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Chapter Thirty-seven
The Call from Syracuse

"God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it."
~ 1 Corinthians 10:13 ~

Long after she heard Terry's soft breathing fall into the rhythmic pattern of sleep, Madison couldn't close her eyes. That good night kiss had hurt both of them. She could still see his face, that male look that said she'd put too much into her kiss. The last thing she'd wanted to do was hurt Terry, or remind herself of the fact that she wasn't being a real wife to him.

Being married to him, kissing him whenever she had the chance, helped her. It eased the tension, and gave her so much comfort to know he was there, that she'd loved being with him. But this last time had been different. She hadn't been careful, and she'd let herself kiss him without holding back. Like she would if she were normal, if she were anyone but herself. And now she'd done it. Now she had to face the consequences.

Blood pounded in her ears so loudly she wondered it didn't wake up the house.

Images flashed before her, and she turned on the couch to escape.

Wedding dresses. Think about those.

It was better than what she was running from, and Madison forced herself to picture a white fluffy thing with a long veil. Her body tensed. No, please, God. Air pushed from her lungs. She saw the Dragon, she saw him touching the wedding dress, and she wanted to cry, wanted to vomit, and all she could do was sit up to try and stop the images from coming. She had enough movies in her head-- real movies-- she didn't need to think up new ones.

She could still feel him, she knew him so well. She hated his touch, despised it to her very core. The way it made her feel, the way it weighed her down with so much garbage until all her senses were clogged with him. Sometimes the only way she felt alive was when that slice of pain cut through, and she saw that red pulsing from her, and then she'd know she was still alive. Then the pain would be so much worse, because she'd be sure she was still alive and nothing had changed, nothing had stopped. But she'd changed the pain to something she could control. She could stop that pain, she'd had that power. The cutting had started long before she'd ever seen the pastor on TV. Though she didn't know how old she'd been when hope had first come, she'd been much older, and it amazed her to think she'd never tried to kill herself. She hadn't though. Not even once. Madison writhed on the couch. If only she'd stopped cutting before now, this wouldn't be so hard. She wouldn't need it so much when she was struggling with another fight.

Madison scooted onto the floor, huddled on the carpet beside Terry's couch to be closer to him, and pulled her knees to her chest. Her body craved something she couldn't stand, and her answer was to punish it with something God didn't want. Oh, she was crazy, all right, crazy and so far gone she wondered why God even bothered with her. It was cold on the floor, but she welcomed the sharp chill-- anything to stop it from happening. It was coming though. She could feel it.

The stitches on her stomach were still healing, but if she sat a certain way, and held it long enough, she knew they could turn her skin on fire. Madison sat that certain way, held it, and let the pain steady her before she realized what she was doing.

"God, help me. Please, help me," she whispered.

As she moved to stop the pain, her tears started to fall. She breathed through her mouth to keep from sobbing out loud and waking Terry. God cared that she hurt herself, but sometimes she wished He didn't. Could she say that? Was it all right to think that, or would she be thrown into hell for even forming the words in her mind? Though the rain helped to smother the sound of her tears, it didn't stop the movie that had already started to play. It was playing, desire was washing over her and she needed help. She knew this one, knew her own cries, every laugh of the Dragon's, for he'd made her watch it thousands of times. To move would mean even more punishment, so she had to watch.

If only she could've cut. And yet, as the images moved in front of her and her own torture played out, something else washed over her. The knowledge that God cared, and that help was coming.

* * * *

Sleep had strong hold on Terry, but something nudged at his dreams. Clear sky filled most of his view as Izzy walked onto the rooftop where he stood mixing a bowl of pancake batter. The sky was tinged to a perfect blend of orange and pink, and his breath was taken away by its beauty. Izzy moved directly in front of him, seemingly unmoved by the brilliant display around them.

"She can cry without making a sound, you know."

"Yes," Terry nodded, as he blithely poured pancake batter onto the roof tiles, "I know."

Though Izzy hadn't said who they were talking about, Terry implicitly knew. Her name filled his mind, and all at once, his heart surged with sadness. The world felt upside down as Izzy stared at him. He felt an urgent need to wake up. It wasn't real. He knew none of it was, but the feeling grew stronger. He must wake up.

Gasping, Terry forced his eyes open to the weirdest dream he'd ever had. Maybe not the most bizarre, but it was up there with the flying rubber chicken. He rubbed his eyes, still conscious of the rain lightly hitting their window, steady as before. Terry adjusted himself in bed, and was ready to try and get back to sleep, when he noticed Maddie's couch was empty.

He sat up, and saw her lying on the floor beside his couch, hugging her knees.

"Maddie?" Terry leaned over and touched her shoulder.

She felt stiff, a wooden doll barely breathing. Shoving back his blankets, he got down on the floor while his heart beat wildly with alarm. By the light of the bathroom door, he could see the look on Maddie's face.

Oh, no. She was with him again. She was with the Dragon.

"Honey, you've got to fight this." Terry touched her cheek and a pained moan fell from her lips. "Please, Lord, don't let him win. Make this back off. It's okay, Maddie. The Dragon can't hurt you. It's safe to wake up. Can you hear me? Maddie?" A squeeze to his hand told him she could hear, and he kept going. "That's it, fight. I'm not going anywhere, and neither are you. When this is over, the movie will be gone, but you'll still be here. You're stronger than he ever was, Maddie."

He kept rubbing her hand, and after what seemed like an eternity but was probably only moments, she began to blink.

"I--" she sounded breathless but at least she was talking. "I need to cut. Terry--" she began to hyperventilate, and Terry pulled her to his side, and laid her head against his chest.

"Easy, take it easy." He kept his arm up around her shoulders, and swept the hair back from her face. "You're safe. You're with me, and you're safe."

She was still frozen, but she was pulling in deep breaths of air. She was coming back to him.

Her words had jarred him though, and he looked about. There were no knives that he could see, no blood on her pajamas, and when he pushed back her sleeves to see her arms, he could find no marks. Thank God. He closed his eyes a moment and took in a deep breath. She wasn't hurt, she wasn't bleeding. Adrenaline was pulsing through him and he needed to calm down for her sake.

"I hurt my stitches," she gasped. "When I realized what I was doing, I stopped."

"Then you did good." Terry held her tight so she wouldn't slip back into the movie. "I wish I could do this for you. I wish I could fight your battles for you, kill your dragon, and be your white knight. I'm afraid it doesn't work that way."

"I know. You are my white knight, though." She crowded against him. "I want to cut so badly."

"Why? Can you put it into words?" He waited as she clung to him, and as her pulse slowed, her words came without the sense of struggle.

"I want to cut."

"Why? What set it off? Did one thing set it off more than another?"

Her eyes turned down as though he'd struck a nerve.

"Maddie," he whispered, "please, tell me."

She looked up at him, and in the half light of their bedroom, her gray eyes seemed dark and inviting, though he knew she wasn't inviting him to come closer.

Her lips moved almost without making a sound, "I wanted to give you more than a kiss good night."

Though it surprised him, he knew it shouldn't. He knew she had feelings for him that ran deeper than what she liked to admit. Terry sighed, and squeezed her gently. "I could've pulled you from the flashback sooner. When you need help, please, wake me."

"I should've remembered what Carol and I talked about," Maddie said quietly. "I wrote it down in my notebook." Maddie hugged her face against Terry's nightshirt, and Terry tried not to think about how good it felt.

He shifted a little so he was no longer sitting on his ankle.

"Terry?" Maddie sniffed and looked up at him. "Would you hold me, please? I think I need that right now."

"I am holding you."

"No, I mean hold me. For real."

"Maddie, this is real."

It wasn't what she meant though, for she started to move his arm. He made no comment, just let her do as she wanted as his arm shifted from around her shoulders to around her middle. He wasn't so sure this was a good idea-- not after coming out of a flashback. Her bowed head, the way she kept her hand on his, told him she was being deliberate, she wasn't acting rashly. He tried to keep breathing like he always did, but when his arm settled near her stitches, he couldn't help but flinch. He didn't want to hurt her.

She looked up at him, and this time it wasn't his imagination. The invitation was real.

"Just kiss?" she whispered, and he nodded, and lowered his head to claim her mouth. She pulled back all too soon, and he forced himself to break away. "Terry, I can't breathe."

"I know, neither can I." He blew out a breath to clear his mind, though after a kiss like that, it would take more than air to start thinking straight again. "Are you all right?" He looked at her and breathed easier when he saw her nod, "yes."

"Don't leave me?" she asked. "Not until I'm calm?"

"Why? Do you still need to cut?"

She leaned her forehead against his shoulder, and he felt her begin to rest. "I always feel better when I'm with you. I hope you don't mind, but I can soak in some of your strength when you're with me, and your faith makes my faith stronger. I don't feel as crazy when I'm with you. Things make more sense. And I know it's because of you." She looked at him again with such earnestness, she started to kiss him, but he backed away.

"I need a moment to cool off."

She hugged him and he held her, and enjoyed the privilege of holding her around the waist. She was so small-- he knew that already, but she felt smaller somehow now that he could feel her. He kept breathing, kept focusing on what he needed to do. Don't take advantage of the moment, slow down, don't become so involved a cold shower would be the only way out.

"My choices got me here, because this is what I wanted," Maddie said softly.

Terry tried to shut out those words. They were not what he needed to hear right now.

"Choices are important." Maddie looked at him and he reminded himself to breathe. "When I talked to Carol, she said the choices we make are important."

"Maddie, we're not ready for anything more than this, tonight."

"I know."

"Good." Terry breathed in relief. "For a moment there--" He was cut short by the softest, most exquisite kiss he'd ever tasted. Not that he was a connoisseur, but even for Maddie, it was meltingly sweet. As he deepened the kiss, he felt his arm around Maddie grow tighter. "I have to stop," he breathed, and she nodded in understanding.

"Don't leave me?" she asked. "I won't cut while I'm with you. Hold me until it's safe?"

Terry nodded, and she clung to him hard.

Though the floor was probably ice cold, Terry couldn't feel it, for he was visiting the sun and fighting to cool down. Maddie hung on and he knew she needed to stay close until she felt calmer and the need to cut no longer pushed at her as much. At least he was good for something. If he had known what that good night kiss had cost her, he would've stayed up with her. They were learning though, and for that he was thankful. He sat and held on to her, the narrow walkway between the two couches not affording enough room for him to avoid the subtle pull in his ankle. It didn't matter. She was more important.

"Thank you, Terry. Thank you for staying with me."

"That's the most unnecessary thanks I've ever had in my life." Terry breathed in her air. "I get to hold the one I love. For real," he smiled. "Thank you, Maddie." He kissed her hair and sighed deeply.

"If I was normal, you'd be sleeping right now," she reasoned.

"Well, that's true."

"And you'd have a real bed."

"When you put it that way, I don't know why I didn't marry Emily." He felt Maddie move against him in a stifled laugh. "Oh, I remember. That pesky love. It makes all the difference, doesn't it? Which would explain why I'm unreasonably happy on a hard floor with an abnormally wonderful woman who loves me for reasons I still can't fathom."

Maddie giggled. "Terry."

"Love is why I'm holding you, Maddie, why you're smiling at me right now, and why I figure God woke me to help you. There's no need to thank me for staying with you, for I intend to do that for the rest of my life. And I count that an honor."

"You're an awfully good friend to me, Terry."

Terry smiled, and was rewarded with a kiss. He hadn't said it to be thanked, it had simply been the truth. If he wanted to own another truth, Maddie had him wrapped around her little finger. He kissed her hand, kissed her forehead, held her, and let the cold floor do its job of cooling them down.

"Next time, Maddie, wake me when you need me? Don't wait until it's too late, but wake me the moment you feel it coming on."

She nodded, and Terry gave her an answering squeeze. He needed her to keep her word on that. Finding her on the floor by his bed was not something he wanted to repeat.

* * * *

This was better, so much better. She'd needed to feel Terry against her and not the Dragon. To replace darkness with light, shame with love. She kept a hand over Terry's, and every so often she'd look down at the arm snugged around her waist and remind herself who was holding her. She could see her butterfly wings now, their vibrant colors catching in the sunlight, just begging to take to their sky. To their wonderful, Terry-sky. She was born to live, and she would live with everything she had in her.

"You're trembling, Maddie." Terry breathed against her ear and she drew as close to his chest as she could without climbing inside him. "Try to calm down."

She tried, but courage was spilling from her like a cup running over. She wasn't ready-- she knew she wasn't, but still. She had wings, she could do anything.

Terry began to rock her, and sleep started to tug at the edges of her mind. It felt so good. Terry's pajamas were soft, his arms were gentle, and even though she kept them in view to make sure it was him and not the Dragon holding her, calm began to settle inside of her. It felt like warmth, a kiss of sunshine on her heart that spread to her soul, then to her fingertips, only to dance between her and Terry with tiny shimmers of something wonderful. Tingly in a settled, warm and happy sort of way, where you wanted to curl up like a happy cat sleeping in the sun. Feeling drowsy but glowing, she kissed Terry's shoulder and felt herself slip away.

"Honey?" Terry whispered and Madison blinked open. "Is it safe to let go? Do you feel better?"

She nodded, and the arm around her waist eased off. Though she'd been feeling so good, a part of her hated the fact she felt some relief that it was gone. As she crawled from him, she turned to look at his ankle.

"I've got to get some blood to my legs," Terry groaned. He gingerly moved back to his couch, and saw that she was watching. "I'm okay, Maddie, my ankle feels fine."

She held onto those words as she climbed into bed. "Good night, Terry. And thank you."

Smiling, he pulled his covers up. "Sleep well, Maddie. I'll see you in the morning."

Madison cozied into her blankets, and before long, was fast asleep.

* * * *

"What's that?" Madison fought against the grogginess, unsure at all that she wasn't dreaming. Wasn't that a cell phone? It sounded like Terry's. She struggled to focus her eyes. The bathroom light was on, and the room looked as dark as before. Was it still night?

Madison pushed onto her elbows and saw Terry reaching for his cell phone.

"What time is it?" she asked.

The screen on the phone lit up Terry's yawning face. "A few minutes after three."

"In the morning?"

He smiled wryly, and handed her the phone. "It's probably for you. I hope everyone's all right."

How could Terry know all that by just looking at the screen? Madison reached over, took the phone, and saw the caller's name. She gasped, and quickly answered.

"What is it? What's wrong?"

"It's Mommy." Paige sounded distracted, but not in a panic. "Mommy's busy staying calm, and Tim's timing contractions and writing them down. Maddycakes kept climbing on their bed to watch, so Tim said I had to keep her out so he could think."


"She's crying, and keeps asking for Mommy, but Mommy's going to the hospital soon, to have the baby. Isn't that right? Contractions means it's going to happen soon, doesn't it? Would you stop bugging me?" Paige put the phone down, and Madison could hear her talking to someone called "Maddycakes." She soon realized it was their nickname for Madeline.

Madison told Terry the news. "Tim's timing contractions."

"That's what I just said." Paige came back. "Tim said I could call you if it would keep us out of his way." Another voice sounded in the background. "No-- I called her, so I get to talk to her first. You have to wait your turn." Paige sighed. "We can't sleep."

"They can't sleep," Madison repeated to Terry.

Terry scrubbed his face and smiled.

"I wouldn't be able to either, if I was about to have a new brother or sister. Do you know what you're going to have?" Madison tried to keep her voice light, and wondered if she should be trying to call help for Karen. Was Karen about to deliver that very second? Did Tim need help, or should she just try to distract the girls? Madison decided to just go for distraction and leave the deciding to other grownups besides her.

"We're going to have a girl. I think Mommy was hoping for a boy, even though she never said so." Paige sighed. "Maddycakes wants to talk to you."

"Okay." Madison looked to Terry. "I'm going to talk to Madeline now."

Terry's brows went up.

"Hello?" a teary but eager voice piped up and Madison could hear hope. "Daddy says you're my aunt."

"Yes, I am."

"Can you be Paige's aunt, too? Pleeeeease? She doesn't have any."

"I don't see why not."

"Did you hear that? She said she'll be your aunt, too!"

Madison heard some movement, then Paige came back.

"Thank you so much. I told her not to ask, but we've never had any aunts before."

"It's a privilege," Madison smiled, using a big word for a big honor. "How old is your sister? Terry told me, but I'm afraid I forgot."

"Madeline is six. She's named after you, you know."

"That was nice of your father."

Paige sighed. "I called Grandpa and told him Mommy was having contractions. He's Daddy's-- my real Daddy's father-- and he just cried and hung up. I was only trying to be useful. I thought he'd want to know."

"How about your mom's father? Have you called him?"

"He's deceased," Paige said tactfully, as though she'd heard it from someone else. "Mommy doesn't have much family left, but us. Tim doesn't, either. Even my Daddy only had one brother. Sometimes I wish we had this huge family tree of people, and then we'd be more like everyone else, instead of just plain us. Sometimes it feels like no one would care if we fell off the face of the earth, except maybe a few dorky friends, and of course our landlord. He'd miss us for sure, he'd blow a gasket if we missed our rent. Wait a minute... Maddycakes wants me to ask how long it takes for babies to be born? She's right-- how long is it supposed to take?"

When Madison repeated the question to Terry, the Maddycakes got a quick smile from him.

"Well," Terry hesitated, "since this isn't Karen's first baby, I'm guessing the actual delivery will only take a few hours. Don't promise the girls though, that's just an estimate. From a guy, no less."

"First babies usually take longer?" Madison winced when Terry nodded, "yes." She relayed the information back to the girls, then came back to Terry with another question. "Will it hurt?"

Terry sighed. "Tell them a doctor will make their mother as comfortable as possible."

Madison covered the phone. "But it's going to hurt?"

Terry nodded, and Madison went back to the girls with the message about their mother being made comfortable.

"Do you know what your parents are going to name the baby?" Madison asked.

"Mommy wanted to call her Anna, but Daddy promised the private detective to name the baby after him if he found you, and, well, he found you. Mommy really let Tim have it when she heard that-- I mean, he didn't even tell her until after the fact. But Tim gave his word and Mommy said we should always keep our promises, even if they're hastily made."

"So they're naming the baby Connor?"

Something sounded in the background, and Madison tried to hear what it was.

"Tim's taking Mommy to the hospital. He wants to talk to you--"

"Madison? Thanks for keeping the girls busy." Tim's voice was anything but steady. "A neighbor's coming over to watch them, and should be here in about five minutes. Less, if she runs. Karen's contractions are close together, and her water just broke, so it's time. Remember us to that God of yours, if you would. I have to go--"

"Aunt Madison?" By the small voice, it sounded like Madeline again. "I'm scared. Paige went with Daddy to help Mommy outside, but I'm scared."

"Where are you, Sweetheart?"

"On Paige's bed. Paige and I have the same room."

"I'll stay on the phone with you until your neighbor gets there. Your daddy said she's on her way, so you won't be alone."

"The doctor will make Mommy comfortable?"

"Yes, he'll do his best. I'm sure he will."

"Mommy's doctor is a her."

"Then she'll do her best." Madison smiled, amazed she was talking to her niece. A blood relative, one named after her.

Muffled sounds came over the phone and Madison tried to translate them into what she knew was going on in Tim's home. Madeline reported the fact she was now in the bedroom doorway, watching Mommy go down the hall, then the fact Mommy was now in the minivan, and after that, Madison heard an elderly woman's loud voice, and guessed the neighbor had arrived.

"Mrs. Powell is here," Madeline said in a hush.

A few moments later, Paige took the phone back, her voice all breathless and urgent. "They're gone. Now what, Aunt Madison? What do we do now?"

"You wait, that's what," Madison heard loudly in the background. It was a friendly voice, but one that spoke as though she had a hard time hearing herself speak. "Say goodbye to your friend, dears, and I'll fix an early breakfast."

"I heard," Madison said, and Paige blew out a breath. "Call us anytime you want. We won't mind, even if it's in the middle of the night."

"Thanks, Aunt Madison, thanks so much."

"We'll be praying, Paige."

"Thank you."

They hung up, and Madison looked to Terry. "Karen's on her way to the hospital. I forgot to ask her to call when Karen has the baby, but Tim probably will."

"Someone staying with the girls?" Terry nodded as Madison relayed everything she'd been told, including the fact Madeline had been named after her. He smiled at that. "I'm glad they could call you. I'm guessing there won't be anymore sleep in their household, tonight. Well, we might as well get some rest before morning." Terry checked the time. "It's early yet."

"I told the girls we'd pray," Madison said, as she put the phone on her pillow. "Tim even asked if we'd remember them before God."

"This has him scared, then. He didn't have to ask. I've already been praying."

They prayed again, with Terry asking for mercy for Karen and the baby with such heartfelt earnestness, Madison realized Terry had faced this sort of thing before. "Izzy had a difficult pregnancy with the triplets," Terry explained when the prayer was over. "It's always a merciful blessing when the baby is placed in the mother's arms for the first time, and both are healthy. In Izzy's case, there were multiple reasons to be thankful."

Fatigue mixed with happiness as Madison lay down and pulled the covers up. She was an aunt to several nieces and two nephews, but she was a real aunt, too. She was an actual sister, though she considered herself a sister to Izzy, as well. She was a wife. She was a friend. She was so many things she'd never been before-- she had people in her life who she loved, and who loved her, it made her feel special. All those years in her chain, she never could've imagined herself as special as this.

Hugging Terry's phone to her pillow in case the girls or Tim should call, Madison drifted to sleep without even trying.

* * * *

When morning came, Terry let Maddie rest as long as she wanted while he watched from his couch. She looked so content, so peaceful, so happy, he hated to break in on her slumber. He was glad he'd entered Paige's number into his phone's address book. He'd guessed the girl would call again, and was grateful beyond words that Paige had been able to reach out to Maddie when she had. If only for a few words of comfort.

He'd been so proud of Maddie, the way she'd handled herself with Paige and Madeline. She'd been learning from Izzy, and it showed, though Terry saw plenty of Maddie's own compassion showing through. Bless her, Maddie was so willing to help, Terry loved Maddie all the more for that willingness.

The reminder of Karen made him send up another prayer for mother and baby.

Then his thoughts turned closer to home, to the good night kiss that had caused so much trouble. It was clear they were treading into deeper territory, and though it encouraged him, it also put him on even higher guard. He wanted to know what to do, how best to help her, and how not to hurt her. If she'd come with a manual, he'd have memorized it cover to cover by now, but she hadn't. All he could do was listen and make sure he was paying attention. If she needed him to hold her so she wouldn't cut, then he could do that.

He wished he could do more.

He watched over his wife, safe on her couch, beneath her blankets, all snug and warm. Her journey was his, for they were on the same path. Wherever this journey led them, they would go through it together. Yes, he would hold her. He would hold her for as long as she needed, and then some. Just please, God, help her not to hurt herself.

He closed his eyes and took in the quiet, then noticed the rain had stopped. The room was silent, all he could hear was the faint breathing from the other couch. He moved his foot and thought it a good sign when it didn't protest. New mercies. They needed new mercies for a new day.

A sigh came from Maddie's couch, and Terry opened his eyes to watch her stir.

"Is it morning?" she asked with a long, stretching sigh.

He glanced at the time. "It most definitely is. If you need more rest, though, go back to sleep. You've had what I'd call a long night."

"Do you think Karen's had her baby?"

"We haven't had any calls. I'm guessing it hasn't happened yet."

"I thought you said it would only take a few hours." Maddie rolled onto her back and stared up at the ceiling. "Shouldn't it have happened by now?"

"Not really," Terry smiled. "The baby will come when she's ready, and not a moment sooner."

Silence. Then, "Terry?" Maddie's voice sounded a million miles away. "Do you think a woman always knows when she's pregnant? I mean, just after it happens, do you think she always knows? All those years when I was with the Dragon, and he'd beat me when I missed my period, do you think he was right? Do you think I was pregnant?"

The number of questions, and especially the last one, knocked the breath out of Terry. He couldn't find his tongue, and it took him so long to answer, Maddie sat up and looked at him. He prayed to God she'd never been pregnant, but he couldn't know. The very thought of it, tore him up inside.


He cleared his throat. "Do you think you ever were?"

"I never felt a baby in me, but when I was late, or I missed and he didn't find out, I thought I was. So I had to be pregnant, didn't I?"

"Did your belly ever show?"

She shook her head. "My period would start up again, and then I'd hold my breath to see if he noticed the next time I missed."

"He starved you, Maddie. If you're underweight, your body can have an irregular menstrual cycle, and if you're severely underweight, it can stop altogether."

"It can?" Maddie seemed to brighten at the thought. "Then maybe he never killed my babies."

Terry couldn't take it. He rolled off the couch without giving his ankle any thought. He couldn't think about the Dragon, about him hurting Maddie, or her children, without wanting to take a baseball bat and doing some major bodily harm to a man who'd lost all right to be called a human being. But the Dragon was a man, and no mere animal incapable of knowing right from wrong. That's what made him so despicable. That's why God hated sin so much, and that's why there was a hell.

"Your ankle--" Maddie called after Terry.

Terry stopped at their bedroom door, and turned to look at her. "I was just thinking. You don't need to be a monster to violate someone the way we were. You just have to not care. Animals didn't do this to us, people did. It's not rocket science, is it?"

Maddie shook her head. "Your ankle."

She looked at him with such tenderness, he shifted off of his foot, even though it felt fine.

"Did you mean what you said about starvation? or did you just say that to make me feel better?"

"I meant it." Terry put effort into calming down. "When I was working the crisis hotline, I counseled people with eating disorders. It can happen."

Maddie bowed her head. When she looked at him again, it was with tears in her eyes. "Thank you."

He could only nod. It amazed him once more how freeing a little knowledge could be. She still couldn't know that she hadn't been pregnant for one of those beatings, but he could see it gave her hope to think that life might not have been taken from her. He understood that, and as he watched Maddie get up to face the day, he thanked God for giving him the experience he did, to be able to tell Maddie what she needed to hear. Seeing her take hope, gave him hope.

She smiled at him. "Everyone has probably eaten by now, haven't they?"

"Probably." Terry leaned against the armrest of his couch, and saw her dry her eyes.

"Do women always know when they're pregnant?" she asked, going back to her first question.

"I don't think it's written anywhere that a woman is supposed to know she's pregnant so early on. If that were true, pregnancy test manufacturers would go out of business. Only stands to reason."

"So I'm not a bad mother if I didn't know?"

"Absolutely not." Terry bristled at the thought of such a notion. "I'm guessing some women might know, and others might not. He beat you because you were late, Maddie, not because you were showing."

Maddie nodded, and kept making her bed. When she swiped at her cheek, Terry wanted to go over and give her a bone-crushing hug. He loved that woman.

As she smoothed out her blanket, there were traces of sadness in her eyes, and when she saw that he noticed, she gathered her clothes and started for the bathroom. She looked back at him. "I need to put some things up on our walls. Would you mind the clutter too much?" She asked as though it would be an intrusion, a hardship for him, and he quickly shook his head.

"I don't mind." He had no idea what she was talking about, but it didn't matter. The fact she wanted something, was enough for him. "Do what you want with this room, Maddie. You don't need my permission."

"But I want your agreement."

"You have it."

Maddie sniffed, a faint smile came to her lips, and it breathed life to his heart. "You're so wonderful, Terry. I won't let my stuff get in your way. I just need to tape some things up, that's all. Carol and I talked about it, and after last night, I-- I need to put some things up on the walls so it'll help me to be strong."

"Do what you need to. You have my full support, and all my love."

Her smile looked blessedly sweet. She went into the bathroom, shut the door behind her, and he was left to be grateful that even though he didn't know what last night had to do with taping things to the wall, she was at least smiling. A moment later, he heard the shower going and knew Maddie was getting a good start to the day.

He moved to his couch, sat down, and rotated his ankle. Some stiffness, nothing more. Not a big surprise, seeing he hadn't been using his ankle yesterday. It felt decent, not bad at all for a mild sprain. One more day of rest, just one more. He was ticking off the hours when he could use his ankle again, when the phone on Maddie's couch rang. Terry stepped over, picked up the phone, and saw Tim's name on the screen. He would've tried shouting to the bathroom, but Maddie wouldn't have been able to hear him with the water running.

Terry moved the slider, and answered. "Hey, Tim. How's Karen doing?"

"Incredible, she was just incredible." Tim sounded as though he were walking. "I saw it happen, I mean I actually saw it happen. I was there. In the room with her. Andrea didn't let me anywhere near her during Madeline's birth, but Karen wanted me with her, and I got to see the whole thing."

"So the baby's here."

"Yeah, she's here, Connie's here. She's amazing, Terry. She's sleeping right now. She was crying at the top of her lungs a half hour ago, but then Karen fed her, and after that, she fell right to sleep."

"How is she? And how is Karen?"

"Connie Anna is a healthy seven pounds, eleven ounces. Karen is exhausted-- she's been brave about the whole thing, certainly braver than I'd ever be if I had to do something like that, but she's doing good. They're both great, and they're both healthy."

"Praise the Lord. That's a real answer to prayer, Tim. Maddie and I have been praying."

Tim was silent a moment. "Thanks. We appreciate you and Madison being there for the girls last night. You didn't have to be, and when I told Karen, she wanted me to be sure to thank you both. And she wanted..." Tim paused and Terry sensed Tim was working himself up to ask something, but lacked the courage. "I'm on my way home to shower and change, and check on the girls. I told them they could stay home from school this one time, since I figured they wouldn't have been able to concentrate on their studies, anyway. We've got three now, Terry. Three girls. This one has Karen's eyes, but my ears. Definitely my ears."

"Congratulations, Tim. Maddie just stepped out of the bathroom. Let me pass the phone to her." Terry handed the phone to a hastily dressed Maddie with wet blonde hair. She must've finished her shower, only to hear him talking to someone, and had hurried to get out of the bathroom.

She gulped, and took the phone, but Terry didn't spill the beans. He let Tim have that joy, and stepped back to watch Maddie's eyes go wide. As she listened, her mouth spread into one continual smile. Good, something to make her happy, to make her heart turn to thoughts of joy, instead of memories she couldn't change. Terry grabbed some jeans, a clean shirt, and headed to the bathroom, careful to not hurt his nicely healing ankle. While Maddie kept up her conversation with Tim, Terry's own thoughts turned to how soon he could convince Maddie that his ankle was well enough for travel.

"Terry?" Maddie came limp running with the phone to her ear, and nearly slammed into the bathroom door as he was closing it.

"Are you all right?" Terry sighed as Maddie came up smiling, her eyes shining with excitement.

Her hand covered the phone so Tim couldn't hear. "Karen is inviting you and me to come see the baby today, and Tim wants to take us to lunch. Please, Terry?"

Terry grinned. "And here I was, afraid I wouldn't be able to talk you into a long drive."

Maddie looked puzzled, and Terry pointed to his foot.

"I forgot. We can't--"

"Oh, yes, we can. If Tim and Karen are game, then we're coming. Is Tim sure his wife won't mind?"

"Tim said she told him to ask us to come."

"Then we're coming. Get Tim to email us directions, find out from him when hospital visiting hours are, and while you're at it, get out of the bathroom so I can change." Terry closed the door when Maddie smiled and stepped back.

Terry chuckled, then remembered his conversation with Tim, that moment when he'd sensed Tim had wanted to ask him something but hadn't. Tim had probably worried that an hour and a half drive would be too much to ask, but it wasn't. Even one with little notice. This was an important event, and he and Maddie were more than happy to come. Terry only wished he could bring John and Izzy. This was something meant for family and close friends of the O'Briens though, and Terry was simply grateful that it appeared he and Maddie were to be included in that number.

The morning held good news, for not only were Karen and the baby healthy, but Maddie was no longer thinking about the Dragon. She was excited and happy, and her joy did wonders for Terry's heart.

After a quick shower and a shave, Terry changed into jeans and a long sleeved blue shirt, then moved back into the bedroom and took his wedding band from off the dresser. He chuckled when he saw Maddie still on the phone with her brother. Good, keep talking, Tim. Terry passed her, opened the bedroom door and went into the hall.

Though the house had gotten up long ago, the smell of coffee hung in the air like a promise of things to come. He slipped on the silver band and followed the scent to the kitchen, only to find John at the table, reading from his laptop.

John saluted Terry with his mug of java. "Good morning."

"Yes, it is, isn't it?" Terry smiled as he moved to the counter. "Maddie's on the phone with Tim right now. Karen just gave birth, and Maddie and I are driving into Syracuse to see the baby." Terry got out his smiley mug, and helped himself to some French Roast. "Where's Izzy?"

"Taking the girls into preschool." John leaned back in his chair. "That's great news, I'm happy for the O'Briens. What about your ankle?"

"I can hardly feel it. Just some stiffness." Terry pulled two bowls from the cupboard, then tugged out the cereal. "It's a girl, a healthy baby girl. Tim sounded over the moon about her."

"I would imagine. Tell Tim and Karen we said congratulations," John smiled. "Are you taking them any food? You should, if you can. If Izzy were here, that's what she would say. Check the fridge for leftovers. With the woman of the house off her feet, Tim will appreciate a readymade meal."

"Good thinking." Terry started for the fridge, but was called off by John.

"Sit down and take care of your foot-- I'll check." John strode over, opened the freezer and looked inside like a man on a mission. "Let's see what we have in here. Izumi usually has something up her sleeve." John read from a zippered bag and grinned. "Eureka-- sloppy joes. All Tim has to do is heat this up, and serve on buns. Guaranteed to make any brood happy, or at least, my brood." John looked thoughtful. "I think we have hamburger buns around here, somewhere."

As John dug around in a cupboard, Terry dumped cornflakes into a bowl and set aside the other for Maddie. "Do you ever feel overwhelmed?" Terry asked. "I mean, overwhelmed by marriage. By the responsibility." Terry started to get up for milk, but John motioned for him to sit, and went to the fridge for him. "Sometimes," Terry sighed, "when I look at her, I feel--"

"Like you have this big responsibility that you can't possibly live up to?" John finished. He handed Terry the milk. "I think I remember once telling you something like that. I'll let you in on a secret: It gets worse when you start having kids. Much worse."

"Is that supposed to make me feel better?" Terry drowned the corn flakes in nonfat. "Because if it is, it's not working."

"Welcome to the club, Buddy. You're just going to have to throw yourself on God's mercy like the rest of us." John looked about, went to another cupboard and came up with a bag of dinner rolls. "Not exactly hamburger buns, are they."

"Is there anything about marriage that is easy?" Terry asked.

Smiling, John opened his mouth as though ready to answer. Then he looked at Terry. "Sorry, you're on your own with that one."

With a sigh, Terry said a prayer over his flakes, then dug in. Though marriage wasn't easy, as he remembered Maddie's smile that morning, a wistful happiness took hold of Terry's heart. "They sure know how to make a morning shine, though, don't they?"

John smiled, and set the dinner rolls on the table.

Minutes later, Maddie came in with Terry's phone and her spiral notebook. She showed Terry what she'd written, or rather, what she'd tried to write. Directions to Tim's home, and the way to the hospital. When they got close to Syracuse, Tim had asked for them to phone ahead and they'd make plans to either visit with Karen first, or go to lunch first, depending on when they arrived. Terry had hoped Tim would email the directions, but Maddie had taken them down in her pen pressed-through-the-paper scrawl. If Terry strained, he could almost read them. There wasn't enough money in all of New York for Terry to tell Maddie that, and he gave her a kiss for all her trouble. As long as Maddie had gotten the addresses right, the turns and directions wouldn't be necessary. He could plug the addresses into his phone-- once he got his phone back from Maddie, that is.

She handed it over, reluctantly.

"Since your hair is dry, why don't you eat your breakfast," Terry coaxed, as he punched in Karen's hospital.

"I hear congratulations are in order," John said, handing Maddie the milk. "How's Karen doing?"

"Tim said she's worn out. I can't believe she invited us to come." Maddie sounded nervous, and Terry tried not to absorb Maddie's nerves while he was busy plotting their route. "It's so nice of Karen, especially since she must be exhausted, but Tim said Karen would really like for us to see the baby. He said Karen is determined."

Terry slid a look in John's direction. He knew what John must be thinking, for he was thinking the same thing. This was less about the baby, and more about Karen wanting to meet Maddie.

"What are you supposed to do when you visit someone in the hospital?" Maddie ignored the cereal and stared at John, then Terry. "Am I supposed to bring something? Is anything expected of me? I wish Izzy were here. She'd know what to do."

"I don't think Karen is expecting much, just to show off her new bundle and meet Tim's sister." Terry nodded to the cereal. "Try and eat."

"What time do you need to leave?" John asked.

Terry looked to Maddie.

"Tim said general visiting hours start at eight in the morning, and end at eight-thirty in the evening. Tim also wants to take us out to lunch."

"Then we need to leave in about an hour. That's enough time for you to eat breakfast, though." Terry turned back to the phone and punched in Tim's address. It looked to be an apartment. "Izzy should be back soon, and we'll ask her what to bring. Women are good about stuff like this."

"Do you think Karen will like me?" Madison stared at the milk as though it would answer her.

"Of course she will." As far as Terry was concerned, it was a done deal, and even if it wasn't, he still wanted to change the subject so Maddie would eat. "You can put your notebook away, I got all the directions I need, right here." Terry pocketed the phone as it started to ring, and pulled it back out. "If you want to bring them something, maybe we could get diapers. When you've got a baby, you go through diapers left and right."

"A man speaking from experience," John laughed.

When Terry answered his phone, and said Dick's name, Maddie started in on her breakfast.

"Dick, good morning!" Terry sat back and smiled. "Abby sent you the guest list, then. Yeah, Izzy thought it was high time I got that off to you. Thanks for being so patient about it. What? Oh, who's Tim and Karen O'Brien?" Terry grinned at the others, then told Dick about Maddie's brother. He was deep in discussion, going into the private detective discovering the Las Vegas marriage record, when the front door sounded, and Maddie bolted from the table at a wild, walking limp.

"I think Izumi's home," John said, and got up and followed after Maddie.

His mind straying into the living room, Terry kept up his story, though he was dropping important details, like the fact Tim had kids.

"He has three now," Terry said, pushing up from the table and feeling for the first time a slight tug in his ankle. He held still a moment and moved his foot. It felt good again, and he moved into the living room with the cell phone glued to his ear. "Dick, are you there?"

"I'm sorry, Terry, I'm having trouble with this connection. I thought you said he had three now."

"I did. The last one came this morning." Terry listened as Maddie excitedly told Izzy the good news.

"Three wives?"

Terry frowned into the phone. "No, three kids. His wife just had a baby."

"Oh," Dick's relief came through loud and clear, "glad to hear it, glad to hear it. Please pass my congratulations to the baby's aunt. I saw Tyler's name on the list. Is he really back?"

"Maybe." Terry smiled at Izzy. "Should we bring something for the baby?"

"A gift basket might be nice," Dick suggested. "Or an outfit with a hood on it-- you know, those things you usually see babies in when the weather's cold? What am I telling you for, you're an old hand at this. Listen, I'll let you go. I just wanted to iron out a few details, but I can do that with Abby. You have a good day, and say 'hi' to that new brother-in-law of yours."

"Thanks, Dick, I will." Terry hung up as Izzy came over and gave Terry a hug. "Tim's expecting us, and John said we should bring them food. The frozen sloppy joes in the freezer and some dinner rolls. And I was thinking maybe diapers. Dick thought a gift basket? or a baby bunting? We have to leave in about an hour," Terry warned.

"Izzy, what should we do so Karen will like me?" Maddie pursued Izzy into the kitchen, and Terry followed. "She'll like Terry, because everyone likes Terry, but what should I do to get her to like me?"

"First of all, breathe." Izzy took off her coat. "Don't pretend to be someone you're not, be yourself, and the rest will be what it will be. Food is a good idea. John, please get a freezer bag. Madison, just calm down, and we'll send you off properly. Terry, run to the store and buy those diapers, a congratulations card for the parents, some hamburger buns, a tray of fresh cinnamon rolls from the bakery-- make sure they're wrapped properly-- and Dick had a good idea. Since you're at the MegaMart anyway, see if there's something nice for a baby girl you could pick up."

Maddie tugged on Terry's sleeve. "Could I go with you?"

"Go ahead," Izzy smiled. "I'll have the freezer bag ready by the time you're back from the store."

"If you want to come, then sure, Maddie." Terry went back to the living room to sit on the couch a moment and rub his ankle. The stiffness felt better. He was about to get up, when he caught Maddie watching from the kitchen doorway. "I'm fine."

"We should call this off."

"We're going."

"Can you drive and not hurt your foot?"

It took Terry a moment to think how he usually drove. One good foot, moving back and forth. He nodded. "I can drive."

Maddie came to him, bent down, and whispered in his ear. "I'm trusting you to help me not cut, so I'll trust you to tell me if you think you're going to hurt your ankle."

"That's fair," he nodded.

"Then I'll get our coats and shoes." Maddie kissed his cheek, then went into the hall.

Terry smiled as his friends glanced into the living room. He was in loving hands, and John and Izzy knew it.

As they went back to their errand, Terry waited on the couch and took out his phone to look over the map. The route to the hospital was simple enough, though finding Tim's apartment would be a little more round about, by the look of the streets. Terry studied the map, then pocketed the phone as Maddie came back with her purse, and their things.

The kitchen door slammed shut, and Terry wondered who had just left.

"Would you get my wallet off the dresser?" Terry asked, and Maddie hurried back to their room.

As Terry put on his shoes, he listened for rain and was grateful when he heard none. "And my keys," he called as Maddie came in with his wallet. She ran back, and he checked his wallet to make sure he had his credit cards, all the things he would need for the day.

The kitchen door sounded again. "I opened the garage," John called into the living room.

"Hey, thanks."

"Better take an umbrella, just in case it's raining in Syracuse."

"Maddie?" Terry smiled as Maddie came in with his jeep keys. "An umbrella?"

She nodded, and went back as Terry put on his coat. When Maddie came walking in, she looked a bit winded, and Terry kissed her for her trouble.

He got up, called to the kitchen that they'd be back soon, then moved to open the front door for Maddie.

It seemed crazy, but as they stepped outside, Terry felt as though he were breathing different air than usual. It was the same October air that braced his lungs as it always did this time of year, but this year, it held something extra. It made him buoyant. Each inhale was like breathing in a holiday, it was a gift, something that came with a bright bow because it came with so much love. Terry felt Maddie's hand slip into his as they walked to the garage. His wedding band was only an outward symbol of what his heart could now wear all year round. He wore Maddie's love, day in, day out. Terry breathed in that fresh, cold air. He'd always tended toward the happy side, but now? now, he couldn't imagine his life without Maddie.

How had he ever managed to breathe, to suck in that next breath without her?

He helped her into the jeep, then circled around the back, climbed in behind the wheel while Maddie buckled herself in.

He started the engine, turned on the heater for Maddie, then backed out of the garage as sunlight began to spill from the clouds. It was a welcome change to the weather they'd been having, and Terry sent up his thanks as he pulled onto the main road.

As the trees and houses sped by, Maddie held her purse on her lap, and kept quiet.

"Excited?" he asked.

She nodded. "What if she doesn't like me?"

"How could she not like you? You're kind, generous--"

"Please, don't, Terry. I know what I am." Maddie hugged her purse to herself. "I'm crazy, that's what I am. I feel like I'm just learning how to walk, and Karen is normal, and having babies, and doing all the things I'm only dreaming about. I wish I was normal, Terry. I wish I could at least wait to meet Karen until after our honeymoon. I'd be more like her then."

"Why then? Nothing would be different." Terry glanced at Maddie. "You want her at the wedding, don't you?"

Maddie nodded.

"Then take it easy. If I can weather being a brother-in-law, then you can suffer through being a sister-in-law. Nothing says you have to like each other. Just get along enough to make Tim happy."

Maddie didn't look convinced.

"Look at it this way-- if it doesn't go well, Syracuse will always be an hour and a half from here."

"Is that supposed to be a bright side?"

"You're catching on," Terry smiled.

"I want to like her."

"That's probably what she's saying about you." Terry pulled into the busy MegaMart parking lot, and started to hunt for the rare spot by the entrance. "Give her a chance, Maddie. She invited us down there, so let's give her a chance, trust God, and see what happens."

Maddie fumbled with her seat belt as Terry pulled into a parking space. "I guess so."

"Why all the fuss over Tim's wife?" Terry asked, as he shut off the engine. "Besides the obvious fact she's just given birth, I'd think you'd have been more nervous about meeting Tim, than Karen." He opened his door, then looked at Maddie. "Or am I wrong?"

"Karen will whisper in Tim's ear, just like I whisper in yours." Maddie climbed out and pulled her purse strap over her shoulder. "That's the way it works, isn't it? Tim might have his own opinion about me, but Karen will have something to say about it, and Tim will be influenced by what she thinks."

Better think before answering that one. Terry got out, closed the door, and rounded the jeep to Maddie. He took her hand as they moved into the store and the doors swooshed open. "You're right," he sighed, and squeezed Maddie's hand. "Be nervous, very, very nervous."

Maddie looked up at him, and he laughed and planted a kiss on her cheek before letting go to snag a grocery cart. He let her push the cart, and smiled when she couldn't hold her scolding look.

"She'll love you, Maddie, and if she doesn't, it's her loss." Terry nodded toward the nonfood side of the store. "The diapers are this way." He hadn't helped raise triplets for nothing, and probably could've found the diaper aisle blindfolded. If the store hadn't moved the aisle since the girls had been potty trained. "Okay, they're over here." Terry stopped Maddie's cart with one hand, and with the other, tugged down a likely brand. "I prefer the kind with a wetness indicator, because newborn munchkins don't pee as much and it's hard to tell when they need to be changed. You have to keep their diapers dry, or they could get a nasty rash." Terry looked at Maddie and saw she was paying close attention. "How many newborn diaper packs should we get?" he asked.

She looked floored that he would even think to ask her.

"How about two?" she shrugged.

"We'll go with two," Terry nodded, and tugged the diapers into the cart. "If your brother complains, it's on you." When Maddie looked at him with wide eyes, he winked, and steered her toward the clothing area. "Are you having fun yet?"

"Should we have gotten more?"

"I'd say two was about right. They probably already have diapers, and babies grow fast." Terry folded his arms and nodded to the aisles of munchkin clothes. "Here we are. Izzy was probably thinking a blanket, or something along those lines, since newborns outgrow their clothes so fast, it makes your heart ache when you realize what you bought for them when they were tiny. Of course, that makes newborn clothes that much more special. Don't look at me, I can't be expected to do everything. Just make sure it's small enough for a newborn baby girl-- about yay long," he held out his hands, "and go with it." Terry stepped back and watched.

Maddie pulled up the strap of her purse. "What's a sleeper? Izzy said something about a sleeper before we left."

He gestured to a clothes rack. "Make sure it's smaller, because you're shopping for a newborn."

"If I start looking around, you won't walk away, will you?"

"You won't lose me," he promised, and took out his iPhone to go over the map again. He wanted to give Maddie some breathing room, and stepped back a little to watch without adding any pressure. There was pressure, they needed to leave soon, but Terry knew the joys of shopping for a little one and wanted Maddie to enjoy being an aunt. This was it, time to step up to the plate and do her stuff. She glanced back at him and he looked down at his phone.

With a sigh, Maddie started into the baby area in earnest, and Terry followed. He prayed it would lift her spirits as it always had his.

She stopped at a display of cute dresses, and he saw her smile. Frills, lace, and all the things that Terry figured some new mothers couldn't wait to get their baby girls into. Izzy had been one of them.

"Doesn't have to be a sleeper," Terry mumbled, and scrolled the map on his screen.

She kept going, and he ambled after her. He stopped when she did, and his ankle felt a little strange. No pain, no pull, just different. Terry shifted his weight to his good foot, and the feeling went away.

Please, God, don't let my ankle get in the way of this.

Terry looked up slightly and saw Maddie eying something. He followed her gaze to a large flat box displaying pink and white color coordinated garments. A thirty-eight piece, deluxe newborn layette gift set complete with onesies, caps, booties, and bibs. It had more, but Terry stopped counting after the keepsake box. Maddie homed in on it like a hummingbird to an irresistibly large and overwhelmingly pink flower. She pulled it off the shelf and Terry had to admire her strength. She could carry it without help.

He put his phone away as she fit the wide box trimmed with gold ribbon into the cart. The top was clear, making it easy to see the folded clothing. It had favorite aunt written all over it.

"You'd better get something for the other two girls," Terry said, as they moved out of the baby area. He held off making any suggestions, for he had nieces, he'd bought gifts for them before, and this was Maddie's chance to shine.

"Paige is eleven," Maddie said thoughtfully. She looked lost a moment, then looked to Terry. "Where do they keep spiral notebooks?"

"This way," Terry said, and headed away from the clothes.

Maddie looked like she was concentrating, and he didn't want to interrupt with questions. He stopped at the right aisle and she looked about. Notebooks, plain ones, covers with bright prints, but Maddie didn't take any of them. She sighed, and kept looking, and Terry finally glanced at the time. They needed to get going, but he held back from telling her to hurry. Further down the aisle, Maddie came to some thick hard covered journals, and she stopped. Some had muted flowers on them, others were locking journals with cute birds and clouds. Maddie picked up a locked journal, used the attached key and opened it. Terry could see it had well lined paper, a journal a teenager might cherish, but he had no idea if an eleven-year-old would even be interested. Maddie searched and found a nice ballpoint pen, and put both into the cart.

"Paige?" Terry asked, and Maddie nodded "yes." Okay, Maddie knew the girl better than he did. He waited for orders, but saw Maddie pick up another book, this one a cartoon sticker journal that included a fun, little girl pen. "Madeline?" he asked, and Maddie smiled.


"Cute name for a munchkin," Terry smiled. He checked the time. They were now officially in a hurry, and he made a beeline to the greeting cards.

Not taking the time to read, he nabbed the nearest card with a baby on it, passed it to Maddie, then moved toward the food side of the store. They needed to get back home, then hit the road so they could reach Syracuse before lunchtime; their shopping was putting them behind schedule, not that they'd had much of a schedule to begin with.

He snagged enough hamburger buns to do the job, headed to the bakery, and got the cinnamon rolls Izzy had suggested. He felt a tug on his arm.

"What?" he asked, as they started for the checkout.

"This card is for an expectant mother."

"Then we'll get one at the hospital's gift shop." Terry looked at the long line in front of them. Ten items or less was out of the question, but the next checkout had only a few people, so he steered their cart over. The woman at the front of the line was having trouble with her coupons, so Terry checked his watch. "Stay here. I'll get another card."

"But, Terry--"

"I'll be right back. I promise." Terry sprinted off to the card aisle, nearly missing an old woman. He apologized, slowed, then picked up his pace when he thought of Maddie at the register without any way of paying for their groceries. A card, a card, any card besides the one they already had would do. He scanned the racks and found a congratulations sentiment, then hurried back to their checkout at top speed. He felt his ankle, slowed, and found Maddie timidly standing by their cart at the front of the line.

"Sorry, I'm back." Terry blew out a breath and started to put their things on the conveyor belt.

Maddie helped, and the woman at the register looked relieved to get the line going again. He added the card to the top of the stack, pulled out his wallet and saw Maddie clutching her middle in a tight hug. He shouldn't have left. His ankle smarted, and he prayed he hadn't set his ankle back with that little stunt. He should've waited, a card at the gift store would've been just fine.

As Maddie helped to place their bags into the cart, Terry almost didn't hear the voice behind him wishing them congratulations. Pink-- that meant a baby girl. A neighbor, wishing them congratulations, but not to them exactly, for the woman was quick to notice it was a gift set. Was it for anyone she knew?

Terry smiled. It was hard to keep secrets in this small town.

"It's for Maddie's brother. They just had a baby," he explained, and then as they finished at the checkout, he had to apologize that they were in a hurry and couldn't stay to talk.

"Terry, are you all right?" Maddie whispered as they left the MegaMart. "You were running, weren't you?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. Are you okay? Sorry I left you back there. I shouldn't have." Terry didn't feel any easier when she hugged his arm as he pushed their cart back to the jeep. He looked at her, and she smiled.

"I didn't cut while you were gone."

"That's not what I meant. I scared you, didn't I?"

"It's okay." She hugged his arm even tighter, then held the cart still as he got out their keys. "Thanks, Terry."

"For what?"

"For letting me pick out the presents. I didn't know this could be so much fun."

Okay, she was all right. She was genuinely all right. He could breathe, and he started to notice the air around him taking on that cold holiday chill again, the kind that told him something special was happening. He loaded the groceries and presents into the back seat, then returned the cart while Maddie climbed into the jeep. His ankle wasn't exactly happy, but he'd live.

The drive home was filled with Maddie looking into the back to make sure the gifts were still there. Terry hoped the girls would like what she'd bought for them. Though Maddie was new at this, he knew Maddie, knew Maddie's heart, and prayed her nieces would appreciate the heart that had gone into their presents.

The moment they came to a stop in front of the house, Maddie fought to get out of her seat belt. She was so excited, she hurried into the house and left Terry sitting in the jeep.

"It's okay, I'm coming. Right behind you," he laughed, and sat there a moment to check their gas. The tank was mostly full, but he would probably top it off before they drove back from Syracuse. He started to get out when Izzy and Maddie stepped from the house at a quick clip. John followed from behind with the freezer bag, and waved to Terry. Terry smiled, and stayed where he was. From his open driver's side door, he could hear the women.

"Just wait until you see it," Maddie told Izzy, and Terry reached into the back seat to pull out the box in question.

A corner wedged against the interior, and Terry worked to angle it while John opened the passenger door and watched. Terry turned, just managing to fit the box onto the passenger seat so everyone could see. "It's big," Terry said, and John whistled.

"No kidding. Here's the food." John passed Terry the bag. "There's plenty of ice in there, so the food shouldn't spoil before you reach Syracuse."

"Thanks." Terry loaded the bag into the back of the jeep, while the women admired the gift set.

Izzy smiled her approval, and hugged Maddie.

"Could you wait so I can change before we leave?" Maddie asked, and Terry nodded.

"Please make it fast, though."

Maddie smiled, and left with Izzy.

Why Maddie needed to change, was beyond Terry, but at least it gave him time to get the box into the back seat again, to get out and check the tires, make sure the jeep was ready for the long drive. John stood by and kept him company, then handed him a pen when Terry remembered they needed to sign the card.

Using a clipboard in the jeep, Terry filled in the card, then passed the pen back to John.

"You might as well sign it, too," Terry shrugged. He watched John's fluid signature, the one that always made their legal documents look official, and Terry nodded with satisfaction. "I hope Maddie hurries. We don't have all day." As Terry said those words, Maddie came from the house with Izzy. Terry shook his head. For the life of him, Maddie looked the same now, as she had a few moments ago. "Sign the card," he beckoned to the ladies, and Izzy came close with a curious stare.

"You want me to sign it?" Izzy looked unsure. "What will the O'Briens think?"

"That you're family," Terry shrugged. "Is it all right, Maddie?"

Maddie smiled, took the pen from John, and gave it to Izzy. "How do I look?"

"Great," Terry said, bending over to check a tire one more time.

"You didn't even look."

"I don't have to-- you always look good."

"If you leave now, you might make it in time for lunch," John said, as Izzy passed the pen to Maddie. "It looks like Abby's coming over. Don't stop, I'll tell her the news. Just go."

Terry waved to Abby, then watched as Maddie finish signing the card. He snagged the card off the clipboard, stuffed it into the envelope as Abby called to them.

"If you stop to talk now, you'll never leave," John told them. "Madison, tell everyone 'hi' for us, and send our congratulations to Tim and Karen." John patted Terry on the back as Terry climbed into the jeep.

The wind nearly carried away the envelope, but Terry held it tight, and handed it to Maddie as soon as she got in. Before Terry closed the driver's side door, John and Izzy came close and everyone said a prayer for safety. Abby joined them for the last part of the prayer, for Terry heard footsteps, and when the prayer was over, he opened his eyes to find Abby had been praying with them.

"Call us when you get there," Izzy requested, and though John looked as though it wasn't necessary, Terry promised they would.

"Drive safe," Abby called as Terry shut the driver's side door.

"Do I look all right?" Maddie asked again.

Terry was hard pressed for an answer besides, "sure."

Maddie opened her coat and revealed her new pink sweater. Izzy's wedding gift from Las Vegas. A very sweet touch that made Maddie look more feminine, now that she was no longer wearing his pullover. "Do I look normal?" Maddie asked.

"You look good to me," Terry smiled, and started the engine. He waved to the others, pulled onto the main road, and headed toward Syracuse.

They were coming. Maddie had changed into her best sweater, she'd picked out presents for her nieces, and now looked to be holding her breath. Terry took out his phone and handed it to Maddie. Better for her to play music, listen to Scripture, than to hold her breath for an hour and a half. She'd turn blue by the time they made it to Syracuse. His ankle thanked him for sitting, and for the fact his good foot was doing all the work, and he sat back in the driver's seat and got comfortable.

"Feel like taking a nap?" he asked, and glanced over at Maddie.

She was looking through their photos, the ones taken on the balcony in Las Vegas, and he smiled.


"I'm right here."

"For our honeymoon, could we go anywhere I want?"

"Anywhere you don't need a passport. I'd need to work on that." When she didn't answer, he slid her a look and found her smiling.

"Care to share what you're thinking?" He glanced at her.

She shook her head, and kept gazing at their photo on the balcony.

"Las Vegas again?" he guessed, and when she shook her head, he stopped trying to get her to talk and just focused on driving. She seemed happy right now, or at least passably content, and he didn't want to mess with that.

Not while she was trying to distract herself from the prospect of meeting Karen and the girls.

"Maddie, look." Terry pointed up ahead. It must have been raining recently in the distance, or there was a lot of moisture in the air, for in the clouds, highlighted against the sky, hung an arching bow with bright glowing colors. Terry glanced at the road, then back at the sky. "Do you see it? That's a strong one."

"I've never seen a real rainbow before-- not in person."

Her comment punched Terry in the chest, and it took time before he was able to speak again. As the rainbow passed from view, he thought of what it must mean to be free, to not take for granted the simplest things in life. Only those who have their freedom taken away, can possibly know that feeling, but sitting next to Maddie, Terry felt he had a glimpse.

She started to play music on the smartphone, and the jeep filled with a lightness that lifted Terry's heart. Once again, he thanked God for sending her to him, for letting him be the one to watch over her. To love her, and hold her, and drive her into Syracuse to meet the rest of her family.

She had seen her first rainbow, but there would be more. Today was only the first of many rainbows to come, of that, Terry was sure.

"Oh that men would praise the LORD for His goodness, and for His wonderful works to the children of men! For He satisfieth the longing soul, and filleth the hungry soul with goodness."
~ Psalm 107:8, 9 ~

"Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God."
~ 2 Corinthians 1:3, 4 ~

end of chapter