She woke from the dream to find the blankets kicked down around her ankles, and that Rollo had abandoned his watch beside her, and that Lizzie was snoring across the small space in the shelter.
Brianna scrubbed her face with her hands, blinking harshly. Images of Boston and Balriggan and Wilmington and the riverboat racing, crashing in her eyes.
Rollo had left the door open a bit, so she slipped into her shoes, wrapped the shawl tighter around her shoulders, and quietly tiptoed into the darkness.
For it was still deep in the night, here in the forest. With moon and stars casting very faint light, to be sure – just enough to see the shape of the cabin across the clearing, and the glow of the lantern in the window. The lantern Jamie had set on the windowsill, knowing his daughter was still not quite used to the almost infinite black of the forest at night. When Mama had told him that in their time they called such thing a nightlight, to be left in the corner of a child’s room while they slept, Jamie had smiled, and then kissed her.
Brianna closed the door of the shelter, watching the steam of her breath. It was colder up here in the mountains – much colder than at the coast. But the shelter – and the cabin – were delightfully warm. And her cousin Ian seemed perfectly impervious to cold, sleeping as he did under the stars behind the shelter.
She and Da had returned late from hunting the bees, so late that Ian and Lizzie were already making preparations for bed. She had thought it would be awkward to spend time in the cabin with only her parents, as they enjoyed the almost sinfully delicious honeycomb – but she had been wrong. Enveloped in so much warmth, and good cheer, and an overwhelming sense of unconditional love from Mama and Da. Their smiles as they watched her – their affectionate touches as she spoke. Their undivided attention on her, and on each other.
He had always seemed so much larger than life, in all of Mama’s stories. These weeks with him had proven he was human – full of tics, and scars, and quirks, and deeply-felt emotions. That he was very physically affectionate with his family was clear – though she knew he had been holding himself back a bit with her.
It was only fair, she supposed – for while all her life she had been a daughter, for all his life he hadn’t been able to be a father. And here she was, an adult – a woman – who didn’t need a father like a little girl would have. And who still didn’t know how the grown-up version of herself would need a father – having had no experience with Daddy, due to that damned car crash.
Memory flared – she must have been five or six. It had been a particularly bad dream – and deep in the night, she had padded in her footed pyjamas down the hallway to Mama and Daddy’s room. It wasn’t until she was in junior high that she realized most people’s parents didn’t sleep in separate beds – but at the time, she thought it had been so fun to slip into Daddy’s bed, to snuggle against him, to feel his strong arms around her, knowing that she was safe from her dreams.
Maybe it was irrational. Maybe it was because she still felt guilty, or awkward, for bringing up Daddy in her conversations with Da. Or maybe it was because she felt compassion for the man who spoke so matter-of-factly about the sacrifices he had made for her sake – sacrifices she still had so much trouble comprehending.
But she knew that she’d surprise him by creeping into the cabin – by asking to sleep beside him. By giving him the opportunity to hold her as she slept – to watch over her, and to protect her.
Before she knew it she had crossed the clearing and stepped onto the porch. The lantern shone bright through the window, faintly illuminating the interior of the cabin –
- and her father, lying on his stomach on the outside of the bed – to protect Mama – the web of scars on his naked back glowing in the dim light.
To know about his back – and how it had come to be – was one thing. To see it for herself, without his permission…
She had experienced the horrors of this time. The sanitary conditions. Seeing people with disfigurements, or infected with diseases, or emaciated with starvation. Not to mention what had passed in that tavern in Wilmington.
But this – this brutality, plain and simple – was on a whole other level. It had happened to him when he was younger than she was now.
This was the life he had led. The world he lived in – the world he and Mama had protected her from.
She swallowed at the sudden dryness in her throat. Mesmerized as he shifted in his sleep –
And as the blanket at his waist fell away, and her mother’s long, pale legs wrapped around his hips.
Then she saw her mother’s profile, smiling sleepily up at her father, her arms winding around his shoulders to caress his scars, her rings glinting in the lamplight, her lips parting in a deep kiss. Her ankles locking around his backside. His hips pushing into her.
Cool air soothing her flushed cheeks – somehow she had made it back across the clearing, back to the shelter.
Feeling joy and confusion and sorrow.
Heart full of love for her parents, and the connection they shared.
Missing Roger – a sharp pang in her belly.
She remained there until dawn, legs crossed on the carpet of leaves, leaning back against the door of the shelter, until Lizzie stirred inside, mumbling something about the washing.