THIS WAS IT.
Charlie’s husband Clint was beside her, holding her hand. The lower half of her body was numb from the spinal block. A white cloth hung from the ceiling to her waist, blocking her view.
Whispers… Nurses darting around the hospital room… Her obstetrician shouting orders.
Twenty-year-old Charlene Abbott hadn’t slept for weeks, knowing the Cesarean was coming up soon.
“Mr. Abbott,” Dr. Branson said from behind the curtain. “The girls are ready to make their entrance into the world.”
Charlie and Clint’s eyes locked.
He squeezed her hand and quickly disappeared so he could watch their babies being born.
When she heard a soft cry, Charlie’s heart skipped a beat. “Is that my baby?” She raised her head off the pillow.
“Charlie.” The nurse at the head of the bed put a hand on Charlie’s forehead and gently pushed her head down. “You have to lie very still, remember?”
A few seconds later, Charlie heard a second wail, their warbled cries musical. “Let me see them.” All she wanted to do was to see her babies, if only for a minute.
“Sweet Jesus.” She heard her husband murmur, his voice breaking.
Light-headed, Charlie rolled her head to the side, searching for him. “Clint?”
When Charlie saw the Plexiglas crib whisked out the door, she cried, “Stop! I want to see my babies.” But all she heard were more whispers.
Her vision blurred by tears, Charlie found Clint leaning back against the wall next to the door. His head was bowed and his large hands covered his face.
“What’s going on?” Charlie asked tearfully, but still no response. Panicked, she shouted, “Will somebody please tell me what’s happening?”
A few seconds later, Charlie looked up into her husband’s face. He pulled the surgical mask off, and kissed her cheek gently. Stroking her perspiration-soaked hair, he soothed, “Everything’s okay, honey. You need to get some rest.”
“The girls?” Charlie asked. “Are they okay?”
He nodded, avoiding her eyes. “They’re fine.”
Her six-foot, four-inch, two-hundred-and-thirty pound husband, lovingly wiped Charlie’s eyes with a tissue. His complexion was pale, his eyes rimmed in red. Even though they’d been warned, the shock of seeing the twins for the first time had been overwhelming.
Early in the pregnancy, Charlie and Clint were told the twins were conjoined: craniopagus twins, the obstetrician had told them, joined at the head. They’d been devastated. And although Charlie and Clint combed the small town library searching for any information about conjoined twins, how could any parent be prepared to see two tiny beings fused together? They’d been given the option to abort, but the choice was never discussed. God had given them this challenge for a reason.
Charlie hadn’t been comfortable putting her trust in the only D.O. in the small town of Sheffield, Iowa, and opted to see an obstetrician in Omaha that was 90 miles west of their hometown.
Living on a farm on the outskirts of a small community with a population of a little under two thousand, the news that the Abbotts were giving birth to twins that were joined at the head would travel quickly. There was no way Charlie would expose their family to gossip.
When Dr. Frank Branson finally appeared from behind the curtain, his concerned look went from Charlie to Clint and then back to Charlie. “When the spinal wears off,” he began, “someone will take you to see your baby.” He cleared his throat. “I’m sorry. I mean your babies. They are being transported to the neonatal intensive care unit.”
Charlie was terrified of what Branson was going say next. She found Clint’s hand.
“Intensive care?” Clint asked.
Branson nodded. “Yes.”
“But what’s wrong with—”
“One of the babies is very tiny,” Branson interrupted Charlie. “We needed to stimulate her to start breathing.”
“But she’s going to be all right?” Charlie’s head throbbed as she held tight to Clint’s callused hand.
“We just want to keep an eye on them.” Branson turned and started for the door. “We’ll chat later today.”
Why was he being so vague? Charlie looked up at Clint. “I don’t like this.”
Clint laid a hand on her cheek. “I’m sure it’s just a precaution.” He took off the surgical hat, his dark hair falling over his forehead. “Try not to worry. They’ll be okay.”
After the nurses cleaned her up and changed Charlie into a clean gown, she asked Clint, “You saw them, right?”
When he didn’t answer, she felt her blood pressure rise. “Damn it, will you please talk to me?”
“Yes, I saw them,” Clint answered flatly, again, avoiding her eyes.
“Did you cut the cords?”
“I didn’t feel comfortable.”
She wanted to ask him why he didn’t do what he’d promised, but held her tongue. “Do they look alike? Are they—”
“I didn’t see much.” Clint cut her off. “Like the doctor said, one of the babies is bigger than the other one.”
Charlie’s heart sank. Clint had always been a quiet man, but today his silence cut her to the core. She’d failed her best friend, her husband, and wasn’t able to give him the perfect children they both wanted. This should be one of the happiest days in their lives, and yet the tension was almost too much to bear.
After Charlie settled in, and given a pain pill and ice chips, she and Clint were left alone.
The small room had a hospital bed, small couch and overstuffed lounge chair that Clint had pulled up next to Charlie’s bed. The blinds were pulled on the windows that overlooked the parking lot.
She started to get up, but Clint put a hand on her shoulder. “Supposed to lay flat for a few more hours.” He shook his head. “No cheating.”
Feeling no pain, Charlie asked, “Can you bring me my purse?” She glanced at the built-in drawers along one wall. “I need my lip balm My lips are so dry.”
Clint found her purse in the bottom drawer and pulled out the tube of emollient.
“Thanks. Oh, and I need my compact.”
“Round. Shiny. I want to see myself.”
He opened the shiny disk and handed it to Charlie.
“Oh, God.” Her hazel eyes were puffy and swollen and her cheeks blotchy. She moved the mirror up to the top of her head and saw that her long hair was a mass of tangles. “I’m a train wreck.”
Clint laughed, grabbed the compact from her, and put it back into her purse. “You’re beautiful.” He leaned over her and brushed his lips over hers. “Always.”
She wanted to ask him more about the girls, but felt she shouldn’t push him. As Clint caressed her cheek, in spite of Charlie trying to fight the effects of the pain pill, she drifted off.
When she blinked open her eyes, the room was dark, and it took a few seconds before Charlie remembered where she was. Her lower back felt like a thousand pin pricks going through it, but there was no way she was taking any more pills until she saw her girls. She glanced at the white-faced clock on the wall and saw it was almost eight. “Clint?” she asked, but found the chair he’d been sitting in empty.
The babies were born a little after three. She’d waited long enough. Charlie patted the mattress on either side of her and, when she found the remote, she pressed the call button.
“Yes, Mrs. Abbott, can I get you something?” a sweet voice asked through the speaker.
“I want to see my babies,” Charlie answered.
“Let me check with your doctor,” the nurse replied.
“With, or without, your help,” Charlie responded adamantly, “I’m going to see my babies now.”
“Charlie?” She heard, gasped and slapped a hand over her chest and let out her breath when she saw Clint. “You scared me to death.”
“Why don’t you wait until you’re a little stronger before you see them?” Clint took off his baseball cap, ran a hand over his hair and put his cap back on. The nervous habit was something he’d done for as far back as Charlie could remember.
Her husband looked like someone who’d been on a three day binge with the dark stubble of whiskers on his cheeks and chin, and dark circles underneath his blue eyes. He was going through hell, but holding his pain inside as he usually did when something was bothering him.
“I’m going to see my girls. I’ve waited almost nine months to meet them.”
Clint was quiet as the nurse helped Charlie into a wheel chair, pushed her out the door, and down the hallway.
Her mom wanted to be here when her first grandchildren were born, but Charlie convinced her that she would need her more when they came home.
The pictures of conjoined twins Charlie found in the library had made her queasy. What Charlie didn’t need was for anyone, including her parents, to pity her babies. It would only be a few months before they would be separated.
With Clint following, they took the elevator up to the fourth floor. Every corner they turned, every person and ward they passed, Charlie’s anxiety increased. It seemed hours, not minutes, before they stopped in front of the ward with “NICU” above the doors.
The nurse leaned close to the intercom on the wall. “The Abbotts are here.” Charlie heard a buzz and the double doors slowly began to part.
Her stomach was tied into knots when she glanced into rooms. Parents cradling their newborns as their small cries filtered into the hallway, and nurses wearing blue or pink smocks hurrying past them carrying bottles, diapers, or blankets. A physician stood outside a room whispering to a couple.
When they reached the U-shaped nurses’ station, a pretty young woman stood and flashed Charlie and Clint a smile.
“Mr. and Mrs. Abbott?” she asked.
“Yes,” Charlie answered.
“My name is Tracy, and I’m taking care of your twins today.” She came toward them holding two thick pink rubber bands. “You’ll need to wear these on your wrists so we know you belong here.” She handed a wristlet to Charlie and then Clint. “I’ll take you to see your sweet girls.” The nurse went behind Charlie’s wheelchair.
Suddenly everything started to spin. Charlie had thought she was prepared for this day, but a part of her wasn’t ready to face reality.
It felt as if time stood still until they reached the last room on the right. By the time the nurse turned into a dimly lit room, Charlie was sick at her stomach.
When she turned toward the crib, all she could make out, however, were four tiny, intertwined feet. “Could you push me closer?”
When Tracy pushed her up to the incubator, Charlie felt as if she couldn’t breathe. Just like in the pictures she’d seen, their miniature heads were joined. They looked like one child with two heads and four arms. The smaller child was nestled into her sister’s neck.
It only took a few seconds before her fear was replaced by an overwhelming feeling of love. These babies were the product of Charlie and love for each other; their own flesh and blood. Charlie covered her mouth to stifle her cries of joy as tears trickled down her face.
Her eyes rolled slowly over her children. One of the twins had a mass of thick, dark hair like Clint’s and both of them had Charlie’s stubby toes.
Just like Dr. Branson had told them, one of the babies was larger, her complexion milky white. The smaller child’s skin looked thin and transparent, and her sunken chest rose and fell twice as fast as her sister’s, as if struggling for air. Mesmerized, she watched as one baby moved in slow motion and the other infant shifted with her.
God, they were so precious. So helpless. Charlie’s heart was breaking into a million pieces.
When she felt Clint’s strong hand go down on her shoulder, Charlie covered his hand with hers.
“How long do you think they’ll be here?” Clint asked the nurse. “In the hospital?”
“It’s up to your girls." Tracy smiled. "Your little one needs to put on more weight, and her lungs need to get stronger.”
“Is she still having difficulty breathing?” Charlie asked.
“I read on the chart that your doctor told you that she needed a little help when she arrived,” Tracy responded. “We just want to make sure she’s healthy when you take her home.”
“But why are they both on oxygen?” Charlie asked.
“Twins are unique in that they sometimes feel what the other one is experiencing. We just didn’t want them both to have problems breathing.” When the high pitch of a beeper went off, Tracy reached into her pocket quickly turned it off, and stood. “I’ll be right back.”
“I thought identical twins would be the same weight,” Charlie said before Tracy left.
“It’s more common for them to not be the same weight. Even though identical genetically, each baby has an amniotic sack and develop at their own rate,” Tracy answered standing in the open door. “One baby is usually in a better position in the womb to receive nourishment. I’ll be right back to answer any more questions. Not to worry, however. Your children are in good hands.”
Charlie’s eyes went to the monitors on a shelf above the incubator flashing green and red lights. The tubes from the oxygen tanks led into the button noses. The tiny needles that were inserted into the crooks of their matchstick-like arms led to a bag of clear liquid and were attached to tall poles.
When an arm rolled out to the side, a palm slowly opened that was no bigger than a quarter. Sweet babies, Charlie thought as warm tears followed one right after another down her face. Sweet, precious babies.
“Clint?” Charlie found him sitting on the couch looking down at his clasped hands. “You okay with calling them Miracle and Faith like we talked about?”
Clint nodded. “Yes.”
She couldn’t take her eyes off of them and watched as the smaller twin opened her rosebud mouth, her face wrinkling up into a tight ball as if she wanted to tell Charlie something.
“Everything’s going to be okay, sweetheart,” she leaned close to the crib and whispered. “Mommy’s here.”.
The next morning, Charlie moved her things into the NICU. Clint needed to get back to the farm. For the next two days and nights, she never left her babies. Their vitals were good, Charlie was told, and they were progressing.
On the third night she was so exhausted that she could hardly keep her eyes open. Knowing that a suite was available for parents who were staying at the hospital from out of town Charlie told the nurse she was going to catch some sleep and be back in a couple of hours.
“You take as much time as you need,” the middle aged nurse with kind eyes told her. “I’ll take good care of them.”
Hesitant to leave, Charlie knew if didn’t get some rest, she wouldn’t be any good to anyone. The couch in the room was uncomfortable, the hallways noisy all night, and her stitches were starting to itch, driving her crazy.
Two floors up, she stumbled into a suite with a bed, shower, and television that sat on top of a dresser. After a quick warm shower, Charlie changed into a nightgown and slid under a clean white sheet.
When the phone rang, it jolted her out of a deep sleep. “Hello?” Her mind was fuzzy and she couldn't think.
Recognizing the nurse’s voice, she yanked the covers off and sat up. “Yes.” She glanced at the red numbers on the alarm clock and saw that it was a little after two in the morning. Something was wrong. “Are the twins okay?”
“There’s been a complication.”
Trembling, Charlie slammed her bare feet down on the carpet and switched on the lamp on the bedside table. “What kind of complication?”
“The doctor would like to speak with you.”
“I’ll be right there.” She hung up, pulled her nightgown over her head, and pulled on jeans and a t-shirt. What was going on?
Her heart raced as she threw open the door and somehow caught her balance before stumbling over the threshold. The girls had been fine when she left them.
Sprinting down the hallway to the elevator, she pressed the button. “Come on, come on!”
Noticing the exit sign, Charlie flew down the stairwell, not feeling her tennis shoes touch the stairs.
When she reached the NICU, she slammed a hand over the intercom button. “It’s Charlie Abbott.”.
The doors started to part, but didn’t move fast enough so Charlie wedged herself through the opening. She ran down the hall and came to an abrupt halt at the nurses’ station. “What’s going on?” she asked.
“I’ll call the surgeon,” the nurse told her and picked up the phone, her concerned expression telling Charlie that the complication was serious.
Her heart pounding, what did she mean surgeon? She started to jog down the hallway toward the babies’ room.
“They’re not there.” Charlie heard.
Panicked, she whirled around. “Where are they? Where did you take my girls?”
“Shhh,” the nurse said, raising an eyebrow. Walking to Charlie, she said, “They’re being prepped for surgery. The doctor will be here soon.”
It felt like a sledgehammer hit her in the stomach. “What? Why?” But Charlie didn’t wait for an answer. “Oh God, please.” She wrapped her arms around her waist. “Please, no,” she whimpered, “let my babies be alright.”
The nurse took her by the arm and tugged. “Why don’t you sit down in the lounge and—”
Charlie jerked her arm away. “I don’t want to sit down!” Spotting a parent peeking out a door, she lowered her voice. “Look. I just need to know where Miracle and Faith are.”
“You have to calm down,” the nurse told her curtly. “There are other babies here.”
Charlie felt like slapping her. She didn’t care who was here. Her children were gone. Where had they taken them? And why?
Charlie paced the hallway, chewing on her thumbnail, her mind trying not to think about the worst possible scenarios. Damn it, where was Clint when she needed him?
“Mrs. Abbott?” an unfamiliar man dressed in scrubs said coming toward her.
“Where are my girls?” Charlie asked, not waiting for introductions.
“Let’s talk privately.”
She bit her lower lip, trying to keep her emotions in check as she followed him to the twins’ room. A cold chill raced down her spine when she saw that the crib was gone and the monitors were silent.
“Why don’t we sit down and—”
“Why is everyone telling me to sit down?” She glared at him. “I’m either going to lose my mind or patience if you don’t tell me what’s going on.”
“I understand. The smaller child…”
“Yes, Faith. She…” He walked closer to Charlie and took her trembling hands in his. “I’m so sorry.”
When her legs started to give out, Charlie put a hand on back of the couch for support. “Sorry about what?” She couldn’t breathe, praying he wasn’t going to tell her what she didn’t want to hear.
“She didn’t make it.” He paused. “We’re prepping the twins for surgery. We need to separate them before Miracle…”
“Miracle” was the last word Charlie heard before her legs gave out and everything around her faded to black.
CHARLIE SET THE CLOTHES BASKET ON THE GROUND and tilted her head back, feeling the sun warm her face. She drew in a contented deep breath, smelling the fresh, earthy aroma of Iowa in July.
Looking to the front of the house, she saw birds perched on the railing of the porch, chirping out their morning medley. God, she loved living on the farm that was surrounded by acres and acres of land with not a house in sight. Charlie never had a desire to go to college or, like many of her classmates, trade life in small-town Iowa for life in the big city. She’d been lucky enough to not only marry her best friend but also to enjoy the peace and privacy that came with living on 736 acres of prime farmland.
After Clint’s father passed, they’d painted the two-story family home an airy light yellow and then added white shutters. They’d replaced the rotting wood on the expansive front porch with composite decking.
In the spring, Charlie hung baskets of green ferns and bright red geraniums laced with ivy from the eaves. Like Clint’s mother, Charlie loved the outdoors and took pride in the daisies, deep purple astilbes, red and yellow roses, and butterfly bushes, as well as a myriad of other flowers and shrubs that surrounded their home.
Their home was set back a good distance off Highway 34 and was dotted with towering pines and oaks. And from April through mid-October, cornstalks edged three sides of the stately farm home.
Clint had lived in this home all of his life. When Charlie and Clint married the day after graduation from high school, she moved in with Kate and Sam Abbott. It had been devastating when they lost Kate as she’d been like a second mother to Charlie. But just as difficult to accept was when a massive stroke took Sam from them.
She swiped a tendril of long hair off her face and then picked up a clean white sheet from the basket and hung it on the line.
The older generation who’d lived in Sheffield all their lives said Charlie looked just like her mother when she’d been Charlie’s age. “Your mother was a natural beauty,” they would tell Charlie. Charlie’s round hazel-green eyes were a clone of her mother’s, along with her thick, naturally wavy, reddish-brown hair.
When she heard six-year-old daughter Miracle, who Clint and Charlie called Mira, singing “Under the Sea,” Charlie stopped what she was doing and found her daughter on the swing set. Charlie swore Mira had seen The Little Mermaid a zillion times, but never tired of hearing her daughter’s sweet, angelic voice.
Mira’s shiny, wheat-colored hair flew out behind her as she leaned back in the swing, pointed her toes to the sky, and pumped her little legs, going higher and higher.
It didn’t seem real that she’d start kindergarten this fall. Just thinking about seeing Mira’s innocent face in the window of the school bus as Charlie waved goodbye to her baby brought tears. They’d been buddies every day and night since Mira was born.
Charlie shielded her eyes from the sun and searched for Clint’s three-wheeler through the maze of perfectly aligned cornstalks.
When she didn’t find him, she picked up another sheet, snatched two clothespins, and placed one of the pins between her teeth.
“Mommy?” Charlie heard and looked down.
Mira’s bright blue eyes were a clone of Clint’s, down to the mischievous twinkle. As usual, she was wearing her favorite OshKosh B’gosh overalls that Charlie had to steal after she fell asleep just to wash them.
She knelt next to the petite child and touched the end of her small nose sprinkled with a few light freckles. “What’s up, sweetie?”
Mira looked up and then back at Charlie. “Is there another place besides heaven we can go to when we die?”
The question took her by surprise. Charlie tried to think of how to respond. “Why, honey?”
Mira shrugged her shoulders. “‘Cause I think there is.”
“Well, if there is, no one told me about it.”
Mira pointed an index finger up at the sky. “Heaven is way up there, right?”
“Yes. That’s where God and all the angels live.”
“I think there’s another place up there too.”
Charlie wondered where Mira got such an idea. She wasn’t around other children much, as living in the country made it difficult for play dates. “I don’t think so, honey, but I could be wrong.” She stood up straight and looked around. “Have you seen Hank?” Charlie asked, changing the subject.
Mira scrunched up her nose and nodded toward the fields. “Prob’ly chasin’ a frog or somethin’.”
Clint hadn’t been keen on having a dog, but when Mira begged and cried to keep the pup they’d found wandering around the yard, Clint gave in to his daughter’s request, as he usually did. And now, Hank was Mira’s best friend. Charlie swore the pup knew what Mira was feeling before Charlie.
Charlie watched Mira scamper away to the sand pile shaded by a tall oak, grateful she hadn’t asked more questions about the hereafter.
Startled, Charlie whipped around and saw Clint standing close behind her. She slapped her husband’s tan forearm playfully. “Don’t sneak up me like that.”
“Why? It’s fun.” Clint bent over to kiss her, but she turned her head.
“Sweaty pig. No way.” With his boyish good looks and muscular physique, at twenty-eight he still turned ladies’ heads wherever they went.
Clint smacked his lips together. “Come on, baby. Give papa a kiss.” Sensing trouble, Charlie took off running.
Stalking after her, his arms stiff and out to his sides like a monster, Clint called in a deep monotone voice, “Come to me, my sweet.”
“Stop it!” At the side of the house, Charlie quickly picked up the end of the hose and pointed the nozzle at him.
Clint cocked his head to the side. “You wouldn’t.”
Not taking her eyes off of him, she reached down and turned on the spigot. “Oh… wouldn’t I?”
Clint glanced down at his thigh-high, muddy, waterproof boots, the worn jeans that had given way to holes, and then slapped a hand over his T-shirt sprinkled with dry mud. “But these are my best clothes.”
On impulse, Charlie pulled back the nozzle and sprayed the cold jet of water up and down him.
Stomping his boots and taking off his saturated baseball cap, he let out a crazed holler as he marched toward her. “You’re so done!”
Charlie dropped the hose and raced toward the front yard. “Mira!” she called laughing. “Help!”
“Gotcha,” Mira shouted, coming out of nowhere and wrapping her arms around her daddy’s legs. “I got him, Mommy!”
Clint beat his chest with his fists. “Now you’re the one in trouble.” He reached for Mira, but she was too quick and scrambled away.
She squealed in delight when her daddy caught her, picked her up, and twirled her around.
After Clint set Mira down and pecked her cheek, he found Charlie on the front porch. Pointing at her, he said, “You started this, so you need to be punished.” He glanced down at Mira. “What should we do to punish Mommy?”
“Hmmm.” Even from a distance, Charlie saw her daughter’s eyes light up. “A time-out maybe?”
“Good idea.” Clint took Mira’s small hand in his. “But not a very long one, ‘cause this daddy’s hungry.”
Charlie watched the two go around the side of the house, hearing Mira’s chatter. She opened the front door, walked through the living room, and joined them in the kitchen at the back of the house.
“Want to help make lunch, Mira?” Charlie asked.
“Yes!” Mira dragged a chair that was bigger than she was from the table to the counter.
“I’ll be right back.” Clint turned and walked under the arched entrance toward the stairs. “Gotta change outta these wet clothes.”
“What shall we make for lunch, honey?” Charlie asked Mira.
“Hmmm.” Mira thought for a few seconds. “How ’bout samitches? And chocolate milk.”
“Good idea.” Charlie went to the refrigerator and took out the leftover ham.
The kitchen was Charlie’s favorite room in the house. She and Clint talked about updating the kitchen. They’d discussed taking out the dark oak cupboards and replacing them with a lighter finish, and changing out the worn linoleum with a wood floor. But there were so many fond memories of Clint’s parents, and the chats they’d had at the kitchen table that she couldn’t bring herself to redecorate.
“Can I make everything?” Mira asked.
“You think you’re big enough?”
Mira put a hand on her hip and shot Charlie a look. “Mommy. I’m almost in kindergarten.”
“Sorry.” Charlie held back a chuckle. “I keep forgetting.”
After she had put Mira over the sink to wash her sticky hands, Charlie said, “Can you get the chips out of the cupboard while I call Daddy?”
“Yep.” Mira was six going on thirty.
Charlie walked under the arched entrance and into the living room. From the worn couch and the wobbly oval-shaped coffee table, to the “Home Sweet Home” cross-stitch that hung on the wall, everything in the house was the same as it was when Clint’s parents were alive. But Charlie had never been interested in fancy furnishings or clothes. She was content and grateful for what they had been given.
Mira chatted nonstop during lunch. Charlie put her napkin down on her plate and glanced at Mira. “That was delicious, honey. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Mira said proudly.
“Did anyone feed Hank?” Charlie asked.
Clint shook his head. “Haven’t seen the mutt.”
Charlie pushed her chair back, picked up her plate, and set it in the sink before opening the back door. “Hank?” Charlie called standing on the top step. She hoped he hadn’t found his way to the highway. Walking down the few steps into the yard, she cupped her hands around her mouth. “Come here, boy. Come on, Hank.” She made a few smacking sounds before she caught the dog coming out through a row of cornstalks, his head down.
“Just what have you been up to?” she asked, walking toward the pup. Seeing that he was covered in mud, she knew he’d visited the swamp just north of the farm again. “Oh, Hank.” Charlie put her hands on her hips. “It’s under the hose for you, buddy.”
Hank hung his head. With his tongue hanging out and his bushy tail hidden between his legs, the dog lazily strutted behind Charlie. With his short legs, a head too large for his body, and a pushed-in nose like a pug, he was comical to look at. And yet, his sweet disposition and the way he seemed to know what Mira was thinking before Charlie did, melted her heart.
She turned on the spigot, set the nozzle to a gentle mist, and started to wash him down. Hank never moved. He knew the routine. When Charlie turned off the hose, the dog shook himself, covering Charlie with droplets.
When she went back into the house, Clint had already retired to the living room, where he caught the midday news and, more often than not, took a short nap. When he woke up, he’d be right back at it in the fields.
Hearing Mira, Charlie went up the stairs, each stair creaking with old age. She found her playing with her vast collection of dolls in her bedroom.
The Victorian dollhouse that Clint and his father built took up one corner of the child’s room; an antique chest sat below double windows and was packed with toys. The bedspread on Mira’s canopy bed Charlie found at a garage sale matched the pink and white gingham curtains.
Sitting down across from Mira on the round braided area rug underneath the windows, she asked, “So, what’s happening with the girls today?” Mira referred to her dolls as “the girls.”
“Oh.” Mira’s eyes grew wide when she picked up a doll with curly, blonde hair and piercing blue eyes. “Jenny’s a mess.”
Charlie suppressed a smile. “Why?”
“Well.” Mira looked up as if she were trying to come up with an answer. “Her tummy’s hungry.” An impish smile crossed her face. “Maybe ice cream would help.”
Charlie smiled. “Ya think?”
“So, if you had some ice cream”—Charlie pointed at Mira—“Jenny might feel better?”
Mira didn’t bat an eye. “I think so.”
Charlie stood and offered her hand to Mira. “Then we’d better go make Jenny feel better.”
Charlie and Mira spent the afternoon sipping lemonade and chatting about everything from a new doll that Mira wanted for her birthday to Mira drawing a new picture for Clint that they’d hang with the rest of Mira’s artwork on the refrigerator.
After dinner, Mira took a bubble bath and put on her favorite pajamas with a picture of a smiling purple Barney and his bright green tummy on the front of her long sleeved T-shirt top.
“Time for prayers,” Clint told Mira.
After Mira was tucked in her bed, the little girl closed her eyes and clasped her hands together in a prayer position. She recited the “Now I lay me down to sleep” prayer, and then added “God bless Mommy and Daddy and…” Mira opened her eyes and looked around. She put her small hands out to her sides. “Where’s Hank?”
“Honey.” Clint scratched his temple. “I think it’s time Hank slept in the doghouse outside. It’s warm out and—”
“I want Hank.” Mira’s bottom lip quivered.
Charlie caught Clint’s eyes and raised an eyebrow.