Suzanne carried Ariel in one arm, the baby resting on her hip. Her eyes were bright and her mouth puckered like she’d just sucked a lemon slice. “It’s been a goddamn hour and a half, Jill,” she said.
Since kissing Grover goodbye and watching his tan Escort rumble down the highway, I’d fought like hell to squelch the sadness surging inside me. I didn’t have the energy to fight with my sister. I simply told the truth: “Grover introduced me to his new boyfriend.” I looked down at my shoes, realized I hadn’t bought new ones in two years.
“A boyfriend?” she spat, as if were obscene. “Guess he won’t have time for you anymore.”
“Stop it, Suzie.”
“Now you can pick up your damn kid on time.”
I held out my arms for Suzanne to hand over my daughter. I couldn’t meet her gaze. She shifted Ariel into my arms then stomped toward the kitchen.
“She vomited three times last night,” she said, her voice trailing. “Get her to a doctor, pronto.”
I inspected my daughter. A brief, hacking cough erupted but her smile returned immediately after. I didn’t look forward to hours in the emergency room, waiting for some asshole doctor to shove antibiotics down Ariel’s throat then send us away with the rest of the trash. I’d have to make it through the next day on maybe five hours’ sleep. Ariel just needed a long nap, that’s all.
“Thank you, Suzie,” I called out. She’d disappeared.
I waited for her to answer but heard nothing. As I closed the front door and stepped into the blinding autumn sunshine, my cell phone rang. Ariel cooed and clapped her hands. She adored the clickety-click sound of my ring tone. I glanced at the caller ID and smiled with relief.
“I thought you were still drooling over your waiter,” I said.
“Get home and get some sleep,” Grover said. “You have a dinner date at six.”
“You and Bart to gossip about me. I’m cooking meatloaf.”
“I can’t. Suzie’s on the rag. She’d never agree to take Ariel that early.”
“Then bring the kid over here. I haven’t seen her in a while.”
Grover doted on Ariel, made faces while she lay in her stroller, sprayed a dab of perfume on her jumper as he changed her. He liked to joke that we should claim her as our love child and make everyone at work pass out from shock.
“I’ll be very tired and cranky,” I warned him.
“That’s what happens when you never have sex.”
“Fuck you, man-whore.”
“Swing by and pick up some wine if you can.”
After saying goodbye, I took a moment to experience the joyous October sunshine, how it basked both my face and Ariel’s. Maybe Bart would be good for Grover, give him things I never could. Determined to stay positive, I loaded Ariel into the car and started home. I hoped she wouldn’t keep me from my precious few hours of sleep.
* * *
When Grover’s last boyfriend left him, Grover kept the apartment. The extra bedroom made a perfect nursery for Ariel. While Grover and Bart fussed over the cooking, pinching one another and giggling, I tucked Ariel into her stroller. She beamed, the very picture of contentment. I kissed her forehead then slipped into the living room. As if on cue, the two men hushed their flirtation and met me with expectant looks.
“She’s going to be fine,” I said, quietly closing the door.
“If you need me to wait with you in the ER, just ask,” Grover said.
“It’s no problem,” Bart added.
These men, the sacrifices they were willing to make for me. A wave of nausea surged through my stomach. The trouble about accepting help is you’re forced to admit you’re helpless. Grover wore a long white apron, its strings tied behind his back. He placed his hand at the small of Bart’s back, guiding him to the meatloaf on the counter.
“Is it ready to cook?” Bart asked.
“This is so exciting,” Bart chirped, flashing me an excited glance. “Grover’s been teaching me to cook all sorts of things.”
“If he tells you the recipe calls for booze, don’t believe him,” I said then rocked my head back, laughing. Grover made a face then poured another glass of red wine, his fourth since I’d arrived. I figured the drinking had started long before I knocked on the door.
“Think you can help out?” Grover asked.
“Sure, whatever you need.” I joined the men at the counter. Bart pried open the oven door and reached for the aluminum pan holding the meatloaf.
“You’ll need both hands for that,” Grover said. He slurred his words, the vowel sounds flat and dull.
“Let me handle the rest of this,” Bart countered. “I remember what you told me.”
“Here,” Grover said, ignoring him. “Let me get a hold of that.” The men’s competing grasps caused the pan to tilt dangerously low, some of the sliced vegetables spilling onto the open oven door. Finally, the two men successfully maneuvered the meatloaf into the oven. Bart picked up the spilled vegetables from the open door before shutting it. Grover rocked back against the counter, done with the arduous task. I caught a glimmer of aggravation in Bart’s eyes. The three of us said nothing until we sat down at Grover’s small, uncovered table to eat.
* * *
Ariel began hacking not long after we started dessert. Bart looked startled, wondering what to do. I smiled and lifted the fork to my mouth. That’s one thing about babies: panic over every unexpected noise, and you’ll never find a moment’s peace. I had brought the dessert along with the bottle of wine Grover finished an hour ago. He asked if I bought the chocolate cake at Wal-Mart. We all laughed when I said certainly not. Since finishing the wine, Grover had moved on to straight-up scotch.
Even after we were done, Ariel wouldn’t stop coughing. The eruptions grew more frequent, louder. I’d been looking forward to relaxing on the sofa with Grover and Bart. The waiter from IHOP had proven to be a nice guy: witty, polite, kind. I had no reason to dislike him. My peaceful time with them, however, would have to wait.
The odor hit me the moment I stepped into the room, a disgusting sourness. Holding my nose, I hurried to Ariel’s carriage and found she had vomited all over herself. Worse yet, the puke had dried on her clothes. She sputtered then spit another mouthful. I threw open the bedroom door and called out to Grover, “Can I use your bathtub?”
“What’s going on?” Bart asked.
“Ariel got sick all over herself.”
“What’s wrong with her?” Bart asked, clearing the table.
“I don’t fucking know.”
Grover took it all in, glass of scotch in his hand. With a swift, deliberate gesture, he set it down and crossed the room. To my shock, he wrapped me in a rough embrace, resting his chin on my shoulder. He whispered, “You call a doctor, I’ll get Ariel cleaned up.” Booze bloomed on his breath.
I slid out from his arms, placed my hand on his chest. “No, sweetie, it’s my kid. I’m responsible for her.”
“You need to call a doctor,” he replied. “I’ll get Ariel ready to leave.”
I hesitated. All throughout our friendship, Grover prided himself on how well he treated me, his beautiful girl. He wasn’t like a lot of the faggot assholes that ditch their best friends whenever they find a dick to suck. He treated me like I’d always hoped Ariel’s father would, if I ever tracked him down. Sure, I could call the doctor and wash my daughter, but why deny my best friend this opportunity to help?
“There’s a new outfit in the baby bag,” I told him, gesturing toward a canvas sack by the front door.
“She’ll be fine,” Grover said with authority, his slur less obvious.
I lifted Ariel from her carriage and gave her to Grover. He carried her into his bedroom. The bathroom led off from there. I heard Grover’s occasional coos and whispers meant to calm my child. I didn’t know if Ariel’s silence was a good or bad sign. Finally, I heard water splash.
Throughout all this, Bart stood stunned. He opened his mouth, but no words came out. Finally, he recovered his voice. “Who can you call?”
“I saw a billboard once for some dial-a-nurse thing,” I said. “Think it’s in the phone book?”
“You should try information,” Bart said. “You know, four-one-one.”
After a few false starts, the operator connected me with the nurses’ hotline. I spent five minutes on hold while elevator music blared until an elderly-sounding woman came on the line. I described Ariel’s symptoms and listened as she guessed what might be wrong. Ariel hadn’t coughed or cried the whole time I’d been on the phone. That worried me. Tired of the old woman’s bullshit, I flat-out asked if I should take Ariel to the hospital. Never losing her sweet tone, she said it couldn’t hurt. She called me precious.
I called out, “Grover, hurry up and get Ariel dressed. We have to go to the ER.” Only the soft chatter of pouring water came in response. I called out his name again. No answer. Bart shot me a worried glance. I strode across the living room, through Grover’s bedroom and found the bathroom door closed. I knocked, hearing nothing but water. I knocked again. Spooked, I turned the knob and the door swung open.
Grover lay heaped over the edge of the bathtub. He snored softly. His fingertips grazed the surface of the bathwater. The water poured from the faucet. It had risen almost to the rim. Ariel, my beautiful girl, sat upright in the tub, the water almost to her chin. She gaped about the bathroom, her warm hazel eyes wide and searching. Relieved, I shut off the tap. I crouched upon the tiles, arms wrapped around myself. It was all too much. Grover might have drowned, drunk and passed out over the water. I had to look out for him. I was his beautiful girl and he was the man I loved most.
Thomas Kearnes holds an MA in Screenwriting from the University of Texas at Austin. His two collections are “Pretend I’m Not Here” (Musa Publishing) and “Promiscuous” (JMS Publishing). His fiction has appeared in Litro, The Adroit Journal, The Ampersand Review, PANK, Word Riot, Eclectica, SmokeLong Quarterly, Johnny America, Five Quarterly, wigleaf, Storyglossia, Sundog Lit, A cappella Zoo, Spork, The Pedestal, Digital Americana Magazine and elsewhere. His work has also appeared in several LGBT venues. He is studying to become a drug dependency counselor. He lives near Houston.