Authors: Patricia Davids
Tags: #Fiction, #Religious, #Romance, #General
She had no idea what her daughter looked like. She wouldn’t know her own child! They could show her anyone’s baby, and she would have to believe them.
A nurse came across the room and stopped beside Mick. “Is this Beth’s mother?”
“Yes,” Mick said, “Caitlin, this is Sandra, Beth’s primary nurse.”
Bewildered, Caitlin glanced from one to the other. “Who’s Beth?”
The nurse frowned slightly and looked at Mick. He knelt beside Caitlin. “Beth is your baby’s name.”
“You named her? Who gave you that right? Where is she?”
“She’s down here.” The nurse led the way, and Mick pushed Caitlin’s wheelchair down the length of the room.
Caitlin stared at the infants in the beds as she passed them. Some were tiny, smaller than any babies she’d ever seen. Black, white, crying, sleeping, there had to be thirty of them here, at least. A mother seated in a rocker was smiling at the child she held. A couple waited as a nurse opened the front of an incubator and carefully lifted their baby out, trailing a tangle of cords. Monitors lined the walls above the beds. An alarm sounded somewhere, then another and a nurse hurried past them to a bed at the far end of the unit.
Mick stopped beside a flat bed with clear plastic sides and a warming lamp glowing overhead.
“This is your daughter,” the nurse said, opening the side of the bed. Mick edged the wheelchair closer.
Shock, disbelief and confusion swirled through Caitlin as she stared at the tiny infant on the bed in front of her. She was so small!
The baby lay on her back with her scrawny arms folded against her chest, and her hands resting beside her cheeks. A white bandage covered most of her right side. Wires ran from small patches on her chest and legs. Thick tape across her cheeks held a breathing tube in her mouth. Clear tubing tied into her shriveled umbilical cord led to IV pumps beside the bed. Her long legs looked like they belonged on a frog. She didn’t look anything like Caitlin had imagined she would.
Had she caused this? She didn’t smoke, didn’t do drugs. She’d tried to eat right, but the stuff at the soup kitchens wasn’t always that healthy. Once, she’d even shoplifted a bottle of vitamins. If only she’d gone to the free clinic again and gotten another checkup, maybe they would have prevented this. What if it was her fault, and now her baby was suffering because of it?
Caitlin waited to feel joy, happiness, love—all the things she had known she would feel when she first saw her baby—all the things she wanted desperately to feel.
Instead, she felt guilt and grief. In the dreams she had cherished for months when she was cold and hungry and alone, she had imagined a plump, sweet-smelling baby she could hold close to her heart. Nothing like this.
Caitlin looked up at the nurse. “Are you sure this is my baby?” she asked, then cringed. How stupid did that sound? What mother wouldn’t know her own child?
The nurse smiled. “I’m sure she’s yours. We put an identification band on her right away. Both you and Mick have one with the same number on it. See? Has she changed a lot since she was born?”
“I never saw her. At least, I don’t remember if I did.”
They were waiting for her to say something else, Caitlin sensed it. But what could she say when there was nothing but emptiness and sorrow inside. Was this the way her own mother had felt?
Please, don’t let that be true.
She managed a smile, but she felt as if her face would crack. “Will she be okay?”
“We’re doing everything we can. She has a good chance.”
A good chance. To live? That meant there was a chance she could die. Coldness settled over Caitlin and she shivered. An alarm sounded. She looked at the monitors, but she couldn’t tell anything from the glowing numbers.
Mick touched her arm. “It’s another baby.”
When Sandra left to answer the alarm, he pulled up a chair and sat beside Caitlin. “I know she’s tiny, but she’s really cute, don’t you think? Her hair looks like it may be red. She weighs one pound, twelve ounces today.”
Caitlin couldn’t listen to him. Why didn’t he shut up? His babbling made her headache pound harder than ever. She wanted to concentrate on the baby—her baby. The tiny face swam out of focus, and Caitlin realized tears had filled her eyes.
“You can touch her,” Mick offered.
“She’s so little. What if I hurt her?”
Cautiously, Caitlin extended her hand and lightly stroked the baby’s downy hair. Moving her fingertips to a miniature arm, Caitlin marveled at the softness of her baby’s skin as she stroked its length. The baby jerked once and kicked out with her legs. Her tiny face screwed up, and she began to cry, but no sound came from her. Caitlin snatched her hand away. “What’s the matter with her?”
Mick stood and cupped his hands across the baby, quieting her with soft words. He looked down at Caitlin. “Don’t stroke her, just hold her like this. My little girl likes to be contained. Her skin is too thin and sensitive to stroke.”
Caitlin’s fright turned to anger as she listened to his lecture. He didn’t have any right to be here. Maybe she had asked for his help once, but he had no business saying the baby was his.
Sandra came back to the bedside. “Very good, Mick. You’re reading her signals.”
“Signal? I don’t understand.” Caitlin glanced at her in confusion.
“Preemies have their own type of language. Body language, really. We have some wonderful handouts that explain all about it. Mick’s been doing his homework. I wish all of our fathers took as much interest in their babies as he does.”
“There’s still a lot I don’t know,” he admitted. “I did pick up some books on parenting in the NICU. You can borrow them if you’d like,” he offered Caitlin.
“Sure.” She wouldn’t admit to
that she couldn’t read. Reading didn’t make a good parent. Only love did that. Her stabbing headache made it hard to concentrate. She fingered the loose, white plastic band on her arm. Here was the only proof she had that this tiny person belonged to her and she couldn’t even read it.
Nothing seemed real. Maybe if she held her baby this void she felt would fill with something—anything.
She turned to the nurse. “I want to hold her.”
Sandra shook her head. “I’m sorry, Mick has already held her today. Tomorrow you can.”
Mick had held her. Mick had named her. Mick, Mick, Mick. Caitlin wanted to scream. This man, this stranger, was stealing her baby. His touch, his voice gave her daughter the comfort her mother should give her. The nurse smiled at him like he belonged here. Caitlin couldn’t bear to watch a moment longer.
“Take me back to my room.”
“Oh, Ms. Williams, that doesn’t mean that you can’t stay and visit with her.” The nurse laid a hand on Caitlin’s shoulder, but Caitlin shrugged it off.
“I want to go back, now!”
“But you’ve barely touched her,” Mick said. He took Caitlin’s hand and laid it on the baby, covering it with his own. “Hold her like this with your hands cupped around her. It makes her feel safe.”
The baby squirmed. Maybe she didn’t want her mother touching her. Why would she? Her mother was a stranger. None of this was right. He was making it all wrong.
“Let go of me!” Caitlin jerked away from him, but her armband caught on something. A shrill alarm pierced the air.
Panic and fear crashed over her. “What did I do?”
need some help,” Sandra yelled. Within seconds, two other nurses were at the bedside. One of them pulled Caitlin away from the bed.
“What’s wrong? What did I do?”
“You pulled out a line that was in an artery. We have to stop the bleeding.”
“I didn’t mean to. It must have caught on my armband. Is she okay?” Caitlin looked from face to face, desperately wanting to be reassured, but everyone was intent on the baby. No one answered her.
“Please, is she okay?”
Mick took her hand. “We need to let them work.”
Caitlin focused on his stern face. “It was an accident.”
“I wouldn’t hurt my baby. I wouldn’t.” Yet, she had, just by touching her.
Sandra spoke to Mick, “I’m afraid you’ll have to step out.”
“Sure.” He turned Caitlin’s wheelchair toward the door.
“No, wait! Let me stay.” Caitlin couldn’t bear to leave. She needed to know her baby was okay.
“We’re in their way. We have to give them room to work.” He spoke quietly, but his tone brooked no arguments.
Caitlin swallowed her protests and allowed him to wheel her away. She slumped in the chair and covered her face with her hands. A vast weariness pressed down on her, leaving her to feel strangely disconnected. Nothing was the way she had dreamed it would be. Nothing was right.
Mick pushed Caitlin out into the waiting room. He tried not to feel resentment toward the woman seated in front of him. It had been an accident, he knew that, but Beth was so small. He and the nurses always took special care with her lines.
Sitting on one of the chairs, he folded his hands on his knees. “They’ll let us know when we can come back in. Sandra’s really good about that.”
“I want to go to my room.” Caitlin’s voice was flat, emotionless.
“What happened was partially my fault.” He laid a hand on her shoulder in an effort to comfort her, but she flinched away from him.
“Take me to my room.” Her words were little more than a strained whisper.
“Sure.” He pushed her back to the ICU, managing both her wheelchair and IV pumps with difficulty.
Several nurses stood at the desk chatting, but Betty hurried forward with a bright smile when she caught sight of them. “What’d you think? Is she as cute as Mick is always telling us?”
Caitlin didn’t say anything. She sat unmoving with her head bowed. Mick caught Betty’s eye. “I think we overdid it.”
Betty shot him a puzzled look, but took her cue from him. She patted Caitlin’s arm. “You look exhausted. Let’s get you back into bed.” She beckoned to the other nurses. They wheeled Caitlin into her room and closed the door.
A few minutes later, Betty came out.
“How is she?” he asked.
“Withdrawn, but physically fine as far as I can tell. What happened?”
“She accidentally pulled out Beth’s arterial line.”
“Oh, my. Is the baby okay?”
“I think so. I don’t understand it.”
“Caitlin. She didn’t seem happy to see the baby. She seemed more shocked than anything, although I explained what she would see when I took her there. She seemed so remote, so cold. It wasn’t how I expected a mother to act.”
“Maybe she was frightened,” Betty offered. “And rightly so. A baby as premature as hers can be a scary sight.”
“Shouldn’t a mother be attached to her baby no matter how tiny it is? Isn’t that how it works?”
“Honestly? Not for everyone. Especially mothers of premature babies. They’re afraid the child will die and they shy away from the pain they think they’ll feel. Given time they come to love their baby as much as any mother does. But sometimes—well—not every woman is cut out to be a loving mother.”
The door to Caitlin’s room opened as the other nurses came out. One of them closed it behind her, but not before Mick caught a glimpse of Caitlin. Pale and still, she lay curled on her side.
Betty gave Mick a sympathetic pat on the arm. “Give her some time. She’s been through a terrible ordeal.”
Inside the room, Caitlin blinked rapidly to hold back her tears. Crying never did any good. It only showed others your weakness. She’d heard the nurse tell Mick some women weren’t cut out to be mothers. They had been talking about her. She should have resented their judgment, but she didn’t. They were right.
She wanted it to be different. She wanted a baby to love and cherish. Instead, her child cried at her touch and quieted at the touch of a stranger. As tiny as she was, did Beth know that her mother would hurt her?
Caitlin never wanted to hurt anyone. Okay, maybe Vinnie after she discovered he’d stolen every cent she had managed to save. After she found out how he’d lied to her. But he was already dead and nothing could hurt him. She was the one left to suffer for his deeds.
She turned over and faced the wall, determined to ignore the pain of Vinnie’s betrayal as well as her fierce headache. If only she had stayed asleep, then her baby would still be safe. How was she? Would anyone let her know?
Closing her eyes, Caitlin waited for sleep to come. She welcomed the thought now. There was no pain in sleep, no fears. Maybe she’d never wake up again. Maybe that would be best.
Was that why her own mother had sought to stay in a drug-induced stupor? For the first time in her life, Caitlin felt the stirrings of sympathy and understanding for the woman who had caused her so much pain.
* * *
The room lay shrouded in darkness when Caitlin awoke. Sleep hadn’t sent her back into the gray world where she had existed before. Instead, she had to face what she had done. Her headache had lessened, but it was still there, promising to mushroom again if she moved her head. A rustling sound came from behind her. She knew who was there. She’d known the moment she opened her eyes. “How is she?”
Please, please let her be all right.
“She’s doing okay, now,” Mick answered. “They’ve given her a transfusion.”
Caitlin whipped her head around. “Isn’t that dangerous?” She’d been right about the headache.
“There’s a very small risk, but they didn’t have much choice. Look, I’m sorry about what happened. You weren’t up to it. I should have listened to your doctor.”
Caitlin turned back to face the wall. It was easier to talk if she didn’t have to see him. In the darkness, his voice seemed more like the voice in her dreams, the one who had promised her everything was going to be all right. Only that had turned out to be a lie, too. She bit her lip to stop its trembling. “I didn’t mean to hurt her.”
“I know. There’s so much stuff to be careful of. You weren’t used to it. Tomorrow will be better, less overwhelming. If she’s doing well, you can hold her.”
What if she did something else, something worse? Torn between the need to hold her baby and her deep-seated fear of harming her, Caitlin made a decision that broke her heart. “I won’t see her tomorrow.”
An uncomfortable silence filled the room.
“Well, as soon as you’re feeling better,” Mick said.
She ignored him. Why didn’t he leave? Why couldn’t she open her mouth and send him away?
Because she wanted him to stay. He was a link to her child. And maybe she wanted him to stay because she felt something different when he was near. She felt safe. It was a feeling she didn’t dare trust. “You named her Beth, right?”
“Elizabeth Anne, actually, but everyone calls her Beth.”
“After your mother?”
“Yes. When she was born, you said, ‘Go with Beth.’”
“I don’t remember.”
“I didn’t know what else to call her. ‘Hey You’ seemed a little impersonal.”
She smiled slightly. His voice was so beautiful—deep, expressive, soothing. Just the sound of it made her headache better. No wonder the baby responded so well to him.
“Elizabeth Anne,” she tried the name on her tongue. It sounded regal. It was a big name for such a tiny person. “I guess it’s as good a name as any,” she conceded.
The silence lengthened. She waited for him to make some excuse and leave. She’d spent so much of her life alone. Funny that she dreaded it still. At least her baby hadn’t been alone. Mick had been there for her. She began to remember bits of things he’d said and done when Eddy brought him to her room.
Caitlin tried to swallow the lump that pressed up in her throat. She wanted to thank him, but she couldn’t find words to express the way his voice—his very presence had given her an anchor when she’d been so lost.
She closed her eyes and struggled to shut away the feelings this man aroused in her—feelings of caring and tenderness, feelings that threatened to overwhelm her only because she was still so weak. She didn’t need an anchor now, and she didn’t need him. She needed to be strong. Only the strong survived on the streets. She couldn’t afford to depend on anybody but herself.
In the past, she had depended on others, but they always let her down. She wouldn’t forget that fact. Not after her mother—not after Vinnie. Everybody had an angle, only some were harder to figure out than others.
She drew a deep breath, then turned over to face him. “What are you getting out of this?”
His eyes widened at her tone. “I don’t understand.”
“You’ve got nothing better to do than hang out at the hospital with a woman in a coma and someone else’s kid?”
“Beth is a very special child.”
Caitlin resented the determined pride she heard in his voice—something that she should feel, but didn’t. Maybe she wasn’t cut out to be a mother. She certainly hadn’t had a role model to follow. “You can’t have kids, right?”
“So you thought you’d take mine?”
A frown creased his forehead. “It’s not like that.”
“Oh, yeah? Well, what was it like—exactly? You’ve been telling people you’re her father. That’s a lie.”
“You’re the one who said it.” His tone grew defensive.
“So you tell me.”
“Look, there are some things we need to discuss, but I don’t think now is the time. You’re getting upset.”
“No kidding!” She turned away again. “You’re giving me a headache. Take a hike, why don’t you?”
Even as she spoke, she hoped he’d ignore her words, hoped desperately that he would see through her act and stay. She was so tired of being alone.
Mick stared at her back in the dim light from the window. He didn’t know if he wanted to shake her or gather her in his arms and comfort her. Maybe both. One moment she was like a lost child, the next minute she was a sharp-tongued shrew. Which person was the real Caitlin?
“You’re tired,” he said. “We’ll talk later.”
Opening the door, he paused and cast one last glance at the rigid figure on the bed. He heard a muffled sob and saw her wipe at her eyes. Softly, he closed the door and left.
* * *
The next day, Mick stood in the deserted street and stared at the crumbling facade of the abandoned building where he’d first found Caitlin. The boards that once crisscrossed the door lay on the sidewalk where the ambulance crew had tossed them in their hurry to get their gurney inside; otherwise, nothing had changed. This was the last place he had any hope of finding out something about Caitlin.
Pastor Frank knew nothing of Caitlin’s history. Like a lot of the homeless, she came and went at the shelter with barely a word.
With a little more digging, he’d found a small newspaper article about the death of Vincent Williams. A visit to Harley’s Diner, the place Vinnie was accused of robbing, yielded only the information that Caitlin had worked there, but that she had been fired after the incident. He was able to track down where she lived from their records, but the landlord of the run-down apartments would only say that Caitlin had been evicted the same week her husband died. The man didn’t know and didn’t care where she went. As far as Mick could tell, after that Caitlin had ended up here.
Inside the old building it was cool, dark and smelled of mold where the rain had dripped in from the sagging roof. He passed Eddy’s room and glanced in. It was empty.
After making his way around the debris in the hall, Mick opened the door to Caitlin’s room and stepped inside. The same mattress lay in the corner. Three cardboard boxes sat beside the bed and a few clothes hung from nails in the wall.
Dropping to one knee beside the mattress, he noticed a small black purse tucked between two boxes. He picked it up and dumped out the contents onto the bed.
A gray vinyl wallet held six dollars and eighteen cents, but no ID and no pictures. A tube of lipstick and three books of matches were the only other things in the purse. All of the matchbooks were from the Harley’s Diner where Caitlin had worked busing tables and washing dishes.
Mick turned his attention to the boxes. The first one contained a few cans of food. The next one held some clothes, and nothing else. The last carton said Sunkist Oranges. Did she like oranges or had the box simply been handy? He opened the lid.
A baby blanket lay on top. Neatly folded, the downy soft square was covered in pastel-colored hearts and teddy bears. A second blanket, white and trimmed with yellow lace, lay under the first one. He set them carefully aside. Next he drew out a pink sleeper and small pair of white knit booties with tiny blue bows and laid them on the blankets.
Caitlin had obviously wanted her baby. Except Mick knew wanting a child wasn’t enough. Perhaps Beth’s premature birth had been a blessing in disguise. The Lord moved in mysterious ways. Now she would never live in this dump. She’d never be homeless or hungry or cold. Now she had Mick O’Callaghan to look after her.
The rest of the box held only papers. He took a closer look. They were sketches.
Rising, he carried them to the window and sat on the sill. One by one, he held the drawings up to the light.
Eddy stooping to pet a scrawny cat. A thin woman clutching a small child in her arms. Pastor Frank holding a cup to the lips of a frail, elderly woman. Somehow, the strokes of the pencil had captured the warmth in Eddy’s gesture, the fear on the face of the young mother and the gratitude in the old woman’s eyes.
He leafed through several more sketches; they were mostly of children—kids from the shelter and from the streets. Then the next drawing stopped him cold. He was looking at himself.