Saving forever, p.23
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       Saving Forever, p.23

         Part #3 of The Ever Trilogy series by Jasinda Wilder
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  "I'm not offering you my services, Eden. I'm not here with you for any kind of repayment. It's not a favor, or pity, or charity. This is me spending my time with someone whose company I enjoy."

  I snorted. "You like pregnant, moody, sarcastic skanks, then?"

  His expression lost all traces of humor. "Don't you dare knock yourself like that, Eden Eliot. You're worth more than that. You're not a skank."

  I couldn't meet his eyes. "You don't know me that well, Carter. The thing I had with Caden was the most serious relationship I've ever had. My boyfriends up until then were all...they were only about one thing. And once they got that from me and got tired of it, they moved on. You should know this about me. I have horrible taste in men, and even worse judgment."

  "Because you doubt your own worth."

  "Yes! I do!" Deep breaths, in and out. Don't lose it. "I always have."

  "Has no one ever told you how beautiful you are?" His middle finger brushed across my temple, his eyes soft and warm and sincere. "No one has ever made you feel special and perfect for being exactly who you are?"

  I shrugged. "Maybe my mom, when I was a little girl."

  He sighed. "That's a sin. Seriously. You're--"

  I held up my hands, feeling a contraction coming on. "STOP, CARTER! I can't--I can't handle your sweetness right now. I can't--I just can't deal with that. You're not going to fix a lifetime of low self-esteem with a few pat compliments."

  Carter ducked his head. "I know. I'm not trying to fix you--"

  "Yes, you are. And--oh, Jesus, oh, shit..." Pressure like a thousand tons of bricks crushed me, a giant's fist inside me squeezing.

  His hands clutched mine, and I squeezed so hard it had to have hurt. "Breathe, babe. In through your nose, out through your mouth. One, two, three, four, five...." He counted calmly as the contraction wrung every ounce of strength from me, and I tried to focus on his voice.

  Yet another nurse came in at that moment and introduced herself as Vicki, the night shift nurse. She attached leads to me, wrapped a strap around my belly, and plugged a cord into a circular disk on the strap. With a tap of a few buttons, the sound of a steady heartbeat filled the room.

  "And there's Baby," Vicki announced. "Nice and steady. Very good. Now, you just relax and try to breathe through the contractions. Dr. Nasri will be in to check your progress in a while."

  It passed, and Carter pulled up a chair to sit beside me, held my hand, and moved the conversation to other things. He told me stories of his childhood--running amok on his parents' acreage with his brothers, climbing trees and jumping dirt bikes, breaking arms and getting into fights and catching fish, adventures that got more dangerous as he and his brothers got older. He told me how they'd put all their money together when they were teenagers and bought a classic Mustang, spent two years restoring it so they could drag-race it. Kirk wrecked it the second time they raced it, rolling it a dozen times and almost getting himself killed in the process.

  He passed the hours with stories, and even got me to tell him stories of my own childhood, my fights with Ever. I cracked him up with the story of the one time, when we were ten, that Ever and I did the whole Parent Trap thing and dressed identically to make our parents doubt their own sanity. We kept up the ruse for almost a month, answering to each other's name, one of us vanishing and the other taking over. We did it at school, too. I attended her classes and she mine, and we finished each other's sentences and spoke in tandem, playing the identical-twin card to the max. Eventually even we got sick of it.

  The on-call OB, Dr. Nasri, came by around midnight to check my progress, and said I was doing lovely, and it shouldn't be too long now. Which, in doctor-speak, meant sometime next week, I assumed. I was dilated to a five, and fifty-percent effaced, he said, which meant I was about halfway there. If I kept up the same pace, he predicted I'd deliver sometime the following afternoon.

  "Has anyone asked you about drugs?" he asked. Dr. Nasri was a portly young Arabic man with a thin goatee and thick-framed glasses.

  I shook my head, clenching my teeth and gripping the bed rail as a contraction rippled through me. "Drugs? What kind of drugs?"

  "An epidural."

  "Will it...make it stop hurting?"

  He nodded. "Sure will. You'll still feel pressure, but it'll take off the lion's share of the pain."

  "Drugs. Please drugs."

  As the hours had passed, the contractions became stronger and stronger until each one left me panting and limp. I wasn't sure how much more I could take. Yet, I didn't have a choice. The only way out was through. If there were drugs that would make it easier, I was all for it.

  The OB chuckled. "I'll send the anesthesiologist in, then. He's with another patient right now, but he'll be along as soon as possible. Keep up the good work, Miss Eliot."

  "Keep up the good work?" I asked, when he was gone. "I'm not doing anything. My body is doing this all on its own."

  Carter stifled a laugh. "You're dealing with it, and that's work enough."

  "I'm going crazy, is what I'm doing. So if you want to call losing my shit dealing with it, then yes."

  The drugs-man came by nearly two hours later. He was a short older man with a graying goatee covered by a surgical mask. He glanced at Carter. "If you're squeamish, you might want to wait out in the hall."

  Carter shook his head. "I'll be fine."

  The anesthesiologist helped me sit up with my legs off the edge of the bed, my gown parted to allow him access to my spine. "Bow your spine out to me, please. Good. Stare at your toes for me. Perfect. Now, deep breath. You could hold her hands if you wanted, Dad. This is a pretty big needle."

  "I wish you hadn't said that," I muttered. I didn't like needles all that much. It wasn't a phobia, but they made me nervous.

  Carter sat in a chair facing me, both of my hands in his. My fingers were swallowed by his huge, rough hands. "Don't think about it," he told me. "Just look at me."

  I focused on Carter, on how small my hands were in his, how blue his eyes were, on the stubble shadowing his jaw. His eyes widened slightly, which I assumed meant the needle really was that big. He turned his eyes to me, and neither of us looked away as the needle went in. Which felt, roughly speaking, as if a giant sword had been shoved between my spine and my skin. Not awesome.

  And then, once he attached the line and started the drip...bliss. A contraction had just started, and it faded away, as the OB had said, to a dull pressure.

  "Oh, that's nice," I said.

  "Then it's doing its job," the anesthesiologist said. "The only drawback is, you can't eat until it comes out. It has a tendency to make you a bit nauseous."

  "If I'd known that, I would've eaten something better than a peanut butter sandwich for my last meal," I said.

  "I'll get you whatever you want when they let you eat," Carter promised.

  With a wish for good luck, the doctor took his cart of drugs away and left Carter and me alone. It was almost three in the morning by this point, and poor Carter looked exhausted.

  "Why don't you go home and sleep?" I suggested. "Nothing is going to happen until tomorrow anyway."

  He gave me a yeah right look and drew up the visitor's lounge chair, then rocked the seat back until he was nearly horizontal, his feet propped up on the edge of the bed near my knees. "This is good." He shifted until he found a comfortable position. "You should try to sleep."

  And so, on the eve of the most important day of my life, fear pounding in my veins along with my blood, I managed to sleep. The room was darkened, the only sound the muted whump-whir-whump-whir of the baby's heartbeat. Carter was close by, snoring gently.

  I wished, as I drifted into an uneasy sleep, that I could see my sister, just once.

  Seven the next evening, and I was a hundred-percent effaced, and dilated to a ten. Even with the epidural, the pressure of the contractions was dizzying and almost painful. The doctor had been paged.

  It was time.

  One second, it was just me and
Carter and a single nurse, and then the next moment the small room was a bustle of chaos. Dr. Nasri came in, looking exhausted, accompanied by another doctor--an anesthesiologist, I was told, to take out the epidural--and a team of nurses.

  Carter stood at the head of my bed, clutching my hand, watching the scurry of activity. He looked nervous, tired, and excited. "Are you ready, babe?"

  I shook my head. "No. Not even close." I tried to smile at him, but couldn't. "But it's happening whether I'm ready or not, right?"

  The anesthesiologist helped me sit up, and then he shut off the drip, using a key attached to his scrubs to do so. As soon as the drip stopped, feeling in my legs returned and with it a hellish wave of raw agony. Suddenly, the distant but ever increasing pressure was a roaring inferno, a crushing vise clamped on my womb and my core, a storm of fire and lightning and pressure.

  The contractions were nonstop, one after another. I had to suck in a shuddering breath and grabbed at Carter's hands, tears streaming freely down my face as I gritted my teeth and tried not to scream.

  "Don't push yet, Eden," Dr. Nasri told me. "Not yet. Hold on for me, okay? You're almost there. Not yet."

  I had to push. Everything inside me told me to push, to get this thing out of me. Push. I had to push. But I couldn't. They'd said not yet.

  Carter was talking, but I couldn't hear him. I watched his mouth moving. He had a beautiful mouth. It was an odd thought, stolen from the shreds of my lucidity. Lights shone on me from the ceiling, blindingly bright. The bed was transformed: a piece removed from the end of the bed so the stirrups could keep my legs apart, my upper torso angled up slightly. Dr. Nasri had a clear plastic facemask on, like something an arc welder would wear, and a nurse tugged a pair of sterilized gloves onto his hands. I saw snatches of activity, nurses preparing a little bed-incubator thing. A tray of instruments, all looking like liquid silver in the lights, medieval torture devices, it seemed. Dr. Nasri settled on a stool between my knees.

  My gown had shifted, tugged down as I'd scooted up to a sitting position for the delivery. My entire left breast was exposed, but the pain was lancing through me so hard I couldn't even breathe, much less worry about it. Carter saw it, though, and pulled the edge of the gown up to cover me. I wanted to thank him, but words were impossible. My teeth ached from clenching them, my throat hurt, my eyes burned.

  "Okay, Eden. On three, push for me, okay? Dad, you count for her. Count to ten, slowly." Dr. Nasri bent forward, glanced at me from between my knees. "Okay, ready? One...two...three...and push!"

  I bore down with every muscle in my body. I heard Carter's voice from a million miles away--one--two--three--calm and steady, a thread of familiarity in a universe of unimaginable pain and terror. I pushed. I pushed. I grabbed the railing in a white-knuckle hold and pulled myself down as I forced every ounce of myself into the instinct to push.

  And then I heard Carter reach ten, and Dr. Nasri told me to take a breath. "You're doing good," he said. "Just great. Okay, now push! Another good push!"

  I screamed then, unable to stop it. I felt something shift between my legs, pressure splitting me apart, as if an entire world was trying to emerge from within me. Carter was counting again, and I seized on his voice. When Dr. Nasri told me to take a breath, all I could do was sob. Carter leaned down over me, both of my hands in his somehow, his eyes wide and frightened yet calm and reassuring all at once. So blue, his eyes. Pale and beautiful.

  He pressed a trembling kiss to my forehead. "You're doing so good, Edie. You're doing perfect. One more for me, okay? I just saw her head. She's coming, babe."

  I nodded, gripping his hands more tightly with my sweaty fingers, and prepared. I took a deep breath and bore down as hard as I could.

  And then I felt something slippery happen between my thighs, accompanied by a fiery ribbon of agony slicing me, and then a sensation of emptiness. I heard Carter choke and laugh, amazed, awed.

  "She's here, Edie. You did it, you did it." He whispered in my ear, and I'd never needed anyone so much as I needed him in that moment. "I'm so proud of you, babe. She's beautiful, just like you."

  I wrapped my arms around his neck, clung and wept. "I did it? She's out? Is she--is she okay?" I hadn't heard her cry.

  And then I did. There was a squalling, tiny and tremulous and soul-piercing.

  "You have a healthy baby girl, Eden!" Dr. Nasri said, wrapping a gray and red and bloody and slimy thing in a blue papery blanket, resting her on my chest.

  I sobbed as I took the bundle. A thatch of black hair. Skin and bones and blood, the umbilical cord, trailing down between my legs. Screaming and wailing, fists clenched and shaking. A pause for breath, and a peek at dark eyes that I knew would be amber.

  I stared down the human being that had just been inside me. A little person, now totally dependent on me. Caden's daughter. My daughter.

  Maybe it was the trauma of it all or maybe it was just exhaustion, but, strangely, I felt nothing. I felt empty. Relieved that the birth was over, but...nothing else. Exhausted, limp, torn.

  But this tiny baby girl? Shouldn't I feel a sudden rush of love? An instant connection, or something? I'd read a thousand posts on various online chat lines, and all those women had written about how the instant they'd seen their baby, they'd been taken over. Love so powerful it could move mountains. Immediate and life-changing.

  I felt none of that. What was wrong with me?

  Dr. Nasri fixed two sets of clamps on the umbilical cord, offered a pair of medical scissors to Carter. "Daddy? Would you care to do the honors?"

  Carter froze then, and I saw a million emotions rifle through him. "I--I'm not--"

  I smiled at him as best I could, squeezed his arm with one weak hand. "Cut the cord for me, Carter. Please. It should be you."

  The doctors and nurses surely all felt something huge and tense unfolding in that instant of hesitation, and then Carter accepted the scissors. His eyes stayed on mine, hot and roiling blue. And then he cut the cord, and I thought he might cry for a moment.

  I couldn't help breaking down then. The nurses took the baby, who still had no name, and cleaned and weighed and measured her, then took her away for various tests and immunizations.

  And just like that, Carter and I were alone.

  I couldn't think, couldn't speak, couldn't feel. I was wrung completely dry, empty. "I'm so tired, Carter." I wanted to cry more, but I didn't even have tears. I didn't feel like a mommy. I felt like I'd been battered and bruised and broken. "Can you lie up here beside me? I just...I need you to hold me. Please."

  I'd never felt more empty and vulnerable in all my life.

  Carter edge a hip onto the bed, and I shifted aside, weak and sore and on the verge of passing out. I was starving suddenly, but even that was too much. I felt my eyes sliding shut, and felt Carter beside me, his arm over my shoulders, holding one of my hands.

  I fell asleep trying to think of a name for the baby. And hating myself for thinking "the baby" instead of "my baby."

  CADEN

  ruins

  "Turn right," Ever told me, pointing at a narrow dirt road, lined with skeleton-finger trees.

  I turned, and the road wound around a corner, past a tiny post office and an abandoned old clapboard house with a crumbled lean-to of a front porch, overgrown with ivy and saplings and knee-high grass, and then the bay was visible, glinting through trees. Beside me, Ever was a ball of nerves. With every mile that brought us farther north, the more tense she got.

  And then, without warning, we were there. A small yellow house facing the bay. In the driveway, Eden's VW Passat.

  "She's here," Ever said, her voice catching. "That's her car. She's here." She was out of the car before I even had it stopped completely, running up the short sidewalk to the front door, pounding on the new-looking storm door. "EDEN!"

  There was no answer. Was she hiding? I couldn't picture Eden sitting in a room, ignoring the pounding of a fist on her door and her twin sister's voice.

  Ther
e was no room in the road for me to park, and the driveway was taken, so I had to go down a ways and park in the beach lot. Ever tried the door, found it unlocked, and went in. I followed at a distance, fear making my heart hammer. By the time I got to the door, Ever was emerging, breathless and confused.

  "She's not here," Ever said, slumping down to sit on the top step, heedless of the damp on her jeans. "Her stuff is here. Apollo is there, books, food. There's a crust of a sandwich on the table, like she just--just stepped out. But she's gone."

  "Maybe she's on a run?" I suggested.

  Ever shook her head. "No. I saw her iPod and running shoes in her room. She wouldn't go running without that stuff."

  "She might've just...gone somewhere. She'll be right back. She wouldn't leave her house open like this for long. Not with Apollo right out in the open." I couldn't make any more sense of it than Ever could, and I hated that a part of me was relieved to put off the truth a little longer.

  "Yeah," Ever agreed. "Let's just wait here for a minute. See if she comes back."

  We sat in silence on the steps for half an hour, and then my nerves took over. "Let's go down to the beach. We'll stay where we can see her when she comes back," I said, standing up and offering Ever my hand.

  We walked on the beach, keeping an eye on the little yellow house. Hand in hand, despite the fact that mine were shaking ever so subtly, despite the fact that, when Eden showed up, everything would change.

  An hour passed and the sun descended on the bay, casting long shadows and shedding golden light over everything. I was about to suggest we leave and come back the next day, and then I felt a clenching in my chest, a knowledge. I shaded my eyes with my hand, watching the road. A faint rumbling of an engine, and then a classic '60s pickup truck rolled into view, stopping in her driveway.

  Ever had followed my gaze, standing frozen in place. "Eden."

  A lean, dark-haired man hurried around the hood and opened the passenger door, and Eden stepped out of the truck, moving gingerly, as if sore or injured. And then she reached back into the truck and lifted out a baby carrier.

  My blood turned to ice. Stopped in my veins.

  "What?" I heard Ever whisper beside me.

  Eden stood in the driveway, holding the baby carrier with both hands, staring over at us. The man took the carrier, and Eden stumbled, sagged against him. His gaze looked up and he saw us, too. Eden said something to the man, and he nodded, then took the carrier into the house. Eden approached us, each step careful and slow.

 
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