The spit bubble popped when they thumped into the driveway, and Jesse mopped it with one of the hospital’s candy-striped towels.
“Sorry,” whispered Ben.
“It’s okay,” said Jesse, “she’s still sleeping.”
She glanced up from the round cheeks and tuft of dark hair when Ben leaned over. Tipping her arm, she presented the slumbering face peeking out of the swaddling.
“She sleeps a lot,” said Ben.
“Like father like daughter.”
Despite his smile, a wariness filled Ben’s brown eyes, his irises darker thanks to their matching purple bags.
“We can do this,” said Jesse.
“I know.” Swiveling to the wheel, he turned the key and the car quieted. “I just don’t want to mess her up right at the start.”
“We’ll do our best,” said Jesse, keeping steady in the cascade of his uncertainty. “She can’t ask for more than that.”
After a nod, Ben bowed his head and Jesse ached to touch the back of his neck, to run her fingers through his sandy hair, but the bundle in her arms kept her hands pinned. She softened her voice instead.
“We’ll love her, more than anyone else ever will. You and me, together.”
Lifting his head, Ben stared out the windshield. “Maybe not just you and me.”
She frowned when he exited, closed the door with care, and rounded the front bumper. He unlocked her door and, reaching over, unclasped the safety belt crossing her and their wrapped daughter.
“What did you mean, Ben?”
Keeping his eyes downcast, Ben cupped her elbow. Jesse rose out of the seat, her feet spread wide to keep her arms steady. Regardless of her caution, the welcome home banner above the stoop fluttered, and the giant lettering and flanking flocks of pink balloons nearly bowled her over. Gaping, she clasped the tiny bundle closer to her breast.
“She didn’t,” whispered Jesse.
Ben shrugged and gathered the bag they’d brought to the hospital from the backseat, where the still-boxed child seat would be installed.
“I wasn’t sure what to say to her.”
“That we wanted some time on our own?”
“You tell your mother that.”
“Well,” said Ben, closing both doors, “she didn’t get the message.”
Jesse’s shoulders sagged. “How many?”
“Her, my folks, and your sister.”
“In theory, for lunch.”
With Ben in her wake, Jesse gingerly walked down the flagstone path toward the front steps. Her stomach gurgled as she stepped up each tread, and a wave of hunger coursed through her deflated body.
Movement behind the porch windows drew her from her ruminations on the now drained and hollow pit in her core no food could satiate, and she had a smile screwed into place when the front door swung wide.
“How’s my baby and my baaaaaby?!”
Jesse’s dimples burned. “Fine, Mom.”
Covering her mouth, her mother hunched in her silken blouse as if her posture might silence the world. “Is she sleeping?”
Jesse wrapped a protective arm around the babe while her mother skittered forward on her heels, like a pointy shoed mouse. Her mother splayed hands tipped with bright red fingernails, and Jesse flinched when her mother’s outstretched arms encircled her. Each finger pressed tight during the embrace, and during the two wet kisses her mother planted on both cheeks, each leaving lipstick prints.
“We should probably head inside, don’t you think Mrs. Wrutherford?”
Jesse bit her lip, preventing a snicker when her mother pulled away and seemed to become aware of Ben’s presence.
“I was about to suggest the very thing, Benjamin.”
“Then allow me.” He slipped by and held open the door, leaving the hallway inside the only route off the porch.
“Thanks,” whispered Jesse as she followed her mother’s clacking sway into the living room.
“She’s asleep,” said her mother around a shushing finger.
“So maybe we should be quiet, huh Mom?”
“Watch your tone, Angelica.”
From the edge their love seat’s cushion, Angel worked a grin out of her wince and mouthed a silent “Sorry” with her glossy lips.
Jesse smiled in reply while their mother nudged the various sandwiches, cookie platters, crudités, and rows of bottled water, juices, and soda on the coffee table into rigid alignment.
“Eat, eat,” she said as she perched on the armchair and perused her domain.
“…in here,” said Ben.
He arrived from the back patio with his parents in tow, half-empty glasses in their bronzed and calloused hands.
“Welcome home,” said Hue, raising his drink in toast.
Jesse bent low for Jewel to slide a willowy arm around her shoulder, gently squeeze, and then settle back onto her sandals.
“How are you feeling?”
“Tired,” said Jesse.
“I can’t imagine why.”
Laughing at her own joke, Jewel looped her arm through her husband’s and together they claimed the center spot on the opposing couch.
Jesse noted her mother’s askance glance at their cargo shorts and capris, Jewel’s beaded necklace and glass blown rings, the hibiscus pattern of Hue’s aloha shirt, and the bared toes from his flip-flops. With a subconscious twirl of her pearl earring, she inched away from the in-laws leaning against one another like two neighboring oaks.
“Have you made up your mind—” Her mother cleared her throat. “Your minds about a name?”
Jesse let Ben’s guiding hand deposit her into the rocking chair. The faded afghan blanket draping the back softened the wooden struts and surrounded her in her grandmother’s faint gardenia scent as snuggly as the swaddle babe cradled in her arms. She glanced up at Ben, towering at her side. His mouth formed a matching grin.
“We have,” said Jesse, turning to the suddenly pin-drop quiet room. “Everyone, meet Bessy.”
The silence thickened.
Her mother’s fingers froze at her earring. “Bessy?”
“Bessy,” said Hue and Jewel in unison, as if testing the name on their tongues.
“Like a cow?”
Jesse shot a flattened stare across the coffee table’s banquet, shoving her sister and her trendy-ensemble into the beige cushions by will alone.
“Like our daughter’s name.”
“I…I like it,” said Angela, verbally backpedaling as she tucked her legs beneath her, knees poking from strategically tattered holes.
“You what?” Her mother shot up out of her seat. Finding herself standing, she attended to the nonexistent winkles in her pleated skirt and descended once more, her voice calmed. “I thought you would choose something…something more….”
Jesse swallowed another snicker as Ben crouched and laid a hand on Bessy’s head.
“We thought it would be a nice combination,” said Jesse. “You know, Ben and Jesse.”
“Your name’s Giselle.”
Bessy bellowed a sleepy whine.
“Mom, please.” A brief rock settled Bessy and Jesse kept the pace, the soft thud of the rails beating like her pulse. “We wanted something simple.”
“It’s simple all right,” said her mother.
“Maybe you’d like her full name better,” said Ben.
“And what’s that? Bo Peep?”
“Elizabeth Juliana Davis.”
Jesse peered up from Bessy’s face when silence dominated the room again. Her mother’s eyes had begun to water and her lower lip trembled. Hue set down his glass on the table, Jewel’s ringed fingers intertwining with his.
“Juliana,” he whispered.
Angela cocked her head, her raven curls bouncing. “Like Grandma?”
“Like both Grandmothers actually,” said Jesse.
The quiet lingered like the perfume on the afghan. Jesse looked to Ben’s beaming parents, to her sister who offered an approving smile, and then dragged her gaze to her mother whose liquid eyes trained on Bessy’s face.
“Mom? What do you think?”
Coming out of her trance, her mother brushed away the start of tears before they smeared her mascara.
“Well, I think….” With a sniff, she plucked a bottle of water from the tray, her clasping fingers taut. “I think it’s perfect.”