Letters from Owen, Part One – Plain

 

Copyright © 2017 by T. L. Haddix

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.


 For Part Two, please click here. 

The Old Box

Every spring when the weather got warm, right before the beginning of summer, Sarah Campbell liked to have a purge. An in-depth spring cleaning had been her annual tradition since she was young, and the process was meant to get rid of unused and unwanted items. Too, it was a sheer defense mechanism, preventing the farmhouse she and Owen had called home for fifty years or so from exploding at the seams. After all, with five children, twelve grandchildren, and a growing number of great-grandchildren, “stuff” tended to accumulate.

While she had boxes upon organized boxes of precious mementos tucked away that she’d not part with until the day she died, Sarah had no intention of becoming one of those people who left a mess for her children to deal with when she passed. She fully intended to aim for one hundred years at a minimum, but given that she was approaching eighty, she didn’t want to leave the task of clearing things out until she wasn’t able to do it. Thus, every year, the purge.

In recent springs, the exodus of things had become something of a family event. Being wise and not above using her age as an excuse to spend time with her various offspring and their progeny, Sarah would rope whatever child or grandchild was at hand, or even near to being close by, into the process. The kids were on to her by now, but they didn’t seem to mind. If they weren’t tied up, she’d often get volunteers. All she had to do was announce her plans on Facebook and sit back and wait.

This year, she’d snagged Colin and Easton, as well as Colin’s baby sister, Sadie. The boys were each twenty-three, and Sadie had just turned fifteen. They were helpful workers, cheerful and funny, and their bickering often had Sarah in tears from laughing so hard. So too did Sadie’s almost motherly exasperation with the boys’ antics. As a particularly loud series of thumps and thuds sounded from the attic, along with muttered words Sarah was glad she couldn’t quite make out, Sadie growled.

“What in the world are they doing up there, Grandma? They probably found some more old toys and are having another battle or something. They’re worse than old biddies fighting over two-dollar grab bags at the bargain bin at Goodwill.” She stood at the foot of the pull-down ladder, hands on her hips, and glowered at the attic opening. “Come on already, guys! Daylight’s burning. Chop, chop! You can kill each other outside. We’ve got stuff to do.”

With her head tilted a bit and her long, golden-blond hair pulled back into a sassy ponytail, she looked so much like her mother, Amelia, it was eerie.

A shiny, multicolored piece of fabric floated down in response to the question, landing squarely over Sadie’s head and shoulders despite her efforts to dodge it. As she coughed and swore mildly, promising mayhem and retribution, Colin appeared at the opening.

“Move, squirt. We found a big box stuck behind a rafter, and we had to fight to get it out. Looks like it’s been up here a while, Grandma,” he said as he came halfway down the ladder and stopped. He took the dark gray box from Easton, then descended the rest of the way. “Porch?”

“Please,” Sarah said. “Good grief, there’s an inch of dust on that thing. Sadie, get a damp cloth, please?”

“Sure.” She shot Colin a glare before she dashed down the stairs.

“You’re so mean to her, she’s liable to put a snake in your bed.” Sarah couldn’t keep her face straight, and she chuckled.

Colin grinned, nearly a mirror image of his father. “Nah, she loves it. We can’t let her get too full of herself. She’d be impossible to live with.”

“That little princess?” Easton said, shooing Colin out of the way as he reached the bottom of the steps, then lifted them into place and closed the attic door. “She has every one of you wrapped around her finger, and you know it.”

Colin sighed. “Just don’t let her hear you say that.”

Sarah gestured for Easton to bend down so she could brush cobwebs off his hair. “Boys, I think that secret’s well and truly out of the bag. Let’s head down and see what kind of treasure you’ve found. Where was this again? I can’t imagine how we’ve missed it all these years.”

“The front corner, over the dormer space for one of the bedrooms,” Easton said as the three of them descended to the first floor. He held the door for her and Colin to pass, drawing in a deep breath of fresh air as he stepped onto the porch. “Ah, that breeze feels good. Anyhow, it was tucked kind of to the side, and it’s really dark back there. I can see how it got missed. What’s in it, do you think?”

“We’ll find out.” Sarah frowned as Easton adjusted the compression glove on his left hand. “Everything okay?”

“What?” He glanced at his hand as though he hadn’t realized he was touching the glove. “Oh, yeah. It’s fine. The glove was just a little loose. It isn’t hurting or anything, I promise. No need to shake your finger at me.” He winked and gave her a quick hug. “The glove really helps keep it from hurting when I use it a lot. I’ve almost gotten to the point where I can go without it most of the time, so long as I don’t do any heavy-duty lifting or whatnot.”

Last summer, he’d had a severe injury that had resulted in lasting damage to his hand. Though he was finally rebounding mentally, Sarah still worried.

Sadie joined them, tray with lemonade and glasses in hand, at the small table where they’d set up a sorting area. “I thought this might be nice. I could use some calories after all that work. I’ll grab some cookies and be right back.” She handed Sarah the damp cloth before she went.

“How’s the apprenticeship going, Colin?” Sarah poured their drinks while they waited for Sadie to return. “Is Emma a good teacher?”

“She is. I like it so far. I’m learning a lot. It’s sure not as simple as point and click like I thought,” he said with a smile. “I’m taking tons of notes to pass on to Sean, and I think our video quality is going to undergo a drastic improvement.”

He was spending the summer working under Emma at her photography studio, learning the basics of the trade. He and his brother Sean had a burgeoning online channel where they uploaded videos of camping and survival gear and techniques, as well as product reviews of the tools related to such.

“It isn’t his calling either,” Easton added, his blue eyes sparkling with mischief, “but he’s meeting all the ladies in town, so he doesn’t mind.”

“Shut up.” Colin snorted, his cheeks turning red. “Grandma, don’t pay him any attention.”

Sarah laughed. “Oh, honey, I’m taking notes!”

After they finished their snack, Sarah handed Sadie the damp rag. “Do the honors?”

“Please and thank you,” Sadie said with a wink. “If there’s a million dollars in here, I’m claiming half.”

Colin tossed a wadded-up napkin at her. “Half? Squirt, there are four of us here. Your math is off.”

She scoffed as she laid the dirty rag aside. “No, it isn’t. Consider your quarter my reward for putting up with you two. You and Easton can split his part. Right, Grandma?”

“Absolutely. That sounds like a solid plan to me.”

Sadie scooted the box closer to Sarah, then lifted the lid. “Treasure! What is it?”

“Oh, goodness. It’s a cap and gown.” Sarah picked up the cap and flipped it over. “John’s, from his eighth-grade graduation. I thought this disappeared years and years ago.” She held up the gown with a fond smile. “He hit a growth spurt that spring, and the gown ended up being at least three inches shorter than it should have been. You could almost see the knees of his pants, it was so short.” She handed it to Easton to fold.

“Aww, look! Pictures that your mom drew.” Sadie held up the stack of papers, then handed it to Easton. The faded, yellowed sheet on top featured a crude drawing of a family of seven shown from the perspective of a then-four-year-old Rachel.

But what captured Sarah’s attention was the intricately carved box that had been hidden beneath the papers. When Sadie reached for it, Sarah stopped her with a gentle hand. “Let me. Oh. Oh, my.”

With fingers that shook, she traced the flowers carved into the top of the wooden box. A foot square and around eight inches tall, it was a box Sarah had thought was truly lost and gone forever, a box whose contents she and Owen had mourned. Almost afraid to breathe, Sarah lifted the box onto her lap, then closed her eyes briefly, saying a prayer the contents were intact, before she opened the lid. When she saw the neat stacks of envelopes, dozens of letters tied with ribbons, lovingly tucked away so many years ago, she gasped.

“Grandma?” Colin’s concerned voice interrupted her thoughts. “Are you okay?”

Though her smile trembled and fell apart before she could stop it, Sarah nodded. She wiped her damp cheeks, chasing the tears that slowly fell with a clean napkin. “Yes, I’m fine. Sweetie, go get your grandfather. He needs to see this.”

Colin hesitated only a second, evaluating her words, then hurried off the porch, heading for the studio behind the house. Owen was working there with Sophie, their granddaughter by marriage and his assistant.

“What is it?” Sadie asked quietly.

“Letters. Beautiful, wonderful letters.” Sarah rested her hand on the girl’s head then sighed. “What else is in the big box?”

Sadie kissed the back of Sarah’s hand, then sat forward. “Looks like an old afghan and a raggedy doll with a bad haircut.” She pulled the items out.

“That doll is Emma’s,” Sarah said with a soft laugh, regaining some of her equilibrium. “She didn’t have a single one with normal hair. If she wasn’t trying to dye it or curl it, she was cutting it to their scalps, the poor things. As for the afghan, I have no idea where it came from.”

Easton grinned. “Knowing Aunt Emma, I’m surprised she didn’t try to blow her dolls up.”

Sarah pursed her lips. “Oh, she did. I think that phase started when she was about ten or eleven. She put those dolls through the torments of the damned—much more so than the boys ever thought about doing with their toys. Owen didn’t know whether to be worried or proud.”

Voices sounded from inside, and a moment later, the door opened. Out came Owen, Colin, and Sophie, who carried her daughter, baby Owen. Judging by the looks on their faces, Sarah hadn’t managed to convince Colin she was okay after all.

“What’s wrong?” Owen asked, looking her over carefully.

But before Sarah could answer, he spied the box in her lap and went still. Even from a distance, Sarah saw his throat working. He looked at her, the question in his eyes easy for her to understand.

“They’re here,” she said.

He cleared his throat and slowly approached, moving as though he was afraid the box would disappear if he went too fast. Once he’d pulled a chair close and sat down, Sarah handed him the box. The kids were all silent as he laid his hands flat on the top.

“Where was it?” he asked after a minute.

Easton answered, his voice quiet. “The attic, tucked into a corner.”

Owen tipped his head in acknowledgment, then took a deep breath and lifted the lid. He stared at the contents for a moment, two, then closed the box. After a minute, he huffed, staring out over the pasture between the house and the newly renovated barn, blinking fast. “Well. Well, then. I wasn’t expecting to ever see these again.”

“What are they?” Sophie asked softly as she rubbed the baby’s back. “If you don’t mind telling us, that is.”

Sarah held her hand out to Owen, and he clasped it tightly. “You all know how prolific a letter writer this man is, and you probably all know about the letters each child and grandchild receives at a certain point in their lives.”

Everyone except Sadie nodded. “Fill me in?” she asked.

“Grandpa writes letters when we’re all born or when we officially join the family,” Colin said, looking at Sophie. “When we turn eighteen, we get those letters as a gift.”

“Or in my case, on my wedding day,” Sophie added. Her eyes widened and she gasped. “Oh, wow! Are those the lost letters I’ve heard about?”

Sarah smiled. “They are. See, when Amelia was about a year old, maybe? This box disappeared. It has all the letters Owen wrote the kids when they were born or anytime something momentous happened and he wanted to remember it on paper for them.”

Owen cleared his throat. “It also has all the letters Sarah had written me. We turned this house and the studio upside down when the box vanished. It was just gone one day. I kept it in the studio, you see, high up on a shelf and behind some things so that it was safe from a horde of curious little Campbells. I didn’t realize it was gone until I went to put a letter inside and the box wasn’t where it was supposed to be.”

That had been a somber day, Sarah recalled. The weeks that followed had felt a bit hollow as realization set in that the letters were truly gone. “We were devastated. After a while, Owen tried to recreate the letters for the kids, but it was still a big loss for both of us.”

“So this really was a treasure box,” Sadie said around a sniffle. She leaned her head against Owen’s leg. “That’s better than a million dollars any day.”

Everyone laughed, but Owen was nodding, solemn. “Yes, it is. Kids, I don’t know what to say other than thank you.”

Easton waved the words away. “You know that’s not necessary. I’m glad that Colin tripped on the corner of the box and found it.”

“No kidding,” Colin said. “We wouldn’t have seen it otherwise. It blended right in.”

“All these years…” Owen sighed. “I don’t think I realized how much I missed this box until just now, or maybe it’s more accurate to say I’d pushed aside the heartache. I wonder how it got up there.”

“What will you do with the letters?” Sophie asked, lightly bouncing the baby. Baby Owen was teething, and as a result, she was fussy. “Shh, sweetie, it’s okay. Oh, she’s so miserable. Poor thing. Mommy can’t seem to do anything to help you either.”

“Want me to try?” Easton asked.

“You do seem to have the touch.” Sophie handed him the baby, who promptly curled up on his shoulder with a contented sound, chewing on the frozen ring she held for all she was worth. Sophie exhaled and shoved her hair back, slumping against one of the porch posts. “So you’re moving in with us tonight, right?”

Easton glanced at her. “If you’ll fix me up with some of Noah’s marinara, absolutely. Though I don’t know about leaving this hoodlum alone in my house.” He gestured to Colin, who snorted. They were rooming together in Easton’s rental while Colin was in town.

Sophie touched Easton’s shoulder. “I’m serious. Do you know how long it’s been since we slept? I can pack you a bag and get the playpen… you can take her home with you.”

The senior Owen laughed. “I remember those days all too well. You know we’ll be happy to keep her if you and Noah need rest.”

“I know, but I hate to ask the two of you. She’s so fussy lately, except when Easton holds her.”

Owen raised an eyebrow. “Young lady, I think you just came one hair of telling us we’re too old to babysit.”

Sarah could tell he was amused, not offended, and she laughed.

Sophie huffed. “I would never say that. But you’ve certainly earned the right not to be disturbed by a teething baby. We’re fine. Just… sleep deprived.”

Easton glanced at Colin, who nodded. “We can stay here tonight, and you can leave her with the five of us. That way the experts are here to supervise, and you and Noah get some much-needed rest. How does that sound?”

Sophie placed a smacking kiss on his forehead. “That, I can live with. Name your price.”

“You have it—marinara. And maybe a jar of pesto, if you have any.”

Noah’s concoctions were famous within the family, and they were often used as bartering items.

“Deal. So… the letters?” Sophie asked, sinking down to sit cross-legged on the floor.

Owen traced the edges of the lid. “I’ll read them, and the ones I wrote for the kids, I’ll give to them. The rest…” He glanced at Sarah, his eyes full of warmth and love. “Well, those will stay with us.”

“Exactly where they belong,” Sarah said softly. “I think this might just be the most successful purge we’ve ever done.”

He picked up her hand and laced their fingers together. “I’d say it definitely is.”


 

October 3, 1960

Sunlight flooded the room when Owen rolled over, coming awake slowly to the sounds of birds chirping. The open windows carried their cheery song inside to greet him, borne on the back of the soft breeze loaded with the unique crispness of fall air, and a bit of a chill as well. The bed was empty—no surprise given that Sarah had left for work hours earlier. A bleary-eyed glance at the clock showed Owen that he’d slept well past noon again, and he let his head fall back to the pillows with a muffled curse.

He was tempted to simply roll over and go back to sleep, but he had a list of chores that seemed miles long, tasks that had been accumulating and wouldn’t take care of themselves.

For the past week and a half, he’d been on a tight schedule, working from morning until the wee hours to finish up the final bits of the first draft of his latest H. O. McLemore book. This would be the first installment he’d completed since becoming Sarah’s husband, and working around the needs of a wife and the logistics of having his writing studio in their home, largely in their bedroom, had presented a unique set of challenges he naively hadn’t been expecting.

They’d muddled through things, not without some bumps and bruises, and he’d finally been able to close the lid on this latest book last night. He knew Sarah would be relieved.

“Thank God,” he said around a yawn, sitting up to rub still-tired hands across his face. “You’re going to have some fence-mending to do, I expect. At this rate, you might not even get a birthday cake.”

Deciding a hot shower was first on his list of priorities, he padded naked to the bathroom as he considered how to make amends to his wife.

He knew he wasn’t really in the doghouse—Sarah was irritated, not angry. She was as eager for their trip to Laurel County tomorrow as he was. They planned to spend a couple of days with Owen’s uncle and aunt, and Owen figured one of the reasons for that was the birthday party he suspected she’d been setting up with his aunt Amy. It’d be his first birthday since they were married, and that fact alone made it special.

While the first months of their marriage hadn’t been easy, what with dealing with Sarah’s grief over losing her niece and nephew earlier that year, they’d been good months. So good, in fact, that Owen still expected to wake up and find everything had all been a dream, that Sarah wasn’t real, that none of this life he was coming to cherish existed outside his dreams.

If that happened, he didn’t know if he’d be able to stand it. With any luck and a lot of effort, that wouldn’t ever happen.

As he toweled off, mentally running through the list of things he needed to do, a familiar scent wafted into the bathroom to tease his nose. Stilling, Owen sniffed, then he inhaled more deeply. “Coffee?”

With the towel wound around his waist, he opened the door and listened. A soft rustling sounded from the bedroom.

“Hello? Sarah? Are you here?”

She met him at the door with a soft smile. “Morning, sleepyhead. I brought you coffee.”

Owen kissed her, distracted as he tried to puzzle out what was going on. “What are you doing here? Is everything okay?”

She bit her lip. “I think so. I’d planned to take half the day off as a surprise, but when I got there, the power was out, so we didn’t open. I went ahead and did the grocery shopping and a couple of other things, then I came home.” She trailed him to the dresser, taking the towel and holding it in front of her as he pulled clothes from the drawers. All the while, she observed him. “That never gets old, you know.”

“What? Watching me?”

She nodded, her cheeks turning a bit pink. Though she was smiling, tension was plain in every line of her body.

Owen decided to play it light. “Yeah, well, you’re the lucky one, I guess. I’m always asleep when you get ready for the day. Most of the time anyhow.” Once he had pants on, he went to her and tossed the towel aside. Wrapping her in a loose embrace, he studied her. “What’s wrong?”

Sarah closed her eyes and laid her cheek against his chest, over his heart. “I wrote you something.”

“Okay.”

After a moment, she pulled back with a huff and took an envelope from the back pocket of her jeans, but she didn’t give it to him right away. Instead, she clasped it tightly, biting her lip so hard that Owen winced.

“Here,” she finally said, handing it over. “Read it. Please.”

Mouth dry, Owen took the envelope and moved to the bed, easing onto the side. He had a gut feeling he needed to sit down to find out whatever was going on.

As he carefully split the seal, Sarah crossed her arms and walked to stand in front of the door that opened onto the deck outside the bedroom. He stared at her back, wondering if this was the moment every dream he had would come crashing down around him, and pulled the folded paper from the envelope. Opening it took every bit of mental strength he could muster, and still, for a few seconds, he couldn’t bring himself to look at the words.

When he did, they didn’t make sense. Two words, written in Sarah’s neat and feminine hand. Two words that, yes, completely changed everything, just not in the way he’d been dreading.

I’m pregnant.

Stunned, Owen stared at the paper, barely aware that he was shaking his head with befuddled shock. “You… wha… how?” Memories of one exceptionally torrid, steamy night where things had gotten out of hand a couple of months ago popped into his mind with what he could have sworn was a ding. “Oh.”

Sarah turned, her countenance somber and concerned. “Yes, oh. I’m sorry.”

Owen didn’t know what to say, but he did know what he had to do—if he could get his body to cooperate. He got to his feet, embarrassed to find them a bit weak, and managed to cross the distance between them. Without a word, he folded her into a hug and held on tight, his nerves settling as soon as he felt the realness of her in his arms.

After a brief hesitation, she hugged him back.

“Pregnant. As in… with child. My child. Our child,” he whispered, lifting his face to gaze down at her. He cupped her cheek, pushing back a stray hair. “Are you sure?”

She nodded. “I went to the doctor this morning to find out. Is this… I know this isn’t what we’d planned.”

Solemnly, Owen kissed her forehead. “No, it isn’t. I’m not angry, if that’s what you’re worried about. Are you okay? What’d the doctor say? It’s a boy, right?”

She ducked her head and chuckled. “That, we don’t know. He said I’m fine and that everything looks perfectly normal. I’m about two months along, we think. I’m almost certain that I know when we, uh… when we conceived. I kind of figured we were in trouble as soon as that happened, but it was worth it.” When he laughed, she raised her head, surprised. “What’s funny?”

“We are. And yes—it was worth it. Oh, Sarah Jane,” he whispered before kissing her. “I love you.”

She clung to him as tightly as he was holding her. “You mean that?”

“Yes, I do. All of it—that night being worth this result and that I love you. A baby… I can’t grasp what that means fully. We’re going to be parents.” He was grinning too widely and probably looked like a fool, but he didn’t care. “We’re gonna need a bigger room.”

Sarah laughed softly, and her voice was tight with emotion when she spoke. “Probably, yes. I was so afraid you’d be upset. I know the idea of children scares you a bit.”

He held her close, relishing the feel of her. “No. I couldn’t be happier. How could a baby be a bad thing?” he asked in a whisper. Owen brushed his mouth against hers, then came back for a deeper kiss. “I’d say that’s the best birthday present anyone has ever given me. Hands down, I know it is.”

Her lips curved. “Does that mean my note is going in your box?”

“Oh, yes. One of these days, many years in the future, we’ll look back through that box and fall in love with each other all over again. I can hardly wait.”

“That implies we’re going to fall out of love at some point,” she said, tracing his lower lip with her fingertip, her eyebrows arched.

Owen shook his head and captured her hand, kissing the palm. “Never. Not for the rest of my days and beyond.”

Her smile was beautiful and full of happiness and love. “Sounds good to me.”


 

April 21, 1961

Dear John David Campbell,

Welcome to the world, my son. Weighing in at eight pounds, two ounces, you arrived this morning at 3:34 a.m.—much to your mother’s overwhelming relief and my own personal dread over your birth itself—without a single complication. Your doctor says you are perfect and that your mother did an excellent job of hatching you. His words, not mine. We arrived at the hospital at nine last night and thought we were in for a long haul. Not so long as it turned out in terms of hours and minutes, but it felt like it lasted forever to this scared papa. Papa? Did you see that, John David? I’m someone’s papa!

I’ve tried to write this letter three times now, and each time, I’ve not been able to find the words to describe adequately all the emotions I felt holding you for the first time, looking down into your wrinkled little face. I can hardly believe you’re real. I love you so much that it hurts.

My heart is breaking, but in a beautiful way, much like when I met and fell in love with your mother. Only this is so much more personal somehow. Knowing you were created in love, it feels a bit like I’m a magician. Well, your mother and I are magicians. Although maybe in this turn of events, I’m the assistant. She did all the work.

You look very much like a cranky old man irritated at having had his pleasant nap interrupted. As comfortable as you were, I assure you, son, there are adventures to be had out here in the world that will eclipse your wildest dreams.

Much to my surprise, as I thought babies were somewhat all the same, you also bear a striking resemblance to both your mother and to me, though I think you lean more toward having her features. I can’t say this is disappointing—I happen to think your mother is the most beautiful woman in the world. If you grow up to look like her—a masculine version, that is—all you’ll have to do is smile and the girls will come running. Let’s not put that into practice too early, okay? Let your old man adjust to the idea of having you here first.

You’re named after your grandfather Ira David Browning, a man you’ll not have the fortune to meet in this lifetime. Your mother’s father was a good man, a kind man, and though I’m not fond of the convention of naming children after their elders, I didn’t mind in the least when Sarah made that request. Too many generations named after one another tends to muddy the genealogy a bit, you see. She knows this, and when she told me what she wanted to name you in full—John David—I balked at first.

But then she smiled and told me that she just had a feeling you were meant to be John David, and I was helpless to deny her. It’s the smile that did it. Sarah Jane Campbell can get anything she wants with that smile. Thank goodness she doesn’t abuse that power over me. That’s something you’ll learn about your mother—she’s fair and generous, not stingy or petty at all. Truly, you couldn’t do better.

Right now, you have a spiky little hairdo, a head full of dark, downy fluff that stands straight up in the middle. It’s too soft to be believed, and though your mother warns me it will probably fall out while your “real” hair comes in, I hope it stays. Your eyes, also something I’ve been told will change, are blue. They’re not the sharp sapphire-blue of your mother’s, but again… I hope they turn that shade. I’m quite partial to it.

Speaking of your mother, she’s exhausted but as pleased as punch to have you here. She’s worked hard these last nine and a half months, and I think you’ll find yourself in very capable hands. She’s already fought the nurses for the right to feed you on her own without a bottle. No small task, I assure you. Apparently, the all-knowing “they” have said it’s better for babies to have bottles nowadays, what with the advances in food science we’ve made in recent years. I thought your mother was going to slap the nurse into next year when the woman informed Sarah that the natural method just isn’t done anymore.

Fortunately, your doctor intervened and sided with your mother before we had to start a true confrontation. He was a bit surprised to find out she plans to go home tomorrow afternoon, as staying in the hospital several days following a birth has also become the norm. But Sarah won’t be talked out of it. She told me she can’t bear the thought of being away from our home any longer than is necessary.

Given that she’s the first woman in her family to give birth in a hospital, that all the others have done so at home and somehow managed to (mostly) survive and tell the tale, she figures two nights in the hospital will be more than enough time for her body to rest. Yes, the “mostly” terrifies me, but that’s my emotions speaking, not logic.

I plan to wait and see how she feels tomorrow before I weigh in with my final opinion. I’ll decide then if that’s a battle I need to pick to fight. I won’t let her risk her health, but I trust Sarah to know what’s best for herself. I’ll admit that I don’t like the idea of leaving the two of you here while I am cast out onto the streets any more than she does. Son, that might be a bit of an exaggeration about being cast out but not by much.

The nurses and doctors seem to take it as routine behavior for the father not to want to stay with his family. I saw two other men in the waiting room while Sarah was having you, both old hats at the game, and both only stuck around long enough to tell the nurse they were going to a nearby bar to tie one on. They asked me to join them, but I declined. Okay, let’s be honest—I bit their heads off for making the suggestion.

I hope when you grow up, you’re the kind of man who wants to be there for his family even when he’d rather be anywhere else—not because it’s a burdensome task, but because it hurts to know you’re helpless.

My God, John… the notion that you’re going to be an adult someday…

You’re so tiny now, I’m terrified I’ll drop you and destroy you. But you have such a strong grip! You managed to Houdini your way out of that blanket the nurse had you swaddled in, and before she could get back to you to fix that, you were holding onto my finger as tightly as you could. Sarah dismissed her from the room so we could spend some time alone with you, another move that didn’t endear your mother to the nursing staff.

Once you get to know Sarah, you’ll know she didn’t give one whit of a second thought to that nurse’s offended sensibilities. She wasn’t rude or mean, but the nurse knew by that point Sarah meant business. Sarah’s primary concern is you, and I think I’m in second place for now. John, I’m all right with that. I don’t mind sharing her with you in the least, as she holds inside her enough love for both of us.

I do think I’ll have a hard time sharing the two of you with the world. I want to carry you both away to some isolated place where we know no one, where nothing sad or tragic can ever hurt you. Already though, people are starting to show up to visit you two. Another good reason for us to head back to the farm as soon as we can. Though I don’t think that’s going to stop people from visiting.

My little isolated world is opening up, isn’t it? I’m not entirely comfortable with that, but your mother looks out for me, makes sure the only people we invite to our home are people who are good and kind, or at least honest. Now, while she’s recovering from bringing you into the world, I’ll need to do the same for her. I hope I can manage that without scaring people away.

That brings me around to thinking again about who and what you might become as you grow older. The “what” scares me the most. Once you’re old enough to know about me, I wonder if you’ll look at me with fear and loathing or if you’ll be full of wide-eyed amazement like your mother.

I’ve still not managed to show her the wolf inside, but I surprised her with the deer a couple of times. Her laughter and fascination, her utter delight at seeing me like that, it went a long way toward starting to heal the wounds I didn’t like acknowledging I still had. Maybe someday, you and I can run together, much like Uncle Eli and his boys do or like I do when I’m with them. I’m starting to believe I’d like that very much, being able to run the hills with my sons. Sons… let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Your mother may be too tired to consider another child.

I hope you don’t want any sisters. Girls are too much trouble, though if your mother insisted, I’d probably give in. But it’d be much more peaceful with boys, don’t you think?

It’s late here, my son, and I need to try to get some rest. That’s what everyone said, “Go home, Owen. Get some sleep, Owen. You’re going to need it.” But the bed is empty without your mother. The house is too quiet, even though I’m staying with your aunt Gilly’s parents in town. I may have to try to sneak into the hospital tonight, see if I can manage to get past the night-shift nurses and keep an eye on you and your mother. I don’t see myself getting much rest here without the two of you.

I love you, John David Campbell. I hope you grow up in a beautiful world, that you know you’re loved from the very first instant you drew breath until the last—and I pray to a God I don’t even know I believe in that that will be a hundred years down the long, happy road. It doesn’t matter to me what you become, what kind of job you have, whether you’re rich or just able to provide for yourself, so long as you’re happy.

I hope you see the value in people first, instead of possessions. I hope you understand the joy brought by love and don’t see many of the heartaches. I hope someday you find a woman who makes your world right just by walking into the room, the way your mother does for me. I can hardly wait to watch you grow, though I’m already dreading the time that will pass all too quickly.

Welcome to the world, my first son, my first child, my second, precious love.

Your father,

Henry Owen Campbell


 

April 19, 1963

Sarah had the farmhouse all to herself, and she relished the peace and quiet. Owen had taken John to the post office for a bit so she could catch her breath, and she’d snatched the opportunity to explore the vacant house next door to the studio they called home.

From the first time she’d walked in the door years ago, when she and Owen were going together, she’d felt that the structure held the potential to be a warm and welcoming home in every sense of the word. Most of the furniture was gone, given to Owen’s aunt and uncle after a house fire. The house needed updating, as the plumbing and wiring weren’t up to current safety standards. The kitchen was tiny, not big enough to house what was turning out to be a growing family. The four bedrooms upstairs were smallish and somewhat cramped. But the bones of the house were good.

The only thing holding Sarah back from suggesting the family move out of the tiny studio and into the roomier farmhouse was Owen’s still-painful emotional response to the place. He’d spent his childhood in this house, and it hadn’t been a good one.

Given that she was almost five months pregnant, she knew Owen was aware of the need for more room. And she’d seen him over here in the larger farmhouse, and seen evidence of his presence in it, more than once in recent months. She was trying to give him time to come to terms with their need for a larger home on his own. But today… well, today she’d received news that put a rush on her making that suggestion.

With a heavy groan born more of normal pregnancy fatigue than anything, she sat down at the old kitchen table and stared out the window, across the garden that separated the main house from the studio.

“Oh, husband… I hope you’re more ready for this than I think you are. We’re running out of options and fast.” Giving herself a shake, she picked up the pen and started to write on the paper she’d brought with her. After all, so much of their life had been recorded in letters to or from one or the other; it seemed only proper that this milestone be written down as well.

My Deer-est Owen,

I don’t quite know how to tell you this… there’s really no easy way to put it. That second son you’ve been looking forward to having in a few months? Might be bringing a friend along.

Dr. Boggs was in the library today to pick up books. He came in, took one look at me, and he started laughing. “Sarah Campbell,” he said, “you’re carrying twins.”

Mind you, I wasn’t thrilled by the laughter, and I was quite stunned by his proclamation. I told him he was being ridiculous. I didn’t appreciate the humor either, and he knew that. But the man was adamant.

“It’s not ridiculous unless you gave me incorrect dates of certain things when you came in for your pregnancy test, young lady. Just how certain are you about those dates?” he asked in a low voice.

Thankfully, we were separated from everyone else, so no one could overhear our conversation. I know my face had to be as red as a beet. “I’m quite certain, sir, thank you very much. What in the world makes you say I’m having twins?”

There’s a look that comes across a man’s face when a woman asks him a question he’s not prepared to answer. Dr. Boggs has always been unflappable, at least in my experience, but today? Today he wore that expression. I gave in and answered for him, somewhat embarrassed even though I know I had no reason to be.

“It’s because I’m already as big as a house, isn’t it? And it isn’t fat—it’s all baby.”

He had the grace to blush, but he agreed. He also said that he’d have pegged me for being at least two more months along than where I am and asked if I had time to come by the office for an examination.

As I was quite concerned by this point, I made the time. Once he was finished, he was even more certain that I’m carrying twins. He says everything is looking fine so far and the baby, or babies, and I seem to be as healthy as can be, but he doesn’t want to take chances. He wants me to go to half days at work as soon as possible, and he expects to put me on house arrest—his words—before another month or six weeks is out. And he says if I’m not expecting twins, he’ll eat his stethoscope.

Given that the man delivers half the babies in this county and three other counties as well… I suspect he’s not wrong.

Owen, I cried. I won’t lie. I wasn’t expecting this. Why is it our children always seem to surprise us so? Mama would probably say they’re getting us ready for dealing with them as they grow up.

Twins… where in the world are we going to put them?

Also, you do realize this makes your odds of getting through parenthood without daughters even slimmer, don’t you? You poor man. It’d be your luck if these were both girls. I’ll try to pretend that your reaction to that notion doesn’t make me laugh. I’m not that good at pretending however, and surely you’ll allow me a bit of humor in what has just become a daunting situation.

As discombobulated as I am at the moment, I’m also certain we’ll muddle through this and all will be well. After all, Johnny is turning out to be such a good baby, and we haven’t broken him yet. There’s still time for that I suppose, but I have hope that we’ll do okay.

Regardless of how many of your children I’m toting around, one thing remains steadfast, and that’s my love for you and for our family, whatever it looks like. I couldn’t ask for a better father for my children, a better husband for myself. I couldn’t have dreamed you to be any more perfect than you are, even as you’re infuriatingly stubborn from time to time, you “deer” man. I wouldn’t change an instant of this life we’ve built… except maybe to have more bathrooms. Somehow, I think that’s going to come in handy in the very near future.

With all my love and my heart,

Sarah

 

Sitting back with a sigh, she placed her hands on either side of the admittedly not-small baby bump. When two distinct kicks, timed a split second apart, landed on each of her palms, Sarah laughed. “I should have known. Even for a Campbell baby, you’re too active. I should have known there was more than one of you.” And she couldn’t discount the fact that she’d felt so much “more pregnant” this time around, something she’d been trying to explain for weeks.

Eyes closed, she listened to the sounds of the old farmhouse, trying to imagine what it would be like with children running here and there, dashing in and out, making all kinds of noise. It’d be pure mayhem, a cacophony of happiness and chaos, much like her own childhood had been. Like Owen’s childhood should have been.

“Maybe we can rebuild this house, make it our own, and all those bad memories can be purged,” she said softly as the sound of a car door came from outside.

A glance at the studio told her Owen was back, and as she watched him come around to the passenger side of his truck to retrieve John, she smiled. He really was a good father, having settled into the role as naturally as though he’d been made for that purpose. He enjoyed their son, and when she’d started exhibiting the signs and symptoms of early pregnancy a few months back, he’d been thrilled. There was still a sense of underlying concern, a thread that Sarah saw rise up in him now and again, but she really felt that some of his pain and hurt from long ago was starting to fade.

“I hope I’m right,” she muttered as he and John headed across the garden toward the farmhouse. “We can make this place good again. We need to make it good again, for you as much as for our family. All we have to do is try.”

And if there was one thing Sarah was learning she was good at, it was turning “try” into “do,” especially when it came to helping Owen Campbell heal old wounds.

* * *

Owen didn’t try to pretend he wasn’t nervous as he followed John’s mad dash across the garden. He’d done a lot of thinking and re-thinking, considering and weighing options, in the last few weeks. Very soon, his little studio would be overrun with babies, at least if his suspicions turned out to be true, and he knew he was in a race against time to set things in order before that happened.

To that end, he’d come up with a plan, one he felt comfortable suggesting to Sarah, and he was finally ready to present it to her.

“I just hope I’ve read things correctly,” he told John, who’d stopped to admire a butterfly that had landed on a flower. He scooped up the toddler, lifting him high above his head to elicit a happy squeal. “Let’s go find your mama.”

“Mama!” John pointed toward the kitchen door, where Sarah had appeared.

Owen slowed to stare, taking in the sight of her pregnant figure, and his heart stuttered with love as she smiled at them. He’d figured out how to broach the subject of their housing; he was still trying to find the words to explain to his sweet wife that he was concerned because she was bigger than he remembered her being at this point in her pregnancy when she’d carried John.

The last thing he wanted to do was hurt her feelings or have her think he believed her to be fat. If he didn’t tread carefully around that can of worms, he might find himself sleeping in the barn.

“How was your trip?” She accepted John’s hug and then Owen’s kiss after he set the boy on his feet.

“Productive, I think. Did you rest?” Owen touched her belly, rubbing gently.

She caught his hand and squeezed it, then went inside. “I did, enough for now anyways. I wrote you a letter. I don’t know whether to give it to you now or later though.”

He smiled. “How about we talk first? I have something to show you.”

Sarah’s eyes lit up. “A present?” She bit her lip and rubbed her hands together. “What is it?”

“Have a seat, and I’ll show you.” He pulled a rolled-up sheaf of papers from his back pocket and tapped it on his palm. “Is he okay to play with those?”

John had settled on the floor in front of the kitchen sink, where he’d opened the doors and pulled out some old bowls. He was babbling away to them, holding a conversation only he could understand.

“Oh, yes. That’s his spot,” Sarah said with a chuckle. “I’ve baby-proofed all the cabinets in here. It’s his favorite place to play when I come over to clean or what have you. What do you have there?”

Drawing in a deep breath, Owen took the seat opposite her at the small table and handed her the house plans he’d sketched up. “Hopefully, something you’ll like.” He hardly dared to breathe as she looked them over.

Sarah paused on the top page, studying it, smoothing the paper with a whisper of a touch that wouldn’t smudge the sketch. “That… this is the farmhouse. With an addition?” She glanced up, and he nodded. “Oh.”

“Do you like it?” Hands clasped together tightly in front of him on the table, it was all Owen could do not to take the papers and shuffle through them, pointing out all the ideas he’d had.

A half smile grew on her face, turning into a soft laugh as she moved on to the second page. She shook her head after a second and slid a folded piece of paper across to him. “I love you. I think you’d best read this now. My Owen.” Her gaze was warm and full of love as he picked up the letter.

As soon as he read the first two paragraphs, he burst into laughter. Stunned, somewhat rueful, but still delighted laughter. For a full minute, he couldn’t do anything except laugh, though there were a few tears mixed in and snorts as well, enough to dampen his eyes and heat his face with embarrassment.

“You took that news better than I expected,” she told him drolly with a grin and a wink.

He came around and dropped to his knees before putting his arms around Sarah and resting his cheek on her belly. He was still amused, even as his softer emotions rose.

“I was trying to figure out how in the world to tell you my suspicions,” he finally said. “You know twins do run in the Wells family.”

She threaded her fingers through his hair, stroking it back off his face. “I do recall that, yes. You aren’t upset?”

Owen kissed her hand, then sat back on his haunches as John came over to see what was going on. Wrapping his arms around his son, Owen sank to the floor and pulled the boy with him, tickling him before holding him close. “No. But are you okay?”

“Yes, I’m fine.” Sarah leveled a look at him. “Didn’t you read the whole letter?”

He gave a sheepish shrug. “I didn’t. Read the rest to me, please?”

She made a face at him then complied. When she reached the part about his odds for getting girls being increased, Owen grimaced.

“You hadn’t thought about that, had you?” she said, wrinkling her nose before sticking her tongue out at him.

Owen gave a mock scowl. “Careful who you point that thing at. I might have to come up with suggestions for what you can do with it.”

Eyes wide, Sarah shushed him. “Little ears!”

He glanced at John, who was nearly asleep. “He’s out. Besides, he’s decades away from understanding what I said.”

She shook her finger at him, then finished reading the letter aloud. “I do adore you. I hope you know that. Tell me what you’re thinking here?” She tapped the sketches, looking through the pages. She got to the last one and stopped. “Oh, this is nice.”

“The kitchen?” Owen nodded when she held it up. “I thought you’d like that. This room is too small, and if we’re already adding on a wing, it wouldn’t be that hard to move the back wall out. We could double the size of the kitchen, and we’d only lose that little bit of space in the garden where things don’t grow so well anyhow.”

He’d kept the overall layout of the house generally the same with a few modifications here and there, such as moving doors and adding windows. The biggest changes were the plans he’d drawn to add a large master bedroom suite downstairs at the back of the house and to the side, with a sitting room that would connect the kitchen to the bedroom, and a large room upstairs, over the bedroom, that the kids could use as a playroom.

“You’ve made the living room bigger,” she said.

“Yes, and the two bedrooms overtop of them too. My room and Harlan’s. They’re too small for active boys. The other rooms are decent-sized already. The bathroom up there needs updating. All the plumbing does, I expect, and we’d need to switch to a circuit box instead of the fuses, so the house would have to be rewired.

“It’s a lot of work, but I stopped by the hardware store today and talked to Conrad. He knows a good man who does construction, and he’s looking for a job right now. I worked with him a little when we built the studio, but since Uncle Eli’s crew was here to help, I didn’t need him much. If you’re amenable to this, I thought we might call the guy and have him come up, give us a price. Conrad already looked the plans over and gave me a rough estimate.” He told her the number.

Sarah winced. “That’s with the family discount?”

“It is.”

Owen’s father and Conrad, brothers, had jointly owned the hardware store until Hank Campbell’s death several years earlier. Owen, not interested in the family business, had sold his interest to Conrad soon after.

She sighed. “That’s a lot of money, and that isn’t counting how much this builder would charge.”

Owen shifted John to a more comfortable position. “No, but we can more than afford it. I’m not concerned so much about the money as I am about getting you and our children into a safe, comfortable home as soon as we can. Do you like what I’ve come up with? It’s your house too. I want your input.”

When she shook her head, he was certain he’d messed up, but she cleared her throat and touched the first sketch, the one showing the front of the house with the addition. “There are a few tiny things I would change, but Owen… this feels like a home.” She grabbed a napkin off the table and blotted her eyes. “Would you be happy here?”

The question was a serious one, and it deserved a serious answer. Gazing at John, who’d curled against his chest with absolute trust, Owen thought about all the pain and turmoil that had taken place in this house over the years. He’d had a rough way to go with his father and brother once he’d become a teenager, and those battles had left deep emotional scars.

“We’d be changing so much about this house, in big ways and small, and we’d be moving in here with our babies, with our furniture and belongings and memories to make… I’d like to take this house back. For them, for us. And for myself too, I guess,” he admitted softly.

With a tiny grunt, Sarah joined him on the floor, leaning against his side to lay her hand over his where it curled around their son. “Then I think we’d best get started. Let’s make this place our home.”

Owen put his arm around her and drew her close to rest his head on hers. “I love you.” Looking at her, he knew without a doubt that he was loved for himself, that he was wanted—warts and all—and the house and its negative memories weren’t worth a tinker’s damn against the strength of that tremendous emotion.

Nothing that had happened in this house in the past would take away from the future, and at least for today, for this moment in time, for the first time since he’d turned thirteen years old and his world had fallen apart, he truly felt at peace.