Hackett had to return to his work the next morning, though he was reluctant to do so. He reminded Alice to call him if she needed to, and he assured her that he wouldn’t mind any interruptions. Then, dressed in his usual warden attire, he left.
The moment the door closed, Alice was struck by the distance that had been intertwined in their goodbye. While it had been an appropriate parting during her time in prison, it was far too cold for a married couple – the last thing she wanted was to follow in her parents footsteps and drift apart from her spouse. She hesitated, fearing the usual sound of a key in the lock, but only silence followed, signaling her freedom to move. Then, spurred by the anxiety that she would be too late, she clutched her baby to her chest and ran after him.
“Basil! Wait!” she called out, catching him with his car key in hand. He turned to her with a curious look on his face, and she was suddenly overcome with shyness. “I want to do this right,” she whispered, then stood on her tiptoes to plant a small kiss on his lips. “I hope you have a good day at work.”
His arm circled around her as he kissed her again, deeper and more passionate, until the baby let out a squall. They both laughed, and Alice held Alicia up for a goodbye kiss as well, then returned to the house. Hackett smiled broadly as he watched the front door close, then turned and waved at his next door neighbor, who was posed in the middle of trimming her rosebushes with a shocked look on her face.
“Good morning, Gertie!” he called out. “It sure is nice after that rain.”
“’Morning, Warden,” she replied slowly. “I hope you don’t mind my asking, but who is that girl?”
“She’s my wife!” he answered, walking over to lean on the short wood fence that separated the properties. “We tied the knot just a couple of days ago.” Then, with a devilish grin, he continued, “I know what you’re thinking, and the answers are: yes, she is close to half my age; yes, I did meet her at the prison; and no, the baby isn’t mine.”
“Oh my!” Gertie exclaimed, and her eyes darted towards her kitchen window. Hackett knew that she would be on the phone the moment he was in the car.
“Let me know if you need any help with cleaning up those rosebushes later. Have a good day!” He waved again, and left.
Left to herself, Alice took the time to properly explore Hackett’s house and internalize everything. It was old, but nicely maintained, and she liked the way the wood floors creaked underneath her footsteps. The kitchen was in the back of the house with a large window over the sink, and Alice couldn’t help but let out a small gasp of delight when she saw the planter.
“Look at that, Alicia!” she said, turning for her baby to ‘see’. “He really does have basil growing in his kitchen window!” She giggled, and kissed Alicia’s head. “His sheets are definitely not scratchy wool though. Isn’t Basil such an odd person?”
The baby made a small noise in reply, and began to nuzzle around against Alice’s chest. She smiled, and returned to the bedroom where she could comfortably nurse her newborn.
The doorbell roused her. Alice’s heart began to pound and she wondered if it would be okay for her to answer it. After all, she was still a newcomer in Hackett’s house, and it had been years since she had answered a front door. She decided that she would ignore it.
The doorbell rang again, followed by a knock, and Alice realized that whoever was there was not going away any time soon. With her heart pounding, she held her baby close and ventured to the entry way, where she slowly opened the front door.
An older woman was standing on the porch, with a halo of white hair and a baking pan in her hands. Alice tried to keep herself half hidden inside as she gave a timid greeting, forcing a smile to appear more friendly – she didn’t want to look bad as Hackett’s new wife.
“Hullo! Hullo!” the woman said cheerily. “I hope you don’t mind, but Warden Hackett told me this morning that you just got married, so I whipped up these brownies to congratulate you.”
“Oh! Thank you!” Alice pushed the door a bit more open.
“You can call me Gertie, dear, and I live right next door in case you ever need anything. What’s your name?” the woman asked.
“And the little one?”
“She is as precious as a doll! How old is she?” the woman smiled as she peered to get a better look at the baby’s face.
“A couple of weeks,” Alice replied. She liked the warmth in Gertie’s eyes, and her heart ached to bond with another woman after giving birth. “She was seven pounds and two ounces when she was born.”
“That’s a good size.” Gertie suddenly frowned. “But dearie me, those tiny feet are looking rather purple, aren’t they?”
“Are they?” Alice reached down to touch Alicia’s feet that had poked out of the blanket again. “We don’t have any socks for her yet. The hospital gave me only a few things that had been donated, and I haven’t felt up for any big shopping trips.”
Gertie looked towards her house, then back at the baby’s feet. “I’ll tell you what, dear,” she said slowly. “I’ve got some leftover yarn from my grandbaby’s blanket, and I can have some booties knitted up in a jiffy. Here, I’ll just put these brownies in the kitchen real quick.”
“Oh, sure, come inside.” Alice stepped back.
“Don’t worry, I know my way around. The Warden and I look out for each other – he helps with my yard, and I help with his dishes.” Gertie laughed. “I wondered about his behavior over the past few months – you probably know how he’s not one for talking much – and now I know why! It’s good to see that he’s got himself a girl again, after … oh, but never mind that.” Gertie closed the door behind her, then turned to examine Alice from head to toe. “You’re quite different from the sort of girl I expected him to marry.”
Alice blushed. “How so?” she asked, uncertain of where this was going.
“For starters, you seem quite young. How old are you, dear?”
“Twenty-one,” Alice replied.
“Oh, that’s old enough! I was nineteen when I got hitched.” Gertie laughed. “Now, hold that thought and I’ll be back with my yarn. Do you know how to knit?”
“Then I’ll bring some extra needles. It’s good to keep your hands busy, you know, and knitting is wonderfully relaxing. A new mother needs good ways to pass the time.” Gertie swiftly vanished towards the back of the house, then returned without the baking pan. “Eat up, too. There’s no such thing as too much chocolate when you’ve just had a baby.”
“Thanks.” Alice felt a little overwhelmed by her new neighbor, but she liked the company and the brownies smelled delicious. She wondered if she should call Hackett for advice on what to do as Gertie gave a quick wave of her hand and exited through the front door.
“Wow, Alicia,” Alice whispered. “I guess that we’re getting some new knitted booties for you?” She checked to make sure that the blanket was still wrapped around her newborn’s feet, then went to the kitchen to grab a brownie. They were still warm and deliciously rich, so Alice found a plate to hold a couple extra before meandering back to the living room. Aside from her birthday cake, she hadn’t gotten any desserts while she had been in prison, and she wondered if she would be able to restrain herself from pigging out on the entire pan.
Alice remembered what Hackett had said as they had shared that cake on her birthday, and she wondered if Gertie had been the neighbor who had baked it.
A few minutes later there was a quick knock, followed by Gertie letting herself in. “Here we are,” she huffed slightly, dumping a big bag on the couch. “I raided my stash a bit, to give us a bit more to work with. I’ll get you started on making a washcloth, then I’ll make those booties. Oh, and dear, get yourself some sort of carrier before your arms fall off! That baby might be a tiny little thing right now, but in two weeks you’ll appreciate having your hands free.”
“Do you bake?” Alice asked awkwardly, then flushed. She was not remotely accustomed to socializing normally. “I mean, Basil said that his neighbor made my birthday cake back at the beginning of summer, and I thought that could be you.”
Gertie snapped her fingers. “Ah ha! I’ve figured out who you are! I have to say, I had my suspicions, but now I’m certain! You’re the princess!”
Alice blushed even deeper.
“The Johnson boy swore up and down that he really did see a girl in the prison tower, and later when I made that cake for Warden Hackett, I just knew that it had to be true. You really are the princess, aren’t you?”
“I’m not really a princess,” Alice said slowly. “But yes, I was the one in the tower.”
Gertie let out a big laugh. “And now the warden has gone and married you! Oh, it must have been so romantic.”
“I don’t really know.” Alice looked down. “I mean …” She cupped her hand against the back of Alicia’s head as she muttered, “I was pregnant before I went to prison. Lousy boyfriend sort of thing, I guess.”
“We won’t hold it against you, dear. The Warden is a good man, so be good to him, too, and everything will work itself out.” Gertie paused to dig a ball of pink yarn out of her bag, then pushed it towards Alice. “Pick something out, and I’ll teach you how to cast on.”
Alice soon found herself half-curled in an armchair, deeply concentrated on figuring out how to juggle knitting needles, yarn, and a baby, as she slowly worked on making a basic square. Gertie chittered nonstop about the neighborhood and town, filling Alice in on all the details about everyone and everything, as her needles sped through the completion of one tiny boot, followed by another.
It struck Alice that her first couple days of freedom were the exact opposite of what she had known before her time in prison. Instead of getting buzzed and whooping wildly from the back of a speeding motorcycle, she was quietly working her way through a pan of brownies as she learned how to knit while gossiping with someone who was old enough to be her grandmother. In retrospect, it was a miracle that she was never killed or seriously injured from the crazy antics she had participated in.
Freedom, Alice realized, was not the reckless chaos that filled her life before she had become pregnant; it was having the time and support she needed to find herself.