Recap: Haze experiences a dramatic birth that unfolds quickly with Jake and Sydney attending. Their baby girl came into the world amid much celebration, surrounded by the people who would be the most important in her life. The following is the final chapter in Destination Evergreen. Keep a look out for next month’s new novel debut with new characters.

“Sydney gestured for him to join in and the three of them clung together in a teary embrace.”

“Mary Elizabeth McKenzie Peterson,” Haze called out, “get yourself back here and give me a hug right now.” With a belly laugh that was half maniacal and completely infectious, Mary spun around and ran back to her mother’s arms. Haze scooped her up, nuzzling her neck, taking in the fresh-out-of-the-tub scent. “Mmm. You smell all clean and shiny,” she said, releasing her. Jake was waiting in the doorway, smiling at the familiar scene. “Come on, Munchkin,” he said, taking her hand. “Say goodnight to Mommy and let’s go read some books.”

“Sweet dreams, Baby Girl,” Haze called after them. She took one last look at the canvas in progress on the easel before sighing and turning to clean her brushes. She was nearly done, but somehow could not seem to get it right. It was a piece inspired by a dream, and in the process of trying to capture the feeling in the dream, Haze had struggled. The dream was about her and Mary walking through Three Sisters—something they had done many times, when suddenly, she had a feeling of expectation. She knew something special was about to happen. They walked along, turning at the familiar big boulder and then the terrain opened up, tall trees subsiding, and she beheld a beautiful sky filled with clouds that were white and fluffy, rimmed with shades of salmon and plum. It was that sky she was trying to recreate and the tremendous feeling of beauty she experienced in the dream. She would get so far, then it would fall short in her memory and it was back to starting over. So far, this canvas had been home to three separate paintings.

She made her way to the kitchen and took two wine glasses off the rack. As she was pouring, Jake came up from behind and wrapped his arms around her. “How’s the painting going?” he asked. Haze leaned into him. “Oh, you know. I’m struggling and I’m not enjoying it.”

Jake turned her around. “You, my beautiful wife, are the most talented and hardworking artist I know. If it’s in your head, it will come out on canvas. That much, I’m sure of.” She smiled. “You always know just what to say to make me feel good again.” And how true those words were. Every time she doubted herself, he never lost faith. If she struggled, he didn’t try to fix it; he just gently reminded her to believe in her abilities. She leaned her head against his chest. “Mmm, you smell like Mary’s shampoo.” “Could be that I just peeled her sleeping head off that very spot a few minutes ago,” Jake said. Haze handed him the glass of Malbec. “So, mission accomplished? Our busy girl is asleep?” He nodded, a knowing smile turning the corners of his mouth. Haze never could resist his crooked smile. “We are officially on alone time.” He turned toward the hallway, his hand held out. “It would be a shame to let it go to waste.”

How natural a routine they’d fallen into. How easy it all seemed now. With both she and Jake having their studios at home, it was less challenging to team up in the caring for their sweet baby girl, but it didn’t feel that way at first. Like most new parents, the demands of a newborn hit like a shockwave, leaving them reeling. Of course, Sydney chipped in—coming over so Haze could shower or nap while Jake was filling an order in his shop. And Jake’s sisters helped too. Without that early help, Haze doubted her sanity would have remained intact. And Jake would have gotten nothing done, leaving his customers in the lurch. As it was, Mary’s birth seriously cut into Haze’s painting time. It wasn’t that she wasn’t feeling creative—in fact, it was quite the opposite. But all she had time to do was write her ideas down for later and sometimes make some sketches. Jake encouraged her to go into her studio, but it was tricky with nursing. It seemed that the moment she got in the thick of painting, she’d hear the cry and know it would have to wait. The frustration level could have risen out of control had she not gotten some sage advice from Jake’s dad. “Mary will only be a baby for a little while,” he’d said. “This time is to be cherished because it will be over before you know it.” And it had.

Mary was nearly 5 years old now, no longer a baby, and it felt like yesterday that she was born, right next door, in a big hurry to be part of the world. Her personality was one to embrace every new thing—curiosity being her biggest trait, next to being funny and smart. As to who she looked like—well, that was a toss-up. She had her mother’s curls and her dad’s crooked smile. She had a real ability to charm everyone she met. She certainly wrapped Crowley around her little finger. He was right now curled up at the end of her bed, watching over her through the night. It had been like that since she was born. First Crowley slept under the crib, and when she moved into a big girl bed, so did he, curling nose-to-tail on the worn quilt.

Haze and Jake worried how Crowley would take it when she went off to school every day. They were worried about themselves too. No longer would Jake see her coming through the door of his studio trying her best to balance a lunch plate and a glass of milk. Haze had set up a Mary-sized easel and worktable in the corner, where she could oversee her art projects as Mary worked on her own. There wasn’t a square inch of wall space not embellished with artwork—Haze’s and Mary’s. She would miss the art time conversations they had each day and the silly music they’d sing along to. Mary might just be the only girl in kindergarten who knew all the words to “Mary Moon.”

There was much planning leading up to school. There were new outfits to buy and a supply list to shop for—and the backpack had to be just right. Mary was not into dresses—she was not girly like that, but she very much liked the color purple, and to Haze’s surprise picked out a pair of Converse shoes that were covered in sparkles. She declared them her favorite thing after switching out the plain laces for purple ribbon. And before they all knew it, the first day of school had arrived.

The whole family took the walk to Wilmot that first day—even Crowley. The outing had an air of being a holiday, the three setting out, Jake and Haze each with a travel mug of coffee. Mary skipped and chattered away, while her parents tried not to think about leaving her at the door. So many children arriving, polished and primped—some happily entering the classroom and others hiding behind legs. Haze and Jake wondered what Mary’s reaction would be, but they didn’t have long to fret. The teacher cheerfully greeted them at the door and put a name tag on Mary’s sweater, careful not to cover the embroidered unicorn on her chest. Mary beamed at the pretty teacher and giggled when she complimented her shoes. “Bye, Mommy. Bye, Daddy!” Mary said hugging them briefly before skipping into the classroom. Jake and Haze watched her through the window removing her backpack and putting it on the peg marked with her name. Haze dashed a tear off her cheek as Jake put his arm around her. Crowley whined, straining against his leash toward the door to join his girl.

“Come on,” Jake said, “let’s go home.” Too choked up to speak, Haze nodded and they turned to go home.

As they approached the house, they spied Sydney waving from her front porch. Jake unclipped Crowley allowing him to gallop the last few yards. Sydney kept a tin of biscuits on the porch and Crowley sat down next to it, waiting. Sydney took one look at Haze and held out her arms. Haze slumped into her embrace, sobbing. She exchanged looks with Jake, who swiped at a tear of his own. Sydney gestured for him to join in and the three of them clung together in a teary embrace. After a few minutes, they broke apart and Sydney enticed them inside with the promise of tissues, fresh coffee and pastries. “That’s enough of this nonsense,” she chided, dabbing at her face. “Let’s remember that this is a day of celebration. Our girl is a big girl now—off to school to make friends and scrape her knees and forget about the three of us weeping sods for a few hours.”

Haze and Jake nodded, reaching for the plate of pastries. “I don’t know about you,” Sydney said with a wink, “but I could sure use a bit of Irish in this coffee.” They quickly agreed, so she fetched the bottle from under the counter, tipping it generously into each of their mugs. She settled with a sigh into a stool across the counter. “With all that sappiness behind us, tell me something good that I don’t know.” It was a common Sydney phrase, the perfect way to change the subject to something fun and new. “Tell me something good that I don’t know.” Only this time, they had the perfect answer.

Haze nudged Jake and they exchanged a smile. “About that… ” Haze began, suppressing a grin. Jake interrupted. “Well, with our baby girl off to school today, this is the perfect time to announce that we’re expecting.” Sydney stared, not quite catching on. “We’re pregnant!” Jake shouted, throwing up his arms. Sydney squealed, her eyes filling with happy tears. “Well, if this isn’t the best damn news on the planet,” she sobbed, once again passing around the box of tissues.