A Clipped Wings & Inked Armor Outtake
The bell over the door jingled.
“Unca Hay-en! Unca Hay-en! I has tattoos!” The high pitched voice made me smile.
I dropped the red pencil and held out my arms as my niece teetered toward me. Her red tutu jingled with bells. Her pink shirt was covered in snowflakes, her tights were white and pink striped and her boots were black and sparkly. Nora was barely two-and-a-half and already bigger than the world.
My aunt gave me an apologetic look. “Sorry to interrupt, but she couldn’t wait to show you.”
“Best kind of interruption.”
“Look Unca Hay-en! I like you!” She held out her arms, all proud and beautiful, her cute, chubby arms extended as she wobbled closer.
She squealed with innocent glee as I scooped her up and smothered her face in kisses. She wrapped her tiny arms around my neck, and sloppily kissed my cheek. “Look! Look! I has lots!”
Her arms were covered in a haphazard array of temporary tattoos. “Oh wow, Nora, look at you! What’s your favorite?”
I nodded pensively. “Mmm. I think it’s mine, too.”
She turned my arm over so she could point to the pinup tattoo of Tenley. She was the cherry on top of a cupcake. “Like dis one. ’Cept Aunt Tenny need more coose.”
It took me a second to understand what she said. I laughed, because what else could I do? The image of Tenley was scantily clad, as pinup tattoos often are. Nora was the sweetest thing in the world. “Are you going to work with me when you’re a big girl? Are you going to be my apprentice?”
Little Nora’s dark hair swished as she nodded. “Mommy says I can get my ears pierced, too. But only if you say yes.”
I glanced at Cassie, narrowing my gaze at her.
She shrugged and raised a brow.
We didn’t have guns here, so if Nora’s ears were getting pierced, it would be the old fashioned-new way, with a hollow point needle. Healing time was faster, but the pain was more significant, and Nora was too young. I would not be responsible for making her cry.
“Maybe when you’re a little bigger,” I said.
“Where’s Aunt Tenny? I wanna show her my tattoos.”
“She’s at home, we’ll see her when we get there. She’s probably making cupcakes just like this one.” I pointed at the one on her arm.
Nora’s blue eyes widened. She clapped her hands together. “Cuppy-cakes!”
I grinned and nodded at her excitement. “They’re the best aren’t they?”
“I love dem!”
Nora glanced down at the piece I was working on. This one I could let her see. Flowers blossomed, vibrant and beautiful. I’d probably trashed the design a dozen times already, trying to get it perfect. It would go on Tenley’s skin after the holidays, so it needed to be perfect.
“Pretty flowers, Unca Hay-en,” Nora said, touching the paper.
“They’re for Tenley.”
I let her see some of my delicate designs, but the dark stuff I hid, because it had no frame of reference for her yet. Her world was unfathomable wonders still. One day Nora would see the art on my back, and I’d have to explain that to her. It never occurred to me when I designed the darkness that innocence would ever be exposed to it.
Nora slipped off my lap and ran over to the jewelry case, pressing her face against the glass so she could look at the sparkling barbells and earrings.
I shuffled my papers into their folder. It was the holidays. My family was already at my house; the one I’d created anyway. Cassie and Nora were my only remaining blood relatives.
Cassie waddled over. She was seven months pregnant. Due on my mom’s and her sister’s birthday, again, just like Nora had been. Despite what I imagined was severe discomfort based on the basketball she was carrying out front, she looked so happy. She and Nate had tried for years to have kids. Cassie had miscarried three times. And then Nora the miracle happened. Miracle number two was cooking in the oven. This time it was a boy according to the ultrasound.
Cassie closed her eyes, her smile warmed her face. “He’s having a party in there.” She grabbed my hand and put it on her belly.
I felt bumping. “You drink coffee again?”
Cassie shook her head. “He just likes to move, let me know he’s in there, waiting for the right time to make his appearance.”
I gave her belly a pat, then cleaned up my desk. I was quick about closing up while Nora showed Cassie which jewelry she thought was prettiest. I zipped her little black coat with the tiny pink skull polka-dot print, adjusted her hat, then picked her up and followed Cassie out of the store to her car, locking the doors behind me.
“Want me to drive?” I asked.
“Could you, please? My back is killing me.” Cassie smiled her relief.
“No problem. You get in, I’ll take care of my girl, here.” Nora clung to my neck, nearly choking me, but I didn’t mind. I opened the back door and settled her in her car seat. She did exactly what I expected as soon as I tried to buckle her in; arched her back and shoved my hands away.
“You don’t want to see Tenley?” I asked.
“It’s too tight!” she complained.
“It keeps you safe, princess Nora. We can’t go see Tenley unless you’re all buckled in.”
She gave me her angry face. “I do myself!”
I raised my hands in a show of submission. “Sounds good.”
I waited while she struggled to get her arms through the five point harness. It was like a fucking straightjacket with all the buckles and snaps and shit. She gave up about halfway through and let me secure her. I kissed her forehead and gave her props, then rounded the driver’s side.
Cassie was staring at me.
“Don’t what?” She grinned.
“Look at me like that.”
“You’re so good with her.”
“That’s because I don’t have to get up in the middle of the night and deal with the bullshit.”
“Un-ca Hay-en! No bad words!”
“Sorry, Nora.” I bit back the smile at her put out expression.
“You’d be such a good dad,” Cassie said softly, more to herself than me.
This was a conversation that had come up a lot more lately. Especially with Cassie on baby number two and Lisa and Jamie talking about starting their own family. Sarah and Chris wouldn’t be far behind, of that I was sure. I wasn’t opposed to kids. Not the way I used to be. Five years changes a person’s views on life and what was important. What I was opposed to was putting Tenley through unnecessary pain.
She’d been over it with the doctor’s. Hip replacement surgery was imminent down the road. Certain things would bring about the need quicker, like pregnancy. Some days the pain was obvious. Some days I’d catch her standing at the bottom of the stairs, looking up. She’d take a deep breath, close her eyes, grip the banister and then run up them. Like ripping a Band-aid off, a burst of pain was better than the alternative. When she got to the top she’d hunch over, take a few deep breaths and keep going. I hated seeing her fight pain like that.
Nora saved me from replying. “Aunt Tenny do my hair? We pay dress-up! I eat cuppy-cakes!”
“You can have a cupcake after dinner,” Cassie said.
“I no want dinna! I want cuppy-cakes!” she said. “Tenny give them to me when you not looking, Mommy.”
I barked out a laugh. “Don’t worry, Nora. If Tenley won’t give you one, I will.”
Lisa, Jamie, Chris and Sarah were already at the house. I frowned at the front walk. It had snowed earlier today, but the path was clear, which meant Tenley had come out and shoveled, even though I said I’d take care of it when I got home. Tenley wasn’t always the best listener.
Nora wouldn’t let Cassie help her out of her car seat, insisting I do it instead. She held my hand and stomped her way up to the front door. Getting her to stop and take her jacket and boots off before she ran in to see Tenley was a feat, but I corralled her with hugs and tickles.
Tenley peeked around the corner at the sound of Nora’s shrill giggles. Nora spotted her and squealed her excitement, bumbling down the hall with her arms outstretched. “Aunt Tenny! I has tattoos!”
Tenley’s smile widened and she crouched down, opening her arms to receive her. Nora wrapped her arms around Tenley’s neck. “You smell like cuppy-cakes!”
Tenley embraced her, eyes falling shut, she turned her face into her hair and breathed in.
Cassie laid her head on my shoulder and squeezed my arm. “Nora loves her so much.”
“She loves Nora back.”
Cassie used me as a support to take off her shoes. Tenley was dragged off into the kitchen, probably to show Nora her newest cupcake treats. The house smelled amazing, like dessert and dinner all rolled into one.
Lisa, Jamie and Chris—my colleagues and homemade family, along with Chris’s girlfriend Sarah, as well as my Uncle Nate were all hanging out in the living room.
Nora rushed over to Nate. “Daddy! I has tattoos!”
“I see that, pretty girl.” Nate looked at me, eyebrow raised, as if I’d been the one to encourage the behavior.
She made her way around the room, showing everyone her art. Being generally adorable, as was typical. Nora had more aunts and uncles than she knew what to do with and she soaked up the attention.
“Nora, want to help me decorate some cuppy-cakes?” Tenley called from the kitchen.
“Cuppy-cakes!” Nora scrambled off Lisa’s lap and ran to the kitchen.
I made sure Cassie was comfortable before I went to check on Tenley and refresh everyone’s drinks.
Nora was standing on a step stool while Tenley tied a tiny apron around her waist, so they could decorate cupcakes without making a mess of her outfit. Well, Tenley would do the decorating, and Nora would lick her fingers. I watched the two of them for a minute. Tenley wore a red skirt and black top that fell off one shoulder, displaying the tip of the wing decorating her back. Her hair was pulled up in a clip, showing off the ladder of rings in her ears.
Nora babbled away, while Tenley patiently held her hand and piped icing onto the cakes. Tenley was amazing with Nora. She never got frazzled when Nora cried or got upset. She had an infinite amount of patience. She needed it to deal with me.
I crossed over to her and slipped my arm around her waist, dropping a kiss on her neck. “Hey, kitten. Need help with anything?”
She turned her face toward me, seeking out my mouth. I kept it chaste, because of present company. “I think we’re good. I’ve got a great little helper here.”
“I put spinkles on.” Nora grinned widely.
“You’re a master sprinkler.” I gave her a wink, then put my mouth by Tenley’s ear and whispered, “These look just as tasty as you, kitten.”
She dipped her finger in the icing and brought it to my lips. I held her wrist and swirled my tongue around the sweetness. There would be a lot of hours before we had time alone. Coming home to Tenley baking always made me want to get it on. If we didn’t have people over, the kitchen counter was usually an excellent location.
“Ew! Unca Hay-en! Aunt Tenny wash your hands!” Nora shook a finger at us.
I laughed and grabbed a cupcake before Tenley could stop me, patted her ass, kissed Nora on top of the head and zerberted her cheek. I shoved the whole cupcake in my mouth so I could grab some beers and a bottle of wine for the girls.
Once the cupcakes were iced Tenley got out the toddler Lego’s and sat down on the floor with Lisa, Sarah and Nora so they could build a castle until dinner was ready.
After dinner we exchanged gifts, which was mostly a pile of presents for Nora. By the time we were done she was passing out on my lap with her new stuffed kitty that looked almost like TK, the stray cat Tenley and I had adopted the night I put the first tattoo on her skin.
“Want me to take her upstairs?” I asked as she snuggled into my neck.
Nora had a room here for sleepovers, Tenley had found a princess bed and decided it was a good reason to paint yet another room pink.
“I’ll do it.” Tenley lifted her from my lap, lips pressed in a line as she adjusted the almost-dead weight. Nora went willingly, wrapping her tiny arms around Tenley’s neck.
“Weed me a story, Aunt Tenny?”
“Of course, princess.”
Tenley took the stairs slowly, TK following close behind her. I didn’t take my eyes off them until they were safely at the top.
“Someone’s getting the itch,” Cassie murmured, rubbing her belly.
I ignored the comment. I was fully aware of the itch she was referring to.
Twenty minutes later, Tenley still hadn’t come back down, so I went up to make sure she hadn’t fallen asleep with Nora. I peeked in through the crack in the door. Nora was cashed out, hugging her blankie and her stuffed lamb. Tenley was curled up beside her, hands tucked under her chin, watching her sleep.
I pushed the door open a little, making it creak. Tenley’s eyes shifted my way and she brought her finger to her lips with a smile. She sat up slowly and carefully slid off the bed, tucking Nora in tight before tiptoeing over to me.
She pulled the door almost closed, then wrapped her arms around my waist, laying her head on my chest. I returned the embrace. “You okay?”
She nodded, but said nothing.
I stroked her hair, then cupped her face in my hands so I could see her. The only light in the hall came from a lamp on the side table across from Nora’s room. “You sure?”
Tenley put her hands over mine. “Just a little tired. Turkey dinners are more work than you’d think.”
“You did amazing. You always do.”
She lifted her chin and I dropped to take her mouth. It wasn’t one of those kisses with promises of more. It was soft and warm, with just a hint of tongue. Sometimes the holidays were hard for Tenley, for both of us, because there was so much missing. There were no parents to visit, no brothers and sisters to share our stories with. We were onlys and orphans.
Tenley pulled away before I did. “We should probably entertain our company.” She slipped her fingers between mine and I followed her down the hall, back to the family we’d made for ourselves.
Two hours later Cassie was fading fast, as was expected with her being as pregnant as she was. Nate collected a sleeping Nora and took his girls home to bed. The rest of us kept drinking. None of us had to wake us up at six o’clock in the morning and watch Saturday morning cartoons. Yet.
I didn’t have expectations tonight after everyone finally went home. Tenley had spent the entire day prepping a huge meal. So when she came out of the bathroom in nothing but a tank top and a pair of barely there panties, nipple rings visible through the thin material, I tried not to get too excited.
She climbed into bed and snuggled right into my side. I slipped an arm under her, pulling her in close. “You have fun tonight?”
She traced the lines of the phoenix on my chest. “It was great. Nora’s getting so big.”
I smiled. “She’s a force. God help Nate when she’s a teenager.”
“I can’t even imagine.” She pressed her lips to my shoulder. “You’re so good with her, Hayden. She idolizes you.”
“She’s pretty easy to deal with.”
“Mmm.” Tenley fell silent, but she kept tracing lines of ink.
I glanced down to find her lip caught between her teeth. “What’re you thinking about?” Tenley stayed quiet a long time, until I hooked a finger under her chin and tilted it up. “Kitten?”
“Do you ever wonder . . .” she trailed off, the words stuck.
“Do I ever wonder what?” I knew where this conversation was going. We’d been circling it for months, almost years now. When Tenley first held Nora she had that look women got when they saw new life; as if there was nothing else quite so special.
“Is that something you want?”
She nodded. The answer to that was simple and complex at the same time. “Not if it causes you pain, no.”
“Pain is temporary, Hayden. At least the physical kind.”
I propped myself up, so it was easier to look at her. I’d watched her struggle through winter year after year. Saw how difficult it was for her when the weather changed and the aches made it nearly impossible to get out of bed some days. “You can’t do this the regular way.”
“Since when have I ever done things regular?” She laughed, but nerves made it waver. “C-sections aren’t that bad if they’re planned.”
I skimmed her stomach with my palm, thinking about the how’s of this road for her. For us, if we took it. “You have enough scars.”
“I’ll take another scar for you. If it means we can have something that’s just ours.” She met my gaze and held it.
“I’ll give you anything you want, Tenley.” I traced the curve of her jaw. “I just don’t want to compromise you.”
She threw her leg over mine, and braced her hands on my chest, pushing up to look at me. “I can handle this.”
Taking a few slow, deep breaths to keep the anxiety from getting to big, I traced the curve of her hip and along the scar on her thigh. The one where they’d put the plate and screws to hold her together after the plane crash. The accident that took Tenley’s entire family away from her. “It would mean you’d need surgery sooner.”
“I’ll need it eventually anyway,” she countered.
I swallowed my fear, the uncertainties were always the hardest to take. The potential for complications were higher for Tenley. It was selfish of me to deny her, but then, she was the most important person in my life. “I don’t want to put you at risk.”
“There’s always a risk, Hayden, every day is a risk.”
“I can’t lose you, Tenley. I won’t survive this life without you.” It always came down to base truth between us. We both knew that my addiction was loving her.
“You’re not going to lose me,” she said gently, fingertips skimming my lips.
“But what if—”
“There are always what ifs, Hayden. No matter what the choice. I want this with you, if you want this with me.” She leaned down, her hair brushing my chest, lips close to mine. “I want more than just us, Hayden. I want short sleeps and long nights. I want all those beautiful moments we see when Nora’s here, but I want them to be ours.”
I cupped her face in my hands, pushing down the panic. The only thing I was scared of was not having her. “We can try.”
Her smile was like gold. “I’m supposed to get the shot on Monday. I’ll skip it.”
A tear rolled down her cheek, pooling into the corner of her mouth before her lips met mine and I tasted her happiness, fused with her loss.
She broke the slow, unhurried kiss only long enough to rise up, and take me inside, sinking slow. When I was surrounded by her, she brought her mouth back to mine and we stayed connected like that until we came together.
18 months later
I pushed open the door, silence greeting me. Tenley sat in the rocking chair, chin touching her chest, Ellie cradled in her arms, both asleep. I pulled my phone out of my pocket and captured the moment. Twelve times. Shoving it back in my pocket I crossed the room and scooped up my little girl, careful not to jostle and wake her.
Some nights were easy. Others were long. Tonight had been hard, but they were all worth it. Every moment our girl breathed and thrived was another miracle. I moved the heating pad out of the crib and settled Ellie into the warmth, covering her with a light blanket.
I watched her for a long while, taking the tiny splayed fingers that trembling for a second before she sighed and settled into sleep. I didn’t hope she’d be more like Tenley or me, either way, she’d be her own person. TK wound his way around my legs with a quiet meow, just to let me know he was here and looking for attention. Soon enough he’d get more than he bargained for.
She smacked her little lips together, her tiny fists coming up close to her mouth before she settled again. I understood now. How things changed. How priorities shifted and what was once most important became second.
Now I had two most importants, because Tenley was what held me together and made me stronger, and Ellie made me want to be invincible.
I went back to Tenley and slipped an arm under her knees, and another behind her back, lifting her out of the chair. Pregnancy had not been easy on her body. Recovery was slow. Scars took a long time to heal. We both knew that. Tenley was stoic in her pain, always masking it.
But she was in love. And more vibrant than I’d ever seen her, despite her exhaustion. Despite the challenges.
I carried her to the bed and settled her against the pillows. She barely moved, until I stepped away, and then she started to rouse. I leaned in and touched my lips to her forehead. “I’ll be right back, kitten.”
Tenley closed her eyes and settled on my pillow. I brushed my teeth and got ready for bed, checked on Ellie one more time, then crossed the room to our bed. Tenley was passed out on my pillow. As soon as I slipped under the covers she was wrapped around me.
Our road would never be easy. But it was ours and we had each other. And now we had Ellie.
There was no greater love than creation.