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Ash Tree Lane

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At six months of pregnancy, there is little Maria Castle can’t still do.

She still tends to the little garden she managed to grow as soon as they moved into the house. The weather was kind to her plants so they managed to thrive, making their backyard alive with colours.

She still helps Frank fix the little things that need fixing around the house because she hates feeling useless. Besides, Frank likes to teach her what he knows and it offers them even more time to spend together.

Lastly, Maria still insists on painting the nursery for their baby girl though Frank said he wouldn’t mind doing it himself, just so she didn’t have to strain too much.

Frank has more than once tried to make her slow down and take a break; she suspects it's more for his peace of mind than hers, but it is amazing how much energy she has. Instead of wasting it by lying around the house, Maria chooses to channel it into creating something unique for their child.

Sitting on a plump cushion in the nursery, Max at her side with his eyes closed yet still alert, Maria works on the wall painting inspired by a children's book Frank bought not so long ago. The cover of the book features an adult bear holding a smaller bear, its babe. The second she saw it Maria thought how lovely it is and decided to paint it in the nursery, although she did add another adult bear so that they made a little family – just like they would as soon as her own babe decides to kick and scream her way out of her mama.

She hopes to finish it before the baby decides to come out and they have no time for anything other than her. The vibrant colours Maria chose to use, as opposed to the darker ones on the book cover, serve to open up the room and give it a softer look. She is nearly done with the first wall, there’s only some detail work to be done. So far, both Frank and her love how it is turning out, but he still insists he help her paint the rest of the room.

His protectiveness is endearing though at times tiresome.

Max whines beside her, nudging her foot with his wet nose, reminding her it’s time for a snack so Maria leaves her tools, makes a short trip to the bathroom to relieve herself since the baby is pretty comfortable sitting on her bladder the whole day, cleans the paint off her hands and forearms and heads downstairs to the kitchen. 

At the foot of the stairs, she finds Frank standing on a ladder, tampering with the wires that make up the hallway lighting. Maria takes a second to admire her husband, the way his biceps strain against his t-shirt, how his stubbled jaw clenches in annoyance when whatever he is doing fails to work.

It hasn't been long since they got married and most people say that it shows, because their infatuation with each other is obvious and still so strong. The way they say it makes her think they doubt it will last in the long run. Maybe it's because Frank and her are total opposites that in other circumstances, in some other universe, the two of them would never have even met let alone got married and have a family.

At times Maria can't believe it herself, the fortune that befell her and every night she says a prayer to God to make this last, to protect them, their love, their family, their home.

Slightly wobbly on her feet as she descends, she doesn’t even manage to announce her presence and Frank is already aware she is there.

“Hey, you okay?” he asks immediately, voice raspier than usual as he inclines his head down to look at her.

Always so worried.

Nodding, Maria descends the final few stairs with a huff and a groan and leaning for some support on the handrail, looks up at him. She stifles a smile, noting dust and cobwebs sticking to his hair and forehead. His t-shirt is drenched with sweat so Maria makes a mental note to leave him a clean shirt to change.

“What are you doing? I thought you fixed it already.”

Pursing his lips, Frank concentrates on the task. “Yeah, I thought so too. But last night I tried to turn on the lights and it didn’t work.”

“Hmm,” Maria mutters noncommittally, warning him to be careful and leaves him to it. She has no knowledge of electricity so she rather leaves it all to Frank. He's proven to be quite handy with pretty much everything these past months.

In the kitchen, Maria cooks up a couple of sandwiches, leaving one on the counter for Frank, right next to a glass of orange juice and a shirt she brought from the laundry room. Then, she follows the path to the backyard, bypassing Max's scattered toys. It already feels like they have a child with Max around, that Maria think them adjusting to their baby girl could be a piece of cake.

On the porch, she sits in a swing Frank had set up for her, makes place for Max and starts munching on her sandwich. The dog settles in beside her, head nestled into her lap.

The day is a quiet one, with light breeze that soothes her warm skin. She thinks about all the things she still needs to finish, all the things around the house that still needed to be done before the baby comes.

Cleaning up the basement. Installing new flooring and moving some the furniture upstairs. Stocking up on baby clothes and diapers. Finishing the nursery. 

It seems like an endless list for which they hardly have the time and it all keeps piling up.

Thankfully, Frank’s friends Curt and David agreed to help with the major stuff, so Maria chooses to focus on the little ones.

Sarah, David's wife, has already packed all of her daughter Leo's old baby clothes and even toys, Frank just needs to go pick it up. However, with his shifts being inconsistent and all the household work, Maria doubts he even remembers that. She’ll just make a drive over to the Liebermans herself one of these days. It would do her good to see someone else’s house and mess other than theirs, to speak with people in person rather than on the phone.

In all honesty, Maria was a bit afraid of doing parenting on their own but with Sarah and David's help, both Frank and she feel more confident. Leo has already signed up to be their designated babysitter and uncle Curt is on speed dial for anything they might need.

So far, their extended family has done more for them than they expected. It warms her heart to know they have people to rely on, since Frank has no family left and hers is hours away on the other end of the country.

Next to her, Max shoves his face further into her lap, his muzzle firmly pressed against her protruding belly. When the baby inside moves slightly, his ears perk up and he barks, as if answering it.

Laughing, Maria scratches his head as he lets out a satisfied sound, his attention still on his hidden pal. Nudging again, he barks happily when something touches his nose and jumps off the swing, running off into the yard.

Hearing the back door open, Maria doesn’t need to check who it is. Frank, wearing the clean shirt she left for him, takes a seat beside her, holding a sandwich she made. Noticing Max’s behaviour, he asks,

“The baby kicked him?”

“Yep. I swear it makes him happier than us to feel her kicks.”

Letting out a throaty laughter, Frank kisses Maria’s cheek, his free hand wandering to her belly. His large hand stroking her belly makes her choke up for some reason.

Damn hormones.

Frank says, “Doubt it. But she does say hi to him more often. Guess he’s her favourite.”

If she didn’t know any better, Maria would swear her husband is jealous of their dog. Because she knows better, she doesn’t comment on it. Instead, she leans her head on his shoulder and takes another bite.

They eat in silence for a few minutes before Max comes again, whining to be give some of their sandwiches. Frank gives him what’s left of his and draws Maria closer, wrapping his arms around her.

“Do you think he’ll get along okay with her?”

“You afraid he won’t?”

Sighing, Maria keeps her gaze on Max, her hand rubbing circles on her stomach. “I don’t know, to be honest. Some of the moms I met at my class said they had to get rid of their pets because they were too jealous of the babies. One of them even told me her dog attacked her little one.”

Frank and her share a worried look. “You think Max would attack our baby girl?”

She ponders for a bit. “They really scared me, Frank. I’d hate to think ...”

Frank shakes his head, looking back at Max who is now sniffing some plants, completely unaware of their conversation.

“Nah. Max loves you, he loves her. He’s become your bodyguard ever since we got pregnant. I’d be more afraid if anyone tried to harm either of you than him doing any harm.”

“Yeah. You’re right.” Smiling softly, Maria does what she can to push her worries away.

*    *    *    *    *

Some trepidation remains in her in spite of their conversation so Maria starts making mental notes of Max and his behaviour around kids.

He proves to be a charmer and a cutie, of course, much like Frank. The kids he meets in the park love him and Max is anything but shy. He loves the attention, loves playing with kiddos, loves being around them.

At home, he hardly ever leaves Maria’s side and is there the first time she faints due to low sugar and reacts promptly by running to find Frank, barking as loudly as he can, scaring Frank half to death that day.

He’s there to remind her to drink water, eat regularly and takes much needed breaks when her belly grows and body starts tiring more quickly.

The closer to her due date they are, the more Maria thinks all these moms were just exaggerating in their stories, especially since Max is a pit and there are so many misconceptions about the breed.

She’s done her research, so she knows how people get around pits and the stories that surround them. But there’s more to them and more to Max.

*    *     *    *

Late in September, as the rain beats against the windows, Max and Maria lay on the couch, dozing off. They were waiting for Frank, but the mood of the day caught up with them.

A loud thud followed by a crash wakes them both up. A scream rips from Maria’s throat so suddenly it startles them both. The room is awash in darkness with not a flicker of light. In seconds, Max is on his paws, whining, ears up in alert as Maria struggles to sit up, panic rising in her.

Glancing at the digital clock, seeing nothing on it, she realises the power must’ve gone out. Trotting over to the window, mindful not to hit into a desk, Maria gets to the window to see that the entire neighbourhood is indeed in the same situation as her. She can’t tell if it makes her feel any better knowing that their faulty wiring is not to blame for this blackout.

Taking deep breaths to calm herself after the initial scare, she reaches for her phone and calls Frank, but he doesn’t pick up. Maria imagines the blackout caused quite the stir in the city and Frank must be neck-deep in handling it.

Calling out for Max, the dog immediately comes to her. Scratching his head, Maria talks to him a bit, checking if he was scared. Then, they carefully navigate to the kitchen to get some water, give Max some food and get flashlights Frank put in a drawer.

The stillness of the house makes Maria feel uneasy, especially since her footfalls and Max’s nails, in fact any and all sounds they make, echo and add to the eeriness of the current atmosphere.

Flashlight on, two spare ones tucked into the pockets of her bathrobe, Maria, followed by Max, checks all the windows and doors in the house, making sure they are all closed shut.

The crash she heard earlier happened in pantry – the wind must have been blowing so ferociously that a branch managed to break a small window there. The glass was scattered all over the floor, rain pouring in through what was now a hole in the wall. Maria did what she could to seal the broken window with some tape and plastic sheets she found and left the cleaning up of glass for some other time.

The rain has picked up the pace, beating against the windowsills with a vengeance. Trees outside cast creepy shadows that make her blood go cold so Maria settles back on the couch, wrapping a blanket around herself and Max when he jumps up to join her.

She dials Frank again and feels relieved for a moment upon hearing his voice only to realise it’s his voicemail. Still unavailable.

With nothing to do, all alone in the house bar for a very protective pit by her side, Maria rubs her belly and starts to talk nonsense to the baby just to pass the time. Meanwhile, Max has dozed off again like he has no care in the world.

At some point, Maria falls asleep too, unable to keep herself awake as scared as she is.

When another crash, this time much louder, wakes her up, she barely discerns anything. The power is still out so she turns on the flashlight to see Max standing in the hallway next to the staircase facing the backyard door, body alert, teeth bared.

She hardly ever sees the dog so tense, growling menacingly in the direction of the door that she has to catch her breath. Air seems to be having a hard time getting into her lungs, her body stiff on the couch.

Someone’s in the house.

For what seems like hours, Maria only hears her heart thudding in her ears and Max’s growling. Her hands, set protectively over her belly, are shaking so violently she almost drops the flashlight. Saying a prayer under her breath, Maria grabs for the first thing she can think to use as a weapon – wooden box that is heavy enough to knock someone over. She hopes at least.

Not that Maria thinks she could actually use it. She hopes she won’t have to. Realising she won’t be able to hold the flashlight and the box at the same time, she risks and turns off the flashlight, tucking it into her pocket.

Reaching for her phone, she wants to call Frank, praying he would answer this time, but the screen is all black. The battery’s dead.

Great.

She hears faint footsteps going through the adjacent kitchen, someone rummaging through the drawers with just enough gentleness one could dismiss the noise as nothing more but branches scratching the windows.

As if sensing her mama’s fear, the baby moves and Maria almost screams when the baby’s foot kicks her side. Max is still standing sentry, although now more in an attack stance as Maria stands up and makes her way to a wall that divides the living room from the kitchen.

Max creeps slowly up to the open door of the kitchen as Maria attempts to keep her tears and fear at bay.

It’ll be alright. It’ll be alright.

If only Frank were here.

Hearing the approaching footsteps, Maria is ready to smash whomever it is over the head with the box. But before she can do that, Max is leaping on the figure in the dark, barking and growling like never before that it scares Maria more than the intruder himself.

“Down! Down, boy!” the figure yells, struggling against the dog’s weight on him and his bared teeth.

Almost fainting, in relief or residual fear she’s not sure, Maria calls out to Max.

“Max! It’s Frank! Get down. It’s okay.”

Reaching for the flashlight in her pocket, she turns it on and points towards her husband to see him lying on the floor, soaking wet, his boots and the hem of his jeans muddy. Max is reluctant to get off him but he does it anyway, barking a few more times as if scolding Frank for scaring them both.

Breathing heavily, Frank gets up and Maria runs to him, dropping the box, disregarding his wet clothes and he welcomes her, hugging her tightly.

“Christ, Frank. You scared me!”

“I’m sorry, babe. I was lookin’ for a flashlight. I thought you were upstairs.”

“We were waiting for you. God, what were you thinking, sneaking around like that.”

“I came to check on you. Didn’t exactly expect Max to go this wild on me.”

Hearing his name, the dog starts whining there, feeling neglected probably.

Frank kisses Maria’s hair, her cheek, her lips as his hands cup her belly as if checking the babe inside. Then he kneels and offers his hand to Max who licks it then puts his paw on Frank’s forearm. He scratches Max’s head, commending him for the way he was protecting Maria.

“Who’s a good boy? You are, yeah. Yeah,” Max whines then starts licking Frank’s face as he laughs, caressing his back. Maria thanks him softly for being so brave to protect her and Max is basking in all this attention, proudly wiggling his tail.

“You okay?” When Maria nods, Frank takes her hand. “Let’s get you to bed, babe.”

“Umm, no mister,” Maria raises her hand, stopping him. “You’re gonna take off those clothes before you go anywhere else. I’ll have enough of a mess to clean in the morning here. I don’t’ want you adding to it.”

Chuckling, Frank does as she told him, taking of his muddy boots and jeans, then his jacket and shirt. He smiles smugly when he catches Maria bite her lip as her eyes sweep over him.

“We good now?”

“Yeah. Come.” She takes him by the hand and they start slowly ascending the stairs. When they reach the top, Frank’s hands are already on her hips, grabbing for the front of her shirt. When Max tries to follow them into the bedroom, Maria tells him to stay outside. Letting out a sad whine, Max watches them go inside. Then he turns around and settles into his bed just outside the bedroom.

*     *     *     *     *

Inside, Frank is helping Maria out of her clothes, telling her about the blackout and what a disaster the past few hours have been. He was busy helping some officers with the arrestees and couldn’t call her. He kept apologising for it while Maria assured him she was just worried about him.

“You’re here now.”

Kissing him, they both lie in their underwear and Frank holds her a little closer than ever before, a little tighter. The power is still out, the rain is still as fierce as before, but they are together and somehow that makes everything else white noise.

“I was so scared about you bein’ here alone,” Frank confesses, his stubble scratching her temple. It doesn’t bother her in the least. His presence is a comfort for her and for the baby.

“I wasn’t alone. Thank god for Max.”

A beat of silence. Frank huffs out a shaky breath, his warm hand cupping Maria’s face. “Yeah, I still wish I were here.” There’s some regret and sadness in his voice that Maria doesn’t like at all.

“It’s alright, Frank.” She assures him with her words, squeezing his arm gently. Somehow, even in all this darkness, she can still count each wrinkle on his worried face and see the battle he fights with himself wash over his features. “Everything’s alright. Besides, I’m not scared about Max and the baby anymore, you know.”

That seems to steer his thoughts in another direction so that his face relaxes and his lips stretch into a smile. “Yeah?”

“Yeah. See how he got protective of me? I reckon he’ll be even better with her. They’re going to be best buddies.”

Mumbling something under his breath, Frank looks away for a moment before turning his gaze back to Maria. “Think she’s gonna love him more than us?”

Hiding a smirk, Maria kisses him before replying, “I’m sure she’ll love her daddy more than she loves anyone else.”

Her husband just smiles contently, his eyes shining with love and pride. Maria’s fingers start combing through his hair sleepily as she closes her eyes with a satisfied smirk.

*    *    *    *    *

In the morning, while his wife is still sleeping, Frank takes a shower, gets dressed and takes Max for a walk. The dog is insanely happy to be out in the open, sniffing everything that comes his way as Frank takes in the damage last night’s weather caused to the neighbourhood.

There are some branches lying on the street and under wallowing trees, some trash brought by the wind scattered around, puddles of water trapped immovable on the pavement and along the street. Some of his neighbours are already out, cleaning up the mess and they wave at Frank as he passes by their house. He waves back and makes small talk with them before Max pulls his leash and he has no other choice but to abandon the conversation.

*    *    *    *    *

An hour later, they are back home.

Frank pours food into Max’s bowl and gives him fresh water, then leaves him to eat as he tends to other matters.

The power came back up earlier that morning, and as far as Frank could see before they left that morning, there was no lasting damage to their fridge of freezer. All other appliances seem to be in their usual condition.

He cleans up the mud he brought in last night and puts his clothes in the washing machine. Then, Frank checks the house from top to bottom, making sure everything is in order and that’s when he finds the broken window in the pantry.

Taking a broom, he sweeps shards of glass and makes sure to vacuum afterwards, just to make sure nothing is left. He calls a repairman and schedules a visit to fix the window as soon as today because he can’t leave his home this vulnerable, even if the window is so small a child could barely fit through it.

When Maria comes down a few hours later, Frank has made them breakfast and left it on the table. He is watching TV in the living room when he hears her.

“Mornin’. Sleep well?” He turns off the TV and is on his feet immediately, arms already ready to welcome her in his embrace, hand resting on Maria’s belly.

Maria hugs him, snuggling against his chest with a yawn. “Yep. She was stirring, but not too much.”

Kissing the top of her head Frank takes a step back and Maria looks up, eyes gazing into his.

“You okay?”

She knows he was afraid for her and the baby last night, heard him mumble in his sleep about her getting hurt, someone breaking into the house, felt his arms hold he firmly as if scared she was going to disappear.

She doesn’t tell him that though, knowing he’d get defensive and try to avoid talking about it.

His “I’m alright as long as you two are okay. Ain’t nothing more important than that to me” is taken as a sign he’s calmed, at least slightly, so Maria smiles and tells him they should eat and leaves the conversation for some other time.

While they eat, Maria thanks him for cleaning up the kitchen and tells him about the pantry window, only to have Frank assure her it is all taken care of already.

“Thank you, Mr Castle. Who knew you were so handy,” she teases him before drinking up the rest of the juice in her glass.

Raising his brow playfully Frank replies, “I imagine you did else you wouldn’t marry me.”

“I do love your hands,” Maria speaks slowly, getting up and moving to stand between his legs. “Especially on me.”

Laughing, Frank grins and pulls her closer so that her belly is brushing his lips, his hands wandering under her shirt, fingers deftly moving along the hem of her pyjama bottoms, wandering south.

They end up on the couch, making out and when Frank suggests they spend the rest of the day in the bedroom, Maria makes no objections.