Ten miles. You wouldn’t think with a car it would take all that long to drive but it took close to three hours because there was a huge back up with lots of wrecked up cars as we got off the interstate and we had to weave around stalled cars for the first eight miles. Within a mile of the town the highway had been cleared. Within a half mile we ran into the crew that had been clearing the road so that at least one lane was completely traversable all the way through.
“Stop,” Jay said. He stuck his head out of the window and there was a huge reunion once the other people got over their shock.
After all the back slapping and things had slowed down I told him, “Well, it was nice meeting you. We’ll just be …”
“Oh no you don’t,” he informed me.
“Hey! You said …”
“No one is going to give you any problems but I’m not going to just let you go without saying thank you and introducing you to my wife and parents. They’ll never believe me if I don’t.”
And then a pick up truck comes bouncing over a curb and slammed to a stop with three men and a small woman all leaping out and running to Jay. It made my throat close up and I tried not to wonder if there’d be anyone to greet us like that when we got where we were going.
“Jay! Oh Jay!” the woman cried, throwing herself into his arms and clinging on tight. I figured that was the wife.
“Damn Jay,” another man said in a horse remorseful voice. “I waited the forty-eight hours we agreed to. I … I never would have …”
The guy was obviously “the partner” and Jay said, “Forget it man. We both knew the score. I’m just glad you ain’t dead.”
The other two were older and they turned out to be “the sergeant” and Jay’s father. It was a bit over the top and emotional and I backed out of the radius hoping to escape. Tiff stuck her hand out the window and tugged. “Dovie, Baby needs another change and a bottle.”
Even in the noise the woman heard. “Baby? There’s … there’s a baby in there?”
I looked at her. She was trying to be no-nonsense but I could see something more than curiosity in the eyes surrounded by skin that looked bruised. She hadn’t been well all that long from the looks of it. That’s when another man said, “You better not get too close Marlene, they haven’t even been through quarantine.”
In a bored voice I told the stranger, “Not a prob.” Revealing the inside of my right arm to anyone interested to look I told them, “We’re all tagged and tatted.”
The man snorted and said, “Ain’t no way they did that to a bunch o’ kids … ‘specially not no baby.”
I shrugged. “You’re wrong. We’ll halfway. But if Baby can survive being tossed in a nasty garbage can …”
The woman cried, “What?!”
That’s when Jay said, “OK, that’s enough folks. If you are worried about infection then just step back. I’ll take them to the clinic …”
“Oh no you won’t,” I growled at him.
“You aren’t going to get locked up like at that other place. I promise. But if it is the last thing I do you bunch are going to get something to eat besides granola bars and juice boxes.” When I continued to glare at him his wife said, “At least let me take a look and make sure everyone is healthy. The baby at the very least. I worked in pediatrics at St. Vincent’s.”
For my benefit Jay added, “It’s a place in Little Rock.”
“I thought you said you were from around here?” I said distrustfully.
“I am from around here but when Little Rock imploded I brought Marlene here to recuperate at my parents’ place and … got stuck here.”
When I fell silent a couple of them started talking and all I wanted to do was run to the car and drive away as fast as I could. Jay’s father broke in. “OK people, that’s enough. She either will or she won’t. Yammering at her isn’t going to do anything but make her lean towards won’t.”
I sighed and against my preference relented. “Oh all right. You can look at Baby and make sure the other kids are OK. And if you mean it about feeding them that’s OK too. Just don’t expect us to stay.”
Jay crawled back in the passenger window after whispering something in his wife’s ear. I shook my head and crawled in the driver’s side. “I mean it, no funny business.”
“If I tell you to relax you won’t believe me but it really is going to be OK. No one is going to hold you against your will.”
I mumbled so that only he could hear me. “Not me they won’t but I won’t let anyone take my kids either.”
He hiked an eyebrow at me. “You’re too young to be their mother. You shouldn’t be in this position.”
I put my foot on the brake. “I’m serious.”
The kids had picked up on my tenseness and had gotten very still and quiet. Jay looked in the rear view mirror at them. “Nothing is going to happen. Just let my wife and mother look everyone over.”
“I thought you said your wife.”
“My mother is a doctor … gynecologist.”
Tiff asked, “What’s a ginectocologist.”
Rather than correct how she pronounced it I explained, “A doctor that takes care of women only.”
Jay trying to be helpful added, “Mom introduced me to my wife.”
I muttered, “Does she pick your socks out too?”
Jay slowly turned in my direction and said, “You have got one smart mouth.”
“I don’t see you fainting from it so stop complaining ‘cause it isn’t going to change. My brothers told me that if I gave a guy an inch he’d try and take a mile. I haven’t met too many that didn’t prove that true.”
Kindly he said, “I don’t think that is exactly what your brothers meant.”
I shrugged, “Maybe not but it’s turned out to be a truism anyway.”
He shook his head. “You talk like you’re an old woman.”
Sighing I admitted, “Some days I feel like one.” That shut us both up until we pulled into a building that had a sign which read Cedarville Veterinary Clinic.
I looked at him and he said, “It’s been repurposed and the place already had a surgery and everything.”
I got all the kids out and locked the car and in short order they were all being examined while I stood back and watched. The kids were used to the routine and didn’t fuss but they were getting stressed out by the memories it was bringing up. Surprisingly it was Tiffany that balked the hardest.
“Why?! I don’t need to!”
“It’s OK Honey,” Jay’s wife said trying to comfort her.
I looked at Marlene and then at Tiff and said, “It’s OK Tiff. This isn’t like that infirmary. No needles, pokes, or sharps; just a quick once over to make sure nothing is infected or in danger of falling off.”
Mimi said, “I gots a lollipop Tiffy for being a good girl.”
“I don’t want a lollipop, they rot your teeth.”
The older woman that was Jay’s mother said, “Good point but I’ll tell you a little secret.” She leaned over and I heard her whisper to Tiff, “The one I gave her is a sugarless safety pop.”
Tiff who took her role as big sister seriously nodded and then after another look at me uncrossed her arms and let the woman listen to her heart. A little while later there was a knock and a guy carted in a big pot of chicken soup. The kids’ mouths were watering so much I could see drool coming out of the corners of Bobby’s and Lonnie’s mouths. Mimi’s eyes were big as silver dollars. The rest of them weren’t much different, not even Paulie.
I got them seated and served and could feel people’s eyes on me the whole time. “Say the blessing,” I reminded them. After that they dug in.
“Get a bowl,” I was ordered.
“Shove it,” I told Jay. “You don’t boss me.”
He got a pained look on his face and then said, “Would you like a bowl of soup Princess Pain-in-the-Ass?”
“No thank you,” I told him politely.
“Oh come on … don’t tell me you aren’t hungry just like the other kids.”
I shook my head. “I’m not a kid. And if there is anything left after they get full then I might have some. I had a Clif builder bar for breakfast and those things are like bricks in your stomach. I’m really not hungry.”
Jay started to open his mouth but his mother cut him off. “She probably isn’t if she has been limiting her intake.” Turning to me she added, “However, limiting your caloric intake that much is just asking for trouble.”
Defensively I told her, “I make sure the kids eat three times a day even if they are just small meals. They also get vitamins every day.”
“I wasn’t talking about the children but about you.”
“I’m fine. I take vitamins too. I’m not stupid.”
“No, you aren’t,” Jay grumped. “But you are as pig headed as all my sisters combined.”
Something tickled and I had to ask, “How many?”
He snapped, “How many what?”
“How many sisters?”
“Three … all of them probably about your age. All of them just as big a pain in the butt as …”
“Jay!” he mother said repressively.
I couldn’t help it. I laughed. A real honest to goodness laugh. Something I hadn’t done in a long time. I laughed so hard I had to sit down. Paulie came over and put his arm around me and asked, “You OK Dovie?”
I nodded and snickered, “You gonna give him your sympathies again?”
He laid his head on the top of mine and said seriously, “I don’t know that there would be enough sympathy in the whole world if he has three sisters like you.”
That set me off again only somehow or other it turned into tears and I walked outside and sat on the steps before anyone could notice. A few minutes later Jay stepped out onto the porch. “Mom thinks I owe you an apology.”
“You don’t. You just reminded me of my older two brothers too much. Sometimes life sucks and sometimes it doesn’t and sometimes it all just gets mixed up together.”
He was silent for a moment and then cleared his voice. “Dove … Dovie … uh …”
I sighed. “I know what you want. I figured it out pretty fast. I’m still deciding so get off my case.”
“What? You can’t …”
“You want me to hang around here long enough for you to prove that you are good people because then you think you’ll be able to convince me that I’m too young to be a mother and that your wife would take really good care of Baby.”
I hadn’t realized it but Tiffany had followed us outside. “But he’s our Baby,” she cried.
Jay looked stricken and didn’t know what to do. I pulled Tiffany down beside me on the step. “He’s not ‘ours’ Tiff. He’s not a toy or a doll. We did find him. We’ve been the ones taking care of him. But we’ve never even been able to give him a name that would stick. He’s too little. He needs real parents. And he needs someone that knows how to take care of him in case he has special needs because of how he was born and left alone for so long in the beginning. I know about little kids Tiff, but not about babies that are that little and that might have special needs.”
“But … but didn’t God give him to us?”
I shrugged trying to explain without confusing her. “Sometimes God puts people in our lives for forever and sometimes only for a little while. Or maybe it is that He puts us in other people’s lives. I don’t know. I do know that we don’t have a lot of formula left and Baby is nowhere near old enough to eat baby food or anything like that. We only have two packages of diapers left too. We got Baby this far but he needs more than we can give him.”
“But we love him,” she cried.
“Sure we do. And when you love someone you want the best for them. You want them to have what they need even if it means that you aren’t the one that can give that to them. Don’t you want Baby to have the best chance to grow up and be a real person?”
“Uh huh,” she sniffled.
“Then try and understand Tiff, this isn’t an easy thing for me to decide. I want Baby to be able to grow up too … I just don’t have what all it takes to get him there. Even with you and Paulie and everyone else helping Baby just needs more than we have to give.”
She cried softly while I held her and then I felt Paulie sit down and then one by one the other kids all cuddled up around me. They cried for me because I couldn’t. People come and go in this life. Baby wasn’t dying so there was no reason to cry, at least on the outside. By giving him to Jay and Marlene I might be making the decision that would ensure that Baby lived to be a grown up. That was surely no reason to cry.
The kids were unused to the food and were exhausted from the emotional turmoil. I got them all to lay down in one of the rooms of the clinic and then sat outside the door, on the floor, and everyone left me alone … at least they did until Jay’s father showed up. “Jay seems to think that he and Marlene could do with a character reference.”
Quietly I told the slightly intimidating man, “Jay doesn’t. I might have given him a hard time but for a cop he isn’t half the hot dog he could be.”
Shaking his head, “You’ve watched too much TV young lady.”
I shrugged but then sighed and admitted, “I don’t know why but I know what I’m gonna do, what I have to do because it is the right thing. Just getting the words out is hard. And knowing it is right and still worrying that it isn’t right …” I stopped. “Just tell them that. Just tell them I just need some time so that the words will come out so that I can make it OK with the other kids.”
He nodded and then left without another word. A lot of things went through my head while the other kids took their naps. I thought about writing a long letter explaining things to Baby, telling him about how he was found and how much we really cared for him and that I wasn’t giving him away because he wasn’t wanted again but because I felt that maybe we were just his transportation to get where he was really supposed to be in the first place. I imagined that maybe one day when he was all grown up that he’d search me out and say thank you and we’d all have a big reunion. Then I woke up and realized the best thing I could do for Baby was just let him go, to make a clean break of it. The kid would probably have enough issues without me mucking up the water trying to bind him emotionally in a way I had no right to.