"You could go, if you wanted to."
"I don't want to."
"Find a woman who's not going to have a breakdown every time some little thing goes wrong."
A big statement there. A lot packed into it. Sean stood by the bed with his hand pressed against her back, trying to decide how to respond. The air felt thick in the room. She spoke before he did, in a small voice, hunched over, her face turned away from him.
"I thought you were gone."
He bent to kiss the top of her head. "I wasn't," he said. "I wouldn't."
He felt her shoulders tremble and he breathed the words into her hair: "I will never leave you. Never. Not ever."
The words were true then, and they're true now as Sean walks in the woods of Bear Creek Park, his thoughts shifting to the future. To the baby Molly's going to have. He's not worried that they might lose this one the way they lost the other. He's not exactly an optimist, but he believes that when things go wrong, they go wrong in ways you're not expecting. So he takes it for granted that the child is coming and that plans need to be made.
Raising children requires money. Sean expects to make three thousand dollars for the armoire he's building, but most of the projects he takes on don't pay quite so well. He and Molly keep their expenses low, but having a child will alter the equation. Sean plays with some numbers in his head, trying to guess how much more he'll need to earn. He slows down without meaning to, from a brisk walk to a stroll.
He thinks he hears footsteps behind him.
He stops and turns to look. There's no one there.
He scans the woods to find the source of the sound. A few yards back along the trail, a small gray bird swoops down from the canopy of the trees. It peels off in the direction of the creek.
Sean starts walking again, waiting for the sound he heard to repeat itself. He knows it didn't come from a bird. He goes along for half a mile before he hears it again.
He doesn't turn this time. He knows what it is now.
It's Cole Harper.
Sean spent long stretches of his childhood walking with Cole, on sidewalks and through the halls of schools. When they were older they spent fifteen months in Iraq. They walked together on the streets of East Baghdad, sweating in the heat under body armor, surrounded by the smell of dust and burning trash. Sean knows the sound of Cole's footsteps.
He listens to them now as the trail bends toward the creek again. He stops by the bank and catches sight of a family of ducks floating in the current.
No sound of footsteps now. Only the rush of the water.
Sean watches the ducks as they glide away downstream, but his thoughts are elsewhere. He's wondering if he'll see Cole. It hasn't happened in a while. Cole is hard to see these days. Sometimes you can glimpse him out of the corner of your eye, but if you turn and look directly he won't be there. Because Cole doesn't exist. He died years ago.
All that's left of him are the things Sean carries around in his head. Like Cole's voice.
"What are you doing out here?" it says.
The tone is calm and steady. Sean doesn't answer. He gets back on the trail. It moves away from the creek, and the sound of the water grows distant. A post from some forgotten fence leans crooked by the trailside, and when Sean sees it he leaves the path and makes his way deeper into the woods. He's guided by a few familiar landmarks. There's a tall elm that cracked from rot near the base of its trunk and keeled over. There's a clearing with a hickory tree on its eastern edge.
Sean skirts past that hickory and finds another beyond it. Some of the bark has been peeled off, but the tree is still alive. He kicks away some fallen leaves and exposes two of its larger roots. There's a shallow depression between them, and in the middle of it rests a flat rock nearly a foot wide.
Sean sets his back against the tree and looks down at the rock.
"It's still here," Cole's voice says. It's coming from a remove, as if Cole is lurking on the other side of the tree.
"Yeah," Sean says.
"Well, go ahead," says Cole. "You came all this way."