Summary: Hope is the thing with feathers…it falls into your lap, but is blown away so easily.
Word Count: 1650
“What in the blazes does this mean?” Adam indicated the things littering the bedspread: skirts, blouses, chemises, camisoles, stockings, books, a hairbrush.
She stopped her frantic movements, but just briefly to glance at him, and then ducked her head again, continuing her packing. “I’m sorry, I can’t do this anymore.”
“What? What can’t you do anymore, what?” He cringed at the sound of his own words: harsh, accusing, mocking, and wrong, so wrong.
She stopped packing, and looked him straight in the eyes; but her choked voice betrayed her steady gaze. “Living with…the coldness, with…the emptiness, with… you.”
She reached for her pale blue nightgown, neatly folded and ready to be stacked away into that darn dark green carpetbag, but Adam laid a hand on her arm and held her back.
“Clara, I’m not…I don’t…I’m sorry.”
Something in her eyes changed. Adam couldn’t put his finger on it, but…but, yes, he could. It was hope. A flicker of hope. And she whispered, “What are you sorry for, Adam?”
“I’m sorry for what happened; I’m sorry I wasn’t able to…. Clara, I tried, but there was no way….” Adam trailed off and watched helplessly how the hope died, leaving only sadness and something he didn’t want to recognise.
“I know you tried; I was there, did you forget that? I know you tried, and I know there was nothing to be done. But I hate you for not having done it all the same!”
Adam stared at her. She couldn’t possibly…. She couldn’t, she couldn’t!
But she could. She snatched up the last few items on the bed, jammed them into the carpetbag, and hurried out of the room without looking back once, without another word, without anything but a repressed whimper.
Adam sank down on the bed and picked up the forgotten hairbrush. There were fine blonde hairs sticking in the bristles; and Adam pulled them out, methodically, one by one, while he listened to the diverging footsteps in the hall and on the stairway, and to the sound of departing hooves on the ranch yard.
“She’ll come around, Son, I’m sure she will.” For Ben Cartwright everything seemed to be just a matter of time. “She’s a good woman, but the loss….”
“Pa, it’s been four weeks already, and she doesn’t even look me in the eyes.” Adam shook his head. “Four weeks, and she shrinks away when I touch her.” This last admission hurt. They had always been very physical; from the moment they had first met there had been an urgency to touch, feel, to be aware of each other. But not anymore.
Pa stood and considered him. Had it been Joe, Adam was sure, Pa would have pulled him into an embrace, but with him it had always been different. Finally Pa settled on laying a heavy hand on his shoulder, squeezing him almost painfully tight. “Adam, you have to be strong, for both of you. Don’t let this bring you down too. Be her rock.”
Adam closed his eyes and slowly leaned into Pa, his head resting at Pa’s shoulder, and then finally let himself being pulled into his father’s arms. “Pa, I try, I try. But what she wants, what she needs, is not me….”
“It’ll be all right, Adam. Just give it time.”
“Adam? Adam, open your eyes.”
Blinding pain in his head, and not enough air in the room to breathe. He tried to cough, but the effort brought only more pain; pain in his head, pain in his chest, pain, pain, pain!
“Shh, it’s all right, calm down. Here, have a sip.”
Something cold at his lips; cold, clear water, blessedly cold, blessedly clear, blessedly water.
“That’s it, very good. Now lie back again.”
Soft cushion, soft blanket, soft sounds; no more heat, no more smoke, no more roar, no more wailing—
“Clara is all right, Son, she’s all right. The doctor gave her something, and she’s sleeping now, right next door; but she’ll be all right.”
“Clara is here.” Just to be sure; he had to be sure, he had to…. He remembered her trying to run to him, remembered ordering her to stay back, but he didn’t remember anything after that. Only heat and smoke and roar and wailing…. But, she was all right; Pa said she was all right.
Adam felt the edges of consciousness folding into themselves, and he welcomed the waiting loss of sense. What a luxury not having to remember for a few more hours. Not having to remember how—
He jolted upright and his eyes flew open.
“The baby, Adam, the baby!” Clara’s soot-blackened face was lined with white streaks her tears had left. “He’s still in there!”
“Elijah’s in the house?” He grabbed her arms and shook her. “Clara, where?”
“He’s upstairs, in the bedroom. He was sleeping when I went into the back garden.”
Adam looked at the ranch house. Flames so radiant they seemed to illuminate even the shining bright day. They were eating his home, licking at the wooden walls, clawing up from the shattered windows, entwining the whole house and meeting above the rooftop from where they sent their ruthless message skywards. Skywards, for there couldn’t be a heaven when his barely two month old boy slept in a cradle in the middle of a purgatory where no one could reach him.
“Adam, you have to get him. Please! They wouldn’t let me, but they will let you!” Only now he noticed the smear on her clothes; traces of sooty hands, on her arms, her waist, her skirt. She must have fought with all her might, but there wasn’t much strength left in her since the strenuous birth of their precious only child.
“I’ll get him.”
It was insanity, he knew that. But this all was insanity: the long hot, dry summer, the irate drifters who couldn’t get work and released their tension by setting fire to secluded ranches, his one single trip to town to talk to the Reverend about Elijah’s Christening, the one trip that had left his house unprotected for half a day.
Ranch hands tried to hold him back, but he was stronger than his wife, and he pushed and elbowed his way to the house, emptied a bucket of water over his head, and went into the roaring hellfire. The heat was suffocating, the smoke robbed him of any sight, and he was soon lost, lost in the house he had designed and built. Over the roaring, the hissing and the snarling he could swear he heard the high pitched wailing of his son. Stumbling blindly he tried to break through the smoke and the madness, but wherever he turned there were walls of flames, trapping him, holding him back, misleading him, lapping at him, mocking him, taunting him, shouting with laughter, roaring, roaring, roaring….
Then there was a dark shadow falling from above, Adam felt a sharp blow to his head, and he gave himself over to the roaring, and to a set of giant hands that caught him, and—nothing.
“Are you sure?”
“Of course, I’m sure. And the doctor confirmed it.” She beamed. Her whole body seemed to literally radiate light, and her golden hair framed her glowing face like a halo. “You better believe it, Adam, you’re going to be a father!”
And then she laughed, and cried, and laughed and cried at the same time, danced through the house like a madwoman, laughed and cried a little more; and he watched her, watched them with a broad smile, feeling warmth spreading through his whole body.
Later that night they sat at the fireplace, silently talking about their miracle and how his eyes would look, how her hair might turn out, if he would like to ride out at night like his papa or she would read poetry to her cat like her mama—how they would teach him everything he needed, tell her that she was loved from the very moment they’d known that, despite every doctor’s words, they were going to be parents at last, and how they had never given up hope against hope.
Adam contemplated the charred remnants of his life. There was a lot of work to do until the place that had been his home for the past seven years had been cleared away. Unlike other things, it could be done, though, with time and effort. He had his family’s assurance to help out as best as they could, but somehow he thought he had to do this alone.
He reached down to pick up a blackened piece of wood. He wasn’t sure what it had been back then when the house still had had a multitude of colours; but it didn’t matter anyhow—how could it matter when it all looked dead all the same. The plank slid from his hands as if it still was blazing hot, and Adam fell to his knees, his head buried in his hands, his palms pressed to his throbbing temples.
There was a cool hand at his neck, rubbing slow circles at the base of his head; and Adam looked up into a familiar face: red lips, blue eyes, pink cheeks, golden hair.
Henrietta Hope Cartwright – August 23rd 1876, Friday morning eight o’clock, ten and a half pounds.
A/N: With many thanks to Kaatje for the beta, and to sklamb for the one word we were discussing for so long.