Heather stared at a poster of a cat in a hammock at the beach. It hung over her co-worker’s desk and it was supposed to be motivating. It wasn’t. It didn’t make her want to ‘hang in there,’ as the hot pink letters ordered, it made her want to run away to the beach. She’d just leave. Start over. Get a job where she didn’t pull screaming children from their beds in the middle of the night as their parents were shoved into police cars. No cracked out Moms. No addict babies. Something where she didn’t make promises she couldn’t keep.
The phone at her desk rang and she picked it up on the last ring before it would go to voicemail.
“Heather, when was the last time you saw Alex?”
John, her boss, wasn’t interested in small talk.
“Yesterday. I did a surprise check.”
“What aren’t you telling me?”
“Heather. I know you. I know your case load. I know how you feel about Alex.”
“Is something wrong John? Do I need to go over there?”
Surprise visits to cases were allowed, encouraged even. Heather hated them. It stressed out the good parents. Made them feel watched and anxious. Her case load was heavy enough she didn’t feel like spending time explaining to another red eyed, hand wringing foster mom that it didn’t matter the floor wasn’t freshly vacuumed, and yes, she understood that the children don’t always want to wear pants. She never caught the bad parents being worse than usual, bad parents didn’t care when you came, maybe they would take the time to hide their weed, maybe.
Alex was the exception. His Mom fell squarely into the bad parent category, and like the rest she didn’t care when Heather stopped by. But Alex was special. She thought back to yesterday, nothing stood out. When she got there Mom was passed out, Alex sitting on the floor a foot from the TV. He smiled when he saw her. They were able to rouse Mom long enough to tell her they were going out. Alex ate an M&M’s blizzard as big as his head, sitting on her lap while she sipped her diet coke and felt his heartbeat against her chest. His hair was messy and his shirt was dirty, but he didn’t smell, or scratch, and she couldn’t see any bruises. She’d dropped him back off at his house with a bag of groceries and a hug.
Heather put the phone down and grabbed her purse. Standing up she felt wetness. She ignored it. She had to see Alex. She was almost to the door when the first hot knife slash stabbed her guts and stole her breath. Bent double she ran to the bathroom.
Hiding in the stall, Heather could see Marion standing at the sink through the crack in the door. The older woman was taking forever to wash her hands, her wide rear jiggling with the vigor of scrubbing. The soap dispenser pumped at least three separate times. She wondered if Marion had OCD.
Putting her head between her knees, her clammy face stuck to her thigh. She just wanted to be alone. Another cramp pulled her abdomen tight and she fought the tide of bile that rose up her throat. A hot knife pierced her uterus. She made the mistake of opening her eyes and looking in the bowl. Red. Bright, vibrant, perfect lipstick red water beneath her. Richer, darker by the minute as her dreams dripped into the bowl.
Yet another in a long line of disappointments, her barely mended heart, held together with scotch tape, super glue and hope, was broken again. She’d made it to the second trimester this time, she’d expected more. Not enough that she’d told anyone. She waited everyday for someone to see, someone to ask. She was heavier, rounder, but the fertility drugs had caused her to gain so much weight no one had noticed. Not even her Mom.
The water turned off. Paper towel dispenser clanged. Heather held her breath. The soft thud of the door closing pulled the sob right out of her throat. Her shoulders shook. Pain, hot and physical from her womb; and anguish, cold and empty from her heart met in her stomach and she threw up on the floor.
Had it been her dream to be a single Mom at forty? No, but somewhere between Jason leaving her for the waitress, and her thirty eighth birthday, she stopped caring what other people thought. The treatments were expensive; painful and heartbreaking. One by one she watched her loved ones become frustrated with her yearning and turn away. Of course she’d have been willing to adopt! She’s a Child Services Worker for god sakes! They don’t just let anyone adopt, not single women who make thirty thousand a year, anyway. Apparently any fucking moron can have a baby, just not her.
Alex! In pain and haste, she’d forgotten what she was supposed to be doing. Specific rage towards Alex’s mother filled her. At only five Alex exhibited symptoms of PTSD and severe trauma. He rarely spoke. That woman had everything Heather had ever wanted and broke it.
The door whooshed open again. She held her breath. “Heather are you in here?”
She couldn’t answer. She shook with anger, pain and the effort of being silent.
“Heather, it’s Alex. We have an issue.”
She dragged herself out of the stall. Splashing cold water on her face she noticed in the mirror she looked exactly the same, if a little pale. Still puffy. How was it possible to have lost so much and be physically unchanged?
Marion waited for her outside. “His Mom had a breakdown. It’s worse.”
The outside of Alex’s house looked like it usually did. Garbage strewn across grass that was both overgrown and brown. Mold growing on the cracked and crooked siding. But when Heather stepped inside her mouth fell open. She could see the usual pile of dishes burying the sink. The living room normally looked like a bomb had been detonated inside, and today was no different, except that blood was everywhere. Her heart was in her mouth.
“Alex!” She raced to the bedrooms. A lady cop stepped out of Alex’s room.
“He’s okay. He knows the drill so he’s packing his things. What there is… Didn’t they tell you he was okay? The blood is hers she tried to, you know, in front of him.”
Heather wasn’t paying attention, she was looking around the corner at the dark haired boy putting dirty socks into a grocery bag. He finished packing his things and moved toward her silently, and then past and through the door. Following him to the car, she opened the backseat. He only needed a booster and knew how to strap himself into hers. She closed the door and took a deep breath before walking around to the driver’s seat.
He’d say something if he wanted to. He knew what the next steps were, where they were going, this wasn’t new. She pulled away from the curb as a fine mist began to fall, her body ached for the beach, for the tingle of sun on her shoulders. They rode in silence for miles.
“Is my momma going to be okay?”
Heather didn’t know what to say. She’d always prided herself on not giving false hope, on being honest even when it was hard, but she didn’t have any facts. She didn’t know if Alex’s mom made it to the hospital, but even if she did, this wouldn’t be the last time she tried. She was an addict, and she’d gotten a taste.
“I don’t know Alex. She’s sick.”
She watched him ponder that in the rearview mirror. Alex lived through more shit in his five years than she ever had. Guilt for being such a self absorbed bitch crawled up her arms and over her shoulders. A couple setbacks and she wanted to run away, and that was still all she could think about, getting away from here. And this kid is worried about his mother.
“What’s an abortion?”
Heather prayed she heard him wrong.
“Where did you hear that?”
“My Mom said last night that she wished she had one. I thought maybe I could get her one. Maybe that would make her feel better.”
Rage like an aneurysm exploded behind her eye. She couldn’t see. Her vision was a field of white stars. Her foot hit the brake automatically and they came to an abrupt halt in the middle of the street. A chorus of honks erupted around them. Everything became clear. This was what she was meant to do. Her whole life, all the struggle, all the pain and failure lead to this. Heather’s arms felt light, her chest expanded and she could see for miles. She turned around in her seat, put her hand on Alex’s knee and smiled,
“Have you ever been to the beach?”
# # #
Meagan Lucas is a Canadian writer, living in the mountains of North Carolina. She is a wife, a mother, an excellent starter and a terrible finisher. Her stories have been published or are forthcoming in The City Quill, Degenerate Literature, and BLYNKT Lit Mag. Meagan whines a lot about craving carbs and finishing her novel at www.meaganlucas.com.
Photo credit: Terri Malone
Audio: Susan C. Ingram