by Profic 2017
Written by Jenny
Cover designed by Jenny Dawson
Watch over me
hungry,” Camilla whined, her small roundish fingers pushing the
empty plate down the table. “When can we eat?”
Across the table
from her daughter, Brenda frowned at her cell. There were no voice
messages, no texts—nothing. She glared. Her ex had moved out of
their little hometown several years ago, and just recently, he had
been keeping in touch with Brenda. But what was the point of keeping
in touch if he never actually took the time to see his daughter?
Brenda had given him another chance to be a decent father, and he
She slammed the cell
against the table.
jumping and making her chair squeak.
Brenda winced and
retracted her hand from the phone. She reached over to her
seven-year-old. “Oh sweetheart, I’m sorry. I’m
just…disappointed that your father is absent for our family dinner.
But I’m sure he has a very good reason for it, and he must feel
eyes, far apart, filled with relief before confusion fogged them.
“Dad was coming over?”
grimaced. “Yes, sweetie. Remember? He called a few nights ago,
and…” Reminding the girl of Leon’s broken promise was unwise.
Brenda shook her head and stood up, her hand grabbing Camilla’s
plate. “Here, I’ll fix up your dinner now.”
Camilla beamed, the
expression as sweet and innocent as it had always been. Though Dr.
Hansen had said that was a common trait for patients with Down
Syndrome, there was something pure about Camilla that just naturally
shone through. Or perhaps Brenda was too bias to see things clearly.
She shoved that
wretched thought aside as she placed the spaghetti—and then some
salad—on her daughter’s plate.
her nose at the vegetables. “Do I have to eat that?”
“Yes. It’s good
for your body.” Brenda placed the food before the girl and then
went to fill up her own plate. “Besides, I took the time to prepare
this meal; it would be rude of you to not at least try to finish it.”
“But I don’t
argue with me.”
The girl murmured
something under her breath and shifted in her chair, squeaking.
Brenda returned to
her seat, her plate full and placed beside her glass of water. The
stresses of the day—her students arguing, whining,
struggling—colleagues venting and tutting—it all remained bunched
up in her shoulders, making her sit ramrod straight. Try as she
might, she could not get herself to relax.
She took a bite of
food. And then another one, the sauce melting over her tongue. Her
eyelids drooped. She savored the simple flavors and blinked slowly.
A moment of wary content.
Camilla crossed her
arms and glared at the salad.
fractured. “Sweetheart, please try to eat.” She pointed at the
pasta with her fork. “Try the spaghetti first. I put a little
ketchup in it, just the way you like it.” Absently, she glanced at
her cell, silent and still as ever.
flitted over her food for a few seconds before she gently picked up
her fork. “I don’t like lettuce,” she breathed, shoulders
hunched. But she took a bite of her spaghetti, so Brenda dismissed
the feeble backtalk.
Glancing at her
phone, she asked Camilla about school.
“I don’t like
it,” the girl said through a bite of pasta.
“Chew and swallow
your food first, then answer questions.”
Camilla did as
instructed—making a dramatic show of swallowing down her
bite—before she continued. “I don’t like school. I want to stay
with Grandpa all day.”
Grandpa and Grandma would like that too, but your schooling is very
“But I don’t
Brenda took a deep
breath. “Sometimes we have to do things we don’t like. It’s
just a part of life.”
“It’s a bad
She chortled. “I’m
afraid so, yes.”
The clatter of their
forks against plates filled the silence between them for a while.
Camilla was slow with each bite she took, her occasional sneer at the
salad making her intentions clear. Another argument would ensue, no
doubt, and it could easily lead to tears and a punishment.
Brenda pressed two
fingers against her temple, the ache growing stronger with each
pulse. She closed her eyes and swore she could fall asleep sitting up
like this. A part of her—riddled with guilt—was relieved Leon
hadn’t shown up. Despite his best intentions, he had a way of
making everything worse.
The quietness that
followed jittered with unease.
Brenda opened her
muscles slackened, her precious eyes blank. It was a look she rarely
wore, yet it was familiar enough that Brenda knew exactly what it
Brenda burst out of her chair and caught her daughter as she
fell—violent tremors wracking through her body and making her limbs
flop. She lain the girl on the tiles as quickly and gently as she
could, Brenda’s shoulder shoving into the table’s leg to push it
away. She pushed it so hard that it entered the adjacent living
room—corner bumping into the edge of the couch.
hammered so hard that she swore it was smashing against her chest. It
had been years since Camilla had had a seizure. They had been so
careful with the medication and—
slapped against the chair.
Brenda all but threw
the chair out of the way, it clattering over the floor and against
the corner of the kitchen. She kept her gaze on Cam—kept her arms
out in preparation for throwing other obstacles out of the way.
Nausea shot up
Brenda’s throat, panic churning and chilling her gut. What if this
was worse than a typical seizure? Her mind raced—froze—and then
raced again for answers.
She had to turn
Camilla on her side in case fluid came out of her mouth. Yes, yes,
that was right—she had read that in several articles years ago. But
first, something needed to be placed below her daughter’s head.
Brenda all but tore
her sweater off herself before snaking it beneath the girl’s skull.
Then, though Brenda trembled as well, she gently turned the girl
until she was on her side. Her cheek bounced against her mother’s
sweater, eyelids fluttering.
snapped to her pocket. Her phone. She needed to call—
gnashed together, eyelids lowering farther as her body continued to
Her teeth. What if
the girl bit her tongue? Brenda mentally recoiled and tried to figure
out what safe thing to put in her daughter’s mouth. A wallet? A
A vivid and
significant memory overtook Brenda, and she nearly screamed at
One was NEVER
supposed to put something into a person’s mouth during a seizure.
The book she had read that from had repeated this fact through its
chapters. How could she have forgotten such an important detail? It
sickened Brenda to the point where she nearly gagged.
Brenda jumped, hands
hovering over the girl’s shoulders. Where was her phone? She had
just had it.
Panic morphed into
terror, seizing all her senses and choking her.
Brenda clenched her
teeth against the sensation, her throbbing mind forcing away mocking
self-doubt. Keeping her eyes locked on her daughter, Brenda forced
herself to take a deep breath. She focused—used her panic as fuel,
as energy. She took another deep breath, and her racing heart was a
distant sound in her ears.
Her cell phone was
on the table. Yes, she had left it on the table.
Camilla shifted over
the floor, toward a table leg.
Brenda rose and
pushed the table even farther into the adjacent room, her eyes
darting over the table’s surface. A jolt shot through her when she
didn’t spot her phone. It must have fallen to the ground. She
crouched back down and searched the floor.
Her phone. Her
phone, her phone, her—
iced over, throat and lungs constricting. She couldn’t see it. The
device must be on the floor somewhere—fallen from the table—but
she could not see it.
She swore. Frozen in
place, she prayed that the apartment walls were as thin as she
thought they were. “SAMMY! Help! It’s Camilla! I need you to call
Dr. Hansen! Sam!” Brenda flinched the second she remembered that
Sammy, her neighbor, was on a date that night with a fireman or
something. Brenda shook her head jaggedly at herself. “ANYONE! Help
me! My daughter needs help!”
She shouted the same
panicked phrases over and over again, the words cutting her throat.
continued. It felt so long, but every time Brenda glanced at the
oven’s clock, it reassured her that only a couple minutes had gone
by. If her seizure ended now, then it might not be as bad as she
feared. The hope calmed her enough to allow self-loathing to slink
through her psyche.
Stupid, Brenda spat
at herself. She had read so many books on Down Syndrome—on cases
such as these—when she was pregnant with Camilla. Why had she
stopped? Why had she become so lazy and selfish and forgetful—
A broad, muscular
man burst through her front door.
Brenda screamed, the
sound wispy from the recent abuse of her vocal chords.
eyes—wide and alert—snapped to her. As he rushed to her side, he
said, “My name is Officer Allan Lawson. I heard you.” He glanced
at Camilla. “Don’t touch her, don’t—”
“Just find a phone
and call Dr. Hansen!”
The cop took out a
cell from his pocket and dialed. And for a split second, Brenda was
stupidly shocked that he just happened to know Dr. Hansen’s number.
Then she realized he
had dialed 911.
attention flicking back and forth from her daughter to the officer,
opened her mouth to protest his action. Dr. Hansen had talked her
through Camilla’s last seizure, and the bill for an ambulance—
Lawson spouted out
the address, and then he explained the situation to the dispatcher.
Brenda pressed her
lips together. Even if paramedics provided too much help—if there
was ever such a thing—it would certainly be preferable than not
having enough of it. Brenda breathed a little easier as she stared
down at her child.
alright, sweetie,” she said.
She snapped her gaze
phone still pressed against his ear while his eyes remained trained
on her. He cleared his throat, then he lowered the phone. “The
paramedics will be here in seven minutes.”
She nodded, her
insides quivering with impatience. Seven minutes was too long. She
swallowed thickly and stared at her daughter—gave her a tight
smile, even though Camilla wasn’t registering it.
A soft touch on
Brenda’s shoulder made her bristle, smile instantly falling.
name?” Lawson asked, crouched beside them now. His fingers remained
on her shoulder, however light their pressure was.
Brenda glanced at
him. He was close enough that his warmth seeped into her, and she
couldn’t decide if it was a comfort or not. Ultimately, she
remained where she was, focused on— “Camilla. Her name is
“Is this her
reddened Brenda’s face. She should have been prepared for this. Her
hands, shaking, hovered over Camilla’s shoulders—brushing against
her mother’s fingertips. It made Brenda eyes sting.
fine,” Lawson said. He removed his fingers from her shoulder.
“You’re doing a good job keeping everything clear.”
Brenda shivered, a
cold sense of abandonment crushing her chest. She itched to rub her
shoulder, but she immediately dismissed the sensation. Once again,
she whispered encouraging words to her daughter. Perhaps it truly did
nothing, but speaking them gave Brenda strength over her fear.
“It is alright,
Camilla,” Brenda said, voice stronger than it should have been. She
exhaled a shaky breath. “Mom’s here. I’m here.”
lessened more and more by the second until the girl was limp, her
eyelids drooping low as tears crawled down the side of her face. She
Brenda. Restraining her own tears, she shakily—yet gently—placed
her hand on Camilla’s shoulder. “It’s okay, honey. You’re
okay. An ambulance is going to be here soon, and everything will be
hung open, her head lolling to the side. She blinked and breathed,
but shy of that, she didn’t move.
The last seizure she
had had—it had taken her over thirteen minutes to regain her full
sense of awareness.
Brenda patted the
girl’s head. Clearing her throat—making sure she sounded
certain—she said, “Paramedics are going to come and help. And
there is a police officer here too.”
Camilla whined, her
face remaining blank.
ached. She ran her fingers through her daughter’s hair. “They’re
going to help you. You’ll feel better soon.”
The girl whined
Lawson said, shuffling a little closer. He smiled, his eyes soft.
“I’m Allan. I’m yours and your mother’s new neighbor.”
“You are being so brave and strong right now. I’m impressed. I’ve
never met anyone as tough as you, and I’m a police officer.”
neighbor?” Brenda blurted. “I didn’t know—who moved out?”
Lawson shrugged. “I
just finished moving in a few days ago. Room Seven? I don’t know
who the previous tenant was.”
Ah, Warren’s and
Lori’s apartment. They had just had their second child—had been
speaking about moving into the suburbs. But that had been a month
ago. They were already gone?
A hint of distaste
brushed against Brenda’s psyche, but she couldn’t bring herself
to care about it one way or another. She pressed her palm against
Camilla’s head, the touch grounding.
Camilla garbled out
a noise before a long exhale blew passed her parted lips. She blinked
hard, her gaze never flickering from the ceiling.
“I’m from Saint
Louis,” Lawson said conversationally. He shifted on his haunches a
little, his head tilting as he smiled at Camilla. “It’s a nice
city. Has a lot of pretty buildings, the arch—all kinds of stuff.
It has a lot more people than Woodland Creek does, but that can get a
little burdensome sometimes. It’s nice being in a smaller town.
More nature, fewer people. It’s relaxing.”
lowered. Her voice was distant—broken—as she said, “Camilla and
I were both born here. Born and raised.” Her hand slid to her
daughter’s upper arm, warm and motionless. “We’re used to small
Sirens pierced the
air, the sound growing louder and louder as the seconds whizzed by.
Brenda smiled, her
lips quivering. “We’re used to the simple life.”
Lawson patted her
back, his touch as light as it had been before yet somehow more
reassuring this time. Her eyelids fluttered closed for a brief
As quick as the
paramedics had been to get there, Brenda’s impatience swelled
within her as they checked on her daughter—her pupil dilation, her
pulse, her lungs. They moved too casually, though a part of Brenda
wanted to take comfort in that; perhaps things weren’t as bad as
she initially feared.
“How long did her
seizure last?” a dark-haired paramedic asked.
“Was there shaking
of the limbs? Did she cry out? Did any discoloring occur?”
The questions went
on and on, and Brenda snapped out each answer. Light tremors wracked
her body, needing to move—to spring—to act. Waiting around and
answering questions seemed pointless.
Lawson remained by
her side, the few answers he gave short and blunt. At times, Brenda
was tempted to hold his hand, to steady herself. His posture was so
stiff and his eyes so alert. There was nothing casual about his
appearance, other than his T-shirt and jeans.
said, weak voice filled with distress. She squirmed on the ground and
blinked hard, though her eyes barely moved. “Mom.”
Brenda said, barreling forward to crouch beside her daughter. She
grabbed Cam’s shoulder with one hand while stroking her face with
the other. “I’m here. It’s all okay, sweetheart.”
Camilla smacked her
lips together. Confusion, then fear, blossomed in her expression,
sweetie. All these people are helping us, that’s all. ”The
paramedics went on to ask about Camilla’s medication, her doctor,
“I’ll take care
of it,” Lawson interrupted, staring at Brenda. “Whenever the bill
comes, just give it to me. I’m the one who made the call.”
Brenda scoffed. “I’m
not handing you one of my bills. It’s fine.”
His posture loosened
a little, face falling. “Please. I insist.” His gaze was so
weighted—guilt swirling in those blue orbs. “I made the call, so
it’s my responsibility.”
She eyed him. Was
this really worth arguing about? Her pride, heavy in her chest,
certainly made her think so. But she hesitated anyway—took a few
seconds to think it over.
“I appreciate you
letting me help in any way I can,” he said, expression softening
and lips widening into a gentle smile. “It’s my job, you know.”
Sighing, she nodded.
his job, in a way. And it wasn’t as if Leon was paying child
support. She nodded again, more assure this time, and then she
returned her full focus to her daughter.
had regained enough of her mobility to move over and sit on the
couch. The paramedics had wrapped a bright orange blanket around her
shoulders, and the girl hugged herself tightly beneath the fabric. As
Brenda handed her daughter a bowl of orange slices, the paramedics
took their equipment and left.
Brenda kneeled in
front of her daughter and patted the girl’s knee. “How are you
feeling? Do you some water?”
Camilla, chewing on
a piece of orange, shook her head as she stared at Lawson.
Brenda looked over
her shoulder at him. “That’s Officer Lawson.”
said with a sheepish smile. He shifted on his feet, his gaze sweeping
over the place. Then he scratched the back of his neck. “I’m glad
you’re feeling better, Camilla.”
“Yes, I am.”
The girl pressed her
lips together again, her brow rising. “You get bad guys?”
Allan grinned. “Yes,
grabbed another orange slice and bit it in half. As she chewed, the
tension in her body loosened. She blinked slowly and sagged. “Mom,
Brenda jumped. “You
want to finish your spaghetti?”
“Hungry.” She grimaced at the half-orange slice in her hand
before plopping it into her mouth.
“Okay, okay, I’ll
go heat it up.” Brenda stood and turned, stumbling a bit at the
sight of Lawson still
standing there—still watching. She blushed, but God knew why. Sure,
Lawson was attractive with his chiseled jaw, bright eyes, big arms…
His cheeks reddened
when she continued to stare at him. He cleared his throat and glanced
at the door. “Um, right, sorry. I should go now. If you guys need
anything, I’m in Room Seven.” He turned to leave.
blurted, stepping toward him. “Have dinner with us, please. It’s
the least we can do.”
He smiled, though it
didn’t quite reach his eyes. Rubbing the back of his head, he said,
“That is very kind of you, but I don’t kn—”
Camilla asked, holding another orange slice in her hand. “Please?
Please?” She raised her head a little, the blanket slipping a bit
down the back of her neck. “Please, Mr. Police?”
fight against the smile even if she tried. Camilla never took to
strangers this quickly. Heart melting, Brenda cocked an eyebrow at
Lawson opened his
mouth—clearly to argue—before closing it, and then opening it
again to release a long sigh. His lips quirked upward and shrugged.
“Sure. I would love to.”
Camilla beamed and
leaned back against the couch. “Good.”
Getting out the TV
trays—she didn’t have the heart to make Camilla move from the
couch—Brenda set each person’s plate and glass of water on their
respective tray before settling in the center spot of the couch.
Camilla grabbed her
fork and poked her food with it. Her face was slack, her eyelids so
low that they were practically pressed together.
Brenda frowned and
rubbed her daughter’s back. “Do you want to go to bed,
“No.” The girl
stabbed a meatball and then put it in her mouth.
furrowed, worry nagging at her. She needed to be more prepared for
Camilla—needed to help her always, needed to be more responsible,
less like Leon and more like—
“This is a lovely
meal,” Allan said.
A laugh burst out of
Brenda’s throat as she turned to him. “Thank you, but it’s just
“Still.” He placed a bite of pasta and sauce in his mouth, a
trace of sauce lingering on his lower lip.
Realizing she was
still staring at his mouth, she snapped her attention on her own
plate and took a bite of food. She chewed a little too quickly as her
mind raced. What to say, what to say…
The awkwardness felt
tensed in the air, as if it was physically squeezing her too hard.
She had no problem being straight forward with people in regard to
her intentions, but it had been so long since she had dated—not
that this was date. Of course not. She fought against a cringe.
Was she really that
lonely? She hadn’t been with anyone since Leon left all those years
ago, but she had been fine with that. Or, at least, she thought
she had been fine with that.
said, the word loud and abrupt enough to make Brenda jolt, “you
said you and Camilla have lived here your entire lives?”
“Um, yes. That’s
right. My parents still live here too. We’re just charming small
town folk, I guess. In our blood.” Small
What were they, cowboys on the prairie?
“I can see the
appeal,” Allan said after swallowing another bite of food. “It’s
gorgeous here. And quiet. You can just be yourself without the world
constantly at your back.” His gaze became distant for a second
before he shook his head and frowned. “I’m sorry, I…I’m being
weird, aren’t I? Yes, I am. Sorry. I just…” He groaned, placing
his palm over his eyes. “I’m really not good at this kind of
“What kind of
thing?” Brenda asked. She found herself sitting up a little
gatherings,” he said, hand flopping to his lap. He smirked tiredly.
“Ever since my wife died, I’ve had a hard time saying the right
things in the right way. I tend to be awkward and clumsy nowadays.”
shoulders slumped. “I’m so sorry.”
“Me too. I miss
the days where I was charming, witty, and not a complete idiot.”
“You’re not an
He huffed out a
quick laugh, sheepishness contorting his features. “Thanks, but you
don’t have to say that.”
“I mean it though.
You acted quickly and efficiently when I screamed for help. Idiots
don’t do that.” The recent memory—far too recent—creeped in
the back of her mind.
She rolled her eyes
and smiled. “Oh, hush now. You’re too modest, which does make you
charming, by the way.”
“So…should I be
more modest or less modest? You’re giving me mixed messages here.”
She snorted, her
hand snapping up to cover her mouth and nose a second later.
Something fluttered in the pit of her stomach, making her giddy. She
had no idea what to say—tried to think of something clever—and
instead just snorted again as a giggle erupted from her.
To her relief,
Lawson laughed with her.
It made her realize
how quiet Camilla was being.
Brenda turned to her
Camilla rested her
head against the arm of the couch, peace in her expression as she
snored quietly. She clutched two corners of the blanket against her
ebbed. She ran her fingers up and down Camille’s arm. “My darling
girl. She has had such a trying day today.”
“I wasn’t lying
before,” Allan said softly. “She’s tough, especially for
someone so young.”
widened. “I know.”
Brenda let her
daughter sleep in the following morning. She had walked in her
daughter’s bedroom with the intention of waking her up, but the
sight of Camilla drooling on her fuzzy pillow… Brenda couldn’t
bring herself to disturb her—not after what had happened the day
before. Instead, Brenda pressed a kiss on her daughter’s forehead.
It wouldn’t be the
worst thing if Camilla missed one
day of school.
“I understand, Ms.
Carson,” the Special Ed teacher had responded over the phone. “Tell
her we all wish her well.”
After Brenda had
ended that conversation, she went back and forth between getting
ready for work and reading one of the many books she had about Down
Syndrome. She needed to be keeping up with this information every
day. She would never slack off on this reading again.
Over an hour later,
Brenda smoothed out her jacket and hurried out of the bathroom—her
short heels silent against the carpet. She went back into Camilla’s
room and woke the girl up.
“Is it pajama day
again?” Camilla asked sleepily, holding Brenda’s hand as she
guided her daughter to the kitchen. Cam yawned and rubbed her right
eye with her free hand.
“You’re going to
stay with grandpa today. All day.”
That perked Camilla
right up. “Really?”
“Yes. But don’t
get used to this, okay? This is a rare occasion, and you’re
schooling is still very important. In fact, your teacher and your
classmates told me that they want you to feel better so that they can
Camilla bounced on
her heels. “Okay, okay,” she said quickly, clearly not listening
to much of what Brenda was actually saying.
Brenda grabbed a
bagel from the cupboard and stuffed it in her mouth, grabbed her
purse that she had left on the island, and then she stumbled toward
the front door with Camilla still clinging to her—slowing her.
She squeezed her
lived—had always lived—in Clear May Suburbs, an area filled with
quaint homes and overgrown foliage. It conveyed a humble kind of
beauty; the kind of place where most of the neighbors were good
friends with one another.
Brenda, her bagel
half-eaten and on the dashboard, pulled into her parents’ driveway
and parked. The faded yellow house in front of her hadn’t changed
in years, not really. Though the window frames and door had
aged—splintered a little—there were still the same row of tulips
growing beneath the windows, there were still the gnomes dotting the
corners of the front lawn, and the overall color scheme of the
residence was the same.
Brenda got out of
the car and walked to the backseat to help Camilla out of her car
seat. Despite her age, Cam was small enough to need more than a
seatbelt to keep her safe in a vehicle. But if this bothered her, she
never complained about it. Once Camilla was standing in the
driveway, Brenda slammed the car door shut before leading Camilla up
to the front door they both knew all too well. Brenda knocked on the
old wooden surface, Camilla doing the same.
The door opened.
Camilla said, ripping herself from Brenda’s hand to hug the old
man. “I get to stay the entire day with you!”
Her dad’s bushy
eyebrows shot up, his gaze slowly rising to meet Brenda’s. “Is
Brenda hunched. “I
should have called.”
“Oh, I like a good
surprise as much as the next guy.” The old man shakily crouched
down, bones creaking as he did so. He flashed his toothy-salesman
smile at Cam—the kind of smile he used to where all the time when
he was a real estate agent. “Why don’t you go sit at the kitchen
table, and I’ll make my famous Cowboy Pancakes.”
Camilla’s eyes lit
up before she rushed into the house and into the kitchen, left from
the front room.
Her father grabbed
the doorframe and pulled himself up to his feet. Grunting, he tilted
his head to the side and eyed Brenda. “So, what’s the special
occasion? You seem stressed out.”
through her, but she could not bring herself to rush this
conversation, no matter how late it made her for work.
Sighing—mentally trying to calm herself—she told him about
Her dad’s eyes
glimmered with worry, though his lips formed a gentle smile. “She
seems fine now.”
“She is doing a
lot better today. But could—”
“I’ll keep a
close eye on her, Brenda.” His salesman-smile returned in full, his
arms spreading outward. “Who do you think you’re talking to?”
lowered, her hand swinging out and brushing against the man’s
forearm. “Thanks, dad.” She turned to leave when she flinched.
She didn’t want to ask but…a good daughter should always ask—
“Oh, and how’s mom doing today?”
automatically. That was his answer every time. “Does she have any
plans today? Is she going to get out of the house?”
“I don’t know,
She nodded again,
walking back to her car. Tight tension developed along her spine.
It didn’t matter
how many prescription pills her mother took, her depression never let
her be. Her tone was always feeble, eyes weighted with fatigue and
facial muscles slack. When Brenda was a kid, she would always take
care of her mother—always try to make her mother happy. But it was
as if existence itself was too exhausting for her to bear.
Brenda would stare into the mirror and see the empty shell of her
mother…of someone in constant pain. A pain that would never truly
The thought chilled
Larky Middle School
was the only middle school in Woodland creek, which often made the
establishment overcrowded with preteens and specialized youngsters.
But this year, with the former eighth graders now in their respective
high schools and with the new sixth grade class being rather small,
the school seemed more spacious.
Stepping out of her
car and locking it, Brenda strode through the parking lot and to the
school. She kept to the row of parked cars and checked over her
shoulder repeatedly for the parents driving by to drop of their
building was surrounded by asphalt and cement; there wasn’t a whole
lot of greenery on the property. And despite her constant insistence
on raising money to green up the school, she was always declined by
the school board.
School was about
educating students, not “prettying up parking lots.” That was
what the super intendant had told her. A charming man.
Looking both ways,
she hurried between two motionless cars—kids halfway out of
them—and then up the stairs to the front doors.
That was when her
cell rang, playing Leon’s ringtone.
She sucked in a
breath and glared. He knew she would start work soon. But,
frustrating as this timing was, she couldn’t afford to ignore
him—not with his relationship with Camilla on the line.
She swung the front
door open and charged into the building before searching through her
purse for her cell. Once it was discovered—ringtone scraping
against her eardrums by that point—she answered it quickly.
Leon said slowly, “I understand that you must be angry with me,
Leon. A child needs their father.”
“I know, I know,
and I am sorry that I missed the family dinner last night. I…I had
another anxiety attack, and the mere thought of calling to cancel…it
was hard to breathe.”
She weaved around
students and turned down a left hall—heading for her classroom.
Pity sprouted in her heart, but it was outweighed by an itchy,
unnerving sensation in the pit of her chest. “Leon, you are a grown
man. And, as I have reminded you multiple times, you are a father. I
know we couldn’t make things work out between us, but when you
divorced me, you didn’t divorce Camilla too.” Right? She nearly
asked—nearly pushed—but she bit her tongue instead.
“I know, babe. I’m
really sorry. I screwed up, but I am getting better. I just got my
two year-chip last week.”
He had already told
her that the last time she spoke with him. She side-stepped a sixth
grader rushing down the hall, his backpack smacking against his
narrow spine. “That’s wonderful, it really is, but Camilla—”
“I know. I’ll
make it up to her. Does she like the park? Can she…can she go to
The chatter all
around her was so loud that she barely heard his whisper. She
withheld an exasperated sigh and reminded herself that Camilla’s
condition was still difficult for Leon.
After last night, it
was clearly still difficult for Brenda too.
She took a deep
breath and rubbed the ache at the base of her throat. “Yes, Leon,
she can go to the park. In fact, you said you would take her there
over a month ag—”
right, I forgot. I’m sorry. I’ll take her this Saturday. I mean,
it’s not like family dinners are all that memorable anyway, right?
She probably didn’t even care that I wasn’t there. But the park
will be fun. We can do actual activities there. How...” He sucked
in a breath. “How…active can she be?”
Brenda pinched the
bridge of her nose. His ignorance—his avoidance of his own daughter
for these past years—it unnerved her. “You know, Leon, I have
these books that I could—”
“Never mind. Don’t
worry about it. We can just hang out there until she says she is
tired, and then I’ll bring her right back to you. Sound good?
Better than dinner plans, even?”
tone—clearly meant to squash whatever guilt he felt—made her
frown, her eyes narrowing at the lockers she sped past. “You know,
Camilla did have a memorable time with Officer Lawson at dinner last
night, and she appreciated his company. I think you’re
underestimating how valuable a family dinner can be to a child.”
“Officer who? What
are you even talking about?”
our new neighbor. He came over last night and had a family meal with
us. Camilla really enjoyed the extra company.” She knew she would
have to tell Leon about the seizure, but in that moment, she didn’t
want to scare the man off; she wanted him to want to be a father—to
see the joy of it.
“You let some
strange man spend time with our daughter?” Leon said, tone filled
with disgust. “Are you that vindictive?”
stiffened, coming to an abrupt halt in the center of the hall. Kids
and teachers hurried around her like they were the river and she was
a protruding rock. “He’s our new neighbor, Leon. I invited him
over for dinner. You could have met him too—could have seen that he
was a perfectly nice guy—”
“All psychos seem
like ‘perfectly nice guys’ until they butcher your wife and kid.”
Brenda shook her
head, exasperation drowning out any sincere anger. Did Leon think
that she was dating Lawson? Just because she had invited a new
neighbor over for dinner? She strode onward again with a tensed
posture; her classroom was down the next adjacent hall. Some kids
crowded around the locked door, the first bell due to ring any second
“Brenda? You still
“Yeah, Leon, but I
have to go to work now.”
“Don’t let that
man anywhere near my daughter again, okay?”
She hung up and
shoved the phone into her purse, expression tight and sour. Not
paying too close attention to the curious looks her students gave
her, she silently motioned them to move out of the way.
They parted, and she
walked up to the door while grabbing its key out of her purse. Her
frustration made her wrists stiff, her fingers twitchy.
Until they butcher
your wife and kid.
And for him to
accuse Officer Lawson of such things…the policeman had been so kind
and sweet, his swift actions for Camilla’s sake heroic. What had
Leon done for the girl lately? Other than flake out on her so much
that she barely remembered that he was her dad at all.
Brenda grabbed her
key in a tight grip before jamming the metal object into the door’s
lock. She all but growled as she unlocked the door and burst inside.
A loud buzz
rang out over the intercoms.
And then her cell
phone rang again. Leon’s ringtone. Again.
Her desk being right
in front of the classroom, in the far corner, Brenda didn’t have to
move far before she slammed the purse on her desk. Of course, the
phone continued to ring, the sound pricking her brain more and more.
The lack of
footsteps behind her made her hesitate, brow furrowing. She turned to
face the door.
Her students peered
through the doorway, their eyes bulging as they watched her.
Leon knew she was an
English teacher. He even knew her work hours. So, she had hoped—no,
he would respect the fact that there were specific hours during the
day where she couldn’t be available. Unless there was an emergency,
The classroom was
dark, save for the light coming out of the overhead projector,
conveying her notes over the white board behind her. Brenda sat on a
stool beside the projector and wrote out the definition for
“independent clause” on the clear sheet on top of the device. As
she did so, she said, “You can think of it as being a complete
sentence, basically. It contains a subject, a—”
Her phone rang for
the fourth time that morning. Leon’s ringtone. If wasn’t worried
about her father calling for some reason, she would’ve put the darn
thing on silent.
giggled, some of them whispering to one another.
“If we can’t
have our cell phones on,” one boy said—Zeke, “then, why can
you? That’s not fair.”
Students murmured in
“Can we turn our
phones back on then?” a girl asked.
“My mom just likes
to check up on me with texts,” another kid said.
Even if this
argument was worth having again, Brenda’s soul felt too withered to
deal with it. Rubbing her temples with her free hand, she placed the
marker on the overhead before rising to her feet and walking over to
her desk, where the noisy purse rested.
Perhaps there really
was an emergency. Leon wasn’t perfect, but he wouldn’t call her
multiple times during work just to complain about Officer Lawson.
Brenda grabbed the
phone—on the top of her purse—and answered it in a whisper.
Leon said, groaning. “I thought you were going to ignore me all
“Leon, what is
“What do you
think? I’m serious about not letting Camilla near that man again.
Or you near him for that matter. You don’t know what he is really
like—what he has in his apartment, or how he is. You have me really
cracked her jaw while blinking at the white board in front of her.
Her eye twitched, her body unable to handle the repetition of
I’m serious. I need you to—”
She hung up.
She didn’t tell
Camilla about Leon’s plan for the park. Based from experience, it
was best just to accept that the trip was never going to happen.
Camilla snuggled in
her car seat as Brenda buckled her in. The cloudy sky was tinged with
darkness, the chill light but noticeable in the air. The occasionally
wind had goosebumps tickling Brenda’s skin.
“I want to stay at
grandpa’s tomorrow too,” Camilla said. “Please?”
sweetheart.” She tugged at the seatbelt—secure—before backing
out of the car. “You have to go back to school.”
with me.” Brenda closed the door, harder than she meant to. She
would have winced if she had the energy. Instead, she let her face
droop and got into the driver’s seat. She all but melted against
the leather, her aches dulling.
“I don’t like
school,” Camilla said quietly.
buzzed. She had put it on vibrate hours ago, and now that Camilla was
in her sights, she didn’t bother to check the Caller ID.
“I know,” Brenda
breathed. She enjoyed the comfort of her seat for a few seconds
longer before she started the car. “But they help you learn
important things, like math, how to spell—”
“Why can’t you
She backed out of
the driveway, and then drove onward. “I’m too busy. I have to
work so we have money for food and stuff.”
“Why can’t we
live with grandpa and grandma?”
arguing with me.”
“But I want to
She tightened her
grip on the steering wheel, pain flaring inside her brain. “Because
I am your mom and I said so. Stop. Arguing.”
Camilla fell silent.
stopped buzzing. Thank the Lord.
The woman blew out a
long, whistle-esque breath, head lolling forward a bit. She turned on
the AC—made it so that icy air blasted out of the vents and stung
soothed her for the following few minutes. She licked her lips and
glanced at Camilla through the rearview mirror.
Her gaze was
downcast, her shoulders slumped.
“Why don’t you
Camilla squirmed and
crossed her arms. “It’s hard.”
sorry. Which part of it is the hardest for you?”
Cam squirmed again.
“Talking,” she whispered.
“Talking to the
“I can talk to
you. And I can talk to grandpa.”
before slowing the car and turning into the apartment building’s
south parking lot. It cost extra to have a designated parking space,
but she always found it worth the expense—especially now as she
quickly parked in front of the building. Once the vehicle was off,
she unbuckled her seatbelt and turned to face her daughter.
Camilla continued to
frown at her feet, her cheeks a darker shade of pink.
through her own hurt. “Sweetheart, a part of growing up—a part of
school—is learning how to talk to other people. I know it’s hard,
but you need to go through these experiences.”
“Because they will
make you stronger. It will make talking to others much easier later
Camilla light kicked
out her foot and shifted her gaze, her forehead wrinkling as doubt
clouded her eyes.
Nothing more to say
on the matter, Brenda bowed her head and got out of the car.
argue anymore, though her sullen silence wasn’t much of an
improvement to Brenda’s aching brain. She held her daughter’s
hand tightly as they walked down the hall and toward their apartment
the constricting grip was the only support she could think to give,
much to Brenda’s own sense of helplessness.
Lawson greeted from behind, his footsteps trailing them.
Brenda jumped and
Officer Lawson, in
uniform, had two bouquets of fake flowers in each hand—one of
roses, the other one of colorful daisies. He swooped down on one knee
to hand the colorful flowers to Camilla, who gasped with delight. “I
wasn’t sure if you—either of you—had any allergies, so I
thought the plastic ones were best.” His smile wobbled a little,
nervousness flashing in his gaze.
Camilla gathered the
bouquet in both arms, her mouth hung open. “They’re so pretty.”
shot up. Cam had no problem talking to Officer Lawson.
Camilla continued, her full attention on the colorful daisies.
strengthened, his posture loosening. “You are very welcome,
Camilla.” He rose on his feet and handed the fake roses to Brenda.
“I thought you would like a bouquet, too.”
Her stomach flipped,
giddiness tickling her heart. She took the bouquet and thanked him,
her own cheeks turning a slight red. “This was very sweet of you.”
“Yeah, well, I
wanted to check up on Camilla. See how she was feeling.” He turned
back to Camilla. “You all better, kiddo?”
She nodded, hugging
the daisies to her torso.
Lawson huffed out a
blunt chuckle. “I’m glad.” He looked back at Brenda like he
wanted to say something, but his mouth remained close. He shifted on
his feet and glanced behind him, as if he wanted to leave.
blurted, gaze darting between her flowers and the wall, “how was
said. “I’m used to having to deal with at least one drun—” He
stiffened and glanced at Camilla. “Uh, well, I’m used to having
to deal with more bad guys. But here? There’s just a few demeanors
once and while. I’m afraid I’m going to get a little too bored
“Would that be
such a bad thing?” she asked. “Boring usually means safety.”
His eyes darkened,
flitting to the side. “It does, and that’s why I…” He shook
his head, a thin smile spreading his lips. “Never mind. It was nice
talking to you both.” He nodded at her, then at Camille, and then
he turned around and walked to his apartment.
She bit her lower
lip to keep herself from smiling too wide. It was like high
school—your crush giving you flowers…. It had been a long time
since she had gotten flowers.
Except this wasn’t
high school, and she was a grown woman. She shook her head at
herself, though her eyes lingered on Lawson’s departing form.
Camilla bounced on
her heels. “These are perfect!”
swelled, and she gently placed her palm on her daughter’s head.
“They really are.” Gently, she guided her daughter onward, toward
the same direction Lawson had gone to—toward their own apartment.
Cam twirled the
flowers in her hands. “I like Officer Lawson.”
call me Allan.”
Brenda jumped and
snapped her gaze up.
Lawson walked back
to them, his expression tensed and his smile feeble. Still, there was
something bright in his eyes—something hopeful. “Sorry, I
just…there was something else I wanted to say, but it’s been a
while since I’ve…” He released a taut huff.
She smiled back at
him, warmth blooming within her. “Allan. What is it?”
“I was going
to…ask you out. If that’s alright?” He coughed into his fist
before rubbing it against his pant leg.
Her eyebrows shot
up, heart leaping into her throat. It had been ages since anyone has
asked her out on a date. Since high school, in fact. Since Leon.
rubbed his eyes. “But if I’m being too forward, then I apologize,
and I’ll leave you alone. I just…I’d just like to get to know
“Me too,” she
said softly, distantly. Her eyes roamed his body before landing on
his face, still hidden behind his large hand. “And yes.”
His hand fell and
revealed his widened eyes. “Yes?”
She nodded. “Yes.”
He blinked owlishly,
stunned. “Great. Good. ”He took a deep breath, his eyes softening
as he stared at her. “I’ll call you.”
“Don’t you need
sense. That is what sensible people do.” He took out his phone and
scrolled through it.
craning her neck to stare at his screen.
faltered. What was she doing? Cam was right there—witnessing her
mother’s romantic life. What if it didn’t work out with Allan?
What if Cam came to adore him? Brenda’s breath clogged her throat.
She needed to stop this—needed to take back what she said. She—
asked, brow creased. “Your number?” He pointedly lifted his
phone. “Unless you’re having second thoughts.”
blurted stupidly. His eyes, his kindness—Lord, she was lonely. So,
despite her fears, selfishness took a hold of her as she told him her
As he left for the
second time, Brenda swore to herself that she wouldn’t get Cam
involved in this again until she knew Allan wouldn’t leave them.
She wouldn’t get hurt, even if Brenda did.
They lived in the
same building, so it was pragmatic for them to carpool for their date
that Friday night. However, Brenda hadn’t expected Allan to
accompany her to drop off Camilla at her parents’ house first.
He had shrugged when
she questioned him about this. “It’ll save you a trip. Wouldn’t
want to waste gas money.” He had smirked.
And Camilla had
rejoiced in embarking on this quick journey with a new person—with
Allan, specifically. After that, it wasn’t as if Brenda could him
tell to wait for her at the apartment. The vow she had made to
herself was already fracturing.
A part of her
demanded that she broke this off with him before anything really
began. She had Camilla to think about—even Leon during the times he
returned to Woodland Creek to be a father. Plus…
She had been a
teenager the last time she had been on a date. A real
date, not one of those date nights she and Leon had partaken in
during her marriage.
But that reasoning
had made it more compelling to her to give Allan a chance. She
couldn’t have one ex defining her views on romance—on love—for
her entire life. Cam wouldn’t be a child forever, and Brenda…she
needed someone to help her, like she tried to help everyone else.
Could that be so wrong?
“There are no bad
guys here?” Camilla asked, pointing out the window.
along, leaned forward and peered out his own window. “Nope. No bad
beneath Brenda’s breastbone. She glanced at Allan beside her, the
sight of him as soothing as it was nerve-wracking. He was
so…muscular. And handsome.
She cringed as she
noticed the stop sign out of the corner of her eye.
Allan turned to her
and crossed his arms, amusement glinting in his eyes. “You’re
lucky I’m off duty, or I would have to give you a ticket.”
“Mom’s a bad guy?”
Allan pouted out his
lips and nodded, turning back and forth from Camilla to Brenda. “That
Brenda batted her
eyelashes. “I’ll be good from now on, I promise.”
Allan asked. “I
certainly hope so.”
Brenda shook her
head and glanced at her daughter through the rearview mirror.
“Thanks, sweetheart. I appreciate the support.”
Brenda pulled into
her parents’ driveway before putting the car in park. Opening her
door, she glanced back at Allan and said, “This won’t take long.”
Then she hurried to the back seat to help Camilla get out.
The girl had just
jumped out the car when a familiar voice shrieked in greeting.
“If it isn’t my
favorite sister and niece!” Bella cried out, rushing off the front
porch. Her red curls bounced with each step, especially when she
jarred to an abrupt halt right in front of Brenda’s car. Bella’s
dark eyes bulged. “And who is this beauty?”
Allan smiled and
Bella placed her
hands on the hood and leaned toward the windshield. “Brenda, you
lucky son of a gun. He is magnificent!”
said quickly, hurrying over to her little sister and smothering her
in a tight hug while guiding her back toward the porch. The two of
them stumbled—Bella’s face buried in Brenda’s shoulder—but
that didn’t stop affection from worming its way around Brenda’s
chest. “When did you get back? I thought you weren’t coming home
for another couple of weeks.” Bella dug her heels into the ground
and pushed Brenda back. Gasping, the red head said, “I finished
work early. Took pictures of all the old buildings my client wanted.
And, you know, when you see one old building, you’ve seen them
Brenda cocked an
eyebrow. “Weren’t you in Greece?”
“Yeah. What? Why
are you looking at me like that?”
Brenda shook her
head and huffed. But then she hugged her sister again—gentler this
time. Various spices wafted up Brenda’s nose, and she grinned.
“I’ve missed you so much.”
“I missed you,
too. I wish you guys would come with me on one of these trips. It
would be a lot more fun.”
“Fun and safe,
right?” Brenda pulled back and narrowed her eyes.
sister groaned, rolling her eyes. “I stay safe, Brenda.”
“You never leave
the hotel alone? You remember those defense mov—”
cried out gleefully, hurrying passed Brenda to hug the girl, who had
been waiting by the car’s headlight. Bella, hovering over Camilla
in their awkward hug, kissed her niece’s head. “You have gotten
so big! How old are you now?”
clung to her aunt’s back. “Seven.”
“Seven! You are
growing up so fast.” Bella crouched down, releasing Camilla before
motioning toward the car. “So, tell me, is the hunk over there your
“Bella! Come on. I’m just here to drop Camilla off.”
Her sister gasped
melodramatically, rising and turning to gawk at Brenda. “You aren’t
even going to introduce me? Your own flesh and blood?”
The redhead took one
large step to the car and opened Allan’s door. Then she stuck her
hand out toward Allan’s heart. “Hi, I’m Bella. The little
sister. So how long have you been dating my sister?”
Allan beamed. “I’m
Allan. And this is our first date. It’s a pleasure to meet you,
Bella leaned back
and smiled at Brenda. “He is such a gentleman. You should introduce
him to mom and dad. He’s definitely an improvement over Leon.”
Brenda glared. “I
think you’ve embarrassed me enough, thank you.”
Allan shrugged, eyes
alighting with amusement. “I don’t mind meeting your parents.
groaned while Bella waved her hand toward the man, her head rising a
little. “See? A gentleman. You should let him meet mom and dad.
They’ll be so happy that you are getting back out there.”
Allan unbuckled his
seat belt and got out of the car. “I really don’t mind.”
Brenda paled, tongue
feeling too heavy in her mouth. Uncertain of how to escape this
humiliating series of events, she found herself shrugging and smiling
thinly at her sister. “Sure. Why not?”
Bella hurried back
into the house. “I’ll go get them!” She swung the door open,
the screen door banging after her.
Remembering Allan, Brenda winced and turned back to him. A choked
laugh clawed up her throat. “Um, sorry about all of this. She’s
not usually in the country.”
His eyes softened.
“It’s really okay.”
He was just being
polite, she could tell. Brenda pressed a hand over her eyes and bit
“I missed Bella,”
Camilla said, sounding as if she wasn’t changing the topic. And
technically, Brenda supposed she wasn’t. “She goes on all these
adventures, and—and mom says I can’t go with her.”
“Adventures can be
dangerous,” Allan said, his tone light but his lips twitching
downward. “I’m sure she’s just trying to protect you.”
Camilla released a
dissatisfied hum that sounded suspiciously like a growl.
The front door
squeaked opened. “See?” Bella said. “What did I tell you?”
lowered her hand and faced the porch, where her entire family stood.
She forced herself to smile, the sensation tickling against her
burning cheeks. “Hi, mom. Dad. It would have been nice if you
warned me Bella was here.”
Her dad huffed. “It
would have been nice if SHE told us she was coming over.”
Her mother, wearing
loose-clothing and looking paler than she had last time, scrubbed her
oily face with the palm of her hand as she glanced over Allan. “Is
that him?” she croaked. “He is very handsome, Brenda.”
twitched. “You guys, he’s right here. Please stop referring him
in the third person.”
Bella rolled her
eyes and smirked. “Ever the English teacher.”
Her dad walked
toward Allan and extended his hand. “Michael Levi. Nice to meet
Allan met her dad
halfway and shook his hand. “Nice to meet you too, sir.”
“Call me Michael.
No one ever calls me ‘sir,’ not even my clients when I was a real
estate agent.” Her father turned to Brenda before Allan could even
respond to that. “Brenda, you didn’t tell us you were going on
the date. We thought you were just going to grade papers tonight.”
Brenda’s shoulders slumped and her mouth fell open. “You think I
would ask you guys to babysit so that I could grade papers?”
The old man
shrugged, pursing his lips. “Why not?”
In theory, it wasn’t
a terrible idea, now that Brenda thought about it more. Being alone,
not worrying about cell phones ringing, not worrying about seizures—
sure, we have to go now.” Too aware of everything, her skin zinged
as she grabbed Allan’s hand and led him back to the car. “I’ll
be back around nine.”
Bella asked, sounding disappointed. “Brenda, you deserve more time
Brenda called back loudly, motioning for Allan to get back into his
He did so with a
soft smile, his eyes lingering on her staring family.
Camilla said, rushing over to her.
Brenda swooped down
and hugged her baby girl. “Be good, okay?” she whispered into
Camilla’s hair. She eyed her family and whispered, “Don’t let
your Aunt Bella convince you to get into trouble.”
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
once more, Brenda reluctantly let go so that her daughter could run
back to her grandfather.
Creek was small town set amidst a forest—street lamps few and in
between—the bulk of the town had bright, colorful lights like a
more populated city would have. Bright reds and blues danced over the
windshield as she drove. Slashes of white from the street lamps
rushed over herself and Allan; it was a soothing pattern, rhythmic.
“So,” Allan said
after a pause, his fingers tapping his thighs, “Maria Castella’s?
I’ve seen the place, I think. Is it that little building with the
weird cone-shaped roof?”
She nodded. “Yup.
That’s the one. The roof wasn’t supposed to be shaped like that,
but Maria got into this feud with the contractor and—” Brenda
huffed, shaking her head even as a strange kind of fondness warm her.
“Why doesn’t she
“She says it’s
between her and the contractor. Who just happens to be her brother.”
drama can do that.” She laughed, despite the seriousness of the
statement. “It’s my favorite restaurant in town. The food is
great, of course—who doesn’t love a good Italian dish?”
“I don’t know.”
“Exactly! But I
like it because of the atmosphere. It’s small, cozy, never too
crowded. You walk in there, and you feel like you’re at home. Plus,
Maria can be quite entertaining sometimes.”
He regarded her
then, his head tilted and his expression tensed. Slowly, a smirk came
over him. “I can’t wait to meet her.”