Conrad rolls on top of Nic after begging for five more minutes and she yields with no objection. She feels soft and warm under him, still riding the glow of recent pleasure, and it triggers in him the desire for more. His lips collide with hers and they kiss without hurry despite being on borrowed time. In this early morning hour, when the bedroom is saturated with a golden light that softens the edges of the new day, Conrad realizes once again that he will never tire of loving her.
The five minutes are long gone when she spreads her legs, a gesture that thrills him every time, he settles in the space between and dives into her warmth all at once. Their shared motion is slow, just like Nic enjoys in the morning, and she moans softly with each thrust of his hips.
The sudden high-pitched cry of a baby ruptures the static in the air.
He removes his mouth from her neck and looks down at her in confusion. Bathed in rays of light, Nic stares back as if she hasn’t heard the odd noise. While his brain struggles to comprehend the sound, her features remain calm while waiting patiently for him to resume the movement he started. They are newlyweds, not parents yet, and as far as he can remember neither of them brought home a baby last night. That cry came from a room that remains empty since the day they moved in.
Another cry pierces the love bubble and the illusion bursts around him.
Conrad wakes up on the left side, the one Nic claimed the first time they shared a bed, and though the light is the same as before, this time he is alone. He often rolls there unconsciously seeking comfort in the traces of her presence and the scent that lingers on her pillow long after she is gone. Gigi goes on crying desperately in the room at the end of the hallway, which is now a nursery with walls painted in lavender bisque.
"Oh, that’s right..." he mutters while pinching the bridge of his nose.
Nic had left earlier for work and he vaguely recalls her leaning in to kiss his forehead before leaving.
It comes as no surprise that he was having a sex dream. Becoming parents has added a few more layers of responsibility and exhaustion to their lives. Between work, night feedings, and a baby that has acquired enough motor skills to crawl around quickly, there is little time left for themselves. Most nights they are practically asleep even before their heads reach the pillow. Nic was right back then, alone time is certainly hard to come by.
Stretching and cracking his limbs awake after a few calming breaths, Conrad moves down the hallway with the urgency of a sleepwalker and finds his daughter with arms outstretched in the crib, excited that one of her parents has finally arrived.
With Gigi on his hip, Conrad walks down the stairs to prepare their breakfast and spots a package on the kitchen counter with a bright pink note on top. The script is immediately recognizable. Nic writes in a legible, neat handwriting that is very different from his, and always adds small hearts in the corner of her notes.
One more chicken for you, honey
- Nic 🤍
Having gained a remarkable dexterity after becoming a father, Conrad sets the note aside and opens the package with only one hand. When he pulls the contents out, they unfold into a soft bundle of mostly white clothes that make him laugh out loud and Gigi stare at them curiously.
"Look at that, Mama ordered a chicken costume. What would we do without her, huh?”
Since he had the day off, Conrad had promised to take Gigi for trick-or-treat around the neighborhood, even though Nic was desolated for not sharing that first experience as well. And despite his assurance that there would be plenty of candy waiting for her later in the day, that prospect had not improved her mood at all.
Conrad picks up both Gigi and the costume once they finish breakfast and he has cleaned half of hers from the lemon onesie.
“Ready for your first Halloween?”
She sneezes several times on the way upstairs when the feathers come close to her face.
“I'm taking that as a yes," he says while placing her among the crumpled covers of his bed.
Once free from the constrictions of clothes, Gigi rolls on her belly and makes a quick dash on hands and knees across the mattress, and away from the yellow tights Conrad holds in his hands.
Getting her into a clean diaper had already been a challenge, even though he holds the record for quickest diaper change to date, they have timed it. He now wonders how a highly skilled doctor and war veteran such as himself, can break a sweat trying to wrestle a baby that can barely walk yet into a Halloween costume. Those two rotations in Peds have definitely not prepared him for the vibrant energy of his daughter, and Nic blames his genes for that every day.
Conrad grabs his runaway daughter by one foot, drags her back over the sheet and tickles her belly until she squeals happily.
“Please Gigi, have pity on your poor Dada.” Gigi tries once more to wriggle out of his grasp like a worm, and he pleads to her while pulling the tights up her flailing legs, followed by the white sweater down her head.
The feathery part is a struggle by itself, some of the feathers tragically succumb in the fight, but he eventually manages to zip it around her small body. He siezes the opportunity to pull the hat down her head while she is distracted by a feather floating slowly in the air, then steps back to admire the result, entirely proud of himself.
Unimpressed with his accomplishment, Gigi pulls out the wool hat and throws it to this face for good measure. Her flimsy blond hair stands up in all directions and he has a hard time being upset with her when she looks that cute.
“You look like your mother in the morning.”
“Yeah, that’s it.” He chuckles. “She’s coming home later. Until then, it’s just you and me against the world, little chicken.”
Not long after, Conrad hurries out the front door with Gigi on his hip before she has the chance to complain at the top of her lungs again and disturb the actual chickens in the backyard.
This is the first year without one of Mina’s infamous Halloween parties and even though Nic could use the distraction of that kind of party, what she misses the most is her friend. In addition, she has worked for the majority of her daughter’s first Halloween. The promise of chocolate and caramel that Conrad and Gigi would gather for her to indulge alone, since one can’t eat and the other refuses to, was not enough to ease the self-inflicted guilt for missing a first-time event in her daughter’s life.
As a result, Nic spent the entire day in a gloomy mood and the last half-hour of the shift drumming her fingers on the surface of a desk with her gaze shifting ever so often to the watch on her wrist, counting the minutes to go home.
Though the hallway is dark when she closes the front door behind her, there is a trembling glow coming from the living room, and she approaches it with curiosity. The open space is lit by candles and she finds a group of people that welcome her cheerfully.
“What's happening here?” Nic asks no one in particular.
“The Halloween party Conrad put together. He thought you would like to come home to a family dinner, so here we are,” Billie replies while pulling Nic into a hug. “Oh, and we brought your favorite food.”
Almost on the verge of tears, Nic clears her throat and averts her eyes from Billie just in time to follow the sound of footsteps coming down the stairs.
“Remember how we practiced like a chicken, sweetheart?” Conrad whispers in Gigi’s ear, entirely hopeful that a 9-month-old baby will comply with his request.
“Puk, puk, puk,” Gigi repeats happily.
Nic laughs and this time there’s no hiding the tears that fill her eyes at the sight of her daughter.
"Awww, come here my little chick."
Gigi reaches for her mother willingly, as she always does, and Nic holds her closer to indulge in the one person she missed the most all day, one that is sweeter than any candy can ever be.
Conrad urges all of them to the table and pulls the chair at the head for Nic to sit down with Gigi on her lap. Before sitting on the next chair, he leans down and places a kiss on her lips, murmuring a quiet ‘I love you’ against them, which she returns wholeheartedly.
The room rapidly fills with their combined voices, laughter and joy weave between the scent of burning candles, spices and wine. From that side of the table, Nic is struck by the sudden realization of how much her concept of family has expanded over the years. There was once a time when she belonged to a family of four bound by blood, but after that core was shattered, she spent the majority of her life with only a sister to call family. Nowadays, that definition goes beyond kinship ties, each and every single person around the table is more than just a friend, they are all part of a family that starts with the small person on her lap.
She looks down and finds Gigi staring at her with her chubby hand reaching up, and when Nic presses her lips against one rosy cheek, the feathers tickle her nose and she sneezes soundly. Conrad bursts out laughing and refuses to offer an explanation when Nic regards him with a quizzical look, instead he extends his hand to hold hers tightly.
Long after everyone leaves and the house is quiet once again, Nic sits in the nursery cuddling Gigi on her lap with a warm bottle of milk. Conrad is close by, perched on the arm of the chair watching his daughter fight valiantly against sleep in favor of food.
Nic removes a lonesome feather behind Gigi’s ear, which didn’t come off in the bath, and turns to Conrad with a joke on the tip of her tongue. Her intention staggers when she notices his attention had turned to the shelf on the wall. In the dim light, while only the glowing stars revolve around them, she is unable to read his expression. His gaze is solely focused on the group of frames containing the photographs of three women that left far too soon.
“Do you think they are here with us tonight?” Nic asks softly.
“Because it’s Halloween? You know I don't believe in ghosts.”
“Yeah, but you have no scientific evidence to support or deny their existence.”
He turns to her with no judgment in his tone. “How about you?”
“I’m not so sure about ghosts either, but it gives me great comfort to think your mother, mine, and my sister might be watching Gigi grow up. Sometimes I feel like they are still with us.”
Conrad nods slowly when his eyes shift back to the photos and they linger there in contemplation. Then he leans down, wraps an arm around her shoulders and kisses her head. “That’s a wonderful thought.”
In the comfort of his embrace, and with Gigi already sound asleep in her arms, Nic closes her eyes and says a silent prayer of gratitude, hoping it reaches those that are no longer here but are missed every day.