The window’s awning offered relief from the scorching sun. Callum was determined to finish tending to the garden before it would be too hot to work outside for extended periods of time. Lilia knelt beside her father, mirroring his movements. He showed her precisely where to plant her seeds, ensuring they were the proper distance away from the irrigation system and not crowded too close together.
"Will you be home to eat the vegetables when they’re all done growing?" she asked.
"Of course, sweetie. Be sure to save the biggest one for me!"
The door opened behind them. Callum knew who it was without looking. "I thought digging in the dirt was going to be my job today," he said to his wife, chuckling. When he turned around, he saw Meyta held something in her hands.
"This was making all sorts of noises," she said. She handed him his helmet, which he had left lying on a table inside. "I figured it might be important."
He popped the transmitter off the side and held it to his ear. It was silent. He flipped it over and looked for the textual read-out of the message he had missed. The news was discouraging, though not unexpected. He glanced away from her inquisitive gaze. "I have to leave."
"Already? But you just got here yesterday!"
Meyta sighed. "Don’t apologize. I know it’s not your fault."
Nothing Callum could say would make either of them feel better. He snapped the transmitter back in place before tucking it under his arm and retreating through the open door. The thin cotton undershirt he’d been wearing landed in the hamper. He wriggled out of the soil-smeared shorts and added them to the laundry pile. His uniform was in the bedroom, washed and folded into a neat stack. Shaking it out, he stuck his arms through the shirt sleeves and buttoned it to his neck.
Meyta stood in the doorway as he dressed. "How bad is it?" she asked.
He stopped fastening the long, khaki pants and looked at her, aware of the four-year-old girl peeking out from behind her mother’s skirt. "I don’t know yet. If they called us back this early from leave... ." He forced a smile for their benefit while he tucked in the ends of his shirt. "I’m sure everything will be okay."
She didn’t answer. He brushed past her on his way to the main entrance of the house, where he had left his boots. Taking a seat on the sofa, he pulled them on and started the tedious task of lacing them up.
Lilia sat next to him. "Are you coming back soon, Daddy?"
"I hope so, sweetie." He tried to maintain his chipper tone. "Maybe you and Mommy can finish the garden, and then we can eat your vegetables when I get home!"
"Mommy doesn’t like kneeling in the grass anymore. She says it hurts sometimes."
"Then you’ll just have to be her extra-special helper." Callum finished knotting the laces, and kissed the top of her head. "I know you already do a good job with that."
"We always manage," Meyta said.
He stood up and crossed the room. She welcomed his embrace, and leaned her head against his chest. "This never gets any easier, does it?" she asked, her voice muffled.
"No." He stroked her thick, black hair. "But I’ll be back before you know it."
"You always say that."
"Isn’t it true?"
She pulled back. The corners of her mouth turned up in a small smile. "I suppose it is."
He kissed her, letting his lips linger near hers. Wisps of her scented soap tickled at his nose. He inhaled deeply, reluctant to let her go. "The time will fly by while I’m gone. I promise." He patted the rounded bulge of her abdomen, swollen with the life growing inside her. "And my C.O. already assured me that I can be here when you need me most."
"He’s a good man."
Callum released her from his hold, and scooped his daughter into his arms. "And I’ve already spoken to Lilia about how she needs to be on her best behavior then, right?"
She nodded, her curly pigtails bobbing. "Uh-huh."
"It’ll work out somehow. It always does," he said. Shifting her to the other hip so she couldn’t see, he winked at Meyta. "Before long, she’ll have the baby brother she always wanted."
"No! It should be a girl! Another girl, like me!"
He’d succeeded in making his wife laugh. "Well, we’ll find out soon enough, won’t we?" she said. She took Lilia from him and set her back on the ground. "You’d better get out of here before you cause a full meltdown."
He grinned at her. "Yes, ma’am." Crouching down, he kissed the little girl on the nose, eliciting a giggle from her. He repeated the gesture on Meyta before brushing his lips against hers one final time. "I love you. Both of you."
She squeezed his hand and followed him to the door. "Stay safe."