Amber was jolted from a deep and comfortable sleep. She tried to sit up, but all that lifted from the bed were her legs. What the heck? As if someone turned a light on, she remembered the unborn child tucked up against her ribs. She let out an exasperated exhale in an attempt to add a little momentum to her endeavor to sit up but instead she decided to swing her legs over the side for a little assist.
She continued her efforts by propping herself up onto her elbows before finally arriving in a seated position with her legs draped over the side of the bed. She sat there for a moment, rubbing her tummy and wondering if she had heard anything at all.
Her heart was still racing from the sudden excitement. The baby didn’t need all this high energy. She gave herself a moment to breathe. She rubbed her face a bit before squinting to see if there was anything she could see through the sheer drapes gently fluttering in the breeze.
That’s odd, she thought. The air is barely moving out there. Did I imagine hearing something? Was I dreaming? Whatever I heard, it was loud and real. I would have sworn a storm was kicking up.
She sat for a moment, listening intently. Nothing. All was silent. She rubbed her forehead for a moment while thinking.
I don’t get it. I know I ate a little too much red chili last night, but it’s never affected me like this. Besides, my stomach feels just fine. It’s what I heard with my ears that bothers me. At least, I think it was a real sound.
She rubbed hard at her eyes to wake herself up a bit more and clung to the hope she hadn’t imagined the inexplicable racket.
Amber shuffled around the bed to disturb Brady’s comfortable slumber. She honestly hated to wake him, but she needed him to look into what, if anything, went on in the backyard.
There was a time when she could simply roll or scoot across their king-sized bed to wake him. Now, it was a laborious effort to simply lift her hips and slither to get close enough to touch him. It was faster to walk around the bed.
She leaned over to kiss his cheek. In a soft voice, she whispered, “Brady.” Her call fell on deaf ears. There was no sign that he knew she was there. He was, without question, in another world.
Amber shook him by the shoulder, rocking him and saying his name a bit louder. “Brady!”
He took in a deep breath and rolled to face her side of the bed. She could see she was getting somewhere, but time was of the essence, and she did not need him to doze back off.
“Brady. I really need you to wake up.” She started tapping him on the shoulder. “Brady. I heard something outside, and I think you should probably go check it out.”
“Huh?” he muttered, turning to get a glimpse of the panic in Amber’s wildly begging eyes.
“You need to get up,” she prodded. “I heard something.”
“Amber, what is it? Did you eat something that didn’t sit well with you or the baby?” Exasperated, he patted her pillow. “Come back to bed.”
“No, no, no! This was a legit bump in the night. It sounded like something big collided with a tree. At first, I thought it was a storm, but the window was open the whole time. When I opened my eyes, I saw nothing but a light breeze stirring the curtains.”
Armed with a flashlight, Brady begrudgingly walked through the darkest hour of the night, wishing he were still in bed. He took in a deep breath as he glanced up into the clear sky, countless stars offering a nod and a wink of reassurance.
At least someone up there gets me.
Brady plodded through the scrub bushes and tall grass.
What the hell is Amber up to? Is she trying to break me down and get me used to existing on less sleep? For goodness sake! The baby’s not due for several weeks! I have plenty of time to get used to no sleep! It’s called on-the-job training! I swear this is it! One pregnancy is all I can take!
“Circe? Is that you? What in the world is going on?” He rapped on the window of a black passenger van. It was sitting precariously at the entrance of the barn, half in, half out. It was a vehicle he had never seen before with a strange foreign license plate. This had Circe’s name written all over it. Brady called out, “Hello?”
Nothing. If there was anyone inside that thing, they were either dead or fast asleep. He hoped for the latter and made every attempt not to wake whoever was inside. Brady crept forward slowly, watching his step and trying to avoid waking anyone. Fortunately, his light stopped him from kicking the metal milking pail that Amber had left sitting at the corner of the doorway. However, the slower he moved, the greater his anxiety.
What was that?
Brady froze, hearing what sounded like a muffled snore. He leaned his head in the direction of the van.
That sounds like a dude. What am I doing? This, whatever this is, disturbed my sleep. Why am I being so damn quiet? Fuck it.
Determined to put an end to this mystery once and for all, Brady stepped up to the side window. He held his flashlight at an angle above his head so he could actually see into the van without blinding himself with the reflection.
“Hey!” he barked at the window. “Circe! What’s this? What are you up to now?”
Circe, of course! Who else would make such an entrance?
Brady stepped back to see if anyone would respond to his commotion, but no one moved. Every one of them was out like a light, with the exception of Circe, who looked as if she was practicing a rise and shine yoga sequence in there. Brady realized he owed Amber an apology.
That doesn’t mean I want another kid.
As these thoughts ran through his brain, he circled the van, tapping on several windows, hoping that someone would wake up and say something! Giving up the need to be quiet, he muttered out loud, “Are these people drugged?”
You know, the kid isn’t my problem. It’s the fucking emotional rollercoaster I’ve been on.
Brady stepped away from the van with his hands on his hips and walked back outside the barn. “Great,” he flipped off the horizon, “here comes the sun. I’m outta here. What’s the sense in hanging around waiting for these fools to get their asses up? I solved the mystery! Circe. Of course, it’s her! If Amber hadn’t been so neurotic these last few weeks, the only person I would have suspected would have been Circe! She’s been gone for how long?”
He really loved living in the rolling desert hills. The views not only changed with the light, but they also revealed a colorful expanse of land that reached out for miles in every direction. He slowed his pace, enjoying the birth of a new day. Brady stopped and filled his lungs with the crisp morning air. On a dramatic exhale, he let out every molecule of distress. He looked up at the cotton candy pink clouds capping the hills and mountains.
He felt like Maria von Trapp from The Sound of Music, taking in the views with arms wide open. He laughed out loud.” I needed a good laugh.”
Oh my god, if any of the guys were to see me doing this!
Brady looked toward the house, wondering where Amber was. He had been gone for a good while, and usually, she would have hunted him down by now. Not wanting to press his luck, Brady swiftly headed back to the house. “I swear to whatever god can hear me,” he said, looking at the birds flitting around the bushes and grasses, “if I didn’t know better, I’d swear Amber and Circe were attached at the energetic hip. They have to be. Otherwise, Amber would have been out here hunting me down. She is that intense.”
As he walked in the back door, he could hear a whisk or fork clinking against a ceramic bowl in the kitchen. “Amber?” he called out as he walked into the room. “I thought you’d still be in bed.”
“I couldn’t rest knowing Circe was home.”
“Um, how did you know? Why would you send me out there if you knew it was her?”
“I’m sorry. It took a minute, but then I guess you could say it dawned on me as the sun came up. I figured you’d be back soon enough, so I started breakfast. How many people are with her?”
“You know she has guests, too?”
“Look, Brady, this place is her safe space. Pardon me. It’s her retreat. Of course, she returned with a few mortals.”
“Yeah. You know. You’re a mortal. I’m a mortal. Don’t you get it? This is a halfway house for mortals!” Feeling a bit uneasy about the direction of Brady’s curiosity, Amber quickly changed the subject to one that involved one of his most favorite things. “How about a couple of pancakes before Circe and her party join us? I made them from scratch with freshly ground oat flour and a special ingredient. Here! See if you can taste it!”
“Oh man, yes!” he exclaimed and rubbed his hands together with eager enthusiasm. The idea of homemade pancakes clearly turned him into a kid as he threw a leg over the back of the chair and took a seat.
Amber giggled at the sight of this guy, her guy. Do they ever grow up? She imagined what life was going to be like with a baby in the house. Two kids, possibly?
As the sun crested the hills behind the house, it peaked through the Palladian window sitting just above the back door. Amber turned to ask Brady a question when she noticed an added sparkle in his eyes from the sunlight. Even if he never said another word about his breakfast, she could see he was absolutely delighted with the treat.
“So. Can you taste the special ingredient,” she asked.
“Well, you know, I’m going to guess…”
“Hey, hey! I’m home!”
“Yes, yes, you are,” grumbled Brady.
Shocked by what she had just observed in her guy, Amber made a chaotic wave of her hands and asked, “What just happened here? You went from being playful and digging your food to this.”
Brady mimicked her movements and said, “What the hell does this mean?”
“Oh, never mind.”
“Ahem. Excuse me. Did anyone hear or see me? I’m back and standing right in front of you!”
“Yes, you are! Hey, Circe. It’s good to have you back! How was your vacation?” Amber asked snidely.
“What is wrong with you two? I would have thought you guys missed the hell out of not having me around, but I’m thinking, not so much!”
“Circe, we knew you were back long before you walked in that door. In all fairness, the surprise wore off the moment I took a bite of these incredible lemon pancakes,” he said, waving a forkful of food at her.
“I see,” Circe mumbled smugly. “Well,” she went on, “I still have a surprise for you, and it’s about to walk through that door any minute.”
“Oh?” Brady and Amber said in stereo.
Quite pleased with herself, Circe motioned with a backhanded flick of her wrist. “So you might want to flap a few more jacks on the griddle over there, Amber.”
Exasperated at the hint of dramatic banter with Circe, Amber rubbed her brow and asked, “What’s with the attitude, Circe? You just got home from vacation?”
“I figured you guys would have missed me. But much to my surprise, it feels like I’m intruding in my own home!”
The sound of Brady smacking down his pancakes caused the hair on Amber’s neck to stand tall. That was about all she could take. Between Circe’s interpretation of the morning and the god-awful sound of open-mouthed chewing, she waved her arms as if to wipe the slate clean and shouted, “Enough!” Brady only halted his eating long enough to tiptoe his plate over to the stove to grab a few more.
“These actually melt in your mouth,” he announced with a smile.
It was like Brady was invisible. Neither Amber nor Circe paid him any attention.
“I’m sorry, dear. I can see you are ripe with child. So, please forgive me. It was thoughtless of me to neglect the idea that you are probably overly sensitive at this time.”
Pointing a stiff finger at Circe, Amber demanded, “Look here, do not put this off on me! You may have built this place, but it’s our home too. We’re not your servants, and my edginess has nothing to do with my pregnancy. I know you all too well, and there is something very different about you.”
“Put your finger away. I’m simply happy to be home and have a lot to tell you.”
Just then, Brady heard something or someone coming toward the back door. He jumped up to investigate the sound and discovered a group of people.
“Oh, hey. Is Circe in there?” asked a tall, slender, olive-skinned man.
Brady quickly swallowed his food and said, “She is. Come in.”
Highly disturbed and disgusted, Amber gave him a disgusted look as he shoveled more food into his mouth.
“Whatever,” he mumbled as he slinked back to his place at the table.
“How many of you are there?” asked Amber.
“There’s seven of them, dear,” answered Circe.
“Let’s table this discussion,” Amber suggested, “until everyone has had a chance to eat and settle in.”
Circe could barely contain her irritation, but she didn’t want her guests to hear a side of Circe they had yet to meet. So, with an intently deep inhale and exhale, she held her thoughts and pursed her lips before motioning everyone to have a seat.
She turned to Amber with a smile and whispered, “I can hardly wait to catch up!”