His steps pounded the pavement with a steady beat; a paradox of the quickened rhythm of his heart thrumming against the walls of his chest like a jackhammer. Six long years had passed since he last laid eyes on her and their home. They had become nothing short of a dream that both haunted and soothed his soul, wishing with every desperate breath he took for his dream to become a reality.
It may have taken six years, but his wish was finally granted, and the elation he felt couldn’t overpower the anxiety and uncertainty that raided his heart and mind. It threatened to reduce him to the memory of what put him in this situation to begin with, and although he tried not to think the worst, he’d witnessed more than any twenty-eight year old man should. Yet, despite his seemingly positive aura, doubt shadowed his presence. He carried on, taking a moment to revel in the memories he had once created with her, even in their short time together.
It had been the last night before his departure. He’d lain there, his body entwined with hers, inhaling the scent that clung to the warmth of her skin, the scent of the lavender fields that she’d lain in just hours before he claimed every inch of her.
“I’m going to miss this,” he whispered, kissing the top of his wife’s head. She snuggled in closer, tracing the pad of her finger along the contours of his chest and stomach.
“I wish you didn’t have to leave.” Her breath tickled the hair on his chest. “Just promise me you’ll return to me?” Lifting her head up to meet his eyes, she quickly added, “I know that’s a silly request, and I shouldn’t have asked that of you, it’s just…I can’t bear the thought of anything happening to you.”
“Nothing is going to happen to me,” he’d reassured her. “I wont be over there for very long. Before you know it, I’ll be back, and we can start the family we’ve always wanted.”
“Oh?” She questioned, her eyebrows raising in amusement. Dragging her bottom lip between her teeth, she said, “If we have a boy, I want to name him Michael.”
“My middle name?” He questioned, taking a mental note of how soft her skin felt against his, and the fullness of her lips that beckoned his to caress. Her smile was his answer, and he couldn’t find it within himself to argue. He would give her anything she desired.
“Then, we name our baby Adalind if it’s a girl.”
“No,” his wife protested. “You can’t do that.”
“Do what? Use your middle name if it’s girl, just like how you want to use my middle name if it’s a boy? A little hypocritical, don’t you think?” He watched in amusement as his wife’s jaw dropped, words caught on the tip of her tongue, unable to form a rebuttal.
“It’s such a strange name, David.”
He laughed. “Since when did strange phase you? You’ve never been one to settle for ordinary. Besides, I love your name. I love everything about you. And when we do have a baby, that baby will be a part of you, and I love the thought of naming her after the one woman who stole my heart the day she purposely dumped her coffee on me.”
His wife looked up into his eyes before snorting in laughter, burying her face into his chest. “You deserved it! You shouldn’t have been such a pompous ass.”
Brushing her golden waves aside and tucking them behind her ear, David took a deep breath in, revelling in his wife’s perfection. “This pompous ass got what he wanted. You’re mine, Quinn. Always and forever.”
“Promise.” He meant it, with every breath he took, every beat of his heart, and within that moment as he covered her body with his, he had never felt so sure of anything in his life.
His head dipped low for a moment, the corners of his mouth turning upwards into a soft smile at the memory. It didn’t last long though as the thought of her crying and her heart breaking when she received news of his forged passing, infiltrated his mind.
Did she eventually move on?
He’d wondered for so long. Too long.
Standing upon the steps of their colonial style home, David felt as though he finally met his match. All those years spent in the military staring death in the face, day after day, and the time consumed during his stay in protective custody, could not match the emotional turmoil he fought inside knowing she was on the other side of that cherry red door. He rubbed the dog tags roughly between his calloused fingers, barely breathing in nervous trepidation. Carefully, he rapped the brass locket against the ingress, listening deftly to the whispers of a soft voice passing from the other side. Funny, how he stood before the place he once called home feeling like such a stranger.
The door opened to reveal two large, brown eyes staring up at him in wonder, and a smile that struck familiarity in his bones, playing them like a harp. The little girl did not say anything, and David felt anxious at the sight of her striking resemblance to the woman he’d fallen in love with all those years ago. He could feel her presence before the gasp of shocked disbelief tumbled from her lips, followed by the sound of shattering glass at her feet. His eyes tore away from the little girl to the woman he knew all too well. Her hazel eyes stole his breath like they always had before, and her hair fell softly around the silk of her skin, bared beautifully by the strapless summer dress that hugged her soft curves. He could recall caressing the intricately designed birthmark within the dip of her shoulder during their most passionate moments, and for a split second, it felt as if he’d never left.
The sweet voice of the little girl broke through the thickly effusive connection, as reality settled heavily within his core. He made an attempt to say something, anything, but couldn’t find the right words. There he stood standing, face to face with the love of his life, and the product of a seemingly happy life she’d started with another.
“David?” Quinn’s voice was but a whisper. Her hands shook with a sentiment he couldn’t quite place, her face paled white as linen, and her eyes glistened with what he thought to be tears.
“Mama?” the little girl questioned. Quinn held David’s gaze steadily, as if afraid to blink for fear he’d disappear.
“Why don’t you go play in the backyard, and invite Katie over, okay?” Her voice cracked with emotion as she spoke to her daughter who obeyed and ran off, oblivious to her mother’s troubled countenance. David watched Quinn approach him with caution until she was inches from his body. Her hand reached upward, allowing her fingertips to trail down the side of his face, studying him with intent. A flood of unbridled tears broke their barriers, spilling over Quinn’s cheeks. They dropped through the slight space between them and David caught her hand in his, bringing it gently to his lips. He savoured the softness of her skin beneath his own flesh and it was her undoing.
She threw a hand up to stifle the agonizing sob that escaped her lungs, and without thought he wrapped himself around her, distinctly aware of her cries of pain he knew in his soul were the ones expressed at his fraudulent funeral. Guilt, so heavy it crushed his heart, had condemned him to the hell he’d put her through over the last six years. David could no longer contain his own emotion, allowing himself to mewl in response to his wife’s distress, holding her close until her sorrow dissipated into a quietened humming against his chest. Pulling away, he sought her eyes, hidden behind wet lashes that fanned across her rosy complexion, and when she did gaze up at him, it was with a look that told him her love for him had never waned.
“It’s really you…” A statement, barely audible, coming to terms with the ghost of her one true love that stood in the flesh before her.
“It’s really me,” he whispered.
“But how? They told me…” She broke off suddenly, seeming to struggle to finish the thought. He didn’t blame her, no one could. Six years ago she was told he was MIA, presumed dead.
“My battalion was seized, and I was wounded. I’ve been in protective custody ever since.” David explained.
Quinn’s breathing slowed, muffling another sob as she grabbed his shirt, burrowing her face into his chiseled chest. He rested his hand on the back of her head, threading his fingers through the silk of her hair and kissed her gingerly on the top of her head, lingering in the scent of lavender and vanilla.
“I wanted to reach out to you, to call you, but it would’ve put you in danger. With the enemy still at large, and I as their only surviving witness, I couldn’t have that. Do you think you could ever forgive me?”
He watched her face tilt up toward his, and he lost his self control at the sight of her red, swollen lips. He waited what felt like a lifetime to taste her again, and made no attempt to stop his mouth from crashing into hers in that moment. It was everything he remembered, only better. The taste of her rushed sweetly through his veins, awakening parts of him he thought were lost and dead to him forever. Quinn pushed back, wiping the tears from her face fervently, and replaced David’s arms with hers, wrapping herself in a tight embrace.
“Are you…will you be staying for good?”
David advanced towards her, taken aback by her sudden movement in the opposite direction, further distancing herself.
“I have no intentions of leaving. I intend on staying. That is, if you want me to.”
“There are some things you need to know,” she cautioned.
“About your daughter?” he suggested, dreading the turn in their conversation. “You remarried, didn’t you? That would explain everything.” He couldn’t stop his heart from squeezing at the thought of his wife remarrying another. It was a pain so sharp, it took every bit of strength to not fall to his knees. Instead, he willed himself to remain composed and await her answer.
“What?” Quinn stopped pacing, levelling herself to him. Her jaw dropped in shock. “No. I wouldn’t….I never remarried. There has never been anyone else. Only me and Adalind.”
“Adalind?” David couldn’t hide the surprise in his voice, reminiscing their last night together before he left, a conversation about the family they hoped to start when he returned.
“Yes,” Quinn began quietly, “A couple months after you left, I found out I was pregnant. I had plans to tell you right away but the news of your…your….” She paused for a moment, as she wiped fresh tears from her eyes. “Your death reached me first. Adalind is yours, David.”
David’s head spun at the news. He stumbled to the nearest couch, dropping into it as he threw his head into his hands. For six years he grappled with the reality of his wife left to believe he was dead, when in fact he not only left her but their only child he never met. His willed composure melted, leaving him a boneless mess of overbearing emotion. The heat of Quinn’s touch soothed him when she knelt down in front of him, caressing his face with her hands. He knew she held more secrets but couldn’t bare to ask, for the one that she revealed brought him crashing down in a whirlwind of pain and pleasure in equal amounts. He met her gaze, heavy lidded and red eyed, both mirroring the turmoil of the day’s events, unfolded.
“God, Quinn.” His voice was husky with raw pain. “I’m so sorry. You will never know just how sorry I am.” He could see her fighting her instincts to bring herself closer to him. Why? He wasn’t sure, and it pained him to see her guarded around his presence, but he welcomed any touch she would be willing to give.
“I know,” she whispered, resting her forehead against his, playing softly in his hair like she once used to. “I told her about you. I showed her pictures.”
David looked up through wet lashes to find those hazel rings staring back.
“She has your eyes, David. No matter what, I saw you everyday in those eyes. I found comfort in that.”
He couldn’t resist as he pulled her mouth to his again, a rush of heated passion mixed with the salt of tears that stained their lips. He felt her guard slip slightly, enough for her to react and open her mouth to his. He savoured the feel of her body against him, revelling in the tranquility of her touch, and wished desperately for her to let him in the darkest shadows of her heart left by his absence. Quinn sighed breathily against him when their lips parted and spoke the words he longed to hear her say.
“I love you. I never stopped loving you.”
“I love you too.” David smiled against Quinn’s lips, holding her close. “The memory of you kept me going. I’ve been given another chance, and I know I have so much to make up to you, but I swear to you, I won’t ever leave you again. God, Quinn, I love you so much.”
Quinn’s breath shook with uncontrolled feeling. It was her smile that reassured him things would be okay, yet her eyes spoke with a guarded fear that would suggest something different.
“Mama?” a small voice broke their attentive nature, “Can I have a juice box?”
Quinn’s head whipped around to where her daughter stood, a smile sweeping over her soft features as she beckoned the child to come closer. “I have someone I’d like you to meet.” Taking the girl’s hand in hers, Quinn introduced David to his daughter for the first time. It became a moment he would never forget as the child observed him carefully, looking to her mother for reassurance before moving in closer to take his hand. He watched as that first tear fell from her eyes as the weight of the news sunk in, and he embraced his daughter, his heart swelling with such affection, it threatened to burst from his chest. Certain nothing could take away the elation he felt, he basked in the magnificence of his return to a life he longed to live again, this time with not one, but two people who had stolen his heart at first sight.
David spent the first few weeks settling back into his old, yet new life, and it was nothing short of amazing as he relearned the ways of what it meant to be a husband, and now a father. Adalind became his biggest fan, and there was nothing more he wanted than to spend each moment with her to make up for the lost time between the two of them. He allowed himself to enjoy each moment without guilt for the first time in a long time, opening himself to his wife, claiming her beauty in more ways than one, promising to never trade in those moments for anything. His life felt whole, and his confidence in the future held strong, until he took a call one late afternoon; one that flipped his world upside down, never to return it to its former self.
He stood there, frozen, studying Quinn when she snatched the phone from his fingers with a haste that left him shocked. A scattering of thoughts and emotions assaulted his mind, sending him into vertigo. He listened half-heartedly to the sound of her voice wafting between them, lost to the space of the kitchen, and when her shoulders slumped in such a way that he could understand only as being struck with horrible news, he closed his eyes in attempt to wash the fear away.
“You care to tell me who that was?” He questioned when she hung up the phone, wincing at the sound of his authority. David berated himself in the quiet depths of his mind for using such a tone with the woman he would give his life for.
“Don’t say it’s nothing,” David interrupted, knowing what her response would be. She always made an attempt to not burden him with worry, but it was too late this time. His voice was thick and heavy, like something was caught in his throat, making it difficult to swallow. “A neurologist calling and asking for you is not nothing. I want the truth.”
A shudder ran like an electrical current through Quinn’s limbs in response to David’s haste. “David, please…” She beckoned.
“Is Adalind okay?”
“Adalind?” Quinn repeated, tilting her head in confusion for a moment before realizing what David was asking. “Oh, God!” She gasped. “Yes, Adalind is fine. She is healthy, I promise.”
David welcomed the relief that flooded through his veins, and though brief, he felt the ground beneath him shake like an impending scale 10 earthquake threatening to demolish the life he just became reacquainted with. He didn’t wish to ask, but sought the truth despite his lack of will to keep it together.
“So—So that means you…” He couldn’t finish his thought, grappling the edges of the counter to steady himself. All of sudden, all those years in battle enduring a raid upon him and his battalion, the six years he spent in what he thought at the time to be purgatory, felt menial in comparison to the truth that lay behind his wife’s hazel gaze. He fought the assault of guilt, terror, and anxiety that nipped at him like the teeth of a rabid dog. Tears finally sprung from his eyes at the sight of Quinn standing a few feet away, clutching her sides to slow the waves of pain that emanated from her soul. Her heart bled through the tears that fell from her eyes: eyes that lit up his soul when he looked at them.
“When…” She croaked, “When I was eight months pregnant, I was diagnosed with a glioma.” Pausing, Quinn looked up to the ceiling to blink away the blur of water. David watched, wishing to anyone who would listen, to take away the pain that caused those tears to glisten like crystals as they left streaks along the perfect cherry hue of her cheeks.
“After I had Adalind, I underwent radiation therapy and brain surgery to remove what was left of the tumour. I went into remission and every so often I go in for a follow up appointment.”
He struggled to look at her; not for lack of love, but rather the sight of her heart and soul breaking, causing so much pain he thought he might die. “And what did they say this time?” Another distant response.
“David…” Quinn pleaded in a whisper.
“What- Did- They- Say?”
She bit her lip, fighting back emotion enough to answer, and when she did, her voice was reduced to a sound just above a whisper. “It’s back. It’s bigger than the last, and there’s nothing anyone can do.”
The scar caused by the heat of steel that had once pierced his chest and left him breathless in battle, thousands of miles away from home, burned in such a way that he was certain he would never recover this time. Quinn’s words became the steel bullet that had once pierced his flesh, as if it had now been set back into his breastbone: a constant reminder of where his heart and soul lay. He gripped the counter, the only brace holding him upright. “We can look into different treatments, start up radiation again…go through another surgery. Anything. They have to do something.” He rambled.
“No,” she breathed. “I won’t. I missed so much of Adalind’s first year. I don’t want to do that again, and the chances of any treatment working are so minimal it’s next to none.”
“How can you say that?” He bellowed, anger seeping in. “How can you not fight?”
“I couldn’t hold her for the first few months of my life because of the radiation that seeped from my pores.” She countered, her anger surfacing, bringing him back to sorrow and grief. “I fought! Don’t ever tell me I didn’t fight!”
“I—I’m sorry.” He echoed the raucous beating inside his skull.
“I knew there was a possibility it might return. There was always a chance it might.”
“This can’t be happening.” David’s words fell from cold and disbelieving lips. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I wanted to be sure first. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.”
“What do you mean?”
“You were dead, David.” Her voice cracked like a whip against the silent darkness that ebbed its way through the kitchen. “I had a plan. I wasn’t expect—Never in a million years did I think you would show up like how you did. I didn’t plan for this.”
“Plan for what?”
“Breaking your heart. Leaving you. Leaving Adalind.” She shook her head with wide eyes releasing another wave of sorrow, and an understanding crept through David in their silence.
“This is how you felt the day they told you I had passed away, isn’t it?”
She didn’t answer, and didn’t need to, for the steady stream of sorrow and continued silence answered his question. Quinn stepped forward, closing in the space between them, raising her hand to caress David’s cheek with her palm. Her touch was his catalyst. For six years he yearned for her touch, and now, after having it, he longed for it with even more intensity at the fear of losing it, losing her. Suddenly, her touch, her gaze, her taste had become a short-lived opportunity that David didn’t wish to squander any more than he already had. He tangled his arms around her, squeezing her frame into his and weaved his fingers through her golden curls. Together, they succumbed to the raw pain that gnawed away at them in the aftermath of a nightmare become reality.
“I’m so sorry, David. I’m so sorry!” It was a plea of many things, but mainly that of the desperation of forgiveness. It rang like a bell in David’s ears for he had heard the same plea among the wounded, asking for forgiveness from their loved ones, their Gods, and themselves, all before death claimed them. He knew it well, for he too had spoken of such desperation in the moments he’d lain wounded on the battlefield. To hear Quinn’s plea tore David in two, and he embraced her with such a tight vigour, that for a moment he believed nothing could take her away from him, even though her sobs rocked his soul tirelessly.
“Shhh…” He soothed, “You have nothing to be sorry for. Please, baby.”
He wept into her hair, the last bit of his strength snapping under the weight of reality, and he crumpled to the floor, never letting her go. “God, I love you so much. I don’t ever want to let you go. I don’t want to walk this earth without you.”
He sat on the floor, Quinn curled up in his arms, and his vow to keep her with him for forever waned as death knocked ruthlessly at his door for a second time. He knew escaping death’s black fingers this time wouldn’t be possible, for it locked its grip tight around his wife’s innermost thoughts and ran poison through her veins. What he would give to switch places with her, to go back in time and do things over, to live a life differently from this one: one that at least allowed them the happiness and love they deserved over the last six years stolen from them. The moonlight cast a silvery veil around Quinn as she looked up at David, tears glistening like the waters of the lake encased by the summer sun under which they’d created some of their warmest memories. The sight of her tugged at the broken pieces of his shattered heart.
“You’re a fighter, David. You fought your way back to us, and we were given a second chance,” She spoke, her voice soft and worn.
“This isn’t a second chance,” he replied, pain imminent in his voice. “Not like this.”
Running her palm along his strong jaw, she intertwined her fingers through the hair at the nape of his neck, bringing him closer to her to rest their foreheads against one another. “It is. Maybe one we wish were longer for us, but it’s a second chance for a life full of love and laughter for Adalind with at least one parent who will give their entire world for her happiness. You were meant to come back for her.”
Like a knife to his gut, it twisted, a steady stream of heartache bleeding through her words. “I was meant to come back for you too.”
“You did.” She smiled against his lips. “Our time together may be short, but I was given a second chance at seeing your face again, at loving you with all I have until my last breath.”
“Don’t.” His voice broke with sorrow. “Don’t say that. Please, don’t say that.”
“Promise me you won’t dwell, that you’ll move on and find happiness, both for yourself and Adalind. And promise me you’ll always love and take care of her the way you’ve done with me.” His wet lashes flicked upwards meeting the warmth of her hazel eyes, and it melted his heart as he promised to fulfill her request. Dragging her mouth to his, he kissed her with such fervour; it became a quest to remember every inch of her, the feel of her, the taste of her. If his time with Quinn was measured, he would make sure to make the most of it, burning her memory into his soul where she would forever be his. If this was his second chance, he wouldn’t waste it but take advantage and appreciate every moment, never really allowing her to slip away.
“Tell me I’ll always be yours, David,” she whispered.
David leaned in closer, capturing her mouth in another passionate kiss, and when he pulled away, he spoke the words she longed to hear.
“You’ll always be mine, Quinn. Always and forever, I promise.”