Chase followed Jill out to the empty beer garden behind Kitty’s and sat beside her at one of the picnic tables set up around the patio. Strands of Christmas lights strung through the branches overhead cast a warm glow onto the bricks and tables below. Flowering vines climbed through the lattice fence positioned to shield the patrons from the view of South Juliette’s back alleys while strategically placed planters, overflowing with roses, lavender and sweet-smelling herbs, freshened the air. Music from inside flowed through outdoor speakers, but nothing could mask the rumble of a heavy freight train thundering down the tracks a block away.
The trains moved through town like clockwork, loaded heavy with coal or corn and overseas shipping containers, or empty cars screaming west. Normally, conversation stalled until the train passed, but Chase didn’t have the patience to wait. Over the blare of the whistle and the pounding reverberations in his chest, he demanded, “Do they all know?”
She shook her head, buying time until the resonance of the wheels softened into a drone she didn’t have to shout over. “Only Clete does. He overheard me talking to Ashley one night when I was at his house.”
“Why were you at his house? Are you sleeping with him, too?”
“What? No! Are you stupid or something?” She smacked him upside the back of his head. “I was babysitting Allie. She’s my cousin. Her mom’s my aunt. Clete is—was—my uncle. However that works with divorce. I’ve told you all this before.”
If she had, he didn’t remember, but he’d never paid close attention when she’d talked. “I’d appreciate it if you’d stop telling people I’m your baby’s daddy.”
“Why? You got another girlfriend on the side you’re trying to keep it from?”
“No,” he immediately denied, causing her to immediately distrust him.
“If you do have someone, that’s awesome, Chase. I’m happy for you. Truly, I am. But if she’s even the least bit crazy, please don’t tell her about the baby, at least not until we figure everything out. I don’t have the energy for someone else’s drama right now.”
“You don’t have to worry about that,” he assured her. If Stacy did find out about the baby—when she found out about the baby—she absolutely would go bat-shit crazy, just not on Jill.
“And I don’t mean to be a bitch about it, but you are the baby’s father, so do us both a favor and stop acting like I’m spreading lies about you. The moment the baby’s born, we’ll do a paternity test, if you want to, but I already know for certain. There was no one else but you.”
“We’ll see,” he said, not fully conceding, though he believed her. Tapping a thumb against the table, he kept time with the receding thwack of the train wheels across a joint on the rail and debated how much longer he was required to stay and make conversation. He could sense Jill watching him, waiting for him to offer something, some kind of assurance the world would work out the way she wanted it to, but he had nothing to give her.
“I went to the doctor today,” she said.
“Oh?” He yawned deeply and exhaled loudly, unable to stop himself from acting like a complete jackass. “How’d that go?”
“Good. Everything’s fine. She gave me vitamins. Said I should come back in a month. She also explained how much everything would cost, what my options are.” She turned to sit sideways on the bench, facing him, but kept one bent leg between them as a barrier. “Sounds like even with insurance they want a deposit. It’s like I’m buying a car or something.”
He felt obligated to ask, “How much does she want?”
“More than I have.”
“A hundred? Two hundred?”
She bit her bottom lip before saying, “More like a thousand.”
“Jesus! Are you serious?”
“Yeah.” She looked down, fidgeted with the lace of her shoe. “She said once I have insurance they’ll adjust it according to the plan, but right now they have to act like I’m paying cash.”
“Fuck me,” he muttered under his breath and scrubbed his hands against the scruff of his two-day-old beard. “I still think you should look into some kind of assistance.”
She set her jaw. “No. I’ll work six jobs if I have to. I’m not going on welfare.”
“You’d rather work yourself to death than ask for help?”
“I’ll take help from you. Absolutely. But I’m not taking a handout from the government.”
“No, it’s not. My mom worked her ass off fifty, sixty hours a week at G-P making parts for pivots, but she still needed a little help raising me and my four brothers and sisters. She wasn’t getting any from my dad, so she took the free lunches at school. It wasn’t much, but it helped. And I still remember the snotty little, fat piece of shit girl that sat behind me in eighth grade Biology who saw my card and said to her friends, ‘At least my dad pays for my lunches, unlike some people around here.’ And then she sniffed the air and acted like I smelled bad. She had no clue anything about me or my mom or how hard she works. She just judged me by that card and wrote us off as trash. My mom did everything she could. I know that, and I admire her, but I swore I would never put my kids in a situation where they felt less than someone else.”
Chase snorted out a laugh of disgust. “So, you’ll deny your baby basic care to protect your pride?”
“No. It’s not that—”
“That’s exactly what it is,” he insisted, but then softened his tone because she didn’t know his life. “Look, I get it. We were on all kinds of welfare when I was a kid. My dad was in and out of jail and my mom was too busy getting high and screwing her dealer to get a job. Our apartment was so low income it was free. My lunches were free. We got backpack meals for the weekend. The church gave me and my brother clothes. I’ll never forget the way people looked at me, with that sanctimonious combination of pity and disgust. I get it. I really do. But the resources are there for a reason. Using them does not automatically make you trash. The simple fact that you’re struggling with even the idea of using government assistance makes you not trash.”
“I know.” She drew in a deep breath and looked up toward the stars as she slowly exhaled, giving them both a moment to think before she continued. “I do know that, Chase. I just want to explore every other option out there first. I’m not denying my baby anything by doing that. I’ve gone to the doctor. I’m taking the vitamins. I’ve adjusted my diet. I’m sleeping more. I’m doing what I can. You walking around acting like there’s no possible way you’re the father when you know damn well you are is denying our baby what he needs the most—two parents to provide for him. I shouldn’t have to do this alone.”
The truth she spoke hit him like a slap in the face, one he felt all the way down into his gut, but he could only focus on a single word she’d said. “He?”
She lifted one shoulder in an uncertain shrug.
“You think it’s a boy?”
“I just have this feeling.”
He motioned to her belly. “Can I?”
She scooted closer and lifted her shirt, allowing him to place his hand upon her stomach. On the surface, he didn’t feel anything but her smooth skin, her body heat, her breath on his cheek, but deep down he felt a shift inside himself, a little spark of something ignite, something he couldn’t define… a thrill… a joy… Hope.
The power of it terrified him.