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Hell's Cradle

By Karen Erickson Parks All Rights Reserved ©

Romance / Drama

Blurb

It happens over thirty times a year in America… After a four-year romance, interracial couple Laurel McKinney and David Clayton welcome a baby, Cooper, to their family. Cooper is a well-cared-for child with committed and loving parents, but the father, David, faced with a busy schedule and a change in routine, accidentally leaves six-month-old Cooper in his car, to die of heat stroke. Now Laurel and David must traverse the course of grief, as well as public judgment; whether they do it together or apart is uncertain, especially with the arrival of Rocky Roccino, a new supportive man in Laurel’s life. Hell’s Cradle proposes that love is a powerful healing force, even amid the most horrendous of circumstances.

Chapter 1

A tiny but shrill cry woke Laurel at about two forty-five in the morning, like it usually did. David stirred next to her, slightly roused from his sleep too, but he knew that this was a call for Laurel, so he quickly rolled over onto his side and went back to sleep.

Laurel brushed her long, bed-head hair away from her face with her fingers as she padded into the nursery, clicked on the low-intensity lamp, and lifted Cooper out of his crib, one hand beneath his body and her other hand cupping his head. “Happy six-month birthday, baby boy,” she cooed, while his whimpering calmed and he started to move his open mouth around, impatient for his meal. She carried him over to the overstuffed armchair in the corner of the nursery and plopped into it gently, manipulating her left arm out of her nightgown sleeve to let the baby access her breast.

As soon as Cooper’s head rested on her left forearm, Laurel felt that sharp, annoying pain again, shooting electrical zaps into her hand and up into her shoulder. That visible lump under her skin was irritating, but she could usually ignore it; it only hurt when something touched it – especially her son’s little head. She had been feeding him more and more from her right side, but that was starting to get uncomfortable too.

She had already consulted with her primary doctor and a surgeon, and even had same-day surgery scheduled in five days to have it removed. The surgeon confirmed that it was not malignant, but something called a lipoma, a lump of fatty tissue that was pressing on the nerves in her arm. But she considered the surgery date tentative, because she didn’t want to be mildly incapacitated and less able to take care of Cooper, even for a short time. The pain, however, and her attempts to adapt to it, were starting to affect her care of the baby anyway, not to mention David.

“What should I do, Coopster?” she drolly asked him as he was feeding, stroking his light brown skin and running her fingers through his curly brown hair, smiling at the few blonde highlights he must have gotten from his mommy.

Cooper didn’t answer her question, of course, but she felt his answer, in a way, and made the decision to go ahead with the minor operation to get it over with. When the baby was settled back to sleep, Laurel decided not to go back to bed, but instead to write an email to her dad and do a few quiet chores until David woke up at five-thirty to get ready for work.

“Awesome!” David said when Laurel told him she would have the surgery. “I’d high-five you, but I might knock the damned thing loose!” Laurel weakly chuckled. No wonder he was happy with the news; lord knows he was tired of hearing about her pain and aggravation.

“You’ll be on Cooper duty for at least two or three days, you know,” Laurel reminded him. “You gonna put him to work at the office?”

“Nah, maybe next month,” David quipped, stuffing a bagel into the too-narrow slots of the toaster. “Coo-Coo loves his daddy! We’re gonna have fun. Anyway, Esther will help out if I need her.”

“Yeah, careful she doesn’t steal him when you’re not looking,” she joked about their kind older neighbor. Laurel helped David make breakfast, took a shower while he was getting dressed, kissed him goodbye for the day, and then winced as he let the front door slam shut. And, there it was – that shrill cry again, about three and a half hours after she had put him down to sleep. She smiled to herself in resignation and walked upstairs to get Cooper ready for his day.

***

Laurel McKinney met David Clayton when she was twenty-six. He came into her office when she was covering the front desk on the receptionist’s sick day, and she literally did a double-take. The medical insurance company didn’t get many visitors in the first place, and those who did come in were usually dressed casually; the employees dressed that way too. But here was a very smartly dressed and startlingly handsome man walking through the double doors in an expensive looking gray pinstripe suit, his laptop bag hanging from his shoulder and a big silver thermal coffee cup in his hand. He could have walked in straight off of a catalog webpage, Laurel thought.

Ensuring that her smile and greeting were nice and professional, not flirty, she greeted him, and he introduced himself cordially as if she were the CEO, which hardly any visitors ever did. He was more than polite to Laurel; she could have sworn he was flirting with her, and she had never seen brown eyes sparkle like that in anyone else.

David was giving a presentation on a new office building project to the executive committee during the weekly meeting. Right after seeing him in to the conference room, she returned to her desk very professionally and like any normal twenty-six-year-old woman would do in such a situation, googled David Clayton until she found the right one and followed a breadcrumb trail of various informational links.

No Facebook page. Twitter feed almost all work-related, pretty boring. No online dating profiles evidently. He’s from Boulder, went to University of Colorado. Twenty-seven years old. Won some award from a group called Black Professionals of America. He’s been featured in two magazine articles, one local and one national. Local mag says never married, no kids. Hmm.

After about an hour, just about the time when Laurel found out about all the interesting data she could about David Clayton, he walked back out into the lobby, then stopped near her desk, suddenly looked upward, and cried, “Oh, man! I left my cell phone in there.” He looked embarrassed and asked Laurel when they might be wrapping up, because he didn’t want to go back in and interrupt the rest of their meeting.

“It shouldn’t be too long, maybe ten minutes or so,” she said confidently. “You’re welcome to use this phone if you need to.”

“Nah, that’s fine, but thank you,” he sighed. He typically hated to wait, but started to mind it less the more he heard from this young lady with the most beautiful long blonde hair.

“Well, make yourself comfortable,” she offered, motioning to the fake living room setup in the lobby area. The chairs looked comfortable, but he stayed standing by her desk, setting his hand on the edge and leaning in a bit.

“Don’t you get a lunch break?” he said, trying to think of more interesting things to say.

“I’m working through it because I’m getting off early today. Going to a concert tonight.”

Excited to discover a topic, he asked with genuine interest, “Who’re you seeing?”

“No,” she demurred with a self-conscious smile. “You’ll laugh at me.”

“C’mon, why would I laugh at you?” David reassured her.

“Well,” she said, “a few people here have laughed at me…”

Before she could continue, he briskly encouraged her, “Let’s go; try me. You never know.”

Her smile widened, then combined with a small wince of anticipatory embarrassment. “Huey Lewis,” she said.

“No way! Who laughed at you for that?” he demanded with an eager smile. “Huey Lewis is awesome! Totally fun rock and roll, and a talented guy.”

Laurel felt much better already and explained, “Oh, this kid in accounting did…he called Huey Lewis a ‘lame old fart’.”

“Psshh,” David said with a dismissive head tilt. “Put this kid in accounting in front of a mike and see what he can do!”

“Yeah,” she agreed, feeling smug and regretting letting accounting guy get to her.

“Yeah! It’s hip to be square, man!” David exclaimed. Laurel laughed again, and her eyes drew him in. “Brother puts on a great show, I hear.”

“I’ve heard that too,” Laurel said, perhaps a little too excitedly. “I’m gonna dance my ass off!” Then she put her hand up to cover her mouth and said, “Oops…sorry about that.”

“Sorry about what?” he said. “Dance that ass off!” He instantly regretted his words and quickly added, “Not that your ass needs to come off…I mean…”

Laurel just laughed some more. After a pause, David announced, “You know my name is David…what do they call you?”

“Laurel,” she announced.

“Laurel?” he asked to confirm, adding, “That’s beautiful. You should wear laurels in your hair!”

With a giggle she teased, “Against the dress code.” He smiled.

Within the next three minutes, David Clayton had retrieved his cell phone and walked out the double glass doors of the building, with Laurel McKinney’s cell phone number in his breast pocket.

***

Thursday evening, David actually came home from work an hour early, because he wanted to help Laurel prepare for her surgery the following morning. Usually David worked late, which Laurel hardly considered ‘late’ anymore after four years of increasing hours, more projects worked on at home in the evenings and on weekends, and less and less quality time together as a couple. However, David was very loving to her, and he was a good provider, a good father to Cooper, and an altogether good man.

It didn’t take long for David and Laurel to develop a serious relationship. He was an ambitious young man just out of a graduate school program trying to make his way in the project management industry, but he spared time from his go-getting and ladder-climbing to devote himself to Laurel and that exhilarating new relationship energy. They shared music, movies, romantic date nights, dreams for the future, and undeniable sexual chemistry. He treated her like an equal and cared about her immensely, even insisting that they both be medically checked out and tested before anything physical happened between them.

Within one year of their dating, David’s parents treated Laurel like a daughter. They couldn’t care less, and didn’t even seem to take note, that Laurel was white while their son was black – and neither did Laurel’s father care that she was dating a black man. The only people who ever commented on it or seemed bothered at all were total strangers. They enjoyed an upper-class lifestyle in a two-story, three-bedroom home in a good neighborhood. They were a young, professional couple in love, and that was that.

But over the next few years, David’s career ambition more closely resembled workaholism, even during Laurel’s pregnancy, so they had fewer romantic and fun dates and spare time together. They were comfortable with each other, maybe too comfortable. The love did not weaken, however, so when David walked in the door over an hour earlier than usual on the evening before Laurel’s arm surgery, she was not too surprised.

He had a couple of downloaded legal forms in his laptop bag to plan ahead in case anything went wrong during or after the surgery – medical release consent forms, power of attorney for healthcare decisions, and other things. David was prepared practically, if not entirely on an emotional level, for the small but real risk to his partner from general anesthesia, allergies, infection, or anything else.

Laurel wasn’t afraid of the operation – just mildly apprehensive, but mainly about how fast the recovery process would be. She was a tough young lady, having grown up on Air Force bases with a military father who never treated her “like a girl” and a mother who taught her to be active and strong. Both encouraged her to use her intelligence as a tool and a friend, since as a traveling military brat she always had trouble with the more social parts of life. It served her well for the most part, and she would have finished college if it hadn’t been for that breakup her sophomore year.

That’s why when they were done with the paperwork and logistical conversations, it was Laurel encouraging David that there was nothing to be afraid of, instead of the other way around. She encouraged six-month-old Cooper too, convinced that on some level, he understood that Mommy would be back soon and be just fine.

David took Friday off work – another rarity – to take Laurel to the same-day surgery center and take care of his son until it was time to bring her home. He had his parents set to speed dial one, and David and Laurel’s neighbor Esther set to speed dial two, just in case.

He drove Cooper to Building Blocks Daycare for a few hours of being lovably supervised and chewing lots of toys. Laurel was out of the recovery room by two-thirty in the afternoon and ready to go, although groggy and still in some pain. He got her home and settled into bed with water, painkillers, her phone, and a bucket nearby…just in case. Then he picked up Cooper, made a light dinner, and settled himself and his baby onto the carpeted living room floor for some playtime together. They both went upstairs to visit Mommy for goodnight kisses around ten-thirty and went to sleep.

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