TAKE CARE – Jody Gerbig

Chapter One: Shea

Sunday: The Nightlight

The turtle nightlight near the changing table glows yellow, but only sometimes, and only for me. Brigit is at my breast, her six-week-old hands, still red and wrinkled, grabbing for my hair—so close but just out of reach. A synthetic light, sickly yellow, like the ache in my womb where she used to be.
“It’s never yellow,” Ryan claimed one morning as he shoveled cereal into his mouth. “It’s green. You must be so tired you don’t know which way’s up.” But it does turn yellow, I swear it. It’s yellow now, casting an eerie glow across the nursery’s soft, cream rug and cream walls. And how would Ryan know what color the light becomes? He’s never here. Sometimes I think the turtle turns yellow just for me, as though it’s trying to tell me something, like The baby’s sick, and you’re missing the signs. Sometimes, in the quiet of our aloneness, I think I hear Ryan’s step on the stairs, coming to relieve me of this duty. It’s only my imagination.
A nearby church bell chimes twice, but the digital wall clock reads 2:16. Ryan must’ve set the clock ahead, which he often does to remind him—and me—to keep up with our days. The church bell is always right. I pull Brigit from my breast, drape her over my shoulder, and rock, watching the moon cast a glow over the Youngstown State campus and nearby houses. I remember as a kid thinking that the moon followed me as we drove, wanting to be near. Now its presence looms, watching and waiting.
Brigit fusses, gas working through her gut in fits and starts. She arches her back, and her fuss becomes her regular cry. I pull her to me and pat, noticing a house light switch on down the street. Standing, I see out our second-and-a-half-story window my neighbor sitting on his front porch, drinking beer from a can. He finishes it in a long gulp and tosses the can into the bushes to join a dozen or more others. His car sits on blocks, next to a discarded washing machine. It’s nice to think we don’t keep trash on our lawn in this neighborhood, but sometimes we do. I wonder if his young children are asleep inside the brightly lit house littered with tossed clothing, empty cans, crumpled fast-food bags. I wonder if someday I’ll have to take those kids, too.
After checking the window lock twice and pressing my palm against its frame to see if it will open, I slump back in the chair. My eyelids pull downward, my lashes beg to lock. I only need to stay awake ten more minutes while keeping Brigit upright, and then I can lay her on the changing table, peel her tiny, wet diaper from her bottom, dab at her delicate skin with protective lotion, fasten a clean diaper on her, and pull her muslin blanket tight across her body, wrapping her like a baby burrito. I can lay her in her crib and lie down myself on the daybed a few moments—try to shut my eyes, hoping that lights won’t dance behind them, that they won’t flutter open—before she cries again.
You will end up killing her, Shea.
My eyes pop open, and I blink and try to focus on the room. On the bookshelf against the far wall—a vestige of my now-defunct home office—I try to read the titles: Dr. Hammond’s First Year, Why Babies Cry, Attachment Parenting, The Sociologist’s Field Guide to Best Practices, Saving the Children, When Parents Aren’t Enough—and I think of the many failures that another caseworker might see in my home. Maybe she’d notice how the toilet hasn’t been cleaned, or how this room smells like sour breastmilk because my dirty shirts drape the furniture, or how the diaper pail is stuffed full, the lid hardly closing. Maybe she’d find me sleeping with Brigit on my chest in this chair and take her from me.
Sleep-deprived, hormone-induced unreality, my friend and coworker Becca calls this state I’m in, when one of her clients can’t care for her baby. As though a childless woman would understand. Only a new mother knows what it is to be turned inside out, raked raw by a baby’s fingernails, her stomach loose like a purse, as if someone might shove a hand inside, steal its contents, and run away with her soul. I might be tired—I might not sleep even when I need to, even when I want to, my legs twitching and my mind racing—but I know what I see and hear. I see a green nightlight that sometimes turns yellow. I hear the floorboards creaking under a man’s weight.
I pat Brigit’s tiny Pampered bottom as her cry begins to settle, then sing When the Wind Blows, the Cradle Will Rock to the tops of houses illuminated in the moonlight. From this rocker, I can’t tell that their paint is peeling and their porches are caving in. I can’t see the anger living inside them, or the helplessness and desperation coating their walls.
I close my eyes, only to sense a change in the room. When I open them again to the night light’s burning glow, bright and hot, I can hardly see at all.


Monday: The Sitter

I’m not yet fully dressed when someone knocks, at 7:50 in the morning. Ryan is upstairs dressing for work, so I yank open our heavy door.
“Tammy, hi,” I say, confused about why she is here on a Sunday. We stand silent, she on the stoop, I in the doorway, for a moment too long.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “Am I too early? You said Monday, right?”
And then I think, Ryan is in the shower, he’s dressing for work. It’s not Sunday.
“Oh, shit.” I yank open the door and wave her in. “No, no, you’re fine.”
She’s pulled her blonde hair back into a ponytail and is wearing a white t-shirt that I know will be ruined by spit-up before the end of the day. I lead her through the front hall, full of our kicked-off shoes and bags, toward the kitchen, where she stands in the doorway. I pour myself coffee, turn, and lift the pot to offer her some. She shakes her head and raises one palm in the air, which I take to mean she’s had enough, thanks.
“Is everything okay?” she asks.
“Sure. Why wouldn’t it be?”
I feel her eyes on me, up and down, the way people look at you when they think your outfit isn’t flattering or you might be hungover on a Tuesday. It makes me self-conscious. She came from one of those online services that makes hiring babysitters feel like dating. I had decided on a nanny rather than daycare after researching their pros and cons, and after learning I could only afford the worst daycare centers. I read stories about their overcrowding and rampant viruses—foot and mouth, rotavirus, whooping cough—not to mention babies left to sit in their own filth for hours on end, teachers giving the wrong bottles to the wrong kids, one child getting fed twice while another received nothing. Now, though, watching Tammy watch me, I realize that she might not be any better. In fact, she could be worse, with no other pair of eyes on her all day while she’s alone in my house, with my baby.
“I need to get dressed,” I say, but I stand immovable at the counter, my fingers clenched around the mug handle, not knowing how to make it happen.
“Of course,” Tammy says, backing out of the kitchen. “Is Brigit awake?”
“Yes, in the swing. Want to see her?”
She nods, and I lead her into the family room. Brigit is in the swing, eyes wide and alert, shifting with the motion to focus on the singing bear attached to the bar above her.
“Can I get her out?”
“Sure,” I say, instead of I don’t bother her when she’s happy, it’s so rare for her to be happy.  “She may cry. She’ll probably cry.”
Tammy bends and unbuckles Brigit from the seat. A low tattoo peeps from the bottom hem of her blouse, a string of ivy creeping along her pant line, its tentacles reaching around her torso as if they might squeeze the life from her. There’s a word embedded in the tangle that I can’t read from here.
“You’ll want to—” I start, but Tammy pushes the button to stop the swing before I can finish. She lifts Brigit up and holds her against her clean chest.
“Don’t worry, Mrs. Paine—she’ll be fine with me.”
Brigit curls into a tight ball and coos, soft as a kitten’s purr.
“How do you do that?”
“Sorry?”
“She’s so quiet. She’s never quiet outside that swing.”
“I didn’t do anything.” Tammy smiles, her nose in Brigit’s feathery hair. “I’ve heard it’s all about how calm you are. Maybe it’s because I’m not stressed—you know, because I don’t have a newborn.” Tammy bounces Brigit gently, her eyes cast down. She leans in and whispers something indecipherable into my daughter’s ear, then says more loudly, “We’ll be calm together. Isn’t that right, Bridge?”
I wince at the pet name. It’s too soon, I think, but I remind myself that I’m a professional, a family expert. I am; Tammy isn’t. It’s my job to support caregivers, check in with them, help manage their stresses and reduce their chances of failure, even if they only see me when they’ve begun failing already. I didn’t hire Tammy because I’m failing. This is different. I’m going back to work, and Tammy is here to babysit while I provide for my baby. To babysit, that’s all.
Tammy looks up, a question on her brow.
“Oh, right,” I say. “I need to get dressed.”
I turn and balance my full cup of coffee as I tiptoe barefoot across the cold wood floor. I meet Ryan at the stairs.
His eyes are on Tammy. “Good morning,” he says, entering the room. His shirt is pressed, his wrist cuffs buttoned and straight. His face looks light and friendly, which feels out of place these days. “Nice to see you again.”
“Good morning,” she says, glancing up and meeting Ryan’s eyes. She blinks twice and lowers them again to Brigit, and in that coy dip of her chin she looks too young to be watching Brigit alone. Panic seizes me; I clench the banister to steady myself.
I look back at Ryan, noticing that his eyes are locked on this young woman he’s met only once, briefly, after I interviewed her and was showing her where we keep the diapers and how to work the washing machine. He looks a handful of years younger than I do, though really it’s the other way around. His physique is harder and flatter than mine, his face isn’t sallow and worn but warm and energetic. His smile dimples his cheeks, and his stature is small but strong. He could be a boy, really, hardly out of college, not a thirty-five-year-old married man with a newborn, selling car insurance to clients who want the state minimum. In this moment, I regret hiring a cute, young blonde, and I want to hide her from Ryan—for her sake and ours. I worry that Tammy won’t become my reliable nanny but another child I must care for and watch over.
“Let me refamiliarize you with everything,” Ryan says.
“Are you familiar with everything?” I mutter.
I’ve taken one step up when Ryan grabs my bicep and turns me. “Can we not, in front of the sitter?” he whispers.
Tammy peeks at us over her shoulder and Brigit’s head, as though to check on a sound.
“Not what?”
Ryan dips his ear and squints, like a dog who doesn’t understand. But I’m the one who doesn’t understand—why can’t he be chipper and helpful like that with me, why can’t he watch affectionately when I hold the baby?
I yank away and creep up the stairs, one hand on the railing and one eye on Tammy, remembering how my own father ogled our babysitters even as my mother stomped upstairs, angry at something that had happened while they were out. I remember once seeing his hand on a young girl’s shoulder as he shouted up that he’d drive the babysitter home. She was eighteen, a senior at the local high school, and I was ten, my younger brother only six—and something about the squeeze of my father’s fingers on that girl’s bony shoulder sent my stomach into spasms. I knew then he would leave us. I felt it in my gut, the way I know now that Ryan and I aren’t okay.

*

Brigit’s cries float up the stairs and into our bathroom like smoke, as I slide eyeliner over my eye, missing the edge of it so that I look even more tired, more disheveled. As quickly as I can, I return downstairs to Tammy, alone now in the family room, bouncing Brigit and walking laps to calm her. I feel vindicated by this.
“Ring me if you need anything,” I say, before grabbing my purse and slipping on my flats. My lungs tighten at the familiar sound of Brigit’s squeal; the need for fresh air is becoming an emergency.
“Good luck,” Tammy says, smiling—still smiling, though Brigit’s cry is growing shrill. I’m torn between wanting to peel her from Tammy’s arms and wanting to run out the door into the quiet of the morning streets; between helping Tammy, this near-child caring for my child, and leaving her to struggle the way I do each morning after Ryan leaves, her smile fading to exhaustion.
“Okay, then,” I say. Immediately I wonder—though I’ve left an informational notebook on the counter—whether I need to remind her about naptimes, and how to heat a bottle, and what to notice after a feed.
But Brigit’s cry urges me on, so instead I close the door behind me, not just on the noise, and not merely on this morning. The moment feels like an end to something bigger, beyond maternity leave and my tower on the second-and-a-half floor. I breathe in the last of the warm, fall air while my toes find each step before launching forward into the world, so different without the weight of a baby in my arms.


Monday: Going Back

A stale-coffee-and-tuna-fish smell wafting along the fourth floor makes me want to retch as I walk down the Children’s Protective Services center aisle. A moment of vertigo hits, the industrial carpet pattern flows like a river, and I blink to steady it, desperate to turn around and go home. But I won’t. I’ll grit my way through this challenge like I always do.
Usually only Brigit’s cries let down my milk, but this morning it’s the trill of the office: phones ringing, keyboards clacking, caseworkers discussing intake cases as a group, deciding whether an emergency visit is necessary and whose turn it is to perform it. Though I fed Brigit before I left, my breasts already feel overly swollen. Milk soaks through my bra pads, and heat scours my cheeks; the air feels ten degrees hotter than it should.
“Welcome back,” grumbles Jenn, a screener. Her stout frame almost knocks me down as it brushes against mine.
I open my mouth to speak, but she is gone before I can explain that I’m only half-time, you won’t see me tomorrow and never on weekends. Maybe they’ve talked about me and she knows. They talk about everyone—how Ginny in job services is divorcing, and how Jeff in long-term management has been offered a corporate job, how my baby brother failed rehab again last month, and how nice it is that Ryan and I finally got pregnant. Social workers are trained to be observant, to understand the intimate workings of other people’s lives, to notice every time someone’s sweater begins to unravel.
I worry now that they will want to pull—give the thread a little yank—and watch me spin until I fall.

Author’s Statement

Child Protective Services social-worker Shea Paine knows the nursery nightlight glows yellow, even if her husband Ryan doesn’t see it. She feels someone watching her, despite never catching anyone. And, though she is careful with her newborn, she fears that if she falls asleep, she will throw the baby out the third-story window.
But is she capable of murder? The police seem to think so, questioning her the morning after her client, a sex worker with children in foster care, is violently murdered. The evidence seems stacked against Shea: a phone-call made that night, a chewed pen with her teeth marks on it left at the crime scene, a woman seen leaving the client’s house… To make matters worse, Shea’s husband has been secretly visiting a woman in the same part of town where her client lived, on the same block where a huge sex-trafficking ring thrives, in the same impoverished neighborhood where Shea grew up.
When a CPS colleague threatens to place Shea’s baby in protective custody, Shea begins to wonder whether the very agency in which she has invested her entire career has been setting her up to fail. Now she must prove her innocence or lose everything she values. But investigating means dredging up past traumas of her own, leaving her feeling no more in control of her life than her clients do. To prove her innocence, stop the trafficking ring, and keep her family intact, she must determine who is willing to help her and who wants her dead.
My psychological thriller Take Care explores how a new mother’s memory lapses, caused by a mix of trauma, postpartum depression, and exhaustion, lead her to question her role as caretaker. It explores where the line between the authorities and the disadvantaged, between disciplined and chaotic, really lies. Inspired by my own postpartum depression after birthing triplets, the novel identifies an irony that many new parents feel: when becoming a caretaker, responsible for another’s life, it is easy to feel lost and in need of care yourself.
Set in Youngstown, Ohio, a rustbelt ghost city ravaged by the loss of its steel mill and inundated with heroine and sex-trafficking, the novel also calls attention to the vulnerability of such overlooked cities.

Jody Gerbig lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her husband, young triplets, and too many pets. With her MA in literature, she taught college writing and high-school English for many years. Currently she is a senior editor at Typehouse Magazine. Her work appears in Litro, Columbus Monthly, Brevity, Ruminate, and many others, and has been nominated for both a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net.

Embark, Issue 16, April 2022