“I’m Rachael,” she mouths. Good thing I can read lips. Not really, but her exaggerated jaw flapping makes it easy. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
I fight off a giggle. Babies also turn perfectly-put-together humans into buffoons.
Slipping off my shoes, I browse around for any signs of Nate. “Thank you. It’s nice to meet you too. And thank you for the callback. This must be Morgan?” I refrain from saying the obvious “she’s so tiny.” But she really is tiny, even for a one-month-old.
Rachael’s back stiffens on a silent gasp. I spoke beyond a whisper and the world may end.
An exhale tiptoes past her parted lips once she realizes babies don’t require complete silence to sleep. “Yes…” Rachael watches Morgan “…she’s being lazy this morning.” She tests a few more words. Morgan doesn’t flinch. “Only took half her bottle before drifting back to sleep.”
When her wonder-filled gaze meets mine, I lift my brows a fraction. Wow! Did she just now realize it’s okay to talk in front of a sleeping baby? Poor girl. And by girl I mean young lady because I’m certain she’s older than I am, at least by five or so years, but younger than Nate.
I follow her to the living room filled with oversized leather furniture and a wall of curtain-framed windows overlooking dense woods. There’s a newborn living here. Where is the baby swing sitting in a corner? Or the dark wicker basket of diapers and other baby essentials that should be on the wooden coffee table? Toys. Why are there no toys that Morgan is too young to play with but they can’t resist trying to entertain her with them anyway?
No tiny baby hats.
No knitted booties from a grandma or great aunt.
“Would you like to hold her?”
I lift up my hands. “Mind if I wash my hands real quick?”
Rachael’s smile grows a fraction like I passed the first test, but I honestly don’t think it’s a test. That would require more knowledge of babies and a confidence she doesn’t possess.
“Do you have kids?” I ask, washing my hands at the kitchen sink, but I think I know the answer.
“No. Never been married. I don’t even have a boyfriend. But I’m getting a crash course in motherhood.” Her smile dissipates as her brow tightens.
“I’m very sorry for your loss.”
Rachael smiles as if she feels the need to make a quick recovery. Her sister died a month ago. I don’t think forced smiles are necessary yet.
“We’re doing well.” She hands Morgan to me.
I bring her up on my shoulder. She burps, let’s out a squeaky cry, and falls right back to sleep.
“Wow. She never burps for me.”
I sit in the rocking chair, and Rachael sits on the love seat, tucking her legs underneath her.
“Burped babies are happy babies.” I nestle my nose into the blanket and take a hit of that new baby smell.
“You have siblings?” she asks.
“No. I did a lot of babysitting in high school and took on summer jobs as a nanny during college. What about you? Any other siblings?”
“An older brother in Washington. But he’s not married either. Our mom died a few years ago, but our dad lives here in Madison. When Jenna died, I was the only one who stepped up to help Nathaniel, aside from his mom. But she’s had some health issues, so we don’t like to ask her for too much help. And Nathaniel doesn’t have any siblings, so …”
“So you’re all figuring this out as you go because no one has any real baby experience.”
She chuckles a bit. “Pretty much. I was supposed to start grad school this fall, but I’m going to take a year off to help with Morgan. Nathaniel works long hours, so that’s why he needs you. He insists I find a life beyond Morgan. But …” Rachael traps her bottom lip between her teeth and focuses on Morgan in my arms. “I feel guilty handing her off to anyone else. Jenna wouldn’t have wanted that. No offense.” Her nose wrinkles when she glances up at me.
“None taken. But I’m a little confused. You asked me here to meet Morgan. I assumed you’re still making a final decision, but you just said Nate-Nathaniel needs me …”
“He does. He just doesn’t know it. You’re the best fit. The youngest, but most experienced. And watching you with her confirms it, but Nathaniel’s a little uneasy about …”
I know where this is going. She doesn’t have to say it. “I recognized him from pictures. I get it. Our first meeting was weird. Totally my fault. I shouldn’t have said anything until I figured out the connection.” I shrug. “It was no big deal. But I understand how it might have freaked him out at first. This is his child. He should be skeptical to a fault.”
“Well, after a slightly heated argument last week, he agreed to let me hire you if I still felt all ‘gung-ho’ after meeting you. Honestly, I don’t think he knows what he wants other than …”
We share a painful look. His wife. Nate wants his wife back.
“I want the job, so don’t take this the wrong way. Were the other applicants so bad that I looked that good just from my résumé?”
“Not bad, just old. I’m not trying to discriminate, I just wanted someone younger but experienced. Taking care of a baby can be an exhausting job. So the job is yours if you want it. I can send the contract home with you today to look over.”
I pull in a deep breath, suffocated by the sterile air.
No lavender candles.
No sugar cookies baking in the oven.
No baby powder lingering in the air.
Morgan starts to fuss, so I stand and walk around with a gentle bounce to my step. Below the TV mounted to the wall is a fireplace mantle holding framed pictures. I recognize Nate’s parents; they’re on the beach holding on to their big floppy hats so they don’t blow away. There’s one of Nathaniel and Jenna on their wedding day at the doors to a cathedral, rose petals floating around the happy couple as they make their escape. I haven’t seen that smile from Nate in a long time. Maybe it died with his wife.
With each step around the room, my heart cracks a little deeper. There are no pictures of Morgan. There should be the classic hospital mugshot that only the parents can love and one with Nate. Why hasn’t anyone taken a picture of him asleep on the sofa with Morgan nestled into his chest, the official daddy and baby first date picture?
It’s a cricket kind of silence in the house, only without any crickets. At least a few chirps would be some sign of life.
No TV murmuring in the background.
No music or soft static from a white noise machine.
No little wind-up toys playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
It’s almost too painful to be here, but I can’t walk away. This house—this family—needs two paddles and a jolt of life put back into it.
“When do I start?” She should question my taking the job before reviewing the contract or negotiating my wage. But she doesn’t.
“Tomorrow too soon?”
“Tomorrow is perfect as long as everything looks agreeable in the contract. I’ll read it over when I get home and message you. I don’t anticipate any issues.”
We small talk for another hour while I give Morgan a bottle and change her diaper.
“You’re good at that. It takes Nathaniel and me forever to do that.” Rachael’s eyes illuminate with wonder like I just demonstrated levitation.
It’s a diaper change and three snaps on a onesie. This poor child may be doomed if a twenty-one-year-old stranger is the foremost expert on her.
“Tell me about your day, Swayz.”
Griffin nods to the upside-down five-gallon bucket a few feet to his right. It’s where I like to perch when he’s doing his thing in his anal-retentively organized garage. Shiny red tool chests and pegboards of more tools and cords line the wall on either side of his workbench. Behind me, his Harley hides under a custom cover, flaunting its reserved parking spot while his black truck weathers the seasons parked in the drive beneath a canopy of mature oak trees on both sides.
“I want a baby.”
He raises an eyebrow at me as he works on his neighbor’s motorcycle. I love his two-bedroom house and one-car garage that he uses for side jobs like this. It’s in the middle of an older neighborhood with lots of trees and houses that have character, not the cookie-cutter homes in the newer neighborhoods. The fact that it’s two blocks from his parents’ house is also a lovable trait.
He’s close to his family. Sometimes I envy his life. It’s not glamorous, but it’s rich in the really good stuff that I feel like I missed out on during my parents’ quest to discover something brilliant in me.
“Before I put my foot in my mouth or you put yours in my balls, can you clarify if this is an announcement or a request?”
I scrape the worn bottoms of my flip-flops along the gray-speckled sealant on his garage floor and wiggle my toes. My blue nail polish has seen better days.
“I got the nanny job. I start tomorrow.”
“Yeah, that’s right. You went to meet the baby this morning … Morgan, right?” His socket clicks in quick succession.
I find that sound mixed with the hum of the fan hanging in the corner quite soothing. Watching Griff work on bikes has become my favorite pastime. He’s magical with his hands. Heat spreads along my skin, settling between my legs, just thinking of his strong, capable hands.