“The European sales are great. Through the roof.” Alex could hear Louie’s excitement down the phone lines.
“Next up, Asia, though we don’t know how these books will fly over there. There are government regulations and we have to hire a good translator. How are things with you?” the voice asked through the speaker on the phone.
Alex leaned back and sighed as Lennon rubbed the arch of her left foot. She was sore after going for a long walk up Gouverneur hill and taking part in an impromptu soccer game on the beach with some of his construction crew. They were still enjoying their summer break but would occasionally check in, offering critiques about his handiwork and teasing him about not waiting until the experts were back on the job.
There’d been one snag during the game. The soccer ball had gone into the greenery at the far end of the beach. Alex went in pursuit but then backed out of the shrubbery in a panic. When Lennon came to see what was the matter she could only answer that the spot it felt wrong, sad, dangerous. He’d held her until she stopped shaking.
“What else is new at home?” We don’t get much Canadian news here and I haven’t been checking online.”
Louie’s answer took her by surprise. “You’ll be hearing from the cops. They found your stalker. The guy who gutted the raccoon outside your condo? He’s a mental patient from Quebec. They held him for a week and then had to let him go. Said he wasn’t a danger to himself or anyone else. I think it had more to do with overcrowding at the Queen Street Mental Health Unit. Anyway, the police promise they will keep an eye on him. And he’s back on his meds so that should keep him under control.”
Lennon’s hands had stilled and Alex could feel how rigid he’d gone. He said nothing until the call was over and then quietly asked, “When were you going to tell me?” He stared into her face and then gave a harsh half laugh. “You weren’t, were you? You were going to keep this a secret.”
“It’s not a secret,” Alex protested. “Bliss knows and Inspector Privé.”
“Everyone but me,” said Lennon plucking her feet off his lap and standing up abruptly. “I don’t deserve to know? What am I to you anyway? A guy you fuck so you can feature me in your next book? Gee, here’s how I spent my summer vacation.”
Alex read the wounded anger in his eyes. “It never came up, that’s all. Don’t read anything into it. I forget about the stalker most of the time.”
He was pacing now, running his hands through his hair. “Bullshit. You don’t forget. That’s why you never forget to arm the alarm system, even when you’re just walking to the beach. Is that why you freaked out earlier today? Did you hear something? See something?”
“That part of the jungle at the other end of the beach just felt wrong, like something bad had happened there once. It has nothing to do with my stalker. And you heard Louie, they know who he is and he’s back on his meds so there’s no reason to be worried.”
“I also heard Louie say he gutted a raccoon outside your apartment building. That sounds like something that would worry me,” Lennon bit off his words precisely.
“That’s why I came to St. Barts in the first place.” Alex hoped a rational conversation would calm Lennon down, erase the hurt from his face.
“So the danger is passed. They’ve got the guy, or at least they know who he is. That means it’s safe to go back. Are you? Going to go back to Canada? For fuck’s sake, there’s apparently nothing keep you here.”
Alex felt her own fury bubble up. He was being so unfair. “You’re right. There is no reason to stay, not if you’re going to be such a child.”
He stopped pacing back and forth in front of the couch and stared at her open mouthed. “That’s it, isn’t it? I’m a child. A boy toy. Not someone to count on. Not someone to make plans with. Good to know.” He picked up his keys, turning towards the door.
“Lennon! Don’t go. You’re blowing this all out of proportion. I don’t know why I didn’t tell you but what was I supposed to do? ‘Pass the salt and did you know I have a stalker?’ There was no way it wasn’t going to seem a bigger deal than it was.”
“It was a big enough deal that you fled your life in Toronto. And Marcel knows, so that means the Canadian police told him. I’d say that was a big fucking deal. But not big enough to tell me. Why is that?”
Alex stood speechless, trying to formulate an answer.
“When you figure it out, let me know.” With that, he stomped out of the Great Room and she heard the front gate slam.
Bliss let out a groan of pleasure as she lowered her swollen feet into the warm paraffin bath. She was due in just over a week and was counting the hours, joking she was going to take a jeep ride on an unpaved road if the baby didn’t make it’s appearance on time.
“So hopefully he’ll be back by the weekend,” Bliss was saying.
Alex glanced at her friend. “Sorry, zoning out. Where did you say Charlie was?”
“New York but just for a couple of days and then he promised to stay glued to my side until the baby turns twenty-one. It’s just as well, what with the weather.” The rain was lashing against the windows of the spa, sheets of water obliterating the tinkling of the fountain inside the room. “Len says his crew came to board up the windows and secure the site.”
“Jonathan from the rental agency was by this morning to bring in the patio furniture and pull down the storm shutters. It’s kind of creepy inside the villa with so little light.”
“Stay with me until the storm passes. We can make s’mores and gossip. Do each other’s hair. There’s an emergency generator at the villas so even if the power goes out, we should be fine.”
“That’s kind of you,” said Alex, “but I think it’s best if I stay in my own villa.”
“It’s because of Len. You don’t want to run into him now that he’s moved back to our family villa. You obviously had some kind of fight.” Bliss waited patiently for answers, smiling faintly as the spa attendant rubbed lotion into her swollen ankles.
Alex waved away the woman who wanted to paint her toe nails. She didn’t feel pretty. She felt lost, angry, upset. She felt like confiding in someone and so she did, telling Bliss about Lennon’s reaction to the news of the stalker.
“He’s just like our dad. Wanting to protect the people he loves. You can’t blame him.”
“Wait a minute,” said Alex rising in her seat, alarmed. “He’s not…we’re not. Where did you get that idea?” she sputtered.
“Please!” Bliss waved away her objections. “The two of you are perfect together. Anyone can see it. Didn’t you say you have no reason to return to Canada? And Len is putting down roots here. So, there’s nothing standing in your way. Or is there? Am I wrong? Don’t you love him?”
Alex felt her face grow warm as she searched for the answer. “That’s not it. This thing between us isn’t going anywhere.”
Bliss laughed. “Nice deflection, but I’m still waiting for an answer. Are you in love with my brother?”
Did she love Lennon? She loved being with him. Had never been so happy with another man. But…but what? “He’s not the type of guy I ever thought I’d end up with,” was her lame response.
“You never imagined you’d end up with an ambitious, intelligent and kind man? And even though he’s my brother, I have to say he’s not bad looking.”
“It’s not that. It’s…”
“What?” Bliss was starting to sound irritated.
“He’s younger than me.” It was all Alex could think to say.
“By just a couple of years. What? You’re afraid you’re a cougar? Going to start wearing skin tight leather trousers and leopard print halter tops?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know,” shouted Alex.
“Fine. Tell me what kind of man you’d thought you’d end up with.”
“Somebody steady. From a small town. Maybe a teacher. Go to Church on Sundays and coach the kids’ soccer team.” Alex put her fingers to her mouth in shock, whispering in horror, “I just described by brother-in-law!”
“Do you want someone like that? Do you want to be like your sister? Didn’t you say she settled? Aren’t you writing a book about a character dreaming of a different life? I’d like to know how this small town teacher fantasy husband of yours is going to fit into your life as a bestselling novelist.”
Alex sat silent, incapable of answering. Her friend had just shredded everything she’d secretly believed. She was a bestselling novelist. She had a movie deal. She was never going back to Toronto to finish her thesis. She was going to have a different life. She had known that before intellectually but Bliss’ comments brought it all home. She wasn’t that woman any more. But what kind of a woman was she? What kind of a woman did she want to be? The questions swirled around in her head. She felt untethered, much as she had when she first arrived on St. Barts. Uncertain what to do and where to go.
In the end, she didn’t return to her villa. Lennon texted Bliss to warn her the road to Gouverneur had been washed out so they were stranded in town. The rental villas were off limits as well. Bliss was the only tenant and so they were boarded up against the weather. It was now a tropical storm and building by the minute.
Alex and Bliss gathered a few personal items from the Bali villa, which was now in near darkness with the storm shutters drawn. They got soaked walking the few short steps to the family villa next door. Alex had to hold onto Bliss with both hands to keep her steady in the wind and driving rain.
Once in the front door of Lennon’s villa, the two women shook the rain off like half-drowned dogs. There were candles scattered around the Great Room along with a couple of hurricane lamps. Two rollaway cots had been set up by the dining room table. “Here,” he said giving them fresh towels and robes. “Out of those wet things. I’ve made some mulled wine. Just half a glass for you Bliss, but it should warm you up.”
Finally dry, they sat in the Great Room listening to the whistling wind and driving rain outside. Alex couldn’t meet Lennon’s eyes. She wished she were anywhere but here. She felt guilty. Did she love him?
He was towelling his sister’s long curls, Bliss complaining all the while that he was tugging her hair out, not drying it. Alex watched his strong fingers, listened to his gentle teasing, admired his calm in the face of the storm and acknowledged yes, she loved him. Of course she loved him. Who wouldn’t?
She loved this man who didn’t fit any of her preconceptions about a possible mate. This man who was younger, better looking and related to show business royalty. She loved him for none of those reasons, though the looks, she thought with a blush, were a bonus. She loved his kindness. His work ethic. His patience. His joy in the simplest of things- whether surfing the waves or whisking egg whites. He tackled every task with precision, exuberance, with care. That included making love.
Alex sipped her mulled wine, hoping her companions would attribute her blush to the alcohol. She remembered how he coaxed her into ever revealing intimacies. One night, he’d called it fun with food, drizzling and then licking chocolate sauce off her breasts, doing unspeakably erotic things with a banana popsicle. Letting her body heat melt the iced treat before he lapped up the flavoured liquid, melting her inhibitions along the way. Cuddling her afterwards, whispering endearments as she drifted off to the sleep in a cocoon of sugar and sweat.
Lennon tossed a towel on the floor with a snort. “You can’t hold your liquor, Bliss. What a mess!” he said starting to mop up the puddle of liquid.
The two women looked at one another with dawning realization. The baby! Bliss was having the baby.
“Lennon,” Bliss said in an oddly calm voice, “give me my phone. I have to call Charlie.”
“Can’t it wait?” he asked, scowling as he mopped up the floor. “It’s not like we’re going anywhere for a while.”
“We may have to go soon.” Seeing her brother didn’t understand, she added, “To the hospital. My water broke.”
Lennon dropped the towel and stared at his sister. “It’s not time. Not for days. You must be wrong.”
Bliss shook her head. “That’s not urine.” The two chefs sniffed the air lightly. She was right. It had a slightly sweetish smell, different from the usual acidic tang of soiled undergarments.
“You call Charlie, I’ll call for an ambulance.”
“Not yet,” says Bliss. “The contractions haven’t even started yet and they’re probably busy with the storm. We’re just a couple of blocks away. We can wait a while.”
Bliss and Alex exchanged a glance. They had talked about this possibility in one of the prenatal classes the two women had attended. It was called PROM, or premature rupture of membranes. The instructor had been clear when you’re water broke you called your doctor but not to panic if there weren’t contractions. That you have twenty-four hours before it becomes a concern, though that window is lessened in the event of a fever. Alex laid her hand against Bliss’ forehead and shook her head. Temperature normal. “I’ll keep checking,” she said, taking off her watch and laying it face up on the table. It was a massive masculine timepiece with big numbers and a glow in the dark second hand. “When the contractions begin, I want to be ready.”
“Charlie! Yes, we’re fine. We’re at the family villa. I don’t want you to worry but my water just broke.” Bliss made a face and held the phone away from her ear. Alex could hear angry comments from the other end. She had no idea there were that many ways to use the word cunt in a single sentence. Bliss broke into the tirade. “I’m fine. There’s a storm but you know how close we are to the hospital and we’re right next door to the police station.” Her assurances were interrupted by a loud bang from outside. The front wall of the villa seemed to shake but they could see no obvious signs of damage to the structure.
Alex followed Lennon into the kitchen to give Bliss some privacy for what was obviously an emotional conversation.
“If the power goes out, there’s an emergency generator right?”
Lennon looked worried. “Yeah, but I don’t know how much juice it has. The construction crews used it during renovations and I haven’t had a chance to check the fuel level.”
Alex started rummaging in the cupboards.
“You’re not going to cook? That isn’t going to make her feel better,” observed Lennon wryly.
“I’m putting water on to boil, just in case. We may need hot water. And lots of towels and sheets.” Alex thought back to her sister’s labour. It had begun at home. Eliza hadn’t gone to the hospital until the contractions were fifteen minutes apart. She had an epidural but Alex doubted it would be an option this time. “If the contractions start, they could come fast and furious. She may not have that long. Ignore what Bliss said and call the hospital. Better to be safe than sorry.”
Lennon ducked into the utility room out of view of his sister. Alex could see him dialling his cellphone. She continued to fill up pots with water and turn on the elements. It felt good to keep busy, even if her efforts would be proven unnecessary. Action made her feel more in control. She was sloughing off ripples of anxiety when the lights went out.
The glow from the gas stove was welcome as they fumbled around the Great Room for matches and candles. Alex peered through the front shutters. There was a wall of water with no sign of illumination.
“It looks like the entire street, maybe the whole island has gone dark.”
Bliss tossed the phone down. “We were cut off and I can’t get a signal. Charlie said it’s a category two hurricane now and still growing.”
Lennon slid down next to his sister. “Calm down coinân giorria.”
Bliss smiled at the endearment. “Nobody’s called me that since Maman, when I was just a baby.” Seeing Alex’s uncomprehending face, Lennon explained. “It means ‘little rabbit’ in Irish. Her dad, our grandfather, used to call our mom that when she was scared. Raisa translated that into zaichata, which is what she called all of us, our mother and Misha, included.” He held his sister tenderly as she continued to try and get a phone line out. “No good. Not in service.”
“The cellphones could be overwhelmed or they could be on emergency back-up power,” said Lennon. “I got through to the hospital. They’re a little backed up but promised to send an ambulance. It sounded kind of chaotic at their end. We just have to sit tight for a bit and wait.”
“No waiting,” said Bliss as she bent forward in sudden pain. “Start timing,” she told Alex through gritted teeth. The contractions had begun.
As feared, they came in fast and hard. No time to mentally prepare. One minute Bliss was okay, then her water broke and she was racked with pain. They began at thirty minutes apart and then seemed to increase in intensity as the intervals decreased.
Then the contractions were coming twenty minutes apart. Lennon and Bliss took turns trying the phone, bathing Bliss’ forehead with cool water, checking for signs of fever. Lennon had given up on the lights, cursing the construction crew for not making sure the generator had been topped up.
Lennon grabbed his rain gear and car keys. “We can’t wait any longer. We have to get to the hospital. I’ll go start the jeep.” He tossed Alex an extra slicker. “Put that over Bliss and we’ll load her into the back with a pillow. It’s just a few minutes away. We should be fine.”
Alex backed away from the sheets of rain blown horizontal onto the floor as Lennon wrestled with the wind and tore open the front door. She peered through the slats but couldn’t see a thing in the dank darkness. She strained to hear over the howling wind but there was no sound of an engine starting. No dim illumination of headlights.
Lennon was back inside the house in a matter of minutes looking on the edge of panic. “We’re not going anywhere. The hydro poles are down next door. I don’t know if the wires are live but we can’t take that chance. Also, the poles are blocking the street. We’re stuck here for a bit.” He glanced at Bliss as she breathed through another contract, oblivious to the storm outside, focussing on the internal one. “I can maybe climb up to the police station and they could send for help but the hill is pretty exposed. I could be blown off. Plus they couldn’t get an ambulance in anyway. They might be able to get a doctor through but…”
Alex finished the thought. “If the storm is this bad in town, imagine in some of the outlying areas. Paramedics and police must be going crazy trying to make sure everyone’s safe. I bet they set up a shelter in the school. We should have gone there.”
“No,” said Lennon. “I could just make out the waves lapping about halfway up the block by the harbour. The school is next to Shell Beach. It wouldn’t have been safe. Our villa is on one of the highest elevations, other than Point Milou and that’s way the hell and gone. This was the only really safe place if she hadn’t gone into labour.”
Their hushed conversation was interrupted by another moan. Alex glanced at the watch on the desk. Could that be right? Four minutes apart? She took a deep breath and nodded at Lennon. “It’s too late to go for help now anyway. Guess who’s playing midwife!”
They arranged the rain slickers under the clean cot and propped Bliss up against Lennon’s chest. “I don’t mind if you scream,” he said wiping his sister’s sweat soaked curls back from her brow. “You can swear too. Say all those nasty things you’ve been keeping in for months, years even. Remember when you got in trouble for colouring on the bedroom wall and it was really me?”
Bliss tried to smile up at her brother but it came out like a twisted grimace. “Charlie will never forgive me. I promised him the baby would be fine. He was so excited. He wanted kids and I…” she started to sob.
“You weren’t ready.”
“That wasn’t it,” she whispered. “I had an abortion.”
Alex wasn’t surprised. Bliss has said as much when she was treated for false labour but the confession caught Lennon off guard. He looked shocked. Bliss explained, “It wasn’t Charlie’s. It was someone else. Someone who hurt me. Charlie helped me. I didn’t want the other man’s baby.”
She heard Lennon mutter under his breath, “I should have killed that fucker when I had the chance.” While his tone was violent, his hands were gentle as he stroked his sister’s forehead and held her tight against his chest.
Bliss continued. “I would have told you, but you were away and I was desperate and Charlie was there and afterwards, he was so kind and so loving and its like it was always meant to be between the two of us, you know. I don’t think I could have handled things without him. I still can’t. Charlie is the strong one.”
“No,” said Lennon stroking his sister’s cheek. “You’re the strong one.”
She gave a shaky laugh. “I’m like dad. I act strong but I’m not. Deep down, I’m jello. You’re like mom. You have a core of granite.”
“I don’t feel that way.”
“We can never seen ourselves as others see us, but believe me, you’re tough as nails. And your girlfriend,” Bliss nodded at Alex who was dipping cloths in cool water at the sink, she’s…”
“Indomitable,” finished Lennon.
Alex smiled at the overheard comments. She brought the bowl of dampened fabric back to the cot, amazed at how alike the brother and sister looked with their gold washed hair and chiselled features. How right they looked comforting one another. How often they must have done this since the death of their mother. She kept busy, handing Lennon chilled cloths and ice cubes for his sister. Replacing candles that were burning low. Helping her friend focus on her breathing.
Bliss let out a loud cry and a spasm almost lifted her off the mattress.
“Show time,” said Alex trying to remember her sister. In a hospital with an epidural. But the procedure was the same, right? Before there were hospitals, women had babies. Otherwise the human race would have died out. But there were also high infant and maternal mortality rates. Focus Alex.
Nouns. Baby. Mother.
Adjectives. Painful. Lonely. Frightened.
Verbs. Push. Strain. Sterilize.
Imperatives. Push now. Now. Now!
Alex was getting ready to play midwife when the front door slammed open. There was no wind. No rain. Just a glimpse of an eerie, grey calm before two rubber encased figures step inside. Inspector Privé surveyed the scene at a glance. Bliss straining on the cot, nestled against the chest of her panicky looking brother. Her legs wide, knees bent. Alex positioned on the floor at the end of the cot, shaking hands outstretched as if to catch a forward pass.
Inspector Privé turned to his companion. “Just in time, Bill.”
The other man flipped back his hood and shed his jacket took two strides and shoved Alex out of the way. He took Bliss’ pulse with one hand, placing the other on her straining abdomen. He handed Alex a flashlight. “I need a good look,” he said, peering between his patient’s straining legs. He grunted at the sight, “Crowning. Might as well finish here. Won’t be long. Couldn’t guarantee we’d get to the hospital before the eye passes anyway.”
Not one of the three original occupants had said a word since the strange interruption. Bliss was understandably preoccupied but Alex and Lennon were staring at the intruders as if they’d arrived from Mars.
Inspector Privé shook Alex’s shoulder. “Towels. Now!”
She scuttled into the pantry to retrieve a fresh pile of linens. It took just a minute, but by the time she returned she could see Bliss was pushing hard. Alex knelt by her side, removing her clenched hand from Lennon’s urging her to breathe, breathe, Breathe! The calm encouragement cut through in a way harsher, louder tones could not and the two women panted and puffed under the command of the man called Bill. He had a medical case, sterile packages arrayed on the desk, a stethoscope around his neck, a fresh sheet draped over the lower half of Bliss’ torso to offer scant privacy.
In between encouraging comments to the mother-to-be, Bill explained how he came to be in their villa. ‘I was helping out at the hospital. We were sailing up from Mayreau when we heard about the storm and took refuge in Gustavia harbour. I went to the hospital to offer my help but they’re pretty well equipped so there wasn’t much for me to do, help set a broken arm. Wash a shoulder wound where an idiot on a Vespa hit a stone wall. Then all of a sudden, this cop shows up out of nowhere and I’m given a medical bag and hustled into a police cruiser.
“Push now, honey. Yes, I know you’re tired but you’re almost there,” Bill urged Bliss.
He moved in closer, peering up until the sheet. Alex followed instructions and angled the flashlight over his right shoulder.
“You people must be important for the President of France to tell me to get my ass over here.”
Alex and Lennon shake their heads in disbelief. The man continued over the sound of Bliss’ straining. “He got a call from the King of Norway. I didn’t even know Norway had a king.” He raised his eyebrows, looking for answers.
“Your dad!” said Alex to Bliss and Lennon.
“Or grandma Judith.” Lennon amended, biceps straining as he clamped Bliss’s jerking body even tighter against his chest.
Alex answered the doctor’s unspoken questions. “Their father is Sven Larsen. This,” she says pointing in between Bliss’ legs, “is his first grandchild.”
Bill grunted, “Hollywood royalty too huh? Not bad for an OB/GYN from Lubbock, Texas.”
The next phase passed in a blur. Alex was dully aware of the sound of the storm picking up again. The shutters straining against the wind and sheets of rain. Inspector Privé had disappeared into the near night without a word.
Before they knew it, Bill shouted, “It’s time, honey. Push now! One more good one and then it’s almost over.” A push. A grunt. A scream and then silence.
It felt like the world held its breath before they heard a small cry. A baby’s mewl. A newborn’s herald to the world. Bliss and Lennon were both weeping as Bill took the baby, still attached to its cord and lay it on her mother’s breast. Bliss clutched the tiny figure eagerly, greedily. All four giant adults counted fingers and toes. Noted rosebud lips and the dark down of hair glinting strawberry blonde beneath the mucous. As the storm raged, they cleaned up the mess on the floor. The cord. The afterbirth. Then finally Bliss relented and let them take the baby to be wiped down as the doctor examined her. “A little tearing. It’s a big girl. You may need a couple of stitches but you did great.” He sighed as he rocked back on his heels, his face white with exhaustion and exhilaration. “You all did great.”
They got ready to wait out the storm. Bill laid down on the spare cot, draping a hand over his face. Bliss cuddled the baby next to her breast, sharing secrets. Lennon ran water over his hands, plumping up the crevasses made by his sister’s fingernails. Alex bundled trash bags of bloody towels and sheets and wished they had power so she could make coffee. The one thing she could cook, even take orders. A vente extra hot with double foam. A chai tea latte with vanilla shot. She was transported to her prior life as a barista in Toronto, far and away from this luxury villa on St. Barts with the famous siblings and the newborn and the welcome trespassing doctor.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a pair of strong arms slipping around her waist. “We couldn’t have done it without you,” Lennon said, pushing sweat sodden curls away from her ear. She leaned back into his warmth gratefully.
It wasn’t until the rain stopped and the winds calmed, until they’d reconvened into the hospital for a post-birth check up that they heard the storm was called Hurricane Abigail. A force three. The strongest to hit St. Barts in decades.
Abigail. Their mother’s given name.
And the perfect name for the baby.
He couldn’t contain his excitement, could barely keep his hands from shaking as he stocked the library shelves. His patience had paid off. St. Barts. His love was in St. Barts. He’d looked it up on his lunch break after getting the email notice at the start of his shift. It was an island in the Caribbean. A French island, so his knowledge of the language would come in handy. He might have known that from Before. He couldn’t tell. Before was still a blur. He started plotting how he could get there, what steps he needed to take, how much money. A passport, he thought. He needed a passport. That would take some doing, given his past. Not insurmountable. He would find out how online. All the answers to all his questions were online, on this magic machine called a computer. We’ll be together soon my love.