The excitement she had felt was waning. Just two hours before she had been dying to give him the journal she had worked so hard on. In her mind it seemed as if he had been reading for days. She had come slowly to the conclusion that perhaps she should have bought him something for Christmas rather than dictate this stupid journal of events. After all he had lived it with her hadn’t he?

Outside the large windows of their second floor apartment the sun was just giving the first clues that it was, once again, going make an appearance. Off on the horizon there were hints of purple and a streak of orange where just moments before only black and stars touched the earth.

He hates it. She concluded to herself. She was now beginning to feel embarrassment at her idea. Christmas had started out with such promise. She was now hopelessly in love with the man sitting in the chair across from her. She had wanted to show him that. Sure she could have bought him something. She had money now. But somehow it didn’t seem to come from the heart. In another life, she had read a story about a lady and a man. The two were dirt poor but each wanted to get a little something special to show their love for the other. The man’s prized possession was his watch, the lady her hair. The man thought how wonderful it would be for her to have fine silk ribbons for that beautiful long hair. She, on the other hand would get him a chain for his watch. In order to do this she would have to sell her hair to a wig maker, he his watch to get the ribbons. The memory of the story had inspired Michelle to give something of herself to him. Much of what was contained in those pages was not known by Gary and she had wanted to share her most recent revelations with him.

She looked on as Gary turned yet another page not saying a word. A stoic look set hard into his features. At her feet was her gift from him. A golden retriever named Jessie. She had fallen instantly in love with the animal and it seemed Jessie had also fallen for his new mistress.

Earlier that morning he had broken into the bedroom after Gary had cracked the door at her request. The dog had been sniffing about at the doorjamb and noise had woken her up.

“Gary… pssst! Gary, wake up!” she whispered giving him an elbow. He had already been awake having snuck the dog in earlier that morning.

“GARY!”

“Huh? What?” he faked.

“There’s something sniffing at the door. An animal I think.”

“Go see what it is then.” He told her.

“You get up and see what’s at the door! Gary…”

“Why me?” he asked.

Ok fair enough… she thought, I can’t use the ‘Because you’re the man’ routine because as they say… been there, done that! So why then, are you that afraid of what’s out there? YES I am.

“Because I said so…” she demanded with clinched teeth and pushed him toward the edge of the bed until he got moving…

“Ok… Ok… I’m up!” he walked to the door and reached for the handle.

“Don’t open it… GARY!” she demanded and when he did she ducked under covers for protection from what ever might be out there.

He opened the door just slightly and the dog raced in and leaped on the bed, a large red bow attached to his collar. Jessie frolicked and barked and tried to get Michelle to get up and play, but she simply squealed with delight and pulled the covers over her head in an attempt to dodge that enormous pink tongue that tried to attack her face.

At length, the dog simply draped him self over her body and refused to move pinning her to the bed.

“Gary! Get him off me….” She scolded trying to sound stern but failed the smile on her face betrayed her.

“Oh no… he’s yours now. Besides he looks like he might bite me if I came between you two.” He replied with a sly grin. “Merry Christmas.”

Jessie just lay there happily panting …

“Gary! Get back here and help me!” she called after him but he was gone in to the living room to light the tree.

“Get up!” Michelle commanded, and she tired to push him off her. The dog shifted his center of gravity and got comfortable again. “Oooooooo” she said as her frustration mounted. “Get up now!” she commanded again.

“BARK” Jessie replied.

“Shush!” she insisted.

“BARK”

“I said be quite.”

Lick

“Yuck!”

“BARK”

“GAAARRRRRYYYYYYYYY!”

“BARK BARK BARK BARK BARK BARK”

Gary Stuck his head in the bedroom door, large smile on his lips and said, “You two want to keep it down. It’s 4:00 am. I’m sure the neighbors are trying to sleep.” and then was gone.

“Sick em dog!” she said and pointed out the door.

Lick

“Gross! Stop doing that.” She pulled her arm across her face to remove the dog slobber but stopped when she realized she was touched beyond words. Not in her wildest dreams has she ever thought there was this much love to be had, not in all the world. She was now beneficiary of all of it.

She hugged the dog’s neck tightly. He was warm and soft.

“Oh God, Gary’s gift. Get up dog.” Nothing.

She took the tags that hung around the dogs neck and searched for a name. “Jessie. Is that you boy? Your name Jessie?”

“BARK”

“Ok then Jessie, Get down…” she snapped her fingers with the command and pointed at the floor. Jessie obediently obeyed the command. He sat there on the floor next to the bed waiting for his mistress to give another command. “Good boy.” She said and ruffled the fur on top of his head and the dog closed his eyes and enjoyed the moment.

She quickly grabbed her robe and walked out into the living room.

“Gary?”

“Yeah hon.” he was behind the tree shaking boxes.

“It’s not there.”

“What’s not there?” he said looking falsely puzzled.

“Your gift.”

“Oh? I… I wasn’t looking for that.” He said.

“Sure you weren’t.” she smiled as she walked over to where he was. She gave him a peck on the lips. “Thanks you so much for my gift I love him.” She kissed him again, deeper this time.

“Give me another one of those kisses and I’ll go buy you the whole pet store.” With that she kissed him again.

“That’s a freebie” she said and smiled.

Jessie came trotting out of the bedroom and sat next to Michelle, his tongue hanging out of his mouth as he looked fondly up at her. Michelle stood next to Gary her arms wrapped around his waist drawing him in tight to her. She just wanted the moment to live on and on. One thought spinning merrily around in her head.

He loves me! He loves me! He loves me! He loves me!

At length he asked her if she wanted some coffee and reluctantly she let go. The idea of something warm to drink was appealing. “Sure.” She responded and then said, “Wait!” she dug under the tree quickly and came up with two boxes, the one in her right hand she quickly turned over to Gary. “Merry Christmas”

“What is it?” he asked with a huge smile on his face.

“Open it and see.”

“BARK”

“That’s right Jessie, you tell him.” She said petting the dogs head. “I have to warn you though. If you don’t like it you can’t return it.”

Gary quickly peeled the paper off the box that had considerable weight to it. The object inside slid slightly from one side of the box to the other as he turned it over removing the paper. Michelle set the other box back down under the tree.

“Heavy.” He said with a smile. The nervousness was just starting to bloom in Michelle’s heart and she began to question her gift. What if he misunderstands what I said? What if he misinterprets what I mean?

Then that other voice again, the one she had heard at Second Hand Rose, said “Don’t worry, the real gift is at the end baby sister.”

The dreams came flooding back to her. The ones in which she had been Mike and Erin was there. Tears welled up in her eyes at the memory. She quickly excused herself, “you open your gift, I’ll make the coffee.” She headed off to the kitchen.

The dreams, “Erin?” she whispered. “Please …” she begged. But there was no answer. She looked around the sterile kitchen hoping for a miracle. But I know that was her, I heard her voice. But she knew in her heart that wasn’t true. If it had been then Gary would have heard it too. And he didn’t react.

At last she whispered, “I love you Erin. Merry Christmas.” And proceeded to make coffee for Gary and herself. When she returned to the living room Gary was busy reading. He had made no comment when she entered the room, in fact it appeared to her as if he was oblivious to her presence.

“Coffee.” And he reached out without looking up.

“Careful, it’s hot.”

He grunted a short acknowledgement. She went and sat, sipped her coffee and watched him read. After a while Jessie came and placed his large head in her lap and looked up at her with big brown doggie eyes. I love you mommy! He seemed to say with that look. I don’t even know you yet, but I know I love you!

Many things went through her head as he read it. Most of what she thought was critical and negative. “It’s too long!” or “Why didn’t he ever learn to speed read?” she wanted to get up and walk around. She wanted to sit. She sat fidgeting nervously.

When she could take it no longer she finally chimed in… “Gary?”

He did not look up from the book instead he held up his hand to indicate that he would be just a while longer.

She sat back in her chair and sulked. That was nearly an hour and a half ago.

He hates it!

So after two hours the sun was about to break over the harbor. She was just about ready to cry. Their first Christmas together and he had gotten her a wonderful gift. And what had she done? She wrote him a story about a movie he had starred in. Good thinking girl. You’ll be lucky to have a roof over your head tonight let alone a boyfriend.

What was going to happen when he reached the end of the book? She wanted snatch it away and start from scratch. She wanted to go back to bed and make the sun go back down. She wanted an extra day to think about this again, to think about maybe telling him some other way. Or maybe not tell him at all. What if he wasn’t thrilled?

Oh God… I’ve made a mistake here. I just know I have.

He was reaching the last pages of her self-styled journal. She was nearly frantic to rip it a way from him, to distract him somehow and try to get him to forget what he’d been doing. She was going to cry, she could feel the flood building behind her eyes as if powerless to stop what she could foresee happening.

“Gary… I…”

But all she got was the hand again.

On the last page Gary read…

So after everything, after spending the last $3,000 I had from my tuition money to find someone that could decode that stupid box. After I had taken a job at the Red Fish and been taken in by a family that really loves me. After I had finally found the peace and love that anyone would have killed to have. And yes, after I had rejected that love. Practically spit in its face I did. After all that, you refused to go away.

I hope that doesn’t change anything between us. Especially now, because your Christmas gift isn’t this silly book or the story I just got done telling you. You know that one already, hell you were there! No Gary the Christmas gift I wanted to give you is in that other box under the tree. Well one of them anyway. The other I’ll tell you about after you open the box.

Go on, open it!

Gary stopped reading. He looked at Michelle with out expression and reached down and picked up the box. He shook it. Whatever it was it sounded like it was broken. He opened it up, carefully removing the paper and setting it aside. Then opening the flap on the box and peering inside.

In the box were shards of plastic, wires and circuit boards. It looked like a Palm PC at first. Then with dawning realization, Gary knew what it was.

It was the remains of the Patch Code Transmitter they had used to get out of their skins, all but Michelle that is. It had vanished that night. Gary had looked and looked for it but it had somehow been misplaced. His intention was to get it and have it worked on just in case the sequence for Michelle’s skin could still be extracted somehow.

When it went missing he vowed never to bring it up. He didn’t want to rub salt in her wounds. Without the transmitter it was final, no sense in making things worse by reminding her.

Now here was the reason why they had not been able to find it. He sifted through the wreckage of the box with his fingers, then up at Michelle. She looked as if she was about to explode with emotion.

Gary put down the box and walked to Michelle. He brushed the hair away from her face and gently kissed her forehead.

“Thank you.” He said simply putting his arms around her.

“It’s not much of a gift. Not for our first Christmas together.” She sounded somewhat ashamed. Her head buried in his chest. She could smell the ghost of his cologne and she snuggled down tighter to him, grateful he was there.

“What are you talking about?”

“That book.” She said pointing at the chair where he had been sitting and where the book now sat.

He put his hand under her chin and lifted her eyes to his. “It’s you! Every bit of what you wrote is what you were feeling and going through that weekend. I want to know what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling. It’s important to me, YOU’ER important to me. In fact, you’re the most important thing that’s ever happened to me.”

“I love you Mr. Shipley. But I have a confession that may change all that, several as a matter of fact.”

“Indeed? Well, lets hear them. And then I suppose you should start packing… can’t have a girl that’s keeping secrets from me in my presence.”

“First… I didn’t write that. I dictated it…”

“Heavens!”

“Seriously Gary. I gave that transmitter to as a symbol, a sign that I’m ready to accept what… no, that’s not right, who I am. Until very recently I still had hopes of going back of getting this … well, I won’t rehash the past. Anyway, last week I took that awful thing and smashed it with a hammer.”

Gary looked at her a bit surprised. She nodded a confirmation.

“It was still intact. And it was more than just a symbolic act. You see… like I said I have several confessions, I can’t go back now. Not that I ever would, even if they found a way…” She paused, “I mean, how would I explain that to our child?”

Gary hugged her gently. She smiled a sly smile as she nestled in close to him. He seemed to be at complete peace. Then every so imperceptibly at first she could feel his body tense up, he seemed to stop breathing and then she could feel him tremble.

“Child?” she heard him whisper.

“Child.” She echoed… “A baby.”

He suddenly held her at arms length so he could gage the reaction on her face. She was smiling and blushing. She hoped that the uncertainty of being pregnant didn’t show. She wanted only happiness to show.

“Whatya say Dad?”

“Oh My GOD!” he shouted, The joy exploded from his face. For a minute she thought his body wouldn’t be able to contain all the happiness and he would simply explode in a bright, glowing cloud of ecstasy.

He danced around the living room, dropped to a crouch with his hand on his forehead. A huge grin pasted foolishly across his face. It occurred to her that if the grin got any wider the two end of that smile would meet in the back of Gary’s head and the top two thirds of his head would just topple off.

He rushed her and swept her up into his arms as she squealed in surprise and delight. He buried his lip in hers kissed her, hand caressing his face as the kissed.

When at last they parted he chided her, “Confession indeed…”

“Ok, I guess I should have said Christmas present.”

“That’s more like it”, he said and kissed her again. “Thank you.”

He carried her off to the bedroom and gently laid her on the bed and he then laid down beside her. “It wouldn’t hurt the baby if…” he said as he tenderly pulled at the lapel of her robe, a sheepish devilish grin on his face.

She smiled back at him and blushed just slightly, The baby…I’m going to have to start thinking like that… “No, not for a while I don’t think, certainly not today.”

“Good, then take off that robe!” he commanded.

“Mmmmm, yes Sir!”

Outside the closed bedroom door, Jessie stood guard while Michelle and Gary basked in their love for each other.

She lay in Gary’s arms completely at peace. She suddenly asked, “Gary, you’re glad we’re pregnant aren’t you… I mean that wasn’t just for show in there was it?”

“Of course I’m happy.” He hoisted himself up on one elbow and kissed her on lips. “Why would you ask me that?”

“Well… there was another time…” she trailed off.

“Things were a little different then.” He assured her.

“But you didn’t want to be a father and it wasn’t that long ago.”

“No, I never said that.”

She rolled over to face him. “Yes you did.” She insisted.

“No… If you’ll remember, I apologized for getting you into a spot that … well as it turned out was irreversible. But not for the reasons we thought. At the time you wanted to go back. You had reasons to go back.”

“You wanted me to stay like this, even then?”

“I didn’t know what I wanted.” He paused, and with a moment of clarity he admitted, “Yes I did. But at the time it wasn’t in your best interest. I had to do the best I could to make things right for you, as right as I could make them anyway. I actually believe that’s what I really said.”

“You would have wanted a baby by me then?”

“All I know is this. You had started to put some perspective into my head.“

*********************************************************************************************

Later, they opened the rest of the gifts that had been sent from aunts and uncles and other relations. Nearly all were joint gifts one or two were personal for Gary. There were none from any family of Michelle’s of course but she didn’t mind. She was making her own family now and the ones already a part of her life loved her more than she could have ever hoped. Even so Gary insisted that she unwrap everything that marked “To: Gary and Michelle”.

When the all the gifts were unwrapped they played with the dog and the dog played with the wrapping paper strewn about the floor, disappearing beneath piles of the stuff to lay in wait until one of the two of them got too close only to spring out of the trash barking and dodging playfully sending both into gales of laughter.

Lunch was with the Shipley’s at the original Red Fish restaurant, the one that Gary and Michelle now managed and not five blocks from their apartment.

As they dressed for Christmas lunch Gary was taken by just how beautiful Michelle was. There was no longer any thought of an engineered skin or genetic manipulation, just the image of a beautiful woman that was amazingly in love with him. He crossed the room to where she sat in front of her dresser putting on the scant make up Karen had taught her to use. She didn’t use much and what little she used wasn’t really needed. There was a feminine quality to the act however, and both thought early on that it would be best to learn all the trappings and customs of being a woman. Months later it had become routine.

Gary stood behind his beloved, a hand resting on her shoulder. She looked at his reflection in the mirror and smiled at him, placing her hand on his. He bent and kissed her hand and then her neck. She craned neck as his lips made contact with her skin, soft and warm and closed her eyes.

“Gary,” she whispered, “We’re going to be late.”

“I don’t care…” he said back.

“I’m hungry…” she replied.

“I’m am too…” he said. “For you.” He went back to work on her neck as his hands began to explore her perfectly sculptured body.

She sighed a long moaning sigh and turned to face him… “Now you’ve done it. You’ve gone and made me ruin a perfectly good pair of panties.”

She shed her dress, allowing it to slide to the floor. It would stay there for another hour until she insisted they had made Gary’s folks wait long and demanded that Gary get dressed. She hadn’t wanted to go though and if Gary had protested she would have wrapped him up in her long legs and slender arms and held him prisoner in their bed all day.

But they did dress and they did finally make it to the restaurant, only to find, much to Michelle’s chagrin, that Gary’s parents had not yet arrived either. They tried to seat themselves but Mary, who took over as hostess sometimes when Michelle (who still insisted on greeting the customers as well as managing the wait-staff) had other duties to perform, insisted that she be allowed to seat them as customers and get the red carpet treatment on this, their day off.

But as so often happens when you go in to the office on your day off you wind up working.

Before his parents had arrived Gary was called into the kitchen leaving Michelle alone at the table. She was left alone at the table to wait on Gary’s parents, her in-laws as she thought of them. And that thought started a cascaded of worried ideas in her head.

Gary hadn’t asked her to marry him. The idea really surprised her. Before now she had been caught up in dictating that silly journal and with the idea that she was really going to have a baby that she hadn’t even considered it. But this time when she considered the word in-laws she stopped and corrected herself; thinking, No, that’s not quite right now is it? They’re not really in-laws because we’re not married, but that will change… but will it?

She told herself right away that it had been a busy day so far. The passion of the moment had carried them both away to a blissful place and she hadn’t even thought of that until just now, and she’d had nearly two weeks to deal with the knowledge of being pregnant. Gary couldn’t be expected to think of everything right a way.

But the question nagged at her. It tugged at the corners of her thoughts like a puppy would an old sock, worrying it until it was just the tattered remains of a whole idea. Soon it began to hurt her heart. Inside she said she was being silly but she could not fend off the concern and pain the idea brought her.

When the Shipley’s arrived Gary had still not come back from the Kitchen. She supposed that he was going to have to come out when he could and it might turn out to be a working Christmas after all.

Pleasantries were exchanged and Michelle presented them both with the gifts she and Gary had picked out them. But before they would even consider opening them Karen asked her if she wouldn’t be a dear and help out at the hostess station. Mary was leaving early and there was no one to man reservations, the phone or greet guests. She said, “Of course I will, Happy to.” But she was just a bit miffed that both she and Gary were going to have to work on their first Christmas together. It would at least take her mind of that nagging question of marriage now.

She greeted the first couple that came through the door, checked the reservations and saw they were not listed. Scanning the availability list she found three tables that wouldn’t be used. And was ready to hand them off to a waitress for seating but everyone it seemed was away doing something else.

“Hummm? I’m sorry. If you will just wait right here I’ll get you seated in just a quick second.” She said and smiled pleasantly.

She poked her head into the restaurant’s dining area but all the wait staff was gone. The place was deserted except for customers delicately clinking glasses and silverware together.

“That’s strange.” She muttered.

“Well then… If you’ll just follow me I’ll show you to your table.” She would seat them herself and then find some one to get the ball rolling on their order. Ever since Michelle had been put in charge of the dining area personnel for all three restaurants she had run a fun and friendly ship but it was also a tight and well-oiled machine, nothing like this! No visible presence of an employee. That is not good in the food service industry.

She led the couple to their table. As she made her way through the dining room she got the sense that something was not right, as if she were alone and being watched by a thousand eyes. Self-consciously she started to look around. There were a thousand eyes watching her. Everyone had stopped eating and were watching her cross the room all of them smiling at her. She smiled back at each of them, always conscious of her responsibility to the restaurant. She looked around at all the smiling heads. Every so often one or two would nod singularly towards her in a very friendly manner, deepening her apprehension and conviction that something was afoot. One even raised a glass to her in salute. Her stride started to falter.

She turned to look behind her to see if the people she was leading to their table were still following her. What she saw was the entire staff of the restaurant had formed a human wall behind her.

"What?" as she spoke the lights in the dining area went down, just before they were dimmed completely, she thought she caught a glimpse of Kit and Frank at the back of the room.

"What's going on here?" she demanded. "Gary?” she suddenly felt foolish and out of place. She was being singled out for some reason. And after all the time she had spent trying so hard not to bring attention to herself, this was a hard thing to have to deal with.

The wall of employee's opened in the center and separated. From the rear of the group of employees came Gary. He had dressed in a perfectly tailored tuxedo.

"Miss Michelle Donavan?" he announced. As he said these words all the lights in the house dimmed, all but one. One solitary spot light from the top of the ceiling shown down on her. The wonderfully lovely lady as she stood with wet eyes and trembling lips waited in mid room as her lover joined her in the spot light.

She stood and said nothing. He bent to one knee. As he did she brought one hand up to her mouth. The menus slipped from her grasp and fell to the ground at her feet. Her own legs felt unsteady.

"Michelle, it would be my great honor if you would please join me as my partner in all things that make up my life."

"I…" she said.

"Please Michelle. Be my wife." He held up a box, the lid was open. Inside was a huge diamond connected to a ring.

"Oh Gary…"

"Was that yes?" he asked with a smile. “Marry me!”

She couldn't speak. She had thought a proposal would be more business like, a formality. But she realized that she had wanted this, the fanfare of affection, the trappings of a loving mate. And he had not disappointed her. But now she was powerless to speak. It was all too much.

She looked around at the expectant eyes watching her. The moment hit her like a free falling safe from an eighty-story building. Everyone had known about it. Everyone here! Every customer, all the staff, Gary’s parents everyone! She just about collapsed with the emotion of the moment. Everyone sitting here were regular customers, friends and family. She hadn’t even recognized that.

Gary stepped forward and caught her around the waist. He asked again. “Please, will you marry me?”

She still could not speak, afraid that if she tried she would burst out in tears. So she did the next best thing. She nodded wildly.

He took her hand tenderly, he slipped the ring on her hand and the building erupted with cheers and applause.

"You almost spoiled this with your gift to me." He whispered to her. "It's a bit hard to follow the announcement that you're going to be a mother. I hope this is almost as good for you."

She said nothing, instead she kissed him hard and deeply and was still kissing him when the applause ended and the people were seated back at their tables.

All through dinner, she couldn't take her eyes of the ring on her finger. Gary had to practically wrench his hand out of hers when food was brought to the table so he could eat. She was lost in the moment of all it.

Gary wondered about telling the folks about the baby and decided that if Michelle wasn’t going to push the point then it could probably wait, but he was bursting to tell everyone.

In the middle of all this were Gary's parents. At the end of the meal, they gave Gary and Michelle their gift. Frank pushed a document across to the two of them. As Gary opened it and started to read, Frank started to explain.

"First, to your lovely bride to be Gary. I want to officially welcome her to the family. I'm pretty sure that it was your influence that brought Gary around and made him want to be a part of this business that I'm so proud of. So welcome and thank you my dear. Who knows where he would have wound up without you?"

"Second, You two have been invaluable to us, to the restaurant. I can only hope that you both have been as happy as we have been to have you part of the family business. Karen and I both think it's time to show you how much we appreciate all the hard work and time and ideas you both have added to the place. Karen and I are getting older now…"

Karen slapped at her husband's arm playfully, "Speak for yourself old man." She chirped.

"Ok… Ok… I'm getting older and less ambitious. As you know the new store will be opening up in about a month or so and things will get even busier. So Karen advanced the idea of making the two of you partners in the business, legally."

Gary went ashen. "Pa… pa… pa…"

"Partners?" Michelle finished for him

"You see? What a wonderful girl, she the sock to his shoe, so to speak. Yes, partners equal and fair. The work will be hard especially for Gary, since we expect some grandchildren. You'll need the extra money for that." He added and smiled a proud smile.

"So we had the papers drawn up. It names you Gary and you too Michelle as partners in the business for profit known as the Red Fish restaurants. We'll change the name on the documents as soon as you are married. But for now, it reads Michelle Donavan." He said, he had reached across the table and was holding both of her hands in one of his huge meaty hands.

"Frank…" Michelle started

"You're not going to tell me I don't have to do this are you?"

"Well, …"

"My dear you just made two mistakes." He said sternly.

"First, I do have to do this. I know of no one else who is capable of taking care of my dream the way you two have shown me you can."

"Second, I want you to call me Dad. Ok?"

"No that's not what I was going to say." She looked at Gary for confirmation and he nodded. It was her to take to the finish line.

"Ok then, lets have it dear."

"Well, you may want to rethink the partner idea. At least as far as I'm concerned."

Frank looked at her puzzled and a little hurt even though he tried to hide it.. "You don't want to be a partner in the business?"

"Oh no… that's not it, I love it here. You know that." She scolded him. "It's just… well that time off you were talking about, I might need it a bit sooner than you might have expected, that's all."

"OH MY GOD…" Karen screamed. "SHE'S GONING TO HAVE MY GRANDBABY!"

Michelle blushed as the restaurant got silent and then erupted in applause again.

Handshakes were thrust at Gary and hugs to Michelle from all the regulars. Frank told everyone that dinner was on the house and the money was forced in to Michelle's hand even though she tried refusing it.

After the evening had wound down, the engaged couple was getting close to the College Knights Pub.

"Gary, did you know that the band is back together?" she asked suddenly.

"I had heard something about that… they've been playing about eight weeks now I guess."

"Six." She corrected.

"Oh, I see you haven't been following it." He laughed.

"Can we stop?"

"Huh?"

"Please? I want to hear them."

"It's kind of late…"

"Please mister husband man?"

"Well since you put it that way."

Gary pulled in along the curb and parked the HOV.

The strolled into the bar, the place was packed. The two of them sat at the spot where they had sat before all of this began.

"Marcus! My man… How are you?" Gary exclaimed at the bartender.

The bartender walked over and took Gary's hand. "Gary, I'm glad you came. The place has been kind of dead without you and Mike. Ah… you know…"

Gary held up a hand, "Don't apologize. I understand."

"Say, this fine looking lady is not with you, old bum is she?" he asked.

"In fact she is, this is my fiancÚ." He proudly announced.

"No shit! Sorry… Gary, are you going to introduce me?"

"I'm sorry Marcus. This is Michelle." Michelle extended her hand to the bartender.

"Nice to meet you." And the bartender smiled a sly grin and Michelle had to take a double take to Gary to see if he saw the unusual smile.

"Nice to meet you too."

"Congratulations. You sure you want to marry this cheap bastard?"

"Hey!" Gary said playfully.

"Ok… Ok… You want a drink?" he asked Michelle.

"No thanks. Ah… yeah some water with lemon please."

"Sure thing young lady. Gary?"

"You got some wine? Real wine?" he asked.

"For my more important customers, anything. Buena Vista Chardonnay?"

"You don't?" Gary said surprised.

"It's on the house tonight. Two glasses?"

"No. Just water for me." Michelle insisted.

"Not even a toast with the bartender and old friend of the groom?"

"No… I'm pregnant."

"Holy shit!" Marcus exclaimed laughing. "God Damn, congratulations you old bum. Ok… I'll tell you what I'll send over a bottle of Dom the day the baby is born just for the Bride. How's that?"

"That's very generous Marcus."

"Gary," Michelle touched his arm. "I'll be right back. I'm going to the little girls room. Ok?"

"Sure, I'll be right here… But hurry… the band looks like they're about to crank up."

"Be right back." She kissed her husband to be and was lost in the crowd.

"You really don't have to do that Marcus."

"The hell I don't. Look, you know all that kidding around was just that, right? I always liked you. And Mike would be proud to see you've done so well. I know you miss him. I sure as hell do. He was a good friend. And He saved my ass more than once. Even after he was dead."

"I heard about that. What happened?" Gary asked.

In a minute, the bands going to crank up now… You won't be able to hear in a second… I'll tell you later ok?"

"Sure."

"Here's your wine… Enjoy… and congratulation."

"Hey stop by the Redfish any time for a free meal, my treat… Not just one mind you anytime you like, OK?"

"Thanks Gary, but I'm a burger guy."

"Where can you get a good burger these days?"

"You make burgers?"

"It's not part of the usual bill of fare but I can make anything you like?"

"I'm all over that." Marcus said shaking his hand.

The strum of an acoustic guitar was heard as the lights dimmed. Gary looked for his fiancÚ as the cords of music started to fill the bar. The stage was dark but figures could be seen moving about up there. The piano was strong and wept the music it had in it. Gary could not remember the band ever sounding so rich. Mike…Michelle would be proud to see they had gone on.

He heard Michelle's voice over the speakers.

"This is for my sister. Thank you Erin."

Gary glanced at Marcus who was smiling from ear to ear. "I guess the introductions weren't necessary."

Marcus said nothing, only grinned and turned to listen.

Then a woman's voice started to sing sweetly, softly…

Every night in my dreams, I see you, I feel you.

That is how I know you go on.

Far across the distance and spaces between us

You have come to show you go on.

Near, far, wherever you are…

I believe the heart does go on.

Never in his life could Gary remember hearing such a sound. His heart and soul wept at the emotion in the words and the feeling in the music. The pride and gratitude he felt was beyond measure. She was going to be ok.

He sat and enjoyed the music his fiancÚ produced for the next two hours. She had found her niche once again. It left the question of the future open. Wide open in fact, but if she was happy so was he.

Life was good.