CHRISTMAS MORNING. Alice sat up straight in bed, suddenly wide awake. She slid out from under the covers and danced down the stairs, her pigtails flying. She paused only long enough at the top to survey the tree and make certain that Santa had actually visited.
She reached the bottom step, then dashed to the foot of the tree.
It was the most beautiful doll she had ever seen.
Russell brought two mugs of chocolate out to the porch. He handed her one, sat down beside her on the swing.
"So where do you think old Dexter is now?"
"You're not going to worm it out of me that easily."
He nodded, gazing at the lawn.
"You remember what you said. 'When I know you better.' How much better do you have to know me?"
She touched his hair, now tinged with an early gray, but just as unruly as it had been that first day.
"Well, I'll say this much. How do you know what time it is? How is now different from then?
"I don't know. I guess it's now because that's where I am at the moment."
"But wouldn't you always think that? Imagine that you jumped around in time, that you were here now, and the next moment you were back at school, trying to pick up that sexy atheist. Would you know?"
"I guess I wouldn't. I mean, I would only have whatever memories I had at the time, so I would think that I had just come from the moment before..."
"But what has that got to do with..."
She put a finger to his lips.
"Sometime. I promise."
The doctor wore a mask, but she could tell he was smiling by his eyes.
"You have a healthy daughter," he said, and lifted the baby for them to see.
She squeezed Russell's hand, exhausted.
The hospital was quiet. She was glad Russell was there. She turned her head, and managed a low whisper.
"I came at it from physics," she said, "but you'll understand because of your novels."
"Alice, please," he said, "Don't try to talk."
"No. I promised you, and now is the time. Time. That's the key."
"You really don't have to, love."
"In physics, you see, time is just a dimension. It's like a yardstick. A yardstick doesn't stop existing just because you've moved past the end. It's still there. It's right where it was."
He patted her hand.
"Okay. I understand."
"No you don't. And don't start patronizing me at this late date. It's like one of your novels. Do your characters cease to exist after the reader has turned the last page? No. They're still there, in the book. Forever. All of their experiences, all of their lives."
"But for the reader, the author..."
"You're thinking of yourself as the author. But you aren't, you know. I told you the first time we met. There is no author. You're the character. You'll still be there, I'll still be there. If I was there once, I'll be there always. Always on that page."
"Okay. I do get it, now."
"Rest, Dear. Please."
And she was gone.
She was half focused on kissing Sam and half focused on keeping the flour from the counter off the back of her dress, when she felt herself losing her balance.
It was the stray mutt. He had managed to tangle himself between their feet.
Sam steadied her and stepped back, laughing.
He squatted and ruffled the dog's head.
"He needs a name. How about 'Dexter'?"
"I don't even know if I'm going to keep him."
"Sure you are. You're taking him with you, to graduate school."
Sam nodded, a sad and knowing look in his eyes.
"Lucky dog," he said. "Lucky dog."