For the Love

Dedicated to Eli, whose finger prints are all over it.

Merry Christmas!

They were everywhere. The white SUVs were out to get us. Our country had been through a war, overrun, and the people of our country now belonged to the neighboring country. This was an order given by our new President-turned-Dictator. Any woman who was visibly pregnant was taken, given an ultrasound and, if the baby was a boy, given an abortion. The white SUV's were the ones that took them. The order had been issued two weeks before and several women on our street had already been taken. They were crushed and heartbroken; their sobs audible several doors down.

"Rachel weeping for her children," I murmured to myself, touching my womb subconsciously.

My husband and I had been worried about what this new order meant for us and the family we wanted. We'd been married for almost a year and wanted children to add to our blessing. This was a horrible law for those of us who wanted families. It wasn't like we could determine the sex of our baby. Someone had to do something.

You could try to do something, a small voice whispered. Immediately that idea was squelched. Who was I that I could go before the new leader of the country and ask him to save our baby boys? He was the one who gave the order anyway. He was a dictator for Pete's sake. No, I couldn't do anything.

I sighed and turned from the window as a white SUV pulled into the neighborhood. I lived in the house at the entrance to the neighborhood, so I got to see all the horrid SUVs that pulled up.

I heard Ayden's truck pull into the driveway. He'd enlisted in the military when the country went to war, but the military was disbanded when the country was overrun, and Ayden had come home to do some much-needed mending both physically and emotionally.

As he walked in the door, he greeted me with a kiss that held more passion in it then I'd felt for a while. He pushed me up against the wall, trying to convey the fact that he wanted more. When we finally pulled away, he looked at me and nodded his head towards the bedroom, suggestively. There would be no dinner that night.

The next day when Ayden went to work, I went about my normal routine, cleaning up after breakfast (which had been haphazard) running over the house with a dust rag, washing the sheets and towels and hanging them out to dry.

Always in the back of my mind came the little voice telling me I could try to do something about the baby situation. It was so persistent that when I finally had some free time on my hands, I found myself sitting at my computer, researching our new government organizations and how they worked.

To my dismay, there was no information of value on how our new government worked. It was a total dictatorship. Only those allowed would get in and out of the government. Anyone, it seemed, who had the government's good intentions in mind was allowed in. I doubted that my intentions would seem to the best of the government.

When it seemed I had run out of options, I turned my computer off and shrugged into my windbreaker. Fall was coming on and the weather was turning nippy. I would go to go over to my neighbor Merle's house to visit, I decided. She was probably baking something like she normally did. She had three children already, and didn't necessarily need to worry about a white SUV pulling up to her house. She cooked for her children, for the women who had lost their babies—lost, my mind laughed bitterly at me, not lost, taken—to the SUVs. For Merle, baking was a ministry.

As I walked down the street several houses, another white SUV pulled into the neighborhood, and, with the men looking me up and down, drove past. I shivered, but refrained from pulling my windbreaker closer to me because it might look like I was trying to hide something.

I was grateful when I finally reached Merle's house. The pale yellow of the house stood out somewhat in our little cardboard-cutout neighborhood. It was cheerful on this grey afternoon, what with the pale blue shutters and the flowers in the window boxes; pansies at this time of year.

Merle saw me coming from her kitchen window which faced the driveway and opened the door.

"Come in, honey!" she called, and when I reached her, dragged me inside the warmth of the house.

I was right. Her house smelled of freshly baked bread, some type of peanut butter cookie and other wonderful goodies.

"Good morning, Merle," I said, as cheerfully as I could, pulling off my windbreaker, and draping it across one of the kitchen chairs.

"You mean, good afternoon," she corrected me pointing to the clock. "It's almost one o'clock." She laughed at my surprise and then said knowingly, "If you didn't know it wasn't almost one o'clock, you probably haven't eaten have you?"

I shook my head. "No, I haven't. I didn't know it was so late."

"Well, then, you just sit right down and eat," Merle told me, pointing to the seat at the table she always had set for anyone who wandered into her home. Merle was a kind soul. If anyone was hungry, or cold, or wet, or generally miserable and happened to wander to Merle's door, she always had a kind word and a cure of some kind for them.

Merle and I had first met before the war and even then she was cooking in some kind of way. When her husband died in the war, I wondered how she managed the pain and grief of first her husband and then her country being taken away. She never told me what helped her, but I garnered a small clue when one day, shortly after the surrender of our country, she had been washing some dishes at her sink, I sitting at the table in her warm kitchen. I still wonder sometimes if I heard her right, but she muttered to the dishwater, "Sometimes, it's not worth going on, but by gum, when there are people out there who are worse off than me, I have to go on. I just have to." Knowing she had not been talking to me, because we'd been discussing bread recipes, I didn't say anything, but after that Merle became my hero.

As I sat myself down at the table, Merle sawed a hunk off the end of a fresh loaf of bread, buttered it and slathered jam on it, before placing it and several cookies on a plate in front of me.

"I'll just get you that warm milk you like so much, and myself a cup of coffee," she said, "and then you can tell me what's bothering you."

How she knew that, I had no clue, but I'd given up figuring out how Merle knew what she knew.

Merle finally sat down next to me and pushed the warm milk towards me, before sipping on her own cup of coffee.

"Now, tell me what's wrong," were her blunt but kindly spoken words.

"Oh, well, all these white SUVs . . . ." I trailed off.

Merle nodded. "You want your own family, don't you?"

"Yes!" I exclaimed, surprising myself with the outburst. "I want little ones, but I don't want to be afraid that my little one is a boy. I want to be able to have both little boys and little girls. I. Don't. Want. To. Be. Afraid," I ground out between my teeth, and suddenly realized that my fingers were curled around the cup, my knuckles white.

Merle watched me, looked at my fingers, and then gently reached out to unclasp my hand from around my cup, holding my hand in her own.

"I know what you mean, honey, but there's nothing we can do about. Only the Lord knows why this is happening."

"But, see, Merle, I seem to want to think that I could possibly do something about it. Maybe I could be the one who could protest, get an audience with the dictator, change his mind."

"Meg, darling, I'd love to give you support in this matter, but that won't work. Only a mad man would order the massacre of thousands of unborn baby boys. We can pray, yes, but other then that, we can't do anything."

I nodded, knowing that what Merle said was right. She was always right in some way or another. I sighed.

"It all seems so hopeless," I murmured, and looked up to see a sympathetic expression on Merle's face.

"Prayer, dear," was Merle's answer as she pressed my fingers gently with her own.

"I know," I nodded and forced a smile.

"Come," Merle said, heaving herself out of the chair. "I've got something I need you to help me with. One young woman lost her baby yesterday. I've been cooking some things for her. I want you to help me bring her these."

I got up from my chair and went over to where Merle was wrapping up two loaves of fresh bread. She handed me a box of cookies and once she had shrugged into her own windbreaker, opened her fridge to pull out a Tupperware of soup. With the soup and the loaves in her arms and the cookies in mine, I followed her several blocks into the neighborhood to a small house that looked like mine, except for different paint on the outside.

We could hear Sunny's cries before we reached the door of the house. She was devastated. Sunny's life has a great cloud hanging over it now, I mused, saddened at the thought that this might be me, and probably sooner then later.

When Merle rang the doorbell, the crying did not cease. Instead, an elderly woman, well past the point of child bearing opened the door with a solemn face which brightened when she saw Merle.

"Merle, dear, come in, come in. Sunny is beside herself with anguish. She keeps saying that she wants her baby back. And who are you dear?" she asked turning to me.

"Margaret Hoffman from several blocks down. Merle asked me to help her bring these over." I explained, offering the cookies.

The lady's curious expression softened. "Ah yes, Merle's told me about you. Please, follow Merle; she knows where the kitchen is. You can put those in the kitchen."

I nodded, not exactly thrilled about what was in store for the next couple of hours, and followed Merle into the kitchen.

All in all, the visit wasn't a total loss. Sunny's tears dried for a space of about five minutes as Merle told a humorous story about one of her own children. But then, soon, from her bed on the couch, she was sobbing, heartbroken at the fact that she would never have a son.

Eventually Merle and I left, and when I turned to her, I saw the look of determination in her eyes.

"I know what you're thinking," she told me when she saw my face, "but I just can't sit around and do nothing. You see all the hurting women. I can't help thinking about what I would want if it were," here she gasped, "me."

I nodded. "So you do know why I want to do something. May I help you Merle? I saw the little bit of what you do today, and now I know why do you it. Please Merle?" A sudden desperation rose within me. I wanted to make a difference the way Merle did.

Merle nodded and a slow smile spread over her round, homely face.

"Sure, you can help. I need all the help I can get."

And with that, Merle opened her matronly arms and pulled my cold frame close in a motherly gesture.

With that simple gesture I was introduced to Merle's ministry. Whenever Ayden wasn't home, I'd go over to Merle's and help her bake. At least three times a week, we'd visit a woman who'd lost her baby or had a family tragedy. Most of the time they were in the neighborhood, but occasionally we'd venture outside the neighborhood.

Ayden came home often seeming either strangely happy or strangely moody. When I'd ask him why, he'd reply that it was the weather, or something else that had happened at work. Whatever it was, he seemed happier then he had since the war had broken out, and for that I was happy. I decided to let it be for now.

One day about three weeks after I had joined Merle in the visit to Sunny's house, I was again sitting in Merle's house. Only, this time, Merle and I were sitting at her round kitchen table. She'd showed me some of her recipes, and that morning I'd created the dough for the bread at home and then walked the short distance to Merle's house to let the bread rise in her oven so we could talk. As we talked, we kneaded the bread, and that was what we were doing that on that slightly overcast morning when my world fell apart.

It started when Merle about got up to get the nutmeg, but I, being the stubborn person I am, told Merle to sit, and told her I'd get it myself. I went to get up, but found instead that I'd sat down again, suddenly lightheaded and more then a little dizzy. Merle looked up and seeing my white face, got up to get the nutmeg herself.

"What just happened?" she asked me when she had sat down again.

"I don't know." I told her, confused. "I was—dizzy. Really dizzy."

Merle gave me a searching look, and then nodded and we went back to rolling out the bread dough.

The next time I got up to get something, I was dizzy again. I managed to stand up, but found myself clutching at the back of the chair to steady myself. Merle took one look at me and stood up.

"I want you to go lay down on my couch in the living room. I'll bring you some water."

"But Merle," I protested. "I'm not sick. At least, I don't think I am. I haven't been around anyone who was sick lately."

"Just go. Go lay down." She ordered, and, grudgingly, I obeyed.

When she came in to the room with the water, she found me stretched out on the couch, my hand on my forehead.

"I don't feel feverish," I told her, still unwilling to believe that I might be sick.

"Have you eaten anything that doesn't normally agree with you lately?" she asked.

"No," I hadn't eaten much of anything lately—the sight of cooked food had been making me feel a little queasy, though I didn't want to tell Merle this, for fear that she wouldn't want me to help her with her baking.

"What did you eat for breakfast this morning?" she asked.

Reluctantly, I shook my head. "Only a banana."

Merle looked at me knowingly.

"You're hungry," she told me.

"Oh Merle," I groaned. "I don't want food. I'm not hungry."

"Yes. You are." Merle bit out, not arguing with me. "You lie there and I'll go get you something to eat."

Oddly enough when Merle forced me to eat, I felt better.

Through out the next two weeks, Merle watched me when I was with her and made sure I ate regularly. In fact she even coerced Ayden into helping her keep me fed. Ayden was normally worried about my slight frame, so when Merle suggested that I wasn't eating enough unless forced, he jumped on the band wagon, no questions asked.

It was so frustrating. One would think that Ayden and Merle would understand that I would know how to take care of my own body. In fact, they were making me eat so much that I was beginning to feel bloated. Constant gut problems seemed to assail me.

I remember complaining to Merle one day as we baked cookies that my body was a mess. She gave me a look, and asked me, while up to her elbows in flour, if I could tell her what was happening. After I'd finished she looked at me.

"How long has it been since your time of the month?" she asked me.

"Oh, I don't know," I said carelessly. "Sometimes it's regular and other times it's irregular. Why?"

Merle gave me a knowing look, and turned back to her cookie dough.

"Why Merle?" I asked again, right before a thought struck me. "Wait—" I said, trying to comprehend what she'd asked me. "Are you saying—? No. No way. Merle, I can't be pregnant. I simply can't!"

Merle simply turned back to look at me, and shrugged.

"I need to sit down," I mumbled and grasped at a chair before sitting down. Then another thought hit me. "Merle, if this is true, how will I be able to check? How will I be able to verify whether or not I am pregnant?" Along with the pregnant women being given an abortion, any woman who bought a pregnancy test was asked to give her name and she'd be visited soon after. There was no way, it seemed, that I could find out if I were pregnant without telling everyone.

"I've thought of that already," Merle told me. "I have an unused pregnancy test kit in my bathroom somewhere. I'll go get it for you as soon as these are in the oven."

I nodded, suddenly eager. "I'll help you with that."

"No, finish your own cookies." Merle told me calmly.

I sighed and turned back to my own baking.

The test proved positive. I was pregnant.

That night when I went home, I watched Ayden carefully before clearing my throat. He looked up from his meal and smiled at me.

"I—I have something to tell you." I started.

"Really?" he asked. "Is it good news?"

"Yes," I smiled. "And in a way . . . ." I faltered, "in a way, it couldn't have come at a worse time. I'm so excited about it, but I'm scared too."

Ayden looked puzzled.

"Why don't you start from the beginning?" he encouraged me.

Unsure of how to go on, I looked around, Ayden following my gaze.

"Well," I started and then trailed off, picking up the salt shaker and fiddling with it.

Ayden put down his fork and looked at me, worry sweeping across his face.

"What is it?" He asked quietly.

"I'm pregnant," I blurted out.

Ayden froze at my words and suddenly found the tabletop very interesting. While I watched, his mouth opened, and then he closed it again in a tight line.

I took a deep shaky breath as Ayden let his out.

"Ayden?" I asked, hesitantly.

"We knew this was going to happen." He said, every word drawn out, as if he were thinking hard and fast about the situation.

I nodded. We had known that this might happen, but that still didn't mean that we were ready for it.

Ayden's fist crashed into the table, causing me to jump.

"What are we going to do?!" he exclaimed, standing upright, knocking the chair over.

I followed him with my eyes, imploring him silently to be reasonable.

"I don't know, but," I began, as he walked heavily towards the counter and leaned on it, elbows locked, supporting himself, head hanging, overwhelmed. "But if God has given us this baby—if he's given us this baby now . . . at this time . . . ."

"But, why now!" he exploded, pushing away from the counter and staring hard at the opposite wall, brow furrowed in silent anger.

I pushed my chair back, gently, and went over to where Ayden was standing, a wall of tension, resentment and disappointment.

Gently, I picked up his big, work-rough hands and tried to meet his gaze. He refused to look me in the eyes, so I simply squeezed his hands.

"All I know is that I want this baby. I don't want to lose this baby," I ground out between my teeth, a fierce love for the little one in my womb welling up. "I don't want to lose this baby the way so many others have."

"How long have you known?" Ayden's question was bitten out. "How long?"

"I just found out this morning. At Merle's house."

Ayden pulled out of my grasp and slowly walked back to the table.

"I'm going to do whatever it takes to keep this baby." I told his back, desperate for him to agree with me.

Ayden sat, studied his hands in his lap for a moment and then sighed. When he looked up, he finally met my gaze.

"I don't want give it up. Even with all the chaos going on around here. It would break my heart to think that I could have had a baby, and didn't . . . because I was too afraid . . . ." I trailed off, unconsciously cradling my abdomen and staring miserably at the ground.

"I don't want to give up our baby either," he whispered, filling the silence.

When I looked up at Ayden, the old Ayden was back in his eyes. The Ayden that would laugh at or with me and tickle me till my sides hurt. The Ayden who would fight for something he wanted and loved. The Ayden I hadn't seen since before the war began. My Ayden. My heart leapt, and my eyes filled.

In one swift movement he got up and moved towards me, taking my hands in his own strong ones, as my love for him and our baby mixed with fear of the future and produced tears.

"No, no," he crooned, gently brushing a wisp of hair back from my face. "We'll be alright, you'll see. God wouldn't give us this situation and then leave us. We'll be alright." He said again.

"Oh Ayden," I managed through my tears, "I'm so scared."

With that he pulled me close, strong arms going around me, radiating warmth and love. His body gave a small shudder and then calmed. He buried his nose in my hair, and as I huddled against him, seeking shelter in his arms, I heard him say, "So am I."

I dashed at my tears, pulling away from him for a moment to look up at him.

"I want this baby so badly. So badly," I repeated.

Ayden reached up with his thumb and gently wiped my tears away.

"I want our baby too," he murmured, as I leaned against him again.

After a few moments of standing in his warmth, he pulled away, kissed me gently on the cheek and then, with mischief in his eyes looked at me.

"So, what do you want to name it?" he asked, the twinkle in his eye barely contained.

The question was so abrupt that I had to laugh.

"We don't even know what it is yet!" I told him, grinning at him.

"Maybe it will tell me," he suggested, kneeling in front of me so he could lay his ear against my still-flat stomach.

The absurdity of the situation overwhelmed me and I laughed. Ayden looked up from his position with his ear against my stomach and gave me a pout.

"Would you stop laughing? The poor baby can't talk over your loud laughter."

I rumpled Ayden's hair and then pulled away from him.

"Come on, you," I said, tugging him up. "Let's finish dinner, and then you can listen to the baby, or my stomach, as much as you want."

Ayden grinned like a little boy offered a Christmas present and followed me back to the table.

The weeks that past were a haze of blissful awareness that I had a small life growing inside of me, occasionally ruined by the frightening knowledge that I could be stopped in the street and given an abortion should the men in the white SUVs find out that I was pregnant.

I continued to help Merle with her baking, and it seemed that every time I left a heart broken mother, I left knowing that I would be in the same condition as those mothers were my baby to be taken from me.

Every night Ayden and I talked about our baby. We'd talk about names, ("If it is a boy we'll name it David Alexander, if it is a girl, we'll name it Kasie Elizabeth."), we'd wonder whether or not it would have my eyes, or Ayden's hair ("If it's a she, she'll be as beautiful as you."), and most importantly we discussed how we could hide my pregnancy till the baby came. One of the ideas that came up the most frequently was the idea to keep me in the house and out of sight until the baby came, and have the baby at home with Merle's help. Merle had offered to deliver the baby if we needed her. After all, shouldn't she be qualified enough, having had several young ones of her own?

For a couple weeks, it seemed that this was going to work. Then came the awful news. Some women had been able to hide their pregnancies, and when the government found out, they decided that simply seeing a pregnant woman on the street wasn't enough. The dictator ordered a decree that his soldiers were to randomly search houses and if they found a pregnant woman, she was to be dragged off for an ultrasound.

Of course people tried to protest this, but it only wreaked havoc in the streets, and caused the dictator to air an address telling his new citizens that he was, in fact, being very merciful because he didn't order the women who were disobeying him killed. Not that that made things any better.

Ayden and I scrambled to figure out another escape for our baby.

On one of my trips with Merle, a possible solution came to view. Upon leaving the house of a young lady named Angela, Merle turned to me and told me, "Poor Angela, you see how thin she is now?"

I nodded. Angela seemed like she was practically wasting away.

"She used to be quite heavy." Merle told me solemnly. "You could barely tell she was pregnant."

"Then how did they take her baby?" I asked, rather surprised.

"She was so excited about it that practically every one knew. Someone from her work ratted her out."

"But, you're saying that if someone hadn't told on her, she's have the baby?"

Merle nodded, a glint in her eye.

I understood that glint. I'm sure it was in my own eye.

"Why did she lose all that weight?" I asked carefully.

"Sadness," Merle replied simply.

"We need to get her to eat something."

"Indeed we do." Merle nodded again. "We're going to visit her daily."

"Talk to her husband about making her eat." I suggested. "That worked well for me."

Merle chuckled. "Yes, I guess it did."

That night when Ayden came home, I dragged him to the couch and spilled my new idea.

Ayden seemed to like the idea, but there was a look in his eyes that I hadn't seen for a long time. He, too, was planning something.

"Though, I will not have you gain weight." Ayden told me. "I don't want to lose sight of your lovely figure under pounds of fat. Just pad yourself."

"But Ayden," I protested. "I must gain some weight if my face is to look convincing."

"Only a little, as long as you can lose it after the baby comes," Ayden compromised.

"I will," I told him. I didn't exactly want to gain weight either, but this was for the baby.

With that commenced my sugary sweet diet. If I thought I was eating sweet stuff before, I was eating even more now. And I ate all the time. Within several weeks, I had gained twenty pounds, and only a little bit of that was baby. Slowly, I filled out until I could be called chubby. None of my clothes fit, and when I went shopping, I bought clothes that were still to big for me so I could pad myself about.

I still went with Merle on her trips. Much to my delight, with us feeding Angela every time we went, she started to gain weight. Her husband made sure she ate when he was at home, and our daily visits saw her much improved. Sunny, too, recovered from her ordeal, and one day Merle and I left there laughing. That was indeed a sunny day.

Our one-year anniversary occurred one night when I was about three months pregnant. I set about making a delectable meal for Ayden and myself. The table was set and I had candles lit in anticipation of his homecoming. The meal was just about finished cooking when the door opened and Ayden staggered in, bloody and beaten. I dropped the empty bowl I was carrying, heedless of the glass the surrounded my feet.

"Ayden!" I cried, hurrying to his side. "What happened?"

He mumbled something and collapsed against me just as I reached his side.

Terrified at the thoughts of what might have happened, I dragged his dead weight to the couch and managed to lay him along it. When I came back from getting a cold wet cloth to place against his head, his eyes were open and he was trying to get up.

"Just what do you think you're doing?" I asked him, indignant that he should try to get up when he'd just fainted in my arms. "And what happened?" My worry was quickly becoming anger.

As I pushed him back down onto the couch, I pressed the cold cloth against his cuts. Angrily, I told him to stay put, and went to get the first aid kit from the closet. When I got back, he was looking at me tremulously and holding the cloth over another cut.

"What happened?" I asked again, trying to keep the anger out of my voice and failing miserably.

"I can't tell you," he said, closing his eyes against my wrath.

"Can't tell me?" I asked, absolutely flabbergasted. "You're my husband! You can't tell me what happened to get you into a fight that led to you coming home bloody and beaten up on the night of our anniversary?" I raged.

Ayden's face became pinched. "I can't tell you. Honestly, I can't." He opened his eyes and looked at me. "It's for your own good. Please," he pleaded, his eyes desperate.

I sat back on my heels and looked at him, my anger ebbing. No one could resist Ayden when he pleaded.

"If it's for my own good," I said, trying to hold onto the last thread of anger, "you had better give me some sort of story so if anyone comes to ask me why you came home in this state, I can tell them."

Relief washed over Ayden's face. "I was coming home on the subway and was coming up to the flight of steps that takes me to my train, when I tripped over a briefcase that someone had set down beside them. I fell down two flights of stairs."

My, he was good. It did look like he'd done just that, and the look in his eyes seemed to be telling the truth.

I nodded in acceptance. "I'll take that. When you feel ready to get up, our anniversary dinner is ready."

Ayden nodded and slowly righted himself.

"I'm going to go change my clothes, ok?" he asked, and upon my nod of approval, he walked rather unsteadily towards our bedroom.

I pulled the dessert out of the oven and set it above the fridge to cool off, put ice in Ayden's water, and then, on second thought, put an ice pack on his plate.

When he wandered back out of the bedroom, he looked better. He still looked worse for the wear, but his hair was combed back, and he looked fresher. He took me in, in my nice outfit, hair slightly curled from the heat of the oven, and smiled, pulling me into a close hug, kissing my neck.

"Come on," I murmured, "let's sit down."

As we ate, I kept trying to figure out how in the world he could have been hurt on the job. Maybe he had fallen down the steps in the subway, but then why couldn't he have told me that to begin with? I picked at my meal, mind spinning a thousand miles an hour. I knew I should be paying attention to Ayden, but despite my best try, my mind kept moving back to trying to figure out how he got hurt. Maybe he got hurt in a mob. There had been several of them in the past week, but I hadn't heard of one today. The radio would have told me.

Ayden cleared his throat. "So, how was your day, dear?" he asked, breaking into my thoughts with a vain attempt at small talk.

"Hmm?" I asked, deciding to put the problem to the side. "Oh, it was alright, I guess. Merle and I visited Sunny again. She seems perkier then she used to be."

"That's—that's good," Ayden said thoughtfully. I had to give the man credit. He was at least trying to start a conversation.

"What'd you do at work today?" I asked him, deciding that if he could try and mend the rift, I could too.

"The usual," he said, looking at his plate of food. "Nothing special happened. The boss was out so it wasn't bad."

I nodded. He normally told me this.

"Our next assignment isn't due for another week or two, so it's not too bad." He continued.

My mind grasped at the word "assignment." It sounded—wrong.

When the conversation lagged, I made a desperate attempt to pull it back together.

"I, uh, I made your favorite dessert," I told him looking at his half empty plate. "When, when you're done with that, I'll get it out."

Ayden smiled then, the corner of his mouth lifting in that adorable fashion. "All right, just give me a few more minutes."

He picked at his plate, putting a show on for me.

I sighed. This was awful. It was just our one-year anniversary, and here he was not telling me anything.

Ayden looked up from his plate at my sigh and asked, "How was the baby today?"

I smiled wanly. He asked this every day.

"I don't know," I told him, suddenly weary. "It's doing fine I guess. I might have felt a small flutter of movement, but, I don't know."

"Um, about the baby," Ayden started, but I wasn't finished. I was now slightly frustrated.

"In fact, I don't think I know anything anymore!" I told him, looking up from my plate at him.

Ayden had the decency to blush and looked down at his plate. He picked up his knife to cut a piece off the meat, but studied it instead. Then he seemed to make up his mind, and looked at me.

"How would you like," he put the knife down on his plate, "like to go for a little vacation?"

That was something I totally didn't expect. Wait. Vacation? I stared at him.

"I have something in mind around . . . Australia."

"Wait. What?" I said, now completely flabbergasted. We'd just been having a stilted conversation, and now he was asking me to go to Australia? That was across the ocean! What did he have in mind?

"It's all arranged," he continued. "We can get you out of here in a matter of days. Any time now."

Then it hit me. He was trying to get me out of the country. Permanently. Not for a vacation. I pushed the chair back and stood up from the table abruptly.

"Oh no. No. No. No!" I cried, backing away from him as he stood up too.

"Meg dear," he said quickly. "It's all taken care of."

"Australia?" I cried. "Are you nuts?"

"No!" Ayden shouted.

"Do you know how hard it is to get out of this country?" I asked, still completely stunned, and undeterred by his shouting.

"I'm doing this because it's the best thing!" He told me, his voice pleading.

"All my friends are here!" I said, gesturing around the living room where we were now standing, as if they were all sitting right there.

"Yes, I know it's hard—" Ayden started.

"Who do we even know in Australia?!"

"Do you know how much I've worked to make this possible? How hard we've worked to get this possibility open for people like you?"

"No!" I was shouting now, "I really don't know! You never tell me anything anymore." Then what he'd just said hit me. "Like me? It's a baby Ayden! I can hide it!"

"Yes, like you," he gestured at my growing figure. "And no, you can't hide it!"

"What about my ministry with Merle?" I could feel my foundations crumbling.

Ayden ignored this question. "A couple of weeks, maybe more, and they'll be here! I don't want that! You don't want that, do you! I for one am not willing to risk the life of our child because you are too stubborn to leave!"

"I can hide it! I can!" I wasn't ready to let go yet.

"No . . . you don't understand," Ayden said, his voice cracking.

"The only reason they found out that Angela was pregnant was because someone else knew!" I cried, not registering the desperation in Ayden's voice. "The only people who know about this baby are you, me and Merle! You're not going to tell, I'm definitely not going to tell, and Merle—I'd trust Merle with my life!"

"They will find out," Ayden said, angry again. "You might trust her, but I don't trust anyone with both your lives!"

I couldn't stand this any longer. My last defense had come crumbling down around my ears. I crumpled. I wasn't stubborn. I was scared. Much to my chagrin, I found myself collapsed on the couch crying my heart out.

Ayden stood awkwardly to the side for a moment, cursing under his breath, before he softly said my name.


I would have liked to answer, but the sobs had overwhelmed me, and I found I couldn't say anything. Instead I buried my head in a pillow and sobbed.

"Meg . . . ." He said again, as I felt, more then saw him, kneel next to the couch. His voiced coaxed at me, trying to get me to look at him. With sobs still wracking my body, I turned to face him.

"Meg, everything's set up," he told me haltingly, pain in his eyes. "We have a way to guarantee that your—our—child will live. Don't you want that?" His hand reached up to rest on my wet cheek. "Isn't that what you've wanted and prayed about for weeks now?"

His love for me and our baby overwhelmed me and gave me something to cling too. I bit back another sob and threw my arms around his neck, hanging onto him as if for dear life.

Ayden's arms went around me, pulling me closer to him, as he whispered in my ear, "Oh Meg, I'm sorry. I'm sorry I ruined your dinner—and—and—"

He was incorrigible. Here he was apologizing for ruining my dinner, and all I could think about was how terrified I was at moving to a new country.

"Oh Ayden," I managed through my tears, sobbing into his neck. "I'm scared."

Ayden pulled me off the couch and into his lap, pulling me flush up against him. He buried his nose in my hair and then drew back to look at me.

"You do know that we are all scared, don't you?" he asked, brushing at my tears with his thumbs. As I nodded, he grinned wanly down at me and then brought my lips to his.

The rest of the evening was spent as an anniversary should be spent. Meal included. We discussed everything to the tiniest detail. I still couldn't believe he'd pulled something like this off.

"How is this going to work? Are you going to come with me?" I asked, while finishing the now reheated meal.

"My work is sending me to Australia," Ayden explained. "You'll go alone at first. I'll come two weeks later. You'll have some of our stuff, and I'll have the rest of it."

"I'll be traveling alone to Australia?" I asked, worried. How was I to find a place to live for the two of us? Wasn't Ayden supposed to be the one who set up the place the live?

"No," Ayden said, reaching out to grasp my hand. "You won't be traveling alone. I won't allow that. Merle will be going with you to set up house in the place I've acquired."

My shock was palpable. "Merle's coming with me? How is that possible? She can't come with us because she's not part of our family!"

"She can if I employ her." He looked at me, eyes twinkling.

"Employ her?"

"Is there an echo here?" Ayden asked, chuckling.

"Does she know this?" I asked, still completely startled. Merle coming to live with me? "How long will she stay?" I asked.

"As long as we're there." Ayden told me.

"But what about her ministry here?"

"You'll have to ask her. She said something about not minding coming with us because she felt God's call."

I nodded. That sounded like Merle.

Granted, I still fought over the idea of leaving. What about the rest of my friends? I did have friends, you know. Many of them had been garnered on my baking runs with Merle. The rest of them were from before the war. I had asked Merle if she was really coming with Ayden and me to Australia, and was relieved to hear her say yes. She and I would take a plane there and bring some of the house things with us. Most of the stuff would be flown in later, and then Ayden would bring the rest later. The departure date was set for two weeks from the night Ayden told me.

I was thinking about these things one day on my cold walk to Merle's house. It was January and the snow was threatening to keep everybody home. The only car moving down the street was a white SUV. I shivered against the cold and dug my hands deeper into my pockets. As the SUV pulled up along side me, the window rolled down and a man stuck his head out.

"Hey, chubby," he sneered, "where does Lauren Mazel live?"

"Who?" I asked slowly, even though I knew.

"Lauren Mazel." He said, heaving a sigh.

"Never heard of her." I said, keeping my expression blank.

"Well, we got sources that say she lives in this neighborhood. Just don't know where."

"I'm sorry," I told him. "This is a big neighborhood. I've never heard of a Lauren Mazel. Maybe she does live here. Maybe she doesn't. I don't know."

"Whose house are you going to now?" the man asked.

"I'm going to my friend's house. Her name is Merle Hanson."

"Uh-huh." The man clearly didn't believe me. "We'll accompany you there, if you don't mind." Clearly, I didn't have a choice.

It was rather stressful walking down the street to Merle's house and then waiting as the men got out of the SUV and accompanied me to the door. The entire time all I could think about was that I was pregnant and they didn't know. Merle opened the door with a start and stared at the men on either side of me.

Before I could speak, the man on my left stepped forward. "I'm wondering if you know where we can find Lauren Mazel. Chubby here doesn't know where she lives."

Merle took the hint and shook her head. "No sir, I don't."

The man stared at her. "Who are you?"

"Merle Hanson, I'm a good friend of Meg's." she gestured to me.

I nodded mutely.

"Well, Merle Hanson," the man ground out. "If we find out that Lauren Mazel does live in this neighborhood and that she knows you, you'll have some answering to do. You too, chubby." He turned to me and sneered.

I nodded again and then ducked inside the comparative warmth and safety of Merle's house.

Merle wished them goodbye and then shut the door in their faces. We watched as they drove off and then Merle grasped at me.

"It'll only be a matter of minutes before they find someone else who knows where Lauren lives. We have to go tell her. Warn her."

"Yes. Yes!" I said, feeling the adrenaline starting to pulse through my veins.

"Lucky for us, she lives on a couple doors down on the next street over. We can get to her through the back yards." Merle was shrugging into her coat and stepping into her snow boots.

We rushed out the back door and hurried around the slush piles to Lauren's backdoor. There, we banged on the door and when Lauren pulled open the door, Merle let out in a rush of foggy air, "Hurry child. The SUVs are after you. They just asked Meg where you lived. She didn't tell them, and I didn't either, but it's only a matter of minutes before they find where you live. You have to come to my home and hide for about an hour."

"Or maybe several days," I interjected, thinking that once the men knew she wasn't home, they would come back at another time.

Merle caught onto my suggestion. "Yes, yes. Several days. Though I don't think you can stay in my house all that time."

"You can come home with me." I told her, not really understanding what I'd just said.

Lauren watched us the entire time, her eyes growing large with fear. Without so much as a backward glance, she threw on her winter coat, stepped into her boots and grabbed her house keys.

"Meg, would you stay behind to lock up and grab some essentials while I bring Lauren back to my house?" Merle asked me.

"Of course," I told her and stepped inside Lauren's house.

I didn't stop to watch Merle hustle Lauren off to the shelter of her house as I raced through the house, locking the front and side doors and then all the windows on the first floor. I turned off all the lights and turned off the water in the kitchen. Lauren had been doing dishes, and hadn't yet washed all of them when we'd come knocking. I quickly finished up and then stepped out the back door and locked it behind me. As I stood on the deck, I listened to a car pull up in the driveway and a heavy fist bang on the door.

"Lauren Mazel?" a man's voice called out and I gasped. What if they came around back? Maybe I could get past the house in front of me and onto the next street before they came around back.

With that I plunged off the deck and dashed around the piles of snow, leaving barely-there footprints. I was around the front of the backyard-neighbor's house before they came around the back and only then did I stop to breathe. A dog barked, and I started up from my position, slumped against the front of the neighbor's house. No one was nearby. I slowly made my way to Merle's house, watching for the men.

No one shouted, or made accusation, or told me to stop, and I made it safely back to Merle's house. Lauren was sitting at Merle's table, looking white and shaken.

"Don't worry," I assured her, "I was able to lock all the doors and windows and finish the dishes in the sink. The men arrived as I left."

Merle shot me a look, but because I was safe in her kitchen, didn't ask anything.

Lauren thanked me, before Merle ushered her back to a back room to hide.

I took out the batter that Merle had in the fridge and began to make my way around the kitchen in search of baking utensils. When Merle came back, we began to discuss in low tones exactly what we intended to do with our unexpected house guest.

We decided that at the end of the day Lauren would come to live in my house for a couple days. The men in the SUV knew where Merle lived, but didn't know where I lived. Of course, if they came to ask Merle where I lived, she would have to tell them, but she could always call me if they came to find Lauren. The fact that both of us had told him that we didn't know where she lived was a plus for us. They probably wouldn't come back, unless the person they had gotten to tell him where Lauren lived also told them that we'd been visiting her. If that were the case, we'd both be in trouble and the plane to Australia couldn't come soon enough.

When the day ended, Lauren and I bundled up and left by Merle's back door, walking across the back yards to get to my house, grateful for the cover of darkness. Once home, we set about getting dinner ready. Ayden would have to find out about Lauren when he came home. I gave Lauren a set of sheets for the guest bedroom and told her to go make her bed while I finished up with dinner.

While she was in the bedroom, Ayden's truck pulled in the driveway. I went out to meet him, and tell him about Lauren and that she'd be staying with us for a time, but as I was about to open the door, I saw through one of the windows, a white SUV drive past. I thought better of it and waited inside instead.

When Ayden opened the door, I grabbed him and dragged him inside.

"One of my pregnant friends, Lauren, is here! She's going to be staying with us until the men in the SUVs stop looking for her!" I hissed at his startled face.

"Wait. Stop. Slow down," he said, laying a hand on my shoulder. "Start from the beginning."

I nodded and started to tell Ayden everything that had happened that day, from my walk to Merle's house to racing home from Lauren's. When he finally nodded in understanding I pulled him into the kitchen to find that Lauren was pulling the meat out of the oven. I thanked her, and took the pots off the stove, draining the water from them and then placed them on the hot pads on the table. A third place setting was included for Lauren, the blinds closed in the dinning room.

Dinner passed peacefully and afterwards, we retired to our separate bedrooms. Lauren called her husband to tell her that she had to go out of town suddenly and that she was sorry she couldn't have told him goodbye. Ayden and I cloistered ourselves in our room and began to talk. We discussed how long we would be able to keep Lauren with us, seeing as how I was leaving in a week and a half with Merle. We discussed the possibilities of Lauren coming with us. But, no, that wouldn't work. She was obviously pregnant. We couldn't sneak an obviously pregnant woman on the plane. Even if we said she had a girl baby, they'd still give her an ultrasound. After we'd exhausted all the possible options, Ayden grew silent, and that far away look came into his eyes.

"What is it Ayden?" I asked, wondering what new idea he was coming up with this time.

"Oh, nothing . . . ." He waved it away. "I just might have an idea how to keep her in hiding until her little one comes. That's all."

"Tell me?" I begged.

"I can't." He looked at me, regret in his eyes. "It's for your own good. For your safety."

"What do you mean for my safety? Ayden, nothing is safe around here anymore!"

"Yes, but if I told you I would be putting you and our baby in even more danger then you are now. I'm not telling you." On that he stood firm.

Put out, I stood up and made my way to the bathroom to get ready for bed.

Right up till the departure date, I collected boxes and slowly began to pack. Lauren, after she found out what was happening, helped me pack. I didn't tell her about how Ayden might have a way out for her because I couldn't answer the questions I was sure she was going to have. I still hated leaving her in suspense as to what would happen when I moved. Merle, too, was packing. This comforted me greatly to know that she too, was coming with me.

The night before the flight Ayden came home with plane tickets and a small valise of things. He kissed me on the forehead as he came in and handed the tickets to me.

"I just want you to know," he told me later, "that whatever happens tomorrow, I love you and that you are perfectly safe with these plans that I've made for you."

None of it made sense and when I asked him to repeat what he said, he waved it off.

The next day I told Lauren to make herself at home on what I had until Ayden got her to safety and then took my luggage to the car and packed it before driving to Merle's house to pick her and her luggage up.

We got to the airport without mishap, but as Merle and I were walking in, our luggage dragging behind us, a white SUV pulled up beside us and a man looked out at me.

"Which one of you is Margaret Hoffman?" he asked, looking at me.

Beside me, Merle let out a small almost inaudible gasp of "Meg!"

"I—I'm sorry," I managed to stutter. "I think you have the wrong group of women." There was no way I was going to go with those men if I could help it. Here I was so close to being safe from fear! I'd come so far!

"I don't believe you." The man stated and stepped out of the SUV. "Let me see your tickets please, and your ID as well."

No way out.

Merle and I reluctantly handed him our tickets and our IDs. He looked at mine first before pocketing them and then turned to Merle's. He looked at hers and pocketed hers too. Then he turned to me, an evil sneer on his face.

"Wrong women, eh, Margaret?" He stepped towards me.

"Run Meg!" Merle shouted as her purse crashed into the side of the man's head.

He stumbled as her purse connected with his head, and that was all it took for me to run. I didn't get very far as two more men jumped out of the back of the SUV and chased me. Because of the extra weight I was carrying, I slowed down quickly, my lungs crying for breath. When one of their hands wrapped around my upper arm, I stopped and a sob heaved from me.

They dragged me back to the SUV and bundled me and Merle inside.

Once inside the men shut the doors and turned to me.

"You are here because of someone you helped." They told me as the van pulled away. "Remember Lauren?"

"Who?" I asked, hoping that I could bluff my way out.

They ignored me and turned to Merle.

"You, we brought because you hit Bill over the head." The man talking pointed to the first man who was now holding an ice pack to his head.

Merle stared back at him defiantly. "I'm glad I did."

I was about to open my mouth and beg them not to take my baby, when an idea struck me. If they had me for helping Lauren, then they couldn't know I was pregnant too! Lauren herself didn't know! She just thought I was gaining weight. Relief overwhelmed me and I almost didn't care what they were going to do to me now.

"Where are you taking us?" I asked, still nervous as to what they might do to me for helping Lauren. "And what did you do to Lauren?"

"You aren't allowed to know where we're taking you. That way, if you ever get out, you won't be able to join or form an underground movement. As for Lauren . . . ." The last thing I saw before a black piece of cloth covered my eyes was the man's sneer.

"No!" I cried, devastated by Lauren's fate. A fate that still could be mine. "No! Help! Let us go!" I began to flail about trying to find one of the men. Merle added her voice to mine and I felt her too begin to flail about.

One of the men cried out as I struck him, and then my wrist was grabbed in a savage grip. My other wrist was grabbed and I heard one of the men holler "Hey Steve, can you get that rope out of the back? I think these two need to be restrained." The rope snaked about my wrist and tightened, binding my wrists together.

With my world dark and scary, fear overwhelmed me, suddenly exhausting me, and I fell asleep next to Merle.

When I woke up, the SUV had stopped and we were being shoved from the car. One of the men pulled me from the SUV and gently set me on the ground. From inside me, I felt a flutter and gasped. It was the baby. It had moved.

"What's wrong?" The man asked, quietly.

"My-my ankle," I managed. "I think I landed on it the wrong way. I think I can still walk though."

"Good," came the answer.

We walked for a short ways before a voice connected with the hand on my elbow said in my ear, "There are steps now. One, two, three . . . seven of them. Step now."

Blind, I followed his instructions and counted seven steps before entering a small doorway.

Upon instructed I sat, hearing Merle go through the same instructions. The chair was comfortable, the headrest more so. A heavy body lowered itself into a chair beside me and the man's cologne wafted over me. A hand reached across my abdomen and I stiffened, but was surprised when he merely drew a seat belt across my waist. About twenty minutes passed in which silence filled the room, when I heard a noise I thought I would never hear in my life. The chair I was sitting in shuddered and as the noise increased, I realized that I was in a plane. Flying to God-knows-where. Here I was, in an airplane like planned today, but not going where planned. Not if these men had their way.

Sitting silent in my seat, I cried, wetting the cloth that still bound my eyes.

I lost track of time as we sat and sat. Music played over the intercom, smooth and soft, like it would be on any other flight. My bladder filled and the next time I heard the body beside me sit down, I turned to it. "Please," I said to the unknown person beside me, "please, I need to use the restroom."

"Ok, hold on," the man told me. "Hey Andrew, Margaret needs to use the restroom. Can I take her blindfold off and untie her?"

"If she promises to stay quiet," came the answer.

At this point, I was so lost in despair that I didn't care. I wasn't going to struggle any longer. "I won't struggle," I mumbled, embarrassed by my state of affairs. "Please? I need to go."

"Ok," the man said, and then I felt his fingers about my wrists, untying them. "I'm not going to give you sight until we get to the restroom. Just follow me." He told me, placing my hands on his shirt sleeve.

I nodded and got up, stumbling slightly. We turned to my right out of the corridor of seats and went towards the back of the plane. When he stopped, I stopped to, stumbling into him at the suddenness of his stop.

"You're facing the bathroom door, it's open and when I take off your blindfold, I want you to walk into it without looking elsewhere."

I nodded and when the blessedly bright light hit my eyelids again, I opened them and stepped into the bathroom, blinking furiously. Once I got used to the light I looked around. It was small, but it was a place I could relieve myself. While washing my hands afterward with the Purel provided, I took a peek in the mirror on the wall and saw to my dismay, disheveled hair, eyes with big dark splotches underneath them and, when I looked at my wrists, slight red marks from where the rope had been tight about them. The man knocked on the door outside and asked if I was done. I told him yes, and he replied by saying that he had to blindfold me again as soon as I came out. He'd been told to. My heart sank, but I agreed and unlocked the door, my eyes closed.

Darkness settled over me again, and we were soon back at my seat. I lost track of time again and this time, I fell asleep. I was wakened by cheering. Startled and with a crick in my neck, I sat up straight and opened my eyes, only to find that the blindfold was still on. I sat back and then up again when I heard "Take the blindfolds off the women! We're safe!"


Before I could wonder, my blindfold fell away and one of the men was smiling down at me.

"What's going on?" I asked, bewildered. I looked out the window and saw that it was dark. "What's happening? Why is my blindfold off?" I looked over at Merle who was looking just as bewildered.

The man clasped me on my shoulders and grinned. "You're safe. You and your baby are quite safe. We just past in to international air."

"Wait. What? How'd you know I have a baby?"

"I told them." Came a different voice—a voice I knew.

"Ayden?!" I cried, standing up sharply. "What are you doing here? Ayden! They kidnapped us! What are they doing?"

Ayden came forward, his eyes sparkling, and pulled me into a hug. "These men are friends of mine," he told me gently, drawing back slightly to look at me.

"Friends of yours?" I almost shrieked. "They kidnapped us!"

Ayden reached out and placed a finger over my lips. "Hush. Let me explain."

I nodded and we sat down again, this time near Merle who was now free of her bindings.

"I couldn't have any suspicions coming on you, so I had my friends stage a SUV haul. They took you to a plane that had the government's insignia on it, and since a friend of mine knows how to fly and knows the government passwords, he's the pilot. We acted like we were going to fly to the capitol's airport, but veered off, and made for Australia. We'd already had clearance from Australia to come, so once we got into international air, we were safe. That was the cheering you heard."

"So, let me get this right," I interrupted. "You staged this whole thing? Lauren's safe? The men were just acting? We're safe and on our way to Australia?"

"Yes," Ayden smiled down at me.

"And you didn't tell me all this before we left for the airport, why?" I asked, frustrated to the point of anger. Yes, I was finally being told the truth, but I would have liked it quiet a bit earlier.

"Because if you had known that someone was going to kidnap you at the airport, I wasn't sure that you could have acted as scared as you really were. It wouldn't have been as authentic."

"One more question," I stated.

"And that is?"

"How'd you get all this to happen? Last I knew, you were a simple techie in a small corporation."

"Someone in the company introduced me to the underground. That is how I arranged all of this. This group of men is part of the underground. That's also the reason I got the job in Australia. I'll be there trying to raise support for the underground."

I reached out and slapped Ayden across the face. "That's for not telling me about any of this. The underground or the kidnapping or how you got hurt on our anniversary," I told him to his startled, hurt face. "And this is for keeping me safe with all you had." I leaned in and firmly planted my lips on his. I felt him smile and draw me close.

"I love you too," he told me against my lips as the rest of the people in the cabin applauded.

Four and a half months later, settled safely in Australia, David Alexander arrived in the world, scrawny, screaming and red. He couldn't have been more beautiful. He was mine. As little David suckled at my breast, Ayden made himself comfortable on the hospital bed beside me and leaned down to plant a gentle kiss on the top of David's downy head.

"We're safe," he murmured to me and embraced me, enveloping our new son between us, safe from the nightmare we'd left behind.