"The Insurance Girls Tell All"
Part 2 - "Wake Me Up Inside"
By Azalea

Rated PG-13

Chapter 10: Single Mother
Milly:     After Nicky was born, I really didn’t know what I wanted--whether to dwell on his father, or try to forget him. Losing Nicholas felt a bit like the days after Christmas. Some years after the holiday season, I want to keep hearing carols for as long as possible, and leave the decorations up for just as long. Other years, I don’t want any reminders that Christmas is over-so stop singing those carols! What I’m getting at is I’m blue that Christmas is gone, even though I know it will come again. With Nicholas-Saint Nicholas, you could say-I knew I would see him again someday, but for now, I was blue. Sometimes I wanted reminders of him, like the scent of his cologne, and other times, I just didn’t want to think about him at all.

Meryl:     Milly hadn’t been the same since the baby was born. I had thought it would make her happier. Instead, she was upset as she was the day Wolfwood had died-and it kept continuing for several days.
        We were visiting her at her and her sister’s house. (She had moved in with her sister, much to Vash’s dismay-he didn’t like the time away from Nicky.) Heloise was holding Nicky, while Milly, dressed only in blue pajamas with white polka dots, lay on the floor, her tears flowing down onto the wooden panels. She kept on mouthing something over and over. I’m not an expert at reading lips, but I was positive she just kept saying “Nicholas” over and over again. That suspicion was confirmed when she muttered aloud, “Nicholas D. Wolfwood.” She sat upright, shrieking, “Why isn’t he here? Why did God let him be killed after only one night together? He should be here with me and his son!” She lay back down and groaned. “Instead, he’s in a grave in a ghost town and he’s probably..probably a skeleton by now!”
        “Milly, what’s the matter with you?” I demanded. “I thought you were doing so well! You’ve been upset for days. You can’t keep up like this.”!”
        She sat up again and stared at me, wild-eyed. “At least you have a husband who’s alive!”
        Heloise put Nicky in his crib and marched over to me. She grabbed my arm, pulled me off the couch, and dragged me to the edge of the room. She was angry. I had never seen her angry before and would seldom see her angry afterwards. “Don’t you understand what’s going on?” she demanded in a loud whisper. “Milly is going through what’s called ‘post-partum depression’. She needs you to be her friend, not scold her.”
        “But-” I hadn’t meant to scold.
        Heloise anticipated my argument. “Yes, she has his baby now, but until very recently, that baby was in her womb, and she was carrying a very real piece of Nicholas in her body.” She glanced at my swollen belly. “You hopefully will have your man for a long time to come, but you still just may have to go through the same thing after you give birth.”
        “I--” I looked down in shame. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
        “Well, go tell Milly.”
        “Er, all right,” I agreed hesitantly, feeling shy-and like a little child who has just been scolded by her mother.
        I turned around. Vash was sitting on the floor, his arm around Milly’s shoulders. “It’s okay, Milly,” he said gently. “I still think about Wolfwood every day.”
        “You do?” she asked hopefully.
        “Yeah, I think about him, and I think about Rem, the woman who raised me.”
        “He does think of Mr. Wolfwood all the time,” I said, as encouragingly as I could.
        “It’s okay to hold on to a memory,” Vash continued, as I sat down in front of them on the floor.
        Milly looked at me searchingly.
        “Yes, it’s okay to remember,” I told her. “I’m sorry, Milly. I didn’t realize how normal and natural your feelings were.”
        Milly glanced over at her sister and smiled. Heloise shot her the hand signal for “okay”. I felt a flash of jealousy.

        Now I know it would be juicy fodder for your book if there was bitterness between Heloise and I over whom Milly loved more, but…well, like I said, there were brief flashes of jealousy on my part. I don’t know what Heloise felt. But I didn’t let these feelings take root. What good would they do anyone? Anyway, like her baby sister, Heloise was a sweet and kind woman, and didn’t deserve having a grudge held against her.
        To this day, I do not know which one of us Milly has valued more, but maybe it doesn’t matter. Milly has plenty of love to share with everyone.

Milly:    As an unwed mother, I had to put up with stares, or people who quickly looked away from me, and uncomfortable silences, but, fortunately, not too much outright mocking. On the street at dusk once, there was this angry guy. He called me whore and bitch and slut. Then he stepped menacingly toward me. Vash or Meryl weren’t there--and fortunately, Nicky was with them-and I was carrying groceries, so I couldn’t quickly reach my stun gun.
        Suddenly, the mean man looked behind me, and his face went white. He mumbled something apologetic and hurried away. I looked around and saw no one. It was one of those elusive times that I sensed Nicholas was still near. Who else could it have been? The man looked like he had seen a ghost.

Chapter 11: A Visit to the Past
Milly:     It was a road trip, just the four of us-Vash, Meryl, Nicky, and I. And we had arrived at our destination-Nicholas’ old orphanage.
        Vash was in a goofy mood. “I’ll say, ‘Hi, I am the infamous Vash the Stampede, here to scare the children straight.’”
        “No, don’t say that,” Meryl told him, getting out of the car.
        Vash got out, then helped me get Nicky out of his car seat. I carried the baby as we walked towards a church with an open door. In a neighboring field, children were shouting and playing, scarcely noticing us.
        We found no one in the church proper, so I suggested the Fellowship Hall. Inside, an elderly couple and a brunette woman were sipping coffee.
        “Oh, hello,” the old lady said. “We didn’t hear you arrive.”
        “Hello,” I began uncertainly. “My name is Milly, and this is-”
        “-Eriks,” Vash broke in. “And this is my wife, Meryl.”
        “Well, I’m Mrs. Lawhead, this is Art Lawhead, and our daughter, Rhonda.”
        Handshakes and greetings were passed around.
        “We’re friends of Nicholas D. Wolfwood,” Vash explained. “We’re here to-”
        “Where is Nick anyway?” Rhonda broke in. “We haven’t heard from him in ages.” I thought it odd that she referred to him as Nick-no one ever called him Nick.
        Vash glanced at Meryl for help. “That’s what we’ve come to tell you,” she said. “He was killed about a year ago. I’m sorry we didn’t come sooner.”
        The couple and their daughter expressed shock and sadness, and asked us for more detail. I felt grief anew and Mr. Lawhead helped me to a seat. I noticed Rhonda looking at me curiously. What exactly had her relationship to “Nick” been?
        Vash and Meryl purposefully didn’t divulge the full story, but tried to fill in Nicholas’ old friends as best as possible.
        “We have another surprise for you,” Vash continued. “This one happier-to us, anyway..Milly?”
        I did not know if I should resent him for putting me on the spot. I stood up, still cradling Nicky. “Um, I am Nicholas’ widow. This is his son, Nicholas D. Wolfwood, Jr.”
        Rhonda leaped to her feet. “Nick got married?” she asked incredulously. “I don’t believe it!” She came over and examined my child. “Yeah, this is his baby. He has his eyes and nose and hair. I believe it. But I don’t believe it. Hmmm. Weird.” She sat back down.
        “I want to see the baby!” Mrs. Lawhead piped.

Milly:     Later, Vash was playing with the orphans in the field. Meryl was holding Nicky, on a chair on the church porch. I was sitting on a bench in the church yard when Rhonda sat down beside me. “I have so many things I want to ask you,” she said.
        “I wanted to ask you some things, too,” I replied shyly.
        “I guess so.”
        “Were you…?” I began. “Were you and Nicholas, um, dating?”
        She shook her head and laughed. “No. Many people over the years have found this hard to believe, but Nick and I were just friends. But having been friends with him so long, I just find it odd that he would marry, especially since he made a commitment to a celibate lifestyle.”
        I am sure my face grew pale. “What? He told me he didn’t take a vow to celibacy-that this church didn’t require one!”
        “It doesn’t. But he was so busy with this ministry, he never had time for romance, nor was he encouraged to. I’ve seen girls try to vamp him-he just blew them off.”
        “Really? There wasn’t any girl in his life before me?” I asked, incredulous but hopeful.
        “He mentioned a girl named Angelina a couple of times. She was a young widow he helped out of a jam when bad guys were threatening to take her land away. To thank him-”
        I tensed up.
        “-To thank him, she gave him a kiss. On the cheek. He said it was enough. He was really smitten with her, though.”
        “I see.”
        “You don’t know whether to feel bad about him maybe having someone before you or worried about him not having someone before you,” she chided gently.
        I blushed, and looked downward. “I brought down a priest. He was Samson, and I was Delilah!”
        “Oh, hush, you didn’t make him get his hair cut now, did you?” she asked, referring to the Biblical story.
        “Well, no, I liked his bangs all shaggy.”
        She fingered my hair, staring at me in wonder. “You must really be an amazing woman to have won Nick."
        “Oh, I don’t know. I never thought of myself as special.”
        “How’d you two fall in love?”
        I shrugged and shook my head. “We just did.”
        “Oh, there’s more to it than that,” she said knowingly.
        “We were friends first,” I explained. “But it still seems like such a whirlwind romance.”
        “And the dust hasn’t settled.”
        I closed my eyes for a moment. “No, it hasn’t.”
        “You know, I should be crying more than I did,” Rhonda confessed. “But it seems unreal. He’s always gone away for long stretches of time. It still feels like he might come back someday. Yet..he was gone so long this time I kinda knew. I’ve known for awhile. I guess that’s why I’m not overcome with…” She trailed off.
        “Nick wasn’t really cut out to be a priest,” she remarked finally. “I advised him against it, but he was so stubborn. He thought the celibacy part would be easy-no girl had ever gone to his head before. He hadn’t been all that interested in sex-he was sexually abused as a child, you know that, don’t you?”
        I nodded, remembering him telling me about it, but realized suddenly that may have been that sacrifice Nicholas made for me when he made love to me, the sacrifice I had had a hard time putting my finger on.
        Rhonda smiled. “I guess he wasn’t prepared for what happened when a girl did get to him.” Changing the subject, she asked, “Did you..did you meet this weird man called Chapel the Evergreen?”
        “No, I-”
        She shivered. “He gave me the creeps. He was always trying to school Nick and boss him around. He claimed to be a Christian, but I dunno. The love was missing.”
        I bit my lip, refraining to mention how Chapel had been partially responsible for Nick’s death.
        “He was involved with some shady people, too. I fear he may have gotten Nick involved, I dunno. But with Nick, there was still love there. He really cared about the children, and the downtrodden. But..”
        “But what?”
        Her tone grew to a whisper, as though what she had to say was very confidential. “One day, while he was away, some men with guns came and held the kids hostage once. They were pretty no-nonsense, but fortunately engaged in no unnecessarily cruelty.”
        “What did they want?” I questioned.
        “They said they were here as insurance that Nick did his job.”
        “What job?”
        “I think they wanted an..an assassination. Of one of their own.”
        “Well, did Nicholas obey them?”
        “I don’t know. I guess so, because the kids were released unharmed. This was right around the time of Augusta.”
        I stared ahead silently, feeling disturbed. Then I said, “Well, whatever Nicholas did, I’m sure he did it with the kids’ safety in mind.”
        “Yeah. I know. He wouldn’t kill in cold blood.” We watched the children play a few minutes, then Rhonda piped up again. “Oh, Milly, I’ve got to show you something!” She took my hand and pulled me off the bench. “C’mon, it’s at our house! It’s not far away.”
        We got to the house, where, in the living room, she opened a chest. Inside were many photographs. Now, some young people today think we didn't have photographs back then-we did, but they were all sepia or black and white.
        Rhonda pulled out a couple of large photos. “Oh,” I gasped. One was of Rhonda and her parents-with Nicholas, posing with one arm around Rhonda and an arm around Mrs. Lawhead. The other was a portrait of Nicholas solo. It intrigued me to see that his hair was longer and that he wore it in a ponytail. “He looks good,” I remarked. “Yeah.”
        “Thereby dispelling the myth that all ministers are stodgy old men,” Rhonda remarked wryly. We both giggled.
        I tried to hand the photos back to her, but she refused to touch them. “Milly, I want you to have them.”
        “Really? You mean it?”
        “You’re the one who deserves them.”
        “Oh, thank you so much!” With my free arm, I gave her a half-hug. “I have so little left to remember him by, especially how handsome he was!”
        She turned back to the chest. “Maybe there’s some more in here that I can bear to part with.”

Chapter 12: Little Angel
Meryl:     I’m the one who had Vash, yet I remained jealous of the girls who came before, with fancy three and four-syllable names like Elizabeth, Marianne, and Stefany. Not only were they prettier than I was, they were more glamorous, too. Here I was plain ol’ Meryl. Oh, people told me that I and my name were pretty enough, but I guess a lot of people feel that way-that they don’t like their own looks or names.
        Then there was one name-one simple, odd, one-syllable name-that always caused a wave of insecurity to wash over me-Rem. I know Vash insisted that she was a substitute mother, but as the time for our child to be born neared, I worried all the more. If it were a girl, he would surely want to name her after Rem. I didn’t think I could stand the constant reminder of his great love for that woman, a love which eclipsed our own.
        “Rem was my mother,” he insisted to me again one night as we settled in bed. “At least, in spirit. You wouldn’t begrudge a man for still loving his mother, would you?”
        “No, I’m not trying to sound like that. It’s just that-”
        “Let’s just say I love Rem like a mother, and you like a wife.”
        Was it my petty jealously? Did Vash have to prove he loved me more? Should I just accept his love for Rem?
        “I’m not naming the baby Rem,” he assured me, as though reading my mind. And maybe he was. “There’s only one Rem-we can’t replace her,” he added.
        “Huh?” Again, my jealously swelled.
        “You’re not just a replacement for Rem,” he said mysteriously. I did not know yet of the vision he had had of me as Rem. “You’re who you are, and you’re very important to me.”
        More important than Rem? I wondered. Oh, Meryl, let it go!
        I’d like to say that there was a moment in my life where-snap!-I realized once and for all that he loved me more than his “mother”. But it was just something I had to live with.

Meryl:     I was very pregnant and not happy about it. Milly and I were hanging up wash to dry when I paused, trying to get the kinks out of my back. “Ugh, how long is this going to go on?” I demanded, glancing fruitlessly at my watch.
        “What’s the matter, Meryl?” Milly asked. “Don’t you like being pregnant?”
        “I suppose you enjoyed it?”
        “I loved every single moment!” she chirped.
        “Even when you were throwing up half the contents of your body?”
        “Yep.” She smiled, and it seemed more like a smirk to me. “Because I knew that inside me I was carrying a little life-a life created by the man I love.”
        “I am going to kill Vash for this,” I muttered.
        “Why? He didn’t plan on doing it,” she reminded me. “Besides, once the baby is born, you’ll be very grateful you had her. Or him.” “Please, Milly, I cannot take incessant cheerfulness right now!”

Meryl:     I’ll never forget that day-it was Milly’s birthday. When Vash and I arrived at the door, we heard Milly babbling baby talk and Nicky making gleeful noises. Vash looked at me and smiled. “Oh, don’t expect me to be all that mushy,” I warned.
        I was carrying the cake, and Vash held the small gift box in one hand, so with his gun arm hand, he rapped on the door. “Oh, birthday girl!” he called.
        “I’m coming!” Milly opened the door, and Vash and I entered.
        Vash put the gift down on the table, and then immediately went to Nicky’s cradle, scooping him up into his arms. “Hey, little buddy!”
        I put the cake down, and Milly and I hugged as though we hadn’t seen each other in ages. “Happy birthday, Milly!”
        “Oh, thank you, Meryl, and I see you brought me a cake and everything!”
        I glanced around. “Isn’t Heloise coming?”
        “She said she’d be here, but to go ahead and start without her.”
        Nicky started to get fidgety, so Milly gave him a pacifier and put him in a high chair. We adults sat down at the table.
        Milly took hold of the gift box. “Oh, it’s some sort of jewelry.” She flipped it open. “A cross necklace! It’s lovely!” She removed it from its case. It had been custom made to look like Nicholas’ cross had when wrapped. It was white porcelain, with silver thread.
        “You want me to help you put it on?” Vash asked helpfully.
        “Yes, in a sec.” She fingered the pendant. “In this way, I will always have Nicholas close to my heart. Is that what you were thinking?”
        “Yeah,” Vash said with a chuckle. “I was thinking of getting one for myself. But maybe plain silver.” He fastened the chain around Milly’s neck.
        “Oh, I shall wear it everyday,” she promised. “Now, let’s have some cake.”
        I was only half way through my piece when a sharp pain caused me not only to lose my appetite, but to double over.
        “Meryl, what’s wrong?” Vash demanded frantically.
        “I think she’s going into labor,” Milly offered.
        “Is it time already?” Vash demanded, torn as to which direction he should go.
        Milly shoved him down in his seat. “Calm down! Let’s see if she has another one!”
        “One what?”
        “Labor pain!”

Meryl:     In the end, it was indeed labor, and Heloise arrived in time for us all to go to Inepril Clinic. She and Milly stayed in my room, as I had stayed with Milly during her delivery. Vash was also there because we couldn’t keep him out.
        The baby was a little, fair-haired girl, with blue-green eyes-looking very much like her daddy. “Hi, little…” Vash began, searching for a name. “…One,” he finished lamely. “What do we call her?”
        “You mean to tell me you haven’t thought of a name yet?” Milly demanded.
        “Well…” He touched the infant’s cheek. “She is a little angel, isn’t she?”
        “Then we can call her Angel,” I said.
        Vash ran a hand don the arm he told me transformed into the deadly Angel Arm. “Noo…”
        “Nicholas used to always call his bikes Angelina,” Milly suggested.
        “I really don’t want to name her after a motorcycle,” Vash remarked.
        “But the original Angelina wasn’t a bike,” Milly pointed out.
        “Angeline,” I stated.
        Vash looked up. “Huh?”
        “Angeline. No A at the end.”
        Vash glanced at Milly. She nodded, smiling. He turned back to me and the baby, laying a hand on her tiny arm. “Well, welcome to the world, Angeline. We’ve been trying to make it a happier, brighter, safer place for you. I hope you enjoy it.”

        Angeline grew at a normal human rate, which relieved Vash and I, yet sometimes Vash fretted that she might grow old and die before he did. She inherited her father’s free-spirited nature, and none of my practicality.

Chapter 13: Years Rush By
Milly:    One day, I decided I must go home, to my old hometown to pay a visit-no matter how they welcomed me. I did not bring Vash and Meryl, but I brought young Nicky, of course.
        As I pulled up to the farm, I could see middle big brother working in the fields. He looked up when I got out of the car. I went over to the passenger side and took Nicky from his car seat.
        “Well, if it isn’t the prodigal daughter returned,” Middle Big Brother drawled, walking up. “And what have we here, a-”
        “Unka!” Nicky cried from his position in my arms.
        “What?” It was surprising that Nicky knew to call Middle Big Brother uncle, but not so surprising when I remembered it was one of the first words that he learned, from hanging around “Uncle” Vash so much.
        “Unka!” Nicky repeated, more loudly, stretching out his arms towards Middle Big Brother.
        If I ever saw someone melt, I saw it there with Middle Big Brother. He tentatively put a hand on Nicky’s head, then enthusiastically rubbed it. “Well, hi there, little fella. What’s your name?”
        “His name is Nicholas,” I reminded him. “But you can call him Nicky.”
        “Well, Nicky, why don’t you and your Mom come in for dinner? Our Mom is preparing pot roast.”
        “Pot roast?” It was my favorite homemade dish. “Mom must’ve known I was coming.”
        So I entered my old home. There was some awkward silence for a few initial seconds, but then Nicky worked his magic on everyone, and all questionable actions of my recent past were forgotten.

Meryl:    Milly wasn’t the only one laying her past to peace. Vash heard about a needy town where nearly everyone was unemployed or underemployed. On top of that, they had been devastated by a typhoon. He let them collect the bounty on his head-no fighting or fleeing on his part. His reasons were that he no longer had the excuse of having to remain free so he could find and stop Knives. The people of Inepril had protected us, still, Vash didn’t want Angeline and I to have to live on the run. So he decided to stand trial.
        Thankfully, he got the ablest lawyer around at the time, Emil Hector. Hector actually volunteered his services, he was that intrigued by Vash. Witnesses were called: Marianne, Elizabeth, Stefany, Kaite, the whole town of Inepril, certain flying ship survivors, and more. The whole outlandish but true story of Vash’s life was laid bare. He didn’t even have to say much-he just sat there with big, wide eyes, looking as innocent as a puppy dog.
        The press went crazy covering the trial, which lasted for weeks. But Mr. Hector was one savvy lawyer. Vash was set free, and the courtroom actually cheered. There was only one condition-Milly and I were to keep an eye on Vash for the rest of his or our lives. We were happy to comply with this stipulation.
        As for Hector, he got the rights to Vash’s biography, and his estate is still making big money today.
        After that, Vash was able to live more or less peacefully, although there were some individuals who still resented him, and claimed the trial was one big farce.

Milly:    It happened one day shortly after Nicky turned three. We were having a church picnic, because Reverend Sheppard had come to Inepril. I felt badly and wondered if he secretly resented the festivity. About a year or two ago, his dear wife Laurie passed away during labor. The baby didn’t make it, either. Poor Duncan-he was too kind of a person to deserve that kind of tragedy.
        While Nicky ran off to play with Angeline-under the ever-watchful eyes of Vash-Duncan came up to me and sat on the ground. “I’m moving here permanently, you know,” he announced. “Reverend Detwiler is retiring.”
        “Well, welcome to town, Reverend Sheppard!”
        He wrung his hands. “I have a bit of a proposition for you.”
        “You want me to be church secretary?”
        “No. I mean, you can if you want-”
        “’Cause I can type real good, and I have plenty of office experience. Just ask Meryl!”
        He chuckled. “I will. Let’s see..it’s been two years to the date since Laurie died in labor.”
        “Oh,” I said sympathetically. “I had no idea that was today.”
        “I had thought we would spend our whole lives together, but..Well, I’ve courted a couple of women since then, but none of them worked out-they want me to forget Laurie ever existed. But I won’t. I still love her, and I always will.”
        “That’s sweet.”
        “I know you understand, because you lost your man. Look, what I’m saying is I won’t ask you to forget Nicholas if you don’t ask me to forget her.”
        “Let’s marry-you and me.”
        I was astonished. “But Duncan, we’ve never even dated.”
        “We can make it a long engagement while we get to know each other.”
        “Well, you could’ve just asked me on a date.”
        He smiled sheepishly. “I got a good feeling about you, and I thought I’d cut right to the chase.”
        I smiled warily. “Cut to the chase. Where’d they get that expression?”
        “Dunno. Probably something leftover from Old Earth. Now listen, Milly-I’ll treat Nicky as my own, but I’ll still make sure he knows all about his real father. And I’ll understand if you talk about Nicholas now and then. I just need someone who understands how it feels to always love someone, even after they’ve gone.”
        “I will always love Nicholas,” I stated.
        He smiled and nodded. “I know. I’m counting on it.”

Meryl:    “Mommy! Mommy!” Angeline ran up to me, holding up her arms. I scooped her off the ground and joined Vash and Nicky on our blanket.
        Milly, looking quite excited, ran up. “I’ve got exciting news! I’m engaged to Reverend Sheppard!”
        “WHAT?” I shouted. “What is it with you and clergymen?”
        “Well, it’s a long engagement,” she explained, as though that made everything all right.

Meryl:     Shortly before Milly’s wedding, she and I had a conversation that I found a little odd. “He still visits me sometimes in my dreams,” Milly said wistfully, knowing that I knew she was referring to Wolfwood.
        “You don’t believe me.”
        “Oh, I believe you. Go on.” Once in awhile, she would mention these dreams, vague dreams of her and Wolfwood. What they had been doing-walking, talking, loving-she wasn’t certain about, but she was sure his spirit was really there, and not just a figment of her imagination.
        “I wish I could remember them better, but I am left with this pleasant feeling, this-”
        She blushed a little, then nodded. “Yeah.”
        “Sounds like he was doing more than just visiting.” That mischievous priest.
        “Yeah, that’s true, and if I keep having these dreams if I marry Duncan…would it be adultery?”
        I stared at her until finally she demanded, “What?”
        “You are about the only person I know who would worry about something like that. You and maybe Vash.” I sighed. “Listen, Mr. Wolfwood went to Paradise, right?”
        “That means he’s perfect now, and he wouldn’t ask you to do something wrong with him.”
        “Oh, I see. I think…”

Milly:    People say I must have a thing for clergymen. Maybe that’s so-I’ve recognized for a long time now that they, too, are sexual creatures who need love, such as a wife can provide to them.
        Nicholas and Duncan had God’s ministry in common, but there the resemblance ended. Duncan rarely drank and never smoked. While Nicholas had been a crack shot, not afraid to use a gun, Duncan carried no weapon and would probably shoot himself in the foot if given one. In fact, he did. That time the Bad Lads Gang besieged our town, and Vash loaned Duncan a gun while they went out to defeat them. Oh, well, Vash saved the day anyway, and Duncan went around on crutches for awhile.
        Love was different the second time around. There wasn’t as heated a passion between me and Duncan as between Nicholas and I, yet..it worked. Nicholas had made me feel like I was on fire. Duncan, on the other hand, his love was cool and refreshing, like a shower after a day on the dusty trail. We were comfortable with each other, and with each other’s bodies. He wasn’t a replacement or substitute for Nicholas. He was a new companion altogether. I had a lot of affection for him. I truly did love him.

Milly:    Five years-it was five years to the date that I had last seen or held Nicholas. Five years since he had died. I was expecting a child by my new husband now-this baby was our “triumph”, Duncan said, over the tragedies in both of our lives. I rubbed my belly. It wasn’t too big, yet.
        I felt guilt over thinking of Nicholas. Duncan had been so good to me. Yet I also felt guilt over trying to forget Nicholas. I had told him I would always love him. And I did, even now, feel that way. Every time I looked at Nicky and saw how he was growing more like his father each day, I felt that bittersweet love still there.
        I went into the bedroom, pulling open the middle drawer of my dresser. Inside, underneath a couple of folded blouses, was a wooden box, an antique from Old Earth. Decorating the top was a picture of two wolves by moonlight. Not bothering to turn on the light-it was getting dark from a storm-I opened the box. Inside was the lock of hair I had snipped from his bangs, and the button I had cut from his jacket. Also there was the necklace Vash and Meryl had given me, with the pendant that looked just like Nicholas’ cross. I had stopped wearing it for Duncan’s sake, not wanting to flaunt my love for my first husband in his face every day. I took the necklace out, tracing the pendant’s outline, then held it up to my lips for a kiss. “Oh, Nicholas,” I breathed aloud.
        I heard a movement. Gasping, I dropped the necklace. Duncan dove to the floor, catching the pendant before it could shatter into a thousand pieces.
        He stood, facing me. I didn’t know what to say. “It’s all right, Milly,” he told me gently. “It’s all right to remember him. That was part of our agreement-you don’t make me forget her, and I don’t make you forget him.”
        “I…” A lump formed in my throat. “It’s..it’s five years..he died..this day,” I tried explaining through tears.
        He walked behind me, moving my hair aside as he fastened the necklace on me. “Then wear this today.”
        He walked over to his dresser, and opened the bottom drawer. He pulled out a box of his own. It was made of cherry-colored wood, and when he opened it, it played a melody. “It’s Laurie’s favorite song,” he explained. “I could never part with this anymore than you could the necklace.”
        “It’s so sad!” I cried. “That tune is so sad!”
        He shrugged. “It seems sad now, but it wasn’t always.” He put the box away. “I keep a lock of her hair in it-”
        “I have a lock of Nicholas’ hair, too.”
        “See? It’s okay, Milly-don’t be afraid to still feel love for him.” He sat down on the bed, and I sat next to him. “You can even talk about him or mention him when I’m around. We can’t forget the deal we made coming into this marriage.”
        I nodded. I knew he wasn’t just thinking of me. The agreement was important to him as well, for the sake of Laurie’s memory. “He was in my life such a short time,” I recalled. “He was always coming and going, and I felt empty when he left. Now he’s gone for good. And I’ve filled my life with my son and my friends and you, but always, there’s a part of me that’s missing him.” I barely said the last words aloud.
        Duncan lay on his side on the bed, propping himself up on an elbow. “Listen, Milly-he’s not ‘gone for good’. Neither is Laurie. You know that. We’ll meet again in the afterlife. You’ll get to spend all the time you want with Nicholas, and I’ll catch up with Laurie. And other times, just you and me will hang out together. Because there is no marriage in Heaven, but there are loved ones.”
        “I would like that,” I said.

Milly:     I knew that Laurie was the love of Duncan’s life, and he knew Nicholas was the love of mine. I don’t think our relationship as remarried widow and widower was normal, but it worked for us. And that’s all that mattered.
        It did effect the children. Our daughter, Naomi Ruth, was jealous of Nicky because she knew he was the son of my first love. I think she sensed that part of my heart was still hanging on to Nicky’s father. Nicky, in turn, was jealous of Naomi Ruth because she was the daughter of both Duncan and I, the people they had to live with. Oh, they quarreled like siblings do, until after the time the Bad Lads Gang besieged our town. Something happened between them on that adventure, and they’ve gotten along ever since. They’ve never told me what it was, but I guess they learned to work together.
        Nicky was always aware of and proud of being Nicholas’ son, but he got along fine with his stepfather. It was just easy for everyone to get along with Duncan; he was so sweet-natured.
        Because of this gentle personality, Duncan and I seldom quarreled. If I was mad, I’d simply cross my arms and exclaim, “Hmmph!” and Duncan would smile at me without judgement and my anger would melt.
        It made me wonder how Nicholas and I would have gotten along after the initial passion faded. He had shown me such tenderness that one night, but he had been a temperamental person-would our relationship have been stormy? I don’t like to think so.
        I don’t know if this makes sense to anyone but me, but if I had never made love to Nicholas, I could have never married Duncan. See, at least Nicholas and I got a chance to consummate our love. If he had died not knowing how much I love him, I would’ve just pined away! That would’ve been the only way left to prove my love. Does that make any sense?

Meryl:    No.

Melinda:    I think I see. Making love to Nicholas gave you strength to face tomorrow.

Milly:    Well, I wasn’t getting at that, but maybe that, too.

Meryl:    Oh, Milly, I cannot imagine you just pining away!

Milly:    Well, I would have!

Meryl: But it’s just not you.

Milly:    You never know!

Melinda:     You still wear the necklace you mentioned keeping in the wolf chest. Do you still have the other items?

Milly:     Of course!…You can look, but don’t touch!

Melinda:     Wow, an actual lock of his hair, and a button from his jacket! This is so cool! You know, you could auction these off and make a fortune!

Milly:     Oh, no! No one else could ever possibly treasure these items more than me.

Chapter 14: Young Love
Meryl:     The years came and went. “Rediscovered”-and just plain new-technology blossomed, thanks in part to the survivors of the last Project Seeds ship, especially the scientists who had been in suspended animation for over a century! We got television, telephones, color photographs…Our beloved Angeline was the first female to pilot a biplane.

Milly:    But the greatest invention was the horse!

Meryl:     Well, that’s not really an invention.

Milly:    Oh, but it was so exciting when they found the horse DNA in the last spaceship!

Meryl:    I’ll agree, horses are a lot better than those ugly old thomases. When I was a young girl, I never mooned over thomases like today’s tween girls dream about horses!

Milly:    I wonder if thomases are jealous of all the attention horses are getting?

Meryl:    Vash was leery about what havoc these inventions and innovations would wreak on our planet, but I found progress delightful..once I got used to each new thing, that is. Like terraforming adding lakes and ponds to our landscapes. And cloud seeding enabling those lakes and ponds and landscapes to thrive. Despite Vash’s misgivings, I know he still found it grand to be at the official dedication ceremony of the River Bravo.
        Although he called himself Eriks now, Vash didn’t go out of the way to hide his identity. He didn’t get paranoid; he just played it low key. Everyone in town knew who he was, and some newcomers and visitors figured it out as well.
        Vash got his wish-he was allowed to live a peaceful life. Pretty much. There was an outbreak of violence here, a wild adventure there. But those were isolated incidents. All in all, life was pretty tame, with some lulls into dullness once in awhile. Vash thought it was sweet. I know some of the books and TV series and movies portray him-and us-as always thirsty for adventure, but we’d seen so much blood and darkness on our real adventures that, frankly, all of us were grateful for days where the biggest tragedy was spilling your drink or stubbing your toe.

Meryl:    We two pairs of adults-Vash and I, and Milly and Duncan--were gathered around in the Sheppard kitchen, drinking tea. Naomi popped her head in now and then; she was busy with her sketchbook and the idea of just sitting around drinking tea bored her.
        Nick and Angeline burst through the door. They were holding hands and looking nervous. “I’m glad you’re all here,” Nick said. “Because me and Angeline, um…”
        “We’ve got…” Angeline tried, also sputtering out.
        “What I mean is…” Nick began again.
        There was a pregnant pause, so to speak, ending when Vash seized Nick by his shirt. “You knocked her up, didn’t you? Man, you’re just like your father!”
        “What?” Milly pounded her fists on Vash’s back. “Nicholas was not like that!”
        “He got you pregnant!”
        “Well, you got Meryl pregnant, what’s your point?”
        “Err…” Vash let go of Nick’s shirt. “I dunno.” He must have realized he was throwing Wolfwood and Milly’s marriage, which he had always recognized, into question.
        “Oh, boy, this is getting interesting!” Naomi piped up.
        Duncan stood. “The important thing is we figure out what to do about the baby.”
        “You guys, listen!” Nick snapped. “There is no baby! We’re virgins, okay?”
        “All right!” Vash and Duncan hi-fived each other.
        I shook my head and sighed, resting my forehead in my hand.
        “You need some aspirin, Meryl?” Milly asked.
        “No.” I looked at the two teens. “Just tell us what you want to say.”
        “Well, we’re virgins now,” Angeline began. “But we’re not sure how long we can keep it up.”
        “What we mean is,” Nick took up. “We’re crazy about each other, and the sooner we get married, the better chances we have for saving our chastity.”
        “You want to get married?” Vash asked, sounding incredulous.
        “I can arrange that,” Duncan pointed out.
        “I want to be maid of honor!” Naomi cried.
        Vash held up a hand, warning Duncan and Naomi to be quiet. He addressed Nick and Angeline. “You two are still babies.”
        “No, we’re not, Dad, and you know it!”
        “Look,” Nick reassured. “You know I love your daughter, and I would never hurt her.”
        “I understand needing to marry in a hurry,” Milly reminded everyone. “And I think you do, too, Vash.”
        “So your whole family approves?” Vash tried to ascertain. “What about you, Meryl?”
        I took a sip of tea before answering. “I always knew the two of them were meant for each other. It just happens a little sooner, that’s all.” I remembered when they were toddlers and we brought them to the circus. We told Nicky and Angeline to hold hands to avoid getting lost in the crowd. They had been holding hands ever since. So, really, it wasn’t like they weren’t waiting long enough before plunging into marriage. They had already waited a long, long time.
        “But-” Vash continued to object.
        “Daddy, please!” Angeline begged.
        “They’re practically cousins,” Vash argued.
        “No, we’re not,” Nick countered. “Not by blood. I just call you Uncle and Meryl Aunt because you two and my Mom are so close friends.”
        Milly clasped her hands together. “Just think, Vash-if they have a child, that child will be part you, part Meryl, part me, and part Nicholas.”
        “Wow, that is pretty neat,” Vash admitted.
        “What’s holding you back, Daddy?”
        Vash smiled wistfully. “It’s just that you kids have grown up so fast-especially to a century-old humanoid like me. I miss playing with you, and-”
        “I’m sure you’ll have a grandchild soon enough,” Milly pointed out. “And then you can play again.”
        “Hey, stop pushing the grandchild issue!” Naomi scolded.
        “Thank you, li’l sis!” Nick exclaimed.
        Suddenly, Vash shoved Nick’s and Angeline’s heads together. “Okay, you two! We’ll have the ceremony whenever you want!”
        “Thank you, Daddy! Thank you so much!”
        “Thanks, Uncle Vash!”
        “Oh, don’t call me Uncle anymore!”
        “I drew a picture of you getting all flustered, Uncle Vash,” Naomi chirped, handing him her sketchbook.
        “Yeah, that’s a great picture, Naomi,” he said sourly.

Chapter 15: Another Visit to the Past
Milly:    Shortly after Nick and Angeline’s engagement, I took them on a pilgrimage to Tonim Town. “It seems like an awfully desolate place to die,” Angeline remarked. “Or be buried.”
        I sighted the large, wooden cross in the churchyard. It was tilted a little, but…“Oh, thank goodness, it’s still standing!”
        We walked over to it. “Nicholas D. Wolfwood,” Angeline read, running her finger underneath the letters. She turned to her intended. “It’s your name, Nick.”
        “Yeah,” Nick said hesitantly, as though not sure what to think. He looked so much like his father at that moment that my mind flashed back to Nicholas, standing in the streets of this very town, and bidding me farewell. “What are you looking at, Mom?” He had his father’s vocal rhythms, too, but his voice was higher and not gravelly-due to him not taking up the habit of smoking, I guess.
        I shook my head, and blushing, looked down at the ground. “C’mon, I’ll show you around town.”
        “So, everyone just deserted this place?” Angeline asked, following me.
        “Did they ever find out what happened to them?”
        “They’re probably all dead, unfortunately. No one ever showed back up, not in all these years.” I gestured at some buildings. “That’s where Meryl and I stayed, and there’s where Vash stayed.” Soon we came to another home, and I opened the door. The rooms were dusty and rundown, but otherwise exactly as I remembered them.
        In the bedroom, I paused. “On that bed, Nicky, is where you were conceived.”
        “Mom, I did not need to know that!” he protested, embarrassed.
        “I think it’s neat,” Angeline remarked. “I’m very glad you were conceived.” She squeezed his hand.
        “Can you-” I began hesitantly. “Um, can you two let me be alone here for a few minutes? I’ll meet you at the grave.”
        They nodded understandingly, and left.
        I lay down on the bed. The springs creaked and sounded brittle. It didn’t feel the same. How could it? Nicholas wasn’t here to share the mattress with me.
        After not very long, I got up with a sigh, and made my way back to the grave. Angeline and Nick stood there, staring at the cross. I stood by as well. “Nicholas,” I said solemnly.
        Then, more brightly, I continued, “Nicholas-I brought your son with me.” I put a hand on Nick’s shoulder. “He’s grown up to be such a strapping young man, don’t you think? I know you would be proud of him. And he’s marrying Vash and Meryl’s daughter! I think that’s so neat!”

        As we drove away, Angeline remarked, “They’ve still left everything untouched. I don’t suppose that will last much longer.”
        “What do you mean?” I asked.
        “Well, what with the bestseller book on my Dad-Nick’s Dad is part of the legend, too. This town could attract-”
        “Tourists?” Nick asked glumly.
        “Yeah-I won’t be surprised if it turns into an attraction.”
        “Well, maybe it’s good that we came when we did,” I said.
        “Mom, you were talking to a grave back there,” Nick brought up. “Now, forgive me, but didn’t you and Vash teach me my father’s spirit is not tied to a grave, but is in Paradise?”
        “Yes, well, but his spirit visits us some times.”
        “But he could visit us anywhere.”
        “You’re so wise, Nick! You’re going to make a good preacher someday!”

Meryl:    Speaking of tourist sites, the town on Inepril wanted to erect a monument to Vash, but he was embarrassed by the idea. He compromised and they compromised, and they put up a statue of Rem Saverem instead, inscribed at the base with the words, “Mother of our Planet”. Vash worked with the designer, since he alone remembered what Rem looked like. In statue form, she stood with arms outstretched, one hand holding stone geraniums. The “wind” blew back her hair. I don’t know why there would’ve been wind on a spaceship, but Vash said this was how he always envisioned her in memories.

Chapter 16: A Legend Exits the Building
Meryl:     Now a grandmother (to a beautiful baby boy!), I began to worry more about growing unattractive to my husband. We realized this would come, but I still wanted to act as lover to him, not mother. I dyed my hair at the first hint of gray. I watched what I ate so I would stay slender. And I used a special cream to keep wrinkles away.
        I needn’t have worried. You think you know where life is going, but it tricks you.

Melinda:    Ah, I think I know where this is heading. That infamous night. The “shot heard ‘round the world”, they call it.

Meryl:    Yes, I know.

Melinda:    Are you ready to talk about it?

Meryl:    If not now, then I never can. But that’s what you came here for, right? People called him “immortal”. The wounds he had would have killed an ordinary man. But I knew he could die-his brother had died, hadn’t he? He told me his body had a way of forcing bullets out on its own. Perhaps he could live forever, if nothing killed him first. There would be no dying of “natural causes” or old age. But he admitted, there are certain things even he couldn’t survive.
        Vash had lots of friends in Inepril, including those who had been children during his first and legendary visit there. Now grown kids like Sandie and Tonis, and one named Jake, who had a very sunny disposition and was always smiling and joking.
        One night, we were in the saloon. Milly and I were talking over fruit drinks, and Vash and Nick were playing poker with Kaite and Tonis. Jake walked in, very casually, smiling and waving to friends. He strode up behind Vash and without announcement, shot him point blank in the back of the head.

Melinda:    That’s it?

Meryl:    That was it. It was so sudden and shocking I didn’t realize at first what had happened. Some men grabbed Jake as he attempted to walk out as nonchalantly as he had come in.
        I looked at Vash, slumped forward, and stepped towards him. “Vash..sweetie?” I squeaked. His blood was soaking the table. I saw his right eye-it was open and unblinking
        There was noise and tumult all around me. Footsteps chasing McCall, who had broken free. People were shouting…My tears drowned it out, as I sank to my knees besides Vash, clutching his lifeless leg. Blood dripped down from the table, some onto my clothes.
        In all this grief and chaos, I was aware of Milly. She was standing in front of me, as if to guard me from intrusion.

Milly:    Honestly, I didn’t know what to do. I knew Meryl needed comfort-but in those first few moments of tragedy, there could be no real comfort. At least from my personal experience. So, I just stood by, in case she should need me.
        Tears fell from my eyes. Vash had been a dear friend to me. And it upset me to see Meryl in such pain. When she needed a hug, I would be glad to give it, for I needed one, too.

Meryl:     When they caught Jake and threw him in a jail cell, lots of us gathered in front of the iron bars and demanded to know why he had killed the town’s most beloved resident. All the bitterness he had concealed so well came out in his answer: “Let me tell you something-I come from Karsted City. Vash stayed there a long time ago, under the alias of Eriks, like he did here. Now my problem is not what trouble he caused-it’s what trouble he didn’t prevent. A bandit gang had taken over town. They were wreaking all sorts of havoc, and my uncle is one of the folks who ended up getting killed in a bus explosion.
        “Vash coulda done something. Something sooner to get the bandits out of town. But he didn’t lift a finger. Least not until they kidnapped his beloved lil’ Lina.” He said her name with a sneer.
        My mind raced with doubt-why hadn’t Vash done anything? Then I remembered him explaining to me why he never used certain powers, even in dire circumstances. Perhaps in the case of Karsted City, he, coming out of the Fifth Moon incident, had been afraid to use any of his skills. Try explaining that to a bereaved man.
        People called Jake a coward-if he had an issue with Vash, he should have “called him out” to a duel. But anyone can see why Jake ditched that idea-how could he have possibly won? So instead, he gained Vash’s trust so he could sneak up on him like he did.
        He was almost hung the next day. Then Angeline pointed out Vash was against capital punishment; he wouldn’t have wanted it. So they just locked him away. He may still be languishing in prison now. I try not to keep track-the only way I can practice forgiveness is to try to forget him altogether.
        I never married again, though Milly tried to tell me it was okay if I did. Not to belittle her Nicholas, but could any man follow someone as incredible and legendary as Vash?

Insurance Girls Tell All - Part 3 Conclusion

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