I didn’t decide to give up my baby ’cause he’s half black. Really, I didn’t. I just know that I have four mouths to feed with the pay from my Mickey D’s assistant manager jobby-job, and I’m the only one who could do what needs to be done. And, I’m not looking for a pat on the back. I’m just trying to make sense of how I come to be waiting for two virtual strangers to make it here to the hospital so they can take my newborn. Two strangers who, when I met them, both looked like they might crack to pieces if I talked too loud. Who looked like they never so much as ever got a speeding ticket. Who also looked just as nervous the four other times I seen ’em. I think they was afraid I’d decide not to go through with the adoption.
My baby’s new parents, Gretchen and Ben, have been staying at the Marriott out by the airport for seven days now. They got here on my due date, September nineteenth. They was supposed to come when our adoption lawyer, Larry Loeffler, called them to say I’d gone into labor. Not any sooner. So, I kinda freaked out at first when they came to town early. I was afraid they wanted to be there for the birth. I’d already said No way to that. Turns out they understood that part. They just wanted to see the baby as soon as they possibly could. I didn’t want them to see him before I was ready for them to see him. But I hadn’t thought to have that put in writing with Larry. He told me they was just eager. Not to worry. That the clock starts ticking for seventy-two hours after I give birth letting me decide if I truly agree to terminate my parental rights. Meaning I formally and legally consent for the adoption to go ahead. It also means they can take my baby boy. But we’ll still have a few more legal hoops to jump through to make things final-final. Larry said that since my baby’s daddy, Darius, already signed away—terminated—his parental rights months ago, it should go smoothly. The day I told Darius I wanted to give our baby up was more painful than any childbirth. He didn’t say a word. Not. One. Word. What happened was his jaw muscles kept bulging like he wanted to say something but couldn’t ’cause his mouth was wired shut. He blazed holes straight through me with his eyes. And, there ain’t no words that coulda hurt more than his silence. Then, Darius just turned and walked out of my apartment. I jumped when he slammed the door behind him. Even the room shook. I’d thought he would understand. It’s our only real option. When I told him, I thought he’d see that. We basically already have seven kids between us. Where would we fit one more? It’s been seven long months of replaying how I coulda broke the news to him better. Seven months of “what ifs” and “I shouldas.”
First off, if someone’s to blame for my situation it’s my cousin Jason and his crackhead girlfriend, April. Jason got out of being locked up for some bullshit I know he couldn’t of done ’cause they mandated rehab instead. Even he ain’t stupid enough to rob a bank. Wearing a dress. And sunglasses. And a blonde curly wig. That’s too whack. Even for him. He’s more of a Halloween-mask-type robbing fool. I mostly blame April ’cause if they’d stayed clean after the hundredth time they said they would, I wouldn’t of had to step up and keep their two kids out of the system. I spent three years in foster care. That’s the kinda shit you can’t scrub off any easier than tar on white bumper-toed tennis shoes. So, no way. I did what I did. And I’m not trying to hear people saying I was wrong to report them as unfit parents. When they left them kids for me to babysit and didn’t come back for five days, I was beyond over them. All April said after they finally showed up and I told them I’d called child services was that they had to go—Cool Boy, their dealer, was waiting. See what I’m saying? Jason hasn’t been right since his moms OD’d.
Not long after that, he fell in with April. I thought it was kinda wrong how she put this spell on him when he was obviously in a bad way. Point is, April’s entrance into Jason’s life is when shit started going downhill.
I was luckier. If you count getting pregnant at fifteen and a half lucky. And nobody could convince me to give my baby up. So, Mrs. Ouellette, my foster moms at the time, got me into this halfway house. You know, where it’s all girls like me. We called it Ronald McKnocked-Up House. I almost finished high school. Then I slipped and got pregnant again. This time, I couldn’t keep up with my little boy, school, and a baby. So, that left me a semester short of graduating. They moved me to a new house. One that had childcare. All I had to do was take some job skills classes. That, and work on getting my GED, which I aced. I was doin’ alright after I had my little girl. I got me a job at McDonald’s. Worked the register for only six months before I got my first promotion.
Not being able to hang with Jason like I used to was tough. We was tight. I mean, he’s more like my brother than a cousin. Growing up, we’d play all day at my house in the summer ’cause our yard was biggest and had an above-ground pool. We’d try catching gophers using a shoe box propped up over their hole with a stick attached to a string and pieces of dog food covered in yellow mustard for bait. We never saw not one gopher. Then Jason’s pops died in a motorcycle crash. His moms was never the same. I never knew she was doing drugs before the day she OD’d. My pops left us not long after that. Poof. He just vanished. Mama couldn’t find work. Even with government assistance, it wasn’t enough to keep a roof over our heads. So, that’s how we ended up living on the street in our station wagon. One night we was parked in a place that, looking back, was super sketchy. I’m not sure how long my moms was gone ’cause I’d fell asleep. I just remember being woke up by this bright light shining on me in the way-way back. Then I heard my moms. Another cop had Mama by the shoulder. She seemed so far away. Really, she was just across the street. Close enough to see she was all red in the face and crying. Telling me not to be afraid. She’d come and get me soon. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t go with her. I mean, I figured out she was getting arrested. It’d be years, though, before I found out she got caught up in a prostitution sweep. It was dark. But the snot running from her nose into her mouth was shiny enough for me to see. I wanted to yell wipe your face on your sleeve ’cause her hands was cuffed behind her back. She kept jerking like she was trying to shake loose. I was so focused on my moms that the cop knocking on the window and shining the light got huffy. Come on out. You’re not making things any better, he said. So, I climbed over all our stuff packed in the middle seat up to the driver’s side and got out. Just in time to see the other police butt my moms’s head on the doorframe as he pushed her inside the squad car. I wanted to run, scream, and cry all at the same time. What I did was stand there with this bald cop under a dim yellowish streetlamp watching my moms, caged in a patrol car, hanging her head. Crying. I’d just made twelve years old the week before. Me and Mama celebrated with cupcakes in our old neighborhood park. We ate them sitting on the swings. I didn’t get presents. Looking back, I see being together was the gift.
The bald cop watching me said something to the other one, then spoke into a walkie-talkie attached to his shoulder a few times. He’d glance at me. His lip would twitch into this half- smile. Then, after I don’t know how long, a woman in a dirty white car pulled up. Somebody had wrote Wash me in the dust. She introduced herself. “Miss Kephart” was from Child and Family Welfare Services. Her breath smelled like cigarettes and coffee. It brought back memories of my pops sipping from his Thermos and puffing on a Lucky as he drove me to school in the mornings. I remember thinking it was awful late for Miss Kephart to be drinking coffee. When she sat me in the back of her car, I peeped at the clock on the dashboard. It said three thirty-five. Sometimes, I’ll wake up in the dead of night, look at the clock, and see that it’s three thirty. Every once in a while it’ll be three thirty-five exactly. Like that marks the end of My Life Part 1 and the beginning of what I call After Times.
Mama never got me back. After they put me in the system, she’d send me letters. I thought that was super weird ’cause she liked talking on the phone so much. There was never a return address. One day I realized they was written in my Aunt Mallory’s handwriting. I guess they had this worked out so I wouldn’t know my moms was in jail. Or prison. Or nowhere. My Aunt Mallory lives in a trailer park in San Diego and had no space for me. But she and my moms was in touch on the regular. The last letter I got from Mama was so full of meanness I tore it to pieces then lit the little pieces on fire in the kitchen sink. Watching them torn-up pages burn helped. But the words was already stuck in my head. I guess my moms found out about me getting pregnant. Seems my aunt had been in touch with Mrs. Ouellette. Mama wrote, You keep spreading your legs like that your life is gonna be one long tragic fairy tale. Hmm. I’d always thought my fairy tale life had come to a screeching halt that night of her first arrest on Decker Avenue. I mean, it hurt when my pops left. But then it was the two of us, thicker thieves than we ever was. Tragic fairy tale. Those words somehow became like a tattoo—I couldn’t pretend they wasn’t so. Words that ran through my mind when I figured for the second time I was pregnant. The first person I told was Jason. All he said was, “Damn girl. You really going for that tragic fairy tale shit.” I wanted to both punch him in the throat and have him hug me. I regretted ever telling him what my moms had wrote. By this time, he was about to be a father himself. April had her little crack-addicted, barely-five-pound baby girl six weeks after I had my girl. Their baby was kept in the hospital for ten weeks. I went to see her after they took her out of the NICU. That’s the infant intensive care part of the hospital. I have no idea how often Jason and April visited their little one. Or, if they even had at all before they brung her home. I never asked.
It’s raining. Not hard, though. Just enough for there to be like little water freckles on the window. I’m feeling a little queasy. In about two and a half hours, Larry, Gretchen, and Ben are coming to take my baby boy. That’s when shit’s gonna get really real. That’s when I sign the papers saying it’s okay for Gretchen and Ben to take him. Larry told me that they’ve seen him. Held him. Fed him. All shit I coulda gone without knowing. More for the Things Veronica Don’t Need to Know file. I thought I’d been clear with Larry I didn’t want any baby updates and that he understood this from jump. I arranged for a “semi-open” adoption. I had Larry write it out to say me, Gretchen, and Ben could know a little about each other, and we could be in touch while I was pregnant. But that was it. I don’t want pictures of him taking his first steps, smearing his first birthday cake all over his face, going to his first day of kindergarten. No. Just no. I haven’t seen him since moments after he was born and they’d cleaned him up. I held him, but I could barely look at him. I didn’t wanna see any of Darius in him. Or me in him, either. I had called Darius to tell him I was going into labor and to what hospital. I couldn’t say why on his answering machine. Just that he needed to call me or Mrs. Ouellette immediately. He hadn’t answered any of my calls since after the night I told him I was pregnant. That we had to give the baby up. I’m sure if he didn’t have to take care of his three brothers, he woulda taken our baby. But, his moms has MS. So, he has to take care of her, too. He had to quit McDonald’s and is paid by the state so he can be her caretaker all legal and stuff. The last time I heard his voice was when I was leaving a message (for the nine millionth time) to call me. I’d sent him a long letter ’bout how I found Larry, and that I needed to meet up so he could sign the papers. Suddenly, he picked up. All he said was “Just mail them, Veronica.” Then he hung up. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t cry for the next three days. What was worse was he didn’t sound sad or mad. He was calm. Almost like he was telling someone they’d called the wrong number. It had already been a moody day. I’d been in court that morning for the hearing to make me legal guardian of Jason and April’s two kids. That’s right. Two. I felt clammy and dizzy the whole time. But there was no one else. Jason and April didn’t even show up. April’s whole family lives in the bottom of a Wild Turkey bottle. Except for her older brother. He’s on the pipe, too.
When we was dating, I used to call Darius’s moms just to see how she was doing. She was always real nice. Even told me she didn’t mind none that I had four kids. Or that I was white. One time, when I was over at the house, she leaned in close and whispered, You not like them other snow babes Darius bring around. Your heart is large. I can feel it. I knew I shoulda been mad. No one had ever called me a snow babe—that’s a white girl who dates black guys—to my face. Plus, Darius was the only black guy I’d ever dated. Instead, I took the compliment and ran. I liked the way she talked all southern. It always sounded like she was about to have you sit on her lap so she could rock you and hum in your ear. But, after I told Darius The News, nobody ever picked up the phone. Always the answering machine from then on out. I hadn’t called for weeks before I went into labor. I’d hoped he might pick up. His moms may be fighting MS, but I still say he’s lucky to have her. He’d say the same. It wears him down caring for his whole family like he does. Point is, he’s got a family. And, they’re all the same blood. Unlike my crew. My kids with their different in-the-wind daddies and Jason’s two. I’m a little bit lucky, though. Mrs. Ouellette has my four little ones while I’m in the hospital. She’s retired from foster care. But we stayed in touch after I moved to that first halfway house, and she watches the kids when I work. She does it for pennies, really. She’s the one person who I don’t ever feel is looking down at me. Mrs. Ouellette ain’t at all the cuddly type. For a woman who kept locks on the fridge and the kitchen cabinets, my sense was always that she did care. When I got my GED, it’s her who I called. By that time, Jason had slipped pretty far away into his own little world-’o-crack. Mrs. Ouellette even had a “graduation” party for me. We had a chocolate sheet cake with white frosting and “Congratulations” written in red icing. She squeezed her arm around my shoulders when I cut into that cake and smiled at me. It warmed me like the sun. That’s the most that I can say ever felt like a proud moment. Is it horrible that I didn’t feel pride any time I gave birth? Satisfied, happy, fluttery. And love of course. But, not proud. When I broke it to her there’d be a baby number three, Mrs. Ouellette looked more shook up than when I’d found out for sure. I told her my plan to give the baby up, and all she did was nod like she was relieved. I haven’t reached the relieved phase yet. Partly doubt I ever will. It was Mrs. Ouellette who spoke on my behalf at the hearing to gain legal custody of Jason’s kids and support my officially adopting them. It was raining that day, too.
I check the clock. Damned if only half an hour’s passed since I last looked. So that’s less than two hours to get right. With myself and this decision. I’d say with God, but it’s been a long while since I been a believer. It’s the only way. This is the only way. I can say that out loud. To Larry. To Mrs. Ouellette. To Darius. To Gretchen and Ben. To social worker after social worker after social worker each appointed by somebody with power I don’t have. And, I’ve said it—silently—when my baby boy was still inside me. Said it to a piece of me I’m gonna let two near-strangers take in 117 minutes. That is if my baby’s new parents are on time. Part of me is mad since they will be on time ’cause they’re prompt sort of people. Punctual. Gretchen will probly be wearing a Laura Ashley dress. One that would take me three full shifts at $4.25 an hour to pay for. And Ben will probly have on a pink Izod polo shirt. Just wait. He irons creases in his jeans, which I never seen anybody else do. It’s for the best. Everyone I talk to seems to agree. Even that psychic I called on one of my sleepless nights said, You’re going to make a huge decision in your life, but it will be the right one. Darius, mad as he might be, must know this gotta be true, too. If I was still in touch with my moms, I’m sure she’d agree. If not, that’s another for Things Veronica Don’t Need to Know. The last time I saw her was going to work one day on the bus. I like to sit all the way in the back. The 94B Express stopped. Mama got on wearing this shag-nasty rabbit fur jacket, a miniskirt, and silver strappy heels. Never mind the six inches of snow on the ground. I couldn’t hear what her and the driver was saying, but they was clearly arguing. The bus driver shooed at her to get off and opened the door. This clown sitting next to me said, Get off the fucking bus already, damn. She turned and took a step down. But, she stepped back up and yelled, Fuck you, fuckers. I hate all y’all nothing but a busload of bitches. Then, she got off. The bus pulled away from the curb and she flipped us the bird. She never saw me. Which was fine ’cause I was six months into my second pregnancy. After that hurtful letter, the last thing I wanted was for her to see me in that condition. Again. Not that she saw me the first time.
No one’s visited me in the hospital. Except for Larry. Every time someone comes around that curtain, though, I secretly hope it’s Darius. Which is stupid. He has no idea I’m here, for one. For two, he hasn’t wanted to see my face since I told him The News. Why would he wanna see the baby we’re giving up? I say “we” like that’s been a thing ever since I broke it to him I was pregnant and giving the baby up was our only option.
Ben is an actuary. Whatever that is. Gretchen’s gonna be a stay-at-home moms. I’ll never get to do that. Not that I can see in any version of the future. I’m trying to move up to full-on manager from assistant at McDonald’s. That’s about as far as my dream goes. Scratch that. I dream of seeing my kids walk across a stage getting their high school diplomas. Then, I’ll truly feel proud.
Gretchen and Ben are naming my baby “Matthew.” Larry let this slip, and he looked super sorry after because that’s also on the list of Things Veronica Don’t Need to Know. Now, any time I might see a little mixed boy named Matthew about my baby’s age, I’ll wonder if that’s my Matthew. And I never wanted to have to live with that extra bit. It’s enough knowing he’s out there. It helps that Gretchen and Ben live a thousand miles away. Larry said I was lucky to have found Gretchen and Ben on account of my baby being half black. That blond haired, blue-eyed boys was what adopting parents want most. My hair’s dishwater blonde and I got brown eyes. In the split second I fully looked at my baby before I had the nurse take him away, all I could see was a head of slick, bone-straight dark hair and skin just a bit tanner than mine. I thought he looked like an Eskimo baby.
Gretchen and Ben told Larry to tell me that they could raise my baby boy Baptist, if I wanted, and I figure that’s all they know about black people. The joke’s on them because Darius is Catholic. Like, he and his moms watch mass on television every Sunday. What Gretchen and Ben was probly trying to say was that they’d raise my baby boy knowing other black people. I guess. When I was choosing parents for my baby boy that kinda stuff never crossed my mind. Ben is an actuary. Whatever that is. Gretchen’s gonna be a stay-at-home moms. I’ll never get to do that. Not that I can see in any version of the future. I’m trying to move up to full-on manager from assistant at McDonald’s. That’s about as far as my dream goes. Scratch that. I dream of seeing my kids walk across a stage getting their high school diplomas. Then, I’ll truly feel proud.
Just as I get this horrible cramp, it hits me. What if Darius never told his moms why he stopped seeing me? What if she has no idea she’s a grandma? All the messages I left on their machine, I was careful not to hint at my condition. Because of his younger brothers, mostly. I hated the thought that his moms might not have a clue. Not gonna lie. I thought about going to his house after being ignored this last month. His moms sits in a chair in the living room by the window facing the street. Always. Unless it’s time for General Hospital. She has to be helped around. So, I know she would’ve seen me coming, big as a house, up the walk. What if I had grown a spine and gone to talk to Darius? I can’t imagine what her thoughts on the matter might be. Snow babe or not. I think back to those times when I could spend the evening at Darius’s watching television. Once his moms’s favorite show Amen ended, Darius would carry her to bed. It always amazed me how somebody lanky as him could carry his moms like she was a toddler. Then, he’d get her a glass of water. After that we’d watch Hunter. Darius loves cop shows. We got to do this about once a month when Mrs. Ouellette would insist on babysitting. Mostly, Darius and me stole time. He’d slip over to my place when everyone in his and my houses was sleep. He never stayed more than a couple of hours. He was afraid his moms would wake up and call for him and he wouldn’t be there. But, clearly, we found time to get busy. When I think about how good a pops Darius would be, having seen him with his brothers, I get all twisted. I mean, he’s got responsibilities. Just like I do. But ever since I taught him the right way to make a Big Mac his first day at work, all I wanted was to wake up to his dimpled smile and long eyelashes every day for the rest of my life. For him to take care of me. But, even if I’d never got pregnant, we coulda only gone on so long that way. We only ever been on one “real” date. We worked on Valentine’s Day. But, that didn’t suck ’cause at least we was together. We celebrated a couple weeks later at Murray’s Steakhouse downtown. The kinda place with white tablecloths and two people waiting on you. Me and Darius shared the filet mignon. It came with two onion rings on top so good I can never go back to fast-food ones. Darius let me pick the movie we went to after we ate. I chose Angel Heart. He’s the type to go along and enjoy whatever. When he picked me up he gave me a red rose. But the smell of his Drakkar cologne’s what made my knees weak. I saved the rose petals, though. Pressed them in my favorite Judith Krantz book, Princess Daisy. I love me my romance novels. Reading them is like reading daydreams. Darius was my Prince Charming. For sure. My two kids’ fathers was both chuckleheads. Looking back, I’m not sure how I let myself mess with either one. Let’s just say neither have their high school diploma or GED. My little boy’s daddy had a Camaro like my pops. I guess that’s why I liked him. His car was white, though. He got locked up for selling weed the day I found out I was pregnant. He was sentenced ten years in Stillwater. If he got out early, I couldn’t say. I can tell you he ain’t never seen his son. I dunno what my little girl’s last name should be. It was like that.
You know who else ain’t never seen my kids? Any of their grandparents. Which bums me out when I think of it. So, I try not to think about it. One of the things I liked about Gretchen and Ben was both their parents are still alive. And together. So, my little boy might not have Darius’s moms as his grandma, but he’ll have four other grandparents total. I only ever had my pops’s moms, Nana June. She died a couple of years after my pops left. Last time we saw her in the old folks home, she didn’t remember us. She called my moms Helen. Whoops. That was my pops’s high school sweetheart. My moms’s name is Margie.
The desire to go see my baby boy in the nursery hits me. Hard. Realer than the pain in my boobs, which are full of milk. They gave me some medicine—Parlosomething—so I’ll stop “lactating.” That’s the word for making breastmilk. But it hasn’t taken full effect yet. So instead I just been oozing milk all day, and my boobs feel hard as bricks. They told me I could use a breast pump if the pain was too much. But that seems wrong. I feel like I’d be sending my body mixed signals. Times like these make me wanna keep my baby. Even with pretty steady overtime, I can’t feed another mouth, though. Five is a lot of kids for a single moms. So, it’s not about whether or not I love my new baby. Because I do. That’s the only clear thing. Larry says giving him up is the greatest act of love. Maybe. Maybe I’m selfish for wanting my baby now. All to myself. And it don’t matter none that I’d have one mixed baby out of five. I’m afraid that if I tell the truth, it would be this: I love this baby the most ’cause I love Darius more than I’ve ever loved anybody else. Ever.
I use the milk pump. But just a little to ease the pain. I’m fixing my stupid hospital gown when in busts Jason. He’s the last person I expected. I don’t wanna start off fighting, but he’s supposed to be in rehab. The fact that he’s here means he’s not only fallen off the wagon, the wagon’s probly rolled over him. Kinda the way he rolled his Bronco over April that night they had a huge fight in the Liquor Lyle’s parking lot. And, I mean rolled literally. Cracked her pelvis and broke her right leg. Now, if you watch her, she walks with a slight limp.
“Hey, girl,” Jason says. “Look at ya.” His eyes are all red, he’s pale, and the corners of his mouth are white and crusty.
“Hey, stranger.” I couldn’t help myself. He kisses my forehead, and his lips are cold.
He throws up his hands. “So, where’s the bambino?”
I wanna break Jason’s teeth and watch him swallow them. Instead, I say, “The nurses have him.” I may have cut my eyes at him.
“Oh,” he says.
“Yeah. You remember I’m giving him up, right?” The back of my neck starts to feel hot.
He just looks at me, kinda bug-eyed. Like maybe he’s wandered into the wrong room and is talking to a complete stranger. He flops down in the visitor’s chair. Then I see it. Tucked into the front of his jeans’ waistband is a handgun.
“What. The. Fuck,” I say. Like really, dude. I’m wondering if he’s thinking of hitting another bank. I stare him down.
“Oh, yeah.” He half-smiles and gives me this wave as if to say it ain’t nothing.
Nothing. My cousin has a gun up here in Abbott-Northwestern Hospital for all the world to see. It’s not like we come from gun-toting families. “Why the hell you need a gun for? Do you even have a permit for that thing?”
He kinda laughs all nervous-like. “I . . . Some shit happened. I gotta watch my back.” His eyes are darting around like somehow there might be somebody hiding in this tiny room. “You still adopting my kids?”
Now my cheeks are real hot. “Really, Jason? I don’t wanna deal with this right now . . .”
He never shoulda come. I’m not known for having a poker face, so my stomach-twisted anger must’ve showed because he bolts to his feet.
“Yeah, this was a mistake.” He hikes up his jeans and starts to go. I turn a bit. Enough to see that Larry, Gretchen, and Ben are hanging by the door. Jason does this cartoony double-take when he sees my visitors. “That them?” I nod. Then he looks at me like I’m a stranger again. Like I’m a homeless woman sitting on a sidewalk with a sign that says Please help. Like I’m the fuckup in the room. I have to wave at Larry and Gretchen and Ben to come in. Maybe they saw the gun, and that’s why they’re stuck out in the hall. Maybe they think there’s gonna be trouble.
“Sorry to interrupt,” Larry says. He’s got his briefcase in one hand and a brown folder in the other. Everyone looks at Jason. I don’t want to, but I introduce my cousin. He leans against the doorway and crosses his arms in front of himself to hide the gun. He’s all smirky like he’s got a purpose to be here. Once, he was my protector. The irony of the situation is clearly lost on him. If I wasn’t keeping his kids, there’d be no need right now to be giving up one of mine.
Gretchen is clutching her bag like she’s afraid Jason is gonna mug her. It’s the preppy kind that’s got a circle wood handle and a monogram. Probly more of her Laura Ashley collection. My stomach hurts like I swallowed rocks. I check the clock. They’re ten minutes early. Now I’m mad. I feel like something’s been stolen from me. Which it has. The last ten minutes of time with myself to get ready, ’cause the moment has come. They’ve caught me with my guard down. I was gonna use those minutes to buck myself up, like my pops liked to tell me. I was gonna figure out what to say when they left. Good luck? Thanks? Have a nice life? Right now, I’m completely blank. Nobody is talking. Jason’s eyes are glazing over. Ben has a Dayton’s shopping bag, which seems odd because if it’s for me, he ain’t offering it up. I’m feeling a little lightheaded and must of looked a bit off ’cause Larry finally speaks up.
“You okay to do this?”
Gretchen shoots Larry a fierce look that I never woulda guessed she was capable of, and Ben puts his hand on her arm. For a split second, I hate Gretchen. With her neat blonde bob and her toothpaste-commercial-perfect teeth. But . . . They been real good to me. I couldn’t back out now. Not only have they paid my rent for the last five months, given me an allowance, and covered all of my doctor bills, they’re paying for Larry. And, I’m gonna get five thousand under the table when all of the paperwork is final-final. Five thou. That’s almost half what I make in a year. Larry told me if I pulled out of the deal, I’d get nothing. Zilch. I’m not sure why I’m thinking any of this ’cause my mind’s been made up. Now’s not the time, but I have one of my fly-by daydreams: I show up at Darius’s house with our baby, he starts crying, and gets on one knee to ask me to marry him. Ha ha ha. Snap out of it, Veronica. On one knee with a marriage proposal? Really? But, I watch people. In the mall. That come into McDonald’s. Looking all happy. Living their lives all normal. Mrs. Ouellette wouldn’t laugh at me for wanting my happily ever after. She’s helped me get to this place. This moment where After Times ends and my you-know-what begins. My scalp’s tingling. Larry says I should sit on the bed.
Then, Gretchen blurts, “We have an infant seat in the car. We’re ready to bring Matthew home. That is, if you . . . you know. Sign the papers.” She grins at me like that cat in Alice in Wonderland, and I’m waiting for that rabbit who’s late to run through the room.
“Yo, she ain’t gotta sign nothing,” says Jason.
“I’m sorry. This concerns you how?” asks Gretchen.
“If she don’t wanna—”
“Okay, okay everyone,” says Larry. “Let’s not get riled up. Veronica, are we good?”
My anger is causing me to be tongue-tied, and I don’t know who I want to look at least.
“She agreed. We have an infant car seat. Ben, tell her to sign. Larry, do something,” Gretchen says.
Shut up, Gretchen. I knew we was signing papers today so they can take my baby boy. But, A) hearing her call him Matthew stings more than if she’d slapped me, and B) I’m not leaving the hospital until tomorrow, so I never put it together that my baby’d be leaving before me, and C) her kinda eerie smile makes me think about that movie Rosemary’s Baby, and D) what on earth have I done? I realize we’re all holding our breath. It’s me they’re waiting for. Larry’s asked a question. I need to answer. First, I have to figure out what he said.
“Sorry, Larry,” I say. “I was thinking maybe I wanna see my baby”—I refuse to say Matthew—“one more time before I give him up.” Then, Larry, Gretchen, and Ben are talking loud at me all at once and over each other and I can’t make out anything anyone is saying. Larry wipes his sweaty forehead with the back of his hand. My heart is beating out of my chest, and I can’t take the noise. I cover my ears, and they all shut it. But, they’re standing really, really close. I wish Jason would pull out his gun, wave it around, and tell them all to back the hell up.
Then I notice my cousin has slipped out of the room.
In a flash, it’s clear. I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole, and this is happening. But I also know this to be true: they ain’t taking my baby. They ain’t raising him Baptist. I don’t care if they only play gospel music for his entire life, or travel to Africa so he can find his roots, or bring him to see the Harlem Globetrotters, or even move to Harlem for all I care. I’m his moms. I’m gonna make it work. I don’t care if I have to snatch my baby up from that nursery and run like a rabbit. Like that rabbit in Wonderland.
If I gotta rabbit, I rabbit.
I’m counting to three now and looking at Barbie and Ken aka Gretchen and Ben and Larry the lawyer and I see what’s coming next—I’m gonna rabbit.
And I’m ready.
It’s time to run.
T. E. Wilderson is a New Orleans-born writer currently living in the Midwest. By day, she is an editor and graphic designer. Her short stories have appeared in Crack the Spine Anthology XVII, The Louisville Review, Notre Dame Review, and F(r)iction, among others. She holds an MFA in writing from Spalding University. Wilderson is a 2019 McKnight Foundation Writing Fellow.