Celina smiled as the chickadee inched toward her seat on the pine patio chair. Its tiny claws poked and scratched along her skin, its beak pecking away at the seeds in her hand. She stifled a laugh as its feathers tickled the side of her thumb.
A raucous cawing in the distance startled her, and the small bird flew away. It didn’t go far with all the feeders she had in her massive backyard, but her shoulders slumped at the loss of contact. “Bye, little friend.”
A black shape swooped from a tree, and Celina jumped as it collided with the plastic bird bath at the far end of her yard, toppling it over. She got to her feet and walked toward it, twisting her hands together.
Please don’t be dead.
Shaking her head, she bent down and lifted the heavy decoration, frowning at the crow lying on the grass. It spun back on its legs, and she gasped. “You’re alive?”
Flapping noises from the forest’s edge caught her attention, and her eyes widened at the two dozen crows perched on trees bordering her yard. The one that had knocked down the birdbath flew back with its kind, and Celina shrugged as she turned toward her deck.
“Might as well get more seeds,” she muttered as she climbed the steps.
A high-pitched chirp sent goosebumps crawling up her skin, and she spun just as the crows dived at the chickadee she’d been feeding a few minutes ago. Their calls echoed around, black claws ripping away at the bird until she dashed down the deck, waving her arms.
She crouched and tears blurred her vision as she stared at the dead creature, its wing folded at a strange angle, blood staining its little feathers. Clearing her throat, she straightened and took a deep breath.
Circle of life. Sooner or later, everything dies.
After refilling the water and adding more seeds to the feeders, she sat on the steps, focusing ahead. Her mind flashed back to when her parents’ cottage once stood where her house now did, a perfect place to grow up. She used to play in the trees, run around, go on make-believe adventures…but it always felt like something watched her between the branches.
Her gaze moved to an empty spot in the yard. Without looking away, she felt on top of the glass table next to her, fingers fumbling for what she wanted. Grabbing a small piece of paper and a pen that lay next to the cordless phone, she glanced from the empty spot to the blank white sheet. Just lines at first, but eventually, she smiled at the little sketch of her backyard with a play structure, complete with a climbing wall, an upper clubhouse with a small lookout, and a slide now filling that gap.
The sun lowered, and the forest behind her house fell silent. A small chill ran through her as she stood, but she focused her mind on dinner preparations to push the unease away. She put her sketch on the glass table, and moved to the garden hose, making sure it was tightly shut before going inside. A crunching sound mixed with the squeaking of the outside faucet and she glanced back.
Her pulse quickened as the light faded, and she strode to the table. She frowned as she grabbed the phone, her sketch nowhere to be found. “Where—?”
Arms wrapped around her from behind and she screamed as the phone dropped from her hand, the battery flying out as it hit the wood. She spun, and something between a gasp and a laugh left her as she stared at her husband’s hazel eyes.
“You scared me half to death.” Her gaze went to the bouquet of white roses he held, and she forgot about her frantic heartbeat. “What’s this? It isn’t Friday…”
Thomas’ lips curled into a smile. “Do I need it to be a certain day of the week for me to bring you gifts?” He handed them to her, his eyes more golden than usual in the setting sun.
“You’re home early. Did something happen?”
“I wanted to see you,” he breathed, drawing her closer to him. “And we didn’t get the chance to celebrate your birthday last week properly.”
Her cheeks warmed, and she grinned. “You mean we never left the bedroom.”
“A good way to celebrate your twenty-fifth birthday,” he said with a wink. “Well, as part two of your birthday celebration, I’m taking you out to dinner and a movie.”
His words circled around her mind a few times before she could believe they were real.
“We’re going out?” she whispered.
He nodded, but his expression became unreadable as he stared over her shoulder. She glanced back and shrugged at all the crows still perched in the trees. “Not sure what the hell is wrong with them today, but they’re acting weird. Maybe there’s something in the air.”
Refusing to let anything dampen her spirits, she grabbed the phone and battery from the deck floor and squeezed them into her pockets to bring inside. “I’ll just go put the phone back—”
She caught his gaze and stopped as he held out the sketch that she’d left on the glass table. Her stomach clenched as she focused on the piece of paper, averting her eyes from his.
“A place for you to play during the day?” His tone was light, but she braced herself.
Whenever they spoke of anything relating to children, his mood turned sour. It was no secret she wanted a baby; she’d dropped hints for a while before coming right out and asking him about it. But his answer had crushed her, and since that day, something like a wedge had slowly been pulling them apart.
They’d been a couple for nine years and married for five, so why wasn’t he ready for kids?
“I was just doodling.”
“I think you forgot something…” He went to the table and sketched something on the paper.
Assuming he’d erased her idea, her eyes widened at the swing set he’d added next to the climbing wall she drew. He walked past her and brushed a kiss on her head before going inside. She smiled ear to ear as she folded the paper and tucked it inside her back pocket.
A child. Had Thomas finally decided it was time? Did she dare hope after all those years?
“Must be something in the air,” she whispered.
Once inside the house, she fiddled with the battery for a few minutes before slamming it back into the phone. “Phone’s fixed,” she called out.
It rang, and she yelped at how loud it was. She’d forgotten to lower it from when she was outside. Picking it up again, she answered quickly so another ring wouldn’t blast through the house. “Hello?”
Thomas took the phone from her and brought it to his ear, his eyes narrowed at the telephone base. “Hello?” A voice murmured on the other side, and he glanced at her, his lips pressed together, before going into his office and closing the door.
He often got calls from clients, and when he was home, she almost always let him answer. She hoped he wouldn’t change his mind about going out because of business.
A few minutes passed, and he walked into the kitchen, running his fingers through his light-brown hair. “Sorry about that.”
“If you’re busy tonight, it’s fine—”
He cupped her face and kissed her. His free hand pressed on her lower back, drawing her against his body. The inside of her stomach fluttered as their lips parted, their breathing quickened by passion.
“We’re going out no matter what,” he said, placing a kiss on the tip of her nose.
She smiled, wishing time would freeze so they could stay like this forever. But the moment vanished when the phone rang again, and he clenched his jaw.
Part of her wanted to ask about ignoring the call, but with the way he’d narrowed his eyes at the phone, she thought better of it.
Celina grinned in the darkness of the movie theater at the jump scare, wrapping her hands tighter around Thomas’ arm. He leaned in, near her ear. “Enjoying yourself?”
She suppressed a giggle but gave a quick nod. He changed position, wrapping his arm around her shoulder, and she relaxed. Being herself around her husband was the best part about being married. She had Thomas. They had each other.
As the credits rolled, they ambled out of the dark room, and she stretched her arms over her head. “That was awesome.”
“Nothing like a good maiming,” he said with a chuckle.
She laughed, but her smile faded as her gaze rested on a couple standing not too far ahead. The woman had her hand over her swollen belly, and her partner beamed at her. An emptiness filled Celina from the inside, starting at her chest and expanding until it swallowed her heart.
Thomas squeezed her elbow and led her out of the cinema without commenting. The spring air was crisp, and without asking, he took his jacket off and wrapped it around her.
“Thanks,” she said with a smile as they made their way to their car.
His hazel eyes stood out in the dim lighting. “Seeing that pregnant woman upset you.” It wasn’t a question.
She averted her gaze, but he stopped in his tracks, forcing her to stop too. With a sigh, she nodded. “Just a little.”
“We’ll talk about children again soon,” he murmured, as though already deciding. “But not tonight.”
She slipped her hand into her back pocket, sliding her finger over the piece of paper where they’d sketched a playground. “Promise?”
“Promise,” he said.
A group of people stood near the vehicle parked next to theirs, and Celina slowed her pace. One man was leaning against Thomas’ car, smoking a cigarette as he chatted with his friends.
Her husband cleared his throat as they approached. “Excuse us, but we need to get to our car.”
A few of them looked up for a second but went back to their business.
Clenching her teeth, she strode to the passenger side and stopped in front of the man. “Not sure how I’m supposed to get in with you leaning against the door.”
He blew the smoke into her face and grinned when she didn’t react. Holding her breath, she counted to ten inside her mind to keep from exploding on him.
I’d like to ram that cigarette right into your eyeball, asshole.
Thomas took her arm and pulled her back from them. “I’ve called parking security, so I’d leave if I were you.”
“Yeah, whatever.” The man straightened and put out his cigarette on Thomas’ car door. “Must feel safe with a guy who calls for security pricks instead of dealing with his own fucking problems.”
His friends laughed, and they strolled away, throwing jeers as they went.
Thomas rubbed his light-brown hair, still staring in the bastards’ direction. “Sorry about that,” he mumbled.
“Let’s just go home.”
A bitter smile twisted his mouth. “All right,” he said, as though resigning himself to a horrible fate.
She frowned, wondering if it had something to do with the phone call before they’d left, but she said nothing as they got into the car.