Hurry Home – Roz Nay

In the dream I am running and my sister is behind me. The ground is brittle, hard against my summer feet, and as with every dream, I think I’m rushing to save something, to stop it, but it’s not that. It’s so much worse. I can hear Ruth gaining on me—she’s bigger than me—and she grazes the back of my shirt with her fingertips as I strain to run faster. When she finally grabs me, as she always does, she pulls me down into the dust and her sharp fingernails dig into the little-girl flesh of my arms. It’s just a game! I scream, We’re only playing!, and I jolt upright in bed, my feet pedaling at the sheets, my tongue pasted against the soil of my mouth. I lie panting for a minute. I thought the dreams would lessen, but they’re getting worse. They’re always of her, or the version of her I last saw all those years ago. It’s crazy to be so afraid of her; I don’t even know where she is. I tiptoe out of bed, careful not to wake up Chase, and stumble to the kitchen to get water, to put out this fire in my head. I’m so thirsty all the time. By the sink, I run cold, clear water and drink from the tap, splashing a little to my forehead. Chase’s loft is high-ceilinged and open concept, a one-bedroom that’s short on doors and boundaries. Some couples might find that claustrophobic, but I don’t.

I find it companionable. I can just see him from where I stand by the sink: He’s a muscular guy, but he breathes so softly, his tanned arm lolling against the crisp, white sheets. I’ve no concept of where he goes when he sleeps, but it’s an opposite dreamscape to mine. Outside, the sky is trying for an early blue. It’s June, but there’s still a 7:00 a.m. gray that leaks slowly into color. In this Colorado town, we’re never too far from the creep of the glacier, a silent advance I can’t help but find sinister. Chase, though, he loves everything about the mountains. On my way to the walk-in closet, I trail a fingertip across the tall canvas print of him by the front door, a professional shot of his body upside down on the mountain, hucking a twenty-foot drop on skis.

I could never do that, wouldn’t even know where to begin. But he’s good in environments that I’d find daunting. He rarely ponders such things as his own mortality. Behind him, snow wisps delicately to eclipse the sun. I have to admit it’s a beautiful photo. Once I’ve pulled on skinny jeans and a T-shirt that isn’t too crumpled, I grapple my hair into a topknot and grab my khaki jacket and my old leather satchel. I lift the satchel over my head so the strap lies diagonal across the front of me. My Vans are by the front door, and I kick my feet into them, wondering if at twenty-five it might be time to buy shoes that aren’t best suited to the average fourteen-year-old boy. But my job doesn’t require a corporate dress code. As a child-protection social worker, it’s best if I look relatable.

Tucked away in the Rocky Mountains, Moses River is isolated in the winter months, but now the trees along the sidewalk are in bloom, the buds bulging with optimism. Locals mill about on Main Street, coffee in tall travel cups as they lean against their parked trucks. Wheels of mountain bikes hook over every tailgate—if there’s bustle, it isn’t work-related. Life is beautiful reads more than one bumper sticker. But ask any social worker in this town and they’ll tell you life around here is a lot of things, not all of them beautiful. But we’re trying. We’re trying for the kids who don’t believe the bumper stickers, for the kids who live the truth. As I walk up Main, I think about Minerva’s email from last night. It was hassled and hurried as usual, but she told me there was a report of negligence involving a little boy and his parents, a couple called the Floyds. I haven’t heard the name before, but from the tone of the email, it seemed like she was familiar with them.

If she wants me on board, the case must be an ugly one. It always is when there’s a baby involved. A little baby boy. Minerva Cummins used to work in Mental Health and Addictions before she crossed over to Family Services, and she’s never shaken it off. Every exchange I have with her feels like she’s trying to help me out of some kind of saddening entrenchment. Even as I’m solving problems, she’ll sigh with her eyes closed as if I’m the cause of them. Sometimes I wonder if that’s why her husband divorced her. My boss, Morris, rarely puts me and Minerva together on cases—perhaps because he knows that as one of the older, more experienced social workers on the team, she can be patronizing. She’s a mother, Alex, Morris told me once in his office. But don’t let her mother you.

An unexpected cold blast of air hits me as I round the corner onto Cedar Street, and I jog the next few steps to the Lovin’ Oven bakery. The bell above the robin’s-egg-blue door jingles as I enter, and I’m greeted by the smell of scones. The bakery is compact, with one long counter, various chalkboards on brick with the handwritten names of soups, rows of golden-fresh bread stacked on shelves behind the till, and three rough wooden tables for eating at, all of them rectangular with benches. I do a quick scan of the room as I enter. Minerva’s not here yet. For all the dedication she claims to have, it’s rare that she arrives on time to anything. Once I’ve bought a coffee, I find a seat at the far end of the long table and wait for her. Over in the corner, two old ladies in matching knitted hats share a pot of tea. For a second, I wonder if they’re sisters. The thought stops my breath.

But then the bell above the door jingles and Minerva strides toward me, corduroy pants chafing noisily as she moves. Her brown bob is still wet from the shower. It looks plastic, like hair you press onto LEGO people. She stops in front of me at the opposite bench. “Another day, another dollar.” “Morning,” I say. “Are you ready to go?” I half stand. “Chill your boots! I need to brief you first, and you know I can’t do anything without a strong coffee.” Cof ee is why she wanted to meet early? I reluctantly sit back down While Minerva orders her drink, then settles into a seat as though we have all the time in the world—all the time in the world when a young child’s well-being is at stake. “So,” I say, careful to hide my impatience.

“Tell me about this baby boy and his parents.” “Frank and Evelyn Floyd have a history of drugs and alcohol addiction.” She takes a wary first sip of her drink. “Basically they were druggies, troublemakers before they had a child. But they’ve been better since he was born.” “Okay … So then why are we both going on this visit?” I ask. What I really want to say is Get a move on. “The baby’s name is Buster,” she says, dodging my question. She pauses, relishing the Floyd baby’s name, hoping I’ll laugh at it, but I don’t. “Earlier this week, they left him outside in the car while they went into the post office.

Some Good Samaritan called it in. We’ll go out to their house, have a quick peekaboo and that’ll be it. We’ll be in and out, brussels sprout.” Her phrasing catches me off guard. “In and out so fast when they left a baby abandoned in a car? How long was he alone for?” “Come on, Alex, you know the drill,” she says, shaking her head. “You can’t assume the kid is in danger just because some stranger said so. I need you there with me to fairly assess things, and we need proof of abuse or neglect.” Abuse or neglect. Suddenly I can’t touch my latte. “How old is Buster?” “Oh, a year at the most, I think.

” Minerva looks at me quizzically. “Are you okay?” No, Minerva, I’m not okay, I want to say. As many cases as we resolve in child protection— kids living in horrible circumstances who we rescue and give a chance at a better life—new cases pop up at double the rate. I feel like Mickey Mouse in that old cartoon, the one we had to watch as kids after school was out. Mickey’s in the sorcerer’s workshop, and it’s flooding, and the mops are out of control, and yet no matter how hard he tries, the water keeps pouring in, backing Mickey up the stairs. I hated that cartoon the first time I saw it, but it was always Ruth’s favorite. “Can we get going?” I stand up. “Oh, all right then,” she says, exhaling. “Although it wouldn’t hurt to relaxez-vous for a minute. You’ll be on stress leave in no time, just like everyone else, if you keep trying to save the world.

” I ignore her and head for the door. The Floyd property is on dilapidated farmland off Highway 4. Minerva drives too fast out of town in our government vehicle. She has music playing on Sirius like it’s high summer and we’re heading to the beach. “Hey,” she says, adjusting the rearview mirror, which has been nowhere near her line of vision the entire journey. “Have you seen Sully recently?” “What?” I stare at her. Hooked around the front of me, my satchel feels like a shield. “You know, Sully Mills? Handsome cop with the piercing eyes. Aren’t you two buddies?” I hate how she says the word buddies, the way she separates the two syllables. Sully and I met a year ago through work.

I guess you could say that we connected. I meet him for coffee at the Oven a couple of times a week. We’re friends, not buddies. We’re just friends. “I don’t see him that much.” I tug at the seat belt cutting into my neck. Minerva’s eyebrows shift up for a second, but she doesn’t say a word. I want to push her face with the full force of my hand. A minute or two later, she says, “He’s single, right?” What does it matter to her? “Do you want me to get you his number?” I ask in a monotone. “Get me his number?” She bats at her bangs, fluffs and repositions them in the rearview mirror.

“You mean give me his number. Because you have it already. And you text him all the time.” I shift in my seat. “I have a boyfriend, you know. Remember? The guy I live with?” “Exactly! So share the wealth, sister.” She smiles at me, then moves her eyes back to the road after swerving a little. The house is up ahead. She slows down, pulls into the driveway, and jams the car into park. When we get out, we have to maneuver our way through clusters of shiny green goose shit that lead up a dirt track to the Floyd place.

There’s a fence and gate about three hundred feet from the house. “Mr. and Mrs. Floyd were a gong show when I knew them,” she says, turning. “But just so you know, they’re the good gong show, not the bad one. There’s a difference.” “Is there?” How the hell can Minerva think drug addicts make good parents? We reach the gate, which has a sign on the front: Big Dog Bites. “That sign’s been there since I was in Addictions. There was never a dog.” She pulls at the gate, creating enough of a gap to squeeze through.

A long stripe of mildew transfers to the front of her sweater. We walk up the potholed driveway together, past a bucket on its side and a couple of mismatched flip-flops. “Oh, the house looks better,” she says. The home itself is squat and peeling, the deck ragged with rusted nails. On the porch outside the door is a cat litter tray full of crooked cigarette stubs. Next to that, a Hot Wheels car, blue, abandoned. If this is “better,” then what on earth was the place like before? She pauses on the top step of the deck. “Let’s remember: even if Buster was left alone for a minute or two, when you’re a mother, shit happens. You might not know that, but mothers do. Those of us with kids have all been there.

” There’s that card again, her favorite in the stack of superiority. I could retaliate, especially because I know about her son, know he’s estranged and won’t talk to her, but my heart’s begun to race and my palms are sweating. The Hot Wheels car is faded and forlorn and reminds me of misery. Nothing good will come from this house. I wipe my hands on the back of my jeans. “Okay, ready?” Minerva has her knuckles poised to knock, but the door is open. We walk into a tiny linoleum-floored vestibule that serves as some kind of pantry. Three shelves face us, empty apart from a couple of tins of baked beans, one of them opened with the ragged metal sticking up. The glass of the main door itself is busted as if someone has put an elbow through it. Duct tape crisscrosses the pane.

“Let’s get on with it,” I say. “Okay. If Frank Floyd comes at us, stay calm. In the old days, he was something of a charging bull.” I nod, wipe my palms once more on my pants. Nobody answers Minerva’s knock, or the second one. “Hello?” she calls out. “Anyone home?” The vestibule smells musty, grainy, with the pungency that always comes with poverty. It’s sour, hoppy, horrific. I cover my mouth with my sleeve.

From inside we hear a crash and a shout, the sound of a plate clattering in a circle as it settles. Minerva pushes the rickety door open. She steps inside as Frank Floyd rounds the kitchen counter, leading with the top half of his body. “I’m coming,” he growls. He wears track pants, rolled at the waist, and a T-shirt that swamps him despite the fact that he’s a huge guy. “Can’t a man take a nap in his own house?” He spots Minerva, clearly recognizing her. “Oh, for fuck’s sake. Here we go again. Send in the clowns.” “Mr.

Floyd,” Minerva says cheerily. “I hope you don’t mind the intrusion.” “I do fucking mind, and I don’t remember inviting you in.” I peep around Minerva, taking in Frank Floyd’s bare feet, the ashtray on the floor, the dishes stacked up in the sink. “We wanted to make sure everyone was okay in here. How are you doing today? I’m Minerva Cummins—do you remember me? We met years ago, but I’ve changed jobs since then: I’m here with Family Services. This is my coworker Alexandra Van Ness.” Minerva sounds like she’s gritting out a smile. I still have one hand on the door handle. “No, no, no,” Frank says, bashing his fist against his own hip with each syllable like a toddler in a tantrum.

“You’re not coming in. You’re trespassing. Nobody’s fucking asked you to come here.” “It’s okay, Frank. It’s all right.” She moves into the kitchen, both palms up. “Listen, I know you don’t want us here. Is your wife around? Evelyn? Can we have a chat with her? We’ve just had a tiny little report, and we need to check up on it.” I edge into the kitchen and stand close to Minerva. The house is as long and straight as a shipping container, the kitchen sprawling into the living room, where, at the far end on a sofa with a missing cushion, a woman is sleeping facedown, wearing only an undershirt and panties.

She sleeps as if dropped from a height, her limbs splayed. And it’s then, only then, that I see the baby. He’s tiny and fast asleep, his face pressed dangerously against the cheap sponge of the couch cushion. He has nothing on but a diaper, the bulge of it round and tight like a soccer ball. The coloring of him, the tan and the sandy skin tones, the way his hair sticks up at the crown, the bumpy little muscles in his shoulders—it all grips me like a fist. He’s a carbon copy. I have to rescue this child, just like I had to rescue another one before him. “My wife’s tired,” Frank says, tracking my gaze. “She banged her head.” He’s sweaty around the hairline, jerky in his movements.

“Should we call for an ambulance or bring her into the hospital?” I ask. Why isn’t Minerva rushing toward the baby? He’s clearly not safe. I take a step toward the couch but tread on something that skids under my shoe. A cooked pasta tube squelches into the peeling floor tile. “No! She didn’t bang it that hard.” Frank runs a mitt of fingers through greasy strands of his hair. “Look, everything’s fine and shit. We’re just tired. It’s fucking difficult.” “Can we sit down, Frank?” Minerva asks.

She pulls out a seat before he’s responded and sits. “What’s difficult?” I say. “Is it something we can help you with?” “Having a baby.” “Oh, steepest learning curve in the world!” Minerva says cheerfully. “I have a ten-year-old son, and I couldn’t tell you a thing about the first year of his life, Frank. It’s literally a blur. You probably won’t believe me, but I’ve been thinking lately that I wish I could do it all over again.” “Yeah,” Frank says uncertainly. “Is Mrs. Floyd finding it really hard, too?” I ask.

“Yeah. I suppose. Yeah, yes. Look, okay, my wife didn’t really bump her head.” “No? Then can we wake her up, do you think? It’s really important that we speak with you both.” I wait, still standing, while Minerva sits tidily amid the carnage that surrounds her. “Yes, let’s figure this all out together.” Minerva’s arms rest on the table as if she’s waiting for a Sunday roast. Has she seen the state of the house? Does she really think this is a safe environment for a child? Frank lumbers toward the sofa and pushes hard at his wife’s shoulder. On the second attempt, she sits up, rubbing her eyes.

Immediately she grabs Buster and he awakens, his face reddening, his arms sticking out straight, but he doesn’t cry. “The fuck are you two?” Evelyn looks from my face to Minerva’s. “Who’s this?” “They’re Family Services,” Frank says, handing her a baggy pair of track pants he’s found on the floor. “Put those on, and don’t say shit.” Deep inside my stomach, I feel the grit of pitted stone, the same gnawing that hits me every time I meet liars with a brand-new child. Frank’s sweating harder now, round circles visible in the armpits of his T-shirt. While Evelyn struggles to put on the pants without letting go of her son, Buster dips and flails. “Mrs. Floyd, good morning.” Minerva half rises from her seat at the table, holding out a Family Services card that wavers pointlessly in the gap.

“Do you remember me? I’m Minerva Cummins, and this is Alex Van Ness.” Evelyn doesn’t look at either of us. “We’ve had a report we need to follow up on.” “About what?” Evelyn sits, shifting Buster, who raises one little hand to hold on to the strap of her shirt. Frank and I also take a seat at the table, and the four of us face each other like opponents in a quiz show, Family Services versus the Floyds. Buster starts to wriggle. “He needs a diaper change,” I say quietly. “That one looks full.” “I’ll get to it,” Evelyn replies. “What do you want?” Buster makes strange little just-awake noises, a snuffling, more animal than infant.

It’s all I can do not to reach across and take him to my chest. “We had a phone call,” Minerva says. “Who from?” “It was anonymous. A woman called to say that you left little Buster unattended in a vehicle outside a public building.” Evelyn reaches back to the kitchen counter for a packet of cigarettes, tipping sideways on her chair so that the soft curve of Buster’s forehead becomes visible. That beautiful skin, olive and smooth. Evelyn pulls out a cigarette from the pack and lights it, jiggling the little boy in her lap as she smokes. She’s bitten every fingernail she has, just like Ruth used to. I’m flooded again by all the lies, all the nervous little tremors and tics. They’re universal among people hiding things.

“What do you mean unattended? What public building?” “Well, a bystander noticed that Buster was in your car on his own with the engine running. You were in the post office. Does that ring a bell, Evelyn? It would have been yesterday, or possibly the day before.” “It wasn’t me.” “I’m afraid the bystander wrote down your vehicle license number,” Minerva says. We wait. Frank’s shoulders slump. Thoughts flicker across Evelyn’s face like she’s assessing a poker hand. “If it was me, I was only in the post office for two minutes.” “Two?” I say.

“Are you sure?” Frank elbows his wife suddenly, his voice cracked. “You fucking idiot. What the fuck were you thinking?” “He was asleep!” Evelyn drags deeply on her cigarette and billows a long, straight plume of smoke over Buster’s head. Minerva turns to me with a look that says, I’ve got this. But she doesn’t. Meanwhile, Buster keeps reaching up to his mother’s face, but each time she jerks her chin out of his way. He wants you to look at him, I think. Why won’t you? “He was fucking sleeping when I pulled up. All right? I didn’t want to wake him. I left the car running because otherwise, the air-conditioning would shut off and it was the afternoon and hot.

I’m not a fucking idiot.” “Totally. No. I get that.” Minerva takes out a notebook, writes something and underlines it. “I’m a mother, too, Evelyn.” Evelyn rolls her eyes, but Minerva continues as though she hasn’t seen. “I know how hard it can be to get things done with a little one in tow. But you can’t leave Buster unattended. What if something happened? What if someone jumped in the car and just took off with him? You can’t …” She searches for the most diplomatic phrasing.

“Just don’t do that again, okay?” “She won’t,” Frank mutters. Evelyn lowers her head. I watch as ash droops on the end of her cigarette, then falls to the floor. “Are you taking Buster away?” she asks flatly. Oh, God, if only we could. The rules of procedure make it hard to remove a child. We need more evidence to present to court, but the second home visits are scheduled and never the same. The Floyds would have time to hide the drugs they’re probably using. Minerva knows this, too, so why isn’t she being more proactive? She snaps her notebook shut. “We’re not taking Buster anywhere.

Absolutely not. Do you know what I see?” Abuse! I want to scream. Neglect! A boy being thrown to the wolves! “I see two people trying very hard, two people who are nearing the end of their resources.” Frank and Evelyn stare at her. “We’re going to offer you some support services. Ways to make this whole thing a bit easier, so you’re not”—she glances around at the debris of their house—“struggling so much. And we’ll do a follow-up home visit. Just to see how you’re getting on.” “Do we have to?” Frank asks. “Do we have to use the services? Do you have to come back?” “Don’t you want the help?” I ask, my eyes drilling into his.

He shrugs. So does his wife.


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