It’s early morning when Joel stops by. The house is quiet, save for the creak of the floorboards and the sway of curtains by the back window. The trek to and from Ellie’s home is three hours total, Ellie knows, and Joel is far too old now to be making such trips on foot, but still, he does, and Ellie spots the slow bob of his head from a mile away and sits herself down on the porch, feet tucked under her thighs and hands in her lap.
Joel’s feet fall heavy. “Hey, kiddo,” he says and Ellie swallows and watches him sit himself down beside her after a hesitant moment of consideration. “How are you feeling?”
She breathes in, and looks out at the tree line. It’s summer, autumn in a few weeks time. They’ve had a good year, despite the obvious, and Ellie’s glad for it. Tomorrow, she wants to go hunting. “Also fine.”
Ellie hears the whisper wheeze of Joel’s breathing and the tappity-tap of his boots against the porch floor. “I brought you this,” he says, “it’s not much but,” he reaches down, grapples for his bag and hefts it up, unzipping it and pulling out tupperware. There’s masking tape on it. LEFTOVERS, it reads.
Ellie takes a peek inside. Her mouth curls up a little. “Cake?”
Joel smiles. “Not for you,” he says, “for Dina. It’s celebratory. Normally you’d have it before but, well, now is as good time as any,” Ellie watches him pull something else from his pack, smaller, this time, and wrapped in baking paper. “This is for the baby,” he says, passing it to her.
Ellie unwraps it, and sees a little blue face.
Beyond them, the trees whisper.
“I know,” he says, and takes her hands in his. Ellie can’t tell the difference between them anymore, but supposes it doesn’t matter. Joel’s hands are warm and remind her of their first winter, when he cupped his hands over hers and blew on them until they warmed and her teeth stopped their chitter-chatter. “You don’t have to say anything,” he goes on, “Just give it to him, please.”
Beyond them, the trees whistle.
Ellie looks at Joel, the crinkles of his face like paper, all guts, all guilt. All tact. Joel holds her hands still. She doesn’t let go. She understands.
“Do you want to see him?”
Inside, it’s warm, with autumn coming, it needs to be. Ellie lights the fireplace, first, listens to it’s crackle, and then heads upstairs.
Dina is still asleep when she enters their room. Her hair is plastered to her face by way of a line of sweat, but JJ is still awake. He opens his mouth and searches for her finger to suck on when she passes it by his cheek. He’s hungry. Dina will feed him later.
Downstairs, Joel hovers. His feet shuffle and scuffle by the lounge and Ellie’s kind of sick of it. “You can sit,” she tells him.
The sun waxes orange through the window. Ellie is patient.
“Do you wanna hold him?”
In her arms, JJ fusses. His cheeks puff up and he blows little air bubbles through his nose. He’s squishy.
“Are you sure?”
Joel is gentle, when Ellie passes JJ over, he cradles him and supports his head. Ellie remembers; he’s done this before.
Behind them, the fireplace winks bright, bright red. Ellie waits and listens. Slowly, Joel runs his finger over JJ’s face, in the curve of his cheek, jaw and mouth. JJ opens his mouth.
“Dina will feed him in a bit.”
Joel brushes back a proud curl. “He smells right.”
Joel smiles and scoots over a little, leaning toward her. Ellie sniffs. And decides he smells normal.
“It’s just the way newborns smell,” Joel says, “like…”
He laughs and shakes a little with it too. For a moment, with what little she knows of him, Joel reminds her of Santa Claus. “No,” he says, “Just...like a baby.”
Ellie wrinkles her nose and shakes her head, “I don’t get it.”
“You don’t have to, kiddo.”
Ellie leans back. Slowly, the house falls quiet. She listens to the soft puffs of JJ’s breathing, the harsh whisper whistle of Joel’s and the gentle lift and fall of the wind passing by the back window. She watches Joel brush his thumb over JJ’s cheek, big and pocked and gentle, mainly - careful . Cautious. When Joel looks at JJ, she sees only kindness.
Ellie swallows and picks at the skin under her nails. “What was Sarah like?” she ventures, teetering on the edge of something still not quite covered head to toe, “as a baby, I mean.”
Joel shifts. His shoulders slant. His eyebrows furrow. “Quiet,” he says, “she always,” he stops, swallows, coughs, starts again, “she always smiled when you woke her up. She was never sad.”
Ellie sits and listens. Joel speaks some more, and then falls silent. She does too. It’s nice. She’s missed it. She wants to say so. Joel is getting older, he now creaks with every shift and shuffle, like an old house she’s lived in her whole life, just beginning to fall apart, and she sits, too terrified to look at it head on.
She doesn’t want to be terrified.
“Joel,” she says, when she wants the silence to be over. “I’m glad you came.”
He looks at her. He grabs her hand. “Me too.”
Later, when he goes to leave, she pulls him close. She holds him tight. She feels his breath against her head and lets him pass his hands over her hair in a slow, calming sweep. She breathes in. She counts in her head. She waits.
“I love you, Joel.”
Joel doesn’t still. He doesn’t shuffle or stutter. “I love you too, baby girl.”
Ellie breathes out.
When the sun falls to the mountains face, autumn comes. The wind whispers and whistles. The trees shuffle among the forest and the leaves crinkle crack under foot and something deep inside it sets itself free and Ellie forgives him. Ellie understands.