The clouds were still thick and drizzling with no sign of letting up any time soon, so Alice borrowed one of Hackett’s shirts to wear over her dress – a button-up made out of a thick fuzzy fabric that was surprisingly warm. With Alicia bundled up securely in her blanket, they loaded up in the car under the protection of an umbrella, and set out.
It was a half-hour long drive into the city. Alice recognized some of the buildings from when she had been there with Damon, and the memories made her reach over anxiously to hold Hackett’s hand. He gave her a squeeze in return.
They stopped at a diner, and after they were seated, Hackett quickly checked his phone. “Looks like we still have some time before any stores will be open,” he said. “So … have you read any good books lately?”
“Ha ha!” Alice replied, readjusting the baby blanket to cover the tiny foot that had managed to poke out. “I’ve been a little too busy for that.”
“Have you thought about college?” he asked.
Alice looked down at her newborn’s face, frowning. “A little,” she replied, then bit her lip. “I don’t want to be away from my baby.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Hackett said, scooting out of the booth to sit next to Alice on her side of the table. You enjoyed getting a GED, so I wondered if you wanted to continue with your education.”
“I’m supposed to want to, right?” Alice murmured, resting her head against his shoulder. “I really do like reading and learning, but I can’t see myself sitting in a classroom again. I kind of just want to be a mom.”
“Then I’ll support you as a mom.”
He sounded sincere, with a hint of relief. It made Alice wonder if there was something more to Warden Hackett than what she knew, and if he would perhaps one day open up and tell her. However, after she had misinterpreted his facial expression earlier that morning, she decided to keep her thoughts to herself rather than look foolish by being wrong.
Eating breakfast together was familiar and comfortable, making it easy for Alice to slip into smalltalk. She felt both embarrassed and proud when an older couple approached to congratulate them on their adorable baby, but Hackett handled it naturally and thanked them. The niggling shame in the back of her mind over the fact that her new husband was not her baby’s biological father made her worry that, somehow, strangers would be able to discern the truth just by looking at them. It was silly and irrational, but she didn’t know how to interact with anyone because of it.
Thankfully, Hackett enjoyed her endless repetitions on how much she loved her baby, and his eyes sparkled as he watched her. It made her feel valued, even in her small world.
When they finished their meal, it was back to the car, and a short drive took them to their destination. Before Alice knew it, she was looking at cribs without the slightest clue of what would make a good choice, and she was relieved that there weren’t very many other shoppers in the store yet. It made her uncomfortable when someone stared at them as they passed.
It took some coaxing from Hackett, but she finally picked one made with dark brown wood just because she liked the rich color, and a sheet set with a little rosebud pattern to go with the little mattress. By that time she was feeling worn out, but the warden insisted that she needed to find a new coat before they left, so she handed the baby to him and wandered around the women’s section.
Alice couldn’t decide what she liked.
Damon had always picked out her clothing for her, dressing her in things that he described as “sexy” or “rebellious,” which were not attributes that she wanted to possess as a mother. She thought that it would be nice to choose something dignified as part of her rebirth, but nothing seemed to fit the ideal. Alice realized that while she had found herself in the solitude of her castle tower, she still had no idea who she was in the world.
Alice began to feel cold. Goosebumps formed along her arms and she shivered, anxiously wishing that she could have her baby back against her chest. She looked around and quickly found where Hackett was waiting, then practically scampered over to him.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, retrieving Alicia and holding her close. “I can’t decide, and I’m tired.”
“You’ve gone pale,” Hackett said, studying her closely. Alice looked away.
“Let’s just buy the crib and go home.”
“Alright.” Hackett began pushing their shopping cart towards the front of the store. “We’ll order something online then. Are you sure you won’t be too cold in the car?”
“I’ll be fine,” she replied tersely.
He unexpectedly stopped, wrapped an arm around her, and touched her face as he leaned down to whisper, “It’s a hard transition for anyone; there’s no shame in struggling.”
Alice forced a laugh as she pushed him away. “I don’t know what you mean,” she said haughtily, more to suppress the turmoil that was boiling up inside of her. Hackett’s kindness hurt, and she wished he would treat her with the calloused indifference that she was accustomed to.
Whatever his thoughts were, he obviously decided that the middle of the store was not the place to share them. Quietly he proceeded to the checkout area, shared a few words with the cashier as he paid, then went to the front door. Even though he didn’t speak to her, he still opened the umbrella for Alice, and held it over her to protect her and her baby from the rain.
Alice hated that she had a tendency to push him into those silent moods. He always responded that way when she behaved like a snotty teenager, and she wished that it was easier to be open about what she really felt instead – she just didn’t know how.
She still had a long way to go.
However – unlike before – Hackett didn’t have his work to get back to, and the car ride home was enough to ease the tension. Alice unthinkingly blurted out how much she had grown to love watching trees sway in the breeze, and in return Hackett told her about how the ancient forest had struck a chord in his soul the first time he saw it, and he never wanted to live away from it again. From there they returned to their usual conversations, and Alice reached over to hold his hand. His skin was warm and comforting.
Once they were home, Alice lounged on the bed with the baby to keep him company as he built the crib, then they snuggled together to watch a movie. Hackett had been right – everything they did was thoroughly mundane and unremarkable, yet something about it began to fill that empty spot inside her chest. She finally felt like she had found her home.