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Sustained, Page 9

Emma Chase

  definitely like her.”

  • • •

  On Tuesday night I’m working late at the office, finishing up a motion for Senator Holten’s domestic abuse trial. I loosen my tie, rub my eyes, and crack my neck. Just as I’m about to dive back in, my cell phone rings.

  And Chelsea’s name lights up the screen.

  I smile just seeing her name. It’s fucking weird and completely unlike me. I barely smiled when I graduated law school.

  I wipe it off my face as soon as I realize I’m doing it. I tap the accept button and bring the phone to my ear. I start to ask the age-old question What are you wearing? But I don’t—thank Christ—because a high-pitched voice pipes up from the speaker.

  Rosaleen’s voice.

  “Hi, Jake!”

  I lean back in my chair. “Hi, Rosaleen.”

  “Whatcha doin’?”

  “Working. What are you doing?”

  “I’m making chicken soup.” There’s pride in her voice.

  “That’s nice. Is your aunt around?” I ask, because I have a sneaking suspicion Chelsea doesn’t have a clue about what her niece is up to.

  “She’s in the bathroom. She’s sick.”

  I frown. “What do you mean, she’s sick?”

  “She’s throwing up everywhere. They all are, except me. And Ronan—but he spits up all the time anyway, so he doesn’t count.”

  Faintly, the sound of Ronan’s wailing comes through in the background.

  I sit up and press the phone harder against my ear. “Is that your brother crying?”

  “Yeah. He’s hungry. I’m going to heat up his bottle as soon as I’m done with the soup.”

  I’m about to ask her if she’s using the stove or the microwave for the soup . . . but the loud, piercing shriek of the fire alarm, which wipes out any other sound from her end, pretty much answers that question before it’s asked.

  “Whoops!” Rosaleen shouts into the phone. “Gotta go. Bye!”

  “Rosaleen, wait—”

  But she’s already hung up.


  I call back. It rings and rings, then goes to voice mail.



  It’s not my problem. It’s none of my business. I have my own shit to worry about.

  That’s what I tell myself as I put my phone aside, push my chair forward, and refocus on the document in front of me. On the hours of work I still have to finish tonight.

  Be smart. Prioritize.

  They’re fine. People get sick all the time . . .

  And then they die.

  Fire alarms go off every day . . .

  As houses burn to the ground.

  “Goddamn it!”

  I pick up my phone and dial again. Still nothing.

  I shake my head and put my fingers on the keyboard . . . but the only thing I can picture is Chelsea passed out on the bathroom floor.

  “Son of a bitch!”

  I throw in the towel and pack my briefcase with my laptop and files. I make it to my car in record time and wonder if calling 911 would be an overreaction. It’s touch-and-go for a while, but I hold back—I’ll be there in ten minutes.

  Seven minutes later, I tear up the driveway, throw my car in park, and stomp to the front door. My mouth is dry and my palms are wet with concern. I bang on the door, but the only answer is Cousin It’s yap from the other side. I cup my hands and peer through the window, but I don’t see anyone.

  “Chelsea! Rosaleen!” I try knocking again. “It’s Jake.”

  When there’s no response, I contemplate busting the door down. But then I remember to check under the mat—and lo and behold, there’s a shiny silver key. And I’m in.

  • • •

  Cousin It dances around my legs as I walk into the foyer—just as Rosaleen is coming down the stairs, carrying a tray that’s bigger than she is. She smiles when she sees me.

  “Hi, Jake. When’d you get here?”

  Placing the key on the front table, I take the tray from her hands. “Where’s your aunt?”

  “She’s upstairs in the bathroom. She told me to get Ronan’s bottle from the refrigerator.”

  My eyes cut to the upper landing. “Okay. You go do that, I’m going to check on your aunt.”

  I walk up the stairs and down the hall, following the sound of someone barfing up their stomach lining the way Hansel and Gretel followed bread crumbs. I stand in the bathroom doorway, casting a shadow on Chelsea’s crumpled form as she hunches over the toilet, holding on to the sides of the bowl like her life depends on it. She’s in a loose-fitting black T-shirt and sweatpants. Her hair is pulled back, a few strands damp with perspiration clinging to the back of her neck.

  I crouch down next to her, my hand on her back.

  Once her heaves subside, she wipes her mouth with a tissue and groans at me. “What are you doing here? How did you get in?”

  “Rosaleen called. I used the key that was under the mat. You shouldn’t keep it there.”

  “You shouldn’t be here,” she whimpers. “Run. Save yourself.”

  “When the hell did this start?”

  She closes her eyes, panting. “Monday—in the middle of the night. It started with Raymond, and the rest of us fell like dominoes.”

  “Why didn’t you call me?”

  “I called the neighbor—Walter’s mother. She said she couldn’t risk one of her kids catching it. Her daughter has a pageant this weekend. She said she was sorry.”

  Nice. Because sorry is so fucking helpful.

  Chelsea drags herself to the sink and splashes water on her face and in her mouth. “I have to check on the kids.” She moves toward the door and almost cracks her head on the sink as her knees give out.

  But I catch her, scooping her up into my arms. “Whoa—easy.” My voice turns firm. Kind of pissed off. “You’re not checking on anyone. You’re going to bed. Where’s your room?”

  “No, I have to—”

  “Don’t fucking argue with me. Where’s your room?”

  She seems to give in—or she just can’t keep her head up anymore. It rests against my arm. “My room’s downstairs, but I want to stay up here—in case they need me. Can you take me to the guest room? Last door on the right.”

  I follow her directions to a plain room with yellow walls and a white bedspread. I lay her in the middle of the bed gently. Her eyes crack open, shiny and miserable, gazing up at me.

  “I can’t be sick,” she whispers.

  “It’s a little late for that.”

  “Aunt Chelsea!” one of the boys calls.

  And it’s like she’s been electrified. Her eyes spring open and her head jerks as she tries to pull herself up into a sitting position.

  “Lie down,” I tell her, guiding her back.

  “I have to—”

  “Chelsea, I’m here. Let me help you,” I bark, ready to shake her at this point. I brush her hair back from her stark-white—but still fucking beautiful—face. “I’ll make sure the kids are okay.”

  She stares at me for a moment, like I’m an apparition. Or a dream. And then slowly, her eyes well with tears. They trickle silently out of the corners of her eyes and down her cheeks.

  And every one fucking destroys me.

  “Don’t cry. Why are you crying?”

  She breathes out a shaky breath and wipes her cheeks. “I’m just . . . I’m so tired, Jake. I’m so tired.”

  For the first time, I think about what it must’ve been like for her . . . after she got that phone call. How she probably raced around, throwing necessities in a bag, figuring she’d send for the rest of her things later. How she had to withdraw from school, probably break the lease on her apartment—upend her entire fucking existence.

  And then she was here—so needed, all the time. Having to make a hundred different arrangements, care for six kids who couldn’t possibly care for themselves. And not just feeding them, homework, getting them to school, but helping them navigate an unimaginabl
e grief. She had to keep them from falling apart.

  And she had to do it completely on her own.

  And I know, without a doubt, that she hasn’t taken a second for herself. To process her own pain, get a handle on her own sorrow and loss. There couldn’t have been any time. She’s been running on that hamster wheel for so long—it was only a matter of time before she completely crashed.

  “Then sleep, Chelsea. I swear everything will be okay.”

  She smiles even as more tears come. She grasps my hand, holding it tight.

  “Thank you.”

  • • •

  After that, I do triage. War-zone mode. I check the bedrooms—Rory and Raymond are smooshed together in the bottom bunk of their bed with matching wretched faces, each with his own barf bucket beside him. Riley and Regan are in Riley’s bed, with a wastebasket next to them, on the verge of sleep. I pay close attention to the two-year-old, who gazes at me with glassy eyes.

  “Hiii,” she rasps exhaustedly.

  I run my hand through her baby-fine hair. “Hey, kiddo.”

  Then I head down to the kitchen, where Rosaleen is perched on the counter beside her baby brother, holding a bottle for him. She says she knows how to do it—that she’s watched her mother and Chelsea do it a thousand times. Thank fuck for observant kids.

  “But you’re gonna have to burp him,” she tells me, and then explains how it’s done. Carefully, I lift him from the seat, holding him with straight arms like a bomb that could detonate at any moment. I follow Rosaleen’s instructions and bring him to my shoulder, patting and rubbing his back.

  “Like this?” I ask the seven-year-old.

  She nods encouragingly.

  “You are officially my second in command,” I tell her. “You and me together are gonna kick this virus’s ass.”

  She giggles. “Okay.”

  I feel a ridiculous amount of pride when Ronan lets out a deep, rumbling belch that any grown man would be impressed to produce. I’m not going to tell the others, but I think he’s my favorite.

  As I congratulate him, I notice his ass feels heavy.


  I look at his sister. “I think he needs to be changed.”

  Her face turns wary and she raises her little hands. “Don’t look at me. I’m just a kid.”

  “Now you play the kid card?” I ask her.

  She shrugs without pity.

  Okay. I can do this.

  I’ve been arrested—spent time in lockup with genuinely dangerous guys. I’ve been in street fights without rules where no one was coming to break it up—and I’ve won. I’ve conquered the insurmountable challenge of earning a law degree and dealing with the self-centered jackasses who are my clients without committing aggravated assault.

  It’s a diaper. How hard could it be?

  I carry Ronan to his room, lay him on the pad on his dresser, and look him in the eyes. “Work with me, buddy, okay?”

  Then, with one hand on his chest so he doesn’t roll away, I Google it.

  Gotta love modern technology. Bomb-making and baby-changing diagrams at your fingertips. I get the diaper off, get him cleaned up with the wipes. I squeeze some white pasty shit out of a tube onto his ass, because I’m not sure if he’s red, but it’s there, so I’ll use it. I lift his kicking legs and slide a fresh diaper underneath him.

  And then—without warning—a hot stream of piss, like a fireman’s hose, arches in the air, coating my shirt with expert aim.

  I glare down at the baby. “Seriously, man?”

  He just smiles around the hand he’s chewing on.

  Fucking Google didn’t mention this.

  • • •

  Once I get Ronan settled in his swing, I find Rosaleen in the living room. We walk to the kitchen to check out our supplies, but she stops just inside the kitchen door. Her face goes blank and frighteningly ashen.

  “You okay, Rosaleen?”

  She opens her mouth to answer—but what comes out is a burst of chunky yellow vomit, like lumpy pancake mix gone sour.

  Man down.

  She coughs and stares, horrified, at the disaster on the floor, splattered on her shoes and on her sparkly T-shirt. Then she starts to cry. “I’m sorry, Jake.”

  Something in my chest swells at her tears, making everything feel too tight. I kneel down beside her, my hand rubbing circles on her back. “It’s okay. Rosaleen—it’s just puke. It’s not a big deal.”

  The dog scurries in like Mighty Mouse coming to save the day. Then he starts to chow down on Rosaleen’s vomit.


  I gag in the back of my throat but manage to hold it together. “See?” I tell her, trying to sound cheery. “You did me a favor—now I won’t have to feed the dog.”

  • • •

  Rosaleen changes into pajamas and climbs into bed next to her sleeping aunt. I do a second check of the wounded and take advantage of the momentary quiet to call my reservists.

  “They all have it?” Stanton asks with shock—and a lilt of humor.

  “They all have it,” I declare grumpily. I rub my eyes. “I’m not ashamed to say I’m out of my league here.”

  “Do they have fevers, too, or just the upchucks?”

  “How do I tell if they have fevers?”

  “Do they feel hot?”

  I think about it for a second helplessly. “They don’t feel cold.”

  “All right. Call the grocery store—they’ll deliver. Tell them you need an ear thermometer—the directions will be in the box. You also need Tylenol, saltine crackers, ginger ale, chicken broth, and Pedialyte.”

  I furiously write down everything he’s saying, like it’s gospel. “What’s Pedialyte?”

  “It’s like Gatorade for babies. Keep an eye on the infant. If he starts puking, don’t mess around—call the pediatrician. The number is probably on the fridge. Babies can get dehydrated really fast. Same goes for the two-year-old—watch her. If she can’t hold down a tablespoon of the Pedialyte an hour, you may have to take her in.”

  “Got it. Anything else?”

  “Just keep them comfortable. Little sips when they can drink. Crackers and broth when their stomachs settle. Call us if you need backup.”

  I sigh. “All right, thanks, man.”

  • • •

  By the next morning, I’m waist-deep in laundry. Sheets, soiled pajamas, cloths for foreheads. I know my way around a washing machine—my mother made sure of it. And since I like things organized and clean, I know how to load a dishwasher and fold a towel, too.

  By Wednesday afternoon, the troops are getting restless. They’re on the mend but not yet back to full capacity. Because they’re getting antsy, they start to argue with each other. He smells, she’s hogging the covers, he’s fucking looking at me wrong.

  I transport them all downstairs and corral them in the den. Every couch, recliner, and love seat, and certain sections of the floor, is covered with blankets, pillows, and kids. Chelsea lies on the couch and I sit on the floor, leaning back against it. Ronan lies on his stomach on a blanket beside me. I flick on the television.

  And the arguing starts up again.

  “Let’s watch SpongeBob.”

  “SpongeBob is stupid. Put on MTV—16 and Pregnant is on.”

  Remember when MTV used to actually play music videos?

  “We’re not watching 16 and Pregnant,” Chelsea tells her niece.

  “How about the Discovery Channel?” Raymond suggests. “There’s a marathon on the hunting habits of lions. They eat a ton of gazelles.”

  “Poor gazelles!” Rosaleen laments.

  There’s a nightmare in the making.

  “Listen up!” I holler. “I have the remote. That makes me master of the universe. And the master says we’re watching basketball.”

  There are complaints and agreements in equal measure.

  A little while later, Rosaleen crawls off the recliner, dragging her pillow with her. She plops it down next to me and rests her head on it, r
egarding me. Her forehead is sickly damp, her eyes glazed. “Will you sing me a song?”

  I look back at her. “No.”

  “Please?” she rasps.

  I shake my head definitively. I will not be broken. “Not happening.”

  Her clammy hand touches my wrist. “It will help me fall asleep.”

  And just like that, the resolve begins to fissure.

  “I don’t sing,” I explain with a dash of desperation.

  Her lip trembles, and the fissure widens. “But it will make me feel better. And I feel terrible, Jake.”

  I cling to my man-card with straining fingers. “I don’t know any songs.”

  It’s doubtful Iron Maiden would be helpful in this situation.

  She blinks up at me slowly. “Pretty please?”

  And the fissure has now become the Grand fucking Canyon. Damn it.

  I clear my throat and softly sing the One Direction lyrics that have been buzzing in my head for days like overcaffeinated insects.

  “Everyone else in the room can see it . . .”

  My voice is too deep and haltingly awful.

  The boys groan in tortured unison. Riley perks up from the recliner and turns