Rabbits in the garden, p.18
Rabbits in the Garden, page 18
“But it’s as close as we may ever get,” he said and kissed her hands. “Marry me, Avery. Be my wife.”
She coaxed him to his feet and pulled him into her arms. She ran her fingers through his hair and down his back, and when she found herself incapable of not kissing him, she knew that there was no point in battling between love and rationality.
“Yes,” she whispered with her eyes echoing her answer. “Of course I'll marry you.”
He lifted her up with a joyous holler and she laughed boisterously as he spun with her in his arms. Part of her was anxious about her hasty decision, but it was by no means strong enough to outweigh the heft of her happiness at accepting his proposal. Sophie had woken up and started crying, and as anxious as the sound made her, Avery allowed Paul to tow her towards the bedroom.
“Would you like to hold her?”
“I don't know. I've never done it before.”
“Well you should probably start practicing then, since you'll be her mother soon.”
“Stepmother,” Avery corrected.
“You share the same blood, Avery. I don't have any reservation about you raising Sophie as your own.”
“And completely cut Natalie out of the picture? That’s what my mom is trying to do to all of us. I’ll be a mother to her, but she’ll always know that Natalie was her real mother.”
“You’re amazing, Avery. God, I can’t wait to marry you. How about tomorrow?” he asked enthusiastically.
“Are you serious?”
“Completely. We’ll take my parents’ ketch tomorrow, sail down the coast, and have a captain at our first port marry us.”
“And here I thought I was supposed to be the crazy one,” she chuckled.
“Never again, I promise. You’re not that girl anymore. You never were to me,” he replied and kissed her tenderly. “You must be exhausted. I can take the sofa if you want.”
“No, I want to share my fiancé’s bed. I should start getting used to it, right?” she replied. “But any more than that - I’m not sure I’m ready.”
“I’ve waited this long, haven’t I? I think I can wait a little longer.”
She dropped the towel and climbed into Paul’s bed, trying not to wonder if the side she chose was also the one her sister had chosen. His mattress was significantly more comfortable than the one she’d spent the last six years sleeping on, and the sheets felt like heaven in comparison to the stiff, scratchy ones Taunton provided. When she rolled onto her side, it was strange but wonderful not to see a blank wall or a roommate’s bed. It was the absence of long shadows created by the moon shining through the bars, however, that Avery looked forward to getting accustomed to most. She fell asleep faster than she expected, something she attributed only to the fact of being fearless for one night after so many filled with lonely terror. She still knew that her mother could come for them at any moment, but there was a comfort in knowing that if she did, at least she and Paul were together. If the end had to come sooner than anticipated, it would be bittersweet, but a sweet conclusion of any kind would’ve suited Avery just fine. She woke often, disoriented by her surroundings, but she was glad for the unfamiliarity and the warm arms around her. When morning came, Avery rolled over to greet her fiancé, but she found his side of the bed empty and immediately sprung up in dread. She ran to the bassinet and found it also empty, but before her mind could begin playing out horrible scenarios to explain their absence, she saw a note from Paul pinned to the bedroom door.
“Good morning, Avery. I hope you slept well. Sophie and I are out running errands and should be back within the hour. Help yourself to anything in the kitchen,” she whispered, and just as she was reading the “I love you” written grandly at the bottom, she heard the front door open.
“Good morning,” he chirped as he walked through the door with shopping bags hanging from his wrists and Sophie hugged to his chest.
The fact that he was already loaded up with more than he could carry didn’t stop Avery from wrapping her arms around him.
“Avery, you’re as white as a sheet. Are you feeling alright?”
“I just got scared when I woke up and you two were gone,”
“Didn’t you see my note?”
“Yes, but before I saw it…” she started and then sighed heavily. “It’s just that I’m so close to getting everything I’ve ever wanted, and I’m afraid that, at any moment, it’ll all be taken away.”
“I know exactly how you feel, but luckily we won’t have to worry about that for much longer,” he said and handed her one of the larger bags. “Clothes. I hope they fit.”
“Thanks,” she replied, and when she started pawing through the bag, she found a bottle of peroxide and some Miss Clairol.
“I didn’t know how disguised you wanted to get, not that I wouldn’t miss your natural color.”
“You’re right, changing my clothes isn’t enough. If we want to get to the boat without being recognized, I’ll have to make the sacrifice. It’s just hair after all,” she said, but she didn’t believe it.
It broke her heart to destroy what she viewed as her greatest beauty. It was clear that Paul knew what she was thinking, and as he cradled her face he said,
“You’ll be beautiful no matter what color your hair is.”
She nodded as he wiped away her rising tears. She clutched the peroxide and dye in nervous fingers, but before she could turn, Paul grabbed her hand.
“Wait, I’ve got something else for you.”
He removed a small white box from his coat pocket and flipped the lid open.
“I know it’s not a diamond, but it’s all I could afford. At least it’s a little nicer than the first ring I gave you.”
“It’s beautiful,” she said when Paul slipped the ring onto her finger. “It’s perfect.”
“It is now.”
Sophie cooed at the sparkly ring and giggled joyfully when Avery held it up to her face.
“I’d say she approves,” Paul said, kissed his daughter’s cheek, and then kissed his fiancé’s. “I’m going to put her down for a nap before we leave. The bathroom is all yours.”
It was funny how much a simple phrase like that could delight her. After six years of sharing a communal bathroom with a dozen other girls and several very watchful nurses, the fact that the bathroom was “all hers” made her smile. Unfortunately, what she was about to do there devastated her. With shaking hands, she parted her hair and applied the peroxide. Tears sprung to her eyes thanks to the fumes and her lament, and the tears grew more numerous as she watched her ebony hair change to a pale, sickly orange. Every time she looked into the mirror, she was distraughtly shocked by her reflection, but by the time she started squeezing the Miss Clairol onto her roots, she had forced herself to stop crying. The dye was supposed to make her blonde, but when the process was complete and her hair was dry, she was more of a dirty blonde - and a dead ringer for Natalie. The reflection made her heart thump wildly. It was as if she was looking through some window into the afterlife. It even froze Paul in his tracks when he walked past the bathroom.
“So instead of being recognized as Avery Norton, I’ll be recognized as her dead sister,” she grumbled as she ran her fingers through her hair.
“No one is going to recognize you.”
“I guess not. I hardly recognize myself.”
“Don’t worry, we can dye it back before the wedding,” he said and kissed her forehead. “I’m going to give Anna a call and let her know that Sophie won’t need a nanny anymore, and then we can go.”
Avery couldn’t tear her eyes away from the mirror while Paul called Anna and terminated her employment as kindly as possible.
“Yes, I know it’s your day off. Oh, you are? We’re actually headed there ourselves. No, just a vacation, but it may last a bit longer than that. That’s why I’m calling. I’m afraid we won’t need a nanny anymore, at least not while we’re away. I know, I know. Yes, Sophie’s going to miss you too. Thank you for everything, Anna, a
“How’d she take it?”
“Pretty well I think. She actually wasn’t home so I had to call the other number she gave me. Turns out that it’s her boyfriend’s number on the island. That’s where she is right now.”
“It sure is a small world,” Avery mused.
“Not for us. Not anymore.”
“The eternal optimist, even with everything we’ve been through,” she said as she stroked his cheek. “I’d say it was foolish if I didn’t admire it so much.”
“How can I not be optimistic? I have you, I have Sophie, and together we have the world. As soon as we set sail, I promise so will every last shred of pessimism.”
With his daughter in his arms, Paul kissed his fiancé, took one last look at his apartment, and locked the door behind him.
“Are you sure you don’t want to bring more?” Avery asked, seeing his minimal luggage.
“We’re starting a new life, Avery. Why would we need the trappings of the past?”
“But you’re leaving so much behind.”
“And I couldn’t be happier about it.”
Vineyard Haven Marina was bustling with summer people, and although Paul was able to swerve between the hoards with ease, Avery had gotten rusty in her years off-island. If not for Paul, she would’ve been trampled for sure, but he held onto her hand tightly as he weaved between the tourists and made his way down to the 57-foot ecru ketch moored inside the breakwater. People had recognized Paul Dillon and waved “hello”, and although some had craned to get a look at the mysterious woman with him, her true identity never registered in their eyes. Avery exhaled in relief with each dismissive passerby.
“It’s your first real boat trip, Sophie!” Paul exclaimed, and as he tickled under her chin, she shrieked joyfully, grabbed his finger, and clamped her mouth around it.
“How are we going to steal the boat?”
“Who said anything about stealing it? I’ve got my own keys.”
“Do your parents know we’re taking it?”
“Well, no,” he replied bashfully. “Okay, I guess we are stealing it, but not in a hijacking, heisty sort of way. You do remember how to sail, don’t you?”
“God, I hope so.”
“That’s okay. Sophie can take the wheel if necessary, can’t you, baby?” he asked playfully as he bounced her in his arms.
He jumped onto the ship and extended his hand to Avery, which she took with a dramatic curtsy.
“Thank you, Captain,” she said as she boarded, and when she leaned in to kiss him, Sophie reached up and tickled beneath her chin, causing Avery to laugh as she hadn’t in years.
“Paul Dillon! That is you, isn’t it?” a cheerfully squeaky voice rang across the marina, and Avery hunched over to hide her face. “Yes, I thought that was you, Paul.”
“Mrs. Pilsbury, hello,” he said shakily to the stout woman waddling down the pier and waving her hand wildly.
“I didn’t know you were in town. Why didn’t you tell me you were in town? Is your mother here?”
“No, she’s substituting at the school today. We’re just taking the boat out for the afternoon.”
“I see. And this must be little Sophie! Oh, she looks so much like you. Such an angel. But who is this?” Mrs. Pilsbury asked as she quickly glanced at Avery.
“The nanny. Sophie’s nanny,” Paul replied as if he had an entire explanatory speech prepared, but Mrs. Pilsbury held up her hand, gave a subversive little wink, and said,
“Say no more.”
“Well, we should be on our way.”
“Of course. Maybe I’ll drop in on your mom when school lets out. They didn’t ever get that house in Menemsha, did they?”
“No, they’re still at the same place on Huntington Avenue.”
“How could I forget? It’s the same street as the Nortons. I honestly don’t know how anyone could stay on that street after what happened in that house. I don’t believe in ghosts or anything, but if there are ghosts, that house must be full of them!”
“I’d imagine so.”
“It was lovely seeing you, Paul. Enjoy the day; it’s supposed to be a nice one.”
“You too,” he said, and once she was gone, Avery lifted her head. “Are you alright, Avery?”
“I hope there are ghosts in my mother's house, and I hope they haunt the shit out of her,” she said, and the resulting imagery that popped into Avery’s head both amused and mollified.
“Faye will get what’s coming to her. Grab that winch and let’s get moving,” he said.
Avery and Paul set sail toward a thankful uncertainty. Their destination was the same open ocean as everyone else, but there was a new world within the water that only they could see. It had seemed an eternity since Avery felt the salty breath of the ocean against her skin. It tossed her blond hair with careless abandon and her eyes teared from both the wind and her gratitude for it. Sophie was surprisingly at ease with sailing and squealed in delight at each tilt and shudder. When the rigging was done, Paul and Avery found themselves at the bow in each other’s arms, looking out across the vast, sparkling Atlantic.
“It’s not a dream, is it? It’s really happening,” Avery said as Paul squeezed her close and kissed the top of her head.
“Yes, it’s happening.”
“I can’t even see land anymore. Everything’s far behind us and what lies ahead - well, I think it’s good that we don’t know. There are no expectations.”
“I’m sure there may be some, but not about the big stuff. I just want our lives to be new. Better.”
“But that’s an expectation too.”
“No, it’s just a dream I have, one I’ve had for a long time. Looking out of barred windows…”
“Hey, you don’t have to think about that anymore. As far as I’m concerned, none of that ever happened.”
“We can say that as much as we want, Paul, but it’ll never be true. As much as I try to forget, it’s an everyday struggle not to think about the past six years. I promise to try though, and I think the best way to do that is to stop waiting.”
“Avery, what are you saying?”
“I don’t want to wait until we’re married, Paul. I want our new life to begin now. Don't you think it would make an appropriate beginning?” she asked and touched his chest with far less anxiety than she expected.
“Are you sure you’re ready?”
“I don’t care,” she laughed and threw her arms around his neck.
When she kissed him ravenously, he didn’t feel it necessary to question her further. Their descent below deck was passionate for sure: nibbles and kisses and long, wanton stares, but it wasn’t reckless. They had a boat and a baby to tend to, and the fact that Avery didn’t neglect either made Paul want her even more. Seeing her hold Sophie with such tenderness, as if she was her own, was a surprising aphrodisiac.
“It’s a little chilly down here. Do you have a blanket for Sophie?” Avery asked as she laid her in the bassinet.
Paul opened the closet door and began rifling through the contents, but with a sudden jolt, he jumped back and nearly fell into Avery.
“Paul what is it?”
“Anna Mulberry,” he replied in a shaky whisper.
When Avery looked past him, she saw the lifeless body of Sophie’s nanny twisted up in the back of the closet. Her face was petrified in a ghastly expression and her neck was covered with deep bruises and lacerations, but more terrifying to Avery was the cloth bag sitting on Anna’s lap.
“It’s one of my mom’s gardening bags,” she said, and when Paul looked inside it, he said sternly,
“Take the baby and get to the life raft.”
“What is it?”
“Just go, Avery. Now!”
Avery grabbed the bassinet and quickly headed above deck, but just as she was about to open the life raft storage, Paul ap
Avery saw every second of their future spread out before her like an ocean of time, and the crest of each wave brought a happier day than the one before it, but when the waves broke, so did her reverie. Not one second after the bag left Paul’s hand, the world went up in flames and their hope for a happy future with it. It all happened too fast to process fully. One minute Avery was standing with Sophie’s cradled in her arms, looking at her fiancé’s reassuring smile, and the next she was in the water, struggling to stay afloat. Her hands were burnt from the explosion, and she knew her face was burnt as well thanks to the saltwater, but she was in too much shock to feel much. The sea was littered with wreckage, and Avery draped herself over a plank of wood and began kicking madly to propel herself through it. At first, all she could hear was the din of the blast ringing in her ears, but a small sound eventually broke through. Avery desperately pushed herself through the debris, toward the sound of crying, until she saw Sophie’s bassinet floating just ahead. She could tell that parts of the bassinet were melted, but as long as Sophie was crying, she was alive, and it gave her a few moments of calm in the tumultuous sea. There was ash on the baby’s face and a few minor burns on her hands, but all things considered, Avery felt warranted in her relief. It was a shallow relief, however, and her sigh became trapped in her throat when she saw her future floating face down among the charred debris. Her heart pounded with painful trepidation as she swam towards him, and although her mind was filled with desperate pleas for Paul to be alright, she knew. She knew as soon as she touched him and he bobbed like a burnt apple, but she still turned him over hopefully. The cry that blasted from her throat was like no other sound she’d ever made. There was as much rage as sorrow in it, and even after she was silent, it hung about her just like the smoke hanging about the ravaged ship. Although there wasn’t much left of his face, Avery stroked it as if the fire hadn’t robbed Paul of his beauty, and she kissed the memory of his soft lips. She allowed one more wail to erupt from her before she swallowed her immense grief. It solidified as it rolled down her throat and became the last piece of her heart hardened by tragedy. It felt like a lump of iron in her chest that, if she let go, would sink her all the way to the bottom of the ocean. If not for Sophie, she would’ve gladly let it. Instead, she held onto the bassinet and draped her arm over Paul’s body, and even though unconsciousness took her, she never let go, not for one moment. She believed that was what made her dreams so pleasant. She held them both as she fell asleep, and because of it, they stayed with her all through her insentience. Even when the coastguard came and the reserve boats loaded them up separately, she was still holding on to them in her mind.
by Jessica McHugh have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes