Rhinebeck, New York (Hudson Valley)
Caitlin Paine hurried through her house as night began to fall, trying to get everything ready in time. It was almost six o’clock, and in moments, everyone would be here. She rushed through her oversized, old Victorian house, floorboards creaking as she hurried from room to room, tidying. She wanted everything to be perfect for tonight.
Caitlin hurried into her kitchen, grabbed the cake plate she’d been hiding, and carried it through the double doors. As she did, Ruth, her large Husky, followed at her heels, sniffing the cake and wagging her tail. Caitlin set it down in the center of the dining table, hoping her daughter, Scarlet, hadn’t seen it yet. After all, tonight was Scarlet’s big 16th birthday, and even though it was a weeknight, Caitlin had a special surprise in store.
Caitlin had been looking forward to this all week. She’d tricked Scarlet into thinking they weren’t going to celebrate until the weekend, and had secretly summoned the whole crew to surprise her when she got home from school. Not only did she make sure her husband, Caleb, got home from work early, but she also got her brother, Sam, to leave work early and to bring his wife (and Caitlin’s best friend), Polly. The four of them were as close as two couples could be—like one family—and Scarlet’s birthday wouldn’t be the same without them all here.
The doorbell rang and she jumped. Ruth barked, and Caitlin ran through the house, praying Scarlet wasn’t home early. She opened the door with huge relief to see her little brother, Sam, smiling back, Polly on his arm, radiant as always.
“Did we make it on time?” he asked excitedly, as he stepped into the house and gave Caitlin a hug.
“Barely,” Caitlin answered.
“Sorry,” Sam said. “Got stuck at work.”
Caitlin was proud of her little brother. Only two years younger than she, it was hard for her to believe he was already 31. And even harder for Caitlin to believe that she, herself, was 33. And that Polly was 32. And that Scarlet was turning 16. Where had the time gone? It had all flown by so fast.
It felt like only yesterday that she was just 16 herself.
Caitlin felt so fortunate to have so many people in her life who she loved. Life had been good to her. Or at least, lately it had. She and Sam’s early years had been hard, raised only by their mom, in a dingy apartment in a bad neighborhood in New York City, with an absentee dad they’d never met.
Her mom died right after high school, and Caitlin and Sam had basically been left to raise each other on their own. Which was actually an improvement from the care of their unloving mom.
Sam, naturally, had gotten into a lot of trouble in his youth. He’d even landed in jail a couple of times for misdemeanors. But after their mom died, he finally, with Caitlin’s help, turned his life around. He got into college, graduated, and had been a model citizen since. Now he held a job as a mentor, helping troubled youth at the local school. It was the perfect job for him, and Caitlin was so proud. In some ways, she felt like she’d raised him.
Polly stepped up and gave Caitlin a hug. Ruth barked and whined, and Polly and Sam knelt down and hugged her, too. Caitlin felt so lucky to have Polly in her life. In some ways, life had been a dream, working out so perfectly, her best friend marrying her brother. Their marriage had grounded Sam, given him the stability he’d lacked. The only thing missing from his and Polly’s life was a child; they’d been trying to get pregnant for years, but so far, with no luck. Still, Polly was beaming. Her whole life, as long as Caitlin had known her—since high school—she had been beaming.
“I’m so excited!” Polly screamed, bursting into the room, rushing right to the table, setting down an armful of presents. “I found those candles she loves!” she added, emptying a paper bag and inserting decorative candles all over the cake.
“Does she know yet?” Polly continued. “Does she have any idea? Oh my God, do you think she’ll like this dress I got her? I was looking for it all day. You don’t think it will be too small, do you? Will she like the color?”
Caitlin smiled. That was Polly, always asking ten questions at a time and always in an excited rush.
“I’m sure it will be perfect,” Caitlin said with a smile. “Thank you for everything.” Caleb hurried through the double doors into the room, carrying a platter of carved turkey.
“Careful, it’s hot,” he warned, as he set it down. Caleb’s muscles rippled through his tee-shirt, the product of years of working out.
Every time Caitlin looked at Caleb, her heart soared. She’d married the man of her dreams. Here he was, the model of a husband, tall, strong, with broad shoulders, a proud jaw, and beautiful brown eyes. And every time he looked back at her, his eyes were filled with love. There was no one she loved more, after all these years. He was still the one and only true love of her life.
They had met the day Caitlin graduated high school, and she had fallen in love instantly. It was the strangest thing, but she’d felt, from the moment she’d met him, as if she’d known him her whole life. She’d gotten pregnant by accident at 17, before they’d married, and back then, Caitlin had been so worried about it. Her mother, of course, didn’t help, only having negative things to say.
But Caleb was always calm, never worried. He’d told her he’d already decided he wanted to be with her, and was just grateful they had a child so soon. She took solace in his strength, and after all, she loved him as much as he did her. Nine months later, she gave birth—oddly, on the same day her mother died of a heart attack. Shortly afterwards, Caitlin and Caleb married.
After they married, Caleb entered the Air Force. A fighter pilot for the Marine Corps, one of their best, Caitlin would watch in awe as he flew jets on his military base. It was incredible for her to watch him flying through the air at such speed, with such power. Sometimes she felt it stirred up some memory, deep inside of her—but she was not sure of what. It was as if somehow, she expected him to be soaring through the air. She knew it didn’t make any sense, and tried to push it out of her mind. But somehow, it lingered.
As they’d reached their late 20s, Caleb retired from the force and became a domestic pilot. He traveled a lot, though lately, he’d been home more often, which made Caitlin happy. Sometimes, on the weekends, he flew daredevil shows in small, local airplanes, to the delight of thousands of onlookers. He would soar in huge circles in the sky, dive down, then rise at the last second. Kids loved watching him, though Caitlin’s heart sank every time he got in the cockpit. She just wanted him to be safe.