By Penny George
“I’m pregnant,” she said.
Gabriel stood frozen.
“Isn’t that wonderful news babe? I mean, of course, it’s a little sooner than we had talked about…” Claire was busy unboxing the cutlery. She hadn’t even noticed Gabriel’s reaction.
“I can’t wait to tell everyone!”
She’s already in planning mode, he thought.
“We’ll have your mum and dad over for dinner — tell them then. They’ll be so excited to finally be grandparents!”
A gut punch. The room was now spinning. Gabriel closed his eyes as he reached for the bench. He managed to catch himself. He wished desperately to be happy, to be grateful for the second chance. He wanted to show his new bride he was with her whole-heartedly. To meet her excitement. To hide the aching guilt in the pit of his stomach.
“Gabe? Did you hear what I said?”
“Yes! Oh my gosh! Hun, that’s amazing news! Um, it’s just a bit of a shock — I thought we’d have some more time.”
“Yes, I know…”
She paused, took a sharp breath in and straightened her shoulders.
“We have been through a lot these last couple of years. I’m not saying this will be easy, but look at the beautiful gift we have been given.” She turned towards him then, her eyes downcast. “I just hoped you would be happy.”
“I am happy, I promise.” He kissed her forehead and pulled her close, hoping she couldn’t hear the thumping in his chest.
All he could think of was Rosie.
Still reeling from the accident, Claire was the kind nurse Gabriel had met in the hallway of the hospital one day when he was collecting paperwork. He’d stopped to catch his breath, but as he did he let go of the pile of papers. Each piece flew in a different direction.
“Oh, let me help you…” she said, already picking up the scattered pages.
Gabriel could barely mutter a thank you. He noticed a softness come over her face, but it wasn’t the pity that he saw from others. He hadn’t seen her there before, though something about her was familiar and calming. He felt safe with her.
“I’ll walk with you — make sure you’re ok.” When she smiled, he thought maybe he would have a reason to go on.
From then on, Claire looked after Gabe. She was patient when he was at his worst, nurtured him through his darkest hours. Early on, she gave him space when he needed it, and as he opened up more and more, they grew inseparable. She helped piece tiny parts of his broken soul back together.
Claire had confided to Gabe about nursing her father through his last years of terminal cancer. Her mother had died at a young age and she had no other real family to speak of. He was in awe of her inner strength.
“I have never loved anyone like this before,” she confessed late one night, a few months after they met.
“No matter what, we only need each other now.”
Gabriel thought he’d been given another shot at life. Which was why the guilt of what he was doing ate at him. Gabe was visiting Rosie again. At first it was innocent enough; it was birthdays, anniversaries, special occasions. She provided a space for him to share his feelings without judgement. But he was soon out of his depth. He couldn’t stop thinking about her, and his heart ached despite knowing his future was with Claire.
Rosie couldn’t help him — he knew that; it was unhealthy for him to think she could. But he also didn’t want to stop.
Earlier on, at his most vulnerable, Gabe had kept most well-meaning family and friends at a distance. The people he knew were cruel reminders of life before the accident. Besides, with Claire looking after him, he was convinced he didn’t need anyone else. Tuesday night phone calls from his brother were the exception. Finn lived interstate, and whilst there was no animosity between the two, their relationship had never been particularly close. Despite their calls only lasting long enough to recap the footy matches from the weekend, Gabe still appreciated that his big brother was checking in. He knew Finn cared.
After some general banter one Tuesday night, Finn’s tone changed slightly when Gabe told him Claire was moving in.
“You know I like Claire so don’t get me wrong mate,” he seemed to be choosing his words carefully, “it’s just, well… it seems a bit soon, yeah?”
“Yeah maybe,” Gabe said, “but her lease is up, and it’s really hard to get anything here at the moment. We’re staying together basically every night anyway – it makes sense.”
Finn was mindful of sounding positive for his brother’s sake. He’d been through so much. Claire had been wonderful for Gabriel, helping him through these last few months when he’d shut most others out. “Yeah of course mate, no that’s great I’m happy for you both… hey, did you end up getting the insurance money sorted out?” Finn hadn’t meant for the blunt delivery, but he suddenly felt an urgency to know.
“Yeah, Claire has been amazing, she sorted it all out for me. I couldn’t face it. But it’s done now.”
The men said their goodbyes for another week. Finn’s uneasiness lingered.
Soon after moving in, Claire seemed to change. One moment she would be the warm person Gabe knew, the next cold and distant. He told himself to be patient. She had been there for him through everything.
However, things soon escalated.
“You don’t even care about me!” she screamed one night from the top of the stairs. You go to work and I don’t exist! You don’t need me anymore!”
Gabe pleaded with her to calm down. “Of course I care about you! I love you, Hun,” he followed her up to their bedroom. “Please – I needed to go back to work at some stage, you know that. It will be good for both of us…” they went back and forth. The argument went like this for hours.
The next morning, it was as if the fight had never happened.
“Good morning darling, how did you sleep?” Claire gave him a quick kiss and made her way to the shower. She didn’t wait for him to answer.
The more arguments, the more intense and loving Claire became the next day. Last minute holidays for the two of them or redecorating the home to make it ‘theirs’. It was like he was living with two different people. One day he felt on top of the world; the next day he was walking on eggshells.
At times Claire appeared happy with Gabe’s increase in independence: him going out to see friends. But it wasn’t long before the more freedom he gained, the more she felt she was losing control. Her rage became frequent. She was increasingly paranoid – ringing and texting, demanding to know where he was at all times.
“I’m sick of living in a shadow!” was now her familiar cry. Her sharp tongue knew how to hurt him, deeply.
Part of him knew she was right. She didn’t have to say her name. He knew the shadow of Rosie was always there – her paranoia not completely unfounded.
Claire’s ultimatum one vodka-fuelled night should have been the sign for him to leave. “If we don’t get married, I’ll have nothing to live for!” her voice hoarse, mascara running down her face. Now, his guilt was all-consuming.
That voice soon became the one in his head; and so, he relented. He should be grateful to get a second chance. She’s put up with so much from him. This was the least he could do.
“Are you happy Gabe?” Finn asked the blunt question when Gabe informed him they had eloped on a whim.
“Yeah, yeah of course. Look we’ve had our ups and downs, but that’s every relationship, right?” He sounded deflated. He was not even convincing himself.
There was a long silence between the two. Finally, Finn confessed, “Mate, I’ve been worried – so I’ve done some checking. I don’t think Claire is who she says she is…”
“What do you mean?” Gabe’s cheeks burned.
“I asked a detective, mate, to look into a few things. Look — there’s nothing official on her record but it looks like she was involved in some stuff. People are looking for her.” Finn worked in government. Gabe knew he had connections, but he never expected this.
“And that stuff about looking after her dying dad? Her parents are happily married and living on a farm up here somewhere. They cut ties with her years ago after they nearly lost their house trying to get her out of trouble.”
Gabriel said nothing.
“All I’m saying is just look for yourself, see if things check out. I’m worried about you.”
It had been three weeks since Finn’s call, and Gabe had more questions than answers. Everything was moving so fast – and now on top of it all, Claire was pregnant.
He had to leave; and he had to see Rosie.
That morning he made the familiar drive down the single lane road. The gravel crunched at the entrance where the willow tree stood. He got out of the car and walked past the garden bed Rosie loved so much; with its eclectic mix of roses, succulents and geraniums. He sat on the wooden bench, weathered and grey, where they had held each other so many times before.
Rosie and Gabe had spent countless hours out there; drinking red wine from her grandmothers mismatched crystal tumblers and bringing blankets to cover themselves when the night air set in. He remembered the glow of the porch light and the music playing from the lounge, wafting out — background to their laughter. Rosie’s presence hung like the late spring breeze, wrapping itself all around him in a comforting embrace. She had made him feel like they were the only two people in the world.
But today there was no music, no laughter. Only a lump in his throat, his thoughts racing. “Ro, this should have been our baby. Our beautiful, precious boy.”
Shaded by the willow tree, Gabriel looked up at the sky as if searching for answers. He slumped forward – putting his head in his hands. “Our boy, who we’d joked would have your curls and my eyes. Tall like me, but cheeky and smart like you.”
He paused, still unable to look up. “Our beautiful boy, whose heartbeat we heard so loud and strong. The little bump that grew bigger as summer drew closer and the days became longer.”
He turned to the small bronze plaque at the centre of the wooden bench, placing his hand over the inscription as he wept.
“But I wasn’t there to protect you and our little boy. I should have been there Rosie…”
Large heaving sobs fell out all around him.
After a few minutes, he took in a deep breath.
“Ro – I…I found some old photos in Claire’s things. There are photos of you. Of you and I together. I’ve never seen them before…” His breath quickened, “…but the last one, it’s just of her. She’s standing in front of a car – the same one they think hit you.”
“I’ve been such an idiot. All the insurance money from your super — it’s gone. There’s nothing left. I don’t even know who she is…”
Gabriel stood up and placed a kiss from his shaking hand onto the plaque before he turned and walked back to the car.
By now, the detectives would have arrested Claire, and Finn would have arrived at the airport.
As he drove to meet his brother, Gabe knew that while he may get justice for his first wife and their unborn son, he had another child that he could no longer protect.