"How many words can you make from the letters of N E W B A B Y?" challenged the hostess, and Meg McConnell closed her eyes. Two more hours, maybe only ninety minutes, and she'd be out of this hellhole.
"We played that game at my cousin's shower!" the redhead next to her announced. Jeannie, Joanne, a name she couldn't remember. A mother of three, she remembered that.
Meg gripped her pink-and-blue pencil and forced herself to concentrate on the ribboned tablet in her lap. Baby. New baby. Baby...
"The winner gets to take home a surprise gift," the hostess continued, holding up what looked like a tissue-wrapped champagne bottle. "And I'll give you a hintit has nothing to do with babies."
There was a chorus of laughter, and Meg hastily summoned up a smile. It felt frozen on her face, but no one seemed to notice anything wrong.
"You need to win that, Meg," her friend Susan called across the circle of women. Then, as if remembering that not everyone worked at the same school, she explained, "Meg and her husband are celebrating their fourth anniversary tonight."
A round of congratulations echoed through the room. This was a convivial group, Meg knew; she had always enjoyed the other secretaries and teachers at Oakville Country Day.
It was just all this talk about babies that made her skin feel too tight.
"Has it really been four years?" asked the principal, a recent grandmother of twins. "My goodness, Meg, it seems like only yesterday we were at your wedding shower."
"Seeing how many words we could make out of B R I D E," Susan recalled, and everyone laughed. "Meg, where are you and Joe going for dinner?"
Thank God, a question she could answer. And an excuse to stop staring at the B A B Y letters on her pad.
"He made reservations at The Wayside Inn," she said, hoping no one would notice any strain in her voice. This was a sympathetic group of women, but there was nothing they could do...and it would be awful to spoil her co-worker's shower. "We thought about waiting for the weekend, but today's our anniversary date."
"Four years," the principal repeated, shaking her head in amazement. "Time goes by so fast, doesn't it?"
Oh, please, Meg thought, gripping her pencil so tightly that her shoulder started tingling. Please, somebody change the subject.
But the silence lingered for an agonizing pulse of timeduring which she could almost hear the question forming on everyone's lipsbefore Susan leaped to the rescue.
"I hope as soon as we finish this game, Linda's going to start opening presents!"
There was a clamor of agreement, and Meg drew a shaky breath. No one was going to ask it now.
If she could just get through the next two hours...
But maintaining a smile was harder than she'd imagined. Not since her sister's baby shower two years ago had she sat through an afternoon of baby names, baby games, baby toys and baby gifts and baby plansand two years ago, back when they'd barely started with the fertility specialist, there had still been hope.
She should have remembered, though, what it felt like to sit among a group of women exclaiming over babies. If she'd remembered, she would have made some excuseany excuseto skip this party.
And left everyone clucking with sympathy.
"Meg, how wonderful!"
With a start, she realized that Linda had just unwrapped her present: a yellow-rimmed bath set that she'd selected in Minneapolis rather than entering the Baby Emporium on First Avenue. She'd postponed wrapping it for as long as she could, yearning over the sweetly soft towel and nubby washcloth, the hooded robe and yellow rubber duck, and when she finally buried them in the yellow-flowered tissue paper she'd felt the familiar anguish twisting inside her.
"I hope you and the baby enjoy it," she managed to say over the tightness in her throat. She still sounded normal, didn't she? There was no way to tell, but at least no one looked at her strangely. She probably sounded just fine.
She'd had plenty of practice.
Most recently when the home study social worker came to examine the McConnells. No one had put it in those words, of course, but she and Joe both knew they were on trial. It hadn't bothered him a bit, but then, her husband thrived on challenges.
"Oh, how darling!" she heard someone exclaim over Linda's next gift. "Pass that around, too."
Another white gown lavished with embroidery. Meg gritted her teeth, accepted the gown from the woman next to her and admired it for what felt like a decent interval before passing it along. To the mother of three.
Imagine having three babies. One at a time, probably, but even sowhat incredible richness. Early on she and Joe had wondered how many children they should have, and decided on either three or four...a decision that now seemed wretchedly naive. But she had enjoyed planning for what she'd always viewed as her destiny. She had enjoyed picturing a houseful of daughters for whose dolls she would pour tea, and sons for Joe to take camping...
Elena would have given him children.
Before the thought could crystallize, Meg jerked her attention to the present in her lap. A handmade quilt, which all the mothers had just agreed was more a necessity than a luxury. She had nothing to contribute to the discussion, no experience to cite, but no one seemed to notice her reticence. She buried her hands under the satiny quilt, hoping she could clench her fists until the tension evaporated.
"Here, Meg, look at this."
She stared blindly at a pink-bordered blanket and felt another clutch of anguish twist inside her.
"Excuse me a minute," she murmured, escaping the offering as she rose from her chair and glanced down the hall toward the bathroom. "I'll be right back."
If she could just take five minutes alone...
Luckily there was no one in the bathroom. From force of habit she checked her reflection in the mirror and saw that her strawberry-blonde hair curled properly off her face, her wide collar lay straight and her plain silver earrings looked fine. Meg gripped the edge of the sink and took a long, steadying breath.
"You can do this," she said aloud. "You can do this, Meg McConnell."
She had made it this far, after all. They were on every waiting list in Minnesota, and one would surely yield a baby soon. Besides, there had to be more to life than just the quest for motherhood.
There was, she told the doubtful face in the mirror. After all, last year she had been selected to manage the Country Day alumni office. Her rose garden was one of the best in Oakville. And the church choir director swore they'd never had a better organist...
But until she could mother a baby, Meg knew, she would always be lacking something vital. She would never be a genius like her brother, nor a beauty queen like her sister, and she would never live up to Elena's daring, dazzling intensity. But as a motherwholeheartedly loving, nurturing and sustaining a familyoh, then her ordinary life would shine.
If only this shower were for her baby...
A burst of applause came from the living room, and she tightened her grip on the counter.
She had to go back out there, Meg knew. She couldn't stay here all afternoon, aching for a baby and hoping the group wouldn't notice her absence. No, she was going to head back to the living room and admire the rest of the presents, take a piece of that pink-and-blue-flowered cake, exclaim over the decorations and keep from glancing too often at the grandfather clock by the door.
You can do this, she ordered herself. Just remember, one day you'll have a baby of your own.
She drew another deep breath, then another, and made her way back down the hall to the party.
The crowd was moving, she saw with a surge of relief. Linda must have unwrapped the last present, because people were congregating around the refreshment table. Thank God, she could hold onto a plastic cup of pink punch and make conversation with Susan, who wouldn't ask any agonizing questions. Susan knew the whole story.
Or at least most of it.
"Meg, would you like a corner piece?" the hostess called from the cake table. "Or one with a rose?"
"Meg adores roses, remember?" Susan teased. "She's the one who keeps our whole office smelling wonderful."
"Either one's fine," Meg answered, accepting a piece of white cake topped with a sugary rose. She wasn't going to eat it in any case, but maybe they could talk about roses for the next few minutes. For as long as it took to get herself geared up for the final hurdle, the last stretch of conversation before she could congratulate Linda and get out of here without looking anguished.
Roses were good. Gardening was always a good topic, and so was the unusually warm April weather. But no matter how doggedly she tried to ask about spring cleaning, Easter dinners, vacation plans and summer diets, the very air seemed to shimmer with images of babies. Baby pictures, baby sounds, baby scents...
"Just that new-baby smell," recalled the principal, "took me right back to when my daughter was born, and every night we'd do This Little Piggy."
"I can't wait to play that," Linda said. "And to start reading nursery rhymes."
"Speaking of reading," Susan interrupted, "did anybody see this morning's paper? Terrific story on the editorial page."
All eyes swung to Meg. "I'll tell Joe," she promised, hoping they hadn't seen her glancing at the clock. Although maybe they would simply assume she was anticipating her anniversary dinner.
"It was good," Linda agreed. "I don't read the Herald every weekdon't tell him that, Meg!but whenever I read one of Joe's stories, I feel like I was right there."
She felt a rush of pride...no one could ever view her husband as merely ordinary. "Now I really can't wait to see him," she said, with a smile for Linda. "He'll love hearing that."
Then Susan, bless her heart, offered an even greater gift. "Meg, you ought to be home getting ready for your big evening right now! You don't want Joe to come in and find you half dressed, do you?"
"Maybe she does," Linda joked, and Meg felt herself starting to blush. It was sillythey'd been married four years, after allbut certain visions of Joe could still make her feel as giddy and trembling as she'd felt the first time she saw him.
Half a lifetime ago, when her brother brought him home after football practice and she'd found them plotting tackles in the back yard.
Even then, Joe had radiated more heat, more force, more intensity than anyone she'd ever known. She'd taken one look at his fierce, crackling energy, his rugged build and his rough-and-tumble, tousled dark hair and had fallen in love on the spot. And even now, she knew if someone had told her that afternoon in Larkwood that one day she'd be planning an anniversary dinner with Joe McConnell...she would have believed herself the luckiest girl in the world.
There had never been another man like Joe.
"Meg, you're blushing!" Susan observed, putting an arm around her shoulders and guiding her toward the door. "You'd better get home fast. And remember, tomorrow morning we're all going to come crowding your office asking about The Wayside Inn."
"I'll give you every detail," Meg promised, "about the food. But that's it!"
With a chorus of laughter lightening the farewells, it was easy to escape the shower for the three-block walk home. She found herself smilingnot the forced smile she'd worn most of the afternoon, but one of pleasurable anticipation. In less than an hour, she'd be ready for an evening with Joe...and maybe tonight would be one of those special ones.
The kind she'd only dreamed of back in ninth grade. Back when she used to decorate her diary with hearts containing their initials. Back when Joe was still only fantasizing about a career as a globe-trotting reporter. Back when neither of them had ever heard of Milagua.
Of the prison camps.
Or of Elena.