No matter what she did, Emily just could not get comfortable. The chairs in this waiting room of the Desert Medical Plaza were just the tiniest bit too narrow for comfort, not to mention harder than a seat on a public bus. That would’ve been unpleasant enough, but toss in the general feeling of illness that had sent her to her doctor’s office in the first place and she was right miserable.
The words were starting to blend together on her PADD, so she clicked it off and massaged her temples, trying to ease her headache away. She felt her comm buzz in her pocket – probably Josh, wanting to see her tonight – but she ignored it, trying to focus on the blues and greens in the carpet and not her painfully churning stomach.
Oh thank god, Emily thought, wavering a little as she stood up and her head began to swim. The medical assistant walked her back to an exam room, crinkling her brow a little at Emily’s slightly unsteady gait.
“All right, what brings you in today, sweetie?” she asked kindly, flipping a switch and taking a cursory glance at the biobed readout as Emily settled on it.
Emily sighed. “I don’t know. Mostly, I’m just exhausted. I’m having to take at least one nap a day, sometimes two. I fell asleep at dinner with my boyfriend two nights ago. I’m a little queasy, and…um…” She paused, flushing lightly. “…bloated, too. Lots of headaches, trouble concentrating…I don’t know; I just feel like something’s not right.”
The assistant nodded, gently depressing a hypo against the skin of Emily’s inner elbow to collect some blood. “You think maybe it’s the weather? We’re nearly into July; it’s starting to really bake out there. I’m having some trouble staying awake in the heat myself.”
Emily shook her head. “I don’t think so. I’ve lived here my whole life; summer’s never knocked me out like this.” She closed her eyes; maybe she was just going crazy.
After a few seconds, Emily noted that it had gone awfully quiet in the exam room. She cracked one eye open and saw the assistant looking at the biobed readout, eyebrows arched slightly. Frowning, Emily tried to look up above her own head at the screen, but she couldn’t make heads or tails of what she was seeing – it was all just a bunch of blinking lights to her.
“All right, dear; I’m going to go run some bloodwork and have the doctor come talk with you. Just sit tight. Won’t be long.”
Emily nodded, and as a testament to her current complaint of exhaustion, damn near fell asleep in seconds, jerking awake only when she felt a gentle hand on her shoulder minutes later.
Emily jumped a little, then settled as her eyes refocused on a man in his sixties with glasses, white hair, and a grandfatherly expression – he reminded her bizarrely of Santa Claus.
“I’m sorry to startle you. I’m Drew Joseph, the doctor on call today.”
Still a little bleary, Emily accepted his helping hand and sat up, trying to get her bearings. “Sorry. Guess I’m a little more tired than I thought…which is saying something.”
“Nothing to apologize for, Miss Beckett. Very much to be expected.”
Emily nodded once, then caught herself. “To be expected? You already know what’s wrong with me?”
Dr. Joseph nodded, giving Emily a sympathetic smile that made her pulse jump with anxiety. “I do. You’re eleven weeks pregnant.”
The good doctor might as well have spoken to Emily in Andorian. “I’m what?”
Dr. Joseph helped Emily swing around on the bed, then reactivated the biobed to illustrate things to his patient. “You see this right here?” he said, pointing to a blinking indicator. “This is your heart rate. And this,” he said, moving his finger to the side, to another indicator, this one smaller and blinking more quickly, “is a fetal heart rate.” He turned back to Emily, whose eyes were fixed on that little, furiously flickering light. “Based on your hormone levels from the blood sample we took, you’re between eleven and twelve weeks, due right after New Year’s.”
Emily felt waves of deeply unpleasant prickles rising up out of her solar plexus and cascading over her skin. She raked a hand through her hair, noticing its fine tremor as she did so.
“I take it this wasn’t exactly what you expected to hear today,” Dr. Joseph said kindly.
Emily tried twice to speak, but her mouth had gone too dry to form words; finally, she just shook her head.
“Well, I’ll tell you what I’d tell anyone who got this news, which is that you’re the boss,” the doctor continued. “I’m sure you already know your options of continuing or terminating the pregnancy, either of which I’d be happy to help you with. And you do have some time to decide, but I would advise making your choice sooner rather than later, no matter what. If you choose to continue, you’ll need prenatal care as soon as possible; if you choose to terminate, at this point, the sooner the better.”
Emily swallowed a mouthful of nothing, feeling her comm buzz in her pocket again, this time knowing it was Josh again. Oh, god.
“I, um,” she said brokenly, “I have to talk to someone about this.”
Dr. Joseph nodded. “Of course. Let me just give you this,” he said, holding up a hypo. “It’s a vitamin supplement and an anti-emetic. It’ll help keep the queasiness at bay, and probably give you an energy boost, too.” Emily nodded as he depressed it against her neck. Dr. Joseph then patted her shoulder. “You call my office as soon as you know what you’d like to do, all right?”
Emily nodded again, spit out something that might’ve resembled a “thank you,” then bolted from the office, opening her comm with trembling hands and finding Josh’s frequency.
“Emily Beckett to Joshua Pike. Josh, ditch class and meet me at the diner. It’s important.”
An hour later, a waitress at a diner in Mojave, California got very irritated when one of those two lovesick adolescents dropped a coffee cup on the tile floor and she had to clean up the broken shards from under their table.
A day later, Josh curled up behind a numb and confused Emily, putting a protective hand over her belly. “I’ll marry you,” he offered weakly.
A month later, they eloped, moved into a one bedroom apartment the size of a postage stamp, and started shopping for discount cribs and maternity clothes.
It got really chilly at night and the neighbors were noisy assholes who smoked lots of pot and had screaming sex, but Emily and Josh loved it anyway. After all, they were young and in love, so who cared?
The newsvids said that the first weekend of the new year would be the coldest the Mojave desert had seen in more than a hundred years, so naturally, Emily’s body decided that Friday night was a perfect time to go into labor. For lack of their own car, they took a cab to the hospital, Josh realizing too late that he’d have to owe the driver for this one.
Labor was long and arduous, even with the benefit of twenty-third century medicine – her baby, the doctors and nurses told her, was just not in a very cooperative position.
Great, Emily thought between contractions, the kid’s already stubborn.
The nurses pulled out all the tricks in their bag to make it easier. They helped Emily move around. They helped her change position on the bed. They told Josh where to press on Emily’s hips to give the baby more room to rotate independently. Finally, two doctors came in and tried to physically reposition the baby, which hurt like fuck and which Emily tearfully begged them not to do again, so they didn’t.
As she labored, it started to sink in for Emily exactly how young she really was, how young her husband really was, how absent her parents were, how much pain she was in, how frightened she was, oh god oh god oh god I’m not ready I’m not ready for this.
The doctors started talking about a C-section, and the baby – perhaps hearing that conversation as a threat – finally decided to cooperate a little bit.
Emily and Josh’s son was born obstinate: feet first, face up, and deafeningly quiet.
“It’s a boy,” a nurse pronounced.
“Is he okay?” Emily asked, panicked, noting the absence of cries.
No one answered her.
The doctor whisked him to an incubator, trying to get a better look at him under better light. The baby squeezed his eyes shut and wrinkled his brow, agitated by the brightness.
Then, to the doctor’s bemused confusion, the newborn boy opened his mouth and, instead of crying, heaved a world-weary sigh.
The doctor laughed wryly at the already long-suffering baby, nodding back to the young, scared parents. “He’s fine.” The doctor turned back to his nurse. “Time of birth 0511 hours. Male infant, 3.487 kilos. One minute Apgar…huh. Can I give this kid an extra point for grimace?”
Thus the Pike family was born.
It started when they came home from the hospital. Emily walked into their apartment, a little dazed, carrying the little boy they’d named Christopher; Josh was behind her. For lack of a second bedroom, the front room served as their nursery, Chris’ crib taking center stage in the room, a battered, secondhand changing table in the corner.
Emily gently set Chris down in his crib, watching as his little body naturally starfished out, and looked down at him with trepidation.
New mothers, the books had said, should be in bliss at this stage.
Emily didn’t know what she was feeling right now, but bliss it wasn’t.
Instead, when she looked at Chris, she felt completely overwhelmed, a combination of angry and sad and scared and jumpy, all covered by a thin layer of numb.
Josh’s footsteps rounded the corner from the kitchen. “I’m gonna go get your bag from Dad’s car.”
He got as far as putting his hand on the doorknob before Emily cried “No!”
Josh whirled around, alarmed. “What?”
“Don’t…” Emily looked between Josh and the baby’s crib. “Don’t leave.”
Josh’s frown grew. “Baby, I’m just going down to get your bag. It’ll only take a second.”
Emily wrapped her arms around her middle protectively, looking back at Chris’ crib.
“Em,” Josh said softly, putting a hand on her back, “he’s three days old. He’s not gonna hurt you.”
“I know that,” Emily snapped.
Josh paused for a few beats, waiting for elaboration that never came. Then, he repeated, “I’m gonna go get your bag. I’ll be right back.”
When he came back to the apartment two minutes later, bag in tow, Emily was standing right where he left her, looking at the crib with an inscrutable look on her face.
It started to dawn on Josh that something might be wrong.
After Emily told him she was pregnant, Josh dropped out of college – there’d be no disposable income for education left if they were raising a child – and took a job doing contract construction work for Starfleet up at the Mojave Air and Space Port. It was pretty brutal work, but it was union, so the hours were regular and the pay was fair (even if he did have to work seven days a week in order to make ends meet). After Chris came, their money was stretched that much thinner, even with what public assistance they could get, so Josh took on a second job, tending bar a few nights a week.
For the first couple of months after Chris was born, Josh would come home from work achy and exhausted to find Emily curled on her side, asleep in bed. Chris would, on most days, be fine; others, though, Josh would come home to find him crying in his crib, wet or hungry or just in need of contact.
“I think you’re depressed,” Josh told Emily gently one night, when he came home to Emily in the fetal position and Chris screaming his head off. When Josh had picked Chris up to soothe him, Chris had immediately begun rooting on his father’s neck, searching fruitlessly for food.
Emily said nothing, but curled her back a bit tighter.
“Tomorrow I think you should call your doctor.”
“Okay,” Emily said flatly.
She didn’t call her doctor the next day. Or the day after that. On the third day, Josh faked the flu and called in sick, then called Dr. Joseph’s office for her. Dr. Joseph told them to come down – now.
Dr. Joseph diagnosed Emily with “significant” postpartum depression and prescribed her an antidepressant. He expressed considerable concern that her mood seemed to be leading her to neglect her baby, and so he asked to see her back in two weeks, if not sooner. “If this isn’t helping,” he said gently, “we may need to look at other treatment options.”
Emily hunched her posture. Josh just stroked the baby fine hairs on Chris’ head.
For a while, the antidepressants helped. Emily seemed more like the girl Josh fell in love with – a little more upbeat, a little sharper, better able to take care of Chris when Josh was away. Dr. Joseph had also had the idea to recruit someone to help her during the day while Josh was working; ‘Fleet daycare would only accept babies a year or older, so that option was out for a little while. Josh’s father, Vince, mercifully volunteered to help, and the extra pair of hands really helped her to function better.
Vince came to the apartment one morning to find Chris’ eyes tracking his mother’s movements from his crib. Emily was in the kitchen, muttering to herself; the floor was littered with packaged foods from their pantry – soups, rice, beans, pasta – and she was clearing each shelf with a certain amount of vigor.
“Emily?” Vince chanced.
Emily looked up sharply. “What?”
Vince walked a little closer. “Is everything okay?”
Emily frowned, going back to her work. “Fine,” she said shortly, “except your son doesn’t know how to organize a cupboard.”
“Are you looking for something?” Vince asked mildly.
“No,” Emily shot.
Vince tried to suppress the nagging thing in his brain. “Has Chris eaten?”
“Yes, Vince, I’ve been caring for my son properly,” Emily answered snappishly.
Vince blinked, then walked over and picked Chris up, provoking a smile from the little boy as he sat down in the old armchair. Emily stayed in the kitchen, furiously setting down stacks of consumables on the countertops.
A few days later, when Vince came over, Emily was still in bed, and she didn’t leave for the entire day.
Josh didn’t know what to do.
He took yet another sick day, called Dr. Joseph’s office again, managed to get Emily dressed, and dragged her back down to the Desert Medical Plaza.
“I think we’re a little outside of my scope,” Dr. Joseph admitted. “I want to help you, but I’m a family physician who doesn’t specialize in mental health; I don’t know that I’m really equipped to meet your needs. I’d like to refer you to a psychiatrist.”
Dr. Joseph’s office manager called the psychiatrist’s office, and the family – Emily, Josh, and Chris, strapped in a carrier to Josh’s chest – were there that afternoon.
Emily was in the office with the psychiatrist for what seemed like an inordinately long time. Finally, she called for Josh to join them.
“I’m quite confident that Emily has bipolar disorder,” the psychiatrist said gently.
Emily seemed to shrink in on herself, shifting her eyes to look at Chris, who met her eyes curiously, as if seeing her for the first time.
“I’d like to change her current antidepressant to a different one and add in a mood stabilizer, plus a short-acting anxiolytic for acute periods of anxiety. My hope is that these medications will get her feeling better within the next few weeks.”
Chris, peering at his mother from the carrier on his father’s chest, blew bubbles against Josh’s shoulder.
Josh came home from work exhausted. An eight-hour day at the spaceport had turned into a twelve-hour one, and he’d had to go straight from there to the Sure Thing, where he’d tended bar until one. All he wanted right now was a hot shower, a microwaved chicken cacciatore, to kiss his son on the forehead, and to go to bed.
Instead, he found himself ambushed as soon as he got in the door. Emily’s lips were firm and fast against his, her breasts pressing against his chest, her hands curled into his hair.
Josh managed to break away for breath. “Em, wha – ” And then she was on him again, tugging at his jeans, running her fingers under his shirt. He pulled back again. “Emily, stop, what are you – ”
Emily’s eyes were feral. “Don’t be coy; you’re the one who taught me how to do this in the first place, remember?” She unceremoniously pulled off her t-shirt and tugged Josh closer to her.
Josh’s expression went from confused to alarmed. “Em, Chris is right there,” he admonished in a hushed voice, nodding to their one-year-old’s sleeping form on the daybed by the window.
Emily just laughed, tugging on Josh’s fly. “Please. With Barbara and Chloe next door, he’s already got all the sex education he’s ever going to need.” She kissed him again.
“Jesus, Emily,” Josh hissed, “what’s gotten into you?”
Emily’s gaze morphed quickly from aroused to annoyed. “Nothing,” she snapped. “I just want sex with my husband. Is that a crime?”
Josh pushed her by the shoulders into their bedroom, lest Chris wake up and hear any of this. “This isn’t like you. I don’t know what to do with you when you’re like this.”
Emily reclined on the bed. “You’ve never had a problem with it before.”
Josh looked at her carefully. “Did you take your medication today?”
Something rapidly shuttered behind Emily’s eyes. “I knew it,” she hissed, “I fucking knew you’d start throwing that back in my face one day!”
“Who’s throwing anything in anybody’s face? I just asked you a question!”
“I’m so dreadfully sorry that it’s such an inconvenience that your wife is crazy,” Emily shouted, tugging on a t-shirt from their dresser and storming out of their bedroom toward the front door. “So much so that you won’t even touch her when she’s throwing herself at you. Jesus, Josh.”
Josh chased after her. “Where the hell are you going?”
“Well, if you’re not going to fuck me when I’m begging for it, I’ll find somebody who will!” she shouted.
The door slammed behind her. Chris sat up in the daybed and gave a startled shout. He looked around, panicky, his confused eyes landing on his father.
Josh went over to Chris, running a hand down his back, shushing, gently urging him back to sleep. Then he called and woke up his father.
“Dad, I’m scared,” he said, throat tightening up. “I don’t know what she’s doing or where she’s gone and I’m just scared.”
Vince Pike wiped the sleep from his eyes, then sat up. “I’m on my way, son.”
“All right, lesson learned,” Dr. Wilcox said, making a notation on her PADD. “Staprexagine is not the right drug for Emily.”
Emily was curled into a ball on the couch. Josh’s hands were folded in front of him.
“I know this was pretty dramatic,” Dr. Wilcox said gently, “but try not to get too discouraged. A lot of psychiatric medicine is trial and error. There’s a solution somewhere; we just have to find it.”
Emily had no noticeable reaction to that statement. Josh just nodded morosely.
Ulletropion made things better, for the most part. Emily still had more ups and downs than the average person, but on the whole, she seemed functional – far more than she had at any point since Chris had been born. She was functional enough to go to her appointments solo, to pick Chris up from daycare on the nights that Josh had to go straight to the Sure Thing, and to cook for herself and Chris.
Josh, needless to say, was ready to swear a life debt to whoever it was that had first synthesized ulletropion.
Emily was doing so well, in fact, that she started talking about the possibility of getting a job. Neither of them wanted to languish in this little apartment forever, after all; but even with public assistance for things like diapers and Chris’ vaccinations and Emily’s medications, funds were extremely tight. If they had a little more income to play with, they might be able to get a bigger place, where Chris could have his own room.
Josh made the suggestion that perhaps Emily could take his shifts at the Sure Thing, plus a couple more every week. Tending bar was an easy enough skill to pick up, and if he could have those evenings free, he’d have the opportunity to pick up some extra shifts at the spaceport, where the pay was much better anyway.
For three blissful weeks, it worked beautifully.
Then, Josh went to pick up Chris from daycare, and he got a call on his comm from the Sure Thing.
“Josh Pike,” he greeted.
“Pike, where’s your wife?” It was Ray, the bar owner, shouting into his comm.
Josh checked the chronometer, something icy settling in his gut. “She’s not there?”
“No, she’s not fucking here,” Ray spat, “and I’m already down two folks on a Friday fucking night.”
“All right, chill out, Ray,” Josh snapped. “I’m sure she’s just sick and forgot to call in or something.” It wasn’t technically untrue. “Do you want me to come cover?”
“Don’t bother,” Ray said acidly. “And tell her not to bother either. I don’t want to see her back here. Goddamn ditz.”
The comm went dead. Josh was left crouched next to Chris, who was concentrating exceptionally hard on printing numbers with a green crayon.
He took Chris home. Emily was in bed, awake. She didn’t make eye contact with Josh when he peeked in.
Josh made macaroni and cheese for Chris – it was all he could cook – and put him to bed.
“You missed work today,” he said to Emily on entering their bedroom.
Emily blinked at the wall.
“Ray doesn’t want you to come back.”
Emily blinked again.
“Emily, are you listening to me?”
Finally, Emily spoke, her voice hoarse. “I hear you, Josh.”
Dr. Wilcox was massaging one temple.
“I’d like to bring in a colleague of mine,” she said. “I’m good, but Dr. Hayes is better.”
Another day, another drug, another failure, ad nauseum.
Josh came home one day to find Emily talking a mile a minute on the comm to someone he didn’t know, a course catalog from the community college open on the coffee table peppered with highlighter and circlings in red, an entire wall in their front room painted yellow. There goes the security deposit.
The very next day, he came home and found her sitting in the bathtub, staring unseeing at the faucet.
“Why are you still with me?” she asked him softly.
There was a long pause.
“Because I love you,” Josh finally answered, because I don’t know anymore seemed unnecessarily cruel.
He woke up in the middle of the night to find the other side of the bed empty. He went looking and found Emily on the floor by Chris’ bed in the living room, unpacking every single toy from the little chest at the foot of his bed, furiously unpacking it, then putting the toys back into it in a specific order. She was sobbing. Josh didn’t know how to stop her, or even if it was safe for him to, with her that close to Chris.
One particularly unsettling day, he found her with an ear pressed to the wall. The neighbors were holding a party.
“What are you doing?” Josh asked her wearily.
“Shh,” Emily hissed. “I heard my name. They’re talking about me.”
Josh couldn’t hear anything but glasses clinking and some laughter.
When Chris got left at preschool on a day Emily was supposed to pick him up, he reached the end of his tether.
Dr. Wilcox was standing, leaning back on Dr. Hayes’ corner desk, while Dr. Hayes sat center seat and talked with Emily.
Josh sat next to her, silent, only answering when he was prompted.
No, he hadn’t known about the other episodes of sexual indiscretion.
Yes, he’d absolutely noticed Emily had been sleeping more.
No, he hadn’t known Emily had been hearing voices.
Yes, he did have concerns about Chris’ safety around her.
At this, Emily snapped. “I love my son more than anything,” she spat. “I would never do anything to hurt him.”
Drs. Hayes and Wilcox exchanged a look. Dr. Hayes took off his glasses and leaned forward slightly, setting his PADD down.
“I know this isn’t going to be anybody’s favorite solution,” he said gently, “but I think it might be smart for us to start thinking about inpatient treatment.”
Emily and Josh both snapped their heads up.
“You…you want to commit me?” Emily said dangerously.
“This would be voluntary,” Dr. Wilcox interjected. “You’d be under round-the-clock care, so we can determine what medications in what dosages might get your illness under the best control. It would also be useful to have help instantly available so that you don’t act quite this impulsively during a manic episode.”
Emily shook her head vigorously. “No. I can manage this at home. I’ll take more medication. I’ll go to therapy, whatever. Going to a – what, a sanitarium or something? I don’t need anything like that.”
Josh swallowed. “I think you do.”
Emily’s glare burned into Josh’s temple. “You want me out of your hair, is that it?”
“No,” Josh said, trying to keep his voice even, “but I also won’t risk Chris’ safety.”
“I love my son,” Emily said venomously. “I am not going to hurt my baby. Why aren’t you listening to me?”
“Emily, everybody in this room is listening to you and believes you,” Dr. Hayes said gently. “And while I’m sure you would never hurt your son intentionally, I don’t think you fully realize yet that sometimes this illness makes you do things that you otherwise wouldn’t. You might be perfectly trustworthy. Your illness is not.”
“You promised me you’d never cheat on me again,” Josh interjected softly. “Then you got manic and you did. Then you promised again, on a downswing. Then you swung back up and you did it again.” He looked at Emily hard. “You already broke promises to me when you weren’t well. How can I be sure you won’t do that when it comes to Chris’ wellbeing, too?”
That, finally, seemed to give Emily pause. She swallowed thickly. “What kind of a mother abandons her baby like that? What good can I be to Chris if I’m not there to help raise him?”
“What good are you to him the way things are now?” Dr. Hayes countered, not unkindly.
Emily didn’t have a good answer to that.
“Em,” Josh pleaded, “don’t think about me. Don’t even think about you. Think about Chris and what’s best for him.”
Emily’s face crumpled. Josh reached out and rested a tentative hand on his wife’s shoulder.
“I think what’s best for your little boy is for his mother to get as healthy as she can,” Dr. Wilcox said, her voice very, very gentle. “What do you think?”
There was a pause. Then, Emily nodded.
Emily was up before dawn, hearing the desert come back to life around her. She didn’t get out of bed. She just lay there, listening over the din of her thought processes.
I don’t want to go I need to go I’m fine there’s nothing wrong everything’s wrong what about Chris what ABOUT Chris he needs his mother he needs you stable I’m sick I’m not sick what are they going to do to me there I’m fine I’m not fine I don’t want to go I need to go help me help me HELP ME –
And then Josh woke up, urged her into the shower, and helped her into her clothes.
Emily’s father-in-law tiptoed into the apartment at some point while she was getting dressed – she had no idea when. Time either moved unbearably slow or insanely fast for her. A function, she was beginning to understand, of her fucked-up neurochemistry.
While Josh and Vince were loading her things into the car, Emily found herself sitting on the edge of the daybed in the living room, watching Chris as he slept there. He was hard asleep, his body curled tightly around his little blue teddy bear, the one that she’d bought for him at a thrift store when she was pregnant, that had been in his crib the day they brought him home. His little breaths were fluttering the fibers on the bear, making them shimmer a little in the low light filtering in through the curtains.
Emily heard Josh’s footsteps in the doorway of the room, but she didn’t turn away from her son, and Josh didn’t speak.
She reached out and ran a hand through the mess of thick blond curls on his head, stroking them away from his forehead, and then running a hand down his back, feeling his spine curl into her touch, like a cat asking for a pet. She wished, for a brief, selfish moment, that he’d wake up just then, that she’d be able to see those precious eyes, Josh’s eyes, the crystalline blue that had captivated her when she’d first held him in the delivery room and that were steadily becoming more slate blue, on their way to being gray.
But then, no, because her son didn’t need to see this.
And that was why she had to leave.
They’d told her to think of what was best for her little boy. So she had, and this was it.
God, I wish it wasn’t.
“Em,” Josh’s voice called, very softly. “We’ve gotta go.”
No no no why are they making me go want to stay need to stay he needs his mother I’m his mother I’m fine I’m not fine I don’t want to go I need to go…
Emily leaned down and buried her face in his curly hair, breathing deeply, begging the parts of her brain that hadn’t yet betrayed her to commit this scent to permanent memory, to never let her forget this, no matter how bad it got. She kissed her baby’s forehead, wiping away a tear that fell from her own face onto his.
“I’m sorry, Chris,” she whispered. “I’m sorry. I love you.”
She squeezed her eyes shut, then followed Josh out of the apartment.
When Chris woke up a couple of hours later, it was to…the smell of bacon?
Chris scooted down off the daybed and wandered into the kitchen, confused. Even in her most energetic moments, Mama couldn’t cook very well. And unless Dad had been taking night cooking classes instead of working, that wasn’t Dad either. Which could only leave…
Grandpa turned around from the stove. “Hey, you!” he greeted with a smile, popping a piece of bacon in his mouth. “I’m gonna drive you to school today. Want a waffle?”
Chris was still confused, but he put it in the back of his mind, because waffles.
Midway through breakfast, he thought to ask, “Where’s Dad?”
Grandpa swallowed, then smiled gently at Chris. “He had some things to take care of before work. I think he’ll want to talk to you about it all tonight.”
Chris cut off a piece of waffle with his fork. That was a good enough answer for him.
Dad was never all that talkative when he drove Chris home from school, but this was unusual even for him. He looked distracted, sometimes looking over at Chris as if he just realized he was there. Chris figured Dad was just tired.
The apartment was quiet when they got home. Chris figured Mama was having one of her sleepy days, because he saw the box of mac and cheese by the stove when he hung up his coat.
“Um,” Dad said, wringing his hands, “come into the front room with me, Chris. I need to talk to you about something.”
“Am I in trouble?” Chris immediately asked.
Dad smiled a tight smile and shook his head. “No, son, you’re not in trouble. C’mon.”
Dad sat in the battered armchair and pulled Chris up into the chair next to him. Chris wiggled slightly in the seat, trying to get comfortable next to Dad’s bony hip.
“So,” Dad began, taking a deep breath. “I’m sure you know that your mom’s had some problems lately.”
Lately? Chris thought, but didn’t say anything.
“It’s been a problem for a while,” Dad continued, “honestly, since you were a baby. But it’s gotten worse in the past couple of years.”
Chris was silent. He knew this.
“So she went to a couple of doctors, and they told her that she was sick. Not ‘sick’ like when you get a cold, but sick in her head. There are some chemicals that don’t work the way they should in your mom’s brain.”
Chris looked up. Dad’s eyes were furtive and his speech slow and a little shaky, like he really didn’t know how to address this with a five-year-old boy.
“The doctors tried to give her some medicine to help the chemicals work better, but they didn’t work very well. So we talked about what else we could do to help her, and we all – your mom and her doctors and me – we all agreed that she should be in a place where doctors are there all the time in case she needs them.”
“Like when I went to the hospital?” Chris said, remembering when he had strep throat and his fever spiked so high that his mom rushed him to the ER at two in the morning, fearing he’d somehow caught Tarkalean flu.
“Yes, exactly,” Dad said, breathing a little sigh of relief at Chris’ extrapolation. “This place is a hospital, too, except it’s just for people like your mom, whose brains are a little different than the rest of us.” Dad paused, swallowed, and grabbed Chris’ hand. “She went there this morning. That’s why Grandpa had to take you to school today.”
“Okay,” Chris acknowledged. “When’s she coming home?”
Dad’s eyes closed. “I don’t know. She’s…” Dad pursed his lips, squeezing Chris’ hand. “She’s very, very sick, and we don’t know yet how much better she can get.”
Chris didn’t quite understand, but accepted it nonetheless. “Can we visit her?”
Dad winced. “Probably not a good idea right now, son.”
Something in the way his dad was acting made Chris feel like he was expected to cry, hearing all of this. But he didn’t feel like crying. He didn’t really know what he felt like, to be honest.
“What happens now?” Chris asked.
“Well, I talked to Grandma and Grandpa,” Dad said. “They’re gonna let us move in to the house with them. Just for a little while, until we can make it on our own.” Dad smiled – it looked kind of forced, even to the eyes of a five-year-old. “No more apartment! No more noisy neighbors!”
Chris had no notable reaction externally because he…well, he had no notable reaction internally, either.
Dad kissed the top of Chris’ head. “It’s gonna be okay, son.”
Chris had no reason not to believe his dad, but he did sort of wonder how Dad defined “okay.”