Chapter 27

Cover Me in Sunshine

Had it been up to me, and me alone, I would have moved Cecilia in with me immediately. But I wanted to make sure Freya was on board with it. She had barely had time to get used to living with Conrad yet, and I didn’t want to spring yet another bonus parent on her without preparation.

I still wanted them to at least meet as soon as possible, though. Cecilia and I had been spending every available weekend together, but I wanted her to be able to visit when Freya was here as well. Cecilia was excited to meet my daughter, and I hoped that they would get along.

Katherine practices curbside pickup co-parenting.

For their first meeting, I decided to take them both out to dinner. Neutral ground. It worked when introducing cats and dogs, so why not now? Cecilia was staying with me for the weekend as usual, but I asked her to go ahead and wait at the restaurant while I picked up Freya. Freya knew that we were going to meet my girlfriend, but I wanted a few minutes alone with her to make sure she was prepared.

I didn’t have to worry. From the moment they met, Cecilia and Freya got along like a house on fire.

I had of course proudly told Cecilia all about my daughter, and she immediately started asking Freya about her greatest interest, sports. Freya was ecstatic, and when Cecilia admitted that she had never played basketball, Freya solemnly promised to teach her how to play.

My plan had been to stay in the background to give them a chance to connect, but by the time our food arrived, they were so engrossed in a conversation about cats that I might as well not have been there at all.

Freya was telling Cecilia about how we had found Zoe when Freya was very little. I couldn’t help but smile. I recognised my own words in the way she told it. There was no way she could remember the day that clearly, but I had often told her the story over the years.

She even told Cecilia how her comment about Zoe having green eyes like us had become an inside joke, and how we’d sometimes declare animals on tv as part of the family if they had green eyes. So far, our fictional television family consisted of many cats, a few panthers, one chameleon and a surprising amount of lemurs.

She asked Cecilia about her tattoos, and Cecilia explained. The white cat on her shoulder was her first cat, Snowball, and the black one on her forearm was Mimi. She even talked about how she had come into my clinic by accident eight years ago to buy treats for them. Mimi was still a kitten back then, but she had lost Snowball to old age since.

“So does that mean that Mimi is eight years old now, just like me?”

“She is! And you know what? She also has green eyes, just like you!”

Hey, denim dude, we’re having a moment here.

As we were saying goodbye to Cecilia after dinner, she got down on one knee.

“Freya, I need to ask you a very important question. I love your daddy very much and I would really like to come and live with you guys. Would that be fine with you?”

“Sure, then I can teach you how to play basketball! But why are you asking me? I mostly live with Mommy.”

“Because it’s your daddy and your house so I want to hear your opinion.”

“Oh, OK. Will Mimi come and live there too?”

“Of course! I want her to meet you, and she can play with Cooper and Zoe!”

“Yay!”

She hugged Cecilia, who almost fell over backwards.

DUDE

I looked at the two most important people in my world, and I wanted to cry with happiness.

As we walked back to Conrad and Katherine, I asked Freya if she liked Cecilia.

“She’s so cool! And she’s nice and funny and she has green eyes, and Mimi has green eyes, so they belong with us, like Zoe and grandpa! And Cooper, even if he doesn’t have green eyes, but we love him anyway because his eyes are brown like Mommy’s, right Daddy?”

“That’s right, little monkey”, I said, staring across the harbour while trying not to tear up. For a moment we were both quiet. Then Freya started squirming.

“Daddy? If you and Cecilia had a baby, would the baby have green eyes?”

“Oh… probably, although the baby could also get grandma Cora’s blue eyes or something from Cecilia’s family. You never know. But why are you asking about babies?”

“Because I asked Mommy if I could have a little brother or sister and she said that she is too old and I should ask you instead.”

“I… see. Well, Cecilia is just going to move in for now, and maybe we will have a baby some day. But I can’t promise anything, maybe Cecilia doesn’t even want babies.”

“I bet she does. Do you want me to ask her for you, Daddy?”

“Thanks, monkey, but I think I should ask her that myself. OK?”

Wait – did that red van just make a u-turn?

“OK. So when can I get a tattoo? I want one on the arm like Cecilia. Conrad has so many, they’re like everywhere, but he says they hurt to get so I only want a small one.”

As I dropped Freya off, I quickly gave Katherine an update on how it went. She could hardly be against Cecilia moving in, seeing as she lived with Conrad now. She said she was happy for me.

I didn’t mention the thing with the babies.

Cecilia moved in. As a freelance writer, she could work from anywhere, and she loved being closer to nature than she had been in Newcrest. After all, she grew up on her father’s and grandfather’s farm in Henford-on-Bagley. But when her parents got divorced, her mother had moved back to Newcrest with Cecilia and her brother.

I felt happier than I had been for a decade. I couldn’t remember having ever laughed so often or so loudly. I almost felt like when we were teenagers, except this was better.

This time, I truly appreciated just how lucky I was. It was a privilege being with the love of my life, and this time I would do things right.

Everything got even better whenever Freya was there. I loved the feeling of being a proper little family. Freya and Cecilia would joke around like old friends, and it made me happy to see them get along so well.

Freya also stuck to her promise and taught Cecilia to play basketball. Or rather, she tried teaching her. Cecilia was definitely more of a dreamer than an athlete, but she just laughed at her own clumsiness and admired Freya’s skills.

I was so proud of my daughter. I still hadn’t discussed the baby issue with Cecilia, and I really wanted to. But it was still a bit soon for that, we had barely been dating for six months and only just started living together full time. Maybe if everything kept going this well…

That is not to say that everything was perfect bliss – we obviously disagreed sometimes. I still had a tendency to get defensive when I felt criticised, but Cecilia was patient with me, and we always calmly reached some sort of compromise.

Except once.

I don’t even remember what the discussion was about. I just remember that for the first time in our relationship, I lost control and raised my voice, angrily yelling at her about something.

Katherine would have immediately matched my anger and things would have escalated into a full-blown screaming match. Cecilia did not.

All I saw in her eyes was fear.

The love of my life was afraid of me.

It felt like a punch to the stomach.

“Shit. Cecilia, I’m sorry…”

I wanted to crawl into a hole and die on the spot.

Cecilia put her arms around me. My entire body was tense and I couldn’t even look her in the eyes. I felt terrible.

“Eric? Eric, darling, look at me. I’m fine, everything’s fine. Please…”

She was not at all fine, I could hear her voice breaking.

Why was she comforting me? I was the one who did something wrong, I should be the one to comfort her. I held her tight, telling her how sorry I was for yelling, and she started sobbing.

When she’d calmed down, I finally got the full story.

I only knew that her most recent ex had been a bit of a jerk, and that she hadn’t dated for about two years after him. Not until my father had suggested she pay me a visit.

Jerk didn’t begin to cover it. The guy had been outright abusive, picking fights just to have an excuse to scream at her. But she was afraid of leaving him, because he was so possessive and jealous. It wasn’t until he finally hit her that she realised that she had to get away.

My heart broke for her. How could anyone treat my sweet, gentle Cecilia like that? She was the kindest person I knew. But then I realised that I had just been yelling at her myself. The pit in my stomach returned.

I knew then and there that I would never raise my voice at her again. Or anyone else, for that matter. The memory of the fear in her eyes, the fear of me, made my blood run cold.

I realised that I still had a lot to work on. I wanted nothing more than to feel worthy of her love.

Apart from that incident, our relationship was close to perfect.

I was still a little ashamed of my philandering past, but Cecilia insisted that she didn’t care whether I’d bedded a thousand women before her.

What we had was something else.

Still, I wanted to make it up to her, so I did my best to put all my experience to good use.

While my motives may have been questionable in the past, I had never been a selfish lover.

Deep down, I had known that I was using all those women to escape my own problems, so I had always made sure to make the experience as enjoyable for them as possible.

With Cecilia, I rediscovered the joy of pleasing someone just to see them happy.

She joked that I spoiled her. I just wanted to hear her scream my name.

There was no doubt in my mind that Cecilia was the one. By the end of autumn, I had already bought the ring and always carried it with me. A dainty, pale blue thing, the stones set like a butterfly. Cecilia loved butterflies.

Look at these dorks wearing matching sweaters.

The night before Winterfest, we were cuddled up on the couch. We had spent all day decorating and preparing for my parents coming the next day. Freya had finally fallen asleep, the excitement keeping her up much too late. I had been trying to figure out for weeks how I should propose. I was getting desperate.

Dinner at a restaurant? I didn’t have the nerve. This all seemed too good to be true. What if she said no? Or felt pressured to say yes against her will? I couldn’t do a grand public proposal.

But then what? Just get down on one knee in the middle of the backyard? Set up an elaborate scene involving rose petals in the bedroom? Find a private area in a park? Nothing felt right. I wanted something honest. Something sincere.

I was still immersed in my thoughts when Cecilia sat up, and sighed happily in my arms.

“I can’t wait to see Freya’s face when she opens her presents tomorrow.”

Without thinking, I took her hands in mine, facing her.

“Marry me.”

“… what?”

There was no going back now. I took a deep breath and got down on one knee.

“Cecilia, I meant to do something more elaborate. But I can’t wait any longer. Will you marry me?”

I heard her gasp as I fumbled in my pocket for the ring.

“Yes! Eric… yes! Of course!”

I carefully put the ring on her finger.

When she kissed me, we both had tears in our eyes.

“You know what my parents are going to ask when we tell them tomorrow, right?”

She laughed.

“Then I guess we better agree on the answer, darling. Do you want to try for a baby now or wait until we’re married?”

“I was actually referring to picking a wedding date, but I love the way you think.”

My parents were thrilled for us when they arrived the next day. They immediately pulled Cecilia into a big hug.

“What a lovely surprise, Cecilia! We totally never saw it coming!”, my mother said, winking at me.

I cheerfully flipped her off. She just laughed.

“Dad – tell me the truth. Was this what you hoped for when you told Cecilia that she should visit me back in the spring?”

He sent me a conspiratorial smile.

“I just wanted you to be happy, son.”

I hugged him tight, his lean frame feeling almost fragile against my chest. When had he become smaller than me?

“I love you, dad.”

The next summer, we travelled to Henford-on-Bagley to get married near the place Cecilia grew up. We rented a tiny cottage and spent a few days before the wedding visiting places from her childhood. She showed me an old gazebo and the local ruins she used to play in, her favourite tree. I felt honoured that she would share all this with me.

The Bramblewood felt like a place in a dream, and it only seemed fitting that this was where Cecilia had come from.

She even took me skinny-dipping by the waterfalls of the Bagley river.

Cecilia was my very own fairytale princess and I was almost surprised that various small animals weren’t constantly accosting her to sing a duet or trying to sew her a dress.

I was about to make a joke about it, but when I turned around, I saw her trying to befriend a couple of small birds. It took effort not to burst out laughing and scare them away.

Then came the wedding itself.

Cecilia looked radiant and I almost forgot to breathe as her father walked her towards me.

I had never met Stephen, as he had stayed behind on the Bell family farm after the divorce from Cecilia’s mother. I had been nervous about it, but it was clear that much of Cecilia’s gentle nature came from him.

Her mother, Ariana, and her brother, Leopold, I knew from the first time we dated. Although her brother was no longer that annoying little kid who would come knocking at the door to Cecilia’s room while she and I were making out, only to run away giggling.

And just like that, we were married. I couldn’t believe that this graceful creature wanted to spend her life with me, that she was truly mine now.

Considering that the wedding was all the way across the sea, I was touched that Athena and Jamie had come, especially since Athena was heavily pregnant. At least someone else appreciated that the champagne was alcohol-free.

Colten made a toast to the joys of being married, and I caught Katherine and Conrad exchanging a significant look.

I knew it couldn’t be easy for her to attend, but I appreciated her and Conrad coming – and that they were taking Freya home with them.

I really didn’t want Freya to stay with me for my wedding night.

As I entered the tiny bedroom in our rented cottage, I stopped dead in my tracks. Cecilia had already removed her dress and the flowers in her hair and was waiting for me.

“Hello, husband”, she purred.

Mesmerised, I reached up to unbutton my shirt, only to find it already opened.

“Fuck, Cecilia. I’m glad I didn’t know you were wearing that under your dress all day, I wouldn’t have been able to focus.”

She laughed and sat on the bed, looking at me eagerly.

“I wanted to surprise you!”

“Yeah, well, colour me surprised”, I mumbled hoarsely, as I struggled to open my belt and kick off my shoes at the same time.

I joined my wife on the bed and kissed her, hungrily. My hand found her stomach, still almost flat.

Almost.

She smiled.

“I don’t think anyone noticed yet.”

We had decided that we wanted children as soon as possible, but it had still been a surprise when Cecilia found out that she was pregnant just before the wedding. I was delighted. And terrified. I saw doctor Holland regularly all through the pregnancy, and Cecilia did her best to remind me that the situation was very different this time.

And it was. Even as she slowly reached a size where she was borrowing my old shirts because none of her own clothes fit, I felt no signs of my depression returning.

I wasn’t truly worried about us having a baby, only about getting hit by depression again. The thought of Cecilia carrying my child didn’t fill me with anxiety, but with joy. Still, it was a relief to be able to share my thoughts and worries with her on our, now rather slow, walks.

Freya was very excited about getting a brother or sister. I knew Katherine had mixed feelings about it. She said she was happy for us, but I could tell she was a little jealous. She would never give Freya siblings.

Towards the end of her pregnancy, I think I was even more impatient for our child to be born than Cecilia was. Not that she wasn’t very ready to get it over with as well. She had been uncomfortable all day, and was now lying on top of me so I could stroke her back, twisted awkwardly to the side to make room for her belly.

Her breathing was slow and steady, like she was almost falling asleep. Then I felt something.

“Cecilia, darling”, I mumbled. “I love you no matter what, but either you just peed on me, or we really need to go. Now.”

She quickly changed and we left. When we arrived at the hospital, I felt my pulse quickening. I loved Freya more than my own life, but my last visit to the maternity ward ten years ago had been traumatising.

But Cecilia was in pain, and as I was swaying back and forth to soothe her, I was able to put the past aside. This was here and now.

I was looking on in awe as she gave birth. I wanted to take away the pain, help her, but somehow her body knew how to do all the right things.

Before long, she was holding our daughter in her arms.

I had two daughters now.

I couldn’t be happier.

Chapter 26

Love Me Anyway

“Welcome back, Eric, doctor Holland is ready to see you.”

“Thank you, mr. Holland.”

“Hello, Eric. How have you been doing since last time? You’re still staying sober?”

“Yeah. I think I’m doing pretty well, actually. I mean, it’s still rough sometimes, but I mostly struggle when I’m alone for too long. And my neighbours check up on me regularly and invite me over for dinner, and my parents call me at least twice a week.”

“That’s good. And the antidepressants seem to be working too – do you want to try lowering the dose a little?”

“I don’t know… actually, no. It doesn’t feel… safe. Not yet. I really don’t want to relapse.”

“Understandable. We won’t touch them yet, then. How’s your daughter?”

“Oh, Freya’s great! She’s doing well in school, she plays football and basketball and wants to go back to Mt. Komorebi so she can snowboard again. But the best thing is, I just finished renovating the house – and she got a new bedroom!”

“Her mother and I finally agreed that I’m doing well enough that she’s comfortable with Freya living with me every other weekend.”

“That’s wonderful news, Eric! I’m happy for you. You deserve it, you’ve worked very hard in the last year. What about your job then?”

“Well, I’m still running the clinic alone, and it’s hard, but it also means I’m too exhausted to lie awake for too long at night, so I guess that’s positive. I’m still debating whether to hire a nurse or a vet. But I promise that it will be a man either way.”

“Good. I don’t usually approve of hiring someone based on gender, but I don’t think it’s wise for you to be working too closely with women just yet. You still have some work to do.”

“I know. It gets lonely, though. I mean, I haven’t… been intimate with anyone for almost a year now. Not since the vacation to Mt. Komorebi.”

“I know. And I’m no stranger to mixing love and work – after all, my husband is my receptionist. But until you’ve dealt with your tendency to use sex as a distraction, I think it’s better this way. Have you given some thought to what we talked about last time, about figuring out what you really want?”

“I’m trying. It’s just… I thought I already knew, right? I had everything planned out since I was a teenager, so there was never any doubt or insecurity to deal with. And then I met Katherine and suddenly my carefully planned future looked completely impossible. I felt lost.”

“You were still able to graduate and start a vet clinic, though. That was part of your plan, right?”

“Yes, but it just didn’t… quite live up to my expectations, I guess? My plans hadn’t involved Freya or her mother at all, so everything felt wrong. And I couldn’t even bond with my daughter at first, it was horrible. I didn’t know how to deal with it, I just tried to escape it all like a coward.”

“Don’t be too hard on yourself, Eric. You were only 23, you had a lot to deal with, and postpartum depression in men is woefully under-diagnosed, I’m afraid. But now that you’re doing better, what are your long-term goals? What do you want out of life? What about finding love?”

“Love?”

“Yes, love! I’m not going to force you to be celibate forever, Eric. So what do you want? Do you want to fall in love? Do you want to get married? Have more children?”

“I… yes? I think I do. I’ve just tried not to think about it, not since – I had an ex once, we really had something special but we broke up when we went to different universities. Then one day she came into my clinic, and I remembered how I always wanted to find true love and get married and all that. But I’d just had Freya at the time, and… things turned out differently.”

“Eric, listen. You’re what, 31 now? Take it from me, I’m twice your age, and your life is far from over. You have plenty of time to fall in love again, get married, have as many children as you want.”

“I guess you’re right.”

“Well, that’s all for today, Eric. Keep working on your goals. I’ll see you in two weeks, and remember – no women, no booze.”

“No women, no booze. Thanks, doctor Holland.”

“Same time in two weeks, Eric?”

“That’d be great, mr. Holland. Thank you.”

I left feeling strange. I often felt relieved or exhausted after a therapy session, but this time I felt… excited? Scared? Maybe a bit of both. I hadn’t allowed myself to even consider getting into a relationship for a long time. Was I even able to fall in love? I loved my parents and my daughter, but I couldn’t even imagine romantic love any longer.

I picked up Freya so she could do her homework before we had dinner with Colten and Kailani. I’d been angry with them for helping Katherine leave me, but I later realised that they had done everything they could to help Katherine save our relationship.

Now they invited me and Freya over for dinner once a week. It was a great excuse to see Freya between her weekend visits, and Colten and Kailani’s youngest son, Samuel, was her best friend. He always came over when she was visiting me.

Samuel was only a month younger than her. I remembered how Kailani and Katherine had bonded over being pregnant together when we first moved in.

Their oldest son, Charlie, was a few years older, just starting high school.

Freya found him fascinating, and he was always nice to her, but obviously not too interested in playing with younger kids. Even so, Freya somehow often talked him into it, much to Samuel’s annoyance.

Charlie was just entering that rebellious teenage phase, and I knew Colten and Kailani had some problems with his attitude recently. But still, it was nice just seeing a normal, loving family.

Love. What was love, anyway? I had tried so hard to love Katherine, but I couldn’t force it. I hadn’t been in love in over a decade. Not since Cecilia.

I felt my heart ache at the thought of her. Her smile, her eyes, her laugh. And her disappointment as she left me in the clinic, just after Freya was born. Had she hoped we would get back together?

I wondered what she was doing now. I briefly toyed with the idea of trying to look her up on social media, but no. I didn’t think I could handle seeing her with a husband and kids.

“Earth to Eric, are you even listening?”

“Oh, sorry, Colten, lost in my own thoughts for a bit.”

“Yeah, you have that post-therapy look. Did the doctor give you a lot to think about?”

I explained that I had to think about my long-term relationship goals and Colten smiled.

“Oh yeah, you should totally get back out there when you feel ready. I mean, now that even Katherine -“

He stopped abruptly, almost as if Kailani had just kicked him under the table. She glared at her husband and smiled innocently at me.

“Kailani? Please tell me, I know she tells you everything.”

“Alright… You should really hear this from her, but yes, she’s seeing someone. I mean, she’s obviously been dating on and off for the past few years, but she haven’t found anyone serious enough to introduce to Freya until now.”

“To Freya? Has Freya met this guy, then?”

“I… I think so, his name is Conrad, he’s an actor like Colten. It seems pretty serious.”

Later that night, when Freya was asleep, I texted Katherine and asked for the whole story. Apparently, Conrad had talked about hiring someone to manage his stock portfolio, and Colten had recommended Katherine.

They’d gotten closer, and finally started dating a few months ago. It was going well. She had been planning to tell me soon, but couldn’t find the right time.

From what she told me, he seemed like a great guy. I knew Katherine would never let him near our daughter if he wasn’t – she wouldn’t even let me be around Freya when I was being a toxic idiot.

To my surprise, I discovered that I was happy for Katherine. I had felt incredibly guilty all these years for being the reason she ruined her marriage, but not give her the loving relationship she wanted. I genuinely hoped this Conrad guy could give her what I couldn’t. She deserved some happiness.

Then I felt a pang of worry. He would become Freya’s stepdad. What if they moved in together? Would this man tuck in my daughter at night? Play basketball with her, comfort her when she cried?

Would my daughter start calling him dad? Suddenly I felt sick to my stomach. I desperately wanted a drink.

“Don’t look at me like that, Zoe. No women, no booze. I know.”

I had to be strong, for Freya – and for myself. So I called my parents and cried instead.

A few months later, Katherine and Freya indeed moved into Conrad’s house. I tried to deal with my emotions about it in therapy. It helped that Freya was now spending a lot more time with me.

After all, Katherine and Conrad wanted to have some privacy. Luckily, he also lived in the Bay, in a fancy refurbished warehouse down by the harbour, so picking up Freya was easy. But I still felt hollow whenever I dropped her off again.

I’d just gotten back home when there was a knock on the door. Cooper started barking like crazy. I figured it must be Colten asking if I wanted to go for a run.

Then my heart stood still. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

“Cecilia?”

I tore open the door, closing it behind me to keep the barking Cooper inside, and took her in my arms.

Her laugh was slightly muffled by my shoulder.

“Hey Eric. Sorry if this is weird, but… I run into your parents around town now and then. I told them I was heading to the Bay this weekend, and your dad said you could use a visit… from a friend.”

I asked her to take a walk with me, then quickly changed into something warmer. The spring sun was bright, but the wind was chilly.

As we walked away from the house, I put my arm around her. I couldn’t believe she was really here. Suddenly she stopped. I turned towards her, wondering why, as she leaned in to kiss me.

I quickly turned my head away.

“Cecilia… we need to talk about something first.”

She looked upset.

“Oh no, I’m so sorry, Eric. I thought… This is so embarrassing. I shouldn’t have come.”

I quickly pulled her close.

“Cecilia! I’m very glad you came. And I do want to kiss you, but I need to tell you something first. Please walk with me?”

She still seemed embarrassed as we continued, so when we reached the sidewalk I stopped and took her hand. Then I leaned in and spoke softly in her ear.

“Cecilia, listen. I have been thinking about you ever since you walked out of my clinic eight years ago. I am beyond thrilled that you’re here, but I’m working through some stuff. It has nothing to do with you, but I need to tell you about it – then you can decide if you still want to kiss me afterwards, deal?”

We found a bench, and I told her everything.

I told her about my affair with Katherine, my broken dreams, my struggles bonding with Freya, the arguments, the drinking. I talked about being sober, about my therapy, about being on antidepressants and trying to learn how to be honest with myself and others.

She listened to it all. She didn’t judge me, but just told me about her own life since we parted ways. She’d been in a few serious relationships, but they never lasted more than a year or two. Something was always missing. She jokingly told me that she’d resigned herself to becoming a weird cat lady.

I finally told her my biggest shame, about the nurses and all the one-night stands, how I had callously used these women as a means to escape. I explained that my therapist recommended that I stay celibate until I got my issues sorted.

I fully expected her to leave, to be disgusted with me.

She just smiled and gently lifted my chin so she could look me in the eyes.

“Eric… Am I allowed to at least kiss you?”

Over the coming months, we’d talk on the phone daily. She’d even travel up to see me every few weeks, when Freya wasn’t there.

She’d promised to help me steer clear of anything that could lead to things getting too heated. We kept it pretty platonic, watching bad movies and fighting over the remote.

Sometimes we would kiss. It was hard to stay in control when all I wanted was to carry her to my bed, but somehow I managed. She always stopped and gave me some distance if she sensed that things were getting too difficult for me.

We would walk for hours, just talking. She listened, but she also challenged my opinions.

She told me about her own problems, shared her thoughts on everything, forced me to consider other perspectives and get out of my own head.

I felt happy just being in her presence. The intimacy of her hand in mine felt better than any sex I’d had. This was all very new to me.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want her, because I did. Painfully so.

Whenever we kissed, it took everything I had to stop before I got too caught up in the moment.

“Cecilia… we need to continue walking. Because if we go home right now, I don’t know if I can…”

“Sorry, darling.” She smiled, dragging me towards a coffee stall instead. It felt like she quite enjoyed my struggles.

Doctor Holland finally decided that I seemed to have developed a much healthier attitude towards relationships, and lifted his ban. I told Cecilia to dress up next time she came, because we had something to celebrate.

“Eric, when you said we were going to be dancing, I didn’t expect it to be in your dining room.”

“Sorry, but I shouldn’t be going anywhere that serves alcohol yet. Besides, I want you all to myself.”

“So what are we celebrating?”

“So, uh… My therapist says… well, he lifted the ban.”

“Oh? Then why are we not in bed yet?”

I picked her up.

“Are you sure you want this?”

She laughed.

“Eric Duchelli, don’t you dare make me wait any longer!”

When we reached the bedroom, I suddenly got nervous. It was weird, I’d never been nervous about sex before. Cecilia sensed it.

“Eric, darling – relax. It’ll be just like when we were 19.”

I laughed and relaxed a little.

“Oh no, this will be nothing like when we were 19!”

It was much, much better.

When we were both completely exhausted, I looked into her eyes.

“Cecilia – I love you.”

“I love you too.”

Chapter 25

Don’t Let Me Get Me

We sent Freya to my parents for a few days while we sorted out the practical stuff. Kailani and Colten had already helped Katherine find a place to rent near the harbour. It was final.

I felt betrayed. How long had she been planning to leave? And why? Weren’t we doing fine, keeping it together for Freya?

Or was she leaving me for another man? Maybe someone who would actually touch her?

She told me that the night after Jamie and Athena’s wedding had made her realise that we were never going to work out. I would never really love her, and she was tired of trying. So she had simply started living her own life instead of fighting to be part of mine.

But she couldn’t live like this any longer. She was sick of being lonely, of our complete lack of intimacy, of how we barely spoke to each other, we just took turns with Freya.

But most of all, she was sick of my drinking and my depressive episodes. She didn’t want Freya to be affected by me any longer.

I begged her not to take my daughter away from me, but that was of course no use.

She said that getting Freya away from me was the whole point. That hurt.

She promised that I could see Freya whenever I wanted, she even promised to try and find a permanent place in the Bay so they could stay nearby, but she wouldn’t let Freya live with me.

There was nothing I could do.

No amount of arguing would change her mind. I drank and slept on the couch for the next few days while she packed her things. And most of Freya’s things. By the time she had finished, I felt numb.

She said goodbye. Then she told me to get my shit together so I could see my daughter.

She also said she was sorry. For everything. Then she kissed my forehead and left to pick up Freya from my parents.

I locked the door behind her and sank to the floor. Once again, I felt like my life was in ruins, but last time it was because I was having a daughter.

This time I had lost her.

The first few days alone, I walked around like in a trance. The house and most of the furniture was mine, bought with the money from my parents, but it still felt empty without Katherine’s little touches. Candles and fresh flowers were replaced by trash, empty glasses, and painkillers on every surface in the house.

I couldn’t be bothered to clean up. It wasn’t like anyone was going to see it, and I didn’t have the energy.

For weeks, the only thing getting me up in the morning was Cooper who needed to go outside, and the fact that I had patients to see.

Cooper would jump into bed when he heard my alarm go off, and whine sadly until I felt guilty enough to get up for our morning run.

It was a good way to combat the hangovers. By the time Cooper and I returned home and I got out of the shower, I felt almost human again. And after a month or two, I began coming back out of the fog.

Work was going slightly better than my personal life. The customers were happy. Only problem had been the other vet, Lloyd, but he had commented on my hangovers one time too many so I had finally replaced him with a veterinary nurse.

She was very sweet, and great with the patients.

But she also obviously liked me, flirting with me constantly at work.

Even though I was lonely, I didn’t want to get involved with anyone, not with my life being such a disaster. So I tried to keep the distance for months.

But she was persistent.

I finally gave in and we hooked up a few times, but then things turned… awkward.

She finally realised that I wasn’t going to change my mind, that we were never going to get serious, and she quit.

She wasn’t too hard to replace, though.

None of them were.

I saw Freya as often as I could, even if I was just picking her up and spending a few hours with her before taking her back to Katherine.

We’d often go to her favourite park, which had a nice playground. Freya loved it, and I couldn’t refuse. I wanted to give her the world whenever I was with her.

That’s how I ended up with a cat. It came up to us while we were taking a walk, and Freya instantly fell in love. It seemed like a stray, but was very friendly. I told Freya that we can’t just keep any animal we find.

“But Daddy, look! She has green eyes like us!”

How could I say no?

And so, after making sure she had no owner, Zoe came to live with me and Cooper. Luckily, they got along very well, and I had yet another fur-covered alarm clock to get me up in the morning.

Years passed, and by the time Freya started school, I found myself picking her up from basket or football practice several times a week.

She could never sit still. Impulsive and energetic, she was always climbing or running or getting into trouble.

Katherine still refused to let Freya stay the night. She was afraid that I’d get drunk and maybe not wake up in an emergency. But when my parents wanted to take Freya and me on a weekend trip to Mt. Komorebi to celebrate my 30th birthday, Katherine allowed it.

My parents had rented a cabin for the four of us, right next to the ski lift.

Freya was thrilled. To no one’s surprise, she insisted on snowboarding instead of skiing. And she was a natural.

I wondered how I’d managed to have a daughter that was good at everything she did. She certainly didn’t get that from me, it had to be from Katherine.

It was nice with a change of scenery, and I loved being able to spend more than just a few hours with my daughter.

After dinner, Freya talked my mother into teaching her some new card games, so my father and I decided to try out the hot springs.

We chatted for a bit, but then he turned serious.

“Son… you have a way with the ladies, much like your grandpa Don. Unlike him, though, you don’t seem to be able to hold on to any of them.”

“I really don’t want to have this conversation, dad. I’m fine. I’m not trying to hold on to any of them, anyway.”

“How many nurses have you been through in the last five years? Ten?”

I felt my cheeks burning. “… Eleven.”

My father sighed. “I just want you to be happy, son.”

“Tell me then, how can I be happy, dad? Katherine took my daughter away from me. All I do now is work and wait for my next chance to see Freya.”

“I have neither the time nor the energy to date seriously. Sometimes I wonder why I even bother being alive.”

Shit. I shouldn’t have said that. I could see the worry in his face.

“Eric…”

“I didn’t mean that, dad. It just feels hopeless sometimes, you know? I’m going to go out for a drink before bed.”

“Eric, you can’t leave like this.”

“Don’t worry, dad. It’ll just be one drink, I promise.”

“I’m not going to… do anything stupid.”

“Eric, please…”

I walked into town, found a bar and some willing company, and tried to forget what a mess my life was. Just for a little while.

It never really worked, but I didn’t know what else to do with myself.

I couldn’t understand a word she was saying, but she was pretty. And married, judging by the pale mark on her finger where a ring had obviously been removed.

By now, I knew how to spot her kind. A few of my former nurses had been married too – not that it had stopped us. They always ended up feeling guilty and quitting, though. The single nurses usually quit when they found someone else, someone willing to get serious.

Someone who didn’t like them sleeping with their boss.

I didn’t need a girlfriend, I needed a distraction. If she was married, that was her own business.

At least I managed to keep my promise of only having a single drink.

The walk back to the cabin was beautiful in the dark. I took a quick shower. The house was quiet, it was way past midnight. It seemed like everyone was asleep.

When I entered my room, I found Freya sleeping on my bed. I realised that she must have come to see me, only to find my bed empty.

She probably had a nightmare – and I wasn’t here for her. Her little cheeks were still wet from tears. I felt like the worst father in the world.

I resented Katherine for taking my daughter away, but she had been right. I obviously couldn’t be trusted to be there when she needed me. I was too selfish.

I laid down next to her, reaching out to gently wipe her tears away.

She woke up and smiled. “Daddy?”

“Hey baby girl. Did you have a bad dream?”

“Yeah. But I couldn’t find you.”

I pulled her close. “I’m here now, baby girl. I’m sorry, I won’t leave you again.”

I needed to do better.

I just had to.

Chapter 24

Just Give Me a Reason

Shortly after Freya’s first birthday, we found ourselves back in Britechester for Jamie and Athena’s wedding. That was definitely not something I’d seen coming.

But I was happy for them, even if I could feel my own bitterness simmering underneath. I would never have what they clearly had.

It was nice to see all my old university friends again, though. I hadn’t really kept in touch with Cierra, Ivan and the others since we graduated.

Katherine felt awkward being there, obviously. Not only was she surrounded by former students, but everyone knew our story by now. And her old house was just across the canal from here.

I saw her wiping a tear away, but I ignored it. I didn’t want to draw any unwanted attention to her.

Instead, I was catching up with Ivan. We even laughed about how I’d once tried to hide that I slept with Katherine. He told me that the second he had asked at the festival, the guilty look on my face had confirmed everything.

Jamie and Athena were both straight edge health nuts, so it was an alcohol-free wedding, but I still managed to have a pretty good time sober.

Katherine came over and told me that she would like to go for a brief walk. Just to have a look around her old neighbourhood. Athena heard her, and gave me a worried look.

I had a flashback to the look Athena gave me in the library a few years ago when Katherine had asked me to meet her in her office. But I shrugged and told Katherine to do whatever she wanted.

She left and Athena sat down next to me.

“I think she wanted you to go with her”, she said quietly.

That hadn’t occurred to me at all.

I lost myself in conversation again as Katherine headed towards her old home.

When she reached the house, she ran into Antony, who was just about to leave. And he wasn’t alone. But they had already seen her, so she had no other option than saying hello.

Antony happily introduced her to his girlfriend Amber.

Or rather fiancĂ©e. They’d gotten engaged a few weeks before. Amber cheerfully showed off her enormous diamond ring.

She congratulated them, and Antony even politely asked how our daughter was doing. He and Amber seemed genuinely happy and in love.

Katherine said goodbye as quickly as she could without being rude.

When she came back to Jamie and Athena’s house, she was visibly upset. She told me what had happened.

I was not impressed. I felt like she was asking to be hurt by going anywhere near her ex-husband or his house. We traveled home mostly in silence.

When we got back home that night, Katherine was still sad.

I wished Freya wasn’t with my parents for the weekend. I badly needed Katherine to be distracted by something so I could have a drink. And I was still angry with her.

I thought she was stupid for going back to the house. I told her so.

The fight was inevitable.

I told her that I’d been embarrassed when she left me alone at the wedding to go visit her ex. I didn’t tell her that part of me had both feared and hoped she’d get back with him.

She said she just wanted to see the house again, she didn’t know Antony would be outside. She would have preferred that he hadn’t been there so she didn’t have to meet little Miss Perfect.

“So now you’re upset that he finally moved on, despite the fact that he tried to mess with you for months during the divorce and you’ve been with me the whole time?”

“I don’t think I’m being unreasonable, Eric. I’m perfectly capable of hating his guts and mourning something I lost at the same time.”

“So what are you going to do about it, Katherine? Go win him back?”

“Eric, you’re not listening to me, I just told you how much I hate him!”

“It just makes me sad being surrounded by happy couples when you and I are obviously not doing great! Is that really so strange?”

I couldn’t stop myself. I was angry, bitter and uncomfortably sober.

“Maybe you should have thought about that before you got yourself knocked up by a student.”

The slap wasn’t hard but it took me by surprise.

Katherine seemed just as surprised at what she’d done. I grabbed her wrist and pinned her down.

Never hit me again”, I growled.

She just glared at me, defiantly.

We looked at each other, both breathing heavily. For the first time in over a year, we felt the same way at the same time – even if the feeling was rage.

Katherine pulled me down and kissed me, hard. I felt how her anger and frustration finally mirrored my own.

They say that love and hate are two sides of the same coin.

Turns out that rage can feel remarkably close to passion.

Afterwards, we fell asleep in each other’s arms for the first time since Freya was born.

It was the beginning of the end.

After that night, things slowly changed. Katherine would get up at dawn and go for a run before work. She got fitter and more confident, stopped seeking me out for reassurance.

We also welcomed Cooper into the family. His owner had come to the clinic, asking if I knew anyone who could take him, and I’d immediately called Katherine to ask if we could keep him. She said yes, surprising me. She was never a dog person.

Getting Cooper definitely helped me. After our night of rage, Katherine had been avoiding me. And while it was kind of a relief that she no longer tried to touch or even talk to me, it also made me even lonelier than before.

Katherine would be out jogging when I woke up, and I would run with Cooper late at night. This way, she’d already be sleeping when I came back so I could have a drink and be alone with my thoughts before going to bed.

The clinic was going well. We were consistently making money, and I even considered getting rid of Lloyd and getting a nurse instead. His work wasn’t quite up to my high standards.

The seasons passed uneventfully. Katherine and I actually got along much better now that we no longer tried to make the relationship work. We made polite smalltalk, mostly about Freya or various household chores, and we rarely argued.

While Katherine and I grew further apart over the months, I became much closer to my daughter. It had started slowly, like when she was about eight months old, and I realised that her eyes had turned out green, exactly like my own. Shortly after Jamie and Athena’s wedding, she’d taken her first real steps and I was so proud I felt like my heart would burst.

The first time she called me “dada”, I cried.

The older she got, the more she looked and acted like me.

She was developing a nose that I recognised as mine – and my father’s. I would even see my mother in her features. She loved animals, especially Cooper, and could constantly be found hugging and petting him. It reminded me of the old pictures of Maggie and me on my parents’ walls.

In everything but our relationship, Katherine seemed to thrive. Her administrative talent and obvious intelligence had gotten her promoted to senior manager in no time, and she’d become interested in stocks and trading. She seemed mostly content.

On an average weeknight, we almost looked like a real, normal family. Things were fine. Not perfect, but I figured I could live like this. I even made an effort to drink less. For Freya’s sake.

On family-oriented holidays like Harvestfest, however, the distance between us was especially noticeable. I hadn’t realised how much effort Katherine had been putting into our relationship until she simply stopped trying.

Freya was not a fan of awkward silences, though, and made sure the focus was on her whenever Katherine and I got too caught up in our own thoughts.

It was hard not to smile when she stirred up trouble only to then play innocent. Even Katherine would laugh at her antics.

It was impossible not to adore Freya, and I could barely remember why I had struggled so much in the first year or so. What had been wrong with me? She was my daughter, she felt like a part of me.

Katherine and Kailani had become like sisters. I’d come home to find them chatting on the couch at least twice a week. We had tried having dinner with them a few times, but Colten and Kailani’s well-functioning relationship made me and Katherine look so much worse.

So instead Kailani came to our house, and sometimes she’d bring her own toddler, but Colten was usually home from work early to take care of both of their boys so she could come alone.

I always made a lot of noise coming in if I knew Kailani was there. I didn’t want to accidentally overhear Katherine complaining about me. I’m sure she did, based on how often she looked a bit guilty when I walked in.

But I was also glad that she had a friend to talk to. And whenever Kailani was here, it meant that Freya and I got to have dinner by ourselves.

In her eyes, at least, dada could do nothing wrong.

And I loved spending time alone with my biggest fan.

Being a dad gave me a new appreciation for things. I loved the raw beauty of Brindleton Bay, which was much more interesting than the suburbs of Newcrest where I grew up, but it excited me even more to see it through Freya’s eyes.

The night before Winterfest, I took her out for a little walk, bundled up in warm clothes. We looked at the snow falling quietly in the dark. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

This was the first winter Freya had been old enough to really appreciate snow, and her excitement was infectious. I felt like I had been taking snow for granted until now.

She giggled and tried to catch the falling snowflakes with her little hands, and I hugged her tight. I didn’t know it was possible to love someone this much.

Winterfest morning was beautiful. Everything was covered in fresh snow and Brindleton Bay looked like a postcard.

My parents had come all the way from Newcrest to spend Winterfest with us, and I was excited to see them. It had been a few months since their last visit and they weren’t getting any younger. I wanted Freya to spend as much time with her grandparents as possible.

Katherine and I played our roles perfectly. I didn’t want my parents to worry, so I never discussed our relationship with them, but I think they suspected that things weren’t great. They were always very kind towards Katherine, but never seemed especially fond of her.

They adored Freya, though. My father didn’t even take off his coat before tossing her into the air to make her laugh.

My mother wanted a family portrait. Katherine immediately volunteered to take one. Months later, when it was all too late, I would think back to this day and wonder if she had kept herself out of the picture on purpose.

But during Winterfest, I thought nothing of it. I was busy spending time with my family.

Dinner went well. I updated my parents on the clinic, but Katherine and I mostly told them about Freya. How many words she knew by now, all the funny things she had said and done since their last visit.

Katherine and I both had a lot of practice putting on a performance to make things seem normal by now, but I wondered if my parents sensed that we were trying a little too hard.

It made me happy and a little bit envious to see the obvious love between my parents, even after over 25 years of marriage. I hoped they would set a better example for Freya than Katherine and I did.

My father was entertaining us with some of the most outrageous divorce lawsuits he’d seen in his career.

Katherine and I weren’t married, and I had often wondered if it would be better if we simply broke up, stopped pretending. But I knew exactly what would happen. She would take Freya with her, and I would at best get to see my daughter half the time – if I was extremely lucky. I couldn’t risk that.

I had considered asking my father what rights I would have, but I knew there was no good solution except staying with Katherine. Even if I could somehow keep Freya to myself, she would just lose her mother instead. I couldn’t do that to either of them.

Once more, I pushed away any thoughts of leaving Katherine. I had to keep going. For my daughter.

For Freya.

A few weeks after Winterfest, I woke up in the middle of the night. At first I wasn’t sure what woke me up, but then I heard Katherine in the bathroom.

It sounded like she was crying, trying to be quiet. I put my arm on her pillow. Still warm, she couldn’t have been gone for long.

Then I noticed that she’d left her phone behind. The screen was still on, and my curiosity got the better of me.

She had been chatting to Kailani. I only had time to read Katherine’s last message as I heard her blowing her nose in the bathroom. It simply said:

“Thank you both, but I can’t do this anymore. I’m leaving him.

Shit.

Chapter 23

Anywhere Away from Here

Katherine took to motherhood like a duck to water. She was a natural. It seemed like she always knew exactly what to do when the baby cried. I mean Freya – when Freya cried. We named her after Katherine’s grandmother.

Or, well, Katherine named her. I found it difficult to have any real opinion on the matter. But Katherine seemed perfectly able to handle most of the parenting, really.

I wasn’t doing as well.

I could tell that it upset Katherine whenever I accidentally called Freya “the baby”. I tried my best to use her name, but it felt foreign in my mouth.

It didn’t help that I was plagued by doubt. I couldn’t see myself in Freya at all. Why was her skin so dark? Could the tests be wrong? Maybe she was Antony’s after all. Katherine claimed that she looked the same when she was a baby, but still. Even what little hair Freya had was dark. I had my mother’s face and my father’s colours and nose – no one had ever questioned my parentage for a second.

I couldn’t tell Katherine how I felt, but it bothered me. I was expected to love this tiny stranger unconditionally, but she was just… a stranger to me. Shouldn’t I feel different if this was really my child? Then again, my father had told me how he adored my alien brother from the first time he met him, and he definitely wasn’t his real father. Maybe something was just wrong with me.

My mood was generally terrible. Everything got on my nerves. If Katherine gave me the slightest suggestion, it felt like a harsh criticism.

I knew that she was just trying to be helpful – or desperate to make conversation – but I just felt angry and annoyed all the time.

I didn’t know what to do. If I told her to leave me alone, she’d get mad. If I ignored her, she’d get mad. Either way, we would end up arguing.

The fights got worse. Neither of us got quite enough sleep because of the… because of Freya.

It was becoming clear just how little Katherine and I had in common. After all, our relationship was built on lust, not love. Not even friendship. We never truly got to know each other beyond the passion and the excitement of doing something forbidden.

She’d finally found a job, but it was rough for her to start over from scratch, career-wise. From highly respected dean to “assistant to the manager” in a local business. I tried to be supportive. At least she found a job.

She told me that I didn’t understand. This was the kind of job a new graduate would get, not someone with over 15 years of experience and a PhD. She would have to work for years to make up for lost time, and in a completely unfamiliar field since she would never be allowed to work in education again.

She was right, I didn’t understand. I had no way of knowing how she felt. But even agreeing with her that it sounded tough pissed her off.

She told me that I should be grateful that I was still able to follow my dreams. According to her, this had barely derailed my life at all, I just ended up having kids a bit earlier than I’d planned.

I couldn’t exactly tell her that I had imagined having those kids with someone I actually loved.

Luckily, our arguments were often cut short by Freya.

Katherine would run off to care for her in the middle of an argument, and that would be it. A pattern emerged. We argued, Freya cried, Katherine went upstairs. Meanwhile, I cleaned up after dinner and poured two glasses of wine.

Katherine would come back a little later, and we’d drink in silence. Sooner or later, one of us would break the silence, pretending that the argument never happened. Neither of us had the energy to continue fighting.

It wasn’t a great solution, but it kept the peace for now. I just needed to take it one day at a time.

We’d spend the evenings mindlessly watching tv until it was time to go to bed. At least whatever we watched gave us something to talk about.

Sometimes, especially after a bit of alcohol, I would forget myself and kiss her, desperate to feel something again, anything. But the fire was gone. At least for me.

Katherine would respond enthusiastically, but it never took long before I panicked. Whenever I accidentally touched her stomach, an intense fear of getting her pregnant again paralysed me and I pushed her away.

Katherine found it hard to deal with. I couldn’t tell her the truth, and I knew she had become very self-conscious about her body. The emergency C-section had left a huge scar and she was covered in stretch marks. And her 40th birthday was looming on the horizon.

I tried to explain that it had nothing to do with her body, but of course she found that hard to believe, given my behaviour. Especially since I had no other reason to give.

She begged me to tell her what was wrong, but I couldn’t. I didn’t want her to think that I was repulsed by her body, but the truth was worse – I resented her.

I felt trapped in a life that was sort of similar and yet completely different to what I had planned. And somehow, it felt like her fault. After all, hadn’t she been the one to seduce me in her office? But I couldn’t tell her that.

I kept telling her that I was just stressed out. New baby, the vet clinic, our finances, it was a lot. I assured her that it would get better as Freya got older and we got more sleep. She didn’t believe me, of course. She was too smart for that.

The only thing that could make me smile was seeing my patients. The vet clinic was slowly gaining new customers, and we were getting close to breaking even each month.

But despite us still struggling financially, interacting with animals all day did a lot to improve my mood. At least until I got home.

I worked with an older, more experienced vet. His name was Lloyd and he’d been the resident vet when I bought the clinic. I worried people would think I was too young to have the skills, so I’d decided to keep him for now, at least until I got a solid customer base.

I was seeing the last patient for the day when I heard Lloyd talking to a customer buying some cat treats. I quickly finished up and rushed out. I recognised that voice.

I caught up with her just before she reached the doors. Cecilia. It was really her.

She squealed with delight and leapt into my arms when she saw me.

The smell of her hair brought me back to our first date in the park. It seemed like yesterday.

Suddenly, I felt 19 and invincible again.

I swung her around the clinic while she laughed. I could feel her breath on my neck and it gave me goosebumps.

I managed to contain myself and only kiss her cheek before setting her down, but I really didn’t want to let go of her.

I asked her what she was doing in the Bay, and she told me that she was visiting some relatives nearby, and on a whim had decided to go in and get some treats for her cats.

Then she put her hand on my uniform, and congratulated me on achieving my dream of becoming a vet, just like I’d planned. Said she always knew I could do anything I set my mind to.

She then looked down and smiled shyly.

“So, I’m going to be in the area for a few days. Do you want to, you know, catch up over coffee?”

An alternate future flashed before my eyes. Being with Cecilia again, feeling truly connected, never running out of things to talk about, and… and what? Throw Katherine and the baby out in the street? Or leave them behind in a house she couldn’t afford alone? Disappointing my parents yet again with more irresponsible behaviour after they spent most of their savings rescuing me from my mistakes?

“Cecilia, I… I just had a daughter, and…”

“W-what?”

She looked at me, tears forming in her eyes, and it felt like a black hole opened beneath my feet, pulling me underground.

She quickly turned away from me.

“I’m sorry. I should go.”

“Cecilia, wait! It’s great to see you again, of course we should catch up!”

“I… don’t think that would be a good idea. I don’t want to… complicate things for you.”

“Goodbye, Eric.”

Then she walked back out of my life. I was both devastated and a little relieved. She was right, I didn’t need the temptation. I was surprised by how strong my feelings for her still were, and I wasn’t exactly known for making great decisions.

I went for a run to clear my thoughts – and to postpone going home.

After my shower, I checked Katherine’s birth control pills to make sure she had remembered to take them. She never forgot – and we hadn’t had sex for months – but I still counted them obsessively every night. Otherwise I couldn’t sleep.

I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. It felt like my meeting with Cecilia was written all over my face, but in reality, it was mostly expressionless.

Katherine had fallen asleep on the bed, still half dressed.

I looked at her. She really was gorgeous. And strong. I admired how she was dealing with her divorce and Freya and finding a new career. How she was dealing with me.

I wished I loved her.

And I wished I could talk to her, explain how out of place I felt. Tell her that I would lie in bed next to her every night, closing my eyes, and wishing I could simply… disappear.

I didn’t want to wake her, so I quietly went back downstairs.

I found a bottle in the back of the liquor cabinet and sat in the dark kitchen.

I definitely needed something stronger than wine tonight.

As I felt the whiskey burn in my throat, I dreamed of being somewhere else.

Anywhere away from here.

Chapter 22

A Million Dreams

The university found out, of course. They gave me my diploma, but I wasn’t allowed to attend the graduation ceremony, and I was told to move off campus immediately. I had nowhere to go but home.

My father, always the responsible one, was angry and disappointed. No surprise there.

My mother seemed more worried about the age difference. She said that we were at very different stages in life. Katherine being 38 had never bothered me before, but maybe my mother was right. I was only 23, so it was a pretty big gap.

“We’ve given you everything, Eric. Always. Everything you wanted – and you almost threw away your entire future because you were thinking with the wrong head! I thought we raised you better than this.”

“I know, dad. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for this to happen. And we… I thought we were being careful.”

I hid my face in my hands.

“Just… not careful enough, I guess.”

My father, of course, was thinking like a lawyer. He insisted that I should also get a paternity test.

That hit me hard. I hadn’t even considered the fact that I might not be the father either.

“Seriously, Eric, for all you know, the father could be any student on campus.”

“That’s out of line, dad! Yes, we were stupid, but Katherine is not… she’s not like that.”

My father looked at me, stone-faced.

“How certain are you, son?”

I understood what he meant. The amount of cheating and lying he’d seen as a divorce lawyer for over three decades was staggering.

“I… I guess I can’t be sure.”

Finally, my mother spoke up.

“Zane, honey, you’re being too hard on him. And her. We all make mistakes, remember? And this family wouldn’t even exist if my life – or yours – had turned out the way we originally planned.”

My father briefly glanced at the pictures behind us. I knew he’d once been engaged to someone else.

“No amount of arguing can change what happened. What we need to do is find out how we can best help our son.”

She put her hand on mine.

“And our possible grandchild.”

I let out a sob, and my mother pulled me to her, hugging me tightly.

As my mother held me, I wished I could go back to being the carefree teenager who had his life all figured out. Was it really only a few years ago?

My room had been left untouched while I was away. It was almost like travelling back in time – almost. I could hear my parents’ voices downstairs. It reminded me of the night the Sixams came for my brother. I briefly wondered what Daniel would be doing now if he hadn’t gone with them. We never heard from him anymore.

My perfect brother definitely wouldn’t be going around knocking up married women, that’s for sure. But I had plenty of problems without worrying about him. How could I be so stupid? I had no idea what to do.

I used to have my entire future planned out. I had a million dreams. Some people have a 5 year plan, I had a 25 year plan. Now I felt lost and uncertain.

My father came in and sat on my bed. I quickly wiped away my tears.

My father apologised for being so hard on me. He told me that he had discussed things with my mother, and they had decided to do their best to still make some of my dreams come true.

Daniel was unlikely to ever return, so I was their only heir. My parents were going to cash in some of their assets and help me and Katherine get set up. He called it an early inheritance.

The numbers he mentioned were intimidating. I always knew we were pretty well off, but I had no idea how much money my parents had accumulated in investments and savings over the years.

My father pulled some strings and called in a few favours. We managed to find the perfect place in Brindleton Bay, all the way across the country.

We bought the most adorable house in a quiet neighbourhood. It was far away from my parents, but also far away from the scandal. Katherine and I needed a fresh start.

The most important thing, however, was that the house was right next to a vet clinic, and the owner was interested in selling it. My most important dream could still come true.

Katherine, being pregnant and newly fired, was not finding any jobs, and I was struggling to get the vet clinic up and running after years of neglect by the previous owner, but I finally felt a little optimistic about the whole thing. Maybe we could do this.

Soon after we moved in, some of the neighbours came to welcome us to the neighbourhood. I was very surprised to recognise them – Colten and Kailani, two of my brother’s closest friends in high school. My brother had even mentioned his secret crush on Kailani before he left.

Kailani was touched when she heard about our situation, especially the fact that Katherine was pregnant.

She told Katherine to ask if she needed anything – Colten and Kailani had just discovered that they were having their second child. I was glad that Katherine seemed to be making new friends already. I didn’t want to be her only support.

They were my friends too, of course – but I was mostly smitten with their beautiful dog, Sansa.

I was still adjusting to being a proper adult – being a house owner was expensive and we wouldn’t have made it without the seemingly endless support from my parents.

The next few months passed, and we slowly settled in as Katherine’s belly grew.

I tried to be excited, but I was mostly filled with dread. Katherine was thrilled, decorating the nursery and constantly bugging me about baby names. She’d given up on ever having kids since Antony didn’t want any, but it had always been a secret dream of hers.

Kailani was also getting bigger. I’d often meet her when she walked Sansa as I was going to the vet clinic, and she was only a month or so behind Katherine. I was much more relaxed around her – at least that baby wasn’t my responsibility.

It was harder to relax around Katherine. She was hormonal and frustrated with her new, heavier body, worried about her future job situation, and it didn’t help that Antony was dragging out their divorce.

Arguments seemed to erupt out of nowhere. I would be lost in my own thoughts for a bit, not paying attention to something she said, and she’d snap.

I tried to explain that I was thinking about important things, like how to make the vet clinic profitable so at least one of us could bring in some money. I didn’t really mean to be hurtful, but the money situation stressed me out. I hated relying on my parents for everything.

She obviously didn’t respond well to the low blow about her lack of career, and called me out for being immature.

She made me feel like a child. It was hard not to retaliate and say something that made her feel old, like how she clearly had all the maturity in this relationship – and then I was the bad guy.

I hated arguing with her. She clearly had more experience in that as well.

After an argument, I’d usually go for a run to clear my head and give us both some space. Sometimes I wondered what would happen if I just kept running. I was sick of worrying – about the bills, the clinic, the baby, and our strained relationship.

At least Katherine’s divorce was finally happening.

Antony came by so they could sign the final papers together. It was… awkward to say the least.

I tried to give them some privacy and stayed in the living room, but I could hear him being all smug and patronising.

It kinda seemed like he was getting revenge on her for cheating on him. Turning her in to the university management wasn’t enough, he apparently enjoyed seeing her tired and heavy and frustrated. I almost intervened when I heard him refer to her “boy toy”.

I knew he was several years older than Katherine, in his mid-forties. It clearly bothered him to be replaced by someone half his age.

Katherine was perfectly able to stand up for herself, though. She told him to just sign the damn papers and get out.

In the end, he told her she wasn’t worth it, signed, and left. I was actually proud of her.

She still felt sick a lot. It did worry me a little, I knew that the nausea wasn’t supposed to last all the way through a pregnancy, but I didn’t truly believe that anything was wrong.

One night, just as I had fallen asleep, Katherine got out of bed. She was in a lot of pain, so she woke me up, and we hurried to the hospital. I was scared. The baby wasn’t due for another couple of weeks.

I just stood there, useless, as a nurse ran some tests and listened to Katherine explain how she was feeling. Then he pressed a red button on the wall.

Suddenly it seemed like half the hospital was in the room. Katherine was pale. The nurse and a doctor exchanged a look that gave me chills. Something was definitely wrong.

I was left to wait while Katherine was whisked away and prepared for surgery. Surgery? Nothing made sense and no one told me anything.

Finally the doors opened and I was called in.

The surgeon was the first person to really acknowledge my existence. He asked me if I was squeamish. I told him I was a veterinarian. He nodded, then pulled out a scalpel.

I was much less prepared for it than I thought I’d be, but I kept it together for Katherine.

Soon, the surgeon wiped off the wriggling, crying bundle and handed it to Katherine.

“Congratulations, mom and dad. It’s a healthy baby girl!”

I couldn’t believe it. Just like that, I was a father. I had a daughter.

Why wasn’t I happy?

Chapter 21

Bad Influence

I tried to forget my encounter with Katherine and focus on being a normal student. Luckily, it didn’t take long until our afternoon in her office felt more like a dream. A very sexy dream.

Most of my class decided to go to a festival in San Myshuno to get a break from our studies. I really needed the distraction.

It was great hanging out with my friends, and I got to catch up with Jamie. We hadn’t been working out together for weeks because she was too busy preparing for some fitness competition.

Jamie was not up for getting high with us, though. Said it messed with her metabolism.

While we were smoking, Ivan suddenly got serious.

“Eric, there’s a rumour on campus that you hooked up with Dr. Gilscarbo. You gotta tell us if it’s true, man, she’s so hot.”

I tried to play it cool.

“Seriously, Ivan, don’t listen to rumours. If I had scored with the dean, don’t you think I would have bragged to you guys about it already?”

Ivan’s words stuck with me, though. I didn’t like that rumour going around. My future – and probably Katherine’s job – was at stake.

I figured that maybe the rumour would die down if I had a girlfriend on campus.

It was probably because I was high as a kite, but it seemed like a great idea at the time. Some dude had been trying to chat up Cierra, but I decided to distract her from him.

It worked. The dude left, and I did my best to charm Cierra.

We ended up kissing behind the toilet stalls, but there was no spark between us at all, and after a while we laughed it off and went back to campus.

One afternoon, a few weeks after the festival fiasco, I came back to my room to find a note that seemed to have fallen off my nightstand. I had no idea who had delivered it, but it was clearly from Katherine.

I showed up at the time and place on the note, unsure what to think. It didn’t escape me that the mailbox outside said Antony & Katherine Gilscarbo. She was married? It made sense. The house seemed too expensive for a dean.

As I knocked, I felt tense. I didn’t know why she had asked me to come, but we definitely needed a serious talk about what happened in her office.

But when Katherine opened the door, my mind once again went blank. All the things I had thought about saying to her – completely gone.

Speechless, I took her in my arms. She giggled, but quickly dragged me inside before we could be seen by any neighbours.

Like in a trance, I lifted her up.

“Where’s your bedroom?”

She laughed.

“Upstairs, first door on the left.”

Without putting her down, I kicked off my shoes and carried her upstairs.

I climbed onto the large bed with her still in my arms.

She smiled at me as I gently laid her down.

“I wasn’t sure you’d come.”

“One question, Katherine – your husband?”

A brief shadow crossed her face. “Conference. Do you mind?”

So she was indeed married.

To my surprise, I realised that I didn’t care.

We were like fire and gasoline, burning with an intensity I had never known.

It wasn’t until afterwards, when she fell asleep beside me, that I came to my senses.

What was I doing?

The following months were a blur. I felt like I was pretending to be just like everyone else, complaining about the professors and obsessing over exams, while at the same time hiding a terrible secret.

Katherine would walk by me in the library, give me a look, and we would hurry down separate staircases to meet in the rarely used basement.

It was a terrible idea. We were almost asking to be discovered.

But we didn’t care.

When we were together, the rest of the world and all of its silly little problems ceased to exist.

We were fire and gasoline. Nothing else mattered.

There were many evenings when I would come back from seeing Katherine, only to shower and then spend half the night doing my coursework to keep up.

I tried to compensate for all my disappearances by attending every single campus party. I wanted to be seen as much as possible so that people wouldn’t wonder why I was often gone.

I thought it worked, I didn’t hear about any more rumours. But maybe everyone already knew.

Suddenly, I didn’t hear any more from Katherine either. I tried to text her, but she told me to focus on my upcoming exams, then stopped replying. So I did. I still wanted to ace all of them, and whatever I had going on with Katherine had honestly been quite distracting.

But even while writing my final papers, I couldn’t stop thinking about her. We hadn’t seen each other for over a month, which was unusual. I assumed she was also busy. Maybe next year’s students were already sending in their applications?

I was relieved when she finally texted me to come over. Her house this time. I figured her husband must be out of town again. The thought gave me the tiniest pang of guilt, which I quickly ignored.

When Katherine opened the door, I tried to kiss her, but she gently pushed me away. Then I saw that she was crying.

I closed the door behind us and took her in my arms as she started sobbing into my shoulder. Then I noticed that the living room was filled with boxes.

I took her face in my hands.

“Katherine? Talk to me. What’s going on?”

She tried explaining through tears. At first I wasn’t even sure I understood her, but then it hit me.

She had been in denial, ignoring the signs for a while, but she finally took a pregnancy test about a week ago. It was of course positive.

She had to tell her husband – especially because the baby was unlikely to be his.

Antony obviously didn’t take the news of the affair well.

He yelled at her for what seemed like hours, even going so far as suggesting she get rid of it.

But Katherine refused. No matter who the father was, she wanted to keep this baby.

Antony then demanded a paternity test. If he was the father, he wanted to act like one.

Either way, though, he wanted a divorce.

And then he delivered the final blow.

“Kath, you’ve been sleeping with a student. I am very sorry, but I am going to have to report you to the board.”

Then he told her to pack up her stuff.

It was a lot to take in at once. I struggled to wrap my head around it.

I was completely overwhelmed. Katherine explained that the test results had come in yesterday, and Antony was not the father. It had to be me.

My brain struggled to process the information. I was going to be a father?

She had also begged Antony not to report her until after my graduation next week. Her career and reputation was ruined, but she didn’t want to risk my education too. I was thankful for that, at least, even as my mind was reeling.

What the fuck was I going to do now?

Chapter 20

Get the Party Started

I clearly remember how I felt when I got my acceptance letter from Foxbury. I knew that this would mark the true beginning of my life. I would get my dream career, everything was going according to plan.

Even though I had assumed, perhaps a bit arrogantly, that I would get in, I still did a little happy dance in front of the mailbox.

My parents were proud and happy for me, but I suspect they were also looking forward to finally spending some more time alone.

After all, they started dating when my brother was a baby and had never lived alone together.

My own love life was less happy. My girlfriend, Cecilia, who I had been dating for almost a year, told me we needed to talk. I knew what was coming.

She had also been accepted into her dream university, and wanted us to break up before we left.

I knew she was right. We were too young for long distance, and we would both be better off being free while meeting so many new people. Neither of us wanted a messy breakup later in case one of us found someone new.

I knew it was for the best, but it still hurt. Cecilia was my first long-term girlfriend, and I really did love her.

We hung out for a few hours, just enjoying each other’s company one last time. Neither of us wanted her to leave and make it final.

I’m not ashamed to admit that there were some tears when we said goodbye, but I still wished her all the best at her university.

Even harder was saying goodbye to Maggie. She was very old, much older than we ever expected a pitbull to get, and I knew she didn’t have much time left. My parents promised to spoil her completely.

Despite the pain of saying goodbye to everyone, I still felt great when I arrived at Foxbury. I knew that this was where I belonged, my destiny. I had dreamed of this for years.

I immediately started preparing for my first classes, I knew I wanted to be in the top as always.

I also walked around campus, familiarising myself with the new surroundings, especially the common area, Larry’s Lagoon, where the canteen was, as well as a gym, a robotics lab, and a study area.

The very first week, I met Jamie. She just walked over and started talking to me during lunch. At first I wasn’t sure what to make of her. Surely, no one could be that outgoing? The next day, she came over and asked to join me for my morning workout.

She was pretty fit, and it was nice with some company. She could even give me some tips.

I managed a new personal record with her guidance.

At first, I was a little worried that maybe she was interested in me, but it was quickly apparent that she wasn’t into guys at all. We even ended up discussing ex-girlfriends, and I told her all about Cecilia.

Cecilia and I knew each other from school, and had been flirting for a while before meeting up at a coffee shop near the park. I was surprised when she kissed me as a greeting. She then insisted we found a more private place.

We sat in a nearby picnic area. I was a bit shy, and a little startled by her taking the initiative like that, so I nervously messed around on my phone, but Cecilia wasn’t having it.

She demanded my attention. It was honestly refreshing. The few girls I had briefly dated before her were the quiet types, and since I also tend to be quiet until I get to know people, the dates had been pretty lame.

But Cecilia challenged me. She didn’t take no for an answer and she was smart and witty.

Flirting with her was like fencing, both of us taking turns attacking and parrying, throwing smartass comebacks at each other.

I don’t believe in soulmates, but if I did, I might have said that she was mine. We matched so well.

When we got tired of bantering, she simply pulled me in for a kiss. No mind games, no insisting that I take the initiative just because I’m the guy.

It was one of the things I loved about her. The simplicity. Everything was so easy with her.

Well, it also didn’t hurt that she was a great kisser.

Talking about Cecilia made me a little sad, but Jamie managed to cheer me up with a few anecdotes of terrible dates she had been on, and just like that, we were friends.

A few weeks into the semester, one of my dorm mates, Athena, had heard that the St. Laurel Library was a great place to study, so we decided to meet there on a Sunday afternoon.

I wanted to make sure I was slightly ahead for as long as possible to be prepared for when things would probably get really busy later in the semester.

I had set up at a table with Athena and a few others, and I was deeply engrossed in my work when Athena called me over.

I liked Athena, she was really smart and ambitious like me, a great study buddy, and I knew she wouldn’t be the type of friend to lure me into the university party scene. I needed to focus.

Suddenly, a woman approached us. I hadn’t seen her before, and while she was still pretty young, she seemed too old to be a student. She was, however, smoking hot.

When she introduced herself as Dr. Katherine Gilscarbo, the dean of admission, I was honestly shocked. I had stupidly assumed that Dr. Gilscarbo was a man. I desperately thought back to my application letter and hoped that nothing in it had sounded like I didn’t know.

To my surprise, Dr. Gilscarbo asked me to meet her at her office on Monday. I wasn’t sure what to think of it, but there was something about her that made it impossible for me to do anything but stand there and nod stupidly. Athena seemed a bit worried about the whole thing.

I had dinner with another dorm mate, Cierra, that night, and told her about my upcoming meeting with Dr. Gilscarbo.

She seemed taken aback that Dr. Gilscarbo wanted to see me. She hadn’t heard of anyone else being asked to come to the office.

I actually got worried for a while, maybe I was in trouble somehow? But I couldn’t think of anything I could possible have done wrong, I had only been at Foxbury for a month and I was the perfect student.

Cierra just gave me a strained smile and said she was sure that I had done nothing wrong and that everything would be fine.

She was half right.

“Come in”, the voice said. I nervously walked into the admissions office.

“Ah, yes. Mr. Duchelli, was it?”

“Uhm, you wanted to see me?”, I replied awkwardly.

Dr. Gilscarbo’s cool demeanour disappeared and she cracked a smile.

“Oh, where are my manners?” she said, as she got up and walked towards me.

“It’s good to have you, Mr. Duchelli. I wanted to welcome you personally. We were very impressed with your application and we have high hopes for you.”

I took her hand. Her touch and her smile made me struggle to find words. She was incredibly charming.

“Uh, please just call me Eric”, I managed.

She casually sat on her desk, which made me feel awkward for towering above her, but she made me feel more at ease with smalltalk. She asked about my family and my pets. I was flattered that she remembered my letter so well. We must have talked for half an hour at least.

I tried my hardest not to stare at her, but it almost felt like she had positioned herself in a way that made it impossible to look at her face without looking at her cleavage. I started getting a bit flustered and I could feel the heat in my cheeks.

Suddenly, she got off the desk and took a step towards me. “Are you feeling alright, Mr. Duchelli? Eric?”

I couldn’t speak. She was standing way too close. I could almost feel the heat radiating from her body. Part of me wanted to flee, but other, more stubborn parts of me wanted something else.

My emotions must have been written all over my face, because she suddenly closed the distance between us and kissed me.

I was stunned for a second. She moved back towards her desk to give me space, waiting to see what I would do. Giving me one last chance to turn away and leave the office.

I didn’t.

I lost control, all worries about my studies and my future plans forgotten.

There was no time to consider the consequences for us both if someone walked in.

There was only Katherine.

Chapter 19

Insurrection

Re: Application letter to Foxbury – Biology with elective in Veterinary Science

Dear Dr. Gilscarbo, PhD.
It is with great pleasure that I submit my application for the distinguished degree in Biology at Foxbury University.

At present, I am finishing my studies at Newcrest High, and I have already secured several scholarships. My dream is to become a veterinarian and open my very own vet clinic. I feel that this would be the best way to combine my love for animals and my need to do good.

As you may be aware, my mother and father also both attended Foxbury in their youth. My mother went on to become a great astrophysicist, responsible for recently reestablishing direct contact with our neighbours on Sixam.

My father became a renowned lawyer. It is my firm belief that attending Foxbury will also put me on the path to greatness.

For this essay, I have chosen to illustrate how animals have made a great difference in my life. I do not believe that I would be who I am today without my beloved childhood dog, Maggie, and the other pets in my life.

To understand what Maggie meant to me, let me first take you back to my early childhood. When my grandfather died, my entire family was understandably distraught, and my parents decided to adopt a young pitbull from a shelter. The dog immediately sensed that I, a toddler at the time, needed her protection, and she was always by my side.

Maggie and I grew up together, and she became my trusty companion, sleeping next to my bed every night, and waiting for me when I came home from school.

She was also by my side on the night that changed both my life and Sixam relations forever.

I had gone to bed while my older brother was out with some friends, but I wasn’t asleep yet when I heard him come home. I also heard unfamiliar voices and my mother’s excited screams of disbelief.

I climbed out of bed, and went out in the hall, where I saw my parents and my brother – with two people I didn’t yet know.

Of course, my mother had told me about her adventures on Sixam, but this was their first visit back in over a decade.

After a brief introduction, my father tried to put me back to bed, but I couldn’t sleep.

I was scared because I knew that these people, who looked like my brother, could only have come to take him away.

My father tried to explain everything to me. He and my mother had been anticipating this for years.

He told me that Daniel’s biological father on Sixam was very ill and never had any other children.

It was important for my brother to go to Sixam and learn whatever he could while his father still lived, so he could take over his seat on the council.

As the first hybrid in a position of power at Sixam, my parents were worried for his safety, but his uncle, Tomnu, promised to keep him safe.

My mother, who had recently made the first breakthroughs in wormhole technology, suggested that she could go with them, to set up matching technology on Sixam, so direct communication, and perhaps later even travel, might become possible.

My father immediately asked to talk to her in private. He would not allow her to leave, and this was the first time I ever heard my parents have a serious fight.

I heard their loud voices through the wall, my father arguing that my mother couldn’t leave us, that he couldn’t lose her, and my mother crying, afraid to let her oldest son go alone. Again, Maggie comforted me.

I am happy that my mother decided to stay, and instead teach the Sixams as much as possible, so that they could set up the other portal on Sixam. If she had left, she might not have come back. My brother still has not.

While my parents were obviously very upset at the time, my brother was excited and wanted to go. The strangers, his uncle and grandmother, would take him with them when they returned to Sixam. Until then, my mother would teach them about her new technology.

The next few days, before they left, the rest of us tried to spend as much time with my brother as possible.

I admit that I was angry with him at first. I felt that he was abandoning me.

Who was now going to help me with homework and make me laugh when I had a rough day at school?

Luckily, we managed to make up before he left. And I could see why he wanted to go – it was both an obligation and an adventure to him.

My father also had a heart-to-heart with my brother, the last night before he left for Sixam.

It was a warm night and I could hear them outside my open window.

I know my father and brother both consider themselves true father and son, despite my brother’s origins. I hope spending time with his biological father on Sixam hasn’t changed that.

When the Sixams left, my dear brother left with them. I knew that it could take years before he would be able to travel back and visit us, especially if the wormhole technology never worked.

Trying to overcome the sadness of my brother leaving, my mother threw herself into her work. Sometimes I would barely see her for days, because she would stay late at the lab every day.

We now know that it was worth it, that she finally managed to secure a communication link, so we can get updates from my brother every few months, but she still hasn’t succeeded in establishing travel, and my brother is too busy to leave Sixam for a year or two just to visit.

My father tried to compensate for my mother’s constant working by spending more time with me.

But my father’s job was also very demanding, and I often spent my afternoons alone.

Most days, I only had Maggie for company.

But she was more than enough.

It’s not that I didn’t have friends, I had good friends at school, but I couldn’t exactly schedule playdates every single day.

One day, when I was alone at the playground, I saw a stray cat. She was limping and very dirty, and would not let me get near her, but I wanted to help her.

I spent the entire day trying to befriend her, and she finally let me pick her up so we could take her to the vet.

The cat had no chip or ear tattoo, and when no one came forward to claim her, my parents decided that I could keep her. I named her Winky.

Seeing how the veterinarian expertly diagnosed her problems and treated her while being kind and respectful made me realise that this is what I want to do with my life as well.

My parents tell me that I would play vet constantly, and bring home any animal I found. I was allowed to keep smaller birds and a couple of mice while nursing them back to health, but my parents helped me take any stray cats and dogs to the shelter, or I would have had an entire zoo.