Alice lounged on the couch with her sleeping infant and Hackett’s laptop, scrolling through endless listings of baby carriers and reading reviews. She couldn’t help but think that she was pathetic for struggling so much with making a decision, but Hackett had wanted her to do the online shopping on her own while he worked on his chores, and she didn’t want to bother him with the confession that she had no clue what she was looking for – it was too embarrassing.
When a knock sounded, Alice assumed that Gertie had popped over for another visit, so she hefted her baby and answered the front door. Instead, she found the woman who had interviewed her at the prison, wearing the same oval glasses with her hair pulled up into a bun.
“Hello,” the woman said with a fake smile. “Is Basil around?”
The way she said Hackett’s name stabbed through Alice’s heart and left her feeling numb. “He’s in the backyard,” she murmured, wishing she could default to saying something crass but holding back for fear of embarrassing herself and her new husband.
“Don’t worry, I know my way around.” The woman waved as she stepped down from the porch. “It was nice meeting you.”
Who was she?
Alice consoled herself with the memory of how Hackett had stared daggers after that woman after she had winked at him in the prison, and reminded herself that he had married her as soon as it was proper. She didn’t have any real reasons to be jealous, but something about the forced friendliness the woman had used had rankled her deeply. It had been downright smarmy.
Alice hurried to the kitchen where the window looked out on the backyard, then very slowly eased it open with the hope of being able to overhear. She was in luck, and Hackett was working to repair a lawnmower near enough that she heard his voice clearly as he said, “What are you doing here?” It made her happy to hear annoyance in his tone.
“So it’s true then, huh?” The woman had completely dropped the artificial sweetness that she had used a minute earlier. “You married that trollop?”
“That’s none of your business,” Hackett replied, slowly setting down his tools then wiping his hands on a rag. He stood to face the woman.
“For goodness sake, Basil, you’re thirty-eight years old! What in the world has gotten into you?” The woman folded her arms. “This is by far the stupidest thing that you have ever done, and you’re going to regret it.”
“Miranda!” he snapped. “It’s my life!”
“Oh, I get it.” The woman sneered slightly. “This is a midlife crisis, and you’ve taken it upon yourself to play Daddy Dom to some messed up teenager so you can feel big and important. You always were selfish and controlling.”
“Leave.” Hackett pointed towards the road.
“See? My point exactly. This sort of thing is why I couldn’t stand being with you anymore.” Miranda huffed and glared. “You never listen when you should.”
Hackett lowered his voice as he said, “Leave. Now.”
“Fine!” Miranda’s voice went shrill. “But you might as well know that Mr. Rake is pressing charges against you for use of excessive force. Witnesses say that you tasered him when he was already in handcuffs.”
Hackett scowled. “I’ll take care of myself. Don’t ever come back, for any reason.” He followed Miranda for a few steps to ensure that she was going to her car, then returned to the backyard where he picked up his tools and aggressively went back to work on the lawnmower.
Alice felt numb. She sank to the floor and held her baby against her chest, replaying the conversation over in her mind. She knew that she shouldn’t have eavesdropped, but curiosity had gotten the better of her only to cut her to her core. Alicia woke and rooted to be fed, but Alice couldn’t bring herself to move, and soon the baby’s fusses turned into squalls.
The back door opened and Hackett came inside. After finding Alice curled up on the kitchen floor, he sat down next to her and pulled her into his lap, holding her tightly against him. “I’ve never once thought of you as a trollop,” he whispered in her ear. “It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.”
Alice wanted to say something in reply, but as her hand clutched onto Hackett’s shirt all she could do was let out a cry that matched those of her infant’s. She couldn’t undo her past, and now felt that she was doomed to be forever stained by it no matter how hard she tried to be a better person. Instead of being a source of pride, she was destined to bring Hackett judgment and criticism for the rest of his life.
She was a mistake.
She was already causing him hardships.
His hands stroked her hair, and his mouth repeatedly kissed her forehead. He didn’t speak, but kept his arms firmly around her as she managed to wail, “I was only sixteen. I didn’t know … I didn’t know!” He trembled then.
“If I could manipulate time, I would change everything so that I had been there to protect you,” he said softly. “I wouldn’t have let you be so alone and vulnerable, and I wouldn’t have let anyone exploit you. But what’s done is done.” Hackett put his hands on either side of Alice’s face, and kissed the tears off her cheeks. “You’re safe now.”
He picked her and Alicia up and carried them to the bed, where he wrapped Alice up in a blanket. Her baby’s cries were beginning to pierce her heart with guilt, so Alice took a moment to comfort and suckle her baby, continuing to sniffle as a painful lump formed in her throat, but somehow finding strength through caring for her infant. When she looked up, she met Hackett’s eyes and he smiled warmly.
“You’re my princess bride, remember?”
“Really?” she asked weakly.
“Really. Don’t worry, my darling, because I won’t leave you no matter what anyone says. We’re a family now.” He hugged her head against his chest, and Alice closed her eyes as she listened to his heart beat. She wondered how he managed to be so strong, when she felt like she had taken a nosedive into a never-ending breakdown.
After a few minutes, Alice asked, “Who is that woman?”
She could feel a silent groan vibrate underneath Hackett’s ribcage. “The real mistake,” he replied, and Alice sensed that it was not a topic he wanted to discuss in detail.
She switched to the other question on her mind: “I don’t understand why she said those mean things about you. You haven’t been remotely selfish or controlling during the entire time that I’ve known you.”
“Hm,” he grunted, then thought quietly for a moment. “Do you remember when I asked you to marry me, and I told you that it was easy to be a hero in the prison, but not so much on the outside? Miranda … found a lot of things to be disappointed over.”
“And that’s why you were scared that I’d say yes?” Alice asked, wrapping her free arm around Hackett’s neck.
“Yes.” His hands slid underneath the blanket to rest on her back.
“Basil …” Alice looked at him earnestly. “If that’s what you’re into … I’ll be your baby girl.”
He chuckled as he kissed her forehead. “Careful, Alice. You’re revealing that you aren’t innocent.”
“Hey!” she protested indignantly. “You know exactly what I’m talking about, too. Where’s your innocence?”
“I’m a warden. It’s only natural that I would pick up on a few things.”
Alice stuck her tongue out at him.