Heather snapped awake to the sound of crying over the baby monitor on the nightstand. She turned it down and quickly made her way to the baby’s room to find her little girl wailing.
She scooped her up and began soothing her as she backed into the rocking chair in the corner. Undoing her pajamas, she started the routine 3am feeding and breathed a sigh of relief.
The house was quiet as the crickets sang just outside the window. The moonlight beamed on the white swaddling blanket and contrasted the new curls peeking out, as if to reach for Heather’s own as she leaned in to take in the sweetness.
As she sat back to rest her eyes, the baby suddenly unlatched and quietly coughed. Heather hushed the baby and rocked her, gently patting her back, but the coughing continued. Heather brought the baby upright to help her catch her breath, but she continued coughing and gasping for air. Heather brought her in closer and her heart began to race.
“What’s wrong baby girl?” Heather asked frantically.
Wheezing and coughing, wheezing and coughing, Heather brought the girl up to her shoulder and nervously patted her back harder, hands shaking. Her mind began to race, should she wake Kyle? Should she call 911?
“Breathe baby girl, breathe.” She said sternly.
“Kyle!” She screamed as she stood to take the baby to her husband. Before she reached the door, the coughing on her shoulder stopped.
Grateful, she brought the bundle back to her folded arms to make sure she was okay.
As the swaddled blanket fell into her arms it unfolded and the baby was gone.
Heather screamed as she fell to her knees.
Heather woke to her own screaming voice.
She sat up, arms crossed, adrenaline rushing. Her body cooled as she came back to reality from the fog. She took a deep breath in relief and saw Kyle’s side of the bed was empty. He must’ve gone to church without her again, she thought. As she got up to go to the bathroom, she felt the all-to familiar dread of her period.
“Heather!” A faint voice said from outside the front door, followed by a rapid knock.
Heather quickly cleaned herself up and walked down the hall to peer out the front window. She found Cheri’s familiar silhouette next to her little boy, Jared.
Cheri never had good timing. She was single when she managed to get pregnant and she hadn’t bothered to get the father’s name. Then again, it’s hard to get someone’s name when you’re so drunk you don’t even remember having sex. Eight months later, she had a preemie baby boy, in a pregnancy eerily similar to her own birth twenty years before.
Heather always pitied her though. John and Cheri’s mother, Amber, had a one night fling after senior prom. They split custody, but Amber was known for untreated alcoholism and was a serial monogamist. Despite all the crap Amber put Cheri and John through, Heather never heard John say a bad word about her.
And despite John’s best efforts, Cheri always felt like the oddball after he moved on to have what Cheri considered to be a normal family—it didn’t help that Cheri didn’t look or act like the rest of the family though. Heather grew up admiring Cheri and loved her dearly, but years of being conveniently used left Heather skeptical.
“Hey sis!” Cheri said, as if they hadn’t seen each other in two months.
“Hi Cheri. What’s going on?” Heather said as she stepped out onto the front step. Heather wasn’t very good at hiding her skepticism but wanted to tone it down in front of the boy.
“We just haven’t seen you in a long time and I thought it would be a good idea to pop by and see if Jared could spend some time with you.” She looked down at Jared with a smile.
Heather glanced at Jared and looked away quickly in case she might sympathize with the straight-haired boy throwing and spinning his stuffed dog.
“Karate chop!” Jared yelled as he tried to cut his dog in half. “Karate chop!” again as he tried to chop Heather’s thigh in half.
“H…Hi Jared.” Heather forced out as she grabbed her leg, a little surprised at how hard the three-year-old could chop.
“I’m…I’m just a little surprised Cheri, you know I haven’t seen you in a couple months. I’m not sure it’s a good idea right now. Things have been pretty stressful lately and—”
“I know and I’m sorry about that, but I just thought maybe Jared could help take your mind off things and I really, REALLY need some time alone to finish some job applications. You know, I’m trying to get back on track and with mom moving out West, it’s been tough to get time alone to get things done.” Cheri pleaded, noticeably strung out.
Heather knew all too well about Amber’s vanishing acts, this time out West with God knows who and for God knows what. She looked at Cheri, then at Jared, this time throwing his dog over the bushes and into the egress window.
“MOOOOM” he yelled. “Get Spikes out the window!”
Heather also knew Cheri didn’t have anyone else resembling responsibility to rely on in times like this. There weren’t any recent arrests, but Cheri’s wrap sheet and close calls was as long as her forearm. It was amazing she still had Jared at all. Cheri was her only place to turn in her network of deplorables. Plus her mind panged with all the pretty Instagram quotes about loving your neighbor and caring for widows and orphans in their time of need. The guilt was heavy.
“Fine.” She conceded. “You have one night, and I need you here by 9 tomorrow morning. I’ve got the lunch shift.”
It was really all the time she could put in with the disaster that was her half-nephew. Deep down she knew it wasn’t his fault, but she hated to admit they were related with the way he threw fits at every turn, writhing around on the floor like a gut pig in public. He seemed like a stranger, nothing about him resembled Cheri or Heather, or anyone in the family, really. He was his father’s son, whomever that was.
“You’re the best Heather! Thank you so much. I won’t be late. Everything you need is in his bag. He’s still wearing a bedtime diaper and you might want to put a garbage bag under the sheets just in case he pees through.” Cheri trailed off as she ran around the side of the house to find Jared. She reappeared dragging him by the hand around the front. She kissed him, hugged Heather, and disappeared before anyone could change their mind.
Heather stopped to watch Cheri’s car disappear around the corner, then turned to look for Jared.
“Karate chop!” Was the last thing she heard before he hit the back of her knee and dropped her to the ground.
“I can’t believe you let her talk you into this.” Kyle said as he lowered his voice to stay out of Jared’s earshot. Outside their bedroom door came a loud thud from what could only be Jared jumping off the arm of the couch onto the coffee table. They both winced.
“I know, I didn’t know what to do. She had me cornered. She’s trying.” Heather whispered.
“What makes it any different from every other time she’s claimed to be turning her life around?” Kyle argued. “This is ridiculous and he goes back as soon as possible. If she doesn’t show up, you miss a shift and we can’t afford that.”
“I know, I’m sorry honey.” Heather knew he was right. Cheri was a broken record when it came to commitments and relapse. But something was different. She could tell Cheri meant it this time.
“RAWR!” Jared thundered as he kicked the door open.
“Jared, you can’t kick the doors, honey. Settle down.” Heather scolded.
“I’m a MONSTER!” Jared roared as he pounced toward Heather and Kyle.
“Jared, stop!” Kyle yelled. Jared ignored the command and bound out the door to his favorite perch on the couch.
Kyle followed him, determined to put the little hellion in his place.
“Jared, it’s time to settle down, now.” Kyle demanded.
“NO, I want to play monsters.” Jared stomped as he jumped off the couch.
“Too bad, no more monsters.” Kyle persisted.
“I’m going to play MONSTERS.” Jared said as he stomped on Kyle’s foot.
“You little shit.” Kyle muttered as he grabbed that little shit by the arm, walked him to the baby’s room, sat him in the rocking chair for a time out.
“I’m not doin’ time out.” Jared yelled. “That’s STUPID. You’re STUPID. You’re not the boss of me.”
Kyle slammed the door for good measure and to drown out the fit that followed. He turned to find Heather with her hands on her head.
“I’m so sorry.” She mouthed.
“I’m getting a beer.”
By the time bedtime rolled around, Heather and Kyle had never been so close to murdering a child. Heather tucked Jared into the air mattress in the baby’s room.
“Honey, I know you talk to your mommy the way you talked to Uncle Kyle tonight, but when you’re in our house, you have to follow our rules. You can’t talk to Aunt Heather and Uncle Kyle that way.”
Jared twirled his stuffed dog’s ear in his fingers. Silence followed.
“Do you understand what I’m saying?” She asked. Jared nodded and rolled over, clutching his dog tight.
“Alright.” Heather resigned. “Goodnight Jared, see you in the morning.”
“Night.” Jared replied quietly.
Heather kissed his cheek and turned off the light on a day that made her wonder if she’s ready to have children at all.
Heather looked at her phone, again. 9:45am. With each minute, her confidence in Cheri waned.
Don’t do this again, Heather pleaded. She didn’t care if Cheri proved Kyle right. She could handle being wrong, she couldn’t handle being late to work. Jared sat, enthralled, a few feet from the TV. Thankfully, Cheri packed his favorite movie. Monsters, Inc., of course.
Heather sat in her work clothes, ready to pounce when Cheri finally showed up. She called Cheri’s phone for the sixth time.
As Heather stood up to get another cup of coffee, her phone buzzed with “Unknown” flashing on the caller ID.
Shit, Heather thought. She hesitated, then picked up.
“You have a collect call from the Clayton County Jail. Do you wish to accept the charges?”
Her stomach hit the floor.
“Yes.” She replied.
There was a sniffle on the other end of the line.
“Hello?” Heather started.
“Heather?” Cheri’s voice pleaded. “Are you there?”
“What’s going on Cheri? Why are you calling from the jail?” Her voice got quieter but more stern as she walked down the hall to shield Jared from the questions.
“I’m so sorry Heather. I made a mistake.”
“What do you mean, a mistake?” Heather accused. “You were supposed to be here to pick up Jared this morning. I’m going to miss work. When are you getting out? What am I supposed to do?”
“Well, that’s the problem.” Cheri said. “I don’t know when. I have a hearing this afternoon and…I, I don’t know.”
Heather could hear her breaking down.
“Damn it Cheri. What am I supposed to do?”
“I don’t know…I’m so sorry. I tried calling my mom but I can’t get through to her. The number’s been disconnected and she’s so far away, I don’t think it really matters if I could talk to her. Can you watch Jared until later today? I have a hearing this afternoon and I’ll be released afterwards.”
“What happened? You were supposed to be working on applications. How do you end up in jail when you’re working on applications?” Heather demanded.
“I was working on them. But Derek and Jax stopped by and, well, one thing led to another and they started partying. I asked them to leave. I swear I did, but they wouldn’t leave and I couldn’t do anything about it. I wasn’t doing any drugs, I swear. When they went outside to talk to some friends, the cops pulled in and busted them. Then they came in the house and found drugs on the table and claimed they were mine, but they weren’t, Heather, I swear.”
Heather took a deep breath.
“This is so stupid, Cheri. What am I supposed to do? I can’t go to work now.”
“I know. I’m so sorry Heather.”
They both sat in silence as Heather stewed. Cheri delicately broke the silence.
“So, can you please watch him a little longer? Until I get out this afternoon?” She pleaded.
“Where else would he even go Cheri. You’ve put me in this position. He’s your son and you should be taking care of him, but no, you go and pull this shit. Yes he can stay here.”
“Thank you so much Heather, I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”
“Yeah.” Heather resigned.
“I’ll call you after the hearing.”
“Okay. Call. Me.” Heather demanded as she hung up the phone. She looked down the hall to find Jared still glued to the TV and heard a burst of laughter as she made her way to their bedroom to call Karen.
Heather scooped out the macaroni and cheese from the pot into two bowls. Thank goodness she never grew out of the golden noodles or who knows what she’d feed the boy. Spongebob blared on the TV as Jared giggled and danced to the theme song.
“Jared, it’s time for lunch.” Heather called.
“Yay!” Jared cheered as he pounced into the kitchen and climbed into a chair at the breakfast nook.
“Can you eat on your own or do you need me to feed you?” Heather asked.
“I do it.” Jared declared.
Heather watched him fumble with the spoon and grab it like a caveman. She wondered what Cheri was eating right now in County, or maybe she was already at the courthouse for her hearing. Jared missed his mouth for the third time in a row.
“Here, let me help you, you’re getting it everywhere.” Heather insisted.
“NO, I do it.” Jared protested.
“Alright, alright.” Heather was tired of arguing with the boy. He had a hairline trigger for defiance and getting his own way, but if he was going back to Cheri today there was no use in arguing with him or trying to correct it. She just wanted him to move on so she could get to work. Every hour felt like a step back from their goal.
“Where’s mommy?” Jared asked, pulling Heather back to reality.
“Mommy will be back later today.”
“Okay.” Jared said through his full mouth. “I yike it here.”
“Really? That’s good.” I wish the feelings were mutual, she thought to herself.
“Yeah, I get a bed and cartoons!” Jared said with way too much excitement.
“Where do you sleep at home?” Heather wasn’t even sure where they lived. Cheri was in and out with boyfriends, or soon discovered she couldn’t afford an apartment, so they moved frequently.
“Um, on the couch or the floor.”
Actually hearing this come out of a three-year-old’s mouth tugged at Heather’s heart. She tried not to picture him sleeping on the filthy floors of the various apartments on the north side of town. Floors she wouldn’t want to walk on, let alone sleep on.
Jared completely missed his mouth again and dumped a large spoonful of macaroni on the floor.
“Alright, you’re just making a mess. I’m going to feed you now.” Heather insisted.
“NO, I do it.” Jared said as the familiar furrow in his brow made an appearance and he jerked the bowl toward himself. But he also misjudged how close he was to the edge of the table and it tipped and spilled onto his lap and bounced to the floor where it broke into pieces against the tile.
“JARED!” Heather yelled as she rushed to get paper towels and the broom. “Stay where you are.”
Jared covered his ears and started to cry, the few macaronis left in his cheeks spilling out onto the floor.
Kyle paced the bedroom between their queen-sized, shaker bed and the master bathroom. Heather sat on the bed, every other glance looking out the window in disbelief that it was after dinner and they hadn’t heard from Cheri.
“Heather, what are we going to do? We have lives too and we didn’t ask for this.” Kyle demanded.
“I know, it was really dumb to let him stay here in the first place. I’m sorry. I don’t know what to do until we hear from Cheri. For all we know, she’s checking out of the jail. Do you check out of a jail? I don’t know, but I’m sure you can’t just walk out. There’s got to be a process and she’s probably going through it and hasn’t had time to call.” Heather said, wishfully.
Heather’s phone buzzed on the nightstand, it was an unknown number. She glanced up at Kyle as she picked it up.
“You have a collect call from the Clayton County Jail. Do you wish to accept the charges?”
“Yes.” Heater could hear the familiar sound of the call being connected.
“Heather?” The strained voice came over the line.
“Cheri. What’s going on? Tell me you’re getting ready to leave.”
There was a clear sniffle from the other end. “I’m so sorry Heather.”
“What do you mean you’re sorry? What’s going on?”
“The hearing didn’t go well. The judge put on a $5,000 bail. I can’t afford that Heather, and I can’t get out unless someone pays the bail.”
“You’re kidding me, right? This is a joke. Don’t mess around with this, Cheri.” Heather pleaded.
“I wish I was Heather.” It was all she could get out as she broke down.
“What am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to do with Jared?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know where else to take him. I have some friends but I trust you the most with him.”
“I know that but we have lives. I have a job. I can’t just drop everything and stop working.” Heather said.
“I don’t know what else to do. I’m so sorry to put this on you. You’re the only family I have here right now. If you can’t take care of him, I will call some other people, but you’re his best chance right now. Otherwise I’m afraid he’ll go into foster care and I’ll lose him.”
“How long will this last? How long until you know what you’re facing?”
“The attorney says the charges could put me in for a max of 8 years. That’s if I’m convicted. I don’t know how long it’ll take to have the trial, but we can figure that out once it comes. For now, I just need Jared to have a place to stay until we figure things out.”
Heather looked up to see Kyle leaned against the wall, looking up at the ceiling. He didn’t need to hear Cheri to know what was going on. Heather’s mind was spinning. She knew they were Jared’s only hope at a normal life and close enough to visit his mom regularly, but how could she work full time with a 3-year-old at home? She’d have to find childcare for him if she wanted to work and who would pay for that? In the short term probably Heather and Kyle. He’s family and family watches out for each other, but Heather had been burned enough in the past with Cheri. And Cheri hadn’t been watching out for them by getting herself in this debacle. It was time to stop letting Cheri’s actions hold her back. Heather found Kyle’s eyes as he shook his head.
“Cheri, Kyle and I are trying to save up money for IVF, it’s our only hope at having a family of our own. We can’t do that with Jared staying here. I can take him out to dad so he and Jane can take care of him.”
“But. But I’ll never see him if he goes all the way out there.” She said as she broke down again.
“I know but maybe it’s best that Jared not see you in jail anyway. Have you thought about that? What does that tell your son? To see you in jail like that. Do you want him to see you like that?”
Cheri hadn’t given much thought to that. All she wanted was to make sure he was with someone who loved him, and to see him whenever possible.
“Heather, please don’t do this. Please. I know dad would be good with him but I’ll lose him.” Cheri squeaked out.
“I didn’t put you in jail. I didn’t put Jared in this jam. Now I’m supposed to sacrifice my own ability to have children so you can see your child a couple times a week? I’m sorry Cheri but that’s not fair to us either. I’ll take him out to dad. If you aren’t guilty, it won’t be very long for you to be out and dad can bring him back once you’re on your feet again. It’s what’s best for everyone. I’m sorry this is hard, but it’s the way it has to go.”
Heather had never stuck up to her older sister like this. She ignored the pit in her stomach and walked into the baby’s room to give her strength as Cheri quietly cried on the other end.
“You’re, you’re right. Thank you for taking him to dad. We’re at 600 Logan Street on the north side of town, apartment 2A. All his stuff is there. I’ll tell the officer you’re coming to get the key.”
“I’m proud of you Cheri, this is the right thing for Jared, for everyone.”
“Please let me see him when you come to get the key. One last time.”
“I can do that.”
“Okay, I’ll see you later.”
Heather hung up the phone, exhaled, and heard the familiar thud of Jared jumping off the couch. Kyle hugged her.
“Call your dad, I’ll start getting the car ready for the trip.” Kyle said with pride on his face.