“IT’S BEEN TOO LONG—” Leyla Jo’s poignant whispered words had escaped louder than anticipated into the late afternoon. She snuggled her friend’s hour-old newborn closer into her honey colored arms feeling the warmth of the infant close to her heart never wanting to let him go.
Had Laurinda heard those slipped words? She hoped not. This wasn’t the place or time to burden her with wistfulness—or my disappointment again.
She felt Laurinda’s careful gaze watch her and the infant and she didn’t dare raise her eyes. Instead, she fussed with the blanket, rewrapping it snugly around the infant’s legs. The day of birth is for happiness and celebration. She refused to let her own regret mar Laurinda’s joy.
Ben slept peacefully following his home birth as they rested in Laurinda’s spacious bedroom. Leyla Jo could not take her gaze from Ben’s sweet little face.
Clinking glasses broke the silence—probably Colson putting together cool sweet tea in the kitchen. The sound of back-to-normal activity helped lift her sorrow. There would be thick chocolate cookies too, promised to Ben’s sisters when all had been settled. The diversion would help her take better control of these sad emotions.
“Annabel, Joy!” Colson called out the kitchen back door. “Come meet your new brother, baby Ben.”
Two little girls answered their father’s call and stood tentatively at the bedroom door holding hands, wearing smiles of anticipation, waiting for their first look. The sisters clutched small, lush wildflower bouquets gathered outside for mom, a task she remembered dad suggested to help keep them busy before Ben’s birth. Their gaze traveled to their mom and then over to the bundle Leyla Jo still held tightly.
She watched Colson carry an over-sized tray into the calm bedroom sanctuary and nodded to the girls. “It’s okay girls, come on in.”
“Ohhh—Let me see, Let me!” dark-haired Joy exclaimed as she followed her dad into the room.
Seven-year-old Annabel put one protective arm around her half-sister, and they approached Leyla Jo with curiosity to greet the baby. Any talk between the two little ones about hoping for a sister vanished as they inspected their new brother.
“He’s tiny!” Annabel said, switching the flowers she held from one hand to the other and gently placing a chubby hand on the baby’s head. Laurinda repositioned herself more comfortably in the bed.
“This little guy needs to be back with his mom.” Leyla Jo stood and returned Ben to Laurinda, reluctant to give him up.
As Laurinda reached for the exchange her hand pressed Leyla Jo’s warmly for a scant moment and she added softly, “This will happen, too for you. You’ll see.”
Leyla Jo cherished the warmth of her words and they helped a smile back to her face.
Both girls scrambled up and nestled into the bed next to mom holding their new brother. Colson bent over Laurinda. He reached into the fleece blanket to take his son’s tiny hand, his face glowed.
In that instant, four-year-old Joy seemed to speed-jump from baby status to the pre-school toddler she was. Leyla Jo watched Laurinda take a long look at her younger daughter and imagined she was thinking the very same thing. Laurinda and Leyla Jo often knew what the other thought.
“Girls, baby Ben’s lucky to have two big sisters to watch over him,” Laurinda said. They snuggled even closer together forming a strong, loving group.
Ben’s home birth had climaxed triumphantly with his classic lusty cry of arrival. As a nurse practitioner, Leyla Jo guided Laurinda through the delivery helping her welcome her baby into their world without the distraction of activity often found in a medical environment.
Ben’s face gave a sudden scrunch and his tiny mouth opened and closed as all eyes watched expectantly.
“He’s talking Mama,” Joy said, and laughed.
Joy was Laurinda and Colson’s first child together. First births could be fretful, but Joy’s had gone so well, Laurinda didn’t hesitate to take on another home birth for this child, too.
Laurinda’s feelings about life were so in sync with Leyla Jo’s. Both valued life and cherished each other. Together they celebrated Laurinda’s accomplishment at the latest sweet new family addition.
Leyla Jo regarded the family laughing and joking together and caught Colson’s eye. An immediate smile broke across his face. He mouthed, thank you, over his family’s heads and she smiled back. The family was growing. Laurinda was a natural at being a mom. Again Leyla Jo’s heart ached more strongly than she imagined possible.
She would never exchange the past four years with husband, Hal. Along the way their greatest desire, to become a family, hadn’t worked out. It was especially emotional since Laurinda and Colson had married the same day as she and Hal and had already welcomed Joy, and now Ben.
Joy became Annabel’s half-sister. The fact that Annabel was Colson’s daughter from a previous marriage had never been an issue and all but forgotten. Joy had Laurinda’s brunette coloring and dark eyes, so unlike her exquisitely fair sister’s blond ringlets and blue eyes. And now, here was little Ben with his tiny bald head. It would not be easy to say who he took after for a while yet.
Leyla Jo wondered how children take after their parents, more so because of her Native American, Afro-American ancestry. She looked sharply away, remembering how she and Hal honored the little soul briefly sent to them, but lost early on in miscarriage. What would that little child’s personality have been like? Who would the child have favored? Questions she and Hal had waited on these last years. Questions they asked openly now, without recrimination but in love and gentle devotion. It was time to confront it. The infertility was an open wound.
A yellow flower fell from Annabel’s bouquet onto the floor and caught Leyla Jo’s eye. The flower looked like one of those tiny, closed suncups, and she stooped to pick it up. She traced the smooth petals and sipped her sweet tea. Small occurrences such as this she respected and explored for greater meaning. She and Hal had tried alternative holistic methods such as Reiki, but while effective for a number of other women desiring to become pregnant, she failed to benefit. The usually happy and pleasant Hal experienced periods of uncharacteristic grumpiness lately. They both wanted to expand the love they shared and bring a child into their special world. Did he seem grumpier over this twist in their lives?
She tucked the suncup into her pocket. It’s been too long now. I must find a way.
The following afternoon, Dr. Hal Jared closed the door to his small office the local Museum of Art provided to him and the other professional staff organizing the exhibit. He needed to get out into the air, space and tranquility of the museum park before Dr. Emma Carro’s flight arrived from Rome. Taking a fast stride, he pushed back his shoulders to undo the knots brought on by the hours spent managing the artifact exhibit. He already suspected from Dr. Carro’s tersely worded email that she would strongly challenge his theory.
The hot, mid-September air felt good as he auto-piloted the nature trail to the Cloud Chamber, his favorite refuge. He approached the fieldstone, wood and turf shelter set off in a knoll below pines and sweetgum trees. He welcomed this time of year. September brought fewer visitors to the park, even if the heat made his breathing more difficult. As North Carolina State Archaeologist, he preferred exploration of quiet, most often forgotten locales, piecing together stories from the past and conserving his state’s ancient history. Folks were always surprised to learn North Carolina’s prehistoric peoples inhabited the state from about 10,000 B.C., some seven-thousand years earlier than the Egyptians and the pyramids they had built. He wanted to share more history with them.
He ducked his head and entered the twelve-foot diameter, windowless chamber through a heavy timbered door. The Cloud Chamber for the Trees and Sky had been commissioned by the museum. It operated like a pinhole camera. Visitors sat casually inside the darkened chamber where a camera illusion projected an upside-down view of what it would be like from atop a cloud. Instead of craning up at the sky, visitors stared down from the sky, to glimpse trees, and clouds—an altered perspective. The sky view projected onto the floor to produce the effect. He felt his life was one of altered perspective—always sifting away top layers of soil to see below the surface to artifacts hidden below.
The cool stone soothed his forty-year-old back as he slid down against it and squatted on the chamber floor, his knees and hips enjoying the stretch. The semi-darkness was a welcome respite for his eyes from magnification lenses and finely detailed artifact measurements. He enjoyed the break. The clouds projected onto the floor were sensational summer boomers—high, white wispy mountains moving against a Carolina blue sky.
His eyes adjusted to the dim light. He noticed his hands folded together resting on his knees.
It was odd to see his fingernails completely clean of red soil and stains. Gone even were the calluses built up from archaeological digs. Most often field school students did most of the shoveling, whisking, pick-axing, and manning wheelbarrows pushing mounds of fresh dirt to the sifting area. Yet his heart propelled him into the excavations without hesitation, jumping in to get to the artifacts as soon as possible—those wonderful ancient pieces of history and wonder. But there hadn’t been any digs while he completed assembling the report from his last excavation and preparing the exhibit.
As an archaeologist, writer, and professor, he achieved national notice and professional recognition from the recent North Raleigh dig in the Nardi Point subdivision. In the two years since, he catalogued, researched, and evaluated the most intriguing and exciting scientific discovery in the State’s history. He glanced at the projected sky in deep contemplation.
It’s my life, I’ve been at it a long time now.
Stretching out a leg, he felt the cool earth meet the summer-hot skin not covered by his Bermuda-length shorts. His eyes glazed on the treetops and shifting sky patterns. His task, along with publishing a scientific paper, was to organize an exhibit of the artifacts at the art museum, and a larger one at the natural history museum. There was so much to the story revealed by their find, and it had to be told right—accurately, and with enough excitement to whet the minds of other young students and all the people in the State to value and conserve their archaeological resources. The story, while local, was universal.
Then there was Emma Carro and her husband, Basto. Hal drew in a deep breath, still panting from his walk to the chamber. He made a fleeting promise to get into shape, but let that go as he thought about the Italian archaeologists who had seized his study and brought dating challenges against his work.
His heart beat faster. The challenge they launched was pure academic grandstanding considering the international arena in which it was raised. They had fostered a European academic community, them-against-us mindset. An archaeobotanist, Emma brought serious questions concerning seeds and plant remains found at the dig. Her dating estimate differed greatly from his team’s.
Hal’s gaze traveled from the clouds back down to his hands and the simple gold band on his finger. A smile spread across his face.
Leyla Jo, whatever would I do without you? She was truly his most dedicated volunteer assistant. She’d been with him since that dig, quite the husband and wife team. He was devoted to her.
His heart pounded. Was it from thinking about her? No, she soothed him. What would she say? Yes, take a slow, deep breath, relax. He reached up and rubbed an uncomfortable tightness in his chest.
His cell pulsed in his shirt pocket. He still had it set so the ring tone would not carry over into the museum offices.
He answered, “Hey Jed, I’m here in the Cloud Chamber doing some…thinking…before Emma Carro arrives.” His words were peculiarly hard to form. He gasped, as his breathing became more difficult. The Cloud Chamber began to spin. He wiped cold sweat from his forehead.
“Jed. Jed. I’m not feeling–” He knew his words weren’t getting through to Jed. He heard Jed as if from far away.
“Hal! What’s up? Hal!”
The cell slipped from his fingers and he could no longer see anything. Then everything went quiet.
“Hal!” Jed flew to the next office, and grabbed the open doorjamb to keep from overshooting it, wrenching his arm in the process. “Call nine-one-one!” he shouted into the office. “It’s Hal down at the Cloud Chamber. I’m on my way to him.”
Jed marathoned the path leading to the chamber carrying a high-powered flashlight. He opened the heavy door, switched on the light, sending a blinding streak of light into the chamber.
Hal, caught in the white glare, raised his arm over his eyes as he pushed up off the dirt with the other arm and struggled into a sitting position.
Jed was beside him in an instant, helping to support his back. Hal took a deep breath, and sneezed.
“Hal, what’s happened, bud? You alright? Help’s coming—glad to see you stirring.”
“I’m getting focused, Jed. Strangest thing. One moment I’ve got you on the line, and the next—the next I don’t know what’s happening.” His voice sounded weak.
“We need air. Let’s get out into some air, man.”
Jed struggled to pull Hal to his feet. Jed was grateful for the time spent on strength training. He needed all of it. He wrapped Hal’s arm around his strong shoulder and together they staggered outside the chamber into the fresh air.
Though older than Hal by five years, Jed felt he was the stronger. He and Hal had partnered to put the exhibit together, as well as the final paper detailing the archaeological artifact motherlode discovered in North Raleigh. As the archaeobotanist assigned to the project, he worked with the seeds and other plant remains from the site providing much insight into the relationship between Paleo-Indian individuals from the Mid-Woodland period, and plants found in their environment. He studied what they ate. What they foraged. What the ratio between plants and wild game might have been. That was his job and his passion for puzzling the pieces together was the subject of many a professional paper.
Commotion on the pathway announced a four-man emergency medic team. They jostled all kinds of responder gear, and approached in a hurry.
“Come on, Jed—you called these guys?” Hal sounded annoyed and embarrassed.
Jed thought Hal’s voice had gained strength, but before he could answer, the team surrounded and professionally attacked his friend, strapping a blood pressure cuff onto his arm, positioning him on a mobile stretcher with his back propped up, and applying an oxygen mask. These guys mean business.
“You scared me, Hal,” he offered.
A medic with biceps the size of tires addressed Hal. “Sir, blood pressure, vitals, and breathing are good.”
“Could’ve told you that,” Hal growled. “What’s next?”
And then, Leyla Jo quietly slid by his side. She reached for her husband’s hand, placing a gentle kiss on his forehead. “How’re you doing?” she asked softly, placing her arm around his shoulder. “Try not to fuss. They called my cell right away.”
Jed watched Leyla Jo lock eyes with Hal. How she smiled with confidence at him, bringing him strength and encouragement. She seemed to be measuring his face, gauging his condition. And at the same time, she’d placed her fingers on Hal’s wrist discreetly sampling his pulse rate. It would be real nice to share a love that deep with someone. He remembered how Hal’s life had changed since meeting Leyla Jo. Theirs was quite the love story.
Hal exhaled deeply. He did feel a whole lot better. Being the object of all the mobile, medical technology was embarrassing. This wasn’t the first time he had felt this way though. While he hadn’t passed out before, he had experienced episodes of not feeling right. He disregarded the symptoms and hadn’t bothered to share them with anyone, not even Leyla Jo. His body must miss the physical exertion of a dig. When her face brightened and she became more interactive with the medics, sharing professional chit-chat, he knew this little episode was behind him.
“Ma’am, looks like your husband doesn’t require transport to the ER. And he’s in good hands with you,” the paramedic said.
“Can we keep you on the stretcher here ‘til we get up to the museum?” the medic asked Hal.
“No, no—enough already,” he grimaced and struggled off the stretcher to stand. Leyla Jo and Jed were right there ready to help. With his own legs under him, he felt stronger. “I think we’re good here.”
Leyla Jo nodded.
Several others from the office had made their way down to offer help if needed. Their faces were intent with concern. Now they seemed more relaxed and mixed in and watched as the medics busily packed their equipment, collected disposable medical trash, slapped the mobile stretcher closed, and prepared to leave.
Jed’s assistant suddenly appeared running the path toward them. “Jed, Dr. Carro’s flight got in from Rome–early.”
Jed clapped his hand to his forehead. “Right—Emma.” He looked to Hal.
Hal nodded. “I can deal with it. Did you get the new radio-carbon dating figures?”
Jed’s lips drew together in a tight line. “They’re unchanged. And of course, that’s what the results should be, just as we announced. Emma won’t like it though.” Jed shook his head.
Hal recognized Jed’s impatience about having to rework dating protocol. He anticipated an intellectual challenge with the eminent Dr. Carro. “We’ve got to stay collegial with our international community,” although he didn’t like what was shaping up.
“And, Jed,” his assistant talked louder over the medics as they prepared to leave, “Dr. Carro’s husband, Dr. Basto Carro, is with her.”
Jed turned back to Hal. Leyla Jo looked at both of them. There were rumblings in the scientific community about Basto Carro. Jed knew Emma took on serious studies and research while Basto dabbled in scientific research with a specialty in archaeobotany. Basto’s studies paralleled plant structure and its effects. The international challenge over dating ancient plant remains surprised the home town scientific community. It could be a messy political roadblock for the exhibit.