Note: the following story is part 3 of a series. A different part is included under each holiday story list in the bard's challenge. The parts are: Part 1 Christmas, Part 2 Easter, Part 3 Thanksgiving, Part 4 Halloween, and Part 5 Valentine's Day. You don't necessarily have to read the parts in order, but it might help. Feel free to read one, all, some, or none.
November 25, 1969
"Mama, look." Ella held out her hand to reveal a mushy yellow mess. "Yicky."
"Yes, it's certainly yicky." Gin sighed and reached in her handbag, pulling out a hanky. She wiped the yellow material from her daughter's hand. "Where did you get that, honey?"
"Flowuh," Ella replied, pointing to a decimated lily.
"Sorry about that, Mr. Zimmerman." Gin smiled apologetically at the funeral director, who moved the lilies away from the floor. She turned to her daughter. "Flowers are for looking at, sweetheart, not tearing apart."
"Sowee." Ella stuck her two middle fingers in her mouth and lowered her dark eyes.
"It's no problem, Mrs. Perkins," Mr. Zimmerman said. "And I hope the flower selection meets with your approval."
"Of course." She'd never seen anything other than white lilies at a funeral, but the world was changing. Still, she couldn't imagine seeing something like tulips or red roses adorning a casket.
"Well, I'll leave you alone now." Mr. Zimmerman moved to an inner door. "You take as long as you need with your husband. If you have any questions, just come on through. We're all set for tomorrow. You just need to be at the church by ten, and we'll handle everything else."
"Thank you," Gin murmured. She reached out a hand and idly played with her daughter's curly brown hair, her eyes and mind focused on the casket that held her dead husband.
She didn't move. She didn't really see a need to, since the casket was closed. Mr. Zimmerman hadn't said anything to her, but she knew what that meant. A corpse had come back in a body bag from Vietnam, but there wasn't enough of John to make presentable.
"Mama, where daddy?"
Gin glanced down at her daughter.
I should say he's in heaven, but I've never lied to her before, Gin mused.
"He's gone far away," Gin replied. "He won't be coming back."
"Oh." The little girl contemplated that for a moment, her brow scrunched in concentration. Then she looked up to her mother again. "Where baby?"
Gin rubbed her stomach and felt a kick right on cue. "Baby's coming soon."
Ella picked up her stuffed bunny and went in search of something more interesting than her quiet mama. She discovered a fern in the corner and glanced quickly toward her mother, whose attention was focused on the pine box. She took the opportunity to stick her finger in the pot's dirt, and then began an adventure with her toy.
"No, not good," Gin whispered. "Nothing about this is good."
Gin felt a tear run down her face. It surprised her, and she wiped at it impatiently. It had been so long since she'd cried, she was sure it must have come from someone else.
"Oh, don't bother with your fake tears. Save the salt."
Gin turned swiftly toward Holly, who had soundlessly entered the room. John's sister was stylishly dressed as always, a mink stole wrapped around her shoulders and gold glittering at her ears, throat, wrist, and fingers.
"Holly," Gin said politely. "I'm sorry. I didn't hear you come in."
"I'm sure," Holly replied, lifting her lips in an expression that was half fake smile and half sneer. "Well, you finally got what you wanted, I suppose."
"What I wanted? To be a widow, my children fatherless? How could I possibly want that?" Gin's heart was bitter and cold, and her voice matched it.
"You ruined my brother's life," Holly snapped back. "You claim he got you pregnant, so he did the honorable thing and married you. But you made his life miserable. He loved you and you hated him."
"I'm not sure what planet you're living on, Holly," Gin said, shaking her head in bemusement, "but the fact is, your brother got me drunk and got me pregnant. Your father forced him to marry me. John made my life a living hell, for the little time that he was actually around, because he hated the sight of me, as well as his own daughter. But I have to admit, you did get that last part right."
Holly strode toward Gin, shaking with rage.
"You heartless bitch." Holly lifted her hand, but before she could strike the smaller woman, a voice carried across the room.
"Touch her and you'll never use that hand again."
It was a woman's voice, the smooth contralto conveying her threat better than a shouted warning. Holly froze, and then she and Gin both turned in unison to gaze at the speaker.
"Well, well," Holly said, pulling her fur tighter around her shoulders. "The prodigal returns."
"Hello, Gin." Louise ignored the other woman, her eyes locked firmly on her childhood friend.
"Weez!" Ella shrieked the name and toddled toward Louise, who looked down at her and then back up at Gin.
"She recognizes you from pictures," Gin explained, her voice barely carrying across the room. "Your mom shows her and tells her stories."
"Hello there," Louise said, kneeling down to the little girl's level. "What's your name?"
"Ella," the toddler replied. She stuck her fingers in her mouth, suddenly shy.
"I hate to break up this touching reunion," Holly said coldly, "but I'd appreciate some time alone with my brother's body." She looked disdainfully at Louise. "I take it you didn't come here to pay your respects."
"No," Louise replied without a touch of sympathy. "I was looking for Gin."
Gin felt as if someone had glued her feet to the ground. She lifted them with a struggle and managed to get them to move slowly across the room. By the time she reached Ella, they seemed to be nearly up to speed. She reached down for her daughter's hand.
"We have to be going." She began to pull the little girl along, her eyes darting away from Louise's confused gaze.
"Wait...Gin..." Louise chased after her old friend, catching up to her in the hallway of the funeral home. "Gin, please."
"I'm sorry, I need to get Ella fed, bathed and into bed." She pushed her long red hair behind her ears, in a gesture that was achingly familiar to Louise.
"I was hoping we could go somewhere to talk," Louise said. "Maybe grab a bite to eat and-"
"I don't have time," Gin interrupted, picking up Ella with a grunt of effort. "The funeral is tomorrow. Then there's the reception after. And the next day is Thanksgiving."
"Tungey and sweed dadoes!" Ella shouted in an excited warble.
"She means turkey and sweet potatoes," Gin explained, a ghost of a smile directed at her daughter. "Your mom has gotten her quite excited about Thanksgiving."
Her smile faded and uncertainty flickered in her eyes.
"I can stay away if you want to," Louise said, realizing how hard she was making things for her old friend.
"That would upset your mother," Gin replied. She began to move down the hallway toward the front door.
"I'm asking you what you want," Louise said, keeping up with her.
"What I want?" Bitter irony glittered in her eyes, and then faded again to dull green.
"I have to go." Gin didn't want to hear the apology. Couldn't bear to hear the meaningless words.
"Wait. Please." Louise tried again, but this time Gin didn't turn around, and Louise watched her friend walk away. Ella's dark eyes stared back at her over her mother's shoulder, intently sucking her two middle fingers.
Louise walked slowly home from Zimmerman's Funeral Parlor. It was so warm it almost felt like spring, but the weatherman had warned that a severe cold front was on its way - just in time for the holiday. She passed the Perkins house, where Holly's new husband had recently become Doc Perkins' partner. Probably going to force him into retirement, spend all his money, and toss him into an old folks' home, she mused. She noticed the trailer at the back of the property. The lights were on and she saw a shadow pass in front of a window. Gin was home already and probably fixing dinner for little Ella. She hurried on, not wanting to be seen.
When she reached her childhood home, she paused at the gate. She had barely taken it in when she'd stopped there earlier, greeting her mother and finding out Gin's whereabouts. Now that she took the time to really look at it, she was struck by how small and rundown it looked.
She saw the curtains at the kitchen window flick apart. Her mother's profile peered out at her. Her mom looked smaller too, and so much older.
It's only been six years since I've been gone, she mused, but so much has happened.
Her brother Ralph had been reported missing in action within the first few days of his tour in Vietnam. Her other brother, Michael, received his draft notice just two days afterward, and had fled to Canada, stopping in Chicago to warn his sister not to go home again.
But she had, to find a world she no longer recognized. Her mother spoke constantly about her missing sons, sometimes continuing even when everyone else had left the room. Her father, on the other hand, refused to speak, moving through his days in silence, barely acknowledging the world around him.
And then there was Gin - the one person Louise had thought would never change, would always be there for her. Gin had become a sullen teenager, with eyes that seemed to hold a secret. Louise had tried to talk to her about what was going on, but she couldn't break through Gin's walls. By the end of the two-week holiday, she had given up trying.
So she'd gone back to college to finish her sophomore year and never came back. There was always somewhere else she needed to be, work she couldn't get out of, money that was too scarce. After graduation, a group of friends asked her to join them on their travels to India. She agreed without a moment's hesitation.
The day before she was due to leave, she'd received an invitation in the mail. It was Gin's sixteenth birthday party. Underneath the carefully printed date and location, Gin had scrawled: "Please come."
Louise had sent her the latest Beatle's album and a card. "Wish I could be there," she'd written back. "Love, Louise." She had seen the desperate plea, and ignored it. Or was that just hindsight?
She'd been gone for two years, sending postcards when she thought about it, which wasn't often, and never staying in one place long enough to have an address so that anyone could write back. When she finally grew tired of scrounging to survive, she'd returned to Chicago. She'd called home that first weekend to find that her father had died, suffering a heart attack on a lone hunting trip, and that Gin...well, she couldn't even conceive of what had happened to her best friend.
I'm sorry. She looked up at the stars and apologized to the people she knew she'd failed. So very, very sorry.
"Come inside, Louise!" Her mother's cry interrupted her thoughts. "You'll catch your death out there."
Louise shook the memories from her head and walked up the path to the mudroom, where her mother stood silhouetted in the doorway.
"I've made some soup and I just got a loaf of bread out of the oven," Verna said, taking her daughter's coat. "It's cream of tomato. Your favorite."
"Thanks, Mom." Louise smiled, immensely glad that some things had stayed the same through all the painful years. "You're the best."
Louise sat at the kitchen table and Verna served her a huge helping of soup and bread, and then took a seat across from her daughter.
"Did you find Gin?" Verna finally asked.
Louise nodded, the bread lodging painfully in a throat that was suddenly tight.
"She looks so different," Louise said, unable to find a better description of what she'd seen.
"It's been four years since you saw her last," Verna replied. "She's all grown up."
"But her eyes." Louise tried again to explain. "Mom, her eyes were dead. Everything about her was just...dead."
"She's been through a lot." Verna nodded. "More than any young woman should have to bear, I think."
Gin's haunted green eyes flashed in her memory, and Louise felt tears burn her eyes.
"I screwed up, Mom. I failed her. I failed you and Dad. I didn't care about anyone but myself."
Verna got up from her chair and scurried to her daughter, pulling Louise's head against her apron-covered stomach. "Shush, child. You did not screw up. You did not fail anyone."
"She needed me," Louise continued, tears trickling down her cheeks. "I should have been here for her. If I'd been here, none of this would have happened."
"Oh Louise, you don't know that. If you'd been here, you probably would have ruined your life and may still not have been able to help her. You can't second guess fate, dear heart."
Louise sniffled and gratefully took the tissue that her mom fished out of an apron pocket. She blew her nose and looked up at her mother.
"I don't know, Mom."
"What's done is done, Louise," Verna said firmly. "What you need to do now is concentrate on helping Gin. She needs you now, sweetheart, and I'm thinking you need her."
Louise nodded her agreement, but then her face fell. "She didn't want to speak to me, Mom. She could barely look me in the eye. I just...I think it's too late."
"Nonsense. It'll take some time, is all. You'll have to be patient with her, Louise."
Louise stood up from the table and began to pace the kitchen.
"Yeah," Louise said sarcastically, "and I'm so good at patience."
"Well, maybe that's one of the things that you need Gin to teach you." She smiled at her daughter and watched her stop in front of the refrigerator to gaze at the artwork taped there.
"What's this?" Louise asked, looking at the brown construction paper. A picture of baby chicks had been cut very unskillfully from a magazine and a clump of green plastic Easter grass had been glued below the picture. The letter "E" and several "L's" were scrawled at the bottom of the picture in orange crayon.
"Ella made that," Verna explained with an affectionate grin. "She says they're baby turkeys in a nest. She found the picture in a stack of old magazines. She can't quite write her name yet, but she's still very advanced for 22 months."
"She's gorgeous, isn't she?" Louise said with a smile, remembering dark eyes and thick lashes. "She's the spitting image of her father."
"With her mother's disposition, thank the Good Lord."
"What happened, Mom? I just don't understand." Louise moved back to the table and sat down, her legs suddenly too tired to hold her up.
"Oh, sweetheart, I think Gin is the only one who understands everything that happened." She ran her fingers rhythmically through her daughter's hair. "I tried to help her when she was growing up, tried to be a mother to her. She just wouldn't open up to me. You're the only person who could ever get through to her."
Louise covered her face with her palms and let out a guttural groan. "This is just so messed up."
"Patience, Louise Elaine. What was I saying about patience?"
November 26, 1969
Gin hurried into the church, knowing she was late and that it would cause even more hard feelings with the Perkins family. Oh well, it couldn't be helped. She'd woken up with the baby pressing against her kidneys, causing a nauseating ache. Ella had been fussy as well, spilling her milk at breakfast, and absolutely refusing to allow the little black paten leather shoes onto her feet. She'd settled for the Buster Browns. The white shoes didn't exactly match the little girl's new dress, but they'd have to do.
She led Ella into the church, straightening the little girl's charcoal grey dress that her mother-in-law had left on her doorstep the night before. It was depressingly appropriate for a funeral, but was at least brightened by little lambs embroidered on the bodice. She'd tried to add a bit more color by putting pink bows in the little girl's hair.
As expected, her mother-in-law and Holly both glowered at Gin and Ella when they entered the chapel off the nave, where the funeral services were being held.
"Gampa!" Ella cried when she spotted her favorite relative. Gin ignored the disapproving stares of her other in-laws and led her daughter to her smiling grandfather.
"Jelly Bean!" Doc Perkins cried, lifting the toddler high above his head and then swinging her down against his chest.
"I'm not a je-bean!" Ella protested, giggling.
"Ella, shush, honey," Gin said, pulling gently on the little girl's foot, "we're in church. It's a quiet place."
"You sit down here with your mama, Jelly Bean." Doc Perkins placed Ella in the wooden pew in the front row. "There's going to be some talking and some music. You like that, don't you?"
Ella nodded, listening with rapt attention to her grandpa.
"And if you're a very good girl, and can sit quietly till it's time to go, I have a little surprise for you."
"Chocit?" Ella asked, her eyes glittering with excitement.
"Wouldn't you rather have jelly beans, Jelly Bean?"
"Well, let me see," Doc Perkins tapped his finger on his chin, pretending to carefully consider the question. "Yes, I think it just might be chocolate."
The teasing action reminded Gin of something John had always done when they were children. Seeing it mirrored now made her feel queasy, and she sat down quickly next to her daughter.
"Are you all right, Ginny?" Doc Perkins asked, sitting next to her and taking her wrist.
"I'm fine." Gin tried to smile reassuringly, but the baby shifted and she let out a small moan. "The baby seems to enjoy treating my internal organs as footballs today."
"Look, we can put this off for a few minutes. I'm sure there's somewhere we can go and I can do a quick check-"
"No, that's OK," Gin said, shaking her head and pulling her wrist gently from his grip. "I'm all right. Just very pregnant and very much not wanting to be any more."
"Well, if you're sure. But I'll just-"
"William, they've given us the signal to take our seats." Edna Perkins stood in front of her husband, ignoring her daughter-in-law and granddaughter. "We're sitting in the pew across the aisle."
Doc Perkins glanced to the other side of the church to see his children and their spouses filing the pew, with just enough room left for him and his wife.
"Wouldn't it be better if you and I stayed over here and-"
"No, it would not. We will sit with our children."
Gin put her hand on her father-in-law's arm. "It's OK. I should sit alone with Ella. She may need to be taken out during the service if she gets cranky."
Doc Perkins looked ready to argue the point, but caved in, giving Gin a little pat on the arm and standing reluctantly.
"If you need me, just give me a signal and I'll come over. I just hate to see you sitting here all alone."
"She's not alone."
The smooth contralto surprised Gin for the second time in two days. She turned to find Louise taking a seat on the other side of Ella.
"Louise Atkins," Doc Perkins said with a wide smile. "Welcome home. We sure missed you."
"William," Edna Perkins hissed from the other side of the aisle.
"Sorry, ladies, but I need to go. You're welcome at the reception, Louise. I'll see you both later."
He made a duck noise and poked Ella in the stomach, and then obediently retreated to his seat.
"I hope you don't mind me being here," Louise whispered, leaning over Ella's head slightly. "I'll leave if you want me to."
Gin looked over at her in-laws, most of whom were staring daggers at her. Then she looked down at her daughter, who for some reason was putting her head into Louise's lap, cuddling down and already sucking on her two middle fingers.
"No," Gin said. "I think it's a little late for that."
"Just let me know how long you want me to stay," Louise said.
A long time ago, I might have said "forever", Gin mused, but that was then, and this is now.
"I've heard that there are beggars all over India and dead babies in the gutters."
Louise tried to smile politely and found it was difficult to do while biting one's tongue. At least Chip's wife Mary seemed genuinely interested. Most of the rest of the Perkins clan had either completely ignored her or asked her banal questions, their expressions glazing over with boredom before she even opened her mouth to answer.
"There is great poverty in India," Louise explained for the hundredth time since she'd come home. "But the Indian people taught me to value the things that are truly important in life. And those things aren't material possessions."
She glanced around the Perkins' front room, trying not to look too disdainfully at the expensive artwork and bric-a-brac. Mary asked her a few more questions and she answered in a distracted murmur, glancing down at her watch when Mary's attention was captured elsewhere. The reception had been going for three hours, surely that was long enough. She sighed and scanned the room for Gin, spotting her sitting in a chair in the corner.
Louise's mom was sitting on the floor next to Gin's chair, playing with Ella. Verna and Louise had been taking turns to sweep down whenever a Perkins family member began to hassle Gin. They also managed to keep Ella entertained, carrying her to the bathroom or outside when necessary.
"Mama, out." Ella tugged at her mother's hand, once again losing interest in inside distractions. "Play, mama. Now."
Louise saw exhausted looks on both her mother's and Gin's faces, and crossed the room quickly.
"I'll take her," she said, picking up the little girl. "Come on, runt, we can go outside and look for turkeys."
"No, that's OK," Gin said, awkwardly pushing herself out of the chair. "I need some fresh air anyway."
Louise was ready to say "OK" when she caught sight of her mother's raised eyebrows and slight nod toward the back door.
"Well, I'll go with you then," Louise said, picking up her cue.
Gin didn't reply, crossing the room with a slight waddle, her hand pressed against her lower back. She went out the back door and once outside, she sat carefully on the steps. Louise joined her after setting Ella down and pointing out a likely turkey-sighting spot.
"India seems like a fascinating place," Gin said. "And it sounds like you learned a lot from your time there."
Louise turned to her friend, expecting to see sarcasm written across her face. Instead, she was surprised to find an open, interested expression in the familiar green eyes.
"It is and I did," she answered simply.
"I'd love to go there some day," Gin said wistfully.
"I wish you could have been there with me."
The normality of the conversation had taken Louise by surprise, and the words were out of her mouth before she could censure them. A flicker of pain flashed in Gin's eyes, and then was extinguished.
"I'm sorry, Gin," Louise said. She listened as the words echoed in the suddenly cold air. She wondered if it was the cold front coming in or the final bit of warmth evaporating from her relationship with Gin.
"You don't have to apologize," Gin said tonelessly. "You didn't do anything wrong."
"I should have been here for you," Louise said, closing her eyes in pain. "No matter what decisions I made for my life, I should have been here when you needed me."
Gin just shrugged. All of the words that she had spoken to Louise in her mind over the past few years - the tearful pleading, the whispered promises, the screaming accusations - were gone.
"I'll do anything I can to make it up to you, Gin," Louise continued. "I swear to you. Anything."
"I don't want anything from you, Louise."
Louise expected anger, but the words simply held resignation. She would have welcomed anger - dealt with it better than her friend's defeated spirit.
"No tungeys, Weez," Ella whined, stomping up the path toward them. "Where de tungeys?"
Gin recognized her daughter's tone of voice and pushed herself up off the step. "She needs a nap."
"I'll take her," Louise offered.
"That's OK. I usually lie down as well." She carefully descended the last few steps and took Ella's hand, turning back to Louise. "Could you let Edna know?"
"Sure," Louise replied distractedly. She didn't want to leave things the way they were, but Gin was making it clear that the conversation was over.
"Thanks. She probably doesn't even care, so if you and your mom want to sneak out, I wouldn't blame you."
"OK. I'll see you tomorrow."
Gin didn't reply, just walked hand in hand with Ella to their trailer.
November 27, 1969
The distinctive smell of frying ham and eggs woke Louise. She rolled over, keeping her eyes shut and letting the smell drift into her nose. She listened to the clatter of pans and dishes coming from downstairs. Her mother was humming a song - something bright and cheery. Then she heard a child's voice and her mother's laugh. Ella was there, which meant that Gin was there.
Louise reluctantly opened her eyes. The room was bathed in a rosy glow from the sunrise outside. It was early, but Gin had said something about coming over and helping with the cooking. And that meant getting the turkey in the oven at dawn. Verna liked to feed the family a big breakfast, then get the meal cooking so that the food was on the table by noon. Everyone would be stuffed by two o'clock and there was plenty of time for the food to digest so that the family would be ready for sandwiches and other leftovers by six.
The family, Louise mused. That means mom, me, Ella and Gin.
She listened again to the noises downstairs and imagined that it was true. That they were a family. She smiled, relishing the sweet thought just as Ella had relished her chocolate bar the day before.
"Weez!" Ella suddenly shouted from right outside the door. "Geen eggs an am!"
Louise tried to make sense of the little girl's cry, and after a minute, simply gave up. "OK, runt, I'm coming."
She pulled on a pair of her brother's old sweatpants and her favorite sweatshirt, shoved her feet into slippers, and then stretched, grunting in satisfaction when her vertebrae popped into place.
Ella grinned when Louise opened the bedroom door. "Time for beckfist, Weez."
"I'm up, I'm up." She picked up Ella and ran down the stairs, the little girl giggling all the way.
"Louise Elaine, put that child down," Verna instructed when they entered the kitchen. "You'll get her too excited to eat."
"Nuh uh!" Ella cried. "Geen eggs an am, Sam am!"
"Do I want to know?" Louise asked, smiling at Gin who sat the little girl on two cushions on a chair so she could reach the table.
"No." Gin's lips lifted briefly in a smile.
At first, these ghost smiles had broken Louise's heart. Now she looked at them as a sign that her friend's spirit was still in there, just locked up so tight it was going to be a struggle to let it loose again. But she was going to try her damnedest.
"Green eggs and ham," Verna announced, setting plates in front of Ella and Gin, and then Louise and herself.
Louise looked down at her breakfast and felt her stomach turn. It was indeed green eggs and ham. Very green eggs. Very, very green eggs.
"Don't look at it like that," Verna said with a giggle. "I just put some green food coloring in the eggs. It won't hurt you."
"But..." Louise was beginning to wonder if they'd all gone mad while she slept.
"Ella is very fond of Dr. Seuss," Gin explained.
"Oh." Louise had no clue who Dr. Seuss was, but she decided it was easier to just go along with it. She had no hope of following kid logic.
They began to eat, Verna and Gin trading gossip, talking about the funeral and reception. Louise mostly watched and listened. At first, she was just happy to be with Gin again and let her mind wander back into her fantasy world. But this wasn't the Gin that she loved - this woman who never smiled or laughed, never cried or shouted. She wanted her Gin back. She wanted the light to dance in Gin's green eyes again.
"Oh, Louise, I almost forgot," her mother said, getting up from the table. "A letter came for you yesterday." She went into the hallway and returned carrying a small white envelope.
Louise paused and then reached for the letter. Her heart raced slightly as she took it between her fingers. It was thin, and she didn't know if that was a good or bad sign.
"Thank you. I need to go take a shower and make myself gorgeous." Louise grinned and carefully tucked the letter in her waistband. "I'll see you guys in a little bit."
She took the stairs two at a time, and once safely in her bedroom, she tore the envelope open and quickly read the letter. She read it again, more slowly, and then smiled, lying back on her bed and staring at the ceiling while it all sank in. The gate into her future had been opened, ready for her to walk through. The question was, would she walk through alone or with company?
By eleven thirty, the turkey was nearly done, the potatoes were boiling, the vegetables were chopped and in their pots, and the pies were cooling. Louise figured they had enough food to feed about fifteen people, and wondered if Gin's appetite was still as prodigious as it had been when she was growing up.
"Why don't you two go outside and get some fresh air?" Verna suggested as she wiped the counter and started working on the final preparations.
Gin nodded, rounding up Ella and heading for the mudroom. Louise followed, but was stopped by her mom's hand on her forearm.
"Don't let her walk around too much," Verna whispered to her daughter. "It looks like her back's bothering her a lot today."
Louise nodded her agreement and took a step forward, but was stopped by another touch.
Mother and daughter exchanged identical determined looks.
"Weez, tungey hunt?" Ella asked as her mother wrestled her into her coat and hat.
"No, no turkey hunting. The bird's already in the oven. Remember, we stuffed him with yummy giblets and bread crumbs?"
"Oh." Ella's brow wrinkled as she tried to associate the big stuffed thing in the oven with the pictures of turkeys she'd seen.
"I think we need to turn our attention to more important hunting," Louise said with a grin. "Have you heard of these animals called reindeer?"
Gin grabbed her coat and Louise did the same, and together the three left the house and began to slowly meander through the yard. Louise spotted the old tree house, happy to see that it was still standing. She pictured an older Ella climbing up and waving down at them.
I'll have to make sure it's still safe, Louise thought, and then her mind froze. Aren't you getting a little ahead of yourself?
"Boy, it's freezing out here, isn't it?"
Louise sighed, disgusted with herself. As opening lines went, that one had to rank as one of the worst.
"You should be wearing something on your hands," Gin replied. "Don't you have any gloves?"
"No. I don't think I have any anymore."
"Do you remember those mittens I knitted you? I seem to remember the left thumb was too long."
Louise watched another ghost smile dance across Gin's lips.
"I had those mittens in India," Louise replied carefully. "I kept them until they were one of my last possessions left from home. Then I got sick. I wasn't eating the right things. I traded them for a basket of fruit."
"You kept them with you that long?"
"Yeah." Louise was trying not to breathe too deeply, fearing that the slightest movement would end the conversation.
"I'm glad they helped you."
"I'm pretty sure they saved my life." Louise watched a spark glow briefly in Gin's eyes. "So, thank you."
Gin bit her lip and placed her hand on her lower abdomen, stifling a groan.
"We'd better head back," Louise said, reaching out to take Gin's arm. She had meant to simply direct her friend, but it felt so right to be touching Gin, she kept her hand in place.
"Gin, I want to tell you about the letter I got this morning." Louise waited for a response. When none came, she continued. "It was from a book publisher. I've started writing a book about India - a sort of true-life story and travel guide. The publisher liked what I sent, and I've got a commission."
Gin continued walking, her eyes downcast, the hand not being held by Louise rubbing idle circles across her pregnant belly.
"Well, say something," Louise said. Gin's silence was beginning to cause a sick tension in her own belly.
"I don't know what to say," Gin replied, still not looking at Louise.
"Well, it's good news, isn't it?" Louise said, stopping a few feet from the house. "It means I can stay here and work on the book. I'll get an advance so I'll have something to live on. I can be here for you and Ella and the baby."
Gin finally raised her head to stare at Louise. The light that Louise had been hoping to see was suddenly an electrical storm flashing across green eyes.
"And that's it?" Gin said. "That's supposed to make everything all right? You just waltz in here and create a little life for us?"
"And when do you leave again? Will you stick around for Christmas? Will you wait until Ella is completely attached to you? What promises will you make her? How soon before you break them?"
Louise flinched at each accusation, and tears raced down her cheeks.
"I won't leave you again," Louise vowed in an anguished whisper.
Gin clutched her head. She felt as if all of the emotions that she'd bottled up were expanding in her head, and she was ready to burst like an overfilled balloon.
"Don't say those words!" she shouted in pain and anger.
"Mama! No!" Ella turned frightened eyes toward her mother. Gin had seen that look before, when John had been home on leave that last time. She had done something to get him mad, and he'd shouted, pushing her hard against the table where Ella was coloring.
"It's OK, sweetheart," Gin said, calming her voice. "Go inside and help Nana. Weez and I need to talk for awhile."
"No!" Ella cried, her face scrunched in an angry scowl. "No shout."
"I promise we won't shout," Louise said gently, kneeling down to Ella's level. "OK? We're just talking about grown up things. Why don't you go ask Nana to let you play with my Lincoln Logs?"
Ella's eyes lit up. "OK!"
The two women waited until the little girl had toddled up the steps and disappeared into the house before turning back to face each other. Louise watched in dismay as the light slowly faded from Gin's eyes.
"No, don't go again," Louise said, desperately clutching Gin's hand.
"What?" Gin's eyebrows contracted in confusion.
"Ever since I've been back," Louise explained, "your soul has been...missing. Like it's been locked away. I can see glimmers of it sometimes, but I can't reach it. When you were yelling at me, I saw it come rushing back. But just then, you started locking it away again."
Louise sighed in frustration, sure she hadn't made any sense.
"I don't care if you never want to see me again," Louise continued. "But please, for the sake of yourself and your little girl, don't lock your soul away."
Gin gazed up at Louise and saw the pain in her friend's crystal blue eyes. Louise's words repeated in her mind, growing louder until they reverberated against her heart.
"I do want to see you again," Gin whispered, silencing the echoing noise.
A glimmer of hope flashed in Louise's eyes.
"When we were little, you were my whole world," Gin said. "And when you promised me forever, I believed you."
"I'm so sorry." A fresh set of tears began to drip from Louise's eyes.
"No," Gin said, reaching up to brush away her friend's tears with a shaking thumb. "No more apologies. We both made mistakes. We were growing up, and sometimes you need to make mistakes to learn. Good things came from the mistakes, and we need to focus on those."
"Good things?" Louise sniffed.
"You learned to appreciate the true things in life and I have Ella and the baby," Gin replied, rubbing her stomach.
"Gin, more than anything, I want to make you happy. I want to do what I should have done all those years ago - I want to listen to you. Please tell me what you want."
"What I want?" This time there was no irony in her words, only a quiet longing.
"Yes, sweetheart," Louise said. "What you want."
"I want to believe in forever again."
Louise paused, listening to the words sing to her soul.
"I can do that for you," Louise vowed. "Just take my hand and close your eyes."
Gin did immediately as she was asked, closing her eyes tightly and wrapping her hand around Louise's cold palm.
"Now," Louise whispered, squeezing Gin's fingers. "Just believe."
Gin wondered if it could be that easy. And even if it was, whether she had any faith left in her heart.
"You can do it." Louise's voice was so warm, so strong, so sure. And just like that, Gin believed. She opened her eyes, smiling broadly, and saw her belief reflected in her friend's blue eyes.
"Well," Louise said with a chuckle. "I guess we better get in and get us some tungey."
"Slight problem with that plan," Gin said, frowning.
"What?" Louise felt disappointment tighten around her heart.
"My water just broke. It's probably a better idea to head for the hospital."
"Mom!" Louise yelled, looking frantically from Gin to her house and back to Gin again. "Just stay calm."
"I am, Weez." Gin began to laugh as her friend's eyes grew to twice their normal size. "You, on the other hand, need to take a deep breath."
Louise decided that sounded like a wonderful idea, and sucked in as much air as her lungs could hold.
Forever was about to begin.
To be continued in Hand in Hand 4: Halloween
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