When All Is Lost
It was the prettiest day of the year so far, though it had been officially Spring for almost two weeks. A late snowstorm and blustery winds had kept everyone inside for the past month, which for two small children trapped in a tiny apartment seemed like imprisonment, and to their mother, trapped in there with them, seemed like living Hell.
With no television, no games, and few toys, the kids relied on outdoor play to keep them busy, but Jenny, only two now, had suffered multiple bouts of asthma and bronchitis. So all of them had to stay inside. Paula couldn't afford a sitter when she wasn't working, (for God's sake, she couldn't afford one while she was working,) and with no one to watch Jenny while she took Taylor to the park, they had no choice but to wait for better days so they could all go outside together.
Today looked like it might be one of those better days. The sun was shining and it was quite warm, and though most of the foliage was still looking as if it were unsure as to whether or not it were safe to bloom, the birds were chirping in the trees as if to encourage everyone to believe.
"Taylor, could you grab Jenny's diaper bag on the way out hon?" Paula motioned with her chin toward the pink and green bag by the door, her own arms full of Jenny and her purse, her keys clutched in the other hand.
He nodded, his face all smiles as he grabbed the bag and waited for his mom to step outside so he could pull the door behind her.
Taylor was a good kid. A great kid. Eight years old and practically on his own, and he never complained. It made Paula's heart ache.
He went to school in the morning, went to the aftercare program after school (which could barely be called a care program, since all they did was make those poor kids sit at a long table and read, write or draw for three hours, there was no play time or interactivity there) and then he stayed with the neighbor, Karilynn, for the next three hours until Mom could get home.
This was the schedule six days a week, with the only difference being Saturdays when he stayed all day with Karilynn since there was no school.
Just two years ago he'd had all the normal things most parents want for their kids. A Mom and a Dad, a good school, their own home, three square meals a day, and so many of those little things you take for granted when you have them, and security.
That's what they all missed most. Knowing it would be okay.
Taylor ran around the side of the car and open the door, pulling the back seat forward so Paula could sit Jenny in her carseat. Jenny squirmed and cried out, reaching her chubby little arms out for mom. "It's okay baby," Paula soothed, "We're going to the store to get you a treat, it won't be long!"
Jenny eyed her mom, decided to believe this bit of information and settled back into the seat. She associated the car with daycare, and mom disappearing for more hours. Car rides weren't fun, they were sad.
"Can I ride up front mom?" Taylor looked at the pile of papers in the front seat and Paula smiled, picking them up to make room for him. "Sure, don't forget to put on your seatbelt."
As she walked around to her side of the car she stuffed them into the diaper bag, mentally trying not to think about how many of them were bills.
Bills she couldn't pay.
Most of them medical bills, but several were still collection notices from before when John had been alive. Of course back then they hadn't been collection notices, they had been bills they could pay. Auto loans, credit card payments, a mortgage, all those normal notices that middle class families all have. Except when those bills follow you into poverty they become something more. Like a virus that's taken on gigantic proportions and threatens to eat you when you look away.
"Mom?" Paula, shook herself from her reverie and realized she'd been staring into the pile of bills in the diaper bag, Taylor was leaning over looking up in concern. He wasn't fooled either. At eight years old he knew way too much about the state their lives were in, and was burdened more than was healthy. He handled it, picking up when no one else was there to help. It was both a comfort and another nagging anxiety for Paula, who wished she could do more as a parent, but didn't know how.
"Yeah, I am just day dreaming kiddo..." She flashed him a big grin and saw him relax with a small of his own. "You know... imagining that day when we win the lottery...."
"....And buy a mansion down by the river" he added on, familiar with this game,
"... and I'll stay home and garden all day, painting pictures of you and Jenny..."
" ...while we ride horses and play in the pool.."
They both laughed, a wishful yet glad-we're-together laugh that said they'd make it through anything as long as they were a family.
And it was true.
They'd made it through the funeral. They'd made it through the nasty nightmare of Johns family who tried to take the kids away from her when he died. They'd made it through the long lines trying to get aid from people who treated them as if they were lice infested trash. They were making it through living in one of the worst parts of town (nick-named Thug City by the locals) and hanging on to what could barely be called "making a living" with Paula working two jobs to just get by.
They'd even survived the break-in two weeks ago in the middle of the night. Nothing had been stolen, but they'd all been reminded that security was an idea, not an reality, and they'd been afraid.
Paula had taken her wedding ring the next day and hocked it at the Pawn Shop to get the money for the little 9mm handgun she now had in the glove compartment. She kept it with her day and night. It wasn't a good idea, and she knew it, but the fear was overwhelming.
Her mind never stopped turning over the "what-if's".
What if the man who'd broken in hadn't run out the other night when she cried out? What if someone mugged her and killed her some evening on her way home from work? What would happen to the kids? What if? So she kept the gun like a dirty little secret tucked away as best she could and tried to pretend she wasn't afraid. Because of Jenny and Taylor, who needed to know that they were safe, and often looked at their mom's face to see if she felt scared.
"So, it's off to the store, okay guys?" Taylor grinned at waved Jenny's toy rabbit in the air, and she giggled. It was all good.
"Can we go to the park today mom?" Taylor was making the rabbit do twirls and swoops in the air, and Jenny was watching in rapture, as if the rabbit were doing the tricks by itself.
"You betcha buddy. I have to get a refill for Jenny's antibiotics real quick first, then we'll stop by the store and get some sandwich stuff and have a picnic, maybe we'll even buy a Frisbee. How's that sound?"
Taylor grinned as if she'd offered him a brand new Play Station. "Really? Whoo-hoo!"
"Woo-woo!" Jenny echoed from the back, caught up in the excitement of the moment, even if unsure why, "woo-woo!"
Paula turned on the radio and winked at Jenny in the rear view mirror, laughing when Jenny scrunched her whole face trying to wink back. The drive was a short one, There was a Walgreen's on every corner in town, and this one already had Jenny's Medicaid information in it's database.
She wasn't sickly, but she'd had a lot of bad luck with her health, especially with the asthma. They'd been a long time without insurance of any kind until Paula had spent the day getting Medicaid. If it hadn't been for that little miracle, she didn't know how Jenny would have made it.
Inside Walgreen's the wait was short, thankfully, and they picked up a Frisbee in the toy section, and even a small kite on sale. Jenny waddled (Her diaper was surely partly the cause of the funny gait, Paula mused) from candy bar to candy bar until she picked out a short piece of chocolate, just like the one Taylor did.
The check out line was a little longer, and by now Jenny's patience was growing thin as she eyed the candy bar mom wouldn't let her open until they got outside. "Shhh... it'll be just a moment baby" Paula smiled at the cashier who grinned back with a wink, handing Jenny the candy bar instead of bagging it. Jenny grinned back with a giggle and the cashier turned to Paula "What lovely kids you have, so precious...." Paula couldn't have agreed more.
Gathering their bags they stepped outside into the sun, where Jenny begged for her candy. "Alright sweetie....Taylor, could you open her candy bar for her while I put this in the car and get her car seat ready?"
"Sure mom, here Jen... lemme help ya.." Taylor moved jenny into the shade near the trashcan, pealing back the paper carefully so she'd have something to hold while she ate her chocolate. Paula opened the door of the car and put the bag in the back seat, rolling the window down so the hot air would escape the car before they got inside. Turning to go back and get the kids she looked up just in time to see something sail through the air and hit jenny in the head hard, knocking her backwards to the ground.
"Jenny!!" Paula was running without realizing she had even moved, picking up her daughter, checking her for injury as Jenny's wails filled the air. There was a wide skinned area at her temple where her face had scraped the side of the trashcan on the way down, welling with bits of blood, not life threatening, but still painful.
"It's okay baby, shhhh, momma's got you..." Paula rocked Jenny as the child hiccuped through her tears, looking to see what had hit her little girl. Just to the right of the trashcan was a large MacDonald's bag, stuffed with trash and a glass bottle spilled out on the sidewalk. Turning to see where it came from she sighted a van right next to her car, a large obese man in the passenger seat with the door propped open, his face red in anger.
"Your goddamn kid shouldn't be standing in front of the trash lady! Next time she might get her damn face mashed in if you don't keep her out of the way!" He waved his fat fingers at her as if he was swatting at a fly.
She felt her face grow hot, her vision blurring a moment in rage. The next moments were like she was watching a movie, not in her own body but watching as if through some red tinted glass everything disjointed and murky.
She was in her car, hands fumbling at the glove compartment pulling the gun from under the papers stuff inside, moving around the van her teeth clenched as if she was pushing against some great pain, not even seeing the wide-eyed expression on Taylor's face as he watched her swing around the door and point the gun at the suddenly horrified man who sat there.
"Hey lady! What are ya doin'? It was yer kid who got in my way!" He was waving one fat leg ineffectually in the air, as if he were trying to find purchase and scrabble backwards into the safety of the van. His hair was greasy, plastered to his forehead in thin wisps to pimply skin, his chin disappearing into wobbly jowls which shook as he tried to calm this mad woman who looked as if she were going to blow his brains out with that gun. Some part of Paula noted the Handicap placard hanging from his mirror, and realized he was parked in a handicapped space. But she didn't care, the asshole had thrown trash at her kid and hurt her, and had blamed them!
"Listen here you fat fuck," she waved the gun around as if she couldn't decide whether to shoot him or knock his teeth out with it, "you get your fat ass out of this van and pick up that trash and throw it in the can!" She fairly screamed the last, and he flinched, before oozing his body out, toes seeking purchase on the ground.
"I'm sorry, really... I'm sorry! I didn't mean to hit her, she was just..." His voice thinned and stopped as he took another glance at her face, realizing that she was hanging on a thread of sanity and that his explanations were only making it worse. Sucking in a deep breath he lurched toward the trashcan, avoiding looking at the wailing child he'd just hit, or the boy who held her hand and stood mutely watching his mother lose her mind.
No other passerby even paused. This kind of conflict was not altogether unusual for this area, and healthy people who wanted to stay that way just kept walking. But Paula began to see the scene for what it was, the blood draining from her face as she glanced at her kids, and then huge man who stood near the trashcan, pushing the offending bag into the opening before looking to see what would come next.
She clenched her hands, and waved the gun toward the van. "Get back in there. Don't ever hit my kids or any other kid again. It's not our fault we have to be here. We didn't deserve you..." and to her horror she realized she was going to cry. "Taylor! Get Jenny in the car!" She walked away, not looking back to see if the man moved at all, not looking to see if anyone else was looking either. She got into the drivers seat, shoved the gun between her legs, and shut the door, looking back to see that the kids were in the car before pulling away.
She drove for a little more than two blocks before she could drive no more. Pulling over against a curb she put the car in park, and leaned her head into the steering wheel, drawing a shaky breath. "Geez Louise, what have I done?" Her hands were trembling, and she picked up the gun from her lap and put it into the glove compartment. Turning in her seat she looked at Jenny and Taylor. Jenny was sucking the remains of the chocolate bar from her fingers contentedly, Taylor was looking at his mom in anxiety. "Are you okay Mom?"
Paula drew in a hard breath and wiped the tears from her cheeks. "Yeah baby, I am okay. How are you? Did I scare you?"
Taylor shook his head and unbuckled his seat belt, leaning forward. "No, I knew you wouldn't hurt him. I was just afraid someone else might hurt you. But I knew you were just mad for Jenny."
Paula reached back and ran her fingers over her little boys cheek, "Oh sweetie, you are so brave. Yeah, I was mad for Jenny. And I was mad for you. And I was mad for me. It's been hard lately, and I can stand that if it were just me. But I want better for both of you, and I worry so much. Today I just kinda let all that take over, and I acted nuts. I am so sorry. What I did back there wasn't right... I was just..." She sighed and leaned forward to give him a kiss on the forehead.
Taylor touched his own fingers to his mom's cheek, tilting his head as if in deep thought. "Well, I understand why you'd be angry. I was angry too. A lot of people are mean to us now that dad is gone, and I know you miss him a lot." He looked over at Jenny as he continued, she was beginning to nod off to sleep, her wounds forgotten in the remnants of chocolate. "But we are okay, we are. Things will get better. I know they will. As long as we have each other, it's not all bad, right?"
Paula felt tears start to well up again, a painful lump growing in her throat and she struggled not to bawl. He was just too grown up for and eight year old.
Reaching between the seats she pulled Taylor up into her lap, adjusting the seat so they'd both fit, and gave him a big hug. Thinking about what he'd said she remembered the night they'd all gotten in the car, just one day after John had been buried, slipping away into the night to find a new home because she'd been afraid that John's parents would use their considerable influence to take her kids away from her somehow. They'd taken only what they could fit in the car and the small U-haul she'd rented to pull behind it. They'd lost everything except each other. But it had been worth it, because each other was what was important.
This new life was a hard one, and some days it seemed like it would never get better. She missed John, and with so much time spent at work, she missed her kids. But Taylor was right, just as she'd been two years ago. It was all okay as long as they were together. They'd get though it.
"Yeah, you're right. We'll be fine kiddo." She sat there in the warmth of the sun through the car window stroking his hair and gathering strength. They would be okay, she'd make sure of it. Whatever it took.