Three hours later, I leave the hospital, completely exhausted and my emotions frayed. Callie showed up about thirty minutes after I was told she was on her way. She came hand in hand with her husband, Matthew, both well dressed and looking terrified. After Callie checked in on Katy, we spoke outside at length about what came next. She told me that she hadn’t spoken to her sister in three years, since just after Katy’s second birthday.
That was when Sandra had gotten sober for the second time, but they still had a falling out. Callie had no idea Katy wasn’t being cared for properly, and Matthew asked me outright why we hadn’t removed Katy from the home. I explained that because there weren’t signs of abuse, there was always food in the fridge, and Katy never told us anything, legally we couldn’t just remove her. We needed proof of abuse, or something needed to be found at a visit.
We were still in the hallway when Katy woke up, screaming and crying for me. It took everything in me to keep it together when we went back into the room. She had no idea who Callie and Matthew were, no memory of them. It was only when Callie pulled out a small photo album and showed her baby pictures, pictures of Sandra, that she calmed down.
We also found out the worst part, that she found both her parents that morning when she woke up. In the only way a five-year-old can explain, she said that Mommy and Daddy were freezing cold, and when she couldn’t wake them up, she got scared and hid in the closet. Callie broke down crying.
Just before I left, I gave them both my card and said I’d be in contact within the next twenty-four hours.
Sitting down behind the wheel of my car, I start it up and then pull out my cell to text Jace.
Stella: Hey, sorry, I’m just leaving the hospital. Can we take a rain check on tonight?
Jace: Of course. Are you okay, Stell?
Stella: Yeah, I’m fine, just exhausted.
Jace: Okay, I’ll call you in a little while.
Jace: Drive safe.
Putting my car in Drive, I begin the trip home, tears burning my eyes. Ten years of social work and this has without a doubt been the hardest day. Part of me knows that seeing Jace would be good for me, but I just can’t face him right now.
My shift was over an hour ago, but due to that call, I’ve gone into overtime for the week. Grabbing my shit, I head out to my car and toss it on the back seat.
It’s not until I’m standing under the scalding-hot water in my shower that I finally begin to feel the tension leaving my body. Finishing up, I wrap a towel around my waist and step into my bedroom. Getting dressed in a pair of cotton shorts and a T-shirt, I briskly towel-dry my hair and toss the towel into my hamper.
I pull up the number to the local pizza shop and order some dinner. When it arrives, I take it out onto my back deck and enjoy my food in silence. Halfway through my second slice, my mom calls, and I spend the rest of my time eating while on the phone with her.
She’s just asked me about my plans for the weekend when my dad calls her away. With the promise of talking to her tomorrow, I end the call and head back inside. Shoving the leftover pizza in my fridge, I flip the deadbolt on my front door and go to my room again. I fire off a text to check on Stella, but with no response a minute later, I plug my cell in and climb into bed. Finding the Braves game still on, I settle down for a few outs.
Two innings later, my doorbell rings, and I mute the television.
Glancing at the clock on my dresser, I see it’s nine thirty.
Who the hell is here?
Turning on lights as I go, I flip the outdoor light on, unlock my front door, and pull it open. My heart drops when I find Stella on my doorstep, dressed in sleepwear, her long dark hair pulled up in a pile on top of her head, her brown eyes swollen and red.
“I lied to you, Jace.”
“I’m not okay.” Her voice catches, and tears fall down her cheeks.
Stepping onto the front porch, I pull her into my arms and hold her tightly. Gently cupping the back of her head, I tuck her into my chest and rock her, my lips pressed to her head. Walking us backward into my house, I kick the door shut and carefully scoop her up into my arms.
Carrying her into my bedroom, I lay her down on what’s become her side of the bed and then lie down next to her. Propping myself up on my elbow, I look down at her, using my free hand to brush the tears off her cheeks.
“I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have gone home alone. I should have come right here, but I thought I was okay. Katy’s aunt and uncle came to get her, and we finally found out what happened. She found them, Jace. That poor little girl found both her parents dead, and she was so scared she hid in the closet.”
“And I thought I was doing good, but then I got home and it was so quiet. I thought coming here wasn’t best, but I was so wrong, and I couldn’t stand being alone anymore. I know it’s ridiculous, but I can’t be alone tonight.”
Her bottom lip trembles, and I gently trace my thumb back and forth over it.
“Don’t apologize for having feelings, Stell. We were all feeling the emotions of today. It was rough.”
“It really was.” Her voice breaks, and my heart aches when I see more tears welling in those beautiful brown eyes I love so much.
“You did good coming here, baby. I know this is all still new, but I want you to be able to come to me when you need someone, okay?”
Nodding, she buries her face in my chest as her body rocks with her cries.
Settling back down, I wrap myself around her and hold on, letting her release the emotions of the day. Pressing my lips to the top of her head, I pull the blankets around us. Not long after she finally settles down, we both fall asleep, the events of today heavy on both our minds. The smell of coffee wakes me up, and I slowly blink my eyes open as everything comes into focus. Sitting up, I find I’m alone in my bed, and the side Stella slept on is cold. Climbing from bed, I head to my bathroom before I venture out to find Stella.
Stepping into my living room, I don’t see her, so I continue to the kitchen. There’s a fresh pot of coffee, and as I reach for a mug in the strainer, I see Stella sitting out on my back deck, a mug of her own in her hand.
Pouring myself some of the coffee, I add a splash of cream and then step outside to join my girl. She’s sitting on the top step, staring out at my backyard, her cup of coffee empty. Sitting down next to her, I place a soft kiss to the top of her bare shoulder and then another to her cheek.
“Morning. You sleep okay last night?” I ask, taking a sip of my coffee.
“Yeah, thanks. Your bed is comfortable.” Stella leans her head against my shoulder, and I breathe in deep, the smell of her shampoo heaven.
“How long have you been out here?”
“An hour, maybe. I don’t remember what time I got up.” Her voice sounds flat, and I tell myself that it’s just early and we’re both half asleep. But deep down I worry that she’s still upset about yesterday.
“What would you like to do today?” I ask, draining half my cup with the next sip.
“I’m gonna head home soon, get showered and stuff. I can give you a call later, see if you’re up for doing something?” She turns to look at me, and I see how puffy her eyes are. If I’m not mistaken, it looks fresh.
Yeah, okay. Listen, are you sure you’re all right, babe?” I can’t help asking.
“I’m fine, Jace. I guess I’m just not up for doing anything today.”
“We don’t have to do anything. I’m content to lie on the couch with you all day.”
Stella sighs and stands up, heading back inside. I finish my coffee, and then I’m right behind her. I want to figure out what’s going on, but I don’t want to push her away either. After setting my mug alongside hers in the sink, I find her standing in my bedroom, cell phone in hand but unmoving.