Page 8 of Together

Robbie took the helm. Emily scrambled over the side of the boat and into the launch. ‘Meet me there!’ she called to him, and then Little Sterling was motoring away, towards the town dock.

‘You let the guy who forgets everything take care of the boat?’ Robbie said, but without urgency. He didn’t need any memory to wrap up the sails, to catch the mooring line, make everything fast, jump into the dinghy. He followed the launch, arriving not long after Little Sterling and Emily disappeared into the general store.

When he got inside, everything was already happening. Dottie Philbrick was standing behind the deli counter, leaning on it, bent over at the waist. Her skirt was pushed up and Emily was examining her. She moaned loudly, and Emily smoothed her back. Several people were standing around, watching in shock. Fortunately most of what was going on was hidden by the high glass case filled with cold cuts and cheese.

‘She was about to make me a tuna melt,’ said Susan Woodruff, clutching her handbag, ‘and she suddenly looked all surprised. And then she shouted that the baby was coming, and George offered to take her up to Pen Bay in his car, and she shouted that the baby was really coming so I called 911, but then Little Sterling saw you coming in.’

‘I told you, everyone,’ said Emily, hurrying to the sink at the back of the deli counter to wash her hands, ‘get the hell out of here and let this woman have her baby in peace. When the ambulance arrives, send them in.’

‘You heard what the lady said,’ said Robbie. ‘C’mon outside. The doctor will holler for us if she needs us.’ He began to shepherd the bystanders out of the store.

‘Not you,’ said Emily. ‘I need you, Robbie. Do they sell beach towels out at the back? I could use a couple.’

‘By the sunglasses,’ said Dottie, and groaned loudly as a contraction hit her.

‘Hurry,’ Emily told him, and Robbie went to grab some beach towels off the shelf. He handed them over the deli counter to Emily and stood back a little, keeping his eyes trained on a shelf of home-made preserves, a lot of them made by Dottie and her mom Sarah. He listened as Emily reassured Dottie and coached her along.

Remember this, he told himself. Remember how proud of her you are right now. Remember how everyone here trusts her. Remember how you would do anything for her. Don’t forget.

‘That’s it,’ said Emily. ‘That’s it, you’re doing exactly right, the baby’s nearly here, Dottie. She’s coming much more easily than you did, if I recall. One more push, and—’

He heard a liquid sound that he didn’t want to think too much about, and a baby’s cry.

The sound did something to him. Hooked him in the gut. Outside, he heard applause. When he glanced over the deli counter, Dottie was on the floor and Emily was handing her the baby, wrapped in a blue and yellow beach towel. The look on Dottie’s face. He’d seen that exact same look on Emily’s, when she first held Adam.

Don’t forget don’t forget don’t forget.

He wanted to grab Emily and hold her as tightly as he could. He wanted to seize this moment, this now, before the fog rolled in, and make it last forever. He wanted to feel the weight of all their shared past, everything they had done and felt and told the truth about and lied.

All the lies had only been to preserve the truth. He had to remember that as well.

There was a noise from the doorway: the paramedics. Emily spoke a few quick words to them and then she came round to Robbie. ‘Wasn’t that amazing?’ she said. ‘A healthy baby girl in eleven minutes flat.’ She had a wild, exhilarated look on her face and Robbie pulled her into his arms.

‘I’m all covered with blood and amniotic fluid,’ she protested, but she wrapped her arms around his waist and leaned her head against his chest.

‘It always begins again, doesn’t it?’ he murmured to her. ‘New babies. New life.’

‘Adam,’ she whispered. ‘Adam, and his children. We need to protect them, Robbie.’

He smoothed his hands over her hair. Remember this. Don’t forget.

‘You can be my memory,’ he said.

Emily drove. Emily did most of the driving, now, and when he drove himself, he knew she was worrying about him, that he’d forget where he was going, or forget to look both ways before pulling out into a junction, and although he thought it would be some time before he forgot how to drive a good old-fashioned truck, it was a real possibility that he could get lost, even in this area where they’d lived for so many years. He kept misplacing things in his workshop: reaching for a hammer that wasn’t there, or finding an awl where he expected a screwdriver. Sometimes he thought he was back at the boatyard in Miami and he’d stand in the middle of the garage, staring at unfamiliar objects, wondering how the big work bay had become so small.

He thought for now, though, that he would be all right to drive around here. But Emily worried, and so he let her drive him, even to the store, and definitely further afield like to Adam’s house in Thomaston. His brain was misfiring and it was better to be safe. It was as dangerous as being drunk. Even more.

He’d had a dream in the early hours of this morning. A full-bodied, immersive dream: he was hot, awash with sweat and dirt and other people’s fear, and his ears were filled with the motor of the patrol boat as it churned up the Mekong River. The water was a sheet of flat brown, the jungle every colour of green. An insect alighted on his cheek and he swiped it off with his shoulder. Fear, and cordite, and defoliant, and cigarette smoke, and the taste in his mouth that never went away, never enough no matter how much alcohol he sipped and downed, and the familiar breathing of Benny and Ace on either side of him, and there was a flash and then a pause, a long pause like the end of the world, and then the crash and the screams.

He woke up with the scream silent and digging into his throat and he was in the darkness and he thought he must be in the hospital with his eyes covered and then he felt that Emily’s arm was around his waist. It was Emily and she was here. She wasn’t lost, and he wasn’t torn.

He’d wiped the sweat from his forehead on the sheet and held her closer to him until his heartbeat calmed. In the morning he still remembered the dream as vividly as when he’d had it, and his hands shook as he poured the coffee, but she didn’t notice, or if she did, she didn’t ask.

The past was a double-edged sword. It inflicted wounds, and the wounds you didn’t talk about festered. They grew inside you and they waited to spill out.

Adam barbecued chicken on the grill and Shelley had made a pasta salad and the younger couple drank beer and he and Emily drank iced tea. The kids played some sort of complicated game involving a ball, a Hula hoop, and a dozen flags until the sun went down and Adam got the two younger ones to bed, and Chloe went upstairs with her laptop to do whatever pre-teens did with their laptops. It was so peaceful and so normal and Robbie found himself doing what he kept doing these days: pressing his lips together and telling himself to remember, to remember, to keep it all inside and never let it go.

Telling himself he had to do whatever it took to keep this alive.

And then Shelley made coffee, and Adam opened two more bottles of beer, and they sat in the living room and Adam said, ‘What is it, Mom and Dad?’

He let Emily do the talking, as she’d done the driving. She held his hand. He watched Adam’s gaze go from Emily to him and back to Emily, the way he’d looked at them both when he’d been a child and there was a storm coming and he wanted reassurance that the lightning wouldn’t hit them.