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TWLITF-Verse Chronicles

Chapter Text

Jenna crept across the house, pulling her robe in tighter as she navigated the dark hallway, trying not to tip off her sleeping daughter and fiancé. She rounded the corner into the living room, nearly stubbing her toe on the little mail table next to the kitchen doorway.

Thankfully, the dim nightlight they’d left on above the back counter guided her way to her destination: the refrigerator.

She quietly tiptoed past the island counter and reached into a drawer for a spoon. Her next stop was the freezer.

And a tub of mint chocolate chip.

Greedily, she pulled off the lid and tossed it onto the counter, digging the spoon into it. She didn’t have time for a bowl. Or to find the ice cream scoop. (The container was nearly empty anyway.) So, unceremoniously, and much like the child who did exactly what her mother had taught her not to do, she ate straight out of the carton.

It felt bad. Rebellious. And it tasted damn good.

Movement in her belly told her that the baby concurred with her sentiment.

“You won’t judge me, will you?” she whispered downward, placing a hand on her now well-defined bump. A pause, then the baby went still again. “Didn’t think so.”

Jenna continued to eat merrily, less on guard now. However, just as she stuffed a giant spoonful of ice cream into her mouth, she heard a voice call from the doorway.

“Mom?”

Spoon still in her mouth, she turned around to face her daughter, giving her that deer-in-the-headlights stare.

The ice cream in her mouth melted and she swallowed. “Hi, sweetie,” she greeted, trying to hide the ice cream carton from view. “What are you doing up?”

“Couldn’t sleep,” Lulu answered on a yawn. Then as she walked around the island counter toward the fridge, she caught sight of her mother’s discretion and, lifting an eyebrow, asked, “Are you eating ice cream straight out of the container?”

Jenna quickly reached for the lid, slapped it back on the carton. “You can’t prove it.”

“Yes, you are!” Lulu accused with a whisper-yell. “How many times have you yelled at me for that?”

Jenna, sheepish now, slowly removed the lid again. “The baby had a craving.”

Then she reached around for the utensil drawer, grabbing another spoon and passing it to Lulu. The girl eyed her suspiciously for a moment before grinning mischievously.

“Sure. Blame my baby sister, and then butter me up to keep quiet,” she chided playfully as she took the spoon and dug in.

“Who else is gonna help me finish the rest of this and not tell Jim?” Jenna asked.

Lulu stuffed mint chocolate chip into her mouth and barely got out, “I just got up for water.” A moment later, more clearly, “I didn’t ask to be an accessory to this crime.”

“And yet you’re here,” Jenna pointed out, pointing at her with a full spoon, “sneaking ice cream with me.”

She watched as Lulu chewed on chocolate chips, seemingly pausing for a moment to consider her mother’s point.

Finally, the child decided, “Fair enough.”

Mother and daughter fell silent as they finished off the ice cream. Lulu had taken over holding the carton while Jenna finished up her last few spoonfuls. The pair leaned back against the counter, Jenna with her hand on her belly, feeling the movement of her unborn daughter while her fully grown daughter stood next to her with ice cream all over her face.

Her beautiful, smiling, ice-cream-covered face.

She reached over to run a hand through Lulu’s wavy, red curls. A surge of gratefulness exploded in her chest, and she couldn’t help but wonder…what the hell had she done to deserve this child? To deserve the child she was carrying? To deserve the man currently sleeping in her bed who had given the latter to her? That wasn’t even to mention the family she’d adopted through her two best friends.

When had her life become so surrounded by love and support that, so many years ago, she could have only imagined?

She wasn’t sure if it was the hormones, the late hour, both, or something else. But the small moments like this had a way of overwhelming her. All the pain and fear she knew as a child; as a teenager; as a terrified college graduate who had no idea how to be a mother. It felt so far away.

Now she had ice cream at 2:00 in the morning with her daughter.

(Both of her daughters.)

She watched as Lulu finished the last of the mint chocolate chip and handed her mother her spoon.

“Done!” the girl announced, a little too proudly.

Jenna took the spoon and stepped a few feet to toss it, along with her own spoon, into the sink. The ice cream tub was next, sent straight to the trash.

“Come on,” she said softly, placing her arm around Lulu’s shoulders, “clean up your face, and let’s get back to bed.”

Chapter Text

Sunlight peeks through the blinds, greeting Jenna as she opens her eyes.

She rolls over to check the baby monitor on her bedside table, noting that she hasn’t heard a peep all night. The light is still on, still green. The only sound is breathing and light coos. She almost can’t believe it. The clock next to the monitor reads a quarter past 7:00. 

It’s the longest and best sleep she’s had in months.

Next to her, a warm body stirs, wrapping an arm around her waist. She snuggles into him, relishing in the feel of bare skin on bare skin. The night before, Lulu had spent Halloween trick-or-treating for the last time with a group of friends and had stayed the night with them, leaving the couple alone with the baby. Thankfully, Livvy had gone down without a fight - and had evidently slept the whole night through for the very first time in her four and a half months of life in the outside world.

That left Jenna and Jim all night to reconnect in a way they hadn’t been able to in quite some time. Now they lay there, tangled up in sheets and one another. 

Jenna rolls over again to face him. He’s awake, staring at her like she’s the one who brought the sun up this morning. 

Her mind drifts back to the night before. She’d been nervous, uncertain. Her body had left her self-conscious enough after one child, let alone two children. Still, she thinks about the way Jim looked at her. How he’d practically worshipped every inch of her. She thinks about how patient he had been, knowing that everything about her, physically speaking, was completely different than the first time two years ago.

Yet here he is still wanting, still paying careful attention to make sure she’s enjoying herself. That she feels pleasure. That she feels love.

She kisses him and hooks a leg around his waist. But he’s soon pulling back and planting his lips all across her skin, down her body. His hands are reverent as they follow suit, and he’s exploring her like it’s the first time.

She sighs happily and just enjoys, reaching down to run her fingers through his hair while he peppers kisses across her ribcage. He’s careful with her breasts, too, probably still remembering the way she’d hissed in pain the night before when he’d gotten a little too eager.

Soon, he’s moving back up her body, finding her lips with his again.

“Good morning,” he whispers when they separate.

She kisses him again and mumbles against his lips, “Good morning, indeed.”

He smiles at her before glancing up at the baby monitor. “She slept all night, didn’t she?”

“I think so.”

“Want me to go check on her?”

Jenna shakes her head and tugs him closer. “Not yet. I need this just a little longer.”

Normally, she’d be up immediately or sending him. But this morning, Livvy is still asleep or at the very least content and self-soothing. Ten more minutes will be fine. It’s the least they can give themselves after four months of sleepless nights and wedding planning.

So, she keeps kissing him, touching him and feeling his touch, getting lost. It’s not long before they’re rolling over, and she’s on top of him, taking him inside and softly crying out.

 


 

Forty-five minutes later, Jenna’s stepping out of the hot shower. She’s taken her time, in no rush for the day for once. She’s shaved and moisturized, a luxury at this point (one or the other was usually sacrificed on a given day). While she towels her hair dry and brushes her teeth, she can hear Jim humming over the baby monitor in the other room.

They’d forgotten to shut it off after he’d gotten up to check on his daughter. Unable to resist a little eavesdropping, Jenna leaves the bathroom and walks over to the closet, listening in while she gathers clothing and dresses herself.

“Okay, Little Miss. I'm sorry, but I can’t do that like your mommy,” she hears him chide playfully. “You’re gonna have to do with a bottle this morning.” A pause and then, “There you go.”

Jenna smiles to herself as she hooks her bra. Through the monitor she can hear Livvy suckling at her bottle and Jim encouraging her, humming.

“Now, if you could just make it this easy for your mom…” he tells the baby, voice trailing off. Then he adds, “She works hard, you know.”

Jenna’s pulling on jeans, all the while staring at the monitor. Jim continues, “She loves you and your big sister so much. She would do anything for you, so be good to her.”

There’s another long pause before he adds, “I certainly hope I am.” But Jenna melts when he says, “If I could be half the parent or even half the person she is…”

The statement half breaks Jenna’s heart, half fills it. She wants to run down the hall and hug him. But she also wants to hear what else he has to say.

“She, you, and Lulu are everything I could have asked for,” he confides to the infant. “I didn’t think I could ever feel this much love in my life, but you've all proven me wrong.”

Jenna swallows back tears (months after birth, and she's still fighting those damn hormones) and pulls on her sweater. Eventually the monitor goes quiet, and she hears Jim’s steps down the hall, headed toward the kitchen. She clicks the monitor off and removes the towel from her hair.

On the dresser, her engagement ring glistens on the nightstand. Suddenly, she feels naked, though she’s fully dressed. It isn’t until she slips the platinaire back on her finger that she feels complete. Even then, she can’t help but stare at the two black velvet boxes keeping their wedding bands safe.

Only three more weeks.

 


 

She finds him in the kitchen a few minutes later. Livvy is in her bassinet on the empty counter while Jim flips eggs at the stove. Coffee brews in the pot, and he’s turned on Jenna’s favorite Spotify playlist on the little Bluetooth speaker.

Jenna makes a beeline for the baby, scooping her up and pressing kisses to her soft, chubby cheeks.

“Hi, my girl!” she coos, pulling her into her chest and rocking her. “Did someone sleep well?”

“She took her milk like a champ this morning, too,” Jim announced proudly.

Jenna grinned. “I know she did.”

They make eye contact then, and she can see his cheeks go red, his eyes grow wide. He knows she overheard him. 

With assurance, she carries Livvy over to him and kisses him on the cheek.

“I love you,” she murmurs into his ear.

He doesn't even need to reciprocate the response. The way his blue-grey eyes shimmer when he looks at the two of them says it all. 

They fall into content quietness as Jim finishes cooking breakfast and Jenna bounces Livvy to the light tune playing in the background. She glides over to the kitchen table, finding her phone and checking her messages.

There are two new texts from Lulu:

I've eaten so much candy. I feel sick. Not sorry though . Everyone loved my McGonagall costume.

That was sent at 11:23 PM.

The next one, sent at 6:17 this morning, reads, I woke back up. I miss you. Crashing again until noon.

With one hand, Jenna responds, I’m glad you had fun, sweetie. Call me when you wake up. I love you.

Setting the phone down, she turns her attention to the infant in her arms and asks, “You’re not gonna grow up on me and leave me for sleepovers, are you?” When Livvy coos and giggles up at her mother, Jenna says, “Good. I knew I could count on you.”

Jenna sits down at the table then, baby in her lap while Jim serves eggs and toast

“I don’t think she can promise you that,” he teases while he joins them at the table.

Jenna covers Livvy’s ears and says, “Shhhh don’t give her any ideas.”

Jim laughs and leans over to kiss the baby’s forehead and then Jenna’s lips. “Wouldn’t dream of telling her anything except the truth.”

With that, they tuck into breakfast. And Jenna can't help but be grateful for Sunday mornings.

Chapter Text

“Lulu, be careful!”

Jenna tensed as she watched the almost 12-year-old carrying the tiny infant in her arms across the park. She’d already showed her how to carry her properly, and Lulu was being obedient; supporting the head, not jarring her.

The mother of two now couldn't believe she was trusting her eldest like this. But Lulu had grown bored and long gave up playing with the twins, and she’d brought out the puppy dog eyes when she asked if she could take Livvy for a little walk.

No further than the tree line, Jenna had stipulated. That gave her maybe 100 feet.

Jenna waited exactly 30 seconds before marching out of the shade of the picnic shelter to take the baby back. But before she could, Becky was swooping in and hijacking her anyway.

“I haven’t gotten to hold you all day, Miss Olivia Grace,” she cooed as she guided Lulu in handing her over. “Your Aunt Dawn has hogged you since you got here, and your mama will hardly let anyone touch you.”

“She’s only three weeks old,” Jenna defended. “Of course I’m a nervous wreck.”

Becky looked up at her friend and pointed out, “You weren’t like this with that one…”

She pointed toward Lulu who did a cartwheel across the grass before jogging back toward the volleyball sandpit where Ogie and the twins had started a new game. Jenna watched her stumble around, trying to hit the ball. Her child was many things, but athletic was not one of them.

“I was more worried about figuring out what the hell I was doing,” Jenna explained. Then she looked down and Livvy and gave her tummy a little rub over her American flag onesie. She put on her baby voice and directed her words at the infant as she cooed, “Now we’re a little too aware of all the dangers waiting for us in the cruel world, huh?”

Becky rolled her eyes as she lightly bounced the baby.

“Do you want her back?” she asked, sarcasm dripping. “Or can I actually hold my niece for a while?”

Jenna sighed. “Okay.” Then she reached down to pull Livvy’s tiny red, white, and blue sun hat further over her face. “But let’s get her back out of the sun. It’s too hot.”

“10-4, Mama Bear,” Becky gave her a salute with the hand that wasn't supporting the baby.

Jenna watched her walk back toward the picnic shelter. It wasn’t long before Dawn was joining Becky and the two were giggling and ohhhh ing and ahhhhh ing over Livvy. Trying to set her nerves aside, the mother wandered to the other side of the shelter, where Jim was flipping burgers.

“Hey,” he smiled when she placed a hand on his back. Then, upon noticing the distinct absence of his daughter, asked, “You mean you actually let someone else take her for a while?”

“Yes, I did,” she admitted, to her own chagrin. “Becky’s got her.”

“Good. You deserve a break.”

“What if she dies, though?” Jenna challenged, knowing damn well how ridiculous she sounded.

Jim shook his head. “Sweetie…”

“Well, can you blame me?”

He tilted his head and flipped a began plating burgers. “Yes and no,” he said. “I mean, I can't blame you for being protective. I am, too. But she’s got a bunch of people who love her, and they’ve all held a few babies in their day. And a couple of them raised two babies at once. I think she’s in good hands.”

“I guess so,” Jenna grumbled. Her husband-to-be was, unfortunately, right.

“Enjoy the relaxation,” Jim encouraged, pressing a kiss to her forehead. Then, more boldly added, “It’s the 4th of July. Enjoy your American freedom. You know...bald eagles and shit.”

Jenna had to giggle at that. “Okay, then.” She craned her neck, squinting across the shelter at the table they’d set out cutlery, chips, and other cookout necessities. “Hey, did you remember the apple pie?”

“It's in the cooler,” he assured. “Didn’t wanna let it spoil.”

“Oh, I could kiss you.”

So, she did.

 


 

The afternoon came and went. The group had originally planned to stay at the park into the night, but with the heat decided to part ways to their respective homes.

The sun had gone completely down by 10:00, finding Livvy sleeping soundly in her crib, while Jenna, Jim, and Lulu retired to the backyard to wait for the neighborhood fireworks to commence.

Jenna had made herself comfortable in one of the lawn chairs, watching Jim and Lulu light sparklers.

“Sure you don’t want one, mom?” Lulu asked, drawing a heart into the air with hers.

“I’ll pass, my girl,” the mother told her, half falling asleep in her chair, barely holding her eyes open. “But thank you.”

For a moment, she wondered how she was going to stay awake for the fireworks. Then a loud BOOM and crack from the sky jolted her. At the same time, loud wails could be heard from the baby monitor sitting on the little wicker table next to her.

“Oh, crap…” Jenna mumbled.

Jim glanced up from his sparkler, “Want me to go check on her?”

Jenna shook her head and pushed herself out of her seat. “I’ve got it.”

She pushed past the sliding glass doors into the kitchen, then hurried to the living room and down the hall to her and Jim’s bedroom.

Livvy’s angry cries verberated across the room, breaking Jenna’s heart. She kept herself calm as she walked over to the crib and lifted the infant. The cries didn't let up, even as Jenna pulled her in close and began to rock her.

“Shhhhhh,” she coaxed. “It’s okay. Fireworks scared you, I bet.”

Jenna could hear the booms outside and see the flashes of light through the window. Livvy continued to wail, swinging her little fists as much as she could.

“Hey, now,” Jenna whispered. “Hey.”

She carried the infant over to the window, and told her, “Look, they can’t hurt you. They’re outside.”

Livvy’s cries started to slow down and quiet. Soon, her little eyes were growing wide. Outside, an explosion of red and white left star-like shapes in the sky. Jenna could hear a little squeak from her daughter, who was now transfixed on what little she could see out the window.

“See? Not so bad, huh?” Jenna murmured, leaning down to press a kiss to Livvy’s forehead.

She stood for a moment and watched, taking in the beautiful display. She rocked the child for a bit, thankful that it didn’t take long for her to fall back to sleep.

It had been a long day.

Satisfied that Livvy was down again, Jenna placed her back in her crib. For a moment, she stared down, watching her sleep peacefully despite the commotion outside. With a kiss to the baby’s forehead, Jenna left to rejoin the rest of her little family.

When she made it to the back yard, fireworks were still booming, and Jim and Lulu had retired the sparklers. She pulled up her chair next to them, and settled in, watching the explosion of light above.

Next to Jenna, Jim reached his hand out, offering it to her. She slipped her fingers between his, letting herself be okay with relaxing and taking in the moment.

On Jim’s other side, Lulu stared up in wonder at the sky, still awestruck, even two days before turning twelve. Her daughter’s pure joy made Jenna’s heart soar, and she couldn't help but recall that childlike bliss she often forgot in her worries and stress.

And that, she knew, was real freedom.

Chapter Text

Jenna finds him in his recliner one Saturday afternoon. 

She and Lulu had gone out to pick up a few groceries, leaving Jim alone with Livvy. The mother-daughter pair are greeted by a silent house when they carry their haul from the garage into the kitchen. While Lulu works on putting away milk, bread, and cereal, Jenna wanders toward the living room, curious as to where her husband-to-be and her youngest have ended up.

“Jim?” she calls, poking her head through the doorway.

She looks around to the corner of the room to find her fiancé with the recliner up, snoring away. Livvy, meanwhile, is curled up on his chest, out like a light.

Jenna feels her cheeks start to hurt from the huge grin that slides across her face.

On a whisper, she turns back to the kitchen and calls, “Lulu, come here.”

“Huh?” the twelve-year-old looks up before following her mother.

Jenna points into the living room, prompting the child slide past her to take a peek. Immediately, she grins and reaches into her pocket for her phone, tiptoeing closer.

“What are you doing?” the mother whispers.

“Picture,” the girl mouths back.

Jenna lets her take it and watches as she quietly scurries back into the kitchen. In a moment, the strawberry blonde is peeking over her daughter's shoulder to take a look. It’s a good one, and not just because it’s the love of her life and their daughter being adorable. Lulu happens to know a thing or two about composition.

Jenna’s impressed.

“Can I post it?” the twelve-year-old asks eagerly.

Jenna shakes her head. “Send it to me, we’ll make sure Jim’s okay with it, and then I'll post it.”

“Okay,” Lulu grumbles, clicking the phone off and slipping it back into her pocket.

They resume putting away groceries before Jenna reaches out to her, placing a hand on her shoulder.

“Hey,” she murmurs. When Lulu makes eye contact with her, she tells her sincerely, “It’s a great picture.”

The girl smiles at that.

It isn’t long before Jim stirs and carries Livvy into the kitchen, practically dancing as he hums her favorite little tune. Jenna’s already waiting with a bottle and a burping cloth, and she almost has to pry her own daughter out of his hands.

Then, once she’s convinced him to hand Livvy over, he’s granting Lulu’s request for a walk down the block to their favorite Italian ice stand; the two are raving about Stranger Things all the way out the door.

He’s a good dad.

 


 

Jim finds Jenna in their bedroom one evening after his first day of the new school year.

She’s still on maternity leave, and Lulu’s a week from the start of 7th grade. Jim, meanwhile, is dragging his feet through the door after a long, arduous opening day. He'd sat through endless meetings, paperwork, and calendars. He'd even gone into his classroom to get his first week of lesson plans in order.

Now all he wants is to sit and rest before cooking dinner, as he’d agreed.

There’s no movement, no sound, when he shuffles in from the garage. He tosses his satchel into one of the chairs at the table and makes a beeline for the living room.

No Jenna.

No Lulu, either.

So, he wanders down the hallway and to his and Jenna’s bedroom. The sight that greets him causes his heart to melt.

Jenna’s sprawled out in the center of their bed, on top of the blanket, one hand reaching out to the infant next to her and covering a sleeping Livvy’s tummy. The other arm, meanwhile, is wrapped around a snoring Lulu, who’s curled up into her side. The mother seems to be in a deep sleep, too, because she doesn't even stir. 

With a smile, he silently removes his tie and leaves it on the dresser before slipping back out of the bedroom.

In the kitchen, he turns on a pot of water to boil and gathers spaghetti and a jar of sauce he plans to doctor up. Once the water is boiling, he breaks the pasta to let it cook and finds the sauce pan. He eventually decides on chicken as the add-in and gets to work. 

In little time, the pasta is ready to drain, and the sauce is simmering, waiting.

He’s about to go wake his sleeping family up when Jenna sashays in, cradling and singing to Livvy. Lulu follows behind, yawning.

Jenna gasps dramatically and whispers to Livvy, “Look who’s home!”

Jim turns off the burner for the sauce and walks away from the stove, reaching his hands out. “My turn.”

Jenna declines to hand her over and explains, “She needs to be fed.”

As she carries Livvy over to the table and takes a seat, Lulu makes a face like she’s about to be sick.

“I’ll...be back,” she announces, turning around so as not to see Jenna tug the top of her shirt and her bra to the side. She keeps her eyes averted and turns to Jim. “Let me know when dinner’s ready.”

Both adults giggle as they watch the twelve-year-old hurry out to the living room. Jim finishes preparing dinner while Jenna coaxes Livvy to get her fill. Before long, the baby is finished and Jenna’s calling Lulu back to the kitchen to help set the table.

Jim watches his wife-to-be meander about the kitchen, carrying Livvy with one hand while she helps Lulu set out plates, forks, and cups. She then lays the infant in her bassinet and sets it near her seat at the table, placing a kiss to Livvy’s nose as she eases her down.

When Lulu asks her mother if she’ll read her new poem, Jenna’s response is an affectionate, “You know I always want to.”

She's a good mom.

Chapter Text

“You know, honestly…fuck Joe.”

Jenna could hear herself start to slur. Knew she was barely able to focus on the giant margarita in front of her. Green slush slopped over the side of the glass as she attempted to lift it, and she nearly choked as she brought it to her lips.

“No, Jenna...listen,” Becky leaned over to her, throwing a hand on her shoulder. “Forget him. It’s your birthday.”

“Ya only turn thirty-five once,” Dawn mumbled, lifting her third peach daiquiri to her lips. 

“Thirty-five,” Jenna hooted, reaching into the basket of tortilla chips at the center of the table and nearly missing the bowl of guacamole. “What a fuckin’ year.”

If Jenna were sober, she would have realized how stupid she looked with the plastic crown on her head that Becky had found and forced onto her. (Where the hell had she found it since they got there?) She would have realized how ridiculous they all sounded. She would have truly reflected on the year she'd had.

A new baby. Marriage. Lulu only a few months away from being a teenager, and half a semester and a summer away from her last year of elementary school.

She would have properly given thought to the documents sitting on the desk in her and Becky’s shared office with Joe. She would be reading over them, at home with Jim wondering if she should sign them. Wondering if she should truly respect Joe’s wishes that she take over the catering company upon his upcoming retirement and, because he had no heirs, eventually inherit it; Becky and Dawn right at her side, helping her call the shots.

But that's not what she was doing.

No, she had decided to leave her husband at home with their nine-month-old and twelve-year-old. To get drunk with her best friends and bitch about her boss putting her in this position and forcing her into such a huge decision. As tempting and huge an opportunity as it was. Because why not?

When the hell, since her pre-pregnancy college days, had she ever allowed herself such immature antics? It was her birthday , dammit. And she didn't have to work tomorrow.

“Why did he have to ask me, though?” Jenna continued to slur as she took another gulp of margarita. She leaned in a little too close to Becky and declared, “You’ve got like...spunk. And whatever shit you call it. It should be you!”

At that, Dawn giggled. The giggling turned into full howling with laughter, causing her to nearly choke on a tortilla chip.

“What?” Jenna demanded.

“Do--do you--” Dawn sputtered through fits of laughter. 

“Well, spit it out,” Becky demanded.

Dawn doubled over, snorting. “Do you know what spunk means in Europe??”

Jenna and Becky stared at her dumbly. “No,” Jenna told her, reaching for more chips.

Becky sipped her margarita and asked, “Who the hell cares?”

Dawn, who was still sucking in breaths of air to calm her laughter, brought her voice down and muttered. “It’s--it’s--a man’s--”

But she couldn’t get the words out. Whether it was from shyness, or a lack of being able to string together coherent words, Jenna didn’t know. Instead she watched dumbfounded as Dawn stuck her pointer finger up in the air and brought the other next to it, pushing it upward like a rocket.

At the realization of what her most prudent friend had just tried to recreate, she choked on the chip she was chewing. Becky half-heartedly pounded on her back through her own sudden laughter.

“What the hell, Dawn??” Jenna gasped for breath as her airway began to clear.

Once she felt she could breathe again, she felt herself shaking with laughter. She thought that the snorting coming from the table was hers, but she wasn't sure.

Becky wiped tears from her eyes and sighed as she gained her composure. “No, I know who should really take over the company,” she spouted. Then she shoved an accusatory finger at Dawn and declared, “This one's had Joe’s dirty mind all along.”

She fell back into hysterics, Jenna right along with her. Dawn couldn’t help herself, either, and soon the three of them were clinging to each other, laughing so hard they cried. The looks from the other patrons around them in the bar be damned. Everyone else was drunk anyway. 

After the trio calmed down enough, Jenna found herself sitting all the way up and gasping.

“I have an idea!” she hollered. 

Her friends leaned in intently, and she, very seriously, pressed her hands to the table in front of her, trying not to fall off of the high top chair.

“Pies,” she declared. When Becky and Dawn stared dumbly at her, she explained, “Instead of catering, we turn it into a shie pop--I mean pie shop.”

“Whoa…” Becky whispered.

Dawn shoved a chip in her face and declared, “Genius!”

“If Joe’s gonna gimme the company,” Jenna garbled, lifting her margarita again, “I’m gonna do whatever the hell I want with it.”

Dawn and Becky lifted their glasses, nearly spilling them as they clanked them together. 

“I’ll drink to that,” Becky declared, taking too long of a swig of her margarita, coughing as it burned.

Jenna, a little too pleased with herself, threw back the rest of her drink and mumbled, “Happy fuckin’ birthday to me.”

 


 

 

1:00 in the morning found Jenna giggling as she stumbled out of the Uber she, Becky, and Dawn had shared. As she barely stood on her feet, her friends squealed one last, “Happy birthday!!”

She swerved across the walkway, barely staying in line as she made her way to the front door. She leaned against the door and fumbled in her clutch for the keys, not drunk enough to forget that her husband locked the door at a certain hour. It took a solid two minutes for her to get the key in the lock, and once she had it took several attempts for her to figure out she was trying to turn it the wrong way.

Once inside, she kicked off her sandals--thank god she’d been smart enough to reject Becky's attempt at getting her in heels--letting them haphazardly fly across the living room. Her clutch barely made it to the mail table.

The only light on was a soft lamp. Out of habit, she staggered over to click it off.

But before she could, she found herself colliding with something soft and very tall. Above her she registered an oof and felt arms catch her.

She squinted to get a good look, making out familiar dark hair.

“Jim!” she squeaked, barely remembering to keep her voice at a whisper.

When she tried to cling to him further, she felt the earth spin around her and her feet start to fall out from beneath her.

“Whoa, birthday girl,” her husband coaxed as he caught her. Jenna began to giggle at her overstep. She was so drunk.

Once she was steady, Jim asked, “I take it you had a good time?”

“Best life of my night!” Jenna swung her arm out, stumbling away from him toward the couch.

He followed after, catching her again. Everything swirled around her as he steadied her down onto the soft surface.

“Why don’t you sit?” he gently suggested. “I'm gonna get you some water.”

“Okay!” Jenna kicked her legs up, and holding a thumbs up.

She felt herself begin to nod off. When she looked up again, Jim was sitting next to her, holding out a glass. He helped her lift it to her lips, encouraging her to drink. It took a concerted effort to figure out how to sip and swallow, but when she did, the relief of cool hydration had her sighing.

Once she was done, Jim set the glass on the coffee table.

“I’m gonna let you sleep now,” he told her softly reaching onto the opposite side of the sofa for a blanket.

“Wait,” she stopped him, staring around her blurry living room. “Liv?”

“Safe and sound in her crib,” Jim assured.

Jenna swallowed. “Lulu?”

“Safe and sound in her bed,” he whispered, then placed a hand on her thigh. “They’re perfect, Jenna.”

She nodded as she began to lie down. “Okay.” Just as he was holding out the blanket, a new revelation hit her and she shot up again, leaning right into him. On a gasp, she whisper-yelled, “We should have another one!”

“Uh, Jenna--”

She lay back then, nearly rolling off the couch as she did. She lifted her legs up on the air and spread them open, almost kicking him in the face as the skirt of her dress flopped down. “I’m thirty-five now,” she slurred, “get on it!”

Her husband laughed, gently pressing her legs back together and guiding them down to the couch. “Not tonight.”

Jenna protested, though, reaching up and clutching his cotton t-shirt. “But I need your spunk.”

Jim muttered a confused what , before encouraging her, “How about sleep instead? At least for tonight.”

“Fine,” she relented, allowing him to cover her with the blanket. She tugged it closer to herself and let her eyes drift closed. When she felt a hand rubbing her shoulder she murmured, “Jim?”

“Yes, dear?”

“I wanna bake pies,” she yawned.

A pause, and then his whisper, “You do that.” She felt him press a kiss to her temple. “Good night. I love you.”

“Mmmm love you, too.”

The couch jarred as he pushed himself up. The last thing she registered was him saying, “Happy birthday, Jenna.”

Then sleep was blissfully taking over her, with the promise of a greasy breakfast and lots of ibuprofen in the morning. 

Chapter Text

When Lulu takes her first steps at 10 months, she takes off. By just a little over a year, Jenna has to chase after her.

She runs after anything she sees. The neighbor’s cat. Birds resting on the sidewalk. Her Aunt Becky. Her Aunt Dawn. Her favorite duck toy. The kids from down the street riding their bikes. The sound of Ogie playing the piano.

Jenna can barely keep up most days, though she typically has her wrangled pretty quickly.

But a fateful spring afternoon in the park sees Jenna turning around for half a second, only to turn back around and find her thirteen-month-old gone.

Panic sets in, Jenna’s chest tightening. Could she even remember how to breathe? Frantically, she dashes past the sand box toward the bigger kids on the playground. Lulu could have seen them playing and wanted to explore. Or maybe she’s seen a squirrel. 

Heaven forbid she's been kidnapped.

Jenna screams for her daughter, peeking underneath one of the slides and to the other side of the jungle gym.

It’s not until she spots a little girl holding hands with a little carrot-top that she catches her breath and her heart rate begins to slow. She calms herself as she approaches the girl, who Jenna notices is followed by a woman who can only be her mother.

“Oh, Lulu!” she cries out, on a sigh of relief.

The other woman looks just as relieved and asks “She’s yours?”

Jenna scoops up her daughter and tells the woman, “Yeah. I just turned around to grab her sippy cup, and she was gone. Thank god you found her.” Then she turns to the little girl in front of her and says, “And thank you for taking such good care of her.”

The child smiles shyly, and when she doesn’t speak, her mother asks, “How old is your little one?”

“She turned a year in July,” Jenna says. Then, still trying to get the rhythm of typical Mom Talk, she asks, “Yours?”

“Just started preschool!” the mother announces proudly. Then she adds truthfully, “I’ve got a handful.”

“So do I, apparently,” Jenna turns her attention to Lulu, kissing the redhead’s cheek.

The mom laughs. “Don’t sweat it. I remember the first time Emily ran off on me. It’s terrifying, but that’s how they are when they get their legs. Wouldn’t trade it, though.”

“Neither would I.” Then, sincerely, she adds, “But, truly thank you.”

“No need.” The mom shakes her head, then takes her daughter’s hand. “You two take care.”

They exchange goodbyes, and Jenna carries Lulu back to the sandbox. She sets her down and hands her the sippy cup of water.

“You really need to slow down, kid,” she whispers.

Lulu pulls the cup from her lips and babbles, “ Down .” Then she thrusts the cup back into Jenna’s hands and mumbles again, “Mama down.”

Jenna stares dumbfoundedly at her.

“And we’ve graduated to two words at a time now, huh?” she murmurs. “Okay.”

 


 

Lulu’s three going on four when she begins to read.

At first, Jenna thinks it’s a fluke. She wonders if maybe Lulu’s just memorized Goodnight, Moon and Moo, Baa, La La La! by virtue of hearing them so often. She’s smart. She repeats words.

But one day, when Jenna, Becky, and Dawn take a notion for a girl’s road trip - the last one before a very pregnant Dawn has the twins - she realizes she's entirely wrong.

As they drive down the highway, they past billboard after billboard. Sign after sign.

At first, Lulu’s pointing out restaurant signs. That’s nothing, though. Lulu knows the McDonald’s arches.

Then they pass a sign, and Lulu reads off the word, “Lake.”

This has all the women raising an eyebrow.

Soon, Lulu’s reading off words like “cow” and “lane” and “turn.”

Becky turns to her in the front seat, “Jenna, when did you teach this child that?”

In the back seat, Dawn places a hand on her round belly and agrees, “I read in one of those books that most kids don’t read until four or five.”

Jenna sputters from the driver’s seat. “I mean...we read every night. We go over her letters and sounds all the time.”

“I got it, mama!” the child grins proudly, kicking her little legs and squirming in her carseat. “I’m reading.”

Jenna laughs and glances at her daughter through the rearview mirror. “You certainly are, baby girl,” she affirms, not pointing out that she was probably reciting sight words rather than using actual phonics. Then she teases, “I’m not gonna have you applying to colleges yet, am I?”

Lulu shakes her head firmly, seriously. “Nope. Preschool first . I wanna go tomorrow.”

“How about four more months?” Jenna suggests.

Lulu crosses her arms and pouts. “Fine.”

 


 

Lulu learns to ride her bike without training wheels at age six. She’s been begging Jenna to teach her, been itching to get on two wheels. 

Jenna finally gives in and starts working with her little by little. In a few weeks, Lulu’s in a helmet and kneepads, yelling, “Mama, let go!”

“Are you sure?” the mother asks, the image of her daughter tipping over of crashing rampant in her mind.

“Yes!” the child insists. “Now, let go!”

Jenna swallows “Okay…”

Then she lets go.

She watches her daughter pedal down the sidewalk, flinches when she sees the bike tip back and forth. Within a few yards, however, Lulu finds her footing.

Victoriously, she yells, “I’m doing it!”

Jenna, finally relaxing, laughs and claps for the girl. “You go, baby girl!”

She watches Lulu circle into a driveway to ride back toward her. As she comes to a stop, she declares, “I wanna ride around the block. Can I??”

Jenna shakes her head. “I don't think you’re ready for that yet.”

“Awww please??”

“You may ride to the corner and back,” Jenna stipulates. “And only if I’m watching you.”

Lulu wrinkles her nose. “That’s no fun.”

“Safety is more important than fun.”

The child sighed as she turned her bike around and set another course. “Okay...I guess.”

“Slow down!” Jenna yells after her.

The child obeys, but somehow...it’s not enough.

A feeling Jenna can’t identify sets in the pit of her stomach. It's joy and fear and pride and bittersweetness all at once.

 


 

Lulu writes her first poem at age eight.

It’s simple. An ode to peanut butter and jelly. But it makes it onto the fridge, and Jenna brags to anyone who visits who will listen.

Her daughter is a genius. She’s winning the 3rd grade. 

From that point, Lulu writes poems on every single available writing surface. Receipts. Loose leaf paper. The journal Jenna finally buys for her when she gets tired of having to check every napkin she finds for fear of throwing away Lulu’s work.

Lulu becomes so active in poetry, she’s asked to recite one at her school talent show.

By the end of the school year, the girl’s teacher is asking Jenna if she can submit some of Lulu’s work to a competition. Winners will be published in a monthly educational magazine.

Jenna agrees, and dread sets in the day she receives the “thank you, but we’ve selected other winners” letter.

She doesn’t want to have to crush Lulu’s dreams. She doesn’t want to tell her she didn’t make it. But she has no choice.

To her shock and utter relief, Lulu’s response is a shrug and a casual, “There will be other competitions.”

By 7th grade, a few years later, she writes a poem that’s painted on a new mural on the wall in her elementary school gallery. Her legacy when she graduates.

 


 

Lulu’s first day of high school starts at 6:00 in the morning.

Jenna wakes up at 6:30 to find that her daughter has already showered and dressed, and she's putting on makeup for exactly the third time in her life. She’s pinned her red curls back and is wearing her new favorite outfit. The one she’d chosen when Jenna took her shopping.

With Livvy on her hip, Jenna passes Lulu's bathroom and peeks inside.

She tries not to cry when she sees her daughter all dressed up and eager. Eyes wide with fear and wonder at what was ahead.

“Morning, my girl,” she greets softly.

Lulu looks up from the mirror and the tube of mascara she was taking to her lashes, and she asks, “How do I look?”

She spins, and Jenna clings to her youngest. At least she still has one daughter with plenty of time to grow up. Two years old is a far cry from fourteen.

“You look absolutely beautiful,” Jenna compliments, ignoring the pang in her chest as she reaches for a loose curl to tuck it behind Lulu’s ear. “That’s not what matters about you, but you’re gorgeous.”

“Do I look like a high schooler?”

Jenna laughs. Her daughter is still a baby in her eyes. And she looks so much younger than Jenna remembers freshmen looking like. But she decides that’s a product of a change in perspective that comes with age.

“No,” she admits. “But no one does when they first start, and I’m too biased. I changed your diapers.”

Lulu rolls her eyes. “Nice vote of confidence.”

“Okay, okay,” Jenna relents. Then she looks at the sleepy child in her arms and says, “Tell your sister I’m just not ready to let go.”

Livvy buries her face into the crook of Jenna’s neck. She’s not usually one to be at a loss for words now that she's stringing together full sentences, but she’s not awake yet.

“I think that’s a no,” Lulu sasses with a cheeky grin.

Then she leans over to press a kiss to her sister’s dark hair. 

“I’m gonna go make some coffee,” the teenager announces as she brushes past.

Jenna stares at her. “Since when do you like coffee?”

Lulu shrugs again. “Since Layla made me try Starbucks when her parents took us to Richmond.”

Starbucks . Jenna scoffs.

“Well, as long as you don’t go all hipster on me, I guess,” she mumbles.

An hour later, once Livvy’s in her car seat and ready to head to daycare, Jenna’s doting over her eldest in the middle of the driveway. She doesn’t want to let her get in the car with Jim to go to the high school. She doesn’t want to watch her fourteen-year-old drive away to one of the most defining chapters of her life. She doesn’t want to drop off her two-year-old in the hands of other adults, only to go to work and think about her teenager being run down in the hallway be seniors and idiot jocks needing to make their presence known. Throwing both of her children to the wolves is just too much.

But she has no choice. And she somehow manages to survive the week.

 


 

Lulu’s junior prom arrives all too quickly.

Jenna can't get over her sixteen-year-old in the glitzy gown she’s chosen. She hasn’t spent nearly as much as her classmates, and it’s not her if Jenna’s being honest, but Lulu had insisted. She likes playing the girly girl every once in a while.

The redhead decides to go dateless with a few good friends. She’s got a small but tight-knit group, and Jenna prays they don't get into too much trouble.

Jenna notices that Lulu has her eye on one of the guys in her little tribe, however, but she doesn’t push. Doesn’t ask about how close they stand to one another. Doesn’t ask about the subtle looks. The way her daughter giggles at a ridiculously corny joke he makes. The way he smiles at her daughter - genuinely smiles at her.

Jenna wants to pull Lulu aside and remind her of the conversations they’d had about safety and boundaries. But she knows she has no time for that, and she needs to trust that her daughter has a good head on her shoulders.

She tries not to stay up waiting. She tucks Livvy in her new ‘big girl’ bed and goes to bed with Jim by 10:00. But a good three hours of tossing and turning later leads her to the kitchen.

She fixes herself a cup of hot herbal tea and sits at the table. It’s after 1:00. 

Jenna considers calling Lulu, making sure she’s okay. They hadn't set a curfew, but she knew her daughter. She wasn't one to stay out late with huge crowds.

She’s about to trek back to the bedroom to grab her phone when headlights beam through the kitchen window. Moments later, she can hear the front door open and click shut.

Then Lulu’s trodding into the kitchen, carrying her heels on her fingertips.

“You waited up?” the teenager asks.

“I tried not to,” Jenna tells her. “I couldn’t sleep.”

Lulu walks over to the table and sits down. She doesn't smell like alcohol or smoke of any kind. She seems to be of sound mind. Her pristinely pinned hair is a little mussed, but only the normal wear from hours of movement.

She says, “You don't need to worry about me.”

Jenna shakes her head. “It's a mom thing,” she sighs. “Did you have a good time?”

Lulu beams and nods. “It was so much fun! I thought I would hate it, but...mom…”

The she blushes. And Jenna has a hunch.

“Yes?” Jenna prompts.

“I always thought the movies lied,” Lulu elaborated. “And they do. It was nothing like that. But...it was pretty magical.”

Jenna nods in understanding. Then, hinting, ever so slightly probing, she asks, “And Aaron?”

The teenager bites her lip and looks down, embarrassed though not shameful. She surveys her mother, presumably trying to gauge her reaction if she shares her secret.

She seems to decide that she can let Jenna in, because she reveals, “We danced…”

Jenna arches an eyebrow. She knows there’s more. “And?”

Her daughter’s voice lowers to a whisper.

“I kissed him.”

Jenna releases a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. A weight lifts off her chest, but she has to gulp down tea to swallow the lump in her throat.

First kiss. Prom night. Graduation in a year.

Holy shit .

She wants to yell. Her knee jerk reaction is to ask her daughter if she’s lost her damn mind. But Lulu hasn’t done anything wrong or out of the ordinary. This is perfectly healthy teenage behavior, and she hasn't done anything risky. She's not pushing herself too far like most of her peers are.

Certainly not like Jenna was at her age. 

It almost scares her to think about the things she was into at sixteen. Knowing her daughter is taking a far more reserved path is both a relief and a reason to wait for the other shoe to drop. If Lulu hasn’t sewn her wild oats yet, there’s still time for her to take after her mother.

But Lulu is not Jenna. She has the support and love in her life to work through the things she can be hurt by or angry about. She’s been enriched and given opportunities in a way Jenna never was. Lord willing, the grief and pain of losing a parent will never be her ticket to affording college or any vocational training she decides to pursue. 

No, Jenna’s set her daughter up for a smoother future. She’s already taught her everything that she had to learn the hard way.

So, steeling herself, Jenna asks, “How do you feel?”

“No different than I was before,” the teenager says. “But...it was really nice. I like him. A lot.”

Jenna sips her tea and remarks, “He seemed like an intelligent, respectful young man.”

“He is,” Lulu agrees. Then she leans back in the chair and reveals, “He asked me out. Properly.”

“Does he know he’ll be subject to interrogation now?” Jenna teases.

“Mom!” Lulu chides.

The mother laughs. “Relax. We’ll take it easy on him. Just fingerprints, a written exam, and a few references now…”

Lulu sinks down into the chair she’s sitting in and groans, “I shouldn't have told you.”

“No, you should have,” her mother insists. “I need to know what’s going on in your life.” She takes another swig from her mug, sets it down, and looks her daughter square in the eye when she says, “If this is truly what you want, and he’s good to you, then I’m gonna support you.”

The teenager smiles. “You’re really okay with this?”

“What’s always been my golden rule about you dating?”

Lulu has to think about it for a moment. This is the first time she’s actually had to apply the concept. Thankfully, she remembers, and parrots back her mother’s words, “I can date when I know my own value and find someone who sees it, too.”

“And does he?” Jenna asks.

The sixteen-year-old nods. “He loves my poetry. He’s always sharing music and art with me that he knows I’ll like. I can talk to him about anything . And...he was the one who won Livvy that stuffed unicorn when you asked me to take her to the school carnival. He cares, and he shows it.”

Jenna decides not to dwell too much on what talking about ‘anything’ entails. But she has to admit, she’s impressed with this boy. 

She’s also scared shitless at her child growing up.

“Good,” she says, trying not to let her voice crack. Then, draining the rest of her tea, she advises, “Just...take your time, though. Don’t rush anything.”

“I won’t,” Lulu promises. 

Then she yawns, and Jenna looks up at the clock to see that it’s almost 2:00. They really need to get some sleep.

Or, rather, Lulu needs to get some sleep. Jenna won’t be sleeping no matter how hard she tries.

Not while she’s busy marinating on the fact that her daughter is a young woman now. Not while she’s accepting the fact that her little girl is dating and going to prom. Not while she’s counting the ways Lulu is making herself vulnerable. Not while she’s assuring herself that, for the most part, she’s done her job well as a mom.

Her little girl is not so little anymore.

Chapter Text

“Okay, one more push!”

Jenna’s trying to breathe, gritting her teeth through the pain. She squeezes the hand of the man at her side, and she knows he's not going to admit how much it hurts. She knows he won’t dare complain when she’s the one screaming.

She’s swearing at him, threatening his life. She hates how understanding he’s being. Hates how sweet he’s being despite the vitriol she’s spewing. How dare he be nice when she’s cursing him to the fiery depths of hades on this humid, stormy day in June.

“You’ve got this, Jenna,” he encourages and kisses her forehead, despite the fact that she’s just told him to go to hell for doing this to her. “She's almost here.”

“Fuck you!” she shouts.

Then, within seconds, it’s over. There’s nothing but the wails of an infant. Nothing but Dr. Collins handing a clamp to Jim and asking, “You wanna do the honors, dad?”

Jenna’s sweaty, catching her breath, tears streaming down her face. Everything is a blur from that point. She barely remembers the afterbirth. Before she knows it, her husband-to-be is standing next to her with a pink bundle.

“Jenna, look,” he whispers, holding out their daughter to her.

She lifts herself enough for him to pass her the baby. The infant is squirming, though she’s stopped crying. Jenna takes a good look at her.

“Oh, my god…” she rasps.

It’s deja vu. Flashbacks to when she first held Lulu. Overwhelmed with love she never knew she was capable of. She had no idea her heart could be this full. She had no idea the first time. But even now, she’s shocked at just how much love she can feel and handle at once.

The feeling is made all the better with Jim next to her. She looks up at him to see him overcome, completely engrossed in the infant in her arms.

“She’s so beautiful,” he whispers. “God, she’s perfect.”

Jenna, crying all over again, nods in agreement. She is beautiful and perfect. Jenna has two beautiful and perfect daughters now.

“Hi,” she coos to the baby. “I’m your mama.” She smiles up at Jim through her tears and sniffs, “That’s your daddy.”

“I...I am,” Jim sputters, choking up. He covers his mouth, and Jenna hears him whisper to himself, “I’m a dad …”

Jenna gets choked up along with him and tells him. “You are.”

She doesn’t correct him or try to quantify that he is, for all intents and purposes, Lulu’s dad already. That’s a given, and she knows what he means. So, she lets him have this moment. 

“Holy shit,” he breathes and kneels down next to the hospital bed. He’s staring in awe at this tiny human they made together, fighting tears it seems. She watches him shake his head, and he asks, “How did I get this lucky?”

“I ask myself that every day,” she admits. Because she does.

Jim presses a kiss to Jenna’s shoulder. “Did we ever decide on a name?” he asks.

“I really liked Grace,” Jenna says. But at Jim’s uncertain hum, she asks, “No?”

“Oh, I love it,” he assures. “I’m just not sure it’s a first name.”

Jenna nods. She can understand that. At this point, she’s too in love with her new daughter to argue anyway. Still, she ponders. Runs through the list of names they’d both said they like. 

Finally, she lands on one she remembers loving just as much as Grace. So, she tests it on her tongue. “Olivia.”

She glances up to see his eyes sparkle at the name. He tests it, too.

“Olivia,” he parrots. Then, taking it a step further, he tries, “Olivia Grace.”

Jenna gasps. Olivia Grace.

It’s perfect.

“Olivia Grace,” she agrees. Then, she stares down at the bundle in her arms and grins. “I think you have a name, little girl.”

 


 

Jenna is eventually brought to recovery. Once Dr. Collins examines her, she leaves her to rest while she goes to examine the baby. Once Olivia has been thoroughly checked, a nurse returns the infant to her eager parents.

It’s an hour before Lulu is allowed in to see her baby sister.

Jenna sends Jim to the waiting room to get her. Becky and Dawn, who are inevitably chomping at the bit right along with her, will get a chance right after. But Jenna wants this time alone with her daughters and her husband-to-be.

The redhead peeks her head in the door at first, uncertain as to whether or not she’s intruding.

Jenna just smiles at her, gently rocking the bundle in her arms. On the other side of the door, she hears Jim encourage her. The two file in, Lulu first, proud father right behind her.

“Hi, mom,” Lulu whispers. Jenna watches the girls eyes widen, her expression akin to the emoji that looks as if it’s about to cry. “Oh…” she breathes, slowly approaching the bed.

“It’s okay,” Jenna encourages. She lifts the infant slightly. “Meet your baby sister. Olivia.”

Lulu beams down at the baby. “I love it!” she declares. Then she asks, “Can we call her Livvy?”

Jenna’s brows knit together. “Livvy?”

“Yeah,” the eleven-almost-twelve-year-old tells her. “It’s easier to say, and it goes with my name. Two L nicknames.”

Jenna hums thoughtfully. Lulu and Livvy. She makes eye contact with Jim, who’s nodding his approval, impressed. She has to admit her daughter has a point. It’s a cute nickname. It fits her.

“Well, then, Miss Livvy,” Jenna speaks softly to the infant, “your sister has spoken, and I can’t argue with her.”

Lulu giggles. “Can I hold her?”

Jenna grits her teeth and sucks air in. Should she really let her do that? Was she ready to do that? Livvy was fragile. Lulu had been way too young to hold Dawn and Ogie’s boys when they were first born, so she’s never held a baby in her life.

But her daughter is staring at her with puppy dog eyes, begging.

With a sigh, she cautions, “Okay, but you have to sit in that chair over there and follow all of our directions. Understand?”

The girl nods eagerly and scurries to the high-back, cushioned chair in the corner. Jenna gingerly passes Livvy to Jim, who carries her over to where Lulu sits. He bends down as he brings the infant closer to her big sister.

“Make sure you support her head,” he instructs.

Lulu is ever so gentle and careful as he places the baby in her arms. Jim finally steps back, but still hovers. Jenna has to fight the urge to get out of the hospital bed and hover with him. Her daughter, however, is holding the infant still, keeping her grounded in her lap and her arms.

“Hi,” she whispers. “Hi, Livvy.”

The baby yawns and coos, a balled up fist swinging in the air. Jenna stays tensed, but her heart is melting as she watches Lulu place a kiss on Livvy’s forehead.

“I’m your big sister,” she continues. “I’m always gonna have your back. You can come talk to me about anything . I’ll even run boys off if they’re mean to you.” That earns a giggle from both Jenna and Jim. Lulu goes on, “You get to have all of my books that I’m too old for. I’ll even let you read my poems first when you get bigger.”

“Hey!” Jenna calls over scandalously. “I thought I had that privilege.”

Lulu smirks and shrugs. “She’s my sister. She gets first dibs.”

Jenna lets out a hmph and shakes her head. “Well, I don’t recall her changing your diapers.”

“I mean, it’s gonna be a while,” Lulu tries to reassure her. They bicker a little more, only to end up snickering at each other. It’s all in good fun.

Eventually, Jenna makes her eldest daughter relinquish her other daughter to her father. For a while, she watches Jim pace the room with Livvy. He’s whispering to her, singing to her. Jenna has to contain herself when her heart begins to soar.

She feels like it might fly out of her chest when Becky and Dawn are finally asked back, and they begin ooohhhhing and aaahhhhing over their newly born niece.

Family , she thinks. This is family. This is love.

And she wouldn’t trade any of it for a damn thing.

Chapter Text

They’ve been telling her she’s out of her mind for having a November wedding.

“It’s cold .”

“It’s going to rain .”

“It’s too close to Thanksgiving.”

“No one gets married in November.”

All of the above turn out to be absolutely true, of course. But she doesn’t care. She's tired of waiting. They’ve been engaged for a year, and if they don’t do it now, they may never get the chance. Not with the way life seems to enjoy kicking them in the tail most days.

The window in the room of the little church is splattered with crystal droplets. They’ll have to take their pictures indoors, but that’s the least of her worries. Not with the short notice of the ceremony.

As Jenna stands staring at the most foreign reflection in the mirror, she remembers the conversation. Whispered between sheets and hot kisses after their first time since their daughter’s birth. She’d asked Jim to marry her this time - made it clear she was ready to be his wife, and she couldn't think of a more opportune time.

He'd enthusiastically agreed to set the date, and the following three weeks had become flooded with planning and last minute invitations.

So, now she takes in herself as a bride. Donning a simple white cap sleeve gown with a silky plum-colored ribbon belt. Veil pinned back into her strawberry blonde hair. Ready to make the father of her child - well, both of her children, for all intents and purposes - her husband. But also self-conscious about the way her dress fits around her middle and her chest. She’s not as slender as she used to be after two kids, but she tries not to let it bother her; tries not to stay caught up in silly insecurities for fear of changing her mind.

Today is about them. Their love. Their family.

Still, nerves bubble up to the surface. Nerves she has to tamper down. Nerves that remind her that she’s saying yes to this man forever. That she’s pouring herself into everything with him. That what they’ve built together over the course of twenty years - from being friends through school and growing up together, to falling out for a long time, to eventually becoming lovers - is permanent. It’s all led up to this.

For two years, she’s been happy coasting through the changes of her life. She’s not taken the time to let it all process. To fully realize how much has happened. 

But today? In this moment? It’s hitting her.

The epiphany has her shaking, has her taking deep breaths and swallowing the lump in her throat. She steps away from the mirror, reaches for the bottled water she’d brough with her. She’ll have to touch up her lipstick, but she’s suddenly parched.

Where did Becky and Dawn go?

The pair said they were going to spy on the guys. But that was twenty minutes ago. And Jenna needs them right now.

She’s scurrying over to the table where her phone sits to send them a panicked, overwhelmed text. Before she can even pick up the device, she hears the click of the door.

“Mom?”

Jenna turns to see red curls and hear a familiar little squeak. Lulu’s carrying Livvy in her arms. She’s in the plum-colored dress that nearly matches the dresses her aunts are donning. Meanwhile, the five-month-old is in the tiny white frilly one Dawn bought for her with the big plum bow covering dark brown whisps of hair.

Both of her girls are smiling at her.

“Hi, baby girl!” Jenna breathes, surprised. She reaches out for Livvy, taking her from the 12-year-old. “And my other baby girl.”

It’s a risk, a recipe for getting spit-up on her dress. But it’s a risk she’s willing to take. Thankfully, Lulu’s already got a burping cloth to drape over herself.

“You look so pretty” Lulu compliments, staring in awe. It’s the first time all morning she’s seen her mother in her gown.

Jenna surveys her eldest and could nearly cry. It’s scary, how grown up she looks. She’s wearing heels today, of her own choice.

“So do you, sweetie.” The mother turns to the infant in her arms and, earning a giggle, coos, “And so do you!”

She plants kisses to Livvy’s chubby little cheeks, thankful that she’s in a good mood and not having one of her fussier days. Then she’s pulling Lulu into a hug, holding both of her children as tightly as possible.

They’re her reminders that, even when life moves as quickly as it does, and often not the way she plans, she’s come out with a fuller heart. They’re her sanity and her ground. Her assurance in the unpredictability.

And that’s exactly what she needs today.

“Oh, Jim wants to see you,” Lulu says when her mother releases her.

Jenna passes her youngest back to the 12-year-old. “I thought we were waiting for pictures.”

Lulu shrugs. “He says he wants to talk. He’s waiting in that side hallway.” At Jenna’s nervous hum, Lulu presses, “He really needs to see you.”

Jenna’s not sure whether to be absolutely assured by this or terrified. Her inclination is the latter, but she tries to focus on the former.

“Okay then,” the bride mutters. “Take your sister to your Aunt Dawn and Aunt Becky, and let them know that I'll find them in a few minutes. We’re supposed to be meeting for pictures in the lobby.”

The 12-year-old obeys, and Jenna gives her a moment to get ahead before leaving her hiding room. She’d thought she and Jim had agreed to get the “first look” captured by the photographer. It was the best compromise between Jim wanting to wait until she walks down the aisle and Jenna not wanting to care at all. And yes, Jenna’s getting what she wants now, but it can't erase all the fussing and back-and-forth over which was correct. She’d fought him tooth and nail to finally reach an agreement, only to have him rescind.

She’s not sure if that aggravates her more than the wondering why he’s decided to break that.

Jenna wanders the church, skirting around the main entrances and through the back hallways. She searches for the side hall leading to the room designated for Jim and the men of the Anhorn clan. (The twins had begged to be in the wedding party since Lulu would be one of Jenna’s bridesmaids, and Ogie was chosen as the best man.)

When she finds him, all dressed in his charcoal grey tux,  he’s alone, back toward the entrance. He's leaned against the wall, waiting. She can’t see his face, so she has no idea if he’s smiling or regretting his life choices. She prays for the first one.

For a moment, she stops. Should she sneak up on him and surprise him? Should she warn him first and insist he doesn’t look at her?

The first option might scare him, and she doesn’t think she can manage any sneaking in this fluffy white gown. So, she decides that calling out to him is the better option. A few steps in, and she, murmurs a soft, “Hi.”

He jumps just a little, stands taller, and calls out, “Jenna?”

He doesn’t turn around to look at her, so she says, “Lulu said you wanted to see me.”

Jim nods to confirm. “Am I allowed to look? Or will you murder me if I do?”

The bride considers this for a minute. So, he hasn’t actually gone against their agreement, but he’s still leaving the ball in her court. It’s her call, and she could have what she’s wanted all along. But she wants to have a little fun with him first.

“Didn’t you say it’s bad luck?” she teases.

“I don’t care anymore,” he replies with a shake of his head. “I have an incredible wife who I haven’t seen since dinner last night and who I missed sleeping next to.”

Grateful that he can’t see her, she feels herself blush and grin like an idiot. “I’m not your wife for another hour and a half,” she reminds him, trying to sound stern, and failing.

“Jenna…” he pleads.

She hesitates just a moment before deciding to have mercy on him. Hand on his shoulder, she tells him. “Okay, you can turn around.”

He takes a deep breath, shakes out his shoulders. Then he’s turning, slowly. As though he doesn’t want to look too soon. As if he wants to savor the moment.

Then she’s watching the breath get knocked out of him, and she’s never felt more loved in her entire life.

He looks as though he’s about to cry when he takes her in. His eyes are watery, and he puts a hand over his mouth. The feeling is contagious, because Jenna feels the prickle of tears threatening to fall.

“You are so beautiful…” he whispers, pulling Jenna in close. He places a hand on her cheek, stroking the skin softly with his thumb. “How did I get so lucky?”

“Don't get all sappy and make me cry,” she warns on a shaky breath. Then with a laugh, she admonishes, “Becky spent too long on this makeup.

Jim laughs with her and bends to let their foreheads rest together. “Are you ready for this?” he asks.

She grasps his wrist gently. With a sniff, she answers, “As ready as I’ll ever be.”

“This is it…”

“I know.”

He steps back, taking both of her hands in his, and surveys her again. “I couldn’t possibly love you more,” he says. “You gave me all of this. You...gave me this family. I don’t ever want to do this life without you.”

The couple of tears start to fall now, and Jenna fights. She wipes one away and curses. “Goddammit, I told you not to make me cry.” 

It takes her a second to compose herself. The last two years are catching up with her all at once, and she doesn’t know where to put the emotions. She wipes her eyes a little more, grateful when her husband-to-be produces a portable package of tissues from his suit jacket.

Once she's calm and she has her emotions under control, she just shakes her head. “Turning me into an emotional mess like this is dangerous,” she chides. Then she’s standing on her tip-toes and cupping his face. 

She finds the calm in the blue-grey of his eyes, like a sky clearing after a long storm. Then, with a deep breath, she solemnly tells him, “But I love you, too, and I can’t imagine doing this without you, either.”

Jim reaches up to wipe one last stray tear with this thumb. Then his lips are tender against hers, and she doesn't want to be anywhere else doing anything else. Even with the rain outside. Even though today isn't going to be a big fancy affair. Even though their honeymoon is only a couple of days that will half consist of them calling Dawn and Ogie to check on the girls.

Even though she’s taking the biggest risk she’s ever taken outside of becoming a mother.

Taking a deep breath and letting herself ease, she tells him, “We should probably get up front and get the yelling over with.”

Jim tilts his head, confused. “What yelling?”

“Our friends when they find out we broke the stupid tradition.”

“Hey, it’s not stupid,” the groom defends. “It’s sweet.”

Jenna shakes her head. “It’s unnecessary superstition.”

Jim purses his lips, considers her statement. Then, finally, he decides, “I’d really like to marry you today, so I’m just going to nod and agree.”

They laugh together again. His arm slips around her waist, and soon she’s tugging him down for a deep kiss. She sighs into his lips and melts at his touch. Every bit of fear she had leading up to this has dissipated. 

So, she beams at him when she pulls away and tells him, “Let’s get married.”

“Let’s get married,” he echoes. 

With that, the couple is walking hand-in-hand down the hall to find their friends and their daughters. 

The rain continues to pour outside.

It’s also cold.

And they’re out of their minds for trying to have a wedding the weekend before Thanksgiving.

But today will be perfect. Today will be theirs. Twenty-two years in the making.

Chapter Text

“Jim, I can’t do this.”

Jenna stares heavily at her husband, who’s pouring over Anatomy & Physiology midterms. He’s drinking coffee, looking chipper as ever. And it’s pissing her off.

She runs her fingers through her bedhead-ridden hair, feels the heaviness of her eyes. With a yawn she tugs her robe in closer and waits for his response.

With a frown, Jim sets his pen down and his coffee aside. “Why now?”

“I can't sleep ,” she gripes at him through gritted teeth. “And right now, I'm questioning why we made this decision in the first place.”

“So, what?” he asks. “Do we just...take it all back? We put a lot into this, Jenna.”

“I thought I could handle this,” he grumbles, pulling a chair out and plopping into it. “I wasn’t ready.”

“It’s a little late now,” he argues back. “And I’ve lost sleep too. You’re not alone in this.”

Jenna huffs, places her arms on the table, and lays her head down. “Jim...sweetie…”

He places a hand on her back. “What about the girls?”

“They don't have to know!” Jenna snaps, causing her husband to flinch back. Then, more calmly, she explains, “They won’t be back from the lake for two more days. We can take care of it now, and they'll never find out.”

“It’s only been five days,” Jim continues to appeal. “We have to give this a more fair chance.”

Jenna glares at him. “Easy for you to say when you've had a whole week off.”

Jim closes his eyes, lets out a deep sigh and places his hand on her leg. For a minute, neither of them speaks. Jenna’s at a loss. And so is the man next to her.

“Look,” Jim soothes, “I will do anything I have to to make this easier. I will take full responsibility. I’ll be in charge of dinner from here on out. Whatever you need. But I can’t miss this for the girls.”

The wife leans back and closes her eyes. “I know,” she mutters. “Livvy’s been begging, too.”

“And we spent way more than we probably should have,” the husband points out.

“The girls' birthday money…”

At that moment, Jenna feels something cold and wet on her foot. This is followed shortly by a tugging at her pajama pants. 

She leans over to look down at the brown, black, and white beagle puppy chewing and pulling. As soon as she makes eye contact with him, he lets go and raises on his hind legs for her attention.

Jenna scoops him up in her arms and hates how cute and sad his brown eyes are.

“Dammit, I can't even stay mad," she grumbles.

“He’ll be trained soon,” Jim promises, reaching over to scratch the puppy’s head. “By twelve weeks, they learn to hold their bladders better. In a matter of days, if we do it right, he’ll be used to living here…”

“But he whines and barks all night.”

Jim reaches over for a book that had come in the mail earlier in the week and that he’d laid on the table. Dog Training Revolution .

“Zak George has our back,” he assures. “I’ve been reading this and watching his videos on YouTube. We can do this.”

Jenna eyes the book skeptically. “Will I get my sleep again soon?”

“If we follow this,” Jim says. Then he reaches out, prompting her to hand him the puppy. “And once we get the girls involved, we won’t have to do all the work. It’ll be a family effort.”

Jenna trades him for the book and begins to skim through it. Chapters on leash training. Introducing the dog to children. Diet and exercise. Behavior issues…

“Is this because I couldn’t get pregnant again?” she whines. “Because having another baby sounds a lot easier than this.”

Not that Jenna particularly wants to keep trying at 40. She’s got one going to college in four months and another finishing kindergarten. Two is enough, and she’s more than pleased with her lot. But a dog, while a delightful idea before the howling at 3:00 in the morning and waking up to pee puddles, is - quite literally - an entirely different animal.

Still, she'd been in agreement with her husband when they’d started talking about it. She’d been in agreement when they’d dished out $300. And now the little poop monster is staring up at her from his cradle in Jim’s arms, as if saying I just want to be loved .

It doesn't help that her husband is giving her the same puppy dog eyes, either.

Resigned, she mentions, “We haven't named him yet.”

“We’re waiting for the girls, right?”

Jenna searches her memories and recalls that, yes, they’d made that decision in the car on the way to pick the dog up.

She nods. “You’re right.” Then she adds with a grumble, “I forgot because I’ve not slept.”

Patiently as ever, Jim stands up and tells her, “I’ll buy you earplugs today. And I'll see if I can set his pen up somewhere else a little quieter.”

Jenna considers the offer for a moment and decides it's a reasonable compromise. “Okay.” Then, checking the clock on the kitchen wall, she feels the urgency of time and tears herself from her seat. “I’ve gotta get ready for work.”

Her husband sets the puppy down on the floor and leans over to give her a peck. “I’ll fix us some eggs.”

Although jealous, Jenna has to admit she’s grateful for spring breaks. Despite the lack of sleep, she’s been well fed all week. 

With a thank you, she shuffles out of the kitchen and down the hall to their bedroom and to the master bath. She runs the water to brush her teeth. Just as she’s focused, toothbrush in her mouth, she feels the cold wetness on her foot again and hears a little whine.

At her feet, the puppy stares, tail wagging. 

Jenna spits into the sink and sighs, watching the pup. 

“Why'd you have to be so damn cute?”

Chapter Text

Jenna’s first favorite Christmas happens the year she turns 14.

She doesn’t know it at the time, but it’s the last Christmas she’ll spend with her mother. And they certainly make it count. 

Jenna’s dad stays drunk through most of the holiday, and it’s the kind of drunk where he’s so out of it that he doesn’t care. So, Louise spends most of the day with Jenna in the kitchen, baking pies and enjoying the holiday. They use the new utensils Jenna saved up to give as a gift to her mother and play Jenna’s new CD while they bake.

By early afternoon, the house smells amazing, and Jenna isn’t thinking about her dad passed out in the other room.

Around 2:00, the day is made all the better with a knock at the back door.

Jim is standing there, a box topped with a red bow in his hand. Jenna’s still getting used to him without his braces, so it takes her a moment. But he’s smiling so sweetly and practically bouncing on his feet.

“Merry Christmas, Jenna,” he greets, holding out the box.

She accepts it and steps aside to let him in. “Thanks,” she tells him. “We’ve got pumpkin pie if you want some.”

“Oh, awesome!” Jim stares eagerly past Jenna into the rest of the kitchen, looking for said pie. At the sight of Jenna’s mother, he greets her, “Hi, Mrs. Barker!”

At the counter, Louise glances up from the crust she’s rolling out. She beams as she welcomes him.  “Well, hey, Jim! Merry Christmas. It’s been a bit.”

The boy sighs. “I know.” Then he frowns and stares at his feet as he asks, “Did Jenna tell you I got grounded?”

Louise nods and gives him a disapproving grimace. “She did,” she reveals. “But she didn’t say whatever for.”

He looks back at Jenna then, uncertain, before explaining, “I snuck out with Ethan and Dan.”

At Louise’s confused look, Jenna fills in, “Those two boys around the corner that I told you about.”

“Ohhhh,” the mother nods in recognition. “Yes, I remember them. Why in the heck would you be running with them?”

Jim shrugs. “Thought they’d think I was cool.”

Louise shakes her head and tsks at him a few times. “Oh, James…” she sighs. “How many times have I told you that you don’t need friends like that?” she asks. “Those two in particular will absolutely tear you up.”

“They harass the shit out of me every day,” Jenna offers.

At her language, Louise’s eyes widen, and her gazes whips back to her daughter. “Jenna!”

“Sorry,” the girl mutters a quick apology. The moment passes, and she continues, “They’re awful.”

Jim frowns. “I had no idea they even spoke to you.”

Jenna shakes her head and waves a dismissive hand. “This just started.”

Her friend shakes his head in disappointment. “Well, I’m glad I walked away from that.” He pauses, then adds, “I’ll punch them for you, if you need.”

Jenna shakes her head, partially thankful to have a friend willing to defend her. But also not wanting to encourage violence.

“You’re better off,” Louise cuts in, moving away from the pie she’s working on to gather a plate, fork, and knife to serve Jim and Jenna each a slice of pie.

The two teenagers take seats at the kitchen table and begin to dig into their pie. Jenna’s carried her present from Jim with her, so she asks him, “Hey, should I open this now?”

“I’d be disappointed if you didn’t,” is the boy’s response.

Jenna reaches for the gift, and Jim watches eagerly as she begins to untie the bow. Curiously, she tears back paper. The box is small. She lifts the lid and finds a shiny silver heart pendant with a J carved into it. 

“It’s not much,” he says sheepishly, “but I thought you’d like it.”

Jenna takes the chain and lifts the pendant out of the box. “I love it,” she assures with a smile. Then she holds it out and asks, “Help me put it on?”

Dutifully, he scoots closer. Jenna turns around and hands him the pendant. In seconds, he has it around her neck and is hooking it in the back. She tries to ignore the strange feeling of warmth in her chest and turns back to him.

It takes her a moment, but it occurs to her that she got him something as well.

“Oh, wait!” She stands up. “Let me go get yours.”

She scurries from the kitchen and to the living room. She ignores her dad’s blubbering at whatever the hell he’s watching on TV and grabs the little gift bag from under the tree with Jim’s name on it.

Returning to the kitchen, she holds out the bag to her friend. “I hope you like it,” she tells him. “It’s not a lot either, but I tried.”

Jim takes the bag and eyes it curiously for a moment before reaching inside, digging through tissue paper. Jenna chews on her bottom lip nervously as she waits for his reaction. He pulls out an ornament, made of popsicle sticks, paint, and her favorite picture of the two of them and Becky. It’s a picture frame with all three of their names painted around the edges (she’s made a nearly identical one for their other friend) and the year 2000 written across the top.

His lips turn up into a bright smile, his now brace-free teeth on display.

“I’m gonna hang this up on the tree as soon as I get home,” he tells her. “Thank you, Jenna.”

Jenna doesn’t understand why yet, but her heart flutters as his eyes meet hers. She also doesn’t notice the knowing look on her mother’s face.

But ignorance is bliss, so she spends the rest of the afternoon and evening with them. Precious time with her mama and the boy she has no idea will become the love of her life. She suddenly loves Christmas.

 


 

Jenna’s second favorite Christmas happens a year after Lulu’s first holiday.

While that Christmas had been dreary - not much besides her, a five-month-old, and her aunt - this year is much different. Becky’s not out of town for the holidays, and they have Dawn now. And Dawn’s fiancé Ogie.

They all hole up at Becky and Jenna’s shared apartment. They’ve got a little spiral ham in the oven, some stuffing and other trimmings. Jenna’s made a pecan pie, and they’ve got Elf playing on the flat screen that they’d finally saved up for. 

The group passes around what most would consider a meager haul of gifts. But, to Jenna, she’s never enjoyed Christmas more. Especially as she watches her one-year-old tearing back paper and squealing with glee at her gifts.

“Moooooo!” the tiny carrot top mimics her favorite barn animal as she clutches the plush cow from her Auntie Dawn.

The big green bow tied into her curls bounces on her head as she runs all over the living room showing off her gift. It’s not much, and Jenna knows she can’t afford to spoil her with all of the beautiful things she wants to spoil her with; neither can her friends, for that matter. But Lulu is happy. She hugs the cow and carries it over to the pile of block shapes from Becky. 

Meanwhile, Jenna does feel proud of the stock of gifts she’d managed to save up for. Lulu will have plenty of toys come the morning.

Overall, though, it’s shaping into an evening of friendship, love, and good food. And it's the first Christmas that Jenna can remember, since her mother died, that she’s had a reason to celebrate.

And she couldn't be more grateful.

 


 

Jenna’s third favorite Christmas happens the year Lulu turns eight.

Lulu has been reading a lot. She’s a fiend for books. Which is precisely what their little family has all agreed to get for her. Because the child has expressly insisted that she wants nothing else.

So, the young girl spends Christmas Eve opening copies of Nancy Drew books from Dawn and Ogie, and Junie B. Jones from Becky. They’re brand new copies, too. Shiny and fresh for reading.

But it’s Christmas morning that has Jenna feeling pleased with herself and joyful for the look on her daughter’s face. It starts with her opening a Roald Dahl collection - which includes Matilda , The BFG , Charlie and the Chocolate Factory , The Witches , and James and the Giant Peach . Then she opens some clothes and some paint supplies before Jenna pulls out this year’s extra special gift.

Lulu curiously tears the paper back to find a box. She lifts the lid and stares curiously at the item inside.

Curiously, she pulls out a used and yellowing copy of Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends . She tilts her head and stares up at her mother.

“What’s this?”

Jenna reaches over the opens the cover of the book, her finger pointing out a scribble on the inside.

“You grandmother gave this to me,” she explains. “I read these poems over and over growing up.”

Lulu studies the writing and reads aloud, “‘I hope you enjoy these as much as I do, and I hope you find joy, wisdom, and comfort in them. I love you, my girl.’” The girl pauses. “Did grandma write this?”

Jenna nods. “The book’s stayed in a little box for years, but I want you to have it.” She reaches over to tuck a red curl behind Lulu’s ear. “I know how much you love poetry.”

The child smiles brightly, beaming up at her mother. “Thank you, Mama.”

She stands on her knees and attacks Jenna in a bear hug. And Jenna knows she’s made her daughter’s Christmas.

 


 

Jenna’s fourth favorite Christmas happens a year after Jim walks back into her life.

It’s hard, not blabbing to everyone over the family holiday dinner that she’s pregnant. But at the same time, she’s enjoying keeping that secret between the two of them. She’s enjoying the fact that she’s carrying life-changing knowledge that only one other person in the room has a clue about.

It’s the excitement and anticipation without all the fuss from everyone else. It’s like a Christmas present shared with Jim, and only Jim.

It’ll have to end, soon, of course. She’s watched her belly grow and knows that she can’t hide it for much longer. But it’s fun to exchange secret looks with her fiancé as they open gifts. 

It’s fun to imagine her new child sitting in her or Jim’s lap while her little family gathers together. Imagining Lulu with her baby brother or sister. Picturing her little family doting over the new baby a year from now.

But it’s after everyone leaves and Lulu’s tucked into bed, dreaming sweet Christmas dreams, that Jenna’s favorite moment occurs.

It’s late, everything is cleaned up, and Lulu’s presents are under the tree, leaving Jenna and Jim alone for the first time all day. He’s made them peppermint tea, and they’ve made themselves cozy on the couch. Jenna’s set her mug aside in favor of lying down with her head resting in his lap. They don’t talk much; they’re talked out for tonight, exhausted. So, Jim drinks his tea and runs the fingers of his other hand through strands of her hair. The room is quiet and dark, save for the lights on the tree and a few other strands hung up.

Jenna could fall asleep, and she nearly does.

Her hands rest on her belly, a habit she’s tried to fight to not tip anyone off to her secret. Jim seems to know exactly what’s on her mind, because he asks quietly, “Do you think we should tell Lulu tomorrow? As a Christmas present?”

Jenna shakes her head. She’s considered the idea, for sure. But she’s not ready. She doesn’t want to make tomorrow about her or the baby. She wants Lulu to enjoy this last Christmas as an only child. She wants her daughter to open presents and enjoy her day of Christmas movies, pie baking, and caroling without being reminded that she’ll have to share from here on out. 

She also has a very specific gift in mind for when she does decide to tell Lulu, and she hasn’t bought it yet.

So, for now, she tells her husband-to-be, “Not just yet.”

He nods in understanding and leans over to press a soft kiss to her lips. Then he’s placing his mug on the side table, turning his attention back to Jenna, and resting his hand next to hers on her belly.

“Then this will just be my Christmas gift,” he says.

Jenna chuckles. “I got you a real gift, you know.”

“Well, this is a real gift, and it’s my favorite one,” Jim insists. 

He leans over, lifts her sweater, and presses a kiss right above her belly button. Jenna turns her head to the back of the couch to hide the grin on her face. She doesn’t want him to know he’s made her all melty.

“Don't be a sap,” she chides playfully.

He continues to smile because he knows how much of a sap she can be when she lets herself.

 


 

Jenna’s fifth favorite Christmas happens the year Livvy turns two.

She’s big enough to go out and enjoy the snow now, and Stanton Grove is blessed this particular year with 4 inches of powder with flakes still pouring from the sky.

Christmas morning, the girls open their presents, Lulu being a dutiful big sister and playing up the Santa magic, even though she’s long been too old. After gifts, Jim fixes a breakfast of French toast, and the family tucks in.

But after breakfast, it’s all about braving the cold so Livvy can build her first snowman.

Lulu helps the two-year-old, and Jenna watches while the two build a baby snowman together. It isn’t long before the family has built three more - one for each member - and Jim decides to scoop his tiny daughter in his arms.

Livvy giggles while he carries her across the yard like an airplane; squeals when showers her cheeks with cold kisses. When he puts her down, she begins to toss snow at him, to which he rebels with lots of tickles, earning delighted laughter from the child.

Then, the first snowball.

Lulu’s the one who throws it, hitting Jim square in the middle of his back. He pauses for a minute, crouches down to whisper something to Livvy, and then waits.

In seconds, the two-year-old is screaming, “Get Lulu!!!” 

Jenna laughs as she watches her youngest charge at her big sister with a pile of snow in her tiny hands. As Lulu dashes in the opposite direction, Jim runs up behind Livvy and picks her up, now helping the two-year-old chase Lulu.

Finally, he sets Livvy down, and the war is on. Lulu takes it easy, aiming only at Jim and letting her sister pelt her with snow. 

Jenna watches, waiting for her chance, finally she scoops snow into both hands. One flies over to Jim, nabbing his chest. The other smashes against her fourteen-year-old’s coat. 

Soon, her entire family is staring, shocked

But it isn’t long before Livvy’s balling up her tiny, wool-covered fist and shouting, “Attack!!!”

First, she’s covered in snow and fighting for her life. But in minutes, all three of them are half piled on top of her, warming her with bear hugs.

 


 

One of Jenna’s worst Christmases finds her, Jim, and the girls in Connecticut.

It’s the first Christmas Jenna has spent away from Stanton Grove. The first one at her in-laws’ house. But it isn’t out of the sheer joy of spending the holiday with loved ones.

Not this year.

Richard and Karen had been talking since Jenna and Jim’s wedding about moving back to Stanton Grove to be closer to their son and their granddaughter - granddaughter s . Only they’d never managed to make it work. The year Livvy was born saw a major slow-down in Richard’s health, as young as he was. Another year later, and he’d ended up in the hospital due to a heart attack.

It’s now two more years after that, and the couple finds themselves in Connecticut.

To spend the holidays with a widowed Karen Pomatter.

It’s the second time in two months they’ve made the trip. Three times for Jim. It’s only been a few weeks since the funeral, so Christmas is spent trying to pretend that they can find any joy in the season.

Only they can’t.

Jenna tries to put on the facade for the girls. For her husband. But everyone knows that there is too much weight over the household. Everyone knows how much pain Karen is in. How much pain Jim is in. (He doesn’t know she knows how much he’s cried when he thought she wasn’t paying attention.) Even Livvy, who doesn’t fully understand at four years old and hasn’t been able to see much of her grandparents, knows that something is wrong.

Christmas morning is a show. A game of pretend as the pass around gifts and let the girls open their presents. They order in take-out for Christmas dinner. By 7:00 that evening, Jim disappears upstairs. 

Jenna gives him a little time by himself, trying to make the most of her time with the girls and her mother-in-law. Nobody laughs at the live action Grinch movie, though, so she wanders off to find her husband.

She finds him in his dad’s office, sifting through boxes. Most of them are papers. Some are leftover Christmas decorations. Karen’s barely touched them this year, only put up the tree and a couple of strands of garland.

Jenna doesn’t say anything as she meanders inside. Jim doesn’t greet her either, except to say, “I can’t believe all of this stuff I found.” 

“Oh?” Jenna asks, looking over his shoulder at the boxes. 

He nods as he continues to dig. “Yeah, look…” Then he pulls out a bubble wrapped bundle and opens it, revealing a white ceramic angel. “I used to get in trouble for touching this one,” he shares. “It was a gift dad bought for mom for their first Christmas after they got married. One of a kind, he used to say.”

Jenna half-smiles. “It’s beautiful.”

Jim nods in agreement while he stands to set the angel on a shelf. Jenna watches while he returns to the box and continues his excavation. They’re soon knelt down together next to the box while Jim continues to search.

Then, he’s pulling out a vaguely familiar-looking homemade ornament.

With popsicle sticks. Three names. And a picture Jenna had long forgotten about. 

She gasps as she recognizes it. “Oh, Jim…”

He evidently remembers it, too, because he’s whispering, “They still have this??”

The picture in the middle of the makeshift frame is faded, a little worn. The paint on the popsicle sticks has also faded, some of it scraped off. But the names and the date are still readable, and the string is in tact.

“I didn’t even know you’d actually kept that,” Jenna remarks. She’d seen it on the Pomatter tree every year for the rest of her high school years. But with college and their fallout, she’d figured it was long gone. A piece of trash, at best.

“I didn’t either,” Jim comments. Then, sadly, he admits, “I actually think I told them to get rid of it after college graduation.”

The thought stings, especially at the reminder of that time of her life. Of their life. But she can’t blame him, considering the circumstances they’d fallen out under, and the fact that they were both grown up and moving on with their lives.

Still, a hopeful thought remains: “They didn’t listen, though.”

Jim shakes his head. “No, they sure as hell didn’t,” he murmurs, still staring at the ornament. Then he gazes up at his wife. “I’m glad they didn’t.” They, with a sentimental smile, he ventures a guess, “I bet it was my dad who wouldn’t let mom listen to me.”

Jenna frowns. “Why?”

“He always thought you were too good for me,” Jim explains. “Did I ever tell you that he said I was a dumbass for letting you slip out of my life?”

That leaves Jenna baffled. Speechless, even. She stares wide-eyed at her husband. “No…” she whispers. “No, you never told me that.”

Jim nods. “He did.” There’s a long pause, then he hands her the ornament. “He popped an actual bottle of champagne when I called to tell him I was gonna ask you to marry me.”

Jenna sits open-mouthed, unable to speak. She’d never known that. She knew her in-laws loved her, knew she loved them. But she had no idea how highly her father-in-law thought of her. Not a clue.

“Wow,” is all she can manage.

Suddenly, the weight hits her chest, and she’s feeling the pang of loss that everyone else is harder than she has all week. It’s nothing like she knows her husband and her mother-in-law are feeling, but it cuts deep.

And, strangely, at the same time it brings her closer to the man next to her. It reconnects her in a way that she hasn’t felt in weeks, and she finds herself clinging to him, falling into his arms. She doesn’t cry. Neither does he.

Still, they hold each other, taking comfort in one another. A glimmer of hope in this dark holiday.

It’s been a shitty Christmas. But, Jenna realizes, it’s this love and this leaning into loved ones that makes the season. And that they can, at the very least, depend on.

Chapter Text

“Hiding?”

Jenna stares up from the red Solo cup of orange soda her hands are clasped around. This half of the basement is even darker than the other. Quieter, too, with the crowd of kids, ages eleven to thirteen, laughing and yelling over one another. She scoots over on the squeaking couch to make room for the awkward kid with braces who’s been her only friend all night.

She shrugs and gestures to the empty space. “Well, you’re here now, so…”

He chortles and takes a sip from his own cup as he seats himself. “I can leave, if you want.”

“Might as well stay,” she deadpans. “At least you make for conversation.”

He - Jim, she remembers now - hums noncommittally. “Setting the bar high, then.”

“Why are we here again?” she wonders aloud.

He sips his soda. “I mean, my parents forced me to come make new friends, so…”

“Ah,” she nods, downing the last of her own drink and tossing the empty cup in a little trash bin next to the couch. “Then why am I here?”

“Social conformity?”

She stares blankly at him. “What the hell does that mean?”

“Just something I heard,” he replies with a shrug. “Think it’s about fitting in. At least that’s what it sounded like when my dad said it.”

“So, it's his fault you use too many big words…”

He sputters for a moment, staring incredulously at her. “There’s nothing wrong with having an extensive vocabulary.”

Jenna crosses her legs and folds her arms across her chest. “Sure...if you don’t want people to think you're a know-it-all asshole.”

“Is that why you dumb yourself down?”

She whips her head around to eye him sharply. That was unexpected. Also somewhat unfair because she knows, deep down, that he’s right.

“I don’t do that,” she lies.

He arches a skeptical eyebrow at her. “You pretend to be terrible at prealgebra, but I've seen Mr. Garrison hand A-level tests back to you. And you act like you can’t read or write, but I heard Mrs. McMillan bragging on you for your on-demand prompt scores.”

She feels her jaw clench. How dare this...stranger call her out like this. Who does he think he is, anyway?

Still , she thinks ruefully, he’s not wrong .

Reluctantly, she admits, “Boys don't like girls who are too smart.”

His brows knit together, almost hidden under dark shaggy locks. Then he looks away and quietly says, “I like smart girls.”

The admission hits somewhere in her chest that she can’t quite identify. It’s an unusual feeling, and she has to clear her throat to cover for her inability to say anything. 

The silence is more deafening than the screeches of their classmates on the other side of the basement. 

At least until Shelly, their hostess, comes bursting back in holding up an old Coca-Cola bottle and declaring, “Found one!”

That has Jenna swallowing her nerves. She knows what a bottle and a room full of hormonal preteens means. Next to her, Jim’s blue eyes are practically buzzing, orbs shaky and wide. His Adam's apple bobs before he turns to her.

“Do you wanna...sneak out?” he whispers. “Call our parents and go home or something? Because I really rather not be here if they're gonna start that.”

The girl chews on her lips and watches her peers. They don't know what the hell they’re doing. Jenna’s never kissed anyone before, but she’s pretty positive that she wouldn’t be very good at it yet. And she doesn’t particularly want to practice on one of the jerks in her class.

They really should leave. Her mom can be here in a few minutes.

“Yeah, let’s get out of here,” she decides. The other kids are distracted enough. They don’t care.

It takes barely any effort for them to wander past the rest of the kids and up the staircase of the basement. 

 

Nobody misses them.

 


 

Heavy.

Everything feels heavy, even on the floor of this restroom. Jenna’s locked the door, knows she can’t stay here much longer. But it's the only place she can be where nobody is pitying her, asking how she is. Or crying.

Except her.

She hasn't cried all day. Hasn’t cried in two days. She barely cried the day the police showed up at her door to inform her and her father of the accident that took her mother.

(Three car pile-up. Nothing anyone could do.)

She’s pretended and made herself numb for everyone else’s sake. But now it's flooding out, and she can't face the funeral home full of people. Not today.

She wishes her mother was here to hold her. To promise that she was okay and they would see each other again. But even that idea holds no comfort.

So, she hides again.

But soon, she’s hearing knock on the restroom door, followed by a pleading, “Jenna?”

The fifteen-year-old wipes her tears and begs, “ Please leave me alone, Jim.”

“No,” he insists. “Can I please just come in and talk?”

Jenna heaves a sigh, waits to hear footsteps. Maybe he’ll go away if she doesn't respond.

Only he doesn’t. He stays. She can hear him breathing, can see the shadow of his feet under the door.

She won’t get rid of him, will she?

Shakily, she pushes herself up, trudges to the door. Slowly, she reaches for the handle. And when she opens it, she falls into his arms, sobbing.

And he holds her. Just holds her. He doesn’t speak. He doesn’t offer empty words in an attempt to make her feel better. He just lets her cry and holds her. For several minutes.

She can feel his nice button down getting soaked, and her first instinct is to apologize when she comes to.

“I - I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to -”

He shakes his head. “Dear God, do not be worried about that,” he begs of her. “It’s a damn shirt. You lost your mom . I would let you ruin every shirt I own if it meant you’d feel better.”

“I can’t do this, though,” she argues, beats herself up. “I can’t be like this right now.”

Only he shakes his head, completely bewildered. “Wait, what?” he sputters. “You can’t ‘be like this’? What does that even mean? Jenna…”

Then his hand is on her cheek, wiping a stained tear. Jenna can’t look at him, so instead focuses on the wet spots on his chest. She knows she sounds ridiculous. But, fucking hell...he can't understand.

And she knows he can’t, even though she can tell he desperately wants to. Because he’s too good and he cares too much.

He should really stop doing that.

But he won't, and when she finally brings herself to stare him in the eye, he assures her, “Jenna, it’s okay to feel. And it's okay to show people what you feel. Especially when they want to be here for you. That’s why they’re here in the first place.”

“Then why am I so embarrassed?” she asks. “Why is this so hard?”

He takes her hand in his and answers, “Social conformity.” 

Then he’s leading her away from the restroom and trying to convince her to eat a sandwich or drink something. She’s not hungry, but he’s convinced her enough to humor him.

She’ll be grateful for him in a day or two. Or a few years from now. However long it takes her to heal.

 


 

“You know what? Fuck you, that's why!”

Jim wanders through the hall of the community center, away from the rest of the horny, drunk teenagers who have now reached the point of prom no longer being fun. His date has bailed on him. Becky’s socializing. And Jenna disappeared almost an hour ago to find her date...who had disappeared on her.

But as he approaches the restroom, he hears the commotion around the corner. Fighting. Jenna’s voice.

“Look, was this really working out anyway?” a male voice argues. “I don’t get why this is such a big deal. I didn’t even think we were exclusive.”

“You came here with me tonight.”

Jim, wondering if he should look or pretend he didn’t hear anything, can’t resist a peek. Jenna’s in a stand-off with the boy she'd been somewhat seeing for the past couple of months. She looks seething , like she’s ready to commit murder.

“It was just a blow job,” the boy tries to dismiss, his voice down to a whisper. “I asked you if you would, and you said no.”

“Because I didn’t want to!” she spits. “I’m not ready for that.”

“Like you've never done it before.”

“Once!” her voice cracks. “ One time, and that was none of your business.”

The boy scoffs. “And you didn’t want me to know all about it when you practically threw yourself at me? Maybe don’t lead people on if you don’t want them to assume you’ll give in.”

“I didn’t!”

The boy lowers his voice, but Jim can still hear him mutter. “So we’re gonna act like the other night at my house under the blankets didn’t happen?”

At that, Jim has to turn away. He can’t listen to this anymore.

He practically rushes to the restroom and washes his hands too much after relieving himself at the urinal.

He doesn't need to know any of that about Jenna; doesn’t need to be made privy to her personal business. But now he knows. And he also hates the asshole she’s been wasting her time on. It takes everything in him not to turn back around and punch the guy in the face. He’s too afraid to do that, though, so he calms himself and tries to forget the image of his best friend...doing that. Also being treated like shit for it.

He leans over the sink for a minute, trying to decide what to do. He could ask her if she’s okay. Or he can pretend he doesn’t know anything. The question is which one will hurt Jenna the least . Because surely she would be mortified if she knew that he knows what’s happened. But he can't stand to see her hurt.

He’s still indecisive as he leaves the restroom.

When he comes out, the hallway is quiet. He's alone. So, he makes his way back to the ballroom. Music blasts his ears as he pushes the door open, and bright, colorful lights assault his eyes as he tries to search for his friends in the otherwise darkness.

Jim winds and bobs around his mostly drunk classmates until he finally finds Jenna and Becky whispering intensely in a particularly dark corner.

When they see him, they stop. He decides not to ask or let on what he saw. Instead, he asks, “You guys gonna dance?”

“No,” Becky tells him flatly, throwing back a sip of the definitely-spiked punch she’s holding a cup of.

Jenna’s response, in contrast, is, “I might if I had someone to actually dance with.”

Without question, Jim extends a hand and offers, “I’ll dance with you.”

It takes her a minute. She looks at his hand, as though trying to decide whether or not to accept his offer. But soon she’s taking his hand and standing up. She’s a little buzzed, a tiny bit tipsy; she's been drinking, too. He doesn’t care, though.

They walk hand-in-hand to the dance floor as the current song finishes and changes to a slow, smooth ballad. Jenna gives him a half smile as she steps closer to him, allowing him to wrap his hand around her waist.

She keeps him at arm’s length at first, and Jim decides to let her take the lead. Finally, she leans into him, resting her head on his shoulder while they sway. Or as close to his shoulder as she can get.

“Why did I even show up tonight?” she laments.

Jim sighs, because he’s been asking himself the same thing. “Social conformity?” he quips, and she actually laughs.

“This really turned into a shit show, huh?”

He nods. “We’ve got this, though,” he points out. “I like this.”

For a few minutes, they don’t speak. Jim just holds her. He doesn't need to pry or comment on things he’s not involved in. But he can show her that she has a friend. That her wellbeing matters to someone. That she matters to him.

She breaks their silence with a, “Thank you.”

“For what?”

She keeps her head on his chest when she answers, “For not…asking questions.”

He plays coy. “I have nothing to ask questions about.”

“Yeah, you do,” she calls him out. “But you know it’s better not to.”

“Not my place,” he tells her with a head shake.

“It’s not,” she agrees. “I’m still grateful.”

His heart pounds with each step, and he doesn’t quite know why. All he knows is this girl he’s holding means the world to him, and he’s happy to be her safe place.

Whenever she needs.

 


 

He finds her hiding in a broom closet. Her white gown is mussed. The hair she’d pristinely had pinned this morning is falling apart. And she’son the floor, drinking out of a champagne bottle.

He’s never loved her more.

He lifts an eyebrow. “Why are you in here?” 

“I was thirsty,” she half slurs, holding out the bottle offering him some. 

He stares at the bottle before deciding to take it. The swig he takes his long, burns going down his throat while he sits on the floor next to her. There’s only just enough room for them.

“Did you finally get to eat?” he asks.

To which she grumbles, “Barely.” He can hear how salty she is as she complains, “No one will let me. As soon as I sit and start to take a bite someone is pulling me away to congratulate me, or Becky needs help with Livvy.”

“Sweetie, Livvy’s mine, too,” Jim reminds his new bride. “We share the work.”

Jenna waves an arm incredulously. “But you're chatting with your teacher buddies.”

“Jenna…”

“You are!”

He shakes his head, nearly laughs at how hard she's made things for herself. Because that’s just Jenna. That’s his wife, and she’ll argue non-issues to death to prove a point. “I am, but that’s when you tell Becky to come bother me with baby issues so you can eat.”

Too easy for her, he knows. He could also note that his parents took both of the girls home an hour ago. But he loves her, and there’s no use in hashing our useless arguments.

“If it makes you feel any better,” he continues, “I’ve barely eaten, too. Carson and the guys found the mini bar, and it’s made them all the more chatty and ‘intellectual.’”

Jenna snorts. “I thought this was supposed to be a small, quiet wedding.”

“Guess we underestimated how many people love us,” Jim tells her, passing back the champagne.

His wife takes another swig and says, “Don’t know when that happened,” she mumbles against the bottle. “Also don’t know why we didn't just elope like we talked about months ago.”

He laughs and places a hand on her thigh. “Social conformity.”

Jenna shakes her head and sighs. “That’s never worked out for us, has it?” she muses, passing the bottle back to her husband.

Jim downs one more long drink before agreeing, “Nope.”

Chapter Text

“When did you get it?”

The question breaks a long, comfortable silence. Snaps a dozing Jenna quickly back to the present. She turns her head to look at the man lying next to her.

They’re both still tangled in sheets, more skin exposed then covered. His fingers are grazing her left hip, tracing over small numbers in black ink.

7-6-08

Instinctively, Jenna shifts in the bed, pulling the sheet further over her chest. This is far from the first time she’s been to bed with Jim Pomatter; far from the first time he’s seen her bare. But she’s never felt more on display. He’s pressed his lips on that very spot many times now; ran his hands over every inch of her body; heard what she sounds like and has seen her face in throws of passion. He knows just about everything about her - from the basics of her life, to what he can do to her to make her call out his name, to some of the darkest secrets she’s kept over the years. She has no reason anymore to feel bashful now.

In his apartment. In his bed. Naked. Still glowing from their previous encounter.

But this little detail. This seemingly minor thing that he’s only just now asking about. It’s almost too personal, and she’s not sure why it’s caught her off-guard. With him, of all people.

He seems to notice her reluctance, because he amends, “You don’t have to share, if you don't want to.”

The way he says it is calm, casual. He smiles and leans over to press his lips to hers before rolling out of the bed. For a moment, she watches as he pads over to the bathroom. While she waits for him, she flips over to reach for her phone on the nightstand.

A text to the parents in the Facebook group chat who've all sent their girls to Lulu’s friend Sarah’s slumber party.

Girls are winding down, reads the message from Sarah’s mom. I’m making pancakes in the morning. I can keep them until noon, since they’ll probably sleep late if they sleep at all. Everyone okay with that?

Jenna doesn’t wait for the responses to pour in, just taps the thumbs up. She can’t dwell on it too much, the idea of her little girl staying the night at someone else’s house. So, she’s trying to go with the flow and not overthink.

Lord knows she overthinks. Especially when it comes to her child.

The best thing she’s done in this life so far.

She lays the phone down on the nightstand and flops back into the pillows, closing her eyes for a moment. Her fingers glide down to her left hip then, her gaze following as she traces the inked in numbers there.

Soon, she hears the water running in the other room, shortly followed by Jim’s return. He looks almost surprised as he stops abruptly and stares down at her.

“God,” he whispers, “I’m still not used to this, but I love it more and more every single time.”

Jenna lifts up onto her elbows as Jim skirts around the bed to his side to crawl back in. “Not used to what?” she asks.

“You, like this,” he tells her as she snuggles into him, pulling the blanket up over both of them. Her head rests on his chest, and he begins to play with her hair. “Here with me.”

Jenna sighs at his touch as lithe fingers glide down to her back, and she finds herself in a pleasant, blissful lull. Feeling safe. Feeling adored. Feeling loved.

Her thoughts drift back to his question. It’s not as though she has anything to hide from him. It’s not as though he can hurt her with what she’s about to share with him. He knows enough of her history to understand. He knows what she’s been through.

“It’s Lulu’s birthday,” she murmurs into the near dark.

“Hmm?”

At his prompting, Jenna lifts herself and slides back up the bed to lie even with him, propping herself up onto her elbow. “My tattoo,” she explains. “You wanted to know more about it, and I’m telling you that it’s Lulu’s birthday.”

He chuckles lightly. “Well, I figured that,” he tells her. “I asked when you got it.”

“A few months after she was born,” she reveals. She hesitates for a minute before elaborating, “Even though Earl didn’t want her, I made him sign away his rights. To protect us.” Another pause as she read’s Jim’s face, trying to gauge his reaction. He’s intent, listening, so she continues. “The day we got the papers back, Becky took me out to ‘celebrate.’ Said it was my freedom.”

Jim nods, a pensive but knowing look on his face. “Sounds like Becky,” he muses. “Did she talk you into it?”

“Yep,” Jenna confirms, then looks up wryly at him. “Pure peer pressure.”

That has him raising an eyebrow. “You didn’t want it?”

Jenna shrugs. “Oh, I did,” she says. “I’d thought about getting a tattoo for a while, I just didn’t know I’d actually go through with it.”

“So, you picked something...safe?”

She purses her lips, pondering how to walk him through her thinking process. “Sort of…” she trails off. “Yes, it was safe. You can’t go wrong with simple,” she explains. Then her voice lowers as she begins to dive into the more personal details of the story. “Lulu changed everything about my life,” she tells him. “Honestly, it’s because of her that it all turned around, that I found a reason to keep going. It’s not just her birthday...it’s the day it got better.” Another long pause before she adds, “So, that’s how I celebrated my freedom. It's silly, I know, but I was 22…”

At that, Jim smiles and shakes his head. “It’s not silly,” he assures, then reaches out to her. His fingers graze her cheek, soft and tender. “You’re remarkable. And strong.” Then he leans forward to kiss her forehead. “An amazing mother whose daughter is going to grow up to be as remarkable and strong as she is.”

Jenna feels her cheeks flush at that and has to look away. When she turns back to look at him, though, their noses are brushing, and she can't help but drink in his kiss.

She has to lighten the mood again, though, so she teases, “Are we sure this is what you wanna talk about in bed?”

Then he’s rolling over with her, hovering above her as he kisses her again. “Well, we could talk about how hot you are, but I figured you were bored of hearing that.”

That has Jenna sniggering, Jim right along with her. She can feel his shoulders shake, notices how he has to stop his pursuit of her neck to laugh into it instead of kiss it. This only lasts a few seconds, though, before they’re getting back to business.

With the heaviness broken and the subsequent laughter died down, Jenna finds herself clutching at him. They kiss desperately as fire ignites again. Jim’s kisses migrate from her lips, to her neck, to her breasts, all the way down to her belly. Instead of meandering further south, however, he detours to her hip, sparing a few kisses there before making his way down to her inner thigh.

He works magic with his fingers, then this tongue and his lips, leaving her breathless and clutching at his hair, arching in the bed and crying out softly. She doesn’t let him take her all the way, though, and instead opts to return the favor. This time it’s his turn to not let her take him all the way there, and he’s gently stopping her. She stares up hungrily at him as he guides her up to meet him, and she’s on top of him. 

Their eyes meet, his in awe as he takes her in. As his hands skim her sides, she shivers pleasantly. And she’s struck by just how comfortable she feels at her most vulnerable with him. The thought has her taking him inside and boldly leaning over to kiss him as she takes control. 

The rest is all passion, heat, and release. 

No holding back.