Authors: Patricia Davids
Tags: #Fiction, #Religious, #Romance, #General
“Your bed is the last one on the left. There’s no smoking and no drinking. Keep a close eye on your valuables—we’re not responsible if anything gets stolen. There are twenty-two women and children on this floor and one bathroom, so don’t hog it. We provide two meals a day. Breakfast is at 7:00 a.m. sharp. Supper is at six. If you’re late, we don’t hold anything for you. Any questions?” She folded her arms and waited.
Caitlin shook her head. “I’ve stayed here before. I know the rules.” She stared down the long, narrow room. She’d stayed here once during the coldest nights of winter when she had been sixteen, scared and out of food. It wasn’t a pleasant memory.
This time, she wouldn’t be leaving after a few meals of thin soup and a break in the weather. The hospital social worker had arranged for her stay here so that she could be near a phone in case Beth’s doctor needed to contact her. It had been the closest shelter with room to take her on such short notice.
She moved down the crowded room lined with narrow beds toward the one the matron had indicated. The place reeked of unwashed bodies. A worn-looking woman rocked and hummed to a little girl of about three. The child was whining that she was hungry. Loud snoring came from beneath a heap of blankets on a bed in the middle of the room while a teenage girl paced the small space in front of the room’s only window with her arms clasped tightly around herself.
Caitlin sat on the thin, blue-striped mattress of the last cot and looked around. She was alone again no matter how crowded the room was. Leaning down, she slid a plastic bag with her few belongings underneath the bed. The crackle and rustle of papers made her frown.
The nurses at the NICU had made sure that she had plenty of information when she was discharged—all of it in writing. Neat little brochures on colored paper that were useless to her. She had wanted to ask questions, but the staff had been so busy with admissions that she had simply been handed the papers and hustled out the door.
A harsh, racking cough interrupted the soft humming of the young mother. After a few moments, she began to sing in a trembling and off-key voice. “Hush little baby, don’t say a word. Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird.”
She didn’t seem to know the rest of the song because she repeated the same lines over and over again. Lying on her side, Caitlin faced the wall and listened to the senseless song.
“Hush little baby, don’t say a word.”
Was Beth crying now? Did she miss her mother’s touch, her voice? Would the nurses pay as much attention to her now that they were busy?
A hollow place had formed in Caitlin’s heart when she walked out the hospital doors without her daughter. It grew now into a vast emptiness that ached like a gnawing hunger. She missed her baby—missed the smell of her and the feel of her. She had left her baby behind. It didn’t matter that she hadn’t had a choice.
Maybe Mick would be with Beth tonight. He did care about her, Caitlin knew that. Yesterday, she had been scared and angry. That made her determined to prove that she could care for Beth by herself. But now, miles away, Caitlin could only hope Mick would ignore her angry words and stay with the baby. Beth didn’t deserve to be alone. No child did.
How many times had Caitlin huddled, cold and hungry, while her mother was gone for days on end? Back then, Caitlin had dreamed that her father would somehow find her and take her away with him. The man in Caitlin’s imagination had been a man like Mick—tall and strong, and sure of what was right. But no one ever came.
Mick claimed he wanted to be a father to Beth, but for how long? How long before he couldn’t find the time for a kid who wasn’t really his? Life had a way of dulling even the best of intentions. She didn’t want Beth wishing for some imaginary daddy, or worse yet, pining for someone real who never came around.
Caitlin would be all that Beth needed. If Beth had a mother who loved her and cared for her, she wouldn’t miss having a dad.
Closing her eyes, Caitlin tried to shut out the sounds and the smells around her and recall Beth’s face. She pictured her tiny hands and feet. She pictured the way Beth’s mouth widened into an O when she yawned, the way her eyebrows arched perfectly in the center.
Caitlin’s fingers itched for her pencils and drawing pad. If only she could put the pictures in her head down on paper, then maybe she wouldn’t feel so alone. She’d have something of Beth to keep beside her.
But she didn’t have her sketchbook anymore. Her sketches, her baby’s clothes, everything that she owned had been left behind in the building where Mick found her. Someday she would make her way back there, but she held little hope of finding her things undisturbed.
* * *
The next morning Caitlin rose from a fitful, nightmare-haunted sleep where she searched through garbage cans and dark alleys for a baby she could hear crying but couldn’t find. At breakfast, she forced down a bowl of lukewarm oatmeal before she gathered her few possessions and walked the long miles back to the hospital.
At the nursery, she went directly to Beth’s bed. Only when she saw for herself that Beth was okay did Caitlin relax. She touched her daughter’s hand and gazed at her beautiful face. “Morning, jelly bean. I told you I’d be back.”
“Jelly bean—that’s cute.”
Caitlin looked up to see Mick standing a few feet away. Her foolish heart took an unexpected leap of joy, and she almost smiled before she remembered to be angry with him.
He moved to the bedside. “The nickname fits her. She’s little and she’s sweet.”
Caitlin turned her attention to the baby, determined to ignore him. “What do you want?”
“I won’t stay long,” he said. “I just wanted to apologize for upsetting you. I was wrong.”
“Look—” his exasperation came through in his voice “—I want you to know I’m sorry for trying to strong-arm you. You don’t want my help, that’s fine. Where you go and what you do is none of my business. My concern is for Beth. I’m only going to ask you for one thing.”
She slanted a look at him. “What?”
“While she is in the hospital, I’d like to continue to visit her.”
“You’re asking my permission?”
He thrust his hands in his pockets and looked down. “Yes. You’re her mother, and I’m just some guy who happened by.”
Caitlin mulled over his change of heart and wondered what had prompted it. Did this mean he wasn’t going to try and take Beth away from her? She was almost afraid to believe him. “And what if I say no?”
He leveled his gaze at her. “I’ll respect your wishes.”
She studied his face and saw the uncertainty in his eyes, saw the tenseness in the set of his shoulders. He was waiting for her to tell him to get lost.
But he wasn’t just some guy who had happened by. She hadn’t dreamed the voice she had heard in the darkness. It had been his voice. And he’d stayed with Beth when the baby needed someone the most. He’d given his mother’s name to the child of a total stranger. Some guy passing by didn’t do all of those things—only someone who truly cared about Beth.
Doubts clamored inside Caitlin’s head warning her not to trust him, but faced with his kindness and sincerity, she chose to ignore them. “I guess it would be okay.”
Hope brightened his eyes. “Thank you. This means a lot.”
Caitlin turned her attention back to the baby and prayed she hadn’t just made the biggest mistake of her life. “I’m doing it for her, because I can’t be here as much now.”
“I understand. Now that I’m back at work, I won’t be able to be here as often as I’d like, either. Look, I don’t know where you’re staying, but if you ever need a ride here or anything, just say the word.”
“I take the bus.” She didn’t want to admit to him that she couldn’t even afford bus fare. “Getting here at night is hard. If you could spend time with her then, that would be nice.”
If he came at night, she wouldn’t have to see him. She wouldn’t have to pretend she didn’t long to hear his voice or to feel the touch of his hand.
Her grudging permission sent a wave of relief through Mick. He sat next to her and struggled to separate the feelings running through him. It was more than happiness at getting to see Beth again. A lot of it had to do with seeing Caitlin.
He liked being near this woman, he liked the sound of her voice, the way the light changed the color of her eyes. He liked the soft curve of her ears and the way she tucked her hair back when she was nervous.
An alarm sounded and he scanned the array of monitors to see which one it was. Beth’s nurse reached up to silence the one that monitored the oxygen level of her blood. It was then he noticed how much oxygen she was getting.
“She’s up to fifty percent,” he said. “She hasn’t been that high before.”
“Hasn’t she? Let me check her chart.” He waited impatiently for her to confirm what he already knew. “You’re right,” she said. “I’ll let Dr. Wright know.”
“What is it? What’s wrong?” Caitlin demanded. Her hand closed on Mick’s shoulder in a death grip. He covered it with his own in a gesture of comfort as they waited for the doctor.
Dr. Wright came to the bedside and quickly checked the baby over. “She is needing more oxygen and her heart rate is up as well. That has me a bit worried. She may be getting sick.”
“But how could she get sick in here?” Caitlin asked, clearly worried and perplexed.
“Babies like Beth have a very poor immune system. No matter how careful we are, we can’t prevent every illness. We’ll draw some blood work and that will tell us more.”
“But she’ll be okay, won’t she?” Mick asked. The pounding of his heart was so loud he thought he might not be able to hear the doctor’s answer.
Please, Lord, Beth has been through so much already. Isn’t it time she caught a break?
Dr. Wright smiled. “If her blood work shows any signs of infection, we’ll start her on antibiotics. Unfortunately, this isn’t all that unusual. Remember, Beth has a long road ahead of her. We have to take it one day at a time.”
Caitlin noticed then that Mick’s hand covered hers where it rested on his shoulder. She pulled away from him, but she missed the comfort of his touch.
After the doctor left the bedside, Caitlin cupped her hands around Beth the way Mick had shown her the first time she saw her daughter. Mick had taught her so much. Sudden tears stung Caitlin’s eyes and her throat tightened as regrets welled up out of nowhere. She wasn’t surprised that he noticed.
“Caitlin, what’s wrong?”
“It was so hard at first.”
“What was hard?” he asked gently.
“All of it. Knowing you named her, knowing you held her first. I resented the way you seemed so at ease with her while I was scared to even touch her. It was like she didn’t even need me.”
“You’re her mother, of course she needs you.”
“The first time I came in here, I didn’t even know which baby was mine. What kind of mother doesn’t know her own child?”
“Maybe one who was unconscious for days, one who almost died? Don’t beat yourself up over the things you can’t change.”
“I’ll always feel I missed the most important moment of her life—and of mine.”
She couldn’t believe she was telling him these things. Yet looking into his bright blue eyes filled with compassion and understanding, she knew that there was something about this man that drew out a part of herself that she had never wanted to share with anyone else. His voice, his touch, they made her feel something that she had been missing her whole life. He made her feel safe.
She looked away, afraid he would read in her eyes just how much she longed for the comfort of his touch.
Mick reached across the space between them and placed the tips of his fingers under her chin. Gently but firmly, he turned her face back to his. “You did miss out on something special. You have a right to feel cheated. But what’s important is how you go on after life hands you a raw deal. Remember that God never gives us more than we can bear.”
“The Guy has got way too much confidence in me.”
Mick smiled. “No, I don’t think so.”
“You really believe that stuff? About God, I mean.”
“I really do.”
“Well, I don’t. He’s never given me an even break.”
“He gave you Beth.”
“Yes, He did. I can’t believe how much I love her.”
“That’s the same way God loves you. It’s hard to have faith, I know. But once you find it, once you realize how much God loves you, then all things are bearable. Don’t look for God with your eyes, Caitlin. Look for Him with your heart.”
“You make it sound so simple.”
She wanted so badly to believe him, but instead she shook her head. “Maybe God loves you, but He doesn’t love me.”
few days later, Caitlin stifled a groan, picked up her spoon and stirred the thin oatmeal in the orange plastic bowl in front of her. She forced herself to swallow a bite.
Between the chills and the sweats and her aching body, all she wanted to do was sleep, but her rest had been fitful at best. The shelter was noisy even at night with so many women packed into one room, and her bed, the one closest to the only bathroom, guaranteed she heard the gurgling and clanking pipes every time it was used.
She took another bite of her unappetizing fare and almost gagged. Oatmeal wasn’t her favorite food even when her stomach wasn’t doing flip-flops. She forced down a third spoonful. She had to keep up her strength so that she could be with her daughter.
Beth wasn’t doing well. She’d had another seizure and had been started on another round of antibiotics. It seemed like she took one step forward and fell back two. The last few days had been really rough.
Sometimes, Caitlin wondered if it was wrong to put Beth through so much pain. She wondered if it wouldn’t have been better if...
If she hadn’t lived.
The terrible thought tormented her each time Beth underwent yet another round of painful tests—each time she watched sobs rack her daughter’s tiny body when she was poked for blood or another IV. Because Beth was still on the ventilator, she couldn’t make any sounds. Somehow, the silence of her crying made it all the more gut-wrenching to watch, and Caitlin’s burden of guilt grew heavier.
If this is Your plan, God, it stinks.
Mick had faith. It was plain for all to see, and Caitlin was moved by his devotion, but she couldn’t find it in her heart to accept a God who would let a tiny baby suffer.
* * *
Mick entered the nursery late that afternoon and made his way to Beth’s bedside. Sandra, seated in a rocker across the aisle, fed a chubby infant with thick black hair. Arching one eyebrow, she said, “I’d say good afternoon, but from the looks of you, I’d guess it hasn’t been.”
“Do I look that bad?”
“Worse. Bad day at work?”
“Yeah, bad three days. I took an extra shift so one of the guys could spend some time with his family on Memorial Day. I forgot how much I hate working holiday weekends.”
He sank onto a stool and gently took Beth’s hand in his. His heart lightened as her fingers closed over his in a soft grip. Just seeing her made the whole crazy world seem better. He hadn’t been in for four days and now that he was, he couldn’t believe he’d stayed away so long.
At his last meeting with Caitlin, he’d had a glimpse of just how much she loved Beth. He had begun to think that he’d been wrong about her. Maybe she could get on her feet and take care of Beth, too. He prayed often about what he should do. Still, the answers he sought continued to elude him.
Stepping out of the role of a father was proving to be harder than he had expected. So was not seeing Caitlin. For some reason, she had taken to haunting his dreams at night.
“Want to talk about it?”
For a second, he thought Sandra was asking about his nocturnal visions, but before he blurted out his confession, he realized she was asking about his job.
“No, not really,” he answered with a shake of his head. He didn’t talk about the car wrecks and the bad fires, the ones with lives lost. For now, he wanted to put his job out of his mind and concentrate on the little wonder in front of him. “How’s my girl doing?”
“About the same today. We’ve stopped her feedings again.”
Mick pinned Sandra with a steady stare. “This isn’t usual, is it?”
“Every baby is different. There is no ‘usual.’”
He turned his attention to Beth. Her color didn’t seem right. He glanced at her oxygen reading and was relieved to see it was normal. Maybe he was being paranoid. Three days and nights of pulling bleeding people out of mangled cars up on the Eisenhower Expressway and taking bodies out of smoldering houses tended to make a guy feel that nothing turned out right. Beth was going to be fine. He had to believe that. “Is Caitlin here?” he asked.
“You just missed her.”
Something in Sandra’s voice made him glance sharply at her.
“The staff has noticed a change in Caitlin’s behavior.”
Mick sent her a tired, amused smile. “What? She’s turned sweet all of a sudden?”
Sandra grinned at his teasing. “That
be a change.” Her smile faded. After tucking her charge in, she pulled her rocker over beside Mick. “Have you seen her lately?”
Mick stared at Sandra’s concerned face. “No. Not for several days. Caitlin and I agreed it would be best to divide our time so that Beth usually had one of us here. Caitlin comes in the daytime, I come in the evenings when I’m not working.”
“Caitlin has been here every day, I’ll give her that, but she has started coming in later and not staying as long. One nurse reported that she thought Caitlin was strung out. She could barely keep her eyes open. She slept in the chair beside the baby for most of the time she was here.”
Mick found himself coming to Caitlin’s defense. “Maybe she’s just tired. It’s got to be hard getting here every day. Have you suggested she take a day off and get some rest?”
“Of course we suggested that.”
“And you know Caitlin. She didn’t take the suggestion well. She said she was fine in a tone that sounded more like ‘Mind your own business.’”
“Maybe I should talk to her.”
“There’s something else. Several of the mothers in the unit have reported that they have had money taken from their purses.”
“And you think Caitlin had something to do with it?”
Sandra nodded at the baby across the way. “Both mothers have babies near this bed, and both of them were here the same time Caitlin was. Does Caitlin use?”
“You mean drugs? No.”
“Are you sure?”
Was he? Caitlin had grown up a street kid. Drug use was common among them, he’d seen it often enough. Even if she hated the fact that her own mother had been an addict it didn’t mean that Caitlin didn’t have the same dependency.
Sandra must have read the doubt in his eyes. “Caitlin’s behavior hasn’t been sterling at the best of times, but this change makes us very suspicious. Having a sick baby is a terrible strain on any mother. Many of them feel tremendous guilt.”
“What will you do?”
“We’ve already done it. When Caitlin came in today, we had security take her to the lab for a drug test.”
“She consented to that?”
“She was...how shall I put it...very verbal in expressing her opinion of us, but she went.”
“When will you have the results?”
“Tomorrow afternoon at the latest. But, Mick, her results will be confidential. I’m stretching it just telling you that we’re having her tested. We won’t be able to tell you the results, one way or the other.”
He tightened his grip on Beth’s hand. “What will happen if Caitlin’s drug test is positive?”
“If she is using, she won’t be taking Beth home.”
* * *
Caitlin didn’t know how much longer she could keep walking four miles twice a day. Instead of getting strong she seemed to be getting weaker. Today she hadn’t been able to drag herself out of bed until almost noon.
She braced herself before she entered the nursery. Would her drug-test results be back or would she be subjected to another day of frigid stares and barely concealed dislike by the staff? She looked forward to the apologies they would have to give her when her results showed she was clean. A person couldn’t act a little tired without some snoopy nurse jumping to wild conclusions.
In the nursery, Dr. Wright stood beside Beth’s bed. For a moment, their images swam in front of Caitlin’s eyes, and she grabbed the back of a nearby chair to steady herself. When she looked up, the doctor was staring at her intently.
Caitlin straightened and moved within a foot of the woman. “I’m clean, right?” she demanded.
The doctor had the grace to look shamefaced. “Yes. I’m sorry we had to put you through that, but Beth is our primary concern.”
Caitlin scanned the faces of the nurses around the unit who were watching with undisguised curiosity. “Did you hear that? I’m clean.”
The women quickly busied themselves with other tasks, but Caitlin was satisfied that they all knew they had misjudged her.
Dr. Wright laid a hand on Caitlin’s arm. “There’s something else we need to discuss.”
Caitlin’s elation died a quick death. “What?”
“Your lab work showed a high bacteria count in your milk. Have you been running a fever or having chills?”
“I’m a little tired, that’s all.”
“I’m afraid it’s more than that. If you are sick, you shouldn’t be visiting the baby. You can make her sick just by touching her. And we can’t be giving her your milk. We’ll have to discard what you’ve brought in.” She took the small bottle from Caitlin’s hand and tossed it in the trash. “I’m sure all of this was explained in the handouts we gave you when you went home. Do you have a doctor you can see?”
Caitlin shook her head.
“I’ll write you a prescription for some medication. I want you to take it as directed and I’m afraid you’ll have to wait forty-eight hours before coming in to see the baby again.”
Dr. Wright scribbled something on a small square of paper and placed it in Caitlin’s hand. Her fingers closed around it, but nothing registered except that she had hurt Beth again. Suddenly, she had to get away. Surging to her feet, she pulled away from the doctor’s steadying hand. Somehow, she stumbled out of the nursery and down the hall to the elevators. Gasping for air, she leaned against the wall as she waited for the doors to open.
How could she have been so stupid? She had tried to ignore her own illness, and she had made Beth sick. The elevator doors slid open and Caitlin stepped in. Thankfully it was empty. As the doors closed, she wished they would stay shut forever. If only she could be trapped in here. Then she couldn’t harm her baby.
Her ignorance had caused Beth to be stuck with needles countless times. The information was in the colorful pieces of paper Caitlin had been sent home with—only she was too stupid to be able to read them.
The elevator didn’t keep her trapped, instead, it opened at the main lobby where people were coming and going as if nothing were wrong. With weary steps, Caitlin made her way out the main door. The gloom of the overcast evening had deepened into a premature darkness and rain had begun to fall. Without a thought, she walked out into the cold mist.
Mick pulled into the hospital parking lot and turned off his engine. A thin drizzle had begun to fall earlier, and it continued lightly but steadily into the evening. Through the speckled windshield he spied Caitlin leaving the building. She was late tonight.
She didn’t even have a jacket on, he noted, only a thin sweater. Hunching her shoulders, she left the protection of the hospital entrance and stepped out into the rain walking toward the bus stop. She’d be drenched in no time if she intended to wait at the curb in this stuff. Didn’t she have any sense? He had half a mind to drag her into his car and keep her dry until the bus came by. Glancing down the street, he saw the bus turn the corner, and he realized that wouldn’t be necessary.
Stepping out of his vehicle, he made a dash across the parking lot and stopped under the cover of the hospital’s wide portico. He wanted to spend an hour or so with Beth before he called it a night. He cast one last glance at Caitlin. The bus stopped and opened its doors, but she walked past as if she didn’t see it. What in the world was she up to now?
Sandra’s suggestion that Caitlin had been strung out during her last visit sprang to his mind. He didn’t want to believe it, but Sandra’s concern had him almost convinced. If Caitlin was using drugs he had to know. He had to have proof. Unsure of exactly what he intended to do, he stepped out into the rain and began to follow her.
The bus belched a cloud of dark smoke as it pulled away, and the sound of Caitlin’s harsh coughing reached Mick as the roar of the engine faded away. She wrapped her arms around herself as though she were chilled, but she never raised her head as she made her way across the street and continued down the dark sidewalk.
The streetlamps made pools of silvery liquid light in the rain, but Mick avoided them as he followed Caitlin. He didn’t want to be spotted if she looked back. After a few blocks, the lights grew fewer.
He followed discreetly, trying not to attract attention. After a while, he realized no one cared. The few people he met hurried past with their heads down, or they hunched beneath umbrellas or newspapers held up to shield them from the drizzle.
After nearly two miles, the sidewalk became busier, and Mick closed the distance between himself and Caitlin as she continued into a district known for its unsavory activities. If she was looking for an easy place to score drugs, she was headed in the right direction.
He moved past the peep shows, novelty shops, bars and adult bookstores without a second glance. He was afraid of losing sight of Caitlin.
Up ahead of him, she slowed her steps then stopped. She sank onto an empty bench near the street corner and slumped forward with her head bowed. Mick stopped as well. Turning, he pretended to gaze at the jewelry displayed in a brightly lit pawnshop window while he covertly glanced toward Caitlin. What was she waiting for? Was she meeting someone? A dealer, maybe? Mick started to move closer when a gray car with a dented fender pulled to a halt at the curb in front of the bench.
The driver leaned across the seat and rolled the window down. “Hey, baby! You wanna party?”
Caitlin raised her head to stare at the man. Suddenly, Mick thought he’d be sick. His hands balled into fists. Was that how she had survived on the streets? He didn’t even want to think about the answer. He started toward her.
“Get lost, creep!” At the sound of her sarcastic voice, Mick skidded to a halt.
Caitlin stood and walked on, pulling her thin sweater tight once more. The rain plastered her hair to her bowed head. Mick had never felt more ashamed of himself than he did at that moment.