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Visitation Rites

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There's a chance that I won't know you
Maybe I won't like you
It's a long
It's such a long
Lady it's been a long time
We were lovers in a different story
Can you duplicate it?
Can we make
Can we make up
Can we make up the time girl?
Or have I been away too long
Have I been away
I'm afraid to say that I've been away from you too long

- Hall & Oates

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Visitation Rites

Of all the places to head off to during the first week of March, he had to go to Buffalo, New York. There were really very few cities he didn't want to go to, and very few times during his year of work in Seattle that he dreaded a trip, but this was one of them. The statistics had come in very slowly, and the staff was, according to the pediatric resident he spoke to, "pissed off" about the corporation coming in and changing things. To top it off, the last time Doug looked at The Weather Channel, it was cold and snowy in Buffalo.

He sighed and looked over his meeting schedule. He was to meet with Patricia Arnold, chief of emergency medicine, Monday morning, but he wanted to get there earlier, slip in on Saturday or Sunday when no one was expecting him so he could see for himself how children were cared for in the emergency room.

Doug had never sat down to figure out how many hospitals he'd been to in the country to assess the operation and establish a pediatric emergency room. At least twenty, he guessed. There was a pattern to each one, and he likened it to a flirtation dance of sorts. He'd go in quietly, unassuming, and praise their efforts. His skill at reading people would come in handy at this point, because once he praised them, they let down their guard and he could then weed out what he called "the Weavers, the Greenes, and the Anspaughs." The "Weavers" were physicians who were afraid of losing power, who were worried about their own positions and loathe to admit that a pediatrician could know any more about children than an emergency room physician. The "Greenes" were the worst of the bunch. They acted as though they would embrace the change, but privately they worked against you. It was the "Anspaughs" that Doug wanted to pinpoint. These were the physicians who reviewed the plan, realized the benefit, and cut through the crap to get it done. After he identified the players, he'd slowly seduce them with facts, figures, and good-natured persuasion. Once that was accomplished, he'd reconvene with the entire group and present the configuration for the new pediatric emergency room, enhanced by a PowerPoint presentation that Patti had helped him with. He'd go back to Seattle, work out the details, and show the hospital plans to the architects. By the time he visited a month or so later, he'd be ready to graciously let them down gently when they realized that they were powerless to change it and he'd assist with their transition.

For Doug, that was the most fun. No, not lording it over them, that wasn't his way. No, it was that he got to be in the E.R. again, got to help and advise and see his work in its infancy.

But damn, Buffalo, he thought.

"Hey, Patti?" he called through his door.

"Yes?" she answered.

Doug got up and walked out toward her, tapping lightly on her desk . "Did you make those reservations?"

"I sure did, you leave tomorrow at 2 p.m."

Doug sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. "Wanna go instead of me?"

"No," she answered swiftly, smiling with her eyes. "It's all yours, have fun."

Chuckling, he ambled back to his office. While he waited for the rest of the census figures, he thumbed through some old files, pitching things. He paused a moment, then opened his top drawer and gazed down. Tess and Kate, one month old, looked back up at him. He'd memorized the picture by now, he knew that Tess' hands were tightly curled and that Kate had her mother's full lips. He knew how many snaps were on Kate's sleeper, and that Tess' left bootie was about to fall off. His girls.

Doug turned and looked over at the phone, then down to his watch. She'd be at work; he could call if he wanted, just to tell her he was thinking of her. He got up, closed his door, and dialed her number and looked down at his picture as he mentally ticked off the rings, waiting for her answering machine.

"Hi, I'm not home, but if you leave a message I'll call back."

Doug relaxed back into his chair and sighed. "Hey, Carol, it's Doug. Just thinkin' about you and the girls. I haven't gotten a picture in a while and…they must have changed some." He toyed with a paperclip, trying to sound casual. Trying to sound patient. "Uh, it's nice here today. Really nice out. You ought to come out, you and the girls. They'd have lots of new things to see. You, too." Leaning forward, he put his hand over his eyes, rubbing them. "Carol, I really want to make a trip to see the babies soon. I've called, I've left messages and you haven't called me back...and I really just want to see you. See Tess and Kate. Please call." Hanging up, he closed the drawer and shook his head once, trying to push his loneliness back down so he wouldn't have to confront it.

What he didn't know was that she had listened to every word, although she was thousands of miles away.

Carol stood, transfixed. She hadn't been home for his last five phone calls. Today, the caller ID read, "Seattle Call" and she'd backed away, waiting to hear his voice. He sounded fatigued, she thought. So sad. The babies were sleeping, she could very well have talked to him, but the anger and bitterness and sadness that owned her heart wouldn't let her.

*****

Doug was busy creating an Excel worksheet when his beeper went off. He looked down and was surprised that it was an internal page. Looked like the E.R. He dialed the number and it was answered almost immediately.

"Hi, Doug Ross, you paged?"

"Yes, Moira Stanley, I'm a nurse in the emergency room. We have a patient, Beth Lasko, who asked us to call you."

Doug sat up straight, paying attention now that Beth's name was mentioned. "What's the matter, is she okay?"

"She's not in any danger but she may have a fracture and asked if you could come down here."

"Yeah, sure, hang on, I'll be right down. Thanks."

Doug hung up and rushed out of the office. "I'll be downstairs in the E.R., Patti. Just take messages, and if that fax comes from Buffalo, put it on my desk, please?"

"Sure, Doug," she answered, and turned back to her work.

Doug walked past the elevators, deciding to take the stairs. He made his way through the cavernous underbelly of the hospital, taking shortcuts that most people didn't realize existed, until he popped up by Admissions and walked through the double doors into the emergency room.

He attracted the nurse's eye. "Dr. Ross, hi," she greeted him warmly. "How are you?"

Doug acknowledged her impatiently. "Hi, Barbara, I'm looking for Beth Lasko. I got a call."

"Hold on, let's go check the board." Doug and the Barbara walked around the desk and she located the name. "Beth is with Mandy. I think they're in radiology."

"Fine, okay, mind if I go find her?"

"Not at all. If you have some time, c'mon back here, I made brownies last night. I think you'll like them," she added, doing her best to widen her eyes and smile.

"Thanks, Barb," he said abruptly, and walked down the hall, through another set of doors, to radiology. He caught sight of Beth on a gurney, wearing old clothes and a bandana around her hair. She was writhing in pain, waiting in the hall.

"Hey, Beth?" he called to her.

She turned to him and his heart sank. Her face was tear-stained and ashen.

"Oh, Doug," she said and started crying. "It hurts."

He walked until he was next to her and kissed her forehead, holding her upper arm with his hand, stroking it gently with his thumb. "What happened?"

"Oh, damn, I took a day off. I was wallpapering the kitchen and when I went to step off the chair...."

"You were using a *chair*?" he chastised her.

Beth put her hand up. "Stop. Just don't."

"Sorry. So...?"

"I lost my balance and my foot got caught and my leg...it's killing me. I can't walk on it. It hurts," she sniffled.

Doug picked up the blanket and examined her leg visually. "How'd you get here?" he asked.

"I called 9-1-1." Beth moaned softly.

"Okay, okay, did they give you anything for pain yet?"

"No, they're waiting until after the x-ray."

Doug nodded. "I'll find the nurse, there's no reason they should be waiting to medicate you."

"No, don't leave me yet," she begged him.

Doug smiled tenderly, trying to soothe her. "Okay, take it easy. Did you...does Alan know?" Doug looked around and grabbed two pillows from a nearby gurney, and gently lifted her leg. "Let's do this," he suggested as he used the pillows to prop her leg up. He was gentle, careful not to hurt her as he slowly rested it on the pillows for support.

"No, he's at that seminar, I couldn't get a hold of him. I called you, I didn't know who else to call." She reached up and held his elbow, wincing when she tried to move.

"That's okay. Stay still. Just stay still." He looked down at her hand as it grazed his arm and he grinned. "What's this?" he asked, taking her hand.

Beth smiled, finally. "You know what it is," she replied shyly, looking away.

Doug nodded. "Congratulations, Beth. When did Alan ask you?"

"Last night."

"Great. That's great." He lifted her hand and admired the ring, then turned her hand over and, bringing it to his mouth, left a soft kiss on her palm. "I'm happy for you."

"I'm happy, too," she confided in him. "We've talked about it and we just decided not to wait. Oh, Doug, this really hurts."

"Okay, hang on. I'll be right back. Will you be okay until I get back?"

"Um hmm," she answered weakly.

Doug went in search of the attending physician and found him wolfing down a sandwich. "Hi, Dr., uh…." Doug looked at his nametag. "Dr. Krey, I'm Dr. Ross, from upstairs in corporate."

The man extended his hand and Doug shook it. "You've got a patient, Beth Lasko? She's a friend of mine and she's waiting for radiology, but she's in a lot of pain. Can you ask one of the nurses to give her something? Entonox, maybe, to help her out?"

Dr. Krey nodded his head. "Sure, sure, not a problem. I'll take care of it."

"Thanks," Doug replied, and went back to find Beth. He searched the hallway and realized she must have been brought in to x-ray. One door was open and he looked in to see Rachel Brossman, a doctor he'd had lunch with a few times while talking about pediatric hospices in the Seattle area. Her son, James, had died during the previous year of cancer, and she wanted to help him spearhead a volunteer effort for pediatricians, oncologists, and nurses to provide home care for dying children.

"Rachel, hey," he called out. She didn't take her eyes off the screen, but smiled in return. "Hi, Doug. What's cookin'?"

"Trying to find Beth Lasko."

"Right here."

Doug stepped in behind the wall and saw Beth, drawn and ashen being positioned for her x-rays. "Beth," he called out, "I'm back. They're coming, you'll get something for the pain in a minute." Beth just nodded her understanding and closed her eyes. It was hard for Doug to see her suffering this way, but he didn't want to leave. After the series of x-rays were taken, he walked around the wall and helped re-position her. "You hangin' in there?"

"Ummm."

"Okay, sweetheart. Okay. Hang in there," he intoned softly, stroking her cheek with his thumb.

Fortunately, although it was broken, she had a closed tibular fracture and needed only a cast. Doug stayed with her the entire time while they set and casted her leg and when she was almost finished, they heard a familiar voice in the room.

"Beth! Doug, hi. Hi, honey." Alan bent over and kissed Beth, then turned and shook Doug's hand. "How is she?"

"She's going to be okay," Doug assured him.

"Thank you, Doug, thank you for taking care of her," Alan said sincerely.

"That's okay. Hey, congratulations on your engagement," Doug said, shaking his hand again.

Alan fairly beamed. "Thanks. We just decided not to wait anymore."

Doug ducked his head and grinned. "Good idea. Well, I'm heading back up. If you need anything, you let me know, okay?"

"Thanks, Doug," Beth whispered.

Doug kissed her cheek, rubbed her shoulder and walked away, leaving her in Alan's capable care.

He took the elevator upstairs and almost ran into Patti as he exited. "Hey, where's the fire?" he joked.

"No fire, someone's been calling for you."

He threw her a sarcastic grin. "Oh, yeah? Did I win the lottery or something?"

"I don't know, but she left a number. Maybe it's your lucky day," Patti teased in return, handing him the message and walking away.

Doug laughed and glanced down on the paper. He made it all the way to his office, never taking his eyes off the phone number.

*****

"Hello?"

When he heard her voice on the other end, his stomach tightened. "Carol? Hey, Carol, it's me." The silence that met his greeting was intimidating but he stumbled on, amazed that she had answered. "I...I guess I'm surprised you called back. Day off?"

Carol felt so affected by the sound of his voice that she sat down. "Hi. No, no, Kate's sick," she responded slowly. "I had to call in sick. She's not feeling well. How are you?"

His thumb toyed with the phone cord as he lifted their picture out of his drawer with his free hand. "Good, I'm good. How are you doin'? How are the babies?"

"I'm fine. They've been fine, too, except now Kate's running a fever."

"She is? Is she nursing well? She's hydrated?" Doug immediately cringed at his words. He sounded so lame.

Carol smiled into the phone. "She's nursing fine."

Doug nodded, and then closed his eyes, summoning all his courage. "Good. Good. Hey, Carol? I was thinking. I called you before because...I have to go to Buffalo this weekend, but I...I don't have to be there until Sunday, maybe Monday. I know...you might not want to see me. I mean, I understand. It's just that...it's Tess and Kate." His voice became softer. Quieter. "Carol, I want to see them. I really need to see them. Can I stop on my way to New York, stop by?"

Carol sat back in the chair, feeling the need to protect herself against something. "I don't think so, I…." God, she wasn't ready for this. "I'm...."

"Are you workin' this weekend?" he interrupted softly.

"No."

"Carol, please."

She'd spent months fending off his calls, trying to ignore his letters. She'd spent so much time preparing for this, steeling herself against this moment and yet now that it was here she felt such compassion for him and his situation. How could she continue to keep him from them? Carol closed her eyes and surrendered her tight-fisted control. "Sure. Of course," she acquiesced, feeling guilty. "When do you want to come?"

His heart leapt. "I can come tomorrow, I can change my ticket. Uh, I'm supposed to be in Buffalo, but I can change all that." His voice was so hopeful. "Carol, I'll call you from the airport, I'll call and let you know what time I'll be there. Maybe around dinnertime."

She looked around the house at the mess. Not wanting him to see everything in disarray, not wanting him to think her life was crumbling around her, she realized she had a lot of work ahead of her. "Okay, Doug. You let me know. I...I hear Tess, I have to go."

"Okay. Okay, I'll...." A chuckle bubbled out of his throat, a boyish, elated chuckle. "Tell my girls I'll see them tomorrow. Thanks, Carol, thank you. Bye."

It took an hour for his feet to return to the ground.

*****

Carol paced.

This feeling was foreign. She could not remember a time where she had been so rattled and edgy. Not even the day she was supposed to have married John Taglieri. But tonight, she was filled with nervous energy.

He'd called last night to tell her that his plane would arrive at O'Hare at 5 pm. He was very, very late.

The wind outside that was making her little house rattle and shake had become worse, more violent, and when she tried to call his airline to find out if his flight would be on time, she couldn't get through. The snow was coming down hard and she could barely see through the windows after the preceding sleet etched its icy, unwelcoming designs.

So while she waited, she moved from one thing to another. Checked the plants to make sure they weren't too dry. Looked under the couches for dust bunnies, finding a lone sock and a pacifier.

Deep breaths, she told herself. Take deep, calming breaths.

She ate dinner, finally, at 10 o'clock, putting a plate aside for him. Carol sighed; all that work for nothing. Never much of a cook, she had labored to make something he'd love, something that would make him feel welcome.

She had taken great care with the babies, too, during the afternoon, giving them another bath, dressing them in their prettiest outfits. They looked adorable, and she had eagerly anticipated seeing his face when he laid eyes on them. In addition, she had been worried about her own appearance, spending way too much time applying her makeup, though she didn't know why. Indeed, she'd even fixed her hair three different ways until she was ultimately satisfied. But the girls were asleep long ago, her make-up was all but ruined as each hour passed, and her stomach was tied in knots, wondering when...wondering if...he would arrive.

Carol walked into the bedroom, using a critical eye to assess her appearance. She wore a cashmere gray sweater with a cowl neck which fell in soft folds onto her shoulders. Her black slacks were tight and showed off her trim figure. Indeed, she was proud that she had lost all her baby weight.

The phone rang and she nearly ran to answer it. "Hello?" she answered, in a careful, measured voice.

"Is Jim there?" asked an unfamiliar voice.

"Wrong number," Carol huffed. Hanging up, she sat down on the bed. Why was she dreading this? Did she think that he would call saying he'd changed his mind, that he wasn't coming? That he'd accuse her of all the terrible things she'd already accused herself of?

What she was expecting, she realized, or maybe even anxious about was that she would see all the hurt of the past months in his face. And she didn't know how she could bear to see it.

She picked up the paper, ready to dial the hastily scrawled number to call the airline, but the line was dead.

*****

When the plane touched down in Milwaukee, he silently cursed the Midwestern weather. They'd been delayed two hours in Seattle, and then once they were in the air, the airplane had been diverted north to Milwaukee after O'Hare was closed. Doug looked at his watch. She'd been waiting for hours, and he was anxious to get into the terminal where he could call her.

Doug stood up immediately, waiting for the crowd ahead of him to move forward. He pulled his hastily-packed bag out from the overhead compartment and slowly inched toward the door. Once inside the terminal, he pulled out his cell phone and dialed her number.

All circuits were busy.

"Dammit," he muttered, and began walking toward the exit.

He found Hertz, finally, and began his squabble with the sloe-eyed attendant. "No, I had a car reserved at O'Hare, but we landed here," Doug explained. "I don't care what you have, I don't care where you find it, but I need a car now."

"Sir, I told you, we don't got nothin'."

Doug shook him off, refusing to accept his helplessness. "You have to have something. Please."

"I'll call Avis if you want, see if they can help."

Doug turned his back on the man abruptly. "Forget it. Forget it." Picking up his bag, he marched through the drizzle, past the other angry travelers, to Enterprise Rent-a-Car. There was a long line of people, tired and annoyed, and Doug moved past them to speak with yet another harried, underpaid employee. "Hey, buddy, I need to talk to you."

"Yeah, you and twenty other people," the man complained.

Doug smiled. "This is important. I have a fifty-dollar bill burning a hole in my pocket. I need the next car that comes in. I don't care how you do it. I need it. What do you say?"

The older man never even looked at Doug, but nodded slowly. "I'd say that in about ten minutes you, my friend, will be on your way. Step aside and look for the red Ford Taurus."

Doug reached into his pocket quickly, then shook the man's hand, transferring the cash. "Thanks."

True to his word, within ten minutes, the Taurus was pulled around, Doug had signed his papers, and he was heading south.

He dialed Carol's house every five minutes from his cell phone, but got the same fast busy signal each time. He hoped she would realize that it was the weather that caused him to be late, that he was making his way to her. The trip was treacherous and the roads were icy as he traveled I-94. A little over one hour into his trip, he was on I-294, then I-90. "Welcome to Chicago," he sighed aloud, unaccustomed to the heavy traffic and the snow after being away.

Sometimes the things that were once automatic become so difficult after so long. So it was for Doug, driving to Carol's house. It was a familiar trip, one he'd taken time and time again, whether it was before they started seeing each other or when he was living with her. Every corner, every tree, every stop sign had been accounted for, then forgotten as the route became ingrained in his routine. But this trip was different, filled with anticipation and nervous energy, and he drove slowly and deliberately as he approached the exit, as though he were following written directions. Less than two miles to go.

Travel east, make a left. Down the street, past the houses, where it becomes more residential. Larger trees. Make a right. The El looms. First house on the right after the tracks.

Doug pulled up slowly, carefully putting the rental car in park before looking up. The living room light shone softly behind the curtains. He looked up, soaking it all in, and realized his heart was pounding in his ears. The tree branches were heavy, laden with ice, and the street gleamed with perilous patches of the winter storm's aftermath. Everything looked frozen in time.

Three years earlier he had stood beneath the El, right near here, and had lurked, heart pounding. Then, he waited, needing to see her, wanting to watch what happened after her date with Toby Mintz. He had remained still that night, in the shadows, and when the car pulled up, he was terrified of what he might see. He'd feared then that he would never win her back.

He had come to believe that he never really had.

Tonight he sat, seeking courage he didn't possess, prepared to lay his pride aside, willing to beg her. Ready to negotiate. Carol, he feared, was lost to him, but perhaps his girls were not. Doug would prepare himself to get ready, to give up his old dream for a new one: To be the father he wanted to be to Tess and Kate.

Taking a deep breath, he opened the car door, pocketed the keys and approached the house. He noticed one railroad tie in the yard was out of place and had to stop himself from making a mental note to fix it.

This was not his home.

He walked up the steps and leaned in, pressing the doorbell. Another oddity. He heard the inner door open, watched the handle of the outer door as it turned, then looked up to see her.

All they could do was look at each other.

He looked leaner. Weary. Battered in some way.

She looked tired. Jaded, maybe. Guarded.

His hair was longer.

Her face was softer, somehow.

He hadn't changed at all.

She was more beautiful than he could possibly remember.

"Hey," he offered quietly, admiration and hope flickering behind his eyes.

"Hi," she replied, greeting him warmly.

Neither one moved. They stared.

"Carol, you look...you look great." Doug leaned in and his lips softly brushed her cheek. "I'm sorry I'm so late. The plane, we landed in Milwaukee. I tried to call, but I...."

"It's okay," she interrupted him. "I know, I figured something happened. I lost electricity for a while; there've been power lines down south of here. I'm just glad you could come." Carol, flustered, shook her head. "Oh, god, come in!" She opened the door widely and he held it while she retreated, then, after kicking off his shoes to leave the wet snow behind, he followed.

He scanned the living room quickly. There were baby toys tucked into a laundry basket in the corner, where a plant had once thrived. The house looked just as cozy, just as welcoming as it had the day he'd left.

Carol took him in. Beneath his brown overcoat he wore a slate blue cotton sweater over gray slacks. While she didn't doubt he'd left Seattle clean-shaven, a shadow of black and gray whiskers were making their first weary appearance on his chin. The breadth of his shoulders was more pronounced as his waist, his stomach, looked even trimmer than when he'd left. She approached him awkwardly, stopping short. Strange that she didn't know what to do with herself. Or him. "Can I take your coat?"

"Uh, yeah, sure," he said and shrugged it off, handing it over.

She took it and hung it carefully on the coat rack. It smelled of his cologne, she realized, although the familiar scent of him did not calm her. Quite the opposite.

He looked around expectantly, then his eyes settled on the stairs as he realized where they were. Walking toward him, she gestured upstairs. "The babies are sleeping. I'm sorry, I tried to keep them awake. "

Doug raised his eyebrows in a conciliatory fashion. "No, that's okay. Don't apologize. It's so late, I didn't expect them to be up." He was disappointed, but didn't want to show it. He was trying hard to stay cool.

Carol pressed her hands together, feeling uneasy. "If you want to, you can go up, see them."

Doug nodded anxiously. "Okay."

"Upstairs, the...well, you know which bedroom." Of course he would know.

"Do you mind if I go up now?" he asked. This was bizarre, he thought, asking permission to see his children.

"No, do you want me to...?"

"Sure, if you want to." Doug climbed the stairs quietly and Carol followed behind. He paused at the door of the dimly lit nursery. All finished, all decorated. It was beautiful; she'd done a great job.

He entered slowly, approaching the first crib. When he looked down into it, a tremendous feeling of love engulfed him. She stole a quick look at his face and saw an expression she'd never seen. His eyes glinted in the darkness and a sort of softness was reflected there. He extended his hand gingerly and caressed his baby's head tenderly.

"This is Kate," Carol whispered from behind.

Doug nodded. His heart was both full and broken. "Kate," he whispered in return. "How did you pick her name?"

"Mark's mother...her name was Ruth Katherine. His mother died this year, did you know?"

Doug again nodded his head, taking a deep breath. "Yeah," he sighed, pulling his hand back. "She's beautiful, Carol." He turned and walked the few steps to the other crib, and Carol followed him. "Hey, Tess," he quietly crooned, smiling. Taking a gentle finger, he slowly drew it over her cheek and down her chin, then cupped her sleeping face in his hand. Raising his eyes to Carol, he silently acknowledged her gift to him. Tess was the name that he'd chosen for a baby girl during one of the nights that they had lain in each other's arms, talking atop their pillows about future dreams. It had moved him to tears the night she called to tell him of their birth. She had remembered and he was grateful to her. "They are beautiful," he repeated, looking back and forth, from one baby to the other.

"They are." Carol looked down, chagrined that he was only now seeing these children that she loved so dearly. "Do you want to come downstairs, have a cup of coffee?" she offered. "I saved dinner for you, too."

Doug couldn't tear his eyes away from them. "Give me a minute?"

"Oh...sure." Carol backed away, feeling chastised. She was rushing him. So, she went down the stairs and into the kitchen where she took out two cups and poured his coffee, making it just the way he liked it. And she waited, all the while imagining how shattered he must be inside.

*****

His coffee sat on the end table. She'd finished hers long ago and waited alone, hearing nothing but the clock ticking on the table in the hallway. It was amazing, she realized, how he filled her house when he was in it. Sure, other men had been here since he left. Mark, of course. Carter, the day he came to visit after the babies came home. And there was Luka. Luka had been here often. But although he was larger, taller physically than Doug, his presence was less commanding, somehow. Luka had neither the muscled athleticism nor the fire that Doug had, hadn't the spark or the spirit that she so missed. He was a wonderful man, warm and friendly but while his company was always welcomed, it failed to satisfy that which she'd been missing. Carol heard something and glanced at the steps. Finally, she saw him descending slowly. His eyes appeared glassy and red-rimmed.

"I made this, but it's probably cold," Carol said, pointing to the coffee. "Let me get you a fresh cup."

"No, that's okay, I'll get it." He took the cup, went into the kitchen and she heard the microwave start. In fewer than two minutes, he had returned and sat opposite her, sipping carefully. "Good coffee, thanks Carol."

"Do you want me to heat up dinner?" she suggested again. "I saved you a plate."

Doug waved her off. "No, thanks. I'm not really hungry. I'm sorry, your dinner, everything was ruined tonight."

"It's not your fault, don't worry. How are you?" she asked, settling back into the cushions, trying to keep things light and casual.

"Good, I'm good. You?" The twinkle in his eyes, always there, was absent.

"I'm fine. How's Seattle?"

"It's okay," he answered, and then he realized that he'd been staring at her. She looked so lovely. It was as if he'd never left and as if he'd been away forever.

Carol met his gaze. It was so unsettling to see him after such a long year. "Have you made a lot of friends?"

Doug considered this, and answered carefully. "No. I mean, not really. One person has been...I'm good friends with one person, but other than that, I travel a lot, you know, I'm not around much."

My god, she realized, looking at him. He's so troubled, so...defeated. Was this my fault? Have I done this? "Do you like your job?" she asked.

How to answer this, he pondered? He liked his job, but he missed patient care. "It's had its ups and downs, but for the most part I like it."

Raising her left eyebrow, she noted, "You don't sound too enthusiastic."

"I am, I just...it's a lot of travel. I've been kinda...secluded, I guess. I haven't met too many people. It's kinda hard." He looked down and swirled his coffee. What the hell were they doing, talking about work? Why were they so awkward with each other? Doug looked up at her appreciatively. "You make beautiful babies, Nurse Hathaway. You've done a great job."

She smiled. "They are such sweet girls, Doug. They've always been so good."

Doug felt uncomfortable, felt as if they were dancing around every meaningful issue, but he didn't know how to break the stalemate, so he glanced out the window, noticing the frost which had accumulated on the inside. "House feels cold. That furnace acting up again?"

Carol averted her eyes, looking down at her nails to inspect a non-existent manicure. "Yeah. I...I had it fixed, but it keeps going out."

"Call them back, then. No use paying for shoddy work."

She felt indignant, then, almost baited by him. "I didn't pay," she blurted out. "A friend...there's a doctor at the hospital, a friend of mine named Luka; he's fixed it a few times. It's not shoddy work, it's a furnace that's 80 years old, Doug."

Her words had the intended effect and struck him silent. He raised his chin, and his brow, and considered this piece of information. It took him several moments to recover. "Oh. Well, then, I'm glad you didn't have to pay. If you needed a new furnace, Carol, you could have told me. I mean, I've been saving money, I've sent...I've been sending you money, but I thought maybe you hadn't gotten my letters. You haven't cashed the checks."

Carol felt embarrassed, caught by him. He knew she'd received them, just as he knew she refused to cash them. She was so off-balance, so affected by his presence that she wasn't able to answer.

Doug backed off. The uneasiness surrounded them once again, until the overwhelming need to ask overtook him. "Luka? Is he, uh, where does he work?"

Taking a deep breath, she once again studied her hands; it was the only place she could trust her eyes. "He's a new doctor. Well, not so new, he's been at County since the summer. He works in the E.R. He's from Croatia," she explained.

"Um hmm," he commented quietly. "Nice guy?"

"Yes," she answered slowly. "He's...he's a very nice man." Glancing up at Doug, she saw his expression had hardened, and she moved to explain further. "He's a widower. He lost his family in the war and we've just...we're friends. He helps around here sometimes, helps out with the girls."

"Hm." A jealous cancer began eating at his gut as he envisioned another man with Carol, holding his girls. Taking over when he'd been discouraged from returning. He noticed her hands, then, as she fidgeted. His mouth twitched slightly. "I see you don't wear the ring anymore."

Carol jerked her head up, stunned at his tone.

Tentatively, he continued. "The ring I gave you. You're not wearing it. Did you take it off as soon as...when I left?"

She hedged, unhappy with the direction he was heading in. "The end of October, maybe, or November. My hands were swelling and I...I couldn't wear it. Since then, I don't know...." Her voice trailed off and she frowned, afraid to tell him how hard she tried to move past him. How much she wanted to forget him, and how she was unable to.

Doug watched her and his face held a world of doubt. "Carol, why haven't you cashed my checks?"

"Well, I...." She pushed her hair away from her eyes and for an instant, Doug saw Beth there, in front of him, pushing her hair with her hand and realized why he found it so endearing when she did it. It was Carol's gesture. "I didn't want to ask you for help. I can take care of them, provide for them, Doug."

"You feel like you would need to ask me? Didn't you know I'd help, Carol? Didn't you know that I wanted them, that I wanted to be with my children?" Doug's spirit sank, but he had, in his heart of hearts, feared that this would happen. She was acting so aloof; she had already moved on. Carol was a dream that would never be his. He nodded and looked at her. It was there, somewhere. Lying in wait. And then, it just needed to be said. Doug shifted slightly, leaning toward her, putting his fingertips together as if in prayer. "Carol," he began carefully, "I know we have to talk, iron things out. Before you tell me...before you say anything else, I want you to know that I came here because I want to be a part of the girls' lives. I've wanted that all along. I don't want them growing up without their father. Feeling unloved, never being able to trust a man with...their hearts. Never trusting what's in a man's." He looked away briefly, trying to retain his composure, not wanting to cry. Trying not to beg her. "I wanted to have a baby with you because I...because I loved you. Because I wanted to share that with you, to be a father, the kind of father I never had. You can...you can move on, I don't expect you to let me back in. I've used up all my chances with you. But please let me be their father. I love them, Carol." His eyes filled with tears and he looked down, so afraid. So afraid.

The strength of his words hit her hard. So hard that she had no response for him at first.

Doug took her silence as refusal, and was dismayed by what he perceived to be his own lack of eloquence. He was crushed. Not sure what she would say, he was afraid that he'd come all this way to hear that she'd fallen in love with someone else, for her to tell him that the girls didn't need him. He had to manage this pain; he couldn't bear it, not now when he'd first seen them. Not yet. Placing his cup on the table, he stood up. "It's late, we're both tired. We can talk more tomorrow. I guess maybe you need to think about it," he said, walking toward the door.

"No. No, I don't have to think about it," she insisted. Doug turned to face her and she stood up, approaching him. "I'd...I'd really like for that to happen," Carol insisted. "I'm glad you're here, I'm glad you saw them." Her weak smile faded as her face became serious. Having him here tonight, being with him when he saw the girls had touched her heart.

"Me too." He smiled and reached for the door. "Thanks, Carol. I'm wiped out, I'm staying at the Westin on North Michigan if you...." He took a deep breath and collected himself. "Thank you...for letting me see them, for letting me...thank you. I'll come over tomorrow, first thing. I'll come see them, spend a little time with them. I'll bring breakfast. I can't wait to see them when they're awake." Doug paused and his voice became husky. "I am so happy I got to see them tonight. Thank you. Good night." Doug began walking out.

"Wait."

Turning around, he saw something in her face. He just couldn't tell what it was.

"It's icy out. You don't need to leave, you can stay here," she offered quietly. "Stay upstairs if you want."

He knit his brow and avoided her eyes. Stay upstairs? No. "I don't think.... I'm gonna go to the hotel tonight. I'll come by tomorrow."

"Oh. Okay. I...okay." She was supremely disappointed, but thought it best not to show it. "Come over any time tomorrow. Come early."

"Okay. Thanks again." He walked down the steps and to his rental car without looking back. She watched as he drove away, down the street, making a right into the alley.

Carol realized she'd blown it by not immediately answering his heartfelt request to have a proper relationship with his girls, by talking about Luka. He left so quickly because she was so distant with him. Then, her lame offer for him to stay upstairs must have sounded...oh, god, I've insulted him, she thought. What the hell was I thinking?

The night, seeing him, everything had gone wrong. He'd barely been there forty-five minutes. She closed her eyes and fought the bitter, angry, disappointed tears that waited to burst forth. Then, in the distance, she heard Kate, who was crying up in her crib. Carol took one last look down the street, but it was empty. Then she turned back inside and climbed the stairs.

"I'm here, baby, I'm here," Carol crooned. Reaching into the crib, she picked Kate up and brought her close to her chest, then paused.

Doug's cologne.

Carol pressed her face into Kate's neck, and the unmistakable scent of his cologne hung on her skin, on her clothing. He had held her, had picked her up and held her. Looking over into Tess' crib, she could see that her position had changed. That's why he stayed behind, Carol realized. He didn't want to pick them up in front of her.

"He got to hold you, didn't he punkin'? Your daddy got to hold you." I hold his babies every day, she thought. I love them, every day. So why do my arms feel so empty?

The tears that she'd fought back all day fell onto Kate as both mother and daughter wept.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

You got a message that I'd be in town
I wish I hadn't sent it
I'm a play
I'm a-playing
Playing with disaster
You're so close I almost feel you breathing
Making me twitchy, yeah
I want
I-I wanna
I want to be wrong girl
Or have I been away too long
Have I been away
I'm afraid to say that I've been away from you too long

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The end