Available on Amazon on November 1, 2021
Tiny mewling sounds translated themselves in Mrs. Entwhistle’s sleeping brain as the cries of a kitten. She dreamed she was stroking its soft fur as it looked up at her trustingly. Gradually, she became aware that she was in fact stroking her pillow. But waking didn’t eliminate the sounds of a creature in distress.
Mrs. Entwhistle switched on the bedside lamp. When her eyes had adjusted to the light, she looked around her bedroom. Everything was in order just as she’d left it the night before.
Roger was asleep curled up on her fleece bathrobe at the foot of the bed. The old dog was almost completely deaf, and nothing short of an earthquake disturbed him these days. Gently, she scooted him off her robe without waking him and fished for her slippers. She’d have a look around.
Holding onto the double railings that Floyd had installed when they’d turned sixty-five, she descended the stairs to the main floor. The whimpering sounds seemed to be coming from the front of the house. She flipped on the outside floodlights and threw open the door.
A huddled figure on the porch swing sat up, and the little bundle in her arms traded whimpers for a full-throated roar. It was a baby. On her porch. In the middle of the night.
“Who are you? What are you doing here?” Mrs. Entwhistle asked above the racket.
“It’s me, Mrs. Entwhistle. Delilah. And J.J.”
“Delilah! What in the world?”
“I had, like, nowhere else to go,” Delilah said. “I just got on the bus and came. But it was really late when we finally got here and I didn’t want to disturb you, so I thought we’d just wait here on the porch until morning. I guess I fell asleep. Did J.J. wake you?”
“That’s neither here nor there, child. What’s happened? Why aren’t you at Jean’s?”
Mrs. Entwhistle had first encountered Delilah during the Route 66 road trip she and Maxine had taken. After being car-jacked and left alone on a deserted desert road, she’d come upon a remote cabin where a very pregnant teenager, Delilah, was hiding, awaiting the return of her lover. When Delilah went into labor, Mrs. Entwhistle delivered the baby and eventually delivered both of them to Delilah’s Aunt Jean. That was more than a year ago and several states away. She couldn’t fathom what brought these unlikely visitors to her door, but first things first.
“Come inside, honey. We’ll wake the neighbors with all the fuss this one is making. Is he hungry?”
“Probably, and wet and upset. Me, too.”
Delilah drooped under Mrs. Entwhistle’s scrutiny. Her eyes were smudged with purple shadows stark against the pallor of her skin. J.J. stopped crying, stuck his thumb in his mouth and eyeballed the strange house. He looked world-weary, as if he’d already seen more than he could process. Delilah deposited him on the couch and plopped down beside him with a sigh of exhaustion. Mrs. Entwhistle’s heart went out to her.
She’s worn slap out, and the baby is, too. Whatever is wrong will wait until they’re in better shape to talk about it.
“Let’s get J.J. changed and fed before we do anything else,” Mrs. Entwhistle said. “Do you have diapers with you?”
Delilah dug in a big bag she’d been lugging on one shoulder and produced a diaper, handing it to Mrs. Entwhistle with a mute look of appeal.
Mrs. Entwhistle flipped the little boy on his back, unsnapped his onesie, and changed the diaper expertly. Some skills last forever, and hers were still so effective that J.J. relaxed. He sensed he was in the hands of a pro. She tucked him under his mother’s arm and went into the kitchen.
Oatmeal, tea, toast. It was only four a.m., but those two needed to eat. She set the table and went back to fetch Delilah, only to find the girl sound asleep. J.J., however, looked up trustingly and held out his arms. Mrs. Entwhistle was reminded of the kitten in her dream. She eased him from his mother’s grasp and carried him into the kitchen. Holding him on her lap, she fed him bites of cereal and toast while she drank a cup of tea. As his tummy filled, his eyes drooped. Soon, he leaned against her and slept. His silky hair tickled her chin, and she breathed in the nostalgic scent of baby shampoo.
“My goodness, J.J., that takes a person back,” she said softly. “Some things don’t change. I wondered if I’d ever see you again, and now here you are.”
It was tempting to sit there forever, but she had things to do. She carefully deposited him beside his mother on the sofa and tiptoed out of the room. Grabbing her phone, she hit Maxine’s number.
Wait ‘til she hears this.
Maxine crept into Mrs. Entwhistle’s living room to survey the sleeping mother and child. Her grin stretched from ear to ear. She pumped her fist in the air and mouthed “yippee!” Mrs. Entwhistle pulled her into the kitchen and shut the swinging door.
“Yippee, indeed,” Mrs. Entwhistle said softly, “I’m glad to see them too, but the big question is, why are they here? Something bad has to have happened for Delilah to bring the baby all this way on the bus.”
“I know, but I’m just so tickled to they’re here, whatever brought them,’” Maxine said. “What do you think it was?”
“I can’t imagine she had a falling-out with Jean. They seemed so close and so delighted to have each other. Maybe something with Delilah’s parents? We’ll just have to wait until she wakes up and can tell us.”
At that moment, they heard the shuffle of little feet and the door moved an inch. Mrs. Entwhistle jumped to open it, remembering how little fingers could get pinched. J.J. held his blanket to his cheek with one hand and regarded them with big eyes. His tentative smile brought both women to the melting point.
“Oh, my goodness,” Maxine murmured, scooping him into her arms. “Hi, J.J. Do you remember me?”
The baby searched her face and reached for her glasses. “I think he does remember me,” Maxine said, dodging his fingers. “Or even if he doesn’t, he likes me.” She tickled the little boy’s tummy until he laughed a full, rich chortle that made them laugh, too.
While Delilah slept on, the women fed J.J. a second breakfast of scrambled eggs and orange juice. The family high chair had long ago been donated to charity. J.J. was too small to sit at the table by himself, so they took turns holding him on their laps as he ate. His sloppy attempts at feeding himself were met with indulgent smiles.
“Hasn’t he changed!” Mrs. Entwhistle marveled. “He’s about one now, but walking already and so growny!”
“Yes, but I’d know him just the same,” Maxine said, spooning a bite of egg into J.J.’s mouth, which he opened like a baby bird. “He still has the look of Delilah, especially around the eyes, but I don’t know where those ears comes from.”
“Papa, I guess. Wherever he is.”
Delilah’s lover, who had also been her high school teacher, had made a hasty exit two steps ahead of a statutory rape charge and, as far as Mrs. Entwhistle knew, had never been heard from again.
“It’s just a pure shame this little boy will never know his daddy,” she said. “But who knows, he may get a new, better daddy. Delilah is just a child herself, and she’ll marry at some point.”
“Well, I hope she makes a better choice next time.” Maxine shook her head.
“It really wasn’t her fault,” Mrs. Entwhistle said. “She was seduced at sixteen by her teacher, an authority figure. She was vulnerable and gullible. Remember how we were at sixteen?”
They both smiled, shaking their heads, sharing unspoken memories. Their long friendship stretched back to their childhoods, and their histories were an open book to one another. Once Maxine had given Mrs. Entwhistle a kitchen towel that said, “You’ll always be my best friend. You know too much.”
Delilah made her appearance at that moment, yawned her way to the table, sat down and burst into tears. Mrs. Entwhistle and Maxine didn’t say a word. They remembered that Delilah had to get a certain amount of crying out of her system, and until she did there was no use trying to comfort her. Maxine pushed over a box of tissues, and Mrs. Entwhistle poured tea. Then they went on feeding and talking to the baby. Slowly, Delilah composed herself and reached for her tea.
“I guess you’re wondering why we’re here,” she began, setting down her cup in the saucer with a clink.
“You don’t have to tell us until you’re ready,” Mrs. Entwhistle said. “Why don’t you go upstairs and take a shower, change your clothes? You’ll feel better when you’re put together for the day.”
Delilah looked doubtfully at her baby boy. “What about J.J.?”
“We’ve got him. Go on. The bathroom is the first door on the right, and there are towels in the linen closet.”
“I didn’t bring any clean clothes, though,” Delilah admitted. “Just grabbed a change of underwear and a few things for J.J., and we were out of there.”
“Okay, let me see what I can find.”
Mrs. Entwhistle went upstairs to Diane’s old room. She’d been pleading with both her adult children to take what they wanted from their bedrooms so she could, once and for all, clear the rooms out, but her pleas had fallen on deaf ears. She thought both Diane and Tommy secretly liked the idea of their childhood domains remaining as shrines.
Diane’s closet contained a few items of clothing so out of style they were in again: acid-washed jeans and concert tee shirts. Mrs. Entwhistle took the best of them and put them in the bathroom. She wasn’t sure about the size, but Delilah was so thin now that she could get into almost anything.
Finally, Delilah returned to the kitchen, scrubbed and wearing Diane’s cast-offs, looking like she was about twelve. Mrs. Entwhistle couldn’t help remembering the same look of bewildered panic in Delilah’s eyes when she went into labor in that remote desert cabin.
Mrs. Entwhistle waited until the girl had eaten, then leaned forward and said, “Now, tell.”
And Delilah did. “Aunt Jean died,” she said starkly, her eyes brimming with tears again. “She had a heart attack, I guess, and died in her sleep. I was the one who found her. She never got up before noon, but when she hadn’t come out of her room by two, I knocked on the door. She didn’t answer, so I went in and…I knew right away. She was so still. The doctor said she had an enlarged heart, and it didn’t have much room in there, you know.”
Jean was a little person. She’d looked a miniature picture of health in her spangled tutus and light-up sneakers, but inside her tiny body lurked the seeds of heart disease that would kill her just as the happiest chapter of her life unfolded. Mrs. Entwhistle’s own heart squeezed in sympathy. Life was cruel sometimes.
When Delilah’s father caved in to her mother’s decree that Delilah could not return home with her baby, Mrs. Entwhistle and Maxine had driven them to Aunt Jean’s house in the ghost town of Glenrio. The old town straddled the border between Texas and New Mexico, and Mrs. Entwhistle thought it also straddled the border between fantasy and reality. There Jean lived in her Victorian mansion, alone since the death of her husband. When Delilah and J.J. entered her life, Jean was reborn to love and laughter. Her niece became the daughter she’d never had, and the baby her grandchild.
She had plans, Jean did, and the resources to make them happen. Delilah would finish her high school education with a home tutor. Then she’d go to college. J.J. would grow up with the example of strong women before his eyes. But those plans died with Jean.
“I tried to stay in the house after Jean died,” Delilah continued, “but, well, you remember that house.”
Mrs. Entwhistle and Maxine nodded, their heads filled with memories of high ceilings, dark, ornate woodwork, heavy swathes of velvet draperies and creaky old floorboards underfoot.
“I guess I’m a big scaredy-cat, but it was spooky without Jean. I kept thinking I saw her around every corner. And at night, that old house rattled and banged like a ghost was trying to get in. I know it was lame of me to be scared in the safest place I’d ever lived, but I was. Besides that, I missed Aunt Jean so much. It was hard to be in her house without her. It just felt so empty.”
“Yes,” Mrs. Entwhistle murmured. “I know that feeling.”
“Daddy is the executor of Aunt Jean’s estate, and he made the arrangements for her burial. He said she left everything to me, and eventually when it’s all settled, I guess I’ll get a lot of money. Daddy said it will take time, though, for the will to go through probate court or something so he can sell the house. I mean, who’d buy that house? Who’d want to live in Glenrio? Without Aunt Jean, there’s nothing there.”
The desolate stretch of desert was reflected in Delilah’s face.
“So Daddy said to come home with him, and I did, even though I knew Mother didn’t want me there. Like, I didn’t know what else to do. I stayed in the guest cottage and tried to keep out of her sight. Daddy was great; he came to see J.J. every day. But he acted like he was sneaking around. Once we saw Mother looking at us out the window, and he quick handed J.J. back to me with the guiltiest look.”
Mrs. Entwhistle and Maxine had met Delilah’s mother a couple of times. Only their good manners prevented them from calling her what they thought she was.
How could any woman reject not only her daughter, but her first grandchild? Mrs. Entwhistle telegraphed silently to Maxine.
She doesn’t deserve them, Maxine telegraphed back.
Delilah continued her story. “I was so wrecked about Jean that I didn’t know what the heck was going on. I guess I wasn’t picking up on the hints. Mother came out to the cottage one day and laid it on the line. She said I was trying to get between her and Daddy, making him be disloyal to her, using my brat—that’s what she called her grandson—as an excuse to be like, a lazy leech.”
Delilah exhaled a long, shaky breath.
“After that, I just had to get out of there, but I didn’t know where to go. Then I thought of you and how you rescued me before. I know it’s bad to barge in on you like this. I should have at least called. I’m sorry; I can’t think straight right now.”
“You did exactly the right thing, child.” Mrs. Entwhistle gripped Delilah’s hand and squeezed. “We’re so happy to see you and J.J. again. Why, I was afraid I’d never lay eyes on the only baby I ever brought into this world, and here you are. It’s like a dream come true.”
Delilah managed a watery smile. She hadn’t been anyone’s dream come true for a long time.
“And you’re welcome at my house, too,” Maxine said. “We both have loads of space, plenty of room for you and J.J.” She smiled shyly and added, “Room in our hearts, too.”
That did it for Delilah. Her head went down on her folded arms, and she sobbed. Mrs. Entwhistle and Maxine exchanged worried looks, but they let the girl cry it out. They knew it sometimes takes a lot of tears to wash away the debris of life. After a few minutes, Delilah lifted her head and reached for the tissue box. She wiped her face and blew her nose.
J.J. had been remarkably quiet during their conversation, but he’d had enough of sitting still. “Ow!” he said, pointing to the window. “Ow! OW!”
“He wants to go outside,” Delilah translated. “He loves to be outdoors and won’t let up until I take him.” She stood and picked up her son. “Come on, then, big boy, let’s go out.”
Mother and child stepped out into the rosy dawn of a summer morning, and when they’d shut the kitchen door behind them, Mrs. Entwhistle and Maxine sighed simultaneously. They shook their heads, their lips in thin lines.
“Well. I never,” Maxine said.
“Nor I. I’m at a loss, Max. What do we do now?”
“Well, for one thing, we don’t have to worry about custody. Delilah must be eighteen by now, or close to it, so we can’t be accused of kidnapping her. She’s an adult in the eyes of the law.”
That was a relief. When they’d been carting the girl and her newborn all over the Southwest, they’d worried that Delilah’s mother would make trouble which they’d have no legal standing to resolve.
“No, Cora, this isn’t the time to try to figure things out and make plans. We’ll give Delilah some space, help her with the baby, feed her up a little, and just let things unfold.”
Mrs. Entwhistle thought that there never was a better friend than Maxine.
Upstairs, Roger raised his head. His nose wrinkled as he sniffed the air. Something was different today. He rubbed his face on the bedspread to wake up his eyes, then stood and walked stiffly to the edge of the bed, where he looked down and calibrated his jump. When he landed, all four legs went out from under him. He lay there on his stomach for a minute, taking stock. There was still that intriguing smell in the air. The old dog waddled to the staircase and made his breathtaking descent.
He appeared in the kitchen, tousle-headed and curious. He saw the two humans he loved most in the world sitting in their usual places at the table; there was no sign of that mysterious other. He shuffled to the door and looked over his shoulder at Mrs. Entwhistle. It was time for his morning foray into the yard.
She smiled as she opened the door, knowing what a surprise was in store for him. Roger made his way carefully down the steps to the grass and squinted into the bright sunshine. There it was, the owner of that wonderful odor–a tiny human.
Roger’s tail went into overdrive as he trotted forward like a puppy. Roger adored tiny humans. He’d helped raise the Entwhistle grandchildren and grieved when they grew older and graduated to perfunctory pats on his head. Now here was a new little person who squealed with delight at the sight of him, so loudly that even his deaf ears picked it up.
Roger submitted to a tight hug, and covered J.J.’s face with kisses in return. The baby jabbered, and the old dog understood every syllable. Roger was in heaven.