That evening when Hackett returned home, he wrapped his arms around Alice’s warm body as they kissed hello, then planted a kiss on top of the baby’s head as well before he pulled them both a little closer.
“Guess what,” she whispered into his ear, lightly tickling him with her lips. “Gertie taught me how to make meatloaf and baked potatoes. It’s all in the oven right now.”
“Is that why it smells so good in here?” he said as he tucked a loose bit of her hair that had worked its way out of her ponytail behind her ear. “A man could get used to coming home to this.”
“Don’t say anything like that until you’ve actually tasted it.” Alice giggled slightly. “Though there’s not much to worry about, since I had Gertie watching every step. Come on, lets go set the table.”
As they moved towards the kitchen, Hackett said, “Alice … I have something important to talk to you about.”
Her face turned a little pale, and she nervously bit her lip. “It isn’t about Damon, is it?”
“No,” he answered reassuringly. “Actually, I spoke with your mother today.”
“Apparently, she saw you on the news awhile back, and decided to hire a private investigator who tracked you down to my prison. She called to find out what sort of information I had about you.”
“What did you tell her?” Alice asked faintly.
“Nothing personal. I thought that it would be prudent to consult with you first.”
“Just … wow.” Alice plopped down into a chair beside the kitchen table. “I honestly didn’t think she cared.”
“You should talk to her.”
“I dunno …” She fidgeted uncomfortably. “What if she’s disappointed in me?”
“Alice.” Hackett knelt down on the floor and took one of her hands in both of his. “The woman I talked to was a concerned mother desperately trying to find out what became of her daughter. You should at least give her an answer.”
Alice pressed her lips against her baby’s head as she thought. “She didn’t exactly care about me while I was living with her.”
“Sometimes people change,” Hackett said as he rose to his feet. “You did.”
He turned to pull their dinner out of the oven, then dished the meatloaf and potatoes out onto two plates, which he set on the table. Alice remained quiet, picking up her fork to cut off a tiny piece of meat to nibble on before moving on to her potato. By the time Hackett was mostly done with his dinner, she couldn’t stand the silence anymore.
“What do you think?” she asked.
“You have a real talent for cooking,” he replied.
Alice blushed. “I just did everything that Gertie told me to.”
“You’d be surprised at how hard following instructions can be,” he murmured.
“I guess …” She hesitated. “If Alicia ever ran away, I’d want to hear from her no matter what. I don’t remember what my mom’s phone number was, though.”
Hackett reached into his pocket and fished out a slip of paper, which he placed onto the table and slid across to her. “Got that covered.”
Alice picked it up and stared at the familiar numbers, feeling as if an immense weight was pressing down on her. “Should I call her now?”
“The sooner the better, in my opinion.” Hackett finished his last bite, then came over to take the baby out of Alice’s arms. “She tracked you down to my prison. From there, it won’t be hard for her to find the records for Alicia’s birth, or for our marriage. Do her a favor, and tell her the good news yourself.”
“You’re probably right. I guess if it doesn’t go well, I can always hang up and never talk to her again, and everything will stay the same as it is now. All right, just let me get my phone.”
Alice shook as she walked back into the kitchen with her phone, her stomach tied up in knots. She kept hitting the wrong numbers, so Hackett took her phone and put in the number for her, then handed it back. With a deep breath, she pressed ‘dial’ and held the phone up to her ear.
After an eternity of ringing, a familiar voice answered, “Hello?”
“Mom?” Alice’s throat squeaked. “It’s me.”
“Oh my god,” her mother gasped. “Alice!”
She felt like she was going to start crying, so she looked over to Hackett and Alicia for reassurance and strength. “It’s kind of a funny story,” she said nervously, “but, um, the warden you talked to earlier today is actually my husband. He didn’t want to say anything before he talked to me about it.”
“You’re married?” From the tone of her voice, Alice could easily imagine her mother dropping into a chair from shock.
“Yeah, for a few weeks now. He’s really great, mom. He’s, um, stable, and … responsible.” Alice felt her cheeks flush, and she had to turn away from Hackett’s silent chuckle. She was well aware that those weren’t attributes that a girl her age would normally gush about, but after what she had experienced with Damon, they meant all the world to her.
“I said it was a funny story.”
“I’ll say. Where are you now? Are you doing well?”
“We’re at his house, near where the prison is. I’m happier than I’ve ever been before.” Alice nervously fingered the bottom edge of her blouse. “I have a baby – a little girl, named Alicia.”
This time, there was only silence on the other end of the line.
“I don’t know if you remember that guy I ran away with, but he’s the biological father. He got me into a lot of trouble, and the warden was my only friend while I was getting myself sorted out. I know it’s a little weird, but we fell madly in love and he’s taking care of both me and Alicia. I’ve realized that what I want most out of life is to be a mother, so I’m going to do my best raising my baby.”
“How old is she?”
“A little over a month.”
“Could you send me a picture?”
“Yeah, absolutely. Here, let me find one of all three of us, and I’ll text it to you right now. Just give me a sec.” Alice navigated around on her phone for a little bit, then put it back up to her ear. “I sent a couple of baby pictures, too.”
There was another moment of silence, which made Alice’s heart pound. Then her mother sighed. “Honestly, Alice, I was so angry at you after you left. I did my best to provide for you, and the thanks that I got in return was you running off with some degenerate. Then, about a year ago, I came across our photo album while I was cleaning out my closet, and as I looked through it I realized that you had stopped smiling after you became a teenager. It hit me that I had been too caught up in all of my own problems to notice how unhappy you were, and your involvement with that guy had probably been your way of crying out for help. I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you more.”
Tears stung Alice’s eyes, and her throat constricted painfully. “I’m sorry too,” she managed as best as she could, once again looking to Hackett for strength.
“I need to get going now, but can I call you this weekend? I’ll have the time to catch up properly with you then.”
“Yeah, that sounds great. This is my cellphone, so you can reach me at any time.”
“You have a cute family, Alice. I wish you the best of luck.”
After they bid each other goodbye, Alice let her shoulders sag. “Whew, that was intense. Look, I’m still shaking.” She held out her hand. “Could have been a lot worse, though.”
Hackett came over to her to take her hand and kiss her. “As your dashing, stable, and responsible husband, I would like to take you out for ice cream cones.”
Alice blushed. “I know, I should have said that you were handsome and romantic. I’m sorry that I always blurt out such stupid things.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I liked it. Twenty years from now, I might not still be handsome and romantic, but I’ll certainly still be stable and responsible.”
“Well, in that case, I think that it’s incredibly sexy that you let me sleep in the same bed for longer than a week, and that I don’t have to keep all of my belongings in a backpack. You’re the best, by far.” She giggled as she kissed him, running her fingers through his hair then tickling the back of his neck. “That ice cream sounds really good right now. Let me get the baby ready, and we’ll go.”