BY L.T. WARD
Copyright is held by the author.
BEFORE THE sun roused, we hit the road. In the dark July night, we snuck as thieves into our overpacked sedan. Sam drove and me, I sat in the back with two hands at the ready for our infant to wake.
But she hadn’t as of yet. Thank goodness.
“How’s she doing?” Sam asked, his gaze finding mine in the rear-view mirror.
“Snuggly buggly,” I whispered.
Sam nodded, then turned on the radio to a murmur. Somehow, we’d managed to maneuver our six-month-old from her crib, into her baby bucket, then gotten her into the car with its overhead lights without waking her. The child never slept longer than a couple hours straight, so this was a notable miracle. As I peered into her car seat, Mellie pouted. She stretched her neck, rubbing her head against the back of the seat, her body beginning to fuss.
I retucked her blanket around her, then slid my thumbs into her hands. She fisted each one with a death grip, as though she were a video gamer and I, her controller. I shifted in my seat, awkwardly leaning over the bucket so as to not disturb my resettled daughter. Using my shoulder as a pillow, I joined Mellie in slumber.
A shrill and a “Julie!” woke me. My eyes popped open and my heart pounded a surge of adrenaline through me. Mellie’s blanket shrouded her head, her body tight and flailing, her balled fists shaking.
“Julie!” Sam shouted again in that calm but forceful way he’d adapted to since our child’s arrival. “Babe!”
“I’m working on it,” I whimpered. “I’m so sorry, sweetie. It’s okay, Mellie Belly. Mommy’s here.” I removed the blanket from her head, stroking her cheeks with my thumbs. Tears wet my fingers. Her wails ratcheted up another pitch. I wanted to cry with her. This drive was a thousand miles, meant for us to bring Mellie to the family back home, but our baby was not a car baby and we’d put off the drive as long as we could. “Sam, we’re going to have to pull over. I think I need to feed her.”
Sam grumbled, but took the next ramp off the interstate to a well-lit gas station. It was still night. As soon as he parked the car, I unbuckled Mellie, then slipped her to my lap. Practiced, I unbuckled my belt and nursing bra, sliding my breast to her seeking lips. Within two pulls, her angered breathing settled into rippling sighs. Her one arm tucked under her body, the other reaching over the breast. Her fingers flexed until I slipped my thumb into her hand. Her death grip established, my daughter relaxed.
“I’m gonna run and use the bathroom. Want anything, babe?”
“I’m good,” I whispered.
With my free hand, I checked my phone. We’d been on the road only forty-five minutes of the fifteen-hour (only without stops, and there would definitely be stops) drive. I wanted to cry as hard as Mellie had. I barely slept since she was born. It was always short bursts, never long enough to feel fully rested. She nursed often, refusing all of the formulas we’d tried. Since I was home with her, I had given up the bottles to make it easier on both of us. Instead, I realized later, I had messed up, because it was only easier on her. I was tethered to her as I was always on call. While Mellie grew strong as a baby should, I was withering away.
I kissed the fist wrapped around my thumb, wondering. Reflecting. Sam worked. I stayed at home. This was the deal we made after my second trimester ultrasound. When I wanted to, I could go back to work. In the meantime, the daycare costs validated my choice to stay home. More importantly, I never got enough sleep to feel like I could return to my job. Dark circles under my eyes, dazed thoughts, an acclimation to call everyone including the grocery store checkout girl “sweetie.” I was in no condition to return to the larger world until Mellie slept.
Why wouldn’t she sleep? “Slept like a baby” was a thing, but not for my baby. Why? What was wrong with me as a mom that I couldn’t get Mellie to sleep through the night?
Sam returned to the car. He looked me over with hang-dog eyes. Those chestnut browns had been my comfort. Before motherhood, that man’s gaze could flutter my heart or settle it into a peaceful beat. As Doris Troy sang so poignantly, it took “Just One Look” for Sam to fall for me and me for him.
But since Mellie, we spent more time trying to get our eyes closed than we did looking at one another. God, I was so tired. And I missed my husband. I wondered if he missed me as much.
“How’s she doin’?”
Mellie popped off my breast, bolting upright to twist and give her daddy a two-tooth grin.
Sam smiled back. “Hey, babe,” he cooed. “You ready to be calm in the car? Mommy and I want to get another couple of hours under our belt before we stop again.”
I patted Mellie’s back until she gave a hearty belch. Then, I strapped her back into her seat, rambling small talk nonstop to hold her focus. “Hey, sweetie. Mommy’s just going to buckle you in. We have a long drive to see Nana and Papa. Auntie Megan wants to see you, too.”
My daughter’s face lit up under the passing streetlamp lights. She stared up at me with unadulterated adoration with her chestnut browns. Sam swore Mellie had my smile which I had my doubts about, but we both were certain our daughter had Sam’s eyes.
For the next hour, we covered the miles. I glanced over Sam’s shoulder to the speedometer. He was over the limit by a good fifteen miles per hour, but the interstate was clear of other drivers and concerning road conditions. Considering we were on a countdown until Mellie’s next meltdown, I seconded my husband’s speeding.
The sun finally rose. I described the colors to Mellie. My hushed voice soothed her, so I had not relented my constant chatter. From time to time, I caught Sam in the rear-view. He was mostly focused on the road ahead, but sometimes, just sometimes, we locked eyes. His lips curled into a pert smile, as did mine.
When Mellie finally fussed again, we’d gone a good hundred and fifty miles. Given the last half-hour, she wailed while I spoke over her, promising my screaming child she was fine, safe, loved. “Pulling over, babe,” Sam announced.
Another gas station. Mellie screamed so hard, I thought her lungs could break her ribs. My bladder was nearing the same exasperation and my empty stomach yearned for coffee or a donut–anything. But Mellie. I couldn’t leave her with Sam when I knew she wanted to be nursed and held, so I insisted, “You go on. I’ll take my turn when she’s done.”
I tried to cat nap while Mellie fed, but, her fingers wrapped around my thumb, she managed to dig her nails into my breast every time I began to nod off.
“Sorry, sweetie. Mommy’s awake.”
I wanted to cry.
Sam returned, this time opening my door. Mellie popped off and he reached for her. She squealed as she went to Daddy’s arms. He stood beside the car, patting her back until she burped in his face. “You’re such a good girl, little babe,” he chuckled. He kissed her fist wrapped around his thumb.
The gas station bathroom was disgusting. Rust on the facilities, rogue hairs on everything. I was leery to touch the soap dispenser, relieved there was hand sanitizer back in my purse.
When I got back to the car, Sam said as he rocked the gleeful Mellie, “She’s yawned a few times. Maybe we can make some good distance on this next leg.”
My throat hurt from talking for hours on end. My body was worn from holding in urine and fasting when hungry, because my daughter’s needs came first. Mentally, I didn’t remember what was up versus what was down. Everything felt sideways.
He handed me our daughter. We kissed in the familial hug, eyes closed. We lingered with lips pressed to one another while Mellie slapped each of our jaws with her chubby, clammy hands.
When we pulled apart, I said, “Were you jealous?” Then I planted a kiss on her cheek. Sam did the same.
Mellie closed her eyes and giggled at having both of her parents doting on her.
Eight hundred miles to go. I did the math as we pulled back onto the interstate. I was in my head, ignoring the roving hands searching for the comfort of a death grip around my thumbs, so Mellie screeched. She screeched with her belly full of dairy. She screamed until her shrill turned into a burble of spewing mother’s milk across her, the car seat, me.
“Sam, pull over,” I whimpered.
“Already?” he asked.
“Yes!” I snapped. I felt like a monster for being cross with him. But I was tired. I was so tired. The sweet moment that happened less than five minutes ago was now a distant memory with me and Mellie coated in sour puke.
It was another ten minutes until Sam could pull over. He had to wait for an exit, so Mellie screamed and I cried. I wept onto my child.
Another gas station. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t stop crying.
I heard the trunk open and close, then the side door open. “Hey, hey. Babe, I’m going to take Mellie into the McDonald’s and clean her up,” he said softly as he unhooked her baby bucket from the base. “You stay. Take a minute. We don’t need to rush.”
I watched as my husband carried my vomit-covered daughter into the fast food restaurant attached to the gas station. I continued to cry. When he returned, he had the diaper bag over his shoulder, a plastic bag in one hand, the wiped down baby bucket on his arm, and Mellie giggling on his hip. She was wearing a different onesie than the one she’d sported at the start of this nightmarish trip.
I got out of the car, standing with the stream of greyish white vomit down my shirt and lap. “I should go clean up,” I sniveled. Sam set the bucket on the ground, then put the plastic bag–which smelled horrendous–into the trunk. I reached for my luggage and pulled out another outfit.
“You want to drive the next bit?” he offered. Sam winced as he kissed the tight fist around his thumb. He grabbed a baby wipe from the diaper bag and cleaned Mellie’s fingers from the missed puke.
My face hurt, but I smiled. He was such a good dad. “Yeah. I need a break.”
“Okay,” he said to Mellie in a silly voice. “Mommy’s going to clean up, because little babe puked on her. When Mommy gets back, she’s going to drive and Daddy’s going to be the one hanging with Mellie Belly.” Sam looked at me with those chestnut browns. Just one look.
I leisurely changed my clothes, wiping the rejected milk from my neck and hair. This bathroom was far less grotesque, and the car was not somewhere I was eager to be. By the time I returned to my family, Sam had everything ready except Mellie who was playing happily on his lap in the backseat.
“Mommy’s back!” he said after I stowed my nasty clothes in the trunk and slid into the driver’s seat.
“She is,” I said. “Hey, sweetie, time for us to drive again.”
Sam strapped Mellie in. I turned the radio on low, losing myself to the adult voices crooning about love. The upbeat music perked my spirits almost as much as the hot coffee. Twenty minutes along, my husband’s chatter fell silent. I glanced in the rear-view mirror for a glimpse of the backseat.
As Sam leaned onto the baby bucket, each of his thumbs relinquished to our daughter’s death grip, sleeping on his shoulder for a pillow, I finally noticed. The dark circles beneath my husband’s chestnut browns. Him calling everyone “babe.” My husband was as exhausted as I was.
I smiled. My heart warmed with love for the father of my child. Calm reassurance washed over me as I knew we’d get through this miserable car ride. Other things, too.
I couldn’t help it. I peeked into the rear-view at the backseat again. Just one look.
L.T. (she/her) is a neurodivergent writer who mostly writes speculative fiction and horror shorts and novels while spending her days creating shenanigans in a library, raising her children, and satisfying her never-ending thirst for knowledge through reading, meeting people, and first-hand life experiences. She has several published short stories in the literary, historical, fantasy, and speculative fiction genres.