Katie had a headache. Not that that was really such a strange occurrence. Staring at a computer screen and reading scrawls on small slips of paper all day tended to do that to you. She looked up at the clock. It was ten till five. Not too much longer and she could go home. It wasn’t soon enough.
She rubbed her forehead for what must have been the hundredth time in the last two hours. A comforting voice came from across the next window.
“Are you okay, Katie?” It was Maggie, her co-worker looking at her worriedly. Maggie had been like a mother to her during the past two years. Katie managed a weak smile.
“I’m fine, Maggie. Just one of my headaches. Again.”
“Haven’t you gotten your eyes checked yet? I told you last month to go see an eye doctor.”
“C’mon, Maggie. You know I couldn’t afford that, even if I wanted to. My eyes are fine. It’s just the stress.”
Maggie looked at her sympathetically. There was nothing she could say, not really. She knew Katie couldn’t afford to go to the doctor, there was no arguing that point, but still she thought Katie needed her eyes checked. But who’s to say it really wasn’t the stress? Lord knew Katie had enough of that too, what with Tyler and all. But what could she do? Maggie looked back at her screen and continued closing up her station for the day. She didn’t want Katie to see the sadness and pity in her eyes. Katie didn’t want pity from anyone.
When five o’clock rolled around and the bank lobby was closed down, both women headed back to the staff room to gather their coats and purses and headed for the doors, neither one speaking. Maggie was worried. Katie, who was in general a lively and energetic person, had been unusually quiet and contemplative these past few days. “Are you okay, honey?” Maggie asked.
Katie looked up at the older woman. She was around fifty, her short dark hair was starting to gray, her face was round and brown with smooth skin, and her brown eyes were warm. Those warm eyes now showed concern for her. Maggie had been so kind to Katie since she began working as a bank teller shortly after her mother’s death. There were times when Katie thought she would not have made it through the day without Maggie’s support. Maggie was pretty much her only friend, but even so, Katie didn’t confide much in her. She didn’t want to dump her troubles on the one person who had been so kind. And so, she resolved, yet again, to be strong.
For a moment, Maggie thought that Katie might burst into tears, but then just as quickly the look of vulnerability was gone, replaced by sheer determination. “I’m just tired, Maggie, that’s all.”
As they exchanged “good evenings” with the security guard who let them out, they walked alone out to the parking lot. “Well, why don’t you go home and get some rest. Relax. Read a book or something. Take care of yourself. Okay?”
With a weak smile, Katie replied, “Okay, Maggie. In fact, a good book and a hot bath sound really good right now.” The women parted ways and Katie approached her beat-up white Chevette. It had definitely seen better days. There was a sizable dent on the rear quarter panel from a minor fender bender several years ago (not her fault). There were a few dings in the front bumper, which she did have to admit were her fault. The doors stuck, the rubber on the windshield wipers was falling off, and the car sputtered and hesitated when it was hot. Katie wondered how long it would be before the car would just up and die on her. Then what would she do? She had no money to fix it.
Katherine Leigh, just stop. One day at a time, remember? She got into the car and made her way home. Luckily traffic wasn’t that bad today compared to what it usually was in this city. Portland, the largest city in the state of Maine, was pretty small compared to most eastern cities. Or so she’d been told. Since she’d never left Maine in all her life, she couldn’t speak from experience. But again, she vowed not to think about all those places she’d wanted to go and probably never would. That was not her life anymore.
Within ten minutes, she had driven from the downtown bank to her east side neighborhood. She pulled up in front of her apartment building and parked in the street right in front of the house. It was not much to look at, she conceded to herself. The gray had started to peel and the white porch sported some bowed steps and an occasional missing rail. And occasionally they did have problems with the water and their stove didn’t always work. However, as Katie repeatedly reminded herself, it was clean, it was safe (relatively anyway) and it was home.
She keyed into the big wooden front door, pausing slightly inside the door to pick up her mail. On the second floor landing, she looked down the short hallway and again felt a pang at the recent death of Mrs. Stephens, who passed away suddenly last week. The woman who occupied the apartment kept to herself a lot, and Katie was not very close to her, but she was friendly with her and regretted her passing. It was so sudden, and it reminded Katie of her own mother’s accident. She felt for the family, who would have had no time to prepare, no time to say goodbye. She knew that feeling, hated that feeling, and hated that someone else had to go through it too. Life just really was cruel and unfair sometimes.
Ignoring the futility of that thought for about the millionth time, Katie made her way up the narrow stairs to her apartment on the third floor. Some of her old optimism had peeked through, and that made her feel stronger. Which was good, because she needed that strength now. She took a deep breath outside the apartment door and schooled her features into a bright smile as she had done every day for the last two years.
Smile intact, she opened the locked door and entered into the living room of the small apartment to find Tyler sitting at the desk doing his homework. What a good kid he is, she thought to herself as she wondered how many twelve year-olds did their homework without being told.
“Hi,” she said brightly.
“Hi,” replied, not looking up.
“Did you miss me, kiddo?” she asked brightly as she hung up her coat in the narrow closet near the door. She turned to enter the living room. It was small, maybe twelve by twelve feet square, with an aging beige carpet. The desk where Tyler worked sat by the windows near the front of the house, and the well-worn blue sofa on the opposite wall next to the doorway to the dining room, which sadly, held no dining furniture. The small TV sat on a wooden stand on the other wall, along with a short, wide bookshelf that harbored a small library and some games.
She heard him assent, somewhat unenthusiastically. She went over to give him a hug and a kiss as she did every day when she got home.
“Ugh, Katie. Do you have to do that mushy stuff every day?” he asked. Well, she thought, at least the kid was normal in that respect. She didn’t know many twelve-year-old boys who liked being kissed by their older sisters.
“Yes, squirt, I do have to do it every day. And you’ll just have to put up with it for now, because I’m bigger than you!”
He grinned at her. “Not for long, Katie. I’m almost as tall as you are now.”
“Yes, I noticed. But I’m very short, so that’s not that big of a deal.” She grinned devilishly back at him. Instead of admitting she had him, however, Tyler turned back to his homework. “How was work?” he asked her.
“Oh, just the same as always,” she replied as she made her way through the dining room into the kitchen to start dinner. “How was school?” she called back to him.
“Okay,” he answered. “We did a really neat experiment in science class and Mrs. Kilian gave us a creative writing assignment. That’s what I’m doing now.”
“I’d like to hear it when it’s finished, okay?”
“If you’re good.” He had tried to say it so seriously, but ended up giggling. Katie had to laugh, too. The kid was just too much sometimes! She was, at least, relieved that he could laugh and joke now. For the longest time after their mother had died, he was quiet, too quiet for a child. She had worried so much, not knowing what to do for him, how to make the hurt go away. But eventually, against seemingly impossible odds, they had both found a way to deal with their grief, they had found a way to make it. And, she thought, it really wasn’t so bad. At least they had each other.
Katie filled a pot with water and placed it on one of the two working burners on the brown electric stove. They would be having spaghetti tonight, Katie’s specialty. Well, actually, she got the spaghetti sauce out of a jar, because she couldn’t cook, not really. But even if she could cook, Katie rationalized, she would make spaghetti a lot anyway. After a long day at work, cooking a big meal seemed like so much work. And, well, spaghetti was quick and inexpensive and Tyler liked it. Three reasons for, none against.
As she went to the cupboard to grab a jar of sauce, she was interrupted by a knock at the door. “I’ll get it,” she called out to Tyler, as she walked back to the living room. Looking out the peephole, she noticed the tiny old woman who lived downstairs.
“Mrs. Napoli, I’m so sorry. I forgot to tell you I was home.” Katie opened the door to the petite Italian widow who lived on the first floor and was her landlady. Mrs. Napoli kept an eye on Tyler from the time he got home from school until Katie got home from work. Mrs. Napoli was old, although Katie wasn’t sure of her age, she thought she was in her 80s. She had a wrinkled face, a crooked nose, and the biggest heart of anyone Katie knew. Mrs. Napoli understood loss. Her military husband had died young and their only son was killed in a motorcycle accident when he was in his 20s. Mrs. Napoli had watched as her brothers and sisters had died, leaving her as the only surviving member of her family. She had a few nieces and nephews that came around occasionally, but she was mostly alone with her neighbors and friends. Katie felt sorry for her lonely lifestyle, but Mrs. Napoli didn’t seem to mind. She just went on with life, because as she said, what else could you do? Katie admired her, and had relied on her a lot since she moved into the building.
“That’s okay, child. I thought I heard you, but I just wanted to make sure the boy was alright.” Smiling warmly, she peeked over Katie’s shoulder to spy Tyler across the room huddled over his desk.
“Oh, he’s fine. He’s doing his homework now. Didn’t even have to be told.”
“You should be proud of him. He’ll be a fine man someday.”
“I agree, Mrs. Napoli.”
The older woman lowered her voice for her next question. “How about you? How are you doing? And don’t try to tell me everything is fine, because you look terrible. Now, don’t get all indignant on me,” she added as Katie began to choke out a protest, “I’m just concerned for you. Your mother would have wanted me to keep an eye on you, and that’s all I’m doing.”
The elderly woman, all four-feet-ten of her, gave Katie a look that dared her to disagree. Katie, all of a sudden sad at the mention of her mother, didn’t have the energy. Besides, the woman was probably right. She did look terrible. She was so tired all of the time, and the worrying. The worrying had taken its toll.
She decided not to try to hide anything from this woman; Katie owed her a lot. Not only did Mrs. Napoli look after Tyler, but Katie often felt like she was looking after her. And her presence was comforting – kind of like the grandmother Katie and Tyler had never had. And she knew Mrs. Napoli was happy to be a part of their lives, too. Katie always suspected that she missed having grandchildren of her own.
Katie managed a contrite, “You’re right, Mrs. Napoli. I have been very tired lately, and worried. I don’t know how things are going to work out.”
Mrs. Napoli sighed softly. “I wish I could help you. All I can say is try to have faith. Things have a way of working themselves out, and tiny miracles occur when we least expect them. You’re doing a wonderful job with Tyler. Your mother would have been very proud of the way you’ve handled things. I’m just sorry things couldn’t have been different for you. You’re a good girl, Katie.” The older woman reached out to squeeze Katie’s hand. “If there’s anything I can do for you, you know all you have to do is ask.”
Katie fought the tears that she felt threatening her eyes. “I know. Thank you, Mrs. Napoli, for everything.”
Katie closed the door, and quickly made her way back to the kitchen before Tyler could notice her demeanor. Just a couple of more hours, she thought, as she emptied the spaghetti into the pan, and I won’t have to pretend. And as before, she put on a bright smile before going into get Tyler for dinner.
The remainder of the evening was a lot like most of her evenings with Tyler. They ate dinner at the small kitchen table and cleaned up the dishes together. He went back to his desk to finish his homework, and she went over it with him. They watched TV, played a game, and just talked for a while. And then, Katie sent Tyler off to bed, he protested that he wasn’t tired, she teased him and finally got a little stern, and he acquiesced. Then, after brushing his teeth, Tyler grabbed his book and disappeared into his small bedroom adjacent to the dining room.
At last, Katie was alone. She curled up on the sofa with a hot cup of tea. It was then, and only then, that she gave in to the depression and anxiety that had plagued her every day since her mother’s death. It was the only time she didn’t have to be bright and cheery for Tyler or for anyone. It was the only time she didn’t have to be quite so strong.
Katie was really tired of being strong. God, how she just wanted to cry in someone else’s arms for a change. How she wanted to be comforted. It had been so hard and sometimes she didn’t think she could make it through another day. And money, oh God, how were they going to make it? What she was making as a bank teller wasn’t quite enough. Her credit card was almost maxed out and each month they were depleting just a little more of their scant savings, a mere few thousand dollars left over from their mother’s modest insurance policy. Within a year or so that money would be gone. Then what would she do? And what would happen if Tyler needed to go to the doctor? And how would she afford new clothes for him as he grew? What was going to happen if she couldn’t support him?
Try as she might, she could think of no other alternative except getting a second job. Katie rubbed her eyes and forehead as she considered the prospect. It was not an appealing one – in fact it was downright awful. She was exhausted now with only one job, and she didn’t want to spend more time away from Tyler. But what else could she do?
As usual, she had no choice. Choices, she thought grimly. No one ever considers how precious they are until they don’t have them. Not too long ago, Katie had nothing but choices, her whole life ahead of her, thinking she could be anyone, do anything. And then came the accident, and she hadn’t been able to make one choice for herself since then.
Katie finished her tea and dragged herself from the sofa. She turned off the light in the living room and peeked into Tyler’s room. He was sleeping soundly. Closing the door softly, she continued through to the kitchen and into the small definitely-not-modern bathroom to ready herself for bed.
Once there, she splashed hot water on her face and looked into the mirror. The young woman looking back at her looked tired and defeated. Did she really look “frightful” as Mrs. Napoli had put it? She inspected her reflection. Lately, the dark circles under her eyes had become more pronounced, she conceded. But besides that, she couldn’t see how she looked much different from usual.
She continued to study her image. Well, her thick brown hair was longer, and she now wore it pulled back into a ponytail most of the time. Katie wasn’t fond of her hair. It wasn’t quite straight and it wasn’t exactly curly. It was wavy, and that meant that it didn’t do what she wanted it to do – ever. So, a while ago, when her appearance took a backseat to survival, she stopped trying to coax it into some style. She just pulled it back and forgot about it.
Katie’s gaze slipped from her hair to her face. Okay, if she wanted to be honest with herself, she had lost a little weight lately, and her face was a bit paler than usual, but it was still Katherine Leigh Williams looking back at her. She still had her high cheekbones, her small, slightly upturned nose. Her eyebrows arched gracefully over her chocolate brown eyes. She still had full lips, which now looked more red in contrast with her skin, which was clear but now pale.
As she brushed her teeth, she thought back to her former life, so far away now that it seemed like a faded dream. In college, she had a dozen guys chasing after her. Only Jason Chandler had contacted her since. He had called once, a couple of weeks after the accident to see if she was all right, but the conversation was awkward and they never spoke again. Some love of her life he turned out to be.
As she switched off the bathroom light and made her way through the kitchen to the small back bedroom, she felt a brief pang of regret, but it didn’t last long. That was not her life anymore. As she pulled down the covers and climbed into bed she vowed not to think of Jason now. He and all the others just weren’t important anymore. Nothing was, except surviving. She had to survive. For Tyler.