Thursday, November 27, 2014

Deployment Interlude: Part 3

                I’m almost full term now. There are just 4 weeks left but I've decided I hate being pregnant. I’m hot all the time. I don’t care that fall has arrived and the temperature is rarely above 50 degrees. I've started wearing deodorant under my breasts because I sweat so much. I can’t get comfortable in any position and barely manage to get sleep. Not on my side, or my back and forget my stomach. My stomach is so big I feel like I need my own zip code.

                As I heft myself from the bed for my fourth pee of the night, I hear the ding of my computer, announcing that I have a new email. After finishing my business, I lower myself with a groan back into bed, pulling the laptop towards me and booting up my email.

Hello Friends and Family of 7/3
As we discussed in the homecoming brief at last night’s meeting, our soldiers have been extended for a period of 30-60 days. The flight schedules and arrival times will be updated as the dates draw closer. Please do not share this information, especially on social networking sites. Remember OPSEC at all times...

                I stop reading after that. I didn't go to last night’s meeting. Half the time, the meetings devolved into shameless gossip and children running around screaming while their mothers looked on, drinking simsmapolitans. I haven’t bothered attending in months.

                I’m pissed. Ben has been insistent, since he left, that he would make it home in time for our child’s birth. A 30 to 60 day extension automatically puts him past the 4 week window I have left. I know I should be more understanding. I know I shouldn't be mad at him. It’s a promise he never had any control over but it doesn't matter. All that matters is that I will be having a baby, our first baby, alone.

                I close the laptop, sinking back into the pillows and hope that sleep will find me. As heaviness overtakes me, my computer bleeps angrily and rouses me from my semi-conscious state. Speak of the devil. I flip the laptop up and click the answer button but say nothing as Ben’s face fills the screen.

                “I take it you heard?” Again, I say nothing and just glare at him, jaw clenched. I want him to know I’m angry. I’m also afraid that if I stop being angry, I’ll fall back into despair and spend the last weeks of my pregnancy crying over what can’t be. “Han, please don’t look at me like that. I have no say in this. You know I’d be there if I could.”

Deployment Interlude: Part 2                                                                                                                      Chapter 7.4

Author's Notes:

*This should be the last deployment interlude before we get back to regular (if not regularly scheduled) updates.

*OPSEC - Operational Security. Basically keeping information that could be deemed useful (mission information, deployment locations/timing, personnel transactions/problems, and security information or procedures, etc) out of the hands of potential adversaries by carefully monitoring your communications. Especially important in this day and age because of social media.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Deployment Interlude: Part 2

                Midafternoon my computer starts chiming, waking me from a nap with Ben’s telltale ringtone. His calls have been much more frequent and I can count on them every couple of days, usually pretty early in the morning my time. With that consistency, I’ve found it easier to establish a routine for myself and have much less anxiety about leaving the house and missing a call. An afternoon call, when I just talked to him yesterday has me immediately worrying that something has gone wrong. “Ben, is everything okay? Shouldn’t you be sleeping?”
                “Yeah, it’s late here but I wanted to call and find out how the appointment went today.” Duh! Of course he’d want to know. I’m 16 weeks pregnant now and had my mid-pregnancy ultrasound to measure fetal development.

                Though Ben is supposed to be back before my due date, Josephine has agreed to go to all my appointments with me and be my labor coach should his flight get delayed. Of course, asking Josephine has its own set of concerns, mainly that she is pregnant herself and we’re due close to the same time.

                “Everything went fine. I even got a video to show you.” As I wait for the video to load (it seems to be taking forever!) Ben asks to see my belly. I send him a picture once a week or so, monitoring the progress of my bump. I know he enjoys feeling like he is “part” of this pregnancy even though he hates missing it. I keep reminding him that, in the long run, it’s better for him to be gone now and have time when the baby is born rather than the other way around. I hoist myself from the bed and hurry to the bathroom to snap the picture.

When I sit back down, the video has finished loading to the computer. I press play and find the screen sharing option. Though I had seen it firsthand, when our baby’s picture pops into view, I’m still in awe. The technician had also recorded the fetal heartbeat and, just then, the whooshing sound fills our speakers. “Aww, are you crying?” I notice the light sparkling in the corner of his eyes.

                “My brain may be leaking just a little,” he admits with a huge smile. I understand. When I heard the sound earlier today, my hormones had gone into overdrive and I burst into tears in the exam room. It’s amazing and a miracle and so emotional and, really, I have no words to describe how much love I have for this baby and what hearing its heartbeat for the first time means to me.

                His computer pings, announces a new email and I hear his mouse clicks as he checks it. “You look beautiful, as always. Can you send me an email of the video too?”
                “Gonna share it with your friends?”
                “Hell yeah! I’m a proud papa! I’m going to try to get back to sleep now though. We’ve got a long day tomorrow. I may not be able to call again for another week or so. Don’t worry if you don’t hear from me okay?”
                I immediately start to panic but force a smile out. “Okay. Be safe. I love you.”

Deployment Interlude: Part 1                                                                                           Deployment Interlude: Part 3

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Deployment Interlude: Part 1

                “You’re on!” I've waited weeks to hear the ringing of this stupid computer program and now that it’s finally come, my fingers fumble as I try to click the answer button before it stops.

                “Hi baby! It’s so good to see you!” As Ben’s face flickers into view, I settle on the sofa, adjusting the laptop screen so he can see as much of me as I can fit in. “How are you doing, I've been worried about you.”

                “I've been good. It’s strange, getting used to you not being here but we’re adjusting,” I pat my stomach reassuringly. Ben doesn't need to know I spent almost the entire first week in bed, crying my eyes out.

                “So you and the little one are doing okay? You’re sure?” His face looks so concerned that I start to worry that one of the girls ratted me out.

                “I've been puttering around the house a lot. I know the baby book says nesting happens later on but I figured I might as well start now. Jo and Emme have been keeping me busy.”

                When Ben left, I was a mess. I barely found the energy to eat and, when I bothered, I left the dishes where they sat. The blinds stayed drawn and I lived in my pajamas. The laundry piled around me as I waited by the laptop; waiting for a call that didn't come. I knew that the minute I left home without it that would be when he would call. When I looked in the mirror, I barely recognized myself. My eyes were ringed in black, my hair a greasy mess. I was on high alert not just because I was listening for the computer but also because I had never lived on my own before. Every little sound woke me up. When the tree outside rustled its leaves against the window panes, I nearly wet myself in fear that someone was trying to get in. Between that and the constant nausea from the baby, I rarely slept more than an hour at a time which left me even more reluctant to get up and do things throughout the day.

                It was a miracle, albeit an unwelcome one at the time, when Jo and Emme showed up. Both had tried calling multiple times since the buses had left but I’d let their calls go to voice-mail, unwilling to tie up the line in case Ben did try to use a phone. The two had shown up together, banging on the door and demanding to be let in. They’d tsked and fussed at me, trying to convince me to pull it together. I’d grown comfortable with my pain and self-pity though and their help was unwelcome. Finally, they threatened to call the command and get in touch with Ben. Maybe he could talk some sense into me. It was the last thing I wanted. I hadn't cried when he left. There was no way I wanted him to know how poorly I was handling this deployment. I’d indignantly stormed upstairs to shower, cursing under my breath the whole way. Once under the steamy water, my tears let loose again mingling with the spray. Except this time I was disappointed in myself. Ben was out there, protecting our country, far away from home while I wallowed at home in misery and my own stench. I resolved to do my part as best I could and let all my worries wash down the drain with the dirt and emerged freshly scrubbed and slightly rejuvenated. The two had even managed to convince me to go out to eat, after Emme had assured me it was the middle of the night where our husbands were and they weren't likely to call at this time.

                “It hasn't been too hard on you, has it? Me being away?” Once again I suspect that Emme or Jo may have managed to get a message to him but I realize that he’s just asking as a concerned husband.
                “A little. You left weeks ago and I was starting to worry when you hadn't called.”
                “I’m sorry honey. It’s been crazy over here. We were in river city for a couple weeks because some stupid kid was posting all over Simbook where we were and were going.”
                “Nothing serious then? No one’s hurt?” I know he might not be able to tell me otherwise but I can’t stop myself from asking and I hear the panic in my voice as the questions blurt out.
                “I promise. Everyone’s fine. I’m sorry to say though but I've got to get going. There are a lot of people waiting to call home.”

                “Wait, I have a picture for you!” I hurriedly attach the baby bump picture I’d taken of me and our little nugget. “I’m starting to show, just a little bit.”

                “I think you’re just pushing your stomach out.” The sound of his laugh is more precious than gold to me at this moment. “I love you sweetheart.”

                “I love you too.” The computer beeps as the call drops and I feel the tears building again in my eyes. Now that I know everything is okay and have heard his voice, I refuse to fall back into misery. I just have to make it to the next call. Whenever that will be. 

Chapter 7.3                                                                                                                          Deployment Interlude: Part 2

Author's Notes:

*Once again, I've failed at updating. Long story short, I wore myself out (of sims) with all the different things I was working on and the more I "pushed through" the less I wanted to. The Avendales were the second thing I set aside.

*These interludes are fairly short so hopefully they'll get me back interested in playing.  

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Chapter 7-3: Don't Let Me Go

                Though she’d purchased the pregnancy test earlier that day, Hanley still hadn't taken it yet. Shortly after arriving back home, she’d heard Ben pull into the driveway. With the pressure of the upcoming deployment and their still tenuous financial situation, she didn't want to give him another thing to worry about. If the test came back positive, well, they could cross that bridge together.

                Through dinner, Ben asked more than once if she was okay. She kept trying to focus on the conversation but her mind kept slipping back to that pink box hidden under the counter in the bathroom.

                “Hanley,” Ben’s voice pulled her away from her thoughts. “Did you hear me?”
                “No, I’m sorry. What did you say?”
                “I asked if you wanted help clearing the dishes and putting away the leftovers. It’s been a really long day and I just want to crash.”
                She leaned over, giving him a kiss before shooing him upstairs. “There’s not much. I’ll be up there in a few minutes”.

                After safely storing the leftovers in some tupperware, Hanley started up the stairs. She found the lights off and heard faint snoring from Ben's side of the bed. Training had prepared her husband for sleeping anywhere at any time so it usually took him just long enough for his head to hit the pillow before he fell asleep. She slipped into the bathroom and reached behind the cleaning supplies to remove the test.

                Two minutes later, she had her answer. She and Ben were expecting a baby. Although the timing was incredibly inconvenient, Hanley couldn't help the grin that stretched across her face. She stroked her hand over her stomach though she didn't have even a hint of a swell yet.

                She sat on the edge of the bed, debating whether she should wake Ben to tell him now or wait. Once he fell asleep, it took plenty of shaking and shouting to rouse him. Sometimes, even then, he didn't remember the conversation the next morning. In the end, she decided her news could wait until morning.

                When she opened her eyes the next morning, sun was streaming in the bedroom window. Hanley rubbed sleep from her eyes and grabbed her phone from the charger next to the bed. As her eyes focused on the clock, Hanley shook her head to clear it and sprang out from under the covers. Nine in the morning? She never slept that late! Ben must not have woken her when he left for work, or if he tried she slept right through his good morning kisses. Already feeling like she’d wasted the day, she hurriedly gathered their dirty clothes to take to the laundromat.

                After putting the clothes in the washer which, thanks to the sub-par machines, would take at least an hour, she walked across the street to the bookstore. She wanted to get a copy of Baby Incoming to prepare herself for motherhood. When she saw the price though, Hanley balked and quickly replaced the book on the shelf. How can a baby book be so expensive? She wandered the small shop floor, looking for a used copy or perhaps a less expensive version. Babies for Dummies maybe. The only other book she could find was Totally Preggers which, when she flipped through it, looked mostly like anecdotal tales from one mother to another. It didn't seem to offer any researched options or medically sound advice on diets, cribs, or car seats. Sighing, Hanley went back to Baby Incoming and took it to the counter to be rung up. If the upcoming deployment went as scheduled, Ben would not be home until just before this baby was born. Hanley would need all the help she could get.

                She crossed back to the laundromat and sat in one of the bright plastic chairs to read while she waited on the machine to finish. Someone else had arrived in her absence and they had the corner television blaring. In spite of her best efforts to get fully involved with the book immediately, Hanley found herself reading the same sentence over and over again. She hoped that she’d be able to focus better once she got home.

                The dryer finally beeped, signaling that the clothes were ready to be folded and taken home. Hanley piled the clothes in her laundry basket and started the trek back to the house. Once the laundry had been put in the cardboard boxes that served as a temporary home, she settled on the couch, curling her feet beneath her. Just as before though, she found herself unable to focus on the words before her. This time, absent worries kept her preoccupied with Ben’s return from home. How would he react? Will he be upset that we’re having a baby so early in our marriage? I know he’ll be stressed since we can’t even afford a crib right now. What if he’s mad? There’s nothing to be mad about, right? It’s not like I intentionally got pregnant. And we’re married. It doesn't matter. Does it? Surely he won’t be angry about it?

                She heard the rumbling from his truck exhaust as soon as Ben pulled on to the street. Her hands suddenly felt clammy and nausea that had nothing to do with morning sickness burned the back of her throat. She fidgeted on the coach, wondering if she should meet him at the door or stay seated. Maybe she should go greet in him the driveway? Before she could decide, the doorknob turned and he strode over the threshold, a smile on his handsome face. He still took her breath away. I’m going to have a baby with this man. Suddenly, all her panic washed away leaving only the joy behind.
                “Ben, I have something to tell you,” she announced as she stood. “We’re having a baby!”

                His eyes widened, eyebrows shooting up his forehead. He hadn't been expecting this news. If he had paid a little more attention to the signs, his wife’s pregnancy shouldn't have come as much of a surprise. Hanley watched him, waiting for him to say something.

                “Hello little one,” he reached for her belly, leaning in to whisper to it. “It’s your daddy. I know it’ll be awhile yet, but I can’t wait to meet you”. Hanley gulped at the lump in her throat and swiped her fingers at the sudden tears pooling in the corners of her eyes. Damn these hormones!

                Hanley’s morning sickness seemed to persist through the day, leaving her worn out and exhausted most of the time. Though he wished he could do something for her, Ben enjoyed the days that she curled against him, fast asleep while he poured over the baby book she’d purchased. Hanley would lie with her head in his lap, her breath escaping in little puffs as she slept soundly. Those moments may have been completely mundane and unmemorable to most everyone but, to Ben, they were the moments that he felt the most content.

                Without warning, Ben and Hanley found themselves in the final two weeks before his flight was scheduled to depart. Though all the soldiers had been granted a pre-deployment leave, Ben had opted out of his, hoping to save the vacation days for when he returned home. With the baby scheduled to arrive shortly after his arrival back home, Ben wanted those days kept in reserve so he could spend plenty of time with both Hanley and their new child. 

                “Let’s go for a ride,” Ben led Hanley to his truck. No matter how long they had been married or how many times he did it, Hanley still appreciated every time Ben opened her car door for her.
                “Where are we going?”
                “If I told you, it wouldn't be a surprise.”
                Before long, they pulled in front of one of the historical Victorian homes of Wickery Glen. Hanley shot her husband a suspicious look. She knew he hadn't bought her a house; there was no way that they could afford something like this. She had passed the building on some of her walks through the town but had never paid much attention to it before, other than to admire the architecture in passing. As the couple walked hand in hand up the front path, she finally took notice of the weathered sign: Alestair’s Consignment Specialties.

                “Wow, look at this place!” The room they entered contained treasures of all sorts; gadgets and gizmos, who’s-its and what’s-its, and even some thing-a-ma-bobs. Hanley’s eyes couldn't focus on any one point since there were so many things to see.  She began to weave her way through the items but before she made it too deep, Ben strode confidently to the counter.

                “Welcome to Alestair’s Consignment Specialties! What treasure can I help you procure today?”
                “I noticed on your website that you also sell secondhand electronic items. I was wondering if you have a laptop for sale?”
                “We sure do! Would you like to take a look up close?” Ben nodded and the lady darted to the small office behind her before returning with their prize. Hanley hung back quietly while Ben asked questions.
                The answers must have satisfied his requirements. “We’ll take it,” he pronounced after he had checked the parts and booted the machine up.

                For the first time, Hanley spoke up. “Really?”
                “Consider it me being selfish. I've heard from other guys that the phone lines are really long. Todd has a laptop so he’s willing to let me borrow it so we can chat. It’s easier to get in to the MWR to connect to the wifi than it is to get access to a phone.”
                “Morale Welfare and Recreation. I want to be able to talk to you as much as possible. If we have a computer at home, it’ll be a lot easier for me to get in touch with you.”

                Ben had been honest when he had called this purchase selfish. He knew, from the time they had dated long distance, that they could handle the pressure as a couple. That didn't stop Ben from wanting to be able to talk to and see Hanley as much as possible while he was gone. Despite his motives, she beamed at him as though he’d just roped the moon for her.

                “I’m so glad you could make it,” Josephine welcomed Ben and Hanley into her home. Ben was leaving the next morning but the Spencers had wanted to have a small going away dinner for him before he left. Hanley and Ben settled on the small sofa, Josephine taking a seat in Jesse’s lap across the room.

                “Are you ready to leave,” Jesse asked Ben. “This is your first deployment, right?”
                “I’m not sure you can ever be ‘ready’. But yeah, there’s only so much preparation and talk you can do before it’s time to go.”
                Josephine glanced at Hanley. “How are you holding up? It must be hard, knowing he’s getting ready to leave.”

                “I’m doing okay. I have a lot to stay focused on,” she shared a glance with Ben, who nodded slightly. “We’re having a baby!”

                Josephine squealed as she hurried across the room to wrap Hanley and Ben in a hug. “That’s so exciting!” She glanced back at Jesse with a smile of her own. “We just found out that we’re having a baby too. I was going to announce it over dinner.”
                “Oh no! I feel so bad for ruining your moment,” Hanley blushed, looking away from her friend.
                “Don’t be. I’m thrilled to have someone to share the experience with!”

                As they shared their news, the front door opened and a blonde man entered without knocking. “Hanley, Ben, this is my cousin Noah,” Josephine introduced everyone. “We’re just waiting on one more and then dinner should be ready shortly.”
                Noah groaned. “Jo, please don’t tell me you’re trying to set me up again. It never works.”
                “Because you don’t give any of them the time of day,” Josephine chided. Her lecture was cut short as the doorbell rang. “That must be her, excuse me.”

                “Scarlet, I’m glad you could make it.” The woman at the door was a knockout with a picture perfect body, tan skin with green eyes, and curly, chocolate colored hair. Josephine led the woman to the room, making the introductions as she went. “This is Scarlet, she teaches yoga at the spa. Scarlet, this is Ben and Hanley who are good friends of mine. And this is Noah, my cousin I was telling you about. I’m going to go get dinner ready if the rest of you would like to mingle. Hanley, would you mind giving me a hand?”

                Hanley followed Josephine to the kitchen. “What can I help with?”
                “Oh, nothing. I just wanted to throw Scarlet and Noah together. Jesse is under strict orders to keep Ben occupied so she and Noah will have to talk amongst themselves.”
                Hanley laughed. “Do you always play matchmaker?”

                “Only sometimes. Noah’s always putting work first. He deserves someone who'll respect that but be there for him and get him to enjoy life outside of work.”
                “I know it’s none of my business, but I thought you didn't have any family?”
                “You though…” she looked perplexed. “Oh, the Bachelor. That’s true, technically. My sisters and I were in foster care for a while. My father and Noah’s father didn't get along and when my parents were arrested Uncle Arthur distanced his family from ours.” She rested one hand on her stomach as she continued. “Back then, I was angry that he turned his back on us. We lost everything. Now though, I can sympathize a little more. He didn't want to put his family in the same position, especially when he had nothing to do with the, er, activities my parents engaged in.”
                Before she could think of an appropriate response, Josephine switched gears. “Okay everyone, dinner’s ready!” She bustled around, setting plates out while everyone lined up behind her for their meals.

                “Wow that was delicious.”
                “If you call burgers not cooked on a grill delicious,” Noah winked at his cousin.
                “Well, I’d have let you cook them on the grill but you didn't want to mess up your pretty suit. Scarlet, was everything okay?” Scarlet had barely touched her food, mostly picking at the lettuce and tomato Josephine had set out as condiments.
                “I’m sorry; I thought you knew I was a vegetarian. And that I don’t eat gluten. Or anything with preservatives. With a baby on the way, I’d be more careful what you put in your body. You don’t want to poison your child before it’s even born.” Though she had apologized, Hanley noticed that her sentence sounded more like an accusation and bristled, considering she too was expecting and had enjoyed the food.

                “Grill or no grill, it was pretty damn good. Scarlet, can I show you out,” Noah pulled out her chair and led the guest to the door before anyone else could respond.
                “Well, that didn't go quite as expected. She seemed so lovely at the spa.” Josephine shrugged as she began clearing the dishes from the table. “No, don’t help. Get home. I know you want to make the most of the rest of tonight. Be safe Ben, we’ll all be reminding the Watcher to keep you safe.”

                Despite their intentions to stay awake until dawn, Ben was soon sound asleep with Hanley drifting on the edge of consciousness herself. As she lay nestled in the crook of his arm, she became aware of the steady rhythm of his heartbeat beneath her fingers. She had promised herself that she would stay positive throughout the deployment but that didn't stop her from imagining the worst. What if this is the last time I feel his heart beat, the last morning I have to wake up with him? What if our child never gets to meet his daddy? Her breath caught raggedly in her throat as she tried to backpedal from her fears.

                “Good morning,” she felt Ben stir under her hand before he shifted to kiss her forehead. She swallowed the lump in her throat before responding. Preoccupied, Ben didn't notice her distress and trudged towards the bathroom to shower and finish packing his toiletries. As she listened to the water run, Hanley closed her eyes as tears rolled down her cheeks. She wished she could freeze time but moving forward remained her only option. She took a deep, calming breath and stood, stronger and resolved before getting herself ready to say goodbye.

                The parade deck was already full of families when they arrived and the buses had pulled in. Each company did a quick formation before releasing the soldiers to say their final goodbyes before boarding. Hanley saw Emme and her two girls, hugging Todd. Her heart felt sadness for the soldiers that quickly boarded the bus; they were the ones that had no family here to see them off, no one to hug and kiss and promise to come home to.

                “I love you Han. I’ll be home before you know it.” Not wanting to prolong their goodbye, Ben put his hands around her waist and pulled her close. He tilted her chin back, looking for tears, she knew, but he would find none. She had already cried the only tears she would cry today. Leaving would be hard enough; she refused to let Ben’s last image of her before he left be one of tears. One more kiss and he turned, climbing the steps onto the bus.

                She stood alone, watching, waiting for the buses to pull away. She supposed she could have joined Emme but this moment felt like one she needed to do alone. Then, suddenly, she heard her name. Ben’s head was poking out of the window and he was beckoning her to come over.

                “Did you forget something,” she wondered if she had time to make it back to the house before the buses would pull away.
                “Just one thing,” he leaned down, entwining his fingers with hers before reaching for her. “I needed one more kiss.”

Chapter 7.2                                                                                                                           Deployment Interlude: Part 1

Author's Notes:

* Mmkay, first things first. Title = song = emotional

* This chapter was really hard to write. At first it was too blah and every day that I couldn't get into it (I don't do mundane writing well I guess). Then I got to the end and it felt really personal. Most of you, I think, know that my husband is in the Marine Corps. So, while Hanley is not me and Ben is not my husband, I have lived through that goodbye scene four times now. I know, very intimately, just how Hanley may be feeling (except for the pregnant part).

* How do y'all feel about the tall pictures? They worked better rotated for some of those pictures but I'm really not liking how they look on the blog. I don't know that I'll rotate pictures in further chapters if it's jarring to my readers.

* Poses! This was the chapter I really started working on poses. The pose with Ben reading and Hanley napping in his lap is an edited pose I did but the last picture are my poses from start to finish. There was another I did for a set of extras but they didn't make it into the chapter.

* The next update/s will not exactly be chapter/s. I'm still working out how it's going to come together but they'll most likely be written from Hanley's POV. 

Friday, July 25, 2014

Chapter 7-2: Heartlines

                “Hey sweetheart, what are you doing out here,” Ben asked through his open window as he pulled into the driveway.

                “Waiting for you.” She folded the paper she’d been scouring for job listings and set it into the lawn chair as she stood. For the past two months she’d been searching every day for a job but nothing had come up that she was either qualified for or interested in. With rent and the bills, they were getting by, but just barely. If she could find a job, it would help out immensely with the finances. Maybe then they could get a kitchen table and some chairs. Or a dresser so she could finally put away all the clothes that were still living in cardboard boxes in the bedroom.

                Ben scooped her into his arms in a huge kiss. “I got promoted today!” he announced.
                “That’s fantastic news! I thought you didn’t think you’d get promoted this month?”
                “I didn’t. I didn’t think I’d been an E-2 long enough but I guess I was wrong. Let’s go out to celebrate tonight. What would you like to do?”

                They decided on dinner and a movie, the staple of most of their date nights. Instead of the usual diner they usually frequented though, they were ‘upgrading’ to the fancier Italian restaurant.

                “You look beautiful.” Ben came up behind Hanley as she put the finishing touches on her make-up.
                “That’s what you always say.”
                “Because it’s always true.”

                When the movie let out, the two walked over to Antonio’s. Despite that it was a weeknight, they had to wait a few minutes before being seated.
                “Do you know what you want,” Ben asked, as they looked over their menus.
                “Maybe. I’ve narrowed it down to the wood fired lasagna or the eggplant.”
                “I’d go with the lasagna,” Ben suggested.
                “You’re only saying that because you won’t eat eggplant,” she laughed.
                “Well, when I end up with your leftovers, of course I want you to get something I’d like,” he grinned at her. “I think I’m going to get the spaghetti.”
                “Oh, that sounds really good!” In the end, they ended up with two plates of spaghetti with meatballs and a basket of garlic bread.

                Ben’s promotion only came with a small pay increase which did little to alleviate some of the financial stress they were both feeling. Ben knew she was looking and also knew about the college opportunity she had passed up to move to Wickery Glen with him so he tried not to bring up the burden he felt often. She could tell though, in the tense muscles of his shoulders and the way he looked over their cart when they went grocery shopping. She knew she really needed to find a job quickly.

                With this in mind, Hanley decided to head over the library. Maybe an internet search would yield more results than the local paper. Four hours later, she was sitting in the same spot, though she’d run out of job ads and had started looking up cute cat videos when her phone rang.

                “Hal,” she answered, cringing apologetically at the librarian. That woman could really scowl! She made her way downstairs quickly and outside before continuing her end of the conversation.
                “You’re going to be in town this weekend?” A smile spread across Hanley’s face. She hadn’t seen her family since moving to Wickery Glen. “And you have a girlfriend?” Hal had never done any ‘serious’ dating so the fact that he had a steady, exclusive girlfriend was news to her. She must be pretty special. “Sure, I think we can make time for a night out with the two of you. There’s a bar pretty close to the house, if you want to meet at our place and walk over.”

                As she started walking back home, she passed the pet shop. She’d passed it numerous times before, always checking the window for wanted signs but maybe it was time to go in and ask directly.
                It looked as though there was only one person working at the moment. Trying to ignore her urges to play with all the animals, she strode to the counter. “Hi. I was wondering, do you have any open positions?”
                “No, not at the moment. Maybe in a few months try back,” the woman suggested. Having lived in St. Claire for most of her life, Hanley had never realized that finding a job could be so difficult. In St. Claire, restaurants were always in need of more servers, retail always needed more clerks, especially during the holiday seasons, and there were internships at local businesses as well. In Wickery Glen, positions were very limited and it seemed as though once someone found a job, they held onto it for the long haul leaving little for newcomers.

                “Ben, sis, it’s good to see you guys. This is Anja,” Hal introduced the blonde woman with him. Though they were just headed to the bar, she was dressed to the nines; her flawless body displayed in a tight dress that hugged all of her curves, her long legs ending in impossibly tall strappy heels. Beside her, Hanley felt like a bum in cotton and denim.

                “You have a quaint little apartment here,” Anja said, looking around the neighborhood. “I live over across the river. It’s not much but it’s mine.” Hanley only half listened as Anja launched into the sordid details of her move from Aurora Skies and her tempestuous falling out with her parents.
                “Uh-huh, that’s nice,” Hanley murmured, not quite sure what she was agreeing with.
                “Nice? That my parents were trying to force me into an arranged marriage? Are you even listening to what I’m saying?”
                “I think what Hanley meant was that it’s impressive that you’ve managed to do so well for yourself on your own. Admirable even.”
                “Of course that’s what I meant. Ben just says things so much better than I do, don’t you sweetheart,” she wrapped her arm through his, trying to suppress a grin. “Nice save Eastman,” she whispered.

                Once they arrived at the bar, Hal went to order a round of drinks. The rest of the group headed over to the pool table, grabbing cues while Ben racked the balls.
                “I think I could give you some tips on your form,” Anja slowly looked Ben up and down as he bent to make his move. Hanley cocked her head, trying to decide if her brother’s girlfriend was flirting with her husband.

                “Thanks, I think I’ve got it,” Ben thrust his cue stick forward, connecting with the cue ball with a loud crack, breaking the triangle into every direction and sinking four of the other balls.
                “I guess you do. It looks like maybe you could help me improve my form,” Anja purred at Ben. She sidled up next to him, watching as he calculated his next move.
                “Excuse me,” Ben brushed her out of the way as he took his shot. Neither he nor Hal seemed to be paying any attention to Anja’s tasteless behavior.

                “I’m going to get some food. I don’t really feel like playing,” Hanley made her way over to the bar and ordered another round of drinks and a plate of onion rings. By the time the game was over, Hanley had downed four sorrow annihilators and was feeling a bit dizzy.
                “Despite your prowess, I still won,” Anja taunted Ben as they made their way to where Hanley was sitting. “I think you owe me a drink.” She leaned into him, touching his arm in a way that suggested she’d met him long before tonight.

                “I don’t know who you think you are but, where I come from, it’s incredibly rude to flirt with a married man.”
                “Han, honey, it’s okay.”
                “I’m not interested in all this drama. I’m out of here. Halden, call me if you want to go out again, alone. See ya around Ben,” Anja winked before heading to the door.

                Ben pulled his wife towards the dance floor, ignoring Anja as she stalked from the bar. “Hanley, sweetheart, you know the only woman I’m interested in is you.” She smiled at him, slightly embarrassed of her outburst.
                “I just can’t she would have the audacity to flirt with you, right in front of me and Hal.”
                “She was flirting? I didn’t even notice.” He pulled her in close, his hand resting on her hip as she swayed with him.
                “I don’t know how you couldn’t…”
                “You’re my everything, simple as that. No need to even mention it again.” As he pulled her more closely into him, she was distinctly aware of his hard chest pressed against her. Each slight brush from her cotton shirt as they swayed slowly on the dance floor left Hanley breathless with desire. “Han, are you okay,” Ben pushed her back by her shoulders a bit, concern clouding his eyes.
                “I think we should go home,” she pulled him towards the door.

                No sooner had he unlocked the door than she crushed her mouth to his, desperate to soothe the ache she’d felt on the dance floor. She slid her hands under his shirt, raking her nails against his stomach. She felt Ben tense and then groan against her mouth before he reached to pull her vest down her arms. She wrenched her mouth from his and ripped her blouse over her head.

                The stairs quickly became littered with articles of clothing as the two made their way to the bedroom. Ben pressed her into the door, pulling her lower half against the length of him, his hands tight on her hips. As he trailed wet kisses along her collarbone, Hanley let her head fall back as she was lost in utter ecstasy. With one hand, Ben loosened his grip on Hanley and fumbled behind her, finally getting a grasp on the doorknob and opening the way to the bedroom.

                Hanley stumbled as the door fell open behind her but Ben reached out for her, catching her in his strong arms. She breathed him in; he always smelled of his citrus shampoo with the faint remnants of the oils he used to clean his guns at work. As she wriggled out of her skirt, Ben slid his arm around her, tumbling her back into the bed.
                “I don’t know what’s gotten in to you,” he moaned before he sucked lightly at the sensitive lobe of her ear,” but I think I like it”.

                They awoke the next morning, sticky and tangled around each other. “How do you feel?” He lightly stroked her ribs, a lazy, satisfied smile on his lips.
                She smiled back at him before grimacing and stretching up to cradle her head. “I think I have my first hangover.”
                “C’mon. I’ll take you to get some coffee.”

                “Ben, I don’t know if I can stay in here.” Being in the coffee shop felt like pure torture. The lights felt like spotlights straight through her retinas and the smell of the coffee was almost enough to make her hurl. When the barista fired up the grinder, Hanley felt like someone had taken a buzz saw to her skull.
                “I promise, it’ll be worth it once you actually get the caffeine in your system,” Ben assured her. He quickly ordered two strong black coffees.
                “Coming right up,” the barista chirped happily. Though he may have been charming on any normal day, Hanley could only narrow her eyes and glare at him. He cringed and rushed about his station, hurriedly pouring the cups and pushing them across the counter.

                They took a seat in the corner of the shop, far away from register. “Feel better now?” She nodded slightly as she took her first sip. “I didn’t get a chance to tell you last night before we left for the bar. We got our workup papers yesterday.”
                Hangover forgotten, she winced. “When,” she had to know, even knowing she wouldn’t like his answer.
                “We leave in three months.” The threat of the looming deployment had weighed heavily on her. She had known that deployments would be part of her husband’s job when they got married. Now though, with an actual date in mind, it felt real. I’m going to be alone.
                “You won’t be alone.” She started, wondering if she’d said that out loud. “Todd’s going too and Emme will be right next door.”

                A couple weeks later, Ben came home to find Hanley sitting on the couch still in her pajamas. She didn’t look up as he entered. “Hanley?” She didn’t react and he wondered if she even realized he’d come through the door. “Honey, are you okay?” He reached out, resting his hand on her shoulder.

                Suddenly, she was up and in his arms. He felt her tears, wet against his shirt. “My mom, she died last night.”
                “Oh honey, I’m so sorry.” Though he couldn’t take off of work, especially not with all the preparations they were making before they left, he scheduled a flight home for Hanley straight away.

                After the service, the family followed behind the casket to the gravesite, to say their final words to the deceased and toss the obligatory handful of dirt on the casket. Hanley felt her brother’s hand, heavy on her shoulder. She reached for it, grateful for the comfort.

                Hanley gripped her brother’s hand as they walked through the front door of her childhood home. People milled about everywhere, casseroles lining the counters. Aunt Renata was busy playing hostess. Hanley suspected that her aunt needed something to do with her hands, to keep from breaking down herself. Hal extricated himself from his sister, to greet one of the neighbors who had stopped by to express their condolences. When Mrs. Miller started towards her, Hanley dropped her head and quickly turned away, finding a quiet corner in the room. She didn’t know what to say to these people and couldn’t summon the nerve to engage in small talk.

                She felt someone take a sit beside her and then a hand cover her own. “Your mother loved you, very much,” her father assured her. “She was talking about coming to Wickery Glen, to visit and to make amends. When she got sick, I tried to convince her to call you but she was sure that she had more time. Not even the doctors thought the cancer would progress so rapidly. She wrote you a letter. Let me go get it.” He came back, handing her a sealed envelope, addressed in her mother’s distinct handwriting.

There’s so much I wish I could tell you. So much I should have told you, instead of the angry words we shared the last time I saw you. I regret those words every day. I’ve always wanted what’s best for you and thought that as your mother, I knew what that was. I couldn’t accept that you were a grown woman who could decide on her own. I made a lot of stupid decisions about love when I was your age and I was so afraid that you’d be repeating my mistakes that I tried to keep you on the path I thought you should follow. I wish I had been there for your wedding and I wish I could be there for all the next steps you’ll be taking as a new wife and, someday, a mother yourself. No matter where your choices take you, you always follow your heart and I want you to know I’m proud of you for that. I’ll always be looking down on you, wherever you go.

                Though she would have loved to say that the letter made everything better, Hanley knew that it didn’t. It didn’t erase the fact that her mother had been absent these last few months and that she’d missed her chance to fix things before she’d died.

                “Todd and Emme suggested we should go to the county fair,” Ben suggested. Life had moved on since she had come home from St. Claire. Though the grief was still fresh, Hanley knew she couldn’t dwell on the past. Even without a physical countdown, she could feel the days tick by, leading up to day that Ben would get on that bus and leave her. She wanted to make every minute they had left count. With the weather abnormally hot, the pair dressed coolly and headed for the far side of town.

                “I’ve never seen anything like this,” Hanley grinned like a kid. Even in St. Claire, they’d never had a carnival like this one. Balloons waved in the breeze and the colorful tents beckoned everyone who drove by to come in.

                They wandered around the carnival grounds, trying to decide what to do first. When Ben spotted the photo booth, Hanley made a beeline for it, insisting that they needed more pictures to hang on their walls.

                Afterwards, they made their way to the game tents, challenging each other to skeeball. Three games later, it was obvious that Hanley was better than Ben at the game. Neither was able to earn enough tickets for the giant panda at the prize booth though.

                “Ben, please,” Hanley begged, nudging Ben playfully with a puppy dog pout on her face.
                “Han, we could just buy a goldfish. I’m sure it’d be cheaper.”
                “But that’s not nearly as fun as winning one!”
                “Fine,” he shook his head, trudging towards to the ticket booth to purchase tickets for the goldfish toss.

                After twelve tries, Hanley still hadn’t won a goldfish and finally gave up. “I swear, this thing is rigged!”
                “Of course it’s rigged. It’s a carnival.” She leaned over, punching him in the arm as he laughed at her.

                “You’re going down Eastman,” she said, running over the rock challenge and handing the attendant tickets for a race.
                “Oh, you think so,” he smirked. “You do know I do this for a living, right?”

                When the starting bell rang, Ben launched himself up the wall. Hanley had barely made it off the mat before he was halfway up, racing to the top.
                “Give me a fighting chance,” she shouted up to him, groping for a toehold.
                “Nu-uh. You wanted this challenge, I’m not going to let you win,” he called down to her as he slapped the buzzer with his free hand before dropping gracefully back to the mat. Even though she had already lost, she forced herself to finish the climb and tap the now-silent buzzer before accepting defeat.

                “That’s my girl,” Ben pulled her in for a sweaty kiss when she finally made it back down.

                With less than two months to go now, the pair decided to make Sundays “brunch days”. After reading raving reviews about Belle’s in the paper, it was decided that their first Sunday brunch would be at the famous bakery.
                “These pancakes look delicious,” Ben grabbed for his fork as soon as the waitress set the plate in front of him.

                “You know, I do know how to make pancakes, right?” Hanley had ordered crepes, something she didn’t know how to make at home. Looking down, she crinkled her nose, gagging at the smell. “It smells rancid! Why would they send this out?” She jumped up from the table, bolting for the patio door. 

                When she still hadn’t come back to the table, Ben went inside to look for her. Just then, she emerged from the bathroom.
                “Are you okay?”
                “Yeah, I think so. Those crepes just smelled awful. You couldn’t smell them?”
                “They smelled fine to me. We can get you something else,” he offered as they made their way back out to the porch.
                “It’s okay. I’ll just stick with the coffee.” As she sat back down, she pushed the plate as far across the table as she could until the waitress came back to retrieve it.

                The next day, Hanley walked over to the gas station. Though yesterday had been the first day she’d actually gotten sick from certain smells, she was beginning to suspect that the crepes hadn’t been rancid at all. Especially since Ben had thought they smelled fine. She’d noticed that she had been more tired lately. She’d also felt lightheaded and dizzy. After yesterday, she was beginning to suspect that it was all tied together.

                In fact, she had a pretty good idea just what her symptoms all pointed to.

Chapter 7.1                                                                                                                                                         Chapter 7.3