“Declined,” the red word flashed for the third time since Katie slid her card through the reader. The cashier seemed a lot more patient than the people in line behind her did. Her daughter’s teething certainly didn’t make the stress any less as she chewed on her chubby fist, ribbons of drool spiraled down the front of her mother’s white uniformed shirt.
“What’s the problem up there?” a grouchy old man with a shopping cart holding a single case of beer and a bag of chips yelps from behind a teenage couple.
A young male stood spooning a female, holding her arms folded across her stomach. Love shown so fully across their faces it made Katie want to spew. If they knew what she knows now about love, and how it managed to contort reality the way looking at the world through a circus balloon did, they wouldn’t only think twice – they’d run the other way without so much as glancing behind. It’s amazing how a few groans and a couple of thrusts can have a permanent alteration on your life.
Katie’s been in love one too many times but never again. She couldn’t risk it -- not with her baby being influenced by her poor decisions.
And she’d ever give her daughter up for anything – that was proven time and again. The mistake that got her here wasn’t the fact the baby had been a girl when Mike had distinctly told her he wanted a boy. It wasn’t that she denied having an abortion no matter how much Mike coaxed and even threatened. It wasn’t the way he’d come to the hospital the day after the delivery when she’d driven herself during labor because he was too tired from the night before. No, her mistake was in trusting anyone other than herself.
Now he stared at the tiny infant’s face peering at him with huge blue eyes, her body stretched across his lap. His stone-cold face gazed down at the infant, expressionless. He made no motion to communicate or touch her other than to prevent her from falling from his thighs. And that was only for the sake of self-preservation in the hospital surrounding them. Yet he sat still for an eternity doing nothing more than staring. Katie understood that at the moment, the hospital was her baby’s only protection.
Katie had hoped Mike was finally connecting the way fathers do with their infants. But it turned out he was “saying his goodbyes” for when little Aspen was given up for adoption. He hadn’t given up coaxing Katie yet. But she refused to listen to anything he had to say because he lied. A lot. She bet he hardly knew better.
Granted, Katie was happy with her bouncing baby girl, but her intention had been to wait another year or so before having a baby so they were more stable as a couple. When she’d ask about what they should do for birth control, Mike’s answer was always the same. “Let God decide if we should have a baby or not.” Apparently, God finally had His say.
They’d only been dating about a year but there was still a hint of admiration for his ex every time her name came up. Mike had two strapping boys with her, but his ex wanted nothing to do with him. Still, he paid a king’s ransom in alimony and child support in the hopes of winning her back again. Katie’s momma always told her, “Why buy the cow when you get the milk for free?” She guessed that played out for his ex as well. Still, the phrase haunted her. No one would “taste my cow's milk” again, she thought as the baby puke drizzled over the Emergency Medical Technician’s logo.
After the revelation of the baby’s gender, Mike let Katie know that under no uncertain circumstances would the rest of her life be easy. First, he relayed the baby would be half of his DNA, making the child impossible to handle; second, she’d have an easier time getting blood from a turnip than collecting support from him. Plus, he insisted on taking a paternity test to prove she’d been faithful. On the first count, he couldn’t be more wrong. Sure, Aspen’s not a typical cuddle bug, but all babies have their dispositions, and she was as smart as they come. But on the second count about getting money from him, he held all the cards in that one, and flashed them regularly as a reminder. The third question was only to make things a trial.
This was one of those times he could puff out his chest because he had the money she needed, and he didn’t have to say a word to have her squirm about it. He could sit back with his popcorn and enjoy the show.
No weekly support check was made and the formula was gone. The daycare needed a payment. Katie had to get to work and was nearly out of gas. And now baby Aspen was returning everything she’d eaten for breakfast, no receipt included.
“Why don’t you go figure out what’s wrong and let the rest of us get to where we’re going?” the alcoholic jerk whined from the back. He shook his cart so the glass bottles rattled against each other as if they trumped caring for an infant.
“What’s the matter, your beer getting too warm for a breakfast appetizer?”
Still, Katie grabbed her purse, threw it over her other shoulder, leaving everything where it was. The checker stared wide-eyed in disbelief as the cartful of groceries waited at the end of the belt, unpaid for. Katie couldn’t have cared less because she had bigger issues than some drunk getting a head start, and time was most definitely of the essence. She needed to figure out how she was getting home after work on an empty tank.
“Come on, Aspen,” she muttered, trying her best to sound cheerful in a weak Desi Arnaz imitation, “We’ve got some ‘splaining to do.”
Ducking into the restroom, she grabbed a handful of paper towels and removed what she could of the baby’s spit-up from her shirt.
Aspen perched quietly on the floor and chewed her fist, her other hand flailing in the air. If one didn’t know better, it may be suspected she was swatting at flies with the wild spasms of her arm, tiny fingers clenching and releasing. Glancing at her watch, Katie knew her time was already lean and she couldn’t afford being late. Whisking her baby up, she threw her purse and diaper bag over her shoulder and rushed out the door.
The daycare was in a rundown house at the shady end of town. Although Katie wasn’t particularly fond of the location, she couldn’t afford anything better – yet. But she planned on using her current degree as an EMT to boost her through schooling for the degree she sought, a pediatrician. She’s always had a soft spot for children. She knew she’d have something to offer the children and be more aware than most doctors to the well being of little ones.
Her own existence was that of a broken home with an abusive stepfather who knew how to hide marks and threaten to secrecy. Always wanting to put a stop to abuse in her own way, this was the best she could do without becoming a police officer. And with the little they did to investigate Mike when he had “playfully misbehaved” just under the wire, she wasn’t prone to wanting to join their force.
Opening the front door and stepping inside, an old golden retriever shoved its nose between her legs, nearly knocking her down. “Isabella, are you here?”
The television blaring a children’s program drown out any response she may have heard. The canine insisted on intruding and nearly bowled Katie over as she swung the diaper bag around to keep from tumbling on top of Aspen.
“No hit my dog,” an angry woman appeared. Her long black hair was pulled into a tangled braid swinging behind her.
“I wasn’t… I mean, shouldn’t it be outside rather than inside with the babies?” Katie pushed past the dog and the short woman into the living room. An infant boy lay face up on a blanket in a diaper, grabbing at his toes and cooing. The old dog made its way to the infant and licked his face.
“See?” Isabella smiled, “Jorge’s gentle. He helps with little ones.”
“Jorge can’t be here with Aspen. It’s unsanitary. Can’t you put him out?”
“Sure, I put him out.” Isabella nodded but made no motion to remove Jorge. Even if she did, Katie knew the mangy dog would be back inside as soon as she left.
Katie shakes her head, realizing she has no choice but leaving her daughter for the day in a filthy establishment. Katie had searched for nearly a month before finding a place she could afford.
Between her car payment, rent, caring for the baby, and wanting to go back to school, she relied on child support to make ends meet. She had every intention of cutting her male artery free once she could afford to support them on her own; her life would be so much easier without having to mention Mike.
“You pay me today?” Isabella gently retrieves Aspen from her and snatches a tissue from a box on the counter to wipe at the tot’s drooling mouth.
“Yes, I’ll pay you tonight – somehow.” Katie swings the diaper bag from her shoulder and sets it on a nearby chair. “I should be here by 7:30, okay?”
Isabella frowns. “Seven-thirty? Center closes at seven.”
“I’ll hurry,” Katie slides her purse back up and leans into Aspen who reaches for her, wailing. “I’m sorry,” she leans in whispering to her daughter, “I’ll be back as soon as I can.” Patting her infant’s hand briefly, she disappears through the door.
“God be with you,” Isabella called just before the door slamming cut her off.
Climbing into her car, Katie starts it up and grabs her phone, hitting the number labeled “Deadbeat.” She puts it on speaker and sets it in the stand on her dashboard. It rings a couple of times before the familiar voice answers. Pulling away from the curb, she heads down the street toward the stop sign.
“So, I guess you got my card, did you?” Mike spews from the mounted phone.
“Yeah, the F-You card I sent last week.” He chuckles. “It’s going to take them at least a month to find where I live and work you know. Fun and games!”
“Why are you doing this?” Katie asks, cranking the wheel to the left as she enters the intersection. “Your daughter hasn’t done anything to deserve this.”
“She has no idea. You, on the other hand, you’ll regret your decision. Mark my words.” He laughs maniacally. “C’mon, Katie. You can’t say you’re surprised. I warned you, and you chose to keep the baby anyway. Now it’s time to pay the piper.”
“So that’s it, huh? This is the game you choose to play?” With the hospital only about two miles away, sleet suddenly pounds on the windshield like a stranger begging for shelter. The sky grows dark and ominous curling clouds cover the city.
“No, you chose this game a long time ago. I’m simply following through on a promise. Nothing more. Why don’t you take your baby to church and beg God for help.” She could picture his smug face talking on the phone, and wondered if he was sitting behind his large mahogany desk in his oversized office with his high school graduated secretary at the front desk.
Kristy was her name, and Katie knew that when the girl sat on her chair she often left traces because her skirt was much too short to fit beneath her buttocks. She wouldn’t have put it past Mike to inspect the seat each night when the girl left. He was such a spineless worm.
“Are you at your office now?” Katie inquired. “I can swing by and get the check from you, or would tonight be better?”
A throaty rain of laughter echoed through the phone. “No need to waste a trip,” he chuckled. “First of all, I’m in my car right now, and secondly, I’d hate for you to drive all the way over for nothing. Like I said, you made your bed, now lie in it.”
The line clicked.
Katie’s brows furrowed as if the phone intentionally hung up on her. Mike knew she couldn’t afford an attorney and would take full advantage of it.
Being the Christian she’d been raised to be, Katie had always prided herself on never hating someone else, because it casts a negative reflection on herself. However, she was seriously considering making the once-in-a-lifetime exception for him. If anyone deserved it, it was Michael Andiron, CEO of one of the largest security agencies in the state. Mike was the wealthiest and most irresponsible man she had the displeasure of associating with.
The clock on her dashboard read 7:45 a.m. She had fifteen minutes to get to work but it was only about five minutes away. Taking a deep breath, she exhaled slowly to regain her self-control, and then repeated it a couple more times.
Suddenly, a barrage of red lights flashed in front of her through the raindrops reflecting across her windshield. The cars and trucks of various shades slid in different directions across the water like graceful skaters on a frozen pond. One at a time, they hammered into each other bouncing off. At least three hit, perhaps more.
Even though it meant she’d be late for work, Katie pulled off into the dirt to see if anyone needed immediate assistance. Abandoning her car, she darted ahead on foot, grateful she was wearing the ugly black work shoes.
The white pickup in the rear had a crumpled fender, but the driver appeared fine as she approached, making a cranking movement in the air. The driver put the window down. “Can you pull off the side?” Katie called to the driver, “Just to get out of harm’s way.” Taking visible notice of her uniform, he followed her directions.
The car in front of the pickup was a black sports car with the front smashed freshly beneath the back of a school bus. The bus’s rear fender pressed halfway up the hood on one side and to the dashboard on the other.
Katie could see the driver was stunned by the way his head lolled back and forth on his shoulders as she rounded to the front, preparing for a disfigured countenance. What she saw was more horrific than any accident she could have prepared to see in that moment. It was Michael Andiron in his racy MX-5 Miata Club. His mashed and bloody face appeared to have bounced hard from the steering wheel, breaking his nose and cutting his cheek, leaving him semi conscious. He squinted at her. “Katie?”
Peering up at the bus, children had their faces pressed against the rear windows peeking at the scene below. Katie dashed up to the bus’s driver window and gave it a knock. When the window opened, she quickly stated, “I’m an EMT and right now that’s all we got ‘til the police get here. Can you get these kids to safety by taking them up in front and as far to the side as possible until help gets here?”
The driver agreed and immediately called the kids’ attention over the speaker, directing them to calmly file out the door and head forward where the other road crosses. Katie hurried back to the banged up Miata where Mike was a combination of hesitant and frightened, but unable to move. “My legs are stuck.”
Squatting down beside his door, she tried to clear her head, deciding what to do.
Katie took a deep breath and stood tall, craning her head to the right, beyond the white pickup truck.
A bright set of headlights flashed through the rain over the rise attached to a red dump truck coming full speed. “Good-bye,” she muttered as she backed away from the car, turning and running in the opposite direction.
The dump truck locked its brakes, sliding sideways as the wail of heavy machinery grinding against the wet road and gravel slipped into the rear of the Miata sideways, forcing the little car beneath the bus. Katie remained motionless as the movement ceased temporarily.
Silence enveloped the scene although there was ample staff of uniforms, police and medics, scrambling about the scene. She was numbly absorbed in thought. Perhaps she’d been too quick to dismiss the thought of God after all.