to fill the ranks. Anyway, he said there’s always hazing of some sort.”
JenniAnn frowned. “It sounds sorta juvenile to me.”
Andrew smirked. “You’ve never heard me, Adam and Henry on an assignment, have you?”
“Speak for yourself,” Adam said, joining them. “I am never juvenile.” The others laughed, and he turned to JenniAnn. “Honestly, humor does help. And so does sarcasm.”
She patted his arm. “Well, you’re an expert at that.”
“Thank you. It’s been honed to
a fine edge over the centuries.”
Sean put his hand on the doorknob and paused. He took a deep breath and turned.
Kemara was sitting on the sofa reading to the twins who were propped up on either side of her.
She looked up at him with a welcoming smile, and shrieked. The book fell from her nerveless fingers to thump onto the carpet.
"Sorry." He ran a hand over his shaved head self-consciously. "I meant to warn you, but I didn't know they were going to do it today."
“That - that’s okay. It probably would’ve been a shock even if you had said something.”
She cuddled Ian who had begun to cry. “Hush, Lovey.”
She scooped the baby into her arms and paced around Sean as if he were a fascinating new species. “How does it feel?”
“A little chilly, to be honest. But it’ll be great in the summer.”
She nodded, blinking back unexpected tears.
“Don’t look like that!” He hugged her. “It’ll grow back.”
“I know. It’s just... different.” She ran a hand over his head, feeling the slight stubble. “I’m not the only one who’s going to be surprised.”
He grimaced. “Yeah, my mom for one.” He picked up Joy and kissed her.
He had made the trip to Brewster alone on Sunday after church to break the news to his parents. From the little Sean had told her, Kemara knew Megan had responded badly, bursting into tears and storming out of the room.
Keith had only nodded in his slow way.
“I figured this would happen eventually,” he said as hugged his son. “I’m proud of you for not giving up on the idea. And your mother... She might come around; she might not, but you have to do what’s right for you.”
Kemara sighed. “Well, hopefully when she sees how happy firefighting makes you, she’ll change her mind. I’m sure she’ll still be worried for you, but maybe she can accept it.”
“I’m amazed that you can,” he said seriously.
“Oh, Joshua’s going to be hearing from me a lot!” Kemara joked. “And Michael, too. That reminds me: I need to get you a St. Michael medal. You can wear it off duty or hang it in your truck.”
He chuckled. “You know, it was amazing to actually talk to him at Chrysalis Court. I guess I’ve kinda gotten used to Joshua, Maryam and Yosef. But all the paintings show Michael in Roman armor with a sword and all. He’s got the military bearing, but that’s about it.”
“When I first met him, I felt like a groupie,” Kemara joked trying to lighten the mood. “I nearly asked him to sign one of my holy cards.”
“God’s heavenly baseball team,” Sean laughed. “Wonder what his stats would be?”
Joy squirmed, rubbing at her face and whining.
“What’s wrong, sweetie?” Sean gently pulled her hands away. “Uh-oh. Someone else has decided to start cutting a tooth.”
Kemara groaned. “Fabulous. Is it too late to give them back, do you think?”
“I guess so. In a few years they’ll be in school…We can sleep then.”
“We’ll probably have another one by then.” Kemara pointed out. “We’re doomed to a life of sleep-deprivation.”
“You’re right. Come on, Joy.
Let’s see what Daddy can find for that sore tooth.”
“I want one of those for myself.”
He grinned at her. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“Maybe I’ll just steal one of yours.”
“At least it doesn’t have a target printed on it. Or say “PROBIE” in big white letters.”
She frowned at the disparaging tone in his voice, so unlike his usual cheerfulness. “Surely they won’t hang you out an upstairs window by the ankles on your first day, will they?”
As she had hoped, he laughed. “Probably not! Maybe that happens on the second day, which means I’ll have a whole week to prepare.”
He carried his bag out to the car and returned for the two sweet potato pies he had made the night before - using Joyce’s recipe.
“Is that a gift or a bribe?” Kemara teased.
He kissed her. “Whatever works. See you tomorrow. I love you.”
“Love you too. Be careful!”
When he had gone, Kemara finished her coffee and got herself and Joy ready. Her parents had picked up Ian the night before. The little girl was agitated, fighting Kemara’s attempts to dress her.
“Do you miss him? Don’t worry... he’ll be back tomorrow morning - and so will Daddy. I bet they’ll both have lots of stories for us. Here, chew on this for a while.” She handed the baby a teething ring.
She was double-checking her diaper bag when the phone rang.
"Hey, JenniAnn. I'm just getting all our stuff together."
"Kemara, I'm sorry, but I can't go today. Belle is sick. She woke up in the middle of the night with an upset tummy, and now she's running a fever. I didn't have a chance to call before now."
"Oh no! I hope she feels better soon. Did you let Portia know?"
"She said some of the Tunnel kids have it and just to make sure Belle gets plenty of fluids." She sighed. "Andrew's with her now so I can have a break. You and Sean are lucky you've only had to deal with teething so far!" she joked.
"I guess so! Is Rose there?"
"No. She had an 8 o'clock meeting with her advisor, so she's already left. Is there someone else you can call?"
Kemara kept her voice light. "Sure. If Mom and the others haven't left yet, I know she'll come. And we'll just bring Ian along, too."
"I'm so sorry..."
"Don't be! You just help Miss Belle feel better. I'll email you when we get home and see how she's doing, okay?"
"Thanks. Have a good day!"
Kemara ended the call and dialed her mother-in-law's home number. If the group hadn't left yet that’s where they would be...Voicemail picked up.
She swore and quickly looked over at Joy who was lying on a blanket happily gumming the ring. So far, her new tooth didn’t seem to be paining her too badly. Ian, however, still woke in the middle of the night, nearly inconsolable.
Ciara had informed her sister-in-law that it could take months for the tooth to actually break through the gums. Her oldest, Parker, had teethed for four months.
"At least you two are getting this done at the same time," Kemara muttered, wracking her brain for someone else to call. Monica would be out with the food truck; Henry was on an assignment; Adam was in Albany. She could probably find someone Below to go with them, but that would take time that she didn't have.
She squared her shoulders and fought down a wave of panic. "Well, we'll just have to do it ourselves, won't we, Hon?"
And it wasn't like she'd never made the trip, she reflected, remembering her mad dash to the hospital from The Phoenix Inn after a very alarming phone call.
"I wasn't alone then, either, was I?" She asked Joy, strapping her into one of the three-wheeled strollers. "You and Ian were with me. You just weighed a lot less!" Joy had reached ten pounds at Portia's most recent checkup, and Ian was a hefty twelve.
She hurried up the path to Willowveil and the portal, mentally tracing the route in her mind. The subway was about a block north, then three stops, and another two blocks to the hospital. Not bad at all. They should arrive in plenty of time.
"It could be worse," she said half to the baby and half to herself as they emerged beside the castle. "We could be waiting for a cab; and that would take ages!"
She sent a prayer for Belle's
healing Joshua's way. Then, she stepped through the portal
into a New York City alleyway.
Panting, Kemara found a seat in the nearly full subway car and sank down in relief. Work on a water main had torn up the sidewalk and detoured them for an entire block. She turned the stroller to face her and checked the baby, but Joy was quiet - and apparently dry - beneath her blankets.
"Not too much further," she said as the little girl grasped one of her fingers. It seemed to be her favorite game lately, and Kemara rejoiced at this evidence of her increased muscle control.
Someone took the seat beside her. Kemara ignored the person as subway etiquette dictated, although her Southern upbringing urged her to at least nod in greeting.
"She’s retarded, ain’t she?”
“Excuse me?” Kemara looked up.
“Your little girl.” The stranger waved a hand at Joy. “She’s got them squinty eyes.”
To her horror, Kemara realized she had no idea how to answer. “She has Down syndrome. But she’s not retarded.”
“You poor thing.” The woman looked Kemara over. “Having a child at your age. No wonder she’s defective.”
Defective. It was the way the fetal medicine specialist had described Joy before she was born. Kemara opened her mouth to say... something. But before she could the older man sitting opposite them spoke up.
“I don’t believe the lady asked for your opinion,” he said mildly, glancing up from his newspaper.
The woman sniffed, but said nothing more. Joy began to fuss, and Kemara bent her red face over the stroller. It felt as if every person in the car was staring at them.
At the next stop, the woman got to her feet. "When she's 30 and you're still changing her diapers, you'll realize what you’ve done.”
Kemara gritted her teeth and didn’t reply.
She was shaking as she pushed Joy out of the subway entrance closest to Children’s Hospital. In the lobby, she headed for the elevators at a fast walk.
Her watch showed a quarter to eight as she stepped into the bright waiting room. After checking Joy in, she caught sight of a familiar face. Rolonda (“Just call me Ro.”) and her husband, Jordan, also had twins - both girls - who were two months older than Ian and Joy. The families had met at Gigi's Playhouse enrichment center and enjoyed trading "terrible twin" stories when they got together.
"Hey, girl!" Rolonda moved her bag off a chair to make room for Kemara. "We missed you last week."
"We had friends over for dinner. Did everything go okay?"
The younger woman nodded. "I think they raised nearly $3,000 dollars."
"That's great!" Kemara leaned over and waved at Jewel and Jayden. Jayden smiled back, but Jewel only yawned. "And how are you ladies doing?"
"Not too bad. Jewel had a cold and it's gotten in her chest, so I thought I better have her checked out just in case."
Kemara nodded in understanding. Portia had warned that Joy might be prone to upper-respiratory and sinus infections. "Good idea."
Her friend peered at her closely. "You alright? You seem a little down, if you don’t mind me saying."
Kemara nodded. "Oh, yeah....just a nasty incident on the subway." She repeated the stranger's words as calmly as she could.
Rolonda listened, twirling one of her long braids around a finger. “Girl, if that had been me, I’d have gotten all up in her face, ‘What gives you the right to tell me how to raise my child?’”
“Then she would’ve said that since she’s paying for any services through taxes, she does have a right.”
Her friend snorted. “Bull crap. I bet she gets plenty of services herself. You got to learn to speak up, cause Joy can’t do it right now.”
"I know.” Kemara ran a finger over her sleeping child’s snub nose. “But this is the first time someone's actually approached me like that. Usually people just look and whisper. And sometimes they don't even do that if Sean gives them the stink eye."
“It’ll come. I ain’t afraid of saying it like it is, but I keep forgetting you’re so shy.” She gave Kemara a quick hug. "Speaking of Sean, where is he today?"
"You mean you're surprised he let me out on my own?" Kemara joked feeling her mood lift a little.
Rolonda laughed. "Now, I didn’t say that... ”
Kemara launched into a description of her husband’s new job, managing to push the anonymous woman’s words to the back of her mind. For now.
When the receptionist called her name, Rolonda gathered up the girls and their things, muttering, “I swear, what was my Mama thinking? Who names their child Rolonda these days?”
“It’s not as bad as mine,” Kemara said, grinning.
“True. You could be one of my family. How about we get lunch? First one through waits in the lobby?”
Kemara smiled at her. “Deal. Maybe we’ll run into subway lady and you can coach me in a devastating comeback.”
After an encouraging visit with Joy’s specialist, Dr. Sutez - “Keep doing what you’re doing.” - Kemara joined Ro downstairs, and the group walked to a nearby deli for an early lunch.
“No word from Sean yet?” the other woman asked as Kemara glanced at her phone before slipping it back into her purse.
“No, but I’m sure he’s busy. And he may not be allowed to use his phone on duty anyway.”
“Why don’t you send him a text that he’ll see if he does check it?” Ro said with a suggestive wink.
Kemara giggled, and took the
phone back out.
When she and Joy returned to Sol Mate in the early afternoon, they found Joyce, David and Ian waiting for them on the front porch.
“How’d it go?” David asked, lifting Joy out of her stroller. “Were you a good girl for you mom, Pumpkin?”
Kemara sighed as she set down the heavy diaper bag. “As good as gold. Come here, buddy.” She took Ian from Joyce. “Did you have fun seeing the animals?”
“We had a wonderful time,” Joyce said. “But I’ve forgotten what it’s like to chase after little ones all day. Have you eaten?”
“Yes, we met a friend and had lunch with her and her twins. It was fun. Do you want to come in for a while?”
David shook his head. “We’ll help you get these two imps settled and then we need to get back. It’s Brad’s birthday, and Megan and Keith invited us over.”
“Oh, that’s right!” Kemara carried Ian into the house. “They asked us too, but some people are coming to work on the book this afternoon.”
Joyce smiled proudly. “I’m so happy you’ve decided to finally write a book! I’ve been saying since you were little that’s what you should do.”
“I bet it’ll be a best-seller,” David said laying Joy in her crib. “Alright, we’ll see you later then.” He kissed his daughter’s cheek. “Maybe you’ve got time for a nap yourself before they get here?” he suggested gently. “You look tired.”
Kemara put a light blanket over Ian in the second crib. “No, I wouldn’t be able to sleep worrying about Sean.”
“When your father was driving tractor trailers, I don’t think I slept more than three hours a night at first,” Joyce said. “It does get easier.”
As she watched them disappear
up the path, Kemara hoped her mother was right.
When Owen, Shelby, Chris and Ivy showed up a couple of hours later, Kemara had two plates of shortbread and a fresh pot of coffee waiting.
"Umm...smells like we're just in time," Chris said, sniffing the air appreciatively.
"Didn't I tell you you're being paid in food?" Kemara joked getting a jug of milk from the refrigerator.
Owen grinned and took a cookie. "Suits me!" he said popping it into his mouth.
"Me too!" Shelby put two cookies on a plate and poured a glass of milk. "Where are Ian and Joy?"
"Sleeping. But I'm sure they'll be up before we're done."
When everyone had food and drink they settled around the table.
"Okay, I guess Chris and I will start," Owen said taking a sketchbook from the art case Joshua had given him. "Kemara, you gave us both the same photos, right?"
She nodded. "I know you have pretty different styles."
"And we haven't seen what each other came up with," Chris said, pulling out his own sketchbook. "So, first one...."
Both men laid the books side-by-side. At the top of each page a photograph had been taped - in this case, a black-and-white ultrasound image.
"Wow...." Ivy breathed, leaning forward for a closer look.
Owen had reproduced the amorphous baby with nearly photographic detail in shades of pink and peach.
"I thought...." He took out a pencil and sketched a frame around the painting with a shadow behind it. "It might make a nice inset so it looks like a photograph lying on a table."
"And I went for something more dreamy," Chris said. His version was also done with paints, but the child was more unformed, just a suggestion of features.
Shelby smiled. "It reminds me of that book about the unborn baby and the angel. Kinda hazy and sweet."
"I think it's amazing how you both used the same image, and the same colors, even," said Ivy. "But the feel of them is so different."
"I think they're both gorgeous," Kemara said. "I don't know how we'll ever choose. Let's see the rest."
The other pictures showed Joy from birth to her current age. In their renditions, the two artists changed her hair and eye color.
"It would help if we could get some photos of other children with Downs," Owen said. "To get an an idea of the different physical characteristics."
"What about the internet?" Ivy suggested. "Or maybe some of the parents at Gigi's playhouse would let their kids' images be used just in a general way? I mean, you're going to introduce other children besides Joy eventually."
Kemara frowned. "I'd hate to do that without paying them something. Let me talk to a few people and see what sort of reaction I get." She jotted down a few notes. "We'll go with these for now. Can you guys get me scans?”
"No problem," Chris said. "I'll email them to you tonight."
"Thanks. I've got a first draft here...." Kemara handed each of them a sheaf of papers. "I think my next step will be to add the illustrations since the words and text really do go hand-in-hand. We can just keep tweaking both."
There was silence as they all read.
"It's cute," Shelby said. "I like how you say the parents were scared and excited at the same time. Little kids know what that's like."
"Is it too serious, though?" Kemara asked. "I don't want it to be too scary for a read-aloud. Maybe I should focus more on the anticipation of a new baby."
Chris shrugged. "You could change it so they find out she has Downs after she's born. Kids don't always understand that a baby is a person before it's out of mommy's tummy."
"Good point." Owen set down the papers. "I can't help you there. Joy's my first experience with Downs."
"Mine too," Ivy said. "There was a special needs classroom at my old school, but the kids were pretty self-contained, and I only ever caught glimpses of them."
Kemara sighed. "I just feel like there’s something off about it... ”
For a while they worked over the draft, making suggestions, changing wording and rearranging sentences.
“I agree with Kemara: It’s not... alive... yet,” Ivy said, tossing down her pencil in frustration.
“Alive?” Shelby asked, looking puzzled.
“A good story should grab you and suck you in, even a picture book,” Ivy explained. “And this doesn’t yet.” She looked at Kemara. “Sorry.”
The other woman waved a hand. “It’s okay. That’s why this is a group project. And I totally agree with you.”
“Maybe we’re too close to it,” Chris suggested. “I mean, we know Joy. If we give it to someone else to read who’s never met her... ”
"What's wrong?" Owen cocked his head. "Is it the twins? I didn't hear anything."
“No, I just remembered.” She leaned forward, excitedly. “JenniAnn told me there’s an angel named Metatron. He visited her and Andrew a while back. Anyway, he’s like Heaven’s official reporter. And from what Andrew said, Metatron is really interested in all of us.”
“So maybe he’d want to help us write the book?” Ivy said.
“Andrew thought he might.”
Chris and Owen looked at each other.
“Worth a try,” Owen shrugged.
Kemara took a deep breath. “OK. Here goes. Joshua, if Metatron’s free, could we speak to him, please?”
Shelby shrieked and tossed the pages she had been reading into the air. The others looked up, startled.
“Oh, come on!” The pale angel rolled his eyes. “You asked for me, and here I am. No need to shout.”
Kemara flushed. “Sorry. Thanks for coming. Umm... all of us,” she gestured at Chris, Owen, Ivy and Shelby, “We had the idea to write a series of picture books about children with Down syndrome.”
“A laudable plan, my dear,” Metatron said. He straightened his black tie. “And you wanted moi because?”
Kemara opened her mouth and closed it again. The angel reminded her of every stern teacher she’d ever had.
“Well, JenniAnn said you’re the scribe.” Ivy had recovered herself. “You write everything down.”
Metatron stepped over to the table and, without asking, flipped through Owen’s sketchbook.
“Yes... I do... ” He gathered up Shelby’s copy of the story, perched on the edge of a chair, and began to read.
“We thought you might want to try fiction. You’ve probably seen more people with Downs than we could even imagine,” Ivy finished in a rush.
“When you have time, and if Joshua and the Father don’t mind that is,” Kemara added beginning to be sorry she’d suggested it. Metatron continued to read, seeming not to hear her. “And...if...if you want to.”
They waited in silence as he finished the last page and laid it down. “A passable maiden effort,” he said dismissively. “But there’s definitely room for improvement.”
Before Kemara or the others could reply to this, a noise from the baby monitor interrupted them.
“Sounds like someone’s up,” Ivy said. “Kemara, just a bottle for Ian?”
The woman nodded. “Yeah, Joy had one at lunch. Her new tooth’s not that bad yet, so I’ll try nursing her.”
“My turn!” Owen put down his pencil.
Chris nodded. “I’ll help.”
A few minutes later, they returned carrying the babies.
“Here we go,” said Chris giving Joy to Kemara. “Both dry and hungry.”
“Thanks.” Kemara settled into the recliner with the infant. “Hello there, sweet girl.”
She noticed Metatron watching. “Oh! I’m sure you already know, but these are mine and Sean’s twins. This is Joy, and Owen has Ian. Everybody pitches in to help feed and entertain them.”
The angel nodded stiffly. Was he just a tiny bit flustered? “They’ve grown.”
Acting on an impulse he couldn’t explain, Owen approached with the little boy. “Would you like to feed him? Kemara usually nurses Joy once a day, but Ian takes a bottle.”
Metatron hesitated. “If you don’t think he’ll mind.”
“Nah.” Owen grinned. “They’re used to being passed around.”
True to his words, Ian was unfazed. He looked up at the angel and gnawed on the teething ring he clutched in one fist.
“You’ve done this before,” Ivy said quietly as Metatron gently removed the ring and offered the bottle in its place.
“A few times.” He chuckled, and the smile made him look years younger. “You should’ve heard everyone at Home when Yeshua was a baby. There was a lot of scheming about taking human form and pretending to be neighbors just so they could ‘drop by’ and hold him for a minute. I mean, what a chance!”
Ivy smiled. “I’m sure Maryam and Yosef would’ve appreciated the break. You call him Yeshua. So do I.”
“That’s who he’s always been to me,” the angel said simply.
“Well, we’re aunts and uncles to all the kids. You can be Uncle Metatron.”
The scribe shrugged a little defensively. “I always wanted a hoverboard.” He noticed them all staring. “Anyway, Uncle Marty is just easier to say.”
“So based on your first read through, do you have any suggestions on how we can make the book ‘come alive’ as Ivy put it?” Chris asked.
“Fiction isn’t my specialty, you understand. But - the book is about a child, correct?”
“Then, you need to tell the story from her point of view.”
“You mean first person?” Kemara said, surprised.
He rolled his eyes. “Of course. You have a degree in English literature, I believe. Surely you’ve heard the concept.”
Seeing her friend’s jaw tighten, Ivy spoke up before Kemara could say something she would regret later.
“That’s a great idea!” She made a few changes on her copy of the story. “How does this sound?”
Marty nodded. “Much better.”
“So let’s rewrite it that way,” Shelby said, and for the next half hour, they scribbled busily while Owen and Chris discussed where to place the artwork.
“I think he’s done.” The angel patted Ian’s back gently, wincing as the baby spit up some milk.
Kemara stood up with Joy, and gave him a small smile. “I know. I hate that part. And now Little Miss needs to be changed. You can come back with me if you want.”
In the nursery, Marty carried Ian over to the mural and said, without turning around, “I apologize. I haven’t been around humans very much. Sometimes I forget that you can be rather... sensitive.”
Kemara flushed. “That’s okay. My dad says I would argue with a fence post.” She turned her attention to Joy. “Alright, little one, let’s get you cleaned up.” She glanced at Marty. “Unless you’d like to do the honors?”
He held up a hand. “No, no. You go right ahead.”
He wandered around the room, examining Owen’s artwork before something on the dresser caught his eye. “May I?”
He picked up the wand and turned it over in his fingers. “This is impressive. It appears to have been carved from a gemstone instead of wood. It’s yours?”
“Thanks. It’s my Pottermore wand - Douglas fir, 12 and three-quarter inches. Sean had it made for me for Christmas.”
“And the core?”
She smiled. “Dragon heartstring - supposedly.”
“Good for transfiguration. It suits you... ” Casually, he waved the wand and a shower of blue sparks cascaded from the tip, vanishing before they touched the floor. Secure in his other arm, Ian cooed and reached out.
Kemara stared with her mouth hanging open, a clean diaper forgotten in one hand. “How did you do that?”
He winked. “Magic.”
He replaced the wand, and settled into one of the rocking chairs.
As she turned back to Joy, Kemara heard him singing softly. The words were in a language she didn’t recognize, but the tune in his baritone voice was soothing. She finished changing the little girl and went to lay her down.
“Can I hold her for a while?”
Again surprised, Kemara traded babies and sat down with Ian.
They were quiet for a few minutes before Kemara summoned up the courage to ask, “What was that you were singing to him?”
Metatron no, Marty - Kemara realized this was a softer side that maybe few humans, or even angels saw - shrugged. “An ancient Mesopotamian song. It’s not really a lullaby, but I’ve found it to be very effective over the centuries.
“The little ones give me hope, you know. Not the teenagers.” He sneered. “Thinking they’re indestructible. But the children... ” He kissed Joy’s forehead as he had Ian’s. “They haven’t learned to hate yet. They love as easily as they breathe.”
He looked up, and Kemara was startled to see tears in his dark brown eyes. “It doesn’t last long. But people like Joy - what a wonderful name - they will never lose that capacity to love.”
“I... I never thought about it like that before,” Kemara admitted. “We’ve run into people who say things like, why didn’t we abort her? Don’t we know she’s going to be a burden to society? She’ll never amount to anything.”
“But she doesn’t need to amount to anything!’ Marty exclaimed. Joy startled a little at his outburst.
“Sorry...sorry,” he soothed her. “She just needs to be.”
Kemara nodded. “Her full name is Miriam Joy.”
“‘My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,’” the angel quoted. “And that’s what she’ll do - what she does even now.”
“You mean it’s her reason for being?”
Kemara was fascinated. Already, she and Sean were beginning to worry about Joy’s development alongside her brother. Comparisons were just inevitable with two such different children of the same age.
He laughed. “I haven’t a clue! But if it isn’t, it should be.”
“Thank you. I had a run-in today with a woman on the subway. She said some awful things and I was just at a total loss.”
“It will get easier, I imagine.”
She nodded. “That what my friend said.”
Shelby appeared in the doorway. “Kemara? It’s almost time to go.”
“Go?” Marty asked.
“We’re all going to watch our friends in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Kemara said. “It’s early, but you know us - we like to hang out. Do you want to come with us? Or maybe you saw it when Joshua was the lead?
He stood up and cuddled Joy close, protectively. “No, I haven’t seen it.” His voice sounded strained. When he turned around his face was impassive.
Shelby and Kemara looked at each other.
“You could sit in the box,” Shelby suggested. “That’s what Maryam and Yosef did when they first saw it. So it was private.”
“Yes,” Kemara said. “It’s nice up there.” She put a hand on Marty’s arm. “Please? We’d love to have you.”
He took a deep breath and
squared his shoulders. “If you insist.”
“Here we are,” JenniAnn said, opening the door at the top of the stairs. “The public doesn’t know this room is here, so you won’t have company.”
“Unless you want it?” Andrew asked, watching the other angel sympathetically.
Marty shook his head. “No, I... need to be by myself, I think. I did enjoy meeting everyone,” he hastened to add.
JenniAnn smiled at him. “Kinda overwhelming, I bet. Do you want to come back to Dyeland with us after the show?”
“Yes. Henry told me I can stay at his house while he’s on assignment. Kemara and the others want to work on the book tomorrow afternoon.”
“Good. We’ll see you in a couple of hours then,” Andrew said. “The cast has a meet-and-greet in the lobby, so just come down.”
As the door closed behind his fellow angel, Metatron let out a long sigh. He would never admit it, but being around so many humans at once was....uncomfortable.
Gingerly, he lowered himself into the center chair and gazed out at the dark curtains that hid the stage. What was he doing here? The first time had been bad enough. He’d done his job - written it all down, every bloody detail. And now he was about to watch a recreation of it for entertainment?
Someone took the seat beside him.
“I thought you could use a little company,” Joshua said. He held out a hand and Marty took it.
Kemara lay on her stomach on a quilt spread in the middle of the living room floor. Ian and Joy were on either side of her while Warren sat between her shoulder blades.
Quickly, Sean took a picture with his phone before closing the door. He tiptoed across the room and stretched out beside Ian. The baby didn't wake when his father wrapped an arm around him.
"Wha..." Kemara's eyes fluttered open.
"Good morning." He leaned over and kissed her on the nose.
"Hi." She blinked and looked at him better. "You're home. How did it go?"
"Pretty good. Why don't I make us some breakfast while I tell you about it? I want to know how Joy's appointment went and ‘Superstar’. And your book, of course.” He sat up and lifted Warren onto the sofa. "There, now you can move. What're you all doing on the floor anyway?"
Kemara blushed. "I missed you. I knew it wasn't safe to have the babies in bed with me, so...." She shrugged. "We decided to camp out."
"I missed you, too.” He grinned. “Thanks for the texts. The guys wanted to know what I was looking at.”
“Sean! You didn’t show them did you?”
He hugged her. “Nah, I wouldn’t do that. Let’s eat. I’m starving!”
As they made omelets and toast, Kemara told him all about meeting Rolonda, and how the doctor said Joy had made great progress since her last checkup.
“Now, tell me all about your first day! What’s the firehouse like?”
“We’ll go by there sometime,” he promised. “I want the guys to meet you. There’s a communal kitchen on the second floor... ”
Kemara listened as Sean described the five other men he had worked with and how he had - as expected - been asked to cook all the meals once they found out he knew how.
“Early this morning there was a small electrical fire, but it was on the edge of our coverage area. So one of the other houses took it.” He shrugged. “Other than that, I swept floors, cleaned the rig - she’s a beauty! - and studied.”
He looked surprised. “What’d you mean?”
“I mean, I can tell when you’re keeping something from me,” Kemara said gently.
“Oh, you can?” He smiled, but there was a hint of strain in it.
She nodded. “I know you.” She set the plates on the table and reached for the orange juice jug.
He caught her hand. “And you’re hiding something, too.”
“You first.” She raised her chin defiantly.
He sighed. “Okay, but let’s eat before it gets cold.”
When they’d both had a few bites, Kemara put down her fork. “So?”
“It’s nothing really....one of the guys there, Craig, he’s new, too. I mean, he’s a probie like me, and he’ll be in my class. Two of the older men are retiring in the fall, so that’s why the two of us will get hired.”
Sean took a bite of toast, chewing thoughtfully. “Craig’s younger than us, mid-twenties, I guess. And he’s…kind of a playboy. We went grocery shopping, and he flirted with every woman he saw.”
Kemara smiled. “He sounds like Eric.”
“Huh? You mean our Eric?’
“Yeah, I didn’t know him then, but from what Emma and Kylie have said Eric was like that before he left ‘Superstar’.”
Sean smirked. “And that happened because he fell through the floor.”
“Right. Anyway, I got the impression he thought he was God’s gift to women.”
“Yeah, that sounds like Craig.”
Kemara was watching him closely. “And that bothered you?”
“Kind of. I mean, the ladies
he flirted with just brushed him off, but he said some
things... ” Sean trailed off, remembering.
"So, are you married, McCallum?" Louis Georgio asked as the six men ate the baked chicken and rice with bell peppers that Sean had made.
"Sure am; a year this coming Thursday, actually.”
"Congrats, man. My Julie and I've been together for five. Got any kids?"
Sean nodded. "Twins, boy and girl. They're four months old."
"Damn," Craig drawled. "No wonder you're here. I'd run too, with all that back home."
Sean looked across the table at him. "I'm pretty easy going, and I like a joke as much as the next guy, but my family's off limits. Understand?"
The younger man smirked. "No
Now, Sean cursed himself. He’d given the other man ammunition, and he felt sure Craig would use it.
“He just said something uncomplimentary,” he told Kemara. “I called him on it, but that might not have been the best idea.”
She grimaced. “I know the feeling.” She repeated the subway woman’s words. “And I was so shocked and upset, I had no idea what to say.”
“I hate to say it, but we’re probably going to run into a lot of people like her,” Sean said. He reached over and squeezed her hand. “We need figure out some snappy or sarcastic comebacks.”
Kemara gave a shaky laugh. “I’ll just ask Metatron.”
“Oh, I forgot you don’t know. He’s another angel - think Adam but 100 times more sarcastic. Andrew told me he might want to help with the book. So... we asked, and he showed up.” She shrugged.
Sean chuckled. “Wow. More sarcastic than Adam... that’s hard to imagine.”
“He’s a real softy, though. When he held Joy he just melted.”
Kemara nodded. “Well, he said...or implied really, that that’s her gift - touching people. He quoted Maryam about, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord’, and he said that’s what Joy will do.”
“I believe it,” Sean said. He looked over his shoulder into the living room where the babies - and cat - still slept. “Maybe she’ll be a great world ambassador,” he joked, turning back to his plate.
“Or maybe she’ll just charm opinionated busybodies on the subway,” Kemara said.
He got up and poured them both more coffee. “So how was the show? I thought we could go to the matinee if you don’t mind seeing it again?
“Of course not! It was great...even better than last year. The audience really got into it.”
They were just putting the last of the plates in the dishwasher when Warren raced into the kitchen looking irritated.
“What’s wrong with you?” Kemara asked the Siamese. “Let me guess - someone pulled your tail.”
Sean craned his neck to peer into the living room. “They’re up. Playtime!” He threw down the hand towel and went to scoop up Ian swinging him high into the air.
Chuckling, Kemara followed him. “You’re just a big kid yourself.”
“What kid doesn’t like bubbles?” he said, sitting down with the baby and gathering up Joy, too.
Both children watched with interest as Kemara blew a stream of brightly colored bubbles toward them. Ian reached out eagerly with both hands. Joy stared as one landed on her arm.
“Ooh...pretty bubble,” Sean said. He blew gently and the bubble took flight again.
“I think we need to get the catnip ones for Warren,” Kemara laughed as the cat batted one that came his way. “He loves them as much as they do.”
When the babies tired of the game, Kemara and Sean moved on to gentle stretches, pulling each child into a sitting position and back down again.
“Hey, it’s a sit-up contest!” Sean grinned. “You guys are gonna have abs of steel by the time you’re two.”
“I think Mommy needs to try that,” Kemara told Joy as she held the little girl upright. “Or just start working out with Daddy. Pushing both of you in the stroller while he runs would be plenty of exercise.”
Sean looked surprised. “If you want to, sure. But I think you look just fine…”
“Flatterer,” she said, leaning over to kiss him.
He handed Ian a squeaky rubber duck. “Is it flattery if it’s the truth?”
Kemara wrapped Joy’s hand around a purple rattle, and the baby shook it vigorously.
“Yes, it is!” She winced at
the noise. “I guess if they’re not triathletes, they can
always have a mariachi band.”
The weekend had passed quickly with the anticipation that comes with the end of summer holidays.
“Well, it is the first day of school for you,” Kemara teased Sunday night as Sean finished polishing his dress shoes and set them beside his regulation black duffel bag.
He looked up and smiled at her a little ruefully. “I haven’t felt this nervous since the first day at Brewster High.”
“The first day was always on or near my birthday.” Kemara finished pressing Sean’s light blue uniform shirt and carefully hung it up. “I hated that because I got clothes for presents instead of anything fun.”
“I bet!” He draped a black tie over the shirt and looked around the bedroom. “Well, I guess that’s everything.”
He’d been gone when she woke, but she found a note by the coffee pot. “Fed the kids when I got up. They’re in Ian’s crib. Joy’s needs new sheets put on. Don’t ask! Pray for me today. Love you.”
She had, while trying to keep herself busy. Working on the book and then visiting both sets of grandparents for lunch had helped, but she still found herself worrying about him.
“I bet your daddy’s doing all sorts of fun stuff,” she told Ian as she gave him a bottle. “I wonder who you’ll be like - him or me? I don’t -.” She broke off as she heard a car door slam, Sean came in.
His face was drawn and pale, and he moved as if every muscle hurt.
"I'm okay." He managed the ghost of a smile as he dropped his bag by the door. "Just tired."
She set Ian's bottle on the coffee table and propped the baby up against a mound of pillows so she could go to Sean. She wrapped an arm around his waist and helped him over to the sofa. To her surprise, he let her take some of his weight.
He sank down and closed his eyes.
She hovered, unsure what to do. "Can I get you anything?"
He shook his head and opened his eyes a crack. Slowly, he reached out and tapped Ian on the nose, making the little boy giggle and grab at his finger.
"Let me put them to bed," Kemara said.
He started to get up. "I'll help...."
"You stay right there! I can manage."
She whirled around, her arms full of teething rings, bottles and bibs. "The day you start calling me, 'Mom', this marriage is over!" she warned, fiercely.
He laughed. "If you insist."
When Kemara returned to the living room half an hour later, Sean was still on the sofa. He'd loosened his tie, but that was all. He leaned forward, hands clasped between his knees. His head hung down in exhaustion.
As she stood in the doorway, watching her husband, she gradually realized he was praying.
"Come to Me you who are burdened, and I will give you rest."
Kemara felt tears come to her eyes. With her and the children, Sean could drop the tough-guy mask he'd worn all day through who knew what physical and mental obstacles.
Quietly, she went to him, and he hugged her close.
"Long day?" she asked when he finally sat back.
He chuckled but without humor. "You could say that. I realized I'm not as young as I used to be. I'm aching all over."
"Maybe a hot shower would help?" she suggested.
"Already had one." He pulled off the tie.
"Well, why don't you go get changed, and I'll heat up the spaghetti."
He looked at her, shocked. "You cooked?"
She bristled a little. "I just thought I would. But don't get used to it," she warned. "There'll be plenty of nights of sandwiches or Campbell's soup - with grilled cheese, maybe."
“That would be fine, too.” He pulled her to her feet, and kissed her. “I’ll be right back.”
As she put the bread in the oven, Kemara heard the shower start up and smiled to herself.
“Feel better?” she asked when Sean came in the kitchen dressed in a T-shirt and pajama pants.
“Much.” He set the pot of noodles on the table. “I think I’m really gonna feel it tomorrow though.”
“I could give you a massage before bed,” Kemara suggested.
He grinned. “I won’t say ‘no,’ to that!” He began filling his plate as quickly as possible, making her laugh.
“No, you’ll enjoy this dinner I cooked, first. Actually, maybe we’d better bless it so it doesn’t poison us.”
Sean raised his eyebrows in surprise. Kemara’s conservative Methodist upbringing and shy nature meant she wasn’t comfortable with public prayer. He could think of only a few times she had requested it.
“Sure thing.” He took her hand and bowed his head. “Joshua, thank you for this food and for the loving hands that prepared it. Be with us as we continue with this new chapter in our lives, and give us both patience. Amen.”
“Amen.” Kemara squeezed his hand before letting go. “I liked the bit about patience.”
"You go on to bed," Kemara said once the twins had been tucked in. "I'll be there in a minute."
Sean was just turning back the covers when she joined him holding a familiar bottle.
He eyed it nervously. "Uh, what're you going to do with that?"
She smirked. "Give you a massage, of course. Come on, lie down."
"Bossy, aren't you?" He lay down cautiously, wincing a little. "What if it gets on the sheets?"
She climbed up beside him. "So we'll wash them. Now, hush."
As she worked on the tight muscles of his arms and back, she felt him relax. Five minutes later, he was asleep.
Kemara kissed his shoulder,
and setting the bottle on the nightstand, stretched out beside
him. He muttered and wrapped an arm around her, pulling her
close. Breathing in the scent of lavender, she closed her
He leaned down to kiss her. “Happy anniversary.”
“Mmm...same to you, and happy St. Patrick’s Day.”
He pulled back and brushed the hair out of her eyes. “Are you sorry to be missing the parade?”
“No. We can go next year. The kids will be old enough to enjoy it then. Besides... I’m sure we can think of something to keep ourselves occupied... ”
He kissed her again. “I did have one or two ideas... .”
Much later, he asked. “So what time is whatever you’ve got planned?”
She lifted her head from his chest and looked at the clock. “Not until lunch. We’ve got a while.”
Her stomach growled in answer and they both laughed. “OK, but I want a shower first.”
“We could share…” he grinned and waggled his eyebrows suggestively.
“Nope.” She kissed him and sat up. “If we did that, we’d never get out of here.”
They were just finishing cereal and toast when Sean’s phone rang.
“Hey, Joshua!....Thanks. Yeah, I’ll tell her... ” Sean listened for a minute, frowning slightly. “Can you hang on just a minute?”
He muted the phone. “He said ‘happy anniversary, and he wants to know if I can help them move some furniture at Chrysalis Court. Apparently, they’ve got a large group coming in tomorrow. I hate to tell him no, but... ”
Kemara smiled. “You go on. Just meet me back here at 11.”
“Are you sure? I thought we’d spend all day together.” He pouted.
She got up and came over to him, taking his free hand. “We’re spending our lives together, remember? What’s one morning, especially when it’s Joshua you’ll be with?”
“True.” He picked up the phone. “Okay, I’ll be there in about twenty minutes. See you then.”
As he made his way to Chrysalis Court, Sean told himself he should be annoyed that his time with his wife was being impinged on, but Kemara was right - it was worth it to be able to spend time with their best Friend.
The Carpenter greeted him with large thermos of coffee and a plate of his Mother’s honeyed fig bread. “Good morning! I’m sorry to drag you away like that, but everyone else is out of town. Well, John’s helping too, but we needed another pair of hands.”
Sean returned his hug. “It’s fine. Like Kemara said, we’ve got our whole lives to spend time together. So, what exactly are we doing?”
“Let’s take the food upstairs - I know John will want some, too - and I’ll show you. We’ve got about ten people coming; there was a major raid yesterday...” Still talking, Joshua led the way up to the third floor of the former hotel.
John welcomed Sean in his usual exuberant manner, asking endless questions about firefighting while they ate breakfast.
“Now for the hard part,” Joshua said when they had finished. “We need three rooms on this floor set up. Two twin beds in one and doubles in the others.”
To his pleasure, Sean found that, while he wasn’t as brawny as the other two men, he could do just as much as them.
“Getting some muscles, my friend,” John teased as they lugged a dresser into one room.
“I thought I was in shape before I started training... ” Sean rolled his eyes. “I had no idea. I’m so sore at night that Kemara insists on giving me a massage” He grinned. “Not that that’s a bad thing!”
John laughed. “I should think not. It will be better as your muscles learn.”
“I helped Abi in his carpentry shop from the time I was small, so I didn’t notice any aches,” Joshua said.
“Not that you would have complained,” John pointed out. “Even at that age.”
Joshua smirked. “Nope. Probably not.”
Chatting in this way as they worked made the morning pass quicker than Sean realized. He was surprised when Joshua said, “You need to head home. I think you’re meeting Kemara at 11?”
Sean blushed. “Yeah. I didn’t realize it was so late.” He looked down at himself. “I need another shower.”
Joshua patted him on the back. “I think you’ll have plenty of time.”
When he arrived home, Sean found no trace of his wife. A red envelope propped on the mantlepiece caught his eye. He opened it, and smiled as he read the card.
He showered quickly and hesitated over what to wear. He didn’t know what she was planning, but he had a hunch it wasn’t dinner at a fancy restaurant. Finally, he settled on slacks and a navy shirt that he knew she liked. Yes, that would do. Not too casual, but not too dressy either.
He tucked a small package into his pocket and went outside to wait. His phone vibrated and he read the message from JenniAnn, “Kemara’s on her way. Hope you have a good time and happy anniversary.”
Sean went to the head of the path to watch for her. His first thought was that she was wearing her wedding dress. But as she drew closer he realized this dress was sleeveless and not as long with a silver sash. Her hair had been curled a little and pulled back with a silver ribbon.
“Hi.” She set down the picnic basket she carried, and stood on tiptoe to kiss him.
“Hi. You’re beautiful.” He returned the kiss with interest, and then stepped back.
He walked slowly around her as he had on their wedding day, admiring her from all angles.
“Thank you,” she murmured as he wrapped his arms around her from behind. “You make me feel beautiful.”
He took the small package from his pocket and gave it to her. “This may be gilding the lily, but happy anniversary.”
Her fingers shook as she unwrapped the navy tissue paper to reveal a sapphire pendant on a white gold chain.
“Oh, Sean... it’s gorgeous!” She turned her head to kiss him. “Put it on me, please?”
Carefully, he fastened the delicate chain and turned her to face him. “I’d say you’re more beautiful, but that’s not possible.”
She dimpled. “Stop it!”
“So are you finally going to tell me what we’re doing?” He picked up the basket. “Oof! What’ve you got in here, ten bottles of wine?”
She wrinkled her nose. “Not wine. Lemonade. And some other... stuff.”
“You’ll see. Come on.” She took his free hand and led him to the dock where the rowboat waited.
He chuckled. “I should’ve guessed.” Carefully, he handed her into the boat and passed her the basket before climbing in himself.
The sun was hot for mid March, even in Dyeland, but the trip to Skellig was a short one.
Splashing each other and laughing, they waded through the shallows and then along the path to the stone circle in the middle of the small island. Gauzy dark blue fabric had been draped over some of the obelisks to provide shade, and a quilt covered the ground. Sean recognized it as the wedding gift their friends and family had made them.
“Wow. This looks great!”
Kemara smiled. “Thanks. We came out here as soon as you left.”
“You set me up!” He pretended to be outraged.
“Only a little bit. I asked Joshua for ideas to get you out of the way for a while, but he really did need help with the furniture.”
He pulled her down to sit on the quilt.
“Let’s see what you’ve got in here... ” He rummaged in the basket, coming out with a jug of lemonade, and two wine glasses. “And looks like a bunch of food…”
She took the glasses and set them on a nearby rock. “I figured you’d be hungry after this morning.”
“And you thought we might work up a bit more of an appetite,” he suggested, making her giggle.
“What’s this?” He held out a squat white jar and took off the lid to reveal a bright blue paste.
Kemara blushed slightly. “Well... you remember that line from ‘Risen’ about Celts painting themselves blue and going screaming into battle?”
Sean considered this. “Screaming?”
“A girl can hope.”
And then they were kissing and why were buttons so difficult?
At last, she lay back on the quilt, the sapphire glinting in the sunlight.
“‘Draw me like one of your French girls. Wearing this. Wearing only this’,” she quoted dramatically.
Sean laughed. “Well, I don’t know how to draw. But... ” He reached for the jar. “I used to be really good at finger painting…”
A yell jolted Kemara awake. She rolled over to see Sean slapping frantically at his arms. Before she could ask what was wrong, he had raced down the path to the beach, stark naked. A distant splash told her he had jumped into the water.
She yanked on her sundress and ran after him.
"Sean? What's wrong?"
His head broke the surface and he made a face. "Ants."
She stared. "What?"
"Ants! All over me." He shuddered. "All those little feet...."
Kemara laughed so hard she had to sit down in the sand.
"It's not funny!"
"Yes, it is. I can't believe you're afraid of ants. I thought firefighters are supposed to be brave." She stood up discarded the dress before wading out to him. "You've washed off my artwork," she pouted.
"I think the ants were eating it. And I am brave; I just hate them....always have."
She wrapped her arms around his neck. "Aww...I'll protect you."
He kissed her. "I love you."
"I love you, too." She giggled.
“I was just remembering... we had some plans for today. We were supposed to go skydiving, and I was going to wear my wedding dress.”
He smirked. ‘You were going to wear your wedding dress skydiving?”
“That would’ve been a sight!”
They laughed quietly.
“Well, it might not be skydiving, but I think we can make a little excitement of our own... ”
Much later, after lunch and another swim, they stretched out on towels on the beach.
"You look deep in thought," Sean said, reaching to take Kemara's hand.
She smiled over at him. "Just thinking about the past year."
"Lots of changes." He ticked them off. "We're parents, we both have new jobs, a new vehicle and a lot of baby toys...."
"And one of us has gone back to school," she added. She propped herself up on one elbow, gazing down at him. "Would you do it again? If you knew, I mean?"
He smiled and brushed a lock of hair out of her face. "In a heartbeat." He hesitated.
"Well....I would do it all again, no problem. But I do regret how scared we were."
She let out a long sigh. "About Joy. And how she would turn out."
"Yeah. I could only think about how much better off she would be without us," he explained. "I never considered how much worse off we would be without her."
"I'm still scared," she admitted. "About Ian and if he'll need surgery down the road, and if Joy will ever be toilet trained, and...."
Sean put a finger over her lips. "But it's not the same, is it?"
She lay down again with her head on his chest. "No. I figure we've gotten this far. But it's still hard."
He wrapped his arms around her. "That's why there are two of us - safety in numbers."
She laughed. "Oh well that makes sense!"
They lay quietly for a while before he said. "Ready to go back?"
"I guess we'd better. Otherwise we're going to have some very interesting sunburn to explain tomorrow."
He chuckled. "I would at any
rate. And wearing bunker gear with sunburned knees would not
be fun." He helped her to her feet. "This has been a great
day. We'll have to come here more often."
Lessons - Friday, March 18
Most of the ‘Superstar’ cast was already there preparing for the evening’s show. Peter and Emma insisted on feeding the babies and disappeared into the office with them, away from the clamor of the orchestra rehearsing.
With a sigh, Kemara settled into one of the back-row seats and took a notebook from her bag.
"Hi. Working on the book?" Kylie asked taking a seat beside her.
“Hi.” Kemara shook her head. "Lesson plans actually."
"Ooh! What'd have so far?"
"Well, this is the littlest kids - I guess they'd be first and second grade - so I need to keep it fun and short. Remember that storytelling game we played on vacation?
"The one with the cards?"
"Yeah. I found the kids' version at a bookstore in Tribeca. So I think I'll have them write stories that way. I'll break the class into nine-week chunks and at the end of it, I'll print up all their stories and have them bound. Then, we'll move onto something a little more difficult and repeat the process."
Kylie nodded. "That sounds like a good idea. They'll have the books to look back at and see how far they've come."
"And I thought maybe the
5-year-olds could draw pictures and I could include them as
illustrations. Maybe have each older child team up with a
younger one. If the older kid's story is about birds, then the
younger kid could draw them." Kemara laughed. "I don't know
how well that will work out, but we can try."
“I want to get this writing class well underway and then we’ll see. I’m not sure how the kids will handle the nursery - and how I’ll handle them being there,” she added ruefully.
Vincent chuckled and shifted Ian and Joy to a more comfortable position in his arms. “I think you will all do fine. You can keep them with you in the classroom, you know.”
She smiled up at him. “Is that your way of asking to carry them around all day?”
He laughed. “If you don’t mind, I imagine many people would like to do so - including myself.”
“You’re welcome to. I’m hoping all the interaction will help stimulate Joy. And Ian’s so chill...he’s our surfer dude. Nothing bothers him, really.”
Amy met them at the door to the nursery and scooped Ian from Vincent. “There’s my little angel!” She bussed the little boy’s chubby cheek, making him giggle.
“See what I mean?” Kemara whispered. Chuckling, Vincent carried Joy over to a row of beautiful handmade cribs under a mural of a storybook castle done in bright, primary colors.
“We’ve got everything ready for them,” Brittany said, coming over to hug Kemara. “Anything special we should know?”
Kemara gave her the diaper bag. “They’re both teething now - there’s a few chewies and some gel if it gets really bad. Other than that, there’s enough for two feedings. I don’t think we’ll be here that long but... ”
“Better to be safe than sorry,” Amy said. “Don’t worry. If there are any problems, one of us will come and get you.”
Reluctantly, Kemara kissed her babies and followed Vincent from the chamber.
“Here we are,” Vincent said as they arrived at his literature classroom. “I thought you could use the library.”
He led the way to a smaller chamber off of the larger one. The walls were lined with books for all ages from picture books to weightier tomes. Four tables and chairs stood in the middle of the room.
“It’s perfect!” Kemara set down her bag of supplies on the teacher’s desk. “We’ll be close by but if we get noisy it won’t bother the older kids so much.”
Vincent smiled. “That’s what I thought. Well, I’ll leave you to get settled. The children should be here in about half an hour.”
With a feeling of pleasant anticipation, Kemara set out crayons, colored pencils, markers and a few pads of construction paper.
“Who here likes listening to stories?”
Hands went up all around the circle.
“Well, what we’re going to do for the next couple of months is learn how to write our own stories. Then, I’ll take everything you’ve written and turn it into a real book.”
“A real book, with pictures?”
“That’s right! Owen’s going to show you how to draw pictures that go along with your stories. So, are you ready to get started?”
They all nodded, eagerly.
“First, let’s get our supplies.”
When they had all chosen from a variety of writing implements and colors of paper, Kemara held up a small box.
“There are 5,000 stories in this little box,” she said.
Steven looked puzzled. “How?”
“There are yellow cards and blue cards. The blue cards tell who your story is about - a teacher, a clown, a garbage truck driver. The yellow cards are things that can happen to them. So, let’s see... ” She pulled out two blue cards. “A person who is six inches high” and “A person who can talk to cows.”
The children giggled.
“So our story is about someone who’s six inches high and can talk to cows,” Kemara said. “And now let’s see what our story will be about.” She pulled out a yellow card. “Bunnies, bunnies everywhere.”
“So. We’re going to write this first story together.” Kemara said. “The person who is six-inches high - that’s this big,” she held her hands apart in illustration, “needs a name.”
“Trevor!” Bonnie called out.
“Madeline!” Scott said.
Kemara looked around. “Any other suggestions? How many want Trevor? And how many want Madeline? Trevor wins. Let’s say Madeline is his last name.”
She picked up a piece of chalk and wrote. “Trevor Madeline was only six inches high, but he could talk to cows.”
With the class’ input and much laughter, the story unfolded into a thrilling tale of rampaging pink and blue bunnies and a patient cow named Fred.
“That was great!” Kemara set down the chalk. “Now, I’m going to pull out some more cards and let’s see what kind of story you can come up with.”
When all her charges were busily scribbling, Kemara walked over and peeked into the literature classroom. Vincent was in the middle of a lesson about “The Fellowship of the Ring.” Joy lay in his right arm, and Ian in his left. Both were fast asleep.
“So how did it go?” Amy asked when Kemara returned to the nursery to collect the twins’ things. Vincent and the babies had refused to be parted.
Kemara mimed wiping her forehead. “Really great! But some of their stories were so funny it was all I could do to keep from laughing.”
“I can’t wait to read them,” Amy smiled. “Someone said you guys are doing ‘The Secret Garden’ once ‘Superstar’ finishes? The book is a big favorite here.”
“Yep! We’re having the first planning meeting next week. It’s a big show, so Peter and Emma want to get started early.”
“I think Shelby would be awesome as Mary.”
Kemara nodded. “Yeah, and Kylie’s going to play Lily. Beyond that, we’ll just have to see.” She checked the diaper bag. “Now I’d better get the kids away from Vincent before they become permanently attached to his arms.”
Amy laughed. “I don’t think he’d mind!”
That night, Kemara read bits of the children’s stories to Sean after dinner.
“It sounds like your first day as a teacher was a big success,” he said.
“It was more fun than I thought it would be.” She rifled through the stack of construction paper, smiling at the drawings some children had added to their stories. “Vincent wants me to get the regular cards for the older kids to use in their lessons. He’s got all kinds of ideas now that he’s seen the results.”
Sean stretched, groaning. “I’m glad.”
“Here,” Kemara patted her lap. “Lie down.”
He did, closing his eyes.
She rested a hand on his cheek. “Long day?”
“Yeah. We’re starting roof work this week.”
“How to rescue people from upper floors, rappelling down from the roof alone or while supporting someone else.” He waved a hand. “That sort of thing.”
Kemara shivered. “You’re not afraid of heights, are you?”
He opened his eyes and smiled
up at her. “Nah, piece of cake!”
“Yeah, right,” Sean thought.
An instructor double-checked Sean’s harness and nodded to the other probie who was bracing the rope.
“Dismount,” the young man said firmly.
Sean gripped the parapet with both hands and willed himself to roll over the edge. He didn’t move.
The instructor leaned over so his face was right in front of Sean’s. “Dismount!” he barked.
From his perch in the window a floor below, Craig smirked. “You’re sweating McCallum. Not scared, are you? This is nothing.”
Grateful to have something else to think about besides the open air under his feet, Sean focused making sure he was in position. “How would you know?’
“Been rock climbing since I was a kid.” Craig clung on as Sean lowered them slowly to the ground. “I could probably teach this class,” he boasted.
Sean gritted his teeth and said nothing.
“Alright, switch places and do it again,” a drill instructor said when they were unhooked.
“My turn!” Craig hurried back
into the building. Sean sighed and followed him.
“As you can see,” Emma said opening her own copy. “There are 21 named roles but some of them can be combined. Plus, we want a few more kids.”
Owen scanned the cast list. “For a kids’ show there’s a distinct lack of them.”
“I agree,” Peter said. “And we have some ideas about that. Lily Craven will be Kylie. And because Lily and Mary need to have a strong resemblance, Shelby will play Mary.”
Shelby blushed with pleasure as the others patted her on the shoulder or called out congratulations. “But we don’t have hazel eyes,” she pointed out.
“I don’t think that will be a problem,” Emma said. “Unless they’ve got binoculars, the audience won’t be able to see what color your eyes are. As long as you look alike, that’s enough.”
“Archibald Craven and his brother, Dr. Neville Craven,” Peter continued. “We thought Adam for Archibald.”
The angel of death stood up and bowed to scattered applause.
“But Neville has us stumped,” Peter said. He spread his hands. “Any suggestions?”
JenniAnn smiled at Andrew. “I think you’d be great.”
He shook his head. “Nah, I’d rather something a bit less visible. But I would like to dance with you.”
“Kemara? Will Sean be joining us at all?” Adam asked.
“No. He’s just too busy with school during the week and work on Fridays and Saturdays. He’s sleeping now, but he wanted me to say he can help with sets on Sunday afternoons.”
“What’re they learning these days?” Zeke asked.
“High-rise rescues. He said it’s like being Spiderman.” She shivered. “I couldn’t do it.”
“So that’s Andrew and Sean out... ” Peter said. “Well, let’s think about it and come back to that one later.”
The discussion continued and the group decided that Rose and Max would play Mary’s parents. Diana would be the stern Mrs. Medlock; and Zeke the gardener, Ben Weatherstaff.
“Not sure I can do an English accent,” Zeke quipped in his best “Downton Abbey” impression.
“I agree,” Diana said. “I’m pretty shaky there too.”
“We have some recordings - along with the Broadway soundtrack - and Father has agreed to act as a coach,” Peter said. “It might take a lot of practice, but I think everyone’s up for the challenge.”
“It looks like that’s everyone,” Emma said half an hour later. “Except for Neville.”
Ian began to squirm in Kemara’s arms. She rocked him, wondering if Marty could teach her his song... ”That’s it!’
Everyone turned to stare at her.
“What about Marty? He sang to Ian, and I thought it sounded really good.”
“Who’s Marty?” Edward asked. Several other people looked just as confused.
“Another angel,” Owen explained. “He’s been helping us with Kemara’s book. Do you think he would?”
Andrew shrugged. “Can’t hurt to ask.”
“I will,” Adam said. “He might take it better coming from me.”
“Sounds good,” Peter said. “We’ll let everyone know when rehearsals will actually start, but we’ll have some more meetings like this to discuss sets and costumes.”
Violeta clapped her hands.
“That will be fun!”
Sean tossed his pen onto the mound of books and papers that covered the kitchen table. "Just made a fresh pot. And I could ask you the same question."
She hauled herself to her feet and over to the counter. "Bathroom. And then I heard Ian whining. So I checked and he needed to be changed. And then Joy did..." She sat back down, shuddering at the memory. "You don't want to know. But after that, no way was I going back to sleep."
She took a sip of coffee and sighed in bliss. "But enough about me. I figured you'd sleep in today. You usually do after a night tour."
"Didn't need to I guess." He shrugged, trying to be nonchalant. "And we have an exam coming up, so I figured I'd study."
"Another silent night then?" She knew how much Sean wanted to respond to a fire, but so far the weekends were proving depressingly dull. At least for firefighters, Kemara thought ruefully. She couldn't understand his longing. To her, fires meant nothing but death and destruction.
He sighed and picked up his own mug. "Yeah. The guys are starting to joke about it. Oh, we had a few medicals and a traffic accident, but that was all."
"Isn't that good?" Kemara ventured. "I mean, no fires means no one's life or home was at risk, right?"
"I guess it is. And I know I should be glad, but it's just hard to sit around so much."
"At least you have time to study," she pointed out, deciding to change the subject.
She pulled his huge three-ring binder towards her. "What did you learn in school today?" She turned to one bookmarked page and read aloud. "The Function and Operation of the Engine Company. So, enlighten me. That's what you belong to, right?"
He smiled and tugged the book, but she refused to let it go. "Yeah, the engine company is first on the fireground. We hook up to the hydrant and set up the hoses, and then we go in and knock down the fire."
"And that's the dangerous part," she said, listening intently.
"It's all dangerous, love. But that's what I'm learning -" he hefted one of the many thick books, "What to do so it's not quite as dangerous."
She frowned and turned the page. "So what's your job?"
"Whatever the captain says it is. We get our assignments at the start of the tour, but that can change depending the situation when we get to the scene. Especially since I'm so new. Here..." He turned the notebook to a certain page. "There's the list."
He waited in silence while she read it.
"Well, you won't be 'nozzle'. It says that has to be someone with experience."
"Nope. That'll be awhile. Nozzle gets right up close with the hose, and I need to know a lot more before I can do that."
"What sort of stuff? I thought you'd just point the hose and....hose down the fire?"
He shook his head. "Not quite. Every fire's different depending on what started it, where it is and the weather. Nozzle has to take all that into account."
"Wow...I never realized." She looked back down at the list. "And I guess you need special training to drive the....rig? That's what you call it, isn't it?"
He grinned. "Her," he corrected.
She rolled her eyes. "I am not competing with a truck for your affections!"
"You don't have to. You win; no contest."
She only snorted and kept reading. "So that leaves...'control', 'door', or 'backup'."
"Right now, I'm 'backup'," he said getting up to bring over the coffee pot. "I might learn to drive later - that would be fun. But right now, I get to stand right behind the guy who's nozzle and make sure he's braced."
Kemara ran an appreciative eye over the muscles her husband had gained in the past month. "I don't think that will be a problem."
He smiled at her over the rim of his cup. "Oh, really?"
"Uh-huh." She came around the table and leaned down to kiss him. "You're -."
She broke off as a wail came from the nursery.
groaned and pushed back his chair. "Hold that thought."
“Hey.” He kissed her in greeting and sank down into the rocking chair opposite with a sigh.
“Long shift?” She handed him her cup.
He drained it and blinked looking a little more alert. “Yeah, it was pretty non-stop the whole time.”
Under the salt breeze from the ocean, she caught a whiff of smoke. “Oh! Did you go to your first fire?”
To her surprise, he laughed. “Sort of.”
“What’d you mean?”
He scooped Joy from the playpen and cradled her in his arms. The baby’s eyes fluttered open and closed again. “Well, we got a call about 5 for a structure fire in a high-rise. So it’s us and Ladder 10, right?”
“We don’t know what we’ll find. What floor is the fire on? How bad is it? Only thing certain is that there’ll be a lot of stairs. Not to mention, it’s rush hour so traffic was horrible. We get there at last, and a guy out of the street yells that the fire’s on the twenty-fifth floor.”
“Yeah. So I’m backup with Louis on the hose. We climb, and we climb and we climb.”
Kemara laughed. “You’re drawing this out,” she teased.
“It gets better! We get to the floor in question. Sure enough, smoke is billowing from under one of the apartment doors.” Sean widened his eyes dramatically. “So we get ready and turn the knob. Not that we expect it to be open - not in New York City - but it is.”
“And?” Kemara picked up Ian who was now awake and held him propped up on her lap facing his father and sister.
He chuckled, surprising her. “When we open the door, most of the smoke clears. We look around... no flames, and it’s not even very hot. And then a voice says, ‘Oh, shit!’ There’s a guy standing in the bedroom doorway staring at us.”
Kemara looked confused. “Was there a fire or not?”
“Yeah, there was. See, the apartment was infested with roaches. Nothing he did would get rid of them. So eventually our clever friend decided enough was enough. He took a can of bug spray and a bunch of matches and made himself a homemade flamethrower,” By now Sean was laughing almost too hard to continue, “So he could burn the bugs out.”
“You’re kidding!” Kemara was giggling.
“I wish I was! He put the fire out just before we got there, but his hysterical neighbor saw the smoke and called 911.” Joy was wide awake now, and he lifted her to his shoulder and paced along the porch. “The only damage was a scorched wall.”
Kemara wiped her eyes. “I bet it didn’t even phase the roaches. So does this count as your first fire?”
“I hope not, but if it does,
the guys will never let me forget it!”
“Are we ready to go?”
Kemara doubled-checked the back seat. “Both kids safely buckled in. Ice chest with the pies where it won’t tip over. Diaper bag filled. Yeah, I think that’s it.”
“Is there room for Liam and Arthur back there?”
“Barely. But we don’t have far to go.” Kemara climbed into the front seat. “Monica said Liam’s been talking about today all week long. He’s really excited.”
Sean smiled as he started the SUV. “I am too. I can’t wait for you to meet everyone and see the house. Especially after we spent all day yesterday cleaning and polishing.”
“Well, hopefully Joy and Ian won’t spit up on the chief,” she teased. “Wouldn’t want to embarrass you.”
He snorted. “Paul’s got grandkids; I don’t think he’d care.”
Liam and Arthur were waiting for them.
“Monica made me bring the camera,” Arthur said as they set off again. “We have get Mom some pictures, don’t we, sport?”
“Uh-huh.” Liam was kicking his legs excitedly. “We’re going to have lunch with her. Will there be a lot of people at the firehouse?”
“I hope so,” Sean said, driving through the alley portal. “We want everyone to know we’re there if they need help. All the firehouses in the city will be open today so people can see the trucks and meet the firemen.”
“And it’s the truck that’s the real star, I bet.” Arthur said.
“She deserves it. We couldn’t do our jobs without her.”
Kemara looked back at Arthur and they shared a smile. “He tones it down at home,” Kemara joked. “Most of the time.”
“Huh?” Liam looked confused.
“Just grown-up talk. We won’t do it any more,” Arthur promised.
They drove past the firehouse with its bay door invitingly open to passersby, and parked in the back. While Arthur and Sean unbuckled the three children from their car seats, Kemara lifted out the cooler and opened it to make sure the contents were unharmed.
“I can take that,” Arthur said. He held Liam by the hand, and the little boy was practically dancing. Kemara had never seen him so animated.
“Thanks. It’s not heavy.” She passed him the cooler and went to help Sean buckle the twins into their stroller. In the back seat, Ian was squalling.
“It’s just for a few minutes,” Sean told him, fastening Joy’s straps. “Then we’ll get you out.”
“Why’s he crying?” Liam asked, catching one of Ian’s flailing fists.
Kemara shook her head. “Because Daddy didn’t put him up front where he can see everything. He’s fine in the car, but for some reason he hates sitting behind Joy in the stroller.”
“Hey, Chef!” someone called as Sean held the door open for the rest of them.
Sean rolled his eyes with a look of long suffering. “Knock it off, guys.”
“But it suits you so well,” said a blond man, coming over to to them. “We’re all much fatter since you joined our happy family.”
“Speaking of family,” Sean said. “This is my wife, Kemara, and our kids, Joy and Ian.” He introduced the men in his company. “And this is Paul, our boss.”
Arthur shook hands around. “Arthur Reese. And this is my son, Liam.”
Paul frowned. “I don’t think we’ve met, but the name’s familiar.”
“I head up True Light - the men’s shelter.”
“Ah! That’s right. I’ve sent a few guys your way over the years. You do good work.”
“Thanks. We try.”
“Wait, is that your wife who runs the food truck on the other end of the Park?” Louis said. “I noticed some brochures for the shelter last time I stopped by.”
Arthur laughed. “She’s my better half, yeah.”
“And what about you, young man?” Louis crouched in front of Liam. “Do think you want to be a firefighter when you grow up?”
Liam frowned. “I dunno. Maybe?”
“Well, you’ve got time to decide. But until then, I think we have a helmet that just might fit you over here. What say we go look?”
“Yes!” The frown vanished.
Arthur laughed. “Lead the way.”
Kemara unbuckled Joy and lifted her out of the stroller.
“Look! Sean has a mini-me!” Brian held out his arms. “Can I hold her?”
Standing to one side, Craig snorted, but said nothing.
Kemara glanced at him curiously, and handed the baby over. “Here you go. You just have to support her a little more.”
Brian nodded. “My nephew has Downs. I’m used to it.” He expertly snuggled Joy who, as usual, made no protest at being held by a stranger.
Sean picked up Ian who was beginning to calm. “Now, you can look around, huh buddy?”
“What should I do with these?” Kemara asked, hefting the cooler.
“What is it?” Paul asked taking it from her.
Sean grinned. “A couple of sweet potato pies made from an authentic Georgia recipe.”
“Ooh! That’s dinner tonight!” Brian said, happily. “See? You’ve got the perfect nickname, Chef.”
Kemara giggled. “He’s taught me how to cook. When we got married, I didn’t have a clue.”
“It’s a good thing I don’t let fame go to my head,” Sean said. “Come on, I’ll give you a tour.”
He showed her where the bunker gear and tools were kept and led her upstairs to the kitchen with it’s large wooden table and several chairs. They peeked into the rec room with its TV and exercise equipment.
“I can’t get over how clean everything is,” Kemara teased as they went back out to the garage area.
“Regulations say we have to spend part of every tour on upkeep,” Sean explained. “But it’s... restful. We try to stay busy - cleaning, checking equipment, drilling... ”
Brian came over still holding Joy. “Or studying. Isn’t that right?”
Sean rolled his eyes. “Yes, yes.”
“He does that every day,” Kemara assured Brian as she took the baby from him. “He’s up hours before me with all his books on the kitchen table.”
“Just a couple of months left,” Brian said. “Ah, here comes another group. Nice to have met you.” And with a wave he made his way over to several new arrivals.”
“Let me show you the rig,” Sean said. He led Kemara through the crowd. Arthur joined them, carrying Liam who now wore a bright red plastic helmet.
Kemara stood on tiptoe to look in the passenger-side window of the truck. "So, does she have a name?"
The firemen nearby exchanged glances. "Uh, not officially," Louis said.
"Kemara used to be a reporter," Sean said turning so that Ian could see himself in the truck's side mirror. "She's not going to drop it."
"Well, it's just that it is unofficial," Louis said. "See, before the house was here, Engine 23 was over on Amsterdam Avenue. The men at the time were all bachelors as it turns out, and a local woman sort of adopted them."
"Really?" Kemara was fascinated.
"Yep. Don't know if she had a connection to the department - this was before my time - or what. In any case, she brought food over every week or so, and if someone got hurt she'd show up in their hospital room with flowers and a card."
Paul had joined them. "She was a real rock, from what I hear," he agreed. "When she died a few years back at the young age of 85, we wanted to give her an official funeral - or at least use the rig." He patted the truck. "But the higher-ups wouldn't have it. Against the regs, they said. So...."
"Unofficially, we decided to name the engine in her honor," Louis concluded proudly.
"So, what was her name?" Kemara prompted.
Paul nodded. "So we call this girl Mustang Sally. And trust me, the original would approve."
Kemara laughed. "That's a great story!" She stood back so Arthur could lift Liam into the cab of the truck for a photo.
Joy began to fuss in her arms. “Uh-oh. I think someone needs a change and maybe a snack.”
“I’ll take you back upstairs,” Sean said.
When both babies had been changed, he warmed Joy a bottle in the microwave.
“So what happens if a call comes in?” Kemara asked, taking it from him. “Oh, yeah... someone’s hungry,” she added as Joy began to eat.
“I’m surprised Ian isn’t yet.” He carried the little boy around the kitchen, letting him see everything. “We hustle the visitors out and go, I guess. It’d be a bit crazy.”
“Hey, Sean?” a voice called up the stairs.
“You can go,” Kemara said. “We’ll be fine.”
“Okay.” He hurried out with Ian.
Just as Joy was finishing, the door at the bottom of the stairs opened again. Kemara looked up, expecting Sean, but it was Craig. He was carrying a large cooler.
He froze in the doorway. “Oh, sorry.” He looked her up and down in a bold way Kemara didn’t much like.
She forced herself to smile. “Come on in.” She put down the bottle and lifted Joy to her shoulder. “We’re done.”
“I just need to refill this,” Craig muttered setting the cooler down and opening the refrigerator. He heaved a pack of water bottles onto the counter. As he worked, he kept glancing over at Kemara.
No, not at her, Kemara realized. At Joy.
“Would you like to hold her?” she ventured as he closed the cooler.
His head jerked up, and he blushed dark red. “What?”
She carried Joy over to him. “She likes meeting new people. She takes after her Daddy that way.”
Hesitantly, as if he could hardly believe what he was doing, Craig took the baby. She looked up at him and put a thumb in her mouth.
“Pretty eyes…” Craig whispered. He stared at Joy in complete fascination.
Kemara smiled and said nothing.
More feet on the stairs interrupted the moment.
“Kemara, if Joy’s finished, we need to -....” Like Craig, Sean halted just inside the kitchen.
“What?” Kemara took Joy back from Craig. “Is something wrong?
Sean looked from her to Craig and back again. “No, everything’s fine. But they’re going to sound the siren, and I thought the kids would probably hate that - Arthur’s got Ian, by the way. We figured now might be a good time to meet Monica for lunch.”
“OK.” Kemara smiled at Craig. “It was nice meeting you.”
“You too.” He tapped Joy gently on her button nose with one finger. Then, he hefted the cooler and pushed past Sean and down the stairs before they could say anything more.
Sean stared after him. “Wow... .”
“Joy the Peacemaker strikes again,” Kemara said, cuddling the little girl.
“I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it myself.”
After saying goodbye to Sean’s teammates, they loaded the three kids back in the car and were two blocks away when the siren went off, audible even at that distance.
“That’s loud!” Liam said, covering his ears.
“Sure is!” Kemara glanced in the back seat. “I’m glad we left when we did. Arthur, is Monica in her usual spot?”
“Yeah, the naysayers have pretty much backed down. I guess it’s officially her’s now.”
Liam was looking out the window as they drove down Central Park West. “There she is!”
Sean found a parking space and feed the meter for three hours as Arthur and Kemara got the children.
“I know it’s necessary,” Arthur said, lifting Ian out of his car seat while Kemara unfolded the double stroller. “But all these straps and buckles just to go a few blocks…”
She laughed. “Seriously. And we’ve still got years of it.”
“What can I do?” Sean helped Liam climb down.
“Grab their bag, would you? And I think we’ve got a quilt in the back…” Kemara said.
Liam was dragging Arthur over to the food truck. “Monny! Monny! See what I got!”
Exchanging smiles, Kemara and Sean followed them.
Fifteen minutes later, they spread the quilt in a patch of shade and laid out the sandwiches and drinks they had bought from Monica.
“Wait,” Kemara was looking through the diaper bag. “Let’s put some sunscreen on them first.”
“They’ve got hats,” Sean protested, a sandwich halfway to his mouth.
She gave him a look.
“Okay, okay.” He put down the sandwich and held out a hand so she could squirt some of the cream into his palm. “Ladies first.”
Joy laughed as her father rubbed the sunscreen on her chubby arms.
“Somebody’s giggle box got turned over,” he teased, tickling her neck and making her laugh harder.
Ian had spotted a dog nearby and was trying to roll over so he could see it better.
“Wait a minute,” Kemara said, holding him still. “I’m almost done, you little monkey!”
“Guess he takes after his Mom, huh?” Sean asked. He kissed Joy and gave her a toy giraffe before using a wet wipe on his hands. “Which chips do you want?”
Kemara put a final dab of sunscreen on the tip of Ian’s nose. “Barbecue, I think.” She laid the little boy on his tummy beside Joy and took the sandwich and chips Sean passed her. “Thanks.”
The park was full of people and their dogs enjoying the late spring afternoon. A frisbee sailed their way, and Sean tossed it back to the two boys who had been throwing it for their Jack Russell. The little dog raced over the grass while Ian stared in amazement.
“I think we’re going to have to get them a dog, eventually,” Kemara said. “I dunno what Warren will have to say about that, though.”
Sean grinned. “He does OK with the other dogs. You never know.”
“True.” Kemara sighed happily. “This is nice.”
“Yeah, it is.” Sean hesitated, clearly reluctant to dampen the mood. But to his surprise, Kemara seemed to have guessed his thoughts.
She put down her sandwich and squeezed his hand. “Do you have any idea what your schedule will be like once you’re working full time?”
“I’ll do ten 24-hour shifts a month. It’s 24 hours on, 24 hours off, 24 hours on, 24 hours off, 24 hours on and then four days off in a row.”
Kemara frowned as she did the math. “So that’s about 56 hours a week?”
He shrugged. “Yeah, but at least there’s the chance of catching some sleep on a slow day.”
“And the four days off will be nice,” she said, trying to remain optimistic.
“Yep, plenty of time to do all sorts of stuff. I mean, most people only get two days for weekends, right?”
“Yeah... ” She twisted her claddagh wedding ring around on her finger. “We’ve pretty much stopped going to dance classes, haven’t we?”
He hugged her. “You could go, if you wanted.”
“No. I don’t really miss it. I guess because I’ve been so busy with the kids, and the book, and classes.”
“That was a lot of ‘ands’,” he teased.
They ate in silence for a while before he said, “You didn’t sleep well last night.”
“Just a bad dream. I didn’t even remember it this morning.”
“Mmm... Was it the usual one - about the twins?” The demon-sent nightmares still plagued both of them occasionally.
She shook her head. “No, I don’t think so.”
He was about to ask, “Was it about me?” but Kemara laughed and nodded at the twins.
Joy had rolled onto her stomach and her expression was one of deep concentration.
Sean rolled his eyes. “Great...That’s the look of someone producing a truly terrible diaper. Let’s get them home before she explodes.”
Kemara giggled, and he put the
question to the back of his mind. Another day.
In front of him, Craig’s booted feet stopped, and Sean took advantage of the break to peer around. Or try to, anyway. Down here, the smoke was only slightly thinner and he could make out nothing more than ghostly shapes in the swirling darkness. Was that a person? No.
Craig moved again, and Sean followed, grateful for the constant flow of clean air from his tank. He hated the rubber taste of the regulator in his mouth, but it was worth being able to breathe. A bead of sweat ran down his face, tickling, and he wished he could wipe it away. A detached part of his brain made a mental note to ask Kemara how astronauts handled such things.
The walls seemed to be narrowing. A hallway? Fallen furniture? In any case it was much darker here, and when they stopped again, Sean reached out and put his left hand on Craig’s ankle. Getting separated now might be fatal. The other man didn’t move, and Sean tried to see around him. Maybe there was an obstruction. He made out a flickering orange glow somewhere ahead, but the distance was impossible to judge.
He shook Craig’s ankle and had to jerk his head back when the other man kicked out, barely missing the rim of his helmet. Something crashed behind them, and Sean felt whatever it was brush his boots. The space they were in darkened even further.
Great, Sean thought grimly. Only way to go is forward. He shook Craig’s ankle again, more urgently. They had been in here for ten minutes already, and their tanks were good for about 18 minutes, tops. Still, Craig stayed put. Maybe there was a hole? With a conscious effort, Sean forced himself to continue breathing normally. The important thing was to find the victims they had been told might be here.
“What are you doing probie?”
The voice exploded ahead of them, making Sean jump.
“People are dying while you’re sitting on your ass. Now, move!”
After a long moment, Craig crawled forward and Sean followed. The space around them lightened and Sean saw a figure pull Craig to his feet.
“Get out of here, both of you.” A side door opened and hands pushed both men through it.
A few of their classmates waiting for a turn in the "smoke house" looked over at them curiously, but no one commented.
Gratefully, Sean stripped off his heavy gear and after grabbing two bottles of water from a cooler, looked around for Craig. He found the younger man down one of the alleyways that ran between the simulated buildings. He was kicking stones with all his might, and Sean hesitated. But before he could leave, his own boots crunched on the gravel and Craig whirled.
“You alright?” Sean held out one of the bottles as a peace offering.
Craig took it and nodded his thanks before draining half the contents in one gulp. “Yeah, fine.”
“Want to tell me what happened in there?” Sean leaned back against a wall and sipped his water.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Craig spat. “I panicked.”
“I couldn’t really tell. All I know is you stopped and wouldn’t go forward. I thought maybe the hall, tunnel, whatever it was, was blocked.”
Craig poured some water into his hand and rubbed his face. “Yeah, it really narrowed down and it looked like the fire was right ahead.” He snorted. “Probably wasn’t any fire at all - maybe lights, you know? But it sure looked like it. And I just froze.”
“Has it ever happened before?”
He slumped against the wall. “Not really. The first time we put on the SCBA I kinda freaked a little, but it turned out my mask didn’t fit right, so I chalked it up to that.”
Sean nodded. “I don’t blame you. I think the only thing you can do is keep training until you can push the fear away and do the job.”
“Like you and heights?” Craig asked with a hint of his usual snark.
“Something like that.” He finished the last of his water. “Next time you go rock climbing, let me know.”
Craig looked surprised. “Seriously? Or are you just yanking my chain?”
“Yeah, Kemara’s mentioned she wants to go skydiving. If I can get more comfortable, maybe we could do that for our second anniversary. Surprise her.”
“You’re on.” Craig emptied his own bottle and pushed himself off the wall. “Back to it I guess.”
As they walked back out to join their class he asked hesitantly. “So…how’s your family doing? That Joy, she’s something special.”
Sean felt like cheering.
“Yeah, she is... .”
“Sean! You scared me!”
“Sorry.” He didn’t turn from where he stood at the front window.
She frowned at the flat tone in his voice. “When did you get home? You should’ve woken me up.”
“About half an hour ago.”
She went to him and laid a gentle hand on his back. Every muscle was tight. “Did you have a... hard day?”
He shrugged. “You could say that.” He went to the door and opened it. “I’m going for a walk.”
For an instant, the expression on his face was one of absolute fury. “Kemara, just drop it!” He stepped onto the porch and let the door bang shut behind him.
Shocked, Kemara stared after him. In the nursery, one of the twins began to cry.
With shaking hands, she lifted Ian from his crib. “Shh...It’s okay. Daddy, didn’t mean it. He’s just had a hard day. Come on, baby girl.” She hoisted Joy into her other arm. “Why don’t we get you guys some breakfast? Wanna try some applesauce today?”
She tried to keep her voice light, but both babies were inconsolable. “It’s okay....”
A knock on the door made her jump. “Now what?” Sean wouldn’t knock, he’d just come in. For a moment she considered not answering. “This is not a good time.” But whoever it was knocked again.
“Coming!” she called, carrying the twins into the living room. “Henry! Come on in. Umm...good morning.” She tried to smile. “Can I get you some coffee?”
“Hi, Kemara. No, that’s okay.” The angel held out his arms. “Looks like you could use a hand.”
Kemara blinked back tears as he took Ian from her. “Yeah, Sean’s...gone for a walk.”
“How do you…? Oh, Joshua.”
He gave her his gentle smile. “Yep. Let me take her, too, while you get their breakfast.”
“Thanks.” Feeling weepy, Kemara hurried to the kitchen, overwhelmed by this simple kindness. She made up two bottles and a tiny bowl of applesauce with an equally small spoon.
“Here’s Mom,” Henry said as she rejoined them. “See? I told you she’d be back.” Ian was still whimpering, but Joy had calmed.
“OK.” Kemara tried to make her voice light and cheerful. “Which one do you want?”
“Why don’t you take Miss Joy?” Henry suggested, passing her the baby.
They fed the children in silence for a few minutes before he spoke again. “Are you okay?”
Kemara sighed. “He snapped at me before he left. And he looked so angry. I’ve never seen him like that before.”
“Do you want me to talk to him?” He took Ian’s hand as the baby reached up toward his glasses.
“Why do I get the feeling you were planning to do that anyway?”
He gave one of his small smiles. “True, but I thought I’d ask.”
“Thanks. Maybe he’ll tell you whatever’s bothering him. I wish he…” she took a shuddering breath. “I wish he’d talk to me.”
Henry squeezed her hand. “I think he will. This is still new, and he doesn’t want to upset you.”
“It must’ve been bad... .”
For a moment, he seemed to listen to a voice only he could hear. “Yes.”
Kemara sniffed and wiped her eyes. “Well, I hope he’ll let you help. He can be pretty stubborn.”
“That’s not a bad thing,” He pointed out, and she smiled.
“I guess not.” She put Joy in the swing beside the couch. “Now, let’s try some applesauce.” She offered Ian a bite on the little spoon, pressing on his lower lip until he opened his mouth.
They both laughed at his expression of disgust.
“I don’t think he’s very impressed!” Henry said. “Guess it’s an acquired taste.”
“We’ll try again later. If you wait a minute, I’ll make you up a couple of mugs of coffee.”
“That’s a good idea. I know I
can be grumpy before I have my caffeine,” Henry said, with a
Sean was so lost in thought that he didn’t notice Henry until the angel was right beside him.
“Hi.” He blinked. “The Grateful Dead?”
Henry glanced down at his T-shirt and shrugged. “I guess you could call it a work-related joke.” He passed Sean one of the mugs and sat down on the fallen tree beside him.
“You’ve been by the house,” Sean said unnecessarily.
“We fed the kids breakfast. Ian tried some applesauce, but I don’t think he liked it very much.”
“I should’ve done that.” His voice held an unaccustomed note of self-pity.
Henry shrugged and sipped his coffee. “There will be other times. You’ve got a lot on your mind.”
“Want to tell me about it?”
Sean raised his own mug. “Don’t you know already?”
The man beside him took a shuddering breath and began to speak.
The fire had been out of their usual coverage area in the theater district south of Central Park. This was mixed-use with shops on the ground floor and apartments above. Even before they'd arrived, Sean knew it was bad. Black smoke rose into the sky and the streets were choked with emergency vehicles.
“It was a three-alarm by the time we were called,” he said. “I’d never seen a fire so big. It scared me, to be honest. But I had to ignore it... Thinking like that can get you killed.”
He got busy with Craig setting up hoses, glancing now and then at the bodega where smoke poured from the upper floors, making the gingham curtains flutter. He heard a shout and saw a form at a third-story window, barely visible.
“I kinda lost track of time after that. I heard someone say that there were people still inside. The ambulance was having trouble getting through traffic, and it wasn’t there yet.”
It might have been minutes or hours later when he saw two small forms handed over to Louis and Brian.
“I don’t know how old they were, maybe five, six? I couldn’t really tell, but I don’t think they were burned, just the smoke. That made it worse somehow.” Sean blinked rapidly. “I wanted to run over and start doing CPR myself. They were so still…”
“McCallum, help me here!” Sean jerked his attention back to truck. Craig, struggling with the hose fittings, had not noticed the children. They busied themselves for several minutes before a scream distracted them.
A woman shoved her way through the crowd, babbling in Spanish. Someone caught her before she could throw herself on the smaller child - a girl - Sean thought, but he couldn't be sure.
“She was screaming and crying, just out of her mind with grief,” he told Henry. “And that’s when it really hit me that they were dead. I thought about how I’d feel if it was Joy and Ian lying there. But it was…” He searched for the right words, barely aware of the tears or the handkerchief Henry pressed into the hand. “The worst thing was knowing that we failed and someone - anyone - died because of it.”
To his shame, Sean’s legs had refused to support him. Craig grabbed his arm and yelled for help. Sean found himself at the medic station with a bottle of water and firm orders to drink it all and not to allow himself to get dehydrated again.
“You okay, McCallum?” Paul asked as the ambulance drove away, not hurrying.
Sean bent his head back to his water. “Yes, sir. Just got overheated, I guess.”
The older man wasn’t fooled. “I won’t say you get used to it,” he said quietly. “Only a monster could get used to something like that. But you learn to put it away so you can deal with it later. And you must deal with it…understand?”
“But I have no idea how to do that,” Sean finished, wiping his face.
“Well, I think you’ve made a good start by telling me,” Henry said.
Sean nodded. “Thanks. I really appreciate it. I know I need to explain to Kemara, too.”
“Yeah, she was pretty worried about you. Are you ready to head back before she sends out a search party?”
Sean took a deep breath and stood up. “Yeah, let’s go.”
They had been walking for a few minutes - in his distress, the human had come some ways down the beach - before Sean said, “She’s been having nightmares. she said they’re not the same ones the demons sent. Should I ask her if they’re about me?”
“I’d just let her bring it up on her own,” Henry said. “Unless you’re awake the next time it happens.”
At Sol Mate, Henry gave Sean his mug. “I won’t come in, but remember what I said, alright?”
“I will. And thanks again.”
Sean wasn’t expecting the hug or the comfort it gave him. Henry stepped back with a knowing smile. “Take care.”
He watched the angel disappear up the path.
“Stop stalling,” he told himself and climbed the steps.
Kemara was in the middle of emptying the dishwasher. When she saw him she froze as if he were dangerous, and Sean cursed himself.
She took in his red-rimmed eyes. “I know.”
“Can we sit down?”
“I guess so.” He sighed in relief when she curled up beside him on the couch.
“Henry said you had a... difficult day?” she prompted quietly.
He nodded. “I’ll tell you about it.”
She threaded her fingers through his. “Only if you want to.”
He discovered it didn’t hurt quite so much the second time, but he knew he would never forget completely.
“That poor woman,” Kemara sniffed and wiped her eyes. “To lose both at once... ” She cuddled closer, and Sean knew he was remembering those early days in the NICU with Joy.
“Yeah, I guess it being kids made it more personal, and I just got overwhelmed,” he said. “It’s no excuse, but... ”
“I don’t blame you at all for being upset,” Kemara said pulling away so she could look at him. “I know it’s going to be hard sometimes. Just talk to me, please. Even if all you say is, ‘It was a rough day, and I need to go for a run to decompress’. But don’t shout and don’t shut me out again.” Her jaw clenched. “I refuse to put up with that; I’ll tell you right now.”
“I’m sorry, honey.” He wrapped an arm around her. “I’ll try not to, and if I do, I want you to call me on it. Henry said I can talk to him if I need to. He said... even if he’s not here to...to let Joshua know, and he’ll come.”
Kemara smiled. “Wow. That’s pretty awesome.”
“Yeah, it is.” He
sniffed. “Anyway, what’s this I hear about applesauce?”
At last, she found him looking out one of the tall windows. Her heart swelled with pride at the sight of him in his dress uniform - minus the hat and white gloves. His red hair gleamed in the sun; it had grown out some, but he was keeping it cropped short. Kemara thought it suited his transformation of the past five months.
"I thought I'm usually the anti-social one," she teased as wrapped an arm around his waist.
Smiling, Sean turned. "Just needed a breather. Where are the kids?"
"Ciara's bunch took them off somewhere. They'll turn up later tired and cranky. But until then...." Kemara took two wrapped packages from her purse. "I got you a little something."
He looked at the wine red and gold paper. "Gryffindor colors."
"'You might belong in Gryffindor, where dwell the brave at heart,'" she quoted. "What better house for one of New York’s Bravest?"
He unwrapped the smaller present first. Inside a velvet jewelry box rested a medallion on a silver chain. One side bore the Maltese cross of the fire service; the reverse showed an image of St. Michael with his sword drawn.
"I know you can't wear it on duty," Kemara said. "There's a ring if you want to use it as a keychain instead."
Sean kissed her. "Thank you." He hung the chain around his neck and tucked the medal inside his shirt. "It'll be nice to have it close. Now, what's this?" He picked up the second parcel and shook it.
She rolled her eyes. "Why don't you open it and find out!"
It was a soft, black book with the maltese cross of the fire service stamped on the cover. A gold zipper held it closed. "A prayer book?" Sean guessed, turning it over, admiring the rich leather.
"Not quite," Kemara smiled. "Unless it's one you write yourself."
He unzipped it and fanning the pages, he saw that it was a journal. On the first page, Kemara had written the 23rd Psalm with her calligraphy pens.
She was watching him closely. "I thought you could write about stuff that you wouldn't want to tell me," she said hesitantly. "I should've given it to you when you started volunteering, but I didn't think of it until about a month ago, after…” She let the sentence trail off, not wanting to remind him of that June morning.
Sean set down the book and pulled her into his arms. "It's perfect," he said, holding her tightly. "Just perfect."
They stood like that for several minutes. From across the room, JenniAnn noticed them and nudged Andrew. "Look. Would you get a picture?"
"Definitely." Picking up the camera, the angel stole close to the embracing couple and took several shots without their notice.
Kemara stepped back reluctantly, wiping her eyes. "I think we just put on a show."
"Nah, I doubt anyone even noticed. They're all too busy enjoying Adrian's cooking." Sean flipped through the book again. "I'm really going to use this."
"I'm glad. I wanted something with a zipper so it would stay sort of clean..."
Sean grinned. "I'll try to leave a few deliberate sooty fingerprints for posterity."
She laughed. "Do what you want with it. And when you fill it up, let me know....I'll get you another one."
"Where did you find it?"
"Funny you should put it that way," Kemara said, blinking back fresh tears. "I looked everywhere, but I just couldn't find what I wanted - something nice, not too small, but durable with the shield on the front and all." She traced the emblem with one finger. "Last week, I was going crazy sending emails and calling, but nothing."
Sean frowned. "So how did...?"
"I finally got to the point where I said, 'Joshua, I'm letting you handle this because I've done everything I can'." Kemara threw up her hands in illustration. "The next morning I found it on the kitchen table with a note."
"Wow...Well thank you for the idea and Joshua for the execution of it," Sean said. "There might be a one small problem, though."
"When the other guys see it, I bet they'll all want one."
Kemara laughed. "I'll talk to the designer. Maybe he'd let us sell them and donate the money to the Wives and Children's Fund."
"I think he'd go for that. Oh, look... ” He nodded toward the other side of the room.
Craig sat at a table with Azalea and Basil - Kemara supposed Lily was off with the other children - holding Joy in his arms.
“I think that qualifies as an honest-to-goodness miracle,” Sean said, sounding awed.
“I’m so glad you asked him to come,” Kemara said. “He deserves to celebrate too. It’s a shame his family couldn’t be here.”
“What’re you two doing hiding in a corner? Especially when one of you is the guest of honor at this bash!”
They turned to find that Megan and Keith had joined them. Megan carried a large box also wrapped in red and gold paper.
“What is this, a gift-giving ambush?” The smile Sean gave his mother was a touch uncertain. They had exchanged no more than a brief embrace after the ceremony, before the group headed for the church.
Megan set the box down beside the other presents. “Well, Kemara did share the paper with me when I asked.” She hesitated. “I almost didn’t bring this, but your father helped change my mind.”
“No, I didn’t,” Keith said gently. “I just sort of clarified what you were already thinking.”
“Mom... ” Sean laid a hand over hers where it rested on the box. “I’m sorry. I... ”
She shook her head. “No! You have nothing at all to be sorry for. I’m the one who needs to apologize. I’m the one who held you back all those years ago. In my defense, I was thinking with a parent’s heart. I refused to believe that you could possibly know what you wanted to do with the rest of your life at the age of 14. I told myself that if you just got out in the world instead of staying in our little town, you’d change your mind.”
Keith snorted. “Like that was going to happen.”
“I know,” Megan said, smiling at him. “You told me so at the time, but I didn’t want to hear it.” She clasped Sean’s hand in hers. “But seeing you on that stage today made me realize that I was wrong. This is what you were meant to do, and I won’t stand in the way any more.”
Mother and son embraced as Kemara wiped away fresh tears. Keith put an arm around her.
“So, so what’s in the box?” Sean sniffed. He took the handkerchief Kemara handed him and wiped his eyes.
Megan rested both hands on it. “Your grandfather always wanted you to have this…he mentioned it in his will. Another thing I kept from you, I’m afraid.”
“It’s okay.” Sean hugged her again. “I understand.”
“Anyway, he’ll be glad for you to have it now.” She pushed the box toward him.
Sean unfastened the gold ribbon and paper to reveal a plain cardboard box. He opened the lid and lifted out a black fireman’s helmet. The badge on the front read “Brewster Volunteer Fire Department.”
“Wow... ” Sean handled it as if it were a piece of fine china. “I didn’t know anyone had kept it.”
“I found it when I was going through his things after the funeral. I put it in a closet and tried to forget about it until last week.”
Sean set the helmet back in the box. “Mom...thank you. It...I’ve been thinking about him all day. And this...it’s like he’s right here.”
“I know he’s proud of you,” Megan said. “And so am I.”
Keith cleared his throat. “As
long as we’re talking about being proud, I’m amazed at what
both of you have done since those little ones were born. A lot
of people would’ve been overwhelmed, but you dug in and made
it work. And on top of that, you managed to go back to school
and find new jobs.”
He grinned, unable to stay solemn for long. “It almost makes me want to get a new career myself.”
“I think grandpa will be quite enough for you to deal with,” Megan quipped, and they all laughed. The sounds of a child having a meltdown started up from across the room. “Speaking of grandchildren, I think Ciara needs a hand.”
Sean watched them leave, a goofy smile on his face.
Kemara hugged him again. “I’m glad that’s all better.”
He smiled down at her. “Me too. It’s been a long few months, hasn’t it?”
She nodded. “I’m so proud of
you, and I love you so much. Has it been worth it, do you
He thought back over the long hours of studying and physical exhaustion, the camaraderie with his coworkers, the adrenaline of heading to a call. And most important, the knowledge that he was helping people and doing what God meant for him to do.
“Yes. It’s been worth every second.” He held her tighter. “That’s not to say it’s going to be easy from here on out,” he warned.